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Creating Family Traditions: Our Family Survives Life One Pizza at a Time

The oven is cranked as high as it will go and the kitchen is getting warmer by the minute. I lift the cover off the bowl holding the dough—it has doubled in size in two hours and now looks like an overstuffed pillow. I punch it down, then dust my work surface with flour, a few white puffs lift up into the air like smoke.

It’s 5 p.m. on a Friday. I laugh at myself—I could be sipping a glass of wine on my balcony or putting the finishing touches on my appearance for a night out. Yet there I am, in the hot kitchen, covered with flour, doing what I do almost every Friday.

And I don’t mind.

Before our son was born, pizza night was a sometimes thing for my husband and me, an afterthought if we weren’t too busy. But we were almost always too busy, he the engineering officer on a submarine, me a marketing executive.

We hardly ever ate meals together, except when I would drive dinner over to the navy base where he was either on duty or working late. The concept of “family meal time” hadn’t occurred to us yet—and neither had its importance on our mental and physical health, even though we thought we were killing it at adulting.

But that all changed when we became parents and were suddenly responsible for someone besides ourselves. Our priorities shifted. Yet, we were still a military family and susceptible to all the strain that goes with that (albeit, the same could be said about any family whose life is dictated by work schedules)—we knew that we needed to protect our together time. 

How Our Military Family Created a Special Tradition

But life is not that straightforward and, shortly after our son was born, we moved overseas. The jobs that took us there kept my husband away even more than before. We did our best to eat together, but when you have a hungry infant/toddler/pre-K’er, you have to bow to their stomach’s demands in order to keep the peace.

Friday night pizza became the easiest standing date. But even that sometimes meant me and our son eating the pizza on our own while video chatting with dad who was in a hotel room thousands of miles away.

Then came Africa. My husband became a military diplomat and, over a period of eight years, we moved as a family to embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa. While our son thought life there was “so cool,” he also had to spend a lot of time with sitters as his dad and I worked the diplomatic circuit. That life and the sacrifices it forced upon our son made one thing crystal clear. To protect our family time, some things had to become non-negotiable.

So we made pizza night number one on that list. 

By doing our best to keep that light-hearted, fun evening sacrosanct we provided a constant no matter where we called home—a moment to breathe and just be ourselves away from other demands. And because we weren’t always in love with the pizza we found in the cities where we lived, I began to perfect my homemade version. The work that involved, and the sometimes difficult search for ingredients, was a small price to pay for the benefit we received.

Those special nights were magic during so many hectic years, giving us moments to just be a family, to be ourselves.

When we left Africa and moved to Italy at the beginning of our son’s freshman year, I thought we might see our pizza nights fall to the wayside or at least see my homemade pizza be replaced by the local one. I mean, come on, we were living in Naples, the birthplace of pizza!

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. My son said no, he wanted the pizza nights we’d always had to include my homemade pizza. With all the upheaval that surrounded that move, all the changes that came with it, our pizza nights had become more important to him than ever. They were a celebration of surviving another week, a celebration of surviving teenage struggles, and an acknowledgement of family security. 

As I am stretching the dough, my 17-year-old son breezes into the kitchen. A smile lifts the sides of his mouth. “Mmm, pizza night,” he says with glee, then gives me a quick man-cub squeeze—almost as big as his father, he towers over me these days—and walks back out. Our sweet, compassionate son—I feel that we’ve done right by him. 

We’ve now made it through three years of high school and a pandemic while living in Italy, and pizza nights are still a constant. Yes, I think, there are many things I could be doing that wouldn’t involve me standing next to a boiling hot oven making pizza from scratch, but none would give me the same joy and satisfaction of being on the receiving end of that hug. That hug speaks volumes. 

After all these years, there is still no place I’d rather be on Friday night—and my son seems to agree. I’d call that a win.

Julie Tully

Cowgirl turned nomadic Navy spouse, Julie Tully writes about life, culture, and the places where they intersect. She currently lives in Italy with her husband and son. You can follow Julie’s adventures on Instagram @dispatchesfromthecowgirl and Facebook @julietullywriter.

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