The opinions, remembrances, reflections, and wisdom of the mother of five homeschooled children as the last one leaves the nest and the ranks of the grandchildren begin to grow.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
A VERY MARILYN CHRISTMAS
My mother Marilyn Mazziotti Moran was an extraordinary woman. The youngest of three children, born in 1929, she was a depression child in a family of second generation Italians who lived about a hair above the poverty level. Her mother, my grandmother, was not happy in her marriage to my grandfather Anthony Mazziotti, whom I never knew. The stress my grandmother experienced tended to spill over onto my mom and she carried those unpleasant memories into her adulthood. Because her early years lacked the enrichment she so desperately desired, my mother determined that her children would have and experience what she had only dreamed of. Although she did not realize or appreciate it at the time, her Italian familial customs gave her the palate for appreciating those finer things in life. However poor they were, their genes were programmed to recognize and indulge in the best tastes in food, clothing, and the arts.
Marilyn married my father, a bricklayer and then a Chicago police officer, who did what many husbands do on payday. He kept aside a little spending money for himself and handed the whole paycheck over to his wife. With his meager salary she made sure that we attended Catholic school, ballet lessons, and had a basic but high quality wardrobe from Marshall Field's or Bonwit Teller. She tended toward tartan kilt skirts and argyle knee socks – a foreshadowing of the predisposition my own family would have toward all things Scottish.
Marilyn was careful with her budget, but she did not hold back when it came to the dinner table. My mother was the best cook I will ever know. When I look back on the effort she put into her meals I realize just how grateful I am for the legacy we have. Although she left the Italian cooking to my grandmother, her meals were always tasty and the vegetables were always fresh. Except for corn, I have never bought canned vegetables of any kind. We rarely ate at restaurants because what little income we had for entertainment could not be wasted on a meal that could not compare to what we ate every night at home.
Her commitment to great food reached a crescendo at Christmas. Cookies have always been an important part of the Christmas celebration, but Marilyn was a one-woman cookie factory at Christmas. The preparation for her grand cookie trays began well before Thanksgiving. In early November she began the baking of some of the most beautifully delicate and delicious cookies anyone has ever made. She did this before cooks had access to the gadgets we have today. There were no food processors, so all nuts, and there were many recipes with nuts, had to be finely chopped by hand. She had no cookie press, so all spritz cookies were made with a pastry bag and tip. They were small and finely decorated with an artistic flair. Tray upon tray of cookies was wrapped in plastic and taken down to a very cool basement utility closet where they were stored until it was time to distribute them to neighbors and friends. There was also date nut bread baked in tin cans and fruitcake soaked in brandy.
Somewhere in all of this my mother found time to meticulously decorate the tree. It was a serious matter. Her ornaments were primarily European mouth-blown glass figurines, some of which my sister and I still have on our own trees. When I was very young she used the standard vari-colored lights and tinsel, but when Italian lights came on the market, they suited her style and became the illumination of choice. One of my favorite childhood memories, before the days of the sophisticated Italian lights, was reading books by the light of the tree while lying under the branches. The books were very often paperbacks from Scholastic Books and could be ordered from a monthly (?) catalog at St. Denis school. On my coffee table is the most read of these books – A Treasury of Christmas Stories. It is probably 45 years old and precipitously close to falling apart with age. I read it year after year and dusted it off when my own children were old enough to appreciate the stories and poems.
We kids would spend Christmas Eve staring out our picture window at the sky, hoping to see Santa approaching. Most years we went to bed for the night and woke in the morning to a treasure trove of gifts mostly purchased by Mom at Toyland in Marshall Field's – the original downtown store. Our evening was spent devouring Mom's hot hors d'oveures, chip dip made with diced shrimp, eggnog, sherbert punch and of course, the cookies. There were two Christmases where my mother decided to have close friends over for drinks and hors d'oveures after Midnight Mass. On those two occasions we went to bed early, but were woken up by the arrival of the guests and discovered that Santa had already visited our house. After opening the gifts I remember indulging in what was left of the cocktails in the glasses on the counter in the kitchen. That was probably the last time I ever tasted a whiskey sour. Being up so late on Christmas Eve made it difficult for Mom to put together our Christmas dinner, so that was a short- lived tradition.
Speaking of Christmas dinner, it began with homemade meat and/or cheese ravioli prepared by my grandmother Josephine in her tiny kitchen in her tiny home in the old Italian neighborhood on 69th street. That would have been good enough for me but then there was the prime rib roast with double-baked potatoes, a vegetable, salad and rolls. Most likely there was a home baked pie or pies, but I was probably content with the cookies and cannot recall if I ever bothered with pie. Sometimes our dinner was preceded by a visit from my Uncle Pepi Mazziotti. I used to laugh myself silly at my uncle. For some reason he was the designated deliverer of the wine for our dinner and on one occasion, when I was 13, he gave this here niece just a little too much Chianti so that I laughed myself even sillier than usual and was pretty much useless after dinner. My father was not amused.
By Christmas night the magic was diminishing and we kids were curled up on the couch in our new pajamas, robes and slippers (our usual Christmas gifts from my paternal grandparents), hugging our dolls and stuffed toys. My mother would barely function for the next couple days until it was time to pull herself together for the New Year's celebration. I have tried to follow in Marilyn's footsteps with a slight modification of her perfectionist tendencies, which drove her to be quite high-strung during the holidays. As a child I was aware of the tension that erupted periodically as Christmas approached. The good always outweighed the bad and I swept it all aside, preferring to focus on the positive. Somewhere in my subconscious I determined that I would not make myself that nutty during the holidays. The tension is hard to avoid when hustling and bustling, but my resolution to only do what I can do and not obsess over the minutiae has kept me from the same very Italian meltdowns that punctuated my childhood Advent season.
This year, December 12, 2010, will mark the 22nd anniversary of Marilyn's passing. She was 59. Her death was unexpected and crushing for my father, sister, brother and me. We counted on her to create many more Merry Christmases for the grandchildren before passing the baton to us. Only 12 days after her death, we managed to take the baton and run with it in spite of our grief. And so it has gone every Christmas since 1988. The pain we felt that first Christmas is gone, but we think of her always - especially in December.