Serendipity

Lucy was pawing at the side of my mattress this morning before six, very near where my face was still laying on the pillow. She whined repeatedly in this obnoxious way she has that sounds like an exaggerated lawn. In Lucy-speak, this means, “You’re late for our walk. Get up.”

Lucy doesn’t understand the concept of weekends.

Since I was now awake with no chance of falling back to sleep, I got dressed and went to find the leash. The weather took a nice turn overnight and the morning air felt good without the intense humidity that had been hovering for most of the week. When we walk, I let Lucy decide which way we’ll go and this morning she took us to the west. (I use the term “walk” loosely. Lucy has one speed and it is “intense.” Walks with Lucy are a workout!) We passed the farmhouse up the road, but there were no cows out this morning. (Lucy is fascinated by them.) So we continued along the familiar path, me listening to the birds chirping and admiring all the summer flowers, and Lucy sniffing trails of scents along the way.

It occurred to me that just a few short years ago, on a summer day like this one, my weekend wouldn’t have been such a blank slate.  A few years ago, I’d have been knee-deep in my kids’ stuff.  On those Saturday mornings, I would likely already be on my way to a ball field with Brad, Jake or Kacey and their baseball or softball gear in tow. I got to thinking about how often Mark’s weekend work schedule kept him away from things like that. I sometimes resented the way it made me feel like a single parent. And then I remembered how, in spite of  my resentment, it always turned out to be so much fun hanging out with the other parents, cheering on our kids. In those years, I got to spend time watching my kids be happy,  just being kids, forming the bonds of friendship and doing things they loved to do. We were lucky to be able to have that.

Those were good times and as I walked this morning, I was really missing the days when the weekends were all about my kids’ lives. I remember the way I used to struggle with being away from home for so many hours of the precious weekend and not getting things done; things like keeping the house perfect or being able to grocery shop leisurely whenever I felt like it. I remember a sense of always trying to squeeze it all in and never quite managing it all. I used to wish for more hours to balance the kid stuff and my own responsibilities. But now I realize, there is never enough time to do it all and really, it doesn’t matter. Those weekends had a way of making me stop for a little bit to take a break from the routine of life. They made me quit worrying about everything and forced me to take time to enjoy the good stuff – relaxing and having fun with friends and my family. Now that the kids are grown up, Mark still works a lot of weekends. Saturdays and Sundays are sometimes quiet, sometimes a little lonely. Sometimes I think I’d like to be rushing out of a messy house again, trying to make sure we made it to the ball field on time and wondering when I’d get the laundry done.

Team Mates

As Lucy and I walked the last stretch toward home, I heard voices behind me. Two cyclists breezed past us and then one of them shouted, “Hey!” He squeezed the brakes and made an ungraceful u-turn, calling out to his friend to hold up. Under the helmets, I recognized Dan and Kent, two dads of  a couple of Kacey’s earliest softball pals. When the girls were very young, before their high school years came along and took them in separate directions, we were all, girls and parents alike, very close friends. A lot of people came and went from our lives over the years of sports and activities, but Dan and Kent and their families were some that held a special place in our hearts. Dan, in particular, was very closely involved in his kids’ lives. His daughter, Angie and Kacey were really close for many years and Kacey spent a lot of time at the home of Dan and his wife Judy. Dan’s family had a strong religious faith and Kacey not only played and hung out with the family, but they often took her along to their church. They were a good influence on my daughter. Kacey often remembers the good times she had with Angie and remarks how much she misses those days.

Dan and Kent and I chatted for a few minutes this morning, remarking on how our girls have grown up and how strange it seems that they are adults now. We told each other, “Say hi to everyone for me,” and soon they pedaled off again. Lucy had worn herself out and I was smiling at the chance encounter with our old friends. Funny, I thought, that I had just been thinking about those years and those friends, and suddenly, there they were. I wondered… there’s a word for that…

A Memory of a Boy

I loved school when I was little. I mean really. Loved it! I hadn’t yet developed my healthy sense of self-consciousness and school was the place that opened doors to whole new worlds to me.  Getting to school meant walking several blocks down my own street, hanging a left and walking for another couple of blocks before waiting to cross a busy intersection with the assistance of the Police Patrols. (Police Patrols were sixth graders who got to wear cool brown leather belts around their waists with a strap that went over the shoulder and a cool badge on the front. I couldn’t wait to be one.)

When I think back to those days, my memories always take me back to the fall.  In the classroom, I looked forward to making colorful leaves out of construction paper. Or maybe it was a jack-o-lantern or a friendly looking witch on a broomstick. Out on the school playground, my classmates and I raced across the monkey bars to see who could get across the fastest. On that same playground, there would soon be a Halloween parade for all of the students to show off their costumes. I had a plastic witch mask. No costume. My mom and dad didn’t put much stock in Halloween. As much as I wanted a costume to go with my mask, I was grateful that my siblings and I were even allowed to trick-or-treat.

There were two girls in my neighborhood who walked to and from school with me. We made plans to visit and play after school as we shuffled our feet through the crunchy brown leaves along the sidewalks. Bunches of kids all left school and walked the same direction before branching off on various streets to go to their own homes. There was a boy who scared me a little bit and I was always on the lookout for him as I walked to and from school. Jeff King had a reputation as a mean kid. I don’t think he ever did anything to me, personally. I don’t think I really knew Jeff King much at all. I think I was just scared because he was a little older than me. He seemed so big to me. And he had that reputation. Sort of a daredevil. The mean kid.

One of those years, not long after school had begun, there were suddenly rolls of iron-on reflective tape at our house. That tape was everywhere. Mom ironed it on the backs of my siblings’ and my jackets. She ironed it along the sleeves. She ironed it on the corduroy book bag she had sewn for me to carry my things to and from school. I loved the reflective tape. I thought it added flare to my jacket. Everyone in my elementary school was suddenly sporting reflective tape on their jackets.

I was too young to make the connection about the reflective tape back then. It was only years later that I put two and two together. Our parents weren’t jazzing up their kids’ jackets because it was the seventies and it was cool and psychedelic. They were making sure we would be seen. They were trying to prevent us not being seen. They were trying to prevent us being hit by cars. They covered us in reflective tape because Jeff King wasn’t seen. Jeff King was hit by a car while riding his bike. Suddenly Jeff King didn’t seem like someone to be scared of. He was a little boy, with a family who loved him. I remember my dad telling me to pray for Jeff. It seemed like he was in the hospital for a long time. I prayed for him every night until the shock of his accident began to fade a bit and I stopped hearing about him.  I remember wondering how long you’re supposed to pray for someone who is in the hospital and I stopped praying because I no longer heard people talking about Jeff King. When he died, I wondered if it was because I stopped praying.

That was so long ago and I was so very young. Too young to have any concept of what a tragedy this was for one family. My parents did what parents did back then. They did what they could to keep us safe without really talking about what they were afraid of. Every fall, I remember those early school years with fondness. And you’d think I wouldn’t remember my feelings so vividly after all this time, but every fall, I still  remember Jeff King.

In my Mom’s Kitchen

I love my mom’s kitchen. Not because it’s a fabulous kitchen. It’s pretty basic as far as kitchen’s go. It’s not that big either. You know how whenever you have company, it seems like everyone ends up in the kitchen? I’ve spent many a holiday at my parents’ house, helping prepare the meal while shooing nieces and nephews out to the living room and pushing my big little brothers out of the way. There’s barely room for Mom and her two daughters to work together, much less having to trip over the big feet of the big little brothers.

There’s a pantry in my mom’s kitchen. It’s not much of a pantry. It’s just a closet with some shelves in it. Inside, brown paper grocery bags are stacked on the floor and one paper bag stands open, stuffed with plastic bags. There are boxes of crackers and bags of chips. And there are recipes. My grandma’s recipe boxes are in there and so is the old Betty Crocker cook book that’s been around, probably since before I was born.

In the cupboard, there are liquid measuring cups. They’ve been around since my childhood too and they’ve seen better days. One is plastic – Tupperware. You can see the raised numbers marking the measurements on the side of the cup and if you look closely under good lighting, you can read the numbers. The markings used to be red but the paint has long since worn off. There’s a metal measuring cup too, just like the ones my grandma used to have in her kitchen. I’ve never had a metal measuring cup. They’d come out with those new-fangled Pyrex ones by the time I’d begun to stock my own kitchen.

The cupboards also hold a matching pair of stone wear soup mugs with a chestnut brown finish. The word soup in a darker brown is printed in various sizes and fonts all over each mug. They bring back memories of the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. I loved to fill one of those mugs with steaming tomato soup. There was usually a toasty grilled cheese sandwich right beside that mug.

My sister and I bought kitchen things for Mom at Christmas time. Some of her stuff was well past its prime. I think the old hand-held cheese grater was actually beginning to rust. Mom appreciated the new things. She said having nice kitchen equipment made cooking more enjoyable. But so much of the old stuff still remains.

Mom must have had a burst of energy this week. She invited Mark and I to come have dinner with her and Dad tonight. When my kids were little and Mark was working evenings, Mom would often invite me to come with the kids and have dinner with them. It’s been a lot of years since we’ve done that. It was nice to sit at the table and enjoy a meal in my parents’ kitchen again. Of course, there are holidays when we’re all there – sister, brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews. It’s been a long time since it was just us, and it was nice.

I helped Mom put the finishing touches on the meal. She’d prepared a pork roast in the crock pot and there were white potatoes boiling on the stove. I offered to mash them, and Mom handed me the electric hand mixer and the small metal mixing bowl. It’s the baby of a set of three and has been the setting for many a homemade icing or sauce or some other concoction over the years. I realized that the hand masher Mom used for potatoes when I was growing up was either no longer around, or had simply been shunned in favor of the electric mixer. I kind of miss the hand-mashed potatoes. I kind of liked a few lumps in my potatoes.

When the asparagus was done cooking, Mom and I  put everything on the table and called the guys in from the living room where they were watching Wheel of Fortune and talking. We sat together, the four of us. We said grace before we ate. The food was delicious and I was full by the time I’d cleaned my plate. After dinner, Mom asked who wanted pie. She’d baked one of those frozen deals on an ancient round baking sheet sort of thing. The years have blackened it, but mom still uses it. She just covers it with aluminum foil before putting any food on it.

I tend to go through my own kitchen cupboards every few years. Cheap, old stuff gets purged as I replace it with newer and better. But maybe I should think twice next time. Maybe I should start working on making my kitchen “vintage” like my mom has done. After all, my kids will soon have kitchens of their own. And when they come back to mine, I want to serve up fond memories, just like my mom does.

Grandma’s Recipes

My sister and I were hanging out at her house Sunday evening, just gabbing, making fun, laughing and all that good kind of stuff that sisters do. She fed me a homemade ice cream sandwich, made with homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with not-so homemade ice cream and a good sprinkling of extra chocolate chips.

And I felt no guilt whatsoever eating all of that sugar and deliciousness, because it was delicious, and I had been to the gym two days in a row!

After I enjoyed my ice cream cookie sandwich, we sat at her table. Suddenly, she got up and walked away and just as quickly returned with a recipe box which she plopped in front of me. I opened it up and found…

Grandma’s recipes.

A big smile spread across my face and I dug in. And my grandma came flooding back in my mind. See, my grandma had a way with recipes. She didn’t just have recipes, she collected them. She clipped them and she copied them. She made notes on them where she made adjustments to the measurements or process. Many of the recipes had a handwritten note to remind Grandma that she’d made a particular dish or dessert for a birthday party or an open house.

Wherever possible, Grandma would make note of who the recipe had originated with and she would often write whether it was good, or VERY good. She was also sure to document if a recipe was similar to another recipe she already had in her possession, as I realized when I came across the recipe for Scotcheroos which included a note stating, “O’Henry Bars,” which were one of Grandma’s standards!

I remember the Sundays we’d spend at my grandparents’ house and I remember looking at her recipes back then too. Sometimes Grandma would ask me to copy a recipe or two for her. Obviously, she asked my cousins to do the same when they visited too. So many of the recipes were neatly printed in a child’s writing. I loved to look through Grandma’s recipes even when I was a kid. The cards held the names of people in my grandma’s life, people I didn’t know. I tried to picture them based on their names. What kind of cakes were made by a woman named Agnes? Just how good was Beulah’s white bread? Just how short was Shorty Neumann and where did he learn to make dill pickles?

My grandma was green before being green was the thing to be. She wrote her recipes on scraps of paper, recycled index cards that my aunt brought home from her office job, and even… bank deposit slips.

My sister had just one small box of Grandma’s recipes. It was just one of the many Grandma left behind when she died. By the time my grandma passed away, she had box upon box of recipes she’d transcribed and collected over the years. And when Grandma’s children divided her possessions among them, my mom was either lucky enough or smart enough to find herself in possession of the collection.

There wasn’t anything my grandma couldn’t cook or bake. We loved her stewed chicken and a particular salad she made just for us kids, with lettuce, apple slices and mandarin oranges. But if you take a look through all of those recipes, you’re not likely to find most of Grandma’s standards documented on an index card. And all of those boxes mostly contained recipes for desserts anyway!

Looking through Grandma’s recipes brought her back to me and brought me back to her kitchen, where I’d kneel on a chair and watch her knead bread dough or prepare her delectable cake doughnuts. Sometimes she’d be mixing up a batch of our favorite no-bake peanut butter balls, letting us kids help measure, mix and stir and then roll out the balls on a cookie sheet. Many times, she’d be cooking up a banana or chocolate pudding to pour in graham cracker pie crust. Grandma knew how much we loved her goodies and there was never a shortage when we went to visit; never a shortage of treats accompanying us on our ride back home again either. Grandma loved us well and in many ways, but we sure liked how she loved us up with her home-baked treats.

Moonstruck

The moon was still up when I was leaving for work Thursday morning. That struck me as odd because it’s getting light again in the mornings. It’s one thing for the moon to still be hanging around when the day begins if the sky is still black, as it often is in the early morning hours of the winter. It’s always such a surprise to see it still perched in the sky at 7 a.m. when the sun has already risen.

It was such a beautiful sight. As I backed out of my driveway, I caught the glow through my neighbor’s tall trees. The moon was huge! It seemed such a shame to have to drive away and go about my normal business. I really wanted to just stop and take it in for a while, but work was calling and I had to go.

I’ve tried photographing it many times before when there’s been a dramatic appearance, but shooting the moon is a difficult thing to do. The camera doesn’t do it justice.  And a camera phone through my windshield at a stoplight really doesn’t do it justice.

I had another nice surprise yesterday morning. I have the Words with Friends app on my phone and at any given time, I’ve got at least five or six games going on with various friends or relatives. Since the app is connected to my Facebook account, I can also play with any Facebook friend who adds the app. Once in a while I’ll get a new request to play a game with one of those friends.

Yesterday I got a request from Becky. Becky has been my Facebook friend for a year or so, though neither of us is very active there, so we’ve not communicated much. I met Becky when I was sixteen when I got my first job at the local bakery. She was a year older than me and was old-hat at the bakery job. She trained me in and helped me out until I was old-hat too. I liked Becky. She was fun and full of life. We had a great time as coworkers but we never took our friendship outside of the workplace. We worked together for a couple of years until she graduated high school a year ahead of me and I never heard from her again until we connected on Facebook.

The bakery job was one of those experiences that has remained a fond memory in my mind. It was my first real job and unlike many of my friends who just endured their fast-food or restaurant or convenience store employment, I truly enjoyed my time at work. (Maybe except for the 5 a.m. Saturday start times!) It was a mom and pop kind of business and those of us who worked there became a close-knit group. I’m not sure what exactly it was about that experience, but it has always felt like something special. The bakery is no longer in its little storefront in the old strip mall where I worked. The owners, my bosses, were the daughter and son-in-law of the original owners. They’ve since taken their business on to bigger and better things. Their new location is much bigger, with a cafe and seating area for customers. They’ve become local celebrities, well-known for their delicious cakes.

When I first connected with Becky on Facebook last year, she mentioned that she was thinking about organizing a bakery reunion for those of us who worked together in the early eighties. I confirmed my interest, but nothing more came of it and I haven’t heard from Becky since. Then came the invitation to play Words with Friends yesterday. The game offers the option to exchange messages with one another and soon Becky and I were chatting away like old, comfortable friends. The idea of the bakery reunion came up again. I got all kinds of excited. How fun would it be to reconnect with everyone from back then? We were all just taking our first steps into lives of our own then. The only one of those coworkers with whom I’ve remained in touch is my best friend from high school, Kendra. I’d love to reconnect with everyone else and see where their lives took them.

I’m not letting this be an idea that sounds great but slips away again. This time I told Becky I’d catch up with her on Facebook and help make sure it happens.

Memories of a Piano

It’s funny how a memory can be jarred to the surface by something so seemingly unrelated. For me, it was Tara’s post that did it, a weekly display of her beautiful photos taken in a state park in Florida. I read through her post, admired her photos and even left a comment before something about the title of the post began to tug at my memory. Falling Waters. Tara had named her post as such because that was the name of the park she had visited. I scrolled back to the top to read her title again. Falling Waters. Why did I feel like there was something more to those words than water flowing gently in the woods?

Falling Waters. There was something about that name … something from long ago.

And then it was there. A bubble popped in my memory and there it was. Falling Waters. It’s relevance to me was suddenly clear. Falling Waters was music. Falling Waters was piano music.

I could see the sheet music that used to sit on the old upright piano in the living room of the home where I grew up.

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That piano had seen a lot of years pass by, even way back then when I was a child. I remembered it from my grandparents living room. Mom would always remind us that this was the piano she learned on, when she was a little girl. I can’t quite remember how my grandparents came upon the piano, but I’m almost sure it was used when it came to them because my grandparents had only ever had enough money to get by.

I was young, maybe six or seven years old, when the piano came to our house. Mom wanted us to have lessons, and I struggled through them for several years. I learned the notes and the keys. I learned how to keep my fingers curved and keep time to the metronome. But I didn’t love it the way my mom did. No matter how long I took lessons, I could never play the way Mom played. I never loved it the way she did. I never felt connected to the piano the way my mom seemed to be when she sat down to play. I quit my lessons after a few years and have rarely had the urge to sit and plunk out a tune again.

Mom was different with the piano. She took to it like a duck to water. When mom sat at the piano, you could almost see the music flowing through her. Her body swayed as she sat on the piano bench. Her fingers moved fluidly across the keys and she sat upright, her held tilted slightly back as she hummed or sang quietly along to the music. Mom could sing well enough, but it was the notes that came from the piano when she played that I really felt inside of me. When mom played piano, I stopped what I was doing and I felt the music flow over me. My mom and I didn’t always get along so well back then and I put a lot of energy into simply avoiding her so as not to find myself in another argument with her. But when she played the piano, she stopped being just Mom for a while and became her own person, the one who wasn’t constantly wrapped up in caring for four young children, keeping house, preparing meals and all of the domestic stuff that can become such a weight on a mom.

When I think of Mom playing the piano that now resides in my sister’s living room, I usually remember her playing The Blue Skirt Waltz. My dad loved that song and whenever she played, The Blue Skirt Waltz was his request. And as much as I wanted nothing to do with the music my parents enjoyed, wanting instead to be cool and listening to the new stuff on the local radio station, there was something about that old-time music that my mom played that resonated with me.

It wasn’t until I read Tara’s post that I could hear my mom playing piano again. Falling Waters was a gorgeous song when Mom played it. You could close your eyes and hear the notes becoming the sound of falling water.

As soon as I remembered the song, I went to YouTube and found this rendition of the song. And I cried.

I cried because my mom can’t play the piano anymore. She suffers from an extreme and painful case of Raynaud’s Disease. This disease affects the blood flow to the fingers and in my mom’s case, causes severe swelling and discoloration of her fingers. Her condition causes her a lot of pain. Her fingertips are often split open and the slightest touch can hurt her. Mom’s fingertips are often bandaged to protect the sores that plague her. The piano is a thing of her past.

My mom can’t play Falling Waters anymore. All that is left of that song for me is a sweet memory of Mom doing something that she loved.

A Golliwog Christmas

There’s a book I’ve always loved to read at Christmastime. The Golliwog’s Christmas by Bertha and Florence K. Upton was my mom’s book when she was a child. When her children were old enough to appreciate it, we began to love it as much as she did. We loved it for its old-fashioned prose and the colorful illustrations. I loved to imagine what my mom was like as a little girl, reading her special Christmas story book in her bedroom in my grandparents’ home.

As the years passed, the book became so special, so sentimental, that my mom photocopied the pages one year and hand-colored the illustrations for my sister and me. She placed the pages in plastic sleeves and bound the books with metal rings. But even as adults, when visiting my parents, we love to ask about the real book and bring it out again, traveling back to childhood through the original pages.

The book has become very fragile in the years since my mom’s childhood. The pages have come loose from the binding. I’ve worried about the book on more than one occasion. What would we do if the book fell apart, irreparably?

I searched the internet for the Golliwog books. I thought I might be able to find new copies of the Christmas book. I would even settle for used copies. What I found out, though, is that any copies of Golliwog books still in existence are rare. And the Christmas book is even more rare. There are no new copies available and there haven’t been for quite some time. The book is no longer in print. Apparently the series of Golliwog books were seen as controversial, even racist, because the main character, the Golliwog was black, minstrel-like. I can understand. But to us? To us, the book was a gateway to the life my mom lived before us. It shed a little light on the person my mom was when she wasn’t our mom. And the characters in the book? To us they were just toys. They weren’t black people and white people. They were characters that we had grown to love because they were a part of my mom.

With my mom’s permission, I borrowed the fragile book. There was an upside to the fact that most of the pages had come loose from their binding. They could be fully and cleanly scanned with my scanner. I spent the good part of an afternoon carefully lifting the pages and gently placing them on the scanner, then cautiously returning each to its rightful position in the book.

A conversation with a coworker with knowledge of such things soon revealed that a print shop could not legally print the pages for me since they are copyrighted material. So I worked out a deal at work and printed them there. And the print shop had no issue with binding the pages and attaching front and back covers, as long as I had printed the pages myself.

The books turned out beautifully. This is my gift to my siblings this Christmas and I am so excited to give them. I think they’re going to like it!

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A Very T.V. Special Gift

Growing up, my siblings and I lived for television specials. You know the ones. Specials were television programs such as The Wizard of Oz and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. We were especially excited for the Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

They were called television specials because they were just that. Special. Before the VCR came along, you couldn’t watch a program any old time you wanted. You had to wait for a television network to decide to run a particular program and this typically happened once a year!

My siblings and I were giddy with excitement over the opportunity to see a t.v. special. We’d discuss it with great anticipation with our neighborhood friends. No one would be outside playing in the neighborhood on the night a special was on t.v. Everyone was inside, stationed solidly in front of a television.

Mom would time dinner to be sure we could finish eating before the special began. She might even allow us to skip kitchen clean-up duties in honor of the once-a-year program. Sometimes she would pop a batch of popcorn in the electric popper and pour it into her big stainless mixing bowl. The popcorn would have a nice un-healthy dose of butter and plenty of salt sprinkled over. We’d all gather around the popcorn bowl on the living room floor and hush each other in anticipation of the program beginning. We didn’t want to miss one word of dialogue or one song of a soundtrack. We always knew when Charlie Brown was about to begin. That’s when the Dolly Madison commercials would come on. It seems like the only time I saw those commercials was when there was a Charlie Brown special on t.v.

Once a special had begun, we glued ourselves to the television. We found the commercials to be an annoying interruption. (Some things never change.) And when the program was over, I always found myself feeling a heavy sense of disappointment that it would be another whole year before I could spend time with the movie characters again. I got lost in those specials and relived them over and over in my mind.

Some of my favorites from long ago are still around and can be easily found in the DVD section at many stores. Some of them are pretty much relegated to the past, being too politically incorrect for the general public these days. The Little Drummer Boy was one of these, although, with a little effort, I did find it on VHS years ago for my own kids.

One of my sister’s favorite specials was one that was run annually between 1972 and 1977. It was called The House Without a Christmas Tree. I had only a vague recollection of this movie when Cori began to reminisce about it one year when we were in the early parenthood stage of our lives. I remembered watching and enjoying the movie whenever it aired, but it didn’t have a lasting effect on me. For Cori, though, it was clearly one of those programs that was dear to her heart.

The movie centered on a young girl, Addie, whose father never quite recovered from the death of his wife at the time of Addie’s birth. A Christmas tree was a painful reminder of his wife, and so he never allowed one in the house, much to Addie’s despair. One December, Addie won a contest at school, the prize being a Christmas tree which she hauled home and erected in the living room with the hopes that her father would soften and allow the tree to stay. He did not, but eventually found it in his heart to allow Christmas back in his home that year.

My sister talked about this movie and how much she loved it. She talked about how sad she was that it never aired on television anymore. It wasn’t one of the selections available in any of the retail holiday movie sections and she lamented how much she wished she could see it again.

An idea began to form in my head. Online shopping was still a fairly new concept, at least to me, but it occurred to me that I might be able to find a copy of the movie online for Cori. It didn’t take long and I was ecstatic when I found it. I knew she was going to love it.

That Christmas Eve, while celebrating and unwrapping gifts with my extended family, it was Cori’s turn to open a gift. She selected the one I had bought for her. Tearing off the wrapping carefully, the movie she remembered so fondly appeared.

My sister is rarely speechless, but at that moment, she couldn’t seem to find words. She held the movie in one hand, the torn wrapping paper in the other. Her mouth fell open with disbelief as she looked at me, trying to form a complete sentence.

“How…. where … I can’t believe …,” she stammered, looking at me with wide eyes.

Finally, the words came. “Where did you find this? I’ve looked everywhere and have never seen a copy of it available for sale!”

I explained how I had searched for it online and had ordered a copy just for her. She seemed truly astounded that I had listened to her when she spoke of it, and that I had cared enough about her love for an old, low-budget movie to search for and purchase a copy for her. She absolutely, completely and totally loved it and over the years, it became tradition for Cori to watch the movie each Christmas season with her own daughter.

It wasn’t an expensive gift. It didn’t require a lot of effort. But it was something my sister never expected to receive in a million years. The   surprise and joy on her face was priceless and it was the first time I really knew what it felt like to give a gift truly from the heart. It was one of the best gifts I ever gave.

*Inspired by today’s NaBloPoMo prompt: What is your favorite gift you ever gave someone?

Shoes for Christmas

When I was thirteen, all I wanted was to be accepted.

Acceptance in the thirteen year-old world is dictated by the strangest requirements. The particular set of rules, I’m sure, changes with each passing year. But in 1979, in my thirteen year-old world, it was the shoes you wore that helped determine whether you were in with the in-crowd, or a social outcast. I was doing okay, socially, but I worried constantly about my ability to maintain my status. On a daily basis, I watched kids float in and out of the in-crowd. You never wanted to be out of the in-crowd. It was a lonely place out there.

Shoes. Looking back now, I find it hard to believe that my peers and I bought into it, that we truly believed if we just had the right pair of shoes our worries would be over. Of course, thirteen year-olds are a fickle bunch. One wrong move, one expression of individuality could land you on your butt outside that inner circle. You never knew what it was that might threaten the sense of security of the alpha thirteen-agers. But it couldn’t hurt to have the shoes, just in case.

My siblings and I attended private Catholic schools in 1979. It was about all my parents could do to afford the tuition and outfit us in the required uniforms. Pricey shoes were not in the budget.

Life seemed so easy for my school friends. When the shoes became the in-thing, they suddenly appeared on the feet of almost everyone in my class, boys and girls alike. Except for me and the kids who were deemed outcasts. And they didn’t seem to care that they didn’t have the right shoes.

I cared. I desperately wanted a pair of those shoes. But instead, I wore affordable shoes. I couldn’t even bring myself to ask for a pair of the in-shoes. I knew it wasn’t an option. And I knew my social life was walking a tight-rope.

It weighed on me that I didn’t have the right shoes. I just knew that my social acceptability was hanging in the balance. I couldn’t last long with the shoes I wore. I had to figure out a way to get the shoes.

Mike Johnson was relentless. He made fun of me and constantly called me ugly. He walked past me in the classroom one day, snarling, “ugly dog with ugly shoes!”

I hated Mike Johnson. He went out of his way to point out my “cheap” shoes and make fun of them. He had the right shoes. And he didn’t even take care of them! His laces dragged, untied and grew dirty and frayed. Because his laces were never tied, you could hear his shoes scuffing the floor with each step he took. The patterned bottom of his shoes wore down in flat angles from the constant dragging on floors and pavement.

If I had the right shoes, I would keep them tied. I wouldn’t let them get wet and dirty the way Mike Johnson did. I would take care of them so they would last a long time.

I was just starting to get babysitting jobs when I was thirteen. I thought maybe I could save up my earnings and buy the shoes myself. But babysitting jobs didn’t offer guaranteed hours and my income trickled in slowly. At this rate, I’d be fifteen and thoroughly outcast before I could afford the shoes.

At Christmastime, my parents asked my siblings and I what we each wanted for Christmas. Money may have been tight, but my parents worked hard to make sure they made the special wishes of their kids come true every Christmas.

My older sister asked for a leather jacket. My younger brothers asked for a boom box and an acoustic guitar, respectively. Me? I asked for the shoes.

I remember this didn’t sit well with my mom. It wasn’t an option for her to spend the money for the shoes when I already had what she felt was a perfectly good pair of shoes. But she clearly felt I should have something bigger, something more special than a pair of shoes for Christmas.

She felt bad that my heart’s desire was a pair of shoes. She asked me on more than one occasion, “Are you sure?”

“Yep!”

“There must be something else you want for Christmas. Surely you don’t just want a pair of shoes!”

“I want the shoes,” I insisted. “There isn’t anything else I want. Just the shoes.”

I was sure that my social life would be secure once I had those shoes. I had to have those shoes!

Christmas came that year. Late on Christmas Eve, as always, we opened our gifts together as a family. My sister squealed with delight as she pulled a brand new leather jacket from her big box. The brothers’ boom box and guitar were there too. And in my lap, I held a brightly wrapped package. It was the right size. I knew it was a shoe box. I ripped off the paper and there they were, the answer to my prayers! In my hands, I held a pristine pair of white leather Nikes with the signature swoosh stripe.

The shoes of my dreams

It was Christmas and I was happy. My Christmas wish had come true, and at least for a little while, I believed that my thirteen year-old problems were solved.

Eventually, I learned that a pair of shoes would never make me cute in Mike Johnson’s eyes. A pair of shoes couldn’t prevent me from ever feeling hurt or disliked. But for a little while one wonderful Christmas, I had the shoes that would make everything alright.

*This post was inspired by today’s NaBloPoMo daily prompt: What was the strangest thing that ever made your gift wish list?

Oh Christmas Tree!

When I was growing up, my siblings and I loved to decorate the Christmas tree. Christmas tree day held almost as much excitement as Halloween night or the Fourth of July.

Over the years, there were a few different Christmas trees in our house, ranging from flocked to artificial. I don’t remember the ones we had in the early years. I’ve only seen them in pictures. The tree I really remember is the tall, green traditional, but artificial tree that Dad brought down from the rafters in the garage each December. That tree was a fixture of our family Christmases from as far back as I can remember, throughout my childhood until I was well into my adult years.

We kids would settle ourselves in the living room as we waited for Dad to bring the big Christmas tree box into the house. Actually, settle might be a bit of a stretch. We knew Mom and Dad wouldn’t stand for us bouncing off the walls, so we tried to contain ourselves while we waited for the assembly process to begin.

Yes, even the process of putting the artificial tree together was a tradition we grew to love. Every branch of the tree was its own separate piece, and each was labeled in some way that escapes me now. It may have been that they were labeled with a letter of the alphabet. I’m not sure. Regardless, the first order of business was to sort those branches into piles so that each row could be easily located.

When the branches were all in order, the assembly could begin. All of those separate pieces transformed into a beautiful Christmas tree in short order. Mom would spend some time shaping branches and making the tree look real. Then the real fun would begin.

The entrance of our attic was located inside the hallway closet. We kept our jackets, hats and mittens in there, but if you moved them aside, there would be a set of steps leading up to the attic. That attic was a mystery to me and I imagined all sorts of treasures hidden there when I was a kid. That’s where the boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations were kept until Mom pulled them out of storage at Christmas time.

The decorations and ornaments were treasures unto themselves. Each one seemed to have its own story and history. To this day, I remember certain ornaments vividly. Christmas could not go forward without them. First there were the spiders.

When each of us kids was in Kindergarten, we made a Christmas spider. The body was made of a small styrofoam ball and the legs were made of pipe-cleaners. We knew whose was whose because each spider had a different colored set of legs. Mine had orange legs. There must have been a lesson at school that accompanied the creation of those spiders, but I don’t recall ever knowing it. Only later in life did I learn that the Christmas Spider is a German legend.

The story goes that a poor mother had no money to buy her children gifts. But she wanted them to have a Christmas tree to welcome the Christ child. So after her children were sleeping, the mother went outside and cut down a tree. She decorated it with fruits and nuts and cookies and then went off to sleep herself. The mother had not only decorated the tree, but had cleaned her cottage from top to bottom, so well that all the spiders had all scurried into the attic. After the mother was asleep, the spiders wanted to see the tree so they creeped out of the attic to get a better look. But the tree was so tall that they couldn’t see all of the ornaments. The spiders climbed into the tree and scurried along all of the branches, admiring each ornament. Along every branch they visited, they left a trail of dusty gray web until the tree was covered in spider webs.

When the Christ child came, he was happy that the spiders had been able to see the tree, but he knew the mother would be disappointed that the tree was now covered in dusty gray webs. So he touched the webs and turned them all shimmering gold and silver. On Christmas morning, the family awoke to this beautiful sight and they were all filled with joy.

And so it became tradition to decorate the Christmas tree with spiders and gold and silver tinsel.

Thinking about that story, I can’t imagine it would be allowed to teach it in a public school today. But times were different back then. Christmas and even God could be acknowledged without fear of offending anyone. I remember that Mom always wanted to make sure our Christmas spiders were on the tree, and I like to think it was because of her German heritage, even though maybe, as a mother, she just liked to hold onto those special things her children created with their own two hands.

There were other ornaments that had to be on the tree as well. I don’t remember where these came from or why we kids got to claim ownership, but Cory, Jim and I were each the proud “owner” of a little Christmas fairy who was hiding underneath a white and red-spotted toadstool. Craig, however, did not get a fairy ornament. The Christmas fairies must have come into being before Craig did, and so by the time he was aware that certain ornaments “belonged” to certain family members, Mom and Dad probably had to scramble to make this right with him. So Craig became the designated “owner” of a much more manly ornament, the Christmas Choo-Choo.

So many of the ornaments and decorations were handmade items whose sentimental value grew with each passing year. One of our favorites was the Advent calendar made by Dad’s aunt, and our Great Aunt Marge. Aunt Marge had such creative talent and she was always making something with a sewing machine, or with a pair of scissors, some glue, and whatever other materials she had on hand.

The advent calendar was a piece of burlap with a large, green, felt Christmas tree adorning it. A dowel was threaded through the top of the burlap and a string attached to each end of the dowel allowed it to be hung on the wall. All along the outer edge of the burlap were felt ornaments that Aunt Marge had created for the tree. Each ornament was pinned over a number that signified how many days there were until Christmas. Those ornaments were so tiny and detailed. There was a pear and an orange, a toy train and a toy horn. There was a Christmas candle, an angel, a gingerbread man and a candy cane. There was a Santa Clause and there was a baby Jesus lying in a manger.  The baby Jesus was always pinned over the number twenty-five and went on the tree last, on Christmas morning. Mom always reminded us that the baby Jesus should get placed under the tree. We kids loved having a chance to pin the next ornament on the tree and we fought over whose turn it was each day.

Speaking of Aunt Marge… I remember visiting her and Uncle Ed at their house and eating butter cookies and drinking cream soda. Funny, the things you remember – and miss – about someone once they are gone from your life.

We grew up fortunate enough to know that each Christmas would be special and wonderful at our house. Once the house was decorated, I used to love to sit in the dark living room with only the colorful twinkle lights of the Christmas tree shining. The decorations and our Christmas tree were only some of the many wonders of that wonderful time of year.