Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Handmade Christmas

Grandmother Martin
Although my Grandmother lived in the same town with me when I was growing up, we did not typically exchange Christmas presents. Part of the reason was likely because she had eight grown children, each with a number of children of their own and even with grandchildren by this time, so there were ‘way too many people to shop for. Grandmother was on a limited income, plus she did not drive and it was not easy for her to shop except by mail order. Christmas gifts for everyone would have been nearly impossible for her to manage; and because we had never done it, I never thought twice about it.

But then one Christmas when I was about eight years old, we were invited to Grandmother’s house one evening before Christmas. I can’t remember if we ate dinner with her or just congregated there after our supper at home. I also can’t remember who else was there, but it seemed like at least one of my uncles and his family came too. 

Since we regularly gathered at Grandmother's house to enjoy family times with my uncles and aunts, the invitation had not seemed out of the ordinary. After we arrived, however, it became apparent that Grandmother had a wrapped package for each one of us, and went around the room presenting gifts to us one at a time. I remember being surprised at the nature of our visit, but a wave of pleasure swept over me when I opened my package. I glanced around to see what others were unwrapping, and it became immediately obvious that Grandmother had made something personally, with her own hands, for each of us.

To this day, I don’t remember what anyone else received; I only remember the gifts my sister and I opened. Our gifts were matching crocheted owls. She had stitched an owl-shaped pin cushion out of fabric, then covered it with a crocheted overlay in a contrasting color that added texture. A piece of crochet provided a hanger at the top. Mine was a small one, and my sister received a larger version of the same owl. It likely occurred to my child-like mind at the time, “What am I supposed to do with this?” But it didn’t really matter because I simultaneously felt a profound sense of gratitude, realizing that she had taken time to make something “just for me”, a labor of time and effort. And I think even to my childish mind, I was aware that it would have taken a great deal of time to stitch something for each of us in that room. 

Grandmother, who was somewhere around eighty-five years old that year, beamed with joy and her eyes twinkled as we each opened our gifts, giving full credence to the biblical principle that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” It gave her immense joy to present us with the objects of her labor.

My sister and I fastened our owls on the wall of our shared closet, and for years they hung there to hold safety pins, straight pins, hatpins, clothespins. Somewhere in a storage box in my home is the handmade owl from long ago. 

During the season when we all strive to search out what our loved ones want for Christmas, we often get overtaken with the monetary value of gifts, and focus too intently on snagging the most sought-after purchases of the season. Whatever is faddish any given year—iPads, UGG boots, crocheted hats—we feel a compulsion to find the perfect gift.

Maybe it’s time to rethink our gifting instincts. What can we give of ourselves to someone we love? If you are handy in the kitchen, consider baking a favorite dish for someone you love. If you can repair cars, find out if a family member needs an oil change or spark plugs you could help with. Give an iTunes gift card and help a loved one download some useful apps if you are a computer guru. If you are a handyman, see if someone you love needs to have new washers put in their faucets or a toilet handle replaced. Those ideas don’t necessarily signal “love” to someone whose love language isn’t acts of service! But to those of us who consider such an offer to be a worthwhile gift, it might mean the world to us. For those who don’t consider it a gift unless it’s something they can open and use, assess whether you own something they want! If you own a lovely necklace that your niece has admired, consider making a sacrifice and presenting it to her. If your daughter-in-law admires your Kitchen-Aid mixer and you know SHE would use it much more than you would, let it go. Those are sacrifices that mean something—to both the giver and receiver.

On the occasions when I have crafted something with my own hands that I think would be meaningful to a loved one, I have received a very specific joy in the giving. Our family has a long-standing tradition of creating handmade gifts, as you can see in the photos below. There is nothing wrong with purchasing a gift to show your love to someone; I do this quite often. But a homemade gift is in an entirely different category.

Jesus modeled a very personal giving for us when He gave His very life for us. His Father demonstrated the concept even more powerfully in sacrificing the life of His Son for us. While we are not required to give up anything quite so immense, it does help us understand what the word “gift” implies: letting go of something significant, whether an object or an act, in order to benefit someone else—freely given with no expectations attached.

What can you do this holiday season to make your Christmas gift-giving more meaningful?

My father made this rocking horse for Eric's first Christmas.

When Nicole was three, I made a Paddington Bear for her and one for Eric at Christmas.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Remembering Camelot ~ A Short Story


November 22, 1963:

The school day began with excitement. The cheerleaders were stopping everybody in the halls, trying to sell them spirit ribbons for the big game tonight. There were banners up all down the halls, saying "Beat the Crossroads Cougars!" The football players had decorations on their lockers. It was a big celebration all day as we got revved up about our championship game tonight. We were all proud and a little cocky, believing that we were only hours away from a state football championship win. Any high school in Texas would have reacted the same way.

Right after lunch, I gathered my books from my locker and headed to biology lab. We were dissecting a frog, and my partner and I had ours pinned to the board. Christie had made the first incision and I was peeling back the skin with my tweezers, trying not to gag at the scent of formaldehyde. The lab door opened and Mrs. Curry from the history class across the hall stepped in and motioned to Mr. Skelton to join her. There was something about her face that made me watch her rather than return my attention to our splayed frog.

I watched the two teachers in a whispered conversation, then saw Mr. Skelton’s face turn pale. As Mrs. Curry slipped out the door, he turned to the class, looking sick to his stomach. In a hoarse voice he said, "Class, I have something to tell you." Everyone quieted and turned their eyes his direction. "It appears that President Kennedy has been shot," he said in a disbelieving voice. Several people gasped, and everyone looked stricken, no one uttering a word. He cleared his throat, obviously struggling for control. "We are all going to the library where there is a TV set up, and we can watch the news report."

I glanced down at the gaping frog on the table, and felt a wave of nausea. I quickly dropped the tweezers and scraped my chair back with all the others in the room. We filed in shock down the hall, meeting lines of other students, all of us walking like zombies through a silent hallway. On the TV, they kept showing shots of Parkland Hospital in Dallas as policemen and secret service agents stood near the emergency room doors, keeping crowds away from the entrance. There was sketchy information, and Walter Cronkite continued to remind us of the details of the President’s trip to Texas.  Everything had happened so quickly in the motorcade through downtown Dallas, and everyone on television was speculating about the President’s injuries. It was all so horrifying and unreal.

No one in the library was talking or cutting up. We couldn't take our eyes off the television screen. Occasionally, some of the girls would cry softly, and all of us looked like we wanted to. After a length of time that seemed to stretch forever, Mr. Cronkite announced with emotion that the president was dead. Then all of us began to cry, even some of the boys and the teachers.

We continued to sit, riveted to the unfolding news reports. Eventually the day ended; the school principal announced over the speaker system that the football game scheduled for tonight had been postponed until next week. We all whispered together as we left the building, headed for home. Mama was parked in front of the high school, waiting for me. We drove home, mostly in silence, and once inside the house, we walked into the living room without comment and turned on the TV. When it warmed up and the picture appeared, it was a repeat of all the newsreels I had seen all afternoon—the same photos, over and over, with no one seeming to be able to grasp what had happened. Mama looked up when Daddy came home from work, but made no attempt to cook dinner. Finally, as we sat in our darkened living room with faces angled toward the television, Mama got up and went to put three TV dinners in the oven. When they were ready, we all sat at our TV trays in darkness, numb, watching the unbelievable scene repeated onscreen of Vice President Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One. Mama just kept muttering, "I can't believe it" over and over. I finally got up and went to my room. I flopped on the bed and the tears finally turned loose in a flood. It is all so unbelievable. I can't think what happens next. How can anything normal happen after this????

November 30, 1963:

The whole town turned out for the final state championship game tonight. It was unthinkable to play the game last week after the President was killed. Thanksgiving this week complicated rescheduling the game. Our principal and the football coach met with UIL officials to discuss postponing the game, so it was rescheduled during Thanksgiving break.

Everyone’s emotions were raw from the events surrounding John F. Kennedy's death last week. It hardly seemed right to be playing a football game tonight in light of all that is happening in our country. We all found it difficult to feel enthusiastic about what was taking place on the field, but we did our best to cheer our boys to victory.

Instead of our band’s usual half-time marching routine, we marched solemnly onto the field to a somber drum cadence and the announcer said there would be a silent tribute to President Kennedy. Then all of us band members dropped to one knee and bowed our heads. After a few minutes of silence, the announcer led a brief prayer for our nation, for the Kennedy family, and for the Johnson family, and we solemnly and silently marched back off the field and into the stands.

The game was a close one, and both sides fought fiercely, as if battling in a war zone. Our team won with a touchdown in the last two minutes, the final score 21-18. We were proud to win, but it was a subdued victory. It almost felt like we had fought a fierce enemy, and that the victory ushered us into a strange new world.

On the two-hour bus ride back home, we were mostly silent, with only a few whispered conversations. No one had the heart for the usual songs, chants, and laughter that often accompanied our trips home. I sat by the window, feeling the cold windowpane against my cheek as I watched the dark landscape slide past. Many of the fields were bare now from the cotton harvest, with only the sight of an occasional cotton harvester’s headlights beaming out in the field. We passed isolated farms, quiet at the end of the day, perhaps with a glowing light from inside the farmhouse the only indication of the presence of life. The bus passed through small towns on our way back to our own village, and streets were deserted. Their residents were likely holed up in their homes, maybe still enjoying leftover turkey, perhaps silently trying to grasp how their world had dramatically shifted in the past eight days.

November 2013:

Looking back from the vantage point of fifty years later, my own worldview had been turned upside down in 1963. At fifteen, I was just beginning to ease my big toe into the adult world around me. I didn’t know much about politics, other than what I heard the adults around me discuss. There had been skepticism about the President when he was elected, but many felt he had handled the Bay of Pigs situation with strength and bravery. We had discussed it in my Civics class and I had certainly respected Mr. Kennedy as the leader of our country. Who could keep from getting caught up in the romance and excitement of our vibrant young president and his charming wife? They were the fairy-tale family, and most of us were enamored of the Camelot that played out before us on television and displayed on magazine covers.

Now it had all been blown apart by a senseless assassination. I had read stories about the assassination of President Lincoln, but who would have ever imagined we would know first-hand the meaning of that word in our own generation?


The story you have just read is part fact, part fiction. I actually wrote it a couple of years ago to be included in a piece I was writing about the 1960s. I drew from my own memories of that very dramatic historical period, but altered the actual facts to fit the storyline. I found that all the emotions were still intact, however, because no matter one’s age, a person does not experience something this profound without being changed.

There are some occasions in life when you realize instantly that your world has just been significantly altered—that nothing will ever be the same again. The first such time in my lifespan occurred when my grandma died in 1954. The second one happened on November 22, 1963. In recent years, the most dramatic shift impacted my world on September 11, 2001.

Those moments are forever etched in our memories, for we realize at those times that the world tilts a different direction, and all we have known as stable and steady slides to one side and careens out of control until we can regain our footing once again.

John Kennedy’s death truly felt like the end of Camelot to many people. A few years following his death, I was to watch the movie Camelot and hear these words to the theme song, which may have very aptly described the idealistic world many of us lived in until the end of 1963: 

"In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Of Quilts and Comforters

A friend called not so long ago, hurting and asking for comfort. She knew I did not possess the ability to fix the problem, and that neither of us could exercise any control whatsoever over the outcome. She just needed someone to listen and soothe her spirit, even from a distance.

Later, in my ongoing prayers for her, the thought came to me that I wished I could take her in my arms and comfort her, much as I did my children when they were small and hurting. In fact, when my little girl was sick or upset, one thing that brought her consolation was to snuggle under an old family quilt I kept on a quilt rack in our living room. When she went away to college, she asked if she could take it with her to help make the emotional transition from childhood into adulthood. She still has it with her, now that she lives almost 2,000 miles away from home.

Quilts were a staple in pioneer homes from very early times in America. They were colorful, creative, and they brought warmth to the home. I don’t know the origin of what we commonly call comforters, but it strikes me how aptly they are named. A person who is cold, in pain, or filled with distress can gain a measure of relief by burrowing beneath its covers. The same is true of quilts, particularly those which hold good memories or have special family significance.

It strikes me that it is no accident Jesus spoke to His disciples about their Father sending them “the Comforter.” He meant, of course, the presence of the Holy Spirit, but I wonder if that is why we call snuggly blankets “comforters”, because it is symbolic of God’s comforting care, His provision to provide us a place to be soothed and safe.

As the Fall season progresses and the air holds promise of cooler weather, we know we will soon be looking for ways to stay warm. This year, as you find warmth and comfort beneath an old quilt or a favorite comforter, let Jesus bring to your mind His promise to BE your Comforter, no matter the temperature outside. He will calm your spirit and soothe any pain in your heart if you will snuggle beneath the folds of His care.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“There’s no place like home.”

It seems that many of my blogs have dealt with death. I have no fascination with writing about that topic, but when someone I love passes from this life to the next, it causes me to put all of my every day, mundane life issues into a greater perspective. Facing the idea of death challenges me to re-prioritize.

On September 18th my beloved mother-in-law, Dorothy Bowyer, left this earth. I should have been ready, or at least not surprised—but I wasn’t. Many emotions have welled up within me in the past few days, but probably the strongest one has been a simple sadness.

Dorothy (I called her Mom) loved me from the first moment she laid eyes on me. We drove to Houston one Spring Break to “meet the parents” and announce our engagement, arriving around midnight and waking them from a sound sleep. They had known we were arriving late, but they were not aware that the dynamic of their family was about to change. I still remember walking into their home, half asleep myself, and meeting them for the first time. We all sat in the living room and talked for a while, and they were so loving and welcoming to me. We have all heard horror stories about in-laws (and many have lived those stories first-hand!), but I could not have asked for sweeter people to welcome me into their family.

From that day forward, Dorothy treated me as her very own. I came to think of her as my mother, and through the years we have shared many warm conversations, moments of laughter, intimate disclosures from our own hearts, and fears and insecurities that nipped at our heels. We have read one another’s books, shared spiritual insights, encouraged and challenged each other. There have been moments filled with both laughter and tears. She endured the deaths of many she loved, including her husband, only daughter, a grandson, her mother, and a brother during the years I have been in the family, and I shared in her grief.

Dorothy was a fun, generous, loving grandmother to our two children. They have precious memories of her and they, too, will miss her deeply.

There is more than one kind of death. The death of a marriage brings consequences to everyone involved. One of the very painful parts of the end of my marriage to Dorothy’s son was the consequence to his family. Mom still loved me, always accepted me, and continued to keep in touch with me. I am eternally grateful for her gracious willingness to keep me in her heart, even if I was not technically in her family. Although our divorce caused her immense pain and sadness, she continued to call me daughter.

I am blessed with forty-four years of memories—valuable jewels that I treasure. With instant recollection, I can picture: the times we came to visit and how she worked to create little homey touches to the guest bedroom to make our stay more pleasant . . . how she watched and listened to learn about things I liked so she could surprise me with a much-wanted gift at Christmas . . . the delighted lift of her voice when I called on the phone . . . the long, newsy letters she wrote. I remember when she drove with us to Austin one cold, rainy January and spent the day helping me find an apartment on short notice while Gerry started his new job. Or the time she came after Nicole was born to help take care of all of us until I got on my feet. She was on hand when our children graduated from college, she welcomed their future spouses when we gathered for Thanksgiving, and she arrived to give her blessing when they married. For all the important life events, she was there, lending support and loving us as good mothers do. 

We will all miss her terribly. But Dorothy, like the other Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, understood that “there’s no place like home.” For Dorothy, this is only the beginning, not the end, because guess what—we have a big family reunion scheduled with her some sweet day! And it won’t be in Kansas. I'm booking my flight to be there, and inviting everyone who loved Dorothy to be there too.

Dorothy is the second to the left, next to my dad. This was our family photo taken at Nicole and Max's wedding.