Aunt Cam was over most every weekend when my brother Chris and I were boys. As a small business owner and retailer, our father worked every Saturday. Aunt Cam kind of hung out and lent a hand on these mornings. To this day, the sound and smell of percolating coffee reminds me of her.
Above all else Aunt Cam cherished spending time with family. Naturally, as we all gathered for her funeral, it was essential for us to remember her and mourn the loss. Just as essential was for all of us to come together to celebrate her life.
It has always been a tradition in our family to gather at somebody's house in the time following a funeral. Folks first stop off at home and get into comfortable clothing. They pick up food. They pick up homemade wine and plenty of beer and who knows, maybe even a pint or fifth of whiskey.
From the time I was a boy, it was my grandmother and grandfather who would hold this event. I remember running and playing with my cousins beneath the tables, in and around the sounds of my uncles and aunts eating, drinking, arguing, laughing and toasting the family member who had passed.
My grandparents are now eighty-one and eight-two, and with Thanksgiving looming, my dad and Barb stepped up to invite everyone to their house. It's fitting that the first born son would take up the tradition. Actually it was perfect.
Barb laid out a platter of salami, capicola, and provolone. “Whoa! Top-shelf stuff,” my grandpa proclaimed when he walked in to see the spread. Barb had gone to Russo’s to get the meat. “I know what you like,” she told my grandpa. Barb complimented the platter with relishes, hot peppers, olives, and more cheese. Others brought desserts and spicy turkey. Grandma made her garlicy potatoes and beans. It’s a simple country Italian dish—potatoes, green beans and tons of garlic, but man it compliments just about any meal well.
Right away I grabbed some meat and cheese and a chunk of my brother's homemade bread, making up a plate for myself and three of my four kids (the youngest is still a baby). As I worked my way around the table, more family members arrived carrying even more desserts, cheeses, main courses.
I made my way out to the garage where the guys were gathering around a foldout table, sitting on folding chairs and lawn chairs. The smell of spicy Italian sausages on the grill served as backdrop for my first beer. Needless to say, we were celebrating Aunt Cam the right way.
My grandpa opened his homemade Italian red wine and poured huge glasses to place them in front of anyone who didn’t refuse him more than once. My Grandpa Sam may be eighty-one, but he isn’t timid. He poured his own serving—not a dainty one, but a pint glass full, the only thing in front of him—and he began to gulp the homemade vino down.
I chose to attack the eight pack of Vivant Farmhouse Ale that my cousin Jacob brought from the brewery. Both the beer and the glass were cool from sitting in the November air. That first sip was satisfying—the subtle yeasty flavors and hoppy backbone stood straight up against the sharp flavors of the provolone, capicola and spicy pepper olive relishes.
Farmhouse Ale was my go-to beer the entire afternoon. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try the homemade wine that Grandpa continued to pour in waves. Nor did I pass on several toasts of the Buillet, a bourbon my Dad picked up special for the day.
My dad and Barb have a nice space heater that puts out good heat but we would have been in the garage regardless. It was a pleasant day for November and we Siciliano’s prefer to do our drinking outside. Also the old man recently put a dartboard up, just like in the old days, and I try never to miss an opportunity to beat him, especially on his home turf.
Later I took on my Uncle Mark, one of the best, and was actually beating him for awhile. During our game my three daughters came streaming out of the house, their pink and purple winter coats hanging half on, half off their little arms, their mom yelling at them from the door—‘Pull those coats on, zip em up!’ They listened to her and pulled at their zippers a little as they scurried off to run with their cousin. Sure it was my job to watch them but I had other matters to attend to. Uncle Mark was staging a comeback, and anyway with their older cousin looking out for them the girls would be just fine.
I’m not sure my girls even knew why we were gathered. I do know that they were having a great time, running back and forth from the cold, smokey garage to the warm room in the house where Grandma and Aunt Laurie were holding court with the other cousins and babies.
Through all this no one lost sight of the reason we were there—to remember and celebrate Aunt Cam’s life. Aunt Cam’s stories. Memories of her and Uncle Pete weaved their way through each game of darts, through all the drink and food and conversation. I brought out some old photo albums from the 1970’s and we laughed at the clothing and the hairdos.
Funny, the people in the photos, although all looked younger, all had changed only a little. And some had passed away. It's the events in the photos that reveal the layers of tradition that make our family what it is, how food and drink is almost always front and center—at weddings and funerals, on trips Up North, during Saturday morning coffee sessions, at Sunday dinners, dart and ball games, reunions and trips to the beach.
And through it all was Aunt Cam, the person for whom we were gathered. We miss her and we wish her peace, and that day we celebrated her life the right way, the way we celebrated the aunts and uncles, the grandmothers and grandfathers who had passed on before her.
We hope she smiled down on us and approved of the gathering. If I know Aunt Cam, she was happy with the party.