Friday my husband and I went to Pinkadilly for our annual Christmas tea. The day before it snowed three inches and I had baked chocolate chip cookies, a yellow sheet cake with chocolate icing, and bread for supper (the first snow always brings out the Suzy Homemaker in me). You’d think I would have been sick of sweets and chocolate in particular. Even if I’d been in a Hershey-induced coma, I’d crawl out of my hospital bed for tea at Pinkadilly. We were settled in a sunny corner table by the Christmas tree with a pot of cream Earl Grey.
I wore an atypical holiday outfit (bought on sale!), slim-fitting jeans with brown embroidery and sequins, a chocolate brown turtleneck, a shirt with a silver-studded Eiffel Tower among snowflakes, and a winter white snowflake-spangled knit vest with a furry collar. Usually I’m strapped in red or pink or some other bright color, since winter washes my skin out worse than usual, but this year I decided to wear black, brown, and winter white.
The bracelet I’m showing off on my pudgy hand (as if I didn’t think this month-long chocolate binge wouldn’t show) is a present-he-didn’t-know-he’d-bought-for-me from my husband. It’s made of different antique buttons–all from the 1880s, brass, bronze, and cut-steel.
The food was delish, as always: broccoli and cheddar quiche, a Christmas quiche of ham and peppers, and beef vegetable soup for a first course. When the food came, I whipped out my camera and Frank said, somewhat peevishly, "Just for once, I’d like to eat right away." I told him to hush up and that his eating-soup pictures were a staple on my blog. You can see how he cooperated.
Then came the Big Event. Cranberry-orange scones and vanilla scones on the bottom tier; Black Forest ham and cranberry-orange chutney on teeny biscuits, adorable cheddar toast "gingerbread" men, cucumber dill rounds (that someone couldn’t be trusted to behave with), their signature chicken salad triangles on the middle tier.
And the top tier! Oh, my! Wreath-decorated red velvet cake squares, homemade chocolate truffles, eggnog cheesecake bars, and–be still my heart–peppermint whipped cream trifle with crushed Oreo cookies. Do I have to tell you what a fool I am over peppermint and chocolate? And that December is the only month I can indulge this craving? The trifles were served in shot glasses with demitasse spoons. You’d think this is a mere taste, but Pinkadilly’s shot-glass creations are always rich and amazingly filling.
I immediately wolfed down my trifle and then took my husband’s, something I’ve never done–well, not without asking first. I could have eaten fifty of them. Just for the record, I also ate his truffle and took home his red velvet cake square and my uneaten scones. Just as good the next day . . .
And those new slim-fitting spangled jeans? A bit more slim-fitting now. Oh, well, January will soon be here and I’ll make my usual resolution to live on tea and toast–as long as the toast is cut in cute little shapes.
Sarah Hollander, the illustrator of The Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington, D.C., and I made Publisher Weekly’s Children’s Bookshelf!
We aren’t alone–there are other Twelve Days authors and illustrators at their signings (and singings). But Sarah looks the happiest. She should. She set up this signing at the wonderful children’s bookstore Hooray for Books! in Old Town Alexandria (and a zillion other signings). I want to send a big shout-out to Sarah for working so hard this fall to arrange for autographings and bring the book to the attention of so many people.
If you missed the story about the series, you can read it in Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf. You might be able to nab one of the remaining states in the series. Meredith Mundy, the editor of the Twelve Days series, is terrific to work with!
Yesterday my agent told me her youngest daughter was asking when "The Christmas Man" was coming. I laughed but then I thought, "I could use The Christmas Man." Santa Claus is for kids but women all over the country need the services of The Christmas Man. Rag-tag conversations in the post office, grocery store, library tell me we all are so far behind we think we are in front.
My cards and out-of-town presents were mailed and I have decorated. But the tree isn’t up yet. It’s in the garage, which is filled with furniture right now, so even if I had the energy to haul it down and locate the trimmings, I can’t get to it. The table the tree sits on is now in my office. I planned to drag four or five vintage suitcases (filled with albums and DVDs) from the den into the dining room to use as a make-shift stand.
But I am stalled with other projects.
Last July I told my husband I would make-over his wreck of a home office into a relaxation room with a vintage cowboy theme. The above picture is a hint of what it looked like.
I spent months scouring junk shops for furnishings and choosing carpet and wall color. He approved my purchases but did not clean out his room. One suffocating August weekend, I cleared out our big walk-in closet to make room for the clothes stacked in his home office. This is my pile (I actually clean out my side of the closet several times a year). And this is what my husband parted with.
All fall, he dragged his heels, finally shoveling out his room the day after Thanksgiving. I scheduled the carpet to be installed and began painting the old furniture I’d bought–two chests of drawers in "Cowboy Boots" (Lowe’s color) and a 1950s Bassett kneehole desk ($30 Goodwill), a matching nightstand ($3, another Goodwill), a rush-bottom chair, and a plant stand in barn red. I painted in the garage on cold, dreary weekends, giving most pieces five coats. My husband painted his room, but I did the trim and woodwork (mostly on my knees).
The carpet will be installed tomorrow. Last night my husband informed me he wants new curtains, even though I’m having a valance made in Roy Rogers "signature" fabric. I am also revising a novel, due Christmas Eve. Like most women, I look at the clock and the calendar with dread. How to get it all done?
Enter The Christmas Man. I’ll get him to carry those pieces of furniture upstairs and install the hardware on 18 drawers. I’ll send him out in the shopping madness to find curtains. While he’s out, he can pick up a couple of nice $6 dinners from Wegman’s because I don’t feel like cooking. He can set up the Christmas tree and decorate it, feed the cats their fifty meals a day, clean the house, bake banana bread for the neighbors, and, when he has a minute, bring me a cup of hot chocolate with French vanilla marshmallows.
My agent’s daughter has the right idea. The Christmas Man. I don’t care what he looks like. Just so he follows orders.
I am already weary of the term "sustainable," even though I agree with the practice in principle. In years past, I did not practice sustainability, particularly when it came to Christmas. My life has been spent going through phases and Christmas usually reflected the theme-of-the-moment, beginning with my first as a teenager: I collected sugar plum fairy decorations at Dart Drug store. My first tree was a tribute to candy! Later phases include a Peanut’s Christmas, a country Christmas, a Victorian Christmas, a bear’s Christmas (which involved dressing 50 bears in holiday bows and outfits), an Edwardian Christmas, and several versions of children’s book Christmases.
In the mid-90s, I hopped on the minimalist bandwagon with a primitive Christmas (naked grapevines and woody things), which segued to a Folk Art Christmas (my most expensive as many pieces were originals), a bird’s Christmas–fake greenery and cardinals. I even resorted to licensing holiday stuff: a Polar Express Christmas, a Marjolein Bastolin Christmas, and a Jan Karon Christmas, all bought from Hallmark. My Christmas decorations filled 10 18-gallon tubs that took up an entire wall in the garage. So what did I do with all those things when I tired of the phase? I got rid of them. Tubs of decorations went to a junk shop, the rest to the dump. Not very ecological.
The owner of a house featured in this month’s Better Homes and Gardens decorates with fresh greens and uses what he has. "I love to recycle and repurpose items so I’m not buying a lot of new things that will end up as garbage." Ouch.
In the past few years I’ve entered what I believe to be my last phase: a vintage Christmas using the things from my family, or things I’ve acquired that I know I’ll keep. I used to move out every single thing in my dining room and most of my living room to make room for holiday trimmings. Now I clear off the dining room buffet and that’s it. My decorations are placed around existing pictures and figurines. Suddenly the holiday became much easier!
The first to go up is my husband’s mother’s cardboard village. The late 1930s houses are crumbly but still hold the magic of decades of Christmas seasons. A herd of 1940s celluloid reindeer grazes between new and old bottle brush trees. Next I bring out the mercury glass ornaments that belonged to my mother, my grandmother, my husband’s mother, and my stepfather’s mother and sister. These are so fragile that whenever we moved, the ornament box was transported on the passenger seat of my car.
My mother’s plastic reindeer from the 1950s. They look so pretty on top of my bowfront china cabinet, they take my breath away.
The bubble lights my sister and I carefully arranged on our tree. They don’t work and some of the bubble tubes are broken, but it’s not Christmas without them. This year they found a place in my kitchen, with the one-handled rolling pin my mother used to roll out cookies.
This 1950s stocking is one of the very few new/old things I purchased this year. It will not go in the garbage!
A side table with decorations sprinkled around. The pink ornament is a 1940s silk-screen Shiny Brite belonging to my husband’s mother.
Of all my old decorations, these shabby things are the most precious. They are from my childhood. I bought the plastic nativity scene at W.T. Grant’s for 29 cents. I thought it was beautiful. For ten cents, I also got the one-inch nativity, still in its box. The clothespins and line are for stringing Christmas cards across the mantle. The chenille Santa is a package tie-on. When I look at these things, I am once again ten years old, starting my own collection of holiday decorations.
After years of made-up Christmas themes, I have returned to the past, my family’s and my own.
In 1962, the year I turned ten, I went to a lot of funerals: my grandmother’s in April, my mother’s aunt’s in June, my stepfather’s father’s in August, my grandfather’s in October. I became familiar with hard church pews, the cloying smell of gladiolas, solemn-faced pall bearers, and graveside services. I found cemeteries, particularly the sparsely-populated Stonewall Memory Gardens in Manassas, were nothing like the ones I read about in Nancy Drew mysteries. As I wandered, reading tombstones, I wasn’t the least bit scared. Instead I thought about the people who were buried there.
The main feature in Stonewall Memory Gardens, a modern cemetery with brass plaques instead of headstones, was a huge marble book. Carved on its open pages was the scripture beginning, "Let not your hearts be troubled…" When we visited to put flowers on my grandparents’ graves, I ran across the grass to the giant book. Such a wondrous thing! I’d climb the flagstone steps and stare at it. I loved books and thought how cool it would be to have a great big marble book in our back yard.
Years passed and I began visiting Stonewall Memory Gardens alone or with my sister to put flowers on our mother’s and stepfather’s graves. The marble book didn’t seem so big any more but I still stopped to read the scripture. "Let not your hearts be troubled . . ." It was hard to take comfort in those words.
This week my sister, my oldest niece, and I drove to Manassas to put Christmas flowers on the graves (there are more family members slumbering in Stonewall Memory Gardens now). It was quite an expedition: my sister drove from Richmond to my niece’s house in Mechanicsville and they drove to Fredericksburg. Then we all piled in my Honda to drive to Manassas. I made Pillsbury cinnamon rolls to fortify us for the trip. Along the way we talked about the old days, as always. "Remember when Mama . . .?" "Remember that Christmas it snowed . . .?" The miles flew past, marked by memories.
At the cemetery, my sister and I posed for pictures by the big stone book. I climbed one step so I would be as tall as her. I felt grown-up and old and wondered where my younger self, the one who flew across the grass, had gone.
I looked back at the stone book and realized, suddenly, my future had been written between the lines of the scripture, long ago. At ten I hadn’t yet decided to be a writer, but had been writing stories, mostly mysteries, since I was seven. Eventually I would quit making up stories and write about the place I came from and the people who had informed my life along the way.
All these years later, those people sustain my troubled heart and give me hope.