Up late one night I was delighted to find one of my favorite movies on television, 84 Charing Cross Road. The book is truly one of my favorites, and Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins do a stellar job in bringing my beloved novel to life.
In one scene, it’s Christmas time and a lovely cathedral in London is performing Handel’s Messiah by a beautiful choir. Suddenly I was transported back to Christmases past.
We used to all live here in San Francisco. My sister lived on Pacific Heights, my parents had that lovely flat on Russian Hill, which I still think of as my permanent address as it was since I was 15, years before my parents moved in.
Family friends lived there for years, the Days, and they proffered me the use of their mailing address so I could register for school and for the use of their 6 foot bathtub since the luxury of a long bubble bath was much needed by a teenager while Mom and I were living on the boat.
Meantime, Mom married my darling stepdad and I graduated from high school and left home to my first apartment with my beau. When the Days moved to DC and my parents moved into the flat it really felt like we were all coming home. I lived nearby in various apartments on Russian Hill and then later on Cathedral Hill to be closer to the Opera House.
December in SF is pretty mild, weather-wise. The air is snappy and chilly, the buildings along the Embarcadero and all over town are outlined in white lights, the top of the Transamerica Pyramid glows with a color shifting laser light that I can see from my winter-grime streaked windows. One building has a giant bow in lights along the roof somewhere on the slopes of Nob Hill that is a favorite, and my building’s owners decorate the Art Deco lobby with Christmas decorations and wreathes.
My parents and I would sometime go together to Fort Mason to the Guardian’s tree sale in one of the piers to get our Christmas trees, then back to my parent’s flat (home) for supper and hot buttered rum with Trader Vic’s mix and those chocolate schoolboy cookies.
Some years, I would take my laundry cart to the tree lot on the corner of Van Ness and Filbert and push a tree up, up, up that great hill to my apartment to collapse on the couch, sticky with sap, to drink very boozy eggnog while my cat snuffled around the pine boughs.
Either way, my stepdad would come over and help me get the tree in the stand and make sure it was up straight, and we would have a little scotch and soda to congratulate ourselves on the fine job.
I would shop and shop for pantry ingredients and cook up a variety of gifts for Christmas. I would sit on the couch with a tray on a triangular table in front of the TV and zest piles of lemons to make a decadent lemon curd. The recipe was from the beloved Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino where visited with my father when we used to see each other. It called for 14 whole eggs and 6 yolks and a pound and a half of butter and took a long time stirring over a double boiler with a wooden spoon to turn into thick and creamy and tangy lemon curd.
I spooned the finished pale yellow curd into pretty jars topped with circles of Christmas fabric from the fabric store on Polk Street and secured with ribbons or with sparkly wrapping paper and hand drawn stickers. My mom and sister loved this lemon curd especially and I always had enough leftover to make a tiny fruit tarts for myself for a decadent tea on a weekend of hard cooking.
Our dear neighbor Peggy Baldwin, the most chic and sophisticated lady with her red hair in a sleek bob, gave me a set of mini loaf pans and her recipe for zucchini pineapple bread one year. This gift along with an inspiring edition of Gourmet Magazine spurred a new tradition of my baking dozens of savory and sweet mini loaves for gifts. I scoured the city looking for cellophane wrap to package them up with bows of satin ribbon.
Another Christmas staple was trays and trays of peanut brittle. It was so much fun to make, using my largest stock pot cooking the sugar and peanuts until they were the perfect hue and temperature, testing the sugar the way Grandma taught me with a bowl of ice water and her old teal painted wooden handled sugar thermometer as a backup. A poof of baking soda caused the seething hot mass to bubble up perilously close to the top of the pot, to be calmed with soothing butter and a dash of vanilla extract and poured out onto pans to cool and harden. My sister taught me to make candy but I could never recreate her wondrous chocolate topped toffee and stuck with the simpler brittle.
My stepdad would always give us pounds of Sees Candy, stashed under the Christmas tree for Christmas, and we would reach for those before even starting in on our homemade candies.
Later, I was granted the honor of the recipe of Ken’s daughter in law’s mother’s recipe for shortbread. Margaret Golbranson was a fine and true Scottish lady, as is her daughter Una, with whom I grew as fond as a sister. Margaret’s recipe came from her great Aunt Violet and it was one of the few recipes she brought from home in Scotland. Una would give my stepdad a tin of shortbread each year and I would too because there was never enough. Una’s batches were of course far superior to mine but Margaret approved of my efforts anyway.
I would set aside a Saturday in November and hike down the hill to Ghirardelli Square to watch their tree lighting ceremony, then grab a crab to take home for dinner and an Irish Coffee from the Buena Vista to fortify myself for the hike back up the hill. My parents and sister and I would walk around the neighborhood admiring the Christmas decorations on display, and would drive around in the Marina, our old home stomping grounds, to see our former neighbor’s decorations. Mom and I would make a trip downtown to shop and look at the store windows.
My parents attended St. Luke’s church, where they were married, and were members of their very fine choir. The choir performed many beautiful concerts at various venues around town and even recorded albums. It was one of the finest music programs in the city and their Christmas concerts were beautiful.
My sister and I were not raised to attend church but we loved hearing our parents and our choir family sing, so we would don our Christmas wool dresses and skirts, warm coats decorated with Christmas jewelry and meet up in the pews to hear the concert on Christmas Eve at 10 pm. The church was lit with tall white tapers and pretty decorations. Floyd Dade, the church caretaker, would give us big hugs and remind us not to sit on the ends of the pews under the candles as they dripped. The Trompette à Chamade would sound and the choir would start their procession singing out greatly, Mom and Ken would see us in the pews and smile and nod with glistening eyes as they passed by along with our family friends. It is hard to believe the church is 150 years old this year.
After the Christmas service and concert we would pile into the car and head out to the outer Richmond district to the Blomberg’s house, our dearest friends, for a party given for the choir. Sue decorated her house adorably and made a lavish spread with classic displays of silver, crystal and fine china holding her exquisite fare, lit by candelabra and tapers everywhere. Sue is an elegant hostess and this late night party was quite a great bash. We would take turns warming by the fireplace sipping hot oyster stew out of glass mugs or crystal cups of Bill’s famous eggnog. The punch bowl that had the boozy eggnog was decorated with a red bow. Bill’s annual masterpiece had eggs and whipping cream, eggnog ice cream from Mitchell’s, and who knows what other magical things went into this rich concoction.
When the eyelids began to droop and people got tired playing the baby grand piano and singing carols we would head home to get some sleep before Christmas Day, stopping for an embarrassing smooch from whoever caught us under the mistletoe.
Christmas Day was invariable sunny and bright but cold like a refrigerated apple. I would load up my laundry cart with my goodies and other Christmas gifts and head over to Larkin Street.
Mom always baked orange sweet rolls served with lots of strong coffee and bacon or sausages, stollen and Ken would blend up Ramos fizzes for a bit of the hair of the dog.
We would open our Christmas stockings first, filled with candy, nuts in their shells and gifts from Santa and Mrs Claus, all secretly filled by their ‘elves’, meaning Mom, my sis and me. The gifts under the tree would be opened and we would admire them and the view of the bay outside, classical music or Christmas carols would be playing on the stereo and the floor was littered with paper, ribbons and decorations.
We had a tradition of reusing some gift decorations so it was always a treat to see one of the old family favorites on your own gift that year. They were carefully set aside for the next year during the Great Clean Up of the holiday debris. Ken would always don a bow on his shirt or on the top of his head, until one of us would notice and break out in the giggles.
After cooking together for dinner, reading our Christmas books and sucking on a candy cane or two, the cannon in the Presidio would blow and Ken would make cocktails. The Blombergs would arrive for dinner and sometimes we would have other guests, such as our dear neighbor Peggy, my boyfriend (except for the Jewish one who always camped out in my apartment eating Chinese until I returned) or other family friends who didn’t have a place to go. We would have Christmas gifts again and Sue heated up the leftover oyster stew from Christmas Eve to sip with our drinks as we watched the sunset through the Golden Gate Bridge. Dinners were always grand affairs and ended with Christmas crackers, telling jokes and donning the tissue crowns that came inside the crackers.
My family moved away about ten years ago and I would trek out to my parents new home in the Sierra foothills for a holiday break and Christmas at their cottage, which was tucked into a hollow filled with oak trees and quail.
We would always have crab on Christmas Eve and listen to the local PBS radio station play Amal and the Night Visitors, play Spite and Malice on the card table set up in front of the stone fireplace, warming ourselves with a toasty fire.
My elaborate baked gifts stopped then as they wouldn’t survive the train trip or long car rides, but I always made shortbread and sometimes candied ginger for Ken, they were his favorites. We cooked elaborate Christmas dinners for just the four of us. Sometimes I would bring up my cat Pogo or my sister would bring up her two fluffy white cats. They were fun to watch, exploring under the Christmas tree or watching the plethora of birds outside and “helping” with the ribbons on the gifts and the great unwrapping party.
Over all the years it was a comfortable feeling of family being together, enjoying our company, cooking and playing cards, watching football or PBS, sneaking off for naps and long walks and depleting the vast amount of chocolate desserts, the holidays were a pleasant time.
Last year my stepdad became suddenly and severely ill with dementia and we didn’t decorate the house for Christmas. It was an odd holiday with just my parents and me trying not to freak out over this horrible illness and the severe and breathtaking worry over what would happen next. I roasted a duck brought up from my local butcher in the city a day after Christmas because my stepdad was really under the weather on Christmas Day.
Shortly thereafter, he was admitted to the hospital for an infection, then he was transferred to a dreadful nursing home where his dementia made him non-responsive. By May, he was allowed to go home for hospice care, almost immediately he began to improve, although we knew it wouldn’t last.
At Ken’s 92nd birthday party in July he was having a good day but he didn’t really know who we all were and he was very tired. He took a turn for the worse in November and then, suddenly, on Veterans Day, he was gone. He was taking a nap and slipped away. I am so glad he was able to be at home that he loved so much, with my mom who he loved even more. I was with a dear friend, recuperating from whooping cough, too sick to travel yet.
Sometimes people talk about the passing of a loved one as a mercy, and I understand this, Ken hated this illness and he was tired of it. I am grateful his ordeal is over and that a fine tenor has joined the choir with St. Peter.
I wrote about my memories of my stepdad on my Facebook page. I can’t bear to repeat those thoughts here. He was a wonderful man, he was my dad and friend.
A friend Sean wrote about the anniversary of the loss of his brother and said, “Life is not about what we’ve lost, but what we keep. Every memory, no matter how it’s retained, is a treasure.” Mom re-read my blog this last week and remarked how happy she was that I wrote so much about our family. I have been re-reading my writing too and I am grateful I have chronicled our happy times together here.
I can’t imagine how the holidays are going to be this year. All I know is that I want to give my mom all the hugs I can. Being together is the greatest gift and I am truly thankful,