Tomorrow’s menu for four:

Scandinavian smoked salmon on butter crackers. Highly likely to come in two varieties, one with cream cheese, a little minced red onion and a couple of capers; the other on a horseradish cream sauce, sprinkled with dill.

Cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto, possibly drizzled with a balsamic glaze.

A winter fruit salad, composed of mixed greens, topped with orange, grapefruit, red onion, pomegranate seeds and toasted almonds, with a vinaigrette dressing. I know I had a recipe for that, but now I can’t find it anywhere, so maybe it was my imagination. That makes me nervous about the vinaigrette, so I’ll probably spend too much time looking for the recipe later today.

Break for opening presents, then I spend twenty more minutes in the kitchen while other people amuse themselves. It’s my strategy for both enjoying the meal and still having hot food. We’ll see how it works. Anyway, break followed by:

Roast beef with a horseradish glaze, served with a cranberry horseradish relish. Yep, I’m continuing my experiments in spicy cranberry sauce. I’m sure I’ll find one I love someday.

Mashed potatoes. Per request, completely plain unvarnished mashed potatoes. No garlic, no blue cheese, not even a little feta or sour cream snuck in there. (It wasn’t really a request, more of a mild statement of affection for traditional mashed potatoes, from the tolerant recipient of all of my food experiments, aka R.)

Roasted green beans with lemon and garlic from this recipe, which just totally sold me.

Break for watching some televised Christmas special, followed by:

Cherry fruit paste from New Zealand with two cheeses, a camembert and a brie, and more crackers.

A dessert to be provided by my dad’s wife, maybe Christmas cookies, maybe fruit pie (because R likes fruit pie.)

I’m hoping I may have finally figured out how to make Christmas bearable. As a kid, the only food traditions I cared about were the cookies. Our traditions were presents and jokes and music and decorations and a schedule that had us moving from one relative’s house to the next in the cold, snowy weather. Aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents; sharing a basement bedroom with my sister and brother, with our parents asleep in the room next door; whispered early morning conversations while waiting for Santa; and so much laughing. So much laughter.

But I think my grandfathers were the sources of the laughter. And when they died, the laughter stopped.

My paternal grandfather died first. He loved to tell jokes. He told jokes to strangers, made people in stores laugh, was just the warmest man imaginable. His humor had not the slightest speck of malice in it. You would never have known from his friendliness and compassion of the burdens he bore without complaint. His wife, my grandmother, was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic in her 40s. As she grew older, she lost more and more of her hearing until she was really entirely deaf. He was her link to the world. Endlessly patient with her. He was a devout Christian and the closest thing to a saint that I’ve ever met. Also, he just loved to make people laugh. If he hadn’t made you laugh at least once in your interaction with him, well, he’d keep trying. And you would laugh, eventually, or at least roll your eyes with a resigned smile.

Anyway, after his death, Christmas changed. His wife, my grandmother, had to be institutionalized. Against her will and via the legal system. I think it was hard and painful for all of the relatives in my parents’ generation, but I don’t know that they had any other options.

We still tried. And for a couple of years, we sort of made it work.

If my paternal grandfather told jokes, my other grandfather played jokes. Nothing made him happier than to give you a joke present that had you frowning down in confusion while he roared with laughter across the room. Well, except maybe giving my grandmother something that made her tear up with appreciation.

We had one last good year, a Christmas in New York. The only bad note was that my grandfather had a back ache that wouldn’t quit. It turned out to be bone cancer and he died that April.

After that…we tried. We really did. Different places, different houses, different activities. We went to Disney one year, North Carolina once. I spent a Christmas in Seattle, another in Canada, another in Santa Cruz. My grandmothers and great-grandmother suffered through slow declines in institutions of varying levels of unpleasantness. (In a stroke of unfair irony, my aware and present grandmother lived the longest in the worst of them, while my grandmother with Alzheimer’s spent her years unconscious in a much more comfortable, even almost pleasant setting.)

But I guess I’ve never managed to recover from the idyllic childhood. Christmas has been making me sad for close to twenty years now, and losing my mom just made that worse.

We’ll see if making it all about the food makes it better. And meanwhile, I have a super-secret, super-fun project that I’m working on that I’d really like to have done tomorrow, so I had best get back to it! Merry Christmas!