The heart's feast

Perhaps Elizabeth sensed that my holiday feasting is a thing of imagination and of remembered warmth of a Norwegian childhood. However, she agreed more particularly with Shakespeare, who asked who could ''cloy the hungry edge of appetite by bare imagination of a feast?''

(The Bard might disbelieve that one could enjoy imagination almost as much as the hearty feast, but he was not a woman. Only consider that pile of pans that precede the groaning board and the stack of dishes that follow. I am content to bake canisters of Christmas cookies for the seniors' county home, but beyond that I feast primarily on other things.)

Yet I don't believe Elizabeth would knowingly deprive me of any Christmas pleasures. I believe she only tests my holiday hypothesis. Like so many dogs who were formerly strays, she cannot forgo a stolen snack, even when she has just consumed a lavish dish of dog food.

Well, to get on with the story. Last Christmas morning I found her standing on her sleek black legs trying to reach the balls of suet and seed strung up on the terrace cherry tree for the birds. By balancing on a snowbank and hopping delicately, she was coming almost within reach of the balls, and the fluttering chickadees were protesting volubly.

''Elizabeth, you come here!'' I bellowed in Wagnerian tones. Those younger years spent studying operatic roles have come in handy when I have to call my dogs and cats from the woods and across our country road. Usually they respond, but not Elizabeth. This time, with an apologetic ducking of her seal black head, she was off through the snow, willing to come in only if there were a treat in store.

It wasn't possible to be angry on Christmas Day, and I could understand her flight for freedom, unchained, unbound, the feel of snow crunching under her fleet movements. She would be back when it suited her.

After all, I too had broken free myself and chosen the celebration that suited me. Neighbors and friends have often invited me for Christmas dinner, but they have understood my desire to keep the day free from the excitement of unwrapping gifts and an eight-course dinner. I cherish the quiet of Christmas, the tiny lights strung on the dogwood tree growing in front of the bay window that a neighbor said looked like an angel dancing, and my miniature dolls hanging from the branches of a small tree indoors. It is a time for remembered goodness, happy Christmases past that are part of the present. The love once given us can be brought out from its wrappings of memory and warm us again like the pair of soft mittens I was given every year as a child. The objects are gone , but the warmth remains and means even more now. If snow falls on Christmas, I watch the flakes and remember the child who wondered at these gifts from the heavens and put out her tongue to catch them.

Early on Christmas Day I habitually play my favorite flute and organ recordings and then go for a walk in the woods, noting the redness of the berries against white velvet bushes and the small deer prints around the old wild apple tree which have broken the crust of the snow.

Later in the day my neighbors appear, Roland and Joan with their four sons whom I have watched grow from children to nearly six-footers. They bring my Christmas dinner because they know I love that day at home and know that I'm not in the way of gravy and fixings for myself. For years they have knocked at my door on their way to grandparents in another town. Last year, as in years past, I put the fragrant hot plate on the kitchen table and, for a few minutes, chatted with them about the presents they had all received, most of which the boys were wearing, from watches to sweaters.

After they'd gone I turned to the kitchen with my tongue ''set,'' as my aunt used to say. But there on the kitchen floor the feast had already been enjoyed by Elizabeth, who sat apologetic but happy, beside a plate cleaned of all but the cranberry. When she had slipped in I didn't know, but out she went sliding hastily through the door and over the snowdrifts while I looked at the mournful remnant of cranberry. Well, there'd be another Christmas treat coming my way that afternoon. A young neighbor, Dori, had phoned that she was stopping by later to bring some of her mother's holiday lasagna and my favorite chocolate chip cookies. Outside I heard the chickadees scolding, and there was Elizabeth again doing a pirouette on the snowbank and setting the suet balls swinging wildly. I tossed a pine cone at her and off she went, but we both knew she'd be back.

At last Dori and the lasagna arrived with a box of chocolate chip cookies made with that extra dollop of butter which gives all the difference. This time while we visited I put the lasagna in the oven and the cookies high atop the old-fashioned clothes press in the kitchen. When Dori left I hastened to the oven and heated up the lasagna, which, while not gravy and stuffing, was very good, and, with the thought of those cookies to come, I was content. The chickadees had ceased scolding, so I assumed Elizabeth was off in the woods somewhere, and I could imagine what it was like to sniff the crisp air and know you had a thousand acres of snow-crusted trees through which to weave and dart. The snow looked like meringue cakes, and I remembered the cookies on top of the clothes press.

Hugging myself with anticipation, I opened the kitchen door and there on the floor was Elizabeth with my cookies. Half of my cookies, that is. The rest were obviously residing inside her. She hung her head, but I caught that doggy grin she couldn't suppress. With one motion I scooped up the cookies still in their box and whisked Elizabeth out the door. Clutching the rescued cookies, I looked up in puzzlement at the tall clothes press where I'd put them. There in the shadowed corner was my black Siamese, Grace, who was most often called Dis-Grace , and who had undoubtedly knocked down the box for Elizabeth. Perhaps this was her concept of Christmas giving. As for Elizabeth, I saw her heading up the road where Harry, my neighbor, would undoubtedly give her a treat, and whence she had further social calls to make. As long as her Christmas sociability did not extend to stealing the neighbors' turkey or mincemeat pie I would be grateful.

It's fortunate I had determined to lay up my treasures in memory and imagination, out of her reach. Not to be angry, not to feel cheated, is a double helping of Christmas, and I was filled up full with contentment if not stuffing. To laugh, mostly at myself, is provision, for as the writer of Proverbs has said , ''He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.''

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