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                    River Girl
                             and

                    Other Stories
_______________________________________________________________


       Writings from the Seasons of Life




                       by Ro Giencke




                     Published 2007 by author
______________________________________________________________
                           About the Writings



All selections previously appeared on the author’s web site
www.rogiencke.com

These original writings are intended to encourage more reading, more
appreciation, more reflection and more growth. Take time to go through
them. As you read, see life as a series of common denominators. Be
reminded of an all-important fact. We’re connected in matters of the heart.

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

Campers and Winter Is . . . were previously published in Ideals. The latter
was additionally published in Write to Discover Yourself by Ruth Vaughn.

Immigrant Bride was previously published by The Heritage Press,
Moorhead, Minnesota.




                           About the Author

Ro Giencke writes about life and living, especially in terms of the ordinary
and everyday. We find some of the richest moments here, she believes.
People, travel, history, nature and relationships with our natural and
created environments are favorite topics for her to explore.

She and her husband Al live in the Minneapolis suburbs. She’s a proud
promoter of the suburban experience. This gives them space, a requisite
for their small town backgrounds. She and Al take advantage of nearby
urban opportunities as well. They enjoy walks along the Mississippi River
and views from the Stone Arch Bridge most of all.

Photography credits - Al Giencke
 Reading is a wonderful gift.
When used for reflective growth
  it turns words into steps
 for reaching a higher view.




    *********************************
                           Contents




Seasons of Learning
Shortcuts to Joy ………………………. page 7
Beginner’s Guide to Achievement ………. 12
Connect the Dots …………………………… 15
Skywriting Doesn’t Give Answers…………18
By Virtue of Hope …………………………… 21
Hope into the World ……………………….. 25
Dreams in the Stars ………………………… 27


Seasons of Discovery
New Coat of Paint …………………………… 29
Discoveries …………………………………… 33
Gift and a Need ………………………………. 35
Gems Mined Deep …………………………… 37
Challenged and Changed…………………... 39
Anatomy of Memory ………………………… 41
Pathways………………………………………. 43


Seasons of Living
Winter Is . . . ……………………………… 45
Valentine’s Day ……………………………… 47
Spring …………………………………………. 51
Swinging ……………………………………… 54
May Day Moments …………………………… 56
Campers ………………………………………. 59
River Girl ……………………………………… 61
Fall ……………………………………………… 87
Halloween in Three Parts ………………….. 91
Christmas …………………………………….. 97
Contents, continued



Seasons of Connecting

Immigrant Bride ……………………………... 109
Cherished …………………………………….. 118
Italian Blessing ……………………………….. 121
Your Turn at Bat ……………………………… 122
Hospitality …………………………………….. 126
Mother’s Day ………………………………….. 128
Untitled ………………………………………… 129
Indwelling Spirit ……………………………… 131
Anniversary …………………………………… 135
Never Without Words ……………………...... 136


Seasons of Loving
Reflections of a Tooth Fairy………………... 141
To My Daughter Going on Four....................143
Ducks with a Pink Washcloth ……………… 145
Words as You Take Wing ………………… 148
Recipes and Chocolate Cake………………. 150
Sloppy Joes for Speedy Times …………… 153
Bigger and Richer……………………………. 157




Seasons of Light
Month of Moments of Perfect Peace ……… 161
Country Summer ………………………………168
Summer Home ……………………………… 171
The Night of the Storm ……………………….175
Looking Out …………………………………….179
Cruise in the Basin of the Sun ………………180
Free Ride on the Carousel of Life …………. 186
What I’ve Learned along the Way…………. 188




                          *********************************
Seasons of Learning
Who’d guess there really is a direct route to joy?




                            Shortcuts to Joy


Like a lot of us, I rely on a daily planner. It tells me where I should be, with
whom, what next I have to do. These notations are the day-to-day stories of
who I am. They’re the shorthand of my life.

Deadlines, appointments, friends to meet, bills to pay, events to prepare
for, errands to run – all are recorded here. Besides keeping me current with
my activities and that of the household, the planner serves another
purpose. It turns me to the future.

The future, as I check my planner, represents a fresh start. It’s an
experience about to happen. It’s time waiting to be sampled. These future
dates point me forward. They’re dates promised to someone – something –
which in turn will continue the patterns of my life.

The future so quickly becomes yesterday. Days fly by. Whole weeks
evaporate in this business of being alive. We raise our kids. We invest
energy into marriages, friendships and work.

We’re active on many fronts. School, community, church and causes claim
our time. Situations arise that require much of us, sometimes for a short
while and sometimes for longer. Time can seem to run like water through
our hands.

The daily planner has the organizational capacity to keep things in focus. It
helps us reflect on where we’ve been, as well as where we’re going. It
allows us to ask ourselves what holds our attention along the way.

As we review our planner we can be reminded that there’s only so much
time allotted to each of us. Are we using some of that time, we may catch
ourselves wondering, to find life’s joy?

Joy is that elusive quality that doesn’t appear to have anything in common
with the structured format of a daily planner. After all, you can’t make a
date with it. You can’t pick it up at the corner pharmacy or have it delivered
as I can with some notations on my planner. Nor is it an appointment that
you can schedule, like a dental cleaning or a physical exam, about which
you can say, “There! That’s been taken care of!”

Joy’s not something that we can park ourselves to wait for, with feet
tapping, when it doesn’t show up on the hour. How can we ensure that we
allow for joy when our planner says about our day, “Sorry, you’re out of
time.”

Not overnight but eventually it came to me that joy isn’t outside our daily
rounds – something almost within our grasp. Instead, it’s right here in our
midst. It’s not separate from but part of everyday life. We have only to make
ourselves open to joy. We take hold where joy is.

How is this done? First, it helps to believe that joy finds us as much as we
find joy. Joy seems to have its shortcuts for presenting itself. For instance,
it often appears when not being sought. So a first suggestion might be:
Don’t look for joy (too hard).

Joy is everywhere if we’re awake to it. It’s sunshine that fills a room. It’s
an unexpected hug. It’s a well-spent evening with a friend or good book.
It’s the satisfaction of a car washed and waxed to perfection, and the
knowing that it’s your car that stands in the driveway, and your efforts that
make it gleam like that.

The possibilities go on. It’s dancing to a favorite song, and the music and
memories sinking deep into you. It’s using our talents whether onstage or
in the sports arena or research lab.

Joy is the satisfaction of achievement in any endeavor that engages us
wholly. Joy is as wide-ranging as life itself.

Joy is preparing a tasty meal or bringing accountability to an office project
or demonstrating a passion for justice that leads to the Nobel Peace Prize.
Springing from the ordinary – the daily round of things – joy makes the
moment (and therefore life itself) extraordinary.

There are places where joy is most at home. Therefore, another shortcut to
joy is to put ourselves where joy is. That puts many of us smack-dab in the
middle of relationships that are important to us. This is because joy is
particularly attracted to situations where love abounds.

Consider how often joy shows up where love is. It may be a shared smile,
the tenderness in holding a child, the hand that reaches for yours.
It’s that sense of well-being in any activity you enjoy with anyone you enjoy
being with. Anyone who has loved or is loved, or has experienced a mutual
understanding of the mind or heart, knows joy.

Our relationship with nature is another way to joy. Joy can happen when
we’re in sync with our environment. When the weather is to our liking we
know it. We smile more.

We find reasons to be outside. We mow the lawn, eat our lunch in the park
or head to the beach or garden if we can. Maybe all we can afford, on a
busy day, is to step out to breathe the air. Even this can be enough to get
us joy.

Weather suited to our temperament makes us more at peace with life and
ourselves. This kind of peace is a wonderful bringer of joy. Welcoming blue
sky after rain or the jaunty pace a brisk day sets are examples of joy in
nature. It’s meeting life and finding life good.

Like the weather, the seasons of the year can lavishly dispense joy. Each
season has a time and beauty all its own. Within this cycle are moments
that speak specifically to us. We relax. We come alive. We surrender to
these moments. We yield to their sustaining power.

Seasons work differently on each of us. Some find joy in spring’s vigor and
gained daylight. Winter enthusiasts are reborn with new snowfall. Others
embrace summer or look to fall to reap their joy.

These moments flow from something real. They reflect who we are. We
recognize ourselves implicitly in these moments of truth with nature.

Nature lovers, I think, have an edge on joy. This capacity to be at one with
the natural world graces their moments.

They watch a bird feeding its young. They search out the full moon in the
night sky. Joy is in their affinity for plants and animals. It’s in their
scientific knowledge of the marvels of the universe. It’s in their sense of
unity with earth, sea and sky.

Folks attuned to nature take time to look around. They stop to smell the
roses. Whether in the city or backpacking in the desert they have an eye for
the natural world. Their response to nature translates to joy.

We find joy when we open to the powers of life. Showing kindness is a
great shortcut to joy. This is because generous and caring acts create joy.
The actions of giving and receiving embody the very formula for finding
joy. This kind of joy animates. It makes generous people feel fantastic.

When we make time for joy we choose to enrich our lives. Any joy that
comes to us – whether in a burst of fanfare or in a quiet unfolding of the
event – showers us with blessings. It gets our attention. We absorb the
experience with all our senses.

This is what’s called being mindful. When we slow down we’re more able to
make contact with our inner selves. We tap into peace that’s beneficial for
us and for those who share our day. Joy in large part comes from personal
discovery. It’s up to us what we do with it.

We can experience joy, then consign it to memory to draw on later. Another
way to possess joy is to give it away. Moments of refreshment come to us
constantly. We can appreciate them and stand in their glory, recognizing
them for what they are: true gifts we unwrap as we pass them to others.

When we share joy, we may be gently turning someone to beauty they
would otherwise have missed. We may help someone see riches in their life
that they were discounting. What a gift to give another: this gift of
awareness!

When we share joy we’re in effect releasing more joy into the world.
Benefits are big when we do so. We throw out a friendship line. We invite
others into our special moments. All profit when joy is spread around.

What you see or do today has the possibility of being joy. You can share
this through a smile, happy attitude or the retelling of the joyful incident.

Joy comes along, it seems, to those who let joy rest on their shoulder and
then let it fly away. Whether it’s daffodils in the flower mart on a winter day,
the voices of children at play or the pleasure in a compliment received, tag
these moments as joy. You augment joy’s power when you transmit these
moments to others.

Making time for joy is as important as the obligations we enter in our daily
planner. It requires us to be careful to leave room for the unexpected. It
means learning to live so that we may hear its whispered presence.

Joy is the simplicity of being happy with no strings attached. When we
allow for spontaneity – and give ourselves permission to occasionally
detour from the scripted path – we plan for joy.
We also plan for joy when we apply ourselves to our work, play and
commitments with a desire to use ourselves well and to make a difference
where we are.

Whatever we do, if we’re agreeably disposed to the present moment, we are
informing life that we’re basking in the certainty of the right now. We
accept life’s gift and it becomes joy.

As you check off the calendar dates that are the stories of your life, trust
that in due time – if not today – joy will overtake you. It may be a memory
from the past. It may be something of the moment. It may be a taste of
good fortune about to unfold. Whatever its manifestation, it will come.

Joy is all around. You help joy along when you plan for it. As well, let joy
come as a surprise. Keep finding your shortcuts to joy.

Joy at its best comes unbidden. It’s never nearer than when you reach for
it, acknowledging it from afar. That hand taking yours – stretching across
distance and time – becomes yet another shortcut to joy

                                ____________




Author’s note: If there’s an express route to joy it’s this: Getting up every
morning thankful that another day is yours to live and enjoy.
Achievement rests not on its laurels, but on all that’s gone into it




              Beginner’s Guide to Achievement

If we could peer into a crystal ball, the future we wish for would be unique
for each of us. We’re the owners of our dreams. They’re the stirrings of our
imaginations. They’re the breadth of our souls.

Sometimes we put our dreams on some high shelf. We take them down and
look at them once in awhile. We cradle other dreams inside us where we
can watch over and protect them. We can name many of our dreams. Some
dreams are restless yearnings, untitled and unsolicited.

With the dreams we can name, it’s rather an easy matter to gaze ahead with
hope. We are buoyed with firm convictions of unprecedented success. We
can picture anything we wish to. Even without a crystal ball, we can believe
that all we see before us can come true.

Achieving our dreams is different from dreaming ourselves a future. To
achieve what we desire is somewhat like the process of picking up a new
language.

It can be difficult in the beginning when we take up the study of a new
language. Words sound strange and at first have no meaning. We grow in
our skills as we memorize the vocabulary and use the new words.

We immerse ourselves in the experience of the language. We listen to it
and speak it. We practice our increasing fluency and learn about the
culture and customs of the land.

Getting to a goal requires the same consistent effort. We apply the
knowledge we learn to move steadily forward in the direction of our desire.
We develop mastery in new fields.

The expertise we gain as we keep at something with persistence builds
confidence. This in turn adds to the competence we exercise in bringing
about the results we wish to see happen.

Spend some time visualizing your dream. How does it feel in its fulfillment?
After you name and claim your dream, do something every day to get there.
Each piece started or finished advances the goal. These gradual but
uncompromising steps determine the degree of commitment you’re willing
to expend in giving reality to your dream.

Never underestimate the importance of the work stage of your dream. All
actions relevant to realizing your goal ensure that you keep on course. The
end result reflects back the excellence of the plan and its execution.

Day-to-day preparation is essential for the loftiest of dreams. Even simple
goals stay out of sight if we don’t bend our backs to the task a bit.

Countless goals go astray because of inattention to the details. It’s our
nature to concentrate on the finale, where the fireworks go off. Action steps
become easy to downplay, skip through or eliminate because they require
exertion.

For some of us, exertion doesn’t fit with our idea of achievement. Hard
work can lack pizzazz. It doesn’t have the glory of breaking across the
finish line.

Achievement, however, counts everything. Achievement is arrived at by the
very measures that can be so tempting to pass over. View each task as
integral to your completed product. Take pride in your achievement every
step of the way.

Feel the wonder of throwing yourself into your dream with total
enthusiasm. Enthusiasm shouldn’t be saved for the big things. Inject a
sense of enthusiasm into everything you do. When you have enthusiasm
for the smallest notion that entertains you, creativity goes to town.

The infusion of enthusiasm presents new possibilities. It eventually causes
others to pay attention too. When you believe in something with passion,
you do the things that eventually bring others to you.

Those who directly or indirectly help you have a place in your achievement.
Remember these folks as supporters of your dream, or champions of your
cause, when your day comes.

If you’re co-collaborators of a dream, or are assigned to a project with
someone else, respect all input. Make it your intention to work well
together. Let the planning, decisions and actions display a group
signature.

Strive to be reliable and on time in carrying out your portion of the
workload. Enable the project to be brought to its best conclusion. Be a
generous player when it comes to work. In so doing, you widen the
meaning of achievement as it affects everyone.
The positive energy that attends the completion of any project rewards
generously. Shared in by the many, it can be the best satisfaction of all.

Achievement is ultimately about perspective. Each day that you contribute
to the passing hours of the day you receive back. The day’s worth returns
to you in new forms for you to add more value to.

For those of us who have a real desire to begin achieving right now, here’s
an ABC to achievement.

1) Always dream big
2) Be clear about why you want what you do
3) Concentrate actions and attitude toward the desired result

                                 _________



Author’s note: Achieving anything worthwhile is reason to celebrate. Often
it’s much later that we look back and wonder at our audacity at the
beginning. We start a project that’s “over our head.” Typically we start
up with limited resources, financially or in other ways. Our own vision,
energy and persistence prove to be about the best resources of all.

Achievement is like one small light becoming a roomful of light. Every
accomplishment has the power to extend the range of human kindness and
endeavor. We may never know how many far corners beyond our view are
reached and brightened by our acts of achievement.

The biggest achievers might actually be newborns. Babies have an
impelling drive to thrive. They eat, sleep and grow. They allow others to
help them. They experiment. They branch out, developing abilities in
many different areas.

They practice over and over. They’re intent on mastering each life skill.
They pick themselves up after every fall. They never give up.

Picturing ourselves in our infancy stages can be useful. We realize this
same determination (which propelled us forward then) is still in us. It
remains for us to utilize it to think out and reach our desires.
Our relationships with others are the connecting dots in life’s design




                           Connect the Dots

Life has a way of giving us answers that are hidden in clues. We can think
of life as being like the numbered dots in an activity book. As we fill in the
puzzle – one dot connecting to another – each pencil stroke gets us closer
to the completed picture.

Life presents itself as a series of connections. It leads us to those we love
and those we can help. The loving care we give to our various relationships
is, in a sense, the same kind of connecting we utilize when we go after the
dots.

Relationships invite us into a bigger world. When we care about someone
and participate in their life, we follow the connecting dots set out for us to
trace. Thoughtful actions, once performed, travel well beyond the original
intentions. They have a journey that enriches all on their passage. They
come back to reward the giver too.

In our desire to help someone, the goodwill we engender is returned to us.
Help given to others has a way of reappearing – not always in the same
recognized form – at our own crucial time of need.

When we follow our instincts to give help, we answer to an inner
awareness of earthly connection. We’re responding, as a matter of course,
to a belief that life is bigger than our own experiences. Our actions suggest
that we’re all here to minister to the needs of the world.

A pinch of loneliness is put into each of us, I believe. It’s there to make us
realize that each of us is part of the whole. We need others as our
connections to broader things. Through others, we’re apt to discover
truths for our lives that may be hard to arrive at on our own.

We’re meant to learn to grow unafraid to ask for help. We’re meant to
understand that loving connections are there when we’re unsure and don’t
know what to do.
There are days when we need something more than what we can do for
ourselves. A phone visit with a pal or an email from someone we count on
for their speedy and sincere replies can be all it takes to put the sunshine
back into our day.

The help we look for can also be in the form of a prayer, or a request for a
hug. It may be a looked-for kindness from a family member or even a
stranger.

Sometimes connecting the dots leads us right back to ourselves. We may
realize it’s time to take care of our own spirit.

Options to help ourselves abound, suited to our individual needs. We give
to ourselves the same attentive care we give a friend. We treat areas of our
life that – for whatever reason – have taken a solitary hike out of town.

When our needs are answered – by our own initiative or through the help of
others – we are strengthened beyond our own borders. We are heard out
and encouraged. We feel the inestimable support of company (sometimes
our own) over a rough patch.

We’re made confident to face the present moment, however trying it might
be. We have courage to carry on. We more comfortably shoulder the load
for whatever lies ahead.

Connecting with another loosens something in each of us. We almost
always benefit when we reach over the comfort fences of our pride or
privacy to ask for assistance. We gain immensely whenever we climb those
same fences to be the assistance that we can provide.

Sharing has a purpose. It gives power to better accept ourselves. It helps
us deal with conditions beyond our control. It does this through the
connecting purposes of companionship.

With another’s support, the situation you face is given its place. The
difficulty that was yours alone is joined by another’s thought, outlook or
voice.

We’re almost sure to find connection – to our deeper selves and to others –
when we figuratively connect the dots in the design of life. When we attend
to the folks put into our pathway, we trace the dots that fill in the lines that
complete the picture of life.


                                 ___________
Connect the Dots

__________




Author’s note: I like the idea that we’re like dots connected to each other.

When we’re little, moving the pencil from one numbered point to another
is fun because even then we understand that this gets us to the picture we
want to see.

As adults, we see the picture of who we are by what we bring forward to
give to others. It always goes back to connections. Through our daily
choices we make the decisions that – dot to dot to dot – fill out the lines of
the person we choose to be.
Easy answers don’t just happen and right answers don’t automatically appear




             Skywriting Doesn’t Give Answers

All of us have days when we feel out of sorts without quite knowing why.
We’ve learned that things sometimes don't get easier until they get harder.
And if that's the case – we shrug and say to ourselves – things should be
getting easier any time now.

We can wish things easier. When things don’t happen as we expect, we
wonder why. We ask ourselves, “Is there more I could have done?” “Could
I have done it differently?”

When we don’t get our anticipated outcomes – even after careful research,
calculated risks, tapping others to assist the process, or doing whatever
we deem it takes to get our end results – we’re apt to be disappointed.

“What’s the use of wanting something and working so hard for it when I
can’t make it happen?” we ask. “How do I know when to be flexible, and
when to be made of steel, when my goal appears out of reach?”

There are times it’s best to move unfinished business out of the way. “Yes,
I had my plans,” we can train ourselves to think. “I planned differently than
what turned out. Yet, those efforts are part of me. Whatever comes next,
this investment of myself to what I wished to accomplish isn’t wasted. I’m
the richer for attempting this achievement and then releasing it when it was
time to surrender this particular dream.”

And often (it’s the strangest thing), in letting go the outcome when it didn’t
match our schedule, our original plan does in fact actualize. It may come
cloaked differently. But we recognize its presence. We smile and embrace
it, even when modified by the mysteries of life.

When we accept that skywriting isn’t going to show up to show us the way,
we try something different. We work to discern an inner guidance system
that, if we pay attention, can steer us unerringly to a perfect conclusion.

It’s not unusual to come up blank when we first start off to solve our
problems. Frequently we think we’ve hit on an answer, only to learn it’s not
the solution for the long haul. This means it’s back to square one. We’re
back to figuring out the puzzle all over again.
We push back the discouragement and go on. At some level we play a wait
game. As we go about our daily lives we keep up a dialogue with hope. This
encourages us to trust that tomorrow will bring resolution to our efforts
and an answer which for now is out of reach.

We get it right when we learn to ride these times out. What works for one
may not work for another, but everything indicates that calming the mind
and firing up the body are ways to reach clarity to solve problems.

Mental clarity comes from organizing our thoughts. My husband, who finds
his peace in fishing, would say clarity is a net that keeps the best of our
ideas.

Borrowing from this analogy, try this exercise: See your mind as a net.
Picture your thoughts emptying into the sturdy mesh. Believe that the net
catches only the thoughts that can be of service to you.

Watch as some thoughts stay in the net while others go right on through.
Notice relief or relaxation as you hold this image? That’s a signal that
you’ve quieted the brain. You’re in the fast lane towards mental clarity.

I use my enjoyment of walking to arrange my thoughts. I step along,
unrushed and at one with all that I pass. In this calm neutral zone, new
thoughts are forming of which I’m not even aware. Down the road, literally
and factually, these fresh perspectives pave the way to that day’s problem
solving.

It reminds me of our family car, stick shift and all, on which I learned to
drive. A primary lesson was, if you put the car in neutral you and the car
stay where you are. “Shifting into neutral” is a smart tactic when short on
answers. Put the mind in neutral when we observe its clutter, and we rein in
the mental jumble that can put the brain into overdrive.

There are many ways to mental clarity. Socializing is a great way to clear
the mind. In a shared world of love, laughter and learning, we lose
ourselves. Mental relaxation also happens when we concentrate on some
task or creative undertaking. It can be done on our own or with others.

Activities with an inherent element of silence, such as gardening, praying,
meditation, handwork or sports (like my husband’s penchant for fishing, or
a friend’s dedication to biking) cultivate clarity. Hands, eyes, and all the
senses are utilized. Such absorption fosters problem solving through the
personal rhythm of silence, activity and repetition.

Activity boosts well-being and stamina. Repetition aids confidence and
ability. It can also soothe the mind. Activity and repetition work in unison to
deactivate our alert-to-the-moment button. This relays to the brain that it
can – if not altogether close shop – at least pull down the blinds for awhile.

Mental relaxation gives the mind permission to put its feet up. Minds are
awesome at presenting solutions when left to their own devices. Answers
present themselves. A brain on break can succeed where conscious
searching leaves off.

I’ve found that reading a book set in a different era or country takes me
away. As I zero in on the scenery or architecture or dress or politics that
the author describes I am totally, utterly, in that other place. Temporarily
out of present time, my mind is at liberty to sleuth around. It comes back, at
times, with incredible insights and right solutions.

I’ve more than once discovered an answer through reading. Text has
transformative power when taken in through the eye and registering itself
on the brain. Whether from a single word or whole blocks of information or
inspiration, a book’s energy is remarkably effectual in breaking through a
problem. The same goes with music and art.

Our answers can be in the next thing we see or the next person we talk to.
This searching does require some expenditure of trust. It asks that we
respect the connection with all of life. We contribute to positive outcomes
far beyond our own spheres when we act from the conviction that we’re
made and meant to work together.

As we long ago learned, skywriting – which would be so handy – doesn’t
give us the answers we look for. Everything is easier when we realize that
the answers are in who we are, what we do and who we meet.

Even if it were to show up with all the right answers, skywriting is
transitory at best. It produces fleeting messages that grow faint before our
eyes. The answers best for us generally ask of us our own labor and
ingenuity.

We hang in. Things go forward. Answers take shape. We come to
appreciate that answers are in front of us, within us and around us. They
aren’t out of reach. They aren’t on some high stretch of sky that we gaze
on, with heads tipped back, to read the instructions we are to follow.

If there are no answers on sky’s blue easel, there’s another kind of writing
to help us along. This writing is in our hearts. It’s the absolute essence of
our hopes, skills, talents, dreams and desires. It points the direction to the
answers we seek, waiting there for us to find.

                               ______________
It’s not hard to find hope unless you forget to look inside yourself




                           By Virtue of Hope

“Write about the virtue of hope,” my friend urges. “That’s a most important
thing – hope. I might not have faith but I have hope.”

If you have hope (as I point out to my friend) how can you not have faith?
Hope is simply the action part of the same core material within us that we
call faith.

Hope says “Believe” when it’s easier to doubt. Hope says “Trust,” knowing
that goodness isn’t rare but essentially there – whether we recognize it or
not. Hope says “Hang on” when our notion is to fold the cards and give up.

Hope is a virtue and virtue is a noun. It’s a necessary classification but
hope sails above such restraint. It desires freedom to roam. It dares to
soar. How can it fly when it’s tied down? How can it wing across the sky
when stuck on the ground?

Hope let loose has resilience to spare. Its power is in the phrase, “by virtue
of hope.” Hope is the vehicle for transformation that pulls up to our curb
even before we’re out the door. It’s the obliging friend who knows the ins
and outs of anything we have in mind to wish for or do.

Hope sets up house with faith, love and truth. While faith’s tendency is to
run deep like a river, and love’s pattern is the spread of sunshine across
life itself, hope is the unwavering movement of the soul towards its
personal truth.

Hope is forward-minded. It tenants with us even when we say, “It’s
hopeless.” Hope is our second or fourth or seventeenth try when at first we
don’t succeed. Hope reaches out every time. That’s why hope and help are
so closely allied.

Hope focuses on peace when the news is of war. It’s the use of imagination
to positively construct events. Hope accepts the present moment. Hope is
certain that every day is beautiful. It delights in life’s generosity, welcoming
its gifts that can appear both randomly dispensed and distributed by
design.
Just for a moment, picture a puppy. If there’s a puppy in your life you know
firsthand what I’m about to propose. But for many of us, just recalling a
puppy in action is sufficient as I suggest that hope is a puppy with four
paws and a tail.

A puppy dashes here and there. It digs and romps. It pounces and rolls.
It is giddy with the innocent pleasure of the newly arrived.

A puppy has no agenda except to play and explore and – this is key – to
check in now and then with its owner. Puppy tail wagging, it always comes
back to lavish affection on the one it admires above all.

Hope is like that puppy. It can go in circles. It dives and dodges in antics
that don’t at all resemble the mature courses we start to lay out for
ourselves.

But we mustn’t be misled by hope’s spontaneity. Hope is single-minded
beneath its free spirit. It has a very clear notion of what’s important.
Moreover, it has its own nose for knowing how to proceed.

Hope gets to the truth – our truth. And this truth has an owner’s claim on
our dreams. For this is something we come to understand: real dreams are
nothing less than hope in contact with the truth inside each of us.

When we’re in need of healing, when we give anxious watch over our
children, when we ponder the state of global politics, or project a future
onto almost any thought presenting itself to us, we call on hope.

Hope responds the moment we regard a situation with even a hint of
perplexity, misgiving or alarm. It comes the very second we summon it.

When we commit our efforts to hope, we free up some part of us held
bound by the situation itself. When we ask ourselves, “Well, what can I do
about it?” we began to realize that we indeed can do something.

This is the feeling of hope dissolving through us. Remember the TV
commercial that shows tummy-soothing tablets effervescing in a glass of
water? Take these tablets after partying too well or eating too much, we’re
advised. Those bubbles are the promise of instant relief from our excesses.

Maybe hope doesn’t work quite as quickly as the TV tablets. But with hope
effervescing in your system, relief is surely on the way.

Hope can be a frame of mind as well as its motivating action. Hope can be
steadfast belief animating us to an act of courage. The silence in which
hope forms can commit us to some ideal.
Hope can bring us to some personal decision that changes us forever. The
self-rising yeast that is hope has the power to lead us to, or back to, our
fuller selves.

We all go through things. Some things require extraordinary hope. At such
times we may hardly know how to plant our feet, let alone find the direction
for our footsteps to take.

Even with the support of others, we must face some situations on our own.
It’s our heart inside us we hear, and that heartbeat is ours alone. The heart
– center of life and love – sustains us through the hard times. It gives us
hope so that we may figure out what to do.

Hope causes us to venture bravely ahead, even though our steps may be
missteps. We advance, despite progress that can appear halting and
unsure.

Hope grows more focused as we marshal it over and over into service. Our
sometimes erratic progress through life is a lot like hope covering a vast
stretch of ground on puppy feet. Hope adjusts to its capacities much in the
same way that a puppy begins to fit its oversize paws.

Hope comes to be an igniting force. It plows ahead to horizons we cannot
see. We’re grabbed by the arm to follow it along, as it hikes the hills
singing its song.

Climbing hills with hope isn’t something we practice for. Fortunately, we’re
armed with the basics before we begin. They’re ours just by being alive. We
know how to inhale deeply. We note the scenery along the way.

We heed the creed of self-care, which is food for the stomach, rest for the
body and the warmth of one another for companionship. With this credo as
guide, we travel in safety, laughter and lightness of cares. This in itself is
the framework for hope.

With hope, the journey is our joy. We pack simply to leave room for all the
love that comes along. Love is never a load, not even over the highest hill.
And faith is the map, guaranteeing our destination met.

As we hike these hills, hope sees to it that the view from the top is worth
our while. We have the satisfaction of achievement when we attain the
heights. All seems obtainable from above. Hope affords an outlook
unimaginable from below.

And yet it’s in the valleys of our lives, slogging along, looking up to the sun
and getting orientation from it, that we learn another kind of hope. For it’s
in the upward look – confirming our place and determining the measure of
our progress against the day – that we honor the strength that hope builds
from within.

When hope can appear as distant as the next hill, it’s good to remember
that hope is at home in the valleys. It operates wherever people walk side
by side.

Hope is significant in the context of two or more together. Hope often
derives from others when we need it most. Sometimes our best help is truly
another’s hope for us.

By virtue of hope nothing is impossible. No dream is too fragile for the
light. I want my friend to understand this holds true for faith, as well.

Faith and hope are cut from the same cloth. Hope is nothing more than
faith’s expanded embrace.
                    _____________

Author’s note: Hope is not an isolated quality, and functions best when put
into play with other factors.
We use inner peace as hope to share with the world




                        Hope into the World

Life can be hard at times and circumstances not what we want, either for
ourselves or for others.

In addition to personal situations that can undermine our courage, events
from everywhere on earth are flashed to us nonstop for our brains to sort
out and make sense of.

We’re a world shrinking on one plane and expanding at another level as
many nations and groups pull farther apart in their thinking and actions.
It is seemingly harder to find and walk a middle road of peace.

I believe that peace comes from having hope. As we learn to focus on hope
we begin to let go the sense that we're in a global state of disrepair.

Hope gives us a truer picture of what we can achieve through our desire for
peace. Peace becomes a wholeness and a well-being experienced not by a
few but fashioned for the good of all.

I think, right now, we are being called to put hope into the world. If many of
us do this – offering, at the same time our own peace (as best as we have it
within us) – we can change things. At least, we can maybe change
ourselves. And that's a start.

A very simple way to build hope is to create moments of peace. Peace
starts to feel like an oasis, an interior well of refreshment. As we find it in
ourselves, we look out to share it with others.

If peace begins with each of us, it follows then that it becomes part of our
day. For instance, we can take a peaceful moment and move with it to a
window where we can observe our street.

Or we can go with it to some spot where we may view our workplace. We
remain mindful of the peace within us as we absorb our selected scene. It
may be momentarily empty of movement or it can be busy to the point of
hectic activity.
Quietly we continue to observe. As we do so, we remain appreciative of the
restful haven we create by choosing serenity.

We enjoy this moment for those we now see. They may be driving down the
street. They may be walking down the office hallway. We wish peace for all
who pass by.

We enjoy this moment, too, for those who’ll come this way through the day.
We ask peace on all who might not have this same chance to rest within a
peaceful moment. We become the peace for them, in other words.

This peace, which reaches out to others, becomes our hope that we put
into the world.
                               __________
Our dreams are woven into the everyday and visible, and are often seen in what
we do




                        Dreams in the Stars

In looking back we can be awed by our own greatness – which we hadn’t
realized we were showing the world, as we didn’t even know it was there, in
us.

Greatness of vision, greatness of purpose, that we don’t tend to give
ourselves credit for as we plod along day after day in ordinary pursuits –
but with our hearts open to possibility and our dreams in the stars where
our own particular hopes call us to make them real.

When we look back and see where faithfulness to our dream has taken us,
we feel – even if in only momentary glimpses – the greatness within us that
is part of the creative stream of life.
                                ____________

Author’s note: Dreams get workouts in steadfast hearts.
Seasons of Discovery
Sometimes we’re only a layer away from our next best selves




                       New Coat of Paint

We come to view our bodies differently as time moves along. We see
how faithfully they perform for us. We no longer take for granted the
privilege of being within our particular form or sustained by each
breath of air we take.

We realize our physical self is in itself a gift. We become gentler with
our bodies even as we develop a certain detachment. We come to
understand that we’re not in complete charge of our physical journey.

The changing relationship with our bodies is like the course of a
friendship. This is a friendship we foster within us. And it may best
happen with time and with enough challenges to make us discover how
much we cherish what we’ve had all along.

In this new regard for our body, we make adjustments that may be
necessary to remain healthy.

We no longer treat our body as a mere acquaintance. We depend on it
as the intimate companion of the road we travel. It’s our oldest friend
who now and then could use a helping hand.

There was a time when we didn’t stop to think how our bodies pull for
us every second of the day. Now we do. Our appreciation is for the
whole self. We walk in company with ourselves in a whole new way.

We value our capabilities and potential. Contrary to what society might
suppose about middle age, we’ve learned that creativity and energy
stay renewable. There aren’t predetermined quotas that make us say,
“Shucks! There goes my lifetime supply.” We aren’t done yet. Life isn’t
over.

Our midlife resources might even be strengthened. We’re not unlike
athletes at the peak of their endurance, or actors who’ve mastered
skills of timing and delivery. Our confidence is disciplined. It’s the kind
that doesn’t come overnight.
By midlife we’ve discovered many things. We’ve gained insights. It can
take a long while to take it all in. Life waits while we catch up to it. It has
lots of time to teach us its truths.

For many of us, one of the hardest truths is what we see before us each
morning in the bathroom mirror.

Let’s face it. The mirror isn’t going to hand back the twenty-something
face or body that we remember as if it were yesterday. It will give us
what we can learn to treasure more: the reflection of our own life
experiences uniquely modeled on the features in front of us.

It can be hard to accept our reflected image. It can tell us that being
best friends to our body wasn’t always a first consideration.

Late nights, sun overkill at the beach, smoking, and indulgences in
food and drink have a habit of reminding us, down the line, of lifestyles
we once supported. Concerns, hardships and genuine tragedies mark
all the layers of our being.

There are things that age us. We don’t always see them as they happen.
Maybe we can’t circumvent them even if we try. The honest mirror
reveals our fully-earned maturity. We’re made up of choices and
experiences that vibrate deep within us.

We can use the mirror like a microscope. We can examine the wrinkles,
the sagging lines around the eyes and the absolute southward drift of
our bodies. We can take this as proof of loss of control. We can feel a
sense of shame.

Being hard on ourselves after the fact doesn’t work. Nor is it healthy to
lay out lashes that our bodies don’t deserve. Yes, we’re the “after”
pictures of our youthful selves. We’re also the “before” pictures for all
our tomorrows.

Not accepting our present bodies stymies the grace of the present
moment. Allowing ourselves to be as we are, whatever lies behind, has
power to move us from self-blame to the positive. Being positive makes
everything run a little smoother.

When we forgive prior choices or actions, we embrace the opportunity
to pick up and push on. We accept what is, and shake hands with the
past. We’re okay with the idea that faces and bodies wear the dignity of
physical parts well-used in service and joy.
When we look into the mirror and see all that was within us the day we
were born, we transfer our attentions from the strictly outward
interpretation of who we are. We open ourselves to the interior beauty
of our spirit – which has motivated us all along.

Medical and cosmetic techniques can make our skin look younger. Diet
and exercise can rejuvenate our bodies. But the smartest place to start
might be with our attitude. When we accept our current state of being,
we give notice that we intend to stay active and be engaged in life.

From this mindset, our actions work – not as a wrinkle remover – but
on the order of a skin polisher. All the surfaces we turn outward radiate
with the conviction that life is good. Our glow says we’re here and will
continue to be so. And we’re pretty sure the best is yet to come.

It reminds me of when our neighbors painted their house. There was
nothing wrong with the old color. But somehow, suddenly seeing a new
coat of paint swept across the house front, the house looked different
and somehow new.

I thought about the house and also its owners. They had the vision to
view their home as change-worthy. They went about transforming it.

I walked over, that day, to comment on the color and the efforts of their
paint job. It occurred to me, as we stood back to survey the finished
effect, that we could all benefit from a new coat of paint from time to
time.

A new coat of pain freshens. And freshening does wonders. In the
aging and change process our human systems undergo, freshening
does the same. It revitalizes.

Like the spic-and-span appearance of a repainted home, it’s good to
stay fresh in who we are.

We can sink into the comfortable, worn pillows of our favorite chair and
call it a day. That’s all well and good. Nevertheless, over the long haul
we benefit our bodies more when we keep interested beyond our rest.

Freshening doesn’t take much: a different handbag or the feel of a new
golf club, or different music to listen to, or experimenting a bit with the
old and familiar can all be our new coats of paint.

Freshening sets us somewhat apart from our regular world, while
keeping us essentially the same.
When we tend to the things for today we influence not only this day or
next week but the future. When we give up looking for what’s no longer
there – and cease to unduly worry about what’s to come – we find we
put aside many self-made pressures. This allows time to play its part,
as it will.

The present moment, in the meantime, becomes our own sure renewal.


                               ____________



Author’s note: Now for a question – if you have just one bucket of paint, do
you paint the outside or the inside of your house?

Paint applied to either place affects the other, I believe. The balance that
life strives to maintain causes us to match ( in some way, shape or form, if
not in exact detail) that which already has been improved. New paint is
the guarantee that other things, too, will in turn get done.
Profundity of reasoning isn’t just for scholars; the power to consider thoughtfully
is within us all




                                 Discoveries


Life is a series of discoveries. We’re centered in some discoveries longer
than in others because they fit us. We discover ourselves in the process.


Interests and opportunities change. Sometimes we simply fall into new
things to do.


One’s energy stretches to meet the need.


We live our choices.


Be grateful for the opportunity to take a dream down the long winding road
to completion.


Do what it takes to get there.


It’s amazing the knowledge we gather when we work through life’s
obstacles.


Don’t ever stop smiling.


All you do becomes part of you.


Things work out if you work together.
Faithful is the quality we grow into as we do what we need to do. Whether
for those we love or duties we perform, faithful implies constancy of
character. Faithful is the aggregate of our actions that tells the world we’ve
lived and cared.

Choose words as beautiful as the images you hold in your heart.


You can see and not listen, but it’s hard to listen and not see.


Life’s timing is interesting.

                                ___________



Author’s note: This piece contains thoughts that have occurred to me while
visiting with others, when writing, or in restful silence.

As you read through these, you may find statements that stand out from
the rest. You find them because the words hold truth or insight for you.
They’re your discoveries.

Everyone adds to the universal stock of human observation and counsel.
We share a thought. We teach from personal experience. We decide if
what we hear is a discovery – pertinent and of value – or a free handout to
pass up.

A comment or advice from the past can come back to us. We’re reminded
that we’ve been given something with the ring of lasting truth.
Everybody is a storyteller, and not all stories have words




                             Gift and a Need


We each have the gift of a story inside of us (many stories, in fact). We also
have the need – in some manner or form – to share that story with others.

The desire to share is only natural. We’re happy to hand on what we learn,
enjoy or have come to understand. We want to extract value from our
experiences because, if we don’t, they remain buried treasure with no
intrinsic value.

This wish to leave something of ourselves to the world makes sense. We're
all part of the fabric of living. When we take time to pass along something
that speaks to us, we're following our inner orders to spread the good news
that life is rich with connection and meaning.

I was thinking of this the other day when a friend sent me a little volunteer
publication. It had a short article marked for me to read. It was a simple
story. The writer recounted a time and circumstances unique to him. I
noticed how easy it was to absorb his words. I could see he was writing
about what was real to him.

I put the article inside an envelope to pass on to another friend. Each of us
could find within this story a truth for ourselves. It prompted us to stop,
compare and ultimately share. Like a stone thrown into a pond, the ripple
effect of this writer sharing his story spread out to touch others.

We tell our stories in part, I believe, because we want to leave some imprint
of who we are. Our stories don’t necessarily have to be in words. We pass
along our stories when we raise our children, plant a tree, build a building
or give to causes we care about.

Our actions let others know what inspires us. Our choices show others
what we believe in. Through our stories we broadcast our hopes – not only
for ourselves but for what we dream for the world.

What goes on from us may not bear our actual touch. We scatter the traces
of ourselves – words, actions, choices – to the winds of chance. We entrust
them to the future, even as we begin to look back.
Thankfully, in looking back, many of us can regard our former selves
without regrets or what ifs. Maturity is the time to reclaim the good in our
past, if we haven’t already done so.

We have new appreciation – even admiration – for parents, family
members, friends and possibly whole communities. They were there for us
as we played, studied and grew. They sustained us, even indirectly, as we,
took ever surer steps to the freedoms and obligations of adulthood.

Childhood becomes precious when reviewed with adult perspective. As we
reminisce and write of our earliest memories, or speak of them into a tape
recorder, we make sure that we stay in touch with who we’ve been all
along.

We document, for perhaps some later application, the immeasurably
helpful insights we’ve allowed into our lives. Every life has something
within it to share. We inspire, instruct and leave a foundation of wisdom
behind for those who come after.

The process of recording our lives gives us peace. This is possibly the best
payoff of all. We put ourselves where we can take stock of all that we’ve
had, and the point to which we’ve come.

In the same way, a country with storytellers is a country who knows itself.
When a country pays attention to the sagacity, hope and humor that each
culture, each region, and individuals of every age have within themselves,
an invigorating breath of air seems to blow across the land.

Nature, too, has its stories. Nature’s stories are always unfolding. It may be
a silent story as we stand in wonder on the threshold of a new day. Or we
may be onlookers to a scene noisy with outdoor sounds and activities. It’s
never just one way and it’s never the same. And as we step into nature’s
picture we share in its telling.

What story will you tell today? Who will you tell it to? Pay attention, as well,
when others share their stories. Ask questions. Be receptive to hearing
more of their story when you see their need to share. Be prepared for that
longer account. Accept the rewards and responsibilities in doing so.

Our stories are the most personal, most honest gift we can give. Live your
story well. Tell it with pride. It’s yours and yours alone. Yet it could not be
told unless there was first a story other than your own.

                                _____________
Polished by personal experience, more thoughts on living the best life




                          Gems Mined Deep

Just get started. The rest will follow.


We all have our own kind of luck.


Sometimes luck is how you interpret what happens to you.


Where we’ve lived and enjoyed is always home.


We fill our spaces with what we need.


Time gives many answers.


Listen to the day.


Step outside the safety zone.


What we give goes on.


We’re always growing into what we are to become.
Creativity takes many forms. Do something to express yours.


Put on your dancing shoes.


Do the thing when you think of it.


Place is perspective.


Obligations are good for one. It’s so easy, otherwise, to not do something
and then miss out on something good.


Things play out.


What’s real, lasts.


You can’t push time.


Nature can bring a lot of companionship.


A journey completed is the joy of the way you have come to know.

                              _____________
Change is afoot everywhere we look, and how we accept it is what it’s all about




                    Challenged and Changed


It seems things come into our life for the very reason that we need to be
challenged and changed to grow.

The moments we’re most afraid, or most confused, or most alone are often
our “changing times.” If we pay attention in these situations that call us
from right out of our fears or doubts or loneliness – and listen to our hearts
– we cooperate with our own wisdom that guides us along.

These changing times are part of a lifelong “finding” of ourselves that sets
our direction and reveals the truth of who we are at each stage of life.

The daily changes that sometimes don’t register for long periods of time
are one way we’re changed. These changes can be as subtle as the trees in
our front yard that one day are small and the next thing we know they’re
standing tall and casting shade.

It can also be like the children of the neighborhood. One day they get in the
car and drive off. We say, “How did this happen so fast?” And we realize
we’ve been hit by change.

Sometimes change is what we note when our children suddenly have the
edge on height (or prowess with the basketball) or when best friends
announce they’re retiring to Tahiti or with the onset of health problems.

We can prepare for some changes. We see them coming. But with other
changes we simply have to wing it. We adapt as we go. We work to make
this new place that change takes us just as rich, if not better, than before.

Things get different with change, particularly when change is construed as
a downward turn. Aging, loss of mobility, a job promotion we missed: all
can change our reality. Our immediate view is altered. We have the need to
reassess our dreams.

Pronounced change not of our own making can pull us up short. We
wonder what sure footing is left. We check our pockets, thinking we’ve
somehow misplaced our instructions for living. We look about in
confusion. Where are the arrows, we ask ourselves, that point us to the life
we expected to have.

Keeping our cool in times of profound change may not be easy. But we can
do it. We succeed by keeping a handle on what we can control. And what
we can control is our response to things.

When we practice a good attitude we show appreciation for life’s daily gifts.
Change is seen as the handiwork behind the dawning of each new day.
Even if enjoyment has to come at some more modest level – even if it has
to be obtained through memories and not robust physical activity – it puts
change in a better light.

Incorporating enjoyment into the responses we give to life helps us deal
with change more readily. We accept change as the agent that generates
new beginnings. We approve the side of it that is a positive force. Change
is a forward thing. It’s easier when we go along with it as willingly as we
can.

All of us can name moments that have changed us through the challenges
inherent in them. We’re also changed – instantaneously and marvelously
changed – when we experience the miracle of fulfilled hope.

This is the incredible joy of things turning out for good beyond the scope
of our imagination. It’s the confidence of faith when prayers are answered
in ways so clear and so direct that – beyond a shadow of a doubt – we
know amazing things have happened.

Miracles come in every shape and size. Miracles catch our attention. We
can be changed by them forever. When we’re the recipient of a miracle –
whether as bystander to the breathings of a newborn child or as the patient
whose biopsy comes back negative – our hearts and minds know it.

Our gratitude is the profound knowledge that a major shift has taken place.
We view life in more vivid colors. The beauty in others seems to pour out
upon us. It’s as if the goodness of all life – operating through nature,
ourselves and others – establishes new vision in thankful hearts.

Challenged and changed, we’re the sum of our outward and inner
experiences. We take the moments granted to us and shape them into
meaning by being mindful of them as we go through our day.

These everyday actions are our signature movement through life. They
become our own by what we decide to give back from what comes to us.

                              _____________
Memory doesn’t put out a rocking chair when you’re its guest; it leads you to a
window to better regard the view




                        Anatomy of Memory


Memory is shaped by many things. Our own individuality shapes it. How we
assimilate life and how we interpret life are crucial to how we remember.

Memory can be said to be the identification of spirit with life. Memory
coaxes us to go face to face with our past. It surfaces the substance of who
we are. Memory is as much about the one who experiences, as the
experience itself.

Impressions of every sort stamp themselves upon us every day. Even in
the moments of experiencing, our minds sort out what to remember and
what – like chaff – to let go. Like the white pebbles Hansel and Gretel
tossed behind them as they walked further into the middle of the forest,
memory is our pathway. It’s how we trace back to where we come from.

Memory can be triggered by any setting. It can be fanned to life by touch,
smell, sight or sound. Memory can be fleeting, as if brushed with angel’s
wings. It can give such potent recall as to recreate a particular experience
in its entirety.

Memory opens the gateways to our past. It accesses people, events or
objects that have brought us along to this very moment. It allows us to
revisit a whole day, a whole season and even a whole era.

Through memory we can be reunited to ourselves, the person from whom
we’ve continued to grow. Memory serves in perhaps the most comforting
way of all, through silent reunions with loved ones no longer here.

Memory allows us to go back and reconstruct events, situations or
personal struggles. Then it’s up to us how we proceed.

We can use memories either as a blueprint or a bulldozer. We can build
something out of the hindsight we gain. We can also reduce to rubble,
disregarding as potentially helpful, any of those pieces from memory that
may have caused hurts, hardships or pain.
Something as potent as memory has dual energy. This energy derives from
the movement of the calendar as well as the movement of life. We can’t
have memory without going forward into the seasons and years.

We can train ourselves to be cognizant of moments we’ll wish to return to.
We have the desire and ability to attract what we want. By our interests,
expressed through choices, we help determine the moments of living we
will carry as memory into our future.

When we see we have some measurable control of what comes to us, we
craft to some extent the shape of memories yet to come. We literally hand-
pick, like the ripest fruit, the life lessons and laughter we want deposited in
our memory bank for later withdrawal.

Hold dear the gift within you that is memory. Gather impressions each
day you live. Be mindful of each new experience. Taste deeply of life.

Breathe in the essence of each happy experience. Like the life-giving air
you take in, let the absurdly generous moments of life circulate freely and
healthfully through you.

Love and be loved. Think about what makes you smile. Do more of it. Think
about your choices. Make more good ones. Live each moment with the
attitude of ownership for this moment, and all the rest that follow.
                                ____________

Author’s note: Memories are only the present moments, caught on the
colored threads of time.
What are the discoveries on your pathway today?




                               Pathways

I was on the local park trail recently. It was after supper. The day was
continuing beautiful. This was a fact not missed after a run of cool windy
weather.

The pathway was filled with bikers and walkers. Lots of young families
were out. Entire families biked together. They were like caravans, really.
They were moms, dads and kids – with sometimes grandpa or grandma
along too.

Kids pedaled in front of or beside their parents. Parental reminders to “stay
to the right” or “watch where you’re going” made me smile. The torch has
passed. A new generation is instructing their young on bicycle safety and
the rules of the road.

Tots had their own secure seating. They rode in covered trailers hitched to
the adult bikes. Occasionally, instead of babies, a dog or maybe a pair of
dogs looked out with interest through the clear flaps as they were
transported around.

The next day I chanced to pick up a favorite book. 8,789 Words of Wisdom
contains sayings, thoughts and sage advice for almost any situation or
stage in life. It’s a repository of truisms. Some are fresh and new to your
thinking. Others are as old as Methusalah.

I like to dip into the book now and then. Often something jumps out at me.
It’s as if these particular words have been waiting for me.

I scanned a page or two as I like to do. My read yielded one gem. The one
line said it all. It said basically to look for miracles along your way.

I thought back to the park walk. I maybe hadn’t been looking for miracles
but I’d certainly been looking at miracles. They were the miracles of sun
and nature and companionship happening along the pathway for all to see.
                                   ____________

Author’s note: Miracles are discoveries we open our eyes and hearts to.
Seasons of Living
Winter (like everything) is what we make of it




                               Winter Is . . .

The door to winter opens with the first snowflake that drifts down,
deceptively innocent, from a gray, blustery sky. And until the last flake falls
and is swallowed up by the soil, savagely thirsty after its seasonal slumber,
its icy reign is felt across the land.

Winter is a time when trees switch green frocks for snow stoles and sun-
sparkling glaze is draped around their limbs like diamond bangles.
The ground becomes a rumpled sheet of shimmering white; blizzards plow
through prairies and snow huddles into drifts in house corners to evade
the wind’s wrath.

Winter is boot prints in the snow and delicate designs swirled deftly upon
windowpanes. It is blue jays reprimanding juncos at a bird feeder and
rabbits romping under a winter moon. It is the silky gray beards of
eavesdropping icicles and the black velvet of night skies, pierced
throughout by stars like many sequined hatpins.

Winter is rising early to shovel the driveway before breakfast, and having
breakfast in morning darkness. It is digging out quilts from the storeroom,
frowning over the monthly heating bills, being jolted into wakefulness on
weekends by the roar of snowmobiles rather than lawn mowers. It is
looking longingly at travel agency show windows which, come first
snowfall, blossom with posters of the sunny Southland.

Winter is Christmas decorations strung along Main Street and pine-fragrant
bonfires whose fiery beauty finger-numbed skaters appreciate fully as well
as its light and heat. Winter is making popcorn to munch while reading
romance novels on dismal afternoons.

It is people practicing togetherness to defy the forces of nature. It is hot
cocoa with a marshmallow within; it is blurry eyes, ruddy cheeks, frozen
toes, mittened hands . . .

Winter . . . it spells cold frosty weather. Yet there is an undefinable,
intangible warmth to it that is the envy even of the summer months.

                                   ___________
Winter Is . . .

___________




Author’s note: A four-season climate gives changing opportunities which we
early on learn to embrace, put up with, look forward to or deal with as
best we can.

 I can tell you everything I don’t like about winter. It’s more fun when you
tell about the things you like, and that was the intent as written.

I was in high school when I did this as a “series” of essays on the seasons.
It’s the only essay that remains from that original set, and has been
published twice.
All of us are special and valentines tell us so




                              Valentine’s Day

Every February, when the stores that sell valentines are full of selections of
cards and candy, I’m reminded of the trips with my kids to buy their
valentines for school.

They sat down at the kitchen table with their piles of valentines laid out
between them. It was time to go to work.

They laboriously copied their classmates’ names, furnished from lists the
teachers sent home with them, on the envelopes. They wrote their own
name as the sender on the back of each valentine.

The effort went about as smoothly as any school project goes. Inserting the
last valentine into its envelope came with a sigh of relief. The valentines
were put into their backpacks for school the next day. It was a job well
done, or at least decently finished with some time left to play before bed.

As room mother for the Valentine’s Day parties for some of those years, I
had a part too. My associates and I showed up at party time with games
and treats. We were welcomed by students and teachers alike. Our arrival
was the guarantee of fun and surprises at this end hour of the school day.

My children’s classroom parties made me think of the Valentine’s Day
parties held in my grade school when I was growing up.

The classroom parties we had through the school year were special events.
They gave us a chance to be noisy at our desks and get by with it. It was
like having outdoors recess inside.

We ate cupcakes and could let the crumbs fall to the floor. We could close
our minds to anything studious for the rest of the day.
There was something about Valentine’s Day parties that nudged them
above the rest. I believe it was the valentine mail box – which the party
revolved around – that gave these occasions their heightened zest.

Even then, I loved the idea of mail. Letters arrived weekly from my
grandparents who lived out of state. Even before I could decipher
grandma’s handwriting (or grandpa’s typed note with his signature in ink at
the bottom), I was aware of the meaning of mail. The arrival of mail with
your name on it signified that someone was thinking of you.

When I was a little older I had a pen pal. She was my second cousin. She
lived in another state. We were the same age. We corresponded for awhile.
But after a few salutations back and forth that started out with high
promise, it seemed we’d written all we had to say. Nevertheless, I’d come to
know the mystique of mail.

A mail box in the classroom, therefore, was a very cool thing. The plain
cardboard carton was fixed up with wrapping paper. Its sides were
decorated with hearts that either the teacher or the class made from red
construction paper.

There was a slot on top. The box sat in a place of prominence as it filled
with the valentines we brought to school.

Teachers encouraged valentines be sent to everyone. A few students
worked off a shorter list. They simply bypassed certain names. Sometimes
it was because they didn’t like a person (at the moment). No way were they
going to address a valentine they had no intention of giving.

For boys more than girls, there was the embarrassment of sending
valentines to those of the opposite sex on whom they had a crush. Their
thinking was that valentines to secret sweethearts would surely disclose
the feelings of the heart.

This meant endless mortification. They could never come to school again if
certain classmates got hold of this classified information about their love
life.

Everyone got a valentine from the teacher, who might even add a little
greeting beside her name.

One's popularity was ascertained by the number of valentines you got –
and more especially by the amount of gum taped on "extra" to the backs of
the valentines.
For those who didn’t amass the mail or sticks of gum of the top valentine-
receiver, solace was soon at hand. Refreshments for all were passed
around.

We ate the party food at our seats and drank the milk provided. The teacher
read stories or perhaps a chapter out of an agreed-upon favorite book. The
party was long enough for songs, visiting, looking over our valentines,
giggling and playing games. Perhaps even a few furtive love glances were
passed.


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

                           Chocolate Cupcakes

Preheat over to 350 degrees. Mix together 1½ c. flour, 1 c. sugar, 3
tablespoons unsweetened cocoa, 1 teaspoon baking soda and ½ teaspoon
salt. Mix together thoroughly. Add 1/3 c. cooking oil, 1 egg, 1 teaspoon
vanilla, 1 tablespoon vinegar and 1/3 c. cold water. Line muffin tin with foil
cupcake liners. Fill each liner with batter. Bake 20-25 minutes. Let cool a bit
before removing from muffin tin. Makes 12 cupcakes.

                            Chocolate Frosting

Ice cupcakes when cool: Stir till smooth 3 tablespoons butter, softened,
1½ c. powdered sugar, 3 heaping tablespoons unsweetened cocoa and 3
tablespoons milk (less or more as needed for spreading consistency).
Makes enough frosting for 12 cupcakes.

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


Musical chairs was a favorite game. It was fast-paced. It left us breathless.
Time and time again we dashed to claim a chair whenever the music
abruptly cut off and one more chair was taken away.

There was a guessing game we liked. Students took turns seated in a chair
near the teacher’s desk. The one who was “it” wore a blindfold tied loosely
over the eyes so they couldn’t see.

One at a time, summoned by the teacher, the other students stole up from
behind. The intent was to tap the blindfolded person on the shoulder before
they heard us coming or felt the tap.
If the student who was “it” heard footsteps and called out, the person
advancing had to stop as caught. The blindfolded student then tried to
guess that person’s identity. This brought hilarity to the room as so often
the guesses turned out to be wrong.

I liked “Steal the Eraser" best of all. Again, as in the other game, a
designated student sat blindfolded in a chair at the front of the room.

The teacher put a blackboard eraser under the chair. Then she nodded
silently to one of the rest of us, who remained seated at our desks. The
object was to quietly advance and "steal" the eraser without being
detected.

The student in the chair shouted "Thief!" at any sound. Ears were sharp
and all senses were on high alert. Sometimes the eraser was whisked away
sneakily. The blindfold was removed. The “it” person was supposed to
guess which desk concealed the “stolen” eraser.

We relished this game for its subterfuge and clever and almost always
humorous surmises about the whereabouts of the eraser.

These were simple games played with enthusiasm. We were doing
something playful with classmates we saw and worked with day in and day
out.

On this one day we were in perfect harmony. We were all friends even if
perhaps not all valentines to each other, as avowed by signatures sealed
with a kiss.

                               ____________

Author’s note: Love expands and contracts, inhales and exhales, is life
itself. Love warms. Love gives light. Love keeps hopes bright.

May Valentine’s Day and every day be made special with expressions of
love.
Spring arrives, born in the ripple of running water




The first sign of spring was the gain in light after the darkness of the New
Year.

The extra light was clearly noticed by February, at least in the evenings.
(Mornings were still dark.)

As the season advanced – past the January thaw and the warming days of
short February – the snow began to melt.

There were setbacks and hard freezes. But often, before the calendar
turned to March, the thawing days had set in. The sun was higher in the
sky.

The mercury in the outdoor thermometer continued to climb. The drip-drip
of water off the roof was a sound I loved.

The sun in small bites ate away the snow in our yard. Blades of grass along
the sidewalk were the first bit of green to emerge from under the seasonal
white cover.

I waited and waited for the snow on the sidewalk to melt so that I could
walk dry-shod (in limited places at first, but with increasing range) the
length of the sidewalk. It felt so good to be outside without overshoes.

Those heavy ugly things! When I could go out, even within a minimal area
without boots, I felt spectacularly reborn. My feet felt so light. Wearing
“inside shoes” outside again was like having ankle chains removed.

Spring didn’t have a subtle beginning in our parts. March was gray. Wind
blew through the trees. It banged door screens.
I recall a certain March morning. It was dark with wind and clouds. I
commented on this as I got ready for school.

“March is windy,” mom agreed. She said it as if she were letting me in on a
secret. From that time on I viewed March as within its rights to be windy. I
accepted the windiness without ever much liking it.

Many times we were literally blown to school. Other times the wind was in
our faces. It was in our ears. Cheeks were buffeted and pink.

Running down our hill, we pumped legs hard as we raced each other to the
corner. We ran fast with arms outstretched. It was like we were flying.
March made you feel like you had wings.

We walked to school more slowly, as we had time, through the gentler days
that followed. April showers gave opportunities to splash through puddles.
We arrived damp and mud-splashed. It was satisfying to have water to play
in again.

Puffs of warm air advanced the season. We jumped rope on the concrete at
school and brought hula hoops from home to use at recess.

In the afternoon after school I wanted to be outside. I leapt like a lamb at
play. I did cartwheels on the springy new grass. I was wound up with the
energy of the longer days.

On Easter vacation, as spring break was known then, we were outside a lot.
We played with friends and did as much as we could in the fresh air. My
brother and I did a lot of walking.

A favorite spot on our walks was the railroad station, or depot as we called
it. The railroad depot was downtown. We warmed up in the big, often empty
waiting room. (Weather tended to be cool at that time of the year). I made
use of the ladies restroom. Altogether, it was a very convenient stop.

We had a special buddy there. He was a ticket clerk. I believe his name was
Dale. He joked with us. We always felt happy when we stopped in to see
him.

The river wasn’t far from us. Ice on the river was out. The river was open
and ran high with seasonal runoff. It ran behind scattered houses and
flowed under a bridge that we hiked to. We followed the river as far as we
could.
I wondered about the places the river would pass in its headlong rush. We
breathed in the fresh river smell and the smell of damp ground as we
tramped the river banks.

Canadian geese, migrating north to nest and raise their young, filled the air
with their honking. All the sound of the wild was in their call. It could make
your senses tingle.

From inside, if I heard their noise as they came past, I hurried to stand at
the open door. It was like watching a passage as old as time to see the
geese in their numbers fly by.

During Easter break we spent happy hours rolling downhill. We could do
this if it were a late Easter, meaning the middle part of April or later. Then
the snow would be gone and the ground somewhat warm.

I recall rolling over and over down the small bumps of the long hill in our
backyard. I looked up when on my back in the midst of one of these rolls
and was full of pleasure.

The clouds overhead were mounds of whipped cream. Blown across the
blue sky, they capped the joy that rolling down the hill was for me.

For several years a red-wing blackbird returned to our property each
spring. We figured it was the same bird, although we couldn’t be sure.

The red-wing spent a lot of time in our yard, a tract of land above our
slough. Ringed with cattails, the slough attracted mallards that came every
year and much birdlife.

The slough rang with the calls of red-wing blackbirds. The bird that singled
out our yard every spring seemed to prefer our company to its own kind.

Perhaps it was a free spirit who liked the space offered on top where our
house and spacious grounds stretched out. It also was a chance, we
theorized, to be at some distance removed from its vociferous relatives.

Spring was happiness. It beckoned beyond the structure of classroom or
schoolwork or chores. It held the pulse of life within its raw, rippling
vitality. I was as one with the youthful, eager season.

                                  __________
What goes up might come down – hard




                                Swinging


I watched with impatience as my brother set up the tire swing. He knotted
one end of the rope around a sturdy limb of our backyard elm. He tied the
rope’s other end in the same careful knots around the tire. He called me
over.

“Want to give it a try?" The question’s casual tone was misleading only if
you didn’t know my brother. He knew me, as well. He knew I was bursting
at the seams waiting to test the swing.

I slid into the tire eagerly. You sat within a tire swing as best you could.
Your legs dangled out and your arms gripped the rubber walls in a safety
hold.

I wiggled a bit to find a better fit. I held on tight. I waited for my brother’s
strong push to send me skyward. I loved the high reach his arm power was
sure to give. After the long winter it was good to be outside and active with
pastimes like this. I looked ahead to the fun of this new swing.

"Push hard!" I begged. And then I was rising above his head. I laughed as I
became airborne. Each forceful boost took me higher until I felt I could lift a
hand and brush aside the clouds. The wind blew my hair into a halo around
my head. It was such joy to swing.

All came to an end with the snap of shredding rope. The rope wasn’t new.
The weight of the swinging tire was too much for it. A weak point from
some former use revealed itself. The rope gave way. The tire plummeted.

The suddenness, and the speed of the drop, blurred my senses. I came
down hard, still within the tire. I fell backward as I hit the ground.

Motionless on my back I was calm in a wondering sort of way. I was a quiet
center in a strangely silent scene.
"I'm dead," I noted. “This is how it feels.” I gazed upward into blue sky.
Clouds pushed along unimpeded. I was peaceful. I felt as free as those
clouds, as if released from some unnamed responsibility.

My eyes refocused to observe my brother's worried face over me. “Are you
okay?" he asked.

I got carefully to my feet. “I guess so. For a moment I thought I was dead."

"So did I" he said. "So did I."

                                  ____________


Author’s note: Nothing says spring more to a child pent up from too much
winter than fresh air and a swing that takes you to the sky.

When I read this, all the life in me bursting at the seams is apparent. I like
this story for that.

This story also reminds me of how many things we get ourselves into when
we’re young. Somehow, out of it all, we manage to survive and even
thrive.
After April showers come May baskets




                         May Day Moments

I simply can’t let first of May mornings go by without celebrating the old
custom of May baskets.

I send e-cards now. They alight on cyberspace front porches. They’re read
with the click of the mouse. It’s more practical if less romantic than flowers
on doorsteps as in the past. But it’s the same thought, the same idea.

“Here is love, here is friendship,” the e-card signifies. “Guess who’s
thinking of you!”

The neighborly tradition of May baskets delights me. As practiced as
youngsters, the trick was to ring the doorbell or knock on the door and
disappear.

You were successful if your little offering presented no clue as to means of
delivery. With childish glee, half the enjoyment was trying to avoid
discovery.

Those weren’t fancy times. We were resourceful rather than rich. What we
gathered up as flowers – even dandelions if that’s all the season gave us –
represented connection, despite the element of run and hide

The May basket mirrored the vitality of earth bursting forth in blossom and
fragrance. We were a literal extension of this basketful of blooms. We were
part of nature’s outpouring of life and beauty and desire.

When my kids were small I helped them make May baskets. We delivered
them to their little friends.

I don’t remember what the baskets contained. We probably put in candy
and party fillers such as can be found at the store. I do remember the
bustle, stir and anticipation as we filled the baskets or construction paper
cones.

We’ve lost touch with families we knew when our children were small. We
moved away and lives move on. I still remember the children, however.
Their names are as clear as the sweet faces I pictured each May 1st as we
went forth with May baskets to set upon their doors.

Distributing May baskets on our block was easy. Friends also lived in other
parts of town. We drove to complete the deliveries.

Shepherd the kids to the car, place the baskets on the car floor (and hope
they didn’t tip and spill), settle the kids into booster seats. And then we
were off. With maybe – maybe – car windows rolled down if the day was
nice.

I had the kids make May baskets because I wanted to give them what had
been my own experience. I wanted our children to know the innocence of
old-time neighborly gifting. When you can’t give much materially, you give
from your heart. It’s still the best kind of gift.

An elderly couple lived down our road when I was small. I’ve always liked
“old people,” as we called them then.

My own sets of grandparents lived far away. These neighbors, in a way,
were their substitutes. They gave a security to our world by modeling the
self-sufficiency that can be enjoyed into the later years.

They were kind and they were interested in us children the few times we
actually met. The woman was quite homebound. Her days were mostly
spent inside. I do remember she loved flowers.

A May basket for these senior neighbors was (I know now) just as much
fun for them as it was for me. A springtime knock at the door told them
they were treasured as being of the neighborhood and important to it.

Looking back, I understand this couple as I couldn’t have at the time.
Alone, though probably not essentially lonely, they’re more real to me now
than when their lights could be seen from our place at night, telling us they
were up and about and safe and snug.

For the children of those times, a May Day knock on your own door was
stupendously exciting. You peered out. You strained to see who you might
see. Sometimes you caught a glimpse of the basket bearer. You laughed
with satisfaction at finding them out.

One May Day, a small May basket appeared on our doorstep. Inside was a
schoolchild’s handwritten note. The note was for mom.
One chilly day, in the winter just past, this young neighbor knocked at the
door. We were getting ready for school. The girl, who was in my grade,
asked if she could come in and warm up.

The girl lived well past us and was generally driven to school. Somehow,
today, she was on her own. She’d started off without mittens or lost them
on the way.

Mom, an excellent knitter, went off to find mittens. There was always an
extra pair of new mittens around. She was back in a minute. She handed
them to the girl. “Keep these as yours,” she said.

Getting warm from stepping inside, and with mittens to wear, the girl
waited to walk with me the rest of the way to school.

Mom’s kind gesture wasn’t forgotten. It was returned through this May
basket left for her to find. Inside the basket was the folded note. It
contained the girl’s thank-you.

The real gift in this expression of May Day was my schoolmate’s
generosity. She didn’t take kindness for granted. She remembered it and
named it as such.

Her thank-you was like a bouquet of flowers blooming at our door.

                               ___________
Far from home, a vacationing family gathers contentment from a well-tended
campfire




     Campers

They sat around the blazing fire
High on the mountainside,
And watched, bewitched,
As the wood crackled and hissed
And the orange flames danced to the sky.


They listened to the whippoorwill,
And from down in the valley
Where lakes like blue diamonds
Lay amid a carpet of firs
They heard the meadowlark cry.


The sun sank behind a snowy peak
And bathed the world in its dying light,
While a sliver of moon,
Now taking her cue,
Began scaling the velvet-blue sky.


Though darkness reigned and the time
  ticked on,
The campers sat around the glowing coals,
And remained alert as if to protect
A tired world as it soundlessly slept.
_____________
 Campers
___________

Author’s note: This was inspired by a stop in the Ouachita Mountains of
Arkansas. I was fourteen. My family stopped here the first night of an
extended camping trip through the Southwest.

We were tired as dusk fell that July evening. We weren’t seasoned to the
road. We were happy to find this place on high ground overlooking deep
valleys.

After a late supper we sat peaceably around the campfire. Perhaps our
ring of fire was seen from far below. It would have appeared as a small
light, a distant glow.

For us, the flames leaped high. We were the watchmen for all who took
their rest.
A young girl growing up along the river is formed by long hours of play,
friendships and words of wisdom from her grandpa




                                River Girl

                                 ~ a story ~

With coffee pot in hand, my neighbor Sue motions toward the two cups set
out on the table. “Let’s go to the deck,” she suggests. “It’s such a nice
day.”

The sun has swung to that side of the house. It’ll be pleasant to sit outside.
We can have our coffee and enjoy the day as well.

I glance over the deck rail as we pass through the sliding door. Our lawn
joins theirs. The yards run together unfenced. From this height our lawn
looks good. It’s hard to believe it’s new sod.

Sue and I have kids in elementary school. The children walk to the bus stop
together. At the end of the school day they get off the bus in one big group.
They carry home backpacks that will be checked for classroom work and
permission slips.

It’s a nice bunch of kids. It’s a nice neighborhood. We’re new on the block,
and we know how lucky we are. My kids have been at home here since day
one.

They don’t remember much of other places we’ve lived. They’re too young.
Moving is what happens with a career that transfers you around. But we
intend to be here for awhile. It’s time to let the kids grow up in a
neighborhood they can long call home.

Sue has lived in this subdivision long enough to see it fill up. She got her
youngest off to kindergarten and then learned she was pregnant again.
She’s on maternity leave with their new son, Parker.

He’s napping at the moment. With the new school year starting – and she
and I home through the day – the two of us are getting to know each other.
She pours coffee. She steps inside, bringing back the baby monitor and a
plate of cookies. The coffee is good. This is nice, I think. Deck and sun and
coffee. Drinking coffee with a neighbor who’s going to be my friend.

“I like heights,” I say irrelevantly. I shift in the chair to look around. “I like
to look down,” I add with a smile.

Sue sees more than the smile. “You’re thinking about something,” she
guesses correctly.

“Yes. Yes, I am,” I answer. “Being on your deck makes me remember why I
like being above things.”

“Why?” Sue asks. She has a listener’s skill. She pays attention. She asks
questions. She catches nuances. She has a good heart. This time my smile
is all for her.

“I grew up on a hill. My view was always down.” I raise my hands as if to
apologize. “A pretty dumb reason but there it is.” I feel a need to explain.
“Hills and woods and water. That’s me. You see, I’m a river girl.”

The expression seems strange, even to me. As I consider it, however, I
recognize its truth.

“River Girl,” Sue repeats. “I like that. It has the sound of a story to it.”
There’s interest in her voice.

“Tell me more,” she urges with a glance at the monitor. The baby is asleep.
The afternoon is ours.

I sip the coffee. Yesterday suddenly doesn’t seem very long ago. It’s right
here as I reflect back . . .

If I were a boy I was to be Jerome. This fifth son would have a "J" start to
his name in the pattern set by John and followed in turn by Joe, Jeff and
Jim.

And should it be a girl this time? Well, here arose a difference of opinions.
Mom favored Mary Antoinette. The middle name was for my dad’s mother,
whom mom dearly loved.

Dad, on the other hand, wanted another J. When dad started something, he
liked to stay the course.

I was a girl. And I became Janette. The name was a compromise. Dad got
his J. Mom’s contribution was the ending "ette" from grandma’s name.
Juh-nett. With emphasis on the second syllable. Mostly I’m called Jan. Or
Jannie – but only by my brothers who have that right by longest
association.

I was supposed to be a February baby. But (in a first exercise of the
independent streak I’ve been both commended on and taken to task for)
I delayed my debut till March.

Winter-born with spring blowing at the edges and the sounds of river ice
cracking, I came formed of equal mixtures of storm and repose.

The attending nurse marveled at my mop of black hair. She found a red
ribbon to put in the dark curls before she placed me in mom’s arms.

They blanketed me well for the drive home from the hospital. March is still
cool in this northern state. The wind is raw off the river and still-frozen
lakes.

Home was a big white house on a hill. The hill was above the river that was
to shape my life.

I took our country setting for granted, as youngsters do wherever they
grow up. The river flowing past – with its bordering fields and woods – was
the background to all our living.

I came to know that rivers course through you for a lifetime. Your heart
forever holds the rhythm of moving water. Somehow this changes you. It
makes you, perhaps, a little different from those who don’t carry the river in
their veins.

I got a fast introduction to the commotion and energy that older brothers
can produce. Life was clearly going to be exciting.

At first I was a novelty to them, a tiny princess surrounded by her court of
jesters. They entertained with funny faces and silly noises. I liked this. They
were an amusing lot, I could see.

As my newness wore off, the older boys dismissed me as an outgrown
experience. They returned to former pursuits.

Jim, three years my senior, was more willing to stick around. Happily and
long he was faithful steward and friend. We grew up as close friends and
fellow collaborators.

Daily I changed. My hair lightened. Eyes turned blue. I lost baby fat. I was in
a hurry to catch up with my brothers. I wanted to attach myself to their
rough and tumble existence.

In this family of boys, my softer side was evident. I smiled a lot. I said thank
you. I liked wiping dishes and other kitchen tasks given to make me feel
helpful. I swept the floor with my miniature broom. I lavished care on my
doll Virginia, named for my vivacious city aunt.

Calling myself Mrs. Apple Blossom, and with Virginia in tow, I “dropped in”
on mom to “visit” on mornings she washed clothes. I chattered brightly,
anticipating her admiring comments about my darling baby.

It was the day of the automatic washer and dryer. But out in the country, it
was a Norge wringer washer that mom relied on to do the family wash.
Using a wringer washer required staying close by through the laundering
process.

Clothes washing was sudsy, wet, physical work that could take much of the
day. Mom washed once a week. She turned that day over to this one task. I
liked to watch mom’s laundry operations. It struck me as an adult version
of playing in water.

The wash was always big. Contributions were many: dad’s work clothes,
the boys’ play wear (sure to need pre-soaking), mom’s housedresses and
my own small shirts and overalls. In addition, with each new baby there
were cloth diapers to soak and launder separately.

Mom made the rounds of the rooms early on wash day. She collected the
clothing to be laundered and sorted it into piles on the floor.

I liked to jump over those piles, set around so invitingly for me. They
circled the wash tub like haystacks. They were soft to land on if you fell. On
this one day of the week the kitchen became my playground.

Lights and delicates were washed first. Dark items and sturdier fabrics
were the last loads of the day. After each wash cycle, the garments were
lifted piece by piece and guided by hand through the wringer.

There was a knob to adjust the tension on the rollers. This allowed a bulky
garment to pass along as easily as the merest dishtowel. The metal rollers
compressed the items as they slid through. This removed the soapy water
from the clothing before the individual pieces dropped into the rinse tub.

Blueing was added to the rinse water to brighten the clothing. The rinse tub
became a vat of the most marvelous hue.
After the rinse, each piece went through the wringer again. This time the
wringer, which could swivel, was positioned above the clothes basket on
the floor. The wicker basket was wide and deep. It grew heavy with the
weight of the wet clothing.

Mom hung the wash out to dry. The clothesline was in the west yard off the
kitchen. It was fun to help mom hang up clothes. I handed her the wooden
clothespins as she deftly strung the items in rows that flapped in the
breeze.

Bed sheets billowed out as they dried. They were like sails full of wind. We
kids ran through and under them with the simple delight of the very young.

The wash was hung upstairs in the winter when it was too cold for the
clothes to go outside. Clothesline ran the length of the playroom. Here
mom hung the boys’ long johns, towels, diapers and other items from the
wash.

It took strong arms, sturdy legs and a good back to keep a household in
clean clothing. Mom had all of these. She was a cheerful and indefatigable
worker.

I was happy to be with her as she washed clothes or, on another day,
ironed. She stood at the ironing board almost as long as she did at the
washing machine, it seemed to me.

I liked the crisp look of the ironed clothing. I liked watching her put dad’s
pressed shirts, all smooth and fresh and ready to wear, back on the
hangers.

Mom sometimes fixed hot cocoa for me after the boys went to school. She
put a marshmallow in the cup to float on top. The marshmallow slowly
melted into the cocoa’s warmth, making it taste so good.

She cut toast into strips that I dunked one by one into the cocoa. It was a
feast – buttery toast and frothy chocolate. Finishing with a sigh of
satisfaction I was ready to start my day.

Mom had the radio on as she worked around the house. I liked to dance to
the music. Once I lost my balance as I twirled. I fell backward into a bucket
of water that had been set aside to mop the floor. Not hurt but certainly
soaked, I was a sight.

My ego was bruised. The expected applause – from what I imagined would
be a perfect pirouette – became instead mom’s quick hug and her
sympathetic laughter.
My favorite game was hide and seek with Jim. I don’t remember being the
seeker. Maybe it was because I insisted on doing the hiding. Even then I
had a good sense of Jim’s willingness to follow along.

Jim was okay if I did more than my share of establishing the rules. He had
the ultimate power. He could quit whenever he chose.

My favorite hiding place was my parent’s bedroom closet. I crouched
behind Mom’s house dresses. They made a great curtain. With saintly
patience Jim pretended to be unaware of this habitual hideaway.

He climbed the front steps. He called my name as he canvassed the
upstairs bedrooms. He came down the back stairs into the kitchen.

The search continued into the living room. Jim began to grumble aloud as
to my whereabouts. This was my cue to come out. Unable to suppress my
giggles, I burst upon him. I was gleeful at my ability to hide so well.

One day I decided to switch tactics. Tiptoeing upstairs, I crept down the
back way. I hid in a kitchen corner behind the table and chairs. Jim passed
through but didn’t see me.

Airing his intention to finish the game, he called for me. When the expected
eruption from the bedroom didn’t happen, he grew curious. He went
straight for the closet. Empty.

I rushed from the kitchen. “Didn’t I hide well?” I beamed, enfolding him in
sisterly affection.

A less felicitous occasion was when I hid in my baby sister’s crib. Julie was
born when I was almost three. I kept forgetting she needed time to catch up
to me. I always figured she was ready for whatever I was up to. This
included hide and seek. I figured she’d accommodate me.

I pulled myself into the crib. I curled in a ball at the bottom end of the
mattress. Having occupied this bed not so very long ago, it must have felt a
familiar and comfortable place to be.

There was one small hitch. Julie was in the crib first, and fast asleep. When
she awoke, crying, it was made clear to me that the crib – with or without
Julie in it – was off limits to future hide and seeks.

Gradually I was turned more into my brothers’ care. Partly this was
because the family was growing. Julie was followed by Jerry (short for
Jerome, the name put on hold when I came along).
Seventh and last-born, Jerry had the knack of making us laugh. He was
naturally funny. Being amusing worked in his favor, we pointed out. He got
away with things the rest of us better not try.

Sue nods. “It’s my younger sister who has that easy manner,” she
comments. “I’m the older sister. Early on I got tagged as the responsible
one. There’s just the two of us – four years apart. Not like you. Your family
sounds so – so full. Did you need anyone else? Or were you enough for
each other?”

She asks a good question. I pause to look at the picture we made. Like
everyone, we found companionship within our ranks. We also had a need
to look for company outside ourselves. The difference is that we needed
less of everything because we had so much.

“When you live by a river, and you’re a big family too, you have just about
everything you need – or want,” I answer. “And our little community
seemed to supply everything else.”

As small a collection of humanity as we were, we were a world complete in
ourselves. We knew everyone. We knew families back two and three
generations. We knew the milkman and mailman by name. We knew the
names of the dogs at the different houses.

It was country custom to wave to passing cars or farm trucks. Mostly you
knew the drivers. You knew their faces if not the names. They were farm
neighbors or the delivery guy on his route. It was a friendly existence with
a safety that comes from being part of the fabric of something solid and
enduring.

We were a dozen houses around an old flour mill. We were a true mix. We
were young families, old married couples, a widow and a bachelor or two.

The mill, built on rapids of the Poplar River, was weathered to rustic
distinction. A profitable enterprise in its time, the mill now stood empty
below our house.

There were ways to get inside the building and people did. Dad decreed
the mill off limits to us, and mostly we complied. We were proud of the mill.
It gave us identity. We were connected to its history and pretty setting.

The wooden boards of the mill’s first floor rested above the river. Windows
at this level brought in the changing patterns of light from off the water.

The hot dusty upper floors contained bat and mouse droppings. Mill
machinery remained in various stages of disrepair. Even in its abandoned
state the mill evoked the strength of its purpose as a producer of flour. It
was visual poetry as it stood like a dream above the quiet of the river.

The mill and its property were popular with Sunday picnickers. Local folks
and vacationers at nearby lake cabins fished along the river here.

The bridge was lined with fishermen on summer evenings. It didn’t seem to
matter if they had fish in their buckets. They enjoyed the river and the long
twilight, along with the chance to feel a tug or two on their lines.

As I grew I was moved upstairs to my own room. The room faced the
highway. I’ve always enjoyed the come and go of traffic, the busyness of
traveled routes. My penchant for the open road may have started here.

The room was full of light. Up high, I could see far off. The west window
was toward mill and river. Windows were open all summer long. The sound
of the dam came in through the screens on this side of the house.

Late at night, after the house was quiet, I got out of bed to kneel at my
window. I could stay quiet, looking out, for a long time. I never tired of the
moonlit scenes.

The night breathed in and out the peace of the river. The drone of the water
tumbling over the dam soothed me as I dropped off to sleep. Its muffled
roar was the background to each new day’s awakening.

The other window had a view of Lake Leanne. The lake had an outlet that
we called the channel. I could see the channel from my room. The channel
was a short, shallow stretch. It was deep enough for boats to pass from the
lake into the river.

Trees overhung the channel and shaded it in the summer. In July the
channel bloomed with white and yellow water lilies.

Loons nested on Lake Leanne. Their cry cut the country stillness. We
listened with expectancy for their haunting call. Loons preferred solitude.
They were rarely glimpsed except if you were on the lake. Then you might
see them with their young. They dived when a boat came too close.

In the summer Dad went fishing nearly every day. He anchored his boat on
the river bank above the dam.

He sometimes fished the river early in the morning before he went into
town to work. He fished Lake Leanne in the evenings when he could fish
more leisurely. One or more of the boys went with him after supper. They
rowed and were company for him.
The fishing party’s return through the dusk was hailed with the summer-
long question: “What did you catch?” In answer, that night’s stringer of
fish was brought forward for you to see.

Living on a hill as we did, with roads on two sides, we thought ourselves
separate from the world. We considered ourselves occupants of an island
dominion. We were rulers of a green and invincible kingdom.

Our home was originally the mill owner’s residence. It had a beauty of
line we recognized even as youngsters. It was built above the main road
seen from my bedroom window.

The house had porches on three sides, bay windows in the living room
(which brought in the morning sun) and a captain’s walk on the roof. A
concrete sidewalk and flight of stairs led down to the road from the main
entrance.

A general store that dated from the milling era was still in business across
the road from us. The store was built with living quarters in the back. Mom
was born in that annex. The store was her first home. Her parents owned
this country store for many years.

When mom was little, her family moved across the road into our house.
They bought the house from the mill owner. He was my mom’s uncle. He
sold the house to them when he retired. He went to live in California. This
was back when the mill still operated.

We were proud of mom’s ties to the house, store and mill. Through her, our
own ties to this community were made stronger. This connection went
beyond present-day experiences. It took in the interesting past.

The store, when we were growing up, was a place to buy the bread, milk,
breakfast cereal, soup or hamburger needed before the next shopping trip
to town.

It was in its final years. Grocery stores were drawing off country trade.
They offered trading stamps, coupons and competitive pricing. And rural
customers were looking for more than what was available here.

We might be dispatched at any time to buy something at the store. (We
were up and down those front steps all day long.) As we gave over the
money in our care, and waited at the cash register for the sale to be rung
up, we were sure to take a peek into the candy case.
The glass case held a variety of candy, from red and black licorice, tootsie
rolls and wax bottles (which we didn’t waste time on) to an assortment of
candy bars that spoke to us of an outside world.

We gazed with a kind of hope upon the candy. But with a mom who
supplied us with all kinds of homemade cookies – and freshly baked pie
every Saturday night – our acquaintance with candy bars was negligible.

In our minds, anyway, candy bars were for teenagers. Or for delivery route
guys who came in to buy soda pop or something out of the ice cream case.

We never tired of assessing the candy bars, however. Which bar really was
the best: Three Musketeers . . . or Snickers . . . or Mars Bars . . . or Nut
Goodies . . . or Baby Ruths . . . or salted nut rolls . . . or Almond Joys . . . or
Charleston Chews?

There were candy sticks that looked like cigarettes. But mom and dad,
although allowing guests to smoke in our home, had a different policy for
us. Cigarettes, even in candy form, weren’t for us to consider.

The store owners occasionally gave us candy as treats when we came in to
buy. They were friends as well as neighbors. They understood our
fascination with the candy case.

Their children were our ages. They were summertime pals and sleepover
buddies. With their inside track on the candy case, they occasionally
shared candy they bought with their allowances.

As the candy was divided between us, or we were treated to a chocolate
bar of our own, we held the sweet conviction that life was good.

For a brief time our neighbors ran a lunch counter at the store. They
installed equipment and booths. You could put in your order and have your
hamburger or banana split right there.

This was exciting. The prosaic country store, with its old wood flooring and
high ceilings, was made new. A lunchroom made it something right out of
“the city” as far as we were concerned. We judged it thoroughly modern.
Being its customers, we reckoned, made us sophisticated as well.

After carefully selecting a booth we slid down the vinyl seats. We faced
each other across the table just as in “real restaurants” – not that we were
familiar with very many.

It was unbelievably exciting. Our orders were taken, prepared and brought
to us by someone we knew! There’s nothing better than being on a first-
name basis with the one who makes your malts and serves you, we agreed.

The malts clogged our straws and gave us reason to dawdle. We lounged
in our seats in teenage poses seen on TV. This was a foretaste, we assured
ourselves, of the unimagined glory that awaits you at thirteen.

While our house faced the store, the house itself backed up to a wooded
hill. A path went up the hill and through the woods. Mom took this path
often as a girl in our home. The path went down the hill to the house of her
best friend, the miller’s daughter.

Now the best friend’s widowed mother lived there alone. Now it was I who
used the path to visit my elderly friend.

Louise’s glad welcome compensated for the perennial gloom of the rooms
that received me. Built in trees at the bottom of our mutual hill, her house
didn’t get the sun we did.

I loved to visit Louise. I was curious, though, that she who loved flowers
(geraniums and petunias in the windowsills) and everything green and
living could be content in a place that struck me as cold with lack of light. I
was always relieved, and felt guilty at that relief, to be out in the sun again.

Sue notices that I’ve moved my chair to take advantage of the sun. “I see
you still love the sun,” she teases. We laugh at my emphatic yes.

We’re quiet a moment. “Go on with your story,” she says. “I can tell it’s
inside you, wanting to be told.”

I was five when we moved to town, that year Jerome was born. Dad was
tired of winter driving. Tired of snowy roads, wind-blown drifts and
darkness. Tired of the cold, to which his southern roots never adjusted.

We moved to town to make it easier for dad. But we kept our country
property. We made it our summer home. We loved it all the more. Our time
with it was so short.

In town we looked forward to May. School was out by Memorial Day. We
moved back to the country as soon as school was over.

We called our summer place Out Home. It was the home where we lived
outside. Lilacs were in bloom when we arrived. Spirea bushes would soon
be decked in white. We ran, hopped and skipped. It was good to be back.
We checked out all our favorite places, unvisited since fall.
The country is where we did our richest living. This was where life – fresh
air, freedom and long hours of light and activity – seemed most real.

Summers (with their respite from structure and study) were precious
beyond belief. Each day opened to new adventures.

Always ready to meet the new day I sometimes took toast (spread
generously with homemade jam) to eat on the east steps in the sun. I’ve
always been attuned to sun. It’s like a blessing to me.

The sun lay warm on the concrete where I sat. Squinting into the light I
might see robins hopping across the dewy lawn. Then there were the
mourning doves. "Morning doves" in my mind, for their early appearance.
Summers were a string of golden days over which no clouds could cast a
shadow.

Not even a change in weather upset us unduly. Downpours sent us
scurrying from outdoor play. But this just created a different diversion. In
the shelter of the porch we arranged ourselves (with jokes to practice and
stories to tell) to wait out the rain.

Storms came and could be powerful. Something within us responded to the
violence and force of a storm. Storms were excitement. They could also be
dangerous. Sometimes there were small intakes of breath – fear swallowed
on my part – as trees thrashed and bent under the lash of wind.

Older brothers (giving a sense of security to any situation) were
appreciated for their propinquity as lightning flashed and thunder rolled.

Gathered on the porch, we were spectators to nature’s show. It was the
suspense of a circus and the pageantry of a parade rolled into one.

We might be the ones to whom someone cried, “Step right up! Greatest
entertainment around!” It was like being handed free tickets. And it was all
for us.

Thunderstorms sometimes punctuated the middle of the night. Then I
sought Jim in his room across from mine. I looked for comfort from his
logic. “The storm won’t last.” “It’s just noise.” “It’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“It’ll be over soon.”

I could lead in devising new games. But it was my brother’s practicality that
counted at times like this. His calmness allayed my fears. Steeled with his
bravery I returned to bed to wait out the last of the storm.
The children in our small community were a close group. We were often
together. We were outdoors-oriented. We were seldom inside. Older kids
typically stayed apart from the younger set. But almost everything was
done as some kind of group.

There were times when we weren’t in a mood to agree on what to do. The
boys sometimes wanted to be on their own. It was the same with the girls.

“Girls to the girls, boys to the boys” we sometimes chanted as we removed
ourselves from their company with a flourish.

We swam almost every afternoon. Noon lunches were given a couple hours
to digest before we got into the water. The “swimming hole” was the Poplar
River. We swam above the dam.

Mom came along each afternoon to keep an eye on us. She grew up
swimming in this river. She was an excellent swimmer.

We walked barefoot down the road to the river. We became accustomed to
the hot asphalt surface. Our summer-hardened soles could take almost
anything.

The city aunts were appalled that we ran about so casually, barefoot and
without thought of appearance or “taste.” We laughed in joy to be so free.

We were expected to “behave ourselves” in the water and we did. The older
kids jumped or dived off the bridge. The younger ones stayed close to
shore. All were happy in their own element.

There were no swimming lessons. Like tadpoles we just swam. Some came
to swimming quickly, instinctively. Others watched and gained confidence
in the shallows till mastery came.

The shore had a sandy bottom and gentle slope. It was quite safe to swim
here unless you ventured too far into the current.

From the start we respected the current. We adapted to its pull. We grew to
be strong swimmers. The current made the river special. It spoiled us for
other swimming.

Lakes or outdoor pools seemed too tame after swimming in river current.
Not only that but outdoor pools – we wrinkled our noses at the associated
smell – were chlorinated.

The better swimmers were able to swim upriver some distance. The goal
was to float back with the current. The younger ones watched with interest.
They bided their time (it never was long) until they could swim upriver too.

In the middle of the bridge, iron crossbars descended from the bridge deck
to connect with underwater beams. The older kids were allowed to swim –
together for safety – from shore to the crossbars.

Allowing for the current, we aimed ourselves towards the crossbars. As we
approached, we grabbed on where the bars broke from the water. With
fingers tight around the metal, we pulled ourselves up out of the river.

Toes searched for the submerged support beams. These underwater bars
gave a foothold. They allowed us to stand upright. We felt quite at home at
the middle despite the current and our proximity to the edge of the dam.

The boys dived between the crossbars and the submerged beams, coming
up on the other side with water streaming down their faces. Mostly we
stood against the crossbars and visited and “rested up” for the swim back.

We were as happy as otters there in the shade in the middle of the river.
The middle was our special place. Cars, trucks and farm equipment
rumbled on the bridge deck overhead.

Shore appeared distant. We were on our own, triumphant in our
accomplishment of swimming halfway across the river.

We shared the middle with barn swallows that nested under the bridge.
Darting and diving and generally exhibiting displeasure with us, these
bridge dwellers epitomized the natural world that was our world too.

Ultimately, we were allowed to swim from the crossbars to the opposite
shore. A warm current ran through the river on that other side.

We were told the warm current came from Lake Leanne, whose outlet was
above this point.

The Poplar stayed fairly cool, even in late summer with long hot days to
heat it up. Swimming through the warm current, therefore, was a strange
sensation. It was like swimming in Florida (which none of us had been to).

When we finally emerged from the river – some blue with cold but unwilling
to come out before the others – we wrapped ourselves in towels and
headed home over the hot pavement. .

We had a drying-off ritual after every swim. This was in accordance with
the house rule, “wet feet outside.” We spread the towels on our front steps.
We sat there until we weren’t so wet throughout.
The landing – the midway break in the downward flight of steps – could
accommodate three or more of us across. As we sat in a damp, shivering
row, our bony ankles were lined up side by side on the next lower step.

Made cool by the river, we shivered in the brilliant sunshine. The concrete,
like the asphalt we’d just crossed on foot, contained the heat of the
afternoon sun. Its warmth transferred to us making us feel restful and even
drowsy.

Water from our dripping swimsuits seeped down the steps. A widening
pool of moisture was created as individual rivulets joined up. Anyone
seated beneath the topmost group risked being in the pathway of the
downward-seeking stream of water.

Toweling ourselves off, we went inside to make Kool-aid. We brought the
pitcher of drink and a platter of cookies out to the picnic table.

We often had homemade cookies but loved it when there was a store-
bought variety. Wafer cookies that came in vanilla, strawberry and
chocolate flavors were a favorite from the store.

Cookies and Kool-Aid disappeared. Swimming makes you hungry. We
sometimes needed more.

There’s always peanut butter sandwiches, we were told. Indeed, nothing
tasted so good with a tall glass of milk. After all, it was still a long while till
supper.

“I was a lifeguard at the city pool,” Sue says. “At a certain age that was the
place to be. It was a gathering place. Just like your river. We went there to
hang out, and then it became our first job.”

Refilling cups, she continues her train of thought. “When you talk about the
river, talk about your summers, I get a feeling you didn’t need somewhere
to hang out. Instead you hung together. Doing whatever directed you at the
moment. And time was to use. Things for you seemed to flow from an idea
that there was all the time in the world to do what you wanted.”

“A good way to put it,” I answer. “To us, time did seem abundant. From
early to dark we were on the go. But maybe an awareness of time was
behind what we did, after all. We had a limited number of weeks to play
with a certain reckless abandon. We had to take advantage of it. And this is
what made summer so special.”

Army was one of the summer games we loved to play. We had all the time
in the world to win ourselves a victory. The older kids, by right of
chronological authority, appointed themselves five-star generals. They
were dauntless commanders leading ragged but unflinchingly faithful
troops on forays through enemy territory.

We concocted military stratagems with all the enthusiasm of Pentagon
brass. We reconnoitered with soldierly skill. We darted guerrilla-style from
tree to tree. We slithered through grass (and poison ivy, more than once).

We crept up on brush-pile forts which fell under our brilliant assault.
Finding cover behind a shield of lilacs or storming hills to surprise an
opposing camp, we ever obeyed the orders of our daring officers.

From bases concealed from the hostile village – whichever house was
closest to our play – we dispatched fearless scouts to ferret out enemy
locations.

We laughed danger in the face. Nothing could check our devastating
sweep. Except, perhaps, the pit in the stomach reminding us even foot
soldiers have to eat.

We liked kickball even more. Some days we practically lived on the playing
field. The field was on our land. It was adjacent to the horseshoe pit where
the guys played horseshoes until called for Sunday dinner.

Kickball was played by baseball rules. The pitcher rolled the ball (a
medium-soft plastic ball) to the kicker at home plate. The kicker (we all
played barefoot) aimed and sent the ball sailing.

Younger players were assigned to the outfield. A ball directed there gave
the kicker the greatest chance to round the bases to score.

We had a range of aptitude and attitude. Speed. (One neighbor was a
champion base stealer.) Power. Comic relief.

We weren’t without our disagreements or demonstrations of temper,
bragging, silliness or calls of bad sportsmanship. But all in all, we learned
valuable lessons about getting along. Moreover, kickball brought everyone
in. Win or lose, we all took part.

We resumed kickball after supper whenever we had enough available
players. Towards dusk parents were at times drawn to the playing field. Our
cheers and hollers carried far, probably reminding them it was getting late.

Once at the sidelines, they fell into neighborly chat. This allowed the game
to go on until darkness put a final stop to the fun.
Each summer we planned a series of picnic outings. We had a variety of
favorite destinations. We packed lunches and snapped brisk farewells to
younger siblings. Clueless as to the actual hour, we always managed to
return before mothers started to worry.

Occasionally we rowed upriver. We anchored along the river bank past the
first big bend. The boat rocked gently on the current as we ate our
sandwiches on the water.

Later we might wade in the shallows. There were usually schools of
minnows to chase. Or we might be lucky and find frogs.

We loved frogs. We loved to catch and hold them. We stroked their throats
to make them “talk.” Frogs were an integral part of summer. They were
green and clean, and of water and land.

Both river banks were in pasture. Cow paths led to the river on either side.
Leaving the anchored boat, we went off to explore these thistle-lined lanes.

We made sure, beforehand, to know where the cows were. As docile as
they seemed to be, we didn’t want to run into them. We scared ourselves
silly thinking about being chased by a bull.

The pastures were a maze of willows and wild crabapple trees, thickets and
hollows. All ours, for the trespassing! We thought it unfair that cows had
exclusive rights to all this. Did they know their great fortune, we wondered.
Did they revel in the scenery as we did? Did they appreciate it as we could?

A herd of Guernseys grazed the left bank. Guernseys are pretty cows.
They’re curious and gentle. They’re fawn-colored with a soft brown gaze.
We were told they don’t produce as much milk as Holsteins, the familiar
black and white cows of the countryside. Guernseys are much nicer, we
thought.

Guernseys are graceful cows, as well. Graceful isn’t a word we used to
describe Holsteins. We agreed, if we had to be cows, we’d be Guernseys.

At least once a summer we hiked around Lake Leanne. The lake had few
houses around it. The shoreline was mostly in a natural state. Hikes around
the lake meant trampling through bramble and bush.

We figured it a miracle if we avoided the ubiquitous poison ivy. Mosquito
hordes were sure to attack. Briar scratches were too common to count.

Thorns ripped clothing and drew blood. Branches slapped spidery
cobwebs into hair and mouth. Burrs clung to socks. Nettles stung. We
wouldn’t have missed our lakeshore hikes for anything.

Our lunch stop – a sun-dappled glade on the far shore – was worth every
inconvenience. Faces flushed from the hard march, we threw ourselves
down on the gentle incline. Birch trunks were white pillars cool to the
touch. Above us, in trees that filtered noontime rays, squirrels chased and
chattered.

We hunted for the natural springs which fed the lake. We believed there
were deer on this remote hillside. Matted-down grass – where deer lay to
rest – was cited as proof of their presence.

Once we spotted raccoon tracks. We pictured raccoons, masked rascals
and curiously endearing, clamming in the moonlight in the lake shallows.

“You had fun,” Sue sums up. “You were in touch with life and you knew it,
even then. Cows. Minnows. Frogs. Raccoons. They were there and so were
you. You accepted each one’s place. City life was a little different. I didn’t
see a cow until a school field trip. We visited a farm. I didn’t drink milk for a
long time after that.”

We laugh. She adds, “You talk as if summers were always exciting. Did you
ever run out of things to do?”

There were cool spells every summer. June could be rainy, and sometimes
August. During a rainy period we got busy with indoor activities. This was
about the only inside time of any duration that we had. We didn’t have TV
during the summer. Instead, we worked puzzles, drew and played cards like
Crazy 8, Old Maid or Rummy.

Sometimes we colored or painted. A couple of us salvaged one long rainy
day by making pincushions. We completed the project, thanks to mom’s
patience as she helped us along. Most of our crafts were less complicated.
Basic supplies were paper, scissors, glue and plastic tape.

The boys put together model airplanes or read their outdoor life magazines.
Less often, a group of us pushed chairs together in the living room.
A blanket thrown over the chair tops made an instant house or tent or
teepee.

The older boys, when they were outside, spent hours in the woods. They
practiced moving stealthily through the trees. They sought to duplicate the
native people’s oneness with the earth. When rain kept us in, and play
formed around the makeshift shelter in the living room, the game that
sometimes got started was “Indians.”
But it wasn’t the same, played inside. Teepee set up, the guys went off “to
hunt.” Left to tend imaginary campfires inside the huddle of chairs, the
ones left behind grew exasperated at the prolonged absence of the
“hunters.”

After awhile we felt the fierce joy of walking away from a job that had
become untenable.

The Majestic wood-burning range warmed the kitchen on chilly days. The
old cook stove was kept when the kitchen was remodeled. Visitors
commented on the stove. It had a vintage look. It was mom’s pride. We kids
loved it because it made the room cozy.

The crackle of fire – and the sizzle of sparks when the iron plate was lifted
to add kindling wood – magnetized us to the kitchen. Pots of soup or navy
beans simmered on the range with their homey aromas of onion, garlic and
herbs.

The stove was a roaring cavern, hot and wonderful. Comfort emanated
from it. Next to it, the hinged lid of the wood box was a warm spot to perch
when a fire was lit. Ever minding the cold, I claimed this spot like a
fireplace feline.

The stove had a small drop-down door in front. Sometimes we moved
chairs to this spot. Through the open stove door we toasted bread on long
roasting forks, or turned marshmallows golden brown as we held the
prongs over glowing embers.

The upstairs playroom was a refuge on rainy days. We girls made a beeline
for the dress-up box. It had everything we needed to become Women of
Style.

The clothing box held discards from the big city aunts. The aunts were
almost “other beings.” Their apparel was fashionable, or once had been.
As we tried on brocaded finery and felt the caress of silk, we came to our
first understandings that we were the country kin.

The more ordinary pieces were mom’s pass-alongs: wool skirts, cotton
blouses, hand-knit sweaters. Putting on adult clothing made us feel grown.

Adorned in jewelry, we pondered evening dresses in taffeta and chiffon. We
draped stoles and shawls over haughty shoulders.

Dressed to the hilt, we hitched our skirts high and made our way
downstairs to model our selections. For those in high heels (sizes too big),
this meant a wobbly and careful descent down the back steps.
We could generally find mom in the kitchen. Looking up from the cinnamon
rolls she was making, or the apples she was peeling, or the dishes she was
washing, or the socks she was mending, she made all the right sounds as
she reviewed us.

Satisfied at our stunning entrance, we hurried upstairs to change. Maybe
the dress you wanted in the first place would now be yours!

As sad as we were to see the month of June end (“A third of vacation
already over!”), I always greeted July as my favorite month. For starters,
the Fourth of July was summer’s biggest event. In a season where every
day was a holiday, this day stood out above the rest.

Fireworks went off every July 4 at the river. We came down in family
groups towards nightfall. We were in awe of the men in charge. They
worked coolly and methodically to give us a show that thrilled.

Murmurs, shouts and handclaps accompanied each new launching. The
sky was illuminated with color. Necks ached from looking up.

Sparklers were a favorite part of this night of all nights. We loved the
sparklers almost more than the fireworks. They were our own performance.
Holding aloft the glowing sticks, we capered and cavorted till we spun
ourselves silly.

With a sparkler in hand you were instantly someone new. You might be a
majorette twirling her baton, leading the band. Or a torchbearer,
ceremoniously guiding the royal procession through streets thick with
onlookers.

The sparkler was a magician’s wand. It was a pen to write your name on the
black slate of night. With it you were anything and everybody you wanted
to be.

After the entertainment at the river, we went to one of the homes for
refreshments. Watermelon was always served.

The best thing about watermelon, as far as we kids were concerned, was
the seeds. Watermelon seeds made good artillery. We shot them out of our
mouths. We shot them at each other like cannon balls from a cannon.

Outside in the dark we could get by with this. “Table manners” didn’t apply.
Accuracy of aim was the important thing. You didn’t want seeds to hit an
adult.

If your shot went wrong, you could be pretty sure the game was over. When
an adult got hit, however lightly, it tended to bring things to a close.

They sat up. They looked around. Next they’d say, “Oh, look at the time.
Getting late. Better get going.” And they’d start to round up their kids. They
had to look hard. We all were swallowed into the surrounding darkness.

This initial stir was the signal for dispersal. Families began to round
themselves up. Farewells exchanged, we took off for home and tomorrow’s
workaday world.

Parker sleeps on. Sue goes to check on him. I stand up to stretch. I walk
over to the deck rail. A cat stalks across the yard. Whose kitty? I wonder.

“I have a tired boy,” she says, returning. “He’s still asleep. He’s making up
for yesterday. We went shopping and his nap got short.”

“Aw, he’s just giving you the afternoon off,” I say. “A kid with a heart.”

“We’re ladies of leisure,” Sue agrees. “Won’t be long before the kids are
home. Do go on.”

My grandparents from the South spent part of each summer with us.
Grandma – who was the “ette” in my name – was a great help to mom. The
two worked well together.

Grandma, born in Italy, mentored mom in the ways of Italian cooking. She
was a companion for the forenoon and afternoon “coffee breaks” that were
integral to their day.

The ritual of coffee and conversation was their twice-daily “social.” It
relaxed them. Taking time for coffee gave appreciated diversion from the
fulltime job of managing an active household.

Grandma also helped with the little ones, no small task in a household of
regularly appearing new siblings.

Grandpa Nick found things to do around the house and yard. Stonemason
and contractor by trade, grandpa spent one summer building us an outdoor
fireplace.

We frequently ate around the new fireplace. That was the summer dad and
grandpa built the picnic table. They built it out of old lumber from one of
the original porches that had been torn down.

The picnic table was the center of many memorable family meals. It was
permanently set in front of the fireplace where all could gather around.
A tablecloth covered the green-painted table when we ate outside.
The embroidered cotton cover disappeared beneath the numerous dishes
brought out from the kitchen.

We ate picnic style in keeping with the outdoor setting. We enjoyed
summer favorites like potato salad and Van Camp’s beans. We roasted hot
dogs and never tired of them. For fancier times mom barbecued meaty pork
or beef ribs on the grill.

We made s’mores at the fireplace as an after-supper treat. S’mores are
squares of chocolate and toasted marshmallows layered between graham
crackers. They’re gooey and messy, perfect for outdoor eating.

Grandpa loved to fish. One of the boys generally went along to row. Rarely
did they return without a decent catch. I now understand how important it
was for grandpa to fish.

Fishing relaxed him. It let him put food on the table. It made him productive
and useful. It was his way of saying thanks for his annual stay.

It was good we liked fish because we ate lots of it. Grandma knew how to
fry it just right. Mom learned from her. The fish came hot, crisp and golden
from the electric skillet.

The heaping platter, placed in the middle for all to help themselves, had a
short stay on the table. A hungry family can finish a full platter of fish very
quickly.

Grandpa Nick was handsome. His dark hair had traces of gray. This added
to his distinction. His eyes glinted with mischief. They burned with joy.
Grandpa had zest for life. It spilled from him. He could light up a room. He
had that intangible spark called presence and a glow that radiated outward.

His magnificently carved cane, supporting his bad knee – the knee injured
in the war – thumped energetically. The admiration we felt for him! The
awe! He was quite unlike other grandfathers (including our maternal
grandfather, the longtime storekeeper).

Grandpa’s finest hour was Sunday morning. He was dressed and ready for
church long before anyone else. The sound of his cane marked his
progress from room to room. It was as if he was having a before-church
stroll as he waited for the rest of us.

From the pocket of his dress suit he pulled out his gold watch. The watch
was attached to a gold chain. It all looked so elegant. Grandpa looked both
dignified and proud. He looked like someone important. He had the look of
someone who knows he’s up to the occasion and doing it justice.

Grandpa outshone us every Sunday. I think he relished the attention he
received. Approving glances told him he was still cutting a proper figure.
This weekly ritual of presenting himself well for church, family and the
world was – I see it now – essential to his sense of well-being.

For grandpa, there was something special about a Sunday morning. His
attitude reached us all. He gave a lesson about Sundays that has stayed
with us. Without a word he spoke volumes about his standards and about
his faith.

He was a born storyteller. I heard his stories around the table (although the
boys heard even more of them, as they rowed for him or cleaned “the
catch” on newspapers spread on the work table in the garage).

Replete with wine and good food, and with family gathered around, he’d
get “that look” in his eye. It was a look that said, “I have a story to tell.”

The table remained uncleared, or was cleared haphazardly. We were rapt
listeners. We gave ourselves fully to his story. Grandpa knew many Italian
parables and fables, the folk stories of his Italian childhood.

St. Peter as gatekeeper of the pearly gates appeared in many of the stories.
“Grandpa talked about St. Peter so familiarly I thought he must have
known St. Peter back in Italy.”

I laugh as I say this. “I can remember trying to sort it all out. Was St. Peter a
neighbor, I wondered as a little girl, that grandpa knew him so well?”

Sue leans forward. “I see where your talent comes from.”

“Talent?” The word throws me off track.

“Yes. Talent,” she says. “Don’t you see I’m sitting here as engrossed in
your story as you were in your grandpa’s? You have his gift of telling a
story.”

Her words settle on me like a touch. “Maybe the art of telling a story is a
gift that develops with life. Or maybe” – I add, as the thought occurs – “it
develops from having a good listener. You surely are.”

“Tell me more about your grandpa.” She smiles in acknowledgment of the
compliment. “His life sounds so full.”
Grandpa didn’t just tell stories of the Old Country. His stories also dealt
with events in his life. Things happened to Grandpa. There were near-
fatalities in the mines as an immigrant coal miner. He had close calls as a
soldier in the war. There were jokes he told on himself as he reminisced
about learning American ways.

It was life on a scale that no longer existed. We lived in a more secure
world. Within our safer boundaries, would we attain the scope of
experience which grandpa could claim? I pondered this, even as a child.

Now like a strong oak Grandpa’s vitality was as great as ever. It was
tempered by a mellowness that comes to some as we grow older. He had
great appreciation for being alive. It was in everything he did.

When he wasn’t in the boat fishing, or doing the odd job around the house,
he was content to sit with his pipe or perhaps a favorite cigar and “just
enjoy.”

He favored the east porch with its view of Lake Leanne. The aroma of pipe
or cigar smoke was a symbol of these times of introspection and
relaxation.

After supper he and grandma sat sit side by side on the porch. It seemed to
me they sat there for hours. Racing in and out past them, I thought how
lucky I was to be young and energetic. I rather pitied this state to which my
grandparents had come.

To sit, I would think in a flash of pity. Oblivious to my judgments – or
perhaps surmising them and wisely keeping their counsel – they remained
in a world inhabited by their own thoughts.

Their companionable silence, with a few remarks or nods of the head
slipped in, was testimony to their love and long shared life. They were as
one in their marital accord.

"How beautiful it is. How peaceful." Grandpa had a habit of reflecting aloud.
A plump moon admired herself in the mirror of the lake.

One evening, as I brushed by as I hurried in or out the door, grandpa in his
chair turned to me. "Just enjoy, Janetta. Just enjoy! Never become so busy
you cannot enjoy the little things of life. For the little things will give you
much pleasure."

Grandpa’s wildly wonderful, crazy, capricious, satisfying, fulfilling life was
in the end summed up this simply. “Just enjoy,” he repeated, as much to
himself as to me.
To enjoy life is the highest form of living. It didn’t take book learning to
teach Grandpa this. This was wisdom from the heart. This came from an
attitude that drew on the gifts of laughter, humor and appreciation.

It was wisdom born of an adventurous response to a world that can so
cleverly and meanly cheat you and trip you up.

What Grandpa was saying is that enjoyment forms you. How you let it do
so is up to you. But to enjoy is the first step. It travels within you, wherever
you go.

Grandpa, as he handed me his precious self-learned observation on life,
was seeing beyond me. He was seeing past the Janette of that summer of
lengthening limbs and coltish energy.

Perhaps he recognized in me, his river-shaped granddaughter, the capacity
to live largely. Or perhaps he discerned my pity for old age and chose, with
these few words, to reveal life’s rewards to me.

Little did grandpa realize how his advice would stick. It brought me firmly
into his world. He died not long after that.

Grandpa’s philosophy has become mine. It advocates a state of heart worth
cultivating and caring for. Its quality is summarized by those summers
along the river spent in endless sunshine and children’s play.

“Just enjoy,” grandpa said. And I do. The ways are as many as there are
minutes in the day. Live in the present. Go to a ball game. See the beauty in
the commonplace. Throw a party. Bake a cake. Take a vacation. See a
friend.

The list goes on. Trace a bird's flight above the trees. Look for the rainbow
after the rain. Bask (more carefully now, and with sunscreen) in the sun.
Savor the Crayola colors of sunset. Appreciate the good in others.

“Grandpa could see beauty in the simplest things.” I want Sue to see my
grandpa as I knew him.” He saw beauty in things we can take for granted.
Like a good meal or a beautiful day. Something good like today, right now.
Like what we’re sharing.”

I pause, struck by what I’ve said. “Something good . . . like what we’re
sharing.” The words, spontaneously spoken, came from the truth of this
afternoon spent on the deck.

I laugh as I do when something’s not exactly funny – but strikes me as true.
Truth sets you free. Truth like this makes me laugh. It’s a happy laugh.
“Thanks, Sue. Thanks for this chance to get to know each other better.”

The children are coming in untidy formation up the street. The boys are
ahead. Heads together, they’re no doubt deep into after-school plans.

My daughter has found a best friend from among the neighborhood girls.
The two are in the rear as they often are. They’re in no hurry. They’re
discussing their day. I smile at the homeward procession.

Sue and I straighten up. We glance at our watches. It’s an automatic
gesture, as the kids appear around this corner at the same time every day.
We switch to active-mother mode. We stand up. The visit is over.

“This has been nice, Sue. Really nice.”

She stacks the cups. I pick up the cookie plate. We go in. The baby monitor
sputters. Parker is awake from his nap.

I point to the screen door. “I’ll go out this way. Thanks for everything. I’ll
talk to you soon.” I retrace my steps to take the deck steps down.

My kids have spotted me. They come hurrying. My daughter has caught up
to her brother. They cut across Sue’s lawn.

I give them a wave. It says, “Hello, glad to see you, how was your day?”

They’re at the bottom of the steps. Their faces turn upward. This isn’t
where they expect to find their mom when they come from school.

My heart leaps as it always does at having them home again. The river was
a first love, I think. As such, it was preparation for all the love that was to
follow.

I put a hand on each of their shoulders. I decide love is a current much like
that which moves the river. It’s such a power. It carries us all the way – if
we let it.

And now this current of love carries the three of us home.
                               ___________


Author’s note: Everyone has a story inside them. What’s yours?
Many call Fall with its brilliance of turning leaves and crisp short days the best
season of all




Fall was, more than anything, the swing of the calendar back to school
after the long summer vacation.

It took hardly ten minutes to walk to our elementary school. We probably
accomplished it in less time than that when we were late out the door.

We started off on a gravel road which came down the hill past our mailbox.
We walked on the road (there was no sidewalk) or on the dusty shoulder
where tall grasses grew. At the bottom the road joined a paved street.

We stayed on this street to the next corner. We passed under wild sumac
bushes that grew on our neighbor’s hillside. Sumac was crimson and very
eye-catching at this time of year.

At no great distance, on the other side of the street, was the river. Migrating
waterfowl rode its quiet waters and filled the air with sound. We had
glimpses of the river – sparkling on its way behind houses with backyards
sloping down to it – as we trudged along.

A neighborhood food mart stood opposite our “crossing corner.” From
where we waited for the crossing guard, we looked across the street to the
warm invitation of the store with its treats.

The store owner and his family (with a grandma who lived with them) were
very kind and gracious. We loved to stop in for the friendly smiles and
greetings as much as for any purchases we might be in there to make.

In inclement weather, huddling under the big sheltering tree at the crossing
corner, we thought longingly of the heat and comfort the little store could
offer.
Going to school was delicately timed. We never had a minute to spare. We
got out of the house on the run many mornings. Eat our cereal, comb hair,
tie shoes, button our coats and away we flew.

Sometimes we did reach the corner with time to play. On nice days we
played games around a good-sized boulder that rested below the big tree.
We played “King of the Mountain.” We jumped on and off the rock or were
pushed off by those elbowing their way on.

The rock at the corner probably went unnoticed by adults. But it was our
own little playground, even before we got to school.

We were happy every morning to see the school patrol. Safety rules
dictated their presence at corners where kids crossed to school.

They were older students. They were sixth-grade boys and girls. A team of
two, they walked importantly. They carried flagpoles over their shoulders.
They positioned themselves on either side of the street. Simultaneously
they lowered their red flags to let us cross.

The positioned flags stopped traffic (such as it was, which wasn’t much in
those days). Motorists came to a stop and the street opened for us. I
imagined this was how Moses in the desert felt as he passed over the
parted Red Sea in safety.

Our school was on the hill west of this intersection. Concrete steps went
from sidewalk to the front entrance. This door was for teachers and
visitors. Students came in through the side door. This door was for recess
too, and at dismissal at the end of the day.

We never took the front steps to arrive at school. We took a shortcut. We
climbed a steep slope at the east edge of the playground. This shoulder of
land dropped abruptly to the sidewalk. In the afternoon, we came down off
the brow of this hill at full speed. But in the morning we clambered up.

The feet of countless grade-schoolers before us had worn a track down the
grassless side. This was our very own trail. It was used only by the
eastside walkers. The ascent brought us to playground level close to the
swings. Kids were already swinging as they waited for the sound of the
school bell.

Coming home from school in the afternoon was generally more leisurely.
We were generally in no hurry to get home. We could walk and talk and
look at bugs and other interesting things.
As the kids dropped off to their respective homes we turned our full
attention to nature. In those days we weren’t encumbered by backpacks.
We swung along easily. We stopped to look at anything that looked
interesting.

If we looked straight down at our feet we might see woolly bears crawling
along. These caterpillars, banded black and brown, were familiar and
somewhat frequent sightings on the ground.

Woolly bears were always worth a look. We stooped low. We picked them
up. We observed how they curled in tight balls in the palms of our hands.
We wondered if the variations in their stripes could really predict the
winter, as we heard they could.

It was a lark to scuffle through mounds of leaves along the way. I can
imagine the state of our socks as they went to the wash. The dry leaf litter,
and the dust and street debris deposited by the wind, had to be ingrained
upon them.

We never gave thought to the work we piled up for our mom as we
gamboled and kicked through fall’s fallen treasures,

Our yard was overrun by boxelder bugs. They favored the old cottonwood
that grew out back. Boxelder bugs were black and red. They were rather
pretty. They rested in numbers on the west screen door in the late
afternoon. The warmth of the Fall sun must have felt good to them.

Ladybugs found their way inside as doors opened and closed. They
collected in the glass shade of the dining room light. Many were consumed
by the heat of the incandescent bulbs.

We dealt with these seasonal infestations by putting up with them. They
were natural occurrences. They were simply signs of the season, as much
to be expected as the turning leaves.

My brother and I were often on our own. When we weren’t raking leaves
after school, or doing some other small chore, we liked to play in the hilly
northwest corner of our property.

Russian Olives, sumac and wild plum trees grew on the slopes. Buckthorn
briars caught hold as we went by, scratching skin and putting holes in
socks . Milkweed plants burst open to expose floss like silky filaments with
attached brown seeds.

A wire fence ran north and south across the hill. It separated our property
from the next. No one seemed to own the other tract of land.
The other side of the fence is always more interesting. We crawled on our
stomachs, under the lowest strand of barbed wire, many times to go
exploring. On that other side lay our exploring grounds.

A pretty glen spread below. A place of peaceful seclusion, it was sheltered
by slopes on three sides. A lone, beautiful tree grew in the middle area.
Wildflowers bloomed in the long grass which was probably some kind of
native grass.

There were exposed banks on the west side, which was our side of the hill.
Swallows flew in and out of these banks. They burrowed in them and
nested. It seemed a wonderful airy freedom to be able to flit in and out of
those sandy cut banks.

We never saw anyone else on that property. We never did find out who it
belonged to. I’d have bought this land if I could. I knew it was inevitable
when the first house went up. Our hilly hangout became a full-blown new
neighborhood with paved street and homes on either side.

Fall was a time to be outside as much as we could. Our preference was for
“the great outdoors,” as we termed it. We put on heavier coats as days
turned frosty. And we continued to go out after school to play.

Finally days became cold and dark, and there settled upon us the
inclination to stay inside.
                             ____________



Authors’ note: In writing “Fall” I enjoyed walking to school all over again.
As I retraced the route in my mind I picked up pleasant, scattered
memories - just as once we collected the bright colored leaves that fell
along our way.
How do we remember what we don’t want to forget?




                    Halloween in Three Parts

                               At the Front Door


Halloween! Costumed figures hurry through dark neighborhoods. Eerie,
shifting shadows, they turn into small recognizable shapes in the porch
light. Jack o’ lanterns, lit from within, grin from the doorstep. The visitors
step around them to reach the doorbell. “Trick or treat,” they shout out.

There’s expectation as each door opens. If you’re a candy collector on this
very last night of October, the best is yet to come. You get to go home and
look inside your bag. You get to choose which candy tastes best.

Did I ever, at six and eight and ten, think that some Halloween I’d be on the
other side of the door? The side of the door that dispenses the treats?

Could I have imagined that far into the future? Giving out treats is a job no
child puts themselves in line for. Adulthood is too distant, at that tender
age, to ever conceive of falling heir to this annual task.

When you’re young, it’s unforeseeable (and, if you think about it,
unforgivable) that the tables will turn on you. Who makes the rules, you ask
with indignation. Who says you have to be the giver of Halloween treats
when your only desire is to stay on the receiving end?

As my kids headed out each Halloween night – from their first times out,
with their dad walking them down the block, and later as they went with
friends through adjacent neighborhoods – I allowed them their belief that it
was they who were having the night’s big adventure.

I didn’t tell them – because they wouldn’t have understood it then – that the
fascination with Halloween has nothing to do with which side of the door
you stand. The door opens on giver and receiver alike. Who’s to know who
enjoys it more. Those outside? Or those within, who share the treats with
those who knock at the door?

The magic of Halloween, for me, never subsides. If you loved Halloween as
a child, being adult (and inside, as the distributor of treats) makes no
difference at all. In your heart, on Halloween, you go backward through the
time machine. Between the ding-dongs of the doorbell, you reflect on what
is was to be out and knocking at yesterday’s door.


                                Anticipation


Deciding on a Halloween outfit was the start of the excitement. “Who am I
going to be?” “What am I going to wear?” were heard around the house.

Mom, who sewed, sometimes designed my Halloween outfits. Once I went
as a pumpkin, dressed in orange from head to toe. Mom made a cap to go
with it. The cap had a green tuft on top to resemble a pumpkin stalk.

I came across this outfit not too long ago. I was somewhat surprised it was
still around. Just a simple orange jumpsuit, but I was five years old again
as I held it up.

What could we’ve been thinking, to dress me as a pumpkin? A pumpkin!
On my small form (a rueful picture emerges) the costume would have lent
more the appearance of a baby carrot.

I remember how proud I was of my mom-made outfit. In fact, I’m sure the
pumpkin suit was my idea.

Innocence is oblivious to certain truths. But it always recognizes
happiness. And I was happy. It was Halloween, and I was a pumpkin from
the pumpkin patch. I probably clapped my hands at the ingenuity of it.

Other Halloweens I masqueraded as a gypsy, Cinderella and Queen of
Hearts – complete with cardboard crown decorated with hearts cut out
from velvet remnants from mom’s box of materials.

We preferred store-bought masks as we got older. We favored skeleton
masks and other fearsome and frightening visages. The dress-up days of
romance and whimsy were past.

Halloween was celebrated in our grade school. We brought our costumes
to school on that day. In the afternoon we put on our costumes to take part
in the traditional classroom visits.

Each grade took turns parading in costume through the other rooms. This
certainly used up some of the Halloween energy that ran through us like a
current.
Always (teachers insisted on it) we gave polite applause to each class as it
looped around the desks and filed out the door. The all-school promenade
gave everyone a chance to see all the costumes. It also let you rate your
own.

There were admiring looks or envious sighs for costumes that stood out as
creative or trendy. We also approved of students with clever disguises.
They made us wonder who they were, and if we might know them on the
playground. The room was abuzz after each visit.

Classroom parties took place the last hour of the day. Fun, easy games
that everyone enjoyed were followed by cupcakes or cookies. Furnished by
the teacher or someone’s mom, they were passed out with our milk.

Eight-ounce cartons of milk were delivered to every classroom. The milk
was set out in the hallway at each door. The teacher appointed weekly
monitors to bring in the milk and pass it around.

This duty conferred the light of fame on those so chosen. Fortunately, the
school year was long enough that eventually every student was assigned
this awesome responsibility.


                           The Thrill of the Night



The real excitement occurred after supper. After all, the mystery of the
night is what makes Halloween special. The veil of secrecy, so crucial to
the whole event, arrived with dusk which coincided with the finishing of
supper.

The four of us – a descending staircase of ages – changed into costumes
after quickly clearing the table. And who’d eaten anyway? All minds were
on trick or treating.

We were reminded to put on jackets. (Late October was always jacket
weather.) Masks were the last to go on. We peered through the slits that
were eye holes. They covered our view a bit, but that caused no concern.

Adjusting the mask to match nose with nose hole was a more important
thing. As anxious as we were to get started, we weren’t about to risk
suffocation by breathing the close, stuffy air trapped inside our masks.

We left the house pumped up for the treats that lay ahead. We walked past
our front window where our own little jack o’lantern glowed on the
windowsill. We were ecstatic. We were outside. We were swallowed within
the cloak of darkness.

Houses were scattered in our part of town. Sometimes it was a distance
between doors. We were practically alone the first couple blocks from
home. For convenience – and to better navigate in the dark – we pushed
masks over our heads until we came to another house.

Some years the moon was quite bright. It guided our way. Other
Halloweens the moon was a weak thing obscured by clouds. We didn’t
look to street lights for illumination. They were few and far between.

We regarded trick or treating comparable to the espionage carried out at
the deepest levels of intrigue. Children of the cold war era, we saw
ourselves as master spies. We crept under cover of night through enemy-
patrolled territory.

We walked on grass whenever we could. It stood to reason that muffled
footsteps were better than pavement for keeping unseen powers from
detecting our presence.

Security was the flashlight thrust into my brother’s jacket pocket. We were
in close formation. My sister and I walked hand in hand.

We all kept track of our youngest brother when he got old enough to join
us. Feisty straight through, he wanted nothing more than to go his own
way. It was a trick, in its own fashion, to hold onto him when he chose to
break loose.

Bright chatter covered spooky sensations. Halloween trees were human.
Wind-tossed branches rattled with a distinctly sinister air. “Over there! A
noise!" we noted with alarm.

My brother fished for the flashlight. He concentrated the beam toward the
area worth investigating.

“A cat," we sighed in relief. Or maybe it was the scurry of leaves, or a
falling twig, or the scraping together of limbs that were the noises that had
quickened our attention. Fears subsiding, we continued on. But not without
glances all around, to confirm that all was really well.

Stealth was forgotten as we neared a house. The first stop was at our
elderly neighbors. They gave out popcorn balls every year.

Popcorn balls and candied apples were homemade treats of that time. But
these popcorn balls were special. They were first into our bags. And they
came right from our street.

From a distance, houses were vaguely reminiscent of pumpkins hollowed
out to hold candlelight. Lighted windows were yellow pools in the
encompassing blackness.

Homes all lit up were a welcome sight. They made the homes warm and
inviting. “Hello! Someone’s here. We have treats for you” the cheerful lit
interiors seemed to say.

Hearts thumping (for suddenly we were shy), we held out our bags as the
door swung open. “Trick or Treat!” we greeted the person summoned by
our knock at the door.

Homeowners often had friendly comments or smiles of shared enjoyment
to go along with the candy they gave out.

Not even masks could mask our delight as gum, miniature candy bars, corn
candy, tootsie rolls, milk duds, Hershey kisses, suckers and candy
pumpkins dropped into our bags in splendid profusion.

Very occasionally there were full-size candy bars. That was like striking
gold.

Treats in our bags, we moved aside for other groups coming to the door.
We were aware of those who used pillow cases instead of smaller bags like
ours. Pillow cases decidedly held more. By contrast, our bags appeared
puny as our two groups milled at the open door.

We mentally calculated the contents of our bags, growing steadily heavier.
We each had favorite candy. There was also candy we didn’t like at all.
When we got home to have a look, we hoped the first pile would outnumber
the other.

We counted our candy the moment we walked in the door. Sometimes we
didn’t even wait to take off costumes, so intent were we on getting to this
important task of inventory.

Some of us emptied our bags on the table. Others of us, on hands and
knees, spread the candy on the living room carpet.

With the candy sorted we convened for the candy exchange. Every year I
tried to unload black licorice or Slo-Pokes, a caramel sucker. Trading was
earnest business. From it we acquired valuable negotiating skills. None of
us wished to get stuck with unwanted candy.
When transactions were over, it was time to indulge. It was worth risking a
tummy ache to be so replete with sugar.

Candy was a rarity in our house. In this respect, Halloween had something
of Christmas in it. Halloween was a bounty of unaccustomed pleasure. We
looked forward to Halloween. We also looked back, with gratitude, on the
night’s generosity. Halloween was the source of sweet satisfaction.

One of us (I’m not saying who) spaced out their candy through the winter.
We didn’t realize it then, but they were already exercising a savorer’s
discipline. Here was someone who took life’s pleasures unhurriedly.

Candy stashed away was like money in the bank. You could withdraw it at
any time. It was there for you.

Months later (with the disdain that comes from long since decimating your
own candy supply), some of us described this rainy-day savings plan as
“hoarding your Halloween candy.”

It was a blow to learn that this shaming tactic didn’t faze the offending
party in the least. This sibling’s ability to stretch out candy was – for the
rest of us – the last and perhaps cruelest “trick” of the trick or treat season.

“Share with us,” we pled, not caring a bit that we reduced ourselves to
beggary.

I think of this now and smile. Memory’s treat outlasted the candy, after all.
                                ____________


Author’s comment: There’s nothing like childhood. Reliving it while
retelling it makes it even better.
Air that nips, goodwill that warms – holiday time is here




                               Christmas


Undeniably, December 25 was circled redder in my mind than any other
date. By six or seven years of age, I was aware that Santa Claus wasn’t
real. I accepted him as a myth. He was a universal figure who added to the
Christmas festivity. Not believed, but beloved, he was essential as the
season’s jolly old St. Nick.

In the weeks before Christmas, conferences were convened behind closed
doors. These consultations were to decide the important matter of what to
buy as gifts. Suggestions discussed, and some ideas agreed upon, we
were all set for Christmas shopping night.

There was, as I remember, one night a week through the year that local
stores stayed open. It might have been Thursdays, or possibly Fridays,
when folks were in town for high school games. It could even have been
Saturday nights, convenient when taking in a movie at the downtown
theater.

I don’t recall if merchants added shopping hours for the holidays, as stores
do now. We seldom, at any time of the year, shopped after supper (and
covered malls didn’t appear until long afterward). Therefore, except for
accompanying mom on occasional grocery trips, we were strangers to
downtown after dark.

Christmas shopping at night, therefore, was a very big deal. We were being
totally out of character. We were out in the blackness and cold. We had
money to spend. We were on the lookout for gifts.

We clutched to ourselves the knowledge that down some other store aisle
– away from where we deliberated over our own selections – others were
also finding wonderful gifts for someone else. We held this in common, the
busyness of crossing items off our buying lists.
Downtown had a beauty at the holidays like no other season. It looked
altogether different. Lights were strung the length of main street. We were
proud of the decorations. They reflected civic prosperity and refinement.
Could the lights of Broadway be better than this? We hardly thought so.

Shop fronts, not to be outdone, were decorated too. Floral shops flamed
with poinsettias. The deep red of poinsettias was the very color of
Christmas. It was as if this end time of the year found the brightest colors
and all things of light to assist our hope and cheer.

Downtown at Christmastime had its own sounds. There was the jingle-
jangle of the bell ringer collecting money for the needy. Christmas music
flowed melodiously from a nearby church tower on the hour.

Snug in heavy coats, and muffled to the ears in scarves that stopped the
wind at our throats, and with coins clutched in mittened hands or loose in
our pockets, we blithely strolled along. We didn’t have far to go. Three or
four blocks comprised the retail district.

Merry groups went by. Sometimes it was young people, whom we admired
for their near-grown independence and boisterous bonhomie (ourselves
not yet having attained such confidence of form).

Sometimes the passersby were farm families, or even people we knew.
It was a pleasant mix of greetings, conversation and store doors opening
and closing. Cars proceeded carefully down the sometimes snowy streets.
Headlights added to the brightness enveloping downtown.

Doorbells chimed as we entered each store. “Another customer, another
customer,” they announced.

Sidewalks were kept shoveled, but new snow tracked into the stores.
Puddles formed where the snow melted, making a wet spot inside the door.
The store’s warmth was blissful. It was invitation to stay awhile. Numb
toes, encased in stockings in overshoes, give thanks for this respite from
the cold.

My brother and I, close-in-age pals, shopped together. We sometimes got
distracted as we lingered over toys or board games. We examined gift sets
out of our price range – which covered practically everything. Stumbling
over shoppers' feet, we eventually made our way to the cash register.

Store clerks, seasoned at summing up customers, had no prospect of
ringing up large sales with us. Nevertheless, they were unfailingly
courteous as we shifted around to locate our money and turn our selection
over to them to complete the transaction.
If they paid attention to the eagerness in our eyes, they’d have realized the
real gift of the season had come into the store with us.

The gift of Christmas is in children’s eyes. It’s in their imaginations as they
partake innocently of the joys of loving and giving – and that other
important aspect – receiving. It takes openness to receive. Children’s
hearts mostly haven’t acquired the ability to put a padlock on, as we can
learn to do so expertly later on.

It sometimes snowed as we shopped. When it fell thickly, it was like white
confetti someone was having the great entertainment of emptying out of a
bag. Its soft sweep – yellow where picked out by streetlight – added a
pretty touch. It was a preview of Christmas in itself.

At other times the errant flakes behaved in a random, carefree manner.
They drifted leisurely. Movement was as much sideways as downward.

We regarded snow with elation. We didn’t register the inconveniences or
sometimes downright hazards. We accepted the frigid cold, when it came,
as part of winter as well. Cold gripped our region sometimes for days on
end and sometimes before Christmas. The coldest weeks of the year were
sure to come, if not already here.

We didn’t worry about cars not starting or car windshields having to be
scraped for ice. We didn’t waste a minute pondering the conditions of the
roads, as adults had to think about, if they happened to be traveling back to
the countryside.

Living in the moment as we did, snow was just one more pleasure of the
here and now. Snow and cold went hand in hand with our Christmas
adventures.

We came home from the holiday shopping to cups of hot chocolate. The
cups, which we held our cool hands around, were foamy with melted
marshmallows.

Added to the cocoa, the marshmallows slowly subsided into the hot drink.
The resulting froth that rimmed the cup was not unlike the swirls of ice on
our window glass.

Secreting our Christmas buys in bureau drawers, we awaited the
opportunity to wrap them.

Gift wrap came in red, green and blue paper. We always had a good supply
on hand. There were a variety of designs. Formal patterns like dignified
plaids seemed suited for grownups. Toy drums or reindeers pulling Santa
in his sleigh were perfect choices for the small ones.

Christmas paper rolls grew skinny as the pile of wrapped presents, taking
up a corner of our parents’ bedroom, grew larger.

Ribbons and bows were saved from year to year. They stayed remarkably
pert and glossy. But then, we treated them like gold – carefully removing
the adornments from the torn wrap on Christmas morning to reuse as
needed through the cycle of birthdays and holidays.

The time to Christmas went slow for us, fast for mom. She relied on us as
the days to the big day grew few. She knew many hands get things done.

Housecleaning and baking got underway. The boys were sent to the attic
for the Christmas boxes. We opened the boxes with the same anticipation
every year. The ornaments never lost their charm. They were dear friends
who’d hang around, in every sense, for awhile.

Ladyfingers were among the holiday cookies we made. They were an Italian
cookie. We called them ladyfingers. They had another “correct” name that
we didn’t use – because we didn’t know it.

Mom twisted the rich dough into various shapes, like S shapes and wreath
and candy cane shapes. They were baked till light brown and barely done.
The good smells from the oven kept us near.

We iced the cookies in a fiesta of colors – rosy pinks, yellows, whites,
greens and blues. Crowded around the kitchen counter, seemingly ten
arms to a person, we garnished the frosted cookies with candied cherries,
coconut or slivered nuts that filled separate cut-glass dessert dishes.

What seemed an acre’s worth of glistening, glaceed cookies cooling on
wax paper was our pride. Their exuberant colors chased back the dim
December light, which pressed against the steamy panes.

This was a season of aromatic baking. Spices generously flavored
molasses cookies and other delicious creations. This was also when my
sister and I made clove apples (or clove oranges). As pomanders, they
were used as closet fresheners (they discouraged moths) and as tree
ornaments.

We sat side by side at the dining room table. Each was given an apple. The
purpose was to punch it through with cloves. The entire apple got studded
with cloves.
A small mound of cloves, the contents of a tin spice box, lay on the oilcloth
between us. It took a quantity of cloves – a dense concentration – to make
a pomander.

I sniffed appreciatively as I pushed the clove spikes in. (They went in easily
once the apple skin was penetrated.) My sister didn’t like the clove aroma
as I did (but I didn’t find that out until years later). We worked alongside
companionably.

Our fingers began to ache from driving in the cloves. When not a speck of
apple showed, we called mom to take a look. She tied red ribbons around
the stems, a Christmasy detail. Our work had a tangible reward. My sister
and I and were contributors to the family’s advance to Christmas day.


                                 **************
                        Crinkly Molasses Cookies

Mix together ¾ c. shortening, ¾ c. brown sugar, 1 egg. Add 2¼ c. flour,
2 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1 tsp. ginger, ½ tsp. cloves, ½ tsp. salt
and ¼ c. molasses.

Refrigerate 1 hour. Form into balls and dip into granulated sugar. Do not
flatten. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Cool on cookie rack.

                                      ****
                         Red Raspberry Cookies

Mix together 1 c. butter, ¼. c. granulated sugar, 2 c. flour, 1 tsp. almond
extract and ½ tsp. salt. Roll into balls and roll in sesame seeds.

Place on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten slightly. Indent center of each
cookie and fill with raspberry preserves. Bake in preheated 400 degree
oven for 12 minutes. Cool. Makes 3 dozen cookies.

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

There was always, before Christmas, the exciting day when the awaited
package from grandma arrived in the mail. The box was wrapped in parcel
paper and tied with plenty of string. We stood around while mom cut the
string with her sewing scissors. The contents literally spilled out as the
paper fell away.

The box was filled with treats from the Italian market where our
grandparents lived. They were the food treasures of the Italian holiday.
Grandma, with her heart wherever family was, wanted to be sure we’d
celebrate like they did. Nobody was to be left out.

There were plump Italian sausages. There were fresh figs. There were
almond nougats and other candies. We passed the sweets around, treating
this as a high point on the way to Christmas.

Sometimes the reward is not in the waiting, but in the immediate response
to a presented opportunity. Our parents wisely understood the significance
of timely indulgence, which certainly applied to grandma’s box of
Christmas goodies.

There was always one night when we piled in the car to look at Christmas
lights. It was dark and the cold was sharp, but we were cozy in the back
seat. Peering out the side windows, we breathed on the glass where it
frosted over.

Outdoor lights were found in every area of town. Almost every block had
houses or yards with beautiful decorations. The lights blinked and
beckoned as if gratified by the attention they were receiving.

We craned to see everything. These were exceedingly satisfying
excursions. We soaked up neighbors’ creativity and lavish use of
electricity. When the tour was done, we knew we were that much closer to
Christmas day.

All through December I sang my favorite Christmas songs. Through
endless choruses I warbled with the jubilation of the very young.

Christmas carols with the infant in the manger, the animals of that holy
night, shepherds and their flocks, the quiet fields, magnificent star and
wise men traveling from afar; and the catchy contemporary songs of the
holiday that played on the radio, were all within my repertoire.

My Christmas enthusiasm threatened to override the teen pop tunes on the
radio when the boys were around.

We began rehearsing for our music concert. We younger kids performed it
on Christmas Eve. We practiced behind closed doors. Doors seldom
closed in our house were quietly shut upon furtive meetings that went on
all through December.

Christmas trees for sale, like piney forests, were set up on empty lots and
at gas stations. Many families put up trees quite early in the season. We
had our own custom. We waited until Christmas Eve to buy our tree.
My brother and I had the task each year of picking out the pine or spruce or
balsam fir that would be our Christmas tree. Waiting so late to get it was a
mixed blessing. On one hand, it made choosing easier. The trees were well
picked over by then.

We learned to not notice a tree whose trunk strayed from straight, or had a
gap in its branches or whose needles drooped with dryness. At home my
brothers learned how to disguise the lean of the tree as they set it up, and
we all were skillful at concealing bare spots with tinsel.

The proprietors of the log cabin-style service station at the edge of town
grew accustomed, over the years, to my brother and me scrunching
through the snowy lot in search of a tree.

I see the two of us in our coats, scarves, stocking caps or ear muffs,
mittens and boots. Our excitement must have been so evident. We were the
finders of the tree!

Official Christmas began in the fading light of the short December day
known as Christmas Eve. It began with two of our favorite traditions,
making crispellis and trimming the tree.

Our favorite Christmas music, playing in the background, set the tone for
the preparations that lay ahead.

The tree was carried into the house with great fanfare. Along with its piney
fragrance the tree brought in winter’s chill air. The tree was allowed to
“rest” for awhile after it came in. This gave its cold branches time to adjust
to the inside warmth.

My brother tested the Christmas lights to see that the bulbs "worked." (He
wound up with electrical skills his Christmas duties no doubt helped
develop.) He clipped the strings of lights to the branches in a pleasing
arrangement of red, blue, green and white.

The rest of us waited helpfully. We could tell him, fast as anything, when
same-colored lights were too close together.

The better ornaments went on after the tree lights. We took time with these.
We wanted each bauble to hang advantageously. After awhile we added
everything else. Branches drooped with candy canes, gilt walnut shells and
holiday artwork brought from school.

One of the brothers showed off his marvelous stretch as the foil star was
added to the very top. We stepped back to admire. The tree was perfect.
But wait! The green needles needed the sparkle of tinsel.
There were two schools of thought about tinsel. The fun for some was
throwing it on in handfuls. The tree dripped in silver using this method.

The other philosophy advocated tinsel restraint. Anyone could see (said
this school of thought)) that draping tinsel judiciously produces a classier
tree.

Meanwhile, there was action in the kitchen. Crispellis were being made.
All participated in this pre-supper ritual. Self-assigned roles became time-
honored positions, like badges of service we polished each year.

There were enough of us that we could work in shifts. We went back and
forth between living room and kitchen as our interest – and the request for
another pair of hands – shifted. Traffic between the two Christmas staging
areas was intense after dusk descended around four p. m.

Crispellis are short lengths of dough that are deep-fried and covered in
powdered sugar. Crispellis were a Christmas tradition from our Italian side.

The smell of heating oil (forever the smell of Christmas to me) permeated
the house. Oil was hot enough when a cube of white bread, dropped into it,
became a crunchy (and I might add, delicious) morsel.

We worked with almost assembly-line precision. Ease the crispellis into the
hot oil. Turn gently, with spaghetti tongs, as they deep-fry. Watch them
brown to perfection as they bob up and down in the oil. Mom or one of the
older boys handled this segment of the crispelli-making.

Remove the crispellis from the kettle. Shake three or four at a time in the
powdered sugar. Remove from the paper bag, becoming white-fingered in
the process. Transfer crispellis to the platter. Find yourself surrounded
with siblings leaning in from all sides to sample the new batch.

Crispellis flew off the plate. We didn’t care that they were blistering hot.
Burned fingers were the price of instant gratification. Our tastings made us
look, just then, a little like Christmas itself. Around our mouths, like snow,
were the telltale traces of white powdered sugar.

Christmas Eve supper was shrimp. This borrowed from the Norwegian side
of the family. Their traditional Christmas Eve meal included both pork and
shrimp. For many years mom did the same. And then one year it was only
shrimp, and that became our tradition.

Mom’s Norwegian grandmother made sure lutefisk was on that long ago
Christmas Eve table. Lutefisk is lye-cured codfish. It’s still served these
days at church suppers at the holidays.
Lutefisk didn’t appeal to us kids. It was one of the customs or predilections
of heritage that didn’t translate over to our generation.

Mom’s family had strawberries at their Christmas Eve meal. It must have
been like resurrecting summer for them, to be able to enjoy strawberries
from their own garden. The strawberries, picked when ripe, were canned in
glass jars. They were put on cellar shelves for winter meals just like this.

Strawberries (from the frozen food section of the store) became our
tradition too. We spooned the thawed strawberries into sauce bowls to go
with crispellis for dessert.

The TV sat in the corner next to the Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve the
amiable TV weatherman showed the radar sweep. He called attention to a
moving blip on the radar screen. He identified the blip as Santa Claus.

Santa, Rudolph and the other reindeer were making good progress from
the North Pole, the weatherman told us. It was nonsense, of course. We
knew it was fabricated. Yet we liked it. It was part of the all-stops-pulled
Christmas enjoyment of those times.

Christmas Eve passed quickly. We performed our music program. Duets
were worked out for familiar carols like "Silent Night" and "Joy to the
World." We used full chorus for other numbers. The intent was to blend our
sounds. But generally each robust voice came through loud and clear.

Flute, accordion, bells, and even a toy xylophone were incorporated into
the song fest. Certainly we raised a joyful noise.

Later there was perhaps a Nativity story to read. We moved the presents to
places under the tree. We spent the evening in its presence. Lit and
tinseled, it drew our eyes again and again.

Bedtime was early. It was probably no earlier than usual, but it felt that way.
We didn’t want to leave the tree, or the surprises it promised.

This was no night to fuss, not with presents to open in the morning. We
brushed our teeth, and with a quick peek outside – might there not be a
Santa Claus after all? – we sprinted to bed. We resisted sleep awhile
longer. We visited in excited murmurs and then dreamt of tomorrow.

Plugging in the tree lights, mom came upstairs in the pre-dawn darkness.
Her “Merry Christmas!” roused us to action. We were anxious to find our
presents. But mom was here to get us up for church.
We dressed and made a quick descent. The living room was unlit except for
the illumination of the gaily garbed tree. It threw soft light into shadowy
corners. We stood enchanted.

In truth, we were a trifle mesmerized, if only for a moment’s hushed awe.
The tree was never more resplendent than on Christmas morning, as we
descended the steps out of a tunnel of sleep into its waiting presence.

Presents spread out beyond the limits of the lowermost branches. We got
down on hands and knees to look for gift tags bearing our names. We each
opened one gift. The rest were for after church.

Christmas morning was quiet. The one knock at the door was expected.
The visitor was my youngest brother’s godmother. She came by each
Christmas with his present. She was an old friend from the country. She
might stay to share a glass of Christmas wine.

The scene switches to Christmas noon. Mom stands vigil at the stove.
She’s in her holiday apron. She holds a ladle in her hand.

The fruitcake is removed from its rum-soaked cheesecloth. It rests like a
jeweled diadem on its serving platter. The relish tray has its usual trio of
carrot sticks and two kinds of olives.

The "company plates” are stacked at the back of the stove for warmth. My
sister and I spread the holiday tablecloth. Extra chairs are brought from
downstairs as needed, and dusted down. We set the table.

The Christmas ham, sputtering in its pan juices, is lifted to the counter.
Dad sharpens his knife to slice while we stand close by. He’s generous
with pieces of ham that he gives to us as “samples.”

Out of the oven come the sweet potatoes. The surface bubbles with its
fancy marshmallow topping. The glass casserole is brought to the table,
where space is made for it next to the dark rolls and green peas.

Mashed potatoes are a fluffy mountain scooped into a serving bowl. When
the gravy is made, it’s time to wash up.

The table doesn't groan with food. It vibrates with happiness. We all vibrate
with happiness. Except – I lean forward to look past the others – the
tinseled tree.

It looks forlorn. I feel sorry for it, just a little. I can see the tree yearns for
dusk, when its lights will be switched on and it will again be in its glory.
In the afternoon we go out with sleds or skates, coming in rosy cheeked.
We’re hungry and ready for the good Christmas leftovers mom will soon
serve.

We continue to play quietly and happily into the evening. Our concentration
is for the gifts, games or new personal belongings. They’ll go to new places
of honor on our shelves or in our drawers that night.

I go and sit on a bottom step in the hallway. I’ve learned this spot from
seeing an older brother do it. It’s restful here.

In front of me is a full-length mirror. (This is the mirror a brother and I later
broke. We were playing an impromptu game of tag. We bumped into the
mirror and knocked it down. Shattered shards went everywhere. It was a
“tag” at the foot of the stairs that we never forgot.)

The mirror reflects the lights from the living room. It’s second-hand magic
in a way. Catching the glow and passing it on, the glass magnifies the
tree’s radiance.

Hugging the day and its joys to me, I feel at peace in my own special place.


                                  ___________

				
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