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.

Gateway Days: Put a Candle in the Window

Candle and pie

The dark is gathered tight outside the bay window–the only light there, staring at me, is the reflection of the dining room lamp.  It is cold, wet, early.  When I let the dog out, she stops and she shakes, and then she looks back.  She has urgent business, but seems unwilling to run too far into the depths of the yard. It is a secret-hugging, opaque day’s dawning.

The sealed drive, the sidewalks, the gray-paved street–all are slickened blackness.  Wind flails–a precursor of high winds to come, eager tendrils of Hurricane Patricia’s wildly whipping fronds.  Falling leaves are wet and heavy and wooden; they scud reluctantly and slap down, exhausted.

I think of Mary Poppins–the brooding book, not the light-hearted movie.  I think of Poppins warning that the wind brings change.  That’s what this is–a changeable dawn, a gate-keeper day.  We are moving from the light-filled seasons to the time of drawing-close dark.

I herd the dog back inside where she runs, manic, three times through the downstairs rooms, around the stairway pinioned in the middle of the house, a superstitious kind of circuit, shaking off the ghosts of this gateway day.  I treat her with Beggin’ Strips and frozen coins of hot dog. Satisfied that no more goodies are forthcoming and that the darkness is firmly at bay, she subsides, a warm and snoring furball curled into the pillow on the couch.

It strikes me that we’ll do much the same, this weekend, with our little costumed visitors; we’ll treat them with store-bought goodies, fill their arms-out bags and plastic pumpkins with sugar and cocoa, lecithin and guar gum oil, ooh and ahh at their transformatory garb, and send them home to settle in.  Hoard acquired, they will gather ranks with the mama, the papa, the siblings, and see what they have gleaned to stave off winter’s warning chill.

It’s a gateway day.

This weekend just past, we drove home, home to where we grew up, to spend time with Grandma Pat (Pat, who claims this current raging hurricane. “They named it after me,” she asserts firmly), to gift a nine-year-old granddaughter, to steal a moment to visit with friends who were visiting, too. They are friends who once lived close enough that we could cut through yards  to each others’ houses; now we are flung across the country. The sky, on our traveling days, Friday and Sunday, was perfectly blue, the air had that crystal, champagne quality, and the trees were at their screaming glory.

“This will not be a beautiful fall,” many people had sagely cautioned, harking back to odd summer weather. But the leaves didn’t listen. The golds were thick and almost viscous; my mind kept racing backwards to a paint by number set I’d gotten once when I was eight or so.  The little plastic pot of gold oil paint there–gold for a palomino’s gleaming bridle–was just exactly the gold of those leaves. I lowered the car window and expected to smell the paint.

There were deep, exuberant orange leaves, too, and russet leaves that rustled and shone, and every once in a while, there’d be a blaze of outrageous scarlet.  It was like summer’s sunlight was trapped in those leaves, the tight-fisted trees holding it close for as long as they could.

And then, the winds this week: those laughing, sly, knowing winds, ripping inwards, tearing leaves from branches.  Quenching the concentrated summer sun. Opening the gateway to the time of fire-huddling and flaming window candles. We may be alone in the darkness, but we’re not giving in…


For a week I walk past apples, green apples, sitting in a bowl in the kitchen in my building at work; finally I email my colleagues and tell them I’m taking the fruit.  I bring the apples home and slice them up.  As I do, my mind ranges over memories, sorting and picking; I think about peeling apples as a child, with the goal being to have the longest continuous peel.  My mother would tell us to throw the peel with our right hands over our left shoulders. Then she’d bid us turn to discern what letter that flung peel most resembled, and we would know the initial of our one true love.

(I discovered this week, in a lovely blog—  http://21timetraveler.com/2015/10/its-the-great-turnip-charlie-brown-and-other-samhain-traditions/ —that the peel-throwing is a custom left over from the ancient celebration of Samhain, that bonfire against the darkness, earthy festival–a custom that surely seeped into my mother’s childhood self via her Scottish roots.)

I pull out my Tupperware rolling mat and sprinkle flour that flies over counter edges and onto the floor and into the toaster. I pull out the heavy marble rolling pin, a gift, once, from my oldest brother to my constantly-baking mother, and I energetically flatten and smooth the pie dough into almost-transparent circles.  I line the pan, glaze the dough with egg white, then layer the apple slices with cinnamon and sugar, nutmeg and  flour. I lay the second pastry circle over the top, folding it to cradle the apples, tucking in the edges tenderly.

I paint the top with the leftover eggwash; I sprinkle sugar over all; I cut in vents, and I put the pie in the waiting oven,–which exhales its hot breath at me when I open the door, and consumes my little pie.  In minutes the smell of hot cinnamon pervades the house, and Mark comes downstairs and grabs his book and a fuzzy blanket to cozy up in the reading chair.  Jim brings his Mac-book into the kitchen and settles at the little glass-topped table, his back to the long window, his back to the glossy, windy blackness.

It is a time to bake, to scent the house with comfort. I dig out my old cookie cutters and l think about shortbread cookies shaped and sugared like autumn leaves. And I think about stews and pots of simmering sauce.  I think of casseroles and bubbling applesauce and warmth amidst the darkness.  Soon I pull the pie out of the oven, setting it on its rack to cool, to take to work and share with colleagues.


I request time off, a week to clean and prepare, to ease summer’s careless grit out of corners, to rub oil into wood and to splash vinegar on the windows.  (Let’s capture every bit of sun; let’s not let a tiny ray be obscured.)  It is a ritual, the cleaning, a practice engrained deep in childhood–one can’t approach the holidays without a thorough house-cleaning! I try, though, to embrace this necessary cleansing mindfully and not grimly, to revel in the treasures revealed by a deep down search-and-sort, in the beauty and luster uncovered with the rigorous application of Murphy’s oil soap.  Let the cleaning usher in joy and warmth and safety.

I start to think about gifting, about ornaments and picture frames, about classic games and about popping corn grown in nearby fields, and  about knitted slippers and favorite photographs.  Christmas stockings and tiny treasures. As the days shorten and the frost dulls those glorious mums Mark planted, the prospect of creativity spreads a simmering grow.

During a  Barnes and Noble foray, we find wonderful Christmas cards and we bring them home  and stash them; soon it will be time to send them out, and to receive others–little transmitted slivers of  light and connection.


We’re prepared, I think; we’ll weather this darkness. Then, on a Tuesday afternoon, Lois comes into my office. She is her usual smiling self as she explains that she’ll have to cancel class because the hospital has called, the one in Cleveland, two and a half hours away. And then the smile abruptly melts away, and she is crying, she is sobbing; something horribly contained has just loosened its bonds, and I am helpless to give comfort.

One month ago, she says, Danny was out painting a house. Five days later he can’t walk.  She talks of cancer and tendrils that can’t be lanced away; like the hydra, more monsters spring up wherever those tendrils toss their infinitesimal teeth.  All that can be done is chemo, and now the chemo has caused clotting.  His lungs are filled with clots, she says, and they say, the doctors, that she’d better get there fast.

She turns at the door and says her stalwart son has taken a leave from school, come home to help his dad.  He can go back, Lois says, her son can go back to school.  But when his dad dies–she grips the molding, and breathes in a ragged breath–when his dad dies, my life will be over, too.

My hands are empty.  She walks away into darkness, and I have no light to offer her.

This other darkness: it snuffles and explores.  My gentle boss Jim’s face is taut and cautious; this weekend, he buried a brother-in-law who died suddenly, aged 61. There is the pain of sudden loss. And there is this: His kids, said Jim, realized for the first time that he and his wife could also die. Would die, sometime. This death held their faces to the window, forced them to confront that dark truth.

I read a book that’s long been on my shelves: it’s a luminous wracking story of a family’s journey with muscular dystrophy.  The author tells how, generation after generation, beautiful boys grew out of toddlerhood and into illness, weakened, wasted, and died–at age 12, age 16–some few stronger boys made it to their mid-twenties.  The girls survived, scarred and battered; the mothers knew they had carried the gene that sickened and killed their sons.

The author writes so beautifully; she is  wrenching and she is funny, but her words unlatch the door and that snuffling darkness peers in.  There is sickness and pain and death, it reminds me, and it chortles, and it pushes the newspaper at me.  I read about a shooting, about unrepentant cruelty, about the gross and disgusting misuse of power, and my stomach lurches.

I can light a brave flame in the physical dark; how can I combat this other?

I do not know the answer, but I know you can’t stop the dark by standing still, and so I light the oven and I stir the sauce, and I sit down to write a letter.  I visit a friend undimmed by cancer’s twilight, and I seek the source of her illumination. Rusty, humbled, out of all practice, I pray a prayer with no words, and I feel soft comfort, whispered warmth, sense some sort of unknown promise.


It is, today, a gateway day; the times are changing. Draw near, the season tells us, draw close and take your comfort.  Your lights shine brighter multiplied within a company that cares.