Merry Christmas

When it comes to holidays, Christmas Eve is my favorite.

It’s the one night of the year when everyone converges at my mother’s house for the traditional “Seven Fishes” meal, arriving around 6:30 full of excitement and ready to tie on the proverbial feedbag. I don’t know how many families have seven fishes, but we come pretty close:

Bacon-wrapped scallops. Shrimp cocktail. Stuffed littleneck clams. Linguine with white clam sauce. Baked stuffed lobster. That’s five. At one point, we had an iceberg lettuce salad tossed with shrimp topped with lemony dressing, but that was deleted some years ago.

The truth is, it’s hard to eat that much at one sitting. By the time the lobster comes out of the oven around 10 p.m., I’m usually stuffed and have to wrap mine up. Over the years, I’ve tried to save room, but the clams get me every time.

It’s not ladylike or something I’m proud of, but I think I ate 14 clams one year. After I wolfed them down, I’d stack up the shells in front of my plate and wait for the next round. Because seriously, there was always another round, another platter to be passed and devoured.

How much of a big deal is Christmas Eve?

My father put a four-season porch on the house to accommodate the Christmas Eve crowd. When he was arguing his case to my mother, he noted that the house could no longer comfortably accommodate the family, which now included seven sons-in-law and 17 grandchildren. Of course, they used the porch at other times, but its main function was accommodating the folding tables and chairs on Christmas Eve.

For the past several years, my mother has had the distinction of placing the biggest Christmas Eve order at a local fish store. I know this because the owner Lisa told me. It makes sense: every year, Mom hosts somewhere between 30 and 40 people. Over the years, this has included siblings, cousins and parents of in-laws.

When I told Lisa that Mom wasn’t hosting her party this year because of Covid-19, she stopped what she was doing. “Wooooow,” she said. It had become such a tradition that even Lisa couldn’t believe it wasn’t happening.

The night and the meal preparation belonged to Mom, though seriously, I think she’d have been thrilled to pass it off to someone else. It would be a monumental task for any hostess, but Mom is now 87. When I pointed out to my kids that it would even be an effort for a woman my age, they looked at me like I had two heads.

But it would. Hosting close to 40 people is very hard work, even if you have help. The only people who think hosting big parties is easy are people who don’t host parties, and I know plenty of them.

Of course, things are different this year because of Covid-19. With Mom’s party off, I decided to host a small gathering consisting of three fishes at my house. I invited Mom. She thanked me, but said she planned to stay home. She’s since accepted an invitation from one of my sisters, who lives nearby.

She didn’t look upset about a low-key night though. In fact, I think I saw a tiny shred of relief on her face. For the first time in about 60 years, she’d be a guest and could relax. She was finally getting a reprieve from her hostessing duties. It only took a pandemic to make it happen.

Of course, I’ve never hostessed Christmas Eve, so this is all new to me. But I’m already learning from my mother’s experience. I’m not making a pasta course because it’s too filling. And I’ve already handed off the clam prep to my son, who spent about 20 minutes telling me how hosting parties isn’t a big deal.

My daughter wants to decorate the place, so I told her to have at it. I think there are streamers and snowflakes involved, but that’s OK. I was 19 once, and remember the joy in decorating for parties. She’s also handling dessert, which is such a relief.

We’re keeping things very low-key: No heavy appetizers. Fewer courses. No trashing of rooms with manic ripping open of presents, leaving wrapping paper and ribbon everywhere. It will be different, but it will still be Christmas Eve. And I’m still looking forward to it despite this year’s restrictions and constrictions.

However you plan to spend it, I wish everyone a joyous holiday and a very happy and healthy New Year.

My Chainsaw & Me

A fallen tree posed my biggest chainsaw challenge to date.

As #2 in a family of seven girls, I often felt like the son my father never had.

I’ve met enough #2s from large clans to know that we’re people pleasers, a shade less independent than our older sibling, who has the distinction of being first. I often did things because my older sister did, including attending an all-girls high school and all-women’s college, editing the high school newspaper and wearing my mother’s wedding dress.

With my mom always busy with the “babies,” the three oldest often fell into my father’s care. He took us to church on Sundays, treating us to breakfast at a restaurant with a treasure chest full of trinkets. He took us to Vermont to ski while my mother stayed home, figuring it was easier than getting four little kids into snow suits.

My father always brushed off suggestions that he was disappointed that he had all girls, and I believe him (sort of). Perhaps because he had only girls, he didn’t treat us as “girly girls” who didn’t play sports or only played with dolls, though I loved my Barbies and collection of trolls that I kept in a cigar box.

We played store, school and dress-up in my mom’s closet, but we also played sports in the days before Title 9. Dad put up a basketball hoop in the drive-way and cleared our backyard of trees to erect an ice skating rink. Later, he ignored my mother’s vehement objections to a built-in swimming pool, having one installed on one side of the property.

He loved sports, teaching me Ping Pong, tennis and golf. And he espoused the benefits of jogging in the early ’70s, observing: “Have you ever seen a fat runner?” (Well, yes, but that’s a blog for another day.) He loved to walk and is probably the reason I get so enjoyment out of the solitary pursuit. A walk solves a lot of problems, particularly these days.

Most of all, he believed that girls can do things besides cooking, cleaning, sewing and gardening. In addition to so-called “women’s work,” he saw no reason why girls shouldn’t do chores typically assigned to boys, like painting the garage or shoveling the driveway. In this way, he was ahead of his time, though I still wince when I remember him telling me to let my friend Peter beat me in tennis.

“You have no idea how competitive boys are,” he said. “Let him win once and awhile. It will be good for his ego.” I chose to ignore that advice, finding it as ridiculous back then as I do today. I’ve always believed that you should try to win, or as an old tennis pro once told me, “Play like a lion.”

Of course, things are different today when it comes to sports, education and careers for women. But how many fathers teach their daughters to chop wood, check the car engine oil, or change the bits in a drill? Most men assume they’re raising their daughters as they would sons, but I suspect there’s still some sexism at play, at least in some households.

It came as no surprise to me that when I moved into my new house nearly 20 years ago, my father’s gift was a shiny red tool box with a ribbon on top. He knew if anything needed fixing around the house, I’d be the one to do it. His attitude is likely the reason I don’t think power equipment is just for men. In fact, I’ve got a growing collection in my garage, including a lawn mower, power washer and bad-ass leaf blower.

A few years ago after I heard the buzz of a chainsaw from my neighbor’s yard, I decided to buy one. I headed to a nearby hardware store, and told the owner my plans. He looked me squarely in the eye and sighed deeply.

“I will sell you a chainsaw, but I’m going to teach you how to use it,” he said. “Too many people are injured because they don’t know how to handle them. You’re leaving here knowing what you’re doing.”

He removed a small Black & Decker orange rechargeable chainsaw from the shelf and opened it. Unlike its gas-fueled and noisy beefy cousins, it’s compact and light, just the right size for cutting wayward branches or saplings that my father-in-law used to call “weed trees.”

Huddled over a back counter, he showed me how to set it up, tighten the chain and where to put the chain lubricant. He showed me how to cut a branch, noting that it’s important to keep the blade at a slight angle. He showed me where to cut on the blade – close to the saw, not near the end – and warned me not to try to cut anything too thick.

He reminded me to wear heavy-duty gloves, safety goggles and sturdy boots, and sent me on my way with chainsaw in hand.

I suspect he wouldn’t go through a tutorial like that with a man, but I was grateful. Some women would be offended, but I wasn’t because I knew he had my safety in mind. I appreciate his lesson, and think of it every time I patronize his store. (Personal attention and in-depth free tutorials, yet another reason to shop small.)

I don’t use my chainsaw often, but it’s nice to have around. My biggest challenge came when a dead tree fell in our yard during a recent nor ‘easter. The wind was blowing, but not particularly strongly, so I was surprised when my daughter ran into my bedroom and announced a large tree had fallen.

I planned to hire a contractor to cut the large trunk, but figured I could handle the bulk of the branches with my chainsaw. But when I plugged in the charger and set it on a kitchen counter, my daughter became alarmed.

“Are you sure you want to use that thing?” she asked.

I doubt she’d say the same thing to her father, though there’s no chance he’d ever go near it. When he saw the fallen tree, his only remark was: “Wow, look at all that kindling.”

As I began cutting branches, I thought of my Dad and what he’d think of my chainsaw. I couldn’t decide if he’d be pleased or think I was an incredible fool for doing something best left to professionals. He was like that: he believed that women should be treated equally to men, but also told us that being a mother was the greatest role in the world.

In the end, I decided he’d probably think it wasn’t such a hot idea. But I continued to cut away anyway, though perhaps more cautiously than before.