“I wouldn’t eat that if I were you,” Cousin Bruce whispers conspiratorially as he saunters past, his plate a cascading mountain of potato salad. “Brenda made it, and just between you and me, I’m pretty certain she’s trying to increase her odds. You know, eliminate the competition.”
He makes a gesture with his free hand, clutching at his throat and gagging as if he is in the throes of a painfully theatrical poisoning. His plate sags noticeably in the damp afternoon heat and I worry that a potato landslide is imminent as he staggers off to rejoin his family.
I return to contemplating the jello salad, which shimmers invitingly in the afternoon light, casting an eerie emerald glow over the table. I take a large scoop.
Nonna is holding court beneath a large oak tree, its branches gnarled and twisted like our matriarch’s hands. She is fanning herself with a napkin, which does little to move air in the sweltering heat, intent as it is on pushing us all towards an early grave. A gaggle of adoring relatives clusters near, hanging on her every word. She’s likely regaling them with a laundry list of ailments and medications, her accent giving each name an exotic allure as it rolls off her tongue.
The scene takes me back to my childhood, when Nonna’s face held only laugh lines and I knew only happiness. We would sit beneath the olive tree in Nonna’s back garden, just the two of us. I would imagine our ancestors in the same alcove — rocking babies, meeting lovers, sharing meals. Enthralled with the tales she wove, filled with epic battles and scandalous deceit, I could sit there for hours.
This picnic was advertised as a family reunion of sorts, though we all know the real purpose, Nonna included. You don’t spend 94 years on this planet without being able to sniff out a bunch of gold-digging relatives armed with watermelon slices, folding lawn chairs, and sickeningly sweet intentions. There’s an ongoing bet as to when our dear matriarch will finally kick the bucket, although I’ve never been approached to contribute. It’s been restarted several times over the years, as Nonna is stubborn and refuses to die. Stakes are pretty high by this point.
I polish off my jello salad, safely removed from the picnic-goers with whom I share my blood but not my ethics, ensuring every last emerald nugget has been consumed. As no sign of poisoning is yet evident, I conclude that now is an excellent time to pack up my lawn chair and make a hasty exit.
Nonna, with her eagle vision, spots me from her vantage point before I can escape. They’ve just set out the cake, and all her admirers have dispersed, scurrying over to lament their disappearing waistlines while quarreling over who will get the corner piece.
“Leaving so soon, Jane?” Nonna’s voice is high and clear, carrying across the green space without waver or hesitation. “Haven’t been avoiding me, have you?”
She peeks at me from beneath her straw hat while adjusting her perfectly pressed blazer. Nonna has always been one for keeping up appearances, never hesitating to use a moistened finger to flatten a cow-lick or wipe jam from a chubby cheek. Her eyes are appraising me now. I swipe at my mouth self-consciously, worried she’ll find an emerald remnant and wipe it unceremoniously from my thirty-year-old face.
“Well, sit down and stop gawking. The vultures have ceased their circling for now, so we can talk without enduring their obnoxious drivel.”
We spend a time in silence, her breathing a steady metronome as I desperately grasp for a conversation starter that will steer her away from the inevitable.
“So. Are you still working at that dead-end job?” she asks, over-loud, before a different conversation topic comes to me. They clearly do not have a chapter on the art of subtlety in the grandmother handbook.
“It’s not so bad, really,” I mutter with little conviction.
“You’re the smartest one here, you know.” She says this nonchalantly while brushing a crease from her skirt.
My knee-jerk reaction is to look her straight in the face, all but destroying any attempt to appear cool and uninterested. Her eyes have that spark I remember — emerald, not unlike the jello salad — a zest for life still crackling beneath drooping eyelids. She winks, then reaches into her purse, digging about. I wonder if she’s going to pull out a mint, pat me on the head, and send me on my way.
“You’ve got real potential, Janey,” she says as she continues to rummage. “We both know how to work hard for what we want, you and I. Unlike these people, who are like a bunch of stray cats waiting for a handout.” She takes off her hat and waves it in the general direction of our relatives, who are making short work of the cake.
Nonna finds what she has been searching for, pulls an envelope from her purse with a flourish, and sets it on my lap. Her hand stays there for a moment until I can feel her cool fingers through my linen pants.
“It’s time we took a trip, Janey. Just you and me. It’s been too long,” she states simply. “Meet me in the parking lot once you’ve finished looking this over. The limo will be waiting. And don’t dilly-dally.”
She stands, stiff but graceful as always, and glides away as I count slowly backwards from fifty, then tear into the envelope.
Two items fall onto my lap — a ticket to Italy for a flight departing in exactly 75 minutes and a deed to the family vineyard.
I stand quickly with a surreptitious glance towards my relatives, as if I care what they think, and then abandon all decorum and make a run for it.
The limo is idling. A window lowers slowly as I skitter up, gasping for breath in the thick summer heat. Nonna is beaming at me from behind impossibly chic sunglasses.
“Ah Janey, I knew you had it in you. Hop in quick before those cretins realize we’ve abandoned their ridiculous event. We’ve got a plane to catch and a wad of inheritance money to spend. There’s not a moment to lose.”
I hop into the limo, barely getting the door shut before Nonna taps on the sliding panel, signaling the driver to depart. She grasps the sunroof with gnarled hands, pops her head through the opening, and waggles her fingers.
“So long, suckers! Better restart that death pool, because this old girl’s got a whole lot of living left to do!”
As we screech out of the parking lot, Nonna cackling and chortling beside me, an emerald sparkle catches my eye: remnants of the jello salad glittering hopefully in the sunlight.