It was one of those dinners you sink into like an old easy chair. There was pasta with clam sauce on the stove, wine in the glasses and cousins from my childhood standing around with the easy familiarity bred of love and knowing what each other looked like in high school.
My brother made dinner, a carry over tradition from the days when my father reigned supreme in the kitchens on Sunday afternoons. Dad had no rivals in his generation. Men left the cooking to the wives. Phil has competition. In fact, my sister refuses to cook spaghetti and crabs for this group because cousin Robbie makes such an intimidating version of it.
This, in our family, constitutes progress towards male/female equality.
After dinner, we all repaired to the living room to discuss the fact that we’d once again eaten too much and should probably be taking a walk around the island instead of sitting on our ever widening butts. Though we never actually did get up and walk, we felt this is an improvement over our parents’ generation where they would not have even had the discussion. The women then would have gotten their exercise cleaning up from dinner (thank you, god, for dishwashers) and the men would have gotten theirs from a heated discussion of which of their teenagers would be seeing hellfire and perdition first.
As we sat there on the couch enjoying our carbohydrate high, I looked around at the well loved faces and noted something that startled me. My Aunt Toni sat there with her daughter, surrounded by her sons, yet looking sad and lost. I wondered why until my eyes scanned the room again and I realized that she was alone in her generation. The aunts and uncles who had once filled that after dinner hour were now long gone and my cousins and I had taken their place.
I can’t help but think that as she looked around that room she had two thoughts. One was a silent thank you to god that she had her family around her, that her children had remained close, that getting together for a family meal was a common experience – not a rare “it’s the holidays and we have to” moment. Yet I suspect her other thought was “Where are my sisters and brothers, my friends?”
They’re gone and the torch has been passed. My cousins and I are the adults now. The cousins running in and out of the house are our children, not us. We are the ones calling out “Close the door”, “When will you be back?”, “Who are you going with?”. They are the ones calling back, “I don’t know.”, “Oh, mom!”, and that perennial favorite, “”I don’t know”.
Through it all, my aunt sat there looking lost. Her last contemporary in the family, my mother, had died a year ago. Some say she’s had that lost look ever since.
I watched her and looked at us and was both frightened and comforted at the same time. I have so many surrounding me that surely I will never be the last.
Yet I still feel like one of the cousins because on a good day I don’t always know where I’m going and when I’ll be back or who I’m going with.
There’s supposed to be a generation above me with that answer. Now there isn’t. And I wonder if my generation will ever be able to give to our children the comfort and surety we received from our parents.
Big shoes to fill indeed. Of course, if we keep up the pasta dinners, eventually we will be able to fill them with no problem.