The Gift of a Memory

Years have passed since the deaths of my parents and, later, my oldest brother, and I’m slowly losing the nuances that made them unique: their laughs, their intonations, their expressions, their walks. But Christmas helps me remember. As I bake cookies, hang ornaments or listen to the gentle notes of carols, memories of those who shared my early Christmases bring them back in their entirety.

Recently, my sister Carolyn reminded me of a Christmas memory I’d like to share with you. I think of it as “The Dance of the Reindeer.”

On Christmas Eve, we usually drove to our grandmother’s house in Provo. Inside the small, orderly home filled with relatives, warmth, and the smell of baking, we’d tussle with our cousins until told to “settle down or else…” which we did when Grandma’s homemade cookies and candy appeared. Silenced by our chewing, we’d listen to the unfortunate cousins whose parents had convinced them to recite, sing, or play Christmas tunes on their band instruments. When food, talent, and patience had worn thin, Grandma read the story of the first Christmas from the Bible; then we drove home through fields crusted with snow-diamonds under a sky filled with low-hanging stars.

As soon as we arrived, Mom announced bedtime, and with minimal grumbling, we left the warmth of the living room for our unheated bedrooms: Bob and Lawrence in one room and Carolyn, Barbara and me in another.

I don’t know what our brothers did, but we girls partied.

We talked, giggled, climbed in and out of each other’s beds, watched out frost-etched windows for Santa, and took turns trying to sneak into the living room because we needed to go to the bathroom “really, really bad.” When the grandfather clock in the living room chimed, we quieted and counted: Mom had warned us not to get out of bed again until the clock chimed six times.

One year, five-hear-old Barbara listened intently as the clock struck, then said, “Oh, no, I counted eleven. Way past six. Now we have to wait until the big hand makes it to six again. I forgot. How many does it go to before it starts over? A hundred? That’ll take forever.”

But on my eighth Christmas, as we began to doze, Carolyn startled us awake: “Listen, can you hear that? Shh. There’s a noise on the roof. Be quiet!” We sat up in our beds, straining our ears, until we heard a faint clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop on the roof. We held our breath and listened as the clops grew louder and more frequent — a herd of deer tap-danced over our heads until, gradually, the hoedown calmed into silence.

Only then did we squeal with excitement and wonder if we should wake everyone to tell them what they missed. Eventually, we decided rousing the household would be unwise and drifted into sleep.

The next morning, after the chaotic joy of presents, Barbara remembered: “We heard them,” she announced into the general din, “We did.”

Only Lawrence caught her remark. “Who’d you hear?” he asked.

“Rudolph and those other ones.”

“Huh,” Dad said, “ What did they sound like, fellers?”

As we re-produced the sound of the dancing deer we heard in the night, the others exclaimed, questioned and chuckled.

Later, Carolyn, older, more skeptical and not above threatening Bob with physical harm, discovered the truth of our nighttime visitors: Lawrence had saved two deer hooves from his successful hunt that fall. Then, on Christmas Eve, waiting until we lost steam, he climbed onto the roof and clopped until he could clop no more.

In doing so, he gave us a meaningful gift: a Christmas memory of prancing reindeer, laughing parents and an older brother who took the time to create fun for his sisters.

Advertisements

My Christmas Dilemma

Home for Thanksgiving, I overheard a conversation coming from the kitchen where Mom was making cinnamon rolls while telling my youngest brother, JL, “I don’t think having two paper routes is a good idea in the kind of winter weather we have.”.

“But, Mom,” JL’s adolescent voice rose above the closing of the oven door, “If I take another route, I’ll be able to buy better Christmas presents for everyone.”

“JL, you’ve been buying and hiding presents for the past month. Enough is enough.”

“Yeah, but I like giving everybody things they’ll really like,” he replied.

I don’t know which amazed me more: JL’s willingness to ride his bike over the ice-slick roads of a Wyoming winter to buy special presents for his family or his self-assurance in selecting them.

I lack confidence in choosing appropriate gifts for my loved ones, and I’m not alone.

Several of my friends fret about what and how much to buy for grandchildren: “Don’t you think a full-sized St. Bernard stuffed animal is too much for a baby? My husband insisted we buy it, but I think my daughter will be horrified.”

“My grandchildren get way more than they need, and I think when they get so much, the impact of everything is lessened — sort of like the chocolate buffet on a cruise. But will giving them each one gift seem stingy compared to what they get from others?”

“Our teenage grandson wants money that he’ll probably spend on hair dye or another piercing. I love him dearly and believe you shouldn’t give gifts with strings attached, but do I want to encourage his offbeat appearance?”

Parents also fuss about the choices Santa Claus has to make. Following is a conversation some of my nieces and their friend had on Facebook a few years ago. In it, the young mothers shared their frustration with gift giving and suggested possible solutions.

Leanna: Luke just informed me that the toy he wanted so much for Christmas (the one I stood in line for an hour and a half to buy on Black Friday) is no longer on his wish list, and he’d like something completely different. An hour and a half of my life, wasted.

Shauna: I told my kids to make up their lists the week of Thanksgiving and said there’s no changing their minds after that. Santa is inflexible after Thanksgiving.

Carole: Christmas can be magical, but I am over trying to make it the perfect holiday. Give it to him anyway.

A Friend: Years ago I was sitting around with eight youngsters at spring break. I asked them what they got for Christmas. None of them could remember. I quit working so hard after that. Now I give each child a Santa gift, something to read, something to wear, and something to play with. It’s made life so much easier. Works in lean years as well as good.

Shortly after I read this exchange, I shared it with a friend who said that years ago she told her children they would each get three gifts from Santa because that’s what the Wise Men brought for the first Christmas. “And to my surprise,” she added, “they accepted my explanation without question — except the youngest who wanted to know if three was more than five.”

I like knowing I’m not alone with my gift-giving anxieties, but I still fuss. So if you see me in a store examining two different items and looking tense, please approach, point, and say, “That one.”

What’s for Dinner?

Dinners I prepare for company taste like braised cardboard.

As I plan, shop, and cook, I think I’m creating food destined for the culinary hall of fame; then I eat it. “Everything’s so delicious,” my guests say with straight faces. But to me, the food tastes edible rather than tasty. Could the stress of preparing company dinners cause my taste buds to run away from home?

First, I grapple with the menu. After  hours of anguish and indecision, I reluctantly decide on baked pesto chicken with potatoes au gratin, roasted asparagus, and a French bread roll; then the ensuing complications topple me into trauma. How do I coordinate four recipes that need the oven at the same time at three different temperatures?

So I switch from chicken to sautéed salmon and steamed asparagus. But do I really want to be in the kitchen frying fish and poking a fork into asparagus while the guests munch appetizers and laugh at my husband’s witticisms?

After I finalize the menu, shop for ingredients, then chop, mix, knead and spice until the food is under control, I focus on staging: Do I have the right bowls and platters for the dishes I’ve planned? Are they clean, chip-free, and color-coordinated? And do I have appropriate utensils? Then I serve the entree with my go-to spatula that has a melted lump instead of a handle.

While setting the table, I worry that the guests seated on the corners will be uncomfortable with no elbowroom and their knees jammed by the table legs; but maybe they’ll be merry from Joel’s pre-dinner comedy routine and won’t notice.

Giving up on a Martha-Stewart table, I hide the mystery stain on the tablecloth with a trivet and rush to the kitchen where my careful coordination of cooking times has gone awry. At last, a half-hour late and disheveled, I serve dinner. The guests make approving noises; I take my first bite; my taste buds pack their bags.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Family members and friends make company dinners look easy; and I’ve yet to see them choke on their own food.

A friend of mine once invited twelve guests for Thanksgiving dinner and refused offers of help. She welcomed us to a sparkling home, seated us at an attractive table and made a grand entrance with a crisply browned turkey — which slid from the platter, dropped on the floor and bounced.

As dismayed gasps escaped her guests, she sang out, “Oh, well, I’ll just pop back into the kitchen and get the other one.” Then she scooped up the bird, returned to the kitchen, brought back its knocked-awry carcass and served it to the laughter and enjoyment of all.

Later, she confessed she watched Julia Child’s cooking series on TV and saw the cooking queen drop a partially stuffed turkey on the floor, rinse it under the tap, and proceed.

I should watch more television.

I did hear an NPR interview with Julia several years ago. When asked if she ever cooked disasters, she replied, “Oh, my, yes. But I pour good wine, start an interesting conversation and nobody seems to notice — especially the female guests who appreciate any cooking they don’t have to do.”

I should have her advice tattooed on my arm.

Please Read Before Using

clipart-library.com

When I drive west from Denver to Craig, I notice a sign posted on I-70 shortly before the off-ramp to Silverthorne, a busy town which sits at the bottom of the long, steep hill I-70 descends before swooping up again. The sign tells truckers not to exit if they’ve lost their brakes. I like to think truckers will see for themselves the folly of taking a short, downhill exit into a busy intersection without brakes, but I suppose you never know.

The sign reminds me of the assembly and use instructions that accompany purchases and divide folks into two groups: those who read them and those who don’t. I read directions; I can’t help it; I’m captivated by words. My husband Joel ignores directions; he could help it; but he can’t be bothered. When assembling a metal shelving unit, he dives in, uses interesting vocabulary interspersed with “huh!” and assembles a sturdy three-shelf unit.

I, on the other hand, must find my glasses, skim all instructions, arrange the components in order of use and collect the necessary tools from wherever Joel left them. Then I begin following the directions, step by careful step, until wayward pieces and a unit askew force me to ask for my husband’s help.

I feel bad when I ignore appliance manuals filled with dos and don’ts. Someone took care with those words; I should read them. Recently, I examined the booklet for my new crock-pot and was relieved to discover its eight pages of directions included French, Spanish and Chinese, leaving a mere two pages in English for me to study.

I’m also happy when I discover a manual includes instructions for different models, because I don’t have to read about those I don’t own. However, while leafing through the instructions, I invariably notice the premium model with its programming options, blinking lights and clever attachments. Then I experience buyer’s remorse: “Oh, I wish I’d chosen the dryer with a steam-refresh option. I wouldn’t look so wrinkled.”

Sometimes the instructions contain surprises. I use my microwave to re-heat coffee, warm-up leftovers, and thaw stuff. But the manual informs me that in addition to cooking broccoli, bulgur, and brownies, this miracle machine can toast nuts, heat herbal neck packs, and kill the salmonella lurking in sponges.

When my coffeemaker burbled and died several months after purchase, I searched its manual for warranty information. In the section on maintenance, I discovered my negligence. I had neither decalcified the coffeemaker every forty brew-cycles nor replaced the water-filtration disk every thirty. A person could get dizzy trying to keep track of when to do what. Wouldn’t common sense suggest that coordinating the two tasks would be more efficient? And is the suggested schedule necessary, or is it a ploy to sell cleaning solution and filtration disks?

I think corporate lawyers write the safety warnings in manuals. Why else would I be warned to avoid looking for a gas leak with a lit match, to refrain from putting my hand inside an operating blender and to prevent children from standing on a cooktop in use?

I also sense a low estimate of my intelligence when I read if my mixer doesn’t start, I may have failed to plug it in, turn it on or notice there is a power shortage in my neighborhood.

Yesterday, I purchased a new toaster; I need to stop writing now so I can read its manual. I hope the directions will warn me not to use it to warm my fingers, because I’ve been thinking about doing so.

What? You didn’t trick or treat?

Clipart Panda

Because I grew up in a rural area where isolated homes were scattered across a landscape of fields and irrigation ditches, I never ran through the chill dusk of an October evening, yelling “Trick or Treat” on doorsteps decorated with jack-o-lanterns. Nevertheless, I loved Halloween and looked forward to it with anticipation because of the annual community party the good folks of Lake Shore hosted to entertain their children.

On October 31, my siblings and I bolted dinner and rushed through chores before dressing in costumes our mother made using her imagination and materials on hand. We admired our transformation into scarecrows, ballerinas and mummies then climbed into the car. Filled with excitement, we forgot to argue over seating arrangements, wriggling and giggling happily until we arrived at Lake Shore’s business district: a small grocery store with a solitary gas pump, an elementary school dwarfed by its playground and a brightly lit Mormon church of cream-colored brick.

Inside the church gym decorated with streamers of black and orange crepe paper, we joined a crowd of princesses, ghosts, witches, cowboys and hoboes to drink root beer ladled from milk cans frosted by dry ice, eat cupcakes piled high with orange frosting and watch cartoons shown on a bed sheet stretched across a corner.

Despite the variety of activities available for our entertainment — bobbing for apples, winning a pumpkin by guessing its weight, having our fortunes told by a gypsy — my friends and I spent most of our time running through the crowd, tripping on our costumes and trying to choke each other with streamers yanked from the ceiling by ne’er-do-well, sixth-grade boys costumed like the hooligans they were.

But, before we could have such fun, we first had to enter the gym along an endless hallway turned into a spook alley manned by disguised adults of the community.

One of my earliest memories of Halloween is holding my mother’s hand, walking a dimly lit hall and wondering why our nice neighbor, Mrs. Aiken, wore a pointed black hat and insisted her bowl of spaghetti was worms. Still having the literal mind of a young child, I didn’t understand the fun of being scared witless on Halloween.

But by third grade, I believed. My stomach knotted in frightened anticipation as I made my way through a giant spider web fashioned from gauze and entered the spook alley along with my mean cousin, Blake, and best friend, Deanne, a fainter.

We made it by the witch with worms, the executioner brandishing a cardboard axe who commanded us to put our heads on his blood-stained block, the open coffin with a corpse that moaned, “Help me; please, please, help me,” and the ghost that lurked in a doorway sobbing and clanking chains. But when ice-cold hands reached through a black curtain and grabbed our wrists, all hell broke loose: I tromped on toddlers as I fled; Blake attacked; and Deanne swooned.

We were escorted from the hall, and our parents were told.

It was a wonderful Halloween.

 

In Search of Storybook Endings

As I looked at myself in the salon mirror, I expected to see a halo of soft brown curls imparting a youthful glow to my aging face; instead, I saw an orange-tinged strawstack perched on an old face filled with dismay. Once again, reality shattered my rose-colored glasses.

Many years before, when I quit my school-district position as the director of curriculum and staff development to become an independent consultant, I thought I had achieved the glamorous job of my dreams. Then reality intervened.

I remember huddling in the glacial entryway of an unlit city hall, waiting to facilitate the goal-setting session of a civic group in a small Colorado town. Two strangers crowded into the semi-protected corner with me. We couldn’t go inside because “Barb isn’t here, and only Barb knows the code.”

After twenty minutes of forced conversation about my white-knuckled drive over an icy mountain pass blurred by whirling snow, a breathless Barb arrived: “Oh, I don’t know the code. It’s only two digits, so I just punch numbers until it clicks. Sometimes I have to call the mayor.”

Eventually, we entered a small room filled with folding chairs, stained Styrofoam coffee cups and peculiar odors. Barb found the thermostat and soon the heater clanked in complaint and coughed out a cloud of dust-laden air. I found the easel I’d requested in an over-stuffed closet; one leg was jammed and incapable of fully extending; so I propped it up with my purse. When muffled thumps and angry voices reached us through a cinderblock wall, I was told to pay no mind; the jail was next door. “They’ve probably just arrested some drunk.”

In addition to Barb, four people and a large dog attended the meeting. No one claimed the dog, so it introduced itself by sniffing us with more enthusiasm than appropriateness. The leader of the group had a cold, which he shared during red-faced fits of coughing. An older gentleman with wiry hair springing from his ears methodically munched cookies and spoke not a word. Coffee arrived with a pony-tailed fellow who beamed with a benevolent attitude, and grandmotherly woman called me “Hon” and crocheted nonstop.

No one introduced me, so I pushed the dog’s head aside and began.

During the months of planning my move into the world of consulting, I thought I would lead a life of air travel, inspired audiences and standing ovations. Then I discovered, once again, that happily-ever-after is a myth.

When young, my mindset was different: I deliberately predicted worst-case scenarios because I believed thinking of bad things that might happen would prevent their occurrence. Because of this poorly-thought-out philosophy, I imagined my parents had run away when they were late getting home, decided I would faint during my piano recital and assumed I would end up in an iron lung every time I had a cold.

I can’t say dwelling on possible misfortunes made me a happier child any more than imagining bliss made me a bleaker adult. But I’m glad neither approach stopped me from learning, experimenting, changing — and reaping the benefits of doing so. My friends thought my short, slightly orange hairdo an improvement over my long, 80’s perm; and consulting changed my routines, introduced me to interesting people and spurred my creativity.

Stepping into the unfamiliar, not knowing how the story will end, has its rewards.

The Games We Played

As a teacher, I supervised playgrounds teeming with children in need of a break who preferred throwing snowballs to building snowmen, chased one another for no discernible reason, and tattled. I applauded antics on the jungle gym, refereed battles caused by too many swingers with too few swings and thoughtfully examined scratches, scrapes and new shoes. Also, in quiet moments, I thought about the games of my childhood.

I remember grabbing a side bar on a merry-go-round, then running and running and running before jumping aboard for a ride as the other passengers cheered the outstanding spin I’d provided. My friends and I took turns pushing, riding on and falling off the merry-go-round, never questioning the sanity of losing our grip, flying off the whirling platform — our bodies hop-scotching across the gravelled yard —and climbing back on for another ride.

We also survived teeter-totters. When older folks suddenly look terrified, they are reliving the moment when their classmate jumped off the low end of a teeter-totter while they soared on high, causing them to plummet to a bone-jarring, spine-collapsing, teeth-crunching stop.

Sometimes the metal slide claimed us. Twelve-feet high with skimpy three-inch sides, it dropped straight to the depression our skidding feet dug out of the gravel. We fought for position on its stairs then descended head first, sideways, on our bellies, or flat on our backs with our legs and arms held aloft like dead bugs. Sometimes, we propelled our bodies as fast as possible without braking or lowering our feet to land, so we could fly through the air in an effort to capture the flight record before we thudded down. And sometimes, after a particularly bloody landing, we descended properly.

We played unsupervised games of dodge ball in a circle scuffed in the dirt with the heels of our shoes. Having lived with easily irritated siblings, I knew how to dodge to avoid being hit, so I liked ducking, leaping and dashing about. On occasion, a hard-thrown ball broke a classmate’s glasses or knocked the breath out of someone, and our teachers would forbid dodge ball at recess. But they usually forgot.

To play red rover, we stood in a horizontal line facing another team, our arms linked tightly, and chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Bruce right over,” which sent the classmate we called for running as hard and fast as he could to break through our line. Mayhem sometimes resulted: bruises, claims of broken limbs and heaped bodies pummeling one another.

I didn’t realize the Lake Shore version of mother-may-I differed from that played elsewhere until I participated in a game at my cousin’s birthday party in Provo. During play, I saw an opportunity and charged the girl who played mother without her permission, knocked her to the ground and leaped up to shocked silence and horrified faces rather than the cheers I would have heard at home.

Aunt Mary listened to my tearful explanation then told me sneaking up on a defenseless mother standing with her back to you and decking her was a Lake Shore adaptation. In the civilized world, a tap on the shoulder sufficed.

Though my friends and I survived the havoc of our play, when I remember the chipped teeth, embedded gravel, scraped knees and bloody noses that littered our lives, I understand why soft chips are now spread below equipment designed for safety.

But as I walk by Sunset Elementary, I also notice that children still run, scream, argue and find creative ways to get hurt at recess.