My mom, Ida Purchiaroni Shafer, was technically a senior, but had more energy than some of my friends! She was only 62 when we lost her to pancreatic cancer in 1995 – diagnosed right before Easter, she was gone by July 31st. I still miss her so much…especially at Christmas.
It was if the heart went out of our family…at least for a while. We were so lost that first Christmas without her, but we were so thankful to be able to reflect on all the ways she made the holidays meaningful for us and everyone we knew. Because Christmas meant family, and to my mom – everyone was family!
Here’s how it was – all through school, for the two weeks before Christmas, our house was baking-central. There were usually a couple of my friends there at different times almost every day, helping to make pizelle, and anisette cookies, and cannoli, date bars, zucchini bread…and every other sweet you can imagine. I could count on gaining at least 5 pounds every Christmas. And then, whatever was left after my hoard of friends “sampled” everything, we’d package up and give it to neighbors, friends, and people at church; my mom would even take goodie bags to her work.
Once we were all grown up, our family Christmas celebration moved from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve. And it slowly became know that Christmas Eve at the Shafer’s was the place to be. My mom was full-blooded Italian, and word got around that you could score homemade pasta with homemade sauce and meatballs if you “happened to drop in” – and you better not wait, because it would go fast! But don’t count on the garlic bread because somehow it always got burned…probably because everyone gathered in our tiny kitchen and we were too busy laughing to pay attention to the broiler.
There was food, music, laughter, presents, and games. And, somehow, my mom always seemed to know if someone was a little short on money that year, because these extra presents would magically appear for certain people who dropped by. We weren’t rich - I’d call us very light-blue collar - but my mom would always find a way to give to others, especially at Christmas. As far as the games went, though…don’t count on her to ever play a game right! She was always too busy making sure everyone was happy and fed to pay attention to what was happening in the game.
She always made sure we were focused on “the reason for the season,” so she started reading the story of Jesus out of the Bible when our kids were fairly young. They really looked forward to it, and slowly, she got them playing the different roles…then she made costumes…then the older ones were given a few lines to memorize…then my daughters would fight over who got to be the angel…and so on.
That last Christmas, we didn’t know it was our last. But she was like a non-violent Martin Scorcese. She had my older nephews reading different parts, the middle kids had memorized lines and even the youngest knew his part. And the best thing of all is, she taped it. When we watched it right after she taped it, we were all laughing, because you could hear her directing from the couch.
She gave us the foundation of wonderful family traditions – my daughters and I still have “cookie day” every year, when we bake many different kinds of things and then give them to our friends and neighbors. We all gather at my house for family Christmas, and my husband makes homemade sauce and meatballs (the pasta is too hard when you’re feeding 25 people, so we do fresh store-bought now…sorry mom!) That’s right, I was smart enough to marry an Italian, well, ½ Italian, but he cooks. We still open our house to more than our family…my daughter’s friend from out of town, a nephew’s friend who has no family nearby, and so on.
There are games, music and lots of laughter…and we still occasionally burn the garlic bread.
And every year, we remember the reason for the season, and have a quiet moment to thank our mom for such a wonderful legacy.