The Feast of Stephen, Again

December 26, 2001
The Feast of Stephen

So, where have I been? At the butcher, the baker*, the candlestick maker, making merry, writing letters lest auld acquaintance be forgot, baking ham balls and lasagna and cardamom rolls and cherry dot cookies, eating Sky Bars and Chicken Bones and Walnettos, trolling E-bay for bits of my lost childhood, and in general sailing through the holidays trying to remember what it feels like to have a bout of winter depression.

I said more than once during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas that I was enjoying every single task, that this was the best Christmas of my life. I did virtually nothing that was not related to Christmas. I didn’t post here, I didn’t write much in my private paper journal, I wrote no fiction and I read very little. In the week between my party and Christmas Eve I tried to regroup, with only modest results. I knew that I would come back to this eventually, and now, on the Feast of Stephen, the day I traditionally begin my personal New Year, I do.

On Friday I’m having lunch with someone I haven’t talked to in person or by e-mail since late October. The first thing he’ll ask is, “So, how was Christmas?” And because this is a friend whose interest is genuine and to whom I do not give formulaic answers, I’ll have to tell him that it was glorious, it was wonderful, and then it was Christmas Eve.

Monday morning began on a high note. I put away the last of the party ware, took the extra leaves out of the dining table, and made the room ready for our Christmas Eve dinner of ceci soup (a meatless dish of chickpeas simmered in an anchovy base) and our Christmas day meal of rigatoni with Ron’s special tomato sauce, fake tortoni (commercial butter almond ice cream because I’d run out of passion for preparing elaborate desserts), and pizzelle cookies (store-bought because I don’t have, nor do I want, a pizzelle iron).

I went to the Giant, where I fell into conversation with two people I hadn’t seen in a while and thus spent an hour more than I’d planned (and discovered later that, being distracted, I’d picked out a carton of caramel praline ice cream instead of butter almond). 

At home I pulled in to the garage, popped the trunk open, took one bag of groceries in and alerted the family that there were others waiting, and then went down to the mail box. As I retrieved the day’s letters a car pulled up — it was Lynn’s best friend being delivered by her mother, an event that takes place so often that it is not remarkable, even though I didn’t expect to see them before our church service in the evening.

“Are you guys going to the mall?” I said, and then I saw their faces.

This family has had a difficult time in recent months. First, Kim’s dad went into the hospital for a “routine” heart valve replacement, recommended now because his relative youth (late forties) and good health would minimize the risks. What should have been a brief hospital stay and a month-long recovery turned into more than thirty days over several admissions and five additional operations to repair mistakes and complications that kept manifesting. In the middle of this his mother died and his father, stricken with grief, began to decline.

And so when I saw both Kim and her mother with faces red from tears and despair like a gray veil hanging over their heads I thought, first, Grandpa, then, Dad.

Worse. Their older daughter, Brandi, who turned 21 last August, had been found dead in her apartment, having succumbed probably as early as Friday night to natural causes which are not yet completely clear.

Kim stayed with us while her mother went about some of her grim errands. We gave her her Christmas presents but didn’t open them. I’d chosen a tree ornament for Kim that celebrates friendship and an interactive “girlfriends” journal for Lynn and Kim to share that I now thought might be too juvenile and which indeed seemed at best too foolish and festive for the moment. Ron and I sat with the girls in the living room, letting Kim talk, letting her tell us whatever she felt she needed to say, trying not to ask prying, intrusive questions that no one really needs the answers to anyway.

We changed our plans for the evening. I no longer had the desire to produce a homemade soup. We had resigned ourselves to going one more year to the chaotic, anomalous, and spiritually unsatisfying 7:00 children’s service because Kim and Lynn were to sing a duet at the offertory. (Kim’s mother is our congregation’s youth choir director.) 

With that out of the question, we went instead to the 5:00. That proved to be, if not quite as chaotic, at least as anomalous and spiritually unsatisfying as the 7:00. Ron had cut his ear shaving and it would not stop bleeding, so he elected to remain outside the sanctuary with gobs of surgical gauze pressed to his head. Even though we arrived at 4:30, Lynn and I got the last two seats together, in the very first row on the side of the sanctuary where we do not normally sit.

At a holiday service like this the pastor has to make a lot of remarks which are designed to help the many visitors follow the protocols. We use two hymnals, he tells us, Communion is open to all who are baptized but will be accomplished at two side stations instead of around the altar, as is our usual custom. Although at a festival service he does not normally name the sick and the troubled, as he does on a regular Sunday, he did announce Brandi’s death at the beginning and later named her family in the intercessory prayers.

Lynn became distraught at one point and had to excuse herself to the bathroom. She told me later that there she met the mother of one of Brandi’s classmates, who also could not stay in the sanctuary.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to help Lynn through. I’ve always let her decide these matters for herself — for example, to make a final visit at the age of seven to her beloved Uncle Flash, whose appearance was drastically altered by his liver cancer, to view or not to view my mother, who died when Lynn was eight (she elected to do so because her cousin Annie, two years older, was being brave), to attend a shiva for a classmate’s father when she was ten.

I taught her how to write a sympathy letter. Her first, when she was four, was to one of her grandmother’s friends whose dog had died (Lynn had fond memories of playing with the dog). I didn’t want her to get to the age of seventeen or eighteen and be like some of my former students, who had never been to a funeral (because they’re “gross”), or like others I know who, in their thirties, have never managed to learn and practice these tender social graces.

When Kim’s grandmother died, Lynn attended the funeral only because it was on Veterans’ Day, a school holiday, but not the burial in a town two hours north of here. She said she hadn’t really known this grandmother (although she’s been a guest in the home of Kim’s other grandmother and would have attended everything regardless of missing school for that woman). I told her that we attend funerals and burials sometimes not because we were close to the deceased but because we wish to support someone who was. 

Lynn wants to do it all this time, including going to the burial. This trip will, ironically, take us past the cemetery where my parents are buried. Lynn and her cousin Annie have for several years now refused to endure the annual pilgrimage my sister and I make.

This is Lynn’s first loss of a peer, a slightly older girl whom she regarded as a surrogate sister. This is not my first experience with a friend’s maternal loss. I suspect, however, that this weekend will be no less troubling for me.

******I do most of my own baking. Yeast breads, such as the cardamom rolls for Saint Lucy’s Day, are never a problem. I detest baking cookies, however. I’ve adapted my childhood favorite Kellogg’s Cornflakes Cherry Dot cookies to a pan version like that of the Toll House cookies, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t work for Sand Tarts. I refuse to tackle Sand Tarts, but I must have them, so I subcontract that labor to Schenk’s Bakery out on Mountain Road in Linglestown.