Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Trees and Sweet Potato Latkes

Aging brings limitations.

I say this because the traditions that I thought would never disappear now only exist as memories. As I suppose it is with most families, my family has aged and scattered across the nation because of pesky adult responsibilities pertaining to life. Still, I cling to the moments that have shaped my view of what the holiday season means for me, and I delight in retelling the stories to those who are willing to listen.

First, I would like to share the magic of the Christmas tree.  The hunt would begin in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday just after Thanksgiving. There were only four of us, but we would pile into the Blue Bomber, our 1973 Ford Bronco, and off we would go. We hit every Christmas tree lot in a 50 mile radius in search of the perfect tree, singing along with Tennessee Ernie Ford, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Emmylou Harris, Anne Murray, John Denver and the Muppets playing on the 8-track as loud as my mother would tolerate in-between lots.

“That one doesn’t have a good top for the angel. We can’t take that one because it’ll stick out too far into the living room. Will the nativity scene fit under that one? Too dry. Too tall. Too short. Too crooked. That one doesn’t have enough chutzpah. Did we get a Noble or a Douglas last year? Are we going to spend the extra money for a fresh wreath as well? That family got our tree. We could follow them home and take it by force. No wait, there it is. That’s the one. Where’s the kid that takes this to the front? NO! NO FLOCKING!”

By the time night fell, we were back at the first lot purchasing the first tree we discovered, or so was the generally the case. The tree never failed to grow three feet on the way home. My father would have to re-cut, re-drill, re-straighten, and re-shape the poor thing on our postage stamp of a front porch, usually in the rain. When I hit my growth spurt in high school, I became the measuring stick to which the tree was compared. It still didn’t matter. The tree grew three feet and my father would have to chop off a significant amount off the bottom of the tree.

Then the boys struggled with the lights while Mom made hot chocolate from scratch and microwaved the little bits of things on sticks for snack stuff while we decorated. Again, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Johnny Mathis echoed loudly through the house while we scrambled for our favorite pieces to hang on the tree. Oh there’s the paper plate and gold-glitter dove I made in preschool. It desperately needs a new coat of glitter. Careful with the macaroni bulb the brother made in elementary school. It sheds a piece or three of macaroni every year. The little rubber guys are older than dirt, but they have to be there also, as well as the partridges that are losing their tail feathers and the dime store nativity scene bulbs that we’ve had for even longer.

And we’d eat. And we’d sing. And we’d argue playfully about who is placing what where. We’d watch all the movies we’ve seen before: George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol, The Lemon-Drop Kid, Fitzwilly, Donovan’s Reef, Miracle on 34th St (the old one, in black and white), The Bishop’s Wife, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s just not Christmas without any of that.

But a few years ago, my brother and his family migrated to Oklahoma, and I moved out and married, and my parents broke down and bought a fake tree.

From true Christmas tree magic however, the fake tree grew three feet by the time they got it home and my dad had to re-cut, re-drill, re-straighten and re-shape the poor thing on the postage stamp of the front porch in the rain. And the dove and macaroni bulb still shedding glitter and macaroni find their perches just below the angel. The movie marathon still takes place, happily, and returns me very quickly to each of my Christmas Pasts.

The potato latkes were relegated to traditional obscurity when my mother was told that she could no longer have potatoes. Up until then, however, we celebrated Hanukah too. “After all we are Christians, but Christ wasn’t,” my father would say. Of course, those of Jewish faith may have found our attempt as sacrilege but we always endeavored to represent the faith well. We’d light a candle of the menorah, say a prayer thanking Him for miracles great and small, and as we dug out the dreidels and the collection of pennies, Mom made potato and sweet potato latkes and served them with applesauce and sour cream. There is no better comfort food on a cold winter’s evening than sweet potato latkes hot from the griddle.

We still light the candle and say the prayer, but with all holidays, the absence of family and cherished friends makes the celebration bittersweet. The lack of latkes makes it a poignant tragedy.

When my friend Nemo introduced me to his significant other Karrie some time back, we became fast friends. Nemo and Karrie are two extremely intelligent and talented people who make up a critical part of my Zombie Apocalypse team. Karrie had a similar upbringing, but hers was a product of mixed faiths, her father a Methodist and her mother a Jew. Her parents are divorced now and subsequently remarried. When I spoke of my family traditions, she grinned.

“I have a latke story as well,” she said.

She was visiting her father and step-mother one Christmas season when they surprised her with a Chanukah celebration. “My step-mother thought it was impolite not to be sensitive to my religious diversity,” she explained. So she led a prayer and lit the candle and her step-mother made and served potato latkes.

“They were the best potato latkes I have ever had. The flavor was amazing,” she said, looking wistful at the recollection. Her step-mother was very proud, beaming from the compliment. She explained that she acquired the recipe from an on-line source but she thought it was a bit plain. So the decision was made to fry them in bacon grease.

“I didn’t have the heart to tell her about the ‘no pork’ rule,” Karrie said. “And I ate every one she put in front of me. Don’t tell my mother.”

I won’t. I promise. I’ve even changed your name in this post to help protect your identity.

So, as years pass and friends and family scatter on the far-winds, traditions evolve. Some are made richer through time, some disappear altogether. Some disastrous childhood memories are compounded by seasonal depression and amplified by the contrast of the joy of others. While aging has complicated my holiday season, I still feel incredibly blessed that I have memories I can cling to of Christmas past. My hope this year as in all years will be that everyone can know at least one happy holiday with family and friends, traditions dying in one household are renewed in another, and that Peace on Earth and Goodwill Towards Men is not a just fairy tale, but a way of life.

Happy Chanukah!
Happy Solstice!
Happy Christmas!

With love and good tidings throughout the coming years.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Write On Edge: Countdown Challenge

This weeks Red Writing Hood  challenge comes from . She gives us 300 words to write a piece of fiction or creative non-fiction about a countdown, starting with "Three. Two. One."

I offer the following: Downhill Fast

“Three,” she forced herself to breathe.

“Two.” She was a caged tiger, ready to fight the mountain.


The alarm sounded, Go!

She exploded from the start gate, her heart pounding wildly. Stabbing with her poles alternately at the snow before tucking them under her arms, she then dropped into her crouch and began her decent on the piste. She eased into her attack, building speed, with shock-like legs working beneath her. Rapidly approaching, the first series of plastic gates taunted her, but she refused to yield. The few cross-blocks were over in less than a second and she landed the following jump with practiced precision. The wind bit at her lips, already chapped from exposure, an odd comfort in a torturous sport. She blurred through another series of hairpins and banked into a turn that had a substantial drop. Her landing was flawless but she refused to celebrate. The mountain would not surrender that easily.

The piste threw more obstacles in her way. She scoffed at the safety net as she cut through the next bend, shinning the hairpins immediately following, catching air over the dips. More gates raced effortlessly by. Finally, the expanse of open land stretched out before her. The finish line was mere seconds away. “Come on!”  Screaming through her burning lungs and tiring legs, she pushed herself through the straightaway. “Come on!”

At last, her struggle against the mountain was over. She sailed across the finish, victoriously gasping for breath. The sound of blood rushing through her ears was slowly replaced by cheering crowds. Panting still, she stripped off her goggles to look at the scoreboard.

For the moment, she was queen of the mountain, crowned by a mere half-second. Still the event was young and more tigers eagerly waited at the top.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Salvation Army and Other Red Buckets

From my earliest memories, the Salvation Army rang their little bells with joyful abandon outside the supermarket next their little red buckets. My mom would take a handful of change from her wallet and dump it just as cheerfully through the little slot. “Thank you and God bless you!” the Salvation soldier would say.

“Thank you, He has,” my mother would respond.

It happened at every red bucket, no matter where we were or how many we had been by that day. If there was a smiling Salvation soldier ringing a bell, we put change in the bucket. If the Salvation soldier wasn’t smiling, Mom made it her mission to get them to smile. My brother asked her why she did it in addition to her donation check every year. She just shrugged and said, “I can’t help it.”

There are other groups that collect donations during the holidays and we didn’t neglect them either. There are the toy donation boxes manned by uniformed servicemen. (Still a favorite, even though now I’m twice their age) and the food drives that would send us right back into the market to buy more canned goods. My mother didn’t use the food bank as an excuse to clean out her canned goods. She’d get them fun stuff alongside the practical stuff. A jar of strawberry jelly was purchased to go with the peanut butter. Canned pumpkin would not be gifted unless a jar of pumpkin pie spice, a box of pie crust mix, and condensed milk was also gifted.

Whether it’s from Nature or Nurture, I am my mother’s daughter. I’m a giver. I can’t pass a red bucket without dumping change in. I can’t clean out my cupboards for cans to donate to the food bank; I have to buy all new cans just for the drive. I can’t wait for the toy drive and those pretty, pretty uniforms. (Drool.)

But my compulsion doesn’t end there.

I decided one day to go to the corner drug store to pick up a few microwave items for lunch. Outside there was a young man with a backpack who asked if I had some change. “I’m almost to my sister’s and I need bus fare,” he explained.

“Where are you headed?” I asked him.

I wasn’t familiar with the town he mentioned, and when he described where it was, I gulped. He still had twenty miles to go. Small change just didn’t sound like it would get him there. “I’m sorry, all I have is this five,” I said, offering him the only cash I had on me.

He didn’t understand at first. I guess he had heard “no” too many times already that day. The light the flashed across his face once he realized I wasn’t saying no; that to me was worth every penny of that five dollar bill. I thought he was going to kiss me. “God bless you,” he said.

“Thank you, He has,” I replied as I watched him bounce like Tigger over to the bus stop.

I’m not perfect. I am deeply flawed. Is that why I’m a compulsive giver? Perhaps. Abraham Lincoln said once, “When I die I want it said of me by those who know me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a rose where I thought a rose might grow.” That is the sort of person I strive to be. I cannot singlehandedly end hunger in Africa or stop violence against children. I feel guilty that I cannot trust people enough to invite them into my home. I hate that we still have to lock our doors for fear of thieves and squatters. I hate that I’ve probably been a victim of a scam. If someone asks for my help though, I can’t walk away from him. I listen to what my gut is telling me and I help him the best I can. If that means I don’t get to eat out one night this week, or that I blew my entire shopping for kicks budget so that someone can make it to his sister’s house, I accept those terms. If they’ve lied to me, that’s on their heads, not mine.  It’s my responsibility to make my corner of the world a brighter, better place.

And if all I can do is bring a smile to the Salvation soldier freezing in front of the supermarket tonight, I will still see that as a mission accomplished.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Red Ink and Old Books

With the holiday season upon us, I am, like others, inspired to recall memories of seasons past. The laughter that erupted under the roof and made my sides ache for days, and the fervent, unthinking feuds that made my heart ache for years; both have served to fuel the fires to forge the steel foundation for the woman I have become.

What marks the start of the season for me is when Mom grabs her step-stool to reach the cookbooks stashed above the fridge. (Well, she used to. When the kitchen was remodeled, the cookbooks moved to a more convenient display at counter-height).

Of all the books my mother owns, however, her personal ones are probably the ones I cherish most. Earmarked pages and sticky-notes riddle my mother’s cookbooks. She has two she keeps now, one for savory and one for sweet, and both are busting at the seams again. One summer, before the computer made its way into our world, we painstakingly undertook the project of typing out each recipe on that brick of a typewriter. Did we convert all of them? No, we ran out of ribbon ink and patience part of the way through. By the time we sat down to make another attempt, technology had moved on and the typewriter never found replacement ribbon.

Those cookbooks represent my entire history. Every milestone of my life, my dubious public school education has a recipe to correspond with it. My third grade teacher gave us the Chinese Chicken Salad that my brother devours by the bucket load, as told by my mother’s red script penned in the margins. There’s a cookie recipe delightfully referred to as PTA Cookies with “rich and gooey” written in red ink across the top corner. Peanut Butter Play-dough was a big hit in kindergarten according to the red ink on its page. A random Pita Bread recipe we got from an in-class demonstration during cultural awareness week that we have never managed to recreate successfully is still found within the Breads section, again with the ubiquitous red ink notation that reads Grrr in frustration.

Editor, if you’re reading this: this is one of the reasons that I find your red pen a fantastic friend.

It’s not just the recipes I look forward to whenever I crack open the books. I swear Mom saved every single scrap of family notes we posted on the fridge. From the untidy child musings completed in crayon to the untidy swirls of teenage-angst-driven notes complete with happy faces and stars, each one remains stored between pages of these wonderful time capsules. My favorite is probably the collaborative effort between my brother and me, when we conversed in our butchered Italian phrases. He was a police officer then and awake during the hours the rest of us slept. I used to add to his notes the next day, and he would add to mine, taking days to exhaust a well-worn anecdote. I still laugh when I see the Italian note, and then I cry. It’s such a perfect moment, preserved forever, that it always strikes me as bittersweet. I’m grateful Mom could not bear to part with them because they grant me immediate access to my youth. Sometimes, I catch Mom with misty eyes over the same silly banter. We share a hug and a cup of forbidden cocoa, and then move on to the holiday baking.

It’s these sorts of gems that I look for when I peruse the shelves of a used book store or antique boutique. I remember my first-ever used book purchase was an 1814 leather-bound accounting ledger someone kept of their dry goods transactions. I was all of ten years old at the time, but found the hand-written, dry calculations so intriguing. I had a defined frame of one part of a man’s life, right down to the cost of the last 5lb sack of milled flour. It was when I got it home that I discovered an extra treasure. In the back of the book, where the binding had become loose and created a sort of pocket, I found tucked away within someone’s last will and testament, dated April of 1956. On a small sheet of ruled paper, David bequeathed everything in his possession to his wife Anne and remarked that there was no need to notarize or authenticate his signature. I was addicted then, and still try to only purchase old books if there is some sort of personal notations made within the decaying pages. Not all that long ago, I added a mightily abused 1800’s printed German hymnal to my collection, simply because someone had taken notes in the margins of the book. Although I do not understand the words, I feel a connection with that person, no matter what their background might have been.

So here comes the true point to this essay. As writers, we attempt a connection through the telling of a story, fact or fiction, to an audience of readers. As readers, we will devour volumes of any work that we feel a personal connection with. I think when we find notes like those aforementioned in the margins and on sticky-notes, we feel we’ve hit the jackpot. Or maybe I’m the only one who feels this way. It’s the most tragic sacrifice of moving to the digital age, I fear, as we may never be able to discover a forgotten pressed flower among the digital pages of an eBook.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Write On Edge: Hair Challenge

With another NaNoWriMo remanded to the "desperately needs true focus and severe editing" pile, I'm happily back to my regular routine, on to other projects, and looking forward to the upcoming holidays. In feeding my unhealthy addiction to writing prompts, I'm back haunting the Write On Edge site and eager for the next challenge. This week in Red Writing Hood gives us 300 words using hair as the vehicle to reveal something about a character or situation. I decided to revisit Patience and her sisters from the Write On Edge: Road Trip challenge.

I offer the following: A Hair for a Hair

Patience slipped out of her bed once she heard Bertha’s soft, wheezing snore, indicative of her deep slumber. She wrapped her dressing gown about her to fend off the chill as her feet located her house-shoes by feel. For a long moment, she pondered the consequences. Could she risk her mother’s ineffectual pleas to let her daughter be, that sibling rivalry was healthy and natural as her father reached for the switch? She sucked in an icy blast of air to steady her nerves and reached for the hammer and nails she had concealed behind the nightstand.

She crept across the small space, afraid to make a sound. While Bertha had always slept like the dead, her youngest sister Charity woke at the subtlest of disturbances. She froze at each squeaky floorboard, holding her breath. Once sure the danger was passed, she moved into position, hovering over Bertha’s head. Her long plait of molasses brown hair draped conveniently over her pillow, begging to be nailed to the headboard. A hair for a hair, she thought righteously. Gently, she pushed a nail through the braid and positioned it against the headboard, wondering how to muffle the sound of the hammer.

Charity’s sleepy whisper made her jump, “Patience, don’t.”

Her need for vengeance still boiling within her blood, she hissed, “She deserves it after that stunt in school.”

Charity sat up, “She’s jealous you know. You have the perfect flaxen hair, and spiral curls keep without fuss. She feels plain next to you.”

“She dipped my hair in the inkwell,” she answered, not ready to let her anger go.

“And she got the switch for it after the dunce cap in class. Surely that’s humiliating enough,” she pleaded.

Her hand, poised to strike, trembled from the weight of the hammer.