Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Handmade's Tale

The most meaningful gifts I've ever received are those that are handmade. A lifesize doll, pewter ornaments, a wooden music box, my quilt, hand-knit scarves, framed artwork, photographs, and poetry are just some of the cherished homemade gifts I've received - and loved - over the years. Thinking about ways to make Christmas more meaningful this year, I decided that our gift theme would be "Made from the heart."

In October, I gathered all the necessary supplies for making glorious gifts: wooden boxes, canvases, picture frames, paints, photos, mod-podge, and more. I spent several afternoons working with each boy to create beautiful gifts for each other. Leo and Aidan each made small trinket boxes for each other, carefully painting, then decorating the outside of each box. Aidan wrote sweet notes to Leo to put in his box, and I scribed a list of "wonderful things about Aidan" for Leo to put in the box he was making for Aidan. The older boys painted picture frames for Pax, then created pictures to go in the frames. I finished all of the frames and boxes with a protective coating. The end result was like lots of kid projects: the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Another afternoon, the boys created gorgeous and original notecards for extended family and friends with cardstock, liquid starch, acrylic paint, and a water bath. Each notecard was beautiful in its design, the colors either vibrant and bright or light pastels. After they had dried and I pressed them flat, I divided them into piles of four and added the envelopes to go with them. There was not a single one among them that was unattractive - each was unique and special.

In November, I took the boys to the Glass Palette to create fused glass art for my parents and for Jeff. Working together, they made two of the most gorgeous abstract art ornaments you've ever seen - not to mention, the experience itself was so much fun!

Jeff helped Aidan create a beautiful Christmas plate for me - Aidan had seen how upset I was after two (!!) of my beloved Christmas plates (decorations, not used for food) got broken. He set out to re-create the Christmas tree surrounded by holly, and the result is, dare I say? -- better than the Spode original. (though I still regret that the Spode was shattered). Leo made the sweetest mug for me, adorned with a colorful rainbow, a heart, his name carefully printed, and two of his famously cute people drawn on it.

Pax helped with the fused glass art (and the projects for me as well) in the way he knows best - staying out of the way - but even he got to make a gift for his older brothers. He chose his favorite picture of all three boys and carefully mounted it to a piece of cardstock. Then, he painstakingly handprinted two sides of the picture with his acrylic painted hands and asked me to write "Best Brothers Ever - Hands Down!" below the photograph. The framed masterpiece was fantastic.

Meanwhile, Jeff and I were also hard at work on our own homemade gifts. (Oddly, we chose not to do homemade gifts for each other this year, although we've frequently done them in the past. But we certainly enjoyed all the time we spent working on and collaborating with each other on the projects!) Jeff had found these Nature Collages in a catalog, and we instantly knew how much the boys would love them. Instead of purchasing them, Jeff crafted them himself, and they turned out beautifully. For my own part, I made each boy a cute and cozy fleece hat, complete with funky prints and pom poms.

The project I am most proud of, however, is the cookbook-storybook I created, with Jeff's help, titled Betty Eater's The Joy of the Table. Quite simply, it is a collection of recipes, each of which includes a rich story behind it. There's the "Four Generation Banana Bread," the "Rattlesnake Pasta," and the "How I Met Your Father Soup." In addition to writing, rewriting, editing, and finalizing each story, I also cooked or baked each recipe in the book and carefully photographed each dish. I have a whole new appreciation for food photographers - it was hard work getting the food to look good! The end result is something I hope will be cherished and enjoyed by the recipients of the book; I certainly enjoyed the time I spent making the gift. (How wonderful, too, to discover a gift under the tree quite coincidentally for "Betty Eater" - a handmade apron from my mother!)

The mod-podge has left residue on our kitchen counters; the acrylic paint stained a few shirt sleeves (and Pax's pajamas!); there were some minor injuries in the sewing and hammering; but the cost of the gifts we gave? Priceless.

"If as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things; if we consider ourselves so unimportant that we must fill every moment of our lives with action, when will we have time to make the long slow journey across the desert as did the Magi? Or sit and watch the stars as did the shepherds? Or brood over the coming of the Child as did Mary? For each one of us there is a desert to travel, a star to discover and a being within ourselves to bring to life."
(Source Unknown)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Joy's Shadow

This year, Christmas would be different. Less stress, more merry, more meaningful-ness in everything that we do, less do-ing on my part, more memorable stuff, less stuff stuff...

It was so good. It was among my most favorite Christmases for sure. Yet every year, despite all the happiness, despite all the sheer gratitude I feel, there is always some sadness - always. Desperately, I seek to find the reason behind this shadow of sorrow that hovers around me in such a way that even amidst my joy, I feel the Shadow's weight.

The day after Christmas, I needed to clear my head out because my Shadow was becoming heavier than I was willing to let her be. I headed outside, by myself, for a walk around the block. Bundled tightly against the frigid chill and stepping carefully over the leftover slicks of ice and mounds of snow, I walked and walked while Shadow and Joy battled each other out in my head. "Why are you here?" Joy demanded. Shadow did not respond, yet her silence and unwavering presence commanded Joy's attention. I walked and walked.

The seed of my shadow was probably planted in my freshman year of high school when my grandmother died on Christmas Eve. For many years after that, we each tried desperately to replace the sadness of her death with the joy we hope to feel at Christmas. Eventually, of course, we did. As a family, we healed and recovered and Christmas was full of joy again- as well as the memory of my dear Grandma. And so as I walked, I searched for other such sources of sadness...

"But I am just so grateful. I have so much gratitude for rich blessings in my life. What is this weight of sadness?" Joy persisted. Finally, after I had walked and walked, the answer came to me quickly and with clarity; instinctively, I knew I'd found what I had sought. "Compassion," Shadow replied. "In order to have deep gratitude for something, you often must have deep compassion for it as well."

The logical, sense-making right hemisphere of my brain seemed satisfied. My heart felt comforted. For this year, as with every single year, there has been heartache and hardship and grief and loneliness and hunger and pain and longing and desperation. Thinking of these people and the burdens they have carried, I feel deep compassion for them, knowing how hard each day must be, and in particular, how much harder these festival days must be. I've walked in those shoes before. And I've imagined walking in many other pairs, too.

If I could choose a single character trait for my children to develop fully and completely, it would be that of compassion. May my children learn to view others and the world "with passion," and with the willingness "to suffer with [another person]" If this means that the joy of our living will be lined in a faint shadow of sorrow, I'll take umbrage knowing it is because of the depth of our gratitude.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Laughter like a bowlful of jelly

Among my most favorite Christmas decorations are the myriad nativity sets we have acquired over the years. They are wooden, cross stitched, etched in gourds, formed from resin and ceramic and cloth. They hang as ornaments on small trees, adorn our stockings and tree skirt, and congregate in every room on the main level. Naturally, the kids are drawn to them; watching the kids with the nativities provided great amusement; initially, Aidan couldn't remember the word "Nativity" and instead called them "Activity scenes" - aptly named, as it turns out --

Aidan loves to re-arrange each set of manger-gazers in such a way so that everyone is gathered around the Baby Jesus to admire him. He is creative in his design; I loved finding the animals nestled right between Mary and the wise men. Most often, they huddled in a tight circle around the baby, adoring him and protecting him all at once.

One nativity traveled to church with us on Sunday mornings, and Pax enjoyed seeing how many times he could throw the camel on the ground and still have us pick it up and give it back to him. Next it was the sheep, and then it was Joseph. When he started to chew on the Baby Jesus, however, we decided he'd had enough of the creche. Hastily, each of us grabbed a piece and put it out of Pax's sight to save for another day. Later, I was troubled that I couldn't find all the parts, but decided they would turn up sooner or later.

A week later, Aidan came home from school and said, "Look what I found in my pocket!" (Recently washed, he was wearing the brown cords he'd worn to church). Out came the Baby Jesus from the church nativity set. I loved that he'd toted that baby around in his pocket all day long!

And then there was Leo's take on the whole manger scene. One particular set, the Little People Nativity, was featured prominently in one room of his doll house. He has a strong affinity for the Angel Gabriel, since it is his middle namesake (having only recently accepted that his name is NOT Leo Paul, but rather Leo Gabriel). That angel doesn't do much watching over the stable; instead, the donkey sits perched atop the manger scene while the angel busily drives with the camel in the undersized red Matchbox car convertible. Meanwhile, Mary attends to the baby Jesus, who had the most unfortunate encounter recorded here. He used tiny voices for each of them, high pitched for Mary and higher still for Jesus:

Mary: Oh baby, why are you crying? Let me give you a kiss (kiss)
Jesus: Um, I am crying because I hurt my cheek. Someone dropped me and I hurt my cheek.
Mary: Well does it feel better now that I gave it a kiss?
(apparently a nod from baby Jesus)
Okay, good.

Later, Leo decided Mary was a dirty thing. He took her in the bathtub with her and gave her a thorough scrubbing.
My mom also has a good number of nativity sets at her house; like Aidan, Leo loved arranging the figurines around the Baby Jesus. However, he'd taken all the Baby Jesus's from all the different nativites and gathered them together to adore one Jesus (the cutest one, perhaps?) My mom commented on all the babies and Leo responded,
"Yes, but do you know why there is no sheep here?"
"Why's that?" she asked.
L: The sheep is in time out.
Grandma: Oh, the sheep is in time out? [was the sheep ba-a-a-a-d, I wonder?] Does the baby Jesus ever get put in time out?
L: No, never. But if the Baby Jesus is being naughty, his mama takes him and puts him down for his nap and when he wakes up his behavior is much better.
G: Oh, does that happen to you sometimes?
L: Um, yep!

(Discussing the church pageant with Grandma)
Leo, what do you want to be in this year's Christmas Pageant?

L: Um, a pumpkin.
Grandma: Well, I'm not sure that there was a pumpkin at the birth of Jesus. Is there something else you want to be? A king? A shepherd?
L No. A pumpkin.

(Leo ended up being a "reluctant" king.)
Our Advent calendar included daily questions, like this one:

If you could bring the baby Jesus a gift TODAY, what would you bring him?
Aidan: Gold.
Gold? What would he do with gold? I thought it was a pretty silly gift when the wise men brought it to him in the first place!
Aidan: But I like gold, and He would, too!!
Me: Oh, okay. Well I would bring him a pacifier. It would have helped him sleep a lot better, and it would have helped Mary out, too!
Leo, what would you bring the Baby Jesus?
Leo: Hm. I would bring him a leetle, tiny Santa.

And finally - On Christmas day, as is our family tradition, I made a birthday cake for the Baby Jesus (vanilla with chocolate icing - his favorite), decorated with the plastic Baby Jesus from the aforementioned Little People nativity. Leo did not remember this cake from previous years, and didn't see the cake until it was time for dessert. He took one look at the Baby Jesus smushed into the middle of the cake and shrieked, "Why did you do that to the Baby Jesus? That is not nice! He does not like that!" He refused to touch his cake until I washed that baby clean and returned it to his safekeeping. With eyes brimming with tears and a trembling chin, he reported to me at bedtime, "I did NOT like that you put my Baby Jesus into the cake. That made me ANGRY."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Special Delivery... for YOU!

In our efforts to have a simpler kind of Christmas this year, we decided early on not to send out Christmas cards this year. It seemed like an easy enough piece to let go of, and yet it has not been as easy as I imagined....

For starters, a few friends have expressed disappointment that we're not sending out a card. Last year's manger scene was tough to beat....did we even want to attempt to top it?.... and the popularity of Facebook makes me feel like everyone's seen it all, already - so why should I send out a card? But part of what I loved about our card last year was the fun we had in taking the picture, and if I buy my own excuse about Facebook, I'm feeding the Technology Beast that threatens other time-honored and lovely traditions (like reading Actual Books.)

There are two cards in particular we look forward to receiving each year. The first one is That Christmas Letter - you know the one I mean. Every family gets one - the one from the extended relative whose letter is just.... ridiculous. Maybe it's over-the-top full of accomplishments; maybe it's paragraph after paragraph of oh-woe-is-me; maybe it's so riddled with spelling and grammatical errors you can barely resist pulling out your red pen as you read it. You get one like that too, right? We always have a good laugh when that letter arrives, albeit at the expense of dear family we truly love. But still - the comic relief is usually quite timely amidst the chaos that precedes Christmas. So __________ Family, we thank you for the laughter your card brings and the joy we feel in receiving it!

The other Christmas card we await with great anticipation is that from our college friends, D and J (the "Funtimes" family, I'll call them). I met D the day I moved in; her dorm room was across from mine. 13 years later, we're both moms to big broods of boys - she has a boy Leo's age and twins just a few months younger than Pax. The first Funtimes Christmas card was when they were still childless but newly married - it was a photo card with J. Funtimes dressed in drag as Britney Spears. His outfit was Britney a la "Baby One More Time" but his physique was more
"Britney's Nervous Breakdown." The next year featured a close-up photo of their positive
pregnancy test; the year after that, a photo re-enactment of the delivery of their firstborn son. (Regrettably, I realize I should have archived each year, for subsequent years get kind of foggy.) And so it was with great anticipation that we awaited the arrival of the 2010 Funtimes Christmas Card - and this year did not disappoint! In essence, this year's photo might just top out the "Got Milk?" campaign, as it features all of the male family members sporting the infamous milk moustache with the implication that the milk THEY all prefer doesn't come from a COW..... but rather from the hot mama in the superhero cape framing the shot.

Oh the fun they must have, scheming up the photo, taking the shot, then mailing it out to all of their beloved friends and family, knowing the laughter that would ensue! I was missing our family photo once more....

And so I settled on a compromise of sorts, at least for this year. We staged several photo shoots on two different days, and got a couple of decent pics:

I love this first shot for several reasons. Leo is ready for summer; Pax is ready for Santa; Jeff is sportin' stripes and snowmen; and Aidan is a vision in teal and red. I also love it because it precedes one of my favorite December traditions of ours: a picnic dinner in front of the Christmas tree.

These next two are "outtakes" from what was our second fun photo shoot. I love how Pax is hanging upside down in the first one, and in the second one, how Leo is peeking around with mischief in his eye.....

..And finally, my favorite family Christmas picture this year (so far.) Envision this photo arriving in your mailbox with the lovely quote calligraphied at the bottom, each card painstakingly hand-made with card stock, letter presses, and glue dots. (Hey, if I'm going to go virtual, I might as well go all out, right?)

"The best of all gifts around a Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other." -Burton Hillis

Merry Christmas to you!
Love, Anne et al.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


This is about as quick and dirty as they come - I'm in the thick of final exam prep, holiday prep, shipping prep, wrapping, cooking, baking, and merry making prep. I'll return to my normal, loquacious self after the 14th at approximately 9:00p.m. when my final exam will be finished. Until then -

Tonight my mom invited us to view Monticello in the "after hours" tour for a chance to see Jefferson's home decorated for Christmas. It was cool and kind of spooky to be on grounds after dark - I often feel like you don't really know what a home is like until you see it in darkness...

We were touring the various rooms and Leo kept asking about all the rope barriers that prevent visitors from touching anything in the home. Leo asked, "So we are not allowed in that room?" "No, Leo, we're not allowed." Staring into the room, backlit by candlelights, he asked, "What about shadows? Are shadows allowed into the room?"

I loved, loved, loved this question on so many levels.... Leo delights in his shadow whenever he finds it, and it is still clear that he does not have it altogether figured out yet. On the surface, his question probes a basic concept he has yet to master fully - but delving deeper, it suggests so much more. Maybe I've had a little too much Freud this semester, but all I could think about was a shadow representing one's Id... the ability of my shadow, my Id to go where no one else is allowed to go, to lay down on Jefferson's bed, wear his boots, look out his telescope.

This morning, we were shivering inside the car at the bus stop. I had the heat on, but we were still frozen. Aidan looked up at the car's thermometer and said, "I know it is 10 degrees, but what is it in Calcium?" (Celsius).

Thursday, December 2, 2010


(posting a little late - this was intended for Thanksgiving time.)

his November when we created our Tree of Thanks, I noticed that collectively, we were not as enthusiastic nor as, er, gracious as we've been in years past. I thought about this for a time, and realized that, in large part, we continue to be thankful for the same things, year in and year out - and that's a good thing.

Later in the month, as I was reading a parenting magazine that highlighted holiday traditions, my attention immediately went to the "Show and Tell Thanksgiving." The author briefly described the same observation I had made: our families feel such gratitude for the basics in our lives, and because those basics are so important, the list is fairly unchanging over the years. So this mom got savvy. Instead of writing down their lists of gratitudes, instead, mealtime during the month of November consisted of Show and Tell. Each family member would bring one item to the table to share; this item was something they felt particularly grateful for. Predictably, the items included ipods and DSs, but gradually, the kids brought more and more creative items to the table to represent that for which they were most thankful.

And so my list this year, my list of gratitudes, is heavily annotated. I did this a year or two ago, but this time I was determined to be even more specific and detailed, setting this year apart from other years with similar blessings.

I am grateful for my home. THIS home. This small house on this wobbly, steep hill that has bad drainage during heavy rains and a steep driveway that scares most visitors. This house, which has welcomed home three beautiful newborn babies. This house, that has sheltered us during terrible and scary storms, both literal and figurative. This house, that has been upgraded, built upon, painted, wallpapered, repainted, floored, finished, and decorated again and again for seven and a half years - and counting. This house, that has been recently weatherized thanks to a grant from a non-profit energy conservation group, making it even more snug and cozy than before. This house, that I would not trade right now for any other house, because I love it here. Because this is our home, because we've made it so, because it is the place I love to be best in the whole world. I give thanks for home.

I am grateful for my husband. Really, deep down, stop-me-in-my-tracks grateful for the life we have together, for many more years of "for better" than "for worse." My husband, who knows me almost as well as I know myself, and who loves me unconditionally. My husband whom I love unconditionally, despite the fact that he doesn't clean the cat pan often enough, because I simply cannot imagine living life without him. My husband, who supports me in everything I do, who cheers me on, who respects me, who loves me. We have known too many couples whose marriages have ended in divorce, or who have struggled mightily to stay together. I feel so grateful that I am married, happily and forever and ever, that we are living happily ever after. I am grateful for Jeff.

I am grateful for my children, because they enrich my life beyond what I could have hoped to feel otherwise. Because they are funny and so unique and clever and creative. Because they are beautiful, kind, loving. Because they define so much of who I am. I am grateful beyond measure for the richness they have provided, for the quality of life they have granted me. I am so grateful for Aidan - who is such a big kid now, who asks about fractions and reads to his younger brothers and thanks me for the dinner I made and notices when I clean the house. For Leo, who is determined and capable and independent, who is loving and affectionate and cheerful - reminding me of myself, over and over - both in trials and in tribulations. For Pax, who is the Happiest Baby Ever. Who is not such a baby anymore, because he is working so hard at being a big boy like his brothers, who makes me laugh every single day because of the humor he finds in everyday life. Pax, because he is my buddy - when the older boys are into mischief and driving me nuts, he'll snuggle in my arms and hug me close.

I am grateful for our health. Even though last week, on the same day, I took Aidan to see a specialist for an autoimmune virus he's been battling for the past 5 months; I took Leo to our regular pediatrician for his pinkeye and cold; and I treated Pax's hive-covered body because of an allergic reaction to penicillin, given to him because of a terrible ear infection, I am still thankful. Despite all the recent (and ongoing) illness, I know that we are so lucky to have very healthy children - and to be so healthy ourselves.

I'm really grateful for my job - my job as CEO of this family. In 2004, I left my career as a middle school teacher to stay home with my newborn baby. I knew there was no way I could possibly teach full time, and yet I was fearful of how to make it work financially. And here we are, going on our 7th year, and we're doing it. We're making it happen, year after year, and our company seems to benefit immensely from it. For that I am grateful. And I'm also grateful for Jeff's job as a nurse. I'm prouder of him than ever because I think his job is so important. He's so good at it; he is a role model to our sons; he is a gender stereotype-breaker; and in his care for others, he provides his own family with so much more than just a paycheck. I am so grateful.

I'm grateful for my "silver and gold" friends - those I've known for years and years, and whose friendship sustains me - and the new friends I've made, the ones with whom our history is relatively short, yet already rich and full. I'm grateful for my mom and dad. Every day, I'm grateful for their proximity to us, for the relationship with our kids, for the fun we have together. I'm grateful for our collective family, for Jeff's people and my people. I'm grateful that Adam and Hugo and Julian made the long trek here to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. I'm really, really, super grateful for that.

And I'm grateful for you, reader. Whomever you are. I write this blog for myself, mostly, but I like knowing that someone somewhere might enjoy it too. I'm grateful for the feeling of connection I have with you when I write.

Our great President John F. Kennedy asserted, "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them." Indeed.