Auld Lang Syne

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Twenty eighteen was a truly great year for me, so as we ease into twenty nineteen I am experiencing a bit of worry. I’ve been around this old world long enough to know that life is a roller coaster ride, and since things went up, up, up for me all year long last year I have a sense of foreboding that I am about to follow the laws of physics and go down quickly. That can be both exhilarating and scary. I realize that moving fast and furiously down a steep slope will most likely just be quite exciting, but I worry that real dangers lie ahead. I know that such thoughts are contrary to my generally optimistic and schmaltzy approach to life, but I am also a realist and the worst of my musings dwell on the inevitability of aging that is weakening some of my favorite people and leaving them vulnerable even as they desperately attempt to fight against the dying of the light. My hopeful side dreams of miracles for them, but the realistic aspect of my personality tells me that their time with us is drawing to a close. For that reason I feel a bit unsteady as I look ahead to the coming twelve months

A new year should be hopeful and most of them usually are for me, but I learned long ago that the unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. I literally begin each day thanking God for allowing me to awake to one more day, and before I go to sleep I express my gratitude that nobody that I know and love was harmed during my waking hours. In between those prayers I try not to dwell on any worries that I have. I embrace each moment with genuine joy because life itself is so beautiful and yet so fragile.

There is something about the holidays of December and January that evoke strong memories of times past and people who are no longer with us. In the midst of all the revelry snippets of joy and sadness run through our minds. We genuinely miss the people who once shared those glorious times with us. Some left us far too soon, and others became fixtures in our celebrations. We think of the “might have beens” for those who died young, and recall the wondrous presence of those who were so long in our lives. Our thoughts evoke emotions of both happiness and sadness. We treasure the very fact that they were once with us while longing for just one more moment with them.

Such feelings seem to return each December when we least expect them. They are triggered by songs or foods or routines. The spirits of our departed loved ones seem to arrive to take our breaths away for an instant or bring a few tears to our eyes. Our minds swirl in a mixture of melancholy and joy as we remember how it was when they were laughing and vibrant in our midst. The pain of loss becomes easier to bear over time, but it never completely goes away and so we remember.

Each year I bring out my holiday decorations and traditions and see the tangible reminders of friends and family who have left this earth. I use the pewter flatware from our dear friend Egon who was like a third brother. He was with us every single Christmas, and now we think of him as we set the Nordic pewter on our table. My friend Pat is represented in the many ornaments that she gave me along with the snowflake bedspread and cheerful Christmas plaid placemats that brighten our dining experience. Mostly though I see her in the many renditions of red birds that I am inevitably drawn to because they make me believe that she is somehow still with me, laughing and thinking of fun experiences that we might share.

My Grandma Ulrich comes to our party when I set out the big enamel bowl that I rescued from her house after she died. I fill it with nuts and oranges just as she always did, and somehow I see her padding across the floor in her bare feet carrying cups of coffee for each of my guests. My mother is present as well laughing and lighting up the room with her infectious smile. The manger scene that she purchased on the first Christmas after my father died still reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas, a lesson that she taught me and my brothers so well. There is also her silver that was bought for her by my father who seemed determined to spoil her with his affection. The “First Love” pattern reminds me of how beautiful they were together, and how little time they had to show me how glorious marriage and family can be.

I open the tables that once belonged to my mother-in-law and her mother and aunt. Those wooden pieces are like altars with the memories engrained in them. They have witnessed the gathering of many generations of family. They are solid and dependable just as my mother-in-law always was. I can almost see her smiling with that beautiful heart of hers bursting with pride as we celebrate just as she always did each year.

In some ways Christmas and New Years Day are summed up in the traditional anthem Auld Lang Syne, a tune that always brought tears to my husband’s grandmother’s eyes. It was the last song she heard as she and her family set forth to travel across the ocean from Great Britain to the United States of America. She would build a wonderful life here in this country, but she would never again see her beloved England and the friends and relatives that she left behind. Much like a new year the memory of that moment was bittersweet, simultaneously evoking both hope and sadness.

I know that regardless of what may happen in the coming months I will be fine. I have experienced both the trials and tribulations of living again and again. I have the strength to face both the good and the bad. I will carry on because I know that when December rolls around again I will be reminded of the love that has always been part of my life. 

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Shout For Joy!

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Christmas is my favorite day of the year. For me it is a time to pause from the hurry of life and to contemplate my many blessings while in the company of the family and friends that mean so much to me. As a Catholic it is also a reminder of the birth of our Savior, a humble beginning of an incredible story that resonates with millions and millions of believers and even non-believers across the world. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a stable on a cold winter’s night and would grow to become one of the most influential voices ever heard on this earth. Even without the religious overtones of His preaching, the kind of life He advocated is beautiful in its simplicity and its immense love. It is so fitting that we still acknowledge His impact on the world over two thousand years after He walked and talked among the people of His time.

I’m not one to proselytize. I think that each of us has a right to whatever beliefs suit us, but I am eternally gratefully that my parents, and particularly my mother, taught me about Jesus and encouraged me to accept His teachings. I was baptized at All Saints Catholic Church by Father John Perusina. My godparents were my Aunt Polly and Uncle Jack. I was an infant then and recall nothing of that moment, but I do know that my godparents took their vow to guide me in my religion very seriously. I understood that I would be able to count on them to be like two guardian angels quietly watching over me. They and my mother and father modeled the essence of being good people, the kind that Jesus said that we all should be. Following His word and their example has brought much happiness to me and taken me through the most difficult of times. I truly cannot imagine my life without my faith to sustain me.

I understand that the world is comprised of a vast diversity of beliefs. I try to honor the opinions and ways of thinking of others. I value their right to view the world through their own unique lenses. At Christmas time I know that my Jewish friends are just as sincere in their religious philosophies as I am in mine. So too it is with the Muslims that I know, the Christians of other sects, and even those who choose not to believe in a higher power. Still I would argue that Jesus was a good guy with very brilliant thoughts that if followed even in a secular sense would make for a glorious world. After all, what can possibly be wrong with following His mandate to love one another? I suppose that is what Christmas means to me.

At this time of year I am reminded to stop long enough to share my own bounty and joy with others. I know that mine has been a wonderful life, mostly because of people who have followed the ways of Jesus, even when they did not adhere to Christianity. I have mostly encountered and been surrounded by individuals who did their best to be kind and generous, honest and loyal. In that regard I suppose that I may count myself as rich. In the end not a single one of my possessions is even remotely equal to the value of the family, friends and acquaintances that I have met in the journey that has lead to my seventy first Christmas. The gifts that I give and receive are but symbols of the love that surrounds me. In this regard I have been truly saved.

At the center of all of our Christmas revelry is a man who was willing to give his life so that we might all be saved. Even if we do not believe that he was not anymore godlike than the rest of us, he left us the treasure of his way, truth and life. Surely everyone must admit that it was a glorious gift that has indeed saved millions of us throughout the ages. I know that it has been my hope and salvation.

So on this Christmas Day I shout for joy! The Lord has come and He has been my Guide and my Savior.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! May each of you find the words and the teachings that will anchor you to happiness throughout the days of your lives.

The Best Christmas Ever!

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I suppose that I’m still like a seven year old child rather than a seventy year old when it comes to Christmas Eve. I’m filled with such a sense of anticipation and joy. I know that most of my family members will be gathering at my niece’s home and soon we will all be united in an evening of fun. Christmas Even festivities have been one of the highlights of my whole year since I was a small child.

Back in the day we gathered at my Grandma Ulrich’s home, a tiny place where we were crammed together like sardines. Everyone understood that getting a chair was quite a feat, so once one was secured folks rarely moved for the entire evening. I always liked to arrive early to be certain that I would have a place to sit down.

My uncles filled big enamel tubs with oranges, apples and nuts, and my grandmother scurried about making sure that everyone had a cup of coffee. There was usually a gigantic Whitman’s Sampler on the dining table. Even though there was a nice listing of what each candy was on the lid of the box, some of my cousins determined the flavors by poking their fingers into the chocolate to see for themselves what to expect. Of course the best ones with caramel and nuts were usually gone rather quickly just like the best seats in the house.

We never exchanged gifts. Those were for my grandmother only. She reveled in all of the treasures and then promptly put them away in her room or her attic rarely to ever be seen again. My uncles had a money drawing the created quite a stir. The grand prizes were fifty dollar bills, something that I never saw. My luck generally resulted in a one and once in a blue moon a five. It was still tons of fun, and hope sprang eternal in my heart that one day I would get the big one.

It was so loud that it was difficult to hear anyone other than the person sitting right beside me. We’d laugh and carry on as though we were privy to all of the riotous conversations even though that was almost impossible. Just before midnight everyone would leave so that we would all be sound asleep when Santa made his rounds. It was incredibly fun.

After my grandmother died we kept up the tradition until my uncle who still lived in her house had died. After that everyone began creating their own Christmas Eve events. My brother decided to be the hero and host the festivities each year. We had been going to his home for decades, but his daughter requested a change of venue when she had three little ones and it became difficult for her to cart them around. Now we convene at her home.

At first we exchanged gifts, but then we decided to make things more fun by bringing a generic gift and then have a game of sorts. Each person draws a number and has an opportunity to either take a present from under the tree or steal one from someone who has already opened a gift. After three steals of the same object it becomes the property of the person holding it. It’s a loud and fun time with well over thirty folks strategizing to get the best of the lot.

My brothers and I also decided to continue the tradition of having a money drawing. Last year I actually got a twenty dollar bill. It was the best result of my entire life, so I’m now thinking that I might one day have a shot at landing one of the really big prizes. 

The best part of the evening is seeing everyone. People fly in from Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and other places. The crowd grows with each year as new members are added through  birth or marriage. We love each other so, and our kids all get along so well. I get a warm feeling just thinking about the gathering, and I can’t really understand why such things are stressful for some people because in our family everyone is accepted and appreciated just as they are. Nobody has to put on airs or pretend.

My brother and niece make all sorts of special dishes and Mike and I forego our diet for the evening. I munch on Reuben sandwiches, my brother’s special hotdogs, pecan pie, dips, cookies and things that I won’t dare eat again until the next Christmas Eve. The pounds that I gain are temporary and go away quickly when I return to my diet of mostly fresh vegetables and fruit.

I always go home feeling especially blessed for being in such a wonderful family. We are as loud as ever, but always full of fun and love. It seems to me that our gatherings are exactly what Christmas is supposed to be all about.

Merry Christmas everyone. May your holiday be filled with peace and love however you choose to celebrate.

Christmas Traditions

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I’ve been inviting a crowd of family members to my home on Christmas Day for a good while now. Back in the day both my mother and my mother-in-law hosted events that we attended. I was spoiled in never having to cook and clean for the holidays. I’d sleep in on Christmas morning and leisurely get the family ready to visit the grandparents around noon. I had little idea how much effort went into their galas until the day when my mother-in-law announced that she was very tired and feeling unable to find the energy to host such a big event any longer. She explained that she and my father-in-law would begin the preparation process weeks in advance and just could not do it anymore. That’s when I announced that I was taking on the Christmas Day project.

My mother-in-law was quite relieved, but my mother was annoyed that I was taking her special celebration away from her even though she too had become less and less enthusiastic about all of the labor and expense of such a grand celebration. It was difficult for her to accept the change, just as it was for everyone on both sides of the family who whispered that they liked things better with the old traditions. It took some time for the members of the family to actually enjoy Christmas Day at my home as they longed for the old ways. It’s been so long now since we went over the river and through the woods to grandmas’ houses that my event has taken on a hint of being a tradition. Both of the wonderful ladies who once served as hostesses are gone and the duties of providing a place to celebrate have fallen to me.

I spent many years attempting to find a good formula for feeding the guests. I tried turkeys, roasts, hams and all sorts of combinations. Nothing felt quite right, so one year I announced that I was going to do something very different. I made several batches of gumbo, cooked up some rice and offered a few salads and sides. It was an instant hit and so each December my husband Mike and I have spent days in the kitchen making enough of the seafood delight to serve the more than thirty folks who show up. It’s a long process because we do everything from scratch beginning with the rue. We use no gumbo bases or mixes which means that we do a great deal of chopping of onions, green peppers, celery, okra and garlic. It’s a yummy concoction that has granted us the designation of Gumbo King and Queen.

This year has been more busy than any I have encountered since I retired. It seemed as though making all of that gumbo would be to much for us. We usually cook two batches at a time and the process takes around four hours from start to finish. I came up with what I though was a brilliant plan to just purchase several of the huge Costco chicken pot pies and center the meal around those. I got a few thumbs up because it would certainly be a delicious way to go, but the quiet disappointment slowly began to rumble in the background. Most people still wanted the gumbo that they had learned to love.

I was steadfast until last week when my sweet son-in-law expressed shock upon learning that there would be no gumbo this year. Somehow that struck a chord with me because he’s had a tough year and I know that he needs as much joy as there is to be found. I girded my loins and went into attack mode. I purchased enough of the gumbo ingredients to make a firm commitment to insuring that there would be heaping pots of the brew on Christmas Day. I began by cooking up two batches all by myself because Mike was busy with his Christmas shopping. It took even longer than ever because I had to do all of the dicing, a task that Mike actually enjoys and I loathe. By the end of a very long session I had some very tasty gumbo simmering on the stove, ready to be frozen until just before Christmas Day. I was actually happy that I had decided to give the crowd what they want.

Like the mothers who worked so hard in the decades before I volunteered to ease their labors, I do a little bit each day to be certain that everyone will have a good time. We crowd into the house and it becomes filled with laughter and pleasant conversations. By the end of the day my home is littered with wrapping paper and dirty dishes and beautiful memories. I never regret being able to bring joy to the family.

I suppose that I too will one day find myself lacking in energy. I’ve already planned to begin cooking batches of my gumbo in October and slowly keep adding containers to the freezer until I have enough. One day I may give away my Christmas china and use paper plates and bowls in place of the finery. All of these changes will allow me to keep the tradition going until I finally pass down the baton to some willing individual. I suppose that this is the way things have been done for all time.

My grandmothers and Mike’s once opened their homes to the family on Christmas Day. Then it fell to our mothers to host the celebration. Now it is my turn. I think of it as an honor that I hope to continue as long as I can. My family is so relaxed and grateful to have a place to go that I don’t have to feel stressed or tied to certain ways of doing things. My grandchildren have even suggested that I teach them how to make the gumbo so that they can have a big gumbo making party to help me out. I’m sure that they will also be happy to enjoy some Costco pot pie whenever if it comes to that. What they really want is just to be together.

Peace On Earth

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We have a human longing for peace on earth, goodwill toward all people. Somehow it feels as though such sentiments are little more than an ideal, a dream, and yet we are driven to at least try to make the world a better place. Ironically much of the rancor that occurs as we do our best to create harmony arises from our differing interpretations as to how to achieve such a lofty goal. We are only too aware of limited resources and the role that they play in our everyday relationships. We desire to be fair, but we also have tendencies that drive us to protect ourselves and those that we love. The tension between wanting to be magnanimous and satisfying our need to feel safe has been the enigmatic force that pushes and pulls us, and often leaves us quibbling rather than working toward a common good.

History has demonstrated time and again that there are indeed very good people sacrificing themselves in the service of others, but there are also evil doers who care little for anyone but themselves. Somehow we have to be astute enough to identify who is who lest we fall for propaganda and promises that rely on our fears and our darker sides. At the same time we cannot be naive about the ways of the world lest we become martyrs to noble causes without the grit to overcome the darkest aspects of human nature. Progress toward the peace that we so desire sometimes requires defensive measures that invoke violence. Thus is the conundrum of human history.

Watching the news these days makes it very difficult to believe that we will ever again find a measure of calm. There are hot spots all over the planet, and they have nothing to do with climate but rather everything to do with our grievances. We have battles between rich and poor, this religion and that, the powerful and the powerless, male and female, the educated and laborers, one nation and another. It’s difficult to find a place anywhere on earth that is immune to the disagreements that result from our diversity of opinions. It can be quite disheartening to watch the rancor playing out even as we pray for love and kindness to be the order of the day. We wonder and worry about the future and what it may bring.

Then we witness the death of a very good person like George H.W. Bush. We have the opportunity to see the entirety of his life. We hear his philosophies and mull over his words. We realize that there is indeed reason for optimism. We see that in spite of sharing our own tendencies to make mistakes and wrong choices he managed to live a life mostly comprised of forgiveness, compassion and a willingness to adjust his course when he needed to rethink his ways of meeting the world. We realize that qualities like honor, service, devotion to family never really go out of style. We see that true courage is not brash or insulting, but rather quietly committed to a cause. We learn from a man like President Bush that being a leader means cherishing those that we lead. We find that embracing defeat makes us champions. Somehow in viewing the life of such a man we find the hope that we have been seeking.

I doubt that we will change overnight simply because we have been reminded of how to bring out our better natures, but somehow I suspect that we will pause long enough to rethink the course of our nation and our world. We will begin to remember what is most important and we may even learn to get along again. We will search for the good rather than focusing on grievances. We will ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them. Then we will be back on the path to peace.

Somehow we humans keep repeating the same choruses over and over. We fight for a time and then grow weary. We work together for a time and then grow jealous. We forget those who struggle and then remember to work as hard for them as we do for ourselves. The patterns seem to repeat themselves with regularity, but we don’t have to be caught in a wheel of fortune over which we have no control. We can become more peaceful bit by tiny bit, but it will require a willingness to open our minds and to be more forgiving,

I read a profoundly wise article recently that spoke to the idea that it is often our self righteousness that leads to the battles between differing factions. We fail to see the reasons why people believe as they do. Instead we condemn them for what we see as faulty thinking. We spew epithets at them and posture as though we are somehow better. The anger between each side only grows. Sometimes the most difficult stance that we may ever take is simply to be nice even when we are being misunderstood.

I think that this is the essence of the message left to us by Jesus Christ, and whether or not we believe that He was indeed a savior and the son of God His example shows us exactly how to behave toward one another. In this season that celebrates His birth we should learn about and think about His life because it was a model of what is best in each of us. If we do nothing more than celebrate Him as a great historical figure we should still emulate His way of life, for it was profoundly wise. He demonstrated how to find peace on earth good will toward men by embracing and forgiving even those who have wronged us. It’s a difficult task, but one that will lead us closer to the world we desire.