MAKING REAL CHRISTMAS TREE MEMORIES

By Anne B. Howard

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Each holiday season as Keith and I trim a fresh tree, I always think back to my childhood and the shiny aluminum tree my parents displayed proudly, year after year. Dad mounted a rotating pink, blue and gold spotlight on the ceiling, creating a kaleidoscope-of-color effect, and he and my mother thought it was the most beautiful tree in town. I was not convinced. I yearned for a “real Christmas tree.” A freshly cut tree that smelled of the forest. A tree I could decorate with beautiful ornaments, sparkling garland, colored lights and silvery tinsel draped over its branches. I felt afraid of that aluminum tree my parents coveted, afraid and resentful, because I couldn’t go near it. “Stay away from that tree,” my mother scolded. “If you knock it over, it could cut you to pieces.” After thrilling my folks for ten years, silver was eventually replaced with “artificial green,” but I was so disappointed I cried.

That first Christmas that Keith and I spent in Montana, in 1993, after our move from Kansas to “real-Christmas-tree heaven,” I was delighted by my selection of freshly cut trees. Several years passed, however, before I realized the true extent of my options. One evening, over a bottle of wine with friends, I confessed to my obsession with real Christmas trees.

“We’re in,” my friend said. “Tomorrow we get a permit and head up Crane Mountain, on Forest Service land, to find you the freshest, most beautiful tree you’ve ever seen. Cut any one you like for five bucks.”

Excited by the prospect of selecting a fresh tree from the forest, Keith and I, and our two friends, drove quite a long way up the Crane Mountain Road before pulling the car over and trudging through eight inches of fresh snow to a broad meadow, sprinkled with trees of every variety. Immediately, I saw the tree I wanted, but before Keith could get his saw in motion, I changed my mind. For well over an hour I ran from one tree to the next, vowing that each would be “my final choice,” only to find a bare spot or a crooked trunk, which every Christmas tree critic knows is a deal-breaker. Typically a very patient man, I had pushed him to his breaking point. “I mean it, Becky. Make a decision. This is it. I’m going home.”

Meanwhile, our friends stood patiently next to their selection—a measly little thing, by my standards. I mean, they were paying the same five dollars as me for a nice big tree, so why, I wondered, hadn’t they chosen the tallest tree they could get on their car?

Growing more annoyed by the minute, Keith jumped on my latest “final choice” with clenched teeth, and began working his saw. It took the four of us, panting and groaning, to drag that snow-laden tree over the stumps and downfall, and out of that meadow, where, after another hour spent cursing and scratching the car finish and losing the tree off the opposite side, we secured her to the roof. “I’ll never get this so-and-so through the front door,” Keith declared, furious. I kept my mouth shut—it was safer that way. Unfortunately, however, he was right. The tree wouldn’t go through the front door. Or the back door. Not even with four adults pushing and pulling with all of our might, determined to force it through. “Not going. No way,” he declared, angrily.

“What about the French doors off the deck?” I suggested, timidly.

Next, they dragged the enormous Frazier Fur up the back steps and onto the deck as I raced through the house and threw open the doors. Just as I suspected, the tree slipped easily through, but was a good four feet too tall for my ceiling. By this point, I was in big trouble and I knew it. “I’ll throw the damn thing off the deck,” Keith threatened.

Then, it began to snow. Big flakes, the size of quarters, began to stick to the cold needles creating a lovely lace flocking. “Set it up on the deck,” I said, “outside the French doors. I’ll load it with colored lights and the spotlight will illuminate the falling snow. It will be beautiful.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes, but with the help of our friends, we muscled the big tree into a make-shift stand and secured it to the railing, so it couldn’t fall over.

Once the tree was lit and flocked with snow, Keith came around. In fact, I may have heard him bragging a little to our neighbors, when he thought I was out of earshot. He said it was the perfect place for such a great Christmas tree. And, yes, it was a unique holiday experience that year, having the tree on the deck, its branches ablaze with colored lights and heavily flocked with snow. Different, but incredibly beautiful—a memory I’ll always hold close to my heart as the best Christmas tree ever.

(Previously posted December 2015)

 

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The Truth About Memoir

By Anne B. Howard

Our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable while writing honestly in an authentic voice can pose challenges for even the most seasoned of memoir writers. Linda Joy Meyers, a practicing therapist and president of National Association of Memoir Writers likens the necessity, in memoir, to invite strangers into our homes, and lives, and psyches, sometimes even to our bedrooms, to that of being on a stage with no clothes on, and I think she’s right. With each story committed to the page, we memoirists must repeatedly make the daunting decision to keep writing. And, write we must if we are to uncover and reveal anything meaningful or useful to ourselves, and our readers.

ipad-photos-15-009For some people, this is much harder than they ever imagined. Opening up to the scrutiny of others such personal information as our dreams, thoughts, secrets and shame, as well as our pleasures and joys, can be a very scary proposition. The old adages of “what’s private should stay private,” and one should “never air one’s dirty laundry in public,” prevent many a poignant story from ever seeing the light of day. Past beliefs and family mottos inferring that we should keep everything tucked neatly away—even things that might encourage and inspire others, or change our own lives if we’d allow ourselves to dig deep enough—are almost always based on fear.

Just when I thought I’d conquered my own fear, at least enough to approach the completion of my first long-form memoir, Evil Beloved, I decided to take a crack at the fiction writer’s character-development homework  from Lisa Crohn’s excellent new book, Story Genius. Although intended to help writers of fiction pinpoint the underlying motivations of their characters—so their stories make emotional sense—the same writing exercises were incredibly revelatory to me, a memoirist.  So revelatory, in fact, that I realized some very painful but important details I’d unknowingly tucked away. Details that I now realize must be included in order to answer, for the reader, some very important questions I hadn’t even considered.

It was damn scary. I felt vulnerable and exposed. The work was a lot like therapy in that I completed each assignment, but then had to step back, mull it over for a few days, before pressing on. This wasn’t some contrived character under the microscope, it was me—my life, my decisions, good and bad, my delusions, my incredible misbeliefs—and  my memoir is now a better representation of the story I need to tell, just for having done that work.

Writing memoir is an act of courage. It requires fearless self-examination and a willingness to claim—actually, to own—your life experiences. Good, bad, or in-between, they belong to you, and you decide if you will keep them hidden, simply record them, or share your story with others. For anyone considering writing a memoir, I highly recommend seeking the support and instruction of a professional organization such as National Association of Memoir Writers. And remember, you are not alone. Be brave—write your story!

 

Thanksgiving Gold

From Anne B. Howard

I filled all the bird-feeders, set back the clocks, stacked flower pots, and made caramel today, because winter’s coming. Why the caramel? Because nothing less would do.

When I was a child, my “other mother,” sweet Mama Judy, the wife of a fur-trader, hunter, and fisherman—yes, by profession—made the most delicious delicacies from almost nothing. My favorite then, and forever will be, was that impossibly thick, almost-brown-yet-golden, aromatic caramel she concocted in her blackened, ancient looking pot on the old three-burner stove. I stood behind her on a chair, well back from the flame, where I could see clearly as she turned a simple cup of sugar, some water, Karo Syrup, a chuck of butter, and a bit of fresh cream into a confection so divine, so intoxicating, that men would propose marriage just to get a steady supply. Mama Judy’s caramel is that good. Trust me.

We love it over ice cream, or drizzled on apple pie, or a praline cheesecake, or poured over big, juicy, Fuji apples, (then roll in mini-chocolate chips), or even added to your coffee, or… in a spoon straight from the jar. My newest caramel favorite for company is: vanilla ice cream, drowning in Mama Judy’s caramel, doused with Kahlua, then finished with Heath candy bar crumbles.

In the spirit of love, peace, and Thanksgiving for this beautiful country we live in, and all of our many blessings, I offer you, my special friends, this magic holiday recipe for “sweet liquid love.” May it see you through many a cold and grey winter’s day, as we sip our tea and write our stories, waiting for spring to return.

*I always double the following to make a little over two cups, enough to fill a pint jar.

Mama Judy’s Salted Caramel 

1 cup sugar

4 TBSP water

2 TBSP Karo Corn syrup (light colored)

½ cup heavy cream (whipping cream is fine); measured and ready to add

*2 TBSP butter, in chunks

*½ tsp lemon juice

*½ tsp kosher or sea salt

(I place these last three ingredients in a small cup, ready to add fast) 

  • In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and the corn syrup. Stir with a wooden spoon over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.
  • Cover the saucepan and let it cook over medium heat for 3 minutes.
  • After 3 minutes, remove the lid and increase the heat to medium high. At this point, it will be bubbling but still clear in color.
  • FROM THIS POINT ON, do not stir but gently swirl mixture around in the pan as it cooks, so the caramel doesn’t burn.
  • Continue to cook until the caramel turns amber in color. I estimate this to take about 6-7 minutes. Remove from heat, let rest 30 seconds.
  • BE VERY CAREFUL HERE: (I use a heavy flat wire whisk.) Begin to whisk the amber mixture, then ADD all the cream. CAREFUL! IT WILL BUBBLE UP significantly and is very hot. Keep whisking.
  • Then, quickly add the butter chunks, lemon juice and salt. Keep Whisking.
  • Once the butter is all melted and mixture is smooth, pour into a 3-4 cup vessel and allow it to cool. You may then pour into a pint jar with a lid and continue cooling (it will seal), or cool and keep for weeks in the refrigerator. To use: Remove the metal ring and lid, and heat in the microwave about 15-20 seconds, until loose enough to pour. You may then re-refrigerate and repeat as desired.
  • HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!

Making Real Christmas Tree Memories

By Anne B. Howard
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Each holiday season as Keith and I trim a fresh tree, I always think back to my childhood and the shiny aluminum tree my parents displayed proudly, year after year. Dad mounted a rotating pink, blue and gold spotlight on the ceiling, creating a kaleidoscope-of-color effect, and he and my mother thought it was the most beautiful tree in town. I was not convinced. I yearned for a “real Christmas tree.” A freshly cut tree that smelled of the forest. A tree I could decorate with beautiful ornaments, sparkling garland, colored lights and silvery tinsel draped over its branches. I felt afraid of that aluminum tree my parents coveted, afraid and resentful, because I couldn’t go near it. “Stay away from that tree,” my mother scolded. “If you knock it over, it could cut you to pieces.” After thrilling my folks for ten years, silver was eventually replaced with “artificial green,” but I was so disappointed I cried.

That first Christmas that Keith and I spent in Montana, in 1993, after our move from Kansas to “real-Christmas-tree heaven,” I was delighted by my selection of freshly cut trees. Several years passed, however, before I realized the true extent of my options. One evening, over a bottle of wine with friends, I confessed to my obsession with real Christmas trees.

“We’re in,” my friend said. “Tomorrow we get a permit and head up Crane Mountain, on Forest Service land, to find you the freshest, most beautiful tree you’ve ever seen. Cut any one you like for five bucks.”

Excited by the prospect of selecting a fresh tree from the forest, Keith and I, and our two friends, drove quite a long way up the Crane Mountain Road before pulling the car over and trudging through eight inches of fresh snow to a broad meadow, sprinkled with trees of every variety. Immediately, I saw the tree I wanted, but before Keith could get his saw in motion, I changed my mind. For well over an hour I ran from one tree to the next, vowing that each would be “my final choice,” only to find a bare spot or a crooked trunk, which every Christmas tree critic knows is a deal-breaker. Typically a very patient man, I had pushed him to his breaking point. “I mean it, Becky. Make a decision. This is it. I’m going home.”

Meanwhile, our friends stood patiently next to their selection—a measly little thing, by my standards. I mean, they were paying the same five dollars as me for a nice big tree, so why, I wondered, hadn’t they chosen the tallest tree they could get on their car?

Growing more annoyed by the minute, Keith jumped on my latest “final choice” with clenched teeth, and began working his saw. It took the four of us, panting and groaning, to drag that snow-laden tree over the stumps and downfall, and out of that meadow, where, after another hour spent cursing and scratching the car finish and losing the tree off the opposite side, we secured her to the roof. “I’ll never get this so-and-so through the front door,” Keith declared, furious. I kept my mouth shut—it was safer that way. Unfortunately, however, he was right. The tree wouldn’t go through the front door. Or the back door. Not even with four adults pushing and pulling with all of our might, determined to force it through. “Not going. No way,” he declared, angrily.

“What about the French doors off the deck?” I suggested, timidly.

Next, they dragged the enormous Frazier Fur up the back steps and onto the deck as I raced through the house and threw open the doors. Just as I suspected, the tree slipped easily through, but was a good four feet too tall for my ceiling. By this point, I was in big trouble and I knew it. “I’ll throw the damn thing off the deck,” Keith threatened.

Then, it began to snow. Big flakes, the size of quarters, began to stick to the cold needles creating a lovely lace flocking. “Set it up on the deck,” I said, “outside the French doors. I’ll load it with colored lights and the spotlight will illuminate the falling snow. It will be beautiful.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes, but with the help of our friends, we muscled the big tree into a make-shift stand and secured it to the railing, so it couldn’t fall over.

Once the tree was lit and flocked with snow, Keith came around. In fact, I may have heard him bragging a little to our neighbors, when he thought I was out of earshot. He said it was the perfect place for such a great Christmas tree. And, yes, it was a unique holiday experience that year, having the tree on the deck, its branches ablaze with colored lights and heavily flocked with snow. Different, but incredibly beautiful—a memory I’ll always hold close to my heart as the best Christmas tree ever.