I couldn’t write this week, but I am right where I need to be. Instead of hitting the presses, I hit the yoga mat and jumped on my elliptical exercise machine. This is an effort to tone and especially to fit into my New Year’s Eve party skirt from last year. I’m passing along a gift from my brother Mark McConnell. He retired from the U.S. Marines after 27 years of service including three tours as a drill instructor. Mark exercises, runs, and bikes every day. He lives in Richmond, Maine with his wife Amalia and their three Labrador Retrievers. His three-page Christmas card to me is a reminder of the gift and the reason for the season: Our Savior Jesus Christ. Another part of his message is to reach out as Christians to others we may not normally interact with, and suggesting to us that we not live with a fortress around us. Here is Mark’s message:
Today is Christmas if you decided to wait to have David read this. I thought of many presents to buy you, but the only thing I could think of was to write for you! It’s getting rather dark and all the puppies are gathered around the woodstove. All paws are facing the ‘Iron Beast’ that glows from my love of fire! Pyro of yester-years. Christmas cards cover Amalia’s marble table and a candle burns beside me, as a reminder that I am able to see. How lucky I am in many ways to be here now. I can say, ‘This is my advent candle, a new beginning, a sign that I must change, Christmas is near, etc’.
What we need here is a fresh snow to cover up the countryside and let the splendor of it all take our breath away. Decorations are up around the old town and Richmond Captain’s homes have candles in every window. The widow’s walk in one such home has a small tree. One often wonders how many days and months a wife would await the return of her husband from the sea.
As I walk the river’s edge, I find the Hagar Shipyard planking and granite pillars still there. Back in the 1800’s this spot where I stand was the site of many large Ice-ships being built to go to sea before the river freezes. I can hear the horses and sleighs dragging wood to anxious men with leather faces ready to shape Maine timbers into a work of art. I hear the ice cutters loading ice into the ships holds where they will sail to the Far East in trade for special things made from ‘special hands’. I see street posts burning the oils from far away to light the streets.
Can you hear the sleigh bells all over town? Packages, produce, poultry and Christmas trees transported carefully to homes nearby. Then, as I look across to Swan Island, an Indian is looking at me as though I am an unwelcomed stranger, but raises his hand as a gesture of peace. He knows it’s that time of year and people are happy. But, he knows deep within, his time o this island will pass like the seasons and I am sad because I never really knew this Kennebec Indian and he knows more about this land than I’ll ever know. The river is the divider and he knows not to venture over because he will endanger his people. His only friends are the Wiscasset Indians down river and the winter season is upon him. The Eagle flies as the winds from the northeast remind him that he must set out for more deer, fish and beaver. For this is the life of the Kennebec Indian. The north is unforgiving and now we must raise our hands one more time. ‘Merry Christmas’, I say to him. His reply is like the cry of a mature wolf. But still the water flows, the ships get built and one more Christmas passes. He returns to his shelter teepee and places wood on his fire. I return to my home to do the same. The difference is: He knows who he is and where he is going after this life. The pilgrim still knows not where he is going because he has complicated his existence. The legend lives on.
The door on the front of this card looks like our home. The birds have finally arrived and the sky continues to grow grey. The sun sets in the south during winter here. The wreath on our door to me symbolizes the celebration of Christ’s birth and the cycle of life.
Even though you can’t see Sharon, you have vision through a spirit within. Not a soul can understand who has sight however; take great pleasure in knowing you will have perfect sight when Christ comes again! I look forward to the day that all people will suffer no more and peace will be a common word in everyday conversation. I get it.
Certainly, flashes of past Christmases dot your memory and mine. As brief as they may seem, they’re etched into the fiber of who we really are today! We have so much to be thankful for on this Christmas Day. We are the keepers of the Spirit of Christmas. It is our faith, strength, and morality which enable us to carry on in a world that is slowly eroding the cornerstones of our beliefs. The Advent is a preparation and also serves as a ‘new light’ in a dark world! Christians must look at one another like the Indian and the Pilgrim did earlier in my writing. Raise up your hand, and say hello, mean it, and do not divide yourselves because your are different. Build a bridge across the water so that our future generations are not walking the earth asleep.
Sharon, this is my gift to you on Christmas Day, December 25th, in the year of our Lord Two Thousand Eleven. Can you smell the tree, taste the egg-nog?
– Love, Mark”
The recipe this week, “Pearle’s Shortbread”, comes from a great book that my mom and dad sent us for Christmas -“Lobster Rolls & Blueberry Pie: Three Generations of Recipes and Stories from Summers on the Coast of Maine”, by Rebecca Charles of Pearl Oyster Bar and Deborah DiClementi. Rebecca is the granddaughter of Rebecca “Pearle” Goldsmith, for whom her Greenwich Village, New York restaurant is named. Pearle was an opera singer with the Metropolitan and New York City operas, who, beginning in 1919, took her family on vacations to “The Kennebunks”. Rebecca continues that same tradition. One of Pearle’s favorite spots for tea was “The Bonnie Brig” in Kennebunkport, run by Mrs. Nan Clark. Rebecca describes how she came by this recipe as follows:
“At a time when women coveted their recipes, when half a teaspoon of cinnamon could be the difference between a blue-ribbon apple pie at the local fair and runner-up, Nan did a generous thing: She shared her shortbread recipe with Pearle and her other guests. Pearle made this shortbread for nearly sixty years and each holiday season, and at other times throughout the year, she would present her friends and members of the City Opera Company with boxes of the shortbread. One of her biggest fans was opera legend Beverly Sills, who although she received it more frequently than others did, always eagerly awaited her next gift of shortbread. When my grandmother visited our home in New Rochelle, she would bring us boxes of shortbread and other kinds of cookies, layered carefully between small sheets of wax paper.
A few years ago I wanted to make the shortbread for a dinner at the Beard House and my mom found the original recipe, written out in Pearle’s handwriting. I have tried for years to make the shortbread as perfect as my grandmother but to no avail – for something with so few ingredients, you can’t believe how hard it is to make well. Pearle became as famous as Mrs. Clark for the shortbread, but she never forgot to give credit to her friend in Kennebunkport”.
Makes 1 dozen
1/2 Pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2. Cup sugar
2-1/2 Cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 Teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Make sure the butter is soft (the higher quality the butter, the better the shortbread). Using a mixer, in a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add the flour by hand, being very careful not to over-mix it since the batter toughens easily. When the flour is incorporated, spread the dough evenly in a 7-inch square pan (the best size for this recipe, but an 8-inch square pan will do). Score the dough lightly with a knife into 2-inch squares. Using a fork, prick two sets of holes evenly into each square. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, rotating it halfway through, until very pale gold on the edges. It should not brown. Check it occasionally, because all ovens heat differently and it is important not to over-bake the shortbread. As soon as you take if from the oven, cut the shortbread along the scoring lines you made earlier. If you wait until it cools, you will have trouble cutting the shortbread without turning it into a crumbly mess.