(by Maureen Ryan Griffin)
Imagine a mother almost completely lost to dementia, her 40-something-year-old daughter intent on preserving every scrap of memory she can resurrect. Which isn’t easy, as, even before the dementia, her mother’s answer to most questions the daughter asked about her childhood was, “It’s all a blur.”
Imagine the moment the daughter, as she helps to empty the family home the mother is now too ill to live in, discovers a box that holds every family Christmas newsletter her mother wrote, including one from 1959:
“...This will be a ‘mobile’ Christmas at 1087. Everyone wants to be rolling. Michael, our six-year-old, has a bike picked out, Timmy, now four, a tractor, and Maureen has her heart set on a trike with a ‘beep horn.’”
Imagine the daughter’s joy.
That little blonde girl in the photo is me, at three.
These newsletters allowed me to hear my mother’s voice across the years of my childhood. They helped me appreciate all the years we had together before Lewy Body Dementia ravaged her mind and her body. And in the years since, even after I lost her for good, they’ve reminded me that Mother never stopped wanting all her children—Mike, Tim, me, our big sister Mary, and our little brother John—to have what we “set our hearts on,” at Christmas and all year long.
My mother once told me that her mother had always tried, even during the Great Depression, to give her family a nice Christmas. Mother did the same. At least as early as December, 1958, according to Mother’s first newsletter, our “nice Christmases” began weeks ahead:
“…Christmas draws near and we are trying to emphasize the liturgical meaning. Our children are much impressed with the Advent wreath. (Of course there is the daily argument as to whose turn it is to blow out the match and candles.)”
The daily Advent wreath lighting and the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” did set a sacred tone, but presents were a part of Advent, too. Each year, the five of us pored through the Sears Wish Book, choosing items for our Christmas lists for Mother. And each year she drove us downtown to shop for gifts for each other, sending us forth with instructions to meet her under the big clock in The Boston Store—Erie, Pennsylvania’s finest department store—when we were done.
“A nice Christmas,” to Mother, meant the more packages, the better. To this end, along with wish list items and specially selected surprises, one of our packages invariably contained socks. Untouched by the hard times that shaped our parents’ childhood Christmases, we weren’t happy to get them. But they gave us one of our funniest Christmas moments as young adults, when Mother opened a gift from Mike and found a brightly striped pair of socks inside.
Most of those gifts we unwrapped are long forgotten, but not the love they held. Though I can still close my eyes and be right back in our living room, thrilled with my Barbie kitchen, which came with enough paraphernalia—miniature toaster, pots and pans, even potholders and dish towels—to keep me happy for months. From the stereo came the bright sounds of Tim’s new “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass” album. The savory scent of Yorkshire pudding and “roast beast” wafted from the kitchen. All was right with the world.
The holidays raised Mother’s passion for cooking to a whole new level. What was a “nice Christmas” without special food? Fruitcake, of course. Mother wouldn’t dream of Christmas without fruitcake. And cookies, dozens upon dozens—traditional favorites and new recipes that any of us wanted to try. We learned to bake early. In 1961, Mother wrote:
“…The little ones have already decorated gingerbread men in a somewhat baroque fashion. Mary is determined to make some cookies all by herself, from measuring ingredients to working the cookie press.”
Through the years, Mother made some changes to her Christmas menus. She stopped making cranberry sherbet somewhere between my sister Mary’s memories and mine. She rotated between Ribbon Salad and Cherry Salad Supreme. But the palpable sense of occasion, clothed in good china and silver, never faltered. Neither did the crowning glory of Christmas brunch, Mother’s Stöllen, warm from the oven, topped with blanched almonds and red and green candied cherries shaped into poinsettia flowers and leaves.
Lewy Body Dementia eventually robbed Mother of the ability to follow even the simplest of recipes. But, for as long as she was able, our Christmas visits ended with her making each of us a miniature Stöllen to take home, complete with candied-fruit poinsettias. Even now, almost 20 years after losing her, I can picture Tim heading off to the airport, Stöllen in hand, toothpicks poking up to keep the plastic wrap that covered it from sticking to the still-wet icing.
For a while, this memory made me tear up. Now, it makes me smile, as do so many others. Like the time I baked Chocolate Peppermint Candy Bar Cookies—a recipe I made in my mother’s kitchen when I was a girl—with my own little girl. I wrote down what she said as we beat in the peppermint extract so I’d never forget: “When I grow up, you can give me this recipe so I can make these with my kids.”
(My mother and my daughter, 1988)
I am still intent on preserving memories, but my heart is set on sharing their sweetness, in passing it on. I did give my daughter that recipe. And she does make it with her children, with whom I often share my memories of my mother, especially at Christmas. It won’t be long until they’re old enough to read her newsletters for themselves, and imagine their Grammy as a three-year-old with “her heart set on a trike with a ‘beep horn.’”
At the heart of Christmas joy is mystery, always—the mystery that is love.
Maureen Ryan Griffin is the creator of www.wordplaynow.com, which provides programs, products, and services to support writers. She is the author of How Do I Say Goodbye? and Praying You Goodbye. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
1/2 c. pitted dates, cut into thin slices
1/2 c. mixed candied fruits, chopped fine
1/4 c. raisins
rind of 1 orange, finely grated
4 c. sifted flour
3/4 t. salt
1/2 c. milk
2 packages dry yeast
1 t. sugar
1/2 c. warm water
1/2 c. butter, room temperature
1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 c. butter, melted
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
red and green candied cherries
Mix dates, candied fruit, raisins, and orange rind.
Sift flour and salt together.
Heat milk to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar over warm (not hot) water.
In the bowl of a mixer, cream butter.
Add 1/2 cup sugar gradually, beating until creamy.
Stir in eggs.
Add yeast mixture, warm (not hot) milk, and the flour/salt mixture.
Beat hard until smooth.
Stir in fruit mixture thoroughly.
Put in a large greased bowl; cover, and refrigerate overnight. The next day, divide dough in half.
Roll one part on a floured board in a rectangular shape about 3/4-inch thick.
Brush with half the melted butter.
Sprinkle with half the brown sugar and chopped walnuts.
Roll dough lengthwise, and place on a greased pan or cookie sheet.
Repeat with second half of dough.
Let rise in a warm spot away from drafts (inside unheated oven, over a pan of hot water, works well) for about two hours or until almost double in size.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Bake for 30 - 45 minutes until golden brown.
When cool, frost with confectioners’ sugar Icing.
Decorate with almonds and cut cherries shaped into poinsettias.
Makes 2 large stöllen, or 4 - 6 small ones.
Confectioners’ Sugar Frosting
1 c. confectioners’ sugar
1 T. cream or evaporated milk
1/2 t. vanilla extract
Stir ingredients together until smooth.
Add a few more drops of cream or milk, if needed, for good spreading consistency.
Chocolate Peppermint Candy Bars
1 c. margarine or butter
1 c. sugar
1/4 t. peppermint extract
5 drops red food coloring
2 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
1 c. (6 oz.) crushed candy canes, divided
1 c. (6 oz.) chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan.
In the bowl of a mixer, cream margarine or butter and sugar.
Beat in egg, peppermint extract, and coloring.
Sift together flour and salt, and stir into batter.
Set aside 1/2 cup of the coarsest candy cane pieces; stir rest into batter.
Spread in greased baking pan.
Bake for 15 - 20 minutes until set, but not brown.
Immediately sprinkle chocolate chips on top; let soften, and then spread.
Sprinkle with reserved 1/2 cup crushed candy canes.
Cool, and cut into bars.
Makes 4 dozen bars.