Freeing the voices in my head

Posts tagged ‘Christmas’

My Best Christmas Gift

Kinda sounds like one of those “What I did on My Christmas Vacation” reports we used to be forced to do in school, right?  Do they torment kids like that these days?  I could rehash a few for you.  “I got phew-ammonia and puked in the hamster cage.”  No?  Okay, how about the time we drove home from Endicott, NY to Schenectady, NY inna blizzard and Daddy hit a deer?  The deer was fine, got up and walked away, but we spent Christmas night inna ditch?  Mmm, nope…ooo, I know!  We survived the Ice Storm of ’63!  Or was it ’68?  Anyway, we went sledding on cookie sheets down the frozen drift – from my brother’s second-story bedroom window to the street!

And no, I didn’t see the Christmas Star or an angel…  My Christmas Star is a man.  He’s a Merchant Marine – civilian sailors, the guys on oil tankers, dredges, tug boats, non-military (most of the time) – and my husband.  His work schedule was often unpredictable.  He could be out for three months, home for one, or be called back to the ship after only a week home.  Holidays had to be as fluid as the ocean.  Quite often, our kids’ best Christmas gift was a phone call from Daddy, full of static and short because ship to shore calls were extremely expensive.  (This was twenty-plus years ago – long before computers, cell phones, all the toys that we take for granted today.)

Yet, somehow, Randy managed to make Christmas special.  His voice lifted our spirits and reminded us we were loved.  When he could, he would mail a letter or card.  A few times, he shopped early and hid the presents, just in case he wouldn’t be home on Christmas morning.  He once hid them under a huge pile of clothes I was supposed to wash and then take to the Salvation Army store.  He forgot to tell me they were there.  I was busy and never got around to doing that laundry.  We found those gifts three months after Christmas.

One year, when we lived in upstate New York near Syracuse, Randy’s ship was dredging sand along the East Coast.  Normal people would ask why we didn’t go visit for a day or why he couldn’t drive home for a weekend.  “New York City’s only four hours away.  Why don’t you take the kids down to the Port there and visit him?”  Hmm, sorry, no, it doesn’t work that way.  Merchant mariners may not be military, but they operate along the same guidelines.  I could explain it to you, but this is a blog, not a book.

And, yes, it was depressing knowing he was that close and we couldn’t be together.  My little sister and her husband visited us that year.  I had people I loved in my house, their sweet toddler was a living doll our little girl was enjoying babying and our boys were teaching naughty tricks to, we had laughter, presents, good food, and, I was lonely.  My husband wasn’t overseas that year, he was in the same state, and we couldn’t have him with us.  He hadn’t even been able to call us, which pissed me off because he could have used normal phone connections instead of a marine operator.

The weather was lovely – fresh snow, cold but not frigid, and a sunny Christmas morning.  My sister and I were making French toast for breakfast, still in our pajamas and robes because in my house, no one gets dressed in real clothes until noon on Christmas Day.  Christine’s husband looked out the window and asked, “Do you know anyone who drives a white van?”

“No.  Why?”

Jeff pointed outside.  “He’s in your driveway.”

At eight o’clock on Christmas morning, after being up until dawn wrapping gifts, I had the brain function and curiosity of a dust bunny.  Christine had helped me, but managed to be a chirping chickadee – god, how I hate morning people.  She was also more of a city girl than I and instantly alarmed at the sight of a plain, unmarked, paneled white van skulking up my driveway (visions of kidnappers dancing in her head).  “Where are the kids?  Call the police.  Jeff,” she prodded her husband, “is your gun in the car?  Put on your boots, chase him away!”

I yawned.  “Sweetie, Chief Willy lives two houses down and is probably still asleep.  It’s a small town, everybody knows everybody else.  They’re someone’s relatives, using my driveway to turn around.”  I flipped the bread in the pan and heard Jeff say, “Huh, he parked.  He’s getting out!”  Dear Jeff, the most open, honest, heart-on-his-sleeve guy, and I heard the lift in his voice.  Something had just made him very happy and Christine squealed with joy.

I whipped around and ran to the window.  By that time, the driver had the back of the van open.  Jeff scrambled to shove his feet in his boots as the driver unloaded boxes and bags.  I knew the curve of that strong back, the tilt of that beloved head…I beat Jeff out the door, dashing through the snow in my slippers, and was caught up in a hug that nearly crushed my ribs before I crashed into the side of the van.  I have no memory of going back inside the house, I think he carried me because my feet were turning blue and Jeff carried all the gifts.  I do remember that kiss – one that hurls fireworks down into your stomach and buckles your knees, a kiss that requires your love to hold you upright because you no longer have any bones in your body.

The ship had been put in dry-dock for a quick repair at New York City Harbor.  The captain gave Randy 24 hours off the clock, just enough time…  Randy asked if he could borrow the port captain’s van to make a trip home.  He stopped at a 24-hour Kmart outside the city and bought what he could with the cash he had.

After the excitement of kids climbing all over Daddy and ripping into the gifts he’d brought, we settled into the rest of the day and enjoyed our Christmas feast.  In the afternoon, my sweet sister and her dear hubby giggled and winked and bundled up children.  “We’re taking them to the park to go sledding!” they called out.  I think Randy and I were upstairs before the back door slammed shut.

Cuddled together, beginning to hear the happy voices of our loved ones returning home, Randy whispered, “I didn’t get you a gift.  I’m sorry.”

“Silly man, I have the best gift of all, right here.”






Red Car, Blue Car

I did it again today.  I have a legitimate excuse because I’m running about on two hours of sleep, a middling-to-high fever, not much solid food in the past two days, but I HAD to get some Christmas shopping done.  I’m using the mind over matter method of healing – I do NOT have bronchitis, there is no money for doctors (After the fiasco last year, I’ve vowed to go to a doctor or hospital again only if I’m DEAD!), it’s Christmas, stupid Body, so, behave!  Except excuses don’t wash; I done this before when healthy, rested and normal.

I tried to get into the wrong car.

I love cars.  So does hubby.  Our respective Love affairs began in our teens.  Randy (hubby) lucked into the Pink Lady, a 1964 pastel pink Thunderbird with white vinyl roof.  Sweet car for a 1970s high school kid and bought with money he earned working two jobs while still making Honor Roll every semester in school.  My dad worked at a car dealership and got me my first car.  It was a 1971 LTD Ford station wagon, seven feet long, a lumbering hunk of metal, and, important for Dad, rated a safe family car.  In 1976, the Black Beast got me and my best friend cross-country and back, was our shelter when the tent we brought turned out to be rotted through from the previous year’s banana food fight, but I gladly traded it for the first car I fell in love with – a 1969 Buick Skylark Sport Coupe, gold with a rag top, 350 horsepower V-8 engine, and automatic stick.  Lark could do 120 mph down the Thruway, her engine singing a solid middle C the whole time, but we only tried that once, honest!  She had over 200,000 miles on her and ran great when we gave her to my mechanically-challenged mother.  Lark died the next month, never to run again.

We grew up, married, went through more cars, and knew we had “made it” when we bought a Lexus.  Very nice, dependable car and at 99,000 miles the only thing wrong with Beauty was the power control or computer thing died for the driver’s window.  (Yes, I named all our cars.)  The kids enjoyed our largesse and their dad’s quirk of getting a different car every three years.  Brian received a 1965 emerald green Mustang.  “Needs work, runs good!”  Ripped upholstery, a steering wheel that might (and did!) come off while you were driving, cracked windshield, manual steering, manual brakes – Yikes!  But, ah, when you hit the gas, the Green Bitch GROWLED her way out into the world.  Me and a ton of steel roaring down I-10 at 75 mph; you betcha nobody got in our way!

This past year, we traded in two cars (yeah, bonus checks helped).  Hubby got a silver Dodge Challenger, loaded, powerful, great car.  A bit intimidating to me – it was a lot bigger than my sweet little Baby – a blue G37 Infiniti.  I loved my car, I knew how everything worked and could program the GPS.  And then, he saw IT online and said, “You like Audis, right?”  Oh no!  I hurried into the office.  “Yes, I like Audis.  No, you cannot trade my Infiniti for one!”  (He got our younger son an older Audi A8, black, of course – Jim rarely acknowledges any other color – 200,000 miles, running great, full of luxury; I like that car, too, but…)  I stamped my foot, I pouted, I got in the passenger seat of my baby and allowed hubby to take us to the Audi dealership.  We (Baby and I) were doomed.

Hubby liked a white four-door Audi A6.  We test drove it and, eh, blah…mind you, I was still pouting, determined to hold tightly to my sporty blue darling.  And I loathe white cars.  The silver two-door A2 was almost identical to my G37, so why trade into the same kind of car?  We stood outside, me caressing Baby’s hood while the salesman tried to tempt us (me) into buying something.  Key in hand, other hand on driver door, casual and relaxed, hubby said, “Where’s the red A4 that was online?”  He grinned at me.

Yep, truly screwed.  The bastar-er-sweet man knows me well.  Hit my visual buttons – colors, jewel tones, dark, luscious blues, greens, reds…I sighed in relief when the salesman answered, “That’s out on a test drive.  Would you like to wait?  We have coffee and cookies – oh, here it comes!”

She purred into the lot with a tight turn and flirty swing, bold, sassy, gorgeous.  Her grill was a saucy grin, her slanted headlights sporting tiny under-liner lights.  Baby was adorable, SHE was sensual, glam-rock haughty, and I clenched my fists, knowing I was beyond tempted by this bright red siren with her flash and class.  “It’s a four-door, it might be too big for me, I don’t need a big car, I don’t want–”

“Let’s test drive it,” the traitor insisted.

The dealer drove us to a park with a long road that looped back around to the main highway.  It reminded me of a racetrack – perfect to prove a big four-door couldn’t maneuver as well as Baby.  I sat in the back when hubby drove, pretending I wasn’t impressed with the comfy seats, the smooth ride, the fact that I wasn’t getting sick (I usually get motion-sick in the back seat of cars).  When my turn came, I drove her like the men did – hit fifty-five and owned that curving loop.

I giggled.  And tried to stop giggling.  Giggled some more.  She was fun!  She was so much fun to drive that I knew I had screwed us out of getting any kind of discount.  No one giggles on a test drive, and the daughter of a MANAGER of a CAR DEALERSHIP should know better!  But…I giggled.

Parting with Baby was difficult; I had to sit in her for awhile, but my eyes kept straying to Ms. Luxury-Plus-Muscle-Plus-Prestige sitting next my little Infiniti.  I wouldn’t have to worry about a Texas Edition Dually pick up driven by some ignorant drunk trying to run my placid blue sweetie off the road anymore – how can you ignore a bright red bitch of a car that screams MONEY and CLASS?

We bought her.  We got her home and discovered a few things.  The new Audi came with THREE books, a CD and a DVD.  Another book and CD were sent to us in the mail a few days later.  Two of the books explain the Navigation System (GPS).  We still haven’t figured it out six months later.  None of the manuals, CDs, DVDs, whatever – nothing contains any info on how to set the clock!  I hate Daylight Savings Time; now I have a moment of fear as I think I’m an hour late until I remember the Red Queen won’t tell me how to change her clock over!

Love is never perfect.

Today’s Christmas shopping went well and as my body floated out of the store on a puddle of fever-sweat, I was happy to be done.  I took a deep breath and focused.  Shopping was easy, getting out of the parking lot, through the traffic and home was gonna be Hell.  The parking lot was mayhem and I hurried across it, eyes darting about because here in Texas, parking lots are as dangerous as the roads.  Folk out here climb in their pick-em-ups, vans, or Stupid Useless Vehicles, jam their phones to their ears and race off – all without looking to see where they’re going or who might be in their way.  Two said vehicles were in jousting positions, revving their engines, their supah-mom drivers waiting to do battle over my parking space.

I grabbed the door handle, juggling my bags, cursing the fact that the remote key in my purse wasn’t unlocking the door…oh.  I lifted my gaze from the blue Infiniti’s door and sheepishly trotted over to my big red bitchin’ Audi.  Horns honked in frustration behind me.  I ignored them and slammed my door shut.  Silence.  Push the start button and with a muted purr and silken whisper – as if she knew I wasn’t at my best yet forgave me for still loving small blue Infinitis – Queenie got me safely home.

Still, you were right, Body.  Today, we should have stayed in bed.

Sugared Snowballs

I was going to post a fictional story today, but spent the entire morning making Snowball cookies.  They’re also known as “Russian Teacakes,” but these aren’t those insipid, weird tasting ones you buy in the store.  It’s a simple recipe, so I don’t know why the homemade ones are so much better!  Maybe it’s because there are no preservatives in homemade ones?  Anyway, you start with half a pound of butter – real, salted butter – never stick margarine (which has been proven to be bad for our bodies.  The soft spread stuff in the tub is okay, but still, for these cookies, you must use butter!), let it soften and then cream it.  Add a cup of confectioner’s sugar, some salt, vanilla, flour, ground nuts (your choice – I use almonds), and roll teaspoon-sized nuggets of yum in your hands.  Yep, it takes hours!

I believe baking from scratch is a form of Art.  Standing there today in my pretty kitchen, baking the one thing I excel at, I took a stroll through Memory Town.  I come from a vast mix of Italian families.  My Aunt Colleen lived in Tuckahoe, NY, about half an hour from NYC.  She and Uncle Charlie owned a huge house and had room to take in Grandpa Georgie.  Since they were central to everyone else, most relatives would go to their home for the holidays.  When the door opened, you could smell Aunt Colleen’s progress in her art as it drifted outside, tempting you to head straight for the kitchen.

Ah, but wait, she was a fastidious housewife (and registered nurse, but that’s another story) and woe to the child who entered her home with boots or shoes on.  We stood in a dripping crowd on her doormat (the house was always too hot – from the cooking and because Grandpa Georgie was always cold, so the snow we were covered with melted pretty quickly), half a dozen cousins, my three siblings and I, yanking off mittens, coats, and boots.  Bumping elbows and hissing at each other to move out of the way, someone (usually me) always ending up shoved to the floor, frantically avoiding sharp knees and stamping feet.  When our outerwear was hanging on the coat rack to dry and our boots neatly lined up on newspapers laid on the floor to protect it, then we could step out of the foyer.

For Italians, my mom’s family wasn’t very demonstrative.  A quick peck on the cheek, a stiff hug, and a courteous short bow to the old man glowering at us from his throne, um, chair at the head of the dining room table.  I don’t remember Grandpa Georgie speaking much to any of the kids.  This was the sixties and children were expected to speak only when ordered to and only be seen when commanded to be present.  The older men would sit themselves at that huge table in stone silence until all children had left the room.  The younger men would go into the living room where they were allowed to watch TV.  No child was allowed in the living room and, honestly, we didn’t want to go in there.  It was a formal room, magazine perfect, with plastic covering every fabric and delicate glass knick-knacks arranged on all surfaces.  The fancy silver artificial Christmas tree took up one corner of the room (Oh, how my Aunt Colleen hated real trees with their mess and bother.  She embraced the brand-new fad of fake trees with glitter-eyed fervor!).  The beautifully wrapped gifts under it were artfully displayed and for show only.

The kids were herded into the kitchen by the mothers, aunts and older female cousins.  As the door swung shut on us, Grandpa and his co-horts would start talking – in Italian, which would immediately switch to English if we poked our heads back into that room, New York English and usually one shouted line from Uncle Max: “Getchure noise back in dere!”  (And Uncle Max’s brother in his razor-sharp black suit never spoke, never sat down; he stood behind Uncle Max, staring out the big picture window.  Yeah, I suspected the same “connection.”)

The women spoke Italian, too, mixed with English for the poor misguided daughters-in-law and ignorant children.  They’d chatter away, swatting at various child-sized body parts reaching up to snatch a goodie from the counters.  The teen cousins had the job of parking the youngsters at the kitchen table with a big box of arts and crafts supplies.  That half of the kitchen was our domain and the real Christmas tree next to the table awaited our decorative efforts (The real presents would appear under that tree on Christmas morn!).  It was an excellent way to distract us from the activity going on in the other half of the kitchen.  The male cousins would string the lights on the tree while we plastered our creations with glue and glitter, paper and paint, carving cut-out snowflakes and threading popcorn chains.  Ah, those horrible children’s scissors that couldn’t cut a blessed thing!  The girls would beg for help and the boys would sneak over to the junk drawer and dig for the real scissors.  We knew better than to grab the shining nurse’s scissors peeking from the pocket of Aunt Colleen’s brilliant white uniform hanging in the laundry room; those were very sharp and very special, a tool embodied with mystery and fear (hospitals…shudder!).

It was a big kitchen but comfortable.  It was where Aunt Colleen could be messy, where WE could be messy, and not feel like the world would come to an end.  Every burner had a bubbling pot on it and all three (Yes, three!) ovens had goodies baking inside.  I don’t know how my aunt convinced Uncle Charlie to install a double-decker oven.  It was unheard of back then, and the range had a perfectly good oven.  He was a dentist and the wealthiest man in the family (aside from Uncle Max, who lived in a mansion near Endicott, NY with chain-link fences and big black dogs strolling about with a number of big stern men in black suits….hmm?  Later, later, for that story, my friends!).  I think Charlie loved who Colleen turned into when she was in that kitchen, happy, relaxed, and churning out awesome yummies, so he indulged her.

The woman could cook!  She was queen in there, directing her troops, tasting each sauce, basting, pounding…thin slices of tender veal covered in seasoned breadcrumbs and painted with lemon butter; steak pounded thin, stuffed with more breadcrumbs, mozzarella, stewed tomatoes and roasted bell peppers, rolled up and tied with string (bragioli?  Saints forgive me, I’ve forgotten how to spell it!); prime rib, cooked to juicy perfection, dripping a bloody sauce; and the bird – a massive turkey, fresh off some farm upstate, plucked by hand and dressed to the nines!  Every side dish you can think of, a myriad of soups, and an antipasto in a giganormous platter that took two people to lift!

Aunt Colleen could bake, too.  There would be sugar cookies laid out on plates beside small bowls of colored frosting, sugar sprinkles, cinnamon candies, and it was our delightful task to decorate them (and no one minded if we ate most of them before the butter-cream frosting could set).  Snicker-doodles, gingerbread men, macadamia buttons…and two pies, cherry and apple, cooling on the sill of the open window.  That was lovely, but that was it.  Colleen’s forte was cooking.  Her little sister, my mother, was the primo baker in the family.

I don’t know how they did it – all those women fluttering about in that kitchen – but at some point, when an oven was empty, when a counter had been cleared, my mom would pull out the cookbook she’d inherited from her mother.  It was ancient, the leather cracked, the pages stained, scraps of paper tucked inside, and recipes that called for substitutions of ingredients Grandma Louise didn’t have and couldn’t get in the Depression-Era days when that cookbook was pristine and new.  Notes scribbled in the margins of what worked, what didn’t and how to fix it; handwriting identical to my mom’s, the cursive letters so tiny and precise.  The book would open on its own to a particular page: the Snowball cookie recipe.  That recipe called for an army of cousins putting it together while Mom rolled out pie crusts.  Our noses would come up, our mouths would drool, and we’d stare as our quiet aunt took a break to sit with us and chat while my (much) louder, and (much more) chaotic mother took over her kitchen.

I’m a good cook and an okay baker; I am nowhere close to the Art these two women created in their kitchens.  My mom’s pie crusts were flaky, light, slightly moist, slightly sweet, somehow as delicious as the tears-of-joy inducing fillings of the pies.  Apple (always better than Aunt Colleen’s, but no one ever said so out loud!), pumpkin, mincemeat, and oh-my-god chocolate with homemade whipped cream (and there was an Art to that foamy num-num as well!), but Mom had two masterpieces: cream puffs dribbled with chocolate glaze and those snowball cookies.  I fail at pie crusts, chocolate pies and cream puffs, but I have managed to master those incredible cookies.

Tiny balls of sugar-coated heaven…we could eat as many of the other cookies as we wanted, but we were only allowed three snowballs each.  No one cared that all that sugar would have us bouncing off the walls – we were bundled up and urged outside to work it off, disappearing for hours in the park behind the house until the teen cousins were sent to shepherd us in for dinner.  No, the limit was imposed because snowball cookies were Grandpa Georgie’s favorite cookie and he didn’t like to share.  Those cookies were the only thing my mother did that he approved of and they were her Christmas gift to her stoic, imperious step-father.

So many years later, I roll the last cookie in confectioner’s sugar and pop it in my mouth.  Another follows, a blissful bite, but the third one makes my teeth hurt and I gulp down a swallow of tea.  I want more and they tempt me, but I’m an adult now and know better.  Three is the limit, perhaps the mothers and aunts knew that as well forty-something years ago.  What I know is that baking those cookies is my favorite tradition, bringing my children and husband sniffing like puppies into the kitchen, and sending me into a haze of sugared memories I hope never fade.

Sweet Dreams to All and a Blessed Good Night!


Snowball Cookies

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

1 cup (two quarters) butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup confectioner’s sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

1-2 cups ground nuts (your choice)

Let butter soften, then cream it.  Gradually add sugar and salt.  Blend well.  Stir in nuts and vanilla.  Gradually add flour and mix thoroughly.  Using a measuring teaspoon, shape into balls (anything bigger and the cookies will spread, losing the “snowball” appearance.  They shouldn’t be any bigger than the top of a woman’s thumb.).  Place on ungreased cookie sheet and Bake at 325 degrees for 13 to 15 minutes.  Do NOT Brown!  While still warm, roll in confectioner’s sugar (once cool, Mom would roll them again, but that’s too much sugar for my teeth these days!).  Store in air tight container (I’ve never kept count, but one batch fills a gallon size Ziploc bag!).  Enjoy! 😀