Every Xmas my family would receive a variety of gift packages from customers and merchants my father did business with throughout the year. Bottles of VO and Canadian Club, fruitcakes and boxes filled with fruits and nuts could always be expected. But the gift that kept on giving and brought the most pleasure to the family was the Maurice Lenell Holiday Box, a carton loaded with the company’s various lines of cookies. Funnily enough, none of us really liked them. The joy was in seeing our mother’s utter delight over the poster that always accompanied the yearly gift. It was illustrated with a stylized drawing of a 19th-century country kitchen with a woodstove and, near it, a matronly woman, her hair in a bun, wearing an apron and holding a tray of freshly baked cookies. Across the top of the poster was printed, “A home without cookies is no home at all,” followed by a sentimental poem most likely culled from the archives of Reader’s Digest. The poster never failed to elicit glee from my mother as she ceremoniously removed the thumbtacks holding up the old poster and reused them to hang up the new one, an exact copy, season after season.
At first I did not know how to interpret this, but after watching her take down and put up the same poster a couple of years in a row, I realized that her attitude—ironically delivering celebration and mockery at the same time—was inextricably connected to her action.
Home was a complex notion for my mother. The youngest child of a family of poor Polish-Jewish immigrants in Chicago, she was sent away as a baby to live with a gentile foster mother in rural Michigan after, tragically, her birth mother died during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Being a foster child may have made her feel different from the other children, but growing up in rural Michigan, in an era and atmosphere of anti-Semitism (of which one notorious symptom was Henry Ford), most likely encouraged her to maintain a low profile and assimilate as best she could. My mother’s relationship to the concept of home was further complicated when she turned 13 and her foster mother announced that she was moving to Lexington, Ky., to be with a Mr. Hatfield, the new man in her life. Because of this, she’d be taking my mother back to Chicago to live with her birth family, the Rosenbergs.
My mother’s past was reason enough for her to be skeptical of the poster’s message, but the fact that she was an incredibly skilled baker and our home was never without freshly baked cookies added a tinge of derision to her response. During the holiday season, our household was overrun with sweets, so the addition of commercially packaged sugary cookies only underscored holiday excess, rather than enhancing feelings about the home.
Much to the chagrin of my father’s Orthodox Jewish mother, the Smiths celebrated Xmas whole hog. My mother worked herself to exhaustion preparing for the holiday party. It was the time of year she could share and show off her homemaking artistry, her beautiful Better Homes and Gardens table, to friends and family. It pleased my father to no end as he reveled in the display of bounty, proof of his success as a businessman—his ability to realize the American Dream.
The holiday provided an opportunity for my mother to manifest a model familial situation but at the same time poke fun at an ideal that had disappointed her in the past. She stuffed the youngsters’ Xmas stockings with No. 2 pencils prepackaged and ready-made with the name Smith, or containers of Sterno in lieu of coal. She regifted the battery-operated Brainy Bug, a broken toy that even when working did nothing. Brainy Bug wound up in one of the three kids’ gift piles every Xmas morning.
Humor, for my mother, was a filter between herself and the world, a way to deliver bittersweet opinions without ever offending, her method for deflecting and managing my father’s impatience and anger, and a finely tuned mechanism to ward off her fear of losing security, familial and economic. Once she left poor rural Michigan, she never wanted to go back.
As my parents got older and their health and finances rapidly declined, the holidays took on an added significance. Instead of plenty, they began to represent loss. My mother turned her attention to the annual Groundhog Day party, an informal gathering of a few close friends and relatives invited for Chinese food. It was their chance to catch a glimpse of my mother’s prize centerpiece, a groundhog fashioned out of an old brown towel, stuffed with bits of batting and adorned with some Mardi Gras beads and miscellaneous buttons and ribbons gathered up from her sewing-room floor. Year after year, my mother would throw together this supposed groundhog to sit in the middle of the table, amid all the Chinese take-out containers, an abject-looking brown blob, a kind of prognosticator enabling all seated around it to consider the future. All the initiates at the party were close to my mother, so the humor of this brown schmatta adorning the table did not escape them. She was also an able seamstress, a onetime shop owner who carefully cut all her stylish dresses and coats from Vogue patterns. Yet she was similar to many women of her generation who never realized their full potential beyond the cookie-cutter roles they happily or unhappily inhabited.
Mrs. Smith was the sweet mother who could be counted on for fresh brownies and unflappable charm, except in those rare moments when self-reflection or exhaustion threw off her timing and wry humor. When she was 80 but still very spry, I took her on a delightful outing to the Bill Viola retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. Walking down a long dark hallway to view another video in yet another dark room, I heard her say under her breath, “Ugh, enough already.”