My husband from 1955 to 1980, Bob Elders, was born on June 9, 1931. He would have turned 85 today. I still think of him on his birthday, and remember those early days of our marriage when we had so little money but so much fun. Here's one of my favorite stories of those newlywed days when we were both students at what was then Long Beach State College. Bob had not yet joined the Long Beach Police Department, and this was two years before our son, Steve, was born.
A Pair of Merry Mollusks
“A man taking basil from a woman will love her always.” - Sir Thomas Moore
February 14 fell on a Tuesday in 1956, not a good news day for us. Bob and I had hoped to spend our first Valentine’s Day evening as a married couple at the Villa Nova, our favorite Italian restaurant. But I wouldn’t get a paycheck until Friday, and we’d already spent Bob’s GI Bill allowance on the rent and utilities for our tiny apartment.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Bob said that noon as we munched on our bologna sandwiches and apples on the shady patio of the cafeteria at Long Beach State College. “We’ll celebrate tonight somehow.”
An eternal optimist, Bob kept up the chatter as he drove me to the valve manufacturing firm atop Signal Hill. I’d been lucky in landing a part time job there, editing the company newspaper, a glossy monthly.
“I’ll pick you up at 5. We’ll have a cozy supper at home tonight. I think I’ll have enough left after I fill up this old Pontiac’s tank to buy a bottle of Chianti, and you can cook me up a Valentine’s surprise.”
It would be a surprise all right, I thought, trying to recall what remained in the pantry that I could make a meal of. Nonetheless, I forced a smile. At least we had each other, and we wouldn’t be paupers forever. Bob intended to take the local police department exam in a couple of months, with the goal of joining the force by summer. We were certain he’d be assigned a swing shift, which would enable him to continue his police science studies at the college. He still had another year to complete for his degree.
At the office I conferred with Alisa, who worked in accounting.
“What can I make for a special supper tonight when I don’t even have any meat?”
“Have you got any canned clams?”
“I think so, but that’s hardly festive. Besides Bob doesn’t like chowder.”
Alisa grinned. “I’m talking pasta, baby. Pasta means amore…trust me, I’m Italian. Men love pasta. I’ll give you my mom’s recipe. And remember, if you don’t have one thing on hand, just substitute another. Santo Valentino would approve!”
“Saint Valentine’s Italian?” I cocked my head and furrowed my forehead. Somehow I’d vaguely thought of him as English, but realized I might have been thinking of a photo I’d seen of the statue of Eros in Trafalgar Square.
“Of course he’s Italian! He’s buried just north of Rome, near where my mom grew up.”
Alisa scribbled down her recipe and I tucked the folded paper into my pocket.
That evening Bob dropped me off at our place.
“OK, honey. You see what you can conjure up, and I’ll go get gas and some wine.”
I opened the recipe as I checked its ingredients against the few cans and jars remaining on the kitchen shelf.
Canned tomatoes, canned clams, olive oil, parsley, oregano and my favorite basil. Si certo, I had them all. Plus a package of linguini. I always kept onions and garlic on hand, and still had half a loaf of sour dough in the breadbox. I even had a shaker of grated Parmesan. We’d have a feast. I rummaged around and found a red and white checked tablecloth and a couple of candles to make our kitchen table even more festive.
We ate every bite, and Alisa was right. It indeed was the food of love. Bob sopped up the last of the sauce with the last of the bread and sighed.
“My compliments to the chef. But I can’t keep eating all this pasta if I want to get in shape for the police exam,” he said, with a rueful shake of his head. He’d been running on the beach several evenings a week to prepare for the upcoming physical. “But tonight’s special, so I think Saint Valentine will work his magic and make these calories not count.”
“Did you know he’s Italian?” I always liked to share my new knowledge with my amiable husband.
He looked at me as if I were demented. “What else would he be? What did you think?”
“Never mind.” I sipped the last of my wine and smiled. “I’m just happy as a clam that you liked our dinner.”
“And why are clams so happy?”
I was relieved he’d asked. I always enjoyed sharing such tidbits.
“People forget the second half of that saying. It’s really ‘happy as a clam at high tide.’ I guess at high tide they are out there swimming around and not floundering on the sand where people dig them up.”
“You’re so smart,” Bob said, laughing. “Wait right here while I get your Valentine’s present.”
He went into the bedroom and I heard him open a drawer. He came back with a homemade Valentine…a heart cut from the Sunday funnies, and a Hershey bar with almonds.
“Next year I promise a two-pound box of See’s and a real Valentine,” he said, giving me a hug.
“What do you mean? This is a real Valentine!” I opened it and read the verse he’d scribbled in crayon. Bob never had been noted for his poetic skill.
I read it aloud: “I will be your Valentine, if you will be my clementine.”
I gave my husband a puzzled glance. “Clementine? Didn’t she drown?”
“Clementine’s the name for those little mandarin oranges we saw at the Piggly Wiggly last Christmas. Remember how juicy and sweet and squeezable they were?” He squashed my hand to make sure I got the picture.
“And it’s the only rhyme I could come up with at the moment for Valentine.”
“I can think of another,” I said, grinning.
I giggled. “Frankenstein.”
Bob hooted. “How about concubine? Or Palestine?”
We cleared away the supper dishes, merry as a pair of mollusks…at high tide.
Alisa’s Mom’s Pasta Amore
1 pound package linguini l tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped onion l tablespoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper 2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 14.5 can tomatoes 2 6.5 ounce cans minced clams, undrained
1 tablespoon dried parsley 1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil salt, pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese, grated
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain
Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add onion, garlic, and crushed red pepper and sauté 3 minutes or until onion is browned. Stir in tomatoes and tomato paste. Cook until thick, stirring constantly. Stir in clams, parsley, oregano and basil. Stir until heated through. Serve atop drained pasta. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.