Friday, November 24, 2017

Heroes and heartache

I don't remember when this was. It was in the early days of the Window, after Tony Hare had taken my picture for the paper. What a nice guy he was. So, anyway, sometime in the early 90s, I think. The times have done some changing since then, know, not everything. I've updated this some, subtracted a few things that were too dated to make sense and added a few. 

I had to add something here, too, a category of heroes that is new on my Top Ten list. There are a lot of heroes who clean up the devastation left by disasters--both natural and human-made. I can't imagine walking into one of those places where children were harmed by wanton violence. I can't imagine being a nurse or a doctor trying to save those young lives and not being able to. My thanks to them for doing what they do, and my everlasting admiration.

There are words that just go together, you know. Bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, his and hers. I've noticed as I've aged that heroes and heartache are that way, too.

“That's why you can't give up. Heroes don't give up.” ― Kiera Cass

I miss heroes. I had them as a kid. They were just the regular ones (remember, this was the 1950s--regular was different then. - Liz, 2017) They were, to my unjaded eyes, a cut above. They had an intelligence and a manner of using it that was beyond my admittedly limited understanding. Some of them grew up poor, as I had, and made me think that I could accomplish things like they did. I wanted to be famous like the, rich like them, and admired like them.

I wanted to shake the dust of Indiana cornfields from my shoes and go on to higher, better, less confining places. I sneered at the names of where we are: the Corn Belt, the Bible Belt, the Crossroads of America. Get real. The only thing that happens at crossroads is that people turn or they keep on going, because either way, there's nothing there.

I saw myself living in a city, writing books, and wearing dress-for-success suits for lunches with my publisher. As I strode up the city sidewalks with a free, long-legged gait, people would turn as they recognized me and I would smile at them, a smile that promised that they, too, could be like my heroes and, subsequently, like me.

Well, I grew up some. And I did what we Bible Belters do. I have a family, a house in the country, and a job I like most of the time. The cornfield dust is firmly attached to both my shoes and my heart. My legs remained short and I don't have any suits--although there is this one pair of black pants I wear to funerals and other events where yoga pants don't look quite right.

As I grew up, however, my heroes didn't. They developed feet of clay. The presidents I admired were less than admirable. The astronauts were just ordinary people with extraordinary jobs. The musicians whose music I loved seemed always to be surrounded by controversy and drugs and things clandestine that lowered them from the pedestals of heroism.

Yeah, you bet I miss them. That particular Top Ten list was something I wanted to pass on my kids, but something happened along the way. I think the kids all found their own heroes, and that's a good thing, because there weren't all that many left on my list to pass down.

But, you know, I have a new list.

One Christmastime,  a woman came into the post office where I was working to mail two large parcels to her family in the South. They wouldn't have a Christmas if she didn't, she explained. But she only had enough money to send one of the parcels the slowest, cheapest way. Planning to go borrow money and come back, she left, leaving both parcels in my custody. The man who had stood behind her in line very quietly paid to mail both parcels at the fast Priority Mail rate. He wouldn't leave his name.

There are teachers known by all of us who, when they see their kids in need, dip into their own pockets to provide. There are Little League parents who pay entry fees for children whose parents can't, who give rides to players without them, and who buy a whole bunch of stuff they neither need nor want because it helps the league. There are coaches who cover expenses not in their contracts, store clerks who keep change in their pockets for customers who don't have quite enough, and people who volunteer and volunteer and volunteer some more.

There is a man with whom I graduated from high school who pulled people from a burning car. People who take care of animals in need. People and agencies who work behind the scenes to fulfill the needs of those who fall between society's ever widening cracks.

There are people who attend meetings of boards and councils whose purposes affect us all and stand firm and tall for what they believe to be right and the best thing for everyone--not just a chosen few.

None of these people will ever be presidents, astronauts, or famous musicians. They might never live in the city and their shoes are probably dusty in the summer. Because they have chosen to stay at the crossroads and light the way for others who have chosen to turn or go on. They are the ones who make the path a little smoother and the world a little kinder.

But are they heroes? Oh, yes.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Turkey, joy, and a small glass of beer

Quite honestly, I'm not sure when I wrote this, so if you've read it too recently to like reading it again, my apologies. The greatest gifts...the greatest reasons for thanksgiving...are the people in our lives, and I'm so grateful for Aunt Nellie. She gave more richness to my life than I can ever explain.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” ― Marcel Proust

Aunt Nellie was my great-aunt. She was born in 1892, loved and married two men, and never had any children. She was the other side of the coin from my grandmother, who’d undoubtedly been the Good Daughter, and even though I loved them both, I worshiped the ground Aunt Nellie walked on.

My mother’s side of the family were all teetotalers, but when my brother-in-law asked Aunt Nellie if she’d like a beer, she said, Yes, she wouldn’t mind a small glass. I don’t know that she ever drank beer again, but she did indeed enjoy every drop of that “small glass.” Where Aunt Nellie was, there was always laughter.

                We used to go to her house for Thanksgiving. I’m not sure how many of us were there. It seemed like dozens at the time, but the number was probably closer to 25. She lived in a pretty little Cape Cod house on a pretty little street in Goshen, Indiana, and she had...oh, even in memory, it thrills me...she had a step stool you could sit on and the steps pushed out in front! She also had a finished basement with its own kitchen! In the living room part of the basement, there was a cabinet Victrola with a stack of records. They were tinny and scratchy and it was hard to get them going the right speed with the crank, but there was such safety lying on the rug listening to Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore.

                Even though I grew up on a small farm, the only time we ever had turkey was on Thanksgiving. I’m pretty sure I ate my weight in it every year. I loved eating whatever I wanted and never having to touch the red stuff that slid out of the Ocean Spray can. The dessert table was impressive, to say the least, and it was pretty much stripped by the end of the day. Even then, leftovers went home with each family, and the feeling of fullness and warmth would go on with turkey and noodles the next day.    

                I imagine being poor was a key player in my satisfaction with Thanksgiving, but that’s really neither here nor there. What matters are the memories and the lessons Aunt Nellie left behind. She was somewhere in her 80s when she died. She’d been packing for a trip to Grand Rapids with friends when she passed away. Grief created a hard, empty place in my chest at the loss, and I just knew I’d never get over it. However, at the funeral the officiating pastor mentioned her preparing for her trip and said she’d been just as ready to go to heaven as she’d been to go to Grand Rapids. My grandmother, who’d loved her younger sister even more than we did, said she thought if she’d had her choice, Aunt Nellie would rather have gone to Grand Rapids. Laughter softened the grief and added one more rung to the memory ladder.

                Aunt Nellie was one of the first people I thought of when I became a Harlequin Heartwarming author. She’d have loved the line’s premise, its joy and sense of family and its humor. She'd have also told everyone at the beauty shop all about her niece, the author. Knowing that reminds me again of how lucky I was to have her.

                Happy Thanksgiving to all. If you have that small glass of beer, be sure to enjoy every drop.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

...friends are friends forever...

Zak II
Bradley A. McClain, a local funeral director, posted this on Facebook. After I got done sniffling about it, I asked him if I could use it here, because we all need some help from our friends sometimes.

Enjoy, and thanks, Brad.

This is Zak II. He is old, smelly, has two teeth, and is about the pickiest eater ever. He came to me from a rescue shelter after he was taken from a home with 108 dogs. He was number 47. His back leg was broken at some point and it healed crooked, so when he runs, he has to hop to make his back end keep up with the front. He has a fistula in his mouth that runs up to his nose which makes him whistle if he sleeps on his left side...which is absolutely impossible to sleep next to.

He is the most lovable old man dog I have ever had the privilege of knowing. He's stubborn and annoying, especially when another animal has one of his toys. He prefers to only do his number two at the office yard, so I sometimes have to drive him 8.7 miles to go. Of course, this is because he's figured out this is an absolute certain method of manipulation to get to go for a car ride―with the heated seat turned on.

He loves almost everybody at work and likes to snuggle with people that are having a bad day. At least until the dreaded "brown man" shows up at the door, and he turns all rabid-Rottweiler on the UPS guy, wanting to shred his legs and make sure that he never terrorizes our place of business again. We really don't know why he hates the UPS man, but it's something he is absolutely dedicated to in his beliefs.

When I get up to go to the bathroom in the night, he steals my warm spot and all my pillows and burrows down in an effort to hide himself in the warmth. He usually wins and I go to his side of the bed to not disturb his happiness. He sleeps all night in the same position, and doesn't get out of bed until after I've showered and put my socks on, enjoying each second of blessed rest before absolutely having to extract himself from the comforts of his queen size bed, which he allows me a portion of most nights.

He flirts with all the drive-through servers in town, with an extraordinary ability to get a free small French fry or chicken nugget. The bank tellers know him by name, and he expects that drawer to contain a biscuit when it returns my deposit slip. He has made friends with several other delivery persons, one of whom even has a special bag of soft treats for his toothless self to enjoy. He has trained the humans at the office to feed him with a fork―it's easier for him than sliding a plate all over trying to pick up food without his choppers. He is devastated when dinner arrives via take out and there is nothing for him in the bag.

Zak II and Brad
He is old, he has his issues, but I couldn't love any bag of fleas any more than this mongrel. He's faithful and steady in his friendship, and when I've had an emotional day, he knows just how to snuggle to make things better. His best friend is the cat that snuggles up to him nightly and gives him a good bath around two am. He catches the "slow" squirrel in front of my house every couple of weeks, licks his face, and lets him go.

Tonight, I lay here snuggling with the old mutt and thinking how thankful I am for his loyalty, his friendship, his forgiveness, and his love. I should probably take a few lessons from him, as he is a great example of how man should live. Try to love unconditionally, forgive and let go when necessary, remove and drive away the toxic people in your life so that you can be happier. Enjoy the simple blessings (like car rides and treats), rise above your afflictions, and move on from past struggles. Know when you need the care of others and when to snuggle and love those who are broken. Rest as needed, share (well, everything but special toys), and do everything faithfully and with conviction.

Lessons from Zak II.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The poppies still grow

I'm not sure when I wrote this, but I've added and subtracted several times over the years since. It would be easy to make this a political post, but this is neither the time nor--right now, today--the place. I've changed my mind on many things over the years, and my own patriotism has taken a hard hit, but the things here--they're the same. Thank you again, veterans.

A few years back, the fifth graders at my grandson’s school performed their annual Veterans Day salute. They sang and shook hands with veterans in the audience. There was a long slide show of pictures of mothers and fathers and grandfathers and other relatives who had served in the armed forces. I thought my eyes would never get dry. After watching the program, I tried to put into words how I feel, how proud and grateful I am that so many have served so long and so well.

Except I didn’t have any new words, though my eyes are leaking again as I write this introduction to a tribute I still feel.

John Thomas and Amos Ash were residents of Miami County, Indiana. They fought with the 20th Regiment of Indiana. They died at Gettysburg in 1863.

Uncle Mart was ten years older than Aunt Ethel. They were married forever, but they never had any children. That always seemed odd to me, but it really wasn’t. They adored each other and never needed anyone else; they were a complete family unit unto themselves. He was bald and funny and liked to fish. He served in the first World War. The Big One, some people said.

I don’t remember what his name was, but he and his parents were visiting my family when something happened and they had to return to their South Bend home at once because he had to catch the next train back to his duty station. The day was December 7, 1941, long before I was born, but I still remember the empty look on Mom’s face when she told the story.

Thadd was a baker in the navy during that war, the second of the World Wars. The one
more people called The Big One. A couple of years after he came home, Thadd and Mary got married and they had five kids.

His name was Wayne. I was at his going-away party before he left for Vietnam. He was young and smart and eager to serve his country. There was a girl at the party who looked at him with soft eyes. We laughed a lot, had a good time, and wished him luck when we left. We were used to it, I suppose, to saying goodbye and hoping for the chance to say hello when they came back home, so we didn’t give it that much thought.

Wayne, though, and Mike Waymire and John Miller, to name but a few, came home in flag-draped coffins. We watched the news, read the papers, wept. We remembered smooth-faced, laughing boys and mourned with the wives and girlfriends and mothers who would never feel the same again, with fathers silent and stoic in their grief. We acknowledged empty places and heard remembered laughter and voices echo through them.

I married the second of Thadd and Mary’s kids after he came home from Vietnam. Like the Korean Conflict, no one ever called it The Big War, but to the ones who served there, and the ones who waited at home, they were big enough. Long enough. Sad enough.

When Desert Storm happened our son Chris was stateside, wearing the army uniform his father had.

We watched and waited and feared and prayed. It was the same with Iraq. With Afghanistan. With all the other wars and conflicts and skirmishes where Americans have served.

My grandson Skyler is 18, a senior in high school. He spent the summer in basic training. He's our handsome, sweet boy and even though he wears a uniform well, it makes my heart clutch seeing him in it. He has walked and talked and breathed military since he was eight years old so I shouldn't have been surprised when he was ready to enlist, but I wasn't ready for it. He wants to serve and I want to make him cookies--I suppose it is the same with all young military men and their grandmothers.

In October of 2010, the city of Logansport, Indiana welcomed Sgt. Kenneth K. McAnich home. The hearse drove slow and solemn through streets lined with flags and people, the Patriot Guard riding protective escort against those who might not be respectful. It’s symbolic, this ceremonial farewell we offer our fallen warriors. I’m sure it does little to fill the echoing empty places created by their deaths. But it’s all we can do.

My husband remembers how people looked at him in airports when he came home from Vietnam. How they sneered and then looked away. I saw the same thing in Indianapolis, when among the celebratory crowds coming home at Christmastime walked a lone soldier, carrying his duffel bag and staring straight ahead. Over forty years later, those who served in Vietnam know it wasn’t them people hated; it was the war. But they still remember.

We all hate war. All of us. Thank goodness we’ve learned how to welcome home those who fight in them. We’ve learned to applaud them in airports and on planes, to buy their lunch once in a while if they’re behind us at the cashier’s station, to say thank you and mean it. 

That’s why November 11 is Veterans Day. It is not a day of celebration, although rejoicing in freedom is probably never wrong. It is instead a day of remembrance and honor to the men and women who have for nearly 240 years and who continue to serve in the preservation of that freedom. Thank you to all of you. God bless you. God bless America.

Friday, November 3, 2017

'Twas the month before Christmas...

I wrote this in 1994 at Christmastime, when I believe I was feeling disgruntled. Not much has changed since then--about me, anyway--although the microwave's built in so I can't lose things behind it and now we have 40 years of stuff accumulated at our house instead of 17. I'm using this column here kind of early so you can get a jump on things and not do them the way I do. I haven't started yet, in case you're wondering, unless I can count this as a start...

There are people out there who have their Christmas shopping done. They are the same ones who bought all their wrapping paper, Christmas cards, bows, and tinsel last December 26.

They also keep all their Christmas shopping receipts in a separate place, like a little green and red folder, and they know at all times where that folder is located. If they have real Christmas trees, they remember to water them every day and they take them out of the house before all the needles fall off and embed themselves in the carpet.

These people's tree ornaments match each other. The ethereal angels or brilliant stars they use do not cause the trees to lean drunkenly. There are never full strings of non-working lights on the trees and the lights all twinkle at the same speed or they chase each other merrily around the branches.

Their Christmas cookies and candy are made and frozen well ahead of time and they have plenty of decorative tins and baskets on hand so that all they have to do is add a pretty handmade bow and they have an instant gift for the unexpected guest.

I decided many years ago, on a Christmas Eve when I was sewing the last ruffles

on my daughter's Christmas dress at two o'clock on Christmas morning before she and her brothers rolled out at five, that when I grew up, I was going to be one of the people I've been talking about.

My first step in that direction was to buy wrapping paper the day after Christmas for the following year. Then we moved to a different house. It just seemed foolish when we were already moving 10 times as much stuff out of the old house as we moved into it to also move 12 rolls of paper and 50 bows, so I gave them away instead of moving them. Then, two weeks later, I went out and bought all new because we moved in November, for heaven's sake. (Moving is not good for one's thought processes. While I did not move the wrapping paper, I did move several boxes that remain unopened in the attic 17 years later.)
Lynn with the cold heart

My next organizational move was to buy and address Christmas cards as soon as they hit the shelves, which was somewhere along about July. I even addressed them in green ink to make them look properly Christmas-like. Then I proceeded to lose them, along with the complete list of addresses I'd called all over the country to compile.

My sister-in-law Lynn, bless her cold little heart, found them long after Christmas had passed, nestled behind the microwave oven. Fifteen years later, I'm still telling her it's none of her business how often I clean behind my appliances. Or if I do.

Then there's shopping.

Occasionally, I start it in August. More often, I start in October and now and then in November. I've discovered that it doesn't matter when I start Christmas shopping, I finish it on Christmas Eve. Last year my husband and I were only two of the 3000 people in Walmart at 11 o'clock on Christmas Eve morning and we decided we would never, neverdo such a foolish thing again.

At least until this year.

Because, all advice I've given freely and unasked to people not withstanding, I've given up.

I'm never going to be one of those people who have Christmas organized. I will always be a day late and a dollar short and my favorite Christmas tree ornaments will still be the ones my kids brought home from the first grade. My tree top will still be crooked and I'll always have needles embedded in my carpet even though we have an artificial tree. The cookies and candy will always be made at the last minute if they're made at all and eaten warm off a dish towel lying on the kitchen counter.

What it amounts to is, at least as far as Christmas is concerned, I am like Peter Pan: I won't grow up.

I hope you won't, either. I hope you have fun shopping and wrapping and decorating. And don't forget the giving. It's the very best part of it all.

Till next time.