the generosity of the soup tureen

As much as we’ve taken on the business of finding our own traditions in these last years, we never know what will stick.

On Christmas morning, we take a walk. I can say, now with some certainty after this many years, we always take a walk. At first, we decided each year where we would go, but the last few years, the  particular spot has become a tradition, too.

When I was growing up, my grandparents ran a bed and breakfast in a slightly haunted house that was half wood and half stone. In the eighteenth century, the house was a stagecoach stop, and as a child I used to trace the line on the floor where we could tell the bar had stood. There was a sealed trap door withing the lines of the bar, and I loved to imagine the innkeeper pulling that trap door up in a panic, sliding into the safe space below when the brawls would get too perilous. The house was big, with an innkeeper’s apartment, a huge and beautiful second kitchen, and seven guest rooms. It had its own geography, and we’d refer to the various areas of the house by their relationship to the others. The inn portion of the downstairs was always “the other side” (even if that, in fact, was the side we were on at the time). The room with the memory of the bar linked the two sections of the house, and it was always (and in my mind will always be) “the middle room.” When the inn was filled for the Christmas with skiers up from New York, my Jewish grandmother would embrace Christmas in her own way, and she would put a white soup tureen in the middle of the table in the middle of the middle room. Around the white soup tureen, she’d lay tiny wrapped presents for each of the guests, ball-point pens and sticky notes that we’d picked out together from that section of the grocery store where they have neon construction paper and batteries and paper clips. I don’t know why she felt the soup tureen was a proper stand-in for a Christmas tree, but because she did, so did I. And, I imagine, so did the guests.

My mother and I later moved into the inn and ran it for my grandparents. I lived in “the back room” through my teens–but actually living there just cemented the fact that the inn had always felt like my real home.

I think, if I had known who I would turn into, I would have done something to keep that house. I don’t really come from the kind of family that really thinks that way–we never owned a house when I was a kid (or even thought of a place as intertwined with who we were), but now, when I drive by the inn, I’m pulled right back towards it. I hear it’s a country house now, just inhabited for a few weekends out of the year, and I can’t help but feel that after so much time of being filled up with people, the house must get lonely. At least, the ghosts must get lonely.

So every Christmas, we take the walk up the hill across from the inn. I don’t think we’re even supposed to walk there, but we do. And today, walking up the snowy hill, all I could think of was that soup tureen with all the little presents around it. I was happy to see that someone seemed to be in the house–at least, there was a graceful little curl of smoke coming from the chimney. It was all I could do not to knock on the door. Funny how places really do get so intertwined with ourselves, even if we don’t see it at the time.

Today, the girls raced ahead as we slid our way down the hill. (We wait to open presents until after our walk, so they always pick up their speed towards the end.) Joey and I held back and walked slower, and the girls disappeared around the bend, laughing and charging ahead as if they owned the road. And I realized that somehow, through this funny made-up ritual, we’ve brought the inn into the girls’ experience and memory. They’ve never been inside, but for them, it’s the house that marks the entrance to our yearly Christmas walk. I can only hope that it makes the ghosts feel a little less lonely.

Here I am, and I just meant to come and share pictures of our walk and wish you a happy holiday! But that soup tureen has been with me all day, and somehow I thought you might understand. I guess the story just had to be told.

Happy holidays to you, from all of us. I hope the day has been filled with all the things you wanted it to be. Believe it or not, Joey and I are off to Montreal for a few days to celebrate our tenth (!) anniversary. Restaurant suggestions are very welcome (although I’ll admit to you that I could happily live on poutine and Montreal smoked meat). More on that in the coming days, I’m sure!

Happy, happy. Sending love, a






  1. Corey Cooper says

    Shirley would love that you think of the Inn as home, and that you’ve introduced the girls to it in your own way as well.

    My strongest memory of you as a child (11 or 12?) you were siting on the couch in the middle room reading “The Mists of Avalon” for something like the 4th time. You inspired me to read it.

  2. Elina says

    Such a beautiful post. Congratulations on the upcoming 10th anniversary. I would recommend you try a Montreal bagel, they are truly delicious. The famous bagel shops in Montreal are St. Viateur and Fairmount.

    • alana says

      Oh, the bagels–there’s nothing like them. A fresh hot St. Viateur bagel right out of the oven might be one of the best bites in my life, honestly.

    • Lisa Moran says

      Oh, and I see you have snow… I’m so jealous! It’s raining in Vinton, Va right now… I LOVE snow, and not just because I’m a teacher!

      • alana says

        Oh that was nothing compared with what we ended up with in Montreal- 2 1/2 feet! You might have to take a little trip up there!

  3. says

    Happy anniversary, and happy holidays! We take a walk at Christmas too – now that we are back in CA, it is not a snowy walk – but we love it all the same. The story about your grandma, and you, and the soup pot – it all makes me smile. And the image of the girls, racing ahead around the bend – so poignant. Enjoy your time away.

  4. says

    I have also tried to create traditions, as my family didn’t have any when I was growing up, must most seem to dissolve or get forgotten about. The only one that I can depend on is going on a hike with my husband on New Years Day.

    • alana says

      It’s a process, I think! Both Joey and I came from tradition-free families for the most part, and so we’re really starting from scratch. Some stick, and some don’t. But that walk- that’s a good one.

  5. says

    Wonderful memories and traditions, both the old and the new…Thank you so much for sharing them.
    I have to let you know, your cookbook was the Best Present Ever, according to my daughter…The second copy I bought was mine. :)
    Happy Anniversary!

  6. Josée. says

    Le Petit Alep across the street from the Marché Jean Talon is one of my favorite Montreal spots. And walking around the market is a must, as is the whole Little Italy area. For amazing pizza, Pizzeria Napoletana on Dante is very, very good.

  7. says

    My husband and I have been married for almost eight years now, and I am now finding myself looking for OUR traditions. Not mine, not his, but those we make together. I love that, and I also love the story about your childhood. There are so many things we reflect back on and wish we had held on to a little tighter, I think. Hopefully we will learn from it and hold tighter to things in our future.

    • alana says

      Oh, I agree. That’s been one of my favorite things about starting a family–the opportunity to create our own traditions. Love it.

  8. says

    Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing. Go ahead and knock on the door. You never know…the people who live there might be excited to hear about the history of the house. The house I grew up in, and that my now deceased dad built, was up for sale this past summer. I summoned the courage and called the real estate agent to see if we could get in so I could show my son his Pop-Pop’s handiwork. It was already under contract but he said yes. It was wonderful to walk through the rooms and remember events although the rooms seemed a lot smaller than I remember them being! I was able to tell the real estate agent some things about the house he did not know. So I say, give it a shot – you never know.

    • alana says

      Thanks for this, Cathy. It’s funny- I can feel so brave with some things, and other simple mysterious doors scare me! But I just might–I’d love to show the girls that bar mark on the floor…

  9. says

    Too many Montreal suggestions! I lived there for 5 years, and miss it terribly. For poutine, go to La Banquise for the good stuff. Patati Patata also has amazing fries and tiny sized burgers and sandwiches that are so good. A tip – when they ask what dressing you’d like on your salad, go with “les deux”.

    There’s a Pakistani place called “786 Halal” that I’ve never been to but that delivers and their food is so good, specifically the mustard greens. OH THE MUSTARD GREENS. Places like Cagibi or Cafe Depanneur are great for a cozy impromptu lunch or coffee or treat. Cheskie’s is basically the best Jewish bakery if you’re in the market for some black and white cookies or rugelach. Beauty’s is a famous breakfast place that is always busy and though I haven’t been in years, it never disappointed me. And though it may not seem this way – I swear to you, Fairmount has the superior bagels.

    • alana says

      I’m going to have to go back AGAIN just to work through all these suggestions. I think I can handle that. What a city! :) Thank you!

  10. says

    I love the idea of taking a walk on Christmas. What a wonderful way to connect with the beginning of winter and your family!
    I’ll be interested to hear about your trip. I’m toying around with a trip there next year for my 40th!

  11. says

    This was beautiful. I used Blog It, a feature on Typepad, to link to this post and encourage people to come take a look. I hope you don’t mind.

    Best wishes for the coming year

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>