Memories of our childhood companions fade into the background until something triggers a recollection. The recent heavy rains brought to mind our dear Maggie, a faithful and much loved playmate for my sister and me.
Maggie wasn’t just a playmate. She joined our family very early on a cold New Year’s morning. There was great excitement surrounding her arrival. Some of the family had anticipated she was coming but Suzanne and I were totally unaware of such a momentous change in our lives. At first I wasn’t sure how to welcome her since she was deaf and dumb. But Suzanne and I quickly learned how to communicate with her. Smiles, thumbs up or down, a shake of the head, and many dramatic gesticulations kept us on the same page most of the time. Any arguing was between Suzanne and me over what Maggie might be trying to tell us.
Maggie was beautiful with soft dark brown hair often braided into pigtails. She had rounded limbs, nearly always a sweet expression on her round little face as if she wanted more than anything to please us. She was only a little smaller than Suzanne. We mothered her a lot and she let us. She slept between us and never poked her elbows into us or kicked us, though we weren’t always that kind to her, I’m afraid.
One of us would carry Maggie when we took her to the woods. We didn’t want her to be lost or afraid. But she never seemed to fear anything even when we made her climb trees with us. I would go up first, then Maggie, and finally Suzanne, ready to catch her if she fell. Sometimes I’d be pulling her by one arm while Suzanne steadied her feet on a sturdy limb. Since she was dumb she couldn’t complain but we tried to be mindful of her expressions and often talked for her.
“Oh, that was too hard a climb, wasn’t it, Maggie?” one of us might say.
“No, it was all right, let’s go higher” the other would reply for Maggie.
Maggie was not blood kin but she became a full member of our family. Even with her disabilities she sometimes was the life of our playful dramas. And when we went in to supper Suzanne and I vied for having Maggie at our side. Usually brothers and sisters adjusted their seating so we could have Maggie between us. I couldn’t be sure Maggie cared where she sat. She seemed to love everybody. She was always neat, too, never spilling any food down her front. Suzanne and I argued sometimes about what food Maggie liked the best. Mamma would finally stop us and say we should let Maggie show us what she liked. With the use of sign language it really wasn’t hard to realize she liked best Mamma’s hot stovetop biscuit bread cooked on an iron griddle and loaded with butter.
There was a Maggie song circulating at that time. It became a favorite of ours because, even though it was about someone courting a Maggie, we thought it was quite appropriate for our playmate and big family. Here’s how it went: “There was her father, her mother, her sister and her brother–oh, I’ll never see Maggie alone.” Suzanne and I sang it at top volume as if Maggie might be able to hear us and enjoy the humor.
Though she couldn’t understand much of what we were studying, Maggie sat with us in our home school sessions. Maybe we were even guilty at times of blaming poor Maggie when we didn’t answer questions correctly. Maggie did something funny and made us forget. Or Maggie needed special help just then so we didn’t finish our assignment.
One day the three of us were playing in the backyard. We constructed a truly fantastic playhouse using tree branches, firewood, and cardboard boxes arranged over and around a huddle of great gray rocks. Maggie didn’t help a whole lot. But when we “moved in” our new house she was happy. She was so cute sitting with her back to a rock holding a mouthwash lid teacup in her lap. We all had “tea and crumpets” before Daddy called us to recite our daily spelling words. Maggie liked the house so much she didn’t want to leave so we left her there still enjoying her tea.
A sudden shower came up during our spelling lesson. Would our nice playhouse stay dry for Maggie? As soon as we could, we rushed out to see about her.
Maggie was soaking wet. No matter how hard we tried in the days afterward we couldn’t dry poor Maggie. Mamma put her in a chair near the stove and we all turned her this way and that. Then we set her in a sunny spot outdoors for hours on end but she remained soggy and heavy. You see, Maggie was a wonderful life-size rag doll our older sisters made for us. Her stuffing, consisting mostly of rags, got so wet that it soured before she ever could dry.
We were disconsolate over the loss of Maggie who didn’t get pneumonia, or bronchitis, or the flu. She just “died” from over soaking. We had sung so lustily about Maggie’s never being alone. But that day we did leave her alone.
The frequent rains recently triggered that recollection and reminded me of the diligence and love of those sisters who made our amazing doll. I’m also filled with gratitude for Mamma who played along with us in our imaginative conversations with Maggie and for her valiant attempts to dry our playmate. I’m thankful for brothers who used great self control and didn’t laugh (much, anyway) when Maggie “melted.”
Our playmates, even a rag doll, play a role in who we become.
Life with a veterinarian is always full of surprises. One of those was Red, a newborn heifer.
One of Charles’s farmer clients asked him who might want a sterile heifer. Her mama had birthed a male to weeks before this twin was born. In this case, a female twin born with a male, it was believed that the female would never breed. In addition to her unfortunate birth circumstances, Red, as we appropriately named her, was a runt. The farmer who was proud of his shorthorn herd, didn’t want this one sullying his reputation. More importantly, he wanted the male twin to have every bit of his mama’s nourishment.
When the farmer asked who might like to have the runty sterile heifer, Charles said he would take her. I think she may have been the first of a long line of animal gifts we received.
We raised her as a pet. At the time we didn’t own the pasture behind our house. Red, the small heifer, occupied a makeshift pen in our backyard. William, about five then, learned how to give her her bottle. She was an eager eater which, of course, made her grow fast. Even a runty heifer when grown is a cow.
It happened that by the time Red outgrew her pen we had been able to buy the adjoining pasture and barn so Red had plenty of room to frisk about. As she matured Charles began to wonder if she was indeed sterile. Never one to accept undocumented facts as truth, he decided to do an artificial insemination on her and just see. By and by it became obvious that Red was not sterile.
She was still a small heifer. She was still a red shorthorn, though actually she had no horns so was a polled shorthorn. And Red was definitely still our pet as much as our dogs in the yard and our cats in the house. She came to the fence when she saw any of us exit the back door, especially if it were Charles. She’d let us pet her and would follow us around like an overgrown dog as we picked up pecans. I was never afraid of her but I did get nervous when I was in a vulnerable pecan-picking position and she came up behind me. She never pushed me over, though she did nibble at my shirttail a time or two much to William’s delight.
Charles very seldom got sick. But that February he had a lingering case of the flu and was at home in the bed for several days. One of those days, a gloomy cold rainy day, I heard Red let out an unusually distressful bawl. When I looked toward the pasture and saw her at the fence looking mighty uncomfortable I knew. This was her time. Well, she’d better be able to take care of this herself because her veterinarian was in the bed.
Time went by and Red was still in trouble. She walked back and forth, bawling and stopping often to look at me with an expression that said, “Why don’t you do something?” All I could do was talk to her and assure her over and over that it would soon be over. I could see feet presenting. I’d watched Charles deliver calves many times but I knew I couldn’t do it.
It wasn’t soon over. Poor Red was still in labor. Finally, as you would suspect, Charles went out in the winter weather to check on his heifer. With his help, Red at last gave birth to a healthy male calf. “Doubled our herd,” Charles said with a grin.
William was overjoyed. Another baby to bottle feed! But no–this baby had a very good mama who would feed him and care for him.
Red was thought to be sterile and useless, a runt of bovine flesh. But Charles wasn’t convinced that she was no good. She became a favorite pet at our house and birthed two calves. She may have been no good commercially. But to us she was a treasure.
As I reflect on Red on this another cold gloomy winter day, I’m reminded of how God treasures each of his creations and gives us life though we in no way deserve it. Ephesians 2:4-5 says: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.
We all have family stories that make us chuckle or weep. The following is one of ours that is a chuckling one. We need only say a few words and the picture comes back to us.
It was summer of 1985 and we were going to Washington, Charles and I and our two teenage children. William was an upcoming senior in high school and we knew this was probably the last big vacation we’d have with him. Julie was fourteen.
I bought a Mobil Travel Guide and we made plans. This was to be a really special trip. We’d go to Washington and to Williamsburg, Virginia. I found a bed-and-breakfast for us in Washington just a short walk from a Metro station. It was on Florida Street, an upstairs apartment. When we arrived we found milk, cereal, orange juice, coffee, bread and plenty of snacks in the refrigerator. Our host, a young single man, welcomed us as if we were family. He took us on a wonderful tour around the city, pointing out all the memorials, museums, the Capitol, the White House, the Mall. Some of us in the back seat turned pale with motion sickness because he drove very fast and turned corners like the Dukes of Hazard. But it really was a great bird’s eye view that prepared us for planning our week.
Though enjoying our nation’s capital, I was eagerly looking forward to our few days in Williamsburg. I couldn’t help mentioning every now and then the fun we could expect in that historic town. “The bed-and-breakfast there,” I elaborated, “is in walking distance of downtown Williamsburg where we can mingle with historic characters, eat in a pub, and even try our hand at weaving and things like that.” I described the bed-and-breakfast with romantic flair, always mentioning that it was “a cozy cottage nestled amongst beautiful trees and overlooking a wooded ravine.” Julie rolled her eyes thinking a wooded ravine didn’t sound like much fun.
We walked the Mall, went quiet in the presence of Abraham Lincoln, visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and tried to absorb quickly hundreds of years of life displayed in the museums. Charles and I could have spent all day in each museum. Our children were much more efficient. They could rush through a museum and be done in the time it took us to read our way through the first exhibit. We all, I think, agreed that our favorite of all the Smithsonian Museums was that of Natural History. Who was not to be amazed at that elephant!
We went to see a live performance of “The Count of Monte Cristo” at the Kennedy Center. We all enjoyed the awesome setting, the pageantry, the building itself. But William and I enjoyed the performance much more than did Charles and Julie who, tired from tramping through all those museums, went to sleep.
We went to Georgetown and ate in a fine restaurant where Charles and William ate their first escargot. Julie and I stuck with American dishes like spaghetti and chopped steak.
Every night as we convened around the kitchen table to talk about the day’s adventures and plan for the next day, I reminded them that when we got to Williamsburg we’d be staying in a cottage by a wooded ravine. William questioned me. “Just what do you expect in a wooded ravine?” It would be beautiful, I assured him, and the implication was that a little bubbling stream ran down the ravine.
We went by tour boat to Mount Vernon and became a part of the lives of George and Martha Washington. We waited in line to go up the Washington Monument and viewed the city with Charles pointing out historic sites. We visited our Georgia senator’s office and didn’t know that William would later serve as an intern for The Honorable Charles Hatcher.
We left our little apartment on Florida Street with a wistful goodby to a treasured time. But we were excited about heading to Williamsburg, at least I was. The cottage overlooking a wooded ravine!
Charles is very good at finding things, following directions. So when we pulled into the driveway of a square block building he was quite sure it was the right place. I was not. This didn’t look like a cottage at all, more like a closed-in carport. We unfolded ourselves from the car, verified the house number. No one came out to greet us from the house nearby.
In puzzlement, we turned to study our surroundings. Yes, there were a few non-significant trees. And, yes, there was a large ditch with a few scrappy trees growing in it. This couldn’t be the wooded ravine. Could it? The deep ditch was strewn liberally with disgusting trash. It was just plain ugly.
Both kids exclaimed in exasperation. “Mom! There’s not even a creek at all.”
Eventually, we found the key and let ourselves in. Charles, always the optimist, pointed out that it was a comfortable place, really quite all right for four people. We soon learned that the “short walk to downtown Colonial Williamsburg” was not really very short, especially for two tired teenagers who had already endured so much walking! But, in spite of misrepresentations, we really did enjoy Williamsburg, especially all the costumed folks who so readily responded to our questions in the blacksmith shop, the bakery and all the shops. And William greatly enjoyed having his picture made while in “the stocks” like a prisoner.
Ever since that vacation, if something sounds too good to be true, we look at each other and one says it: “Remember the wooded ravine.”
My parents entertained quite a few out-of-town guests who came once or twice a year and stayed several days. It meant good times and good food. We kids loved it. We learned a lot about geography and the way other people lived. We collected new jokes and heard more of our own family stories as the grownups talked. We had opportunities ourselves to share and entertain as we put on plays and demonstrated some odd skills like rolling down a hill inside a rubber tire.
Usually, when the guests first arrived they presented Mamma with some delicacy or interesting souvenir, their “bread and butter” gift. Sometimes it was what Mamma, after they left, called a “white elephant,” something useless which would gather dust in a corner. Sometimes it was something of lasting value, like the photo album one dear lady brought. She spent her visit making pictures of all of us to fill the album. Sometimes it was a box of chocolates which, of course, was eagerly received by our family.
Seldom was the gift either bread or butter. So why did Mamma call those offerings “bread and butter” gifts? All these years my siblings and I, as well as many of our friends, have given and received these interesting gifts and thought “everybody” knew them by the same name.
I became curious the other day as to the how, when, and why these niceties were called “bread and butter” gifts. A quick viewing of Google answers brought up only “bread and butter letters.” I have yet to find any direct reference to bread and butter gifts. Handwritten notes thanking hosts for their hospitality seem to have been greatly inspired by Jane Austen’s stodgy character Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Collins wrote effusive letters to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet after his visits though their daughter, Elizabeth, rejected his proposal of marriage. A thank you note later became known as a “collins,” as well as a bread and butter note. It is still a very thoughtful gesture to let one’s host know they enjoyed a visit even if by texting, e-mailing, or calling. And we don’t have to use the flowery hypocritical language of Mr. Collins. Sincere gratitude in a few words does wonders.
The phrase “bread and butter” is much used. Bread is the staff of life and butter is the enhancement of it. When one earns his “bread and butter” he’s making a living, maybe not a fortune, but a living. When one reminds a person to beware of the side his bread is buttered on, it usually means the same as “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” If two of us were walking hand in hand and came to an obstruction, such as a rock or a tree, we’d say “Bread and butter on my side” as we separated for a moment. It meant we didn’t want to be separated for long.
A bread and butter gift, as Mamma taught us, is a thank you expression that is quite fun. Let it be something your host(s) will remember you by and, more importantly, be blessed by. Maybe it would be a product from your area, such as peanuts from Georgia or maple syrup from Vermont. Or if you enjoy crafts you might use one of your creations as a gift. I like to make jelly so that is one of my standby thank you gifts. I even tucked small jars of Mayhaw jelly in my suitcase to share when we visited friends in England.
Thinking back to those visitors to my birth family, I think the gift that made a huge impact on all of us was given by Nina Jordan, a book titled “Home Toy Shop.” My younger sister inherited the dogeared copy and still refers to it when needing a children’s craft idea. On rainy days we had wonderful times making everything from an oatmeal box doll’s cradle or merry-go-round with exotic animals to elaborate paper dolls, whistles, airplanes and more.
Mamma, when she visited in our home, always had something to pull out of her suitcase to surprise us, a delicate teacup, a fingertip hand towel. But one time she didn’t have anything. After peeling potatoes one day she asked me to take her to the store. There she proceeded to choose a sharp paring knife for me. “Every woman needs a really sharp knife in the kitchen,” she said, obviously not satisfied with the one she’d used on the potatoes. I still have that bright little knife and it is still sharp!
By the way if you do bake bread or churn butter, those would be lovely thank you gifts. It might be hard, though, to keep them fresh and unmelted on a long journey. I can just see the yellow stream dribbling from your suitcase as you head through an airport security check!
The cat came to us yowling. That is what cats do when they need, are desperate for, attention, isn’t it? They don’t just meow or howl. They YOWL!
Our two cats, Sassy and Cramer, ignored this interloper for the most part. Occasionally they tried to run her off (“Scat, you don’t belong here!” “This isn’t your place!” “Go on! This is our family!”). But usually they avoided her, never lay down near her, moved if she came near them, never looked her in the eye. If she tried to eat from their dishes before they were satisfied, and sometimes when they were, they turned her away in definite authoritative feline language. Most of the time, to them, she was invisible, a nothing.
Charles, my husband and vet, declared this cat was in heat. That’s why she was rubbing our legs, legs of strangers, and yowling like an injured bobcat. I talked to her about it. “Look, there’s no help for you here. We have one neutered male and a female. You need to move on.” Charles tried to get her in a carrier so he could take her to the office. If we couldn’t learn who she belonged to, he’d spay her and maybe we’d keep her. But this cat resisted being placed in the carrier. She was fast and sharp. Very sharp! She might let us pick her up for one quick minute but no entry into that cage, no thank you!
It became a ritual every morning to see if the new cat was still here. She always was, though she wouldn’t sit on the kitchen window sill with the other cats, whether they wouldn’t let her or whether she knew she didn’t belong. Instead, she came to the breakfast room window and yowled her heart out there. Yes, yowled. I took a picture of her thinking it was a picture of longing to belong. I was sorely tempted to let her in.
But we would not let her in. Charles is allergic to cat fur and long ago we decided his exposure every day to cats at the clinic was enough. Our cats would stay outside.
In due time (about ten days as is normal) this cat stopped yowling and just meowed and sometimes howled. We thought she might try to go back home, wherever that was. She had a flea collar on. Someone had cared for her. She had been an indoor cat, Charles said, that’s why she shamelessly pleaded to come in the back screen. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the need to keep our distance from strangers, we might have tried harder to find out from whence she came. Our few inquiries brought up nothing.
A disturbing result of the new cat’s presence in our yard was that the birds left, all left. Our feeders and bird baths had been busy every day until she yowled into the yard. When I saw her threatening the one or two birds who did perch on the feeders, I lectured her. “Now you just need to move on. I do not want anyone doing harm to our birds.” Of course she purred as if I’d given her a nice stroking. We loved watching our birds. But what could we do? Our other cats, well fed and lazy, no longer were any threat to the cardinals and the chickadees. But this cat!
Days went by. Weeks went by. She was still here. She consistently walked with us around our circular driveway, around and around and around. Twelve circuits equal a mile. Even if she were nowhere in sight when I started out, she would hear the clatter of my walker wheels on the pavement and come springing out of the bushes, beautiful dark grey and white fur a blur, her tail high like a flag. When she slowed down I could see her distinctive markings on legs and very long tail. Her tail drifted along behind her like the graceful train of a lady’s evening gown.
One day as we walked together I told the cat “If you’re really staying here you need a name. What should it be?” Sometimes you name a pet for distinctive coloring or other appearances. I watched her long tail just skimming the pavement as she slowed along making sure to stay close beside me. It could be “Long Tail.” But that did not sound very ladylike. It was the month of October. What about some form of the word October? Maybe “Octy,” or “Octo”? Those names did not fit this cat. So I decided to try the other end of the word. “Ber,” I said out loud. The cat looked at me with her amber eyes and gave a soft “meow.” She may have thought I was a bit chilled by a sudden breeze. Then out of my mouth came the name “Bertha!” She looked at me again as we ambled and rattled along. “Yes, Bertha it is!”
Folks always seem startled when I tell them her name. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of a cat named Bertha.
Bertha now has her regular turn at a feed bowl. The other cats have accepted her, though they sometimes still seem a little aloof. She continues to walk with us. She enjoys the children when they come. Charli can sit on the grass and play with Bertha who climbs in her lap, soaks up a good stroking and all but hugs Charli’s neck. She has a fine coat, is regularly inspected by our favorite veterinarian who picks her up at times and carries her around the circle, or as far as she will allow. And Bertha has earned her ticket to the theater aka the kitchen window sill, a very good place for watching humans.
We speculate sometimes about where Bertha came from, what her back story is. Did her family move away and leave her behind? Did she just walk away one morning and never go back? Could she not find her way back? She is pretty skittish, sometimes bolts like a flushed rabbit. Did someone abuse her? We’ll never know. Just as we’ll never know what became of two cats in past years who left us mysteriously. All we can do is love her and give her a bountiful life with cozy places of shelter and plenty of food and affection.
Slowly the birds are coming back. The bird bath out back was rimmed with rusty breasted robins one day this week and cardinals are beginning to visit the feeders again.
So Bertha is here to stay. She has a name. She has been accepted by her peers. She has been forgiven for her trespasses as an enemy of birds.
A couple of things of which the coming of Bertha reminds me: we all long to belong and when we trust in Jesus He accepts us just as we are with our many sins; when we have a name and our name is written in heaven, we have solid security in belonging for eternity.
They’re dramatic and gorgeous in the spring. Those ivory blossoms high in the stately trees, or sometimes low enough for a better view, are so satiny and elegant. I think of the movie “Steel Magnolias” and how fragile and totally tough those women were, sticking together in good times and bad. The magnolia blossoms in all their finery and strength do fade away, their petals turning brown as they make way for the bright pods of summer and fall.
Those pods really can be a nuisance. If you don’t watch where you’re stepping, you can take a nasty tumble. Charles diligently picks them up calling them “apples.” They are far from being Galas or Golden Delicious but the squirrels love them. Even before the bright red berries shine on the droop shaped pods, the squirrels manage to get to them even if far out on a limb. They have a wonderfully good gnawing old time dropping berries and finally pods in their eagerness.
This year some of us painted brittle smooth magnolia leaves for Christmas tree ornaments. Mattie decorated her large leaf with red and white peppermint stripes. Charli and I did Santa Claus faces with the pointed part of the leaf all white beard. Kaison, though asked to to please do something Christmasy, chose to make a very colorful monster, then made crosses at the edges saying they stood for Jesus protecting us from the monster. You might think these decorated leaves could not be preserved from one year to the next but this entire art project originated from a leaf decorated by Debbie Ashley, our Christi’s mom, many years ago. That leaf, cherished in the family’s beautiful collection of ornaments, is still bright and intact, a “steel magnolia.”
The trunks of our magnolias fascinate me. The silvery bark decorated with lichens is full of character. Sometimes I’m reminded of ancient maps, Athens to Rome or Constantinople to Stockholm. Other times I see oceans and lakes and islands, so many odd shapes. Some trunks are pale with dark spots in a varied pattern like the coat of a cat. The bark has a lovely texture too. It’s not papery like birch or nubby like an oak, not flaky like a pine. The magnolia is very smooth looking but when you run your hands over the bark you’ll feel those lakes and oceans and islands. If you close your eyes, you may think you’re reading braille, or trying to!
Here, in the “dead” of winter, the magnolia is as beautiful as in any other season. Flowers in the spring, pods in the summer and fall, rich dark green glossy leaves in every season, faithful and true as an old friend.
Why would I write about magnolias on this sad day, January 6, 2021? It is sad because those who champion abortion of babies and defunding police, among a few goals, have won both houses in Congress. It is also very sad because Trump supporters have displayed their frustration over injustices by storming the Capitol in an unconscionable way.
Why would I write about magnolias? I wondered myself. I guess it’s because I need to focus on something beautiful and hopeful, something that reminds me that, in the words of Browning, “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world.”
God knows what is happening in our America. He is in control, though in this season it may not appear so.
Sit with me by the fire while the wind whines around the corner of the house. Have a cup of Christmas. Choose between hot cocoa, Russian tea, pumpkin spice coffee, caramel latte, or just plain coffee steaming hot. Enjoy the Christmas tree glowing with colored lights and sparkling ornaments. Feel the anticipation of Christmas as you see the stockings hanging empty ready to be filled on Christmas Eve. Take a look at the Nativity scene on a side table with shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family casting shadows from the lamplight. Oh, and here, have a cookie please–sugar cookies in Christmas shapes, thumbprint cookies with a dab of mayhaw jelly in the clevities, chocolate covered pretzels, and spiced snowballs.
Now–sit comfortably with me, toasting your toes, and let us contemplate Christmas together.
The sight of those limp stockings reminds me of how heart-stopping exciting it was as a child to begin to unpack my knobby, crooked, fat sock that the night before had seemed so useless. Yes, it was a sock. Everyone in the family, large and small, hung their own socks, not fine needlepoint stockings, on nails used only for that purpose. The rest of the year those nails were seldom, if ever, used. When I was very little I can remember my mother gently replacing mine and my sister’s small socks with longer ones from our older brothers. It was amazing what interesting things came out of those socks–simple little tops, handheld dolls, puzzles, crayons, along with oranges, some of Mamma’s fudge wrapped in wax paper, coconuts for the older children, and nuts, of course!
As exciting as those socks were, I daresay packing stockings for our children when they were young, was even more exciting. I loved the time on Christmas Eve when they were (hopefully!) fast asleep and we could begin packing those stockings with little trucks and cars, whistles, new socks, games and puzzles, hair doodles, along with chocolate kisses, a pack of crackers (planned for our Christmas trip to Grandmother’s) and always a candy cane sticking out the top. It was fun to add an extra surprise, too big for the stocking and wrapped in tissue, laid alongside the stocking. We took great pleasure in collecting things, over a matter of weeks, that we thought might bring a smile to our children on Christmas morning.
We comment, you and I, on the fact that Jesus loves to give us good things–even during hard times–good things packed into the stockings of our days.
Think about the Christmas tree. We enjoy bringing home a new ornament as a souvenir of special trips. One prominent one each year on our tree is a tiny replica of the White House, complete with wreath. It reminds us to pray for whoever occupies that house and for other government officials. There are reminders all over the tree of our children and grandchildren. But the tree itself reminds us that Jesus came as a Baby but gave His life on a tree that we may have eternal life. And the lights twinkling so brightly? Even in the darkest days, He is the Light of the world and He wants us to shine for Him. Underneath the tree are various sizes, shapes of packages, gifts to our loved ones, a wonderful tradition, reminiscent to some of the wise men bringing gifts to the Baby so long ago.
Look at the Nativity scenes. We have several. One is our elegant one, beautiful ceramic pieces purchased when our children were young enough to move the figures around, but surviving the little hands of grandchildren and great grandchildren. There’s an olive wood stable and figures from Bethlehem, a set a sister gave me made especially for children, another from France. Two Nativity scenes I’ve arranged on the piano on either side of hymnals ready for a pianist to play “Away In A Manger” or “Silent Night.”
As we sit here by the fire talking about the shepherds, the wise men, Mary and Joseph and the Baby as depicted by the Nativity scenes, our conversation turns to a question that troubles us. Why is it so hard for people to believe this story? It is so crucial to their receiving the marvelous eternal life God the Father gave us through His Son Jesus Christ. Why are there so many millions who refuse to believe because it “couldn’t have happened,” or “God wouldn’t have done it,” or because God doesn’t care that much. We’re talking about God who created the world by the spoken word, God who could do anything, impossible or not. Why will they not believe?
We remember Paul Harvey, a favorite radio storyteller. One of his stories he told several years at Christmas is about the birds. Remember that one?
It went something like this.
A man, his wife, and two children, lived happily in a little town. They did almost everything together. But on Sunday the wife and the children went to church and the man stayed at home. Repeatedly, the family begged him to go with them to church but over and over he refused, sometimes going so far as to say there couldn’t be anything to that Christian stuff. It didn’t make sense that God would become a little baby. On Christmas Eve, the family prepared to go to the special church service and, again, pleaded with the man to go with them. He almost lost his cool in his irritation and told them just to go on and leave him alone, that there was no way he’d believe Jesus was born to a virgin, died on the cross, and was raised again. Why in the world would God do that? So the family sadly left him alone and went on to the midnight church service. It began to snow again and, hearing the sound of many birds, the man looked out the window. On the lawn were a dozen or more little birds cold, huddling together trying to stay warm. He thought of the barn where the birds could be warm for the night. He went out and turned on a light to entice them. They didn’t come. He got some bread and sprinkled crumbs on the snow leading to the barn’s lighted door. Still, they continued to huddle on the snow. He waved his arms trying to shoo them in. Nothing worked. In frustration he thought, if I could just explain to them that they don’t need to be afraid of me, that I’m trying to give them a warm, safe place away from the storm. But, he realized, he’d have to be one of them in order to explain and to make them understand. He’d have to be one of them, one of them. He took in a gasp of cold air just as the church bells began to ring. Oh, my! The man dropped to his knees in the snow.
Because of the magic of modern media you can hear on You Tube Paul Harvey, who’s been dead for years, telling this story in his own words with his own dramatic pauses.
Well, here we are still nursing our warm cups, though they’re empty. Maybe we better get started on that knitting we were going to do together. Christmas is a time for sharing. It is so much fun!
A twinkle of candlelight on brass, the uplifted horn, the blast of sound reaching even the noisiest of us children waiting in the crowded kitchen. It was time to troop into the Hall in age order to see the Christmas tree. Our anticipation and expectancy were never higher.
Daddy wasn’t really a trumpet player and always played only a few notes to call us out, but years later, when my brother Stan was the herald, he would play a whole song–“Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Stan made no bones about being a perfectionist. He just played to enjoy the music and hoped everyone else would enjoy it too. By the time he finished, everyone would be crowded close to the tree, eyes widened at the beautiful sight of the immense cedar or pine lit with twinkling real candles.
When I sing the notes today, I am not only thrilled at the truths in “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” such as “God and sinners reconciled,” I’m also remembering how quickly we hushed our silly prattle when the trumpet sounded, and how, with no argument, we found our places in the line–rounding a dark corner in the breakfast room and stepping down through the big arch into the Hall where we spied the tree for the first time and gasped in pure awe. Somehow the song and memory make me look forward to the next time Jesus comes, when, instead of “the herald angels,” He will appear Himself in the sky in a burst of unbelievable light. I want to be ready to put all distractions away and be quick to join Him when He calls my name.
We spent a lot of time in the woods when I was a kid. In fact, I spent a lot of time up in the trees, often with a book to read, sometimes even with a precious snack–a thick slice of Mamma’s bread spread with rich yellow butter and topped off with a layer of beautiful brown sugar, or a couple of cookies, or a baked potato snatched from noon leftovers stored in the stove’s warming closet. A few times I did fall out of one of those trees. My first concern–before checking for broken bones–was that no one tell Daddy, because he would ban me from climbing trees if he found out.
Aside from eating and reading, Suzanne and I loved to sing while aloft in a favorite dogwood. We’d sing with girlish gusto, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” from Thanksgiving to Christmas. We giggled uproariously if one or all of our motley collection of dogs began baying. They were, after all, our usual audience. Suzanne thought they were singing with us, but I was sure they were objecting as hard as they knew how to a sound that grated on their ears.
We young sprouts didn’t understand all the words we so liltingly sang, although, until someone asked me directly whether I knew what the more advanced words meant, I probably thought I knew. I didn’t go around in a puzzled cloud wondering what in the world “the incarnate Deity” was or stop to study the meaning of “veiled in flesh, the God-head see,” either. Like solvers of jigsaw puzzles setting pieces aside until they fine a place for them, we held these words and phrases in our thinking somewhere until they made sense. Now, they are precious–a declaration of our mighty God’s humbling Himself for our sakes.
In the back of my mind, I hear Dad’s bass voice belting out “Glory to the newborn King” and Mamma’s soft yet enthusiastic voice almost trembling while singing “With th’angelic hosts proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem.'” I hear my brother Stan down the pew from me at Clarkesville Baptist, singing loud enough for three how Jesus was “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.”
I can see my grandson Charles Douglas’s face when, as a tiny boy, he had his first experience “lining up for the Christmas tree at Grandmother Knight’s.” His brown eyes grew so wide, and he looked awed and amazed as the notes of the trumpet sounded. But how we did crack up at his next question: “What’s that noise?”
Lord, I pray I’ll be ready when You come. I pray I’ll do my part in preparing others for Your coming. I pray we’ll recognize You and never once wonder what the “noise” is. Amen.
The above is adapted from a chapter in Christmas Carols in my Heart by Brenda Knight Graham. If you’d like signed copies as Christmas presents, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for info on this and other books and prices.
I once thought joy was synonymous with happiness. Sure, I would use the word to mean extreme happiness, not just everyday cheerfulness, but still…I lined it up somewhere in the happiness spectrum. But joy is far more than happiness. Experience in God’s kingdom teaches us this more than His word, though it is confirmed there over and over.
In December 1997 my then ninety-three-old mother was in the hospital. We all knew, though we wouldn’t admit it, that she was dying. Previously, I’d been guilty of thinking that the passing of someone over ninety didn’t bring forth strong grief; after all, the person had lived a good, long life. I was totally wrong.
All ten of the children Mamma had given birth to and nine chosen ones, as well as thirty-three grandchildren and thirty great-grandchildren, expressed ourselves differently, but we were heartbroken at the thought of losing Mamma, Momsey, Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, Miss Eula. We couldn’t imagine ever finding full happiness again without this dear lady whose cozy bedroom had become a sanctuary for all of us–a place where we knew we’d find loving support, challenges to keep our chins up, boosts to our faith, encouragement to continue pursuing our dreams, or simply the opportunity to catch our breath. Hers was a place where we could lean over a game of Scrabble and lose our other concerns in deep contemplation over whether we could find a brilliant or not so brilliant use for a q.
It seemed natural to sing around Mamma’s hospital bed. Gradually, she slipped too far for us to communicate in any other way. She’d always enjoyed her children being around her–so we sang, some of the boys strumming guitars. We gathered each night around Mamma’s bed to sing, even though, for days, there was no response from the still figure in the bed. We sang all her favorite hymns and, with Christmas approaching, felt compelled to sing carols too. It was apparent Mamma wouldn’t be with us at the big Stone Gables Christmas tree this year. In fact, some of her last words had been that she wouldn’t be seen sitting in her big blue chair “But,” she’d whispered, “I’ll see you.”
It was a struggle, even a battle, for me to sing “Joy to the World” beside Mamma’s silent form to the accompaniment of her struggled breathing. But I was determined to do it. When one of us dropped out of the singing because of tears, others took up the slack. Nurses, who had ignored hospital rules to let us overcrowd Mamma’s room, told us with moist eyes how much our faith–and, yes, joy–meant to them as we sang Mamma to heaven, her flight to perfect peace finally occurring in the wee hours of December 12, 1997.
For over a year I could not sing any Christmas carol without needing one of Mamma’s handkerchiefs. But I knew hos much Mamma had loved Jesus and loved Christmas, how she’d loved seeing the little ones sitting around the tree singing “Away in a Manger.” I remembered how she’d always beamed as her younger sons, Stan and Charlie, took turns emceeing our large family Christmas party. They would throw in a line about how Santa had been delayed by a heavy snow, but could still possibly come. She was as thrilled as the children when a real live Santa Claus came walking in our big front door with a pack on his back. It would have been a tremendous sorrow to her if she knew she’d laid a shadow forever over our Christmas spirit. So, I kept singing. We all did. And the joy of the Lord came to us even in the midst of grief.
Now, years later, I can sing more joyfully than ever. For there are even more memories–memories of Mamma’s sweet concern for us to the very last, of her dreams for each little great-grandchild, of her love of life. I remember vividly my husband’s tenderness throughout that dreadful, sweet time and my children’s thoughtfulness. William pulled on his dad’s boots and went out in a cold dawn to help his cousins dig Mamma’s grave in our family cemetery, all of them wanting her place of rest to be personally and perfectly right. Julie reminded me, “Grandmother’s happy now and not hurting anymore. She’s singing with the angels. And you’re just going to have to learn how to make those good green beans she always cooked for us.”
Yes, true joy comes during our darkest hours. True joy shines through our grief in an unexplainable way. The Christ of Christmas knew sorrow greater than any of us can begin to conceive. But He offers Joy that is eternal.
Almighty God, thank You for being there for me in great joy and in sorrow. Thank You for bringing joy out of sorrow and showing me rainbows in my tears. Make me a blessing, Lord, to others who mourn. Amen.
Ideas for you to write in your Christmas journal:
Have you experienced grief at Christmastime? Write about it, if only a few words.
What are some of the voices you hear in your mind when “Joy to the World” is sung?
Write a prayer from your heart to His.
This “Pens and Needles” entry adapted from Christmas Carols in my Heart by Brenda Knight Graham