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Monday, December 13, 2010

Tinfoil Icicles and Paper Bells


I was born on the last day of 1933. The first Christmas I remember was getting up and being told that Santa had come but we had to eat our breakfast before we could go into the living room to see our presents. Looking back, I believe this was more about Mother wanting her coffee than concern about our nutrition.

Later, walking into the room, all I saw was about half the room’s furniture covered with white bed sheets. Guess Santa stopped off at Mother’s linen closet because I recognized some of her pretty linens. When we were small and still believed in Santa, my folks did not wrap those presents. There would be a filled stocking kind of propped up among the doll and toys. I’m sure I do not remember each Christmas but those that I do, I relate to the doll I got that year. Several of those dolls are upstairs in a tall glass case along with Dee’s mostly Madame Alexander dolls. [When I was still buying dolls for Dee, I thought the Madame Alexanders were by far the best.] For some reason, I always insisted that my dad look at every single little present and he was exceedingly patient.

A Christmas tree is, and has always been, a thing of great beauty to me. If my family would stand for it, I’d keep one up all year. Mother believed in our making decorations so we had construction paper chains and other odd and assorted little objects. She did have to buy new tinsel most every year though because brothers and boy cousins loved to wad up the tinfoil tinsel and throw it into the tree. Of course it did not in any way look like icicles but more like shiny rocks and stones hanging crazily on tree limbs. After I got old enough to notice other folks’ trees, and realized how pretty they could be, I staged a major, for me, rebellion. The upshot was like so much else in life , if I didn’t like the way they decorated, I was welcome to do it by myself………. So, at about six years old I became a tinsel hanger! Mother and I were the only “girls” and she had her hands full with everything else she did.

Times were awfully hard in the thirties and modern equipment such as we take for granted just didn’t exist. Mother’s family had been quite well off. They had lots of servants, a governess, a school teacher etc. but they all had to pitch in and help with that huge family [12 kids]. In our little family, Mother did it all except the big laundry. She and Dad loved Christmas though and made it a happy time for us. We did not have cute, decorated felt stockings. Apparently, Mother saved her stockings for us. They were much bigger plus being stretchy. They held lots more plus larger objects. Only trouble was that we got lots of fruit in our stockings plus un-shelled pecans.

Mother’s brother Dan married a lady whose family owned orange groves, near Largo, Florida. At that time, they had three kids and they most often spent Christmas with us. When they arrived, they came in with crates of oranges and other citrus fruits. Often, the oranges were their natural color, much paler than store bought. After dinner, at night, my dad would sit at the dining room table and peel oranges and grapefruit for everyone. He always cut off each end, then scored the fruit from top to bottom in about six places, then just sort of lifted off the peel.

Mother and Dad loved coconut cake. She always made one or two , using the old 1,2,3,4 cake recipe with cooked, 7 minute white icing. [See the end of this post for the cake recipe.] She added the coconut to the icing, then sprinkled more on the top. These were tall three layer cakes, perhaps 6-8 inches tall. Of course, Dad spent half a day opening and grating the fresh coconut, a really tedious job. He also loved fresh black walnut cake, made the same way except substituting the walnuts for the coconut. I well remember Dad out back with a hammer, opening walnuts, eating a few as he went along. Mother always made a lemon cheese cake, with something kind of like lemon curd as the filling, then seven minute icing on the top and sides. Sometimes, there would be a pound cake, fruit cake or Devils Food. In later years, when my parents visited me for Christmas, I made the cake layers and icing but insisted that Mother put them together. She enjoyed that but I didn’t.

As a child, I always thought our house was just beautiful after Mother decorated. She’d take out the decorations and there were always red, tissue paper bells, large and larger. They stayed folded flat but opened into bells that had to be clipped with a gym clip. Two or three of these with ribbon and fresh pine cuttings would be placed around the house. She dipped pine cones in various paints and used magnolia leaves plus other natural  objects. Wish I could remember all of them.

We always had fresh trees, usually pines. In later years, our family made a trip to the huge, Farmers Market, south of Atlanta, to buy our tree. We would drive up and down the rows looking, trying to decide who was selling the best trees.

Christmas during the war years was different. We lived on the farm, away from Atlanta. In many ways it was better for us than for other people because we had chickens, eggs, cows, butter, etc. so there was plenty to eat. So food rationing didn’t affect us. We had to get gas, shoes, and tires with ration books, though. Vanilla flavoring was hard to get, as was pineapple, and canned asparagus. We didn’t get our usual fruit from Uncle Dan. Sugar was rationed but Mother made do. In the newspaper there would be columns about how to make cakes without much sugar. Everyone shared tips on how to get by without things like sugar or eggs. We made fewer Christmas cakes. We had plenty of chickens and turkeys on the farm. We certainly ate well.

Mother sewed all the time. She sent aprons, clothes, potholders, placemats, etc. for everyone in her family for Christmas. She sewed beautifully. She mostly used feed sacks. Back then they were beautiful, with prints, some of them. The white ones were bleached. I think they were heavy cotton. The manufacturers of the chicken feed, for instance, sent the feed in sacks, so that was a source of cloth. We still have a couple of feed sack aprons. They have lasted many years.

Of course, my mother’s family consisted of 12 siblings, and there was Granny Butler. Grandaddy Butler died when I was small. Granny proceeded to live with her children for the rest of her life.

At Christmas, Granny Butler sat around like the Queen of Sheba and everyone bowed and scraped. She would have 40-50 presents to open. She was a real matriarch. Granny took no crap from anybody, but she was very much a lady.

When I was a child, Christmas was always a happy time. I always loved seeing the presents, but I loved seeing the family, particularly my cousins and my grandmother.


1,2,3,4 Cake [Mrs. Dull**]

1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
4 eggs
1 scant cup milk or water
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla

Cream butter, sugar until fluffy; add eggs one at a time. Start alternating flour and liquid; sift powders with flour, add alternately with liquid. Add vanilla. Bake at 375 degrees for about 35-40 minutes if you’re making layers.


** Mrs. Dull was an Atlanta institution. You can read more about her here.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

From the Inside Looking Out


Not too long ago, I glanced into a store window as I walked past and thought, “I know that old soul but who is she?  Oh, damn, she has on my good coat and scarf! What’s going on here?”  As I thought I’d step inside and say hello, I came face to face with a mirrored wall. Oh, nooooooo, is she me? HER?  Dang, woman, what’d you do with the rest of me? I mean, I know I’m no beauty at almost 77 years old, never was much of one, anyway. But I didn’t scare little kids and turn the milk sour.

I guess because I am  exceedingly, pleasingly plump :o), I am, perhaps, not as wrinkled as, say, one of those 150 pound scarecrows who never made an iron skillet of Lewis Grizzard’s  wonderfully rich cornbread  and slathered it with real butter. [Thanks to my SIL Diddy for that just about perfect recipe.]  Guess I’m thinking of cornbread because I made a huge pan for my Thanksgiving cornbread dressing. I always have to make enough cornbread for the dressing plus some to just pig out on.

When I was growing up, I had two redheaded girl cousins who lived in a rather fancy apartment, over on Peachtree Place. They were walking distance from our house and I spent lots of time with them, especially the one just older than I am. But I never got enough to eat in their apartment. They’d say things like come have lunch and we’ll go swimming at the club or to a movie at the Fox or the 10th Street Theatre, or to the Art Theatre, all within walking distance. Their idea of lunch was HALF of a sandwich with lots of lettuce, and a glass of tea. On a good day, we might have one bought cookie!  Now I had just walked ten or twelve blocks to get there and I was hungry….. Well, rest of the story ……….. they were no skinnier  than I ----- they just suffered more :O) They were also the kind of swimmers who never got their hair wet , if that tells you something. They have kept their wrinkles pretty well filled out too.

I love flowers and this time of year they are mostly gone from our yard. In recent years, our Kroger store has a fairly good selection. My favorites are white daisies with yellow centers; they just look so fresh to me. Recently, I read a book by John Carter Cash about his mother, June Carter. In talking about his mother, he said ”She loved flowers so much, we should say in her obit, ‘in lieu of memorials, please send flowers.’” Obviously, I liked that!

For the most part, I am enjoying my old age. Oh, yes, I have my share of aches and pains and the frustration of being unable to physically do what I’d like or need to do. However, I am so blessed to be with Dee and the kids, plus Bruce comes often and helps us in lots of ways. From the time when we moved to Tennessee in the early 70’s, Bruce and Dee   had chores and helped me in the kitchen. I tried to gently give them jobs I thought they could do well, plus the fun part of cooking.

During Bruce’s most recent visit, I enjoyed watching as they got meals on the table and did the clean up afterwards, easily working together, talking, laughing. Dee and Bruce both love to cook and to eat, and they make some wonderful meals together. It’s so good to know I did something right and that my children are friends. Their dad helped around the house too as did my dad, about whom I often write, but he wasn’t a great cook.

That reminds me that some time after my dad died, when we were visiting my mother, she told me her vacuum cleaner was broken. Now, it was an old Electrolux that didn’t have much in it to break. It seemed to be made of concrete. When I turned it on, dust flew everywhere so I asked her when she’d empted it. Her totally blank look answered my question. She never vacuumed a floor until after Dad died and had never cleaned the dust out. Of course, it was good as new as soon as we cleaned it up. It was about thirty years old at that point. Both my dad and my husband liked to vacuum for some strange reason. Grandson Mike has that job, here, these days.

I suppose that what I am trying to say is that I pretty much do what I want to do, with exceptions, of course. I am “waited on” much more than I deserve but, don’t tell anyone, I enjoy it!  They do for me what I could do for myself --- but with a whole lot of effort and some fair amount of pain on my part. I’ve cared for other folks most of my adult life and have no regrets.

I’ve thought about other grandparents who don’t live with their grands. They appear to spoil them more or at least do more fun things with them. But Alesia was a very young 13 when she came home and we’ve had to pack so much learning into the years we’ve had her, not the least of which is that she is loved unconditionally. She seems, finally, to understand and is showing lovely maturity, these days.

Mike, in many ways, has been easier but he is still just 14 years old so time will tell. Both children have an innate sweetness that arrived with them. Even in times when Alesia has been slightly out of sorts with me, she scolds if I do something for myself that she considers her job. Yep, they take care of their granny--- and don’t I love it!!!   I used to say to my Tony, we are so lucky to have these good kids and he always said, luck has nothing to do with it!  I’m sure he’d say the same thing about these grands.

So, I’m happy to be the age I am. I really would not like to do it all over unless I knew what I know now. Just this afternoon, Alesia, while sitting in the middle of my bed with Coco asleep in her lap, said, “Granny, wouldn’t you like to have a boyfriend?” Be proud of me! Completely serious, I replied ”No Sweetie, 40 years was long enough. I’m too old to have to start and housebreak another one!”