Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dressed and Ready to Go

The kitchen smells of minced garlic toasting in olive oil on the stove. I chop the artichoke stems very fine. From the garden, I salvaged a few sage leaves that survived the early frost and they are crisping in the oil as well. I know what Cam would say if I phoned her. I can easily hear her voice.

“Lea! How’re you doin’?”

“Great! I’m making stuffed artichokes.”

“No kiddin’. What’re you putting in the filling?”

“I’ve got some sage from the garden, toasted garlic and breadcrumbs.”

“Oooooo. I always put in a bit of salt and pepper, as well.”

“Yep. I’ve added them along with the stems.”

When Cam talks about food, it’s as if she could taste it. The words roll languorously about on her tongue, zesty as lemon, smoky as slow-cooked sauce. She relishes each ingredient, the aromas, and the textures. No surprise, as much of her life was spent in the kitchen, cooking for her parents, her brothers, and for all of us.

I come close to reaching for the telephone, but Cam won’t be there to answer; she passed away last week.

She was ninety-two and hadn’t been cooking much lately. Over the past year, her forgetfulness led to smoke alarms a few times too many. Sausages browned to black on the stove as she went to the bathroom; hamburger charred when she was drawn into a TV show. Like Cam, her neighbors at Heritage Village were elderly, most in their eighties. Much as they loved her, they were frustrated about standing in the cold or rain while awaiting the firemen’s “All clear.” It was not just inconvenient; they were worried - about her as well as themselves.

At Heritage Village, the policy is three strikes and you’re out. Luckily, not really out, but forbidden to use the stove. She certainly didn’t cook with as much enthusiasm as she used to anyway; she was tired. But still, she missed the smells and fresh food.

When Cam joined us for Christmas last year, she made up for lost cooking time; a full day was spent preparing homemade lasagna and squid. Dave and his aunty rolled mounds of dough thin, then sliced them into strips. Casey, Tucker and I helped layer the pasta with creamy ricotta cheese, sautéed vegetables and rich tomato sauce. Stuffing the squid, or porkies, as Cam called them, was a messy business, leaving her crooked fingers caked with stuffing and her apron dusted with flour. Christmas carols played on the stereo, the same songs Cam listened to when her brothers were at war, the songs we’d heard as children, and that Tucker and Casey had grown up singing. Sometimes Cam and Dave would swing into a dance or croon along with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Cam’s greatest pleasure, other than time spent with family, was playing Bingo. Whenever Dave called his aunt, his first question was whether she’d won at Bingo that week. If she answered in the negative, he’d tease her about dishonoring the family name. “You dingweed!” he’d say, and she would laugh like a school girl. She got a kick out of the nickname; maybe the silliness appealed, or perhaps its youthful ring. Whatever the reason, Cam took teasing well. She could always laugh at herself.

Cam worried constantly about family members, from the time that all three brothers served overseas during World War II, to the time that she quit her job to take care of her parents. Then Uncle Jack got cancer, and Dave’s father, Tony, had a stroke. Often, therefore, her worries were well-founded. But she also worried unnecessarily if Dave didn’t call every day, or if she couldn’t find a phone number, or bill. Dave would mimic Cam’s wail, feed it right back to her, when she moaned about some small insignificance. And she got the joke; her groaning would give way to laughter.

Timmy the van driver and Cam’s friend, Theresa, found her. They had come to pick her up for Bingo, just like always. Usually, Cam was waiting outside when the van pulled up. She’d be wearing a beige knit jacket and matching pants; her white hair would be neatly coiffed following her weekly trip to the hairdresser. She’d have her bulky handbag clutched to her body with both hands. This time, Cam wasn’t out front so Timmy was anxious. She waited a bit, then decided to go up to Cam’s apartment. Theresa agreed to accompany her, just in case.

They found her on the bedroom floor, dressed and ready to go.

Dressed and ready to go. That describes Cam pretty well. She relished life in the same way she relished mussels in garlic and wine, scraping each shell clean and sopping up the juice with a nice chunk of fresh bread. She’d stay up until 1:00 am to watch her great-nephews, Trevor and Christopher, perform. Well into her eighties, she once went out on a boat night-shrimping in Florida with her niece, Peggy, and her beloved, Paul. It was dark on the water and the chill numbed their hands, but Cam never complained. In fact, when Peggy asked how she was doing, she laughed with delight and said, “I’m enjoying myself!”

When Peggy’s daughter, Jenny, gave birth to a little girl, Cam found a new love. Now four years old, Victoria is cute, smart, and funny, and her parents are conscientious about keeping Cam up-to-date with photographs.

Cam kept Dave company during his daily commute from work. He’d call her as he sat in traffic on the Merritt Parkway and they’d chat about his day, about her latest Bingo game, about Victoria’s most recent accomplishment. Cam told him when Cousin Jackie fell ill, and when Johnny Talbot called. She told him when Jenny’s sister, Lisa, started her own business as a personal chef. “Isn’t that somethin’?” said Cam. But she never wanted to impose, “I won’t take any more of your time….” she'd say, and Dave had to beg her, “Don’t hang up! Don’t hang up!”

As I run cold water into the pot, I wish I could call her. I know Cam would love these artichokes. She would have eaten every leaf with gusto, starting close to the pricker-sharp point, then working her teeth to the stem end.

Loving every last morsel.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas House

Dave and I have bustled all week to prepare for our Christmas party. Brush in hand, I’ve dabbed Chelsea Blue paint on doors and sills that need touch-ups. Cupboards are scrubbed clean; furniture is lemon polish fragrant; potpourris are revitalized with cinnamon scent. Dry floors, massaged with oil, are a rich red-brown. I imagine the house stretching and waking, as rapturously pleased with itself as our cat Raven under a soothing caress.

We began decorating by hauling boxes and bulky plastic bags from the attic and crawlspace, every hutch and window seat yielding Santas, snowmen, teddy bears, and garlands. As I unwrap the tissue protecting each item, I remember its place in Christmases past. When Tucker and Casey were little, they helped craft the papier mache carollers. The miniature wooden village first appeared under my parents’ tree in the fifties. The velveteen Santa has been with us since Tucker was one, a gift from his grandparents on his first Christmas in 1980. Little hands, growing hands, aging hands have held and admired each memento.

After days of puttering, near every surface in the house boasts a vignette: a woodland village, nativity or Father Christmas. Still, something is missing. Greens.

Casey used to decorate the house with holly and evergreens, but she’s missed the party for the past few years since she left for college. Last week I was saddened by her blithe departure the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I yearned for the days when she lived at home, when she reveled in creating arrangements of holly, filling jars with cranberries, and hanging ornaments. But she was all asparkle at the thought of returning to school as she drove into the dusk, saying, “I’ll be back in three weeks for Christmas!”

An hour later she phoned from a rest stop on the interstate. “My headlights died! I do NOT believe this!” The hoped-for quick fix from Triple A did not pan out and we received another, more subdued, call. “Mom, would you and Dad mind retrieving the car from the rest stop to bring it home for repairs? I’ve called my roommate and she’s going to pick me up and take me the rest of the way to school.” And then Casey spluttered and sniffled on her end of the line. “The reason I was so cheery when I said good-bye was because I planned to surprise you by coming home to help with the party. And now I can’t because I won’t have a car!” Dear girl! It meant so much that she wanted to come.

So I inherited her job of collecting and distributing the greens. Yesterday, with a basket over my arm and shears in hand, I circled the yard, a snowy expanse marred only by deer tracks trailing from the woods to the bird feeders. What a glorious day to be browsing through holly and winterberries, green and crimson against naked limbs and white snow.

Laden with clippings, I returned to the house and strolled about adding a sprig of pine here, a branch of berries there. Shaded by a bit of feathery fir, the figures on the mantels appeared to relax and brighten. White wooden swans glided gracefully once provided a pool of pine. Even great-grandfather Francis’s somber face seemed almost jovial once holly boughs crowned the frame of his portrait.

Dave returned from Home Depot with arms full of pointsettias. We arranged the scarlet flowers around the victorian carollers singing amid cotton snow in the front hall fireplace. Candles graced tables, mantels and sconces. All that was lacking was the final touch of a match to bring the rooms flickering to life. In still semi-darkness, tiny flames dancing white and blue at the core, seem a visible glimmer of the spirit of a house. How much more so when they lend their glow to a holiday party.

This house has hosted over two hundred and twenty Christmases, but we held our first party here five years ago. Certain elements have remained constant: Dave wears jeans, an oxford shirt and Christmas tie; I greet friends in a flowing dress. Dave brews beer and smokes fish; I shop, bake, mix dips and decorate. The kids’ papier mache carollers sing in the front fireplace; Tucker’s velveteen Santa sits on the hutch in the living room.

But of course, some things change. Tucker and Casey are away at school. Where Casey and her friends Lindsay, Jess and Devlin once passed hors-d’oeuvres and washed dishes, now Lindsay’s little sister, Kara, and her friends help out. They are in the kitchen now, circling the poached salmon with lemon slices, filling bowls with nuts, and garnishing dips with dill and basil. Kara is a senior, so she’ll be gone next year. We’re here, but the kids grow up.

As our friends arrive, they set offerings of lacy cookies, brownies, and bisques among the cheese boards, crudite, crackers and platters of fish already arrayed on the dining room table. Pat inches aside a plate or two to make room for a thick yellow zabaglione in a cut crystal bowl. Michelle places her spinach dip in its cradle of pumpernickel bread on the sideboard. Barb brings a pyramid of zucchini squares. To me, it feels like the house celebrates with us as it glows with candlelight, the rooms echoing with hymns sung by the Westminster Choir.

My eyes well briefly with tears while I think of both the blessings and transitions of this night. My Dave is here with me, chatting with guests. Kara takes overcoats, just as Casey used to do. Hugs and laughter and love linger with me in the hall even as new arrivals head to the living room for a home brew.

A hooked rug I just completed lies on the floor in the corner. It features Santa against a midnight blue background. I imagine an unborn little one saying of it some day, “My grandmother made it thirty years ago.” I picture an older Casey arranging the alpine village on a spray of evergreen, perhaps preparing for a party of her own. And I allow myself a wonderful thought, that those future parties might still be here, in this house that delights to hold them.