My family has this wonderful tradition every year where we get together before the holiday season starts to make hundreds of ravioli by hand. My grandmother started this tradition well before I was born. She was the true superwoman that would wake up at the crack of dawn, crank out 1000 ravioli by herself and still have time to get dinner on the table that night. The work ethic that woman had…
My father is no different and no surprise he learned it from her. Once she passed he took on the tradition with only a few minor tweaks. He decided to upgrade from a manual pasta maker to the automated one. As his helper, I was very grateful for this upgrade. No one needs to crank a hunk of metal several thousand times in one afternoon. Other than that crossover to the 21st century, things aren’t much different. My father always starts by preparing the meat. He insists on doing it the night before and will always start without me. Even the years when I plan to stay the night so I can watch him prepare the meat he manages to have it done before I arrive. Every. Year.
It isn’t long before he is forgiven as I remember how long it takes to get the dough to a good consistency and then repeatedly roll it out, fill, and cut the ravioli to pack in the freezer. It is a long day but so worth the reward. We usually have another helper present. The X had participated a few years or one of my 3 brothers might pop in a year or 2. But consistently it is my dad and I that carry on the tradition. I remember a specific year when it was just the two of us. My mother, while she doesn’t participate, is usually at least in the background refilling our wine glasses. But this time she was busy watching my daughter while I worked. It allowed me to really talk to my dad for maybe the first time. My dad was always around when I was young, but an old-fashioned European father doesn’t make time for long talks with his children. The relationship is usually disciplinary, although he is very affectionate and we never questioned his love for us. The only time we would hear stories of his past is when my uncle would come over and he would reminisce about their days as young boys in Tuscany. I loved hearing those stories. Especially when I would hear about my strict father being the trouble maker he was. It made him seem more human to me.
For whatever reason, this particular ravioli day was different. We talked about everything as we worked. I learned things about his family that I never knew. He told me stories about his cousins and his grandparents I hadn’t heard before. We talked about feelings and relationships he had with his family members and why they are or aren’t in place today. I got to know my father that day.
I often think back to that day, but I am particularly reminded of it this season. Our ravioli day this year was a little different. It started off exactly the same – the meat was already done…. But that was as far as my dad could go this year.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of 2016. He went to the doctor to treat an ulcer and ended being admitted to the hospital to test for stomach cancer. Sure enough there was a tumor sitting at the top of his stomach and it had already progressed to Stage 3. The doctors had a plan and we were all hopeful that chemo and surgery would extend his life for many more years. He started off like a champ. He never lost his hair, he barely had any sickness with the first few months of chemo/radiation treatments. His tumor even shrunk enough qualifying him for surgery to remove it. It all seemed like a long road to a happy ending. By the time the holidays hit we could see that our little hopeful bubble was slowly deflating. He was much sicker the second time around on chemo after the surgery. He had lost so much weight since they had to remove half of his stomach. As time went on things got worse and he has more pain every day. Fast forward a year and not much has changed. Chemo didn’t work, radiation made mild changes, and his body can’t handle any more treatments. We finally heard the confirmation from the doctor that it will be about 6 months. We know we are celebrating our last holiday season with Dad now.
We thought last year was our last ravioli day with my father. I took so many pictures and videos. I documented everything he did – although I attempted to do that every year, just was never as successful. He ran the show. I think a part of him thought it may be the last too, but he wanted us to know – he wasn’t gone yet. I smile thinking about it because my dad has always had this fire in him and this tough attitude. Another trait he got from my grandmother.
Even though he was too tired to do the work this year, he would still peek in the kitchen to monitor my brother and me as we attempted our best efforts to make Dad proud. My father still managed to find that fire in him when he yelled at us several times to get started because “Christmas is coming!” (a phrase we heard way too often as kids typically used to get us out the door in the morning). This year he added “not only Christmas but Easter too!”
The day was a success but it was hard. My father wants so badly to still do all the things that he does, especially when it is for his family. He knows he can’t anymore and it hurts him to accept that. By the end of the day he thanked my brother and me for stepping in and doing the work he couldn’t do. His eyes fill with tears every time he has to admit that he isn’t able to do these things anymore and is grateful we can. I try to stay upbeat and positive when he says these things to lighten the mood but it gets harder each time.
I had been living with my parents the last 5 months and recently decided to move out of the house with my two girls. We were first going to stay to be with my mom once Dad passed but it was getting too hard for any of us to live that way. The girls and I have our own struggles as it is starting our new life after divorce and watching my father in pain every day was incredibly hard. The chaos of having two young children running around the house made it difficult for my dad to get the rest he needs. It was just time. And yet all he could focus on was that he couldn’t help me load the truck and move boxes for me. That is the man he is. So selfless. The first time I rented an apartment on my own, he drove over there the day before I moved in and cleaned every inch of it floor to ceiling. I didn’t even know he was doing that. He does anything and everything for his family without any hesitation. He instilled those same principles in me so when he approached me to apologize for not being able to do more I hadn’t even been thinking about it. I was feeling guilty for leaving at such a critical time, and here he is feeling guilty for not being able to carry boxes for me. It took all of my control to keep an upbeat tone and assure him that I was on top of it. I told him repeatedly that it wasn’t his fault and there was no reason for him to worry about it.
I know it is hard for my father to take a back seat in things like helping his children and making the ravioli. But I hope it gives him some comfort to see that his help throughout the years continues to help us in the future. He taught us to work hard and do things the right way. I wouldn’t be so independent without my father’s lessons. Even though I often disagree with my father and we have very different views on many things, I carry his words and his values with me. I am so grateful for traditions like Ravioli Day because it wraps all of those life lessons into one event. Even if this was the last Ravioli Day with my father, I know his voice will be right there with me next year….shouting “Christmas is coming!”