Monthly Archives: December 2023

The Reason for the Season

A day might come when I tire of hanging the wreath that my sister Joyce made nearly four decades ago after our mother’s death but today is not that day.  

She constructed the wreaths from dried grape vines. Our father had torn down my mother’s tiny vineyard in their backyard after her death in 1985.  We each grieved my mother in a different way; Dad included.  For Joyce’s part, she embraced a segment of my mother’s abandoned role.  She carefully preserved Mom’s memory, drying the vines and adding decorations evocative of a holiday season at the house on McLaran Avenue in Jennings, Missouri.  I do not know if it gave comfort to Joyce or anyone else, but I found immeasurable solace in knowing the origins of the treasure and the care behind its creation.

Over the years, I’ve replaced ribbons, baubles, and garland to keep the wreath looking festive.  It has adorned each of my front doors from Kansas City to California, with several stops in Arkansas along the way.  I believe — but cannot be certain — that Joyce made a wreath for each sibling.  Whether that’s true I can’t say; and whether only mine endures I also do not know.  I gain some portion of delight in the lack of confirmation.  I know their doors; each of them; I imagine some similar variant greeting me should I make the journey.

I do not celebrate the Christian holiday.  Though raised Roman Catholic, I made the choice to foreswear religion some decades ago.  In particular part to this day, I could not escape the inevitable conclusion that “the birth of Jesus” leaves out my Jewish, Muslim, and atheist friends.  I cannot fathom a divine entity which demands such harsh results.  So as the Christians borrowed the December holiday from the pagan winter solstice, I co-opt December 25th to my own ends.  Hence, the reason for the season:  My annual spell of breathing; a deep long draw of cleansing air into my lungs before launching into New Year’s avowals.   I use this day for sending love, light, and my most sincere wishes to everyone within the ripple of my call.

My chosen herald has inspired much derision and scorn but it  appeals to me in the most basic of ways.  “Happy Holidays”, I tell everyone whom I meet.  Sometimes I substitute “Christmas”.  The other day, I told someone “Happy Christmas” who then launched into a fake British accent to regale me in reply.  We had a merry sort of conversation before we went our separate ways, me with the broadest of smiles on my otherwise weary countenance.  The calendar from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day holds a myriad of holidays if you include every religion, sect, and nationality. I say, Let’s celebrate each one.  But most of all, let us honor the human beings who created those occasions, flawed, tired, and tremulous though they might be.  

I think about my mother more and more as I draw closer to the end of my own existence on this earthly plane.  She would approve, I think, of the evolution that my cherished wreath has taken.  She would not stand on chosen ceremony, but instead greet everyone who rapped upon her front door with an unbridled embrace and a cheer as welcoming as she could fathom.  I find myself cultivating the best of her as I find it within me.  I think of her today, having schmarrn at some heavenly table with my little brother Stephen, my forgiven father, and a host of other relatives who gather to listen to a heavenly choir. 

So this is Christmas, for me:  Remembering all of the half-birthdays that we celebrated on July 25th with German chocolate cake for my little brother whose actual Christmas birthday got co-opted by the abundance; imagining a plate of candy cane cookies balanced on the coffee table as children passed around presents wrapped in dime store paper; breathlessly awaiting the sight of snowflakes so we could go sledding after breakfast.  In a little while, my son and I will make our own schmarrn in the kitchen of the cabin around the circle where he is staying.  We will open a gift or two; and linger over coffee.  Later we will gather our contribution to a dinner that a friend of mine and I decided at the last minute to throw together.  There will be games, and conversation, and moments at the railing of my friend’s balcony watching for swans on the San Joaquin.  I cannot imagine a more perfect day.

It’s the twenty-fifth day of the one-hundred and twentieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.



Winter wonderland

I left the land of heavy snow and shards of ice falling from gutters six years ago last week.  Here in this new land, this adopted home of mine, winter looks like crisp blue skies alternating with torrential rains and battering winds.  I skirt soggy mounds of dank vegetation on my path to the car each chilly morning.  Branches rasp against the tin roof of my tiny house.   A grey patch of light glimpsed through the transom window signals the perennial dawn.  I wake to see it.  

Yet still I find wonder in my surroundings.  An owl hoots; a dove calls; a coyote raises its voice through cold dark night.  For the thousandth time I yearn for a fireplace, or in the very least, a small iron stove from which shimmering waves of warmth flow.  The electric heating system efficiently heats this small space but lacks romance.  I wrap myself in the blanket that my son sent last year and sit in the small chair that Tim Anderson swapped for my old rocker.  With  my feet propped on my great-grandmother’s stool, I could not be more cozy even without a fire’s cheerful glow.

My house has changed so much in the six years that I have lived here.  An entire bed cubby that once seemed like a fine idea found its way to the dump.  New floors with a soft underlayment stretch across the entire main floor.  I’ve been through the rocker that I brought with me and two others that just did not suit the space.  Now the writing loft has become a cozy bedroom.  At the far end of the house, above the bathroom, a guest sleeping space gathers dust.  I’m thinking of alternative ways to use it.  Every inch of wall holds art or family memorabilia.  I have shelves that bloomed in the years since I moved here, and cupboards, and storage solutions on which I settled after multiple failed tries.

I did not get out the Christmas decorations this year.  In a little while, I might at least hang the wreath that my sister Joyce made so many years ago from dried grapevines salvaged from our mother’s yard.  A few ornaments never get stashed away; they hang from the stair rail or the window frame, reminding me of Christmases past, ready to serve Christmases in years that have not yet dawned.  I see them every day but their nostalgia has not faded.  The green bell that came from my paternal grandmother’s collection; an angel labeled “Sister”; the star with my name and the year “1958” painted on the back.  If I strain, I can hear the ghostly chatter of a Corley Christmas morning and see a smattering of crumbs from the candy-cane cookies that we nibble after Christmas Mass in a torrent of torn wrapping paper.

My only child made the journey by car to see me.  He drove three thousand miles and now sleeps in a cabin around the circle from me.  I feel immeasurable gratitude that he made this effort.  Sometimes when I look at him, tears threaten to spill.  A scene from one of my favorite movies rolls on the cruel screen of my troubled mind.  A stepfather sits across from a wise and knowing child.  He apologies “for every kind of Daddy that I have nor haven’t been since I met you.”  Those words resonate for me.  I botched parenthood in the first three decades, though in my own defense, I didn’t have the best role models.

Yet I dare to hope that he forgives me or at least can reach a place of peace in my regard.  I do not and will not speak for him.  For myself, I cling to Nana’s words like the last lifeline within my strained reach:  Put your best foot forward.  Where life persists, improvement still might follow.  Or as my mother repeatedly instructed:  If you walk every day of your life, you’ll walk every day of your life.  So keep walking.

I abandoned religiosity years ago.  I accept that a huge segment of humanity believes that December 25th marks the anniversary of the birth of a child sent to save the world from itself.  Just as many hold other beliefs.  They all engage in rituals designed to do service to some yearning that humans need to sate.  As for myself, tomorrow can only ever be remembered as my little brother Stephen Patrick’s birthday.  Had his life not ended, he would be sixty-four.  Perhaps his spirit tarries on the river here, resting on its banks as the migrating waterfowl settle in the reeds. 

Winter provides me with a chance to huddle deep inside my thoughts and quiet contemplation.  Like the small seeds beneath those mounds of rotting leaves, I have yet another chance to gather my strength as I prepare for a glorious emergence come the spring.

It’s the twenty-fourth day of the one-hundred and twentieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

A Winter’s Day

A week passes. I cannot recall my last words, only dimly remembering the easy flow of sentences through my fingers to the page. In the interim, winter has overtaken the Delta.  Fog rolls through the fields, hovering low, clinging to the thick branches of the dormant trees.

I pull off the bridge and descend to Front Street in the mist.  I glance to the east, shocked at the sight of a cold sun folded into the greyness of the morning sky.  Idling by the curb, I raise my phone to capture the haunting vision.  I hear but cannot see a flock of geese rising, their voices calling to one another as they head into a day of foraging in the flooded farmlands.  As the sound fades, I shift into drive and continue on my own path to work.

In another week, I will mark the end of my sixth year in California.  Six years since I started west with the last flotsam of my Midwest life crammed into the back of my car.  I no longer clearly recall what I expected my life to become.  But not this; surely, not quite this.

Like the sun in its damp veil, I find some small comfort in the awkward unexpected contours of these days.  In truth a sort of loneliness has found its way into the dusty corner of my tiny house.  I treat it like an unexpected, lingering house guest.  I let it have the run of the place, with the unspoken understanding that eventually, it will have to leave.  In the meantime, we settle into a kind of reluctant harmony, but only until I find a way to banish this specter from my home.

It’s the thirteenth day of the one-hundred and twentieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

I Am A Rock

Of unbroken circles

I’m fortunate that my hands work and my fingers only occasionally swell with the press of too much salt.  When that happens, I grasp the rings that I daily wear and tug until they clatter on the desk.  Once in a while, one rolls and slides off the edge.  When that happens, I have to jockey my torso to an angle from which I can lean sideways and snag the circle with one finger.  Most people would stoop or bend at the waist; my body protests at such seemingly innocuous movements.

Yesterday I groped in one of my jewelry boxes, on the hunt for a certain pair of earrings.  They eluded me.  In the process I managed to tip the whole mess onto the floor.  I left it for the evening, when I had to sit on the loft steps and hunt for every shimmering stone and silky chain.  I can’t be sure that I got them all.

I admit to having too much jewelry.  Most of it falls into the costume category, though mostly sterling silver.  I keep the few good pieces locked away:  My mother’s garnet brooch, the tanzanite pendant that my second husband gave me, two wedding sets that I ought to sell but which instead nestle in one box.  My son will have to deal with them when I finally surrender this mortal form and make my way to the next plane of existence.  I hope he realizes that one of them contains a gorgeous Ceylon sapphire.  It would make a nice gift for someone.  

My daily wear includes a ring given to me by my father-in-law after his wife died.  I understand that there had been a matching pair of earrings which went to my then-stepdaughter.  After her father left me, I offered to give the ring back.  She replied to my note with a terse rejection.  But I did not let her slight scorn tarnish my affection for my favorite curmudgeon, who offered me the sort of fatherly love that my own progenitor only hinted at having.  I wear that ring on my left hand.  It also contains some lovely sapphires, my birthstone.

Next to it sits a ring made in Mexico flanked by a band crafted by a retiree in Arizona.  The turquoise and coral one came from a niece who wanted to give me something in thanks for some help I provided.  I didn’t want to take it.  She insisted, and I’m glad, for she was dying then and actually died six months later.  I take it off only when that annoying swelling forces me to do so.  

Over on my right hand I wear a silver spoon ring that I’ve had for over fifty years.  I got it by sending a dozen pull-tabs from Minute Maid orange juice into the company during a give-away.  Lots of people have spoon rings; you can find them in most flea markets.  But I am wiling to bet very few people can brag of having gotten theirs basically free, just by saving those coils of plastic that broke when you tugged at them.  Now and then I think about leaving my son a note to tell him to cherish this ring but in truth, I do not want to burden him with my sentiment.

The last of my daily adornment came from a silversmith of my acquaintance in Kansas City.  I found it in the discard pile of sale items.  I see its flaw but like the unique shape and the smooth feel of it against my skin.  I have other, better rings but none so sleek, none so clearly the work of someone’s trembling fingers.  I bought this ring in 1980, my first year in Kansas City — before my second marriage, before my law degree and subsequent stumbling career, before I moved to Arkansas, before I met my son’s father and fled back to Missouri with my toddler in tow.  This ring signifies the hope of my early adulthood, and wears its tarnish about as well as I do.

I own lots of rings.  A gold and garnet one that my sister gave me to go with our mother’s pin which I got at her death.  A little blue topaz that I bought for ten dollars somewhere.  My second husband’s wedding ring from his first marriage, which I no longer recall why I have.  A moonstone, a fancy dinner ring with an astonishing cluster of sapphires, a garnet that I had made under circumstances that don’t bear discussion.   I have others, too numerous to mention.  In fact, I own a ridiculous, embarrassing number of rings considering that I only have the ten digits. 

I suppose the shape of rings fascinates me.  Perhaps it’s just their beauty.  Perhaps it’s the symbolism that we attach to rings:  Promise rings, wedding rings, class rings, the ring of an important person over which one would bend in times of old.  So many unbroken circles.  I take my rings off; I slide them back onto my hands.  I gaze with fascination at the glitter of stones and the bend of metal.  They seem so perfect, and absolute perfection is something to which, I admit, I aspire in vain.  I cannot attain such beautiful, breathtaking symmetry as the circle; and so I wear these bands and wonder whether anyone else will understand their appeal when silence falls around the box in which they wait to be discovered after I am gone.

It’s the third day of the one-hundred and twentieth month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.