You know that scene in Ratatouille when the mean critic takes a bite of Remy’s food and is instantly catapulted into his deepest childhood memory banks? In the literary world, this is referred to as a “Proustian madeleine” — taking a bite of something that involuntarily makes long-forgotten memories come flooding back. My Proustian madeleine has to do with tortellini al pesto, the destruction of my completely pure, innocent childhood worldview, and a formula for comfort that I follow to this day. Allow me to explain.
My parents divorced when I was about 3 years old and I used to split equal time between their apartments. My mother, being a little older then my father, had a very grown up apartment. Her house represented order in my life. My dad, on the other hand, was just 23 years old when he had me, so he was a big kid. Time with him was a never-ending sleepover party. He was still in grad school when I was little, but didn’t exclude me from his college friends’ parties (I remember playing hide-and-seek with inebriated adults late into the night). We played early video games like Shufflepuck Café and Dark Castle for hours on end; he gave all my stuffed animals voices, opinions, storylines, and personalities; we ate dinner on his living room carpet, picnic style.
The meal I associate with my dad’s apartment will always be tortellini al pesto. It was his go-to. I have so many fond memories of sitting on my dad’s red, patterned carpet, eating tortellini dripping in olive oil and Parmesan, using a spoon that was far too big for my face, feeling JOY. Sometimes, my dad would allow me to watch movies while I ate dinner, and I would always ask to watch my favorite — the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
One night, as the end credits scrolled (probably for the thousandth time), I was scraping out the last bites of my tortellini from my bowl and I thought, “I want to call John Lennon.” I pushed a chair over to the counter to reach the phone, shoved the receiver in my dad’s face, and demanded that he dial Lennon’s phone number so I could have a chat. The ensuing conversation resulted in a series of shattering realizations. It went something like this:
Me: “I want to call John Lennon.”
Dad: “We can’t call John Lennon.”
Dad: “Because I don’t have his phone number.”
Me: “Can we get it?”
Dad: “Probably not. And even if we did, we couldn’t call him.”
Dad: “Because John Lennon is dead.”
Realization #1: Someone I love is dead. JOHN LENNON IS DEAD.
Dad: “John Lennon died a few years ago.”
Me: “But, he’s in the Yellow Submarine?”
Dad: “Yes, but that’s a cartoon.”
Dad: “It’s a cartoon. It’s not real.”
Realization #2: Cartoons are not real.
Dad: “That is an old cartoon from a long time ago. John Lennon died a few years ago.”
Me: “Can I call the scarecrow?” (from The Wizard of Oz)
Dad: “No. He’s not real either.”
Realization #3: All my childhood heroes are lies.
Me: “Wait. John Lennon died?”
Dad: “Yes, he died a few years ago.”
Dad: “A bad man shot him in front of his building.”
Realization #4: PEOPLE KILL EACH OTHER.
Dad: “He was just a bad, crazy man.”
Realization #5: Horrible things happen, good people die for no reason, and people are crazy and violent without reason.
I remember him looking at me with a small smile on his face and a mixture of affection, concern, and amusement. He ginergly took the receiver out of my hand, hung it up, pulled me up into his arms, and gave me a huge hug. Then he whispered in my ear, “There is a place that people go when they want to visit John Lennon. It’s called Strawberry Fields. We can go there tomorrow, if you want.” I nodded my head silently, feeling stunned and overwhelmed by the last two minutes of information. My father put me to bed that night and read me an extra Frog & Toad to make me feel better. I remember that the story of Toad making all his to-do lists restored some sense of order in my world. I made him read it to me twice.
The next morning, dad took me to a corner deli, where we bought candles and red carnations. We took the subway uptown to Central Park’s Strawberry Fields. There were people sitting in circles, strumming on guitars, and singing Beatles songs. We ceremoniously placed our candles and flowers on the IMAGINE mosaic in the pavement and stood there listening to the song. To avoid thinking about John Lennon and how sad I was, I started making a to-do list in my head just like Frog & Toad. It went like this:
Take a nap
Take a bath
Eat tortellini with pesto
More than 25 years later, my to-do list when I have a bad day has not changed. Works like a charm, every time.
Story originally seen on Refinery29.
Illustrations by: Alec Doherty.