Holidays Covid-style may not be good, but they’ll be memorable

Dear Family and Friends,

As you recall, the big concern at Thanksgiving last year was someone blowing up the holiday by talking politics. This year, the big concern is breathing.

We’re weighing our options and welcome your input. From a distance.

If we opt for a small indoor gathering, per our state guidelines, we must trim the number of you invited. After painful and lengthy deliberation (60 seconds), we have decided to issue invitations based on the food you bring.

You cheeseball, pecan pie and homemade crescent roll people are in. Perhaps we could see you overcooked broccoli and gummy stuffing people another time. Easter, maybe?

Naturally, if we do go with an indoor gathering, it will be B.Y.O. B.  Bring Your Own Blanket. To improve ventilation, we will cut the furnace and open all the doors and windows. The first one to whine will be put on disinfectant wipe duty responsible for wiping down light switches, bathroom faucets and toilet handles as well as stray cell phones.

There will be no ambiance with flickering pumpkin spice votives as the smell of bleach will overpower everything this Thanksgiving. Perhaps even the rest of the year.

I’ll be simplifying things, including the centerpiece.  In lieu of pine cones, adorable acorns and white pumpkins on a bed of pine branches, I’m going with a large pump bottle of hand sanitizer with turkey feathers hot glued to the back. No, it’s not on Pinterest. But it should be.

Yes, you can play board games after the meal, but with modifications. Each player will isolate in a separate room, take a turn, sanitize the game board and all related game pieces, then deliver them to the next player. Monopoly and Scrabble should wind up sometime mid-December.

Please don’t sulk if you are on the “not invited” list, as we have not ruled out the possibility of an outdoor gathering. Outdoors would mean less food but more people. Decisions, decisions.

We could do a fire pit Thanksgiving, six feet apart, roasting raw turkey and sweet potato kebabs on skewers over an open flame and finish it off with s’mores. It might not be good, but it would be memorable.

If it happens to snow while we’re all outside, so much the better. We all mask, hold our breath, huddle together for two seconds, take a quick group selfie and have this year’s Christmas card. Winner, winner! Turkey dinner!

Yet a third possibility is a progressive dinner and I don’t mean dinner at Bernie’s. Why not go from house to house and leave courses on the front step?

Appetizers at the first stop, main course at the next, sides in two different counties, and dessert at the last stop. It lacks the togetherness component, but when we’re finished going door-to-door, eating cold food in cold cars, we can all go home, join up for a massive Zoom call and watch one another nap.

Just throwing out ideas. Hope to hear from you soon.

Love,

Mom

P.S. Who’s excited about Christmas?

Thanksgiving may be closer than you think

“I want a baby brother for Christmas!” she shrieked, lunging from her chair. She’d made her desire known. It was a demand really.

“Yes! We all want a baby brother for Christmas!” her sisters joined in, jumping up and down, eyes dancing with anticipation.

“You have two boy cousins,” someone dead panned.

Right. The first obstacle would be catching them. The boys are 7 and 9, run fast, shinny up trees, roll in the mud and have a thing for animal bones they find in the woods. The second obstacle would be pretending they smelled fresh, were completely helpless and wanted to be spoon fed pureed vegetables.

They were momentarily quiet, then resumed pleading for a baby brother.

“You don’t always get what you want,” I said. “That’s Rule No. 38 of Life.”

Silence. They were stunned. They never knew there were rules for life, let alone 38 of them and possibly more. What else had the grown-ups been hiding?

“Rule No. 1,” their dad said, “is to be content with what you have.”

Score one for Dad. He has introduced the basic structure of thankfulness—contentment.

Contentment is not the same as complacency or resignation; those can be the fast track to despondency. Contentment does not mean you never yearn for things to be different or better. God forbid we should ever destroy the seeds of hopes and dreams.

Contentment is comprehending and appreciating the goodness that surrounds us even now. Living in a materialistic culture, we think of blessings as things like a roof overhead and a working furnace—and those are wonderful blessings. But blessings are also essence, gratitude for another day of life, the joy of hearing a loved one’s voice, the comfort of friendship, the beauty of sunrise and the colors of fall.

Plato called contentment “natural wealth.” It may be natural for some, but for others it must be learned. In a well-known Bible verse, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am.”

The man had been shipwrecked, chased out of town, beaten, in poor health, imprisoned and in chains. Yet he had learned contentment. That doesn’t sound like a course most of us would want to sign up for. Life sends odd teachers.

Contentment and gratitude are habits of the heart. Twenty-one days was once considered the standard for the time it takes to form a new habit. That figure has been updated to 66 days. Good things require time and fortitude.

It is amazing how people who suffer much in this world are often among the most cheerful and thankful. They are the ones who have learned well, the ones who have acquired the “natural wealth” of contentment and thanksgiving.

An old hymn says it well:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,

When you are discouraged thinking all is lost.

Count your blessings, name them one by one.

Count your blessings, see what God has done.

 

Take a seat and protect your legs

Despite pandemic restrictions on gatherings, we are still able to enjoy attending live performances. They are family productions that are affordable (free), convenient (in our own home or backyard) and we don’t have to dress up (slouching clothes are fine).

One among the brood excels at the violin and goes to town on her fiddle playing songs about dogs chasing raccoons and lonesome train whistles. Her brother may begin strumming his guitar, others strap on tap shoes and display some fancy shuffle, shuffle, step, ball change.


Still others begin singing or reciting poems and the overall scene looks like a three-ring circus and feels like a migraine, but who would stifle creativity?

Recently, I was invited to a dance performance presented by the eldest and youngest of three siblings. The middle sibling and I were instructed to sit on the sofa.

Then came the second directive, the likes of which I had never heard before. I’m familiar with, “silence your cell phone” and “no photography during the performance,” but this was new: “You’ll probably want to protect your legs.”

The child next to me was told to pull her legs up onto the sofa. “You probably can’t do that like she can, Grandma,” said one of the performers, “so you better watch out.”

Who doesn’t anticipate a performance that begins with “you better watch out.”

It was a fine dance performance, with a lot of running and leaping and twirling along the lines of ballets they have attended. They danced the length of the room, parallel to one another, intersecting one another and sideswiping one another.

The child next to me leaned over to explain there would be a pause in the music, but it was momentary and would not be the time to applaud. I am thankful for coaching that prevents me from social blunders.

The music paused, the dancers squared off at opposite ends of the room and nodded, indicating the grand finish was about to commence. The dancers were not well-matched physically. One is tall, lanky and built like a reed. The other is healthy and fit but looks like a rectangle next to the reed. We all look like rectangles next to the reed.

The Rectangle backed into the kitchen to get a better run at the Reed, who apparently planned on catching the Rectangle and doing an overhead lift. Yet the laws of physics dictated that should the Rectangle slam into the Reed with such force the Reed toppled backward onto the tile floor, we would all be jumping and leaping to the nearest emergency room.

The Rectangle flew past in a blur. The Reed, sensing the potential of speed compounded by mass, abandoned the overhead lift, wrapped the Rectangle in a bear hold and spun the Rectangle wildly, her legs flying outstretched through the air.

The grand finale was more Sumo wrestling than ballet, but skill is skill and no one was bleeding. Another marvelous time spent enjoying the performing arts and best of all, our legs were safe.

Linking a vet with a face on the Wall of Faces

Seems I see them more often these days, caps and jackets that say Vietnam Veteran. What always surprises me is how old the people wearing them look. I remember the guys going to Vietnam as being in their late teens and early 20s.

Then I catch my reflection in a window and am surprised at how old I look.

I was in high school when I slipped a small check into an envelope and sent away for a bracelet with the name of a POW or MIA.  I wore MIA Maj. Vladimir Bacik’s bracelet for many years.


I prayed for him regularly. I never had many details about him or knew what he looked like. Until now.

I found him on the Wall of Faces on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website (vvmf.org). There’s a great picture of him with his wife.

My brother-in-law, marking the 50th anniversary of when he was in Vietnam, told me about the site. On the Wall of Faces, each page is dedicated to someone who didn’t make it home: name, date of birth, location and date of casualty, hometown, branch of service, rank.  There are wedding pictures and family pictures, a father with his small son. They have the same eyes.

Many of them look young.

So very, very young.

My brother-in-law often scrolls through the Wall of Faces.  He could have been on the wall, too.

Some 2.7 million American military members served in Vietnam and some 58,000 died there. A lot of them, now in their 60s and 70s, are marking anniversaries of service there.

During the Vietnam War the U.S. dropped millions of gallons of Agent Orange. It was a highly toxic herbicide that defoliated forests providing cover for enemy troops. At the time, our troops were told it was safe. Decades later, Agent Orange was acknowledged to be responsible for serious medical conditions to those exposed, and even to their children and grandchildren.

My brother-in-law is close to five veterans made ill by exposure to Agent Orange. One, who died this summer, was best man at his wedding and a friend of 50 years. Another was an elementary school classmate now battling esophageal cancer and brain cancer. Two others were high school buddies. One has cancer and cardiac problems, the other has multiple myeloma. My brother-in-law has dealt with prostate cancer and heart problems in the past few years.

Vietnam is far behind us, but lingering battles remain in play.

I have an elderly uncle still living who was career Air Force and served in Vietnam. Mom read one of his letters from overseas at dinner one night. He described the sounds of bombs and explosions as he operated radio equipment in an underground bunker. I watched my dad’s reaction, as he was a World War II vet. He didn’t say anything. He was just quiet.

Mom tucked the letter behind a clock on the kitchen counter, where odds and ends sat until they made their way to the trash. When we closed out the house, we found that letter in a box with newspaper clippings about Dad’s brother who was killed in WWII. Some things we should never forget. Service and sacrifice are among them.

I’ve been hesitant before, but the next time I see someone wearing a Vietnam Vet hat or jacket, I plan on saying thanks.

 

Wall of Faces https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/

When a black snake catches a ride

The black snake, stretched out on the hard clay, was nearly five feet long. We stood watching to see if it would slither back toward the woods or toward the basement entrance of the house our son and his family had been building.

Our son’s father-in-law, a seasoned outdoorsman, looked at me with my hands over my mouth stifling screams and said, “That snake is just as afraid of you as you are of it.”

“Lies!” I thought to myself. “He’s a good man, but he’s lying!” I knew he was lying because at no time did the snake have hands over its mouth stifling screams.

He also said black snakes are good because they eat rats and mice. A lot of animals eat rats and mice, but that doesn’t mean I want them near the grandchildren.

He said the snake would not bother anyone unless it felt cornered.

Sometimes in life things are said that you never forget—that a black snake will not bother you unless it feels cornered is one of them.

Several weeks later our son’s family called to FaceTime with us. They were huddled together in front of the phone. The littlest one had something to say.

“Snake in dah cah,” she whispered.

“A snake?”

The others sat frozen as Daddy Bear unpacked the story. He, Mama Bear and the five cubs were making another pilgrimage to the big box store in town for building supplies when Mama Bear, wearing sandals, felt something slither across her feet. She looked down and saw a black snake, whereupon she screamed, “Somebody ate my porridge!” No wait. Wrong story.

Mama Bear screamed “There’s a snake in the car!”

Papa Bear slammed on the brakes. Mama Bear reached into the backseat to open the latch on the minivan door, but the blacksnake was crawling up the door. The door by the 2-year-old’s car seat.

Oh yeah. Snake in dah cah!

Daddy Bear and Mama Bear opened minivan doors from the outside and told the cubs to unbuckle from their car seats and run for it.

The cubs ran and the adult bears watched the snake slither along the passenger-side window and down out of sight. They flipped open the back gate to the vehicle.

The snake had coiled around a bolt anchoring the rear seat to the floor of the minivan. The snake was content. And why not? The snake had backpacks, jackets and shoes for cover, Cheerios, dried fruit snacks and bits of granola bars for snacks. It was four-star dining.

Papa Bear cajoled the snake with a long stick, but it wouldn’t move. Then, a large fellow the size of a Chicago Bears linebacker appeared and offered help. He pulled with all his might on the tail of the snake. He pulled and grunted and broke great beads of sweat, and finally the snake let go, flinging out of the car and calmly slithering away.

The snake was gone, and most of the kids were, too. Papa Bear said to Mama Bear, who still had trauma tears streaming down her face and a toddler on her hip, “Let’s get the kids and go. The big box is open for 10 more minutes.”

Sometimes in life things are said that you never forget. “The big box is open for 10 more minutes” will be one of them.

Shown here with a full belly, the black snake has become a regular visitor; but not a regular passenger.

 

 

Hard to slow down in high speed

The way the husband talks, you’d think I was a racehorse.

“Pace yourself!” he says. “Pace yourself.”

He says I move too fast. I’ve yet to beat a thoroughbred, but he could have a point.

The other night I was invited to watch a movie outdoors with several friends on a patio. When the movie was over, I was the first to start carrying snack bowls into the house. I flung aside the screen to the sliding door and charged directly into the glass.

A gal coming behind me saw it, chuckled, and said she wouldn’t mention it to the others.

She didn’t have to. They heard it.

SMACK!

I’ve tried slowing down but it feels like a car that idles rough.

Our girls get on me for not drying dishes thoroughly. “Why waste time with a towel doing what the air will do naturally?” I ask, dropping a wet spatula into the utensil crock.

I’ve also been told to stop jumping on the counter to get at the top shelves. I should go get a ladder. I’ve gotten what I wanted, am off the counter and revving up the mixer by the time someone else finds the ladder.

Because I walk fast, I shop fast. That’s how we came to own two large bottles of bodywash that we will never use. I thought I’d finally found large refill bottles of liquid hand soap. Speed also enables me to score avocados that are rock hard and tomatoes that are mush.

Moving fast has brought me a life filled with color. I often sport a big black and blue mark on my left arm from clipping the side view mirror on the SUV as I speed by it to dump a bag of trash in the garage.

I return inside moaning and holding my shoulder. “Pace yourself,” he says again. It’s like a Ring Doorbell that constantly chimes.

Speed has also enabled me to be at the front of the pack doing word scrambles.

APCE SEFLYOUR

I will admit that a penchant for speed as a writer can result in typoes and gramatcal errs. I can bring retired English teachers to tears.

The husband, who is moderately paced, was frantically dashing about the house the other day, flying in and out, racing up and down the stairs.

After a career in newspapers, he took an early retirement buyout several years ago and has been living the easy life.

“Why are you in such a hurry?” I asked.

“I’m on deadline,” he said.

“What’s your deadline?”

“Death.”

Perfect. The man has just given me a defense for moving quickly. I’m on deadline, too. We’re all on deadline, which is why I will continue to stand, or walk briskly, in defense of speed.

One final nugget before I close my case: Secretariat wasn’t a Triple Crown Winner because he moved slow.

Getting their feet wet and backsides, too

Our oldest daughter and I are on the deck of a rented lake house eyeing kids scattered on the shoreline below. They, in turn, are eyeing three bright red kayaks.

“Not one of them has experience,” she says.

I nod and the trees around us nod, sending a flurry of burnt orange leaves to the ground.

“They do have life jackets,” I say.

Our son appears on the shoreline. His appearance doesn’t exactly trigger a sigh of relief.  He’s not known for holding back.

“The water is incredibly cold,” she muses.

“And who knows how deep it is,” I say.

The kids cluster around one of the kayaks below.

“Those things can tip so easily,” she continues.


“So easily,” I echo.

A cheer rises from below as our son shoves a kayak holding his 9-year-old into the water.

“Has he kayaked before?” I yell down.

“Once!”

There it is again, the balance and counterbalance of safety and risk, moms often tilting toward safety, dads toward risk, differences somehow complementing one another.

The kid in the kayak may only have been out once before, but he has mastered the hang of things. He cuts through the water, paddles dipping in and out in a smooth and graceful rhythm.

A short while later, his 7-year-old brother shoves off, followed by their 11-year-old sister. It is a first for them both. They quickly get the hang of it as well, though a bit later the 11-year-old tips her kayak close to shore. It seemed intentional. Maybe she just wanted a practice run with disaster in shallow water. She laughs all the way up the hill to change into dry clothes.

A 10-year-old, who has been standing on the shore quietly watching, announces she’s ready. She buckles up a life jacket, climbs in and takes off. In and out, in and out, paddle right, turn left, paddle left, turn right. She learns by observing.

Her twin learns by doing. She, too, is soon in a kayak, paddles slapping the water, the water slapping her. She sticks close to the shore and a few minutes later is climbing out of the kayak, trekking up the hill to the house, her entire backside soaked to the skin.

When you lift the paddles too high, water runs down them and into the kayak. Don’t ask how I know this. A number of trips were made up the hill for dry clothes and not all of them were made by kids.

By the next day, nearly everyone has been out on the water, adults and older kids in kayaks, little ones with moms and dads in paddle boats. The one who learns by watching now moves with ease. The one who learns by doing ventures farther from the shore. The one who first rolled her kayak has now tipped three times in shallow water, enjoying each bit of drama more than the one before.

They all leave with damp clothes in backpacks and duffel bags savoring a new layer of confidence known as the reward of risk.

Shedding light on the stars

I’ve always been sorry I don’t know more about the stars and galaxies.

I was especially sorry a few weeks ago when I went out early one morning and saw an incredibly bright light in the eastern sky. It was so brilliant I wondered if it was a UFO.

Good thing I Googled it when I went back inside instead of phoning it in. It was Venus.

I am downright envious of people who can confidently point out the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Sometimes I think I’ve found them, but then I link all the stars and wind up with two slotted spoons instead of dippers.

One of the grands who lives in the country where stars blaze deep into the dark showed me where the family stretches out on the deck at night to watch the space station.

“It starts over there,” she said, pointing to the top of a fir. “It crosses this way,” her fingering tracing an arc overhead, “and we lose sight of it over there at the top of that tree with the bag webworm.”

Maybe that’s what I need for star gazing, a house in the country, a 30-foot-long deck and trees with bag webworm.

I had opportunity to learn about the stars as a kid when I was selected to go to a 2-week summer space camp. We made papier-mâché planets and astronaut helmets from empty Baskin-Robbins ice cream containers. My most vivid memory of space camp is the smell of mint chocolate chip.


Learning about astronomy is something I’ve been “gonna get to,” but somehow never have. The first obstacle is overcoming the embarrassment of checking out books from the children’s section of the library. I should probably start with one of those touch and feel books without words and work my way up.

The second obstacle is that my wobbly sense of direction on land is magnified 500 times in space. The North Star, also known as Polaris (and I hope that impressed someone), is an enigma.

People point it out to me. I gasp. Then I ruin the moment asking for proof they are certain. Do you look north to find it or straight up?  What if you’re looking for it from the Arctic Circle? Do you look to the south to find the North Star? I weary my tutors and often find myself standing alone in the dark. Under the North Star. I think.

I am finally getting serious about the stars having downloaded the SkyView Lite app. I trained it on that early morning eastern sky four days running, and it confirmed the bright light as Venus.

“I’ve found Venus!” I shouted to all the sleeping neighbors.

I’ve also found a warrior wielding a sword and another fella armed with a bow and arrows. Apparently, there is as much fighting going on in the galaxies, as on the earth.

Progress is slow, but I now know the North Star is part of the Little Dipper. There’s rarely a night I don’t look at the stars and wonder – if there’s mint chocolate chip ice cream in the freezer.

Two kinds of grandparents in this world

There are two kinds of grandparents in this world—those who love personalized gifts emblazoned with adoring messages and those who do not. Naturally, the husband and I are opposites on this matter. I believe the Bible refers to this as “iron sharpening iron.”

Yesterday, the husband opened the kitchen cabinet, coffeepot in hand, and announced there were no coffee cups. I counted six. He said he couldn’t use any of those because they were special gifts, coffee mugs with pictures of grandkids and loving messages on them.

He says if he uses them, they could wear out. My thought is, how can they wear out if he never uses them, but I have learned not to exacerbate our differences with logic.

Because he enjoys personalized gifts, he is the absolutely most fun grandparent to buy for. He has T-shirts with photos and clever sayings on them (most never worn, sitting in a drawer), socks with photos of grandkids’ faces on them (sitting in the same drawer) and ball caps emblazoned with declarations of love. Those he wears.

I am the grandparent known for practical. I have no photo mugs, socks with faces on them or ball caps declaring my greatness.

What I do have is a garbage table. You read that right.

It was a gift handcrafted with love by our oldest grand, a young lady of 11.

It took considerable time and effort to build and she reminded us the last time we visited that it was ready for us to take home.

A garbage table will not fit in a drawer.

Her two younger brothers helped me lug it out of the workshop. We were doomed halfway up the hill to the car, whereupon the husband lugged it the rest of the way and loaded it into our vehicle after folding down the rear seats.

The garbage table principle is simple: you eat on the tabletop, then lift the lid and throw your garbage in a trash bag secured over the frame below the lid. Apparently, I am not the only one who sees my life as a never-ending cycle of cook, eat, clean-up, repeat.

The garbage table is 3-feet tall, with somewhat narrow legs supporting a 21-inch square top. She did a fabulous job installing the hinges as well as the crafting the tabletop consisting of eight chunks of 2 x 4s fitted together. The tabletop is heavy—as in potentially lethal. Of course, people probably said the same of Michelangelo’s “David.”

If you lower the tabletop to the back, the table falls backward. If you close the lid and carelessly let it fall, you and your broken fingers will be speeding to the ER.

It is the thought that counts, which is why I will display the garbage table proudly, anchor it securely, and make sure it always has adult supervision when in use.

If the husband ever decides to break out a personalized photo mug, I will insist he enjoy it standing at my very delightful, highly practical, one-of-a-kind  garbage table.

Two tips for improving your smize

One of the grands sent a self-portrait she created for art class. The top half of the portrait shows her hair parted in the middle with one of her signature hairbows perched on the side of her head. Her big brown eyes peer through her glasses.

The bottom half of the self-portrait is a bright blue face mask with colorful flowers, cheerful like she is. It is a clever art project; the face mask is an overlay. The mask is removable, but we received her picture with the mask on. Such a sensible child, protecting her grandparents.

Her eyes look a touch bewildered. Who hasn’t looked a touch bewildered in recent months? Fortunately, I think I know what the problem is. The child needs to work on her smize.

Fashion model Tyra Banks coined the term “smize” several years ago. A smize is a combination of smile and eyes; meaning to smile with your eyes. Models can make their eyes smile without moving their mouths. Of course, models can also pound concrete in stilettos.

Smizing is big right now. It’s hard to convey friendliness when the smiling half of your face is covered. Restaurants are coaching wait staffs to perfect the smize behind face masks and retailers are coaching sales staffs.

Two exercises can help improve your smize. First, practice crinkling your eyes.

Go ahead, try it. Hold your mouth still and squint so your eyes crinkle.

No. That looks like you need you find your reading glasses.

Try it again.

No, not that either. That looks like you just took off your sunglasses and are waiting for your eyes to adjust.

Again.

Better, but it looks like you don’t understand what is being said.

I had on a face mask and tried my smize on the husband. He asked why I was glaring at him.

The problem is intersectionality – of wrinkles and crinkles. It is hard to crinkle when you already have wrinkles.

There are fundamental differences between crinkles and wrinkles. A crinkle is self-made; a wrinkle is time-made. A crinkle is temporary; a wrinkle is permanent. Well, unless you intervene with needles and chemicals.

The second part of a smize is to use cheek fat to help push your eyes up from the bottom to create a smiling effect.

I have cheek fat, but for several years now it has been bent on a slow downward movement, not upward. My cheek fat attempts to respond to my facial commands and only serves to intensifying the glare.

Like most people, I can mask and smile at the same time, but my eyes can’t smile without my mouth. They have an unbreakable bond.

Too bad we often can’t see one another smiling these days because smiling is like yawning—highly contagious. Contagions of smiling, kindly acknowledging one another as fellow human beings, wouldn’t be the worst thing to sweep the nation. Go ahead, smize or smile, whatever you can muster. Spread it around.