“The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works, is the family.”
The air is hot and sticky in the backseat of my parent’s car in the summer of 1965. It is Sunday and we are leaving church where the three of us small children have sat obediently silent for the last hour, hands folded in our laps, lips closed, eyes focused on the preacher at all times. I am five years old. My two younger siblings are crowded on the seat next to me, dressed in our Sunday finery, itching to get out of these clothes. We are wiggly and fidgety now, barely concealing our excitement. We are on our way to Grandma’s house for Sunday dinner. Grandma’s house….my favorite time of the whole week.
Every Sunday of my childhood from those earliest days is the same memory. Waiting through church and going to Grandma’s house, which was actually two of my Grandma’s, my Great-grandma and my Grandma who lived together in a tiny three bedroom ranch. Their home, by anyone’s standards was small. One tiny bathroom, three small bedrooms, one small family room and a kitchen big enough for one person to cook and an eating area big enough to cram in a table. Somehow, like the miracle of fishes and loaves, that did not stop us from having our family, all of the aunts, uncles, cousins and grandkids over every single Sunday. My Grandmothers were Italian. In fact my Great-grandma Maria came over on the boat when she was 19. They spoke a combination of Italian and English to each other that no one else could understand. It was their own private code, and jabbering away in that tiny kitchen, meant for only one, they somehow got a giant amount of pasta, meatballs and sauce on the table to feed an army every single week.
All of us cousins ran around and played in the backyard before dinner. There were live ducks who laid eggs, which provided endless entertainment for chasing, and a cement pond that my grandfather had built, perfect for wading in. A swimming pool came along when I was eight and after that, we all learned to swim and dunk each other.
After dinner, the entire family played card games and talked until bedtime. We were crammed into chairs around the table with kids on laps, everyone talking at once, reaching over each other, laughing and joking and teasing each other with the same well worn lines that everyone knew by heart.
It was familia.
Both of my grandmothers died within three months of each other. They couldn’t seem to be apart for anything.
Sunday family dinners became a long lost wonderful memory.
My mother created wonderful family dinners growing up that had a similar feel. They were occasional and therefore very special. She was a wonderful cook who made elaborate gourmet dishes prepared with love on fine china. But something wasn’t there. Something was missing. I wasn’t getting that sense of comfort and cocooning that I had felt as a child.
I wanted my children to have that feeling, that hard to explain feeling of warmth and closeness that Sunday family dinners gave to me at grandma’s house. I just didn’t know how to do it.
It took me being a grandmother to figure it out.
It’s the commitment. The every single Sunday expectation and sameness. That’s what was missing. The reliability. The trust, the fun, the every week, let down your hair, not company coming over feel to it. The unwind from the week feel. The fact that it is just spaghetti and sauce means that we CAN play games and cards and focus on having fun together. Its not about the food, it’s about playing with each other and concentrating on being with each other.
Sunday family dinners are back now. My oldest children are grown and they come home on Sundays with their children. My children still at home look forward to them coming. The table is crammed full of people and it’s loud and full of laughter and the pasta is filled to the rim with sauce and meatballs. I’m the Grandma’s house now. It feels awesome and wonderful, like a finding something precious that you thought you had lost.
Last night, looking around the table, I was struck by the immense joy that I felt to be surrounded by a loving husband, who appreciates and cherishes family as much as I do, and to have all of our children and grandchildren right there at our table. I wondered if my grandmothers ever looked out at the vast family that they had given birth to and realized the wonderful legacy they were leaving behind. Probably not. For them, it was just another day in the kitchen. For me, it is a legacy I am proud to carry on.