If you’ve ever found yourself scrolling online through potential gifts for moms, you’ve likely come across photos of personalized bakeware.
You know the ones. In them, brightly colored casserole dishes and pie pans usually contain some sentimental phrase written across the side.
It might read, “Homemade by Holly,” or “Debbie’s Delicious Dish.”
Well, my mom has one, too.
Hers reads, “Caca con cacita,” which in Spanish basically means, “Poop with little poop.”
My sister bought it for her years ago – not as a reflection of her cooking. My mom can make a crave-worthy meal even when it seems the refrigerator is empty. But that three-word phrase is what my three siblings and I will always most associate with her standing in the kitchen, because she said it to us so often when we were growing up.
It was her standard response to our questions, which in retrospect probably came out more like whines, about what was about to land on our plates.
“What are those red things in the rice?” Caca con cacita.
“What’s in the oven, making that smell?” Caca con cacita.
“What’s for dinner?” Caca con cacita.
I’m not sure when it hit me that it wasn’t the response of most moms. All I know is that once I realized it was unique to our family, I silently willed her not to say it whenever I had friends over.
I knew she meant, “Don’t worry, you won’t go hungry” by it. I also knew all they would hear is, “Eat poop, or nothing.”
Growing up in a large, working-class Mexican American family in San Antonio, there were many things like that – stuff that felt normal when no one was around but cringeworthy when outside eyes were looking in.
I’m sure every person has felt that to some degree when it comes to family. I’m also guessing most people haven’t found themselves sitting in the back seat of a car, in charge of making sure a massive raw pig didn’t roll onto the floor. I recall feeling horrified, convinced it was staring at me, even though I could see (too clearly) it had no eyes.
The head was for my grandma to boil down and use for tamales. When she was still alive, she sat at the center of my family’s universe and always at the head of a long white table in her kitchen. For the longest time, I thought it was made of marble, but she worked as a maid and my grandfather as a gardener, so it had to be some other white, smooth material.
To make the tamales in those day, my mom and aunts would sit around that table, slapping masa onto cornhusks, filling them with seasoned pork and wrapping them like presents for my grandma to cook. It was an assembly line of sorts, if assembly lines involved a lot of talking, laughing and pan dulce breaks.
Now, my Texas family buys their tamales – by the many dozens, so that they have enough to feed anyone who happens to stop by. That number tends to be unpredictable most weeks, but especially so around the holidays, when one cousin might call to say they are coming over and bring eight people with them. Then five more people might show up, and six more after that.
That chaos used to make the holidays feel overwhelming at times. As a child, it meant fetching drinks for people older than me, hiding the presents I valued most, and staying in my church clothes until late in the night, long after the elastic band of my tights had left a red mark around my waist.
As an adult, well, it meant those same things, plus driving from one relative’s house to another, with two antsy little boys in the back seat.
But after this isolating, awful, worry-filled year, I long for all of that: The chaos. The driving. An excuse to wear tights again.
It is easy to miss the feel-good parts of spending the holidays with extended family. But the forced separation of the pandemic has made me – and maybe you, too? – miss even the embarrassing, frustrating, exhausting parts that come with that.
I miss the awkward, awful photos of me that occupy the shelves in one room of my dad’s house.
I miss the affectionate dogs of relatives that makes me keep Benadryl at the ready in case one of their licks sets off my older son’s allergies.
I miss waiting two hours for my sister and her family to show up for our Christmas Day meal, and then debating with my nephew how much butter should go into the mashed potatoes. (He leans toward the never-too-much side.)
I miss the sign that sits in front of my mom’s house each December and nags at me with it grammatical messiness. It used to say, “Merry Christmas from the Vargases.” Then, someone insisted that was wrong, so she taped over the “e” and added an apostrophe.
Now, it reads “Merry Christmas from the Vargas’s.”
It is impossible to know how many families decided not to get together this holiday season. Air travel figures show many weren’t willing, or able, to make that sacrifice. More than 1 million passengers nationwide flew for three consecutive days on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before Christmas.
But if the crowded grocery stores parking lots in recent days in the Washington region are any indication, plenty of people have stayed put, following the recommendations of public health experts and their own gut instincts. They didn’t drive or fly to another state to spend these days with loved ones, even though some had more reasons than ever to want to.
Arlington resident Tristan Fitzpatrick’s grandmother is recovering from COVID-19 and his mother lost her job because of the pandemic. He would normally be spending the holidays with them in Indiana, but he’s not. He and his partner decided instead to put the price of a plane ticket toward lights and decorations, and hold off on traveling.
“It’s the toughest thing to say no to,” Fitzpatrick tells me when we talk. But like many others, as he sees it, “It’s better to sacrifice this one holiday season, so we can spend the rest of the holiday seasons together.”
Most of my family is in San Antonio. Both of my parents live there, as well as my brother, sister and too-many-to-count aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and second cousins.
I have always felt fortunate to have such a large family. But it has also left me with more people to worry about. During this year that has felt like a decade, my older sister and younger cousin tested positive for the virus, my mom lost former co-workers to it and there have been many (too many) scares.
Right now, if we weren’t in a pandemic, my husband, our two sons and I would either be in Texas with my family or in California with his.
We would be adjusting to a time-zone that isn’t ours, sleeping in beds with divots made by someone else and searching for scissors through junk drawers that don’t contain our junk.
We’d be eating the same thing (happily) for breakfast, lunch and dinner: Caca con cacita.
Instead, we are home, missing the good and the frustrating and weird parts of our families, and creating new traditions with our children – ones that will undoubtedly later embarrass them.
Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism.