The link to one’s ancestral homeland is a sentiment that brings most individuals a sense of pride and prejudice. The foods, spirits, landscapes, and language just seem better than the rest. It is through these cultural entities, antediluvian traditions, and nagging grandmothers that a sense of great guilt to follow this regimental way of life forms deep within one’s gut. I have never been one to follow conventional notions or even hold a sense of great respect for these ethics, but something big changed when I witnessed a small yet very powerful gesture of love.
I grew up in your cliché Italian family. Big, loud, lots and lots of cousins, and meals that could show up any catering hall on any given day. We are also a very close family- actually, I would say we are downright intrusive- if there is something you don’t know about yourself someone will definitely let you, and the rest of the conspirators, in on the secret before you have time to defend what is left of your integrity. Having said all of that, there is also a lot of love, support, and sacrifice that is shared between us all.
This past week it was my cousin’s 48th birthday. He has struggled with a rare illness that has caused a tremendous amount of suffering for both him and our family. So of course every birthday and every holiday has become a celebration of life. His wife began planning the meal months in advance trying to accommodate her husband’s favorite foods while honoring the staple Italian dishes: pasta, meat, hoards of bread, fish, some kind of Parmesan concoction, and of course the salad that most never get to.
Before my cousin became ill I could never understand the hype and neuroticism that went into organizing these parties. My mother would call religiously reminding me of the event and guilting me into coming even if I had RSVP’d to something else months in advance. To be honest, I dreaded going most of the time for the sheer monotony of the way things always played out: Arrive- bitch, eat- bitch, clean- bitch, eat dessert- bitch, kiss goodnight-bitch. All the bitching and teasing and screaming little cousins would sometimes cause temporary insanity that could last for days.
Last Sunday my cousin invited me and my immediate family over for the leftovers from the birthday party that she had put her blood, sweat, and tears into. It was a smaller, quieter meal that allowed for more intimate conversation and appreciation. The food seemed to taste better than when it was first made, and for those few short hours all I could think about was how incredibly grateful I am to still have my cousin sitting at the head of the table like he always does, laughing, joking, and smiling through the aches and spasms that have become a normality of his daily life.
I once read that “all is ephemeral” and to truly appreciate the blessings we have been given we must examine our own transience. Those words stuck with me because I often live for the future. I tend to plan life out in increments of time often missing the everyday nuances and awakenings that should be fueling a passion to live only in the present. My cousin is someone who has always inspired me through his beautiful attitude, light heart, and ability to make everyone around him laugh and smile. Even now, with the constant doctor visits, treatments, pain, anguish, frustration, and fear he still, somehow, lives for each day– lives for each moment– and there can truly be no greater inspiration then seeing one’s own transience and embracing it.
I know that the next time I get the call from my mother saying that there is a “family party” coming up I will instinctively roll my eyes. The sights of heaping plates of food, unruly cousins, and gossiping women will flood my head, but deep down I will smile knowing that what I have is something exceptional –- something that many others do not have — and I will think of the moments and memories we will share with my cousin and I will be grateful for another meal together.