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.

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.

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.

Money Woes

            Money was a problem when our kids were young. We had our house, chosen in a price category so that I could be a stay-at-home mom. We never missed a payment as that was a priority, but there were times when the refrigerator was a tad empty.

            No one went hungry unless they chose to abstain from whatever was put on the table. Our meals most often consisted of chicken, ground beef and chuck roasts. Pasta, rice and potatoes rounded out the meal. Oh! And canned vegetables.

            Part of the problem was that I wasn’t much of a cook. I had a trusty cookbook that relied on canned soups. The recipes were easy to follow and tasted good. On top of that, they were hearty.

            When boxed Hamburger Helper came out, they became a staple in our diet. Self-contained meals, simple directions and required adding very little.

            My kids didn’t wear new clothes until they were about eight or nine. I was an expert thrift store shopper. I found nearly new onesies, shirts, shorts and pants. Dresses and slips. Coats, sweaters and light jackets. Even rain boots.

            They usually had brand-new shoes, unless the hand-me-downs were like new. When they began school, uniforms were new, a huge expense.

            I also sewed much of their wardrobes, especially shorts, dresses and anything made out of cotton. The machine was old and not very good. Before I left for college, I bought the cheapest model Sears had. That way, even away from home, I could make me new clothes.

            At some point I upgraded, which was a wise decision. The new machine gave greater variety of stitches, which came in handy for seams and hems. It also had a terrific buttonhole maker. My daughter has that machine now.

            We always had two cars. Mine was the Ford Pinto my dad made me buy when I really wanted a fancy Mercury sports-type model. Mike had an obnoxious orange Taurus. We drove them until repairs were useless.

            We replaced those vehicles with other used cars. Repeated repairs kept them running. I drove the kids to school and ran errands. Mike commuted to work.

            We joked that we had bought the mechanic a boat, a luxury car and a vacation cabin. Many times, we’d pay for one car, then turn in the other the next day.

            When my kids were a bit older, I got a job teaching preschool for the local recreation department. I think I earned just over two dollars an hour. The biggest advantage of the job was that I only paid half the normal fees for any class offered.

            My kids learned to swim at the Plunge. They did gymnastics and my daughter took pottery.

            That salary helped keep milk in the fridge and fruit in the house. It paid for camping trips so we’d have vacations. And it gave me something to do other than be a mom.

            Teaching preschool led to a career as an elementary teacher and then later a high school teacher.

            I remember taking the kids scavenging for aluminum cans. We’d go to construction sites and walk the grounds. We found a lot of cans, and when we were really lucky, dropped dollars. One time I picked up a crumpled bill to discover that it was a twenty! That was a lot of money.

            Money might have been a problem, but we were happy.

My Inheritance

            My mother’s family was incredibly poor. They owned their clothes, which were mostly hand-me-downs from wealthier relatives, a few pots and pans and some utensils. Whatever they had traveled with them as they moved from one farming job to another.

            With packs on their backs, they’d trudge around the Ohio River area, occasionally crossing over into West Virginia.

            My grandfather could not read. His math skills were poor and when his coffee was only available in cans, he’d make the shop owner open the can and weigh the grounds on the scale. He was afraid of being taken advantage of.

            For much of his last years Grandpa was a tenant farmer. The land was way up in the hills, a long walk. He had no wagon, cart, mule or horse. When he worked the fields, he’d walk for hours, leaving early in the morning, coming home well after dark. He was in his eighties, still working as a farm hand.

            My mother explained, often, that she only had one pair of shoes. She’d go barefoot no matter the weather. On school days she’d carry her shoes over her shoulder, putting them on when she reached the schoolhouse. As soon as class was over, off they’d go.

            At times her family lived in the woods, camping under the stars or building shelter out of branches and leaves. If they were lucky, someone would let them live in a barn during the winter.

            It was a rough life. As soon as my mother turned fourteen, she left home, moving to Dayton, Ohio to live with an older sister. That sister helped my mom get a job at Woolworth’s, a job she loved.

            In fact, when I was a teenager, my mom got hired at a Woolworth’s near our home, and despite her eighth grade education, worked her way up to manager where she oversaw purchasing, sales, and some bookkeeping.

            We never lived near my grandparents. Whenever we did visit, we left early in the morning for the long drive, heading south through the countryside. We’d stay for a bit, then make the drive home, arriving after dark.

            I hated their house. The coal-fired furnace terrified me. To me, it represented the fires of hell, only made worse when an uncle would pick me up and pretend to stick me inside.

            There was no running water. The outhouse out back smelled pretty bad, the wooden seat had splinters and huge spiders lived in the corners of the ceiling. Flies circled about, landing on you as you took care of business.

            They never did get electricity. Back then we didn’t have a television, so not having one didn’t seem odd. My grandmother had a treadle sewing machine, something I found fascinating. My grandmother loved showing me how it worked. The rhythmic sound of the peddle mesmerized me. And the things she made!

            My grandmother was a terrific seamstress considering the lack of tools. She hand-sewed squares, triangles and diamonds into the most beautiful quilts. Each one was made of bits and pieces of overalls, shirts, dresses, anything that was no longer wearable.

            She also had made every rug in the house. She showed me how she’d weave together scraps, tying them together as she went. The weave grew longer and longer, turning into a multicolor rope. That would be woven into an ever-lengthening spiral, then sewed together. They were soft on the feet and intriguing to look at.

            When both of my grandparents had died, within months of each other, my mother dreamt of getting one quilt and one rug. Because we lived so far away, my dad had to arrange time off in order to drive my mom there.

            Her siblings lived nearby, so had first access to anything of value. Granted my grandparents owned nothing that, at the time, was marketable. However, those quilts were what everyone wanted.

            Grandma had made at least five. When we visited, I’d beg her to show them to me. She was a shy, quiet woman who didn’t like to bask in the glory, so it took quite a bit of persuasion on my part. Even at my young age, I appreciated their beauty.

            By the time my mother finally got to the house, her siblings had claimed every quilt, every rug. They had taken the metal cup that everyone drank out of. Gone were the clothes, which would have been faded and stained. My grandmother owned no jewelry, or that would have been gone as well.

            My mother was so distraught that she sought solace in the barn at the back of the property. She walked about with tears in her eyes, fingering her father’s old tools. None of them were usable anymore, which was why there were still there.

            Up on a shelf something caught my mother’s eye. Reaching high overhead, she wrapped her fingers around the thing. It was the tool her father used to remove kernels off the cob. It looked like a can opener, which most likely it was when new. Grandpa had attached a leather strap to it.

            He’d slip his fingers under the strap, then rake off the kernels. The strap was stained with his sweat.

            Holding it brought back memories. My mother slipped it into her dress pocket and after saying goodbye, headed home. She never told anyone that she had it.

            I admired it. Imagining grandpa working with it allowed my mind to create original stories. The fact that not only had he created it, but that his sweat stained it, endeared it to me.

            Many years later when my mother’s mind began to fail, she insisted that my siblings and I claim things in the house. My brother got first choice, and even though my sister was the youngest, she got second.

            Every time I’d mention something I’d like, one of them had already claimed it. Until I thought of Grandpa’s tool.

            I was told I’d have to wait until my mother died before I could take it, one day she surprised me by placing it in my hand.

            That was my inheritance: a reminder of where my family came from.

Lesson Learned

We should have known better.  No.  Let’s say that I should have known better than to bring a birthday cake into someone’s home, without asking first.  That sounds a little strange, true, but it’s an unwritten “law.” You should never, ever do anything, no matter how seemingly innocent, without getting permission beforehand.

My birthday is in August.  Now that our “children” are living on their own, birthday celebrations lack luster.  A card and a bouquet of flowers routinely show up on the dining room table.  Sometimes we’ll go out for dinner.  That’s as exciting as it gets.

One summer my husband and I were visiting family. My birthday had passed, but after celebrating a relative’s birthday with a trip to an incredible mountain lake, I thought it might be fun to celebrate mine as well.

After church on Sunday, we stopped at Albertson’s to pick up some needed items.  As we walked the aisles, the idea came to me to buy a birthday cake.  I pictured excited faces hovering around a lit cake, everyone waiting to see if I could blow out fifty-nine candles.  I imagined how happy everyone would be to share the passing of another year of my life.

We found the bakery department, and there, to my delight, was the perfect cake. Tiny blue and yellow flowers danced across the top.  Deep green ivy held hands with the petals, and a pure white garland graced the sides.  Someone must have ordered the cake, and then not shown up.

With pride, I toted the cake to the house, The relatives were still at church, so I placed the cake in the only open space, at the end of the kitchen counter.  Knowing that a hungry family would soon descend upon the house, I fixed my lunch, settled at the table, with the intention of being out of the way.

All seemed to be going according as I hoped until the relative arrived home. When she saw the cake, something went terribly wrong.  Fire shot from her eyes.  Her jaw clenched into a knot the size of Philadelphia, and the hoods over her eyes would have done nicely as capes for a dark knight.  With a mighty sweep of her right arm, the cake flew off the edge of the counter and landed, splat, on the floor.

Then she exploded into a tirade of reasons why the cake was unacceptable.  She screamed for what felt like an eternity, but was probably no more than five minutes. 

This is not a wealthy family and food was never wasted. Yet, the perfectly fine cake was now in the garbage.

I cleared my lunch items off the table, and when the woman went into another room, I removed the cake from the can. The plastic container had not opened, so the cake was not polluted by grime.  It had landed on one side, causing the icing to flatten and smear, but the rest of the cake was intact.

I set the cake back on the counter.

The husband had been watching the entire scene. I looked at him with tear-filled eyes and said, “I only wanted to celebrate my birthday with you.  I apologize for buying a cake without asking first. I’ll carry it out to the garbage after dinner.”

With tears pouring down my face, I went downstairs, to our room. I sat on the bed, speechless. I had no idea what I had done wrong and didn’t know what words to say that would explain what had just happened.

Ten minutes later the husband stuck his head into the room. He had written his email address on a paper and asked me to send him a message. He replied shortly after I sent one off. Apparently, it was a fasting Sunday, something that always triggered explosions of anger. He said that when she’s famished, she often throws childish tantrums.  He apologized for her behavior, and wrote that they would enjoy the cake later.

The next morning Mike and I got up well before dawn, as planned, to begin our trek home.  Despite the husband’s explanations, when we went upstairs to leave and I saw the cake still there, unopened. I felt empty, as if the very air had been sucked out of my lungs.

I learned a very important lesson: never bring anything into the house that has not been pre-approved. 

My Cat History

            Growing up we never had a cat. My mother was afraid of them. She truly believed that cats could suck the air from a sleeping child. Imagine the picture this put in my naive mind! A stealthy cat climbing the bars of a crib, sneaking up to the head of the child, staring at the face, looking for the best angle of attack, then slowly, ever so slowly lowered its head, mouth open, ready to steal the air from the hapless baby.

            It was not until I married my husband that I found out that this was one of those old wives’ tales.

            My family had a beagle from the time I was about eight until I was into high school. My husband’s family had always had a cat.

            When I saw the family cat, I tensed, expecting an attack. My husband noticed, asked and then laughed when I offered my reasoning.

            Once I knew the truth, I gradually taught myself that a cat could make a good pet. I was terrified of the claws, but then dogs bite. Equally dangerous.

            My husband had a friend up in Portland, Oregon. On a camping trip up north, we stayed with them. They had two Siamese cats. Elusive, yet curious. When one came close, I tried to pet it and immediately got clawed. The deep, blood-drawing type. For the rest of our visit, I cringed whenever those cats drew near. They knew I was afraid, and seemed to relish in torturing me.

            At that point I had no interest in having a cat.

            One time my women’s guild was having a bake sale to buy something for our pastor. I had made cupcakes. My oldest son, maybe four or five at the time, came with me. The women getting things ready were a bit discombobulated. A pesky reddish cat kept coming inside, begging for food. When my son saw her, he grabbed her, held her to his chest and begged to bring her home.

            I explained that she most likely belonged to a family living nearby, but if his father approved and if she was there in the morning when we went to Mass, he could have her. As soon as we parked, he ran to the small hall. The cat was there, still begging for food. He scooped her up and held her in his lap, me by his side, while my husband attended the service.

            She was named Cupcake Eater Connelly due to the bites of cupcake he fed her. Cuppie, as we called her, was a wonderful cat. She was not quite full grown, but not a kitten either. She adapted quickly to our house and our routine. We loved her and took good care of her. When she died, we were heartbroken.

            After Cuppie came a rescue that belonged to my daughter. She named her Calie because, guess what? She was a calico cat. Not too bright, but once we finally got her housebroken (and that really tried our patience), she was a loving cat. Calie was patient and kind. She loved my daughter and then, later when she had children, her daughter as well.

            Calie lived a good, long life. Once our daughter went off to college, Calie fell in love with my husband.

            For years after we were never without a cat. There was Josie, a tiny stray that walked out of my husband’s closet. She was a sweet, wonderful cat. Tigger was a feral cat our daughter brought home, saying it was a female. Nope. I hadn’t wanted a male, thinking they were aggressive. He was not.

            I adopted sister tuxedo cats. One ran away as soon as my husband left a door open. We saw her off and on, but she never returned to live with us. The other was a sweetie. She loved petting and had an awesome purr. Then she fell ill, kidney disease.

            Next came Cole, a kitten I fell in love with at an adoption event. He loved nothing more than sitting on a lap. The poor thing got very sick, very quickly.

            Immediately after Taffy joined our home. I changed his name to Tuffy, a more masculine sounding name. He was a bit standoffish until he got quite a bit older. Then he was a lap cat. Always on me or on my husband.

            Once he died, we decided no more cats. By now we were both older and didn’t want our kids to have to deal with a pet after we were either incapacitated or dead.

            I miss having a four-legged pet. I really want another cat, an older one as I don’t want to deal with clawed furniture and poop in closets.

            Someday, hopefully soon, I’ll find the right cat.

A Religious Awakening

Fifty years ago, my faith was in doubt.  Tired of hearing the hell and damnation homilies of the local parish priest, I tuned out every time he spoke.  I knew that I should have been listening, for I feared that I was one of the sinners that he condemned to everlasting fire, and that there was no hope for my salvation.

I did not “do” drugs, proffer myself to men, nor commit crimes against society.  I was, however, not a dutiful daughter who accepted her subservient status in a household that held women with little respect. My parents believed that my sole purpose in life was to work for them, as a household servant, and when those jobs were done to satisfaction, then and only then could I pursue an education.

I did not object to assisting with the care and operation of the house.  What angered me most was that my siblings were exempted from any and all responsibility, including cleaning up after themselves. 

A major part of the problem was that my parents were ultra-conservative and narrow in focus.  To them, the duty of an older daughter was to manage the house and to marry young.  By young, I mean by the age of fourteen.  I didn’t even date at that age, let alone have a serious boyfriend, and I hated housework, so I was a failure in their eyes.

It should be a surprise that I was so affected by what was said for the pulpit, for Sunday worship was not something that my parents faithfully practiced.  They went to church when they felt like it, when the weather was good, when there were no sporting events on television.  And when they did go to church, it was not at the nearest church, but rather one which held the shortest service.

When I left for college in the summer of 1969, I decided to act boldly: I would not go to church at all.  My resolve faded as soon as the first Sunday arrived.  Not wanting to anger God, fearful of blackening my soul any further, I found the Newman center on campus.  The atmosphere was one of welcome.  The music filled me with joy, literally erasing all my negative thoughts and feelings in one fell swoop.

As time passed, my attitude toward the church changed. I believed the good news that I heard over and over during those joy-filled services. I understood that God had not judged me and found me wonting.  Instead, I now knew, He was a loving God who cried when one of His souls lost the way.  He offered peace and salvation to all who believed.  He gave solace, when needed, in times of stress and anxiety.  He loved us, no matter what we might have done.

Several months into that first school year, the Neuman Club organized a retreat up in the nearby mountains.  I had never done anything this before, but it sounded exactly what I needed.

The camp was somewhere east of Los Angeles, a rustic setting nestled in a forest. From the time we arrived at the camp, I felt at peace. All of us hurried inside, anxious to claim a bunk in one of the dorm rooms.  There was no pushing, no domineering, no one person making others feel worthless.

Having never been camping, I was unprepared for the chilly nights and the crisp morning air.  My clothing was not substantial enough to keep me warm, especially when it snowed in the night, leaving about six inches on the forest floor. Nevertheless, thanks to the generosity of those who shared warm mittens and thick sweaters, I stayed warm.

Throughout that weekend, my heart sang.  It was as if a giant anvil had been removed. Like a newly feathered chick, I flopped my wings, and took off.  Faith came at me from every direction.  From the treetops came God’s blessed light.  From the ferns sprang His offerings of love.  From my fellow participants came God’s unconditional love.  From our times of prayer and reflection, came discovery of my love for the God who loved me back.

I smiled until my face literally hurt.  I laughed at the crazy antics of my roommates, and joined in the singing in front of the fireplace at night.  During prayer times, tears poured down my face, yet I did not have the words to explain why.  It was as if someone had reached inside, pulled out all the pain, and filled me with a wholesome goodness.

I do believe that God touched me that weekend.  Not with His hands, for I did not feel the slightest brush against my body. What I did experience was the enveloping of His arms, holding me and making me feel safe. He gave the gift of feeling both loved and lovable.  He made me feel important, and inspired me to continue to follow His way.

When the weekend drew to a close, it was with deep regret that I packed my things.  I hoped to hold on to all that I had experienced.

I would love to report that my life was permanently changed, but it was not.  When at home, I continued to feel inadequate.  Not one day passed without hearing what a huge disappointment I was.  There was nothing that I did that ever pleased my parents, and not once did they give me a single word of encouragement.

When I graduated from college, I moved back to the still stifling environment of my parents’ home.  Pulled down by the never-ending criticism of my unmarried state, my unemployment, and by the wasted years at college, I quickly fell into a state of despondency.  The local Mass situation had not changed, even if the pastors had.  One pastor continued to preach the same old fire and brimstone message about the blackening of our souls.  In another, the Mass was so short you could be in and out in less than forty minutes.

It was not until my husband and I moved into the parish that he had known as a teenager, that the glow returned.  I rediscovered the God who loved me, who sheltered me from the storms of life, and who walked with me every step of every day. 

It was, and continues to be, a community of caring individuals who come together to worship and to pray for each other in times of need.  While priests have come and gone, the overall feeling has not.  We are the parish, the ones who define the atmosphere that envelopes all who step through the doors.

I know that there is a loving God who helps us walk through life’s challenges. He has blessed my life in ways that I am still discovering. 

That is the story of my faith.