Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Very Human Christmas

Grandmother Herta Schenk-Allen circa 1915, Harrisburg, PA.

 Uncle Ralph delights in decorations - picture window perfect.


My parents, Walter & Isabel Allen, 1950, Hollywood CA.
A  newly-wedded couple's Christmas.

After so many Christmases you'd think I'd learned to approach them realistically. That is - without this expectation of flawless people, mealtimes and moments.

Regarding the top photo of Grandma Herta. Looks iconic and idealistic, doesn't it? One Christmas entry from her husband, my grandfather Sherman's diary read like this:

Dec 27, 1914: Cold & clear. I am in disfavor with Herta. Sing cantata by Brewer, The Holy Night. 
Dec 24, 1915: Gift trouble with Herta (probably mine to her not satisfactory) We have the children in for the tree 5-7 P.M.

Not so perfect as it looks.

When I returned to work 2 days after Christmas, my friend refused to talk about her Christmas. Of course, I had to know more. "The day started with crying and ended with crying, " she said.

"Oh well, how bout that?  I cried in the middle of it, " I exclaimed!  So between the two of us,  we rounded out the whole day for a not-as-special-as-we'd-hoped-for, teary Christmas.

Ours started beautifully with Handel's Messiah on the record or CD player (whichever one is working at the time...For unto us a Child is Born...), Betty Crocker's Jolly Breakfast ring, a traditional coffee cake my mother always made, hardboiled eggs, orange juice, coffee. I've expanded the menu with mini-quiches and bacon or sausage. We fill our Christmas plates and gather round the tree for a great time of gift opening.

Mother-in-law joined us. 

After the grand finale gift of a ping-pong table (to lure my son and his teenager friends to hang out at OUR house), the dinner prep starts. Table set for 8.

Mother in law said she's going home. She's tired. I had offered a nap earlier anticipating her fatigue,  to which she had been offended that I thought she'd need one. "No, I'm going home. " She resolved.  No Christmas dinner together? This nearly a cardinal sin in my book. You have to be together for Christmas, with your best on, the silver out, ham, scalloped potatoes, cranberry salad, roasted carrots, crystal goblets and wine glasses of Martinelli. You have to stay.

"Let her go",  my husband says. After which I receive a spousal lecture on being insensitive to averting a Christmas catasrophe. "Do you want a cranky old lady at your dinner table? I'm trying to keep peace on a holiday and you are oblivious to anything but your precious dinner."

So I remove one place setting and chair and continue preparing for 7 for dinner, wiping tears. I just wanted a Christmas with the whole family present!

Then, while halving grapes on a cutting board,  the special Christmas moment snuck up on me.... unexpectedly. You have to watch for them or you'll miss them entirely:

Son and friend in the kitchen, while I cook, we see how many lyrics to White Christmas, Silver Bells, and Chestnuts we remember by heart. It was sweet, the 3 of us outdoing one another singing accapella. His mother passed from cancer last year and he is here for Christmas dinner.

Just as I am serving, he announces he has to go. Granted, dinner is an hour and a half off schedule because of unexpected mid-day lecture and cry-spell, so it's partly our fault.

"Another family invited me and I thought I'd be done by now and make both dinners. Is that rude, Mrs Shaw?" I wanted to shout "YES! It's very rude!" But I didn't and smiled as I removed another place setting and chair from the dining table, now set for 6. Both leaves in the table we are all really spread out now.

Meanwhile, my work-friend who started and ended her Christmas crying, said she kept getting unexpected guest at her Christmas Dinner. Son is not welcome at girlfriend Christmas table because he had not formally met the father. So he stays home. She adds a place setting and chair. Then girlfriend comes. Add another. So her table is the exact opposite of mine. Too late to undo everything and add a leaf, she has squeezed 8 people on a table for 6.

It's hilarious to me to think that these two opposite developments were happening at the same time, in different houses, a few miles apart, each mother of the house a little frustrated and disappointed that our Smitten Kitchen/Martha Stewart meal was not transpiring as expected.

It was after all, and always will be, a very human Christmas. And we will take what we can get, both prickly pine needles and lovely spicy scent, with a grateful heart.


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