Today is #NationalCookieDay. As I honor this day, I sit beside trays and trays of holiday cookies that my family made for our annual get together, which happened yesterday. We wore ugly Christmas sweaters, told bad jokes, and laughed so hard we cried. We also indulged in the homemade cookies we made. We took many photos, and ate until our pants snapped.
Nine times out of 10 (and more recently 10 times out of 10), I’m the organizer of these kinds of events. Over the weekend, I was feeling exhausted. I stayed up until 2 a.m. baking and decorating and cleaning. I thought, “Why am I doing this?” My back ached, and my feet were swollen.
La Dolce Vita
Then, with the head of one of those gingerbread in my mouth, I saw my cousin hugging my brother and my father jeering the Giants with his nephew. The work was worth it. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But in this moment we all had each other. We all had a hand to hold, a security blanket, pure joy. Frankly, that’s priceless.
So, I say get out and celebrate #NationalCookie Day. Shout, “I love you,” to family and friends. Deck the halls. Or at least smile and choose happiness for the day. Meet a friend for a cup of tea and a pignoli cookie. What’s most important is using this day as an excuse to slow down and smell the poinsettia. Keep the hustle and bustle of the holidays from distracting you from its real purpose: expressing your love, experiencing joy, and appreciating what you have.
I live in utter disaster. On most days, my house looks like a bomb exploded, and it was full of little boys’ stinky laundry, more Lego pieces than you could find in one of the stores, bread crumbs, and pieces of paper from kids’ practicing their scissor skills. The dishes are piled in the sink. The stovetop is thick with grease and grime that desperately needs removing (and might require a sandblaster). Garbage always seems to need to go out. And can we talk about the bathroom? I don’t even want to go in there for fear of having to face life’s most difficult question of late; is that Nutella or poop on the wall? Seriously, which is it? No matter how hard I scrub, the place always smells of sweaty gym socks and tomato sauce. (We’re Italian, so at least we’ve got that.)
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, before my son and niece and nephew were born, I had nice things. Really. There was a place for everything, and everything in its place. Back then, I lusted after hotel-quality sheets in crisp white and fine china serving platters. I got giddy over my sparkling chandelier in the dining room and silk drapes in the living room. Every week, I would meticulously dust and vacuum the couches. I had a Waterford crystal bowl sitting on an end table, out in the open for all the world to admire. Not once was it at risk of falling. Today, it stands behind closed closet doors on a shelf too high even for me to reach.
When I look around, I can hardly believe I ever had that straight-out-of-Better-Homes-and-Gardens look or that Good Housekeeping demeanor. As I first began to lose control of the place, I felt uneasy. There was a queasiness at the sight of those toys scattered and piled and lined up all.over.the.floor. They were – err, are – everywhere. I even missed all that dusting and vacuuming I once did. But I am living in a new normal, the world of motherhood with young children. There’s nothing I can do about it. This life is messy, often akin to a post-party frat house minus the beer. Still, I’ve learned to embrace the look of a war zone. Here’s why:
My house is our hangout. I have relatives and friends with bigger and better houses than I’ll ever have, than I will ever let myself dream about actually. They are tidy and lovely. Their picturesque views, professional kitchens, swimming pools, and game rooms are the stuff of designer legend. Sometimes, I’m jealous. But then I curl up on my couch and think about all these walls have seen. We make the sweetest memories here because we open the doors to all, and create excuses to unite. There was the time my cousin from Australia stayed with us to surprise my grandfather, who was already showing signs of age and illness. There was the time we celebrated my son’s birthday with 80 relatives packed into the driveway and backyard. There have been Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves for the ages. Wine has been spilled. Glasses have been broken. Hearts have been touched. Friends have become family. Family has become friends. Fun has been had by all.
My house is our comfort zone. In the days after my miscarriage, my only friend was this house. I closed myself in. I hugged the walls and worshipped the couch. From my window, I watched the leaves dance in the wind and searched for answers. I cried, and my home – this humble and loving house – dried my tears. When my grandfather passed away, we gathered around my dining room and remembered why we were hurting so much, what he meant to us, and what a glorious pain in the ass he was from beginning to end. We’ve embraced one another in our worst moments. We’ve confessed to one another and forgiven one another in this very house. Life happens here. Frankly, life was never one to be neat and simple. It’s complicated, untidy, and sometimes downright ugly.
We are growing up here. My son and his cousins are here together just about everyday. They are 6, nearly 5, and just turned 4. I wink and they are a year older.Those toys on the floor and the bread crumbs they are dropping are all signs of this precious time in their life and ours. These are the symbols of innocence that are all too fleeting. Their job is to play, and the disaster means they are looking to get promoted to that next phase. In the not-too-distant future, I will find myself looking around my pristine living room with everything in its place once again, and I will burst into tears for what I have lost. I will miss those chubby little fingers pulling at my heart, the butterfly kisses just because, the zany outbursts, the silly laughter, the most beautiful song of their gentle, rhythmic breathing as they sleep, and the sweet pain of a 40-pound child lying still on my chest.
And, so, for now I embrace my mess. I cherish it for all it symbolizes. I love this mess because I want my place to be the place to celebrate, gather family and friends, and grow up. I want it to be a retreat for all who enter. I want it to be our rock when life is a storm. It doesn’t have to be pretty. I’d rather we actually get to live here.
Many moons ago – in another lifetime really – I remember being at Lake Panamoka in Ridge, N.Y. splashing away a Saturday afternoon with my brother, sister, and cousin, who was a resident in the area. The grown-ups were on the sand having a grown-up discussion as only grown ups can. Aunt Sharon, my cousin’s mother, remarked, “We are making memories here.” I don’t know what led up to this statement of fact or what came after it. But it has always stuck with me, especially since my aunt passed away in 2007.
Here’s the thing. God plucks people out of your life without notice (or sometimes there is notice and the announcement goes on and on until you’re hoping for the end to come to stop the suffering, so everyone can move on and have peace). I can hardly believe it’s been so long without Aunt Sharon. Just two weeks ago we commemorated the one-year anniversary of the loss of my beloved grandfather. Losing them and a bunch of other aunts and uncles recently has given me pause, a chance to reflect on what’s really valuable and what really makes for a good life.
My grandfather did the unthinkable in the name of quality time with family. He actually once mortgaged his house and took his kids out of school to spend six months with his children in France and Italy, so they would know their aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who lived on another continent. With six children and a wife to support in the United States and despite having a landscaping and factory job, he still almost always scraped up enough money to visit family members, who lived all over the world. He traveled from the United States to Australia twice to see his brother and his family. And he brought 22 of us from the United States to his hometown in Ischia, Italy for a family reunion in 1995. If there was a party with relatives, my grandpa was going to be there no matter where it was.
Although Aunt Sharon was only related to my grandfather by marriage, they were on the same page, at least when it came to this idea of making memories. Really, it’s part of the Italian DNA (and she was Italian by marriage, too, of course). It all begins with those Sunday afternoons when your entire extended family packs itself into one house and gorges on pasta (with the good sauce usually made by the nonni), not to mention meatballs, antipasto, and Italian pastries. Now that every Sunday has become “when you can,” you have to make excuses to get together with the bigger family.
That’s what I do, in the name of all my late grandparents, the aunts and uncles we’ve lost, the people I miss in my darkest hours and brightest days. It’s also because I can never give my son or my niece and nephew the magic of those Sundays or the sheer number of cousins (also known as best friends) and second sets of parents that we had as children, thanks to my mother being the oldest of six and my father being the youngest of nine. But I can give them a taste. The only way to do that is to celebrate every chance we get and include whoever we can.
I’ve given my son all sorts of toys. And he makes a feast every time I do. A few of them he really appreciates. But sooner or later they all lose their shine. But we still talk about his Buzz Lightyear birthday party that featured more than 60 of our closest relatives packing our driveway and backyard. He never forgets our trips to Disney World and meeting Mickey Mouse. Going to the beach is like Christmas in July. Having Spider-Man face off with Mr. Potato Head is stretching his imagination. Making volcanoes (with baking soda and vinegar), having sleepovers, and making believe with his cousins never ever get old.
Sure, a couple of my beloved relatives, who are now angels, gave me material gifts that I adored. But it is the laughs and food we shared, the advice they gave me, and the love they showed gathered around the table for which I ache. Oh, how I ache. So, follow Aunt Sharon’s philosophy and get to making memories. Right now. Time is ticking.
What makes a life? In the end, we will not be measured by the weight of gold we’ve stashed under the mattress or even our career or lack thereof. Rather, we will be judged by the number of people whose lives we’ve touched, the love we’ve shared, the family we’ve built, and the memories we’ve made.
Few people have achieved as much life success in that way as my grandpa, Rocco Di Costanzo. But it was not without risk or obstacle. When he traveled with me to his native Ischia in 2004 – the last trip he ever made home – we walked the old road to Maronti, which is today the largest and most popular beach on Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples that is the home of my ancestors and husband. Back when Grandpa lived there it was all beaches and mountains, sites for the natives to work the land and keep a simple life and not the tourist trap it is now. So, we walked the old road to Maronti, one of the last vestiges of the island’s past, to honor the fact that Grandpa had made that same journey everyday as a boy when he had to till soil and tend to a family garden. My grandparents were in their 70s at the time, and I was a 20-something just getting over bronchitis and there was rocky terrain, dirt roads, enormous cobblestone staircases, rolling hills, and uphill challenges that I feared would kill us. Although it may have contributed to a massive knee injury one day later (mine, not my grandparents, thank God), I’ve never regretted that walk. Not ever.
All the way, Grandpa remembered his youth out loud – planting tomatoes on their property, sneaking cigarettes, the feel of the sand, running with his brothers on the beach, his parents, and all the rest. Indeed, when you look closely at the pictures of him on that walk with me – in his “I’m an old, Italian man” hat – you can see both the boy and the man.
Grandpa gave me – gave us – so many memories like that one. He bestowed upon us a love of the Yankees and trips to the stadium, an utter devotion to family, and a desire to see both our relatives, many of whom live abroad, and the world. He shared with me: Ischia (twice), Paris, Washington, D.C., and Canada. In fact, my cousin Morgan and I still have the Labatt Bleue can marks stamped on our bottoms (from sitting on cases of the beer) to remember our trip with him to Montreal. If I recall correctly my brother’s seat was a giant piece of unsliced prosciutto.
Grandpa gave us other stuff, too – narrow-angle glaucoma, baldness, our loud mouths and an uncanny ability to insert a foot in them, and a weakness for cigarettes and whiskey. Some or all of these qualities may apply to you. But that was just the well-worth-it price you paid to be Rocco Di Costanzo’s relative.
Ultimately, like any immigrant, Grandpa gave us the greatest gift of all: the opportunity to dream and actually chase it. When he was a young man coming to the United States for the first time, he was making sacrifices few people would make for the children he hadn’t had yet and the grandchildren and great grandchildren he couldn’t yet fathom. Would you marry a stranger to get access to a foreign land? Would you leave your parents and siblings virtually forever? Would you move to a place with a completely different cuisine, history, culture, and language?
My grandparents didn’t even know each other when they wed more than 60 years ago, so Grandpa could legally come to the United States. At 19 and 20, they were mere babies by today’s standards. For Grandpa, it meant leaving behind everything he ever knew. Together, my grandparents raised six kids, five of them boys. Having one boy myself – who looks and acts like my uncles – I marvel at that fact everyday. I can barely handle the one. My grandparents worked hard to feed and shelter these kids. They sent them to school to receive an education my grandfather could never have imagined in his native Ischia.
They did it all, so we could make marks with pens and not shovels in our work, start our own businesses, breed birds, pilot a plane, work for a hockey team, marry our soul mates whom we dated before marrying, serve as leaders and not followers, and be bona-fide Americans, replete with passports and New York (or New Jersey or Michigan) accents. Sure, Grandpa helped build the lunar module as a soldier for Grumman and successfully brought back slave labor when “hiring” his sons to work for him when running a small landscaping business. And he may or may not have caused a few fires and a couple of serious injuries when doing housework that still have us both laughing and crying. Yet, he managed to keep all his fingers. “Miracolo,” as they say in the old country.
Still, his kind heart and unmatched generosity – just ask all his neighbors about his good deeds, such as blowing their leaves for free and bringing over fruits and veggies straight from his garden – are what we’ll miss most. For goodness sake, the man lost his leg nearly a decade ago, and he was still doing yard work, trying to clean up snow, and cooking for Uncle Gino – and anyone else who was around – until very recently. In the last six weeks of his life, Grandpa became someone else, someone he never wanted to be – a dependent, a burden even. When he understood what was happening, he was praying for God to take him. But in his moments of clarity, he sent loud and clear messages to us. On his last truly lucid day in the hospital, I asked him if he knew who I was. “If I didn’t know you, Francesca, I wouldn’t know myself,” he told me. He had to repeat it because we weren’t sure if that was what he said the first time. He wasn’t just talking to me. I was just the one in front of him. He was telling all of us with those words that we’re apart of him. And that can never change.
When I arrived at his house with my mom, his only daughter, and my cousin Morgan on March 28, he was still alive. We could hear him moaning in pain when my uncle and grandmother lifted him, and we waited on the bottom of the stairs for them to change and dress him. We heard him say yes and then no when Uncle Gino asked him to sit up. And then we came up the stairs and we each kissed him and felt his last breaths on our faces. My grandmother held his head and tried to get him to talk to her. Two minutes later – just like that – he left our world for another more beautiful one. He waited for the elder women of the family because we women are the uniters of family, the givers of life. With those last three kisses – one for each of us – and those final breaths he was saying hello and good-bye to us all. It’s my honor and privilege to remind you that he is living on inside each of us, his family – and not just the people in the United States but the nieces, nephews, brother, and in-laws he has around the world in Italy, France, Australia, Argentina, Canada.
There’s no question that his greatest legacy is this family. He would not want us to cry over him. Instead, he would want us to love hard and raise a glass, or shot, in his honor – together – as often as possible. “I’ll drink to that.”
I know what you’re thinking. We are living on the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples in Italy, which is an important tourist destination (at least for Italians, Germans, and some Russians). So, why do we need a staycation? Well, when you live in a tourist destination, the wonders of the spot tend to lose their shine after a while. Sometimes, you just want to huddle in the house, far away from the world. Baby Boy and I did just that over the Labor Day weekend. Ischia’s August tourists still hadn’t completely gotten off the island, so we avoided the crowds, put up a tent in Baby Boy’s playroom (see photo below) and camped out at home.
My own childhood memories inspired this staycation. Whenever my sister and I (we’d leave my brother home) would spend a few days with our cousin at my uncle’s house in Long Island, he would pitch a tent for us in the backyard, so we could “rough it.” Roughing it meant that my uncle would haul an air mattress, TV, and cable box outside. He would also make us popcorn and peach cobbler (after we already ate dinner in the house with him and my aunt mind you). Then, I would fall asleep in the tent, only to wake up in the morning and find my sister and cousin had hauled themselves in the house and into the bedroom while I was snoring.
In any event, those are some of the best memories I have, so I couldn’t wait to recreate some of the magic for my son. He’s not even 2 yet, so I didn’t think he’d really appreciate sleeping in the backyard, especially since the backyard is made of cement here and not grass like back in Long Island. No one around these here parts would be bringing us an air mattress or TV, not to mention peach cobbler. So, the tent, a gift from his American nonna, went in the playroom on his soft, foam tiles. I filled it with pillows and joined him. I also made him a dinner of chicken breast, homemade rosemary focaccia, and homemade, hand-cut French fries with parsley and salt. Of course, if we were home, I would have either made peach cobbler or s’mores for dessert. But we are not in the States, so we made due with Oreo cookies. (Yes, you can buy them here in select locations, but nonno sends them from home on occasion. And we know how bad they are for you, so don’t bother writing to tell us. We eat them in moderation as a treat once in a blue moon and it hasn’t killed us yet.)
When the sun went down, I closed all the lights in the apartment and the TV, and I turned on Baby’s Boy’s turtle, which projects stars and the moon onto the ceiling and walls. Frankly, anyone could make this staycation a reality. Make your favorite meal, purchase an affordable tent (this one came from Michael’s and was originally about $15) and buy a star projector (that could cost anywhere from $20 to $30). You can also buy a flashlight and tell scary stories or make a paper campfire and sing songs around it.
Baby Boy and I actually looked up at the “sky” from our tent and took note of the crescent moon and pretty stars. I asked Baby Boy what he was wishing for, and he babbled on and on. I wish I could understand what he was saying. For now, I have to settle for his nods and smile of delight – and a staycation that was better than some of my real vacations have been.
We’ve been in Italy two weeks now, and Enzo seems to be having fun despite a rash on his back and bottom, a lack of sleep, and a disheveled mamma, who he may or may not recognize. He does, however, seem to miss everyone back home, especially Aunt Jaci and Maria, with whom he spent lots of his time during his first six months. Of course, he misses Nonno Pasquale, Nonna Regina, Zio Giovanni, and the rest of the gang in America, too. But Maria and Baby D in Aunt Jaci’s belly are his best playmates since they are closest to his age and size. He’s bummed he will be missing Baby D’s entrance into the world. I can tell. Still, I’m sure Enzo and Baby D – and Maria for that matter – will make up for lost time and get into all kinds of mischief together. We have plenty of time for that. I’m also certain Enzo will have big smiles for them whenever we see them all in person next because he sure has them for everyone here. (In honor of our nostalgia for home, I have put together a photo album featuring our American family. Check out “Enzo in America” to see what we did just before we came to Italy.)
Today, I can sing a new song to Enzo, “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old mamma is snoring/She went to bed with a bump on her head and she couldn’t wake up in the morning.” It’s been raining and cold here for a week straight. It’s so cold that you don’t want to get naked to put on your pajamas, and the toilet seat in the bathroom feels like an ice cube on your bum. I wear two sets of pajamas (one of which is made entirely of fleece) and two pairs of socks to bed every night. My scarf has become my favorite accessory while my pals in the States are already in summer gear. Ugh! And yesterday, after a night of zero sleep and an onslaught of three deadlines, some of which I am still completing, I accidentally slammed my head into the corner of one of the kitchen cabinets here. I have a rather large bump on my head and a raging headache. Thank God I bring Advil with me wherever I go.
Come to think of it, my head has had lots of woes lately. This week also marked Enzo’s first poop bomb in Italy. It was fabulous. I pulled his pants off and didn’t realize a mountain of poop fell out of his pant leg. Enzo sat in this pile, smacked his hands down in it as if it was a fluffy pillow, and then smeared it in my hair. Then, I had to carry him naked with a bottom brown with poop all the way to the other side of the house, where he takes his baths. My sisters-in-law proceeded to help me wash him a bit earlier than usual. It wasn’t until later that evening that Antonio was sitting next to me talking when he jumped back in his chair with disgust and shouted, “You have poop in your hair.” It sounded more elegant in Italian, by the way. I didn’t realize the baby had put it in my hair. I had to take my second shower of the day, and now Antonio finds it hilarious to tell me about a stunning new invention – hair gel, which he says works better than poop. I may never live this one down, folks.
When my friend Gayle said she was coming into town to try on wedding dresses, I knew I had to see her. After all, we used to pass by the Vera Wang wedding dress shop in D.C. back in college. Now, she’s planning for the real deal. Talking to her about wedding planning has me getting nostalgic for Antonio and my wedding in Italy and vow renewal in the United States. I never did get tired of trying on wedding dresses or choosing floral centerpieces. But the cake tastings were probably my favorite. Gayle likes that, too. She brought some yummy cupcakes from Crumbs in the spirit of wedding planning. And the apple one was as perfectly light and moist as it looked. Still, I’ll have to try the M & M topped cupcake by day’s end. It’s the least I can do for the bride to be. I’m sure she’ll want a full report from me. This visit with Gayle would have only been better if we could have finished it off with a stop at Con-E-Island, the D.C. ice cream shop we used to frequent back in the day. Thanks for the visit and delicious trip down memory lane, Gayle! You are going to make a beautiful bride. I can’t wait.