Who, Me?

I was mincing fresh rosemary at the kitchen table when my daughter said, “I met a woman who reminded me of you.”

Daughter told us she’d been in Jo-Ann Fabric buying pillow forms for the cushion covers she’d tie-dyed as gifts.* Those of you who shop at that store will remember how the registers are at the end of a u-shaped corrider formed by shelves stocked with candy, magazines, and other enticing items. On this particular day, just a few days before Christmas, the line was long. Daughter suspects a store policy of under-manning  registers to keep customers in line longer, right next to the enticing items, and thus more likely to make impulse purchases. Which is what she did: she stood in line long enough to notice attractive wrapping paper displayed right next to her and decided to buy a roll.

We all have heartbreak in our lives. Your heartbreak may not look exactly like mine but if you shared yours I would know what it felt like. I’ve felt it, too. One heartbreak of mine is that my daughter got sick at about the same age I did. Some of her symptoms differ from mine, and her doctors haven’t told her she has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or SEIDS. Her doctors have a number of titles for her set of symptoms. But the end result is the same: deep and utter fatigue, unrelieved by rest. It’s a life changing condition, as, sadly, some of you know from personal experience. I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy. It breaks my heart to see my daughter struggle with the limitations imposed by this disease, whatever the doctors decide to call it.

And she was struggling that day in JoAnn Fabric. She was dead on her feet as she waited in that long check-out line with the two pillow forms she’d gone in for and the long roll of attractive gift-wrap clutched in her arms.

Then the woman in line in front of her turned around, looked at the gift wrap, and said, “Oh! I thought that was a cane! I thought you had a cane decorated for the holidays.”

My daughter said, “No, it’s not a holiday cane, but that’s a good idea.”

“I use a cane sometimes. I’d buy a decorated one,” the shopper said. “And I bet lots of other people would, too.”  And the woman was off and running with one suggestion after another for decorating canes for the holidays.

Daughter, in the meantime, is zoned out, so tired she wonders if she won’t fall right over.

But the woman goes on with even more ideas for holiday canes, culminating in a suggestion she acted out, right there in the check-out line, as if she were striking an imaginary someone with her imaginary holiday cane. “And you could use a holiday cane to wish someone Happy (thwack) Holidays (thwack) to (thwack) you (thwack)!”

Finally, my daughter reached the check-out counter where the clerk completed the transaction and asked “Would you like a receipt?” My daughter said yes and the clerk waved her arms at the register, intoning, “Come to me! Come to me!” as the paper spooled out of the machine.

There in my kitchen, we all laughed. (There were four of us. The main cooking was being handled by my son and daughter-in-law.)

In defense of the clerk, my daughter said she might have been punch drunk after too many days of too many customers too close to Christmas. Daughter had no explanation for the fellow customer wielding the imaginary cane.

“And she reminded you of me?” I asked.

“Yes. You are always talking to people.”

“Like that?”

And everybody laughed again.

It’s moments like this that make me miss my mother. She always appreciated my jokes, which was understandable because they are cut from the same cloth hers were. For example, when a couple of turkey buzzards were stalking around in the side yard, I called up the steps to Mama, “Hey! You aren’t dead yet are you?” And she riffed off of it. (This was before her diagnosis of terminal cancer. Too bad, in a way. That would have made for even better material than just being 80+ years old. We shared a kind of dark sense of humor.)

When we were kids, my brother made our joke-fest a trio. These days, my brother and I don’t exchange gifts. But sometime in the fall, I came across the perfect present for him: A Three Stooges figurine.three_stooges_figurine

My brother loved the Three Stooges. He could make all the noises that went with their eye-pokes and hair pulling. He had memorized his favorite Stooges routines. Who could forget Moe splitting dollar bills with Larry and Curly? Moe sat in the middle and dealt to both sides. “One for you, and one for me, and one for you, and one for me, and one for you, and one for me . . ” When we were kids, I couldn’t forget this routine because my brother tried to use it every time he dealt cards.

And for reasons lost in the mists of time, the Three Wise Monkeys were a family joke, too. See no evil, hear no evil, say no evil. This figurine I found was the Three Stooges version of the Three Wise Monkeys. So it should be a perfect gift for my brother.

I wrapped the box ten times, in ten different wrapping papers. I wrote out a tag saying something like “Ben and I hope you will like this wonderful goat milk soap as much as we do. It is so smooth and creamy. It is hand-crafted by a local artisan who milks her own free range goats and plucks her own organically grown herbs.” This tag was to deflate his expectations. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up.

Of course, he opened the gift the day it arrived. He left me voice mail complaining about unwrapping ten packages for only one gift. And I’m not sure he liked it, but he did say he’d put it on top of his TV, so that’s a good sign, right?

Oh well, I probably won’t send him a gift next year. Where would I ever find another gift as perfect for him as this one?

Maybe I’ll spot something while I’m waiting in that winding check-out line at Jo-Ann Fabric. Maybe — in that first set of shelves funneling customers toward the registers — maybe the perfect gift for my brother will be in plain sight — right between the Santa Pez dispensers and the selection of festive holiday canes.




*A perfect heart in a lovely, pure red sits in the center of each design on the cushions. My daughter is really good at tie-dye!

Merry Christmas!

This week I experienced a streak of unusual energy, prolonged mental clarity, and almost bubbly cheerfulness. It felt wonderful! And it lasted for several days.

Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and feel that good again. With a chronic illness, you just don’t know. It could happen.

It was great to feel organized and effective: To feel, at the end of the day, that I’d been present and active in my life, not just watching through a smudged window. I felt happy about the chores I got done, not weighted down by the things I hadn’t gotten around to yet. And since the chores this week included wrapping presents, hanging a few lights, and plugging in our little Christmas tree, I was possessed by Christmas spirit. It was wonderful! (Did I say that already?)

My usual state — which varies in degree — finds me distracted, dizzy, muddled, in pain, nauseous, etc. Sometimes I have a background headache. Sometimes it’s a migraine. But what’s more consistent is a sense of failure. I never feel like I’ve done anything, even if I have. I just walk through my life. At the end of the day, I fall into bed weighted down with what I haven’t done. If I’ve managed to write two pages, I only remember that I didn’t write ten.

Today I didn’t write at all. I stumbled over my piano assignment. I did the laundry. That was good. What did I do the rest of the day? Anything besides drink cups of ginger tea and move things around?

I’m sure lots of other people — normal, healthier people —  also sometimes feel they spend major portions of their allotted time on earth moving stuff around. We own so many things. Dishes that have to be washed and put back on the shelves. Groceries that come out of the bags and into the cupboards. Somehow the trash can fills and has to be emptied. Newspapers, mail, magazines, books — a tide of paper, in and out, in and out, day after day after day!

For those of us who can’t always stay on top of this, it’s a struggle. And the world is not kind to those who don’t pay their bills, file their taxes, never sort the mail. (This is not me, in spite of my chronic problems. At least, it’s not me today.) Modern life can overwhelm us.

So I’m sure, that underneath lots of Christmas trees, wrapped up in shiny papers and bows, there are hardcover copies of books on  How-to-Declutter and Simplify Now!

We are a people of irony. We long for a simple life while we bring truckloads of more stuff into our house every year — at no time more obvious that Christmas. The packaging alone will overflow our wheelie bins.


But this week, still glowing from that string of good days, I don’t feel like I’m an empty package myself. I’m happy about the holidays even though I ran out of energy before I ran out of chores (again). The Christmas lights are amazing, the giant inflate-able snowmen and T-Rex’s- holding-candy-canes are festive, and the lights dancing in patterns across the front of the houses are little miracles. And, look! Here’s our neighbor, wearing a Santa hat while he walks his dog. All good!

And while I may not feel as good as I did yesterday, I am still enormously pleased with my best decorating idea this year: battery operated twinkle lights trimming the cuckoo clock!

So I hope you are enjoying yourself, too, and, like me, have everything you need to be comfortable and happy, in spite of whatever the world might throw at you!






Do-it-yourself/Make-Do Christmas

We didn’t think we were poor. Compared to most of the people in the world, or even millions of other people in the United States, we were sitting pretty.

There were six of us in the family. We lived in a three bedroom, two story house with a fenced yard and large block garage and we could cover the mortgage and the utilities on Ohio’s unemployment benefits when we had to. We had union health insurance so we could go to the doctor and the dentist.

There was always plenty to eat, thanks to careful planning (think rice and beans, vegetable soup, and stir fry with brown rice) and the grandparents’ large garden and their canning skills. I baked the bread, made the yogurt, and “volunteered” at two co-ops. We had two cars that usually worked, and when they didn’t work, my husband worked on them. I thrifted, refinished, sewed, mended, patched, and cut hair. Friends stopped by daily and our parties were potluck and included all the kids.

We just didn’t have much in the way of expendable income.

Christmas present for the kids were chosen with care. We couldn’t afford too many, and we couldn’t afford to go into debt for the holidays, so each present had to be something they wanted and something that should last.

I kept my eyes open for stocking stuffers all year — small, age-appropriate toys or gadgets that would make an interesting bulge in a Christmas stocking. These were stored in a box in the closet beneath the stockings themselves.

Linocut Christmas card

The boys would clamor for the tallest Christmas tree that would fit beneath the ceiling. We waited to buy that tree until the last minute, when the few that were left were marked down to half price. They were also — every single one — crooked. We lodged the trunk in a metal bucket, among bricks, and filled in with pea gravel before adding the water. The skirt was an old sheet. It could be a challenge to set up a crooked tree, but once the decorations were on, no one could tell. (We hoped.) One year our tree had so few branches that our oldest son dubbed it the Christmas Spear.

After we bought presents for four kids, there wasn’t much money left to buy presents for anyone else. And half the joy of Christmas is giving presents. Those years when we were especially cash-strapped, we still wanted to give presents.

Luckily, before I got sick, I had boundless energy.

One year I ordered potpourri ingredients from Frontier Herbs through our coop. I combined star anise, lavender, rose petals, some essential oils and I don’t remember what all to make a very fresh potpourri blend. My daughter and I stitched up sachet bags and sachet cats with embroidered faces– dozens of them — from fabric scraps and ribbon and lace left from other projects. We boxed the bags and cats into gift sets and wrapped them up and mailed them out.

We were so pleased with how they turned out! We thought they were wonderful!  We set them off hoping the recipients liked the gifts one smidgen of how much we liked them.

Another year, my daughter and I paint and varnish to decorate clothespins — lots of them. We painted them all different colors and then painted designs over that first coat. These were an unexpected Christmas gift, to say the least. (They proved durable. I’m using some that outlasted my mother and my aunt.)

One year we made fantastic rum-soaked Christmas cakes and gave those to everyone. I put up luscious peach jam and handed those out.

For the Mothers’ Milk Bank Club Annual Bean Dinner and Christmas bazaar, I sculpted hundreds of salt dough ornaments. Each cat, or angel, or Santa, etc  was individually rolled and pinched into shape (similar to these). Every Teddy bear wore either Lederhosen or skirt. Every lion had a curly mane and every sheep had fluffy wool. I painted each figure in  multiple bright colors and didn’t spare the polka dots, swirls, tiny flowers or eyelashes. Each received three coats of varnish. I set up an assembly line in the dining room to churn them out. And I did it two or three (?) years in a row.

Other years I made appliquéd crib quilts which were raffled off at the bazaar.

There were bigger projects. My husband and I built, finished, and partially furnished two big doll houses, one for our daughter and one for my kid sister. And I assembled a set of reproduction antique porcelain doll head and limbs onto a cloth body and stitched up a Victorian wardrobe as a surprise for my daughter.

And one year my daughter learned to play piano pieces from a Scott Joplin sheet music book as her Christmas gift to me.

It was a challenge, making Christmas while making-do. A lot of our friends were in the same position so it felt normal to us. But as other families in our straits moved to greener pastures, and my husband’s jobs grew further apart and further away, we weren’t challenged anymore — we were stressed. We finally had to say goodbye to that house and that life and move to greener pastures ourselves.

It was during that move that CFIDS/SEID struck me down. I got out of the moving van with a case of flu, we thought, and it never went away. I am much better than I was in those first years, but I don’t take on any more big Christmas projects.*

Bobo with his rawhide wreath
Bobo with a holiday chew toy

Now there’s just the two of us and Bobo, the world’s best (because he comes when he’s called) dog, in a four bedroom house. We don’t buy a tree or fill any stockings. I just take the tree out of the box, set it on the mantle, and plug it in. It’s less than ten inches high and wears its ornaments all year. The stocking are hung by the chimney with care but they’re just decorative, too. A few strings of lights in the windows are the final touch.

These years, when I’m up to it, I make Christmas cards, usually linoleum block prints

Socks. (Like you didn’t know that!)

turned out in assembly line fashion like those salt dough ornaments years ago. But the only Christmas presents I make these days are the knitted sort.We still have everything we need and plenty to eat (too much!). Nowadays, we even have some of that expendable income we used to hear rumors about to use toward presents.

But picking the right gift? — that is still a challenge.



*Well, except for the needlepoint piano bench cover I made for my daughter and her husband. The first year they got the blank canvas and a promise. The next Christmas they got the finished cushion featuring life sized portraits of sock monkeys Leslie and Fred.