Monday, December 10, 2012

The Stories that Deck Our Halls

I've never been a fan of decorating for Christmas. Every year I feel overwhelmed when we haul out the containers of decorations. How much we have! How much we don't need! How the collection seems to multiple each year despite my sincere attempt to pare it down and weed out the superfluous. But this year I was struck by the stories that make the decorations meaningful.

Each time I unpack the wooden nesting Christmas trees that my friend Dona gave to me when we were in our 20s, I think of working together in our first post-college "real" jobs and all the adventures we had outside of work. Now, we keep in touch primarily through Facebook and Christmas cards, but what a joy to reconnect this year as she responded to and shared a FB request to help collect children's clothes for a family in need. It doesn't surprise me at all that she maximized social media to meet a social need. It's just the kind of thing she'd do.

The nesting trees are part of the forest surrounding the snowmen salt-and-pepper shakers my brother gave me after he got them as a free "bonus" at Publix grocery store. There's no real sentimental meaning there, but their silly story just makes me smile.

Two wooden trees make up the rest of the forest. Those trees were the favors at Pam and Mike's wedding nearly 20 years ago. I remember them carving and painting those trees for weeks, maybe months, with Mike's uncle. Every time I see those cute trees, I remember the stories of that December day ... Pam's picking black velvet for my maid of honor dress as a nod to my then borderline obsession with black, getting lightheaded from the aroma of lilies in her bouquet I held while she and Mike took communion, friends making Mike sing the Barney song to get the marriage license back. What a joy to stand beside them that day.

I pulled out the decorative snowman Pam and Mike made in 1995 and put him on the front porch. He's missing his twig arms now, but what a treasure to read Pam's inscription, before Meghan was born, before Brian and I knew each other, before so much of our lives would unfold in ways we never imagined.

There are the ornaments Brian and I have for each year we've been married, many of them momentos from places we've traveled. A new addition to our tree this year is an ornament Laura brought back from Mali that she purchased in support of the Rahab Centre, a ministry that works to get prostitutes off the streets and help them realize their true value in the eyes of their creator.

I love our Pier One mantel ornament that's just pretty. Also on our mantel is the madonna that my mother-in-law made years before I joined the family.

We don't have an Elf on the Shelf, but on a shelf sit two angel dolls that were gifts from my mom. One is holding a heart that reads "joy" (a constant reminder to find the joy in the season) and the other doll is just a ragtag, cloth angel with crazy hair (who fell off the shelf and made it to the backyard with Cooper this year).

There's the antique Santa given to Brian when he was a child by his grandfather. My sister-in-law has a twin Santa at her house. This group of crafted carolers singing Joy to the World came from an open house given by the mother of a friend of a friend who turned her creative gifts into a profitable venture after her husband was debilitated by a stroke.

I cherish the Mary-Joseph-Jesus carving that was a wedding gift, a beautiful piece crafted by a fair-trade carver.

My favorite Christmas decoration is our Willow Tree nativity set. It peacefully centers my heart on the meaning of Christmas each time I look at it.

So many reflections came to mind this year during decorating, reflections that filled my heart with the joy of how blessed we are by the lives of all those God has chosen to be part of the story He is writing for us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Ponytail

It had been a morning full of frustration and delays, multiplied by lack of knowledge, perceived incompetence and my pride, if I’m completely honest. A quick meeting turned into an entire morning and as a consequence, an abbreviated lunch date. Those lunch dates don’t happen as often as they should and I’d had my heart set on Mexican, but the drudgery of the morning resulted instead in a quick trip to a nearby fast food restaurant.


We stood in line and ordered. As we waited, I headed to the beverage station, hoping to assuage my self pity and redeem the morning with sweet tea just the way I like it – half unsweetened, half sweetened. Even as I approached the station, I was mentally ruminating about how they likely would only have the unsweetened tea, as is often the case at this particular location. Sure enough, no sweet tea. “You have got to be kidding me!” I muttered.


Then I heard a kind, quiet, “Just a minute. I’m working on it.” She struggled to hoist the container of sweet tea high enough to refill the dispenser. Smacked in the face by my self-absorption, I quietly waited and said “Thank you” when she was done. “Oh, you’re welcome,” she replied.


As I ate my lunch, I saw her stoop down to pick up a few French fries abandoned under a table. As she walked past, the bounce of her ponytail struck me. Why? Because it was gray. Bouncy ponytails belong to darling little girls, beribboned cheerleaders, perky exercise instructors. And a woman – at or beyond retirement age – working diligently at her job in a fast food restaurant. Quietly going about her business, doing what needed to be done, taking care of impatient customers such as myself.


I wonder what her story is. What in her life led her to be working in what I imagine is primarily a thankless job? It would be nice to think that she works there by choice, to show teenagers that any job can be done well and to show customers like myself that life is not one-dimensional. My guess is that she probably works there out of necessity, to make ends meet, to care for her family, to stretch her Social Security.


As we left, she had moved on to cleaning the restaurant’s glass doors. We had to interrupt her work to leave. I said, “Excuse me and thank you,” and I hope she heard the genuine thanks. For she didn’t just give me my sweet tea, she stopped me in my tracks just when I needed it. She showed me grace I didn’t deserve. She showed me how to work hard when it seems like no one cares. She showed me how to serve.


So, thank you, lady with the bouncy gray ponytail. You matter. You made a difference.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Birthday Girl

Forty-four years ago today, a baby girl with big brown eyes was born. A new life ... what would she do? Who would she become? Her first order of business was, in her own words, making "two people who couldn't have a child of their own very proud, happy adoptive parents."

Then she became a big sister, student, friend, raiser of sheep, band member and so much more through her school years. I became part of her story the first weekend of our freshman year of college and we began to write the story of our friendship, spanning nearly 25 years with much joy, lots of laughter and some tears along the way. A million memories or more.

She became a wife and then a mom, her most treasured roles on her journey. She worked at the same company for more than 20 years and faithfully gave of herself in various roles at her church, especially loving playing in the worship band. She loved fully and completely, encouraging those around her with prayer, a thoughtful note or a quiet word of perspective.

When the mammogram came back positive, there were some scary moments of anticipation. But once she knew what her battle was, she faced cancer head-on, continuing to inspire us all with her absolute faith in God.

One year ago today, our families had the joy of sharing dinner together on her birthday, mere days after learning that the cancer had returned. At that point, the next steps of the journey were yet to be determined, but her faith shone through. She would fight the disease as hard as she could, but she knew her journey was in God's hands. Tests, treatments, prayer -- lots of prayer, always prayer, praying without ceasing indeed.

Then, four days before my birthday, God called her to her eternal home to worship Him forever. Visions of her playing in the heavenly worship band made, and still make, my heart rejoice. I miss her, deeply and always, yet I have a quiet confidence that she is where she is supposed to be.

Forty-four years ago, when God sent that little brown-eyed baby to make two parents happy, a wonderful journey of life began, a beautiful life that touched so many others, from her first giggle to her quiet, continued worship during the last days.

Thank you, God, for the gift of her life and for the gifts she gave to each of us.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

On the Bookshelf: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

At the beginning of this year, I purposed not to buy any books until I read more of what waits on my overflowing bookshelf and Kindle. By the third week of January, I’d broken my resolution. Never one to miss perusing a bin of discounted books – and perhaps to console myself after an unsuccessful attempt to find a new HEPA filter for the vacuum – I stopped to take a quick look in the book bin. The cover of Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah caught my eye and after reading the book jacket, I realized it had been on my “nice to read someday” list. So for $5, I broke my resolution and took it home.

I read the book this weekend in front of the cozy fire. It was a well-written, engaging story of two daughters who had spent their lives seeking their mother’s love and attention, and a mother they never really knew steely compartmentalizing the pain of the past while allowing it to dictate how she lived her life. The story is told in the present, while the past is artfully revealed through the periodic telling of a Russian fairy tale.

The book grasped me on many levels. The references to historical St. Petersburg (Leningrad) intrigued me, having had the privilege to visit St. Petersburg while in college. While fiction, the story offered a first person account of what it might have been like to live in 1930s-40s Russia. The daughters’ struggled to understand their mother, coming to realize how their mother’s past impacted not only their relationships with her, but the choices they did or didn’t make as adult women.

My genre of choice is fiction. Some discount fiction as fluff, as escapism. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes I just want to read something that I don’t have to think about, to give my mind a break from demands and responsibilities of everyday living. But a good work of fiction can do so much more beyond offering respite from the everyday. Winter Garden personalized events only touched on in history books and also made me consider how a daughter’s story can never truly be separated from her mother’s.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


So here I am once more. In a hospital waiting room. Waiting for a friend who has cancer and it's time for her level of care to increase as the cancer appears to be forging ahead despite treatment.

Cancer is hard. My role this time is the same yet different as it was with Pam. Pam was my friend, my sister. She was family. J is our neighbor and until her diagnosis, we were the live-across-the-street, call how-are-you-doing, wave-hello kind of neighbors. She was busy with her job and kept close company. We were busy with family, our home, work, life demands, with ... .

Enter the C word. The game-changer. I became her friend, her house-tidier (housekeeper would be a stretch!), transporter, encourager, occasional meal provider. We began helping her with daily life. We became privileged to spend time with her, learn from her, hear her stories. She's lived all over the world, met many famous people, has a wonderful sense of humor, is smart and kind. We enjoyed time with her on Christmas night and New Year's Eve.

Cancer triggered our friendship. I am glad that our friendship was triggered, but I wish it wasn't by cancer. Walking this path with J has really made me think about what it means to love your neighbor. Your literal neighbor. There is joy, there is pain, it is wonderful, it is hard. Sometimes very hard.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to Scare Your Husband with One Sentence

B called today for our usual lunchtime check-in. After the usual hellos/how are yous, I said, "Guess where I am?" After he guessed incorrectly, I said "I'm in the baby aisle at Kmart." His immediate response? "RUN! QUICKLY! GO!" I'm so grateful for a husband who makes me laugh and who laughs with me.

I have to admit I was a bit clueless trying to figure out which bottles were the best for new babies, then getting to the other side of the store and realizing I had to buy the nipples separately. Back to the baby aisle, where I had to choose between slow, medium and fast flow. WHAT? This was further complicated by the fact that I'm sending these bottles to another country, so who knows how old and at what stage the babies will be by the time the boxes arrive. Maybe I should also send sippy cups.

Although I'm much more comfortable and adept in other departments of the store, it was fun to find cute clothes for boy babies, even though I definitely think baby girl clothes have the corner on cute.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The First Step

Harriet here. I promised myself I'd become more disciplined and do more personal writing in 2012. Since the end of January is fast approaching, I thought I should at least write an introductory post.

Not sure how I'll fill my tiny corner of the web. Observations, memories, book reviews, daily happenings, deep thoughts, questions, humor ... probably a bit of all those and more. Unlike Harriet the Spy, I won't write unkind things about anyone and I promise I won't be eating tomato sandwiches!

Welcome to Harriet's Notebook.