Tradition, Family, and Inevitable Smoke

by Allyson LaConte

Ring, ring, ring. I pick up the phone. It’s been a week since our minivan rolled back over the crackling stones of a gravel-filled driveway and headed back home without my sister, and now she is calling with an urgent question.  Nicole’s most recent calls have been to ask how to stop a toilet from overflowing, how much money is left in her bank account, and how to hard-boil an egg.

“Hey Allyson, can you ask Dad how high I should set the oven to make his pizza?” she asks. Her voice greets me with a hug of desperation.

I laugh; my sister may be gone, but her glistening energy still hangs in the air of our home. “Yeah, hold on. Dad’s not home, but I can look through the recipe box.”

I put down the phone and sift through the yellowed cards in the small container that holds so many memories and traditions. Either dust or flour rolls off cards from back in the day when my dad wrote down my Nana’s recipes for pastas, soups, salads, and more. Distinct from my dad’s all-capitalized printing, I find my mom’s left-handed cursive that records more of my favorites. Holidays pass by. Christmas Eve comes and goes with frosted cookies and ricotta spaghetti, and the Fourth of July brings fireworks of flavor with potato salad.  The family and food that have nourished me with joy for years all lie at my fingertips. Finally, I see the sauce-stained card listing the three essential ingredients for Dad’s pizza: frozen dough, mozzarella cheese, and tomato sauce. At first glance, one needs only possess this simple trinity to cook this delectable treat. Of course, the worn-down, wrinkly condition of the card itself indicates the secret ingredients: tradition, family, and the inevitable smoke.

After skimming the card, my eyes finally land upon the magic number: 425. I pick up the phone. “It says 425 degrees!”

“Okay, thanks,” Nicole responds. “I have to go, but tell everyone I love them.” Our conversation is short and sweet, but I understand my big sister’s rush. She will fly over to the oven, set the dial to exactly 425 degrees, and check the defrosting dough on the counter. Eventually, the smell of home will fill her apartment with the cozy warmth of familiarity. Dad’s pizza is calling her name.

In our home, on the nights when Dad makes his pizza, the sound of the smoke alarm always delivers the all-important message that mealtime is approaching. Smoke signals rise from the olive oil that drips to bottom of the warm oven. Dinner’s almost ready, it taunts, as our dad lets us sprinkle the cheese over the cushiony dough. About twenty minutes after the sound of the smoke alarm, the five of us say our prayers, eye the steamy pizza in the middle of the table and mentally claim which piece belongs to each of us.

Amen. With the conclusion of our nightly prayer, a brief competition usually takes place in order to get our favorite pieces of this near-ambrosia. The soft, sweet crust holds salty cheese and rich sauce that will burn one’s mouth if she gets too excited to wait. Each piece is unique in form— some are saucier than others, while others have larger crusts or the occasional “wish bubble.”  Despite their distinct nature, the pieces of pizza all come together to make an excellent whole, just as our family does every night. Everything about me resides in my family: my parents raised me to act as I do, and I’ve experienced the majority of life’s high and low moments with my sisters. The time that we went to Hawaii and swam with the world’s only wholphin—a hybrid of whale and dolphin—, the nights where would play Scrabble on end, and the years that we spent battling my sister’s anorexia – these moments are each just threads that make up the soft, fuzzy blanket of our relationship. Moments make us stronger and bring us closer. They cause us to become part of one another. And moments such as eating a simple pizza means so much more than eating pizza. However, I do not quite understand the perfection and transience of life’s simplest moments until things begin to change.

On the July day that we move Nicole in, the waterlogged grass squishes beneath my feet as we lug in the final toaster. The sticky air of Cumberland, Rhode Island dissipates with the slam of the front door. A chill sends goosebumps down my forearms. The empty rooms and cracked floor in my big sister’s new apartment put an uneasy feeling in my stomach, one filled only by boxes holding her clothes and groceries. I focus on the crinkling of the trash bag that I wear as a poncho—an attempt of humor in an unwelcome situation—as I move about and find ways to make Nicole’s new abode more like home by placing sea glass on her windowsill and covering the tiny table in her kitchen with an oversized cloth. As much as I try, I cannot rid the overwhelming sentiment from the apartment and from my mind: my sister no longer lives in our house. Although I want to deny the scary truth, I have to face the fact that Nicole is an adult. She’s independent and paying her own bills. After years of using a meal plan, Nicole has a fridge to stock and she has to make sure that the oven doesn’t set her apartment on fire. I won’t face every problem with her, and I know that things will be different. When we hug goodbye, I hold back tears.

The car starts to move away and the grimy gas station, Galinda’s, passes by my view out the tinted window that blocks the light from a sunless day. Nicole’s spot in the backseat is empty, and I look over at my little sister Michelle, who’s drifting off to sleep. Her brown curls are frizzed from the rain and her sunburned nose is covered in freckles. Above all, I notice how much taller she is than I am–-her height surpasses mine, despite my three-year head start. As much as I want us to grow, I don’t want us to grow up. I want to stay with my sisters in the same place, together.

We grow up so fast, and I know that I’ll be leaving home soon, as well. Instead of eating around the table in the comfort of our home, I’ll be spending meals in a cafeteria.  Instead of smelling the pizza being cooked and hearing the smoke alarm go off as its indicator, I’ll be having fire drills that evacuate me from a dorm room, and eating pizza that costs exactly five dollars and a quarter. Soon, I’ll stand in Nicole’s place and Michelle will stand in mine, and this leapfrog of transitions never seems to take a break to catch a breath. Everything is changing, and life would be stagnantly monotonous without change, but this is happening too fast.

The night before I leave for college, my family allows me to pick what I will have for my last dinner at home. Though I know there will be many more family meals to come, this is the last one before I begin life as a college student. Many meals in the dining hall will occur between now and the day that I return home, so I am faced with a difficult decision. The answer, however, lies in my educated guess: Dad’s pizza will best help me to hold onto the threads of my family for one more night.

While waiting for my piece to cool, I note that Nicole’s chair, to my left, is empty. She has been living in her apartment all on her own for two weeks now. After tonight, my chair will be abandoned, as well, and my family will continue to sit at the table, with only three seats filled out of the five.

I watch Michelle trace her name into the gritty cornmeal left on the tray and I begin to trace shapes as well, leaving a mark that will soon shake off.  The heart that I doodle with my pointer finger will fade, just as the smoke eventually clears, the apartment eventually becomes a house, the pizza eventually digests, college eventually becomes work, and everything eventually becomes a memory.  These memories, though, will not leave me as I leave for college. Though we’ll be apart, my sisters and parents will remain with me as I crave home’s pizza in the dining hall. And, when I call four years from now to ask how high to set the oven, I know that my family will be waiting with the answer.