A return to my roots

Prairie Lights, my favorite independent bookstore in Iowa City, recently informed me that this week, May 1 – 7, is Children’s Book Week.

The words, “children’s books” contain the exact number of syllables as the words, “treasure trove”, and to me, these word pairs are synonymous and interchangeable. What marvelous magic a children’s book wields! I keep a running tally of many favorite things, but I’m quite certain children’s books rank among my topmost five.

I can’t let Children’s Book Week slip by without mentioning a book I adored as a child, a book whose wisdom set me on a path that shaped me into the person I am today. When I was small, not only was I certain the book I mention was written just for me, I felt I was its main character – a lonely little girl who lived by a pond and wandered through nature in search of someone, anyone, to play with. I was that child, right down to the light cotton dress and white anklets. Allow me to introduce to you this beloved book: Play with Me, by Marie Hall Ets, The Viking Press, 1955.

Reading about Marie Hall Ets in Wikipedia, I learned that she won the Caldecott Medal in 1960 for her book, Nine Days to Christmas. I also learned that between 1945 and 1966, she was a runner-up five times for the Caldecott, an impressive feat exceeded only by Maurice Sendak, who had seven titles which nearly won the prize. (Books that almost were awarded the Caldecott are today heralded as Caldecott Honor Books.)

In Play with Me, text and illustration weave a beguiling tale. A little girl goes off to the meadow in search of a friend. One after another, she asks the creatures she meets, “Will you play with me?” But each one leaps or flies or bounds or slithers away, and she’s left alone to console herself by sitting quietly on a stone to watch bugs making trails in the pond. She is too preoccupied to notice the tender presence of a benevolent sun.

As she sits without moving, her sadness turns to joy as one by one, the meadow creatures quietly return. She realizes that now, all of them are “playing” with her. By becoming observant and unobtrusive, she accumulates a rich circle of friends.

How many thousands of times did I turn the pages of Play with Me, poring over every detail? Young sapling that I was, I absorbed the book’s simple wisdom and carried it with me to the woods surrounding my home. I learned to sit noiselessly among the trees to better observe squirrels and birds. If I didn’t move a muscle, I was rewarded with chances to watch frogs and turtles and ducks by the pond. Sitting quietly, waiting to catch a glimpse of woodland creatures, I spent entire mornings and afternoons studying spring ephemerals while learning to distinguish the songs of many birds. I discovered that a lonely heart is curiously not lonely in the woods: feathery ferns reached out to caress me, violets and spring beauties smiled up at me, oaks and maples waved with glad hands, birds welcomed me with song. I was rich in friendships, there on my wooded hill… (Years later, not surprisingly, another book that captivated me was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I, too, was a dreamer who lived in the woods by a quiet pond.)

It’s really no wonder I grew up to be an introvert. My mother was a poet, and I was raised in her airy home; I spent most of my waking hours in nature, and when inclement weather kept me indoors, I’d page through books or draw flowers or listen to my favorite records. (When I was small, the soundtrack of Bambi was my special favorite.)

For quite a few years now, I’ve described myself as a Hobbit. I vastly prefer nature and the comforts of home and hearth to adventures. I almost always choose solitude over society. Given my inclination to prefer quiet, the terrible accident in October of 2015 that hobbled me for a year and a half was not perhaps as punitive for me, the introvert, as it might have been for an extrovert. Nevertheless, being confined day and night to a chair with a painful, shattered ankle was a trial for me. Once again I was that lonesome child who wished someone, anyone, would come and keep me company…

When one is badly hurt, one can tend to grow quiet, shrink inward. My inner survival mode caused me to withdraw deep into my own roots to wait, to hope, to dream. Just after Christmas of 2015, I decided that since I had to sit day after day in a chair to elevate a throbbing ankle, I might as well put my time to good use. I decided to study my mother’s embroidery books. And that’s just what I did. I spent the early months of 2016 reading about and practicing every single stitch in those books. And in the process, I discovered that all those tiny stitches had become for me a new lexicon, a language I could use to express myself.

At that time, I couldn’t go to the meadow or wander by the river. I couldn’t even get out of the house without a wheelchair. But with needle and thread for a magic carpet, I was no longer chair-bound. I was free to lose myself in a world of my own imagining, a comforting place filled with beauty and peace.

I’m able to get around on my own again, thanks to a pair of custom orthotics, a pair of sturdy, if unfashionable, shoes, and the great good help of my wonderful physical therapists, Laura and Shari. I’m able to walk by the river or visit the woods. I can spend time in the garden. But I continue to spend hours filling hoops and fabric with the things I knew and loved best as a child: flowers and trees and meadows, birds and butterflies. Having grown accustomed to the deep solitude and isolation of an overwhelming injury, I’m less inclined to talk. I’d much rather speak with needle and thread. Whereas writing is often laborious for me, I find that embroidery is light and pleasant and marvelously meditative. When I take up my needle, I’m not only deep in my roots, I’m growing. I’m creating. I’m happy!

These musings bring me back to Children’s Book Week and the charming book that set my feet on a path which led to the quiet joy of making friends with nature. To celebrate Children’s Book Week 2017, I’m going to order a copy of Play with Me and donate it to my local library. There are lonely children everywhere who long for a companion. What better companion than a wonderful book?

(All embroideries shown here are my original designs, © My Path with Stars Bestrewn.)

tears without end

Today is the sorrowful fourth anniversary of the unspeakable horror at Sandy Hook, a moment forever seared into my memory. In remembrance of the many lives so tragically lost that day, I’m posting a piece I wrote just one day after the tragedy took place…

tears-without-end

I am wakeful with the rain.

Beyond my window, our backyard oak lifts empty arms to a leaden sky; every tree holds a posture of profound supplication. Oh, please, please, let this not be so…

It’s getting late, but how can I close my eyes? Incomprehensible violence has visited Newtown, Connecticut, and sorrow keeps sliding down the windowpane. The rain began as evening fell on Friday, the day of the terrible shootings; it pattered on the rooftop all night long. Morning dawned grey, tear-spattered. I barely slept, if I slept at all. Rain continued all through the day, tears without end.

When the dreadful news reached me, my first thoughts were of the Holy Innocents. How could any person, past or present, look into the clear eyes of a little child and brandish a sword or pull a trigger? With the rest of the nation, I wrestled with my emotions. No, no… please, not the babies, not the little darling ones…

Later, a pile of letters to be mailed and other necessary errands put me behind the wheel. Renewed sorrow clawed my heart at Hamilton Elementary as I passed a line of parents sitting in cars, waiting to pick up their living, breathing, precious children. Gratitude and grief collided, welled up, streaked down my cheeks.

At Butterworth Center, I met a bright yellow school bus. I suppressed a half-crazed impulse to leap from my car to embrace every child on that bus.

As I turned down 16th Street, several parents were walking hand in hand with their children. A glance in my rear view mirror revealed a scattering of children walking home from school, a commonplace sight at this hour of day. But not everywhere… I thought of the sweet children who would never come home again and wept my way to the post office.

Next stop was the high school, where I was volunteering to set up for the next day’s Speech Tournament. I caught sight of one of my daughter’s friends at the end of a long hallway. I opened my arms to her and she came running, arms flung wide. I hugged that golden child to my heart. Dear God, make my arms a protective circle to surround all children everywhere…

But it was when I returned home again that I came entirely unglued. My son texted these simple words from Des Moines: “I love you, Momma.” Memories of him at age five, at age six, sprang to mind… my gentle, dreamy-eyed boy, now a young man. Reading his words, I paradoxically began keening over his sweet life as if he, also, had been lost. Never one to pose the question mathematical, I dared in that moment to multiply my love for him by twenty-six; the staggering equation of loss in Connecticut broke over me and swept me under. I sobbed again when our oldest daughter phoned from Minneapolis, yet again when our youngest phoned on her way home from work…

The woeful, grey day sank to its knees and faded to black while the rain kept its vigil, tears from a star.

How fragile we are…

love gathered softly to place in her hands

love gathered softly to place in her hands

It’s spring again, miraculous spring. Every street in town is lined with flowering dogwood, crab, pear – everywhere, boughs are in riotous bloom. In my gardens, something new unfurls daily. The woods are awash with wildflowers, and all along the driveway, violets gem the grass…

For me each year, the first violets of spring bear on fragile stems the weight of perennial tenderness. I stoop down to hook a finger beneath a bowed purple head. As I study the contour of this familiar face, I’m amazed by the power one simple flower wields over my heart and mind…

From the time I was old enough to toddle off to woods’ edge, I kept my mother in fresh-picked wildflowers. The first bouquets I carried home to her each spring always included several long-stemmed wood violets. One year, when I was seven or eight, Momma sent me off to the woods on a special mission to select only the choicest violets. I returned with dozens of flawless specimens. Together, we washed the flowers, a delicate task. We shook them gently dry and arranged them on clean white dish towels, taking care not to bend or bruise any petals. We snipped blossoms from stems. Then, after using tiny brushes to paint the flowers with a wash of egg whites and water, we sprinkled each one with a shower of sugar crystals.

Later, the house filled with the aroma of angel food cake pulled fresh from the oven. When it cooled, Momma frosted it with a white sugar glaze into which she pressed a pattern of sweet sugared violets. It was simply a vision, that cake, and young though I was, I was limp with the romance of a cake covered in violets…. (Alas, no photos were snapped of that eye-popping confection, but in my heart’s album, it glistens on a page all its own.)

Twenty years of violets bloomed and faded…

Then came a day like no other, a day I could never have imagined when I was a child wandering among the wildflowers – the day I held a newborn flower in my arms, a blossom fresh-plucked from heaven: our first child, our sweet Margaret, a precious baby girl newly home from the hospital, bathed and swaddled and dressed in a long white hand-smocked gown Momma had made for her. Margaret was just a day or two old when I looked from her face into Momma’s eyes and said, “I so look forward to all her firsts – her first smile, her first words, her first steps…”

My gentle mother had more poetic firsts in mind for her granddaughter. She said softly, so softly I barely could hear, “Imagine showing Margaret her first violet, her first star. . .” Momma looked at me, yet somehow right through me as the words fell from her lips. For a heartbeat or two, time stood still for me, just as it does when I chance to read a line of perfect poetry: the words ring and resonate – beautiful, mysterious, fleeting, bells in the wind…

When the snows of winter melted away to reveal Margaret’s first spring, I showed her her first violet with deep emotion. I showed her her first star. Sang her every beautiful song I knew, read her every good book I could find, pointed her toward every lovely thing I could think of, filled her days with as much beauty and poetry and joy and mystery as I could – love gathered softly to place in her hands, like the wildflowers I carried to Momma so many years ago…

As Mother’s Day nears, I have asked myself, what does it mean to mother another soul, to nurture another life? I believe it is to pluck from one’s surroundings the good things, the beautiful, the eternal, the true, and place them in another heart, like a bouquet of violets.

Fling wide the door

It’s the last day of 2015, a simple, peaceful day here. As I write, our woods are white with snow; each tree wears an elegant poet’s sleeve or high frilled collar bedazzled with ice crystals. No wind stirs, and apart from the non-stop activity of furry and feathered visitors who frequent our feeders, the world seems hushed and still.

With two surgeries behind me now and one yet ahead to repair the ankle I shattered in my tumble down a dewy riverbank last October, all my days have been rather hushed and still, quiet and contemplative. Having no other choice than to sit quietly in a cast, ankle elevated, might seem a hardship – particularly this evening, when people will assemble at private soirees and other festive gatherings to pay tribute to the New Year. But not so for me. It’s my nature to be contemplative and my preference to ring in a quiet New Year at home.

A year ago, I posted A snow globe of memories, a loving look back to what Christmas was like for me as a little girl growing up in the early 1960’s. Since I’ve time on my hands and nowhere special to be, perhaps you’ll indulge my urge to reach for my snow globe and give it just one more gentle shake. . .

ANV 1963

A photo of me, circa 1963, fresh from a hot bath and ready to lounge by the fire.

It’s the last day of the old year… I am four or five, maybe six. (In this memory, I’m stitching together several years of a similar experience.) Fresh from a steamy hot bath, I lounge on my stomach by the fire in a flannel nightgown and a long, cozy robe, turning the pages of my new storybook or coloring with my latest box of Crayolas. Oak logs hiss and pop on the heavy, black wrought iron grate. I glance up often to feel the heat touch my face and to study the undulating greens and purples and white-hot blues that animate the heart of red-orange flame.

Daddy sits at the piano, playing selections from Rodgers and Hammerstein or Rodgers and Hart; Momma rustles about in the kitchen, putting away pots and pans from our evening meal; our calico kitty, Cleo, slides a friendly tail along my shoulder as she passes by on her way to curl up for a long winter’s nap beneath the Christmas tree. I watch her for a moment, then return to my book or my coloring, feeling happy, safe, and snug.

Quiet minutes tick by until Momma tells me it’s bedtime. Tonight, I know this means it’s time for our New Year’s Eve ritual. I jump up from my spot by the fire and walk with her through the kitchen to our back door with its bright crystal handle. Momma says, “Go ahead, open it! Let the old year out, and don’t forget to tell it goodbye!”

With a grin, I tug on the handle. “Goodbye, old year, goodbye!” I call, flinging wide the door. My small voice rings out over the frozen hills. The two of us, Momma and I, stand in the chill night air, gaze up into starlit skies, or perhaps an amethyst sky dotted with fast-whirling snowflakes. The night is so close, so perfect and still, I feel I might reach out and capture a star of my own to keep forever – a star of snow, or a star from heaven.

I’m too young to feel wistful about the onslaught of time. What I feel is a sense of peace, of reverence, a sense of kindly hospitality and courtliness, squiring the old year to the door as an honored, departing guest and bidding it a fond farewell.

In the morning as soon as I stir, Momma rustles me out of bed and down the winding stairs to our front door. She allows me the privilege of opening the white wooden door with its shiny brass handle to invite the New Year in. My New Year doesn’t officially begin until I pull open the big door to let the bright morning air sting my cheeks with pinpricks of cold and wild wondrous possibility. I feel elated, fresh and new, aflutter with all the good things that must surely be on their way. How I adore the prospect of a brand new year, what a thrill it is to swing the door wide to welcome it…

Momma sleeps now beneath the winter snows, but it’s only her body that sleeps. Her wise, blithe spirit lives with me still, and the lessons she taught me at New Year remain.

Fling wide the door

Maybe we all need to stand at our own back door to bid goodbye to what is passing, to stand a while and remember, to gaze out over the geography of our lives and allow peace to settle there, soft around our memories as flakes of sparkling snow. Maybe we should keep our old year company, then allow it the freedom to fade off into the distance, knowing we can keep what is precious and let go what is not.

Perhaps, after a good night’s rest, we can find it within ourselves to go with a child’s openness to the front door and tug it open to welcome a new day, a new year, a new now, fresh with the free air of what-might-be…

It’s there, now, in peace, in acceptance, in stillness – this moment, this life. Hold tight to sweet memories: they are yours to keep. And whatever you need to let go of, whatever you choose to let into your life, may today be the day to fling wide the door.

*******************************************************************************

Today marks the second anniversary of this small blog of mine. It scared me nearly out of my wits to begin, in part because I didn’t yet know you, my wonderful friends and readers, were out here in the ether, ready to welcome me. Having had two lovely years to form deep and lasting friendships with many of you, I cannot now imagine a time when you were not a part of my life. Thank you for being here with me in this quiet space, sharing thoughts and dreams, walking this star-strewn path. I so appreciate the gift of your presence.

A happy, blessed New Year to you, my friends, and much love. x o x o

~Amy

 

Shall we dance?

My favorite task of the garden year is pruning back the faded blooms of my lavender plants. Each snip of the shears fills my nose with the delectable scent of lavender and spirits me back to a precise moment in time. When lavender’s in the air, the year is 1963, and I’m an impressionable five year old, worshipfully watching my mother dress up for a dinner-dance…

While I perch on the bed, she swishes around the room in her elegant gown, leans close to an oval mirror to apply lipstick and smooth waves of dark hair. She chooses a pair of pearl earrings from her jewelry box, clips a shimmering cluster to each lobe. Out comes the beveled stopper from her bottle Chanel No. 5; she sets the stopper on a mirrored tray, places a finger over the bottle’s small opening, up-ends it, then traces a droplet or two along her collarbone, a droplet to each wrist. She pulls open my favorite drawer, the one I love to peep into when she’s not around. It’s filled with dainty half-slips, full slips, and dress gloves for every occasion, around which are tucked a number of aromatic lavender sachets. From this fragrant treasure trove, she draws a pair of elbow-length, black gloves with jet black beading. She slides slender arms into each glove, tugs softly at the base of each finger to ensure a snug fit. She slips into a pair of heels, gives me a smile, gathers up her black satin clutch, and floats downstairs to wait for Daddy, who’s putting on his tux. In a state of total enchantment, I trundle down after her.

0183_Shall we dance? 2When my parents meet in the living room, they beam at one another – so happy, so in love. While Momma gives last-minute instructions to the babysitter, Daddy, ever the gentleman, cordially asks me, ala Oscar Hammerstein, “Shall we dance?” With a grin, I accept.

He offers a steadying hand as I place first my right, then my left foot on top of his size 13, black patent leather dance shoes. As we glide around the room together, my feet slip on his shoes’ shiny surface, and I can’t stop giggling. He takes small, measured steps to accommodate my much shorter legs and never once lets me slide off. For a few giddy moments, I’m the belle of the ball in my white robe and slippers.

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Momma’s all ready now, so Daddy twirls me in a circle, plants a kiss on my head, bids me goodnight, and goes out to the car. Momma blows a kiss into a gloved hand, presses a lavender-scented palm to my upturned cheek. She is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. She drapes a stole over her shoulders and rustles out to the car. Daddy waits at her door, closes it after her, strides around to the driver’s seat, gives me a wave before sliding behind the wheel.

My small heart, filled with dreams of dancing and music and beauty and romance, feels the pang of an evening’s impending separation. I press wistful hands to glass, watch my lovely parents recede from view, red tail lights fading to pinpricks before vanishing altogether…

Time is a peculiar thing, something I don’t suppose I’ll ever get used to. It’s an astonishment to realize the evening I describe took place over a half-century ago; that I, the baby of the family, am now twenty years older than my parents were in this photo; that my precious father –my living, breathing, perpetual font of love and security– is 90. How is this possible? Moments ago, my parents were young, and I was their littlest girl…

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Nudged by a photograph, or an old song, or a certain aroma, memories of life’s loveliest moments flit through our days on diaphanous wings. One whiff of lavender is all it takes for me to dance again in my daddy’s strong arms and feel the lasting tenderness of my momma’s touch.

******

This post is the last in a series of five in a 5-day Photo/Story blog challenge, to which I was invited by my friend, Kristine, who blogs regularly at candidkay. (Thank you, Kristine; this was fun!)

The challenge: Post a photo each day for five consecutive days and attach a story to the photo. It can be fiction or non-fiction, a poem or a short paragraph, and each day nominate another blogger to the challenge.

Rather than nominate a particular group of bloggers to this challenge, I prefer to open it up to any who would like to participate. If you’re interested, step right up, and give it a whirl!

the sweetest hours I knew

A couple of years ago, my son sent me an unexpected text message I loved so much, I took a screen shot of it to squirrel away in my Forever File. Why? Because this was no mere text message; for me, this was a special delivery, a momentous occasion.

In November of 2013, while doing a bit of early Christmas shopping with his sweetheart, my son, James, wandered into a little gift shop where a pair of handmade, felted wool creatures happened to catch his eye. A dapper owl, sporting a bow tie and straw hat and clutching a tiny guitar, was seated in a small boat beside an elegant feline in pearls and a fancy dress. Stepping closer to examine the tag, James drew back, snapped a photo, and fired it off to me with the following text:

191-the sweetest hours I ever knew 1

Oh, how I rejoiced in this text – words that made not only my day, but my week, month, and year. My dear James knew his Edward Lear!! Right here, on my phone’s tiny screen, was proof! I didn’t take gymnastics back in school, but let me assure you, my heart turned a back flip with a half twist when this text chimed in.

I have countless cherished memories of motherhood, too many to enumerate here. But surely, the sweetest hours I knew as a mother were those I spent reading to my children. We sailed away for a year and a day with The Owl and the Pussy-cat, vowed with Peter Pan that we’d never grow up, frolicked in the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh and Piglet, marveled with Lurvy at the miracle of words woven into a spider’s web. Yes, we knew the Muffin Man; we sailed on a river of crystal light into a sea of dew with Wynken, Blynken, and Nod; oh, how we loved to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue!

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing ever a mother can do – to read to her children….

My precious three are grown and gone now. Each one of them, I’m happy to report, has grown up to be a bona fide bibliophile. I like to think I had a lot to do with this. I still stop to admire children’s books in bookstores and continue to add new titles to my ever-growing collection. These books, like my children, are my treasure.

I reach for the shelf, pull down our worn copy of The Owl and The Pussy-cat, thumb through the pages. And suddenly, perhaps by magic, here on my left is a golden-haired girl with intelligent green eyes; on my right, a wide-eyed boy who twirls my hair while I read; in my lap, a long-lashed, rosy-cheeked toddler who knows these words by heart. They’re here with me, all three of them. They always will be.

And right here in my memory, hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, we dance by the light of the moon, the moon, moon, we dance by the light of the moon.

191_the sweetest hours I knew 2

(This post is the first in a 5-day Photo Challenge to which I was nominated by my dear friend, Kristine, who blogs regularly at candidkay.)

 

Her name means clear, bright, shining. . .

Clare.

Her name means clear, bright, shining, brilliant to the sight. She sparkles, scintillates, always has.

I close my eyes, lean back in my chair. Looking down the bedroom hallway, she’s there in mind’s eye, prancing along with her stuffed sidekick, a pony she named Shadowfax.

0137_Her name 1

She had such love for ponies. The summer she was eight, our family vacationed in Estes Park. As our car passed a roadside corral near our hotel, she pressed her nose to the window and caught a glimpse of a brown and white pony. She cast adoring eyes on his beauty, locked him in her gaze until our car curved around the mountain road.

She turned from the window with impossibly long-lashed, expressive eyes. “If I owned that pony,” she said with a wistful sigh, “I know what I’d call him – his name would be Melting Snow.”

Melting Snow, a name so poetic, it still enchants me. It’s a rare privilege when a creative child lifts the veil just enough to allow a glimpse of her world, of what she sees through shining eyes. Melting snow, first sign of spring. . .

Our little dreamer was not born in spring, but in the white snows of February. I called her my early Valentine, loved that her birth flower is the violet, sweet harbinger of spring.

0137_Her name 5

A sketch of violets I drew and began embroidering for a pillow for Clare’s room. I got off to a good start, but, alas, I set it aside in the busy whirl of life, and forgot about it until I unearthed it a few years ago.

 

Clare is five years younger than her brother, James, and eight years younger than her sister, Margaret. As a former teacher and lover of children’s literature, Clare’s arrival bequeathed me an extra six or seven delicious years of story time. She’d curl into my lap like a kitten in fuzzy, footed jammies, then off we’d fly to Neverland. We’d visit Heidi’s mountain, or slip into the shadowy barn at twilight to watch Charlotte spin her wondrous web. Clare and I traveled fast and far. (She remains a voracious reader whose most prized possession is her fine and ever-growing collection of books.)

0137_Her name 2

When Clare was growing up, we sang and danced as often as we read. At four, she’d waltz around the living room singing “Once Upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty. When she was five-going-on-six, she’d sing “Where is Love?” from the musical, Oliver! every night while I dried her hair. Other special favorites were “The Riddle Song” and “The Owl and the Pussycat” by John Rutter and The Cambridge Singers.

Over Christmas break of her fourth grade year, I took Clare and her friend, Morgan, to see Phantom of the Opera. Clare, a confirmed aficionada of musical theatre, was mesmerized and saw the movie several more times. Later, she rather shyly told me she could sing “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” I must admit, I was skeptical; after all, she was only ten. But I asked her to sing it for me.

“Don’t watch, Momma,” she said, and walked out to our sunroom. There, in the dim light of evening, arms at her sides, she began to sing. I was unprepared for the clear soprano voice that belied the singer’s age, soaring to the song’s most poignant notes, filling my heart, and my tear ducts. . .

She’ll be twenty soon, this child who has brought so much light and joy to our lives, this child who is no longer a child. Clare – clear, bright, and shining, whose playful, ethereal presence, though unseen, was palpable before she existed.

I remember it so well, that sun-dappled spring afternoon. Our children were at play.

Jeff and I leaned together on the front steps of our first house, a pale yellow clapboard nestled on a wooded cul-de-sac. We watched as seven-year-old Margaret and four-year-old James clambered in and out of their shiny red Radio Flyer wagon, taking turns tugging one another up and down the long sidewalk.

Cardinals called from the treetops, butterflies fluttered in the garden, golden light dripped like honey through the leaves of our flowering crab. The infectious giggles of our merry two made us smile.

As we watched our children frolic in the sunlight that April afternoon, I heard a distinct inner voice.

Someone isn’t here who should be, the voice said. Someone’s missing.

I made no remark to Jeff at the time, but the words I heard interiorly stayed with me. This lovely day, this moment in time, perfect and beautiful as it was, whispered of beauty yet to come.

Roses blossomed, acorns dropped, snowflakes sailed the skies.

Less than a year later, our precious daughter, Clare, was born. In the quiet hours that followed her birth, I confided to Jeff what I heard on that balmy spring day while Margaret and James frolicked in their red wagon.

Jeff looked at me for a moment in stunned silence. “Amy,” he said. “I can’t believe it….. That’s exactly what I heard, that same day.”

We stared at one another in wonderment, then looked down at our newborn child. . .

0137_Her name 3

That’s how our darling daughter came to be – our someone-who-was-missing, the little rosebud who fit into our arms, just so, to complete our family’s joy. . .

Clare – brilliant to the sight. She lights up a stage, sings like a lark, writes up a storm, lives life with wide open arms. Like the sea, like the sky, she has depth and strength and beauty and unlimited possibilities. She’s going somewhere, although I can’t know where – not just yet; her story is just unfolding.

But I do know this: she is well on her way.

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Happy birthday to you, dearest Clare,

A bright future awaits you. May you embrace your journey with unbounded joy, with your characteristic sparkle, with all the love in your heart. Dream of life, then live your dream.

Shine on.

I love you, my littlest one, always and always. xoxox

~Momma

a snow globe of memories

An early winter storm, blown by a stiff west wind, blankets our town with several inches of snow. . .

Since I’ve nowhere special to go today, I put the kettle on, pour a cup of tea, and settle into my favorite chair near the window with a Frostian intent “to watch the woods fill up with snow.”

There’s a certain hypnotic charm in every fall of snow. Each starry flake that floats by in December is a slowly-whirling magic carpet ready to whisk me away. When snowflakes fly, time is suspended, and the hourglass topples back on itself, tumbling end over end. Days and nights are erased, years and decades, too, until I am a child once more, safe and loved in a snow globe of memories that swirl feather-soft around me.

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If you’d like to come with me today, pick a snowflake, hop on! I’m bound for 1961. Here – take my hand. I’d love to show you around. . .

Do you see the red brick colonial there in the sparkling snow? That’s my childhood home, snug on a hill beside the frozen pond where we skate each winter. It’s nearly Christmas, and there’s so much to share; won’t you come in?

The house smells wonderful! Momma’s been baking gingerbread men all afternoon. She gives each crispy gent a pair of raisin eyes and a coat of red sugar crystals with cinnamon candy buttons, all carefully piped in white sugar icing. (Would you like one? Help yourself! They’re lined up on this tray, here on the dining room buffet.)

I’m three-and-a-half right now, and while Momma’s not watching, I’m about to treat each of these fine, baked gentlemen equally. Since I can’t choose which cookie-man looks tastiest, I’m going to move right down the line and bite the left arm off each one on this tray – a simple solution to my dilemma that’s simply delicious! (After all her hard work, Momma won’t scold me. She’ll laugh and laugh instead and repeat this tale every year, just so we’ll always remember.)

Let’s run upstairs to my room! I want you to see the mysterious scrollwork patterns Jack Frost paints on my window. Just look at these delicate frost-ferns! I love to study them. I’ve never met Jack Frost, but if I wake early enough some morning, maybe I’ll spy him at work!

Every night before I’m tucked in, I stand here at my dormer window and gaze up through frost-illuminated panes to the towering oaks beyond; their snow-swept branches seem to lace up the sky. I wonder whether I might, just might, catch a glimpse of Santa as he sails – like the down of a thistle, with gifts for children everywhere – past a bright winter moon in a star-studded sky.

Although I am very small, I understand that Christmas is about the birth of the Christ Child. I love and believe in the Christmas Story, yet my imagination turns cartwheels over the wondrous mystery of Santa Claus.

Each year on Christmas Eve, while Daddy’s dressing me after my bath, there’s a joyous jangling of sleigh bells. A low-voiced “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!!!” rings up the stairwell. I squeal, then leap from Daddy’s arms and skedaddle downstairs.

There are presents under the tree, toys in our stockings! The metal screen of our fireplace has been left ajar! I race to the kitchen, where Momma’s absent-mindedly wiping a dish she’s just finished washing. I cannot for the life of me comprehend how she could possibly miss something as momentous as a visit from Santa.

“Momma?” I ask, one afternoon just before Christmas. (She’s making us a lunch of broiled peanut butter or cheese toast, which she cuts in triangular wedges and serves with bowls of piping hot soup.) I reach out small arms to encircle her legs, press a cheek to her apron. I peer up earnestly into her sweet face and ask, “Is Santa real?”

She looks down at me with kind, blue-grey eyes, smooths my baby-fine hair with a gentle hand. No matter how many times I inquire, her answer is perfect and always in these exact words: “Santa is the Spirit of Loving and Giving.”

When, at age five, I discover the truth about Santa, I’m disappointed, but not disillusioned. I think to myself: Santa is the Spirit of Loving and Giving. Therefore, he is better than real; he’s eternal.

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Would you like to see our Christmas tree? I have two favorite ornaments. I adore this Bohemian glass ornament from my great-grandmother’s tree; its trailing tail reminds me of the Bethlehem Star.

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This is the angel my grandfather made for us: she has wavy chenille hair and hand-cut metal wings that are silver on one side, gold on the other. Her delicate gown is made of starched ivory netting covered with stars. I love her.

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Come sit with me here by the fireplace. I have a few minutes to play before bedtime. See my new dolly? Her name is Saucy Walker. In her blue dress and white pinafore, she’s exactly my size, 30 inches tall. I think her name is a mouthful, so I shorten it to “Saucer.” (Makes sense to me, if to no one else.) Saucer is big-as-life pretty, but the toys I love most are my stuffed pink bear, who sleeps with me each night and goes with me everywhere, my drawstring bag filled with bright-colored blocks, my wooden puzzles, and my ever-trusty tin of Crayolas.

Want to try my new Fisher Price cash register? I love spinning this little crank to hear the merry DING! of a painted coin as it drops into the cash box. It’s fun to count coins, but my true wealth is here in the warmth of our family circle. I’m only three and a half, but I’m learning to count my blessings: one, two, three. . .

The snow has all but ended, and my dream-time here in 1961 draws to a close. Before we wave good-bye, you might like to click here to hear a recording which served as the musical backdrop to the most fervent imaginings of my pre-Christmas childhood. In this vintage recording from 1942, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians sing their fanciful version of “The Night Before Christmas.” I played this record over and over as a child, learning by heart every stanza of Clement C. Moore’s 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, in the process. I can still recite (or sing!) every word.

The opening chords of this wonderful old recording spin me right back to my childhood Christmases, no snowfall necessary. I am already there — back again in my house on the hill, caught up in the arms of my precious parents, nestled close to a sense of joy so real it brings tears to my eyes, remembering it. This joy, these bright memories are an undying gift from the Spirit of Loving and Giving – a gift that will remain with me, always and always. May this same Spirit embrace you, too, and abide with you forever.

Conversation with a child

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He glanced up from his toys one afternoon and asked me, “Momma, was I here when you were born?”

I looked at him – my sensitive, thoughtful, three-year-old son – and answered, “No, honey, you weren’t here when I was born.”

He considered this for a moment, then asked, “Was I here when Daddy was born?”

“No, sweetheart,” I responded, “you weren’t here.”

Another pause. “Was I here when Sissy was born?” he asked, meaning Margaret, his much-adored, six-year-old big sister.

“No, James,” I said, looking gently into his wide, brown eyes. “You weren’t here when Sissy was born. You hadn’t been born yet.”

A lengthy silence ensued. Then, “Momma?”

“Yes?”

“Did you miss me when I wasn’t here?”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I can’t count the number of times this sweet, existential, innocent question has echoed back to me over the years, nor can I recall precisely how I responded as I pulled my darling boy into my arms to cuddle him close.  I do know how my heart answers every time — even now, though he’s grown and gone:

Oh, my precious child, yes. Yes, I did.