Putting a little polish on the new year

My mother was an excellent housekeeper. The woman never once wrote her name in the dust on a piece of furniture to decide if she needed to clean.

Nor did she ever stand on a chair to make herself the height of a tall son-in-law to see if she should wipe down the top of the refrigerator.

She had a few surgeries over the years, and before each one she’d have my father move the stove out from the wall so she could clean behind it. Who can relax under a general anesthetic if you know there might be dust balls lurking behind the stove?

The entire house was neat and organized. Even the kitchen junk drawer knew better than to slouch in disarray. There was a place for everything and everything was in its place.

We had a clothesline in the backyard of our first house. Mom would hang the sheets outside for maximum clean and freshness. If storm clouds gathered, she would fly to the backyard, race down the lines, rip pins off and throw the sheets in the bag, then race back to the house as the rain started, satisfied that a major catastrophe had been averted.

We were spoiled rotten with fresh bedding, fresh linens and cookies fresh from the oven. There is a compelling allure to fresh: the beginning of a school year, the start of a marriage, the birth of a child, moving to a new place, starting a new job.

Fresh is the draw of the new year—turning the calendar to a new beginning that is not yet muddled and cluttered, marked with rings from coffee cups and neglected To Do lists scrawled in the margins.

A new year will dawn fresh. It always does.

The question is—will I?

Maybe I need to do some housekeeping myself. A good sweeping would find some interesting tidbits in the dust pan – a lazy habit or two and new challenges that fell by the wayside.

How about that layer of dust building? The sort you can write your name in. The dust goes by the name resentment and it is time for it to go.

Maybe it’s time to clean out all those drawers crammed with junk — the ones holding old tapes that replay the things I regret doing and the things I wish I had done.

I could use some polish as well — a readiness to listen more than I talk. Glass cleaner is in order, too—something to remove the smudges for a clearer view of the things that matter and things that don’t.

Cleaning is rarely my first choice of activities, but I have my broom, dustpan and furniture polish in hand, ready to go. Here’s to fresh starts and a new year.

Search is on for the missing Jesus

Jesus is missing.

We’ve unpacked all the decorations, hung the bulbs and lights on the tree, arranged the Christmas carolers on a shelf, looped artificial evergreens around the banister and smacked a wreath on the front of the house.

No Jesus. Can’t find him anywhere.

We bought him at a downtown dime store on our lunch hour the first year we were married, along with Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph came undone long ago, but baby Jesus held on.

Plastic. About 2 inches by 3 inches. Bright blue eyes, pink lips and full head of blond curls. He looks nothing at all like a true newborn, let alone a Middle Eastern Jewish newborn, but still. We have history together.

Until now. No Jesus. No peace.

There’s only so much hunting, fretting and stewing you can do before it’s time to move on. Still, it nags me that he is nowhere to be seen.

I dash to the grocery store, throw it in park, grab my wallet, cell phone and list. A Salvation Army bell ringer greets people with a big smile on the way in. Not now. I’m stressed by my own carelessness and in a hurry.

I race down the aisles, grab things and get in line. It’s the cashier with the bad teeth. Sometimes they hurt so that she squeezes the side of her head against her neck. Counter pressure to the pain. She has four teeth that need pulling but hasn’t had the money. As we talk, she says a health clinic run by a church downtown pulled her bad teeth. She feels better now. The constant pain is gone. She looks good today. She’s a stern woman, but I almost thought I saw her smile.

On the way out the door, I nearly smack into a woman who stopped abruptly by the bell ringer. I maneuver around her and see she is rustling through her handbag. She pulls out a couple of greenbacks, carefully folds them and tucks them into the red bucket.

“Merry Christmas!” the bell ringer booms.

The sun is setting and traffic is stalling. The wait at the stop light by the row of fast food franchises is interminable.

The usual characters are out, the ones with cardboard signs. You can never tell who is destitute and who is scamming.

A man in a hooded parka dodges between cars, crossing two lanes of traffic, clutching a Chick-fil-A bag. He places it in the hands of a weathered man with an even more weathered sign. They exchange nods and smiles and the man in the parka dashes away.

The sky has turned soft pink, swirled with brush strokes of orange and ripples of turquoise. I hit the radio. Two shootings, a baby beaten by the mother’s boyfriend and more sex scandals. Why did I turn it on?

Headlights and taillights glow as evening falls. I turn into the subdivision behind a friend’s car. She’s probably returning from her parents. She’s been caring for them for 10 years.

Sentence fragments and random phrases float through my mind.

I carry groceries into a dark house and walk from room to room flipping on the lights. The bare spot on the piano where the baby Jesus should be looks at me accusingly.

The sentence fragments meld together. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:35-36.

I wonder if I’ll ever see that small representation of Jesus again.

Maybe I just did.

Naughty or nice? Grandma makes the call

When we gave my mother a grandma necklace years ago, we never dreamed a woman could get so much mileage out of a simple gold chain with five little figurines.

Mom loved wearing the necklace. She said it was a way to keep the grandkids close to her heart. The thing was, you never knew how many grandkids were close to her heart. Some days all five might be on the chain; other days there might be only three or four.

“I see one of the grandkids is missing, Mom. What happened?”

“Your brother’s youngest smarted off. I took him off the chain until he straightens out.”

If one of the grandkids got cheeky with her, she took them off the necklace. She didn’t really take them off, but she would fling their figurine around to the back of the chain. Swinging in style one minute, gone from glory the next.

She told whichever kids had been acting up that they could come back to the front of the necklace and join the others when they straightened out. She was a matriarch who knew how to hold a crowd.

Her antics with the grandma necklace were second only to the Great Pillow Caper. Mom and Dad, completely devoid of all rationality, once rented a huge van to take 11 of us a fair distance to a family reunion. It was a tight fit, elbows in one another’s rib cages, window space at a premium, crying babies and cranky kids. Squabbles mounted on the long drive home. A dispute ensued between a couple of the kids over a pillow.

Grandma demanded the pillow be passed up front to her and announced she would “dispose” of the matter once and for all. She lowered her window. Then raised it; then lowered it.

The kids were spellbound.

Kids nothing —we all were.

Someone yelled, “Do it, Grandma! Show ‘em what you’re made of!”

Of course, she wouldn’t really throw a pillow out of a vehicle window, which would be both illegal and hazardous, but it did keep the kids at rapt attention with the possibility that she might.

The fighting stopped immediately. Those children, now all adults, are exceptionally well-behaved on long car-trips but have an aversion to traveling with pillows.

Being that the grandma baton has been passed to the next generation, it only seemed fitting that I, too, have a means of holding a crowd. I, too, have a grandma necklace.

There are nine little figurines on the chain. The grands know that I love wearing it and love keeping them close to my heart. They also know that jumping out of closets in order to hear me scream, or commenting about the wrinkles around my eyes will get them removed from the necklace.

Periodically, chaos erupts when we are all together and an instigator will run over, check the necklace to make sure he or she is still in place, then take off yelling, “I’m still on the necklace!”

“For now you are! Don’t push it!”


Warped comments fly at warp speed

A friend who has a peculiar habit of thinking before she speaks refers to the seamy side of what transpires on social media as “popping off.”

“That’s all it is,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “Just people popping off.”

It is a struggle to remember life before people began popping off, before you could barb someone with a snarky comment, take a swipe at someone on another continent, or decimate a total stranger in 240 characters or less.

In an effort to limit my exposure to all the popping off, I make it a practice to avoid the comments sections that follow online news stories. Except for when I don’t. My self-control needs work.

I fall off the wagon every now and then and read a few comments. Then, there I sit, picking crumbs out of the computer keyboard, wondering if there is intelligent life left on the planet.

We all have opinions. People always have had opinions. Just like people have always had conflicting opinions. But there’s something different about disagreements today.

Perhaps it’s the pseudo anonymity that spurs us, or the adrenalin rush of speed, seeing thoughts fly from our fingertips into cyberspace. Whatever the impetus, we seem to be—and I don’t know how to put this gently—a bit more, well, rotten.

Nasty. Aggressive. Bellicose. Belligerent.

Being that I can be given to popping off, I once wrote some dictums on an index card that I keep in a desk drawer. I would do well to look at the card more often and I tell myself I must. But then that old problem with self-control pops up again.

The first one asks, “Is my opinion timely?”

Timely is not about being the first out of the gate. We’ve mastered that one.
Timely is about finding the apt moment. Maybe I don’t need to say what I wanted to say right now. Maybe the opportunity passed, or maybe what I have to say would be better heard at a different time and in a different setting.

The second one asks, “Is what I am about to say true?”

Is it true because it came from my friend’s former co-worker with an aunt in Montana whose daughter, now living in the D.C. area, does yoga with the niece of the person under discussion? Or is it true because I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes?

If I knowingly say something of a dubious nature, or patently false, I should probably ask myself, “Why do I like throwing gasoline on the fire?”

The third question asks, “Is what I am about to say kind?”

I know—what if it’s not kind, but it’s true? Truth cancels out kindness, right? Not so fast. With some finesse, grace and thoughtfully chosen words, it is possible to speak the truth with kindness. I’ve seen it done. Once. I think it was on a Tuesday.

Finally, “Is what I am about to say necessary?”

As much as I’d like to think what I have to say is necessary, it’s probably not.

I’ll end now.