Home alone Christmases

Our daughter, Becky, Christmas 1972

I didn’t know what to do when Christmas Day first found me alone with my husband. As empty nesters, it wasn’t the least humorous like Hollywood’s Home Alone.

My mother and mother-in law had modeled ideal parents with a houseful of children and grandchildren on Christmas Day. In the succession of generations, I expected to perpetuate into old age their stacks of gifts before the decorated fir, and a table laden with a feast and glowing candles.

How swiftly our parental season passed, driving in Holiday blizzards between Mom’s house in Warren to the Underwood’s in Grand Rapids. There, Grandma and Grandpa Underwood awaited their granddaughters’ arrival.

Grandma Rosie loved to lie down on the living room sofa and play possum when we walked into her house. She began the tradition with Becky, our firstborn. Grandma lured our little girl to open the antique coffee grinder filled with Hershey kisses wrapped in red, green, and silver foil. Then Grandma would sit up and say, “What are you gettin’ into?”

Oh, the laughter!

A young mother full of hope and faith, I trusted such love and affection to build spiritual and emotional bonds within our three daughters, and immunity against lies and deception.

Then, in the mid 70’s, my mother shook our world when she moved to Kentucky and built her dream home. She left four daughters and three grandchildren behind, and took our twelve-year old baby sister with her.

What else could Mel and I do but alternate Christmases between Nana’s in Kentucky and Grandma Rosie’s in Grand Rapids? One Appalachian Christmas, Mom’s grandkids played football in eighty-degree weather.

A brief survey of my family albums reveals the few Christmas dinners my family hosted in our various homes. Mel, our two younger daughters, and I served the most memorable Christmas dinner a few years after Becky’s death in 1996.

The table spread from dining room through living room, Mel and I proclaimed the reconciliation of our marriage derailed by the hardships of our daughter’s substance abuse and burial.

As childbirth is a moment set in time, so was that glorious night serving Chicken in Wine Sauce to my mother, sisters, and their families. Yes, praise God for blessed memory—God’s faithfulness to two grieving parents and siblings.

In our home alone Christmases, Mel and I’ve found solace in what we name our Trip Down Memory Lane. He navigates us by the homes where we raised our children in Metro Detroit.

Charlevoix Street, Clawson. Cherry Hill Apartments, Westland. MacArthur Manor Apartments, Warren. Cummings Street, Berkley. Algonac Street, Detroit.

Sometimes we stray to Lincoln High School where I learned to swim and almost drowned in synchronized swimming productions. Where I first read Shakespeare and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Finally, Mel pulls over before 25708 Wagner Street in Warren where I grew up, where he first met my family.

“Look, your mom’s maple still stands,” he says.

Dear Reader, this is why Jesus came to Earth. To save and comfort the broken hearted.    

Remembering cousin Ronnie

Cousin Ronnie, an obvious Michigan fan

The incoming call triggered my internal alarm. My Kentucky sister doesn’t typically phone during a workday. I assumed sad news.

“Patty, what’s going on?”

“Are you busy?”

“Just making Quiche Lorraine for company. And you?”

“I’m roosterin’ up,” she said.

I envisioned her makeup table covered with lighted mirror and all manner of beauty products and curling irons.

“I have a closing in south Williamson this mornin’, then I’m off to Pikeville,” Patty said.

Her route pops up on memory’s map—the landmarks she’ll pass along Route 23 and Kentucky’s Big Sandy River.

She relays her frustration with expiring curling irons and offers her family’s Christmas logistics.

Then she says, “I have some sad news.”

I think it’s Uncle Tab, our mother’s youngest brother who lives in Lexington, Kentucky. With the pandemic restrictions for senior care residents, I’ve not seen him in two years.

“Did you hear about cousin Ronnie?” Patty asks.


“He passed away yesterday at age eighty-three.”

“Well, I’m sorry for his wife Jenny, but I’m glad I visited Ronnie and Uncle Tab in Florida several winters ago,” I said.

“I forgot about that.”

“I’ll share the details some other time.”

We said our good-byes with cousin Ronnie and the mid-fifties on my mind.

Dad drove to Peter Creek, Kentucky, and brought sixteen-year old Edgil Ronnie and his pitching arm to our home on Yacama Street in Detroit.

Cousin Ronnie threw a mean fastball backed up with his curveball and made the Philadelphia Phillie's farm team. Mom packed her favorite nephew man-sized lunches with a thermos of sweet tea for the ball field.

She kept my two sisters and me quiet on his days off from ball practice so cousin Ronnie could sleep in.

“The boy has growin’ to do,” Mom said.

One sunny day, cousin Ronnie took my hand for a walk. I heard change jingling in his pocket. We turned the corner onto Seven Mile Road where he held the door open to Brown's Creamery.

I spun on the stool for the first time and ordered chocolate malt.

Sixty-some years later, I visited Uncle Tab, cousin Ronnie, and their wives in their Florida homes. Cousin Ronnie and I walked their neighborhood together.

"Your mommy would give me her loose change,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “’Take Iris and treat yourselves to an ice cream,' she’d say.”

Mom did the same for my older and younger sister until cousin Ronnie blew out his pitching arm and the Phillies coach sent him home.

I pined when Dad drove Cousin Ronnie back to Peter Creek. Mom did too.

Two Februarys later, Mom and Dad brought Patty home from the hospital to Joann Street in Detroit.

Dear Reader, the Christmas before, our father bought his first movie camera and lights. Although we have no film of cousin Ronnie’s fastball backed up by a curveball, my sisters and I have hours of Baby Patty drooling and taking her first steps before Dad’s bright lights.

The predecessor to Patty’s makeup mirror?

Fruitcake and Hellebore

Hellebore, AKA Christmas rose, in my backyard

I don’t know which came first, Mom’s fruitcake or her sugar cookies. What girl notices grownup food when she’s anticipating the rolling pin, mixing bowl full of dough, and cookie cutters come December?

             Wrapped in cheesecloth soaked in Dad’s brandy, Mom’s fruitcake appealed to a mature audience. Whereas, my sisters and I gobbled up our yummy decorated sugar cookies long before our mother ceremoniously sliced the last few servings of her favorite Christmas sweet.

There she’d sit at the kitchen table with a cup of hot tea in absolute awareness of the goodness her hands and the recipe yielded. With her right pinky extended, she nibbled on the finished product of creamed butter and sugar, eggs, brandy, sifted flour and spices, candied fruit, and pecans. Her brother Jim, a Marine stationed in North Carolina, shipped her Georgia pecans every summer for her holiday baking.

It took marriage and children for me to comprehend such roots deep within Mom’s fealty to her mother’s fruitcake—to recall and respect her blessed moment of rest and reflection.

After forsaking Mom’s recipe recent Christmases, I resurrected the index card two days ago to perpetuate this tradition with my daughters—cast my matriarchs’ fruitcake upon the waters. Perhaps I’ll live long enough to witness the strong pull of this confection upon their convictions.

Papa Joe’s in Rochester saved my plan with the Paradise brand of candied fruit. Sad to say, fruitcake is falling from fashion.

While my Kitchen Aid blended the batter, I stood before the kitchen window in a fine condition of contentment. White flowers of a Hellebore caught my eye. As she’s refused to bloom for three winters, Hellebore’s timing is perfect.

Matter of fact, during my bedtime reading, I recently learned Christmas Rose is the common name for Hellebore. 

She’s shy, a low grower prone to hibernation under snow. And that makes her all the more adorable.

This revelation came by an essay in a small but mighty book titled My Favorite Plant. Jamaica Kincaid, a gardener and garden writer born in 1949, edited the book.

Christmas Rose is the flower Richardson Wright, my Number One garden storyteller, grew under glass close to his Connecticut cottage for harvesting a handful of blooms in December.

Since they’ve no fragrance and flowers are few, I’ve not had the heart to clip a rose for my bondage indoors.

Rather, on those slow, snowy days, I’ll sit with a hot cup of tea at my kitchen table. I’ll gaze upon my Christmas Rose, extend my pinky, and salute my new Advent guest.

Dear Reader, my three loaves of fruitcake marinate in brandied cheesecloth. One waits in my kitchen cupboard. Our youngest daughter drives the other two cross-country with her dog Lily to celebrate Christmas with her sister’s family in the Bay Area.

Although tempted by Ruth’s invitation, my husband and I decided two cross-county treks are not practical time being. We’ll observe our Savior’s birth with our hens, cats, and Hellebore.

And Mom’s fruitcake.

Capacity for joy

Some of my favorite cookbooks

I take a homegrown garlic bulb from its basket in the basement. Of the hardneck variety, I prefer the more complex flavor of Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon to the mild softneck, Allium sativum ssp. Sativum.

            While it’s on my mind, I must say cupping my fingers around a hardkneck bulb while walking up thirteen steps gratifies my soul.

It’s an exercise to enlarge my capacity for joy and stimulate my memory, imagination, and zeal for cooking a delicious and nutritious meal.

I recall my posture of prayer while setting forty cloves in October’s soil, then mulching with oak leaves. Come next April or May, I’ll spy green sprouts in the leaves.

And of all the world’s architectural marvels, the spiral scapes will emerge from the center stems in June while the irises bloom.

The scape is as tasty as mature cloves. The pointed seedpod and coil make a gorgeous garnish on a plate, bowl, or platter. Making the most of a plant is a gardener and cook’s delight.

Then it’s time to prune the scape from the plant. This directs more nutrition underground to develop a robust bulb.

Infatuated with their furling and unfurling stems summer past, I forgot to prune the scapes from the plants.

The result? Wimpy garlic bulbs for cooking and cloves for planting. Come next June, I’ll remove the pod stems and see what my efforts yield when I harvest my crop.

Standing by the kitchen counter, I separate the cloves from the hardneck stem and think of Jeanette Farley, a fellow Friend of Herbs based in Seven Ponds Nature Center.

A good while ago, Jeanette donated her time and twenty softneck and twenty hardneck cloves to begin my garlic patch. We dug and set them on a bitter, windy October day. That’s one example of Jeanette’s admirable dedication to good food and friendship.

I throw the bare hardneck stem on the kitchen floor. Cuddles, our tortoiseshell cat, jumps down from her rocking chair and swats the stem in feline gymnastics.

I sense some irony. Although my mother loved cats, she loathed garlic. She remained faithful to yellow and green onions, always served with soup beans and cornbread until she could no longer cook.

Green onions definitely have their place on my table. The mandarin orange salad recipe I inherited wouldn’t be complete without two chopped scallions. There’s no way Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon could pull off what the Allium Fistulosum achieves in that blend of Romaine lettuce, almonds, onion, and fruit.

Miraculously, Mom made spaghetti sauce that rivaled any red-blooded Italian’s without the scent or appearance of garlic in her kitchen.

However, God is good to His children. Since the night someone served me steamy, buttery garlic bread in 1966, my capacity for garlic expands with the number of cookbooks on my kitchen bookshelf.

Dear Reader, Cuddles chases her garlic toy while I mince several cloves and sauté them with onion and venison for spaghetti bolognaise.

Next I slice and slather the baguette with garlic butter. Oh, what joy!