Tuesday, January 06, 2004


Light of the World, Composite Photo from  NASA

Light of the World, Composite Photo from NASA

Today is Epiphany. According to a post at a Yahoo liturgy group, the feast of Epiphany follows the 12th Day of Christmas. Until I saw that, I always thought Epiphany was the 12th Day of Christmas. One of the ways I observe Christmas is that I put my decorations up on Christmas Eve and take them down on January 7, the day after Epiphany. The end of the Church's celebration of Christmas is on January 11, the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.

I inadvertently lied in my Christmas letter where I wrote that "new blatherings and the occasional profundity" were being added to my blog almost every day. But I'm back now after a hiatus to blather and attempt to be profound again in this new year.

In the weeks before Christmas, I had difficulty planning how to spend the day. I keep Advent pretty strictly to prepare for the coming of Christ. I know that celebrating His birth is the only thing that really matters. Advent consists of four weeks of waiting and lighting a new Advent candle every week and praying and looking forward to the coming of the Lord.

Keeping the four weeks before Christmas low-key makes Christmas more of a joyful day, rather than an anticlimax. In my experience, if you don't eat, drink, buy, cook, and decorate everything that the newspapers, magazines, and TV shows tell you that you need to eat, drink, buy, cook, and decorate in order to have a happy holiday, and if you don't go to every holiday party and sing every carol ahead of time, when the actual big day comes everything about it glows and warms and gratifies. So, on Christmas Day is when I try to start my Christmas celebration, not end it.

But making plans about how to celebrate Christmas Day itself after Mass are always emotionally charged, because on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and to a lesser extent on every Sunday I am driven by some leftover visions of family felicity that still dance in my head.

My past attempts at creating idealized family celebrations were doomed by the fact that nobody in my world but me wants to put on these tableaux vivantes I have always imagined. As a result, I am the only player, set designer, producer, carpenter, everything. Anyone else who might be present takes the role of "audience member." As a result, all the work falls on me, my feet and my back give out on me, And I get extemely resentful, with denied expectations raising their ugly little heads. No joy is had by anybody. When Mother is not happy, no one is happy.

These recollections discouraged me during Advent. And I just don't have the energy to do the things I used to do by myself or with the reluctant help of my children. For one thing, I didn't want to spend the day it would take me to buy and put up a tree and have to spend another a day or two to take the tree down and put all the decorations back into the basement after Epiphany. And, what made the tree hard to skip, was my remembering that I used to swear I would never have a Christmas without a tree, and it wouldn't be an artificial one either.

And presents, what would Christmas be without presents? Three weeks ahead of time I had sent email to Lib (at work at Cisco a few miles away) and Lauren (doing something that keeps her busy in Salem, Oregon) with suggestions about things I could use for Christmas present ideas. (Bigger steamer basket, travel clock from Fry's that is automatically in sync with the atomic clock, and my biggest wish, a new faucet from Orchard Supply that has a big curvy spout that you can stick any kind of big pot under, in brushed stainless steel, with a sprayer built in. I would really like to have a sprayer.)

Lauren wrote me back that she didn't want to do anything to celebrate Christmas, it stresses her too much. I agreed to that glumly. I just wish I could see her. The fact that I haven't seen her for about three years just kills me. This year, her girlfriend was planning to travel to Idaho to visit her family, and Lauren wanted to stay in their house alone stress free. Okay. fine. All I can say is "Ouch. Ouch. Ouch." My heart hurts. Not my physical heart. My mother's heart.

A few days in advance, Liberty asked me what I wanted, and then when I looked at him questioningly, he said he'd lost my email. We talked it over and decided not to exchange gifts. He said not having to get me a present was a present. He found the idea of shopping too stressfull too.

For me the only present I wasn't ready to do without was for him to accompany me to Christmas Mass.

I almost forgot to mention that we even decided that I wouldn't stuff stockings either. I always stuff stockings.

And we talked about what to do for Christmas dinner. I told him I didn't want to do all the cooking and be left with the clean up like I had been the last year. To my amazement, Liberty said, "Well what if we share the work?"

Liberty's friend Piers comes to holiday dinners pretty regularly the past couple of years. He used to come sporadically. One Easter, he came with a girlfriend, long since departed. His brother is living with him, so we invited both of them. They didn't have time with their work schedule to go their mother's in southern CA.

Liberty decided to ask his friend Piers and his brother Luke if they would want to cook something to contribute to the holiday meal. For our part, Liberty and I decided we would provide lamb. honey glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and salad. He bought a leg of lamb a few days ahead of time, and we went shopping Christmas Eve day for the vegetables. I threw a box of hazelnut centered chocolates into the cart, in place of the treats I usually put into the stockings, I told him. We planned to buy a pie from Baker's Square and bought some vanilla ice cream to top it. Buy a pie! Horrors, there goes another thing I said I'd never do.

He also bought all the items on a shopping list from Piers for the veggy dish Piers planned to cook. Liberty referred to it as "Orange Stuff," thought it would be a dip.

Piers and Luke really did make the "orange stuff," which they don't really call "orange stuff. " Incidentally, the dish is a delicious mix of steamed fresh green beans, carrots, pearl onions, brocolli, mushrooms, and zucchini, in a white sauce enriched by a big chunk of cream cheese melted in and topped with grated cheddar. Adding cream cheese puts the recipe a little over the top, but the rest of the recipe was similar to how The French Chef cookbook tells you how to cook vegetables, with the differences being that only one or two vegetables would be cooked together, and the white sauce would be called Veloute or Bechamel.

I marinated the lamb with garlic, rosemary from my garden, and red wine. And we all worked together on the rest of the dishes. It was a pleasure to be cooking with them instead of having to do it alone. Piers made a good stab at keeping the dishes washed up as we went along. And the more I thought about it, the more impressed I was that a guy in his mid thirties made a white sauce. Most American women I've met have cooked their whole lives without making a white sauce. In American cuisine, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup is our white sauce.

Before the big day came, I was afraid that in spite of myself I would feel deprived at having no gifts. But then God provided in that area too.

My friend Marlene had early on sent gifts that I'd laid out on the coffee table still wrapped. Then to my surprise, on December 23, Anna Pham, who owns the Pho World Vietnamese soup restaurant in Milpitas, called me and asked if I would be home that night. She came with two bags of wrapped gifts (!) which I added to the gifts that Marlene had sent.

I started to feel like I was living an O'Henry short story. Anna said to me, "You probably don't remember this but about 10 years ago you gave us a gift of money when we weren't doing very well." "I do remember," I said. "I was afraid you might have been offended. I remember that you gave me that big glass plate stamped with Christmas scenes in return." I gestured towards the hutch where I'd displayed the plate, then I stopped because I remembered that I'd given the plate away a few years ago.

When I used to live nearby in the Mill Creek apartment complex, I ate fairly frequently at the Pho restaurant. I didn't used to talk with Anna hardly at all, because she was usually in the back room cooking and directing the staff, and she wasn't as outgoing as her husband Min. In his own inimitable way, Min played schmoozing restauranteur, greeting people, making jokes, trying to establish rapport.

To tell the truth, Min actually only makes one joke. You go to the register to pay on the way out, and he inflates your bill. "That will be 500 dollars," for a five dollar purchase.

"I used to be a technical writer too," he told me once. I heard him tell another customer he used to be an engineer like him too. And another time he told me he had the same birthday as I do, October 3, 1945, and I was very touched that we two were born on the same day so many miles apart, me in the United States, and him in Vietnam. I guess you could say I had been very touched (in the head) to have believed him.

Their daughter Mary and son Teddie also worked there. Mary was about 15 when I first went there, with long black hair past her waist, clear-skinned, and slender. Men's eyes would follow her, and she would toss her long hair as she walked by them. Then the kids went to college. Teddy to Renseller Technical Institute and Mary to San Jose State.

I was alone the year that I gave the Phams money. Liberty and Sunshine were living in Minnesota. The last time I had been to the restaurant, Min had told me they would be working their usual 12 hour day on Christmas, that they had no money.

During the early evening on that Christmas Day, I had dropped by with one of my Christmas cards and letters with 40 or 50 dollars in the envelope. Now Anna told me that they used the money to buy a mop they hadn't been able to afford. That mop was long since replaced by another one, she said, but she still thinks of me when they clean the floor.

I never gave them money on any other Christmas because of what happened one Saturday the next Spring, when I went to the restaurant. Mary was in college and still working there weekends. "Come look at the cheap car my father bought me." She brought me out through the back screen door to show me a Mercedes. After that I didn't know what to think. I guess I thought that their poverty had been another one of Min's little jokes.

Now I understand that at least for that one Christmas day, that family didn't have enough spare money to buy a mop, and that something prompted me to give them enough money to buy one.

I have gotten to be more friendly with Anna than Min over the years because she started showing up at daily Mass in St. John's in Milpitas. This gave me my first chance to talk to her away from the cash register.

Anna went on to tell me this too, "I wasn't Catholic until I married. And Min doesn't teach me anything, but you taught me. Thank you." She saw my giving them a gift as a lesson in how to be a Catholic!

Oh my this is humbling.

The truth is that I know I got more back from them than I gave. Most of the times I've visited the restaurant since then, Min either gives me the food free or gives me something new to try at no cost. In the nine or ten years since then, I have probably eaten way more than $50 worth of free chicken salad, tapioca and bean deserts, spring rolls, vietnamese coffee, and pho.

There's even more to this story of the multiplication of gifts.

The day after Anna came by after I was done shopping with Liberty, I dropped a Christmas card and letter off at Annette's house. Annette stood at the top of the stairs at her bedroom door. Because she is still recovering from a valve replacement and triply bypass on Thanksgiving, she didn't come down. Davide and Nia the two grandchildren who live there pranced in front of her and greeted me and then pranced away.

Annete's daughter Angela's mother-in-law Truda is staying there to help Annette while she recuperates. Truda came out in the upstairs hallway and said hello too, and then she called for Angela, because, Truda said, I had to stay until Angela gave me something. When she appeared, Angela handed me a wicker laundry basket she'd decorated with cloth poinsettas and a big red ribbon and filled with Avon products and other gifts and a tin of homemade cookies the kids had made. I got tears in my eyes. "I didn't get you anything this year." "But you usually do," Angela said.

At the end of my first officially giftless Christmas day, after we were done with dinner, I gave the three guys and myself airplane kits I'd picked up at half price at Baker's Square when I bought the pie. We sat in the living room and assembled them, consulted among ourselves about how to best wind the rubber bands that power the propellers, and went off to Baquesto Park. It gets dark early this time of year, and the park was muddy. But no matter.

We'd wind up the planes and launch them, and then we'd lose track of them unless they passed through the dim orange glow of one of the energy efficient streetlights. I'd put my tail assembly on backwards, so I had to create some fake flaps, but even so my plane flew tolerably well. Piers's plane was such a good flyer that it landed high in one of the park's sycamores. While Luke and Liberty and I kept flying and trying to avoid mud and puddles, Piers was occupied for 20 minutes throwing sticks until his plane finally came free. I think that Scrooge might have envied us, three young men and an old gal, in our silly pursuit, if he had been watching with the Ghost of Christmas Present.

It was so much fun that I forgot to open my gifts until the following day.

I want to try giftless Christmas again next year.

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