Three Things, Unrelated

The Avon Nativity
  1. At Work, Sometimes They Give You Presents

Jim comes charging out of the library door, head down, backpack strapped to his back, something in his hand. When he looks up to wave, I see that he is grinning. I start the car and turn on the heat and wait while he navigates the walkway inside the walled courtyard, then emerges to take the cement walk that zigs, then zags, toward where I am parked. When he’s twenty feet away, he starts to run.

“I had a GREAT day,” he says, opening the door to shove his backpack into the back seat. “I finished the inventory of the YA books and then I just hung out and socialized. That was OKAY,” he adds quickly, seeing the question on my face. He slams the back door and climbs into the front seat. “They loved their gifts,” he says.

**********

We had seen an idea on Pinterest: someone took nice, smooth glass jars and glued three buttons on their fronts. They filled the jars with white-chocolate-dipped pretzels and tied little scarves around the lids. They looked like jolly snowperson-bellies, whimsical and fun.

We saved some pretty jars; they’d held some special sauces Jim had bought. I bought Gorilla Glue and sorted through Grandma’s button box, coming up with three sets of three, just the right size. We debated what we could dip in white chocolate to fill the jars with tasty white goodness. Tiny pretzels, of course. Jim thought he’d remembered seeing some miniature oreo-type cookies at Kroger. What about, Mark said, double-dipping malted milk balls?

I got a giant bag of white chocolate dipping discs at the bulk food store, and we bought all three—pretzels, tiny cookies, and malted milk balls,—at the supermarket. We experimented. On the first run-through, I melted the discs too hot, and I poured the malted milk balls in. Their chocolate began melting, and I chased them through the steamy, murky depths with a spoon. When I finally scooped them up onto waxed paper to cool, the white chocolate was marbled with milk chocolate fronds. I dumped half a bag of the little sandwich cookies in the melty mess and fished them, too, out to harden.

That was our testing batch, we rationalized, and we discovered they were irresistible. Eating one just made us want to eat a handful. “Cover them up!” we wailed, until the plate was empty, which didn’t take too long.

For the gifting batch, I melted the white fudge half as long, and dipped the malted milk balls, one by one, on the tines of a fork. The whiteness stayed white; the candy had smaller puddles. They were still delicious. We dipped all the candy and the rest of the cookies and handfuls of the pretzels.

The next morning the goodies were fully dry, and we layered them in the buttoned jars right up to their very tops. I had three little striped scarves I had knitted the year before—scarves to go around the necks of wine bottles (the tiny stocking caps are still in the drawer.) We knotted the scarves jauntily around the lids and packaged them up in pretty gift bags.

It was, I realized, Jim’s first experience of a holiday at work. When we had bundled everything into the car, he flumped into the front seat and paused before fishing out his ear buds.

“Do you want to come in with me when we get there?” he asked.

I look at the pile of goodies. It wasn’t too huge.

“We’ll see,” I said. “If you need help carrying.”

But when we got there, it was clear James could manage the load himself. “Okay…” he said, unsure, but I waved him toward the entrance.

“Have a great day, bud,” I said. “Tell the women of the library I said hello!”

“Bye, Mom,” said Jim, and he turned and trudged toward the library door.

*************

“So they liked the snow-bellies?” I ask now, and Jim says, “OH, yeah. I think Janelle was over the moon. And Mom,” he says, reaching in a pocket, bringing out an envelope only slightly crumpled, “they got ME something, too.”

He shows me a handmade card with a note from his boss, thanking him for his detail-oriented work. “Not everyone could do what you do,” she has written.

“And look,” he says. He has a gift-card to a nearby restaurant, close enough that he can walk there from campus. He is beaming.

I don’t think it ever occurred to him that the people he works with might give him a gift.

****************

Ralphie watches Christmas seals…

2. The Names Are All Changed

Daisy used to walk everywhere; I’d see her on the streets of my old hometown. She used a cane, and she wore long patterned skirts that came down to her ankles and a shiny, puffy, blue jacket that was a little too tight. Her eyes were icy blue and lashless; she never wore a spit of makeup. Her hair, though, was long—down almost to where she could sit upon it,–and it was a delightful, unlikely shade of blonde. I wondered aloud to a friend one day about how old Daisy might be.

“Fifty?” I ventured.

The friend snorted. “More like seventy,” she said.

Daisy lived in a dilapidated apartment house right downtown; she’d been there a long time. I saw her at the supper my church served for people in need every other Wednesday. She often brought someone new with her, ushering them in, introducing them, showing them the ropes.

I heard that when her building was too cold,–the heat all controlled by one lone thermostat– it was Daisy who called the landlord and set him straight about how warm people needed the temp to be set at to be comfortable. And at least for a week or so, the landlord would comply. New renters wound up in Daisy’s apartment, where she would advise them.

She was kind of a house-mother, Daisy was.

She held us accountable in the church kitchen too; she often asked about ingredients and where we’d gotten things, and she did not want to eat anything cooked on aluminum. Things leeched out of aluminum, she said; poison things.

Because of Daisy, we didn’t use very much aluminum foil.

One winter we started a book discussion group—all women—and we read memoir-type books by other women involved in church life. Maybe it was discovering a book, the one by the woman who worked at a food pantry in a big city church in California, on the shelf that made me think of Daisy this week. She came to the group the day we discussed that book; she came and sat, listening quietly, while we talked about the California church, and the people who resisted allowing “those people” into the church, who were happy to GIVE to a food pantry, but who didn’t want it in their front yard.

There was a pause in the conversation, and Daisy, suddenly, spoke.

“When I was a child,” she said, “my mother made us stay in bed for all but two hours a day. We had to lay there, every day. Lay there and be quiet. If we didn’t, we got punished. We learned just to be still.”

There was silence around the circle; we all gazed at Daisy.

“Even when we went to school,” she said, “when we came home, she would meet us at the door and march us off to our bedrooms. We were allowed to come out and eat, but that was it. For the rest of the day, we stayed in bed.

“Why,” she asked us, “would a mother do that?”

We stared at Daisy. Dancing behind her crumpled, weathered, shiny-clean face, I could see the face of that little girl, the little blonde girl who wanted to go out and play, or who wanted, maybe, to sit with her mother in the kitchen and talk. I was horrified, and I had not a clue what to do.

But my friend Regan, who was sitting beside Daisy, did.

“Oh, Daisy,” she said, and she reached over and took the woman’s hand. “Daisy. That was BAD.”

Daisy nodded. She was calm and settled, but tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“It WAS bad,” she said. “Those people in California: that was bad, too. Did they ever let the food pantry stay?”

We slowly steered our way back into the book discussion, and Daisy grew quiet once again, nodding when she agreed. We had coffee and brownies afterward and Daisy stayed and chatted, and then she struggled into her blue jacket, gathered up her cane and a cloth bag, said her goodbyes and left.

She went back to her apartment, where she wrangled with the landlord and made it a point to meet the new tenants and help them. She went out every day, Daisy did, walking down to the market for a loaf of bread, visiting friends, stopping, some days, for coffee.

It’s been almost twenty years since the last time I saw Daisy, and I wonder if she’s still in her apartment, or possibly, she’s in a facility. If so, I hope it’s warm and clean, but if it isn’t, I bet that Daisy is letting the management know what she and the people who live there need.

It may be, too, that Daisy is gone, passed into another realm where maybe she’ll finally get the answers she needed, the answers that eluded her, her whole life long.

******************

Who doesn’t love an elephant?

3. Setting Up the Little People

He may be 28 years old, a man with a job and a college career, but Jim still likes to set up the little people at Christmas. I love that he’s unashamed of that, that he’s willing to let his inner kid shine through.

The little people cluster this year on a dresser we’ve repurposed for the living room. There is the irresistible little Avon nativity set—Mary in pink, Joseph in blue, a bright-eyed, brown-haired baby. There are three roly-poly, jewel-toned wise men, and three attentive farm animals: donkey and lamb and cow. They are just the size to fit in a child’s hand and just the thing to distract a toddler bent on playing with the porcelain nativity. One of the wise men, in fact, bears the scars of having been gnawed by an enthusiastic young worshipper.

There’s a Native American nativity, too, with a dark-haired, dark-skinned family; it is ceramic, and candles can slide into slots behind the Holy Family. So much wax has melted onto that little tableau and been scraped off, though, that we just don’t burn the candles anymore.

Jim spends a good thirty minutes digging figures out of the box and setting them up.

“Remember those three little wooden nutcrackers?” he asks. “I made them into wise men by the Native American Christmas, ‘cause one of them is carrying a gift. And I put Arthur there too, because, hey. Who doesn’t love an elephant, and somehow, I don’t think Jesus would mind. Do you?”

Arthur is Babar’s nephew. I pull a Babar book from the shelves and stand it up behind the tableau,–behind Charlie Brown dressed as  a wise man, and a Santa Pez dispenser, behind Snoopy asleep on his dog house, and BB-8, and a sledding penguin and snow-covered Christmas trees that are shorter than many of the figures that surround them.

It is a wonderful, eclectic, bizarre display; each figure has a history and a story. Each piece says something about family and about friends who’ve been important.

And the fact that Jim still wants to set them up, weave a story behind their arrangement, welcome that history into his heart—well, that’s important too. The little people, I think, are my favorite Christmas decoration this year.

*************

I don’t know how these three things mesh; I don’t know if there’s a deeper meaning among the three stories that rang, clear and strong as tolling bells, through my conscious mind this week. But whatever festival of light you celebrate, whatever people you walk with in this time and place, I hope there’s warmth and light and fellowship. And I hope your blessings are many, and your troubles, very, very few.

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After the Long, Crazy Slide: A Time to Rest

The little dog sleeps, snuffling softly, in the comfy chair in the family room. The living room clock tocks boldly. The microwave hums and the furnace ka-chunks as it warms up, but these are not noisy noises. These are background noises to the quiet that comes after Christmas.

***********

I think of this holiday sequence in sledding terms. There is the long, hard slog up the hill, tugging a heavy wooden flyer with its runners waxed and gleaming, and sometimes there are people sitting on that sled, catching a ride. They make the slog up a little more work, and they make it a little more fun, too. Sometimes, they even help pull.

And it seems like it takes forever, but finally, panting, we hit the peak. We position the sled, one person holding the back in place as it teeters, ready, if we’re not careful, to careen away without us. Mittened hands hold that flyer steady on tipsy terra snow-covered firma, though, and the whole crew climbs on board, making room for each other, hanging on to each other, jostling each other. There are comments and kickbacks, but somehow, finally, everybody’s on that old sled.

And then there’s that moment—that break in chronological time—where the sled is not sedentary, but it’s not quite moving, either. It’s poised at the peak. It’s giving us all a chance to look at the packed white vista below. “Look,” that moment says to us, “look at where we’re headed!”

And we suck in our breaths, slammed at the beauty.

And then we’re off, and if we’re lucky—as so often, we are—the ride down is amazing, a blur of wind and snow and screams and laughter and undistilled wonder, and after all that long hard work getting to the peak, it seems like milliseconds before we’ve reached the shiny flat bottomland, and we’re looking at each other, jaws dropped, howling.

“Oh, man,” we say. “Oh, man.

We know nothing will ever be quite that great again, but some of us may brave the hill a few times more.

Then after, there’s the cozy après-sled part, where mittens crusted with snow are defrosting on the radiator, and boots are thawing on the twisted old rug in the backroom. There are the hot chocolates and the steaming mugs of coffee; someone passes cookies around, and someone is retelling the story of the riotous blur down the hill. The ride becomes faster and more dangerous with each telling and no one who rode on that sled begs to differ; we are all remembering, trying to recreate and recapture, that veil-lifting moment on the peak.

And people warm up, and gather up their things, and slowly, comfortably, disperse, until I am left—I am left by the fire with a steaming mug of joe, a piece of fudge or two, and a wonderful, unread book.

**********

The slog, of course, is the preparation for the Christmas holidays, and then Christmas Eve is the struggle to climb onto the sleigh, with that beautiful moment of sheer appreciation right there at the tippy-top. Christmas itself, with its excited gathering and gifting and glorious meal, is the wild ride down.

There’s the getting-together in the aftermath, and when that winds down, there’s the quiet respite by the fire.

**********

Today is my quiet respite by the fire time. It’s a time to spread out the holiday, look it over, rearrange a piece or two so they slide neatly into the way things really were.

**********

“This,” Jim said to me on Christmas night, “is one of my three best Christmases ever.” He was staggering under a load of books, epic works of graphic literature. The biggest and fattest is something like 1500 pages; that night, Jim’s bookmark was already a third of the way in.

Jim’s dad was in the cozy chair by the Christmas tree, reading.

We appropriated, this year, the Icelandic custom of exchanging books on Christmas Eve and spending the night reading them, wonderful chocolates close at hand. We woke up on Christmas morning and opened a few non-book gifts, exclaimed over stocking stuffers, munched on coffee cake. We roasted Cornish game hens for dinner, and we watched Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur, snuggled in toasty throws, as the Christmas sky purpled into night. We ate grilled ham and cheese sandwiches for dinner, and then we all read some more.

It was simple, quiet, fulfilling, and festive. Jim said he didn’t experience attacks of tension like he often does at holiday times,–and holidays can be pretty tough for those with autism and mental illness. This morning, he posted on Facebook. “I hope nobody minds me bragging about what I got for Christmas this year,” he wrote, “but I got some really cool graphic novels.”

When your mom’s an English teacher, this kind of post does her heart a whole lotta good. I completely forgot to ask about the other two Christmases.

***************

This Christmas had that solemn, festive tension, that miraculous wonder of God-made-human. We talked with and texted and messaged far-away dear ones, making sure connections stayed warm and solid. Home celebration was all about the books and all about the chocolate. And it was a little bit about the non-human among us, too, the aging little dog and the cats across the way.

************

Jim said, one morning last week, “Did you see Greta’s leg, Mom? It looks like Holmsie’s did, just before she died.”

I looked; on the back of the joint on the dog’s left rear leg, there was a big purple-y red knot, the fur all worried away. Mark said he’d noticed her nipping at it.

I called the vet’s, and they said to bring Greta in that morning.

The vet who examined the dog looked about 18; she was pretty and mop-headed and firm of hand. She quickly determined the knot was not an infection, and she took the reluctant little dog back to draw some fluid. She looked at it under the microscope but couldn’t determine what, exactly, was present.

“We’ll send it off,” she said matter-of-factly, “and if it’s cancer, we can cut it away. Although,” she mused, “there’s very little skin left there to close the gap.”

We went home with new pain medication, which helped. Greta no longer worried the knot when she snuggled on the couch. It didn’t bother her when we went out walking. On these cold, cold days, she wanted to walk farther than I did.

“Such spirit for a 13-year-old dog!” one of the nice ladies at the vets’ reception area had said. She was right, but on arriving back home after a spirited walk, Greta sinks into sleeps so deep I often get up to check her breathing.

Don’t be cancer, I think, but the old dog is warm and comfortable; she likes to fall asleep on the couch, face bathed by the lights from the Christmas tree. She knows she is loved. We will navigate whatever happens next.

**************

The cats across the street don’t have the gifts that Greta has: they are not warm and comfortable, and they have had no folks to love them.

Something happened over there—a break or a catastrophe of some kind, and suddenly the neighbors were gone. Baby toys remained in the yard, but the house was dark, the vehicles were never parked in the drive, and we never saw them walking with their newly adopted daughter after the dinner hour. Something happened. No one knew what.

But the cats were there—the black cat with the white smudge on the nose, and the little gray and black tabby. They paced the little cement porch. They slept behind the vertical slat of the porch swing, a little protected space. They meowed pitifully.

Those neighbors had been animal lovers; their big hearts attracted all the neighborhood pets. It was impossible to think that they would leave their cats. Maybe, we thought, these cats were strays that they’d been feeding.

I made some calls. It is hard to initiate a kitty rescue.

Finally, I opened a can of tuna, dumped it into an aging Tupperware dish, and walked it across the street. The little black cat jumped up hopefully, the tabby darted in, and I put the dish down. Then suddenly, three more cats were there. One, a huge brute, twice the size of the others, ate all the tuna.

I went home and said to Mark, “We need to buy some kibble.” That night we got a big bag of inexpensive cat food, filled two old dishes, and set them out for the cats—enough for all, enough to share.

The next day, I went to refill the dishes, and there were two new ones set out, filled to the brim. Jim said he’d seen a young girl running over to feed the cats.

And then it got cold. Really cold, and there were ads warning against leaving pets outside, and the dangers of this kind of weather for our furry friends.  We dug out old blankets and lined a couple of boxes, ran them across the street, tilted them toward the wall, away from the wind. Someone put out another box. Someone else covered the boxes with old rugs.

The food kept getting refilled.

And then one day, the neighbor’s truck was back, the lights were on, and the cats were again in the hands of an animal-loving host. Thank goodness.

And thank goodness we live in a neighborhood where people’s kindness extends to the neighbors with fur. Sitting in my comfy, warm chair, setting down my book, my eye rests on the ceramic nativity scene, with its sheep and oxen and camels, sheltering with the people on what we think was a cold, clear night. Christmas comes, I realize more and more, in all kinds of ways.

**********

I fall back into my book; the afternoon wanes. The boyos come home, just a little sheepish. Their afternoon jaunt has taken them right past our favorite used book store; everything, even the books on the clearance racks, was twenty per cent off. They each have a fat bag of treasures which they add to their Christmas bounty. Jim goes off to re-organize his graphic novel collection. Mark slips into the chair in the corner by the tree, opens his book, and closes his eyes.

I heat the oven, slide in a quiche, and the smells of roasting cheese and bacon greet me when I bring the little dog in from her late afternoon foray. I love this quiet time, poised between the glorious Christmas celebration and the contemplative New Year’s observance. A little time to rest at the end of the year, and to let the tension go and open spaces so we can look ahead. Fueled by this rich, warm time, we can explore what needs to be done.

A new year pushes at the edges; it’s a year in which we will change and grow, make decisions, and take bold steps to enact them. There will be surprises, and there will be challenges, reunions, and partings. This quiet time helps us prepare, gather up the strength, enter in with hope and courage.

Happy New Year, my friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Little Matter of Christmas Cards

Marianne has a rule for herself: she never opens a Christmas card until she has sent hers out.

Cards start to arrive in the first week of December, and she puts them in a special basket which she keeps on the little half-moon table by the front door, handy to the mailbox. That week, she helps her daughter Phyllis settle in.

Phyllis is 36 and has recently left a bad marriage–to a lazy, lying man who has taken advantage of her for many years. Marianne has watched her sweet daughter grow grimmer and grimmer, watched her usual dance through life become a burdened trudge. She has wanted so many times to say, “Leave him! Come home and rest and get ready for something better!”

But all she said was, “If you need me, I’m here.” Marianne’s own first marriage was a mistake that had to be lived through; she did not appreciate people who pointed it out at the time. Her mistake, her decisions to make. She wanted to treat Phyllis with respect, give her some dignity. Leave her some hope.

Because after she finally gathered up the energy to leave that first man, Marianne had thought her chances of happiness were shot–that her life would be a single one, a working one, one in which she’d hope for invitations to a niece’s house so she could experience a family Christmas once in a while. And she had set about building a worthwhile, solitary life, plunged into work and joined a gym and found a church that spoke to her. And she was happy and not lonely at all.

And then she met Hank, Phyllis’s father. They had, in their mid-thirties, produced Phyllis and her younger brother Danny. Danny was a graphic designer who worked far away, on the other coast. Marianne and Hank had taken the train out to see him the year Hank retired; they meandered across the country, and spent two weeks in a cottage helping Danny settle in, exploring his new town.

Two years later–which was, Marianne realizes now with a bolt of shock, three years ago–, Hank had a sudden, swift heart attack. He clutched his chest, looked at her in total surprise, and was gone.

So, although she doesn’t rejoice in the reasons for it, it is still a joyful pleasure to have Phyllis with her this holiday season. Phyllis is a sweet, strong woman, sturdy and affectionate. She works at the library, 9 until 6, Tuesday through Saturday; she gives Marianne a certain sum each month, and Marianne puts it in a special savings account. She’ll give it right back to her at some point, all the money that accumulates, but it’s good for the girl to feel like she’s paying her way.

And Marianne has a life: she goes to the gym four days a week; she has a book club.  She plays cards. She meets friends for lunch, and she sews and crochets. She has her housework down to a science, and every year, she redecorates a room. She never stops missing Hank, but her life is full.

Still, it’s awfully good to have Phyllis with her.

So the first week in December, the two of them fix up Phyllis’s old room. Phyllis asks if, maybe, she could turn the spare room into an office space, and Marianne thinks that a great idea. They spend a bustle-y couple of days cleaning and moving furniture up and down the stairs, from basement to second floor; back down again with rejects. They survey curtains and ponder color.

After Christmas, Phyllis says, maybe she’ll paint both rooms. If that’s okay with her mother.

And Marianne, who loves the transformation of an underused space into one that’s vibrant, says that of course it’s all right.

She did get out the Christmas cards–two hefty boxes of beautiful cards; she’d bought them at an after-holidays sale last year, seduced by thick, creamy envelopes with a little golden inlay under the flap. One has a vintage Saint Nick on the cover; the old saint looks both jolly and wise. And the other has a madonna and child. Marianne’s cards aren’t usually overtly religious, but this rendering just spoke to her: the young mother’s face illuminated and alive, not saccharine or saintly sweet. She looks strong and scared and filled with wonder…which is pretty much, when you get right down to the bottom level, Marianne thinks, the human condition.

The baby sleeps in the young Mary’s arms, his dark eyelashes long on plump cheeks. The picture called to Marianne, and she bought the two boxes of cards and put them in the armoire where she keeps gifts and things to save.

Now the boxes sit, waiting, on her bookshelf.

In the second week of December, Phyllis’s church has a benefit for a children’s program they sponsor. It’s a wonderful program, providing before and after school care for kids whose parents can’t afford it. The kids get hot meals and transportation; the church insists on homework time before play, but they provide tutors and materials. Marianne has tutored math there, her accounting background coming in handy. The church makes everything fun, a challenge. The kids learn to cook in teams of five, and a different team makes dinner every week, and they can stay at the church until 9 PM if their parents work late.

It’s a tremendous program, a make-a-difference program, and it needs lots of money and resources to keep up.

So during the second week, Marianne bakes batch after batch of cookies. Julia, the director of the early childhood program at the church, drops off a garbage bag full of pretty quilted materials. Marianne takes that, and scraps and remnants from her own old projects, and she designs and sews fifty Christmas stockings. It’s like working again: she gets up at 6:00 each day, and by the time Phyllis leaves the house at 8:30, Marianne is at work, too. She breaks for lunch and finishes up just about 4:30, when she contemplates what to fix for dinner.

The pile of cards in the basket by the front door grows.

Marianne does get her Christmas card list out from the drawer. She opens it up at lunch one day, and spreads it out onto the table. It’s in alphabetical order; the list marches along with the names in her address book. And the very first name is Lisa’s: Lisa, her friend since she worked in New Concord, twenty years ago. Lisa, who died in April after a long and valiant fight against a cancer that started in her uterus and slowly, slowly, poisoned all the healthy parts of her body.

Lisa A. Marianne looks at the list smoothed out in front of her and folds it back up. Lisa’s name is not the only one that needs to be removed from the list this year.

Marianne goes back to her sewing.

Phyllis notices by the third week in December.

“Mom,” she says, “I can’t believe you haven’t done your Christmas cards yet! You’re always the harbinger of the holiday season!” Phyllis, in her quiet, organized way, has sent her cards out. She set up her computer and printer in her new office; she printed out labels for the cards she had ordered from the office supply store. She had her name printed on them, then added little personal notes on most.

Marianne liked to do her cards by hand; and there was never a question of sending cards out from “Marianne and Phyllis.” Phyllis was not a dependent child; she was a strong and independent woman who had her own life and friends.

“I’ll get to them,” Marianne says to her daughter now. She goes as far as getting the address book from the side table. She puts it next to the card boxes.

The address book is thirty years old, probably. Bits of envelope stick out–bits with addresses that have changed and that Marianne hasn’t yet had time to record. Some of the pages are thick with change. When she can, she cuts the address label off the letter and tapes it over the old address. Some people–Jenny Cobb, for instance, the student intern who worked with them twenty-five years ago, and has stayed close and in touch ever since–have moved several times. Her little address spot has a lump where six new labels have been carefully cut out and taped in.

The address book is a lot fatter than it was when Marianne picked it up at a clearance sale at TJ Maxx. She was out Christmas shopping that day, she realizes–out shopping with her beloved Hank.

**********

That week they decorate; they pull the tree boxes up from the basement. They lug the heavy plastic bins that hold wreaths and garland, ornaments, and the pretty ceramic nativity set Marianne’s Aunt See had made her when she was in high school.

They dust and polish furniture. They exclaim over statues of Santa and ceramic penguins and ornaments painted by Phyllis’s and Danny’s young hands.

The basket by the door is filling up; each day brings at least two or three more cards. After her initial comment, Phyllis says not another word, treating Marianne with the same respect she’s given. But she looks at her mother with concern.

And Marianne faces the fact: she’s got to get those cards done. So on Saturday, when Phyllis goes to work, she gathers everything–the list, the address book, a yellow highlighter, a green ball point pen, a black gel pen, a waxed paper envelope with three books of Christmas stamps. She gets the boxes of cards from the shelves; she puts them on the table. And she sighs–she feels reluctance; she feels dread. But she sits down, and she picks up the black pen, and she starts.

She pulls the list to her; she takes the highlighter and draws a firm line through “Lisa A.” She opens the address book and runs her finger over the three addresses she has for Lisa A–the first, with the partner who broke her heart, the second for an efficiency apartment. Finally, Lisa stayed at an assisted living complex that gave her the right proportion of independence and increasing care. Marianne remembers all the visits she made there; she remembers that Lisa had a big bulletin board where she pinned all the cards and letters she received. There was a whole section, Lisa had showed her proudly, just for ‘Stuff From Marianne.’

Marianne takes off her glasses and stands up. She goes to the powder room and brings back a full box of tissues. She takes her first weeping break with Lisa A.

She uses the whole day to do her cards, paging through the address book, looking at the history there. There’s a place in the beginning for ‘This belongs to…’ and ‘In case of emergency, contact…’ It still reads ‘Hank Byers’ there. She picks up the highlighter, but her hand hovers; in the end, she can’t quite highlight Hank’s name away.

She cuts out address labels and pastes them in place for an aunt who has changed retirement communities, and for friends who have adventured out to Arizona, snowbirds happily ensconced in an RV community nine months of the year. Nieces and nephews, young former colleagues–all of these entries are thick with change and exciting new events–many have added spouses and children’s names to their entries, along with new homes at new addresses.

She consigns some entries  to the natural attrition of change–people who were present and important at one stage and era, and, that era having ended, who faded into their own busy lives, tenuous cords severed. Others names have reappeared–important friends from high school and college who have re-entered her life.. That, Marianne thinks wryly, is the joyful side of FaceBook.

She takes a weeping break at David’s name, too–Hank’s stalwart best friend died of cancer early in the year. After Hank passed, David and Annie had made sure Marianne was included in parties and adventures, had holiday invitations to their big, raucous family events–she never went, feeling an invader among the tumble of kids and grandkids, and last year, the first great-grand, but the fact of having an invitation to turn down had been a comfort many days. David came over at midnight once to chase a bat, and helped her connect to a company that would do that, too– “If ever,” he said, not yet knowing, “if ever I’m not available to do that for you.”

She thinks of Annie’s first Christmas apart, remembers how hard that is. She blows her nose and swabs away the dampness on her cheeks and writes a special note.

And Rita–oh, cancer has taken its relentless toll this year. Rita from her card club, tiny dynamo Rita, who often derailed the game with a wonderful story. No one could tell a story like Rita did, tell it at her own expense, making herself a hapless, Lucille Ball-style heroine, hoisted on her own petard. She would have them gasping with laughter,and when they were done, they had to think for 15 minutes to remember whose turn it was to lead a card. It’s so hard to accept that an elemental force like Rita’s has been quenched.

She finishes just before Phyllis walks in the door, and Phyllis hangs up her coat, puts down her purse, and comes in to see her red-eyed mother, hand flat on the last page of the address book, sitting at the table with three stacks of Christmas cards, stamped, addressed, and ready to mail.

“Pizza!” Phyllis suggests, but with a kind of firmness that doesn’t brook no for an answer. “Pizza and a trip to the post office.”

Marianne rinses her face and changes her shirt and grabs her coat. She closes the address book, folds up the Christmas card list and slides it inside, and they are off.

On Monday she begins to open the cards stacked in the basket. She reads each one, and she clips new addresses from envelopes if needed. And then she uses baby doll clothes pins she’s had since Phyllis outgrew doll-play; she hangs the cards from a tough green cord she’s strung over her picture window.

Many of the cards yield photos–smiling families, loved and missed; growing kids. Some folks include pictures of new houses or beautiful pets or vacation delights. Marianne carefully writes a description on the back of each photo. She pins these to a big canvas that hangs in the family room; after Christmas; she will sort through and put the keepers in a special photo album for Christmas card treasures.

Some of the cards have letters–newsy form-letters or handwritten scribbles, catching her up on what the year has brought and wrought for special people. There have been losses; there have. But there have been weddings and births, new jobs and new friendships. An old friend, at age 63, is headed back to college for the degree she always wanted and lamented. Another is taking an exciting trip through Europe. There are seven retirement announcements.

Marianne takes her time, opening five or six cards over her morning coffee, savoring the artwork, pondering the choices and what they reveal about their senders, absorbing the news she’s been sent. Opening that once-stuck door, reveling in reconnection.

She opens the last card on Christmas Eve, shows Phyllis a new-baby photo, clips the address and sticks it in the drawer with her address book. And then she runs up to change.

Phyllis has twisted her arm; she’ll go to church services, bask in candleglow and sweet music (tonight, Phyllis assured her, is a sermon-free zone). They’ll come home and have their annual toast and open their gifts to each other. Tomorrow, they’ll Face-Time Danny. And they’ll have an unexpected crowd around their table–a neighbor, Sis, who’s had a falling out with her family, will join them, and Joey, a young colleague of Phyllis’s, who can’t get back to Buffalo because of the blizzard his hometown is enduring. And Jannie and Kevin, Phyllis’s oldest friends, who had a miscarriage this year, have decided they wouldn’t go to Detroit for the riotous family Christmas.

Marianne and Phyllis have warned them all: they are cooking their shared favorite meal: a giant tuna casserole. Kevin said he was bringing a sliced ham to augment it, and Sis is bringing bread and a green salad.  Joey commented on their motley-crewness, and asked if it would be okay if he brought a Rudolph DVD. It’s a film he watches each Christmas, and maybe, he said, they could relate to the Island of Misfit toys. Of course, said Phyllis, and she touched her mother’s arm and smiled.

It will be a Christmas laced with the knowledge of loss, thinks Marianne, pulling on a velvety blue tunic and fastening her silver snowflake necklace. She will not be able to look too long at her daughter’s face as the carols play and the candlelight flickers in the church, to know the aching pain of her little girl and not be able to assuage it. She will reach across the miles to her baby boy, hoping he is safe and happy.

She will ache, remembering the people she cherished and laughed with, cried with and leaned on,–the people she will never see again.

And they’ll eat their unconventional dinner; they’ll learn about their guests. They’ll watch a silly movie and maybe play a rousing round or two of Apples to Apples, or deal out some cards. They will laugh and hug and share a day together.

And later, she and Phyllis will look through Christmas card photos, share this year’s news from both their batches of holiday greetings, pondering the ebb and the flow and realizing they can’t make sense of it. The pattern–if one is there–only emerges, she thinks, when the tapestry is completed, and Marianne is in no hurry for that to happen. She is lonely; yes, she is, but she is filled, too–with love for her children, with the need to contribute, with the potential of new friends and new discoveries.

She may well be sending Joey a Christmas card next year–who knows? He might be one of those ‘keeper’ people, someone she thinks of every time she hears Burl Ives warbling about holly jolliness. Other friendships may deepen; other losses may accrue. Her arms may be needed for comfort and her smile for celebration.

Her address book will fatten a little. Marianne knows that this is the truth; she dreads it and she welcomes it, and she runs downstairs to let her daughter take her to church.

‘Twas the Last Week of Advent

The final Sunday dawns, in a season of anticipation, and the last candle is lit.  A circle of glowing, those four candles form; anticipation intensifies. Those who found the feasts find themselves kicked into hyper-drive. All last minute details must be accomplished–the cleaning, the last bit of baking, the clothes for the parties. Stocking stuffers must be bought or crafted and wrapped accordingly.

For some others–for dreamers, believers, lovers, and children (who oftentimes are all of the other three), time opens out into a fluid, pristine pool; it flattens and extends. There are wonderful tasks to take care of: a carefully chosen gift to wrap for a beloved teacher. The sparkling bauble to be picked up at the jeweler’s–both gift and signal of commitment to a whole new level of bonding. Packages arrive, delivered by the harried but cheerful UPS person,–packages that need to be swept off the steps and into the house before anyone else notices their arrival.

Some prepare for travel, a careful time of careful packing; they bear important treasures that can’t be left behind.

There are special dishes to be made–that cheesecake that has the sweet tart cherries and chopped cashews and carved chunks of dark chocolate swirled into its creaminess, maybe. The store-bought sandwich cookies dipped into melted chocolate and drizzled with glaze, finished with sprinkles. The meat that must marinate for 48 hours. The pasta that must be carefully stuffed. These important tasks become a focus.

For children, the waiting becomes almost unbearable, those four glowing candles, those constant television specials, the swift, hushed steps of grown-ups performing secret, essential chores.

For those that celebrate Christmas, this week becomes a time of readying, in both physical and spiritual senses. It is a special, solemn prelude to a special, hopeful joy.

And yet.

There are those who celebrate the holidays who also tend to other things.

The week before Christmas can be both sacred and ordinary time.

****************
He has an empty stool by his hearth.

It is his first Christmas without his wife of fifty years; she passed in the spring, and slowly he has been learning what life is like–and how to live it–without her. But Christmas–this was her holiday. She knitted and sewed for months before; she decorated every nook and cranny. She was especially invested in personal gifts; the thought of sticking cash in an envelope or tossing a gift card someone’s way was anathema to her.

He has tried to honor her spirit, and he has shopped for the kids and grandkids. He hopes he has done a good job,–done it for her, almost with her. But it has been a trudge through viscous muddy swamps and not a joyful journey. Next year, he thinks, he’ll learn to order on-line and avoid the piped-in music, the raucous crowds.

He has put up the tree, and hung the ornaments, aching, by himself. He has put a wreath on the door and dug the holiday dish towels out from where she always kept them. Just that much exhausted him.

His kids are great; they call and visit, and his dance card is filled for Christmas Eve and Christmas.

But this final week, when all the rest of the world seems to be gearing up and frenzied, he stays home at night, and he turns the TV on, looking for an old war movie or a murder mystery. Tears fall through a haze of cigarette smoke. He wishes the holiday would just be over.

********************
She is at Starbucks, sipping her dark roast and making it last, trying to decide how she can tell her family she has no job after the first of the year.

*********************
He is in the parking lot, the car idling, warming up. He is absorbing the awful, harsh diagnosis.

He’d been so sure that all was well–Wouldn’t I know, he thought, that something was catastrophically wrong? Wouldn’t my body tell me?

Apparently not. The doctor had been gentle and caring but very, very clear. The treatment options. The prognosis. The time he probably had left.

His wife had wanted to come; he told her, Nah, it’ll be fine. Why waste your personal time?

He doesn’t know if he wishes she were here, or if he’s glad she isn’t.

This, he thinks, is probably my last Christmas.  A kind of numbing sets in and he puts the car in gear.

************************
Last year, she was in combat at Christmas. This–being home, and enfolded–was all she could think of, all she wished for.

But in some ways, she thinks, this is much, much harder.

**************************
He takes his pill and tries to shove the dread away, to stifle it. He does not want his illness to ruin everyone else’s Christmas, but oh, this is ridiculously hard. He knows he has to get on with the day, but having depression is hard enough. Having depression in the holidays feels like a burden too heavy to drag along.

****************************
The expectation of the miracle is the gleaming heart of the season. It shines through child eyes and through the eyes of those newly in love. It thrums like a rhythm through the secret tasks of busy parents. It carries the grandparents, readying their house for an onslaught of celebration, through their holiday chores. This is, and it should be, a time of great joy.

But there are some for whom the miracle has receded, whose hearts are made heavy by their inability to share in the joyful preparation. Anticipation transforms into dread, and they bear the guilt of being unable to fling themselves into the preparation.

We light our candles and we sing about city sidewalks and we dust the ceramic baby Jesus in his finely crafted manger. We feel the surge: oh, the holiday is coming: coming fast. The light cracks open the darkness; it’s all happening again.

It is the week before Christmas; We anticipate the joy. And we pray,–ah, we pray and open our hearts to,–those for whom the joy, this year, will probably not come.

Chay-Chay-Chain: Chain of Yules

‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I was so happy to see Maggie, my former student, on a trip back home. In class, way back in the day, Maggie was a bright and funny over-achiever, a perfectionist, and a wonderful writer. I lost track of her after we moved. Then, when I finally figured out FaceBook, twelve years after everyone else had embraced it, Maggie found me and sent a friend request.

It’s been a delight to watch her soar, career-wise, and to see her find a mate and establish a family of her own, too. Now here she was, looking a little tired and a little frazzled.

This is what she told me:

I have to make twenty four cupcakes, from scratch, for my daughter Annie’s first grade class tomorrow. Jillie’s dance recital is Thursday night, and I still have to sew fifty-seven sequins onto her leotard. I’m in charge of the Christmas party at work, and I’m organizing a collection for some students who are dead broke this Christmas season. They’re debating whether they should stay in college or give their kids a real Christmas; we decided to take care of the Christmas part for them.  There are kids’ concerts  coming up and we’re both singing in the cantata at church and I made my own Christmas cards this year and Joe’s parents and sister are coming to stay with us. I have to plan the dinner and shop for the groceries and clean the house and hand craft gifts for forty seven of my closest friends…

What I did was hug her and wish her a wonderful, wonderful holiday season.

What I wanted to do was shake her and say, NO, you DON’T ‘have to’!

But, having once been a victim of “The World’s Most Essential Mommy” syndrome myself, I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Maggie, right now, wouldn’t hear me.

As I said, Maggie is smart. She’ll figure it out; she’ll come to see that running herself ragged from September until January 2nd is not the best way to celebrate the holidays. It’s not even a route to making sweet children magically happy.

Until then, though, Maggie will wear the chains she’s forged herself–chains of super-mom selflessness and exhaustion. She’ll throw herself into bed on Christmas morning at 4 AM, having filled the stockings and etched an authentic looking note from Santa, thanking Jillie and Annie for the milk and cookies, having arranged the presents in person-centered piles and insured that everyone’s goodies were equal in cost and intent, having whipped up the breakfast casserole and wrestled the 16-pound roast, somehow, into her over-stuffed refrigerator. She’ll look at her blissfully snoring husband Joe, and she’ll feel a rising tide of resentment.

“Merry freakin’ Christmas,” she’ll think bitterly. “And once again, I did most of it myself.”

And, with a self-righteous little ping of satisfaction, she’ll drag those onerous chains up from the floor, wrap them around her tired self, and sleep until 5:15, when Jillie and Annie erupt to drag her and Joe out of bed.

Oh, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

***********
I know a wonderful wife and mom who stops at her favorite pizzeria every Christmas Eve and buys two enormous unbaked pies. On Christmas evening, after the visiting is done and the explosion of wrapping paper has settled, she cranks the oven up high and throws the pizzas in.  That’s their Christmas dinner; the kids look forward to it every year, and if she whipped up a full meal of roast and mashed potatoes and gravy, with cheesecake and handcrafted chocolates, they would groan and ask where the pizza was.

What a smart mama. She says she wants to be awake and rested at the end of Christmas day, so they can clear the table and get the board games out and enjoy each other’s company.

Never once have the Essential Mommy police shown up to ding her for offering pizza instead of a seven course meal on Christmas night.

We chain ourselves with imagined obligations.

**************

There are other holiday ways we chain ourselves, too—like Scrooge and Marley, we might have wrapped ourselves relentlessly in coils of nastiness, hoping the worst for our enemies, withholding love and joy from those we feel have wronged us. Maybe we are stingy with the tip for the paper carrier or the hair dresser; maybe we cut someone off our Christmas card list because we didn’t like an offhand remark they made last year. Fifteen years of friendship fries in the fires of resentment, and out pops a heavy metal link. It attaches itself to the growing chain we’re  wearing around our waists.

When others party merrily, we watch bitterly. “Sure. Easy for you,” we think.

Easy for US, too–if only our chains weren’t quite so heavy.

***************
Chains of worry and resentment and frustration. We wait for a shining savior-person to come and, wielding gleaming metal cutters, cut away those heavy coils from our weary persons.

But, really, all we have to do is let them go ourselves.

**************
Thank goodness Christmas brings other chains, too.

There are the paper chains crafted by childish hands, clumsily stapled or glued together, dangling, maybe, from one end of the curtain rod in the living room. Each day, the kids take turns ripping off a link. Soon, the littlest one has to stand on a chair to reach the bottom-most link.

When the links are gone, Christmas will be here.

For each link they tear away, those children do a secret nice thing for someone–clean up a mess, or bite off a nasty retort. Or say a little prayer in the silence.

They tear away the paper chain, but they’re creating another, more wonderful kind of linkage.

There are chains of connection–the long-awaited Christmas letter, the every Christmas evening phone call, the reunion that always happens on New Year’s Eve.  We forge these chains, too–the joyful maintenance of communication, of friendship, of caring.

We join hands with those odd people sitting next to us at church, and we are surprised by the warmth of their grasps.  We dish up the meal at the food kitchen and recognize ourselves in those we serve.

We launder the still-snuggly winter coat, mend its tears, replace its buttons, take it down to the homeless shelter, and hand it over to a retired teacher who volunteers there. She will get it to a person who needs it, a person who doesn’t need to see me or know where that coat originated. But, strangers to each other, we will still be part of a chain.

Those chains, too, are chains we forge in life.

**************
Oh, Maggie. I want to send her a gift card for a massage, bidding her to take the afternoon off. I want to call her husband Joe and tell him to make the girl slow down. I want to sit her down and spill all the wonderful wisdom I’ve gathered, over a somewhat self-satisfied life, into her already full lap.

But she’s no fool, our Maggie, and she will come to a day when she realizes that being fully present is the very best present, that having a perfectly peaked meringue never made the difference in a holiday celebration, that treating herself with all the kindness and energy she treats others is a gift to everyone, not just to herself.

She wears the chains of obligation, Maggie does, but she also wears the chains of joy.  And deep down, under the thrum and bustle of deep-felt oh-I-have-to’s, she knows (we ALL know) which chains are made to last.

Four Visits

I hear her high heels tapping down the polished hallway.  She had an intermediary call me to ask if I knew of any people in need; I mentioned a longtime colleague, retired and alone now, with some serious health problems.  There was, the intermediary said, someone who wanted to help a person just like that this Christmas.  That someone would stop by with an envelope, and she would be grateful if I would just address and mail it.

It was an easy task to agree to do.

I am thinking this must be a seasoned benefactor…someone comfortably settled, perhaps with children established and in no need of mama’s money.  But the heels belong to a young person who is far from rich. She is, though, smart, clever, and thoroughly professional; she and her husband came unexpectedly into a tidy sum, and they decided to split it. Half goes to someone he found who is in need, the other half to someone she identifies: that’s their Christmas gift to each other.

She hands me a thick envelope with a name etched on it; her joy at perpetrating this unacknowledged act of giving is boundless.  She swears me to secrecy, wishes me a merry Christmas, and taps away.

I address and stamp the envelope and slide it into the mailbox across the street.

********

Ducking her head, eyes hidden beneath a long bang, she hands out hand-folded boxes to each of the board members.  Open them! she urges. We do, and are amazed at the painted ornaments–with snow-covered pine trees, fat red cardinals perched on snow-dusted branches, beaming Santas and frolicking snowmen, rigid nutcrackers and graceful ballerinas, gracing their tender, curved glass sides.

We gasp; they are exquisite.  She laughs delightedly.  She grasps her hands and bobs a bow.  She is so proud.

She is a recovering addict become an artist, someone who wanted to say thank you to the board that okays the funds that support the program she first went through and now works for.  She teaches others, now, to paint; she donates paintings to be auctioned off to raise funds for the program.  She has worked through a long, bad tunnel, and she has emerged into the light.

Beet-red, triumphant, she slides out of the conference room, waving a merry Christmas to all.

**********

We gather around the table–eight old friends missing two more who are at a different gathering that day,–two who are mourning a loved one lost too soon.  The candles glow, Keith invokes a warm and personal grace, and we tuck into herbed rolled pork, potato pancakes and applesauce, crusty homemade bread, a savory slaw, and Larry-made pies.  It is a meal as delicious and unique as the home in which we gather.

The long table sits on polished concrete floors; whitewashed beams gleam high above us.  This was once a gas station; it now is Kay and Brian’s home, with a sleeping space defined by walls cleverly constructed of three-deep packing pallets strung with twinkle lights. The kitchen is a tiny marvel of high-tech efficiency, the bathroom small and snug and wonderful.

Kay has her studio; her paintings enliven the walls of the whole space–new paintings, larger, growing evermore strong and bold, like her amazing and constantly maturing talent. Brian has his work-space.  Together, they have stories to tell of mishaps and triumphs, but it has been worth the trek: their vision of this extraordinary home-space is realized.

Kay and Brain live at a midpoint; after that wonderful meal and a chance to really visit, we reluctantly move outside.  No parking problems in a former service station: we linger by the cars. We listen to the gentle burble of the fountain Brian constructed, and which is, in this oddly warm winter, unhindered by ice.  Finally, with hugs and plans to meet again in 2016, with shouts of “Merry Christmas!” we climb in our cars and pull out, headed north, south, and west, into the darkness, strengthened by the rekindling of that friendly warmth.

**********

Jeff is the counselor who organized and oversaw a wonderful program Jim took part in several years ago.  Jeff keeps everyone connected with email updates and invitations to reunions and notices about who’s graduated, who’s gotten a job, and who might need a little support.  This week he emails that a young man from the program is alone this Christmas.  He wonders if anyone would like to spend an hour or two helping the boy celebrate.

I mention it to Mark and Jim, and both of them, without hesitation, say, “Of course.”  Tight-throated and misty, I email Jeff to confirm.

We pack up cookies, write out a card, grab a game, and bundle into Mark’s car for the ride to the city at 11:30 or so on Christmas day.  We arrive at the boy’s house just a shade early; he is standing out front, tall, bearded, and gangly limbed–sort of Abe-Lincoln-y–yelling into a cell phone.  We park and approach and he looks at us, a little frightened, and yells into the phone that he has to go, there are PEOPLE here!

Jeff pulls up at that moment and we usher into a small, tidy apartment, with sparse furniture, white walls, and hardwood floors.  There is a little fabric tree; there is one present underneath it.  Jeff, Mark, and Jim lug in folding chairs.  Our host pulls chicken nuggets and french fries from the freezer; we locate one baking sheet and make chicken and potatoes share.  Jeff produces a veggie lasagna; he figures out the intricacies of the oven.

People start to pile in, three more families with kids from the program.  The table groans with drinks and cookies and fudge and a frosted cake–turns out, it’s not just Christmas: our young host has a birthday today, too. A pile of presents grows beneath the tree. The kids talk about Star Wars and superheroes and debate DC versus Marvel; a young artist passes around her cell phone to share her truly incredible artwork.  A young guitarist shows us his band’s professional calling card.  The food is hot; people grab plates,and our host sits in the place of honor, munching and beaming.

This was a group of strangers for mere moments.  Now we pass presents to the birthday guy; we take pictures; we cheer and exclaim.  Excited, he runs upstairs to change into a brand new shirt and, when he emerges, he gets a round of applause.  We eat cake and those frozen ice cream cones with the tops dipped in chocolate and nuts.  Jeff tries to get some singing going, but the attempt crashes and burns amid laughter and groans.

In the kitchen, gathering up, Mark and I talk with a young man (call him Matt) who’s a staff member, someone who works shifts in this little apartment so the birthday guy can successfully live on his own.  Matt tells us he’s actually off-shift, but he couldn’t stand the thought that our guy would be alone on the holiday–on his BIRTHDAY.  Jeff, Matt says, is amazing; this was probably one of the best Christmas-birthdays his young charge has ever had.

Jim shakes a lot of hands; the young people trade info; they promise to write and email and keep in touch.  We all take information about a zoo-lights expedition coming up the day after New Year’s. We part with hugs and laughter and hopes to see each other soon.  The ride home takes less than an hour; in 90 minutes, the oven is heated and the rib roast is scenting the house. The roads were great, the trip was no big deal–but the gathering was pretty major for a young guy who expected only to be alone.

***********
Such gifts this holiday season: of generosity, of artistry, of creation, of gathering and goodness.  Dark falls shortly after we arrive home, but it’s no threat. There is light.  In this season of darkness, I know there is light, there is warmth, and there is great, great hope.

Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

*******************

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

********************

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

********************

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

****************

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

Take the Pepper; Come Back for the Salt

 

 Evelyn sat behind the counter and watched as people passed by, never turning to look her way or stopping to explore the wonderful, quirky, lovely things she had in her little store. She had taken a great leap to open the little gift shop, a leap of faith–faith in the Almighty, in her own ability, and in her nephew Barney’s assurances.

“Aunt Evy,” he’d said, “you have taste and a discerning eye.  People will pay for that.”

This store, with its little stash of glowing inventory, had taken all of her savings.  She had left her job in the doctor’s office, and they quickly replaced her.  If this didn’t work, she would truly be in trouble.

“Wait,” Barney assured her. “Ride it out.  It takes a little time.”

But Evelyn didn’t think she had much time before the bottom crashed away, and she couldn’t sustain things any longer.  She needed a miracle–just a little miracle would be nice.  She needed shoppers–four or five a day would be fine, especially if they each spent thirty dollars.  She sighed and went back to get her dusting cloth.  At least she would, for sure, have the most immaculate shop in town.

************
Jorie was wiry and dark and unremarkable, not pretty, not ugly, not smart, not dumb.  I am completely UN-special, she thought. I’m so un-special that I’m invisible sometimes.

It was a complicated time at her house.  Her oldest sister, Mills, was pregnant–19 and pregnant, and hadn’t there been some screaming about that? Mills was the pretty one, all golden hair and blue eyes, and she was smart too.  She was in college studying to be a teacher, except that now she’d take some time off to have her baby.

She had married Danny and they were living at Jorie’s house, but just until the first of the year, and there was tight-lipped, silent disapproval seeping from her mother’s pores.

Mills acted unconcerned.  “Don’t you worry, Mother!” she’d snapped.  “I’ll finish my degree.  The college has a daycare.  I’m not going to be derailed.”

She said it like an accusation, like a taunt, to her mother, who had only had one semester of college before it became apparent Mills was on her way.  But, Jorie thought, her parents loved each other; they would have gotten married anyway.

And it was her mother’s choice, wasn’t it, to keep on having kids? Four years after Mills, there was Freddy, who was a sophomore now and had just discovered what he called the Wonderful World of Alcohol.  He stayed out late; he came home drunk; there was more screaming.

Jorie–Marjorie, really, but no one called her that, just like no one called Mills ‘Mildred’–came along four years after Freddy, and there was a bigger gap–almost six years–between her and Patrick, the baby. Patrick and Freddy had blue eyes and blond hair, too–Freddy’s kind of a dull and dirty blonde that he shaved close to his head.  Patrick had a nimbus of curls.

Between Mill’s pregnancy and Freddy’s partying and Patrick’s excessive cuteness, Jorie felt like there was only a narrow space for her.  She would be, she advised herself, smart to squeeze into the space available, shut up, and crouch beneath the radar.

Which she did, pretty well, but it got lonely sometimes.  Sometimes she wished her mother would just talk to her–just for 15 minutes a day or so.

She’d asked yesterday if she could help with the holiday baking, and her mother about snapped her head off.  “Just let me DO this, Marjorie!” she’d said.  “If you want to be helpful, go clean your room.”

That wasn’t right of Mom to say, because Jorie always kept her room neat, and she vacuumed it weekly.  She enjoyed dusting and rearranging her pictures and statues.  She made her bed, every day. She cleaned and straightened Patrick’s room, too.  She picked up the magazines in the living room, and she loaded the dishwasher.  She was learning to do her laundry and loved the feel and the smell of an iron in her hand, crisply pressing cotton cloth.

She DID help.  Mills and Freddy mocked her, mercilessly; Patrick accepted that Jorie was there to pick up after him.  Her mother kicked her out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t fair.

Her dad got home late, usually, at 6:30 or 7:00, always one to pick up overtime at the plant; by then Jorie would be in a chair with a book, and Dad would come in and just for a minute rest his hand on her head and smile down as she smiled up.  They were the dark ones in this fair-haired family. But Dad was handsome–distinguished, even, with his snapping eyes and high cheekbones and glossy mop of hair.

Jorie was just…unremarkable.

*********

After school on Wednesday, Mom was taking Mills to her OB/Gyn appointment, so Jorie had to walk over to pick up Patrick at his kindergarten class, which was in a separate school about a half mile from hers.  And he would be whiny and not want to walk home, so Jorie, who had three dollars saved, would take him through the little downtown, and they would stop at the coffee shop and share a coke.  That way, he’d shut up and not drag behind, bitterly resenting the lack of ride.

Patrick was out playing with two friends when Jorie got there; he left them reluctantly and opened his rosebud mouth to protest the walk home.  Jorie cut him off with a promise of the coffee shop.  Patrick clamped his little mouth shut, considered, and accepted the placation with a shrug.  He dragged his book bag behind him, and Jorie remonstrated; they wandered, bickering, into the little downtown area, until Jorie lifted her head, looked in a window and saw wonders.

It was a new little store; she’d never seen it before.  In the window was a display of music boxes and kaleidoscopes. Oh, Jorie loved kaleidoscopes.  Inside, she could see beautiful frothy clothes on a rack and little statues and doodads arranged enticingly on counters.

“Patrick,” she said.  “Patrick! Let’s go in here.”

************
Evelyn was dusting when the bell jangled, and hope surged and then faded.  It was children; she’d have to watch them.  She hurried behind the counter and kept a sharp eye.  They were whispering by the salt and pepper shaker display.

There was a great deal of low discussion, and then the little boy came over, a pepper shaker cupped in his chubby little hands. He looked up at her, enormous blue eyes shining, and he raised the little shaker toward her. It was a clever little owl.

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “could I buy the pepper today and come back for the salt next week? ‘Cause I only have three dollars?”

His hair was a molten golden aura encircling his head.  He looks, thought Evy, like an angel, and her heart leapt. It seemed to her, suddenly, like a sign or a test, and of course she would let the little one take the pepper and come back for the salt.  She solemnly took his money, and handed him a clipboard. He printed his name carefully on the sheet of paper attached and handed it, equally solemnly, back to her.

“I won’t let anyone else buy the salt owl,” she promised.

“My mother loves owls,” he said, almost reverently, and he left, herded by another, bigger child. Blinded by all that blue and gold, Evy didn’t take much notice of the bigger one.

**************

That week, Jorie turned into an odd job whirligig.  She shined Dad’s shoes; she walked to the store for Mills.  She vacuumed Danny’s car and she folded laundry.  She earned a quarter here and fifty cents there.

She told Mills about the little store and Mills went down and did some Christmas shopping.  Mills saw a necklace she liked and she hinted broadly to Danny, who went down with his mother and bought the necklace.  His mom got a few little things, too.  Jorie told the kids at school about the store and some of them went in to get gifts for their moms, or to buy one of the homemade suckers in a pail by the counter.

By Thursday, she had the money they needed. Patrick had a play date, so Jorie went into the store alone.

***************

Evy looked up at the thin, dark child standing in front of the counter.  “You want what?” she asked.

“The owl,” said Jorie, “the salt owl.  For my mother. She loves owls.”

“Sorry,” said Evy, sharply. “Not for sale.”

Barney looked up at her hard tone, folded up his paper and stood.  He smiled over the counter at Jorie, who had frozen in shock.

“But I was HERE,” said Jorie. “I was here with my brother, Patrick.  He wrote down his name and you gave him the pepper and said we could come back for the salt.” Jorie’s eyes glazed over, and Evy realized: this was the darker, bigger child.

“Oh, darling,” she said.  “I am sorry.  I didn’t see you that day.”

“I’m know,” Jorie whispered, apologetic. “I’m not especially stand out-ish.”

“Oh, darling,” whispered Evy again, and she shook her head clear of its cobwebs. “I’m going to get you a special box and a gift card. You wait right here.”

She went into the cluttered little back room and sorted through boxes, and she could hear  Barney’s rumble and the child answering him, stumbling a little at first and then being drawn into the conversation.  Their voices rose and fell. Evy found the box and a little Christmas gift tag with a beribboned owl smiling up from it, and she took them out to Jorie.

She took the shaker down from its shelf and nestled it in tissue.

“See how I did that?” she asked, and Jorie nodded.  “Well,” said Evy, “here’s another piece of tissue for the pepper.  And if you need help, you just bring it back.”

Jorie’s face was shining now, and Evy saw how her dark eyes snapped, and, with that blush creeping up under her skin, how pretty she would be.  “Oh,” she said impulsively to the girl, “oh, with that complexion and those eyes,–you’re going to be so lovely.”

Jorie’s eyes opened in shock and she hugged the bag Evy gave her tight to her chest.  At the door she remembered her manners and turned to thank them and say goodbye.

“Come in any time you’re bored,” said Barney, “and you can help me grade papers.” Barney taught second grade and was always co-opting help with the endless math sheets.

When Jorie left, he turned to Evy. “She’s been sending you business,” he said.
**************
Jorie didn’t expect much that year, but it turned out to be a really nice Christmas.  Her Dad and Danny decided they would do all the cooking and cleanup and they spent the whole day, Christmas Eve, simmering up spaghetti sauce and making meatballs.  Mom disappeared upstairs to do her wrapping, and Mills, after she threw up twice in the morning, ran around humming and grinning.  Freddy didn’t go out with his friends at all, and he went to midnight Mass with Dad and Jorie.  Mom stayed home with Patrick, who couldn’t sit still that long or that late.

The next morning there was a ton of presents.  Danny and Mills got her a necklace with a real diamond, and Dad got her books.  Her mother got her a cookbook and her own cooking things–wooden spoons and pans and a little electric beater, and she said they would make cream puffs the day after Christmas.

Freddy got tons of clothes and Patrick tore and jumped and threw wrapping and got his new toys out right away, right in the middle of the wrapping paper mess.

There was a very dewy moment when Mills pulled the paper off a big package and discovered Grandma’s christening gown.  All four of them had been baptized in it; years before, Mom had been baptized in it.  Now Mills and Danny’s baby could be too. Mills gulped out a thank you and hugged Mom for a long time, and even Dad had snail tracks on his cheeks.

*********
When Mom opened the pretty  box, she stared down at the little owls, and her hands stopped, fingers splayed, frozen, for a minute, in the air.
 
 
“They’re beautiful,” she said, a little gruff. Patrick jumped up and down on a pile of gift wrap, grinning. “Let’s,” Mom said to Jorie, “go fill them up.”
 
 
“Don’t we have to wash them?” asked Jorie, shocked.
 
 
“I can’t wait that long to use them,” Mom said. In the kitchen, she added, “I know who did all the work to get these, Missy.”
 

 *********

She saw me, Jorie thought.

**********
On the 27th, Evy made a little clearance display of Christmas doo-dads; they were gone within the day.

“I’ll actually have to come in early to dust,” she said to Barney, who’d arrived to take her out to dinner. “I didn’t have time today.”  She thought about Jorie and Patrick, and how the day they’d come in had been the last frozen day; after that, the ice thawed and things started flowing.

She put her hand on Barney’s camel-hair-coated arm and she laughed. “I thought the angel was Patrick, with those curls and those eyes, but it was Jorie all along.  I’ll look closer next time.”

“Not,” she added after a pause, “that Patrick isn’t a sweet little guy.”

It had been a nice Christmas, Evy thought, and she had a small but steady stream of customers coming back.  And she was having dinner with her favorite nephew, at the Chinese place they both loved.  She gotten what she’d asked for: just a little miracle.

********

Just a little miracle, and it had been quite enough.
*********
My blogging friend Jodi posted a wonderful, real-life photo of a little Christmas angel just recently—our thoughts were on that same kind of Christmas innocence! 

No Place Like Home for the Owlidays

 Owls 1

The Greathorne twins, Olivia and Owena, hatched on a beautiful May morning and looked right into the luminous eyes of their loving mother.  A hop or two back on the branch was their proud Papa.

The loving parents gave their owlets some time to adjust to bright moonlight and spreading out space.  When the girls had stretched and blinked and settled into calm curiosity about their new surroundings, their parents hopped softly toward them.

“We call thee Olivia,” said Mama, tapping gently on Olivia’s still damp head. Papa dropped a shred of fresh meat into Olivia’s beak.

“We call thee Owena,” said Mama, tapping her other daughter’s pate.  Owena had her maw open for the food before Papa even had a chance to hop her way.

That was the last time Owena was ever second behind Olivia.  From the very first, the girls’ personalities shone through.

Owena was the explorer.  Even on that first hatching day, she was angling to fly, watching Papa as he soared away in search of food. She would plant her little talons on the rough bark of the branch, and she’d imitate his arking and swaying.  When Papa returned with his catch, she would first eat ravenously, then watch as Mama flew off.  Owena would strain forward as Mama did, twisting her head this way and that, her sharp eyes searching for things that skitter in the tall waving grass.

Olivia was quite different.  She was content to stay closer to the nest.  She listened.  She imitated what she heard, and soon her raw croaks became melodious croons.  Olivia, it was clear, was musically gifted.

The twins, different as they were, loved each other dearly.  At dawn they would huddle together and talk just before they slept.  Olivia dreamed of conducting an owl orchestral chorus. She would teach Owena little tunes and they would harmonize together.  Although Olivia had the much stronger, truer voice, when they sang together, the harmony was very, very pleasing.

Owena dreamed of faraway places.  She would make up stories of wonders she would see and share them with her sister.  Olivia’s eyes would shine with excitement–until they suddenly dropped into sleep.

Mama and Papa were deeply pleased with both their girls, and they encouraged their different interests.  Before long, both Owena and Olivia had learned to fly.  Owena, of course, flew first, after several careless tumbles and premature attempts.  The urge to go just pushed her, and one morning, from her imitating Papa stance, she suddenly lifted up and soared. Mama and Olivia shouted in amazement.

Papa heard the joyous cries of his family, and he circled back. Sweeping around his adventurous daughter, he led her out on her first flight.  He’d intended to be cautious and stay close to home, but Owena’s urge to explore gave her great strength.  They left Mama and Olivia cheering them on far behind.  It was the first of many exploratory flights Olivia took with her father.  She quickly picked up hunting skills and was soon bringing delectable tidbits back for the family’s dinner.

Olivia faithfully followed Owena’s lead, and with her sister’s hearty encouragement, became a sturdy flier.  But she never had Owena’s panache; her flying was strictly for the purpose of getting from here to there, and her hunting to make a meal.  Owena’s flight was beautiful–and sometimes nerve-wracking–to watch.  Her hunting dive was deadly and swift.

“Now that you’re flying,” said Mama one morning, “it’s time for the next level of learning.  Girls, you’re going to school today!”

Olivia and Owena preened in excitement and, after breakfast, Papa flew them over to Mrs. Knowle’s Tree of Knowledge.  There were eight or nine other little owls just about their age assembled there.  And there was Mrs. Knowle, puffed up and frightening, sternly waiting for them.

“She was MY teacher when I was an owlet,” Papa whispered.  “Scared the scat out of me, but I learned a lot.”

The girls shared a glance, and they made sure they had spaces close together on the branch campus.

Owena soon realized she hated school.  Olivia didn’t mind sitting still and learning, and Mrs. Knowle often pointed that out.  Owena, on the other talon, always intended to listen.  But, as Mrs. Knowle droned on, she would find her eyes flickering from side to side, and soon she’d be staring at a spot far away where she could see the little rippling trail of something moving through the meadow.  Without her awareness, her wings would spread, and the next thing she knew, she’d be airborne.

Olivia would trill to her quietly, but Mrs. Knowle always caught her.  The teacher would whip her head around and glare until Owena came sheepishly back, lighting softly on the branch and cooing apologies.

“Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Old Lady Knowle would demand, and Owena would hang her head.

“It’s true,” she would think.  “Olivia is so good.  I’m a bad owlet, and I can’t seem to change.”

Owena grew to dread going to school.  She talked her mother into letting her stay home sick one day. but that was almost worse.  Mama was so concerned, she made Owena stay tucked under her wing until Olivia finally came home.  All Owena wanted was to soar.  She didn’t want to be bored at school.  She didn’t want to be stuck under her mother’s wing.

She wanted to fly.

Things finally came to a head at school.  Owena had just returned from another involuntary flight and Old Knowle, all puffed up with indignation, was waiting for her. She’d dismissed the rest of the school, although Owena saw Olivia waiting for her, hidden on a branch of a nearby tree.

“Well, Missy,” sneered the teacher, “enough is enough. It’s time you learned to stay still.  After dinner, I am going to your parents and I am going to demand that you be grounded.

“Grounded!” gasped Owena. “Errr…what exactly does that mean?”

“It means,” snapped the teacher, “that you will not be allowed to fly until you have learned to perch!”

“Not allowed—” breathed Owena.  “For how long?”

“For as long as I decide!  But at least two weeks.”

Owena tried to imagine that.  She remembered the awful frozen feeling of staying home sick that one day, stuck under Mama’s wing.  She thought of all the times she flew without even realizing she had lifted into the air.

She knew, without trying to be defiant or ornery, that she could not be flightless for a day, much less two weeks.

“I’m very sorry,” said Owena to Mrs. Knowle politely. “But I cannot be grounded.”

The teacher begin to warble angrily, eyes bulging, head twisting, but Owena did not stay to listen.  She lifted gracefully off the branch and flew to where Olivia hid.  Olivia had heard the whole exchange, and her golden eyes were wet.

“I know,” she whispered to Owena, “that you have to go.”

“Tell Mama and Papa that I love them!” said Owena.  “I love you, too.”  And she was flying, soaring away on an updraft, leaving Olivia sadly watching and the teacher  wildly ranting.

Owena flew until she left her anger behind, and then she opened her eyes and watched the world unfold. She flew out of the homely woods to the end of the familiar meadow.  She flew over rivers that shone silver gray in the moonglow.  She flew over lakes in which she saw fish swimming away from her moonlit shadow.  The first day, she slept in a strange pine tree, startling at noises she wasn’t used to, but in the evening, the urge to go further erased the daytime fears.

Owena flew and and she flew and she flew.

She met all kinds of owls–who knew there were so many? She ate exotic foods.  She explored bare rockfaces of rugged mountains, and she enjoyed little respites in cozy, protected valleys.  She saw settlements of people, those odd beings who build huge dwellings for themselves and for their animal friends.  She met new owl friends who lived in the animal dwellings, structures they called barns.

She learned to fly against the wind; she learned to navigate in the rain.  She was propelled by the overwhelming need to explore further and to know more about the wide world she lived in.  On and on she went.

The weather changed.  She noticed the leaves changing color.  She noticed how they fell to the ground after a time; then, Owena only felt protected in the still-green pines when she stopped to sleep for the day.  She felt the wind grow colder; she noticed the extra layer of fluffy feathers she sprouted to ward off the chill.

And Owena began, for the first time since she left the branch campus, to slow down. She slowed down, and she began to think of her Mama and Papa, and especially she thought of Olivia.  She wondered what kind of music Olivia was making these days.  She wondered if Mama and Papa were very, very angry and disappointed with their fly-away daughter.

For the next few days, she pushed herself to move ahead, but it grew harder and harder, and finally, one evening, she arced a new course toward home.

She noticed changes as she flew, unswerving as an arrow, to the place of her birth…a hard skin on the surface of the lake, fewer little critters dancing about to be eaten.  Things, it seemed, were burrowing into those cozy drifts of fallen leaves.

Owena experienced, for the first time, snow. It was beautiful, and she learned it could be deadly, changing the look and smell of the once-familiar world.  She thanked her stars for the homing instinct that seemed to be built in, a sense right behind her eyes, and she let that instinct lead her.

It led her home, on a clear and moonlit night, home to the tree where her life began.  And before she could even see that tree, she heard a beautiful song.

It was Olivia, and she was singing, “I’m dreaming of a flight Christmas…”

Owena let the song float her down to the branch, where there was tremendous excitement.  Oh, they were all so happy to see her, Mama and Papa and her sister.  They demanded to know where she had been and what she had seen. They plied her with questions and delicious shredded meat, and they listened, bright-eyed and joyful, to her tales of discovery and adventure. Olivia beamed at her with the utmost admiration.

Finally Owena wound down, and she leaned back and looked at her parents, and she sighed with contentment and relief.  “I was so afraid,” she said, “that you’d be so angry you would never forgive me for flying away.”

Her parents looked at her lovingly.

“Come see this,” said her mother, and they hopped around the trunk of the tree to a glittering scene.  Papa had bent down one branch of the evergreen so that it was vertical. From it hung strands of silver–silver strands captured and shredded from the careless litter of humans–that caught the moonlight and glittered.  There were dried seed pods hanging from the branch, and, “See this?” asked Mama, proudly.

Owena gasped.  It was a big pine cone, decorated with leaves and nuts so cleverly that it looked just like a young owl–just, in fact, like Owena.  And there was another, very similar, but clearly Olivia, a little farther on.

“How….” started Owena, not even knowing what to ask.

“Ah,” said her mother softly.  “You never knew your father was an artist.”

Her father ducked and turned his head shyly, and then swiveled it back to say, “Nor did you know this about your Mama: she is a poet.  Say your lovely words for her, darling.”

Mama hopped to a spot near Owena, cleared her throat, and spoke.

“One of my girls must sing her songs.
The other one must roam.
Owena has to spread her wings.
Olivia sings her home.
You  are destined to follow your yearning:
To be whom you’re meant to be.
But at Christmastime, you’ll always know
Your heart is in this tree, my dear.
Your heart is in this tree.”

“What is this ‘Christmas’?” Owena asked in wonder.

“Oh,” said Papa, “it’s a wonder-filled, magical time, when we celebrate the Son of Man, who broke through all the veils that separate us.”

The moon shone in a velvety sky; stars twinkled, and the world, for just a moment, was as still as eternity.

Owena whispered, “Wherever I am, I will always know to turn around and come back to the tree when the Christmas season beckons.”

Mama said, “Your sister knew.  She never had any doubt; she told us you’d come back. In fact she wrote a song for your return.”

Her parents opened their wings and she hopped into their embrace.  Below and behind them rose Olivia’s clear true voice:

“Owl, be home for Christmas…”

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Owena flew, in her lifetime, thousands of miles.  She saw the most wonderful sights and met the most amazing creatures.  But when the wind blew cold and the warm underlayer started lining her feathers, she always turned around and kept her vow.  This owl, she had promised, WILL be home for Christmas.

And she always, always was.

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Merry Christmas to the grandest of kids:  Alyssa and Kaelyn, Alex, Brennen, Gabrielle, Kirsten, Maddie, Mia, Patrick, Quincie, Ronan, and Ryan.