After The Ball

Halloween night my husband and I went to view the Great Pumpkin event our little village hosts. For all of the time I have been a resident here, I have enjoyed this wonderful kickoff to autumn. A village consortium of volunteers and a non-profit foundation put the event together. My children and I have all volunteered in the past. And, I remember fondly,now, how when they were young, they would ask to go see the pumpkins at night  –every night– that the jack-o-lanterns were lit. Truth be told, when a Whitefish Bay child stops asking to go see the pumpkins, it’s a little sad.Sort of like when they no longer believe in Santa.

I was thinking about the folks who put the event together, neighbors, scouts, schoolchildren, teachers, civic group members. And it dawned on me that some of those contributing time, candles, doing the carving, the unloading of the more then 1000 pumpkins, were not all on the same side of the political fence. Why, just as the pumpkins kick off Fall so too do the appearance of election yard signs. This realization gave me pause and yes, a really  good feeling. Despite our political differences our resident can work together towards common goals. No small thing when you read and listen to some of the words that pass as “public discourse” these days. I would venture to say that civil discourse was the norm for all those involved working on the display. And probably, no one volunteered using a “pen” (re: false) name while engaging in name calling or character bashing at any time while working on the display.

While I was walking my dog  through my neighborhood Halloween week, a neighbor who ,yes, has an election sign in direct opposition to the one in my yard, came out to talk to me. We often chat. Sometimes I ask him about his daughters, now grown and on their own. Often he just wants to say “hi” and pet my dog as we are both longtime pet owners and we have even hugged when one of our dogs has passed away. He’s a good guy. He’s my neighbor. I like him. He will still be a good person the day after the election- no matter who wins.

On the day after Halloween the DPW came to clear away the tents and the pumpkin remains. The little park is empty and the fountain is closed up for winter. In a few days the yard signs will be all gone too. Let’s all remember that the day after the election we will all still be here as neighbors and citizens. Let’s work together on small neighborhood projects and insist that our public servants follow our lead and be civil and work together too. Whether it’s a school, civic, or charity project we all do know how to get along. It makes our communities much better places to live, and working together also actually gets things done: I’m just say’n.

Lessons and Carols

It’s back….with all of it’s beauty, excitement and memories. Christmas is back. It’s another year older but are we any wiser? The question your friend in the blogosphere has is this, what have you learned from Christmas?
Over the years I have enjoyed the return of the Christmas season to the extent that it often highlighted the lessons the year had delivered to me. Sometimes those lessons were happy. In other years, the “classwork” of Christmas was too difficult. When you have experienced a loss of a loved one Christmas holds up the loss to you in the cruelest of ways. When everyone else is having all that Christmas fun you are reminded in a thousand ways, small and large how much you miss by missing a loved one. When everyone else is singing you are sighing and wishing for one more day, one more moment with the friend, parent,or child no longer present.
But, there are other lessons too,poignant if not painful.There was the Christmas I learned how to let my children gift me with needed time. They were young and I was busy trying to get all the things I felt I must do for Christmas done. That Sunday of Advent I had much to do to get ready when a request was made I could not turn down. An older member of my church congregation,unable to attend services had requested communion be brought to her. As a deacon I could do this. But my “to do” list beckoned. On the other hand how could I not? So, I took the children home (my husband was out of town for work) and drove to the seniors apartment. I remember how grateful she was, and how she urged me to stay for a cup of tea, so happy for “Christmas company” as she called me. I left feeling I had done the right thing, but anxious over the task in front of me with 3 hours now gone by. A big stack of gifts for cousins, nieces,nephews, aunts and uncles waited for me to wrap. But, when I arrived home I was met by my two excited elves. They had wrapped all the gifts themselves while I did “church work” as they called it. Now like all “Christmas control” moms, those gifts were not wrapped as I would have wrapped them. Instead they were done with love and shining eyes for me. What a gift!I don’t remember any other present I received that year. But I remember how proud “big brother” was and how excited his little sister was to help mommy that day. What a lesson.
Christmas music like Christmas memories flood our days and nights the closer we come to Christmas Eve. And I am addicted to the sounds of Christmas even more than a child to peppermint. The more I think about it the best telling of the Christmas story is probably done through music. Whether it is the rich sounds of a wonderful practiced choir or in the unpolished carols sung by children. The essence of Christmas is best displayed by voices raised in song. Think of the simple rendition of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the gang from “Peanuts” breaking into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and you will understand what I mean.
If you are like me you probably have many memories of Christmas’ past. The “live Nativity” I performed in as a 13 year old, an angel on top of the stable. One of my best friends was “Mary”, we still laugh when we remember how the real barnyard animals brought in to add realism provided more “realism” than planned, on the shepherds sandals.
It’s memories like these that connect our Christmas’ to each other one year to the next. When the children were little I waited to decorate until they were sleeping to “protect” the delicate bells and ornaments. When they were older I assigned them a task and they whirled through in a frenzy of excitement fueled by Christmas cookies. And I stood back trying not to “adjust” their work. Later, they were too busy to help with the tree,or lights beyond a cursory attempt to humor me fueled now by a modicum of guilt.And this year I missed them both, he in his own apartment in another city, she away at college. Once again I decorate mostly alone waiting for their return to enjoy and share the holiday. When they were small I waited for them to to wake up from nap,come downstairs and see the decorations. Now the house and I wait for their return to give their stamp of approval.
Christmas continues to be a gift and a lesson to me. Remember a loved one, let others wrap and sing, treasure the days, they fly by in a moment. And when I look at the Christmas bells on my mantle, I recall the little hands selecting one each night to ring before bedtime. A lesson and a carol with each sweet chime.

Forsythia and Offspring

Forsythia and Offspring

Sitting at my desk in my bedroom I have a marvelous view. Well, beyond the scraps of paper, lists, old photos, and the detritus of empty boxes and what-not that no one knows where to put, so it ends up on Mom’s desk. Yes I have a view. But over the top of my laptop I see into our back yard. And there in full Spring glory– forsythia. Actually, two forsythia bushes grow near the back property line along the fence of my suburban yard.

I love the lilac tree, and the daffodils are dandy. But the forsythia are spectacular.

Now, before you mistake me for an avid or even proficient gardener, know that all this blooming excess was here when we bought the house over twenty years ago. And though I have enjoyed the blooming times I have done little to nothing to augment the flora and fauna on Bayridge. Although I greatly appreciate beautiful landscaping and gardens my efforts through the years have dwindled down to container gardening.

Now I know that packing a few pots full of petunias and pansies is to gardening what taking a stroll with the dog is to training for a marathon. No comparison. And though I may even read another blogger’s post on gardening (Trowel Tart, quite amusing and informational) I never actually garden per se.

But, I do enjoy those forsythia.

But before you envision two beautifully sculpted shrubs let me confess that they are both gone wild. By that I mean, that our attempts at pruning and shaping have basically been failures.

I grew up with a “handy, mechanical type” father and a mother who spent any free time reading. No gardeners there. My husband descended from a long line of city dwellers without the prerequisite land to grow things. And so, when we first became proud owners of “real” estate we thought we’d become gardeners but alas, our interest lasted only a summer or two. What we didn’t turn to green grass we paved into a patio.

But we kept the forsythia.

We have almost every year attempted to “shape” the bushes. I did learn the basics of shrub care. Prune the old wood, trim after flowering and before the leaves turn. (Although I did like the recommendation of one old master gardener that the best time to prune was “when the knife was sharp.”) But mostly we just never got it right. Some years we would over prune and have no blossoms in the following year. Other years we would neglect the bushes and the bloom would be spotty.

So, today, on Mother’s Day, I was enjoying the blossoms and thinking how out of control the bushes had grown this year. Wishing I had done a better job of shrub maintenance and care.

But I came to the task an amateur. I took no courses, followed no probationary track, I just became a forsythia guardian. I tried my best. I fed and watered them. I tried to force my will on their growth patterns. But despite my efforts they grew into their own space. One too tall to be called a shrub, towers over the fence. Long yellow arms reaching for the blue sky. The other neither square or round like the ones I see in other yards and in books. Rather, an unusual oval of buttery blossoms bending toward the lawn.

And I think I know why I love them. It’s been and adventure trying to shape them, not unlike the one I’ve enjoyed as a mother.

You see I came to the task an amateur. I took no classes, I followed no probationary track. I just fed, watered and loved them. I tried to shape my children in all the usual ways. Say “please and thank you.” Do your homework. Be honest. Be kind. And now in the sunshine of a Sunday, one just about to step into college the other already out, they are magnificent. Their father and I did the best we could, but really the sun and the sky, the rain and the soil were already here. They may not be perfect specimens, but they are themselves. Reaching for the sky. Full of a bounty of color and verve.

We all do the best we can as mother’s and fathers. We want them healthy and happy.But even as we try to shape them into successful adults we have so little control into the shape they will finally embrace. It is well enough to see them strong and tall becoming their own true definition of themselves.

The forsythia is beautiful this year. I’m glad I can appreciate how well it’s doing with and in spite of my best efforts.

I’m just say’n.

Better Than Chocolate

Who’s your Valentine? Who do you send a card to, give a hug to, remember fondly? February is hearts and flowers time. As the 14th draws near I can’t help but think of love and chocolate. Although, to be honest I purposely looked away when the stores displayed all the Valentine gear before I had swept up all the New Years confetti. But now “V” day is around the corner and I have some “sweethearts” to celebrate, multiple sweethearts. I hope you do too.

I’m talking about those people who have slipped past friendship into a zone I’ve named “framily.” Twice recently I’ve been caught by surprise when someone with whom I share no name or DNA, has referred to me and mine as “family.” After the lump in my throat subsided I gave the designation some thought.

The first “framily” label occur ed when the college age daughter of friends announced at my Thanksgiving table that spending the holiday with us was simply spending it with family. The 2nd occasion was in a hospital’s surgical waiting area. The son of our long time friends was undergoing serious surgery and we had come to sit with them early one morning after Christmas. When the surgeon came in to talk to the parents he looked at my husband and I and said “Are you family?” The mother without a moments hesitation said “Yes, they are family.” And so we are.

I recently read that we build the family we didn’t have from the friends we choose. This framily creation may happen accidentally. But if you are smart, you will build this “framily” over time with effort and love.

My husband and I are both from small families, we’re low on siblings and cousins. And, we both live out of the states we were raised in. Over the years our “framily” has been through a lot with us; the addition of our children to our families, the drama of adoption, the loss of our own parents. They have come with us to court, lent a hand when a trip to the emergency room was needed, helped pack up a parent’s last household. And I like to think that we have been there for them as well. Their children may call us “Aunt” and “Uncle.” They call for advice. My son asks about them when he calls home. My daughter has their numbers programed into her phone. They both know their “framily” is a “contact person.”

So this year I’m sending them all a Valentine. To the childhood friend of my husband who lived on my floor in college, to the neighbor who visited my parents when they were ill and I was out of town. She moved out of state but maintains our relationship with love,long distance. To the former co-worker and neighbor who says my kids were her first “grandchildren”, and to all the others, Happy Valentine’s Day. A proverb from Ghana says “A family is like a forest. When you are outside it seems dense. But when you are inside each tree has its place.” Thank you for adding us to your forest, for letting my saplings gain aunts and uncles, cousins, “framily.” Happy Valentine’s Day, I’m just say’n.

It Only Happens Once A Year

One of my friends sent me the video link of a large chorus committing “a random act of culture” by breaking into Handel’s “Messiah” in Philadelphia’s downtown Macy’s.

Well, it used to be Wanamaker’s, but it is now a Macy’s. And that is a telling metaphor for life and Christmas if you need one. A beloved regional department store now just one of hundreds in a chain of stores, and the timeless beauty of the Hallelujah Chorus meet head on at Christmas time. I’ll bet you know who the winner is. The music of Christmas is one of those tangible delights that color the intangible sense we believe is Christmas.

The Christmas’ of our past are viewed in our minds eyes with color and nostalgia. We remember the shiny bike, the snowfall, the decorations as all a part of the holiday. They become Christmas. And many of us spend many hours trying to recreate them each year. It’s why the tradition of Christmas cookies goes on. It’s within our power to sift, measure and bake the smells and tastes of Christmas. Even the non-bakers among us attempt to bake “from scratch” cookies they would never make any other time of the year.
We all head out to secure the gifts we hope our family and friends will love enough to remember as part of their Christmas memories. Whether, or not you buy the gifts or spend your time creating gifts, the quest is the same. “Celebrate with me, recognize my regard /love for you. Remember me in your Christmas story.”

Often between the baking,decorating and the gift-giving we worry that the “true” meaning of Christmas is lost in the holiday shuffle. That it is too commercial, too stressful. Or that Christmas somehow is threatened by our increasingly smaller world. People who grew up not even knowing any non-Christians now sometimes feel like Christmas is diminished by having to share the calendar with other belief traditions and holidays.

And yet Christmas survives. It even thrives. People, like those singers in Philadelphia, do not “shop” the spirit. Nor do they bake it, decorate it or defend it. Those singers became Christmas.

Last night the women of my church gathered for our annual Women’s Advent service. It’s a quiet contemplative service. I try to go each year in order to force myself to slow down and feel the holiday. It’s easy to feel “to busy” to do this. And each year as we gather, the room full of women, all knowing that we are taking a break from the lists and the decorating and the baking to just, be. Be together. Be quiet. Be Christmas.

Some years Christmas is one long party of fun. But I have lived long enough to know that not every one’s Christmas will be joyous. Someone’s Mother is failing. Another mother’s child is diagnosed with a serious illness. My own heart has been broken at Christmas. Once when I lost my own mother, she a “Christmas baby” herself. And once when my own hopes for a “baby for Christmas” did not come true. But Christmas came anyway.

Two thousand years ago a young and probably frightened girl needed a place to stay while she had her baby. Today no decoration, no tree, no gift, can change how that changed the world. What we do with it is up to us. Every year Christmas has the power to change us. It makes us into bakers and gift-givers. Singers and light-hangers. What else will it make you become? Will you let it change you?

Somewhere a choir sings “Silent night”

Somewhere, a child laughs,

Somewhere a heart says, “Merry Christmas.”

I’m just say’n

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

This is the blog where I reveal myself to be petty, judgmental,and oh so superficial. I know that what I am about to reveal will turn at least some of my readers off. I do not take this step lightly. So here it is.

I have a list of things, observations,if you will about that which really bugs me. Ready, set, go.

When I am visiting that large retailer that specializes in women’s lingerie I am creeped out by teenage girls who think they need to shop there with their boyfriend. I am not against men being in the store(accent on the word men). They may be there buying a gift for a wife or girlfriend,I get that. But 15 year old girls with their boyfriends really turn me off. I can’t imagine myself at that age wanting any boy I knew with me when I was purchasing underwear!! I can’t be alone in this view. My own 17 year old daughter confirms the “ick” factor of these shoppers and tells me that on occasion she has left the store because the “boyfriends” seem too interested in the purchases of girls other than their “sweetheart”. I would be happier if there was a rule against boys who may not even be shaving yet, pawing through a table of ladie’s “panties.”

OK. truth time. I hate that word. My mother called it underwear, I call it underwear, all my friends call it underwear. I know no one who call them “panties.”

Except on TV, when ever the police/district attorney are questioning a crime subject “panties” is the word of choice. Stop it. It’s underwear, underpants if you must, but never “panties.” Exception to this rule the phrase “don’t get your panties in a bundle” on second thought, that sounds better if you say “undies.”

Next, and this is a chip shot I know, people talking on their cellphones loudly, when I can’t get away from them. For example in a line to an art exhibit. I don’t mean conversations like,”I’ll pick you up at 6.” I mean why they hate their ex, co-worker, teacher or U.S. Senator. And recently a new kind of stupid was revealed to me on a Metra-train in Chicago when a woman told the person on her cellphone that she was going to have to hang up because the people around her on the train were talking and that was too distracting for her!

Ordered food at a counter-type eatery lately? I hate it if the person (usually a young person) doesn’t make eye-contact or say hello before saying “may I take your order?” The combination of the two really steams me.Having been in the service industry for many years this simple rule of customer service smooths over a lot of mistakes and problems; smile, say hello, and really see the customer. But what bothers me more is the large corporations usually behind these ill-trained clerks with their “customer satisfaction surveys” printed on the receipt for you to access via an 800 number or website. Have you ever done one of them? There is usually no way to give actual feedback on poor or good customer service. Just a scale ranking tool. “Rate the speed of service 1 being poor 5 being excellent” No where can you report the fact that the person behind the counter was distracted by the cute guy behind you and had to ask you three times what you wanted.
And soon the Holidays will be here. You may think a grump like me would just hate them. The crowds, the early decorating by retailers, Christmas music everywhere. You would be wrong. I love Christmas in all it’s real and pretend meaningfulness and glitz. But lately I have noticed something that bugs me. People who say “Merry Christmas ” as if it’s a dare. As in “I refuse to say ‘Happy holidays’ because December should only be about Christmas.” Now I am Christian. Christmas Eve will find me in church. But I live and work in a diverse community and unless I know someone is Christian I wish them “Happy holidays” or the like. I don’t need to batter everyone with “Merry Christmas” as a way to rub in the fact that for the most part most folks in this country are “Christian”. It’s not polite or nice or “Christian”. If I say “Merry Christmas” it’s because I really mean it because you really celebrate it. I don’t say it as a political “gotcha” phrase. And If I say Happy Holiday’s ” it’s because I wish you a joyful time enjoying the holiday that you may celebrate apart from Christmas,be it Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or New Years.

So there you have it. A bunch of reasons for you to stop reading my blog. But maybe just maybe, I’m not alone in these thoughts. Maybe one or two of them ring true for you too.And then you’ll keep reading. That would make me happy. It would keep my “undies out of a bundle” all through the holidays. I’m just say’n.

Worst Mom Ever

A friend lamented the other day what an awful mom she was because after working two jobs, her volunteer duties and taking care of her two at home kids and dog she had taken her son to his Sunday track meet to discover one problem. The meet was Saturday. She just felt awful sure that she was a “bad Mom.” Her comrades in arms/Spanx all assured her she was not a bad mom and that “we’ve all been there.” But what is it that makes Moms so hard on ourselves?
Mixups and forgotten bake-sale cupcakes have happened to most of us and we all have felt the pain of self-censure. Nobody’s perfect. And nobody expects you to be perfect; except you.
Some time ago a Dad-type person I know took his daughters to Six Flags for some summer fun.
After the usual morning-time chaos and the hour drive to the park they arrived. Only for Dad to notice that his youngest, 6 or 7 at the time had forgotten her shoes. Without to much wringing of hands he drove to a nearby discount store and bought her some sneakers. Problem solved.
I don’t remember him telling me his daughter’s lack of shoes reflected on him as a parent. And it didn’t. (He did laugh when he told the story and call his little darling “goofy.) He did not think she would be forever scarred or damaged. He was right. And , she grew up quite beautifully. Now she peaks into patient’s brains as part of Hospital’s Neuro-surgical team. Not so “goofy” after all.
I think my girlfriend is a victim of what I call the syndrome of “Too many shoes.” It goes like this. You’re doing what you need to do working, managing the household, baking the cupcakes. When someone comes crazy-eyed into the room asking “Do you know where my shoes are?” They maybe 6, 16, or 26 years old and they have no idea where their soccer/sandals/ dressy black shoes are. You are equal parts frustrated with their inability to put things where they belong and frightened to realize you  do know where their shoes are.
You know where everyone’s shoes are.
Your head is full of footwear location information. And you are worried. Worried that they will never be able to manage their own lives if they cannot even find their footwear. Is it any wonder that sometimes a detail is overlooked or an afternoon double-booked when your head is full of all those shoes. Yes my friend has too many shoes.
I also think Moms are hardest on ourselves because we really know how much we loved our own Moms.  We try so hard to be that kind of Mom to our kids. And hind sight being 20-20, we now appreciate the little ways we were loved and nurtured by our own mom. Ways we never noticed while they were happening.
A year or two after my mom had died I was in a department store buying underwear. Nothing exciting just underwear. There was probably a sale. While waiting in line with the other women, all different ages, someone remarked that they liked it better when new underwear just appeared on your bed after school. Provided by Mom. We all agreed. This simple purchase for many of us, symbolized the intimate relationship of Mom caring for us like no one else. Those day -of-the week underpants meant more than their cost in dollar and cents ever could.
So on this Mother’s Day I want to tell my friend she is a good mom too. She wanted to be at the track meet, she forgot the day. She does so many other small and big things for her kids that on this one occasion she confused the days. But she hasn’t once confused her children. They know shes loves them. They will know years from now that she always was thinking of them. She always knew where their shoes were. Because she always knew where her heart was.
I’m just say’n.