Thursday, December 20, 2012

23. The Mystery of the Christmas Stocking

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The Holiday season is supposed to be about love and caring and sharing.  Huh, try explaining that to an anxiety ridden and disillusioned 6 year old girl.   I grew up poor but honest, as most of the people on the planet.  We didn’t have a cozy fireplace with a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the hearth for Santa.  But the chimney for our house went from the basement furnace up through the roof alongside a corner in my tiny bedroom.   I don’t know what other kids did with their Christmas stockings but my creative mother hung mine on the corner of the plaster covered chimney.
                I was too young to know that the purpose of the fireplace was so fatty Santa could squeeze himself down it to get into your house.  And I was too dumb to know that there was no way Santa could blast through the chimney to get to my stocking without leaving a permanent crater in the plaster. 
            Young, dumb and innocent I curled up in my quilt covered bed on Christmas Eve.  I gazed with trust at the red and green knitted stocking dangling from the wall.  As I fought against sleep, I tried to remember last year.  I was sure I had gotten important treasurers in that fancy sock.  Of course, there had been walnuts, still in their shells; some hard Christmas candy that lasted a long time if you were patient enough to suck them; and in the toe of the stocking, a small round orange.  I guess Santa thought I should have at least one healthy thing to eat as I tore through my presents. 
            I don’t remember my dreams that night.  It was enough that I slept through until the first cold light peeked in my window.  I was saved from worrying about what the morning would bring.
            My sleep fuddled brain finally got through to me.  It’s Christmas!!  My eyes popped open to discover my reward for trying so hard to be a good little girl.
            AGGH!  The stocking was gone.  I closed my eyes and shook my head, my sleep-flattened curls flouncing.  I squeezed opened one eye lid and looked all around the chimney corner, the floor, even under the chair where my clothes were jumbled.  The stocking was gone.  Not only had Santa stiffed me on a gift, but he had stolen my hand knit stocking.  So much for being nice to my rotten cousins.
            Worried and confused I burrowed back under the covers and waited, and waited, and waited.
            Eventually my mother came in.  “Honey, why aren’t you up?  Don’t you want to see what Santa left you?”
            I had always worried about my mother’s brain power but now I wondered if she had vision problems too.  She didn’t even glance over to where the stocking should be.  She just reached down and picked me up.  I grunted.
            ‘”Grandma and Grandpa are waiting for you.  Daddy’s got the camera all ready.”
            She carried me into the living room where the skinny tree was already dropping needles.  My grandparents and Dad kidded me about being a ‘sleepyhead’ on the most important morning of the year.  I faked a smile and looked at the gimpy tree. 
Whoa, what’s this?  My red and green stocking was under the tree and something very bulky was sticking out of it.
            Mom set me on the floor.  As I scampered over to check out the sock, my Mom was saying something about the toy being too heavy to hang on the wall, so Santa had put it under the tree.
            I pulled out the unwrapped doll.  Wow, A genuine, authentic, General MacArthur doll.  The hero of the Pacific during World War II, he was dressed in his official Army uniform including hat and with his right arm cocked in a perpetual salute.  It was a terrible war and inflicted horrendous losses on many people.  But everyone including children, had hope and trust in our heroes.
            Many years later with my own children grown and scattered across the country I still have a Christmas tree.  My General MacArthur doll, a little torn and tattered, still has a place of honor under it.
                                                                      The End


Friday, December 14, 2012

22. Specially Made Latkes: Another Hanukkah Miracle

To start off the Holiday Season here's a story about an inept cook making a Hanukkah favorite.

As Karen talked to her mother, her glance at the kitten-themed calendar made her stomach clench.  The days seemed to scream at her.  ‘Hanukkah is coming!  Hanukkah is coming!  And it’s coming fast.’  
            “Oh, Mom, what was I thinking?  I can’t cook.  Why did I volunteer to bring the potato latkes to Aunt Susan’s party?”  She turned her back on the kittens to look out the kitchen window where nothing accused her of inadequacy.
            “Karen, Karen.  Now you listen to me.  It’s not such a big deal, and I can help.  You don’t have to cook it on your own.”  She knew her mother was trying to be reassuring, but it was irritating.
            “Right.  I’m a grown woman who still needs her mother to solve her problems.”  Karen was sinking into self-pity and she didn’t want anyone to throw her a life-saver.
            “If you’re determined to wallow in misery, I’m not going to listen to you.  I’ve got enough to do without spending time on a fruitless task.” 
            Karen tried to put on a happy face.  She smiled grimly having heard that salespeople always smiled when they made phone calls.  “I’m sorry Mom.  I know you’re just trying to be supportive.  Ooops, there goes my doorbell.  I got to go.  I’ll call you tonight, OK?”
            “All right, talk to you later.  Be sure to look thru your peep hole before you open the door.”
            “Yes, yes.  Don’t worry.  I’m always careful.”

No one had rung the doorbell.  Karen just needed to start on the pile of cookbooks she had checked out of the library.  She had tried searching the internet for recipes as she did for any information, but none of them seemed right.  She was going to make credible and special potato latkes without her mother’s help or die stuck to the kitchen floor with grease.  Maybe she shouldn’t have volunteered to be the special latke maker, but she was tired of being the family klutz when it came to cooking.  Everyone laughed at the store bought cookies she brought to every family gathering.
She took a deep breath and opened the first cookbook, “A Cheery Chanukah,” skimming her finger down the index looking for latkes.  She passed an hour looking for a perfect and easy recipe.  She didn’t realize there so many variations to what she thought was a simple dish.  “I guess it’s just like two spellings of the festival—Chanukah or Hanukkah.”
            At last. The recipe from the ‘Happy Jewish Cooker’ seemed to be just what she needed.I  t said latkes could be made a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator until ready to warm up and serve the next day.  She made a careful note of the page so she wouldn’t forget.
            Every time her mother called and asked about the latkes, Karen countered with a question about her Dad’s health.  That always got her mother off the subject.  She didn’t want any advice from her mother about how everything she was doing was wrong.
Aunt Susan’s family Hanukkah party was on Saturday night, the first day of the Festival of Lights.  She always liked to get a head start on everything.
            On Friday, after about her 100th careful check of the recipe, Karen made a list of the ingredients she didn’t have.  At the grocery store she found everything she needed.  She had already checked her cupboards to make sure she had all the necessary bowls, pans and utensils to prepare and cook her special latkes.
Back home, she set out all the necessary ingredients and bowls and pans. She concentrated fiercely on doing everything exactly as the recipe called for.  She almost bit her tongue off when her phone rang.  “Oh, Mom, I’m in the middle of latkes making and I absolutely, positively cannot talk to you now.”  She hung up and turned it off.
She couldn’t believe how easy everything turned out to be.  “I think I must be a born cook.  I should do this more often.”  The latkes were light and fried nice and crispy.  When she taste tested them, she thought the special ingredient she added gave them an extra zip.  It was a gamble but she was sure everyone would love it.  After all, most potato recipes called for it.
 She put each latke between waxed paper and then in a shallow Pyrex casserole dish.  All she needed to do at Aunt Suzie’s was set the oven to the right temp, remove the waxed paper, slide the glass casserole in for the specified warm up time, and Voila!  Compliments to the Chef. 

Karen stood back proudly as everyone exclaimed over how beautiful and delicious the latkes looked.  She just ignored the insulting comments her younger cousins made. 
One asked, “Are you going to poison the whole family to get everyone’s inheritance?”
            “Ha, Ha.” She felt so self-confident, insults rolled off her back.
            As everyone sat down with their filled plates from Suzie’s beautifully decorated sideboard, the young kids started in, “Wow, these are the best latkes I’ve ever eaten.”
            The adults smiled warily.  Her mother bit into one and couldn’t stop herself.
            “Karen, there’s alcohol in these latkes!”
“No there isn’t,” Karen argued.  "I followed the recipe exactly.”  She crossed her fingers behind her back as she said that.
 Uncle George laughed and said, “Your Mom’s right.  But they sure are tasty.”
            Aunt Suzie said, “I thought they smelled a little different but I didn’t want to criticize Karen’s first attempt.”
            “But these aren’t different,” Karen maintained. “The only change I made was in the milk.  I had some special cream a friend gave me as a present.  Most potato recipes contain milk, so I thought it would make the latkes more delicious and special if I used a richer cream than everyday milk.”
            Uncle George reassured her, “Honey, everything’s fine.  But do you remember the name of the special cream you used?”
“It was Bailey’s Irish Cream.  Can’t you use Irish cream in a Jewish recipe?”
                                                          The End