Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Big Blue Poem Book

When my sister and I were little, my mother read to us every night from a big blue poem book. 

It was actually called Favorite Poems: Old & New, edited by Helen Ferris. But to us it was filled with magical stories told in the beautiful, musical language of poetry. 

We loved the poem about the Plumpuppets by Christopher Morley, the fairies who hovered and plumped up our pillows while we slept. 

We loved the adventures of Wynken, Blynken and Nod by Eugene Field, as they sailed off at night in their wooden shoe. 

And we loved the story of Peace and Mercy and Jonathan and Patience (very small), as they celebrated the First Thanksgiving of All, told in the wonderful words of Nancy Byrd Turner.

We had so many favorites that we’d beg my mother to read us just one more poem before we went to bed. 

Learning to love poetry might have had something to do with the fact that my mother is an elegant storyteller, lending her own unique expression and drama to them. 

These poems are forever a part of my life. 

When my sister got married, she gave me a gift of a keepsake photo collage of us as little girls, along with snippets of these favorite poems framed with the photos. 

Before my nephew Nathan was born, I bought my sister a copy of the poem book, now with a red cover, and hoped that my niece and nephew would love them as much as we did. 

But I don’t think they do.

I read Devon the Plumpuppets one night when she was staying at my house. I asked her if she wanted me to read it to her and she said politely, “If you want to.” 

She nicely listened but much prefers for me to read the mysteries in the Nancy Drew Notebooks to her before she goes to sleep. 

I have to realize that not all traditions get handed down. 

Not everything will be loved like I love it. 

The next generation gets to pick and choose their favorite memories and fond attachments to take with them from their childhood into adulthood. 

But maybe what’s important is giving them a lovely medley, a varied assortment, even a sometimes motley collection of rituals and memories and traditions to choose from.

My nephew now spends Thanksgiving at a hunting camp with his dad in Georgia. 

He thinks sleeping in a trailer and stalking deer is the most fun he’ll have all year. 

Devon spends Thanksgiving with us girls (and my dad) in St. Augustine. She says it has her most favorite shops of anywhere. 

Which is high praise indeed, since the only place she likes to shop in Orlando is the grocery store Publix, because she gets a free chocolate chip cookie.

So this Thanksgiving, I carry on my own tradition. 

I set out my three special candles – two pilgrims and an Indian girl, with the wick as the feather in her headband. 

My mother had these same decorations when I was little, but after moving several times, they disappeared. I was delighted when I found replicas of them in a vintage store. 

I stand them on my table and I open the big blue poem book. 

I read about Peace and Mercy and Jonathan, and Patience (very small), as they give thanks on their first Thanksgiving of all. 

And I give thanks. For all in my family who came before me to help make my holiday rituals my best-loved memories. 

And I’m so very grateful to God for the chance to make new traditions with those I dearly love who have arrived to walk this life alongside me.

First Thanksgiving of All by Nancy Byrd Turner

Peace and Mercy and Jonathan,
And Patience (very small),
Stood by the table giving thanks
The first Thanksgiving of all.

There was very little for them to eat,
Nothing special and nothing sweet;
Only bread and a little broth,
And a bit of fruit (and no tablecloth);
But Peace and Mercy and Jonathan
And Patience, in a row,
Stood up and asked a blessing on
Thanksgiving, long ago.

Thankful they were that their ship had come
Safely across the sea;
Thankful they were for hearth and home,
And kin and company;
They were glad of broth to go with their bread,
Glad their apples were round and red,
Glad of mayflowers they would bring
Out of the woods again next spring

So Peace and Mercy and Jonathan,
And Patience (very small),
Stood up and gratefully gave thanks
The first Thanksgiving of all.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mountains and Molehills

I spent last weekend lunching and shopping in Mount Dora, a small town just outside of Orlando. 

The name is a little misleading because there’s not really a mountain there. 

The mount is more like a hill. Or a gently rolling slope. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where there are a lot of hills. Steep ones. And very few of them are called mountains. 

My aunt Charlotte lived in a house perched at the top of one hill and the bottom of another. Driving to her house was an adventure, full of curves and hairpin turns. 

Near her house was a hill so steep it gave me the strangest sensation that the car could tip right over backwards. I still have nightmares about that hill. 

So I really like Florida. It’s flat, the streets are straight and there aren’t many hills. Unless you want to count Mount Dora.

I often wish I were someone who takes things in stride calmly and steadily. Someone who has an easygoing demeanor. Who doesn't get excited about incidental, inconsequential and inconsiderable things. 

But instead I tend to make mountains out of molehills. 

I know I have a tendency to exaggerate the importance of all things trivial. 

When I talk about these paltry happenings that seem so significant and important to me, my friends stare politely, waiting for more. 

I imagine they’re expecting me to end my story with, “AND he asked me to marry him! Isn’t that remarkable?” 

And it certainly would be. But the chances of having such a monumental ending to what I’m relating could not possibly live up to that standard of amazement.

St. Genevieve sits at the top of a hill in Paris.
When I ran into a man I kind of liked and his date in a restaurant, I thought it was so amazing that I had to immediately call a friend to go over every spellbinding detail. 

She was putting her kids to bed and politely listened to me. But as I continued to talk, I realized the details were riveting only to me. 

I felt deflated since I knew I was interrupting her and I wondered what on earth possessed me to think this was so enthralling. 

So I thought about changing my ways when I ran into another old friend. I resisted my usual urge to text, call or email immediately. 

As time wore on, I become rather unexcited about it. I downplayed the details. 

After all, it wasn’t really that compelling. A hello exchanged. Some small talk. 

Finally, I emailed a friend who I thought might be interested. She didn’t answer for several days. 

Which supported my suspicion that it really wasn’t worth sharing.

Steep street in Paris leading to the Pantheon.
But I like to wonder what these seemingly insignificant interactions mean. 

I kind of enjoy pondering how these incidences fit into the puzzle of my life. 

I imagine that maybe they’re sent from God as a personal message just for me via an unsuspecting participant in his plans. 

Like the compliment from a stranger who says she likes my hairstyle. 

The surprising email from a nearly forgotten grade-school chum who said she’d been hoping to reconnect with me. 

The postcard from an acquaintance I met just once who wrote that she thought of me and was praying for me. 

If I consider these daily happenings as nothing at all, then I think some of the joy, the surprise, the marvel, and the wonder of it all will be missing from my life. 

And I don’t want to lose that. 

So I’ll continue to contemplate my mini-dramas and reflect on the minor productions in my life. 

They may turn out to be just hills or slopes or bumps in the road of my life. 

But maybe some of the molehills will turn out to be mountains that I can clamber up. And who knows, maybe when I get to the top, I’ll find that the view was much more than I imagined. 

The expanded perspective may show me that what I thought was nothing might be something after all. 

Because who wants their life to be filled with meaningless molehills? 

Not when I can view the surrounding panorama while I'm looking for the noteworthy, extraordinary and exceptional happenings that make up my very ordinary days.

The view from the Eiffel Tower of Montmartre in Paris.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bringing Our Lives to Life

I’ve been shopping for holiday flowers and greenery for the garden planter that belonged to my grandmother. 

This cement planter now sits in my living room and was one of a pair that resided on her front porch for as long as I can remember. 

Now my sister and I have them. We drove my brother-in-law’s enormous pickup truck from Florida to Pittsburgh when my grandmother’s house was sold after she died. 

We packed the two cement planters, a green metal chair that always sat on the porch, her rusty porch glider and a whole lot of other stuff in the truck. Stacked precariously and covered by a blue tarp in case of rain, we rolled down the Atlantic coastline with our precious cargo. 

I stored the glider for many years in my parents’ garage until I very reluctantly decided to let them haul it to the curb for the trash. I had dreamed of making the glider into a couch, but I never had the space for it.

My grandmother had lived in her house since the 1940s but after she died it was sold to a contractor. It had been difficult for her to keep up with repairs and improvements through the years and was badly in need of renovation. 

Recently I stumbled across new photos of the house online and discovered it was sold last summer. 

Although I knew the house had been remodeled and strangers now lived there, looking at the photos was definitely eerie. 

The original hardwood floors were replaced with laminate. The beautiful old wooden doors were gone. The kitchen had new laminate counters and cabinets. 

But the kitchen curtains in the photos could have been my grandmother’s. The sunflowers on them were so similar to the curtains that hung in her kitchen for years that at first I thought the new owners had kept them. 

Then I realized that couldn’t possibly be true.

My mother (far right) and her three sisters in the front yard of their house.
My mother in front of the fir tree.
Looking at the online photos, I noticed that the yard was different too. 

The sloping front yard was leveled and the tree was gone. A giant fir tree had stood in the front yard for more than 60 years. It had Christmas lights hidden deep inside its branches that had been there since the last year my grandfather strung them before he died in the 1960s. 

The old stone wall that lined the driveway and went all the way to the backyard was removed. 

On my last visit to the house, I pulled out one of those stones from the wall and took it with me. The stone reminded me of everything about my grandmother’s house. 

I jumped from that wall from the time I could walk. 

I sat on that wall, dangling my legs, while I kept an eye on her next door neighbors. 

I clambered up and down that wall, running around the yard with my cousins, while grown-ups talked on the porch.

My grandparents, mother and relatives on the back porch.
Even though I’m glad the house has been given a new lease on life, it’s hard to think about someone else making it their home. 

But that house is just a frame. 

For the lives of all who lived inside it. 

For my mother and aunt who roller-skated down the halls. 

For my grandfather who yelled at them from the living room to simmer down. 

For my grandmother who made nut roll and ham salad and apple pie in the kitchen. 

Without them, it's just wood and nails and shingles. 

Doors and windows and stairs and walls. 

Their lives brought the house to life. 
My aunt Terri, my grandmother holding my cousin, and my mother in front of the tree.
And it's up to me to bring my house to life. 

When I flip chocolate chip pancakes in the kitchen for my niece's Saturday morning breakfasts. 

When I put on my party hat and light firecrackers in my driveway to celebrate New Year's Eve with my nephew. 

When I set out steaming mugs of coffee and pull chairs up to my counter when a friend stops by with her new baby. 

When I invite my colleagues to an after-work gathering of desserts set out on my dining room buffet. 

I'll be bringing my house to life as I decorate for another year's holiday season. 

And I think I'll start by placing a wreath of frosted winter berries on the rim of my grandmother's planter with a snowy white fir tree tucked inside.