Old Quilts

I went on a closet-cleaning binge a few weeks ago, prompted by my need to find space for five boxes of books. Ever hopeful, I’d ordered a hundred more copies of Shifting Currents. One thing led to another, and I found myself scurrying from one closet to another. Eventually, I was face-to-face with my three family heirloom quilts.

One was a gift from my mother just a few months before she died. It’s a handsome and warm bed cover, sewn entirely by hand. When mom passed it on to me, she said “You’re the one who should have this, since you’re quilting now too. It’s true. I’ve lost my enthusiasm for it now, but for quite a few years, I made quilts for us, for children, for grandchildren. I know how much work and care goes into them.

I didn’t know the great-grandmother who made this, but when I look at the tiny, even stitches on the back, I imagine her cutting the pieces, sewing them together by hand, sitting at a quilting rack in an old Pennsylvania farmhouse, perhaps hosting a quilting bee.


The other two came to me years ago as quilt tops, discovered in my grandmother’s house long after her death. We don’t know who began these projects and left them unfinished. I chose backing material and had a neighbour hand-quilt them for me.

“I’ve stitched them pretty close,” she said when she’d finished the job. “The cotton’s in bad shape.”

They looked great, though. The pink one became our daughter’s bedspread until she left home. We used the other on our bed until it began showing signs of wear.

At some point, probably twenty years ago now, I folded them up and stored them—at first in plastic and then, thinking perhaps they’d survive better if they could “breathe”, in a wicker chest. Every once in awhile, I took them out to admire them and hang them out to air. Each time, the old cotton had deteriorated more.

A few weeks ago, when I found room for them on a closet shelf, I decided it was time to pass them on to the next generation for safekeeping.  So, a few days ago, when our daughter was visiting, I asked her if she wanted her old quilt back. Her eyes lit up. But when she saw it, she shook her head. “I’d love to have this if I could use it. But it’s beyond repair.” She fingered it nostalgically. “They all are.”

She was right. But still…

“You’ve made quilts, mom. What would you say to your great-great-grandchildren when the quilts you’ve made are falling apart in a hundred years?” I paused. They really are at least that old.

“Ditch ‘em,” I said sadly. “Give ‘em to somebody for their dog.”

Her turn to nod.

That’s what I’ll be doing, I guess. It makes me sad.

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Mowing the Estate

Yesterday we came home from a week at the lake. It’s never a good idea to leave home for a week in June, although we usually do. And, as usual, we returned to a lawn — or what passes for a lawn — in desperate need of mowing. (Some of you are already rolling your eyes. I know who you are and what you’re thinking.)

This is a confessional piece. I love my lawn — my huge, weedy, splotchy lawn.

If I were doing it all over again, it would be much smaller. Or, it would be a ground cover that didn’t need to be mowed with paths wandering through lush plantings and copses of birch trees where daffodils bloomed in the spring. I would be a better person for that. But it’s too late, and in the interest of cultivating my newest commitment to embrace the present, I’m going with what I’ve got.

What I’ve got is a yard that has swelled over four decades from a normal-sized farmhouse yard that abutted fields and a barnyard, where cattle ate grass in the summer and churned up mud the rest of the year, to an estate-like acre-plus. (Cue in eye-rolling. Note: I am not asking for absolution.) Estate-like in size, only. No one has ever planted or sodded this acre. No landscape artist has set foot here. If you were imagining one of those vast lawns where the mower leaves perfectly spaced parallel swaths, forget it.

Nothing here is ever parallel. And, except in odd little patches where we’ve thrown down actual lawn seed to fill in a trench dug for a new water line or an underground cable, the greenery is what you get when you mow down an abandonned hayfield, half a century later. A lot of quack grass, millions of dandelions, some strange, pale green stuff that seems to thrive in the sunken, wetter spots, and moss that’s begun taking hold under the pine trees. I don’t mow the moss. Lately, bare spots have begun appearing and seem to be growing in size and number. This troubles me when I’m mowing, but I mostly forget about them between times. I do fear they may eventually take over. Sometimes I think we should level and till and fertilize and replant. But in forty-five years, we haven’t, so I’m thinking we won’t.

A few years ago, trying to be a better, greener person, I decided to stop mowing a triangle that abuts a line of spruce trees near the road. The environmental impact of this decision is exactly zero, but it made me feel somewhat better at the time. Now a small grove of poplar trees has sprouted up there among the tall grass. Perhaps the carbon they absorb provides some compensation?

In a short story I wrote a few years ago (http://agnesandtrue.com/the-red-kite/) I had my protagonist reflecting on how her huge yard came to pass. Although written in third person, in a transparent attempt to be fictional, it’s painfully true to fact:

When they moved here years ago, a small yard surrounded the house. Back then, she pushed an old mower that spewed out black smoke while the kids piled up the clippings to make hay for toy cows. Now, the lawn is huge, estate-like. As she circles around, she thinks about how each part was added.

First, they carved a mammoth garden plot out of an adjacent field; as the garden gradually shrank to a manageable size, they began mowing around the edges. Then, they fenced in an area near the house for their daughter’s horse; when the horse moved on to another child on another farm, they started mowing that chunk too, since they’d become used to seeing it chewed down. Twenty-five years ago, when they sold the last of their cattle, the barnyard next to the house started growing unsightly weeds, so they mowed that. Eventually, they had to tear down the old barn itself, and that space needed to be tidied up too. Now, they spend three hours on a riding lawnmower every week from May to October. Except for the mowing, they rarely step onto the grass. Their lawn has become an environmentally embarrassing objet d’art in an ever-expanding frame.

Not only do I love the yard itself, I love mowing it. (Okay, not always…) I love driving around on the riding mower, looking at my home from every angle.

From the mower, it looks perfect. I don’t notice the warped deck boards and how badly the deck needs staining, or the weeds poking up through the several bricked walkways and small patios. From this perspective, the shrub and flower beds don’t look nearly as neglected as they are, and you can’t tell that the hot tub is derelict.


I inhale the sweet smell of cut grass, the whiff of an onion as I pass over chives that have escaped the herb garden and become part of the lawn, the minty-ness in the air when I mow close to the deck, where the same mint has been growing for half a century or more and, like the chives, has encroached into the yard.

I even love the sound of the mower as I bounce along. It’s a miniature reminder of summers spent on the tractor, planting and haying—not nearly such hard work, but inviting the same reverie. I listen to the voices inside my head, sometimes talk aloud to myself, sing, and gaze alternately at the fields, the hill, and the house, feeling lucky to be here.

And later, when it’s done, I sit on the deck enjoying the quiet, and I say — almost always —we’ve just got to find a way to mow less. This is unconscionable.

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Update and a Nostalgic Romp

It’s been a month, exactly, since my last post. I was reminded of that when a friend who rarely visits Facebook phoned me last evening. “I’ve been watching for an update on your blog,” she said. So, at the risk of boring those of you who already know all this, either personally or from Facebook, here’s a quick update, followed by a bit of silliness.

Jack had his left kidney, along with a very large tumour, removed on April 21 in Hamilton. The surgery went well, and the surgeon confirmed that there is no sign of metastasis, so we are very hopeful. We spent a few days at our daughter’s house in nearby Wellesley before driving home last weekend. Jack had very little—surprisingly little—pain, and was up and moving about very quickly. At home, he’s continuing to do well, walking every day. We’ve both come to realize that it will be some time before he returns to full strength. He’s learning the pleasures of a mid-day nap, something I’ve been trying to explain to him for years! He has a follow-up appointment with the surgeon in two weeks. After that, he’ll be referred back to the local urologist/oncologist for ongoing monitoring.

As you can imagine, I was more than ready for some diversion in the immediate aftermath of Jack’s surgery, so I was delighted to receive an email from an old high school friend, Marilyn, addressed to me and our mutual friend, Carolyn. (Yes, Marilyn and Carolyn. Even worse. Marilyn Cooper and Carolyn Miller. I was a non-alliterative Smith.)

The subject line of her email read “Something I found”. Like many of my friends (and me soon, really, I mean it…), Marilyn is de-cluttering, and she stumbled on a folder of high school memorabilia in which she found this elaborate composition, a note from Carolyn on side one










and from me on side two, clearly written during Algebra class. You can see why they were worth saving without trying to decipher.

Marilyn, it seems, was not in that class and apparently we missed her!

Algebra III. I remember it well. The class, not the content. It was the last math class I ever took, and I’ve never regretted my ignorance of Trigonometry and Calculus. I can’t imagine it would have been worth the pain. There’s some evidence here that I wasn’t particularly attentive in Algebra, which would have made further study even more challenging.

A flurry of reminiscent emails among the three of us ensued. Was it that day or another day that the teacher rudely interrupted our whispered conversation or our elaborate note-writing by expelling us from the classroom? Both Carolyn and I remember that moment clearly. Miss Smith, Miss Miller: You may leave. I can still hear it, still feel the mortification, still see us clutching our notebooks outside the classroom door, uncertain what to do.

But this wasn’t the end of Marilyn’s discoveries. She also reminded us of a long-forgotten and never fully appreciated sport, introduced in 1962 in our alma mater. Matracking: an all-male team sport, invented and promoted by the Nerds of State College High School, many of whom have gone on to do great things.(Yes, there were Nerds before computers, sometimes referred to as Egg-Heads.)

“It was a kind of anti-jock enterprise,” recalls Carolyn.

Indeed, as self-important budding intellectuals, my friends and I were avidly anti-jock. I extend much-belated apologies to all those we must have offended by our assiduous avoidance of school spirit and all things athletic. But in our defense, the football team didn’t exactly applaud the Matrackers, either. And the Athletic Department didn’t provide costumes for Matracker cheerleaders.

Matracking began in the gym, where wrestling mats (which were used only by the boys), were stored on large metal racks on wheels. Remove the mats, hang a half dozen Nerds from the top bar, race across the gym floor, and there you have it: Matracking. I have a vague recollection of someone maneuvering the matracks out of the gym and into the hallway. Carolyn recalls the “team” coasting across the stage during an assembly, or perhaps in the finale of Macbeth: the Musical, another fine example of budding intellectual prowess.

If Marilyn had not designed this logo and stored it faithfully for the past 54 years, it’s entirely possible that Matracking would have been lost to posterity. Thank you, Marilyn, for preserving this piece of history! I invite any former matrackers to share their memories as well!

After last week’s nostalgic romp, I asked Marilyn what she was going to do with all this stuff. “I wish I knew,” she replied.

Which may be the subject of a future post. Because we’ve all got that stuff.



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April…and Waiting

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time staring into space. It’s an activity I’ve often though is under-rated, but I may be carrying it to extremes. Usually, it’s the space between my laptop and the bulletin board on the wall in front of me, where I try to avoid the little sign attached with two thumbtacks: Write a little bit every day without hope or despair. Right. Any minute now. But I think I’ll check Facebook again. You just never know what might have showed up in the last ten minutes.

When I tire of the bulletin board, I shift my gaze to the right where, looking out the windows of my study, I see the cruelty of April unfolding.

Of course, it began in March, and for the first time in a decade I’ve been here to see it all: the crisp white snow cover gradually softening into slush and sinking into the ground; the water rushing from the hills across the fields, through the culverts, and into the river; the annual reappearance of the puddle — nearly a lake, really — in a back yard hollow which, god knows, I’ve had 40-some years to deal with. And haven’t.

The mower will get stuck again for the first mowing or two, but then I’ll forget about it again. Of course, there are the more cheerful signs of spring as well. The ducks are back on the river. We saw several sandhill cranes landing on the field a few days ago. Although there’s not much sign of green yet, crocuses and daffodils are poking through the soil, and both the rhubarb and the garlic are showing evidence of life.

It’s been a long, strange couple of months since we returned early from Mexico to deal with Jack’s cancer diagnosis. We were at first heartened by how quickly he moved through a system that is often sluggish. Within three weeks of his diagnosis in Mexico, he had seen a urologist/oncologist here in the Sault, undergone tests to determine that there has been no metastasis, been referred a surgeon specializing in renal cell carcinoma at McMaster Medical Centre in Hamilton, and had a consultation with that surgeon. But that was four weeks ago, and he’s still waiting for a surgery date. Sometime in April, we were told then. It’s April now, okay? Let’s get on with it.

I wrote earlier that I’m happy to be part of a medical system where everyone is in the same boat. I am. Really, I am. And while the system is not noted for its speed, it is noted for its effectiveness. After meeting with the surgeon, Jack was reassured that his situation is not critical, and that time is not of the essence. That’s why he’s on a waiting list, not an emergency list. Which is sort of an April place to be, I guess. Dreary, puddled, muddy. Waiting.

In the meantime, I’m staring out the window, watching drizzle fall on puddles, and feeling mildly pleased with myself because now I’ve written a little bit today.


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Not a Cancer Blog: Some Thoughts on Healthcare

How quickly the personal becomes the political. Perhaps inevitable in this super-charged political world we’re now experiencing. In just ten days, we have experienced the medical systems in two countries, giving rise to some reflection about what it means to be adequately cared for. Canadians, who most frequently compare themselves to Americans, take pride in their medical system. Compared to Americans, so they should. Compared to the rest of the developed world, it seems we’re middling at best.

Two weeks ago today, Jack visited a specialist in the city of Leon, Mexico—a man who speaks passable English and who is well-known for his diagnostic skills. Jack had phoned for the appointment two days earlier. When we arrived at his office, the doctor was waiting for us. He spent the next hour and a half with us, grilling Jack about his symptoms and giving him a thorough examination. At the end of the visit, he suggested that the best way to get to the bottom of the problem was to admit Jack to hospital for two days of tests. We paid up and left.

The following Monday, we checked in to Aranda de la Parra hospital in downtown Leon. I say “we” because it was assumed I would be with him in the spacious room that included a comfortable chair and a bed for me. By the end of that day, we knew. By the end of the second day, we walked out with blood and urine test results, CAT scan on a CD, fancy colour photos of Jack’s esophagus and stomach, and a receipt for several thousand dollars.

Throughout our stay in the hospital, where the care and the accommodations couldn’t have been better, we were repeatedly required to sign receipts indicating that Jack had, indeed, received this pill and that test. Before we could receive copies of test results, we had to settle up at the cash counter. This was a top-tier hospital.

Mexico does have a universal public healthcare system. No one with resources would choose to use it.

We made the decision to come home without a second thought. We knew the first step would be to get a referral to a specialist from our family doctor, and we dreaded the wait that might entail. Our daughter-in-law, who works in the system and knows how to get around hurdles, stepped up. She arranged for a quick appointment with a urologist/oncologist, based on the Mexican doctor’s referral. So, we entered the Canadian system one step closer to treatment than we would have been if we hadn’t had an inside track.

When Jack saw the urologist two days ago, the doctor made it clear—in the nicest possible way—that while he accepted the diagnosis from Mexico, he wanted his own CAT scan. He would order it as an urgent matter, it would be done within forty-eight hours, and he would see Jack again today to discuss results and make a plan. Except yesterday the office called to say oops, they can’t get him into the CAT scan queue quite that fast. But it will be soon. We’re quite sure early next week.

This is how it works in a system where everyone has an equal claim to service. You can’t jump the queue because you’re the most important person to you. Or because you have deep pockets. Still, urgent cases do move into and through the system in a reasonably timely way.

Fortunately, the doctor also assured us—and this is backed up by other sources—that urgency is a relative thing in this case. Renal cancer is slow-growing, and a matter of days or even weeks is unlikely to have an impact on the success of treatment. Which is good, because the approval of a cardiologist is also required before doing surgery on a man “of Jack’s age”, and we live in an under-serviced area where cardiologists are booked solid.

We are not panicking. But we are pretty sure that in Mexico, the kidney would be gone by now. Along with a chunk of our money. In the US too, of course, with perhaps more money than we have. We’re also sure that, if things move too slowly here, we can go elsewhere in Ontario. Privilege is not without some advantages here, either, though they are fewer and subtler.

I am a firm defender of universal, single-payer medical care. I’m proud of Canada’s system, though as you can see it’s far from perfect. I’m also a self-interested human being. If there were, at this moment, an option to pay more for speed of service, I’d have my credit card out in a second. And if you don’t think you would, I’d challenge you on that. The fact that I can’t is what keeps us from the multi-tiered Mexican system where the bottom tier provides minimal service, or the cash-driven American system where the poor may be unable to afford the care they need.

So, the personal does become political. The balance between the individual and the common good is never easy to strike. Based on my own and others’ experiences in our medical system over many years, I am confident that the urgency of Jack’s situation is being taken into account and that he will receive the necessary treatment within a medically appropriate timeline. It might not be our timeline. Reluctantly, I must accept that. At least for the moment. We’ve only been home for four days.

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Half a Glass, Please. Red.

On Friday, we closed the door of our Mexican house and said an early morning goodbye to the bougainvillea, finally blooming, and the hibiscus in full flower

We’d spent the day before packing and repacking. I felt the usual annoyance at the amount of camera and computer paraphernalia that makes our carry-on suitcases and backpacks heavier than is reasonable for a couple of 70-somethings.

“Can you find a spot for this?” Two hard drives and a pair of binoculars appeared on the bed beside my backpack, which I had naively believed would be nearly empty. I sighed and bit back a response. I should know by now. I will never be one of those women who travels with a colourful woven bag slung over her shoulder, containing nothing but her passport, her wallet, a good book, and a shawl.

In Friday’s pre-dawn, the now heavily-loaded backpack on my shoulders, I closed the door behind me. Jack had already packed the suitcases into the car, which we will leave at the airport for friends to pick up and store until we return. It is like every return trip. And like no other. It is February, too early to go home. We have had only three days to prepare. That was when we learned that the cluster of symptoms Jack has been experiencing since our arrival in December—even earlier as we look back—was due to a large malignancy on his left kidney. We were going home for further tests and treatment, unsure sure what was awaiting us.

After a day with our kids and grandkids in Kitchener, we are now home. Galen travelled with us and is spending a few days with us—an upside of the medical emergency is time alone with our youngest son. Home is where we need to be now, dirty heaps of sloppy snow notwithstanding. I had thought a month or so of crisp, bright winter would be good for my soul, another possible up-side, but instead we are welcomed home by a February thaw: gray, drizzle, snow turning to ice on its way to becoming slush.

We are still unsure exactly what’s ahead, but this morning we met with the urologist, who presented us with an overview of treatment possibilities. Although Jack brought piles of test results and documentation from the hospital in Mexico, the system here requires its own results, so the doctor is ordering additional tests and repeats of the Mexican ones. We see the doctor again on Thursday, at which point he should have the results he needs and begin to map the way forward.

Jack is a glass half full guy—annoyingly optimistic at times, if truth be told, but optimism will serve him well for the next while. And though it goes against my nature, I will be trying to walk on the sunny side too, looking at only the bottom half of the glass. Maybe I’ll shift from white wine to red—easier to see the fill-line.

I don’t want to turn this site into a cancer blog. I’ll continue writing about other things. But most of you know Jack, and this is a way to keep you up-to-date as things evolve.


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Staying Sane

I am one of the least artistic people I know. The closest I’ve come to drawing a human figure is a game of hangman. Once, several years ago, I participated in a yoga retreat that included an afternoon of landscape painting. After several random dabs of colour, I slinked off to sulk about my lack of artistic ability while everyone else created masterpieces. I have to take a poll of my friends before deciding what colour to paint the living room walls.

So, it’s something of a surprise to me that I’m taking an art class—and enjoying it.

Jack has always wanted to take up water colours. He claims to be utterly without talent, but he minored in Art in college and he’s a damn fine potter with a good sense of form and colour. And—unlike me—he’s an adventuresome soul. When he decided to sign up for an art class twice a week here in Guanajuato, I mumbled something about maybe joining him. I’m not sure I meant it. I think I was probably just trying to show support for his latest enthusiasm. But one thing led to another, and this afternoon I’ll be trotting off to my third class.

While Jack plays with colour on one side of the table, I’m learning to sketch on the other. It’s that kind of class—you do whatever you want and the teacher wanders around and offers suggestions from time to time—in Spanish or English, your choice. At first, when the teacher somehow had the idea that I’d had some previous experience, he had me draw a pitcher. I think he was somewhat relieved, as he looked at the result, to learn I’d never done anything like this before. I have now progressed from a pyramid to a line of trees. Today, I am going to see if I can make an open door look like anything more than a flat rectangle.

This is just what I need right now. I’m writing, of course—or trying. I’m hoping to gather together and publish a collection of essays, some already polished and published, some just notions. But the thing about writing is that you can’t really do it without setting your mind loose. And I’m having trouble spending a lot of time inside my head these days. It’s a bit scary in there.

So it’s something of a relief to ponder instead about how long a shadow the pyramid should have and whether the tree looks far enough away, or even whether it looks like a tree. There’s been a lot of comment in the ever-present media lately about how we need to turn off the media. “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane” says the cartoon which appears with some regularity on my Facebook feed.

I can’t bring myself to be uninformed, but I am very aware that consciously focusing on the details around me is both calming and a reminder that even in times of fear and crisis, daily routines help keep us sane and grounded. I’m finding playing with a pencil and paper can do that, too. Maybe it will even become a daily routine.

PS. I decided to embarrass myself by including photos of a couple of my artistic endeavours. I snapped the pics with my phone and emailed them to myself. They are apparently trapped somewhere in cyberspace and refuse to come through. There may be a message there…

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Thoughts from my bubble…

I have been reminding myself to write a blog post for more than a week, now. We just spent a fascinating week in Mexico’s southern-most state of Chiapas with our adoptive Mexican family. We had a wonderful time, visiting small villages struggling to maintain their distinct cultures, museums dedicated to the rich heritage of the region, spectacular landscape. And yet…I am uninspired.

Events north of the border (from my Mexican home…south from my Canadian one) are sucking the passion from anything else. I’m spending far too much time checking news sites and Facebook for what has become sickeningly predictable: yet more signs that the world I’ve lived in for seventy years is on the verge of collapse. I sometimes find myself in tears when I allow myself to contemplate the possible—I dare not think probable—consequences for my children and grandchildren of the unravelling of the civil society which my generation, and theirs, have come to consider the natural order. Not that it’s always seemed so civil, but we’re being treated to a painful lesson in relativity.

Even though I can’t seem to stop myself from reading the news, the truth is I’ve reached a saturation point. I’m rarely learning anything new or surprising anymore. Indeed, the inability to be surprised is symptomatic of the depths to which we have fallen.

It’s rare these days for a personal interaction to conclude without “the conversation”, after which everyone present is enveloped in an aura of despair—proof that I, like most of us, live within my own bubble, insulated from those who are celebrating the arrival of Trump. My Facebook bubble, of course, is filled with stories—credible and less so—designed to raise the blood pressure and tickle the click-finger. I’ve never been much of a clicker, pausing before liking even pictures of my own grandchildren, let alone diatribes by persons unknown. I nod in agreement or shake my head in horror, but I rarely sign petitions or re-post.

As a partial explanation for this reluctance to take a public stance on the current crisis, I am following a long-held conviction that, as a Canadian, I am an interested bystander but not a participant in American politics. Of course, as a citizen of the world (and the country next door), I am a very concerned bystander. It is my world, after all. But it is not my country, and I feel a certain reluctance to jump into the fray across the border. Silly under the circumstances, I suppose, when the underpinnings of democracy itself are at risk.

Lately—perhaps in a frantic search for signs of hope?—I am sensing a subtle shift, both in the press and among my American (and less reticent Canadian) friends, from despair to determination. I am amazed at the resilience of people of my own generation, who are waking up from this nightmare ready to march and protest yet again, and heartened by some evidence that protesters of all ages are developing long-term strategies. If I were there, would I still have it in me? I don’t know. I suppose at least I’d be clicking more.

In this morning’s Globe and Mail, an opinion piece by Denise Balkissoon is urging us—all of us—to resist the temptation to turn inward in a time of crisis. World crisis. It’s time to crawl out of our cocoons, she says.


I won’t be clicking like mad on Facebook; it’s just not my style. And I still don’t think I should be marching on Washington or writing to U.S. senators. But as a citizen of a troubled world, maybe it’s time to pull the blanket off my head and actively look for ways to support those who are marching and writing and strategizing, determined to hold back the tsunami that threatens all of us, borders notwithstanding.

For my children and my grandchildren.

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Bah…er, Merry Christmas!

img_4666It’s a cold, snowy Christmas season at home, and I’m thinking about quiet December evenings years ago—after the rush of Christmas shopping, gift-wrapping, one last bedtime story for excited children—alone with the lit Christmas tree, winter darkness pressing against the windows, the smell of fresh-cut balsam, the murmur of the wind. Or perhaps the roar of a blizzard.

For most of my life, the Christmas season occupied a month-long position of prominence in the annual cycle of celebrations and obligations. As a child, of course, it was a time of magic which gradually morphed into an awkward cross between greed and good will. Our family purported to simplicity, but that was never evident under the Christmas tree. And despite the religious underpinnings to the holiday, in my mostly-secular family Baby Jesus always played second fiddle to Santa Claus in our holiday festivities.

The first Christmas I spent away from my family was also my first Christmas as a married woman. I was all of twenty-one. I don’t remember now why we decided to spend the holiday alone in our upstairs apartment in Michigan while our families celebrated in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, but that’s what we did. We bought a Christmas tree and ornaments and I baked Christmas cookies. Did I cook a turkey? I don’t remember that, either, but I doubt it. What I do remember is that when the box of gifts arrived from Jack’s mother a week before Christmas, we dug right in like a couple of unruly toddlers, leaving little suspense and a vague sense of shame for Christmas morning.

Within a couple of years, we had a child of our own, and began to establish our own traditions. Decorating the house on December 1. Setting up the crèche. Baking cookies, Christmas cake, gingerbread houses. Community carol sing. Cutting and decorating the Christmas tree. Fondue on Christmas eve. Hanging stockings and reading The Night Before Christmas at bedtime.  The Hallelujah Chorus full blast to welcome Christmas morning—well before daybreak. Muffins and oranges in the stockings, to be eaten before candy. And gifts. Always too many gifts. Christmas dinner. And then, the gradual wind-down and a full return to normal on January 1, when we took down the tree and put away the decorations.

There you have it. And while I maintained, even enjoyed, these traditions for decades, enthusiasm gave way to pretense sometime in the 1990s. The excitement began to feel more like frenzy, the rituals empty. The gift-shopping and the meal preparation  became chores to tick off a list. Balancing the gift-giving among children, and then grandchildren, became an exercise in higher mathematics. I began to sound, and feel, more and more like Scrooge. Bah humbug. Here we go again.

Finally our sensible adult children put a stop to much of the nonsense. They established rules to simplify the gifting, and they started taking charge of the holiday in their own homes on alternate years. But then—just as the youngest family of grandchildren began arriving on the scene—we started absenting ourselves more years than not. This year, for the third time in four years, we’re celebrating the holiday in our Guanajuato home. Before that, we spent it on the road a couple of times, en route to Mexico. (In case you’re ever tempted to consider it, Christmas in a Super 8 is really not Christmas at all.)

After a significant hiatus from the seasonal frenzy, I see some signs that I may be over my humbug phase. A few days ago, I strung a few lights through a lemon tree. I put some cedar clippings on a small tray and added a handful of pine cones and a few red balls to decorate the coffee table. I arranged a couple of poinsettias beside the door to welcome anyone who might drop by. We will spend Christmas Eve with good Mexican friends, Boxing Day with a gathering of ex-pats. Christmas Day itself, here in Mexico, is a quiet day for religious celebrations or recovery from the previous night’s revelry (neither of which is likely to apply here!).

This will all be pleasant, but for the first time in awhile, I’m missing my old Christmases. Next year, I want to watch the grandchildren open their stockings, build a snowman with them in the back yard, and grab a few quiet moments alone by the Christmas tree.

Wherever you are and however you celebrate, have a wonderful holiday season!


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Lost (and found) in translation

We’ve been in our Guanajuato home for a week and a half now. Although our Spanish improves a bit every year, occasionally we still find ourselves tangled in a web of confusion. Like this.

Me to Jack last evening: I think we should invite Antonio and Eloisa and the family here for Christmas dinner.

Jack: But, they already invited us. Twice. We said we’d let them know.

Me: I don’t think so. They just asked what we were doing. We said we didn’t know.

Jack: I’m sure they’re expecting us. Eloisa was talking about what to serve.

Me: No, she was just talking about what’s traditional to serve here.

So…are we or are we not invited there for Christmas dinner? If so, it would seem odd—if not rude—to extend an invitation to them. Though I’d kind of like to cook a turkey…

Ambiguous text message to Eloisa this morning: Would you prefer to have Christmas dinner here or at your house? I can prepare a traditional turkey if you like.

Within moments, my cell phone rings. It’s Eloisa. The following is my rough (and, please God, roughly accurate) translation of what transpired—though on the telephone, I’m never quite sure.

Eloisa: About your message.

Me: What do you think?

Eloisa: A turkey is really big. Do you really want turkey?

Me: We love turkey. But the question is, where?


Me (confession time): Ok. Here’s what happened. I told Jack we should invite you. He thinks you’ve already invited us. I don’t know what to do.


Me: Do you want to have dinner together?

Eloisa: Yes!

Me: Ok, if you were going to include others, we’ll have it at your house. But if it’s just our two families, let’s have it here. I’ll make a traditional turkey dinner.

Eloisa: Ok.

Me: Ok which? Were you inviting others?

Eloisa: No.

Me: Ok. Here then. So, that’s Sunday at…

Eloisa: No, it’s Saturday.

Me: No, Sunday is the 25th.

Eloisa: Saturday is the 24th. That’s when the dinner is.

Me: Not for us. For us, it’s the 25th.

Laughter until it hurts.

Me: Come Saturday.

Eloisa: What can I bring?

Me: Something traditional. Tamales?

And so…Looking forward to Christmas Eve dinner with our Mexican family.…And turkey soup to follow.




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