Tradition and memory walk hand in hand at the holidays.
For those of us who’ve lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s or other dementia illnesses, the holidays are an especially poignant time.
My mother died in early 2000 after 15 years of incremental deterioration of memory. When you lose someone gradually, it’s easy to forget what they were like before they drifted away. A blessing of this time of year is that I feel closer to my mother because of the traditions and rituals that she instilled in me.
My memories of childhood Christmases in New England blend with the traditions that I’ve chosen to preserve. Our house in Connecticut was built before the Revolutionary War, old beyond old by Nevada standards. That meant drafty windows, uneven ceilings, door latches, wide creaky floorboards and slanting floors.
The angle of the floor was especially challenging when putting up the Christmas tree. Every year my father and I would pick out the tree on a weekend but my mother would put it up during the week while my father was at work.
The tree ordeal involved an antique black wrought iron tree stand with three curved feet, and jagged teeth to hold the trunk in place. Because of the floor slant, we had to compensate by placing the tree in the stand at an angle, hammering the teeth into the trunk to ensure a good grip on the uneven tree.
That done, my mother and I would take turns rotating the tree to balance the slant of the floor with the best side of the tree. When it was just so, Mom would nail that tree stand to the floor and cover the base with a sheet so my father would never know that we put nails in the floor.
This time of year, memories also are triggered by the foods that make holidays special. Soon after Thanksgiving, fruitcake preparations took our kitchen hostage. My mother actually liked fruitcake and assumed that most people on her gift list did too. I helped her perpetrate this myth by mass producing dozens of steamed, rum-soaked, multi-colored cakes to give as gifts and (gag) enjoy at home.
The fruitcake creation process seemed to take many days. We mixed batches of batter with globs of ingredients. Then we submerged batter-filled tins wrapped in waxed paper into the deep well on the stove for steaming. I am sure family and friends are grateful that I am not imposing the fruitcake tradition on the next generation.
But lemon meringue pie is another matter. This Thanksgiving, I decided to attempt the tart delicacy which had been the pinnacle of pie when I was growing up. This is lemon meringue pie from scratch — no box, no mix — using my mother’s faded recipe.
As I stirred the filling over a makeshift double-boiler, I realized I knew how to do this. It just came back to me. It was as if my mother’s step by step instructions were hard-wired in my brain. Somehow, I knew the familiar feeling of the whisk in the pan, and the right consistency of the filling. I added extra lemon to tart it up as she must have done. My son beat the egg whites and sugar into meringue. I channeled for my mother, coaching on the texture and the peaks until it was just right. The pie was remarkably delicious, even evoking praise from my son who was new to the marvels of lemon meringue.
The holidays are a time to enjoy the past, present and future together. Some traditions are meant to be preserved, like lemon meringue pie. But as we move from observing the family traditions of the past to carrying them on into the future, it’s also liberating to let some go. Goodbye fruitcake. So long Thanksgiving parsnips. Hello sausage stuffing. Welcome back, lemon meringue pie.
Abby Johnson consults on rural community development, public involvement and nuclear waste issues. She is married, lives in Carson City, and has one high school-aged child.