Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mom-Mom's House

Christmas was the best.

I can still close my eyes and see every room, every softly lit corner, every china figurine, the order of the music boxes on the shelves that flanked the fireplace, every carefully chosen painting. I can smell the eucalyptus in the dried flower arrangements and remember the dry ticking of the mantel clock, its miniature Westminster chime announcing the quarter hours.

But Christmas was the best. The deep recess of the bay window was filled with light, a small tree at its center. The larger tree was decorated with ornaments no one else had; jewel toned birds with nylon tails that trembled and reflected the lights, bobbing on cunning springs. Tiny musical instruments with real strings. Glass ornaments that seemed to sparkle with sugar frosting. A jaunty man with a pipe stood smoking on the mantel, a smoldering cone of pine incense hidden under his brightly painted coat. The candlesticks bore tiny wreaths of their own, their light reflecting softly on the Christmas china's painted trees. Ceramic plates shaped like white poinsettias, or holly leaves and berries, were filled with cookies. The kitchen was busy and full of wonderful smells; if you opened the dutch door (closed to keep the dog from being a pest) you might be handed a bin of ice cubes, or a basket of rolls, to ferry to the table.

The turkey rested on the kitchen counter while gravy was being made across two burners in the roasting pan, majestic on its white platter. The electric knife would be unsheathed and plugged in, the designated carver summoned. Little by little, as real estate on the glass-topped warming tray was claimed by steaming, fragrant bowls, we'd start to gather. Someone would wander from room to room finding out 'what everyone wants to drink'. Pop-Pop's special iced tea glass sat beside his plate at the head of the table (Or the foot, depending on which one of them you asked). We'd all assemble, the shortest kid getting the back corner chair (on the leg, be careful not to kick it).

For several minutes you'd hear nothing but the scraping of silver on china. Seconds were a ballet since there was very little space between the table and the dry sink. (This did not deter us.) The talking would begin with news of cousins and family friends, funny work anecdotes, good report cards, and the combination of soft light and a full belly would lull you into a half dream, surrounded by the hum and murmur of safety, the warmth of people who loved you.

We would assemble after dinner in the living room, opening gifts one at a time, youngest to oldest, until everyone sat with a drift of paper at their feet. Slowly, so everyone could see. The waiting got easier as you got older. Mostly. I still have the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, its crisp smell and crackling cover slowly yielding to bookmarks and highlighted passages 27 years later, one of my favorite presents.

This Christmas is hard, because we know, finally, completely, that we don't have that place to go back to. What we miss is not merely the place, but the love that made it, and filled it, and held it together. We have to cry a little, and be brave, and make our own sanctuary. I can still see her looking at something and saying, "Do you know what I'd do with this?"

Yep. We know. You'd make it beautiful. Thank you for showing us how.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bathroom Reading--it may save your life

Stuff to understand first:
I grew up reading Reader's Digest. And I mean, from the time I was three and my feet didn't touch the floor. In my grandmother's house, when that magazine came in the mail, the little paper band would be ripped off and it would immediately go in the bathroom. You would no more expect to see an RD in in a different room than you would a roll of Charmin and anytime I saw them in other people's houses in a place other than the bathroom, I felt shocked, as if they'd left a pile of neatly folded underpants on their coffee table.

Being a compulsive reader I'd go through that magazine cover to cover, absorbing inspirational pet tales, detailed descriptions of medical procedures I wasn't sure I wanted to understand, vocabulary builders and government outrages and 'Humor in Uniform' (anyone notice how brief that feature is anymore? I don't think there IS much humor in uniform these days, or maybe not the kind suitable for RD), whatever it was, I read it. I was fascinated by the 'Shell Safety Series', which told you what to do in the event any number of vehicular horrors befell you on dark and stormy nights or in a blizzard or in six lanes of LA traffic. Heck, I didn't even drive, but I was one of those irritatingly precocious kids who wanted to know what to do.

So this would explain how my Friday went better than it might have.

I was tootling up Route 81 toward Syracuse for my only appointment of the day. 12pm, one and done, grab lunch, get home by 5, bang out a few dozen cookies, put up some decorations, have an adult beverage. This was the checklist I was working on as I listened to some classical music on the radio, one of the lesser Bachs with lots of initials. Then..... dun dun DUN, I hear bang! And swop swop swop swop and I know I just blew a tire. That's when my Reader's Digest inspired ninja training kicked in. 'Foot off the pedals', I told myself. 'Fade over to the shoulder'. 'Hazards on'. 'Brake gently' 'Freak out a little'. (Okay, that's not one of the steps, but c'mon.) The shoulder is ridiculously narrow, I'm about 8 inches on the good side of the white line and if I'd gotten any further over I knew whoever was coming to rescue me wouldn't have been able to deal with the tire, which was on the passenger side. Trucks are rocking the van as I sit there dialing. I call my boss and let him know what happened. He tells me who to call. I call them. The guy sounds like I woke him up.

"Hello (fleet emergency rescue company) can I help you?"
"Yes, I just had a blowout on 81 North just below Syracuse, NY."
"Okay, are you on the road?"
"Um, I'm on the SHOULDER," I tell him.
"Okay, can you tell me where you are?"
(Thinking I just did that) "Yeah, I'm just past the Preble rest stop, about a mile and a half below the Tully exit, I can see it from where I am, and,"
"Whoa, whoa,, what TOWN are you in?"
"Well, I guess its TULLY, but I'm on 81. I'll give you the numbers off the mile marker." I wait for a break in traffic and dive out of the van, walking to the mile marker that is just behind me. I read off all three numbers.
"Ma'am, you are giving me too many numbers."
"Well, I'm sorry, sweetie, there are THREE numbers on the marker. One is the route number, and there are two underneath it."
"Do either of them have a decimal point in them?"
"Well there are a couple of BOLTS holding it to the post, so I couldn't tell you," I'm starting to consider just hoofing it to the exit. Then I reflect on the fact that its 15 degrees. With wind. I decide to believe in my guy here, who to be fair is in Massachusetts. He tells me he'll send someone out. I jump back in the van, put on my seatbelt, and pull out a book. Because what the heck, right?

A few minutes later I get a call from a tire place in Syracuse, telling me a guy is on his way. He asks me if I have a spare. I ask him where they typically are in a vehicle with no trunk. He tells me. I wait for a break in traffic, dive out of the van, and peer under the back end of the van.
"Yep, there's a spare."
I wait for a break in traffic. I dive back in, and read some more.
And read some more. And read some more. I start to triangulate the starting point of the truck and figure when I should start to worry. Time passes, and I receive faintly urgent message from the cappuccino I bought at Dunkin Donuts an hour and a half before. Half an hour later I get a call from the tire guy. He's just passed me, he has to go to the next exit and turn around, and he'll be here in 10 minutes. I read. A state trooper stops by just to make sure all is well. I glance longingly at the Nice and Easy at the next exit and have a fleeting urge to ask him to take me there so I can pee, but I dismiss it because that's just crazy. He leaves.

Tire guy comes, jacks up the van with me in it (its just like NASCAR, only slower and colder, and okay, its not like NASCAR at all but he didn't ask me to get out and its FIFTEEN DEGREES so screw it) and begins to remove the spare.

Only its not coming off. Not at all. Not after fifteen minutes of banging and prying. Not after twenty minutes of banging and prying. Not after forty five minutes of banging and prying. I squint at the Nice and Easy, with its cheerful early-eighties logo. Is it really a mile away? Could I make it? Its time to abort this mission. I wait for a break in traffic and dive out of the van. I stand beside the legs under the back end until a head peeps out.

"Lets just bag it, and call for a tow truck, okay? I don't think its coming off and its kind of unsafe here and (yes, I said this) I really, really, really need to pee."

He gathers up his tools and I jump in his truck, every interior surface of which has been touched by hands that don't have the benefit of a wash after changing truck tires. I notice he has the same GPS as I do, only its duct-taped to the dashboard on a mounting bracket fashioned out of coathangers. We go to the exit. Two hours and sixteen minutes have passed since my Shell Safety moment. I come out of the store and my knight in grease besmeared armor says, "Hey, well, here's what we can do. We can go back to the van, (south and then north) take the wheel off, take it to the shop (further north, then back south past the van, then off and back on the highway and north again) and replace the tire, and then go back and put it on, or we can tow it."

I blink at him. I decide not to ask why we didn't BRING THE WHEEL WITH US when we headed north in the first place. We go back south, turn around, come north, get the wheel, and drive to Syracuse. Change the tire. Put it back on the truck, drive BACK past the van, get off, turn around, and return. (I know this is tedious to read. It was even more tedious to DO.) In no time he has it back on and at 3:47pm, four hours and thirteen minutes after my Shell Safety Moment, I am on my way to my 12pm appointment. The customer was lovely and offered me tea, I did my thing and at about 5:30pm I stopped to get some lunch.

Good God, Syracuse. How do you deal with it? As soon as I got out of the van it hit me. This ridiculous sun-is-down-now-wind-driven cold, more than cold. A teabagging from Mr. White Christmas, Mr. Snow, the Cold Miser himself. I mean, jeez. I live in a place where it gets cold. But this was insane. I paid for my sushi, dodging one cashier for another after I determined the woman in front of me was not just momentarily befuddled by the intricacies of purchasing one apple and one banana but actually batshit crazy, and I was on my way. I got home at 8:45. I sang all the way home, loudly, accompanying my fevered vigilance for deer. There were no cookies baked. I took a shower and passed out by 10pm.

But don't worry-- the cookies are coming.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Dickens-ed Again

Yep, another Dickens of a Christmas has come and gone here in town.

Once again my voluminous skirts are tucked away in the closet, and once again I make a promise to knock together some kind of bonnet before the big day so I don't walk around with snow-soaked bedraggled hair looking like the Children of Doom huddled under the coat of the Ghost of Christmas Present by 3:30.
(Though I won't lie; I'd KILL for those thighs.)

It snowed this year, and while that seems like it would have added a magical element to the strolling and the caroling and the Victorian-ing and the bread pudding-ing, it mostly made everything soppy and cold and faintly smell of wet dog. The vendors tried in vain to keep accumulating snow off of their wares. (Underscoring somewhat the insanity of a five block long outdoor craft fair in the middle of December. In North Central Pennsylvania. )
As ever, I was up at 5am, downtown by 6:30, and out on my assigned street making sure vendors knew where to set up and that they were within their allotted space. Once again I got to participate in my favorite part of Dickens, the little golden nugget of enforcement that warms the cockles of my heart and empowers me to spread little life lessons like Christmastime fairy dust.

Towing cars.

There are blaze orange signs all over town, pretty much on every other parking meter, on every street that will be filled with vendors. The signs say, in English, no less, "NO PARKING, TEMPORARY POLICE ORDER". And not surprisingly, there is at least ONE person on my designated block who doesn't get the memo. This year there were two. Yaay!
The tow truck driver swung in with amazing deftness, ran the thingy under the car, scooped it up and went. Do you know how long it actually takes to tow a car? About 30 seconds. Did you know you don't even have to get OUT of the tow truck to hook them up and take them away? They don't. Is there something wrong with the singular joy I take in this part of my responsibilities? Probably. In my defense I did NOT hang around waiting for the tearful college student to appear, asking in a trembling voice where her car was. But I'll be honest; I wanted to.

We sang our carols at the end of the day and picked our soggy way back to the car. I was never so thankful for my crock pot; dinner was ready and waiting when we got home, beef stew and homemade bread. A little ibuprofen and a hot shower and my joints were even working again. We had delightful company all weekend and I spent much time over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, chatting and poring over catalogs and cookbooks. Little did I know, tragedy loomed.

I baked a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread this morning, preparing it in the wee hours so that it would fill the house with its wonderful aroma when we were ready to get up. I came home from shopping this afternoon and put some pizza dough in the machine for dinner. And when I pulled my ball of pizza dough out of the pan, I found this.

That little bugger is what makes the magic happen. Without it my bread machine is a doorstop. I WILL find another one, because I refuse to go back to the crumb-less, personality zero, stays fresh for weeks because its soaked in chemicals- plastic wrapped crapola in the grocery store. So if anyone has a Regal Kitchen Pro Model 6761 sitting on a shelf taking up space because Aunt Velma gave it to you 10 years ago and it only gives you a faint sense of guilt because you think you SHOULD make your own bread and string ecologically friendly Christmas ornaments made from cranberries and popcorn and use those darn reusable grocery bags you keep leaving in the car but who has the time and it doesn't make you a bad person dammit, you aren't Martha Stewart but you do okay, let me know. I'll take the bread machine and the lingering feelings of inadequacy and latent resentment off your hands.