Big deer and little dears parting ways

Three little girls bound onto the bed in the spare bedroom where we sleep, giggling and squealing and making tents with the covers. It has become part of the morning routine when we visit them in the old two-story house the family has been renting in New Jersey.

DeersAfter a riot of laughter, arms swinging and legs kicking, the one-and-a-half-year-old and one of the 3-year-old twins head downstairs with Grandpa. The other twin goes to the window overlooking a stretch of land bordered by a line of black locust, sumac, and elderberry. “Come on, Gramma. Let’s watch.”

She stands by the window and I kneel, waiting and watching. A few shafts of dawn wrap around the corner of the house and warm the woods. Motorists zip by on a two-lane highway cutting through the countryside. A doe and a fawn emerge from the trees.

“It’s a momma and her baby,” she whispers.

“It is.”

A few moments later, a horse in an adjacent pasture clears his throat and stretches his vocal chords. The deers’ right ears shoot straight up. The horse whinnies. The momma turns and the baby follows, bounding into the woods, their white tails waving farewell.

One morning when we looked out the window, deer were sleeping in the grass. They were curled up like dogs by a fire. We walked outside later and saw swaths of grass flattened in the yard and along the back tree line. Separated by a wall and maybe 20 yards, the deer had been sleeping while we had been sleeping.

One evening near dusk, I stood at the window alone when a peculiar thing happened. It appeared as though the tree trunks were swaying, gently moving from side to side. I wondered if it was an earthquake, the earth’s crust moving, along with everything on it. The trees weren’t moving, it was a herd of deer foraging in the woods. They so seamlessly blended with the bare trees, underbrush and dead leaves that you could barely separate the deer from the tree bark. One deer poked his head out of the tree line, grazed a bit and then signaled to the others. They took off single file, white tails bobbing behind them, 11 in all.

A little voice behind me said, “Where’s your camera, Gramma?”

As unbelievable as moving trees, this young family is leaving New Jersey and moving home to the Midwest. They’ll leave behind rustic views and deer, only to be greeted by a gaggle of grandmas and grandpas, great grandmas and great grandpas, aunts and uncles and cousins nearby.

Their memories of the deer and bucolic countryside may fade in time, but maybe not. It was a special gift, a never-to-be-repeated season of life, a time when big eyes brimmed with wonder.

They will settle in more populated terrain now, a neighborhood instead of the countryside. They will have different views, new memories in the making, and a lot more people to love and share them with.

When Heaven came down to Earth

The best Christmas is the unexpected Christmas. After all, that’s what the first Christmas was, an unexpected, cosmic intersection of the natural and the supernatural – in the shepherd’s field, the manger stall and the arms of a bewildered new mother and father.

We nearly obscure the power and the beauty of the first Christmas with all our busyness and trappings today. And yet, small glimpses of the marvels of that first Christmas happen even now.

I once caught such a glimpse at a city mission. It was Moms Club, a weekly morning meeting where women come to hear a message, work on completing a GED or learn about parenting. On the last meeting before the holidays, each woman was given a large grocery bag filled with necessities. Sometimes they even receive something extra, something special like laundry detergent.

The bitter cold outside was offset by a furnace that wouldn’t quit on the inside. The room was packed with women shoulder to shoulder, women in old coats and old clothes. The furnace circulated the smell of hard work, poverty and wet boots. There were women who had children, women who had health problems, women who had prison records and women who had nothing but the clothes on their backs. The room was sweltering, the crowd restless.

As a woman welcomed everyone from up front, the crackling sound system, as weary as the women, muffled what must have been an introduction. A woman in a black cape swept up the center aisle. She planted herself firmly on the riser and instantly owned the room.

She drew a breath and began to sing. “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining.”

Her voice was magnificent. Strong and pure, it was a voice that belonged to the heavens.

“It is the night, of our dear Savior’s birth.”

Her voice soared, filling the room with a rare, exquisite beauty. The stunning elegance and artistry made listeners dare not draw a breath for fear of missing a fraction of a second.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Her voice ascended through the clouds, looped toward earth and soared again and again. She was on the final verse now. Could she possibly reach higher or stronger? “O night, O holy night, O night divine.” Had there been crystal in the building, it would have shattered into a million shards—and then reassembled itself with joy.

She whisked down the aisle and vanished out the door.

Who was she?

Someone mumbled a name. “She’s passing through town and came from the airport just to sing at the mission. She’s returning from an engagement at the Metropolitan Opera.”

I have never been to the Met. I doubted those around me would be going anytime soon, either. But the Met had come to us, the tired, the worn and the weary. For a few minutes it seemed as though the supernatural had infused the natural. Like that very first Christmas, heaven had once again reached down to earth.

Hiding Christmas presents is a gift

I have perfected the art of hiding Christmas gifts. I can hide them so well that not even I can find them.

GiftsWhen the kids were little, hiding gifts was easy. I could have slung snow shoes around the vacuum cleaner and they would have gone unnoticed for months. Years, maybe.

I once considered hiding gifts in the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink where we keep dishwashing soap, glass cleaner and furniture polish. It would be the last place any of the kids would have looked. Kids, nothing. It was the last place I liked to look.

Laundry baskets and the dishwasher would have been safe stash spots as well. The freezer, however, was off limits. It was their home away from home, fanning the door looking for frozen waffles and Bagel Bites.

I’ve heard of people hiding gifts in trash bags, but it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Now that the kids are grown and have homes of their own, the hiding spots have multiplied exponentially. Closet shelves, dresser drawers, under the beds, obvious spots as well as every nook and cranny are potential hiding spots. The problem is not hiding the gifts; the problem is finding them.

I have a central hiding spot, but sometimes when in a hurry, which is to say most of the time, I have been known to tuck a gift in a spot that is perfectly logical at the time, but makes absolutely no sense later. Finding them becomes a cross between buzzing in on Jeopardy and playing Scattergories.

Bedroom slippers in a drawer with swimming suits: “Seldom worn things for $500, Alex!”

A sketchbook hidden beneath a paper cutter: “Things that start with “P”—paper for drawing, paper for cutting.

The youngest stopped by the other day as I was wrapping a small gift for one of the grandbabies. “How many gifts do you think you’ll forget about this year?” she asked.

It has become a Christmas tradition. We finish our gift exchange, I look around, take inventory and realize something is missing.

The crowd, always helpful, not to mention easily amused, offers suggestions:

“Check the linen closet behind the towels. You hid body wash there once.”

“How about beside your dresser? You always think nobody can see large boxes because there’s a surge suppressor in front of them.”

“Did you look in the utensil drawer? Remember the time—“

Personally, I think it’s nice to run across little treasures during the course of the year. It’s a way of keeping Christmas in your heart, not to mention your closet shelf, in the attic and the garage, all year long.

Real princesses of everyday life

Our oldest granddaughter, who is 4-and-a-half or “close to 5” as she says, lives in an apartment building in a diverse pocket of Chicago within walking distance of Target, a thrift store, the lake shore, subsidized housing projects to the north and grand manses of the early 1900s a few blocks south.

princessThis little girl who lives in the city asked her daddy if princesses were real. “Sort of,” he replied. To which she responded, “Do they live way out in the suburbs?”

Where daddy was vague, Grandma would like to be specific.

Yes, Sweetie, princesses are real. And, yes, they do live way out in the suburbs, but they also live in the city, the country, on both coasts and in all the spaces between. The important thing to know is that there are two kinds of princesses, storybook ones and real ones.

Storybook princesses have perfect hair, beautiful skin, dangerously long eyelashes and blood red lips that never pale. Real princesses have stubborn cowlicks, chocolate on their faces and some, like you, may even be missing a front tooth.

You should also know something a little sad about the storybook princesses. They are often helpless. They tend to mope and cry and throw themselves on chaise lounges a lot. Whether it is due to wearing high heels every day or their disproportionate body shapes cutting blood flow to their brains, they also do peculiar things like agree to cook, clean and keep house for seven short, scruffy miners. When you marry one day, Sweetie, you will learn that cooking and cleaning and keeping house with one man is enough. Some days it is more than enough, but don’t tell Grandpa I said that.

Storybook princesses make for entertaining diversions, but the truth is they have small brains. They can only think about one or two things – how they look and whether a prince might be riding by soon. A real princess has many things to think about—playing dress up, building with blocks, learning to write her letters, going to museums, understanding the stock market and making wonderful things from empty toilet paper tubes. Storybook princesses never make clever things from empty toilet paper tubes, which is a shame, because they are missing out.

Since your daddy claims to be king of his castle, or two-bedroom apartment in this case, that makes your mommy queen of the castle and you, therefore, a princess. A real princess.

A real princess must work hard to develop her mind and character and all her abilities so that she can rule over her kingdom—which in your case would be your two younger brothers, at least until they outsize you.

A real princess doesn’t wait for a stranger on horseback to solve her problems; she solves her problems herself. Real princesses embrace the ups and downs of everyday life. They may not live happily ever after, but they know not to take shiny red apples from strangers or consider a pumpkin acceptable transportation.

Book sales bottom out against boxer shorts

Writers are shameless when it comes to book promotion. The length they will go to is one notch shy of standing curbside with a cardboard sign that says, “Will Work for Book Sales.”

I know such behavior is rampant because I recently engaged in it. I agreed to sell my latest humor book, “My Memory is Shot, All I Retain Now is Water,” at a huge Christmas Gift and Hobby show. This mammoth event ran for five days at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in the large pavilion where 4-H kids show cattle during the fair, which explained the faint parfum de manure that lingered before the crowd arrived.

This Gift and Hobby Show was three parts gifts and hobbies and two parts “As Seen on TV.” Garnering attention for books is impossible when you’re competing with Stick It! (a pet hair removal system) and Pocket Hose, the 50-foot expandable garden hose.

And, please, what vendor can compete with the guy demonstrating the Sham WOW!? He spills pop, mops it up and wrings it out with the cloth that “Works like a sponge! Works like a towel! Holds 20 times its own weight!” The shammy is a crowd pleaser that sings and dances. A book is a wallflower.

There were five of us at a time in the book booth, and we each had a draw. The romance author had beauty, the dog author had a dog, the sports author had an NFL jersey and a big personality, the TV celebrity had his face and I had a bowl full of Hershey’s Kisses.

To heighten the pain, the authors booth was across the aisle from a massive wall of colorful boxer shorts bearing animal characters and what some might consider witty sayings, you can even buy custom photo boxer shorts, just think your husband could wear a pair with a photo of your face on them, what a hoot that would be.

When the chocolate kisses weren’t drawing attention, I amped up my game and tried making conversation. People would stroll by and I’d say, “Do you like to read?”

“I don’t read,” came the answer. The first time, I thought it was a fluke. Over and over, hour after hour, “I don’t read. I don’t read. I don’t read.” If the Gift and Hobby show is an accurate barometer, we have an alarming illiteracy rate. And yet, I clearly saw the same people reading the boxer shorts.

A mother, a daughter and a grandmother shuffled by single file.

“Do you like to read?”

“No,” said the mother. “No,” said the daughter. “No,” said the grandmother.

A dislike for reading—the gift that keeps on giving.

I stopped asking people if they liked to read and started asking if they liked to watch television.

Finally, a positive response. It didn’t translate into a lot of book sales, but it was a positive response.

If I ever do another show, I’m dumping a soft drink on my book table, sopping it up with one of my books, wringing out a few pages and yelling, “Look how 210 pages of well-written humor absorbs an entire soft drink!”

I’m finally going to have a bestseller.

See, taste, hear the beauty of common grace

Many of us will say grace before a Thanksgiving meal this year. Perhaps as lovely as saying grace is seeing grace. Common grace is before our eyes every day of the year, every moment of the day.

GooseWe see it on the table in the sweet potatoes, buttered rolls, green beans, corn, fruit salad and pumpkin pie. They sit there, enticing and inviting, because the Hand of Heaven caused the sun to shine and the rain to fall and the crops to grow.

Common grace parades before us with each changing season as well. The frost of fall gives way to the glistening snow of winter, which will yield to a thousand shades of green in spring, which will fan out into the long, warm rays of summer. We grow weary near the end of each season, tired of the familiar, ready for something new. So we anticipate the next season, never doubting that it will arrive with the usual beauty, splash, charm and change.

You need only look out a window to appreciate common grace in the creatures. Take the black-capped chickadee with his round body, black cap and white cheeks. He is no bigger than a plum and weighs about the same as four pennies. A plum would freeze solid within minutes when the temperature dips to zero. Not the chickadee. He was designed with thousands of downy appendages called afterfeathers. These afterfeathers, tucked beneath his outerfeathers, form myriads of air pockets that trap warm, dry air, protecting him from the bitter cold and keeping him quite alive. Common grace is even in the details.

In the creative realm, common grace can be enjoyed in the painter’s masterpiece, a garden bouquet, the strands of Bach and Vivaldi, or the voice of Adele. It can be seen in the beauty of a spectacular football interception or a child’s dance recital.

The Psalmist said, “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works.” God’s common grace showers everyone, just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

We experience the goodness of common grace every time we pass through the doors of a doctor’s office or a hospital. God’s gift of intellect to every man, some of whom have unlocked the mysteries of physics, science and medicine, is a blessing to us all.

We reap the benefits of common grace in the intellectual realm every time we throw in a load of laundry, send a text, flip on a light switch, pick up a prescription, read a newspaper online, run hot water in the kitchen sink, start a car, buy gasoline, swipe a credit card, Skype with family far away, use GPS and step on a plane.

Why such magnificent, marvelous, wonderful goodness across the board?

Perhaps so that we might take a moment to humbly bow and simply say thanks.

All I really need to know, I learned in the Drumstick Dash

The Drumstick Dash is a 5K Thanksgiving morning run/walk in which thousands of slightly deranged people brave the bitter cold and nearly freeze to death thereby demonstrating solidarity with the Pilgrims. All I really needed to know, I learned in the Drumstick Dash:

Running turkeyPeople are more jovial when their heads are stuffed into plush turkey cavities, with artificial wings flapping beside their ears and two large furry drumsticks jutting into the air.

If everyone else wore artificial turkeys on their heads, you might want to, too.

People drag themselves from bed, then force their sleepy bodies into the freezing cold to run and walk on Thanksgiving morning so that they can stuff themselves guilt free the rest of the day.

If you miscalculate as to where you place yourself in a crowd of runners and walkers, you may wind up running with a fast crowd.

The euphoria of mistakenly being caught up in a fast crowd—people who wear tank tops in 32-degree weather, do not huff and puff when they run as though their lungs are on fire and pad softly instead of thunder with their feet—can lead to serious delusions.

Never believe that you can run an entire 5K when you have not adequately trained for a 5K.

Once you start running with a fast crowd, it is nearly impossible to get out of a fast crowd.

If you attempt slow your pace in a fast crowd, others, maybe even your 20-something daughter who has never felt a quake or pain in her youthful body, may yell embarrassing things at you like, “Don’t slow down. Look behind you! If you slow down now, you will be killed. Keep running!”

When you run with a fast crowd, there is the real possibility that you will become the filling in a very flat Thanksgiving Day Panini with Nike-tread imprint.

If you again attempt to slow your pace and separate from a fast crowd, the same beloved daughter may yell, “RUN, FORREST, RUN!”

You can always get even with your children later.

If you face the prospect of expiring on Thanksgiving, steel yourself to do it after the stuffing, mashed potatoes, hot rolls and pumpkin pie, not before.

It is humiliating to approach the finish line and nearly be passed by a 7-year-old.

You can easily distract a 7-year-old at holiday time by yelling, “Look, over there – it’s Santa handing out candy!”

Two hours after completing a 5K you did not adequately train for, every muscle in your body will contract so severely that you will not be able to do “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” You may be able to do the head and shoulders part, in which case you can dull the pain by lifting your fork to your mouth.

Don’t let the War on Christmas (which is starting early this year) get you down. Plan ahead!

Speak now, regret it forever

Nearly 25 years ago, Mike Royko wrote a sharp-edged column on the first roster of banned words, a list of potentially offensive words issued by a panel from my alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

The original list included barracuda, airhead, burly, buxom, dear, dingbat, Eskimo kiss, Dutch treat, fried chicken, gorgeous, gyp, housewife, illegal alien, lazy, jock, john, pert, petite, senior citizen, shiftless, sweetie, ugh, watermelon and a short list of ethnic and racial slurs no civilized person would use.

Since that time, the list of insensitive words has grown exponentially. The word police were in Seattle recently ordering the words “illegal” and “brown bag” stricken from city documents. The word “illegal” could make illegals feel uncomfortable. And apparently there was once something called the brown bag test in which a brown paper bag was placed against a black person’s skin. If skin color was as light or lighter than the bag, the person was deemed socially acceptable. This “test” was used primarily by black social institutions more than 100 years ago, but nevertheless.

In some circles, penmanship is being changed to handwriting, freshman to first-year-student and watchman to security guard. The word bum is out as is criminal, Founding Fathers, psycho, factory and, of course, Christmas. Oh yes, please add terrorist, jihad and Islam.

We are not merely a softer, gentler, more sensitive people; we have become borderline crazy people. (By the way, crazy is on the list, too.)

Royko would shred each addendum to the list with his bare teeth were he alive today. So much sensitivity, so little sensibility.

At the Air Force Academy, cadets may now opt out of saying “so help me God” when they take the oath. Just curious, when you’re pinned down by enemy fire who else are you going to ask for help? It is doubtful Joe Biden’s wife will be bringing the family shotgun.

Not to be left out, Hallmark has released a tacky Christmas sweater ornament with the words, “Don we now our FUN apparel.”

In the spirit of thin skin and heightened sensitivity everywhere, I’d like to add a few of my own to the list: Twerk: Offensive. Lose the word and maybe I can lose the awful video clip in my mind. OMG: Whether initials or said in full, it is patently offensive, each and every time. Baby Momma: A slur to both the role of motherhood and fatherhood. Ho: Degrading. Acceptable only as a tool used to weed the garden or when said in rapid succession by Santa.

Now then, once we couple all your sensitivities with all my sensitivities, it should be no time at all before we omit words entirely and communicate strictly by hand gestures.

Until then, I will remain a proud member of the human race, respectful toward my fellow man, a petite woman with lousy penmanship, a party gal who sings about donning gay apparel in December and is married to a man on the verge of becoming a senior citizen, a man who often calls me Sweetie and sometimes takes his lunch in a brown paper bag. So help me God.

Last child’s first birthday a dud

For years I have been dogged by this vague memory of a kid’s birthday that didn’t go well. I couldn’t remember which kid it was or which year it was; just that it was something I Birthday cakedidn’t want to revisit.

We mothers work hard at keeping our less than stellar moments locked in the dark, but sometimes they have a way of slithering into the light.

We were looking at photo albums and came across first birthday parties. The oldest had a great party in the backyard with blue skies, lots of family friends and a giraffe cake. The second one had an adorable clown-themed party with a pink elephant cake with a licorice tail. The third one discovered she had been ripped off.

It was the bad memory I had worked to forget.

The four photos (considerably fewer than the two dozen documenting the other parties) show us in the kitchen with no balloons, no decorations, nothing, just a couple of beat-up Happy Meal boxes sitting on the counter in the background.

Our youngest said, “So it’s true, the last one really does get the shaft!”

The husband offered that we must have had a party for her at a later time.

“No,” I said, “that was it.”

“Where are all our friends?” she asked.

“We didn’t have any. We’d just moved 2,500 miles and were still getting to know people.”

“But where’s all the family?”

“Living out of town,” I said.

It was coming back to me with painful clarity. It had not been a great day. The 3-year-old had one of her epic breakdowns due to the upheaval of moving and the 5-year-old had jerked my chain one too many times. When the husband came home, I asked him to take the kids to McDonald’s. Since that was something we rarely did, I remember telling the oldest two they didn’t deserve a treat, so they’d better not enjoy it.

In the 40 minutes I had to myself, I picked up the house, whipped up a cake and threw it in the oven.

“So the cake is that blob on my high chair?” our youngest asked, looking at the snapshots.

“Yeah, that mound with a candle shoved in it,” I said.

“What’s all the goo?”

“I had to frost it while it was still warm.”

“Did I have gifts?”

“Yep. They’re in that brown grocery bag.”

Mothers like to create the illusion that they are always on top of things. The last thing they want to do is admit that something didn’t go well. But, pure and simple, some days are a train wreck. Some days you do what you can with what you have and tell yourself that tomorrow will be better. Those days may seem like failures, but if you don’t quit and keep going, they are successes.

I told the kid that didn’t get much of a first birthday party that we could take her to Chuck E. Cheese’s for her birthday this year if she still felt ripped off. She just turned 28.

She’s still laughing.

Satisfied with being dissatisfied

Why is it we always seem so surprised when a poll tells us what we already know? A Pew Research poll found more than 80 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things unhappy faceare going. Everywhere you turn, people are dissatisfied and they’re not afraid to talk about it.

A woman was voicing dissatisfaction with her grown son who recently moved back home. “We provide a roof over his head, cook his meals, do his laundry, make his car payment and even mute his cell so it doesn’t disturb him when he sleeps until noon, but he doesn’t seem motivated to get on his own two feet,” she fumed.

“At least he’s satisfied,” I said.

Two women on a morning news show were expressing their dissatisfaction with a certain pop star that had been shaking her pop star backside and behaving crudely.

“Appalling,” said one.

“Troubling,” said the other.

“Be sure to watch tomorrow when she’ll be here for a concert on the plaza!”

A neighbor was expressing dissatisfaction over his financial situation. “Groceries are skyrocketing, the cost of gasoline is a killer and our health care premiums are shooting through the roof. Our credit cards are maxed out and we’ve got nothing for college, let alone retirement.”

“Hang tough,” I said. “Say, is that delivery truck stopping here?”

“Yeah, that’s our new giant flat screen,” he said.

A young mother was expressing dissatisfaction with her family’s together time. “It’s just so hard to find time to connect,” she said, on the verge of tears.

“Always has been,” I said.

“Between dance lessons, music lessons, sports, plays, my late hours, Sam’s late hours and season football tickets, we hardly see each other.”

“Would you describe yourself as somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied?” I asked.

She was about to answer when we were interrupted by a text on her cell. “Oh great,” she shrieked. “Now I have to reschedule Girls Night Out.”

The produce manager I chit chat with at the grocery was complaining about the circus in Washington. “Just the same-old, same-old,” he said, tossing eggplants into a bin. “Fraud, waste, entitlements, no accountability. They spend other people’s money with glee. Something needs to change,” he barked. “Sounds like you’re dissatisfied enough to get involved,” I said.

“Naw, what’s the point?” he growled, hurling another eggplant. It missed the bin and exploded on the floor.

A young friend expressed dissatisfaction with his children’s education. “It’s not just the academics, it’s the toxic culture,” he said.

“Would you say you’re mildly dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied?”

“We’re terribly dissatisfied,” he said. “But we talked about it and agreed to wait another year or two to see if things don’t improve. “

“At least you have a plan,” I said.

Never have so many been so dissatisfied and so unwilling to do anything about it.