I have a somewhat secret and intense leaning toward hospitality. It especially steps forward every holiday season. The problem is that I have perhaps less talent than interest and desire. Also a smaller budget than allows for all accouterments and provisions I’d appreciate utilizing. And time can feel squeezed. But the truth resides more with the “less talent” part. Christmas, in particular, would be a welcome and industrious time of year except for this reality (allowing for obnoxious commercialism and its wearying impacts).
To start, I am not a great cook–alright, perhaps I am not actually a cook, at all, now. I’ve done little the past twenty-plus years (my husband cooks when he’s around– we slap something together at last minute or we eat at a restaurant/ order take out– after years cooking for my family. And I admit I cooked out of need, in a utilitarian fashion for the most part. Though I created full meals every day for five kids and spouse plus neighbor kids; used recipes from multiple cookbooks; learned by watching the few relatives whose cooking I admired and then determining to do better…well, I just got by. I did feel enthusiastic about baking. I deeply appreciate carbohydrates and sugar and spices and nuts and all. I turned out predictably delectable breads, cookies, cakes and a few pies, though pastry could be challenging, requiring tiny and major repairs. But baking seemed was a fun part, nearly recreational, not a required duty of my household responsibilities. Thus, it might get put on the back burner.
I grew up with a mother who loved to cook Southern, all-American hearty food. She, however, shooed us out of “her” kitchen so we could focus on studies, music, sports, and attendant activities–along with dates and church interactions (sometimes that could be the same). Yet it was through no fault of hers that I had lackluster response to an invitation to help her cook. Help make the family recipe for apple strudel? Yes, come get me anytime. But the rest was left to her and siblings with greater interest. Luckily, I could be persuaded to prep veggies and stir pots and make coffee and tea.
Preparing the dining room table, however, was right up my alley–especially for special occasions. I could unfurl and iron any tablecloth with napkins for ten without snafus. I could shop for and arrange the centerpiece with gusto. And I was eager to tidy the mail-laden buffet and organize records stacked atop the stereo cabinet. I looked forward to studying the china cabinet, all those dazzling groups of china and crystal. And give me the place settings so I can complete the whole look. My mother taught me early where each piece of (freshly polished) silverware was meant to be as well as the several assorted dishes, glasses or goblets and after dinner cups with lovely saucers. Ah, table artistry was worth developing.
From the kitchen floated rich and tantalizing aromas as I went about my work, anticipating the doorbell ringing soon. Her bustling good nature was reassuring, the clattering pans a hearty accompaniment. I’d scan the living room a last time–did we get the errant dust, were magazines and books in their places and pillows plumped, was the baby grand piano duly shining and lighting good but low? Were the fresh tapers in their candle holders and lit? The flowers at their lively best? Cue the music–also my choice unless my father had already chosen symphonies. I was filled with excitement to greet the first family members or other guests.
Thus, my parents entertained off and on but even with family we shared good meals and an attractive table. I learned at a young age how to welcome all who entered our home. I also became attuned to smallest details (my mother, a fine seamstress and milliner, was all about color and details of design). I surely found it akin to setting a stage for the coming scenes, was carried along by anticipation and curiosity about the next restive hours. Anything could happen here, my writer’s mind informed me, and the backdrop felt and looked good.
So I had fine examples and practice for throwing a good party and for concocting delicious if standard meals. Mom knew she was no gastronome, but she did so well all that she knew, and we loved her scrumptious, near nightly desserts. (This was before the food culture proposed self-deprivation or at least self-restraint when it came to that fine finale.)
All this comforting history prepares and buoys me. Still, I have second thoughts each time I start to plan for holidays. It is an insecurity of mine, not being the desired whiz of a wife and mother, a devoted healer and comforter at the domestic altar of the kitchen. For one thing, I am not too wise in the ways of fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, the benefits of kale and heritage tomatoes and hormone free meats and organic everything. For another thing, we have family with all sorts of dietary needs: vegan, vegetarian (I didn’t know there was a big difference until a few years ago), gluten-free, lactose-free, soy-free, poultry-only or no legumes or no shellfish, and occasionally not even fresh salmon (one of my top foods)… versus “bring on the whole feast” that most families must get to enjoy. Each gathering requires careful lists for tricky diets and we painstakingly figuring out menus–unless they bring their own dish, which can happen, thankfully. It requires both my husband and myself to pitch in–and an early start. It requires stamina and skill. I suppose all holiday meals do for everyone. I’m not quite up to the feed bits, clearly, but it works out.
There is also a personal characteristic, a defect, I have to battle: perfectionism. I’ve worked on this my whole life. I understand from where it derives in my childhood and youth. But I don’t like to do things poorly–okay, I tend to prefer those activities I know I can do extremely well, that are road tested and time tested and end with the same result: a job very well done. I have made progress on this, though. As a young woman, I would not even attempt something I didn’t expect to excel at accomplishing. I could become paralyzed with the fear that I’d fail, so the experience of learning could be flat out miserable and my sense of self felt pummeled by any incompetence. An “average” grade was not even considered, an “acceptable” result was not worth anything. Thus, I did not even begin. What a miserable decision that was, for I felt worse about myself for not even trying–who of any fortitude just gave up? I couldn’t win.
In time the realization dawned on me that a lot of pleasures, perhaps less important but worthy experiences, were being missed. So I began to get more adventurous out there in the land of imperfection–which dominates so much of human life, anyway. And I also learned how to compromise here and there. Thus, if I was not a great cook but an average one, I could make what was better for me to make comfortably.. And if I felt unqualified to execute a huge celebratory meal, I could focus on decor and other preparations. I could give even more energy to people, which is what I love most about gatherings for holidays or any occasions.
I was looking at older pictures recently of my granddaughter and grandson decorating sugar cookies with me after I baked them, and gingerbread houses and other activities. Happy memories, now that they’re 12 and 15. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Avery, the older one, at our Thanksgiving. She said she’d recently made a specially flavored vegan cheesecake and shared the recipe.
“Wow, I’m impressed!” I told her. “I know you’ve always liked to cook. You know I don’t…and I sure could never do that. I bet it tasted great.”
“Well, you can find out,” she said smiling. “We could make it together here sometime. You make good cookies and we’ve done that together– so now we can make cheesecake!”
I thought about that a minute; it made me feel nervous, this new recipe thing. But she was right. And she can teach her grandmother something good. It’s the time we spend that matters so much, not whether something gets a little too brown or the icing is a bit thin. It brings to mind another occasion. I like to take her and her brother ice skating and just last week I posted a picture of Avery and myself on Facebook from 2012. We skated a long, hand in hand. She didn’t know how to skate confidently; her brother was a bit wobbly. But I do know how to skate well, it’s an old passion of mine. However, neither of them ever balk at getting out there. They are glad to hang out and learn a little, too. So when she saw that picture of us, she responded, “Let’s go again soon!”
I love being active but lately have lagged some (see, again this note of failure to do better, how maddening). Today I had a check up with my cardiologist about recent episodes of too high blood pressure. We talked of the aging of arteries (drat) and how I should take up Zumba or other dance classes again, hike more, join a new fitness club to blow off steam and get my heart pumping harder, better. I have had coronary artery disease for 16 years, diagnosed too young, but I have been determined to not let it take me down.
Then he leaned forward a little to ask about recent stress levels.
Guilty, as charged. My basic core serenity has frayed some, even flown out the window too many restless nights. One night recently I was awake until 6:00 a.m., then slept for four hours. Quite the experience, watching the sun rise out of the thick darkness, which feels like a too hot and heavy blanket when I am worried.
“Well, yes, I’ve likely had more than usual stress. It’s the holidays, for one thing! And my husband travels way too much and works too hard and he doesn’t like to go to doctors and i worry about his health…. Then I have a couple siblings who have been dealing with tough stuff. Thank the good Lord my adult kids are doing well!”
“Got to work on the stress, Cynthia. Blood pressure is labile, for some more than others. You respond to life deeply, and you need to find more ways to relax. Your slowly aging arteries gradually also get stiffer which causes blood pressure to increase some. But your stress– that can be managed better. Right? But I need to add a new medicine to bring it down and in a month we’ll check in again.”
Right, just relax, I’m not so young now as when first diagnosed–and perhaps not much wiser. As we wrapped it up, Dr. P. shook my hand warmly as always, wished me a merry Christmas and told me I am still doing well, overall. But I kind of missed being told I am his “star patient,” as he has said for so many years. (I outlived my projected “end date” and that is still the gift he gives me with all his care. And I do count my commitment to greater well being.) But honestly–the perfectionism thing again, I have to be so much better at managing heart disease than others? He was so right, I need to intercept smaller but cumulative tensions that can creep up on me. Remember how much I enjoy my life, all I have to look forward to still living. Remind myself to have a good time no matter the worries that come and go. Let go and let God help more. Life is full of eruptions, fissures and letdowns; it is up to me to keep things in perspective and have faith in human resiliency–with support.
So, give a little, take a little: my husband mostly cooks, yes, but I like to create a seasonal atmosphere that feels special and attractive as can be afforded (not too much, just enough; no commercial Christmas craziness with gaudy or cheesy items all about). I enjoy buying personal gifts for our crew and wrapping them prettily to place under our fresh cut tree. I can amp up the Christmas cheer with a little song and dance, throw in good hugs and welcome each person at our door as my spouse contentedly sweats over the stove. I derive a lot of happiness from doing what I can, the best that I can do. Even if imperfectly.
( Below: Grandkids’ gingerbread houses, a few years back. My cookies with their decorations. I love the snowiness. I’d knock on those doors anytime! )