Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Write Stuff

Wow. We've nearly reached the end of 2014. I can't say it's been a stellar year for me, but I've certainly had much, much worse. This is the second year in a row I haven't finished writing a book. I would like to break this trend in the coming year.

I've noticed a preponderance of posts on Facebook about writing rules...grammar rules...punctuation rules... Now, I have nothing against rules, in general. But sometimes rules get in the way of writing. This morning I read a list of ways to determine if you're a grammar nerd. One of them was 'mentally correct books you're reading'.

Here's what I've observed through years of reading lots of books (on average about four hundred books a year): If you are more interested in 'correcting' the story than reading it, you're wasting your time. A story should grab you by the short hairs and drag you along for the ride. It should involve your heart and soul so thoroughly you barely have time to breathe as you flip page after page, racing to keep up. You lose yourself in a real story. Nothing matters. Punctuation. Grammar. Vocabulary. Nothing matters except the story.

If that's not happening when you read, why are you doing it?

When I'm editing/revising my own work, the way I know I have it right is when I get so involved in reading the story, I forget to edit it. Think about it. If you aren't caught up in your own story, why would anyone else be?

That's the kind of stories I want to write in 2015. The write stuff.


Monday, December 29, 2014

The Late Christmas Child

My last Christmas post for 2014...

Christmas 2003. It was a busy, busy year. In June we moved from New York to Maryland because the house hunk was transferred. Moving is always stressful, but this time it was particularly so because we lived in our last home for nineteen years. So much stuff. So much stuff to sort and get rid of or throw out! Then in mid-September Hurricane Isabel roared into Maryland. Fortunately, we were not near the flooding, though one of the trees behind our building ended up on our balcony.

Our younger daughter was pregnant, due in late December. We made arrangements to stay with our oldest son. Our daughter and her boyfriend were staying in a small room so Christmas was celebrated at our son's apartment. No baby. It appeared that the baby was in no hurry to arrive. We made arrangements to wait the baby out, but by December 29th, we were running out of our medications and reluctantly made the decision to go home the next day. That afternoon our daughter called, "Don't go yet! I've started labor!"

In a little while, her boyfriend called. "She wants you to be here when the baby's born." So we hopped in the car and made the forty-five minute drive across the Hudson River to the hospital. When we arrived, he was waiting for us and ushered us up to the maternity floor.
She didn’t quite make it for Christmas, but on December 29th close to midnight, the househunk and I were with my daughter and her boyfriend, present when Daisha Monet made her entrance. 

Witnessing the miracle of a new baby never gets old. The precious gift of a new life—especially at Christmas—is a reminder of the real reason we celebrate Christmas.

She's eleven this year. Happy Birthday, baby!!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve Tacos

We have tacos every Christmas Eve. Why? As a remembrance of friendship above and beyond the usual. In this vignette, I tell the story.


Christmas 1981. We lived in Houston, Texas, far from our families. My dad called to tell the hunk he needed to come home. His father was very ill. We could not afford for everyone to go and our daughters were both in bed with the flu. We decided he would take our sons with him (mostly because I knew he would have to make frequent stops if they were along). When they arrived in Chicago, my parents planned to take the boys to Indiana to stay with them.

I was fine until Christmas Eve. Then the loneliness engulfed me. My friends were all busy with their extended family gatherings. My extended family lived far away. My daughters were sleeping the holidays away, too sick to care if they had gifts or not. I was feeling underprivileged and deprived as I stood at my kitchen counter eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The telephone rang. My friend, Linda, inquired about my plans for the evening. I admitted that I didn't have much planned except a shower and bed. She told me to get my purse and coat ready. Lester, her husband, was already on the way over to pick up my girls and me. We were invited to her home for the evening. I protested that the girls were sick. She pointed out they could sleep at her house as well as mine.

When Lester arrived, we wrapped the girls in blankets and carried them out to the car. The trip to their home was only a couple blocks away so the girls slept through the journey and were soon cozily asleep in bed. We spent the evening quietly, playing board games, eating tacos, and singing along with Handel’s Messiah. It was a lovely peaceful evening. Just after midnight, Lester drove us home.

On Christmas Eve our family has tacos as a remembrance of that Christmas Eve spent with loving, compassionate friends. Of all of my friends, they were the ones who saw my need and acted. It was an action made more remarkable because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not believe in observance of holidays… not even Christmas.

A miracle.


Anny

As a footnote... in 2011 I found Linda on Facebook and we've reconnected. Isn't life grand?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Long Road Home

Every year I reprint a few of the Christmas memories I've shared from the past. This is from Christmas 1989. May all those traveling this Christmas be safe...

Christmas 1989. “Please come if you can. Uncle Charles has terminal cancer and probably won’t be with us next Christmas.”

For many years in my family, holidays (Christmas and Thanksgiving) have been alternated with the in-laws. This year was not a our family Christmas, but the family was trying to get together anyway. It wasn’t a great year for us. My husband was on disability because of an accident at work. I was on unemployment because my company, Waldenbooks, had moved their warehouse operation from New York to Tennessee. The boys, recently graduated from high school, were out of work, since they had also been employed there. Jobs were scarce with 700 unemployed warehouse workers suddenly in the job market. I was attending school as a dislocated worker, hoping to obtain the skills for a new job.

“Please come.” Our car was shot. There was barely enough for a gift for each of the kids. Friends had provided Christmas dinner components for us. The trip from New York to Indiana was out of the question. Reluctantly, I called my parents with the news.

The kids asked us if we could talk for a few minutes. “Suppose we give up our present money…would we have enough gas money to get there?” one of them asked.
My younger son offered to change the oil and do a quick check up on the car. The older one pointed out that we could take turns driving. The car had very little heat…but my older daughter suggested that we could take extra blankets.

Slowly, one objection at a time, they showed us that we could make the trip. I called my parents in LaPorte, Indiana and suggested that they make some extra beds.

We traveled to LaPorte, stopping only for restrooms and coffee. Our car was a tight squeeze for five small people. We had six large people. The kids said that was a good thing as we all stayed warmer that way. Meals were sandwiches eaten in the car. In Ohio, we ran into snow. The car heater didn’t work well enough to defrost the windows so they began to freeze over. There were frequent stops to clear them, but we made it. After eighteen hours on the road we arrived in LaPorte. There was close to a foot of snow on the ground.

It was a great Christmas, rendered more poignant because of Uncle Charles’ illness. There were more family members there than at anytime before or since. Two came from Guam. Others came from all over the United States. Close to 70 people sat down for Christmas dinner. Afterwards there were games, carols, and visiting.

A couple of days later the trip home was longer as there was more snow to contend with. In Pennsylvania, the snow was so heavy that it melted on the headlights, creating a sheet of ice that coated them. We stopped frequently to clear them just so we had light. Cars were sliding off the road. It was night. Plows couldn’t keep up with the storm. The rest areas were closed. We had no money to stay anywhere so we kept moving. Twenty-six hours later, we arrived safely home.

Anyone who has traveled with teenagers knows that it’s impossible to travel far without petty squabbles and picking. However, our entire trip, bad weather, extremely uncomfortable conditions, with limited money, there wasn’t a cross word from anyone.

A miracle. Several, in fact.

anny
© 2007 Anny Cook

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Surprise

The end of that year was an incredibly turbulent time. In November on my fourteenth birthday, President Kennedy was assassinated. It was in the beginning years of the Vietnam War. The Cuban Missile crisis was not long before that. Uncertainty was everywhere. So herewith, the story of Christmas 1963.


Christmas 1963. That was the year that Christmas wasn’t going to bring even one gift…we thought. It was a poor financial year. I didn’t exactly know that we were poor. We had plenty to eat. We had clean, warm clothes. We had a warm, sheltering apartment in Chicago that my stepmother, Maxine, worked hard to make a haven for us.

Now that I am a parent and grandparent I realize how difficult it must have been for her to sit us down a few weeks before Christmas and explain that there wasn’t any money for gifts. If all the money she had managed to save was pooled, we could have a special Christmas dinner. Back then there were no such things as food banks or church assistance.

Soberly, we considered the dilemma, and then one by one, we agreed that a special dinner was the best use for the money we had. Once that was settled, we put it behind us and life went on.

A couple weeks before Christmas, Mum told all of us to hurry home immediately after school, as there would be a surprise. Friends of the family planned to bring each of us a gift and wished to be present when we opened them. So on this day, I slung my books into my locker at school and rushed home. Pounding up the stairs to our second floor apartment, I eagerly flung open the door—and froze in my tracks.

Every level surface in both the dining and living rooms was covered with gifts. Piles of beautifully, lovingly decorated boxes with bows and trinkets. A tree twinkled merrily in the corner. The melodies of familiar Christmas carols filled the air. Unexpectedly, Christmas had come to our home.

As I stood in the open doorway, I could not imagine what had happened. Certainly, we didn't get rich overnight. I shut the door before walking around the rooms gently touching the lovely boxes. Mum, more excited than I had ever seen her, urged me to look in the kitchen where two boxes of groceries, a ten-pound ham, fifty pounds of potatoes, and a five pound box of chocolates sat on the table. A special Christmas dinner indeed!

In a little while, when my brothers came home from school and my dad arrived from work, we opened the gifts. Of all the Christmases in my life, this is the one I can remember every single thing I received--not because I was a greedy kid, but because they were all gifts of sacrifice from strangers.

Our family friends were a minister and his wife with a church in Indiana. One of their church families approached them, seeking a family that wasn’t going to have any gifts for Christmas. The parents and children of this church family voted to give up their Christmas gifts so that a family, unknown to them, would have a special Christmas.

The minister and his wife undertook the responsibility of obtaining clothing sizes and special needs, plus transportation and delivery of the gifts. And they delivered our heartfelt thank you letter to the anonymous family.

As Christmas grows closer, whether we are rich or poor, I look back on that Christmas and know that we are blessed because we are together. Every year I remember the blessing of being loved unconditionally by strangers.

A miracle.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Gift of Giving

Every year at Christmas, the overwhelming, unceasing rush to provide more, more, more strikes me in the heart. When did more start to equal better? Sometimes, more can't cut it. Sometimes...sometimes the best gift is the gift of service to others. 

Christmas 1960. A bleak, un-Christmasy year. My mother died at the end of May in an automobile accident in the midst of our move to Gary, Indiana where we were strangers. We had family there but I felt disconnected and lonely. It wasn’t Christmas without my mother and our own family rituals. I did not like snow and cold weather when it wasn’t a novelty. I didn’t like the schools. I didn’t like the teachers or neighbors. Most of all I didn’t like the kids that made fun of my soft, gentle Arizona accent.

My grandmother was living with us, keeping the house together, cooking and cleaning. She noticed that I felt left out. One day, she gave me a miracle. It was the miracle of belonging.

She invited me into her bedroom and shut the door. On her bed, heaps of wrapping paper, bows and boxes overflowed. Shopping bags on the floor bulged with any number of secrets and surprises.
“I need a helper,” she confided, “so that I will be ready for Christmas, but it must be a very special helper—one who can keep secrets no matter what the cost. Would you like to be my helper?”

My heart squeezed tight within my chest. Absolutely positively! She patiently taught me how to wrap presents, cut the paper, miter the corners, remove the price tags, mark the names on the gift tags… Looking back, I know she could have wrapped them in half the time it took to teach me, but oh! what a gift she gave me when she trusted me to keep her secrets. For several years, on and off, I wrapped her Christmas gifts. It was my contribution. It meant that I belonged.

Grandmother is gone now. Every Christmas as I wrap presents, I use every skill that she taught me, including her most important one: to look around and notice the person on the fringes of the family celebration and draw them into the heart of the family by allowing them a “special” responsibility, the gift of being needed.

As my children grew up, each traveled through the “lonelies”—times when they were on the outside looking in. I tried to take care to ask them to serve in a “special” capacity. Individually, they decorated the tree or house, wrapped presents, shopped for the whole family, baked cookies, assembled toys that were labeled “no assembly required.” Each year Grandmother’s legacy lingers in the memory and in the heart.

A miracle.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Let There Be Peace on Earth


The first time I heard this song was at my oldest daughter's Christmas pageant the year she was in fourth grade. The elementary school had no place big enough to hold the pageant so it was held in the high school auditorium. The program was creative and joyous and enjoyed by all the parents and families.

Near the end of the evening, teachers dressed as reindeer took the stage with a rolicking skit and song. As I was enjoying it, awareness of a shuffle and hiss crept in and I realized that the children were silently lining the walls around the auditorium.

The lights went out. A deep silence filled the huge room.

And then one young voice soared in the darkness. "Let there be peace on earth..." A tiny light flicked on lighting her face.

A few more voices joined in...just a few from points all around us. "And let it begin with me."

More lights. More voices until we were ringed in light and earnest small voices singing about peace on earth. I think about that song often. I think about how we still don't understand the underlying truth of the words..."let it begin with me" for peace does not begin with warriors. Peace is protected by warriors when all else has failed. Peace begins with each of us.

Most people believe that peace is an absence of war. That isn't true. Peace is an absence of conflict. And true peace will not arrive until we as humans refuse to countenance abuse, intolerance, genocide, greed, and famine. As long as we turn away from the less fortunate ignoring the needs of the many in favor of the wants of the few, there will be no peace on earth.

"Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me..."

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas at Dawn

Christmas 1959. I was ten years old. Our family lived in Globe, Arizona, but we had traveled by automobile to Gary, Indiana. It was before the days of interstate highways and my parents drove many hours, late into the nights, to arrive by Christmas. My younger brothers and I occupied ourselves by discussing and boasting about the snowmen we were going to build when we arrived “up North.”
 
We arrived safely (our first miracle) in the cold pre-dawn hours. It was a cold, damp, windy morning with nary a snowflake in sight. Dad stopped at a gas station so that we could freshen up. The restrooms were unheated, providing us with an excellent reason to speed through our clean-up. With our faces washed and our hair combed, so that we were presentable, we piled back into the car and traveled the few blocks to my Aunt Betty and Uncle John’s house.
 
There, as we shivered under a barely lightened sky, my Dad was struck by an inspiration. He gathered us in a tight group on the small front stoop—and at 6:00 AM—we began bellowing out the strains of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
 
Now it stand to reason that SOMEBODY would want to shut us up, but nobody came. Dad led us into a second verse, urging us to sing louder.
 
Still no reaction.
 
The wind whipped up, cutting through our light coats. Lips turned blue and strands of hair blew across our eyes as he led us through a third teeth-chattering verse.
 
Nobody came. Mom rang the doorbell as he launched into the first verse again. Uncle John flung the door open and demanded, “Who is it!” before he recognized us and invited us in.
 
Later there were a few chuckles when he described his mad dash from room to room searching for the radio that someone had left on. During our visit, my brothers and I waited in vain for snow, knowing we only had a few days to spend there. At last, our hopes for snow dashed, we headed home. Oh, we had a great time milling around with our cousins, roaming in small packs from room to room, but in some small secret place within, a little snow would have been perfect.
 
After a long boring trip, suffering from holiday letdown, we arrived home safely (another miracle). Dad parked in front of our small house. We sat in the car staring out the foggy windows in amazement at our snow-covered yard. The cactus plants in the corners had spiky snow beards. There wasn’t enough snow to build a snowman, but we had a great snowball fight before we unpacked the car.
 
A miracle.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Chicken in Every Pot

First stated by Henry IV of France as, "I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday," and later in the United States during the Hoover campaign for presidency as part of an advertisement.~~Wikidictionary

For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land. ~~Deuteronomy 15:11 KJV





I remember when a chicken dinner on Sunday was a marvelous treat. For much of my life, we were down on the poverty level. I think the difference between then and now was folks knew how to garden, how to shop so their dollars stretched until they snapped, and how to cook in order to make the most of what they had. In my childhood, eating in a restaurant was so rare I could count those times with the fingers on one hand: once when I was eight and my father and three brothers were in the hospital my mother and I had burritos at a tiny roadside cafe on the way to visit them (an hour long drive); once the day before my mother's funeral my aunt and uncle took me for a hamburger, thinking I might be more inclined to eat away from the chaos at my grandparents home; once when I was staying with a cousin in a hotel in Chicago; and once when my parents took us all to a Chinese restaurant after we shoveled our car out from a twenty-six inch snowfall. 

I do not count the three or four Christmases my step-uncle took my brothers and I to a famous smorgasbord and puppet show in Chicago. That was a Christmas gift.



TV dinners, prepackaged goods, microwave dinners didn't exist. Vegetable came fresh or canned. Meat usually was purchased at the butcher (fresh ground hamburger while you wait--thirty cents a pound). All our bread was bought at the day old bakery around the corner. Every night dinner consisted of a meat, a starch, and two vegetables. We never went hungry.

Now candy, cake, and other sweets--that was an entirely different matter. Cake was something that appeared on birthdays or other special occasions. We got a few pieces of candy at Christmas. And soda...I don't remember ever having soda. Until I left home on my eighteenth birthday we had milk every night with dinner. Not whole milk. Mom mixed dry milk with whole milk, half each. I never actually had whole milk until I was living on my own. Except back when my dad was working as a milkman. 

The point is, we were never hungry and ate well because my parents gardened, shopped carefully, and prepared the food in a way that gave them the most for their money. Occasionally, someone in our church would 'donate' the extras from their garden. Whatever it was, we ate it. There wasn't any such thing as not eating something because you didn't like it. If you weren't allergic, then you ate it.

I have a notion a lot of folks wouldn't survive now. The other day I read a blog about what to donate to a food pantry and while I agree with some of it (if you wouldn't eat it or feed to your family, then don't donate it), I was also a little put out by the volunteers who reported some people wanted more cookies or sweets or refused fresh veggies. I've had time to think about it since then.

We've reared a generation completely unfamiliar with 'real' food. There are children who don't know where French fries, ketchup, and other foods come from. They've never eaten a banana or orange or carrot or apple. They don't know that milk and meat come from animals. I'm not talking about some third world country here. Those children live so close to the earth they know exactly where food comes from. I talking about American children--children growing up in one of the richest countries on earth.

A chicken in every pot? We'll have to teach folks how to cook them first.


 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Grinch's Heart

Today is my daughter and son-in-law's first anniversary--the second time around. It's also my son-in-law's birthday. So in their honor, because they didn't give up, I'm posting this Christmas story about the beginning. Oh, yeah. The 'baby' in this story turned seventeen this year.

Christmas 1997. Well, there we were. Life, as usual, had twisted us in knots. We were short on money, long on bills, and the holiday was around the corner, nipping at our wallets. That year we had a new miracle in our family. Her name was T* M* and she wasn't old enough to know that she was a miracle.

I watched her being born back in September. My younger daughter and her husband were having tough times so they were living with us… which meant that I got to see T* every day. She was nearly three months old and changing almost by the hour.

Back in my more arrogant days, among the many silly things I said, was one particular gem—that none of my children would be allowed to move back in with me once they were on their own. I’ve been forced to eat my words several times. That Christmas both of my daughters were living with us! In any case, I have found that God generally gets what he wills, one way or the other. That June, in a matter of twenty minutes, he simply removed all other options. God was determined to give me a blessing I didn’t want.

Tough times can shrivel the soul. On the outside, I carried on, but on the inside, like the Grinch, my heart was several sizes too small. And then, God sent T* into my life. Life was still tough. There was little income and large out-go. But when I came home from work and held my granddaughter, things were okay. I had forgotten how precious the little children are. I harbored resentments and bitterness because of my own failures with my children. With this tiny baby, I was able at last to forgive myself for my failures and simply allow myself to love her without expectations or conditions. When I watched her young parent's faces when they held her and cared for her, then I knew that I did something right. A miracle. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Expectations

This is the time of year when we talk about what we're gonna do. Bake. Cook. Buy presents. Decorate the house. Travel or invite company over. Shop like mad and spend money we don't have. It's all about expectations--ours and others.

Over the years I did the entire baking/shopping/buying/traveling/decorating gamut--mostly because I strived to meet someone else's expectations. We do everything we can to make sure our children, our parents and families, our friends are not disappointed. Somewhere along the line we give up thinking about what we want.

This year the hunk and I are staying home. We don't exchange gifts as there isn't anything we want or need. We'll cook what we want--I confess it will mostly be distressingly healthy. On Christmas Eve we'll have our traditional tacos, of course.

Christmas morning, long after most folks have tumbled out of bed and ripped the wrappings off presents, we'll have a leisurely breakfast, listen to Christmas carols, and putz around. Later in the day we'll cook dinner. Maybe we'll watch something on Netflix.

I don't know if we'll decorate or not. It all depends on whether we're ambitious enough to haul out the tree and ornaments. We may only set up the Nativity we've had for the last thirty years. And some candles.

Now I understand this would not be an ideal Christmas for most folks. And in the past, I might have been disappointed to bypass the company, the decorating, the baking. But the truth is I'm ready for a peaceful, non-demanding holiday with my spouse. I suspect our expectations change as we age and move on to a new stage in life. Maybe, just maybe, we don't pause to reflect and consider how our expectations might have changed over the transitions.

Some folks confess they don't have the 'holiday spirit'. I don't think that's the problem, but rather I believe those folks might be hankering for a different style celebration. The trappings don't make the holiday. The heart does. This year...follow your heart.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Santa's Helper

For those who follow my blog, you know I post several Christmas Vignettes from my past throughout the month of December. Mostly, I do it to remind myself of all the blessings I've been given through the years. Since today is my son's birthday, I post this story in his honor.

Christmas 1979. That was the year we stretched the budget to get the kids’ bicycles. At our house, Santa always brings a stuffed animal. It was my feeling that Santa bringing tons of presents sets up kids for unrealistic expectations. No matter how the year goes, a stuffed animal is always doable. And after that, whatever Mom and Dad can come up with is great.

My kids had a realistic idea of our money situation from the time we sat them down and let them pay the bills with real money. My house hunk had his check cashed at the bank in $1 bills. Then we sat down with the kids and let them count out the money for each bill. We did that for six weeks. If there was any money left over after the bills we let them do the grocery shopping with a calculator and count out the money for the food.

After that when we said there was no money, they understood that reality. To this day, they’re all very good managers. This particular Christmas was important to us as a family as the previous Christmas had been very, very bad. We didn’t have a lot of money, but there was a bit more than usual so we decided that we could afford to buy bicycles.

Of course when your kids are pre-teen age, hiding bicycles is a pretty tricky proposition. Finally, we simply made the garage off-limits. Late Christmas Eve the house hunk and I were out there trying to assemble three bicycles. The store would have assembled them, but that cost money that we couldn’t afford. One needed training wheels. Things did not go well.

Around 2 AM, the door opened and my second son trotted out there with his hands in his pockets. First of all, I was startled that he was still dressed. And then of course I demanded to know why he was awake.

“Well,” he said, “I thought I would see how long it took you to put them together. But it’s late. I’m tired. And I would like to ride my bike tomorrow. So I gave up. Do you want me to put them together?”

His father handed him the wrenches. “If you think you can do better than we are, go for it.” Thirty minutes later all three bikes were assembled and parked by the tree.

My son was nine years old that Christmas. Until he left for the Navy, it was always his responsibility to assemble all the gifts marked “Some Assembly Required.”

That year Santa brought the kids stuffed Safari animals—lions, tigers, and such. Up until a few years ago, they still had them. And then they decided to donate them to a kid’s program. As I recall, that was the sum total of Christmas gifts that year, except for the perennial favorite… new underwear. To this day, that’s a family in-joke.


Blessings and Happy Birthday, Tony!