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Home for the Holidays: Finding Happiness Wherever We Go

Facing an empty nest evokes a flood of unwanted emotions.  Uncertainty.  Loneliness.  Boredom.  Fear, despondency, and, at times, complete misery.  My first couple of years as an empty nester have been challenging, especially during the holidays, when all of the feelings I struggle with on a day to day basis throughout the year become nearly unbearable once October arrives.  I miss Halloween nights and my daughter Isabella’s toothy grin as she shows me the swag she’s scored trick-or-treating.  I miss shopping for presents with her in Union Square.  I miss decorating sugar cookies with her by my side, her small fingers dipping into the icing when she thinks I’m not looking.  I miss the first, breathless moment of admiring the tree we’ve spent hours trimming, and the delicious anticipation of Christmas morning, my daughter’s big brown eyes glittering, electric, loving, and alive.

It’s also during this time of year that I miss my European relatives with astonishing intensity.  Nostalgia for the holidays of my youth overcomes me.  I miss Italy, and the markedly different way we celebrate holidays from Americans.

Last year I did something drastic.  I had had it with the American way of celebrating holidays.  I had had it with one-stop shopping at big-box stores, and the angry stampede of people during sales.  I had had it with the commercialism that defines the season.  I had had it with the mechanical visits with family and friends, especially on Christmas day: Someone in my husband’s family is always in charge of organizing Christmas, and each member of the family receives an email with detailed instructions on where to meet and what to bring.  We usually gather in a park—the weather where we live is mild enough during the winter months to convene outside—and I usually insist on bringing ravioli, as it offers the illusion of being in Italy.  We dine at picnic tables covered in vinyl.  Paper plate and plastic fork in hand, we sample dishes prepared by several in haste: salads of iceberg lettuce, shaved carrots, and ranch dressing; potato salad studded with celery and onions; honeyed ham.  Cubes of Jell-O, and fruit salad drenched in Cool Whip.  I would take my wobbly plate and sit in a corner, eavesdropping on unanimated conversations filled with long, awkward silences.  The afternoon would turn nippy, we’d say our goodbyes, we’d return home.  Our time with our extended family was performed with great efficiency, and last year it occurred to me that it was, in a way, soulless.  I wanted lively discussions, days of preparing elaborate dishes in warm kitchens, laughter and music and wine and love.  I wanted Italy.

And so I booked a ticket to Milan.

Looking back upon it now, I realize my decision to spend Christmas in Italy was much more complicated than the dissimilar ways Italians and Americans approach the holidays.  It was the absence of Isabella.  It was the relentless fog and gloom that masked the San Francisco Bay Area and made my hands perpetually cold.  It was the sinking realization that I had sacrificed thirty years of celebrating the holidays with my family in order to spend them with my husband’s.  It was the acute pain of never again being able to wish my mother and father Buon Natale and health and happiness in the New Year.  It was the crushing disappointment the holidays inevitably bring.

I arrived in Milan ten days before Christmas Eve.  The cobblestone streets were ablaze with tiny, shimmering lights.  Lines outside of the many delicatessen shops on the infamous boulevards of my youth snaked around corners ankle-high in snow.  The windows were back-lit, showcasing scrumptious delights, from mousse encased in velvety gelatin and multi-colored slabs of salmon to tubes of fleshy pasta waiting to be adorned with sauce.  People fashioned in fur coats, colorful hats with matching gloves, and knee-high boots darted in and out of the stores and cafes with paper bags braceleting their wrists, calling out Ciao and smiling and laughing.  Everyone was jovial.  Everyone seemed intoxicated by the magic of the holidays, and energized by the anticipation of celebrating them with loved ones from near and far.

My days were full and happy, bright and warm, but one afternoon lingers especially with me.  I was out shopping for food and gifts with relatives.  Frigid rain turned into hail the size of light bulbs that showered down upon the crowds and cars.  It didn’t put a pause in anyone’s step.  The vivacious chatter only grew in volume.  Signore!  Signora! Cosa desidera? shopkeepers called out while women and men and children ambled in and out of dripping storefronts, their arms heavy with packages of food wrapped in waxed paper and tied together with curly strands of gold ribbon.  Their clothes were soaked but their smiles were genuine and on fire.  Their gait suggested they couldn’t wait to take what was in their arms and prepare plates and plates of comfort food for their families for days on end.

My stride couldn’t be broken, either.  I was in my beloved country.  I was surrounded by some of the people I cherished most.  The tight-knit community soothed and enlivened me.

On the day of The Feast—a remarkable, very Italian holiday—I joined several relatives in an apartment outside of Milan.  The rain had yet to diminish.  Leaves crackled under the heels of my shoes.  The night air was crisp, rich with cinnamon and cloves, nutmeg and firewood.  Every time I closed my eyes, I envisioned my family, their cheeks apple-red, all of us sitting around a long, rectangular table festooned with paper whites, poinsettias, and candles.

The door to the apartment opened.  I was whisked inside with kisses on both cheeks and tight embraces.  Pasticcini—tiny, exquisitely-crafted pastries filled with cream, chocolate, and meringue—were set out on the gleaming kitchen counter.  Mulled wine peppered the air with spices, while a pot of mocha rumbled on the stovetop, the thick coffee waiting to be poured into Royal Dalton china cups.  No matter that an enormous lunch would soon be served—I was ordered to indulge in caffeine and sugar before making another step into the flat.

Fifteen of us gathered around the long table I’d imagined.  Uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and neighbors brushed hands as we passed bottles of Prosecco and plates brimming with Parma prosciutto, homemade salami, mortadella, coppa, and soprassata.  Another set of dishes was piled with caviar, salted butter cut into thick squares, anchovies, and egg salad tarts.  We ate.  We drank.  We told jokes and stories, and laughed until we cried.  We recounted fond memories.  We ate more.  We drank more.

And it was only the beginning.

Two hours later, the first course arrived: homemade tortellini with wild boar ragout.  Monopoly, the Italian version of Scrabble, and Bingo were pulled out from the hallway closet while a duck and a roast and potatoes baked with parsley were ushered out of the oven and onto the table.  Music played in the background.  The minutes turned into hours, and still, the flow of conversation continued.  For dessert, Panettone and Pandoro were served to groans and fake protests and giggles.

I glanced around the table.  In my decades in the States, I had become accustomed to three course meals on special occasions—nothing that came even close to this.  Many meals were often eaten on the run—sometimes in the car—or at a restaurant bustling not with loved ones but with strangers.  The rain and cold kept us close together in that cozy and cheerful Milanese apartment, our elbows touching as well as our hands as we reached across the dishes to pat an uncle’s arm, an aunt’s shoulder, a child’s face.  It was so intimate.  It was so beautiful.  It was the best Christmas I’d ever had.

At long last, I rose to leave.  The next day was Santo Stefano, and I was told that more guests would be coming; more courses would be served.  Another board game was taken out of the closet as I said goodbye.  Someone opened a new bottle of wine, while a deck of cards was found in a kitchen drawer.  Not much had changed since I’d left Italy, I thought, inevitably smiling.  And I was darn happy about it.

As we gathered our coats and scarves and gloves, I felt a pang of sadness at seeing the evening come to an end.  And yet I also felt a twinge of inspiration.  Our lives, of course, are what we make of them.  I could be in Milan or Florence or Mill Valley or in a deserted town in the middle of America, and the holidays, and how I chose to celebrate them, were ultimately up to me.  If I could find joy in my heart, I could take it with me wherever I went.  We are, after all, in charge of our own happiness.

And so this year I’m going to do something different.  I’m going to shape the way my family spends the holidays without guilt or shame.  I’m going to take out the recipes that have existed in my family for generations.  I’m going to insist on lingering over meals and relishing each other’s company without distraction.  I’m going to make pastaccini by hand, with the help of some lovely Italian women I have just met, guess where? Mere miles away from my home in California…

And I’m going to make sure that Isabella comes home.

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