Sunday, November 14, 2010

My House is Not Made of Gingerbread

Does anyone besides me remember the show Once and Again? It starred Sela Ward as a mom of two who is about to be divorced. Then she meets a divorced father (who also has kids) ... and sparks fly. I wasn't a faithful viewer of this show, but the writing was good and the acting was great.

One of the scenes I remember is lovable Lily (played by the gorgeous Ward) driving herself nuts during the holidays trying to make a gingerbread house from scratch. It was a tradition in her family, but no one wanted to help her with it this time. She spends hours in the kitchen trying to work on it, she's covered with flour, exhausted and really pissed off.

I always thought when I had children I would make a gingerbread house with them. I don't know why. It's not like something we did when I was little. Homemade sweet potato pie, yes. Fancy cookies and gingerbread, no. Maybe one year there was a pre-made one on my grandfather's holiday table, but no one every built one from scratch.

Last year I bought a little gingerbread kit at Ikea (really, in the gourmet, direct-from-Sweden food area they cleverly route you through right after checkout) and couldn't even manage to get that thing unwrapped! (So sad, really. I should bring it to a duck pond for the birds to nibble on. Did I mention we live in the city? Not a lot of duck ponds around here...)

So, gingerbread houses are not in our family's tradition I guess. I did make gingerbread cookies once, when I first moved in with my now husband. My family was coming for Christmas to our home in Philadelphia and I baked -- my gingerbread men came out way too thick, like gingerbread men who had taken steroids and spent all their time at the gym, but they didn't taste bad. I put little red candies in for their eyes. After all the relatives left we found a stack of the eyes my little brother had picked out and piled on the floor of the TV room. Some of which had stuck to a heating grate and melted on to it. Nice.

A few years ago I even made a snowman out of cheese, with a little Pumpernickel hat. Big hit with the kids. It looked a little like this.

But while we don't have a gingerbread tradition, one thing we do always mark is my mother's birthday. She was born on Christmas Eve. When we were growing up, my brothers and sister and I would make, or order, elaborate cakes for her. We would make sure we had candles, and try our hardest to wrap her gifts in paper that didn't have Old St. Nick or holly on them. (I remember that holiday in Philadelphia, I baked her an elaborate cake that called for currants and rum. At the end of the baking you drizzled the cake with some fantastic glaze. My siblings were dubious - but mom loved the cake that year.)

So - every year we do our best to mark her day... We'd sing, eat cake, (maybe) help clean up and then usually mom would immediately go back to work, probably staying up until 2 am wrapping our presents long after we'd gone to bed!

This year we will all be together for her birthday, and the holidays, but I expect it to be quite different -- since our mom has been fighting an aggressive and rare form of cancer for the past eight months.

It's hard enough to think about what we can get her to eat these days (not that much) to contemplate making a proper Christmas supper, with all the trimmings. Last night my husband and brother and I all joined forces: we made a salad, baked acorn squash, meatloaf and mac n' cheese. We had fresh cider at the table. And mom didn't eat anything but a bite of squash.

Traditions and Transitions
This is my favorite time of year. I start holiday shopping in the summer (and when I say shopping, I mean mostly picking up small things for people that I see, which I think they'll like. On sale.) I love listening to holiday music, lighting the Menorah with my daughter (yeah, we are one of those hybrid families) and getting a tree -- the works.

Despite how ill my mother is, the holidays are coming along anyway. And my almost 6 year old is very excited. She wants to decorate, like, yesterday. She wants to sing carols and make cookies.

I don't think this year is the one to start attempting a gingerbread house like Lily. In fact, we are ordering a pre-cooked Thanksgiving meal this year for the first time in the history of this family. And I suspect at Christmas we may do the same (although I am holding out high hopes for some homemade latkes.)

But, one has to adapt, even in the face of tragedy. Case in point: In an unexpected turn of events, my father is going to visit us from California before the holidays (he and my mom split up eons ago) and we are going to try and set up the old train set he and his brother played with in Indiana when they were children. (My uncle is shipping 3 of the 15 boxes the train is in, to us from northern California!)

Maybe I will find a moment to sit on the floor and watch the train circle the tree. While sipping a spiked Eggnog. Maybe my husband will realize that this train set is ancient and a behemoth and he and my dad won't be able to get it working (a likely scenario if you ask me, but then I am the family pessimist) and we'll all just end up on the floor, spiked Eggnogs in hand. Either way, I am looking forward to baking something this season (something that doesn't call for an engineering degree) and watching my dad and daughter unpack those train boxes together.