Holiday Blues

         

What do you tell the children

who find no quarters under their

pillows – the missing gift of the

tooth fairy – when the proper

homage has been paid?

What do you tell the sad little girl

whose stocking is empty

Christmas morn – after leaving the

last cookie and a small cup of

milk – the thanks for the Santa

who never came?

What do you tell the young boy

who has no basket to leave on

the table – decorated with colorful

paper eggs and filled with shredded

newspaper – and all that’s inside are

a few stale jelly beans?

What do you tell the teenager

whose fifteenth birthday came and

went – with no party, no gifts, no

happy times – to mark the majestic

coming of age?

What do you tell the lonely ones

who never get a heart-shaped card

or candies – a sign of friendship and

love – who had only wished that just

one person would care?

What do you tell the little ones

who have no feast to cram into

their mouths – in honor of those who

survived – and so bite into stale

peanut butter sandwiches?

What do you tell all the unloved

children, young and old, who rise

day after day – wanting nothing more

than a gentle hug – and receive

harsh words instead?

For some children have everything

they could ever want while others

have nothing but emptiness – no

hope for more – the rejoicing washes

over, leaving not a drop of joy.

Let us cry for them

And then pick up our mantle

Of gentleness and offer whatever we can,

Whatever small bit of joy

Lurking in cabinets and pantries

Deliver it to a charity

Where we can witness the joy

That abounds in simple giving.

A Time for Hope

The holiday season is upon us. For many of us, it’s a time to enjoy family, share good food and a few laughs, decorate the house and give gifts to people we love.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so blessed. They live in shelters, broken-down RVs, or with an abuser who keeps tabs on everything they do. Too many have no money in the bank, no way to plan or save for a better life. Food is scarce, but thanks to pantries and kitchens that pop up this time of year, they can get a nice, warm meal. Perhaps the only thing that gives them hope.

            All too often we forget to say thanks to all those who have helped us over the years. They might have paid your college tuition, bought you a used, functioning car, took you shopping at a grocery store or at a well-known thrift store to but winter clothes.

They buy pet food so that your dog or cat can eat.

They donate clean, washed clothes to charities.

They offer rides to church and then sit and pray with you. They take you to doctor’s appointments when you’re too ill to drive yourself. They cook meals, clean your residence and look after your children when you are at whatever job you’ve been able to find.

In so many ways, people reach out and offer hope to the hopeless, joy to the joyless and kindness to those who have only been shown hate.

I am grateful to everyone who has blessed my life, who helped me work toward a career that I loved, who babysat my kids and who brought over homemade cookies and fudge.

I am lucky to have friends, both long-lasting and casual, who smile when they see me.

My husband and children have filled me with joy so many times that it’s impossible to count.

My wish for you is that you also feel the joy.

A Simple Request

            

Wishes wasted on what-nots and

Wing-dings wear away in time,

While fabulous fantasies of futures

filled with wondrous windows of

opportunities allow for nothing

but disappointments

Instead innocence insulates believers,

inspiring individuals to dream devilish

dances, daydreams of defiance, dramatic

challenges coursing through lives

unbroken, undefiled by demons of despair,

hearts healed and whole withstanding

weather-related attacks against

conformity.

Dream on, dreamers.  Dance with the stars,

sending sparks spiraling through the universe,

understandably lighting lustrous lives

leavened by luminous love,

spirited souls searching for something

of substance, something to shatter

defamations and destroy doubters.

Give me guidance, goodness, graciousness,

generosity that I may share my successes, spreading

goodwill and good cheer whenever my tired feet tread.

Help hinder the disbelievers, doubters, nay-sayers,

never noticing nothing that threatens to toss around

their firmly held convictions, no matter how mundane,

how mutinous.

  

Grant me the ability to appease, appreciate, applaud

those whose talents top mine, to see the dedication

and hard work woven into each wondrously crafted

creation, recognizing remarkable determination to succeed.

 Allow me to march with those who mark places,

who work with the angels, who weave satisfying stories

and craft perfect poems, earning the everlasting

satisfaction of success.

These things I ask.

Gratitude

            As Thanksgiving approaches, I have been pondering all the things that I am most grateful for.

At the top of my list is my husband. He accepted me for who I was, has nurtured me and encouraged me to expand who I was, allowing me to become the person I am today. Without him, I would still be the shy, backward individual who truly thought that no one would ever love her.

My children come next. We tried so hard to get pregnant, but month-after-month it didn’t happen. And then we were blessed with our first child. He was a joy and brought so much light and happiness into our lives that we feared we’d never have a second child. But then, we became pregnant again.

This time our daughter was born. She was so tiny, but when her eyes could finally see me, my heart rejoiced. Now we had two wonderful children.

It took some time to conceive the third time, but when that son was born, once again we felt truly blessed. He was an easy-going-child.

The three didn’t always get along, which was to be expected, but most of the time they did.

Watching them grow, helping them with their schoolwork, being present when they played sports or were in a concert, meant so much to us. We couldn’t attend everything once they were in middle school, but we divided up the occasions as much as we could.

Seeing them graduate from high school and then college brought immense joy.

I am grateful to my faith. When I was in college, away from home for the first time, I questioned my church. Was Catholicism really for me? Or was it standing amid a forest, listening to birds sing?

It was both, and still is today.

My faith has helped me when I was sad or troubled. It has given me a base upon which I can bend over and touch God’s grace. It has filled me with love and gentleness and kindness. And it gave me my singing voice for the first time in my life.

I am grateful to Mike’s sister who believed in my dream to become a teacher. She paid my college tuition so that I could earn my Elementary Teaching Credential. Without her help, I could never have achieved my lifelong goal to teach.

Teaching fulfilled me. I loved watching my students’ eyes light up with understanding. To hear their voices excitedly talking about the subject we were learning. I loved watching them in the playground, running around with such a profound love of life.

My teaching career spanned over thirty-three years. I began working with preschoolers and retired teaching highschoolers. All those different age groups brought me joy. And fulfillment.

I am grateful for all of my grandchildren. They are wonderfully talented, bright, loving and polite human beings. I love them all. There’s nothing like hugging a grandchild, even when they have grown taller than you. I miss them terribly.

I am grateful for my friends. There are some I met through my church. Our kids grew up together. We went on picnics, walks and play dates. Some of those kids are still friends with mine!

Unfortunately, very few of my work colleagues stayed in contact after I either transferred to another school or after I retired. Even though we drifted apart, they each blessed me in some way. They taught me patience even when they “borrowed” my lesson plans and claimed them as their own. That was a great compliment, but I didn’t understand it at the time.

They shared ideas with me, helping me to tackle administrative duties as well as endless amounts of paperwork.

And the times when we did meet socially, they made me smile.

I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to grow intellectually as a professional and as a writer. While I didn’t always go home with a profound lesson learned, I prided myself in incorporating at least one thing into my work. I still do that today.

I am grateful with the life I’ve led, even when I was depressed or trapped in my abusive family, for I took away from those situations that I could choose sadness or I could choose joy. I chose to be happy.

I am grateful the I am relatively healthy for my age. Sure, I’ve got issues, but I don’t let them drag me down. Instead, I accept them as a challenge to overcome.

In summation, I have much to be grateful for. All my varied experiences, all the people I’ve me, all the things I’ve done had enriched my life in unimaginable ways.

For this I am grateful.

Blessed Firelight

The fire crackles,

tongues of flame reaching

high into the night sky,

reaching to capture the

essence of the One who

feeds all flames.

Sparks whirl, grasping,

leaping for joy, celebrating

a temporary life lived in

fullness. Rejoicing, dancing,

sprinkling the darkness

with pinpoints of light.

Flickering flames bathe

the woods nearby, casting

eerie glows on low-reaching

fir trees; on fallen logs whose

souls have flown and rest

now in peace.

Horned owls hoot in syncopated

harmonies joined by a distant

pack of coyotes whose yips rise

and fall with unequaled grace.

A fir branch snaps, splitting the

song’s joyful tunes.

The night has a bite, a sharpness

that penetrates the inner core,

threatens to steal warmth,

warded off by a rising taper of

sparks, resurrecting feeble souls

who yearn for life.

Serenity beckons, calling the flames

to calm, to settle, to dwindle

until only a feeble light survives,

burning into perpetuity,

fueled by the eternal love

of One who feeds all flames.

Grandma’s House

            My Grandmother Williams lived in southeastern Ohio near the town of Gallipolis. She grew up poor, with her parents and later her husband working as poor tenant farmers. She was uneducated in terms of schooling, but knew a lot about cooking and working on the land. She and my grandfather together raised seven children, only one of which attended high school. Most of the others made it through eighth grade, which was a one-room schoolhouse at the time.

My grandfather borrowed a mule and wagon from a local farmer. Every morning he hitched them together and rode out along dirt roads to a hunk of land that he leased. There he grew corn and beans, staples of the family’s diet all year long. As they became more prosperous, my grandparents bought a house on a hill overlooking the Ohio River. That is the home that I knew, the place where we would come annually for a visit.

It was not a fancy house. Out back was a pit toilet that I despised. Not only did it smell atrocious, but it contained numerous spider webs dangling from the roof and swarms of flies buzzing around the “seat”. Heat was from a coal-burning stove that took up a sizable chunk of the front room. The roaring flames terrified me. When the door was opened to shovel in more fuel, I thought for sure that I was looking into the depths of hell.

My grandmother cooked on a wood-burning stove. How she created such marvelous meals with such primitive tools, I never knew. Even as a child I recognized that her task was not an easy one. On top of that, she set aside fruits and vegetables grown in her garden for consumption later on in the year. This was the time of year that we came for a visit: so that my mother could help with the grueling task of canning all that my grandparents had harvested. I did not have to help except for the shucking of corn and the snapping of beans, thank goodness, but I was expected to stay in the boiling hot kitchen until the task was complete.

The outcome was shelves full of glistening jars of a variety of tasty treats. No matter when we came to visit, there was always a something special to be opened and food to be shared.

            At home my mother carried on the tradition. Out in the backyard was my mother’s garden. She grew tomatoes, strawberries, corn, green beans and many other vegetables. A neighbor had fruit trees, and so we picked apples, peaches and pears from her yard. It all meant work. Almost every day throughout spring, summer and fall there was something to be canned. As a young child, just as at my grandmother’s, I participated minimally, but when I became a teenager, my mother expected me to stand at her side and work as an equal. I hated it.

            The work was hard. It meant endless hours of standing, peeling, pinching, pulling, plucking. My fingers ached. My feet and back complained. Perspiration streamed down my face and neck. There was endless washing of jars and sorting of lids. Standing over a hot stove, stirring whatever the product was at that time. Eventually it was poured into jars and the lids screwed on.

            The next step was the most challenging. The jars were gently placed into a pot of boiling water. Then we waited for the water to return to a boil and for the sealing to take place. There could be no talking, no music, no noise of any kind. One by one the lids would “pop”, signaling that the seal was complete. If six jars went into the pot, then we waited for six “pops”. Sometimes there were only five or four. Then my mom had to test each jar until she found the ones that refused to seal. Back into the pot they went, this time with new lids. The entire process lasted not just for hours, but for days, until every last piece of fruit was canned. Every day was the same: working, stirring, waiting for water to boil.

            I grew up thinking that this was a woman’s duty, albeit a tedious one. The rewards were obvious. As fall turned into winter and the snows fell turning the world into a crystal palace, all we had to do was walk into the garage and bring in a jar of treasure. Summer would blossom forth once again as sweet strawberry jam covered out toast or tasty green beans filled out plates. My mother’s efforts were welcomed and appreciated.

            When I became a stay-at-home mom, I accepted that the tradition was now mine to embrace. I decided to can so that we would have jams and fruits all year long, just as I had from my childhood. I got out a cookbook and found the directions for canning.  I went through all the preparation steps as carefully as I could. Each piece of fruit was peeled and cut. If I was making jam, then the fruit went into a giant kettle for cooking. I stood over the pot, stirring continuously to keep it from burning. When the pectin thickened the mixture, it was poured into jars. Lids were carefully applied.

            The jars went into the pot of boiling water. And I waited. And waited. Sometimes I would hear a pop, but most times I didn’t. I re-boiled the errant jars. And waited and waited. Some days it felt as if all I was doing was waiting for the water to boil.

            While I did not can as much food as my mother or grandmother, I did put aside applesauce, strawberry jam, pickles, tomatoes, peaches, and apricots. The problem was that I didn’t trust the safety of my work. What if the water wasn’t hot enough? What if I had become distracted by a good book and didn’t hear enough pops?

            All that waiting for water to boil, for what? Uncertain products and the possibility of poisoning my family. Nevertheless, I canned for several seasons in a row. At no point did I feel that my results were as good as those of my grandmother or mother. Nothing reminded me of home and nothing seemed worth the effort.

            Fortunately for me, my husband did not expect me to can. He realized that I was a better mother than a cook. On top of that, it was so much easier to blanch vegetables and then put them in the freezer. It required much less work, was safer all around. And no waiting for water to boil was involved.

Being Alone

            I loved being alone.

            Whenever my father was home, someone was being punished: my mother, most likely, myself, but also my brother. He never yelled at my sister.

            I never understood why he didn’t slap her about or smack her with his belt or lecture her on her many faults. Granted she was seven years younger than me and had petit mal seizures, but since he didn’t go after her, she’d become a brat.

            I felt sorry for my brother. He was exceptionally bright, a model student, but he had zero athletic skills. He tried to be an athlete, joining one baseball team after another where he never got to play because his lack of skills would have been detrimental to the team. He joined a football team in middle school, but the only purpose he served was to be pounded by the other team’s offensive line.

            He took out his frustrations on me. When our mom wasn’t looking, he’d pinch, kick or slap me until he left marks where they couldn’t be seen.

            It wasn’t until college that the torture stopped, probably because we were both out of the house, alone, no longer under the critical eyes of our parents.

            He was the only son and so he never had to share a room. Me, on the other hand, only had one-half of a room once my sister was out of the crib.

            The lack of privacy bothered me. Sometimes, if my sister was out and about (she had friends whereas I did not) I could hide in my room and listen to my favorite music on my little transistor radio. When I was alone, I imagined it always being that way, that I wasn’t sharing a room, had never shared a room, would never share one in the future.

            I knew it was only my imagination, but it released the pressure in me that built during the times in between.

            College dorm rooms provided no privacy at all. So tiny that only two steps separated my half of the room from my roommates, I was aware of everything she did. I overheard every phone conversation, had to step over her mess, and when her many friends came over, I even lost the privacy of my bed.

            And when I returned home during breaks, I felt unwelcome in the room which now completely belonged to my sister. She had taken over the master bedroom so as to have her own bathroom. There was a bed for me, but she had filled the closet and every drawer with her things.

            After college graduation I set two goals for myself: to buy a car then to rent an apartment.

            I needed the car so as to find a job. My brother had priority using the family car, my mother second. If I needed to go to an interview, my brother drove me if it was on his way, my mother drove as well, but often applied for the same position, at the same time, or my dad would take me. When my dad drove, he’d go inside the business, and if he didn’t like what he saw, he’d grab my arm and pull me out.

            I don’t recall how it happened, but I got a job at a chain furniture store. Someone must have driven me there for the interview, then driven me to and from work. Because I was not told to pay rent at home, I was able to save money for a down payment on a car.

            Even then, I wasn’t permitted to choose the one I really wanted. I was twenty-one, but apparently not smart enough to pick out a reliable car. I ended up with the ugliest Ford Pinto imaginable, only because that was the car my dad approved.

            I now had wheels of my own. When I wasn’t working, I’d take off for the morning. We lived not too far from a reservoir, a forested lake with a paved road that traversed one side. I’d pack myself a lunch, then set off, listening to the radio to my choice of music. I’d sing along, loving the solitude, the ability to do what I wanted, when I wanted.

            Being alone was beautiful.

            Once I’d saved up more money, I found a studio apartment that I could afford. My parents let me take one of the twin beds and a chest of drawers. Using my discount at the furniture store, I sought the damaged goods that weren’t so damaged that they were unusable.

            I didn’t mind the scuffs and dents. What I loved was being alone.

            I ate what and when I wanted, watched whatever I wanted on my tiny TV, went to bed when I wanted. For the first time in my life, I was completely in charge of my life. Of my decisions.

            It drove my mother nuts.

            She thought she could come over without being invited, without permission. Sometimes I pretended to not be home when she rang the bell downstairs. I could feel my blood pressure rising every time this happened: if she discovered I was there and not letting her in, I would have been in big trouble.

            It wasn’t too long after gaining my independence that I got a new job at the IRS. And then only about two years before I transferred to the local IRS office where I met my soon-to-be husband.

            Granted, for the past 48 years I’ve never technically been alone. In our early years my husband did spend some time at other offices where he’d have to live in hotels, but once we had kids, he never went away again.

            My husband is not demanding, no clingy, not possessive. I’ve never had to ask permission to travel on my own, to attend conferences in far off cities, or to take off across the country to visit family and friends.

            Even when we’re both home, there’s no expectation that I be in the same room with him. I can be alone in the front room which serves as my office while he’s in the family room watching TV. We can see each other, talk to each other, yet still be apart.

            The most powerful company I’ve had with me throughout my entire life is God. With Him I am never truly alone.

            He’s walked with me in my darkest days, He’s been with me during my happiest times and He’s guided me when my mind was awash with turmoil.

            It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized that I am never alone.

            At all times I carry the memories of family and friends, the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done. More than anything, I carry His love.

            Being alone is wonderful, but so is knowing that my shoulders are laden with the wonderful things I’ve done and the people I know.

A Halloween Memory

            The only part of Halloween that I ever liked was the endless pursuit of free candy. From the time my brother and I were in middle school, we roamed miles from home. We walked on streets whose names I never knew, knocking on the doors of anyone with lights still on. It took us hours, and at times our pillow case sacks were heavy that we had no option but to go home, empty them out, then head out again.

            I hated wearing costumes. Perhaps because I wore glasses, masks blocked my sight. I detested makeup and most of all, despised trying to come up with something to wear that could become a costume. My fallback was that of a hobo as all I had to do to play the part was put on my well-worn overalls.

            When I was thirteen my middle school decided that for Halloween, all students had to dress in costume. I immediately panicked. It was bad enough to traverse my neighborhood under cover of darkness, but now I would have to parade about campus under the horrific glare of fluorescent lights.

            I stewed over this for days.

I was a painfully shy, the girl who never raised her hand to ask or answer questions in class. I slithered down in my desk seat, my nose skimming the top of my desk, believing that if I couldn’t see the teacher, she couldn’t see me.

Dressing up at school had the potential to sink me even lower on the social scale, especially if I appeared in an unpopular or outmoded costume.

            When the day arrived, the only thing I could come up with was my mother’s WAC (Women’s Army Corp) uniform from World War II. It fit a bit snug, but I figured I could tolerate anything for the length of the festivities.

            In the morning I squeezed into the uniform, then trudged off to the bus stop. I was used to belittling looks, so the shrugs and smirks had little impact.

However, what seemed like a good idea in the morning, quickly became a terrifying experience at school.

            My teacher, thrilled to see the old uniform, made me stand in front of the class and share my mother’s story. Unfortunately, I knew little about her service.

I pronounced that she enlisted because her family was poor, a fact. That she chose the WACs because her older brother was in the Army, also true. I did know, only because of the few black-and-white photos she shared, that she was stationed in Florida where she learned to work on trucks.

            I figured that when my time was done, I could slink back into my desk. Not so. To make matters worse, my teacher sent me up and down the hall, into every single classroom, upstairs and down.

I was so terrified that I squeaked out only a few words, and wouldn’t have even got them out if it weren’t for the prompting of every teacher.

As the day progressed, the uniform seemed to get tighter and the heavy wool brought out as much sweat as a humid summer day. Perspiration pooled under my arms and down my face. It soaked the collar and the waistband of the skirt.

When lunch came, I was allowed to change clothes.

            It was such a horrible experience that I did not go out trick-or-treating that night and for several years after.

      Buffalo Dreams

Visions of a long ago past

keep clouding my brain,

carrying me back in time

when herds of shaggy buffalo

roamed the verdant plains,

grazing peacefully on the lush

grasses and thinking of little

except taking the next bite.

Nomadic tribes followed the

mighty herds, giving praise

to their gods for the wonders

of sustenance freely given.

Every sinew, every shard of bone,

every inch of hide valuable gems

for improving the quality of life.

Brave warriors, dressed in hides

and lathered in specially-made

potions encircle the unmindful

beasts, seeking those best suited

for the entire tribe’s needs.

Never taking more than would be

consumed, never wasting gifts

for the sake of one small part,

and always thanking the beast’s soul,

for dying so that others may live.

Traditions broken by the arrival

of ungrateful hunters who willingly

destroyed the herds to line their small

pockets with precious gold coins,

in their wake leaving only the

footprints of times long past. 

A New Awareness

            I’ve always moaned about the travails of being stuck in between my siblings. My mother worshiped my older brother, thought he could do no wrong. That was partly due to how disappointed my father was in having a son who was not athletic and had no aptitude for mechanics. My brother was not the child my father would have chosen. Unfortunately, this led to many incidents in which my brother was forced to spend hours in the garage, hands covered in grease, not enjoying what he was doing and getting yelled at for being incompetent.

            My brother took his frustrations out on me. He teased me constantly, called me offensive names, and when no one was looking, pinched or kicked or punched me, leaving huge bruises on my arms, legs and abdomen.

            We had a complicated relationship. I loved sports and would beg my brother to play. Badminton, whiffle ball, sledding, basketball, it made no difference to me. I picked up any sport quite quickly, and so as soon as I was consistently beating him, he found ways to torture me during play. He’d knock me down, through the ball so hard it bruised my palm, dunk me under the water, or let all the air out of my bicycle tires.

            Even so, when it was time to play, I’d look toward my brother. For one, we were intellectual equals. We enjoyed complicated strategy games that took days to solve. This meant board games as well as complex was games with dark green army men fighting beneath a sheet tent.

            My relationship with my younger sister was always rocky. My mother clearly felt a need to shelter her. This included making me take the blame for anything my sister did or did not do, such as cleaning her half of the room or making her bed. It was my fault if she made a mess anywhere in the house. This led to some interesting behaviors on my part.

            One time when I was particularly vexed at her, I asked Mom is my sister could have chocolate pudding, knowing that she’d have to eat it outside because she always made a mess of herself. Not satisfied with the low-level mess my sister would make, I helped make it bigger and better.

            I told her to stick her fingers in the container and rub the pudding down her legs and arms. All over her face and neck, and even in her hair. When it was gone, I went into the house to get my mom, expecting my sister to get the beating I would have received.

            Not so. My mom got the Polaroid camera and took a picture, enshrining forever the chocolate-mess that was my sister. And to make things worse, my mom laughed. She praised my sister for being so inventive, then commanded me to give her a bath.

            Over the years I was blamed for many things that I did not do. My brother accused me of flirting with his friends, none of whom had the brains to interest me. My sister said I’d kicked her and pinched her, which I hadn’t done.

            Those were some of the most miserable years of my life.

            The torture ended when I left home for college.

            I had no escaped my brother, however, as my parents would only let me go to the same college he had chosen. And then they empowered him to watch over me, control me, tell me what to do.

            They had not understood how clever I really was and how easily I could fool my brother. I did need his assistance to shop for food and necessities, and I did become a Little Sister to his fraternity, but beyond that, I led my own life. It was my first taste of freedom and I loved it.

            Many years later I learned about middle-child-syndrome. The term defined exactly how I felt. It also helped me understand why I took things to hard and why I kept so much of me locked inside.

            I used to dream of what it would be like to be an only child, and it seemed heavenly.

            Recently I heard a talk-show host talking about how lonely it was being an only child, and that with no siblings to take the brunt of the anger, he was the sole focus of every bit of torture his family could improvise.

            That gave me a new perspective. While I clearly was the target most of the time, my older brother was a bit of a cushion from my dad’s anger and disappointment. Because my mother felt a need to hover over my younger sister, it gave me a certain degree of freedom.

            This was a profound revelation. Only children have no one to blame if something gets broken or a task is left undone. Only children are the sole focus of parental energy. Only children, when not allowed outside as I was, have no where to go to get away from those prying eyes.

            I am now going to have to reevaluate my perspective on being a middle child. Perhaps it wasn’t as awful as I thought, or perhaps being alone could have been substantially worse.

            It’s interesting to ponder.