The Best Gift Ever

24910097_1677760535622078_6615890065848693126_nI’ve always had my own ideas about religion and politics. I’m an independent renegade when it comes to both, but I still believe in those institutions even though I am quick to critique them whenever I see problems. Thus it was a great surprise to me when I was asked to head the religious education program for pre-schoolers and elementary students at my church many years ago. It was to be the first time that lay people would fill such positions because the sweet nuns who were beloved by the parish were moving away and there were no religious replacements.

Since I am loathe to shy away from challenges I accepted the job and learned that my partner in the endeavor was as feisty as I was. Ours was a collaboration made in heaven if you will. A staff of assistants already existed and the two of them agreed to stay to help us after the good sisters had left. Judy Maskel would be our secretary and all around font of knowledge. Much as it is with outstanding office personnel she had been essentially running the place for several years, and she would prove to be a strong foundation on which we would build a new way of doing things. It didn’t take us long to realize that without Judy we would have been running for cover within weeks. Instead she was an unflinching ally to our cause who somehow managed to very quietly gloss over our mistakes and help us to feel competent even when we were struggling with the task. Over time Judy became far more than someone who kept us from appearing to be fools. She became a good friend, a person whom we loved for her unending patience and sincerely sweet demeanor.

Judy was a beautiful woman with a shock of ginger colored hair and the fair complexion of someone of Scandinavian decent. Nothing was quite as important to her as her faith in God and her beautiful family. She was devoted to her husband and her lovely children and they returned her love. It seemed as though Judy had discovered the secret to balancing life’s demands so seamlessly that she maintained a kind of calmness and perfection in everything that she did. Being around her was an exercise in relaxation. She had a way of soothing even the most tempestuous situation and I grew to truly adore her.

Eventually our parishioners accepted the reality that we would never again have nuns to educate the children in the tenets of our faith. The transition was successful in no small part due to the support of wonderful people like Judy Maskel. She was so admired by those who knew her that folks began to feel that if she liked us, then perhaps they should as well. We pioneered a change that would not have gone so well without Judy.

In the meantime I had finally finished my degree and earned my certification as a teacher. Although I had loved my work at the church I wanted to move into the next phase of my career as an educator, and so I left for a position teaching mathematics. Nonetheless, I had grown so attached to Judy and the others who had been my daily companions in our endeavors that I was determined to continue our relationship.

As so often happens life took hold of all of us. We were busy with our jobs and our families and getting together proved to be more difficult than we had expected, so I began the tradition of gathering with the group at Christmas time each year. In the beginning there were five of us who met on an evening in December to sample goodies and talk for hours about our children and the events that had occupied us since our last rendezvous. It was always a glorious time and I began to laughingly refer to our little group as “the church ladies.” At some point we decided to bring little gifts for one another and it was always fun to exchange the goodies that we had either created or purchased. One of our members made homemade jams and breads that were always the hit of the season. Judy liked to bake little cookies and such now and again depending on how crazy her own schedule had been. Always she came with her smile and a laugh that looked at life from a vantage point of unadulterated happiness and optimism.

The years seemed to go by so quickly. Our children grew into adults and we rejoiced in becoming grandmothers. One by one we began to retire from jobs that had occupied us for decades. Judy had faithfully continued working at the church, watching over the children and the teachers and the directors with the same compassion that she gave so generously and effortlessly. Somehow she always felt like an anchor to everything that is most important in this world, so the annual celebrations with her had a very uplifting effect on me. Whenever December rolled around I simply could not wait for the day when I would get to see the ladies who had meant so much to me, and to enjoy that twinkle of mischievousness in Judy’s bright blue eyes that always brought a smile to my own face.

As we grew older our conversations began to be punctuated with stories of health problems that we were experiencing. One of our members developed cancer and ultimately lost her battle with that disease. Somehow her spirit always seemed to continue to be with us whenever we met, even as the years began to mount along with our own troubles.

Judy had been diagnosed with a rare disease that runs in the DNA of Scandinavians. At first her symptoms came in small doses and she was able to come to our gatherings with her old hopefulness and sense of humor. Over time the illness progressed, and even though she complained very little we were able to see her decline. She became quite thin and there were signs of worry in her blue eyes that twinkled less and less. She seemed preoccupied with her thoughts and her pain, but she was determined to hang in with us and to show us a brave front.

Last year she spent time in a rehabilitation facility. When two of us went to visit her she was struggling with her fate. It was apparent that the disease was overtaking her in spite of her courage and determination. She wanted to reassure us, but she no longer had the energy to protect us from the truth of what was happening. When she recuperated and returned home we were overjoyed and hopeful that she would somehow overcome what had seemed to be her ultimate demise. Even when she was unable to be with us at our luncheon we all managed to laugh and rejoice in what appeared to be her recovery.

As we began to plan for this year’s reunion we learned that Judy was in a nursing home in League City. A kind of pall came over those of us left in the group when we realized that she had become so sick. We were planning to visit her when we learned that she had died. Somehow it was shocking even though she had often explained the ultimate effects of the disease that had overtaken her. In a strange twist I found myself experiencing the same calmness that she had always provided me even as I felt the pangs of sadness. I smiled at the thought that she had truly become an angel in heaven.

That same night our city filled with a lovely dusting of snow. Our first sight upon awakening the next morning was heavenly and peaceful, and I immediately thought of Judy Maskel. It would have been so like her to find a way to ease our sadness. I wondered if perhaps she had been somehow responsible for requesting that God send us a little gift to make us smile. It’s certainly something that she might have done. She was always so thoughtful and giving like that.

There are only three of us left from our original group. We have plans to meet later this month. We will miss Judy because she represented the very best of us. Hers was a beautiful soul that always lit up the room with her unconditional love and patience. She quietly impacted everyone who ever knew her. She was a helpmate and a font of wisdom. The most remarkable gift that she gave us was herself, and that was the best gift ever.

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Making Magic

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Each of us have so many Christmas stories, many of which are worthy of a spot on the Hallmark movie channel. One of my favorite yuletide tales came from author Truman Capote who shared memories of one holiday that he spent with his aunts in Alabama. It was a lovely vignette that spoke volumes of his love for his relatives and their love for him. There is much beauty in the humblest of celebrations and my own childhood is filled with them.

After my father died we were always on a tight budget, but my mother was a very creative soul who had a way of making virtually everything fun. We’d make dozens of cookies while Christmas music played on our Victrola. We loved to sing along while we worked which gave Mama the idea of teaching us how to sing The Little Drummer Boy in four part harmony. First she listened to the song just enough to transcribe all of the words. Then she assigned our various parts and showed us how to put all of them together. It was a great deal of fun, much like it was for the boys who sang with Bing Crosby in the movie Going My Way. It took us quite some time to perfect our routine, but when we finally achieved perfection we felt like singing angels.

Mama was somewhat mischievous when it came to searching for a Christmas tree. She always seemed to choose the day with the most horrible weather for that adventure. She would even laugh when the temperature became lower and lower and the rain began to fall by declaring, “It’s the perfect day for getting our tree.” I think that somehow she thought that the weather outside had to be frightful for us to fully appreciate the experience. We’d inspect the ones in our price range as though we were judges in a beauty pageant until we all agreed on the perfect candidate. Our mother always insisted on sawing off the bottom of the trunk and storing the tree in a bucket of water overnight before setting it in the center of the picture window in our living room. Then the decorating would begin complete with some of those cookies we had made and maybe even some hot chocolate that she prepared with real cocoa and milk. She had particular rules about how each step of the process should be done and the results were always glorious. What I loved the most was the scent of the needles filling the house with the perfume of the season.

Mama loved to go out looking at the Christmas lights on people’s houses. One of the best places in the city back then was near the cemetery where our father was buried. I’m not quite sure how she worked her magic but she managed to make the ritual of putting flowers on his grave less sad by ending the task with ice cream and a drive along the enchanting streets. The best of the displays was a Nativity scene complete with the music of Silent Night. Of course that always inspired Mama to suggest that we sing our way back home. I always thought that my mother had missed her calling. She should have been a Broadway star. She was an extraordinary dancer and had a knack for music that was uncanny. She seriously had enough skill to be a professional even though she was completely self taught.

Because Mama so loved Christmas music we always attended the concert at our church put on by the members of the choir. It was one of the highlights of the season featuring all of the religious classics. My favorite was always “O Holy Night.” One of my best friend’s mom both accompanied the performers on the piano as well as singing in the most beautiful soprano voice. Our mother’s alto voice might have been a lovely addition to the choir, but for some reason she never thought to join.

Most children discover that their parents are Santa Claus by coming upon their gifts before Christmas Eve. I have no clue how our mom hid our presents, but there was never even a hint of what we would receive until we awoke on Christmas morning and discovered the magic that had occurred while we were sleeping. She even managed to put together bicycles  without our ever noticing. She kept us thinking that Santa was real far longer that most kids today do. I don’t know that she ever really told us the truth, but at some point we figured it out on our own.

Of course the very best part of Christmas for us was going to our grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. Every single aunt, uncle and cousin was present on that evening and the tiny living room was bursting at the seams. Mama and her siblings competed with one another to see who would select Grandma’s favorite gift. It was fun watching their expressions as their mother opened each package. Many of them attempted to buy her dresses and shoes even though they knew that she would still walk around in her bare feet and would always cut the sleeves off of the bodice for comfort. She delighted all of us with her reactions, and watching her open the gifts was the highlight of Christmas.

There was a TG&Y store near our home when we were children. One Christmas we were shopping there when we saw a magnificent Nativity set. The figures were about a foot tall and they stood inside a wooden manger. We thought it was the most beautiful thing that we had ever seen but it cost about twenty dollars and that was a huge amount of money, Mama wasn’t sure that we should be so frivolous as to even think of purchasing it. Still we wanted that lovely creche so much. Even after we had gone home we kept speaking of it and wishing that we might display it in our living room. After dinner Mama got a strange look in her eyes and announced that if we gave up a little bit of this and that we might be able to afford the luxury. We cheered with glee and jumped into the car as excited as if we were going to buy bars of gold. When we set up the lovely statues on our formal dining table we thought that they were wonderful. We never once regretted our decision to throw caution to the wind because Mama would display that set every Christmas for the remainder of her life.

My brothers agreed to let me have what remained of the Nativity after our mother had died. By then all three of the kings were missing and Baby Jesus had lost an arm, but I am as proud of it as I am of anything that I own. Nobody will ever understand what that little display meant to us back in the long ago. Even though I could replace it with a much finer looking one from Costco I don’t have the heart to do so. I think that Jesus looks glorious just as He is.

The Christmas memories that we make with our children and grandchildren will last a lifetime no matter how simple they are. It’s about love and sharing and having fun. It’s making cookies, decorating the tree, singing and visiting with family and friends. It doesn’t take much to bring magic into our lives, just a bit of time and imagination.

Christmas Treasures

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I love decorating my home for the holidays, but it is always a somewhat bittersweet time. I don’t do coordinated colors and high fashion. Instead my Christmas ornaments come from a varied collection that dates back to a time even before my children were born. This year I have three trees in different rooms of the house. Each of them is filled with memories more than loveliness. They include trinkets made by my children and elegant china and crystal pieces. I have things that I purchased on vacations and at least twenty years of Hallmark ornaments that have tickled my fancy. Friends and family members who have gone to heaven gave me a number of the things that hang on the green limbs of my trees and I recall the times that we shared each time that I take the treasures out of the seven boxes that store them for eleven months out of the year. I shed a little tear here and there as I think back over the people and the years that each piece represents. Setting up my trees is a nostalgic time that requires just the right music or Christmas movie running in the background while I work to place each ornament just so.

I laughed this year as I hung the proof of my longtime loyalty to the Houston Astros front and center on the big tree in my great room. I have two ornaments celebrating the team that I purchased so long ago that I can’t recall exactly when or where I came upon them. Other teams are represented as well. Of course I have one from the University of Houston, but I also boast a little sled from Purdue and a bauble from Oklahoma State University that I purchased on the occasion of my brother’s graduation on a bitterly cold December day. Perhaps my most unusual team decoration is a Houston Oiler blue football player made out of yarn emblazoned with the number of the kicker Tony Fritsch. I bought that one at a craft sale long before the Oilers had moved to Tennessee and changed their name. Perhaps it’s time for me to find a J.J. Watt.

My first Hallmark ornament was a replica of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie. It portrays him whistling and steering his ship so contentedly that I smile every single time I see it. To this day it remains my favorite among all of the members of my now extensive collection. I have an obvious preference for all things Mickey or Minnie. Various renditions of them dominate my selections. This year I added a metal lunchbox with Mickey’s image that even includes a tiny thermos inside. That one takes me back to my youth and the warm milk that I drank along with sandwiches that were always a bit stale after sitting in my locker for several hours. I can almost smell the aroma of all of the homemade lunches that my classmates brought and I hear the clink of the lids at they clattered open on the long tables where we sat never dreaming that we would one day grow old.

I also have a thing for Snoopy and Charlie brown. I can’t seem to get enough of those delightful characters. My favorite in the mix shows the whole gang singing in front of a scraggly tree. It makes me think of some of the fresh trees that we had when I was a child. It took a bit of work and a great deal of tinsel to transform them, but when they were finished they were so lovely. I used to lie on the floor gazing above at the lights and the shimmering icicles. Our mother gave us very serious lessons on how to distribute the silver slivers so that they hung just right. I haven’t seen any of those of late and wonder if they are even made anymore. They were almost as messy as the needles that fell from the limbs of the trees, but they were enchanting as they reflected in the glimmer of the colored lights.

For several years now I have purchased the annual Swarovski crystal ornament, a tradition that I began in 2005 after visiting the factory in Austria. Each year is celebrated with a different snowflake crafted in beautiful glass and marked with a tiny silver date plate. They hang so delicately and catch the light in their gorgeous facets. I have made it a yearly ritual to purchase the newest one around the time of my November birthday. I suspect that the lovely creations will one day become heirlooms along with the china gingerbread men that I collected for many years.

When I was still working I signed up to purchase a set of Victorian houses that came to my house once a month for at least two years. They are quite delightful to me and represent the kind of home that I often dreamed of owning, but was never quite able to do. They remind me of the structures in the Houston Heights, a neighborhood where my grandparents lived when I was very young, and where my father-in-law now resides. They literally speak of Christmas to me and the gatherings that we shared each year when my daughters were growing up. We always drove to my in-law’s house so excitedly in anticipation of a great feast and lots of love and laughter. My mother-in-law eventually passed the holiday tradition down to me when she found the efforts needed to cook for so many to be too taxing. Even though I have done my best to create a new tradition, I suspect that everyone who once went to her home misses the feel of that old house and her special touch as much as I do.

I’ve got Harry Potter and Cinderella, golden aspen leaves and glittering pine cones, marshmallow men and gnomes, angels and nativity scenes. The story of my Christmas life fills the trees, telling of fun and friendships and memories. Tying all of it together is Santa Claus who laughs and smiles and glitters with glee. I’m a sucker for anything prtraying the jolly old man. I so vividly recall the magic of his visits when I was young. I can still feel the excitement of trying to sleep on Christmas Eve so that his sleigh might land on our roof to deliver toys for me and my brothers. I never quite understood how Santa did all of the wondrous things that he did each year, but I believed with all of my heart, and I still do. Christmas is truly a time for family and friendships and love and maybe even a miracle or two.

It’s been a tough year for so many in Texas, Florida, California and Puerto Rico. Many of us  have lost loved ones and worried over those who are very sick. I suspect that we need Christmas a bit more than ever. It seems as though we are rushing it here in Houston, but I understand why. Our trauma has been great and we are still reeling and recovering from the floods. Things appear to be back to normal, but there are many who are not yet back in their homes. They may be spending Christmas in a hotel, an apartment or in a room in someone else’s house. Many of their own Christmas treasures washed away in the waters. I thought of them even as I gazed at my own collection that made it through unharmed. My tears of joy and nostalgia were tinged with a touch of sadness for all that has been lost. Still, the real message of Christmas is one of hope. The reason for the season is still about a baby born in a humble manger who came to provide us with the promise that we are never alone. Perhaps this year it is more important than ever to remember what our celebrations should be all about. It doesn’t really matter what our religious beliefs may be, but that Christmas is all about love.

And Yet I Smile

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It has been a very difficult year from start to finish, and yet I smile. Many of my friends and relatives have endured illnesses and even deaths, and yet I smile. I witnessed my husband lying on the floor of a bathroom, slurring his words, unable to lift himself, and yet I smile. I watched in horror as my city filled with flood waters while fifty one inches of rain fell relentlessly, and yet I smile. Dear friends have suddenly died leaving me with a longing for the fun times that we shared, and yet I smile. My mother-in-law fell and broke her arm while my father-in-law fell and bruised his body, and yet I smile. There has been a fire in my kitchen, damage to my once lovely patio, and yet I smile. In so many countless ways the last eleven months have brought an unfair share of misery all around me, and yet I smile. Why is this so? It is because I am still here, still standing, still fighting the good fight, and through all of the travails I have learned again and again how wonderful people are, and so I smile.

I cannot control what happens to me, but I am always able to determine how I will react. I change and become a slightly newer person with every event, good or bad, that overtakes me. I may choose to collapse in a state of sadness which I honestly often do, but I may also look for the tiniest drop of positivity in even the darkest moments. When I find that grain of hope, I smile. Sometimes there is little more that I might do than to turn the corners of my mouth upward and view my situation with a bit of humor. Laughter almost always makes me feel as good as a big ugly cry does. A release of my emotions provides me with the will and the power to tackle whatever job lies ahead, and when I can choose I prefer finding something, anything about which to smile.

I haven’t always been this way. For much of my life I bemoaned my fate. I was a sad sack filled with self pity. I felt beset upon because my father died. I pouted because I counted how much I lacked rather than glorying in what I had. I was dissatisfied with my appearance, my personality, all sorts of things. I was jealous of people who appeared to enjoy life in ways that seemed unavailable to me. In other words I found only the bad and almost never the good that was always present but I hidden from my view. Then one day I smiled. It felt empowering to concentrate on my good fortune rather than my bad luck. I learned to approach each day much as people do in November by counting my blessings, and so now I frequently smile.

The reality of my husband’s health problems is a bitter pill, and yet I smile because he is still here with me. I know the importance of enjoying each and every minute that I have with him. I savor our conversations, the things that we share. I need little more than his companionship to make me smile.

I marveled at the outpouring of kindness that has flowed over my city during and in the aftermath of the floods. I have cried when viewing the damaged homes, and yet I smile, because there is a can do spirit every place that I go. I now understand that I will never be all alone. There are enough compassionate people that surely someone will always step forward to help me in an hour of need just as they have assisted so many. I smile because ours is not an ugly world, but a beautiful one in which people sometimes falter. I now believe that love will always find a way to conquer even the most terrible tragedies.

I miss the friends and relations who have died, and yet I smile, because when all is said and done I have laughed and played and enjoyed my time with them. I have known their love and it is a treasure that will always be alive in my heart. Even knowing how I may hurt when they are gone, I would go gladly go back in time to repeat the moments that we shared. I would not want to change a thing about those amazing times.

I suppose that it is when things are the most difficult that we realize the significance of how wondrous our lives have actually been. I recall not so much the things that I have accumulated but instances when I watched my children running and playing so carefree and happy. I can almost hear the laughter of Christmases with my big crazy family, even though I don’t really recall the gifts that I received. I think of the people who demonstrated their love by attending my mother’s funeral. They may not think that I noticed that they were there to support me and my brothers, but I did, and so I smile. I see the mountains, rainbows, glistening lakes, towering forests, and falling snow in places that I have visited. Those images that live inside my mind make me smile. I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when I think of the faces of my students lighting up with understanding. It feels so good to know that I did something so important.

Yes, not just this year but much of my life has had its share of disappointments, failures, tragedies, losses, and yet I smile. I have calculated the positive aspects of my existence and they far exceed those that made me sad. I’m still watching the sun rise and set. I keep moving forward toward who knows what. I will no doubt be challenged in ways that I have not yet imagined. I will have to endure tough times, and I yet I smile. I am certain that I will always somehow find the strength and support that I need. People that I know or have not yet met will walk with me on my journey, especially if I find the wherewithal to smile and the courage and gratitude that will allow them to help me. I have found the secret to happiness, and so I smile.

An Ode to Red

Sun-and-Clouds-Images-of-the-Kingdom-DollarphotoclubRed was a beautiful girl, no doubt because of her striking ginger colored hair. She was always a lady who often loved to wander aimlessly for hours just enjoying the sights and sounds of the world around her. She was a very good friend, loyal beyond imagination and her gentleness was such that every member of my family loved her. When she was with me I felt special. She hung on my every word like nobody I had ever known. I was enchanted with her. Heck, even my neighbors got to know her and they too fell for her magnetic personality.

I remember a time when I was quite ill with the flu, dizzy from a high fever that seemed to be burning my very brain. Red sat right next to me all day long, keeping watch as I went in and out of sleep. It was comforting to see her there attempting to conceal her worry with a weak smile. Somehow I felt that her vigilance was more than enough to pull me through. She was like that, ever faithful and devoted.

On another occasion Red lost one of her long time friends. Her grief was so all consuming that she could barely eat. She moped listlessly for weeks and all I could do to comfort her was to hug her and assure her that everything would eventually be okay. It pained me to see her hurting but it also convinced me that she was quite special and that her feelings were incredibly selfless and real.

Red loved my two girls. She was as protective of them as I was but she also loved to frolic with them, disregarding all notions of dignified behavior. She rolled and wrestled with them on the floor causing them to laugh with unabashed glee. She raced them through the yard and played catch anytime that they wished. She was totally at their beck and call and when they had bored of playing with her she would smooth her hair and revert to the magnificently genteel ladylike behavior that so defined her and sit quietly listening to my rambling conversations.

Still there were aspects of Red that seemed almost contradictory to the cultured image that she generally portrayed. She was always up for a swim and she could hunt with the best of them. It seemed to be part of her DNA to be swift of foot and unusually alert to the comings and goings of nature’s creatures.

As Red got older her scarlet colored hair became more and more tinged with white. She moved slowly and the old energy that had always marked her spirit had faded. Arthritis plagued her joints and I suspected that her hearing was going away rather rapidly. It saddened me to see her in such a state but she continued to attempt to be her old self. Most of the time though she was just too weary to run or play with children as she once did and sadly she often drifted off into an old person’s kind of sleep even in the middle of the day.

It was only when my daughter Catherine brought a child named Maggie to visit that Red found some of her old verve. She was captivated by the little one and seemed intent on forcing herself to rollick as she might have done when she was so magnificent. Maggie didn’t realize that Red was struggling to keep up with her. She only felt the gentle love that Red always exuded and she delighted in the attention from her new older friend.

One day I learned that Red had cancer that was incurable. I was devastated and filled with emotions and memories of all of the good times that we had shared. Our whole family was engulfed in sadness as we so helplessly watched her grow weaker and weaker. It embarrassed her to be in such a state. She didn’t want us to see her like that but I was determined to be there for her just as she had always been for me.

I was with her on her final night. I held her has she moaned in pain and her breathing became more and more shallow. Now and again I grew so tired that I momentarily fell asleep. If my arms slipped from embracing her, she would begin to cry and that frightened and plaintive sound awakened me to take proper watch once again. At some point during that long and horrific night I fell into a deep exhausted slumber. When I awoke Red was perfectly still. Her chest no longer rose and fell. The color was gone from her face. She had died.

I sobbed uncontrollably as I realized that I would never again have those wonderful moments of unconditional trust and love that I had shared with Red for so long. As I gave the terrible news to each member of my family they in turn were devastated. It is never easy to lose such a great companion. Our grief would hang over the household for weeks.

At Christmastime that year I threw my emotions into decorating my home and preparing for the annual celebrations but I was still thinking of Red. Catherine was there with Maggie helping me to complete the chore of trimming the tree that had always been such a delight but was difficult that year because of Red’s passing. As we placed one ornament after another on the branches Catherine came across a trinket that she had made as a child. It was created from an old Christmas card and it featured a lovely photograph of Red back in the days when she was still vibrant and beautiful. Catherine burst into tears as she clutched the worn and tattered memento. When she held it up for me to see, I too lost my composure and cried. The two of us released the pain that we had been trying so fruitlessly to conceal while little Maggie looked on in wonder.

Our hearts eventually healed but we never forget how much Red had meant to us. I still gently place the old paper ornament with her picture on my Christmas tree each year and I remember what a great lady she truly was. Red was as fine a pet as any family ever had. She was a sweet golden retriever who was our friend, our protector, our playmate and a member of our family. She was a wonderful dog.