So — did visions of sugar plums dance through your head last night?
Let’s see, there’s global warming, elephant poachers, Ebola, ISIS, the CIA, Ferguson, the upcoming Bosma trial, all that humming through the air — well, it doesn’t help that I work for a newspaper and am addicted to watching CNN. Still, it’s Christmas morning. And I’m alive and well enough to be drinking coffee and writing this, and, hallelujah, this year we all have hydro, so there is room for optimism.
Christmas mornings were so exciting when I was a child. Rushing downstairs to the tree before my parents got up. Finding all of the gifts that were unwrapped. (I wasn’t allowed to open the wrapped ones until my yawning elders appeared.) I wish that all children all over the world could have that sort of idyllic Canadian childhood. But even as an adult, Christmas morning was fun. A whole day off from work. Lots of cooking to do. Visiting, eating and catching up with friends. A wonderful, special day.
But I “lost” Christmas three years ago when my husband died. We had been married for forty plus years and, suffice it to say, he was my best friend. The first Christmas after his death, I spent with dear friends in a state of paralysis. I walked, I talked, I even grimly tried to smile, but I was frozen and empty, mired in such a place of grief that I have little recollection of that period at all.
The next year, I believe I began to thaw. There were many occasions of bursting into tears, usually at the most inopportune and unexpected moments. Memories returned in full force. Not wanting to wallow and weep and wail and ruin everyone’s time, I was determined to stifle them. I tiptoed through the holidays, trying to avoid the minefields of certain movies, not listening to “those” songs and feeling vaguely angry at all of the happy people who were spending the holidays surrounded by family and loved ones. I wondered why people could be bothered with all of the decorating and spending and cooking and eating and shopping and wrapping. It just seemed like a ridiculous, expensive distraction from the fact that we are all mortal.
But I need to let you know that the survival instinct kicks in. And while I still spend a lot of time talking to him in my head (I hope it’s just in my head), I do feel as if, this year, I have turned a corner. I don’t like it at all, but I have accepted the fact that I will never see my husband again. I know that humans are not indomitable, but we are resilient. I feel strong enough now to want to cherish the memories rather than obliterate them: I’m thinking of our first Christmas tree in our own home, painstakingly decorated with loving attention to every detail, and then re-decorated in haste after our Siamese cat decided it was her tree house and turned it over onto the floor. I recall a most peculiar and unsettling Christmas spent in Tobago where people put tinsel on flowering bushes and colored lights on palm trees. And a memory which still warms my heart: We had gone to pick out a Christmas tree, the year before Joe died. Usually, he went on his own, because experience had taught us that choosing a tree with two people involved occasioned an inordinate amount of snarling, swearing and downright strife. I had gone along this year, however, because he was very weak and I thought that I could help him lift the tree. We finally found the perfect specimen and started to lug it toward the car. A fellow in a black pickup truck saw us struggling and asked where we lived. He picked up the tree, put it into the back of his truck and drove it to our house for us. I thanked him and tried to pay him, but he just unloaded the tree, said, “Merry Christmas” and drove away. The random kindness of strangers is one of the things that reinforces your hope for humankind.
So this year, I have propped up the Christmas cards in a colorful tableau on the sideboard. I have no room for a tree, but I am charmed to notice that the people in the apartment building across the way have decorated their balconies with sparkly lights and snowflakes and an enormous blinking reindeer. I will spend the day surrounded with kind friends and funny people and will actually try to think about them, instead of dwelling on my own petty problems. And last night, before I went to bed, I prepared some French toast for my own breakfast. It’s getting light outside, so I will now cook it and eat it and enjoy it while listening to my old familiar Christmas music.
I hope that you all have a wonderful day with family or friends, and lots of fun and that your turkey is moist and tender and your gravy without lumps. And make sure that all of your loved ones know that you care.
Here’s my recipe for French toast.
Sweet French Toast
Elaine’s recipe, serves 3-6
6 large eggs
1 1/2 cups half and half, heavy cream or whole milk
2 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
6 slices day old French or Italian bread
4 tbsp unsalted butter
4 tbsp vegetable oil
pure maple syrup or your favorite jam or jelly or fresh fruit
1) Whisk together eggs, cream, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a medium bowl.
2) Place bread in a shallow baking dish, large enough to hold bread in a single layer. Pour egg mixture over bread, soak for 10 minutes, turn over, soak about 10 minutes more. If you wish, bread can be left soaking overnight in the refrigerator.
3) Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Heat 2 tbsp butter and 2 tbsp vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. Fry half the bread slices until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to oven to keep warm. Wipe skillet and repeat with remaining butter, oil and bread.
4) Serve warm with maple syrup or spread with your favorite jam.
You can also make a spicy, savoury version. For two servings use one egg, 1 tsp Tabasco, 1 tbsp chopped basil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and follow the same method. Good with ketchup or roasted tomatoes, or even fried peppers and onions on top.