"I've got the sauce and meatballs on the stove."- - Mom.
That was one of the most comforting phrases I'd hear every year as I prepared to go home for Christmas. Mom would make both a day before so it would be ready to eat by the time I arrived. Then I would be greeted by the most welcoming aroma as I walked in the door. No holiday scented Yankee candles were burning here. It was garlic and tomato sauce, simmering.
Such was the start of Christmas with Mom. We'd cook. We'd decorate. We'd shop, wrap and cook some more. We made ricotta cheese. I'd arrive with the annual Bloomingdale's signature ornaments. And then we'd categorize who was getting the fancier of the fancy chocolates and
ration the Parmigiano wedges for the gift bags while making sure there was some left over for Christmas dinner.
I've been doing all of these rituals solo this year and last, since I lost my mom in April 2011. I miss her every day but this time of year is especially tough. I've tried to not be so sad and instead relish the holiday that we enjoyed so much together. She's always with me, guiding me. I make the sauce and meatballs now and can still hear her when I form each one in my hands. "Lightly! You don't want them to be tough!"
I still make the thumbprint cookies the way we always did, from the 1960s-era stained and torn Betty Crocker cookbook. I would call Mom in early December every year so she could read me the recipe. Why in the world would I write it down and keep it where I could find it? I looked forward to that annual conversation. I will save that cookbook. I only use it, really, for that thumbprint recipe.
Mom was also a pro at decorating for the season. She was always making wreaths for friends and centerpieces and would head up the decorating committee at church. She also had a knack for turning simply-wrapped presents into presentations. We'd add an evergreen stalk or use a second ribbon for accents. And I can proudly say that I have inherited absolutely none of these skills. Have you seen the corners of packages I wrap?
My job was to put up and decorate the tree. She didn't have one in the house until she was in high school. On the last day of classes before the holidays, she helped one of the nuns take down the decorations and asked if she could bring it home. Then she went to Woolworth's and bought five ornaments for a quarter. I still have them and hang them high on the tree every year.
In 1986, Christmas with Mom was in Rome, Italy. I was an intern at the AP bureau there and Mom came over to spend the holiday with me. And, as usual, she brought a load of gifts, souvenir Cincinnati coffee mugs filled with chocolates, for everyone in the newsroom. How she carried them in her luggage still astounds me. On Christmas Eve, we did as the Romans do and enjoyed a dinner of fish stew and salad at Sabatini's seafood restaurant in Trastevere.
After dinner, we had an adventure ahead of us: walking to St. Peter's because it was 10 p.m. and there was no public transportation running. It was cold and windy in the Eternal City and we walked for a good 30 minutes. But it didn't matter. We were enjoying a magical night: we were on our way to Midnight Mass with the Pope at St. Peter's basilica. Once inside, we saw religious royalty and the beautiful altar right in the center, surrounded by flowers. And even though we were off to the side with the other tourists, we still felt as if we were part of an elite group that were allowed to be there. It was spectacular. The choirs singing, the many foreign languages spoken throughout the mass and the beautiful music that filled the cavernous basilica made for an incredibly beautiful night.
On Christmas Day, I went into the AP office to type Pope John Paul's "Urbi et Orbi" speech in four languages into the system to send around the world while Mom was in St. Peter's Square listening to the speech in person. It was a sunny, cold glorious Christmas Day.
Christmas will always bring wonderful memories of my mom. I will never get tired of the madness of the season because we enjoyed it together. I simply will not get stressed about any of it. Yes, sometimes our emotions ran amok and we'd look at each other and say, "Why in the world did we decide to do this?" before we wrapped up our fourth batch of thumbs, rolled our thirtieth meatball, washed the good silver and ironed the nice red tablecloth. Friends and family stopped in, we laughed, reminisced and played cards. No one checked a text message and the dishes waited.
I am keeping up with the entertaining because I did inherit that her gene for hospitality. Plus, I know it's what she would have wanted. No tears. Just laughter. And a simmering pot of sauce.