Did you know I am 25% Italian? Probably not. I talk about my immediate family a lot but never much about our origins and history. I am primarily Irish and most of my relatives are on the Irish side. But I have one aunt on the Italian side who is my mom’s sister, Ann.

Ann is 77 and lives alone, never married and no kids. She has never had any major health problems and only just needed a hip replacement 2 years ago. Because she is alone, she needed a lot of help and my sister took on all of her care at that time because our parents were both laid up themselves. I look after them on weekends. To help my sister out, we set up a phone rotation to ensure one of us kids was calling my aunt every few days to check in on her. I have kept this going and call her every other Friday night when I am driving to the Cape.

My aunt is a complicated woman. It’s very hard on my mother. They grew up in the same house with the same problems but took drastically different approaches into growing up. My aunt was petulant, stubborn and always talked back. My mom kept her mouth shut and got along. My aunt and her mother fought all the time but my aunt didn’t move out until their mother died. My parents helped her figure out how to do it. My aunt also wouldn’t get her license until her late 40s so she needed rides anytime she needed to leave her town. My mom was married at 21 and living in Oklahoma where my dad was stationed before Vietnam. By the time their mother died, I was around and a year old. I could relay years of stories about my mom and my aunt but it’s not really my story to tell. I just know who my aunt is, that she is hard to deal with and understand.

Growing up, whenever I was being difficult my mom would threaten that I would turn out like this aunt or my dad’s sister – another complicated person with a bevy of undesirable behaviors. I was terrified of that. I knew I was a screwed up kid and I could see the outcomes of my two aunts. I grew up dreading growing up as I didn’t think I had any hope of a normal life. I didn’t want to grow old unmarried and bitter. Here I am unmarried and trying not to be bitter.

Anyway, I love my aunt. She’s just had a tough life and didn’t come equipped with the mental tools my mom has. It happens. If my aunt were growing up now, she’d get support and probably be ok. But mental illness grew untended in her generation. She is someone with valid, deep psychological wounds that didn’t get help because no one did in her day.

When we talk, we often start out speaking of my nephew and any recent visits either of us has had with him. Then she runs down all the celebrity news she has from tv or Trump’s latest gaffe. About the time I am a few exits into route 3 and maybe an hour out from my parents’ house, she starts delving into parts of her childhood. I have been learning a lot about their family through her lens. And while vastly different from how my mom views the world, I am learning about the landscape of mom’s life in ways my mom has never shared. I know my grandfather died when my mom was very young and that it was just the 2 girls and their mom. Their mom was pretty strict and argued all the time with my aunt. She made the girls have terrible haircuts they hated when they were young. That’s about what I have known from my mom.

Last night we were talking about how she and my mom are not adventurous with food and have always been very picky. She started telling me what they ate for dinner when their dad was still alive. Pork chops, steaks, pasta. They would each have their own steak. My aunt and her dad shared salad because my mom and her mom didn’t eat salad. If it was pork chop night, everyone had 2 pork chops. When they had pasta my grandmother made a sauce that cooked all day and filled the house with delicious aromas. On Saturdays they would go to the bakery and get snowflake rolls fresh from the oven which they would use for hamburgers later that night – 2 hamburgers each. They also bought a lemon tart and a blueberry cake. On Sunday’s they would go out and buy potato chips and a quart of Brigham’s ice cream which they would take home and eat for an afternoon snack. They ate a lot of food. Every day focused on large meal preparation and large portions of food.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother stopped cooking. They ate out several times a week instead. Then they had their standard places they would visit, their “go to” meals. My mom always ordered a tuna fish sandwich and they would fill up on desserts every time.

As my aunt was going through this list, my childhood dinner table appeared in my mind. Dinner staples at our house were steak, pork chops, pasta, lasagna and chicken. Every meal was huge. We had “seconds” meaning there was always enough for everyone to have a second round. Most of the time pasta sauce was meat and tomato sauce from a can. But every once in awhile on a weekend, my mom would make her mom’s sauce and I would salivate at the smell of impending dinner. In fact, I am going to ask my mom for the recipe this weekend. There were always “bedtime snacks” of cookies, ice cream – whatever dessert we wanted before bed. Eating out was more of a special occasion. We didn’t do that often as a family of five. But there was Sunday breakfast and we did go out a lot for that during the years my dad was working full time during the week and bar tending on weekends. If we didn’t go out for Sunday breakfast, dad would get donuts or fresh bagels from a nearby bakery.

When things went wrong when we were young, there was food. My mom baked a lot back then. She decorated cakes beautifully. She baked cookies and brownies for around the house. When she worked part time at the grocery store, she frequently brought items home from the bakery. When we went food shopping with Mom, we each got to get a candy bar in the checkout line. We also had a lot of control over what she bought – pop tarts, toaster streudels, Cinnamon Crunch cereal – absolutely nothing healthy. Sometime around my early teen years, the dynamic shifted and dad took over the grocery shopping. No more pop tarts. And lots of stir fry dinners.

In my 30s, when I found out my dog, Emmett, had a brain tumor I came home from work the next night to my dad making homemade macaroni and there was dessert. When I had to put Emmett down, the whole family came together and we went out to dinner, had a feast, drank and got dessert.

The way we ate growing up and the way I have eaten on my own as an adult is the way my mom grew up with food. And it’s not as simple as it just being sad comfort. First, it was celebratory in nature as that is how they celebrated being a family. When their father died, food became solace. My mother never had emotions – good or bad- which didn’t involve food as a treatment. We prepare elaborate meals to celebrate family when we are all together. We go out to eat when we are bored or sad about something. We get dessert when it’s been a bad day; of which there have been many in the past 5 years.

I have been very wrapped up in my food and body journey since I was about 12 years old. I take responsibility for my choices with both food and alcohol. It’s always been about what I put in my own mouth. Nobody did this to me once I was old enough to live on my own. It’s just that I find it fascinating the way my mom’s dinner table looked so much like my own growing up – just how generational food really can be. I mean, when I had to go through group therapy before weight loss surgery we learned about generational changes related to food and how history and economy shaped family choices going forward. So it made sense how I got fat and why my parents also struggled with food. I just never realized my mom and I shared so many similarities and how she brought her childhood to our dinner table.