Reader Essay: What I’ve Learned About Aging From The Pasta Grannies
This essay was reader-submitted for our Summer Essay Series on themes of growth, aging, transformation, and renewal.
When I feel lost, I watch Pasta Grannies.
In each YouTube episode, host Vicky Bennison visits the home of an older woman in a small Italian town who tells her life story while effortlessly making a hearty, elaborate Italian dish from scratch.
The stories have common threads. Many of the women grew up working on their family farms, learned to cook as little girls, and married young. Each story has an element of sadness. One woman couldn’t go to school because it would have been impossible to get to and from school, do her farm work, and do homework all in one day. One woman had a sister who couldn’t help on the farm because she was born without an arm. One woman’s husband lost his legs after they were married for only 15 days.
The Pasta Grannies remind me of my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother was born an orphan in India. As a newborn, she suckled on a goat. She never went to school. She married my grandfather very young and had nine children. She was warm and loving. My maternal grandmother was born into an educated family. She went to school until 6th grade, also married very young and had 11 children. She was widowed at 38.
As the women tell their stories, it seems their hardships had been absorbed into their bodies, woven into a blanket that became their skin. The women don’t cry or look sad. They don’t say, “I’m glad I went through it because it made me who I am today.” Each tells her story as a matter-of-fact recounting, almost as if her life happened to someone else, all the while making fresh pasta dough. One woman explains how, as a baby, her “bigot” grandmother separated her from her parents because they were teenagers. The woman shrugged almost imperceptibly. “È la vita,” she said, forming each individual pasta shape. That’s life.
My parents emigrated from India to America in 1969, and I was born in 1972. My path was clear: I had to be everything my ancestors didn’t have the opportunity to be. The difficulties that came from common ‘70s experiences like dealing with racism or hiding sexual trauma could not be obstacles. I did everything expected of me and didn’t waste the opportunities I’d been given because they were crucial to my survival as an independent woman. It worked. I got my A’s and became a professional. I live in a safe, clean neighborhood. My children want for nothing.
Many of the Pasta Grannies are in their 90s, which, for me, is decades away, but I see the effects of age trickling in. My teenage children are gradually separating from me. My elderly parents are on the cusp of needing care. My thinning hair is graying. Although I miss cuddling the kids, want my parents to be healthy forever, and would love thick, black hair, I expected these changes as natural and inevitable.
What I didn’t expect was to feel like a stranger to myself. The unspoken realities of my youth created patterns I am only seeing now. Years of wanting love made me a people pleaser, leaving me afraid of putting my interests first. Years of needing comfort made me run to others for help, leaving me in a position of getting frustrating, unsolicited advice. Years of feeling invisible made me tell engaging (even if self-deprecating) stories to get laughs, leaving me feeling like a court jester. I spent my youth serving the needs of others, letting people feel like heroes as I struggled, and entertaining them at my own expense.
Only recently did I realize what I was trying to accomplish and how I failed. Accommodating people didn’t make them love me. Leaning on people made them tired and resentful. Being the life of the party got attention, but it didn’t mean I was seen.
I wonder how the Pasta Grannies handled their secrets and stages of life. It seems impossible they never wanted to feel loved or safe. Maybe they also feared what would happen to them when their children left, or their husbands died. Surely they cried themselves to sleep at some point. But it seems those days are behind them.
My favorite episode features three friends who grew up together. They begin making the same dish but slowly deviate as they correct each other’s recipes and techniques. One woman jokes that another is looking for a husband. They laugh before the third clarifies they are all widows. Their movements are comfortably confident. Their jokes are light, and their laughs are deep. They know something that I am just starting to learn.
For the first time, there are no expectations of me and I have complete freedom. I could continue to strive towards being a good wife/mother/daughter/friend/professional/citizen. I could ask friends to commiserate as we navigate the next phase of life together. I could share photos of myself on social media, commenting we should all be happy with our looks at any age.
But these options repeat an old, failed pattern. To become the woman I want to be, I know exactly where to start. I need to make pasta from scratch.
Sadhna Gupta Brown designs jewelry and writes emails about ancient art and sexism. She learns Kathak dancing, enjoys heavily costumed dramas, and draws sculptures in hi-fi gray pastels. Her favorite buildings are the Pantheon and Kailash Temple. Sadhna is passionate about girls’ education. She lives two blocks from Boston.