Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Oh, Christmas Tree!

I hit the sauce three Sunday nights ago. After upending an entire box of ornaments on the floor, I knew the wrong Christmas spirit had gotten to me. Normally a family tree-trimming party wouldn't drive me to drink, but it just so happened that this one took place without ornament hangers, and those ancient, taken-for-granted, rusty ornament hangers - wherever they may be, God rest their souls - refused to show up for the occasion, like the Van Trapp family singers in "The Sound of Music".

I ended up in high dudgeon, ferreting through closets, cabinets, and storage boxes with increasing negative energy. The more I searched futilely, the more my heart shrunk a few sizes too small until I was tempted to tell my kids to grab some glitter, stale cookies and silly string and have at the tree.

With all the insanity that I heaped upon myself just within those first days of December, I - very predictably - began to reminisce about the "good old days", the "simpler times" of yore: my childhood Christmases.

How lovely those tree-trimming days were, how organized and how traditional in rural Tennessee! I thought. But as I watched Matthew and Berto, my oldest son, wrapping and unwrapping and rewrapping out artificial tree in lights, fussing all the way, I had similar visions of my dad uttering choice words under his breath as he battled strings of old lights and a metal tree stand with a profound preference for a tilted tree.

Most years in my childhood, we walked across the field behind our house and into our own woods a couple of weeks into December, Dad's loyal Lab Rueben carrying an ax in his mouth. Mama was the evergreen aficionado, so she had no qualms about turning down cold our suggestions for trees with "character", instead marching us through that forest until we found the fullest, tallest, most evenly branched tree that would fit into our humble living room. Hauling it home was a snap; Dad did all the work while we kids crowded behind, trying to jump over its tip-top. When we reached the porch, we stood back - except for the poor kid assigned to keep the door flat against the wall - while he and Nate shoved that big tree in the house and leaned it in the far corner.

Next we ascended up to and then rummaged through that dimly lit lair of poisonous spiders, our attic. Mom and Dad did most of the reconnoitering while we kids supported them by digging industriously through boxes of abandoned, broken toys. When they finally found the Christmas boxes, Dad hauled them down the rickety, fold-up stairs.

That evening he wrangled first with the temperamental tree stand, sometimes nailing it loudly to the floor, and then with the bunched lights, muttering sweet nothings under his breath at every tangle and busted bulb while we kids giggled into our sleeves, sometimes using those sleeves to wipe our mouths of the hot cocoa Mama had made.

Every year there was the same debate between Mom and Dad: to flock or not to flock. I'm pretty sure Mom kept hidden canisters of flocking in the dark recesses of the attic to conjure up when she got her way. She loved a white tree. It must have reminded her of  growing up in Idaho. Dad was against anything unnatural, and a snowy tree was hardly likely in Tennessee - even in winter - indoors. Plus like all of us, I think he hated the fake-snow initiation, for as Mom busily flocked that poor tree with a wicked smile of delight upon her face, the rest of us were standing twenty yards back, coughing and waving our hands in the air to move the cloud of chemicals off to our neighbors. It was a toxic holiday experience. Sure the tree looked nice and snowy, but when we had adorned the tree with miscellaneous decorations, white residue abided on our fingers for weeks, evidence of Mom's dastardly deed to that poor evergreen tree...

Finally, when prep work was done and Dad and Mom sat on the couch, reconciled, they began to pass out the decorations to us kids. The colored balls came first, and a color was assigned to each child.

"Blue for my firstborn," Dad said to Vinca as he handed her the first ornament.

"Gold for my golden-haired girl," he said to Annie with her long, blonde hair.

"Red for my only son." That one for Nate, born on Dad's birthday.

Lastly, he handed me a green ball. "And green for my nature girl." I was his only bonafide tree-hugger.

After that we each took turns coming to the couch for the next ornament, treasured ornaments like Natie's little baseball player and my felt snowman and a suncatcher unicorn of Annie's. I guess it was because of that yearly ritual that I remembered our Christmases being calmer, more traditional. Our ornaments were always the same year to year, the only additions being any baubles we made in school, like clothespin soldiers. Our tree topper never varied and was always welcomed excitedly each December. She was a smaller paper angel with short, gold curls and a plastic hoop and face, humble like our home. We four kids took turns putting her atop that tree, her little hymnal bent in her tiny fingers. She had blonde hair and had been purchased after Vinca was born. Vinca and Annie both were towheaded as babies and toddlers, and the angel reminded my dark-haired parents of their first baby girl.

Ah, those were the days! And yet I think that perhaps - just perhaps - those days were simpler because we were poorer; we had less to fuss over and about. Nevertheless, as my parents hunted with four rowdy rascals for a tree, dug through a dirty, spider-infested attic, and wrangled with lights and an heirloom stand, they probably had some stressful Christmas moments. But - God bless them - they were good at keeping traditions, even the tradition of arguing over flocking.

As for my family? After replacing those AWOL hangers with a package of flashy fresh gold ones for a whopping 79 cents, I practically threw my kids' special ornaments at them the moment they woke up; whoever awoke first got to attack their ornaments in mass before school. It was a race to see how quickly in spare moments we could deck the tree, because all the boxes piled in my tiny living room were freaking me out and causing me to OCDrink. There was no rhyme or ritual, I'm afraid. And, yet, my children's excitement over favorite ornaments, many from Aunt Vinca, was not abated by my slapdash approach to decorating.

And this year my son Berto just happened to find our first angel for the top of the tree. For years I've looked for her. She had to be simpler and considerably smaller than many I saw in stores with elaborate and wildly different attire. Berto found her one happy Sunday afternoon in a discount store as we waited for takeout pizza. Unlike the angel of my childhood, she is fragile. But as our lights reflect off her simple white porcelain, she has, along with our abundance of eclectic ornaments, helped me to reclaim that good, old-fashioned Christmas spirit I sometimes think I left behind with that little girl in Tennessee.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sunlight on the Forest Floor: Preparation and Celebration, Old and New

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 (NAB)

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight his paths."
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Mark 1:2-5)
And this is what he proclaimed: One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."(Mark 1:7-8)

The huge, beautiful wreath is on the altar steps at my parish. Two Sundays have come in with that Advent wreath. Two of its purple candles have been lit; a pink and purple one remain.

How I love Advent, that time of reflection and preparation for the second coming of Christ and for the celebration of His first, His birth. I am grateful for Advent. Instead of hustle and bustle through malls, guided by lists, it is about contemplation and watchfulness in our lives, guided by Scripture.
Church is the place, the most serene place, where I can go to prepare my heart and soul for Christmas, though I do a very imperfect job of it. But without that spiritual haven I fear I would be a very stressed-out Scrooge, lost in a sea of consumerism.

My parents always made sure that Jesus was foremost in our home, but for most of my life Christmas was a day out of the year. It showed up on the 25th of December, and what came before was mostly a bunch of wishing and hoping and scrambling. If there was a season leading to it, it was a season of worrying about gifts, cleaning house, decorating, preparing food, and listening to holiday tunes. After December 25th passed I did not know the Christmas season continued through the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, that feast commemorating the Three Kings, representative of all gentiles, bringing gifts to our Lord: Prophet, Priest and King. I didn't know that for many the Christmas season only ended after the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus on a Sunday in January. I didn't know, because I wasn't Catholic.

I never grasped the joy and depth and spiritual variety there was to be found in a year - not even the joy to be found in Christmas and especially Easter - until I understood the times of preparation in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Then something strange occurred; as I contemplated that calendar, I began to make a deeper connection between the Old and the New Testament. Before - undoubtedly through my own fault - there was a big disconnect.

As Christians we know that God told the Israelites to observe certain fasts and feasts every year. Passover was to be ...a memorial feast for you, which all your generations shall celebrate with pilgrimage to the Lord, as a perpetual institution. (Exodus 12) God also commanded, Three times a year you shall celebrate a pilgrim feast to me. (Exodus 23:14) Many times the Israelites were to abstain from leavened bread and make designated offerings to God. Now, because we have received the spirit of adoption, all our feasts and fasts - Pentecost and the Mass of the Lord's Supper, for example - revolve around Christ, and we believe that those Old Testament observances were a prefigurement of the New Covenant Jesus established. He was the fulfillment.

So when we fast and give alms for the forty days of Lent before Easter - in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are truly suffering in this world - we are imitating Christ's fast in the desert (and the wondering of the Israelites before entering the Promised Land) and thus preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter in a more profound way. For we believe Easter, like Christmas, is not just a day that shows up out of the blue. Before we welcome it, our hope is to deepen our relationship with God by truly examining ourselves and our sins and picking up our cross and following Jesus. A week before Easter we attend Palm Sunday Mass, carrying palm branches and singing, "Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" and reading Jesus' Passion aloud. During the Triduum we celebrate the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper when we read the account of the First Passover and the Last Supper, and the priest washes the feet of twelve people - men, women and children - in imitation of Christ. The next night we attend Good Friday Mass, and parishioners carry in a wooden cross, pausing three times, in imitation of the one our Savior carried. Then comes Holy Saturday Night when we trace salvation history through multiple Scripture readings from Genesis to the Gospel, and finally dawns Easter morning, and again we rejoice and sing at Mass, Alleluia!

Advent and Lent are our spiritual journeys - following Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, walking and fasting with Christ in the desert - to the holiest days of the year: Christmas and Easter. The purpose is always the same in these seasons of our year of faith: to remind us of important events in our salvation history and to prepare us to welcome more fully the bountiful blessings and grace we receive from our Maker.

Our liturgical year began anew the first Sunday of Advent, and again we will try, yes - try - to prepare ourselves for Christ. Not by making lists and checking them twice, not by cooking mounds of cookies, not by worrying about whether we're spending enough or too much on gifts, and not by sending Christmas cards will we ready ourselves. Instead, we will prepare ourselves by coming to Mass and lighting the wreath to remind us of the Light of the World. We will hopefully ponder how we can reflect more of that Light as we kneel and pray and receive communion and, along with thousands of our brothers and sisters in Christian churches around the world, sing:

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Shall come to you, 

O Israel

And Jesus will be our Lord of the Dance throughout the liturgical year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Berto and St. Nick

Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me...

I've always cried at the end of "The Polar Express". My family knows it, waits for the right part and then turns to see my wet face. They roll their eyes and sigh, "Oh, Mama..."

I can't help it. I love that line. I love the whole movie. We bought it for our Berto and Ana when they were small. It's in our rotation every Christmas season, and one year Matthew and I painted our living room over a few days while the kids watched it again and again.

But this past Saturday I cried the most I believe I have ever done. I cried in places I never have before.

"Wow, you're bad this year, Mama," my son Berto said, and I mouthed back, "It's because of you."

I feel like some magic has been lost, fairy dust spilt, imagination dulled and jolly old St. Nicholas has lost his red coat and his belly laugh.

This past summer Matthew and I confirmed for Berto that Santa does not exist in the way we had led him to believe so carefully for so long - longer than we could have hoped the magic to last.

Last year things started to slip when Berto wondered why Santa really spoils some kids but not others (not ours), and I wrote about it in Santa and St. Nick. In the comments from that post, lovely people like my big sister Vinca shared how they felt it could be broken gently to kids - or why they felt it should not be broken at all.

I realize there are many ways to tell your kids about Santa Claus when they inquire.

There's the always classic evasion: "Well, what do you believe?" or, "Do you want to believe?"

There's the favorite-holiday-movie reply, like from "The Polar Express",  "Well, Mama still hears the bell. Do you?"

There's the distraction technique, though hard to keep up: "Who wants to make a batch of Rudolph sugar cookies, frosted with triple sprinkles?" (Try not to be too obvious.)

Moralizing is always apt, too, with a well-placed, "Santa is in my heart and yours. He's in all of us. Whenever someone is generous, that's the spirit of Santa Claus. We should all believe in Santa Claus."

Or you can be matter-of-fact and say plainly, "No, there is no Santa. It's been your dad and me all along. Now you get to help, too, and carry on the tradition of St. Nick for your little brother and sisters."

We chose the last option, with a philosophical touch, for our 12-year-old son. He had experienced doubts on and off again for a while, but though I generally like telling the truth, sometimes I really wish we had chosen evasion...forever. I wish we hadn't told. We could have been vague, non-committal. We could have honestly said that we still believe. We could have persisted in marking gifts from Santa just as Matthew's parents did until their sons were grown men.

Now every time our younger children mention Santa Claus, Berto smirks, cynically, and turns away. At the mall one night last week, I tried to tell him that I'm a Santa, but I still believe.

He replied, "That doesn't make sense."

I didn't lie. Every time I watch Kris Kringle sing to the little Dutch girl in "Miracle on 34th Street", see the present Santa dropped at Billy's house in "The Polar Express" or watch a tipsy disenfranchised Santa hand out presents in his struggling neighborhood in that "Night of the Meek" episode from the Twilight Zone, I believe. Every Christmas Eve night as I stay up far too late, I believe. Every time I think back to my childhood and that local fireman who brought my family several boxes on a Christmas Eve in a particularly hard year, I really believe.

Ah, well, some may say, he's twelve, after all...

But I want him to rediscover a little of the magic, such as was found in these excerpts from his note to Santa last year:

Dear Santa,

First of all, please do what you can, and I think I've been good enough for what I am going to ask for. For Christmas this year, I really want a Kindle Fire. I would've asked for an I Pad, but I like the idea of a Kindle Fire better. I think I am old enough and responsible enough for it. I would still value family time and the outdoors, & playing.

If I used the apps or watched something on Kindle Fire after school I would use it during t.v. time, unless I was reading a book on it. Also, to get apps & books& movies on it, I would have to do extra chores. This would get me working more, and I think would especially help Mama. I will try (& I hope would be able to keep it up) not to pester Mama about getting on the Kindle Fire. I will try to make her a little more likeable with electronics.

...Also, I can think of a time I would get a lot of use out of it. In 2014, in July, we are going to Hawaii. It is a 10 hour trip from here to there. (I think the airline might have free wifi, Hopefully.)

...If I don't get a Kindle Fire, then it is up to you what I get for Christmas. You know best. My parents haven't noted that they want anything yet. I will keep you updated. Lastly, thank you for everything you do for the children of the world. You make Christmas more joyous for them. God & Jesus bless you, and Merry Christmas! I hope you enjoy it. Thank you again,
(P.S. We'll be in New Mexico.)

He got the Kindle Fire.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ghost of Behavior Past by Daniel Hylton

Throughout the late '70s and into the early '80s, while my marriage was new and my children were young, I worked for a large Southeastern construction company.

I was good at my job and I made a lot of money.  A lot of money - especially for those years. There were times when I would have two or three thousand dollars worth of un-cashed checks in my wallet.

By 1984, however, I had apparently tired of being successful and making prodigious sums of money.  I wanted something less.

I decided to leave my high-paying job constructing transcontinental power lines and try my hand at - of all things - songwriting.  So, I moved to rural Tennessee, about an hour west of Nashville.  Now, because one needs free time to pursue songwriting, it is very difficult to maintain steady employment.  As a consequence of this fact, I odd-jobbed, taking temporary work where I could find it, gradually descending into poverty, dragging my young wife and children with me.  (Why Karen did not leave me for a man with a job and a fully functioning brain, taking the children with her, I will never fully understand.)

Desperate to combine my inexplicable need to be creative with my obviously explicable need for cash, I began to enter the various songwriting contests hosted by the nightspots around Nashville.

And I won a few, sometimes winning ten or twenty dollars, enough for milk, bread, and maybe a pair of shoes for one of the little ones.  Usually, though, the prize was something insubstantial, such as getting your name written on the wall in magic marker, or a free bottle of beer.

Then I heard about this contest on Music Row itself, at a more upscale joint called The Dive.

The winner would get one hundred dollars.

One Hundred Dollars!

Now, I know that doesn't sound like much now, but back then a hundred bucks paid for most of a month's rent or bought groceries for the family for a whole week.  And the contest, at the time, was being held weekly, so there would be a continuing chance to win.

On the appointed night, I put on my best pair of dark blue Levis, my crispest white shirt, tuned up my guitar, and headed into town to The Dive.

There were a lot of really good songwriters present that night, and I heard many tunes that made me think I might be way out of my league.  I was so nervous that my bladder sent me scurrying to the men's room again and again.  Nonetheless, when they called my name, I screwed up my courage and went up on stage which was occupied by just a stool and a mike.  I sat down with my guitar on my knee and spun to face the crowd.  For a moment, I thought they'd all left the building.  You see, though the stage was fully lit, the patrons sat in the dimness beyond the footlights - and the lights shining on me were so bright that I could barely make out the room, let alone individuals in the crowd, which was the largest group of people that I had ever confronted when armed only with a musical instrument.

I mumbled something by way of introduction and immediately swung into my first song, briskly setting pick to guitar string.

I looked out, opened my mouth -

- and forgot the words to the song.  A song which I wrote.

There followed then a long - way too long - awkward pause while, like the proverbial deer, I gazed into the headlights of oncoming disaster and frantically searched the dark recesses of my skull for phrases that I recognized and might possibly utter in tune-like fashion while strumming a guitar.

And then, as the disapproving silence thickened, the words finally came.

"Alrighty, folks," I stated brightly, affecting what I hoped would be a magnificent recovery, and once again put pick to string.  "Here we go....."

One strum, and - Boing! - the pick slipped from my fingers, ricocheted underneath the strings, and disappeared through the sound hole into the dark interior of my guitar.  I looked down, stunned.

And my brain froze.

Forgetting in that terrible moment that there were two or three spare picks in my pocket, and sadly forgetting that there were also a couple of hundred people immediately to my front, I upended the guitar, holding it aloft, shaking it above my head while I desperately tried to dislodge the pick from the black hole whence it had gone.

Sporadic chuckles arose here and there from among the crowd as I continued to wildly agitate the instrument over my head, willing the pick to appear.  Then, as my struggles continued unabated and my hope for a rescued pick remained unrealized, more chuckles, giggles, and outright laughter swelled from the shadowed gathering.

That awful collection of sound caused my brain to lurch forward for one brief moment.  And in that moment, I remembered the extra picks in my pants pocket.  Turning a deaf ear to the scattered giggles and the occasional rude suggestion, I thought bravely - I can still salvage this.

Lowering the guitar to one side, holding it by the neck, I stood, reaching into my pocket.

And the room erupted.

Gales of laughter beat upon me like the waves of a storm-wracked ocean.

Puzzled by the reason for this obvious - and horrifying escalation - of my humiliation, I stared dumbly out at the shadowy crowd for a long moment; and then I looked down.

And the reason for the raucous shouts of laughter became immediately obvious.

Evidently, on my last trip to the men's room, I had neglected to zip up the fly in my blue jeans.

Protruding from that most private of all clothing apertures, extending stiffly outward for five or six inches, was the crisply starched tail of my best white shirt.

The crowd, by that time, had decided that I was not in fact a contestant, but rather the comedic relief.

I, in that same moment, decided that I was done, finished, my short-lived "career" over.

Turning, I fairly leapt from the stage and ran for it, pausing in the artists' room just long enough to sling my guitar into its case, and then I bounded for the side door.  I was running like a rabbit by the time I reached the parking lot.

Three-quarters of an hour later, utterly dejected, having had forty-five long, miserable minutes to ponder one of the most embarrassing evenings of my life, I pulled into the driveway of our modest home.  Karen met me at the door.  I could do nothing but stand there, head down, guitar case in hand, my heart and my dreams squashed like insects upon the walkways of life.

"How did it go?"  She asked - and then I managed lift my head and she saw my face.  "Honey - what happened?"

The kids were in bed, so I put my guitar away while she made us a cup of cocoa; then we went into the living room and sat down on the couch, where I stared down at the carpet and glumly related to her the events of the evening.

It was about the time that I was telling of the unzipped fly and protruding shirt-tail that I heard the stifled guffaw emanating from the general direction of the love of my life.

Startled, I looked over at her.

You know how it is when you want to laugh but know that you shouldn't?  Like when you're at a wedding, or at a funeral, or in church, or like when your beloved husband is laying out the sad details of his recent and raw humiliation, and something just strikes you as too funny?  And the eruption of good humor is abruptly way too urgent to contain or suppress?

You get a terrible case of the internal giggles, your shoulders shake, the corners of your mouth decide that they simply must turn upward despite your best efforts at maintaining decorum, and your eyes water.  Yeah, we all know what that is like.  It has happened to us all.

Well, that was my gentle and genteel wife as I told my tale of woe.

Apparently, she could see the whole thing very clearly with her mind's eye.

She tried to be sympathetic, God bless her; she really did try.

Alas, the droll aspect of the whole sordid affair was too much for her, and eventually she had to gain release.  To this day, however, I am not convinced that it was absolutely necessary it devolve into her lying back against the cushions, gasping for breath as she pointed at me and giggled uncontrollably.  The only consolation I have is that - though she won't admit it - I'm pretty sure she wet herself.

Oh, well.

There is an epilogue to this sorry tale.  Two, actually.

A week later, I tapped a reservoir of courage, went back to The Dive, sang my three songs - and won.  And they had raised the stakes.  First prize was now one hundred and fifty bucks.  The next day, to celebrate, we took the kids to McDonalds for Happy Meals.

The second epilogue is not quite so uplifting as the first, at least for me.  You see, every now and then - as recently as just the other day, in fact - I will find Karen leaning over a counter or sprawled over the back of a chair, fairly convulsing with good humor.  Looking up at me with streaming eyes, she will tender the question between eruptions of giggles.

"Remember that time you went into Nashville to sing in that contest?"

Yes.  Yes, I do.

And it's still not funny.

One doesn't require ghosts, I guess, when one is haunted by his past.

Daniel Hylton is the author of the recently completed Kelven's Riddle series.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanks Giving

I read a comment from a psychologist yesterday that Thanksgiving is losing its gratitude luster and becoming merely an exercise in gluttony. Silly cynicism - I hope not! Besides, when else in all the year do we eat candied yams and canned cranberries with such abandon? Is that not something for which to be thankful?

In the same newspaper section I also read several stories of Black Friday traditions. Formerly I would have scoffed at the notion of any worthwhile tradition centered on consumerism, but what I learned from reading these stories of generations of family members staying up all night, comparing ads, waiting in long lines, and planning coffee and breakfast breaks along their shopping routes is that yes, family time full of laughter and capable of forming wonderful memories can be made on a day full of consumer insanity. And who am I to judge? It may not be my thing at all, but if mothers and daughters or whole clans can bond on such a day in such a way, it's good. Family is golden, and the memories are the real, lasting bargain.

For my own silly non-Black-Friday-honoring self, there are many blessings I try to count all the year: my family, our health, our security, our faith. But there are some things for which I am incredibly grateful that have been on my mind a good deal lately as this wonderful, down-to-earth holiday we call Thanksgiving approaches:

My Dad's Health and His Book and Mama's Recipe

My dad had a very hard year. He suffered serious injuries during a fall in March, was ill on and off for months, and then developed a terrible, scary infection in his head that badly frightened his loved ones.

All of those challenges delayed the fifth book in his Kelven's Riddle fantasy series. Honestly, my dad has had to accommodate several upsets in his creative processes over the years because of the demands of unpredictable, messy life. He wrote about some of those challenges in this inspiring post about perspective and gratitude: Buck Up, Boy; It Isn't Normandy.

But despite a bad year Daniel Hylton, my dad, has put out the fifth and final book of the Kelven's Riddle story in time for Christmas. I have read and relished them all, but don't take my word for it. You can read a review by a fantasy reader here: Farewell Kelven's Riddle.

I had a bad dream once that I had to finish Dad's books for him. I could not imagine telling this story of valor, love, the cost of freedom and unlikely but enduring friendships as well as he. I am glad that dream was not a reality. This year I am very thankful that my dad is healthy and that, at long last, I can have all his books upon my shelf.

(I must say that I am also grateful that for my whole life he has mentored me in my writing endeavors. Thanks, Dad.)

And I am very grateful for heirloom recipes like this magical one I received from my mom when I was newly married and fumbling through the Big Feast prep. I was blessed to eat it all those Thanksgivings growing up. Now I make it myself year after year, and it always gets rave reviews whenever I serve it: Mama Darlin's Sweet Potato Casserole. Thanks, Mom!!

The Mom's Group

For years I have thought and thought again about writing of these lovely people; I have chickened - or turkeyed - out every time. The pressure to attempt to sum up what this surrogate family means to my own little clan...I never felt I could do it justice. But I'll try at long last - only because it's Thanksgiving.

When we moved to Arizona my husband and I had no friends or family here. No friends when our first child, Berto, was born. No friends to help us move into our first house. No friends to call on the phone while putting myself in time-out from my kids. No one.

I soon discovered that a mother needs friends to maintain sanity as my sense of loneliness increased each month after my son's birth. My husband offered to introduce me to his co-workers' wives, but they didn't have children. I needed compatriots that would understand my struggles with nursing, nutrition, potty-training, discipline and sleep lust. When my Ana came I knew I couldn't take the isolation from my own kind anymore. I prayed for friends. Yes, prayed - and then I called up my church and asked if I could start a group of some kind. They quickly put something in the church bulletin. Soon I was calling moms and asking when they would like to meet. Much to my chagrin they all wanted to meet during the day midweek, so I set up a play date at the church nursery twice a month on Wednesdays, but I regretfully told one of the moms that I wouldn't be able to make it; our family had only one vehicle.

That fellow mother, my dear friend Cathleen, said that I had to be there; she drove south past the church to pick me up every other Wednesday, took us all the way back up to the church, then drove my family home after our play date only to drive all the way north past the church again to her own home.

What a blessing that was for me and how Cathleen and I laughed years later remembering stuffing three car seats in the back of her sedan! Because of Cathleen's generosity my children and I got out twice a month to spend time in community.

The group is and has been for some time a family. Some of our friends have scattered across the US and the world, but once a member of this group, always a member. Our kids have grown together since babyhood, started school together, celebrated birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmastime together. After the birth of children, we parents have rotated turns bringing meals to the blessed but tired families. Heck, my friends brought me the fixings for our holiday meal - delicious red mashed potatoes and chorizo-squash stuffing - when my youngest daughter, Ella, was born a week before Thanksgiving! We've rushed to each other's sides during illness, sheltered each other's little ones in emergencies and exchanged babysitting. Our kids cannot remember a time without these fellow young uns from the group, their cousins not by blood but by bonds years in the making. And even the men, years after the moms and kids, finally realized they had friends with whom they could go out on "man dates" to the local brewery.

I, for one, do not know what I would do without our Mom's Group. It's very easy for me to say I love them like family.


Oh, I fought sports! I am a devotee of the home and family time and quiet life. I do not like or believe in endless structured activities. I grew up in the country where our sport was running through the cornfield with our dogs, swimming the creek, and walking in the woods. I didn't think my kids needed sports. My athletic man and I argued about it.

He won.

I have been proven wrong, because now I see their worth. My man, a city boy himself all his life, played sports, and he knew their value in the concrete jungle.

Instead of begging for television on Saturdays, my two eldest are out running their hearts out on a different kind of field, learning how to support and get along/work well with others. They have learned to trust and use the power in their own bodies - an integral thing for all of us. Meanwhile, my youngest two are supporting their siblings in between trips to the adjacent playground on game days, and hey! It counts as good old green time even if it's not in the country. Matthew is the kids' soccer coach, back into his beloved sports while using them to teach respect, teamwork, and more than athletic skills - life skills.

One of the greatest blessings to arise from all the practices and games has been the camaraderie that has developed between Berto and Ana. When little tykes they were close buddies, but as they grew older, he became harder on her; it seemed to grow worse until recently. Now they have great things in common: a competitive spirit and love of the games(s). Now little sis is Berto's teammate and compatriot in the world of athletics. He has her back, and she has his.

As for me? I am on the sidelines each Saturday, pacing, yelling, cheering, gasping. I hate to say it - I really hate to say it - but I am a bonafide soccer mom. And I'm terribly afraid there's no turning back now.


Alright, it's a little thing, but I am grateful for these boots. I bought them here in Arizona at an establishment called Saba's for my sister Annie's wedding in San Saba, Texas. I spent far too much on them - or so I thought at the time. Since then I have grown to like them very much and possibly love them. Yes, they're a bit loud, quite daring for everyday wear, but I have never shied away from making a statement. I have worn them on a plane, to my kids' school, to go shopping and at church to boot. They are incredibly comfortable and fulfilling. Fulfilling? Yes, but I don't know how exactly. And the smell of them? Real leather paradise!

God bless you this Thanksgiving, my readers and friends! And to my family, blood-related or not, scattered across this country and in the United Kingdom and Chile, please know that I love you tremendously. Our little family will think of you as we sit down for our feast and ponder all those people and things in our lives for which we are deeply grateful.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ella Belle, Birthday Girl, and the Grandma Thingy (how her Mama needed it!)

A roller skating rink is where people go to experience all the joys of by-gone, dangerous childhood. You know, the childhood their grandparents told them about right after the old folks got done snickering at their grandkids for wearing knee pads and helmets to ride a trike on the sidewalk. Where else in this modern world can a kid go and speed around on wheels with clearly terrified or insane peers without a parent shoving a helmet on their heads? Where else can big kids and adults go to take out smaller people without so much as a by your leave or a why aren't you wearing pads then? All the roller rink needs to be really nostalgic fun is a few rusted tin cans with sharp lids for a match of kick/roll the can and a selection of spinning hub caps to throw in ultimate, take-out-a-sibling roller blade Frisbee.

Gabriella requested that we go to a rink for her birthday. I was a bit surprised, because she has never truly skated in her life. Santa brought her skates a couple years ago, but it turned out being hard work for the rest of us. We had to pull her around the living room between us as if she were a mobile queen; it was the only way she'd use them.

She wrote a letter before we went out for her birthday activity. The gist of it was something like this:

Dear Mama and Dada, Thanks for letting me go to Skate---- for my birthday, and thank you for not making me use the grandma thingy. Love, Gabriella

Oh, you're using the grandma thingy, alright, I thought as I smiled at her lovely little face. That was what I thought until we got to the rink and saw how much they charged people to have an illusion of safety. It was $5 a skate buddy to "help you balance" and increase your chances of survival, and that after a whopping $6 a person just to walk in the deathtrap! Add the skate rentals for a family of six, and Matthew and I had decided that no one needed a skate buddy; we'd probably survive with barely a broken tailbone, busted kneecap and couple fractured wrists between the lot of us.

It didn't take long for me to feel disillusioned and bitter, however, as I crawled along the concrete wall with Ella at .01 miles an hour, watching Matthew attempt to pull along four-year-old Daniel who very much resembled a terrified, floppy-limbed rag doll with no control over its fate. Ana and Berto, on roller blades, were the only ones having a decent time.

I got off the rink with Daniel and tried to teach him to skate on the carpeted area where he fell on his bum with less fear, and Berto came over to encourage and help. Ella was soon off the rink, too, complaining that she was already tired, but the pinched, anxious look in her eyes and frowning mouth gave her away. Meanwhile, I was nervously contemplating getting back on the rink with all the crazies, picturing myself falling forward and skidding wildly into some unsuspecting kid as I took at least one of my own poor children down with me. I paled and cowered at the thought. Then I got angry. Who were these people to charge $5 for the right to keep all your limbs intact, to keep your children safe during a daredevil activity for which you had already paid more than you deemed reasonable? It would be like the county fair charging you to lock the metal lap bar on the roller coaster!

So I charged up (well, carefully rolled) to the skate-rental desk and told them flatly that we were there for our sweet girl's 7th birthday and meant to have a good time if it killed us, but we thought it would be the demise of at least three of us if we did not get a Skate Buddy grandma thingy right away! Then I offered to turn in my skates and pay the difference to get the limb-saving contraption constructed of PVC pipes. The nice young girl looked in my eyes and saw the desperation that could quickly boil over into full-blown hysteria, and she offered me a skate buddy, no charge.

Aha! I went over to Ella, triumphant, only to discover that she far preferred the assistance of her 10-year-old sis, Ana, who had already taken her round the rink and shown her how to safely slow down by crouching gently without using your fingers to scrape the wall in terror as Mama had done.

So Matthew took Danny Sam out with the Buddy, and I went out to try my feet at freedom. Instead of going .01 mph, I went a terrifying .015 mph, and the horrible realization struck me that I was a total wimp who began to hyperventilate when she couldn't touch the wall. I tried to slow down and help some poor kids who biffed it, but I could only choke out an, "Are you alright...alright...alright?" as I skidded slowly away backwards, forgetting my skates had brakes.

When Berto, developing blisters from his blades, sat out with Daniel, my man Matthew came to claim me for a slow dance on the skate floor. No doubt he hoped to recreate one of our first dates when he took me skating and held my hand the whole time, pulling me towards him and being rewarded with a big smile. Fat chance! He tried to make it a modestly-paced dance, but he went too fast for me, who had to swallow multiple butterflies that were flittering up from her stomach. Though it pained me to see him skate away - a little too rapidly and gratefully, if you ask me - I released the love of my life in a panic and hurriedly flung myself at the one I was really longing for: the sweet, sweet wall.

No one wanted to skate with Mama anymore. Daniel didn't even want to go out with me and the "buddy", so he took it out with Papa, and then I took turns taking it out alone when he was resting. Apparently, my hunchbacked form was embarrassing, but though my Ella was too mortified to be seen with the grandma thingy, I certainly was not. I saw Berto shake his head at me as I passed him, so I smiled broadly, pointed a finger at my boy as if to say, This lap's for you, son, and waved exuberantly.

In the end everything worked out. Ella skated sometimes with Papa but more often with Ana. Daniel skated with Berto but more often with Papa. And I was free to be a complete coward. At the end of our little family outing, the only injuries sustained were a couple nasty blisters on Berto's feet.

I don't know what Ella will remember about her 7th birthday excursion, but I'll remember how she skated with her big sister several times and how Ana was so patient with her, going slowly when she wished to go fast, her brown hair whipping out behind her. I'll remember Berto being the great big brother he always is to Ella and Daniel on such occasions even though his feet marred the experience for him. I'll remember how we all skated together for the first time on Ella Boo's birthday and how my kids learned not to trust Mama when death/skating is on the line!

And though it made me lonely for our younger years, I'll think often of how darn sexy my tall, lean man looked zipping around the rink with his million-dollar smile, sometimes pushing Ella or Daniel and sometimes racing Ana or Berto as they tried their best to keep up with him.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Introducing Ana, Writer

This is the time of year when I wish the world would just slow down a little. I love it but I dread it, this holiday season. I so badly want to ring every single ounce of enjoyment out of it in the company of family and friends, but I also feel like a loser in the organization/task-setting/gift-choosing department. And how I wish I could get out old-fashioned Christmas cards to all my childhood friends, abundant relatives, and closest family!

Around November every year some strange things begin to happen. My car radio starts playing nothing but Christmas carols, usually sung by choirs (my appreciation for choirs and chorales can purely be attributed to my lovely sisters and their high school music careers); my fingers itch to play the wine-colored guitar I have not touched in months; and I begin to badly miss my relatives in Idaho. That last is likely due to the fact that I spent Thanksgiving time with them a couple years ago, and that created memories that beckon me to little Idaho towns every fall. I wish it were easier to go home.


I wanted to share a piece of writing from the mind and heart of my 10-year-old daughter. Her teacher sent me an email a little while back extolling the insight Ana has in this short post she wrote for the class blog. My daughter does indeed have a huge heart. In the years since God brought her into our lives (less than an hour after we arrived at hospital!) I have heard many teachers, friends and relatives speak about her compassionate nature and her loving, open heart. I worry for her, because she is so sweet and giving, but I know God will guide her on the path.

Here is the piece her teacher sent to me:

What age would you choose to be if you could stay one age forever? What would you answer if somebody asked you this question? I believe that in most circumstances, I would simply answer " ten." If all the ages in the world were orbiting around me, I would hastily run towards the number ten until I caught it. The simple joy of being any age in life is maybe one that we do not posses however, because at any age there is more to learn in life, more for us to ponder at. The age twenty allows you to drive and the age fifty allows you to know almost all the answers to questions, but what would I give to just settle down with the age I am? To me life is right where it should be. There's nothing so good as now, the present, a gift of life.

I woul d choose ten because everything is still new to me and for other reasons and feelings. Maybe some day I will get tired of being ten forever, but sometimes life goes it's own way. In a few years, everything might change, and by then I might want to be twenty-three! My world might be someday just a little wisp of a dream. I at least want to live life right now to it's fullest so that I will always have memories. So for right now, let's make things happen!