Christmas Eve and The Meaning of Life

It seemed like a good idea at the time, when Buck and I said we would go to the 3:30 Chrismas Eve communion service at Christ Church downtown. This service, called “Family Christmas Eucharist and Blessing of the Creche,” is known as the “child friendly” service amongst the four held on Christmas Eve. But as we rushed around the house all morning and early afternoon, assembling the lasagna and putting up garlands, we began to feel the press of time.

Showered up and bundled, we walked out the door just as an icy rain began to fall.

Persevering, Buck got us safely to a parking space near the church, and by hustling a bit, we made it inside just in time for the first verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” sliding into the spaces saved for us by Adele, Richard, Andie, Julia and Darryl. Young Alex was up front in the children’s chorus, the Canterbury Choir.

The old church was filled to the gills with children of all ages. It was noisy, with cries, squeals, coughs, sneezes and laughter, the background noise a constant drone threatening to drown out the rector. One baby, about nine months old, stole the show with her beauty and apparent joy. She was dressed in an ivory satin gown, and wore a Santa-type red and white cap. Her face glowed in that perfect way of warm baby skin. She pushed herself upright on her dad’s knee and made happy baby gurgling sounds. She was the perfect icon of exuberant possibility.

Another child, a boy of about six, felt differently about the situation. His anguished cry broke through in a quiet moment. “But I don’t want to see the baby Jesus!!” Quite naturally, an easy laugh rippled through the room.

My eyes shone, seeing five year old Julia in her soft, shiny red dress with stockings and shoes to match, and Andie was quite the young lady in her lavender and black ensemble. When eight year old Alex was called from the choir loft to assist Father Russell in his magic tricks — oh, the magic tricks done in church are the subject of a separate post! — I could feel Alex’s thrill all the way to our pew.

Buck and I looked at each other and mouthed the words, “this was worth the effort” to each other.

We all converged in the woods after the service, joined by other kids and cousins. Adele brought the marinated shrimp appetizer, Sharon a Greek-style salad, and we matched them up with the lasagna, meatballs and hot bread. Maggie was a one dog welcoming committee.

Over good talk and gift sharing by the fire, we decoded Da Vinci Chianti, and found the meaning of life.


Wednesday Before Christmas

Landscape notes. Dark morning, drizzle of rain. The sky lightens to an oyster grey. Tall pine silhouettes become visible, their downed companions brown now, becoming the ground, feeding the babies.

The storm loosened screen walls of the porch billow in the southerly breeze. They will be coming down soon enough, as construction turns them into walls, windows and cased openings, and the porch becomes a dining room.

Three days ago, a bright orange spray-painted rectangle appeared on a tree slightly to the northwest of the flags outlining the addition’s footprint. It signifies the county health department visited and has decreed where the new septic tank must go. There is no sewer system out here in the back of beyond, but there is an area so sandy it won’t hold water, just the ticket for a septic system.

I can hear the rain now. The sky is light in patches, with dark clouds moving quickly across it. Today’s warm rain and thunderstorms are drum majors for a Christmas Eve parade of drizzly cold which may include snow or ice pellets, depending on which weather service one reads. Whatever snow may really be, a Florida Christmas with a little snow sounds more romantic and appealing than one with ice pellets.

Some children I know went to the post office with me two days ago, where my status as an “interesting person” was recertified when a package from Wales was fished out from the stack of mail. The kids, Harry Potterites all, were highly intrigued by the elegant script, stamp, and idiosyncratic address. They were downright dazzled, as was I, by the contents: a hand-crafted card and woven star from a good friend.

“The promise of light is always fulfilled on solstice morn. May you know a promise kept!”  (A portion of the text from my friend’s gift.)

The kids and I then went to a place I know where there is a pond. We ran around on the grass and scared ourselves as the short floating dock swayed. A curious turtle swam our way.

Then we went to lunch. It was “kid’s choice” — I was surprised when their number one “please can we go there” was IHOP. Somehow, I thought the International House of Pancakes had become anachronistic. Could it be the continuing lure of chocolate chip pancakes and root beer for lunch?


The rain has ended for now. I see a brilliant red cardinal sitting in the feeder, holding court with five prosperous looking doves, a popular rector amongst his parishioners.



It has to do with us, this feast. What we long for, and see, and do not see. “And so the angels are here,” says St. Bernard, whispering, like a child.

Two crows interpose themselves between me and the golden trees – ash, oak – between the blood-red maple and a full moon grown pale in a cloudless blue. Their cries, on the child wind, come as mystery, much like the question Bernard tosses up to God: “What are we, that you make yourself known to us?”

from October 2, Guardian Angels, The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris




I stopped blogging yesterday when serial guests began arriving; when life and hugs and crayons and walks in the woods and earnest young children chunking rocks into the stream and running wildly with Maggie down the dirt road and teasing and laughing and holding hands kicking the toe of our sneakers in the cool dry sand took over and became the ineffably lovely ground of my being. When Buck told me I was the sweetest woman in the world, and he was going to find me a merit badge declaring it to be so. Was ever my smile wider than on this day? When the littlest amongst us presented precious drawings declaring her love in the full-hearted way of the innocent and never yet hurt?

I vow to be her band-aid for life as best I can.



















Night of the Harmonicas

Easter Sunday morning looked a lot like Ash Wednesday: sideways rain, deep rumbling thunder and those vertical flashes of lightning that make your old dental fillings buzz.

Buck and I had a case of the mulligrubs on Saturday night and declared we were good and tired of all the publicity Jesus was getting this year, and we didn’t want to fight our way through a bunch of overheated Episcopalians fresh from viewing Passion of The Christ.

But by morning those declarations seemed a bit harsh, so when Buck greeted me and said, “Do you want to go to church?” I said, “Sure!” Stepping into the shower, I peeked back around the curtain and said, “I don’t think we ought to let that Jesus guy get in the way of our worshipping God!” I could hear Buck laughing out loud as he brushed his teeth.

The high point of Sunday’s service was when the choir sang a portion of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah. The sopranos continued to kick it up another notch until I felt like a stringed instrument myself, whose key had been turned until it was just barely under the breaking point.

When we left, it was still raining, but by late afternoon, having washed everything clean and settled the dust, the front had moved on through, leaving us with a perfect April evening for the Birthday Party. I spent the afternoon making preparations for dinner on the porch:


Broiled shrimp in rosemary, jalapeno and mint pesto
White bean and sun-dried tomato dip with pita toasts
Roasted red pepper and spinach gratin
Mediterranean Chicken with wild mushrooms and capers on linguini
Chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream


We lit yellow candles and basked in the lingering sunset. The children ran around outside, down to the spring to chunk pebbles, and back, pink-cheeked. “Are you done yet?”

Two of the children, April and Alex, had birthdays on Easter Sunday. Cousins. “Can we open our presents now?”

“And eat the cake,” piped up one whose birthday it wasn’t.

Later, as the adults were sated with wine and the children saturated with chocolate cake and ice cream, some of us stayed on the porch talking, while several of the children wrapped themselves in fleece afghans laid out like cord wood on the living room sofas.

I heard soft, disjointed musical sounds coming from a corner of the darkened porch. A harmonica. Alex, the birthday boy, was slumped down in a green Adirondack style chair, breathing into the mouth harp. His mother told me he had found it today when — at her persistent insistence — he had finally made a start at cleaning his room.

I slipped inside, careful not to awaken his cousin (the birthday girl) or his sisters, opened the piano bench and found my own half-forgotten harmonica. Sliding down into a green chair beside Alex, I breathed into the Hohner Blues Harp. He jumped with surprise. “Yours has a case,” he said, eyeing the royal blue plastic case laying on the arm rest.

We had a contest to see who could hold a note the longest. I used to play the flute and know tricks about breathing, so Alex didn’t stand a chance. He was impressed.

I motioned for him to follow me, and we eased out the screen door, onto the dark sidewalk, out into the starry night. Joy! I hop-scotched up and down the sidewalk, playing my harmonica badly and loud. He followed suit. We hooted, hollered, jumped and danced. We started laughing and couldn’t stop.


Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

(from Mr. Tambourine Man, by Bob Dylan)


A cloud passed over. Light rain began to fall. And this newly minted eight year old and I held our faces up to catch the drops.



The Chalice Bearer

A RIPPLE OF ENERGY surged through the children when they saw the new chalice bearer Sunday. The time came for our row to take communion. Buck, the three little ones and I walked single file together, then kneeled at the rail.

The children were so excited, I feared they might break ranks and do somersaults over the communion rail right in front of God, the rector and the crowded church. But they stayed put, their small hands cupped. Even the rector’s eyes were twinklier than usual as he pressed wafers individually into our uplifted hands, saying “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”

The radiant new chalice bearer smiled deeply into our eyes as she offered the cup, saying, “The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation,” her voice low and clear.

The littlest child, sandwiched between Buck and me, dipped her wafer into the wine, then popped it into her mouth. As the chalice bearer drew back to move on to Buck, the little one reached out with both arms and clutched the sleeves of her white robe. “Mommy,” she breathed, her golden hair and baby chick yellow nubby top bathing her in a halo of light.

The chalice bearer’s Dad, the other two children and I looked on, pure love reflected and refracted in this moment between mother and child.

Later, I said to this same little one, “Isn’t your Mommy beautiful?”

“No,” she replied. “She’s not beautiful.”

Her words surprised me. “She’s not?”

“No. She’s gorrr-juss.”

Christmas Eve 2003: Meatballs!

Christmas Eve was noisy and fun around our house, with seven adults, two teenagers (we wouldn’t dare call them children), and five children between four and ten years old.

I tried something a little different this year, shooting for a target which might please both the kids and the adults. Results were mixed, with two items being off the charts on the smile-o-meter, and one “okay, but don’t do it again.”

Here’s what I fixed:

Bowl of plain chopped Romaine
Little bowls of olive salad, pepperoccini peppers, baby carrots, grape tomatoes, and marinated artichoke hearts
Spinach, Pesto and Cheese Lasagna
Meatballs with Parsley and Parmesan
New York Light Garlic Texas Toast

Christmas cookies made by a friend
Hershey dark chocolate and milk chocolate with almond kisses

Toasted Head Merlot

A few of us enjoyed the yummy spicy olive salad. It’s a standing joke around here with the little kids that when they say “Yuck, I don’t like that” to something I know is fabulous, I automatically say, “Good! More for me!!”

The lasagna had green stuff in it that wasn’t totally emulsified, which put it in the borderline acceptable to “I won’t touch that stuff with a ten foot pole” category. Apparently pesto is okay, but spinach which is identifiable as spinach is not. That’s okay. The leftovers were outrageously good. More for me!

The meatballs were the runaway hit of the evening. The recipe says it will make 44. I doubled it, and at three in the afternoon I was still rolling the little suckers and stopped counting at 110. When my son-in-law came in, he followed his nose straight to the big simmering pot of meatballs, lifted the lid, murmured, “Oh, Lord,” and sighed happily. Doing a little meatball calculus, of the original number of approximately 110, I saved ten and hid them in the refrigerator, about ten were eaten by the children, twelve by Buck, the two other adult women, and myself, leaving 78 divided by the teenagers and three other male adults. Do the math. Staggering.

Some while back I found the “crowd pleaser” in the garlic bread department. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, it’s greasy, it’s plebeian. . . but my group lights up like, well, Christmas trees, when I fix it for them. It’s “New York Lite Garlic Texas Toast” made by the Marzetti company.

A couple of our guests brought the Toasted Head Merlot. I thought it was scrumptious.

It was a chilly evening here in the Florida panhandle, and we lingered by the fire with wine and chocolate kisses.

Hungry Hearts

This week I have been listening to the hungry hearts of some children I know. They sat at the kitchen bar Saturday morning and told me riddles, jokes, stories about school, what is on their Christmas lists, helped make waffles, drank caramel hot chocolate, discussed who was going to be a lamb or a shepherd or an angel in their Christmas pageant, went to the piano and played heart and soul with sticky fingers (me, too; I played the bass part then we switched places).

All the while Buck was busy stringing the Christmas tree with lights and carefully placing the Labrador retriever angel at the top. He called us when it was time. We all came over. The old-fashioned big colored lights came on and we collectively went “ooh” held hands sang Greensleeves and Oh Christmas Tree.

And the Sears repairman at work all the while on the oven used one of my paper towels to wipe the moisture from his eyes. As he left I said “Pretty sweet, huh?”

He nodded. “Pretty sweet.”

Leftovers Part I: Coffee and Pumpkin Pie

FRIDAY MORNING’S SKY has begun to lighten. A strong wind is bending the tall pines, escorting colder temperatures. The panhandle of Florida can go from t-shirt, shorts and sandal weather (yesterday) to where’s my sweater bring in the plants temps (tonight). A freezing reading here often feels ten degrees colder because of the high humidity. I see my own ghostly reflection in the darkened window. It smiles back. We toast each other with a mug of fresh ground French Roast coffee, strong enough to balance the nutmeggy sweetness of my pumpkin pie breakfast.

Another Thanksgiving has passed, the miraculous annual refurbishing of my soul has occurred, and I am ready to move forward. But first, a retrospective. If you are a lover of straight lines and tidy endings, be forewarned. This will meander, ramble and may not arrive at a definable point. It’s an after-Thanksgiving walk.

As a child growing up in a Southern Baptist home, my mother and others ridiculed “the Catholics” for their symbols and rituals — among other reasons, all of which made them interesting and exotic to me. Seventeen years ago I was confirmed as an Episcopalian — “Whiskypalian” in common parlance among “the Baptists” since they have no specific prohibition against strong drink and drink real wine at communion; in the protestant spectrum closer to Catholics than Baptists. The first time I attended Christ Church in Pensacola, Florida it felt like my first religious experience, despite a lifetime of being herded to church. It’s a place where I can tell the Rector of my doubts, and he might tell me of his. The symbols, rituals and sheer beauty are what I prize most, and kneeling to attempt prayer breaks up my veneer just enough to get through to me and kick up the volume of that still, small voice.

Tuesday night I looked through old cookbooks and food magazines from Novembers-past, sticky notes fluttering from the tops of pages, my comments scribbled on them. Wednesday morning early, armed with the shopping list, I kissed Buck, scratched Maggie’s ears, and left the woods for the neighborhood Albertson’s grocery store. “We’ve missed you!” “Glad you’re back!” These greetings from the folks who work at the grocery store take me by surprise.

On the way home, I stop by Floral Tree Gardens nursery. A huge tractor-trailer has just arrived with fresh spruce trees from North Carolina. The staff gathers around like excited children. We share smiles and I leave with a flat of bright yellow pansies and a huge Christmas cactus loaded with tiny buds.

Buck and Maggie have gone to buy corn to feed the deer. Man and dog ride off in the pick-up truck, Maggie sniffing the air from the passenger side window.

All afternoon and into the night, we continue working on our little cottage in the woods, Buck rescuing the garage from sheet rock dust, and me baking pies, cornbread for the dressing, shelling shrimp, and polishing old silver. The silver belonged to Buck’s late mother, my much-loved Lois. She and her sister, Ann, lived together in their last years, two elegant, tough old ladies who had both survived breast cancer, widowhood — Lois, twice — strokes, heart block, kidney disease and heartbreak. My first Thanksgiving with Buck, me newly divorced, him with the ink not quite dry, was at Lois’s home on Bayou Grande. She and Ann polished the old silver to a mirror finish, made fresh ambrosia with Indian River oranges and pink grapefruit, seafood gumbo, and roast turkey with many and varied accompaniments. Dessert was tiny scoops of vanilla ice cream served in stemmed crystal coupes with a splash of Amaretto liqueur.

I was making off with their darling Buck, the only child, and they intended to take my measure. Those old gals scared me to death.

Years later, when I sat beside a gravely ill Lois, holding her hand and stroking the thin, porcelain skin, bruised by the awful sticks necessary to check arterial blood gasses, she gripped my own hand strongly and focused those intense brown eyes on mine. “You and Buck aren’t going to fall out of love, are you?” My left hand went to touch the side of her face gently. “No, Lois, oh no. You don’t ever have to worry about that.”

Lois and her sister, Marguerite at our home in Cottage Hill, 1994.
Lois and her sister, Marguerite at our home in Cottage Hill, 1994.

No Turkeys Thanksgiving

Our adult kids have a problem. All their parents, in-laws and ex-laws live in the same town and expect them to show up to eat turkey sometime on Thanksgiving Day. Except us! We figured out some years ago that (a) piling little kids in and out of a car all day to go visit various relatives is no fun (b) most of them don’t like turkey (c) cooks get annoyed when their hard work is greeted lukewarmly or worse and (d) the last house visted by these circuit riders gets tired children throwing fits and adults already aggravated by heartwarming family visits with the other relatives.

Our solution? Invite everyone to come over the weekend after Thanksgiving (or the one before), in the evening, when we can sit outside by candlelight, drink a little wine, and let the little kids watch videos while the adults share a few moments of genuine conversation. Smooth our fur from the Holiday.

Last year, we sent out an Evite invitation that said “We hope you can join us for a celebration to honor the Italian pilgrims. No turkeys, just some antipasti and something hot with red sauce and garlic bread.”  We called it our “maybe we were Italian in a past life” Thanksgiving.

It was so much fun, we’re going to repeat the same thing this year.


Detox 101 Part 2 and the September 11 Attacks

Two and a half weeks have passed and our whole world has been shaken to the core. Everyone knows what happened on September 11, 2001. Close to 7,000 people killed by radical terrorists. And now, on the brink of war against Osama Bin Laden, the ruling medieval regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and perhaps others; perhaps even Saddam Hussein.

Our weekend (plus Monday and Tuesday morning on the day of the attacks) with Darryl was a demanding series of highs and lows; despair and hope.

For the remainder of his time with us, no one drank anything alcoholic, and no near beer, either. Gallons of water, iced tea, some milk, orange juice and coffee. I don’t even remember what I fixed for dinner Saturday, but he did eat a little bit. On Sunday morning, the 9th, he shredded almost a whole carton of cigarettes, vowing “this is it — never again.” We all shared a waffles and berries breakfast, and then I showered and dressed and went off to play piano for the Beaverdam Methodist Church.

Buck took Darryl to the next level — kicked it up a notch — and when I got back from church, they were lifting weights. After a sandwich, they walked to the church and back. I was on the treadmill when they returned.

Darryl ate a good supper and actually got a decent night’s sleep. Monday we went to Asheville first thing for Buck’s dentist appointment. Darryl and I had a good talk, much of it about religion, especially the concept of the Holy Spirit.

That afternoon, he lifted a few weights, talked to his Mom, ate a good supper of salmon patties, called his brother and sister, and got another full night’s sleep. From a high of about 156/96, Darryl’s blood pressure gradually declined until, by Tuesday morning, it was back into a normal range. His pulse on Saturday was 126. His color was much better and quite a bit of the swelling had gone out of his face. He had talked to his former boss and had an appointment set to talk with him about getting his old job back. He had washed his sheets and all of his clothes, and his voice was regaining some of its timbre.

He seemed anxious, but determined and hopeful. I sent him off with half a freshly made meatloaf, ziplock bags of carrots and celery, and two salmon patty sandwiches, plus a small stained glass angel to hang on his truck mirror as a guardian angel. Buck wrote a touching, eloquent letter to give to Darryl’s former boss. It brought a torrent of tears from Darryl.

WE WERE EXHAUSTED. Clinging to each other, Buck and I slowly walked back into the house to rest and enjoy spending the day together.

It was shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

I absent-mindedly punched on the kitchen TV to provide a little background noise while I cleaned up the kitchen. I don’t know what I thought. This must be some weird movie. It can’t be real. What? What? Oh, Buck, no, no, oh my God, no.”

We turned on the big screen TV in the living room and didn’t move for hours. Barely moved for days.

D. called us that night to let us know he had gotten back to Evansville. This routine continued for a couple of days. He got his job back, with some conditions: a $2 an hour pay cut for the first thirty days; and then incremental increases based on performance and steadfastness. D. agreed he was lucky to have his job back at all, but complained bitterly about the pay cut and said his boss had him digging ditches. That conversation took place on September 18.

He gave us various reports on positive meetings with his lawyer and soon-to-be ex-wife. His first day of work was Monday, the 17th. He was scheduled for a physical examination on Tuesday or Wednesday the same week.

When we didn’t hear from him that night, Buck called. D. said he overslept and didn’t make it to the doctor appointment, but had rescheduled it for the next morning and would fax the blood work to us. He didn’t go to work that day, either.