Tag Archives: #chanukah

Still seeking the perfect gift: Holiday shopping!

As we gear up for Chanukah and Christmas, I am sharing on my blog a story I wrote for The Jewish World seven years ago.

I have never looked forward to holiday shopping.

It has little to do with spending the money. I don’t even resent the time in the malls with all the Christmas decorations and music and the token Chanukah menorah stuck sadly in a corner. My main problem is that I never feel up to the task of finding the “perfect” gift.

I have a few memories of shopping for the holidays when I was growing up.I had my stand-bys: “Night in Paris” for my mother, a carton of cigarettes and a bar of chocolates for my father. The first year my sister Laura came home from college, she gave me a beautiful cable sweater that I thought was the height of sophistication because it came from my “big sister.” Through my college years, finding funny and appropriate gifts for my suite mates made the days before we left for winter vacation enjoyable. 

It became more challenging once I married into Larry’s family. Chanukah was a much bigger deal than it had been in my family. My sibling and I had not exchanged Chanukah gifts for years, and here I was looking for presents for ten adults and the seven grandchildren. Even if we weren’t all together on the first night of Chanukah, Larry’s sisters seemed to know what to get everyone and have it delivered by mail if necessary. I just always wondered what to get everyone and second guessed all my choices. 

When gift giving became even more difficult was when, in 2000, I moved from the classroom into an administrative post. When I was teaching, we did a “Secret Santa,” which meant I was only finding little gifts for one person. Once I took on my coordinator position, the number of people to whom I gave gifts grew exponentially.  It would have been simpler if I had been a wonderful baker or a clever seamstress or a skilled woodcrafter. Unfortunately,  I had neither the talent nor the desire to pull together a “one gift fits all” idea and implement it by the time the holiday season arrived. Gifts reflecting my own holiday —sugar cookies in the shapes of menorahs and Star of Davids;  potato pancakes ready to reheat; a Chanukah bag with a dreidel, Chanukah gelt, and instructions on how to play—seemed inappropriate. 

So, I would land up wandering around malls or craft shows the weeks before the holiday searching desperately for gifts. I truly cared about the recipients and wanted to show that caring in appropriate gifts. I just was at a lost to find a “token” present that satisfied me.

Four years before I retired, I decided keep track of the financial impact on spending for just my workplace. I was shocked to realize that I had spent $500 on tchotchkes.* This had to stop.

So the following November, before Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, I approached my fellow co-workers and asked if we could forego the gifts and instead make a contribution to a charity. They quickly signed on, and for the next few years, we pooled our gift money and sent a generous check to the Regional Food Bank. Everyone at my agency got a card with a note that said, in the spirit of the season, a gift had been made to the Regional Food Bank. What a relief!

The first December after I retired, the holiday season was mellower. Larry’s family got together for a Chanukah dinner, with all of us agreeing before hand that Chanukah presents would go to the two great-grandchildren but not to each other. We have continued that tradition.

My perspective on gift-giving also changed when Larry and I purchased a fully furnished home in Florida and needed to divest ourselves of thirty-six years of house. Larry took it in stride, but I struggled with the process until I realized much of the stuff we decided to leave behind was someone else’s treasure. The couple that cleaned our house fell in love with a chalk drawing of a draw bridge in Shushan, New York,  that she and her husband drove past every day when they lived in Columbia County. Several of my crewel pieces found their way to relatives’ homes, and a photograph of waves crashing on a New England coastline went to a dear friend whose family has had a summer home near Brunswick, Maine, since 1925. Our Early American deacon’s bench is now situated in our next door neighbor’s sunroom. Moments before we backed out of our driveway on Devon Court for the last time, Blossom took a picture of the two of us on the bench, smiling through our tears.  How I wish I had gifts from the heart to offer to friends and family all the time no matter what the season!

This year will be our first Chanukah with a grandchild. My first inclination is to shop for eight gifts  to be opened each night, but I know at even her very young age, Sylvie Rose doesn’t need more toys or more clothes. I have already promised her that, when she is a LITTLE older,  I will take her to  Disney World and buy her a princess dress. I have children’s books written and signed by a member of my writing group. My journal includes stories of her life, and I hope to share all these stories, some as part of a book,  with her as she grows. Those will be, like those special pictures and that deacon’s bench, gifts from the heart. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the November 12, 2015 issue.

Cash Cow Cookies

I am not a foodie, and I certainly am not Julia Childs. However, I really enjoy my time in the kitchen. I have a few favorite standbys that I whip up frequently: spinach lasagna roll-ups, chicken in wine sauce, a hearty minestrone soup. The one dessert I am known for are what my friends have tagged “Marilyn’s World Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies.” I cannot figure out what makes them so special, as I just use the recipe on the back of Nestle’s Tollhouse chocolate chips package. But somehow, I am always asked to bring them whenever I am sharing a meal with family and friends. In 2015, they had to be especially good, because my World Famous Cookies were also going to be the World’s Most Expensive.

Chocolate chip cookie batter works best when prepared with a full-stand mix master so that the butter and sugar are properly creamed and the batter is sufficiently mixed. For over twenty-five years, I used my mother’s Sunbeam that she purchased in the 1950s and that I inherited when they moved out of our big house in Keeseville in 1981. As was typical of appliances of that era, that machine got me through numerous batches of cookies and sponge cakes and mandelbrodt. In 2001, however, the motor stopped working, and the technicians at our favorite small appliance repair shop said it was no longer worth fixing.

On the advice of my friend Lynn, a master baker, I replaced the machine with a KitchenAid. For the next thirteen years, the appliance, like its predecessor, faithfully churned out my limited repertoire of culinary delights. One day, however, when I was using the mixer to make a marble bundt cake, I realized the machine had only one speed: Spin-So-Fast-That-the-Batter-Flies- Out-of-the-Bowl-Onto-the-Walls speed.

I loaded the mixer into my car’s trunk and drove to appliance repair shop to drop it off to be repaired. To my surprise, I found the store, a possible victim of our throw-away-and-just-buy-new mentality, closed up tight. My Yellow Pages and internet search for small appliance repair people also came up empty-handed. I did, however, find websites that included YouTube videos for do-it-yourselfers. “Hey,” I thought to myself. “We’re retired! We have time, and we certainly can fix this machine ourselves.”

I ordered the two parts in question from the Internet. The first, the mixer sensor, was only six dollars and was considered by our YouTube expert as a minor fix. The second part, a fairly expensive speed control board, was recommended in case the simple fix didn’t work. I reasoned that always could return it if we fixed the mixer with the less expensive part.

Although we purchased the parts soon after it broke, I found over the next few months multiple excuses for not making the repair. I was on another diet and not baking as much. I found a simple one-bowl brownie recipe that required just a spoon. When I had company for dinner, I asked my guests to bring the dessert. However, that November friends extended an invitation to their annual latke dinner, and they were insistent that I bring my World Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies. We had procrastinated long enough.

A few days later, Larry and I pulled up the mixmaster from the basement, the parts from the hall closet, and the laptop from the office. We turned on the YouTube video and began disassembling the mixer to get to the area in which we believed the speed belt was housed. After twenty minutes of unscrewing every screw on the top of the machine, we found a different video that expanded the disassembly. Twenty minute and several tries later, we were still no closer to finding where to put the &*!@ belt. We searched the Internet again, found another video, and started taking apart another component of the machine. By that time, there was grease on the tablecloth, on our hands, and on our clothes, and the table was covered with over a hundred parts, nuts, and bolts. Eureka moment: the parts I had purchased were for a newer model than the one we were going to fix. And even if the replacement parts fit into the machine, we, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, didn’t know how to put all the pieces back together again.

“I know you hate to get appliances for Chanukah,” said Larry. “ But if you allow me to dump this whole mess into the garbage bin, you can just purchase a new one” “Agreed,” I said.

We threw the mess that used to be a stand mixer into the trash, After some time researching replacements, I ordered a beautiful deluxe Kitchenaid in espresso, one of the fifteen color options available. We were back in the cookie baking business before our Chanukah dinner.

Between the parts (that were only exchangeable within thirty days) and the new mixer, we invested over $400 to make the first batch of five dozen cookies. I brought cookies and cakes to several more Clifton Park events until I brought the Kitchenmaid down to Florida. My cookies are favorites down here as well. “These are the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve tasted since my mother made them in Buffalo fifty years ago,” one friend commented. Hopefully, my new mixer will be churning them out for many years to come.