A shout from downstairs startled me out of my thoughts. I hurried down to be greeted by my son Sam just arrived from the airport. “You’re looking pretty bleary eyed I remarked” and gathered his tall frame into my arms for a welcoming hug. “ Time for you to go upstairs and get some rest before the festivities begin because I depend on you to be the organizer and assistant chef.” I listened at the bottom of the stairs until the echo of his footsteps on the wood floors stopped and silence reigned once more in my beautiful log home. I turned and still holding onto the bannister looked into the living room and a rush of pleasure coursed through me at the decorations and the smell of the evergreen boughs and pine cones awaiting their time to be burned in the fieldstone fireplace.
A long held unwritten law in my family was to create a seamless blending of Christmas past and present. The heritage on my fathers side was of Irish extraction. My great grandparents arrived after a seafaring trip and settled in a poor farming community. Most of their traditions were lost and it wasn’t until the next generation when affluence was on the rise that a convivial gathering celebrated the family with storytelling, home baking, handmade decorations and the most beautiful of all the singing of Christmas carols. Music is a family passion carried down through the years from my maternal Germanic side and the Irish influence from my paternal side. My late husband’s heritage of Irish on both sides had meant we had very similar backgrounds and he’d been happy to let me be the gatekeeper for our family customs. I had done my best again this year to create a vision similar to Christmas pasts’ but had really missed the companionship, help, and the pleasure of his presence.
The hall table was stacked with my homemade plum jam, apple jelly, strawberry jam, corn relish, sweet and sour pickles, pear spears and rhubarb compote each having been packaged in Christmas paper and tied with various green and silver silky smooth ribbons. The cheddar shortbread had a short lifespan and so they were boxed festively and kept cool in the fridge waiting to be handed out as gifts as guests departed for their homes later in the evening. The chocolate macaroons in clear glass jars were dressed in frilly paper and tied with red grosgrain ribbon. These were my favourite decadent sweet that I made every year in remembrance of my mother who had made them herself and that I had loved eating as a child. It was always in the act of creating and giving that I received so much in return. A wonderful feeling blossomed in my heart as I gazed upon this cornucopia of food knowing that each would be graciously received and enjoyed.
I missed the presence of my dog. He loved all family gatherings, his tail rapidly swishing back and forth he would sniff each of the three boys legs and push his wet snout into their hands for a neck rub and would wait for a bacon treat knowing that each would indulge him. He would have loved today to have clambered up on Sam’s knee and been given a belly rub, a delightful grin would have appeared and he would have gazed rapturously into space, lost in a perfect moment in a dogs life. At seventeen years of age having had his birthday just this month he had fallen asleep in his basket and probably dreaming of chasing rabbits he had died. I brushed a tear from my eye and remembered that for those that love time is eternity. He would be forever in my heart.
Lost in thought I headed back upstairs to take this time to meditate. Sitting crossed legged on the floor I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing in and out. All thoughts slipped away and I leant fully into a mindfulness place where time no longer has meaning. Doing this each morning had brought me to a place of peacefulness. Stretching my stiff muscles I headed to the shower and fully enjoyed a long blast of hot water to loosen up my arthritic joints. The water pellets pummelled against my back creating rivulets pouring down between my legs and the heat to penetrate to my very core. I’ve always loved to hear the sound that water makes whether it’s the surf crashing onto a shoreline or raindrops patterning themselves against a glass window. Each time I heard water flowing it brought a feeling of permanence into my life.
Wearing my old Christmas tartan sweater with scottie dogs along the hemline and a pair of corduroy pants and warm woolly socks I headed to the kitchen to enjoy my other favourite morning perk of a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee. “Hey Mom “ said my youngest son Peter as he peeked his head around the back door frame. “Just checking to see if you need us to bring anything from our place. We’re heading out for our Christmas morning carolling with the neighbours and this will be our final stop later this afternoon.” “ Thank you for that thought but at present everything seems to be in order. Sam has arrived, he’s sleeping off his jet lag. Enjoy this time with your family and I’m looking forward to hearing you sing later today.” The smooth richness of the coffee slid down my throat, the first swallow was like a sensual massage spreading over me.
Late afternoon and the house was filled with three toddlers moving pell mell around and through the legs of a roomful of adults. Young and old gathered together in my home filling the space with warmth and harmony. The piano rang forth its merry tunes and tenor and soprano sang with gusto and a heartfelt joy. A few of my old friends had gathered around the kitchen table to play Scrabble. It was a mark of years of friendship to continue to play against Harry; with his undergraduate degree in Classics and a Masters in the Study of Language it was a given that he would always be the winner. He was. At every gathering though there was the faint hope that he would be stumped by his letters and another player would take the lead even if only for a brief period of time. The move to play Monopoly seemed to happen sooner as we got older for at least it was an open playing field with the opportunity for anyone to win that was savvy enough to spend all their play money buying real estate.
This year the main course for dinner was steak on a salad and harvest potatoes. All the guests had brought appetizers or dessert to be shared amongst everyone. As the hostess it was my privilege to prepare and serve the main course and this year Sam was my right hand man. The gas barbecue was heating up on the back deck, the potatoes had been boiled, cut up and sprinkled with fresh herbs and pepper and cooked onion generously mixed in and placed in the three large baking dishes ready for the oven. The arugula salad with goat cheese, tomatoes and candied pecans along with a home made blend of balsamic oil and vinegar dressing on the side lay in a large salad bowl ready to be placed under each steak. The plates were in the warming oven along with the six wrapped Christmas tree shaped sweet bread buns.
My grandmother had been a wonderful inventive cook. Raising thirteen children was an accomplishment especially living isolated in the country and relying on the goodwill of her husbands patients who instead of paying for his services in money paid in food. Her Christmas contribution was the recipe for sweet buns handed down to her by her mother. The problem was that it had been passed down by word of mouth not handwritten and so each woman in the extended family had their own interpretation. Each year we each would make a batch and shape the buns into a tree. It was a blind taste taste only the bakers knowing their own buns. The bread would be tasted by everyone present prior to the main course being served and a vote taken on which tree had the best taste, texture and general appearance. I had won occasionally and it was always a great source of amusement to listen in on the conversations revolving around whose buns were going to come out as the winner.
The dining room table groaned under the weight of sterling silver placemats, place settings and the crystal stemware shimmered and reflected prisms of light from the many flickering candles placed in the massive Christmas bouquet. My mother had begun the tradition of Christmas crackers that she hand made from used cardboard toilet rolls. She filled them with unique small gifts, a Chinese fortune and a printed charade along with silver sparkles that burst forth in a shower when the cracker was opened. The charade had to be acted out, hilarity generally ensued as each person clamoured to make their voice heard and then awaited their turn in the limelight. My sister Kate had taken over as the cracker creator and each year she filled them with tiny musical instruments which included a Christmas carol song sheet and together we would attempt to play and sing together as our grace before the meal.
The evening was drawing to a close, the children tired and wanting their beds. Coats and scarves, hats and mitts were placed on weary bodies and young and old prepared to leave for their vehicles and then home. A quick hug and with a request to take one of my presents off the hall table the guests were soon out the door replete after a fine dinner, good company and happy to have a food gift from my kitchen. Sam was staying for a few days before his flight back overseas and I looked forward to the lighting of the fire, the scent of fresh pine in the living room, a snifter of brandy and the long awaited conversation revolving around his work in the film industry and personal achievements this past year. I listened intently to his storytelling, he had a gift with words, the sound of his voice compelling and I knew his perseverance in dreaming big had paid off.