echoes of Christmases past

Early this week, on a quiet morning to myself in which I should have been doing some chores, instead I re-watched our family home movies, converted five years ago from badly deteriorated 8mm to DVD. Most of the films were from the late 1960's, back when my parents lived in California and before they had children and were only responsible for a beloved, silky-haired black dog named Tikki. Most were of family Christmases in Oregon and California and road trips to the Southwest and down into Mexico with my maternal grandparents and various aunts, uncles, and older cousins. My then-young father didn't understand the cinematic importance of the slow pan, so the scenic vacation shots are rather dizzying. (He also just happened to take plenty of shots of my mom's rear end. Ah, young love.)

So many of the coupled relatives in the films have since split and remarried into new configurations, at least once if not twice, or are now dead—or both. Yet it's breathtaking to see dead family members reanimated in remembered postures and gestures, these clips from past moments. I miss them. Life takes so much away in this circle in which we're spun. Daily life can be hard—enduring less-than-ideal jobs and struggles with money, health, and relationships. So such rituals are important, even if your family, like mine, is half crazy: gathering together, remembering, forming new memories—layering meaning—for it shouldn't all be mere endurance, or what's the point? 

Despite the needed alone-time afterwards to regroup and reflect (equally important for an introvert like myself), there's nothing social I enjoy more than cooking with and for friends and family, conversing, sharing, laughing, and playing—though, admittedly, for me such occasions are too infrequent because of busy schedules and physical distances. But all the secondhand goods I collect year-round to build a comfortable nest only serve this central purpose: warming and nourishing myself and loved ones, making life a little brighter and sweeter.


the 2013 holiday gift awards

pocket convex mirror reflection: kitchen pantry storage

I was already in cull mode again well before Christmas, taking another bag of mostly clothes to Goodwill on Christmas Eve day. Post-Christmas, I'll be hosting family guests for a few days, so today is all about a little early spring cleaning and reflection to start wrapping up the year.

Though I've always enjoyed the Christmas season—the lights, the songs, the small kindnesses—I dread gift exchanges. Because I'm picky, it's rare to get exactly what I want, unless I stoop to handing out a list, and even then, people often veer from said list. So by this age, I tend to prefer receiving nothing—or else consumable treats such as candles and chocolate. (And who knows how desirable my own gifts are to others, though I enjoy giving them.) Still, sometimes people surprise me. So here are my personal 2013 holiday gift awards—tongue-in-cheek, of course.

 1. Most Enigmatic

mirror compact message: "You have everything you need right here"
This was a surprise gift from a friend-of-a-friend. When I thanked her, saying, "How did you know I needed a pocket mirror?" she asked intently, her blue eyes piercing, if I'd read the message. I'm trying to ignore the specific gift context (which is too complicated and personal to explore here) and focus on the more general meaning: Be content with what you have. That's a hard one. This gift, which I suspect was not purchased but gathered from a corner of her house, also wins for most philosophical and economical.

2. Best White Elephant

secondhand gift: vintage Cuisinart Pro Custom 11 (Model DLC-8S)

Because my friend Jeff, his mom, brother, and sister-in-law have turned secondhand resale into their family business, they all go thrifting regularly and often. And since I've been wanting a real Cuisinart food processor for ages and since Jeff's mom had two extra ones just lying around, waiting for resale, I ended up with the yellow one, which runs perfectly, has all its parts, and only needed a good scrub. (It's disgusting how inadequately many people clean their appliances, dried food gunk left stuck in all corners. Just use a hot, soapy rag right after cooking, sheesh!) Jeff's mom thinks she paid around seven dollars for this one—quite a steal. This gift also ties for most practical with #3.

3. Best Gift to Self

new eyeglasses order receipt

Long delayed and right before Christmas, I finally went to the eye doctor after seven or so years, now that I have vision insurance, ordering myself a new pair of eyeglasses and new contacts. Self-care? Check.

4. Most Decadent

box of chocolates

The winner was actually the Belgian chocolate box my sister sent, but those are already gone (ahem). After eating this box, I'll be going on a diet (of the "eat less, exercise more" kind). The homemade cookies Jeff's mom gave me came in a close second—delicious but fortunately made with shortening, making them easier to decline.

5. Most Masculine

mahogany teakwood scented votive

If candles can even be said to be masculine, this scent wins, smelling like aftershave. Whenever I walk anywhere near the bathroom, I find myself wondering where the strange man is hiding.

6. Best Meal

still life: onions, garlic, and butternut squash

Though my mom's potato salad recipe is the best ever—full of mustard, dill, and vinegar—crowning the Christmas Eve buffet, Jeff's garlic-thyme mashed potatoes at Christmas dinner were delectable, my own wee Brussels sprouts cut from the stalk and oven-caramelized in yet another Le Creuset pan were naturally sweet and endearing, and I was told Jeff's prime rib was melt-in-your-mouth tender (though to me it just looked like dead, bleeding cow). I don't have a photo, so you'll just have to trust me.

Here's hoping you, too, are enjoying a memorable holiday week!


free holiday tree

vintage red ball ornament on bare branch

A few Saturdays ago on my way to the post office, I noticed a couple of branches fallen after a storm off the old ginkgoes in one of the parks, but the branches were too large and there were only two. So after my errand, I headed back uphill, when around the perimeter of a parking lot I noticed some smaller branches fallen on the ground. I picked up a couple and then a few more, and then began seeing them everywhere, not only on the ground under the big trees but fallen onto the trimmed, interspaced bushes underneath the trees. I kept collecting, gleaning branch after branch of unknown tree limb—tree fingers, really—until I had a large armful, ignoring the glances from passersby who I'm sure were wondering why this clean woman in a wool cap and poncho was gathering kindling in the AAA parking lot.

I carried them over the mushroom stand at the farmers market, which was fortunately at the lower edge of the relatively uncrowded market (it being chilly), and then toted them up to my apartment without too much doorway wrangling. The hard part became arranging them in my big round glass vase with the narrow bottom, without its tipping over. It was a messy process, the branches full of yellow lichen and green moss, shedding dirt, so after I was done, a good vacuum pass was required. And while I preferred the look of the branches in the glass vase, I couldn't keep it from tipping and so finally stuck the whole thing inside one of my large baskets, after dumping out the knitting supplies.

reflection in glass teardrop ornament

Jeff later had the bright idea of finding some white sand to anchor the glass vase, and that would look lovely, but I haven't yet gone searching for white sand and probably won't bother. In any case, my "tree" was free.

vintage red ball ornaments on gleaned branches

Thanksgiving weekend, on the one precious day all to myself, I pulled out my grandmother's red ball ornaments I remember hanging off her green artificial tree each year, and hung them from these bare tree branches, adding some glass raindrop ornaments I've had for years—minimal, elegant, and unexpected. The table arrangement takes up half my main room, but since I don't yet have chairs and can't use the table for dining, so what? My holiday tree looks best at night, lit by candles and vintage lamps, but even at midday on the coldest day of the year, it brings good cheer.

 tree branch arrangement with glass teardrop and red ball ornaments

However, for those who don't feel like gathering fallen tree branches this frigid December, free Christmas trees can be found on Craigslist. Checking the free section occasionally for kicks, I've seen two different free-pine-tree posts for the Portland area in the last couple weeks: one, a guy who was giving away scores of real, thinned forest trees he was calling "Charlie Brown trees" like the ones my family would cut with a permit in the southeastern Oregon mountains decades ago, and the other, someone who had bought a large Douglas fir but really had wanted a noble fir. Ever a theme on this blog, someone's surplus (or indecision) could become another's gain when that person thinks outside the Christmas-tree lot.



backlit main-room window, glass mesh

I came home on a wet Sunday afternoon after visiting friends to find a homeless man in a pulled-down knit hat and dirty brown coat sitting hunched over on his side, passed out in the building entryway. He never stirred when I moved past, put my key in the lock. I thought about calling the manager but figured the guy was drunk and harmless. Homeless people curl up in many doorways downtown in their thick sleeping bags, on their cardboard, especially in front of churches. But this was the first at my doorstep. We're having record lows in Portland this week—in the teens.

Then last night, I found out my neighbor came home the other day to a young homeless man passed out on our floor outside the elevator. She tried calling the manager, who didn't answer, and then the cops. What's next? I'll come home to a man sleeping outside my apartment door? Let me in. It's cold.

At a freeway exit I pass every night on the way home, transitioning from carpool to MAX, I see an old woman walking up and down at the stoplight, her sign saying she's in her 80's and needs help. She wears a head scarf over her white hair and layer upon layer of clothing, bundled up ten times her size, a plastic bottle of water and a wheeled white shopping cart stashed at the corner, tucked under the overpass guardrail, her job every night to beg from commuters on their way home who take pity on a poor old woman out in the dark, in the cold. Is this the future? Is this the best we can do?

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