Monday, December 27, 2010

My Band of Angels - Christmas, 24 Years Ago

I wasn't going to write this story but in following a holiday writing prompt from Mama Kat over at SITS, that uber blogging support site,  it seemed that maybe it's time. [Warning: This is a long post, but something I couldn't break up into parts, and for that, I apologize.]

Christmas, 24 years ago, would be the last one my youngest daughter would share with us before Ewing's Sarcoma would take her at the tender age of twenty. Although it was never spoken aloud, we both knew, and I spent a fortune making photo memories because this was before the miracle of digital cameras. Saving our forests should have been the noble high road, but truth is, our little artificial tree replaced a live one that had dropped all its needles two days before Christmas! My husband bought it when the girls were toddlers, I was in the hospital, and he was in charge of everything. Little did we know, then, that it would become a way of keeping him part of our future seasons, too. (He had succumbed to a different cancer six years earlier.) Although the little tree had served us well, it was time to let it go -- too many wiry limbs, too few needles. When given a chance to buy a beautiful new artificial tree for almost next to nothing, I jumped at the chance to make my daughter's last Christmas special.

And, the new tree was beautiful. Seven feet tall and looking very much like the fir tree it represented. For the first time, all our handmade ornaments could be displayed at the same time. It was going to be a surprise and I was pretty caught up with the memories associated with each ornament as I took my time getting it decorated. Waiting for my girls to see our beautiful new tree with all the decorations was torture; but, it was worth it. They oohed and aahed -- pointing, laughing, and sharing forgotten moments. But, a little later, I noticed that my youngest had become very quiet and, when I asked what was wrong, she said it was nothing, she didn't want to upset me. After some gentle prodding, my beautiful young daughter finally admitted that she really missed our old tree because it was more like Christmas to her. "Mom," she said, "I think this is my last Christmas and I guess I was really looking forward to seeing that old pitiful tree with all the Christmas memories of when Dad was with us. Please don't be mad; but, could we use it, again, one more time?"

I couldn't be mad because I knew exactly how she felt and the three of us began the process of undressing the new seven-foot artificial fir tree now filled with a mixture of old and new memories and replaced it with our scraggly but dearly loved five-foot sparsely-needled old artificial tree. Our real Christmas was back, just as it always had been. Well, it was almost "just as it had always been." Some of the ornaments had to be put away and, more importantly, we didn't have our beloved father and husband with us. I had wanted the tree to be extra special because I had some bad news to give my girls -- news I had been putting off telling them for weeks. There literally was no money to spend on Christmas -- no money for presents; no money for a special holiday dinner. Nothing -- simply, nothing.

Even with insurance, cash requirements for drugs, gas, hospital parking fees, and incidentals for caring for my daughter were staggering. Money is usually tight when you have teenagers, and this was my reality. We weren't starving but I definitely knew how to get every ridge off a dime. There was no getting around it. I had to tell them and I was dreading it because, like every parent, I wanted to be a hero in my children's eyes. And, if possible, you want to at least maintain the illusion of Santa for your older children, in some way or another. I felt like a failure, that I had really let them down. I knew the ball had been passed into my court after their father died and I simply couldn't get it back over the net. Not only did I not have enough money for presents, I was working 15-hour days, which left little time for handcrafting.

When explaining the situation, I suggested that, if they wanted to enjoy a real holiday dinner, they could accept their friends' invitations and I could find something else to do for the holiday. The most we could hope for was peanut butter sandwiches with raisin faces (something we rather enjoyed, on any other occasion). Without a second's hesitation, they both hugged me and said it was all right, at least we were all together. We could go to the candlelight service at church, come home for hot cocoa and cinnamon toast, and just enjoy each other's company.

There was this one thing I could do. My youngest had been filling her time learning how to crochet and had only the edging to complete before her afghan was finished. As her cancer had progressed, she lost feeling in her fingertips and it was hard for her to hold both the crochet hook and yarn. I decided I could complete the afghan for her and have it ready by Christmas morning.

One of my three jobs was singing in a country-western band. In my part of the country, clubs paid more for that kind of music than rock and I wasn't working four hours a night for the experience. We usually worked every weekend and were paid in cash. Cash that was spent the minute it hit my hand. Unfortunately, this was one year we were not booked for Christmas Eve. But, at 1:30pm, the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the phone rang. It was a local club owner wondering if our band couldn't come in on short notice to play at his club, that night. The band they had scheduled backed out when they received a better offer. (Now, this is a real no-no in the band business, but there's very little a club owner can do about it when it happens besides hope he can find another one to fill in for the night.) I gave him our price, saying we would only work if he promised we would be paid in cash and that I would have to contact the guys in the band before I could really commit to anything, but would get back to him within the hour.

Christmas Eve is a difficult night to get anyone to change plans and the guys had really been looking forward to spending time with their families. The only advantage I could offer was the promise of a cash payment and we only had to do two sets for an early closing. I didn't know what their situations were, but that money would save the day for me. Within the hour, they had all returned my call and agreed to do the gig. I was going to be able to give my girls a Christmas, after all. I couldn't believe it. I thanked God, my guardian angel, and everyone else I knew on the other side. I even threw in a thank-you to Wal-Mart and their open-all-night policy.

Since I wouldn't be able to get back home in time, I arranged for the girls to attend midnight candlelight services with friends. We performed our sets, the club owner made good his promise, and I decided to head to Wal-Mart before heading home to unload the van. I was a little surprised to see the other band members pulling in beside me, but figured they wanted to get some last-minute gifts. I ran around desperately trying to figure out how to cover two teen-aged girls, gas and parking fees, and still manage a little extra for a Christmas dinner on $75.

Shopping finished, I rushed to the registers in time to find the guys just standing there, waiting for me on the other side. Just a brief glance at their baskets made me wonder who would be receiving their presents. I knew their wives and the gifts were definitely too young for them. Of course, they saw me checking out their carts and with great big grins, told me how they had already discussed it with their wives, only agreeing to perform so that their share could be used for my girls' Christmas. That was their present to me. Their wives had come up with the list of presents for them to buy my girls and I just had to do the wrapping and place them under the tree. How do you say thank-you when your eyes are filled with tears and your throat is constricted with love? All I could do was hug them tight in gratitude and wish them and their families a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

It was 3:30am by the time the van was emptied and the presents wrapped. I checked to make sure the girls were asleep and sat in my chair to reflect on my day and the special blessings that filled my life. As I gazed at the little tree, I noticed an envelope perched on an upper branch, addressed to "Mom." Officially, this was Christmas morning. I decided it was okay to read it. I had to sit down as I read, "Dear Mom, Please don't feel bad about not having any money for presents this year. We all know the reason. What's important is that we have each other and are able to be together for this Christmas. We love you and want to spend Christmas Day with you. And we love peanut butter sandwiches with raisin faces. All our love, ________"

Okay. There was no way I was going to sleep that Christmas Eve, but I could put one more round of edging on my youngest's afghan. And, I did, finishing at 6:35am, just in time to hear the alarms go off in their rooms. They walked out, slowly, not expecting to find anything under our little tree and were stunned to discover that Santa had been there, after all. I couldn't keep the secret and shared what the guys in the band had done for our Christmas -- and, that I had read their note. Then, came the explosion of hugs, tears and kisses because, underneath it all, we knew this really was our last Christmas together. The little tree with more metal on its branches than needles would have to go; but, for just a moment, when I looked at the angel on top of that little bedraggled tree full of memories, I could have sworn I saw her smile.

Do you have a special Christmas memory where angels touched your life? Link in and share, won't you?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

It's Snowing in Willow Spring

Snow to the Left!

Snow to the Right!

Let's Have Tea Inside!

Definitely a day for a lazy read and calling friends! Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

BFF?! You'll Need to Know This About Me

Ashley at LittleMissMomma is having a BFF Linkup and I thought it would be a great time to plunge into one. Just a few things to know if you want to be my BFF.

I'm very tall inside because my 4'10" Mother used to have me get things for her off the top shelf, saying, "You're the tallest!"

I hate when people with obviously more than 10 items try to look innocent standing in the Express Lane.  

No bag of potato chips is ever allowed to develop a sense of isolation in my house. Because I am truly a kind person, I consume them all at one sitting, for their own good.

If you have anything bad, at all, to say (even with your facial muscles) about Elvis, don't even go there -- no, I'm serious, don't.

I can pretty much relate almost everything to a song -- and, will probably sing a few verses for you, as well.

Some folks may say I'm a pretty good cook but I cannot, cannot, make a decent original pizza.

It doesn't matter who you are or what you do or where you come from, I have absolutely no interest in changing you or making you into something other than who you are -- I love the uniqueness of you and what I can learn from you.

When I go out to eat, I can't stand being interrupted every few minutes by someone asking if everything's all right. I came to share the meal with the person I'm with and would love to be able to do so.

Unless you can prove to me that you're the litmus test of what's right and good in the world, I'm going to do what I've learned works for me.

I have para-sailed and hang-glided, without fear; but, I'm terrified in glass elevators.

I don't know what it means to be bored.
I think that will do -- for now!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Miracle - 27 Puppies and Teddies

The holidays are a time when we want all children to have something special waiting for them on Christmas morning. It's impossible to take care of them all but we can each do something that could make a difference for at least one child.  For years, I have used up my calico scraps to make puppies and teddy bears to give to Toys for Tots. Once stuffed and detailed, I would bring them to the local police station or fire house for distribution.

These stuffed puppies and teddy bears are easy to put together and make great take-alongs to keep busy while waiting for this and that. The bodies would remain unstuffed through the year until the week after Thanksgiving.  Facial features and other details were added during the first few weeks of December. An easy task while watching TV, and easy to deliver. Well, easy to do; check. Easy to deliver; different story. This was my first Christmas in NC and I was but a five-month resident in 1990. It was a snap to locate our little six-man police station and I happily arrived at around four p.m. on the 23rd of December with my holiday box of 27 puppies and teddy bears.

The policeman on duty was probably in his 40s and listened kindly to my story and, yet, he had no idea what I was doing there or what I was talking about. Nobody had ever brought stuffed toys to his station in all the years he'd been there. What did I expect him to do? He was sorry but there just wasn't anything to be done.

Well, did he know of any place where I could take the toys, myself, for distribution? I explained that I was very new in town and wasn't familiar enough with the roads to chance driving around on icy streets whilst looking at street signs. There was absolutely nothing going on in the station. He looked helpless and we just sort of stared at each other, hoping either of us would come up with a solution. I even looked down at the puppies and teddies, hoping they had a solution. We were all brain dead --  nothing but empty air and disappointment.

I thanked him, donned my scarf and coat, drew on my mittens and picked up the box of puppies and teddy bears, turned and began the long walk towards the door. (It was really only a few feet but my heavy heart just wasn't in the mood for light stepping.) The phone rang and within a few seconds, I heard, "Hey, wait, lady! Don't go!" The officer signaled that he had to finish the call but he didn't want me to leave.

"You'll never guess who that was," he said.

"I can't imagine."

"That was __________ Hospital -- the head nurse from the children's floor. The local charity had come by with their annual gifts for the patients but, somehow, the children's box couldn't be found. They were desperate. There was nothing for the children on her floor. They had called all the charities they could think of but everything had been distributed and they needed at least 27 toys for the children... 27 toys for the children... wasn't there something, some place, someone, he knew that might be able to help at this late date?"

We stared at each other because we couldn't speak. Something bigger than either of us had entered the room and answered our prayers. My 27 little calico puppies and teddy bears would have someone to love them on Christmas morning, after all.


If you would like to fill your empty time with making stuffed puppies and teddy bears, either buy a simple pattern with just a few parts for a true 3-dimentional look or get a child's coloring book that gives you a nice dark outline of a full side view of a puppy or face view of the teddy. I've included simple drawings here that you can print out on 8.5"x11" paper.

The puppies are welcomed at all drop-off centers but only teddy bears are accepted by Emergency Medical Services. They like to keep the teddy bears on their ambulances to give to children after an accident. Check with your local ambulance service. You can also make them patchwork, using material scraps. Find an easy stuffed teddy or dog pattern and either make your patchwork* first, lay pattern pieces down, cut out and sew -- or, if the pattern has separate body pieces, use a different material for each section, keeping the smallest prints for the face, since you'll be adding eyes, nose, and mouth details.

   *These are small stuffed animals. Keep patchworking small so that it doesn't overwhelm the toy!

* Cotton fabric (calico, gingham, broadcloth, denim, etc.): For patchwork puppy, when using a pattern for the body parts, four or more different fabric scraps; For one-color puppy, 44" wide, 3/4 yard.
* Satin ribbon, 1/2" wide, 1 yard.
* Black shank buttons (for eyes), 1/2", two.
* Black animal nose, 21mm. (Optional: Black embroidery floss.)
* Fiberfill stuffing, 16 oz.
* Needle. Thread in matching colors. Straight pins. Scissors. Iron.
* Tracing paper. Pencil.
(Note: Sew with 1/4" seams and right sides facing throughout. Leave 1.5" opening for stuffing. Turn right side out; stuff gently easing toward seams, stitch, opening, and add facial details and ribbon!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Aunt Clara and Uncle Oscar - Power Over Toddlers!

Kukla, Fran & Ollie
A thousand years ago in my childhood, there was a fantastic thing that arrived in my house -- a television! It had a five-inch (yes, five-inch!) screen in a full-sized floor cabinet. We were enthralled with the shows and with the countdown pattern that would signal the start of the few shows available at the time. Gathered together, we young'uns would all do the countdown as the patterns changed and the number "1" finally appeared. Magic was about to happen!

Late afternoon meant kids programming and one of my favorites was the Kukla, Fran & Ollie Show. I was enthralled at all the characters, how clever they were, and amazed that Kukla and Ollie could drink with a straw! You can share this early TV Show with your own children, check out their holiday DVD special. It was a much simpler time. But, I digress...

I'm here to tell you about Uncle Oscar and Aunt Clara and this requires a leap into the future
 (well, MY future, anyway) and life as a young mommy. 

By the time my daughters were growing up, television had become more sophisticated, color TVs were more prevalent in homes, and cartoons had become well-established -- although, I never understood how Hanna Barbera just looped the same tree and/or window in the background of the cartoons and kept the kids interested, when Disney offered so much more. Again, I digress...

I can't tell you how much I LOVED Kukla, Fran & Ollie and the wonderful characters that filled that half hour, every day. They became my friends. So, I decided to share some of that joy with my own girls. Using Kukla as a guide, I made two hand characters (just can't bring myself to call them puppets, albeit, that's what they were) from papier-mache; painted them, and gave them hair and cloth bodies. Uncle Oscar was fairly close to Kukla and Aunt Clara was of the same family but decidedly dressier.

Uncle Oscar and Aunt Clara were introduced to my girls, one evening, after their bath. I had a wonderful French Provincial high-backed chair that would hide me and give my babes (3-yrs and 5-yrs) a soft cushion to kneel (I insisted) on, while O&C used the top edge of the chair for a stage. OMG! They were a hit!

From that night on, for the next year or so, the bedtime routine included a visit with Uncle Oscar and Aunt Clara. The girls simply refused to go to bed without sharing their day with their 'best aunt and uncle'  and a most unexpected result was that Mommy (capital M, because it's being used as my serious title, at this time) reaped the biggest reward. (All's fair in raising young'uns)

What reward, you might ask? Well, imagine being the voice(s) of your childrens' new 'best friends.' Wouldn't you share your day? Wouldn't you want to share your secrets? Like who stepped on the toothpaste tube and, well, for instance, a typical evening's visit:

Oscar: (Partner in crime - toddler style): How was your day, girls?
D#1: Oh, it was fun. We did lots of things.
Oscar: Like what?
D#2: Well, we dropped the toothpaste.
D#1: I stepped on it and toothpaste came way out onto the floor. Pierrot (family pet) started licking it.
Oscar: Does your mommy know?
D#1 & D#2: NO! Don't tell her, okay? I wiped it with the towel, so she doesn't know...
D#2: She'll get mad. Don't tell her. Promise?
Oscar: I promise; I won't tell. Because, you cleaned it up and that's what you should do. 
Clara (PI and Conscience): I won't tell but you should, because that would be helping your mommy make sure everything is clean. Remember when she told you that everyone has accidents and the most important thing is to clean it up before it stains or gets worse -- like when you spilled the paint? So, you should tell her. Will you do that, for me?
D#1: Oh, yeah, that's right.  Okay, I'll tell her, tonight, when we go to bed.
D#2: Me, too.
D#1: But, it was fun and made us laugh -- a lot!

... well, you get the idea. Giggles throughout and lots of fun for about ten minutes. Of course, my voice changed for both characters and it was a wonderful time. Finding out who spread lipstick over the bottom carpeted stair was a special night for Mommy, too, if you know what I mean.

NO, before you ask, I don't have pictures because our dog Pierrot was insanely jealous of the girls' new friends and he found them alone one day and, well, it's best to not walk through that door...

Recently, I reminded my eldest about those days. She told me how special they were to both she and her sister and how they thought of them as real life friends that they looked forward to sharing their day with at bedtime. What I didn't realize was how upset they were when that time was over. Our lives had gotten busier, the girls were older, and how do you replace a favorite uncle and aunt?