My brother-in-law’s grandfather was kind and had an infectious laugh, but he was also a tough old bird, and to watch him eat was to be shown what he’d endured in his time. As a young man he’d been a machine-gunner in World War I, which he spoke of as a life’s adventure, and when he came home he went straight to the mines and then the munitions factory. He was middle-aged in the Depression, in already-depressed Southern Illinois.
Most holidays we all sat at his daughter’s kitchen table with him at the head. He’d load up his plate—once—with everything to be had: celery with cream cheese, olives, ham, baked beans, southern green beans, dumplings, rolls and butter, cranberry salad, baked yams, and more. After grace he dug in. He didn’t race through his meal, but he never spoke, either. He applied himself to the bounty with a will, pausing only to sip iced sweet tea. He ate seriously and pleasurably, looking down at the food, and when it was gone—he never took second helpings—he used his last bite of bread to mop up the juices on his plate, and ate that too. Then he was done and seemed to come to, or come back from somewhere else.
The winter holidays have always reminded me of the past and other generations. My mom, a child of the Depression, always insisted each of our Christmas stockings contain an apple, an orange, and a handful of nuts in shells, along with the more gratifying chocolates, candy canes, toys, and coloring books. I thought of them as mere filler and knew the fun was over when I got to the heavy lump of the orange in the toe of the sock, but she’d inhale its fragrance deeply and comment on the fruit’s perfection, so I came to associate it with the miraculous. Even now I insist those items be placed symbolically in our boys’ stockings, even though we never face citrus shortages or prohibitive cost in the supermarket, any time of the year. (The nuts are still a bit exotic—no one wants to have to shell them, and I rarely see them sold that way.)
It seems as if this time of year I hear the old names for things more often. My niece’s young husband said he needed something from the “icebox” yesterday—the word I grew up with, learned from people who remembered ice delivery wagons. He said a male relative always used words like icebox and “radar range” with a sense of wonder at their newness. (My wife’s mom still uses “Hoover” as noun and verb.)
These ties to the past help make the season as exciting and meaningful for me as when I was a kid. New Year’s supper will be the last, and the homeliest, of these holiday symbols from another time. We’ll want Northern beans with ham, since everyone knows that every bean you eat represents a dollar you’ll make in the coming year. They’re best made from scratch, boiled with the bone and bay leaves for hours until they thicken themselves, and served with sweet cornbread and cold milk. My Aunt Margie, my mom’s next-oldest sister, was usually the one who made them in our family, and as we sat down around her kitchen table for the annual ritual, she’d recite a beautiful and melancholy poem on transience:
the more your eat,
the more you toot.
The more you toot,
The better you feel.
With every meal!