How COVID stole family rituals in CT, from baptisms to homemade sausages

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It’s sausage making season at the Papallo Farm for the first time since the COVID-19 shutdown began.

At Christopher Papallo’s grandmother’s house on Mulberry Street in Stamford, there are nearly 900 pounds of Italian sausages – soppressata – hanging from the ceiling, all tied up in casing and string. It’s more than the usual load, but it was practically mandatory, he says.

The last time everyone huddled in the garage to make sausages, there was no pandemic, no virus, no impending fear of infection or death.

“We are aware of what we have lost, and we are trying to sort of make up for it,” said Papallo, 33. Papallo knows he is one of the lucky ones. He didn’t lose anyone to COVID-19, just a lot of time.

After two years of a pandemic that has ravaged families, killed scores of adults, and prevented everyone from engaging in the simplest acts of human connection, the question of wasted time haunts people. The pandemic years have stolen more than trips to the office or trips without a mask to the store: they have robbed people of valuable shared experiences.

About 10,500 Connecticut residents have died of COVID-19 since mid-March 2020, according to data from the state Department of Public Health. More than 90% of these deaths are concentrated in adults over the age of 60. The loss has torn countless communities apart, said Richard Madwid, director of Catholic Charities for the Behavioral Health Service.

“When you have masses of people with a life-threatening disease, that’s trauma,” Madwid said. As practice director Catholic Charities, which runs clinics in Norwalk and Danbury, and at his independent practice based in Bethel, he has seen patients struggle to fill the holes created by the loss of family and friends. Some of the people his patients lost were the “anchors” to their families and communities financially and emotionally.

But beyond the dead and families forced to mourn their losses in a moment of mass catastrophe, Madwid sees another, often forgotten dimension of the devastation suffered since March 2020: time.

Among communities, spending time together makes people mentally resilient, experts have said, citing decades of psychological research. As a developmental psychologist, Madwid said he views the regular, repeated time families and loved ones spend together as the foundation for healthy relationships and healthy people.

Family meals, celebrations, visiting new places together – all of this is more than just a momentary joy for people, he said.

“All of these things are important bonding experiences,” Madwid said. And without them, “we have lost the sense of attachment and ties” between the communities.

Developmental psychologists call these “family rituals,” which are associated with a multitude of positive outcomes for children and adults. Five decades of research reviewed by the American Psychological Association in 2002 found that family rituals are “associated with marital satisfaction, adolescent sense of personal identity, child health, academic achievement, and relationships stronger families.

Among non-family groups, researchers observed similar benefits: decreased loneliness, increased positive feelings, sense of life, and self-awareness, according to a 2017 study.

While Papallo said he relishes recent opportunities to reconnect with his family through the old-world traditions he’s known all his life, there’s so much he’ll never get back. His niece was born just before the pandemic, for her part, and she was the first baby in the next generation of her family, he said.

Her first year of life was supposed to be a big party: there would be a baptism – one excuse for a party – and a first birthday – another excuse for a party. In both cases, family members exchanged stories and family traditions while cooking recipes passed down from generation to generation and sipping wine that they all made together.

Instead, the family folded the parties into one and held it outside. It was a party, and Papallo loved it, but it wasn’t the same, he said.

According to Papallo, there is something special, and almost magical, about bringing the whole family together. He gets something from them that he can’t get anywhere else.

“Italians, especially the older ones, you can disagree, you can get into a shouting match if you want, but they’ll take your shirt off immediately,” he said. “They will let you come and stay with them. They will give you a plate of pasta, if you need it.

And then there are the stories that Papallo never tires of. There is no shortage of stories to hear; his family members and former members of UNICO—the local Italian-American service organization he heads—distribute them readily.

“We have a really lovely member, a big older guy, and he’s putting together these books tracing his family heritage all the way down the line,” Papallo said. He takes them out whenever the whole club gets together, but that’s only happened three times in the last year, Papallo added.

But even if every member of UNICO and every member of the Papallo family wrote their own history book, there would still be something lost, experts say. Sally McHale of the Greenwich Library Oral History Project is an expert on precisely what bits of history are missing from books.

“Those are the hidden gems,” McHale said. While history often focuses on significant events of an era and emphasizes the extraordinary, oral history attempts to piece together a picture of daily life through interviews.

McHale has spent decades hunting for these hidden gems, interviewing people with a connection to Greenwich about their experiences in town.

“Oral history hopefully gives you the facts, but it also gives you the story,” she said. And the stories people tell each other when they’re together are oral histories on their own.

Papallo says the stories flow every time he gets together with the older members of UNICO.

“You can’t be around those kinds of people and not just spend hours talking about our culture,” he said. “Where are you from? What traditions did your family observe that mine did not?”

Even two years into the pandemic, with vaccines widely available and COVID-19 restrictions greatly eased, the sharing of culture and each other’s society still hasn’t fully returned, Papallo said.

Either way, he will win the small victories. This year, he’s spending double the usual time with the whole family at the annual sausage casing effort. There was also wine to be made, so Papallo spent hours crushing grapes with his feet, shoulder to shoulder with his family.

They literally jumped in, no matter how badly it hurt their toes.

Together again, as they always have been.

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