It’s Not the House, It’s the Family

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.

A bunch of crab eating maniacs.

A bunch of crab eating maniacs.

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.

The Queen of Fun!

The Queen of Fun!

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.

A family photo after mom passed, with me holding up her wedding photo, so she could be in the shot.

A family photo after mom passed, with me holding up her wedding photo, so she could be in the shot.

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.

My father's house in Winter.

My father’s house in winter.

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.

Bernie playing accordion.

Bernie playing accordion in my dad’s old living room.

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.

An adoring mother with Kings #1 and #2. (It's Christmas Eve in this shot too -- hence the beers.)

An adoring mother with her sons on Christmas Eve.

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.



31 thoughts on “It’s Not the House, It’s the Family

  1. Not sure why it’s taken so long for me to join you at Your table! I’m sitting at my table right now reading and eating my way through a box of chocolate covered cherries that some elf cousin sent me. Great stories, Fran, so glad you are keeping those wonderful memories alive of time spent at Aunt Mary’s table. I was there when the Christmas tree and wash tub came into the living room.
    Love to all the family…..Jane and the “Duke”

    • Hi Jane,
      I don’t care how long it took you, as long as you are here! Thanks for reading and taking the time to respond! Glad you’re enjoying the chocolates! I love the memories and keep working on creating new ones too. Happy New Year!!! xoxo

  2. Fran,
    Thank you for this blog. If I can do it I will share it at our family Christmas dinner with Jan’s family.

    What I really want to share with you is this:
    On my father’s side we have been celebrating the Christoffersen Christmas for 107 years. My grandparents had 9 children. None of them are alive now and only 2 aunts by marriage are left, grandma’s house was torn down to make way for the 105 freeway and we have had to more the day from Christmas Eve to the 2nd Saturday of December, but we still meet, sometimes in No. Cal., or Las Vegas or So. Cal. As you said so well, it’s not the house it is the people. The food varies from traditional Christmas to sandwiches but no one worries about the food it is the together time we treasure. After we eat we gather around and each person shares their year and we sing. Reading your blog really brought back the memories of the Christmases when I was little and all the aunts were cooking and setting up the long table in Grandma’s house, then the laughing and talking and singing.
    I would fight sleep until the adults ran out of words and Mom, Dad and I would head home so he would know where is was sleeping so he could bring my toys.
    Merry Christmas Fran!!!!
    Love and Hugs!!

    • Awww Cathy, I’m so glad I was able to rekindle some memories for you. Christmas is filled with memories, some sweet, some bittersweet, but I treasure each of them and it sounds like you do too. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and I wish you only the best in 2016!

  3. Fran, How I love this post. Anyone Italian remembers the “baccala” sticking out of the tall pot before it is cooked. I clearly remember the many types of fish being cooked Christmas Eve. As a child, I did not appreciate the fish so my cousins and I had pasta with butter! We called “macaroni ala olio “macaroni ala ugh!” They are truly beautiful memories that I am thankful I have.
    This year we have lost two important family members so the teary eyes seem to happen when “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” plays and old photos surface of Christmas at a time of youth and innocence.
    Thank you, Fran, for another fantastic jolt to me and the many memories I have.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    • Oh Marianne, I completely understand. Getting older is no picnic. But you are such a sweet presence, I am sure you keep the love going in the family and that’s the best we can do. I wish you and your family a wonderful Christmas and only the best in 2016!

    • Mrs. Gazzilli, it is always wonderful to see your comments on Fran’s posts. I have fond memories of teaching art in your class (this is Linda Miller here–“Friday” is my maiden name). My step family is Italian; Fran always pokes at my childhood memories too. I cried over the same song TWICE today, so understand that pang of love and loss. Regardless, we are rich with memory, aren’t we? Have a joy-filled Christmas! — Linda Miller

  4. Dearest Fran, you are a lucky girl to have come from such a loving family and your kids — and all who know and love you –.are lucky to be part of the memories and traditions that you are creating as part of your legacy. Love you, dear friend. Merry Christmas!

    • Awwww Linda, I love you right back! Thanks so much for always reading and taking the time (when I know you probably don’t have it) to comment. Your daughter is lucky also to have such an amazing mother who opened up a whole world of creativity to her. I wish you a fabulous Christmas! xoxo

  5. What rich and lovely memories, Fran! I enjoyed reading your recollections!
    Have a wonderful time with your vibrant family and have a very blessed Christmas!

  6. Bob sent me that story on the Pgh family and as you said, they were different but very much the same with common threads and it was nice, and interesting. I think we all have pieces of our parents in us. No escaping those genes, & as I age I see it more and more. Yikes! Glad you’re coming home Biscotti woman. See ya soon.

  7. Oh, Frannie, you are so right. Things do change, and we have to adjust, but if and when we are lucky, we find ways to color our new traditions with the memories and spirit of where we have come from. You really hit home for so many with this post. It is such a beautiful and bittersweet thing, nostalgia. How lucky we are to have figured out how to cherish where we have come from and allow it to help us tell our stories moving forward. Love and Holiday Spirit to all!

    • Nicol, you are one of the best gifts in my life and I’m so glad we found each other! You always word it so beautifully and you are right. Cherish is the word! Love you to bits! Merry Christmas to you and all your family!

  8. Again, you made me cry, Fran!! My mom is still alive and I am not looking to the day that she will no longer be with us! She is the matriarch and when she is gone, my 4 sisters and I will have to somehow pull it together to continue our traditions and keep our family united! We have a lot of our big Italian family traditions and foods that I am culling into a book!

    • Sorry I got the tears flowing, but good for you Diana, I did that with recipes and I’m so glad I did! Your family will love you for it. Be sure to keep up the traditions and mak sure you guys record your mom for posterity. Ask her things on camera – first kiss — all the good stuff. It’s such fun to hear the answers and get to replay them years later.

  9. I love reading this post! Yes, I am aware of the fact that things are always changing around me and I am constantly changing as well (for the better, I hope). I am thankful for my family, and my friends (new and old). You’re right, it’s not the house, it’s the family! Wishing you a very warm and happy end-of-the year!

  10. I’ve always envied your Christmas Eve extravaganzas with your family. They all sound memorable. Are you coming home for Christmas this year?

    • Hi Chas, yes, I will be home for Fish Fest 2015! It should be fun. I will be with Bernie and Donna for a bit, so I hope we get to see you and Nancy! Have a wonderful Christmas and thank you for always reading and taking the time to comment!

  11. Frannie, those of us who were privileged to know Uncle Robert, Aunt Mary, and any and all of you can surely feel the love as we read this. Always special, joyful memories and a lot of love!

  12. Frannie, I have tears in my eyes reading this; you are right; Christmas is not the same without my parents and in my case without my son…My Dad died in 2010, my Mom in 2011 and my son in 2013….I did not know your Dad well but I loved your Mom…..She always had that big smile on her face….thank you for this beautiful article. We always treasure our parents so much more when they are gone…but you can’t tell anyone that, they have to learn it on their own. Merry Christmas my dear!

    • Thank you Martha for taking the time to write. I’m so glad you remember my mom and you enjoyed the article. I’m so sorry for your losses, but we still have our memories and get to keep them forever. Have a wonderful Christmas!

  13. Loved your story. When I was in my twenty ‘ s I caught my grandmother with tears in her eyes while cooking Christmas Eve Pasta. I ask “grandma why are you crying during this joyous night?” She responded with an answer I never understood until she passed away. “One day you’ll understand when I’m gone.” Of course, I asked away not understanding. After her generation passed away….I find myself now with tears in my eyes while cooking……remembering the good Ole Christmas Eve’s. They’re still filled with joy but bittersweet as well. Merry Christmas to my wise and dearly missed grandmother.

  14. OK, so I am sitting here at the crack of dawn getting ready for work and crying. This is so beautiful. Anyone who is Italian can see themselves in these lovely and loving scenes you’ve recreated — and I expect plenty of non-Italians feel the same way. There’s a hole in my heart that my parents and grandparents used to fill but when we recreate the traditions like making pizelles with my Nonna’s 80+-year old, stove-top pizelle iron, I fill in the void bit by bit. Thank you so much for sharing. Now I have to go re-apply my make-up …

    • OH Carolyn, I love it! I’m sorry I made you cry, but I completely understand! I’m going to pull out my mom’s pizzelle iron too! You’ve inspired me! Have a wonderful Christmas!

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