Memoir Writing Contest: Bad News About Our First Maracaibo Christmas by Susan Berman

by Matilda Butler on March 31, 2011

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #79 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Scrapbooking: Telling Our Stories One Memory at a Time

Sometimes a story reminds you of your own experiences, even though the details may be quite different. Susan Berman’s award-winning memoir story is one of those. It prompted me to remember the Christmas my parents took us to St. Petersburg, Florida. I’d never been warm on Christmas nor awakened in a hotel bed nor had only one small gift to open that morning. I remember all the questions I asked my mother about that day — questions not that different from the ones Susan asked her parents as her first Christmas in Venezuela approached along side a revolution that shut down schools and businesses alike. We congratulate Susan on her story.



Susan McClurg Berman

The 1957 Venezuelan revolution raged in Caracas – tanks in the street and rifle fire. In Maracaibo, all the schools and businesses were closed by military command that December day. Mother, Daddy and I spent the remainder of the daylight hours in quiet hesitation inside our apartment. What else could we do?

I felt like it was Sunday and I’d ditched church. Almost guilty without having done anything bad. I sprawled my eleven-year-old self across my double bed and leafed through the stack of old magazines I’d brought with me from Texas. Daddy sat on the living room couch where he read and reread last weeks’ Miami Herald. The sulfur tang of Mother’s match strikes whiffed into my bedroom. Our two air conditioner units swirled a blue-gray haze of her cigarette smoke into all the rooms. Apartment smog.

“Mac, are you going into the office tomorrow?” Mother’s voice broke the library silence in our apartment. “I mean, even though the office was closed down today?”

“Yes, Mom.” Daddy flipped the top half of the sports section down. “I’m sure the office will be open but probably with only a minimal staff. The drilling department never completely shuts down.” He folded the half into a quarter. “I’ll go in the morning after curfew’s lifted. I have to find out about my work schedule on Lake Maracaibo.”

“I have a letter for you to mail.” Mother folded her onionskin pages into thirds. “When my sister, Mae, hears about this revolution, she’ll be worried.” Mother slid the letter into a red, white and blue bordered airmail envelope. “She was upset enough about us living in Maracaibo even before this revolution deal.”

“Did you tell Aunt Mae I said ‘hi’?” I moved into the doorway of my room, a limp magazine in my hand.

“No, my letter is just about this revolution.” Mother licked the flap edge, folded it down, and ironed her hands over it for a tight seal. “I want to get this out as soon as I can. No telling how long it will take a letter to get to the States now with this revolution.”

Until then, an airmail letter from Maracaibo to Texas took five or six days. If a saint’s day fell during that time, the letter would take longer. Regular mail went by boat and took three or four weeks one-way.

“Should you write to Patricia, too?” Daddy took off his reading glasses and slid them into the breast pocket of his short-sleeved shirt.

“Our daughter’s in college to study. Besides, as a freshman, Patricia’s too busy to read a newspaper or watch television.” Mother snapped the cap onto her fountain pen. “She only listens to that rock and roll music on the radio, never the news.” Mother screwed down the top on her bottle of blue ink.

memoir, memoir writing, writing contest“I told Mae about the armed soldiers closing Susan’s school today and that it might stay closed until after Christmas.” Mother walked across the living room and put her letter on the arm of the chair next to the front door, our designated out-going mail spot.

“What’s going to happen with Christmas?” I stood up straight in my doorway. “Carolyn from upstairs is supposed to be an angel in the school Christmas play.” The electric realization that things would not happen the way I expected shot through me. “If there’s no school, then there’s no Christmas play. How can we celebrate without a Christmas play, or a pageant, or a concert of Christmas carols?”

“Christmas will come,” Mother said, “whether there is a play or not.” She nodded and pressed her lips together. “We’ll make do.”

“Oh, man,” I whined. “We’ll make divinity candy like we do every year, won’t we?” I asked.

Our family always made divinity together during the holidays. Since we only used the electric mixer once a year for that single purpose, Daddy always added a few drops of Mother’s sewing machine oil to lubricate the mechanism. Strange that one of my smells of Christmas memories was the hot, acrid scent of an overworked motor. Whipping divinity gave our mixer a workout.

“I gave the mixer to Aunt Bertha.” Mother shook a cigarette from the pack next to her chair.

“What? You gave away the mixer?” My voice squeaked like a cheap bathtub toy. “We can’t make divinity without an electric mixer. It won’t be Christmas without divinity.”

“Susan, don’t be so silly.” Mother waved her unlit cigarette in the air as if to dismiss the topic. “Besides, you knew we had to get rid of a lot of our things when we moved down here.”

“Yes ma’am, I knew that. But, I didn’t know we got rid of the mixer.” I twisted my magazine into a tight tube that I held with both hands.

“We’ll find something else to take its place,” Daddy said as he stood up. “There’s bound to be some other type of Christmas sweets here in Maracaibo.”
“Are there chocolate covered cherries here?” I wrung my hands back and forth around the magazine as if I were strangling it.

“There’s not even a dime store down here.” Mother rummaged through her purse for her silver Zippo lighter. “So, of course there aren’t any chocolate covered cherries.”

memoir, memoir writing“What about a Christmas tree?” I asked, my voice a whisper. Christmas trees galore were propped up against the outside of every grocery store in Texas.

“Babe, there aren’t any Christmas trees down here.” Daddy walked toward the front windows, his hands on his hips, and gazed at the mango tree outside in our front yard.

“For heaven sakes, Susan, we’re in the tropics.” Mother touched her cigarette to the Zippo flame. “Christmas trees only grow where it’s cold.”

“What are we going to do without a tree?” Why hadn’t Mother and Daddy told me about how very different Christmas would be in Maracaibo before we left the states? If they had, I would have pitched a gigantic fit to remain in Texas.

“I’ve talked to some of the other oil field wives who’ve lived down here for a while.” Mother tapped the ash into the large glass ashtray next to her chair. “Some decorate a plant or even a cactus. That’s their Christmas tree.”

“But, the house won’t smell like Christmas.” I twisted my magazine into an even tighter column.

“Stop being so silly.” Mother pulled on her cigarette and blew the smoke out her nose. “We’ll buy a plant when it gets closer to Christmas. Something small that we can put on top of our card table.”

My face fell. Not even a big plant. In the States, only people who couldn’t afford a regular tall Christmas tree had those dinky tabletop ones.

“Daddy will get our decorations out of the storage area in the maid’s quarters, and you can sort through them to find the smallest, lightest ones.” Mother waved her cigarette in the air as if she were directing an orchestra. “You can decorate our little Venezuelan tree any way you want.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I nodded. At least I wouldn’t have to argue with my older sister Patricia about whether to drape the icicles or toss them onto the tree limbs. There wouldn’t be any. Just some stumpy, small potted plant, maybe with thorns.

“Did we bring the Christmas tree skirt you made a few years ago?” I propped my chin onto the tight magazine coil to support my head in case the answer was no.

“Well, of course,” Mother said. “We can wrap it around our little tree and let the edges fall over the sides of the bridge table.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled as I retreated to my room, my strangled magazine in both hands. That was not a “yes, ma’am” that I agreed with what had been said. Rather, a “yes ma’am” that I had received enough bad news for the time being and needed no more.

So far that day, my school had been closed by Army command, which meant no Christmas play, no pageant, and no chorus. At home there would be no divinity candy, no chocolate covered cherries, and no normal Christmas tree. Wisely, for my eleven-year-old self, I quit asking questions. How could there possibly be any more bad news in store for me that Christmas season?

memoir writing contest, memoirDIVINITY CANDY

Caution: If you must make Divinity on a cold, rainy, or damp day, turn the thermostat up a few degrees to dry out the air. Dampness is the enemy of Divinity.

1/2 cup light corn syrup (white Karo)
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine corn syrup, sugar, water and salt in saucepan. Cook over medium heat until candy thermometer registers 260 degrees F. When syrup is almost cooked, beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry, in bowl large enough to also hold the syrup mixture. Pour syrup slowly in thin stream over egg whites, beating at high speed until mixture holds its shape and just begins to lose gloss. Beat in vanilla. Drop from tip of teaspoon onto wax paper. Let stand until set. Decorate with nuts (I like pecans) or candied cherry, if desired. Store in airtight container. Makes 1 1/4 pounds.

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