The macaroni rumbles in the water like slippery ribbons. Annie Lonardo dips her spoon and fishes out a wide egg noodle. What now? Testing the pasta was her husband's job. For five decades, he'd say the same thing: It needs another minute. Annie is 75. Her kitchen brims with women who come each Monday for cooking lessons. They study her time-tested recipes, learning to feed their hungry children and husbands the way Annie did. She offers up the noodle. "Anyone want a hot 'roni?" she asks. "Anyone want to take my husband's job?" The food. It fills the hollows.
• • •
Annie has fuschia fingernails, chunky highlights and a touch of Italy on her tongue. She wears elegant sheer tops and heels and her diamond wedding band.
She has emerged from quadruple bypass, two stents and diabetes with unparalleled energy. She scurries around, faster than anyone can keep up, in the Seminole house her husband built.
On her childhood:
"It was food and love and hugs and kisses. Even when you didn't feel good, my grandmother would say, 'You gotta eat! You gotta have some nice soup!' "
Her father, an immigrant from Naples, sold tomato paste and cooking oil from the trunk of his car. The family lived in a Rhode Island tenement. Sunday morning meant rolling meatballs. After school, Annie ate spinach pies and pizza. She wasn't allowed to date.
In high school, she met a handsome polio survivor named Bob Lonardo. Bob walked with a full leg brace ever since he was 3 and his mother told the amputation doctors to back away.
He had confidence.
He asked her out.
She said no.
"My family was so strict. I couldn't go out," she said. "I think he thought it was a come on, but it was the truth."
Eventually, Annie gave in. She sneaked around the corner and met Bob at the Moose Head Diner where they had English muffins and hot chocolate for 50 cents and talked until 9 p.m. — her curfew.
Three months later, Bob met Annie's family. They lined up in a row and stared at him.
"What is this?" he asked. "A firing squad?"
They married in front of 300 guests when Annie was 19 and Bob was 21. They went to Niagara Falls on their honeymoon.
Annie took care of the home while Bob trained to become an orthotist, designing leg braces for people just like him. Through his prosperous career, he held 12 medical patents. They had five children and adopted one more later in life.
Annie cooked. For 54 years.
• • •
"You girls want to see a bubbling lasagna?"
The Monday night group oohs over Annie's egg noodle dish topped with her famous meatballs, 120 of which she prepared the day before.
The ladies know her lingo. Salad dressing is "Italian marinade." A dash is a "squitz." Red sauce is "gravy." All pasta is "macaroni."
"She only uses Hunt's tomato sauce," whispers Patty Gamble, an accountant in the class.
Years ago, Bob's doctor told him to lay off the red gravy. It was giving him acid attacks.
"You may as well shoot me now," Bob said.
Determined, Annie bought every kind of sauce and had Bob try them. They got to Hunt's.
"He never had to take an acid tablet after that."
Her recipe handout sits in front of the class.
5. Add one large can of Hunt's tomato sauce to the meat.
• • •
Annie loved to watch Bob eat.
She'd fill his plate with his favorite — macaroni. He could eat it six nights a week. When the kids were grown, and it was just the two of them, she lit a romantic candle between them every night.
"We always did something special," she said. "We kept ourselves really loving one another."
During dinner, they made lists of things they wanted to do together — movies to see, gifts to buy, investments to make. Mid bite, Bob always sighed and looked up at Annie.
"This is just so good."
He was simple but brilliant. She hung his newspaper articles and medical awards and licenses all over the house. She wore a gold Multi-Podus splint charm around her neck, a shiny replica of a brace he designed. She had stained glass windows installed at home — a curvy tree with a brace running alongside.
"It was a marriage that was just designed to be," said their daughter, Kathy Perna. "It was completely effortless, 24/7. They never got tired of each other. She lived for him, and lived to please him. She served him."
The bad news came in 2007, and even the family doctor cried. Bob had stage four lung cancer. He had four months to live.
He only made it three.
Alone for the first time, Annie walked into every room in their home and sobbed.
In bed at night, she looked to the ceiling.
"I was so lost after 54 years. I said, 'What do I do? Dear God, take me, because I can't live without Bob.' I opened my heart. Knock my head, let me know what you want me to do."
Missionaries were returning from a trip to her church, Northside Baptist. Maybe she could cook for them, she thought. She made Italian food for 30 people.
She cooked for neighbors, for the local firehouse. She brought eggplant to store clerks at Publix. She made stuffed shells and sweet potatoes for high school graduations.
Her children suggested she teach a class. She could charge $10 and give all the money to people in need. She could call it Annie's Apron Strings. Daughter Kathy and friend Kim Andrews could help run things.
Friends and neighbors came to the first class in March 2008. Her daughter read a Bible verse from Jeremiah:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Word spread of Annie's recipes, of her TV-ready personality and her bear hugs.
She taught dozens the meatballs, the eggplant, the stuffed shrimp, the clam cakes, the pork ribs and red gravy. Her donations have helped an elderly woman with cancer, an injured mechanic, a stroke survivor, a mother with eczema, a toddler with a mechanical heart. She recently decided to donate to Joyce Meyer Ministries, a Christian organization.
It's simple, she has learned.
"In the end, that's all there is. To do good and be good."
• • •
The Monday night group roars at Annie's quips.
"I know you're all on diets, but I did take the calories out."
"If you taste them and you don't like them, then don't tell me."
"My mother-in-law, God rest her soul, said if you can't do something in a bowl, it's not worth doing."
"Be good to one another. All you get is good. Anything else is negative, and you cut off your nose to spite your face. And I need my nose to smell all this good food."
She closes class with an inspirational Internet story about being nice. The women say Annie has enriched their lives.
• • •
When everyone is gone, she talks to Bob.
What are we going to do today, Bob? I'm gonna go spend your money, Bob. I'm going to the dollar store, because I gotta buy some stuff for the girls, Bob. Oh gee, Bob, it's raining, I gotta hurry up.
Once, her housekeeper accidentally pushed one of his photos out of sight, and she couldn't reach it. Annie frantically called her son. "It's an emergency," she said. "Come have a meatball and I'll tell you." He rushed over.
She made him push the picture back.
She doesn't eat dinner at the table anymore. She loads her plate high with macaroni and sits in the living room by all his photos. She tells him about her classes, the ladies. About the energy she lost then found again. About how she feels alive in the kitchen.
Bob, is this what you wanted me to do?
She asks for signs.
You're showing me the way, Bob.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.