I was thinking about that classic “home for the holidays” thing that many of us do for Christmas or other winter holidays, and I started to feel very, very grateful that Christmas is not the only time I go to Michigan. Christmas is a loaded holiday, and I know I’m not the only one who feels the weight of the planning, the expectations, the hopes, and the disappointments that come along for the ride at Christmastime. Into my mix you can add the fact that some people are, at best, wishy-washy about Christmas: some years they rise to the challenge of playing Santa Claus and buying everyone gifts, but other years, it’s a miracle that they come to the family Christmas gathering at all. I’m not sure what’s better: someone who is consistently Grinchy about the holidays, or someone who can morph into a Grinch in the wink of an eye.
I try to approach the holidays with moderate expectations. My family has always been rather modest about Christmas. Our modesty disappointed me as a child; I couldn’t help but love the idea of a Christmas brimming with fabulous toys, all the things I wanted but never told anyone I wanted. (I’m still waiting for my first My Little Pony. Anyone remember My Little Pony?) As an adult, it’s a relief not to have been raised in a tradition of extravagant Christmasses because it feels natural to give small gifts. Bookworm that I am, I give lots of reading material, all of it carefully chosen for the recipients. And kitchen-lover that I am, I have started giving cookware to people who I think will enjoy a new piece of kitchen equipment—a cast-iron skillet, some nice roasting pans. I also love to give cookbooks, even ones which I don’t own. I like to think that I’m a good gift-giver: I set a budget, and I do my shopping within that budget. I’m a thinker, a planner, a present-giving plotter.
It was a good Christmas this year. I feel like I got everything I wanted, or at least all the things that matter. At this point in my life, I can’t say that I need anything that can be bought in a store. What I need is health, love, happiness, joy, laughter, hugs. And for Christmas, I just want to make some memories that I can tuck away for grey days, sad days when I need some cheer to perk me up. For safekeeping, I thought I’d share the very best parts of my Christmas with you, and together we’ll keep them clean and warm.
In a word, the best part of my Christmas was Lydia, my four-year-old niece and the love of my life. She is one of the most delightful people I know, and my only real regret in life is that I don’t spend enough time with her. It was late by the time I made it to her house on the night I arrived in Detroit, and she was already asleep. But the next morning, I woke up and crept out to the living room to find her awake and watching cartoons. The joy on her face mirrored the joy in my heart at seeing her again, and we spent a happy morning curled up together on the couch. That morning is something I will remember for a long time.
The generosity of my family continues to amaze me. They are generous in big, meaningful ways. Lydia’s parents, my brother Charlie and his wife Amanda, let me stay with them every time I visit. They feed me and serve me coffee and share their beautiful daughter with me. They drive me around to friends’ houses and let me tag along to Whole Foods. They let me hold their new baby, Devin, trusting me not to drop him, even though I really have very little experience with newborns, especially with baby boys. And when I have to be at the airport before 8 AM, my brother gets up early without complaint and drops me off with a hug before sending me on my way.
Generosity takes shape in smaller ways, too. My brother John picked me up from the airport without complaint, even when my flight was delayed (as they often are), and he humored me when I freaked out that I might even miss my connecting flight in St. Louis. My brother Scott, who was also staying with Charlie and Amanda, made countless pots of fresh coffee and always offered me a fresh cup. And my parents, with whom I stayed on Christmas Eve, made a surprisingly lovely Christmas morning breakfast for the three of us: big fluffy pancakes, boiled eggs, mugs of tea, and for dessert, sweet oranges. That morning, my dad and I took a long, cold walk around the neighborhood, a new Christmas Day tradition that I hope to continue with him. Because I am so far away from my parents, I have an acute sense of how little time we have together, so I like to spend some time with them away from the rest of the family, just two or three of us catching up.
And the food! Oh, the food was terrific. There were many, many good food moments. I mentioned before that Amanda made these amazing peanut butter bars, and lucky for us, she shared the recipe with me! If you nudge me in the comments here, I’ll get cracking on my own batch so you can have the recipe sooner rather than later. Amanda’s mom, Barb, made quite an impression on all of us with her casserole featuring Brussels sprouts and rice, among other things. I’m not a big fan of the B. sprouts, but this dish was a revelation: soothing, savory, a tiny bit sweet. My description pales compared to how amazing the casserole was. Barb grew the Brussels sprouts in her garden and picked them at the height of flavor and sweetness; there was none of the bitterness that I expect from B. sprouts. We ate the leftovers heated up in a tiny cast-iron skillet, with an extra pat of butter thrown in there for good measure.
We had some great kitchen moments with Lydia. I really love being in the kitchen with her because I feel like we are making memories that will follow her into her own kitchen some day. I hope that she will remember when she was very young, and we would set a chair in front of the counter, and she could stand on that chair and help us stem green beans, or mix the chopped cauliflower with olive oil and seasonings. I hope she’ll remember how happy we were to have her with us, how much joy we took in our cooking and the meals we ate together, how much we loved being together. Because for me, the kitchen is a place to be and to do. It’s the heart and engine of a home.
This year, my sister Theresa was very productive in the kitchen; Lydia and I were her assistants. Together we made banana bread and multiple batches of almond bark, some with whole nuts, some with finely chopped nuts, and one made with white chocolate (my favorite!). Lydia quickly realized that stirring is hard work, but almond bark is delicious, and after all that strength training in front of a bowl, she fell asleep before 7 PM, waiting for Santa Claus to come.
There were other kitchen moments, sweet little lessons passed from one generation to another. I caught Barb teaching Theresa how to make the whipped cream for Amanda’s crustless pumpkin pie. While we’re on the topic of butterfat, I must tell you that Barb brought us all little tubs of homemade honey butter (literally, honey and butter whipped together to make a sweet spread), and it was one of the best gifts. Every year, I wish I could do homemade gifts, but I never do because I’m always living out of a suitcase in someone else’s house. It’s easier for me to give books and sweaters, but I do love receiving homemade gifts.
The gifts I received this year were great, and by gifts, I mean the tangible ones that I can read, eat, wear, or otherwise enjoy at my leisure. My lovely friend Heather gave me this fantastic top that I wore this week. My brother and sister each bought me a cookbook off of my wishlist; I can’t wait to sniff their pages, read them, and crack them open in the kitchen. A few people made contributions to my travel funds, which I appreciate, especially now as I’m starting to think about the trips I’ll take in 2011. My friend Lisa gave me a copy of No Country for Old Men, which I’m looking forward to reading because I always enjoy book gifts from fellow bookworms.
But the best gifts are the ones that we made ourselves, with our time and our love. The books and whatnot are the icing on the cake. The cake is ice skating with Lydia and Charlie, seeing old friends and their new baby girl, celebrating Christmas Eve with my childhood best friend and her family. The cake is realizing how durable love is. Time and distance may separate us, but love, affection, and a shared history bring us back together, literally. Christmas really is about the present—as in present tense. Here, now. Celebrate, laugh, love. Decorate a tree, eat a cookie. Remember to take a few photos, and tuck all your memories away, not under the tree, but in your heart, and keep them there forever.