Back in the Saddle Again- A.K.A. New Tricks for Old Dogs

I’ve been spending the last several weeks recuperating from back surgery.  It was much more invasive than I had anticipated, and although my recovery has been steady, it has been much slower than I expected.  Before surgery, my plan was to spend a few days resting, and then the following weeks reading and writing.  I was disappointed to find that my body needed every ounce of energy just to heal, and I felt exhausted and ill most of the time.  Books didn’t hold my attention.  I couldn’t sit for more than a few minutes at a time.  Even conversation was difficult, and putting words to paper impossible.  So I napped, watched snippets of daytime television, and dabbled on the internet.  The worst part is that I’ve barely been able to string three sentences together. It is as if the part of my brain that translates concepts into words seeped out with the excess spinal fluid.
 
Numerous times I have tried to post on my blog and become frustrated with how clumsy my writing has become.  My WordPress account is riddled with abandoned paragraphs waiting to be expanded upon.  Stories are left untold.  Opinions left unstated.
 
But we all have times to start anew, and now that I have left the confines of my apartment and returned to work,  I know I must post again.  But where to start?
 
This evening I read a blog written by a photographer.  Her post reminded me of one I crafted as a guest blogger on the website of my photographer friends in 2011. (http://www.dachowskiphotography.com/
 
As I read her post and re-read my own, I was reminded of the common truth both posts hold, and how timely a reminder right before the Christmas holiday.   I thought that for me, my new beginning as a writer might be to rework something done once before.  So, dear reader- enjoy, but be gentle.  The saddle is not so easy to climb into once again.
 
Photographs
 
family photoI don’t usually categorize myself as an old dog, but I’m thinking it’s time to learn a new trick.

I’m one of those people who hates to be photographed. In snapshots, I always seem to be caught at the exact moment I look my worst. When I look at them later, I always cringe. I focus on the bags under my eyes, or the way my chin looks like it has doubled, or how much heavier I seem than when I last looked in the mirror. In fact, the photograph to the right is probably the last candid one taken with my family, and it was 1991.  Consequently, at family outings I am the person who is nowhere to be found when the cameras come out. I was okay with this until the winter when my mother died.

After the funeral I sifted through piles of photographs- black and whites from the fifties, colored ones that had yellowed with age, even faded Polaroids from the seventies.

Images of my mother smiled back at me from all stages of her life- Mom swollen with pregnancy. Mom dressed in a black lace party dress and red lipstick. Mom disguised as Elvis for Halloween. Mom digging in her garden.

Some of the pictures are flattering. Some are not. In most of them, she is surrounded by her family. There she is with Dad. Here is one with my siblings. And in this one she is with all of her grandchildren. However, there were no images of my mother and me together. There are no reminders of how close we were, of how we laughed together, and worked together, and loved each other.

I realize that this is because I avoided having my picture taken, and now it is too late. I wonder if I will remember, and if my children will remember. And I wonder how their children will know.

When I look at photographs of my mother, I don’t see the lines on her face or that her chin had doubled. I see the love in her eyes, and the laughter in her heart. For me, looking at her images is comforting, and uplifting, and precious. Her images warm me and make me smile. mom beach

They remind me of how capable she was, and how she enveloped me in her long arms and how she was strong and gentle at the same time. I look at the gray eyes in her photographs- eyes that were stern when I was disrespectful, and steady when I was afraid, and soft when I was sad. I have the same gray eyes. Someday, my children will need to look at my picture and remember my eyes. But just as I cheated myself out of photographs with my mother, I have cheated my children out of the same thing. 

So I’mcamera rethinking this camera-shy thing I’ve had going on. Maybe  this Christmas I’ll consider sitting in front of a camera- especially if the photographer can disguise my double chin and baggy eyes. After all, even Momma G can learn a new trick or two.

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Lessons from Adam

Every morning as I sip my coffee, I peruse the headlines on the internet and scan a few of the articles that interest me. Last week I came upon an article that made me wish I had slept an extra twenty minutes and skipped the internet.  Screen-Shot-2013-08-20-at-1_33_52-PM

On the splash page of AOL there was a headline, “Woman writes outrageously cruel letter to mom of autistic boy.”  The article showed the anonymous letter written about Max, a thirteen year old boy with autism.  I’ll spare you the details, but “outrageously cruel” doesn’t begin to describe how reprehensible this letter was.

As I read the letter, I thought of my nephew Adam.  Adam has Down syndrome and is autistic.  He entered our lives twenty-five years ago, a frail little bundle with huge blueberry eyes that searched mine as I held him for the first time.  His heart was so weak that drinking from his bottle exhausted him, requiring open heart surgery before he was a year old.  Undoubtedly, his special needs were overwhelming to his birth parents, and they released him for adoption shortly after his birth.  It took no time at all for him to claim his spot in the family…and in our hearts.

adam and mjIt’s Saturday, and I visit my sister at her farmhouse.  Adam greets me with a grunt and a hug.  He can only say a few words, but despite severe hearing loss in both ears, he understands almost everything that is spoken.  When he sees me approaching the front door, he usually flings it open and runs away, but today he stays long enough to give me a quick hug and an air kiss.  He hovers in the kitchen, grinding his teeth and shifting his weight from one foot to the other until my brother-in-law tells him it’s time to take the trash to the dump.  He separates the bottles and cans from the paper goods and carries them to the work shop.  And on Saturday, he helps his dad take the family’s refuse to the dump.  It may easily be the only chore he does, but he does it without fail.

After returning from their errand, my brother-in-law resumes working on the outbuilding he is constructing for his tractor.  Adam sits in a chair at the edge of the construction site, swaying to Toby Keith on the CD player and watching the cars and trucks pass by the house. 

You may read this and wonder why God would put such an unfortunate human being on this earth.  While it is true that Adam will not ever support himself, or drive a car, or cook his own meals, he adds to his family in ways that cannot be measured. 

Adam teaches us perseverance. He hates wrinkled socks and whines and fusses if they are not perfectly smooth.  Over and over, he pulls them off his feet and pulls them to his knees again in an attempt to calm his overloaded sensory system. Finally, when they are adjusted to his satisfaction, he can move on.  How often do we slop together a job just to get it done, or give up when a task cannot be completed in a few moments?

Adam teaches us to be non-judgmental.  Adam doesn’t size up people’s appearance.  He doesn’t care how well-educated they are, or if what job they have, or how much money they have.  He teaches us to let go of expectations and take people at face value, with no bias or prejudice.  He doesn’t realize what a powerful lesson that is.  But I do.

Adam teaches us to take time and laugh.  He has a little game which nobody quite understands.  Sitting next to me, he pinches his fingers together, touches his forehead between his eyebrows and then reaches out to touch mine in the same place.  Back and forth, he goes, chuckling as if it is the funniest thing in the world.  His laughter is contagious.  I laugh with him, and my day is immediately better.

Adam teaches us unconditional love.  During most of Adam’s life, my mother lived in the farmhouse with my sister and her husband. She was an integral part of Adam’s life and he adored her.  When I visited my mother in her room, Adam would burst through the door and plop himself on her bed or on the floor in front of her television set.  He did not interrupt.  He did not ask for anything.  He just wanted to be near her. 

My mother loved Adam as much as he loved her.  Night after night, Adam brought his pajamas to her room so she could help him get ready for bed.  Helping him dress, she would evoke from him the only sentence I have ever heard him say.  Signing at the same time, she would start him off, “Adam, I…”

Adam would sign back and yell to complete the sentence, “Love..you!”

During Mom’s last days at the Hospice House, my nephew Jason brought Adam by for a visit.  He ran into the room, and plopped himself down in the recliner next to Mom’s bed.  He was clearly confused by the surroundings, but he knew his Grammie was there.  After a short visit, Jason said it was time to leave.  Mom kissed Adam and started the routine, “Adam, I…”

“Love… you!” belted Adam.  It was the last time he spoke to her.

For days after Mom passed away, Adam would stand at the door of her empty room, pajamas in hand, waiting for his beloved Grammie to help him get ready for bed.  His silence spoke the emptiness that we all felt.

To the person who wrote that nasty letter on the internet, I am sorry.  I am sorry you areadam and horse so biased with your own prejudice that you miss out on the value of those different from you.  I am sorry you are so filled with hate that you miss out on love.  And I am sorry you will never know the wonderful lessons that Adam and those like him can teach.  It is you who suffers most.

Breaking Bread

Usually I pack my lunch before going to work, but today I bought a cup of soup at the soupcafé on the first floor of the building where I work. I burned my tongue on the thin broth while answering my email and searched the bottom of the styrofoam cup for bits of chicken and summer vegetables.  After the soup I ate a handful of cherries, and an hour later, I was hungry again.

Listening to my stomach growl, I wished I had brought something from home that might fill the empty gap.  From the depths of my past came the memory of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on my mother’s homemade bread.

We rarely bought bread from a store when I was growing up. Instead, my mother made it from scratch, six loaves at a time, every few days.   She mixed it in a large aluminum pail fitted with a hand-held churn.  It took two people to start the mixing process- one to hold the bucket and one to work the churn, but in no time, the flour, milk, butter and yeast came together to form a giant ball, which she would turn out on the counter and knead until it was smooth.  Once in a while, she used the side of her hand to form crease in the middle of the rounded loaf and spanked the “baby’s bottom.”  We children would explode in peals of laughter and beg to give the bottom a spank too.

From this basic white bread recipe, my mother made countless treats.  She filled muffin cups with balls of dough to produce steaming dinner rolls that dripped with melted butter and sopped up gravy from Sunday’s roast.  At Christmas she decorated stollen with a sugary glaze and candied fruit, and gave them as holiday gifts to our neighbors and friends.  During the summer she fried dough and sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar, creating a treat for hungry children who entered the house from the front door and exited from the back.  She toasted bread for breakfast, sharing the crust with Greta, our collie shepherd, who preferred hers with a bit of peanut butter.

On most days, however, Mom formed six even loaves, carefully kneaded and risen, and baked them three to a rack in an old gas oven.  Half way through the baking, she moved the loaves on the top rack to the bottom, and vice versa, to ensure that they were evenly baked. She taught me to remove the golden loaves from the oven, dump them out of their pans and tap on the bottom with a finger.  The ring of a hollow thump meant the loaf was fully baked.  A dull thump indicated that the loaf needed a few more minutes in the oven, least it be gummy in the center.  Placed on racks to cool, each loaf was coated with a thin layer of butter, so a soft crust would form.  An hour later, the cooled loaves were sealed in plastic bags, ready for the next hungry batch of children.

There was nothing like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from my mother’s sunbeamkitchen.  A huge slab of bread was spread with Sultana peanut butter, which was sold in a huge yellow tub that was later used to collect sea shells and starfish at the beach.  A second slab of bread was spread with strawberry preserves that Mom canned on hot June evenings.  The slabs were gently pressed together and cut on the bias.  Paired with a cold glass of milk, it was a filling repast fit for any king, or at least any kid.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my mother made bread instead of buying it at the grocery store.  My friends ate Wonder Bread, or Batter-whipped Sunbeam bread.  Their sandwiches fit neatly into little bags, while mine were bigger, sloppier and had to be wrapped in flat sheets of waxed paper.  It seemed to me that Mom could have been doing things that were much more fun than kneading and baking.

I was right. Mom could have been doing other things.  But to her, feeding her family was an extension of who she was.  Her hands- the same gentle hands that wiped tears from little cheeks and pushed back bangs from sweaty foreheads firmly kneaded the loaves that would nourish her growing children.  Every cup of flour was measured with care.  Every slice of bread was a gift.  A metaphorical kiss.  A work of art laced with love.

Wish as I might, there will be no peanut butter and jelly on my mother’s homemade bread for me, today, or any other day.  But the memory is as sweet as Mom’s strawberry preserves, and the memory alone got me through to the next meal.  And it made me think of the meals I cook for my family.  Do I put as much love into the dishes I serve them?  Hmmm…food for thought.

Five Things I Learned from My Dad

June 19 marked the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s passing.  I was amazed that fifteen years had passed since I stood by his bed and watched the last spark of life drain from his ocean blue eyes.  And strangely, I missed him more this June than I have in several years.

dadMy dad was a flawed man.  He was a late-in-life only child, and never really mastered money management and the responsibilities that came with having a wife and eight children.  He had a temper- we kids drew straws to see who would get stuck waking him from a nap- but his outbursts were only verbal, and by the time I was a teen I realized he was pretty much all bark and no bite.

Some men’s sins are hidden from view, but Dad’s hung on his sleeve for all to see, and often my siblings and I lost patience with the man who was supposed to be our role model.  But as I age I see more clearly that nobody is all good or all bad, and that instead of fixating on the tragic flaws of our heroes, we do better when we focus on their qualities.  Here are a few of the lessons that Dad taught me.  I hope you will learn from them too.

1.  Listen to the music

When I was in elementary school, it was not unusual for me to miss the bus.  Unhurried, my dad would take the last sip of his coffee, saunter to the car, and drive me to Hillside Elementary.  We always listened to the radio on the way, and Dad, a fan of pop music and jazz, would slow to a crawl as we approached the building, so we could listen to the last part of the song.

My teachers, hands on hips at my late arrival, never understood the excuse, “Buddy Rich was playing a drum solo,” or “Bobby Darin was singing “Mack the Knife,” and I finally just quit trying to explain.  What they didn’t understand is that music is the soundtrack over which our life is played.  Start the morning with a great song, and I guarantee the rest of the day will be a little better.  Even now, when there is a song playing on the radio that I particularly like, I find it hard to turn off the ignition before it ends- even if I’m late for work.

2. Talk to your kids as if they are adults.

I’ll never know if it was a conscious decision or because my dad craved company, but he treated his children as if their opinions had value that equaled his.  From the time I remembered, he would welcome us at the kitchen table, pour a cup of coffee (half milk for those under seven) and engage in conversation about current events, sports, television or our plans for the future.  Conversations were heavily dosed with stories about his youth- some of them factual, and some embellished- but as much as he talked, he also listened.  There were no lines drawn by age or maturity.  Nobody ever said, “This conversation is for adults only,” and because of this, I grew up believing my ideas had merit, and consequently, I believed I had value.

3. Laugh loudly and heartily.

My father was not a silly man.  He did not like slapstick or stupid situation comedies on TV.  dad 60sHe rarely told jokes, and he very much disliked humor that was humiliating or embarrassing to anyone.  However, whenever something struck his funny bone, he laughed long and hard.  He was a huge fan of Johnny Carson and loved Carson’s one-liners and the camera mugs that made his audience explode in peals of belly shaking laughter.  One of my favorite childhood memories is when I would lie in bed way after dark,  and hear my parents roar with laughter at the late night antics of Johnny and Ed McMahon.

4. Find your voice. 

When I was four years old, I began racing quarter midgets.  I wasn’t very good, but one night I finished second in a race, earning myself a ribbon.  When presentations of trophies were made at the end of the races, my name was not called.  Tears streaming down my cheeks, I went to my father, who picked me up in his arms and carried me to the officials’ table.  Drying my eyes with his handkerchief, he explained that I had to speak up and collect my winnings.  Rather than doing the talking for me, he prompted me to explain to the officials that I had taken second place in my race,  and had been missed in the presentations.  His presence gave me courage, and a moment later I was running to my older sister to show her my purple ribbon.  Although it was a small lesson, I have never forgotten it, for that evening I learned to bravely speak up when I believe myself to be right.

5. Figure it out.

Although I would never call my dad lazy, he was often unmotivated to do chores when his children could do them for him.  It was Dad’s expectation that his kids figure out how to take care of him and their younger siblings with little or no instruction.  Those who could read could certainly follow directions.  He and my mother let us have free reign in the kitchen, the cellar work bench and the back yard.  I changed cloth diapers and fed babies before I entered school, and could cook a meal for ten people before I was in sixth grade.  I weeded the garden, hung wallpaper and taped sheet rock, and my brothers learned to wire for electricity and rebuild motorcycles- with little guidance and absolutely no hovering.  Trial and error may not be the most efficient way to learn, but it leaves lasting impressions.  Just ask my brother Scott, who discovered the strength of electricity by inserting a bobby pin into a wall socket.

I’m not sure if Dad knew the value of self-directed learning, but I do know that his children grew up to be independent, motivated adults who take pride in figuring out how to complete a project by themselves.dad 70s

So today I salute my flawed, imperfect Dad.  Every time I ride a wave, or pour a cup of coffee, or watch television with my feet tucked up under me, I remember that a part of him still lives in me.  I remember his blue eyes, the way he jingled his pocket change and coughed when he came home from work, and how he drove through snowstorms to bring me home from college for a long weekend.  I remember, and with a lump in my throat, I give thanks.

Weep for Anne

In March of 1978 I left the house at 30 Green Street and taking nothing but a guitar and a suitcase, flew across the country for a week of VISTA training in Seattle, Washington. A week after that, I took a train through snow-covered mountains and crashing waterfalls to Boise, Idaho.

Two days after arriving in Boise, I reported for my assignment at the Adult and Child Development Center. The director led me to the office that housed three other VISTAs. It was there that I met Paul. One look at his smoky eyes, and I knew I was a gonner. We were engaged by June, and set a wedding date of August 31.

When the week of the wedding arrived, Paul and I traveled back to Massachusetts by train. I had briefly met his parents during a side trip to Tucson in June, and they arrived a couple of days before the wedding, along with Paul’s brother John, his sister Anne and her husband Jim.

At the rehearsal dinner, my future in-laws were much subdued- and no wonder. My family was big, loud, and outspoken. Our family dinners were rambunctious events where teasing one-liners were hurled across the table like dinner rolls, and bursts of laughter erupted every few sentences. Paul’s small family had set its roots as mid-western farmers. Dinners were eaten quickly and quietly, punctuated by minimal small talk, so they could return to their work. I looked across the table at my fiancé and wondered if trying to meld our two families would be as successful as a spaghetti and ice cream casserole.

Paul looked more bewildered than I.  I couldn’t tell if he was nervous about his family’s visit, or the wedding ceremony, or if he was having second thoughts about the whole marriage, but he silently shoveled food into his mouth, avoiding eye contact, saying nothing. I stole a glance at my mother, who returned my gaze with questioning eyes.  My stomach churned and I couldn’t help but wonder if our families would end up like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

anne stoutimore spencer0001Suddenly, an unfamiliar voice rose over the din- a happy, celebratory voice, filled with laughter and warmth. It was Anne.

Anne was beautiful. She was vibrant and well-educated and articulate. Her smile lit the room and her eyes danced. She engaged my younger siblings in conversation and joined in the teasing, and by doing so, bridged the gap between the two very different families. And in the early years that followed the wedding, she and I shared clothes, opinions and conversation during family reunions and phone calls. She gave birth to two chocolate-eyed children during the years that I delivered three with eyes the color of the sea. We exchanged gifts at Christmas and cards containing snap shots of our growing broods.

And then one day, Anne called and calmly informed me that Hitler was residing in her refrigerator. She knew this because he spoke to her. She was dead serious and my heart sank.

The next years were a steady downward spiral of my husband’s beautiful sister. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, her laughter turned to bitter accusations and her conversations were peppered with claims of abuse and outlandish threats. She went in and out of hospitals, and endured countless trials of medication but her glow was never to return.

A few days ago, I learned that  Anne passed away in her sleep, and although I am relieved that forever her torturing voices are silenced, I weep that she and her family were relentlessly tormented for so long. I weep because when we don’t know how to respond to those who live in a different world, we say nothing.  I weep that we speak candidly about cancer and chicken pox, but we whisper about mental illnesses. I weep because for yet unknown reasons, a bright star was extinguished far before its time.

But God does not let us linger in anger and sadness. I was reminded of this when I read an email that Anne’s son Joseph so eloquently wrote:

“Well, my Mom died yesterday around 4AM.

In life she suffered from Paranoid Schizophrenia and bi-Polar disorder. I never really had what most would call a normal relationship with her. The first half of my life was spent suffering from the stress involved with her illness, the last half was spent coming to terms with it and finally getting rid of any bitterness in my heart that built up over the years. Nothing short of God helped me through that.

She was the most giving person I’ve ever met. Never had I met anyone that would give like that. Even when she had nothing, she would still find something to give. I’d get hot chocolate packets in the mail from hospitals that she would be confined in. I’d get letters from her as well. I’m happy that I made the best efforts I could to reach out to her. In the end though, death was the most liberating thing that could ever have happened to her. I’m glad we were able to see her before she passed.

Life is so short, and before you know it it’s over. She passed away so suddenly, in the middle of the night without anyone knowing anything beforehand.

Love those you’re close to, rather or not you’re on good terms with them. Before you know it it’s over and the only thing you have to look back on are memories.”

Well said, Joseph. Well said.

Mom, Me and Jack Daniels

   Yesterday, my cousin Mark sent a very sweet email to our family in remembrance of my mother.  Her birthday was January 7th- one day after her mother’s, my Grammie Dow.  Because my birthday is also in January, my mother and Grammie told me I was special like them.  I believed them and to this day, January is my favorite month.
   To celebrate our January birthdays, my mother and I often “split” a gift.  We took each other out for lunch to celebrate.  In reality, it was just an excuse to sit across a restaurant table and catch up, but it was a nice way to give each other a small gift.  Mark’s email reminded me of how much I miss sharing that birthday lunch, and also reminded me of how I have chosen to celebrate my mother’s life on her birthday.
jack daniels   A week or two before my mother passed away, my nephew Jason brought a small bottle of whiskey to her at the hospice house.  She liked whiskey, and when I was growing up, she and my father often would enjoy a drink before dinner.  My father drank Jim Beam or Jack Daniels on the rocks with soda and my mother drank hers with water.  I never understood how they could drink the stuff.  To me it tastes like medicine, and the only time I could swallow it was when my father mixed a teaspoon with honey and lemon to quiet my coughs.
   It was against the rules to have alcohol in the hospice house (I guess they were afraid that dying people might get drunk and rowdy) and the nurses asked me to take the bottle with me when I left for the evening. I took it to my house and stuck it in the cabinet.
   After Mom died, I decided to drink a toast to her on her birthday, and on January 7, alone in my kitchen, I poured a shot (more like a half shot) of the whiskey and after toasting her, drank the entire thing down in one swallow.  I shuddered for almost fifteen minutes, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it, the warmth that followed the shudder made it tolerable.
   Last year on Mom’s birthday, I did the same thing, with the same reaction of shuddering for a good  fifteen minutes.  Maybe it was the whiskey, but I imagined that I could hear her chuckle at me.  I have to admit that I imagined the warmth that spread from my stomach to my toes was more a hug from my mother than a blast of alcohol.
   You would think that after two years, I would be used missing my mother, but I am not. Not a day goes by that I do not think of her- miss her soft gray eyes and warm embrace.  I see her in my children.  I see her in myself.  But when I feel  my eyes become hot with tears and my heart wrings with loneliness, I remember her last hours.  As she hovered between this life and the next, I saw her exert great effort to raise her arms toward Heaven.  Again and again, she would raise her hands to the sky and then, not strong enough to hold them up, she allowed them to drop to her bed.  I knew that she was transitioning- that her eyes were no longer set on earth and her loved ones here, but instead on the God who had steadfastly guided her through the past eighty-two years.  And as much as I wanted to call her back and beg her to stay a few more hours, I could not.  She had taught me well.  Part of loving is letting go.
   The bottle of whiskey still remains in my cupboard, untouched since January 7, 2012.  Tonight I will again pour a half shot (guess I will never be much of a drinker) and toast my mother, and her mother. Heck- I’ll toast all our mothers, since they are more alike than different.  Perhaps you will join me.  Pour a shot- whiskey, wine, rum…even milk.  It doesn’t matter.  Raise your glass, think of your mother and thank God for the time you had with her.  If you shudder like I will, and listen very carefully, you might hear a tinkle of laughter from on high. That’s Grammie and Mom, waiting for the rest of us.

Did You Make Your Bed This Morning?

unmadeWhile waiting at the dentist’s office this week, I read an article called “Happy Habit: Make Your Bed” but Jackie Ashton. In the article, Ms Ashton admits to hating to make her bed and resolves to amend her ways, explaining how this daily chore sets the stage for a more orderly and productive day. Her catch phrase, “messy bed, messy head” spoke a resounding truth to me, for I am a bed Nazi.

I’m not sure where it began, but I think I can blame my mother for my obsession with a neat bed. It was my mother’s expectation that our beds be made before we left for school in the morning, and I, being one of the eldest of the clan, had to set an example for my six younger siblings.

Without fail, at 30 Green Street, every Saturday morning all beds were stripped and all sheets washed. My mother hung them on the clothes lines, where they would flap in the breezes of the backyard until they were dry, to be carefully returned to the beds before the youngest child’s bedtime. The ritual did not stop there, however. When Saturday evening came, all heads were shampooed and all nails trimmed, and by nightfall, every child was scrubbed and shiny, clad in clean pajamas and tucked between smooth percale sheets that smelled of fresh air and sunshine.

I was a teenager before we had contour sheets for our beds. My father, who had been in the Navy, taught us to make square corners from flat sheets, showing us that sheets on a well-made bed would endure several nights of slumber before coming un-tucked. We often paired up in teams of two to make beds on Saturday afternoons, and my sister Robin and I devised ways to make the chore more enjoyable. Making beds for ten people could be a daunting task, but our games made the work less mundane. We bent back the mattresses and pretended they were horses while we jumped on the bed springs. We folded blankets like flags, creating tidy wool triangles that sat on the sheets until it was time to unfold them and tuck them under at the foot. We tried flipping coins on our freshly made beds, in hopes that they would be as taut as those in the military barracks my father had described. square corners

The real test of our bed-making skills came when my mother came to our beds to hear our prayers and tuck us in. A poorly made bed would result in a “tsk tsk” as my mother smoothed the sheets and refolded the square corners. She would unscrew the handle on the steaming radiator to turn off the heat, and prop the window open a few inches- even if the night skies were filled with snowflakes. She would sit on the side of the bed, stroke our heads and listen to our vespers, then with a kiss the cheek, she would tuck in the sides of our covers so tightly it was almost impossible to roll over. The ritual worked. It took me moments to enter dreamland, and I never woke until morning.

It is probably because of my childhood that I am so obsessive about my bed. Every morning, as soon as I have showered, I make my bed. I do not remember a time when I have left it rumpled from the last night’s sleep. I hate when people sit or lie on my bed during the day, but I tolerate it, knowing that having my kids flop on my mattress for a heart to heart talk is more important that how my bed looks.

But when it is time for bed, the rules must be followed. The bottom sheet has to be wrinkle free. The top sheet has to be neatly pulled up to my chin and carefully folded over the end of my comforter. My pillows must be plumped, smooth and cool. And truth be told, during the winter I am known to open the windows just a crack, even if the snow falls from the night skies.

bedI have thought about my bed making rituals many times. Perhaps it is to bring order to the chaos of the day. Perhaps it is to prove to myself that although I cannot control the entire world, I can control mine. At least a little bit. Perhaps it is just a way to pay homage to my parents, who gave me years of peaceful dreams in a little house with too many kids.

Ms Ashton, I am happy you have joined the ranks of the bed-making brigade. Now, let’s talk about the towels on the bathroom floor…

The Christmas Gift

wrapping paperIt is December, and is time to wrap the gifts I’ve carefully selected for my children.  A few evenings ago, I rummaged through the attic in search of paper and ribbon and came across a box marked “Sentimental Stuff.”  Inside is a music box with a dancing clown.

In the late summer of 1982, I window shopped at Johnson’s Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts with my husband, Paul.  Johnson’s was an amazing store with rooms upon rooms of books, toys and art supplies.  We browsed for hours, leafing through pages, and dreaming of giving the beautiful dolls, books and teddy bears to our unborn child.  On a shelf were small shadow boxes containing jointed paper clowns that danced when the music box on the back was wound. I was immediately taken by them, but I knew my practical farm-raised husband would not recognize the value in such frivolity.  Besides, in those lean years, our pennies were carefully counted and reserved for bare necessities, so after a few moments of watching the paper clown dance, I turned and left the store.

That December as the holidays approached, we struggled to pay for food and oil.  We kept our heat only high enough to keep our pipes from freezing, and heated water on the stove for dishes and bathing.  Our finances were grave, but our mood was bright.  It was Christmas, after all- the celebration of our Savior’s birth.  Christ was born into poverty with the sole purpose of dying for all mankind.  And yet, there was no bitterness in His birth.  The heavens rejoiced, and so would we.  We decorated a small tree and settled in front of the fireplace to discuss our gift giving budget.

After a long conversation, we settled on rules for our yuletide celebration.   We would each have ten dollars to spend on each other.  There would be no cheating, no borrowing, no allowing anyone else foot the bill.  Everything under the tree would have to be something we made ourselves, or bought within the ten-dollar budget. 

During the following weeks, I stretched my sweater over my growing belly and concentrated on knitting wool scraps into mittens for my husband.  I used my ten dollars on wool socks, a flannel shirt, and Christmas goodies to fill Paul’s stocking.  A few days before Christmas, I finally finished the mittens.  They were pieced together in stripes- tan, rust and brown, all from yarn left over from my mother’s past projects, but the stitches were tight and they promised to keep his hands warm when he shoveled our long driveway on snowy mornings.  I carefully wrapped them, hoping they would fit his hands, and wondering if he would like them.

Christmas morning dawned and we feasted on eggs, homemade muffins, and coffee.  We prayed our thanks to God for the amazing gift of His son and sat at the foot of the tree to open gifts.  Paul was pleased with his. The shirt and socks fit and he promised me that he loved the mittens and would wear them often.  Then he handed me a small box.

I slowly opened the red and white paper and to my surprise, discovered the dancing clown music box clownfrom  Johnson’s Bookstore. 

My eyes filled with tears.  “You cheated!” I accused, knowing the music boxes cost far more than our budget had allowed.

“No- really,” he protested.  I kept looking and looking but I couldn’t find anything I liked that I could afford.  I went into Johnson’s and this was the only one left.  It was stuck in a corner and was a bit dusty.  There wasn’t a price tag on it, so I asked.  The clerk couldn’t find a price, so he offered to sell it to me for ten dollars.” 

“I saw how much you loved it last summer,” he said softly.  “I wanted to get it then, but I couldn’t afford it.”

My eyes filled with tears and I hugged him as tightly as my swollen belly would allow.  We placed the clown on a shelf where it served as a reminder that young love can overcome the tightest budgets and the toughest obstacles.

Somewhere in the years that followed the music box stopped working.  Perhaps it was wound too tightly, or maybe its Christmas magic just ran out.  But the clown stopped dancing, and the music stopped playing, and eventually the marriage ended.

But in December, there is no room for bitterness. Although we are no longer a couple, I still remember that Christmas with great fondness.  Even though we cannot live as husband and wife now, the love we shared on that day, and for many more was real and true. 

I carefully put the clown back in its box and closed the lid.  Then, taking a deep breath, I grabbed a roll of paper, turned out the light and shut the door to the attic.

The First Snow

This morning I woke to find the season’s first blanket of snow on the ground outside my window.  I had anticipated the storm and even prepared for it.  Indeed, just yesterday I climbed the stairs to the attic in search of my snow brush and a shovel, and smiled at the irony of finding them next to my beach chairs and umbrella. 

As I pushed the wet heavy snow from my car windshield, I realized that my heart still quickens when the first  snow of winter falls from the night sky, glistening in the street lights and covering the black pavement like baby powder.  I still think that the first snow has some magical qualities.  And as I do every year, I remembered the day I snuck snow into Elizabeth’s hospital room.

She was eight years old, painfully thin, with sunken cheeks and huge eyes.  For years, her symptoms had baffled her doctors. We knew something was wrong.  We just did not know its name, and without a name, nobody knew how to treat her.  Finally, her symptoms became so invasive that her doctor admitted her to the medical center for a week of testing.

I knew the testing would be difficult. She would have an IV and an A line inserted. She would have blood tests every hour or so.  We would recount her story to multiple medical students, doctors and nurses.  She would be allowed not food or drink for thirty-six hours, or until her blood sugar made a drastic drop.  She would be exhausted and hungry and nauseated.  And she would not understand.

The first several hours after her admission went quickly.  The staff at the medical center gave great pediatric care, and made my daughter as comfortable as possible. But as the hours passed and she was moved into the PICU-Pediatric Intensive Care Unit- she grew hungry and irritable.  Not wanting to leave her, I waited until early evening when she drifted into an uneasy sleep before sneaking off to the hospital cafeteria for a quick bowl of soup.  On the way back to the PICU I heard someone mention that it was supposed to snow.

When I reached Elizabeth, she was awake.  “Where were you?” she asked.  “Why did you leave me?  I’m hungry.  Can’t you get me something to eat?”  Her big eyes filled with tears that rolled down her pale cheeks and splashed on her bed sheets. I gathered her in my arms, wrapped her in her favorite blanket and walked through the PICU, softly singing to her until she fell asleep. I sat by her bed until dawn broke.  As the sky turned from black to gray to white, I realized the snow had fallen, just as predicted.

When Elizabeth woke, she was listless and quiet.  She lay in her bed and stared at the wall, too nauseated to watch television or play.  She didn’t want me to read to her.  She didn’t want to play with “Diarrhea Doggie”- the stuffed puppy named by an intern to make her giggle in naughty glee.  She didn’t want her back rubbed.  And when I told her I was going to leave the PICU for a short time, she didn’t protest.  She just lay in silent resignation. 

I hurried to the cafeteria for breakfast, but found I was only able to swallow half a cup of coffee.  I felt alone, and bewildered and ineffective at making things right for my precious little girl.  Tears burned at my eyes, and I knew it was only a matter of moments before they would spill down my face betraying my silent worry.  Needing a place to collect myself, I made a beeline for the parking lot and sat shivering and sobbing in my freezing car.  I cried and prayed and then cried some more.  Finally, I dried my eyes, and looked at myself in the rear view mirror.  I looked almost as bad as Elizabeth.  My eyes were sunken and red rimmed from tears and lack of sleep.  My hair was messy and my clothes were wrinkled.  I clearly needed something to lift my spirits and more importantly, lift Elizabeth’s.

Getting out of the car, I absently dragged my hand across the window and realized how sticky the snow was.   “Great for snowmen,” I thought, and wondered if Abby and Gabe were playing in the white stuff on their way to the bus.  Snow brings out the fun in all of us- especially the first snow of winter.

And then I had a thought.  I hurriedly packed together a large snowball and placed it in my jacket pocket.  Then I went straight to the PICU.  Elizabeth was still awake, her eyes staring ahead, looking at everything, looking at nothing. 

“I have a present for you!” I exclaimed, and she turned my way.  I carefully drew the snowball from my pocket, not sure how the nearby nurses would react if they noticed. 

Elizabeth’s eyes widened and a smile came to her lips.  “A snowball?  Here?” 

“All for you.   It’s the first snow of winter- magic snow!” 

She took the snowball and held it in her hand for a few moments.  It began to drip on her covers and she placed it in the plastic water cup by her bed.  She grinned at me and laid back, her now sparkling eyes still on the melting snowball. She watched it until it was nothing more than a small puddle in the bottom of the cup.  And although the  following hours were difficult and long, the spark in my daughter’s eye remained.  She managed to endure the rest of the testing, and subsequently received a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  And a few days later, I took her home, where she grew from a spirited skinny little girl to a spirited willowy young woman. 

This morning, I walked into work and heard people muttering about the mess they had to drive in, the slop on their sidewalks, the coating on their cars.  They complain.  They gripe.  And while they grumble, I smile, because I will always welcome the first magical snow of winter.

Halloween

 
I spot the hills    
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
~Carl SandburgI read a story on the internet about children’s Halloween costumes becoming too sexy.  Indeed, when I looked further, there were pictures of scantily clad little girls in costumes that vaguely resembled outfits worn by exotic dancers.  It made me sad.

When I was a little girl, I loved the excitement of Halloween and the prospects of trick-or-treating.  We fashioned costumes from clothing and accessories we already owned- a scarf and a gold hoop earring for a pirate, burnt cork and a shirt from the rag bag for a hobo.  It was the only time of the year we were allowed to wear makeup and I practically trembled as I drew my mother’s red lipstick across my mouth, blotting it on a tissue, and hoping it would not entirely wash off before school the next day.

The naked trees that lined Green Street were draped with toilet paper that drifted in the breeze like silent ghosts. My siblings and I paraded down Green Street, chorusing “Trick-or-treat!” and holding our pillow cases out to catch candy, cookies and apples. It was thrilling to dress in costumes and masks, and become someone else for an evening.  It was thrilling to be out after dark and to sneak peeks at the moon in case a witch flew by on her broom.  It was more thrilling to know there would be a candy bar in my lunch the next day.  I would sift through my goodies, keeping the “good stuff” (AKA chocolate) and throwing out the broken bits of popcorn ball that lay in the bottom of the bag.

When I had children of my own, we prepared for Halloween much as I had as a child.  We made our own costumes- aliens from outer space, princesses, and of course, hippies.  My daughters found the embroidered jeans jacket I wore in college and beads I had “borrowed” from my older sister during the 60s.  All it took was a little face paint to transform them into miniature versions of their mother and aunt.

Like generations before us, we carved pumpkins to make glowing jack-o-lanterns to welcome costumed children who trooped through our housing development to garner as much booty as their bags would hold.  My children would join them, returning with flushed cheeks and excited plans for stashing candy bars in their lunch boxes for school the next day.  They would empty their bags into a large bowl, and for the next week, everyone was allowed to gorge himself on sweets that ruined suppers and brought a gleam to our dentist’s eye.  I consoled myself with the reminder that it was only once a year, and besides, when the kids went to bed, I would snitch a candy bar from their cache.

I can’t figure out if things have changed that much since my kids were young, or if I just didn’t pay attention to the ads in the newspaper flyers.  It does seem that Halloween has become another opportunity for American commercialism to steal our children’s innocent fun.  But as parents, we get to make the rules.  We can sift through the bag and find the good stuff.  It’s all what we put into it- what we decide will matter.  For me, I’ll always cherish the memories of painting faces, sorting candy and lighting jack-o-lanterns.

And I do swear I saw a witch fly across the sky one enchanted Halloween night.

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