The Perfect Gift

Back gift Awhen Christmas shopping meant heading downtown to wander in and out of neighborhood shops and window shopping meant peering through glass at wonderfully imaginative scenes, Christmas shopping was almost fun. There was feeling of anticipation, even with having to brave December weather, slippery sidewalks and little ones whining, crying or wanting to see Santa. It was just all part of Christmas shopping adventure. After I finished, there was exhaustion, but a good exhaustion, knowing I had found and chosen a special gift for each person on my list.

Those days gave way to shopping centers and mega-stores and then mega-shopping centers, with temperature controlled environments, carpeted walkways and imitation nostalgia.  The entire experience became a bit surreal, like being plopped into the middle of a movie set. I knew exactly what was around the corner of any walkway.  More of the same.

I felt trapped in some enormous maze without any exit in sight…all of which was a bit ironic, given that I had fought so hard and so long for an actual parking place, which in itself was the equivalent to an E ticket admission. 

I think that just gave away my age.

More than a few years ago, I recall sitting at my computer, phone on speaker, listening to my daughter, then daughter-in-law on the other end and sitting in front of her computer screen. It took under an hour to get through all five grandkids’ wish lists, moms directing me to websites and the perfectly desired item and grandma pushing the BUY and SEND buttons.  Efficient, yes. And the kids got what they wanted. But not a whole lot of fun.

Today, regardless of the time of day or night, I simply wandered up and down my laptop, ipad or smart phone screen, looking pictures, descriptions and reviews of special gifts for special someones, all while I sit cozy at home in my robe with a mug of hot coffee. Christmas will arrive at someone’s doorstep, professionally wrapped with a generic holiday tag of well wishes. 

I love Small Business Saturdays. It reminds me of times past, and even though the grandkids now just want cash, easier yet, I can still wander in and out of the local shops in search of a small item or two that may make Christmas just a wee bit more special.

This Thanksgiving, my eldest grandson sat down to catch me up on his university studies.  He shared that he was so very excited about math — Advanced Calculus — and had set the curve on the midterm.  He has found his passion in a subject area I avoid like the plague.  He obviously got that gene from the other end of his DNA pool.

Eldest grandson had learned that he transferred in sufficient credits so he could easily obtain a minor or double major; his counselor suggested something in Engineering, perhaps Software Engineering.  His aunt jumped into the mix, asking if he wanted an internship with her large company that is working on the next generation of satellite and space exploration.

I’ve seldom seen my grandson so excited as he explained the future possibilities of space exploration.

When he paused to catch his breath, I asked, do you have any idea what your great-grandfather did?


It was my opening to share about his grandfather’s father, who was systems manager for the Pioneer satellite probes to a number of planets and then, into deep space.  Evidently, this young apple didn’t fall far from the family tree. 

Eldest grandson was amazed. He wanted to see the binder of all of his great-grandfather’s achievements, which has sat safe in a binder in my bookcase for years, and is making a special trip up to see the binder (and, of course, me) after finals.

It’s not quite time yet, but I do know of a very special future Christmas gift that already has Eldest Grandson’s name on it.



Spanish Roscos

roscosChristmas is one season that is filled with traditions.

My dad’s family had a tradition that was handed down from one generation to the next for oh, maybe a few hundred years, give or take.  It was a recipe is for small round donut-shaped cookies called Roscos (with long “o’s”) that are the traditional Spanish cookie for Christmas.

While other Spanish families have similar recipes, even calling them by the same name, our recipe is special and, as I’ve mentioned, a closely guarded secret. 

You could have asked my mother.  Mom begged for the recipe for over 25 years, but all she could get were the cookies.  She finally put her foot down and demanded the family recipe.

oh, but of course you can have the recipe.

Sometimes you just have to shake your head at family dynamics.

Mom promptly tweaked the recipe just a bit, making the cookies oh so incredibly light, flaky and delicate. The rest of Dad’s family begged for her recipe.  Uh huh. I was the only one who got her recipe, although she delighted in giving the rest of the family buckets of her cookies.

Handing out boatloads of cookies was actually fairly easy.  One batch makes about 400 cookies.  Mom and I both used turkey roasters to knead the mountains of warm dough, while the aroma of sweet wine and anise seed filled the air.

It used to be a family event, waiting for the warm dough to chill overnight before my brothers and I got to help mom roll out the dough and form them into rings to be baked. We were serious about ten minutes.

oh look at mine.  It has to go on a diet.

oh no, this one has been sick.

this one has eyes!

And so it went, with mom rolling the vast majority of the cookies while trying to keep some semblance of order, and my dad sitting nearby, pretending to read his paper but smiling all the time.

I realized much, much later, as my two young children cracked the same jokes that my brothers and I had, Dad must have been thinking back to his mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens and the bantering between he and his sister as they rolled out the dough into the Christmas Roscos.

Later, my brothers and I would wait for the golden cookies to come out of the oven and be immediately plunged into cinnamon and sugar until each cookie was fully covered in the rich mixture. Then, the sweet torture of waiting a few days for the cookies to season before they were ready to be gobbled down or given to friends.

When I was teaching, I used to have my students write about a holiday tradition, and then tell them the story of our tradition before letting them take a Rosco or two as they walked out the door to the Christmas holidays.

Even though the cookies take two afternoons to make, and admittedly leave the kitchen in sugared chaos, I had hoped the tradition might take hold with my children. 

My son and his children are the only ones that occasionally do still make the delicate cookies. I like to think that Dad is still watching over them and smiling at the bantering, joking and memories.

It’s a funny thing about traditions, even at Christmastime.  Skip a generation, maybe two, and those traditions and memories are so quickly lost forever to the ages.




Riding the Rails

trainWhen my grandsons, now in their teens and twenties, were around two or three years old, they were enthralled with trains.  When any one of them visited, I could count on train tracks and trains snaking around the living room like a giant obstacle course.

There were hills and curves and bridges and turn-abouts.  Houses, trees and cars dotted the countryside and make-believe was in full swing on Grandma’s oriental rug. 

The first grandson was still in a stroller but just beyond toddler stage when I took him on his first real train ride during the Christmas season.  He was beyond excited as the two of us drove into the main train station, parked the car, got him out of his car seat (a major challenge), hauled out his rather large stroller and headed in to purchase our tickets.

The entire time, he stared wide-eyed at the trains coming in and going out of the station, not quite sure what to make of it all. The only thing he was sure of was that he was not going to let go of Grandma’s hand.

We got the diaper bag, stroller, my purse, grandson and me into the station.  We then managed to balance everything and buy the tickets for the half hour trip up the peninsula to the next major town. This was becoming more of an adventure for me than I expected.  I need at least three more hands. 

I was not quite sure how I was going to actually get us on the train, but managed to get things better consolidated before our train arrived. Grandson was being the perfect grandson, which was admittedly not how he usually behaved, but he was so excited he was more than willing to follow directions.

When our train arrived, I lifted him up onto the bottom step. He scampered up the stairs and sprinted into the car while the conductor  laughed and gave me a hand with the stroller.  The car was virtually empty and my young grandson had chosen two double seats facing each other.  He was already kneeling on one seat, with face pressed up against the window and excitedly watching and waving at a passing train. I sat down in the seat facing him.

The train started and the two of us just looked at each other with wide eyes and grins.  We were on such a special adventure, without mom, without dad, without big sister — just the two of us riding the rails.

We went by one decorated town, then another, watching cars and people and construction.  Such wonder and excitement!

When we reached our destination, we sort of tumbled out, got re-organized and headed into town to have lunch and do some window shopping. I was a little surprised that grandson had become a little quiet and pensive, even with all the Christmas decorations. But, he perked up over his favorite lunch, and then in a toy store where, of course, he got to chose a small pre-Christmas gift.

Then, the reverse trip back, marveling again at all the wonders of the train ride, but the whole time grandson was a bit more quiet and thoughtful than usual.

Later, when reunited with mom and dad, I realized what had happened as, with great excitement, my young grandson relived his day.

Mom, Dad!!  We went on the train! A real train! And then we got out and Grandma lost her car so we had to go have lunch and get me a toy and then get back on another train.  When we got off, we found her car so we could drive home!




The Christmas Village

Homes speak to me, especially older homes. They call out with all kinds of ideas, usually excellent, about decorating or renovating. Problem is, they keep badgering me to make the changes.  At times I think I could end up with something akin to the Winchester Mystery House.

Long time past, I moved into a new-older home one February.  There was an enormous bay window in the dining room, with a built in shelf across its base.  It called out to me. 

I need a Christmas Village.

That was all that was needed. I pretty much did the rest on my own. 

Because I had never even seen a Christmas Village, other than a group of Victorian homes sitting on a blanket of snow, it seemed that a bit of  research was in order. I wanted a village that would fit on that very large window shelf.

Like Christmas trees, there are all kinds of Christmas Villages on the internet and YouTube but, unlike trees, not a lot of practical information — more in the neighborhood of Show and Tell.  

It didn’t really matter; I had my own personal bay window with its own personal plan:  it wanted a downtown area with a Christmas carousel as well as a mountain area for winter sports and an outlying home area.  oh, as there was a bit of an ocean view from that very large bay window, of course the village needed some water, a shore, a lighthouse and a couple of sailboats.

This had all the makings of a Winchester Mystery Christmas Village, which meant that the next step was pricing said village.  Holy Mackerel, after looking at the retail prices, I could purchase a real village with its own mountain and ocean front resorts. 

Then I remembered Ebay.  March and April are not particularly high demand months for Christmas villages and I got some very good deals.  The village just sort of grew and grew.  I was fast becoming the Christmas Village mogul or sucker, depending on your point of view.

As the boxes arrived, one after another, the postman began looking at me like I was nuts.  Perhaps he was correct.  He finally asked if he could see this village once it was finished.  I invited him back for a December show. Now, I was committed. 

I realized I had no idea, and the internet was of no help, as to how to actually build the village.  The pieces were all sitting on the dining room table, ready to go but the questions were Where? How?

I knew the mountain area had to have height, so I pulled out the grandkids’ old wooden block set and built a mountain.  In time, the framework actually stayed upright and held a village piece, then a second piece and a third.  Whoo Hoo! 

Next came the town and outlying areas.  As I had purchased everything piecemeal, not everything matched, but oh well, that’s the way it goes. Few people even noticed.

The electrical was interesting which is another way of saying it’s an electrical nightmare. It still is. I have visions of my dad, an electrical contractor, sitting on a cloud, shaking his head and keeping watch over the maze of wires and extension cords that worm their way through the wooden block formations.  It all works, thank you, Dad.

The last part was putting on the snow, ice and small pieces that make the whole visual move and dance.  People walking, kids building a snowman, well, you get the idea. This was getting more and more complicated.  I wondered if I would soon need a script.

Finally, everything got packed away until December, when I discovered that the trial runs were time well spent.  The village went up reasonably easily for a two day project and ran all through December. 

My four young grandsons delighted in it and wanted to visit often over the years.  I learned about the current superhero by who was left on the ski slopes to prank me.  I’ve entertained Superman, Spiderman and Darth Vader among others. 

What I didn’t expect was that grown up boys — aka, men, including Mr. Postman — also took as much delight in the village as my grandsons and would spend great amounts of time reminiscing over the village as well as wondering how a mere woman could build such a monster.

It’s been a number of homes since the home of the original large bay window, which is no doubt very sad and empty this December, and I realize that this will be the last year of my hosting the Christmas Village; the grandkids are growing up and superheroes, Santa and family Christmases at Grandma’s are fading into warm memories. 

It’s no doubt time the village gets divided among the boys so that they’ll be ready to entertain their children and grandchildren in future Christmases that I suspect will come all too quickly…





Brain Candy

brain candyIt sort of sneaked up on me and hit without warning.  The steady diet of brain candy has officially turned my few remaining brain cells to carb-induced mush.

It started innocently enough with not wanting to sit through the television reruns populating evening watching options, so I turned to the sugary, saccharin holiday movies. You know the genre — a lonely person here, an unlikely match there and by the end of the two hours (one and a half fast-forwarding through the ads), the couple are together in a sugar-coated match made in a Christmas heaven.

Brain Candy Holiday Movies. You know the ones…those with the predictable plot line, sugary sweet save for a few requisite tears at the conclusion.  I can walk away for 15 minutes, an hour, come back and pick up the story by the time I have a sip or two of spiced cider. Double shot of sweet.

I am just beginning to realize the Hallmark movie genre is extremely addictive.  I started taping the entire lot and cannot quite delete them just yet — not that I will ever watch them more than once.  But the taped library is just like the cookies in the freezer — comfort food in case blood sugars begin to drop. Only this time it’s comfort food for the brain.

It’s not even mid-December — not even two weeks into the candy-caned season, which, come to think of it, evidently officially kicked off sometime before Halloween — and already I have to have my evening fix.  So far, it’s just one movie an evening, but it worries me that soon I’ll need two schmaltzy movies to satisfy the brain candy cravings.

Even the brightly decorated flippen’ Christmas tree, Christmas Village and holiday lights aren’t satisfying the brain candy cravings.  I am officially addicted to these syrupy holiday movies.

I know I could watch other programs that aren’t supposed to take a lot of mental energy — sports for example.  As a San Francisco Bay Area native, this is an unexpectedly intense season for fans and instead of entertaining, the games are draining  a lot of energy. 

We have the 49ers playing somewhat lower than the belly of a pregnant snake and evidently intent on cleaning the entire basement all by themselves while the Warriors — oh my gosh! — are doing so incredibly well that  I find myself holding my breath and turning blue wondering just how long the winning streak can be maintained. So much of my energy and brain cells expended while curled up on the couch watching young men play games.

I think world-wide events have also helped drive me to this place of sugary fantasy.  I used to enjoy the news. But, do I really want to watch 24 hour coverage of terrorist attacks, knowing every few minutes another commentator will be speculating on cause, effect and what’s in store for the future?  Bad enough to hear the known facts without be re-terrorized by 24 hour, non-stop conjecture mongers.

And the presidential contenders?  Do I even need to begin?

Football, basketball, terrorists, commentators and politicians.  They’re draining way too much of my mental energy. Instead, I’m opting for the brain candy.

Bring on the next schmaltzy movie. I’ll bring the Kleenex and hot spiced cider.




The Bag of Boobs

Our sister Mimigift 3 (1) had two sons.  The eldest was the Good Son, who would never think of doing anything wrong or, if he did, was smart enough not to get caught, and the other, well, let’s just say he was a lot like his mother, which is another way of saying he drove Mimi nuts with his antics. 

It was against this backdrop that we entered the Christmas season.  While we celebrated at one get-together after another, we also had fun at work.  Our English department hosted a Secret Santa Gift Exchange in December for any staff member that wished to participate.  The rules were simple:  you couldn’t spend more than $7.00 and there had to be a series of gifts over the two weeks of gifting for your recipient.  That meant we had to be very, very creative. 

We were very creative.  Gift giving became very personalized through limericks, poems, crafts and baked goods. Very few store-bought items were found and we all had an hilarious time trying to figure out who was whose Secret Santa.

Mimi had drawn Patrick, the youngest addition to our department and a bachelor.  Being very creative, Mimi jumped into being his Secret Santa. Day after day, another usually humorous gift would show up on his office desk or in his classroom.  Most of us had figured out the connection but still enjoyed both Mimi’s off-the-wall gifts and Pat’s reactions.

Then, The Son who was just like his mother committed the ultimate crime. While cleaning, Mimi found a stash of Playboys and Penthouses hidden beneath his bed.  He was only fourteen years old. She hit the ceiling. The rest of us with older sons tried to reassure Mimi that this was normal behavior and that the elder Good Son had probably just hidden his stash of magazines with more care, but she was not to be calmed.  Still ranting and raving, Mimi confiscated the stack of magazines while grounding The Son for life. 

As she bundled the magazines for the recycle bin, Mimi got a bit curious and began thumbing her way through the pages of a Penthouse.  It was then that another creative idea came to her.  Grabbing a pair of fingernail scissors, Mimi proceeded to cut out every boob in the rather large pile of magazines. The boobs all went into a very merry Christmas sack.

When her task was finished, Mimi gave the bag a good shake to thoroughly mix the boobs and tied a bright red ribbon around the neck of the bag. She drove the gift bag to school early one morning and sneaked it into the English Office, where she casually dropped it on Pat’s desk.

That morning, the office was a hub of activity.  Not only were we getting ready for classes, and secreting in gifts, but we were also opening our Secret Santa gifts.  Other teachers participating were dropping by both to retrieve and drop off gifts and see what the rest of us were opening.  It was an especially lively time for a group that typically didn’t wake up until at least a cup or two of strong coffee.

Pat wandered in, spotted the very merry gift sack, and started circling his desk, checking out the decorated bag from every angle. He wondered aloud what it could be — donuts, a bomb, lunch?  The science teacher, an adopted member of our office, joined in, offering his seasoned eye on what the bag could possibly contain.  A lab specimen? A dead mouse?

The theorizing continued until all eyes were fixed on the bag.  With exaggerated theatrics, Pat untied the red ribbon and peered inside.  He immediately closed the bag.  He looked inside a second time, and then, closing the bag, quickly looked around the room trying unsuccessfully to catch a smirk or smile from his Santa. Pat opened the bag once more.  By now, we were all dying to learn what was in that bag.

It’s a Bag of Boobs!! Pat announced and burst out laughing.

Our science colleague immediately grabbed the bag and the two men sat down, with the bag between them, trying to match the boobs into pairs. It was quite a sight to behold, two grown men surround by boobs and debating sizes and shapes as they attempted to pair the boobs.

Unfortunately, no one had counted on a substitute teacher wandering into the laughter and chaos that morning, in search of a cup of coffee.  She took one look at pile of boobs, our boob-pairing duo, the rest of us in the boob cheering section, and huffed, I’ve never in my life seen anything like this.  This is totally unacceptable.  I’ll never teach here again.

Just as well.  You really need a sense of humor to be around teenagers every day.

Deck the Halls and Flip the Tree

IMG_0231I did it.  I bought a flippen’ Christmas tree. It’s a beautiful artificial Nobel Fir that does really flip. I figure I’ll have to decorate it for at least eight more seasons to make this an economically sound purchase. On the other hand, the tree is far less expensive than therapy or vacations in the sun during the dark winter season, which means I’ve now rationalized my purchase.  That was easy!

It is a beautiful tree, artificial or not.  Kimberley, who help me through a rather prolonged selection process, is absolutely correct — get the tree that speaks to you.  This one definitely does.

It’s a bit of a new concept to me, flipping the bottom two-thirds of a 7.5 foot, very full Nobel Fir Christmas tree from an upside down position over four locked wheels to a right side up tree.

Now, instead of arguing with myself over the best tree, cutting it down, getting it tied atop the roof and getting it in and upright in a watertight container, I just wheel in the tree and quite literally flip the tree.  Put on the top third of the tree, easy peasy, plug in the light cord into the socket and I’m practically ready for the holidays.

Well, not quite.  First the needles need to be fluffed. Who would have thought?  From what I can gather, the first fluff should take a couple hours; next year will be easier.  I figure a bit of eggnog or wassail and brandy should make the whole process a lot more painless.

In irony or ironies, the flippen’ tree came with two pairs of gloves which I found hysterical.  I know, there’s only one of me and I come with the requisite two hands, but even if Mr. Santa were around, and there have been a few over the course of my adult life, I can’t recall any of them that got much beyond the getting the tree into the stand stage of setup before disappearing to watch a football game, mow the lawn, clean the gutters or anything that has nothing at all to do with decorating the Christmas tree.

So, fluffing the tree with Mr. Santa?  Wishful thinking, I’m afraid, but a nice thought nonetheless.

My friend Terry, who is also the best cat sitter I know (she made me say that), stayed with BlackJack over the Thanksgiving holidays, fed him turkey and now the darn cat won’t touch cat food.  She also provided the comic relief after I returned home from the kids and began setting up the new Christmas tree. 

I rolled the tree out of the closet, down the hall and into the living room, locked the wheels, flipped the tree, fastened its safety belt to make sure it doesn’t flip back on its own, stuck on the top and plugged it it.  It was enormous — much larger than I expected, but whoo hoo, I did it all on my own!

Two hours later, with Terry and me still laughing at the absurdity of it all, the tree was fluffed and ready for decorating.  Honestly, the tree is so lifelike and beautiful, it could have stood without an ornament and have been a stunning Christmas centerpiece.

nah. Of course I decorated the flippen’ tree and, like all Christmas trees, it is perfect.