Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Yours Very Truly, Annie

My Dear Friends,
It is time to say goodbye to my blog.  I have some other projects that will demand my full focus, and so I must sign off, fondly, to Annie Joy's letters.  Thank you for visiting me, reading what I have to say, and commenting.  Thank you, most of all, for your friendship and for allowing me into your world.  Most of you are bloggers, and I admire your creative spirit and look forward to continuing to visit you and share in your lives.  If you happen upon my blog by accident, please look to the blog roll on your right and visit one of the wonderful blogs you'll find there.
All my best for your happiest life,

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Celebrating Winter's Tales and Treasures

When Christmas is over, we still have weeks of winter to celebrate or endure, depending upon our perspective of the season.  I enjoy decorating for winter, and bringing forward some symbols of the beauty of the season.  The pop-up books are lovely reminders of the time when we stay inside (if we can) with a good book and a warm fire, but the stark beauty of nature is evident during during these coldest of months, as suggested by the crystal and glass.  Friends and family can join us, whether we are inside with a good book or outside sledding or enjoying other winter activities, and our homes and communities will continue to bless and sustain us throughout the year. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Book Recommendation: Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks was an inspired choice for the last book I read during 2011; it turns out that it is also my favorite book of the year.  I am beginning 2012 with another of Brooks' titles, March, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and also have her People of the Book ready on my nightstand.  I have also read her Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague.

My reading preferences fall to character-driven books and rarely do I choose to read a title solely based on plot or setting  (although I do have an affection for books about the south or southerners).  I was thinking about what it is about Brooks' historical fiction that sets it apart from the many other selections I might make.  What would keep me in the 17th century Martha's Vineyard or the "Plague Village" of Eyam, England?  In the cases of Caleb's Crossing and Year of Wonders, it was a woman of strength and courage who went beyond their era's prescribed gender role.  In doing so, they both brought me to a better understanding of the time and place of the story.  The protagonist in March is male -- the father of the March girls in Little Women -- but it is he who takes me to the reality of the Civil War and life during that period of history.

Caleb's Crossing was inspired by the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.  Caleb Cheeshahteaumauck was a Wampanoag native to Martha's Vineyard who meets Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Calvinist minister, when she is exploring the island.  Caleb and Bethia become close friends, and he introduces her to his culture as he learns about hers.  His education extends to being tutored by Bethia's father and Bethia, denied such education because of her gender, learns by listening to Caleb's tutoring sessions.  Caleb's intellect eventually takes him to Cambridge and Harvard, and Bethia is allowed to go along in the company of her brother.  She continues to learn through any means she can find, including eavesdropping on lectures while working off a debt for her brother's education.  Caleb's eventual matriculation from Harvard comes at a price, as he struggles with the prejudices against Native Americans at the college and eventually, his own spiritual beliefs and practices as opposed to Christianity.

As I mentioned above, it is Bethia who took me deeper into Caleb's story, even as I became more interested in her own struggles for knowledge and her willingness to do anything to educate herself.  Her character (in both senses of the word) are what moved the story along for me and helped keep me interested in the plot.

I find it most interesting that this book was published at the time when the second Martha's Vineyard Wopanaak completed an undergraduate degree, almost 350 years after the first.  Tiffany Smalley received her degree in 2011, presided by Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's first female president.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Joys #6 - My Grandmother's Christmas

One of the greatest gifts I have received (for Christmas or otherwise) is a heavy book which contains "An Autobiographical Diary" written by my grandmother, Mary Elretta Hardin Reagan.  "Mom", as we knew her, was born near Crockett, Arkansas in 1891.  To her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, the volume is "Mom's Book".  The first half is the story of her life, written in great detail and including poetry and the words of songs she enjoyed.  The second half is a journal or diary, written after she and my grandfather had moved from their farm near Kennett, Missouri, into town.  There they opened a grocery store, and Mom recorded her days as she sat behind the counter.

I have been preparing a post about my childhood Christmas, which I will post in a couple of days.  I decided that I also wanted to write about Mom's Christmas.  I recalled that my dad would often go and pick them up and bring them to our house, if they weren't already with other family members.  I wanted Mom's description of her typical Christmas.

As I mentioned, Mom wrote about her early life in great detail.  As read through the entries for her Christmases in the diary section, I found little description.  (I love reading about Christmas in the south as written by Truman Capote or Rick Bragg, or A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, but I knew that Mom would be less eloquent than they, but I had hoped for more detail that she provided.)

Then I got it.  I believe that I got it because I am so apt to get caught up in all the (religious and secular) facets of the Christmas season that I have little time or energy to enjoy and appreciate the basics.  Mom had it distilled down to the essence, as recorded in her journal.

Her Christmas was Christ's birthday.  She only missed church when the weather forbade going out.  It was the reason for Christmas - period.

Her Christmas was family -- all ten children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.   She recorded every family member she saw or heard from on Christmas, or lamented their absence.  Mom often wrote about being "homesick" in her book, even when she was at home.  I believe that home, to her, was having her family around her, and when she hadn't heard from them for a while, she was "homesick for them."  The more of her family she saw on Christmas, the merrier it was.

Her Christmas was food, lots of it, and the opportunity to eat it with those she loved.  She didn't record any individual dishes in her diary, but she did mention how she enjoyed sharing meals with those who lived close by.

Her Christmas wasn't about gifts.  I found only three mentions of specific gifts -- one, a pressure cooker and the other, pitchers for her collection.  I think she enjoyed the pitchers because they meant that the giver had knowledge of and appreciated her collection (which eventually numbered over 300).  It also wasn't about shopping, or holiday parties, or Christmas movies, or Christmas outdoor light displays, or any of the other things that can distract us. 

At first, I was a bit disappointed that Mom didn't record more.  But she was a farm wife and a store keeper, not Dylan Thomas.  Her eloquence was in her simplicity and that is what makes her book precious to me.  Thank you, Mom, for your book, your memories, and the life lessons you probably didn't know you were teaching. 


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Joys #5 - My Perfectly Imperfect Christmas (and Life)

This morning Tom asked me what I would like for Christmas.  I have received a tablet from my son and a gift certificate for new books for my Kindle from my stepson and his bride-to-be.  I thought that some new books for my Nook would be a fine thing, so we negotiated an amount and I was ready to start shopping.  I had read about a new book called My Perfectly Imperfect House and had added it to my to-read list.  It turned out that it isn't available for the Nook, but I am ordering it in regular format anyway.  Which brings me to the subject of the post.

I believe that we continue to do ourselves a disservice when we demand perfection of ourselves in decorating our homes, living our lives, and preparing or celebrating Christmas.  Most of us know the damage that trying to live the perfect life can do, yet we continue to consider the highest praise to ourselves, our children, our spouses, and others in our lives, "Perfect!"

I'm going to do my part to celebrate the imperfect holidays by coming out of the closet.  I have and will continue to stage photos of our Christmas (which, by-the-way, never seem to meet the standards of some of the lovely photos I see on others' blogs).  I will also edit my posts about memories of Christmases past to leave out anything that would embarrass family or friends.  But just for today, I am offering a glimpse of my perfectly imperfect Christmas through the photograph above.  This is untouched, except for the addition of the Christmas cards, which I brought in from the office.  It is actually a little less of a mess than it was last night, when some of the grocery items were still there.

The little lights were found with some old Christmas decorations.  I thought I needed them for a particular drab location in the house.  I asked Tom to buy some batteries and he did, but the lights are so old (marked down, according to the pricetag, to $6.95 about twenty years ago) that they go from dim to dark the further down the string you go.  I'm tossing them, and that drab location will remain drab.

I'm also tossing the little trees next to the lights.  They look like they've been through an Oklahoma tornado.  Maybe they have been; we found them with the lights.

Next to the trees are two cans of room spray, in Christmas scents.  I like to use candles and natural greens for their aroma.  There are very few natural greens in my yard and I haven't had time to go collecting in other places.  I'm not sure where those other places are; I picked up some pinecones one year at rest stops when we driving from Memphis to Oklahoma but I'm not sure that was legal.  I would like to have some greenery and pinecones for the bowl in the center of the table.  Anyway, natural scents and candle aromas are nice, but sometimes you just need a spray!

The box of candy next to the spray is for my dad.  My husband bought it, even though I am planning to make peanut butter fudge for my dad.  Tom says that dad likes the storebought candy and I'm not going to take that personally.  By the way, we're giving my brother-in-law and his companion two potatoes and two sweet potatoes for Christmas.  Maybe I'll explain that later.

In the back are the ingredients for chicken tortilla soup that I'm making for Christmas Day.  I gave up on Christmas dinner years ago, because we couldn't get everybody together at one time.  This year, I'm doing soups.  This one is a no-brainer, which I will need.  We are also having desserts.  I got one relatively complicated recipe (for me) from a high school classmate who is a wonderful cook.  She has already answered a couple of questions for me, such as "How do I keep the cake from sticking to the bundt pan?"  (Answer:  let it cool before you try to remove it.)  Thanks, Helen!

Next to the soup ingredients is a box of green tea.  I'm trying to drink more tea and water and less Diet Coke.  Notice that the box is unopened.  I have had two glasses of eggnog and three Diet Cokes since the tea was purchased.

Now for the Christmas cards.  You'll note that there are two boxes of cards and a list of names.  Some of the names are checked off and some aren't.  If you don't get a card from me, assume that you made it to the list, but not to those checked off.  I tried to get those out of town mailed first, so if you don't get a card, it's just that I ran out of time.  Or stamps.  Or money.

Hope you have a Perfectly Imperfect Merry Christmas!  If you have a Perfect Christmas, I don't want to hear about it.  (Just kidding -- I'll just clean up my own description to leave out the imperfect parts, just for you!)



Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Joys #4 - Holiday Guest Room

I always enjoy decorating our guest room at Christmas; the curtains and bedding are already red and white, so I just add a few Christmas pieces and I'm done.  It's ready for family and friends, and extra guests are welcome in the other rooms decorated for the season.  (That means air mattresses in other other Christmasy rooms, since we only  have one guest room.  Our guests are always very gracious with their humble accommodations; we haven't had a complaint yet!)

These handmade wooden Santas were Christmas gifts from my daughter, additions to my Santa Claus collection.  The smaller one is displayed with some antique spools.

I had been looking for a red and white pillow for the bed, when I found this one in the Coldwater Creek catalog.  The reindeer on the pillow is company for the plush one on the bed.  He is many years old and used to be very fragrant, but has lost his scent.

Hope you are blessed with Christmas guests, or provide that blessing for your loved ones!


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas Joys #3 - Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell has brought us images of American Christmases from the past.  They are very special to me, since so many were depictions of Christmas during the 1950's and 60's -- my childhood -- as featured in another staple in our home, The Saturday Evening Post.

These two favorites are part of my collection of Christmas books.  The one on the right was originally a Christmas gift to my stepmother, Jo Ann, who passed away last November.  It was given back to me as a keepsake and a reminder that we both loved Christmas and Norman Rockwell.   It contains Christmas stories, carols, poems and recollections, all illustrated by Rockwell.

The other, smaller book on the left is a collection of more than seventy of Rockwell's holiday paintings.  The buildings in the foreground are also featured on the book's cover, part of Main Street, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the artist maintained his studio. 

Here's hoping that your holidays are as peaceful and magical as those portrayed in Norman Rockwell's work!


Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas Joys #2 - Church Christmas Pageants

I have always loved Christmas presentations of all kinds.  I have participated in many myself, and have enjoyed the experience of being part of a living Christmas tree, and in the background as accompaniment to the Christmas story.  My favorites are the children's programs and my own children have provided some of the most interesting memories.  There is a certain level of stress involved before your own child takes the stage.  Hoping that the angel wings will stay put, the halo won't get caught in the scenery, and your husband's bathrobe won't provide the perfect opportunity for tripping can put you in a state of hypervigilance.  My own nervous tendencies have probably contributed to the pageant mishaps in our family.

Two cases in point:

The angel wings were lovely and attached as instructed.  The halo was attached to the headband.  The child truly looked like an angel.  She was ready to perform and I left her in the backstage area, confident that everything would go well.  Her sister's Sunday School class sang their sweet songs and I knew that the next group would do equally well.  The angels entered from the right.  My child was not among them.  I was in the middle section of seats and fought the temptation to climb over those in front of me to find out what was wrong.  Then, there she was -- running onto the stage and taking her place.  I didn't have to ask what had delayed her; part of her white angel robe was tucked into her panties.  The group's performance was -- well, angelic.  And so was she.

Another time involved a peppy song which was emphasized by enthusiastic clapping of hands.  Delightful!  But why was my child clapping by holding one hand open and bringing the other down in a vertical motion instead of the sideways clapping of the other children?  And why was she watching her hands carefully with each clap instead of keeping her eyes on the choir director or searching for her parents?  It was as if she were trying to kill a bug that had landed in her hand.  At least she wasn't picking her nose, I reasoned.  Then it came to me.  She had a loose tooth that she had been wiggling all day.  It was still in her mouth when we left the house.  The tooth was in her hand and she didn't want to lose it!  The up and down clapping was insurance that the tooth fairy would come. 

These stories are illustrative of my own joy in children's pageants now that my children are grown.  I can enjoy the performances of my grandchildren and the young members of our church without worrying about what could go wrong, while having the hard-won wisdom of knowing that those little incidents make the our Christmas Joys even more "perfectly imperfect."

May you have some happy pageant experiences this year!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Joys #1 - Sweet Little Jesus Boy

I'm beginning my Christmas Joys this year with a song. I first heard "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" at a high school Christmas music program 50 years ago.  I had enjoyed the seasonal selections sung by the various choral groups and ensembles and was probably thumbing the program to see what was coming next.  I heard her voice -- softly, sweetly, hauntingly beautiful -- as if she were singing a lullaby.  My attention shifted and I was there with her and the child to whom she was singing, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy."

As I write this, I am struggling to explain the effect this song had on me then, as it does today.  It stopped me in my tracks in the middle of the Christmas season when, even 50 years ago, so much was going on -- holiday concerts, shopping, parties, music, anticipation, stress -- all the good and not-so-good about that time of year.  Margaret Green's beautiful voice stopped me and her words spoke to me, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy; We made you be born in a manger; Sweet Little Holy Child, We didn't know who you was."

Today, hearing those words brings me back to the real meaning of Christmas -- not just to the manger scene, where the baby Jesus was born, but to the cross where he died:  "You done told us how, we is a tryin'!  Master, you done show'd us how, even when you was dyin'".

That's the point that this song helps me remember, to celebrate Christmas and to be thankful for that Sweet Little Jesus Boy, but that even during this season I'm going to fall short: "Just seems like we can't do right; look how we treated you."  But I know that the greatest gift he gave us is forgiveness, for all of our lives.  All we have to do is ask, and accept.

To provide a musical link, I listened to several artists' versons of  "Sweet Little Jesus Boy".   I was led back to Mahalia Jackson's.  I hope you enjoy it.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Night the Martians Landed: A Family Story from 1938

I am reposting this story in memory of my Grandmother and Aunt Lona Mae, both of whom were born on October 31.

My Aunt "Sister", who would have been 101 years old on Halloween, shared this story at her birthday celebration the summer of 2010. Those who can remember the night of October 30, 1938 are becoming more rare, and it was a true gift to hear her first-hand account of family members' responses to a phenomenon of wide-spread panic and fear as a result of the radio broadcast of an adaptation of HG Wells' novel, War of the Worlds.

I had heard and read about the broadcast and its effect on individuals and families across the country. It was planned as a 60-minute Halloween radio drama, an episode of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, and was directed and narrated by Orson Welles. The first two-thirds of the broadcast was presented as news bulletins which suggested that an actual invasion by Martians was taking place. There were no commercial breaks, which added to the sense of realism. The use of the news bulletin format also contributed to the believability of the story, as well as to the resulting panic, since people were accustomed to legitimate newsflashes, but not those used as part of a work of fiction.

According to Wikipedia, historians have calculated that six million people heard the broadcast, 1.7 million believed it to be true and 1.2 million were genuinely frightened. According to my aunt, a number of those who believed it and were frightened resided in southeast Missouri, and were outside that Sunday evening, gazing toward the sky.

Aunt Sister, Uncle Jesse, and their three children stayed home from church and were listening to the radio, probably doing the equivalent of today's "channel surfing" between the Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and singer Nelson Eddy, and the Mercury Theater. The first comedy sketch on the Chase and Sanborn Hour ended about fifteen minutes into the program and was to be followed by a musical selection, presenting a good time to change the station. This would have taken them directly into the middle of the Martian invasion on Mercury Theater, with no reassurance that what they were hearing wasn't really happening.

This is a part of what they heard:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . . good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another one, and another one. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it's so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.

How many of us have thought about what we would do if the world was coming to an end? Their instincts were to gather with other family members, so they left in their car to travel the few miles to the my grandparents' home.

On the way there, my aunt noticed that baby Sandra's shoe was missing, that she must have dropped it or left it at home. Uncle Jesse reassured my frightened aunt, that Sandra "wouldn't be needing her shoe."

She also noted that people standing out on the dirt roads as they travelled, looking at the sky and exclaiming, "They're coming! They're coming!"

When they arrived at Mom and Pop's, the house was empty. Mom and Pop had gone to Arkansas to church and hadn't yet returned home. After a short time, they and the rest of their children arrived, asking what was going on.

According to Aunt Sister, Pop didn't believe a word of the story. He also scoffed at his oldest child's fear, declaring, "I didn't know that I raised a child who would be afraid to die."

Little brother Earl, then stepped up and joined forces with his sister, put his arms around her and said, "You raised two of them!"

The family story ends here, and we can imagine the relief they and others like them felt when they learned the truth. We can also understand their panic and fear in a time when modern communication was still in its infancy. We might also want to temper any thoughts or comments we might have about naivete or the willingness to believe the unbelievable -- at least until after Halloween!


p.s. You can hear the Mercury Theater broadcast on YouTube. It is in multiple parts, so I am not including links.


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