It begins with a tree: enormous even when I was a small – in every sense – child. It was huge still when I was an only slightly taller adolescent, and we lived in a much bigger house.
Mom was always sad when we took it down on 12th night, and not because of the dry needles which covered the floor like a second carpet, despite us faithfully watering it with an old, long-nosed, brass-plated watering can.
She really did cry, the day they chopped down the big birch in the front yard. But that’s another story.
The last time I saw our first house, a bungalow, someone had added a second story, what Mom called a “dormer”. It was big, uneasy, and out of place, like Donald Trump’s hair. The house was built in the 60s, not for old folks, but young families. It was a new build when Mom and Dad moved in, along with the bump that was soon to be my sister. The unborn baby made Mom slowly faint into her breakfast one morning: oatmeal, as it happened, so it was a warm, if messy, face bath. Most of the younger women were pregnant, or had small children who stared out the big picture windows.
Each December, my Dad would paint our picture window, using basic, primary colours, and leaving an circle for the cat to look outside, plus an outline around the tree, so it could be seen from the sidewalk in all its eclectic splendour: the white and red candy striped cloth babbles, the glittery ones which shed sparkles each year, the big glass one which said “Sarbatori Fericite”, and which they brought back specially from Bronners.
The huge, Jewish-owned business sold everything from Christmas decorations to thousands of Michigan families, to the huge, nodding reindeer, Santas, and elves which fascinated me, and were destined for grottoes at Hudsons, Crowleys, and other big department stores.
We made regular trips to Frankenmuth, home of Bronner’s, where signs boasted it was “Christmas 364 days a year”. They closed on the actual day.
Ignoring Zehnder’s boasts about their chicken dinners, Dad would order a glass of Liebfraumilch, and a steak, whilst Mom had sauerbraten. For me, the highlight was the little clear plastic animals which sat on kids’ sundaes. I built up a collection: the blue monkey with its curly tail, several orange giraffes, including one I kept despite its loss of a limb. They sat – in the giraffe’s case, leaned – on my bedroom windowsill, fading gradually in the sun.
In my memory, we visited nearby Detroit – hometown of Hudsons, Crowleys, and my parents – neither more nor less after the 1967 riots, than before.
My father’s parents had moved to Redford, and whilst we didn’t visit on Christmas day, Mama Buna’s colac was an integral part of childhood Christmases and Easters alike. It was described to me as “holiday bread”. Now, with greater knowledge of the larger Romania, I realise that colac was or is probably more Transylvanian, than Romanian. Transylvania was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire when first Mosu – aged 17, and curious – then Mama Buna, 15 and just as curious – left their home village, near Brasov,
“Cozonac” is both sweeter, and more common, than colac. A yeast bread filled with poppy seeds, Uncle Bob – “the man who came to dinner” as Tusa Becky called him – complained that the seeds stuck in his teeth. My grandmother swopped them for walnuts. That is proper colac: sliced, toasted under what we called “the broiler”, then spread with margarine.
I live in walking distance now of at least three shops selling the Polish, and Czech, versions of colac. Put on the grill, left almost to burning point, then spread with butter, it’s a welcome taste of childhood Christmas mornings, perfect with a cuppa. In a few weeks’ time, I will unpack two large, glass baubles from Bronners: the white one, with the map of Michigan, and the blue one, wishing everyone “Sarbatori Fericite”.
If you celebrate Thanksgiving, I wish you and yours a peaceful, happy holiday.