Monthly Archives: December 2015

Our Family’s Christmas Book, Wrapping up the Year

Christmas BookBefore we wrap up the year there is one thing we always do—write in our Christmas Book. It’s a family tradition we started 24 years ago. The Christmas Book is something like an annual family diary. Initially, it began by each member in the family sitting down on Christmas night and writing a page in the book. Our daughter was nine when we started the tradition, and our son was twelve. In those first years, they normally told about gifts they received along with drawings. For Don and I, we recapped Christmas and the year.

One might assume I started the tradition; after all, I’m the writer in the family. But actually, it was my husband, who wanted to start a Christmas family tradition of our own.

When our children became adults and moved out of the house, they would write in the book when they came home for Christmas—and when they married, I gave them their own books. I don’t think they are as faithful as we are in writing in their books, and I think someday they will regret not capturing all those memories. Of course, they’ve spent the last few years with a cell phone in their hand—one with a camera—so their lives are pretty much captured in pictures.

Pictures are nice—but so is a written account of our lives—something we have in our Christmas Book.

Stay safe tonight—and Happy New Year!

(Photo: Don, Scott, and Elizabeth, the first year writing in the family’s Christmas Book. 1991, Wrightwood, California.)

I’m back!!

Christmas 2015
I didn’t actually go anywhere—but I did check out from most Internet activities, such as blogging or socializing on Facebook, and I didn’t work on my new book. But I’m back today, and I’ll be diving into The Ghost of Valentine Past.

So where did I go—if only figuratively? Our daughter and her family came for Christmas. Last year Don and I spent Christmas alone, and it’s been a number of years since any of our kids came home for the holiday. I made the commitment to be in the moment this Christmas—especially since these moments are so rare and precious.

We spent extra care decorating the house and guest house, and it’s been years since I did any holiday baking—but I did it this year. We got the player piano working and ordered some Christmas rolls (which arrived just hours before our kids did). If someone were to ask why we bothered getting the piano going, or why we made an extra effort to deck out the house for the holidays, I would tell them, we were trying to create memories.

I want our grandchildren to remember the Christmas they spent in Havasu with Grandma and Grandpa Holmes, and GG (the nickname for my mother, Great-Grandma Caroline.) I want them to have fond sentimental memories, like those I have of my grandparents at Christmastime.

I confess, I cried when they drove off yesterday morning, and I wished again that we all lived closer to each other. But I was also content and had some wonderful new memories to cherish.

Hope you all had a Merry Christmas. Happy New Years!

Player Piano up and running!

Originally purchased for our restaurant, our player piano has been sitting quietly in our living room for about 15 years now. After we closed our restaurant we intended to sell it. That didn’t happen, but we did sell all the music rolls.

After all this time, it was pretty obvious we were never going to sell it–and we figured it was about time it started playing music again.  So I ordered some rolls off eBay, and Don got it playing today. I can’t wait for our grandkids to see it!

Cheese Ball Recipe

The other day I posted the Chocolate Drop Cookie Recipe. Today,  I’m sharing another recipe mentioned in The Ghost Who Came for Christmas.

Cheese Ball

This recipe belonged to my Grandma Madeline, who would make us cheese balls for holiday gatherings. It was a favorite of mine for  New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, finding grocery stores that stock the necessary cheese is not always easy.

1 glass jar (5 ounces) Kraft Roka cheese
1 glass jar (5 ounces) Kraft Olde English cheese
16 ounces cream cheese
2 shakes Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
1 shake garlic powder
1 teaspoon vinegar
Chopped walnuts

Bring all cheese to room temperature. Combine first 6 ingredients and form into a ball shape. Refrigerate several hours. Roll in a mixture of chopped nuts and parsley. Serve with crackers.

I will blame it on Christmas

CandyCaneFace copy The other day when publishing the blog post  The Meaning of the Christmas Cookie, I apparently saved it as a draft instead of hitting publish–so if you noticed a blog post just popping up today, yet says it was published Friday, you aren’t going crazy. I am.

On Friday we were getting ready for my sister and her hubby to arrive for a little Christmas visit, and I was rushing around trying to get last minute things done, so the post didn’t get published, only saved.

Therefore, I am blaming it on the Christmas rush. That is my story, and I am sticking to it!

Chocolate Drop Cookie Recipe

As promised in yesterday’s blog, here’s the recipe for Grandma Madeline’s Chocolate Drop Cookies.  These are moist cake-like cookies, a delight to any chocolate lover, but don’t over bake!

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup shortening
1 egg (beaten)
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (dissolved in 1/2 teaspoon of warm water)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 squares (2 ounces) unsweetened chocolate (melted)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375º. Cream together sugar and shortening. Stir in egg, milk, then remaining ingredients, one by one. Blend well. Drop by teaspoonfuls on cookie sheet. Bake for 8-9 minutes (Do not over cook!) Frost while warm. About 3 dozen cookies.

Chocolate Drop Cookie Frosting

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 to 4 Tablespoons cream or milk
2 squares unsweetened chocolate (melted)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Blend together sugar and cream. Add melted chocolate, stir well. Add vanilla, mix thoroughly. Frost warm cookies.


The meaning of Christmas Cookies

In The Ghost Who Came for Christmas, Danielle bakes all her favorite cookies from her childhood. It’s her way of holding onto the memories of Christmases Past, especially now that her family is gone.

In the book, I mention Chocolate Drop Cookies—a cake-like cookie.  Tomorrow, I’ll share its recipe. But for now, I wanted to share something I wrote years ago, about my Grandma Madeline—who used to bake amazing Chocolate Drop Cookies each year at Christmastime. Cookies, just like the ones Danielle baked up.


MadelineEvaChristmas memories are a familiar medley of fragrances, flavors, music, traditions, and sentimentality. Sometimes the memories stir embers of other recollections. And so, at Christmastime, more than any other time of the year, thoughts of my paternal grandmother come to mind. Perhaps it is because for most of my early years, Christmas and Thanksgiving were the only times Grandma Madeline was a part of my childhood.

Until recently, memories of those Thanksgivings were not especially cherished in my heart’s diary; not until I realized their significance and connection to the other memories involving Grandma Madeline.

Thanksgiving celebrations of my childhood, from my earliest recollection until my early teens, was steadfastly a continual repetition of a single day spent, exactly the same, year after year. My parents, my older sister. and I would dress in what other families called their “Sunday best” (I say other families, because our family never attended church together). In the early afternoon we would drive to the apartment of my father’s mother and stepfather, where we would celebrate Thanksgiving.

I use the term “celebrating” loosely, for the somber, imperturbable gathering was not a robust or stimulating event from a child’s perspective, nor, I suppose from an adult’s. At my grandparents’ orderly apartment, we would find their dining room table trimmed with the finest linen, cut glass, silver, and china, which had once belonged to my great-grandmother.

My father had no siblings (his only brother had died in childhood), therefore there were no cousins to greet my sister and me. Those in attendance included our immediate family of four, Grandma Madeline, my Step-Grandpa Bud, and occasionally Bud’s sister Margaret.

Thanksgiving dinner was always solely prepared by Grandma Madeline. She never sought, nor I imagine would have appreciated, assistance in providing the seasonal repast. One might suppose this attitude was common with many grandmothers of her era; those homemakers who attended faithfully and selflessly in nurturing their families, which naturally included providing homemade goodness to fill hungry souls.

Yet, Madeline was not a kindred spirit to the motherly souls of her generation. She had left her sons to be raised by her parents, and in her entire 70 plus years, had never learned how to nurture nor to express love, at least not to the satisfaction of an abandoned son, my father.

She was a portly woman, whose weight had no doubt been an albatross to her spirit in early years. I’ve come to recognize, as I now analyze my collection of memories pertaining to Madeline, that throughout the years, she attempted, in her own awkward and inexperienced way, to express her love, when she felt compelled to do so, through food. Perhaps, as she found food to be her solace, she believed she would use it to give solace or love to others.

And so, each year at Thanksgiving she would spend hours alone in her kitchen, attempting to serve up her annual offering of love. At the time, I had no inclination that the meal was more than an obligatory trip to Grandma’s, where I was guaranteed to grow bored and restless, yet satisfactorily fed.

When Christmas rolled around, a time overflowing with eager anticipation for many fortunate children, Madeline’s love gift of food was welcomed at home – welcomed more fondly than the pilgrim’s feast had been just a month prior.

Each Christmas season, Grandma Madeline would bring her large, covered, turkey roasting pan to our home. It would be brimming with soft homemade chocolate drop cookies and plump chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate Drop Cookies are a wonderfully moist (if made correctly) chocolate cake-like cookie, topped with a chocolate butter cream frosting.

My father, who had an insatiable sweet tooth, would welcome the offering eagerly. Like a naughty child, he would continually lift the lid off the turkey pan to snatch another treat. I do believe that when he feasted on his mother’s homemade baked goods, it helped provide him with at least some traditional motherly memories of Madeline. Or perhaps, he simply loved sweets.

An overweight child, Madeline may have felt inferior to her older, slimmer sister, Eva. Seeking love and affection, Madeline became pregnant and was forced to marry a man she did not love, nor who loved her. Three years elapsed and they had another child, my father. Admittedly, Madeline did not want this second child and sought desperate measures to abort him. Madeline never attempted to keep the circumstances of my father’s unwanted birth, and her attempts to prevent it, a secret.

As her marriage floundered, Madeline’s parents began assuming increased responsibility for the two young boys. After the eldest was struck by an automobile and killed, Madeline obtained a divorce and struck out on her own, leaving behind her remaining son to be raised by her parents. When my father was 15 years old, he left his home in Michigan and went to California to live with his mother and step-father. He was not welcomed into their home eagerly, but rather pensively.

I recall my father treating Madeline with unsentimental respect. He called her Mother, never Mom. In spite of her abandonment of him, he never abandoned her. He never seemed to dwell on her lack of motherly attentiveness, yet he would grow annoyed when, in her later years, she recounted tales of his childhood which she somehow had created in her mind. Grandma allowed herself to forget, or so it seemed, that she had not been a doting or participating mother.

And so the few, admittedly scarce, shows of motherly love came in the guise of a roasting pan full of homemade cookies. Dad accepted them graciously, even appreciatively. Although he never discussed it, and I doubt he ever thought about it, those cookies were more than a familiar Christmas tradition. It was grandma’s way of saying I love you.

Christmas didn’t stop with cookies. Each year Madeline prepared elaborate fruit cakes, tangy cheese balls, and other favorites.

My sister Lynn and I were Grandma Madeline’s only grandchildren. For years, Lynn was by far the favorite. Lynn was not only adorable, she was accommodating, sweet tempered, and simply easier to love for someone who is not accustomed to small noisy children. I was not only a noisey child, I was unpredictable and never easy.

But children do grow up and become civilized adults. In my last year of college, it was necessary for me to live with my Grandma Madeline for several months. (Grandpa Bud was deceased by this time.) I was a busy, graduating college student, soon to be married. For the first time in her life, Madeline got to know her youngest granddaughter, and I do believe she liked me. In her attempts to express love, she kept her pantry filled with my favorite foods, and if I even casually mentioned a desired dish, she would promptly prepare it.

A year or so before she died, when the family was reminiscing over earlier culinary traditions, Dad mention how he missed a particular Christmas dish his grandmother had prepared. The following Christmas, Madeline attempted to duplicate her mother’s recipe, to recreate for my father a childhood memory. I never fully realized how Grandma Madeline attempted to show love through food until long after she was gone.

About five months before her death, my son, Scott (Madeline’s first great-grandchild), was born. He was still an infant when the family was forced to move grandma from her spacious two-bedroom apartment to a small one-bedroom apartment in a senior center. I recall taking Scott, with my mother, to see his great-grandmother. At the time, I was a fully absorbed new mother, unable to objectively consider that day’s events until many years had elapsed.

Grandma was ill. We didn’t know it at the time, but she had brain cancer and would only be with us for a few more months. Looking back, I feel a bit guilty because I was so wrapped up in my newborn son, in the new life, that I failed to see the lonely, frail, fading life of my grandmother, steadily slipping away.

Instead of embracing Scott or acknowledging the miracle of life as it is passed from one generation to another, Madeline seemed to view her great-grandson from a distance, with sad remoteness. She watched as I attentively and lovingly changed his diapers, nursed him from my breast, and hovered, as do many new mothers.

After watching the relationship and bond between mother and child, she began speaking to me, yet more to herself. She spoke of her childhood. She sadly recounted that she had not been loved, as Scott was loved. She said it with longing, with loneliness, with poignant desire.

Somehow she had forgotten her own son, whom had grown up without her love, and focused only on her memories of her loveless childhood. Never once that afternoon did she attempt to reach out and make a connection with Scott or to express love. She was lost in sad private memories.

I wonder about people and their memories. How accurate they are. How perceptions can differ. I wonder about my grandmother’s childhood, what had been lacking in her parent’s nurturing that had made this overweight child unable to grow beyond herself and openly express love. My father’s memories of his grandparents paint a picture of a loving, nurturing couple. What had made the two pictures so different?

And so, at Christmastime, I fill Grandma’s roasting pan with homemade cookies, as she did. My sister makes her fruit cake and cheese ball, and this next Christmas I suppose it’s time to teach my daughter how to make Chocolate Drop Cookies. And I am grateful that our family was able to break a cycle, able to freely show and give love, to nurture, to parent. But I will continue to be sentimental over a roasting pan full of cookies, because no matter how it is said, even the awkward, the silent, I love you, touches my heart.


(Photo: Madeline and her older sister, Eva)

Remembering the Real Walt

laughBWThe real Walt for me is my dad—Walt Johnson. He passed away 23 years ago today. It’s hard to imagine he’s been gone for almost a quarter of a century.

Dad loved Christmas, and I suppose I missed him most those last few Christmases he spent with us—because he was noticeably absent those last few years. Oh, I’m not saying he was physically elsewhere—he spent Christmas with us. Nor did he check out mentally. It wasn’t as if he was suffering from some form of dementia.

But, Dad was so ill those last couple years of his life; the man who loved Christmas, was no longer involved.

In Haunting Danielle’s The Ghost Who Came for Christmas, Danielle cooks up a batch of oyster stew for Christmas Eve, a recipe she is not thrilled with, but it was a tradition of her late father’s, so she feels compelled to prepare it.  Dad’s signature dish on Christmas Eve was oyster stew—and like Danielle, I was not fond of it.  I don’t prepare it on Christmas Eve, but I let Danielle do it for me.

Dad had been battling congestive heart failure for a couple years before he died. Don and I moved to Havasu in 1991, with our two young children, to help my parents run the family business, Havasu Palms—and to help Mom take care of Dad, which included running him to the hospital several times a week for overnight treatment.  When I say running him to the hospital, I mean taking him across the lake on Havasu Palms’ supply boat.

Mom and I stayed by Dad’s side that last week. He had been in and out of the hospital numerous times during the year prior to his death, yet we knew this trip to intensive care was different. The night he died, Mom and I got a hotel room in town, and Don returned across the lake to Havasu Palms, with the kids.

During that final week, Dad had been out of it. We weren’t able to have a real conversation, and when he did say something, he really didn’t understand where he was or what was going on. At one point, he started rambling about seeing people he knew.

A male nurse showed up during that last day—we had never seen him before, and considering the amount of times Dad was in and out of intensive care, we knew the entire staff.

But this nurse said he was on loan from another hospital, and strangely, he didn’t seem to have any other patients he needed to tend to.  Instead, he spent the time with my mother, talking to her about Dad, encouraging her to talk about their life together.

I will confess, I rather wanted him to go away. I just wanted to be alone in my grief—yet, Mom seemed to need him.  So, I didn’t say anything—and mom continued to talk to the nurse, letting him help her through her impending loss.

When she had said all she had to say, he quietly excused himself—and disappeared. We never saw him again, and I will admit, we have often wondered if he wasn’t a nurse at all. An angel perhaps?

Later that evening, after Mom and I checked into our hotel room and grabbed something to eat, I told Mom I felt we needed to get back to the hospital.  It was not long after we returned to the hospital that Dad moved on.

I remember how it reminded me of being at a train station or an airport, when we’d wait with someone who was waiting to take off on a trip. (Back in the days when you could wait at the airport with someone departing.)  You sit there and talk a little, maybe say nothing, then when the train or plane arrives everyone starts talking and saying their goodbyes.

It was like that for us. The moment Dad flat lined—I began talking to him.  All week I had been by his side, yet it had been impossible to communicate with him. I figured this was my last chance. During his illness I had read numerous books on near death experiences, and the belief that a person’s departing spirit can hear all that is happening around his body immediately following death.

I told him how much I loved him. What a good father he had been. I told him my sister Lynn wished she could be with him. I told him to follow the light.  Mom joined in and started talking to him too, saying her goodbyes.  I did my best to ignore the female nurse who was now in the room, and not allow myself to grow silent from embarrassment. Saying goodbye to Dad was much too important.

I remember the feeling of being engulfed by his love.  The day after his death, a tenant of Havasu Palms’ mobile home park offered me her condolences. In that moment, I remembered something Dad had told me the previous Christmas, when I had asked him want he wanted. He told me, “Get me something you want.” His meaning of course, was that since he was dying, whatever I gave him, I would be getting back.

Dad had this amazing—and sometimes inappropriate sense of humor—so when the woman offered her sympathies, I said without thinking, “At least I hadn’t bought his Christmas present yet.”

Of course, she looked at me like I was either insane or a horrible person. Yet, I could hear Dad’s roar of laughter at my comment, and once again, his love embraced me.

Merry Christmas Daddy. I miss you.

(Photo: me and my dad, Walt)