It’s A Wonderful Life

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The Hallmark Channel is loved by many for its holiday movies. The plots are always upbeat and right out of a stock formula. Those of us watching always know exactly what is going to happen, but we love those films nonetheless. Many of the themes revolve around falling in love at Christmas time. I can relate to that because one of the most wondrous moments of my life happened during the holidays.

I had been dating my husband for about a year and told everyone that who would listen that I was madly in love with him. In fact, I knew after our first date that the two of us had an almost magical connection. We spent every free moment that we had doing things together and those feelings only grew. We were young and a bit naive, but the world around us was filled with angst caused by the war in Vietnam, the draft, assassinations of leaders, war protests, and attempts to find justice and civil rights for our Black citizens. It was a time of great uncertainty and a feeling that the world might blow up before our very eyes. It the midst of that atmosphere Mike and I were certain that we were in love.

Just before Christmas Mike came to my mother’s home and lead me to the Christmas tree. Under the twinkling lights, made even more delightful by the shimmer of icicles, he took my hand and asked me to marry him. I recall feeling overwhelmed by emotion, but I knew without hesitation that my answer was “yes.” It was one of the best events of my life, and yet I had no idea back then how truly wonderful our partnership together would be. If ever I had a Hallmark movie moment it was surely on that night.

We’ve had fifty Christmases as man and wife and they have always been happy, even in the most difficult of times. We were hopelessly young when we walked down the aisle but we muddled through those years when we were still practically children. On our first Christmas we purchased an inexpensive assortment of glass ornaments of various colors and put them on a tiny tree that stood on a desk in our apartment. We had seen a little Nativity set that cost under ten dollars and we splurged to buy it. I still remember how proudly we placed in under the branches of the tree. We still have the manger and have lovingly set it at the foot of our tree foe fifty years. Over that time our decorations have become more and more elaborate.

Now we have a nine foot tree in our great room and companion trees in three other rooms. It takes more than seven storage boxes to hold all of the figurines and orbs that we have collected from one year to the next. We bring back Christmas ornaments from virtually every place that we visit. We have also created collections of Swarovski snowflakes and Lennox gingerbread men. We delight over the whimsical Hallmark ornaments that remind us of bygone years. We have ornaments from friends and homemade items from our children. Every single sparkly item finds a home, even the original glass balls that are now faded from age. I’m a very sentimental sort who even saves the ones made from old Christmas cards and photographs.

Through a great deal of hard work we have created quite a wonderful life for ourselves, but that glorious feeling that I felt in my heart underneath my family’s Christmas tree so long ago has never faded. If anything it has grown even stronger as Mike and I have experienced the realities of life that can sometimes be incredibly difficult. We’ve walked hand in hand through tears and laughter and I still don’t believe that I would ever have found a better partner if I had searched the world over.

We were blessed with great families and remarkable friends. We have shared so many times with people who extend the reach of our love, and of course our children and grandchildren have been the very heart of what we cherish most. Each Christmas Day when they gather at our home I feel a burst of pride and joy that might also make a great Hallmark movie story. I truly believe that if the folks who create those films had simply followed us through the years they would have a great story to tell, one that we celebrate each Christmas.

The honest truth about people my age is that we don’t actually realize how old we may appear to others. In our hearts and minds we still see ourselves as those crazy young kids glowing with the blush of love and expectation. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to change things a bit I suppose that I would be reluctant to alter a single thing. I would be afraid that in doing so I might not be exactly where I am right now. I suspect that’s why I so love the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The story reminds me so much of my own. My journey has been unlike anything I had imagined in my youth and amazingly it came out even better.

As I gaze down through the years I am quite content and ready to celebrate the wonderful day when Christ was born and Mike and I made a promise to love each other until the end of our time. If I could have just one wish come true it would be that everyone would be able to find true love and enjoy a lifetime with a kindred spirit. It is indeed wonderful.

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The Reason For The Season

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I’ve got my Christmas trees decorated, some of my gifts purchased and wrapped, a few of my Christmas cards addressed, and lights twinkling in my front yard. It’s really looking like Christmas 2018 is well on its way. As I celebrate this year I pause now and again to think of people that I know and even some who are strangers who are suffering and finding it difficult to find the joy that I feel. I know all too well how Christmas time can be quite difficult for those who have experienced great loss or who are watching a loved one suffer. It can be quite lonely to observe the world seeming to have so much fun when everything around you is falling apart.

As I begin my revelry I think of a family whose father died quite unexpectedly the day after Thanksgiving. They are bereft and struggling to make sense of what has happened to them. I truly understand their pain for long ago when I was only a child of eight my I awoke on a Memorial Day to learn that my beloved father had died in a car accident the evening before. My entire world crashed down around me and my family seemed to be locked in a state of chronic grief. It felt as though nothing would ever feel normal again, and when Christmas came the old rituals felt odd and out of place. It was when friends and family members came to visit that I began to understand that we would eventually be alright. The gift of love brought us through the darkness and suddenly the lights on our Christmas tree shone so brightly.

I know of a man who is so very ill that his doctors have pronounced that he is living his last days. He drifts in and out of a hazy state of mind. He is a good man and his family would love nothing more than for some beautiful miracle that would save his life for a bit longer. Sadly they know that this is unlikely to happen, and so they make their Christmas preparations with heavy hearts. It is difficult to go through the motions that have been so joyful and routine in the past. They plant smiles on their faces even while their hearts are breaking.

A few years back we were wearing their shoes. My mother-in-law lay in a hospital in a coma after suffering a stroke. While the rest of the world was partying and visiting Santa we sat in her room in a watch that would only lead to her death. We rarely left the hospital and when we did it felt so strange to see signs of Christmas all around us. It was hard to imagine the revelry that was taking place as we felt such sorrow.

That was a very strange Christmas for our family. After her death we gathered as usual on Christmas Day for dinner and the exchange of gifts. It felt as though we were in some strange out of body experiment as we so half heartedly carried on. What helped us most were the cards and letters and gifts of flowers and love from friends who demonstrated how much they understood how we felt. We were not forgotten in the rush of the season and it meant so much to us.

I know of a recently widowed woman who is attempting to find her life without the partner with whom she shared so many joys. She is hurting and more than willing to express her sorrow. She is sustained by words of compassion and indications that she has not been forgotten. It will take time for her to heal, but that time will eventually come. Until then she simply needs hugs and love.

I suspect that each of us knows of someone who is having a very hard time this Christmas. As we load our busy calendars with promises of parties and good times, we would do well to take a bit of time to remember those who are suffering. My mother was wonderful at doing that. She spent a few minutes each day just calling people to cheer them. It was a simple gesture that took little time, but when she died all of those whom she had gifted with her compassion remembered those moments and spoke of how much they had meant. I was overwhelmed when I learned just how often she had quietly brought joy for people with the simple gesture of letting them know that they had not been forgotten in the rush of the season.

I am feeling fortunate and happy this year. I plan to enjoy Christmas, but I will also take the time  to remember that it is not a joyful time everywhere. There are people who are hungry, sick, lonely, grieving all around us. As they view the celebrating their sorrow only becomes more intense. They need us to remember them and make them part of our plans.

I hope to go see my aunts who are now in their nineties and living in nursing homes. They used to decorate every corner of their homes and bake goodies for days. Now they are bound to wheelchairs and dependent on the kindness of others. I want to bring them the cheer that they so deserve. I also plan to be sensitive to those who have lost or may be about to lose a loved one as they struggle through the season. Their hearts are heavy and they are in pain. I want to do something special for them.

Christmas is a time for remembering that Jesus Himself came down for the express purpose of saving us all. If we truly celebrate in the most appropriate way we will include those who need us most when we make our plans.

Just Like That

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Colorado, at least in the mountainous areas, is like a picture postcard. On its best days It is a slice of what heaven must surely resemble, but much like life it can also be treacherous and filled with untold problems. Thus it was on my most recent visit to that gloriously beautiful part of the world, a kind of bittersweet journey that challenged me with a cornucopia of emotions.

Day one was perfection, a picture postcard of memories beginning with an easy stress free flight from Houston to Denver on the day after Thanksgiving. My brother, Pat, and my sister-in-law, Allison picked us up from the airport and we chattered all the way to Estes Park where we enjoy a delicious lunch. There we learned that there would be a parade later that afternoon, and so we decided to stroll through the shops to take advantage of seeing the special event.

It was so cold that not even our layers of undershirts, sweaters, coats, mufflers, hats and gloves were sufficient to keep us warm. We purchased woolen blankets and found places offering coffee and hot chocolate to ease the chill that seemed to go down to the marrow of our bones. In spite of the frigid conditions we talked and laughed and had a glorious time. We were happy to be spending time together and spoke of our plans for the coming days.

The parade was a local affair with floats and decorated cars that spoke of homespun efforts and lots of heart. The high school band played Christmas carols and the Knights of Columbus strutted in full gear. There was a twinkling light bedecked bus that carried waving seniors from the nursing home, and many a float that appeared to have been crafted inside someone’s garage. It was precious and genuine in a way that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade will never quite understand. It reminded us of the parade in the movie A Christmas Story, a kind of throw back to a simple era when folks just had a good time and didn’t worry too much about perfection. It was a most wonderful way to launch the Christmas season.

We stayed in Pat and Allison’s cabin on Storm Mountain, a home built of logs and lots of love. We munched on popcorn and spoke of all the things that we were going to do together during our visit, but since Mike and I had awakened that morning at four to get to the airport on time we were exhausted fairly early and had to give in to the signals from our bodies that we were done for the day. We knew that the morrow would be the reason for our journey, the wedding of a cousin in a lovely setting in Lyons.

When I awoke the early I found Allison sitting at the dining table looking grim and tired. She had been awake for hours after receiving the kind of phone call that dashes dreams and joy. Her daughter-in-law’s father had suddenly died. He was by all accounts a very good man, beloved by everyone who knew him. He was also quite young, only fifty four, and seemingly in the peak of health. His last day on this earth had been spent with friends and he had prepared for bed no doubt thinking of how wonderful his life was. Nobody would have thought that he would collapse and die so instantly. The shock of what had happened ricocheted through the roster of friends and family members who so loved him.

His daughter had to learn of this tragedy from a celebratory vacation in Thailand. Her world went from joy to grief in a matter of seconds. Allison had spent hours rerouting and rescheduling the journey home for her sweet daughter-in-law and her son. What had been the trip of a lifetime had spun into a nightmare. Pat and Allison would have to leave Colorado immediately and return home to Houston. Mike and I would attend the wedding and finish our trip alone. Just like that everything had changed.

A winter storm was brewing that day. There was promise of snow and ice in the mountains. We rented a car and soon enough learned that it handled the roads well until we tested its mettle on treacherous trails filled with ice and snow. It could even not make it up the driveway at the cabin and the worst weather was yet to come. Thus we settled for a hotel room in Loveland and said our goodbyes to Pat and Allison with heavy hearts. They would battle the elements on their long journey home, an added reminder of how quickly things can change.

We made it to the wedding feeling a bit other worldly. Our minds were on the people who were dealing with the end of a beautiful life while we were focusing on the new beginning of two people very much in love. It was a vivid reminder of the cycle of our lives and the need to always be mindful of our blessings. Being at the wedding was the perfect panacea for the dreariness that had invaded what we had intended to be a great celebration. It was impossible not to smile when witnessing the unadulterated joy of the bride and groom. Our disappointment and concerns melted away even as the wind outside whipped at the windows and reminded us that another young couple was far away making the arduous trip home to bury a father.

By the following day the storm had passed. The sun came out and shone gloriously as if to encourage us to maintain our optimism even in the face of tragedy. We attended church surrounded by strangers who nonetheless embraced us. A friend suggested on Facebook that we thank God all day long rather than petitioning for favors. As I noted the wonders of our day I realized that my world was indeed crowded with beauty and kindness and ways of feeling happy in spite of the trials that come our way.

The remainder of our trip was quiet and comforting. We seemed to have acquired the Midas touch because each day was somehow golden. We thought of Allison and her daughter-in-law’s family often and hoped that they somehow felt the vibrations of our love and concern for them. We relished our own moments perhaps a bit more acutely as we had been reminded how fragile and precious life actually is. Just like that the sweet may turn bitter and the bitter may become sweet. It is the way of the world. It is the circle of life even for the very good.

My heart is still heavy for the family of that good man. I understand all too well that shockingly terrible feeling that comes from losing a loved one without warning. Nothing can adequately describe the sense of unfairness and loss. I can only assure all who loved him that this wonderful man will be remembered for the joy that he so generously showered on family and friends. In time the overwhelming sadness will be replaced with beautiful memories and his spirit will enable all of them to go on to embrace both the bitter and sweet of life. Just like that winter will pass and spring will come again.

Confessions To Santa

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Santa has come to town. I saw it with my own eyes when I watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I learned long ago that I better not lie or he just might leave me lumps of coal on Christmas Day. Since I have absolutely no use for lumps of coal I suppose that the time has come for me to be totally honest about a few things.

I keep talking about my new healthy lifestyle and how great it makes me feel, but if I am one hundred percent honest I have to admit that I still miss a number of foods and lifestyles that I have attempted to forego. I haven’t prepared mashed potatoes or gravy for well over a year and I am known for making the yummiest versions on the planet. I long for a big heaping plate of butter filled potatoes with a well of gravy that is so full that it drizzles down the sides. There is no better comfort food on planet earth other than maybe macaroni and cheese. Not that I mention it I might note that I’ve given up all forms of pasta with cheesy sauces even though I do love such delights so much. My mouth is watering at the mere thought of how yummy cheesy dishes are.

I have to look away whenever I pass a donut shop, or see the long line of cars going through a drive through at Popeye’s Chicken on Tuesday bargain days. In the Hill Country of Texas I pretend that I am not the least bit interested in having a kolache, even though my mouth waters at the very sight of one filled with cherries or apples. I sometimes dream of enjoying a gigantic cinnamon roll with a cup of steaming hot tea. I don’t really know what a sugar plum is, but visions of butter pecan ice cream dance through my head even in the winter. I truly wonder if I will have the fortitude to avoid Borden’s egg nog over the holidays. The list of transgressions that I would like to make goes on and on, and I start pouting which is also a big no no when it comes to Santa Claus.

Everyone who is even minimally familiar with me recalls that I truly delight in an ice cold Diet Coke. I became habitually addicted to that drink when I first began having migraine headaches. I found it to be a quick fix for the nauseating symptoms that would overtake me without warning. Before long I was “medicating” myself with a Diet Coke first thing in the morning, at lunch time, and in the afternoon. After spending two years rebuilding bone by injecting myself with Forteo each day it seemed a bit ridiculous to potentially undo all of my hard work by drinking sodas, so at the beginning of February last year I went cold turkey on Diet Coke. I haven’t had one in all of that time, but my mind still longs for the way it calmed my headaches and felt so right with certain foods. I keep wondering when or even if I will ever be able to attend a party, enjoy some TexMex or watch a movie in a theater without longing for my one time favorite drink. Water is good and good for me, but sometimes it just doesn’t cut it.

I cheat with my eating mostly when I take a trip or go out with other people. I can’t enforce the strict rules that I usually apply to myself when I’m at home. Sadly I find that my body totally rebels when I do so, and I have to begin anew to cleanse myself of the offending foods. I gain three or five pounds in a single day and turning back is always difficult. I try to be steadfast in my determination to be healthy, but it can be a battle when everyone is ordering coconut cream pie or berry cobbler. Fasting from such luxuries is almost impossible in those cases and I cave in to group pressure. It then takes me two weeks to get back into the program.

The holiday season is coming. I know that the temptations will be overwhelming. I’ll try to offset my transgressions with more exercise. I’ll work a little harder at the gym, another activity that I have to admit is sometimes annoying to have to do. I always feel very good after I go, but it’s so easy to procrastinate and make excuses for skipping a day here and there. I whine that it’s unfair that I can’t eat whatever I wish, sit on my tush reading or watching movies all day, and still say fit and trim. I don’t like how I feel when I am bad, but I am so tempted to just throw in my hat and to be that way. After all, I’m seventy years old. Why should I have to be so fastidious with my diet and exercise?

Then I know that I must stay determined to keep to my regimen going as much as possible, so that when I have opportunities to fudge just a bit, it won’t be a disaster. I know that I can’t live like a monk all of the time. It is okay to take one cookie as long as I follow up with a walk. A wedge of pumpkin pie won’t kill me if I cut back on the sugar and carbs the rest of the time. The one thing that I will not do is take even a sip of Diet Coke because my craving for it is still so strong that I fear what will happen if I do. I now get my caffeine from nice warm mugs of Earl Grey or some Lusianne tea over ice now and again. Most of the time I now crave water instead. It’s my new habit, and one that is far better than any I have had in the past.

I feel much better now that I have admitted my weaknesses. I suppose that in confessing to Santa I have also realized that I am somehow managing to control my imperfections, while also indulging my cravings only once in awhile rather than as a routine. I do want to be strong, so I will push myself even when I truly don’t want to do so. I’m not so much worried about finding coal under my tree on Christmas day as learning that my bad habits have affected my health. It feels too good to feel good.

Visions of Sugar Plums

One of my annual pilgrimages is to the Nutcracker Market in Houston, Texas. It’s a yearly gala hosted by the Houston Ballet in a fundraising effort that has grown into an extravaganza that takes place just ahead of the Christmas season. It provides a gathering of unique merchants from all across the country inside the vast halls of the Reliant Center, offering everything from holiday decorations to furniture. It is also one of the most interesting places to people watch, or should I say mostly women watch. Thousands of ladies converge on the event starting early on a Thursday morning in November, with a rare male joining their ranks now and again. It is a carnival, a celebration, and at some moments a truly crazy experience.

I have to admit that I had never even heard of the Nutcracker Market until one of the school administrators with whom I worked told me about almost thirteen years ago. She was shocked to learn that I had never been and decided to show me the ropes by inviting me to join her in taking a “sick” day from work and playing a bit of adult hooky. I reluctantly agreed because it was not my style to be anything but dependable, but the lure of adventure ultimately caused me to agree to her plan.

I was mystified as to why she insisted that we travel in one car on the morning of our glorious day off until we reached the entrance to the parking lot and sat in a long line of traffic waiting expectantly to get inside. We had to leave the car so far away from the hall that we must surely have satisfied our daily exercise routines before even reaching the next huge line of women purchasing tickets. Even though we had begun our journey early in the morning it was almost ten before we finally walked into shopping Nirvana.

Since I have a tinge of Attention Deficit Disorder I was almost overcome when I saw the swarms of people, the array of colors, and the bazaar like atmosphere that lay before us. Thanks to my friend I was able to keep a semblance of focus under her tutelage. She took me to the best vendors first and even insisted that we buy mimosas to calm my anxiety of not knowing where to first turn. We walked from one stall to another in a determined hike that must have been miles. All along the way were women feverishly searching for items that they might never find in a big box or department store. My friend was a veteran of the Nutcracker wars so I felt confident that I would not make any mistakes. She knew where to find the less frequently visited restrooms, and how to secure a table for lunch which she insisted had to be catered by a tamale company that came every year. We talked and laughed and tried on clothes and filled our bags with gifts for friends and family and for ourselves as well. When our purchases became too heavy or bulky my friend demonstrated how to get tons of things inside one bag that we paid to be stored for us for a small price until we were finished shopping. When we finally felt the first tinges of exhaustion we realized that we had been inside the strange world for well over eight hours, and it was growing dark outside. We left as happy and chatty as when we had started earlier that day and vowed to return again.

My friend left the school where I had been working and I lost contact with her but I was hooked and had to go back to the Nutcracker Market each season. Over the years I have found different partners and groups willing to accompany me to the astoundingly celebratory event. During all that time I have watched the crowds swell to unimaginable sizes and the outrageousness of the shoppers become more and more interesting. I still go into a kind of ADD trance when I first enter the scene, and I doubt that I would be capable of navigating the rows and rows of merchants without someone to keep me focused. Those with whom I have gone come and go, either because they have moved away or they just can’t quite handle to zaniness. Nonetheless I remember my times with them with great fondness.

This year I attended the market with my sister-in-law, Allison, who is a great partner in any situation. She’s full of energy and laughter and has a knack for taking on any challenge with a relaxed and optimistic attitude. I was quite grateful that she was driving because the craziness began in the parking lot where there were already of groups of women sitting in lawn chairs enjoying breakfast and a few cocktails to gird their loins for the shopping battle ahead. We ended up parking so far away that walking from my home would not have been a much farther distance. As we searched for a spot to leave her car we saw ladies wearing matching shirts and exotic headdresses. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air and I became as excited as a child.

As usual my brain froze up once we got inside. I knew the drill but there were so many choices and my mind started jumping around like a pinball machine. Allison took charge much to my great joy, and after a time I calmed down enough to actually see what I was doing. We found great gifts from friends and family members and chatted like two sisters. Our bags became as full as Santa’s sleigh and still we walked and walked and walked viewing the great wonders and sampling soups and candies and muffins. As is always the case we lost track of time, and of the world in general. For those wonderful hours we were in our element, just having fun without a care, bonding the way women so often do.

About seven hours into our adventures our feet and our knees and our pocketbooks told us that we were done for this year. We took a trolley to the edge of the parking to retrieve Allison’s car and drove through the parcel pickup station to claim the treasures that we had found. We returned home a bit tired, but feeling so close to one another for what we had shared. It had been another wonderful day at the Nutcracker Market.

I’m already plotting and planning for next year. I hope that Allison will want to go again because she is a fabulous partner. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I dreamed last night. I suppose that if truth were to be told it was not the actual shopping that was so much fun, but rather the time spent with my sister-in-law and thousands of women letting their hair down and having a good time. We were a motley crew with smiles on our faces, and for a brief moment in time our cares and woes were set aside.