In the winter of her life, this has become the routine of her late Decembers. The Smithsonian sends over a driver and a van to pick her up, along with her latest gingerbread house. This year's piece de resistance, as it was being advertised by her friends last week: a re-creation of the "Hansel and Gretel" fairy-tale cottage. For three days, it will be on display in the National Museum of American History's "Holiday Celebration" exhibit.
Somebody asked her how she felt about the honor.
She didn't seem to hear the question. "My feet are cold," she said simply, standing by the door.
You looked down then and saw Opal Milberg's toes, tiny and pale. The 79-year-old woman, who prefers to be called the "Gingerbread Lady," was wearing nothing more than old sandals and sheer blue stockings for footwear, never mind that it was 35 degrees at 9:15 a.m. yesterday in McLean.
Her feet, she said, hurt too much in anything else. "I'm falling apart," she tried joking. This was a reference to her heart attack last year, and her leaky heart valve, and all the pills she must take, and these feet with their assorted problems. "Don't know how long I'll be around."
The late '90s have been tough on the Gingerbread Lady, which is why she believes that next year's trip to the Smithsonian will need to be her last. It is a little hard for her to believe, a kind of death all by itself.
Since that afternoon 49 years ago when the Minnesota-bred nurse first glimpsed a gingerbread house through a German storefront, she has been in love with the houses, has dreamed of constructing and perfecting the houses and has turned to her husband and two children to help her embellish the houses.
Her late husband, Arthur, a colonel stationed in Germany with the Army Corps of Engineers, served her as the equivalent of a gingerbread house architect, designing the houses and giving them a poster-board foundation.
Then Milberg supplied the wizard's artistry--edible creations with roofs fashioned out of such things as cheese crackers, and chimney smoke made out of spun sugar.
Bluish icicles that looked as though they were dripping from buildings came from her royal icing, which hardened almost as soon as it was applied. The nurse had revelations: Wouldn't it be easier and more precise, she thought, if she used a syringe to apply the royal icing icicles?
Still, it was a hobby of tinkering and many errors, happily so. "It's the only hobby where you get to eat your mistakes," she said, referring to an unsatisfactory but delicious chocolate fence of years past. "I put on five pounds any time I make a house. But the happiness you get when you finish, the sense of joy you feel, is . . . ." She paused for the right word. "Magical."
The magic, however, has become ever harder to make. Struggling with arthritis, she has turned to using a tweezer the last two years to fit and refit small candies on her creations, "not to mention my energy's not what it used to be," she added.
She paused. "Anybody seen the Smithsonian van?" she asked around.
"Not yet, Opal," a neighbor answered.
The van first came for her in 1992, after her "Gingertown, USA" ("Ten houses, and it took more than a month to do," she said.) had been on display for weeks outside her efficiency apartment at Vinson Hall, a retirement home for military officers and their spouses. One day Milberg's phone rang, and the voice on the other end said that the Smithsonian wanted "Gingertown" for its holiday collection.
She returned with new creations every year until 1998, when recovering from her heart attack she didn't have the energy to climb into a van for even a short ride to the Smithsonian.
"But this year, I'm back," she said mock-resolutely, and laughed, bending over the 36-by-24-inch "Hansel and Gretel" cottage to adjust some evergreen trees, which were nothing less or more than ice cream cones turned upside down and slathered with green icing, among other things--at once charming replicas and tempting treats. "Don't even think of it," she said to an observer who looked at the candies fashioned into rocks on a thatched roof made of shredded wheat.
Her gingerbread men, on the outside of the cottage, looked the most tasty--they were covered in black molasses, which she knew would make small children drool. So she would take exactly 1,002 gingerbread cookies to feed her little fans, a deterrence to any little hands that might think, say, of lifting a root-beer bucket that sat next to the Hansel-Gretel well.
Her cold feet shuffling, she looked up at the sky, worrying aloud whether the heavens might split open and soak her creation, not to mention chill her. Just in case, she brought along her gingerbread house repair kit, which included little extra gingerbread men, icing tubes, rock candies and her tweezers--all the things that she might need to salvage a gingerbread house in disrepair.
"There it is," she blurted, gesturing at a blue van rolling up the Vinson Hall driveway.
Out of the van stepped affable 55-year-old Audrey Newton, a veteran driver for the Smithsonian who regularly shepherds VIPs--luminaries who have included Muhammad Ali and James Earl Jones. Yet this would be his first time with either the Gingerbread Lady or an edible, meltable piece de resistance, so the stakes were daunting. He looked at Milberg, grinning, and asked, "How ya wanna do this?"
"It's just gingerbread," she said, and observed she needed to wiggle her toes a little. "Cold but no rain, at least. Just load it in. It'll probably be okay. If something happens and collapses, I got what it takes to fix it."
Newton loaded the gingerbread cottage, which did not implode. Milberg shuffled in her sandals and climbed into the van like a paramedic monitoring a volatile patient. "Looks good," she reported.
The van rolled. A few minutes into the afternoon, curious adults and disbelieving children stared at Milberg's lusciously exalted world in the museum. The real magic might be that the evergreen ice cream cone trees are still there.
CAPTION: The cottage from "Hansel and Gretel," made by Opal Milberg, reflected in mirror, is on display at the National Museum of American History.