I must start by saying that, while I do remember this incident, I had nothing to do with the cooking of the dish in question. It is a family story that is told again and again, year after year, and I know the tale by heart.

In early December, 1986, my grandmother passed away after a difficult struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. My mom and my two sisters and I had moved just down the road a year earlier, in a long and complicated story that began and ended with my parents’ divorce. So here it was, bitterly cold with Christmas approaching, and my mom left motherless and caring for her broken-hearted father and three teensy tow-headed girls under the age of eight. It did not promise to be a joyous holiday season.

Challenge after challenge presented itself that month. Relatives came for the funeral and stayed for the holidays. My grandmother’s cat – Max, a spunky brown tiger that Grandma had picked from the shelter a year before – roamed the house yowling, looking for her. Max took the Christmas tree down not once, but twice, antique and irreplaceable ornaments shattering with that tinkerbell crunch of delicately blown glass. Would the month ever end?

Finally, Christmas Day arrived. The house was packed with relatives (and amateur chefs) in all shapes and sizes. Dishes were crammed into every nook and cranny of the small refrigerator, and people were dancing an awkward doe-si-doe to move around each other in the old house. Suddenly, a shout. “Wait, is there room for this dish?”

The dish in question was a molded, greenish, shivering pile of…green stuff. Who knows what its original name was – to all of us, it was green stuff. You know the one that I’m talking about – lime Jell-O, pineapple, cottage cheese and mayonnaise. No one was quite sure when green stuff first appeared during holiday dinners. No one was quite sure why green stuff kept appearing during holiday dinners. But there it was, quivering on the plate in all its gelatinous glory. Dinner was still hours away. What to do?

Someone grabbed the plate and whisked it away, placing it into the refrigerator-like cavern of the garage, safely perched on top of the car to keep it out of reach of mice or any other desperately hungry creatures. With that dilemma solved, the kitchen dance began again, and soon it was time to sit down to dinner.

Everyone was seated and filling their plates and chattering away when a small voice asked, “Where’s the green stuff?” Someone rose to retrieve it. A moment later, laughter – belly-shaking, tear-streaming laughter – filled the house.

You see, Grandma missed being there with everyone. But she was there, still. And the trickster in her, the one that had kept a twinkle in her eye even when her body failed her, had pulled a heck of a holiday prank. With a little invisible nudge, the green stuff had gone on a journey…

………slithering over the edge of the plate……..

………down the windshield…….

………across the hood of the car………..

………and over the front fender………

………before landing with what must have been a satisfying “PLOP!” on the dusty concrete floor. A slimy, cottage-cheese-chunked snail trail was the only sign of its long, cold trek. And is there anything in life, really, that’s funnier than a pile of Jell-O salad with a mind of its own?

The house roared with laughter. Tears flowed, the kind of tears that flow when you’re prone to crying when you laugh (as all the Standishes are), and the kind of tears that flow when you just have to laugh because of, or in spite of, your pain. We all knew what the message was here.

(Don’t leave the green stuff in the garage, of course.)