“Fla’Leigh, I need the table.” This will be my grandmother pleading with her oldest to please move her Christmas present wrapping project so that the big dining room table can be set for dinner. I haven’t quite got the spelling figured out; but, my grandmother is extremely good at blending my aunt’s given name of Florence Leigh, which is what she is always called by her parents, into a one syllable word. Others call her Flo. Most call her I.G. I think I get that tag for trying to say Florence Leigh and coming up with an overly simplified version that sticks, but no one else calls her like her mother does. It’s a definite mother daughter thing.
“Yes, Ma’am,” everything is swiftly moved to a beautiful round cherry side table that collects odds and ends. It would be dining room table enough in any standard size room.
As I wrap up another year of present wrapping using our own long dining room table with gifts stretched out in a long line by family, I.G. and her Christmas present wrapping flurry always comes to mind. After dinner, back come all the presents still to be wrapped and the fixings.
It’s a cozy set up. The dining room is centrally located with its floor to ceiling pocket doors always open. One doorway is a view of the open staircase in the central hall ever busy with eternal holiday bustle. Carolers easily fit there when they stop by to fete us. Because there is plenty of room we invite them in for a moment of warmth.
Another pocket doorway gives access to the living room where an eternal four hand game of bridge rotates between the six adults. It is also where the tree is, so wrapped presents quickly get dispatched to a spot in the ever growing pile.
How did I.G. score this perfect wrapping spot? Mom always wraps presents before we leave Ohio. She plans to be ready to play bridge and shop at a moment’s notice. She even puts on bows and it is up to Dad to see that the car is packed in such a way as to minimize crushing. He could easily have created the game of Tetris. He is an expert at working all the angles. But even so, some bows suffer. Finally after too many years of even slightly smashed bows, Mom compromises. She will add bows in Richmond.
My other aunt, Keese and her husband Martin, always stay in the former maid’s room located next to the kitchen with its own outside door to the second story back porch that spans the back of the kitchen. Thankfully for cold weather this room also has an added tiny access door at the back of the connecting closet that opens into the pantry. It’s like a small apartment complete with bathroom and enough space for wrapping presents.
And so the dining room table is free for the having as my grandmother will have wrapped her few gifts before the thirteen of us arrive. She always give country hams to her three children. We grands get the balance of her gifting attention. My freshman year in college she gives me a much longed for wrap around skirt. They are the current rage. Mother Leigh has no idea what a wrap around skirt is, but that does not deter her. She gets help from a friendly clerk at LaVogue, a high end store out of her shopping league, but it’s where fashion happens. It’s my favorite present that year.
At the dining room table, I.G. can wrap presents and still be part of all the fun activities. She’ll even take a rare break, allowing me to take over after I prove my worth at proper wrapping. Together we will put ribbons on her last gifts mere moments before Santa arrives.
The dining room has one more door. This door leads to all the things that wrap every one of our family gatherings up into a figurative bow. It’s a swinging door to the back hall and beyond that the kitchen. The kitchen is where my grandmother holds court from sunrise (well before any of us are up) to sunset. She sits in the chair behind my dad in the photo and makes biscuits, rolls, and so much more but these two stand out in my mind. She cuts perfect biscuits, a few at a time from an enormous dough ball, with a drinking glass. Alton Brown has nothing on her ingenuity.
Mother Leigh’s cooking is traditional southern comfort food. She gets a real ham deep in the country. Her favorite spot is a dusty two pump gas station between Suffolk and Whaleyville. I take her on this journey one time. Those of you who know of Cindy’s Kitchen sixteen layer chocolate cake procured at the gas station in Coinjock, here’s to gas station food always ringing true. Prior to our arrival, she cooks the ham to perfection. She makes red eye gravy from the drippings. All through Christmas a bit of it will be simmering on the stove, ready to go on a freshly baked biscuit.
The smell of Mother Leigh’s legendary coffee drifts throughout the enormous house and nudges late sleepers awake. There is a steep switchback staircase between the kitchen and dining room that gives quick access to this family hub. Breakfast is an ongoing affair, something hot always waiting for each of us as we stumble down the stairs in haphazard fashion all morning long.
I make myself learn to like black coffee like my adored Uncle Dick (also godfather), husband to endless present wrapper I.G. It’s a drip affair. Eight O’clock blend beans ground to drip specification on the spot at the down the street A&P. Not content to settle for ordinary and not willing to pay more for the richer Bokar Blend, Mother Leigh cleverly pours the economy Eight O’Clock through twice making it even richer than Bokar. My sibs, cousins and I have cut our teeth on her coffee milk, mostly milk & sugar with a splash of coffee. But as the oldest grand it is my responsibility to take up the mantle of adult coffee drinking. Only Dick is a hard core purist. It’s an acquired taste but I persevere and to this day prefer my coffee just this way.
Mother Leigh’s kitchen is the heart of our Christmas. It’s where we air differences. It’s where we make up. It’s where we solve the world’s problems. And we cherish every moment. We know we are blessed.