Waking Up At Christmas

Oh the great arguments we used to have!

As the oldest, and a true loophole finder, I was often the one pleading our case.

“Five a.m.” I’d say.

“Not one minute before nine, ” my parents, the “other party,” would say.

“Six.”

“Eighty-thirty.”  They’d respond.

And so on.  Until usually, almost every year, the time was set.  7:00 a.m.

The time we were allowed to get our parents up on Christmas morning.

The rule in our house was that we did not go in and see what was under the tree without everyone else.

Most Christmas mornings, especially after Bubba was old enough to understand how exciting it all was, Sister, Mess Cat, and Bubba would come pile into my twin bed in the room I shared with Sister.

Around 5 a.m.

We would laugh in hushed tones and whisper excitedly, giving hints about what we had gotten or made for each other.  What we had gotten for Mama or Daddy.  What we thought Santa might actually bring us.  How hungry we were and ideas for how to sneak a peek without them knowing and how ready we were for 7:00 a.m. to be here already!

When it was a few minutes before seven we would creep down the hall to stand outside of my parents’ bedroom.  We were giggling and shivering and all aflutter with excitement.  When we figured it was 7 exactly, we would tap on their door, gently at first, and then with a little more insistence.

“Who is it?” one of them would call out in the dim light of morning.

We’d all giggle.  “It’s us!”

We would hear them stirring and the sounds of water running.  Mama, just about every year, would say, “Daddy is going to get a shower first, and then we’ll be ready.”

NOOOOOOOOOO!

We always laughed but I think there was a little fear in the back of our minds that he might really be going to take a shower, and oh my goodness, how could we ever wait that long?

And just when we thought we could not stand to wait any longer, nearly bouncing out of our skin with excitement and anticipation, their door would open and *oh relief* there they’d be, dressed and ready to go in and finally get this Christmas morning party started.

We would line up outside the living room door, and Mama would say, “Let me see if Santa has already come.”  She’d peek her head in, check it out, and then turn back to us and give us the okay to head on in.

Waking up on Christmas morning was always the best part of the day.

Back then I guess Mama and Daddy taught us about patience on Christmas morning.  In the years since, they taught us so much more about waking up at Christmas.

Waking up to others.  Those not gathered with us under the tree.  Those who maybe had no tree or family or even a home to gather with or in.  Since newly married they sponsored children through the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.  Something we didn’t know about until we were much older.  It was when I was in college that they taught us about really waking up.  They married on December 17.  Over the years we would give them different things as anniversary gifts.  One year we asked Mama what they would like for their anniversary, and she asked us to do something for others who needed something, that they didn’t need anything.

That was the first year the sibs and I went in together and had our eyes and hearts opened.  There was an elderly couple, living in an old, rather rundown house.  We took them groceries and a few treats for Christmas.  Bless them.  What precious, sweet folks.  They had so little but they were so filled with joy.

That’s what our parents were trying to get us to wake up to all those years on Christmas morning–to the idea that it’s not about what you have, or what’s under the tree, but who you have in your life.  Who is at your side, whispering and giggling on Christmas morning.  Who is walking with you as you journey through the years, the good times and the bad, the laughter and the tears.

The past few years, the tables have turned.  Mama and Daddy have come to our house on Christmas morning.  Some years they were earlier than others.  And then there was the Christmas of 2008.  The year before Daddy got sick.  It was Christmas morning.  I’d been up rather late the night before putting out the cookies and Coca-Cola for Santa.  It was 6:58. I only know this because I opened my eyes to check when I heard……

The doorbell.  Ringing all through the house.

Did I mention it was 6:58 a.m.?  In the morning?

They were quite tickled with themselves.

And once I realized that the Fella could appreciate the humor in the situation, I was delighted at their turnabout.  As were my young’uns.  Once they wiped the sleep out of their eyes.

What a great memory!

Then last year, Mama had talked about the possibility of not coming on Christmas morning because of the weather.  She told me on Christmas Eve that she would check the weather when she got up.  It was 4 a.m. when I realized that Cooter was running a fever.  My heart broke.  I knew that Mama didn’t need to be around him, as she was vulnerable to illness because of medication.  I didn’t want to wake her up, so I waited until 8 a.m. to call her.  No answer.  Ten minutes later.  Still no answer.

Three minutes later.  Her car in the driveway.  Oh yes!  Oh no.

I told her on the porch.  She looked at me and said, “Well, we just won’t hug today, but it will be okay.”  And she hugged me, wrinkled her nose, and let me know it all really would be okay.

And it was.  Better than okay.  I was able to have my last Christmas waking up to see my sweet and spunky Mama’s face.

My Mama, who taught me to wake up and look around me at what others needed and figure out what I could do, left us for a better place in February.  But she is still with us.  I know she is.  I was struggling this year with what I could wake up out of my grief and do this Christmas to help someone else.  And in the craziest of ways, things presented themselves.  Not what I would have thought of and not what I was expecting, but things that woke me up and blessed me anyway.  I’ve had my eyes opened, my heart torn, and my mind blown this holiday season. I’ve cried over what I’ve seen both good and bad, and I’ve laughed with joy.  And I know my Mama had something to do with it.  She liked to help me look outside of myself when I was on my pity pot.  In fact, she insisted on it.  That’s just how she rolled.

When Mama woke up in the mornings, the first thing she’d do was have a glass of chocolate milk.  It helped her feel better since she had to take so much medicine.

And that’s what we all need, isn’t it?  Something to help us get through the bitter and broken and hard to swallow moments in life.

So this Christmas morning, I will have a small glass of chocolate milk in her honor.  And remember all that she and Daddy taught me about waking up at Christmas and every day of the year.  It’s about those you can giggle with, walk with; it’s about looking around and helping when you can, and always keeping your chocolate milk handy.  When the world gets hard, nothing’s better than giggling sisters and brothers and all the chocolate you can find.

Merry Memory-Making!

Other Christmas memories from my childhood–

Daddy and Cherry Cordials

Keeping Christmas Everyday

Christmas a Hundred Years Before

O Christmas Tree

Decking the Halls

About a week ago I was visiting at Mess Cat’s house, admiring her tree, when an ornament caught my eye.  I was transported back in time faster than Marty McFly could start the DeLorean–back to the living room at Blackberry Flats.  I remember the way the angel fairy’s snowflake reflected the different colors.  I loved to sit in “my” chair snuggled up in a blanket, mesmerized by the colorful shadows on the wall, as I crocheted one handmade gift or another for a family member.  (God bless ’em for putting up with me during that phase.)

Mess Cat's angel she got years ago from our Aunt.  I have been looking on eBay to find one just like her.  She brings back wonderful memories of Christmases past.

Mess Cat’s angel she got years ago from our Aunt. I have been looking on eBay to find one just like her. She brings back wonderful memories of Christmases past.

It was about the same time as my visit with her that we decorated our tree.  I found one of my ornaments from childhood.  He is one of my all-time favorites.  Our spirited Aunt, Daddy’s brother’s wife, used to give us all Hallmark ornaments at Christmas.  Confession time–I don’t remember being exceptionally excited about the gift.  Don’t get me wrong, I was thankful and I did think them beautiful and cute and fun to see, but I’m afraid the stuffed animal or tape recorder (oh what a Christmas that was!) garnered more attention from me.

One of my all time favorites.  He spins around inside of the snowflake.  Just awesome.

One of my all time favorites. He spins around inside of the snowflake. Just awesome.

Howsomever…..

the ornaments I still have.   (And okay, a few of the stuffed animals too.)  But that’s it.  As I grew older, I appreciated the gift of the ornaments more and more.  What a treasure!  To look back and remember putting the same ornament on the tree year after year.  Now that’s a grand tradition.

From Aub's Christmas Number 5.  Thankful to my friend who started us collecting ornaments for Aub.

From Aub’s Christmas Number 5. Thankful to my friend who started us collecting ornaments for Aub.

When Aub was a baby, my friend, who had a little guy only six weeks older, started the Baby’s First Five Christmases ornament collection for her.  And another tradition was begun.  Each year, even when we were on our own, I picked out an ornament that held significance for that year.  A few years in there my Great Aunt gave her one as well.  As we pulled the ornaments out to put on the tree this year, I found myself waxing nostalgic.  In just a few years most likely these sweet and funny ornaments–the old fashioned dress shoes that open, the little dolls, the fairy collection, Barbie and her sister sledding, the Christmas mice, the five little bears all numbered as they grew–they won’t be on my tree anymore.

And I’m okay with that.  It’s the reason I started the collection.  So she’ll have ornaments to look back and remember with one day.   But still…..I will miss them.

Our tree is a mashup of personalities as there are ornaments that represent each one of us and our quirks and meaningful moments. From the Fella’s “Christmas Vacation” collection to a Manning boy football player for me (does it really matter which one?) to Princess’ ballerinas to Cooter’s newly begun collection of Star Wars ornaments, and of course, the ones Aub has gotten over the years–guitar, Hoops and Yoyo, the mouse in the silver cup.  It is fun to reminisce each year.  Especially the homemade ornaments.  Mess Cat even has one that Aub made when she was quite small on her tree.

Aub, when she was quite small.

Aub, when she was quite small.

And then there’s the whimsical, like the fishing bobber we got from Go Fish, fishing with Santa last Sunday.

Love it!  The ultimate fishing ornament--can be used year round.

Love it! The ultimate fishing ornament–can be used year round.

Some of my favorites though are 46 years old to be exact.  Mama and Daddy married on December 17.  They didn’t have a whole lot of anything.  I think they were renting a little place in Valdosta where they were both in school at the time.  Newly married, not much to their names.  Definitely no Christmas ornaments.  So they made them.

My most favorite ornaments of all--the ones Mama and Daddy made when their first Christmas together.

My most favorite ornaments of all–the ones Mama and Daddy made their first Christmas together.

These precious little yarn people have graced our trees at Blackberry Flats for a long, long time.  I like to think about Mama and Daddy working together to make these sweet Christmas people.  I wonder which creative genius came up with the idea?  After all, this was back in the days before Pinterest.  Practically the dinosaur age, right?  Once Mama stopped putting up a full size tree, she passed them along to me.  I adore them and cannot figure out how they have held up so well all these years. I loved finding each couple hanging separately on the tree.  The fabric ones Mama made with fabric left over from making me clothes. I had a skirt made from this  fabric–Aub also wore it when she was two.  I think our rocker cushion might have been made from it as well.  I love the embroidery on the stocking.  (Obviously these were made a couple of years later.)  Such a wonderful story and example of the beauty of Christmas being found in the simple things.

I am thankful that my siblings let me have Mama’s Christmas decorations.  She has shared many of them with us over the years, but what is left they have given me.  And I am thankful.  As I pulled them down from their storage spot at the top of my old closet, I felt the ending of an era. Santa now sits on my mantle (he was moved from under the tree for his own protection–he is likely close to sixty years old now, you know).   Mama’s latchhook Santa made by her sister-in-law that I can’t ever remember not hanging in the kitchen/dining area at Christmas now hangs in our dining nook.  And finally, the piece de resistance–

the mistletoe.

Oh ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see.....

Oh ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see…..

It hung year after year after year above the door to the laundry room which led to outside.  No one came in that house that didn’t pass under that mistletoe (some of the newer additions to the family had to duck under it), and Mama/Maemae would be standing there with her arms out, ready to give whoever it was a great big hug.  Oh that mistletoe.  It almost feels sacrilegious for it to hang in my house.  And yet it must.  It’s not Christmas without it. And the best Mistletoe. Story. There. Ever. Was.

Years. Ago.  Before the Giant started fighting with Daddy.  Before so much that has happened ever did.  It was a joyful time, and my cousin B had come over.  I think it was when he was leaving he found himself standing under the mistletoe.  He’s always had a great sense of humor.  He looked at Daddy standing in the kitchen, spread his arms wide, looked up  at the mistletoe, then back at Daddy, and said, “Uncle Bill!!!!!”  Daddy did not miss a beat.  He called my cousin’s name, strode straight over to him, gave him a great big hug and a big ol sloppy kiss.  And the rest is history.  We laughed and laughed.  Actually, I’m still laughing over that one.

Tonight I am thankful for industrious, creative, and generous parents who made beautiful, long-lasting Christmas decorations with love and patience, and who shared them and their stories with me.  I give thanks for my siblings who let me have the rest of Mama’s Christmas things–all the things she and the children would put out together each year around the first of December.  And I give thanks for my spirited aunt and my friend who, years ago, knew something that it would take me years to learn and appreciate–the gift of an ornament is more than merely a decoration, it’s the gift of memories collected year after year after year.

And that is where the real treasure in them lies.  Oh Christmas tree, you are full of the stories, aren’t you?

 

(Special thanks to Mess Cat for the pictures of her ornaments–I found a surprise for you girl!  Can’t wait to share it with you.  hint–it’s just like one in one of the pictures.  Love to all.)

A Christmas Story I’d Like to Read

The book of Luke in the Good Book starts with first one pretty miraculous story and then another.

Elizabeth and Zachariah are pretty old, and one day the angel Gabriel comes to Zachariah, a priest, in the temple and tells him that Elizabeth is going to have a baby boy.  Zachariah thinks about this, his age and everything, and pretty much says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.  Do you know how old we are?”  Gabriel isn’t playing around, and he tells Zachariah that yes, it’s true, and just for not believing him, Zachariah will not be able to speak until after the baby’s birth.

Well then.

Meanwhile, Zachariah finishes his assignment, goes home, Elizabeth becomes pregnant, and Zachariah can’t speak.  In another town, Elizabeth’s cousin Mary is also visited by Gabriel.  Apparently he’s a pretty intimidating angel, as he tells Mary not to be afraid just as he did Zachariah.  He tells her about her pregnancy, how she’s been chosen by God to give birth to the Son of God.  She is also struck by disbelief, but I guess Gabriel’s getting used to it, because he kindly answers her questions and then tells her that Elizabeth is six months pregnant. “Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”  (Luke 1:38)

Mary doesn’t let grass grow under her feet.  She takes off and heads straight to Zachariah’s house.  When she arrives she is greeted by Elizabeth, whose baby in her womb leaps at the presence of Mary and her unborn child.  Elizabeth somehow knows that Mary is the mother of her Lord and expresses her joy over Mary’s presence.  Mary responds from her heart filled with joy and gratitude over being chosen by God.  And then…..

20131219-220042.jpg

What?  I’m sorry.  I’m flipping through the Good Book, thinking to myself, “Somebody has taken a page of ten from this book.  What happened?  Three months?  Are you serious?  Nothing?”

Nope, nothing.  Not a word.

Now this.  This is the story I want to read.  Really, really.  Two women, each expecting her own miracle, hanging out together in a home where the man of the house cannot speak. (No offense meant, guys.)  Can’t you see them? They are the original awesome cousins and sister friends.  Giddy with laughter while kneading bread on the smooth wooden surface.  Quiet moments lost in their own thoughts as they sit in companionable silence while knitting or sewing or shelling peas.  Cleaning the house together–“many hands make for light work.”  Comparing pregnancy notes.  Sympathizing over the aches and pains.  Celebrating the little flutters and kicks.  Whispering in hushed yet excited tones over how the world is about to change.  Over the news that they know.  And what they imagine it will be like. Patting Zachariah on the shoulder good-naturedly as he sighs and tries to enter the conversation with his hands, trying to get his thoughts across.  Sitting together at the table sipping the soup and savoring the moments that would pass all too soon.

Three months.  Two women. Each sharing her own form of the miracle of new life.

This.  This is the Christmas story I want someone to write.  Yes, I’m okay with a fictionalized version.  I just know it would make for a great book–one that would cover all the gamut of emotions–joy, laughter, fear, worry, happiness, exhaustion, peacefulness, exhilaration, and anticipation.  The strength of women, cousins, sisters, sharing a journey–one that would take the world and all of us to places we’ve never been. These two women who shared three months’ time together, intimately and comfortably, are about to give birth to boys who are going to change the lives of everyone forever.

That’s a tale of epic proportions, and yet, it is beautiful in its simplicity.  The sharing of tasks, thoughts, time, and prayers.  And affection.  Love for one another, love for their unborn sons, and love for the God they seek to serve.

Yeah, that book would be placed at the top of my “to be read” stack.  And I don’t think Mt. Washmore on my couch, waiting to be folded, or hungry mouths or lessons needing to be done could distract me from it.  That’s a true story for the season.

(Anybody get wind of a version that I wasn’t aware of, please send me a link.  You will make my day.  🙂  )

 

 

(Update on my daughter’s friend, Miss K, who is in critical condition in the hospital.  She is still on the ventilator but it’s not set as high I believe, which is good.  They think she has improved enough to take her off the full-time dialysis machine to the 4-hour one.  She responded to her mother asking her if she was hot or if she wanted the air on.  And she shook her head yes, that she was ready to get out of the bed.  The doctors want to continue to keep her heavily sedated so her body won’t stress over anything.  They want her body to focus on healing from the sepsis and the pneumonia.  Her mother wrote: “For her Wesleyan sisters, have fun with your families and enjoy your holidays, she should be better and ready for you guys when you return…..that’s my own little prayer…”   As it is ours, sweet Mama.  Thank you all for your continued thoughts and prayers for Miss K and her family.   Their Christmas will be very different this year, and it makes me cry that she thought of her daughter’s friends and wished them well.  Life is so precious and fragile, isn’t it?  Love to all.)

It’s Just Stuff…..Or Maybe Not

Isn’t it interesting how a single thing can hold so many memories and emotions inside of it?

Yesterday I was given a precious gift that took me back to being little and sitting at a counter eating biscuits just out of the oven, playing Monopoly marathons with cousins, and watching Granddaddy drink his coffee with a cup and bowl.  I was taken back to open windows and picking vegetables from the garden, walking down a dirt road in the heat of summer, and cooling off in the afternoons watching “Gunsmoke” in the house.  I once asked Granddaddy why he drank coffee in the summer, and he said it cooled him off.  It intrigued me that he tilted his cup over to pour some in the bowl to cool, and he drank that first.  I can see Granny standing on the other side of the counter, washing dishes looking out the window at the hummingbirds.  I can smell the honeysuckle and feel the sand in the sandpile under my feet.  And I can still see the baby pigs and the cows, and I remember going there and getting dirty playing with the cows before my Aunt’s wedding.  (And no, Mama wasn’t happy.)

All of that and so much more.  Just from holding one little really huge thing.

“It’s just stuff.”

I’ve heard that a lot in my life, especially in the past four years of having people I love leave this world and their stuff behind.  And I know it’s true.  It is just stuff.  And yet…..

The little turtle that sat at my Great Aunt’s in her bathroom on the shelf is memory-filled.  I talked to it a lot during the visits when I went to check on my Great Aunt while Mama and Daddy were at Emory and fighting the Giant.

Santa and Mrs. Claus. As best as I can remember, Granny and Daddy made this together.

Santa and Mrs. Claus. As best as I can remember, Granny and Daddy made this together.

The Santa that my Daddy and Granny made together sits on my mantle right now.  It takes me back to cold, gray winter days standing at the plate-glass window looking out over Granny’s front porch and into the fields across the dirt road.  I remember alternating sitting next to Santa, fascinated with how he was made, and backing up to the heater that warmed the house, standing next to my Daddy.  My favorite place to be.  Always.

The grandfather clock stays in my hallway taking me back to the wall of clocks that was in my Great Aunt’s house.  My Great Uncle loved clocks and figuring out what made them “tick.”  At one point, he had a whole wall of them.  Beautiful.  Steady.  Dependable.

The jewelry box and bag of crocheting and sewing notions bring back memories of all the wonderful needlework and crocheted projects my Mama’s Cousin put her time and love into over the years.  And the needlework I have of hers is a treasure and will be for generations to come.

The slotted spoon that belonged to my Great Great Aunt takes me back to  ice-cold Coca-Cola in the bottle in the kitchen before we’d go “into the house.”  Church’s chicken at the dining room table, complete with cherry pies.  And the big furnace floor grate that was fascinating and terrifying all at the same time.

There are little and not so little things all over my house that bring back memories.  I see the hands of the ones I love, winding a clock, stitching beauty into creation, cutting up a pineapple, stirring the butterbeans, pulling the corn from its stalk, turning the page of a storybook, and hands crossed behind a back to warm them by the fire.  Oh, their hands.  The ones that patted me on the head, held onto mine, hugged me close.  How I miss all of them.

It’s just stuff.

Maybe.  But the stories and memories each little or big thing holds tight within?  That is where the real treasure lies.  The stories are the reason I am so drawn to the stuff.  To see.  To touch.  To remember.  To hear their voices and the stories once again.  And to feel hugged and loved.  It’s not about the stuff.  It’s about the love behind them.

Sounds of the Season That Touched My Soul

Sunday night at Evening Prayer we shared the Christmas songs that shaped our souls.  It was an interesting evening of hearing Christmas songs from different genres.  The neat thing is that none were of the traditional carols or hymns.

I spent the better part of last week trying to decide what song or songs had most touched my soul and heart over the years.  At one time “O Come All Ye Faithful” was my favorite.  I would even try singing it in Latin.  I have one memory of the song that has stayed with me through the past eighteen years.  My Aub was baptized at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve morning.  It was a beautiful service and a beautiful day.  That night we returned to the church for the Midnight service.  The thirty minutes prior to the service beginning was a musical offering.  Just wonderful.  As I sat there with my sweet three-month old baby girl, singing along quietly to the music being played, waiting for the service to start, I looked at the candles glowing in the windows and the way the golden light made the wood glow.  I smiled at my girl who was wide awake, enjoying the music, and trying out her legs by standing up and bouncing.  As she jumped up and down, she ahem, well she created a need for a fresh start.  Still so full of joy, I was undaunted.  I slipped out the side door with her and went out to the car parked under a street light.  I freshened her up, and we started back across the dark churchyard just as the service began with “O Come All Ye Faithful.”  I held my sweet one close and began singing my favorite song…..I mean really belting it out since we were all by ourselves.  Or so I thought.  As I walked up close to the church steps I saw three of the older men standing in the doorway, grinning like a Cheshire cat.  “Merry Christmas, Tara!” they said, chuckling.  I was only a tiny bit embarrassed.  I had a full heart and though it might not have been a joyful noise, it was a thankful and reverent one.

Over time I’ve expanded my world of Christmas songs.  As I was looking at videos and listening to Christmas songs last week, I rediscovered one that I have loved over the years but had let slip from my memory.  “Nothing But a Child” written by Steve Earle.  Ah, Steve Earle.  Daddy loved Steve Earle’s music.  He had his tapes, and his favorite was “Copperhead Road.”  Daddy used to share that one in particular with fellas the sisters brought home, to see what they thought of the music.  I believe it was Daddy’s way of testing their mettle.

So when I came across this Christmas song last week, I fell in love with it all over again.  LOVE.  What a beautiful telling of the journey of the Wise Men.  It reminds me of the story Daddy wanted me to read a few years back, “The Story of the Other Wise Man” by Henry Van Dyke.  I didn’t get around to reading it until last year, and just yes.  If you haven’t read it, please do.  A precious and memorable story of what it means to be interruptible.   So without further ado, I share with you the first of the two songs that have really touched my soul and rocked my world.

Once upon a time in a far off land

Wise men saw a sign and set out across the sand

Songs of praise to sing, they travelled day and night

Precious gifts to bring, guided by the light

They chased a brand new star, ever towards the west

Across the mountains far, but when it came to rest

They scarce believed their eyes, they’d come so many miles

And the miracle they prized was nothing but a child

Nothing but a child could wash these tears away

Or guide a weary world into the light of day

And nothing but a child could help erase these miles

So once again we all can be children for a while

Now all around the world, in every little town

Everyday is heard a precious little sound

And every mother kind and every father proud

Looks down in awe to find another chance allowed

This a comforting song for me.  “…..guide a weary world into the light of day…..”

And the next one is not.  It is a challenging song.

I grew up in the “We Are the World” generation. (And I’m not talking about the Justin Bieber version.)  How I loved that song.  I could only watch the video once a week (pre you-tube, folks) if I was able to catch it on Friday night videos (no cable for us), but I would sit and listen to the little 45 I had on the record player in the den over and over and over.  I would listen to hear which artist was singing which part.

As I was thinking about my songs last week, the line “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time” kept playing in my head.  I couldn’t find the song, but that’s because it is called, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”  It is done by Band Aid, much in the spirit of “We Are the World.”  And it is a beautiful and hard song.  The lyrics move me and make me ask myself the hard questions.  This one verse alone causes me much grief and pondering.

There’s a world outside your window

And it’s a world of dread and fear

Where the only water flowing 

Is the bitter sting of tears

The question this song makes me ask (after wondering where so many of these great artists are today–I mean, seriously, this is a Who’s Who of the 80’s music, right?) is:

Who knows it’s Christmas because of me and what I am living?

And my heart makes it harder by asking me this

Every. Single. Day.

The past few Christmases we have been able to be a part of a time with our friends we’ve made at the park and at Daybreak, whether on Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or the day after.  This year I haven’t heard of plans that we could be a part of.  And when I realize how much I will miss it, I remember what Miss N said at our Sister Circle just before Thanksgiving.  “Why does it have to be just one day?”  And I take my head and my heart in my hands, and say, “I don’t know.”

Last Saturday the Fella and I took the littles to see The Nutcracker.  We parked a few blocks away (long story) and made the trek over to the Grand Opera House through the rain.  We were dressed up for the occasion and had rain gear with us.  As we walked past a store with an open and covered front, we saw several of our friends from Daybreak and the park sitting out there, trying to stay dry.  The contrast between us dressed up walking in the rain to see an amazing performance and them huddling under a covered area to stay dry just broke my heart.  What do I do with that?

This year I am wondering how to make a difference.  Who will know it’s Christmas?  What moments will I remember as the most precious from Christmas 2013?

I don’t know, but I do know that I have to make it happen.  The only way I can enjoy Christmas morning with all the magic and celebration and family and joy and laughter is to know that I’ve done what I could to share Christmas with someone who needs it.  And not just today or Christmas day or this season, but each day I have the opportunity to.  That is where the best magic and most magnificent melodies of Christmas really come from.

and the two became one–how the journey began

December 17.

The day my parents married in 1967, forty-six years ago.  It all started with a guy named Cheshire, who was good friends with Mama and Daddy individually, introducing the two of them while they were in college at Valdosta State.  He had already let Mama read some of the things Daddy had written.  It seems like the first meeting was somewhere like a Laundromat, but I can’t be sure.

At the end of their meeting, the VERY FIRST TIME EVER they had met I want you to remember, my Mama looked up from her 4’10” stance at Daddy’s over six-foot tall self and said, “I could fall madly in love with you, Mr. Joyner.”

Oh my.  We are all so thankful they did wind up marrying.  How embarrassing would THAT have been?

Just kidding, Mama.  You know we love that story.  And she loved telling it.  And she’d look over at Daddy and wrinkle her nose, which is how she often said “I love you.”  There was never any doubt.

Ten years and four children later, they moved their three girls, three-month old baby boy, and several cats out to Blackberry Flats.  It has been home ever since.  Our move-in date was actually December 17.  What better way to celebrate ten years of marriage?

That was the beginning of another adventure, and over the years Mama and Daddy made it their own.  From Mama’s trademark light green paint to Daddy’s building and the trees they planted all over–it became home.  It got its name when a family friend brought us over some blackberries that were beyond the point of eating.  Bless her.  After she left, Mama had me tote the blackberries out to the “high grass,” which is where we took scraps and brush and stuff like that–toward the back part of the property.  As it turned out, those blackberries loved being in that soil and they took off.  After years of Daddy fighting them by burning the prickly briars off, he and the bushes reaches a compromise–he let them have the fence line.  There are still some there today.  Thus the name Blackberry Flats was born.

There were some things that were important at Blackberry Flats, growing up with Mama and Daddy at the helm.  Trying your best.  That was one of the things they would ask often, “Well, did you try your best?”  Telling the truth.  Storytelling (we didn’t use the word “lying” back then) was frowned upon.  Eating what was put before you.  There was no whining about mushrooms in the spaghetti.  (Well, okay, there was, but well, I really, really couldn’t stomach them and I regretted the whining every time I did it.)  Being responsible.  We all had chores, and we were expected to pitch in.  And then some.  Pick up after yourselves, and if you see something that needs doing, do it.  Get along with one another.  Mama would quote a children’s play we had seen at Wesleyan–“I’m sure you’re all really very wonderful.”  Which was our signal to cut it out, because maybe she was beginning to question how wonderful we were, and we were treading on thin ice.  We were expected to show respect, say yes ma’am/no ma’am, yes sir/no sir.  We were to be good stewards of what we had, what we’d been given–that included everything from the things around us to our physical beings and our spirits and our abilities and the people around us.

Another thing about Blackberry Flats was that learning was of the utmost importance.  And so was reading.

We grew up with frequent trips to the library.  Mama was very involved with the Friends of the Library. She helped with storytimes and eventually became a Rolling Reader at the school all four of us had attended.  She loved it and stopped only when Daddy got sick.  Many of the children knew her as “Maemae,” (me-me) the name that her grandchildren all called her.  Her fun science experiments and wonderful storytelling were her trademarks.

Children’s books were Mama and Daddy’s favorites.  They enjoyed looking up new books and discovering new authors.  Their all-time favorite was “Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm” by Alice and Martin Provensen.  Mama and Daddy loved sharing the book with children they met along the way.  One of their favorite things to do was choosing the perfect books for their grand nieces and nephews and their grandchildren.

The past few years I remember Mama trying to find a good Christmas or winter story to share.  For the fun of it and in memory of the woman with whom I’ve spent every Christmas except for the two I lived in Japan, I set out on the journey to find the 2013 holiday story.  I browsed through picture books and animal stories, snow covered tales and retellings of the nativity story.  And one day, I was wandering through the virtual bookstore–I apologize to my local bookseller, but some days it’s the only way to shop while supervising the zoo crew around here–and I saw several holiday stories by an author who also had a book I recognized in her list of published works.  “G is for Goat” by Patricia Polacco.

Oh my.  The tears began to flow.

Mama had chosen that one for my sweet Cousin’s daughter one year.  She had been thrilled.  She called me to celebrate her triumph.  “Don’t you think it’s the perfect book for her?”  And it really was.

Seeing that Ms. Polacco, whom Mama had so loved, had a large selection of holiday and winter stories to choose from felt like a nod from Mama–a wink and a thumbs up.  “You found it, T. Annie,” I could almost hear her whisper.

After scanning summaries and reading some of the books themselves, I finally chose this year’s Holiday Book.  Drum roll, please.

Uncle Vova’s Tree by Patricia Polacco

Uncle Vova's Tree by Patricia Polacco

“Uncle Vova’s Tree” by Patricia Polacco

Oh y’all.

This is a beautiful story about a family who celebrates Christmas with aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, parents, and cousins.  The beautiful colors and traditions will touch your heart.  The throwing of the rice on the ceiling to foretell how many bees will come will make you laugh (as long as you remind yours we don’t do that!), and the bowl filled for those who are no longer with them will bring tears to your eyes.  And the words, “We remember.”

Yes.

from "Uncle Vova's Tree" by Patricia Polacco

from “Uncle Vova’s Tree” by Patricia Polacco

But it’s not a sad book.  Not at all.  It’s full of life and joy.  When the aunt unwraps the ornaments and decorates the tree as though it’s a gift to the family, you can feel her joy and the anticipation of the others.

If you haven’t had a chance to love this book, I want you to.   In honor of the ones who helped me discover the joy of reading and the beauty in children’s literature and who started their lives together forty-six years ago today, I am giving away a copy of “Uncle Vova’s Trees” by Patricia Polacco.  Share in the comments section or e-mail me your favorite holiday or winter story and your e-mail address.  I will randomly select someone on Wednesday, December 18th at noon EST to send Ms. Polacco’s book to.  My hope is for you to have this wonderful story to share with those you care about in time for the weekend.

Just a beautiful story.  Even though the people are of another culture and they live where there are sleigh rides and snow, I find these people to be my kindred spirits.  They believe in faith, family, laughter, and love.  They know what is important, from remembering those living in the winter weather to remembering those who have gone before.  And honoring their memory.

We remember.

Amen.

Merry memory-making, my friends.  Love to all.

wishing

About a week ago, my oldest daughter Aub came home from spending time with her grandmother.  She was talking about something her grandmother said to her, and she laughed, shrugged, and said, “I think I’ll always be ten in her mind.”

Oh baby girl.

Embrace it.

Isn’t it funny how when I was growing up, I so wanted to be treated like I was grown?  I wanted to make my own choices and my own decisions.  I wanted a job and a car and my own space and all that goes with those things.

And then when I got them…..

it didn’t take long for me to miss what I had before.

Like, say, when I was ten.

The older I get, the fewer people there are who still see me as a ten-year old, and even fewer who, when my name is on their lips, make me feel ten again.  There are very few who say my name as it was given to me, and who remember me as I was back then.

And that makes me sad.

So dear baby girl, don’t let it frustrate you when you know she is seeing you through the lenses of eight years ago.  Be thankful and soak it all in.  Too soon you will be my age and look back and miss her voice and how she called your name, searching the house for you, when you were one, three, eight, ten, and eighteen.  You will miss the intonations of her voice as the syllables that flowed pronounced your name as only she can.  Love on her and give thanks.  Even when she treats you like a child.

Because one day you will want to be a child again, and you’ll look around for a grownup to turn to…..and you will find out that it’s you.  You are the grownup now.  Wishing someone would see you as ten again.

Love you, ‘Dre

What I’ve Learned From My Pup’s “Little Presents”

First of all, let me assure you, there will be no pictures with this post.

You’re welcome.

We took Miss Sophie to her first night of Puppy Beginner’s class last night.  The littles have been calling it Puppy School, and Cooter insisted that we needed to go out and get her a backpack and pencils.  And a glue stick.  When I told one of our young neighborfriends that yesterday, he looked excited and said, “Really?”

No.  Sorry.

But we did give her a good brushing and loaded her in her carrier and headed to the pet store where the world’s best pet trainer teaches you how to teach your puppy good behavior.  We were joined in the class by a sweet German Shepherd/Akita mix and two beautiful Corgis.  All girls.  Our trainer asked us to introduce our pups, tell their ages, what our favorite things are about our little ones, and what we wish we could change.

Ahem.

We were the last to introduce.  I had a decision to make.  I could go with the simple and truthful and expected response that we didn’t like her biting.  Which is true.  Very true.  Or I could get even more truthful and tell what really frustrates me.

So I introduced Miss Sophie, almost five months, shared how funny she is and how she turns her head trying to understand exactly what you are saying.  I said that she does the puppy biting/chewing thing that the other dogs do, and then I dropped the real truth.

I blame it on my writing.  I can’t seem to keep anything in anymore, and since Mama died, I seem to have lost my filter.

So I said, “I really don’t like it when she ingests the presents that she leaves, by intent or accident, on the floor.”

The face the trainer made said it all.  Her expression screamed what can usually be heard when this happens, “Ewwwwww.  Grossssssss.”

But then, as often happens when the truth is told, grace abounded.  Because you see, they make pills you can give your dog to discourage them from doing that.  So…..she is not the only dog that does this.  They have a whole line of products for just such a situation, so I’m thinking there must have been at least ten or twenty-two dogs or more who have done this before Sophie.  Right?  Relief right there, folks. Relief.

I clarified that she doesn’t do it when she goes outside, only when it happens inside. And then Miss Ren, the trainer, turned on the lightbulb over my head.  “She’s cleaning up her mess.  She doesn’t want you to see it.”

Well, duh.  Why hadn’t that occurred to me?  The poor thing is always hiding when she does it.  It all makes sense now.

Again, relief.  My dog is not extraordinarily weird or off-balance.

She’s just like the rest of us.

Trying to clean up our messes before someone else sees them.  From the literal scrambling to get the clean clothes off the couch when someone’s coming over to hiding behind our masks to keep folks from seeing the mess and brokenness inside of us.  We all tend to stuff the yuckiest *ahem* junk way down deep inside in an effort to keep up the appearance that we have it all together.  It all goes pretty good until the mask cracks or someone catches us trying to hide our messes.

One day I took Miss Sophie out for her afternoon constitutional.  I saw in the yard where she had gone earlier in the day, and our Princess hadn’t gotten it up.  A color other than normal glinted in the sunlight.  I walked over.  Oh my word.  A Polly Pocket shoe.  A sandal to be exact.  It was little and tiny and soft, thank goodness, and bright blue.  And also completely intact.  I knew exactly where she had found it.  But seriously?  I went back in the house and asked our Princess about it.  She had the grace to blush and said, “Yes Mama, I saw it when she left it there.  I was going to try to get it back, but I just couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

Oh baby girl, NO.  That’s one Polly Pocket shoe we will just have to do without.

And as I was cleaning it up out of the yard, I thought about this.  Whatever we put inside of us is going to come out.  If we spend our time “ingesting” junk–on tv, in what we watch, listen to, talk about, or read–it will come out in one way or another.  And when mess like that comes back out of us it is very noticeable, because it’s not really who we are or what we are made of–much like a bright blue shoe in the midst of a little present.  Just as I should have been more careful about what Sophie had access to, we need to be careful about what we take in, what we let touch our souls.

No, I’m not going to buy any of those pills marketed to keep pups from “cleaning up their own messes.”  I’m going to do a better job of paying attention to Miss Sophie’s signals–about what her body needs to do–much as I need to be more aware of my own signals.  About what my spirit and soul needs.  And much as I need to pay attention to those around me to figure out what they need.  Not to be a mind reader, but to be compassionate and caring.

So puppy school was quite educational last night.  Sophie did not learn to do a backflip or roll over as our neighborfriend’s sister suggested she might.  However, she did learn to relax and feel okay in a new situation, and me–I learned that she and I have more in common than I originally thought.  We both like to hide our messes, and we both wish we could understand all that is going on around us.

Oh and we both love naps.   That’s another thing we have in common.  That and our love of yarn and knitted and crocheted things.  *sigh*  But that’s a class for another week.

Dear January, You Need an Image Makeover

It’s been a long week.  Full of emotional ups and downs.  The kind of roller coaster that leaves you spinning and queasy after.  (Here I am acting like I know what it’s like to ride roller coasters.  Right.)  Still, yes, that kind of week.  Laughter and joy, sorrow and tears, worry and fun, peaks and valleys.

Last weekend we were able to get our tree home, put up, and decorated.  It took a couple of days all in all, but I was feeling, as my Mama and Great Aunt would say, mighty sanctimonious about it.  We did it.  No, I don’t have it in me to put all of our Christmas things out, but yes, feeling pretty good.  Despite everything, I felt like I could handle all that this season might throw at me.  I had my feet back under me again at least.

And then this blasted (excuse my language) thing came this week.

What?  I mean, just.....What?!?

What? I mean, just…..What?!?

It’s obviously the January issue of this magazine The Fella signed me up for (free for three months) through a special offer.  Which I appreciate.

But seriously?

They don’t know me like that.

They can’t just focus on one thing for us to work on?  To try?  They gotta get all in my chili?  I feel like they’re throwing things at me from all directions. I mean, did they leave ANYTHING untouched?  Finances…..body……eating…..parenting…..my things…..my clothes…..and my skin….really?! Everything except my house and my heart and mind.  But wait, check out the table of contents inside.

Wait for it.....yeah, now they've covered it all.

Wait for it…..yeah, now they’ve covered it all.

Oh honestly.  I’m not even handling December very well.  Just like that, my confidence and satisfaction with how I’m doing this holiday season were kicked to the curb.  January is trying to butt in and kill the joy.  And who writes this stuff anyway?  Notice that we shouldn’t worry about being the “perfect parents” anymore.  Now we should stress because we want to be perfect.  And apparently that’s an inappropriate goal for us to have.

*insert major eye roll here*

Y’all.  What are we doing?  Why do we do this to ourselves?  Expect ourselves and others to recreate and change ourselves/themselves just because a calendar year has changed?  No wonder January and I have never gotten along very well.  It’s dark, it’s cold, and people are all about asking you what your “New Year’s Resolutions” are.

Just no.

Maybe it’s not all January’s fault.  Admittedly it is following a couple of months of partying with a capital P.  Joy with a capital J.  The season of rush and busyness and quiet meditation and candlelight and twinkling lights and festivities and remembering.  Who would want to walk through the door after that guy?

Not me.

Still I wish January could come up with another motto, another thing to affiliate with–you know, maybe get an image makeover.  I mean, wouldn’t you rather get a beautiful, colorful magazine (did you notice the neutrals with just a touch of color on the cover of this one? *sigh*) with a message scrawled across it in eye-catching font that says:

CONGRATULATIONS……YOU DID IT.

that is all

And then it could be filled with stories about great experiences people had during the holidays or ways to be kind to yourself, as in celebrating who you are in this very season, at this very moment.  January, don’t be all about the change.  Why not be about giving ourselves a big ol’ hug after all the stress and overwhelming beauty of being with people we love and making every effort we can to bake, to cook, to buy, to make, to read, to share, to love and to orchestrate the best possible magically muchly delightful Christmas for those we love?  Yeah.  Why not that, January?

I bet then you’d be proud to walk through the door after Party season.  Because I think quiet reflection and celebrating who and where we all are beats out managed chaos, magical madness, and teetering sanity every single day.

That’s a magazine I’d buy and hang onto for a long, long time.

Whaddaya say, January?  Will you at least consider it?

Love to all.

Thank you all for your prayers for sweet K.  She continues to fight and is in critical condition.  Please keep her and her family and the Wesleyan community in your thoughts and hearts and prayers.  All are appreciated.  ❤

On Mama’s Faith and Welcoming Santa Home

I went over to Mama’s this evening and picked up her Christmas decorations.  It made me sad to think about them not being put out for the first year ever.  Even when Daddy was so sick, we put something out, as best as I can remember.  So this year should be no different.  What made me saddest was thinking about Santa being stuck in his bag.

Oh Santa.

This Santa has watched over me every year of my life.  And now he has a new home.

This Santa has watched over me every year of my life. And now he has a new home.

I grew up with this Santa standing around the tree, on top of the piano, and next to the bookcase over the years.  As far back as I can remember.  I think Mama had it when she was small, but I can’t be sure now.  The story as I recall it is that her Daddy got it from a store display that was being taken down at a store that he worked for.  He’s a beautiful Santa.  Red velvety suit and those cheeks and that beard.  I was always a little bit in awe of him growing up.  He’s just perfect.  At least to me.

As I brought down the bins and bags from the top of the closet in my old bedroom, I wanted to cry.  If my littles hadn’t been with me, all happy and enthusiastic in the excitement of the season, I would have.  The last time these were moved was in January of this year.  My children had helped Mama spread her decorations around the house in early December last year.  She hadn’t had a tree in years, but she enjoyed having her other Christmas decorations around in December.  It was early January, a Tuesday before the littles had dance and gymnastics in town, that we played a game of how quickly and how many Christmas decorations can you find?  We laid them on the bed in that same room, and Mama put them away.  I lifted and put them on the shelf in the closet.  As we were getting the job done, I noticed Mama moving a little slower and realized all over again what a hit her health had taken since Daddy died in November of 2011.  As I zipped up the last bag, I said, “When we open these again, may they find us all in good health.”  Mama paused for moment and said, quietly, “Amen.”

Oh y’all.

I haven’t gone through all the decorations yet.  I don’t want to rush it.  Looking through these treasures and remembering is something to be savored.  I want to hear the stories of my children and their memories as we take each ornament or decoration out of its keeping place.  But Santa?  Oh he is already out.  It was time.

As I look and remember Mama’s hands carefully, and with a deftness that I think she might have been born with, placing each piece where it belonged and had always been placed, my heart breaks.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We weren’t supposed to be without her right now.  She was supposed to get better.  She had plans.  She told her pastor the day the nightmare of the HospitalStay began that she was going to get better so she could help in the Food Pantry at Trinity UMC, her church.  Feeding folks was her love language, so yeah–she would have loved that.  She was going to get on a train and go to Virginia to see her grandsons, including the new little one who was born one week after she left us.  She was going to do so many things.  When she got stronger.  And she had faith that she would.

I don’t even know.

Except that life is so tragically fragile.

Tonight a young woman, who was one of the first to friend Aub at Wesleyan during a time when she was struggling, is lying in a hospital bed fighting for her life.  None of this makes sense.  She’s too young.  It shouldn’t happen this way.  She too has plans.  She should not be fighting for her life tonight.  She should be laughing with friends and worrying over finals.  She should be contemplating Christmas plans and anticipating next semester’s classes and dreaming about life after graduation in 18 months.  Anything but this.

I can’t make sense of it.   I don’t know this young woman except through the encouragement she gave my daughter in messages and the stories my Aub has told me.  But I know with a Mama’s heart that she is someone special.  You love my baby, you got my heart.  And she has it.

I don’t know if my faith can take this.  I don’t know what to do with the sheer craziness of it.  There’s no way to make this make sense.

Something caught my eye at Mama’s this evening as I was getting ready to go.  On the chair next to where she sat at her counter to do her crossword puzzles were her devotionals.  The past two years I got her the Guideposts (large print–I’m so there myself) daily devotions book for Christmas.  She enjoyed it in 2012 and told me so–I was glad, as I’d just taken a chance with that gift.  So last Christmas it was a repeat.  She had both on her stool and her Upper Room devotional from church.  The thing that I noticed for the first time in ten months is that both of the current books were open to January 18.  Mama went in the hospital on the afternoon of the 17th.  She was so very sick and in tremendous pain, yet she found the wherewithal to sit and read the day’s words in each book.

The page marked with one of Mama's Mary Engelbreit page-a-day calendar pages.  January 18.

The page marked with one of Mama’s Mary Engelbreit page-a-day calendar pages. January 18.

Oh Mama.

Thank you for that reminder.  That when the world doesn’t make sense, you still keep on keeping on.  Keeping the faith.  Even in the midst of pain and heartbreak.  Run the race.  Do the do.

But still.

I’m just not sure if I can.  She was one of the strongest people I know.  And she left some strong ones here to look after me and all of us young’uns, but I just don’t know how strong I can be.

It frustrated her when I was so angry after Daddy died.  She wanted me to find my way back to faith and hope and love.  And the greatest of these is love…..

And in a lot of ways I did.  Until she had to suffer as she did, when she had such great plans.  And not for her own selfish needs but for others.  And then my friend lost his battle with the demon alcohol and still struggles everyday, living wherever he can until the police give him a ticket and “shoo” him away.  And then another person we cared about lost his battle and his life to that same demon.  And a sweet woman, a new friend, is in and out of the hospital with seizures and heart problems and she has no insurance and she too is struggling.  And now a young woman with the best of life yet to come lies fighting what some have already said is a losing battle.

I’m tired of lost battles.  Seriously.  Enough is enough.

So tonight as I seek comfort and reassurance, I look over at my old friend, our Santa from my days of growing up, his first time in thirty-six years away from Blackberry Flats.  I wish I could write a letter to Santa and have faith he would respond.  Or say a prayer to God and know it all would all be better, be fixed.

Unfortunately, I know better.  I know that prayers don’t always get answered the way we hope, despite people all over praying for the same thing.  I know that good people have horrible things happen to them, and it makes no sense.  I know that some people who do wrong are never held accountable.  And I know that good people struggle and sometimes they die too soon and it just makes no sense.

Mama knew all of that too.  I don’t know anything that she wasn’t already aware of.  And yet, a marker is in her devotional for January 18.

She never got to read it.

If that’s not faith, I don’t know what is.

Hey Santa.  It’s been a while.  A lot has changed while you were sleeping.  Welcome to your new home.  I hope you like this spot.  Doesn’t have to be permanent, we can work something else out if you’d prefer.   So yessir, here’s the thing.  This year, I’d like for healing to happen for these folks I care about and the ones I don’t even know.  But if that’s not possible, could you please give me faith like my Mama’s?  You know what?  That’s something else that doesn’t make sense.  Her faith.  She was hurt by people who should have fought anyone who tried to hurt her, but they didn’t.  And yet, she kept the faith.  And just about threatened to send me to find my own switch if I didn’t get mine back in order.  Well, Santa, here we are, and I’m trying to find my way without her.  And I’m hurting.  My faith has taken a baseball bat up the middle and it’s shattered.  I got little to nothing.  So please, please, could you send me some?  I don’t really know what it will look like or what to expect, I just know I will know it when I have it, when I see it, when I feel it.  When I see through it, with it.  To look through the eyes of faith like my Mama did.  That’s what I wish for.  Thank you, Santa, for always listening to my wants and wishes.  I hope you’ll be happy here.  Love always, Tara

January 18.  My Mama had faith. It’s all I can hold on to for now.  And wrap my heart around it and hold on tight.

 

Dear friends and readers, if you have a moment and you are a praying person, could you please pray for sweet K, my daughter’s friend, and her family?  If you are not, would you please keep them in your thoughts and hearts?  We don’t know what the future holds, but peace and comfort are pretty good things to wish for no matter what.  Thank you and love to all.