Connections: A Christmas Star Dims

She taught us that these gatherings could be an expression of love

Knowing I am Jewish, some people look at me askance when they see or hear me going overboard at Christmastime. I am choosy about my tree (white pine), and about the menu on Christmas Eve, and tend to buy a few too many frivolous presents for the grandchildren.

To be sure, I honor Hanukkah by lighting a traditional menorah decorated with the Lions of Judah, which I cherish because I inherited it from my mother, and when my kids were growing up I gave them presents on each of the eight nights when we lighted candles. Still, Hanukkah was always more of an observance than a celebration. When my brother and I were small, my grandfather gave us silver dollars, which we thought were great, but only on the first night of the holiday — and that was that. 

I certainly didn’t pay any attention to Christmas as a child, although I was awed by the tree draped in a pale-blue film that the neighbors put up. Even after I graduated from college, and was working and living on my own in New York City, I ignored Christmas; it was an event that emphatically didn’t belong to me, to begin with, and as a young woman with beatnik tendencies, I wasn’t about to start listening to Bing Crosby and wearing reindeer brooches. 

But then I married into a Presbyterian family. Ev and I were anticipating our wedding when I was welcomed to my first Christmas in East Hampton by a grand and gracious woman, Jeannette Edwards Rattray, my mother-in-law to be. I don’t remember many of the particulars of the festivities, but I recall liking the simple white-and-green china with which she set the table — perhaps it was the Old English Ivy pattern, of which we still have a few plates — as well as the exuberantly bright Christmas cactuses in the dining room. The only overdoing-it that I indulged in that first year was the unnecessarily creative wrapping of a present or two. 

After we were married, however, Ev and I met Marlys and Peter Dohanos. The Dohanoses had two young children whose ages matched two of our own three, and before long they introduced us to a glowing, fantastically festive, and delicious Christmas Eve. Marlys’s heritage was Scandinavian, and the holiday featured all sorts of Nordic decorations and treats, from smoked salmon on dark rye to the most amazingly intricate gingerbread cookies decorated with white icing, much fancier than you could buy in stores in those days of the 1970s and 1980s.

Year after year as the kids were growing up — and the adults were experiencing the various vicissitudes of life — Marlys and Peter made Christmas a sheer delight. Their friendship never waned. Years later, after Ev’s death, when I had to step into the breach and take over The Star, they would bring over a big casserole once a week to make sure the kids were properly fed. We had become so close that it seemed that they had welcomed us into their family.

Ev and Peter have been gone for many a day, but for years after the kids were grown Marlys made sure that Christmas did not pass without a gift, perhaps home-baked madeleines. 

Marlys had been in declining health for a while now, and she died on Christmas Eve. 

When we heard this dismal news, none of us were sure at first if the timing of her loss made it so much worse or somehow eased it just one tiny bit: She was to an entire generational gang of East Hampton kids the essence of Christmas, a Minnesotan Mrs. Claus. 

She didn’t just teach us how to enjoy the night, or what the best way to prepare a lemon mousse was — she taught us that these gatherings could be an expression of love. She brought joy to our little world, and we will miss her, and think of her every December as she was when we all crowded into the Dohanos living room and ate much more than was reasonable and weren’t sorry a bit.