Category Archives: family

known

I stood in the kitchen wondering if I should sweep the crummy, sticky floor or just lie down on the couch and call it a day. My kids whispered on the staircase after I had shooed them to the basement. Ben said, “I have to tell her.”

My six year old boy, hair disheveled and jeans slung low, shuffled over and planted his feet in front of me. “Mommy, I have to tell you something.”

“Okay, Ben. Lay it on me.” I expected a confession.

He took a deep breath and opened his mouth. “Mommy.” He couldn’t make eye contact and he appeared nervous, but Ben rarely looks me in the eye, so I let it go. And then I thought, is there a puddle of pee somewhere? Did he break my phone? No, not my phone.

“Mommy, you are my hero. You are brave and smart and you finished a whole book and that is hard work. I’m lucky you’re my mommy.”

He sped through his speech, threw his arms around me and hung from my neck. “You are my hero. I just had to tell you.”

“Benjamin,” I cried, “I’m the lucky one.”

He drew back and his eyes widened. My tears alarmed him. “They’re happy tears. You make me very happy. Thank you, thank you!” I smothered him with kisses. He dutifully let me kiss him, and as soon as he could, he made a break for it and ran to the basement.

One of the things I cherish most in this life is to be known. To have people in your life that just get you. You make sense even if you feel you don’t, and if you don’t make sense it’s not held against you. We’re not defensive. We’re not constantly explaining ourselves. I can let my guard down, I can settle into our relationship because I trust you. You know me and I know you. And in this knowing sometimes perfection happens.

It’s not that I’m a hero. I wasn’t waiting to hear those words. It’s that my little boy, who isn’t so little, more long and gangly, brought me perspective. It’s that he saw me for a few seconds, as his mom who cleans up after him and yells at him to pick up his Lego which has become a death trap to anyone that walks across our floor, and as a person. A person, a mother with feelings and goals and dreams.

We’re so busy and know so many people. At work, at school, at kids’ play dates and activities. We’re everything to everyone, so when you get to be just you and you are loved, regardless or ‘because of’, by those family members and best friends, it is gold.

Swept up

In you guys!! I was blown away and humbled by your kind words and encouragement after my last post (oh, the encouragement!!). I just want to say thank you for your being here and your belief. For taking me to a higher place.

This is how Benjamin looks most of the time: happy, even without the bubbles.

Again, photo taken by the fabulous Anastasia Chomlack

in faith and fancy

Melancholy. That’s how I began December. With melancholy and a whisper of Anne from Anne of Green Gables. With sighs and many words for introspection and flair for drama. I’ve been going for walks along the river and melancholia settles on my shoulders like the morning mist over the water…I’m not kidding. It’s enough to make you shiver or gag, right?  I’ve lost my ability, a honed skill really, to shop. The other day I picked up a pair of ridiculously cute shoes on sale (half price!) and my eyes glazed over as they dangled in front of me. I dropped the shoes in defeat, shuffled out of the store and mumbled a goodbye to the earnest salesgirl. I let down both of us that day. This could be a sign of the end of days, or I’m in trouble and I need to snap out of it.

Consumed. I’ve been consumed this past year with writing, revising, and making this book happen. Truthfully, I’m still consumed. Now I’m just consumed with waiting and insecurity. I’ve sent out material and I’m at the mercy of others. When asked about the book, I want to tell people there is progress, there is news! There has been some progress, a trickle of potential, but I’m still waiting. I should feel satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment at the writing of it all, the work of it all. But all I feel is what now, what’s next? While people start their new year off with fireworks and resolutions I start mine with emptiness, with need. (I told you I’m melancholy.)

I’m empty and rather than look at it as depressing I can look at this gaping hole as beginning anew. I get to build. I get to add. I get to fulfill need.

New year, new goals. I can’t bring myself to resolutions, but I thought I could pick a word for this year. Something to live up to or live by. A star to beckon me. While I like plans I don’t like to be too restricted or contained. And a plan for the entire year is too lofty and unattainable for me. I like options and I like to change my mind. So, a word.

Last year hinted at redemption. Maybe it will continue. Scott and I selling our house so fast and moving into something new, dredging up the past to write a memoir…maybe there will be more deliverance.  It could be a year for waiting. I want something more, though. I need a word with substance and traction. Something I can sink into.

Belief. Meaning: acceptance, assurance, conclusion, confidence, faith, and fancy. I’m a little in love with all of those words.

I’m going to believe in good. In good news. In the dream I had a few nights ago where I held my book in my hands. In not submitting to the inevitable – to the worst case scenario – to the pessimist. Belief in more for my family and me, in plans and dreams working out after all.

Swept up

This is my eight year old daughter, Annie. This is how I want my heart to be.

Photo taken by my friend, the lovely and gifted Anastasia Chomlack

believe

I could use a little magic this year. A little ta-da! in my life. And in December it seems possible. As I drive past decorated streets and houses welcoming Christmas, I want to believe.

My family and I attend Bright Nights every year to kick off the holiday season. We ride the miniature train and revel in thousands of lights strung together, the displays of Santa and his reindeer, Cindy Lou Who and the Grinch, baby Jesus in a manger, and the conductor from the Polar Express on stilts! Dancing on stilts, by the way.

Bright Nights never disappoints. After the train ride we buy popcorn, walk through lit pathways, pose the kids in front of multiple displays and coax them to smile. “Smile bigger. Wow, that’s a lot of teeth. Okay, that’s creepy. Just smile normal.” If we’re lucky we’ll see a large flash of red in the crowd. Santa’s parked his sleigh and he’s bombarded with children and their parents clamoring for his attention. “Look up!” Scott points at the trees and the kids gasp at red, white, green and blue reaching and twinkling against night sky.

While it’s packed with people and bright with lights it is a sanctuary, a place in the park for our community carved out by firefighters, many volunteers, and donations made by visitors. A place where everything stops for a while so we can get swept up in the season, appreciate the good in our lives, not pay for parking (in the city this is very exciting) and be merry. Bright Nights is an event that’s been close to my heart for 12 years.

On our way out before we stop at the donation box, before we say goodbye to the firefighters handing out candy canes as they wish us “Merry Christmas!” we notice a new display. It’s the train from the Polar Express chugging along the tracks and just above it on the roof of the train station is the word Believe.

Ah, magic.

Swept up in Bright Nights at Stanley Park, Vancouver.

I tweeted this pic of Annie and Ben last night.

my summer of bugs, books, and risky behavior – part 2

You can find Part 1 here.

A large portion of my summer was spent as a single mom or skydiving widow because Scott pursued his dream of becoming a professional skydiver.

When I met Scott I took his ‘hobby’ of throwing himself out of planes coolly. That’s nice. Oh, you fly planes too? Hmmm…good for you.

He was perplexed over my lack of awe. “You’re not impressed easily.” I responded, “Am I supposed to be?”

“Well, c’mon. It’s pretty cool.”

I guess. Hohum.

He was right – I don’t get wowed easily regarding some things, but juicy gossip, an awesome episode of Parks and Rec, or my kids getting a perfect score on their spelling tests has me over-the-moon! I thought he should be content that I accepted his risky behavior with a level head. There’s no logic in willfully leaping into the sky from thousands of feet above the ground. Just because I didn’t hang off his arm and gush about how fabulous he was didn’t mean I didn’t care. I cared – I cared that he landed safely and showed up to our next date.

He’s been doing this a long time. It came with Scott, so I don’t get to be one of those women that declare you are out of your mind! It was part of the deal when I married him. I’d be ripping out his soul if I said no. I’m not exaggerating. This thing courses through his veins. And this summer he was all in. Not only did he want to jump out of planes he wanted to film other people doing it. Be a professional. This takes dedication and time – a lot of time.

Scott and I believe in dreams and the pursuit of them. I have an entire book I could write on the pursuit and failure and phew-we-made-it of dreams. So, for two and a half months I was the supportive wife saying, go ahead. Pursue. I just want to see some money at the end of this.

Some of you might be thinking how cool I am by proxy or how terrified I must be, but before you get too caught up in that let me tell you that Scott already has a full time job and kids. Emphasis on the kids. My primary concern was making sure all of us saw each other and cooking. I can do no-frills pasta and toss a beautiful salad, but cooking is mainly Scott’s domain. The prospect of me taking on almost all meals scared me more than his parachute failing. He didn’t abandon us, but my kids spent a lot of time drawing Scott in the sky with captions that read, My Daddy with a sad face beside the man under the colorful parachute. I kid. There was just a lot of, “Is Daddy skydiving again?” But Scott made it up to me by sending me to a writers’ conference against my will, taking the kids camping for a weekend and giving me the greatest gift of all – the house to myself. I didn’t realize how much I craved silence until I could hear birds chirping and nearly wept when no one came into my room between 6 and 7am.

Scott fulfilled his dream and he has the video footage to prove it. He was happy and that happiness came home, which makes the sacrifices worth it. And now that summer is officially over, sanity has been restored. Almost. September brings its own kind of crazy.

Swept up

In books! I mentioned books in the title. So let me tell you about a few books I read this summer that I think you should read.

Throwing Rocks at Beehives is a great, gripping novel by my friend Scott Radnidge. I was lucky enough to be one of his early readers and I loved this book. I got it in pieces, so I’d be reading it at ballet, the ice rink waiting for my kids, and kept pestering him for more. I wanted to know what would happen to Mia (the protagonist) and would she be okay? A good book is one that keeps me turning the pages. Scott’s book does that. Here’s a bit of an overview from Barnes and Noble where you can buy the ebook. After leaving their home one rainy night in a panic, Jenny and Mia Waters, identical twins, have to start a new life, living in a fourplex on the outskirts of a town they’ve never heard of, surrounded by mysterious characters, their lives unraveling slowly. It was on that miserable autumn evening when Jenny, Mia and their mom came home and found their dad in bed with their neighbor, that the course of their lives changed forever. Plucked from their home, they drove for hours in the rain on an unfamiliar highway. Their mother, inconsolable, did her best to keep the car on the road as they headed for a nameless town. They were starting over… Go. Buy it and enjoy!

I picked up the next 2 books at the PNWA Conference

I mentioned this memoir a few posts ago. The Next 15 Minutes: Strength from the Top of the Mountain by Kim Kircher. You can find this on the back of the book… The Next 15 Minutes offers a rare glimpse into the strange and fascinating world of a ski area professional, where steep terrain and deep snow teach patrollers how to get through the worst trials just fifteen minutes at a time. Kim seized the EMT training that helped her avoid panic when a fallen skier had to be delicately lifted from a tree to manage the life-and-death situation facing her husband. Kim is a rock star. She bombs snow-covered mountains to control avalanches and faces her husband’s illness straight-on with tenacity and courage. I know very little about skiing or treacherous mountain terrain but I could relate to Kim doing whatever she had to do to get through the worst time of her life. This book is fascinating and inspiring. You can pre-order the book here. And she’s got a blog too.

I heard Janna Cawrse Esarey speak at the PNWA conference (her workshop on narrative arc was awesome) and I read her memoir The Motion of the Ocean: 1 small boat, 2 average lovers, and a Woman’s Search for the Meaning of Wife. It is as charming as it sounds. Here is what Jen Lancaster NYT bestselling author of Bitter is the New Black has to say: “Equipped with nothing but an old boat and a new marriage, Janna Cawrse Esarey recounts her two and a half years at sea with wry humor, keen observations, and descriptions vivid enough to satisfy the most seasoned traveler. The Motion of the Ocean is the quintessential summer read for anyone seeking an adventure in life, love, or self-discovery.” When a book starts out with… Somewhere fifty miles off the coast of Oregon I realize the skipper of this very small ship is an asshole. He also happens to be my husband… you know it’s going to be good. And funny. Janna is a great storyteller. Her writing is sharp and quick and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. You can buy it here.

my summer of bugs, books, and risky behavior – part 1

I slide along the bench to get closer to the music, to the chorus of this song. It’s Awake My Soul by Mumford and Sons. It’s what I want – for my soul to be awake.

I’m watching Ben swim and he’s getting it this time. His swimming teacher isn’t far behind. Kick your legs, face in the water, blow your bubbles.

“I did it! I did it!” Jumping into the deep end, floating on his back, and doing a front glide everyone has to hear about it. Benjamin’s enthusiasm is contagious, his smile so broad I smile and wave. “Good job, Ben!” He turns to the teacher. “My mom is watching me. Look! She’s watching me.” The teacher nods and smiles. Ben puffs out his small chest and stretches his hand out of the water to give me a thumbs-up.

I love days like this. Sunny and hazy, sentimental songs, beach towels strewn about, dark glasses, kids dripping with water and pride, the scent of chlorine and coconut in the air. Summer is part nostalgia and part spotlight. I’m in the sun and all its glory past and present. My favorite part of summer is that it keeps me present.

And this summer has definitely kept me in the here-and-now. We were given lice, a new house and Scott pursued his dream of becoming a professional skydiver. Okay, I can’t blame it on summer. It’s just what happened this summer.

On our way to art camp one chilly overcast (did I mention that July was this year’s winter?) day Annie was scratching her head, digging her nails in until her hair resembled Einstein’s and said, “It feels like I have lice.” I was in denial for 5 seconds (not my child) until I peered closely at her hair, saw the critters clinging to her hair and scalp, and began to go through all the stages of grief in 10 seconds. Outrage. Acceptance. Sad. Grim determination.

In crisis I have a pretty good head on my shoulders. I can be calm and level-headed crossing that bridge when I come to it. But lice had me panicking, my face moving back and forth between alarmed – eyebrows up – and mad – eyebrows furrowed. The bugs in my daughter’s hair, my hair, and Ben’s hair did me in. Yup. All of us had lice. I’ll bet right now you’re all scratching your heads wondering if it can jump off the screen and on to you. Well, I learned lice can’t jump and I am pleased to say we are all lice free, thank God, but I still find myself picking through my kids’ hair outside where the light is best, in line-ups, and while they’re eating breakfast. I continue to comb through their hair even as they whine and swat my hands away, “Stop it. I don’t have lice. People are looking. Geez.”

While our house was zoned to battle lice it was also up for sale. So, I had to have the house ready at all times for prospective buyers to troop through and decide if this was the home for them. We had our eye on a house just five minutes away and thought we’d risk the blah, nearly dead market. Our attitude was if it worked out…great. If not, we’d be okay. We like where we live. We just need more space.

Do you know what happens when you don’t really care? Your house sells. It’s like when you’ve sworn off men you suddenly acquire a boyfriend. That’s how I got Scott. Don’t care and poof! Boyfriend! House! I’m going to apply the same wisdom to a lottery ticket. Poof! A million dollars! Thanks to the new house I will be getting a basement, walk-in closet and actual office/writing space instead off a small desk just off my kitchen with the most obnoxious eyesore of a printer beside it. We love our neighbors and are sad to leave them, so it’s with mixed up feelings that we move.

This is part 1 of 2. I’m sure I’ve left you with bated breath with that last sentence. Where could she go from here?? Really, it’s just too long of a post. In Part 2, coming soon, you’ll find out how books factor in to the title and how I became a skydiving widow (not literally. Scott isn’t dead. His parachute didn’t fail him.) this summer.

“I love you.”

I come from a long line of doers. Good Mennonite stock that emigrated from Paraguay, South America. This means there is nothing you can’t fix by doing. In church circles it’s called the gift of hospitality. It was like a calling for us as Mennonites. You don’t sit around and wait for things to fall into your lap. We may be pacifists in war, but in life, you cook, clean, bake! I had a lot of family who wanted to help. When I was at my worst, no one knowing if I was going to cross over to the other side, family came out in droves. My two younger brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins parked themselves on chairs in the waiting rooms and took turns sitting with me while I was oblivious to what was going on around me.

One of my cousins was willing to donate skin if he had to. Some were silently supportive, stoic in their pacing around the room. Others sat with me and held my hand. Some prayed and recruited their church congregations in prayer. Others had questions for the doctors. What could they do? How could they help? This is the Mennonite way. There may be a situation which is beyond our control, but one can always find a way to help. We demonstrate our love through action. The gift of hospitality is something we are not in short supply of.

Another way we help is through food. There is always more than enough food. You don’t go without, not if my mom or any of her sisters have anything to say about it. I have never left one of our family gatherings without somebody pressing food into my hands saying, for lunch tomorrow. You look down and it’s already been covered in plastic wrap or tucked into a Tupperware container. You cannot refuse. It’s not a choice. You say thank you and go, grateful for how your body will be nourished tomorrow.

I grew up in a house where you pray, but with efficiency. Short and to the point, amen. God doesn’t need for you to go on and on. He’s a busy God and not interested in flowery prose. He’s God. He knows your needs. My prayers growing up were all said in German. They were memorized, traditional prayers – one for mealtime and one for bedtime.

As a child I believed God preferred German. It was the language I learned first. If I said a prayer in English it would not be received as well as if I had spoken it in German. Our prayer at mealtimes went like this, Segne Vater diese Speise uns zur Kraft und Dir zum Preise. Amen. (Father, bless this food for our strength and to you as praise) It is said swiftly but with reverence. When we were children, to amuse ourselves, we recited it as fast as we could, picking up speed as we went along. It was a race. Who could finish first?

“SegneVaterdiesespeiseunzurkraftunddizumpreiseamen!”

My dad did not appreciate this. With a stern look and a “Nah” with the ‘a’ drawn out, so it came out a Naaah, the word coming up at the end, we shut up and looked down at our plates, very busy with our forks. This meant he also didn’t appreciate when we said it slowly enunciating each word as if we were delivering a powerful sermon, sometimes with emphatic arm gestures. This was considered disrespectful too. I’m pretty sure I saw my dad hiding a smile more than once during our attempts to spice up our prayer lives.

My dad wasn’t a man big on I-love-you’s. We were loved, so it didn’t need to be said. That changed after June 12, 1998, the day of the car crash.

When I was newly born my dad cradled me in his arms and carried me around in the middle of the night to lull me to sleep. From infancy on I liked to be near him. There’s evidence of this in photos of us sitting side by side, my dad sipping his Yerba Mate (a South American herbal tea) and me leaning into him. My brothers and I spent a lot of time on my dad’s back as he crawled around on all fours as a bucking bronco, a galloping horse! He wrestled with us, played street hockey with us, but he never said I love you. When I was sixteen I worked up the nerve to say, “I love you” and it was met with uncomfortable silence. There was no, I love you too.

My dad’s very first I love you came when I was in a hospital bed hovering between life and death. He said, “When you were brand new to the world I dedicated you to God. I told Him, she is yours first and mine second.” He spoke in his well-worn German broken with English, the voice of my childhood. He cleared his throat, “I prayed, wondering if God was going to make good on the dedication. But, God gave you back to us.” He paused, looked at the floor, and then his eyes met mine. “I love you, Heidi.”

because of what they do

“We pass them off to the next set of hands and then we never see them again.”

I heard that from a few firefighters in Merritt at their Annual Firefighters Appreciation Banquet on Saturday night where I was honored to be the keynote speaker. They rescue and safely give their survivors to paramedics. Most firefighters don’t know if they survive their hospital stay or know what happens after they leave the hospital. They might come across the story in the paper and that’s the only information they have, but the stories don’t come full circle for these brave men and women. I heard again and again how great it was to hear from someone that made it and was doing well.

I feel safe, comfortable when I’m with firefighters, like I’m with family. I don’t know if it’s because they rescued me from a burning car or if it’s just that I’ve spoken to so many of them now and see that they are consistently good, solid people. They know how to have fun and at the same time take what they do seriously. It’s these reasons and more. I mean, who doesn’t love firefighters? When I’m in a room full of firefighters I am home.

“I had such a good time!” You could hear me saying that over and over again to the people at my table, to the mayor, to everyone I had the pleasure of coming into contact with. I did have such a good time.

We were served great food (I’ve been to a few of these dinners and this might be the best meal yet) from a place called Brambles. If you’re ever in Merritt you’ll have to check it out. I hear they make a mean scone too…I have a soft spot for a good scone. I sat at a table with Chief Dave Tomkinson, who invited me to speak, and his lovely and witty wife, Shelley. After my presentation I watched firefighters receive handshakes, good-natured ribbing, and awarded for their brave and selfless work through the year. As Scott and I got our photo taken in a Fire Truck from 1929 and cranked the fire alarm to a loud wail, as we mingled and gathered our things for the drive home we were stopped by a firefighter who told us it’s good to hear the end of the story. Scott replied, “It’s because of what you guys do that we have a family, that there are kids and there’ll be grandkids.”

It’s true. Because of what they do I’m here, Scott is here, and Annie and Benjamin are here. There is life; there is more because of what they do.

Swept up

Go Canucks Go!

when friends are twerps

“Who is the boss of you?”

“I am! And, you are. Right, Mommy?”

Yup, that’s right.

In preschool both my kids learned a song called, Let’s Make Room for a Friend. And that song was carried over to two afternoons a week for a year. While they interacted with the other kids at school, they called each person a friend and under close supervision worked out the small problems that cropped up among three year olds still learning words and how-to-share. This lesson spilled over into the playground, into the next year at four year old preschool and then onto big kids’ school. Share, be kind, and make room for a friend.

I preach it, too. I talk to my kids about being inclusive, about apologizing when we’ve done something wrong, having manners and being kind. When Annie asked me, “What is compassion?” I thought, that’s a good question, before I answered her and we had a discussion about what it means to feel for others and to put others before ourselves. Sometimes. And this is where it gets tricky for me.

There aren’t preschool songs about asserting yourself with messages like ‘I don’t make room for people that are colossal jerks’. In our growing tolerance for others and believing in niceness above all else what do we do when someone isn’t playing by the rules and being nice? I’m not talking about a bad day. Everyone has those. I’m talking about consistently bad, borderline malicious behavior toward others. Bullying. I can’t believe that it even happens – that in Kindergarten kids are being steamrolled by a peer. I’m sure they are confused and hurting, too. But, my kids aren’t therapists and I don’t think they should be anyone’s punching bag.

It’s always the twerp that everyone follows. The leader of the pack is the bossiest and the meanest. Why can’t it be the kindest, the one that sets up lemonade stands to raise money for charity? I would settle for someone that just stays out of trouble and doesn’t swear. Ben likes to please, to fit in and I’m watching him being swayed this year by a twerp. I reel him in as much as I can, remind him of who he is and what our standards are. There have got to be times when you don’t make room for a friend, which is what I told him a few days ago. “You don’t have to be friends with this boy. There are plenty of other boys to play with. Good, fun boys. Friends don’t try to control you.”

This year, more than any other year, I feel like a parent. I’m cringing, hoping, stepping in, taking a step back and making impassioned pleas to my kids about everything. Like most parents, I am always wondering if I’m doing, saying the right thing as we navigate through how to be you and what is or is not okay. And if you get stomped on, what should you do? I overheard Ben and this boy, the leader of the pack, talking about a book Ben brought to school. Ben was proudly showing off the second book of a series to him, “Look at what I brought!” The boy said, “Why do you always bring those books? You brought a book like that last time.” Ben’s smile slipped for a second, “Because I like them.” And Ben walked away. It was a small step forward and I was so proud.

Swept Up

That’s right. I’m bringing it back. For my early readers you’ll remember ‘swept up’. If not, this is the portion of the blog when I tell you what I’m, well, swept up in, what I’m into. This week it’s the movie Bridesmaids. I laughed all the way through it. It’s funny and heartfelt. Go see it.

lessons from my family

Everything was sliding down my face. I didn’t wipe my tears away. I wanted to feel.

Music was powerful in those days, in those days of moving forward so slowly I wondered if I had made any progress at all. Any song with meaningful lyrics, melody that swept you up in its beauty, hurt. Top forty was all I could handle and in the year of 1999, thankfully, there wasn’t much that was powerful or moving hanging out there.

This day was different. This day I was swallowed up by music, the radio ambushing me on a Monday, playing music that made me want to forget. I let each note turn into an aching so deep I didn’t know if I could bounce back.

Bounce back.

I liked the way it sounded, but I wasn’t so sure that I was capable of bouncing back from anything. My restoration was sloth-like in nature, inching its way toward freedom, although I didn’t know what freedom would look like if I got there. Would I recognize it when I saw it? Would I wake up one morning, home-free, or would it sneak up on me unshackling me a little at a time until I was lighter, happier, the gap between me and the crash wide enough that I could leave it behind? I suspected it would be the latter.

I sat up straight in my chair as I cried. I sat up straight most of the time, a leftover habit from childhood. Even if there was a hint of my shoulders slouching, my mom was chiding, “Sit up straight, Heidi. Do you want a back like your Oma’s?”

My Oma, Lena, had a hunched back, curling into herself from all the years of hard labor she endured living in Russia taking care of her four siblings after their mom died. It was 1930 and she became cook, cleaner and caretaker at fifteen, her father too deep into drinking to care for his family. The hunch of her back was aggravated by broken ribs that were never tended to. She was too busy as a surrogate mother to look after herself and there was no one to help her. Two years later she was packing up their family and fleeing to Germany during Stalin’s regime. They traveled through Germany to settle in Chaco, Paraguay. This was where the information became sparse. My mom said Oma rarely spoke of that dangerous journey and when she did she wasn’t forthcoming with details. Oma clammed up and retreated when it was brought up. Something had happened, but no one knew what. What mattered to her was that she arrived in Paraguay where she met her husband, my Opa, Wilhelm, and began her new life and family.

My mom was quick to point out where my Oma got her back from, and she impressed upon me how important a straight back was. My Oma had little schooling before she was needed at home. She was the only girl and her responsibilities lay there. When she married at nineteen, my Opa taught her how to read. “Your Oma told me to be honest. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. And sit up straight.” My mom told me that advice was the best education her mom gave her.

Whenever I visited my Oma, my brothers and I were treated to chocolate and after I had eaten mine I would lay next to Oma, on her floral patterned sofa, my head on her lap. Her spotted, worn hands softly rubbed my back. “Schmuck, schmuck,” she said. Pretty, pretty in German. She said these same words to when I moved from girlhood to adulthood. She was living with dementia, in a care home, the back of her hand feather light moving back and forth across my cheek, as I sat at the edge of her bed. She was far away into her past and didn’t recognize us anymore, but that didn’t matter to me as she murmured words from my childhood and I remembered how it felt to have her hands on my back. She passed away not long after that visit.

My mom was right. My Oma’s lessons were something to live by. Through Oma, to my mom, for me, sitting up straight was to have pride, take care of yourself and know who you are. Remember where you’ve come from. Remember who you are. That day I curled into myself like my Oma’s back, and wept. Remember where you’ve come from, remember who you are.

the magic of hope

I looked sick. I knew I looked sick. All that was missing was a hospital gown and a nurse pushing in medication through an IV. I stuck out, but I held my back straight and kept my head up. I was shopping with my mom at a mall in the city. We were calling it a day when she needed to pop into one more store. I parked my chair near the entrance of the busy food court in a vain attempt to blend in with the crowd.

A tall blonde man approached me. I couldn’t imagine for what. He might have been in his late twenties or early thirties. He was what I would call put together, someone that looked after himself. He was good looking. The tall blonde man stopped at the arm of my chair. He said, “I just wanted to tell you that you’re beautiful.” He said it without pity. He held it out to me, like a promise.

He turned and left. I might have said thank you, but I can’t be sure that I did.

His words were an unexpected balm, reaching out and cradling my face. An answer to a prayer I hadn’t thought to utter. I treasured those moments of grace that found their way to me at odd times. When I wasn’t looking, catching me off guard, and piercing a gnawing emptiness that sat in the middle of me. By sneak attack was the best way to get to me.

I didn’t tell my mom when she returned. I kept it to myself like a child hoarding secrets, afraid the spell would be ruined with one touch, one word and it would all disappear in a puff of smoke.

It came to me later in the days and months to follow that every person needs to feel beautiful, especially when we are at our worst, our ugliest. To have someone reach beneath the surface, past the scars and see you. To recognize you are a marvel, you are something to behold. To honor your strengths before your weaknesses. To acknowledge how hard you try. I thought about kind words and actions stirring life in parched and forgotten places, how I was starving and a stranger stopped to feed me. For a few seconds my life felt magical, God’s intervention, at a time where there was little to believe in. I’ve never forgotten it; a kindness that still casts hope in my life.

***

I’m struggling with this season this year. There is little enthusiasm, little merriment for what’s coming. I normally love this time of year. The cozy get-togethers, dedicated shopping, and the red cups from Starbucks are a delight. This month has become a long list of things to do. And I know I’m missing the point. I’ve lost Christmas’s charm, its magic. Because this time of year is a time for magic. I see it in my kids’ eyes when we visited Santa on the weekend. I saw it last Christmas when a stranger handed me a twenty dollar bill at a toy store and said, “Merry Christmas”. I saw it another Christmas when money was scarce and friends stashed beautifully wrapped presents in our car without us knowing. I see it in strings of light wrapped around houses and candlelight on Christmas Eve. I wrote the story above to remind myself of the power of belief, grace, and kindness…that this is where the magic lies.

This will be my last post for December. I’ll return in the New Year. I wish you and yours Happy Holidays!!