The tiny sticker on the underside of the silver pitcher reads “15.” Somewhere, in one of the bins and boxes from my parents’ home that have migrated to our attic, is the list of Mom and Dad’s wedding presents. If I wished, I could search out that list, flip through the pages, run my finger down to #15, and find the gift-giver.
Mom gave me the pitcher just months before she felt sick. For a while she’d been trying to whittle down the belongings accumulated over fifty-five years lived in the house. She’d opened the kitchen cupboard and waved toward four pitchers on the shelf, saying, “Take one if you want.” Silver is not the usual in our rustic, 1782 home, but I really liked this graceful remnant from an elegant era.
When I noticed the “15” on the bottom of the pitcher as it dried upside-down in the dish rack, my nose prickled in imagining the wrapped gift arriving at Mom’s childhood home, 12 Upper Ladue, sometime in the fall of 1951.
Since Mom passed, I’ve come to know her young self far better through her letters. My father was stationed in Germany and Mimi wrote to “My Dearest Darling Paul” every day. She was nineteen years old and missed her man fiercely. She yearned for marriage and a time when they could be together, but everything was uncertain, threatened by the possibility of Paul’s deployment to Korea. In letters to his father, Paul spoke of his loneliness and fear that “this troubled world” and deployment might prevent a future with Mimi.
He was only twenty-two. A boy far from home at Christmas… and in reading his letters, my heart ached for that lonely, young guy who became my father.
Their handwriting, so familiar to me, appears fresh on the page. Despite sixty-five years stored in a cardboard box, the blue stationary has held its color. I know how life turned out for Paul and Mimi: they married, had three (wonderful) daughters, four cherished grandchildren, lifelong friends, travels, careers, and collections. And with their pitcher in my hand, my eyes fill to think that it all lay before them when first Mimi opened that package and unfolded the white tissue within.
Now that my mother’s life has ended and I have moved into the matriarch phase she just left, I am acutely conscious of the passage of time, and each generation making way for the next. As Dave and I decorated the house, changed bed sheets, put up the tree, and wrapped gifts, I recalled the aura of past Christmases at my grandparents’ homes: candles flickering, flaming plum pudding, stiff needlepoint chairs, fancy dress, and the expectation that kids keep a low profile.
When my grandmother died and Mom took over, my grandmother’s candelabra found its place on my parents’ dining room table, and the needlepoint chairs, around it. The plum pudding was dramatic, but never tasted as good as it promised to be, so my brother-in-law’s silky fudge and rum sauce over ice cream replaced it. And the children? Far from low profile, they became the focus. Still, those homes of the past made us feel cherished and safe; Dave and I hold the grandparent title now, and strive to embrace our kids and their families in those same ways… minus the plum pudding and finger-to-lips admonitions to behave.
When my sisters and I divided the contents of my parents’ home, I did not clamor for the needlepoint chairs or the candelabra, and certainly, none of us wanted Mom’s white plastic kitchen chairs, but I really wanted the dry sink in the den. It was the first piece of furniture Mom and Dad bought together, and I loved its heavy, primitive look. Plus, it is scarred with a twisting groove that teenaged Lea idly carved with an ice pick while talking on the phone with friends.
Since our marriage in 1975, Dave and I have been doing an every-other-year rotation between the Sylvestros and Ingersolls for the holidays, and this would have been a year with Mom. When we discussed what the new plan might be, our new grand daughter Lexi was just weeks old and Eleanor was still afloat in Casey’s belly, so it made sense to hold Christmas at our house in Connecticut. My sisters, Rita and Francie, and their families, were willing to make the trip and stay minutes away at the humble, but reasonably comfortable, Hotel Hi-Ho.
For years, the Hi-Ho, conveniently perched on a slope just above the Merritt Parkway, was rumored to have been a trysting destination, a pay-by-the-hour sort of spot. While its huge, red, neon sign was easily visible to cars whizzing by, more often than not one, two, or three letters were out of order. So the “HO_EL HI- _O” was a local joke until recent renovations spruced it up. Tucker, Lisa, Paul, and Lexi would stay with us, while Casey, PJ and Eleanor live nearby.
In the week before Christmas, Dave and I attacked detailed To-Do lists each day. As has been tradition since first we were married, Dave rolled out his homemade lasagna noodles, simmered the sauce, and assembled two huge casseroles. I baked “Happy Winter” fudge cakes and made crepes. We shopped for non-perishables on Monday the 18thand perishables on the 22nd. Mixed up artichoke dip and blanched crudité on the 23rd. Ordered window shades for the guest room and crossed our fingers they’d ship in time... They did not.
The dishwasher was crammed with the detritus of those preparations. Mixing bowls, plates, ladles, and spoons. Measuring cups, spatulas, dishes, and mugs.
“Hon? Be sure to run the dishwasher before you come to bed, will you?” I said on the evening of the 22nd.
I was brushing my teeth when Dave entered the bathroom, grim of visage, and said, “The dishwasher’s not filling.”
“Not filling?” I said, or whatever garbled response might have emerged through the toothpaste.
Yes. The day before our loved ones arrived, the dishwasher broke down. When I spoke to the repairman’s rep the next day, hoping for a mercy visit given the circumstances, she laughed and said, “That’s how it always goes.”
Ah well. As my sister Rita said, plenty of bonding at the sink. Plus, she’s a party diva and after my desperate call, she arrived with bags of paper goods. Would my grandmother have tolerated such a substitution? Maybe not, but Mom would have welcomed it.
Were they there, Mom and Dad? Beyond the toasts, tales, memories, and love? Beyond their touch on the pitcher and wooden dry sink? Beyond their names carried on in their great-grandchildren, Eleanor and Paul?
After he died, Dad arranged a bounty of signs to let us know he was still around, while Mom kept her peace when she passed. But I have to think they could not have resisted a Christmas visit to see Jared and Campbell - now men in their twenties - on the floor playing cars with little Paul. To see Tucker and Casey, holding each other’s babies. To see three elfin great-grandchildren in matching pajamas, and little Eleanor, already an activist, pumping her fist in the air. To see Bill and Rita prancing in Santa and reindeer outfits. To see my sisters, giggling all the way, smuggling in two of Mom’s sheet-shrouded white plastic kitchen chairs.
Yeah, I have to think they showed up.