Afternoon With Artists

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They could have been playing video games, taking a nap, watching a movie, baking, or doing their nails. There were many choices a mother and daughter could apply themselves to, either together or separately, on a holiday. Only a year or two ago Mattie would have been contentedly playing with her dolls. But on New Year’s Day Christi and her daughter, Mattie, decided to paint.

They invited me to paint with them but I preferred to drop in and out of their breakfast room “studio.” I didn’t have any idea what I might try to paint and they looked so cozy, just the two of them. By dropping in and out I could watch their progress as well as participate some in the doings of the rest of the household. The guys were all engaged in watching football games. William and Thomas took time at interludes to ring a few basketball hoops. Kate, the dog, needed a rub between the ears every now and then. And besides all that, I was absorbed in the book I was reading.

Interestingly, the book demanding my attention was Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” It is a novel about Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, born in Delft, Netherlands in 1632.  The author has described skillfully and beautifully the artist’s methods of acquiring colors, his moods and those of his household. He and his wife had many children. The story is told from the viewpoint of the maid who became entrusted with such tasks as grinding bits of bone into a fine dust to make the very shade of gray her master wanted.

The colors my daughter-in-law and granddaughter were using might have astonished Vermeer. The bright acrylics, the wonderful display of crayons and color pens, the rainbow of purple, pink, orange, mauve, emerald, chartreuse and ocean’s blue are so exhilarating. But, from reading this very thoroughly researched story, I have a feeling Vermeer would still be hunting the very gray he envisioned or the absolutely right shade of blue concocted from some rare substance purchased by the maid at the apothecary shop.

I heard giggles from the “studio” and found the girls admiring Mattie’s painting, a beautiful background of blue with emerging off-white shapes that could be clouds or birds. They asked Siri to play a song and then sang along. At times they were so diligently working they were each in their own world, others they were exchanging opinions about colors and sharing ideas.

The maid, Griet, who was hired specifically to clean Vermeer’s studio, became a valuable asset. She followed instructions meticulously. The props for his models, such as a brush and a cloth on a table, must be cleaned and left precisely as they were, even to the folds of the cloth. Griet did her job so well she was given more and more responsibility leading to jealousy among the other servants and Vermeer’s wife, Catharina. Griet’s tiny salary was supporting her mother and her blind father so, no matter how painful and uncomfortable life became, leaving the Vermeers was out of the question. Her aptitude for making colors and keeping things clean while keeping Vermeer’s secrets close, along with her interesting face, led to her becoming one of his models herself. Vermeer’s portrait, “A Girl With a Pearl Earring” (pictured on the cover of the book) inspired Tracy Chevalier to write this fascinating novel. She is the author of seven other books.

But, back to my own artists, Christi had developed an interesting geometrical face that reminded me of a mask one might wear for Mardi Gras, very colorful and impressive. Mattie had completed her study in swirls on a background of blue. Instead of birds or clouds, I see a striking resemblance to the Hawaiian islands. The two let me snap their picture to commemorate a lovely afternoon.

Shadows lengthened as the afternoon waned. Excitement built towards the time when we would all load up and drive to Cheesecake Factory for William’s 16th birthday celebration. Books and art supplies and even football were abandoned.

Kate, the family’s loving Norfolk terrier, whimpered wistfully as we all trooped out leaving her with a suddenly very quiet house.

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Seasoned With Salt

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Soup and conversation both need salt!

Winter has finally touched down in South Georgia. There was ice in the bird baths this morning and a chilly 26 degree wind plays in the Japanese magnolia blooms. A wonderful day for soup!

One of my favorite things to cook is a good big pot of soup. There is something healing to me in the process of cutting up, accumulating, mixing all those vegetables and meat in a pot along with broth and letting the whole simmer for hours, wafting invigorating aromas throughout the house. Even if I use canned vegetables, the process is still fun. My younger sister cans all her soup ingredients every summer so she’s pulling her own beautiful jars of beans and potatoes and carrots out of her pantry. I think about her as I open cans from the store.

My soups are usually delicious, “if I do say so.” Pot Roast Soup is one of my standbys but Broccoli Cheddar or Potato are favorites too. Recently I made Chicken Pot Pie Soup with broken spaghetti noodles for the thickening. I enjoy using homegrown herbs like rosemary and basil. A few drops of tabasco sauce in meaty soups adds zest and there’s hardly any soup that isn’t better with some onion!

But there’s one ingredient no pot of soup can happily do without. That’s salt.

I was thinking about that as I added Rotel tomatoes, kernel corn and lima beans to my pot. Some of us are not supposed to have a lot of salt. I say a little bit goes a long ways but don’t leave out that little bit.

The Bible says a lot about salt, that we as Christians should be salt and light, that salt that has lost its flavor has to be thrown away, that salt is good but can kill too. And then there’s this “salty” little verse in Colossians 4:6: Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.

Just as soup is woefully bland without salt, so our conversations, void of grace and “spices,” will be bland. Just what is a conversation full of grace and seasoned with salt?

I think it’s dialogue backed by prayer. It’s words issuing from a mouth schooled by the Holy Spirit. It’s thoughtful language stemming from a heart of love. Such conversation flows freely from one who is in close connection with the Master, who has done their Bible homework, and been well prayed up. It shouldn’t be necessary for one to check a dictionary in the middle of such conversation to see if the words he’s using are appropriate. One shouldn’t be on pins and needles hoping they’re not going to say the wrong thing. It should be natural–“seasoned with salt” like a nice pot of soup

The end of this verse holds the key to the “reasoning for the seasoning”! It says “so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Think of the many odd questions one may run into on any one day. There may be requests you never dreamed of coming at you when you have no tools handy, such as a Bible, concordance, or dictionary. You may be in your living room, or in an airport, in line at the grocery store, talking to an appliance repairman or a roofing man. We need to salt our conversations with thanksgiving and praise wherever we are. We need to be “full of grace” as we ask about our neighbor’s health, or answer strange questions like “Where did Cain get his wife?”

Ready for conversation? Happy, purposeful talking?  Subjects like raising children, a new bird sighting, growing orchids, our nice winter weather and, yes, even politics, are fun and invigorating, especially if you remember to add salt!

About that soup–it’s hamburger vegetable today with chunky tomatoes, corn and beans. Come on over and let’s have some seasoned conversation over our soup!

Lord, guard my mouth. Save me from bloopers! Make me conscious of others’ needs. Please give me grace in my conversations, and just the right touch of salt.

 

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A Meeting With Alex Kendrick

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Alex was instantly engaged with us as if we were the only ones there!

There was an electrical anticipation in the auditorium of First Baptist Church, Tifton, Georgia. Five hundred Christians clapped and sang old gospel hymns with the Lovin Band. And that was enough, a taste of heaven. But there was more promised in this event.

If you’ve seen the movies “Fireproof” and “Overcomer” you know they are very touching and inspiring. In fact, for me, a tissue is required even for the second or third viewing. Alex Kendrick, scriptwriter, actor, and co-producer, was to speak at this Will Graham Crusade kickoff rally.

Will Graham, Franklin Graham’s son, will be holding a crusade in Tifton at the UGA Conference Center, March 20-22. Alex Kendrick followed the Lovin Band in leading this preparatory worship service at First Baptist Church. Billy Graham Evangelistic  Association personnel were there also seeking a commitment from local Christians to be involved in praying for and promoting the crusade. We were blessed to get in on the awesome experience, thanks to our friend Charles Hughes who invited us.

Wes and Sally Whitfield had traveled to Tifton with us. It was a rare treat for the four of us to spend an evening together. A full moon kept us company along the way. We enjoyed supper at Cracker Barrel before arriving at the rally at First Baptist Church.

When Alex appeared on the stage with all his energy we’d seen in his films we were enthralled. No chance of nodding off as he told story after story of how God led him and his brother Steven in producing the films that have reached thousands for Christ. He told of how in the beginning he and Steven had to beg an Albany theater to let them show their first movie “Flywheel” on DVD for a couple of nights. The theater owner reluctantly agreed but then had such an overwhelming response that he asked them please to let it show for another week. Alex said, “It was God at work.”

Each movie from “Fireproof” to the recent “Overcomer” has its own developmental story. Alex told of how over and again he tried to “tell God” what the subject of a film would be, how it would be marketed, etc. He failed at every turn until he did what God was telling him to do. For instance, the movie “War Room” seemed headed to a sure demise. Who wanted to see a whole movie on a prayer warrior in a closet? Alex and Steven and their support church, Sherwood Baptist of Albany, insisted on moving ahead with it because God said to. As always, the actors and support staff were volunteers. When it came out, that movie went to the top of the charts amazing Sony Pictures, the Kendricks, and Sherwood Baptist Church. One of those affected by this film was a building contractor who had orders immediately after its release for eight renovations allowing for “war rooms.”

After telling us about production of the movies, Alex spoke passionately about our need as Christians to be aggressive in reaching our world for Jesus. He spoke of three stages of surrender and commitment a Christian and church need to make in order to be effective. A Christian needs as an individual to be committed to the point he’s not satisfied to sit and enjoy the gospel but is compelled to reach out and join others in the effort. Then the church must be eager to move outside its walls. When the churches move into action in Jesus’ name, then the Kingdom can expand, all to the glory of God. True to his dramatic nature (developing from young childhood to present), Alex illustrated these three areas by standing in three different places on the stage as he spoke of each one. Not only could we feel his passion but we could feel a powerful response from the crowd as pastors and congregations from many area churches were challenged.

After the meeting Charles and I waited our turn in a long line to speak to Alex Kendrick. Alex is the son of a dear UGA classmate friend of ours, Rhonwyn Hall as she was known then. We had followed his and Steven’s filming career with prayers and great interest but had never met either of them. Nor had we seen Rhonwyn in many years. When we told him who we were, he flicked out his phone and next thing we knew we were speaking by video to our old friend.

Thank you, Charles Hughes, for that special invitation. What a wonderful evening! We’ll look forward to hearing Will Graham too, if not at the crusade in March, then at the earliest opportunity.

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Hidden Rocks

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Charles and his helper getting started

The rocks had been covered by vines, thorn bushes, and overgrown shrubs for years. We had almost forgotten what was inside that jungle. The children played hide-and-seek around the edges but avoided going all the way in where the sun’s rays hardly touched. That portion of the Stone Gables grounds became known to some as “The Island,” a thick, thorny place with a parking area on one side, a driveway on the other.

When Charles and I decided to spend several days at Stone Gables during Christmas holidays, he proposed to my brother that he would like to clear that unruly space. Charlie and Bill found a good strong teenager to be his helper. The day after Christmas they went to work.

I had the delightful opportunity of identifying with my home place–picking up scattered scraps of gift wrapping left from our big family Christmas gala the night before, sweeping the Hall, shaking the tablecloths, watching the sunlight and shadows change the colors of the floor slates. I took pleasure in “chunking” logs in the fireplace, making sparks fly upwards. It was a cool day and the warmth was so cozy there beside the tall hemlock Christmas tree.

At intervals I went out to see how Charles and his helper had progressed with that huge prickly job. By the time I took them snacks at 10:00 they had a big pile of debris burning. Even though the temperature lingered in the 30’s they both had shed a layer or two, expending so much energy whacking and sawing. Sounds of the chain saw and the shears mixed with the crackling of dry branches in the growing bonfire.

When I saw the rocks that afternoon it was like meeting old friends. Those rocks were part of our childhood and adult years, as well as that of many of our children. We climbed them when we were little. We sat on them when we were tall. We performed childish concerts and plays on and around them. We picnicked on them, philosophized in very serious conversations around them, and opened exciting letters perched atop them. There was even comfort in the rocks’ stability when we lost a treasured pet and had to have a really good cry. The rocks were there as silent witnesses when our dates delivered us home and stole a kiss or two before walking us in the house.

Somehow along the way the lime bushes with their cruel thorns had taken over and been joined by a myriad of other bushes. At the same time, our focus had shifted to the growing of our own families, to participating in many different communities where the ten of us children became citizens. My brothers had the huge job of taking care of their own places as well as Stone Gables and Pinedale. They worked hard to keep everything open but still the ivy grew up the trees, crabapples took root in the wrong places, and vines wound in and out of everything. The place of rocks became an impenetrable island amongst otherwise well kept grounds.

The rocks were still there but they were hidden–and almost forgotten.

That day after Christmas, though, the rocks were exposed again, at least most of them. I was puzzled about one favorite rock that seemed to be missing. It was nice and flat and was situated between two large pine trees, the last I remembered. The pine trees were gone but the rock should still be there along with the others. The others were right where they’d been years before. Their arrangement reminded me of oversized blocks abandoned by children running off to play a different game. It was as if those children had grabbed up that one special rock and carried it away.

The next day, as Charles and his helper chopped and pulled and wrangled with vines, the missing rock was exposed. It was a little farther west than I had remembered it, but there it was between two very rotten pine stumps. I couldn’t have been more excited, I think, if the guys had discovered gold!

When several of us gathered that day for a soup and sandwich lunch we talked about the rocks and reminded each other of many activities that went on around them. Sometimes on a Saturday Mamma would cut the boys’ hair while they took turns sitting on the flat rock. Any of the rocks were great for studying spelling words or reading a book. The flat rock, as well as another one with a nice indention in the middle, was good for cracking walnuts. Cracking walnuts was a cold job. One could not wear mittens while hammering hard nuts on a cold, windy day. But in the summertime the rocks were warm when we sat there breaking beans.

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After the clean up, the rocks and Stone Gables are exposed!

One of the best things about the clearing of the jungle was that now Stone Gables could be more clearly seen from the south. When Charles and I returned from a walk in the South Woods, we were delighted to see the house so well–and to see the dear old rocks, hidden for so long, now airing in the sunshine.

There is definitely something to be said for uncovering old landmarks.

 

 

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Each Little Ornament

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Aunt Emma’s snowflakes, like real God-made snowflakes, are always different.

The Christmas tree glows displaying precious ornaments but how often do you stop to consider them? When you dressed the tree you may have paused in memory over the little angels and bells and you will handle the fragile treasures again when you take them off  to put them away. But how about sitting down by your tree in between your busy baking, shopping, and gift wrapping just to enjoy those ornaments that spend eleven months a year in your attic?

On my tree there is always a bird’s nest perched on a branch with a red cardinal sitting snugly in it. It was the first ornament I purchased for our very own Christmas tree in December 1969. (Prior to that our tree had been a large decorated pine cone in our Athens student apartment.) Now the bird is faded and the nest of straw is tousled after fifty years of finding a place on our Christmas trees. But I sigh with contentment as I remember the fun of ordering it from Spencer’s catalog and then pulling it with delight from its cute little box. Those were simpler times! That cardinal has been joined over the years by several others who perch here and there on green boughs. One cardinal was crafted of felt by my imaginative aunt Emma.

Aunt Emma was a very skilled Christmas decoration artist. She crocheted bells, all kinds of door hangers, and created charming ornaments using felt, bits of thread and buttons. Her creations were popular in north Georgia gift shops. Gradually I collected several of her treasures. Every year now I hang two bright red felt apples in the tree along with the red cardinal she made. One of my favorite of her decorations is a green crocheted door hanger with three sets of merry red bells that jingle every time the door is opened. But best of all are Aunt Emma’s finely crocheted white bells and snowflakes. Amazingly, the snowflakes, though not quite as white as they used to be, are still as crisply starched as when Aunt Emma made them.

One year a good friend, Jackie Joyner, and her daughter, Stephanie, gave us a dozen glass bead wreaths they had made. They are about three inches across, beautifully crafted in vivid red, green and white, and so merry. I always think of those friends as I carefully choose a branch where each wreath can hang.

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The White House ornament reminds us to pray for our president and our country.

Then there are the candy canes I made under the instruction of my dear neighbor, Judy Rawlins. They’re made of macramé twine and garden wire, I think. I remember the fun day at our church when several of us girls (and we really were just girls then!) enjoyed a Christmas crafting party. I can hear our laughter and smell the hot Russian tea. There’s a wooden teddy bear ornament from a Sunday school student who’s all grown up now, framed picture ornaments of all our grandchildren, brass colored musical instruments I bought one year when our son was in the band–these all make Christmases past come alive. Oh, and there are the souvenirs–a tiny replica of the White House, Ann Hathaway’s cottage from England, a Hawaiian surfboard, a redwood tree and a cable car from California and a tiny blue windmill from Holland, Michigan.

Maybe you, as I do, have one ornament you simply must have on your tree, maybe a salt dough bell with your child’s thumbprint still on it, or a fragile carefully preserved angel made from a toilet tissue holder. One of my absolute “musts” is a two-inch wooden nativity scene purchased in Savannah.

The three of us–Charles, our six-year-old son, William, and I–had traveled to Savannah to meet for the first time a little girl named Julie who would soon be part of our family. We played with her that afternoon in a park but then had to leave her with her caseworker until the next day. William did not understand at all why his new sister couldn’t just go with us right then. Hadn’t we waited long enough? To console him (and ourselves!) we went down to the riverfront, ate at the Boar’s Head or some fun place, and browsed the shops. Aside from watching taffy makers at work, and eating ice cream, we found this tiny nativity scene ornament and purchased it to commemorate that special time. On the bottom I penciled “Savannah 1975” just in case we forgot!

Amidst all the wonderful busy blur of Christmas activities, stop at least one minute and relish the beauty and meaning of your Christmas tree and its many ornaments, whether bought or handmade. Then bake those sugar cookies, wrap that final present, and “Have yourself a merry little Christmas now!”

 

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December Blossoms

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Sasanqua blossoms brighten our December

We expect poinsettias in the winter. Their bright red leaves we call blossoms are part of the Christmas scene and we treasure them. But I’m always surprised and amazed by the many other flowers that bloom “in the dead of winter” here in south Georgia. They seem to flourish when the days grow shorter and dreary clouds descend. This year they seem even brighter and more abundant.

Sasanqua trees are the prettiest I’ve ever seen them. White blossoms shine amongst dark shiny leaves. Those trees are a beautiful shape with twisting limbs that have been greatly enjoyed by our little climbers. We also have a sasanqua with pink blooms. Both trees drop carpets of blooms under their shade like flower girls sprinkling rose petals for a bride. I see these sasanquas all around brightening our winter days. By the way, the sasanquas are often used for grafting camellias and are sometimes called sasanqua camellias.

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Yellow jasmine vine on our mailbox pine tree.

Yellow jasmine blooms smile from a vine hugging our mailbox tree. The vine has bloomed off and on all year and here in mid-December it is flourishing again totally unaware that it might get frostbitten.

Roses are subdued but still blooming. The sight of a row of knockout roses blooming in front of our Christmas-decorated house makes me smile. The roses have not been told by sun, wind, or temperature that they might need to pull their heads in for a few weeks and take a nap.

Lantana makes a bright yellow corner around the quiet butterfly house. I would say the butterfly house is obeying winter’s threat that inmates should hibernate. But butterflies, even when warmed by September sunshine, don’t like our little slim-windowed butterfly house. They hover over the lantana but I’ve never seen one enter the house.

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Yesterday-today-tomorrow bush with one winter bloom!

The most interesting bloom in the yard, though, is that of the yesterday-today-tomorrow bush. All spring, all summer, through September, October, and November I’ve looked for any sign of bud or bloom and been disappointed. This little bush claims to be a summer bloomer. Last year it displayed for months its beautiful blue flowers that change to darker blue, then purple earning its name “yesterday-today-tomorrow.” But after all the warm sunny days when it could have bloomed, now, in the middle of December, this little bush puts forth one very small blossom. It’s almost as if it’s saying, “I’m sorry. I’ll do better next year.”

Amanda and I went Christmas shopping yesterday in Tallahassee, a wonderful fun day. As we drove down we exclaimed over the marvelous display of wildflowers in the highway’s median. Colors of pink and lavender and white blanketed a nice long stretch. You would have thought it was spring!

Though we seldom, very seldom, see snow in Cairo, we enjoy the beauty of December blossoms. In case I don’t get another blog out before then, Merry Christmas from the blooming south!

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One Starry Night

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Following is an excerpt from “Christmas Carols in my Heart,” my new Christmas book just out this fall.

I love stories. The words “Once upon a time…” make my ears perk up. This song (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”) begins like a story: “It came upon the midnight clear…”

Who knows whether the setting was really midnight, but it could have been! When I was nine years old, I wasn’t worried about theology or philosophy–I simply absorbed the story and enjoyed singing the words that etched themselves into my heart for later perusal. The real night referenced in the song very well could have been a night like the one when I, along with several of my brothers and sisters, took a very special Christmas Eve walk.

My two playmate brothers (the other three had already left home by then) had been building a small house in our woods that fall of 1951. They had allowed five-year-old Suzanne and me to help…up to a point. As soon as the house was “dried in” and ready to be enjoyed, they put us out. We were forced to find our own amusement. Hopeful that the hammering and sawing we heard might mean the boys were making us a present, we tried to think of something we could give them in turn. Mamma helped us hem handkerchiefs after we gave up on our efforts at pottery and aircraft construction.

Christmas Eve finally, finally, arrived. Mamma and Daddy banned us from the Hall (main room at Stone Gables with living area on one end, dining on the other) about five o’clock that afternoon so they could bring in the Christmas tree and decorate it. We could hear swishing and sliding as they wangled the tree in and Daddy instructed Mamma, “All right, now, up she goes.” Mamma then apparently eyed the tree’s straightness and replied, “No, to the right, little to the left, there–that’s good. Here’s the string. Catch!” We knew Daddy was tying the tree to the balcony rail.

Even the oldest girls, Pat and Ginger, home from college, were not to see the tree until the candles were all lit and Daddu blew the trumpet. Instead, they were in charge of feeding the rest of us supper. But no one was hungry except Stan, who was never full.

Suddenly, instead of prodding us to eat our bread and milk, Pat put on her big coat, fluffing her hair out over the collar. She grabbed coats for Suzanne and me too. Everyone else started moving and preparing themselves in turn. Somehow, Suzanne and I seemed to be the only ones who didn’t know what we were doing.

“Oh, Suzanne, where are your mittens?” asked Ginger.

“They’re in my coat pocket,” I said. “Suzanne’s coat doesn’t have pockets. Anyway, our mittens are so full of holes our fingers are sticking out.”

“Well, that’s a good thing,” said Pat, helping Ginger fit them on us. “If it weren’t for the holes they’d be too little. Hmmm…too bad you two don’t have new mittens. That’s a shame.” She sounded as if she was telling a joke, but I wasn’t getting it.

It was a moonlit night with a dome of stars overhead. The sky was so clear it felt almost as if the lights above were pulling my eyes right out of my head. Someone started singing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as we trailed down Sunny Lawn, across Sand Flat, and crunched in the frozen ruts of an old road that wound around Tulip Hill. I could almost imagine one of those angels appearing in our path and “bending near,” especially when Pat said in a hushed voice, “There! Do you see that one bright star?” We followed her pointing finger and, sure enough, the brightest star actually did have a shining longer tail like the stars featured on Christmas cards.

Suzanne and I were so intent on studying the stars that we didn’t notice Stan, Charlie, and Jackie running on ahead, leaving us far behind. The cold crept into my holey mittens and I fisted my hands to warm them. It had gotten pretty dark in the deeper woods, and I stayed close by Pat’s side, glad when she took one of my hands in hers. At least that one could be warm. Then, in the most startling voice, Ginger said, “Halt! Look through the trees! What is that?”

For the tiniest second, I thought, The angel has come down! Then I took a deep breath of cold air and realized the light before me, like a tiny pinpoint through the trees, was coming from exactly where that little house was–the one from which Suzanne and I had been exiled weeks before. I let go of Pat’s hand and, suddenly fearless, dashed ahead.

The Little House, as we began to call it, had been furnished and decorated by Jackie and our brothers. It was the most fantastic playhouse anyone could have imagined. There was wallpaper, a stove, a quilted doll-sized bed, and a window adorned with curtains above a sill on which a candle gleamed. Fifty years later, I remember the pounding excitement in my chest when I took it all in. The Little House was a gift of love that would last long after the walls caved in and the shingles disintegrated.

It was time to hurry back to our home, Stone Gables, and line up for the Christmas tree. I can still taste the piece of hard candy I ate, feel the warmth of  my new mittens, and smell the tantalizing scent of my brand-new book.

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Christmas Carols in my Heart is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com and, locally, at Center Drugs, Miss Myrt’s, Rayann’s, and the Bookshelf. I’m also going to have a table at Mistletoe Market, downtown Cairo, on Saturday and will be hosted at a tea at Roddenbery Memorial Library, December 12, 4:00-6:00. I would love to have a chat with you!

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