Thursday, December 26, 2002


Oh, my God, I can't believe I managed to pull it off. I'm worn to a nub, but I did it!

Imagine, if you will (and you will have to imagine, because Santa didn't bring me that digital camera I wanted), the living and dining rooms shown in the post below, but with boxes and magazines and newspapers and dust and crumbs and crap covering every horizontal surface. Imagine a bedroom full of thirty-two presents, all yet to be wrapped. Imagine an 83½-year-old arthritic woman whose bosom is so large she can no longer stand up straight, with a brand-new convection oven of such intimidating space-age elegance that she's actually afraid of it, and a menu of yams, cornbread stuffing, and four kinds of pie to make. Imagine that you have less than twenty-four hours (or rather sixteen waking hours) to alter all of the above to present a finished menu, clean and festively decorated house, and wrapped presents to a family that you aren't entirely sure you like enough to go through all of that effort.

That is what I had before me on Tuesday afternoon. It was daunting, but I decided that I would just do one thing and then the next thing until I was done, and not worry about doing it right or doing it on time or whether or not anyone appreciates it or even deserves it.

In fact, I had a bit of a psychological breakthrough while I was doing it. See, I've always had this seething resentment towards my family about Christmas... there are all these traditions that I don't care about one way or another; but they care about them, rather passionately; but I am the one that has to do all the work; and then they sometimes have the gall to criticize my falling short of tradition. I wrestle with this every Christmas, and I get very angry.

But suddenly it occurred to me that this anger, this sensetivity to criticism comes from within myself... that there must be some reason that comes from me which makes me so angry. I finally realized that I feel inadequate in these situations, I feel that I don't do enough, and that what I do do is insufficient... I mean, Grandmother used to do all this crap by herself! I feel that people sometimes treat me as if I'm mooching off of Grandmother because I sometimes feel I'm mooching off of Grandmother, not doing enough for her in exchange for all the care she takes of me (did I mention that Grandmother paid my dentist bill for Christmas, on top of the Geoffrey Beene wallet she bought me when we were out shopping in November and the very nice gift she had my sister pick up so I'd have something to open at Presents Time?)

And nobody really seriously criticizes me... in fact they usually pay me compliments. But my own inferiority complex makes me only remember the implied criticisms that things aren't always like they used to be, or imagined slights and made-up sneers... because that way I can resent them for undervaluing me instead of addressing myself for undervaluing me. Just call me Hector Projector (and pardon my rare Will & Grace-ism).

This realization lifted a great load from my shoulders. I felt that it didn't matter anymore whether or not I did it right, or if I did it wrong. Just doing it at all is my voluntary contribution to the celebration of the Manners Family Christmas. It added a bit of pep to my step when I decided to treat my work as a gift to my family instead of a chore performed on their behalf.

So back to the stuffing and Christmas Eve... cornbread stuffing is unbelievably complicated. First you have to bake a lot of cornbread, which had to be done before the new oven was installed, so I ended up doing it at my office. While I was there, I finally got my paycheck replaced, and went to the bank and cashed it; I also ran out to the grocery and drug stores to buy some last-minute dinner items and gifts. At first I went to my usual spot, Rockridge Center, where there is a Safeway and a Long's... but the place was so crowded that one had to endlessly circle the parking-lot waiting for someone to pull out just ahead of you so you could get a parking-space. Like that was going to happen. So I headed back towards the office and went through the tunnel into Alameda, where one finds Marina Square Village, with an Albertson's and another Long's... and a whole lot of parking spaces and plenty of elbow room in the stores. I got two more presents while I was out, too... and wrote the previous blog entry when I returned to the office to pick up the bread.

When I got home with the baked and cooled cornbread (et cetera), we broke it up into pieces with slices of white bread that had been sitting out all night, and let them dry a little more. Then I started dicing... a half-dozen boiled eggs, half a bunch of celery, an apple, a can of waterchestnuts, two yellow onions, and a few stalks of green onions. All of it has to be done by hand, because the food processor chops them too small and makes it sort of liquidy, which in turn makes the stuffing too smooth, like a cake. Then you get out the spices... sage, salt, pepper, garlic... and mix it all up lightly. Then you start pouring in the chicken-broth and shmooshing it with your (meticulously washed) hands, one can at a time until you get the right consistency. Then you taste, and add whatever is needed to make it super-special-yummy. Then you add several raw eggs to bind it, then dump it all (about two gallons) into the big cast-iron oval roasting pan, and shove it in the brand-new oven that had been installed during my absence.

This, incidentally, is a slightly modernized version of the cornbread stuffing that Grandmother's mother Jessie used to make (and one assumes was learned from her mother, Mamie). While we were mixing and tasting, Grandmother told me about watching her mother make it, and asking questions about what each ingredient was for, and how good it always tasted, and how amazing it was that her mother could cook such things without any machinery at all on a wood-burning stove.

Next, we had to figure out how our oven works... I find it interesting that the fewer buttons and knobs there are on an appliance, the more complicated it usually is. With our old oven, you turned the dial to the temperature, turned the buzzer to the time you want, and then turned the knob to "bake"... easy-breezy. With the new one, you have to push the Bake or the Convection Bake button (and these aren't real buttons, but rather circles drawn on the black-glass surface with pressure-sensors underneath), then push the up- and down-arrow buttons to adjust the temperature (five degrees at a time), then push the Timer button and then the up-arrow key to set the alarm (five seconds at a time... who the hell bakes anything for fifteen or twenty seconds?). And it sounds simpler than it really was, since we had no idea what we were doing, the instruction book was maddeningly vague, and we pretty much had to guess our way through it... with Grandmother perched on her walker, myself perched on the kitchen stool, staring at our reflections in the shiny new oven and reading the "instructions" while vainly trying to wipe our fingerprints off the "buttons" without actually pushing them.

Next came the deviled eggs, which I didn't have much input on... I just peeled the eggs and helped spoon the deviled yolks back in after Grandmother had done all the seasoning and whatever she does to make deviled eggs that taste so good.

Once that was finished, we worked on the yams... which are a lot easier, it's just a matter of boiling them and then cutting them and seasoning them and baking them. The hard part (for which I had to be present) is transferring the gigantic ten-gallon pot from the sink to the stove and back again... and since I was already there, I repeated my Thanksgiving Yam Magic with the ginger and orange-peel. Then we baked the apple pies, which Grandmother had made up several days ago and froze, along with the other pie-crusts. Then we went into the living room and started watching The Rat Race... I had only turned the TV on to give us something to look at besides the mess in the living room, but the movie turned out to be so funny that we watched the whole thing, thereby losing an hour and a half of possible work. I'd thought it would be stupid, a tired old premise filled with poor slapstick and Mr. Bean. But it had some truly delicious moments (and Breckin Meyer's gorgeous smile), and no swear-words or sex, so we both enjoyed it a lot.

Then I started hauling... the Christmas decoration boxes up to the attic, the boxes and bags of stuff we don't need (and the tools and utility-whatnots that Uncle J left behind when he installed the oven) down to the basement and garage. I put all of my books and magazines from the dining room into a box (okay, two boxes) and put them in my room, then put all of Grandmother's papers and clippings and junk into a box that I shoved under her desk.

By then it was after twelve, legally Christmas, and we had a decision to make: stay up and finish some more work, then be dog-tired all day tomorrow; or go to bed now, get up early, and work like donkeys to get everything done before people were expected to arrive at 3. We chose the latter, and went to bed.

So, come the morning we were up and caffeinating at 8 am, then we made pies. The crusts, which I consider the hardest part (I never can roll pie dough properly), had already been made and frozen, so all we had to do was brown them for the cream pies. Then we set to work making two separate but simultaneous custard bases, one for the chocolate pies and one for the banana pie and coconut pie. As usual, we got confused in the doubling of the recipe, and the bases seemed a little soupy... but hope springs eternal, and we were low on eggs and cornstarch, so we just braved it out.

Separating eggs is always a lot of fun, but the eggs we'd bought weren't quite right... the shells were membraneous and difficult to open, but the yolks were incredibly delicate and kept breaking. Once you've gotten yolk into the whites, it's fairly well useless for meringue, and without the full number of yolks, the custard wouldn't set properly... so each egg was treated as a precious commodity. Of course, we screwed up several and ended up wasting almost a half dozen.

Well, we got the pies into the shells eventually, and the meringue on top of them. The custard was soupy, the meringue was flat, and the crusts got a little overdone. But they tasted unbelievably fabulous, so it didn't really matter... it all ends up in the same place eventually, anyway.

Once that was done (it took almost two hours), I started speed-cleaning. First I picked up all the stray objects that littered the tables and chairs, then I dusted all the wooden surfaces, then I vaccuumed all the carpets and fabrics... first the living room, then the foyer, and then the dining room. It was like chasing a mess through the house, finally ending when I chucked whatever objects were left over into a bedroom or the basement. Once done with that, the clean rooms looked unnecessarily Spartan, so I finished decorating with the few ribbons and garlands that I'd left out from the decorations boxes for just such a purpose, laying tinsel garlands on various parts of the living room, putting up a tableau of white fairy-lights and electrified angels in the foyer, creating a sort of swoopy-curtain-effect on the big tile-mirror (which takes up a third of the wall not seen in the picture below), and then doing an arrangement of Christmas lights on the French windows. There went another four hours... but it all looked pretty amazing.

Next came the table-setting (which I started at about the time people were supposed to have already been there... but my family are always late to gatherings, so I was neither surprised nor upset... in fact I was kind of grateful that I'd have time to finish things before any people got in my way). Setting the table has been my job since I was twelve; for a few years I started resenting it because I always did it... but after once or twice allowing other people to set the table, and then having to reset it because the forks and knives were on the wrong sides and the glasses dropped down any old whichaway, I took the job back and started taking real pride in the task.

First I extended the table with three extra leaves, then sat down to figure out the math of how many places on each side and the ends (we had fifteen for dinner this year, twelve at the table and three children in the hall), and then the math to arrange the two sets-of-eight silver patterns and eight placemats symmetrically (I am a slave to symmetry). Then the centerpiece and the runner, trying to be elegant without taking up too much space either horizontally (we need that room for food) or vertically (so we can see each-other clearly, though why we'd want to...). Then the plates, our traditional blue floral platinum-rimmed Haviland that's always brought out for special occasions (and which we bought on installments from the supermarket many years ago), then my own lovely new matching gold-rimmed glasses (the location of which I'd forgotten since I bought them this last summer, and so spent a good deal of time searching the basement for them).

As soon as I'd completed that, my Aunt T and her daughter, Cousin K, and K's two little ones J and A, arrived with all of their gifts and the vegetables and green salad (I'm using initials just in case any of my relatives have discovered vanity Google-searches and might stumble across my blog while searching for mentions of their own names... in which case I would no longer be able to talk smack about them). Aunt T was quite irritated to find that she was the first one here, having been apparently an hour and a half late on purpose. I suspect that she doesn't actually like being en famille for too long before dinner is served; Grandmother, ever more generous in her theories, feels that T has always had to keep to a strict schedule to balance her career and home lives, and likes things to go like clockwork (in this she takes after her father, who was so very organized that he kept messy-minded Grandmother organized, in spite of herself, for forty-seven years).

While T and K wandered and kvetched, and J and A reacquainted themselves with the house, I quickly put out the cheese-and-crackers tray and the potato- and corn-chip and dips tray and the guacamole and tortilla chip tray. T ranted and raved for some time about how late everyone else was (and I suppose that it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect that, by 5 pm, the 3 pm dinner would be almost ready, or at least that the diners themselves might be in the building... but then, what family did she come from where such things ever happen?), and I slipped away to take a shower and shave, dress festively in white Levis and a bright red sweater with adorable never-worn red Bass sneakers, and get the presents wrapped.

It was at this juncture that I was amazed to discover that, with very few exceptions, all of the presents that Grandmother and I bought were really quite large. You don't notice these things until you have to wrap them... a good half of the gifts were too big for even the biggest gift-bag we had, so I was doing a lot of high-speed wrapping with big rolls of paper and a little tiny card-table and all these labels that I kept losing, and an ink-pen that kept smudging and which I kept losing, and tape that I kept losing (I used one whole roll and was in to the second before I was done) and scissors that I kept losing. In the meantime, my Sister S and her two kids M and A had arrived with my Daddy, and Cousin J and her husband S had also arrived.

I had about four presents left to do when my Nephew M came in and asked if the garbage disposal had been broken all day, or if he had broken it. I told him that I would come see when I was done wrapping... so I went into the kitchen where Aunt T was trying to assemble the salad (with rather more ingredients than the stuffing, all of which had to be peeled), and discovered that there was nothing wrong with the garbage disposal but rather that the sink was stopped up, beyond the u-bend and even beyond where we could reach with an unbent wire hanger. So the sink was completely out of commission for the duration, and all sink-jobs had to be carted off to the bathroom, where my eleven-year-old Niece A and ten-year-old 2nd-Cousin J had ensconced themselves, in the invariable manner of preteen girls.

Then Aunt and Uncle J (they're both Js... though my uncle's name is really R, he's always been called J; and in an interesting sidenote, J's sister T's first husband was also T, not just the same initial but the same unisex name, which was very confusing) arrived with the turkey and gravy, and dinner was soon underway. I was already completely exhausted by this time, not to mention starving (I'd eaten nothing but a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast and a few nibbles of cheese and candy during the day), so I sat down with a great deal of gratitude (especially grateful that I had been in the bathroom when the particularly sententious Grace was said by my Cousin-in-Law S in his usual rather Gothic "New Christian" phraseology).

Dinner was vast and entertaining. I sat between Aunt T and Nephew M (everyone wants to sit next to me because I'm the only one in the family who doesn't like avocado, so whoever is beside me gets mine when I pick it out of my salad), with Daddy and Sister S across from me. We talked of many subjects, ate everything (though somehow I missed the yams, and didn't realize it until later in the evening), and had a generally hilarious time.

The kids at the Kids' Table ate quickly and very little (being already fairly well stuffed already with chips and candy), and so I put on the ABT Nutcracker (with the delicious young Mikhail Baryshnikov in the title role) for them to enjoy while the girls played with J's new Bratz dolls and little boy A was stuck watching them, unincluded.

Eventually the girls asked me to turn off the tape, because the clockwork girl character creeped them out, as did Herr Drosselmeyer, and the music was disturbing their Bratz soap opera (how a ballerina doing a classical version of The Robot creeps them out, and those hideous big-headed noseless hooker-y Bratz dolls don't...); then I got down on the floor with little 2nd-Cousin A (he's six, and cute as a bug... and I don't ordinarily like children, but I like him... he's quiet) and helped him assemble the Harry Potter Lego mini-playset which contained the Mirror of Erised, the Sorcerer's Stone, and two-faced Professor Quirrel from the movie's climax. I of course got indigestion from lying on the floor with a full stomach, but he was so excited when we finished the tiny dungeon that it was totally worth it.

Next came presents. This is the part where things become just a little uncivilized... one or two people will distribute the presents, and then everybody opens presents at once, shouting thanks and appreciation to the giver of each gift across the room in a great noisy melée of flying paper. And we pretty much all give presents to everybody, so there are a lot of gifts involved (twelve adults gifting each-other makes for 144 gifts, not counting the fifteen or so gifts to each of the children).

Grandmother, to whom I gave a teakettle shaped like a rooster and a set of eyelet lace sheets, gave me a set of camel velvet carseat slipcovers (which she had my sister pick up for her); my Daddy, to whom I gave a pair of corduroy dress pants and a sweater, gave me a half-pound of See's chocolates; my Sister, to whom I gave a golden card-case/compact/address-book that by chance fit exactly in her tiny purse, gave me a lovely wall-mounting key-holder that she made herself; Aunt T, to whom I gave a rose-painted cookie-jar (she loves red roses), gave me a beautiful hand-made brush that is specially designed for dusting computers and components; Aunt and Uncle J, to whom I gave a "Limoges" egg and a miniature Zen garden (respectively), gave me a beautiful red-and-indigo hand-painted marbleized tie; Cousin J and her husband, to whom I gave a matched pair of breakfast-in-bed trays, gave me an unspeakably huge art-book entitled The Great Paintings of the Western World; Cousin M from Tucson (who wasn't there, but sent all his gifts via his mother T), to whom I sent a Harry & David Tower of Treats, gave me a blue golf-shirt with a bay leaf pattern; Cousin K, to whom I gave a little curio cabinet with tiny perfumes in it, gave me a pound box of See's (it was her first Christmas as a gifter); and my nephew M, to whom I gave a pair of PJs, gave me a computer version of Trivial Pursuit (it was also his first gift-giving Christmas).

Then it was time for Pie and Coffee. As predicted, nobody really cared that the cream pies came out soupy, since they tasted like absolute heaven despite their amateurish appearance. Then we all talked some more, played with the kids' new toys, compared our respective hauls, and generally revelled in each-others' company. I was so tired by this point that I could barely keep my eyes open, but then I had to drive my Daddy home to Concord (Nephew M was going to do it, but he has a provisional license and can't drive between midnight and 5 am, and never without an adult over occurs to me, rather late in the game, that using initials in my family is a waste of time, since there are five endlessly repeated letters in my family, all these Ms and Js and Rs... even Grandmother's real name is an M). We had a good talk, Daddy and I, about Christmas and the Sims (he got the Deluxe Edition for Christmas from my stepsister) and a bunch of other topics, though I had to keep rolling down the window to refresh myself with chilly air.

When I got back home it was almost 2, I had been up and working almost continuously for eighteen hours. I fell into bed and was asleep almost immediately. And then I woke up at 10 this morning... and the only reason I got up at all was because I had to pee. And once up, I decided I'd like some coffee. Then it was apple pie for breakfast, and then I came in here and started writing about it. I of course kept taking breaks to watch television and talk to Grandmother and show the plumber where everything was and to look at Lord of the Rings slash erotica and to take little naps. And so here we are.

I'm off to have dinner now and exchange presents with Caroline I can't face the stuffing again, or any other traditional American fare... so we're having Italian. Not this Italian, but something that one like this might eat (it's 6:30 now that I write this sentence, but the time stamp is from when I saved my work before ~ and it's now after 12, and technically my birthday, when I'm re-editing for what I hope will be the last time).

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