…My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

***

…These woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.

– Robert Frost, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

the earth turns and i eat whipping cream.

this morning, at 4:59 am, that dread hour from which parents rarely wring any further sleep once wakened, a cry went forth from the little green room that is our children’s. i padded from bed and soothed and hushed until there was silence again.

they heaved and sighed and rolled over and were gone, back to slumber land.  too small to know the fear of not getting back to sleep again.  too small to know that their clockwork little bodies would be waking them – and me – again within the godforsaken hour.

i knew.

still, i tiptoed back to my bed in the blackness and burrowed into the warmth of duvets and the dark that blankets the long dawn of the shortest day of the year. and i lay quiet and bleary and consoled myself with the promise of pineapple cream for breakfast.

you may have to get up, the voice inside my head whispered gently, but you don’t have to work today. you and the kids can stay in your pajamas. and eat glorious Christmasy concoctions of whipping cream and, uh,  gelatin and crushed pineapple. sweet joy on a spoon. you can eat it ’til it’s ALL gone.

i cooed, and exposed my belly so the voice could rub it. then i remembered. i’d finished all the pineapple cream the night before.

i cried myself back to sleep and Dave got up with the kids
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when you are the only child of an only child, you inherit strange things. habits, insularities, responses to human behaviour that you eventually discover, launched from the nest, are not the ways of people accustomed to broader interactions or to jockeying for position within families.  but treasures, too. capacity for intense one-on-one conversation. all the family photo albums, from when god was young. a glass lemon juicer from your great-grandmother’s 1901 wedding, because your mother already got one for hers so to you comes the handmedown. your grandmother’s Art Deco engagement ring and wedding bands, worn on the third finger of your left hand in marriage and out, just as they were worn by her.

recipe books.

my junior high did not have a cafeteria. it was also only three blocks up the hill from my grandmother’s house. she was pushing 80 that year i started seventh grade and my mother had caught her eating a spoonful of ancient jam from the fridge and calling it “dinner” the summer before, thus it was decided i would have my lunches at my grandmother’s at least three days a week. my mother worked. my grandmother was lonely. and sandwiches? meh.

she promised my mother she would make me a hot lunch. this which she would not do for herself, she did gladly for me. i promised my mother i would go, faithfully. this which i’d otherwise have shunned for the cool autonomy of a brown paper bag, i did for my Nannie. or so i thought. my mother’s bargain was wise, a great gift.

we were always close, my Nannie and i. but this ritual of eating together, adolescent and octogenarian, brought me into an awareness of her world and the times she’d lived in a way that all the younger afterschool days at her house never had.

she was a contradiction in eras, my grandmother.  some days, i would arrive to old recipes, puddings from the old country she’d never seen or biscuits just out of the oven, the tiny ancient biscuit cutter made of iron, her mother’s. other days, the 50s reigned, and i would arrive to casseroles of tomato soup or cream of mushroom soup, served with bright green pistachio Jello pudding, her miracles of modern convenience.  she served me Tang until the last, believing it a treat. she bought pop only at Christmastime.

and at Christmastime, the pineapple cream.

it was a hybrid, relic of her Victorian roots yet reinvented in shiny 50s to incorporate handily imported canned goods. it is a miracle it was not reinvented to include Jello.

every year she served it in the same bowl, a thick glass objet d’art with deeply scalloped edges, so its gelatinized sides shaped the indulgence within. it was only made at Christmas. there was always a little left…carefully saved, slightly dried out…for me on the first day back to school.

it was rich and mild and creamy and just barely sweet. it tasted better than anything i have ever eaten since.
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in the last years, when my grandmother had to give up first the house she’d been born in and then the apartment a block away, the one my mother lives above right now, i inherited her recipe books. they were old things, crumbling, their pages stained brown with butter and time, larded with newspaper cutouts of recipes paper-clipped to the pages, and rich with her commentary scrawled on the entries.

“from Muriel R,” reads one, “keep oven low or a little tough.”

another, for dumplings, “sift flour carefully. Get lumpy fast.”

i have never made a dumpling in my life. but these books sing to me. and the one i love the most, despite its prosaic surface, is a coil-bound scribbler i bought myself just before i made the big move West.

you promise me you’ll eat, she’d said in passing, wet eyes acknowledging that i was already gone.

i promise you i’ll COOK, if you help me, i said in return a few days later. and i handed her the scribbler and a list of all my favourite childhood recipes.

i have it still, tucked into the island where we eat everyday. the pages are beginning to yellow, fifteen years later, and even brown in places where butter has smudged them. every time i open it, her handwriting stares up at me, her slanting tidy script from before it got away on her.

i was here, it says to me.  i loved you.

i have made it every Christmas, excepting that one year in Thailand. this year Oscar and i went to my mother’s apartment with the scribbler, and we made it in the heavy scalloped bowl which my mother has not seen fit to bestow into my possession just yet. i polished it off last night and woke thinking of it. i keep my promises.

PINEAPPLE CREAM (also called Bavarian Cream, can be made with fresh strawberries if in season – so sayeth the original notes)
2 level tbsp gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
1 can crushed pineapple (do not drain)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
3 cups whipping cream (too much, say the notes. the first few years i raised my eyebrows at this, as i come from the there’s-no-such-thing-as-too-much school of whipped cream appreciation, but damn, she was right. 2 and a half? about perfect.)

Soak gelatin in cold water 10 minutes. Heat pineapple, add sugar, lemon juice & gelatin. Chill – when slightly thick, fold in (pre-whipped) whipping cream. Chill until set (preferably in pretty bowl).

It does not say devour. enjoy. but it should. Merry Christmas.
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i sent the card to Evelyn, replete with last year’s Christmas photo of the kids, since we didn’t quite get around to doing one this year. she won’t know, i figure.

i also discovered that the dude who works at the desk next to Dave’s knows the former owners of the house, so her card found its intended home with them, as well.

and…thanks to all of you and the faithful – and possibly illegal – frequent voting of my lovely and enthusiastic mother-in-law i came first, somehow, in the Best Personal Blog section of the Canadian Blog Awards! the raw data Saturday showed me in second, but i apparently squeaked ahead of the oh-merciful- heavens-why-wasn’t-i-reading-her Better Now not because of overall votes but because i was more people’s backup choice. yay for second-best! apparently close does count. http://cdnba.wordpress.com/finalists/finalists-and-winners-2009/

i also came second in the Best Overall Blog category, and third in Best Family Blog. a perfect trifecta, i think?i’m not much of a betting woman, though: i’d never have bet on this kind of result.  but i’m happy. and proud. and grateful, to all of you who took the time to help make me feel this good on a Monday when i’ve been mostly awake since 5 am.