Pillows.

I suppose every family has their own embarrassing stories to tell about past Christmases. Or embarrassing relatives, or embarrassing things said after too much eggnog. And maybe not even so much embarrassing – or, okay, embarrassing at the time, but now on reflection, it’s just friggin’ hysterical. Which is why stories like these are often told and retold over and over and over again. It becomes a yearly tradition in and of itself.

One of mine involves my grandpa John. Okay, several involve my grandpa John, because of his penchant for eggnog – more nog than egg, the nog being Jim Beam. Falling into the Christmas tree and knocking it over comes to mind – or holding up one of his grandkids and My Nana hated his love for Jim, and the scolding and yelling involving his holiday cheer continue to remain fond memories – Oh, there she goes again – and there HE goes again. He eventually resorted to hiding his treasure throughout the house – as a teenager I’d try and locate it for obvious reasons. Once I found a pint bottle hidden in the toilet tank – nice and cool from the water. I was completely surprised and had to cover my mouth or else give myself away by howling with laughter. I had some of course – it was a new bottle after all and I didn’t think he’d mind.

Anyway, one of the Christmas traditions we had at Nana’s was that after stuffing our faces, we’d retire to the living room and talk into the wee hours. Often it was the only time we as a family saw each other that entire year so we’d share, reminisce, tell dirty jokes, then laugh some more.

One year, John had had too much nog (imagine that), and so excused himself to go upstairs. A *long* while later, my Dad excused himself to use the downstairs facilities. Before he turned on the light, he heard a loud snore, one to raise the dead. He stared up at the ceiling, shaking his head, muttered, “Damn John…” and turned on the light.

Shortly thereafter he returned to the living room, but didn’t sit down. He remained there silent, until one of us asked, “What is it?”

He replied, “We’re gonna need a couple-a pillows.”

“Huh?” we all responded.

He repeated, “We’re gonna need a couple-a pillows.”

When we still looked perplexed, he added, “John’s asleep in the bathtub.”

And we howled with laughter. So much laughter I know the whole neighborhood heard it. My whole body shook and tears ran down my face. My stomach hurt from the force of it like I’d been punched. It was the best laugh I’ve had before or since. To this day if there’s a problem, I’ll look at my family and say, “We’re gonna need a couple-a pillows,” and the laughter returns.

Now am I retelling this to laugh at my own relative’s expense? Hell no. I don’t write about this to pull any skeletons out, and I certainly don’t judge liquor-related antics, I’ve got too many of my own to do that. It’s not my place to tell tales out of school and maybe people will yell at me for airing laundry better left hidden. My family certainly will. I write about it because I remember it and because dammit, I admire him for his Jim Beam love. Hell, I love it too. He is unapologetic, he’s nonjudgmental, he’s loud and uncouth and who gives a shit. I’m that way too. Good for you John.

Lights.

Every Christmas I put up my lights. I don’t go overboard mind you, but I put up a few. I wrap my stairpost in blue and green ropes, hang colored lights from each window – *colored* lights, not the white ones. Too plain. I throw some colored net lights on the bushes and string a few more blue and white and whatever else is left over from my porch.

I miss the days when all the lights had color and they were big. They had heft. I’m not sure who decided that tiny white lights hung from every window looked like icicles or snow, but they don’t. They’re just boring.

As a child, that was always my favorite part of Christmas – the lights. Back then you didn’t have every estate and park and suburb draping themselves all over and synchronizing the lights to music, and then charging $5 admission (all going to charity of course). The lights were fewer and far between, and that made them seem more special.

The weekend before Christmas we’d always do what I now call our “Whirlwind Tour” of the state, covering about 500 miles and hitting both grandparents’ houses in two days. We’d drive back roads (less traffic) and often late into the night. Everyone would be asleep except Dad and me. I’d be looking for lights.

The stretch along Route 17 was good for this. Often the lights would appear as you went up a hill, a little oasis in dark sea. Twinkling, screaming, “I’m here!” We’d drive closer and I’d stare, not wanting to miss a minute. Sometimes it would just be a string or two, thrown over the bushes or winding itself around a tree. But sometimes you’d see a light-up nativity or a reindeer or Santa. The old plastic figures that lit from within, nothing inflatable here. And these little tableau were so far from the road, so you’d have to really keep your eyes peeled – blink and you will surely miss it. And all the lights would be multicolored – like a carnival in the desert.

That was the best part of those long Christmas trips. I remember the car being so cold, to me the entire world was cold and dark. The only sound would be the car and Dad slapping his cheeks to keep himself awake. But then every so often a little pond of lights would appear across the pasture of a farmhouse on some back road somewhere and it would make you smile. It’s Christmas!

One display stood out from the rest – so much so that I would beg Dad to take Route 1 home instead of I-95. The car would climb this certain hill just after Massaponax and it was like the whole world exploded. The entire house was outlined in lights, nativity in the yard, Santa, Frosty, everyone was there.

That’s the one great house I remember. Now those kinds of displays were everywhere. But as far as I know, at least in that part of Virginia, that was the first. And the best.

One last thing, whatever happend to the candle lights that everyone used to put in their windows? You know, the plastic plug-in kind? Some of them even “flickered” like they were real. I haven’t seen one of those in years. I was always impressed by those who had a candle or candle “pyramid” in every window in their house, even the sides and back. Now that’s dedication…

Oysters.

Christmas Eve at our house always meant one thing – oysters. We couldn’t afford oysters at any other time of the year and so the jar would always be brought out Christmas Eve. A big ol’ mayonnaise jar full, like one of those jars you use for putting up jelly or okra – whose name escapes me at the moment.

Anyway, we’d eat them every which way – fried, raw, in soup. As a kid, I liked fried best because my dad did them perfectly – just a little breading, not tough, then dipped in cocktail sauce. The more daring of the family would eat them raw – always on a saltine cracker with a drop of lemon juice, then a drop of tabasco. Down the hatch. The kids would scream, “Ewwwwww!” every time Dad ate one of those nasty, slimy things.

Now, of course, I love them. Raw. I’ve never had them fried again where they were as good as Dad made them. They always end up greasy and tough. I guess memory colors things – they may have tasted like crap back then but I always thought they were perfect. Now I eat them raw – and just raw, not with anything. The best oysters taste like the sea, just a little brine, and they’re not fishy, or slimy, or gross. They taste like the ocean. And are perfect with white wine or champagne.

And these days I eat them whenever I can get them fresh – not just on Christmas Eve. And not from a jar either. But I do miss the moment when that jar would come out, because then you would know that Santa was almost here. It must be Christmas Eve because we were having oysters for dinner, yum.

Cheese Balls.

My mother used to work three jobs at Christmas just so she could buy us extra presents to put under the tree. She had her regular job with Henrico County in Richmond – the Bulky Wase Department. That used to crack me up, my mother worked for the bulky waste department, snicker snicker.

Then just after Thanksgiving she would go work second shift at Ukrop’s grocery in their bakery, icing cakes and making doughnuts I supposed. I was never sure exactly what she did only that she came home very late, looking tired.

Her third job was painting pocketbooks. In the late 70’s the preppy look was in and so were those wooden handle Pappagallo purses. The body of the purse was cloth and the handles were made of wood and clacked together when you closed the purse. The purse body was interchangeable – all you had to do was unbutton it and slip on a new cover. You could have Kelly green to match your espadrilles or red for Christmas, or yellow to match your Izod shirt.

She painted things on the purses to sell at a boutique in the chi-chi West End of Richmond – The Picket Fence. Things like lady bugs and sunflowers, and I remember helping her paint a frog holding a slice of watermelon. Navy blue purse, green frog, red watermelon. The frog was holding up the watermelon slice as if he was Hamlet examining that skull of his friend. Mom would stencil the design, paint it in, and later some preppy lady who lunches would buy it for way too much money.

Anyway, by working three jobs she ensured my sister and I would trot down the stairs on Christmas morning to find the Toys ‘R Us store underneath our tree. During the year we often went without, but at Christmas it was sensory overload – so many toys you didn’t know where to look first. We’d snap our heads around like birds wondering which shiny object to pick up first.

Mom used to go insane with the holiday food as well. I remember waking up at 3am – whenever I wake up in the middle of the night I never look at a clock, it just seems to be 3am to me. Anyway, I would hear her downstairs, cooking, baking, stirring. Smells of gingerbread, sharp, warm, a tangy smell would waft up the stairs – probably what woke me up in the first place. The clanking and clanging of baking sheets being scraped across oven racks. The whirr of the blender blending butter and sugar into a creamy mess. Soft curses being uttered every so often.

Once I slumped down the stairs to tell her to quiet down because the noise was keeping me awake. Yeah, I was a spoiled little shit. But what I found stopped me in my tracks. The dining room and kitchen were a shambles. In my mind it was the middle of the night and so the house must be quiet and empty, every teacup in its place, the table wiped, counters clean, room dark. But here it was bright as day and every surface was either covered in flour or dusted in sugar. Chairs were askew. There were platters and baking sheets on every surface. And everywhere you looked – cookies! Cheese! Food everywhere! My little girl mind was floored. Cookies? Can I have one?

We lived in a 1960’s split-level, so our kitchen and dining room weren’t connected, but there was a long “pass through”. You could sit in the dining room and watch people cooking in the kitchen and hand off any dishes that needed to be put on the table.

Except on this night if you attempted to sit and watch you’d either have your hind end covered in batter or you’d be run over by the tornado that was my mother. It was as if she had taken 5 Vivarin – she was moving so fast it was a blur. I stood there wiping sleep out of my eyes and watched. One minute she was rolling out homemade gingerbread and painstakingly cutting them into men-shapes and giving them eyes and shirt buttons with tiny red-hots, and the next minute she was mixing 4 kinds of cheese and spices for her special homemade cheese balls. No Hickory Farms for this chick, all her stuff was homemade.

In my mind’s eye I see myself hiding on the stair, enveloping myself in the sight before me. The heat coming from the oven is inviting as are the smells of cheddar, Worcestershire sauce, and the warm zing of gingerbread. I want to sneak a cookie really badly but don’t dare. Every cookie is accounted for.

She always made at least 8-10 different kinds, maybe 6 dozen of each? How many cookies is that? Buttery Russian teacakes, gingerbread men, Yo-Yo’s. What are Yo-Yo’s? Two cookies filled with apricot jam to resemble a yo-yo, and very yummy. My favorite? The peanut butter and chocolate cookies. I don’t think they had a special name. Just “Those yummy Hershey kiss thangs you make every year Nan!” Peanut butter dough wrapped around a Hershey kiss, rolled in powdered sugar. Holy crap are they good! I bit into a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup cookie at Barnes & Noble once, and I was transported to 1973. Almost as good, but not quite. Something about biting into a melty Hershey kiss while powdered sugar poofs on your shirt and peanut buttery goodness get all mixed into the equation is just indescribable.

She’d make all of these cookies – not one of them from a box or easy to assemble – then present them as gifts in a tree-shaped glass cookie jar. Each cookie hand-selected and put in the jar and tied with a ribbon. So meticulous and “just so”. But why? Who was all this effort for? You know kids don’t know the difference, that roll of Pillsbury dough from the refrigerator case tastes just as good as long as chocolate is involved.

Lately I wonder more and more what all that extra effort was for. What was she trying to prove? Or was she just creating memories? She certainly created one for me. Every Christmas when I attempt to recreate even a small portion of what she did, I remember. But see, I also remember her being tired all of the time. Every minute of the day she was tired. When I needed to talk, she was too tired. So this is a memory too. Makes you think some.

This year I’m attempting her Russian teacakes. As I stood last night covered in powdered sugar, pulling yet another cookie sheet out of the oven and burning my wrist, I actually looked to the sky and yelled, “How in the hell did you do this every year?” And I swear I could hear her giggling. Good-naturedly of course, but giggling. But also ready to envelope me in a flour-caked hug, comforting away my need to prove anything to anybody. Love you Momma.

Just This.

So I haven’t written in a while. It seems every time I sit to do so, think up a subject, I decide it’s not worth it. Who cares what I had for lunch or my thoughts on the latest crisis in Iraq? I still haven’t even decided whether blogs are a blessing or a curse. I love that they are immediately “out there” and maybe it’s encouraging more people to write more often. But the day-to-day entries just seem like some kind of navel-inspecting exercise, utterly pointless. I guess most writing is to some extent. I’m probably overanalyzing – I usually do.

In any case, I’ve decided to change the purpose of this blog. It may only matter to me because even though I have hits on epizoodiks, I don’t know that anyone is actually reading. This blog, drum roll please, will now be a place to record memories – and yes, I can hear the collective groan rising up. Who needs another memoir, right?

I find that I do. Lately, I look in the mirror and see myself, actually see my face. It’s older. I’m older. I’m really older. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, just something I’ve noticed. I see wrinkles where there were none, stuff is sagging, bags are growing. I see experience too, and I see lots of memories. Stuff I’m holding onto, holding in myself, in my body. It’s all over my face.

I want to let it go finally. Lately I’ve been deepening my yoga and meditation practices and I’m constantly being reminded that the past and future don’t exist, only this moment in time. I’ve always believed that but I think my heart may just now be learning it. Brooding on the past, brooding on the future, they seem real and so you hold onto them the best you can. The brooding is real. But the past and future themselves are not.

I remember a Buddhist priest who had “Just This” written on the inside of her belt as a reminder. I love that – I got it immediately. Just this.

I hold onto the past a lot. Remember it, analyze it, relive it. Over and over again. Maybe by writing about it I can finally let it go, make it some physical act like throwing bad habits written onto a piece of paper into a bonfire for the new year. Or maybe it’s a futile exercise. But I feel the need to do it. I need to let go of some things and make my life a little lighter. Lighten up some of the dark circles I see under my eyes. Quit holding onto what can’t be held.

It’s because I’m forgetting things too. Stuff I used to know so vividly is going away – I can’t recall things people tell me or things that I *know* happened. It’s scary to lose your memories. I suppose by writing them down I’ll feel somewhat better. At least there’s a written record, right? Other people have assuaged their fear this way as well. I know that. Now I need to as well.

Are memories all we have? Are we just a composite of our past experiences? What we remember is not necessarily what *exactly* happened. I’m not the first to explore this, nor will I be the last. I’m just one of the masses here, trying to make sense of all this ephemera I’ve been holding close like a precious memento. I’ve been decluttering my house, now it’s time to declutter my mind.