Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A House Adorned for the Holidays

A lady I didn't know stood in my house and asked me, “Do you mind if I give you a helpful hint?” 

Somehow I was sure that I probably would mind. I was also quite sure that whatever she was about to say wouldn't be all that helpful. 

Her comment came a few years ago when I agreed to host my house as part of my historic neighborhood’s annual holiday tour. 

Although my house wasn’t historic, it was built in the style of a 1920s bungalow, with arched doorways, hardwood floors and a big front porch. Tour organizers wanted to show how a new house could still look old and settled, and they wanted some holiday cheer in every room. I wasn't sure I was up to the task but I agreed to do it since the tour raised funds for improvements to our neighborhood.

While it was still summer, I started shopping for holiday décor. 

I studied decorating magazines for ideas. 

Before it was even Halloween, I started decking the halls. 

It was a huge undertaking to adorn every room inside the house, swag both of my porches, and have my landscaping not look dead the weekend of the tour. 

I hung wreaths on mirrors, lit dozens of candles, adorned tiny trees on tables, and was still tweaking and rearranging right up to the last minute. 

I had more than 500 tour-goers parade through my house the weekend of the tour. Many were complimentary but what I remember most was the lady who was intent on giving me some decorating advice with her helpful hint. 

“Next time,” she said, pointing to a cord from my lamp that was dangling behind a table and trailing along the baseboard. “Use a cord cover. It looks so much better and gives everything a finishing touch.” 

As I stared at her, she added, “But you have a lovely home.” 

Her last comment was lost on me because all I heard was her critique. That she might have kept to herself. Or shared with her friend after she left my house. 

But her comment got me thinking. 

Of the incredible power words have to uplift or deflate. 

Of how many times I feel compelled to share a comment that would have been better left unsaid. 

Of how often I feel the need to show my superiority or share what I feel is my expert knowledge, oblivious to the effect it will have on someone else’s feelings. Of the conversations when I need to listen to the nudge to pause instead of rushing ahead to say something I think is witty or catty.  

This weekend, I'll be heading back to my old neighborhood to tour this year's homes decked out for the holidays. 

I'll see some old friends and neighbors. 

I'll get to peek inside a few secret gardens and I'll poke around the houses of the brave souls who put their homes on display. 

I'll ooh and ahh over their homes and wish I'd thought of some of their clever styling tactics. 

I'll gush and admire and compliment. I might even steal a dazzling idea or two. And I'll be sure to tell them. 

I now realize the monumental work involved to have the homes show-ready. Although every home won't be decorated to my style, our shared experience gives me a new appreciation of their decorating endeavors and their willingness to share their homes during the holidays. 

Now, that’s a helpful hint I could really use all year round.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cooking, Conversation & Kinship

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. 

I liked it even more than Christmas because it was at my aunt's house. My aunt Shirley and my mother struck a deal that my mother would always host Christmas dinner if my aunt took Thanksgiving. 

My mother thought baking a ham was easier than roasting a turkey and Aunt Shirley was far and away, a better cook. 

At Thanksgiving, her kitchen was a place of controlled chaos with my cousin beating up mashed potatoes while asking my aunt how much milk and butter to add, my mother saying she needed room in the oven for her sweet potatoes to warm, and my uncle plugging in the electric carving knife asking when the turkey would be ready to slice. 

Every year, as my aunt carried the baked-to-perfection turkey into the dining room, she’d apologize that it was probably overcooked and too dry. As we took our first bites, she’d disparage her hours of culinary excellence by saying, “It’s not any good, is it?” We’d all chime in how delicious it was, even though she didn’t seem to believe us.

I solemnly watch my mother goof around in the kitchen
with my aunt and grandmother.
What I loved about the holiday wasn’t just one particular dish or a certain tradition, it was the feeling it gave me. 

The feeling that I was part of a fascinating family. 

After dinner, I’d listen to my mother, grandmother and aunts talk. It didn’t matter what they were saying, I was always immensely interested in the conversation. 

They told stories and joked and bickered and gossiped and laughed. I thought they were the funniest women around. 

I was proud they were my family. 

Even though I didn’t say much, I felt included in the circle of their sisterhood gabfest.

As the evening wore on, the turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes disappeared from the dining room table and desserts appeared in their place. 

Nut rolls, chocolatey Texas sheet cake, an array of Jewish cookies, thumbprint cookies, Russian tea cakes and the always-present jello salads were laid out. 

I never wanted dessert to end because I knew very soon my dad would announce, “Well it’s getting late and I have to get up for work in the morning.” 

We’d beg him to stay just a little longer but the conversation became rushed. The leftovers were wrapped for the drive home. We’d head out into the night. And Thanksgiving would be over.

All those Thanksgivings are just a memory now. My aunts, uncle and grandmother have moved on to heaven. 

As I grew up, I learned that the women of my family were far from perfect. I realized that each of them had chapters of their lives filled with pain and brokenness that threatened to overwhelm them at various points in their lives. But they were redeemed by God’s love and accepted the mercy and grace that only he can extend. 

They worked hard to recover and reclaim their lives. The scars of their mistakes didn’t define them because they were willing to exchange them for beautiful gifts. 

Gifts and talents that they crafted out of what remained. Out of the ashes and the dust. Remarkable gifts of love and generosity and hospitality. This is their legacy for their nieces and daughters and granddaughters to remember them by. 

Now my family goes out to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. 

Someone else cooks the meal. There aren’t any leftovers. But we still gather around the table. 

We will laugh and bicker and chitchat. We will remember those in our family who came before us. And each year we will tell a little more of their stories to those who come after us. 

To write new chapters of our family's story. I’m grateful for the goodness God has poured out on my life and for the extraordinary blessing of my imperfect, but perfect for me, family.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Something Borrowed

My library card has been recalled. I got an email saying I had to verify my address to renew my library card or it would be disabled. There’s just one problem. I'm using a library card from the county where I used to live and I guess I'm supposed to use the library of the county I reside in. It’s just that I don’t like my county-designated library all that much. There’s not a location convenient to me. Parking is a hassle. So to avoid these difficulties I just kept using my old library card. At my old familiar library.

I love the library. I’m a bookworm at heart. Every few weeks, I set aside a weekend afternoon to browse the shelves, checking out new titles. I don't always understand the logic of the Dewey Decimal system, so I prowl around my favorite sections, discovering books only faintly related to how they're catalogued. I'm always surprised by the unexpected titles I stumble upon. I usually check out a stack of books that I can hardly juggle on my way to the car. I sneak peeks at the dust covers on my way home and settle down to leisurely peruse the stack to decide which books I'll read first.

So I devised a plan for this expiring library card business that threatened to interrupt my library junkets. Awhile ago, I asked my dad to get a card since he lives in my old county of residence. He doesn’t use the library so I wanted a back-up card exactly for this situation. At first, I nonchalantly checked out a few books on my dad’s card to make sure it was in working order and I didn’t have to show ID. The clerk barely glanced at the card as she scanned my books. Even though I was prepared to answer why my dad would want to read a biography of Chanel or the history of interior decorating, she didn't seem to care. I had to then return all the books I had checked out on my own card before it was so unexpectedly revoked, most of which I hadn't read yet. I wrote down all the call numbers so I could check them back out after they were reshelved. After a few days, I returned to the library, retrieved my books and re-checked them out on my dad's card. Success!

Maybe my obsession with the library seems a little crazy. Maybe I should let my regular plans be interrupted for a new experience. Maybe I should venture out to a different library to discover a new treasure-trove of books I haven’t read. I guess if I have to, I will. But for now I’m prepared. I told my dad to be ready at a moment's notice to show up at the library to verify his address. So I can keep on borrowing books on his library card.