Pix by Connie (Anna Maria Island, Florida)
Trapped by reality, freed by imagination. ~Nicolas Manetta
“How are we ever going to buy Christmas gifts this year?” I asked, with tears in my eyes.
Mark, my husband of ten years, cupped my face in his hands and silently mouthed the words, “We’re not.”
It was our first Christmas back in the States after spending six years in Italy where our older son was born. We returned just in time for our second son to be born in Walnut Creek, California. Afterward, our little family settled in Brentwood and rented from my parents. We lived on a pauper’s income that year — $900 a month, which had to cover rent, health insurance, food, gas, and utilities.
I planted zucchini in the back yard. After three months, we had what we called “zucchini world”: zucchini bread, zucchini soup, and zucchini pasta for three “square” meals a day. Mark rode his bike to work, and I homeschooled our older son, Jeremy, so we only needed to use the car for shopping and going to church.
It would be a slim Christmas, and I was overwhelmed with things to do. Mark’s family celebrated Christmas in a big way. There were so many gifts under the tree that they spilled out into the entryway and dining room. My family was more modest with gift-giving; it wasn’t a priority.
After ten years of marriage, I had come to dislike Christmas because it was the same story. “What are we going to buy your family for Christmas?” I’d ask. It was stressful to worry about stretching our budget to accommodate their kind of Christmas.
That night, after I got the boys to bed, I went through all my cross-stitch materials and found the perfect pattern. There were two hearts, one on each side, with the words “Kiss the Cook” in the middle. It could be framed in an embroidery hoop with a ruffle made from material or lace. I would need to make ten hoops in all. It was already the middle of October, so I had a little over two months to complete the task. Thankfully, I had enough fabric in my stash to match the colors in everyone’s kitchen. And, of course, I’d make zucchini bread to go along with it.
The only time I had to work on the gifts was after the boys went to bed. I made sure everything was done during the day, including lesson plans for Jeremy, dishes washed, and laundry folded and put away. If I worked a few hours every night, I’d have them finished by Christmas Eve.
What I hadn’t planned on was both boys getting sick with earaches and strep throat, which meant doctor visits and medicine. When one got better, the other one got worse. It was a vicious cycle. At 3:00 one Saturday morning in late November, I realized that the “Kiss the Cook” project might have to be abandoned, and zucchini bread might have to suffice. I knew my family wouldn’t mind, but Mark’s family was a different story. I simply couldn’t arrive empty-handed on Christmas Eve for the big Italian tradition of eating dinner, opening gifts, and attending Mass.
I persevered, even though I barely slept during the last week leading up to Christmas. On the eve of Christmas Eve, I stayed up all night finishing up the ruffles that adorned each hoop, wrapped them in boxes, and added zucchini bread in red and green bags.
As Mark loaded up the “sleigh” with the kids and gifts, I made sure that I had extra zucchini bread — with the recipe written on the front — just in case I had forgotten someone. The drive across the Bay Bridge to Mark’s childhood home in San Mateo was bumper-to-bumper. But all was forgotten when we pulled into the driveway and smelled the makings of a Pombo Family Christmas. It was all fish, of course, starting with shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half-shell, crab cioppino soup, crab and prawns. Mark’s mom made sure she put in her order at Petrini’s Italian Market months in advance to ensure everything was the very best.
When I saw all the gifts under the tree and spilling into the entryway, I started to panic. What if my best wasn’t good enough? Maybe we could leave right after dinner and spare the disappointment on everyone’s faces.
After dinner, we all gathered in the living room, and the gift-giving began in a time-honored tradition: reading out the name (to and from) and waiting until that person opened the gift and said “thank you” before going on to the next person. It went on for hours. Since I placed our gifts near the wall, away from the tree, maybe ours would be overlooked.
No such luck.
“To Mom and Dad — Love Connie, Mark and Boys!” Dad Pombo read aloud from the gift tag.
Mom Pombo smiled warmly and asked, “What have we here?”
I glanced over at Mark, with my heart racing, and gave him a weak smile as all eyes were on Mom Pombo.
I wrapped Mom and Dad’s gift in the nicest paper I could find with handmade card. It was the boys’ handprints sprinkled with red and green glitter. And I made Mom’s hoop in blue — to match her kitchen colors. I grabbed Mark’s hand and squeezed tightly as Mom opened the box and peeled away the tissue paper. Mom clutched her hand over her heart, with tears filling her eyes, as she held up “Kiss the Cook.”
“You made this?” she asked tentatively.
I nodded my head and felt a sense of relief wash over me. Mom kissed me on the cheek. “I know exactly where I’m going to put this,” she said, as her face filled with a bright smile. When she got back to her chair, she carefully put “Kiss the Cook” back in the box — as if it was a piece of fine china. My heart swelled as I wiped away tears. I hardly noticed the stack of cashmere sweaters, pearls, and glass figurines next to her.
Years after that first Christmas back in the States — even after we moved to Pennsylvania — I enjoyed coming back to Mom Pombo’s kitchen and seeing “Kiss the Cook” over the stove where she attached blue ribbons with a gold fork and spoon on either side. It was the only decoration in her kitchen, and it stayed there for three more decades until we kiss the “cook” goodbye.
This story first appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas is in the Air (October 13, 2020) by Connie K. Pombo (contributing author). If you’d like to know more about writing for Chicken Soup, check out my book: Secrets to Writing a Winning Chicken Soup Story on Amazon.
WISHING EVERYONE A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS AND THE BEST NEW YEAR EVER! I'LL SEE YOU BACK IN 2022.