Monthly Archives: December 2011

Gratitude: One Last Christmas Memory

My granpa Floyd Groves, in the early 1950s, standing in our front yard.

This year for some reason the memory of past holidays has haunted me. That would be haunted in a very good way though, because I started back through the years trying to figure out what made Christmas special. With the flight of all four sons from the family nest and the hatching of new traditions things are changing around here, and in some ways that makes me really sad. I am the original Christmas hound, if it will stand still I’ll slap a bow on it or make it a gift. Not make it into a gift, find a give to give to it. One thing I do know for sure the giving is so much more fun than the receiving in almost every single case. If I uncovered one lesson this season that would be it. Make your own joy and then share it.

I have saved one very special memory which I cherish because its mine and only mine, like a secret little sunshiny present that lights a little match of happiness in my heart every time I think of it. The year was 1955 and I was five years old, in kindergarten and stuck with a younger brother who got most of the attention around our house because of his medical issues. I love him dearly but I think to this day that’s why I grew up fairly normal and independent in an ark of crazy people.

I was thoroughly ignored for the most part, and it made me self-reliant from an early age, which is why the inability to tie my own shoes made me absolutely nuts and reduced me to blubbering frustration on a daily basis.

Granpa and Granma on the farm, Granma always looked worried. She worked as a cook until she was 83. I think cooking is genetic in our family.

That changed the Christmas I was five my and grandparents were visiting from Illinois. They came on the train, back then it was the Zephyr and I loved just saying the train’s name.  I didn’t love the snorting, steaming, screeching and belching train itself although it did burp up my grandparents and their blue suitcases, which made it worth the terror of waiting on the platform for their arrival. I adored my granpa Floyd. I don’t think anyone else did. He was a loud, crotchety, snarling, cigar chomping, yelling old Illinois farmer. He had dogs that hunted raccoons and he was once in the Paris, Illinois newspaper for bagging the most squirrels in one day. He was a small town uneducated kind of guy, a staunch democrat and completely set in his ways, but he loved me the most and we got along like a house afire.

Both my granmas in one shot, feeding the birds at San Juan Capistrano. Happy days.

Christmas morning I got a Toni walking doll with a red satin dress and a red bonnet, which tied under the doll’s chin. I couldn’t tie the bonnet and it reduced me to tears of cranky frustration. I will never forget my grandad calling me over to him and sitting me  in his lap. I had on black and  tan saddle shoes and they tied in a bow knot. I was careful to keep them that way because finding someone to tie my shoes was hard to do around our house. Granpa untied my shoes and then patiently and slowly with his big old farmer’s hands spent the next hour helping me learn to tie a bow knot. That was such a gift to me. He was probably just sick of tying Toni’s bonnet, but I would rather think he saw something I needed and he took the time to give it to me.

Granma Sylvia, Granpa Floyd in the white hat, Glen and Anita Rucker and Aunt Effie, she was my granpa's sister and well over six feet tall. Tall is also genetic in our family. I sometimes wonder if the girls in this family were allergic to bras...


I hope that along the road I have been able to do the same thing for other people from time to time. I think that’s why  I take such pleasure in teaching others to do what I do in the studio, its kind of like giving them a little piece of freedom too. The ability to say, “I can do it for myself” is empowering no matter how old you are, 5 or 65.

Alice in Wonderland Does Politics

I have an ancient fallen apart copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It no longer qualifies as a book because the binding has gone to bits, its more like a collection of pages now. The paper is this amazing old ivory color and it is getting fragile. I wanted to save them, so I pulled out all the illustrations and scanned them one by one,  rereading the marvelous story again as I worked with the book.

Lewis Carroll had a seriously droll sense of humor and one piece especially struck me as perfect today. In Chapter III everyone is wet from swimming about in Alice’s pool of tears and their attempts to dry off make up the chapter. The mouse gives it a shot by reciting dry history, which doesn’t work very well so the Dodo comes up with the brilliant idea of a Caucus-race. Given that here and now we are headed into our own ridiculous Caucus Race season I give you Alice in Wonderland’s Caucus-race.

     “In that case,” said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, “I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies-“

“Speak English!” said the Eaglet. “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!” And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile, while some of the other birds tittered audibly.

     “What I was going to say,” said the Dodo in an offended tone, “was that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.”  “What is a Caucus-race?” said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that somebody ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

    “Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is to do it.” (And as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.) First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (“the exact shape doesn’t matter”, it said,”) and the all the party were placed along the course here and there. There was no “One, two, three, and away,” but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had  been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out, “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it, panting and asking, “But who has won?”

     This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead, (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him,) while the rest waited in silence. At the last the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”

So, here is my question, how did Lewis Carroll foresee the American primary system? I mean really….


Christmas Oranges

Corey and Mom, Carl Cook took this and its my all time favorite picture of both of us.

This is not my own Christmas story, this one belongs to my oldest son Corey. Corey is a parent now with two great kids of his own, Alex and Amanda, and our stories matter even more to us because we can give them to our families.  Although the story isn’t mine, the oranges in the story are, albeit indirectly, and I never knew until Corey told me this story how special they were to him too.

Corey was in the army, a proud beret wearing jumping out of planes member of the 82nd Airborne Division. Corey jumped in to Desert Storm, he was on the second plane out of the United States, and we didn’t even know he was gone. I found out by opening the newspaper to a big headline about the 82nd Airborne deploying overnight. I think the neighbors heard me scream a block away, I didn’t even get to say good-bye. We were so lucky, he came home in the first wave of men returning from Kuwait and Iraq and he was in one piece.

That was 1991 and it was the first year he didn’t make it home for the holidays. He said a friend was asking all the guys in the barracks if they would take his CQ duty (command of quarters) so he could make it home, the friend offered him a hundred dollars but Corey just said, “Keep your money, I’ll do it for you man, it’s Christmas and I’ll be here anyway, get out of here and go see your family!”

Corey was doing whatever 20 somethings do when stuck on a desk in an empty barracks in the middle of the night, reading most likely, or checking doors and windows on patrol.  The door opened and he looked up to see the Colonel and his wife come through the door. I’m sure he popped to attention and snapped a salute before the Colonel explained their mission was to visit everyone left that Christmas eve and bring them Christmas treats.  The Colonel’s wife had put together stockings for the men and she gave Corey his to open.

He told her it finally  felt like Christmas when he got to the toe of the sock and found  nuts in their shells and an orange  He explained that in our family that handful of nuts and the orange in the toe of Christmas stockings was part of our tradition and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without it. Corey said she just beamed, lit up like a Christmas tree, still smiling as she headed up stairs with another armful of stockings. The Colonel told Corey, “Private Snow,” and Private Snow stood up straight and wondered what he had done and was he in trouble? “Private Snow, you have just made my wife very happy with your words, and if my wife is happy then I am happy.”

Private Snow never forgot that, and this week he asked me where we got the tradition of Christmas oranges that means so much to us all? I  have had an orange in the toe of my Christmas stocking since I was old enough to have a stocking and that’s a lot of years of oranges. My mother explained why to me when I was very, very small. Her family lived in Colorado and it was the 1920s and early 30s, they were ranchers and they didn’t have money for things like store bought toys and treats.  But every year her parents spent the money to buy each of the kids a big, fat, fresh orange for their Christmas stocking. That was a serious luxury in the depths of a Colorado winter.

To me it means magic and love. Can you imagine being a little kid in Colorado in 1925? that was still frontier country in a lot of ways. Those oranges would have had to come by train across the Rockies in the depth of winter, they couldn’t be allowed to freeze or bruise or be damaged before they came to their final destination, in the toe of Imogene, Darlene, and Wayne Fowler’s stockings. It must have been amazing to have something so rare and exotic that one day a year. Sixty-six years later, the magic of the oranges came flooding back in a different time and place but connected by a thread that runs through us all. I can’t wait to have my orange on Christmas morning.

heading home in the snowhed

St Nicholas and My Shoes

Once upon a time…

This is where we came from, 1955. Easter in the desert, home.

in November 1956, as an eight-year-old California kid, moved to Germany with her family for her Air Force dad’s three-year tour of duty.

We were posted to Bad Kreuznach where there was a huge army base. My dad was Air Force and did not work on the base. He did something arcane and secret with codes, working in a locked facility close enough to the Rhine River to toss a rock into it from his window. My mother was having none of living on an army base with THOSE people.

To her way of thinking the vast herd of army people (in the 1050s) were small town culture-free morons.  For my family it was total immersion in the European community for which I will always be grateful.

Priegerpromenade, where we moved and lived for three wonderful years, in the snow. (Thank you for this marvelous picture. It has not changed at all).

I wasn’t so grateful in November when we moved from California sunshine and the 70s to snow and frigid temperatures.  We arrived at night and were driven to our temporary housing, which was an apartment on the fourth floor of an eight apartment building, until our house was ready for us.

It was like falling down a snowy rabbit hole, everything was different. I remember vividly dragging up and down the stairs with a coal scuttle to the basement to get coal from the bin several times a day.  It was terrifying to go down into that dark place, but facing my mother’s wrath by resisting her orders to fetch the coal to fill our wonderful old ceramic stove was worse. over the course of the next few weeks my little brother and I met all our neighbors coming and going  on the stairs with our coal buckets.

We spoke no German at that time, and that was terrifying too. To see smiling faces chattering down at us in a completely unknown language, to see signs I could not read, to always be cold was scary, my whole life was scary and I lived in terror of getting lost and not being able to find my family.

We made good friends among the American air force families. Our best friends and our parents were musicians. My dad is in the foreground and Jim Fahey is in the background with the Clark Gable stash. Mom is in the front on the right and Arlene Fahey is in the bark. The four of us kids who should have been in bed were probably hiding under the table where we couldn't be seen.

The fear passed with the enchantment of getting out of our apartment and discovering I lived in a fairytale. The houses were old and looked like something in my books. There was a river, the Nahe, and a bridge with little shops on it stretching over the river. The streets were cobblestones and people shopped with  string bags at bakeries, butcher shops, and the open market. There were no grocery stores and I loved it.

The bridge houses, medieval and marvelous on the bridge over the Nahe river.

Downtown there was a wonderful department store that smelled amazing inside, and just outside the store there was a pretzel vendor with warm pretzels in a basket and next to him was a lady selling hot chestnuts. Chestnuts and hot pretzels are still two of my favorite things in the wintertime.

The Corn Markt, where we bought our produce twice a week.

The first place my mother took us and her dictionary was to that store. I got furry silvery reindeer hide boots with silver metal zips and red trim, long woolly stockings fastened by garters that were part of warm pink silk undershirts, and warm woolly sweaters and a thick coat and hat. The American kids in their Mary Jane shoes and anklets laughed at me–for about five minutes, until they realized I was warm and their bare legs were turning blue.

The summer I turned 9, Me on the left, my brother in the middle and our cleaning lady Annie and her daughter on a picnic on Kuburg hill.

To this day, the smell of burning coal in the evening air makes me happy. I associate it with those magical holidays long ago and it brings back so many memories. My very happiest Christmas memory was made even more intense because I was still a lost little American kid figuring out my new world.

We got to Germany just before Christmas and somehow, the other apartment dwellers  got it across to my parents that we should put our shoes outside the door on December 6th because Saint Nicholas would come and leave presents in our shoes, and if we were bad we would get a switch (rute) instead of treats.

Saint NIck, who comes on December 6th

In trepidation, my reindoor boots and my brother’s reindeer boots went out on the landing to wait for St Nick. In the morning, we ran to yank open the French doors that led to the landing outside our apartment. Our boots were full of oranges and chocolate! We were dancing around and squealing with glee at our bounty. My mother shushed us when we started hearing the neighbors doors click open, echoing up the open stairwell.

When she turned to shoo us inside and shut the doors we saw it. There was a giant green wreath with a huge red ribbon hanging on our door. We had pushed open both doors to rush out to the landing and see what was in our shoes and the open door on the left had hidden the wreath.  It wasn’t until we turned to go inside that we saw the wreath.

It must have been three feet across and it had a red ribbon bow across the top. It smelled like Christmas, but even better were the toys and candies and cookies and fruit fastened all over that wreath. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

He made a believer out of me. The good in people is everywhere!

We were the only kids in the building, just two noisy little American kids clattering up and down the marble stairs, tracking in snow and mud and spilling coal. We were lost and lonely and completely confused in our new life  and our neighbors knew that. They had gotten together and purchased that wreath and the toys and cookies and candy tied all over it to surprise us. It was 1956 and there were still ruins from the war everywhere, bombed out buildings and broken hearts. No one had a lot of money and I know that filling our wreath was a sacrifice for each of those people. To us it was St Nicholas who made the magic and it wasn’t until many years later my mom told me it was our neighbors who wanted us to be happy that cold winter morning in our new home.

We were.