Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Memories

It is strange how holidays evolve for year after year; then suddenly everything changes radically.

I have memories of live trees, fragile ornaments, and lights that always seemed tangled and never worked when we plugged them in. My job was to put the tinsel on the tree. Those silvery metallic threads in my impatient hands began a tangled mess, and I am not sure I ever mastered the art of tinsel application.

Those childhood Christmases were happy times. I lived with my parents and my grandparents, and my great aunt came to visit for Christmas, as did close family friends. I believed fervently in Santa and the power of good behavior and my wishes were rewarded with a tricyle at age 3 and a real Schwinn bicycle with training wheels at age 6. Other Christmases brought dolls and cap pistols, and even a Davy Crockett hat.

I remember wrapping presents lovingly at the dining room table and shipping them off to my uncle and his family in Germany. He was in the air force and was stationed there in the early 1950s.
In 1952 my mother had her first big Christmas party. My Christmas present was a black cocker spaniel puppy named Twink. The president of the gas company (where my father worked) came to that party and his wife accompanied him. Twink greeted her and the president’s wife picked her up. Twink wet all over her!
One year my father (and my mother and I got to go too) got to ride in the Ensley Christmas Parade. I think if was because my Dad was president of the Rotary Club. This was the same Rotary Club that had a Christmas party each year and Santa (the REAL Santa was a Loveman’s department store, of course) gave all the boys and girls gifts. I got a plastic tea set each year. I wasn’t into plastic tea sets any more than I was into the fine china demitasse cups I “collected” and often got as presents from relatives.

In December 1958, we moved into our new house in the suburbs, and we were so excited about our first Christmas in our new house . The basement was what they called “unfinished” and Twink’s new home, when we were out, was the basement where she could “run free.” Christmas Eve morning my mother had been busy making her signature fruit cake, heavily laden with raisins, nuts and fruits, and soaked in Bourbon. In the afternoon, we went to the cemetery to put a wreath on my grandmother’s grave. I insisted on stopping at the grocery store to buy a gift for Twink to open. When we arrived home, we went into the basement to catch Twink before opening the garage door. We had left her leash on her to make it easier to catch her. She was nowhere to be seen. Then, as we passed the stairs leading to the upstairs, we saw her hanging by her leash. Her leash had caught under the door frame.

My mother shielded my eyes, and my father took her down gently. We called the veterinarian, who was still at the office, and raced down the mountain. My father massaged Twink’s heart with his hand, but her neck was broken. Nothing could be done! When we finally went into the kitchen that night, much of the fruitcake had been consumed. We speculated that Twink had gotten tipsy from the Bourbon and lost her balance on the stairs.
Just this year I learned that raisins were lethal to dogs! Now I wonder, if it was perhaps the raisins that made her sick and unstable on her feet. I’ll never know, but I do know that my guilt about her death is very real, even more than half a century later.

But life went on and by 1959 our family got with the new Christmas decorating trends. We got a silver tree and put pink ornaments on it. At night the tree came to life when the floodlight with color wheel turned the tree in sequence blue, green, red, and orange. No more conventional Christmases for us!

That was same Christmas that I got to see what it was like behind the scenes for adults on Christmas Eve. Now, at age 13, I got to stay up late and I watched the neighbors (who has younger kids), put an assortment of bicycles and toys together. It was almost magical! I felt so grown up.

In the 1960s Christmas decorating, at least at our house, was anything but traditional. One year my mother and I were into making trees out of whipped soap flakes. We would make a wire frame about 18” tall in the shape of a tree, stick in dowel rod, which went into block of wood. Then we would stuff the “tree” full of newspaper. We use the mixer to whip up the soap flakes with water (I think it was an Ivory product) until they reached the consistency of meringue. Using spatulas, we covered the “tree” with pastel colored soap flakes. We would decorate the “tree” with a variety of things, but mostly I remember the silver balls that you use for decorating cakes. The “tree” was stand proudly in the entrance hall.
From 1959 until her death in 1988, almost every year my mother had a big Christmas party. It became part of our family tradition. Her sausage balls with sour cream and chutney became legendary . I serve that recipe myself each holiday season to friends, and it is always a hit!

Only my mother would be brave enough to serve egg nog to 100 plus people in Birmingham in December. The deck became her cooler for vast amounts of whipped cream, egg whites and egg yolks. If it was a warm December, she chilled it down with ice. Her recipe had only ½ cup of Bourbon per 10 eggs. We still love her egg nog and have it each holiday season. I am teaching the grandchildren to make it. Actually, I think it was my grandmother’s recipe to begin with, so now we have five generations who have enjoyed this calorific treat.

When I was in high school, my mother felt it was important that I invite my girlfriends in for a holiday party. Each Christmas my mother and I (mostly my mother) would set out an array of cookies, along with cranberry punch, and I would invite about 20 of my friends. They would arrive wearing high heels, their Sunday finest, and, of course, the requisite white gloves. One friend learned the hard way that it makes sense to remove the gloves BEFORE sampling the cherry tartlets.
When I was in college, coming home for Christmas was very special. The absence from home made it all the more important. My mother went all out to make sure everything was just perfect. There was always a traditional tree, a holiday party, and a festive Christmas dinner.
In 1968, the week before Christmas I flew to New York City to meet my husband-to-be’s family. But I didn’t stay for Christmas. I was not about to miss Christmas at home in Birmingham!
Even after we were married, for a couple of years, we continued to come to my parents’ house for Christmas. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Then in 1971, everything changed. My husband’s work took him to Southern California and our son was born on December 7. That was our first of five California Christmases. In those years, my parents came to us. My mother’s brother lived nearby and we all got together for Christmas at their house. I had a holiday party each year except 1971-- with some help from my mother, of course!

When we moved to Maryland in 1976, we resumed our tradition of Christmas in Birmingham. About a week before Christmas, we would get up early in the morning and drive straight through to Birmingham. We would arrive about 10 p.m., tired and hungry, and my mother always had sandwiches waiting for us. We always tried to get there in time for my mother’s party, usually a few days before Christmas.

A decade later, we were still trekking to Birmingham. The last Christmas party my mother had was in 1986. She wasn’t feeling too well, but she managed to have her annual party anyway. On January 13, 1987, she was diagnosed with having terminal lung cancer. Her last Christmas was in 1987. By then she was very weak. We went out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve, but we had Christmas Dinner, as usual and exchanged gifts. What stands out in my mind is that my mother pulled herself up from her chair, and made the gravy—as clearly I was not doing it properly.
That Christmas, the azalea by the back steps bloomed. Azaleas bloom in Spring, but this one I think bloomed just for my mother. She saw it on the way out the door shortly after Christmas. She was headed to the hospital and never came home again. She died on January 13, 1988.

The next couple of Christmases my father spent with us. In 1991, we had a big family gathering on New Year’s Day and all of his nieces and nephews came to our house in Maryland. He entertained us all with stories of the old days. By June, he too was gone.

It has now been another two decades and we have fallen into the pattern of having Christmas at our house, with our son and his family. I have eased into the role of holiday party host and cook for Christmas dinner. The decorations are silk and the lights LEDs.

About a dozen years ago we added a new family tradition of Christmas Eve oyster stew with our son and his family at their home. This has become a new favorite part of the holiday season, probably has become a tradition that the grandchildren will continue.

Today is the day after Christmas. For dinner we will have leftover turkey, dressing, etc. with egg nog and left over cake for dessert. The tradition of leftovers on the 26th is as strong as having a festive feast on the 25th. With every bite, I will remember Christmases long ago.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Back to the Beach

Back to the Beach

I just got back from a drive along the Florida coast between Panama City Beach and Inlet Beach. The sand was still sugar white and the Gulf still roared, but what about the rest? I knew there had been changes – what hasn’t changed in 40 years? But I wanted to see for myself and my husband indulged me.

I have many happy memories of summer beach vacations with my family and their friends. Panama City was (and I guess still is) called PC and spoken of in that special tone of voice that evokes good times. For residents of Birmingham, Alabama, Panama City was the summer beach destination, as well as where everyone went for AEA (that Alabama holiday called Alabama Education Association). Our poor teachers were stuck in meetings while the rest of the state was having fun at the beach.

Today, as we rode along the coast, I tried really hard to align what I saw with what I remembered. The lack of similarity was striking. The names of the beaches were the same – Panama City, Laguna, and Sunnyside. The feel of the areas was somehow the same, though the buildings were different. Panama City was the crowded, more commercial end; Laguna was a mixture and Sunnyside had more private homes. It is odd how an area can retain its character, yet be changed in every detail.

I saw one older two story motel that looked like a place we once stayed at Laguna Beach, and a dozen older homes that look like one we once rented in Sunnyside. By today’s standards the two story wooden beachfront apartments would not measure up as well as their modern stucco counterparts. I wondered aloud if any of those stucco buildings that seem so fresh on the surface are really underneath that outer shell, the old wooden structures I remember.

“Going to Florida,” as we called it was special and sometimes it was even a surprise. My father would come home and say “I have sand in my shoes.” And quickly we would be in the car headed south along the Florida Short Route through rural Alabama until we hit the Florida line at Florala. It was almost magical when the road broke through the pines and the ocean appeared.

In the 1940s and very early 50s we stayed at cottages in Laguna Beach. They were across the road from the beach and one had to be very careful of the sand burrs that stung like fire when they attacked tender young feet. I remember vividly sitting on the front porch at night listening to the adults talk about strange things – like the woman who was allergic to her husband and a popular brand of dog food being made of horse meat. It is funny what you remember!

The older I got, the further we moved down the beach and we went from the cottages across the road to the apartments on the beach side. In retrospect, I suspect this migration toward the Gulf side and further down the beach was driven by my parents’ improving financial situation.

The best part of coming to the beach back then was going to sleep listening to the roar of the Gulf and from the apartments on the beach side of the road, you could hear the roar quite clearly. Last night, as we walked to a restaurant, I came within earshot of that glorious sound. I stopped in my tracks – just listening and remembering a simpler time.

Once in 1961, we stayed at a small motel called the Siesta Motel in Sunnyside. It was my parent’s new favorite place to stay, as it was quiet, the beach pristine and the facilities very nice. I was particularly excited because a neighborhood boy was vacationing a few houses down the beach and at 15, I anticipated the perfect summer vacation with him as my companion. The first morning we were there, he and I went crabbing with a net and actually managed to catch a blue crab. Not a dozen, but just one. Never having seen one before, we weren’t sure what to do with it. My mother said we should boil it until it turned red. We did, and then beat it with whatever tools we could find and extracted the sweet meat. (Little did I know I would eventually live in Maryland where crab picking is a required life-skill.) The next morning we got a call that my grandfather had fallen and we had best come home. It was the custom to tie your wet bathing suits to the radio antenna the morning of departure, telling the world of your beach vacation. We just got in the car and left with no swimsuits on the antenna. My grandfather died a few weeks later.

When I last came here, it was 1971, a few months before our son was born. My mother made me a bathing suit to wear, as a regular bathing suit wouldn’t fit. My husband and I drove down from Birmingham with my parents in my mother’s big, yellow, 1966 Dodge Polara. That trip we stayed at one of those two story wooden frame motels, ate a lot of fried seafood and talked excitedly about the baby’s arrival and our move to California. It was the end of an era in all of our lives, but at the time it just seemed like a nice beach vacation.

So here it is 2011 and all that is left of more than two decades of beach vacations is memories. The time share condo, while much nicer than the beachside apartments, is air-conditioned, across the highway from the beach and a few towns over from the beaches of my youthful memories. The ocean is roaring, but I can’t hear it. I haven’t taken the time to walk to the beach and feel the sand in my toes and the waves splashing at my ankles. It is December and the beach is mostly deserted. I am eating fried shrimp and oysters, but regretting it later, as now my system is accustomed to lighter fare. My parents have been gone for decades and our son is married with kids of his own. In the interim, new beaches have captured our loyalty – Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman and Rehoboth, DE, close to our home in Maryland.

You can’t go home again, and you can’t go back to the beach you remember. Maybe some memories are best left alone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


My mother used to refer to “rat cheese.” I know it was yellow and I suspect it was some kind of inexpensive cheddar. It was the food of choice for mousetraps and the mice did seem to love it.

As a child, I remember cheese in just a few forms. My mother would buy sharp cheddar and hand-shred it using a Mouli grater (I still have hers). There was the American cheese kids ate for snacks or on sandwiches. My father liked Roquefort, but it was too strong for my adolescent tastes. We kept Swiss cheese for sandwiches. Cottage cheese was for dieting and tasted great with pineapple. Parmesan came in a green can and we sprinkled it on spaghetti. Cream cheese was for use in recipes, but not for regular eating.

As a young adult I discovered more and more cheeses. Brie, Muenster, Havarti, and gorgonzola, I learned that real lasagna was made with ricotta and my husband to be introduced me to mozzarella on home-made pizza. Decades ago my mother showed me that cream cheese was great with Pickapeppa sauce or pepper jelly – instant party food.

Eventually, I tasted fresh Mozzarella. And in recent years, I have come to love goat cheese. Feta has become a household staple, and parmesan and Romano now comes into our refrigerator in big chunks. Manchego, a delightful Spanish hard cheese, has become a favorite. Conventional yellow cheddar has been replaced on my shopping list by Vermont white cheddar.

European vacations have let us taste delightful cheeses we never heard of before or since, but have loved as appetizers and desserts. We have also stopped in cheese shops along the road, and picked up some remarkable cheeses to eat in our hotel room with some crackers and red wine. Whether the city be Paris, Naples, or Berlin – this is still a treat!

These days when I go to the grocery store and I admire the selection of expensive cheeses – sometimes I bring something new home to taste. A good chunk of cheese is really an investment, given the price, but the pleasure is in savoring each taste. Cheese is truly one of life’s great pleasures.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Notebooks and Carrying Books

A highlight of my elementary school days was touring the plant in Birmingham where they made the Subjects Book notebooks. They were made by the Nifty Company – am surprised I remembered that. What a thrill it was to see how they manufactured the notebooks we kids used every day! We watch ed how they made the spiral binding hold the books together. It was almost magic!
These spiral bound workhorses came in bright colors and you could write your name and grade on the outside cover. The insides were ruled with the medium sized line spacing appropriate in pale blue lines. There was a red line for the margin. I think I must still have one around here somewhere – a remnant of grammar school.

In grammar school we carried our books and notebooks in something called a book satchel. They were plaid or solid colored and they had a compartment for pens and pencils.

In junior high, we learned about three-ring binders. They were always covered in blue canvas in those days, and we took delight in decorating them our ink pens. We still had our ever faithful spiral bound notebooks – one for each subject. But by then we were too sophisticated for book satchels.

Our notebooks actually served as our platform for carrying around our textbooks. We would set the books up so that they were two abreast, stacked three of four high on each side. The English Composition book was always the smallest, so it rode on the top. Nobody had book bags or brief cases; we just carried the books around from class to class stacked on our three ring binders. We girls carried them in front of us with both hands (I don’t know how we opened doors). Perhaps the boys, who carried them under one arm stacked the same way, would open them for us. Of course, the theory was that we could stash our books in our lockers and stop by during the school day and pick them up as needed. But somehow that theory didn’t work in practice. We just carried them around all day, quickly reassembling our stack of books right before the bell was to ring for each class.

By high school, our notebooks were thicker because we had more subjects and more spiral notebooks, and we always had to carry around “notebook” paper for essays, homework, pop quizzes and the like.

I really don’t remember doing anything different in college, except that we didn’t always have our classes back to back, so it was possible to go back to the dorm between classes. I have no recollection of a bookbag or anything like that and certainly never a backpack! It was great freedom when you could take one book and a notebook to class.

The notebooks of our college days got thinner lines and they were divided into subjects – so that all of our subjects could be in one notebook. And it seems that in college note-taking became a big deal. There was no way to record lectures and I can’t recall that anyone ever taught be how to take notes. Handouts were rare. Much of learning was regurgitation of what was delivered in lecture format. I wonder if undergraduate instruction is the same today.

In college we were also introduced to the “Blue Book,” a booklet consisting of bound notebook paper with a soft blue cover. We used to have to buy them and bring them to class to use for taking essay tests. With these booklets, there was no starting over or changing your mind and you had to write in ink. In retrospect, it was awful!

In graduate school in 1968, there was more room was personal choice and some tests were even open-book. The whole experience was less about memorization and more about reflection, research and drawing conclusions. Fewer textbooks had to be hauled about. On the whole, I preferred graduate school.

Graduate school led to real life and I became a yellow tablet and file person. In my early professional life, I rarely used a notebook and certainly not any three-ring binders. I wrote everything on yellow pads and gave them to other people to type. I kept files organized in ways that made sense to me and my whole life was sorted into manila folders.

In time, I discovered hanging files, and became a hanging file fanatic. Each company or organization I worked with had different colored file folders. I will NEVER have to buy any more hanging file folders again because I have boxes of them at my storage unit.

A few years ago, I discovered sheet protectors were cheap and I could use them to keep related documents together. They don’t require tabs or labels and if I put them in a three-ring binder I can flip through them in seconds. And when they do have to be saved they can be dropped easily into handing folders.

Today, I made good use of notebooks, filled with projects held together by sheet protectors. For now, they work, but my use of paper is shrinking daily and what I will end up retaining will be very little soon. Today more and more is digital and that is fine with me. I have a speedy scanner that makes quick work of documents.

For those times when I must take notes, I often use a special pen that records while I write. I use something that looks like a spiral notebook, but the paper is specially treated to work with the pen. What magic! I can go back and replay anything I am not certain of. I wish I had, had that in college.

Meanwhile, I see my grandchildren carrying their books around in backpacks. I am sure they would be totally baffled at the sight of a kid with a three-ring binder with a big stack of books on it. I suspect their children will just carry around a tablet computer and no books or paper or pens. Maybe this will lead to a generation of kids with better posture not to mention no bony bulge on the middle finger of whichever hand they write with. I just noticed, my bony bulge is actually almost GONE! I can still write – really I can – I just don’t do it very often.