My daughter ran into my bedroom at the crack of dawn recently, crying, "Mom! I think the Grinch came last night. Our gingerbread house is all broken!" I promised, half awake, that we would fix it. Usually, when a favorite toy of hers breaks, she's unphased and just keeps on playing with it. A doll missing an arm? A puzzle without corners? Not an issue. But I could tell she was heartbroken. She had woken up extra early to admire this magical creation we had assembled the previous evening, after days of effort. So I sleep-shuffled toward the dining table, where we had proudly displayed our efforts as a holiday centerpiece.
Gingerbread houses take hours and hours of work. Mixing. Kneeding. Waiting for the dough to chill. Then rolling it out, which takes muscle, because it's stiff as a board. Cutting the shapes. Baking them. Cooling again. There's an added challenge for us, due to food allergies, too; we can't use eggs, a key ingredient. So our dough fights back, crumbles repeatedly, and requires extra patience and effort. Then there's the mixing of the frosting, the glue that will hold all the pieces together. I don't recommend trying to make it without egg whites either, unless your health and safety depend on it like our family's. Egg whites stiffen well and cement the edible structure together. But we got creative to work around the food allergy restrictions for this project, as we always do. We researched for days. We considered marshmallow fluff and caramel sauce. We whipped up a thick gooey mix of cream cheese with sugar and corn syrup. Success! The house had come together. We had started to decorate with a pattern of gummy dots on the roof and red round peppermint candies all around the door frame. It was whimsical, colorful, and mouthwatering, even if we only had one third of the candy on so far.
And then the next morning, there it lay. Not just slumped or leaning like an old shack, but totally dilapidated. This did look like the Grinch himself had spent his evening meticulously destroying every ounce of our efforts, and my kid's joy with it, too. All six pieces of the structure lay flat on the table. I felt discouraged, but I promised again that I would find a solution. "We can always make more frosting," I said, sounding as upbeat as I could before my cup of morning coffee.
But there was a lot more important stuff on my mind than spending more time on this candy house, which in the end would be just a stale, if adorable, table decoration. By evening, I had not had a moment to think of how to keep my promise. My kid sat across from me, and the broken house pieces took up the space between us. She had looked forward to making this gingerbread house for a month—drawing diagrams on her white board, measuring templates with her little plastic ruler, trying to add all the inches up correctly on her fingers, and picking out all the allergy safe candy. I had to do something. I rummaged through the pantry, and for lack of anything else, I grabbed the bottle of sticky clear corn syrup and drizzled it along each edge of the gingerbread house pieces. In a few minutes, there was stickiness all over me, the table, and most of the house. I squished it all together quickly, and the house was back up and standing. "Tada!" I said, and a bright smile flashed on my kid's face.
But minutes later, the roof tiles started to slide down again. My daughter tried to prop the roof up with her fork, but then it stuck to the house, too. I grabbed a colored pencil and propped up the other side of the roof with it. The sliding stopped. Problem solved! Wait... nope. Soon, the two long sides of the house started shifting outward, leaning further and further away from each other. Another full house collapse was imminent. I could see the Grinch's dark smile broaden in my mind, but we were determined not to let gloom or despair win. We got kitchen twine. We tied the four sides of the house together tightly, with a crappy bow. The house looked absurd, more like a bejeweled turkey than anything else, but it started to hold. When the roof slipped again, we got more twine. We cut another long piece and together, with super sticky fingers, we tied those two tiles up tightly too. My daughter sat back and shoved four fallen gum drops in her mouth at once and chewed with satisfaction. I could hardly resist doing the same.
At last, every piece stayed in place overnight—and all through the following days. We didn't dare touch it, or even continue to decorate, worried it would crumble again. I looked at it and wondered if it was too pathetic to display at this point. We were hosting a holiday party soon. Was this really what we wanted as our main décor? Everyone knew about our food allergies. They knew we had to bake everything from scratch. But would this pathetic, strung-together gingerbread house be nothing more than glaring evidence of our struggles, even our failures?
For me, this was no longer about a decoration or about a fairytale house. This was about overcoming the countless hurdles, roadblocks and difficult restrictions of my kid's disease. This was about making sure she had the same sweet, special holiday traditions and memories that I had as a kid, that I feel every kid deserves. This Grinchified house, held together by string, corn syrup, cutlery and a pencil, was a symbol of what the holidays truly mean for us. They're not as carefree, or even as simple, as I remember mine being or as most kids' are. They are full of sweetness, fun and good cheer, but they bring their own struggles, too. I looked at my kid, and she was happy with the house. She seemed to feel it was good enough, like all her other imperfect toys and like everything else imperfect about our family. So I'm keeping it right there, as our centerpiece. If nothing else, it smells amazing. It's unique. And even without eggs, we managed to build it and keep it standing.