Monday, January 27, 2014

Ghosts of Fruitcakes Past

Ghosts of Fruitcakes Past
            In the past three weeks my gal-friends and I have been unfolding Christmases we have known. We six women, who went through school together, keep alive a group email conversation began over ten years ago. We live in England, Washington, Montana, Oregon, California and Mexico.

            Our shared memories are similar. Details vary. Take ice skates. Some received new white leather skates wrapped and beribboned beneath the tree. Others wore big brother or sister’s hand-me-downs from the closet. We skated in Harlem at the old rink, ice over dirt, courtesy of volunteer firemen. Was it where the “new” post office now stands? We skated on the frozen Dead River, the Milk River and irrigation canals.  All agreed, we skated with pure grace and elan, to music only we could hear, waiting to be discovered, Olympic material. 

My daydream exploded the day I fell through an iced over air bubble on the Milk River. I was alone. I crashed through the thin skin of ice to land hard on the solid ice a foot or more below. I was alone. Nobody saw me. I felt terrified and humiliated. I limped home. I don’t remember if I ever skated again. Probably I did. Humiliation and sore bums don’t last forever.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire was not part of our historical past. Chuck roasts chestnuts at the annual modern-day Harlem Christmas stroll and as far as I’m concerned, Nat King Cole can keep his chestnuts. Food was a big part of Christmas for all of us with lefse and lutefiske, Norwegian and Swedish cookies taking prominent roles at most tables. In my English family, we baked gingerbread, molasses cookies and decorated sugar cookies. We whipped up  batches of divinity and fudge, frosted cakes and baked pies. 
Generally entire families gathered for Christmas dinner, most often at Grandma’s house. Every mother and auntie brought her best creations and plenty. Everyone ate to bursting. You had to because Grandma kept filling your plate. Leftovers were wrapped and shared about, enough for days.  

School and church programs loomed large in our lives. We all participated, willingly or not. I’m still jealous of the first and second grade rhythm band girls who got to jingle the bells or shake the tambourines. Stuck in the last row with the taller boys, I banged two sticks together. I never did graduate from sticks. 

The best Christmas program memory came from England Karen. Before the church was built, Lutheran services were held in the basement of the old bank building. She was maybe six or seven. Herman Gebert, two years ahead of us, had a speaking part. In Karen’s words, “Herman calmly walked to the front of the church, turned toward us and promptly spewed the entire contents of his stomach on the floor. It was quite dramatic.” 

Floweree Karen remembers being a “holy terror”, threatened with lumps of coal and willow switches. One year her Mom sent her brother and sister to the drainage ditch to cut a swath of switches and put them under the tree. Years later Karen’s son Mike was born on Christmas Day and that helped heal the hurts. 

None of us had piles of presents. We tore the wrapping off soft flannel pajamas, a sweater set or saddle pants and usually a special toy, a doll, a wagon, or games and puzzles. A bicycle was a super-huge big deal. But the bicycle usually had to sit on the porch until spring thaw.  

Everyone has asked me, “What is Christmas like in Mexico?” Now I can answer. What I saw is that Christmas here is much like our past Christmases, when we imagine times were simple. Decorations are glitzy but sparse. Silver bells with red and green ribbon might hang from a door. But the yard is not cluttered with Santa, Reindeer, Frosty, Charlie Brown and fifty-thousand flashing colored lights wrapped around every available surface.  

The holiday focus in Mexico is on family. Church goers attend Midnight Mass or special Church services. The family gathers around plenty of traditional food, crab and shrimp serviche, cecina en adobo and pollo mole. Some families have a tree. My favorite was created with poinsettias. (My tree is made with six braids of smuggled sweetgrass.) Gifts tend to be clothing and one or two special toys or games. I’ve not seen a lot of toys for sale. The Mexican families I know have a long way to go to reach the excess we take for granted.

Memories are like fruitcake soaked in the brandy of time, made to nourish us today with new understandings of who we are and to remind us to cherish what got us here. 

But for the life of me, I cannot find words, to explain hookey bobbing on the icy streets of Harlem to my new friends. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
January 2, 2014