Kitchen Chronicles is a weekly series by Barbara Sibbald, a novelist and award-winning journalist and long-time contributor to Ottawa Magazine. Visit Kitchen Chronicles every Sunday for a new instalment — and a tested recipe.
Christmas hell too
Fiona’s making hard sauce* to go with the plum pudding that her mother insisted on bringing as her contribution to the Christmas dinner. Her pudding’s always dry and she’s stingy with the fruit, thinks Fiona, but the sugary sauce sets it on its feet. Besides, it’s part of the tradition; has been since I was little.
The phone rings; Fiona wipes her hands on the tea towel.
— Dad! she says.
I should’ve let the machine pick it up, she thinks. Neil is making gagging motions.
— What a nice surprise. Merry Christmas. Neil’s here too.
— Hi sweetheart. I guess you’re in the thick of it, but I thought I’d call and wish you a Merry Christmas.
— You too, Dad.
— Next year, you must come to our house. Lorelei would love to have you.
Over my dead body, thinks Fiona.
— We’ll see Dad. It’s expensive to travel at Christmas.
Not that he’d ever offer to help pay, she thinks resentfully. He’s loaded: three houses, including a chalet in Banff, sports cars, weekends in LA. Yet he wouldn’t think of giving anything to his kids.
— Well, you know how important you all are to me, he continues.
Yeah, thinks Fiona, that’s why you call at least once a year.
— I haven’t seen Gavin in two years; he must be quite the young man. You really shouldn’t be keeping him from me. I’m not a monster you know.
He laughs. Fiona’s throat tightens. Why can’t I let it go? she wonders. I’m a grown-up; he’s across the country.
— I’m in the middle of making hard sauce for the plum pudding, Dad. I’m going to pass the phone over to Neil. Merry Christmas.
Neil is waving his hands and mouthing no, no, but Fee passes him the phone. He takes it and wanders into the living room to chat.
— Is that your father? asks her mom, though she’s been sitting there the whole time, pretending to read her Chatelaine.
— Yes, says Fiona, turning her back on her mother and continuing to beat the hard sauce.
She remembers a Christmas when she was fifteen or so and her dad wanted to bolt right after dinner. Said he had a client he needed to phone and the file was at his office, so he might as well phone from there. Her mother said he had no right to interrupt their Christmas: “Who does business on Christmas day anyway?” she shouted. Nag, thought Fiona, but years later she realized her mom knew — or at least suspected — that he had someone else, someone he needed to call on Christmas day, no matter what the personal cost. But of course Fiona had no way of knowing that and was excited when her mother insisted that she accompany her father to his office. She adored him, although he had little to do with his children. He never attended their choir performances, school pageants or track meets. Never took her in his lap or held her hand. Never played a game of Monopoly with them. He was too busy. Work came first. Before everything. So Fiona was pleased to have him all to herself, even for a short while. She sat next to him in the big Oldsmobile and chatted about their presents and her plans for the remainder of the holiday. Then she sat in one of the worn leather chairs in the waiting room, absorbed in Wuthering Heights, which her grandmother had given to her for Christmas, never imagining she’d been sent to eavesdrop.
Her mother sits at the table, leafing through her magazine, impatiently waiting for Neil to finish so she can get the dirt on her ex-husband.
— Did you read this article about how it’s good to assign children chores? she asks Fiona.
— I’m really amazed at how little you ask of Gavin. You’ve been slaving all day while he’s playing video games.
And you’ve been sitting on your ass reading mags, thinks Fiona.
— He keeps his room more or less neat, she says instead. He has a lot of homework and after-school stuff, I don’t want to burden him. He’ll have his whole life to keep house.
— It teaches responsibility. It’s good for children. It was good for you.
— I wouldn’t go that far, Fiona says. I remember doing the vacuuming and then you’d re-do it because it wasn’t done properly.
— You always did a slap-dash job.
— That’s because I was trying to have a life after school: basketball, the year book. Then I’d get home late and only have a half hour or so before supper to do all my chores. But you insisted.
Neil returns to the kitchen and hangs up the phone.
— What are you guys on about? he asks.
— Chores. When we were kids. Mom says it was good for our character.
— We were slave labour, says Neil. Remember how she would dock us? A dime for leaving a light on. Twenty-five cents for not doing a job properly. Some weeks we’d wind up in the hole.
— We were teaching you a work ethic, and see, it worked. Well, at least for you Fiona.
They both ignore this crack.
— The money was nothing, says Fee. I didn’t care about that, I had lots from babysitting. It was the belittling effect it had. We couldn’t do anything right.
— Oh, you’re exaggerating, as usual, says her mother, licking her finger and flipping another page in her magazine. So, Neil, what did your dad have to say for himself? Still living with that tart?
Fiona’s hard sauce
¼ pound butter (take out of fridge an hour before)
1 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ounce brandy
- Beat all ingredients together until very well combined.
- Spoon lots over a smidgen of warm plum pudding.