Waste Not, Want Not
by Lisa Ellison
Four years before my brother ended his life, my grandfather and I held mass in a tiny kitchen in upstate New York. The sweet tang of simmering sauce offered the opening rites. The three-gallon kettle he had commandeered from work held the holy water that would bring forth our salvation in the form of tender white noodles, our Eucharist. When he twisted the knob on the chipped white stove we began.
“Things keep changing in this world. One day I hope they get it right,” he said, stirring the sauce.
“I hope so,” I answered, grating cheese and savoring his service in our hot little cathedral.
“You see, you’ve got to waste not to want not. Your generation . . . you’re always throwing things away so you can buy something new.”
I nodded in agreement. In two months I would start the tenth grade. I carried a scrap of paper in my back pocket with my shopping list—sweaters, jeans, new shoes. Typically I wore mine until they had holes in them. I felt around with my toes and panicked. Maybe later I would get a steak knife and discover a hole above the heel.
“Back when I was a kid, if you didn’t take care of things, you just didn’t have anything.” He sidestepped towards the cupboard. Heaps of mismatched glass bowls tottered precariously on the thin bowing shelves, chiming like church bells when jostled. “It’s that way with everything nowadays. You tell everybody your business. Words are precious, you know.”
I scooped the cheese into the serving jar. It fell like snow from the spoon.
“You say everything that’s on your mind. Everybody’s got to know how you feel.”
“Seriously?” I looked right at him.
He went to check the water. Small whiffs of steam floated up from the pot, apparitions. “Some words are sacred, like I love you. Those words are for matrimony. You don’t just throw them around anytime you want.”
He stirred the sauce again. You could taste the air as he pulled meatballs from the electric skillet and tapped off excess sauce, bowls chiming in sweet melody.
“What do you mean by that?” I wrinkled my brow. Surely, he couldn’t be serious.
“I haven’t told anyone I loved them, except for your grandmother, in all my years. I love you is for marriage. It’s sacred.” He smiled and stared out the window, thinking of what? His worn, thin wedding suit draped across his neck?
My jaw dropped as the blood rose in my chest. What was going on with my priest? “You mean that’s it?” My voice raised half an octave as I spit out the sentence. “You don’t tell people you love them? It’s wasteful?”
“Actions speak louder than words,” he said, with grim finality. The water began to rumble. “Talk is cheap. If you say the same thing over and over it loses its meaning.” He ripped the top off two boxes of ziti and dumped them into the pot.
As he stirred the wild water, sweat poured off the brow of his ruddy Irish face. He was my father, son, and holy ghost. This was the man who took me dress shopping before recitals, who slept on the floor at age 63 so my brothers and I could share the only bed in the house. He was the man who walked three miles in the summer sun to borrow a car to take us swimming, who bought me a pair of Reebok sneakers when he worked as a dishwasher in a school because he couldn’t afford to retire. He was the man who looked down tearfully and said, “It’s just alcohol,” when we returned, pale and somber, after a meeting with my mother. I caught his gaze and said, “Grandpa, we know the truth. It wasn’t just alcohol.”
I reflected on all our times together—the walks to the store, the pancake breakfasts, the weekly kitchen sermons. He had never once told me he loved me.
He continued to alternate between stirring the pasta and spooning meatballs and sausage into iridescent serving bowls.
“But that’s wrong!” I blurted, fist clenched, pacing. I had never challenged the service before. “You have to tell people how you feel.”
“You’re just a kid,” he said, glaring.
“Well, you’re wrong,” I repeated. “I get all that other stuff about waste not, want not. But you have to tell people you love them. One day you may be sorry and wish you’d said it more.” A shiver ran down my spine as I uttered those prophetic words.
He spooned a noodle out of the water and popped it into his mouth. “One more minute,” he said, stirring the water again. “When you’re my age you can talk about what is and isn’t right. Until then, you just remember what I said—waste not, want not.”
“You remember what I said. One day you’ll be sorry.”
He looked up at the clock then walked over to the sink with the colander. ”Move on out before you get burned.” His tone was gruff and loud.
He always shooed us out of the room whenever he drained the spaghetti, worried he might burn us with the steaming pot. I obeyed and walked to the doorway. We didn’t know right then that we would all be sorry, that four years later we would see how profoundly you can be burned even when you’re not in the kitchen, that we would spend our Sunday mass in a dimly lit funeral home instead of the kitchen, language swallowed whole.
Later that night, as we got ready to leave, I kissed my grandfather on the cheek, peered into his eyes, and said, “I love you.” He patted me on the back and smiled. “Waste not, want not.”
Lisa Ellison lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband, Mark, and two cats, Smokey and Beulah. She has a life long love of writing, and currently co-facilitates a mindfulness based writing group with her wonderfully supportive literary friends. Lisa volunteers as a pro-bono therapist through a local non-profit agency. Her poem “Furious Houses” was published in the Winter 2012 edition of the journal Blooming in the Noise.
Watch for Third Place Contest Winner Mike Durr’s story, “So It Happened Like This,” on Friday!