Another Year Over

I have never gotten into the habit of writing regularly in my journal, but I do make it a point to take lots of photographs, print them out and label them, and then place them in a photo album.  Those albums come in handy when I’m trying to remember which year we went on a particular vacation, or who was present at one of our family gatherings.  All I have to do is leaf through my photo albums until I find the right photo, and voila!  I have my answer.

And as 2018 draws to a close, I find myself thinking back over the year and all that happened in it, both the good and the bad.  I don’t really need my photo albums to recall the moments that were most significant to me personally, as my mental pictures are still very clear.

IMG_4149I remember the first time I saw my grandson, just moments after his birth, and how perfect he looked and  how I fell in love with him so instantly and completely.  I remember the hot summer night we spent in the swimming pool at my son’s new house, enjoying a pre-4th of July family dinner and swim party.  I remember sharing my 60th birthday dinner with friends I have known for almost every one of those sixty years.  I remember answering the door on Halloween night and being greeted by a tiny little penguin who promptly took my hands and waddled his way into our living room with a huge smile on his face.

I also remember gently stroking our beloved dog, Lucy, as she took her last breath.  I remember hearing the sad news of the deaths of my sister-in-law’s mother and the mother of a good friend on the same weekend, and how bad I felt that the funerals were hundreds of miles away so that I couldn’t attend both services.  I remember how my heart broke when I heard the horrible and tragic news that a dear friend’s beautiful daughter died suddenly and unexpectedly.  2018 was not a year without tragedy and profound sorrow.

Some of my memories are rather bittersweet.  I remember the how scared I felt when my grandson had to be hospitalized for RSV when he was only ten months old.  But I’ll never forget the sight of my son-in-law singing to his sick little son during a particularly unpleasant procedure, because he knew how much the little guy likes music.  Love is expressed in so many ways, and truly is what gets us all through the hard times.

2018 will soon be history, and I know that eventually my memories of most of the year won’t be nearly so vivid.  (Good thing I have those photo albums.) But the changes and the events of the past year have definitely left their mark.  And all I can hope is that I am just a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger, and most of all, a little kinder than I was twelve short months ago.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Letting Go

I have a box in my basement marked “Ann’s keepsakes,” filled with things that are special to me.  Anyone else would probably consider it a box full of worthless odds and ends, and wonder why in the world I’m saving it.  The battered stuffed pony,  the cheap ring with an artificial emerald, the red dog collar,  the purple lace ribbon and all the rest of the contents have no real value at all.  But to me, every single item in that box is special.

Ann's photo 1The stuffed pony was my favorite childhood toy and almost constant companion…it’s no wonder he looks so well-worn.  The “emerald” ring was a graduation gift from my grandmother, passed on to me because we both had May birthdays.  The dog collar belonged to Genny, the first dog who was my very own and not a family pet.  And the ribbon was a gift from a good friend’s mother, who made it to cheer me up after I came in last place in my heat during a Junior High track meet.  (Lots of people have ribbons for winning races, but I bet I’m the only one who has a last place ribbon.)

I think it’s normal to hang onto to the things we treasure and to the people we love.  We want to keep what, and who, we value in our lives.  But the problem is that there is so much that we can’t hang on to, no matter how hard we try.

One of my very first “blogging friends” was a woman from Australia, who wrote a great  blog about the trials and joys of farming there.  She read every one of my posts and never failed to leave an encouraging comment.  But one day she blogged about an upcoming surgery, and that was the last I ever heard of her.  I still have no idea if she simply dropped out of the blogging world, or if the surgery went horribly wrong.  And I doubt very much that I will ever know.

Life is full of losses, both large and small.  Favorite restaurants close, neighborhood friends move away, treasured family traditions come to an end.  And if you’re like me, you sometimes try a bit too hard to hang on to what is slipping away or even already gone.  It’s hard to lose the things and people we value, but sometimes don’t have much choice.

And so I keep my little box of keepsakes, stored away on my basement shelf.  I don’t get it out very often, as most days  I’m too busy dealing with the stuff that is happening in my life right here and now.  But every once in a while I add something to it, when I find myself facing yet another loss and want to save a little something to remind myself of a gift I once had.

In a way, I suppose, that’s the real purpose of my keepsakes.  They represent the good memories that are mine forever, even when the actual people and things are gone.  The influence of the past has helped shape who I am now, which means that those memories are a very real part of me and always will be.  And knowing that makes it just a little bit easier when the time comes to “let go.”

My China Horses

When I was a child, I wanted a horse more than anything in the world.  Unfortunately, I spent the first eleven years of my life living in a city with no horse stables in sight, so I knew that the chances of getting a horse of my own were slim.   I learned to make do with the china horses I purchased from the local variety store each time I saved enough of my weekly allowance.  Eventually, I collected a whole herd of little horses that were proudly displayed on a bookshelf in my bedroom.  Sometimes I made the mistake of trying to play with them, but they were so fragile that the play sessions usually resulted in a “thinning of the herd.”

We moved to rural Kansas when I turned eleven, and I was thrilled to finally get my first real horse.  Gypsy was beautiful, but she wasn’t particularly nice, and it wasn’t long before she had me thoroughly intimidated.  Luckily, we were able to sell Gypsy and buy Tony, a sturdy Welsh pony whose goodwill and common sense allowed me to learn what owning and riding my own horse was really all about.  Eventually, I outgrew Tony and got Prince, the world’s most wonderful horse, whom I loved and enjoyed until his death seventeen years later.

I kept my collection of china horses, displaying them for years after I had acquired a real horse.  I even took a few of them to college with me, where they stood on a shelf above my desk.  If my friends thought it was odd for a college woman to decorate her dorm room with horse figures, they were kind enough not to say so.  The horses (not made of china, I finally realized, but probably ceramic or porcelain) still broke easily, so I lost one or two each time I moved them.  Later, when my husband and I set up our first home together, I finally packed away the last of the herd in a box marked “keepsakes.”

I think it was about five years ago that I first saw a tiny horse figure in an antique shop, just like the ones I used to collect as a child, and I bought it.  Then I unpacked the four horses I had left in my keepsake box and placed them, discreetly, on the bottom shelf of the TV stand in our bedroom.  I have since found a few more horses for sale in shops where antiques and collectibles are sold and brought them home to join the herd.  Last year, I boldly moved them to the top of the bookshelf in my bedroom, where my husband has learned to tolerate them.

IMG_2422They may look like a group of cheap horse figurines, but to me, they are so much more.  They remind me of my childhood dream of owning a horse, and of how that dream actually came true.  They remind me that dreams don’t always match reality, but that if I can find the courage to persevere, sometimes reality is just as good, if not better, than the dream.

I have come full circle now, once again living in a large city where owning a horse isn’t practical.  So once again, I am making do with my little collection of “china” horses.  Only this time, they are more than enough.

(Many thanks to Greg over at Almost Iowa  for the writing prompt, “My Stuff.”)

Always and Forever

I’ve never believed that living in the past is a good thing.  It’s too easy to either wallow in nostalgia for “the good old days” or to get trapped into believing that we can never move on from a difficult or troubled history.  And if I’m honest, I also have to admit that most of the time it takes all my energy just to cope with the present and whatever happens to be going on in my life at this particular moment.  Which means that I don’t give all that much thought to my past as I muddle along in my day-to-day life.  Until, that is, something happens to make me stop and remember.

Last week, I learned that an old friend had entered into Hospice care after a prolonged illness.  Although we didn’t see much of each other in the past several years, she was someone I was quite close to when my children were young and the two of us were very active at our church.  I often relied on her advice, not only on how to be a good mother, but also on how to deal effectively and patiently with difficult personalities.  (I once heard someone refer to the two of us as, “the nice one and the bitchy one.”  And I wasn’t the one he was referring to as nice.)  Eventually, our lives took different paths and we became the kind of friends who didn’t make much effort to stay in touch, but who always found it easy to connect on the rare times we did get together.

Still, I was surprised at how much the news of her death hurt, and how many wonderful memories of our time together came flooding back. And then I realized that the strong relationships we form in our past can have a powerful effect on our lives for years afterwards.  Her friendship was not only a precious gift to me, it was also a part of my personal history, so the loss of my friend is still profound and the grief is still real.  I now know that true friendships are a life-long gift and need to be valued as such, no matter what the circumstances.

In this past year, I reconnected with an old college friend who I was dumb enough to lose touch with when she moved to another state.  She and her husband visited us twice, and we were instantly comfortable with each other, laughing and talking as freely as we did twenty years ago.  Words can’t express how grateful I am to be able to spend time with them again, and my husband and I are already planning a trip to visit them in the very near future.

I still don’t believe in living in the past.  But I have figured out that our personal histories, and the relationships we formed along our journey through life, have an enduring impact on who we are today.  Some of the relationships we had weren’t good for us, and we need to leave those behind.  But when we are lucky enough to find true friendship, we need to recognize it for exactly what it is:  a gift that is with us for life.

Christmas Gifts

When my husband and I first got married, buying Christmas presents for each other was easy.  We were young and strapped for cash, so we both had a long list of things that we really wanted and would be happy to find wrapped up under the tree on Christmas morning.  I always tried for a variety when purchasing my husband’s gifts, usually settling on something like  new after-shave lotion, a wallet, a flannel shirt and maybe a money clip.  My husband was a firm believer in going with a sure thing, which is why one year I received four wool skirts, purchased from the Bargain Basement of a local department store.  They were the exact same skirt, only in different colors.  And he knew I would like them and they were the right size, because I already had one hanging in my closet.  I actually saw him checking the tag on it one day in early December.

But as the years have gone by, Christmas shopping for each other has become more of a challenge.  My husband now has plenty of clothes, a good supply of after-shave lotion, and there’s only so many years in a row that I can get away with giving a money clip or a wallet. But the problem is that there’s rarely anything new or original on his Christmas list.  He usually asks for a new golf glove, even though he only plays golf about once a year.  Apparently, each time he plays, he manages to lose his glove.

I know he doesn’t have it any easier trying to buy me a gift.  Most of my favorite authors aren’t especially popular and their books are out of print and hard to find.  Since I have reached the age where my body has, how shall I say, both settled and expanded, I usually need to try on any new clothes before buying.  And like my husband, I honestly have all the things I need and most of the things I want.  (Or at least the sort of things that can be wrapped and put under a tree.  The last I checked, world peace, end to animal and child abuse, etc. don’t fit in a gift box.)

img_2121But that’s okay, because with each year that goes by, I find myself even less focused the gift-giving aspect of Christmas.  We will, of course, exchange some gifts with each other and our kids on Christmas morning, and it will be a fun time.  But those aren’t the real Christmas gifts at all.  The real gift was having some friends over for a Christmas celebration, all crammed together in my living room, talking and laughing.  It was having the kids and their spouses for dinner and a rowdy game of bingo, and then meeting them a few nights later for a drink at a festive, if somewhat tacky, pop-up Christmas bar.  And tonight, it will be singing Silent Night in a beautiful sanctuary, lit only by the candles in our hands.  It’s a magical moment that, for me, defines the whole Christmas season.

Christmas shopping may be more difficult these days, but as far as I’m concerned, my Christmas gifts–those moments and memories that I truly treasure–just keep getting better.

Wedding Moments

img_0566The big day finally came last Saturday, and my son is now officially married to the lovely young woman he has been dating for the last several years.   People have been asking me, “How did the wedding go?” and I answer, honestly if vaguely, “Very well, thank you.”  The thing is, my memories of that day are jumbled images that are all mixed up together in my mind.  I’ve always been told I’m a bit of a scatter-brain, and I guess this proves it. But that’s okay, because all of the images are good ones.

I remember waking up on the morning of the wedding and immediately checking to see if the weather forecast of a cool but sunny day was correct.  It was, which meant that it was a perfect Fall day for the outdoor ceremony.  I remember getting my hair done later that morning, and telling the stylist to be very generous with the hair spray so that my hair wouldn’t be drooping by that evening.  I believe my exact words were, “Use enough so that if I walk into a brick wall, the wall will be dented but my hair won’t.”  And she did. I think I finally washed the last of it out this morning.

img_2001I remember seeing my daughter-in-law in her wedding dress for the first time and how incredibly beautiful she looked,  but also thinking how lucky I am that my son chose to marry someone who is even more beautiful on the inside.   I remember seeing my son, all dressed up in his suit and tie and wondering exactly when my energetic, loving and creative little boy turned into such a handsome, intelligent and caring young man.  (I know I’m bragging here, but I’m a mother, and that’s one of the perks.  It makes up for all those years of dirty diapers and sleep deprivation.)

I remember blinking back a few tears during the ceremony, and not even being sure why, because I felt nothing but happiness at that moment.  Later, during the cocktail hour, I remember greeting so many friends and family, and feeling so grateful for each and every person who came to share the day.  I remember being nervous right before the mother and son dance, because I rarely dance and never like to be the center of attention.  But I followed my blogger friend Jodi’s advice and simply focused on my son, and enjoyed it so much that I was actually just a little sorry when it was over.  Who knew?

Once everyone was dancing, there was so much to notice I could hardly keep track.  I was touched when my son-in-law asked my mother to dance, and impressed with their moves on the dance floor.  I remember trying to follow along in a line dance, being glad I was at the back of the group, and my surprise when they all suddenly did an about-face and I found myself front and center.  (I have since learned that where you want to be in a group dance is in the exact middle, sandwiched in between tall people on all sides.)  I remember watching in awe as my son (who hates to dance) danced not only with his new wife, but with his grandmother, his friends, and (briefly) with his cousin Travis.

I remember posing for many photos, some serious and some silly, and texting a few to dear friends who were not able to attend the wedding, because we wanted to find a way to include them.  But mostly, I remember looking up to see my son, my daughter, my son-in-law and my new daughter in-law taking a group photo and thinking, “That’s my family now.  Those are my kids.”  And I couldn’t have been happier…..

A Picture of my Life

I just spent a happy morning at my computer, putting the finishing touches on a photo book of my daughter’s wedding.  Of course I have lots of pictures of the wedding, which are  either framed and displayed around my house or tucked into a huge photo album I bought especially for the occasion, and I’ll be getting a copy of the official wedding album from the professional photographer.  But I wanted to make a photo book using only the photos I selected, and doing it on-line means that I can easily shrink or enlarge the photos, and rearrange them until I am happy with the result.  Plus, photo books are much smaller and lighter than regular photo albums.  They’re so easy to take along when I’m visiting friends or relatives whom I’m sure would like nothing more than to look at at the photos of my daughter’s wedding one more time.

I know lots of mothers are a bit overly-enthusiastic about their daughter’s wedding pictures, but my enthusiasm (aka obsession) isn’t limited to the wedding photos.  I have thirty-one albums filled with photos, seven scrapbooks with pictures pasted in, and I keep my extra photos neatly labeled and organized in eight separate photo boxes.  I always keep some empty photo albums, just waiting to be filled, including the large one bought for my son’s upcoming wedding.  And just in case my print photos should be damaged in some kind of natural disaster or a house fire, I also have full photo cards in my safety deposit box, and keep copies of the pictures on CDs and stored on my computer.

Oddly, I’m not a skilled photographer and have never owned anything more complicated than a simple point-and-shoot camera.  I love photographs, but I don’t have the same passion for actually taking the pictures.  I think what I love about photos is that they remind me (a person with an absolutely rotten memory) of all that I have done in my life, all the places I have been, and all the people that I have known.  I’ve never gotten the hang of keeping a daily journal, but in a way, my photo albums are my journals.  The pictures in them are arranged in chronological order (of course), so if I’m having trouble remembering something from my past, all I have to do is get out the photo album from that year and look it up.  And it’s amazing how many memories come rushing back when I take the time to look through my old pictures.

Bernard and Martha_0013 (2)

I suppose what I’m really doing with my photos is documenting my life.  The old family pictures of relatives who died before I was even born remind me of where I came from,  and that I am a product of families that have been around for a long, long time.  All the photos taken after I was born chart the path of my life, both the good times and the bad.  (Note to self: home permanents are a really, really bad idea.)  Prominent people, of course, don’t have to document their lives, as others are happy to do it for them.  But for the rest of us, those who just muddle along doing ordinary things in ordinary ways, photographs work just fine.

Father’s Day Gifts

Like so many things in my life, Father’s Day has changed.  When I was a child, Father’s Day meant getting out my paper and crayons and making a home-made card for my father, to accompany the gift I had either made or purchased for a quarter at the local Ben Franklin store.  As I grew older, the cards and gifts I gave to my dad on Father’s Day became more sophisticated and expensive, but they were no more sincere than the clay ashtray I made for him two years after he gave up smoking. (I honestly don’t remember why that seemed like a good idea.)  And then came that afternoon in the grocery store five years ago when, out of sheer habit, I headed for the greeting card aisle to buy a Father’s Day card, before I suddenly and sadly realized that I no longer had either a father or a father-in-law to acknowledge with a card.

These days, my family’s Father’s Day celebrations are centered on my husband, who has been a father for almost thirty years now.  We usually meet at a restaurant of my husband’s choosing, since what he always wants most for Father’s Day is simply to spend time with his kids. (I try not to dwell on the fact that he always chooses to go out for a meal rather than have me cook it, as that could be a judgement on my cooking skills.)  It’s always a happy gathering, as we are fortunate to have wonderful relationships with our son and daughter and their significant others, and I know how lucky I am to have married a man who is not only a great husband, but a terrific father as well.

Still, there is always something a little bittersweet about Father’s Day.  Partly, it is the memories of the fathers that my husband and I have lost.  I don’t think we ever outgrow the desire to have a father in our lives, or ever stop missing them when they are gone.  All we can do is be grateful for the time we did have with them, the good memories, and the wisdom that they passed on when they shared the best of themselves with us.

Mom 1

And even as we are enjoying the company of our adult son and daughter, there is always a small part of us that remembers, and misses, the sweet years when they were growing up. I remember my toddler daughter running across the lawn to greet my husband when he came home from work, calling “Dee!  Dee!” as she ran.  (“Daddy” was still too hard for her to say.) And my husband still cherishes the framed, painted handprint my son made him in Sunday school class when he was just three years old.  Even though he always worked at a demanding, full-time job, my husband found time to be very active in our children’s lives, coaching their sports teams, advising them, playing games with them, and generally just being there whenever they needed him.

So, yes, Father’s Day is a bit more complicated now that I am in late middle age, but it is still a very good day.  It’s a time to remember and appreciate the father and father-in-law I had, to cherish the memories of my husband’s relationship with our kids while they were growing up, and to celebrate the family we are now.  Sometimes complicated is good.

 

Christmas Presence

One of my earliest Christmas memories is of sitting at the kitchen table with my father, working together to make “shadow box” nativity scene.  Shadow boxes were popular at the time, and as far as I can remember, they consisted of a box that housed knick-knacks or scenes in a decorative wooden box covered with glass to protect the contents.  Since I was about five years old at the time, we were making our shadow box out of a cardboard shoe box.

We had gone out into the back yard to cut some dormant, yellowed zoysia grass, which we glued on the bottom of the box to represent straw.  We glued strips of brown construction paper to the walls for the stable beams, and added a blue square window complete with gold star stickers on the back wall. Then we glued down the ceramic figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in the manger, with a little plastic angel standing guard.  Finally, we taped on clear plastic wrap to cover the whole front of the box.  I thought it was absolutely beautiful.

Our family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but we always got a nice pile of presents for Christmas, and almost always got the gift we wanted the most of all (not counting the Shetland pony I was always secretly hoping for).  But as much as I looked forward to unwrapping my presents on Christmas morning, as happy as I was with the presents I received, I have forgotten almost all of them by now.  Sometimes my memory is helped by looking at an old photo and thinking, “Oh, that was the year I got the Chatty Cathy doll,” but I can’t remember that on my own, or even a few days after I look at the photo.

What I do remember, easily and clearly, is sitting at the kitchen table with my father, working together to make that cardboard shadow box.  I remember how special it made me feel that he was taking the time to teach me how to make something beautiful out of some dried-out grass, construction paper, ceramic figures and a cardboard shoe box.

IMG_0938I have no idea how long that cardboard shadow box actually lasted…our household had lots of rambunctious kids, so the chances are, it didn’t last very long…but I still have the figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the angel.  And even though they are old and chipped, I still put them out every year, to remind me that the best Christmas gifts aren’t the ones we put under the tree.

Legacy

IMG_0911I love a good estate sale.   Nothing is quite so much fun as spotting an estate sale sign when I actually have time to stop and check it out.  I’ve found good pieces of older furniture, lovely glass serving dishes, antique Christmas ornaments, books, tools, old linens that I can donate to the Humane Society, and lots of other useful stuff.  I especially like going on the second day of the sale, when there isn’t quite as much to choose from, but everything that remains is marked “half off.”  I’ve found some terrific bargains that way.

But even though I love estate sales, wandering through the houses in search of bargain-priced treasures is also just a little bit sad.  I can usually get a pretty good sense of who lived in the house, even though I’ve never met them.  As I go from room to room, I can see what the person’s taste was in books, home furnishings and clothing.  Sometimes, looking through the remains of their worldly possessions, I can even tell where they went to church, what their hobbies were, or what they did for a living.   I am reminded that the items for sale belonged to a real person at one time, and some of those things were probably very special to them.  And yet now they are sitting in an empty house with a price tag attached, being pawed through by total strangers.  I can’t help but wonder how that would make the person who owned them feel.

IMG_0346Even though I’m a minimalist at heart, I know that sometimes I still spend way too much time and money acquiring possessions, especially the things that are special to me.  I have certain authors that I love and I buy every book of theirs that I can get my hands on, and I have eight prints hanging on my walls by my favorite local artist.  Even though the two Christmas trees I put up every year are already loaded with glass antique ornaments, I still buy more, if they are in good shape and reasonably priced.  Every single room in my house has at least one thing in it that I treasure. And yet I know that some day (hopefully in the distant future), any and all of it could end up in my estate sale, priced to sell quickly.

The thing is, no matter how much “treasure” we manage to accumulate in our lives, there’s no guarantee that any of it is going to be valued when we’re gone.  Our stuff is not who we are, and it’s not what people are going to remember us by.  When I shop those estate sales, I can understand only a little bit of the person whose possessions I’m sorting through.  I may see their tastes and some of their life story, but I have no idea how they acted, how they treated other people or what their deepest values were.  Because I didn’t know that person, and I only see the stuff they’ve left behind.

So I don’t want to make the mistake of putting too much value on my things, even the things I value the most.  When I’m gone, I know that what I’ll really be remembered by was whether I was kind or cruel, generous or selfish, willing to take risks or always playing it safe, etc.  In short, I’ll be remembered by how much I was willing to try, in my own clumsy way, to make the world around me a better place.  That’s not something that will be put in my will or sold at my estate sale, but ultimately, it’s the only legacy that really matters.