May this 4th of July find you enjoying, and grateful for, the blessings of love, peace and liberty!
May the promise of Easter give you strength and courage to face the trials of this world. May it bring you inner assurance even during difficult times. May it inspire you to treat your neighbors (even the difficult ones) with kindness and love. May it guide you to find glimmers of light in the darkness, and beauty in the everyday. And may it give you a deep and abiding hope for the life to come, when trials, difficulties and darkness will be no more.
Christ is risen, Christ is living, dry your tears, be unafraid!
Death and darkness could not hold him, nor the tomb in which he lay.
Do not look among the dead for one who lives for evermore;
tell the world that Christ is risen, make it known he goes before.
If the Lord had never risen, we’d have nothing to believe;
but his promise can be trusted: “You will live, because I live.”
As we share the death of Adam, so in Christ we live again;
death has lost its sting and terror, Christ the Lord has come to reign.
Death has lost its old dominion, let the world rejoice and shout!
Christ, the firstborn of the living, gives us life and leads us out.
Let us thank our God, who causes hope to spring up from the ground.
Christ is risen, Christ is giving life eternal, life profound.
Words: Nicolas Martinez, 1960; trans. by Fred Kaan, 1972
(1 Corinthians 15)
Music: Pablo D. Sosa, 1960
May you find some joy and sweetness on this Valentines’ Day!
Over the past decade, I’ve been sending out the family Christmas cards later and later. A few years ago, in an effort to remove one item from my very full December “to do” list, they officially became New Year’s cards.
Now that it’s mid-January, a big stack of cards is ready to be addressed and mailed. As I’ve incorporated my mother’s list of friends into our own, the stack has grown taller.
I enjoy receiving personalized holiday cards. A pastor friend once remarked that he considered only biblical images as appropriate subjects for Christmas cards. I disagree, respectfully. I appreciate a card with an artfully painted starlit manger scene or a medieval Madonna and Child. But I also welcome one that shows a friend’s new baby, the kids, the dog, the recent bride and groom, the whole family. The annual holiday card exchange, as I see it, is a fortuitous way to keep a connection alive with those we care about, yet don’t have opportunities to see frequently. I understand that just because the card’s accompanying message may be one of Christmas cheer, there is no assertion that the family members pictured are endowed with the holiness of the Christ child. That friend is telling me this: Another year has passed, and we continue to think of you. Our shared relationship matters. And here’s what we look like now.
My parents were reluctant photographers. When we had a working camera during my childhood, we often lacked the requisite flash bulbs (something only those of a certain age will understand.) We never went to a photo studio for a posed family picture. We got one of those every few years when the new church directory came out. Of course we didn’t send photo cards at Christmas.
It took parenthood for me to consider the idea. The year our daughter turned one, my mother made an elf costume for her out of soft, fuzzy fleece. That began my custom of the annual Christmas photo session. I’d dress D in a festive outfit sewn by Mama, either expressly for her, or passed down from my childhood. (As I’ve noted before, we’re a family of savers. We keep, we re-use, we re-purpose.) For our Christmas card that year, I bought standard cards and included a photo of D in elf attire. (See “Our Baby Elf,” December 2014.)
The following year, our daughter moved to the front of the card. My early photo card efforts were low-tech. I bought Christmas cards featuring a border that I liked, cut out the central image and pasted a photo behind it. This is clearly visible in the card at the top of the post.
In 2007, our new puppy joined the household and began to be featured with our daughter in the Christmas photo. Above, D, age eight, holds three-month old Kiko. She wears a Nordic style fleece jacket and hat made by my mother. Kiko wears a red fleece vest, also made by Mama. This marked one of the last times that we tried to put our dog in clothes.
As both D and Kiko approached their adolescent years, they became less willing subjects for my photography, no matter the occasion. But we still managed a few sweet pictures.
When I switched to a digital photo printing service, more possibilities opened up. It became easier to include multiple pictures on the annual card, including highlights from throughout the year. The December photo shoot was no longer a necessity. Sometimes my husband, my mother and I even make it onto the card, typically in smaller photos. Our distant friends have proof that we’re still alive, but they don’t have to see our aging faces too closely.
One year all humans were relegated to the back of the card, leaving the front to Kiko surveying a majestic snow.
In recent years, as Kiko moved into his senior phase, our daughter re-embraced the idea of posing with him. Above is the final daughter and dog portrait for our annual card, sent out last year.
Kiko was with us for almost seven months of 2022. He’s on our card this year, in his own photo. I caught him at his happiest, when he was asleep.
And next year? Who knows what life holds? That’s part of its beauty. We don’t know. So, anything, in theory, is possible.
May this new year bring you welcome surprises!
Until today, the homemade clothespin nativity that shelters beneath our little alpine trees in the dining room has included only Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and one shepherd. (Sparkly arctic critters happen to fit in with the high-tech “white sheet as snow” decor.)
The three wise men from the East, along with their flamboyantly curly-haired camel, have been waiting patiently in the background since Advent began in early December.
And now, on the sixth of January, known in the Christian calendar as Epiphany, the long journey of the Magi is complete. They join the Holy Family and pay their tribute to the infant messiah. Their participation in the Biblical nativity narrative is indicative of this important message: God sent his son to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all the nations. For all of us. For all God’s children.
So in our house, we don’t take the Christmas decorations down until well after January 6th. To do so, it seems, would represent an attempt to symbolically stifle the powerful message of God’s love for all. (It also happens that I’m never ready at this point to begin the laborious process of un-decorating. And it would be inhospitable to kick the Magi out immediately after their arrival.)
On this last day of Christmas, I’ll continue to enjoy the look and lights of the season. They’ll be no boxing up for a while yet.
May the spirit of Christmas sustain, strengthen and bless us all year long. And may it remind us to treat our brothers and sisters near and far, like the family they are.
For more on Epiphany, see this post from January 6, 2021
Mid-December has arrived. I tell myself that I’m getting used to not expecting our daughter back home for an extended winter break. I tell myself again, and again. I speak with considerable authority and firmness. I listen, and I hear, but I quickly forget.
Last year, I faced this reality for the first time. December of 2021 seemed especially unreal. With our daughter working and living in Maryland since the fall after her graduation from the University of Virginia, she would no longer be with us for most of the month, and well into January. It’s a tricky concept to accept. I still can’t quite wrap my head around it.
I’ve had another twelve months now to get acclimated to being the parent of a young person with a career. Most of the time, it’s been a very pleasant situation. We’ve seen our daughter often on weekends, thanks in large part to the fact that her boyfriend lives near us. We have the luxury of knowing she’s only about an hour away. No long plane ride separates us. Only a hair-raising ride on the Capital Beltway, which I do not attempt on my own. And, I’ve been busy, as always. I never lack for things that need doing, or things I want to do.
Still, December is different, because of that winter break that won’t be happening. Seasonal prep tends to be more fun with our daughter around. Her presence, and her youthful enthusiasm–they add an element of festivity. Without her, it’s more like we’re just doing chores. Ever since she was a toddler, she’s enjoyed adorning the house for holidays. I remember her, as a four-year old, sitting amidst my gingerbread houses on the dining room table, exploring boxes of baubles and chanting, “Decorate! Decorate!” Once she was old enough to climb the tall ladders and strong enough to help move them, it became her job (and not mine) to assist my husband in hanging the outdoor wreaths at our house and my mother’s. Together they set up the electric candles in every window, positioned the floodlights and programmed the system. But not this year.
I’m not complaining. Not really. She’s been with us several times this month, but never long enough to help with the usual Christmas tasks. My husband and I both felt her absence as we stood in the front yard to watch the lights click on for the first time. Never before has she missed this family countdown-to-Christmas signal. But she was doing her own holiday prep in Maryland, where she has an apartment, a meaningful job that suits her, and friends. She is building a life that is, for the most part, separate from us, her parents. That’s what we raise our children to do, right? I don’t have to tell myself that I’m happy for her. I’m more than merely happy. While parenting is a job that never ends, it’s a job with numerous stages. Or seasons.
And now, my husband and I are in a season in which there is no long college break to anticipate with our child. On the down side, for me, it’s one with fewer chances to sit up late together, laughing at the quirks of foreign-language Netflix shows. Fewer mornings to chat unhurriedly across the breakfast table. For my husband, it’s fewer opportunities to work with D on what, a generation ago, might have been considered father-son projects. Or to hit the ice, in hockey gear, together. And it still sneaks up on me that there will be no time at all to see our daughter cuddling on the sofa with our soundly sleeping elderly dog. Maybe this December feels doubly “off” because we’re not only post-college kid, we’re also post-dog. Between dogs, more accurately, I tell myself. Another dog will join us, in a while.
But even this season has its advantages. Our daughter was home for part of last weekend. We dropped her off at the Kennedy Center to meet friends on our way to a DC hotel for my husband’s company holiday party. How cool is that?
And while our daughter wasn’t here with us to add a bigger dose of cheer to some of our holiday chores, she’ll be present for others. And she knows that as twilight falls, our old farmhouse glows like a beacon, as it always does during this season. She knows that it waits to welcome her home.
As we do, too. Our daughter will be home for Christmas. Not only in our dreams.
Soon after our old family friend Slim awakened from his eleven-month slumber a few weeks ago, he began to roam, as usual, from room to room, searching out familiar sights and new attractions. His five loyal pups followed, sniffing the rugs and furniture with interest. “Where’s the honorary leader of the pack?,” he asked. “Too lazy to get off his favorite porch hassock to bid his buddies a happy October? ” The news of Kiko’s passing was quite the unexpected blow for Slim and the dogs. They’d come to cherish our furry one’s calm, quiet presence. They’d been looking forward to his condescending glances. “Who will ride shotgun during our Halloween joyride?,” Slim asked, a tear in his eye.
“I so move that Kiko’s customary spot in the front seat remain vacant,” decreed Fluffy, the eldest and largest of the pack. He hung his big, bony head in sadness. Champ, the second-most senior dog, seconded the motion. Rocky, Ruth and Elfrida nodded their heads in agreement. The pack stood forlornly and out of sorts for a while, their heads downcast.
“But we must carry on in a festive Halloween spirit,” Slim said, with resolution. “Our man Kiko would expect nothing less.” Gathering around the Red Panda House, they swapped stories that celebrated the uniqueness of their departed friend.
Rummaging through boxes of fall decorations, Slim seized on a length of bright orange ribbon and a garland of autumn leaves. “We need some extra touches of holiday cheer this year, gang!” he proclaimed. “This ribbon almost matches the shade of Kiko’s fur.” Halloween sugar cookies further helped to lighten the mood of the pack.
And so Slim and his jauntily adorned pups set about their usual Halloween tasks. They assembled a fine showing of pumpkins and gourds. They decorated. They made merry. They basked in the warm October sunshine, much as their friend Kiko had enjoyed doing.
At our church’s Trunk or Treat, on a particularly warm and gorgeous Saturday, Slim and the pack welcomed all manner of ghouls, goblins and crazy creatures, offering candy to young and old alike. Slim’s big-hearted belly laugh mixed pleasantly with the jubilant music provided by our virtuoso pianist, who played a keyboard from the back of a pickup truck.
When Slim smiles, the whole world smiles with him.
“Will Kiko be dropping by?,” Slim asked. Then he shook his head in dismay. “I forgot.”
When it was time to jump in the convertible for the top-down joyride, the pack piled in, somewhat less ebulliently than in previous years. Their furry friend’s place of honor in the front seat remained unoccupied. “Kiko’s like Elijah,” Slim joked. “We save him a place, and we’ll see him again.”
Happy Halloween from the Skeleton Crew!
Every year as summer deepens and July 4th comes and goes, my mind drifts back to some of my earliest memories. Over the Independence Day weekend in the early to mid-60s, my parents and I would join my mother’s side of the family in central Kentucky. July 4th would find us, not at my grandparents’ house in town, but, as we said, “up to the river.”
My maternal grandmother Nora spent her girlhood years, as well as much of her married life, on a rise overlooking the Rolling Fork River. Portions of the original log cabin on the site remained and had been incorporated into the white frame structure likely built in the mid-nineteenth century. Dates and details are lacking; my family tends to pass along the stories of the past haphazardly and in shattered, scattered fragments, so that the puzzle always remains incomplete. The photographic record is even more insubstantial. A couple of photos, above, from the 70s, show the farm, with its buildings, at a distance. I took some pictures of the house in 1986 (below) when it was in sad disrepair, after years of sitting vacant, shortly before demolition. I’ve been able to find no images that show it as the center of a thriving farm, and a happy, busy family home.
But I have memories of a time when it was exactly that. In those childhood days, my mother’s oldest brother Leland farmed the land by the river. By then, my grandparents had moved into the Queen Anne farmhouse on the Springfield Road in Lebanon that I remember with great fondness. Leland was the only one of my mother’s four siblings to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a farmer. He raised tobacco and Black Angus cattle. There were pigs, some sheep, and chickens, as well. When Leland and his wife Dessie moved into the old house in the 1940s, it lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. The structure was unassuming but relatively spacious. There was a wide staircase off the front entrance that led to several sizable bedrooms on the second floor. My grandmother and her two sisters, Alpha and Maude, had shared one room as little girls. Another was for her three brothers, Thomas, Clarence and George. My aunt and uncle, in the later years that I look back on, lived primarily on the first floor, using the upper rooms for storage. I vaguely remember, in one cozy downstairs space, an enormous brick or stone fireplace. It was suitable for a pioneer cabin, large enough to roast an entire side of beef. In a first floor bedroom, there was a narrow cupboard that could be locked with a heavy wooden bolt. It opened to reveal a slim staircase winding up to a single chamber, separate from the other bedrooms on the second floor. According to my mother, this was a feature common to rural homes of the time. An itinerant worker, or any stranger passing through, could be given a bed for the night, safely shut away from the rest of the family. A practical solution for extending hospitality to those we don’t know well enough to trust completely.
In my memories, certainly the farm at the river was nothing if not hospitable. While I can no longer picture the house and its grounds clearly in my mind, those fuzzy images nevertheless conjure a powerful sense of belonging. I’m not sure if I ever spent a night in that old house, but I passed enough time inside and around it, in the company of loved ones, to recognize it as a place that breathed the breath of home. It was our place. Not in the sense of ownership, but of affinity, of kinship.
And in this sense, the river was our river, a well-loved member of the family. The highlight of July 4th, for that young me, was the time we spent splashing in the water and wandering the banks. From the house, it was a pleasant walk, down the hill, across the road, and through part of a field. Geodes and arrowheads were there among the smooth stones of the banks, for those with the patience to look. I loved the tiny gray-green frogs that hopped about among the rocks. For the most part, the river near the farm was fairly shallow, but there were deeper spots suitable for swimming, and for the thrill of plunging into the water from a rope swing. Rumors of blue holes of unfathomable depths abounded. I was probably in second or third grade before I saw the ocean. “Going to the beach” was a foreign concept to me until I was a teenager. Our family had no need for the ocean. We were river people.
After an afternoon at the river in those old days, we’d head back up the hill for one of my aunt’s delicious meals. Now we’d refer to all the ingredients as locally sourced. Back then we just said home grown. There would be country ham or fried chicken, green beans, tomatoes, sweet onion slices, probably potato salad. Cornbread, always. My favorite dish was what we referred to as fried corn, which is fresh corn, straight from the field, cut from the cob and cooked on the stove in bacon grease or butter with a little milk and a bit of flour. It’s the luscious essence of summer on a plate.
Seems like we’d savor these festive summer meals outside, where we could gaze down on the river. We typically gathered in the front yard, seated in an assortment of metal garden chairs and webbed lawn chairs. The entire farm was a land of enchantment for me as a kid. In addition to the river, there was so much to explore and experience: my aunt’s extensive vegetable and flower gardens, an ancient grape arbor, a number of outbuildings, including the big barn, several ramshackle sheds, and a spring house cut into the side of a hill, still an effective outdoor source of refrigeration. There was the wildly overgrown remains of a one-room schoolhouse that my great-grandfather had built so his children could be taught year-round. Of course there was a privy, still in use after a bathroom was added to the house in the 50s. The ever-present threat of snakes added an element of the exotic.
The significance of our annual “4th up to the River” celebration is suggested by the existence of the photo above. It’s the extremely rare, posed family picture, and it’s nearly complete. Taken at the farm on July 4th, 1964, it includes my mother, her parents, her sister and three brothers, as well as four of the five siblings’ spouses. Only my Uncle Edwin’s wife, Betsy, is missing; she must have been the photographer. I’m in front with my parents, and my cousin, the son of my mother’s sister Jessie, stands in the center back. He is twelve years my senior. I don’t remember ever paying much attention to the absence of cousins about my age. I do remember enjoying the company, and the unique personalities, of everyone in this photo. As I recall, they did their best to keep me amused. Maybe I was akin to the dog who appears to consider itself a human; maybe I didn’t notice that I was the odd one out. I only know that despite my small size, I was never made to feel lesser. I was not talked down to or treated like a precious princess, it seems, but more or less as an equal. I learned to take humorous, good-hearted teasing as a compliment.
The older I get, the more I treasure my memories of those golden days with dear family up at the river. As I look back on that part of my childhood, glimpsed through the haze of decades, I feel again the abiding solace of knowing that I’m loved, knowing I belong, knowing I’m not alone. May the sacred ties of family, of friendship, and of place, beautifully entwined together to create the idea of home–may they never break, but stretch and expand. My daughter is another only child who was often surrounded by adults during her formative years. I pray that she carries with her a cache of cherished recollections that provide her with a similar sense of contentment and assurance.
Fifty-eight years after that family photo was taken, only my mother, my cousin and I remain here on earth. I pray that our future holds for us a reunion on the banks of another river, one glorious beyond imagination, in our true home.
Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,
with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.
–Shall We Gather at the River
words and music by Robert Lowry, 1864
On this 4th of July, and every day, let us remember that true patriotic duty is expressed not by proclaiming our great country to be flawless, but to recognize and work together to strengthen her weaknesses. May we open our minds, our eyes, ears, and hearts so that we may know the truth when we encounter it, even when it pains us to do so. Only then can we protect and nurture the principles upon which our republic was founded.
Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light!
words: Samuel F. Smith, 1832; Music: Thesaurus Musicus, 1744
May we honor the service and sacrifice of our brave men and women who gave their lives in the fight for our freedom.
May we never forget.
May we cherish their memory always.
And may God protect our troops.