I know it's a bit early to start thinking about the holidays, but for my family, Christmas is a huge deal, laden with traditions that haven't changed for eons. And this year things will be very different.
Since I can remember, it wasn't really Christmastime until my brothers and I, arms filled with presents,trudged across the snowy yard to my grandparents house and walked through the door to be greeted by the heat of the kitchen and the sounds of three men (who otherwise never cooked) cooking. We never drove. If the snow was too deep, we would simply walk down the (usually unplowed) street, because my parents didn't want to add their car to an already filled driveway. And it never felt like Christmas until I smelled the heavy scent of fish frying and the warm sweetness of homemade tomato sauce. I can remember one year wishing that I could bottle that scent, because even as a child I understood that this particular tradition was somehow too singular to last into my adulthood.
But the most important thing about the whole Christmas Eve experience was the sheer amount of chaos that defined it. Christmas Eve has never been an optional holiday; in fact, it was the one holiday when all of my mother's brothers would show up with all of their children, without exception. It started as 10 or so people, but with new marriages and new children, the count is now up to 26. My grandparents don't have a large house. I'm fairly certain it's a fire hazard to have so many people in such a small space with so many ovens working at the same time. Yet somehow they fit us all in, even if it means that half of us eat in the front room rather than the dining room.
Because Christmas Eve centered around two very important activities--eating and opening presents. Like any good Italian family, the meal was based around fish. Fresh, perch breaded in soda crackers and pan fried, bakala prepared any number of ways, whiting, smelt, a tomato-based calamari soup, stuffed squids, and shrimp. The fish was only the beginning, though. There was always some sort of pasta dish, the sauce always homemade from the tomatoes in my grandparents garden, freshly made Italian sausages, meatballs, crusty rolls, and froscia--an egg dish something like a fritatta that contains ricotta cheese and either spinach or dandelion greens.
In the last few years, the meals have become more emotional. Rather than simply forcing the youngest grandchild to say grace, he's given an impromptu toast that has brought him to tears before the meal starts. We all smile at him and pretend we don't see, and then start passing the food--always to the right--and ladling our paper plates with three days' worth of work and love.
Since he was old enough, my baby bro went to help the men cook the meal as well. He'd stand with them by the pans of frying fish and help with anything that needed done. Once he started culinary school, he started bringing his own creations. One year a tuna con fit with some sort of heaven drizzled on top. Last year, the most delicious pesto-crusted lamb chops; hundreds of dollars of ingredients were devoured before we could ask for seconds. And baby bro is always the consummate buffer. He knows just which buttons to push and just how to diffuse stressful situations--especially where my mother is concerned.
But this year will be different, because this year, he's probably not going to make it. He will be in California, being a grown up and probably working through the holidays. And if Christmas Eve will seem less immense without him, Christmas morning will be something else entirely.
I can't begin to imagine what it will be like to have my brothers and our kids at my parents for Christmas morning without D. What's the point of relating the story about the year he was so excited to get underwear that he held them up for a picture if he's not there to laugh about it? And who will diffuse the tension and stress when time seems to be running out? What will the point of all those presents be when someone is missing?
It's no surprise that the holiday traditions will have to change--J and I knew this long ago. This year Baby Bro won't be back, next year it will be us who won't make it for the festivities. Negotiating the creation of new traditions will be especially challenging for my family, because they have been so stable and unchanging for so long. I want to be excited about the prospect of those changes. Maybe we can alleviate the stress and tension. But I can't help but feel sorry for my own children, because I know that these traditions were something singular, and because I know that you can't ever repeat the past.