Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Folded in half, then in half again.

I have this weird Mrs. Claus cut wood cutout on my desk. It was in my grandparents' stuff, but I dont recall seeing it before. Which is odd because they were all about having every inch of everything covered in Christmas stuff, the day after Thanksgiving. Maybe it was in my grandfather's mother's stuff. The wood's dry enough for it to be possible. I don't know why it matters. It's just that when I was putting the stuff up, and I started taking out their stuff, I could remember where most of it came from. There were some things like the santa door knob cover that I didn't know about. I recall someone telling me that it was made by my grandmother's mother, or something like that. Maybe my mom will know.

I don't know why it's important. The end of my grandmother's red table cloth, which hasn't see the light of day since she was able to see the light of day, was ragged. I suspect my grandfather decided it was too long for the buffet table that they always put it on, and got out the scissors. It's something crazy like he'd do. Y'know, sink the ships before the flood. So I started measuring and marking off a straight edge, and I saw a small brown greasy stain. It wasn't in the middle, but it wasn't near the very edge. I imagine it's where the brownies sat every year, left hand side, on the white Corral plate with the funny mustard-colored edge work, which was the type of plate in my mother's cupboard, but not in my grandparents, so it was odd.

I remember when my grandmother's arthitis started getting truely bad, and she could still use a hand mixer to make cakes, but mixing chocolate chip cookies or anything stiff was out of the question. Chocolate chip cookies are easy, find a kid and let them squish away till their heart's content. Or make butter. Salt, cream, mayo jar, tell the kid to shake till he's tired. Brownies wern't quite so easy. Your average eight year old doesn't have the kind of strength to stir a stock pot full of thick brown batter.

And my grandfather, well, he'd never admit to liking anything sweet. It is unbecoming of someone with his notoriously sour disposition. But he needed brownies for Christmas, that year. The large stock pot was taken up by what would become 80 bajillion cookies (Italians are genetically incapable of making one batch), so he got out the cast iron pot that they usually made sauce in, and made it himself.

I wasn't that old, but they were living in "the new" house. Of course, they were in that house for 18 years, so we're talking anywhere from like 7 yrs old, on up. But I remembered being freaked out by several things; my grandfather was COOKING, which is something beneath a German male of his generation, my grandfather was not using a recipe and my grandfather had just put an entire container of sour cream in the thing.

I ran around the house telling anyone who'd listen that grandpap was messing it up, he was putting something yikky and sour in it, and we were all doomed. Everyone kept telling me that brownies ALWAYS had sour cream in them. In my limited experience, I didn't recall anyone putting sour cream in brownie mix though. My grandmother reminded me that I also thought the butter went on the INSIDE of the grilled cheese sandwich and had freaked out when she'd made it with the butter on the outside of the bread, so I was hardly a master chef.

My grandmother's Christmas spread was a diabetic coma waiting to happen. Sure there'd be food and stuff, but the sweets would be sitting out all day while the "womenfolk" were cooking. It was kind of high up for a short kid, but we all knew how to climb on a chair. I remember years and years and years of making myself nauseous eating all the stuff on that table. Brownies on the furthest left, next to the brownies was the strufoli (Italian honey balls), maybe some knots made out of dough dipped in honey. There were always two plates of chocolate chip cookies, not to mention more in the kitchen in plastic bins and usually a popcorn tin half full of them. Other people had left over turkey, my family had left over cookies that lasted into February. There were peanut butter cookies, those yummy things with the hershey kisses in the middle, and at the far end of the buffet, near the wall (supposedly where us kids couldn't get into it) were the pies. More pies than any human being needed. Pumpkin pie (at least two), pican pie, cherry pie, apple pie. When I was young they were all home-made, store-bought being a mortal sin among Italian women. But as I got older, standards became more relaxed, namely because my grandmother could do less and less, and my mother was busier and busier with five young kids.

I always liked the store bought better, so I never minded. They were uniform, the crust was never thin in the middle, and they wern't made by cheapasses that were trying to make the pumpkin filling go further by not filling the crust up to the top. There was also the added bonus that I was in no way involved in the making of said pies. Usually making pies, when you're a child, involves every unsavory and tiring task. Stirring the huge mixing bowl of pumpkin filling several hundred thousand times, mixing the crust, rolling the crust... I'm not sure I remember my mom doing more than supervising, and the pouring. After that one time, when I dumped the pumpkin mix on my head, pie pouring was off-limits. I STILL have yet to pour a pie and that was like 23 years ago. Let it go, mom.

But that was it, the layout. The spread. Room was found in front of, behind and between as more sweets were brought by relatives. Another mortal sin--showing up at a relative's house without some baked product. And oh, how the store-bought sugar cookies were frowned upon. If it was something really, REALLY special, like some magnificant rum loaf, you could get it from an old-fashioned bakery, as long as it was run by a woman with a heavy Italian accent (there are protocols for these things). My mom sometimes skirted the issue by buying something at a bakery (even, GASP, the one at the grocery store) and taking it out of the white box. She'd put it into some tupperware, and presto, crisis adverted.

Of course, mom couldn't get anything too fancy, they'd know she didn't make it. Ya see, my mom can't cut on a straight line, much less make artistic or otherwise "pretty" food. My sister's pastries, you want to schlack them and put them on the wall because they're so nice. Mom's baked goods look like her gift-wrapping. Like she let her five year old do it. And yes, she used that excuse up until she ceased having five year olds to blame bad wrapping skills on.

My cousins from Maryland would come, my aunts and uncles would be there. Oh yeah, and there was real food too. Ham, green beans (canned, of course. I swear, I didn't know people ate fresh veggies until college), yams, the obligatory stuffing (even though there was nothing to stuff). I remember the cellery, and how fine my grandmother would chop it, and how chunky my mother would in later years. I remember saving up scraps of stale bread for weeks, the powdered sage, the cellery seeds, the cellery salt (cellery overkill by some standards, but it was good), and baking the living hell out of it, until the edges got brown and crispy and sweet. I think margarin (the secret ingreediant when lard went out of fashion) was somehow involved in the stuffing, but I forget when or where. That, of course, got mixed in the stock pot after the cookies, which had been baked at two in the morning the night before, well after the fat guy with the bag of goodies was supposed to have come and gone and good little children were supposed to be in bed. I usually stayed up until the first batch were out of the oven, then I'd go into my grandmother's livingroom and pass out on the brown couch that's now in their spare bedroom in their apartment at the old folks' home.

I wonder what became of their large tree. Every Christmas there was a mass moving of furnature to fit the thing in the room, it was seven feet tall (or so my short little-kid mind recalls) and almost as wide. A kid could get lost, playing under that tree. I saw it in their basement when we were cleaning it out, and I wanted to take it, but I didn't. I knew I didn't have room in my house to put it up, much less room in the basement to store it. I already have too much of their stuff.

I keep trying to give it away, or throw it away, and somehow I can't. Maybe it's the librarian in me, thinking I can store and catalog memories if I just have enough bins of my relatives' stuff in my basement. I have my great grandmother's high school deploma on my office wall. It serves no purpose, but I don't know what to do with it. But it was important enough for her to keep until she died, and then it was so important my grandfather hung it on the wall in the garage, which was kind of his office. I guess I keep it up out of respect for both of them.

There's an ugly santa with a ratty beard on my tree that may have been my grandmother's mother's. I have a weird plastic and yarn Christmas tree in my bathroom made by my father's mother and given to my mother's mother one Christmas. I am someone who never wants to have more stuff than my house can hold (an example would be my grandparents' two broken stereo consoles and their unmanuverable dining room), and I regularly get rid of stuff. I am overly nonstalgic, so it usually takes me a lot to work up the nerve. I put that stuff in my basement in August, hoping that by Christmas I'd have enough distance to throw some of it out, or give some of it away. It's not working.

None of it makes me feel very good, having it, not having it. I cracked a small Santa mug that's probably older than my mother when I dropped it today. He's winking at me, though, telling me it's ok. And last night, I took a pair of scissors to my grandmother's Christmas tablecloth.

I wonder if my grandparents didn't wash it, or if it's a perminant stain. My grandfather's a cheapass, even more than me, if that's possible, so it wouldn't surprise me. Especially if my grandmother didn't see any stains on it, with her then-failing sight.

I didn't like the raggid end, but it kind of sickened me to cut through the course man-made fabric and the odd, crosshatched pattern. Nothing's ever the way it was, but I still keep scratching with desperate claws on the door of my childhood, a place that was never picture perfect on a good day, or even passable all the rest.

Maybe as we get older, we do see the past with rose-colored glasses. Maybe we want to crawl into our memories, to go back and do it right. To spend time with people who are no longer here, to say things that should have been said. To have one more long conversation over coffee late at night with someone who no longer has her witts about her enough to drink her coffee without help.

Last night I took a pair of scissors to my grandmother's table cloth, and it almost made me cry.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home