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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The Number Line of Our Lives

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Last week I was at the University of Houston where I was planning to have lunch with a student who is considering returning to Texas from his out of state college. Our first stop was at the offices of transfer counseling services in the Cougar Village. I waited near the reception desk while he met with a representative to outline his needs and learn how to proceed in making the change. It was somewhat quiet in the office and my chair was right in front of the receptionist who was a tiny young woman who appeared to be quite businesslike but nonetheless polite and inviting. I thought of my own experiences with academic counseling at U of H in the long ago and remarked that I truly appreciated her kind demeanor, relaying a bit of my own experience when I too was little more than a slip of a woman.

My initial contact with the university had been quite a discouraging affair that almost sent me running. I sat for well over an hour before I was even seen by anyone. When my moment to garner information finally came I was greeted by a surly woman who literally barked the obvious fact that she was behind schedule and had very little time for conversation other than that related to the business at hand. There were no warm greetings, not even a tiny smile. Instead her angry demeanor set a tone for the interaction that left me flummoxed and almost as ignorant about policies and procedures as I had been before I came. My session ended on such a rushed note that I felt as though I was being pushed from the office. I somehow maintained my composure in spite of how I was feeling until I reached the ladies room down the hall where I found a stall and proceeded to cry for at least five minutes. Luckily once I got past the bureaucratic arm of the university it was smooth sailing. My classes were challenging and interesting, and my professors were always accommodating and determined to help me navigate through the years of my college life. I grew to love the University of Houston, but shuddered at the thought of having to deal with the business and paperwork associated with entering and exiting.

I joked a bit with the student with whom I had outlined my story and then she in turn relayed hers. She was from Asia and was majoring in mathematics. There were a number of career pathways that she was considering, but she was most interested in applying math in the business sector. She was excited about graduating in the spring and spoke of the many people at the university who had supported her when she first came and knew so little about the city or even our country. It was apparent that her efforts to be hospitable to those who visited the office had stemmed from her own experiences and the appreciation that she felt for those who come to the university attempting to make life changing decisions. She delights in the fact that she is now the one who greets so many of them. She wants their first impression to be be positive because she understands their fears.

I enjoyed my little talk with this stranger who now seemed a bit more like an acquaintance. I appreciated that she had taken the time to relate her own story with so much candor. I felt the kind of bond that two people enjoy in that brief moment when their worlds collide and they are willing to approach each other with mutual respect. It amazed me that even though our collegiate ties were separated by many decades we had both felt the same sense of apprehension and hopefulness as we imagined our lives stretched out before us. I was now viewing mine from the rearview mirror of nostalgia and she was just placing her foot on the accelerator to forge into unexplored territory full speed ahead. Both of us felt a kinship and gratitude for those who had helped us to reach our respective points in life. In particular I understood that her lovely demeanor toward everyone who walked into the office would set the tone for a wonderful experience that might encourage even those who felt lost to take the risks that most certainly would lie ahead.

Eventually the student with whom I had come for a lunch date finished his own appointment and we headed to a restaurant on campus. I saw in his eyes that his meeting had not given him the answers that he had hoped to hear. He felt a bit discouraged by all of the hoops through which he would have to jump if he decided to transfer his work from one university to another. It would be almost like starting over and losing all of the time that he had already invested. He was caught in a quandary that I too have faced, and so we began a quiet discussion of his options over a lunch of grilled cheese and tomato basil soup. The fact that it was a grey and cold day did little to help his mood, and I could see the wheels turning in his head as he calculated the cost of staying put in a place that made him miserable versus changing to a more positive environment where he has friends who care about him and encourage him to make the move as they have already done.

Time feels very different to me than it does to a young adult barely entering his twenties. I have the advantage of knowing how quickly it passes. i have experienced enough to know all too well the importance of being happy. Our minds tell us when something is wrong and while it may be challenging to extricate ourselves from certain situations in the long run we will always land on our feet and find the contentment that we seek. I have learned all too well that life rarely follows a straight line. Instead it is a series of curves looping back and forth often throwing us off balance. It is a high wire act that is both frightening and exciting. If we take a deep breath we learn that most of the platitudes that we hear have some merit. We won’t fail as long as we follow our hearts and keep trying. The clock will keep ticking but we soon learn to ignore it as well as the unsolicited advice and critiquing from well meaning people who think that they have a better understanding of what we need than we do. We almost always find the confidence that we need to be the person that we want to be regardless of what others may think, Our happiness comes from discovering a sense of purpose rather than pursuing a job and concerning ourselves with wealth. In the process we often find that we get exactly what we have needed all along.

I can’t help thinking about the continuum on which we all fall in a kind of curvy number line of life. As long as we are breathing the ray of hope shines ahead. There is always time for adjustments to our trajectory. I am at a far end, but still aware that unknown challenges and joys lie ahead. The young lady in the office is both ending one phase and beginning another. The student with whom I had hoped to convey some wisdom is stopping and starting and making circles as he attempts to come to the right conclusion that will work for him. None of us is a fortune teller capable of predicting exactly what will happen once we make a choice, but based on what lies behind I understand perhaps a bit better that the secret to a full and rewarding life begins with a little spark that tells us when we are heading in the right direction and when we are not. We learn to alter our course and adapt more and more quickly on our journey. We become like  race car drivers whose muscle memories react quickly to bumps and turns in the ever changing environment. Somewhere along the road we also become proficient in rejoicing in our uniqueness and gain confidence in the choices we have made. We ultimately realize that when all is said and done it is in the people we have loved and the lives that we have touched that we have found the keys to our puzzling searches. 

The Things We Own

Internet-of-things-data-digitalWe are not defined by our possessions. At least we shouldn’t be, and yet when someone dies we find ourselves remembering moments shared with them when we see the artifacts that belonged to them. A ring, a book, a plate, a tool, a painting, an article of clothing may spark recollections that bring a person back to life in the mind of the beholder.

When my father died I found comfort in seeing his clothes and shoes lying in the closet where he had left them when he went out on a summer evening drive. Somehow as long as they were there I felt as though a part of him was still with us. When my mother finally had one of my aunts remove his things the reality of his death sank into my brain. From then on my memories of him were found in the books that he had so treasured. They spoke to me of his love of reading and told me that he had been a man of many different interests and talents.

Since my mother had lived with me in the last year of her life the duty of disposing of her clothing became my responsibility. My daughters helped me and each of them chose one item to remember her by. One of them decided to take Mama’s warm fuzzy robe. She wears it to this very day and says that it makes her feel as though she is getting a hug from her grandmother. She swears that even with multiple cleanings it still has my mother’s scent locked in the fibers. In a strange way it is like having a tiny bit of her essence still intact,

Last week my husband and I helped the daughter of a very dear friend drive his RV to a consignment lot where it will eventually be sold. He had died quite suddenly last month to the shock of all of us. Driving my truck behind the RV as we rode in a caravan reminded me of the camping trips that we had taken with him. They always took place in the fall and we had great fun talking and hiking and visiting museums. Just as had happened with my father’s things the reality of Bill’s death struck me full force during that drive. He loved the big meals that I cooked and we laughed and told stories while we broke bread at the tiny table that seemed so bountiful on those wonderful occasions. I felt a deep sadness because I knew how much joy that RV had brought him. In fact, he had once told us that it had saved his life after the death of his beloved wife. The trips that he took provided him with a reawakening of his sense of adventure and a reason to arise each day. It appeared from the interior of the RV that he had been in the process of planning another excursion just before he died. I suppose that I feel some comfort in knowing that he was probably happy as he contemplated the fun that he was going to have.

After our friend died his daughter gave me some of the things from his house. I have a stained glass butterfly and a set of wind chimes that had been chosen by his wife, my very good friend as well. The blue glass figurine was so much like her. She loved butterflies and the the indigo and turquoise colors that decorated so many corners of her home. I smile now when I see the lovely items that speak of her whimsy and remind me of her laughter. She enjoyed having what she called rainbow days and as the sun shines through the colored glass I see little rainbows dancing on my ceiling as though she is actually urging me to embrace life and have fun.

When I opened the boxes that hold my Christmas decorations I found a Viking nutcracker. It once belonged to our friend, Egon, a German fellow whose ancestry included a Norwegian mother. He loved Norway and its people and spent most of his summers at a family hut in the mountains. He often told us tales of those halcyon days with his parents and aunts and uncles. He made the place that they called Hovden sound as though it was a slice of heaven. We had always planned to one day go there with him but it was not to be. I can almost hear the strains of Finlandia and see the little red house at the top of a hill where so much of Egon’s spirit had been forged on those vacations with his kin when I look at the stalwart Viking with the funny mouth strong enough to crack nuts. Egon was so much like the delightful little character.

I purchase nuts and apples and tangerines for Christmas every year because my Grandma Ulrich always set out huge enamel bowls of such treats for her holiday celebrations. I have one of the enamelware containers that she used. Each year I fill it with the fruits and the nuts that we all so enjoyed when we were children at her house. I almost feel as though I am back in her crowded living room with my aunts and uncles and cousins when I release the aroma of citrus as I peel one of the juicy tangerines. Recreating the festivities in a bowl that once belonged to her has become one of my most cherished traditions.

Like my father, both of my grandfathers loved to read, and they accumulated books like some people collect stamps or coins. I was able to gather a couple of them and add them to my own collection, and from one of my uncles I have a number of old 45 rpm records with selections from jazz greats like Louie Armstrong. I have to admit that I never realized what great taste in music my uncle had until I was grown. His recordings make me think of the nineteen forties when the world was at war and the future seemed so uncertain. The music provided a ray of hope in a world that seemed overrun by evil. I like to listen to the crackling of the needle on the vinyl and imagine my uncle as a young man.

My house is filled with the items that I use for living and those that I have gathered in travels and from my hobbies and interests. I can’t help wondering what among them might one day remind my friends and relations of me. Will it be my books or my dishes or the art work that I so cherish? What will spark a feeling or a memory? If I knew I would set those things aside for them, but I’m not so sure that anything that I own represents me in any particular way. I have never been attached to things as much as to people, and so there are few items that I would be so important to me that I would feel sad if they were lost or destroyed.

I have a special book that my grandfather gave me when I graduated from junior high. I cherish an antique pitcher that belonged to my great grandmother. I guard the discharge documents that terminated my great grandfather’s enlistment in the Union Army at the end of the Civil War. I have several books of poems and fairytales from which my father read to me when I was a little girl. I would want to save the lamp that my mother used on her dressing table and the china that my brothers bought for me as a wedding gift. Of course there is also my wedding ring that I have worn on my left hand for almost fifty years.

I suppose that I might be able to pack all of that into a small carrying case. I did in fact move those items to the second floor of my home when the waters were rising in my city last August. As it happened they were never in danger, but I would not have wanted to lose them. Still I wonder if they will mean anything to my children and grandchildren. Sometimes I suspect that only my brothers and I understand their importance in my history. One day they may sit forlornly in a box destined for the Salvation Army or some other donation center. I guess that by then it won’t really matter anymore because as I said before, none of the things that we have define us, and yet I wonder if that it really true. Somehow the little trinkets that we bring into our lives tell small stories of who we are. They are clues about what we think is important. They are little biographies that only those who know us will understand. They are the things we carry in our souls.

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.