I’m sure some of you were opening this post with some trepidation, wondering if I was going to cover some depressing aspect of our history. Surprise! Even though I recognize that Christmas is not a holiday or holy day for all of us, it is part of my tradition. Taking a break from our seamier side is the least I can do; there’s enough ugliness in our current reality without piling on for one day. But history is all about stories, so today, I’m sharing some of my holiday stories and ask you to feel free to do the same. If Christmas isn’t part of your tradition, I’m sure you still have holiday stories, so don’t feel limited. But most of all, enjoy…and Merry Christmas!
Favorite childhood gift
When I was either 3 or 4, I received a stuffed Yogi bear as a gift. I don’t really remember much about my reaction when opening the package; about the only thing I remember about that particular Christmas was that our tree was in the dining room, rather than in its usual place in the living room, and I have no idea why. But while I don’t remember opening my Yogi gift, Yogi quickly became my favorite bedtime snuggle buddy. By the time I was eight, his tie tore off, but after the initial devastation when my mom informed me she couldn’t fix it, I still loved him. He went to college with me. When I moved to Scotland after getting married, he went on the plane with me, because there was no way I was letting him get packed into a crate and crossing the ocean alone. He had pride of place in the middle of our bed. And then disaster happened; we got our deerhound puppy, and on his first day in our home, he discovered Yogi. Our deerhound loved on Yogi a bit too enthusiastically, and by the time I separated the two, Yogi had one ear chewed to bits and a foot that was holding on by threads. I still loved Yogi, but despite putting socks on his feet, which kept his one foot from falling off altogether (he was too threadbare at this point for me to reattach his foot), it was clear he could no longer be my snuggle buddy. Eventually, I swaddled him in clean wrapping, boxed him up, and put him away, forced to acknowledge that my nightly routine would no longer include kissing him on the nose.
Favorite/not-so-favorite food memory
There are quite a few contenders in this category. Maybe it’s the Christmas stocking tradition of receiving a book of Lifesavers, and the equally memorable attempts to find someone, anyone who would take my butter rum Lifesavers, because of course Lifesavers should only be fruity or minty. Or maybe it was my paternal grandmother’s Christmas Eve meal tradition. She would sit me, my sister, and my cousins down at the adult table early and serve us homemade chicken and rice soup. In hindsight, I can see that she did this to allow herself extra, unbothered time in the kitchen and to enable the adults to continue enjoying their adult beverages without us kids pestering them about when dinner was going to happen. But we viewed it as the Biggest Treat Ever. We got Grandma’s yummy soup at the Big Table, while the grownups only had their stinky cocktails. After our soup, we’d clear the table and set it for dinner…another win-win for Grandma.
On Christmas morning, after opening our immediate family gifts, we’d pile in the car and drive from Cleveland to Toledo to spend Christmas day with my maternal uncle and family. My aunt, who was the daughter of Spanish immigrants, would serve paella. This was shocking to me. At that point, I didn’t know her family story or traditions, but I did know that my mom never, ever served rice. My dad had two food “rules” for my mom: never rice and never lamb. Both brought back visceral sense memories of his fighting in WWII, and it was the closest he came for years to admitting the horror of his time in service. Fortunately for my dad, my aunt served a lot of other dishes, so my dad could skip the paella; us kids weren’t given the option (we were expected to take a teaspoon of everything), but I hated the paella on general principle and in solidarity with my dad. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that my aunt’s paella was actually very, very good, but even to this day, I only reluctantly serve rice in any form. On the other hand, my aunt also made Aunt Gussy’s Cloud, a dessert from heaven. We were only allowed to have one serving of that, because my aunt and uncle always had their neighbors over for Christmas desserts, so we had to share. It was an unspoken rule, but one we just seemed to understand. One year my aunt pulled me into the kitchen and told me that she had noticed over the years how much I liked Aunt Gussy’s Cloud, so she had set aside an extra, extra large piece for me. When my aunt died in 2013, I attended her memorial service in Toledo, and my oldest cousin pulled me aside and handed me an envelope his mom had prepared for me…it was her recipe for Aunt Gussy’s Cloud.
Worst Christmas memory
I must have been about seven. As usual, we opened our presents together, and then raced to get the house cleaned up before clambering into the car and heading to Toledo. (My parents had a thing about leaving the house clean before a trip: all dishes done and put away, garbage taken out, house picked up…I always assumed it was so any potential thieves would know we kept a clean house. Only now do I understand that it saved them a lot of work when we arrived back home, when they were exhausted.) For this trip, I left Yogi on my bed and chose Dandelion (a stuffed lion, because my naming was nothing if not obvious) to make the trip. Yogi was upset, until I explained that Dandelion had never met my aunt, uncle and cousins, so it was Dandelion’s turn. Yogi was good with that. I spent the first hour of the trip, sitting in the backseat and reading my Nancy Drew mystery (another gift that I could count on for years). My dad announced that we were approaching a rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike and asked if anyone needed to stop. No one did, including me, even though I was suddenly not feeling so good. About a minute after we passed the exit, I suddenly, and quite unexpectedly to me, started throwing up. I tried to aim for the floor mat once I realized what was happening (I’d never been sick to my stomach before, at least as far as I could remember), but mostly I just managed to vomit all over Dandelion. I was distraught. My dad was sympathy-retching. My sister was howling and climbing the side of the car to get away from me. My mom was trying to climb over the front seat to get to me. My dad finally pulled over, snatched me out of the car, and carried me past the shoulder to finish what I had started. I was inconsolable, however, because Dandelion’s mane was ruined. My mom grabbed Dandelion, rolled him in the snow until he was soaking, but cleaner, and then grabbed a hairbrush from her purse and did the best she could at grooming Dandelion’s mane. She then dug out her plastic rain scarf from her purse (Remember those? They folded fan-like into little plastic envelopes, and every well-prepared woman carried one…), wrapped Dandelion’s head in it, and placed him on the floor of the backseat. The floor mat was also removed from the car and received a snow wash. My sister moved to the front seat; my mom sat in back with me with Dandelion at her feet. We were about an hour late arriving at my uncle’s, and the whole family heard the story, which they unaccountably found hilarious. I was never allowed to read in the car again, and my mom started giving me Dramamine before every trip. Dandelion’s mane never fully recovered, but my mom’s brushing saved it from the worst. My sister has never forgotten and reminds me of the story every chance she gets. And I still have Dandelion.
Best Christmas/Christmas gift received as an adult
I feel like I should be citing the first Christmas after The Kiddo was born, but that would be way too conventional and maternal of me, both things I don’t lay claim to. Instead, I’m remembering the Christmas of 2011. 2011 was a rough year. Kiddo had left her Ph.D program the year before because of health issues, and she was still not fully stabilized. We’d helped her move to a small studio apartment in Ohio, because living with us would have meant a dependency she didn’t want; distance from the neurologist she trusted; and a lack of public transportation when she wasn’t allowed to drive. So Ohio it was (in the town where she had done her undergrad, so she knew the town and still had lots of friends in the area), and for her first Christmas in her tiny apartment, we traveled down. I cooked a full-blown meal, despite no counter space, a tiny oven, and a small pub table that seated four (she invited a friend over for dinner, since he couldn’t be with his family for the holiday). Somehow we managed. We had to open all of the windows, because it was so hot from the turkey baking. We had to use her desk as a serving table, because there was no room on her kitchen table for anything but our place settings. But we laughed and laughed, and it was the first time in almost two years that I felt like she might have a future that didn’t include weekly doctor visits, never-ending tests, and medication that cost more than her monthly earnings (thank goodness for insurance!); it was certainly true for her too, because that was the day she whispered to me, “I’m going to be OK, Mum. I’m going to live, and I’m going to live well.”
That was also the Christmas that Kiddo and Hubby teamed up for my gift. After all the presents had been unwrapped, Hubby turned to our daughter and said, “It’s time.” She pulled a package out of the linen closet and handed it to me. I unwrapped it and stared. I was so confused. And then I started crying like a small child. It was a Yogi bear. Not my Yogi bear, despite my initial confusion. But a Yogi bear that could be his twin, right down to the torn tie…but with ears and foot intact. They had found him on Ebay, and my husband told me that he knew nothing could replace Original Yogi, but he thought it was time our bed had Yogi laying on it again. And so he does (although when the dogs jump up, Yogi gets moved to a table, because I’m never going to put any Yogi at risk again). And New Yogi gets a kiss on the nose every night.
Best gift you’ve ever gotten for yourself
I can’t be the only one that does this, am I? Am I?! I think I’m going to go with current events rather than history for this one. Kiddo recently got an antique, revolving book table for her new home and has been filling its shelves with classic mysteries written by the Queens of Crime (the apple sometimes doesn’t fall far from the tree). Because I’d been thinking about Christmas memories for this post, I realized that she had never really been a fan of Nancy Drew in the same way I was growing up. I asked her about it, and she told me that Nancy had just been too dependent upon men in her stories, so she never really took to her. She also mentioned that she’d read that the original Nancy Drew stories were far less about finishing-school Nancy and much more about feisty Nancy. I did some research and discovered this was true, and most of the stories I read when I was young were the rewrites, rather than the originals. And so I’ve been haunting Ebay lately, looking to purchase the original-text stories. Some are reprints from Applewood Books, who republished the first 21 stories with the original dust jackets, illustrations, and stories. Some are actual old editions, a bit worse for the wear, but readable. I purchased the first six (Applewood editions) and had them sent directly to Kiddo; because the dust jackets have the original, period art on the dust jackets, she’s going to use them as “decor” in the guest bedroom (and yes, you should read that as “books for Mum to read when she visits”). I’ve ordered a few for myself and am trying to decided just how far I want to go with this latest obsession. So fair warning, there may be a Nancy Drew post in our future…
Feel free to share any holiday memories in the comments. Christmas may not be everyone’s holiday, but the sentiment of “Peace on Earth, goodwill to all” is universal. That is my wish for all of you.