On top of a sheet of felt-and-glitter tabletop snow, wooden blades were spinning, propelled by steam from tiny candles. Below the windmill but carved from the same light wood, tiny German townspeople busied themselves preparing for a wooden winter. I stood there for a few minutes, watching the delicate dance of the Christmas Pyramid: wood and fire, fuel and hunger.
It was my first visit to Mike's great-aunts' house, and thankfully, I was just in time to see their earnest and intricate Christmas display. Rose and Martha had been adding to their holiday collection over the course of many years and many travels, and their home now good-naturedly bore its heavy load of cheer.
Along with the Christmas Pyramid, a yuletide scene adorned every available surface in the house. The sturdy 1950s countertop in the kitchen boasted a full Christmas village. Warm orange lights glowed from miniature, snowy-silled windows. Plastic children, round with winter wool and red-nosed beneath fur caps, constructed snowmen in the yard. Figurines of all shapes and sizes skated on a mirrored glass pond thanks to tiny unseen magnets. And, in my favorite tableau, kids posed with St. Nick before a toy camera that gave a CLICK-FLASH! every few seconds as if snapping their photo.
The entire house was busy with whirring, chirruping, chiming, ringing. Understated carols rung out at regular intervals from mysterious origins. I would turn my head to find the source only to see a Christmas train, a Christmas snowman, a Christmas door hanging, a pudgy Christmas Santa statue, lights, bells, snow -- Christmas chaos!
Imagine yourself as a child. Imagine that one day you really did get to step through your mirror, like you'd always dreamed might be possible. All it took was a little shimmy, a heel click or two, maybe a wink, and you were finally allowed to flow right through the glass. Imagine that when you stepped in, you stepped straight into a world of candy and jolly Santas and benevolent holiday rabbits and secret gardens and fairies and talking animals.
The joy of this house was that same joy. Walking into the door of this house was like walking into a fantastic place you knew existed somewhere, but could never seem to find as a child.
If the house was a Christmas fairyland, Rose and Martha were the magnificent queens of the domain. Martha was lovely, humble, and meticulous, welcoming and distributing presents. And Rose was mischievous, adventurous, and excited, whispering sly comments and shaking gifts. Together, what a pair.
They weren't just wonderful on Christmas, either, and not just the first time I met them. We would celebrate their birthdays together at a boisterous gathering at Trio, one of their favorite restaurants. Folks from far and wide would turn up and share stories of the things they'd accomplished.
Both were teachers that poured out their time and energy for their students. Rose spent 11 years in night school to earn her degree in History. She then spent several more years learning about computers as she taught, creating a computer lab for her elementary school students. Rose and Martha traveled around the world together, sometimes preferring a foreign country, and sometimes heading to Chetola, a beloved spot in the North Carolina mountains, instead.
It was hard to believe things could ever be difficult for Rose. It seemed impossible that her pure fire-engine gumption couldn't propel her through just about anything, including health problems and age and, good grief, probably a wall of fire and a mountain of steel at that.
She did slow down, though. At one point she broke a bone and had to recover in a nursing home, and I remember going to see her and realizing her gumption was willing, but her body demanded rest. When you see a pillar of strength and realize it's fragile, it shakes you. Your whole frame of reference starts to bend just a bit.
Rose's bone slowly healed. She went home and continue living her beautiful life. We went to dinner and a basketball game with her and Martha months later -- her beloved UNCC 49ers -- and though she had grown more frail, we could still see the spark of her heart.
This past Saturday, though, just hours before Mike was planning on visiting her, Rose passed away. The book of Greek myths he planned to take and read to her still sits where I tucked it quietly away once I heard. There's nothing I can say to fully eulogize this sort of burning life. I wish, instead, you could've heard Martha's strong voice at Rose's funeral singing Amazing Grace with unexpected verve.
And I hope that Rose feels just now as if she's stepped, finally, through a looking glass. I hope the real presence of Christ is stronger even than the joy of a billion Christmas wonderlands on a billion countertops. I hope she feels like, finally, she's home.
Gooey Cookies & Cream Bars
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, inspired by S'mores Bars
Yield: About 12 bars
I made these Gooey Cookies & Cream Bars as a treat for Mike, ditching a previous plan involving pumpkin (which he's not fond of). I'm so glad I did. They're rich and heavenly, crunchy and gooey, and altogether full of warm niceness for a cool autumn day. Apart from tasting amazing, they're super quick and simple -- something I value more and more lately. Heat up one or two of these and enjoy them with some cold milk.
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup chocolate sandwich cookie crumbs (i.e. crumbs of about 10 Oreos)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 king-sized Cookies 'n Cream candy bars (e.g. Hershey’s)*
1 1/2 cups marshmallow creme
*can substitute a regular white chocolate bar if these are unavailable where you live!
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and create a foil sling: tear off 4, 16-inch long pieces of aluminum foil and fold them in half. Situate two side-by-side in the pan, covering the bottom of the pan to the edge (they will overlap). Situate the other two strips in the same manner, but perpendicular to the first. The overhanging foil of the sling will make it easy to remove the bars from the pan after baking and cooling. Grease the foil as well.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until fluffy and pale yellow (2-3 minutes). Beat in the egg and vanilla. In a small, separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cookie crumbs, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix until just combined. Divide the dough roughly in half, placing half the dough in your prepared pan and the other half in the fridge to chill until you're ready for it.
Use the back of a spoon sprayed with cooking spray and to press and spread the dough in the pan until it covers the bottom of the pan in an even layer. Place the Cookies 'n Cream bars side by side over the dough (if they fit; if not, break them and arrange) such that you have a full single layer of chocolate (about 1/4 inch thick). Glop on marshmallow creme and use a greased offset spatula to spread it evenly across the candy bars. Take the remaining dough out of the fridge and place it on top of the marshmallow layer (to do so, take a small handful at a time and flatten it into a “shingle” in greased fingertips. Lay these side by side over the top. They're a little sticky so it takes some fiddling, but just clean your fingers off if the dough starts sticking to them too much and continue).
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool completely in pan before gently using the overhang of the foil sling to lift the bars out of the pan and place them on a cutting board to slice. When ready to serve, heat each bar in the microwave for about 25-30 seconds. Store extras in an airtight container. Enjoy!