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The first question you’ll be asked upon arriving at your Italian great-aunt’s for coffee is not “How are you?” or “What’s new?”

It’s “Are you hungry?”

“How are you doing?” and “How’s your day been?” are irrelevant until you answer if you’re hungry or not.

And honestly, your answer to that is also irrelevant. If you say “yes,” you will be presented with a full meal, main course (pasta, naturally) and several sides, along with a dessert or two. You will be expected to try all of it, and probably take seconds.

If you say “no, we just had lunch,” your great-aunt will put the coffee on and lay out a slightly smaller spread consisting of five to six desserts.

Cookies (handmade and store-bought), cakes (handmade and store-bought), pies (store-bought, but fresh) will all be placed on plates on the table. There may also be an ice cream of some sort, especially in the summer. You are expected to have at least one sweet, but two or more is preferred because you look thin. You’ll also be asked if you want something other than coffee to drink. A soda or beer? In this instance, your “no” is accepted, and you’ll happily sip your coffee.

Now that you’ve had a cookie, it’s time for real conversation. Nothing is off limits.

How’s your job, how’s [wherever you live], are you liking it, how’s your mom, how’s your sister, how’s your family? Have you talked to the Italy family lately? And then, the most important of all:

“You got a boyfriend?”

Your answer here also doesn’t really matter, either, because your great-aunt will just keep talking. You’ll get some family gossip about who’s dating whom, and who we’re supposed to be mad at.

“Hurry up and get married, so I can make cookies for your wedding!” your great-aunt says, and she’s not really joking. “But it’s good you’re taking your time.”

You smile and nod and laugh. You take in a story or two about what life was like in Italy, or about your grandparents or aunts. She offers food constantly.

“You want more? You want something else?”

You smile and hold out as long as you can, before going in for another cookie.

Your great-aunt smiles and presses the plate towards you, nodding in approval and saying, “Good girl, there you go.”

It’s a family ritual, practices agreed upon and carried out by generations before you, and will continue after you.

In fact, you’re already thinking about what cookies you’ll be putting out as a great-aunt.

You say thank you, hug and kiss goodbye, walk past the living room where the couches are still covered with plastic and the carpet is without a single footprint (no one is allowed to set foot in this living room) and you head home, full of coffee and dessert and love, and a little guilt.

You want those cookies for your wedding. She’s not wrong.

Erin Vail

Erin is the 2003 West Reading Elementary Geography Bee champion, a TV obsessive, and never not thinking about Buffalo sports.

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