Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Turkeys

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Earlier this year the church brought on an Associate Pastor, 28-year-old Michelle Tellum, fresh out of seminary. As the holiday season approached, Michelle was asked to lead the Christmas Eve Service. Jennifer O’Donnell, wife of Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell, promoted the idea. With Michelle handling Christmas Eve, the O’Donnells could spend the holidays with Jennifer’s family in Denver for the first time in years.

Michelle had mixed emotions. She was honored by the trust, nervous to be flying solo for such a significant service, and sad because it was the first Christmas she would be spending away from her own parents.

Her new boyfriend, Ian Wells, addressed this last emotion by inviting her to spend Christmas with his family who lived locally in Normal. Michelle liked the idea, though it increased her nervousness. She had not yet met Ian’s parents. Spending Christmas with them would be a pretty high-risk first impression. But Ian assured her his family would love her.

Then, a few days before Christmas Eve, Ian broke the news that he would not be attending Michelle’s Christmas Eve service.

“Why not,” she demanded.

“My family has a little Christmas Party every Christmas Eve. It won’t be over until after your service starts.”

“Can’t you leave early or even skip it?”

“My Mom would be heartbroken,” Ian said.

“Well, I’ll be heartbroken if you don’t come to my service,” Michelle replied.

“Come on, it’s not that big of a deal,” Ian said. “You’re going to be doing your thing up at the front of the church. You won’t even know I’m not there.”

“I’ll know,” Michelle responded.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said. “But it’s family. You understand.”

“Oh, I understand,” Michelle told him. “But if you’re not coming to my service, then I don’t think I’ll come to your family’s house for Christmas. It would be too awkward.”

“Don’t be like that,” Ian replied. “You don’t want to spend Christmas by yourself.”

“I won’t be by myself,” Michelle assured him. Not that she had any idea with whom she would spend Christmas instead, but she wasn’t about to appear needy when Ian was being so inconsiderate.

The solution presented itself a few minutes before the start of the Christmas Eve service. She was sitting with choir director Shane Reed who was divorced and also away from his family. As they waited for the congregation to file in, he asked, “So, what are you doing for Christmas?”

“I have no idea,” Michelle admitted. “Spending it by myself, I guess. How about you?”

“I’m going to help serve dinner at the food pantry,” Shane said. “You could come along if you want. They could use the help.”

Michelle perked up. “That’s a great idea, thanks!”

The next morning Michelle woke up in her empty apartment. She sat beside the sparsely decorated three-foot tree she had bought and opened the presents her family had sent. When it was late enough she called home. The noise of a crowded house enjoying the holiday did not cheer her up.

A bit later Ian called. He tried to apologize for missing her service but she was in no mood to make up. “I have to go,” she told him. “I’m due to help prepare dinner at the food pantry.”

Arriving into the hustle and bustle of the food pantry was something of a relief. It may not have been the way she usually spent Christmas, but it was better than sitting in her lonely apartment. Shane was already there and got her set up chopping ingredients next to him. A big meal like this required lots of chopping.

As they worked their knives, Shane told wacky holiday stories about his crazy drunk uncle that soon had Michelle in tears of laughter. Or maybe the tears were from the onions she was chopping. Still, her mood had improved a lot.

Then she heard Ian’s voice say, “Hi, I’d like to volunteer.”

She turned around and saw him standing in the doorway. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

“My family got me last night,” he told her. “Today I want to spend with you.”

Michelle gave him a non-committal nod. She was touched but not quite ready to forgive him. The pantry’s volunteer coordinator, a small but energetic woman named Helen, assigned Ian to mash potatoes on the other side of the kitchen. Michelle made sure to laugh extra loudly at Shane’s stories so Ian could hear how much fun she was having.

And then a minor disaster struck. One of the two ovens demonstrated a devious knack for bad timing by choosing now to break down. Getting a repairman to come out on Christmas was not likely in Normal. They had two enormous twenty-five pound turkeys that had to cook. Only one could fit in the remaining oven and doing them consecutively would add almost five hours to the prep time. They’d be eating at 10 p.m.

“What about the church,” Michelle asked. “We have an industrial oven.”

Helen ran over and gave Michelle a big hug. “You’ve saved the day!” she cried.

Michelle, Shane and Ian hauled one of the monster turkeys over to the church and got it started cooking. “I don’t want to leave it unattended,” Michelle said. “One of us will have to stay with it. Ian?”

Ian opened his mouth to protest, but then paused. Michelle was watching him carefully. He realized this was his punishment. “Sure,” he said.

“Good,” Michelle replied. “Shane and I will go back and help get the rest of the meal ready. We’ll come get you and the turkey in four and a half hours.”

By the time people started arriving two hours later Michelle was feeling pretty guilty leaving Ian by himself in the church kitchen. Most of the side dishes were prepared, but dinner was still an hour behind schedule due to the transportation time taking the turkey to and from the church.

“We’re going to have to do something to entertain people,” Helen said as she watched the growing crowd.

“Let’s sing Christmas carols,” Shane suggested. “I’ll play piano. Michelle, you can lead the singing.”

“I can’t sing,” Michelle said.

“Everyone can sing Christmas carols,” Shane scoffed. He wouldn’t have said that if he had ever heard Michelle try.

Then a little voice wafted up to them. “My Mommy can sing.” They looked over and saw a tiny Asian boy of about six peeking in through the kitchen door.

“Who’s your Mommy?” Helen asked. Then his Mom appeared. She was pretty, in her late twenties, slim with long black hair.

“Tyler, stay out of there,” she said, “I’m sorry. Is he bothering you?”

“Not at all,” Shane replied. “In fact, he’s just volunteered you to lead everyone singing Christmas carols.”

“Thanks a lot,” the woman said, playfully rubbing Tyler’s head. Then she held out her hand, “My name’s Audra.”

Shane shook her hand, “Nice to meet you.” He turned to Michelle and gave her a wink. “I guess you’re off the hook.”

“Good,” she replied. “I think I’ll go give Ian a break.”

Ian was dozing on a counter top when Michelle arrived. “Do you have your guitar with you?” she asked.

“Actually, it’s in the trunk,” he said. Ian played jazz guitar in a local band.

“Go back to the food pantry,” Michelle instructed. “They need some entertainment.”

“What about you?” Ian asked.

“I’ll be fine,” she said.

Michelle amused herself with a book of Sudoku puzzles she had in her office until Helen picked her and the turkey up an hour later. “Is everyone starving?” Michelle asked.

“They’ve forgotten all about dinner,” Helen laughed.

When they arrived at the pantry Michelle saw why. Ian, Shane and Audra were rocking a jazzy version of “We Three Kings.” Michelle had not realized that particular carol could rock. And Tyler wasn’t lying when he said his Mom could sing.

When they finished the song Helen announced dinner was ready.

As the volunteers headed to serve and the guests queued up with their trays, Michelle snuck a kiss on Ian’s cheek.

“Am I forgiven?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

After all the guests had their food, Helen told the volunteers they should grab dinner as well. Michelle, Ian and Shane loaded up plates and joined Audra and Tyler at one of the long tables.

“That was awesome,” Michelle told them. “You have a great voice, Audra.”

“Thanks,” Audra replied. “I used to sing professionally, but, well, times are tough. Obviously.”

“We can’t pay you anything but we’d love to have a voice like yours in the choir on Sunday,” Shane said.

“Sounds like fun,” Audra replied.

And in fact she did one better. The following week Shane, Ian and Audra reprised their performance from the food pantry as special music for the church service. When they finished the congregation burst into enthusiastic applause.

Pastor O’Donnell leaned over to Michelle. “You must have had quite a Christmas,” he said.

“Oh yeah,” she replied smiling. “It was actually pretty cool.”

Note: I posted this story early this week so it would be up in time for Christmas. I’ll return to my every-other-Sunday schedule with the next story, which will appear January 10, 2010. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some Like Hot Tamales

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. The Winslow family are cornerstone members of the church. Del Winslow sings in the choir, Karen Winslow teaches the Guppies pre-school Sunday school class, and their daughter Carrie recently married her husband Carlos in the church.

Every Christmas since she and Del were first married Karen has made a special meal for the family – standing rib roast and rhubarb pie. But this year that tradition was threatened when Karen was diagnosed with leukemia. She had been in the hospital for a month for chemotherapy and wasn’t scheduled to be released until Christmas Eve.

That month was rough on Del. The holiday season was always a busy time of year, of course, and with his wife in the hospital Del had to add a considerable amount of housework to his usual chores. Then there were the hours he spent each day by Karen’s bedside and more hours on the phone arguing with an uncooperative insurance company…not to mention the emotional toll. As Christmas approached Del was nearly as exhausted as Karen.

The entire Winslow family was gathered in Karen’s hospital room playing a game of Hearts on a Sunday afternoon when the subject of Christmas dinner came up.

“I’m so glad you’ll be home for Christmas, Mom,” Carrie said as she returned from the bathroom. Carrie was seven months pregnant and it seemed like she was always either coming or going from the bathroom.

“Yeah,” Dell added, “It’ll be nice to have the whole family around our dining table again enjoying your famous rib roast.”

The room got quiet. “I don’t think I’m going to be well enough to make dinner this year, dear,” Karen said.

“Oh,” Del replied, his face reddening. “No, of course not. Well, maybe Carrie and I can do it then.”

Karen laughed. Del’s occasional ventures into the kitchen usually proved disastrous and had even summoned the fire department on two occasions. And Carrie had given up trying to cook anything that didn’t come from a can or a take-out container long ago.

“What if I made dinner,” Carlos said. It was not a crazy idea. He had cooked regularly for Carrie and himself before they were forced to move in with Del and Karen after the younger couple were both laid off.

“Do you know how to make a standing rib roast?” Del asked hopefully.

“No,” Carlos replied, “but my family has a traditional Christmas dinner as well. Tamales.”

“Tamales,” Del repeated. It didn’t sound very Christmas-y to him.

“It’s actually the custom in Mexico,” Carlos explained. “At Christmas time the women of the family spend several days sitting around making tamales and talking. My family continued the tradition when I was growing up in Cincinnati and I often helped. It’s easy. We can make them together.”

“That’s a great idea!” Carrie exclaimed. “You’re part of our family now. This will be an opportunity to combine our traditions.”

Del sat quietly. He knew Karen couldn’t cook a big dinner her first day out of the hospital. He certainly didn’t want to stress her out in her fragile condition. But his tradition was standing rib roast and rhubarb pie and with everything going on he really craved something traditional. He didn’t think Tamales were going to cut it.

It was an especially joyous Christmas Eve morning when Del brought Karen home from the hospital. Carlos and Carrie had decorated the living room with a “welcome home” banner and bouquets of flowers. And Carlos had prepared the kitchen and dining room table for a tamale making assembly line.

Karen was delighted. She watched eagerly as Carlos explained the process. First, they would cook the filling. Carlos had purchased a variety of meats and spices. He and Carrie thought it would be fun to experiment so they included many non-traditional ingredients such as hoison sauce for Asian flavored tamales.

Once the fillings were ready they would spread Masa on cornhusks, put the filling into it, and fold the tamale. They would then steam the tamales on Christmas day just before eating.

“This looks fun,” Karen said. “Let’s get started!”

“You guys enjoy,” Del said. “I’m a little tired. I think I’m just going to read a book.”

“But Daddy,” Carrie pleaded, “It’s supposed to be a family activity.”

“If he doesn’t want to participate he doesn’t have to,” Karen said. “Go read your book, Sweetie. You’ve been doing a lot for us lately. You deserve some time to yourself.”

Del settled into his recliner in the living room with the latest spy novel he’d gotten from the library while Carrie and Carlos set about cooking the meat. Karen mostly sat on a stool and observed, just happy to be back in her own kitchen.

After they finished cooking the fillings they moved to the dining room table for the assembly process. They talked and laughed and listened to Christmas carols on the radio as they made their tamales with all the creative seasonings they could think of.

About ten minutes into the process Del passed through. “Just getting something to drink,” he said. He filled a glass of water in the kitchen and then stopped to observe for a few minutes.

“That’s a lot of tamale stuff you’ve got there. It’s going to take you hours to make them all.”

“That’s part of the fun,” Carlos said. “You want to try a couple?”

“No, no. I’m enjoying my book,” Del replied and returned to the living room.

A bit later a roar of laughter erupted from the dining room. Del popped in again.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“Carlos was just telling us a story about when he got a fishing pole for Christmas and hooked his own ear the first time he used it,” Carrie explained.

“Sounds hilarious,” Del said.

“Did you finish your book?” Karen asked.

“No, just taking a bathroom break.”

About ten minutes later he poked his head in a third time. “How’s it going,” he asked.

“I keep tearing the husks,” Carrie grumbled as she tried to carefully fold a tamale filled with shredded beef and marinara sauce.

“Maybe it would help if you used a little less filling,” Del suggested.

“They’re just so fragile,” Carrie said.

“Let me try one.” Del sat down. Carlos demonstrated the process for him. Del picked up a husk, spread the Masa on it, plopped in a little shredded chicken with honey mustard and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and folded it up.

“Nicely done,” Carlos said. Carrie made a face at him.

Del grabbed another husk.

“I thought you wanted to read your book,” Carrie muttered.

“If you want to get all these assembled before Christmas Eve service at church I think I better help,” Del replied.

He made a barbecue pork tamale next, singing along with “Christmas Blues” playing on the radio. Karen watched him with a little smile.

Two hours later the four of them surveyed the mass of tamales they’d made. They were grouped into a dozen bowls by filling. It wasn’t quite enough to feed an army but it might have satisfied a small platoon.

“We’ll never eat all that,” Del said.

“I’m sure they’ll be put to good use,” Carlos replied.

That use became apparent the next day when visitor after visitor stopped by to welcome Karen home. Each was given a couple of hot tamales. Most asked for seconds.

During a quiet moment in the middle of the afternoon Karen sidled up to Del and took his hand. “I know tamales aren’t our tradition,” she said. “But I think we have to get used to the idea that things are changing for our family. Next Christmas there’s going to be a little baby dining with us.”

“I know I wasn’t on the tamale band wagon at first,” Del said, “But I’m beginning to see the advantages of that custom.”

Then the doorbell rang. It was Ralph and Tammy Billings. Tammy brought a gift – a homemade rhubarb pie.

“How did you know?” Del asked, delighted.

“A little birdie,” Tammy replied. Then Carlos handed Tammy a large bag of tamales that he had set aside earlier.

“Your son-in-law is a very thoughtful young man,” Tammy told Del.

“Yes he is,” Del said. He slid his arm around Karen. This was very possibly the best Christmas of his life, Del decided.

Want to make your own unusual tamales? Check out http://www.douglasjeboch.com/Tamales.htm for recipes and ideas.

And watch for a special Christmas Day Little Church story next! Happy Holidays!!