A Penguin Comes to Tea

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Christmas Relations

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“I think we should invite my mother for Christmas this year,” my husband said last August. “Everybody else is busy, and she might end up spending Christmas on her own, which would be awful.”
“You mean we’d never hear the end of it,” I muttered under my breath.
“Maybe, but it still would be awful to be alone at Christmas, while everybody else is off celebrating.”
So I agreed, but I had no illusions that it would be an easy visit. My mother-in-law likes things done her way, and has multiple ways to remind you of it. I remember her last visit, two summers ago, and the day I was trying to prepare dinner in a hurry, so that my son could go off to his soccer practice.
“Would you like me to warm the plates?” she had asked, even though it was the middle of summer and we were only having pasta.
“No, don’t worry; they’ll be fine once the food is on them,” I said.
“Well, the food stays warmer longer if the plates are heated,” she said.” You don’t have a warming cupboard do you? They are so useful.”
I looked around my crowded kitchen at the piles of schoolwork and cookbooks, the lunch bags that still needed emptying and the dirty dishes from the afternoon snack and vaguely waved a hand to show that I did not know where a warming cupboard would go, hoping she would understand that it was number nine thousand and something on my wish list.
“I use my warming cupboard all the time,” she continued. “It’s a pity you don’t have room for one.”
I smiled and warmed the plates in the microwave, showing her that I could manage perfectly well with what I had.
So, in the weeks before Christmas I made lists of all the things she could possibly want that I would have to procure: napkin rings for the table, even though we never used napkins unless she was visiting; mince pies from a bake table, so that I could pretend I had made them; eggnog and champagne; ingredients for mulled wine; two varieties of cheese and fair trade coffee beans.
“Yay, Granny’s coming for Christmas,” the children sang.
“Is she going to come to my concert?”
“No, she’s coming to my ballet recital.”
“Will Santa bring her a present to this house?”
And they bounced on the guest bed to soften it up, leaving muddy footprints on the carpet.
The dragon arrived on the appointed day and complained about the journey and the other travellers, then she produced small gifts for the children which turned them into whirling dervishes, a book for my husband, a box of chocolates for me and a fruitcake for Christmas.
“I made it myself,” she said, “as I knew you wouldn’t have time to make one. It’s very rich, as it has a lot of brandy in it.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the cake which was heavier than a brick. “That’s very kind of you. The children are full of gingerbread at the moment.”
“Hmm, well of course they do new things at school these days, but a Christmas cake is traditional, so I thought they should have one.”
I smiled and nodded and took her to her room, then raced to hide the sponge cake which the children had begged me to buy.
The next couple of days passed in a blur as Granny was dragged from one performance or sports game to the next, while my husband suddenly found lots of extra work to do. Finally Christmas Eve arrived, and the children sat before the fire, faces scrubbed, stockings in hand, discussing the best way for Santa to come down the chimney.
“What day do you normally have the ham?” Granny asked.
Ham? My mind went blank. Had I bought a ham? If so, where had I put it? Not at the bottom of the closet with the secret gifts, please, I hoped. Well, at worst I could buy one on Boxing Day, when surely they would all be marked down.
“Oh, after Christmas,” I said, “there’s way too much food to get through first, especially with the wonderful gifts you brought.”
My mother-in-law sniffed, and took another sip of her wine. I ushered the children upstairs, assuring them that the chimney would soon be ready for Santa, then I bade my mother-in-law a goodnight.
“Yes, you should go to bed now, you’ll want to be up early to stuff the turkey,” she said.
I did not point out that we’d all be up early once the children woke and found their stockings, and instead I went to the kitchen and lined up a few baking trays on the oven to show that I knew what I was doing.
I survived the early morning bed romp with children already high on sugar from their stockings, I remembered to put the turkey in the oven on time, I hid the packaging from the store-bought stuffing, and I was washing the vegetables when disaster struck.
“Have you made the brandy butter?” my mother-in-law asked.
“No, we don’t bother; it’s too rich for the children, so we just usually have cream,” I said.
“What? No brandy butter? That’s a tradition with the Christmas pudding. Here, let me make some; it won’t take long at all, and then the children can have a little taste.”
I mentally rolled my eyes, but graciously accepted and found some butter and a dish. It was only when I returned to the sink that the realisation hit me. I had forgotten to buy the Christmas pudding. I stood in horror looking down at the half-peeled potato wondering how I could get out of this disaster. Should I cut a large slice of her cake and squash it into an old pudding bowl? Should I own up to the fact that nobody liked Christmas pudding, or should I pretend I had left it in the pantry and the dog had eaten it?
I looked over at the dog lying on his bed and decided he would not make a good villain.
There was nothing for it. I would have to improvise.
Once the potatoes were in the oven, I gathered the ingredients for a skillet cookie, made up the dough and put it in the fridge. There would be time to put it in the oven once the turkey had come out, and brandy butter would melt nicely on a warm cookie.
“That’s an interesting way to carve a turkey,” my mother-in-law said, as I cut half the breast off and quickly sliced chunks onto the children’s plates. “Don’t you carve thin slices from the top?”
“No time,” I said, “we don’t want the plates to go cold.”
She felt her warm plate and nodded; finally I had got something right.
The children’s chattering drowned out any other comments, and I was able to slip the skillet cookie into the oven while they argued about the cracker prizes. When the turkey plates had been cleaned away, I looked at them and said, “And what do think we’re having next? It’s a skillet cookie!”
“Hooray!” they shouted. “Really? You’re the best, Mum. I hate that fruity pudding thing we usually have. Granny, you’re going to love this!”
“Brandy butter will go perfectly with the cookie,” I said, and smiled at my mother-in-law.

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