The Great Spaghetti Christmas
Kalan Chapman Lloyd
-a short story-
For Mom, and Nanny, and Grandma
Somewhere in Oklahoma…
Okay, in Brooks, Oklahoma.
Mary Susan McCollum was a legend. Rightfully so. Every year, in the second week of November, she would begin her Christmas baking.
Twenty rum cakes, recipe memorized and secreted in her own memory, were wrapped in wax paper, placed efficiently and tidily in tin boxes and stored under the bed of the farthest, driest, coolest bedroom of Mary Susan’s house, belonging to her favorite grandson’s visits. Once a week counting up to December the twenty-fourth, they were whisked from under the bed, soaked again in the forty proof that Mary Susan made her husband acquire (as decent ladies did not frequent the liquor store), and placed back under the bed with the hand-stitched orange and blue quilt.
Sugar cookie dough, famous for that “can’t quite put my finger on it” flavor, which happened to be lemon zest, was mixed, rolled, wrapped in that same wax paper and stored in the icebox to await its final step on December the twenty-third. Both the rum cakes and sugar cookies were bundled with care, with hand-written notes, and trundled into the truck of her husband for delivery.
Mary Susan would not begin the elaborate process of her cakes and pies for her annual Christmas Eve fete until several days before, for fear their moisture content might drop and cause a comment from some family member with a taste for eggnog. No, she left the cherry cheesecake, pumpkin and pecan pies, and German chocolate cake until the week leading up to Christmas and Mary Susan’s county-famous Santa’s night event.
Without baking to do, Mary Susan would fill her time pressing linens, arranging and rearranging the carefully collected, tissue-paper stored Tiny Bright ornament collection on the boughs of the tree she sent her husband out to chop with bare hands and antique ax. Done so, because teeth marks from a saw did not allow for the correct and proper water absorption.
She set out gooey, thick, sugar-coated candy orange slices for her favorite granddaughter. Unwrapped and lovingly arranged the ceramic nativity scene handed down from Mary Susan’s own grandmother. And then last, after the, albeit still important, but less intense labor of Thanksgiving was dispensed with, she would exchange the bedding in each of the three bedrooms for a festive concoction of themed blankets, pillows and dust ruffles.
Christmas Eve, falling this particular year on a Tuesday, was well-prepared for in the McCollum house. As aforementioned, the annual celebrity-d, celebrated event included family, local officials and their own invitees, long-standing, third generation family friends and any random likely rabble-rouser that Mary Susan happened to run into. Because Mary Susan, while well and proper a lady, couldn’t resist the soul recognizance of a fellow rebel. So yearly, with great excitement, bodies would crush into the McCollum house to celebrate the birth of a Savior, eat Mary Susan’s cooking, drink Mary Susan’s eggnog, and be more than merry.
The menu, without fail, was the same every year, planned, plotted, and sketched out on lined notebook paper, right down to the exact moment the glorious, gluttonous, free-range, buttery turkey would enter the oven to begin its road to glory. 9:12 am to be exact, if anyone was interested in the details. In addition to the turkey, there were Parker House rolls whose dough was started the moment Mary Susan awoke several hours before dawn on the day of the party, thick piles of mashed potatoes, butter floating atop in their silver serving dishes inherited from Mary Susan’s great-grandmother, crackly green beans with bacon, a candied confection that somewhere in its midst, contained lettuce. She book-ended the feast with stuffing created from homemade cornbread and the juice of the turkey, green-rice casserole, which, in more or less sophisticated circles (depending on who was talking) could be referred to as broccoli cheese casserole. Sweet, syruped iced tea, lemoned water and the expected eggnog and after-dinner coffee were drinks of choice.
On the Sunday before “The Eve” as she liked to referred to it, Mary Susan was curled in her overstuffed kitchen chair, sitting below the sunrise with a cup of English Breakfast steaming before her, curls of the smell of lemon rising up, when the phone rang shrilly. Startled and immediately worried with such an early call, she rose to answer the phone to her excited son-in-law, who exhaustingly informed her that her daughter had likely broken her leg on a sly, stray toy tractor that morning when she arose, much like her mother, to partake in a ritual started generations back.
Her son-in-law went on to explain his fears of their family of four entertaining the local emergency room waiting room, and not in a cute, cherub, way. Mary Susan had promised to meet them at the hospital, interrupting him mid-sentence.
Children procured, Mary Susan and her husband brought them home to Mary Susan’s beautifully appointed home. So concerned with their family’s well-being and the afternoon football game, respectively, neither she, nor their grandfather, gave a moment’s thought to the logistics of a three and five year old in the house while trying to preserve its austerity.
Had they given a moment’s thought to such matters, they might have hauled the kids to a hotel and fed them pizza for two nights. As it was, by 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve morning, Mary Susan’s house was greased with adorable little handprints, overrun by primary-colored playthings, overflowing with the stench of overfull trash cans, and overthrown by the tyrannical habits of small people.
With the notion of a Christmas tradition sixty-seven years in the making being eradicated by nightfall, Mary Susan sank right down into the tufted carpet and thought about crying.
It was there, several hours later, and a few hours before the guests were to arrive, that her husband, Capp, found her, still in her pajamas, pancake batter on her nose, hair askew, covered in a rumbly-tumbly fashion by her two favorite grandchildren. All asleep, soft smiles upon their sugar-covered mouths, with an empty antique candy dish and tented books beside them.
Mary Susan cooked spaghetti when she was tired and short on time. It was a poor man’s meal. A working mom’s go-to. Within a bachelor’s skills. She, like a lot of her contemporaries, always had fresh meat, noodles and sauce on hand. Enough to feed a small crowd, at a moment’s notice.
And so she did.
With the lemons of life chunked thickly at her feet, Mary Susan threw herself into the shower, threw on her best holiday attire, and narrowly avoided a child throwing a fit as she threw together a meal concocted without plans, without thoughts to impress, but out of necessity and love.
All one hundred and twenty-seven and a half of them showed up, drank the eggnog supplied by the closest convenience store, ate the rum cakes and sugar cookies, filled their plates with spaghetti and said not nary a word of critique.
And so, after the last reveler had retired, and Mary Susan had tucked in husband, hobbling daughter, son-in-law, and the tiny pink-cheeked elves, she retreated to the kitchen to retrieve her box of recipes, plans, and itineraries. She quietly slid them onto their appointed shelf in the hall closet and left them, for next year.