“Here,” she gestured. “Try this,” and I opened my mouth. The chocolate landed on my tongue and began to melt. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. It reminded me of the carob chips foisted upon me during my mother’s hippy stage. It was also a bit like the Hershey’s Special Dark miniatures I always traded for my sister’s Mr. Goodbars at Halloween. But this chocolate was definitely a distant cousin to the more familiar wrapped in silver or covering a mixture of peanuts, caramel, and nougat. I was in heaven.
“What is it?” I mumbled around the square melting on my tongue.
“That is what Cadbury’s calls a bittersweet. I think it tastes just like Christmas.”
And with that, my friend Tan’s grandmother wrestled off the tin’s lid and brandished another chocolate like it was pirate’s treasure. “Ah, this one’s a caramel. Go on, try it. It’s gorgeous.”
Cadbury’s? The makers of those heinous chocolate eggs filled with sugary goo and made to mimic real chicken eggs? That Cadbury’s? I was incredulous. And the tin can? The only thing I’d ever seen sold in a tin can that size was the popcorn trifecta sold by the Boy Scouts. Never had I witnessed such an assortment of chocolate in one place. This was certainly no drug store Whitman’s Sampler, the likes of which my mother had been tucking into my Christmas stocking for as long as I could remember. Christmas always included many variations of chocolate in my childhood home, but I had never celebrated Christmas with a taste quite like this.
I sat there that Christmas Eve, on a stranger’s floral couch, happily savoring each chocolate that Gran handed me. Periodically, she’d find a new flavor and tell me a bit of a story such as the first time she tasted a raspberry-filled, prefaced with “isn’t it lovely, dear?” But most of that time was spent in a chocolate- and silence-filled companionship. I’m not sure what filled Gran’s thoughts, but mine circled about what I had blithely left behind in Oregon.
The time came for us to bundle against the cold and walk to Midnight Mass. I’d never been to a Christmas Eve service anywhere before, and I approached that service with the attitude of a scientist. That night I would sit among believers and witness their hullabaloo. I certainly doubted the experience would have any impact on my agnostic self.
And yet, twenty years later, I can still hear the crunch of snow beneath my shoes and feel the wind bite at my neck as it snaked its way beneath my collar. It was a short walk through the village from Tan’s house to the church, but it was a cold one. Not much slows the wind across England, and Oxford’s distant towers and spires certainly offered no resistance to that winter storm. I was sniffling with the cold by the time I took my seat on that worn pew, snuggled between my college friend and a neighbor who smelled of damp wool and cough drops.
That is what Cadbury’s calls a bittersweet. I think it tastes just like Christmas.
I have but a vague recollection of the minister’s homily. But I do remember the terrible weight of homesickness that fell upon me for the first time ever. Sitting there, the lone foreigner in that small stone church, hearing about family and love, I suddenly wanted the Christmas I knew my family was having without me. I wanted snickerdoodles and Russian teacakes, a Douglas fir covered in both glass and hand-made ornaments, giggling siblings. I wanted to gather the ingredients for my mom’s fudge, pull out the stained recipe card, and butter the dented baking dish. I wanted the same Christmas traditions I’d been celebrating for as long as I could remember but couldn’t remember ever really thinking about. Suddenly, the 5,000 miles between us made me hunger for my family’s Christmas — something I couldn’t purchase regardless of my Visa card’s available credit limit.
That night, lying in my borrowed bed, paid for with household tasks and stories of Americana, I ached for my family back home in Oregon. For nearly five months, my only contact with them had been letters written on paper so thin it barely held the words together. But more than time zones and miles separated us. I was on an adventure and they were back where I’d left them.
When I headed off to college, I left small-town Oregon with barely a backward glance in my 1980 Chevy Chevette’s rear-view mirror. And I had just kept going, looking instead toward all the things I knew must be out there, since they certainly weren’t back home. I had come from a life of powdered cheese in a green can and house-brand semi-sweet baking chips and what I wanted was a block of real Parmesan and Guittard chocolates. Getting at least a taste of that life was what mattered most to me. Even this trip to the United Kingdom had been preceded by simply a phone call to my mother, “Mom, I’ve been accepted to study abroad in England and if I can figure out the money thing, I’m going.” I hadn’t even considered how my absence would impact them.
As much as I loved my family, I wanted more. I knew there was a world out there far removed from what a life with an Oregon logger would offer me — I’d been reading about it for years in the books and travel magazines that the county bookmobile brought me every few weeks. Over the years, I had developed a taste for the exotic that the comforting food of home couldn’t satiate.
Before Christmas, I had heard my mother’s voice exactly three times since finding out firsthand if Pan Am really was “flying better than ever” back in August of 1989. Once when I let them know I had safely arrived in Carmarthen and again when they called to sing me a “Happy 21st Birthday!” And then, not quite two weeks before, as I headed off on my Christmas holiday, I had gathered a pile of coins on the shelf of a red phone booth. Starting with several pound coins, I fed the phone and dialed home. After just a few pleasantries, the phone demanded more coins. The conversation quickly became a series of jangling clinks and pauses. Finally, I loaded the last of my coins and shouted rapid-fire, “I love you all so much. I’ll call again as soon as I can!” My family was shouting back “Love you!” when the dial tone cut them off.
Christmas morning arrived with clear blue skies and much yelling and laughing between Tan and her family. As we gathered in the living room, Tan donned her best Santa Claus techniques and doled out the loot beneath the tree. I was embarrassed to see her family had wrapped some small items for me. Her mom just smiled as I became more and more flustered that I hadn’t given them all individual gifts. “Oh, it’s all right, dear. Everyone should have a little something to open on Christmas morning.”
Later, after polishing off the Yorkshire pudding and marzipan, Gran gestured to me. “Would ya like to phone yer mum? I’m sure she’d be happy ta hear from ya. And don’t ye worry about paying fer it neither, it’s Christmas after all.” My unexpected tears made it a bit difficult to see while I dialed the phone, but I managed. I held my breath until my mother’s voice came on the line. Right then, I wanted to hear her voice more than anything I’d ever thought to put on a Christmas wish list.
Standing in the hallway, I glanced at the mirror hanging above the telephone table as I spoke to first one parent, then the other. Reflecting back at me was the same dark hair, the same green eyes. But I seemed different and it wasn’t just the tear streaks on my cheeks as I struggled to hide from my parents just how much I missed them. Then my grandmother’s voice scratched its way into my ear.
“Merry Christmas! How are you dear? Doesn’t seem like Christmas without you making fudge like you always do. Are you having a great time? What kinds of things are you getting to see?” She punctuated her questions with her familiar smoker’s hack and sips of coffee.
“Grandma, it is beautiful here. Oxford is just amazing — I even got to sit in one of the private dining halls. Grandma, there are these dents worn into the benches from people’s behinds sitting in the same places for hundreds of years. There’s just so much history here, it’s amazing.” My voice trailed off as my enthusiasm wore itself out.
“Grandma, I miss you guys. I hope you have a really wonderful Christmas.” My voice cracked before I could add, “Without me.”
“Oh, little missy. I hear those tears. You’re just the same as your mom, acting like you don’t miss one another terribly. You know, that’s what Christmas is all about, appreciating the folks who make this life worth living. Christmas is about the easy and the hard parts of life.”
After I said my goodbyes and rang off, I waited to return to the living room until I scraped my face dry with my sleeve. Hearing my family’s voices had made the day finally feel like Christmas. The kaleidoscope of Christmases in my mind’s eye, how I had celebrated in the past and how I hoped to celebrate in the future, all came together. Christmas finally connected the spectrum of where I came from with where I hoped to end up.
When I sat back down next to Gran, she handed me a small, wrapped package not quite the size of a matchbox, but thicker. Raising my eyebrows, I looked at her. She waved her hand, “Such a little thing, Tan must have missed it under the tree.”
Inside was a single square of bittersweet chocolate. It may not have been a Whitman’s Sampler, but it would do.