Mama was Swedish through and through, so Christmas Eve was big at our house. Dinner was always lutfisk, the most disgusting of the Swedish Christmas Eve traditions. It had a smell all its own: a cross between rotten fish and the Borax soap Daddy washed his hands in after a day’s work at the cement plant. I learned that breathing through my mouth would ward off some of the stench.
Mama said good Swedes pronounced it “loot-uh-fisk,” which I figured must be Swedish for poison. When it was done cooking, it resembled a big hunk of slimy jello. Mama sprinkled some allspice on top, which she said brought out all the good flavors.
Lutfisk is aged in lye, which the Encyclopedia Britannica said was a chemical used to make cleaning products. It said it burns the skin unless people use goggles and gloves. And that, it should be stored in air-tight containers, with a skull-and-crossbones picture on it. (Except, I supposed, when you were soaking lutfisk in it.)
I guessed that Christmas traditions were okay, but why couldn’t ours match the rest of the planet’s or the kids in my second grade class—or at least the Jones family across the road?
I first began to notice the differences at about age four, when Mama read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to me. It was clear from this poem that Santa was supposed to arrive on the night before Christmas, not a week early, like he did at our house. This seemed a little suspicious to me.
When I asked Mama, she brushed my question aside, as if our slightly off-kelter traditions were not open to debate. And besides, she said, it’s clearly impossible for Santa to deliver those presents to all those houses in just one night. This way, he can spread them out.
When I was small, this made perfect sense to me, though, still, I wondered how he kept all the houses and times straight—and how he knew ours was the Swedish house.
Early one Christmas season, when I was eight, I confronted Mama. “You know, ” I said, twirling a lock of hair until it bounced back, like it was spring-loaded, “some kids open their presents on Christmas morning. We could try it for a change. Just this year?” I studied Mama’s face.
“What kind of Christmas would that be?” she said. “The atmosphere would be all wrong. What good are our twinkling tree lights in broad daylight? Wouldn’t you feel silly all dressed up before breakfast? Plus, I’d have a big holiday meal to cook after all that fun? And what about your Uncle Les?”
Uncle Les, Mama’s brother, always delivered our most looked-forward to present on Christmas Eve. He was a pharmacist and we considered him rich because he bought us expensive gifts, purchased at department stores far away from the JC Penneys on Wishkah Street.
With that, I knew she had won again.
Then I had my own child and, strangely, with the exception of the vile lutfisk, I found myself following the very traditions I scoffed at when I was a kid. Santa came about a week before Christmas. The main festivities, including tearing open the packages, were the defining events on Christmas Eve. I made cookies and bread with Mama’s recipes and hung mistletoe in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, just like she used to do.
Hold them close; they grow up in the blink of an eye
I never understood when people would say, “Enjoy Kellye and treasure these moments with her. They’ll be over before you know it.”
But you know what? They were right.
It can’t have been more than 30 years ago when she got her kindergarten graduation certificate from Dahlke School.
But it is.
It can’t be 20 plus years since she turned 21 and joined us for her first grownup drink at Nieman’s Restaurant in Carlsbad, California. And yet it is. (Yes, that’s us in the top photo and yeah, Bob and I look a tad bit younger).
From Kindergarten to College: Treasure the Moments
Now Kellye, our Leo the Late Bloomer, is in the home stretch of her college career and will receive a degree in Theatre Arts from Smith College this coming May.
And, in light of the Newtown tragedy, and especially because I taught six-year-olds for 10 years, the life is short mantra is an aching reminder to me to hold my child close. To tell her every day that I love her.
To treasure the moments.
Happy Holidays from the Dunn House to Yours.