Authors: Lee Harris
A Fawcett Gold Medal Book
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright Â© 1994 by Lee Harris
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States of America by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 94-94401
First Edition: November 1994
It was my first Christmas as a wife and I discovered pretty fast that fifteen years as a nun and a little more than a year as a single secular woman had not prepared me for the holiday as a married woman. As though a chemical change had occurred within me, I found it was not enough to put up a small tree and decorate it as I had the year before, my first Christmas out of the convent. From deep within me came the desire to do more, much more, so that Jack, my husband of four months, would feel both the memories of Christmas as a boy and the sense that we were starting our own traditions, our own way of celebrating, so that years from now, in the next century, I marveled, our progeny would describe Christmas in our house as wonderful and memorable and the only way to celebrate, an old-fashioned Christmas.
But I had a lot of obstacles. It was easy enough with a man in the house to acquire a larger tree, to decorate it extravagantly, to put lights outside and in hard-to-reach places. But Christmas is so much more than a tree and lights. It is smells, the smells of special, seasonal foods cooking and once-a-year cakes and cookies baking in your own oven. I was almost completely at a loss.
Having entered St. Stephen's earlier than the usual post-high-school age because of the loss of my parents and other family problems, I had never had the opportunity to learn to cook at my mother's side. At the convent, where baking began weeks before the holiday, I had never participated. The nuns displayed their individual talents to benefit everyone, and a handful of excellent cooks and artful bakers, each with a few specialties and the desire to produce and share them, saw to it that we ate well much of the time. My talents
lay elsewhere. I eventually got a master's in English and taught at the convent college. The closest I ever came to a cookbook was descriptions of food in the books I read. Dickens's portrait of old Fezziwig's Christmas dinner was incorporated into my personal Christmas lore.
Thus at age thirty-one I could cook only to stave off hunger and I had never baked in my life. With a policeman husband who had made a more than respectable cook of himself and who had a palate I envied, I was still too shy after four months of marriage to try new dishes, while the thought of baking brought me to a near panic. I had more or less decided after I left St. Stephen's and moved into the house in Oakwood that my aunt had left me that I would survive without learning how to cook. So what if the newspaper of record devoted pages every week to this increasingly popular activity? Did I have to run with the crowd? It was enough that I ranâor walkedâon the streets of Oakwood every morning that the weather allowed. If Jack wanted a good meal, he could have the pleasure and pride of making it for us.
And then one day, as though the calendar had kept a secret from me, it was less than a month till Christmas, then almost two weeks, and Jack, who had never had a tree in his tiny Brooklyn apartment, was talking about trees and decorationsâand food. My panic was palpable. So I did what I had learned to do over the last eighteen months when a crisis loomed. I turned to Melanie Gross.
That I went for help to a Jewish friend is not an indication of desperation but of the affection I have for her and, above all, how much I admire her homey skills.
“You've never made Christmas cookies?” she said in apparent disbelief.
“Melanie, you know I've never made anything. Until I met you and Jack, I thought tuna fish sandwiches were gourmet food.”
“Chris, I gave you everything you need as a wedding present. You promised you would use it. I believed you.” She seemed almost devastated, betrayed by her friend.
“It's only been four months,” I said lamely, wondering if my unkept promise constituted a lie at this early point.
“Nothing's lost,” she said breezily. “We'll start with Christmas cookies.”
“Have you ever made them?”
“Then how do you know you can?”
She gave me her wonderful smile. “How hard can they be?” she said, and I knew we would succeed.
Her wedding present had been all the necessary cooking utensils a new bride would need. Before selecting them, Mel had gone through my kitchen, which was still very much Aunt Meg's kitchen because I had done little to change it. She had oohed and aahed at Aunt Meg's cast-iron pot and assured me it was priceless, but much of the other stuff she felt needed replacing or updating. Cookie sheets were banged up and uneven; cake tins were rusting. A favorite frying pan of my aunt's had a bottom that had risen, caused, Mel informed me, by plunging it hot into cold water. I did not tell her that my aunt had probably not been responsible for the demise of the pan.
The day before our wedding she had come to the house with an enormous carton filled with cookie sheets, round and oblong cake pans, a rack to cool cakes on (I had to ask what that one was for), and a set of essential pots and pans. I loved every shiny new piece she gave me, especially because I love her, because I probably couldn't have arranged a wedding without her and her remarkable mother, but I had not used even one of the baking items. Now they would get their baptism by fire.
Like the excellent teacher she is, Melanie had supervised while I did nearly everything by myself. When my kitchen, where we did our baking while her children were minded by a teenage sitter in their own home, failed to have some necessary electrical appliance, she showed me how to work with my hands and manual utensils.
“Here's how you sift flour,” she said, spreading a piece of waxed paper on my counter and dumping flour into an old sifter.
“Aren't you going to measure it?” I asked with concern.
“After we sift it. Want to know why?”
“I guess I do, Mel,” I said, wondering whether I could stretch my mind to accommodate all this new information
that I had lived without for thirty-one pretty successful years.
“Because sifting will lighten it. There'll be more than you started with. Always measure after you sift, not before. Want to know something else?”
I laughed. “Is this need to know or nice to know?”
“It's nice to know. In Europe, they measure by weight. In a typical kitchen you'll find a balance scaleâ”
“It's much more exact than dry measure and you can weigh first and sift afterward. We inexact Americans have to be more careful. Now, put it into the measuring cup gently, Chris, and whatever you do, don't shake it down.”
And so it went. My stove was neither as new nor as accurate as hers, but she was so clever, she made it work right. (First thing next year I'm going to get the gas company out to check the temperature settings, which I just know will give me all the professionalism I need to pass myself off as accomplished. Alas, the sin of pride is the hardest to conquer.)
When Jack came home that night, late because he went to his law-school classes, he stopped just inside the door and took an immensely deep breath. “Woman,” he said, “I may marry you.”
“Oh sweetheart, it'll seem like the first time. Did you really bake today?”
“With a lot of help from Mel.”
He dropped his books and marched into the kitchen, where pyramids of decorated stars and angels and snowmen were stacked on plastic plates and covered with colored cellophane and tied with red ribbons (Mel never does anything by halves), and he stopped dead, speechless for the moment. “I didn't know how to ask you,” he said, his voice a little boy's, almost breaking.
“I thought you'd like it,” I said lamely.
“It's incredible.” He looked at the wrapped plates lining the counter. “It must have been like losing your virginity.”
I went over to him and wrapped my arms around him, my wonderful husband who had not asked for what he wanted, to spare me embarrassment. “Let me tell you the
truth. Baking is fraught with a lot more terror and possibility of failure than first-time love.”
“Oh baby,” he said, “but just think how satisfying it is.”
I wasn't sure which he meant, but in the spirit of Christmas I agreed with him.
“You'll just love him,” I said to Jack. I was feeling giddy. It was Christmas Day and we were leaving momentarily for St. Stephen's Convent. We had spent Christmas Eve with Jack's family, and we were packing our suitcases in a cramped bedroom in Jack's parents' house in Brooklyn. We had come home from Christmas morning mass a little earlier and were heading upstate as soon as our bags were ready. I couldn't wait.
“Sure I will,” he said. “With all the things you've told me about him, he must be quite a guy. Did you ever find that blue tie? I know I packed it and it just isn't here.”
“Maybe it's on the floor or under the bed.”
“Maybe it walked home.”
“Did I tell you he's picked up some of the Indian languages? Joseph said he's been interviewing the old people to preserve their recollections.”
“You told me twice.”
“I must sound like an idiot. Christmas does that to me. Jack, your parents really went overboard with their presents.”
“They love you.”
“It's so good to have a family again.”
The man I had been describing for the ninetieth time was Father Henry Hudson McCormick, better known as Hudson to his friends, although I tended to call him Father McCormick because I had been only fifteen when I met him. Named after his own father's favorite explorer, he had inherited the wanderlust of both his namesake and his father.
After years of serving at St. Stephen's, he had left for a job that I imagined fulfilled every dream he had ever had. Instead of being attached to a diocese, he was posted for periods of one to two years at tiny parishes serving American Indians, mostly in the south and west. He wrote us wonderful though infrequent letters and sent gifts that his parishioners made, ceramic pots and wool rugs that we cherished and displayed.
Several weeks ago he had left his latest church in a town in Wyoming and begun his way east, a journey he would complete this afternoon at St. Stephen's. It was his first trip back in seven years and the convent had arranged a combined celebration of Hudson's return and Christmas, which Jack and I were attending.
We lingered over our good-byes. His parents wanted us to stay and Jack had had a hard time explaining that although I had no family that compared with his, I considered the nuns my family and I could not imagine a Christmas that I did not share with them. Finally, after many hugs and kisses, we were on our way.
St. Stephen's is up the Hudson River on the way to Albany. It's far enough north of New York that it gets snow, which I feel is a distinct advantage at Christmastime. In the days before the holiday, the nuns decorate the Mother House elaborately with a huge tree, a handmade crÃ¨che, and lots more. The diverse talents of the nuns are drawn upon at Christmas as on other occasions for the benefit of everyone. The bakers bake cookies, embroiderers create beautiful linens for the chapel, rhymsters put together birthday- and Christmas-card verses. But the ones who are most needed at this season are those whose eyes envision decorations and whose fingers make them happen. I could hardly wait to see what the mother house looked like for Hudson McCormick's return.
But even without the anticipation of seeing someone I loved and admired so much, Christmas was a holiday that excited the child in me, that brought back happy memories of when both my parents were alive and the house smelled for days on end of cookies baking, of evergreens and spice. And although my new mother-in-law's house had all of that, it was the convent I was longing to see, the nuns with
whom I had spent so much of my life, the grounds that I had walked with such happiness in every season and finally during the long year that had ended with a decision to leave.
To make the day even more special, my friend Arnold Gold, the New York lawyer for whom I did part-time work, and his wife, Harriet, were joining us at St. Stephen's this afternoon, having extracted assurances from me that there would be no presents, expensive or otherwise, that they were coming for the company and nothing else. In fact, I had gone back on my promise. I had found a store that still sold old-fashioned long-playing recordsâArnold was very scornful of the new compact discsâand I had bought him one of his favorite Beethoven piano sonatas played by Horowitz. I was sure he would forgive my indiscretion.
It was only the third time Jack had been to St. Stephen's. The first was when we had agreed to be married in their chapel. We had driven up on a weekend last spring so that he could meet Sister Joseph, my former spiritual director, who is now the general superior of the convent. They had both heard a great deal about each other, all good and all filtered through me, of course, and the meeting went as smoothly and happily as I had anticipated. On the same day we met Father Kramer, who served the convent and would marry us. Father Kramer had known me since Hudson had left and he was the right person to marry us, having counseled me during that difficult year and having known me so many years.
“We near the turnoff yet?”
The sound of Jack's voice brought me back to the present. I looked out the window, suddenly recognizing a landmark and realizing we were closer than I had thought. “Yes. Just up ahead. I'm glad you've got a head for routes.”
He poked me with his elbow. “Someone has to, right? You were dozing with visions of sugarplums dancing in your head.”
“More like the ghosts of Christmases past. Right up there, Jack.”
He slowed as we came to the intersection. In fact, he had a terrific head for roads and landmarks. If he drove somewhere
once, it fixed itself in his mind. He had been a member of the New York City Police Department since his early twenties and a detective sergeant for the last few years. Attached to the Sixty-fifth Precinct in Brooklyn, he had offered me help two summers ago when no one else would take the time after I had gotten myself roped into investigating a forty-year-old murder in that part of Brooklyn. He was the first man I had met after leaving the convent, and although I had promised myself a year at least of living without men in my life, his sweet nature and gentle persistence had changed my mind, happily for me. He was now in his second year of evening law school, and because of his intensely packed schedule, this Christmas holiday was the first time in months we had been able to spend time with each other. For several days we had actually eaten dinners together, walked through the still-undeveloped areas of Oakwood, the little town in Westchester where I had inherited my aunt's house shortly before I left St. Stephen's. It was a happy time, free of the pressures of reading, studying for tests, and of course, the job. My own teaching, a single course at a college not far from Oakwood, was also over until mid-January, making it a real vacation.
“There it is,” I said.
St. Stephen's rises out of the distance with a kind of medieval beauty. One sees a cross, a spire, a tower, bare winter branches, snow, roofs. My heart, as always, quickened. This was the home I had left and where I would always be welcome.
“Here we are.” We had reached the gate. “There isn't a footprint anywhere. Isn't it beautiful?”
“Looks like a picture book.” He drove along the curving road lighted with candles in paper bags toward the buildings. “Shall I park over by the Mother House?”
The Mother House, the oldest building on the grounds, a large, square, heavy stone structure that always reminded me of a fort, had the largest wreath I had ever seen lying on its sloped roof.
“I can't believe it. How did they get something so big and how did they get it up there?”
“I bet they can't wait to tell you.” He turned into the small parking lot.
“Do you see Arnold's car? Or one with a Wyoming license plate?”
“Negative twice. I think we beat everybody.”
“Good. That'll give us time to say hello. Jack, that wreath is fantastic.”
There were a few cars in the lot and I recognized one as belonging to Joseph. As General Superior, she often needed to travel, sometimes to New York to visit the chancery, sometimes to other places that were nearer by. I, too, had owned a car, which I paid for myself out of my dowry, in order to make a monthly trip to Oakwood to visit my aunt and her son, my cousin Gene, who lived in a residential community for retarded adults. I was still driving the same car, reluctant to give it up while it still had life in it, although Jack thought I should get a new one.
Jack took our suitcases out and a carton of gifts, which I carried. I had bought handmade gifts from a senior-citizens craft group that met in a church near Oakwood. The members of the group came from all religions, their common interest being their handiwork. I had picked up knitted gloves and mittens, hand-loomed scarves, slippers, monogrammed linen napkins, ceramic coffee mugs, and hand-carved napkin rings, things the nuns could use and enjoy.
We hadn't even reached the front door when it opened and my old friends poured out to greet us, hug and kiss us, and pull us into the warmth inside. It was absolutely beautiful. A fire was burning in the huge stone fireplace and I stopped to watch it. I find fires seductive, often more interesting than television. It isn't only the flames that bewitch; the smell of a wood fire has its own mystique.
I had the sense of everyone talking at once, of at least three nuns trying to make Jack comfortableâwhich was sure to make him uncomfortable. The suitcases were shunted off to a sideâwe would stay overnight in the college dormitory, a separate buildingâand someone took Jack's coat and led him to a long table laid with Christmas goodies and a full punch bowl.
The decorations were as accomplished and magical as I
had imagined. Elegant, ethereal, the indoors had become the outdoors. All around me were snow, sky, stars,
star, the crÃ¨che in one area, a fantasyland in another.
“You look like you're far away.”
I turned to see Sister Angela standing next to me. “Angela, how good to see you. Merry Christmas.” We hugged. “I'm not far away. I'm right here, just where I want to be. It's beautiful. It's wonderful. How on earth did you get that wreath on the roof?”
She laughed. “With a lot of difficulty. I thought Harold was really going to quit once and for all and leave us in the lurch over it.”
Harold was the handyman who'd kept the convent buildings going forever. “But he didn't.”
“It got to be a challenge he couldn't walk away from. Chris, you look
Come and have some punch.”
We walked over to the table. “Have you heard from Hudson?”
“He called this morning. He went to mass in Buffalo, where he's been visiting with an old friend. He should be here very soon.”
“Any minute,” a familiar voice said. It was Joseph, looking happy and relaxed. “How's everything? How is your wonderful neighbor, Melanie?”
“She's fine. All the Grosses are fine. She sends her best and hopes you'll visit again.”
“Hudson called about an hour ago from somewhere this side of Albany.”
“You're right. He should be here any minute. How does he sound?”
“The same as always. I don't think he's changed since he turned sixteen.”
“I can't wait to see him.” I ladled a glass of punch into a cup and sipped it. “This is good,” I said. “Mmm, really good.”
“Put enough cinnamon and nutmeg in a punch bowl and anything you add tastes good,” Angela said.
“Oh, there's Father Kramer.” And I went off to say another hello.
We had hardly had time to say anything when I saw the door open. Harriet Gold was just entering, offering a gloved
hand to the nearest nun. Behind her, Arnold came in, stamping snow off his shoes. A tall, wiry man with gray hair that doesn't always stay in place, he had a bright red scarf around his neck today.
I went over and hugged both of them. “Arnold, that scarf looks very flamboyant.”
“Why do secretaries always think they have to give their bosses something for Christmas? I thought it was the other way around.”
“It is the other way around,” I said, laughing. “They do it because they love you.”
“Just what I told him,” Harriet said, taking her coat off. “What a great fire. Look at that, Arnold. Isn't a fire like that reason enough to have a little cabin somewhere that we could go to weekends?”
“If we had a little cabin, we'd close it up for winter and come back to Brooklyn. So your fireplace would just be for show.”
“Hopeless,” his wife said. “You look wonderful, Chris. Where's Jack?”
I had started to look for him when Arnold said, “Sister Joseph is the one I want to see. We were having an unusually intelligent conversation at your wedding when someone put some rose petals in my hand and that was the end of our talk. There she is.” And he was off.
I took Harriet's hand and we walked over to the table where Jack was standing, talking to two of the nuns. As Harriet caught his eye I stepped back, feeling an enormous rush of emotion. This was my family: my husband, Jack; my friend and former spiritual director, Sister Joseph; Arnold Gold, who had given me away at my wedding; Father Kramer, who had married us; and all the nuns I had lived with for nearly half my life. It was warm in atmosphere and sentiment, and I felt both happy and fortunate.
Arnold was already engaged in an earnest discussion with Joseph, and Jack was now sitting with Father Kramer. Harriet Gold was talking to one of the older, retired nuns who lived in the villa, the home maintained by the convent for elderly sisters. I went through the group, stopping to talk to each nun. Many of them taught in the college that was part of the convent, where I, too, had taught for a
number of years. It was good to hear about old students, how they were doing, what their plans were, what new courses were being offered.