While cleaning out a plastic container recently, I came across this photo of a strawberry and whipped cream layer cake blown up to 8×10 size. I don’t know if I intended to frame it or give it to someone.
The cake itself, though I remember how delicious her cakes were, is unremarkable. What makes this photograph special is what you can’t see. What you can’t see is the person who made the cake. What you can’t see is the family sitting around the dining room table. What you can’t see is my cousin whose birthday we were celebrating.
This cake was made by my Aunt Lucy for her daughter’s 21st birthday.
Aunt Lucy was my father’s youngest sister. She passed away – too young -several years ago. The birthday party would have been at her house, the dining room table laden with several desserts, coffee in white cups and saucers with matching plates, forks to scoop up a delicious moist bite of birthday cake. The family – siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins would have been sitting around the table. Candles would be lit and we would sing “Happy birthday” off-key to my cousin, who would make a wish and blow out the candles.
That was back when birthdays meant family gatherings. Back when family gatherings were the norm. Back when the upper layer – parents, aunts and uncles, were still around.
What you can’t see in this photo is family. FAMIGLIA. This isn’t just a cake, it’s a memory. Of simpler times? Maybe. Certainly of our youth. Although I would have been a young adult at the time of this photo, I was still a child in the eyes of my aunts and uncles. I would remain that way, in their eyes, “You still look like a kid!” I relished that. And when it was gone, when there was no one to look at me and see me as a child, a young girl, a young woman, I would grieve it. Grieve the relatives who watched me grow, who would always see me as little Angela. Who would look fondly on me and give me birthday presents and be glad to see me.
The upper generation is gone except for my dad’s youngest brother, Uncle Anthony and his wife. My parents, aunts, uncles and a few cousins have already passed away.
At a birthday party for my grand-kids, I look around and realize I am the upper generation. I feel both sad and the weight of responsibility.
I had a conversation recently with my daughter about her father. It was a story she hadn’t heard before. I repeated what I had heard many years ago from her grandmother, “Your father was born with a veil on his face.” She was eager for more information. She had questions and wanted answers. I had none. Her grandmother is long gone. Her father couldn’t supply her with any more information.
What a loss to realize the stories that die with our parents, our grandparents. I have been thirsty for people who knew my grandmother, my parents. I call an 80 year old cousin of my dad’s. She remembers my grandmother. She tells me about the day my grandfather died from an accident at work, “There was no workers comp at the time. They kept him until the end of the day, then drove him to your grandmother’s house and dropped him off.” My grandmother was pregnant with my father. Who will remember these stories? Who will answer the questions?
I am blessed to have been raised in a big Italian family in an Italian community. My parents were first generation Americans. All of my grandparents came from Italy. They formed an Italian community in an area of Philadelphia called Tacony. I grew up with togetherness. I grew up celebrating holidays with family, Christmas Eve traveling from Aunt Helen’s where we ate dinner, to Aunt Lucy’s where we had dessert. We were together for summer picnics, playing horse shoes in the yard, eating burgers from the grill. I cut up potatoes and carrots, placed them on aluminum foil, drizzled with oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, wrapped them up and gave them to my dad to put on the grill. Ears of corn wrapped in foil, spare ribs brushed with my dad’s homemade barbecue sauce. The food of family.
I thought this is how it would always be. I didn’t understand that things change. Nothing prepared me for the the absence of family time, family celebrations. Nothing prepared me for moving away from my family or my children growing up without extended family to celebrate every birthday, every holiday. What’s left of my family is spread out, my brothers and me in three different states.
Life cycles around. My brothers now come to celebrate birthdays with their great nieces and nephews. We are making new memories. We talk about things mom said or swap stories about dad. We each have our own lens that we look through. I’ve said, “If we collect each story that we heard from mom and dad, each perspective, each conversation that we remember and piece them together, we may have a whole picture!” I worry that my kids won’t know our history. That the stories will die with me and my brothers.
When I look at this photo, I don’t see a strawberry cake. I see my family, my history, my past, my loss.
And so I write. I talk. I tell the stories. I call my cousins. I listen. I do my part to honor the past so my kids have a history, so it doesn’t die with me. So they will have stories to tell their children.
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