A Very Little Christmas

By this time last year, Lifelongnewyorker was deep into the blog … much more than lately.  Looking back, I see much discussion of the tree cutting, the decor, the food associated with the holiday, along with some idle thought about what this year would bring.

The answer is “Not much.” 

To say that our holiday decoration is sparse would be over the top.  After Thanksgiving, we pretty quickly decided that we would travel north to see family for Christmas.

And, no, our Thanksgiving experience didn’t drive that decision, but it sure has affirmed it.  Long story short: The Abandoned One came home to his parents for the holiday.  We cheerfully suggested that he fly into Atlanta, a much cheaper flight, and a mere two-hour drive from Montgomery. 

Of course, that’s two hours times two, since it’s round trip.  And it’s only two hours if you round down generously.  It was fine on the Tuesday night when we picked him up, not so fine on the Sunday when we took him back.  Inexplicably heavy traffic (NO ONE expects a traffic jam on I-85 between Montgomery and Atlanta, especially outside of Auburn) meant it took over well over three-and-one hours to deposit him at the terminal, about 10 minutes past the absolute last minute he could successfully check in. 

Luckily, he was able to get on another flight that night.  The next day I messaged him: “You’ll visit us again someday, won’t you?”  His reply: “Of course I will.  Oh, wait … you mean in Montgomery?”

My middle sister suggested that we spend Christmas Eve with them and enjoy the traditional fish dinner.  We have yet to see dried baccala here, and although I’ve been told that it’s possible to buy frozen squid, I have yet to find it anywhere.  And then there’s the matter of rounding up a dozen people to share the feast …

So we decided to “go home” for the holidays.  Which meant there was absolutely no reason to get a fresh tree, and we don’t have the other kind.  And if we didn’t have a tree, there was no need to pull out the decorations.  Lest we begin to mutter “Bah! Humbug!” to each other, we did decide to get a wreath.

It hangs on the front door, Mr. NYer having secured one of those removable hooks advertised on TV after we realized that the door is too thick for our old over-the-door hanger.  It’s a simple wreath, without even a bow.  I think the idea was that you’d decorate it yourself. 

I remembered that I’d seen tabletop live trees at Fresh Market and convinced Mr. NYer to pick one up.  It sat, in a miniature red bowl of a tree stand, on top of an end table in the living room for several days, absorbing all the light in the room.  No balls, garland, tinsel, or lights on this little Charlie Brown specimen.

Will it surprise you to hear that our shopping hardly happened?  We’re donating to Heifer International with my sisters, decided that a trip to New York was pretty much enough of a gift to ourselves, and expect to write a check for the Abandoned One.  Finally, late last week we went online and got gifts for the nieces, nephews and their kids.

I had to stop at CVS on Monday.  Feeling guilty, I found the shortest string of lights I could, along with a box of tiny ornaments.  I smuggled them into the house, planning to surprise Mr. NYer by furtively lighting and decorating the tree after dinner. 

Walking into the house, I set the bag down inconspicuously in the dining room and glanced into the living room.  There was the tree, now trimmed in red beads and a set of cardboard angels.  Mr. NYer had succumbed, too.

It was so O. Henry.

There are no lights on our tree, and none on our house, but it all seems to fit with Montgomery.  As you pass houses a quick glance through the windows (Montgomery homes feature large windows or french doors) will reveal a lavishly lighted large tree.  But the exterior decor is rather subdued, especially by Staten Island standards.  Perhaps one or two houses on a street will have some tasteful arrangement of lights around the door or the two bushes on either side of the porch. 

The rest rely on wreaths, fresh garland and large red bows.  Many homes have every window festooned with its own wreath, and feature a very welcoming front door.  It’s all rather … tasteful.

I can’t wait to bring photos of holiday lighting excess from back home.

What is that Kid Thinking?

Outdoor refrigerationWith about a month before Lifelongnewyorker heads to Alabama, we decided that it was time to announce the move to the wider world of seldom-seen friends, acquaintances and relatives with whom we have yet to exchange e-mail addresses.  And what better way than via Christmas card?   So this year we ordered up more than usual, and had the following (more or less) printed inside:

We’ve made a few resolutions for 2010:

  1. Accept a new job (Lifelongnewyorker) 
  2. Retire (MrNYer) 
  3. Move to Montgomery, Alabama (both of us) 
  4. Stay in New York (Soon-to-be-Abandoned)

We added a few more details about timing, and gave our email addresses.  Cards in the mail, we congratulated ourselves on having now finally notified just about everyone we could think of who might care, and probably a few who might not.   We thought, too, that the announcement might possibly put some folks in touch and elicit some interesting reactions. 

My uncle, one of only two of my mother’s siblings still living, took the bait.  I’m told that he spoke to my sister first, wanting to know,  “What is that kid thinking!?”   As if I had announced a new hobby of wrestling with alligators or plans to vacation in Myanmar.

My sister helped smooth the conversation he had with me later that day by putting it all in a rational perspective.  It’s a great job, she told him.   They’ve thought about it a lot, she assured him.  Mr. NYer is indeed old enough to retire, she attested.  She even went above and beyond, creating a whole future  for Mr. NYer in which he devoted himself to nurturing his already-green thumb, got a job at a nursery, and became a master gardener.   Uncle Dyed-in-the-Wool NYer, a gardener himself, was slightly mollified.

By the time he called me, his tone was less incredulous and more, well avuncularly cautionary.  Not once did the words “crazy,” “nuts,” “lunatic,” or the phrase “take leave of your senses,” enter the conversation.  He allowed time for me to make my case and then, in a tone that was uncannily like my mother’s voice, said, “Well, if this is what you really want …”  

What could he do?  My mind was  set.  Crazy kids.

I’ve gotten similar reactions from others who have a hard time seeing me in the South.  Or perhaps anywhere but in New York.  Some have urged me to learn to speak more slowly, and less directly.  Several have advised me to rent a place for a year, not to rush to buy, “because , you know, it might not work out.” 

Here’s the question:  Is this reaction more about me, or about the place I’m going?  Maybe my uncle is remembering that I was the kid who suffered from such profound homesickness anytime I went to spend a week with cousins that my mother would have to come rescue me by the third day.  Repeatedly.  But that doesn’t explain the reaction of others.  What’s that about?  Do they think I’m inflexible, brash, intense, loud and too pushy for life outside the New York bubble? 

I got some insight when I posted this picture on Facebook yesterday.  It’s the scene right outside my kitchen door  on Christmas Eve.   Like most people who experience real winter, I’ve always relied on the cold to provide extra refrigeration when needed.  Cooking lots of fish?   What better way to make room in the refrigerator than to stick the beer, wine and crab sauce in the snow.  But yesterday, after doing what I’ve done for years, I looked  down and realized that this was not going to be an option in Alabama.  And then I realized why all the kitchens I’d seen in the Alabama houses I’ve been looking at online have such HUGE refrigerators.  They don’t have the outdoor spill-over space.  So I posted the picture and updated my status:  Sudden realization.  I will need a bigger refrigerator in Alabama.

Along came comments about the recent arrival of “e-lek-tricity” and keeping ice boxes on  the porch. (Oddly, no root cellar jokes.) And then it clicked:  Like me, most of the people I know have  no idea what life is like outside New York and a few other places, like Florida.  What they know about Alabama is drawn from movies, television, country music, redneck jokes, and black & white footage of civil rights scenes from the 1960s.  It’s a stereotype, just like New York is a stereotype for people who have never lived here.  

I don’t know exactly what life will be like in Montgomery.  I imagine it will be different in many ways, and similar in others.  It will be unfamiliar, but I’m looking forward to the cognitive dissonance.  I love the idea of suddenly seeing things from an entirely different perspective.  I liked looking at the stuff sitting in my snow and coming to the realization that that’s not the way it is everywhere.  I’m looking forward to seeing lots of things with new eyes.   And yes, sometimes  that difference will most likely be mystifying, frustrating, and possibly disorienting.  I won’t know all the rules of behavior.  I won’t recognize all the produce in the supermarket.  I may not understand the allure of red velvet cake.   But I don’t labor under the delusion that New York’s ways define the norm, or that everything is measured against  New York’s standards.   

My father used to tell the story of serving in the army during World War II with a fellow New Yorker, a real blowhard, as my father saw it.  This guy, a “working stiff,” never stopped bragging and letting the poor GIs from Kansas or Texas know that nothing they had could compare to life in the big city, with its shows, lights and fancy night clubs.  Dad would listen to this for as long as he could stand, and then ask the guy to tell about the nightclubs he frequented.  The guy never left the Bronx, as Dad knew, and the question usually silenced him for a time.   

I won’t be that guy.  It’s true that New York is amazing; it’s singular, not like any place else in the world.  But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of life.  I’ve long held that every American should try to live in New York for a while, preferably when they’re young.  A corollary to this rule is my belief, too, that lifelong New Yorkers should, at some point in their lives, live someplace else.  Call it a reality check.

Of fish and Christmas, traditions and change

Do something once, it becomes a precedent.  Do it twice and it’s a tradition, especially at Christmas time.  

Lifelongnewyorker knew that the move to Alabama meant that many holiday traditions would change next year, but it turns out the big changes are happening now.  Truth be told, traditions have been shifting — at least in this family — for years. 

My mother’s parents came to America in 1913 from a seacoast town in southern Italy.  Like many Italians, their big holiday was Christmas Eve, with a meal of fish and the exchange of very small gifts.

I grew up in my grandfather’s house, and all I really remember of the holidays was the crowds.  My aunts and uncles and their kids visited at the holidays to see my grandfather.  My mother cooked.  Memories of Christmas in Red Hook are simple:

  • Crowds of loud relatives in our dining room who would switch to Italian when they got to the good parts of stories;
  • My uncle’s appearance at the door one evening on his way home from work, with a Christmas tree that he would set up and string the lights on because my postal worker father disappeared after Thanksgiving and this was not something my mother did;
  • My older sisters criticizing my tinsel-hanging skills; 
  • The cheery seasonal stencils my mother put on the windows with Glass Wax (whoever thought of this had the perfect consumer in my mother who thought that combining decoration with cleaning was simply brilliant);
  • The hanging in an upstairs window of a string of extremely small lights (now the main kind available) that for some reason we called the “Italian Christmas lights”;
  • Under my mother’s guidance, presenting my grandfather with wrapped boxes of Gem single-edge razor blades or a cake of Old Spice shaving soap, which she assured us were perfect gifts;
  • The exchange of family gifts just before going to bed on Christmas Eve; 
  • At a certain age, being given the proceeds from the $25 Christmas Club my mother had set up for me to buy presents for the rest of the family;
  • The arrangement of the nativity scene on the hi-fi cabinet, with camels arriving from across the room via the mantel;  
  • Waking up on Christmas morning to find the toys that Santa had left;
  • More crowds of loud relatives in our dining room who would switch to Italian when they got to the good parts of stories;
     

What I don’t remember is the fish dinner on Christmas Eve, although I’m sure it happened.  Once we moved to Staten Island and my excitement over toys waned, I became more enthusiastic about the food.  Our traditional Christmas Eve feast featured octopus (pulpo), baccala cakes, squid and, the centerpiece, spaghetti with crab sauce, followed by the crabs themselves.  Funochio (fennel), chestnuts, fresh fruit, dates, nuts and, finally, pastry, finished the meal.  My father, having reappeared on Christmas Eve after working 30 days straight, passed on the crabs, claiming they “illustrated the law of diminishing returns.”  The rest of us dug in. 

In Staten Island, we continued to have a crowd as several sets of cousins, aunts and uncles would join us each year.  More than anyone else, and probably because she cooked for my grandfather, my mother had preserved the fish tradition long after some of her siblings abandoned it.  But even she introduced occasional innovation.  

One of the first innovations was the crab sauce itself which replaced a simple white anchovy sauce made with garlic, olive oil and parsley.  But this happened during my grandmother’s time.  Soon after she took a full time job, mom’s meal included lobster tails, a short-lived tradition that didn’t survive once my parents began paying college tuition.  Later, with the arrival of grandchildren who wouldn’t eat what was on the menu, mom added breaded filet of flounder, much to the disgust of those of us who were not offered this alternative when we were small.  “How will they learn to appreciate the good stuff?” we wondered.  When Mr. NYer joined the family, his homemade garlic bread, with lots of butter and fresh garlic, became part of the deal.  Later, I added clams and mussels with wine sauce.   And somewhere along the line chilled shrimp appeared and the octopus took its leave.    

Whatever else came and went around the edges, the centerpiece of the meal remained the crabs.  Two separate worries began as Christmas approached:  first, how much fish should we buy?  and second, would we be able to get crabs?

No matter how many years my mother cooked that meal, she was always convinced she didn’t make enough.  Part of our ritual was the annual review of the fish order, in which we did an immediate post-mortem, adjusted the quantities for next year and saved our notes.  The more pressing issue, though, was whether we’d be able to find fresh, live crabs.  

Crabs, it turns out, are really summer food.  In winter, they dig into the mud of the Chesapeake Bay and don’t find their way to market as easily.  You could take the precaution of ordering them in advance, but if they weren’t available, they weren’t available.  In that case, you needed to go with Plan B, which was stuffed squid.  It’s okay, but not if you’ve been dreaming of crabs. 

Worrying about the crabs became an essential part of the tradition. Actually getting the meal on the table for the 14 to 20 people joining us combined art, science and drop-dead timing.  Step One:  Buy the dried baccala a week ahead and take it home to soak.  Hope not to oversoak it (too bland) or undersoak it (too salty).  Step Two: Go to the most reliable fish market and, using that list from last year, order the fish at least a week in advance.  Step Three: Pick up the fish order and hope that they had crabs.  Step Four: Return home and clean the crabs without losing a finger or drawing blood.  Defensive wounds from snapping claws can ruin the meal, not because blood contaminates the crabs, but because the cuts sting like the dickens when you try to eat the crabs.  I became the crab-cleaning expert once I figured out how to apply garden tools to the task.  Step Five: Start the crab sauce in a large pot.  Step Six: Put the nearest male to work shredding the baccala.  Step Seven: Mix up the batter and begin frying the baccala cakes in the ancestral 12-inch cast iron frying pan.  Continue for six hours.  Exclaim to every guest as they arrive that you spent six hours frying the baccala.  Step Eight: Cook the squid and the octopus and make salads.  Step Nine: Have Mr. NYer make the garlic bread.  Step Ten:  Boil the shrimp and refrigerate them.  Step Eleven: Start to make the cocktail sauce and discover you don’t have horseradish.  Send a spare male out to the store.  Step Twelve: Send the newly arrived grandchildren off to a bedroom to practice their Christmas pageant.  Step Thirteen: Have an unoccupied male slit the chestnuts.  Step Fourteen: Scrub the clams and mussels.  Step Fifteen:  Juggle the pots on the stove to make room for the GIANT spaghetti pot.  Continue with steps sixteen through twenty-four until dinner is ready, kids are hyper, and most of the baccala has been filched by grazers. 

As traditions go, this one held steady for nearly twenty years at my mother’s house, until she was nearly 80 and decided enough was enough.  Lifelongnewyorker was ready to take it on, since she knew the recipes and had been the chief crab-killer and cook for more than two decades, but her sisters (you remember, the ones who criticized her tinsel skills) wanted to learn how to cook the meal themselves, which was, of course, the beginning of the end. Thus began the Rotation, when each year a different sister would host the meal, first under mom’s tutelage and later on her own.  But only after first checking with Lifelongnewyorker about a recipe, or asking her to buy the crabs which were, apparently, unobtainable in New Jersey.

This year is Lifelongnewyorkers turn in the rotation, but it’s already changed.  Five of the six grandchildren are married and there are babies.  They live in Boston, Virginia, Maryland and Minnesota, and they want to host Christmas.  There will be only five guests at the fish fest this year.  A satellite feast will be held in Maryland.  At least Maryland niece should be able to get crabs.  

To top it off, the reliable fish market that we’ve depended on for years went out of business this summer.  We found another place to buy the fish but they won’t take orders.  I still haven’t figured out how to cook the meal for only five people, and I suspect I won’t.  Tonight I begin soaking the baccala.  On Wednesday, we’ll go to the market and hope they have crabs. 

Oh.  One last thought.  In recent years, I’ve heard it called the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  This is new to me.  We never counted the fishes, or called it anything besides Christmas Eve.  The best meal in the year.

The Christmas Tree Routine Perfected. Oh well.

The Northeast winter arrived early this year, with temps well below freezing and a brisk wind that reminded LifelongNewYorker that she really doesn’t like that season.  This morning, at least, the wind was light and the sun shining brightly as we went out to bag a Christmas tree. 

For nearly a quarter-century or so we donned our warmest clothes and ventured out into the wild to get the perfect tree.  No, there are no national forests nearby; we rely on Christmas tree farms.  The tradition was begun by friends who had moved to Pennsylvania and discovered some cut-your-own farms in the rural inland hills near their Delaware River community.  They invited a dozen or so couples to their house on a designated Saturday in December, served hot, stick-to-your ribs food, and led a caravan up and down the country roads to the tree farm that Mr. Pennsylvania had determined had the best selection only after scoping several out the previous week. 

Because the calendar rather than the weather determined these tree-cutting days, our memories include cutting trees in all sorts of weather — sun, snow and ice storm.  One year the weather was so bitterly cold that we  sat in the car looking at the trees until I pointed to one about  twenty feet distant.  “That one,” I instructed Mr. NYer.  He gamely left the car, tree saw in hand, and cut that  tree down in record time.  As each couple selected a tree, or, in some cases, two trees (I remember one friend had  a tree for the great room and one for the living room; another picked one  up for  his mother as well as the one for his apartment), we’d stuff them in or on the cars and head back to the house for more chili, beer and even hot mulled wine. 

The Pennsylvania years drifted into the past, but Mr. NYer and I, with a younger Soon-to-be-Abandoned in tow, found some promising tree farms closer to home, in New Jersey.  These more domesticated, suburbanized farms didn’t  allow you to saw your own trees.  Instead, you found  the one you wanted and stood there yelling “cutter!” until a strapping young man arrived, measuring pole in one hand and tree saw in the other.  

The best thing about going solo to the New Jersey farms was that we could choose the day based on weather and calendar.  The last few years have been mild, and on more than one day we’ve needed only a lightweight jacket or a fleece hoodie as we walked over muddy fields in quest of the perfect tree.  

One thing I learned from the big Pennsylvania outings is that everyone’s perfect tree is different.  We’re not just talking species here, but also size and shape.  The host and hostess have a double-height living room which imposed no limit on the tree’s height.  Her brother got a small tree for his mother, but a tall  one for himself to grace the 12-foot ceilings  in his Park Slope apartment.  Some  folks liked them full  and fluffy, with lights and ornaments clinging to the branch tips like frosting on a cake.  We preferred a fir with dark needles and open branches  to hang the heavier longer ornaments that we’d collected over the years inside.  For me, the idea was to build a tree with depth, where new delights could be discovered by looking further in for just a little bit longer. 

Mainly, though, we needed a thin tree.  At nine-and-one-half feet, our living room could take a tall tree, but its 12-foot width, once filled with guests, precluded  a fat tree.  We have become expert at judging the fit of a prospective tree.  First, Mr. NYer stands next to it as I take its measure:  the top of his head should be — ideally — about 60% up the tree’s trunk.  If he’s at 50%, the tree  is too tall; at 70%,  it’s just too short.  Next, we scrutinize the bottom to ensure the circumference will allow people and cats to move freely without blocking an entrance or knocking ornaments to the floor.  Generally, a radius (measured by the longest low branch) of about 20 inches does the trick.  It’s not easy to find a tall, skinny, dark-needled fir tree.  No pines.  No greens  that tend more toward the yellow than the blue.  No blue spruce where the needles are so blue they’re almost silver.  And, most importantly, the needles must pass an exacting touch test.  The branches must be strong enough not to sag when the heavy ornaments are hung, and the preferred needles are firm but not sharp.  Have you ever had one of those trees where the needles  actually hurt?

We’ve gotten the tree selection down to a science, even in the last six or seven years in which we’ve done it without Soon-to-be-Abandoned.  Sometimes we take a camera to document the choices.  We’ve learned to note the location of a favored tree  by the way it lines up with utility poles, a neighboring structure, and the distant oak.  When the tree is finally selected and the cutter called, I pull the car over to the baler and leave Mr. NYer to oversee the tying of the tree to the roof rack while I choose a wreath.

This year’s  trip was colder than recent ones, and we dressed as if we were headed to Pennsylvania.  I drew the line at long johns, but I had an undershirt, a wool turtleneck, another wool sweater, a fleece and my Mom’s LL Bean down jacket.  I was overdressed.  Even after ditching the fleece, I felt like  Ralphie’s little brother in The Christmas Story, padded so thick that all I could do was wheel my arms about my body.  I comforted myself with the thought that next year ‘s quest wouldn’t require  all these clothes.

But  there it is again.  This well-honed routine will be useless next year.  Instead, we’ll be adapting to the new.  A new home will mean a different limit to the height and width of the tree.  And maybe there  won’t be Christmas tree farms in that part of Alabama.  Maybe there won’t be firs.  I suspect pines are big down south.   Like everything else in our lives, what we’re used to will be useless.  We’ll have to think again, be creative,  and forge new routines, or forego them completely.  And that’s  OK.