Cannelloni was my grandma’s love language. Then, the pandemic hit

December 24, 2021
Cannelloni was my grandma's love language. Then, the pandemic hit
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This First Person column is written by Jessica Magonet who lives in Vancouver. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

On Valentine’s Day, one of the people I love most in the world told me she loved me for the first time. That person is my 96-year-old grandmother. 

She lives on the other end of the country, which often felt like the other end of the world during the pandemic. We did not see each other for over a year due to COVID. This was the longest we had ever been apart.  

I could have missed the “I love you” if I hadn’t been paying attention. My grandmother slipped it in casually at the end of a call. I was so surprised I almost didn’t answer. Her words left me silent and stunned. But I pulled myself together and told her I missed her and loved her too. And then I hung up and texted my cousins. 

Me: Grandma just said “I love you” to me for the first time. I’m shocked. I always tell her I love her, but she just says: “the same thing to you.” 

Alex: OMG, hilarious but true. 

Lauren: When I tell Grandma I love her, all I ever get is a thank you!

Alex: She must really miss you. 

She did. 

Initially, it was the deluge of voicemails. After the pandemic hit, my grandmother started calling me all the time. She would call while I was working when I couldn’t answer, so she would fill my mailbox with voice messages about recipes. “Jessica, this is very important,” the messages would begin. “You need to make pizza tonight. Call me, and I’ll give you my recipe.” 

I would call her back and of course she couldn’t read me the pizza recipe she had scrawled decades ago on a now-crumbling index card, because my grandmother has very limited vision. But she could instruct my mum to email it to me. 

This was not the first sign.

Jessica Magonet, right, with her grandmother on her 90th birthday in Montreal in 2015 (Jessica Magonet)

I never doubted my grandmother loved me before her monumental Valentine’s Day announcement, though it meant the world to me to hear her say those words aloud. I hoped they would open the door to more honesty and intimacy in our relationship.

But I’ve always known she is one of the people who loves me most. The feeling is mutual. I treasure my childhood memories of spending time with her, riding the Montreal metro, visiting La Ronde, cooking in her kitchen. When I was eight, my parents split up, and my mum and I moved in with my grandparents for a while. I remember the school lunches my grandmother carefully packed for me. Pasta fagioli, meatball sandwiches, minestrone. I remember Sundays in her dining room, sharing gnocchi with tomato sauce. Her love anchored me during an extremely difficult time. 

My grandmother has always shown her love through actions rather than through words. By actions, I mean cooking. Her parents immigrated to Montreal from Casacalenda, Italy, and she has kept the tradition of Italian cooking alive in our family. 

This is the cannelloni that Jessica Magonet prepared with her grandmother’s virtual help for Christmas 2020. (Jessica Magonet)

My grandma, the cannelloni hotline

Last Christmas was the first Christmas I had ever spent without my grandmother.

She usually cooks an Italian feast for our family on Christmas Day. Although we couldn’t gather last year due to pandemic restrictions, she still made sure everyone enjoyed her famous homemade cannelloni for Christmas supper.

She bought me a pasta maker and spent the days leading up to Christmas Day on FaceTime with her children and grandchildren, advising us on the texture of the pasta dough and the thickness of the béchamel sauce. Often, the line was busy when I called for help because she was discussing the recipe with someone else. “Grandma,” I told her, “you’re a cannelloni hotline!” 

It was also the first time I had made cannelloni alone. I had always made it with my grandmother, my mum, my uncles, my cousins — one person stirring the tomato sauce, another rolling out the dough. I knew how to make parts of the recipe but had never learned how it all came together. With my grandmother’s help, I cracked the code. 

I thought the “I love you” my grandmother gave me on Valentine’s Day, prompted by our long pandemic separation, would be a one-time event. I was wrong. I call my grandmother all the time to talk about recipes. 

She tells me she loves me nearly every time we speak.


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