Plucking at Memory’s Strings

Here I am, nestled between two wonderful holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I pick the word “nestled” on purpose.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I’m determined to enjoy the next few weeks, not go crazy as time get closer.  I have to keep in mind the past holidays, and what makes them memorable, even today.  Simple things, yes, and people, mostly.

When I was a kid, we were “adopted” by my mother’s best friend and her extended family.  One set of my grandparents was dead before I was born, and the other set was behind the Iron Curtain in Germany.  For all intents and purposes, I had no grandparents, nor much in the line of blood relatives in town.  The few that were around were much older than I was.

Thanksgiving and Christmas found our extended “family” spread all over one house, with the dining room table–every single leaf installed–packed with adults.  We kids occupied card tables in the living room, sitting on anything that looked sturdy enough to hold us.  The least desirable was the piano bench, which left both parties with duffs hanging over the outer edges, and elbows that needed a traffic controller for smooth operation.  From there, it was traditional to repair to the oldest girl’s bedroom, where we played “Go Fish,” with her behind a screen in front of her closet, and us lined up with “pole” and “line” to capture prizes she attached to our fishing line.  How ingenious was that?  Get rid of the stuff you don’t want anymore while thrilling all the little kids panting for prizes.  

Christmas was even more fun.  My parents belonged to Eat Club, a group of three couples that met once a month to…eat.  What else!  Close to Christmas, they drew names for gifts, and the production line at each house went into action.  The men were all handy, and could create these crazy Rube Goldberg machines to make something simple into something vastly more complicated.  But my favorite “gift” involved Balm Barr hand cream.  Balm Barr was the favorite of one of the women, so the woman who drew her name bought a large jar of Balm Barr.  She scooped out the cream and replaced it with…you got it, shortening!  Then she slathered a layer of Balm Barr on top, just to throw her off.  Months and months later, the recipient of the “hand cream,” having used up the ENTIRE jar, said, “That hand cream was the best!  But I couldn’t get it to work into my hands, so I put it on at night and just wore gloves to bed.”  She showed off her hands, smooth and pristine.  “Where did you get it?”  The secret came out at last and we all howled.  I still get a kick out of telling that story.

This Christmas will be just as jolly, maybe even more so.  The granddaughter is a newly-minted teenager, and she wants to bake with me.  Not only that, she want to learn how to make my German Oma’s stollen.  My dad and mom spent endless hours working on translating and testing the German recipe before it met my dad’s high standards.  My mom, in turn, taught me how to make it.  Both our son and our daughter learned how to make it from me.  And now, as requested, mind you, I can pass it on to the next generation, along with a few tricks discovered along the way.  As in, don’t try to do a full recipe in one mixing bowl; split the ingredients in half.  My Oma certainly mixed it all up with her hands, not having a mixer.  We don’t have to do that, thank heavens, as the dough is thick and heavy.  Remember, the rum is for the stollen, not for drinking!  Buy candied citrus early, because it sells out quickly, although that’s eased over the last few years.  When my dad was a kid, they got one orange apiece in their stockings.  My relatives lived through two world wars, and that meant very few luxuries, like oranges.  If that recipe goes back even further, and I’m sure it does, that probably meant that citrus, nuts, raisins only showed up at Christmas.  It always does us good to remember the past.  Not just the struggles, but also the small delights we now take for granted.

I know it’s still early, but I already am dreaming of not only stollen, but German pound cake for breakfast, cut-out sugar cookies built into a tree, maybe some of my mom’s fudge, my mom-in-law’s bachelor buttons (which always go flatter than hers, sigh), Hirschhorn kuchen strewn with coarse sugar…   The list could go on and on.  Food is a ready excuse to get together and share hospitality and warmth.  We’re at an age where those are far more important than gifts.  As the old saying goes, the gift of your presence is the only present we need.

May you and yours share the memories of the past–the laughter, the tastes, the smells, the sights of those gone before us–even as you build memories for the future.