I invite you to first read Part I
Before I tell you the story of Grandpa’s Christmas decorations, and the kerfuffle that ensued, we must back up to my grandmother’s role in my childhood Christmas seasons on Washington Street.
Grandma was the oldest of four daughters, quiet, proficient at rummikub and card games, a whiz with numbers, a meticulous housekeeper, deeply fond of babies until the moment they could walk or speak or both, a voracious knitter, a zippy reader, and a big-time fan of the Boston Red Sox.
Grandma gave gifts differently than my grandfather–hers were wrapped with invisible, complicated strings. Did you like the dress? Why haven’t you worn the shoes? Did the mailman lose the thank-you note? That isn’t the bookbag I gave you last fall….is it?
Grandma, in fact, was nothing at all like Grandpa.
The older I become, the more clearly I am able to discern the shadows that clung to her heels from her childhood, creeping into her adulthood. Things never spoken, but present.
When a child, it is difficult to appreciate that one’s parents and grandparents have lived decades of life before we entered the scene–and unless the full stories are shared in context–we only see the current behaviors of the people before us as though in a vacuum, rather than seeing the backstory of these men and women who have been shaped by circumstances and formed by a worldview of life: bowing humbly before Christ or bowing arrogantly to self.
Grandma and Grandpa both grew up in unbelieving homes. Early in their marriage, Grandpa became a Christian at a Billy Graham crusade. My grandmother followed him down that stadium aisle in Boston, also professing faith.
Grandpa was a radically changed man–he had become a new creature. Grandma, it seemed, did not allow Christ to heal and change her, until perhaps in her final earthly days. There remained a cold lump of impenetrable bitterness inside, holding her back from a life of joy and freedom. Her personality was jagged, sharp, and unsteady.
Like any granddaughter, I desired to connect with my grandmother, but realized that she was quite unavailable. As silly as it sounds, when she flew across the country to first meet me (I was six weeks old) I cried, without fail, every time she held me. After a few days of this, Grandma clucked, returned me to my mother’s arms, and resorted to cleaning house and cooking.
This story became her weapon, a tale often repeated to family and friends and colleagues, for as long as I can remember. She often brought the story to light following a kindness shown to me by my grandfather or by another. I did not understand that this was jealousy, every time she cut her eyes, jabbing at me. I simply knew that she had never forgiven my newborn preferences, which made me feel guilty in a strange and uncomfortable way. I always assumed that our lack of connection was my fault.
In remarkable contrast, my love for Grandpa was natural, happy, and secure. He sparkled with the fruit of the Spirit, as this was the core, his essence. He did not try to make others love him, as he was secure in the Lord. And because of this, people did love him. Grandpa read his Bible, loved God, served others, apologized when he needed to, and lived his happy life of faith to the hilt.
During the Christmas season Grandma often flourished, growing a shade warmer. She unpacked the crèche and placed sprigs of pine and red velvet atop the fireplace mantel. Out came the glass bowls, filled to the brim with ribbon candy and butterscotches, with endless boxes of Russell Stover chocolates for one and all.
She was a fine cook, and rather than smiling and looking directly into the eyes of her children or grandchildren with: I love you so much, and I am thankful for you, sweet pea, she cooked and baked and ignored and presented the food.
She fashioned tender roasts and juicy chicken, with buttery mashed potatoes and long cooked carrots, offering warm and softened rolls alongside salt and peppered peas. It was all meat-and-potato fare, made to suit Grandpa’s preferences. He praised her cooking, and she glowed under such kindness. Grandma understood food in a rather remarkable way: this tasted best when paired with that, precise temperatures and cooking times, producing beautifully cooked meats that were tender, juicy, and never dry, timing up every dish just right.
My grandmother, so it seemed, was more herself in her narrow kitchen than anywhere else in the world.
Come to think of it, she understood food in the same way that Grandpa understood people.
Following Thanksgiving, Grandma settled into the Christmas spirit, mixing up a huge lump of her pie crust, tucking it up tightly in Saran wrap in order to chill, informing me that this would produce superior pies, if it had first sat in the ice box (her term for refrigerator). These comments were spoken indirectly, her back to me as she swooped through her kitchen, tidying as she went.
After a few minutes of observation, I found my winter coat and boots and scooted outside, crossing my fingers–hoping and wishing that she might remember to bake her small, scrumptious specialty from the extra pie dough.
I remember her calling it a pie roll, and this is how she made it:
Taking a small piece of pie dough, she rolled it out and buttered one side (always butter, Kristin, never margarine) and sprinkled a generous amount of sugar, a few teaspoons of cinnamon, and a miniscule pinch of nutmeg on top. Then, she rolled it up, dotting the top with butter and cream and another sprinkle of table sugar, using a dull knife to press even diagonal cuts (not clear through, mind you) before wrapping the entire delicacy up in foil and baking.
That little treat, proffered each year, was a smidgen of love that I pulled from Grandma’s kitchen on Washington Street, holding it close. It would have to last for twelve more months.
So as much as Christmas on Washington Street meant buying wreaths and ice cream and presents with my grandfather, it was a painting also adorned by Grandma’s apple pies and homemade fudge, the finely wrapped boxes of chocolates and ribbon candy in glass bowls, the sweet display of the crèche on the mantle, the velvet bows and a pie roll.
And then, one Christmas day on Washington Street, Grandma surprised me with an unexpected gift, from her heart.
(Come back next Thursday for the final installment of Christmas on Washington Street.)
Thank you, Gentle Reader, for your kindness in showing up at this space this year. By way of gratitude, and to offer you a heartfelt Merry Christmas, I will share my Grandma’s pie recipe with any reader who chooses to sign up to receive my blog and newsletter in your inbox. Simply email me at email@example.com, and I will send this fine recipe your way.