Updated: Apr 6
Some people have a hard time expressing their emotions.
I have that problem.
Well, that’s not entirely true. It sometimes is easier for me to express sadness and anger than it is to express empathy and compassion. Just the thought of finding the words makes me panic. How can I say what you mean to me or just how sorry I am?
I’m sure my childhood wasn’t unique. I came from a broken home. I was a latch-key kid. I ate before my mother walked through the door from a long day’s work. My mom would wake up very early, make my sisters and me breakfast, pack our lunches and make a full dinner — thin steak, stuffed with spinach and cheese and rolled like a pinwheel, liver and onions or beef stroganoff. All my oldest sister had to do was warm it on the stove.
My parents’ divorce and moving to new schools sometimes left me on shaky ground. I was uneasy.
I was insecure.
Except for Sundays.
Sundays involved warm welcomes, great company, and … food. It meant the familiar aroma of red sauce bubbling all day on the stove and sounds of football on TV. Sundays promised thousands of kisses from my grandfather as he proclaimed with the widest smile, “There’s my babydoll.” Sundays involved a special treat from my grandmother — a fried meatball before it was bathed in gravy, on a fork, crispy on the outside, soft in the center, slightly salty from the parmesan.
Sundays were predictable. Kisses were mandatory. You kissed everyone “Hello.” You kissed everyone “Goodbye.” You set the table. You rummaged through the silverware drawer to find Uncle Joey’s special fork. Years back, probably before I was born, he bent one of the prongs so his special fork would always stand out. He was well into his 30s, but he still had to have it. You sat at your respective place and — aside from the departure of a spouse, boyfriend or dead relative — your seat remained fixed.
I inherited the chair that my great-grandmother died in.
Conversations were lively and sometimes heated, with Uncle Joey often taking the brunt. “Joey, I don’t think you should have a second helping; you need to lose some weight,” My grandmother would say. “Can you at least tuck your shirt in? You are so handsome but no one would know it. Where is that shirt I bought you from Sears?”
“OK, Sno, that’s enough,” my grandfather would say, issuing a gentle warning to his wife.
“Yeah, Ma. You always gotta say something don’t you? Why don’t you just let me eat in peace,” Joey would yell, red-faced and ready to blow his stack.
My grandfather would stand up a little in his seat.”Now, that’s no way to talk to your mother,” and Joey would storm out, but he would be back in time for pie and coffee.
“Joey,” my grandmother would say in her singsong apologetic voice, “It’s only because I want what’s best for you.”
Joey would accept her apology by simply saying,”OK, Ma,” and she would give him another piece of pie.
Sometimes, my grandmother would get upset with my mom for being spastic and in a rush. “Stop and smell the roses,” she would tell her.
When my sisters and I were older, we would get the silent treatment for walking into dinner a few minutes late. It didn’t matter. Everyone always kissed and made-up before the tick-tock of “Sixty Minutes.”
This weekly ritual made me feel connected to something bigger than myself. It taught me that by honoring traditions I was honoring the past. It gave me a sense of identity and security for my future. In this secure and perfect place, I was loved.
Much like the canned tomatoes and dried pasta in my grandmother’s cupboard, those weekly dinners were a staple of my childhood: readily available, of good quality and, for me, a basic necessity.
I’m a third-generation Italian-American. My grandparents have passed away and for the most part so has Sunday dinner.
My sisters, my mom and Uncle Joey are still around. We are close and see each other often, but we don’t keep the consistency of these customs. I make macaroni and gravy sometimes but not every Sunday and not with extended family. Like slivers of garlic in a gigantic pot of sauce, I worry that the little bit of tradition I uphold might dissolve completely.
I miss those traditions.
I miss my grandparents.
I suppose it’s not the dinner itself that is most important but the lessons they taught me — that it’s the small, humble acts of affection that matter most.
I still fumble for the right words, but when a friend is sick she will mend with my wedding soup. When a baby is born, I will make lasagna for the new parents. When you are down and feeling a little unsteady, I will invite you to dinner.
I will offer you a meatball.
You will know you are loved.
* First published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.