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The perfect trigger for Christmas memories

A Christmas memory by Jeff Morris, Manotick Messenger

My index finger was itchy the other day.

It reminded me of Christmas.

Christmas has always been about trying to create memories. Yet we never seem to remember the perfect meal or the things that we try so hard to make memorable. We also never realize what the triggers for those memories will be.

My grandmother, Ida Morris, was a tough and independent woman who raised her two oldest children while my grandfather, Jack, was away in the war. My grandmother was sweet and loving, but she was what we would call old school. She had a tie-one-end-of-a-string-around-your-loose-tooth-and-the-other-end-to-the-doorknob streak in her, but she would always be ready with a ginger ale, an aspirin, and a stuffed animal to cuddle with immediately afterward to ease the pain. My father loved to tell the story about how he was not allowed to leave the dinner table until he had his cod liver oil. He once spent the entire night in his chair and was still there at breakfast.

But she was sweet and warm and Christmas brought out the best in her.

I am reminded of it by my itchy finger.

I don’t remember much about the meals she prepared for Christmas. We were usually there twice in a week, as the first dinner would be a birthday gathering for my uncle, Robin, and myself, who both had birthdays in the week leading up to Christmas. That one was usually roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by chocolate cake. But, oddly, I don’t remember one bite. I remember us sitting at the table and talking and laughing.

A few days later, we would be back for Christmas dinner. She would prepare a turkey and a ham, and everything that goes with it. Shortbread cookies, fudge and peanut brittle would be strategically placed in dishes throughout the house. The men would be in the living room drinking rye or vodka and talking about men stuff. My grandfather was usually parked at the piano playing hymns, which would create an ironic backdrop for the conversations laced with biting sarcasm and crude humour. The women were in the kitchen, trying to help my grandmother but trying harder to stay out of her way.

It was in that kitchen that in one fleeting moment, my Christmas memory was burned into my hard drive. My grandmother was fussing around, zipping from the oven to the sink to the fridge. She opened the oven door, where she had something cooking in a glass dish. It may have been the ham. It may have been a green bean casserole. She noticed the oven mits were at the other end of the room, so she grabbed the dish with her bare hands and quickly put the dish on the stove. She shook her hands. “Oooh, that’s hot,” she said, but then quietly went about her business.

She often did the no-oven-mits thing, and for some reason, it fascinated me. The next couple of years, I would always try to grab a spot out of the way in the kitchen to see if she would do it again.

About 20 years ago, when my oldest son was a toddler, I was heating something up for him to eat. He loved Bagel Bites, which are little mini-pizzas on a bagel. They came in a box, frozen, and I was making dinner for both of us. When they were ready, I looked around the kitchen and could not find the oven mitts. I flashbacked to Christmas dinner, and to my grandmother in the kitchen. She didn’t need oven mitts, I thought. Why should I? I opened the oven door and reached gently for the cookie tray. It didn’t work out as I had planned.

I burned the index finger on my left hand and the tip of my thumb on my right hand. I aborted the plan of lifting the cookie tray with my bare hands about zero-point-four seconds in. I ran my hands under cold water, and used a crumpled up dish towel to get the Bagel Bites.

For the past 20 years, I haven’t had fingerprints on my left index finger. When it gets too dry, the skin peels off. It looks pretty good now, but when I have to scratch it, the first thing that flashes in my mind is Christmas at my grandmother’s house.

The other night, the Diva and I were talking about Christmas dinner. She, like my grandmother, likes everything to be perfect. And frankly, nobody I have ever known can make a Christmas dinner as perfect as the Diva can.

But is a perfect turkey in perfect gravy with perfect stuffing served with perfect mashed potatoes a memory we will hold onto forever? We will remember enjoying the meal and saying how good it is.

But what we will remember the most is who we are with. We will remember the laughter and the excitement. We will remember going to mass on Christmas Eve and enjoying it, but we won’t remember the hymns we sang. We will remember getting on the phone with relatives who are far away and aren’t there with us and sharing the joy of Christmas, but we won’t remember the conversation. In time, we won’t remember the details of the day at our house, but we will remember the feeling of Christmas.

A perfect turkey doesn’t make a perfect Christmas.

Family and friends do.

And oven mitts.