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The Gingerbread Houses

Updated: Nov 22

The day after Thanksgiving my kids, grandkids and I will gather at my house as we do every year. I will set an autumn-themed tablescape and following a dinner with big bowls of mashed potatoes, ham and leftover turkey, my meatballs and more, each of us will decorate a gingerbread house, a tradition.

We make up funny categories: House I Would Most Like to Live In, House that Most Resembles the Personality of the Creator, House Most Likely to be in the Macy's Parade, etc. Each house gets a prize. Last year, my icing bag exploded, rendering my house a winner in the category, "I Tried."

Everyone is quite competitive but we have fun and laugh a lot. The houses are cute; I keep them on display in the glass windowpane cupboard in my dining room for a long time. I love sitting around the table, doing a craft, sharing space and stories with my family. The day after Thanksgiving is my favorite day of the year.

In the background, my desktop computer loops the annual family video entitled "Seasons of Joy." Updated each year, it is filled with antics and outtakes from other dinners at Nanny's, that’s me, over the years.

First we play Charades, then an animated 5-foot Santa emerges from his closet-hiatus, swaying his hips enthusiastically, singing traditional holiday songs at a high decibel. The kids find him a bit annoying and would like me to give him away but like other things, I'm not ready to let go.

Santa is stored in the guest room closet for 11 months of the year; I don't know where to store my earliest holiday memories. Like old-fashioned bubble lights, they insist on my attention with their sparkly seductive swish, gossamer threads wafting upwards, only to suddenly disintegrate into colorful fragments, shattering expectations before surfacing again.

Unwelcome memories unexpectedly appear as I pull out mom's cracked turkey platter, or the small waxy Santa ornament that hung on other trees years ago, or light the candles at the table each year. We never had candles on our table at home.

I longed to have a family that looked like other families looked on TV, such as Donna Reed or Father Knows Best. I wanted to sit beside my dad as my mom cooked a delicious dinner and passed bowls of mashed potatoes as we chatted about our day. I wished for traditions; things we could do year after year, things I could count on to be the same.

One Thanksgiving, I asked if we could start a family tradition; my dad grabbed the freshly opened thick glass bottle of Coca-Cola in the center of the table and tipped it over his eye; "Here’s a tradition, how about this?”

It wasn’t funny.

But the next year, he did it again and we all laughed. Traditions.

Friday nights we went to the diner for chicken-in-a-basket with French fries and red Jello with whipped cream for dessert and on Sundays mom made meatballs and sauce. Otherwise, TV dinners were standard fare in our home, my sister and I seated at our TV snack tables two feet from the TV.

We didn’t have a dining room and rarely sat together at the kitchen table except for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas; then the four of us devoured our dinners quickly before heading back to the TV, our only distraction the antics of our parakeets, Chipper and Snowflake, who pecked at our plates providing comic relief with incessant chirping during our otherwise muted meals.

There was no holiday reel with funny outtakes; we rarely had guests. Gathering together as a family usually meant something bad. Over the years, when we gathered together as a family, even on holidays, it was often by hospital beds and at nursing homes, in psychiatric wards or funeral parlors. "Sorry to see you under these circumstances" I repeated long before I understood what it meant.

My dad, a real estate broker, worked 6 days and nights, and often came home late, his speech slow and slightly scrambled, his breath already sweet-smelling even before the Seagram's Seven he poured from the bottle next to the kitchen sink before collapsing into his chair. Our house was quiet, except for the TV, always on, day and night.

I prayed every night for two things. First, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” and second that I wouldn't go blind from sitting so close to the TV. Like air bubbles in the lights, my holiday memories, effervescent tidings of comfort and joy, quickly evaporated.

Good memories surface, too. There was always a big turkey at Thanksgiving, piles of presents under the tree, trips into the city to see the Rockettes and Rockefeller Center, taffeta dresses for my almost-Christmas birthday: buoyant bits and pieces encapsulated like in those little glass tubes, irrepressible happy-sad-good-bad strands swirling around together, rising to the top, then dissipating, seeking storage space in my memory closet.

Now, on this day after Thanksgiving, once again, there will be much clatter and chatter: grab bags gifts for everyone, houses to decorate, and prizes for Show and Tell.

Santa will sing too loudly, the kids will light the candles at the table - they know what they can count on. The recently edited family video features cameos of my grandkids’ "new" girlfriend and boyfriend. This year, they made the cut.

I love that we gather; it's important to me. I hope that my kids and grandkids will remember these days fondly forever and more: the handmade ornaments we made and the houses we decorated, the blinking noses and Santa belting out “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” my exploding pastry bag and the singing turkey hat, the year everyone lost at Charades, lighting the candles at the table ......the stories and the space we all shared.

If not, there's YouTube. I’ve already uploaded the latest sequel to “Seasons of Joy.”

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