Saturday, December 10, 2011

I Remember Momma

"Christmas - that magic blanket that wraps itself about us, that something so intangible that it is like a fragrance. It may weave a spell of nostalgia. Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance - a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved." -Augusta E. Rundel

Only two more sleeps till Christmas, and like everyone else my mind is brimming with memories of home and family. Good or bad, our childhood memories have a profound effect on us, and this is never more true than the memories we have of the holidays. Traditions. Culture. Family. Food. For me, the memories of those times were what I thought the holidays would always be. But life has a way of moving on, no matter how much we wish it wouldn't. Divorce. Death. Even the very city that surrounds me continues to evolve and change. The very house I grew up in is now unrecognizable thanks to urban renewal. The memories then become even more precious. More sweet in the glow of Christmas past. And so this blog, so very long in coming, is dedicated to my mother and the memories she made for me. I hope that I made some for my own children that they will look back on with some fondness themselves someday.

I remember Momma most in the kitchen. Always in an apron, always cooking, canning, baking. At Christmas she started early in December. The old red Betty Crocker cookbook would come out, the one with the images I knew by heart. The old mixmaster mixer with the white glass bowls would begin to hum. Glace' cherries, candied citrus peel, Hershey's baking chocolate. Brown sugar, white. Chocolate chips, butterscotch chips. She started early and stored the goodies in tins on the cold back porch. In the evenings as we watched television she would appear bearing a tray of our favorites. Russian teacakes for me. Peanut butter fudge for my dad. White chocolate bark. Chinese noodle candy. Spritz. I think my mothers favorite were the white sugar cookies. Melt in your mouth, crisp and buttery. I remember coming home from school to find her baking them, cookies lined up in rows cooling on her big bread board. I sat on the stool that sat between the stove and refrigerator, enjoying fresh cookies and milk, watching Momma flatten each round ball of dough with a buttered glass and then press a candied cherry into the center of each cookie.

I remember Momma taking me to see Santa. Going to the Westland Shopping Center was a big deal at Christmas. It was swanky by shopping center standards back then, in the years before malls as we know them now. The decorations were fancy and there was a little train that took kids around the whole center. I suppose it was Montgomery Ward or Sears Robuck where I visited Santa. My child eyes were blind to the locale. All I saw was him. I remember that too hot crowded feeling of being forced to shop in your coat, boots, hat and mittens. Stumbling along in your snow boots, hot and sweaty, your socks wrinkled up and falling down. Getting so tired and thirsty and bored. And mom in dress and heels and everything that goes with it. How did she ever do it?

I remember Momma decorating the tree. Tinsel trees with rotating lights were the thing back then. Ours was done with multicolor lights and all red satin balls. One night after a walk to see the neighbors houses my mother declared it the most pathetic and moth eaten tree she'd ever seen. She came home and took it down. My poor father must have been in shock. After that we had real trees for a while. Free ones that my Dad got from the school where he worked as as janitor. At that time every classroom got a real tree of its own and when Christmas vacation started they went in the trash. Dad would keep his eye out and find the pick of the litter. I'd go with him back to the school in the evening after the big party and we'd bring our tree home. Eventually we got a new "lifelike" green artificial tree. As embarrassed as I was about our hand me down trees, I liked them better than the bristle brush fake one, but momma loved it. None of the old ornaments survived those fifty plus years of marriage, but I can still see the silver tinsel tree and hear the grinding hum of the spinning colored disc.

I remember how much Momma loved Christmas lights. There was always a drive into downtown Denver to see the store window decorations and the decorated city and county building. On the way home we'd drive down streets to see lights on houses, trees in windows. She loved those outings! In later years son in laws would do the driving and one year there was a carriage ride as a surprise. The old city is gone now, and the city and county building now sports LED lights instead of the big old fashioned bulbs. The manger scene is gone and Santa's sleigh is behind chain link fence and locked up from vandals but my memories of those special sparkling nights will never dim.

I remember Momma always making oyster soup on Christmas Eve. Buttery milk broth with that sea salty taste. I never liked the oysters but I loved the broth and oyster crackers. On Christmas Day it would be roast turkey again, just like Thanksgiving. There were pies; cherry, rhubarb, pumpkin. And often fried bread or cinnamon rolls. Pickled herring and always Momma's cranberry relish. It was my job to sit on the breadboard and hold it down while she cranked the handle on the grinder. Beneath the opening sitting on a chair was the big bowl that would catch the crushed cranberries and all that juice. I was not allowed to put things into the grinder until I was much older, she was so fearful of twisting my fingers inside, but I so loved to feed it cranberries! I loved the pop as they were crushed. Grind, grind, feed, feed, until at last the beautiful crushed cranberries began to emerge along with the bitter juice. Chunks of orange, rind and all went in too. My father loved it and piled it on top of his turkey, mashed potaotes, rolls, everything. Every year we did it. In the future other little ones took my place on the breadboard, and I was jealous. Eventually a food processor would make us board holders obsolete. She made it right up until the year she died, smaller batches as the family dinners shrank until it was just her alone. I have her old hand written recipe card for cranberry relish and when I hold it I bring back those days in the kitchen on Dover Street.

There was dinner and church service, and Christmas Eve seemed to last forever. Momma must have been so tired by the end of the day. All that cleaning and cooking and washing up by herself and me being a pest about opening presents and Santa. I remember the year Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer premiered. I remember Lawrence Welk. I remember Bing Crosby's and King Family's Christmas Show. Bing Crosby and Perry Como were Christmas in our house and to this day I only need a few notes of White Christmas or Home for the Holidays to send me over the bend of nostalgia, down the road of childhood, when Christmas was magic.

I remember Momma the year my father gave her a string of pearls for Christmas. Dad didn't often get the gift giving thing right, but that year he did big time. She loved those pearls. My mother never had any fancy jewels of precious stones. She didn't have furs or diamonds. Those pearls were a precious possession to her. And of all the daughters, I was the only one who remembered that Christmas and the giving of the pearls when she died. It was the hardest thing I gave away, those pearls. But I was not the only daughter, or granddaughter who remembered her wearing them, nor was I the only one who loved her, and I had the memory of Momma and year she got that special gift. Every string of pearls conjures the memory, especially at Christmas.

I remember the year I got a snow saucer and my father took me out in the snow to play. He pulled me so fast the icy wind bit my cheeks. He must have had as much fun as I did, because I remember it turning dusk and we were still out. I remember begging to go again and again. Dad took me up the steep embankment where they were building a highway by our house. I went down the slope and picked up so much speed that when I hit the ice at the bottom I shot across the street and just kept going. By the time I hit the sidewalk and ice on the opposite side, I did a complete flip and landed in a snowbank. Poor Dad must have thought hed killed me. I was fine. Scared but all in once piece. To this day when I watch the saucer scene in Christmas Vacation I can still remember that thrill. I wonder if Dad had sprayed my saucer with Pam if I would have kept going for a couple blocks.

For me the lingering memories of those days are of all of us together. The faces. The voices. The paper. The tree. The love. I don't remember years by the gifts I did or did not receive, I don't remember being disappointed that often though we were not rich and I'm sure their weren't many gifts. Gifts were small and simple. It was truly the thought and the season and the love, not the size, or quantity. For me it is the fabric of the years themselves that I remember most, not one year or one toy or one memory alone that defines my childhood Christmases. It is th time I long for, when life was still simple and we thought it would never not be so. The years with all of us together before we all began to marry and move away. Before our own families demanded our time and attention and the old family home was gone. Before divorce and death would separate us from one another. There in the glow of time we live on as before, gathered together in laughter and love. Thank you Momma.