I can’t stop thinking about chocolate cigarettes and Buche de Noel, and I blame Phyllis McGinley. In reading her wry, light hearted verses for Christmas adults and Christmas children, I have encountered once again the grown-up ladies who imbued my childhood with their self-determined elegance and natural mischief. Ladies always neatly groomed, with soft leather gloves scented by perfume, and at least a butterscotch in their purse, in case you were either cranky or good. It’s hard to write about McGinley’s Christmas books, as I intended, with these beguiling ghosts peeking over my shoulder. So instead, I’ll tell the stories of the chocolate cigarettes, and of Buche de Noel.
The night Elaine presented Pammy and me with chocolate cigarettes for Christmas, my mother’s momentary dismay was not because her friend had given us play cigarettes. In 1970, no one worried if practicing smoking at age six might somehow doom us to a lifetime tobacco habit. No. What worried my mother, as I see it now, was the chocolate. At bed-time. Near the new sofa. “OOOOoooohh!” Mom cooed, watching us unwrap the slim hard plastic cases. Her voice oscillated swiftly from delight to distress then into hearty laughter. She did not want to offend her old and dear friend. Elaine’s presence was like a medium, re-connecting my mother to the carefree girl who had once taken her chances in the bluster of late 1940s Chicago, dreaming of something glamorous and fine.
Entranced by our delicious gifts, we peeled the gold foil from the slender chocolate sticks. We perched them properly between our index and middle fingers, taking tiny nibbling bites, the longer to enjoy the game of puffing imaginary chocolate smoke rings. What could be more ladylike? And with every second, the chocolate softened, staining our fingers with the greasy marks my mother feared.
We amused Mom and Elaine for a while, swanning around the living room in our nightgowns arranged like evening dresses, their arms tied halter-style behind our necks. Until, I suppose, Mom gave up on “bed-time,” as she often did, and crept off with Elaine to drink coffee and smoke in the kitchen.
While the kitchen was good for smoking with friends, making coffee and eating cinnamon toast, no one could accuse my mother of cooking there. Even she would have admitted that. My father often made dinner, but when it was up to my mom, our food came out of a box. Despite this culinary indifference, the French Chef was a regular program in our house. Julia Child’s baudy, slightly soused irreverence delighted my mother as much as any comedian. At Christmas time, WTTW had the excellent sense to rerun the famous Buche de Noel episode. Hearing Julia Child announce the recipe set my mother off again and again.
As she watched from her spot curled up against the arm of the couch, Mom would cry out, “Buche de Noel!” and thrust her hand upwards in a vehement toast, a “Huzzah!” to Julia’s dessert.
“Buche de Noelll!”
“Buche de Noellll?” she’d croon, turning to us with a mockingly quizzical expression on her face. “Buche de Noelll?”
Then, “Uhhuuuh, Buche de Noelll…” nodding knowingly, as if discovering a slightly naughty secret.
And finally, giddy with her own nonsense, she would return to cheering, “Buche de Noel!” until she laughed herself into tears. This was one of my mother’s particular charms, knowing how to forget herself in the sound of silly words, so pleased with her own humor, she could scarcely speak.
There’s more to be said about Phyllis McGinley’s cheeky spoofs on Santa Claus and Doormen, or her poignant descriptions of the humble creatures who paid tribute to a baby in Bethlehem. She rhymes the smallest everyday occurrences – the unwanted gift, the fed up St. Nick – into images both sharply carved and fondly telling.
But tonight I am thinking of her readers – of women whose days were filled with commuter trains and skinned knees, and who were content to have it so. Those inscrutable Mothers of our younger ages, with their pearls and wisdom won in a battle we never lived, and cannot now explain to the girls who follow us. But for our memories, re-constituted in a poet’s eye, these estimable women are almost gone, and we will not see their like again.