Advent begins today. We’ve got 25 days to get ready for Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God sent to redeem mankind. Though merchants would have us believe otherwise, the Christmas season actually does not end, but begins, on Christmas day — and continues for twelve days until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.
Archive for November 2008
St. Louis had its first snowfall of the season last night — just an inch or so, enough to make the yard look nice and cover up all the leaves I never got around to raking.
My wife and I still get a big kick out of snow. Of course, we grew up in New Orleans and didn’t have a whole lot of experience with it until we moved to Boston in 1986. Evann, a graphic artist, remembers how Christmas cards never made any sense to us Southerners — what with their snowy landscapes, barren trees, and horse-drawn sleighs, smoke curling up from chimneys, and everybody bundled in strange garments and head coverings. Where were the scenes of barefoot, bareheaded kids in shorts and tee shirts playing with their Christmas presents under leaf-filled live oak trees, while parents sipped juleps on the veranda, cooled themselves with palmetto fans, and swatted mosquitoes as big as pelicans? That was Christmas for us, more or less.
It only snowed twice in New Orleans when I was a kid — once on New Year’s Day in 1961, and again in the spring of 1974. I remember exactly where I was both times: at a Sugar Bowl game in ’61 (the slushy ramps were treacherous on the way out), in a political science class at Tulane (on the Newcomb campus) in ’74.
But we had plenty of snow in Massachusetts, and way too much in Wisconsin. St. Louis is just about right.
When we first moved to St. Louis in 1995, we rented a small house on the edge of a pumpkin farm in the bottomlands near Creve Coeur Lake (a house that had been submerged in the “Flood of 93,” but that’s another story). It was there that we first met “Farmer Clyde,” the crazy old coot who grew the pumpkins and immediately appointed himself our guardian angel. Two years later, we were evicted to make way for a state highway expansion, and Farmer Clyde helped us move our stuff to the next house we’d rented, in Balwin, just south of Queeny Park. Two years later, we were evicted again, to make way for a developer. When we first came to look at (what would be) our next house, in Bridgeton near the airport, we peeked in the backyard and came back to the car with downcast faces to alert the kids that there was a big hole in it. “Swimming pool!” they all shouted. My kids aren’t stupid.
But we had another surprise in store for us. There were vines growing all along the chain link fence that enclosed the backyard, and by early summer we had confirmed that they were concord grapes. Being a farmer and knowing that we were New Orleanians, Farmer Clyde proposed that we make wine. The resolution passed unanimously.
We collected the grapes in September, stomped them, let them sit for a week, and then pressed them with an ancient apple press that Clyde had found in a mudhole down in St. Genevieve and extracted with his old Oliver tractor. Then we poured the juice and hot sugar water into a barrel, plugged it, and asked Clyde the question that had been haunting us: When will it be wine?
Clyde’s not the most straightforward person in the world, and he succumbs occasionally to the rural temptation to bamboozle the city slicker, so we always interpret his responses carefully. But, when he allowed as how we might be able to “taste” it around Halloween, we protested vehemently: “That’s more than a month away.” He complimented us on our mathematical prowess. “But when will be able to drink it?” we demanded. “You could tap a bottle for Thanksgiving, but it won’t really be wine ’til Christmas.”
Well, we tasted it at Halloween and it was terrific! No, Clyde said, it wasn’t wine yet. Hmm. Is he serious, or just tantalizing us? It was impossible to know for sure, so we let it sit. At Thanksgiving, it was far superior, and we realized that Clyde had been right: it wasn’t really wine yet at Halloween. Now it was wine! Right? No, he said, not yet.
Clyde has a sadistic streak, and we were beginning to think it was showing, but we held off. Then, the week of Christmas, we tried it again and wondered how we could have been so stupid. That junk we’d tasted before was just hopped-up grape juice. Nothing like wine at all. This was wine! Wasn’t it?
Clyde held a glass up to the light, admiring its color. He tilted the glass and watched the fluid coating the inside slowly recede to level. He smelled the bouquet, took a small sip, and licked his lips.
Well? Well?!!! Well?!!!!!!
At last, Clyde nodded. It was wine!
This morning we drove down to St. Genevieve for the funeral of Clyde’s dad, Willie Bruckerhoff, who died Tuesday at the age of 91. This year’s vintage — sure to be a very good one — is dedicated to him.
The Christmas Traditions outdoor pageant opened in St. Charles, Missouri today. My eldest daughter, Maria, joined the cast five years ago as “The Flower Girl.” For the last three years, she has been the assistant director, designing the annual brochure and collectible character cards, assisting with character auditions and costume design, etc. This year, my third daughter, Isabel, is taking on the role of “Clara from the Nutcracker” (see photo above). Old St Charles, from which the Lewis & Clark expedition was launched over 200 years ago, is kind of like the French Quarter in New Orleans: lots of historic buildings now housing boutiques and restaurants. If you happen to pass through the St. Louis area between now and Christmas, make sure you cross the Missouri River, visit Main Street in St. Charles, and say hello to Clara.
At Christmas time, when our thoughts are preoccupied with the presents we plan to give and the presents we hope to receive, it would not be amiss to reflect upon, and express gratitude for, those gifts that have been bestowed upon mankind over the centuries and of which we are but the most current beneficiaries. — “Wise Men Bearing Gifts,” F.R. Duplantier, 1986
This is an abridged version of an article I wrote late in 1986, just after I got married and returned to the Church (it all happened at the same time, and so fast). I was feeling philosophical, and grateful, and decided to write an extended thank-you note for the wisdom of the ages. My wife and I spent our first Thanksgiving together (and enjoyed a belated honeymoon) at a friend’s cottage on Cape Cod. It was just the two of us, and a bunch of dead white men: Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas, John Locke, et al. They ate very little, respected our privacy, and helped tidy up. We had a great time together. Nevertheless, my wife made me promise: on our second honeymoon, I’ll leave the old guys at home.
Keeping a list of the gifts we have received can be a good way to develop our sense of gratitude and to sharpen our ability to recognize the hidden benefits in things that have not come giftwrapped. — “Thanks for Everything!” F.R. Duplantier, 1987.
My life, my wife, my family, good health, unemployment — those are the things I’m grateful for. Yes, even unemployment, which gives me extra time to appreciate the other four things, and to reflect on the most important gift of all: the promise of salvation.
Sometimes it takes a great shock to remind us what our priorities should be. We may take offense at the suggestion that our ambitions, our lusts, and our greed are more important to us than the health and safety and happiness of our loved ones, but how often do we find ourselves acting as though they are? — “An Adult Movie Rated PG,” F.R. Duplantier
Having worked in a couple of advertising agencies, I can vouch for the verisimilitude of the one depicted in Nothing in Common. As the product of an unhappy marriage that lasted 41 bitter years, I can also attest to the accuracy of the parental relationship therein portrayed, first as backdrop to the story, then as its main focus. As a kid, I wondered what was wrong, and why my mother and father didn’t love each other the way other kids’ parents did. As an adolescent, I found the prospect of a marriage just as bad as theirs terrifying. As a spouse, I hope I’ve learned from their mistakes and that my luck will hold.
My papa was a great old man. I can see him with a shovel in his hand. – Clarence Carter
They didn’t call me “Patches” when I was young (why, I don’t know), but I can see my father with a shovel in his hand, and he was a great old man. November 25th is/was his birthday. If he were still alive, he would be 87 today. He died just after Christmas in 1990. I was working in Appleton, Wisconsin at the time and flew down to New Orleans for the funeral in January. Upon my return, I was fired. 1991 was getting off to a good start.
For as long as I can remember, my dad always had a garden, a vegetable garden, with okra and tomatoes mostly, and whatever he felt like adding in any given year: bell peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc. Whence the shovel, which, as I got older, was more often in my hand than his. He was the one who liked okra and tomatoes, but, somehow, it was me who got to do all the digging and weeding. For years I dreamed of escaping from the gumbo plantation and making my way along the suburban white kid’s underground railroad to store-bought food and freedom. Which I eventually did. Funny thing, though. One day, at the ripe age of 30, I finally got married and bought a house with a nice little side yard that just cried out for — a garden! Ever since, I’ve grown okra and tomatoes just like the old man; and some day my kids will remember me, I hope, with a shovel in my hand.
Five years ago this week, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I got an urgent email from John McCaslin, the great Washington Times writer and all-round good guy, who for several years previous had been gracious enough to include my politickles on a regular basis in his “Inside the Beltway” column. He was just finishing up his column for the next day, had a tiny space left, and wondered if I could write a limerick on order for Thanksgiving. Needless to say, I dropped everything (which probably wasn’t much, as I was unemployed at the time) and put the old thinking cap on. Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving? What memories does that particular holiday conjure up? Ah, yes. Lots of good food, and the agony — for a kid, at least — of having to wait half the day to eat any of it! Thus, “Gobbler” and a new politickle tradition (the annual Thanksgiving limerick) were born (see archive below).
Each year at this time, I put the thinking cap (beret, actually) back on and try to dredge up something from my childhood (and adult) memories of Thanksgiving from which to generate a limerick: being glad to have guests over but hoping they won’t overstay their welcome (2004), being completely unable to fathom the appeal of cranberry sauce (2005), eating too much on purpose (2006), remembering in the midst of self-engorgement that some people aren’t so lucky (2007), looking forward to the annual opportunity to ogle the Rockettes (also 2007), and realizing in late adolescence that not everyone in America has the same Thanksgiving meal that New Orleanians do (2008). Click on the embedded links in “Ooh La La!” for some dandy recipes.
This year, having called the family together for a brainstorming session, I got lucky and wound up with two good ideas for a Thanksgiving limerick. I’ve got the one for 2009 already written, and for that I’m truly grateful. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a year to read it.
If you’re thankful for your lot
And all the things you’ve got,
Then say a prayer
And give a care
For someone on the spot.
How much better can Thanksgiving get?
In my bedroom a 60-inch set,
And in HD displayed
This year’s Macy’s Parade:
Waking up to a scrumptious Rockette!
With the turkey and trimmings procured,
Our Thanksgiving repast is assured,
But it won’t be complete
‘Til we sit down to eat
And the family’s as stuffed as the bird.
If your husband’s a Thanksgiving fan
And a cranberry sauce kind of man,
You might make him a batch
Of the sauce all from scratch,
But he’ll miss that weird goop in the can!
Lord, we ask of you a boon:
To bless our guests this noon.
We’re so grateful they
Could come today –
And have to leave real soon!
Hold your horses; we’re not in a race.
Get that drumstick away from your face.
Now put your fork down
And stop making that frown.
You can eat when we finish the grace.
Last week’s limerick:
NO CHILD LEFT
If a kid is a bit of a scamp
And resists the new socialist stamp,
He will be reassigned
And his mind realigned
At a reeducational camp.
Soon after we moved to Boston in 1986, people started asking my wife and me if we missed New Orleans. We had a ready response: “Not really. We brought our cookbooks and our records with us.” (And, of course, we brought ourselves, the coolest couple in the whole dang town — though you’d never know it, to look at us now.)
Food and music are the essence of New Orleans. With copies of Talk About Good, River Road Recipes, and the Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, we expatriates have all the resources we need to enjoy la belle cuisine (though finding the required ingredients at an affordable price, or reasonable substitutes, is often a challenge). With albums featuring the best music of Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, Chuck Carbo and the Spiders, Beausoleil, et al., we have la musique necessaire to set the proper mood. We can laisser les bons temps rouler wherever and whenever we want to.