Written by Sarah Hamilton.
Photos by James Creange.
Before we left on holiday in December, the school decided to have a gingerbread contest. It was a three day workshop where Chef showed us some techniques on building a gingerbread house and then the houses were placed anonymously on a table and fellow students and instructors could vote on their favorite. I signed up for the workshop despite it being December and the mounting stress I was under. Despite my best efforts, and as per usual, things did not go according to plan. I’ve decided that building a gingerbread house is a lot like real love. Not the whimsical, glittery love on the Hollywood screen, but the day in, day out, hard as hell kind of love.
The gingerbread house starts with a perfect idea. Carefully formulated after hours of Pinterest research and pure imagination. It is beautiful in my head and everything about it is sheer perfection. This is the dating stage of the gingerbread house. It is much more fantasy than reality, but I go in with a hard to hide enthusiasm. All my classmates are excited and we keep our ideas secret, the way we hide presents at Christmas. I look around the room and there is a lot of talent here and I know I will not win on talent alone. Just not going to happen. So I opt for clever. I’m definitely an ideas person and I feel like I’ve got a good one. So I mix, roll out, cut, and bake my gingerbread into the shapes I have created. It smells like Christmas and spices and everyone is happy. It is so easy falling in love.
After the gingerbread cools, I start to decorate. In my childhood, this is the stage that I begin construction, but Chef tells us to decorate our side and roof pieces first as it is easier to decorate something flat on a table before it is assembled into a house. Brilliant! I am going for a painted wood look, so I turn my icing a deep red and use a brush to put the icing on. I use long, deliberate strokes and it works surprisingly well. Then I run a toothpick through the frosting to create the look of wooden boards and finish with a sprinkling of cinnamon. This is the point in the relationship where individuals work on becoming the best version of themselves. They don’t have to try to work together with the other pieces yet, just live in delicious selfishness, blissfully unaware of the task ahead. I am so happy with the results, I just know that this love will work, that this house will be all I’ve dreamed of.
Next is the construction phase; the part I have literally been dreading. All I can think about is the half collapsed houses of my youth and my grandmother’s disappointed face. I can do this, I think. I am not the apathetic teenager I once was. So I get to work. The sides come together surprisingly well and I’m feeling a burst of confidence. I go to put on my roof, and I see that I’ve cut my pieces too short. Trying not to panic, I show Chef the dilemma. We tear the house apart and have to start over. I scrape the icing off and we adjust the gingerbread. Instead of the pieces fitting corner to corner, we put the outside pieces inside of the side pieces to shorten the roof length, thus getting the roof to be more of an appropriate size. Not perfect, but workable. My dreams for the perfect house start crumbling, but I can work with this. I get my roof pieces on and I’m feeling relieved. I start mixing the icing colors for my decorations when my house collapses, completely and suddenly. This is the messy part of love. The part no one likes to talk about. The burnt dinners as a newlywed. The worry over how to pay for groceries. The screaming fights and going to bed mad. Your husband carrying you limp into the hospital. The 4am feeding of a newborn. The endless crying of a colicky baby. The vomit down your new dress at your brother’s wedding. Unfulfilled dreams and a change of plans.The phone call to your husband two states away that you’ve lost the baby. The temper tantrums of a toddler and mad rantings of a teenager. The bills and carpool lines and laundry and life. It is the hard part of love. The make it or break it part of love. I slowly pick up the pieces of my house. Nothing has shattered. The pieces are still intact and the wooden icing from yesterday has dried hard and looks good. It can be rebuilt. I look around the room and some of my classmates are not so lucky. I watch as a girl throws her pieces angrily into the trash can. Hartbreak. I guess not every love is meant to last.
I rebuild my house. The construction phase has left my house visibly imperfect. There are gaping cracks on the roofline where the pieces don’t come together quite right, but it is standing. So I excitedly begin the decorating. I pipe icing onto the house to look like beautifully colored strings of Christmas lights and my project starts to come to life. This is the best part of love. The part that everyone sees and admires. The hand holding barefoot walks on the beach. An infant hand on your cheek. Spontaneous food fights at the dinner table. Snuggling by a fire while the snow falls outside. Blue stained hands from picking blueberries on a hot summer day. The kid’s faces on Christmas morning. Making silly faces behind the curtain of a photo booth. Watching the sun rise over the African savannah with someone you love. It is the best moments of our lives. The reason we keep trying, keep fighting. It is the part of love that makes the construction worth it.
My house is decorated and I have only to put the finishing touches on. It will reveal my secret. I pull out a tiny Christmas tree with a giant red ornament making the branches droop to the ground and a small light blue piece of felt wrapped around it, the perfect Charlie Brown tree. Then I take out a large fondant Snoopy to put on top the house. At 9:30pm the night before, my husband came home from working all day and a ridiculously long high school choir concert and painstakingly molded my marshmallow fondant into Snoopy because he knew I needed his artistic help and that it would make me happy. True love right there! As I lift Snoopy onto the house, I realize we’ve made him too big. He starts to fall apart. He legs come off of the body and I’m frantically frosting them back together and his arms just crack and fall off completely. I’m feeling desperate and devastated. Life certainly does not always turn out how you plan. Like love, it takes a tremendous amount of work and even then, sometimes the results are not what you had in mind. I frosting glue the arms and put loads of frosting underneath to get them to stay in place. I am finally finished.
I look back at what I’ve created and it is a far cry from what I had envisioned in my head, the dream I had from the beginning. And yet, imperfections and all, I can’t help but be proud. I did it. And no, I did not win. When you look around, there is usually always a house that looks prettier than yours, a love that seems better than yours. But at the end of the day, it has been 18 years, and the home that we’ve built is not perfect, but it is mine. And I think it is beautiful.