King Meaty

King Meaty

It was one of those nights with the girls. Kim was out somewhere and I was getting them dinner.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Maggie. Really she said something more like “mmmmph” but I’d learned that that meant she didn’t know.

“Whatever you want us to have daddy,” said Elena. She was at the top of her sucking-up form. Anything to make Maggie look bad. “How about noodles?”

I said ok. I looked at Maggie, “do you want noodles too?”

“I guess,” she said.

“How ’bout Mac and cheese?” suggested Elena.

“I don’t feel like it,” Maggie said.

“What do you want?” I asked again.

“I don’t know,” Maggie said again.

I hated this game. “I’m going to make some spaghetti. How’s that?”

“OK,” Maggie said. So I put on the pot to boil.

For the next twenty minutes the girls alternated calling me to tell on each other.

“Dad,” Elena would say running in to the kitchen, “Maggie won’t let me use the computer.”

A minute later as that had been resolved Maggie would shout from the other room, “Dad, Elena is using the computer without washing her hands.”

I dumped the pasta into the pot and threw some frozen meatballs in a dish which I put in the microwave. Mmmmmm, fine dining. I called the girls to the table.

They washed their hands.

“Dad,” Maggie said, “Elena didn’t use the towel to dry her hands. She wiped them on her shirt.”

“Enough,” I said. “I’m tired of you guys running in here and saying ‘Dad this’ and ‘Dad that’.”

“Well,” said Elena putting her hands on her hips, “what are we supposed to call you? ” She looked sideways at me with a mischievous look. “Daniel?”

“No,” I said as I went to get the meatballs out of the microwave. I put them on the table and announce, “for tonight you can call me ‘King Meaty’.”

“King Meaty?” Maggie rolled her eyes. “Oh brother.”

“Well,” I said, “you can also call me ‘your highness’ or ‘your royal majesty’.”

I turned the stove off and drained the pasta. I put it on the table along with some carrot sticks and slices of cucumber.

“What do you want to drink?” I asked.

“Well, King Meaty,” said Elena, “I would like some milk King Meaty. Is that o.k. King Meaty?”

“Sure,” I smiled. “What about you?”

“Well, King Meaty,” said Maggie, “I would like some milk too please.”

It had worked. The girls were playing along. They weren’t fighting any more. After we finished dinner I asked if they would like some dessert.

“King Meaty,” said Elena, “I cannot hear you when you speak to me like that King Meaty.”

“What do you mean Elena?” I asked.

“Who is this Elena you speak of?” she said. “You may address me as Queen Frostine.”

“OK, Queen Frostine, what would you like for dessert?” I asked.

“That’s no fair,” Maggie shouted.

I was totally confused. What had I missed? What was so unfair?

“She can’t be a queen,” Maggie yelled, “I want to be the queen.”

“So you be a queen too,” I said.

“That’s just stupid,” Maggie said. “There’s only one queen.”

“You be the princess,” Elena suggested – and not kindly.

“I don’t want to be the princess, I want to be the queen,” Maggie sulked.

Uh oh. Good game gone bad.

“Ok, ok, ok, ok,” Elena said, always the peacemaker, “you be the queen, I’ll be Princess Frostine. Are you happy.”

Maggie continued to sulk. She could now be queen but she could see that it wasn’t a victory.

“Clear the table, girls,” I said.

They took their plates into the kitchen. I gathered up the serving dishes and said, “everyone take two more carrots.” They came back and munched on two more carrots while I put the dishes in the dishwasher.

“King Meaty,” said Maggie.

Phewww, I thought, storm over. “What?” I asked.

“Can we play a game?” she asked.

“Sure queen,” I said.

Maggie smiled. Elena raised her hand like she was at school and unable to control herself.

“Princess Frostine?” I prompted.

“How about Harry Potter Uno,” Elena suggested.

I looked to see if Maggie would agree but she was already on her way to get the deck of cards.

It’s good to be King.

Published in: on December 29, 2006 at 9:28 am  Comments (2)  

Chili and Fudge

There are some traditions that begin with the birth of a child and some that end. The last time we held our annual Chili and Fudge party, Kim was six months pregnant with Elena. The year that Elena was born we just couldn’t get things together to hold it. I don’t remember – the kids were sick or something. The year after that went by and the tradition was gone.

Years ago, when I first worked under the name Fudge at WDMT I just loved coming in to work. Radio was one of those jobs where most of the talent was treated badly by management, most folks didn’t make a lot of money, but there was just something magic about it. I stood at a microphone in a little studio out in the middle of nowhere playing music for friends I’d never met.

By Christmas time I’d worked my way off of weekend overnights and was working the Saturday night club-style shift and the Sunday afternoon shift. Club-style was fun. Local club dj’s would come in with their stack of records and do some incredible live mixing on the air. Dean Rufus had come up with this as a way for us to broaden the music we played and to reach out to the community – it worked great.

I subbed Christmas morning to give the regular host the morning off to be with their family. I think I pretty much did that every year I worked in radio. This year I brought in a big tray of fudge I’d bought at Malley’s. I figured that all of the people who worked Christmas deserved a treat.

A year later I was working the morning shift with my partner Matt Morgan. Christmas was coming up and I’d worked under the name Fudge for long enough that there were people who didn’t call me anything else. I wanted to do something special for my friends but the Malley’s fudge had been pretty expensive and it wasn’t very personal.

I decided to make a couple of batches of fudge for my friends. I got the Kraft Marshmallow creme with the recipe on the back and made three pounds of plain and three pounds with nuts. I bought little gift boxes and wrapped up the fudge for a handful of friends and for my family and made a little card that I signed “Santa Fudge.”

Early Christmas morning I drove to each of my friend’s houses and left the little box by the front door. And then I went in to work.

And then I worried. What if they didn’t find the fudge. I’d left it by the front door but what if they went out their back door or went directly to their cars and just left? What if the paper boy thought it was for him and picked it up and took it with them?

One by one each of my friends called me at the station and thanked me for the fudge. My mother was the most surprised. How had I gotten the fudge out there? Who had I given it to? That year I had driven it out. It was my Christmas gift.

The following year, and for many years to come, I made six or more different kinds of fudge. In addition to plain, and nuts, I tried mint, orange, rum raisin, and a variety of other flavors. My favorites were always the mint and the orange. I added a Christmas poem to the tradition.

Each year, early early early Christmas morning I would load the fudge into my car and turn on Handel’s Messiah while delivering my homemade presents. Once I met Kim I would end at her parents house and then drive down to the GE Nela Park lights display before the sun came up.

After Kim and I were married for a year it became clear that I couldn’t leave her Christmas morning to deliver the fudge. She suggested a party. We thought about it a bit. You can’t just have people over for a party to eat fudge. You have to serve something substantial.

We decided to serve chili and put out all the fixings so that people could have it seven ways. We made a good beefy chili and served it with spaghetti, cheese, onions, peppers, olives, sour cream, oyster crackers and a host of other toppings. I cooked gallons of the chili ahead of time and froze them in plastic bags. People can’t come to a party and not bring food so the table was always overflowing with things to eat. No one ever had room for the fudge but there were to-go boxes for them to pack and take with them.

On Maggie’s first Christmas with us, people brought her gifts as well. That was the Christmas she received “meow one”, the ratty see through stuffed animal that she has loved to within an inch of its life. The next year Kim remembers her sitting all night in a brown chair looking wide-eyed at all of the people in her house.

The year after that Elena was nine months old. But no chili and fudge party.

We talked about bringing it back after we moved houses. But it seemed that everyone had a Christmas party and it was too hard to schedule yet another one. We talked about doing one for the Chinese New Year. We did a small one with some friends but never the big open house we’d had with the other party.

I’m told that my parents kept kosher til the day I was born. It probably would have happened a year or so later when we moved away from Boston to a small town in Ohio. Family traditions begin and end with births and deaths.

Published in: on December 28, 2006 at 11:29 am  Comments (2)  

Boxing Day

I’ve had lots of suggestions over the years about Christmas presents. None have been adopted.

I always liked the tradition of separating the religious aspects of the holiday from the commercial aspects. It seems kind of nice to celebrate Christmas on Christmas and all of its spiritual meaning and exchange gifts the next day. Of course it’s not my religion and after participating in family Christmases for fourteen years I’ve come to learn that part of the spiritual celebration is captured in giving gifts.

But giving gifts is also a sport. It can be a competitive sport for which there are winners. We tried to convince my parents and Kim’s parents to give the girls less for Christmas but we never could win that one. I also suggested we exchange gifts on New Year’s Day – Christmas and Channukah gifts together. That way we could take advantage of the post Christmas sales.

That suggestion never went over big. The main reason is that that’s when both grandmothers start shopping for the next year. I’m sure when they were each looking through the gifts they bought for this year they found items they had purchased for Elena before she died. Things they had planned to give her in December.

The girls always got way too much. They got some items that were meant just for them. They got some items that were meant to be shared. They got some items that could have been shared but they each got a copy.

Kim has finally taken the Mermaid Barbies out of the girls’ bathroom. The bottom half of the Barbie was a bendable fish tail. The top half was, at least in our house, a topless Barbie with long pink hair. Maggie and Elena had identical ones. There was no reason they couldn’t have had one between them. They only used it in the bath. But because they each had their own, Maggie thought it was important that they didn’t confuse them so she wrote an “E” in ink on the belly of Elena’s mermaid Barbie.

“Why’d you do that?” I asked.

“So we could tell them apart,” she said looking at me like I’m an idiot not to know that.

“But you wrote on hers.”

“Of course,” she said.

“You could have put an ‘M’ on yours,” I said.

“I explained to Elena that it would be better to have an ‘E’ on hers. That way we would know which one was hers.”

It almost seemed so obvious when she put it like that.

The fact was that Maggie never really liked people dolls. She preferred stuffed animals. Elena played with stuffed animals but she preferred people dolls. Elena loved the dolls that were the hardest to dress and she loved to dress them.

I would be in a chair editing an article on my laptop computer when Elena would lay her head on my arm and say “Da-da.” She only called me that when she was playing with dolls and wanted me to help.

“Hang on,” I’d say. And she’d quietly roll her head back and forth on my arm. She was hanging on like I’d asked, but she was still letting me know she was there.

“O.K.,” I’d say. “What do you want?”

“Here,” she’d say and hand me one of her dolls. It could be one of her Barbies or Prince Stephen or, my least favorite, a Polly Pocket. Polly Pocket’s clothes were made out of a rubbery plastic. Getting them on and off was tough for kids. And the shoes and other accessories (did I just use the word ‘accessory’?) were tiny and always getting lost.

I would struggle to get Polly’s jacket off and to put on her purple dress. I’d hand it back to Elena and pick up my laptop.

“Daaaaaad,” Elena would groan.

“What, baby?” I’d ask.

“That’s not the way it goes. You put it on backwards.”

I’d look at the doll not sure how anyone could tell which way backwards was. But sure enough, you could kind of tell. So I’d struggle to remove the dress and turn it around and pull it down over her head the right way – tugging it slowly one way then the other until it was finally in place.

“How’s that?” I’d ask.

“Great,” she’d say and give me a hug. “You did a great job. Now all you need to do is put on her boots.”

“Her boots?”

And Elena would hand me these things that couldn’t possibly fit over Polly’s legs. I’d pull them into place with Elena in my lap supervising. “There,” I’d say and hand them to her.

“Thanks dad,” she’d say. “You’re the best.”

I think Elena would have gotten far in life. No one understood the power of heartfelt flattery better than she did. She genuinely appreciated the help of others but she sure laid it on thick.

Elena would hold Polly up for a minute and turn her this way and that. A frown would come over her face.

“What’s wrong?” I would say even though I knew what was coming next. We were no longer dressing a doll. The doll had become a device for getting us to spend time together.

“I don’t think these boots go with this dress,” she’d say.

“So what are we going to change,” I asked, “the boots or the dress?”

“Both.”

And so it went.

Last Christmas, Elena’s last Christmas, her favorite gift was the Flying Turtle. It was another one of those times where Kim had suggested something that I thought was a bad idea. Kim had ignored me and gotten it anyway and she was right. Elena unwrapped the gift and pulled the scooter out of the box and rode it non-stop for the next two months.

It’s a little seat on wheels with a steering bar that you put your foot against. By wiggling the steering bar back and forth you propel the turtle forward. Elena loved it. If she had to travel ten feet she would sit on the turtle and move it those ten feet.

She had a favorite pathway from the study through the living room into the hall and dining room. It was just long enough that she could work up speed. When she hit the rug in the hall she had just enough speed to make it over the lip and halfway across it before coming to a stop. It’s almost a year later and the rug still has a big bend to it from all of the times she rode over the top. Kim and I trip regularly on it and smile thinking of Elena.

She soon tired of the rug slowing her down and would fold the rug in half and pull it out of her way. She would get up a head of steam coming across the living room and then perform a tight turn in the hallway – a perfect 180 – and head back to where she came from.

She would leave the turtle wherever she’d last ridden it so I was always tripping over it and shouting, “Elena, come and move this thing.”

“In a minute daddy,” she’d say from the other room.

“No. Right now.” I’d yell.

She’d walk by me and shoot me her “what’s the big deal” look. She’d get on the turtle and ride it back to the study.

“There,” she’d say, “are you happy now?”

And I was. There was no way to watch her little body wiggling on that turtle and not smile.

That might have been her best Christmas gift ever. And I’m glad that Kim got it and didn’t wait til the day after Christmas or New Years day to give it to her. I’m glad for every minute she got to enjoy it.

Published in: on December 26, 2006 at 9:35 am  Comments (1)  

Backlog

I have a backlog of about a dozen posts I’ve been meaning to write that I seem to be finally getting to. Although it probably isn’t proper, I will be dating them at the time that I thought of these topics because I think they make more sense in the context of that time. I hope to catch back up to the present pretty soon.

Published in: on December 26, 2006 at 9:33 am  Comments (4)  

Christmas

Christmas Eve morning Kim awoke with a start at around 5:30. She’d been restless all night and now she lept out of bed and put on her bathrobe. She was halfway across the room to where she’d hidden the presents.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I forgot to put the presents under the tree last night,” she said. In our family, one of the gifts is from Santa and the rest are from Kim and me but Kim doesn’t like to put out the presents from us until the night before Christmas.

“It’s not Christmas,” I told her.

She looked at me with some of the fog of sleep still in her eyes. “What?” she asked.

“It’s Christmas Eve tonight. Christmas is tomorrow.”

She sighed with both release and exasperation. She sat back down on the bed knowing she’d repeat this scene the next morning.

That night after the seven fish dinner, Kim, Maggie, and Kim’s mom went to midnight mass. Actually 10 pm mass.

Kim was a bit torn on this. Maggie had wanted to go at night and Kim didn’t see a way to tell her no. I told Kim that this would mean that Maggie would be up late that night, Christmas Eve night, and this would mean that – ummm – Santa wouldn’t be able to come until pretty late.

Sure enough at 4:30 Christmas morning I heard Kim set the alarm and felt the bed move slightly as she quietly got back into bed. The rule is that we aren’t allowed to go downstairs Christmas morning until the girls (now Maggie) are awake. Somehow it would spoil the magic if they thought we could have put the presents under the tree before they got downstairs.

So Christmas morning I woke up at seven and lay in bed for an hour or so. Then it occurred to me that we are allowed to go upstairs. So I climbed the stairs to the third floor and did some work until Kim called upstairs that Maggie was awake and ready to go down for Christmas morning.

I grabbed a camera and followed Maggie down the stairs. It all looked so empty. Two stockings hung over the chimney but only one was filled. (There was a year when neither were filled but that was a different story.)

She opened her gifts. It all went so quickly. There was no sister to show what she got to. No sister to compare with. No sister to show how to put together some toy she got.

Christmas didn’t seem to feel so special to Maggie. She was sitting at the computer exploring the internet a few minutes after we had come downstairs. I went to get her and Kim waved me off.

“She should be in here,” I said.

Kim shrugged. It wouldn’t have made it better.

I called into Maggie, “can I take some of your candy.”

“I thought you weren’t eating chocolate,” she called back.

“It’s Christmas. I’m eating everything,” I said.

“Aren’t you Jewish?” she asked, hardly looking up from the browser window. “It shouldn’t make any difference.”

I made coffee. Maggie played on the computer. Kim turned on the television.

She wanted to stop at Patti’s on the way over to her parents’ house to drop off some plates from the night before. I just couldn’t. We were going to see my niece at my in-laws’ house and that felt different. She was an only child. I just couldn’t see siblings sharing Christmas morning. I’d like to be a better person and be above that but I’m not.

I told Kim I wanted to stop at the cemetery. She went back and forth on whether she wanted to. I told her she didn’t have to. She knew that. In the end, the three of us drove to Elena’s grave on our way to Christmas dinner.

Wreaths decorated a good portion of the graves. The cemetery was beautiful. Maggie decided she wanted to stay in the car this time. Kim and I walked over to Elena’s grave.

Kim’s parents had been there earlier and had left a tiny evergreen decorated for Christmas. There were child blocks that spelled out Elena and a little bear that came in a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Perfect. Just perfect.

We stood for a while. Another tradition for Kim’s family on Christmas. Visiting the grave of this beautiful six year-old. We walked back to the car. Kim started to cry again.

For maybe the tenth time in the last hour I said, “we don’t have to go, you know.”

“I know,” she said. And then lying to me for the tenth time in the last hour she said, “I’m o.k..”

We parked across the street from Kim’s parents’ house as my parents pulled up in their car and as Kim’s sister’s family arrived. It was if we’d all called each other.

It was a pretty typical Christmas dinner. Kim was overwhelmed by the absence of Elena and left the table in tears. I just don’t know what to do to make her feel any better. I guess it’s not supposed to be o.k.. After a while I went upstairs and sat next to Kim not being much of a help at all. When she was ready we came back down. People were eating dessert. Childhood friends of hers dropped in to visit and make sure she was doing alright.

After they left we opened present. The girls – Maggie and Lydia – opened box after box. It was both a normal Christmas and it wasn’t.

People left in groups until it was Kim, Maggie, me and her parents. We watched the Christmas edition of “Deal or no Deal” trying to figure out when the offer exceeded the expected value. Usually Kim and I drive separately to Christmas. This year we drove together. The three of us drove there together and the three of us drove home together.

Published in: on December 25, 2006 at 10:33 pm  Comments (6)  

Christmas Eve

“Daddy.”

“What, Elena?”

“Know what we haven’t had in a long time?”

“Ummm. A quiet house?”

“No, daddy. I MEAN do you know what we haven’t had to EAT in a long time?”

“What, Elena?”

“A leech.”

“Alice?”

“Yep.”

“Your right.” I didn’t really think that would be the end of it but it was worth a try.

“Daddy.”

“What, Elena?”

“Know what I’d like for lunch today?”

“Ummm. A quiet house?”

“NOOOOOOOOO. I’d like some A leech.”

“Why don’t you just have some yogurt and -”

“NOOOOO. Can you PLEASE make a leech?”

Sigh. Please sometimes changes everything. I didn’t really feel like making alice (which is pronounced uh-leech which Elena always pronounced A-leech). Then again, she did say please and I had no real reason not to make it except that I didn’t really feel like it.

Elena loved alice and I’m not sure why. She first had it at a Christmas Even seven fish dinner when she was probably two or three. She was told that they were noodles with a special sauce.

She loved them. Finally in this meal of nothing but fish she had found one food with no fish in it. This one was just noodles and anchovies (whatever they are) with some parsley and bread crumbs added at the end. Besides, Tony and Butch had cooked this. It had to be good. Even at three Elena loved to flirt with older men.

We boiled the noodles and turned on the pan for the sauce. Elena added some olive oil to the hot pan. I then added the anchovies and Elena stirred. While I chopped up some parsley I asked Elena to find the panko bread crumbs.

“These?” she asked.

“Yep,” I nodded. “Pour some in.”

“How much,” she asked.

“About a handful,” I said.

She added the bread crumbs and I threw in the parsley. I tossed the pan a few times. I asked her, “how much do you want.”

“A lot,” she said. “I love a leech.” Elena knew how and when to use flattery. I put some pasta in a plate for her and some for me. We sat down at the table. Elena asked what kind of fizzy water I wanted. I asked for Orange. “we don’t have any Orange left,” she reported when she returned, “so I didn’t bring you any kind.”

“Can I have berry?”

“I think so,” she said.

Maggie wandered in to the dining room to see what we were doing. Maggie doesn’t like alice. She took the pepperoni out of the refrigerator and sat down with us.

“Maggie,” Elena said in a voice that was much sweeter than her intent, “would you like some a leech. Dad made a leech. I love a leech.” She knew the repetition would annoy her sister.

“No. I don’t like fish,” Maggie said. I shook my head at Maggie but she either didn’t see me or ignored me.

“What do you mean?” Elena asked. “This isn’t fish, it’s a leech.”

“Alice IS fish,” Maggie said. “Don’t you know anything.”

“Ewwwwww,” Elena said. “It is not. I hate fish and I love a leech so a leech is not fish.”

It’s the sort of argument that wins elections. The logic isn’t strong but it sounds as if it might be right.

“Dad,” Maggie said, “tell her. Tell her that alice is a kind of fish.”

I was stuck. I didn’t want Elena to stop eating this thing she liked but I wasn’t willing to lie to her about this.

“Is it?” Elena asked.

“It is,” I said.

I waited for the explosion but it never came. Elena worked through her own logic and finally said, “well I guess I like some fishes then.”

“Fish,” Maggie said.

“That’s what I said,” said Elena.

“Did not,” Maggie said. She might have been ready to say more but I exploded.

“Enough,” I said. “You eat your noodles and you eat your salami.”

“Pepperoni,” Maggie said and I laughed.

Sunday night was Christmas Eve and we did a seven fish dinner in our house. Nine actually or eight depending on how you count it. The last dish was three kinds of fish prepared with different sauces. The trout had a garlic, parseley and butter sauce. The red snapper was done in potato flakes with a beet juice sauce and fried beet chips on top. The monkfish had a mushroom syrup on top. I counted that as one dish.

I had taken anchovies packed in salt and filleted them and put them on a salad Kim’s mom brought. We had started with steamed mussels and sauteed shrimp. There were fried smelts and a bacala in tomato sauce. Somewhere in the middle I served the first alice I’ve made since Elena died.

She just loved a leech.

Published in: on December 24, 2006 at 1:43 pm  Comments (1)  

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Before I married Kim I had an outsider’s view of Christmas. I suppose in some ways I still do. I thought the celebration was too much about opening presents and not enough about the deeper spiritual meaning of Christmas. I suppose I still do but it’s more complicated than that.

The most meaningful presents are opened year after year days before Christmas and carefully rewrapped for the following year. I remember our first Christmas on East 128th street when Kim asked me to bring the ornaments down from the attic. She had boxes and boxes of ornaments that took up an entire section of our attic.

I watched as she carefully unwrapped boxes inside of boxes. She lit up as she opened each one.

“This is from my grandmother,” she’d say. She’d tell me a story about each ornament, about the person who gave it to her, or of some memory triggered by the ornament. Weird name for them. Christmas tree ornaments. Christmas tree decorations. They are central to the holiday and not mere ornaments or decorations.

One by one she lifted an ornament out of the protective padding, found a place for it on the tree, and returned the tissue paper to the little box for later. The tree with all of the familiar decorations and the ties to other times and places is an anchor. It places this year in the context of Christmases gone by.

The next year she bought me some cooking ornaments at Williams-Sonoma. Each year I now had a place on the Christmas tree. I got into the spirit and bought some Pooh ornaments to add to the collection. We bought ornaments for the girls – many of them celebrated their Chinese zodiac signs. Rats for Maggie and rabbits for Elena.

Each year Kim couldn’t wait to decorate the tree. For Kim, much of the joy of Christmas was centered around the opening of boxes. Not the gifts “found” under the tree but these ornaments carried down from the attic each year. After Christmas she’d carefully repack each ornament in its little box, give it one more look, and then close the lid.

Not this year.

Maggie told Kim’s mother that she was worried that Kim wouldn’t be able to bring herself to buy and decorate a tree this year. Kim’s mom bought Maggie a silver table-top artificial tree that Maggie and Kim put in the window months ago. Maggie decorated it with lights and extra large round ornaments with no sentimental value what-so-ever.

That might have been it for the year but back in October Maggie wrote a reminder in Kim’s appointment calendar: “Buy tree. Decorate tree.”

The Sunday before Christmas we had a Chanukah party at our house with latkes for friends and family. We went out and bought the Christmas tree on Saturday so that it would be up before people came over. “Buy tree.” Check.

The tree sat largely undecorated for a week. Maggie placed one or two of the extra large round ornaments on the tree and wrapped a large red chain of beads around the tree about half way to the top. For days Kim looked at the tree and said, “we have to decorate it.”

“We don’t have to do anything,” I said. “If it’s going to upset you too much, don’t decorate it this year.”

“I have to,” she said.

“You don’t,” I insisted.

She shook her head. We were in the kitchen and she motioned me towards the phone and said, “look.” I didn’t see what she meant. She flipped open her appointment book and there were the reminders from Maggie. Wow. What ten year old thinks to do that.

Kim brought down a couple of boxes and asked me to bring down one other. She and Maggie put the ornaments up on tree. There were more boxes upstairs – but this is enough for this year. A tree filled with memories. Not just the ornaments bought for Maggie and for Elena but the ornaments Kim had already decided she would pass on to each girl when they were old enough to have their own tree in their own homes.

I looked over the fireplace and started. I don’t know which would have been harder to see – a lone stocking for Maggie or two stockings. No right answers. No way to know what you should do.

Kim had hung two stockings, one of which would be filled with candy and toys and the other filled with just memories.

Ghosts of Christmas past.

Published in: on December 23, 2006 at 12:17 pm  Comments (2)  

Gingerbread Houses

Our Christmas weekend began at Mike and Patti’s house decorating Gingerbread houses. Kim and Patti had bought one house for each kid. I thought Maggie was decorating hers at our house with the two of us but Kim had thought it would be more fun for her to be part of a group.

We started, as we always seem to start, in the kitchen. The kids were bouncing back and forth between the cookies on the dining room table and making their individual pizzas with the help of their dad.

“Maggie, do you want one?” Mike asked.

“That’s o.k.,” Maggie said.

A couple of rounds later it turned out that, as Mike suspected, she would like one.

“Do you want to make it?” Mike asked.

“You can,” she said.

Jack asked me if I wanted to play chess. “I’m really good,” he warned. “I’ve been playing for three years.” We played while the pizza’s cooked. He is really good for a seven year old. Unfortunately for him, I play on about a nine year old’s level. It won’t take him long to beat me regularly.

“Checkmate,” I said.

Jack studied the board. It took him a while to convince himself that he had lost. Finally, he realized he had no moves available and said, “you can call it checkmate, I prefer to call it a draw.”

I smiled but said, “no it’s checkmate. But thanks for the game. You’re very good.”

The kids ate their pizza and then disappeared from the table. Patti took out the four Gingerbread houses and we started to unwrap them.

“Oh look,” she said, “they’re already assembled.”

That was a good thing. Last year Maggie and Elena had rushed to decorate their houses before the walls had dried in place. I was able to keep Elena’s house together when it started to sag but Kim and Maggie had to keep repairing their structure.

Having pre-built houses meant that the kids could concentrate on decorating the structure with icing and candy.

“One of the candy bags is open,” Patti said. “There’s loose candy at the bottom of this box.”

We put the candy back in the open bag and divided up the houses and candy. Maggie came to the table and sat down and immediately tipped over the only open bag. Patti went to get little bowls and soon each kid’s place had a bare gingerbread house and three bowls of candy. She went back into the kitchen to mix up the first batch of icing to place in kids’ plastic piping bags. The four kids didn’t care. They decided to sample the candy while they waited.

Jack got a knife. “I’m going to make a door,” he told me. He carved a front door in one side of the house. I was sure he was going to break the structure or cut himself. He did neither. He made a nice little door.

Patti brought out icing for Maggie and Jack and told the other girls she’d be back with more. Maggie started decorating the roof of her house with a line of candy. Jack stuck on a couple of pieces of candy on the room and decided he needed to cut in a window.

Sarah and Kate kept sampling the candy while they waited for icing. Even once Patti brought them their icing they ate more than they put on the house. Kim helped Kate and I helped Sarah until Patti was available. Kate discovered that the icing was edible too.

I watched Maggie design a red and green candy wreath for next to her front door. Elena would have loved this. I know that’s easy to say, but she would have. She would have been loud and bossy and had a mouth full of candy.

Maggie put a candy chimney on the roof while Jack carved a chimney hole in the roof of his house. Boys and girls are just different.

“Elena was a Christian, you know,” Jack said.

“Half,” Maggie corrected. “Like me.”

“Well, she believed in Jesus,” he insisted. I don’t know why, but this has always been important to him. Even when Elena was alive.

He looked at me and said, “When Elena died, Sophie was her best friend. Sophie wrote me a letter when Elena died.”

We sat there. Two guys just decorating gingerbread houses talking about a loss they have in common.

Jack saw the look on my face. “What’s wrong,” he asked.

“I’m sad. I miss Elena.”

He looked up at me and said “well I miss my Nanna.” His grandmother had died a week before. That’s a little over a week before Christmas. The family had just returned from the funeral on Sunday.

“I know,” I said, “that must make you very sad.”

He nodded and looked at me very carefully before looking back at his house. He turned it around and picked up the knife again and said, “I’m making a back door.”

“O.K.,” I said, “but then put down the knife and do a little decorating.”

I looked back at Maggie who was working on her house. It looked great. Last year Elena had looked at Maggie’s house and told her, “it looks like crap. Doesn’t it dad?” This year it looked great with it’s wreath and its chimney. It was a perfect little gingerbread house.

Published in: on December 22, 2006 at 8:51 am  Comments (1)  

Christmas Cards

Kim knows that often subtlety is lost on me. She’ll say, “we need to go to the store for some milk.” She’ll see the blank look on my face and she’ll clarify by saying “that’s the you part of we.”

Somehow over the thirteen plus years we divided up a lot of tasks that way. One of the tasks that has always been Kim’s was when we need to send out holiday cards. This year we won’t be sending one out. We appreciate the cards we are receiving and hope that you won’t cross us off of your list next year.

It’s become clear from some of the cards we’ve received that many people don’t know about Elena. There are also those who know who take a moment to let us know they know how hard this time of year must be.

In between are the people who know and don’t say anything. We know they know because they address their cards to me, Kim, and Maggie. It’s odd but for some the silence feels o.k.. We know they get it. Or their card is a newsletter that recaps their past year. Or their card is a picture of their kids tucked inside. We love getting those.

For others it seems as if something is missing. There’s a personal note tucked inside that isn’t personal. Most years we read this note that could be written to anyone and move on. This year it feels jarring.

I suppose that’s part of the reason we can’t write Christmas cards this year. That’s the Kim part of we. They would either be way to personal or not personal enough to send. In either case, the emotional toll for sending them would be too great.

Published in: on December 21, 2006 at 8:48 am  Comments (3)  

Seven Fish

We’re doing the traditional Italian seven fish dinner again this year for Christmas Eve.

For years we went to Al and Sandie’s house for their Christmas Eve. It was a house full of warmth and family and it became a part of how we defined Christmas every year. Al was our dentist – but he was more than that. He’d played the organ at Kim and my wedding. He invited my father hunting. At his funeral in a packed church it was clear that everyone in the room had had a personal relationship with him.

After he died we went to their house one more time on Christmas Eve. I can’t imagine how difficult this was for his family. He had been such a big part of that celebration. His sons served up course after course of fish dishes and you could feel their father’s presence as well as his absence.

Each year we would leave their house and drive through this community that seemed to compete for which house could have the most over-the-top Christmas lighting display. The girls would wake up long enough to peer out the window at professionally mounted displays as we drove slowly in a long procession of cars that snaked into and out of this housing development.

When Maggie was two she had a bad fall. We were at the table at Al and Sandie’s and Maggie toppled over a chair at the top of a brick staircase and fell all the way down the stairs bumping her head hard on the brick. She had a huge scary bruise that began to swell. Someone got me ice and I held her while applying the ice. Kim was six months pregnant with Elena. The three of us sat on the couch together. As scary as it was, it looked as if Maggie would be all right.

Kim drove home and I sat in the back seat with Maggie re-icing her head and keeping her company. That night and all of Christmas day she repeated her new favorite story. “I fell down stairs. Daddy iced me.”

Kim looked in on Maggie throughout the night to make sure she was o.k.. In the morning all that remained was a discoloring. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were. This was how children died. We could have lost our daughter. We spent many nights in bed shuddering at the loss that might have been.

It’s unbelievable how quickly a life can be lost. Unbelievable even after it happens. Every day with a healthy child is a gift. Even when she is driving us crazy and behaving her worst, Kim and I try to remember that we’re lucky to have this child and her attitude.

A couple of days ago we began to prepare for this year’s Christmas Eve dinner. We started the seven fish tradition in our own house last year and have invited more people to join us this year. We stopped at Gallucci’s for the salt cod and the frozen smelts. We picked up two kinds of anchovies: the kind in the tin for the pasta and the kind packed in salt for the salad.

Al is everywhere in the ingredients here in the store. He is behind the deli counter and in the aisles. His hand will be on my shoulder Sunday night while I’m cooking and his voice will be in my ear asking me if I’d like a little wine.

Published in: on December 20, 2006 at 9:11 am  Leave a Comment