Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On the Importance of Oyster Stew on Christmas Eve...

Christmas Eve, 2013.

I worked in the Napa Valley and then headed out across the State of California in my trusty Yaris (she has 102,000 miles on her now---all acquired since 2009). Since my CD player doesn't work, I flipped through the FM stations as I drove the 165 miles home. Turns out I heard Paul McCartney's "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time" nine times. Yes, I counted them. Radio Christmas music tends to be up beat. I didn't hear "Silent Night" once. And John Denver's Christmas album is now a thing of the past, listened to only by JD fanatics and washed up 70's culture admirers.

The girls were gone when I got home. Joni was barely awake. "It's a Wonderful Life" was playing on the television. As George Bailey realized his life wasn't so bad after all, I made Oyster Stew in the kitchen. This is a way for me to remember, and honor, my Mother.

Joni fell asleep.

Mom used to make Oyster Stew every Christmas Eve. I don't really know why because nobody in the family liked it except Mom and me. I believe this was a Christmas Eve tradition in her family, passed down from Mom's Mom. I always loved the Oyster Stew; whereas most kids (and adults) hate oysters, I love them. Smoked, barbecued, raw, in stew---I love Oysters.

I left Minnesota back in March of 1993. Mom passed away on Thanksgiving in 1999. Someplace in between those years, I started the tradition of having Oyster Stew myself on Christmas Eve. This is rather problematic when you work many holidays. Most years I pulled it off. I remember one year I stopped into one of the few restaurants that was open in St. Helena hoping they would have Oyster Stew. They did. I paid a fortune for that bowl---but it is one of the more memorable Christmas Eve's I have ever had. I also remember going to Trader Vic's in a casino in Sparks, Nevada that makes some of the best Oyster Stew on the planet. It is a regular menu item. If you are ever in Sparks, Nevada, go to Trader Vic's for the Crab and the Oyster Stew. You won't be disappointed.

I've been alone many Christmas Eve's. Years in between relationships, alone in a city--Reno, Grand Junction, Rochester, Las Vegas, traveling alone in St. Helena (having to work), while Joni stayed at the farm. Christmas Eve by yourself can be one of the more lonely nights a person can experience. I think that is partially why I started the Oyster Stew thing: it was a way to bring my Mother back to share Christmas Eve with me. I wasn't alone with that bowl---and the memories the stew dredges up.

The Stew was good tonight. Joni raised an eyelid to say "no" she didn't want any and then fell back to sleep. She doesn't like Oyster Stew. Not many people do. Just me and Mom.

So Mom and I enjoyed our Stew tonight. I thought about the year, eating the soup, watching the beautiful tree. I know those years went fast for Mom when she died at the much too early age of 71. That's only 18 years away from the age I am now. I've been on Disability since May 3rd and have wrestled with my own health issues this year. More issues than really should be written in a public blog. I started to feel my own mortality this year---with a few very serious problems that my excellent personal doctor and I continue to monitor. I spend a lot of time at the Doctor's office. I put my pills in a morning/noon/afternoon/night pill dispenser so that I remember which ones I've taken. I carry my meds in their very own suitcase.

Joni also felt the icy hand of the reaper when she had a pacemaker placed on her heart. Actually two of them, when the first one became infected and had to be pulled out. Between Joni and me, we've both had to rehab ourselves back from surgery and an injury from a patient that turned out to be way more serious than expected.

Such thoughts to be writing, alone, late at night on a Christmas Eve. I feel content. I listen to the wind blowing hard outside. I walk down to the shed to turn off the generator, and the stars are so beautiful, they seem they are almost there just for me. The wind through the 100 foot tall Ponderosa pines sway. I think of crazy John Muir, riding out a storm in the top of a Ponderosa. I won't join John in the top of a Ponderosa tonight. Instead, I'll finish the stew and visit with my Mom. Fifteen years after the loss of the kindest, most wonderful person I've ever met, it is good to spend some time with her.

That's why I have Oyster Stew on Christmas Eve.

Oh yes, the last words I heard my Mother say, were "I love you". She was in the hospital, dying of cancer, inadequately morphined up by a bunch of RN's that seemed more interested in reading their daily horoscopes than treating a dying woman's pain. I had driven from Reno to Mesa, Arizona in a marathon fashion to reach her room. "I love you" were the last cogent words I heard her say as I entered the room, alone. I stayed up all night with her as she babbled incoherently---after driving all day. It was like she worked hard to stay lucid for me to get there so that she could tell me she loved me. Saying "I love  you" is something we stoic Norwegians never say. We act like we love each other; we just never say it. Until we reach our deathbeds, and then we struggle to stay alive until we can get those three words of magic out.

When the doctor visited at 5 am, I asked him to stop the IV's that provided hydration to her. As a family, we had decided that death should come naturally. We got Mom transferred that day to a real hospice where treating pain and dealing with death was done with grace and mastery by the RN's that ran the place. When Mom died, when she took her last breath, a tear ran down her cheek. She knew it was too soon to  leave; life had just gotten good for her.

Now she visits me when I have my Stew on Christmas Eve. Sometimes, I share a smile or a tear in her memory.


  1. Very moving Allan. This is a side of you that I've never really seen on FB. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Thanks Don. The old eco-socialist has a soft underbelly too....