Christmas and Turning 90

Udine's City Hall, where my parents got married
This year for Christmas, my family gathered in Udine, Italy, where part of my mom's family is from. Spending Christmas in Udine with family was wonderful, and for once we participated in what we only usually heard as background noise in phone calls made from the Chicago on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. I basked in the anomalous warmth of being surrounded by family with its love, chaos,  loud belly laughs, drama, inexhaustible love of good food and wine. I attended Christmas mass with my grandma, strolled around the streets of Udine, and spent a lot of time just hanging out, asking questions about my family.

This year, going to visit my Italian family for Christmas was not only amazing, because we hadn't done so since I was a little girl, but it was especially wonderful, because my grandma turned 90 on December 26th and we were there to celebrate it with her.


On her birthday, our family came over to my aunt's house for lunch, which marked our third consecutive day of eating huge and delicious meals. This triad of culinary delights started on Christmas Eve, with a traditionally Italian fish dinner, consisting of five courses. Then came Christmas day lunch, with a meal of various boiled meats, including tongue, pig's feet, head cheese, and all sorts of other parts of the pig and cow that would make a vegetarian's stomach turn. I'm not usually very squeamish about food, but I also usually stick to the standard unadventurous chicken dishes most of the year. For this occasion, I pushed myself and tried a little tongue and a little leg, but I left the pig's feet for others to enjoy. I figured that since I was in Italy, I might as well open myself up to new experiences.... and, it was good!

For my grandma's birthday, we started with some foie gras- my dad's contribution to the meal. My mom's uncle to the left of me and my grandma's oldest friend across from him refused to try it, proclaiming that they wanted none of this French business and would stick to Italian fare, thank you very much. Next came polenta toasts, some with lard and some with wild mushrooms, a few more dishes, and finally a mille feuille for dessert. We sat around the dining room table for a long time and then lingered in the living room chatting for the rest of the afternoon. It was a very happy day. 

I took some time to ask my grandma to repeat some of the stories that she has shared again and again, realizing that they were fuzzy and floating in my head with no reliable anchor in time. In doing so, I learned some things about my grandma I had never known. She went to university in Milano, at a time when many women were given a minimal education, to ready them for married life. She stayed with her relatives in Milano, because she would not have been allowed to go away from home alone, and studied there for three years. Her studies were interrupted by the Second World War, due to heavy British bombing of Milano. To escape the bombings, she went back to Udine and then to a mountain town called Buia. When the war was over, she was able to finish her diploma and studied Linguistics.  She researched Friulano- the language in the region of the Friuli in Italy, which my grandma speaks, and lived with a farming family in a small town, while she documented words specific to farming life.

There were more stories. Stories of my great grandfather's mill, who never sold grain at black market prices during World War II. Before my grandpa married my grandma, the priest pulled him aside to let him know this fact about the family he was marrying into. There is the story of how my grandparents met and fell in love, a story that she tells with a special twinkle in her eye. He, a young doctor in Tuscany, coming to play cards at her aunt's house, where they first met. There are the stories told through letters between my grandparents, letters that my grandmother found a few years ago and has since started reading and organizing in a suitcase, after deciding not to burn them (she had at first wanted them to remain private). Some letters are from when my grandma had to get treated in a seaside town. These letters tell of when my mom was a little girl, relate the small moments of their day, to a dad who couldn't be there, because he had to work. 

I sat and listened to these stories in my grandma's living room, in awe of everything she had lived, the stories she holds, and the change of times she's known, from a time when people used to make silk at home to stuff their quilts (quilts that my uncle still has in his house), to an age where everything is cheap and disposable and the homemade has transitioned from a necessity to a trend.  She has an incredible memory and an incredible wealth of experiences. I can only hope that when I am 90, I too will have the richness of experiences she has had, and a loving family to share them with.

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