Monthly Archives: December 2012

Gifts That Fill You Up

I remember my husband, boyfriend at the time, opening the package shipped from his grandmother. Inside sat neatly packed metal tins decorated with winter scenes and holly. My husband knew the gloriousness hiding within the cold round boxes. I had no idea. I stood next to him, craning my neck to get a good peek at his special gifts. He opened them one by one and offered me something unexpected: a Christmas cookie. Each tin held goodies more delectable than the last: butter cookies sprinkled with colored jimmies, almond crescents dusted with powdered sugar, and something called springerle, a German anise-flavored cookie imprinted with flowers and like nothing I’d ever tasted. The flavor still makes me swoon.

Baked springerle, showing typical "foot&q...

Springerle with typical foot after baking. (Photo credit: Wikipedia, Andreas Bauerle)

I immediately knew two things: I had to stay in that relationship long enough to get the recipes, and I had to get him out of the room so I could have more of those cookies that he had quickly put aside.

Every year while my husband was a bachelor, Grandma sent him tins of Christmas cookies. When she died, we got the recipes and the tradition was up to us. The springerle were a bit of a legend in the family. As a child, his grandfather used to spend 30 minutes of vigorous beating by hand to get the eggs to just the right pale yellow. I’m a bit spoiled with my kitchen gadgetry now. I make my stand mixer do all the work, mainly because my arms resemble vermicelli more than an anatomical structure.

Every Christmas, we make at least one of Grandma’s cookies and we’ve added our own through the years. The cookies don’t come from Grandma anymore, but they’re her legacy, still her gift.

springerle board

Grandma’s springerle board, a well-loved heirloom.

When my husband set out on his own, his mother gave him copies of the recipes she made when he was young, along with some of the basics. During the rest of the year, we use those recipes too: Lemon Chicken, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Barbecue Meat Loaf, cinnamon toast. “I don’t know why she thought I didn’t know how to make that,” he said. But two duplicate cards sit in his recipe box. I guess she worried.

Some recipes have been a bit more elusive, but still a gift nonetheless. When I was a kid, everyone spent a day at my grandparents’ house making tamales. No one knew the recipe when my grandmother died so my grandfather tried to replicate it. I spent a day with him mixing masa and filling corn husks. Though it was trial and error, I wrote it down. When he died months later, I was so grateful to have that recipe.

Recipes tell the timeline of your life. When my husband and I first married, we had a repertoire of entrees we liked to cook together. We eventually grew tired of them. We reminisce about them now, but we still don’t cook them. Our tastes have changed. I’ll never throw those recipes away because when I see them, they remind me of less chaotic evenings cooking with him in our first house, talking about our day without the interruption of squawking children.

Those recipes are all gifts to me. They have provided more memories and more smiles than any store-bought present. You know the saying: The way to a person’s heart is through the stomach. I can tell you, my heart is always full.

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Winning Isn’t Everything, Unless You’re the Loser

In our house, someone is always up for a game. Cards, checkers, chess, football, dominoes, or one of several we’ve made up through the years. Balls in the Hall, anyone? We take turns rolling balls down the hall. The person who comes closest to the door at the end of the hall without hitting it, wins. We made that up before we ever even played bocce. And we thought we were onto something.

As our kids have gotten older, my husband and I have introduced them to Yahtzee, Scrabble, Sequence, Ratuki, and more, bending the rules if necessary so everyone can play.

Games teach skill, strategy, quick thinking, problem solving, computing. They teach kids about winning and losing. Unfortunately, for someone in this family, losing does not come easily. In fact, my husband and I make this person agree beforehand that there will be no fussing during the game. There will be no crying. No card throwing. There will be no fits whatsoever if he loses. Oops. Did I let on that it was my son?

Nearly every game that he loses ends in tears, and it’s been that way for nearly all of his nine years. It’s so bad that every now and then, one of us, including his seven-year-old sister, will let him win so we won’t have to endure the agony that is to come.card games

As much as we all hate it, my son has no one to blame but his father. My husband does not like to lose, though he is no longer prone to tantrums and throwing clubs like his parents will tell you he did during the infamous putt-putt game when he was a boy.

This trait did not come from me, oh no, it did not. My childhood games were spent dealing with a sister who cheated at Monopoly. I always called her out. I never cared whether I got Boardwalk. I could care less if she had more houses or hotels or money than me. I just had to pay attention that she wasn’t slipping some extra pastel cash into her hands. I made sure she played nice.

At least my son isn’t a cheater, but his competitive streak can be unbearable. I try to remind myself that competition can be a good thing. I never cared about winning or losing, mostly because I didn’t excel at anything. I didn’t have the drive.

Even so, I don’t particularly like having to deal with my husband’s childhood paybacks. It’s not really fair to the rest of us. But I quietly endure the losing fits, chuckle, and tease my husband, saying, “He’s just like you.” I do this because I know my paybacks are still to come—when my daughter enters the teen years.

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The Thing About Grandparents and Their Magic

We all know it: that magic our grandparents possess. If you live far away, they want to see you the minute you roll into town. They want to squeeze the dickens out of you as much as possible to bank away until next time. As a kid, they offered up treats you didn’t get at home. For me it was a refrigerator drawer filled with all the flavors of Nehi at one grandmother’s house. I could pick an entire bottle for myself and burp grape delights all afternoon.

My other grandmother took my sister and me to the movies, smuggling in candy in her purse. Had we ever been caught, I can hear her signature “Oh, golly” as an excuse.

As a kid, the four-hour trip to her house was over some bridges and through the woods, along hilly, bouncy roads. My sister and I used to sit backward in our seats to get the full effect of the hills and giggle when our stomachs would drop. We’d get antsy after a couple of hours and fight if someone crossed the imaginary line dividing the middle of our Granada’s backseat. We’d argue. My dad would reach back, swatting at air as we giggled and scrunched up in our corners to avoid a smack on the leg.

“Are we there yet?” I’d ask every ten minutes. “It’s too cooooold in here,” I’d complain. Ten minutes later, “Daddy, can you turn the air on? I’m hot.”

After that eternal drive, nothing was better than walking into my Nanny’s kitchen, smelling the pot of whatever soup she had simmering. It didn’t matter what it was. It was always good.

My sister and I raced upstairs to our room. She always had a treat waiting for us, something small, a cheap dime-store toy, but it made us feel special perched on our pillows waiting to be opened and played with.

Nanny died this weekend. She was the last living grandparent I had.

Dealing with her death has been what you’d expect. Dealing with the fact that I no longer have grandparents has been another thing entirely. As a kid, I always thought my grandparents were old because they had gray hair. Frankly, they seemed old for a long time, but they were always around. I guess at some point I thought somebody always would be. Somewhere along the line, I guess I never realized that someday I wouldn’t have grandparents.

Sure they couldn’t always sit on the floor and play with me. My other grandmother didn’t even drive. When I went to her house, I sat in a rocking chair all day, got a certain education from the tabloids, and watched her “stories” with her. When she nodded off, I’d holler, “Meemaw!” and tell her to flick the three-inch ash of her cigarette into the ashtray. Then I’d wonder how she didn’t burn the place down when I wasn’t there.

My grandparents always made me feel special. I spent many weekends with Meemaw and Peepaw. They took me to diners for dinner and showed me off to the waitresses who knew them by name. They died twenty years ago, when I still had a lot of growing up to do.

Nanny cooked elaborate Thanksgiving feasts served on crystal, china, and silver. Entertaining was her specialty. She got to see my wedding, my family. We got to laugh about babies and nursing and naughty children.

The thing about grandparents is, there’s never a time when they don’t want to talk to you or when they don’t love you.

However old and gray in my child’s mind, nothing prepares you for a future with no grandparents. For now, I can only concentrate on letting my kids make memories with theirs.grandmother

Losing grandparents can be tough. While I may no longer require a picture book to get me through, they can be a great way to help kids cope with loss. Good friend Gina Farago’s The Yearning Tree and new friend Lynn Plourde’s Thank You, Grandpa are two books my family has for just such a time.

 

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Santa Is Real If You Know Where to Look

I’ll never forget it. I was in fourth grade, December, cheerleading practice after school in a room full of bubbly girls. One minute I jumped with excitement, innocence. The world was a good place. The next minute, Anna walked up to me, got in my face, and stared hard at me with her enormous eyes. I wondered what I had done to tick her off.

“Did you hear?” she asked.

“What?” I cowered.

“Santa isn’t real,” she said. With those three words, my childhood was crushed. I never doubted her. She was a fifth grader after all. I was stinkin’ mad. “Why did you tell me that?” I growled back. The magic, the possibility, the awe—she yanked it away like my favorite baby doll and ripped its head off. And I’ve always kind of hated her for that.

I never mentioned to my parents what Anna said. I played the charade, spent several Christmases pretending I believed because I didn’t know whether I would still get presents, but Christmas morning just wasn’t as fun anymore. (Turns out, you do still get presents.)santapic

And it turns out the magic didn’t really go away either. It just took me a long time to find it again. I never got it as a kid, that whole thing about giving is better than receiving. I’ve found in my older age that if I can do a little something extra every year for at least one person, that’s what the season is about. It’s about giving to someone in need, giving to someone you love, giving to someone you don’t know, making or doing something a little extra special for even one person. In a world where there’s never enough time to stop, this is the time of year when I try to go out of my way anyway.

That’s what I try to teach my kids, but it’s hard when I’m also trying to get them to pare down their Christmas lists. I don’t know if they get that, but one day they will. And I don’t mind them wanting some Christmas magic too. I know how important it was to me as a child, daring to dream of bigger things.

So when my fourth-grade son asked me yesterday, “Is Santa real? I think it’s you. Please tell me,” it was hard for me. I thought about Anna and how I didn’t want to be that person for him. But I told him the truth because one thing I’ve learned after all these years: Santa exists, in all of us.

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