All I want for Christmas . . . is something I can never have.
I want Grandma (Grandpa, too). Grandma as she was before Alzheimer’s sent her careening backward in age, staring for hours in apparent surprise at her outstretched hands, as a baby will do. She would rouse for meals or if you sang an old Portuguese or Hawaiian song. But mostly she was gone as surely then as she is now.
When I was single and unpartnered, living on the Mainland, I used to accept invitations to share holidays with friends. But my enjoyment of these occasions was at best pallid. I’d chat politely, accept the impersonal guest gifts, eat the strange stuffings and odd side dishes (no rice! dressing with sage in it!) and slip away as soon as the pie was served. While appreciating the sentiment behind the invitations, I couldn’t feel at home.
I wanted then, as I do now, to be home.
The best Christmas I ever spent in those single days was the first one in my own home, a just-bought condo in Everett, Wash., near the Boeing plant. That year, I refused all invitations. On Christmas morning, I slept in, set the table and enjoyed an indulgent Portuguese-style breakfast of fried pickled pork, salty olives, crusty bread and scrambled eggs packed with parsley and onions. I lit a fire and plumped up the pillows on the sofa before it, gathered the presents my mother had mailed and opened them slowly, slowly, one by one, pausing to listen to a whole record (yes, an actual vinyl disc) . Afterward, I called family and friends, savoring each conversation like an additional present. Then I took a nap.
I liked it because I wasn’t pretending: It was what it was. Grandma and Grandpa and Daddy were dead. Mom, my step-dad and siblings were far away. That condo, my ginger-colored cat, the window seat looking out on a tiny garden, the dining room table I had finished myself — these and a job I loved were my reality.
If I couldn’t have the past, I’d accept the present instead of attempting vainly to fit into someone else’s family.
Home to me will ever be my grandparents’ sprawling houses — the one in Wailuku where I spent hours alone with Grandma while Grandpa, Daddy and Mommy worked; the other, where my grandparents moved when I was 10, in Iao Valley, built from lumber Grandpa scrounged from the destruction of the one-time military hospital where I was born in Pu’unene.
I wanted to see again the Norfolk pine Grandpa cut in the mountains, the tarnished glass ornaments, the drooping recycled tinsel (frugal Grandma insisted we pick every strand off individually and return it to the battered boxes each year). I wanted to beg again to be allowed to arrange the farm animals around the creche on the side table, light the votive candles perched amidst pine branches, further the progress of the Wise Men and their camels on their long walk.
I wanted to be standing in the kitchen with Grandma, leaning on the worn Formica-topped counter with its green glass canisters and ’50s-era percolator, talking story while the smell of roasting turkey and sputtering duck fat teased our appetites. She would tell me about girlhood Christmases, when her family’s stair-step of 12 children would feel blessed to get an orange each, and perhaps some nuts and a new dress, a shirt or a pair of shoes.
Judging by her teenage diaries, which are among my most precious possessions, they may have been poor but they were in little danger of starving. The diaries are inordinately concerned with food: her almost-daily bread-baking sessions, the soups she made for supper (Great Grandma was bedridden so Grandma, the youngest daughter, became a housewife long before she knew Grandpa existed). They would walk miles to family parties, toting baskets of provisions, and she would record every dish served: “We had meat, bread, rice, poi, fish, cake, pie . . .” They were especially fond of cake and she writes in detail about those she baked for birthdays, such as that of her Papa, a stern and rather unapproachable man who nevertheless enjoyed her baking.
Grandpa, always at a loss when he wasn’t a) at his job as a printer for the Maui News, or b) talking politics (he was a state senator f0r many years), would wander in and out, delivering a ripe papaya from the yard, presenting some creation from his wood shop for our inspection, pausing mid-afternoon for a restorative jigger of whiskey. Or maybe one of his brothers would drive up in a battered old truck and they would sit for a while on the worn chairs in the carport, staring off down the valley, puffing their Lucky Strikes. I’d hear the rumble of his voice. “I get the proof in my files” he’d say. “I goin’ take ’em to the cleaners!” Or, more colorfully, in times of resignation, when he knew he couldn’t win, “I goin’ live to pee on all their graves!”
My parents — guilty, perhaps, from being gone so much at their work — would lavish me with so many presents I’d be sitting in a sea of torn wrapping when the opening was done. In the midst of the Elvis albums, the crinoline skirt, the portable record player, there would be one or two small offerings — a hankie, some bubble bath, a Miraculous Medal or round of lace to pin to my hair for Mass. Grandma bought these with nickels and dimes she saved from the weekly grocery money, carefully secreting the change in a Christmas stocking hung in her closet. I would like to think I remembered to thank her, and treasure these humble gifts in the midst of plenty, but I probably didn’t.
Since her death in 1977, and every year since, I’d have given anything for a little square of muslin edged with her crochet, for a taste of her coconut pie, or to sit again over a wee hours breakfast after midnight Mass, nine-tenths asleep with a slice of bread slathered in butter and Grandma’s guava jam still clutched in my hand, surrounded by all the people who loved me.
That’s still all I want for Christmas.
Grandma’s Coconut Pie
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 cups packed, grated FRESH coconut, milk squeezed out (wrap handfuls in three layers cheesecloth, form a pouch, twist to close and squeeze like crazy to release 1/2 cup coconut milk)
2 cups (or less) sugar
Unbaked crust for 2-crust pie
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a medium bowl, whisk cornstarch into 1/2 cup coconut milk until smooth. Add coconut, sugar and salt and stir well to combine.
Pour into unbaked pie crust, cover with top crust, flute, cut slits in top and bake at 400 degrees for 35-45 minutes until golden brown.