My brother just sent me a story from the Wall Street Journal about the Allen family from Pittsburgh, dealing with their first Christmas without their parents. It touched me because it could have been about our family. Their tree from the ’60s looked like a more attractive version of ours, and they had family traditions too.
They made jello salads and barbecue ham sandwiches with homemade buns for Christmas, and celebrated in the family home for years. We are fish cooking/eating maniacs on Christmas Eve and celebrated for almost 60 years in the same home.
Every year we say we’re going to cut down on how much we cook, yet every year it seems to increase. Pasta with tomato crab sauce, shrimp sauce, or curry cream sauce with scallops, crab and shrimp dipped in garlic butter lemon dip, (recipes are in these links) fried calamari, baked halibut, boiled crayfish, hors d’oeuvres, salads, cookies, chestnuts, candy, and more.
When I was in my 30’s and my mom was in her 70’s, I worried about her, so much that one Christmas, in the midst of family fun, I was almost in tears. I had the realization that one day, my mom wouldn’t be there. I had to leave the room and compose myself.
All the while I was telling myself there was nothing I could do, what would be, would be. So, it became important to me to really listen and enjoy her antics while I had her. I embraced all of it thoroughly because I realized there’s a time to laugh and a time to cry, and my crying time would come soon enough.
When my mom suddenly passed away in 1992, I wondered how we would get through it. I couldn’t imagine a Christmas without her baking cookies for weeks, cooking, laughing, hugging everyone, loudly singing, and clapping along with my brothers’ accordion playing.
For her, family was everything. “Always get along witta your brodders and seester,” she’d say. She reeled us in with her cooking and made sure we knew how important it was that we got together at my parent’s house and stayed connected throughout the year.
Christmas was definitely quieter without her, but it was still in my dad’s home and the traditions stayed the same. We returned for Christmas Eve, year after year. We cooked fish, ate, exchanged gifts, drank the wine my dad and brothers made, and had fun.
We toasted to my mom and knew she would have wanted us to eat, drink, and be merry because she was famous for that. My dad lived another, mostly healthy, 21 years.
But when my father passed away in 2013, we all said, “Uh oh, this is it.” Will our traditions fall away? Most of us have kids of our own now. Some of them have their own families and we were afraid it could change because we don’t have my dad’s home as the central meeting place anymore.
I couldn’t shake loose the memories of all those wonderful Christmas Eves. I could smell the calamari frying, hear my brothers playing a jaunty version of Jingle Bells, followed by the Tarantella on their accordions. I could hear echoes of my parent’s voices — my mother calling, “Frenzy honey, go uppa stairs and getta me da cheese, OK?” Or my dad calling, “Frances, how about you get some of your cookies out for everyone.” In my mind, every noisy Christmas was locked away in the house my dad built brick by brick.
I feared without the house, we wouldn’t be the same.
And I have to say, it is different. My brother’s homes are many steps up from my dad’s basement. We aren’t scrounging through my mom’s old pots to find one that’s usable anymore, and we’re not squeezed into a living room crowded with furniture won on “The Price is Right,” but we’re still together. It’s still fun because we enjoy seeing each other, cooking together, trading recipes, and marveling at — what else? The food.
It’s a lesson I keep re-learning. It’s not the house, it’s the family that makes the memories (with a little help from some crab claws).
When I got divorced, I worried it wouldn’t be the same without my big, beautiful kitchen, but my kids and I have made some fantastic memories in the two small kitchens we’ve had since then.
It’s the same with our family’s Christmas Eve. Our traditions are a wonderful way to make new memories that keep building on the old ones. I know to savor whatever time we have together and really take note of the little moments.
Things will surely change, that’s how it goes. But, as long as there’s family, a place to cook and a little fish, I think we’re always going to be OK.
You will too, and so will the Allen family in Pittsburgh.