Decorating the Tree

My mother had a yard sale at our house on the farm before she sold the house and moved to an apartment in town, some years after Daddy died.  She was tired and ill, and there was very little she held on to other than her clothes and her china and crystal.

I came to help out, and ended up hauling stuff back home with me that I couldn’t bear to be sold.  My sister Sherrie was there, and she spotted all the Christmas ornaments and lights, heaped on the ground.  Mother had kept the ornaments my sisters had given her, but had dumped all the balls and lights.

“Look at this,” Sherrie said.  “These lights are older than you are.”  She was right–I remembered them.  The bulbs were plastic or glass and shaped like birds or stars.  Sherrie always claimed the yellow bird sang to her from the top of the tree one Christmas.  I took the string, as well as a string of the original Bubble Lights.  Both strings were the kind that, if one bulb goes out, the string goes out, so you had go around the tree tightening and replacing bulbs until the string came back on again.

Those lights went to Atlanta with me, and then on to New York.  I haven’t used them for several years.  I bought one of those pre-lit artificial trees that looks more like a bottle brush than anything else a few years ago.  When I load it down with ornaments it doesn’t look too ghastly.

But this time of year I remember searching over the farm for a cedar tree without a fork in the top.  The first year after Daddy died, Mother and I went out into the fields with an ax, determined to have a Christmas no matter how awful we felt.  We found a big, lovely cedar, round and full.  It was all we could do to cut it down and drag it back to the house.

We put it in the garage and went to set it in a bucket of water so it could soak up some before it went in the tree stand.  The tree was about six inches too tall for the garage ceiling, which meant it was more than a foot too tall for the house.  Mother looked like she was going to burst into tears.

Then the phone rang.  Uncle Floyd called to see what was going on.  Mother told him our problem.  He showed up 15 minutes later and sawed off the bottom of the tree to the correct height.  So we had Christmas after all, using those bird lights, the Bubble Lights and all the other strings we had.


A Beautiful Day

Here we are on Black Friday, having survived the feasting and football of Thanksgiving Day.  I’m not participating in the shopping frenzy this year.  I can’t stand crowds and pushing, and my gift-giving this year is limited.  So I have a radical proposal:  Let’s all just enjoy a beautiful day, especially if you don’t have to work today.

The sky is blue.  The last of the leaves are still clinging to the trees, golden, orange, red and brown.  Ignore the Christmas decorations and stay away from retail stores with jarring music and radio stations playing endless Christmas carols.

It’s still autumn.  It’s not too cold in most of the country.  Take a walk in your neighborhood or a park and relish the last of fall.  Eat leftover turkey and dressing — I love dressing, and this is the only time of year I have it.  DON’T WATCH CHRISTMAS SPECIALS.  If you spot a wild turkey, tell it it’s lucky to be on the loose.  Try to figure out which birds are still here and if your favorites have migrated.  I’ve been looking for the mockingbirds, and I think they have gone south.

Watch old movies with family and friends.  Play silly games with family and friends.  Stroke your cat, pet your dog, hug anyone you feel like.  Let’s give autumn one more day before the holiday madness begins.  Forget about Black Friday!

Dressing: Smooth vs. Chunky

Major ingredient in dressing
Dressing, served with turkey or chicken, is an emotional subject in the South.  I have known people who wanted it to have the consistency of mush and won’t eat it if they can perceive the presence of celery or onions in the texture.

My family is a chunky dressing family.  I don’t have Mother’s recipe because she didn’t use one, but I do remember how she made the dressing for Thanksgiving dinner and how tasty it was.

Step one was to make a pan of cornbread, and step two to make a pan of biscuits.  She boiled a couple of eggs, chopped celery and onions, and crumbled the cornbread and biscuits together in a huge bowl.  Then she added the eggs, celery, and onions to the bread mixture, following with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, and just enough broth to make it all stick together.  She tasted it to make sure the seasonings were at the right level.  Then she spread it in a large pan and baked it in the oven until it was warm through and browned.

While the dressing was browning Mother made giblet gravy.  She had boiled the turkey neck and giblets to make the base for the gravy.  Then she chopped the giblets, adding them back to the broth with what little meat came off the turkey neck.  The gravy also had chopped boiled eggs, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper, and sometimes a little flour to thicken it if I’m remembering right.

For me the turkey was definitely an afterthought.  At Thanksgiving dinner I’d fill my plate with dressing smothered in gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole, fresh cranberry relish, and a small slice of turkey.  Yum!  It’s all about the sides.  The dressing was even more of a treat because Mother was convinced it would go bad quickly, so we only got to have leftovers of it the next day.

Occasionally Mother would make a smaller batch of dressing to go with a roasted chicken.  It was a lot of trouble because of the initial baking involved before construction of the dressing began, but it sure was good!

Holiday Prelude: Not Always Jolly

This time of year I miss my father even more than usual.  As we get closer to Christmas, I think of how it was always a difficult time for him.  He became very quiet and sad, depressed I guess we would say now.  His mother died in December, and he missed her as we got closer to Christmas.

I remember Mother saying to him, “You have to pick yourself up and do this for HER.  I won’t let you ruin HER Christmas.”  It took me a while to figure out that HER was me.

Daddy, to his credit, managed to pull himself together each year.  Mother and Daddy would argue about when to get the tree–he always wanted to wait until Christmas Eve, convinced it was a fire hazard, and Mother wanted it earlier so we could enjoy it.

I felt his cloud of depression beforehand, but we would go out into the fields and pick out a cedar tree to cut down for our Christmas tree.  Mother exhorted us to get one that didn’t have a fork in the top (a common flaw of cedar trees).  Daddy would cut it down, and we dragged it home, put it in a bucket of water in the garage or back yard, and let it soak up some water before taking it inside.

Nothing smells better than a fresh cut cedar tree.  the scent is sweeter and stronger than a pine tree.  And of course the trees we have now, cut in October in Michigan or Canada, coated in fireproofing spray and fake green, have no real smell to speak of.  A cedar tree smells like a wooden cedar chest, only green and alive.

Once we started decorating Daddy started to cheer up a bit.  I still have some of the strings of old lights we used, and the battered glass balls.  He did his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve–old southern tradition, because you didn’t have the money to shop until then (unless you were doing layaway at Montgomery Wards).

These days I have a fake tree, since I’m usually away at my sister’s house for a few days, and I don’t like to leave a live one to get dry.  But I usually get a live green wreath or table arrangement.  I need that smell of fresh greens to make the holidays real.

Holiday Cooking Disasters, or Almost

I’m always nervous when it’s time to cook a big holiday meal, or even to contribute toward a group effort at one.  I spent many years not cooking for big events, and I still happily go to my sister’s house or a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or any other big foodie holiday.

I have finally learned to cook that turkey and bake that ham.  But I’m scarred by previous experiences.  The first time I roasted a turkey, for a Christmas party some years ago, I used a cooking bag (highly recommended).  I did not stuff it, because my family believes in dressing, baked outside the turkey, instead of stuffing, baked inside the turkey, so that’s what I do.  The turkey came out beautifully golden brown, with a moist breast and nicely done drumsticks.  Then I went to carve it, and found the plastic bag in the cavity with the giblets and neck in it.  Woops!  I didn’t say a word, just carved away.

Hams are capable of error as well, even pre-cooked ones that you just have to warm in the oven for a few hours.  I discovered that when I baked a ham–years ago, I swear–for the residents’ dinner at my local YMCA.  I had peeled off the layer of thin cellophane or plastic the meat packer encases the ham with before I put it in the oven.  How was I to know there was a second coat, a red one to match the skin?  Fortunately I figured this out when the ham began to get warm and emit an unusual odor.

Then there was the year I dropped a giant pot of sweet potatoes (already sweetened and spiced, of course) in the sink.  That one broke my heart.  All that work down the drain!  And I burned my hand, which is what made me drop it in the first place.

Fortunately, making mistakes is a great, if painful, way to learn.  I can bake a lovely ham now, or roast a fine turkey.  Holidays are safe at my house, I promise.  And thank goodness someone else is cooking this year!


In My Dreams

Whenever I am especially worried, lonely or agitated, my father appears in my dreams.  This seems strange to me because he died when I was only 22 years old.  But he is still a powerful figure, and someone I look to for comfort or help.

Last night I had an odd dream about measurement.  I was being assessed by someone unknown, and I could see the computer monitor, and charts and graphs that were being generated as I answered questions.  Then Daddy appeared and the computer went away.

Why do our parents matter so much?  Is it that they form us when we are tiny lumps of potential?  Is it the genes that flow among us?  It’s hard to say.  Freudians would say the mother and father shape us beyond hope or repair.  I like to think we’re “Born That Way,” as Lady Gaga says, and nurture can influence nature but can’t change it.  No one really knows at this point.

Whatever the reason, my parents continue to haunt my dreams and shape my responses.  The other day I talked to my sister Glenda.  It was a lovely day, both here and at her home in Ohio, and Glenda said, “It’s a blue October sky, like Mother used to say.”  I remembered her saying that.  No doubt Glenda’s children and grandchildren observe the blue October sky, not knowing where the expression came from.

The depth of memory, feeling and compassion in the river of life is beyond measure.  Sometimes it upsets me when my parents visit me; other times it’s a comfort.  At any rate, I can’t and won’t forget.  Memory never dies.

Northern Depression

Northern Lights Over Greenland, from Flickr
Last year and early this year I took a deep dive into Scandinavian murder mysteries (translated into English, of course), sometimes called “Nordic noir.”  I read the Stieg Larrson trilogy (“The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo,” etc.), all but the latest Henning Mankell novels, and Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren books.

All of them share a bleak climate–not one was set on the beach in Denmark in the summertime, for example.  It is always winter, or spitting freezing rain in what passes for spring or autumn.  They are deeply cynical about politics and the motivations of the police.  Most of them are extremely well-plotted.  Sex varies from plenty and violent/kinky (Larrson) to nonexistent (Nesser).  The characters and stories are compelling.  But I started feeling the winter inside me.

I took a slight detour to Edinburgh, Scotland, with Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus mysteries.  Again, it’s never a sunny day, it’s almost always cold, everyone is corrupt.  Rebus is a barely-under-control alcoholic.  I finally burned out and began re-reading Robert B. Parker and Donna Leon.  It rains in Boston and Venice, quite a lot in fact, but somehow those stories do not depress me like the ones set further north do.

Julia Keller, cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, wrote about Nordic noir, “The ground beneath your feet dramatically affects your worldview.”  Does a cold climate lead to cold temperaments?  That’s the stereotypical view.  Hot-blooded Latins and cold-blooded Swedes–but love, hate, families, money, envy and intrigue exist everywhere, probably even in the last remaining tribe that has never seen TV.

I’ve decided it’s not the weather that makes these novels so depressing, even though they are beautifully written.  In most cases, the detective (or main character, as in the case of Lisbeth Salander) is estranged from his or her family or has none, has no real friends, is alienated from any sense of community.  The only driving force in his life is sticking with the code of the law (the various inspectors), seeking justice, or revenge (Salander).

Nordic noir is a great place to visit, but I don’t want to live there.  Donna Leon’s Brunetti is deeply cynical about Italian politics and the police force.  It often rains (or floods) in her books.  But Brunetti comes home to his professor wife, a quirky, warm family and a delicious home-cooked meal every night.  That’s a world I’d rather inhabit.

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