I am awake at 2:24am. The numbers shine red on the ceiling. My wife loves technology and now we have a clock that displays the 18” numbers on the ceiling above my head. My monkey mind unwinds at the speed of light. My brain waves rapid fire bits and pieces of things and I do my best to catch them all as they fly. Minutes pass by and my eyes are wide open, obsessed with the ceiling’s new design element.
For thirty-six years, we hosted an annual cookie exchange. Each year, we filled the house with friends and cookies. Christmas cookies. I miss baking with Mommom and helping her count and decorate her twelve dozen for the swap. 144 cookies she would carefully decorate each year. Everyone looked forward to Mommom’s spritz cookies. She always used red cherries and sprinkles, her signature touch.
“Get the gun out.” She’d command.
Every single year I was the one to get the cookie machine out, clean it, and put it away. I was the one to rinse the dough out of her wedding rings.
The last time we baked together, we made gingerbread men. In our exhaustion, she added little winkies to the last batch. Some stood straight up while others were too small and fell limp. We laughed out loud for a long time.
My mom said, “Oh, you can’t do that.”
Mommom winked across the table. We knew that. But it was still really funny.
How many years of cookie dough caught up in the Italian bands of gold and sapphires? After passing at age 96, she gave me the ring to sit on my ring finger and serve as a constant reminder our unbreakable bond. This is a band that represents what love is. Real love. The kind that lasted until the very end of their lives, since 1939.
Mommom spent weeks preparing for Christmas dinner. Since the beginning of her marriage, she took care of her in-laws, my Grandfather’s siblings, their children, and her own four children. All of those years, she spent so much time in the kitchen making the holidays shine for her family. We were blessed, all of our lives, to be seated at her Christmas table. All talking at the same time, sharing gifts, smiles, hugs, and, of course, a six-course meal.
“Set the table”, she would press, “and use the china with the silver trim.”
I know. And the water glass and the wine glass go on the right just above the knife. As pretty as the table always was, my grandparents always used cheap ass paper napkins, which I still cannot understand. It makes me laugh as I lay here in the middle of the night, knowing that everything else was absolutely perfect.
We were to arrive at 3pm for drinks and hour devoirs. We ate “stinky feet” chesse, olives, figs, dried fruit, and all kinds of Italian meats. A big bowl of assorted nuts and roasted chestnuts were ready to be cracked open. There was hummus and carrots to please those non-anchovy, olive eating ‘mericans. People would drift in and we were seated for dinner by 4:30pm. Already full in the belly, we faced antipasto, holiday soup, homemade ravioli, then turkey or a roast beef, complete with all of the vegetable sides and salad. Bread. Lots of really great bread. By the time dessert rolled out, we were ready for a nap. As you have seen in movies, it’s true, the ladies clean up, wash dishes, while the men lay comatose watching what was left of football.
Mommom never sat down to eat with us. She stayed in the kitchen, staging the next course. I learned how to do this magic and stayed in training from the age of six. From day one, I was her “princess” and grew up to be her left-hand man. She and I were so much a part of each other. I lay here, remembering a poem published that I wrote for one of her birthdays, years back. For each of us, the holidays would have been nothing without her.
Great grandparents, grandparents, and our parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all squeezed in at three tables, laced together, with two large, perfectly pressed, red tablecloths. Also, I recall all of the years of us bringing boyfriends and girlfriends to the table. We were all so proud of our family, mostly our grandparents. For forty-eight years, I was blessed to live in her life, just across the street for more than half of them. I learned from the very best, how to grow a garden, raise a family, and celebrate each and every joyous occasion. Even the small things in our lives were celebrated in the biggest way. I learned to prepare traditional Italian meals, canning, preserving, fermenting, and the best way to do anything in the kitchen.
Home is where Mommom and Pop always worked, played, and spent their time. They encouraged each of us to stay “traditional” and marry other Italians. It’s now 3:50am and I am still laying here wide awake. I didn’t marry 100% Italian. How times have changed. How much we have evolved as women. So much of me strives to be like her, like my mom, but knowing it isn’t acceptable or appreciated anymore. We don’t make formal dining rooms and I don’t even own an apron.
Without Mommom, for the fourth year, none of our family members have gotten together for any of the holidays. Families have grown, the grandkids have their own kids. People are too busy or too far away. My parents are the grandparents now. Because of the pandemic, many families will not gather this holiday season. Its heavy on my heart and on my mind.
I have to get back to sleep. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I hold tight to the memories. I have tucked them away and do my best to be like her, to teach and share traditions, to carry the torch. Things are so different now. The torch isn’t nearly as bright.