Unforgettable

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I had a tea party earlier this week with my niece. We brewed tea from the Empress Hotel in a sweet china pot decorated with pink roses and then sipped it in china cups that once belonged to my mother. We enjoyed little cookies that were a gift from one of my former students. We placed our delights on pretty china plates and my niece pretended that the goodies were crumpets. Our little ritual was enchanting, and my niece asked if we could find a day to enjoy such a tradition once each week. She has already chosen Tuesday afternoons as a possibility, and she wants to try out each of my various pots and china patterns along with different types of tea.

My niece noted that folks often have beautiful serving pieces but rarely use them, instead storing them away in cabinets for safe keeping. She thought it was nice that she was allowed to use such exquisite things, including some of my mother’s silver. Bear in mind that she is only in the fifth grade, but her wisdom and appreciation for the finer things is already fully formed.

Her comments and her joy got me to thinking about how we so often seem to wait for the perfect time to go places or use things, as though there is some magical moment for experiencing joy. All too often the so called best time for enriching our lives never actually comes. So many people die never having realized the dreams that dwell in their hearts.

Just last week I attended two funerals, one for a very young man and the other for someone only slightly older than I am. Both of them were souls who fully embraced life with trips, marathons, music, sports and friendships. They were not the sort to wait until the time seemed right to experience life to the fullest, so I wonder why so many of us seem to do that.

My paternal grandmother served her meals on china and ate with her best silver every single day. Her meals were special from breakfast in the morning to dinner at night. She used ironed tablecloths and beautiful serving bowls. She was a premier cook, but I wonder if perhaps her presentation was as important in creating an ambiance as were her culinary talents. Everyone felt quite special at her table, even on hot days in the middle of the week.

I’ve known people who kept their nice dishes and linens packed away. Their furniture was covered with sheets or plastic. They seemed to be waiting for some spectacular hour which never seemed to come. When they died nobody had ever seen the beautiful things that they owned. Often much of what they had was bartered in estate sales or sent to Goodwill because nobody associated any memories with the items. On the other hand we all recall my Grandma Little’s table settings with vivid detail. My brother even attempted to duplicate her style with the china that he purchased for his Thanksgiving feasts.

Grandma shared her pride and joy with us. We ate her tasty cooking and enjoyed stories and laughter on her well used and well worn dishes. She provided us with a feast for all of our senses that burned beautiful memories into our very souls. She made us feel special with the extra care that she took to allow us to enjoy her things as much as she did. Not once did she worry that we might break something. Instead she focused on making us feel loved and honored.

I suppose that it is natural to want to care for things that are expensive and might break. We see our everyday items bearing cracks and chips and we don’t want to damage the finer pieces. We assume that it will be wisest to bring out our best only on very special occasions and mostly save them for posterity, but what is the point of that? Why even own such things if we are only going to lock them away?

I was overjoyed that my niece enjoyed our little tea party so much. It gave me an opportunity to tell her about her great grandmother who had once owned the pieces that we used. We spoke of my mom and dad purchasing one place setting at a time as young marrieds. I told her about my father very proudly buying my mother some of her silver only days before he so tragically died. She understood the love story that I was telling her and wanted to know more. The items that we used made the tales more magical for her. We walked upstairs where I showed her pictures of my mom and dad, her great grandparents, when they were young and beautiful. She asked me to provide her with copies so that she might never forget who they were and how they once looked. She also made me promise that we would have those regular tea parties without fail. She even wants to bring one of her friends if I don’t mind.

My mother-in-law taught me how to prepare tea properly, the way her English mother had done. Each Sunday after dinner we sat at the same dining table that I now have and sipped on brew in lovely china cups while munching on tiny cookies. She told me about her family’s journey from England and of those who once braved the wild frontier of Nebraska. Like my little niece I was enchanted and invariably when I think of my mother-in-law I remember those special quiet moments that we shared. The tea and the cookies, the china and the silver, the stories and the love made our ritual unforgettable.

I suppose that if I have learned anything it is that we need to wear our fine garments, use our best dishes, travel to exotic places, live life in all of it’s glory. We only have so much time with the people that we love. Why not make those moments so special that they will never forget them?

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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. 

A Model of Love and Goodness

Linda and Bill

I grew up in a neighborhood that was a kind of village where everyone knew everyone else. Many of us attended the same churches and schools and even shopped at the same stores. Our childhoods were spent in an innocent kind of time and place where children felt free to roam from one end of the area to another under the watchful eyes of adults who discretely insured our safety. It was a different kind of era devoid of electronic devices, hundreds of television channels, cell phones and video games. Our moms usually stayed home to care for their families unless they, like mine, were the heads of the households or they were more progressive for the times. Marriages were for the long term and divorce was somewhat rare, at least in our little neck of the woods. If there were problems we kids rarely heard of them. We were somewhat isolated from the troubles of the world, and didn’t have to face many of them until we were old enough and mature enough to handle them. It was a great way to grow up, and many of our childhood friendships continue many decades later.

As a young girl I was in awe of Linda Daigle, a beautiful, bright and amazingly sweet and friendly person. She was a model how to be for me, and so I observed her from afar so that I might become more like her. I had little idea that one day we would become the best of friends, but I suppose that my admiration of her made that inevitable.

While we were still in high school Linda began dating another resident of our tightly knit community, Bill Scheffler. Bill was a fun loving, cute guy who lived across the street from our school and our church. I thought that Linda and Bill were quite sweet together, but young love often changes and I did not expect their romance to continue. In that regard I was so very wrong.

After high school Bill entered the army and was stationed in Germany. Linda attended the University of Houston dreaming of being reunited with Bill again. By that time they had exchanged promises of love and devotion. In spite of Bill’s departure their romance was stronger than ever, a bond not to be undone even by distance.

By a kind of accident Linda and I began to meet with each other in the mornings at the university where she spoke of her feelings for Bill and the plans they had made. She was focused on building a life with him, and I was so impressed with how thoughtfully the two of them had created a long term goal of togetherness. From those early morning chats Linda and I became friends which was thrilling to me. I felt so fortunate to be in her confidence and as we grew closer I realized that she was even more remarkable than I had ever realized.

Fifty years ago Linda and Bill sealed their vows to one another with a beautiful wedding at Mt. Carmel Catholic Church, the very place where we had grown up together. After their marriage they went to live in Germany while Bill completed his tour of duty. It was an exciting time for them that allowed them to travel all over Europe and to grow even closer to one another. Linda sent reports of their adventures in letters and Christmas greetings that I devoured with enthusiasm.

By then I too had married and our paths were following a kind of parallel route that was joyful and filled with newness as we both moved from the shelter of our old neighborhood into the bigger world. To my delight it was not long Linda and Bill had returned to Houston and we began to share fun times as couples. Then came our children, two boys for her and two girls for me. Our first homes were within minutes of one another and so we got together more and more often, literally growing up together and as our children were doing the same thing.

As with any husband and wife, Linda and Bill had both good times and bad. They worked hard and for a time Bill was juggling a full time job with attending college. Fairly early in their marriage both of Bill’s parents became seriously ill and he became their caretaker until they died. It was sometimes a struggle for them to keep their wits under such extreme pressures, but the two of them managed to overcome each challenge that came their way.

They raised their two boys with the same kind of love and values that had always guided them. Bill became successful in his work life and Linda was known everywhere as a woman who got things done and on whom everyone might depend. They were friendly and loving and my own husband Mike and I were so happy to be part of their circle of life. We visited often, shared birthdays and celebrations, cheered our favorite Houston Cougar teams to victories. Each Christmas we gathered for an ornament exchange between our children and a sharing of gifts with each other. Our friendship began to feel more like family as the years came and went.

For a time Linda and Bill moved to California and we missed them far more than we ever admitted to them. It was yet another adventure for them and they made the most of their time together in a different kind of world. It was no surprise to me that they quickly made new friends and brought their joy for living to their new home.

I have to admit that I was overjoyed when Linda and Bill announced that they were returning to Houston. We resurrected our Christmas time celebration and have continued it to this very day. We watched our children marrying and beginning their own families. We grew older and started sharing more and more conversations about the aches and pains. We comforted each other as our parents aged and died. Life continued at its relentless pace and so did the love that Linda and Bill had for each other that had begun so long ago.

These days Linda and Bill are still having so much fun together. They regularly attend Houston Astro’s games and support the Houston Cougars in football and basketball. They travel to Dallas to visit with their son and granddaughter and show up for all of their grandson’s baseball games in Magnolia. The role of grandparents and lovers suits them well and goes hand in hand with their devotion to each other.

Tonight we will celebrate the beautiful love story of two people who understood from the beginning that they shared something real and special and rare. Love has been the unshakeable bond that has guided their time together and brought them a kind of joy for which we humans yearn. They are still models for me of how to enjoy life to its fullest, and I feel so blessed to have had a very small role in their history which I suspect will continue for many more years to come.

Congratulations, Linda and Bill! You are indeed a remarkable couple that has touched so many hearts with your goodness. May you know how much we love you for being so selfless and welcoming. You are the kind of couple that we all strive to be.

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.