The Road Taken: Christmas with Pam

It was that time of year again and I was dreading it.  The holidays. I’d been living in Seattle a few years and still couldn’t get used to not having the family around at this time of year. But they were all in New York and I missed them immensely.

At home, it was business as usual. My husband, G, said the pressures of going for his PhD made it difficult for taking any time off, and the holidays were no exception. Besides, he didn’t celebrate Christmas. And I had made a commitment not to, either, as it was important to his family. Most of the year, I didn’t mind. I enjoyed learning about G’s family traditions.

But Christmas was coming and I so missed the traditions of my childhood. Like helping my mother decorate the tree, and wrap the presents, which was an art in and of itself.  She taught me well, where to make the creases, and how to line up the patterns on the wrapping paper, when taping it, so that it appeared seamless. I also loved baking cookies, using a recipe I had learned in my high school Home Economics class. I’d make batches of Spritz cookies, that I would then frost and decorate to my heart’s content.

But with no family in Seattle, just G, and with his insistence on working Christmas Eve and Day, there would be no holiday warmth in our home. Just another day in the life.  I knew a tree was out of the question. The symbolism was too much for him to bear.  Still, I would have given anything to decorate for winter, with snowmen figurines or a pillow decorated with snowflakes.  But G saw those things as a “gateway drug” to getting a tree, and, shaking his head, thanked me for respecting his wishes.

So there was nothing in my home except one thing. The one thing I could still hold on to. The one thing G couldn’t keep out of our house, and the one thing that didn’t cost me a dime:  Christmas music.

Two days before Christmas, one of the local radio stations started playing Christmas music nonstop, with no commercial breaks. Perfect. I took a blank cassette tape from a stack we kept by the stereo and I recorded 90 minutes of uninterrupted holiday music, which, in the still of my home, with no one around, and the lights down low, I’d play over and over. I treasured that tape.

On Christmas Eve day, G left early for the lab. I had the day off.  Around noon, I called home and spoke to my mother. She was busy preparing a turkey, potatoes, and some traditional Venezuelan foods for their meal. Christmas Eve in our family was even more important than Christmas Day itself. Everyone was there. In the background, I could hear the laughter and shouts of glee from my nieces. One of my brothers got on the phone and asked me what my plans were. I felt tears well in my eyes, knowing I didn’t have any, so I lied and said G would be home in a few hours and we’d be having dinner.  He replied with something like, “That’s great,” and ran off to chase after his youngest. They were getting ready to put their boots on and go out in the snow.

I looked out the back window into our patio. The skies were gray with no signs of snow.  Just a cold, light mist.  I turned on the TV and watched It’s a Wonderful Life, remembering how, long ago, my oldest brother had asked me to watch this film with him, as it was one of his favorites. That was long before it became a national holiday tradition. I thought of him now and wished we were watching it together.

When the movie ended, I inserted my tape into the stereo and hit the “play” button.  While Bing Crosby sang about a white Christmas, I decided to look in the fridge to see what I could have for dinner. There was some leftover cauliflower curry and a chicken breast. G was supposed to have taken the curry to eat at the lab, but in his haste to leave, had forgotten. Oh, well. It was mine now.

The doorbell rang. It was Pam from next door. Her siblings had driven in, early that morning, from the Spokane area and she was cooking dinner.

Looking past me, into the darkened room, she said, hesitantly, “We were wondering if you and G might like to come over for dinner?”

“G’s at the lab.”

Pam shot me one of her sardonic looks and raised her right eyebrow. “So Scrooge is at the lab? What else is new?” Then, with slight concern, added, “We need to get you out of here, stat.”

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to just be with your family?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s our duty to take in the riff-raff of society. So stop wasting time and come on.”

In that moment, I wanted to put my arms around Pam and hug her tightly. Luckily, I knew better and didn’t want to push my luck. Grabbing my purse and keys, I locked the door and followed her to her place.

That was the first Christmas I spent with Pam and her family, in the comfort of her holiday-festooned home, and for the next few years, while we lived in Seattle, it became an annual tradition. The scent of pine, and the aromas of her famous rhubarb pie baking in the oven, wafted through her home, while traditional carols played on the stereo. I loved all her decorations, right down to the bubble lights she put on her evergreen, and the kitschy Santa she kept by the front door. Another tradition of Pam’s was to go to the movies to see the latest Disney animated re-release (this was before VHS and DVD made it possible to watch at home). Just the four of us adults–Pam, her siblings and me–and it was pure joy.

Yep, those Christmases so inspired me that, years later, after my marriage to G had ended, I unconsciously adapted her whimsical style in my own home. Perhaps, it was my way of reliving Christmas with Pam.

Read past installments, by visiting the page, The Road Taken.

On Notice—For the Holidays!

In honor of the season of joy and goodwill, I bring you my On Notice list–just for the holidays. So serve yourself a generous slice of fruitcake or mincemeat pie. Break off the head of that gingerbread cookie, warm from the oven, and put on some Christmas music, too. Then, sit back and enjoy!

Pretty to look at, but don't try to eat gingerbread. It's on notice!

Gingerbread: I’ve never been one for gingerbread. Yuck. There’s no disguising the strong taste.  Basically, any dessert item that contains chocolate is my preference and let’s be honest: gingerbread and chocolate don’t mix. Ergo, I’m putting gingerbread on notice!

Pressure and/or Stress: There’s all kinds of pressure and stress during the holidays–pressure to decorate, buy the perfect tree, send out holiday cards, get gifts for everyone while staying within budget, participate in cookie exchanges, and go caroling with friends. I, for one, am ignoring the pressure, and plan to enjoy my holiday stress-free.

Annual Holiday Letters: There are three kinds of mail you get this time of year from distant family and friends.  1) A holiday card with a personalized message; 2) A holiday card featuring a photo of the sender, with family, and a pre-printed message; 3) Or the annual letter that details every family member’s achievement, report cards, health issues, vacations, etc.  Well, I’m ok with the first two (though I always favor a personalized, written message over a pre-printed one). But please, consider the environment and the stress that most of us are already under, when sending a 3 or 4-page annual letter.

Airports: Airports are bad enough. The mob of people checking bags, going through security this time of year, not to mention the blizzard weather conditions, makes flying not worth it. If you ask me, best to stay home. You’ll thank me later.

Mincemeat: What exactly is this and does anyone really eat it anymore?  Unless you’re a descendant of Charles Dickens, I see no point to mincemeat pies.  The same goes for fruitcake. And, I don’t care what they say, putting any kind of meat in a dessert—minced or chopped—should be against the law. 

Gift cards: These are becoming more and more popular. But if you ask me, gift cards are a gift cop-out.  Basically, you’re telling your friends and loved ones, you don’t really care enough to consider what they’d like, so you’re giving them a gift card.  I ask you, is that really in the true spirit of Christmas?  Do you think the Three Wise Men brought along gift cards with the frankincense and myrrh??

Standing in Lines: There’s no getting away from the crowds this time of year, and with crowds come the lines. Lines at the post office, department stores, the movies, the grocery stores, the liquor stores, you name it.  Do what I do when I have to wait: Bring a book. Might as well make the most of your time in line.

I asked my son to decorate cookies for a cookie exchange. This was his best effort.

Cookie Exchange: Why must the holidays be all about sweets? My must we have cookie exchange parties that make those of us who cannot bake feel bad? Why not have a party where you bring your favorite take-out food? Remember, I’m going for less stress, not more.

Calories: And while we’re on the subject of sweets, I’m putting calories on notice. For once, calories should do us all a favor and go on hiatus. Come back in January. Be kind.

Christmas Songs: While fun at the beginning—like an old friend making its annual pilgrimage—even the best Christmas songs can overstay their welcome. Yet somehow I can’t stop listening to these catchy tunes.  Luckily (or not), these songs are played everywhere and there’s no escaping them. At least they’re not songs about clowns. I really don’t like clowns.

So that’s my list for the holidays.  What’s on your list?

Wishing you a very Happy (and stress-free) New Year!