The Family Tree: The Dancing Lady and Two Reindeer

Thanksgiving weekend, I finished decorating my Christmas tree. It’s a combination of Hallmark collectibles, handmade ornaments, and pieces of my heritage…ornaments that have hung on other trees in other houses for generations. And every one has a story.

The story begins with my odd little quirk that I don’t mind stringing lights. After attempting to celebrate with pre-lit trees – only to lose a quarter to half the lights after two seasons – I went back to a conventional faux tree, with whatever lights I felt like adding at that time. This year: green and blue, wrapped in a twinkly double-helix top to bottom, then bottom to top.

I’m sure unthreading it will be a nightmare, but I’ll worry about that in January.

Stringing the lights on the Christmas tree brings fond memories. It was family tradition to put up the tree on the same Sunday when the Cleveland Browns played the Cincinnati Bengals…around December 3rd. Dad had a “technique” for stringing lights that involved a tight star pattern on each row of branches. Painstaking in its precision – which occurred only during time-outs, commercial breaks, and halftime – it took a few hours to get the tree lit.

I didn’t have the distraction of football or the assistance of children and it STILL took a couple hours (and 600 lights).

This is my first Christmas with no cat. Our little furry curmudgeon crossed the Rainbow Bridge in late summer. He is missed, especially by my 11-year-old, who grew up with him. However, this Christmas, the breakable ornaments can be hung on the lower branches.

My first ornament. I've had it for more than 40  years.

My first ornament. I’ve had it for more than 40 years.

One ornament in particular had not seen the light of day for at least 20 years, maybe longer. Probably “pre-cats”, so that would mean “before 1981”. She was given to my mom as a gift for me when I was very little. I remember the boxes – one with the Dancing Lady, another with a funny silver clown for my brother – sitting outside the door of the apartment house where we lived. The ornaments were gifts from our landlady and her family, including her quiet husband who mowed the lawn and did the repairs as well as working for Alcoa during the day, and her elderly mother, who didn’t speak a work of English.

I remember the ornament. I remember the surprise of seeing the boxes by the door. I remember the dark wood of the door, and our real Christmas tree with the big honkin’ C9 ceramic light bulbs. There’s a cascade of memories of a neighborhood that has changed dramatically since my childhood.

Over the years, my brother and I have been gifted with coordinating or matching ornaments. One of the pairs hangs on my tree.

White ReindeerRed Reindeer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t recall where these little guys came from, but I can’t remember them NOT being on a tree in our house. The red one is my brother’s, the white one mine. I can’t picture separating them. They say “family”. I think about my brother and how much we’ve been through in 40+ years.

At a memoir workshop a couple years ago, I remember the instructor saying, “Because you have remembered, it deserves to be told.” Do you have a Family Tree, or family traditions? What stories do you have inside you that deserve to be told?

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A Thanksgiving Parade of Blessings

I started Thanksgiving with a Facebook post thanking God and my mom for being the two ever-present forces in my life over the last year, which has been year of change to say the least. It set off a cascade of thoughts about everything I’m thankful for because of or in spite of all the changes. I thought about the “little things” that weren’t so little to my mind, heart and spirit.

  • My friend of almost-a-lifetime, Wayne, took a day off and drove for three hours to hang out with me and do nothing more than have a three-hour lunch in a Mexican restaurant, then drive three hours home.
  • My eldest child will be 18 this week and will graduate from high school in the spring. One of her college application essays focused on how she considers being “on The Spectrum” not a disability, but a blessing.
  • My youngest child, all of 11, loves to do and to go and to experience. This year, she learned to swim. Because I can’t, I had a heart attack every time the instructor took the kids into the 10-foot end of the pool. May she be the explorer that I struggled to be.
  • My professional partner-in-creativity Caryn, with her amazing artistic talent, I am grateful for simply because I get to work with her. Ditto for all of the other terrific people on staff at Epworth United Methodist Church who teach the children, lead the youth, run the office, arrange for classes, balance the books, answer the phones, and nurture the spirits.
  • Being diagnosed with situational depression and anxiety might seem like a strange thing for which to be grateful, but it was the gift of empathy. I kept my head above water enough to recognize the problem, to assess how I felt without judging, to be willing to talk to someone, and to know that eventually I would be okay. And I recognize that there are many people who cannot keep their heads above water, who fight for emotional air, and who are not okay. I have been given a taste of it; I am not drowning in it. The experience calls me to those with invisible injuries, emotional injuries, internal brokenness.
  • I am thankful for the friends who understood when I cancelled plans at the last minute because the anxiety was too much, and I’m thankful they still love me.
  • A wrong turn in a hospital corridor…total God moment.
  • I was given the gift of holding the hand of a dying friend. She opened her eyes, smiled at me, and said “thank you”.
  • Two years almost to the day since God called me to ordained ministry, I was accepted to Methodist Theological School of Ohio. I’ll begin working on my Master of Divinity next fall.
  • My eldest child (see above) has been accepted to one university, and has an application pending at another. She will start her Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice when I start my MDiv.
  • I spent my 46th birthday away from home. After hanging out with my awesome cousin and his fabulous wife on Friday night, I attended the Write in the Country writing retreat at The Red Maple Inn on Saturday. That night, I had dinner with five amazing women writers at a bistro we stumbled across in the wilds of Geauga County. We reconvened for more laughs over a big, homemade country breakfast the next morning. In spite of car trouble that kept me panicky for the 3 hour drive home, I would not have traded that weekend for anything. I laughed, ate, slept, learned, and inhaled radiant fall color and sunshine.

We often think about the tangibles – food, clothing, shelter, etc – that we are thankful for during Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year, and other celebratory holidays. What are intangibles for which you give thanks this year? What moments and experiences left you changed?

 

Why I Save Stuff

Moving from a house to an apartment, albeit a large apartment, made me realize just how much stuff I have.The place for my stuff (thank you, George Carlin) is in boxes and Sterilite containers. Some of it had appeared in the last two or three years. Most of it has not seen the light of day in a long time. I’m talking decades.

However, in a quest to condense and pare down the number of boxes, I began sorting through everything. One box contained elementary and junior high school yearbooks, the recorder I played in fourth grade, relics from my confirmation at St. Mary Magdalene, congratulatory cards bearing the signatures and Xs and Os of my long-departed grandparents, a blue box with two crystal rosaries, and many more things. Most papers went out. Objects tended to stay. Like a necklace with a small gold heart that I’ve had since I was 11.

Another box seemed to be the receptacle of my life from high school to college and maybe my early 20s. More yearbooks, copies of scripts from plays I was in, birthday and graduation cards, my high school boyfriend’s bow tie from prom (mauve was all the rage in 1986), and of course, diploma, mortar board, and tassel. It’s an odd collection of things, but the same feelings bubble up again. Relief. Sadness. A mild sense of loss. Anticipation of what’s next.

Packed in boxes with no rhyme or reason are my journals. I wrote daily for hours at a time for several years. I finally stacked them in chronological order and put them all in one place. I hope that IF my kids ever read them (hopefully long after I’m gone) they will remember that I was human before I was their mom.

I took a few minutes to flip through the journals. The first one dated from 1995 into 1996. I started it after I lost my friend Eric to non-Hodgkins lymphoma…which was just a few days after I’d gotten married. He was an artist, a photographer, a smart and creative man who liked artichokes on his pizza.I was a pall bearer.

In the same journal, I read entries about becoming a mother. 24-hours of labor to deliver an 11 pound, 7 ounce daughter. Eight weeks to recover. I wrote about the first time she reached for me as if she wanted me to pick her up, but instead she cupped my face in her hands, like I would do to her. And then there was the time she toddled over to me and opened my arms so she could flop onto my torso and I could give her a hug. She is a senior in high school this year.

Flipping through at least 5 other journals, I noticed recurring themes. My weight. Money. Loneliness. Creative impasses. I was constantly trying to find ways to drop ten, twenty, or thirty pounds. I kept setting writing goals and never achieving them. I kept trying to find ways to make more money or to save better. There was a lot of “if/then” thinking. If I drop 15 pounds, then I will be happy. If I just follow my measurements instead of the scale, then it won’t mess with my head so much. If I can finish this draft of the novel I’m working on, I can start pitching it to publishers next year. I could be published by the time I’m 40. I need to get my daughter ballet lessons to be a good mother.

I also found the journal entry that I can say is probably the exact day I realized my marriage was past the point of repair. It was about three years before it actually ended.

Overlapping and intertwining with that was the realization that God was not far away. That with all of my screwed-up-ness, He still wanted me in His Army of the Unqualified. I knew He was calling me. And I was scared. I spent a lot of time in denial. Running in the opposite direction. I kept thinking about things and people I’d have to give up, changes I’d have to make to be a “good soldier”. Sacrifices.

In another box was a paper bag. Inside the bag were notes and letters sent to me while I was serving on the team for the Women’s Emmaus Walk #76. I served in the midst of the calling and the disintegration, trying to take myself out of the spiritual equation and remind myself that I was there to shepherd the pilgrims. It wasn’t for me, it was for them. I pulled out one of the notes from my table leader Misty. She acknowledged our table’s unique circumstances and challenges, but encouraged me to keep praying and keep listening.

Then she wrote, “God has put it on my heart to share one word with you: courage.”

I took the note out of the bag and put it on my dresser where I can see it, along with a Letter from God read to the team at the beginning of the walk. We are identified by the word or phrase that we felt best described our relationship with God.

“One is stubborn, but her uncompromising and headstrong nature is how she stands and lives for Me in this fallen world.”

Change is constant. There are more forms of brokenness in this world than we realize. I am broken. And repaired. I am tired. And uplifted. I am defeated. And hopeful. I am afraid. And courageous.

I’ve shredded the papers that were pointless. Eliminated the stuff that was superfluous. Before I repackaged the memories and put them back in the boxes, I surveyed everything laid out on the bed, the floor, and every available surface and I realized something.

I have changed and I will keep changing. I survived the things I thought would crush me. I remember and laugh again at the moments that made me laugh. I miss the ones who are gone.This is the Me I can’t begin to explain to my daughters in just a few sentences.

I have lived.