Taking Some Stress Out of Christmas

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So many people get annoyed with those of us who start shopping and prepping for Christmas when Halloween has barely passed, but I find that if I don’t do a bit here and a bit there for many weeks I get caught at the last minute expending all of my energy in one fell swoop. Instead I learned long ago that if I slowly chip away at all of my Christmas tasks and I will have time to enjoy the season with friends, neighbors and family. It takes a bit of planning but I learned how to do that quite well as an educator when I had to be certain of teaching all of the concepts within a certain timeframe.

One aspect of my holiday traditions is the sit down dinner that I host on Christmas Day. I truly enjoy readying my home for that gala but in the past few years I have found that I spend most of the day getting the food served and then cleaning all of the dishes and pans for hours afterward. I have lovely Christmas place settings that are so festive but they generally have to be washed by hand and doing so takes far more time than it should. I have guests who quite sweetly attempt to help but the problem is that they get to visit with every one even less time that I do when they volunteer, and that isn’t much fun for any of us.

This year I decided to do something about the one Christmas duty that I abhor. I made a visit to the Party City website and ordered plastic plates that appear to be elegant china with matching bowls, dessert plates and even cups. All I need now are a few of those huge Costco garbage bags and the cleanup will be quick and easy. I will spend my time actually enjoying my guests rather than making sure that my kitchen stays orderly enough not to be designated as a toxic waste dump.

I still plan to use my Christmas tablecloths and napkins. They are easy to just toss into the washing machine. I also plan to set out my mother’s silver and the pewter utensils that my dear friend Egon left for me upon his death. I really don’t care to eat with plastic knives and forks and spoons and using the real thing will not create much mess at all. The entire lot will fit nicely into a sink of hot soapy water where it can soak until later. I’m thinking of maybe going with throw away serving bowls as well, but I have a wonderful Christmas platter that I always use for my roast or turkey or ham. It is a tradition that I refuse to surrender. It won’t take much to clean it and put it safely away. 

I feel a bit guilty about possibly damaging the environment with so many disposable items. The modern trend is to recycle everything but I will be seventy one this month and quite frankly I am tired of the annual cleanup. My mother-in-law announced her retirement from hosting the Christmas gala when she was younger than I am. My mother followed suit rather quickly thereafter. I don’t want to give away my day to provide the family with a feast just yet, but I am going on strike over the task of using all of the good china. I don’t think anybody really cares what the plates look like as long as what is on them tastes good. I’ll spend more time perfecting my menu and less washing and drying crystal and china.

Everyone seems to have a great time on Christmas Day. They have lively conversations and play games. I tend to be puttering about for so long that by the time I finally join the group they announce one by one that it is time to go home. I suspect that such has been the lot of women for decades. We eat our food cold and perform the “Martha” role to the point of missing all the fun. This year I am going to remedy that.

I’ve even sent out a family email to determine what everyone actually wants to eat this year. I have set a deadline of November 18, for the input and I will go by majority rule. I think it will be fun for everyone to have some say in what we our feast will be.

Many have suggested that I have a potluck but I don’t mind the cooking at all. It is one task that is fun for me and I prefer knowing ahead of time how to balance the meal. Besides the idea is that the dinner is a gift from me to the family. It is the one time of year when everyone comes and I have the honor of treating them. I get great joy out of the entire event.

I’ve bought a few Christmas gifts already. It’s easy to find great gifts for some people and almost impossible for others. I don’t know how it is for anyone else but the men are the hardest for me. I can only purchase so many ties or shirts or books or whatever. The guys tend to have very specific desires whereas women like just about anything. It will take me many weeks to figure it all out and then I will just have to hope that I have hit the spot.

Christmas is undoubtably my favorite time of the year and I plan to keep streamlining it so that I can get every bit of enjoyment out of the season and keep stress at a bare minimum. I’ll let you know how the plastic place settings work out. I suspect that they will be a hit.

Nothing More Special

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When my father’s parents were living on Arlington Street in the Houston Heights we would go visit them every Sunday after church. My grandmother always prepared a lovely dinner for us and since she was a gifted cook it was invariably our most delicious meal of the week. What was most wonderful about it had little to do with the food, however, and everything to do with the joy of sitting around her big mahogany dining table laughing and talking while we filled our bellies with her beloved dishes.

My grandmother was a stickler for tradition. She covered the table with a crisply ironed cloth on which she placed her Sunday best china. She always waited for me to arrive to set the silverware next to the plates. It was from her that I learned the proper way of placing the knives and forks and spoons and folding the napkins.

In the meantime the aroma of chicken or roast beef tempted our tastebuds while Grandma put the finishing touches on potatoes, vegetables gravy and baked breads. I marveled at her ability to juggle so many culinary tasks at one time and still be so pleasantly patient. She reveled in the art of making us happy with her homegrown abilities that were all memorized in her head. Years of practice made every single item perfect and we waited with growing anticipation for her to finally announce that it was time to gather at our places to say grace before digging into all of the wondrous foods that she had prepared.

I loved the sameness of those Sunday afternoons and I missed them when my grandparents moved away to their farm in Arkansas. My mother did her best to reproduce the feel of those Sunday afternoon galas but I sorely missed the ceremonial nature of the tradition that my grandmother had brought to the table. After my father died my mom switched to going out for brunch after church which was quite a fun treat but was not nearly as wonderful as those formal gatherings at Grandma’s house.

I suppose the my wise mother knew that attempting to reproduce our once glorious Sunday tradition without my grandparents and my father would only serve to emphasize their absence in our lives. She redirected our thoughts of the old times to the adventures of eating yummy pancakes and waffles in restaurants filled with joy and laughter. Still, I would often think about how much I missed Sunday dinner with the family until I rediscovered the routine with my mother-in-law after I married.

To my great delight she was well versed in the art of entertaining on a Sunday afternoon. Like my grandmother she prepared her dining table with fine linens and her best china, silver and glassware. She was particularly well versed in the preparation of a Sunday roast in the grand tradition of England. She had learned how to perfectly roast the meat from her mother, always including potatoes and carrots and green peas. She was masterful at making a dark brown gravy to pour over the muffin-like Yorkshire pudding that was the highlight of the feast. My husband Mike always insisted that his mom never quite mastered the art of making Yorkshire pudding the way his grandmother had, but I never found any reason to fault it. It was gloriously delicious.

As my daughters grew older my mother-in-law taught them the art of setting a table just as my grandmother had done with me. They delighted in being helpful and being part of a routine that had been passed from one generation to the next. It was one of the best times of each week for all of us as we sat together being reminded of the loveliness of family and tradition.

Once the meal was finished the menfolk always went to another room to watch sporting programs or talk about the latest news. My mother-in-law brewed coffee for them and a big pot of tea for me and my girls. She always served it so elegantly along with a tray of cookies bought especially for the occasion. She showed us how to warm the pot before pouring the hot water over the tea and cautioned us in how to wait for the brew to steep. I still laugh because her very English mother who had been born in Newcastle, England had told her that Lipton tea bags made the very best brew.

We would sit and talk about wonderful things while we sipped on our tea and munched on little cookies. I so loved those times because they reminded me of the importance of family and tradition. I’d think of my grandmother who had died when I was fifteen and how she too would have enjoyed the time spent with just us women bonding over conversation and tea.

It’s been a long while since I sat down for a traditional Sunday dinner. My mother-in-law has been gone for sixteen years now. For a time I attempted to resurrect her routine for my children and grandchildren but the world was moving so quickly for everyone that it became more and more difficult to find a time when everyone was free. Sundays used to be more sacred but now weekend homework assignments and even athletic and club obligations pull children away. Everyone is moving at breakneck speed and spending three or four hours eating and relaxing is all too often a luxury that nobody can afford.

I miss those Sunday dinners and the love that they represented. Mostly I miss the people who gathered with us on the Lord’s Day. They have been gone for so long now but I still see them smiling and laughing and enjoying the biggest feast of the week. I’m so happy that I have those wonderfully joyous moments to remember. The memories are so vivid that I can almost smell the food and see my grandmother and my mother-in-law bustling about the kitchen preparing heaping mounds of love for us. There is nothing more special than that.

A Win for Everyone

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A few weeks ago I complained about a plan to erect statues of influential women who helped to build New York City as it is today. My beef was not with the idea of honoring outstanding females but rather with the fact that a vote was held to find potential candidates and Mother Frances Cabrini who received the most nominations and twice as many as the second place candidate was eliminated from consideration by the committee. I argued that Mother Cabrini’s contributions to immigrants not only in that great city but in others throughout the country were immeasurable. In fact she is known as the patron saint of immigrants everywhere in light of her work among the poor who came to New York City from all over the world.

I was not the only one who was upset by this slight even though the committee explained that the voting was only a way of garnering suggestions. I had nothing against the women who were finally chosen, but I felt that it to deny the incredible work and sacrifice of Mother Cabrini was unfair, especially in light of the difficulties that all immigrants to this country have and continue to endure even in the present day. Acknowledging her would have been a way of commemorating all immigrants and the positive impact that they have on our country. It seemed irrefutable to me that by leaving her from the final list a grave mistake had been made.

Ordinary citizens, celebrities and politicians took up the cause to right this wrong but received little leeway from the committee who stood firm on the choices they had made. After much criticism that Mayor Di Blasio called “manufactured,” the governor of New York, who is a descendent of an immigrant Italian family, announced that the state will finance a statue to be placed at some location in New York City to honor Mother Cabrini.

There has been much disagreement of late over the observance of Columbus Day. Many places in the United States have chosen to rename the national holiday, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While there are indeed legitimate arguments that Christopher Columbus is not someone who should be heralded as a hero, the truth is that in many Italian communities Columbus Day has become a traditional way of celebrating Italian Americans in this country. Columbus Day parades and activities have become part of the celebratory fabric of cities like New York, Chicago and Boston where many Italian immigrants first lived after their treks across the Atlantic.

Christopher Columbus is honored in most places because of the heroism that it took for him to sail across the waters into an unknown world at a time when many still believed that the earth was flat. We now know that he was actually hoping to get to the far east but the Americas were in the way. He was not even the first European to explore the land either, and a kind of cultish set of beliefs grew up around his reputation that led to school children being taught questionable information about him for decades. Now that we are more informed there are many who just want to throw him in with a pile of deplorables.

I can think of arguments both for and against having a national holiday named for him, but I don’t see a great deal of harm in allowing Italian Americans to have their celebrations centering on him any more than I worry about Hispanic Americans enjoying Cinco de Mayo even though neither has much to do with the United States. Columbus never once set foot on north American soil nor did he interact with the indigenous people who lived here. On the other hand, Mother Cabrini did incredible work at great sacrifice to build hospitals, orphanages and schools. The appropriateness of celebrating her is so obvious to me.

Even though Mother Cabrini was a religious woman her work was never exclusively for those who shared her faith. She gave of her talents to anyone in need. While she worked in the name of God, what she did for immigrants was an equal opportunity gift to our nation, and one for which not just Italians or Catholics benefited, but all citizens of the United States.

It’s sometimes difficult to find perfect heroes. We tend to be quite critical of virtually everyone, finding fault even after someone changes. We are prone to tear down reputations and statues more than other countries do. When we have a chance to honor someone as wonderful as Mother Cabrini we need to jump at the chance.

I applaud Governor Cuomo and the people of New York who took a proactive stance and decided to do something other than merely complain. I love New York and can’t wait to visit one day so that I might see how the people ultimately decide to honor Mother Cabrini. She is a role model for all women and for all citizens of the United States. In fact our country would do well to have more like her in the craziness of today’s climate. This is a win for everyone.   

Beautiful Chaos

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Chaos is defined as a state of utter confusion. It can be tiring or exhilarating. I’ve had my share of chaotic moments and I’ve witnessed others in their’s. In spite of precision planning a few of my first days of school turned out to be the very definition of chaos with both teachers and students dissolving in tears before the new term even had time to get started. I once went to Epcot on New Year’s Eve not realizing that it was one of the most popular times only to find myself surrounded by a surging crowd of drunken adults with surly attitudes. I wasn’t sure that I would make it out of the park unscathed and realized that I don’t generally do well when faced with that kind of chaos.

Still there are forms of chaos that are actually quite beautiful and even therapeutic. The Friday nights at my Grandma Ulrich’s house were occasions when anything might happen. Thirty or more siblings, spouses and cousins would cram into her tiny living room where the noise level quickly rose to an almost unbearable peak and little ones ran around in a state of unfettered energy. My aunts and uncles were a rowdy bunch who laughed and argued in a space filled with smoke and more love than one might ever measure. Those evenings were surely nothing less than beautiful chaos, unregulated emotional gifts to all of us who participated in them.

My first generation American relatives were indeed a unruly group, viewed by their neighbors as being a bit wild. With ten children coming one year after another my grandmother had become resigned to having a noisy household. She lost two of her little when they were still infants and it had the effect of resigning her to a bit of disorder in the household. She quietly watched over her children’s antics with a loving smile on her face, not worrying about unimportant things. As long as her children were clothed and fed and tucked into their beds at night she was happy and so were they.

Her days became routine rituals of sweeping and mopping dust from the floors, preparing food, doing laundry, watering her plants, and showing her children that she thought each of them was wonderful. She loved them above all else and they in turn adored her. Their chaotic gatherings filled her with joy, and she sat in a corner of her living room just watching them with a contented expression on her face, happy that they returned to be with her each week. If their discussions tended a bit too much toward anger she had a way of stopping them with a quiet mention of their names. They understood that they had crossed a line and corrected their behavior immediately like the good boys and girls she had taught them to be, but they were rarely in a mode calmer than excited frenzy. 

I have in many ways become my grandmother. I enjoy simply observing my children and grandchildren and siblings when we are together. I delight in the chaos of that wonderful crowd. I quietly serve food and drink and then watch. It is a wonderful feeling to see so much love filling our parties in the form of animated conversations, raucous games, energy running freely. There is nothing boring about our gatherings and nothing quiet about them either. We celebrate our loving connections without filters and it is an emotionally glorious experience. Somehow we each realize that it is okay to fully be ourselves, knowing that each person will always be accepted and loved without reservation. That is the kind of beautiful chaos that energizes and brings confidence.

We humans have built societies based on rules and traditions. We grow up learning how we are expected to act in various situations. We must sit quietly and raise our hands in a classroom. We must stop at red lights, and be polite. It can feel very restricting to always follow the mores of the world. Sometimes we need a place where we can feel safe to let down our hair and speak our minds, be who we are. Most often that happens with close family members, but sometimes it is even better with very dear friends. It is in the informal settings that we most often feel the most relaxed and loved. We know that slips of the tongue will be forgiven, faux pas will won’t change our relationships. There is an easiness that we find with certain people that is quite glorious.

My big, crazy extended family has at times been viewed with a bit of consternation. We actually make some folks a nervous with our quirky ways. We are too loud for them, too inclined to raise the roof with our joy in being together. We have to choose our mates carefully lest they run when we expose them to our frivolity without warning. We definitely do not sit in a quiet circle chatting in a manner worthy of an audience with the Queen. More than one soul has cringed at the chaos that our meetings engender. Others have joined in gleefully proclaiming that we are so much fun.

I love our beautiful chaos. Nothing makes me feel better than spending time with the caring people who have allowed me time and again to just be myself with no expectations or demands attached. Our is a joyful acceptance that more often than not erupts into the most beautiful chaos of chatter and laughter and love.

Happy Birthday USA

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

 

The grills are warming up. The watermelon is chilling on ice. The fireworks will commence at night fall. America is ready to once again celebrate its birthday, but this year the occasion is tinged with a bit of worry. Lady Liberty has a few aches and pains and there is genuine concern from some that the ole girl ain’t what she used to be, and from others that she needs to change her ways. A kind of surliness has overtaken the unbridled delight that used to mark the July 4th holiday, and there are those who wonder if we Americans will ever again find a way to agree on what our country should represent.

Let’s go a few hundred years back in time before our nation was ever conceived. The original thirteen colonies were a rag tag amalgam of different of kinds folks loosely working together while rigidly governed by Great Britain. Many of the people who lived in the cities and towns of the north, the south and the in between had been born and raised in North America, never having ever seen the country from whence their ancestors had traveled in search of opportunity. They were mostly intent on survival and had begun to resent the invasive rules and taxes emanating from a king who appeared to have little understanding or concern for their needs. In reality they had little in common with one another save for their disgust with the status quo, but they nonetheless chose a few leaders from their ranks and sent them to Philadelphia during a very hot summer to discuss the unthinkable, a total break from the mother country.

Their ideas were based on philosophies that were still in the theoretical stage at that time. They spoke of ideals of liberty for common folk and protections of inalienable rights. It was all quite radical, but they were in a revolutionary mood that might well have ended with everyone of them hanging for treason. Their discussions were heated and it took a great deal of compromise to finally reach an agreement that would be mostly satisfactory to every representative. As with all such attempts at reason there were imperfections in the plan that many members of that august group understood might need to be addressed again at a later time. It was a start, and a truly audacious one at that. They were agreeing to stand up to perhaps the most powerful nation in the world. It must have seemed like sheer insanity to some.

As with all things human everywhere on earth there were flaws in both the plan and the people who came up with the ideas that launched the new nation that would become the United States of America, but the brilliance was in creating a system of government that would allow for changes when they were needed while protecting the overall intent of the Constitution. It would take a hundred years and a war among the people before slavery was finally abolished. It would be even longer before Abigail Adam’s wish of remembering the women would result in suffrage for the female half of the country. In fits and starts we have attempted to repair the problems and maintain the republic.

Today we, the people, know that we continue to face problems. Thus is the fate of any government. The great divide between those who wish to move incrementally into the future and those who want to bring sweeping changes to the country continues with more urgency and venom than ever. To the credit of the Founding Fathers, our system of government is protected by checks and balances that may not always appear to work, but eventually seem to right the ship of state even in violent storms. Perhaps the fact that so little is getting done these days is exactly what the creators of this nation had in mind. Until we find a way to work together again maybe it’s not such a good idea to make willy nilly long lasting decisions.

This is still such a great place to live that people from all over the world want to become part of our family. Like all families we squabble and have different ideas about how to accomplish things. We even have members who embarrass us with their vileness. Still we know how important it is to find ways to bridge our differences and accept each other just as we are. That was the main idea set forth in our founding documents. Liberty meant that we would be allowed to live without threat of tyranny. While that hasn’t always worked out, particularly for certain people among us, we seem to keep trying. All of the rumbling and grumbling that we see and hear today is just more proof of our freedom. There are few places on earth were such open criticism is allowed. We must be vigilant in protecting that right regardless of how much we may disagree with the one who is speaking out. We must protect the wearers of MAGA hats, rainbow clothing, and knitted cat hats in the same way with all of our might. It is the right of each American to speak his/her mind. This is the true heart of our way of life and this is the freedom that we should celebrate on this day.

So Happy Birthday, United States of America. Here’s hoping that you may have many many more. God bless you and your people and guide you to be a positive force in the world. Thank you to those brave men who risked their lives in that long ago dangerous time to create such a remarkable example of freedom. Thank you to those who worked to make the improvements that we needed to continue to be a beacon of light. Thank you for my own life which has been all the better because I live in this place known as the United States of America.