Tag Archives: Christmas

The Memory Keeper

It’s pouring tonight and I can’t sleep, so I took my magical notebook and sat by the tree to listen to the rain.

Fred and Ginger, Innsbruck Austria

Fred and Ginger, Innsbruck Austria

This adorable pair smiled down from the top of the tree. Their names are Fred and Ginger (because they make such an elegant pair) and I bought them many years ago on a rainy night like tonight in Innsbruck, Austria. I chose them for their clumping big feet and his crooked smile. They are the hopelessly dorky and clumsy embodiment of how I felt when I went skiing in Austria. We were really there for Richard, who was a double black diamond, ski backwards down the mountain with no poles kind of athlete. I have been skiing exactly twice in my life: for the first time on a fraternity trip to Boone, NC and for the second time on the Stubaier Glacier 11,000 feet above Innsbruck….where they had the Olympics. Let’s just say it was inelegant. I prefer sports that include oxygen.


Jumping Johannes, Salzburg Austria

This is Johannes, also from Austria. One year, I got a stomach bug on our Christmas trip. I was sick as a dog from Griffin to Gay to Atlanta to DC to Berlin to Salzburg. I crashed into the clean white sheets of a hotel room. The white plaster walls glowed with Teutonic cleanliness and order. I slept for a few hours and when I woke, Richard had returned from his explorations with a dinner from a schnitzel cart owned by a Bosnian family. He brought me soft cheese, flatbread still warm from the oven and an ice cold Diet Coke. I ate a bite and came alive again. The next morning, we wandered into a church square just in time to hear the carillon play “Silent Night.” The whole square stopped and listened as the notes rang out across the cold, clear air. That carol was written in Salzburg. The joy that I felt in that moment, feeling alive again after all that sickness, comes back to me when I see Johannes. I bought him in that square.


A pilot from Munich, a bell from Salzburg, Pere Noel from Paris

A pilot from Munich, a bell from Salzburg, Pere Noel from Paris

On that same day in Salzburg, we were exploring a part of the city wall next to the cemetary where Mozart’s wife is buried. We rested in little turret and discovered a bell hanging there. I asked Richard to take my picture pretending to ring the bell. And you can guess what happened next. I tugged just a little too hard and the damn thing went CLANGALANGALANG across the city. Oops. So I bought that little beaded silver bell to remember that moment.

And yes, there’s a black velvet Elvis painting on the tree, too. I found him in Maine, on our last trip together. My family has a black velvet Elvis that makes the rounds every few years at Christmas. G got him last year!

The Queen of the Ball, Munich Germany. The Frog Prince, New Orleans. The Cat King, Luxembourg.

The Queen of the Ball, Munich Germany. The Frog Prince, New Orleans. The Cat King, Luxembourg.

This elephant? She’s my favorite on the whole tree, of the hundreds of stories I remember every year. I found her in a shop in Munich and it was love at first sight. She was part of a pair, with a bull elephant in white tie and tails. I couldn’t afford both–she was almost $50. Richard used to tease me about my ornament mania as I collected them on trips. I knew he would give me hell if he saw how much this one cost. I gave him hell about smoking–but on this cold night, I said, “Why don’t you go outside and have a cigarette while I finish up here?” The owner of the shop spoke beautiful English. As soon as he was out the door, we shared a good laugh at men and the excuses she had heard to get them outside. I treasure this belle of the ball because she is so happy to be herself, so sure of her beauty, not in spite of but BECAUSE she is an elephant.

Putting her with the Frog Prince and the Cat King is new this year. I like it. With my old fake tree, I bent limbs and made her a little stage of her own. With a real tree, I had to find a sturdy limb to hold her, up high and off to the side in case Carlos or the cats brought the tree crashing down.

Grandmama Eunice's bell. Pink sand from Bermuda. A Star of David from Prague.

Grandmama Eunice’s bell. Pink sand from Bermuda. A Star of David from Prague. Scots Presbyterian from Charleston SC.

That blue glass bell? Daddy was warned not to touch it when he was a boy because it was old then. The ceramic Santa is from Paris. He always hangs sideways and seems a little judgy. I bought the Star of David in Prague to remember how I was moved to tears in the empty synagogues of the Jewish Quarter. Not every memory on the tree is a happy time. I have an angel that I bought in the gift shop of Johns Hopkins, and a little nest of robin eggs that reminds me of a quilt that hung on the wall in the chemo room there. It had the line from Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


That tiny white church near the top? It’s another memory that needed to be remembered, not for joy, but for solemnity. It’s one of the first ornaments I collected–when Fartbuster and I went to Charleston, South Carolina for our honeymoon. The church is Scots Presbyterian. During the Civil War, the church donated its bells to be melted down and turned into ammunition. After the devastation of the war, they decided to leave the bell towers empty as a silent reminder of all that had been lost. A quiet memory.

Well. I could go on. But it’s after 1 a.m. and tomorrow is a busy day.

May the memories that visit you at this time be quiet ones, filled with reminders about how wide the world is, and how welcome you are to explore it.

Sid, the Christmas Kid

Yesterday, when I picked up Carlos from school, a little boy named Sid came tearing up to me. He leaned in close and whispered, “I bwought a secret present for Carlos. It’s a book.” Then he held his finger to his lips and said, “Don’t tell him!” Sid has twinkling brown eyes, an elfin face, and a brown bowl of a haircut. He seriously could be an elf.

I promised him that I wouldn’t tell.

Their class is doing a Secret Santa book exchange on Friday. As luck has it (or maybe clever teacher planning), Carlos got Sid’s name in the drawing. The only thing I know about Sid, apart from his cuteness and enthusiasm, is that he dressed as Superman for Halloween. How do I remember that? Because Carlos did too and the two of them sat next to each other at the party. Super Duo.

So I bought a couple of Little Golden Books–one about Superman and one about Spiderman. Tonight, after the kids were asleep, I got out the wrapping paper and the tape and the scissors then got to work. The first gift wrapped this year!

10854498_10204502848964267_7232412303449048479_oWhen the red bow was tied, I stepped back and felt my heart crack open with gladness. That feeling of knowing that the gift will be appreciated. That the wrapping paper and the big bow will delight a small person.  I enjoyed the moment when all the bustle and to-do lists of this season turned into joy at the chance to delight one tiny boy who took such delight in having a surprise for my little boy.

I hope Sid likes his books. The instructions for the Secret Santa swap said to label the present for the kid who will receive it. Didn’t say anything about putting the name of the kid who is giving it. Sid won’t know these books are from Carlos and he certainly won’t need to thank me next time I see him. But I wrote this to thank him. Thank you, Sid, for sharing your secret with me. For sharing your excitement. For giving me the chance to give.

And this whole Secret Santa thing? It’s like having a secret identity. Like Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne.

By day, the kid knows me as Carlos’ Mom. But by night, I am Baddest Mother Ever!


Carlos Ate the Driveway

934876_1004365842912945_5823730810623982525_nMy mom came over this weekend so G and I could get our shopping done. We snuck off on Sunday morning and left her with Vivi, Carlos…and A Project.

When we returned a few hours later, Vivi met me at the door with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face.

“Carlos ate the driveway.”


“Carlos ATE the DRIVEWAY.”

10372134_1004136566269206_4083028438181455718_nGrandma’s gingerbread village kit had been a huge success–until it turned from art project to “pile of frosting and candy sitting within arm’s reach of a little boy.”


G and I never saw the little house looking like this. See the colorful little candies that line the path to the front door. Carlos ate the driveway, like she said.

Each red gumdrop–“volcanos” as he had called them–that dotted the top of the roof? Gone.

I assured Vivi that she had done the same thing with our first gingerbread house, five years ago. I protected that thing from her as best I could and it still ended up with a looooot of white space. Every night after lights out, I would hear little feet sneaking into the dark dining room and nibbling the shingles off the roof. 10846030_1004365269579669_3488541587998234951_n

Who WOULDN’T eat a pile of frosting and candy that was right there in front of you?

We’ve put the gingerbread village on the table, on the mantle, next to the Elf who’s supposed to be keeping an eye on things…no luck. Carlos doesn’t wait until lights out. He saunters through the den with a shed in hand, gnawing around the brittle snow on the roof to get to the one last green jawbreaker that’s wedged in there. And I don’t even bat an eye anymore. Even Vivi has given up complaining about it.


Making gingerbread houses–or traditions or homes or families. It’s not so much about the end product as it is about the joyful work we do together.

Learning to hold the walls together with a little sweetness and patience, just like Grandma taught you.

Letting kids get messy, even if it means cleaning sugar frosting off the windowsill, the bunkbed, a couple of rugs and somebody’s bangs.

Accepting that what we create isn’t going to look like the picture on the box.

Being kind to the brother who eats your driveway. Because you used to chew the roof yourself.


Every Baby Changes the World

baby snow angel

I’ve been thinking about babies for the last few days, specifically two growing boys named Carlos and Justice.

December 26th is “Carlosmas” because my son was born on a snowy, quiet morning the day after Christmas, three quick years ago.

When G and I went to the hospital at 7 p.m. on Christmas night, the snow had just begun to fall.  Vivi was beside herself with excitement–a visit from Santa, Grandma in charge, snow, AND a baby brother!  My whole body quivered with nervous energy, too.  When we got to the maternity unit, my friend, Paulette, was going off shift but decided to stay to get me settled.  That one act of kindness set my mind at ease.  It was all going to be OK.

For Vivi’s arrival, there had been a host of people in and out all day–I got giving birth somewhat confused with a tea party.  In the end, it was perfect and just the right entrance for Vivi, who has always been vivacious and loves the fuss and bother of a party.  For Carlos’ arrival, it was just G and me, whiling away the quiet hours of the night.  We walked the empty halls.  We watched a black and white movie.  We watched the snow gather on the big dogwood tree outside my window.  We slept until 6 a.m. and I woke knowing that it was going to be SOON.

But there was no chaos.  My friend, Alecia, four months pregnant herself and married to my cousin’s cousin, ended up being our delivery nurse.  She called my doctor, who lives just a block away so he walked in through the snow.  G and I had done this before, so we were more excited than nervous.  The room filled with joyful people as the snow fell outside.  

Carlos arrived at 6:27 a.m., along with a lavender glow of sunrise on the snow.  I remember looking out the window and feeling such peace.  My son is a quiet, joyful child–the chillest little person you’d ever want to meet.  Looking back now that I know him better, his birth morning suited him perfectly.  

While I watched the purple snow take on the light of morning, with my son now in the world with me, I thought about Christmas and the miracle that Christians believe happened with the birth of one child.  My heart told me in that moment that EVERY baby is a miracle.  Every baby is another chance to get it right, to be our best selves, to live love.  Thoreau put it best:  “Every child begins the world again.”  

Last year, in the snowy winter, a little boy was born many weeks early.  He began his life too small and all alone and struggling.  He embodied a chance to live love to anyone who could take him.  And that’s exactly what he got.  A man I knew a long time ago, David, and his husband, Mark, adopted this tiny baby and gave him a name and a family.  They loved him until he was strong enough to leave the hospital.  They did the work to make him part of their family.  They met his every need and then some.  Justice has flourished in his family.  I saw a picture of him and his big sister the other day and that baby has the kind of cheeks that make you believe that everything is going to be OK.  In a year, his expression has blossomed into smiles.  He lives in love and it shows.  

I guess what I was thinking about on the morning of Carlos’ birth was something like this:  we spend so much effort and energy thinking about another world when there are miracles born every day in this one.  Every baby is a gift with the potential to save us from our worst selves.  Every baby is a chance to get it right.  Every baby brings peace and a chance to live love.  

One With My Name On It

I have been scurrying madly for a couple of days, trying to “catch up” after being sick for a week.  Busy busy busy!  Must!  Gotta!  Have to!  Need to!

Sound familiar?

And on top of the busy-ness, I also hit that sad point in the holiday arc where the beautiful gifts I had chosen with care look stupid and not charming and just WRONG.  Because, y’know, there’s a test and I’m getting a grade and it better all be OK or something awful will happen.  Like Big Gay may already have that CD and she won’t love me anymore.  Or maybe Vivi doesn’t want to learn to knit any more because I dared to get excited about it.  Or the book for Daddy will make him sad instead of inspired.  Did Victoria say blue or blueish?  Well, whichever, I’m sure this is wrong.

Then on top of the busy-ness and the WRONG and the ridiculous cough that lingers, I look over and see G reclined in front of the TV, not a care in the world.  Has he tied a single bow?  No.  Has he written out a list for the dinner that he’ll cook Wednesday?  No.  Has he…well, you get the idea.  He’s living his life.  I’m living my life AND trying to make sure everyone else has Special Memories.  Cue the music and the fake snow and the dancing reindeer!

I hit bottom, right around 11 p.m.  But I’ve had a lot of therapy and knew it was just mental and kept my mouth shut about it.  I finished the bows.  I sorted the presents that need to go to Griffin and the ones that will stay here.  I checked the piles to make sure they looked about even.  I reminded myself that Carlos can’t count so he won’t know if he gets more pajamas than his sisters.  I stacked the presents under the tree.  And that’s when I saw….one with my name on it.

A present under the tree, for me!

A present under the tree, for me!

One gift in that giant pile that hadn’t been picked, paid for, or wrapped by me.

Do we ever get over the little zizzle of excitement caused by finding a present under the tree with our name on it?  I hope not.

Around the holidays, it can be so tiring, being the mom.

And it can be so rich, finding a present with my name on it.  With a tag someone wrote in five special colors.  Wrapped up tight in a festive piece of felt.  Taped SECURELY.

Oh my heart.  She wrote my name on it.

A Yella Cat for Christmas

yella catsThis darling photo reminded me of a sweet but bygone Christmas tradition in my dad’s house–the Christmas kitty.  

For a few years running, back before the grandchildren came along, Daddy used to bring home a little kitten on Christmas Eve.  Whichever one had been left at the kennel after the cutest ones had been adopted.  So what I’m trying to say–gently–is that these weren’t your most attractive kittens.  They were the kinda wonky ones, that still deserved love.  

Well, one year, we got the wonkiest of them all.  His name was Little Red.

It was a few hours until Christmas Eve dinner and we kids were all hanging around in the kitchen watching Daddy and Gay cook.  You know, like you do in big families with small kitchens.  That’s when Daddy looked over his shoulder from the stove and said, “Oh, I almost forgot!  I got us a Christmas kitten–Brett, run down to the clinic and get that little orange kitten and bring him home.”  Brett DISSOLVED into laughter so we knew something had to be up.  

Thirty minutes later, here comes Brett with a cardboard cat carrier that’s making little mewling noises.  She sets the carrier down in the center of the library rug but won’t open it up until she has everyone’s attention.  “Y’all just aren’t going to believe how beautiful this kitten is!  Close your eyes!”  So we do and she starts giggling again and there’s some rustling and mewling and…

…I wish I had a picture.

There in the middle of the rug stood a bright orange kitten, about the size of a coffee cup.  He looked like he had been hit by a truck because, well he had been hit by a truck.  This tiny fluff ball had his right front leg in a cast wrapped in red bandages.  His left back leg was popped out of joint and still sitting crooked.  His nose had been sewn back on with some stitches poking out.  He looked like he had sideburns because of the dark greasy streaks from some earmite medicine.  His whole backside had been shaved so Daddy could sew up a long laceration right by his hooty-hole.  Which was all dabbed in some fluorescent chartreuse antibiotic cream.  

“ISN’T HE ADORABLE???” Brett squealed.  We were speechless.  The kitten looked around at all of us staring at him–on top of his otherwise shitty couple of days–and said, “Mew?”  Then he stalked around the room, inspecting his new kingdom.  The cast made him swing his leg out in a big circle like a peg-legged pirate.  With each step, it made a “bonk” sound on the hardwood floor.  

Daddy said, “A lady from the Humane Society found him lying in the middle of the road and when she saw he was still alive, she brought him in for me to put him to sleep.  I told her I would, but after she left I reached down to pat him and he started purring.”  That was all the explanation we needed as to why Daddy had spent Christmas Eve gluing this orange kitten back together.  Because my Daddy has a special place in his heart for “yella cats.”  

Did you ever get a kitten for Christmas?  A peg-legged, shaved-ass, pirate kitten with sideburns?

Saturday Snort–Three Signs You’re Gettin’ Coal


text dad

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