© Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December 4, 2011
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Before it gets drowned out by the Christmas crescendo let us lay hold of the season's true meaning. It returns annually as a reminder of the ongoing irrepressible cycle of life, of birth but also loss; of memory and its magic; and foremost of the enduring and sustaining power of love.
This is my story. I offer it in hope that it will lead you back to your own.
Washington D.C. was the center of the world, not because it is the capital of the United States of America but because 114 S Street was the center of my world. The house didn't look different from the other tall, narrow, brown-brick row houses on S Street. In fact, as a child I always had to look extra carefully for the gilded numerals 1-1-4 upon the glass arch above the door. But it felt different than any place else in my life. Up a half-flight from the sidewalk was the walkway to my Great-Uncle Lloyd's basement office. A brass plaque my brother, Philip, and I loved to polish to read Dr. L.H. Newman. Up another half-flight was the front door. One ring, a little wait, and Great-Aunt Irene was there. The door would swing open and she'd say, "Oh, my precious child" as she drew me to her, and my head was buried in her substantial rosewater-scented bosom. Then, before I had a chance to catch my breath, my cheeks were covered with kisses. Once that ordeal was over I would slip inside to the familiar worn elegance of 114 - the threadbare hallway runner, the brass lamp that had once been a gas light, a small crystal chandelier hanging in the vestibule. Great-Grandmother's rocking chair sat in the parlor next to a heavily stuffed antique couch; in the dining room a huge crystal chandelier orbited over the table, the cabinets fun of silverware, the cupboard full of china, the smells of ham, rolls and greens calling me to the kitchen.
As far back as I can remember it felt as if 114 was where we came from. This was the house where pipe smoke mingled with the smells coming from Great-Aunt Ethel's kitchen-venison, green beans, cornbread. Then back to Grammy's. Tucked into bed; eyes squeezed shut; body held still; my heart longed for Christmas Day as the endless night crawled toward morning, and more waiting as I sat at the top of the staircase with my cousins, aching with anticipation. Inevitably came the joyful stampede, the stockings and gifts, oyster fritters and grits, and of course Grammy's mouth-watering rolls accompanied by bacon, scrapple and scrabbled eggs. But the big event took place at 114 S Street.
In mid-afternoon upwards of 20 of our multicolored family would converge upon that narrow old house. It held us all without a problem, if we stayed out of Great-Aunt Irene's kitchen. Once permission was granted the children, my first and second cousins, poured down glossy red steps and into Great-Uncle Lloyd's mystery-filled kingdom in the basement-the sculptures and maps, masks and other artifacts from his travels; the ten-foot long bar, the refrigerator full of Coca Cola, the spiked eggnog that made us even more giddy than we already were. Great-Aunt Irene wrote in her diary:
...We had a most delightful time. Everyone went downstairs to dance. Of course you know I had danced enough around the kitchen all day so I did not go.
This was Christmas: Great-Aunt Irene in perpetual motion, rarely sitting, forever shuffling out to the kitchen to prepare or orchestrate - warming this, serving that - corn pudding, tangy greens, Smithfield ham, mashed sweet potato covered with melted marshmallows, rich brown gravy-then up again to refill the platters, and get the plum pudding ready for its grand entrance. I have the recipe. I found it in the back of one of Great-Aunt Irene's diaries:
Christmas Plum Pudding
3/4 lb. of suet chopped very fine - Mix it while chopping in one tablespoon of flour
3/4 lb. of raisins seeded
3/4 lb. of currants
3/4 lb. of sugar
3/4 lb. of fresh bread crumbs
Grated zest of one lemon
1/4 lb. of candied orange peel and citron cut into thin slices
1/2 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon,cloves, nutmeg and allspice
Mix the dry material together thoroughly and then add six eggs one at a time and one half cup of brandy. Add another egg if too stiff and more crumbs if too soft. Wet a strong cloth in cold water, wring it dry, butter it and dredge it well with flour. Turn the mixture into the center and draw the cloth together over the top. Leave room for the pudding to swell a little and tie it firmly giving it a good round shape. Put it into pot of boiling water, having it completely covered. Do not let the water fall below the pudding and in adding more let it be hot so as not to arrest the boiling. Boil four to five hours. After it is removed from the water let it rest in the bag for ten minutes to harden a little, then cut the string and turn it carefully on to a dish. Pour rum or brandy on the dish and light it with a taper. Serve with a brandy sauce. Will serve twelve to fourteen people. It will keep for a long time and may be warmed when used.
The little lie, one of many, was that Dr. Newman, my Great-Uncle Lloyd, cooked it, which he did in a manner of speaking. Great-Aunt Irene did all the preparation and then, like a surgeon, her brother made his entrance, did all the mixing and left her to do the cooking and cleaning. Then, on Christmas Day, Great-Uncle Lloyd again played the central role. We gathered in the dining room, the lights were turned off then, to a chorus of "ahhs," the blazing plum pudding was carried from the kitchen and set before Great-Uncle Lloyd who spooned up the burning brandy from the platter letting the blue flame cascade down over the pudding until the fire died out. Lights on, served and scarfed down. Meanwhile Great-Aunt Irene, who had disappeared upstairs, reappeared with a Christmas envelope for each of us. And we all knew what was inside - a crisp, green, newly minted twenty dollar bill, a fortune when I was a child.
Christmas at 114, however, was more than a child's delight, for my eyes could also see that it marked the passing of time and the cycles of life - marriages and births, divorces and deaths - near constant change in something I hoped would never change.
During the Second World War when Little Lloyd was away serving with the U.S. Army in Italy, Great-Aunt Irene wrote:
On Tuesday, December 21, Grace and I put new linoleum on the kitchen floor and Lloyd painted the kitchen. We had a hard time getting a turkey for Xmas but Lloyd got one. [This is] the first time baby Lloyd has been away for Xmas.
The expectation was that, if you could, you would be in D.C. for Christmas and my Mother resented it; she wanted our own family Christmas in Chicago, and she never ceased being angry at Dad because they had gone to D.C. for Christmas in 1947 instead of to Wilkes-Barre. Then, six months later, Naomi, her Mother had died and thereafter Mother felt that spending Christmas in D.C. she had sacrificed her last opportunity to be with her mother.
There was another side to Christmas. Loud arguments between Grammy and Great-Aunt Irene punctuated with one snapping, "Girl, you don't know what you're talking about," and the other responding, "Well, who made you the Queen?" Cutting remarks about some, and total silence about my aunt after her gruesome suicide. These and other disturbing undercurrents I heard stirring but most often did not understand - old battles and unnamed tensions. Christmas at 114 was a touchstone, and as changeless as I wanted it to be it was also a way of measuring how I had grown and changed. Only my memory imperfectly preserves a reality that kept altering. Christmas 1971 Great-Aunt Irene wrote:
We started early to get things together. I did all of my shopping, and cleaned up as much as I could. Tuesday we went to the market. On Wednesday we made the plum pudding, the eggnog and the hard sauce. On Thursday I cooked the Smithfield ham and on Friday I cooked the turkey, trimmed the little tree and put up the decorations.
Well, Xmas Day was beautiful. I set the big table and the table in the reception hall the night before, so Xmas morning I had clear sailing... We had twenty-one altogether... I had never seen so many people in the kitchen and everything went so smoothly... A good time was had by all.
The reason there were so many people in Great-Aunt Irene's kitchen that year was that my first cousin, Becca, had discovered "women's lib" and decided that the men in the family would start sharing in kitchen work.
Change touched all of us. On Christmas Eve 1977 neither Donna, my wife, nor I could attend the dinner at Great-Uncle Harry's and Aunt Ethel's because we were participating in the services at the congregations in Maryland and Virginia where we were serving as interns, but early the next morning we arrived at Grammy's house. When breakfast had been cleared away Donna called her family in Toronto, and afterward sat in the rear parlor weeping - her first Christmas away from home. Sitting beside her I looked around and sadness misted my eyes too after it dawned on me that given a minister's responsibilities I would never spend another Christmas in D.C. Change continued and Great-Aunt Irene could not help but to note it:
My sister Grace was quite bad off and in and out of the hospital I asked them to let me have her at home here with me. I thought I could make Grace well but I couldn't. She passed away in October. In December Lloyd got really sick so we put him in the hospital and he is still there... I was not home for Xmas. My sister Eleanor had charge of the dinner for about 29 people. They took me to the hospital the Tuesday night before Xmas.
In her final Christmas entry before she died she wrote:
Dec. 1983 Xmas
All alone with my thoughts, thinking of days gone by and of all the wonderful Xmases we have had the pleasure of spending together. We have had a big family. When we children came along we had to make trimmings for the tree, string popcorn, cut out paper ornaments, make candy canes and different things. Now everything is so different...
Christmas has grown more bittersweet with the passing of time. The season now stands as a milestone marking life's transitions rather than mercantile madness. Quiet reflection has superseded frenetic motion as memory has taken the place of anticipation, memories which I treasure more than gifts, memories of what was and can never be again, memories of love that can never be taken away-love which means my Great-Aunt Irene is with me every Christmas.
Let us pray:
May your holiday whether Hanukkah, Kwanzaa,
Winter Solstice or Christmas
be a season full of food and festivity,
of flickering lights and abiding love,
of music, mirth and memory,
and when melancholy touches you,
as it surely will,
embrace it too as the blessing that it is.
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