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As soon as the lights dim and the first notes of “Silent Night” are played, the tears start flowing. I can never sing the first verse because I’m crying. Usually I make it back in time to join the shepherds as they quake. Is it the song itself? The passing of the flame from candle to candle along with whispered wishes for peace or Merry Christmas? Or is it simply the weight of decades of Christmases past reenacting this particular tradition in different churches, surrounded by different people, but always with family beside me? No matter how I’ve been feeling throughout the day on Christmas Eve, “Silent Night” always undoes me.

Tonight especially I’ve been thinking about FG, and missing her fiercely. I keep a bottle of her signature perfume–Charlie–in the back of a drawer and I pulled it out tonight to put some on my wrists before church. I wore one of her scarves and worried it between my fingers during the service. It’s funny because I don’t recall her actually coming to church with me on Christmas Eve, but everything else about her was Christmas to me.

When I was small and we visited High Point at Christmastime, she would find a night to drive me around to look at the lights. When I was a bit older, she would invite me to come with her to do last minute shopping–even on Christmas Eve–at Westchester Mall or some other venue that was equally alluring to me at that age. But she didn’t do everything last minute. She would always have prepared sausage balls and cheese rings and trash and a million kinds of cookies before we arrived. In more recent years, when we didn’t see her for Christmas anymore, she would mail big boxes to my parents’ house filled with gallon-sized ziploc bags filled with treats.

As an adult I’ve tried many times to make her and my Nana’s creations, with varying amounts of success. For years I loved cooking something from the family cookbook not only to enjoy the recipe and share it with my family and friends, but because it gave me an excuse to call FG to ask for clarification about the ingredients or directions. She was the keeper of kitchen secrets. Our family recipes are incredibly tasty and maddeningly vague. Many of my favorites call for a package of one ingredient or a box of another, rather than any measurement you could reliably replicate. The times and temperatures are often equally mysterious. There’s a lot implied in the recipes, like you’ll know when it’s soft enough or hard enough or moist enough or just right. There’s also the matter of my family’s dairy allergies, and substituting ingredients as best I can. Although FG didn’t attempt to bake with non-dairy milk or butter or cheese, she could usually provide some sort of guidance, and would always patiently walk me through whatever I was trying to do, explaining on the phone what it should be looking like at each step.

Now my cousin Melissa is willing and ready to solve recipe dilemmas as best she can, since she made all these same foods alongside her mom for many years. I am grateful, and I know she’s happy to help. Now my daughter has taken it upon herself to tackle the recipes, and surprise the family with FG’s treats. She calls on me to help, and I text Melissa when things aren’t going quite as expected. I wish I could send FG the pictures of what we’ve made. I wish I could call her to tell her the funny stories of our failures and hear her laugh and say, “Bless your heart!” I wish I could share with her a taste of everything to see her enjoy it.

The Christmas Eve service ended hours ago, and the food is all finished, covered in foil or divided into plastic containers to distribute tomorrow. The presents are wrapped. We didn’t go to the mall today, but we did go to Target and I felt the thrill of the last minute details. Everyone else is asleep. FG would always be up later than everyone or wake earlier than everyone to get whatever done that needed to be done. She might snooze in the recliner between tasks, but she would always make sure everyone she loved had plenty of their favorite everything to eat. I can’t claim to do the same, but I do what I can. I wish that tomorrow morning I could see her, or at least call her. Ask her how she’s doing and hear her say “hunky and dory!” one more time. For now, I can smell her perfume on me and know how much of her I carry on. Merry Christmas, FG. I love you.

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