I’ve learned that I’m not really one for rigid traditions. When I was 15, my mom pulled me out of school and took me with her on a trip to San Francisco. It’s funny because the city doesn’t feel the same way it used to, back when I was 15. It felt overwhelmingly gray, lifelessly consuming. I thought very little of it in my clouded teenage frame of mind. We went, stayed the night and made a pasta dish.
We would make this dish often, with the same green can of red tomatoes you could find at any supermarket. It wasn’t at all special. This is how these things start: One day you are 8 years old, smiling and laughing, exclaiming, “This is the one!” to any can of tomatoes with appealing designs on the label. You mom smiles and grabs it, because you are 8, it is Friday and you found a recipe on your mom’s cell phone for a special pasta sauce you wanted to try. Your mom smiles at you with a look that only you and her could fully understand, and it feels like a secret.
Next you are 16, then 18 and graduating from high school, conversing with your grandparents over dinner about what to study and how you feel about prom and where to live. And you aren’t sure. “Everything will work itself out,” you reassure them and yourself. Everything will sort itself out, you tell yourself as the nonexistent plans in the hollows of your mind lie dormant. Everything feels hurried and urgent — and it is — but you don’t realize how much has changed until you can’t remember how it felt to be 10 or 12 or 18.
Because I look around at my family, my friends, my childhood bedroom, the cities I visit, and it all looks so different. The recipe for that mundane pasta dish stays the same, but it feels considerably different from when I was 8 or 10 or 12. “I’m telling you, girls,” my mom will sigh to me and my sister over dinner on a weekend when we visit home, looking disapprovingly at her own hands. “The hands are the first to go. One day you just look down and don’t even recognize your own hands. How could these be mine?” she laughs, forcefully. “How could these be mine.” It wasn’t a question anymore. And I look down at my own hands, and I don’t recognize them either. I look down, and I see two hands that don’t look as young as I feel inside: Why can’t I remember them changing? Did this happen overnight? It hurts to hear my mother talk like this. It hurts to realize that it’s been 10 years since we last cooked that meal together; 10 years of aging, for both of us, and five since I stopped looking at her as just a mother but instead began empathizing with her as a person, just like me.
“Not everything feels like something else,” I reply back to my friends asking me why I feel so odd, asking me if the feeling can be likened to the experience of moving to a new city or not understanding where life is taking you. Not everything can be compared to something else, I tell them, as they, too, attempt to grasp the complexity of this feeling. How can I internally feel so unchanged yet still not recognize myself as I glance in the mirror? Because I am 20-something years old, in the kitchen, my hands dancing between the cutlery and the garlic and the can of green tomatoes. My mind grapples with the longing for comfortable tradition yet is torn with the incessant notion that the feeling I’m chasing has never really been anything tangible to begin with. As I explain, my friends squint their eyes, mouthing words to themselves that I try to decipher in hopes that maybe it’s the answer. But it isn’t, and they don’t know either. Because I look at my hands, and I don’t recognize them; I look at the meal I’m cooking, and I wish I could understand why I feel so disconnected from the dish I’ve coined as my own. What’s so great about traditions, anyway?
I look down at my hands, and I hardly recognize them, but I know they are mine.
But then the water bubbles over, and the smell of the tomatoes and garlic leads me back to the smell of the meals my family and I would make within the walls of our small home. I look down at my hands, and I hardly recognize them, but I know they are mine. I look around at my family and friends, and everything looks different, but feels as it always has. Attempting to exactly caricature something from my past is torture: There is love everywhere around me, even if it doesn’t always look the same. There is love in the streets of San Francisco, found in the most obscure, hidden places among people whose lives are just as complex and horrifying as mine. There is love in the green jar of canned red tomatoes I find at the supermarket, and there is love in remembering the secret my mom and I shared that day when I was 8 and it was a Friday and we cooked together. Love looks different as you age. And that is something worth remembering.