The house smelled of turkey in
the oven and cider mulling. The kitchen was warm. I had
medieval Christmas music on the CD player, even though the kids
didn’t like it. The crumhorns and hurdy-gurdy, the strange soul
of the ancient music, made them uneasy. They liked Home on
the Range, A Cowboy Christmas and Elvis’ If Every
Day Was Like Christmas more, maybe because those were easier
to make fun of.
But the kids weren’t home at
the moment. Rupert, at thirteen my oldest, was at his best
friend’s house, playing some tournament video game that lasted
two or three days with pauses to re-energize with junk food and
sugar sodas. They’d been playing it since they got out of
school for Christmas break. Twelve-year-old Liz was doing some
last-minute shopping— she had borrowed twenty dollars from me.
I figured she had finally realized she needed presents for her
parents. Carrie, the little one at eight, was next door with
her best friend, probably driving my neighbor Moira crazy.
Everybody, including my husband
Jim, my sister Anna, her husband, and her terrifying
nine-year-old twin boys, would be home by five if the Lord was
willing and the creek didn’t rise, and they would be expecting
Christmas Eve perfection.
I wiped sweat from my face with
the edge of my apron and stooped to peer through the window into
the oven. The turkey wore a tin-foil tent. Was it drying out?
I opened the oven, lifted the turkey tent, basted, then washed
up and headed to the dining room. I added the extra leaf in the
center of the table so it could seat nine instead of the usual
five. I got the high-backed chairs out of the attic.
I laid out the special holiday
tablecloth with the poinsettia borders, and the green and red
cloth napkins. I got out the crystal candle holders, put fresh
red candles in them, and arranged a centerpiece of Christmas
ornaments and pinecones in a big brass bowl.
The good silver had been
sitting in a velvet-lined box all year and had managed to
tarnish even so. There was no time for polishing, so I set the
table with our everyday stainless. My husband and children
wouldn’t notice, but my sister would.
Notice and comment, the way she
did at every holiday event I hosted. I could trust my sister to
say nasty things, but usually only to me, alone, in the kitchen
while we were fetching more food or washing dishes. She liked
to watch the work of her needles, but she didn’t need to flay me
in public. For such small mercies, I was thankful.
How had Mama done this year
after year? Every year a beautiful table, a warm house,
perfect food which all finished cooking at the same time—
The rolls. I had to bake the
rolls. They were take-and-bake, another thing Anna would point
out to me later, as though I didn’t know. The salad. I had to
make the salad. Boil the potatoes and mash them. Get all the
condiments set, the butter on the silver butter dishes, refill
the crystal salt and pepper shakers and set them on the table.
Make the rice pudding for our special Hidden Almond game after
dinner. Did I have the prizes for the game? For a moment I
panicked, thinking I’d forgotten to buy and wrap the little
gifts you won if you found an almond in your pudding. But then
I remembered. I’d gotten them.
I tried to clean as I went or
there’d be hell to pay later, when I still had gifts to wrap and
the tree to decorate, though Jim would help with those, if you
could call it help, really, when I had to do most of his chores
over after he fell asleep. He was well-meaning, but he had no
wrapping skill, and no visual sense about where the next
ornament ought to go. His idea of tinseling was to throw
handfuls at the tree and hope some stuck.
I had a dream of making the
holiday perfect for my family, a celebration and a delight,
hiding my efforts so the kids could imagine elves had done
everything. Everyone should get to believe in magic, at least
for a little while.
Had I changed the sheets on the
guest room bed? Set out the cots in Rupert’s room for the
twins? Oh, God, what if I hadn’t? Maybe I could do it after
supper, or while everyone was eating dessert. The pumpkin
pies! Had I made those? No, wait. I’d bought pumpkin pies
from the really good bakery, and I had real whipping cream.
When was I supposed to whip it? I guessed I could wait on that,
whip it at the table when it was time for pie, make a production
of it and try to pretend my bad planning was a virtue instead of
I headed back to the kitchen.
Time to peel the potatoes and set them to boil, if it wasn’t too
But instead I found myself
sitting at the kitchen table, scratching my arms. They itched.
They itched and itched. I scratched so hard I drew blood. It
startled me. What was I doing?
“Mama,” I whispered. How had
she done it? Every year until she died— three years ago,
and I’d been trying to do it in her place ever since. Last
year my sister hadn’t had to search for things to complain
about. My turkey had been overdone on the outside and
undercooked inside. The stuffing had been cold and raw,
not tasty with all the juices from the turkey. The gravy
was lumpy, the pies ruined by too much salt and not enough
sugar, the potatoes not quite done yet—
This year I’d been practicing
all my dishes. Not often, just once a month, so my family
wouldn’t get tired of them. I had made successful turkeys and
stuffing and gravy since then. I could do it tonight.
Maybe if I fixed myself a nice
cup of tea—
I scratched my other arm. I
wanted to be the child, coming home from playing all day to
discover everything done, everything ready, everything
glorious. I laid my head on the table. Just for a minute.
A gentle hand on my shoulder.
I took a deep breath. “Mama,”
“Honey,” she whispered, “wake
up. You’ve lots left to do.”
I sighed and sat up. The CD
had finished playing. Dark drifted down outside the kitchen
window, the unavoidable approach of night, and with it the
approach of people who were expecting a beautiful supper.
No one was in the kitchen with
me, and the potatoes were all sitting on the counter in their
brown coats, still damp from being scrubbed with the potato
brush and awaiting me and the peeler. My biggest pot was on the
stove, half-filled with water, and the water was boiling
merrily. I jumped up.
My arms were bloody. Such
scratching. I felt ashamed now. What had I been thinking? I
hadn’t been thinking. I washed off the blood, dashed to the
bathroom to apply a little ointment, to the bedroom to change
into a long-sleeved shirt. In the kitchen again, I peeled the
potatoes and chopped them, dropped them into the boiling water,
and moved to the next task.
The fear drained from me. I
felt Mama’s hand on my shoulder as I moved around my kitchen,
felt some foreign quiet confidence inside. In my fingers and my
palms I felt shades of other women, my mother, my grandmother,
my great-grandmother, those who had sliced apples for pie, those
who had roasted geese, those who had baked bread and sliced
cheese, those who had churned their own butter and milked their
own cows, those who had pulled turnips and potatoes and carrots
out of earth. Their strength and their knowledge outlined my
arms in faint light, made my fingers sure, let me walk through
my dinner preparations without pause or worry, so that when the
door opened and my husband and children tumbled into the
kitchen, everything was ready, steaming, beautiful, perfect, and
all I had to do was blot sweat from my face with my apron, hang
it up, and wash my hands.
“Oh, Nora,” Jim said, and
hugged me. “Oh, wonderful!”
“Wow, Mom,” said Liz before she
ran upstairs to hide whatever she had bought. “Everything
“Oh, boy!” Rupert said. He
pressed the light switch in the oven and peeked in at the
turkey. “Oh, boy!”
Carrie hugged me, pressing her
face into my stained apron front.
“Welcome home,” I said. The
front doorbell rang, and I went to answer it. Anna and her
husband and the twins came in, loaded down with suitcases for
their overnight stay.
Anna sniffed as she came in,
searching for the satisfaction of something burnt. I smiled at
her, full of some spirit she could not dent or scratch. I
showed the guests to their rooms, and came downstairs again when
they’d put away their suitcases, led the way to the living room,
where there was a tray of small cakes I didn’t remember making.
They were small round cakes of light-colored dough, dusted with
powdered sugar, a raisin or currant here and there poking up
through the surface of sweet snow. There was one for each of
“What’s this?” Anna asked.
“Appetizers.” I served cider
in crystal cups with handles, and gave everybody a little paper
plate with a holly print on it to put their cakes on.
I didn’t know what to expect
from my first bite. I tasted history. I tasted the
work of all those women, their kitchen histories, their dreams
of creation and fruition. Sweet and dust and grain mixed in my mouth. I
prayed a thank-you to everyone who had helped me tonight.
Anna left half her cookie on
her plate. I ate every bite of mine, and licked sugar from my
fingers. Liz ate hers slowly, slowly, glancing at me between
each bite. Carrie took one bite and sneaked off to the kitchen,
probably to throw the rest of hers out. I did not notice what
the men made of their cakes. I looked at my older daughter and we
shared a smile.
When I got up to bring dishes
to the table, she came to the kitchen to help me.