Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Melia's Month of Memories--Post Second (because I just can't seem to get in the habit of writing every day. You would weep if you saw my journal.)

Some months have personalities. July and August are bullies here in the beautiful Desert Southwest--beating us mercilessly about the utility bill and forcing us to cough up protection money, "Or face a day in the sun, if you know what we mean. Heh, Heh, Heh." February is a flirt--teasing us with the lure of romance and eternal affection, but then speeding away just when she was getting interesting. December is the sprinter, always rushing by to claim yet another, "Gee, that was a quick month" record. And he just whacked me on the be-hind with his baton. (Of course, in the case of December the baton is made out of peppermint. Even so, there's little welt right where I was smacked.)

So, yeah, I let a few days get away from me. But how is a middle-aged mom supposed to keep up with the flash that is December?

Excuses aside, on to the memories!

Today's topic:
ornaments and the trees that go with them

I suppose that there are probably people that don't really care what the Christmas tree looks like--or even if it makes it into the house in time for the holiday. I may even have known them and not fully understood the gaping holes that were their souls. How can you not care what the tree looks like? It's going to dominate the whole darn house for a month or so, and everyone will see it! So do a good job on it, darn it!

I, naturally, come from the other end of the spectrum. I blame it on my mother. (My father is one of those for whom the tree is a nice concept, but not so much of an obsession; it's more like something to dodge when vacuuming. If he vacuumed. Which he does. But only when my mom is out of town. He's come a long way, baby.) Mom grew up in a family who liked the tree just so--and habits like that are hard to break. And luckily for Mom, she always had a Christmas tree that gave her scope for just so-ey-ness.

I grew up in a house with a twenty-foot tall vaulted ceiling. That was nice in the summer when paper airplane contests were popular. (That was a quiet enough activity for us to do when we were cooped up by six solid months of temperatures hot enough to melt your spleen.) But it was a real asset when it came time for the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad--who clearly knew the power of BIG in creating wonderment in the juvenile brain, always went for the tallest tree they could find. (And now that I think about it, how? Because even in the 70s, when such things were not twenty dollars a foot like they are now, my parents were not exactly rolling in the dough. Did they have a Tree budget which they contributed to all year long? Did they fast on Fridays and save the money? Did my dad moonlight as a gold miner to accumulate the cash? These are question I really ought to ask and include in my personal history if I ever get around to that. Which seems unlikely, given my propensity for procrastination of the typed type.) One year we kids were very proud when we were able to score the sixteen-footer that had been set aside for one of the banks in town. (Really. We were apparently budding anti-capitalists.)

When we got those monstrous--in the very best sense--things home, Dad would wedge the trunk of the tree of the year in Mom's largest pot (see--too poor even for a tree stand!) and Mom would set to work. All the ornaments from the past thirty-odd years would come out, and be exclaimed over. We children would claim all the ones we had made or had been given over the years. There were the felt angels Mom had made when I was four or so, and the little china Dutch shoes, the doves from Mom and Dad's wedding reception, and the angels from Mom's childhood. And they had to be placed correctly. Even spaced; no two similar ornaments next to each other; breakable glass ones at the top. It took forever. And when we were done, we girls always wanted to sleep underneath the tree. We even got to once or twice.

Every year the trees became more elaborately decorated. Mainly because we each received a new ornament each year--something that commemorated an event from the year past. That was part of the fun--to see what we had done on display in felt and lace and glass.

When I grew up, the tradition continued. On my mission I received a glass globe. The year I got my driver's license (AFTER the mission and the college graduation, pathetically enough) I was given a red car ornament. Christmas ornaments were/are a BIG DEAL.

So is it any wonder that when Roberto and I were engaged I gave him an ornament for Christmas?

He didn't get the concept.

There I was, warmly welcoming him into the wonderful welter of my family's traditions, and he was disappointed it wasn't a watch or a tie or whatever a twenty-something-year-old guy really wants for Christmas. (Something illicit and highly inappropriate, I fear) It took him nearly a decade to understand the significance of that gift.

Naturally, I tease him mercilessly about it every year. It's on the agenda for this one, too.

These days we actually have two trees. Our first is the artificial one we (I, mostly) set up as soon as possible after Thanksgiving. It's covered in fruit ornaments, and is actually rather restrained, when you consider how I was raised. We have a family tradition--started almost five years ago, and thus of comparatively ancient vintage--of adding one additional ornament a day. All these ornaments are on gospel themes: the temple, families, missionary work, the Savior and His birth. We call it our "Fruits of the Gospel" tree and it's our one point of sanity in an over-commercialized celebration.

The other tree is the big one. The one for which all the living room furniture must be arranged. The one that tales up more space than should be legally allowed. And Santa brings it and decorates it on Christmas Eve while the children sleep. (Last year Santa scored by going on Christmas Eve to Home Depot, where they just GAVE him the tree for free. It was one less they had to chip up for mulch. Santa is a frugal shopper.) When everyone (except Mom, who still hasn't mastered the trick of sleeping on Christmas Eve--too excited, if you can believe it) wakes up, there it is, bright and shining and covered with all the well-loved ornaments that Santa had apparently quietly retrieved from the basement without the insane guard dog licking him to death in the process. (Guard Dog likes Santa, it would seem. Or maybe Santa keeps his pockets full of peppermint-flavored mace for just such a situation.) There are the felt angel from my pre-school days, my globe, my Dutch shoes. The boys have their ornaments for trips to Disneyland and to the aquariums. There is the cloth angel I stitched for our first son the year he was born and I couldn't afford two dollars to buy him one. The icicles I bought when I worked in the trim-a-tree department at the mall are scattered--and still quite effective. And my husband's first ornament, his knight-in-shining-armor hand-blown glass ornament, that he really didn't think much of at first, is near the top.

It's a pretty darn fabulous sight.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Good heavens! When did December sneak up on me? No knock, no warning whistle, no flash of the twinkly lights. Just WHAM! And suddenly everyone is spouting Holiday Cheer like it's some sort of chocolate-induced acne and I only have three weeks--no, make that 19 days!!!!!!!!!--to get everything done. Because it just ain't Christmas if Mom isn't frazzled and slugging back hot cocoa to steady her nerves.

In an effort to remember and reinforce to my poor shriveled soul what Christmas is all about (and no, Virginia, it isn't about your six-year-old son's fifteenth re-write of his letter to Santa--this time with major emphasis on highly specific and probably unlawful-in-the-hands-of-an-unlicensed-minor type toys.) Christmas only comes once a year--one chance in 365 to make a memory to last through the joys of spring, the blisters of summer and the muddy paw prints of autumn. One day to GET IT RIGHT, dagnabbit!

And so, only six (and one half) days late, I begin my
Month of Memories
A month--if I can keep it up; feel free to bet--of the memories that I hold near, dear, and occasionally cringe-worthy.

Tonight's topic: Christmas food (mainly because I'm in the middle of cooking dinner, and it just feels right somehow.)

I know there are people who eat ham or turkey on Christmas Eve. I've been friends with a few of them in my time. And on my mission I met others who celebrated with tamales, enchiladas, and even lasagna--a particularly festive bunch. But the fact is, nothing in the whole wide world says Christmas so well as Swedish Meatballs or Clam Chowder.

You see, I have a large family. Not that my parents were so very prolific or anything--there are only four of us siblings, although that prior to our births many more were planned. (Sorry about that, Mom!) When I say family I mean FAMILY. With a big red letter in front. With lots and lots and lots of aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, great-aunts and -uncles, grandparents, and people we just figured were family until we started doing genealogy and found out those trees did not intertwine. When my mom married my dad she thought she was getting a bargain. She was--but it was the marry one, get 59 free type. My mom grew up in a nice, picturesque Northern California town. Just she and her brother and their parents. Meals were decorous affairs. Conversations were hushed. And manners were always observed. When she married Dad, she was thrown right into the maelstrom of emotion, humor, and extreme decibel-levels that is my father's family. How was a girl to cope? By making a bargain: one Christmas with dad's family, one with her family. Evenly balanced. The best of both worlds. Sanity and lunacy in alternating waves.

So, in odd years we would head off to the Bay area, and my Aunt Michelle would make her fabulous clam chowder--I got used to the chewy bits at around age 13--and we'd have sourdough bread and veggies, and lovely desserts, and it was all very fancy and festive. I loved it. Somewhere in my young brain, the ideas of chowder and the thrill of holidays in a place far more interesting than my home town fused, and I still can't eat chowder without feeling a little shiver of anticipation down my spine. (These days my spine is usually anticipating a child asking if he/she can finish off my soup, but the vertebrae still get excited.) Unfortunately, I never had a hand in making the chowder, so I can't concoct a big pot full of the heavenly stuff. These day I have to rely on Campbell's to take me back to memory lane.

In even years, we'd stay home in the desert, and my grandma would do her best that no matter what--even if the only snow was on the television, and most of us could only say "tack"--and that with poor accents--we were SWEDES. By all that was or ever could be holy, we were SWEDES! And don't you forget it! So we gorged on Swedish meatballs (kottbullar--and that "k" at the beginning sounds like a "sh", and the "o" that follows should really have two dots over it and sounds a bit like a cross between a short i and a short e, so you can see why we kids liked to call them by their proper name loudly and with slightly-less-than-innocent smiles on our faces) and rice pudding (which is a whole 'nother story and the reason my grandmother has over fifty great-grandchildren), and crispbread, and cheese, and mashed potatoes, and my stomach is cramping up just thinking about it. (And every year my grandmother pulled out the jar of pickled herring that had graced the table since 1946. No one ever had the courage to eat it--would YOU?--and the same jar will probably be set out this year. You'd think the joke or the hope or whatever it is that motivates my grandmother to do so would have evaporated by now, but you'd be wrong. Sadly, painfully, wrong) My memories of Christmases with Dad's side of the family revolve around my fingers freezing stiff from mixing up the meatballs (we could only help if we were old enough to take the pain without excessive whining) and guessing how many of the products of my agony my little brother had eaten. (23 one year.)

This year, we'll be at the church by my Swedish Grandmother's house--we outgrew her family room about ten years ago. There goes that rice pudding again!--and I'll be the one with a plate full of meatballs in front of her and the big smile on her face.

Here's to yummy memories and a big pile of kottbullar!