Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Christmas With Mom

This year, 2013, was the year my family came to my house for Christmas. Everyone else arrived the day before Christmas, but my mother arrived five days before making her visit seven days total. Seven days with me and my mom under one roof is like dog years.

A mother/daughter relationship can be as combustible as a dry Christmas tree with faulty lights. And over the years, we've had our share of blazes.  My mom has that certain way of getting under my skin the way no one else can. Perhaps this is a universal truth among daughters. Maybe one day, I'll have the same unique ability with my own girls.

It starts off well enough. My husband meets her at the Amtrak station.  They pull up in the driveway and the salutations begin.  Yea!  Mom, Grandmaw, hugs and kisses as we carry her luggage in. The jubilee is shortlived and I know what's coming. When she crosses the threshold, she immediately dons her white gloves. She saunters casually from room to room as I hold my breath. She has now become...dun dun duuuuuun...'The Inspector.'

To give you some perspective let's go back...back in time.  Years ago, I had cleaned my house from top to bottom in preparation for her arrival, but it was all in vain. She found it! Way down in the bowels of my refrigerator, in the lower regions of the veggie crisper drawer was a long forgotten carcass. It was nearly fossilized. Honestly, I was as stymied as she was and was certain that Beelzebub himself had planted it there.

She slowly pulled it out and held it by a wing as though it had leprosy. With a fiendish gleam in her eye she exclaimed, "what's this??"  Underneath her feigned horror was secret delight, as though she had discovered the Dead Sea scrolls. There's some deep psychology going on here. My amateur analysis is that since I made the decision to be a full-time homemaker/homeschooler, my mother feels it is an indictment against her parenting. Growing up, I was a latchkey kid as both my parents had full-time jobs. So sometimes it feels like she's looking for a chink in the armor of my motherhood.

In any case, the image of her holding up that carcass still haunts me today and I am determined it shall never be repeated.

So this year, I started cleaning early. I rallied the troops and recruited my kids in the process.  Thank God for garages, because that's where all the excess stuff  went. Decluttering requires lots of decision making, but there was no time for such luxury. She's coming!   "Where does this go?" "The garage." "Where does that go?" "The garage." Eventually, all roads led to the garage which now looks like an overstuffed landfill.

In order to get to the garage, you must go through the laundry room. And since we were too busy cleaning and decluttering to do laundry, it was piled high with all manner of clothes. The pile resembled a skyscraper, and I got a touch of vertigo just looking at it, but not to worry, the entrance to the laundry has a curtain.  This blessed swath of fabric hides a multitude of sins.

But wouldn't you know it, within 24 hours of her arrival, my mother ventured toward the laundry room where the garage door was left ajar. Before I knew it she had gone beyond the veil and into the lion's den!  I almost broke my leg leaping across the room in one fell swoop in an attempt to stop her.

Up until this time, she had been in a state of disbelief, walking from room to room exclaiming how clean everything was. The orderliness she discovered put her in a state of shock. She was dumbfounded. But much to my surprise, she began talking of moving in.  After all, if everything was so organized, clean and spacious, there was room for her. Good grief! In an effort to earn validation for my housekeeping skills, it may have backfired!  We overdid it! Hopefully, she is only kidding and she soon moves on.

I've learned over the years to be thick-skinned in preparing for visits from Mom.  And this time I was fairly ready.  When she called me her two ton daughter, I took it like George Foreman, right to the gut, slammed against the ropes, but eventually I rebounded and got back in the ring.  And when we were on our way to my son's graduation, and she asked me if I was going to wear my hair like that, I simply responded "yes." By golly, I must be growing up.

But isn't this the nature of family. It's like limes dipped in sugar, the bitter with the sweet. And there were many sweet moments.

She and my daughter share a special bond. They are both artsy craftsy. My mother knits perpetually, stopping only for a life threatening emergency.  And just like her grandmaw, my daughter is constantly creating and coming up with some special project, from ceramics to painting toilet paper tubes.

There most common bond is over mixed nuts! To watch those two eat nuts together is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, mom's nuts tend to sprew out the side of her mouth as she talks. She was talking to my son who told her, "Grandma, chew, swallow then talk." Mom thought that was hilarious and wrote it down and referred to the paper throughout the week.

Mom likes all the nuts, while granddaughter forages for the almonds. All the kids get a kick out of grandma and her witty morsels. But my middle daughter is her constant companion and she follows grandma everywhere, laughing and giggling at her antics. Watching them together makes all of mom's snide comments worth it all.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Lady Sings The Holiday Blues
Ghosts of Christmas Past

It's the most wonderful time of the year!  At least that's what the song says.  But the reality is that for many people, it can be the most depressing time of the year.

The holidays, which can seem like a season of 'forced cheer', can serve to highlight what is lacking in our lives. These lacks can trigger memories of the 'good ole' days and make us painfully aware of  how much things have changed. Instead of experiencing Christmas cheer, we find ourselves singing the holiday blues.

Over the years, amidst all the tinsel, lights and Christmas jubilee, I've found myself thinking about the days of yore. If I think long enough,  I hear Streisand's haunting melody, "Memories, like the corners of my mind. Misty water-colored memories, of the way we were."  I remember all my loved ones through  the years that have died, and the wonderful times I spent with them. For me, dwelling too long on Christmas memories of yesteryear can lead to melancholy.

When I was a teenager, my father died suddenly right before Halloween.  Suddenly, and without warning, my life was changed forever.  I was devastated by his sudden loss, and because it was so close to what was supposed to be a joyous time of year, it only served to magnify my pain.

I was the walking dead - in a total stupor. I interacted with others, talked and even laughed. But psychologically, I was in an alternate universe. And in this universe, the world had stopped. My life had been shattered. And to my shock, my schoolmates and friends were going on with their lives. The season of lights was upon us, but I was in a dark, dark place.  Everyone was hustling, bustling and putting up lights - all while songs of cheer were filling the air. But inside, the only music I heard was a death dirge.
Christmas would never be the same. I felt like an orphan, lost and desolate.

That was decades ago, and life has gone on.  But as anyone who has lost a parent in their youth will tell you, the effects can last for a lifetime.

But the gift of resiliency is one of God's greatest gifts. It is the ability to bounce back. Wounded? Yes. Hurting? Yes. Scarred? Yes, but moving on in the arena of life with new people to love and experiences to embrace.  Through the years, I've met and loved so many fascinating and delightful people. When I love, I don't half-step. I love hard!  Many of those I've loved hard are gone now, but the memories, the joys of just being with them, the lessons they taught me, live on today.  I miss them, sometimes terribly.

There was Mother Pearl! She was my husband's grandmother from a town I never heard of called Saint Mary's, Georgia - gateway to Cumberland Island.  Have you ever opened a can of soda, only to have the contents explode all over you? Then you've had a taste of what it was like to be with Mother Pearl. Her effervescence bubbled all over everyone around her. She was eternally  upbeat, clapping her hands together and thanking God for all things.  When she talked, and boy could she ever talk, she would punctuate the end of her sentences with her signature expression, "saaaame thing, saaaaame thing," while meshing her fingers together .
It was a double whammy. We lost her only a few months after we buried her daughter who was my mother-in-law. If Mother Pearl was the queen mother (of England), than my mother-in-law was Queen Elizabeth! Like so many daughter-in-laws, I was intimidated by her. She had a stern way about her, and over the years our relationship mellowed. She was known far and wide for her culinary skills. If you ever wanted a taste of heaven, the secret was in her grits and gravy! Her bread pudding made grown men weep. If there be any kitchens in heaven, she's at the stove whipping up her mouth-watering Southern delights like 'sock it to me' cake, shrimp perlou, and her decadent party pancakes!

I miss my mother-in-law all year.  But the holidays are a poignant reminder that, at least in this life, she will never again be here to dote on my children, showering them with gifts and attention. A huge void was created after she passed. The family dynamics changed.  Before there was no question about our plans for the holidays. We were going to Mom's. It didn't matter that it was my father-in-law's house too. We always called it 'mom's'.

And not just us. That was the case for many of my husband's family.  Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we descended like a flock of vultures...ahem...I mean birds. About 40 of us would make the pilgrimage from the north, south, east and west to get some of 'Dot's' (as they lovingly called her)  cooking and to be under one roof together.  The turkey wasn't the only thing stuffed. That house was stuffed to the brim with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandkids, not to mention our poor stomachs! You could hardly hear yourself talk much less think amid the din of all the laughter and animated conversations. Mom's place was the spot!
At some point, I'd prod everyone one by one to come to the basement so we could sing. Eventually we'd all gather around the piano where my mother-in-law would play and Uncle Roy, self-appointed choir leader, would direct us in Christmas songs as well as a collection of oldy but goody gospel songs.

It seems like ages ago, yet just yesterday. Things are very different now.  With the loss of my mother-in-law, the family throng has been scattered.  She was the sun, and we, like so many planets are somewhat scattered now, rotating in our own individual orbits.  She was the one who galvanized us all.

But such is life, fraught with paradoxes. There is life and there is death. Greetings and partings, a delicate mixture of both joys and sorrows. Robin Roberts (of Good Morning America) recently talked about her battles with cancer. She said if she dwells in the past too much she gets depressed. And if she focuses on the future too much she gets anxious. She went on to say how living in the present helps maintain her sanity.

This is sound advice for the Holidays and every season.  Yes, things are not the same. In this life, change and loss are inevitable.  I can't afford myself the luxury of camping out on 'memory-lane', whether memories of Dad,  Mother Pearl or Mom. If I pitch my tent there for too long, the campground turns to quicksand and I'm swallowed up, singing blues that would put BB King himself to shame.

So to help keep the holiday blues at bay, I resolve to think in such a way that will not jettison me into the abyss.  I know I will have my weak moments, but it's good to have a plan.

Anti-Holiday Blues Plan

I will have a merry Christmas this year! Not just because it's the season of cheer, but because God has been good to me. Though I have experienced loss, His bountiful gifts have far outweighed my losses.

I will cherish the memories of my lost loves ones, but I won't cling to them.  Those memories were gifts from God that were meant for a season.  I will hold them with an open palm instead of a clenched fist.

I will smile, not cry when I reminisce.  Having said that, there is a time for all things. Crying is part of the grieving process. Particularly, fresh grief.  And with old grief, (yes, I still cry about Dad) I won't wallow in endless tears.

I will be thankful for the time I had with them, instead of angry they are gone.  Gratitude lifts. Anger depresses, and is a toxic formula for misery. There are people who live their whole lives, having never  known some of the glorious, colorful characters like the ones I have.

I will not feel sorry for myself that I've lost them.  Many people in the world have lost far more and much more than I.

I will live in the present and relish the moments with  friends and family. I will dive into the pool of the now with gusto. I'm talkin' Olympic style, triple somersault and a twist.  After all, tomorrow isn't promised to them, or me.

Am I alone in my struggle with the holiday blues?  What are some ways you handle memories of Christmases past?  How do you keep your feet out of the den of despair?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Decorating The Foyer For The Holidays On A Budget

I love Christmas and the whole holiday season.  But gussying up the house, decking those halls and all that jazz can be hard on the pocketbook.  And as for me and mine, we live on a b-b-b-budget.  Not one of my favorite words, but it's reality. Being a stay-at-home mom, we primarily live on the blessed one income of my husband.

I'm recovering from a back injury so I'm trying to take it easy and keeping it simple. Although I realize 'simple' is a subjective word. To stretch our dollars, I'm always on the lookout for a good bargain, whether thrift stores, yard sales (some of my best deals for the holidays were bought during the summer! Always thinking ahead.), or consignment shops and  I make no apologies for it.  And as anyone who knows me well will tell you, I have no compunction about grabbing items from the curb if they suit my decorating fancy. On more than one occasion,  I've slammed on those car brakes, done sudden U-turns, and nearly caused an accident, much to the embarrassment of my family just to pick up someone's throw away that I could refurbish or re-purpose.  (Just kidding about the accident part). Stay tuned for more posts about the my second-hand escapades.

Yesterday I decorated the foyer.  I didn't want anything too over the top, just a little festive bling, color and sparkle.

In my foyer there is a shelf  that acts as a place for the family shoes.  This shelf is one of my curbside treasures. It was green and hideous but with a fresh coat of black paint, it has been the perfect storage unit for shoes.  The rest of the year, it also brightens our entry way as I use it to display photos of friends and family.  For this project I cleared the top off and gave it good dusting and cleaning. Here's what it looked like before. Sorry for the blurry image.

To get the ball rolling, I picked up a few items from my local Dollar Store. Can I just say I love the Dollar Store!  You would be surprised at the variety of items they carry. Obviously they're not designer or made of high quality materials, but they serve their purpose.

As I shop, I begin forming a mental image of what kind of arrangement I will come up with.  I may or may not know ahead of time. And depending on what I find, I make creative adjustments along the way. Having a mental image is crucial to my budget. It helps guide my purchases and not overdo it by picking up every cute little thing that strikes my fancy.  Even though it's the Dollar Store, trust me, those dollars can add up quickly! (Just in case I always keep the receipt if I need to return something).

In perusing their selection, I found miniature gift boxes in golds, silvers and reds. With great delight, I scooped up six of them. I imagined stacks of three on both ends acting as the anchor of the arrangement.

Then I found these beautiful little red and silver ornaments.  There were five in a package which I thought was great for only $1.  I put two of those in my cart.

Also I found these large gorgeous red ornaments with gold scroll work which I later also used to hang on the tree.  I'm a sucker for scroll work. Because they were so ornamental, I knew I would only use a couple of them.

Also, they had these beautiful stars in gold, silver and red. I used one gold one to top our tree and the other one in the middle of the 'shelfscape.' And of course, no Christmas decor would be complete without little white lights.  Afterwards, I stopped at Walgreens where I bought a string of 100 lights on sale for just $4.49.

While still at Walgreens, I also found a great deal on sprigs, gold and red. They were 2 for $3.  I used the gold ones to peek out on  the ends of the arrangement. I thought they were a nice detail. (The red sprigs I'll probably use later as part of a tablescape).
Opening all the packages, I felt like a kid in a candy store. I love the creative process. It never, ever gets old. It's so thrilling to take disparate elements and see how it will all come together. I must confess, I'm always a little nervous that my bright ideas won't turn out right. Sometimes the end result doesn't live up to what I imagined, but that's all part of the creative journey.

I started by spreading the lights over the top of the surface to serve as the twinkling backdrop to my little shelfscape. Then I proceeded to arrange the boxes and ornaments in a fashion that was pleasing. I'm no design student, but I've learned some basic principles I try to keep in mind balance, scale, form, etc. I heard somewhere to work in threes.

A little arranging here, a little experimenting there and this is how turned out.

I must say, I am pleased with it.   Particularly because I did the whole thing for about $19.  Our foyer now feels bright and festive.

I hope this inspired you.  I would love to hear your holiday decorating ideas for dressing the foyer, particularly budget-friendly ones.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Lights, Camera, Timber!

How is it that some of the simplest things can turn out to be so complicated??

Is it me, or is there anything more maddening than stringing lights on a Christmas tree?

Today I rallied my spirits, took a deep breath and got out my strings of little white lights.  With Joy to the World serenading me from the kitchen, it started out well enough.

I plugged the lights in the socket to make sure they worked, and began stringing them along the bottom of the tree.

I learned a little bit of technique over the years, but for me, a reformed perfectionist, it is still a scary prospect.  Back in the day I used to just take the string of lights completely around the tree in one big circle from top to bottom.  When I was done, it looked like someone played a drunken game of 'here we go 'round the maypole'  'round my poor tree!

Years later, probably from that marvelous maven, Martha Stewart, I learned the technique of weaving the lights in and out from the trunk of the tree, stringing them along to the end of the branches.

So that was my plan this afternoon.  I started stringing with gusto and I must say, it was looking rather good, not magazine perfect, but to my satisfaction.  

(As an aside, can someone please explain to me how a string of lights that looks long enough to light the Amazon rainforest only covers the bottom rung of my tree?)


After lighting the bottom, I left the thingy (the other end of the light plug) on the branch and went to get more lights. Five minutes later when I returned, there was my tree face down in the carpet!  I manage to stand the tree back up and now my hands are all sticky with sap.  In a panic, I call my son who comes running down along with my two other kids.  We hold up the behemoth of a tree and began maneuvering this way and that way  in an effort to get it to stand on it's own.

My son and daughter climb beneath its sprawling branches.  Of course the water had spilled out in a huge puddle on the floor when it had fallen. Thus begins a ridiculous rally back and forth between my son and I. "It's wet down here!  All over my shirt!" my son yells. "It saturated the carpet" I reply. "More than that" he responds, as though saturated can't begin to explain what he just experienced. "It doesn't get any worse than that. That's the highest level!" I tell him.

There the two of them lay underneath the tree like so many corpses. "To the left." "Twist." "No, to the right." "If I move the base the whole tree twists." "Is that the side you want or is that the side with the gap in the branches?"
In the end, all the maneuvering back and forth was a failure. The tree still leaned was on the verge of falling. So in the end, we ended up lassoing a rope around it and hitching it to a nail in the wall behind the tree. Hey, necessity is the mother of invention.  Shh, don't tell.  No one will ever know.


So with the tree now vertical and steady, I can move on.  I begin where I left off and oh no! Wouldn't you know it?  I can't find the thingy at the end of the light to plug the next string of lights into. It was there before!  I keep going along the string because I am determined I will not undo all my work. I know it was just the bottom rung, but even that was work, going in and out of those sharp needles. It was useless. The end of the string had disappeared in the sea of branches.  So I ended up pulling nearly all the lights off. There it was!

At some point during all this,  I can't help thinking, whose great idea was this anyway?  Hundreds of years ago some people were sitting around, and someone, the overachiever of the brood,  had a eureka moment. Jumping up like a Mexican jumping bean, he yelled, "I've got it! Let's get a gynormous sticky pine tree, bring it indoors, hang lights all over it and then deck it from head to toe with fancy, shmancy, homemade ornaments!" The rest of the group burst out in one chorus, "By George, I think he's got it!" And so this glorious tradition was started.

Don't get me wrong, I love it!  I grew up with a fresh tree every year. Of course then, the glorious task of transforming our home into a winter wonderland was my parents; work.  They hung those dastardly lights on the tree.  Us kids just took our favorite ornaments out, hung them wherever we pleased, without any artistic sensibility. We paid no attention to such things as balance, harmony and cohesion.  We just wanted to get them up, drink our cocoa, and watch gifts magically appear beneath the branches.

But as for today, a serene and wonderful afternoon it was.   Snow blanketed our home and neighborhood as we had our first real snowfall this very morning.
And it was with this backdrop, that I finally strung lights on the Christmas tree, after such an inauspicious beginning.  Implementing the trunk to the end of the branches technique, it took me about 15 minutes of working my way through the pointy needles. There are not many things I find more beautiful than simple white lights.  Their quiet, understated and elegant glow is a wonderful backdrop for future ornaments.

So, the perfect tree lighting?  Not. But I wouldn't change a thing. A falling tree, children sprawled beneath, sappy fingers, sharp needles and snow-covered yard.  That's the raw material of my life, unpredictable and very sticky. That's the good stuff.

Monday, December 2, 2013

My Cane -
Control Freak Learning
to Embrace Weakness

It was last Tuesday: Thanksgiving eve’s eve.  I should have been running around like a chicken with adrenaline coursing through my veins as I channeled my inner Martha.

I should have been dotting i’s and crossing t’s.  I should have been scurrying up and down the aisles, shopping for Thanksgiving dinner.  I should have been cleaning greens and the kitchen floor, baking homemade bran rolls from scratch!

I should have been setting up my fresh Christmas tree, allowing its branches to unfurl in the living room, filling our home with its pine scent.

But God had other plans for me. Martha was sidelined, benched.  Her silver bells were replaced with silver crutches and a walker.

Everything had been on course…until Monday night, when my life and my back took a twist sending me on an unwelcome detour.  Thus began an agonizing episode with debilitating back pain.  

By Tuesday night, in an attempt to climb into the bed, I collapsed to my knees, clinging to the covers, unable to move in any direction.

I was all alone, shrieking in pain with back spasms, like a rope coiling tighter and tighter around my spine.  I clung for dear life to the side of the bed, hoping for somebody, anybody to come to my rescue.

Off in the distance, I could hear my sons regaling one another with stories, laughing uproariously, but far beyond the reach of my voice. I was helpless. 

Finally, I heard my firstborn in the hallway.  “Nate!” I cried out.  After a bit of back and forth, he came running, jaw dropping, eyes bulging as he found me clinging to the blankets like some desperate, trapped animal.

Drama ensued. And soon son two and daughter two along with Dad were all surrounding me, as if they couldn’t believe their eyes.  

I fancy myself that person who always has it together, but there are moments in life where all dignity falls to the wayside.  There I was on my hands and knees in my pajama bottoms, begging for help. There was no room for my self sufficiency here.

Gingerly, they lowered me down to the floor and I watched the carpet rush up to greet my face.

I laid there in a heap, and they set up a little palette for me of pillows and blankets. 

There was a moment of pregnant silence as they all gazed pitifully at this heap on the ground.  “Behold, thy mother!”   I wanted to sob uncontrollably.  This was not how it was supposed to be! Surely I was on the Potter’s wheel.

I heard a voice, which seemed to come from the deepest part of me, yell, “Pray!”  Surrounding me like ducklings, they prayed for me one by one. As I had been desperately clinging to the bed, even now I clung to those prayers and the strength, faith and encouragement they brought. 

Sleep came in spurts that night, as even the smallest effort set off unspeakable spasms. Eventually my husband came in the twilight hours and set up a palette right beside me.   How sweet he is! ‘Til he started snoring. J

It's been nearly a week and yet it seems like so long ago. It's propped here beside me on the chair. A cane. In my mind it represents an apparatus associated with the elderly, weak and bent over. Not something to be used by someone like me, young and vibrant.   But I am thrilled to be vertical and piddling about, sans walker and crutches.

But still, a cane by nature is an instrument of support. It is a poignant reminder of my limitations and my weakness.  It is a necessary lesson for my thick skull.  I’m the type to hit the ground running – do it now, ask questions later!

But this cane is on divine assignment. It speaks.  It instructs me that weakness and vulnerability are to be embraced, not shunned. 

It reminds me that in my weakness, God is strong; that though I may have a plan, a ‘one way’ of how life should unfold, the Sovereign God is writing my story, and carefully crafting every Act.   

And when He allows a detour, I’m rarely prepared. 

It’s like a friend who shows up unannounced.  I’m sitting there in my curlers and powdering gown, and next thing I know, good grief, there’s a knock at the door.

I wish this back episode had only called first!  How rude! 

Someone said “life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”  So last Tuesday,  instead of me pushing a shopping cart, my husband was pushing me, helpless and needy into the doctor’s office.  

And instead of Thanksgiving adrenaline, medication was pulsing through my thankful veins. And I, with my feet propped up, watched my family prepare the feast! 

Soon enough, the cane will be stored away and forgotten, and the lessons it taught hazy and distant.  For in the busyness of life, I often forget what’s most important, much like those stubborn Israelites. 

But for today, I walk with a cane. And I am not ashamed.  For like grace, it holds me up and takes me step by step, where I need to go.