We are in the throes of kitchen renovation, which means we haven’t had a sink or a stove since the first week of November. I have learned to make dinner on an induction cooktop in the garage (glum!), to scrub veggies and do the dishes in the bathroom sink (cramped!) and to eat out of paper plates (sorry, trees!). We were hoping everything would be finished by early December but it wasn’t. Now I am hoping the kitchen will be mostly functional sometime next week. Meanwhile my hopes of baking something in time for a Christmas blogpost have been dashed. Unless I go for microwave baking like this guy? Just kidding…
Anyway I was sorting through old photos on an external hard drive when I happened upon this picture dating back to September 2008. I was in California (already!) visiting our youngest son and his family. We had brought back plums from the farmers market and I had made a tart. While I remember neither how it turned out (there are no post-baking pictures) nor how it tasted, I love the way it looks pre-oven.
To me it suggests an old mosaic gently swept with an archeologist’s brush. Perhaps a tile found in the ruins of an ancient Roman kitchen. Buried in dust and ruble and unattended for centuries.
Suddenly brought to light and glowing from within, it speaks of the ages. It set me thinking of Christmases past, of the faces once gathered around the holiday table. I have always found it a sad comment on the human condition that the persons we love the most as grown-ups so rarely get to meet the ones that meant the most to us as children. There is little comfort in the image of Time as an endless chain of which each of us can only see so many links because it begins and ends in darkness. If a family could exist outside of Time, I like to think it would form a mosaic. The patterns might vary from one family member to the next and each of us might interpret the story differently but we would still all get the whole picture and be the richer -and maybe the wiser- for it.
Time being unescapable, we are left with the chain. Which will never make a mosaic no matter how many times we try to coil it upon itself.
Still some of the light is carried over from one generation to the next. Not so much in the stories we tell about a long departed great-grandparent -although the kids clearly love hearing them- but in the way we tell them or even in the simple fact we tell them at all. When my dad retired, he spent a couple of years writing the history of our family. What started as a simple memoir turned into three volumes plus a fourth one, a year later, in which he collected his and my mom’s favorite recipes (always a passionate eater, he had turned into a passionate cook in his old age). He had the pages typed (he wrote in longhand), added scores of old photos and documents, had it all photocopied and collated and gave a copy to each of his children and grandchildren. It makes for very interesting reading and it illuminates a part of the chain that would now be in complete darkness were it not for his efforts.
I love it that he -and my mom who helped out- cared enough to do it.
There are no stories of Christmas in these memoirs. We did celebrate when we were kids. It just wasn’t as major an event as today. It wasn’t as commercial either. At least not in France. Not then.
Christmas acquired a different aura when I met my mother-in-law who was Danish and for whom December 24 was the most important day of the year. The Danes know a thing or two about light and she knew a thing or two about family. She had had a very interesting life (she was born in St. Petersburg to a Russian mom who died giving birth when she was three, was raised by a stepmom she loved, fled Russia at the time of the Revolution, spoke several languages, was so beautiful than men vied for her hand in marriage, married a foreigner, visited pre-Castro Cuba, moved to Switzerland, then after the war, to Paris, etc. ). But although she shared a few details, she was the quiet type and not a born storyteller. Hers is a different kind of legacy. One I cherish very much.
The holiday season has become painful since our grandson was killed. But the kids love it. So we make it a happy time for them. Some are still young enough to believe in Santa, others like to hold on to childhood a while longer by pretending they still do. Either way they clearly feel the magic and that’s as should be.
As for me, having learned over the years that nothing is more important, I am content with spending time with family, friends, and pets, and grateful for our connected world which makes it possible to video-visit the ones who live far away.
And if the kitchen works out, I’ll bake something. Not a plum tart (this is December after all) but maybe one of my mother-in-law’s favorite holiday dish, a salmon koulibiac. My way to conjure her presence at the table. Plus our son’s own mother-in-law loves koulibiac as well. As do we. Maybe one of our common grandkids will remember that one day and make it part of his or her Christmas lore.
See how the chain gets forged…
Happy holidays to all!