Older Daughter’s in-laws always so graciously invite husband JP and me to be part of their holidays. And, really, they make us feel part of the family. So we get all the love and support and good times of a big & boisterous family gathering (slightly dampened this year by the background strains of SEC‘s last Final Four hope, Florida, losing to lower-ranked Michigan). Plus, our family membership means we get to enjoy, for example, delectable goodies such as melt-in-your-mouth fresh coconut layer cake, which I never would even consider trying to make myself because I am lazy like that don’t have enough cake pans. And I love being with folks who put up an Easter tree. So we ate and talked and hid & found eggs and learned the card game Three Thirteen, which I played much like Florida did. Luckily another piece of coconut cake made even defeat taste better.
It’s not that I’m a Scrooge, exactly. I like Christmas as much as anybody does — the lights, the parties, the food, the chance to wear sparkly clothes with impunity. Presents? Santa Claus? Milk (punch) & cookies? More is more. Bring it on. But when it comes to decorating, I lean toward extreme laziness minimalism. The thought of wrestling with putting up the tree and finding unpacking the ornaments makes me want to take a nap. Color-coordinating hand towels with guest soaps, replacing everyday pillows and artwork with holiday-themed decor and creatively displaying Christmas cards in a Pinterest-worthy style are simply beyond me. Our struggles with our%^&*$@ front-door garland this year are well documented — does anybody have an industrial nail gun we can borrow? — and I’ve desperately clung to stuck with our gold mailbox bows now for eight years for fear of having to buy new ones out of loyalty to the young florist who made them. Look, I’ve done the basics. The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, the presents are wrapped and the Chex mix ingredients are ready. What else do you need? Naturally, you can guess that this is NOT the way I was brought up. My mother, with help from my dad, is a top-level Christmas advocate who turns their house into a holiday fairyland. There are surprises and delights everywhere you look and she’s always coming up with something new. As I do with folks who excel at the mysterious skills of gardening & painting & knitting, I admire and appreciate my mom’s Christmas creations without any troubling thought that I really should attempt to duplicate them myself. Thanks, Mom!
One of these wreaths is not like the other — because I made it. These are only some of the wreaths at my art-museum workplace we staffers create to fill in the blank spaces around our annual Christmas trees exhibit. At the beginning of November, we pull out a few fake trees and a bunch of ornaments and ribbons and bags of color-coordinated — well, I’m not sure what the technical term is but it’s basically wreath stuff — and we all stake out our favorite spots and for two days all you hear is “Has anybody seen more of the shiny red ribbon?” or “Hey, who took my sparkly hydrangeas?” But eventually it all comes together. And when you remember that the other staff members are trained and talented artists and I’m … not, then it’s easy to identify my wreathly effort.
Is it fall? Is it summer? Let’s examine the evidence. First, it’s after Labor Day and students of all ages are back in school. Score one for fall. However, second, it’s still danged hot outside, and Boot Day — that first wonderful crisp and chilly morning when you can wear those cool new boots you snagged for 75 percent off this past April — seems like weeks away. So, a point for summer. We’re tied at one-one. Are Halloween decorations in local stores? Fall. Are people still swimming in their outdoor pools? Summer. It’s two-all. Football? Fall. Baseball? Summer. Three-three. Even produce markets seem confused, giving us juicy and sweet watermelons along with plump orange pumpkins & marigolds along with impatiens. Conclusion: Here in the mid-South, September is the month with an identity crisis combined with minor climate disorder. September needs a good counselor. And a meds refill.
Gift-giving is an art. Some people just naturally know how to do it right and always give the exactly right thing at the exactly right time. People such as our two daughters. I’m not sure how or from whom they learned the subtleties of perfect gift-giving — it’s sort of how they inexplicably learned to do hair and make-up so well that our house always was crowded with girls on prom afternoons wanting my daughters’ expertise while my approach to hair and makeup pretty much is a comb and maybe some mascara. But, happily for me, my daughters graduated beyond my meager attempts at gift-giving brilliance and excel on their own. Of course, Older Daughter knows that any gift involving our two grandsons — almost 4-years- and 4-months-old — makes me melt into a puddle of grandmotherly love, so naturally the collection of photo books she’s been giving us on gift-giving occasions is on my Things-To-Take-Out-of-the-Burning-House-After-the-Cats-But-Before-My-Shoes. Younger Daughter, however, doesn’t have adorably precious babies (yet), so she has to rely on her own natural creativity and sweetness when coming up with presents. And for this past Valentine’s Day, she truly outdid herself. My gift bag included coffee beans she knew I’d love, a smooth and silky dark-chocolate bar and two oh-so-cute gifts a couple of her friends made — a jar of chocolate body scrub and a tiny notebook from recycled paper and discarded boxes of tea, tied with a scrap of found ribbon. Love, love, love. Both daughters and gifts.
Have fun letting your good times roll today — whether you’re eating King Cake (watch out for that baby) or pancakes or paczki or your completely-bad-for-you pastry of choice. Of course, nothing goes better with eating rich fried sugary food than our other favorite activity: shopping. Younger Daughter and I spotted this could-be Mardi Gras wreath in Nellie Mae, an adorable boutique in downtown Tuscumbia, Ala., that’s owned by classmates of Older Daughter. And that sort of threw me. I mean, I’m used to my children’s friends being old enough to check my teeth and fill my prescriptions and give me speeding tickets, but buying clothes and jewelry from people I used to chaperon on field trips takes some getting used to. (Stay tuned for more Nellie Mae photos and other downtown-Tuscumbia finds — so cute!)
Oh, I love the holidays — the visiting, the parties, the chance to get a closeup view of other people’s decorations. Luckily, folks don’t seem to mind when I whip out my camera, even though my husband warns the hosts, “You’d better be careful because this will turn up on her blog.” But the homeowners here had a couple of nights previously opened their doors to an annual fund-raising holiday home tour, so I figured they’d be okay with a little publicity. The thing is, this family has spent years — YEARS — renovating and restoring this wonderful cottage in Tupelo, Mississippi. Soon I want to show you some of their non-holiday work, but since Christmas is … wait, wait, don’t tell me … four days away, we’ll stick with the festive touches now. I love the fresh greenery and whimsical details mixed in with vintage pieces, such as these post-office boxes the husband bought from a going-out-of-business post office. He cleaned and shined them and built the wooden case for them with access to the backs as well as the fronts for one incredible storage unit. Amazing! And made festive with a Santa collection resting on the top. Everything in this house was bright and cheerful, the food was good, the company was fun, the wine never stopped and I even heard firsthand the story about a dad who delivered his baby in the car at the hospital because his wife unknowingly has a condition called precipitous labor, which means she gives birth within three hours of the first contraction. In this case, it was 20 minutes. I repeat, this brave woman who is my new hero gave birth in the front seat of her car in the hospital’s driveway a mere TWENTY MINUTES after she felt a contraction. That calls for another Christmas cookie — and sort of makes me glad I’m out of the birthing-babies business.
This is the time of year when my real & actual look-presentable-and-sit-in-your-office job (as opposed to my less stable scramble-around-for-assignments freelancing jobs) in a local art museum pays off, because every year we host a “Trees of Christmas” exhibit featuring absolutely fabulously decorated lived Christmas trees. Individuals and groups from the community each volunteer to decorate a tree, and it’s such a highly coveted honor that we usually have waiting lists two years ahead. The trees’ themes can be practically anything — hobbies, travel, history, arts — and many non-profit groups decorate trees to symbolize their message and good works. The trees by themselves are stunning — they’re live spruce and fir from North Carolina and are at least 12 feet tall. Smells like Christmas spirit! Then the trees stand unadorned for a few days to get acclimated to their new indoor environment. Next comes the decorating, which can vary from noisy and chaotic to quiet and meticulous, depending on the decorators. For example, a retired local educator has taken up the hobby of cutting snowflakes, and he decorated a tree with almost 800 of his favorites. He folds and cuts them by hand without a pattern, and no two are alike. He even does themes — seasons, the 12 Days of Christmas, the alphabet. He spent two days on his tree, hanging each snowflake in just the proper place and spurning all offers of help from opening-deadline-angsty staffers. In contrast, the local Master Gardeners descended on the museum 25-women strong, hauling buckets and bags and baskets full of their hand-grown and hand-dried treasures. They pretty much took over the gallery floor — but had a blast, their laughter drowning out the Christmas CDs. And then there are trees by groups such as Scope 310 Authority, which serves developmentally and intellectually disadvantaged people in community-based settings. Both counselors and clients decorated their tree with works made in art class — the first time many of the adults had ever done any art. Amazing! The Scope 310 folks were so joyful and enthusiastic about the chance to show off their art and be a part of the museum’s Christmas. Makes me smile every time I look at their tree — which is pretty much every day since all of these fantastic trees (and more) are in my very own workplace. Sort of makes up for the wonky heat/air-conditioning system.
I’m rebelling. I’m staging a protest. I’m calling it “Occupy Autumn” and I’m refusing to budge until Dec. 1. Or at least until Thanksgiving’s over. Who’s with me??? I mean, Christmas ads are all over TV, Wal-Mart’s been stocking eggnog for a couple of weeks and my town already has Christmas lights strung up and downtown windows decorated — and all before we barely got out of our Halloween costumes and had time to separate the good candy (anything chocolate, caramel or peanut butter) from the bad (anything that looks as if it came from a basket of restaurant mints). Forget Turkey Day — Christmas*** already has obliterated that quaint tradition and now has set its sights on blasting Oct. 31 out of the holiday rotation. Before you know it, Labor Day will simply be a precursor to the pre–pre-Christmas sales. So, let’s make a stand. Keep your pumpkins and your earth-tone tableware out for a few more weeks. Use those orange dishes and autumn-themed linens right up until December. Let your fall flag fly!
***And by “Christmas,” I mean that whole outspend/out-buy/out-holiday mentality that causes us to go broke and crazy every year about this time. The birth of a baby to a young couple staying in a barn in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago? That’s a whole different story.
I am staging a protest here. Care to join me? In the spirit of the recent Fourth of July celebration, let’s refuse to be bullied into thinking it’s fall. (And if you still have a few fireworks, please move them away from the gas grill — do not ask why I’m confident this is good advice.) Let’s stand up for our rights to enjoy the remaining two months of summer without feeling pressured. Know what I mean??? I’m talking to you, Fashion Industry! It’s early July and I haven’t even worn all my leftover faded sundresses and stained ratty tank tops stylish new summer clothes you convinced me to buy this past January when there was 6 inches of snow on the ground. It’s 99 degrees today, yet here you come with your seductive ads, glossy catalogues and insistent pop-ups: “New Fall Styles Are In!” “Get Ready for Football Weekends” and the always alarming “It’s Time for Back-to-School Shopping!” Excuse me, but no. It is not. Besides, when I actually am looking for corduroy jeans and black wool turtlenecks, you’ve gone on to shorts, sandals and beach cover-ups. So enough already. Let’s throw off the shackles of fashion tyranny and demand the right to shop for clothes when they’re actually in season! Who’s with me? We’ll organize a march at the mall. Hey, if foodies can fight for season choices, then so can we. But … you know … now that I’m thinking about it … while we’re at the mall, would you mind if we waited a couple of minutes before marching because I saw this really cute transitional sweater there the other day and the sales clerk said she was getting in the first batch of knitted scarves and …
And to prove that it’s still summer, here’s a photo of the table my mom set for our Fourth of July family get-together. She’s the queen of holidays and has an incredible storehouse of linens, plates, glasses and serving pieces in almost any color you need. Sadly, she did not pass this creative design-ability on to me, although I do honor Christmas by bringing out coffee mugs with snowpeople on them. So there. What I really like about this photo, however, are all the little clues it has about my family. For instance, the spearmint sprigs on the applesauce came from Older Daughter’s garden that she optimistically replanted after the April 27 tornadoes carried her carefully nurtured seedlings away. My mom loves mint-flavored applesauce because her mom made it when my mom was little. Then there’s the potted centerpiece that my brother brought — the blossoms can be added to the flower bed and the plastic container recycled. And, finally, notice the newspaper in the back corner? I grew up thinking that it’s the most natural thing in the world to eat breakfast and read the newspaper and know what’s going on in the world before you headed out in it. And I still do.