“What one loves in childhood stays in the heart forever.” ~ Mary Jo Putney
Ho Ho Ho and Merry Merry!
How are you faring this holiday season? If you’re like me, you’re probably craving generous helpings of comfort, reassurance, and nostalgia to temper the reality of what has been the craziest, scariest, most distressing, heartbreaking, and unpredictable year ever.
As if she knew exactly what we needed, dear Susan Branch recently published Home for Christmas (Spring Street Publishing, 2020), a keepsake book that speaks to the very essence of the holiday: love, family, joy, cherished traditions and good food.
In a nutshell: good things come in small packages. There is so much more to this little book than meets the eye.
Yes, it contains Susan’s amiable handwritten text (does she ever get writer’s cramp?), a bevy of carefully chosen quotes, and of course, her charming watercolor illustrations.
She relates, in earnest and intricate detail, what her childhood Christmases were like, pointedly channeling her 9-year-old self in 1956.
Though I also loved her wonderful memoir trilogy, I found this book especially touching because her pure child’s heart fills every page.
Aside from being with family, when we say we want to be “home for Christmas,” perhaps what we truly mean is we wish we could be kids again, experiencing Christmas when it was magical, over-the-top exciting, and full of wonder. Before our adult selves equated the holiday with too much busyness, stress, reluctant obligations, and the whole bah-humbug thing, there was a time, when, with every ounce of our being, we believed.
Just in case you’ve forgotten, Susan’s here to remind you — of the anticipation that steadily built to a fever pitch from right after Thanksgiving until the big day finally arrived.
Her vivid descriptions put you right in the middle of the action as her large, never-a-dull-moment, boisterous family cuts down a tree, shops for presents, cruises Santa Claus Lane to see the Christmas lights, and anxiously anticipates the main event: Grandma’s arrival.
On Christmas Eve, Susan’s mom and grandma busily prep for Christmas dinner, which includes creamed onions, candied sweet potatoes, Jell-O salad and turkey (Dad’s job to wash). Susan helps by peeling potatoes and apples and rolling pie dough, before they make Grandma’s famous turkey dressing together, while singing, of course.
Then it’s off to bed early so Santa will come. Before the crack of dawn, Susan employs expert stealth maneuvers to sneak downstairs without waking her grandma, who always slept with her.
Stumbling around in the dark, Susan and two of her brothers check out the loot Santa left under the tree. Soon, everyone comes downstairs and they all enjoy a breakfast of donuts, bacon and eggs before they get dressed for church.
Back home, it’s finally time to open their gifts! Oohing and ahhing and squeals of delight like you’ve never heard before, not to mention the “jumping and screaming, kissing and hugging.”
The Stewart kids then spill outside to play awhile with their neighbors and test out their new toys. Come 4 p.m., it’s time for Christmas dinner –warm, lovingly homemade, ambrosial, and “where comfort food gots its name.” Eyes roll and second helpings follow, before a dessert of warm apple crisp with ice cream, pumpkin pie, and mince pie. Yum!
Through it all, what shines brightest is young Susan’s reactions to everything, with her emotions ranging from full-out joy to worry and trepidation. Nothing is too small to escape her notice or appreciation. After all, Christmas is her favorite holiday and she is, in every sense, all in.
There’s a lot for a 9-year-old to consider, as she tries her best to be “good” so Santa will visit (bad kids got burnt cookies instead); certainly a lot of patience required when you’re bursting with the enormity of it all.
Remember when you wished for a special toy, really wanting it, but were afraid to get your hopes up? Susan had her heart set on a Terri Lee Doll. Would Santa deem her deserving?
There are lovely, sweet moments, too, like when she asks her baby brother Bradley if he can remember what heaven was like (“He was so fresh, his wide, blue eyes so clear, I was sure he could if he tried”).
And the funniest, most suspenseful part? She finds a long, strange-looking present under the tree, one which brings her to tears because she’s convinced it’s a toothbrush.
My heart dropped into my shoes. Oh, nooooo. Noooooo. Why? I was crushed. This was so close to a burnt cookie it wasn’t even funny. Maybe worse. It was almost embarrassing . . . It wasn’t even a Christmas present. It was like bathroom supplies. Who would do that? Tears rolled down my face.
The book brims with moments like these, when your heart goes out to her, when you can totally relate.
There’s an extra layer of poignancy to this story too, since Susan wrote it while her mother was in hospice care. Home for Christmas can be read as a love letter to Patricia Stewart, who was only 17 when she had Susan. As the eldest of eight children, Susan partnered with her mother in the care of her younger siblings and helped with household chores. They had a unique, close bond:
We had everything in common — we both loved dolls, we both adored Shirley Temple and knew all her songs, we both liked to play Jacks on the kitchen floor. A glance from my mom was all I needed to know what I could do to help.
What fun it must have been to have such a young, energetic mother, fully present in so many ways, a perfect role model!
I like how Susan avoided the clichéd sentimentality so typical of many holiday “gift books.” She achieved this by including a wealth of specific detail in a story told with an accessible, intimate voice true to her authentic self.
Baby boomers will especially enjoy this nostalgic look at the late 50’s, nodding in recognition at the familiar TV shows, children’s toys, popular songs, clothing, cars, and home goods. Remember Tupperware, the Mickey Mouse Club, shiny tinsel, glass ornaments, five-and-dimes, Betsy-Wetsy dolls? This was a time when “girls wore dresses for everything” and kids could wander around or ride their bikes all over the neighborhood till dinnertime.
Nostalgia like this makes us feel safe. Simple pleasures, family ties, a more innocent time — all sustain us when the world feels topsy-turvy.
Home for Christmas will make you wish you could be one of the Stewart kids, munching on Snippy Doodle while the tree lights are being hung, eating pancakes swimming in maple syrup for supper, finding Silly Putty, Pez, or new barrettes in your Christmas stocking, just being there in that crowded pink stucco house, the heavenly aroma of apple pies baking in the oven, singing Christmas carols along with the radio.
But it will also transport you to your own childhood Christmases, the big and little moments you will always remember, banishing the dictum that “you can’t go home again,” because you always can. Dig deep. The child in you is still there, and no one can ever take from you the people, places, and memories that truly matter.
The secret of having it all is believing that you do.
Cranberry Tea Cake
I’d been seeing Susan’s Cranberry Tea Cake hither and yon for awhile now, and finally got around to making it. You can find the recipe in the 30th Anniversary Edition of Heart of the Home: Notes from a Vineyard Kitchen (Spring Street Publishing, 2016).
It reminds me of Pineapple Upside Cake, in that you pour the cake batter over a mixture of melted butter, brown sugar and chopped nuts — then flip the cake over onto a plate after it’s baked.
Of course it’s the perfect tea or holiday brunch cake, especially served in “a puddle of vanilla sauce.” There’s nothing that says “holidays” like cranberries. 🙂
Smack your lips with me now: each bite with the crunch of buttery toasted pecans, sweet, rich cake crumbs playing nice with tart cranberries, bathed in rich vanilla-flavored heavy cream.
Are your eyes closed in ecstasy?
Len enthusiastically polished off a piece for his mid-morning snack, lapping up the cream like a crazy kitty. 🙂
Holiday Blog Break
Before signing off for 2020, I wanted to share a special poem.
It’s been challenging to keep the faith this year, but as Madeleine L’Engle shows us, the miracle of Christmas is actually the gift of hope.
INTO THE DARKEST HOUR by Madeleine L'Engle It was a time like this, War & tumult of war, a horror in the air. Hungry yawned the abyss -- and yet there came the star and the child most wonderfully there. It was a time like this of fear & lust for power, license & greed and blight -- and yet the Prince of bliss came into the darkest hour in quiet & silent light. And in a time like this how celebrate his birth when all things fall apart? Ah! Wonderful it is with no room on the earth the stable is our heart.
It is said, “Love came down at Christmas.”
In 2020, surely humanity’s darkest hour, love rained down on us every day, every month, in the form of our better angels.
They could be found in crowded hospital wards, working grueling shifts, risking their lives to save the lives of strangers who were alone and gasping for breath.
They could be found in grocery stores, stocking shelves, manning the checkout lines, making sure we had food even when they were physically attacked by those who refused to wear masks.
They could be found in the modified rooms of their own homes, inventing ways to effectively teach their students via computer screens despite demoralizing exhaustion and lack of viable resources.
They could be found in restaurants large and small, struggling to remain open, accommodating us with ramped up home delivery and curbside service options.
They could be found in our own neighborhoods, running errands for the elderly or homebound, leaving bags of groceries on doorsteps or thank-you treats for delivery people.
They could be found tirelessly and diligently working in laboratories around the world, applying their invaluable knowledge and expertise to develop and test life-saving vaccines and therapeutics amid the deleterious cries of science deniers.
They could be found sitting apart behind news desks, fiercely committed to reporting inconvenient truths and verifiable facts, or hitting the streets to ask hard questions even while the evil and opportunistic called them the enemy of the people.
They could be found making their voices heard by voting in all ways possible, despite the challenges of long lines, closed polling stations, the sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service, fake ballot boxes and a plethora of insidious lies about a rigged election.
They could be found by the thousands, in cities all across the country, risking personal health during a pandemic to peacefully protest racial injustice.
They are all of us, juggling the challenges of working remotely in sometimes multi-generational homes, wearing the hats of parent, caretaker, breadwinner, cook, cleaner, consoler, counselor.
They are all of us, dutifully staying home, wearing our masks, struggling to tame our fears as our hearts break over the widespread, blatant displays of human hatred, resisting an overwhelming compulsion to strike back in kind.
They are all of us, who will not be daunted by the misinformed, selfish, willfully ignorant, greedy, power-hungry, or morally bankrupt, but who remain resolved to preserve our democracy and restore decency, integrity and civility to our daily lives.
Only when we are mightily tested do we clearly see the true measure of human strength, courage, goodness, generosity, sacrifice, and compassion.
Yet in thy dark street shineth, the everlasting light.
We still have a ways to go, but we have made it this far. Consider that a miracle, that we held onto ourselves when driven to the precipice.
Come January, we’ll have new leadership in the White House. Vaccines are finally coming our way. As time goes on, we’ll continue to learn new things about the virus, new ways to best take care of ourselves. We will move forward with newfound hope.
Let’s shine the light of truth in every dark corner for people who refuse to see.
Stay strong and safe, be well. Thank you for sitting at our table this year and for being the best blog readers on the planet. And for those who have lost a loved one to COVID, we hold you in our hearts and send special blessings.
Happy Holidays to All
Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men
With the Gift of Hope and Better Times in 2021
Love from Mr Cornelius, Blue Bear, 70-something Paddingtons, Dr. Fauci, Joey, Kamala, and a True Believer
*At the end of Home for Christmas, Susan’s mom tucks her into bed with Dean Martin singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the record player, so we’ll leave you with that and Susan’s final words:
When I closed my eyes, I saw a navy blue sky filled with stars and went to sleep dreaming of a world where every child believed in Santa, and every parent, too, and every day was Christmas, and every dream came true.
The multi-talented Michelle Kogan is hosting the Roundup at her blog today. Be sure to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up around the blogosphere this week.
*Illustrated recipes and watercolor art in this post copyright © 2020 Susan Branch. All rights reserved.
**Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.