by Jeannette Harris
(Seasonal excerpts from and additions for Chameleon: I, A Woman -- a creative non-fiction biography)
Stocking Stuffers: Reminiscence Revival
The homes of my growing and raising were full of love and goodness and beauty, material and not, that I thought as fortunate children do were the whole world.
With mother driving my grandmother’s latest demurely luxurient two-door Oldsmobile coupe, the family pre-holiday drill included a windingly scenic two-lane pilgrimage to the countryside plains and farmland to our not-still wild West for the seriously important rite of choosing the correct cut evergreen tree and, afterwards, ice cream cones from the same wooden stand as frequented mid-summer.
Our religion was so interwoven into everyday New England life by deed and discussion as to be inseparably indistinguishable and as unquestioned at its basis as oxygen to breathe. We analyzed critically the Christian ethics of nearly every situation, personal and public. Old and New Testaments of Holy Scripture were the reference resources absolute to seal any conclusion -- as depended upon for sure and true answers as our volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Should Linda and I…?” “'Thou shalt do unto others as you’d have done unto you.'” Before each private meal, we bowed our heads and closed our eyes over hands folded loosely on our laps to say (or think silently) “grace” as memorized and passed down by generational tradition from family founding “across the seas.” Church services on Sundays and holy days -- like Bible study classes and secular day school attendance -- were completely obligatory. Those afternoons we gathered quietly at the upright piano to play and sing hymns and chorals. Mostly. We prayed and vouchsafed our souls to God every night before sleep.
In our generously-sized -- but unmodernized except for an electric icebox, toaster and countertop mixer -- kitchen we prepared ritualistically for gourmet gastronomy and gift-giving.
An unweildily handworked meat-grinder affixed to the red-inlaid center work-counter produced ingredients to be scooped onto fresh pastry rolled in a furious cloud of flour for mince pie. I pitted the dates for mother’s specialty gift to be stuffed and rolled in confectionary sugar. We made cautiously frosted layer cakes, cupcakes, gaily decorated and shaped cookies. Candied yams were required as were popover muffins and apple cider. Creamed baby onions craved by my grandfather would be forthcoming along with bread pudding dolloped by decadently rich and sweet hard sauce. Nana made nutmeg-sprinkled eggnog for grandpa to spice jovially with bourbon. There were few alternatives to preparing delicacies dedicatedly “from scratch.”
For gift-wrapping, card tables were set up in ample living room freespace with implements and basics carefully gathered and neatly arranged.To otherwise entertain ourselves, we sang aloud carols and hymns we’d memorized.
Grandpa's determined preference for an entree' was baked New England country ham. With thin flour gravy and slices of pineapple. And iced tea, unsweetened.
During holidays, of course, our heritage saved-for-special serving pieces were used and enjoyed on the gleamingly spruced-up antique, heavy, imported mahogany dining set -- the 14-karat gold-rimmed and flower-enameled Limoges china place-settings and server pieces, assorted monogrammed crystal glassware and linens, myriad shining and delicately decorated sterling silver utensils, bowls and plates -- after we prayed earnestly for God's blessing on "those less fortunate." To whom Nana in our names had sent generous monetary, and sometimes store-bought, gifts through well-researched and long-known trustworthy organizations national and planetary.
For something more formally festive, our cafe'-style season tickets to Boston Pops' concerts, a radical-for-its-time democratic outreach of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, included holiday galas replete with famed decorations and laudatory presentations of endearingly downhome elegance and classic taste.
As a respected fire hazard, the decorated tree was stripped in its three-day slightly-pagan revelry of its seasonal gaity on the day after Christmas. Being hard northeast, the likelihood of snow, ice and wind-freeze for the holidays was very high.
As ever throughout my life, the holiday that most enchanted and engaged my dedicated interest was Christmas. This is not to denigrate the Fifth Avenue Saint Paddy's Day parade, which is certainly excellent and enlightening, and a lot of fun. Or Thanksgiving's either. And Easter is also a beautifully holy time in at least parts of Our Large Fruit. But, in the days when there actually were days between Thanksgiving unencumbered by Joie Noel, as evenings turned crisp and crisper still, Saint Nick began to nod and bow until it seemed he really was everywhere indeed. Along, of course, with the deer decked out, all fondly remembered by name, and sometimes even Mrs. Claus appeared! Elves worked busily in store fronts along Manhattan's famed esplanades, sprinkled glittering snow and stars over presents extravagantly wrapped and others colorfully displayed behind glass that said, "Come in! Come in!" Street vendors with their pushcarts of metal moving stoves wafted the incredibly sensuous and exotic scent most particularly of roasting chestnuts into the air as bell ringers bundled and huddled hopefuly into walls and doorways from sometimes cutting winds that swept down and pushed all the eager revelers quickly along their ways. There were skaters of all ages admirably accoutered and sometimes brave on the iced-over lakes of Grand Central Park and that of Rockefeller Center, which also offered its annual holiday extravaganza featuring The Rockettes to those hardy and trusting souls who stood in long lines for tickets. Taxis whizzed, buses clanged, and steeples rang with the sounds and merriment and busyness of Christmas.
Having carefully chosen after assiduous browsing gifts I hoped might be appealing for friends and family, I boarded a then-commodious and pleasurably-attended airplane from cacaphonous LaGuardia for the annual visit to Fort Lauderdale -- still a small, somewhat disorganized and rural airport then -- and another ten-day stay in the sun and ocean salt, sea breeze and poolside amenities, Intracoastal elegances and sandland eccentricities with my grandparents, who provided me with roundtrip tickets as long as they lived for that occasion and paid all my expenses while there also. So, it was a real vacation also paid for in part by my unusually beneficent employer. My major goal was to return with a golden tan that would last me until the warmth of springtime renewal "up East." "Nana" and "Grandpa" were inordinately attentive to mealtimes, as all retirees there seemed to be, and ours generally entailed "Early Bird Specials" at favored nearby restaurants in the evenings. Around lunchtime, my grandmother and I went shopping here and there and then stopped most often at her favorite cafe, a beautifully elegant waterside building with a white and glassed facade and interior, antique French furnishings throughout, and a gift store offering shining jewels for limbs and tables, which it also sold, and she bought me a set of three tiered gold inlaid ones on one visit there along with a set of six slender white china and sterling silver demitasse cups in their own tray, which I still have. But not the tables.
We chose our furniture from an old and very large two-story used goods store on Main Street in downtown Richmond. A neighbor who collected and occasionally sold antiques in annual backyard sales lent us a beautiful old breakfront with curved glass doors for the dining room and my family collection of china and crystal.
The dining room set was a bargain treasure that included a large rectagular table with extra leaves for holiday meals, a long low armoir, another china closet, and six or eight chairs. We used it most particularly for family get-togethers at Christmas and Thanksgiving when Bob's mother would travel with her boyfriend from Arlington and my mother and stepfather would join us from Florida. With a very extensive serving set of china from my in-laws, we served formal meals complete with all the traditional fixings and delicacies, including even the Yorkshire Pudding my mother-in-law had introduced me to and taught me how to bake with the drippings from roast beef on special occasions. Her family was originally from England and that's an ethnic favorite there. For fuel efficiency, we bought a green Saab, although I used public transportation, buses, with a healthful walk to and from the house to the main street a few blocks south, sometimes in the company of variously sized and domesticated neighborhood dogs.
Once while visiting for a gift-laden holiday week in their urban brownstone my sister-in-law, Ruthie, who had earned an MSW and worked as an aide for an Adlai Stevenson campaign, and her husband with a masters in Political Science, Bob and I traveled into Chicago suburbs with them to stay with her brother-in-law and his wife. He was a commodities trader and they lived in a brand new development of pleasant, comfortable, well-designed houses because, she said, she "couldn't stand other people's dirt." The house was very ordered and immaculate, as was she generally. We went with him next day to the dizzying cacaphony of the Iron City's Commodities Exchange as he explained as well as he could its world of "futures" and the forces at play in determining prices extant and prognosticated. The floor of New York's Wall Street Stock Exchange is fairly similar in loud and hectic bargaining, pleading and promise on any given day. Ruthie is the only woman I've ever known to have two formal and fancy weddings, the last even more sumptuous than the first as it included a "sit-down dinner" with band and dancing in a very large, well-decorated and historic auditorium, all expected by the family and friends of her new husband's ethnicity and their traditions.
I've always loved Christmas trees and was thrilled to live somewhere that I could easily get and use beautiful, thick, sweet-smelling cedars. My first one in the A-frame was a kind of funny-looking affair: about two feet tall with my grandmother's large, old-fashioned multi-colored lights, heavy wires sticking out everywhere, and a few incongruously big ornaments. But I was just happy and satisfied to be there and didn't really care. Over the years, the size of the cut trees grew until the tops reached over the railing of the loft and had to be affixed to it to keep them from toppling over.
My holiday ornaments and decorations had been gathered and saved over an adult lifetime, including in some cases that of family members, and were quite numerous. Quite a few I made myself over the years: embellishing tree globes shinily and crocheting snowflakes and angels and stars. Others were garnered from after-Christmas sales and some were collected gifts from friends and relatives. Still others were boutique specials: straw angels and farm women, a country-attired cloth drummer boy, children on brightly-painted wood swings, glittering tin balls, and Santa Clauses of wood and silk. Pris sent precious and unique signs and metal constructions and once a large basket made of candycanes which, sadly, shattered in the mail and arrived eatable only. Although I had a few large light sets from childhood, my favorites were runners, two white and two red, of poinsettia flowers with little blinking bulbs in each center. The treetop star was multi-pointed with small white lights flashing and there were garlands of many glittering colors from gold to silver to red-and-green.
The tree always sat in a five gallon bucket held fast in place with heavy rocks and hidden with a festive skirt around which, as the day approached, wrapped presents piled to give and to open to the sounds of old 33 rpm's and tapes accumulated of religious and secular, classic and popular seasonal tunes by a variety of artists worldwide. With a little luck there was snow somewhere around the propitious date to at least get a heritage glimpse of this nation's holiday vision and history.
Even then, I avoided shopping around that time except once or twice perhaps, having picked up and saved during the past year as they appeared in passing bargains and treasures for the occasion of giving. A few weeks after that, the tree came down and all its festivities put back up in boxes and plastic bags for saving in a second-story storage area during the other seasons.
I baked cookies, gave some away, shared the rest with whomever happened by, and bought inexpensive gifts for my eight oldest and closest widely-scattered neighbors to put, along with Christmas cards, in their mailboxes annually. And, of course, I sent cards -- from the handicapped Veterans association, to which I sent a donation -- to friends and family through the post office, along with wrapped and boxed gifts where appropriate. Each year I knit a colorful afghan for a different woman in-law, which they came to look forward to receiving. I wanted to put a large white-lighted cross where the tall panes met their wooden frame on the river side of the house, but never got around to having it built.
For a few years, in addition to the usual local and national monetary donations, I "rang the bell" as a volunteer for the Salvation Army, my favorite charitable organization for many, many years. Standing outside in winter cold and wind, bundled up against it with boots, hat, scarf, heavy coat and wool mittens, I said "Merry Christmas" in front of Jamesway and Food Lion on appointed days to generally welcoming shoppers who dropped spare change into the red "kettle" swinging on its tripod.
One year as an expression of gratitude, the Salvation Army treated us to a lovely luncheon at the elegant old Mimslyn Inn when the fund-raising drive was over. A long, white linen-covered table had been decorated with seasonal floral displays and candles. At each place setting a small white china swan filled with little candies sat enlivened by a thin, red bow tied around its neck. That became the origin of my swan collection as it developed over following years.
Christmas Eves, I stayed awake by myself until after midnight watching services broadcast from the Vatican and other famous cathedrals and churches worldwide, enjoying the peace, quiet and beauty of the twinkling tree and stars outside, surrounded by piles of gayly-wrapped gifts to open and deliver, bright garlands strung on the stair railing and from the living room chandelier and table decorations everywhere, and drinking wine in a long-stemmed glass by a flaming fire in the glass-fronted woodstove. Some years it even snowed and long, twirling icicles dripped and gleamed from the eaves. What could be more glorious than holidays country-style?
Except, I later learned, the enchantments of a friendly and historic small town with its beautiful choirs and churches, inviting foods and festivities, musical groupings and cheerful shopping amenities, decorations and sparkling lights, all nestled shiningly amidst ancient hills and mountains, rivers and creeks, and natural and man-made lakes under spreading and stretching Appalachian skies amongst the true glories of The Mountain Empire in Jonesborough TN.
One day Carolyn Moore invited me to go with her on an automobile excursion to visit with her neice, Karen, and her husband in Asheville NC. Also a friend of Margaret Gregg, Karen had purchased my chapbook Gifts from her, primarily because she liked the love poem "Beyond" so well that she wanted to set it to music on her guitar. The neice and her husband owned a large, modern, sprawling, two-story home built into the side of one of the hills surrounding "The Paris Of The South." They followed spiritually a guru in whose ashram in India they stayed fairly frequently for as long as three months. Although wealthy, the husband was particularly proud of art objects they'd found and purchased inexpensively at auctions, including a very commodious and beautiful oriental rug, which he enjoyed showing off and using.
We talked and ate with them and spent the night in guest bedrooms on the first floor which opened out onto a long, narrow patio and woods. The large main basement room was decorated in one corner with a Christmas tree and some presents. Next morning after breakfast the weather turned wintry and snow began to fall, so we decided to leave in a hurry for getting over the mountains to Johnson City. As we climbed in sleet and snow, more and more cars, pickups and trucks slid off to the side of the old two-lane road, stuck in drifts and unable to navigate the ice. "Can't we pull over and get a motel room?" I asked naiively. Carolyn made a face and explained that there were no turnoffs, no side roads for about 30 miles, of which we'd traversed maybe 10. As she concentrated determinedly on steering her Volvo and talked of various things, I prayed silently and very intensely that we would make it unharmed and alive to our destination. As we pulled with relief onto cleared city pavements, Carolyn commented, "You're a very good pray-er." We stopped at John Steele's for a little rest, hot chocolate, and relating of our adventures before continuing on home to Jonesborough.
So, pray now. Pray today. And don't forget to thank God for blessings along the way. Make it Christmas in your life and for others every day. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
The true Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament, recounting ascendance and travails of what became the twelve tribes of Israel, about Jewish Kings and Queens, prophets and peoples, is a warrior who wins and rules, bringing peace and goodness throughout the ages to follow. Real followers of and fighters for Jesus, a Jew in the tradition of the Old Testament, can make prophesy come true. "Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven."
Personally, I'm planning to have an Alive And Well In America BYOLGW (Bring Your Own Leafy Greens and Wine) party -- assorted and exotic dressings and long-stemmed glasses, great company, music [e.g. live and CDs including Mahalia Jackson Queen of Gospel, The Royal Philharmonic Plays Queen, The King And I (original musical soundtrack), Gloria Stefan Destiny, Eric Clapton Unplugged, Andrea Bocelli Sogno, An International Christmas Favorite Carols From Many Nations, Celine Dion Let's Talk About Love, Kenny G The Moment, Eternal Spirit Waves of Instrumental Energy, Alan Ross Scottish Influence, Tyler Collins Tyler and Linda Ronstadt with Aaron Neville Cry Like A Rainstorm -- Howl Like The Wind],
colorfully crowded-with-decorations Christmas tree with stuffed animals -- a green porcupine, white chick, purple-patterned rabbit holding baby in her lap, wild patterned-and-spiraled sheep, goose hen in a lacy, white wedding dress and bonnet, tri-green snake with a long red tongue hanging out, two-toned gray anteater, and a very large brown dog with droopy ears hanging over his eyes -- in a loose semi-circle around it waiting to open their presents, and gallery provided, along with sixteen non-Spanish angels, five clowns, and two aliens wanting to go home.
Tips on writing a heritage creative non-fiction bio:
Tips on writing a heritage creative non-fiction bio:
... because the process of language transfigures the reality conveyed and because memory is imperfect. This is a painlessly possible avenue of approach to a task that may seem overwhelming in contemplation as a completed goal in structuring a keepsake memoir for self, friends, family and community....
1. Divide life into topologically-related chronological groupings: e.g. childhood; teens; 20s; 30s; 40s; etc.
2.Give sections (chapters) preliminary subject-relevant titles.
3. As stories (anecdotes) come to mind in everyday life, take time to write them down separately (as in a diary) and place each in correct time sequence within the appropriate chronological grouping chapter.
4. Modify chapter titles as appropriate to material gathered within them.
5. Reread content for coherence; correct spellings and grammar where needed.