Lessons of holidays past: Don't let mishaps throw you

November 29, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

NOW THAT WE are officially off and running in the 2003 holiday season, I'd like to inject a note of caution. As we all gather, I'd think about not overdoing it, going crazy, getting tied up in emotional knots while trying to create an ideal celebration.

I'll never forget how blue my grandmother Lily Rose grew one Thanksgiving morning. An early riser, she had made her boiled cranberry sauce and poured it into a cut-glass bowl her mother received as a wedding gift in 1880. As the heated berries touched the cold, untempered glass, the whole thing shattered.

Lily Rose was a mess that day. She liked things to go on course, without trauma. She was demanding and particular about her Thanksgiving meal, with food so tasty and delicious to make you weep. This is precisely what she wound up doing that morning.

I learned a lesson that day. Baby, don't let it get you down.

On some other occasion, long before I was born, my uncle, Edward Jacques Monaghan Jr., leaned back in a dining room chair and sent it through a bowfront china cabinet, cracking, but not shattering, its curved glass door. For some reason, the damage was left as it was. The door was still functional and could be opened with some care.

I grew to accept and appreciate the broken door. It was a family legend and glass, after all, breaks easily. But the door's condition never sat well with my mother, who passed the relic several times a day and spent her 75 years living under the same roof with her sibling, my Uncle Jack.

Brother and sister, they were seldom separated and, in fact, they died within six months of each other. Late in her life, my mother had the door's glass restored. Now we tiptoe past it with the same caution we used when it was in its imperfect state.

We had a family tradition of massive, expert Christmas baking. We were 12 around the table and Christmas was revered as the holiday above all others. The cake inventory consisted of chocolate, orange, coconut, fruit and pound. The first three mentioned disappeared quickly. The fruitcake was cut in small pieces and lasted a long time.

The pound cake was extra large, full of butter and was also sliced in dainty wedges. Its dense batter regularly chewed up the motors on the electric mixer my grandmother mercilessly employed.

I'll never forget the Christmas of 1964, the first one my grandfather, E.J. Monaghan Sr., would not spend with us. He had made it through the previous Christmas and died the day after, so we spent the final days of 1963 at the old Henry W. Mears funeral home at Calvert and Madison.

I guess Lily Rose, his widow, was bound and determined that the following Christmas observance would be as good as ever, but some things just aren't the same. She attacked her cake making with her usual fervor, but the pound cake suffered a goof and, while baking, its normally golden top drooped and fell. It had an acceptable taste, it just looked like the Patapsco River Valley.

Lily Rose took it as a personal crisis. The next day she suffered a slight stroke. It was not a death sentence and she lived another six years. It taught me a lesson: In the time between now and New Year's, relax.

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