Archive for December, 2011

A Christmas Story

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

The story below came to me in a Christmas letter from a dear family friend.  This story is a true one from her childhood.  She wrote it down for her own children about 15 years ago.  She tries to share it with new people each year and this year included it in her holiday mailing.

It was early December in 1942 in a little copper mining town in Southern Arizona when my dad sat my little brother and me down tot ell us there would be very little money for Christmas gifts that year.

Our mom and dad had come to Arizona from Arkansas because friends from their hometown sent word that jobs were plentiful in the underground copper mines.  That wasn’t the case in depression era Arkansas.  So my mom and dad boarded a train that brought them to this mountain community, and my dad did indeed find work in the copper mines the very first day.  But what he really wanted was to work in the accounting offices of Phelps Dodge Mining Company and applied for every opening.  Each time he was passed over by someone with a college degree.  He finally convinced Phelps Dodge to give him a chance. He offers dot work for 30 days for free and at the end of that time if they didn’t like his work, he’d go back in the mines.

Daddy began his trial run in the accounting offices on December 1st – and there would be no paycheck that month.  He was understandably concerned about how he could provide for his young family that Christmas.

My brother and I assured him he didn’t have to worry about us.  We’d written to Santa and we knew Santa would come through.  My brother had asked for an Army Jeep – one you could sit in and drive – with a big silver star on the side.  This was World War II every day we went outside and played War.  And I wanted a doll with long blonde hair and a black net dress trimmed in pink ribbon – exactly like the one my mother wore to her meetings of the Order of the Eastern Star.

Easter Star was my Mother’s big night out.  Once a month, Mama would don this beautiful gown and my brother and Dad and I would diet on our front porch on the side of the Bisbee mountain and watch my mother until we lost her from view.

I can see her still as she was then – a beautiful young woman, sweeping down the side of the mountain in that glorious dress.  She had made her dress.  Mama was a wonderful seamstress and since Christmas was coming she was at her Singer sewing machine constantly, crafting gifts for family and friends.  My brother and I “helped.”  He worked the pedal and I would turn the wheel that drove the needle as Mama guided the fabric.

My dad was busy getting ready for Christmas as well.  He and a friend were meeting in the friend’s garage most evenings working on some book shelves that would be a surprise for our mother.  My brother and I were sworn to secrecy.

Finally the preparations ended and it was Christmas.  And when my brother and I walked into the living room that Christmas morning, it was just as we had known it would be.  There beneath a sparkling tree was a little wooden Army Jeep with a big silver star on the side that my brother could sit in and drive.  And right next to it was the most beautiful doll in the world.  She had long blonde hair and a black net dress trimmed in pink ribbon, exactly like my mother’s dress.

It was a magical morning, and at one point my brother magnanimously offered to let me take my doll for a ride in his Jeep.  So I gathered my doll and we settled into the little Jeep.  I put my hands on the steering wheel – and froze.  I knew that steering wheel.  It was unmistakably the wheel form my mother’s Singer sewing machine.  I sat there stunned.  It wasn’t too great a leap to put this together with my dad’s carpentry project and realize our dad and his friend had built more than a bookshelf – they had built the little Jeep.

But that didn’t explain my doll – and I so wanted Santa to have had a hand in that.  I thought I knew how to find out, so I marched into my parents’ bedroom and opened the closet door.  To my great relief, there, hanging where it had always hung, was my mother’s black net dress.  But something was different.  The pink ribbon was gone and it had become a short dress.  It was then that I knew how my doll’s dress had come to be.

I also knew what it had cost my mother.  In that place and at that time – and perhaps still – you couldn’t attend a meeting of the Eastern Star in a short dress.  This had been her only long one.

I try to share this story with someone every Christmas, for two reasons:

  1. It’s my way of honoring two wonderful parents who tried so valiantly to preserve the magic of a Christmas morning for their small children.
  2. It is a personal reminder to me of the profound truth I learned – that the most previous gifts are born of sacrifice.  These gifts need no wrapping paper.  They come wrapped – in love.

I was very moved by this story, that I thought I would share it here as well.  I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season, in whatever way you celebrate it.  With that, I will be on a blogging vacation for the rest of the year.  I’ll be back sometime after January 1st with my thoughts and plans for the New Year.

Scenes from Maternity Leave – Week 6

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

After sitting naked in our house for more than a week, our tree is finally trimmed.

The Good Man – Bad Man Continuum

Monday, December 12th, 2011

I was about finished handing over my donations when he rode up on his bicycle.  His coat was brown oilcloth, worn with the collar turned up, and didn’t look to be very warm.  Behind his bike was a cart of sorts – homemade out of plywood and fastened to a single axle attached to two tires repurposed from a jogging stroller.

I waited for the Goodwill guy to get my receipt while this man got off his bike and walked up with the first of three large cardboard boxes.  Each one was literally overflowing with children’s clothes.  I saw snap-crotch onesies, tiny pink tops, pants, and dresses.  I was on my way to the gym and felt liberated being out of the house for a bit.  I decided to make some small talk and commented that it’s amazing how quickly kids outgrow clothes.

“Yes,” he said.  ”Some of them are practically disposable.  They wear them once and then they don’t fit anymore.”

As he responded he walked back to his bicycle cart to collect the second box.  I followed him with my eyes, and only as I watched him pick up the next box did I notice a tiny little girl in the cart as well.  She was somewhere between 18 months and two years old.  Her skin was fair, but pink from the chilly December air.  Her eyes were bright.  And her coat was much too big and gapped around her neck.  She didn’t have on a hat or gloves.

“Well hello, little one!” I said.  She  smiled broadly yet bashfully.   “It’s a cold one today.  Are you staying warm?”  She didn’t look like she was.  I scrambled to think whether or not any of IEP’s many winter hats might have been left in the car that I might give to her.  None had.

“Yeah, how’s your brother’s coat working out for you?” her father added, as if to imply an explanation as to why it didn’t fit her.

The father and I wrapped up our cliched conversation about how quickly kids grow and I got back into my car.  The outside temperature on the dashboard read 36 degrees.

As I waited to turn left at the light just outside of the Goodwill parking lot I saw the man cross the intersection on his bike and turn right.  As he did his little girl struggled to keep herself upright in the cart behind him.  And for the rest of the day I thought a complicated mix of conflicting thoughts about this encounter.

A man who clearly did not have a proper winter coat, or a hat, or a car was donating dozens upon dozens of articles of children’s clothing.  Presumably he no longer had use for them and wanted to see that someone else – someone who had even less than he? – could used them.  At the same time, this man dragged a tiny child out on a very cold day without proper protection against the winter weather.  He rode his bike in traffic while his daughter sat loose in the back, unbuckled and without any kind of helmet.

What kind of man was this?  A good man?  A man who thinks about those less fortunate even when he himself seems to have so little?  Or was he a careless and irresponsible parent?  Someone who jeopardizes his daughter’s health and safety to do something which, while admittedly good, was not at all urgent.  Couldn’t he have waited until a warmer day, or a day when his wife or a friend or neighbor was available to watch his daughter?

All of the above?  Is that the answer?  Like anyone else in the world I am prompted to say, “Yes, and…”

We never really know all of another person’s story.  We know only what we see in many cases.  We know what we are told in others.  But we are almost always left to fill in some of the blanks with our own suppositions.  I believe in most cases the answers to those blanks are clouded with nuance.  They are the places where the answers aren’t clear and we are forced to confront both the triumphs and the failings of the people around us.

The man I saw at the Goodwill drop-off door last week is just like most of us in many ways.  His circumstances may be vastly different from yours or mine.  But he exists on a continuum just like anyone else.  He has some very admirable qualities.  And he also makes mistakes and imperfect choices.   Is he a good man or a bad man?  He is a little of both, just like everyone else.

Scenes from Maternity Leave – Week 5

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Last year IEP was given this terrific children’s nativity set.  At two years old he was still a bit too young to have any understanding of what it meant.  This year, as a three-year-old, he is beginning to learn about the Christmas story.

After seeing how he had arranged them I asked what the kings were doing.  He plainly told me that they were waiting for their turn to see Jesus.  (I think Santa-visiting protocol was probably an influencer here.)

Then when I asked why the animals were off by themselves on the windowsill he told me, “Barn all full.  Animals going for a walk.”  … Makes sense to me!

Before and After

Monday, December 5th, 2011

I have a friend who has the kind of hair that every girl envies.  It is fine, but thick.  It is the perfect shade of blonde.  It is well-behaved and straight.  It falls with conviction down to the middle of her back.  It swings when she walks and bounces when she runs.  If she weren’t one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, I might hate her for it.

I do not have that kind of hair.  My hair is not especially thick; perhaps a bit thinner than average.  It is naturally a bit wavy, depending on the humidity, but I can’t really rely on it ever to do the same thing twice.  My hair and I get along the best when I keep it trimmed just above my shoulders, and I pull it back into a low, parted ponytail quite often.

My friend – the nice one, with the killer hair – isn’t just nice.  She’s better than that.  She is good, and kind, and generous.  Every few years she goes into a salon, sweeps her hair back into an elastic, and instructs the stylist to cut 10 or 12 inches of perfect hair off of her head.  She places it in a plastic baggy and donates it.  Every time she does it I’m inspired.

Because my hair isn’t particularly suited to the half-way-down-your-back look, I’ve never let it get long enough to donate.  (I am a big fan of charity, but also a big fan of personal grooming.)  But with this most recent pregnancy, I had a game plan in place.

When I was pregnant with IEP I discovered that something about pregnancy hormones causes my hair to roughly double in thickness over the course of nine months.  Instead of shedding dozens and dozens of hairs every time I shampoo I lose only four or five individual hairs.  By the end of a pregnancy I have hair that is legitimately enviable.  The flip side to this coin, though, is that a few weeks after delivery karmic justice rears its ugly head and all of the hair that didn’t shed out during the pregnancy exits stage left over the course of about 10 days.  It breaks my heart.

So this time around I decided to trade my heartbreak in for something a little happier.

More than a year ago, before SSP was even in the works, I started growing my shoulder-length locks out.  By the time SSP was born I had enough hair to follow my super nice and super generous friend’s incredible example.  (That photo up top was taken when SSP was two weeks old.)

And last week I walked into my salon looking like this:

Cold feet struck me when I sat down in the chair at the salon.  My stylist gave me a much needed pep talk (“Gale, you have hair and some kid out there doesn’t.”), and then when I gave her the final go-ahead she started snipping.  About an hour later, she stopped.

I walked out looking like this:

Most of my charitable acts are financial donations to good causes, casseroles made for the church food pantry, and time spent volunteering at the local children’s hospital.  But something about this felt different – both bigger and smaller.  I gave, quite literally, a piece of myself.  It wasn’t a ton of hair and will certainly have to be combined with other donations to make a single wig, but, like the widow’s mite, I gave all of what I had, and it was a fundamentally different experience.   It feels quite different to give all that you can, rather than to make a token offering that only represents further generosity that wasn’t extended.

I am amazed by the people like my friend who give this incredible gift over and over.  I wish I had the kind of hair that I could grow out and donate repeatedly, but am thankful that I had the opportunity to do it this once.  It feels good to lay all that you have out on the table.  I should do it more often.