Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Gift Tree

I decorated two Christmas trees this year.  The taller, more elegant of the two stands in the corner of the parsonage living room.  It shimmers in mostly golds and reds with only a few of the ornaments that adorned our trees when the children were still at home.  It's lovely, and everyone will say so, especially when the lights are lit.  The other tree stands in the vestibule of the church next door. It stands a mere six feet and isn't terribly striking.   I bought it at Big Lots for twenty-nine dollars, so that's to be expected I suppose.    But of the two trees, I suspect the lesser one will be the favorite.

For hiding among its boughs are kiddie cars, tonka toys and little metal lunch pails.  Charlie Brown and Snoopy are hanging with Winnie the Pooh and his buds, Piglet and Tigger.  The Warner Brothers gang are there with the likes of Bugs Bunny, Sylvester the Cat and Tweetie Bird.  And there are the assorted Disney characters including the timeless Mickey and Minnie with their dog Pluto.  Bambi and his mother are nestled there, and our favorite Little Mermaid shares a special place with Aladdin's big blue Genie. Scooby Doo and Shaggy are in close proximity to the more cultured  Jo,  Beth, Amy and Meg of Little Women fame.  Little Toot and Madeline represent the children's classics along with the Cat in the Hat,  that despicable but lovable Grinch and Sam with his green eggs and ham.  And there are Santas and toys and toboggans and sleds and children peering into Christmas shop windows.  These are the things that my children loved and I loved before them.

There is another tree set up in the church.  It sits at the front of the sanctuary midst the greenery, red ribbons and wreathes which adorn walls and windows.  It is decorated with lovely balls of red and gold and silver stars.  The garland sits perfectly on this tree, all in perfect rows.  But no gifts will lie under its branches. 

Special gifts for children in need go under the "lesser" tree, and somehow it seems fitting that it should have the honor.    For this tree brings delight and laughter to children and joyful memories to one such as I.  That is why I no longer hang these ornaments on my own tree for private viewing.  There are memories to be shared, and sometimes words are not necessary.  Simply to see the eyes of the children as they ooh and aah and discover the special treasures between the branches is enough.  Then I am back with my own children, reading Green Eggs and Ham, singing along with The Little Mermaid and laughing at the antics of  favorite cartoon characters.  There can't possibly be any greater gift than that. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mario--A Grateful Man

Mario getting around La Ceiba with the help of his friend Alfredo in 1993
 Mario lives in a chair.  He got polio when he was seventeen, and he travels the roads of his hometown in that chair.  I've had no contact with him for 10 years or more,  but I see and hear him as if it were yesterday.  First there is his remarkable smile, big teeth gleaming white against black face.  And then there is his distinctive voice, baritone deep and strong.  It's as though the strength no longer occupying his shriveled legs chose to take up residence in his vocal cords.  It was never a surprise when Mario was coming to pay a visit as we could hear him a good distance before his arrival.  And it wasn't his talking that broke the sound barrier, though his voice carried very well.  It was his singing.  Mario would sing as he made his way through the streets.

Did I mention that Mario is from Honduras?  He lives in a barrio called La Julia, one of the poorest in the city of La Ceiba.  I walked La Julia many times while living in Central America.  Dirt roads with deep ruts are the norm there, and after a rain they are especially difficult to travel.  Mario lives on the second floor of a very humble home.  His arms are incredibly strong, and he uses them to pull himself up the steps. This is how he lives.  Did I mention that he has a wonderful smile?  And did  I tell you  he sings?

In two days we will celebrate Thanksgiving.  I've been meditating a lot on gratitude.  I pulled out my Bible Saturday night and read all the verses listed in the concordance under the word thanks.   There are a lot of them, and I'll bet if I pulled one of Larry's big concordances off his book shelf I'd find lots more.  I think God puts a pretty high priority on gratitude.  So I've been asking myself how can I better express how grateful I am, especially to Him. 

I learn a lot by example.  I watch other people, and I learn from them.  People like Mario for example.  He gets polio when he's teenager, he lives in a poor neighborhood in a very poor country with little or no amenities.  And what does he do?  He smiles and he sings, genuinely grateful.

People like Mario inspire us.  They remind us that no matter the circumstances of ones life, it's possible to live with appreciation and gratitude. And hopefully, their examples challenge us to do the same, allowing us the opportunity to impact others as they have us.

On that last trip to Honduras we asked a group of young people what or who most impacted them during their visit.    I'll bet you already know the answer.  The overwhelming response was, yep, you guessed it.  Mario.     

Mario in 2000

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Boys

At this time of my life I am not overly enthused about having animals to care for.  Let's face it, pets are expensive.  It costs to buy cat food and litter that clumps.  The money spent over the years on flea medication and heart worm pills could have been used to buy a condo at the beach or at the least, a cruise to Alaska.

For years I didn't have to worry about cleaning out the kitty box.  Our twin cats, or "the boys" as we call them, were perfectly content to do their business outside while living down south.  Even though they preferred nap time inside their Alabama home, everything else took place outside.  That meant hunting, exploring and pooping were activities that took place somewhere far removed from the house.  They were pleased to oblige, and I was naturally pleased that they saw it my way. 

The boys went through quite an adjustment in South Carolina.  Where as they had been of the "indoor-outdoor" variety for their first 10 years or so, they suddenly found themselves unwelcome in the inner sanctum.  It wasn't us.  We invited them to join us, but it was clear they wanted nothing to do with this new place.  It wasn't the town; it wasn't even the house.  It was the strange three felines that came with us from Alabama who didn't even know what the outdoors was.  They belonged to our daughter Angela and had been "apartment" cats.  Now they were "house" cats, and the boys wanted nothing to do with them.  On the few occasions they ventured in, the hissing and flying hair sent them scurrying back out the door.  Their water and food dishes sat on the front porch, and they found warmth in the garage on the coldest of days.  But there was a hanging swing on that porch where I often sat to read or work on crossword puzzles.  One or sometimes both would crawl onto my lap eager for human contact again. 

Two years went by and another move.  This time they found themselves up north in a little house on the corner of a fairly quiet street.  They were naturally wary during those first days in another new place.  But it didn't take long to settle in, especially with "the others" no longer posing a threat.  They became more confident about venturing outside though they rarely stayed for long.  And when winter came, it was only occasionally they would go to the door, and that was just to peer out for a moment.  Not interested, they would return to their sleeping perch or food dish or litter box.  When that first spring arrived, their bravado  returned, but it will never be what it was.  After all, they're old men now and have nothing to prove.

I complained a bit earlier about the cost of having pets.  And then there is the constant cleaning of the litter box that the boys have come to prefer.  After all, the yard is tiny in comparison to the fields they had all around them in the South land. 

Yet when I settle onto my couch for the evening to read or watch a little television, there is always one of the boys ready to climb up and keep me company.  He prefers to lie as close to my heart as he can, and his body seems to vibrate right through me.  Sometimes his brother joins us, and I feel a bit overwhelmed at all the attention.

So I guess I'm grateful for these identical cats that share what little space we have, sitting politely at the foot of the dinner table side by side, hoping and silently pleading for leftovers to enjoy.  But I'm especially glad for the reminder they bring of times past with children still at home, calling for them to share their beds.  Yes, they connect me to those times, place and people that at times seem so distant.  And as the boys nestle close, they are like the memories, never far away.

The Boys

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tribute to Dad: Part 2

I spent a good part of my growing up years wondering who my father was.  There weren't as many questions concerning my mother, and perhaps that's because as the years have gone by, I have become her.   But that topic is for another time.   Today I want to reflect on my dad.  His name was Charles, but he never went by that.  He used his middle name,  Keith.  I love that name, and I gave it to my son for his middle name, and he has given it to his.

He was learning to become a meat cutter when the war broke,  requiring him to take a sabbatical of three years, two months and nine days.  In fact, when the recruiter asked him what he wanted to do, he told him he'd like to cut meat.  He ended up as a gunner instead.  After the war he worked on a drilling rig for awhile, but meat was in his blood.  One day he answered an ad in the newspaper for a meat cutting position, and that is what he did until he retired 40 some years later.

I remember as a little girl visiting my dad while he was working and seeing the large sides of beef hanging from the hooks in the cooler.  It was nothing for him to lift those heavy slabs by himself and lay them across the butcher blocks of the meat room.  He wore this thing that looked a bit like a garter belt around his waist to help his back, and I wondered if it was hard for him to pick up such heavy stuff.  I  think it was, because I remember him being in the hospital a few times for hernia surgeries.  I knew his back hurt him because of the war. But there was so little I knew about his time in Europe with the 82nd.   I did find out that he flew in gliders and that one time he hurt his back pretty bad when they crashed.  That was all he'd say.  It was years later, after the fiftieth anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy, D-Day, the stories that had been bottled up all those years began to come out.  The crash had occurred while flying over enemy lines into Normandy.

 After spending several weeks in a hospital in England he would be sent back to his unit, only to fly once again, this time into Holland. He described that particular flight to me in detail years later.  There were three gliders that took off together that day. They hit twenty miles of flak after which the gliders on either side of him went down.  Shrapnel came through the front and went under the flak pad where the pilot and copilot sat.  As they came in for a landing, this was how he described it, "So we came in, landed, and tore out some barbed wire fences.  The pilot jumped over a cement watering trough, went through a ditch and tore off the wheels.  There were skids on the bottom of the glider so that you can drop the wheels before you ever land, and you land on the skids.  But they stop you so quick that the tail pops up and you ride along on those skids on the nose.  Anyway, we had a pretty good landing."   Umm, pretty good landing?

After Holland he would go on to the Battle of the Bulge and then would eventually be a part of the occupation forces in Berlin.  Years later, long after he had retired, it would be discovered that not only had he injured his back in Normandy, he had most likely broken it.   Cancer eventually took residence in that part of his spine, and he would travel to the Veterans Hospital in Buffalo for infusions to strengthen his back.

I felt like I finally knew my dad, a man of great courage and inner strength.  I knew that he discovered what he liked to do, did it well and kept at it even though pain was always with him.  I knew him as a patriot and lover of his country.  And I knew him as a father who loved his wife and children.  I would ask him years later why he kept those things to himself all those years.  "I wanted to protect you," he said.  "So many of those I trained and fought with never made it home."  I wanted to know, I told him.  Even as a child, I wanted to know.  And perhaps that's why one day he piled us into the station wagon and took us to a movie.  It was a black and white called "D-Day."  I didn't understand very much of it then, but years later I would.  It was a long while after sitting in that darkened theater with my dad and brothers I finally got it. I finally understood.  It was his way of answering some of our questions.  He just couldn't say the words.

In one of his letters back home, he wrote the following:

July 12, 1945
"There's a little story that goes with our Company commander.  His name was Captain Mentlick, a newspaper man from New York City.  He was a man if there ever was one.  He gave us every break we had coming.  On the morning that we jumped off for Normandy, with tears in his eyes, he said something like this.  'Well men, this is it.  Let's hope that we can all come back.  God bless all of us.'  Don't believe that any of the fellows have ever forgotten that little speech."

In the same way, I will never forget the words my dad spoke to me as we sat at that little kitchen table back in 1999.  God bless you Dad.  God bless all of us.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tribute to My Dad

I decided to spend a few hours with my father this afternoon.   Today is Veterans Day, and I always called my dad on this date every year.  I wanted  to say thank you for his service, for the sacrifices he made for his country and for our family.  Then I would end the call by telling  him how proud I felt to be his daughter. 

He's been gone for awhile now, almost seven years.  He would have been 88 this year, and more often than not I don't even think about his birthday as it comes and goes.  But when Veterans Day comes around, I miss him terribly. 

Back in 1999 I flew from Alabama to New York to spend a week with him.  I bought a couple of blank cassettes, found a recorder and we sat down at the kitchen table.  For two days we talked about his experiences during the war as part of the 82nd's 325th Glider Infantry Regiment.  It was probably the most intimate time I ever had with him.  This was a part of my father I never knew, and I felt like he was allowing me to see through a window into a part of his soul.  I felt both privileged and humbled. 

After returning home, I began the task of transcribing my father's words to paper.  Because he was such a soft-spoken man, I spent hours replaying sections that weren't clear, or where strange sounding towns and cities in France and Holland and Belgium needed to be deciphered.  I would call him time and again to question him or ask him to proof sections I was unsure of.  Finally the day came when I took the disc to the printer and asked for 30 copies of my father's memoirs.  A few weeks later I sent the first copy to him.  The others went to family and a few close friends. 

So back to today.  I put on the tea kettle, sat back and reread the words he spoke those ten plus years ago.  Then I climbed the stairs to the attic, retrieved his old canvas army bag and reread several of the letters written home from those faraway places as a young man in his early twenties.  

I spent some time with my dad today.  It was as if I were thanking him all over again for his service and sacrifice. And somehow I believe he knows just how proud I am to be a part of his legacy.       

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Life sometimes hands us surprises in way we don't anticipate.  I guess that's what a surprise is, something unexpected.  I think the best kind of surprise is the kind that no one plans, like something that happened several years ago while we were living in Honduras.  We were traveling across the country from La Ceiba in the north to Tegucigalpa in the south.  It would be a long trip, so Larry had made up a scavenger hunt pitting the guys against the girls.  One of the items on the list was a dead animal, not terribly uncommon in Honduras.  Well, we were barely out of La Ceiba when Joel sighted a decomposing cow lying on the side of the road.  Excited at the find, he and his dad began to cross that and other items off their list.  On the other team, we girls were doing equally well except for one glaring item.  There were no more dead animals to be found, and Fawn was taking it especially hard.  Fawn always took things hard, especially if they weren't going her way.  She continued to whine for many miles convinced the game was lost.  

At some point we picked up a young American Peace Corps worker needing a ride.  There were six of us already filling the front and back seats, so he climbed into the back of the truck.  The trip was going along smoothly until we came to a tiny community that sat close to the highway.  As we were traveling this particular section of road, I heard a noise.  Suddenly up over the bank came a squealing pig running for his life.  At the moment he crossed the road, the front of our truck hit him square on and he went flying through the air.  I could see faces on both sides of the road peering at the pig and at our truck.  "Keep going, keep going!" shouted the passenger from his perch in the back knowing full well that we would probably pay dearly if we stopped.  Suddenly Fawn jumped up from her seat beside me, pumping her arms up and down in absolute glee. "We've got our dead animal!  We've got our dead animal!"   Never mind that someone had lost their valuable pig or that our bumper was now sporting a nice blood-stained dent.  She was able to put a checkmark on her list, and all was well with the world once again.

If we had found a common carcass on the side of the road, we would have been somewhat satisfied but not surprised.  No one ever suspected when we set out that day that we would hit a pig.  Granted, it was unforunate for the little fellow, but the surprise that we encountered with that unexpected little porker continues to bring laughter and memories of a trip taken long ago. 


Friday, November 5, 2010

Inspired by a Mailman

I recently came across a terrific story about an extraordinary man who just happens to work in a post office.  His name is Mike Herr, and he is the face of the U.S. postal service for 40,000 students at State College, Pennsylvania.   I'd like to tell you a bit about him.

He works in a one-man post office at Penn State University, and he is probably the most popular guy on campus.  I mean, if you show up wearing  a cool  pair of sneakers, he stops what he's doing, rings a bell he keeps close at hand and holds up a sign that says "Nice Sneakers."   One girl is quoted as saying she will wait in line for one stamp, wearing her special sneakers just to have him hold up the sign.  He has a rubber stamp that the students will request for belated birthday cards.  It says, "I Sent This Last Week."   One wall in his office is covered with pictures of former students.  For those who can't wrap a package, he holds special wrapping classes on Tuesdays at the strange hour of  6:03 a.m.  They come, probably as much for the fresh sticky buns he feeds them. He's abviously a favorite with the students, and since he is partial to cookies, the students keep him in good supply which he then turns around and shares with them.  There is even  a "Cookie-of-the-month" list on the wall.  The article went on to say that he enjoys challenges, like the time someone brought in a cococut.  He carved in the address, secured the postage and marked it fragile.  It arrived at its destination without a hitch.  And he loves a good prank, like when he walked into the back with a package marked "fragile, " then picked up a box filled with loose metal and let it drop. 

My favorite part of this wonderful story is when a new postmaster showed up and ordered all the paraphenalia that wasn't regulation taken down.  The next day there was a crowd of  protestors and University President Graham Spanier, the son of a former postmaster, sent a strong letter to the proper authorities.  In no time at all, Mike's office was restored to its former glory or as the article described it, "former chaos."     .                                                                          

I've been thinking quite a bit about Mike the Mailman and the way he connects with the young people on that campus.  At one point they brought in a vending machine.  But they ended up removing it, because it wasn't being used.   I wonder why.  Isn't it something that these kids would rather take the extra time to stand in line than to get what they need quickly and get on to other things.     
Jesus was like that.  He always connected.  He noticed the shoes, rang the bell and said "I see you."  And the religious leaders came along and tried to stir things up because Jesus wasn't going by the book.   They didn't approve of his hanging personal pictures on "their" wall or meeting peoples' needs in unorthodox ways.     

Let me take it a step further.  Do people feel better after being with me?  When they're with me, do they sense that I really take notice of them?  Do my words and actions say to them, "I see you,  and I'm going to ring this little bell, and I'm going to hold up this sign saying your sneakers are nice."    That's what I want to do; that's who I want to be.

By the way, if you'd like to read the entire article about Mike Herr, it was written by Dennis B. Roddy of the Associated Press.  It's worth the read.