On Christmas morning I stepped outside on the deck to a brilliant sunrise. A warm sixty degree breeze brushed my bare arms and it felt a lot like early spring. A pair of mallards slowly skimmed the surface of the lake looking for breakfast. Everyone in the house was still sleeping and my mind, as a matter of course, wandered from the vista to dinner. Each holiday is the beginning of a new custom and I’m never sure which one will take, so having warm weather didn’t seem out of place. The night before we made our own version of Feast of the Seven Fishes with neighbors instead of extended family.
Last year, we broke another ritual and cooked a pork roast for Christmas dinner, a tradition we duplicated this year. Who wants to eat fish the day after the feast of the Seven Fishes? When I first suggested pork roast last year the only opposition came from Quinn. Quinn hates turkey and eliminated that as an option as well.
“Oh, I’m not sure if I like pork roast,” she said.
“Oh, you like it,” I assured her.
“How do you know? I’ve never had it.”
“Because we spent forty dollars on an organic grass fed pork roast at the farmer’s market and we have almost four pounds of it.”
“Okay,” she answered tentatively over the phone. But what she really wanted to say was, “We’ll see.”
This year we bought a smaller one but we still had leftovers.
Every year seems to be the beginning of a new traditional meal because what we eat keeps changing. We raised Jackson and Quinn as vegetarians and now that we all eat meat we’re trying to find our footing. This is further complicated by a variety of restrictive diets that my family is now following. Rob doesn’t eat any grains or fruit but if the meal is in front of him he’ll just about anything. Quinn can’t eat dairy so we have to avoid butter, which can be tricky around “holiday” type foods.
I called Jackson and told him the menu.
“No pumpkin pie for me.”
“But it’s paleo, no dairy or refined sugar.”
“Oh I eat dairy now. But I can’t eat pumpkin.”
“Really? Because it’s one of the desserts your dad can eat.”
“Just buy me some berries.”
“Berries are fruit.”
“They’re not cooked. If you cook the fruit it has a higher GI.”
“Okay, well I’m also making Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and squash.”
“Sounds good, but I can’t eat it.”
“Chestnuts and squash.”
My mother was a New England Yankee puritan who was raised on a farm in New Hampshire. When I asked her about her childhood holiday menu she said it was something of the Norman Rockwell variety. Turkey, stuffing, turnips, mashed potatoes, gravy, pearled onions, and mincemeat and apple pies. That’s what we ate when I was a child. My father was from an Irish family and the only tradition he brought into our lives was storytelling but no special foods. He loved everything my mother ever cooked and almost everything she prepared was homemade. You assume when you marry someone that you’ll merge two traditions together but one family usually pulls ahead.
The first time I celebrated a holiday with Rob’s family was Thanksgiving in 1984. I asked for seconds. I thought it was unusual that someone would choose to serve lasagna for Thanksgiving, but it was delicious so I ate more. I had already eaten stuffed mushrooms, nuts, cheese and a variety of bar snacks so I remember feeling very full when I was finished. I left the last few bites of the pasta dish on my plate and wondered how long I was going to have wait before it was polite to excuse myself. Plates were cleared and a flurry of activity began to what I assumed was going to produce dessert. Then the turkey arrived.
New dishes were laid out and then one by one in a steady succession a full traditional turkey dinner was set before me: stuffing, vegetables, green beans, gravy and mashed potatoes. They also served sweet potatoes covered in melted marshmallows, which was the family favorite. It was one of those moments when I knew I was the only person in the room who was out of step.
As the food made their rounds all eyes fell upon the latest intruder who had infiltrated the family compound. I piled my plate with everything.
“More stuffing?” Rob’s aunt sang out before I had taken one bite.
“Why not?” I said with a smile.
She heaped another scoop on top.
The conversations were loud and disjointed with several going on simultaneously. When Rob’s father wasn’t chewing he was shouting.
“How long are you going to wait before you cut down that tree?” he demanded of his son-in-law. There was a large oak between their backyards and Mario was convinced it was going to fall over.
“I like the tree,” Richie said, continuing to eat.
“That’s not the point,” Mario bellowed. “It’s going to fall and kill someone.”
“Okay, Mario, calm down,” Rob’s mom said. “It’s Thanksgiving, let’s talk about something nice.”
“It might kill me!”
“That might be nice,” Richie said.
“Who wants to do Secret Santa this year?” Rob’s sister asked.
“Is there any more gravy?”
Mario stood and called out. “Only in death is there peace and happiness.”
“Who wants to go for a walk?”
About ten of us bundled up and walked for miles through the late afternoon suburban streets of Yonkers until we felt we could return and eat more.
After the walk we were ushered into the living room to be entertained by Rob’s cousin on the bagpipes. If you’ve never listened to bagpipes inside a 12×15 foot living room you don’t know what you’re missing.
Dessert, which followed the concert, was about ten pies for twenty people which meant everyone could have half a pie. All the pies came out of grocery store boxes and the unanimous winner was Mrs. Smith.
“You just can’t beat a Mrs. Smith pie,” Richie said.
“I like Entenmanns,” Rob’s niece said.
“Who brought coconut cream? That doesn’t go.”
“No, Mrs. Smith is the best. Probably because it comes from the oven.”
I thought back to my mother’s delicately prepared homemade pies and knew if I was going to marry into this family I would have trouble forging any of my own traditions into the mix. My siblings and parents were scattered across the globe and Rob’s family was mostly settled into three houses whose backyards touched.
Every year another variation of this same theme unfolded until I started to host these events. No matter what I tried to inject into these time honored holidays the Italian traditions pushed through and took over. I even started to make sweet potatoes with marshmallows and we always started with lasagna. I always baked a homemade pie but it wasn’t received any better than Mrs. Smith.
These large multi-family gatherings started to become less frequent as the family started to shrink. First Rob’s aunt, then his dad, then another aunt, and sadly his sister all passed away within a few years of one another. We floundered around trying to make our time together meaningful but we all missed these people and we didn’t adapt well. Rob’s niece started to host and that’s when the menu nosedived. They found ways to take short cuts beyond Mrs. Smith. When we walked in the door we were instructed to write our name on our paper cup so we wouldn’t waste cups. Marshmallows on sweet potatoes is one thing but paper cups at Christmas? Appetizers became Doritos and barbecued chicken wings instead of stuffed mushrooms and antipasto. Once when Richie asked for bread a plastic bag of cold sandwich bread was pulled from the refrigerator and passed around. No one seemed to notice but Rob and my children. At least my traditions were having an impact on my own family.
When Rob’s mom died three years ago we stopped going to his family for Thanksgiving. This year we didn’t go for Christmas. Instead we met a group of my cousins for dinner in Manhattan the day after Christmas. We’re having Rob’s family up to the lake for a New Year’s Day brunch. The traditions that we cling to and nurture at the holidays are based on feelings we carry from the past, but they’re always changing—like the canoe ride Jackson and I took this year on Christmas Eve in our shirtsleeves.
For the actual holidays it is now just the four of us and we can do whatever we want. We can eat meat or fish or invite the neighbors but we inject the past into the new. I think of my childhood holidays with masses of presents and artfully laid tables of delicious foods. I think of Rob’s mother’s lasagna scooped out of the Pyrex dish into steaming hot squares of perfection. I think of the Hess trucks we once had to have that now lay boxed up in the attic. I wonder what we may be buying this year that will end up no longer wanted. I see parts of my late father and brother as I listen to my grown son tell a funny story about his life in Baltimore. Maybe one year Jack and Quinn won’t come home and Rob and I will take a trip instead. Everything changes, and serving pork roast seems pretty minor.
HAPPY NEW YEAR IN 2016 TO ALL MY FAMILY AND FRIENDS!