Ghosts Of Christmas Past Part 2: On The First Day of Christmas….

…My True Love Gave To Me: Thanksgiving.

Read Part One Here

The first sanctioned Christmas even may have been our church’s Hanging of The Greens Night, but the first real day of Christmas was always–and still remains–Thanksgiving, if for p1030957no other reason than we had to get through it to get to Christmas.  In hindsight, it reminds me of those signs you see for Wall Drug in the western USA–Wall Drug, 981 miles –>> Yeah, that far, but still: you’re on the right path and boy will it be a good time when you get there.

Not that it was a chore for a kid–relatives magically appeared in my grandparents’ living room, as if brewed from a magical gravy cauldron; food filled the tables as if conjured from some mystical autumnal netherworld. In a tough year I had to help set the table, though I was hardly trusted with the “good dishes” and crystal that, with the exception of three meals a year (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) rested, inviolable, gathering dust in my grandmother’s corner cupboard.

Looking back, I have to wonder if those glasses were really crystal–hell, even now I don’t even know what crystal is, compared to glass, and it’s not a luxury in which my particular circle indulges (we don’t even have “good dishes,” but a collection of mismatched plates and bowls, the unbroken remnants of several sets bought at thrift shops in Pittsburgh and Philomath, Oregeon–linked not by size or style, but by color–vaguely)–but it seemed remarkably classy to me. We used the “nice napkins,” and they weren’t folded, but rolled and gathered in soft cotton scrolls by napkin rings (napkin accessories? oh brave new world!).

And that wasn’t the half of it. The turkey was always huge–it cooked all day, while I huddled in the living room, a fire in the fireplace, watching Thanksgiving parades on television. I c6beecd3-6890-4c5c-9b99-cf30b17b25c2_650x366remember waking on Thanksgiving morning, my mother clattering around in the kitchen making some side dish or another to take to Mummum & Grandpa’s house, carols playing in the background, the TV turned on–and up loud–so she could “listen to the parade” while she worked. The Macy’s Parade: giant balloons. More magic. I’ve negotiated with my wife to allow the playing of Christmas carols beginning on Thanksgiving Day, because that’s when it feels right to start.

I’m not a turkey aficionado, but I do appreciate the scent of a good, roasting bird mingled with onions and a hint of celery. We ate late in the day, as the sun set, a typical  middle class family (back when America had a middle class) wrapped in the warmth of convention, the illusion of luxury–my wise-ass great-uncle George up from his haunts as a beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking, genuine artist from old town Alexandria cracking jokes about our affected formality in the day, reaching over someone for a gravy boat and quipping, “now, this isn’t done in the best of families” and somehow seeming both polite and, in retrospect, just a little critical of the whole Norman Rockwell dog and pony show. Bemused, that’s the word I want. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to go back and soak up his benevolent raillery as a perceptive adult. There’s a lot more of him in me than a love of turtleneck sweaters and scotch on the rocks.

It wasn’t a holiday of originality–everything was rigidly conventional, as if pulled from the pages of a Thanksgiving manual: turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole with mushroom soup and those odd canned, dried onions crusted on the top, cranberry “sauce” on one of those alleged crystal plates, direct from a can, sliced into magenta medallions, quivering modestly every time someone bumped the table.

We had real butter–not margarine, or “oleo” as my grandfather called it–and, in later years, crescent rolls. Not actual croissants, but the factory-made homage; I know you know of what I speak: fat-laden white bread triangles delivered compressed into a cardboard tube that explodes into full-scale carbo-reality when one bangs it on the side of the kitchen counter–poof!–like freaking David Copperfield (the magician, not the Dickensian protagonist). Unroll the lump of dough onto a tray, separate into triangles–it’s perforated, thank the gods–and roll them into little whatever-shaped rolls. These were the epitome of classy, almost reckless holiday indulgence. Of course, a can of these puppies now goes for over $2.00, making them more expensive, ounce for ounce, than gourmet bread from the bakery, so maybe we were onto something.

I was a kid, and the oldest grandchild by seven years, so my earliest memories were of being the only child at a table full of adults, and like a good kid I kept my mouth shut and listened to the adults-though I really only recall that, with my mother and aunt both being nurses, the conversation inevitably turned to talk of medical procedures and the sloppier aspects of physiology. Yech. Each year around the holidays I see articles on how to remain pleasant in the company of one’s wild-eyed tea-bag conservative uncle, but I think I’d find a swaggering gun-luvin’ Toby Keith Republican preferable to an extended dialogue on the post-surgical complications following a bowel resection. Just keep that in mind when you’re courting: limit family trees to one or less medical professionals–or suffer the consequences in silence.

There was not midnight shopping. There was no shopping at all.  In fact, if one forgot to buy something there was one option–a shamefaced knock on the neighbor’s door.  Of course this never happened, not at Thanksgiving.  Folks planned accordingly–you did last minute shopping, filled the gas tank in the car, and maybe even got a prescription filled. We’re soft, now, and lazy with the expectation of convenience, when with a little planning and a little restraint we could allow everyone to enjoy their holidays. I’m not immune. Last year, visiting my sister, we realized that some items were missing from the pantry and my wife and I heroically volunteered to toss aside our convictions and venture out to WalMart. Our cashier was an 86-year old great-grandmother who hadn’t just been assigned to work Thanksgiving morning, she’d been split-shifted, scheduled to work 6-11 in the morning and 6-11 that evening, and then 6-3 the next morning. What kind of bastards do that to an employee??

We did shop on Black Friday, though I’d never heard that term until sometime in the past decade. For us, residents of a sleepy town in the Alleghenies, it was not about the deals and sales but about variety. It was a time when Main Streets were starting to die, but Malls were still a largely urban and suburban phenomena–like Chinese food. Every year (and it seems like it was forever even though I’m actually talking about a string of maybe 7 or 8 years) we would rise early, drive south to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and pick up my Aunt Jean and her best friend Nell. Uncle Ernie, and Nell’s mysterious, never-seen husband Harry did not attend.  I imagined them, at the time, sitting forlornly at home, waiting while we trod the glittering holiday path through Monroeville Mall, the largest Mall in the region at the time, in a Pittsburgh suburb and hour or so east of us.  It is more likely Ernie and Harry reveled in their day of peace just as much as I looked forward to a day with the masses.

And It was amazing. The stores were arranged on two levels–if you can believe it–a first AND a second floor, with a large ice skating rink in the center, three large department stores (Kaufman’s, Gimbel’s, and Horne’s), and all manner of small, interesting specialty shops–including an entire store dedicated to just toys. All toys, all the time! And a store full of music–National Record Mart!–a store full of organs. Organs! Some guy sat on a bench at the front of the store and played the organ all damned day–Christmas carols with the automatic bosa nova beat. Wow. All that, and Monroeville Mall was famous, too: ever see the classic zombie movie “Dawn of The Dead”? The one with all the Zombies at the mall? Yup.

I was promptly set loose–and I was rich. My birthday is earlier in November, and I would be flush with gift cash–twenty, sometimes even thirty dollars of it, and that’s in 1970s money. Aunt Jean always slipped me a few extra bucks, and other adults would hand me fives and tens to buy presents for each other. Grandmother: buy something for your mom. Mom: buy something for your sister and your dad. Dad: I’m gonna beat you with a stick if you look at me again. Etc. I had all the Mall to prowl, as long as I met up with the family for lunch at the Horne’s Cafeteria. That’s right. It was a store. With a restaurant inside. Do the marvels ever stop?  And they had the best damned grilled cheese sandwiches. Magnificent grilled cheese sandwiches, and they weren’t all smooshed down into a chewy mess like mom’s. These were crispy, yet tender, golden hued, and was it just me or did the “Behold, I bring tidings of great joy…” Angels hovered around the plate when the waitress tossed it onto the table. Sandwiches of great joy. That’s right.

The independence was the thing–just me, a digital wristwatch, and a time and place to meet. I wandered around, enjoying the decorations, the carols, the displays of cheesy mechanical elf figures sawing the same pieces of wood, painting the same toy trains, wrapping the same presents hour after hour, week after week, year after year. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle–all those people, all those packages, all crammed together. The shopping rarely took more than an hour–what kind of 10 year old puts that much thought into presents? The rest of the day I just wandered, taking it all in, reveling. There was just nothing like it at home–no huge crowds, no robot elves, and certainly no wander all day freedom. I was hooked on the novelty of it as well as the excitement.

Each year, on the way home, we would eat at a restaurant called The Corner in New Alexandria, PA–I think it’s a bank now, and if there was anything special about it, I couldn’t corner1tell you what it was–except that we ate there every year because it was out of the suburbs and a little less than half the way home. I don’t remember actually eating there (probably a grilled cheese sandwich), or if it was really great or just average, though I’m guessing the latter–my recollection is that it was one of those half-step up from a diner deals that were pervasive before the rise of the corporate “improvement” on the model–Denny’s, and that lot, but I remember that we were always hungry, the food was always great, everyone (even my eternally angry father) was always happy, and it was the second time in a day that we ate in a restaurant. We didn’t even do that on vacation! It didn’t hurt that Aunt Jean was a wonderful, intelligent, warm and loving presence–actually my dad’s aunt, she was like an extra grandmother (right down to the socks and underwear she gave me each year for Christmas). I was happy simply to be around her, which–after a chocolate sundae–didn’t stop me from falling asleep on the way home.

Part 3 Is On the Way

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War Pig

Just when you think it couldn’t get any cooler than riding a Combat Caribou….


Billy Connolly rides in on a War Pig.  Cue the Black Sabbath and let the heads fall where they may.













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Ba-Ba-Ba Bing & Bowie via Ferrell & Reilly–Timeless

A mostly reverent homage, with a little parody around the edges, of one of the best Christmas Duets of all time.

And the original, if you happen to have grown up in a previously undiscovered Amazonian jungle tribe.


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T.M.I. Tuesday–As If I Can Resist

Oh, like I’m going to be able to resist this.  Here’s fifteen minutes of my life I’ll never see again.

“This week TMI Tuesday takes its cue from the world of psychology and sociology, which both deal with behavior.”

1. Catharsis - What behavior or activity do you do to achieve catharsis.  Well, I write–or do something unusually focused and productive.  Sex is cathartic–a reset button for the soul (this is supposed to be T.M.I. right?).

2. Self-affirmations was made famous by Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley (now Senator Al Franken): “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh-darn it, people like me.” What self-affirmation do you say/or should you say to yourself?  Is “It could always be worse.” an affirmation? 

3. “I knew it all along.” What did you know all along?  Those are going to be my last words, mumbled while staring into the Abyss, the Great Beckoning Maw, the Bottomless Dark…whatever you want to call it.

4. Daydreaming. About whom or what was your last daydream?  Daydream?  Hmm.  I’m so tired all the time that I tend to drop off the side of the cliff and drool down my sleeve every time I let myself have a moment of peace, but I’ve been thinking a lot about camping in big woods, seeing the west with my kids.  (“Mountains, Gandalf!  I want to see mountains again!”)

5. We all have fears. What fear (real or improbable) have you taken steps against to protect yourself.  I have two.  I always keep my hand on the railing, while keeping my shoulders at arm’s length, when crossing a tall bridge; because the fall seems so, um, fascinating.  Also, there’s the whole dementia thing–I’ve given my children very specific instructions on precisely where in the hot red desert they’re to abandon me once I’ve forgotten their names and become less their father than a burdensome reminder of a man they used to know.

6. Relationship churning–How many on-again off-again relationships have you been in? Why would you say you that you repeat this behavior?  Just one, and that was many years ago.  Repeat it?  I wouldn’t change the past, but that ship sailed with a decades-old tide.

Bonus: Self-monitoring is the ability to both observe (or measure) and evaluate one’s behavior. It is an important component in human behavior that aids one to measure their behavioral outcomes against a set of standards. What sort of self-monitoring do you do on a regular basis?   Jeez, I introspect to the point of paralysis at times–it’s probably my most self-destructive trait.  That said, a portion of self-awareness is vital to our survival as members of the tribe–just ask Harvard douchebag and last weeks most reviled man in America, Ben Edelman. My self-monitoring is constant, like a filter with an alarm.  Unfortunately, when I’m engaged in public, ignoring that alarm often results in a class V rapid of narcotic euphoria, hearing the sirens even as I see the looks on the faces around me shift from bemusement to horror to naked revulsion. It is when I am alone, set upon by silence, that consideration coagulates about my ankles like a mobster’s concrete boots.


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I’ve Missed You Too–But Not That Much: Baking Cookies With Mom

A few years back....

A few years back….

Notice my spotty attendance here on my own blog, and in the “like” and “comment” sections of blogs I normally read?  Well, I’ve missed you too–but not that much.

I haven’t missed you because I’ve spent three of the past four days in a warm kitchen with my strange 72-year old mom baking Christmas cookies and talking and driving each other a little crazy, in no small part due to the half pound of coffee beans we’ve exploited in the name of powering this annual venture.  But hey, I’m baking cookies with my mom, the way she used to bake cookies with her mom.  And I’m man enough to brag about it.

The caveat: this woman is frustrating in so many ways I can’t detail here lest I destroy her reputation, and none of those things really matter because she’s also quite possibly the nicest person I know.  What maddens me is the reflection of my own faults that I see amplified in her–everything I would list on a New Year’s Resolution countdown is right there in her eyes, a syndrome I suspect is not unique to my family.  On the other hand, it could be that she’s pretty much all I’ve got–my family tree has been whittled down by divorce, attrition and complacency to the point where the biggest venue we’d need for a reunion is the corner booth at Denny’s.  (Do they still have those?)  Aside from mom, with the exception of one cousin, sentiment for me in that branch of the family ranges from smug indifferent to open hostility.

That sounds like whining, but I’m a big boy, I tried my best, and it’s no small mystery that I tend to be an acquired taste–like drinking cheap vodka: there’s some painful burning at the beginning, a few laughs in the middle, but ultimately you wake up sick. At least I have a paradigm.  Some guys can only dream….

But cookies.  My mom can’t cook for shit.  Sounds crude, but it’s the best way to say it.  As I’ve written here recently, I was well into college before I realized that roast beef isn’t supposed to be ghostly grey, or that most recipes don’t start with the phrase “First brown a pound of ground beef…” or that vegetables don’t mostly come from aluminum cans.  She learned everything she knows from her mother, but the both of them could sure as hell make some tasty cookies.  These weren’t fancy cookies, mind you, but nor were they the sort of self-consciously “colonial” bland molasses and raisin-filled shit you’d expect from folks who so stubbornly clung to their damp, English Methodist culinary flagellation.  No family in the history of the world has fetishized bad food like ours.

Except at the holidays, those few times of the year when they gave a damn; and that’s the key point: when they gave a damn.  It is the fault of my mother, and her mother before her, that I am a Christmas zealot, in turn weepy-eyed and jubilant over the “most wonderful time of the year.”

We made at least 10 dozen of multiple recipes including tollhouse, sugar cookies (both sugared and frosted), thumbprint cookies stuffed with frosting or jelly, snickerdoodles, peanut butter blossoms, peanut butter cup tarts.  So yeah, hundreds of cookies. At this point, we’ve consumed almost 20 pounds of flour, 12 pounds of butter, several pounds each of brown and granulated sugar, six ounces of vanilla, about 40 eggs.  Still, it’s not really about what we produced.

We spent a lot of time waiting for the stove to catch up to our cooking, but I got to hear all her best stories and–surprise–some new content while we were throwing back java and listening to the blaring Christmas Music.  It’s the thing we do–I mix, she cuts, shapes, or rolls, then I sugar or decorate. We talk.

I must admit that when I first started doing this, I was thinking she was an easy mark to exploit for labor–she’ll roll out and cut sugar cookie dough all day long,  like a harvester racing an approaching rain. Over the years, it’s become more about the time together, but not because she’s doing anything different.  At Christmas, I am patient enough, welcoming enough, to accept her, which is a good thing because, kharma-wise, I’m going to need ten times the patience from my children some day.


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Tell Someone You Love Them

Stolen From…Jane


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Wednesday Words of Wisdom: Stephen Fry

First_look_at_Stephen_Fry_and_Kiefer_Sutherland_in_Sky_Arts_Christmas_drama_MarkedChristmas to a child is the first terrible proof that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.– Stephen Fry

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