My View in Cuenca

A beautiful morning here at 8,300 ft in the Andes. Brilliant blue skies dotted with pure white marshmallow clouds provide a backdrop to my landlady’s towering and quite laden avocado tree. Large hummingbirds flit between their feeder to the right and the moira bush to the left. And I see no evidence of any shortage of bees here in Cuenca.

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Our back patio butts up to Josefina’s lovely orchard

Their existence may be in danger in the US, but down here, they seem healthy, happy and loaded with bzzzz.

Margarita, my friend and weekly cleaning lady, arrived just a little bit ago.  She came in bearing a small bag of rolls, fresh from the panaderia.  She gave me two.  David received just one.  “Shhhhh, don’t tell,” she communicates, flashing a huge grin as she heads to the kitchen to get her coffee.

A bright yellow/orange tablecloth hangs on the line outside my window.  Not handmade, but still beautiful, the fringed cloth has multi-width stripes of vibrant purples, greens, blues and reds. The weaving is a traditional Ecuadorean design.  I had wanted to cut the cloth up to use for curtains, but Margarita would have none of that. “No, no, no,” she insisted some weeks ago.  She speaks no English, but she looked like she wanted to say, “It’s a tablecloth, dammit!”

One thing I’ve gathered in my limited time here is that most everything and everyone has its place. People have roles. Things have a purpose. And one shouldn’t try to mix them up.

Getting curtains made for our home, for example.

My former landlady, Susana, has taken me to several fabric stores to select curtain material.  At one shop, I found a fabric and design I loved and wanted to purchase it for the living room.  But they wouldn’t sell it to me because it is not intended for curtain material. It is for muebles. Furniture. Now, I’m a person that uses what I like for decorating. Corrugated cardboard and brass tacks served as wainscoting in my dining room in Arkansas. Brown craft paper has papered many a wall of mine with amazing effects. I had painted concrete floors before it was cool.

So, when I saw this material, I knew it would work. But I couldn’t buy it because Susana and the sales clerk knew I wanted it for cortinas and this was NOT cortina material.

Our windows remain curtainless.

The same for my bright colorful tablecloth. It is fated to serve one purpose and one purpose only–covering our mesa.  Do I dare tell Margarita I’m thinking of buying two more tablecloths to sew together for a bedspread?

This single purpose idea isn’t totally consistent, however.  The other side of the coin is to make do.  Just make things “good enough”, as my friend Jody says.

When we first moved into our current home we had a few plants in the front of the house that proved impossible for our dog to ignore.  Within a week or so, the succulents had been unearthed and left for dead. Josefina (our new landlady and next door neighbor) noticed the bald spot in the garden and offered me something to cover up the blight to prevent more digging from our sweet Punky.

Good idea, I thought. “Thanks”, I said.

imagesJosefina brought over a wooden toilet seat lid, with fake-brass fittings. She speaks no English but her look implied, “That should do it.”  I plopped it into place in plain view of our front door and every guest who visits and there the toilet lid sat for a few weeks until new potted plants could be arranged. It remains out there somewhere. I think I hid it behind my towering rose bush.

Now, I imagine in this city of anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 (who really knows) there are people who wouldn’t dream of using  toilet seat covers in their front lawn to protect their gardens.  There are the rich who live in enclaves behind tall pristine walls and iron gates. Their shrub and tree-lined streets absorb the incessant barks of neurotic dogs confined to tiny spaces, block the smells of belching diesel buses as well as the tone down the bombardment of car alarms. These people live in a more perfect world. No bald spots in their lawns. They have full-time gardeners who tend to the gardens and mini-paradises that surround the family estates.  Not a potty lid to be found.

Friend Jody and I talked not too long ago about the “good enough” attitude that seems perfectly acceptable in our new city.  We got to laughing at the ways we see it around us every day.  For me, a visit to my hair salon brought me face to face with “that’ll do.” I went to the bathroom and was met with one of those beauty shots that appear in every salon in the world.  A stunning woman, a kick-ass hair style and a body that won’t quit.  The pièce de résistance was that my stylist had hung the poster up with what looked like duct tape.  Good enough, indeed.

I experience less pretense here. People are people. It’s hard to put on airs when a toilet lid sits in your front yard. Or a poster promising unlimited beauty is held in place by bulky grey tape.

51967999_Alt01And one more thing.  Next to almost every commode in this city stands a covered wastebasket. A silent reminder that everyone has crap in their lives and we just have to deal with it.

Toss, not flush.  It’s a great equalizer as far as I’m concerned.

I Tried to be a Sunbeam for Jesus

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Our church in the 50’s would have fit well into a Norman Rockwell-type painting.

**This post appeared the other day under on a different site: First & Third Verse. I launched a second blog (which I now think may be a mistake) to provide space for a bigger project: First & Third Verse  This site looks at traditional hymns and how they impacted my spiritual development and how they continue to be meaningful even as I’ve moved from a traditional way of thinking to a much more progressive viewpoint. If you have a love for the old church hymns, I hope you’ll visit the site.***

I feel I was predestined to be smiling and joyful for Jesus, whether I liked it or not.

Not only me, but all nine of my siblings were programmed to be sunbeamers from the minute we were born. And of course we could and would be because, well, we had the joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.

Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for Him each day;
In every way try to please Him,
At home, at school, at play.

A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.

Sunday after Sunday I gathered with a handful of other children in the damp, cool basement of First Presbyterian Church in Greenfield, Illinois. Together we filled the lower level with loud, off-key voices and occasional outbursts of giggles. We moved in close to the piano and acted out our happy verses, arms to the sky, hands cupped around our cheeks, fingers wiggling in the air.  We climbed climbed up sunshine mountain with faces all aglow and, like that wee little man, Zacheus, we climbed up in a Sycamore tree then plopped down on the floor when he dropped down from the tree to eat dinner with Jesus.

Those melodies were campy, peppy and repetitive and the lyrics– definitely long-term memory material. All memories of church were.

Church was my second home. As the preacher, dad was required to be there whenever the doors opened. When he doubled as the janitor, we got there early to open the doors and stayed until the halls were empty.

Sunday morning and Sunday night we were present. No exceptions. Wednesday night prayer meeting was also mandatory. And one Tuesday a month we visited the Prairie Home, the local nursing home, bringing songs, a short message and good cheer to the old folks of our little town.

downloadHow I dreaded those evenings.

I cared about the elderly and their loneliness. I often left the building with tears rolling down my face because of the sorrow I sensed and felt within those wall. I ached for the women and men who sat by themselves in their rooms, day after day, without visits from their children.

I just didn’t know what to say.

I felt uncomfortable holding their shaky hands and feeling their paper-thin skin. Shouting to be heard embarrassed me (I mean, what doesn’t embarrass a teenager?) Pervasive smells of disinfectant and urine made me gag. Yet, going there was my duty. A rigorously enforced duty. By the time I reached 16, I had counted the number of Tuesdays I had to go before high school graduation.  Freedom couldn’t come too soon.

At the nursing home, at school, at play, I wasn’t much of a sunbeam.  I tried. When the music played, my voice rang out clear and strong. During prayer time my head remained bowed , and neither of my eyes would look around. I memorized verses and taught the little kids in Sunday School. With other kids in the youth group, I attended Youth for Christ rallies in St. Louis. I raised my hand countless times for this joy, joy, joy thing to take root in my heart.

But (and there’s always a but in  life) faith for me hasn’t been sunny. Over the years the path I’ve walked has been some sun and partly cloudy. Overcast days followed by serious thunderstorms. Maybe it’s the way I viewed them — glass half-empty kind of thing.  My dear friend Lauralee has never met a day that wasn’t filled with something good. She sees her glass filled to overflowing in even the darkest circumstance.

Varying levels of serotonin in my brain have created mood swings. That’s a fact. Or it could be I was born with my stars out of alignment. Whatever the cause, I’ve had as many weepy, tear-filled days as I have joy-filled ones. I have grown comfortable with angst.

In the past my gray-sky outlook has left me with a sense of being less than. Not a good Christian. Letting down the Lord. Failing the family. Not giving God God’s due.

So guilt on top of my Eeyore-like world view has done a number on me.

Until this past year.

Moving to South America, a new continent, far removed from family and the land that formed me, I’m discovering a new freedom.  Here we experience rain almost everyday and the clouds hang very low. Some mornings, so low I feel I can almost touch them. But in this high place in the Andes, sunshine manages to burst through at least once a day. And those rays are brilliant, warm, energizing and potent. I feel my cells waking up. I feel my spirit come to life.

No longer do I feel I ought to be a sunbeam, much less a sunbeam for anyone.

But I have grown to celebrate and love the sun.

V: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-challenge/ Voracious Appetites

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When she wasn’t in the kitchen, she was often at a piano or in a book.

She started out a little bit of thing and ended her days definitely rounder around the edges.  Giving birth to 11 children in all (one child lived only a matter of days) adds pounds to any woman’s figure.  Add to that a fondness for food, a sedentary life and being a great cook and it’s easy to understand why Mary grew to become almost twice the woman she once was.

On a number of occasions, mama talked to me of her days as a young girl. How she played music for a ballet studio. This was the era before CDs, cassette tapes and mp3s. How one or more boys usually walked her home from school. How she was so limber she could bend over backwards and touch her … head? nose? some body part to the floor. Pictures of mom as a child are rare, but the few I’ve seen show a petite, happy girl with a stylish bob and fashionable round glasses.

My very favorite photo of Mary Scott Gash shows her as a young teen, facing the camera with a big smile and lots of confidence, totally unaware that her slip was showing a good two inches on the left.

Of all the things that mom left behind, this is the one thing I miss. Mom promised it to me but in all the moves and busyness of dividing up things and resettling dad, the sepia-toned portrait vanished.  That photo captured the essence of mama. Confident, happy Mary boldly facing the world while revealing a fashion faux pas.

Mom’s mother, Mattie, was a large woman. Short and very, very round. I’ve heard plenty of stories about Grandma Gash. She lived in the Wesco house when the oldest kids were young, having moved there after mom and dad returned from Japan.

The Thornton family car was either a Model A or a Model T (I have no clue, but definitely a letter of the alphabet). The tale goes that on one occasion Mattie wanted to go for a ride with the family. Dad (as politely as he could) had to help push up and into the back seat from behind, resulting in significant list to grandma’s side of the car.

For the most part, the Thornton women folk tend to be hefty.  Dad would refer to his daughters as corpulent, never fat. Mattie passed on the gene to Mary and she did the same. Many of the Thornton girls have fought the battle of the bulge for decades, some with more success than others.

I believe we’ve used food for a number of reasons.  For growth and nutrition, obviously.  To soothe troubled feelings no doubt.  To stuff negative emotions during trouble times. But first and foremost, food has been a source of fellowship, community building, enjoyment and socialization.  Conversations always go better with pie.  Biscuits help bridge any generational differences.

One of my nephews, Mark, runs a large camp outside of Chicago. About 20 years ago our family rented his camp for a week and held a reunion. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and in-laws, babies and old-timers from all across the country spent seven days swimming, hiking, boating, laughing and eating. Mark commented at the final meal of the reunion that our family had consumed twice as much food as the camp usually allotted for a week of guests.

Granted that was two decades ago.  Most tend to eat much healthier now. But I admit I love to see guests enjoy the food I put before them.

Mom did, too.  She served crispy fried chicken with mounds of her fluffy, buttery mashed potatoes.  Comfort food like creamed chipped beef or eggs on toast.  Of course platters heaped with biscuits that we learned to break open with our hands, never to slice with a knife. Mom visited her niece in California and came back with information on tacos and pizza. These exotic foods had not yet made it to our table in the late 50’s and early 60’s.  Mom’s first homemade pizza had cottage cheese as topping not mozzarella. It’s really not bad.

We made doughnuts from scratch and fried them up after Sunday evening church.  Mom taught us how to make taffy — how to cook the candy just so then pull it to the right consistency.  Rich homemade fudge that must be boiled until a drop formed a ball in a cup of water. Who needs a thermometer when you know that skill?

Gooseberry pie and homemade ice cream.  Tapioca pudding — my grandmother made the grape kind.  Hot, savory hurry and rice topped with tart pickle juice.  Grandma Thornton introduced that to the family from their years in India and mom continued the tradition. Chop Suey by the truckload.  In later years, mom and dad added tempura to their offerings.

Food — the making, serving and sharing thereof — was central to the family.  I do believe that is one way mom felt most comfortable in demonstrating her love.

I enjoyed heaping servings of everything she offered.

 

S: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Susan Wesley

On March 19, 1958, laughter died for a while at 707 S. Main Street.

While Mary patiently help one of her piano students perfect her arpeggios, mama’s youngest child and my closest friend, Susan Wesley, was hit by a car on Route 67.

Kate (then called Mary Catherine), Susan and I were returning from a visit with Mrs. Argall. It may have been a cookie day. This widowed, former Salvation Army lass from London baked fresh gingersnaps weekly. I believe it was on Thursday. All I clearly remember is that we walked the several blocks to her house and were heading back home in good spirits. Cookies can do that.

All was right in our small, mid-western world. Little traffic passed through our town. We’d never seen a traffic jam or a multi-car pile up. Greenfield felt very much like Mayberry RFD, just without the southern accents.

Mama even looked a little like Aunt Bea.

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Aunt Bea and Mary Scott Gash Thornton

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Cathy, at 11, was the oldest of our trio. I was 7, just 18 months older than Susan.

Susan and I were inseparable. Well, as inseparable as we could be with Susan spending days away at Children’s Hospital in Chicago and me attending school.

Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Susan had been born with multiple birth defects. Instead of an arm, she had a finger-like formation extending from her elbow. My sisters who are nurses know more about it.  All I know is that she was fitted with a metal pinchers that hurt.  And she had no opening for her rectum which required numerous surgeries.

From the day she was born she spent weeks in the hospital, in St. Louis and later in Chicago. These trips took mom and dad away for short periods of time, so Cathy and I spent time with friends from church.

Unaccompanied visits to Mrs. Argall were not out of the ordinary for us. Living in small-town USA in the 50’s, children were safe walking just about anywhere, at any time.  We’d never heard of stranger danger.

Susan and I ran ahead of Cathy down Prairie Street. We turned right at the corner of South Main, went a block or so then turned to face the road. We were directly across from our house. At that time, Greenfield had installed cement steps leading from the sidewalk down the embankment to the highway. It made for easier crossing.

Susan darted ahead of me down the steps and tripped at the bottom on the edge of the road.

We had not seen a car coming. The car that approached us was not speeding at all.  But the timing was perfect.

Or awful.

At the exact moment Susan tripped, a car appeared from seemingly out of nowhere. The driver said he never saw her. I stood stunned as I watched Susan fall. As quickly as I could, I darted across the street and into the front room where mom was teaching.

From there the memories get jumbled.  I shouted that Susan was hurt. Mom didn’t believe me. Then a man rushed in and confirmed the accident. Mom rushed out. Someone called Dad from the school. Neighbors gathered. An ambulance arrived. The men in white carefully lifted Susan into the ambulance, mom and dad climbed in and off they went to the county hospital a number of miles away.

Susan died on the way.

I can’t remember much about the days that followed. I didn’t really grasp the concept of death. My biggest concern was that Susan got new patent leather shoes for her funeral.  “Can I wear them to church next Sunday?” I asked mom during Susan’s service. She shushed me. I knew she wasn’t angry, just very very sad.

I have few memories of talking about Susan with mom until I was in my 30’s. In the early days, I spent hours alone in my closet playing with Susan’s favorite doll. Or looking for her up in the clouds. Or talking to her while I walked to school.

Mom’s grief came out in her music. I’ve written before of her mournful playing in the middle of the night.  Her loss and heartache showed up in her collection of papers. Notes from friends about Susan. The bulletin from Susan’s funeral.  Hymn lyrics that offered solace. Faded pictures of Susan as a baby and little girl. Bits of poetry on loss and hope. Scripture verses that spoke of pain and comfort.

The loss of a child … it is unimaginable to me.  The pain, unforgettable.

When I was in my late 20’s, I worked as a live-in babysitter for a young family. My charge was primarily three-year old David but I also  helped Virginia with their new set of twins. During my stay, one of the three-month boys, Nathan, died of crib death.

I called mom in tears. On hearing about the sudden death of this little boy she sobbed. The pain of her loss from more than 20 years ago came back with full force. “Tell Virginia I am so very sorry,” she said.  “She will be in my prayers.”

Years later at the funeral of my brother John, she comforted me as I sobbed. “We cannot die from pain. We can live through anything,” she said as she hugged me with her warm, soft arms. “The Lord is with us. He will give us strength.  His mercies endure forever.”

Where did mom get her unflappable faith?

Mary continues to amaze me.

 

 

 

 

O: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ One of a Kind & Oh, I Could Just Smack You

Blame this post on sisters Kate and Ruth.  I Skyped them last night and we got to talking about mom and the family. Kate’s down from Alaska for her yearly two-month jaunt around the lower 48. She travels coast to coast, attends her Professional Women’s Air Traffic Control Conference (though retired she still doesn’t miss a one), visits sons, siblings, cousins, and cronies. At almost every stop , she pulls out her organizing hat and gets to work, sifting through closets, going under beds and digging into forgotten drawers, tossing detritus and getting rid of stuff people no longer needs. With siblings getting older, it’s a good idea to downsize. Fewer things for the children to deal with when death comes a knocking!

Kate leaves a path of well-sorted homes in her wake. Kind of like Johnny Appleseed but without the seeds, love of apples or desire to see trees. She just wants to organize America.

I asked Ruth if she thought I was romanticizing mama in this series of blogs and she answered with a swift and decisive “No!”  Mama, she says, was one of a kind. Of course all people are, really. Individuals. Unique in the world.

But there was something about Mary.

She was extremely smart and could hold a conversation with anyone. But she couldn’t/wouldn’t drive a car. She worked the keys on a piano like a virtuoso yet she got flustered operating a food blender. Mama came from the Gash family whose women were prone to be loud, outspoken even outrageous, yet I don’t remember her raising her voice.

Last night, my two sisters reminded me of two things mom would say. When she was surprised or emotional: “Oh, dear.” When she was flummoxed, on edge or vexed:  “Oh, I could just smack her/him/you.”

But she seldom did– smack anyone.  She struck me once on the face when, as an angry teen, I spouted off to her. I stepped over the boundaries and she snapped. She hit my cheek with her palm and, soon afterwards, apologized. Striking someone in the face was not something she ever wanted to do.

Normally she left the punishment to dad. I think they  took the good cop, bad cop approach to discipline.

I was on the receiving end of the bad cop discipline quite a bit growing up.  I was strong willed, determined, independent and mad much of the time. Dad and I just didn’t get along, especially in my teens and 20’s. We reconciled well before he died for which I’m eternally thankful, but there were some years there it was definitely best that he lived in Japan and me in the States.

For many years, Mom served as the middle man in my relationship with dad. She was 100% supportive of him and his decisions, at least on the surface. Should she disagreed with his responses to or discipline of me, she talked about it behind closed doors.  Or in front of me in Japanese. They  made good use of their second language.

They presented a united front in dealing with the children and, whether I admitted it or not at the time, I liked it. Needed it. Benefited from them being on the same team.

We have a story in the family of one of the few times mom was not completely on board with dad’s discipline. I wasn’t born yet but I love to hear it told.  It’s Elsie’s story but she’s gone now. I doubt I can do it justice.

First, understand that dad and mom put a great deal of value of good table manners. No elbows on the table whatsoever. We absolutely couldn’t talk with food in our mouth. As a rule, napkins were used. Food must be cut into bite-size pieces. We could not, under any circumstances, stuff our faces. There would be no shouting or singing at the table–except for those occasions when we sang the blessing together, which was mostly on Sundays and holidays.

Be present at our table, Lord,
Be here and everywhere adored
These mercies bless and grant that we
May feast in fellowship with thee.  Amen.

As the “Amen” ended, I’d open my eyes to see which dish was closest to me so I could get first dibs. Serving bowls were passed clockwise. Guests of course were expected to be served first.

Elsie’s story took place when the family lived in the Wesco House in Missouri. It was a large, rambling two-story home with massive porches and lots of room. The older kids were still in school and I hadn’t been born yet.

Mom called the family to dinner and everyone gathered around the long wooden table. Dad said grace and the food was passed around.

Elsie was full of spirit as a girl. She loved to laugh and her laughter was infectious. That night, Elsie was extra hungry and she began wolfing down her food. Dad was not happy.

He told her to stop eating so fast. She got tickled and started laughing.

Dad said if she thought it was funny to eat like a pig, then she should really eat like a pig. He ordered her to move her plate to the floor and eat from there. She obeyed but her giggling continued.

pigs-eating-20113611One by one the other kids at the table got the giggles. One by one, dad ordered them to join her on the floor and eat off their plates. Out-of-control kids soon littered the floor around the table.

Only Dad and mom remained seated when mom began to laugh as well.

He gave up.  Elsie and the rest of the  little piggies returned to the table and dinner resumed. Dad gracefully admitted defeat and a favorite family story was born.

Mama loved to be with her family and to feed her family. She enjoyed being in the homes of her children, gathering around their tables, sharing meals and the commotion of multi-generations at play.

Mama mostly loved her stern, gracious Watson. And, oh dear, they made a great good cop, bad cop.

 

 

 

N: It’s All about Mary/#a-to-z challenge/ Never-ceasing love

 

Mary was in a relationship with God before she ever met Watson.

She didn’t just agree to a creed or adhere to a set of beliefs, her faith was deeply personal. She met her Creator and she fell head over heels.  By the time dad came along, she was already knee-deep in her faith.  They made a good team.

I don’t know the story of how mama became a Christian and what prompted her to devote her life to being a follower of Christ. She never talked about that with me. I just knew that pleasing God was her life’s goal and that the hierarchy of love in our house was and always would be God first, Dad second and the kids securely in third.

Today, the word “Christian” has a bad rap. I believe that description is often inappropriately used to describe people and movements that are anything but Christlike. In fact, I’ve come to a point in my life that I choose not to call myself a Christian. A follower of Christ, yes. A person who desires to live as Christ did and taught, certainly. But a Christian? No.

Big difference. Huge.

Mom never reached that point of dissatisfaction or disillusionment. She delighted in being a Christian, reading the Bible, learning more about God and sharing her faith with any one who would listen.

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                              Watson, Mary and the “Japanese” half of the family:                                   Alice and Ruth, Charles, Elsie and Martha

Mom and dad grew up in the early 1900s when the fundamentalist movement spread like wildfire. For them, being a Christian had a lot to do with what you said, did, looked like and participated in. One needed a change of heart as well as a way of living. What you did spoke as loudly as what you say you believed.  Yet, in spite of living with a sense of “oughts”, mom’s faith was full of love, kindness and joy.

Well, most of the time.

Occasionally her legalism got the best of her and I’d hear her criticize a family member or person from church. Her harsh words were rare but when she spoke them, they hurt. I had the ability to let her criticism roll off my back. Other people, not so much.

I saw mom’s heart and felt her passion. She was fiercely loyal to her husband and children. There’s no way on earth she would waiver in her beliefs and commitment to God or kin. That kind of faith makes one strong.

That strength of hers gave me comfort. It gave me strength as well. Throughout my high school years I felt abandoned by friends and lonely as hell. Without fail, when I opened up and talked to mom about my feelings, she’s do three things.

She would play a hymn and encourage me to sing along.

She would read me verses from the Bible, like Lamentations 3:22-23–
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

She’d give me something to eat.

I never felt alone with mama. I feel the presence of God today largely because of her.

Mama’s love never ceased.

Great was her faithfulness.

 

H: #a-to-z challenge/It’s All about Mary/ Holidays

Home for the holidays.

It sure wasn’t like the pictures you find posted on Pinterest or featured in Better Homes & Gardens. We were more a straggly Charlie Brown Christmas tree with a table full of food and tons of laughter.

Living on a tight budget meant the Thornton family didn’t spend a lot of money on Christmas. For many years we didn’t even buy a tree. Dad brought home a tree from Greenfield High School where he worked as a teacher, guidance counselor and temporary principal. Dad hauled the tree home after school closed for the holidays and we’d make it our own.

Me, with no patience, would glob strands of tinsel on the tree after we had wrapped the limbs in strands of brightly-colored bulbs.

c1a21f9aeb72b3f30a894abfe85a15f3I’d turn off the lights, stand back and squint to determine if and where more tinsel was needed. There was always need for more. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

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Our trees were like this, but uglier and with fewer toys

We had some pretty ugly trees but I didn’t realize it at the time.  And when aluminum trees arrived on the scene and dad conceded to purchase one, I was thrilled to replace tinsel with even more lights.

 

Mama was hands off to tree decorating, at least when I was at home. She left that task to Dad and the kids. She focused instead on practicing for the church cantata and preparing the children’s Christmas program.

Every Saturday during the month of December, had choir practice at the church.  Our choir, though small, sang loud and with great enthusiasm. Mom’s accompaniment drowned out any flat notes.

If I remember right, the cantata was on Sunday morning and the kid’s Christmas program was the Sunday night nearest the 25th of December. Mrs. Mears took charge of the centerpiece in front of the church.  She used a lot of tin cans–large coffee cans –which she painted gold or silver. The arrangements would contain something colorful and reflect the season.  Red and green (of course) for Christmas. For Thanksgiving, her motif might be seed-covered tin cans surrounded by ears of corn. The rest of the year fresh flowers from her amazing garden would fill up the front.

The children’s Christmas program followed the same format for decades. The youth group performed a song song or two. The little kids (and a few reluctant teens) acted out the birth of Jesus, complete with bathrobes and turbans made of bath towels or lengths of shiny fabric. Then Dad would wind up the evening with a short homily and prayer.

That was when the festivities began.

Everyone in attendance received a cardboard boxes stuffed full of hard Christmas candy. Families exchanged gifts and everyone saw to it that no one left empty handed.  The small sanctuary felt alive with laughter, conversation, children’s squeals and music. The world felt safe and warm and happy on those Sunday evenings.

I don’t know what my siblings had as their responsibilities at Christmas, but mine was to set up a little village on top of the organ speaker.

Angel hair served as the base. I would spread it out to form a cloud-like foundation and then, very  carefully I would place our treasured angels and elves, cardboard churches and other figurines just so.  I thought it was beautiful. Magical.  Again I would squint my eyes and look through my lashes at the scene.  Magical.  My villages appeared every Christmas until I left for college.

The highlight in our family was the meal, not the gifts. For many years, our Christmas dinner took place at Grandma Thornton’s house. She and her maiden sister, Effe, lived together a few blocks from our house.  Dad’s sisters and brother would arrive from Indianapolis and St. Louis and the commotion began. Cousins running wildly everywhere. The women moved to the kitchen to help Grandma and Aunt Effe dish up the traditional meal. The men grabbed the rockers and easy chairs and waited patiently until the food was served.  The high point of Christmas dinner at Grandma’s was her money pudding. In honesty, not my favorite dessert, but each serving held a monetary surprise!

Ask anyone who was there at any Christmas and they’ll remember the anticipation of biting into or digging around for the money.

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Grandma’s famous money pudding.  She topped each piece with a butter/sugar hard sauce (no alcohol, of course).  Any bite could uncover a nickel, a dime or– the grand prize — a quarter.

Once Dot and Aunt Effe grew too old to host the clan, the party moved across town to our house. Mom held court in the kitchen with help from Grandma and the aunts. My sisters joined in because it was too fun not be to in the kitchen. Occasionally my brothers took part, too.  Kids ran in and out. Hot rolls came out of the oven. Someone mashed the potatoes. Dad always carved the meat, be it turkey, ham, roast beef or all three, until one of the boys decided it was time to take over.

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Our frosted name plates disappeared at some point. Names were written and then erased for the next big meal.

I had the task of assigning seats. Mom handed me her frosted glass name plates and I determined who would set where. I felt very important.

Gift giving was not a big thing in our family.  I remember being disappointment most Christmas mornings at the dearth of gifts for me…the that soon faded. Everything else about Christmas day was fantastic!

My childhood memories of Christmas are rich in love, company, laughter, food and warmth.

Mom’s idea of a gift exchange was to go around the house and select things she loved that she thought someone else would appreciate. She’d stack her items to be wrapped on the dining room table and I would get to work wrapping. While I created bows and filled out name takes, she’s play Christmas songs on the piano. Or make a pot of tea.  Or sit and talk with me while I used up the tubes of wrapping paper and rolls of tape.

My daughter, an only child, knows little of a house full of loud, laughing people at Christmastime.  Our tradition is quieter, smaller and more focused on gifts.  I feel I’m doing her an injustice. We have been creating our own traditions, yes. But she knows nothing of the noise, the craziness of 18 or 20 people having to share one bathroom over Christmas vacation. She hasn’t helped put up tables in every room to accommodate a growing guest list. She has never spent long afternoons around a cluttered table with her mom and sisters, aunts and friends  talking, laughing and even shedding a few tears.  She hasn’t seen Dad and the brothers-in-law and uncles dozing in the front room or quietly playing games of chess until they hear the call to come back to the table for supper. Katherine hasn’t played so hard with her cousins that she collapses onto the floor in the glass-enclosed front porch and gives in to sleep. Nor has Katherine gathered with her tribe in the front room to close out the day with favorite songs and special performances by great uncles with booming voices.