Friday, December 9, 2011

How Christmas Got Its Shine Back

Doris Waud is one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. Born in 1920, she grew up in Aldershot, England. She was a young woman when World War II began and she lived through the war years in the military town where the troops were amassed for the D-Day invasion. She used to go up on the hill above the town and watch the Nazi bombs fall on London.

She met and married a Canadian soldier during the war much to her mother’s chagrin. Her mother said, “You could’ve married an English soldier or a Welsh soldier or a Scottish soldier or EVEN an Irish soldier. Why do you have to marry a Canadian soldier?” It wasn’t because the man was objectionable in and of himself. It was the thought of her dear daughter living so far away that bothered her. Godfrey Waud was a good man and he made sure that somehow, they scraped together the money for her to go back and visit at least once every five years while her parents were still living. That was quite a feat on their income.

Fifty years later, she was quite prosaic about the war and I always got the impression that it hadn’t fazed her that much. I was wrong, of course, but my grandmother always seemed to take life in her stride. Doris was my grandmother. I use the past tense because she is past now. I could fill pages with my memories of her and of her memories of her life. She would freely tell my sister and me about it, sometimes because we asked her to and sometimes just spontaneously. I am so glad now that she was so forthcoming with her memories because they are so precious to me now. My little English Gran (the diminutive favored by English children) left a huge hole in my life when she died.

My Gran loved Christmastime. After spending Christmas in England once, I truly understood why she loved the season so much. England does Christmas tremendously. The food, the music, the decorations and everything about Christmas in England is terrific. They celebrate good and proper and most of the country seems to shut down from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. We spent just about every Christmas I can remember with my grandparents and very often both sets of grandparents. They were friends before my parents ever got married and my American grandmother would often include them in all the holidays because they didn’t have much family in the United States.

I don’t really remember actual Christmas gifts from my grandmother. What I remember is going to the beautiful apartment on Capitol Hill in Seattle and having Christmas tea on her best dishes. I remember the little artificial tree decorated with bird ornaments and eggs that had been blown out and decorated. I remember her Nativity set which I have always loved. It decorates my home now. I remember how much my grandmother reveled in the season. She loved the carols, she loved the decorations and she wouldn’t for worlds have missed seeing my sister and me in the Christmas play at church every year. Christmas had a shine on it for me because of her.

After her death, Christmas lost some of its bloom for me. I was in my twenties and single. I would still decorate the beautiful apartment on Capitol Hill where I now lived. I would still make cookies and candy and go see A Christmas Carol or The Messiah or The Nutcracker. I would still sing the carols and enjoy going to church and hearing the Christmas story. Each year that passed though, I seemed to be less and less enthusiastic about Christmas. Even now, this time of year brings a little heartache because I miss my Gran with every carol that’s played and every decoration I see.

How did Christmas get its shine back?

His name is John. We have known each other since we were children but five years ago he came back into my life. Four years ago, we were married. Christmastime has always been hard for him. His father died when John and his twin brother were about 8 and their brother Jeff was only 3. It was close to Christmas when they lost him because one of the memories John has of the funeral was that the Christmas decorations were up in town as they drove to the cemetery. Once I was in love with him, it became very important to me for John to have a Merry Christmas from now on if it was in my power to give it to him.

So now Christmas belongs to us. We got our first Christmas tree together the year we were engaged. When he cut the bottom off the Christmas tree's trunk to get it in the stand, he saved the disk of wood and made me a Christmas ornament the next year out of it. He has made one for me every year since. He takes the fresh cut and lets the disk dry out all year. The next year he sands it down, carves our names and the date in it. John drills a hole in it and I put a ribbon from one of our wedding or my shower gifts through it and hang it on the tree. We got a lot of presents for our wedding. Four years later, I still have ribbons from our wedding gifts.

I love to shop for his Christmas and birthday gifts. His birthday is right after Christmas. Like many born so close to the holiday, he has always felt a little cheated when it came to his birthday. I make sure I never buy “this is your birthday/Christmas” gifts. My very favorite thing at Christmas now is to surprise him with something he really wants but had no expectation of getting. He will grin from ear to ear, look at me with eyes that have tears in them and whisper “Thank You”. It makes my year and puts the shine back on Christmas for me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Bitterness has been on my mind for a few weeks. The dictionary defines bitter a number of ways. It can refer to taste, a painful sensation, something difficult to accept, exhibiting strong animosity, expressive of severe disappointment or marked by resentment. The reason it has been on my mind stems from a chance remark someone with a very sweet nature made to me that was so rancorous and bitter that it took my breath away. The remark was not directed at me or about me but it was still so full of intense bitterness that I could think of little else for the rest of the day. It ruined my day and had me close to tears every time I thought back on it.

I thought about the circumstances that were the root of the bitterness, I thought about how many years the bitterness had be held onto and nursed and I felt as badly as if I had been the one to have caused them to be bitter. In truth, I was in no way involved and likely, the person never realized how much their bitterness had surprised and hurt me. I think they would be amazed that I had even noticed what they had said.

When I was younger, I would tend to hold a grudge. I still struggle with that from time to time even as I get older but usually I only manage to heave it along for a few days and then I feel silly and let whatever it is that upset me to begin with go and move on with my life. I cannot really point to the time in my life when I decided that carrying a grudge and being bitter were harmful to me and a complete waste of energy and emotion. I can tell you that there came a day when I found myself rehearsing an incident from years earlier and getting angry about it all over again when it hit me that it was ridiculous to hold onto the hurt and the bitterness and the sense of injustice and that I needed to put those things outside my soul. It is not an easy thing to do especially when you feel aggrieved. However, it is so much better for you to get on with your life and it removes the power from the person or situation that caused your bitterness.

You might be wondering why I chose to use a picture of my cousin's two beautiful little girls to talk about bitterness. It is because, unfortunately, some of the worst bitterness begins at home and in families. I have heard grown children speak of their parents in ways that makes me heartsick especially when I happen to know that their parents, while imperfect, did the best they could and were quite good parents under the circumstances. I have heard brothers and sisters talk about the time that their sister or brother got something or other that they had wanted and their sibling had not deserved with as much vitriol as if the disappointment had happened the day before not forty years ago. I have heard parents speak of ungrateful and unfeeling children that I knew were nothing of the sort simply because of a single incident that had been held onto instead of the dozens of happy and loving memories that were predominant. Bitterness is a cancer. If left unchecked, it will spread throughout you and color your past, darken your present and make hopeless your future.

Sometimes people direct their bitterness at God, at the government, at their boss, at life. I have an overdeveloped sense of justice and so I understand when people feel bitterness over injustice. The problem is bitterness solves nothing, achieves nothing, helps nothing. If you continue to hug it close, it will eventually suffocate you under its weight. Cast it away. Get rid of it. Instead pray the Serenity Prayer: Change what you can, accept what you can't and have the wisdom to know the difference.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Beautiful You

I have been trying to decide for a few weeks what I should write about. There are a few topics that I would like to talk about but I am still ruminating on them at this point. Beauty is one I have been thinking about for some time. The picture I used is one of my cousin, Kristin, who is undoubtedly a beautiful girl. So are all her sisters. I never look at any of them without being struck by how beautiful they all are. Part of her and her sisters' beauty lies within them. They are fun, sweet, funny and lovely girls. This, as much or more, contributes to their beauty to me as their physical appearance.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I suppose that must be true but I tend to behold a lot of beauty in a lot of people that, if you asked them, would say they are not beautiful and might even call themselves ugly. I have found that if you really look at people carefully, there is often something beautiful about each person. It took me some time but the day I woke up and really looked at my friend, John, I saw the diamond that was there. Now I am married to the handsomest man in the world. When he looks at me with his deep blue eyes all crinkled at the corners because he is smiling down at me, I know I am looking at the most beautiful man in the whole world.

A lot of Hollywood consists of people that are thought of as "beautiful" and if you were going on appearance alone, I suppose you would have to admit that many movie stars are very attractive. I don't know any of them personally and so, I have to say, that their beauty eludes me somewhat. I think you find beauty where you look for it and not just based on a person's appearance.

I have a lot of friends and every single one of them is so very beautiful to me. Some of them if you were to pass them on the street, you would not perhaps see how beautiful they are if you were just looking at their appearance but, if you took the time to get to know them, they would leave you with the impression of great loveliness.

Many of my friends have something beautiful about them that you might miss if you were just looking for "perfect" beauty. Vicki and Jane have gorgeous eyes and expressive mouths. Lisa has the prettiest hands and feet. Jan, when she laughs, is so exquisite. Laura, Angela and Kristin have great figures and can wear anything and look fantastic. Liz has a Texan drawl and throaty voice that melts you. Muriel has the most beautiful hair. If Elfie smiles at you, you feel the urge to give her the world. When Lissa is enthusiastic about something, she could be Miss America.

I realize that partly I find these girls attractive because I love them but I have found that if I really look at people I don't even know I can often still find something beautiful about them. This morning a lady smiled at me as we passed each other. She had a great smile. When the guy in front of me in line at Starbucks extolled the virtues of his smart phone to me I noticed he had really earnest and intense blue eyes. The girl across from me on the train last night had a mane of curly black brown hair and such an amazing complexion. If I hadn't been looking for it, I might have missed their beauty. I hope the people that love them see what I saw.

Next time you look at a person (yourself included), have a good look for the beautiful. If you are having trouble seeing it, ask someone that loves you what about you they find beautiful. If you know me, ask me and I will tell you because I promise you, I've noticed something about you that is beautiful and just haven't had the chance to tell you yet. The ugly in life sticks out so much that sometimes, it is all we see. Look for the beautiful, it is there too.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Cat & The Christmas Carol

This is Shadow. I took her in reluctantly when a former boyfriend of mine moved back in with his parents. His dad was both allergic to and had a dislike of cats. She lived with me for awhile until the boyfriend moved back into his house and could take her back again. Then, like the cat that came back the very next day, she was once again foisted on me when he moved back in with his parents again. The second time, after I paid to have her "fixed" (not to mention what I had spent of food, cat litter and damages), I told him that she was now my cat and would be staying with me permanently. After a rocky start, she has grown on me.

When you pet Shadow, she feels like a kitten. She is so incredibly soft for an adult cat. She is not a very vocal animal and, other than a rather strange obsession with Healthy Choice Fudge Bars and blue raspberry popsicles, she is just your average cat. She got her name because as a kitten she followed my old boyfriend around all the time. She responds to her name so there is no changing it now. She likes to sleep on me at night but on top of the covers and she is not particularly a lap kitty.

A few years ago, I found out that if I sing, she will come from wherever she is to stand at my feet and meow at me, rub my legs and sometimes even try and give me a little nibble. So, I started singing "Goodnight Shadow" at bed time to get her to come in the bedroom for the night. I sing "Buffalo Cats" (to the tune of Buffalo Gals) when I can't find her in the house during the day. Then I discovered "Once in Royal David's City".

"Once in Royal David's City" was my grandmother's favorite Christmas carol. She was from England and really missed some of the English hymns and carols. As a result, our entire family knows "We Plow the Fields and Gather the Good Seed on the Land", "Eternal Father, Strong to Save", "Once in Royal David's City" and several others. When I start singing Christmas carols around the house during the holidays, it is one of the first that comes to mind. The first time I was yodeling it around the house, Shadow came from another room and tried to climb up my legs and join in with several loud and insistent MEOWS. It is evidently her most or least favorite of the songs I sing.

Shadow is an indoor only kitty with a lot of curiosity about the great outdoors. One day recently, she got outside when my husband's back was turned. He and my mother searched frantically all over outside for her to no avail. Then my mother remembered, she stopped and belted out the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City". My mom has a killer soprano voice that does much more justice to it than my croaky alto. Sure enough, Shadow hopped up into a window outside the kitchen and started to sing along allowing my husband to sneak up from behind and capture her.

Unfortunately, I forget sometimes when guests are around how odd this all is. We had a couple of friends over for dinner last week and my parents joined us for appetizers beforehand in order to visit with them. When they went back home, Shadow followed them out the door and refused to be shooed back inside. So I stood with a dish in my hand in the middle of the kitchen and proceeded to call forth the opening strains "Once in royal David's city stood a lowly cattle shed" and before I had reached "where a mother laid her baby in a manger for His bed" Shadow had trotted back in and joined in for the last line: "Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ, her little child." I then serenely turned and sat the dish on the table. In looking up, both my guests were looking at me like I was the Christmas fruitcake and perhaps it was time to be going. I mumbled something about it being the cat's favorite song which clearly was not the explanation calculated to restore their confidence in my sanity. I wonder if I will ever see them again?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Smile! People will wonder what you’re up to!

Do you know the pony joke?

The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities -- one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist -- their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. "What's the matter?" the psychiatrist asked, baffled. "Don't you want to play with any of the toys?" "Yes," the little boy bawled, "but if I did I'd only break them."

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. "What do you think you're doing?" the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. "With all this manure," the little boy replied, beaming, "there must be a pony in here somewhere!"

What does it mean to be happy? Why are some people happier than others? How do you get happy? I was pondering these questions on my walk to work this morning. So many people I passed were walking with their head and eyes downcast looking sleepy or resigned or defeated.

I am an incurable optimist and aggressively cheerful. I get asked sometimes, “Why are you always so happy?” It always stumps me a little. I have had a variety of explanations put forward as to why this is so. People who share my faith say it is because I am a Christian. People that aren’t so fond of me say it is because I am not very smart. Others have told me it is because I haven’t faced true hardship in life. While these all may be true, I think there is another explanation that must be taken into account: heredity.

My sister is about as different from me as you can get but she is also a little sunbeam of happiness most of the time. Our paternal grandmother and our maternal grandfather were some of the most cheerful people I have ever met in my life. My mother once said that I was like my father’s mother because I could walk into a roomful of pessimists and they would become optimists in self defense! Our father looks on the sunny side of life in spite of being a pastor for over thirty years. (I say in spite of because unless you have been a pastor or lived in the parsonage you cannot appreciate how much of the time you see people at their very worst.)

I have thought long and hard about why I tend to be such a happy person and about the people I know that are genuinely cheerful most of the time. I don’t know that it is something that can ever be learned. I think to some extent it is just “how you are”. I find even times when I have been in the depths of despair (and believe me, I have had my moments) I have never felt like good times would not come around again.

I have a friend that has been through the most difficult time this last year. She has been through the wringer and yet, she still looks for the pony. I have another friend that has a lovely life -- a house, a great family, a job and friends. He has a good thing going but he is never satisfied. He is always trying to “find happiness” but it constantly eludes him.

If you want the secret to happiness, I will be happy to share my faith with you. It is definitely a contributing factor. If being smarter means I will be unhappy, I will stay ignorant and I hope if I face true hardship in life, I will manage to do it with a smile. I count my blessings often especially if I get to feeling like the toys will just break. The very nicest thing my husband has ever said was this: “The day I married you, I married my sunshine.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Death by Cooking

I think I may need an intervention. Yesterday I had the day off work for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. John and I had talked about going to Auburn to visit the jeweler we like to use to have our rings cleaned and mine checked to make sure all the prongs are tight. We called ahead and found out he wasn't going to be open so after tossing around some other ideas, we decided to just stay at home.

I got up Monday morning, collected my mother from upstairs and ran into the city to go to the Franz Bakery Outlet for English muffins and some other breads, then on to Costco's flagship store to pickup butter, water and some other essentials before stopping at Saars in town to get a turkey breast, onions and a few necessaries. We went back home and I proceeded to spend the rest of the day cooking.

Cooking has become my hobby and my passion. I lost the ability to crochet with the development of carpal tunnel syndrome so I needed to find a new hobby. I like to scrapbook now and then and I really enjoying reading books but cooking is my favorite thing to do.

While the turkey breast defrosted in my folks' microwave, I got busy making Shepherd's Pie for our Tuesday night supper. I use a combination of ground beef and pork along with onions, mushrooms and carrots all simmered in the Colman's Shepherd's Pie mix packet along with a little water before turning it into a baking dish, topping it with some shredded cheese and then mashed potatoes which were left over from Sunday dinner.

Next, I moved on to lasagna. I had picked up whole wheat lasagna noodles during the week but first I cooked some more ground pork and beef along with some bulk sweet Italian sausage with some onions in my big 12 inch cast iron skillet. Next I made a red sauce and a white sauce from scratch. My white sauce was completed with a package of Boursin Garlic and Herb goat cheese that had been languishing in my fridge since Christmas. The turkey breast was thawed out so that was dealt with and popped in the oven to bake while I finished making the lasagna. Finally, I cooked the noodles, thawed out some spinach I had frozen, chopped up and sauteed mushrooms and got the mozzarella, Parmesan, Romano and ricotta cheeses out and ready to to go. I assembled a white lasagna for our dinner that night and two smaller red lasagnas to go in the freezer for future use.

About the time I had finished and cleaned up, the turkey breast was coming out of the oven. I carved it up almost immediately so I could cool the meat enough to handle it and so I could deposit the carcass in my big stew pot with onions, celery, garlic, salt and pepper and water to begin simmering into stock. Now it was time to chop up the turkey into bite sized pieces. Two-thirds of the turkey was put in a bowl, mixed with diced green chili, shredded cheese, chopped olives and two cans of green enchilada sauce before being wrapped in tortillas, covered in more enchilada sauce and cheese and wrapped up for the freezer. I had some of the turkey enchilada filling left over so I put that in a baking dish, topped it with cheese and breadcrumbs and froze it as well. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, John and I will have that over rice for dinner.

As the white lasagna baked for dinner, I took the remaining one-third of the turkey, added onions and fresh mushrooms to it and sat it in the fridge. I chopped up red potatoes and carrots and boiled them for ten minutes before adding them to turkey mixture. I thawed out two pie crusts I had leftover from Thanksgiving and Christmas baking, made a white sauce, mixed in the turkey stuff and put a homemade turkey pot pie together before wrapping it and putting it in the freezer.

The white lasagna was wonderful for supper and I am looking forward to the piece I have in my lunch as well. I went to bed at 8:30 last night and slept until morning. I had a ball and while it was tiring, it also left me with a wonderful sense of accomplishment and will make life easier in the coming weeks as well.