We have perfect Thanksgiving weather today– cool and grey. And even though Thanksgiving isn’t really until tomorrow, I still feel the beginning of the holiday season. Ironically, one of the most important things about the holiday for me is the food. This is ironic because I don’t really love to cook or entertain. It’s mostly about smells and creating memories for Harper Lee and Isaac. And maybe about reliving some of my own.
I have great memories that all seem to center around my grandparents’ kitchen. It was never really about presentation or specific recipes. It was more about what happens when people come together around a table. People who have a shared past.
At the holidays, I sometimes miss my extended family. As happens with many families, when my grandparents passed away, we all sort of went our separate ways. I miss those days when we came together for food and stories and so much laughter. We had our traditions and tall tales. There were biscuits and deviled eggs and my mother’s special dressing. It was all wonderful to taste, but, for me, it was never as much about the food itself as it was about all of us crammed together in a too-hot kitchen that smelled of wood smoke and fresh bread. It was about the jokes, the prank gifts, and the stories.
There was no fancy table setting, no ornate decorations or place cards. There was a single Christmas tree strung with old, sometimes chipped ornaments and popcorn balls. There was a “come fix your plate” call from the kitchen. We sat where we could because there were too many of us to fit around the table at once. The children usually sat on the hearth in front of the fire, our plates balanced precariously on our knees. There was no dressing up– only blue jeans and winter boots. We were a come as you are family. There was usually a ham or turkey in the center of the table, but it was no surprise if there was bear meat or fried squirrel. There were pies and cobblers and Mama made a huge bowl of banana pudding because my Uncle Kent loved it. Sometimes he got his very own serving bowl separate from everyone else. I remember the sounds and smells and tastes, but the food was just a conduit– something that pulled it all together inside that tiny kitchen where eventually someone would have to crack the window before the fire “burned our brains out.”
I miss those holidays, and I try to recreate a bit of it through the food I make– ham and deviled eggs, biscuits and pies– but the people are different. The time and place is different. And neither can really be recaptured because the people are gone. Even the place itself is gone. All of it exists only in my mind. Maybe that’s why the holidays are sometimes bittersweet. I love all the joy that comes from a Christmas season with my children, but it’s this season that also creates a dull ache for those who have gone on. It’s an ache to recapture what once was. I think holidays are like that for a lot of us– a chance every year to recreate something magical from the past. Often, it turns out to be a little disappointing though because it really can’t be done. People die and move on, so the ingredients for that feeling are no longer available. They have blown away– like dust.
That sounds really sad, like Christmas can’t ever be happy again, and that’s not true at all. I still find tremendous happiness and wonder in Christmas. Maybe more so than ever. But with each passing year, my heart longs for something wonderful from the past, creating a mix of sweet joy and bitter sorrow for things lost.
The ghost of Christmas past comes to visit and sets up on my doorstep for the season. I could fear letting him in lest I forget my current guests and loved ones. I could become so engrossed in his stories of the past that I forget the other festivities going on all around me. I could consider just bringing him a quick cup of hot cocoa and tossing him a blanket before gently shutting the door.
But instead, I think I will invite him in to mingle with the others and to warm himself by the fire, to recall all the love that he collected for so long. To share it with those who surround me now, at this moment. And to maybe have a slice of pie while he’s here.
*All photographs courtesy of Harper Lee Libbert.