Lauren skipped up the steps as fast as she could, with the grocery bags on her arms bouncing against her. A quick glance at her watch told her that she was already ten minutes late. She did not want to make a bad impression but the grocery store she went to first did not have all the ingredients from her list so she had run to a second one at the last minute. She lifted her arm as high as she could with the groceries and rang the doorbell. She heard the door unlock from the inside and watched it open.
“Ah, it’s just my future daughter-in-law, Lauren.” Lauren’s fiance’s mother stood aside so that she could walk through the door. “Come inside, come inside. They need those groceries to get the meatballs started or the food will never be done before everyone gets here. Did you have any trouble finding the place?”
Lauren put on her best smile and shook her head. She had only met her fiance’s mother, Antonia, twice before and the beautiful older woman definitely intimidated her. The word matriarch seemed like an understatement when it came to the Italian brunette. Lauren knew that Antonia was very traditional and that meant that the women cooked big Italian meals for the men so learning the family recipes today would be crucial for the future of their relationship as mother and daughter-in-law.
They walked into the kitchen and Lauren was amazed to see seven cousins already in a flurry of movement. Growing up, Lauren only remembered her family cooking together like this for large parties like a wedding or a family reunion. “Oh, I thought we were just doing a family dinner. I hope I brought enough for the meatballs.”
Antonia looked at her as if she had grown a second head. “This is for family dinner. And it’s okay if you didn’t. Cousin Francesca brought the makings for meatballs too just in case you forgot or got the wrong thing.” Lauren didn’t say anything in response. She was too afraid to say something wrong so instead she just accepted the apron that one of the cousins held out to her and put it on.
Another cousin called to her from the other side of the kitchen and showed her how to stuff pasta shells with a ricotta, spinach, and egg mixture. Once everyone was back to work, the kitchen fell into an easy conversation among the cousins and Antonia with Lauren listening in. Lauren observed as everyone told stories of cooking together in the past and funny memories of what happened as the kids were growing up. It reminded her of when she would cook dinner with her own mother as a teenager before she lost had lost her.
When the conversation lagged, Lauren leaned over to the cousin standing closest to her. “How often do big family dinners like this happen?” She had finished filling the shells and had been put to work preparing the fish.
The cousin laughed. “This is a weekly thing but we actually kept it small this week so we wouldn’t overwhelm you. It’s just cousins this week and Zia Antonia. It’s usually Zios, Zias, and the grandparents with all the kids too. Today we will all fit in the house but usually we have to put out the folding tables and chairs in the backyard to fit everyone.”
Lauren was surprised. She turned to watch Antonia with a new appreciation. As she finished prepping the fish for the oven, she noticed that Antonia would watch the room but kept looking at Lauren when she thought that Lauren wouldn’t see.
As soon as the fish was in oven, Lauren walked over to where Antonia was making fresh pasta for the spaghetti. “Antonia, will you teach me how to make the pasta? I would love to learn your way of doing it. All Gio talks about is how his mother is the best cook in the entire world. If I’m going to be the wife he deserves, I need to learn as much from you as I can.”
Lauren watched as the biggest smile spread across Antonia’s face. Antonia nodded. “I would be so happy to show you, mimma.” She moved over and motioned for Lauren to move in closer. “Come here and I’ll show you the way my mama showed me. I grew up in a little village in Italy called Monte Isola. It was my parents, me, and my older brother, Niccolo. When my brother turned eighteen, he joined the military there and he never came back home again. My parents were devastated and we moved to America a year later. After that happened, my mama told me to never forget how important family is. That is why we have weekly dinners like this.”
Lauren took a deep breath. “I don’t know if Gio told you but when I was seventeen, my mom was in a car accident and passed away. My father left when I was a baby and I never knew who he was. I was simply on my own after that until I found Gio. That was the first time I felt safe opening my heart again to let someone in enough to be my family.”
She felt tears wanting to well up in her eyes and did everything that she could to fight them. “Antonia, I love your son. He’s a wonderful man because of how you raised him to be such a strong family man. I am excited about the wedding not only because I am gaining a husband but also because I am going to become a member of this incredible family. I can’t imagine being anywhere else but weekly dinner here with you and the rest of the family.” Antonia stopped working with the pasta and turned to Lauren. Suddenly the strong matriarch, who never bended to anyone’s will, pulled her future daughter-in-law into her arms and cried. “Lauren, mimma, you are exactly the woman I have prayed for when I have asked God to bless my son. Welcome to the family.”