IN MY OPINION
Books Read in 2007
16 November 2007
The writers' group meeting yesterday got me thinking about my own personal history. At some point I may go through the nearly 2800 entries I have written here in the past six-plus years and start gathering the ones that deal with my growing-up memories, just to have a sort of autobiography.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I'm thinking back over the holidays of my childhood. The past few years around here, ever since our children left home and began their own lives, have been rather ... "fluid," with the dates changed (Christmas not always on December 25, Thanksgiving not always on Thanksgiving Day), the location changed and (unless I am cooking), even the foods changed.
It was not like that when I was growing up. My mother and my grandmother divided up holiday dinners. My mother did Thanksgiving and Christmas, my grandmother did Easter and Mother's Day (funny...I'm sure we probably did a Father's Day dinner, but I don't remember any). We never, ever saw my mother's family over the holidays (except for the year when my aunt and grandmother lived next door to us). The core group was my mother, my father, my sister, myself, my father's parents and my godfather (who was also my grandfather's brother).
Occasionally guests were there. The only thing I can remember about my godmother, who was probably part of the group more than once, was her sitting ramrod straight, in a blue knit dress with her snow white hair. I don't know why I remember that so vividly, but I do. I really loved that lady, but she died of cancer when I was 10.
Christmas and Thanksgiving were pretty much the same, except that one came with presents. We always dressed in our Sunday best, even though dinner was at our house.
My godfather, Fred West, had once been a champion bicycle racer, but when I was born was a door-to-door Electrolux vacuum cleaner sales man who lived alone in a boarding house in San Rafael. He had been married briefly long before I was born, but his wife left him and, as a devout Catholic, he never considered marrying again because in the eyes of the church he was still married. He would arrive around 4 p.m. in the afternoon, with a 2 pound box of See's candy under his arm, which we would pass around after we had finished dessert. I learned from my grandmother how to tell what was inside one of the candies from looking at the design on the top.
My grandparents never had a car, so my father would pick them up. The older my grandfather got, the more impatient my father would get with his slowness trying to manipulate the hill where our flat was located. As he walked through the door, my grandfather would hand Karen and me each a quarter and say, "tell me all about yourself." That was pretty much the extent of our conversation throughout the evening. It wasn't that he was an unapproachable man (as I found my mother's father to be), but he was a classic henpecked husband, overwhelmed by his loquacious wife and just never seemed to have anything to say, or know how to connect with children. There came a time when the quarters stopped. For some reason, my grandfather became angry because he thought that's all Karen and I wanted him for, his money.
We would all go into the living room and sit down while my father fixed drinks in the kitchen and my mother got hors d'oeuvres ready. When I was in high school, I was allowed to have a weak high ball (bourbon and lots of ginger ale) or a glass of champagne, if we were having champagne. But bourbon was the usual drink that was served, I recall.
My godfather generally told the same stories every time, or at least it seemed like it. I have previously told his story about bypassing underlings in retail establishments and dealing with the big wigs instead. It is something that has served me well throughout my life!
My grandmother arrived talking. It's funny, but the thing I remember most about her was that she talked incessantly--and yet I can't remember anything she had to say! All I remember was that, during the course of the evening, before dinner was served, my mother, father, sister and I would gradually wander out into the kitchen on some pretense of helping to get dinner on the table. It was our one moment of togetherness, as we laughed, sighed, rolled our eyes, and made fun of my grandmother. We just had to get away from that voice. I remember my mother laughing and saying that someone had to go back in the living room, and that we were all being impolite.
Eventually someone would go back into the living room until they couldn't take it any more and then return to the kitchen for a break from that voice.
Isn't it strange that I can't remember anything that she talked about, except that she was always full of gossip. I don't remember ever discussing controversial subjects like politics, though perhaps we did.
My poor grandmother was born fabulously wealthy. Well, she never actually had money, but she felt she was born to be fabulously wealthy. She surrounded herself with wealthy friends and it was her biggest disappointment that nobody ever died and left her a fortune. But because she felt that she was born to be wealthy, she always seemed to act as if she was better than most people, especially my grandfather and his brothers.
When dinner was announced my grandmother would always get angry because while everyone else would gather around the dining room table (the same table that sits in my living room now) my grandfather always went to the bathroom when dinner was announced and we had to wait for him before we could sit down.
My mother always set a beautiful table -- still does, with her good china and crystal, silverware that she or Karen or myself, had polished the day before the dinner. We had thick pads on the table covered by a table cloth, candles, and usually a centerpiece. She always seemed to find little touches that made the table special. I loved those formal dinners...well, except for Nannie's continuing to dominate the conversation.
Whether Thanksgiving or Christmas, dinner was turkey with my mother's special stuffing, mashed potatoes, and whatever vegetable she felt like cooking. Salads changed from year to year, whether a green salad, or a Waldorf salad, or a shrimp salad. One year she made some sort of a cranberry - nut - jello salad. I came down with the stomach flu after Christmas that year and to this day, I can't eat that salad because I remember when I got sick after eating it.
In our family -- Walt's and mine -- we had a set routine for our holidays too, but in recent years things have become much more arbitrary. I am assuming that next year, with the birth of Baby Sykes things may change even more. I remember that I took over doing Christmas dinners the year after Ned was born when we felt it was more important for the kids to be in their own home on Christmas than traveling to Grandma's house (there also stopped being enough room in the car to carry two children and all their gifts too!)
The bottom line, though, is that holidays are about family -- whether it's family love or family that makes you roll your eyes and escape. I've been fortunate that holidays I have never dreaded holidays because of tensions that I felt would arise. I love getting together with everybody, and I look forward to Thanksgiving next week at my mother's. I know the table will look fabulous.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
My grandparents, my sister, and my aunt Jean
This is entry #2788