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Happy New Year

Happy New Year

When I was a child, New Year’s was a sad holiday. It was the day the now shabby and wilting Christmas tree came down; the day we were forced to eat black-eye peas swimming in bacon grease for luck; and the day before the dreaded Return to School. Whereas December had been filled with class parties, cookies, gift exchanges, singing carols, and a Christmas play that the entire elementary school presented, January was a bleak, cold month in Tennessee filled with homework and early bed time. No magic allowed.

New Year seemed an even more hollow celebration as I grew older. Even though by high school the December lead up to Christmas no longer carried even the slightest celebratory trace of magic, still the idea of two whole weeks without six periods each day, homework to match, and avoiding the Popular People in the halls was anticipatory nirvana. But New Year’s once again marked the end of freedom and the return to drudgery. Nothing joyful about that.

After I graduated to career person, I used to hang out at various New Year’s parties, trying to feel festive and not sad. I never developed a circle of close friends, so I always shouted “Happy New Year!” among strangers. Despite being happy to be included, a holiday with people I didn’t know just reminded me I was pretty much rowing my little boat alone in the big wide ocean. No magic there.

But after I became the mother of three, I began, at last, to see New Year’s differently. It all changed about the time my oldest hit preschool, and I encountered the hurdles that face a Mom with Kids in School between October and January 1. First came Halloween, and sewing costumes. Three children, three costumes, a night of trick or treating, and then scraping my exhausted little ones off the bed and back to school on November 1. Then came Thanksgiving and preparing a feast alone while making sure three children under the age of five did not vaporize themselves while I shopped, chopped, baked, served, and counted the silver forks when it was over to make sure I hadn’t thrown one out. Next came Christmas. More sewing: matching mother, daughter, and sons outfits to wear to church on Christmas Eve. Decorating the house, including hauling a tree home on top of the car. And last, but not least, doing Santa’s work for him – and realizing that Santa Claus was just another way to keep women from earning credit for their own hard work. (On Christmas morning the kids never knew not only had I bought the toys, I had spent the night assembling them!)

When New Year’s rolled around that first year of being a Mom with Kids in School, I took a big breath (after the Christmas tree was down) and realized that no more holidays were in sight until Easter. Yipee! Suddenly New Year’s was not the drab little elf sitting on my shoulder after all the glittering Christmas fairies and angels had departed for warmer climates. No, New Year’s was the well-deserved break I had earned! Thankfully, Valentine’s and Easter were fairly minor holidays in the yearly pantheon, leaving me time to rest up before the onset of serious Birthday Season in our family: May, July, August, and September. Followed, of course again, by Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and – at last – the well earned rest New Year’s!

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Thanksgiving is almost here. The turkey is defrosting in the refrigerator. The sweet potatoes are looking at the bags of marshmallows across the kitchen. Tomorrow I will bake pumpkin pie and chop veggies to put into the stuffing on Thursday. I will bake cornbread and tear up white bread, also for the stuffing. I will chill sparkling cider and champagne. I will count the sliver place settings, dust off the Waterford, and decide which dishes to use this year. (I’m a dish lover. Only cabinet space limits my yen to bring more home like lost puppies and kittens.)

On Thursday morning, I will be up with the sun to get my hands messy mixing stuffing, putting it in into the bird, and getting into the oven. I will baste the bird and check its internal temperature at intervals, mindful that the difference between a perfectly roasted turkey and an overcooked one can be just minutes. When I was a child, I watched the women in the family do these things. Now it is my responsibility.

This cooking ritual, year afer year, is as satisfying to me as the liturgy of the Anglican mass (back in the days when I shepherded the kids to church, Sunday after Sunday). On the rare holidays when we have chosen a restaurant for our feast, I have missed my personal culinary rites of thankfulness.

The basics of the meal haven’t changed much from the first Thanksgiving I cooked in November of 1985. In that year, I had been in California for all of two weeks. I went to the now defunct K-Mart to buy a hand mixer to cream the sweet potatoes. I had no children then, but I wished for them. That November afternoon, I saw a car with a Fulton County Georgia plate in the K-Mart parking lot. I cried because I was homesick. I started to leave a note on the windshield asking the driver if he or she felt as marooned in a foreign land as I did. But I lost my nerve, and so I will never know the answer to my question. Now all these years later, the foreign land has become home. The K-Mart is shuttered and empty.

We rarely traveled at Thanksgiving, but our few trips were memorable. In 1999, we flew to Tennessee to be with my family for the holiday. It was the only year my children ever experienced more than the four of us for the feast. They raked leaves for the first time in their lives and jumped into the piles with their cousin. They discovered southerners put giblets in their turkey gravy. Ugh! They learned that pecan pie with chocolate chips in the bottom is so rich, a tiny bite will do, even for the most avid sweet-lover.

On another holiday away from home, my daughter and I walked through a cold Chicago rain to a delightful restaurant, formal enough to have a coat check room and bottles of Pellegrino sparkling water on the table. The chef accompanied his perfect roasted turkey with butternut squash ravioli in brown butter sauce. We missed the boys, who were with their father that year. But it was a special time for the two of us, alone is a wold class city.

Now the years of being divided at holidays are over. The ritual food preparation has expanded to included a ritual housecleaning before my adult children come to stay for the holiday. Although I miss the days when we all lived under one roof, it is exceptionally exciting to have my grown ones coming back to share their adventures in far places. Like many things in life, when one thing goes away, another even more wonderful something comes along to take its place.

Although the holidays for those of us who create them for our families are a lot of work, I personally love the run-up to Christmas. From now until January 2, I will be planning food and gifts and decorations to create a festive world for me and the ones I love. I thank the Universe every year for giving me so much love and joy and for giving me wonderful souls to share it with. We are entering the Magic Season! Let the Magic Begin. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Four of Us

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