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Bathtub Eel

(by Natalie Balents)

In 1986, my mother sold her red Porsche 944 because she was too pregnant to wiggle into the driver’s seat. My grandmother said that she drove herself to the hospital in high heels when she went into labor. In December. In New England. She wasn’t the maternal type who liked to cook or bake, or spoke to me softly, or sheltered me from the sharp edges of the world. She didn’t do that, and I’m glad she didn’t. She was a fierce Italian-American, and she had a few tricks up her sleeve for special occasions: stuffed squid, meatballs, roast Cornish hen, pizzelles, homemade raviolis.

It wasn’t until I was in college and learned to cook for myself that I realized there was an absence of nutrition, but more importantly, my birthright as an Italian was languishing, and would take years to exhume and authenticate, with the help of my mother’s mother, my grandmother: Emilia Josephine. She was petite, small nose pointed downward, apple cheeks. She could smile with her eyes, and they were a strange brown-blue color, reminding me of a dove. The youngest of 12 children, she was closer to the motherland. Her father had immigrated and spoke broken English, reflected in the way she pronounced certain words, the way she cooked, and the way she loved. And of course, the way she smoked cigarettes.