GIRL TALK

Our family’s ‘firsts’ create memories that bring lasting joy and comfort

CLARE

Our lives are full of “firsts.” Our first kiss, our first crush, our first breakup. For some of us, there’s our first marriage, and maybe even our first divorce. Then there are our kids’ first steps, their first Christmas, their first day at school, and the first child’s graduation from elementary, high school and college.

The list keeps going: the first child’s marriage, our first grandchild.

But aswe age, sorely so do our firsts — the fun ones, anyhow.

Forme, this is the first holiday season I will spend without my mom in my life.

Any holiday after losing a loved one is difficult and sad amid the wonderful warmth of a meal to give thanks in November, the bright shiny lights of a sparkling Christmas tree in December, and the promise of new things to come in January.

Like most people my age, I have experienced the loss of precious loved ones MARIE CELANO before: my father in my youth, my beloved sister 15 years ago and my ex-husband five years ago.

And the loss and the sad memory of sitting at our holiday table the first year without them is still fresh and vivid.

But this loss, this holiday season, is different.

This is the absence of my mom, who was the most pivotal person in my life.

Mymomwas a part of every single Christmas in my life and my kids’ lives, and her absence will be no less than deafening as we gather around the holiday table on Thanksgiving, as we unwrap colorfully wrapped Christmas gifts, and as we toast the upcoming new year.

I knew this was coming. I told myself, “Concentrate on the family, the grandkids, the light they all bring to your life.”

But real life enters our world whether we want it to or not, and even if we are expecting that reality to hit us, it never seems preparation enough. And with holiday decorations and Christmas trees on display in stores, it is impossible to hide from all of it.

On my daily stop to the supermarket last week, I came across a reality. It seems so simplistic, yet so evocative at the same time.

Looking for some fresh produce, I saw it: the hill of holiday walnuts, chestnuts and silver nutcrackers staring at me.

I felt the tears well up, while trying to squash the need to let it out, as I recalled memories of my mom roasting holiday nuts when I was a child and creating the world’s best fruitcake. Honest.

My mom was big on fresh things for the holidays, and she spent year after year cracking nuts for her famous fruitcakes. I remember in my own youth, stirring the sweet thick creamy batter with a large wooden spoon and folding in the colorful cherries, dates and bright citrus fruits (which I always managed to pick out because I hated the taste). And all those nuts. She didn’t buy shelled anything. We were the shellers, my sister, brother and I. Wrapped in Christmas aprons, we cracked and cleaned off each little brown walnut, hazelnut, Brazil nut and almond.

Then she’d chop or sliver them all. After wrapping them in linen soaked in some kind of liquor, brandy I think, we’d wait for them to dry and then wrap the heavily laden fruit and nut confections, probably at least 50 of them, in wax paper. Next, we topped them off with colorful Christmas wrapping paper and festive red bows, and mom would take them in baskets to everyone’s home we visited during the holiday season, along with her honey-glazed struffoli and tasty butter cookies.

I hadn’t thought about those fruitcakes for years, not in terms of my part in it, anyhow.

Butwhen I saw that display of holiday nuts, the days spent as a child making those cakes and lots of other baked goods in a very tiny kitchen in a Brooklyn first-floor apartment, it all came flooding back.

Christmas was always a big deal in our Italian American household, and as any Italian knows, in addition to conversation around a holiday table where we all talk over one another, food is an essential ingredient of the whole event. My mom would do the fried fish for the Christmas Eve vigil, and then came the Christmas Day feast with antipasto; sauce that simmered aromatically for hours and hours, then was layered over lasagna and meatballs; hot veggies; breaded mushrooms; salads; and plenty of mom’s homemade hot crispy zeppoli. Add to that list the collection of pies — all homemade — and her trademark fruitcake, and throw in a few Italian pastries from a nearby bakery, and you have the makings of what I like to call the “Italian Carbohydrate Hangover” the morning after.

Although it had been many years since my mom had turned out her trademark fruitcake, she still managed to whip up the family zeppoli annually, even up to the year before last, whenmy daughter guided her up to the stove in her wheelchair and stood her up and let her work five minutes at a time to make the tasty creations we had grown to know as part of our Christmas tradition for eons.

Beautiful memories.

As I continued to think about the oddity of remembering the baking in my youth, my daughter called me the next day to relay that she had a similar experience when she saw the newly installed display of holiday nuts in her supermarket. We shared our stories and got a bitweepy. I tried to ease the sadness, not really knowing how.

I called her back in five minutes to tell her not to be sad but to be joyous that we are so blessed to have so many beautiful memories of my mother and the years of holidays with her at the helm. Many families do not, I told her.

I don’t believe in coincidences, at least not anymore. Every experience is for a reason.

I know now that although my mom will not be seated at the head of the table this year for the holidays, her spirit will be seated next to each and every one of us as we gather together to enjoy our family, the food and the memory of all that once was.

And because of the legacy she has left behind, we will continue to make a new generation of beautiful memories that she has inspired.

Thanks, Ma.

Contact Clare Celano at ccelano@gmnews.com.