*Rule: you must sing the title of this post as if you were performing in "Fiddler on the Roof."
I'm still recovering from the feasting and presenting and general mayhem that was our annual trip to New Jersey for Thanksgiving with my husband's family. The usual mayhem of a 20-ish person Thanksgiving plus celebrating 4 kid cousins' November birthdays (including Helene's) was exponentially compounded this year with the timing of Hanukkah. Thus, the big fat Jewish family Hanukkah party was held the day after Thanksgiving, and I don't even KNOW how many people were there, and all the resulting presents somehow did fit in the car.
These holidays with Seth's family are full of Tradition (tradition! Come on, sing it with me.): there must be soup at Thanksgiving; my MIL makes a roast beef as well as a turkey; she must also make pecan pie or mutiny may result. At Hanukkah, the latkes are made with Uncle Irwin's mother's recipe, except that we use a food processor instead of grating all the onions and potatoes by hand, like she did. My big, loud, sprawling, opinionated, wonderful extended family of in-laws vociferously make sure that these traditions are enforced.
It's not so tradition-full on my side of the family. It was just me and my parents in our house, and we spent all the major holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) with my father's parents in Albuquerque. These were sedate affairs, in my Gram and Grandpa's spotless little house, where we all sat in the same chairs each time, egg nog and bourbon were sipped. There might be a ham or a turkey. My Gram always served sweet gherkins and other nibbles in beautiful cut-glass dishes on a delicate lace tablecloth. There were always buttered peas - my favorite. Sweet, white German wine was always served. Gram always made pinoche for dessert. As I got older, I survived these quiet and deadly boring holidays with my nose in a book.
As my grandparents aged, they didn't want to cook, or travel to our house in Santa Fe, or have us bring all the food. Somehow, maybe when I was 10 or 12, we started going to these fancy hotel buffets for Thanksgiving and Christmas. At first, when I was younger, it was fun. The ice sculptures, and made-to-order omelettes, and endless desserts, and soft-footed waiters clearing your plates. Later, I began to dread and hate them, probably at the same pace as I began to dread and hate the aging of my grandparents and my father. I also hated it because I wanted the security of tradition, of a big, loud, delicious Thanksgiving or Christmas at home, with lots of friends and family, not with people you had to tip.
The very worst holiday meal was the last one. I must have been about 20. It was the year my Gram could no longer live on her own. Grandpa had died a few years before; most of her friends were dead, and she tottered and cleaned her already spotless house, slowly losing her balance and her mind. She fell, once, twice, lying to my father about it, but he found her bruised and almost unable to get up from bed. She'd started hiding and misplacing things, trying to use the check carbons as checks. They had to do something quickly. It's hard to find assisted living spots on short notice, as it turns out, and my Gram was placed temporarily in a fairly awful place that resembled a low-cost adult daycare. The furniture was worn; it smelled of antiseptic and urine and overcooked food. We walked in the door on Christmas, and half a dozen gray-haired and wizened people stared hungrily at us from living room chairs and sofas, hoping we were there to visit them.
We hurriedly fetched Gram from her room; I looked around for her shoes, as she was wearing bedroom slippers. But her feet were so swollen that shoes wouldn't fit. I know she hated that; Gram was petite, with never a hair out of place. (I have some of her old shoes - size 6, ruby red patent leather, stiletto heels.) And here she was, having to go out of the house in bedroom slippers. I swallowed, smiled, and helped her out to the car.
It was all I could do not to sob throughout the holiday lunch. It was at a fancy new hotel, built in an extravagant Pueblo style, and the buffet was lush and delicious, the dining room sunny and sparkling. Gram kept saying how beautiful it was, and how good everything was. She probably weighed 100 pounds, soaking wet, but she could put away food, my little bird Gram. She especially loved her sweets. And I tried to smile.
Then it was over; we couldn't stay any longer, and Gram was getting tired. We had to go back. When we took her inside the nursing home, she begged me not to leave her there. She begged to go home. And I had to walk away, with my parents, leaving my grandmother there. As I walked out, through the utterly depressing living room, another tiny old lady, with long gray hair and a beret, tugged at my sleeve and smiled, with sparkling dark eyes, hoping I was her visitor.
That was the last hotel holiday dinner.
We're going to be at home in DC for Christmas this year, which is how I think I prefer it. (And what is it about being a family of four that makes me feel like we are really a family now?) We went to see my mom one year, with Helene, and I don't plan to do that travel experience again. I got the giant, noisy, fabulous Norman Rockwell (well, if Rockwell was Jewish) Thanksgiving I always wanted, with a similar Hanukkah gathering thrown in to boot. It's been some struggle to come up with what to do for Christmas. My nice Jewish boy husband hasn't a clue, since he obviously didn't do Christmas growing up. So, it's up to me to shoulder OUR traditions, those things that our family will always do. There were lots of little things that my family (really, my mom) did at Christmas time that I always loved, and I want to have some that my children will remember. Favorite ornaments coming out each year, holiday music, books, special foods, that kind of thing. Helene loves picking and decorating the tree (a REAL tree, oh, I am hardcore there) and I think she is at the age where she's going to remember the ornaments each year now, so I want to get or make some special ones with her. We found a tiny decorative (not real) tree at the nursery where we got our big tree, and Helene asked for it, to have in her room. She's been decorating it with tiny ornaments, and I promised her we will make some more for it.
We have this completely godawful tree topper that Helene picked out last year, could not be dissuaded from. It's utterly tacky, and now we will have to use it forever and ever.
I want to bake cookies, the kind my mom always made. It's a gingerbread dough that you roll out & cut, so much more delicious than plain sugar cookies.
I'm searching for an antique candy dish, because my mom always had this funny Santa one that always sat on the top of the piano, filled with some little sugary treat.
My in-laws will be with us for Christmas this year, so they can wish Ajax happy birthday before globe-trotting to Australia to spend New Year's with my brother in law and his family. I'm pondering what to do for Christmas dinner. I did pot roast last year, but high-class pot roast, with wine and tiny onions, more like boeuf bourgignon. I did coq au vin another year, and little game hens another year. I surveyed Twitter for Christmas dinner traditions, and got quite a few fairly traditional ham/turkey responses, as well as lasagna and Chinese food. I'm not married to any particular idea; I just want it to be fun & delicious and not too time-consuming to make.
So far, the leading contender in our house is Seth's idea: to make Chinese at home. This might sound crazy, but we use these awesome, delicious recipes adapted from family friend and Chinese food expert/restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld. It's delicious General Tso's chicken and cold sesame noodles, nothing like the gloopy, oversweet takeout you might expect. I think it's kind of brilliant. A nod to the New York Jewish tradition of Chinese and a movie on Christmas Day, but homemade. We might have a winner.
But what to do for dessert? My mom's cookies and Gram's pinoche will probably be in the mix. But for Helene, "dessert" is synonymous with "chocolate," so perhaps this is the part of the tradition that she gets to write.
It's going to be great, with six of us together, enough to be loud and messy and laughing. Enough for the start of a tradition, perhaps.