Nov 27 2012
Every year, around this time, I start to experience an odd combination of both eagerness and a sense of nostalgia for autumn. Bear in mind that I live in Texas. There are, at best, maybe five days of ideal fall here. It stays suffocatingly hot until October, mildly warm through November, crisp during December, and finally starts to feel cold in January and February. Come March, and the heat slowly starts mounting.
Nevertheless, somewhere in my mind, fall is the smell of new crayons and acidic wet leaves, the color of fire, and the climate for shape masking sweaters, and I wait each year, with bated breath, for fall to make its arrival.
However, more than fall and all the gingersnaps that come with it, I love Christmas. Christmas acts as my mid-year antidepressant. When things start to wear on me, I think of Christmas and a feeling of comfort (whether based in truth or rose-tinted ideals) washes over and relieves me. I start pondering gift choices in May and, often, have started picking up gifts here and there by the time July rolls around.
One of my favorite things in the world about Christmas is the random forgotten memories the season stirs. You never know what events, no matter how minuscule, will take center stage in the tapestry of childhood. Even though each Christmas brings new glitter frosted memories to me, the slightly yellowed memories of the past are the ones that stop me in my tracks bringing a combination of tears and dreamy smiles.
When I was still pre-school aged, my parents hopped on the mini-van bandwagon of the early eighties, and purchased one for our family. My sister and I spent some of the best Christmas Eves that two children could ever hope for snuggled in the back row of seats gazing starry eyed at brightly lit, gingerbread houses.
Afterward, we would all head back to my grandparents’ house for a Christmas Eve party of sorts. My grandmother always prepared a veritable feast of finger foods, and to little hands, the whole experience was a tale of delight. To drink? Why, 7Up Shirley Temples with a cherry on top, of course! Burl Ives boomed carols from the cabinet record player in the living room filling the house with the finishing touches for a perfect Christmas memory.
I spent as much time as possible in front of their tree breaking only for trips back to the kitchen for more snacks. It was a white, artificial tree straight from the mid 60’s with the look and texture of a car wash mitt. Colorful solid and blinking lights– some with light throwing crystal like ends– cast a soft pink glow across the room. My favorite treat to nibble on between verses of Holly Jolly Christmas was a crustless, chicken salad sandwich triangle– or ten. I could put those away like I had a hollow leg.
For years leading up to my grandmother’s death, she suffered from alzheimers. By the time she passed, she hadn’t recognized any of our faces for years. During those years, I grew up and missed those Christmas memories. Being a true house wife of the 50’s, my grandmother was a strong believer of the whole better-living-through-chemistry movement. She made Jello salads in Jello molds and bought the latest gimmicks prepared foods had to offer. The chicken salad was no different.
With that in mind, I searched for that silly chicken salad for years. Most importantly, I wanted to taste it again for old time’s sake. I also enjoyed the challenge. However, after many disgusting samples of canned chicken salad later, I gave up.
Life took a different direction for me. Years passed. Lunch time recently brought me to a local grocery store in search of lunch. While perusing the canned tuna aisle for some Thai spiced tuna, I saw a can of chicken salad that piqued my interest. The little devil logo triggered a flash of recognition. Could it be? Was this the same chicken salad I loved twenty five years ago?
I bought a can without hesitation. However, I refrained from opening it in nervous anticipation for a few days. It felt like a lot was riding on this canned chicken salad. Finally, I worked up the nerve to tear off the paper and peel the lid back.
I generously spread it on a cracker and took a cautious bite.
I knew immediately that this was the taste I’d been searching for for all these years. However, it was not as delicious as I remembered. Twenty or so years of build up is hard to follow, but even though it wasn’t as delightful, that familiar taste from the past flooded me with a tidal wave of memories and sadness for finished days of yore.
It’s a funny thing how something as unlikely as canned chicken salad can make you sad for the past, thankful for the past, and excited for the memories to come all at once. The best part of Christmas is everything but the gifts. The memories shared with loved ones are the true gift, and sometimes, if we are lucky, relics of those memories– like canned chicken salad– remain.