Sunday, December 19, 2010

I'll Be Home for Christmas

What' s home? We're approaching the week of Christmas, and the highways are full, the airports are overflowing and the schools have let out. The line at Barnes and Noble spread all through the calendars, past the Christmas cards and buy 2, get 1 free games for kids. The checkers called for reinforcements; they were by no means peevish with us customers, but they were decidedly peckish toward any co workers they thought in the wrong place at the wrong time. I assume they were making good money this Sunday morning before Christmas, but if you asked them, I'd also bet they had a list a mile long of tasks to be done at "home".

I just got back from a couple of days in Jefferson City with Blake, followed by an overnight in Springfield. The lights came on in this old house and the little Hallmark ornament chimed in with 'Jingle Bell Rock' when I plugged in the Christmas tree. We completed the familiar routine as Blake off loaded our baggage and I divided the dirty clothes from the clean ones. The house was chill and the hibiscus drooped on the stair landing, but these signs of neglect were easily solved with a tumbler of water and the whoosh of the gas log. Before long, the expectant feeling of our waiting house was supplanted with the grinding of the washer, the cascade of newspapers by the couch and the aroma of c0ffee brewing.

Sunday evening the front of the church was transformed into a friendly living room complete with welcoming hosts, guests decked out in red vests and Christmas sweaters, everyone ready and willing to break into song or read Scripture. The songs were familiar; the story second nature, but peace and comfort spread over the proceedings as the organ rolled, the voices rose and the piano led us through the old, sweet story. Reflect on the adjectives and draw them 'round like your favorite afghan; 'tis the sound and description of home.

Mark and Laura are safely back in St. Louis after our second annual Christmas visit from our Pernod Gardens family. We were jolly and boisterous around the kitchen island, seated in the dining room toasting family accomplishments and New Year's ambitions, but the roof didn't really raise until the kids, already excited by the prospect of opening packages, dived into the big peppermint striped box of goodies, tossing wrappings like the Momma Dog in pursuit of a rodent. Fernando the pinata presented a temporary challenge with three kids coughing and the outside temperature well below freezing, but Abbie solved the problem by jumping on his back. Before we knew it, the volume rose several more notches and little flakes of tissue paper floated down on us like a ticker tape parade. We donned reindeer ears, elf hats with jingle bells, and other even more holly jolly headbands with snowmen and Santas bobbing in agreement that this was a fabulous family party with all the appropriate trimmings. Ben tossed Aaron's new juggling balls; Matt blew up long skinny balloons for animals and head dresses; Kenzie helped LIzzie construct a long domino trail in the dining room while Laura demonstrated proper tiddly wink technic to Abbie. Gabe made mournful whistling sounds with a fascinating colored tube and we cheered on the Rockin' Sock'em robots wielded by Ryan and Matt. Through it all, we avoided stomping on Mr. Josh and he looked on and listened to the merriment. Who knows what went through his baby brain?

After the ball game the four of us walked back home through the chill. The Christmas lights always seem to take on a added clarity and brightness when you walk at night. I know it borders on trite to observe the great leveling effect of Christmas lights; all displays speak to hope and anticipation and even a type of generosity. After all, Christmas lights are rarely "hidden beneath a bushel" or limited to someone's walled and gated backyard. Modest or ostentatious, they are right out there in front for all the world to see.

Blow up Santa has appeared on the front porch in all his illuminated glory. Two years ago, I was craven and overly cute with my attempt to have him waving from the third floor porch. He sagged and wilted under the onslaught of winter's gales. But this year I gave in to the overwhelmingly obvious nature of a blow up Santa; I AM A GIANT INFLATABLE, he proclaims with his sheer existence, I SHALL NEVER BE SUBTLE. To pay homage to his ineffable nature, he waves 24-7, this final week of Advent from the porch, tethered to the lawn chairs in Blake's favorite corner. I like to think the Ghost of Christmas Past would approve.

Aaron and Lizzie look like the little kids "with visions of sugar plums" as they snooze on the floor, wrapped in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sleeping bag and the Mizzou Snuggie. Their cheeks are rosy and a peaceful snore emanates from time to time. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, a day of baking and wrapping, followed by an time of reflection and the night of ineffable mystery and wonder. I can never be thankful enough, appreciative enough, grateful enough for the blessings of this my temporal home. I can never fathom the love of a Father expressed in His Son. But I can weep with joy and amazement on Christmas Eve as every mother can and cast my arms and heart wide around my loved ones here at home.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Musings on Trisha Yearwood

So you cannot lift a spirit that has turned to lead
Or shine a light in shadow when the batteries are dead
Or fly like a bird over all the works of man
Or always think of the perfect words
But you do the best you can

Nothing seems as easy as it did when you were young
Myths may be invincible, but we are only strong
Strong like a memory, strong like a willow in the wind
Strong as you'll ever be, you will always need to bend

And if you feel the weight of the world
Put your mind at ease
Little Hercules

There are times when being a grown-up gets to be too much
And your sense of humor seems to vanish in the crush
Of the daily 9 to 9 that keeps your family alive
You're just putting in your time
Does anyone really go home at 5?

You've made a life where no one ever tells you what to do
Now the only tyrant that you're working for is you
It's never easy to keep all the promises you make
But no one's gonna get you fired
If you'd just give yourself a brake

And if you feel the weight of the world
Put your mind at ease
Little Hercules
'Cause there's so much on your shoulders
But you know it's a breeze
Little Hercules
Little Hercules

I know, this is rather a downer during the uplifting Christmas season, when we should, uniformly and at all times, rejoice in the miraculous and unfathomable Gift to us lowly humans. But its a lovely and winsome song, like a pat on the shoulder by a good friend or a heartfelt hug from a little child. Its a song for all the folks trying to make it into the house from the car with all the bags when the one with the gallon of milk breaks. Its the song for the moms with little kids sick at home, missing work with no vacation time, the song for dads with dead batteries, guttering pilot lights, plugged drain pipes, for grandmas and grandpas too far away to ease day to day worries.

How do you lift a spirit that has turned to lead? Or think of all the perfect words? Its hard to resurrect that sense of humor on your own but the temptation is strong to keep a stiff upper lip and prove you're a grown up. Its fine to run wailing if one is three or four and under, but no way to run a world.

The myth is that anything is ever easy, young or not. Its the state of man and the good things of our lives may be life long or fleeting, but never earned nor deserved. They are gifts and grace, pure and simple, and this realization may be what makes life easier and makes us adults. "Don't Dwell" was an admonition in our household, one administered by parents quite familiar with the tendency to pick up and gnaw at a worry in hopes of reducing it to a more manageable size. We want to fix things, and fix them NOW; I struggle with the temptation to stay up and do one more thing, to solve one more puzzle, to clean up one more mess, instead of setting that problem aside to deal with in the morrow in a more measured and grown up fashion.

Don't be Little Hercules. Don't bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. Its not your task, to do it on your own. You can't! Give somebody the warm feeling that comes from giving themselves; ask a favor and let someone lend a hand.

'Tis the season, not just for packages.

Friday, December 3, 2010

New Roads

We're here at the Lake, at Tantara, on the first weekend in December. For this family, there is nearly as much tradition connected to the Farm Bureau meeting as any other holiday season occurrence. Since 1982 or so, our family has taken this trip to the Lake to meet and greet first family, then later on, a multitude of friends and colleagues, to shop, to consult, to politic, to stay up too late, to swim, to play, to vote, to listen, then finally to pack up a carload again and make the drive home. The Lake is resplendent with lights this time of year; Tantara puts on a good show. When we first started coming down here, we stayed in the nicest and most spacious rooms we'd ever seen. The girls and I would meet up with my mother, who worked for Farm Bureau then, after she'd finished her official tasks, and browse the quaint shops, or walk the Lakeside, or buy caramels for my father. We were too cheap to eat any of the group meals, but Sunday morning my folks would buy us the fancy breakfast buffet at the Black Bear. We'd progress from there to ice cream sundaes and sausage and cheese courtesy of the Farm Bureau. Sunday evening was pizza; breakfasts were carry in, as we always did when we traveled.

The kids all grew up with Farm Bureau. From the time they could sit in a meeting, Greg Gaines would help entertain them as they sat and colored, as Lee and Ann did, or pushed tractors and airplanes, as Ben did. The girls thought they were pretty neat when they got big enough to know their way around and could go to the swimming pool, or down to the arcade room, by themselves. They were good babysitters and shuttled their brother up and down the escalator over and over. There wasn't a giant outlet mall way back when, so most of our entertainment happened right here at the resort. We could keep plenty busy if the weather was nice just walking the labyrinth of the grounds, but if it was raining (it was never cold to us northern denizens), we could play ping pong for free. It was a special treat when Laura and Mark came to spend a weekend; then we might bowl or even go ice skating.

But the center of attention was the meeting itself. Whether Blake was county president or a voting delegate or, good fortune of all, a member of the Resolutions (or Policy Development committee back in olden times!) sitting up front, the big packet of colored paper was center attention. Looking back, we hope no one remembers how, well, let's say, over enthusiastic, we could be about Farm Bureau policy. We were excited to be in the midst of folks who got down and dirty about ideas and politics, a situation we had been away from since college days. We might be bottom rung, but we were part and parcel even as we sat in the back or sides with our two little girls, and, later, little boy.

Now, some twenty some years later, Blake is moving from the back of the meeting hall up to the front. All of a sudden, it seems, I'm matching up dress socks in the drawer, instead of my normal theory on work socks (hey, if there are two socks and two feet, what more do you need?). We are trying to sync computers, calendars, cell phones, though I realize we'll still have the days in April and May when time reverts to its most primitive measurement, daylight and darkness, work and sleep. The man with the smashed black thumb is deciding which pictures he'd like to have with him in a new office. What part of home will be in Jefferson City? The black and white drawing of the little boy yawning on the Minneapolis Moline, plowing out rows of baby corn? The photo of Grandpa Hurst posed in front of the first sixteen row Kinze planter? The grandkids, of course, in a constant rotation of older versions, no doubt. But how about the picture of two other little girls, wistfully looking at their grandma's camera lens from the top of a tin roof as the setting sun softens the sky behind them? How about a yellowed newspaper clipping of Blake's first (and we obviously thought, last, since we framed it) article in the Wall Street Journal? All these carry a story, a life lesson, a reminder from the past to the future.

In that case, maybe I should get the little combo clock/picture frame from the office. Its a Farm Bureau hand me down from a year or two back, about the size of a hard cover book. The clock on one side counts time present, but the square picture opposite remembers time past. It is a square Instamatic shot dating from early summer 1977. That's the summer Blake and I were engaged but apart, him in Tarkio and me in Washington, D.C. I had the picture under glass thirty some years ago, to keep me company. There's a little three room house in a yard of overgrown grass with a dust driveway and a tall cottonwood as the sole source of beauty. Its a long ways from suburbia for prospective new marrieds and college grads. But the young man leaning against the fence post in the foreground looks pretty proprietorial, maybe even a bit smug, though maybe I'm reading that into his overly nonchalant pose. His tan is deep; his hair is too long; his hat is pulled way down against the sun, or maybe because it won't fit over all that hair.

There's still some of that kid in the guy heading south tomorrow. But its not the cocksure pose part; time and experience has tempered that! No, its the optimistic part, the part that sees a home in a shack, the potential of the good earth and ties to family and land and community. Times change, kids grow, but we are folks of deep roots and memory. We carry that wherever we go.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Snow Village and other Fantasies

When I was little, we brought our Christmas trees home to Orland Park from Callaway county Missouri in the trunk of our car. All the long cold way home, the essence of cedar oozed into the back seat and, warmed by the car heater, gave us a sneak preview of the fragrance of Christmas soon to grace a corner of our living room. While other families visited the virtual forests springing up on vacant town lots, or brought home nicely manicured long needled Scotch pines from a tree farm, we hung our ornaments with care on the ever so flexible,invisibly poky branches of our Missouri cedar. On any other day of any other year, that tree would have been mere "brush" and destined to join a fiery pyre with black locusts, persimmons, sassafras, but mostly, other cedars. But fortune and symmetry smiled and now it was adorned and adored in a flat land development on top of the black peat soil of northern Illinois.

Our trees looked delicate when trimmed, almost lacy, with the ornaments barely dangling from the thin branches and the old fashioned heavy tinsel reflecting the colors of the big egg shaped lights. We were diligent in watering the tree; in those days, the lights packed a thermal punch and a dried cedar was a torch waiting to happen. Laura and I loved every tree, every year; the little manger scene ornaments, the frosted glass balls, the heat seeking spinners, the glass birds with their fiber tails. But, most of all, we lived to put the village up under the tree.

I don't know the provenance of the village. It just was: a half dozen or so little bungalows of a very stiff and sturdy cardboard with red cellophane paned windows, snowy "tiled" roofs and hard green sponge shrubbery. Entwined with Christmas memories as they were, I always associated them with the houses in the neighborhood on Greenberry Road,where my grandparents lived: hipped roofs, stucco, and other design elements antithetical to the low eaves and cookie cutter facades of the treeless neighborhood we lived in.
In addition to the friendly homes with their warm Christmas lighted interiors, the village included a white spired church not unlike the Lutheran church we attended, if one ignored the crooked steeple that required a fresh bandage of Scotch tape annually to keep it upright.

In our village, it was always a Silent Night. The children were surely asleep in their beds,visions of sugarplums in their dreams, rosy cheeked after a day of building the smiling snowmen outside their doors. The little creche nestled close by the church and deer wandered down from the forests near the trunk of the tree. Snow, or billowy cotton full of last year's needles, piled around the bristly brushes of the villages "evergreens". Not a soul lingered in the bleak midwinter; all were apparently snug and warm indoors waiting for Santa to arrive.

With this history, it is only natural, meet and right that a Snow Village should spring to life at Spruce every Christmas. It is not a Snow Metroplex, by any means, but it is certainly a friendly place with amenities much beloved by residents of Spruce. Snow Village proper sports a chocolate shop the size of a department store, a bridal shop, a bank (to be used when paying for the weddings), a greenhouse (well, duh), a Krispy Kreme, a Starbucks (double duh...what came first, the coffee or the doughnut) and a couple of pleasant homes. There are two town Christmas trees, one with tiny colored LED bulbs and the other(thanks, Aaron!) an electric pink with sparkling tips, rather the Brobdingnagian version of the tinsel trees we children of the sixties remember. This year the Mayor is again presenting the keys to the city to Santa while the town band serenades. Unlike real life, the musicians' lips are NOT sticking to their mouthpieces; the children shopping do not have sodden feet, and the vehicles nestled in the snow drifts are not actually stuck. Everyone apparently has a Monica Martin Bailey attitude about the white stuff :)

On the other side of the dining room is the country crossroads with the grain elevator and the little white church from my childhood. A bride and groom are gazing rapturously at each other, blissfully ignorant of the weather and the proximity of their black getaway car. The church dates from Ann and Matt's wedding in 2001. More recent amenities to the country are the rustic gas station and old fashioned mill; at least the bride and groom will be able to fill up en route to their honeymoon.

Way farther out in the country, so far out that there is, literally, no electricity(on top of the pie safe), is the little creek and bridge, a barnyard of farm critters, the treehouse I can never get back into its styrofoam cocoon, some skaters, a photographer, a couple on a sleigh ride, and three children perpetually warming marshmallows on a cool orange fire. No vignette is spectacular; all embody simple and domestic pleasures. To some, Snow Village might be part and parcel of the Norman Rockwell school of life, maybe even more sticky and sugary. But, to me, its another very pleasant ritual of the Christmas season, a tradition with its start after Thanksgiving and its farewell after New Year's, and a very present reminder of the spirit we should all adopt and will, if we're lucky.