By Joan Leotta
Last week I bought a bag of assorted nuts in their shells and set them into the carved wooden bowl my grandmother gave me. I dug out the steel nutcracker (pliers- style) set, complete with picks.
I smiled as I looked at the nuts in the bowl because in my mind I could see my dad’s hand pulling two hazelnuts, his favorites, from the bowl—always first, due nocciole after every Sunday dinner and on holidays. He would open them and give one to me and one to himself, Then a walnut, which we shared. The Christmas after I turned five, he told me it was time to show me how to use the nutcrackers myself.
So, I moved from my chair across the table to stand next to him to watch closely how he held the nutcracker. I hoped he was going to show me how to put a nut inside the mouth of one of the many carved nutcracker men Grandma had put up as decoration all around the house. When he picked up the plain metal pliers, I said, “Why are we using those, Dad? Can’t I learn to use the pretty ones, first?”
Dad smiled at me. “These are the ones that work. Those are just for show.” Then, he slid two small, smooth hazelnuts into the serrated section of the straight spring pincers and squeezed. A sharp satisfying “crack” announced “shells are shattered.” With the nut set’s silver pick, he gently pried each nut’s sweet meat from its shell.
He picked out the nicest pieces and put them in my hand. I knew my dad opened those first two nuts at one time, not to prove his prowess, to have more to share with me.
“Now it’s time for you to try. Were you watching closely?”
“We will start with a walnut. It’s a bit easier to keep inside the nutcracker than those hazelnuts. I like them a lot too. Do you?”
“Oh yes, Daddy, “ I assured him. Walnuts were not as sweet as hazelnuts, but they had and still have a more substantial flavor. And as a lover of boxes, I especially savored those ties when Dad was able to crack the walnut open while keeping the shell intact. After pulling out the nut, I would repurpose the shell into a cradle for miniature dolls from my glass animal collection or with paper and glue make the walnut into a closed box for leaving secret messages for friends at school.
I placed the walnuts carefully into the serrated portion. Dad helped me line it up along the walnut’s own dividing line so it would split easily, and was more likely to split into into two unscarred halves.
With his hand over mine, I succeeded in splitting open my first walnut shell. We used the pick to remove the nut. Dad gave me a hug to celebrate my success. I kept the empty shell for a while. It became a tiny case for my favorite ring. Even after I could easily open nuts, even hazelnuts on my own, my dad continued to open one or two for me whenever the carved nut bowl made it out onto the table after dinner.
So, it’s no wonder that when my father died last week, and my own children, ages five and seven, asked me to explain his death, the image of the empty nutshell came to mind. I explained that although he appeared to be asleep it was like the walnut all closed up after we had taken out the meat, the part that in this case, the essence of my dear dad, their grandfather, was gone. He was sleeping a sleep from which he would not waken.
I told them “No, he’s not asleep, like an opened walnut whose empty shell is closed again, his true sweet self is gone and only that shell remains.”
They seemed to understand. And that very Sunday, after supper, I took out the carved wooden bowl and taught them both how to use the nutcracker. Over the years, cracking nuts has become a time to remember their beloved grandfather, and to laugh and enjoy time together at the table, a tradition I hope will be passed on.
Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. She performs tales featuring food, family, and strong women. Internationally published, she’s a 2021 and 2022 Pushcart nominee, Best of the Net 2022 nominee, and 2022 runner-up in the Robert Frost Competition. Her essays, poems, and fiction are in Ekphrastic Review, Brass Bell, The Lake, Verse Visual, Verse Virtual, anti-heroin chic, Gargoyle, Silver Birch, Active Muse, The Wild, Synkroniciti, Ovunquesiamo, Academy of he Heart of Mind, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Short Humour, Yellow Mama, and others. Her chapbook, Languid Lusciousness with Lemon is from Finishing Line Press and Feathers on Stone, is out from Main Street Rag.
One thought on “Love in a Nutshell”
Parents affect the child’s emotional development. The way the daughter instils such fine feelings during the time spent with her dad, to her own children, is very refreshing to read.
Enjoyed the simplicity of thoughts.