This jack-in-the-box mouse-elf may be my best-ever achievement in ornament-making.
Santa Mouse, Mrs. Claus, her sister? and elves–the whole mouse gang. These mice are Mama’s favorite of all our home-made ornaments.
When I was growing up, every year beginning in early November, my mother and I went to work on hand-crafted Christmas ornaments. Mama is an expert in the D.I.Y. department. She can sew anything, upholster, refinish furniture and floors, paint, wallpaper, set tile, gold-leaf frames, create really lovely silk flowers, and man, is she a whizz at Christmas ornaments. As the first cool breeze of fall could be felt in Atlanta, she was bursting with ideas she had picked up from magazines, craft programs on TV, and her own lively imagination.
So, like Santa’s elves, we worked. Mama and I hand-stitched many ornaments from brightly colored felt: candy cane stick horses, stuffed angels, Rudolfs, and tiny Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls. There were mice peeking out of stockings, as well as free-standing mice dressed as Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves. One year we produced a huge outpouring of painted bread dough ornaments. These didn’t last for more than a few seasons due to insect invasions. When I was about twelve Mama ordered a big set of pre-cut wooden ornaments for me to paint. Then there were the clothespin toy soldiers and the drums made from spools. I returned from college one December to find that my father had gotten into holiday crafting spirit. His specialty was the adorable pasta angel (rigatoni body, bowtie wings, anellini or stellini hair), and he turned out quite a crowd. We shared our ornaments with friends and relatives, often tying them onto gifts, and there were always many left over for us.
One year when Daddy took a rare out-of-state business trip (he went to Reno, and I still have the postcard he sent me), Mama decided we should undertake an especially ambitious project: ornaments resembling stained glass. The “lead” framing was a stiff bread dough that we attempted, with much difficulty, to force out of a pastry gun. The “glass” was formed from melted, cracked hard candy (we used a mallet to beat the candy, wrapped in a tea towel, on the kitchen counter). This was a project that required the unlikely combination of brute strength and extreme patience. I’m not saying we weren’t up to the job. We got it done, but it took its toll. Mama remembers that I stormed out of the kitchen at one point, around 2AM, yelling about the violation of child labor laws. But I came back in, and sometime before dawn, we finished the last ornament. They really did look like stained glass, and they were beautiful. But I’m not sure if they were worth it.
Due to the flurry of holiday preparations, as well as our family tendency toward holiday illness, I know I won’t be writing much, so I’ll devote the next few posts to photos of some of our favorite homemade Christmas ornaments.
The felt and candy-cane stick horse.
Thanks to Mama, these began to roam freely
throughout our Atlanta neighborhood during the 70s.
Does your family have a tradition of home-made ornaments?
Childhood memories of making ornaments under duress? Let me know!
We first saw the puppies when they were just over a month old and past the point at which they are susceptible to human germs. A tiny Shiba pup can hardly be surpassed for cuteness: a roly-poly bundle of red fur, soft as mink, with a face resembling that of the ideal Teddy Bear. The short muzzle is dramatically dark, and the ears, which will point straight up in a few weeks, still flop over at the tips. The tail is a little thing that could fit on a chipmunk, a far cry from the bushy doughnut-like shape it will take on. So new to the world, the puppies appeared meek and uncertain when we arrived. Four became increasingly active during our visit. They explored the limits of their small home with growing boldness and persistence, while the fifth snoozed soundly. Cuddling a furry bunch of pure sweetness the color of brown sugar, I didn’t mind (too much) when I realized it had peed on my shirt. (We’re pretty sure this was our boy-to-be).
Because the “pick of the litter” male and female had been reserved for buyers in the dog-show world, we couldn’t simply choose a puppy. Debbie was evaluating the pups during their first two months, to determine which would make the best show dogs. In our eyes, only very subtle markings set the five apart, and they all looked perfect. The dog show circuit was not for us. One of the males was somewhat darker that the others. He had inherited his father’s rich red coloring. This would turn out to be our Kiko.
When we visited again in two weeks, the puppies had grown considerably and blossomed in personality. Their bodies were sturdier, their ears stood up, their tails were furrier. This time we went out with them into the enclosed yard, where they exhibited a wildly exuberant fierceness. They ran, they tumbled, they attacked a big stuffed bear. And they assaulted one another (and us) repeatedly with their teeny sharp puppy teeth and toenails. The two females were especially aggressive, often leaving their brothers reeling with bewilderment. Not without good reason are female dogs called bitches. One of the males latched onto our daughter’s hair and clung on tenaciously. Again, this would be our Kiko. During his first weeks at home he periodically treated human hair as his own special toy.
At eight weeks we could bring our puppy home. We had brought the travel crate, but we couldn’t bear to put Kiko in it. D was eight and still in her booster seat, so she got settled and took the puppy in her lap. He was understandably anxious, having just been wrenched from Mama and his pack. Clearly he wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else, and D couldn’t hold the slippery, wriggly, strong-willed little guy. When I leaned back to get him, he looked up at me with such sorrow and confusion I almost cried. Debbie had given us a stuffed fox that had been in the kennel with the pups and had the smell of home. (Foxy is still Kiko’s favorite toy. I have re-stitched her seams several times.) I tried to cuddle Kiko and Foxy together, but the puppy was inconsolable. His instinct was to escape. He was determined to climb up the sides of the car, onto the dash, even onto H’s lap as he drove.
Once home and out on the porch in the sunshine, exhausted from the anxiety of the ride, Kiko promptly fell into a deep sleep in D’s lap. That night, Kiko endeared himself to H by sleeping on his foot as we sat on the sofa. All was peaceful. I marveled that this small fuzzy four-legged creature was with us in our home. I noticed that his little tummy was freckled and nearly hairless. He looked vulnerable and defenseless. Already I loved him so much. But some tough days of puppyhood lay ahead, for all of us.
This Thanksgiving, as for several years past, we will not be traveling. We will miss the blessing of giving thanks with our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. But the two sides of the family lie in opposite directions. Neither Atlanta nor Rochester, New York is an easy destination during this holiday season. The only easy destination, of course, is one in the immediate neighborhood, and we are fortunate to be heading there. We are grateful to our good friends who, once again, have invited us to their Thanksgiving table with their extended family. Our daughters have been in school together since Kindergarten, and we’ve grown close over the years. We know the day will be easy and pleasant. Thanksgiving with our gracious neighbors reminds us that friends are family, too.
As an adult, I’ve probably spent more Thanksgivings with friends than with family, due to the difficulties and expense of travel. During graduate school, I never flew home for Thanksgiving, but I was lucky to have friends who included me in their celebrations. I’ve spent the holiday in various spots along the East Coast, from South Jersey to Boston. One year I fell into a great house-sitting gig in a lovely Princeton neighborhood, and I was able to extend Thanksgiving hospitality to a group of international friends. Together we represented Denmark, the Netherlands, Britain, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and the U.S. (Sweden, also, if I count my husband. We had recently begun dating, and he’s half Swedish. ) I cooked my first turkey and prepared our other family standards. It was a festive, happy day, and it felt good to be the host, instead of the guest, for a change.
Another Thanksgiving during our student days was less pleasant, although the details are vague. For some reason, it was just H and me, and we were preoccupied and dispirited with our research. H was spending long days in his lab at the E-Quad, and I think I was in limbo, awaiting much-delayed advisors’ comments on my dissertation. Seems like I cooked in an unfamiliar kitchen. As students we each lived in a dizzying variety of low-cost rentals, and we were frequent house-sitters. The temporary homes blur together indistinctly now.
My only vivid memory of that day concerns the potatoes. H said he preferred boiled to mashed, a declaration that shocked and somehow insulted me. Boiled potatoes on Thanksgiving? Are you kidding me? But I decided to take the high road, and so I cooked only boiled potatoes. I quickly fell off that road, though. I was angry about the lack of mashed potatoes, angry at myself for overestimating my strength of character, and angry at H, the source of the problem. I made a couple of cutting comments. H retaliated, the dispute escalated. Our heated exchange ranks up there with the more recent Family Dog-Walking Fight (see earlier post). That night we had planned to see the annual tree-lighting in Palmer Square, but I don’t remember if we went or not. (I have since learned how easy it is to reserve some boiled potatoes and mash the rest; I’ve done this nearly once a week now for the last fifteen years.)
I thought about my episode of Thanksgiving pettiness a few days ago during the youth Sunday school class I lead. We had been discussing the story of Jesus healing a group of lepers (Luke 17:11 – 19). Of the ten that are restored to health, only one returns to offer thanks. Apparently the others are so immediately caught up in their earlier lives that they miss the magnitude of the transforming event. No longer slaves to a disfiguring disease that made them grotesque social outcasts, yet they forget to thank their healer. I was like one of those ungrateful, unthinking former lepers that day, lost in the distractions of everyday life. I forgot about the blessings that surrounded me: the presence of H, a kind and loving person who had linked his life to mine, the luxury of higher education, a comfortable place to live, a delightful environment, and most of all, God’s unwavering love. I let the absence of mashed potatoes poison the day.
Therefore, on this Thanksgiving, I will give thanks for life’s tremendous blessings, for friends and family. I won’t let a lack of mashed potatoes* blind me to God’s grace.
*I can proclaim this with confidence, because our friends agree that mashed potatoes, not boiled, are the Thanksgiving standard!
Now that the question of dog or no dog had been settled in the affirmative, my husband asked for only one consideration: a dog without excessive fluff.
At first this saddened and irritated me, because I love the fluff. While there are many short-haired, sleekly handsome dogs, my personal tactile preference is for thick, luxurious fur into which I can sink my face and fingers. I had envisioned a cuddly mixed breed puppy, perhaps with Chow Chow, American Eskimo Dog or Keeshond parentage. Or maybe we could find a black and white Popi look-a-like. (His full name had been Potpourri, to reflect his mixed heritage of Chow and Cocker Spaniel.) But when it hit me that I would be an adult instead of the child in this dog-human relationship, I began to see the housekeeping advantage of less fluff. I would be the primary wielder of vacuum, Swiffer and dust-cloth. Still, I needed a dog with substantial fur.
Early on in our dog-decision process, I assumed we’d simply look for an appealing mutt at the Humane Society, likely the best place to discover a potential Popi II. But as I considered my childhood dog’s personality in a less nostalgia-tinged light, I began to second guess both the shelter and the Popi aspects of the plan. My beloved dog’s loyal devotion to my parents and me was a big plus. We were all the pack he needed. He had little interest in other humans or in his fellow dogs. He didn’t require doggie play-dates (an unheard-of concept then). We saw him as highly intelligent, discerning, unwilling to waste affection on strangers. These positive points had their corresponding negatives. Popi didn’t suffer fools; he didn’t take crap from anyone. On a number of occasions, when provoked, he bit people, usually children. He wasn’t vicious; he never bit without due cause, and he rarely broke the skin. During those less litigious times, such behavior was more frequently seen as justified. Parents now tend to think a dog has no business biting their child, even if the kid does sneak up and roughly wrap a belt around the dog’s neck or try to stuff the dog into a box. I realized that while I still appreciated Popi’s aloofness, I didn’t want to deal with a biting dog, no matter how justified.
Another problem with choosing a shelter dog is our family’s soft-heartedness for animals. What if we saw a dog that tugged at our heart strings but somehow wasn’t suitable? I was afraid we’d be haunted by the memory. I still remember a dog that looked plaintively at me twenty years ago when I happened to walk past it at an adoption event at a shopping center. I was a student; I had no permanent address; I couldn’t get a dog. But I can’t forget that face begging for love. D and H are similarly inclined.
Gradually, I realized we should consider a purebred dog. I had been a lifelong champion of mutts, so this took some getting used to. With a purebred we could avoid the problems of uncertain temperament that can result from a mixed breed’s unknown parentage. The best path, we concluded, was to decide on a breed that fit our needs, then locate a reputable breeder. We would be more likely to get a non-aggressive dog. We would have a higher chance of getting a puppy. And we could better avoid the heartache of having to refuse a dog that wasn’t a good fit.
It took us a while to settle on a breed. Most were too large or too small, too clumsy or too yippy, too shaggy or too sleek, too friendly or not friendly enough. My daughter and I were watching the Westminster Dog Show when we spotted an unfamiliar breed, the Shiba Inu, of Japanese origin, a smaller relative of the Akita. This fox-like dog has a jaunty walk, proud bearing, pointed ears, bright slanting eyes, a tail curled to resemble a bagel, and red velvety fur that is thick but decidedly not fluffy. D and I were entranced. We felt sure we’d hit upon a dog that even H could love, or at least abide, especially when the announcer referred to the Shiba as very neat, clean and intelligent, “a big dog in a small dog’s body.”
The more I learned about the breed, the better it sounded. The Shiba tends to be reserved around other dogs, but not aggressive toward people. Maybe we could get a touch of Popi’s aloofness but none of his bitey-ness. D and I were excited; we could sense our dog dream becoming a reality.
After seeing Kiko again with Beau, his playmate from puppy days, I’ve been thinking about the protracted process through which we became a family with a dog. Popi, my childhood dog, was with me from second grade until after I finished college. I have felt his absence ever since. But our family doesn’t acquire dogs lightly. The time was not right, and so the years passed by, dogless.
My daughter began campaigning for a dog nearly as soon as she could talk. She was, no doubt, at least partially motivated by the Popi stories I had been telling her since she was born: how he once boarded the bus to Grant Park, as though seeking out his roots, his utter lack of fear, his unshakable self-confidence, his delight in the little stocking Santa filled for him each Christmas, his talents for hide-and-seek and squirrel scattering, his noble loyalty to family. Popi had become a legend, for me and my daughter. But the time still wasn’t right. My husband was traveling four days a week, and I could all too easily envision the complications of being an often-single parent raising a young child and a puppy. (I know my limits, and they are low.) Thinking back on my experience, I told D that I would be ready for a dog when she reached second grade.
H, however, was very firmly not in favor of a dog. He had grown up with a menagerie of pets: rabbits, birds, guinea pigs and a box turtle that lives with us still. But no dog. D and I set forth every possible justification: a dog is a surrogate sibling for an only child, a dog is an effective security system, a dog offers a unique, transforming love, difficult to comprehend until you’ve experienced it. By this point, my wish for a dog had morphed into a full-blown ache, and it wasn’t going away. I had now loved the dead Popi far longer than the living Popi. For me, the time was right, and getting more urgently right with every passing day. H worked longer hours and tried not to hear. (He would probably say this is an unfair assessment). Second grade came and went, and there was no dog for us. D continued to end her nightly prayers unfailingly with the words, “and dear God, please let us get a dog.”
H had one final defense to which he clung fixedly: he was convinced that his allergy to cats extended to dogs. And he was pretty sure that his daughter, so like him in many ways, would prove to be allergic, also. I had D allergy-tested. She had no animal allergies (not even to cats). At long last, H reluctantly agreed to testing. Unfortunately for him, he showed no allergy to dogs. Had he been a less honorable man, he would have tried to rig the test. He was out of ammunition, he had lost the battle. D and I were jubilant: we would be getting a dog.
Kiko had a reunion this week with an old pal, Beau the Boston Terrier. Their friendship was sealed the day they met in the neighborhood, nearly four years ago, when Kiko peed on Beau’s head. During their puppyhood they were best buddies, frequent companions for walks and exuberant doggie play-dates. The question “Kiko, Want to go see Beau?” was answered by an especially enthusiastic tilt of the head. Celeste, Beau’s owner, is a lovely, easy-going woman (she laughed when Beau was sprayed by Kiko), and I liked her instantly. Twice a week, for an hour or so, she and I would talk and watch our dogs tear around her spacious, fenced back yard. We had no fence at our house then, and running free was a great luxury for Kiko. Beau is highly proficient at Frisbee-catching and tennis ball retrieval. Kiko does not excel at these pursuits; he cannot grasp the concept of running away from the object as it’s thrown. But he is fast. He used to be lightning-fast. He could turn on a dime, reverse directions in a flash, and leap like a deer. He very nearly flew, and it was exhilarating to watch him.
Our dogs’ lively play-dates were cut short when Beau required knee surgery. Several months later, his leg had healed, but before we could meet again, Kiko was injured, in our own newly refurbished yard. When we moved in, the area behind our house was not a yard but an expanse of cracked concrete that might surround an aging gas station; there was considerable room for improvement. By this time we were almost finished with the renovation. We had our wrought-iron fence, a grassy area, stone patio and a new porch that still lacked screens and railings. Kiko and I had returned from a walk with two friends and their dogs, and I invited them in for a short off-leash run. This was the very first time Kiko had played with guests in our new yard.
He appeared thrilled at the opportunity to impress his large lady friends, a Lab and a Doberman. He sped around crazily, a blur of red fur. When he could run no further, he paused, panting mightily, to survey his domain from the porch. Then, going for the big finish, he leaped off into the grass. He must have landed wrong. Kiko is tough, and he didn’t whine or cry. But he was hurt. He sat down at once, holding up his hind leg gingerly. He flattened his ears against his head, looking up at me imploringly and pitifully.
At this point, my mind launched into the absurd, frustrating routine I think of as the “If Only” game. I try to rewind recent unfortunate events. If only I could move time backwards and not let the dogs play. If only I could keep Kiko from taking that jump. If only, etc., etc., until I feel like screaming.
Had Kiko simply broken his leg it might have been easier. Instead, the injury was ambiguous, perhaps a micro-tear in the Achilles tendon, perhaps something else. A complicated surgery was a possibility, but because the outcome was uncertain we didn’t seriously consider it. For six weeks he wore a bright green splint. Tight and itchy, of course he hated it. The splint was to be kept dry. We were given an I.V. bag to tie around the splint during rainy-day walks. This was not a good solution. He had only to kick his leg a bit to send the bag flying. Duct tape and plastic wrap were no more effective. Sometimes I didn’t notice the missing bag for a while, until I turned to see it lying in a distant puddle. When this happened, all I could do was carry my dog home. On many occasions I could be seen trudging through the wet leaves, Kiko in my arms, the rain pouring down my face. I felt like an actor in a made-for-TV post-Apocalypse drama.
It’s been two years now since Kiko’s fateful jump. On most days he seems fine, but he has lost some of his amazing speed. And he will probably always run a little strangely. His back legs tend to move simultaneously. We don’t encourage him to run for long periods, but since he’s older, he tires more quickly anyway. There is always the chance that he could re-injure his leg.
This week marked the first time Kiko and Beau have played in our yard. Kiko looked elated to see his buddy, and he showed him that he can still move. They ran together with something close to their former energy and speed, but only for a short while. Celeste and I leashed them and went for a walk. By then they were subdued. As a puppy, the excitement of being out with Beau often incited Kiko to bursts of frenzied circuitous sprinting. If Celeste and I weren’t vigilant, we’d be tangled up in a pretzel-like configuration of leashes, dogs, mailboxes, shrubbery and bystanders. This time there was no such juvenile behavior. Our dogs are young adults. How quickly they grow up!
My trip to Atlanta was occasioned by a reunion of old college friends from the University of Georgia. We met as freshmen living in the basement corridor of a wonderful old dorm, Rutherford Hall. We were saddened by the recent news of the decision, despite much protest (including ours), to demolish Rutherford and build a larger, more luxurious new residence hall in its place. Out of six former Rutherford girls, only three could rearrange our lives to attend. But three good friends together again after so many years is nothing to sneeze at.
Sarah (all names have been changed) had recently moved back to Atlanta, after years in England with her family. Always the gracious hostess, she volunteered her comfortable home as our headquarters. The last time I saw Sarah I was moving to New Jersey. Then recently married, she offered her guest room in Delaware as a stopping point on the drive up. Her hospitality and sense of classic style remain flawless. She retains the ladylike reserve that made her seem wise beyond her years at eighteen, but it’s a reserve that she lets slip a bit when she’s in the company of old friends.
Jackie was flying in from Montana, where she has lived now for two decades. I’ve known her since middle school when were both on the school newspaper staff. She was renowned for her articles on European travel. My first memory of Jackie is a newspaper photo showing her seated in a Venetian gondola. I was impressed, and somewhat envious. Our typical family vacation involved visiting relatives in rural Kentucky. Knowing her background, I expected her to be conceited and snooty, but she was nothing of the sort. She was, and still is, a person of kindness and integrity, as well as a magnet for fun and adventure.
Jackie was among my closest companions when our 8th grade French class, amazingly, took a spring break trip to France and England. (This was unheard of in the Atlanta Public Schools in the 1970s, but we were blessed with a remarkably spunky French teacher who was determined to turn us into citizens of the world. She found a study trip that was extremely bare bones and thus affordable.) On my very first airplane flight, I sat next to Jackie the seasoned traveler as we flew to New York and then on to Paris. I felt incredibly lucky. By day we saw the famous landmarks I had pored over in library books and old copies of National Geographic. By night, we sat up late giggling with our friends in French lycees and London dorm rooms.
Jackie and I roomed together during our freshman year in college. I remember vividly my surprised happiness the day she called to ask me. I had planned to accept a luck-of-the-draw, university-assigned roommate, and I probably would have landed in a soulless freshman high-rise. Jackie’s older sister had lived in Rutherford, and she recommended it for its large rooms, atmospheric appeal and central location. Had I not roomed with Jackie, my first year of college would have been far less memorable. She drove a flashy Firebird, which wasn’t really her style, but it was the car her dad bought her, and she piloted it with flair. (No one else in our group had any kind of car.) She also had an affable older brother in a fraternity. The night before classes began, Jackie took our Rutherford group over to the Kappa Sigma house. My social life was set for the next couple of years. As time has passed, as we’ve reveled in life’s ups and weathered some significant downs, our friendship has grown stronger.
Jackie, Sarah and I had much to reminisce about. We were first drawn together by a shared housing woe. Water seeping into the foundation had flooded the room next to Jackie’s and mine. It was pouring across the hall toward Sarah’s room and trickling up to ours when we got to work with towels and buckets to keep the water at bay. The girls living in the flooded room had to vacate, which was too bad, but it left us with a convenient guest area for visiting friends. We weren’t bothered by damp and mold so much in those days, and we didn’t expect a hotel lifestyle. That spring, after another flood, we brought in masses of bamboo from a recent luau and our little hall became as atmospheric as a cloud forest. Instead of being irked by the inconveniences of living in an older dorm, we saw them as creative opportunities and part of Rutherford’s ramshackle charm.
During our first quarter, Jackie enjoyed an especially active social life. She rarely cracked a book, but on the weekend before finals, she decided to start studying. While she crammed in the library, the rest of us camped out in our room and zealously created some comically spectacular cut-and-paste art in her family photo album. We used pictures and captions from my National Lampoons and a magazine coyly titled For Women Only that one of us had received as a joke gift. (We were respectful in our mischief; we did nothing that couldn’t easily be undone.) It took a while before Jackie discovered our many-leaved masterpiece, and the anticipation of that revelation made it even better. When she finally removed the album from its shelf to show a friend, several of us were there to witness the hilarity of her shock. As we had expected, Jackie appreciated the humor and recognized the prank as the twisted compliment it was intended to be.
Our best times that year arose from similarly mundane circumstances. We kept our doors open nearly all the time, to encourage frequent socializing and pronounced time wasting. We had great fun paging through the Freshman Register (a Facebook predecessor) and making silly phone calls to cute boys. If, by chance, we received a prank call, we were prepared. We’d pass the phone around to everyone in the hall, each of us adding some outlandish comment, to puzzle and embarrass the unsuspecting caller. Glorious fall days like today remind me of freewheeling Sunday afternoon drives in the Athens countryside. With Jackie behind the wheel, we’d discover local eccentricity and explore the occasional abandoned farmhouse or unexpected University-owned structure.
Our little Rutherford reunion brought with it the realization of how precious and fleeting is the sense of community that flourishes so vigorously during the college years. It’s made more profound because we’re away from home for the first time. That closeness cannot quite be duplicated in the so-called real world of work, parenting and routine daily responsibility. This, I believe, is one of the saddest aspects of growing up. Fortunately we can capture it again in a diluted form, when we reunite to reflect on the good old days.
How good it is to walk in the morning sun again! Last week when we were still plodding along blindly in the dark, Kiko paused and I didn’t notice (couldn’t see him, never think I really need a flashlight). My shin hit his rock-hard head. The blow didn’t phase him, but I found it painful enough to wonder momentarily if I had fractured my leg. Now that we’ve Fallen Back and said goodbye to Daylight Savings Time, it’s great to see where I’m going again. The fall colors are especially brilliant here in Virginia, and we savor them all the more after the devastating rains of this past September.
A bright November morning in Virginia.