Tag Archives: Holidays

A Slice of Life

The holidays are over, we’ve hauled the tree to the curb, and the decorations are steadily disappearing. In our house, it is also the time of year when we begin sorting and disposing  of the items in the holiday gift baskets we received from my husband’s various corporate associates.

Some of the items we devour immediately (BTW, thank you, to the individual who sent the choclate pecan turtles; they were delicious–all of them, which I know, because I ate them all myself). Other items…well, let’s just say they make you wonder if someone was on the naughty list; sea urchin caviar or squid ink fettucini, anyone? Though the contents vary somewhat from year to year, the silly and child-like excitement I experience now from opening each basket has grown steadily over the years, part receiving an unexpected gift and part treasure hunt–you just never know what you’ll find inside. Here, for #FlashbackFriday, is the tale (an homage to the late, great MFK Fisher I wrote while still at DePaul University) of one such treasure we received, many years and many lovely baskets ago:

Une Tranche de Vie (2005)

Corporate holiday gift baskets can, at times, be somewhat depressing: bottles of dicey wine; diminutive cardboard boxes full of communion-wafer crackers; almost inevitably, it seems there is always at least one shrink-wrapped brick of some cheese-like substance, the criss-cross stripes of its rubbery beige rind like pale scars—all festively cellophaned and tied with a gaudy bow. Happy Holidays! from our Human Resources Department to you…well, you humans.

This basket, however, was different. It had already been opened, for one thing, which is generally not the custom in our family: we prefer to leave them unopened. The other thing was the way in which my husband swept into our kitchen like a conquering hero, placed the basket on the counter with a flourish, and immediately pulled out of it a chunk of something crumpled into plastic wrap. He danced straight to the silverware drawer for a knife. “You have to try this.”

Mmm…isn’t that tasty-looking?

Allow me to say, at this point, that I am not possessed of an adventurous palate, a fact of which my husband is quite aware and which he has used against me in the past. (The last time he said “You have to try this”, I wound up choking down an elastic mouthful of calamari, a food he  knows that I detest. As our children were present at the table, and we plead with them to be “tryers” of all things, no small hypocrisy on my part, my husband knew he had me cornered: I had to swallow the vile bite.) I eyed the plastic chrysalis in his hand with some misgiving.

“Try what?” I suspiciously watched him peeling the layers of plastic wrap from the mass. Through the plastic, I could see smeary glimpses of verdant green, like moss through a foggy window.

“What is it?” He removed the last of its filmy cocoon and held it out triumphantly for me to see. “It’s cheese.” I looked skeptically at the large wedge he was cupping reverently in his hands: it was surprisingly beautiful. The rind revealed was more like an emerald in color; the cheese itself was firm and a milky white, alabaster flesh untouched by the sun. I leaned a little closer and gave a small sniff, still not quite trusting my husband’s motives. Was this, perhaps, Limburger in disguise?

As I inhaled its fragrance, my fears dissolved. My mouth began to water, convulsively so. Its perfume was pungent, richly infused with an almost palpable creaminess and a tartness I could not define. I felt the first stirrings of hesitant desire. I looked up and nodded to my husband: I would, indeed, try. He eagerly and tenderly coaxed a small, crumbly morsel from the wedge, and placed it on my waiting tongue. I could feel its tanginess penetrating the tender buds on the tip of my tongue, as the velvety white flesh melted in my mouth. Delicate crystals shivered their way across my teeth. I closed my eyes, lost in blissful gustatory communion. I swallowed the last glorious swallow with a feeling of profound sadness at the emptiness of my mouth. Without opening my eyes, I said “More. Please.” My husband happily obliged, granting me another precious mouthful, a dewy milkpod bursting open on my tongue and flooding my mouth with delight. Fairly purring now, I sank into a chair and sighed contentedly. “What is this and where can we get more?”

He joined me at the table, carving off, I noted, a quite large slice for himself; my eyes narrowed as I visualized the tipped scales of his portion as compared to mine. “Isn’t it good? I don’t know what it’s called,” he blithely replied, gobbling his entire slice down in one hedonistic gulp. The briny kiss of this new love still tingling on my lips, I felt the beginnings of panic start to rise. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Where did you get it? What store did they buy the basket from?” As my husband unconcernedly chopped off yet another enormous tranche for himself, I began tearing apart the rest of the basket, searching frantically for a store label. There was none. Typical corporate holiday gift basket, I thought bitterly. I sank back into my chair, dejected.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?” My husband was blissfully unaware of my sense of loss at realizing that this rapidly shrinking wedge was all that remained of such ecstasy. I felt the desolate sensation of two ships having passed in the night.

Seeing my husband raise the knife once again, I moved quickly and grabbed the remaining treasure, hurriedly, but lovingly, cocooning it once again in its cradle of plastic wrap. “Why don’t we save this for later? Maybe this weekend, get a good bottle of wine to go with it?” My voice sounded artificially cheerful even to me. “Okay,” my husband said over his shoulder, as he left the kitchen to change out of his work clothes, innocent of my machinations.

After watching him retreat down the hallway, I gazed in wicked, adulterous triumph at the surprisingly weighty jewel I now held in my hands, knowing full well that this weekend, the good bottle of wine would be consumed sans fromage—at least, sans this fromage. I hid my stolen, anonymous love deep in the refrigerator, behind the plain yogurt (where I knew it would be safe). I dreamed of the midnight rendez-vous to com

Who needs traditions? We all do.

holiday confusion courtesy of whistleblower-newswireFor most of my adult life, I’ve been a stickler for the strict separation of one holiday season from another. Jack-o-lanterns next to bathing suits, cornucopias and turkeys next to witches, Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving—all that seasonal blending normally makes me want to puke.

For years now, I’ve fought the good fight, holding off on listening to Christmas music or putting up any decorations until the day after Thanksgiving (except for outdoor lights; when you live in Minnesota, if you get a nice day in October, put them up, calendar be damned, just don’t turn them on).

But this year, I don’t know what’s gotten into me: I’ve been humming Christmas songs for the last week, with three days still to go before Thanksgiving. I’ve started pulling decorations out of their boxes and even buying a few new ones. We’ve already watched The Grinch, A Christmas Story, and Elf (though I’m not sure that one counts, since I’m sure we’ll all agree that movie’s a year-round gem). Last night, I saw a commercial for a local production of The Nutcracker and squealed like I had a sugarplum jammed up my—well, you get the picture, and it’s a disturbingly jolly one.

Even as I write this paragraph, I’m listening to Christmas music on my phone, having spent the last hour creating my holiday playlist (now playing: “White Christmas” by The Drifters) instead of working. Yep, it’s a red-and-green, holly-jolly nightmare the sane, rational me would never have condoned in the past.

So what gives? This deep philosophical question has been snowballing around my brain for days (thankfully, not twelve of them yet), consuming more of my mental energy than I care to admit. It’s not just me, either—even my kids, who are old enough to be blasé about anything Santa-related, are suddenly acting merry and gay. (Yes, I said gay. Take that, Hallmark.)

But—after days of ruminating over multiple mugs of cinnamon-spiced hot chocolate and getting high off the endless bayberry candles I’ve been burning, I think I’ve finally figured it out. (No, you can’t really get high from bayberry candles. At least…I don’t think so. Joking, people, joking.) The problem is, in a word: tradition. (Cue Topol. Yes, I know, Fiddler on the Roof is not technically a Christmas movie, but maybe it should be.) Where was I? Ah, yes. Tradition. Tradition is, I believe, the root cause of my Christmas mania, or rather, to be more precise, a craving for tradition is at the heart of it all.

For those of you who’ve been following my blog this year, you may remember that my family and I just experienced an out-of-state relocation. While things went about as smoothly as can be expected with a cross-country move involving a three-day car ride, three kids, and one crazy Weimaraner, the adventure (yes, that’s meant ironically) left us starting so many things over from scratch, including many traditions, that I think we’ve been feeling a bit out to sea, more perhaps than we realized until now. With Thanksgiving arriving this week, we’re staring our first real holiday in our new home straight in the face (I’m sorry, but Halloween, Labor Day, and the 4th of July don’t really count), and that’s what I think is really behind my seasonal lunacy.

After all, what is it that makes a house more than just a home, if not the traditions and memories you create there? And those rituals, those decorations, they do more than just make a place feel homey; they’re a real, tangible link to your past, to family and friends who may be far away, or even gone. So even though I’m not hosting Thanksgiving this year, I pulled out a few decorations (only a few because, and let’s be honest here: in terms of decorating, Thanksgiving is Christmas’ ugly stepsister. How many turkeys do you really need to put up?).

candlesThe candles pictured here, for example, were my mother’s, and I’ve put them out every Thanksgiving since she died. If you look too closely at the faces of the Indian and pilgrim girls, you can see they’re a bit melted away (it got too hot in her storage area one year). But when I hold them to my nose, I can still smell their faint fragrance. With that comes a host of memories of Thanksgivings past—the house filling with the heavenly aroma of Mom’s roast turkey; complaining about having to watch the football games she and my brother loved so much; fighting over the wishbone with my sisters; enjoying the bizarre but delicious turkey/Miracle Whip/canned cranberry sauce/white bread sandwiches for lunch the day after; and above all, the love and laughter filling our family’s tiny house then, and my heart today. And you know what? Those memories, triggered by the simple act of bringing out my mother’s candles, made me smile, and it felt so good.

Traditions are reliable. They’re a comforting constant in a life that so often seems so uncertain. We may be in a different house in a different part of the country, celebrating with different members of our family than we have in the past, but those familiar decorations, those traditions, those happy feelings of love and laughter—these are all the things that will make us feel at home, no matter where we are and no matter what else has happened, and I’m craving more.

This year (in a break with one longstanding tradition), instead of resisting the urge to leap into the holiday season (and grousing about those Christmas crazies who do), I’m giving myself permission to join them, to dance merrily into this noisy, festive month a few days earlier than usual. So if you’re looking for me, you can find me unapologetically chugging eggnog, sucking on candy canes, hanging mistletoe, blasting Christmas songs in my car, cuddling up on the couch with my kids watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas (and maybe after they’ve gone to bed, Bad Santa with my hubby). And for all of those traditions our family will celebrate this week and in the month ahead, the old cherished ones as well as the new and unfamiliar, I know one tradition will continue that is the same no matter where I am: I’ll be giving thanks for all of them.

Wishing all of you a safe and joyful holiday celebrating, and creating, beautiful traditions of your own!