This post, like the previous one, is accompanied by coffee. But it is 8:00 on New Year’s Day, and I need it, because it’s not looking like I am going back to sleep. Ironically I did not have any beer last night. I opted for two lemon drop martinis, which were deliciously imbibed at the time, but could have something to do with a vague headache and rebelling bowels. And being up at 6:30. Ah…partying at 49 just ain’t what it used to be. Like a lot of things. And, that is okay. We had a nice dinner with good friends, and that is enough of a party for me these days.
I am horrifically late with this writing, but I will take the easy way of blame and place it squarely on the season’s shoulders. Truthfully, I love celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas…and give everything over to the decorating, the cooking and cleaning, and the gathering of those dear. But equally truthful, it takes a lot out of me. Every year I wrangle with supposedly twistable evergreen garland, and every year a chain of obscenities escapes my mouth as I force the unyielding stuff into place. Mounds of storage bins to be transported flank my sides. I make yearly vows to Pare. It. Down. Of course I do get help, but afterward I will stand there sweating and cursing basement stairs and wonder why do I do this to myself?
I bake batches and batches of yummy cookies, peering through my cookbooks for weeks ahead of time to plan my annual giveaway to neighbors. I work into the wee night making pies and other delights until my back and neck ache unbearably, and even my son asked me why. Since I had so recently asked this of myself I was ready. I answered, “because someday I won’t be able to. ” I also add to myself, “because the minute I don’t make grandma’s powdered sugar balls and corn casserole and my peach jello you will all ask where is so and so?” And, it’s true. Whether it will be due to failing health, memory, energy, or maybe all three, the day will come when I will probably opt for a little tabletop tree and someone else will be the hostess.
I remember when this moment came for my mother. One Thanksgiving as we were cleaning up, she stopped and said, “I don’t think I can do this anymore. At one point today I couldn’t remember what to do next. I couldn’t remember how to make the gravy…” her words faded away as tears threatened. “Do you think one of you girls can take over?” I hugged her and said of course, I would be happy to…and would have done so earlier if I had known. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask, as she seemed to so thoroughly enjoy all that a holiday dinner entailed. Not only was she a superb cook and welcoming of guests, she made it seem utterly painless. One has only to put on a simple dinner for a few, to know that even this takes work to do it well.
As a child, you take all of this for granted. Children are too busy dreaming of turkey and gravy and making up lists for Santa, or fretting about teenage breakups or college and getting jobs, to give much attention to behind the scenes action. Didn’t the long banquet table adorned with the finest dishes and the painstakingly wrapped gifts just appear by themselves? Well, no…but that is how it seems to them.
But children grow up, and then they see. They see that it takes more than a fictional holiday fairy or chubby guy in a suit to make it all happen.
My mother was not an emotionally expressive person. Relationships were difficult for her, often strained and tense for a variety of reasons. The family complaint was that she was a hypocrite, going all Norman Rockwell come November, when where was this person the rest of the year? Where was all the warmth and acceptance and elaborate planning that she threw herself into with such fervor?
The answer, of course, is that it was always there.
It’s just that it went into hiding for much of the rest of the time, I think due to a crippling mix of depression and martyrdom. Unlike many whose depression skyrockets during the holidays, hers went underground until January. It was as if she then had permission to show us the love she had for us, through the Herculean efforts of cleaning, baking, and enough food for an army.
The truth is, it’s why any of us do what we do at this time of year. Not for Martha Stewart accolades, not to outdo anyone else, or to convince anyone that lookhowgreatIamIcanmakefourpiesfromscratch. We do it out of love for our families, and if we do it right it is without complaint and of free will. We are trying to create magic that escape us at other times of the year, even if the stress of it all while juggling a job just might erase a few years off one’s life.
Through all my mom’s imperfections, even as a youngster I sensed what November and December meant to her. I couldn’t wait for them either, because it was as close to Norman’s paintings as we came. And I was going to take it, dysfunction and all.
I didn’t thank her nearly enough.
For the piles of homemade treats, the miracle of endless food made in a kitchen the size of a large bathroom, the invitations to those who had nowhere to go, the cleaning and table set up and re-organizing and the list goes on.
But I think from wherever she is, she knows, as she watches me try to make my own magic with the same traditions.
And so it will go, until the day comes when I look up and ask someone else to take the reigns, and the holiday wand. And I will be more than okay with that, because I will probably be tired. Until then…I will clutch my recipe folders and magazine clippings full of snowmen, reindeer and Santa cakes close to my heart. And hope I still have a few year’s worth of yuletide fairy dust to sprinkle.
Happy New Year, friends. And may all of your kitchens be bigger than your bathrooms.