Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Laurie's Thoughts and Reviews: The Reindeer Keeper by Barbara Briggs Ward - Excer...

Laurie's Thoughts and Reviews: The Reindeer Keeper by Barbara Briggs Ward - Excer...: ABOUT THE BOOK   Abbey senses something special about the little man tending to the reindeer who, along with a century-old farmhouse, a b...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eves in the House on the Lane

The house where Santa came on Christmas Eve when I was growing up was situated beside a lane on a street with a bit of a hill. It was a great place to live when just a youngster and the place I look back upon fondly when thinking of hanging my Christmas stocking with my brother on the taped-together, heavy cardboard fireplace our parents brought down from the attic a few weeks before Christmas. We loved the fireplace. It looked real once the “fla

mes” were plugged in. The flickering effect for some reason made me feel warm and cozy. Sitting on the black cardboard mantle in the same spot every year were a plastic Santa and Snowman. Once turned on, they’d light up. The snowman became a green or blue or red snowman-depending on the little bulb my mother chose.

We always had a real tree. It always sat in the same corner of the front room. My mother insisted. She was a perfectionist when it came to decorating it after my father strung the lights. The smallest ornaments would be hung at the top. The bigger decorations, most of them bought at a local hardware store or Woolworth’s, filled-in the middle and bottom of the tree. Then each branch would be covered in heavy tinsel making it look like something out of a magazine. The decorating of the tree was a tradition-just like my grandparents and aunt joining us for Christmas Eve dinner.

They always came in through the side porch which sat alongside the lane. My grandfather would nudge his old Ford truck as close to the house as possible. They used that particular door to bring in presents-some my brother and I weren’t supposed to see. Years later I figured out my mother hid those presents on the porch until Santa came down the cardboard chimney long after midnight mass and long after we’d gone to bed-but not to sleep.

It was a sight, seeing my aunt with her long hair and red lipstick bounding into the kitchen loaded down with the gifts that needed to be placed under the tree. My grandfather followed carrying homemade pies and breads. But it was what my grandmother carried that instilled in me a feeling of tradition even though I didn’t know such a word existed or such a feeling had a name. Despite the fact that you couldn’t eat it or play with it or wear it or the fact that it didn’t have bells or whistles, what my grandmother carried into our home was the one thing that never changed. It was a constant. It simply was-a silver ladle wrapped inside a deep-blue velvet bag with strings that you’d pull to keep it secure. It was a custom for my grandmother to bring that sparkling heirloom to Christmas Eve dinner in the house that sat by the lane. My mother would always make oyster broth and it was the silver ladle that served the soup into china bowls sitting on a linen tablecloth that had been in the family for as long as my grandmother could remember.

It isn't the gifts or the parties that are remembered long after the tree is down and thoughts turn to spring. It's the traditions, linking one Christmas to the next and one generation to another, that remain forever in a family’s tapestry. To some it was just a silver ladle. To me it was the silver ladle in the deep-blue velvet bag brought to Christmas Eve dinner year after year after year.

Snowy Country Christmases

Growing up out in the country mounds of snow were as much a part of Christmas as the presents. We never doubted if we'd have snow for Christmas. The question was how much of it would there be.

Those wintery Christmas landscapes were strikingly beautiful day and night. Down in the pine grove, trees with thick, white branches looked like Christmas snow angels; fields and pastures stretching forever appeared tucked under the same blanket. In the evenings when skating on the creek-with the silver stars and dancing moon-sparkling diamonds lit the landscape as my cousin and I would talk Christmas lying atop the ice- wondering who got us what, trying to keep secrets, and fearing it would never arrive!

Looking back we lived and played and waited anxiously for Santa Claus in a Currier & Ives Christmas scene-all part of the splendor of a snowy country Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Santa Claus was a Woodworker

My grandparents worked more than a full day every day no matter the season. There were no vacations; no sick time. From all my grandmother's daily responsibilities in the farmhouse-plus caring for six daughters and preparing the earth for the spring gardens-to my grandfather working the fields and tending to his duties in the barn-that farm defined them and left those of us who loved them a lasting impression of what the word "work" both looks like and means.

When my grandfather came in through the back door of the kitchen in the evening after finishing his nightly chores in the barn, he'd take time to relax before going to bed. Besides being an avid reader he was quite skillful as a woodworker. It was that skill that created my most favorite Christmas present ever-a pine desk with a single drawer and matching stool which he made for me when I was seven.

Leading up to Christmas that year my cousins and I weren't allowed in the kitchen of the old farmhouse during the evenings if we happened to be there when this craftsman was at work. As we'd play in the dining room, sawdust would seep through the cracks around the closed door. The sound of that saw told us it was very busy at the North Pole just feet away. But then, it was the season of surprises and I was thoroughly surprised Christmas morning when I found the desk and stool waiting for me when I came down the front stairs. I thought he'd been making me bunk beds for my dolls.

I remember a feeling coming over me as I touched the wood. I could smell the varnish on the pine and envision my grandfather laboring into the night in an effort to complete his Christmas projects on time. As I sat down, I pulled open the desk drawer and found a pad of lined paper with a #2 yellow pencil. It'd been sharpened just for me. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was only fitting this desk came from my grandfather as he loved relaxing in the front parlor where he'd read his Zane Grey mysteries and Saturday Evening Posts. We'd play all around him and he never seem to be bothered. He never seemed to notice we were even there. Reading a good book does that-even after a hard day's work on the farm-including playing Santa Claus for grandchildren anticipating his Christmas morning surprises.

Funny how a favorite gift never escapes your memory-staying in your heart no matter how old you get. And when that gift had been a labor of love, your heart just keeps singing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Gathering Season

Christmas is the Gathering Season; families coming together; generations connecting around Christmas trees and kitchen tables and oak pedestal tables such as the one pictured here. It was a fixture in my grandparents' dining room in their old farmhouse. Weddings and birthdays; holidays and funerals-whatever the occasion that table served as host to those gathering.

At Christmastime, we gather to celebrate. We gather to remember. We gather to share. We did all of that and more around that oak table. As bowls full of home-cooked favorites were passed from one to the other, conversations flowed and connections renewed. When the mince pies made the rounds, conversation came to a halt while outside the snow kept falling.

As you gather this Christmas take the time to sit back and absorb the moments around the tree-around the table. They slip through our fingers too quickly and become memories. Happy Gathering!

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Christmas Cookie Fun"

I know I've written about our chicken coop clubhouse many times; telling you about all the fun my cousins and I had playing and pretending inside that old place. A favorite thing I liked to do was write little poems.
I still like to do that and I thought it might be fun to share one with you-especially since it's a Christmas poem.

This is for all the Christmas Bakers and Cookie Cutters and Gingerbread Men Makers: CHRISTMAS COOKIE FUN

It's Christmas 'round the kitchen;
We're making cookies by the dozen.
We cut them from the spongy dough;
then put them in the oven-
to bake up warm and tasty;
they're such delicious treats-
We have so many recipes-
some with oats and some with whole-grain wheat-
or little chocolate morsels; topped with a brush of honey;
Some turn out square or very round;
Some look like elves so funny;
or snowmen standing with their brooms or Santa in his sleigh-
Mommy calls me her little helper as we pick up from our day.

She brushes flour off my nose and wipes the table clean.
We laugh and giggle merrily while we scrub our messy scene.

Yes! It's Christmas 'round the kitchen; we're baking Christmas cheer-
We wish this was a recipe that would last throughout the year!

Happy Christmas Baking and Nibbling Everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Tradition

While family traditions are as varied as snowflakes, they all come wrapped in memories. My grandmother's Christmas bread remains a tradition in our family. Although she is no longer with us, some in the family have continued the laborious process of scalding the milk; folding in the currants and candied fruit and seedless raisins and pineapple; then letting dough rise three times followed with more mixing and pouring and greasing-and then waiting and praying the batch in the oven passes the family taste and smell test. The bread had a certain texture. We all know it. Its aroma is unique and remains in the hearts of all fortunate to have called this woman Giddy-a nickname given to her by her first grandchild. It caught on. Everyone who knew her called her Giddy.

The attached picture shows Giddy in one of her house dresses preparing the bread with greased tins ready to go. She knew that recipe by heart. She knew every recipe by heart if there was a recipe. Most times she just went by instinct.

Giddy was our hub; our heart and soul. As we ready to gather once again at Christmas I know she's near. I can smell the pine as if I was back in that farmhouse with her-and taste that Christmas bread coming out of the oven of her woodstove. Traditions most certainly do come wrapped in memories!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Christmas Cowboy

Pictured here is my older brother showing off his new cowboy outfit Santa brought him "just a few years back" on Christmas. I'm in the rocking chair. With us are two cousins. Brothers are good to have. Maybe one doesn't realize it for they can be pests. Take this cowboy for example. It's not that he was a pest. It's just that he was the first born and in my parents' eyes-especially my mother's-and my grandparents, aunts, uncles,and cousins he could do no wrong.

Growing up, because he was a few years older, he really never hung around with us younger ones. He never played in the clubhouse or skated on the creek with us. Instead, he hung around more with our grandfather-riding the tractor or going to town with our grandfather in his old truck. Aunts and uncles included him in activities and usually he got to sit at the big table during gatherings. We younger ones were never jealous or felt slighted. After all, he was the oldest. With his red hair and freckles and a zest for life that's never gone away he paved the way for the rest of us. It's since growing older that I understand the value of an older brother.

When we hit our late teens he became my protector. Although his friends would hang out at the house he tried separating me and my friends from them-especially when we were all out and having fun. Sometimes that worked but most times, it didn't! When our father died he became the oldest in a different way. When our mother died he stepped into a new role for me and our younger brother and sister.

Roles in families evolve as families grow and change and lose loved ones along the way. It's memories like a little cowboy sitting under a Christmas tree and his sister sitting nearby in a rocking chair that tie the bond as years flow by. The trick is never to lose site of those memories as we go along for they are the foundation from which we go through life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Wood Stove

I've blogged so much about my grandparent's old farmhouse. I've written about the parlors and the back stairs and front veranda; the dining room with the slanted floor and the bedroom upstairs with a secret passageway. All those memories played a role in my writing of The Reindeer Keeper. The warmth and joy of family felt in that old house has stayed with me through the years and it was those memories that I tapped into when writing about the family in my Christmas story. The barns and fields and pastures and pine grove in the book all stemmed from the surroundings around that old farmhouse. I only wish my grandparents were still alive to read The Reindeer Keeper. My grandfather would especially have enjoyed what happens inside the "majestic old barn" in the book. He was an avid reader; a lover of Christmas.

I'm attaching a photo showing my grandmother cooking at her woodstove. You can see her in one of her house dresses which I've previously blogged about. Her hair is as it always was, pulled up on top of her head and held in place with hair combs. She maneuvered that stove and all her pots and pans like a conductor of an orchestra. She'd cook using pinches of this and dashes of that and the end results were always the same-mouthwatering, delicious meals! Next to the stove-but not shown in this picture-was a woodbox. We'd take turns filling it which was always fun.

To the left you'll see the back door open. You get but a glimpse of the outside which was rolling pastures and hayfields and a bridge down at the creek leading to the back fields. The farmhouse was sold when my grandparents quit farming. The veranda no longer exists. Most of the tall and proud poplar trees lining the cinder driveway have been axed. That barn which plays such a vital role in The Reindeer Keeper was sold; then burned down. All that remains is its lonely silo.

But absolutley nothing can wipe away images of a family living out in the country; working the land and raising six daughters. Nothing can take away this image of my grandmother at her woodstove. I can smell the aromas coming from that kitchen and feel the warmth as we'd gather to enjoy whatever it was she created between doing everything else she had to do. Just as conductors pull together musicians, my grandmother pulled us together time after time around the kitchen table-around the dining room table. She's left us with pricless memori

es and gifts of giving and caring-all something to think about this holiday season.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Just A Kitchen Table

In my previous blog I posted a photo of my grandfather's old barn which played a keyrole in "The Reindeer Keeper." Now I'd like to share another one I found Thanksgiving night when going through old photo albums with my brother. It shows the kitchen table I've talked about several times-the one we'd all gather around as a family at my grandparents. This old table has heard many a great arguement; kept many Christmas secrets; and withstood generations.

I was fortunate to have been given this table by my aunt when she passed away. To say I treasure this heirloom doesn't begin to describe how happy I am to have this table in my home. Tonight my 18-month old granddaughter came for an overnight. As she climbed up onto one of the chairs shown in the picture; then stopped to play with the little ring on the wire near my grandmother in that very picture-before climbing on top of the table and sitting proudly where meals of so many before her had been served-I thought about those who'd sat around this table-especially my grandmother shown here in in her "housecoat" enjoying a cup of coffee in the early morning.

I am certain my grandmother never thought that one day her great-great granddaughter would be sitting smack dab in the middle of where she was quietly spending time. It's sad to think my granddaughter will never know my grandmother. But that's where old photo albums and stories repeated will link their generations. I know they would have had fun together. I know they would have shared conversations around that table for, after all, that's a family tradition.