Grandma Simmons' house was always a magical place, but at Christmastime it literally sparkled! Underneath her aluminum tree was displayed an entire Christmas village. This was long before "Department 56" and the collectible, expensive communities you can purchase today. Grandma's houses had been expertly hand-crafted several years before by her brother, and she added dyed-green sawdust for grass, simple dollhouse figurines for townspeople, and toy plastic animals to fill her "zoo." The animals were "caged" in upside-down green plastic baskets, formerly holding strawberries from the supermarket.
In her fourier/hallway hung a string of large plastic lights in the shape of gigantic jingle bells. Each one twinkled on and off intermittently, giving a short "ping" when it illuminated again. Also in her fourier was a shelving unit which held her radio, tuned to the station playing Christmas carols, and a modest nativity scene. Actually, her nativity set was displayed year-round. I asked her once, in May, why she hadn't packed it away with the rest of her Christmas decorations. She replied matter-of-factly, "Oh, Jesus is welcome in my home ANY time of the year." Completely covering her front door was a panel depicting Santa, seeming to be opening the door to greet you. I LOVED that panel! Santa was fat, rosy-cheeked, and smiling broadly. He gestured for you to come in, barely revealing a roaring fireplace and Christmas tree in the room behind him.
I think we spent just about every weekend of December at Grandma's magical Christmas house. Looking back, I realize she was actually babysitting us while Mom was out toy shopping for five children. But at the time, I was under the impression that we were sent to Grandma's to endow her with all of our Christmas cheer! During those years, my Grandma's age was probably around 50+. I'm forty-five right now, and I can't imagine entertaining five children, all of them under the age of ten, for several hours each Saturday, grandkids or not! We didn't have VCR's back then, but nobody would've blamed Grandma if she had decided to plunk us all down in front of the TV, supplied a few rounds of Kool-Aid, and simply checked-in on us from time to time.
But that just wasn't my Grandma Simmons' style. We worked on many different Christmas projects over the month, including stenciling her windows and making ornaments for her tree, but the first Saturday was always reserved for baking and decorating Christmas cookies. Her large, round dining room table, covered with several protective tablecloths, served as our "cookie workbench." She'd already have the made-from-scratch sugar cookie dough chilling in her fridge when we arrived. After we had all donned our aprons (mine had yellow flowers on it!), we'd take our places at the table. Each of us had our own rolling pin and flour sifter. In the corner, Perry Como crooned away his Christmas selections on her portable blue plastic record player. In the middle of the table sat her precious red plastic cookie cutters, in the shapes of a Christmas tree, wreath, stocking, toy soldier, and holly, among others. My personal favorite was the one of Santa's jolly head.
Grandma, already sweating underneath her babushka, would bring in her bowl of dough and divide it up amongst the five of us. We began our rolling, flouring, and cutting, depositing our "artwork" on the provided cookie sheets. Grandma never sat down. She was in constant motion, running from our table to the kitchen, taking away and replenishing the cookie sheets, making more dough, helping us master our rolling pins, and "unsticking" dough from under-floured cutters. She also saw to it that each of our cups of Pepsi remained nice and full so we could efficiently wash down all the raw dough we were consuming (My sweet husband, the restaurant man/health code expert, saw me lick a beater when I was baking once. He scolded me, warning me of the dangers of salmonella. I recalled the gallons of raw dough I had consumed at Grandma's over the years, and laughed in his poor face!).
After our artwork had properly baked, Phase Two began. Grandma would bring to our table the cookies, along with several small bowls of her homemade icing. We added to each bowl a different food color; red, yellow, green and blue (one was kept white), then began our decorating. Along with the icing, of course, were several choices of sprinkles, along with my personal favorite, a jar of maraschino cherries. My first decorated cookie was always that Santa head, because I LOVED to place one of those cherries on his nose (Brilliant, I know! Grandma taught me THAT one!).
Several hours later, when Perry Como had sung "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" for the billionth time, and we had all slipped into cookie dough/sugar icing comas, we'd drift away from the table and head to the living room to watch the color wheel illuminate her aluminum tree and village beneath, officially done for another year. I can't even begin to imagine the mess that was left behind, along with several dozen undecorated cookies. Grandma would finish them up on her own and have everything neat and clean when Mom came to collect us that evening. To this day, I have no idea how the woman managed to remain standing, but she'd still wrap us up in her arms and give us kisses goodbye as we exited her home at day's end.
Like all children, we never appreciated the enormous amount of time and effort that went into that day of baking at her house. Looking back, I know that she enjoyed our time together immensely and she knew she was creating some profoundly lovely, timeless memories. But today, when I recall those beautiful Saturdays in December, I'm completely overwhelmed by the thought of how exhausting it all must have been for her. She never let the fatigue show. Ever.
After Grandma's death, my siblings and I spent an unbearably sad day with my mother going through her house, dividing-up her belongings. When we got to those red plastic cookie cutters, we decided there were more than enough for each of us to take a few for our own. That following Christmas, I pulled-out my portion, ready to whip up a batch of santa heads and wreaths. But I couldn't do it. Somehow, it didn't seem right to be using those cutters anywhere but at that large dining room table, wrapped in a yellow floral apron, surrounded by my siblings, listening to Perry Como. I put them all away and postponed the baking for another year, then another and another.
So this year, in my new home with some extra time on my hands, I've been thinking about pulling out those long-retired red plastic treasures and putting them to use. All these years later, it's still going to be difficult. Missing Grandma Simmons, I've learned, is a constant. My grief's sharp edges have rounded a bit over the years, but there remains a dull ache that intensifies just a tick during Christmastime. Still, I think she would tell me it was time. Just like she welcomed the baby Jesus into her home all year long, I know she is residing in HIS home these days, FINALLY getting a much-deserved rest, and wants me to be happy. So, I'm going to download that terrible Perry Como Christmas album on my ipod, dust off my rolling pin, and honor a memory that's been patiently waiting for my return. Anybody know which aisle of the grocery store you can find a jar of maraschino cherries?
Merry Christmas, Grandma Simmons. Miss you.
Thanks for reading!!