On Christmas Eve, I went to midnight mass. I abandoned Catholicism long ago, for a variety of reasons, but there's something about the solemnity (or potential solemnity, anyway) of Christmas midnight mass that strikes a chord in me, and reminds me of my old-world Catholic father, who died eight years ago this February from stomach cancer. Though "midnight mass" when I was growing up happened at 9:00 p.m., I can still remember him singing Christmas carols in French and Latin in his booming baritone, burying his head in his hands as he knelt in prayer.
There is a Catholic church just a block from where we live, so since I was awake anyway, I walked up the street, listening to the silence, looking at the stars, tasting the crisp wintry air, and feeling the quiet in my soul. When I got to the church, I sat in the back, watching the parishoners filter in, looking for friends and family, admiring each others' Christmas finery (and four inch spike heels). I was wearing my ratty green maternity sweater and clogs, looking very pregnant. No one greeted me, and few people looked my way. But I had to laugh as I thought to myself, sitting there, that in a strange way, I was physically the closest person in that church to Mary at that moment. I smiled, thinking about the difference between this church and the UU fellowship that we attend, where everyone greeted everyone with hugs and kisses at our Christmas celebration, and no one was looking at what anyone was wearing. A 20th century Mary and Joseph would have been welcome in our midst, and would have been offered a cup of coffee. Still, though I didn't make it all the way through the midnight mass --I lost steam about halfway through, I was glad to be reminded of my father, for all of his faults, and the way he embraced the spirit of renewal and possibility that was Christmas.
In that same spirit, I finally got around to a baking project I'd intended to try for weeks, inspired by a blogger friend who'd had a dream, while she was still pregnant, that she was eating candy cane cupcakes. Melissa was originally due to give birth to her third child just after I was, but had her baby girl at just shy of 30 weeks, 3 lbs. 11 oz. Kiari has been doing remarkably well in the NICU; she's been a fighter since before she was born. I've been wanting to send them something; I'm in charge of what's fondly referred to as the "casserole brigade" in our fellowship (though I refuse to call what I make "casseroles"): when there are new babies or illnesses or other crises in life, I organize the group of people who bring food and comfort to the doors of our friends. Candy cane cupcakes sounded like they might offer some promise of traveling well, if I sent the frosting separately, and I knew that a part-buttercream would keep with no trouble in transit, given the weather out this way lately.
So I made my standard vanilla cupcake using half peppermint extract in place of the vanilla (if you're going to try this, don't just settle for something called "mint extract," which is half spearmint, and really won't work at all) and tinting half of the batter with red food coloring, layering the two colors of batter, and swirling them around just slightly with a toothpick before baking. I packed a standard vanilla buttercream, made with crushed candy cane bits, and included some extra small candy canes in the package for decoration. (Here, in the picture, I put some crushed candy cane bits on top.) Before we sent them off, we tested one to make sure that it was fit for human consumption. While it was good, it wasn't exactly as good as I was hoping; I think next time I'd be less sparing with the peppermint extract (which I was afraid would be too overbearing), and possibly alternate two kinds of batter, red velvet and white chocolate pappermint instead of vanilla with peppermint. Still, the end result was pretty, and the stripes inside were even more or less what I'd envisioned.
The best part of this story, though, is that the cupcakes arrived on Melissa's daughter Kelsi's birthday. Kelsi was one of the three smallest living babies born at the hospital where she entered the world six years ago, and sadly, she didn't survive. But every year Melissa and her family remember Kelsi's short life, and celebrate the effect she has had on so many people.
So happy birthday, Kelsi ... may 2011 bring us all hope and the human connections that make us better people. Thank you, Melissa, for letting me be part of such an important day in your family's year. The bloggers and friends I've met on this journey have inspired me, humbled me, and helped me to keep putting one foot in front of another. And as much as I wish I was holding a live child in my arms right now, instead of worrying about these last few weeks and all of the things I know could still potentially go wrong, I will take comfort in the fact that I have a community of amazing people rallying around me, cheering me on to my own small miracle.