Seeing Christmas with eyes of wonder

We are watching “Miracle on 34th Street” with three of the grands, the oldest of whom is 6. She leans over and whispers, “Those two believe, but I don’t.” She casts a knowing look and has a slight upward tilt of the chin that says she’s one of us now. I nearly wonder if I should offer her some coffee and tell her where I hide good dark chocolate in the kitchen.

Sweet, but I hope she never completely loses her sense of wonder.

Nearly every Christmas morning as a child I woke up with a profound sense that the world was different. Oh, sure the chubby guy in the red suit had made a delivery (wink, wink), but that wasn’t it. It was that a baby had been born in the deep of night. I always imagined it was probably after midnight, when the all the world would be asleep, and before 5 a.m., when all the farmers would be awake.

The time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.

I knew the birth had to be something special because it was a divide in time. Our calendars said so—B.C. and A.D.—before Christ and anno Domini, the year of our Lord.

I knew it had happened long ago and far away, in a stable of sorts that was much like a barn. There had been animals about, straw no doubt, and a feeding trough.

She wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Adults talked like it was a shame that a baby had been born in a barn, but I thought it was wonderful. My mother sometimes asked if I had been born in a barn. I wished I had. I spent many an afternoon in my Grandpa’s barn and it was a wonderful place full of light and shadow, hiding places, plank floors, wooden ladders, hay bales and nooks and crannies for momma cats and newborn kittens. It would be a marvelous place for a baby to be born, too.


My depth of understanding regarding the needs of newborns was on a par with the depth of theology. But there was a sense of wonder then that sometimes eludes me now.

My theology is deeper today and my faith mature, in part because it has been tested time and time again. Frequently, I return to that first Christmas to regroup and start again. “God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son.”

I have a good understanding of covenants, catechisms, creeds and doctrines. What I don’t understand, is where the wonder went.

What I would give to see the wonder of Christmas, once more, through the eyes of a child.



Deer ol’ Santa does what soots him

All l this fake news is driving people crazy. It’s hard to know who meant what or what meant who. Does the allegation of “fake news” mean a story is fake news, or that the allegation of fake news is the fake news?

In the clear light of all this confusion, I’d like to set the record straight on Santa. What you are about to read may sleigh you. Or confuse you. Or clear things up. Or knot.

For the record, Santa Claus lives at the North Poll, which is sparsely populated because nobody wants to be around Pollsters.


Everybody is sick of them. Their presents are unwelcome.

Many think Santa is a slouch who only works a few weeks out of the year. Not true. In the off season, he maintains expansive garden plots, where he can hoe, hoe, hoe, hoe.

Of course, this is not the off season, but the on season, which is why you often hear the sounds of Santa furiously wrapping — “In Da Workshop” and “Ho, Ho, Ho, She Gotta Go.” He prefers wrapping in the daytime as opposed to the evening, as he has always been fond of Silent Night.

Santa Claus does not wrap alone; subordinate clauses help him. For the most part, they are elf-educated, elf-efficient and have good elf-esteem. They are a joy. To the world.main-and-subordinate-clause
Santa continues making deliveries from the North Poll in his antiquated sleigh, which he refuses to relinquish because it sets him apart from his relatives at the South Poll who mainly drive pickups.

Comet and Blitzen remain Santa’s premier powerhouses, but they, too, are aging and must often stop for coffee. They are star bucks.

Global security concerns, nipping at Santa’s heels, mean he must now comply with TSA inspections (unpack all those carry-ons) and file flight plans with the FAA. Santa moans that travel has gone to the dogs. “They don’t make it easy to go daschund through the snow.” In times past, Santa could pretty well deck the halls anywhere and anytime he wanted—even down chimneys. It sooted him.

Yet some traditions remain the same. Every December 24th, the elves proclaim the candy canes to be in mint condition, Santa grabs a box of Frosted Flakes, throws a few toilet-trees in a bag and ambles out to the sleigh.

Mrs. Claus gives him her usual frosty reception.

“Don’t start,” Santa says. “Yule be sorry.”

“Every time you pull an all-nighter you come home with tinsilitis! And you better not come back broke—Saint Nickel-less!”

Santa shrugs and says, “I’ll be home for Christmas.”

“Only in your dreams!” she huffs.

Santa not only has undercurrents with the missus, but with all the children who don’t believe in him – rebels without a Claus. And then there are the little ones who do believe, but can’t pronounce his name. Poor things call him Santa Cause. (Noel.)

But despite all that, Santa is still widely adored and deerly loved.


Why don’t we all sing together? Freeze a jolly good fellow.


Grandma’s house is not “Little House”

grandma-with-turkeyThe entire family is together for a meal and I volunteer to be the adult at the kids’ table. I’m going for sainthood this year.

The kids are passing hot rolls, slathering them with butter, when the oldest, age 7, asks, “Is this butter homemade?”

“Pardon?” I say.

“Is this butter homemade?”

I’m baffled. I hope making butter isn’t something grandmas are doing today, because this grandma isn’t making homemade butter.

“No, it’s not homemade,” I say, cautiously.

“Oh. We make our own butter.” The disapproval is palpable.

“Yeah, we made butter at school,” another one says, offering me a look of pity.

Just let it go, Grandma. Let it go. But I can’t let it go. “Did you make your own butter churns, too?”

“No, we just shook it real hard in a plastic container with a lid.”

“Really? That will make butter?”

“Yeah!” they chorus. (Duh, Grandma!)

The 3-year-old knocks over a glass of milk and the 2-year-old makes a break for it. I clean up the milk, nab the 2-year-old and return to the table, when they hit me again.

“Is this bread homemade?”


“It’s kind of homemade,” I say. “I brought it home from the store and made sure it got to the table so, yes, it’s homemade.”

“Oh.” The response is again tinged with letdown.

“My mom makes homemade bread,” one of them offers.

“Our mom makes homemade bread, too!”

I’m thinking to myself, “Where do you kids live? Little House on the Prairie?”

There’s a request for more turkey when a wise-acre at the grown-up table hollers, “Is the turkey homemade? Did you butcher it, yourself, Grandma?”

Thankfully, I’m sharing the piano bench with a 2-year-old who doesn’t talk much yet. It’s my safe space. Then she taps my arm, holds up her empty milk glass and says, “Ome-ade?”

I moo. She moos back.

I return with more milk and turkey as the kids are passing the jam (one is eating jam directly from his hand) when someone says, “This jam is good.”

I’m waiting for it.

“What kind of jam is it?” Still waiting.

“It’s raspberry,” I say.

“Oh! I like raspberry!”

“I like raspberry, too!”

Finally. I dodge one and perhaps regain a point or two as a grandma who can cook. I tell the one who was eating jam directly out of his hand not to talk with his mouth full and he fires back—“Is the jam homemade?”

“Yes. It was made in the home of a woman named Smuckers.”

All in all, it is a good meal. They all ask to be excused before leaving the table and carry their dishes to the sink. All that is left behind are layers of crumbs on the floor next to my deflated ego.



When the ants go marching in

I was suspicious the first time I saw them. But I slapped on a happy face and agreed to give them a chance. Still, I wondered if they wouldn’t overextend their stay—or worse—go where they weren’t wanted. You never know about ants.

It was the second ant farm among the grandkiddos. The second one didn’t impress me any more than the first. I don’t care how educational they are; ants should never be in a house without being accompanied by a large bottle of bug spray.

I’ve never understood why anyone would deliberately bring a household pest into a house, encased in plastic or otherwise. They assured me it was impossible for the ants to escape.

Fine, but check your pantry anyway.

“First we got the farm and then they sent the ants,” one of the kids said.

“Lovely,” I said.

“And then we put them in the refrigerator.”

“Of course. And why was that?”

“So they’d want to get in the ant farm.”

Yes, I imagine you’d have to refrigerate most living things to make them want to crawl into an enclosed plastic container.

“They’re worker ants,” one of the kids proudly said.
“What kind of work do they do?” I asked.
“They move grains of sand up and down the tunnels and then they make new tunnels and carry grains of sand through them.”

And so they did. The ants scurried up the tunnel and back down the tunnel. They were working, but what were they accomplishing? It reminded us of when the girls went on a mission trip to Haiti as teenagers. They spent a week moving rocks from one end of a property to the other. The husband suspected that the next group of kids to arrive moved the rocks back to the other end of the property.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a dead one. When one ant dies the other ants just crawl over him.”

What are you teaching these precious children? These ants are sick!

“We fed them a tiny bit of a blueberry yesterday. There it is, right there.”

“No, that’s not the blueberry,” another said. “That’s where they go potty. They all go in the same place.”

Well, that was worth the cost of shipping.

Several weeks later it still did not appear the ants had created anything remarkable. They just kept traveling the same tunnels over and over, carrying grains of sand back and forth.

Then I happened on an article by scientists who studied five worker ant colonies for two weeks and concluded that worker ants are – and I wouldn’t tell this to the kids –well, worker ants are slackers. Just as I had suspected. Only 3 percent of worker ants always work, 25 percent of ants were never working and 72 percent of the worker ants were inactive at least half of the time.

The ants began dying off one by one.

“Eventually they will all die,” my daughter said. “You know, worker ants—they work themselves to death.”

That’s what she thinks.

Take-out from the first Thanksgiving

When the Pilgrims and Native Americans shared that first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, they not only gave us a great model of community and friendship (at least for a time), they also hosted the original potluck.

The blueprint they left for hosting large gatherings is relevant even today.

For starters, note that everybody who attended brought something—and it was something substantial – deer, a string of cod or a half-dozen pheasants. Nobody tried to slide by with a measly 2-liter or a bag of chips.


Also, there was no prolonged and painful analysis over food origin. It was organic. All of it. Some of it was so organic that it was still warm, wearing feathers and had a faint heartbeat. We think we’re pretty original today, but the Native Americans and Pilgrims were the first farm-to-table fresh food people.

Their eggs were free-range, their chickens were free-range and so were their kids.

Dietary restrictions hadn’t been invented yet, so nobody dissected the carb count of the corn pudding, questioned whether the milk was whole or skim or announced they weren’t eating the pie if it had sugar in it.

What’s more, nobody put a damper on the meal by wearing a Fitbit to the table or checking calorie counts on a mobile device.

They came to the table and did what you’re supposed to do at the Thanksgiving table. They ate. And ate and ate and ate.

“More sweet potatoes, please.”

“We didn’t get any squirrel or rabbit down here.”

It probably also helped that they had a serious language barrier. Nobody was able to blow the day up by talking politics or rehashing the election. They didn’t talk much at all; between courses they went target shooting and had wrestling matches. If things get tense at your gathering this year, consider switching to a foreign language. Or challenging someone to a wrestling match.

“Where’s Uncle Joe?”

“There he is out back wrestling. Looks like he’s giving cousin Rob a run for his money. They’re both sure red in the face.”

“Aren’t they though? More pie?”

It was also genius that they hosted the meal outside. They not only captured that woodsy, rustic ambiance so popular today, but clean-up was a cinch. What the dogs didn’t eat, the bears and raccoons took care of at night. If it’s above 50 degrees where you live, think about it.

We could learn a thing or two about simplicity from that first feast as well. Not a single woman pondered whether to use the everyday dishes, break out the good china or go with paper plates. For the most part, they ate State-Fair style—food–on-a-stick. Nor did they spend half a day devising a clever theme for the get-together. In those days, every meal had the same theme – survival.

Nobody had to be called to the table twice, nobody picked at their food, nobody had to be told to clean up their plate and nobody worried about running out of ice.

Despite differences in food traditions, backgrounds, ethnicity and language, they shared a profound appreciation for the bounty provided by the divine Creator.

Thankfulness was like food—a shared bond and a universally spoken language.





Drive-by fruiting teaches perp not to mess with Grandma

I was the victim of a drive-by fruiting last weekend.

I was buzzing about in the kitchen vaguely aware of a small shadowy figure on the other side of the door leading to the garage. Frankly, there are a number of shadowy figures when 22 of us are together, so I didn’t think much about it.

Then I heard BAM! BAM! BAM!  I looked at the door to see cherry tomatoes exploding, sending juice and seeds sliding down the glass. Sliding, sliding, sliding. The tomatoes looked remarkably similar to the cherry tomatoes dropping from the half-dead vines in the raised bed in the backyard.



And to think some grandmas hold grandchildren on their laps and read them stories.

My sister-in-law, married to my brother and the mother of two boys, clucked her tongue and quietly cleaned up the mess. She knew that at a different time, in a different place, it could have been any of hers doing the drive-by fruiting.

I was reasonably sure I knew who the offender was. OK, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. I raised the kid’s father. They have the same DNA.

We got lunch on the table and everyone was seated and eating when I calmly announced there had been a crime wave in our neighborhood recently. The perp briefly looked up from his PBJ with big eyes, then immediately looked back down.

“We ourselves were a victim of crime this very day,” I said. “I was working in the kitchen, preparing lunch for all of you, when I heard BAM! BAM! BAM! at the kitchen door.”



The perp continued nibbling his sandwich, avoiding eye contact. All the other kids were wide-eyed and transfixed. Some nuts are harder to crack than others.

“I turned to see what it was and saw cherry tomatoes splattered on the door to the garage. Can you imagine how shocked I was? I was stunned!”

He’s not buying it. He’s knows it takes a lot more than a hit with three cherry tomatoes to shake this grandma.

“I thought about reporting the crime, calling the police. Then, just as I was ready to dial 911, I had second thoughts. What if the person who did this, did it on an impulse without thinking? What if the person who did this was sorry for what he did? (I was narrowing the field with the male pronoun; he still didn’t budge.)

“I’ve done some things I regret. And I’ve had some second chances along the way. Maybe the person who pelted my door with tomatoes needs a second chance. Maybe he’s sorry right now and wants to say so.”

No, he did not want to say anything.

“I believe in second chances,” I said. “Does anyone else around this table believe in second chances?”

His hand was the first to shoot into the air.

Later that afternoon he was outside and one of his uncles lifted him up to see in the kitchen window. A line of cherry tomatoes sat ripening on the window sill directly beneath the window.

You bet I did. Two of them. You should have seen him jump.

The knowing grin on his face said it all: “She’s smarter than she looks.”





The Fix-Its hustle when company is coming

My brother and his family are coming to visit, which explains why we are hustling to spruce up the place. Not that the place is a dump, but we never seem to pay attention to detail like we do when company is coming.

The rotting window box with the caved-in side beneath the kitchen window hasn’t bothered us since late summer, but all of a sudden we feel compelled to fix it. Or at least disguise it so you can’t tell we are comfortable with a certain level of neglect.


I just shot some WD-40 into the hinges of the folding doors to the washer and dryer. They’ve been squeaking with the piercing cry of a banshee for weeks, but for weeks I lived with it, flinching every time I opened the doors to throw in a load of laundry. I no longer flinch. I like it.

I first realized that nothing makes the husband fly into gear like having company come when we hosted a party for our Lamaze Group after our son was born. Couples and babies were arriving and the husband was nowhere to be found. He was fixing a lock on the back door that I’d been after him to tend to for weeks. Prior to that, he had trimmed a rosebush on a trellis that had never been touched by shears in the previous three years we lived there.

This is why I jump at the chance to host baby and bridal showers. Sure, it’s fun to fete someone celebrating a milestone, but it’s also a reason to vacuum behind the sofa, clean bugs out of the entryway light fixtures and sweep the cobwebs off the porch.

I’m not sure if this rush to action is a desire to look better than we are or simply that we are more motivated by outside forces than we are self-motivated.

It’s the Fixing-Up-Your House-to-Move syndrome. A house never looks better and functions better than when a homeowner is ready to sell. As a matter of fact, when we patched dead spots in the front lawn and painted the trim on the house this past spring a neighbor stopped to ask if we were moving.

“No, just had a burst of energy.” She nodded with an understanding look.

For the past 10 days I’ve been letting my gas stove get dirty. Crumbs and grease now cover the surface beneath the iron grates like pebbles lining a creek bottom. I’ll clean it once I know my brother and his family are in the car and on their way.

I’m not sure what we’ll do about the garage. My brother is one of those guys who can fix, build and repair anything and has a large Morton building filled with all kinds of tools keenly organized by shape, size and purpose. We’ll probably just bolt every entryway to our garage. That one is beyond motivation, from ourselves, friends, family or even royalty coming to visit.

Unless, of course, one day we move.


LED me tell you watt I know about lightbulbs

Because the husband is nearing retirement age, we get a number of invitations to free steak dinners where financial advisers explain the complexities of investing and persuade you to secure their services.

We’ve never gone to a free steak dinner hosted by a financial adviser, but I’d go to a free steak dinner in a heartbeat if an expert was explaining lightbulbs. The complexities of navigating retirement and lightbulbs are now on the same plane.

It doesn’t even have to be a steak dinner. Make it a free hot dog in the parking lot of a big box store and I’ll be there.

The last time I went to buy lightbulbs, I read up on them beforehand. That’s something in itself when we now have to “read up” on lightbulbs.  I even read “How to Read a Lightbulb Package.” Talk about feeling like a dim bulb.

Lightbulbs now come with extensive narratives.

Meet the CFL: curly, medium base, affordable and cost-efficient, with just a touch of mercury for a hint of danger. Has a delicate side and may not hold up to power surges. Not advised for workshops. Your 20-watt CFL is comparable to a 75-watt incandescent (or is it a 60-watt?), a 53-watt halogen and a 14-watt LED, give or take a handful of lumens. Or is it lemons?

Once you calculate the cost of the bulb in relation to the estimated yearly energy costs, divide by the lifespan of the bulb in relation to the lifespan of you, and multiply by all the negative reviews you read about the bulb online, your head explodes.

Then there is the matter of light color. Why must being energy-efficient cause me to look dead? A lightbulb should not make a room and the people in it look as though they are in a funeral home. Manufacturers are working on the problem, and they’ve made considerable progress in that many energy-efficient bulbs now simply make people look critically ill as opposed to deceased.

Offerings as to the color of light range from soft to softer soft, and softer softer soft, to cool, cool and crisp, and bacon crisp. In many cases you simply don’t know how it’s going to look until you get it home and try it on. Like a sweater.

My second request is that a lightbulb not cause eye strain.  I dropped hefty change on an LED bulb, stuck it in a lamp and turned it on to read. I had to take the shade off the lamp to see the words on the page.

Hotels are the worst. Flick on the lights and you spend the evening waiting for them to power up. If you planned on reading, you’d be better off in the hotel bar.

I’ll hang in there to reduce our energy consumption until we get it right. In the meantime, the kitchen is the best lit room in our house. We have recessed lights (halogen, not too pricey, more energy efficient than incandescent and fairly long lasting as long as you don’t touch them with greasy fingers). We camp in the kitchen a lot.

The lighting is good, but the weight gain has been terrible.









Vacation dream home best left to your dreams

I can remember every essay I’ve ever read about someone closing up a summer home in the woods, by the shore or on a lake. There’s a beautiful melancholy about closing windows, draining pipes, putting slip covers on furniture and saying goodbye to the memories until next year.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have a retreat in the woods, a sanctuary in the wild. We don’t have one; but we rented one for a long weekend. Eleven of us packed everything but our kitchen sinks and traveled hours of interstate, state roads, busy local roads, not-so-busy local roads, switchbacks with steep drops and vertical climbs passing old barns collapsed under the weight of time.

There it was on the crest of the ridge—a cabin more beautiful than the pictures on the website. The views were majestic, postcard panoramas of the Great Smoky Mountains.


Who couldn’t make memories here? Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?

“Maybe a few of us could go in on one” someone said, half joking.

“People make money owning vacation homes.”

“An investment like this would probably pay for itself in a few years. Someone is sitting on a gold mine.”

Kids raced through the cabin exploring bedrooms and bathrooms, reporting on a soaking tub with jets, a steam shower and – joy of joys – a hot tub.

We gathered on one of the decks and watched the sun slowly disappear, painting the rippled mountain ridges a soft steel blue. Leaving the city and jobs and routine behind, there was a collective exhale.


Night fell and bats fluttered near the deck, darting in and out of the tree tops. The next morning, bat droppings covered the railing to the deck and the front porch. I swept them away, but there were more bat dropping throughout the day on the front porch.

“Bats must be nesting in the eaves. The owners should probably call a professional,” someone said.

By afternoon, large bees were buzzing by. Carpenter bees were drilling perfectly round holes into the wood beams of this lovely retreat.

“The owners should probably call a professional.”

“Wonder what the taxes are on a place like this?”

“And what about cleaning and property management fees?”

We took a long, meandering scenic drive, the sort you take when backroads are not well marked, hiked a winding trail and hit a tourist spot in town. We also just lingered at the cabin sharing meals, playing board games, chase, hide and seek. We enjoyed every inch of that lovely home, the very one with the steam shower that didn’t work, two broken chairs and a loose footboard on a bed.

We left that house in the hills with the same sweet melancholy others have described, taking one last look and closing the door to a wonderful time. We took our memories with us but left the bedding, wet towels and maintenance expenses behind. It may be the best way of all to enjoy a cabin in the woods.

Keeping secrets is a gift

It’s no secret that there are people who can keep secrets and people who can’t. There are people who can keep things in the vault until the day they die and people whose vault door constantly swings open.

When our oldest daughter and her husband were expecting their third, he wanted to know the gender and she didn’t. Despite all our attempts to get him to crack, he never did. You could trust the man with your social, your PINs, computer password and true weight.

We have one in the family whose vault door might as well be double-hinged. Try as she might, she can’t keep a secret.


“I know it’s going to be your birthday, Grandma,” she says with an impish grin. “How old are you going to be?”

“How old do you think I’m going to be?”

“Twenty-two. That’s pretty old.”

“You’re close. I’m actually going to be 23.”

“Whoa,” she says, drawing the word out for maximum impact.

The funny thing is, I look in the mirror a lot of mornings and say the same thing myself.

“Mom said she would take me shopping because I wanted to buy you a present myself and I did.”

And with that, the countdown begins. It is just a matter of time before she spills the beans. Ten, nine, eight . . .  every fiber of her being is about to explode.

“Mom took me to Stein Mart. We had a coupon!” Seven, six, five . . . she squeals and jumps out of her chair with excitement. The kid may not be able to keep a secret, but at least she is learning you never pay full retail.

“I don’t want to know what you bought,” I say.

“Oh, yes you do!” The kid is a mind reader, but I can’t tell her that.

“You like turquoise. I know you do.” She is hopping from foot to foot, twirling in circles, her squeaky little voice rising higher. Four, three, two . . .

“You don’t want to know if I got you a necklace?”


“OK, I won’t tell you.”necklace2

She sits down and begins to draw. She draws a semicircle with turquoise shapes bordering it on one side and then, beaming from ear to ear, holds the drawing up to her chest.

“I think I’m going to like it,” I say.

When her mom picked her up, she immediately admitted to telling the secret. She said she had spilled the beans—that her stomach had hurt because the beans needed to come out. Isn’t that how it always happens? It’s not your fault, it’s the beans’ fault.

On my birthday I unwrapped tissue paper in a gift bag and pulled out a lovely turquoise necklace strikingly similar to a drawing I’d seen the day before.

The kid may never have a career in espionage, but she definitely has a future in art.