on the receiving end of love

Do you remember how old you were when, on your own, with no encouragement or instruction from a parent or anyone else, you spent your own hard-earned money to buy someone you love a gift?

I was on the receiving end of this treasure last night. Buck, too, when in a quiet moment of a family Christmas Eve supper, she stole us away to give her gifts in the privacy of my dimly lit study. She knows how much I enjoy my morning coffee. The mug with my initial is the only one I’ll use from now on. And for her granddad, there were two framed 4×6 photos of the two of them together. Oh, Buck melted. It was a moment. A demonstrative gesture of love — not  dutiful filial devotion — from a grown granddaughter to a grandfather, is rare, dazzling and unforgettable. I love her even more for this.

I’m thinking about this young woman as I savor fresh hot coffee in my new cup, and  how she has separated herself from the pack in so many excellent ways. She has a big heart and she’s not afraid to use it. I have come to believe that she also has a wise old soul. Her mom called her “Buddha baby” when she was an infant.

You’re a gift, Andie girl.

comfort and joy

Christmas outfits for Chance, almost 11 months old.

Nothing like buying adorable clothes for an 11-month-old baby girl and her 4 year old sister to shape up a person’s attitude.

Yesterday was tough. I finally went back to Spanish Trail Veterinary Hospital to pick up Maggie’s ashes. I put it on my “to do” list to try to fool myself into making it emotion-neutral: 1. Spanish Trail 2. Christmas shopping 3. Publix grocery. Of course, the two days I spent before the “errand” preparing a small book for the hospital staff of funny/sweet Maggie stories and photos of Maggie mountain hiking with us, walking the woods, helping to host a dinner party, and playing around the pool didn’t exactly set the stage for an emotion-neutral errand to pick up the small, tasteful container in a very nice burlap and evergreen shopping bag containing the eternally condensed version of the Ambassadog of Goodwill.

All the kids at Spanish Trail converged on me with hugs. I call them kids. They’re 20-35 years old, probably. Terrific kids. We cried and we laughed. We celebrated Maggie. They had only known Maggie at the end of her life, when she was sick and in pain most of the time. It was important to me that they know this last part was not all of her life; that she was some kind of magnificent dog with a big, active life and a vibrant personality; a champion and the best friend two human beings could ever have.

Stuffed animals come out of hibernation every year.

It rained yesterday. We had a tornado warning until 5 p.m. I needed windshield wipers for my eyes while I tried to focus on shopping for the little girls, my great-grandchildren. Here I am, a 60-year-old woman with no children who hates shopping (and doesn’t know much about it), driving around with blurry eyes in a high wind and heavy rain, on a shopping expedition for children’s’ clothes. I think I would rather be on a quest for the Holy Grail. It would be easier.

Wrapped (or at least bagged) gifts for Jorja, the 4-year-old.

It was wonderful to get back home, damp and windblown, but safe. Buck arrived a few minutes after I did. He and his son Richard had shared lunch and a good, long visit. Richard lives in D.C. now and is thriving in his career and loving the urban life. Rides his bicycle everywhere. He’ll be over Christmas Eve, along with the rest of the gang, for our traditional lasagna supper.

The brass quail and their rosy crystal egg stay for a while each Christmas in a golden nest.

This morning the kitchen is bright and bubbling and so am I. Onions and garlic were chopped and sautéed in olive oil first thing. My fingers smell of them when I drink my first mug of coffee. And then, one by one, ingredients are added to the cauldron to make the lasagna meat sauce. My breakfast was a pink grapefruit and a couple of spoons full of the sauce. The sauce will stay in the refrigerator overnight and then warm up for assembly with the pasta and cheese layers tomorrow.

The rain has cleared out and taken with it the oppressive humidity. I even wore a light jacket over my gym shorts down to the gate this morning. I’ve communicated with my brothers and sisters, each of whom I deeply love. I think we’re all really just beginning to know how to love each other. Younger brother Steve is out of the hospital again and back home, hopefully facing a hospital-free new year and strength to work in his garden. Tomorrow night with Buck and my step-kids, grands and great-grands from 11-months to 53 years will be joyful, loving chaos. Lasagna, red wine, chocolate, singing and hugs. Lots of hugs. I found this marvelous quote at a lovely Scottish Episcopal blog, love blooms bright.

This is the irrational season  when love blooms bright and wild.  Had Mary been full of reason  there’d have been no room for the child.

— Madeline L’Engle

Merry Christmas all y’all, and best wishes for a happy, healthy new year full of grand adventures. I am listening to the classic Christmas channel on Pandora while I write. All of a sudden, Christmas has come into my heart, and it feels like miracles are possible.

Small Bright Comforts

By and large, it’s been a dark winter. Buck and I have been loath to give up the small bright comforts of the Christmas season. But we’ll be traveling some this month, and hosting a dinner party for our parish supper club in early March, and so today was the day we decided to deconstruct Christmas. Yes, I know it’s February 5, but if you were here you would understand the charm of our glittery forest and why we have halfway seriously considered leaving it up all year. 

The size and shape isn’t so large, physically: a couple of fake trees (well, three) that have become real over the years, cheap shiny garlands that shed red, gold, silver and green micro-slivers which work their way into the carpet and conspire to make it glimmer all year, and holiday baubles that go back a-ways; idiosyncratic ornaments that make us smile and go all misty-eyed with nostalgia, longing and some regret.

It’s the kind of thing that ought to be done on a bright day, a scrubbing, clean up the house kind of day, not today: gray, windy, damply cold. A day to invite melancholy. Especially when I look at the dear black Labrador Retriever angel tree-topper that we bought the year after losing our first lab, twelve-year-old Amanda Blackvelvet, to a terrible tumor that wrapped around her heart in an inoperable stranglehold.

Like most families, even where children no longer dwell, and grandchildren have begun having children of their own, we have accumulated an upstairs closet full of teddy bears and other stuffed animals. It became a tradition years ago to bring them downstairs during the Christmas season to cluster together under a tree known as the “teddy bear” tree. I shouldn’t be telling you this. You’ll know for sure what you’ve guessed: that Buck and I both are marshmallows. I don’t mind so much that I have confirmed your suspicions about me, but Buck is sensitive to accusations that he is sweet (in fact, he made me swear never to tell anyone, years ago).

There are cheerful quadruplets,

the “Gray  Sheep” who has special significance in our hearts,

and the inimitable “Snoopy.”

Each crochet snowflake, each long glass icicle, each carved bird was put away with the thoughts: “Where will we be next year? Will we see you? Will you be in your customary place, or in storage for us or someone else to find in some other year?” Not maudlin thoughts, but reflective, an acknowledgment that every stage of life has its rhythms, its season, and sometimes the season changes before awareness fully dawns.

The trees are put away. The long space in front of the glass window wall is clear again. We can see the forest out back with its mix of young and old longleaf and slash pines, blackjack and live oaks and the deep green, round-leaved magnolias. We take a glass of sherry and a small plate of vanillas wafers to bed. Maggie trots along and settles on her blue cedar-filled bed. At the first cookie crunch, she rises to rest her fine chin just where she can fix me with the steady gaze of  a champion beggar. Buck and I sip our sherry, share a cookie with Maggie and sigh with pure pleasure.

Small bright comforts. The great stuff of life.

Tuna to the Max

One more food picture recap from the week.  Early in the week, Buck and I ate roast chicken and then beef stew. After that, we were ready for seafood. I went to Joe Patti’s on Thursday and bought shrimp, cocktail crab claws, beautiful yellow fin tuna steaks and 10 sea scallops.

The tuna was a little embarrassing. Buck came by where it was bathing in an olive oil and cracked pepper marinade and did a double take. It looked like enough food for a small army.  Not only were the steaks way too much for the two of us, but Joe Patti’s had thrown in a chunk of lagniappe, what they called “white tuna,” but is in fact escolar. It’s the small oval piece you see on the grill.

Well, I went ahead and cooked it all. Worked out fine, too, because tomorrow evening we’ll have a modified salade niçoise, with the tuna, boiled egg, scallions, Harold’s potatoes, and a few bites of Feta cheese, all on a bed of salad greens.

There probably won’t be any more food photos until Christmas Eve, because I’ll be getting ready for our Italian-style feast and will be eating Chinese take-out or some other ready-made until Friday.

Our menu?  Grilled vegetable antipasto with herbed Chevre and crostini, meatballs with parsley and parmesan, marinara sauce, garlic bread, Frank’s Caesar salad, and Louise’s (Harold’s wife) chocolate platter extravaganza, along with lots of dry red for the adults and fancy coffee for everybody.

We’ll pore over the mountain of New Yorker cartoons I’ve been cutting out and saving all year, and have a blast. We’re looking for a group of 12 with ages ranging from 12 to 73, and not a shy one in the bunch. The house will be rockin’.

Christmas Changes, We Grow

I have always been a tabula rasa when it comes to children, since I never gave birth to or raised any. Heck, I’m still a kid myself, and hopefully always will be. I’ll be turning 60 in June next year, a real mind-blowing experience for a baby boomer babe.

When I married Buck almost 27 years ago, he had one toddler grandson. Now there are seven, with one great grand and another on the way.

These days, Christmas shopping is easy. All we need is money in the bank, a check book and a pen. Actually, that’s pretty nice, because the time saved from shopping has allowed us to send out personal Christmas cards for the first time in years. It feels good to reconnect with some special old friends and connect in a personal way with new ones.

Even a tabula rasa knows it’s a nice thing to have a little uncommitted money in one’s pocket. Nice for children; nice for adults. I vacariously enjoy the feeling they will have, with a little green largesse to spend on whatever they choose.

But I have to say, the shopping part in the old days was fun, too. We used to get detailed Christmas wish lists, mostly handwritten, some typed, from the little kids. I found some of the archived lists today, and smiled at the sweet-cute-funny lists.

Here, a sampling:

Complete Calvin and Hobbes comic book collection

Something cool for my room

Cellphone cover

Hilary Duff CD

Oriental Dress and Chopsticks

Sparkly Purse

Sparkly Belt

Star Wars blasters

X-Box 360

Nintendo DS

Harry Potter wand

Harry Potter costume

Harry Potter firebolt

Dance Dance Revolution for PS2

Army outfit

Fake shotgun

Nintendogs

Shrek superslam

Narnia

Video camera

Polly Pockets

White bunny

Care Bear grumpy bear

Gold locket

White and red clothes

Pink gloves

Hot pink nail polish

Art stuff

Barbie guitar

Earrings

A unicorn

Aquarium

Snow cone machine

Ah, I feel a flush of nostalgia. It was fun to shop, wrap and watch the little guys open their presents.

But, it’s fun, too, to see the teens and post-teens eyes light up when they open a card that holds a check, and to hear them say “Yes!”  No massive paper mountains to recycle, just hugs, with plenty of time to share fancy coffee drinks that we will invent together on Christmas Eve.

Pensacola Trolley Tours

Trolley from Hall's
Buck and I were enjoying lunch downtown one day last week when I saw this adorable trolley pull up to a traffic light and snapped the picture with my Drone Phone. (Actually, it's a Motorola Droid, but Bucked dubbed it "the drone," and the name has stuck.)

I swear this year we'll grab up the whole family and take a tour of downtown on the trolley during Christmas season for carols, hot chocolate, the victorian-style lights, all of it.  Ooh, that's a nice hot August night thought!

Aromas of Well-Being

The three-cheese chicken with marinara sauce and whole grain baby penne is assembled and resting in the refrigerator until 5:30 , when it will bake in the oven and fill the house with a primal, comforting, smell of garlic, red wine, fresh basil, and tomatoes. It is one of the scents of well-being; of fortitude. It builds us up.

Family cooks are lucky. We get an early infusion of the raw ingredients. They are stronger than sadness, sweeter than sunshine, amulets and taslisman for the mountain climb. I feared the challenge of climbing a mountain until the first time I made it, panting, sweating and bleeding, to a ridgetop. Then, I knew joy beyond joy.

One Drop of Water

I plan to blog on the fly today, streaming consciousness while chopping garlic. No editing. No worries. Here's the first walk-by thought at the all-you-can-eat buffet of Christmas.

Christmas Eve morning finds me unprepared, up in the air, down on my knees, exhausted and exhilarated. It is dark outside. I hear the steady thrum of a farmer's rain.

Eleven kids and grandkids will be around the table tonight for our traditional Christmas Eve pasta supper. I walk from bedroom to kitchen, turning on lights as I go.

Pick-Up Sticks

As a young girl, I loved to braid pine needles, skate on the sidewalk, and play jacks and pick-up sticks. There was a mysterious trick with the pick-up sticks that fascinated me. If you piled six of those sharp sticks together on a hard, flat surface and carefully added one drop of water, the broken-looking pile of disparate sticks would rearrange itself into a star.

Bring It On

I wanted to hold onto the soft twinkly lights and light-catching garlands as long as possible. And then, this weekend, suddenly, it seemed, the time had come to deconstruct Christmas.

When it became apparent to Buck that I was moving like a hungry locust through a field, pulling down the black Labrador retriever angel from the top of one tree, and wrapping soft wood fawns, red birds and a pileated woodpecker from another, he moved quickly with pen and paper to note which garlands go where for next year. Buck is the garland genie, his eye for color and design making copacetic originals from cheap foil boas.

"Put this one in the box from the dining room," he said, "and this one in the box from the snow porch."

The fake trees that have turned our indoors into a shimmery, ethereal mirror of the outdoor forest become ugly fast when I take off the decorations and the strands of tiny lights and pluck out the tree tops, revealing the metal hearts, sad as looking at the holes in a doll's head where nylon hair is attached. My hands and eyes get itchy from the all the dust-collecting stuff, and yet, I can't help but linger over the old ornaments. They have gotten old. Not antique. Not "collectible." Old. Familiar. Personal. I know their stories now, and it feels like they know ours. Since no one is around, except for Buck and Maggie, I don't feel strange murmuring to them and trying to make them comfortable in their various storage boxes. I lay the Labrador retriever angel's head on a soft,  knitted Christmas stocking, and sigh when I reluctantly close the box. "Take a nice nap," I whisper. "It's only until the day after Thanksgiving.

Life is like this. We are mindful of moments, heedless of days. And the years. I don't want to talk about the years. I began to feel a sort of panic a few days ago, unlike anything I have ever felt. Not enough time. Not enough time. Not enough time. There is always another shoe to drop. Everything changes.

Strangely, putting Christmas back in its box helped me to unpack my raging neuroses, to prepare for the spare honesty of the Lenten season. Self-obsession examination comes naturally at the dying end of winter. Peeling back my own bark to give newness room to breathe and consider sprouting feels like psychological liposuction.

Forget Fat Tuesday. I'm hungry for Lent.

Bring it on.

Scenes from A Home Christmas

IMG_1844 Wow. First chance I've had to even look at the laptop in three days! Back soon. Hope you all are having a safe, warm holiday. Happy is nice, too. As you can see from the wrecking crew below, we've been having full house fun.

IMG_1881  The Lady in Red is Buck's niece, Sue, who brought tales of the great New Hampshire ice storm of 2008, which she braved along with her two dogs and cat at her home in Middleton, NH. The kids are Krista, Ariel, Andie, April, Julia and Alex (our local crop of gkids).