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New Vallian Shares A Christmas Story

Dixie Scovel

By Dixie Scovel

When one moves to a new part of the country, everything seems different. The sky wears a different shade of blue, its high cumulus clouds fill the horizon. Pecan trees and magnolias line front yards, fields of cotton edge the roads. Words have unknown meanings. Here calling someone a mess means they are funny, a cutup, not that they are ill-kempt.

Yet after a few months of noticing the differences, a newcomer starts to recognize similarities to other places. I was born in coal mining country in western Pennsylvania, went to grade school in a tiny upstate New York town called Horseheads, then settled down to fifty years along the coast of Long Island.

Now I call the old Boggs house out on Lafayette Street home. The open fields covered with frost, the wide gardens filled with winter greens and the old pickup trucks shifting gears could easily fit an early Christmas memory in a faraway place. 

The weather, which everyone grumbled about in upstate New York, was exactly right for us. On dark, stormy mornings, my little brother and I walked to school through sleet and snow with a sense of struggle and excitement, the wind sweeping us along.

By mid-afternoon, when the wind blew us back up the Ithaca Road toward home, our minds were squarely focused on the river and our sled. Come spring, the river widened and picked up speed when snow melted off the hills and rushed with early rains to overtake its banks. But in winter, the river turned narrow and shallow, freezing solid and making smooth ice.

Over and over again, James and I would drag our sled up the riverbank for the reward of a rapid descent and a fly across the ice. Only when the sun fell and the wind grew sharper, did we turn and head for home.

And on an evening near Christmas, our neighbor Ben would watch in the fading light for us to start across the field. 

“Be here by 8. Lots to do,” he would call.  It meant tomorrow was Saturday and old Ben was ready to bake stollen.

Ben, a good cook, lived alone and liked to experience the same things over and over again.  For instance, in the fall, he drove out to the orchard and climbed the familiar apple trees he had been climbing since he was 6. He picked bushels of apples. Using his mother’s recipe, Ben threw the apples—skins, seeds, stems and all—into a big pot and cooked them down to a fragrant, thick mush. After Ben ran them through a sieve, his friends received a glass jar of sweet, pink applesauce for Thanksgiving dinner.

But now it was winter and Christmas was near.  And so was Ben’s stollen.

By the time James and I shed our snow gear the next morning and took our places at the kitchen table, Ben had sprinkled yeast across warm water. “Warm yourselves. Yeast doesn’t like the cold,” Ben told us as he stirred warm flour into the thick bowl holding the now-foaming yeast.

Once the dough formed, Ben pinched off hunks for us and we started to knead. “The heel, kiddies, use the heel of your hand. Push it away from you. Make a quarter turn. Fold it back toward you.”

We pushed and pulled, until we raised blisters on the dough. “Hear it snap? It’s telling you it’s near ready to rest.” Ben shaped a cave with his old electric blanket and shoved the wide bowl of dough inside the warmth to rise. 

Meanwhile, we set to work making piles of broken walnuts, chopped green citron and slivered red candied cherries. Everyone on Ben’s gift list received stollen with a whiff of lemon and scent of mace. But Ben did not mass-produce his stollens. After all, he said, it was Christmas, a time to have what you fancied.

For example, the high school bus driver couldn’t abide citron and Mike, who kept chains on his milk truck most of the winter to increase traction, disliked nuts.

Ben kept each of these individual tastes in mind as he walked back and forth in gray wool socks, preparing the dough for its next rise in the electric-blanket tent. James and I customized our own loaves. Mine had only golden raisins and walnuts. James liked the color of red and the sweetness of cherries; I told him it looked like it had the measles.

By late afternoon the baked stollens, wiped with soft butter and dusted with confectioners’ sugar, had been wrapped in squares of waxed paper and tied with twirls of red ribbon.

Ben drove the truck, James sat in the middle balancing the box of stollen and I rolled the window down at each stop. Leaning out of the truck, I’d open the mailbox, slide in the stollen and raise the red flag.

The sun would be low by the time we pulled in again at Ben’s. The snow-covered field, as far as the eye could see, would begin to glow with a dark red-winter light. The black tangle of knotty, twisted tree branches made a thicket against the sky. In an instant, the light was gone. 

Now I live in the South, but still I look across open fields, see the red color of a winter sky and have a neighbor from over on Askew who leaves a home-baked-Christmas sweet.

Dixie Scovel can be contacted at dixiescovel@gmail.com. Her blog on retirement can be found at dixiescovel.blog spot.com/

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