Holiday Memories: An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Xmas at Gramps circa 1976

Xmas at Gramps’, mid 70s: me, Gramps, Uncle Norman, Uncle Connie, my father

While cleaning out my computer files (see last post), I came across this paper I had written for an English Composition class back in ’93. Every time I read it my mind is flooded with wonderful childhood holiday memories. I want to share this with you and hope you have similar holiday memories.

An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Christmas at Nana and Gramps’ – this was the one bright spot of the frigid New England winter season. I’d always looked forward to that one day a year, when all of my mother’s family gathered to celebrate. It seemed like a hundred people were stuffed into that three-story Victorian house, when actually there were only around forty at a given time, since people came and went most of the day. Us kids just liked all the food and places to play and hide in that big, old house scented with roasted turkey and all its trimmings.

Gramps_Xmas early 80s his house

Gramps

I can remember as if it were yesterday: Upon arrival, we stepped into a small but clean hallway entrance, where it was ten degrees colder than the rest of the house because it wasn’t heated (neither were any of the bedrooms or the bathroom upstairs, for that matter). We were greeted by the warm face of my Nana or an aunt as the aromas of all-day cooking filled my nostrils. On a small antique wooden side table to the right of the main door rested a black vintage telephone dated from the 1940s; it was one of many items in the house from another time.

Opposite that table was a tall coat rack, where what seemed like hundreds of coats piled up toward the ceiling and finding yours at the end of the day was like searching for a needle in a haystack. From there we would disperse – the kids (me and my cousins) to the living room to play (they had no TV), women (mom and my aunts) to the kitchen, and the men (father and uncles) to the large adjoining dining room, where they would collapse into the same chairs as they did every year. Mom would head straight to the kitchen where she placed her famous California Eggnog Cake on the stove top. She would then help Nana and her sisters prepare the cold turkey and stuffing sandwiches and various pies/cakes to be served later as a light dinner/dessert.

My father and Uncle Connie would take their appointed seats in armchairs located at either end of the steam heater set below the expansive dining room window. Uncle Normand, one of my mother’s older brothers, stood nearby, injecting the occasional teasing remark that got everybody laughing. They all sat in the same chairs every year, regardless of what time they arrived – it was understood. The men laughed and talked and drank cheerily all night long. Gramps sat in his rocking chair on the opposite side of the room, by the kitchen door, listening to all the commotion, not uttering a word, just enjoying being surrounded by his large family.

Nana, Mom, and the rest of my aunts gathered in the kitchen, mulling over the leftovers of roast turkey, three different kinds of homemade stuffing, and various cakes and pies, all made from scratch. My personal favorites were mom’s California Walnut Eggnog Cake and Nana’s cinnamon pie, a decadent pie also known as “piquin” (pronounced pitch-you-anh) pie, made only from cinnamon, sugar and butter. Aunt Vic would be busy mixing and perfecting her fruit cup made of bananas, strawberries, and other fruits. She carefully monitored the servings – we were each allowed one small Dixie cupful and had to sneak into the kitchen when she wasn’t looking for seconds. 

My cousin Danielle and I picked through the huge bowl of fruit cup to find our favorites (mine were the bananas and strawberries). Later, around six o’clock, the cold turkey and stuffing sandwiches came out and we all ate until we thought we couldn’t eat another bite. Stomachs were bursting by the time my mother would start slicing her special Christmas cake. It was a sponge cake filled with fresh whipped cream, walnuts and brandy, topped with whipped cream and maraschino cherries. She made it only at Christmastime and we all made room for the measly slice she handed each of us. She would stand guard over it to make sure no one took more than one slice – there were too many mouths to feed.

Xmas with Dot Vic Audrey_early 70s

Aunts in the kitchen; Xmas circa 1970

While the adults were busy eating, my cousin Danielle and I would run off to the frosty hallway, find a spot on the stairs and for the next few hours, rummage through old family albums kept on a long side table beside the stairs. They contained pictures of family members we’d never known and pictures of my aunts and uncles throughout their lives before we came along. Ours was a past rich in history and ancestry and we were mesmerized by the old photos. (Mom’s family is so large I still joke that instead of having a family tree we have an orchard!)

Then came time to open presents. A small number of gifts were exchanged between my mother and her siblings, and the rest were given to us kids from our respective godparents or favorite aunt/uncle. My godmother always gave me socks. Every year. And they were some of the ugliest socks I’d ever seen. The only cool socks I ever got from her were the multicolored “toe socks” she gave me in the 70s when they were the “in” socks to wear. Some kids got toys. I always got socks – except for one year when I was in my late teens, she gave me a key chain with my name engraved on a silver medallion. I still have it.

Xmas in Nton c. 1964

Christmas at Nana and Gramps’ circa 1963

Afterwards, a bunch of us kids would head for Gramps’ small barbershop adjoining the dining room. All the vintage furnishings were intact, right down to the leather strap he used for sharpening his straight blades, and barber’s brushes and mugs he used for applying the fresh whipped shaving cream. Here we played in the stuffy but worn barber’s chair, bouncing up and down again and again, releasing air that made a whooshing sound every time we landed on the jagged tear in the center of the bulging black leather seat. There were old comic books in the magazine rack attached to the chair that we must’ve read a hundred times. Then it was back to the kitchen for one more helping of fruit cup before heading outside into six-foot snowdrifts to frolic until our snowsuits were wet and we were cold to the bone. The temperature was always twenty degrees colder at my grandparents’ house but the air seemed so much clearer and crisper up there.

Late into the night, after we had all filled ourselves with food and drink and fatigue filled our sleepy eyes, our parents would load us, the presents, and leftovers into the cars and head home, with yet another year of happy holiday memories at Nana and Gramps’.

Happy Holidays to one and all!

mistletoe1

#Christmas #family #holidaycelebration #shortstory #nonfiction #memoir

Skills Building: Write Your Obit

obit_citizens voice

Source: Google Images/Citizens’ Voice

Sudden Loss and a Brainstorm

Last week I lost a family member; it was a rather sudden, unexpected passing. I’d not seen him in many years but it did not diminish my feeling of loss. I remembered him as a sweet, gentle, quiet soul and his obituary, which read more like a loving eulogy a family member would give at a service, echoed that same sentiment.

Then it got me thinking; in two previous posts I emphasized the importance of getting your Digital Property (blog 1, blog 2) in order so that those left behind when you’re gone can manage your completed (and not completed) works. And then I thought, what better way to up one’s writing/skill level than to write one’s own obituary? It’s often an assignment in writing classes as it provides a sense of mortality and an intimate examination of our lives, as well as our place in this world (or at least what we hope it might have been).

How Do You See You?

What will you write about yourself? Would you include your accomplishments, hobbies and (mis)adventures? What would you leave out? What will you leave behind? To whom will you leave your belongings? Family? Charities? Or just donate it? If you had to do it over again (life), would you change anything? Leave anything undone, incomplete? It’s a sobering experience, for sure; trying to see yourself the ways others might. I attempted this exercise once and found it difficult to decide who got what – if anybody actually wanted any of my crap to begin with – whom to parcel out my “stuff”, some who aren’t in my life all that much and others who are.

It actually scared me, as if I’d suddenly gotten a glimpse of the universe, less me.

Go For It

Be colorful; use apt descriptives and pictures to express who you were in life (like the image above). These days, everything goes online for family to see and they can “sign” an online memorial book. How do you wish to be remembered? Are your stories/works included in that legacy? We’re told to take control of our lives, to own them, so why not own your obit? Let the world see you as the artist, writer, sculptor, etc. that you are, and in YOUR words. Give them an opportunity to revel in what you leave behind.  

Think of your obituary as your last and greatest work, the final piece of the puzzle that is YOU.

The Christmas Card List

I’ve had this poem on my laptop(s) for years. I can’t remember where I found it or even who wrote it, but it’s my favorite  way to tell family and friends what they mean to me. My apology to the author for not properly crediting him/her. If anyone knows who wrote this, please let me know. In the meantime, feel free to share this with your family and friends. I like to print it out on slips of paper and tuck it into Xmas cards. This year I simply emailed it to everyone to ensure timely receipt. (I love to send cards as they’re more personal, but the past several months have been a difficult time for me and I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anyone.)

the-christmas-card-list

Merry Wishes for a Bright and Loving Holiday Season

mistletoe

A Feast of Words for Your Palette

I just finished reading a lovely little book titled “A Feast at the Beach” by Willaim Widmaier. In the book he shares childhood memories of his summers in Provence, France (what a terrible childhood he had) with his grandparents. What I enjoyed most was that he included some delicious, old-world, mouth-watering French recipes that his grandparents served in their cozy cottage in St. Tropez. The recipes made his story come more alive for me while I envisioned the smells, tastes, and colors of the delectable dishes. It’s the kind of book I’ve not read often but enjoy when I happen upon one. (This one was a freebie offered at a recent writer’s meetup, so of course I took advantage.)

Another book I discovered several years ago, titled “How to Cook a Dragon: Living, Loving, and Eating in China,” details the life and food adventures of a Japanese woman (who is also a journalist) living in China. It’s a poignant tale laced with the most scrumptious recipes for authentic Chinese cuisine not seen here in America, unless you’re Chinese and cook them at home. Aside from the food, the story is delightful and a highly recommended read.

I enjoy books like these because they bring together food, family, friends, and their stories. I love to eat good food, share it with family and friends, and write/tell stories. They are the parts of life that bind together families, friends, and occasionally strangers. Not to mention that the authors are generous enough to share fabulous recipes with the world – and I am more than happy to take what they have given and add them to my kitchen repertoire. Language, food, and family are fundamentally tied together and books like these remind me of that. Makes me want to plan a family picnic and have everyone bring a family recipe dish. 

The books I mentioned here also use language (names and ingredients of the recipes, conversations between characters in the books) as part of the story – in these cases, French and Mandarin respectively. Because I also love languages (and have studied/dabbled in several over the course of my life), I see how it connects food to culture and people. It has always fascinated me, the way culture/language develop around the various cuisines of the world. That’s why I like Anthony Bourdain’s shows (on CNN) – he connects food with people and their cultures, and makes the food seem all that much more delicious.

Do you have a story to share where food is the centerpiece? I started writing a draft for a cookbook/family photo album years ago and it’s still a work in progress. But I love that every time I work on it, I’m taken down memory lane and get to re-live so many of the delicious made-from-scratch recipes I grew up eating. If you have a story like that to tell, don’t keep it to yourself, share it. Share it and let the world revel in the smells, tastes, and colors of your life story.