When Traditions Begin to Change

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For all 28 years of my life before this year, and well before my own birth, my mother’s Italian family has always gathered together sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas to make homemade pasta.  After we put the pasta together, it would go into the freezer until Christmas.  We made ravioli with beef and lemon and spinach filling and cappalletti, a sort of tortellini type pasta we serve in broth, full of pork and cheese.  This was always one of my favorite things about my family.  It differentiated my family from all those of the kids I went to school with, and then all of my friends and coworkers as an adult, who were eating more ham and turkey for Christmas.  It also was a time for my family to be together, be goofy, cook amazing food, and to connect with my Italian roots.  It felt familial, it felt loving, it felt divine.

When I was young, I remember the whole family gathering: my grandmother, mom, grandfather, aunt and uncle.  We would sit around my grandmother in her kitchen, the matriarch doling out tasks – you, make balls of stuffing for the cappalletti; you, dust your fork in flour to close the ravioli; you, get out of the way – all while kneeding and rolling endless quantities of hand-mixed dough, allowing it to rise and chill in batches.  My grandfather would walk through the kitchen singing Italian ballads and eating our work as quickly as we assembled it.  The kitchen was rambunctious, it was full of life and love.

The first change happened as my aunt and uncle moved out of town, got married, had kids.  It was more difficult to find time to get together, and our assembly party dwindled primarily to my mom, grandmother, grandfather and myself.  A few years later, I would go off to college and, despite vociferously advocating for my inclusion in this tradition, I was often left out in the name of convenience.  My mom and grandfather talked my grandmother into switching away from entirely hand-crafted pastas, opting for the higher tech dough hooks and pasta roller of the kitchen aid.  Still, the family enjoyed our annual Christmas Eve and Christmas day meals, drenched in the flavors of citrus and red sauce, fresh dough and the hillsides of Tuscany, the family growing all the while.

Over the past few years, my grandmother and mother have met alone to complete this enormous task.  They often choose days that my grandfather is golfing so that he is out of the way.  They claim to have a routine down, they know what they’re doing and they can work well together to get it done.  This efficiency has come with a cost, however.  It has created some resentment as the growing family consumes hours and hours of work as fast as the food can cook.  It has lost the familial camaraderie of the process, the community of joy built around a wooden board of flour and eggs, hands covered in oil and meat mixture, and the kitchen filled with happy laughter.

This year, however, things changed even more.  Over the past year, my grandmother has grown older and my mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.  It invades her bones and has especially decimated her spine, making it difficult to stand or sit straight for an extended period of time.  They decided that the ravioli, which could be made in a few hours, would be do-able; however, the cappalletti would simply take too long to craft.  Christmas day dinner would be replaced with store bought tortellini.

I know that times change; that people grow older; that traditions must change shape as the family in which it resides does the same.  Nevertheless, there was a sadness deep inside of me this year as we sat for our meals.  It hasn’t felt the same for some time – the community of love replaced by hands of technology – but this year, it felt that our christmas was caving in on the inevitable.  It felt like the precipice of finality; like inevitable death.

It  made me wonder: what will happen next year?  I am still single, less than a month away from thirty.  I have no partner or children to take over the charge.  None of the rest of the family seems interested in doing so.  Will this tradition – this childhood memory of gladness and warmth – come to an abrupt end?  Or will we pick up the reigns and, quite literally, reignite the fire of the hearth?  I don’t know, but a part of me felt the distinct loss of my childhood as we gathered around the table – ironically, the first time we’d all sat down together and eaten at the same time in years – eating pasta from a refrigerated box.