My Turn: Gingerbread house adventures


Saturday, December 23, 2017

“I have a question, ” I say. “It’s a funny question,” I add, sort of apologetic, not wanting to put the nice people at the Big Y bakery counter on the spot. “Do you perhaps sell gingerbread houses?” Then I back up. I need to explain. “My grandchildren love making gingerbread houses every Christmas, but I can’t seem to assemble them.” I don’t share all the miserable details. I don’t describe how the roof collapses, the walls buckle and the icing sticks to everything except the gingerbread parts. But my bakery lady only nods and smiles and does not seem appalled by such incompetence. So, I brazen on: “Might you sell me an assembled house without any decorations?”

I am a bit hopeful, until she shakes her head. “We don’t make gingerbread houses here,” she says. “We aren’t really bakers; we’re icers.” Then seeing my dismay adds, “but you might find a bakery in the county, and maybe they will make one for you. And if you do, let me know.” Signaling what — an ally perhaps, another grandma in need of gingerbread house intervention?

It started years ago, when my husband’s niece got me into this predicament. That year niece Sarah, a keen baker, sent perfectly cut and squared pieces of gingerbread in bubble wrap. And somehow, with that trap for the initiate, it came together easy peasy. The grandkids just had to add the gumdrops, M&M’s, Skittles, mini-marshmallows, peppermint, sour balls and candy dots the color of blue not found in nature. They were utterly blissed-out as sugar soared through veins when bits of the landscaping was somehow digested. In other words, they became lifers, gingerbread houses forever.

The next year, however, there were no such packages from niece Sarah. I was on my own. I bought a kit at CVS and set to work attaching part A to part B. Only as soon as part C was added, part A wanted nothing to do with part B. Finally after wrestling the sides into submission so that the bottom looked sure and promising, it all slid right out of whack once it met the roof. This production was taking the patience and grit, all of which I lacked, giving way to frustration and loud whining.

The final result — there was one at last — resembled the sort of house slated for demolition. Nevertheless, the grand kids were content, too busy dividing up the gumdrops and arguing over the jellies to care about architectural aesthetics. Plus, they had already snuck more candy than their allotment into mouths and so had a joyous time. I should add that the finished product, which held up just fine, was placed at some high altitude, out of view, forgotten and after all was said and done, ended up in the trash.

But here we are again, only this time determined to find a shortcut. After Big Y, I head to Stop & Shop. Again, I plead my case. However, this time more encouraged by the fact that atop the bakery counter were those gingerbread-making kits with their deceptive and unachievable cover illustrations. “They never work for me,” I explain to the two workers nearby. I sigh heavily. And then a merciful baker/icer and simply Good Samaritan says “I’ll make it for you,” and whisks one of the kits off the counter. “When do you want it?” she asks. I tell her and she assures me she’ll have it ready by Christmas Eve. “How much do I owe you,” I ask, prepared to pay any price, figuring it up as if according to the scale of my car mechanics ($70 x four hours), high numbers dancing around my brain.

“Nothing, ” she says. “Just the cost of the kit.”

“No, ” I argue. “It’s hard labor.”

“But it’s my job,” she says. “Just part of my job.”

It’s not her job, of course. It’s her kindness and generosity, and perhaps empathy for a craft-challenged Grandma. So once again, this grandma can shepherd the happy decorating of a gingerbread house. It will be there waiting for the children, on a table, well covered in newspaper to catch the spills of their candy-high enthusiasm. And once again, a result you’d never call classy, not even close, will be attained. One side (each child gets their turf) will be heavy with the unwanted candies, say, the green gumdrops; and one side rather plain and sorry-looking; another leaning toward Goth, black with licorice.

And once again, when it is all over, it will join the holiday trash, the tinsel, the tissue and the broken bits of wonderful memories. And let us hope that my store angel at Stop & Shop and I have started a new holiday tradition.

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.