New Year’s Previous

December 31, 2008

Unlike my earliest Christmases, I have absolutely no recollection of my earliest New Year’s Eve celebrations. Most likely, I was somewhere off in dream land when the clock struck twelve. Funny, that’s where I usually am now that my wild oats have all been sown.

It was probably around 1950 when I came to realize that we were supposed to stay up until midnight, then run outside banging pots and pans while shouting, “Happy New Year” to no one in particular. If I was like my own children, I’m sure the first time I tried to stay awake until the first seconds of the new year, I probably fell asleep on the sofa.

Sometime later in my childhood, my mom, dad, brothers and I would head off to my sister’s house. Gert and Mac were the parents of Terry and Keith – my oldest nephews who are more like brothers to me. The highlight of those New Year’s Eve parties – beside banging pots and pans and shouting – was the Chef Boyardee pizza.

Believe it or not, back in those days, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, and all the rest were still hiding in the future. If you wanted pizza, you made it yourself. New York City might have had pizzerias in the mid 1950’s, but we knew nothing more Italian than Chef Boyardee.

As I matured, got my driver’s license, and began getting invited to more adult entertainment type parties, I quickly learned why many people called New Year’s Eve “Amateur Night.” I can remember one year, while driving home from work around 5:00 PM, the drunks were already weaving all over the road. Add a bit of Pittsburgh ice and snow, and one would think twice about going to any party.

One year, our host pulled out a 45 caliber pistol around 10:30. He said he was going to fire off a few rounds to welcome in the new year. Since I much prefer banging pots and pans together, I told my wife we had partied enough and we left. The man with the gun was already two and a half sheets to the wind; I didn’t want to see what he was like an hour and a half later.

And then there was the New Year’s Eve that began with a desperate call from my employer. They were looking for blood donors for a fellow employee with meningitis. Since I had the right type, I drove to the hospital and gave them a pint of my finest high test type O positive.

Twelve hours later, after drinking gallons of water and juice all day, I had one scotch and water and became instantly drunk. We were within walking distance of where we planned to spend the night, so my wife and our hostess walked me back to her home. The sidewalk was a sheet of ice and, as woozy as I was, I managed to keep both women from falling.

In truth, we attended few New Year’s Eve parties over the years. As the tolerance for driving under the influence of alcohol grew steadily lower, my desire to go out on Amateur Night has diminished.

However, this year we have accepted an invitation. My bride will be the designated driver whether I donate blood in the morning or not. I hope this event goes smoothly. Otherwise, I may go back to Chef Boyardee and banging pots and pans.

Better yet, I may just turn in early and get a good night’s rest. The old guy will be pushed aside by the guy in diapers whether I’m there to witness it or not.

I started this post with a song, and I’ll end it that way as well. I was trying to find the Kingston Trio’s rendition of “It was a very good year” but failed. I like Chad and Jeremy’s version better than Sinatra.


To Auld Acquaintances

December 30, 2008

You may have guessed by now that I have been lazy and am using material I wrote some time ago. Well, here’s another dose. I wrote this one in 2004.

———————————————————————————————

About 35 years ago Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded a song entitled “Old Friends.” Although I was in my mid-twenties at the time, I found the words interesting. I had numerous friends whom I’d known for most of my life. I couldn’t help but wonder how “terribly strange to be seventy” and what it would be like “sitting on a park bench like bookends.” There were several parks in the Pittsburgh area where old men sat on the benches for hours – they had nothing better to do. As the song said, they were “waiting for the sunset.”

When I reached the ripe old age of forty, I did some serious reflecting. While I was hopeful that my mid-life crisis was still decades away, I felt it was time to take stock of my life. Where had I been? Where was I now? Where was I going? For the most part I was extremely happy with my life.

There was one major exception. During the first forty years of my life I had met hundreds, if not thousands, of people and considered many of them good friends. On my fortieth birthday I came to realize how many of them I would never see again. I love people. The thought of never again seeing some mighty fine folks made me sad.

Ever since then I’ve tried a little harder to stay in touch, or get back in touch, with the people who mean the most to me.

A few years ago I hooked up with three old fraternity brothers and we met for a week’s vacation in North Carolina. My bride was a bit concerned when she realized the group consisted of three Jim’s and a Ken. Since only one of us was called by his given name, my bride quickly forgot her perceived problem.

It was amazing that while the four of us had seen one another only a handful of times over a thirty-year span, we simply picked up where we left off. We teased each other just as we did while we were young men in school. And this time we had a lot more ammunition. Grey and thinning hair, beer bellies, eyeglasses, and all the other things we seem to accumulate as we age were fair game. We were merciless to each other — and we loved it!

The Internet has been a great tool for tracking down missing friends. Every month I manage to find the email addresses of a few more lost souls. I’m quickly discovering that my friends have dispersed all over the country – in fact, there are many in foreign lands. Based on the notes we have exchanged electronically, I’m sure if I’m ever lucky enough to run into any of these old friends we will also pick up right where we left off. That’s the amazing thing about old friends.

In case anyone is wondering what got me on to this topic, this month will find my bride and I, along with our extended families, enjoying the beaches of the Outer Banks. On our way home, my bride and I will pay a visit to an old friend in Wake Forest.

I met Tony when we were in third grade. That was in 1952 and we were eight years old. If you do the math, you’ll see that we’ll turn sixty this year (2004). That says we’ve been friends for fifty-two years. Fifty-two years of knowing the worst flaws in each other and we’re still friends.

I haven’t seen Tony since our twenty-fifth high school reunion in 1987, but we’ve kept in touch via email. Based on our cyberspace conversations, Tony has changed little since he first appeared in that classroom so long ago. He has grown in stature and risen to great heights in the business world. But he is still one of my very best friends and can quickly revert back to his sophomoric ways when I’m there to egg him on.

I just hope he doesn’t want to wrestle. He always beats me… but only by cheating.

To put our friendship in perspective, can you imagine going up to Donald Trump and throwing a quick punch in his direction. Then, as soon as he flinches, saying “Two for juking” and punching him twice on the arm? Well, Tony has not quite reached the status of “the Donald”, but he is the CEO of a company and tremendously well respected in his field. And I could do that to him and he’d be smiling and laughing while being punched by me.

While I can say, “I knew Tony back when…” there is one thing about Tony that anyone who knows him quickly learns. He is just plain like-able. For that reason, I knew he would do well in whatever he did.

This is turning into a tribute to Tony, but I want it to be a tribute to all my old friends. I know most of you are still out there and I would love to hear from you.

Simon and Garfunkel may have sung about old friends in the 1970’s, but Robert Frost did some song writing of his own in the 1790’s. Based on even older songs, Burns had this to say about old friends:

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp

And surely I’ll be mine

And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet

For auld lang syne

Translated, those words say: You can pay for your pint tankard and I will pay for mine. We’ll drink a toast of kind remembrance for days now in the past.

Considering Tony’s status in the business world, maybe I can get him to pay for both pints.

———————————————————————————————-

Yes, he did pay for both pints!

———————————————————————————————-

We’re a day away from New Year’s Eve. I’ll have to find some fitting words for tomorrow’s post.


Frightful Predictions for the New Year

December 29, 2008

I wrote the following article in 2005, but as we head into 2009, I believe its message is worth repeating.

———————————————————————————————-

In 1962 I read Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was written by George Orwell in the mid nineteen-forties and published in 1949. Another book I read that year was Brave New World written by Aldous Huxley and published in 1931. I didn’t realize how old those books were until I did some research for this article.

I found it even more surprising that another predictor of the future, H.G. Wells, wrote some of his best stories before the turn of the last century. The Time Machine was published in 1895, and War of the Worlds in 1898.

Orwell was the only one of these three to make a specific time frame for his predictions so unforgettable. So it’s rather easy to point out the fallacies of his foresight. Or is it?

There are many people in this country and throughout the world who truly believe Big Brother is alive and well, and watching everything we do. I don’t know about Big Brother, but I’m guessing the banks and credit bureaus have more information than we would like them to have. The IRS probably knows a bit too much as well.

If you have any doubt about the people questioning the reality of Nineteen Eighty-Four take a surfing trip on the Internet. Do a “Google” search on “1984” and you’ll discover a number of web sites that claim the Patriot Act is just the beginning of the end of our personal liberties and freedom.

Personally, I’m going to stay out of that debate; I can see pros and cons on both sides of the issue. But there is another group of radical thinkers that has me more concerned. I discovered their web sites by doing a search on Brave New World. Before discussing the radical thinkers, let’s explore some aspects of Aldous Huxley’s book.

One of the main premises of Brave New World is that society is controlled through the use of drugs. People are fed a daily ration of drugs that keep them dumb and happy. If the slightest hint of depression is sensed by one of the citizens, he or she is sent on a “Soma Weekend”. In other words, a heavier than normal dose of drugs is administered and the person goes to la-la land for days at a time.

Aldous Huxley also made famous the term “test tube” baby. In fact, that’s the only way babies were made in the future Mr. Huxley foretold. In the end, the desire of a couple of humans to procreate the old fashioned way was one of the factors that caused major problems in the futuristic society.

Although countless readers of the book have long ago forgotten any dates mentioned in Brave New World, the predictions are not as easily overlooked. There’s no doubt many of the readers of this article know at least one couple who have given birth to a “test tube” baby. Whether the child resulted from artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, or any other artificial means, science can rightfully take credit for the little bundle of joy.

The use of drugs in the future society of the Brave New World is another matter that should not be ignored. That part of the story should grab the attention of anyone – including those still trying to figure out what “in vitro” means. The United States government has been fighting a losing war on drugs for decades, but all of the attention has been directed toward the illegal “street” or “recreational” drugs. What about the “little purple pill” and all the other prescription drugs? Should we consider the drugs approved by the Federal Food & Drug Administration to be a problem?

Why not? We’re living in a society that is constantly looking for ways to avoid pain and stress. Considering that this same society is the basis for much of the pain and stress we suffer, it would only seem right and proper that science do something to make our lives more enjoyable.

Is this sort of thinking similar to accepting the restrictions of our liberties brought about by the Patriot Act? In both cases, we are allowing changes in our lives that go against much of the moral teachings of our forefathers. We permit the government to have greater power over us in exchange for protection from terrorists. And we allow ourselves to be drugged to avoid the annoyance of our day-to-day lives.

What is especially interesting is that an anti-depressant prescribed by a doctor can be abused just as easily as any other drug. But that’s not seen as evil. Using a “street drug” for “recreational” purposes is seen as evil. An overdose of a prescription drug can cause physical impairments just as alcohol does, but the problems derived from prescription drugs are far more acceptable.

The line has become a grayish blur. A “Soma Weekend” may still be seen as a bit safer than an LSD trip, but nonetheless, something to be frowned upon. However, if current trends continue, we may be taking our future vacations in a lab – with a host of attendants dressed in white administering the proper drugs to give us the perfect trip.

With the proper promotion, it could be widely accepted. It could create a whole new industry. Such a facility might just replace Disneyland in the eyes of Super Bowl athletes.

But wait! There’s more! As if mind control through the use of drugs weren’t frightening enough, there’s a radical group of intellectuals calling themselves the “BLTC”. They believe that we humans owe it to ourselves to be forever happy – but not through the use of drugs. How passé!

“BLTC” originally translated as “Better Living Through Chemistry”, which was the slogan of DuPont Chemicals. The name was created with the tongue firmly in the cheek, but that is the only joking matter with this group.

BLTC recognizes that our science and technology has progressed far beyond the popping of pills. They believe that humans can be genetically engineered to always be happy. They, in essence, are combining the two basic premises of Brave New World. They want to create test tube babies and give them a lifetime supply of happy pills.

Neither Nineteen Eighty-Four nor Brave New World was written as a strictly science fiction novel. Orwell was quoted as saying Nineteen Eighty-Four was written, “to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.”  Huxley saw his Brave New World as “a dark vision of a highly technological society of the future.” In other words, they were both making political statements about the evils of the society in which they were living and warning people of the dire consequences that awaited us if we did not change our ways. Perhaps the warnings are still valid.


Race to 2009

December 28, 2008

Now that Christmas is over, most of us are off work until January 2nd. Unfortunately, with the downturn of the economy, many people will be off work for an unknown period of time.

This ‘lull’ is the time of year that many people realize they need to act quickly to line up as many tax deductions as they can before the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.

It’s too late to give birth to a child that would provide another exemption… unless the couple did some advanced planning. Of course, with the time off work, couples could start working on the 2009 tax year.

Depending on how you are paid, you could defer some income into 2009… and hope your tax rate doesn’t go up next year. If you have investments, you might want to sell stocks at a loss (easy to do right now) and reinvest those dollars in something that looks more promising.

Or, you could make some last minute charitable contributions. The last few days I’ve been encouraging people to donate to God’s Global Barnyard (see the link in my BLOG ROLL to the right), and I will continue to support this worthwhile charity.

Another thing my bride and I support is Mission Honduras. This is a charity that has virtually no administrative costs attached to their fund raising. Fr. Emil Cook went to Honduras many years ago and opened a school. He now oversees the operation of numerous schools, orphanages, and shelters. His basic belief is that the best path for people to escape poverty is education.

Much of his work (including fund raising) is done by volunteers. To learn more about Mission Honduras, click on the link in the BLOG ROLL.

I’m sure many of my readers have favorite charities of their own. I encourage everyone to donate as much as your budget allows. Individuals are not the only ones suffering from the bad economic conditions.

If you own a small business, this might be a great time to purchase new equipment or office furniture. Lots of things are on sale right now and you can write off the cost.

I figure over the next few months CPAs are going to really earn their money. For instance, how do we report the checks we received a few months ago that were supposed to circumvent these troubling times. Is that money simple regular income? Tax refund money? Capitol gains? (Capitol – as in Washington D.C. as opposed to capital – investments.)

And what if the government gives us more money? They seem to have no trouble giving it to everyone else. I, for one, would love to have some of my tax dollars back.

Maybe it’s time to give the Fair Tax the consideration it deserves. (Yep! That’s one of my links too!)


More Thoughts on Christmas Traditions

December 27, 2008

I believe we all owe it to ourselves to create Christmas traditions within our families. I also believe that we should recognize, honor, and whenever possible, taste the traditions of other families.

When I was a child, my parents had some very strong convictions about how Christmas should be presented to a child. In the first place, they insisted that their children experience the entire magic of the best holiday of the year. They went so far as to instruct Santa to stay away until after my brother and I had gone to bed and fallen asleep.

When we toddled off to our bedrooms on Christmas Eve, there wasn’t a single decoration in our home. Neighbors may have had their trees up and decorated for days or even weeks. We didn’t even have a tree. Surrounding houses may have had candles in the windows and lights strung across the top of the porches and wrapped around trees in the yard. Our home had none of that. Santa had not yet visited our family.

On Christmas morning, my brother and I came down the steps and saw the results of a miracle. A tree had appeared out of nowhere. It was beautifully decorated and sitting in the middle of a miniature village with an electric train running around it. The windows of our home were now festooned with candles and tinsel. Our stockings (mom’s old nylon hose) were stuffed full of fruits and nuts and small toys. And, of course, there were one or two nicely wrapped presents for each of us.

It was a truly wondrous display and it was just the beginning of an extraordinary day. The aroma of pumpkin and mincemeat pies baking in the oven would soon be replaced by the wonderful bouquet of roast turkey. Then the rest of the family would start arriving. I was the youngest of six children and my two sisters were married while I was still a toddler.

Occasionally my father would roast some chestnuts or my mother would make a suet pudding. Those were both remnants of long ago family traditions that came over from England with the family patriarch, Thomas Leeds. He arrived in America in 1677.

Almost every year, my father made eggnog. I had the pleasure of drinking it in its pure and natural state. The older family members thought it was better with a little bit of whiskey or rum added.

When I had grown and got married, I discovered that the traditions of other families were quite different. For one thing, some people actually exchange gifts before Santa makes his rounds. I still have difficulty with that. We anticipate Christmas for so long, what’s another few hours?

Another tradition that I did not grow up with was going to church either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. My parents hardly ever went to church although they did encourage me to do so.

For the last several years, I’ve gone out of my way to sample the Christmas traditions of other families. In this case, I am definitely referring to the gastronomic traditions.

About five years ago I decided to try the Cajun deep-fried turkey rather than the oven-roasted style. We haven’t cooked a turkey in the oven since. About two years ago I gave into a long held desire. Ever since I first saw the movie version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” I’ve wanted to try roasting a goose. It was delicious and has now become an annual part of our holiday cuisine.

I’ve also enjoyed cornbread dressing, oyster dressing, home-made mincemeat pie, Christmas pudding, and a wide variety of side dishes. In addition, I’ve discovered pasteurized eggs and have brought my father’s eggnog recipe out of the vault of family secrets. Come to think of it, I have tried it with a touch of spirits and can now understand why my father liked it that way.

My father left this earth almost thirty-five years ago and I’m still learning and understanding him more and more. My father worked many different jobs to support his wife and six children. I often think mom and dad should have planned their family better, but if they had, I might not be around.

My parents were married in the early 1920’s. My first sister was born in 1921. Sister number two was born in 1923. Twin boys joined the group in 1928. Then there was a long spell before my brother was born in 1942. I was born two years later. Thus, my parents were supporting at least one child from 1921 through 1966 – the year I graduated from college. That’s forty-five years of parenthood.

Dad was forced to drop out of school after the seventh grade. His father had died and his mother needed him to help support his brother and sister. After getting married, he worked in a variety of blue-collar jobs and finally retired at age sixty-nine. I recently learned that during the depression, he bought baby chicks through a mail order company and raised them in a coop he built underneath the back porch. In short, Dad did whatever he could to support us.

Dad’s final job was at a meat packing company. That was good for me because he was able to buy meat at cost and we ate pretty well. Of course Dad also brought home things that I couldn’t imagine eating. Blood pudding, kidneys, headcheese, and sweetbreads were part of his regular diet. Notice I said “his”. No one else in the family would go near that stuff.

Limburger cheese was another of his favorites. He used to eat another type of cheese that made Limburger smell pleasant. In fact, one time while he was eating it, I thought a baby had filled his diaper.

The really interesting fact is that over the years since Dad passed away, I’ve found myself picking up some of those same items at the store. I’ve astounded myself by enjoying them. I didn’t know what I was missing!

Maybe that’s why I’ve been going out of my way to experiment with other people’s traditional food. A year or so ago my bride and I ate at a Persian restaurant. We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner. When it came time for dessert, I told the waitress to bring us something she would enjoy. I also told her to not tell us what it was until after we had eaten it.

I would never have guessed that frozen rice noodles soaked in rose water could taste so delicious.

This Christmas season I hope to expand my knowledge of other people’s holiday traditions even further. There’s no telling what culinary delight is out there waiting for me. Perhaps I can find some Rocky Mountain oysters or shark fin soup. At this point, I’ll try anything once.


Precious Memories

December 26, 2008

How they linger. How they ever flood my soul.

The old time Gospel song, “Precise Memories”, floats through my brain as I sit down to write this article. The Christmas season is full of precious memories for me. I started accumulating those memories in the late 1940’s and I’ve continued to add to my treasure trove with each passing year.

When I was a small child, my parents and older siblings made Christmas pure magic. When I went to bed on Christmas Eve, the only signs of Christmas were the stockings hung by the chimney. There may have been Christmas music playing on the radio, but there were no other outward signs. My family never put up the Christmas tree before Christmas Eve… and only after I’d gone to bed.

When I awoke Christmas morning, my world had changed. The tree was up and decorated; an electric train was traveling through a Plasticville village under the tree; the stockings were stuffed with fruits and nuts and small toys; and there were gifts in brightly colored wrapping paper waiting for everyone in the family.

It was a few years later while attending Sunday School that I learned that everyone’s world had changed two thousand years ago when the Christ child was born in Bethlehem.

About the same time in my development I learned the importance of giving. I saved my money for months and went shopping for gifts for everyone in my family. I can clearly remember going through a Five & Ten Cent store and looking at everything. With a limited budget, I had to spend my money very wisely. After I decided what I wanted to buy each person, I had to add up the costs to make sure I could do it. After a few adjustments, I finally had the list clear in my head and I successfully completed my shopping. Of course, I had to borrow the wrapping paper and ribbon from my mom.

Looking back on that experience, I have a feeling it was more meaningful to me than to my parents and siblings. None of my gifts were of any real value, but the feelings of joy I felt in being able to give something to each of my loved ones were priceless.

A few years later I found myself entrusted with buying the tree and setting it up on Christmas Eve so it would be there for my nephews and nieces when they came to join our Christmas feast. That’s when I first realized the very real sacrifice my parents and older siblings had made for me. Setting up our Christmas decorations was an all-night job. I went through that Christmas Day in a fog of exhaustion.

A few more years later found me in a college dormitory looking forward to the Christmas break. It was always so good to be home… especially for the Christmas holiday. I’d sing in the church choir and visit with all my high school friends who were also home from college.

Shortly after graduating from college I married my first wife. Before we had children, Christmas was nice, but the magic was gone. Her family exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve and everything had to be decorated well in advance.

When our children came along, we had to compromise. We’d go to my in-laws for Christmas Eve and exchange the gifts from the family. Then we’d go home and put the children to bed. After they were asleep we’d set out their gifts from Santa. We’d place them under the tree that was already set up and decorated. It still wasn’t the same, but our children never knew the difference. They never experienced the same magic as I.

Our children are all grown now and some of them have children of their own. I miss seeing children come down from their bedrooms and squeal with delight as they open their gifts, but at least I get to hear their excitement when they tell me what Santa brought them.

In the meantime, I’ve had other experiences that, while different, are very meaningful. Through various church and civic organizations I’ve been extremely fortunate to be on the giving end for a number of Christmases. I’ve seen the unbelievable generosity of people who donate clothing, toys, and food for the families who might not otherwise experience the joy of Christmas.

Many people believe that all the gift giving has taken Christ out of Christmas. For the folks who consider no one but their own families during the holiday season, that statement may be accurate. However, for the majority of people who are on either the giving or receiving end of donations, I believe the exact opposite is true. When people give from their hearts, they are expressing the love of a Father who willingly gave His Son to bring a message of love and peace to all humans. And when people receive those kinds of gifts, they are experiencing God’s love firsthand.

I pray that everyone will experience the love of God during this Christmas Season. I also pray that everyone who is able, physically or financially, will lend a hand to make someone else’s Christmas season a time to remember the gift of God’s love.

——————————————————————————————

If you’ve not yet done so, please check out God’s Global Barnyard. The link is in the BLOG ROLL on the right of this screen.


More Christmas Memories

December 25, 2008
My family around the time

My family around the time

It is December 24, 1949. A five year old boy hangs one of his mother’s nylon stockings on the mantel over the fireplace, kisses his parents goodnight, then toddles upstairs to bed. His seven year old brother does the same. The two empty stockings are the only indication that Christmas is only hours away. The rest of the house is unadorned. No one has decked the halls with anything.

The next morning the boys are up with the sun. At the bottom of the stairs they come face to face with a miracle. The stockings are now stuffed with fruit, nuts, candy, and small toys. At first, the boys fail to see the stockings because half of the living room is now taken up by a wooden platform with an electric train running through a miniature village. On the center of the platform is a Christmas tree that is so tall its upper limbs spread out against the ceiling. On the sofa, there are two piles of presents for the boys. The rest of the downstairs is gaily decorated. Santa has absolutely been here and his magic is unquestionable. Of course, Santa had a little help, but the two little boys aren’t aware of that and really don’t care. They are the beneficiaries of a wonderful family tradition and aren’t about to question it.

I remember that day well. I was the five year old. Although that Christmas was 59 years ago, I remember it as if it was yesterday. I could have picked any year during the first ten years of my life and the magic would have been the same. Needless to say, I miss the magic that comes with childhood innocence. But I don’t let that stop me from accumulating many more fond memories of the best holiday of the year.

When I was 22, I married a girl whose family had very different Christmas traditions. In her family, the tree went up shortly after Thanksgiving. They exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve. Then they went to Midnight Mass, went home, and went to bed. Because my father-in-law worked long hours six days a week, Christmas morning was a time to sleep in.

The challenge for my bride and me was to blend the traditions. Our compromise was to exchange some gifts on Christmas Eve – those that were from family members – and let Christmas morning be the time to open the gifts from Santa. My photo album and home movies are a precious testimony that there was still plenty of magic for our four children.

When our children’s innocence was behind them, we found other ways to make the season memorable. One year we spent Christmas at a shelter for homeless men in downtown Atlanta. Our church had provided gift-wrapped socks, flannel shirts, and gloves for each man which we distributed after we served a dinner of chili piled on top of baked potatoes. The chili was at their request. They said everyone fed them turkey during the holidays. They wanted something different.

One man was extremely intoxicated when he came in and fell asleep immediately after finishing his meal. He was over six feet tall and weighed well over 200 pounds. Nobody wanted to disturb him to give him his presents for fear he might wake up swinging. Finally, I got up the courage to wake him and move him to his cot. Standing in front of his bed, he wavered. He told me it couldn’t be his bed because he didn’t receive any presents. When I told them that the gifts were indeed his, he gave me a bear hug and said “God love you!”

Another year my sons and I stayed overnight as volunteers on Christmas Eve. This was at a shelter housed in the basement of a Catholic church. Around midnight, a man came to the door looking for shelter and something to eat. We had no more beds, but we invited the man in to eat and get warm. When he heard the wonderful sounds of the choir singing at the service being held upstairs, he asked if he could sit on the steps so he could hear the music better. I saw no problem with that and gave him permission.

None of us noticed when the man went upstairs for a closer look. We didn’t realize there was a problem until a Deacon and some ushers escorted the man downstairs and out the door. It seems he had worked his way to the back of the altar and was standing there eating his sandwich and drinking from a wine bottle we didn’t realize he had. Needless to say, this was also an experience my sons and I won’t forget. I’m not sure it was magical, but it certainly was memorable!

My two oldest sons are now married and working on their own compromise of traditions. That’s something no one warns us about when we get married. Perhaps we need a warning label of some sort.

All of my fond memories of Christmas are only the beginning. With ten grandchildren and two more on the way, there will be many opportunities to witness the magic of Christmas love.

I sincerely look forward to the Christmases yet to come when I can see those same looks of wonder and delight in the eyes of my grandchildren. I hope my children and I can keep Christmas morning a special time. There is no better way to greet the birthday of Jesus.


Holiday Traditions

December 24, 2008

I love snow. Snow is the main thing I miss about living in the North. There are lots of people, places, and events that I loved while growing up and spending a total of thirty-three years in Pittsburgh, but the only thing I miss is snow.

I love snow. I attended Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, which is located smack in the middle of a snow belt. Edinboro gets almost as much snow as Buffalo, New York. Last year, I believe Edinboro was hit with well over two hundred inches of the white stuff. As I recall, it usually fell about a foot at a time. And I loved every bit of it. There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing the countryside blanketed in white. There’s nothing more serene than walking in the moonlight when the only sound is the muffled crunch of the snow under your feet.

Having spent a little more than half of my life in the North, it’s impossible to think about Thanksgiving and Christmas without thinking of snow. However, the theme I’ve been working with is Christmas; so I’ll shovel the snow to one side and concentrate on the holiday.

In the past I’ve written about the wonderful Christmases my parents and older siblings provided for me. Maybe one day some of my children will write similar stories. Even farther down the road of life, my grandchildren may write about their holiday memories. In each case, the main topic would be “family traditions.”

While we were still living in Pittsburgh, my children’s mother and I were faced with the difficult task of trying to create traditions for our own little family. Our parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings all wanted us to continue sharing the holidays with them… at their homes. Thus, most holidays were spent driving from one relative’s home to another.

We believed it was time to begin creating memories for our children that revolved around our own home. We tried to invite all the relatives to our home, but the idea didn’t fly. The “tradition” called for us to continue visiting others homes and dining on meals prepared by others. Whoever said, “You can’t fight city hall!” could’ve added, “or grandma’s wishes.”

We wanted our children to be able to open their presents and enjoy playing all day in their own home. We lost.

In 1977 we moved to Georgia. For a few years after, we’d pack the van (with the gifts from Santa carefully hidden amongst the luggage) and drive back to Pittsburgh for Christmas so we could continue the family tradition.

We eventually broke the cycle and began having the Christmas celebrations at our own home. We even managed to get grandma and grandpap to come visit us during the holiday season. It was then that we finally began our own family traditions.

Unfortunately, my children’s mother and I divorced in 1993 and ended the solidarity we once had. Now our children have to attend at least two gatherings for every holiday. Usually, there are more than two events. Since three of my four children have in-laws, there are other family traditions involved.

The way I see it, it’s only a matter of time before all of our children – Lu’s as well as mine – decide they need to start their own traditions. Regardless of how tasty my deep fried Cajun turkey might be, they’ll want to spend the holiday in their own home so their children don’t have to be pulled away from their presents to go visit one relative after another.

My bride and I could make the best roast goose and beef Wellington on the planet, and they’ll ask for a rain-check. In fact, they’ll undoubtedly invite us to come to their home for dinner. Eventually, we’ll accept those invitations. Otherwise, we’d be dining alone.

That’s the road of life. We all begin life enjoying whatever family traditions are there. We’re perfectly content waking up before the sun and opening all the gifts from Santa and whoever else saw fit to shower us with presents. Then we whine as we’re told we have to get cleaned up and dressed so we can go to grandma’s or Aunt Patty’s, or wherever to see our cousins and have dinner. If we’re lucky, our parents allow us to take one toy with us. Of course, they knew all along that we’d receive other gifts from other relatives.

As we get older, so does grandma and grandpap. Our parents make a decision to host the gathering – partly to take the burden away from their parents and partly so they can begin their own traditions. Now we still get to see most of the relatives, but we can stay home and enjoy the day.

Eventually we marry and face the challenge of keeping two sets of parents and other relatives happy. For several years we pack up the children, their diaper bags, their pack-and-plays, and their toys and make several stops – and perhaps eat more then one dinner – in a desperate attempt to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

Finally, we say, “Enough is enough!” Then we try to start our own traditions.

As far as I know, my bride and I are still on the hosting end of that road, but barely holding on. We had most of our children and grandchildren over for Thanksgiving dinner on the Friday following the big day, but Christmas will be a totally different story.

Christmas Eve will be spent with Lu’s daughter as hostess. We’ll be joined by Lu’s two sons and their families. On Christmas Day, we’ll travel to my daughter’s home for lunch and gift exchange with my other children and their families.

Then we’ll come home to spend the remainder of Christmas without our children and grandchildren. It will feel strange not serving up a Christmas meal for our children and grandchildren… but we’ve invited friends to join us so we won’t be cooking and eating our Christmas goose by ourselves.

So, it appears at least one of our Holiday traditions has come to an end. So be it! That means our children have taken the difficult step of saying, “Enough is enough!” and are beginning their own traditions. More power to them!

Let’s look at another tradition – one that revolves around the music of the holidays. I can already hear Perry Como singing, “There’s no place like home for the holidays” and Bing Crosby chiming in with, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

While most Georgians would love to see nothing more than lots of rain for Christmas, it wouldn’t break my heart if some of it fell in a frozen state – not as sleet or hail, but as soft, beautiful flakes of snow. I love snow!


Do We Really Want an “Old-Fashioned” Christmas

December 23, 2008

I recently read of a woman looking for information on how people lived in the good old days. It reminded me of how often I’ve heard people say they’d love to experience an old-fashioned Christmas. Come to think of it, on occasion I’ve expressed that same thought myself.

I can only guess at the age of the woman making the inquiry. There was no picture; but, based on her seeming innocence of such matters, I would guess her to be relatively young… relative as compared to the age of me, and dirt.

For most of us, “old-fashioned” can be defined as, “When I was a child and my parents and grandparents took care of all the details.” Thus, what constitutes an “old-fashioned” Christmas is directly proportionate to one’s age.

For me, such a Christmas would have occurred shortly after World War II when our country was experiencing a renewed era of prosperity. That should not be taken to mean my parents were becoming wealthy. It simply means my father, a maintenance worker at a meat packing plant, had steady employment and there was at least one store-bought present for my brother and me.

Our older brothers and sisters were born just before the Great Depression. I’m sure our parents did what they could to make Christmas special for our older siblings, but their means at that time were much more limited.

These thoughts on old-fashioned Christmases come at a time when I have been reading one historical document after another. Being able to trace one’s family back to the time when somebody named Stradivarius was fiddling around with musical instruments in Italy provides a totally different perspective on this issue. Let’s consider a Colonial Christmas celebration in the late 1600’s.

We’ll start with the Thanksgiving Day parades in New York City and Philadelphia. Yes, those towns did exist, but there was no Macy’s and no Mummers. Thus, there were no parades, and no initial visit from Santa Claus. Come to think of it, Thanksgiving Day had not yet been invented.

Most likely, there were no signs indicating the number of shopping days left before Christmas. Some religions may have used Advent Wreaths in their services so that people could prepare for the coming birth of our Savior, but that may have been the total extent of Christmas greenery.

In towns such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Providence, shopkeepers might have hung greenery in the windows to provide a holiday atmosphere, but it’s very unlikely. The use of Christmas trees and hanging of greens didn’t become popular until the 1800’s.

By the way, there was a time in the 1600’s when church leaders in England decided that Christmas had become too much of a pagan holiday and outlawed it. Christians in England and in the English colonies were forbidden to observe the day as the birthday of Jesus. One has to wonder what those same church leaders would think of the way Christmas is celebrated in the 21st century!

In the outlying colonial settlements, there was less thought given to the Yuletide season. The people living on the frontier were more concerned about trapping or shooting their next meal. They’d also be busy chopping wood, carrying water from a nearby stream, and trying to keep whatever produce they saved from the prior harvest from rotting. They had neither indoor plumbing, nor electricity. Had Christmas trees come into vogue, they wouldn’t have had any place to put them. Besides, there were no ornaments, lights, or tinsel.

In fact, what sort of Christmas would it be without watching Scrooge change his miserly ways after being visited by three ghosts (Dickens would not write “A Christmas Carol” for another hundred and fifty years), no roast turkey (unless the hunters got lucky), no Christmas cards to hang around the fireplace, and no Santa Claus (St. Nicholas was not yet recognized in the American colonies). Worst of all, there was no football!

I’m sure some people would consider the absence of indoor plumbing worse than the lack of football games on television, but we’re all entitled to our own opinions.

In short, it would appear that an “Old-fashioned” Christmas in the 1600’s would not be an ideal setting for any sort of celebration. However, let’s go ahead and try to find some positive aspects of the time.

First, to attend a Christmas church service, we’d probably have to hitch “old Dobbin” to the sleigh. There were very few church buildings in America in the 1600s, so we’d most likely attend a “meeting” at somebody’s home. The only warmth in the building would come from a fireplace, and the bodies of the faithful. The only light, besides the light from the fire, would be from candles.

After everyone had arrived, the host would read the Christmas Story from the Gospel in the King James Version of the Bible. The group would then sing a few Psalms or other hymns, as most Christmas carols had not yet been written. Finally, the group would join hands in prayer thanking God for the wonderful gift of his son – the Light of the World.

After heartfelt wishes for health and prosperity, we’d all go our separate ways – returning to our own humble abodes. Our family might exchange hand-made treasures – carefully crafted with love. Then we’d each lend a hand in preparing the “feast.” Chores would include chopping wood for the fireplace, fetching water, plucking feathers from the chicken, milking the cow, and gathering eggs. With such fresh ingredients, a batch of eggnog would make an extra special treat.

After dinner, we’d gather by the fireplace and share the warmth of each others love. We’d thank God for our many blessings and pray that our family would continue to find happiness in a land where freedom of religion was held so sacred.

There would be no television, radio, video games, or any other distractions. We’d simply enjoy spending time together as a family.

Come to think of it, I’d like nothing better than an “old-fashioned” Christmas this year.


Holiday Luncheon Stories – Part 2

December 22, 2008

This story, about a woman I worked with at IBM, comes in two waves. We’ll begin with the life history she shared with me many years ago and then talk about the more recent events in her life.

Ivette Sudmalis Lakes was born in Latvia prior to World War II. As young girls, she and her sister were fascinated watching the fighter planes dog-fighting in the skies above their home. Their mother would have to run out and drag them inside – the little girls had no idea of the danger of stray bullets.

Ivette’s family struggled to get by during the years of Hitler’s advances but never considered leaving their homeland until the end was in sight. That’s when they realized their beloved country would be swallowed up by Russia. Evidently, they feared Russian domination more than the Nazis. Thus, they decided to flee.

Adolf and Elizabeth Sudmalis gathered up their daughetrs, Ivette and Irene, in the middle of the night and headed toward the railroad station. Somewhere along the way, Ivette fell and broke her arm. Adolf explained to his daughter that they didn’t have time to find a doctor; more importantly, regardless of how much her arm hurt, she could not cry out in pain no matter what they encountered during their journey.

The family crept into an empty box car and traveled unnoticed through the night. Ivette, with her terribly painful arm, kept silent and they made the trip without being discovered by the soldiers who were constantly checking for people traveling without permission.

Eventually the Submalis family arrived at a place where they could find safe passage to North America. While they had hoped to come to the United States, their safe passage took them to Canada – not bad for a ‘second’ choice.

At this point, I’m going to let Roger and Ivette Lakes tell the rest. The following is a letter they wrote to tell their friends and relatives their story.

———————————————————————————————

Faith, Hope & Love

Ivette’s family (her father, Adolph, mother, Elizabeth, and sister, Irene) came to the United States in 1950, after being forced from their homeland (Latvia) in 1944.  They applied for emigration to America.  But, after five long years of waiting, they were chosen for emigration only to Venezuela.  Then, just a short time before leaving for Venezuela, they were miraculously selected by the First Baptist Church in Franklin, Ohio – the church that Roger’s parents and their eight children had been attending for several years.

Roger had never had a serious date until after he graduated from high school in 1951.  He had seen this beautiful, blue-eyed blond in church and had remarked that she looked like a movie star – someone unapproachable by anyone like him.  Somehow he finally got the courage to speak to her and their romance blossomed quickly after that.  He had experienced “puppy love” before that, but she was the first girl with whom he was truly and completely in love.  They talked of their futures together and hoped to marry one day.

Then, in the latter part of 1952, they were both heart-broken when Ivette’s mother insisted that they stop seeing each other.  She wanted more for both of her daughters than getting married, until they had completed their education.  Shortly after this her family moved from Franklin to Cincinnati and Roger went to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute as a voice major.  They eventually lost contact with each other.  With their lives on different paths, they had no contact for the next 56 (fifty-six) years.

Roger’s wife of thirty years passed away January 31, 2007, and he had resigned himself to a single life.  But God had other unbelievably wonderful plans.

Roger was aware that many years ago his mother and Ivette had exchanged Christmas cards, but his mother hadn’t said much to him about that.  He also wasn’t aware until December 15, 2007, that, after his mother passed away in 1999, his sister, Barb, and Ivette had continued exchanging Christmas cards.  On that December day, Barb showed him a card she had recently received from Ivette.  He took the return address (which he still carries in his billfold) and was able to get her telephone number from an Internet search (thank God for the Internet!).  He called Ivette on January 12 and they talked that evening and every evening after that until February 5th (several conversations lasting more than 9 hours!).  They ended every phone conversation praying together that they might know God’s will for their lives.  During those conversations they set their wedding date, not having seen each other for 56 years.  They first met February 5th, when he came through Marietta, GA, on his way to Florida, and he finally was reunited with his teen sweetheart.  They became Husband and Wife before 70 close friends and family on May 17, 2008. GOD IS SO GOOD!

———————————————————————————————

When Ivette first told me about her childhood in Latvia, she was afraid she was boring me! I explained to her that stories such as hers are the kind we never hear… but need to hear in order to better understand war.

When it comes to war, all the chronicals are about the armies and political leaders – not about the innocent civilians who must cope with the surrounding chaos.

I’m so glad Ivette shared her stories with me… and thrilled that she has finally connected to the love of her life.

In the past week or so I’ve tried to keep my posts centered on the Christmas season. Since I believe the true meaning of Christmas is the love God has for us all, I think this story fits in nicely.

———————————————————————————————-

Still looking for that perfect gift for the teacher or some other casual friends? Consider giving a pig, goat, turkey or chickens to a needy family in a developing nation in their honor. Check out God’s Global Barnyard listed in the links on the right of this screen.