When I was a child growing up outside New York City in the late 1960s, the holiday season started in early December when Ohma, my maternal grandmother, arrived from her home in Switzerland bearing more luggage than even the Magi.
Ohma was in her sixties then, graceful and elegant with hazel eyes and gray wavy hair fastened with beautiful combs. She had a shy but warm smile and a surprisingly hearty laugh that she shared most often with my father, her adored son-in-law.
Fortunately for us, the customs inspectors at the airport never questioned the contents of this distinguished-looking woman’s baggage. Had they done so, they would have found contraband mushrooms and fresh cheeses along with hard-to-procure-then specialties such as saffron, candied chestnuts and marzipan.
Also tucked inside were goodies that came out only on the day before Christmas such as silver-wrapped chocolate pine cones with silver threads attached for hanging on the tree.
Many of the provisions went straight to Hedy, our Swiss housekeeper who lived with us after the departure of our mother, who had decided that a husband and five children weren’t what she wanted after all. Hedy and Ohma were united in their skepticism about American foodstuffs and household products.
Hedy lived for December when Ohma’s largesse restocked the cabinets with Swiss spices, nuts, chocolates and brandies—and the closet with sturdy mop heads.
During the month that Ohma visited, mornings began at 6:30 when my sister Alexandra, brother Dan and I would sneak into Ohma’s room and gently rouse her, all of us slipping into her single bed. “Mäusli,” we giggled, “it’s time to get up.” And Ohma, the “little mouse,” as we called her, never complained that she didn’t get a good night’s sleep the whole time she was there, but sat up in bed and kissed us good morning, each in turn.
“Shall we have an orange together?” she asked politely, as though the idea had just occurred to her. And, on cue, Danny bolted out of bed to gather the plate, an orange and Ohma’s silver fruit knife, which always lay on top of a neatly folded napkin.
“Well, then,” she added, “let me put on my glasses so I can see what I’m doing.” As we waited, she neatly peeled the orange in one slender spiral and then divided the segments among us. No one talked then; our ritual was a silent one. We ate slowly, savoring the orange and the pleasure of being together.
In the afternoons when we returned from school, Ohma waited for us in her room, her glasses dangling from their chain. Scattered about the room were different piles of hidden, unfinished presents: half-stitched tea towels for Hedy, partially embossed matchbooks for our father, secret projects for each other. As children, we spent all month long making all of our Christmas presents for each other and for our father, from art supplies that Ohma brought in one of her large valises.
We worked until dinner while Ohma shuttled between us, untying knots, steadying paintbrushes, helping with lettering or just offering praise or encouragement.
The days before Christmas Eve, which was when my family opened presents, were frenzied. Spilled glue and last-minute disasters were common—my unfortunate tendency when sewing to stitch things to my pants required many frantic repairs.
Downstairs, Hedy baked around the clock, and spicy smells curled up from the kitchen and found us, encouraging us to snatch hot cookies whenever Hedy turned her back. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we finally stopped to wrap the presents and place them under the 10-foot tree that my father had put up the night before.
Scrubbed and freshly dressed, we sat down for a candlelight dinner. Afterward, we children squirmed with impatience while the adults chatted and enjoyed a leisurely glass of red wine, pretending to ignore us for as long as they could. Then, finally, it was time for my brother Pete to read the Christmas story from the Bible, followed by carols.
Only then did our father escort each of us to the appropriate pile of presents, beginning with Ohma, in a shimmering dress, and Hedy, in sensible wool.
I could not tell you a single store-bought present that I received during those years, but I can still recall the gifts we made: the handkerchiefs I cross-stitched for Hedy one year, the ashtrays that Dan and I painted for Ohma, the beaded belt my sister made for me. I can still see myself, clumsy fingers and all, assembling a wooden jewelry box for Alexandra and a tie tack for my father.
But most of all, I remember Ohma herself, who taught by example that love is the most enduring gift we have to give each other. Now, every year around Christmas, Alexandra and I spend at least one day together in Ohma’s honor, cutting and hand-stitching stuffed felt ornaments to give to friends.
And somewhere close by, there is always a bowl of oranges, a white damask napkin and a small silver knife.
Lucie L. Snodgrass still displays her grandmother’s hand-carved crèche, “complete with precious, dwindling pieces of straw that date back to her time.”