Saturday, December 21, 2013

On Being Home for Christmas

*A year ago today, Nana heard the angels sing for real. She enhanced the meaning of Christmas for us, both in life and through death. I am reposting the words I shared at her memorial service.

Paris 1969

I wanted to share the rush of thoughts that flooded my mind Friday, December 21, 2012 when I got the news about my Nana. None of us live forever.  Surely, we all knew this was coming.  At 100 years old, Nana had definitely lived a full and complete life.

Being in California, I was not able to visit her in Sandusky, Ohio very easily or often. Over the past few years, I was painfully aware that every phone call might end up being our last goodbye.

As it turned out, I was in a long line at the post office waiting to mail Christmas presents that Friday so, I didn't take my mom's call when it came in. She had joined the hospice workers at Nana’s side the day before so I sensed I might want more privacy to take her call. I did play back her voicemail though while I waited my turn, to hear her say, “Mother is in the arms of the Lord.”

Time froze at that point and all I could hear was Phillip Phillips, “Home” song piping through the post office loudspeaker. Perhaps you know it from his American Idol fame or from the U.S. gymnastics team theme song from the summer Olympics.

Music has a way of ushering us back and forth between the physical and spiritual realms.  As I sat in my car for awhile, called my mom back, and absorbed the poignancy of Nana's passing and the timing of the song, I couldn't help but be impressed by the tenderness of God.

That very week, I was waiting for my daughter, Allie, to return home from her first semester at college in Boston.  She was due back December 22nd and it wouldn’t really be Christmas until she got here.  I could so easily imagine how Nana must have felt during so many Christmasses past as she welcomed all of our extended family--her 4 children, 10 grands and 21 great grandchildren--home for the holidays.  It was the heart of God in her to welcome us home.

For my entire childhood, we came home to 44th Street in Sandusky for Christmas.  It was “heaven” to us as kids.  Nana made it so. Without fail, she greeted us at back door as arrived from various out of town places.

John 14:2 says, In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Waiting to descend Nana's stairs one Christmas morning
Like heaven, Nana’s house had many rooms. Each one bore the mark of her attention to detail and meticulousness. Like her, they emanated a clean distinctive air, an unattainable blend of Bon Ami, Fels Naptha soap, and peroxide all doused in powder puffs of Crabtree & Evelyn "Nantucket" talc and violets. The kitchen had a bulletin board with pictures of the entire family arranged neat as a pin and prominently displayed for all to see--or find themselves.  You could bank on the cookie jar being full of her trademark ice box oatmeal cookies and a not-so-secret drawer stocked with Snickers, York peppermint patties and packs of Wrigley’s gum. The showpiece of the kitchen was her 1940’s Frigidaire in mint condition inside and out.  It was vintage before vintage was hip.

Her dining room boasted custom mural wallpaper depicting a plantation landscape.  It looked brand new and stylish though it was hung thirty years prior.  Her silver service and glasses were always polished and ready at a moment’s notice.  

In the family room were four built-in knotty pine cubbies, one for each of her children, filled with school photos, wedding portraits and other milestones in that particular branch of the family tree.

Like her, the house was always the same: furnished, appointed, and maintained in picture perfect condition.  She set the bar on cleanliness that Py women ever since strive to attain.  It is no exaggeration that you could eat off her basement floor, maybe even the garage floor.

But she was not a “Martha” about it--the woman in the Bible remembered for being slightly frazzled, harried, perturbed, even resentful.  Quite the opposite, Nana went about her tasks gracefully, as if she were royalty.  She was never rushed or busy bodied.  She always had time to sit and tickle your arm or take a phone call. Try as we might, we will never meet her standard, nor her calm.

There was one room in her house that retained a certain mystery.  The door was often closed, especially if you got up as early as her in the morning.  With practical dark brown carpet and hunter green upholstery, it was not exactly off limits but, we all knew to knock.

There was a safe in the closet of this room that I don’t think I ever entered.  We knew it was there though, for on Christmas morning she’d unlock it and retrieve the traditional minted coin sets for all the grandsons, pearls for the girls, savings bonds and distribution checks for her children. This den was where she kept the valuables.  

It was also her sanctuary. The Lord’s Prayer was framed on the wall; a needlepoint kneeler was poised before an open Bible on a stand and a wood carving of praying hands.  Nana prayed there every morning and told us of having done so with Papa when he was alive. I believed her the many times she told me, ”I pray for you everyday.”

Her faith was real, active, consistent and pure, even if private. Her statement of faith might be summed up in these words she told me more than once, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

She had no need to beg to differ or debate. She believed the Bible as it was written and applied it daily and consistently with pressure as if polishing that silver so it was ready at a moment’s notice. I think the most valuable legacy she leaves us is her unwavering faith and those prayers for us.

As we’d leave Nana’s house after a holiday, she’d send us out the back door with lunch for the road, ham sandwiches, Snickers bars, and a jar of mustard pickles. As we’d back out the narrow, hedged driveway she’d scamper to the front window, poke her little gray head out between the dining room drapes, throw a kiss and stand there waving until our car rounded Hancock Street.

"Mim" Py
As she left us last Friday, my mom and Betsy, one of her favorite nurses, were on either side of her bed singing old familiar Christmas carols. Music was the conduit ushering her into the heavenly realm.  They sang all 3 verses of Silent Night as we will do at the end of this service. I believe Jesus welcomed her to a place He’d prepared with more care then even Nana could imagine. (And would you believe that very same song, Silent Night, came on the radio this morning as we watched them carry her out of Groff Funeral home?)  God is so tender with us.

For me, the meaning of Christmas was enhanced this year by thinking of Nana’s new reality. At last, she could see what she’d believed for so many years. 

This Jesus, whose birthday we just celebrated, was Lord at his birth and Christ her Savior was born. He made a way for her to come home. As they sang those lyrics to her, I believe she was literally seeing "glories stream from heaven afar.” The Son of God, love’s pure light, surely greeted her with “radiant beams from His holy face.”

2 Corinthians 5:1 says, We know that if the life we live here on earth is ever taken down like a tent, we still have a building from God. It is an eternal house in heaven that isn't made by human hands.

“God said it. Nana believed it. That settles it.” She was truly home for Christmas. 

I can picture her at the back door of heaven waiting for each one of us to arrive so the fun can really begin!  As she would say, “There is always a light on in the window” and it’d be “wunnerful" if you would be there too.

Oh how she loved Pavarotti!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top 10 Tuesday: Juvenile Christmas Books

Juvenile books maintain their edge as attention spans diminish in the digital age. We appreciate their intensity of flavor that's been reduced like a demi-glace to its essentials--not to mention the illustrations that convey the message visually as we're now accustomed.

Here are the favorites I just moved from the garage to our living room. Since my toddlers are now teenagers, I notice most of these are available used, dirt cheap, on Amazon, except for the few that are out of print.  Gives you motivation to visit your local library or thrift store!

10.  Wombat Divine by Mem Fox. There's a place for everyone in the Nativity.

9.  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. The original #brokenChristmas that breaks through religious spirits to experience Jesus.

8.  Jotham's Journey: A Storybook for Advent by Arnold Ytreeide. A daily dose of cliff-hanging historical fiction set in the time of Jesus' birth.

7.  Tabitha's Travels: A Storybook for Advent by Arnold Ytreeide. Similar to above with a girl heroine.

6.  The Christmas Miracle of Jonathon Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski. Taps my healed father wound. 

5.  The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaolo. Nothing but the blood of Jesus foreshadowed!

4.  B is for Bethlehem by Isabel Wilner. Illustrated by Elisa Kleven. It's all about the pictures.

3.  Santa's Favorite Story  by Hisako Aoki. How I reconciled the Santa myth multi-culturally.

2.  A Dozen Silk Diapers by Melissa Kajpust. I love practicality and inclusion of all the animals.

1.  Luke from The Message by Eugene Peterson. Doesn't get any better than the true story.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Truth of Seuss: #BrokenChristmas

I loved having another foodie in the house. Our winsome niece, Kat, unpacked her Patagonia duffels, slept in "the drawer" as we dubbed Allie's trundle bed, and fit right into our family for just shy of a year. It ended all too soon as we stood motionless in the driveway watching her drive into the sunrise. To us, it felt like the wrong direction. Our happy pack of puppies was forever depleted by one, neither the runt nor alpha dog, but surely the one with the wettest nose, keen on frolicking with all the others.

We packed a lot into those months as she pined for a lifestyle marketing job in California. All my household chores were more fun with this Cornell Hotel and Restaurant management graduate. Whether we were kicking tires on used Volkswagens, stocking my pantry with antioxidants from Whole Foods, squeezing specialty produce at Chino's farm stand, or mixing ginger and pear mocktails in our Vitamix, it was more luxury than I'd indulged myself in years. The affectionate nickname she gave me, "DG" (for Domestic Goddess), egged me on. Her tongue must have been in her cheek, when she dubbed herself "DiGiT," (Domestic Goddess in Training). We did nearly everything together. Except when she was playing big sister to Allie.

Sharing a room with a cousin 10 years older gave Allie more insight, foresight, and camaraderie, than we knew she'd been missing. It was a double portion of intimacy, compensation for waiting 15 years in vain for her twin brother with autism to play with her or converse. In one easy stride Allie could step into Kat's shadow on the sidewalk of life.

Living so far west, we had not experienced family as part of our daily grind. It was a gift as well-tailored as the ones she gave us that Christmas. Kat takes shopping to Olympic levels, both online and off. She presented inspired gifts to each of us: a Lego model of the Guggenheim museum for Jim, a bright turquoise space dye Lululemon jacket for me, Lulu pants for Allie, and a theater-sized poster of Singin' in the Rain for Reid demonstrated both her generosity and keen insight into each of our passions.

My only annoyance with her the entire year was her insistence on reading the Grinch Who Stole Christmas daily during December.

Oy vay, had she not seen the stack of more scriptural Advent devotionals and juvenile picture books I unpacked with the ornaments? Of all the books to reinforce in one's mind right before entering a sub-conscious dream state, why that one? And must we begin our day with it too? I'll admit, it irked me, to hear it's relatively vacuous rhyme being recited as if it were gospel. More than once, I offered alternatives, hand-carrying an illustrated edition of Luke 2 to her bedside. Propping Ruth Graham Bell's luscious summary of the New Testament, A Wintry Night, open on the kitchen table. No nibbles.

I let it go. And like proverbial true love, it came back.

Christmas Eve we grazed on our traditional salade Nicoise and champagne in front of the fire.  The kids, even our newly arrived eldest, nestled themselves into flannel sheets aware that Jim and I would want time to arrange presents under the tree. Hustling to get to bed ourselves, we were mindful that Reid's body clock did not adjust for our champagne consumption. He had been the first one up for many a moon. Holidays were no exception.

I awoke to a whimpering, crestfallen teen, "Maaom, Reid's downstairs. I think he unwrapped all the gifts."

"Huh...?" I mumbled from under the covers.

"Will you go check?" she pleaded with me. I sensed the recurrent, unutterable feeling we worked to repress: he ruined everything. The subtext my mother's heart heard was, can't you fix it?

All I wanted was to rewind to silence and a cup of coffee, or more sleep. I think it was 4 am. I trudged downstairs without stopping in the bathroom. Sure enough, the place had been ransacked. Shredded paper littered the living room. Anything that was not aVHS, DVD, or CD lay discarded haphazardly like a Jackson Pollack splatter painting.

A two year old could have done this, I thought.

I can't believe he's almost 16 and we're dealing with this? 

Will he ever outgrow this impulsivity? 

Why can't we have a normal Christmas?

The injustice of it hurt. I couldn't give Reid a lifetime supply of self-control anymore than I could promise Allie he'd answer her, play with her, interact with her, or tease her like a typical brother. I felt like an utter failure. Failing her...failing him...failing to provide harmony in my home.

Jim joined me, groggy in his slouchy pajama bottoms. Somewhere in the rubble was a new pair that would fit him better.  Together, without talking, we tried to salvage our expectations.

We repurposed any available packaging. Putting books in gift bags, folding clothes in piles, searching for tiny treasures, trying to recall what was missing, we embraced recycling at a new level. Channelling Christo, the environmental artist, we wrapped every store-bought thing. Ribbon bound gaping torn paper in creative disguise. We fluffed and swaddled until it looked how we thought Christmas ought to look.

Jim broke the blur of silence, fatigue and resolution, "I think we're handling this pretty well, don't you?"

As we ruminated, two things dawned on me. The joy really is in giving. Our actual presents were unharmed. Everything we'd chosen was in tact, there in plain sight. What had been taken was the experience of handing each one out expectantly watching how it was received. As the giver, in most cases, I wanted to be present to enjoy each person opening what I'd picked for them.

Second, it was like the Grinch had come through here.

The words of the storybook, practically memorized now, woke me like an alarm: It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags....What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if, Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?

It was true! We believed that. Could we actually do it now?

We went upstairs to console the girls. They sat sulking and whispering with arms akimbo. It's not fair. Those were mine, steamed from their nostrils into one conjoined bubble above their heads. Their breathing was audible: a strained inhale then forced exhale.

I couldn't help notice the stack of unharmed, picture-perfect parcels Kat kept stashed beside Allie's desk. Her mom had sent them from designer stores on the other side of the Mississippi. Let's just say at this point they were grossly mismatched with what was under our tree. Their creased corners and glossy graphics salted the wound, underscored the shabby salvage like "wash me" scratched in a cracked windshield.

Plopping on the trundle with them, I asked, "Kat, where's that Seuss book you've been reading all season?  Read the last page."

Seuss left it open ended. I wasn't going to risk confusion. Truth needed to be declared in the face of this attempted robbery.

After some succinct theology, we clustered in the chill around a wooden manger Jim had built as decoration for our front door step. Filled with evergreen boughs and a baby doll wrapped in a linen napkin, it was a semblance of the first Christmas.

We sang I Love You Lord, which was more of a solo but, I didn't care. They really did rally for Happy Birthday to Jesus.  And even a little Fahoo fores...Dahoo dores...

A poignant memory was born out of the hullabaloo Reid caused. He hadn't ruined anything. In fact, God may have sent him to fix a few things.

I’ll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I’ll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with  a heart that’s God-willed, not self-willed.  Ezekiel 36:23-25 

“Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”  Matthew 2:1-3

A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.  1 Kings 19:10-12 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Five Minute Friday: Reflect

Taking Lisa Jo Baker's prompt here: that not all I do? "A Mother's Reflective Voice in the Hullabaloo" is the subtitle on my auto signature promoting this blog--my attempt to summarize all I post in one pithy phrase.

Reflect: to look back at what has happened in an attempt to find meaning or make meaning out of it.

Reflect: to shine from a light that is not your own.

Sara Groves has a song about this and I'm certain she had more than 5 minutes to write it. "You are the Sun"...I am the moon.  I have no light of my own...but find purpose in reflecting yours in the dark places of the world.

Gotta get in His presence if we want to shine, not flicker out....(Boy, I write slowly....STOP)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Top 10 Tuesday: Thrift stores

I wonder if Reid might single handedly rid the world of old technology.

Like father like son, I guess. Jim is an early adopter; he had the iOS 7 software a year ago through some early bird developer special. Like his dad, Reid itches for electronics. He finds internet in spots it's not supposed to be available. I've watched him hack online in the back room of ski resorts and rewire the complex mess of U-verse, Sonos, and miscellaneous cables behind our flatscreen. Taking even one step closer to the cutting edge, Reid seems committing to buy up all remaining vestiges of VHS media in San Diego county.

The 25 cent-$1.00 price point on VHS tapes make it a reasonable entry in our budget. (I compare it to the amount of Starbucks Allie drank.) We try to limit it to 1 or 2 a week, not because of the money so much as the viewing time that ensues.  Every Friday is thrift store day. Half the fun--in all thrifting--is the pursuit...the search and find.  Not knowing what they'll have, ensures a constant craving.

We've memorized the hours and befriended the owners at these establishments.  It's a slice of life for sure. Honestly, I find them refreshing for the grace they embody. Recycling, redeeming, rescuing treasure, whether inanimate or flesh and blood.

10. Dan the Man's (otherwise known as St. Peters Thrift, Academy Drive, Solana Beach)

9.   Solana Beach Library

8.   Del Mar Library

7.   Rancho Santa Fe Library Book Cellar (bundled 10 for $5 in curling ribbon can present an issue)

6.   Cardiff-by-the-Sea Library branch

5.   Community Resource Center (only DVD's in Encinitas now, Carlsbad for VHS)

4.   Salvation Army, Rosecrans in Point Loma, the motherlode, don't go on Friday in traffic

3.   The Resale Shoppe, Rancho Assistance League (beside Trader Joe's in Encinitas)

2.   St. James Thrift Store, Del Mar behind Union Bank

1.   DAV's in Oceanside, or as we like to say, "Dave's"

“God’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field for years and then accidentally found by a trespasser. The finder is ecstatic—what a find!  Matthew 13:43-45

"If you seek God, your God, you’ll be able to find him if you’re serious, looking for him with your whole heart and soul.  
Deuteronomy 4:28-30

"You may think you have cleaned out the junk from your lives and gotten ready for God, but you weren’t hospitable to my kingdom message, and now all the devils are moving back in.”   
Matthew 12:42-44