Category Archives: holidays

Halloween? Bah, Humbug!

I hate Halloween.

Mind you, I have no problem with the pagan event (Samhain) overtaking the religious one (the eve of All Saints Day).

I have no problem with skeleton cookies and other trappings of Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos).

I have no problem with children dressing up as witches, vampires, devils, or anything else they want to be, whether it smacks of evil or not. (I do hate the “sexy” trend in adult costumes. Sexy crayon. Sexy Mr. Rogers. (No, really.) Whoever thinks these up has too much time on their hands and too much weird on their brains.)

What I hate is the trick-or-treating. (It should really be called treat-or-vandalism.)

When I was doing the trick-or-treating, it was different, of course. There were still difficulties. I wear glasses, and back in the days of plastic dime-store masks, my choices were to wear the glasses but have the mask slip around and make me functionally blind or to wear the mask without glasses and be functionally blind.

Later on, I put together my own costumes out of old clothing and other things around the house. That was fun, though occasionally baffling. I think most people guessed “gypsy” from the bandana and necklace of gold coins, but what they made of the pink flowered dress and tan plush toy snake I just don’t know. Even I don’t remember what that was supposed to be. (The g*psy outfit came long before we all learned about cultural appropriation and ethnic slurs. But I digress.)

Around that time, the first round of tainted candy scares went through, when children took their goodie bags to the ER to be x-rayed for razor blades and had to throw out apples, Rice Krispie treats, and homemade fudge. That took a certain something out of the playfulness. Halloween parties became a trend, where treats could be supervised and stupid party games involving cold spaghetti and peeled grapes could be played. I think those parties have now taken over from door-to-door begging.

My mother loved the trick-or-treating. She would ooh and aah over the cute little kids and their costumes. What she didn’t like were the teenage boys who went around with pillowcases and didn’t even bother to dress as anything. They didn’t even smear on charcoal beards and pretend to be hobos. (Mom always kept a special bowl of last year’s left-over bubblegum just for them. It was unpleasant, but not actually poisonous.)

I think I started hating trick-or-treating when my Mom got older and couldn’t pop up and down to answer the door, so I had to do the popping and dispensing of candy and old bubblegum and describing of the costumes. But I did it for her.

Later, when I was on my own, I lived in upstairs apartments and other locales that didn’t see a lot of costumed traffic, so I had time to think it over and discover how much I disliked the custom.

Over the years, I’ve grown more and more antisocial, nearly to the point of waving my cane at youngsters and calling them “whippersnappers.” We live in a cul-de-sac at the very back of the neighborhood, so we don’t get many visitors anyway. My husband always buys too much candy and we eat our favorites both before and after the fact. (I have to remind him not to get Butterfingers. I hate Butterfingers.)

Actually, buying too much candy is a defense mechanism for him. One year we didn’t have enough, and he didn’t even have enough loose change for everyone. As the kids were departing in sorrow, he yelled out the door in desperation, “Does anyone want some Coke?” He meant the soft drink, but the shocked look on their faces was priceless.

Now I simply refuse to participate, curmudgeon that I am. I stay in the back of the house and turn off the porchlight, the universal signal for “Don’t stop here. Keep moving.” (Though I don’t know why we bother with porchlights, as trick-or-treating is now always done during daylight hours to cut down on car accidents and candy-muggings.)

These days I’m the one with knees that don’t like popping up and down or creaking up and down, really. I get depressed when I see how many little girls have bought into the pink princess-y thing. Opening the door makes me tense, as we have a cat who is a door-darter. Every other year my husband says, “I did it last year; now it’s your turn.” Sorry, not falling for that one. If you like it, fine. If you don’t do it, I’ll just read a nice zombie novel like Feed to mark the occasion.

This year there is a slightly encouraging lately – having a teal-colored pumpkin outside your door if you will be giving out non-food treats, such as small toys, colored pencils, glow sticks, and the like. It will cut down on food-allergy-related deaths, but it will also result in a lot of stomped-on teal pumpkins. The older kids already have made a sport of stomping pumpkins and running. Imagine their annoyance at receiving a pinwheel or a Koosh ball.

The start of the pumpkin-stomping craze was when I stopped decorating too. You can save Christmas ornaments from year to year, but last year’s pumpkins are just sad. I suppose I could find some nice cobwebs in the basement, but getting them intact to the windows upstairs would be difficult.

Honestly, I could just skip Halloween and be perfectly happy. In fact, I do and I am. Call me a spoil-sport or a party-pooper if you will, but spoiling sports and pooping parties are how I celebrate.

 

 

Holiday Mash-Up

Quick quiz: What do Jesus and the poop emoji have in common? They both are associated with Easter, silly!

Don’t believe me? Just go to the Easter display in your local store. There you can find cross-shaped tins of candy with the saying “Jesus Saves” and the offer “Jesus Jelly Bean Prayer Inside.” Then there’s the ever-so-seasonal pastel plastic poop emoji that, well, poops candy. (It also has whimsical bunny ears. As you can see.)

Now I don’t mind the mash-up of Christian Easter with its pagan roots. That practice has been around long enough to make it into a tradition. The pagan symbols of Easter are relatively easily adapted from their earlier symbolism of fertility and renewal to their Christian identification with resurrection. New life, and all of that. Eggs. Lambs. Chicks. Even bunnies, that most suggestive of symbols for burgeoning life.

But lately, there’s something … odd about the merchandise that’s offered for consumption on Easter. It’s not just that the pagan roots are showing. It’s more like Easter is getting confused with Christmas. Or maybe Halloween. Easter is getting to be yet another occasion for retailers to make a buck in the name of wretched excess. 

Look at the Easter displays in your local supermarket or department store. You’ll find baskets, all right, but many of them look more like trick-or-treat pails than things a seasonal rabbit would deliver. Now you can find them shaped like a Troll head or Mickey Mouse, and adorned with Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman, Despicable Me Minions, Spiderman, and other characters more often associated with Halloween costumes. There are even felt “baskets” adorned with pictures of dinosaurs and volcanos.

(Dinosaurs have theological implications, of course, as reminders of evolution. When pressed, some Christians will claim that dinosaur bones were put into rocks by Satan, to test the belief of the faithful. But I digress.)

Obviously, these assorted characters are meant to appeal to media-obsessed kids, and so are the trinkets the Easter baskets are loaded with. Barbies. Water guns. Chocolate soccer eggs. Posters and stickers and PJ Masks toys. Any gimcrack fancy that can pull in a few bucks, whether or not it’s related to Jesus or Oestre.

When did superhero, sports, and other fashionable toys become symbols of Easter? Back in the day, we got plush rabbits. Of course, we also had a limited choice of sweets – jelly beans, gum drops, and chocolate bunnies (which occasioned the eternal question of whether to bite off the ears or the tail first). Christmas candy consisted largely of candy canes and “books” of Life-Savers. Halloween candy was much more varied. 

Halloween has already surrendered its place as a Christian celebration (the eve of All Saints’ Day) to being a childhood ritual of door-to-door sugar-laden extortion. Sugar skulls for Día de Los Muertos may be gaining on fun-size Snickers.

Now both the commercialism of Christmas and the pop culture iconography of Halloween have made their way into children’s Easter baskets. The hell of it (sorry not sorry) is that it’s most likely too late to turn back now.

Mash-ups of Christian and pagan holidays are par for the course. We get the Druidic Christmas trees and the Coke-ified Santa (originally a Christian Saint Nicholas) and the exchange of gifts on Saturnalia melded with of the celebration of a quiet birth.

I’m not saying that cultural mash-ups aren’t fun or happy or festive. I’m just saying it’s all gotten a little out of hand. We now have the ubiquitous image of Santa kneeling at the manger. How long until we have Mickey Mouse rolling away the stone?

 

New Year’s: A Kiss, a Clink, and a Shaky Wallet

There are plenty of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day customs out there. A lot of the traditions don’t work for us. Over the years, we’ve kept a few but mostly arrived at our own.

One superstition says not to let anything leave the house on New Year’s Day, except for people. Evidently, this means one should take one’s garbage out on New Year’s Eve.  Now, I don’t know about you, but we can’t leave our trash just sitting out. We live in a wooded area and the possums and raccoons are more than capable of ripping open the bags and festively decorating the cul-de-sac with the contents. On the other hand, there’s also a superstition about avoiding paying bills on the holiday, which would be much easier and more pleasant for us to carry out but would mightily piss off our mortgage company.

And forget football and parades. We spend the entire football season as well as the parade season avoiding them religiously. I don’t really mind the giant balloons and the floats made of flowers, but if I hear one more pop song played on tubas, my head will explode. Forget Polar Bear Plunges too. All my Christmas gifts this year were things designed to keep every part of my body warm.

As far as celebrating New Year’s Eve goes, one of our celebrations has been to have a celebration at all. When my friends and I were all 18, my family invited one particularly close friend over to spend the evening with us for pink champagne, snacks, music, and general frivolity. She enjoyed herself so much that she gave up her previous New Year’s Eve ritual, which was babysitting for more fun-loving couples.

The same friend also gave us another memorable New Year’s Eve when she acquired a boyfriend. None of us had ever met him and we didn’t know how serious it was. Midnight at the party was an exercise in yoga. My husband and I had to kiss and clink our glasses at midnight while craning our necks trying to locate the new couple in the crowd and peek to see if they shared a kiss and if so, what kind. (Happy ending alert: After a few years they married.)

Another of our friends liked to share her own personal tradition with us. A small group gathered at her house to polish off her leftover Christmas cookies. Then we adjourned to her porch at midnight, where we serenaded the neighborhood with “Oh, Danny Boy.” I never did figure out what she had against “Auld Lang Syne.” Most likely, neither did the neighbors.

In the years that have gone by, my New Year’s Eves have gotten less and less festive. I just can’t stay awake that long. And my husband works third shift, so he’s not home at midnight. I generally sit at home, New Year’s Eve Grinch-like (or whatever the equivalent is), drinking champagne by myself and clinking the bottle with my glass, maybe listening to a little music, and going to bed at nine or ten. If that sounds pathetic, maybe it is. But it’s my tradition and I’m sticking to it.

My husband’s family has a New Year’s Eve tradition that to my knowledge he’s never missed. Every year he calls his mother at midnight (after sneaking away to the break room) and the two of them shake their wallets (or purses). This is meant to ensure prosperity in the coming year. Spoiler alert: It has never been known to work. Yet they persist. Since I don’t generally take my purse to bed with me, I miss out on the shake-your-money-maker fun.

The next day Dan insists we have pork and cabbage, but I participate only if there’s cole slaw involved.

I loathe even the smell of sauerkraut. I don’t care how traditional it is.

 

Off-Duty Santa

My husband looks a lot like Jerry Garcia, at least in his “Touch of Grey” phase. Someone once said that if he were darker, he would look like Frederick Douglass. But most of the time, he gets mistaken for Santa Claus – even if it’s summer and he’s wearing his tie-dye shirt. Kids these days don’t know from Jerry Garcia.

Even without the red suit, Dan is perfectly Claus-esque. He has the white hair and beard, the red cheeks, the girth. I won’t compare it to a bowl of jelly, but it would shake when he laughs if he weren’t holding in his stomach.

Children recognize him everywhere he goes and react accordingly. Just yesterday we were sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and were facing the glass-paneled door to the hallway. Suddenly a little boy’s face with saucer-sized eyes appeared in one of the panes. He darted away and came back with his older brother. While they were staring and ducking, a younger sister appeared. Brave and uninhibited, she waved and blew kisses and tried to work the latch that opened the door. She banged on the glass panel and waved for all she was worth, while her brothers were content to play peek-and-hide. Everyone in the waiting room was enchanted, including us.

However, with great power comes great responsibility and Dan always uses his Santa powers for good. Once at a highway rest stop, he saw – and heard – a toddler screaming incessantly at the top of his small but surprisingly energetic lungs. He walked over to the child and said, “If you don’t calm down, I’ll have to put you on the naughty list.” The screaming stopped immediately and the mother silently mouthed “Thank you.” A job well done.

Although when it first happened Dan was annoyed, he has since become used to and often enjoys his year-round Christmas magic. Upon meeting two young boys in a restaurant (their mother asked permission first) the kids came up to him to verify that he was, indeed, Mr. Claus, who was apparently slumming at a diner during his off hours.

The boys asserted that they had been very good all year. Dan turned a stern if twinkling eye on them. “You could be a bit nicer to your little brother,” he told the elder. “And you could try a little harder in school,” he advised the younger. “We will, Santa! We will,” they promised. “Okay,” he said. “Now both of you do what your mother says!” as he strolled out of sight.

Being a random Santa actually suits Dan better than being a professional Santa. I understand that the gig pays well, but you can’t get one at a large store or mall without the proper credentials. Those red velvet suits are expensive. And so is professional Santa school, if you can find one in your area. Besides, all the fun might be taken out of it if it were a regular though seasonal job. There would be tragic kids – bring my father back, make my mother well. Dan’s an old softie, but there isn’t much to say to that. And there’d still be the everyday difficulties of dealing with terrified children, peeing children, and children who ask for a Lamborghini. A real one, not a model.

Besides, I’d make a terrible Mrs. Claus. I look ghastly in red.

 

The Grinch-Hating Grinch

Don’t get me wrong. I love Dr. Seuss. But I think the latest adaptation of the Grinch makes two too many.

I used to check out his works from the Bookmobile until my mother insisted that I get at least one book by another author at every visit. Although my all-time favorite was Green Eggs and Ham, I had a soft spot in my heart for How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

I was young enough to be thrilled when the book was made into a cartoon that was shown every Christmas from 1966 on. Who could possibly be better than Boris Karloff to narrate and voice the Grinch? And the uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft to sing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (Trivia note: You may know Ravenscroft as the voice of Tony the Tiger in all those cereal commercials.) It was perfect just the way it was.

Since then there have been two other versions, both big-screen adaptations, a live-action version in 2000 starring Jim Carrey, and the other this year, a CGI animated movie with the main character voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. I have not been to see either one and have no intention of seeing them when they are shown on TV. I am a total Grinch about any version except the real Grinch.

There were difficulties in making the 1966 version. The original Grinch was a poem of only 32 lines. To make it into a cartoon that would run 30 minutes (or however long it was without commercials) required some creative stretches. The Ravenscroft song was added, of course, plus a lot of comic bits featuring the dog Max, the Whos singing around the tree, and extended visualizations of the Grinch preparing his Santa suit and maneuvering down Mt. Crumpet. They all fit neatly into the narrative. Not one moment seemed out of place.

The Jim Carrey live-action version ran 105 minutes and Benedict Cumberbatch’s, 86 minutes. No matter how clever their additions to the basic plot, they could only serve to clutter Seuss’s simple plot and spot-on characterizations. At over an hour each, that’s a lot of stretching.

That’s the problem with remakes or reboots or reloads or whatever they want to call them. They almost never live up to the original. Bedazzled, for example, was a perfect little gem starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I didn’t mind the gender-swapping of having Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil (with Brendan Fraser as her hapless foil), but the broader style of humor, including throwing away one of the best gags in the original, was in no way better.

There are other examples. Think of The Thomas Crown Affair, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or any of the Inspector Clouseau movies. None of those were necessary. The movies were just fine the way they were. (The only really good update – and it was an adaptation, not a straight remake – was when the ultra-serious Zero Hour was morphed into the uber-comic classic Airplane!)

I do understand the motivations behind these remakes, primarily money. Proven classics should be proven box office hits the second or third or fourth time around, and the producers, directors, and writers don’t even have to think up new plots and characters.

Then there’s the excuse of “introducing a new generation of young people to a classic film using stars they’re familiar with.” Jimmy Stewart and Gene Tierney stand the test of time and so do many others. It’s too bad that most people only see their work if they take a film class in college.

At any rate, I boycotted the Jim Carrey Grinch and will do the same for Benedict Cumberbatch’s. If that makes me a Grinch, so be it. I realize that my singular protest will affect them and their box office prospects not in the slightest. I shall do it anyway.

For the memory of Dr. Seuss, if nothing else.

Is Today a Pants Day?

Believe it or not, there is a holiday on which people walk around with no pants. (This year it’s celebrated on May 4 – the first Friday in May.) There are no official rules, other than not wearing pants and pretending that nothing is out of the ordinary. For the shy men, skirts or kilts may be worn. The traditional way to celebrate No-Pants Day is to ride the subway, but we don’t have one around here, so the idea hasn’t really caught on.

(It is a day, I suppose, to work out those dreams you have when you show up at work with no pants on. My problem is that I dream about showing up naked AND NO ONE NOTICES.)

Having a day to celebrate no pants is all well and wonderful. But what about people who wear no pants year-round? People like me.

As a freelance writer and editor, whose only commute is from upstairs to downstairs, I don’t really have to worry about pants. Other writers I know like to wear pants (or skirts) because it gives them a feeling of being at work officially, even if they’re doing that work in the privacy of their own home.

Not me. I relish the freedom of being a work-from-home person and I almost never wear pants while I work. Oh, in the winter I break out the Sheldon-esque plaid flannel jammies and work wearing those. But when the weather is warmer, I settle for a nightshirt or a t-shirt, sans pants.

Really, I could work in even less, except my study is on the ground floor and there’s a window. There’s a shrub in front of it, but still, I find it best not to encourage the neighbor boys.

I find nightshirts soothing and relaxing and completely conducive to work. They also make it easier for me to take naps in the middle of the day, which is one of the other perks of being a freelancer.

But there’s another aspect of the pants vs. no pants dilemma to be considered. A friend of mine and I refer to days when we actually have the energy to go outside and run errands or be social as “pants days,” because we have to put on pants to do so. He’s a writer too and has as much right to work in his bathrobe as I do.

Plus, both of us are given to spells of depression when we can scarcely get out of bed, much less out-of-doors. So we report, “I’ve had three pants days this week” or “I finally had a pants day yesterday,” and congratulate ourselves and each other for having the stamina to insert legs and zip.

I suppose I could wear a skirt or a dress and call it a pants day, but if I do go out, I almost always wear jeans – unless I’m going to a job interview or a meeting with the IRS. I’d be much more relaxed in pajama pants, but there you are. Society has dumb rules. And please don’t tell me that there are things called pajama jeans. That’s cheating.

And by the way, in case you wondered, for me, no-pants days are also no-bra days – but that’s a subject for another time. (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-c8)

 

 

The Not-So-Traditional Cookie Challenge

Make three different cookies – a dozen of each – inspired by your family holiday memories and traditions.

That was the assignment on a recent holiday baking show I watched.

It occurred to me that I would have failed miserably. It’s not that I can’t bake, or that I can’t bake cookies. I just have no family memories or traditions associated with cookies.

My family never baked at the holidays. Occasionally we’d get a tin or box of assorted cookies – chocolate and plain shortbreads, butter cookies, and so forth – that we kids called “kind-a-wanna cookies” because we could each choose the kind we wanted.

My mother’s baking exploits centered around box cake mixes, lemon meringue pies for my father (his favorite dessert), and slice-n-bake chocolate chip cookies. (I notice that now the company that makes these believes even slicing to be too much to task the modern baker with.)

I did have one holiday cookie-baking ritual in my teens, however. I would go over to my friend Peggy’s house and we would make either chocolate chip cookies (from scratch, no slicing involved) or sugar cookies.

The chocolate chip cookies were ones we had learned how to bake in home ec class and Peggy still had the original recipe on the original 3″ x 5″ index card. (I know she recopied the card when it became old and ragged, and I think she may have laminated it.) Actually, Peggy did the baking. I helped with the math (2/3 cup butter times 2 is 4/3 cup is 1-1/3 cups) and ate some of the raw cookie dough, this being back in the days before that was dangerous or if it was, we didn’t know it.

Our other holiday cookie tradition was Christmas sugar cookies. Again, these were from scratch and my assignment was to sprinkle the cut-out Santas and bells and stars with red and green sugar sprinkles. We’d listen to the radio (but not Christmas carols) and tuck the cookies lovingly away in colorful tin boxes with layers of wax paper. After eating just a couple ourselves, of course.

So, were I to be magically transported to a holiday baking contest, what could I make? Chocolate chip and sugar cookies, of course. Though I’d have to think up trendy flavors like bourbon-guava-cinnamon-chip cookies and sugar cookies adorned with fondant and gum paste and decorative isomalt shards.

But what would my third cookie be?

As a young adult, I had a recipe for a spice cake with raisins that I adored. Back in the day my friends and I were always broke, so I made small loaf pans of spice cake and my husband made miniature banana cakes from his Grammy’s recipe. So I suppose I  might have to fudge a little and make banana-spice cookies with raisins. (Fudge! Now there’s an idea!) Not a childhood memory, but sort of a family tradition, of a new family just starting out anyway.

I suppose I could make some kind of peanut butter cookie. That was one my mother did make from scratch, and I loved pressing the fork into the dough to make the criss-cross on top. (I suppose today we would call them “hashtag cookies.”) They’re not very “holiday,” but at least they represent a family memory.

Or, if I was a really accomplished baker, I could invent some kind of lemon-bar cookie with a toasted meringue on top, in honor of my father’s favorite, but non-holiday, pie. My mother would slip the pie into the oven to brown the meringue, but nowadays I see people using blowtorches. I still think of blowtorches as things that belong in the garage, though, not the kitchen.

No, this year I’ll do the same as ever. I don’t have children and Peggy’s son is now grown, but when she comes to town for the holidays, I fully expect we’ll both make time in our schedules for a cookie-baking fest. Chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles. They won’t win any competitions, but I can honestly say they are holiday traditions.

 

 

Getaway: Creepy to Castle to Country

“How far away is Massachusetts?”

“About 12 hours, maybe more.” My husband has less than a keen grasp on geography. Also, he asks questions out of order. When he asks me about Massachusetts, I know there’s a question behind the question.

“How would you like to sleep in Lizzie Borden’s house?” Ah, the real question. Dan had read that the Borden residence was now a bed and breakfast and he was pretty sure I’d be interested. After all, he’s met me. When we went to London I insisted on taking the Jack the Ripper Walk, the one led by Donald Rumbelow, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper, so I could get him to autograph my copy.

I’m not saying that I would want to do the Assassination Vacation thing like Sarah Vowell, but true crime interests me and we had been talking about a long weekend getaway.

But there was a problem. Two, actually. Apart from the fact that Massachusetts was too far to drive for a three-day weekend, there was the ambience of the Borden b-n-b, as I learned online. Far from true crime, it was being billed as paranormal. Psychic readings. Ghost cams. All that ooga-booga shit I have no use for. I was glad to abandon the idea and search for less hokey, and closer, accommodations.

The next thing Dan suggested was a castle. I had told him about the wonderful castle tours in Ireland, and he thought he remembered that there were castles – or at least replica castle hotels – within our state. So back to the Internet I went.

There are indeed castles in Ohio. None authentic, as we’ve never had an Earl of Chillicothe or Baron of Akron, but several nonetheless. Some sounded very interesting, with little, attached taverns or pubs or assorted square and round towers. The problem here was that they were out of our price range. We could afford one night. Driving somewhere, spending one night, and driving back isn’t my idea of relaxation, unless we have an interesting relative within driving distance, which we mostly don’t.

(We’re keeping some of the non-hotel castles in mind as day trips. A tour and a meal sound like a fine one-day getaway.)

By chance, the next day I got an email from a travel discounting service (all right, it was TravelZoo), advertising a 60% off rate on a stay at a working farm in Kentucky. Not an old farm, but one built in the 90s, recent enough to have Jacuzzis in some rooms and Wifi throughout.

If that sounds a lot like glamping, well it is. But the place also offers opportunities to milk cows or goats; gather eggs for breakfast; learn canning, gardening, and other farm-type activities, plus take tours of a thoroughbred horse park or bourbon distilleries and vinyards.

Two discounted nights at the farm were only a few dollars more than one night in a castle, and only three hours or so away. And it seemed a pleasant combination of rest and recreation. I emailed, got a speedy answer to my question, and booked right away, in the middle of the night, from my tablet. Now we have a voucher and just have to pick a date, perhaps around our anniversary.

There’s no crime connection, and no pseudo-castle, but there is fresh air in different surroundings, plus activities that will take me back to my childhood stays at Uncle Sam’s farm. (Yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam. I also had an actual Aunt Jemima. Yes, I know it’s funny.)

In one day our travel plans had ricocheted from creepy to medieval to rustic. We’re flexible like that.

 

 

The Great Thanksgiving Ratatouille

One Thanksgiving, the thing I was most grateful for was my husband’s only friend. John became Dan’s only friend when Dan was on his way to ultimate burn-out at work. John was there to listen, which he did exceedingly well. He was my friend as well because we shared similar tastes in books and music.

John was a welcome addition to our small family holiday gatherings. Often the guest list was me, my mother, Dan, and John. All of us lacked other family in the area, so we’d gather at my mother’s and order in Mr. Kroger’s holiday fixin’s.

Occasionally, one of us would cook. That year I felt ambitious. Not Martha-Stewart-huge-turkey ambitious, but I thought I could manage a one-pot meal – ratatouille. I was in the habit of preparing non-traditional holiday meals because they annoyed my sister, who was old-school in her thinking: Thanksgiving and Christmas must feature turkey, Easter is for ham, Fourth of July is for hamburgers and hot dogs, and Earth Day is for, I don’t know, mud pies? She wasn’t present that year, but it’s the principle of the thing.

So I chopped eggplant and onions and zucchini and yellow squash and mushrooms and tomatoes and put them in a large pot, along with stock and garlic and assorted herbs and spices, and left it to simmer until all the ingredients got acquainted and agreed to play nicely together. Because John was a committed carnivore, I added some kielbasa as well. I like to think the kielbasa would have added a level of outrage had my sister been there, but really, the ratatouille would have been enough to set her off.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so my Mom and John and I gathered in the living room for chat and shrimp cocktail. So far, so good.

Eventually we moved into the kitchen and I dished up heaping bowls of fragrant, chunky ratatouille. I watched in anticipation as John dipped his spoon in and lifted it to his lips.

He swallowed. Then he raised his hands to his throat and started making hacking noises.

Now, most cooks would be alarmed by this sort of thing. And I was.

I rushed around the table and attempted the Heimlich Maneuver, but discovered my arms were too short to Maneuver properly. “Do you want us to call an ambulance?” I asked.

“Yes,” John croaked. (This actually calmed me an infinitesimal fraction. A person who can talk under those circumstances is not going to die right then.)

Shortly a fire truck, an ambulance, and two police cars pulled up in front of the house. It must have been a slow Thanksgiving. Emergency personnel trooped in as each vehicle arrived, decided that John was unlikely to die in the next few minutes, and turned their attention to the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

“Wow! That smells good! What is it?” each asked.

“Ratatouille,” I would reply.

“What’s that?”

“A Mediterranean vegetable stew made with eggplant.”

“Maybe he’s choking on a bone.”

“An eggplant doesn’t have bones,” I would explain. This entire conversation was repeated, verbatim, each time another would-be rescuer walked in.

John was hauled off to the emergency room and I followed. Medical-type events ensued. John was asked to cough, substances were sprayed into his throat, and an x-ray was taken. It took a while.

It took so long that our friends, the ambulance people, brought in another patient, saw us in our little cubicle, and said in amazement, “You’re still here?”

At this point I gave up and went to the hospital cafeteria for a festive Thanksgiving cheeseburger, and thought about my sister while I ate it. When I returned, John was still waiting patiently (no pun intended).

Finally, a truly clever doctor arrived and looked down John’s throat with a scope. “There’s something lying on top of his vocal cords,” he reported. “It looks like … some kind of leaf.”

Instantly I knew what had happened. “It’s the fucking bay leaf,” I said. John had swallowed it with his first spoonful of ratatouille, and it had lodged in his windpipe. The doctor asked John to cough really hard, and the bay leaf came flying out. It was the first time the doctor had ever encountered a bay-leaf-related emergency, he told us. It was our first, too.

We went back to my mother’s house, fed John some ice cream for his poor, abused throat, and he left to go home and lie down. As the door closed behind him, my mother turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s going to sue us.”

Forever after, the dish was known as my killer ratatouille recipe. Not many people ask for it, for some reason.

This year, I’ll use a bouquet garni! Then I can be thankful that everyone will live through Thanksgiving dinner.

___

This is a revision of a post from a couple of years ago, but I thought it was worth resurrecting.

 

 

The Obligatory Mothers Day Post

Mother’s Day is fine if you have either a mother or children. Otherwise, it’s difficult, confusing, and even annoying. And for some people, worse than that.

Let’s think about this.

Grunge vintage floral backgroundChildless women

According to U.S. Census data, less than half of women are mothers. Yet childless women are ignored on Mothers Day. For childless-by-choice women, this is usually okay, except for reminding them that they are not participating in what society tells us is the greatest experience in life. And on Mothers Day, all women are assumed to have children. Try eating out and see if you aren’t handed a flower just because you are of an age to reproduce (or have ever been at an age when you could have reproduced), whether or not you have children in tow.

But for women who are childless – and not by choice – Mothers Day can be a day of profound sorrow. Infertile women; women who’ve had miscarriages or even some who’ve had abortions; women without partners who believe a child needs a father; women whose children have died from disease, violence, or suicide can find Mothers Day an occasion for mourning rather than cheer.

 

Mandatory Cheer

And let’s talk about how society requires that people be joyous and appreciative on Mothers Day.

First, we know that much hoopla regarding Mothers Day is promoted by the greeting card, florist, jewelry, perfume, beauty products, restaurant and any other industry that can think of a way to get you to buy something “for Mom.” Churches, civic groups, and other organizations are on the bandwagon too. Mothers Day sermons, “Best Mom” contests, and modeling dough handprints abound.

In the midst of all this glowing praise, we seem to forget that not all mothers are good mothers and not all children are good children. Who would want to be reminded that Mom was abusive? That a hoped-for child is a drug addict? That the relationship between mother and child is irretrievably broken for any reason?

 

The Deserving Others

And whom else do we leave out on Mothers Day?

How about single fathers?

How about people whose mothers have recently died?

Do we forget about adoptive parents in the flurry of sentiment over giving birth?

Do we neglect foster parents, too?

And aren’t there teachers and counselors and other caregivers who give as much love and promote a child’s healthy growth by being a mother-figure – sometimes a child’s only one?

In our zeal to celebrate motherhood, do we forget that there are many kinds of families, and that families of the heart are as important as families that share DNA?

And what about mothers-in-law? I had a wonderful mother, whose memories I treasure and whose passing I grieve. She was kind, and giving, and determined to do the best for her family. But now I have a mother-in-law who is devoted, and generous, and someone I can proudly cal “Mom.” Isn’t she worthy of honor and celebration, too?

So what’s the take-away for me? That I have deeply mixed feelings about the holiday and how it’s celebrated? Yes. That I have had good mothers and mother-figures? Yes. That I know not everyone’s experiences of motherhood and raising children are ideal? Yes. That I think society puts too much pressure on women to be mothers? Yes. That I deplore the commercialism and no-thought gifts that get so much emphasis placed on them? Yes.

Am I a mother? No.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to opinions on the subject.