Strings Attached

Many years ago, a tradition was born. As the mother of four small children, my writing was put on hold. There was little time for the creative process. Any creative energy went into my care and feeding, both physically and spiritually, of my flock.

One year, a school assignment to write a holiday story inspired me to dust off my own creative process. I had my son hand in my story with his.

The teacher posted the story in the hallway of the school. That year, it was a children’s story about an elf.

The following year, muscle memory kicked in, and in tribute to this wise teacher, the story took a more mature turn. It was about a teacher who years after retiring, discovers the meaning of Christmas and recognized how important he was in the lives of others.

A tradition was born. Some thirty years later, each year I write a Christmas story. They now have a purpose. Each story deals with someone who is struggling with the holidays, and who finds “the Christ Child” or meaning in something unexpected. The stories are inspired by things that happen in my life or the lives of those around me. I never know when the idea for the story will come. Sometimes, it may come in the summer. Other years, like this one for example, it came very last minute. In some years, there have been multiple stories. Each year, I send the story first to my “Christmas Angel,” the teacher who inspired me to write again.

This year’s story was inspired by a “Blue Christmas” service I was part of, where the pastor played violin. The music penetrated my entire being in a way that nothing else had in a year where loss was all around me. My granddaughter is a budding violinist, so that detail was added to the story.

Here is this year’s story, “Strings Attached.” Thank you, Pastor Lynn and Eloise for inspiring me, ” thank you for the original and continuing encouragement.

Strings Attached

The phones rang incessantly, adding to a level of sound that ricocheted off Lynn’s forehead. Her head was already pounding, and answering another call from a disgruntled customer was more than she could bear.

The holiday season was in full force. All around, the cacophony of sound surrounded her, from the phones with urgent last minute orders, to the canned music that blasted everywhere. The final straw for her was the live music in the supermarket, replete with off-key choristers and a decibel level that made her bones rattle. Even the Salvation Army bell ringers were too much for her sensitive ears.

Lynn wasn’t normally such a Grinch, but this holiday had her longing for December 26th. Her husband, Mark, was on a business trip overseas, so the onus of all the holiday shopping, decorating and preparation fell on her. He wasn’t due back until Christmas Eve.

She finished placating the woman from Wisconsin who hadn’t received her fuzzy slippers, and let her supervisor know that she was leaving.  She hastily grabbed her purse, as she was already late for the holiday concert at her two granddaughters’ school. As much as she adored Rachel and Laura, it felt like just one more task to accomplish on her ever-growing list.

And, of course, the traffic on the Parkway was backed up. She turned on the radio to distract her, but once again she was bombarded with “Jingle Bells,” this one a jazz rendition. She quickly turned it off, grateful that cars were finally moving.

Finally arriving at the school, she found a spot to stand in the crowded auditorium. She instantly spotter the back of her son Michael’s head, so like his father’s. Her daughter-in-law, Molly waved. She smiled, knowing how proud they were of the girls, and what great parents they were.

Lynn glanced at the program, and saw that she hadn’t missed the strings portion of the concert. Rachel had a solo this year, and had been talking about it for months.

The chorus portion was lively, especially the kindergarten and first graders’ rendition of “Up on the Rooftop,” each cherub wearing a Santa Hat. One especially engaging little blond kindergartner turned towards his classmates, expertly conducting them, mirroring the chorus director.

Her youngest granddaughter, Laura, waved to her, blowing kisses. Her third grade class did an admirable job of singing “Winter Wonderland.”

The strings ensemble, comprised of the fourth and fifth graders, played surprisingly well, with only the occasional off-key note. Rachel looked so grown up, sitting very straight and appearing quite composed.

When it was time for her solo, she gracefully stood, and walked up to the center of the orchestra pit. Lynn said a silent prayer that it would go smoothly.

The first notes of “Greensleeves” resonated deeply in Lynn’s heart. She was thankful that the music director had artfully chosen both a simple, but haunting tune, which masked as “Greensleeves” also conveyed “What Child is This,” one of her favorites.

Silently, almost imperceptively, a single tear rolled down her cheek. Something about this tune moved her in unexpected ways. Her grandmother always said that a tear was love made liquid. She obviously felt love for Rachel, but it was also something about the sound of the violin that was triggering these feelings in her.

The notes in the lower range went directly inside her, and she felt a sense of deep relaxation overcome her. At the edge of memory were these very notes, resonating, inviting, calming.

Lynn applauded loudly, whistling in the way her father had taught her. Rachel saw her, and although she didn’t lose her composure, she smiled.

There wasn’t time for more than a few quick hugs and kisses before Lynn had to get back on the road. These last few days before the holiday were brutal for her company, as customers pursued the perfect gifts to be delivered on time.

After a long day, Lynn didn’t have the heart to do any of her baking. She poured herself a glass of Malbec, and plopped on the couch to open the mail. The usual flyers advertising toys and groceries went into the recycle pile, as she opened the Christmas cards, spending some time catching up with those she didn’t see often. When she was addressing their cards this year, she realized that time was passing way too quickly. There were several names in her address book that had passed away. That was a sure sign of aging, when you found yourself crossing off names.

This time of year was bittersweet. She was grateful for the blessings she had. She and her husband, Mark, had a mature love that few could claim. Her son and his family lived relatively close, and were thriving. Her daughter, Annie, had a successful career as a chef, and was in a new relationship. She would be with everyone on Christmas.

Yet, there were the empty places at the family table during the holidays that reminded her of Christmases past. Losing her parents had been hard, but the loss of her brother last year was beyond painful for her. They had been best friends, and she still found herself wanting to call him to tell about things that they shared.

Lynn took his picture from the mantle.

“You would have cringed at that band in the supermarket!”

Andrew had been a talented musician. Growing up, he amazed everyone with his ability to learn songs on the piano by ear. He was a musical prodigy.

Lynn had not inherited any musical ability from her father, who was an accomplished guitarist. She was more like her Mom, who always said she was the only one thrown out of the junior choir at church because “she couldn’t carry a tune in a wheel barrow.”

As she put Andrew’s picture back on the mantle, she glanced at the photo on the far left. It was a picture of her sitting on her beloved Nana’s lap. She had spent so many glorious hours sitting on her lap, while her grandmother read her stories. They had traveled together across the world, and to the world of the fairies and princesses, all without leaving Nana’s favorite chair.

Her grandmother had died when she was only seven, so the few memories she had of her were fleeting.

Lynn had a sudden burst of energy, and headed up to the attic to try and find the nativity scene. For some reason, the box was not with the other carefully labeled boxes.

The attic was a maze of boxes. She promised herself every year that she was going to go through the myriad of cartons and get rid of things they no longer used. Every year, the idea of that task was so overwhelming, that she put it off.

Looking for the carton containing the Nativity set, she saw the boxes labeled “Nana.” They had resided in her parents’ house, and when they passed away, she had lugged them up to their attic.

Lynn lifted the flaps of the top carton. Inside, she found a stack of drawings and cards she had made for her Nana. She was touched that she had kept them. She lifted up a book of uncut paper dolls.

A “sign of love” rolled down from her eyes. Nana had spent hours cutting out paper dolls for her to play with. She used to tease that she could have taken up residence in the local mental hospital, where they had “arts and crafts.” At least there, she would note, she could have her hair done once a week.

Lynn smiled at the memory.

Under the drawings and the paper dolls was an instrument case. Lynn lifted it carefully, bringing it under the bare bulb in the ceiling so she could see it more carefully. Opening it, she found a violin. Lynn inhaled the distinct smell that emanates from inside an instrument case. It smelled like promise.

She lifted the instrument from the case, and a memory of her playing with her dollhouse people and moving them into this very case came flooding into consciousness. She would pretend that the red felt interior was a palace.

Closing her eyes, the strains of “What Child is This?” seemed to come from the instrument she cradled in her arms. The familiar song washed over her, and she saw her Nana standing by the bay window in her house, playing this very instrument. In the corner, Lynn saw herself as a very little girl, sitting under the tinsel adorned Christmas tree.

Lynn had forgotten that Nana played the violin. Her more recent memories were of her grandmother’s hands being bent from severe arthritis.

She would take the instrument and wrap it for Rachel as an extra Christmas gift. It would be a fitting tribute to her Nana.

As she began to set the violin back in the case, she saw an envelope wedged in the corner. Lifting it out, she saw her name written in Nana’s distinctive script.

Lynn sat down in the rocker in the corner of the attic, and opened the envelope.

“My darling Lynn,

I want you to have my violin. Unfortunately, my hands have grown too gnarled to play. I realize that you are not as proficient as Andrew in learning music, but that doesn’t matter. You feel music in a way he doesn’t, and this violin transmits feelings as much as it does musical notes.

You have a music all your own, dear Lynn. You play a tune for everyone with your smile and your innate sweetness that is every bit as elegant as a sonata. Your symphony will be one that touches people’s hearts.

Share your gifts with others, and play your own tune always. Love, Nana.”

Love rolled down Lynn’s cheek. She knew now why the sounds of Rachel’s violin had touched her so dramatically.

She realized, too, that Nana’s legacy was more about resonating in the hearts of those around her than it was about her music. 

Long after her fingers were unable to make this violin sing, her kindness and the patient time she took with others was music enough.

Lynn realized that all the sounds of Christmas had annoyed her, because this was the tune she was seeking, the tune that remained long after the life of someone we love was over, the song that eternally played in our hearts.

It would be a wonderful Christmas, filled with the music of the heart.

 

MG, 2016

 

 

 

Inside the Red Suit

In 2013, I had the privilege of working with the real Santa, Ray Beesley. Ray was like family to me and to my family. My husband and Ray shared childhood memories together, and we had joyfully raised our children side by side with Ray and Pat.

I am a writer, and for years Ray and I talked about capturing his stories in a book. I was between jobs in 2013, and Ray invited me to work side by side with him, finding time in between for me to take notes for the book we envisioned we would publish together, with his stories and the inclusion of Christmas traditions, stories and activities families could share together.

As often happens, life gets in the way. After that holiday, I soon went to work full time at a wonderful organization called The Life Raft Group, a cancer research, support and advocacy organization. Ray had health challenges, and was, as always, engaged in the ministry he had for helping others. The story was put on hold.

I believed so strongly that this was a tale that needed to be told. Those hours we spent over coffee and the moving stories Ray shared needed to be available for all. But he was a humble man, and many of the generous things he did went unsung.

Unfortunately, the laptop on which I had stored Ray’s words crashed. I learned the difficult lesson about not having backup, and thought the work we had done was lost.

When I heard of Ray’s passing, I was doubly crushed by the fact that we had not finished the book, and that the content was lost. I was angry at myself for not pushing harder, and for losing what we had already done.

And then I saw why.

On Facebook, hundreds of people shared the stories of Ray’s kindness, of his unselfish love for others, of his incredible heart. I knew then that the best stories were the ones that all those who loved him had to tell.

But there were still his words. I felt sad that they had been lost.

Until this morning, as I searched for a photo of my husband and me taken with Ray that year. I didn’t find the photo, but I found a printed copy of some of the early text Ray and I worked on.

I would like to share it now with you.

It begins with a letter from Santa.

My dear friends,

Over two thousand years ago, a tiny baby was born, not in a high-tech delivery room, but in a humble stable.

The birth of that child has transformed the world. It has brought the promise of unconditional love and forgiveness, a chance for redemption in a world that is often filled with challenges.

Many brought gifts to this holy child. Following the star, the Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christmas begins with this holy birth, and the tradition of giving gifts was inspired by those first generous iconic figures who paid tribute to the Christ Child.

It seems that I, too, have become an icon: a symbol of Christmas cheer and gift giving.

Being an icon brings responsibility. I want to assure that I represent the true meaning of the holiday: The Prince of Peace was born as a tiny child, bringing real gifts of love, joy, and the promise of redemption for us all.

And so, inside these pages you will find my reflections on being “inside the red suit.” There are stories of moments when I have seen the Christ child in the eyes of children, and have experienced the true meaning of Christmas.

I have also offered moments of laughter, and some that brought tears to these old eyes.

It is my sincere wish that through the magic of Christmas you will experience what it is like to be “inside the red suit,” and will be able to invite the extraordinary message of that first Christmas in your hearts.

Merry Christmas,

Santa

Chapter One – Inside the Red Suit

Being Santa is a calling. Like any other calling, there are certain responsibilities. First and foremost, it is a vocation that requires great love and patience, and a belief that there is an important role to be played.

Santa Claus is a symbol of what Christmas is all about: love, generosity and joy.

For many who have not yet embraced the fullness of the story of the Christ Child, Santa is a gateway to belief.

Often, as I look out at the line of parents and children waiting patiently to sit on my lap and tell me their dreams, I wonder what it is that make them invest so much time and effort into so brief and experience.

I believe it is because we as humble humans have an innate need to believe.

On the Christmas tree behind hangs a large sign that says “Believe.” It is the core of who we are a spiritual beings. We need to believe in something that brings light into a world that is dark at times.

When I don the suit, whether it is the traditional red and white fur-trimmed one, or the elaborate Victorian suit which echoes St. Nicholas of ages past, it is similar to the process a priest goes through when putting on vestments. I am pledging to bring to all who see me a genuine experience of hope, and I am asking them to believe while in my presence.

The title of “Santa Claus” is one that carries great honor.

Many years ago, in a tiny town called Patara which is in what we now call Turkey, a boy named Nicholas was born to a wealthy family. He was raised in the Christian faith, and when his parents died while he was still young, he carried forth the Christian imperative to “sell what you own and give money to the poor.” He used his whole inheritance to help those in need.

He dedicated his life to serving God, and eventually became Bishop of Myra. He was well known for giving to the needy, and for his love of children, as well as his concern for sailors and ships.

Nicholas lived in a time when the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, persecuted Christians. He suffered for his faith, and was eventually imprisoned. There were many priests and bishops also in prison at the time.

May wonderful stories are told about him. He became revered as a saint by Catholics and Protestants alike. Nicholas became a symbol for compassionate giving. St. Nicholas’ feast day, December 6th, was widely celebrated in Europe and became a time for giving gifts to children.

The tradition was brought to the New World by early settlers, and eventually evolved into the modern image of Santa Claus, popularized in stories, songs and movies.

It has been important to me as a wearer of the red suit to embody the values of St. Nicholas, to sever the poor and the suffering, and to take special care of children.

My first “Santa” experience took place when I was in college at the University of Alabama. I was not a stellar student in history at that time. One of my professors asked if I would accompany her to distribute gifts to the needy, with the idea that it would serve as the extra credit I needed to pass her course. She asked me to serve as Santa that day. I already had a beard at the time, although it was not yet the white beard I have today.

We visited an extremely poor area, giving out used items as gifts. One woman was delighted to receive an apron, even though it was used. It was amazing how grateful she was for something so small. I didn’t realize that people lived in such poverty, with no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. Although I didn’t grow up wealthy like St. Nicholas, I came from a home with modern comforts. I, like many, took that for granted.

One little boy, although grateful for the ball I had given hi, told me he really had wanted a baseball glove. I told him I would come back with one for him. I asked my professor how to get back to the community, and took the trek back to give the little boy my own baseball glove. I was so touched by how important that was to him. I often wonder today where life took that little boy. I hope he at least remembers that in spite of the difficult circumstances he grew up with, that someone cared.

I was very nervous when I went into that poor community, but the feeling I received after giving out the gifts was one of the best I ever had, and I knew then that I would do this for the rest of my life.

That is how one is called to be Santa Clause.

For over forty years, I have been part of a symbol that was created through the giving spirit of St. Nicholas, and, to this day, the feeling I received that long ago Christmas season comes back to me in many different ways.

I am blessed to see the beauty of God’s world in the faces of those who come to see me, and to who I go, armed only with the desire to help them believe.

Ray went on to share stories of many of you who touched him so deeply.

But those are your stories, and you are telling them so beautifully as a tribute to this amazing man.

In closing, though, I wish to share one other passage. Ray shared how he feels when sitting in Santa’s chair.

I am not concerned so much about how their photo with Santa comes out, although I respect their parents who have waited so patiently on line and invested in this memory that that is important. I want that to be successful for those who assist me. They work very hard as Santa’s helpers.

Fortunately,. I work with my family who share my dream to help people believe. God has blessed me with six children, and they work with me in the ministry of Santa. Three of my daughters help to photograph the children, often standing on their heads to coax a smile from a reluctant child. It is a labor of love that I am blessed to share with them.

The stories will live on, and perhaps there will be a book some day.

The stories keep coming. Even in the non-profit where I work there is story of how Ray shared his generosity with the family of my colleagues when they lost their father, taking the children, who are now adults, for milk and cookies.

Thank you, Santa, for helping me to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

Hidden in Plain Sight

Every Christmas I embark on a quest I have named “Searching for the Christ Child.”

Others may define it as attempting to embrace the spirit of Christmas, but for me, the quest goes deeper. It involves finding Christ in a world that is often very dark. It is often like trying to find a flashlight in a completely dark room. You know the flashlight is there, and it has batteries that will never fail, but you need to fumble around until you lay hands on the one thing that will illuminate everything around you.

Some years this quest is a quick and easy one. An encounter with a friend, a song on the radio, a prayerful moment and there He is: the tiny baby who changed the world.

And some years the quest takes much longer. Even when things in my life are filled with good things, it seems that a veil drops over them, and it is hard for me to see.

And this year, although filled with many joyful occurrences, was a veiled year. I found myself overwhelmed by the holiday tasks that normally give me joy.

The title of this blog is “Take Joy,” from a letter written by a sixteenth century monk, Fra Giovanni. I first encountered this in a book by the same name by Tasha Tudor. The book was the cornerstone of my children’s Christmas. It is filled with whimsical drawings, and traditional stories, but is always Fra Giovanni’s letter that has inspired me.

As a healing minister, I worked with the rector of my church to design a Blue Christmas service. Designed to help those who feel sorrowful at Christmas, or who can’t seem to find the joy, I used the “Take Joy” reading as part of the service.

As familiar as I am with the reading, I had not truly noticed some of the verbiage in the full length version. In it, it refers to seeing “the angel’s hand” even in our darkest moments. That phrase started to resonate with me.

I am usually not a fan of children’s Nativity pageants. When my children were young, I felt pride in their participation, and a certain amount of inspiration came from those angels with halos askew, and the shepherds squirming in place. But when it doesn’t involve your own children or grandchildren, it can be a long service with little meaning.

Not so this year. One of the angels had a “hand” in helping me to find the Christ Child. At one point in the pageant, there is a star that illuminates. The three angels turned around and gazed up at the star. One of them, halo askew, reached out and put her arm around the little girl next to her. It struck me that this is how angels come to us. They silently put a loving arm around us when we most need it. They encourage us to look up, to find the light in the midst of darkness. This little angel, no more than five years old, then began to dance, swirling on the altar.

My senses were then heightened: I began to see the Christ Child in plain sight.

My mother had a ministry of angel pins. She bought inexpensive angel pins and gave them to people she perceived needed them most. I have only one left, which I carry with me. In transferring it to my purse, I noticed it for the first time. It is an image of an angel holding the Christ Child. The Christ Child has been with me all this time.

On Christmas Eve, I had the privilege of being with my daughter and her family. Each year, we are blessed to have her dear friend who is a priest celebrate Mass in her home. My granddaughters helped him by serving as his acolytes. Surrounded by family and friends, the Christ Child came.

And then, on Christmas Day, at my other daughter and son-in-law’s home, there was a moment when my six-month old grandson was reaching out to hug my granddaughter who was born on Christmas Day nine years ago, when I realized the wisdom of God choosing to send his Son as a tiny baby.

There is a song by Stephen Earle that I used as part of the Blue Christmas service entitled “Nothing But A Child.” One of the lyrics states, “Nothing but a child, could wash these tears away, and lead a weary world into the light of day.” Looking at the enigmatic smile of my grandson, and watching him as he slept in my arms, I saw what was truly in plain sight.

Truly the Christ Child has come again.

 

 

 

A Mother’s Heart

The human heart is a complex organ that upholds our life force. Understanding the nuances of both its function and its importance is challenging. Understanding the emotions associated with the human heart demands a higher level of discenment.

We humans all have emotions, but the way we process them is even more complicated: a mixture of neurological, cultural and unexplainable forces.

A mother’s heart reaches a whole new level of complexity. The love we have for our children is replete with heightened emotions and fraught with amplified fear. “Love hurts,” the song says. Mother’s love hurts, both so bad and so good.

Until I became a mother, my heart experienced a full range of activity: first love, filled with promise and excitement, love for my dog, who returned it unconditionally, heartbreak when my father died, anger and pain when that first love ended, the pain of betrayal when what I thought was a “forever” love turned out to be a “just for now” relationship.

Even the sweet, unexpected discovery of my “anam cara,” my “soul friend,” did not adequately prepare me for the love I felt the first time I held the tiny russet-haired perfect baby in my arms. Time stopped. All I wanted to do was hold her, gaze at her. My heart was bursting.

My heart has continued to fill with joy: three more children to cherish, five grandchildren to spoil. Having a mother’s heart brings incredible benefits.

It also opens us up to a vulnerability that is unprecedented.

The first time your child falls ill, a chasm opens up in front of you, where you try to avert your eyes and not think about what could happen to them.

The first time they have a disappointment or hurt, your heart hurts for and with them.

The first time you realize how fragile the human heart really is.

Back in the spring, on a night that is usually a happy one since it is the anniversary of my sweet baby girl’s birth, I learned that my youngest son was in the tragic train derailment outside of Philadelphia. He was in touch with his brother, and I was assured he was not critically injured. Frantic to learn more, I turned to the news. At that point there was little. The internet provided those first images of the crushed and overturned train cars. I felt as if my heart had stopped.

I wanted to be there to see him. Like that first moment when your newborn is handed to you, I wanted to count fingers and toes, to be assured that he was all right. My heart would not beat peacefully until I at least heard his voice. Once I knew that although he sustained injuries and still carries emotional scars, that he was not in danger, only then could I actually breathe.

This is the tradeoff of having a mother’s heart: You have the privilege of carrying that child beneath your heart and then hold them in your heart forever. But it is painful.

Equally painful can be a heart that is overflowing with joy. The incredible joy of holding my first grandson in my arms, the joy of seeing my granddaughters dance, hit a softball, sneak up behind me and hug me or cook a wonderful dish.

Recently, at the ordination of my priest and friend, I turned to someone and said, “Is it possible the heart can burst from too much joy?”

I celebrate my mother’s heart. I choose to chance the danger of it bursting from too much joy, or breaking from too much sorrow, as it means that I am still on “schoolhouse planet earth,” living, learning and breathing, and above all, daring to love.

Running Bases

Baseball and softball season brings a host of sensory memories: the smell of wet grass, the sound of a bat connecting with the ball, the concentration on the faces of the young children in the field.

For parents and grandparents, it brings multiple challenges. In order to be present for games, dinner is postponed, chores ignored, and sometimes events of other family members have to be juggled so that everyone has their fair share of attention. We love our children, but every parent has to admit that those “rain-outs” are sometimes a blessing.

Recently, on a very busy Saturday afternoon, I attended the softball game of my two young granddaughters. It is a league for first and second graders, which translates to a forum for learning, not the fiercely competitive leagues they will face in the future.

It also means that each child is up at bat until they hit the ball. That can take awhile.

I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant to go, as my time off is scarce, and there were a multitude of things calling for my attention. But any time I have with my lovely grandchildren is a gift.

I didn’t anticipate that it would be a life lesson in the making.

My son’s schedule is also daunting. The games are on Saturdays, and he works a full day, leaving on his lunch hour to travel to the girls’ games, only to be able to stay for a brief time, hoping he gets to witness one of their triumphs.

My older granddaughter is very into the trappings of the game: purple helmet, face guard, and most importantly, Big League Chew. She stands at the plate, eager to swing, and even more eager to scrunch up the features on her sweet face while chewing the pink shreds of gum as if it were tobacco.

The little one has a fierce stance, swinging at the ball as if her life depended on it.

Fortunately, my son is present for their at-bats, standing along the first base line, cheering them on. After witnessing his oldest daughter’s successful run around the bases, he turns to see his little princess up at bat. It takes awhile, and you can see in his face that he needs to be aware of his time. Finally, she swings and hits a low drive towards the shortstop. We are all on our feet, cheering her on to first base.

But wait! She runs instead towards her father, wraps her arms around him, and gives him a big kiss. Her coach is yelling to encourage her to touch first base. What no one recognizes is that she already has.

Daddy is all of the bases to her- especially home. He is the center of her universe, and running into his arms is more important than the score of any game will ever be. I am overcome with emotion, and filled with the joy of knowing that she gets it. And he gets it. That all we really ever need is to run home to those we love.

Hidden memories

Grandfather

I never met my maternal grandfather.

He was killed in a tragic automobile accident when my mother was 17. He was killed instantly; she survived, bearing a series of scars that served as a reminder of her loss, and enhanced her survivor’s guilt.

I grew up with stories about him, that were almost enough to make me feel as if I had known him. Stories are vital to keeping a legacy alive. It is one of the reasons I tell stories, both personally and professionally.

Although I am not a person who places inflated value on possessions, I recognize that they can be storytellers, too.

My grandfather’s chair has always been a part of my life. He was at one time a fireman for the railroad. This chair was the one he had at the station. My mother stripped it of its original paint in a flurry of do-it-yourself projects she undertook. I can see evidence of its former surface, if I examine it carefully.

I like to imagine him sitting in this chair, sharing stories with his cronies. In photos, he bears a very stern yet distinguished appearance. He was 57 when my mother was born, and was 74 at the time of his death.

Stories about him belie his stern appearance. My grandmother was his second wife, his first having died young. He knew my grandmother when she was a child. One of the stories involved him hoisting her up a flag pole when she was a mere toddler. Twenty years his junior, he referred to her as “his little doll.”

When I inherited the chair after my mother’s passing, I sat in it for days, trying to feel not only his presence, but hers. She kept that chair in spite of its lack of aesthetic beauty. I am sure she sometimes sat in it, lovingly stroking the silky wood of the arms, missing her father.

My one cat loves the chair. In it, he can nap with the sun streaming through the window. I put a cushion on it most days to accommodate him.

It is a devil to dust and polish, with intricate turnings, but when I do, I am taken back to simpler times: the laughter of men sitting around a railroad station, my grandfather lifting my mother onto his lap, my mother, remembering how it felt to be so loved by an otherwise stern man.

Possessions are only a valuable as the stories they tell.

Joyful Illumination

Candle

I work in a highly creative and diverse environment. Even when we are all running around like puppies chasing their tails to meet deadlines, help patients or attend meetings, underneath the surface of even the most stressed colleague is a layer of joyful illumination.

I love to witness the transformation when one of them begins to talk about a “passionate premise” in their life. It could be the enthusiasm for perfecting the perfect soup recipe, the complex but stimulating explanation of a pre-calculus exercise, an episode of Game of Thrones, baking the perfect biscotti, picking the right essential oil for stress reduction,  or a rundown on the new trend in feminine superheroes in comic books that triggers “the light,” but it is a joy to observe.

Furrowed lines on brows disappear. Eyes illuminate from within. Gestures become animated. Vocal tones become slightly high-pitched.

All of a sudden, you know you are in the presence of a sentient being. You know that the capacity for joy is lurking just below the surface, waiting to be tapped.

My friend in Vermont makes her own maple syrup. I am in awe of this process. As laborious as it is with only a small return on the effort it takes, there is a priceless moment when that first drop appears that makes it all worthwhile. The trees may appear to be static, frozen in winter’s grasp, but the joyful illumination is just waiting to be tapped.

All it takes is a little effort on our part: to inquire, to listen, to observe, and to invite others to let their light shine.