Monday, August 22, 2011

Into the Cuckoo's Nest

Celebrating my 50th birthday with a bald head did not make it easy to wear a party hat, much less how much I looked like Spock from Star Trek. I did not expect to turn fifty while going through treatment for breast cancer but I could see the disappointment in my family's faces when I told them I could not rally for a big party. After throwing around suggestions, we all agreed that going out to dinner as a family would come close to a party without all the hoop-de-la, much less easier on our wallets.
My oldest daughter, the planner in our family (I don't know where she gets that), single-handedly made the decision for us to go to "The Melting Pot" on the Plaza. Now I love fondue and all the goodies that go with it and looked forward to the evening but I should've seen the writing on the wall when Tiff informed me the earliest reservation available was for 8:00 p.m. 8:00 p.m!! Chemotherapy and radiation gave even able-bodied people a reason to nap five or six times a day and then plan for bed at 7:00, only to sleep til 9:00 in the morning. I felt overwhelmed at the thought of staying dressed until at least 9:30 on a cold, snowy evening, much less eating at such a late hour. But the idea of consuming chocolate fondue with strawberries and marshmallows fueled my fire and on the evening of February 15th, 2005, we climbed into the car and drove thirty minutes away to make pigs of ourselves over an open fire.

A nice young lady greeted us at the door and I held onto the railing all the way down the stairs to keep from collapsing from fatigue. She led us to a nice booth near the back of the restaurant which I felt was a good choice considering Katie was eight months pregnant and I could see the restroom signs from our table. I scooted in first on one side, with Mark next to me and the kids all sitting across from us. Our waiter came to the table shortly after we sat down and we began perusing the menu while he got our drinks. None of us could decide what to order but Tiff, being a veteran of the restaurant's happy hour, quickly gave us a run-down on the favorites. Mark and David decided to order the beef and a side salad, Katie got the chicken and Tiff and I chose (and I use that word loosely since Tiff informed me that she knew how much I would like it) the salad with bread and cheese fondue. Not only did I feel exhausted but the longer I waited, the sicker I felt. But that's one thing I appreciated about my family that night. They kept me entertained so as to distract me from any unpleasantness. And thus the celebrating began.

Because the restaurant's specialty is fondue, each booth held one or two vats of hot oil in a sunken container at each end of the table. Before I could scratch my bald head, David crawled underneath the table with Mark encouraging him "to see how those burners work." Never mind that quite a few people patronized the place that night due to the fact that Valentine's Day fell the day before and obviously, their reservations were also made too late to get earlier times. I again felt gratitude for the table in the back as it seemed less likely that too many other diners crawled around under their tables so David might not have been noticed - yet. Mark's questions became more detailed and came quicker and quicker with David answering them with phrases like, "No, Dad, it looks like a switch," or "Dad, why don't you come down here and look so you can see what I'm talking about." Are you kidding me? Is it not enough that my son, at the age of 17, barely fit under the table and he now invited his dad to join him down there in the land of oil burners? People, we are at a restaurant. We need to use our company manners!
Fortunately, the food came and we buckled down to the task at hand. As soon as the food came, the questions and concerns began to fly. "Oh, just the sight of that raw chicken makes me sick," "Did you have to say that? Now I don't even feel like eating," and from my always-starving son, "When I ordered the steak, I didn't think it would come cut up into little pieces." Now, obviously the boy never dipped a full-size steak into a vat of oil and could not see the wisdom of bringing the raw beef cut into bite-size pieces. I must admit I felt surprise at how small the mound of pink steak pieces seemed in relation to the cost but the sauces looked good and I knew my pyromaniac son couldn't wait to fry that meat in that hot oil.

I began eating my salad, which tasted quite good and began to dip my pieces of bread into my hot cheese fondue. Delicious could be the only way to describe the flavor of the cheese and Tiff and I took turns dipping our breads into each other's pots as we ordered different types of cheese. But as soon as Tiff saw Katie dip her raw chicken into the oil, cook it and then lay it on the same plate as the raw meat, I knew what I would hear next. Yessiree, I guessed right. "Ohhh, Kate, you're putting that cooked chicken too close to the raw chicken. You're going to get salmonella." Oh geez - can we just eat in peace, I thought to myself. Tiff, ever the nurse in thought and action, probably was not concerned with food poisoning or any other sanitary issues when she and her college friends shared the same beer or used the bathrooms at the fraternity house. My guess is that those places would test high on the barometer of unclean and unsanitary conditions. Needless to say, Kate decided she couldn't finish her meal because she just knew she would get sick if she ate that chicken so she leaned against the booth and promptly looked ill.

After cooking most of our own meal, my yearnings turned toward dessert, which definitely included chocolate fondue. Tiff told everyone to let Mom order the dessert fondues since we came to this particular restaurant to celebrate my, with the emphasis on "my," birthday. I quickly looked over the dessert choices and went into overdrive when I saw "Bailey's Irish Cream fondue." If I needed anything at that minute, it was liquor-related. Upon mentioning Bailey's though, Katie chimed in, "I can't drink that." Oh, she was right. No alcohol for pregnant women. So with much discussion, we all decided that nothing sounded better than good, old milk chocolate fondue accompanied by a delicious-sounding marshmallow/chocolate fondue.
Soon enough, our delightful male waiter brought us wonderful-smelling pots of chocolate along with chunks of angel-food cake and fresh fruit on a platter. After filling our guts with sweet bites of goodness, I sagged into the leather seat and waited for Mark to pay the bill. After looking it over, he proclaimed that he'd never paid so much to go out to to dinner and then cook his own food. The waiter laughed while I wallowed in embarassment and begged to go home and sleep. But the highlight of the evening came when Mark got the receipt and we stood up to go. The waiter stuck his hand out and with a smile, told Mark that we'd been one of the most entertaining tables he'd ever waited on. "Sir, if you don't mind me saying so," he said to Mark, "you remind me of Jack Nicholson." I guffawed and replied, "You betcha - right out of 'Cuckoo's Nest.' " With that, we got up, trudged up the stairs into the cold and I fell asleep in the car before the car drove out of the parking garage. Happy Birthday to me.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Knockout, Round 1

My husband loves his workshop. If you read my earlier posts, you know that our garages never housed cars but always held a workbench, tools and various hardware and junk collections. Mark loves to build things and built our daughters' first bed and some tables for our house so after dinner, he would go downstairs and presumably work on "stuff."

One night we finished dinner and I began cleaning up the kitchen. The girls sat at the table, finishing their homework and Mark asked if I minded if he went downstairs to his workshop. I told him to go ahead and I took David upstairs to give him a bath. The girls came up after awhile and proceeded to get ready for bed themselves. After stories and prayers, I headed downstairs to finish cleaning the kitchen and picking up the clutter around the house. After getting ready for bed, I turned on the television to watch the evening news. Not long after the news started, I heard footsteps coming up the basement stairs. Knowing it was Mark, I waited for him to come in the living room and watch the rest of the news with me. After several minutes, I went into the kitchen and found him sitting in a kitchen chair. He looked a little dazed and before I could ask what was wrong, he blurted out, "Nice to know nobody wondered about me the last few hours." I looked at him with a puzzled look, not really sure what he meant and asked him what was going on.

"Well, I was down there working at the workbench and bent over to get something that fell on the floor. I raised my head up and hit it on the edge of the bench and I've been on the floor, knocked out cold for THREE hours." Oops!! I did not realize how much time passed since he went down into the depths of his workshop. Mark always gets so absorbed in what he's doing that he rarely surfaces unless it's an emergency and since I saw no blood, this didn't qualify as an emergency in my book. Getting the kids to bed and picking up the house kept me busy and I just assumed he was happy tinkering. Come to find out, he was happy but it was in his post-trauma dreams, not at the workbench. Nex time I'll make sure and rig him to an alarm system so when he falls, bells will ring, whistles will blow and the entire family will circle the wounded man with ice packs, band-aids and several bottles of Tylenol. Oh, and don't forget the masks so we can laugh ourselves silly without him seeing us.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

First Trip

When I hear the word "travel," my ears perk up like a racehorse in the starting gate at the Belmont Stakes. As a child, my family took regular vacations, many in the car to visit friends in California. Of course, we kids crawled all over the back of our station wagon with books, games and lived to tell about it. In today's world of carseats, seat belts and DVD players for the car, kids spend most of their traveling time confined and thus the same fighting ensues. Does that ever change? I feel certain that my kids will not remember the "Mommy, she's touching my carseat," or "She's singing." Really? No wonder my parents stopped every hour during our trips - I vividly remember stopping on the side of the road once in a desert and my mom telling us, "Everyone out. Run around - I don't care how hot it is. Today that would've been considered abusive but it was really about my parents preserving their sanity during a three-day car ride with four kids under 7. I would guess I would push my kids out of the car no matter where we stopped. The heck with drive-through fast food - they're getting out no matter how long it takes to buckle them back into their seats.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dieting is Not For Me

Five or six years ago, my oldest daughter decided that she and I, (yes, she was kind enough to include me in the decision) needed to go on a diet. I knew that losing five or ten pounds wouldn't hurt me and at my age, keeping weight off did seem harder and harder. So I reluctantly agreed, thinking it would help both of us if we did it together. Tiffany proceeded to go and purchase a diet book and when I saw the title, "The South Beach Diet," I thought, "Oh good, I like the beach - this can't be too bad." Ha!! What a foolish thought.

We decided to start the diet on the weekend because Tiff and I rationalized that we could stay fairly busy for two days, what with cleaning our houses and doing errands. What I forgot was that I spent every other Saturday caring for my infant niece, Ruby, while her mom worked. When I realized that the diet started on one of my "designated" Saturdays as a caregiver, I became a little worried. Tiff called me the night before and assured me that she would bring my "meal plan" to me early the next morning so we could begin the diet together. Oh, joy! I couldn't begin to describe the excitement I felt about this new phase of my life. The next morning, I got up fairly early as I needed to be at Ruby's house by 9:00. Needless to say, I woke up starving and couldn't wait for the delivery of my first-day-on-the-diet meal plan. I packed a bag with fruit and veggies so I would snack on some healthy food and then realized I had a text on my phone and wondered who text me already that day. Well, you guessed it - Tiff left me a text informing me that she left my breakfast on the counter for me (that's what happens when you sleep the sleep of post-chemotherapy treatment - you don't hear a thing). I came into the kitchen to find two, yes, I did say two, miniature quiches and a glass of V8 juice on the stove. Now, when I hear the word "quiche," the picture that comes to my mind shows layers of flaky crust, rich, cheesy filling and pretty green garnish on the top. The quiches that sat nicely on a plate before me measured no more than an inch-and-a-quarter in diameter and about 3/4 of an inch high. They looked tasty but I knew that at that moment, I could easily partake of at least a dozen or more of those little suckers to quiet the now angry growling of my stomach. But I knew Tiff counted on me to encourage and support her during this difficult time so I sat down with my paper and that's when it hit me - no French Vanilla coffee for this girl. No, it would be black or none at all because of course, this diet did not include sugar. I decided just to go with hot tea, sans the usual honey, and eagerly drank my V8 and ate my breakfast pies, expecting to feel sated and revigorated. Well, guess what? I didn't feel any of that. My stomach growled as loud as ever and I felt weak as I drove the fifteen miles to my brother and sister-in-law's house to watch little Ruby. I hoped that the morning would fly by with all the diaper changes, bottle feedings and baby-rocking filling my time. Little Ruby was a darling baby but a very slow eater and all I could think about while I fed her was how I couldn't wait for "snack time." Yes, the diet allowed us one snack in the morning and one snack in the afternoon. As soon as I put Ruby down for her morning nap, I eagerly ran to the kitchen where my meals and snacks for the day sat on the counter. After opening the bag, I reached for the little baggie marked "a.m. snack" and couldn't believe my eyes. The bag held a plastic-wrapped piece of string cheese. String cheese! That's it?!! And of course, the label said "Lite," which to those of you who know your cheese, you know that means no flavor and of course, not enough of anything to make you feel better. Whereas normally, I would bite off a little piece at a time, I took three big bites and before I knew it, snack time ended. I managed to turn an average morning snack time of 15 minutes into a new record of exactly 42 seconds. And again, my hunger continued to nag me for the rest of the morning. I eagerly watched the clock because I didn't care what time I usually ate lunch - today lunch would come as soon as I finished giving Ruby her noon bottle which, for my sake, would come a little early. I couldn't wait to sit down and enjoy a delicious lunch and went into the kitchen to get the meal ready but my first instinct was to call Tiff and say, "Surely you jest!" Tiff kindly packed my lunch for me but instead of a nice turkey sandwich on some whole-wheat bread and some carrot sticks to munch on, my noontime feast consisted of a small can of water-packed tuna and one, yes, one, chopped piece of lettuce. Trying to see the glass as half-full instead of half-empty, I got a pretty plate out of the cabinet and spread the lettuce out as best as I could. I drained the tuna and placed it in the middle of the lettuce, forming a nice mound that really looked quite tasty. I ate as slowly as possible, with my stomach screaming in protest but I needed to make this meal last. If it took me an hour to eat lunch, that would make less of a waiting time for the anticipated afternoon snack, although at this point, I held little hope that something delicious lay inside that little brown bag. Taking care of Ruby helped the time go by quickly and as soon as the clock showed 2:30, I tore into the kitchen at breakneck speed and ripped the bag open in anticipation. Wow! Celery sticks and a miniscule triangle of Laughing Cow cheese. Seeing that laughing cow with his smiling face made me furious - laughing was the last thing I wanted to do right now. But I knew that celery would add fiber and hopefully, fill me up and the cheese would taste good and satisfy my deprived stomach. My mistake - I felt slightly better for about ten minutes.

Needless to say, by the time I got home, I could not wait to eat dinner, which consisted of orange roughy and scallions with ginger sauce, along with a salad. I did find it difficult to make dinner because my hands shook from weakness. All the books and articles about dieting always seemed to emphasize that the right diet would keep a person from getting hungry but I now know they lied. I don't remember feeling so hungry in my entire life. And to finish my day on a happy note, I found out that bedtime did not mean snacks but it didn't really matter because nothing I'd eaten had kept the hunger pains at bay all day.

The next morning I didn't even want to get out of bed. I dreaded what the day would bring in terms of food but I did look forward to stepping on the scale. So much for that anticipated moment because according to the scale, I gained, yes, I did say, gained, one pound on the day I started the diet and nearly starved to death. Of course, today would mean a brand new menu and I could feel my excitement building. But in the words of Randy from "Christmas Story:" "Skunked again." That's right - more miniscule breakfast pies and another glass of V8 juice. The day dragged on with a couple pistachio nuts and three baby carrots and a turkey roll-up with cilantro mayo for lunch. Now that may sound absolutely delicious to you but when I saw that the roll-up was actually made of the turkey itself, well, my heart fell. No delicious bread for me today. Lunch contained one slice of turkey with cilantro mayo wrapped around a piece of string cheese (still Lite cheese). Yum, yum. I kept thinking of how good a piece of fruit would taste with the roll-up but the South Beach diet didn't allow fruit in the diet for at least two weeks. What kind of diet containing the word "beach" wouldn't include fruit? I never heard of such a thing until this craziness entered my life. The diet guru felt that the consumption of fruit led to sugar highs and lows and thus lies the reasoning behind the omission of fruit. Well, at this point, what was another deprivation? I convinced myself that this was what some people called "character-building" and plodded on through the day.

The final straw came when Tiff came bouncing into the house with something she hilariously called "dessert." She wouldn't even let me look in the bag until we sat down and ate our delicious dinner. More surprises awaited me on the plate with grilled salmon and what the recipe surreptitiously called "Surprise Potatoes." I learned long ago that anytime the word 'surprise" appeared in the name of a food, the biggest surprise was always the taste. After putting a small spoonful on my plate, I took a bite and actually found it quite palatable. Lucky for me, caulifower has never been a hated vegetable of mine. I quickly consumed the fish and "potatoes" with a side salad and waited for Tiff to finish eating so we could get to the main course - dessert. She assured me she brought something delicious and at this point, if the food even hinted at sweetness, I would inhale it like an elephant eating peanuts. After setting out the dessert plates, Tiff took the lid off the bowl that held dessert and dished out a spoonful of white fluff. I must admit that the stuff looked pretty appetizing. Being a lover of both rice and tapioca pudding ( yes, I know that people call tapioca "fish eyes"), I could only hope the stuff would satisfy me like those desserts always did. After spreading my napkin nicely across my lap, I quickly put the spoon to my mouth in anticipation and just as quickly pulled it back out, following that action with "What in the world is this stuff? It feels like a big pile of goosefeathers dipped in cinnamon has been stuffed in my mouth." I'd never tasted goosefeathers but my gag reflex kicked in much too quickly for me to even recognize the ingredients. I thought I tasted vanilla but I could not get past the texture of the so-called dessert. Tiff began laughing at my reaction and told me she thought it tasted really good - after all, it contained ricotta cheese, lemon zest, vanilla and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Her explanation didn't help at all. At that moment, I decided that my journey with the "South Beach Diet" was over. I told Tiff that over the past three days, I gained four pounds, literally starved myself and didn't care what she chose to do but as for me, I headed right for the pantry. Tiff's heels joined mine in staccato and we knocked each other over grabbing for whatever we could find, which included cinnamon graham crackers, milk and for me, a pint of strawberries, three kiwi fruits and half a honeydew melon. And if I looked as round as a honeydew, I didn't care. Dieting was not for me and the next time I heard the words "South Beach Diet," it would involve sand, water, sun and drinks with umbrellas. That would forever be my diet fare.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Back to the Mall

Now, really, doesn't Christmas always fall on Dec. 25th? Every calendar I ever owned marks that day with a big red number - "25." A person can't miss it and most people I know, especially children and mothers, watch as that number comes closer and closer. Before I know it, that number floats in front of my eyes like a distorted face when looking closely at a round ornament. I get sick of hearing the television and radio screaming out the countdown of the days left to shop. As soon as one Christmas ends, I begin paying close attention to the conversations between my family members, including the musings of the man who believes in Santa Claus. I consider myself to be a fairly good gift-giver and I honed that skill by listening for conversations that included the words, "I want," "I wish I had," "I saw this. . ." and other such spoken wishes. When my kids were young, before school even started, I got in the habit of scribbling lists in a notebook I keep in my nightstand, with each person's name at the top of each page. After I buy a gift, I star it and write a "w" next to each present after covering each gift in matching paper and ribbons. Oh yes, don't forget the gift tags. After all, whose heart doesn't flutter when they see their name on a gift and know that someone spent the time to buy something special for them and them alone. Well, most people receive gifts chosen especially for them. I would, of course, write "From Santa," on the kid's gift tags but really wanted to write "From Mrs. Claus." But that would disturb the innocent, little children because when we visited Santa's Workshop at the mall, my kids sat on the lap of a big, kindly but scary-looking man in a red suit. I could barely restrain myself from yelling out, "Santa's not a man and never has been, at least at our house." But I went along with the fantasy, at least until Christmas morning.

Knowing that Christmas always comes in December and one short month after Thanksgiving, why does my husband wait to shop for my gifts on December 23rd? We play the same game every year with him asking for my list and me believing that this could be the year for "the" gift, the one thing I don't write down but secretly hope he knows me well enough to buy. I consider myself relatively easy to buy for and my friends and my children don't seem to find it very difficult to ply me with surprises every year, even on my birthday and Mother's Day. But, inevitably, Christmas morning arrives and Mark eagerly hands me a gift to open, all the while stumbling over his words, i.e. "I know it's not what you wanted but they didn't have your size," or color or whatever reason the box didn't hold the coveted surprise gift. I don't know any other way to make shopping any easier for him than I already do. My list comes complete with item name, color, size and which store stocks said item. I mean, I shop every year and hardly leave my house. All the man needs to do is go online, find listed site and enter item number but he tells me that he doesn't know how to enter the debit or credit card number. REALLY? Then I realize that he is indeed telling the truth. Mark never activated his debit card because he claims not to know how to use the thing. Hahaha - I find that hilarious considering the man can take a computer apart and put it back together or disable an engine only to get the thing running again. I now know that it's probably best that he doesn't use a debit card because upon opening his bathroom drawer to look for something, I find receipts dating back several years. A debit card in his name could truly prove disastrous. He bought something once online and got scammed and that has now become his excuse for never shopping online again.

Needless to say, this year I made the old Christmas list again, making it very short because all I asked for was a screened-in porch. I mean, that's not asking too much, is it? We need to build a new deck so I figured we could screen it in at the same time. I did tell him he could skip the stocking tradition of the Russell Stover's marshmallow Santa because I plan on losing a few pounds and if the candy sits in front of me, I feel guilty if I don't partake. Imagine my surprise (ahem) when I took my stocking down from the mantel and tucked inside sat, not a marshmallow Santa but an entire box of Russell Stover's candy. Sabotage!!! I couldn't believe it but I went ahead and opened it to find the vanilla cream before anyone else could steal it. After all, I didn't want to seem ungrateful for what would probably turn out to be the best gift of the lot. To my surprise, my stocking held several things from the list - a Borders gift card, a tube of Lollia hand cream and a tube of Chicken Poop Lip Junk (don't knock it until you try it - best lip balm ever but don't ask me why the name). Mark then placed several gifts in my lap and the excitement on his face reminded me of our kids in their childhood when they came into the living room to see their presents under the tree. I remarked that he should probably lay off the coffee as he seemed quite jittery to me. I know now that it wasn't excitement as much as nerves. Upon opening the first gift, I spied the maker of some perfume on my list but alas, two boxes came together inside the plastic wrap, a ploy to make sure you spent extra money purchasing two to get one. Unfortunately, if I wanted to smell like a Granny Smith apple, I would just take a bite of one and let the juice run down my chin onto my clothes. Can a person tell if they will like the scent without taking off the plastic wrap? Of course not, so now I own two bottles of will-never-use-why-did-you-buy-this scent. Returnable? Not with the plastic wrap off the boxes. Just another holiday ploy. Of course, if Mark paid close attention to the list, I wrote the name of the desired perfume and it's maker, but "since he didn't have his glasses on at the time," he didn't realize he bought the wrong kind. Darn.

The next two boxes held two nice, gray sweaters, neither one the sweater I put on the list. But again, waiting until the 23rd ensures the shopper that the store will not have the size or color on the list and this lets the shopper off the hook. He can then purchase a wonderful, always useful, gift card but this time he did not. Mark asked his oldest daughter to finish the shopping and sadly for her, she bought two gray sweaters just to be on the safe side. Tiff knows what I like but this time she didn't know that I owned one sweater almost identical to one she purchased. I hated to tell her and her dad but the pockets on the side of the other sweater looked like two elephant ears that God mistakenly placed on my hips. I just couldn't bring myself to look like a zoo animal even if it would keep me warm.

Sadly, none of the boxes held a screened-in porch or even a miniature rendition of one but Mark did tell me he found someone to give us an estimate. As for those other gifts, my wallet holds cold, hard cash from the return of those sweaters. And the perfume, well, I decided I'd spritz it all over the kitchen so when I start my weight-loss program, Mark will think those vegan burgers and salad taste as good as green apple pie.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My Husband Still Believes in Santa Claus

My husband really does believe in Santa Claus. Every year Christmas rolled around like clockwork and I, in my desire to take my mother's place as the matriarch of Christmas, ran around in a frenzy, hitting all the pre-Christmas sales to find the dream gift on my children's lists. That's not to say that my kids didn't know why we celebrated this special holiday. The first thing we got out at Christmastime was an advent calendar and a special book called "Santa's Favorite Story." We always adopted a family for Christmas in our Sunday School class and I always included my kids in the shopping so they would realize that even though we couldn't afford extras, we were blessed more than many people. We would pick out an angel from the tree at the mall and drop toys in the "Toys for Tots" bin. That didn't keep them from wanting the newest toy or gadget or whatever the television shouted out as this year's "must-have toy." Christmas morning, the kids would open their gifts and Mark would usually whisper, "What'd we get them?" Silly man. There was no "we" in Christmas at our house. I, alone, brought the magic of Christmas to our house. That's not to say Mark didn't have an assignment. His job was to put the tree in the stand and string those pesky lights. That's usually when I sat down with a hot toddy because I wanted to watch the event from my safe place on the couch. I put in my earplugs, grabbed my book and tried to stay out of the way from cords flying around the room and evil-looking tools hanging off my husband's belt. He saw those as his toys but I knew those could become death objects in a matter of seconds and then the dreaded words came floating across the room - "Babe, I need some help over here." Ha! Help? As in "Are you going to make me hang these lights all by myself?" Well, of course not. He planned that from the moment he hauled up those boxes of lights from the basement. I would then stand close enough to the tree to get more than a few scratches on my arms while he threaded those lights through the branches. Before I knew it, I stood on the 10 foot ladder, reaching into spider webs that I'd never known existed up in the bowels of the ceiling. Mark stood calmly at the base of the now-unfriendly Balsam or Douglas fir and smiled knowingly as he'd comment on how easily those lights went up. He stood back after "he" completed the light-hanging and just smiled, patting himself on the back at a job well-done. Yep, he finished his Christmas preparations and he could now sit back and enjoy all the delicious cookies those little elves baked in the kitchen every night after everyone else went to bed. I would bet the elves he pictured wore short, red skirts with pretty, green low-cut sweaters and sexy, knee-high, red leather boots. Well, you can bet I imagined a different Santa than what he imagined and I would make sure that Santa left him a note in his stocking and that note would not wax poetic, that's for sure.

Of course, about a week after the hanging of the lights, Mark would come in from work and comment on the magically-decorated tree. "The tree looks great. Who did that?" Are you kidding me? Did he think that Santa and the elves lived in a secret place in our house? As far as I knew, only one person decorated that tree and she didn't live at the North Pole. After hanging those lights, Mark disappeared into his man cave, only to sneak into the kitchen occasionally to partake of those delicious Spritz and sugar cookies that the elves delivered overnight. I would hear his footsteps as he took the long way around so as not to catch my attention. Heaven forbid that he would stop and offer to carry the ornament boxes upstairs. He knew that for me to get them out of their hiding place, I would need to put on a suit of armor to avoid getting stabbed or wounded by the various tools and woodworking materials that he stacked in front of the Christmas decor. That's not to say Mark didn't offer to help. After I carried the eight or nine boxes into the living room, he would ask me, "Babe, why didn't you tell me you were getting the Christmas stuff out?" Hello. I believe I walked right by him with box after box as he busied himself with nailing something together to avoid eye contact with me. That way he could play innocent after I completed the decorating. I always enjoyed watching his face as we entertained and someone would comment on my ornament collections. Mark quickly entered the conversation with "Yeah, it's beautiful, isn't it? Don't the lights look great? It took me a couple of days to string those." Well, I feel quite sure that the look on my face silenced him after that comment because next thing I knew, he held a cup of coffee and some more of those elf-baked cookies. And I sat down next to him with a nice, hot toddy in the biggest mug I could find.

Merry Christmas! And to all you little elves out there, thanks for your help.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Grandma's Porch

Now, I love the holidays as much as the next person. As a child, I would come in the door after school in October and beg my mom to let me play a Christmas record. And yes Virginia, we called them records. I was a true Christmas junkie. I loved the lights, the tree, the entire magical scene. I fell for the Santa tale hook, line and sinker. When my mom pulled me into a closet to disclose the truth, I practically fell to my knees for a quick prayer of, "Oh, please don't let it be true." As much as I hated knowing the truth, I felt some pleasure in knowing that I could now hold a secret over my siblings' heads. Of course, my mother would hold something over my head if I ever breathed a word of "the secret" to my two brothers and my sister so I kept my mouth shut. But the real devastation came when I came home on Christmas break after my first semester of college and saw what stood in the place of our usual tree. I crept closer to check out what looked way too much like fake needles. I touched them and sniffed the tree, only to find no pine scent but an unmistakable scent of au-de-plastic. What in the world?! I couldn't believe my eyes. My mother did the unthinkable. She took away the thrill of the hunt, the cold, wintry nights and the first, burning sip of hot chocolate at the Christmas tree lot. Never mind that I couldn't really remember the last time I participated in the tree hunt since I'd come home for Christmas vacation during college to find that my mom decorated the house without me. I still got to help with the cookies and yes, that meant eating the dough and tasting the first cookies as they came out of the oven. Our Christmases came steeped in tradition; Christmas Eve dinners at our house, the late-night Christmas Eve service, opening one gift Christmas Eve, sitting at the top of the stairs Christmas morning waiting for my parents to turn on the tree lights, the Christmas music and the light in the nativity, shining on the baby Jesus. My mom did a great job surprising us with our gifts, down to the white go-go boots one year that I never dreamed I would receive, imagining myself dancing on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Looking back, I couldn't help but wonder how she continued every year to bring newness to the season or did my youth just see it as new because I enjoyed the season so much? I knew one thing - finding the newness now escaped me and something must be done.

Nothing says Christmas like the smell of freshly baked Christmas cookies and the scent of the balsam or fir. Who doesn't get all aquiver with the prospect of trekking through the tree lot, toes frozen to your socks, nasal hairs dripping icicles and then the fun of tying the tree to the roof of the car, only to have it slide over the driver's side of the windshield on the way home? And the cookie press!! With all those little attachments that allow you to make cookies shaped like bells, bows and Christmas trees, a person can actually feel like Martha Stewart herself. Who can pass up the lure of powdered sugar, vanilla, pecans and pretty little sprinkles, much less the warm, happy feeling you get from spending this special family time in the kitchen?

Well, we can. Sharon and I sit on Grandma's Porch and don't see why we should put up with the work and mess of making Christmas cookies when a perfectly good Swiss bakery sits just down the road. The warm, happy feelings abound when we lift the lid of the bakery box to see beautiful, pink-iced Napoleons and chocolate-covered meringue balls. To keep up the spirit of Christmas, we can ask them to throw in some marzipan elves and bite those little elves' heads off as soon as we get into the car. We can't even say "Jolly Old St. Nick" before the nice lady boxes up our pastries and we scoot on out the door. Then we'll take our haul back to Grandma's Porch, put our feet up, play "Mele Kalimaka" on the CD player and sit back with full bellies and satisfied spirits. We might even come to life long enough to go into the kitchen and whip up a batch of Rice Krispie treats as a nod to home-baked Christmas goodies. We'll toss in a little #40 red food dye to make it more festive and eat 'em right out of the bowl. Why dirty an extra pan? We'll just butter up some spoons and have at it. It'll be a little slice of heaven. You're welcome to come by Grandma's Porch and we'll share . . .or maybe not. It all depends on whether or not we feel sated. At the very least, we'll let you scrape the bowl as long as you take it back in the kitchen and wash it when you finish with your tasting. After all, we all must do our part.

Merry Christmas from Grandma's Porch,
where the carols are playing, the wine is mulling and things are just fine.