Pennies and Velvet

She was a widow longer than a wife, raised two children, but liked them better grown up. When we visited, we found textures, no toys. Not even pens and paper for drawing her pictures. Her Depression-era practicality found purpose, however, as she made what she had into something she needed. 

One room became two in her arrangement of the high-ceilinged great room: two Oriental rugs—whose borders we walked—and upholstered chairs arranged back-to-back where the rugs touched. Casual rubbed shoulders with Fancy, but did not speak. Each had a role.

The casual side held a wooden lady with carved and painted skirts, whose torso, with resistance, lifted to reveal candy corn in the hollow. A bumpy floral-patterned sofa. A dark-stained mantel clock that ticked and chimed. On the teak table sat a teak turtle, and when I turned over its smooth surface she chided me, "Put that back. It covers a spot." Each decorative object had a function. She grabbed a dishtowel to cover her face if she sensed a camera coming. 

Grandma, photographed at the author's wedding

Grandma, photographed at the author's wedding

Across the divide stood a green velvet sofa we desired but were forbidden to climb since it was "for company." Nearby was a layer of overlapping pennies, fused to create a dish. She bit into onions like apples, but her breath was never bad. A desk had a cold glass top, family pictures trapped underneath. Often, for the grown-ups’ entertainment only, she set up a card table with metal legs and a 1000-piece puzzle on it: Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World.

Still, she did not completely ignore the grandchildren; she gave us baked goods to take home. Rice Krispies cookies, sometimes with walnuts, cut into perfect squares, repackaged in their blue box, lined with crumpled wax paper. She may have thought this practical, but it was like the Pop Art of the era. I loved how she transformed the packaging from cereal to treat. Although she had not let my aunt become an artist, and never acknowledged my impractical desire to be one, she unwittingly made art herself. She knew how to give new meaning to the ordinary things.


- Alisa Golden writes, makes art, and teaches bookmaking at California College of the Arts. Her work has been published in several magazines including 100 Word Story, Diagram, and NANO, among others. She is the author of Making Handmade Books and edits Star 82 Review in the one-square mile city of Albany, CA. 

Choosing the Perfect Christmas Tree

“Let's get the Christmas tree tonight!” You and your wife have discussed this, but it should sound spontaneous to your three children. The right time to go is about two weeks before Christmas. If you go much earlier, the tree will dry out before Christmas; much later and what would be the point?

Visit several lots. Ask for the Douglas or Fraser firs; you’re not interested in the white pines. Walk around each tree, checking to be sure the trunk is straight. All trees look straight in the lot. Was that tree at the first lot fuller? Have your family run their hands over the needles to see if they are soft and springy. Shake it a little to see how many fall off. No one wants a repeat of The Tree That Was So Dead The Ornaments Fell Off and You Had To Take It Down The Day After Christmas And There Were Needles In the Carpet For Months.

Bring home the freshest, fullest, straightest tree, and leave it in the garage overnight so it can thaw. This was necessary during your Ohio childhood, perhaps not so much in Alabama. It's the principle though. Let the limbs fall out an additional day once you bring it inside.

image by  Ulysses Campbell

image by Ulysses Campbell

Prepare something warm for the family to drink while decorating the tree. Play Christmas music -- The Temptations, Nat King Cole, Smokey Robinson. Set the spire on the top after all the ornaments have been placed. Admire the decorated tree. It's a little crooked.  It's the prettiest tree you've ever had. 

- This is second in a series of three Christmas entries by contributing editor Jacqueline Bryant Campbell

Christmas is Coming

Get the house decorations out of the storage area. You will put up the lights outside and your wife will handle most of the inside, but there is one indoor thing you should do yourself. That large box holds the illuminated Santa head that you painted brown because there were very few African-American Santas in the stores in the 70s. Hang that in the den. 

image by the author

image by the author

Consult with your wife about the menu. Pull out menus from previous Christmas dinners and look through some of those new cookbooks. You'll be responsible for the meat, maybe capon this year? Standing rib? Absolutely not turkey; seems like we just finished the Thanksgiving turkey. You'll also fix at least one dessert, something different, like a 24-hour plum pudding with hard sauce because Christmas deserves something special. Ask your daughter what breakfast she will prepare.

image by Ulysses Campbell

image by Ulysses Campbell

On Christmas Eve, pull out the fondue cookbook that is falling apart and the two fondue pots. There will be one cheese fondue, one hot oil, and a warm potato salad for dinner. Buy lots of sterno. You have done this every year and no one has burned down the house yet. There will be lots of laughter as food falls off of forks and is fished out, crispy. 

Hug your kids extra hard when they go bed, especially once they are grown. It's good to have them all here, under the Santa head and eating cheese fondue. 

- This is first in a series of three Christmas entries by contributing editor Jacqueline Bryant Campbell