After 12 days of darkness and cold, we spent the weekend in our warm, bright house, vacuuming two weeks of dog hair, scrubbing the kitchen, running the washing machine, and lying for more than a few hours on the sofa with a quilt and the remote control. As harrowing as it was to be without light and heat for that long, we were so lucky that there was no physical damage to any person or house on our street and that we had family to go to when we couldn’t take one more night with our breath visible in the house.
The unintended side effect is that I am more than ready to begin making my Thanksgiving menu, to refill my freezer and refrigerator, to make a grocery list that includes walnuts, chestnuts, pomegranates, and cranberries, and to buy paper plates that say “Gobble” and silly little placecards to bring a festive, frivolous air to a day that may hang heavy in our hearts.
I potted up my first Amaryllis of the season on Friday. It is only a little nub,with not more than a 1/8 of an inch of sprout peeking out from the bulb, but with the forcing of blooms, the anticipation is half again as much fun as the reality. These ugly bulbs produce such extravagant blooms and they have become my harbinger of the season. By the time it is in full bloom, we should have reached the Winter Solstice and I will need to move the pot a quarter turn each day to keep it straight and true. The stalk is thick but hollow and I usually stake it up when it begins to bloom so that the heavy head of trumpet-like blossoms do not cause it to fall over, or worse, break in half.
The variety of Amaryllis that are bred to be forced at Christmas belongs to the genus Hippeastrum, and originated in South America. They require little care other than moist but not wet soil and a good orientation to light and cool air. The bulbs are inexpensive and give quite a big bang for the $7.99 that the supermarket sells them for, along with the potting medium and a small plastic pot. Recently, a big supermarket opened next to the office and I am hopeful that they may have some simple clay pots that I can use as jardinières.
I like marking the beginning of the season of darkness with this simple ritual. I try to pot up one a week for three weeks, starting around mid-November. They will bloom in succession, so for at least one week after the first of the year, arguably the most depressing time, I should have 3 in bloom at once. This year I was able to find a white, a scarlet, and a peppermint, which satisfies my need for logical order (that which I have a hard time shaking when creating artwork). I keep them on the windowsill in front of the large windows in my office.
After first potting, the bulbs sit dormant for a week or so, then suddenly there is an inch or more of slender green that pops out of the top of the bulb. The real magic begins the first time I walk into the office in the morning and find the stem has shot up a good six inches overnight and the flower buds have begun to form. Once the huge, brightly colored flowers begin to open, they attract everyone into the office with an exclamation of awe and I feel like quite the Gertrude Jekyll while all if did was add warm water to a potting mixture and plop a large, ugly bulb down into it and remember to water sparingly.
I can’t help but smile when I walk in and see them in all their extravagance lushness, so bold, so bright, so showy, so full of themselves. As much as I enjoy looking in magazines at homes decorated in restrained, sophisticated shades of silver and white or the palest turquoise and muted gold, I can never bring myself to be so subdued because a pop of Cadmium red, Chromium Oxide green, and a Titanium white just fills me with joy.
I am concentrating only on these simple rituals this year: forcing blooms, making traditional dishes, decorating the tree with our 30-years’ worth of ornaments, and leaving the rest of the decorating for next year. In a way, it is a relief to have no expectations or ambitions for this holiday season other than for my sisters and our families to be together as much as possible and talk and share the dishes that we remember from our childhood. I would be foolhardy to think we will continue in our traditions as we did before or that we can escape experiencing the season through anything but a scrim of sadness. However, while we acknowledge our mourning, we must also acknowledge the beauty and joy of our family, that small knot of precious people who walked behind my mother down the aisle for her last journey into the church. Whenever I find myself raging inside, I make myself think of the long line of family that both my parents came from and the losses that they endured as they continued to make our holidays festive and memorable.
For Thanksgiving, the Bride has volunteered to take over the role of The Empress’s corn pudding and she is going to make Aunt Anita’s apple pie. I will make the lemon/lime/sour cream gelatin mold and my sister A and I will eat most of it ourselves. I will make sure that the Thanksgiving meal ends with a course of chestnuts and fruit, including a pomegranate and a prickly pear, just like the old days, but the shrimp course will still be served in the living room and not as a first course in the glass compotes that The Empress used, because we just are too lazy to hand wash them all, not to mention the lack of space to store them in.
I know that there will be moments when we each will be crying inside our heads, and moments when we will have to shore each otherup, but my hope is that if we keep our heads down, stay very quiet, and don’t draw attention to ourselves, that we will arrive in January unscathed, saddened but intact, and more grateful for the family that is left to sit at table and share the years as we turn ourselves to face the light.