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Last week, Anne Lamonte posted a blog on Facebook explaining her negative opinion of Mother’s Day. Anne is famous among writers for her book Bird by Bird, which reminds us that writing a book, like so many other things in life, is done one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. I like most of Anne’s posts, even the ones I don’t agree with. And I enjoyed this one. But she got me thinking. Did I agree with her attack on a day that is more or less sacred because it is devoted to mothers?

Now, Anne’s post is not sour grapes. She is a mother, and she was quick to point out she did not raise her son Sam to celebrate the day. In her view, she would rather have a thank you 365 days of the year in place of just one on a day that is more or less sponsored by Hallmark and See’s Candy. (She is also not a fan of Valentine’s day, either.)

In theory, I agree with her point. And, in addition to my Smile Project (which I wrote about some posts ago), I have my own personal Thank You Project, devoted to random acts of thank you. I believe the world is too full of criticism and not full enough of letting people know what they’ve done right. Hence, I strive to use the words “Thank You” as often as possible. And you get what you give. My children are quick to thank me often. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have one special day to sit down with them at brunch (which has become our traditional celebration) and enjoy their recognition for my role in their lives. I would miss Mother’s Day if it went away.

Anne also finds the day discriminatory. She reads Mother’s Day as a message to women without children that they are second class citizens. I disagree. I had my children later on in life, after years of not wanting any. And I never, ever drew a negative inference about myself on Mother’s Day during my childless years. Of course I will not deny that for a woman who wants a child and who cannot have one, the day can be painful. But so is every other day when she sees a child and longs for one of her own, yet does not become pregnant. (A dear friend went through this and after giving up entirely found herself pregnant at last!) I don’t think Mother’s Day is a message to the childless, either by choice or by chance, they are less than.

Finally, Anne faults the inevitable commercialism that any holiday that involves gift giving creates. But that, I think, is too simplistic a view of the question. While Hallmark and See’s get their share of business, along with florists, why is it wrong to send a gift on a particular day to a special person? And Mother’s Day gifts do not have to be expensive. I was always happy with the handmade artwork, the $1.99 earrings from Walmart, or the “coupons” for dishwashing and laundry folding. (I never cashed them in, by the way. They live forever in my keepsake box.)

After thinking it over, I do see Anne Lamont’s point. Some aspects of Mother’s Day can be viewed as negative. But that is true of every other holiday I can think of. New Year’s means resolutions no one keeps. Easter is only about candy and stuffed rabbits. Halloween will rot your children’s teeth (and yours, too, if you steal their candy.) Thanksgiving in devoted to gluttony. Christmas is too stressful and commercial. And children’s birthdays are too expensive and pretentious, and your birthday is depressing because you’re getting older. So should we stamp out holidays?

No, of course, not. Nothing is perfect. Holidays are bits of magic interspersed into everyday life. They allow us to believe in magic, even if for only twenty-four hours. I would miss all of them, including Mother’s Day, if they went away.

Family Portrait

Family Portrait

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Jimmy Carter left the Southern Baptist Conference after more than sixty years. He had been a deacon and a Sunday School teacher, and he is a profoundly and sincerely religious man. But his reason for leaving the Southern Baptists: the church’s increasing rigidity over the equality of women. Relying on certain passages of scripture, the Southern Baptists insist upon a wife’s subjugation to her husband. And they no longer allow women in the ministry.

Southern Baptists are the United States’ largest Protestant denomination, with 15.9 million members. I doubt that people who have not lived in the South understand what a powerful presence they are in Southern society and culture. My own grandfather was a rigid Southern Baptist who believed in eternal damnation for setting foot in any other church. As a child, I was bundled off to Sunday School and kindergarten at the Southern Baptist church that literally sat on our doorstep. (Eventually they would buy the house I grew up in and turn it into a parking lot, an act of destruction that has always left me profoundly sad.)

I was lucky that my early contact with the mighty Southern Baptist conference had nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with my parents not wanting to go to church themselves. They shuffled me across the street, Sunday after Sunday, and then went home to put their feet up, read the paper, and drink coffee until it was time to pick me up. The perfect example of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Eventually, though, being Southern parents, mine were forced to decide about their children’s Religious Affiliation. Southerners have to have some sort of Religious Affiliation to use on Easter and Christmas. And to get married and buried.

Since I had not been baptized as an infant – a practice my Southern Baptist father would never have agreed to and my Methodist mother had no opinion about – I necessarily would have to be baptized as a pre-teen or teen. But the point was, I was a daughter of the South and so I had to be baptized somehow, to avoid going to hell, of course. (Hell at that point was thought to be populated by Northerners, at least unreconstructed Southerners thought so. I didn’t give it much thought since I never planned to wind up there. And it did seem to me that the Civil War had been over for quite some time.)

My parents eventually lit upon a sect of Presbyterians who conducted services as if they were Episcopalians minus kneeling, the sign of the cross, and robes on the minister. For some reason, these Presbys were taken with the beauty of the Anglican liturgy (me, too, by the way) and they adopted it as their own. My father quit being a Southern Baptist and my mother quit being a Methodist, and I got baptized and turned into a Presbyterian by having a red carnation dipped into a bowl of water and squashed on top of my head. Whew! Eternal Damnation avoided! (I fully believe God has a sense of humor because He gave me one.)

By and by, to the absolute horror of my parents, I became an Episcopalian. This required yet another baptism for technical Episcopalian reasons. In their world, water on top of the head doesn’t save you. It has to cross your forehead. So to make absolutely sure I was good and baptized for all time, the priest poured water from a silver shell over my forehead. Killed the hairdo, but now Nothing stood between me, Saint Peter, and those Pearly Gates.

At first, I wanted to be an Episcopalian so that I could walk into any Anglican communion anywhere and hear the beautiful words of the liturgy. I loved that feeling of community when the priest intoned that gorgeous subjunctive phase, “The Lord be with you.” And we answered, “And also with you.” If I went to a Presbyterian church, other than the one I grew up in, I would not hear the liturgy. Then, by and by, my first child turned out to be a daughter. And I wanted her to grow up in a church where women could be priests if they wanted to be. I couldn’t see the point of a religion that told women from the get-go, you’re not good enough.

I have admired Mr. Carter always. He is a man of integrity in a world where integrity is in short supply. And I know what a hard decision he had to make. A Southern Baptist heritage is like being bound by tentacles.

For me, I chose well. You can be anything, anyone, anybody and be an Episcopalian. We have women priests, men priests, gay priests, lesbian priests, and yes, married priests, hetero and gay. Oh, and Bishops, too, come in all varieties. We are the ones the Catholics come to when divorce makes them ineligible to be Catholics anymore. We don’t have to stand on street corners and preach (Southern Baptists did this when I was growing up) and we don’t condemn anyone else’s religion. We are pretty sure God doesn’t either. And we are absolutely sure that women are equal in this world and the next. Back in the day, the Baptist Sunday School taught me to sing this song, which doesn’t say anything about having to be a male child to gain the All Access Pass to Heaven.

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Black and yellow, red and white
They’re all precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Love Comes in All Shapes and Colors

Love Comes in All Shapes and Colors

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The Easter Bunnies eyed me from the front door this morning and said they are not ready to come down. Normally on the first of April I would be putting them up, not taking them down. The green shamrock wreaths always rule the month of March. But the calender played a trick this year and stuck Easter on the day before April Fool’s, leaving me with some unhappy leprechauns who didn’t get to come out of their boxes in March.

In my last post, I explained how my neighbor Lenore inspired my monthly door decorating sessions. Her whimsical greenhouse window displays reminded me that each month has something special to celebrate. I also was inspired by my southern roots, particularly the years I lived in Virginia where I first noticed wreaths displayed on doors year round.

California entrance doors don’t seem to need decorations (except at Christmas) because front doors aren’t used. Most Californians enter their homes through the garage. They pull up in their expensive European sedans, hit the garage door opener hidden in the car’s sun visor, and vanish into the depths never to be seen again. Or at least, never to be seen until the next time the garage door goes up, and they pull out once again in their expensive European sedans. (At Four-Way Stop Intersections in California, the first car to go is not the first one that stopped; it’s the most expensive. Heaven help the Mercedes driver who encounters a Lamborghini.)

When I first came to California in the mid 1980’s, I noticed that the houses here don’t look out on the street the way houses do back east. Where I grew up, and throughout the South, houses have front windows that seem to look outward like eyes. And backyards don’t have fences; or if they do, they have the chainlink ones that let you see into the yard next door. But in California, houses more often look inward toward a pool or courtyard. And people here put high wooden fences around their yards, so you know you have a neighbor, but you cannot see hide nor hair of him or her. I came to wonder if this modern-day residential phenomenon could be attributed to the history of California because people from back east arrived to live on isolated ranches and to fend for themselves. When they urbanized, they continued to keep their neighbors out of sight as much as possible.

At any rate, I am a cultural anomaly here because I both use and decorate my front doors. (Yes, I have not one, but two. And I saved them from the vicious Homeowner’s Association over a a year ago and vanquished a male chauvinist bully on Yelp while I was at it. But that is yet another story.)

To keep the peace, I promised the bunnies they could stay until Saturday. Then they have to go back to their boxes until next year.

Can't It Stay Easter for a While?

Can’t It Stay Easter for a While?

Cheeky Bunnies

Cheeky Bunnies

I refuse to leave:  squatter's rights.

I refuse to leave: squatter’s rights.

Cheeky Bunnies Demanded Their Close-Up

Cheeky Bunnies Demanded Their Close-Up

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I went to an estate sale on Saturday and acquired some
items that mean the world to me. No one knows why. Here’s why.

A few years ago, the woman who gave birth to me had a stroke that
changed her personality so drastically that I found myself an
orphan in mid-life. She had always been a difficult person, and I
had labored for my whole life to have a place in hers. I had
acquired all the academic bells and whistles, had become a
respected professional, and had done a sometimes heroic job of
raising three children as a single mother. But nothing I ever did
impressed her or was enough for her; and in the end she showed me
the door because I was, in her terms, a poor specimen of a human
being.

She survived the stroke; but our relationship did not. And
that is enough said about that. I found great freedom in accepting
my situation and moving on with my life. She wanted me gone; I gave
her what she wanted. For the first time, there was no voice whining
in my ear that I wasn’t good enough.

A few months later, a story on Good Morning American snagged my attention.
A lovely young woman in her mid-thirties, also cast out by her birth family without
justification, had actually put herself up for adoption. And she
had found a lovely second family. I considered the ad I would have
written. “Lovely little family of four, all outstanding over
achievers, seeks parents and grandparents. Looking only for love
and companionship, holiday celebrations, loving phone calls.”

It was only a fantasy, of course. But fantasy has often gotten me
through some of the harder places in life.

Perhaps the central difference in my birth mother and myself is the ability
to nurture. I’m not quite sure how an Earth Mother like me sprang from an Ice
accept her as she is.

Queen, but I did. I don’t fault her for what she didn’t have. I
But as a born nurturer, I have to have someone or some thing to take care of.
Of course there were my children when they were little. And even now they
are adults, I can still give them some nurturing, although not as much.
But now they are on their own, my days are bracketed by the need
to care for my two Golden Retrievers, Melody and Rhythm. Every morning
and every afternoon, I feed them and walk them to the enchanting
little pond that some of the condos in our development back
up to. And this routine was especially comforting in the days
when I was still hurting from my mother’s ultimatum and
wishing I could advertise us for adoption.

The path to the pond winds through a grove of lacy
eucalyptus trees, past a condo in our development with a greenhouse
window facing the path. Now all these units are rather old. They
were built in 1978 when greenhouse windows were quite the “in”
thing. As Melody and Rhythm and I passed by day after day, month
after month, I noticed that this particular window’s display
changed with each month and often featured ducks, a tribute to the
mallards that inhabit the pond. At Christmas, the window had
caroling ducks in tiny Dickens outfits holding tiny song books. At
Easter, there were ducks and bunnies and pastel eggs. For July,
teddies dressed in red white and blue and lots of those .99 cent
flags. At Thanksgiving the window held a blend of pilgrims, ducks,
and autumn leaves. Then Christmas and the web-footed carolers would
come round again. In between, the window defaulted to a display of
tiny lighthouses, rustic bears, bald eagles with spread wings, and
a pair of tin lanterns. And now and than a new trinket appeared.

The person responsible for this fascinating whimsy was a tall,
thin, grey haired woman, well over eighty. Just about the age of my
former mother. She lived alone, dressed elegantly in expensive
subdued slacks and blouses, and always wore pearls. There were skis
in the garage and a set of golf clubs. In those days, she still
drove. Her regular routine was a trip to the grocery store around
four o’clock each day to decide what to cook herself for dinner.
She first noticed me because she loved my beautiful Goldens, and we
often passed by just as she was beginning or ending this daily food
shop. She’d wave when she saw us and would smile and say something
sweet to Melody and Rhythm.

I learned that her name was Lenore. I caught glimpses of her mahogany Windsor
chairs in her dining room as I passed each day. I saw the tiny beautiful
antique table in the perfect spot in the hall, the tiny spoon
rack above her miniature sideboard, and the glass-fronted
curio cabinets in the living room. I guessed she was a collector,
and that she was not from California. Her condo was an exquisite
blend of Williamsburg-style furniture that few people in
California are drawn to. But I, of course, loved it.
She was just the sort of mother I would have chosen.

Her monthly displays inspired me to decorate my own front
entrance each month. I didn’t have a greenhouse window, so I made a
front door wreath for each month and hung appropriate wooden signs
and ornaments on the tree by the door. Even the grumpy Homeowners
Association wrote me a letter complimenting my charming entrance.
Little did they know it was all because of Lenore and her
greenhouse window.

Lenore seemed to draw people to her. Most afternoons when the weather
was nice she would put off the store trip, and she would sit at the table
on her patio with several of the ladies who lived in the condos. They
would sip white wine from thin-stemmed crystal glasses and chat.
Their ritual included feeding the ducks who would come up to
her patio, flapping their wings if Lenore was late throwing
out their food. Often, Melody and Rhythm and I would be
walking by about this time, and Leonore and her friends
would wave as they threw food to the ducks.

Then, a couple of years ago, Lenore had a stroke. A widow from Connecticut,
she had moved to San Diego when her husband died to be close to her
children living here. So she had plenty of support from children
and grandchildren. She recovered enough to go on living in her
lovely condo with a live-in care giver; and even though she no
longer drove, she steadfastly maintained her old routine. Store in
the afternoon. Friends and duck feeding on the patio. Waving at me
and the retrievers. Church on Sunday. Always beautifully dressed
with pearls, but now she used her ski poles for support instead of
a cane. And the window changed each month just as before.

I came to count on that window. Her creative additions were mini surprises in
my day. Sometimes a new duck. Sometimes a single flower in a vase.
She was obviously a woman of great charm and creativity. Then, this
October, a month after she turned ninety, she died. I didn’t know
for a long time because nothing changed at the condo. There was
even a Christmas tree at Christmas. And the window displays went on
as before.But in early January, I began to see lots of picture
frames in the trash and a woman in the garage going through albums.
Eventually, I learned that these were her children deciding what to
keep and what to let go of.

I was profoundly sad, but her daughter staying at the condo kept
up the old ways. Window decorated. Afternoons with the ladies and
white wine on the patio. Ducks fed. I half hoped Leonore wasn’t really
gone but was on a long visit and coming back. Silly fantasy.
But the day I saw the blue glass vases were no longer in the window
in her bedroom, the truth became very real to me. She and I had loved blue glass vases.

This Saturday, I was one of the first to arrive at the estate sale. I knew exactly
what I wanted. And there they were, still in the greenhouse window,
with tiny price stickers on each one. I don’t know where the
caroling ducks went, or the bunnies or the patriotic teddies, but I
bought the default bears and lighthouses and lanterns. And a tiny
little Limoges heart box to remember her by.

Lenore didn’t really adopt me. But it was a fantasy that got me
through a sad time in my life. I don’t have a greenhouse window,
but I rushed happily home from the sale and arranged my treasures on
shelves in the guest room. And I go in often to stand
in front of them and smile. They mean the world to me.

And something else came from the estate sale, too.
I met Lenore’s son and his wife, and I got to tell them how
much Leonore inspired me. Yesterday I was out walking the
retrievers at the usual time, and they were leaving after closing
up her house for the last time. They made a point of waving to me
just as she would have done.

So prayers are answered. A part of my own family reconnected with me
after my wish went out to the Universe to belong. And now I will always
be able to look at Leonore’s little treasures and remember how
much she inspired and cheered me during a sad time in my life.
The ducks, too, are being looked after. One of her friends comes
by each afternoon about four to feed them as Melody and Rhythm and I go by on our walk.

Lenore's patio just as she left it

Lenore’s patio just as she left it

The ducks and the pond

The ducks and the
pond

The window empty for the first time.

The window empty for
the first time.

Lenore's eagles and lanterns


Lenore’s eagles and lanterns

The light houses

The light houses

Her bears

Her bears

Her January cardinals

Her January
cardinals

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Last week, on the day before Valentine’s Day, my son called home from college.

“Mom, I need the fudge recipe.”

Now here was a bit of family lore that had drifted silently into dry dock, and I’m not quite sure if I can say when. Back in the day when all three kids were home and fairly small, fudge at Christmas was our special family treat. Even in the years when Christmas had to be celebrated on a shoestring, fudge was always affordable. It was our go-to gift for their friends, for their teachers at school, for their music teachers, and for anyone else who happened to cross our paths at the holiday. And it was blissfully appropriate across all religious lines as long as I remembered to buy only “Happy Holidays” tins at Walmart. (None of the kids’ friends had a problem with the ones with Santa Claus on top, either.)

Now, candy was an interesting subject at our house. I do not know if modern Southern mothers raise children who are forbidden to have candy, but I was not raised that way, and it never occurred to me to banish candy. Perhaps because it was so available, my children were never particularly interested in it. The miniature candy bars in the toes of the Christmas stockings became petrified wood by the time I remembered to throw them out at Easter. Similarly, the pastel foil wrapped chocolate eggs thoughtfully provided by the Easter Bunny languished into melt down as summer approached. And my children would politely nibble an ear off a chocolate rabbit and then wrap it up forever more. At Halloween, they counted their loot and put it away until Christmas. It is amazing that we didn’t have more ants in the house more often.

So because candy was never forbidden, it never made anyone’s heart beat faster. On the other hand, when the children who were being raised Sugarless came over, I’d find the little jars of Hershey’s kisses on the kitchen counter empty by the time they went home. Which was fine. The kisses were there to be eaten, and we probably weren’t going to eat them. And I would never inform the Sugar Police on our little visitors.

But fudge at Christmas was a different story. Maybe because fudge is creamy, gooey chocolate like none other and maybe because it appeared but once a year, every fudge crumb ever concocted on our stove was consumed.

When Michael called last week, I panicked. Where was the recipe? I had once known it by heart, and for a full ten minutes I could not even think where the written version was. Losing it would be like losing the baby teeth the Tooth Fairy had taken out from under their pillows and hidden in my jewelry box. Some parts of family lore are just too precious to lose.

“I’ll have to hunt for it and call you back,” I told him. (Southerner’s “hunt” for things; we do not “look for” them.) As soon as I got off the phone, I sat quietly and tried to think it through. I had no idea where the written version was because I had made it so many years by memory. Yet I knew it was written down. I am careful to keep important things like that written down.

I closed my eyes and thought about how ordinary things are no longer ordinary when they are woven into the fabric of a family’s life. There are the special ornaments that have to be on the Christmas tree each year. There is the Thanksgiving stuffing that must contain sausage and oysters, but no mushrooms. There is the one and only birthday cake with chocolate butter cream to paste the layers together, and vanilla butter cream on the outside. There are the Easter Bunny footprints stealthily stenciled on the front walk at midnight with flour. There was our first dog’s birthday on July 4, and now our current dogs’ birthdays on February 2 and March 3. These things and these dates and these memories are sewn together to make the quilt of our unique family story. And each is important and never to be lost or forgotten.

So where, oh where was the fudge recipe? Of course, in the binder of family recipes that I had put together over the years. Within fifteen minutes, I had typed it into an e-mail, and it was on its way to my son who called shortly thereafter.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“No problem. Glad you reminded me where it was.”

“Well, I’m being cheap. Instead of buying chocolate, I’m making it for her.”

“Oh, no. That’s not cheap. Any gift from your own hands, of your own time, is never cheap. You guys have a very Happy Valentine’s Day!”

And so a bit of our family lore was recovered, renewed, and passed on.

Holiday Tin

Holiday Tin

The Good Stuff

The Good Stufff

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Happy New Year

Happy New Year

When I was a child, New Year’s was a sad holiday. It was the day the now shabby and wilting Christmas tree came down; the day we were forced to eat black-eye peas swimming in bacon grease for luck; and the day before the dreaded Return to School. Whereas December had been filled with class parties, cookies, gift exchanges, singing carols, and a Christmas play that the entire elementary school presented, January was a bleak, cold month in Tennessee filled with homework and early bed time. No magic allowed.

New Year seemed an even more hollow celebration as I grew older. Even though by high school the December lead up to Christmas no longer carried even the slightest celebratory trace of magic, still the idea of two whole weeks without six periods each day, homework to match, and avoiding the Popular People in the halls was anticipatory nirvana. But New Year’s once again marked the end of freedom and the return to drudgery. Nothing joyful about that.

After I graduated to career person, I used to hang out at various New Year’s parties, trying to feel festive and not sad. I never developed a circle of close friends, so I always shouted “Happy New Year!” among strangers. Despite being happy to be included, a holiday with people I didn’t know just reminded me I was pretty much rowing my little boat alone in the big wide ocean. No magic there.

But after I became the mother of three, I began, at last, to see New Year’s differently. It all changed about the time my oldest hit preschool, and I encountered the hurdles that face a Mom with Kids in School between October and January 1. First came Halloween, and sewing costumes. Three children, three costumes, a night of trick or treating, and then scraping my exhausted little ones off the bed and back to school on November 1. Then came Thanksgiving and preparing a feast alone while making sure three children under the age of five did not vaporize themselves while I shopped, chopped, baked, served, and counted the silver forks when it was over to make sure I hadn’t thrown one out. Next came Christmas. More sewing: matching mother, daughter, and sons outfits to wear to church on Christmas Eve. Decorating the house, including hauling a tree home on top of the car. And last, but not least, doing Santa’s work for him – and realizing that Santa Claus was just another way to keep women from earning credit for their own hard work. (On Christmas morning the kids never knew not only had I bought the toys, I had spent the night assembling them!)

When New Year’s rolled around that first year of being a Mom with Kids in School, I took a big breath (after the Christmas tree was down) and realized that no more holidays were in sight until Easter. Yipee! Suddenly New Year’s was not the drab little elf sitting on my shoulder after all the glittering Christmas fairies and angels had departed for warmer climates. No, New Year’s was the well-deserved break I had earned! Thankfully, Valentine’s and Easter were fairly minor holidays in the yearly pantheon, leaving me time to rest up before the onset of serious Birthday Season in our family: May, July, August, and September. Followed, of course again, by Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and – at last – the well earned rest New Year’s!

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I love Christmas decorations, and I collect them. I admit. Each year, I combine them in new ways. Here are some of my favorites this year.

Magic Dragons watching over our tree.

Magic Dragons watching over our tree.

Magic Dragons Watching Over Their Own Tree. .

Magic Dragons Watching Over Their Own Tree. .

Dragons at Home

Dragons at Home

The Cafe is Open.

The Cafe is Open.

Detail.

Detail.

Our Frosty.

Our Frosty.

Happy, Happy Holidays!

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