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A Christmas Awakening

December 9, 2008
amanda-as-baby1

Amanda in 1983

When my daughter Amanda was three months old, we scheduled her christening ceremony to coincide with a holiday visit to my family’s home. We gathered at my parents’ church for the small private ceremony, just our family, closest friends, and the godparents. With all the planning and preparations for Christmas, I confess that I had given little thought to the christening—-other than as one event among many that busy year.

As we assembled in the tiny country church, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that everyone my husband and I loved was present. The minister glowed in his vestments as he cheerfully prepared his missals and the font. Suddenly it seemed to me that time stopped. I could hear nothing of the outside world, but every detail in the church was distinct, each dust mote clearly defined in the sunlight. We were no longer fifteen solitary people—-but legion—-as all goodness coalesced in a sacred place for that instant of benediction. I perceived each word the pastor spoke as a flame—-warmth around which we gathered, just as cavemen must have huddled around fires against the uncertain night. The scene was primal, holy, cosmic.

Bewildered by the intensity of my emotions, I found myself weeping openly as the service progressed. Soon we were all weeping, embracing, and celebrating in a magic moment of awareness of the specialness of our love for each other and our belief that darkness will never triumph. It was a moment words are inadequate to describe, a glimpse into all that I wish to understand.

I am just as moved, even so many years later, to recall this special Christmas–the Christmas when unto us, as well, a child was given. We celebrated more than a birth that took place almost two thousand years ago, more than a ritual performed by mere men. We celebrated the magic of our very existence, and the potential for mankind that faith ever renews.

“Soup Day” Dawns

November 30, 2008

So, there was a slight problem with the turkey. We forgot it in the laundry room and found it the day after Thanksgiving. Thankfully (no pun intended) it is very cold in there, so my husband went ahead and cut it off the carcass to get ready for The Great Soup Day, Charlie Brown.

This is an annual tradition that always makes me feel very righteous and pioneer-y. We use up just about everything that is in the crisper to make this absolutely fabulous soup. Every year we do the same lame things: we claim that the turkey was the best ever. Then we tell the story about my first Thanksgiving as a new bride, when I suited up with rubber gloves to remove the turkey innards from the bird, causing my uncle to laugh so long we got worried. Then, when we have the soup, we say it was the best part of the holiday.

So here it is, my own invention, which I call

WONDERFUL TURKEY SOUP

Ingredients:

1/4 stick butter

2 T. flour

2 T. curry powder (I use Madras mild)

1 t. sage or Bell’s seasoning

1 big white onion, chopped

2 Yukon potatoes, cubed

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 carrots, sliced thin

8 cups turkey broth or chicken stock

salt, pepper

2 cups leftover turkey meat

1 cup cream

1 package frozen chopped spinach

Optional: leftover gravy, leftover stuffing, leftover green beans

Procedure:

Melt butter, drop in onion, celery, carrots, and potatoes. Saute for a few minutes; don’t worry that stuff is sticking to the pan, that’s normal. When the veggies have a bit of translucency and maybe even a bit of color, stir in the flour, curry power, sage, salt, and pepper. Cook for a minute to take the raw taste out of the flour, then slowly pour in the broth. This is the base for the soup, and you need to simmer it with the lid on once it has come to a boil. Let it simmer about 30-40 minutes.

Turn off the heat, immediately put in the turkey, frozen block of spinach, and cream. Put the lid back on and let it sit still until the spinach has completely melted into the soup.

If you have some leftovers that you are trying to use up, you can put in a bit more broth and add whatever strikes your fancy. My family is particularly fond of a bit of gravy in this soup.

What I like is that the turkey doesn’t get overcooked, because you are basically just heating it up, not simmering it for a long time. Also, this is the best use for dark meat ever! It is just delicious.

I hope you will try the soup, and let me know how your family felt about it.

The Crowded Kitchen

November 25, 2008

I do love Thanksgiving. A different love from Christmas, which has a bitter aftertaste—-namely the months of January, February, and March. But starting Thanksgiving week, the world is rich with possibilities. The future beckons, all dolled up with seductive smells and glitter.

Not least of what matters to me about Thanksgiving is the food. Not even so much the eating of the food (although trust me, I’m no slouch in that department), but for the planning—the military campaign mentality that connects me to my mother, twenty years gone.

I guess it was a generational thing. Certain things had to be done, no exceptions. There was cranberry/orange relish, and out would come Grandma Feazel’s grinder. Clamped to the counter, this hulking holdout from The Great Depression seemed totally bewildered in our 1970’s avocado green kitchen. Even after we got the ubiquitous Cuisinart, that grinder made its annual appearance. It was undoubtedly a laboratory experiment of germ possibilities, so had to be assembled and disassembled with operating room scrub-up procedures.

And the oyster stuffing. Every year my grandmother made it using the instructions written in the spidery hand of my great grandmother. I wouldn’t trade that piece of paper for a million dollars, even though my grandmother was the only one who ever ate any of it at the Thanksgiving feast.

The secret weapon of the holiday was the dessert. We acquired this little beauty in 1960, when we lived near Boston for a year while my father attended MIT on assignment for his company. A very close group formed of those young couples, all on a yearlong adventure, and I recall how sophisticated they all seemed. It was that Camelot era, and everyone was young and beautiful. A cookbook was produced (again you can’t have it for a million), and the pecan pie recipe was introduced into the lore of my family. Unlike other pecan pie recipes, there is no corn syrup in it. It is dense, rich, and memorable. It wasn’t until I came into my own as a pretty good cook that I realized that it was basically a pecan tart baked off in a pie shell. It is like eating pecan fudge with a crust. Heaven. Dibs on the leftovers.

I don’t cook like my mother. I am not of her generation, and I have found that if I slap some butter on the outside of the turkey, put it in a very hot oven, and cook it to the right internal temp, it all works out. Probably no little credit is due to the freshest bird in the world, which we buy every year at the “farm” nearby, nicknamed the Yuppie Palace. The birds are moist no matter what you do to them, but I follow the Gourmet Magazine recipe with confidence and it’s always great, no turkey dust the next morning.

So, bird is easy, sides are painless, pies can be the day ahead. And yet, it is wonderfully crowded in the kitchen. I have my own two girls helping, and the voices of the women who shaped me. They guide my hands, my tongue, and my heart all day. I take out the biscuit cutter with the worn, green knob. I remember my mother’s warning not to let the stuffing get dry. My grandmother takes a rolling pin to that stack of Saltines. We don’t serve oyster stuffing, but I can almost smell it anyway. I am closer to my beloved women than any other day of the year.

Oh, yes, and we can’t ever forget to buy the Durkee’s spread for sandwiches. Never, never forget the Durkee’s, even if you have to drive two hours to find a grocery store that carries it. I’m not saying I ever did that, mind you. . . .

Have a blessed holiday.

Making a Cute Gift on a Shoestring (Great FREE idea!)

November 17, 2008

I love that term —- shoestring. This little paper creation came to me when I began to wonder how we were going to give Christmas presents to my sisters-in-law and nieces without any money. I had just gotten some little magnetic paper closures from Basic Grey, and with a vintage button, this is a perfect little something for a purse full of either business cards, or credit cards, calling cards, etc. Here are all the pictures, along with a photo of the template, which is simple and easy to duplicate. For the gluing, first put about an inch of glue along the bottom flap, which you have folded up. Next run a line of glue down one of the folded side flaps, fold the other side over to stick everything down, and weight it down for a minute to dry thoroughly.

Decorate away to your heart’s content with interesting embellishments, photos, original art, or even use recycled plastic. I did line the inside of the top with a pretty contrasting paper, just glued it on and cut around to neaten it up. There’s no reason you couldn’t do this with felt, and embroider it. That magnet is such a satisfying little item, makes it seem so professional.

I realized as I was writing this that I can do a couple of masculine ones for my brothers and nephews! Okay, I am going to say the cliche that we all love so much —- “you are only limited by your imaginations.”

Enjoy, and please let me know how you like this.

The Garland

November 7, 2008

I spotted the prototype for the garland in one of those eminently tasteful decorating magazines. Lovingly situated between two candles in its sedate Connecticut home, the felt and ribbon creation called out to me as a do-it-yourself project.

It looked simple enough—a yard-long white fabric streamer with red checked ribbons attached, the whole thing gathered and scrunched to swag across a mantle. Simple and elegant cherry clusters clung every few inches. This looked easy. A mother/daughter Christmas project for Molly and me.

As with all such visions, the execution turned out to be much more involved than the initial assessment indicated. From one craft store to another we went, wheezing our way through the walls of scent from the holiday potpourri displays. Then to the fabric store for the snowy felt. Along the way we accumulated an assortment of irresistible ornaments, buttons, tiny porcelain roses, and snowmen for the decorations–, each discovery punctuated with Molly’s exclamations of delight. One ribbon down the center looked lonely, so we picked two to layer, one deep red satin, followed by a narrower red checked. It was already beginning to seem a lot more crowded on this garland than the picture.

First we cut the felt with pinking shears. Then, an ironing lesson with fusible web to get the ribbon to stick on down the middle. Another day to make the sturdy gathering stitches, and we were ready to add the goodies. But here we ran into a challenge. Somehow along the way our garland had lengthened to three yards. With this extended goal, our few red, black, and white trinkets began to look sparse and lonely.

I remembered a vintage pin I never wore, and Molly found some Scottie-dog buttons. Suddenly a lot of other jewelry box items were in the mix. There were shoe clips made of cherry-red Bakelite, orphaned glittery earrings, and keepsake red cloth buttons from Molly’s favorite coat, now outgrown. Things kept stored in drawers and boxes came out into the light. Here were the flashy buttons from a dress I gussied up to wear to the company Christmas party. There we found childhood charms, my old girl scout pins, a playing piece from my first Monopoly. We sewed them on in a joyous parade. My mother’s favorite angel pin took its place alongside a scrimshaw charm and a souvenir Alpine bell from my girlhood vacations. My father’s Navy identification disk and a dollhouse basket of eggs marched toward a gaudy red plastic summer earring.

When we finally came up for air and agreed that we had no more to add, the garland shone and jingled. Rich and heavy with memories, it has taken its rightful place with greenery on the stairway, where it will play the holiday lead for many years to come. After a time it will be Molly’s, to give to her daughter.

Molly and I like to sit and admire what we made. Our garland doesn’t look a thing like the magazine picture. It isn’t tasteful at all–it’s excessive and exuberant. We are content.

Does This Seem Odd To You?

October 24, 2008

I can’t work any of the media equipment in our house, either upstairs or down, without access to three manuals, four remotes, my conversation hat, and six beers.

Not one single piece of equipment operates according to its instructions. There are ancillary little boxes and switches on shelves nearby the equipment, lights flashing and beeps beeping, and the DVD player in our bedroom doesn’t work for more than half an hour without a portable fan trained on it. (I discovered this by accident, but you don’t even want to hear that story.)

In short, I am married to an engineer. Wherever he is, there is a dusting of wire bits and the faint sulfuric whiff of metal solder in the air, prompting visitors to query, “Been boiling eggs?” No, just waiting for that ferry to Hell.

Along with the fact that I am married to an engineer comes the additional fact that I am married to an engineer who appears to be incapable of accurately taping the correct episode of anything. We begin to watch the tape of The Mentalist, only to find that we are watching a grainy Hudson Selectmen meeting from 2006, or even better, the belly dancing class on local cable. This class isn’t even campy, let me tell you, somebody paid somebody off to get this on the air.

So today, after (literally) 30 years of this, I asked him, “Do you think this is acceptable?”

“What? I wrote out the instructions and stuck them to the bookcase.”

“Rich, YOU YOURSELF can’t manage this equipment without your calculator and your Boy Scout compass!”

“You just have to read my instructions! I spent a lot of time making those instructions for you.”

[Here is a sampling from the instructions: “Video selector IS on unless Sony TV says Video 1, otherwise will say ‘not connected’. VCR = 3, Video 2/LD also may say ‘not connected’.]

I feel like that man named Charlie who is still riding the subway through Boston. You can just hand me a sandwich once in awhile. I’ll be trying to find the input for the red jack, or is it the black one that needs the yellow hole? Oh, well . . . . see you sometime . . . .

Unexpected Art

October 20, 2008

My college was located in a little town in South Carolina, untouched by the twentieth century. Aside from the students, there were about 60 aging residents, courtly remnants of the antebellum South. It was a drowsy, gossipy, languid sort of place. Since I was a Yankee, which was truly like being from someplace like Tibet, I was treated with polite but persistent suspicion.

One day close to Christmas break, I noticed that an empty storefront along the town’s tidy Main Street had been spruced up and sported a “Christmas Exhibition” sign. With the arrogance that only 18-year-olds (who fancy themselves terribly cosmopolitan) possess, I posed a slightly sardonic question to my friends—-What could pass for art in such an unlikely setting? We crowded through the door and stumbled into a magical world.

Strung on invisible lines at varying heights—-from almost ceiling height to inches above the floor—-were hundreds of fabric-covered, decorated spheres. Large or small, they were each as unique as a snowflake, some lavish and regal, others simple and adorned with only calico ribbons. Some were trimmed in pearl designs with satiny ribbon shimmer. A few were as big as basketballs, others were intricate, small wonders the size of Faberge eggs.

Speechless, we began moving along a marked path through the globes. Some invisible moving lighting made it seem as though we were observing an underwater, otherworldly place—-a solar system unlike anything imagined. There was so much to look at that my brain resented my eyes as they moved to each new creation.

I went back every day until it was time to fly out for the holidays. But all through the break, I thought about those beautiful ornaments. When I returned to school, I dialled, with some trepidation, the phone number of the exhibit’s sponsor. I asked if I could meet with her to see her studio and observe how she made the wonderful works.

“Well, shuah, dahlin’,” she responded. “You just come ovah any time. I’d be delighted to show you my studio.” She chuckled and gave me directions.

I was startled to be greeted by a sixtyish, bosomy matron with a freshly lavender-rinsed hairdo. She was wearing a well-worn housedress and an apron. She looked like an illustration out of one of my childhood Dick and Jane books. With a sly glance, she said to come along for a tour of her “studio,” then threw open the door of what was obviously her bedroom. From behind the door, she pulled out a brown shopping bag, overflowing with colorful fabrics and ribbons. Further down, I glimpsed styrofoam balls of varying sizes, and other paraphernalia.

Mrs. Brennan and I became great friends, and, in time, she generously forgave me for being a northerner and shared many of her secrets with me. I learned so many lessons from her, not least of which was the lesson that artists’ spirits do not depend on trappings, or on youth. I miss her. And while I have often wished I could share just one more Christmas with her, her lessons did take root. My lovely friend, wherever you and your shopping bag are now, God bless.

www.alyson2.etsy.com
www.flickr.com/alyson2

Legacy

October 20, 2008

A million of us have breathed
the clean smell of hot muslin,
have felt it between our fingers,
rich and velvety.

Or rejoiced,
laughing, talking of nothings,
ripe with our unborn,
in the sharp tang of August geraniums.

Some of us fashion quilts not of cloth,
but of memories, or of words,
or of families.

We are thus inherited by our daughters,
quiltmakers all.

To Jean Shepherd

October 19, 2008

The rough voice in the darkness, always on the verge of laughter. I used to love the way he told his radio stories, taking side trips down back roads, only to bring the plot thread home just in time to close the show. I wish I could thank him for all the joy and laughter, and to wish him well.