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To All the Friends I’ve Loved Before

     The New York Times recently featured a full page ad announcing the summer schedule of concerts and performances for Tanglewood 2019.  Located in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts near Lenox, Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony. It is also one of the premier music festivals in the Country, and in the world. Since 1937 Tanglewood has offered audiences a mix of symphonic, chamber, choral, jazz, and popular music at a reasonable price in a beautiful setting (you can attend “on the lawn” or “in the shed”). This year’s line-up includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renée Fleming, the James Taylor band, and of course, the Boston Pops.

     Just reading about it brought me memories of my dear, departed friend Harriet, who so loved music and theatre and film — all the arts, really. She also loved the Berkshires, in winter as well as summer, and often rented cabins there for a rejuvenating “Thoreau experience” in the woods. I gathered this was an updated, more sophisticated re-enactment of those Grossinger vacations in the Catskills from her own childhood, though when she first started talking about the Borscht Belt and the Berkshires, I hadn’t a clue where or what any of this was.  

     Harriet and I met in the late 1970s when we were both substitute teachers in Connecticut. She was returning to the classroom after a “twenty-year maternity leave,” as she was fond of saying, and I was hoping to get a teaching position in Stamford where I had just moved. Even with multiple assignments among different schools, we encountered each other regularly enough to become fast friends, especially once we discovered that we lived within walking distance of each other in the same neighborhood! Within six months, we had both gotten positions as English teachers in the same high school; within the year, we were already BFFs, working together every day and talking on the phone every night. Our husbands and families became friends. They came to our house for Christmas dinner and we went to their’s for Passover Seder. Ours was an unexpected, but remarkably loving and abiding friendship, and it remained so even after Harriet retired to Florida. “Who would think,” she’d always comment, shaking her head full of curls, “that a little Jewish girl from Brooklyn and a little blond Texas cheerleader would find themselves as soul sisters?”

     Actually, I would have. Harriet was just enough older than I to have grown up in the 1950s when conformity and homogeneity were valued and religious and racial discrimination was commonplace. People, even members of the dominant WASP population, self-segregated into closed communities based on where they lived or worked or worshipped; they rarely engaged socially with others outside their own immediate circles.

     I, on the other hand, came of age in the ‘60s.  As the daughter of a single working mother, AND a cheerleader, I certainly fought my share of gender stereotypes in South Texas, but there were not the same rigid ethnic and racial demarkations in Victoria as there were in big industrial cities. Ours was a farm and ranch town settled mostly by German and Czech immigrants; residents were predominantly descendants of those settlers, along with the descendants of Mexicans, who had worked the land in this area since before Texas was even a state, and African American “freedmen,” who had come (or stayed) to grow cotton after the Civil War. Everybody pretty much knew everybody else in town and knew where they had come from.

     I don’t mean to imply that I grew up in this utopia where everyone got along famously and there was no prejudice of any kind, but the segregation that existed was more social than it was racial or religious. By the time I was in high school, I already had friends, good friends, who were different from me, at least in external ways (age, gender, nationality, race, religion), if not so different in the basic lifestyle of Victoria. When new people moved into town, I was always one of the first to meet them and check them out. Even then, consciously or not, I gravitated toward the unfamiliar, toward those who could help me grow and expand my own experience. I am proud to say that several of my early young friendships still endure today.

      I have written before about how much I love my friends and how I strive to maintain those relationships over time and distance, basically “till death do us part.” Sadly, though, death has parted many far too soon. Just last month I/we lost our first early-marriage friend who got us our apartment as newlyweds in New York 50 years ago. As a matter of fact, he was supposed to have been here for New Year’s this year, but had to cancel due to an unexplained illness. And then he died. And now he, like my earliest childhood friend, my former editor and mentor, one of my closest college friends, my dearest Harriet, and so many others, will exist in memory, with a sudden presence conjured by a familiar phrase overheard, or a favorite dish served at dinner, or an unexpected phone call from a grown-up child. Such occurrences help keep my cherished friends alive and help me pay grateful tribute “to all the friends I’ve loved before” (if I may paraphrase the title of a Willie Nelson song). 

     Loss becomes more predictable as one gets older.  All the more reason, then, to write those letters, make those calls, and plan those visits with all the friends we’ve loved before and whom we still love now. Which is why I’m going to Florida this week to spend a few days with two of my best bests friends of  40 years. We too taught English together, but we are not alike, unless you count the way in which we swirl our wine in our glasses as we talk, or the way we contentedly roam a museum for hours, or the way we tease each other with inside quips and jibes. 

     But, then again, maybe those are the ways that really count.

 

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Getting Barbie® Back In the Box

For Christmas last year, when she was 94, my Mother asked for a Barbie doll — not just any one, mind you, but an “Andy Warhol” Barbie® (above). Part of Mattel’s Collector series, this doll is the second (of three) produced in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation. She is dressed in a t-shirt featuring the famous Campbell’s tomato soup can, with a faux-fur coat, black leggings and white “go-go” boots. Andy and Barbie: pop art meets pop culture.

     “Now don’t take it out of the box, because this isn’t just another Barbie. It’s a collectible,” I reminded Mother as she gleefully unwrapped the gift. Of course, she knew as well as anyone else  that things are worth more as a collectible if maintained in pristine condition in the original packaging. But of course, she didn’t care. “Get these loose,” she commanded my husband as she tugged on the plastic ties that bound Barbie in the plastic clam shell. “I want her out to see her and set her up.” Who can argue with a 94 year old at Christmas?   

     My Mother had collected dolls most of her life and, once she had a daughter (me), she happily involved me in that hobby. As a girl, I had several Madame Alexanders, including the 1953 Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation robe; a whole series of Ginny dolls, with extensive wardrobe and accessories; and of course, the original 1959 Barbie®, with her blond pony tail (like mine) and blue eyes (like mine), sporting big sunglasses (like mine), wearing her black-and-white swimsuit over a shapley female body (not like mine). By the time she came along, however, I was less interested in playing with Barbie than in emulating her lifestyle.

     We kept most of these dolls, Mother’s and mine, for many, many years, finally selling them or giving them away as time went by.  As a matter of fact, I sold my perfect 1959 Barbie® for a significant amount of money to an overseas collector right before a big international Barbie convention in Hong Kong in 2009.  In 1959, her retail price was $3; today, in pristine condition, she is worth about $8,000. The most valuable, though, was a 2010 Barbie bedecked by Australian jewelry designer Stefani Canturi with a real diamond ring and a three-carat necklace featuring a rare Argyle pink diamond. She sold at auction at Christie’s for $302,500! The proceeds went to benefit breast cancer research. Barbie may not be able to physically run, but she sure can “raise” for the cure! 

     When my Mother died last fall, we had to dismantle her room and remove all personal effects from the assisted living facility.  That meant her dolls, including the Warhol Barbie, came back to my house, where I now have to decide what to do with them. I had anticipated selling the Barbie doll at some point, so had kept her packaging and the original display box replicating the Warhol studio. Since she had only been standing on a shelf and was in almost untouched condition, it was just a matter of getting her back in the box. 

     I first gave that chore to my son, an architect, who can draw, plan, construct, manipulate and otherwise wrestle any material into any form — except, evidently, a flex-jointed doll into a plastic clam shell.  Finally, claiming to have spent more time on the challenge than he had on any professional project that week, he gave up in exasperation. I told him to let it go, that I’d tackle it later myself. “Right,” he mumbled. “My Mom, the paragon of patience.”

     A few days later, stumbling again over the bag with Barbie and her loose packaging, I again asked for assistance. This time I enlisted my husband, who truly IS a paragon of patience. He set to work at the kitchen counter, with a determined expression and additional aids including pliers, twist ties and rubber bands  And he stayed at it — for quite a while. “She just doesn’t want to go back in that box,” he said, finally giving up.

       But then, why would she?  Barbie has spent 60 years getting herself “out of the box” of convention and encouraging three generations of girls to do the same thing. Pushing beyond the controversy over the idealized female form and the clichéd accusations of being the vacuous blue-eyed blond, Barbie® has survived it all to be one of Mattel’s top-grossing brands, having spawned a host of other doll friends, play stations, accessories, books, games and movies. She is available in 40 different nationalities, sold in 150 countries, produced in four body types, in seven skin tones, and with every imaginable hair color. In 2017, the first hijab-wearing Muslim Barbie appeared, to honor the American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad as part of the “Sheroes” series. In fact, in sports, medicine, the military, the professions (including architect), the arts, education, exploration (including astronauts), the performing arts, and politics (including President), Barbie has pursued, and dressed for success in, over 200 careers. And interestingly she has never married. At this point, all controversy and ridicule aside, it is safe to say that Barbie (her real name is Barbara Millicent Roberts) has established herself as more than a toy doll: she is an icon, and industry leader, and an American institution.  

     In light of all these accomplishments, the irony of “getting Barbie back in the box” was not lost on me as I sat down at the kitchen counter and took my turn at trying to repackage her. Women are good at repositioning themselves, I realized, and she was surprisingly malleable. I was able to ease her back into her mold, knowing that it is only one of many she temporarily inhabits, and yet another one that will no doubt be broken one day.

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Holding Patterns

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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

      Pattern — a visible recurring design, an arrangement or a sequence, a model or example for others to follow. Patterns are everywhere, especially in nature. Just think of the wind-blown designs in sand, the symmetry of flower petals, the spirals of sea shells, or the stripes on a zebra. Patterns like these are easy to see, but some, such as those inherent in family relationships, are harder to find. We may have to search for them, but they are there. We just have to stop and look, and then try to learn from them.

     Early philosophers such as Plato and Pythagoras studied patterns in an attempt to explain the intrinsic order found in the natural world and to define the universal relationship of the parts to the whole. Down through the centuries, further explorations in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and electronic circuitry revealed geometric archetypes (fractals, triangles, spheres, etc.). Primordial patterns evoke the familiar, which in turn promotes a deeper level of intellectual and emotional understanding. Little wonder, then, that beautiful patterns find wide expression in the arts, in painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture. They “speak” to us aesthetically, even spiritually, regardless of who or where we are.  One doesn’t have to be Muslim, for example, to relate to the inspiring beauty of geometric tiles and floral mosaics that decorate the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (above).

     Ive been thinking a lot about patterns lately, as I often do in periods of transition in my life. I am in just such a period now. Having lost my Mother after years of being her sole caretaker, during which I had steadily reduced other day-to-day obligations and systematically withdrawn from scheduled activities  because demands for her care increased, I now find myself in a huge void. Suddenly I have time for myself to do …what?  After being over-extended and completely responsible for someone else’s life for so long, I’m not sure I now know how to make decisions about my own life anymore. You might say I’m in an existential “holding pattern.”

     Patterns. Guides. Templates. It seems to me that I have been working within patterns my whole life, trying to identify them in my behavior, to master them in my work, to expand upon them in my art, and to help others recognize and develop their own. Conventional patterns, tested and true, introduce us to ways of doing and thinking about things, whether that means methods of speaking and behaving, designing or drawing, assembling or building.  Gaining confidence in  our ways of doing things provides a platform for further growth, a safety net of sorts, provided these patterns don’t become rigid and stultifying.   

     The first recollection I have of any conscious attention to a pattern is from early elementary school when I was painstakingly learning to write in cursive. I can still feel the sweaty grip of that #2 pencil in my hot little hand as I arduously traced the loops and curves of the alphabet, and can still summon the pride of success in forming them into words. And I still predominately write in cursive today, in my journals, in cards and letters, and in the rough first drafts of articles and essays. The persistent habit of hand writing has also helped me discover the delight of using fine papers and pens; I have quite a collection of both, but am always on the lookout for ever more exquisite additions. 

     In retrospect, I now see how that the most basic act of learning to write led to the more important intellectual studies of patterns in language and literature and, ultimately, to my  growth as a critical reader, a professional writer, and a teacher. Most of my life has been devoted to the study of words, their meanings, their nuances, their power — and that has brought me great joy and professional satisfaction. Now that I have more time to concentrate on new ideas and pursue new publication opportunities, I have to decide what’s next.

     Likewise, I started sewing at a young age, first tutored by my mother in handwork and doll clothes, and later learning machine construction through simple tissue patterns  — McCall’s, Simplicity, Butterick, and MUCH later, Vogue. Once again, I fell in love with the materials, with beautiful fabrics, smooth threads and shiny beads. I didn’t start quilting until about 15 years ago when I saw a Redwork quilt top displayed in a shop and immediately bought the Alex Anderson pattern to make it myself. Never mind that the project was way beyond my “zero quilting skills” at the time. It motivated me to take classes, to explore other patterns, and eventually, to move beyond traditional quilting and start creating and exhibiting original art quilts of my own. Now that my most recent work, “Toward Za’atari,” (see in the Gallery) was rejected from a global exhibition, however, I have to learn from my mistakes and decide on a new project and direction.

       The thing about patterns of any kind is that they are always best seen from a distance, either spatial or over time: the topography on the earth’s surface is best appreciated from an arial view, a newly-written essay is best left to steep for a while before its final edit, the elements of an art quilt are best evaluated by stepping back from the design board. Situations change, people go away, and the patterns of your life, and your life’s work, must be adjusted accordingly. Only by seeing clearly where you are and what is beyond can you possibly decide where to land. Otherwise, you remain stuck in a holding pattern.

    They say one great benefit of age is the ability to take “the long view,” to step back with  perspective and recognize what really matters and what doesn’t.  That may be true, but it’s not easy to plan how to go forward when most of your life is behind you. 

     The dreary, cold, depressing days of January seem especially suited to the task. 

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My New Year’s Resolution Is …

fullsizeoutput_1101              So here we are again at the start of another year and I, along with an estimated 40 percent of adult Americans, am making my New Year’s resolutions. I make them every year, only a few, and write them in my journal; then, at the end of the year, and just before finalizing my new list, I review the old one and see what I have accomplished. Interesting how some entries are repeated year after year; the resolve to develop more patience, for example, seems forever to elude me.

     We think of the practice of forming New Year’s resolutions as a particularly Western, even a particularly American tradition perhaps inherited from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (published yearly from 1732 -1758) with its witty proverbs and wise counsel for personal improvement. But in fact, the practice can be traced all the way back to the ancient Babylonians who resolved each year to settle their debts and return borrowed objects. 

     It wasn’t until Julius Caesar organized the Roman calendar into ten months (with intervening “adjustment periods”) that January became the first month of the year. Thus began the Roman custom of making promises to the god Janus, who represented gateways and beginnings.  The Julian calendar remained in place until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII instituted the 12 month Gregorian calendar we still use today. January 1 became the official beginning date of the New Year and, from then on, Christians typically prayed for blessings and resolved to do good works in the months ahead. During Medieval times, the knights even renewed their vows of chivalry. 

     Resolutions these days are rarely so lofty; rather, they usually focus on more mundane aims regarding diet, exercise and personal habits: to quit smoking, drink less, lose weight, save money. Then there are the broader self-improvement quests such as reducing stress, getting organized, cultivating gratitude, and yes, developing patience. While no doubt formed in good faith, the problem with all of these is that they beg the question of “How?”

     It has been my experience — and believe me, I have years of experience with resolutions — that the more specific an intention is, the more precisely it is stated, the more likely it is to be accomplished. Not “to lose weight” or “save money,” for example, but to lose a pound a month or save xx dollars per paycheck; not to “reduce stress” or “get organized,” but to take yoga classes or set up a filing system. In this way, resolutions become more like goals, with realistic steps toward achieving them, rather than simply pipe dreams that are soon forgotten or abandoned. (Notice, however, that I still have no successful steps to offer for becoming more patient.)   

     Sometimes, just writing a goal down is itself a significant step in moving toward it, in the same way that taking notes in class or writing a letter reinforces information and intentions. Words, especially written words, make an idea real. Once you’ve written it down, or even said it out loud, the thought has a physical presence. It now exists and demands to be dealt with; ignore it at your peril. If you’ve ever lived with the anger and anxiety due to “what has been left unsaid,” you know the truth of this. Sure you can always try to take the words back, or at least apologize for them, but once spoken or written, the reality of a situation is forever changed.

     Not surprisingly, this is why writing resolutions is both so effective and so difficult. You force yourself to deal with the reality of your intentions, as well as to own their/your potential for failure. Best to make that list of resolutions as brief, as simple and as direct as possible. With that in mind, I have revisited my own resolutions over the last few years and have concluded there is, in fact, one simple common denominator running through not only the lists, but also the failures: it’s time. 

     My whole life has been a race against time — hence, my total lack of patience with people and situations that waste it. A good friend sent me a birthday card last year that showed the grim reaper with a scythe in the rearview mirror of a car. Inside it read, “Caution: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Believe it or not, I laughed out loud; she knows me well.

     “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” the old saying goes. And I have almost always said yes, which has left me over-extended, stressed out, and then blaming everyone but myself. That pattern stops this year. I will consider my yesses carefully, lest I spend so much time doing what I don’t want to do, don’t have to do, and don’t need to do to fulfill other’s expectations. If that is selfish of me, then so be it, but at this age and stage in life, I think it’s about time.

     So, briefly and simply, my New Year’s Resolution this year is … No!

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Flowers of the Holy Night

      They are ubiquitous. They are everywhere. Some might even call them clichéd. Doesn’t matter. Nothing says Christmas like the poinsettia, especially here in San Antonio where the history and origins of the plant called Cuetlaxochitl is so deeply rooted in Mexico and in our shared cultures and traditions.

     First, the facts: poinsettias are native to Central America, particularly to the southern area of Mexico known as Taxco. They have a long history dating back to the 14th century, and were highly prized by the Aztecs for their healing powers and red and purple dyes. They were “discovered” and introduced to America in 1828 by a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico under John Quincy Adams. A passionate botanist, Poinsett began shipping the plants back to his home in South Carolina where he studied and cultivated them and spread their popularity. From him the poinsettia got its name.

     The bright red “flower,” or what we think of as the flower, is actually not the flower at all. They are mutated leaves called “bracts.” The actual flower is those little yellow buds in the center. Poinsettias bloom in late fall and do so predominately in red, but also in pink and yellow (considered white). Hybrids of  Euphorbia pulcherrima ( Latin name) have been developed to create shaded, speckled and even compact curly varieties, some in unusual colors, but the traditional red is still the most common and the most popular. 

     Finally — and this may be the most important fact to remember at this time of year —the poinsettia is NOT poisonous. While no one suggests adding it as an edible flower to your holiday salad bowl, a tiny nibble by a pet or a quick taste attempt by a small child is not going to be fatal.  

     My house is full of  really, really red poinsettias this year. I think they are one of the newer commercial varieties called  “Beauty Red.” Their sturdy stems and shiny green leaves give them a stately, almost artificial look in their perfection, and they were only $5.99 at Lowe’s the week before Thanksgiving. I couldn’t help myself; I stocked up, intending to keep a couple for myself and to take the rest out to decorate for the holidays at my Mother’s and her assisted living residence.  

     The poinsettia’s identification with Christmas is founded both in Catholic tradition and Mexican folklore. Because the poinsettia is red, which is a color associated with religious rituals since ancient times, and because the plants bloom so vibrantly in December, Franciscan monks in Taxco started using them in their nativity processions in the 17th century. Even today, the poinsettia is sometimes referred to as the “Star of Bethlehem,” because the shape of its leaves symbolize the star that led the Wise Men. 

     From religious tradition emanated the legend of Pepita, a young girl who was traveling to a nativity scene at the church, but who did not have enough money to buy a fitting gift for the Baby Jesus. So she gathered a bunch of weeds along the way and fashioned a bouquet, encouraged by her cousin that even a modest offering would be welcomed. Upon presenting her gift to the Nativity, the bouquet turned into a beautiful cluster of red flowers. Because of this miracle, the poinsettia became known as “flowers of the holy night,” still today called Noche Buena colloquially in Spanish. 

     My Mother loved Christmas, above all other holidays and celebrations. Even when she worked in retail at J.C Penney’s during the holiday season, a most stressful time of year for employees, she loved Christmas and was thrilled by the excitement of the decorations and the good will. All those years when we lived up East and I would brave La Guardia Airport to pick her up in December weather, and during these last ten years when  I would drive down to Victoria to get her and bring her back to my house for the holidays, we would always say that Christmas could finally begin now that the “official elf’ had arrived. Even when our son was small, she was the big kid of Christmas.

       I wonder if Joel Poinsett realized back when he began sharing his red-flowered plants with friends and colleagues during the month of December that he was establishing an American holiday tradition? The plant’s reputation did, indeed, spread across the country. In the early 1900s, Paul Ecke developed the first poinsettias that could be grown indoors in pots and started selling them at roadside stands in Hollywood, CA. In 1923, he founded the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas which, while sold to a larger corporation in 2012 by his grandson, is still today responsible for roughly 75 percent of all the poinsettias sold in the US and 50 percent of the plants sold elsewhere through research and development and cuttings shipped to growers worldwide. (“Inside the Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch” by Lisa Hallett Taylor, www.thespruce.com 8/27/18) 

     My Mother died over Thanksgiving weekend, just in time to celebrate Christmas in heaven. We didn’t get to decorate for her this year, but we did end up having a Christmas funeral of sorts with poinsettias and with soft instrumental Christmas music playing in the background. Those who knew her appreciated the appropriateness. And my house, now decorated simply with all these poinsettias, is a study in “understated elegance,” given that I hadn’t the heart or the energy to go all out this year on holiday cheer.

The poinsettia is, by far, the best-selling potted plant in the Country; over 35 million of them are sold in the six weeks leading up to Christmas alone. Today’s heartier, stronger plants can continue to bloom from November to April if cared for and can even, with a little extra effort, be coaxed into blooming again. In July, 2002, Congress declared December 12th, the date of Joel Poinsett’s death in 1857, to be National Poinsettia Day. 

     Coincidentally, my Mother’s funeral was held on December 12th.  Or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence at all; perhaps her service and my house full of poinsettias is her way of wishing us a blessed Christmas and assuring me that she, too, continues to bloom.

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Ordinary People

     

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      Here’s the truth about life: most people, regardless of how many selfies they take or how many facebook pages they have or how they try to “brand” themselves, are quite ordinary. Ordinary people don’t discover the cure for cancer or win the Nobel Prize or climb Mr. Everest— nor do they aspire  to. Ordinary people just go about their days putting one foot in front of the other, doing what has to be done, accepting whatever comes their way and trying to deal with it the best way they know how. They are not “go-getters.” Their motivation is simple: they just want a decent life for themselves and their families. Beyond that, ordinary people don’t see why they should be any different from anybody else.

     Does this characterization sound familiar to you? Do you recognize this description in people you know, among your friends and neighbors? Are they your parents or your grandparents, yourself? Are they Midwesterners or Southerners, blue collar workers or immigrants? Probably not “coastal elites,”right?

     Well, wrong. Ordinary people are everywhere, in all walks of life, in all economic strata, in every geographic region and in every demographic. Ordinary people are, well, ordinary. They have dreams, sure; they want good health and a good education, they want to better themselves from wherever they start, they want to contribute, and they want to feel valued and recognized, but they never presume to exceptionalism. Indeed, when and if an exceptional cosmic accident happens to them —an unexpected award or an act of heroism or  a Powerball win, for example — ordinary people are deferential, if not down right embarrassed by the sudden limelight and attention.They will always maintain that they were just “doing what they were supposed to do.” 

     In these days of self-promotion and facebook me-first, this depiction of the unsung ordinary is hardly descriptive of young millenials, or even of the aging baby-boomers at the other end of the generational spectrum who were, after all, the originators of the “here we are, look at us” attitude. They (we) were going to change the world and do great things, and indeed, they (we) did become the best-educated, most affluent, most catered-to, and, for better or worse, most influential generation in history. But make no mistake, most of us were also, in fact, “ordinary,” even though we didn’t act like it, didn’t think we were,  and didn’t want to be. Even now, in our aging sixth and seventh decades, humility is not a hallmark of this generation.

     Ironically though, we are the children of the quintessential “ordinary people.” Our parents, the World War II generation, were the ones who epitomized the values of hard work, determination, duty, gratitude. Ever modest about their own achievements, their dreams of more were never  for themselves, but for their children. For us. They were not presumptuous; they were perseverant. They did great things on a small scale. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

     My Mother died this week at the age of 95. In retrospect, she was what many might call a “trail blazer” for her era, though she would have said that she simply did what she had to do.  Widowed at a young age in the 1950s, she entered a management training program at the local J. C. Penney store and ultimately became a Personnel Manager, one of the first women in management for that company in the state and more or less the only professional working woman, not to mention single working mother, in our town. She took care of her own aging mother while she worked and raised me, and she still managed to have a personal life with a circle of friends and active community service. Long before there was a “women’s movement,” my mother was a pioneer and a role model, not because of any conscious activism, but because of a steadfast, day-to-day commitment to doing what she was “supposed to do.”

     My Mother was one of those “ordinary people,” but extraordinary in her ordinariness. She built a life for us, and created  a foundation of confidence for me that made me believe I could do anything, conquer anything, be anything. Her love for me was complete and unconditional. She believed I was exceptional and she always said that I was her “greatest accomplishment.” That used to make me anxious and sad when I was a younger woman because I thought investing all one’s hopes and dreams in a child was such a limited, “ordinary” thing for a woman to do.  But then I became a mother myself and now I understand: she was just being the best mother she could possibly be.

     And that is anything but ordinary.

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The Christmas Creep

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       It used to be that Christmas decorations began to appear in stores shortly after Halloween and carols started playing on the radio the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t know when all that changed exactly, but it certainly has. It probably did so gradually, a week earlier this year than last, then another week earlier, and then another week, and so on, until we find ourselves where we are now. This year, holiday decorations were already out in craft stores by Labor Day, and my favorite Sirius XM station abruptly switched to 24 hour holiday music the day after Halloween! I call this “the Christmas creep.”  

     No doubt driven by the fevered anticipation of a retail frenzy, the urgency and angst created by this creep nevertheless affects more than just shopping to fill those stockings and buck up those balance sheets. Suddenly, the Sunday newspaper is filled with grocery coupons and ads for holiday specialty foods; catalogues for everything from Honey Baked Hams to Viking River Cruises stuff the mailbox; live fir trees, guaranteed to be dead by Christmas Eve in spite of Prolong, are trucked in from the Pacific Northwest and and set up for sale; schedules of holiday events urge you to “mark your calendars,” and “make your reservations”; even the first Christmas cards and party invitations from overly-eager friends start to arrive.  And it’s only November!  

     So where does that leave Thanksgiving? 

     It leaves it largely overshadowed and certainly under-valued as THE one truly American family holiday that everyone who lives here, even those who aren’t American citizens but who are somehow related to those who are, can honor and enjoy. For the 7-8 percent of Americans who are non-Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and others), Thanksgiving is important as a culturally unifying and identifying holiday in which everyone can participate. For the other 22 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, and even for some of the 70 percent who identify as Christian but who don’t practice a particular religion, Thanksgiving can be celebrated without qualifying how or why, by just keeping the “thanks” in Thanksgiving. The faces of family members gathered around the turkey at the dinner table today might look very different from those pictured in Norman Rockwell’s famous 1942 painting, but they still celebrate the same shared American history and tradition of togetherness as ever. This year, it is important to remember that. 

     Now I understand that people love Christmas for a variety of reasons religious and otherwise, but many of us really, really love the fall season best of all.  For me, this time of year is calming and inspiring, even spiritually awakening. The colors, the temperatures, the crisp feel of the air make me slow down and think, turning my attention to the evolution of nature’s natural beauty, indeed to the evolution of life itself.  Of course, living in South Texas, I miss the brilliance of a New England landscape, though now that the weather has finally turned colder here, I find it easier to recall images of autumns past and to muster the mood for coccooning.   

     So, we harvest pumpkins, buy mums, and decorate the house with arrangements of pheasant feathers and fake fall leaves. We bake breads and muffins, can fruits and relishes, and replenish our supply of homemade chicken stock for the freezer.  With the season of plenty upon us, I feel reasonably happy and secure, especially once those Mallomars hit the shelves of my local supermarket! Thus fortified with a cookie and a cup of hot, black tea, I know I can withstand anything — even “the Christmas creep.”