Journal – December 2001
Sunday I declare that I need to go shopping. I have not bought a Christmas present for Tish. I am met with protests. But I declare that if a man cannot go out and buy his wife a Christmas present, that is sad indeed. I have calculated that if I park close and walk slowly and know what I want to buy, I will be okay. This might have worked if I were an in & out kind of shopper. Unfortunately I am the other kind – a comparison shopper.
The excursion is complicated by a low tire on my truck, causing me to stop at the neighborhood station and squat down to fill the tire with air. I stop first at Wal-Mart, then on to Kohl’s, Service Merchandise, and Penny’s, with a small side trip to a woodworking supply store. By now I have decided on the two gifts. But this means a return trip to Service and Kohl’s. Standing in line at each store, I become wobbly kneed, short of breath, and find it difficult even to talk. The symptoms abate as I drive home. I am quite exhausted for the rest of the day. But I did what I had set out to do, and that was extremely important to me.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are gifts in many ways. My energy level seems to be up, physically and emotionally. I review the dinner plans. I work back from serving time at 6:30 in order to determine what items are cooked or baked at what times and what temperatures. I have strict rules that everything gets served at once, hot food hot, cold food cold, and everyone seated at the two formally decorated tables before food comes out of the kitchen. Tish and the boys set up the tables and set out the special Christmas dinnerware that I bought Tish for Christmas ten years ago. Wassail will be set out hot in a serving bowl, decorated with clove-studded oranges, and the candles lit just before people arrive from Christmas mass.
I prepare the ham and put it in the oven. Then I cut onions, green peppers, and mushrooms for the most popular recipe of all, Mushrooms Berkeley. Nathan and I had agreed that he would make a garlic-rosemary foccacia bread. While he is out shopping, I look over the recipe and discover that the dough should have been started two hours ago. So I whip up the dough and set it in a warm place to proof. By now I am fatigued. I set a chair in the kitchen and direct Tish and Nathan in the preparation of other dishes. A special Christmas program plays on the public radio station. I spend more and more time on the chair until 6:00 when Nathan inexplicably decides to take a shower.
This last thirty minutes is the rush period. Guests start to arrive but are expelled from the kitchen unless they have a specific task assigned. These tasks generally go to Tish and to my sister, Barbarann. They consist of setting drinking water and cold dishes out, transferring hot dishes to the serving dishes at the last moment while I slice the ham. The late starting foccacia does not come out of the oven until the dinner is being served. Everything turns out exquisitely. I even have enough appetite to try a little of everything. We hold hands and pray.
At dinner’s end I retire for the evening to my chair in the living room. I am tired but not exhausted. Aaron and Nathan have filled, set out, and lit the luminaria to line the sidewalk. We do forego another tradition though, the building and lighting of a large Yule fire. Next is the tradition of exchanging gifts between my sister and her husband, my sister-in-law’s family, and my family. By the time everything is over I am quite tired and ready for bed. Tish and my mother arrange presents and stuff stockings while the “boys” set up their sleeping bags Aaron’s bedroom while my mother gets the bed – another tradition.
My Christmas Eve dinner, scaled down as it was, has always been my own special gift to my friends and family. One of my favorite movies is called Babette’s Feast. It is a film based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa) about a refugee from France’s civil war, a renowned female chef who has moved to a small austere religious community on the desolate coast of Denmark. She later wins 70,000 francs in a lottery. She spends the entire amount to prepare an elaborate feast for the people that have taken her in. Her past is a secret. The meal is like magic. It brings forgotten light into the self-imposed darkness of these people’s lives. My own feast has been a success once more, despite my infirmity. And basking in that success, my darker anxieties have been overshadowed by warmer feelings of family and holiday.