In Backyards


A family gathered under a green and white tent, at a table covered in a pale red tablecloth. They are celebrating a birthday in summer, in a backyard. The photo was taken on August 24, 1997.
1997’s backyard bbq, after singing happy birthday. From left to right: Nonn Ida, dad, Tony holding Matthew, Erica, me, Nonno Sam, Zio Elio, Nonno Bart, Anthony.

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen these tents. They’re icons of my childhood summers. Every August, we celebrated my great-grandfather Nonno Bart’s birthday in my nonni’s backyard, where I breathed in the intermingling smells of grass and tomato plants and the bbq. It was an anticipated family affair. The tents meant a day with all my dad’s cousins and their kids. It meant running to get the soccer ball after we’d kicked it over the fence for the 10th time, swings (before the tree was cut down), and make-believe games.


I can’t remember exactly when we stopped having these bbqs. Various efforts have been made over the years to hold some new version of them, with “Marsillo cousin parties” at beaches, parks, and other backyards or in other homes. But as always happens when people grow older and families grow bigger, it becomes harder to gather everyone in the same place, at the same time without interfering with work, activities, or other commitments. The people themselves have become almost nostalgic to me. We don’t see each other often, but when we do, I always get this feeling of being both in the past and in the present. Needless to say, there won’t be any gatherings of 40+ people in my nonni’s backyard this year. There haven’t been for many years. But I guess our new reality makes everything feel different: before we didn’t, now we can’t.


Just a few weeks ago, though, those tents were dug up from somewhere at my parents’ place and dusted off, before being brought to my nonni’s. The bbq was wheeled onto the grass and my sister, our two cousins, and I devoured zucchini flowers while my dad, uncle, boyfriend, and nonno pitched that familiar green and white canvas on its metal structure. My nonni had been waiting for this since March. To be with all of us again: their sons, daughter-in-laws, and grandkids. My nonno didn’t stop talking the entire time, and even as we were getting ready to leave, his stories weaved between our goodbyes and slow steps towards the gate that brought us to the front lawn and into the car. And though we had all dropped by at different points throughout the past five months to chat with them from the bottom of their stairs (while also picking up some homemade wine, cheese, or dried sausage that was left on the top step for us to grab before leaving), he always seemed a little agitated, a little down. Quieter. My nonno isn’t quiet. He’s a storyteller who likes to expound on the moral of his stories, turning each narrative into a new story, with another life lesson. That Sunday, under the tents and in the garden, picking the fresh vegetables my nonna would later pack for us to bring home, he was finally himself again.


It felt almost normal, though the current moment left its mark: hand sanitizer, no contact, no hugs or kisses when greeting or saying goodbye. Most of all, we were outside. This is the small gift I tucked away inside to fight against the anxiety that threatens to suffocate me when I let my mind wander to how long this moment will last. No hugs, but at least I sat under those tents again. No kisses, but a bag of cucumbers and lettuce grown by my nonno to occupy his time and to feed his family.


Continue reading on Historians Cooking the Past.

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