The Magic of Santa Claus

There’s something special about believing in Santa Claus when you’re a child. I remember how excited I became the closer it got to Christmas, just thinking about what I might find under the tree Christmas morning. I remember being so excited I could hardly go to sleep on Christmas Eve. 

My mom made sure we left cookies and milk out for him on Christmas Eve, and she always emphasized that I had to stay in bed and get to sleep so he’d come with all the presents. It was sure hard to do.

But somehow I managed to go to sleep and sleep through the night (oh, how I wish I could do that now!) and wake up so excited I didn’t know what to do!

And I was always even more excited when I looked under the tree at the wrapped presents that hadn’t been there the night before. He’d been there! He really had! Santa Claus himself! And I knew it because he’d also left some cookie crumbs on the plate and almost finished the milk in his glass. I knew he was real.

That special feeling of wonder and excitement just can’t be duplicated. Children need that wonderment, that excitement, that feeling of awe and amazement that only comes once a year, on Christmas morning, under that Christmas tree.

I still remember when one of my friends told me there was no Santa Claus, and I came home from school so upset I didn’t know what to do. When I told my mother about it though, I didn’t ask her if my friend was correct. Because I knew in my heart she was wrong. I told my mom I was upset because now my friend wouldn’t have Santa visit her anymore and bring her presents.

Ahhh….the wonder and magic of Santa Claus to a child at Christmas is just indescribable sometimes.

 And it’s so important.

Our adult minds can’t fathom and certainly can’t believe in the man in the red suit who never ages and who lives in the utter cold of the North Pole with his wife and a bunch of elves who spend all year working tirelessly to make one night the most special one ever for children around the world.

We can’t fathom how this man can get in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, of all things, filled with an inexhaustible supply of toys and gifts, and deliver them to every child in the world on Christmas Eve, stopping long enough at each house to also sample the cookies and milk left out for him by sleeping children.

We can’t understand it with our adult minds because we’ve lost the gift of imagination. We’ve lost the ability, and perhaps even the desire, to see things the way we used to, when the world was a far different place. Many of us have become jaded and cynical, preferring to stomp on the dreams and imagination of others because we don’t believe, and we want others to agree with us, and validate our truths.

Let me tell you this, the wonder and excitement and joy I see in the eyes of our granddaughters when they think about Santa Claus, when they see him, when they talk about him…that’s all I need to know how real he is.

And I briefly go back to being that little girl in this picture seeing Santa Claus in Wanamaker’s department store and telling him what I want for Christmas and knowing (hopefully) I’m going to get it.

I see the excitement in our older granddaughter’s eyes and hear it in her voice when she holds this little green Beanie Baby reindeer we have with our decorations and saying how she really, REALLY wants Santa to bring her one like it. And talks about how she’s going to introduce hers to this one and let them play together.

And guess what. I truly believe Santa is going to do just that. 

Because he’s Santa Claus.

And for those who don’t believe, or don’t want their children to believe, well I have to say I’m sorry, because you really don’t know what you’re missing out on.

Christmas Cookies with the Grands, 2021

Last year was their first adventure helping. It was a fun time of getting sprinkles all over the kitchen floor as well as all over the cookie sheets, and sometimes even on the cookies themselves. Not to mention stuck to their fingers and all over their faces.

This year was no exception, but the decorating did turn out a little bit better.

A book I just finished reading yesterday had a scene with kids helping make Christmas cookies and getting flour all over the counters rather than in the mixing bowl. But as their grandmother explained to their worried mother, “if you’re cooking with children, it’s about keeping it fun and simple. The end result isn’t always important.”

I probably need to keep that in mind. 

Now I didn’t let them help with mixing up the ingredients, because we were on a time schedule, and we had guests coming over, along with the kids having to be somewhere else as well. 

Next year we can attempt to do that. They’ll each be a year older, and it might not be quite as messy. Well, wishful thinking there, too. But you never know.

To save time I’d already mixed the dough and was ready to put it in the cookie press when they arrived. I’d even pulled the jars of sprinkles and colored sugars out and set them on the counter. And their Christmas aprons were all ready for them, too. 

Little cookie bakers and tasters, after all, have to have the appropriate aprons to protect their clothes from stray sprinkles. 

Of course, like last year, they decided it was easier to decorate the cookies while sitting on the floor. Which means it was also easier to get the sprinkles on the floor as well as on the cookies. And yes, we blocked the dogs from coming in there to help!

It’s always an adventure when you’re doing pressed cookies with grandchildren. No sooner did I get them pressed out on the cookie sheets and put them in front of the girls, then they picked their favorite decorating colors and dumped the sugar on them. 

Actually, Ryleigh grabbed a jar of sprinkles with no inner plastic lid for shaking and dumped them out, so their mommy had some scooping up to do so we could at least see the cookies under the pile of red sugar. 

Because Rachel is older she did a little better job, and actually tried to help her little sister. And they were both really proud of their creations. 

I promised them next year they could help with mixing the dough and possibly helping me press them out. (Maybe we can practice on Easter cookies?) They do need to learn, and it’s not too early to start.

And for those of you who want a good pressed cookie recipe, here’s the one we use. There’s still time to make a batch! And I have two granddaughters who’d be happy to help!

Pressed Sugar/Spritz Cookies

  • 1 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract
  • 3 1/2 cups flour

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Beat butter for 30 seconds on high. Add sugar, baking powder and salt. Beat til combined, Beat in egg, vanilla and almond extract. Beat in flour, a little at a time, until mixed.

Force unchilled dough through cookie press onto cookie sheet. Decorate with colored sugar and sprinkles as desired. Or watch the kids or grandkids do their thing.

Bake 8 minutes til edges are lightly browned. Cool on wire rack.

Happy baking, and Merry Christmas from all of us!

Each Tree Has a Story, Part 1

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by Christmas trees. Whether they’re decorated in restaurants and store windows and displays, part of an outside holiday display, or in someone’s (or my) home, there’s just something almost magical about the beauty of a Christmas tree.

For me, it just seems to evoke all the feelings of the season…peace, joy, beauty, and love. The sparkling lights and the ornaments, whether glass or acrylic, homemade or purchased from stores, or made lovingly by little hands for special family gifts, are beautiful reminders of things and people we love, as well as the beauty of the Christmas season.

When I was growing up, we always had a real tree. Of course back then there were very few artificial trees, and the ones available didn’t really look that great. (And remember those silver aluminum ones with the colored swirling light in front of it that changed color? I think we all had one! What were we thinking?)

I do vaguely remember my father bringing home a tree each year about a week before Christmas so he and my mom could decorate it just in time for Santa. It would sit outside in a pail of water for a few days to keep it fresh until it was time to bring it inside. I didn’t help much, of course, because I was too young. I certainly couldn’t help with the strings of lights, and the ornaments were glass and fragile, and broke easily, and we always had a colorful glass sphere on the top of it. 

I did get to help throw those aluminum icicles on it after everything else was hung. I just loved that finishing touch. And for those of you in my age group, I’m sure you remember the same thing. And weren’t they messy as could be when it was time to take that tree down? I don’t think they’re even made anymore. And if they are I’d never get them again!

But every year, once that tree was decorated, I thought it was the most beautiful tree ever! Those old, now vintage, ornaments were so special.

And because the tree was real, we had to water it every day so it wouldn’t dry out. Plus the old lights weren’t nearly as safe as the ones now, and there were lots of Christmas tree fires back then from overheated or frayed tree lights.

And those needles made a mess when they started dropping, so we had to constantly vacuum around it, but it sure smelled good…just like Christmas!

Even then, I was always a bit sad when Christmas was over and we had to throw the tree out and pack up those shiny ornaments. It just didn’t seem fair for all that beauty to only be around such a short time. And back then, we could only leave it up for about two weeks before it started drying out too much to be safe.

After my father died, my mom and I always went together to get our tree from the Christmas tree lot set up in a vacant lot in town. It always smelled so good there, many times with a small fire burning in a barrel to keep the attendants, and the shoppers, warm. Sometimes they even served hot chocolate. We’d carefully pick out a tree, and they’d tie it on top of our car. 

Because my mom had no one to help her with it, especially after my aunt and uncle moved a couple hours away, a lot of years one of the men who’d been helping at the lot would follow us home and help get the tree set up for us. 

Yes, times were a lot different back then. And being in a small town, everyone tried to help out everyone else. Especially at Christmas.

Unfortunately I don’t have hardly any pictures of our Christmas trees growing up, and none in color, but in my mind’s eye I can still see them, and still see the colors in the ornaments and lights. Yes, they were old fashioned compared to today’s styles, but they were beautiful to us.

Unfortunately over the years most of those precious fragile ornaments have gotten broken. Between various moves and accidentally dropping some of them, which really upset me every time, there are only a few left, most of which are now used in decorative bowls of ornaments set around the house.

I couldn’t ever imagine Christmas without a tree and all those lights and ornaments; without the beauty they brought to our home, especially when I was a child with my father no longer with us.  And I’m sure if it hadn’t been for me, my mother wouldn’t have ever had another Christmas tree after he died.

I guess my love of Christmas trees sort of sprang from those childhood days, and has slowly evolved to the craziness my husband and I have now.

Craziness you ask? Well I’ve been told having a tree in almost every room is a little crazy, but then again, I’ve never claimed to be totally normal. But I like to collect things, so why not Christmas trees? 

Which I’ll tell you more about in a few more days. Watch for “Each Tree Has a Story, Part 2” to be published on December 6.

Making a Gingerbread House

All the pictures make it look so easy. Right?

Mom and the kids sitting around the table, maybe even with Grandmom, and happily frosting/gluing the pieces together, adding the candy, and then a perfect gingerbread house is completed.

May I ask you, have you ever really tried doing one? With or without kids? It’s really not as easy as those pictures show. And it definitely doesn’t always turn out like it looks like on the box. Even for those of us who are usually quite crafty.

How do I know? Well, last year my daughter and I decided to make one with the grandkids. At the time Rachel was 4 and a half; Ryleigh a year and a half. 

I guess I should’ve said my daughter and I decided to make one. While the kids watched. Or played something else. Or waited to eat the candy that went on it.

We’d actually done one the year before. That didn’t turn out well at all. Besides Rachel being a little too young to really be a lot of help, actually putting these together isn’t that easy. The sides and roof pieces that have to be assembled are “glued” with white frosting. The frosting doesn’t work like my hot glue gun! And getting them to stay upright and in place isn’t a piece of cake, or gingerbread, either! 

Trust me, our finished product from that year certainly isn’t worthy of being seen on here!

Last year though, was a bit easier. But only just a bit.  It may be because we used a different brand gingerbread house kit. Maybe because the grandkids were a year older. Or maybe we’d just learned from last year what NOT to do.

Our daughter learned what not to do. She learned that she had no patience in putting the sides and roof together. So guess who got the job? The same person who did it the year before. As you can see from the pictures.

And getting the roof on and actually getting it stay is almost an engineering project. But I did it. And when the frosting “glue” dried, it actually stayed together. That was an improvement over last year!

Next was the part our daughter and Rachel were looking forward to. Decorating the house. The kits contain all the candy needed for the houses, and there’s usually some left over. Which makes all the kids, big and little, quite happy.

And our daughter and older granddaughter really enjoyed putting the candy on, even though not all of it went on the house. What did little Ryleigh do? She watched for a few minute, grabbed a bit of the candy, and went back to playing and watching cartoons.

Fortunately the house turned out fairly well. We were all proud of our accomplishment. 

So proud, in fact I actually got another kit for them, and we all put together a gingerbread camper. Which wasn’t quite as difficult. Or else we’d learned a little more about how to do it.

So what do you think about our collection? Are you ready to try and do your own? You don’t even need to have kids or grandkids to try it. But that makes it more fun. 

Or you can do what our daughter did and order an acrylic one to put together. Much easier. And lasts a lot longer. Isn’t it cute? And you knew it had to have a flamingo with it!

Here are the finished products. What do you think?

To show how brave we’ve become after this, we now have four gingerbread kits to make this year. We may or may not write about those, depending on the finished products. But you never know!

And why not send your own gingerbread house pictures in a comment. We’d love to see them!

Happy holiday creating! The fun is just beginning!

Just One More Day

All of us who’ve lost a loved one have said this, and said it many times.

“If I could have just one more day with you…a special day we’ve already had that we could relive…how wonderful that would be! I remember the day we……”

I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago who had recently lost her mother, and we were discussing particular times and events we particularly remembered with our moms, and reminisced how wonderful it would be if we could just live a few of those special times over again.

Which, of course, got me thinking about a very special time with my mother. I remember it so well, down to so many details….

What day do you remember that you’d like to relive one more time with your loved one?

For me, the answer is simple: my mother’s 92nd birthday. Why that particular day? Because it was one of the last times her memory was actually clear. One of the last times she allowed herself to enjoy having a birthday. She never wanted anyone to know it was her birthday, let alone make a big deal of it; she always said it was just another day. But this day was one of the very last times my mom, my daughter Ashley, my aunt (Mom’s sister), and I were together and able to have fun and laugh together like schoolgirls.

My mother’s memory had been slowly fading for a few years, and I had no idea how much longer we would be able to leave her by herself. Ashley and I had come to visit her for a few days so we could be with her on her birthday.

The day didn’t start well. Mom saw me putting presents in the car and thought it was her sister’s birthday, and was upset she didn’t have anything for her. I had to explain that it was HER birthday, and the gifts were for her, not her sister. She ignored that statement, or else didn’t really understand what I’d said.

We got to the restaurant and went to our table. At first Mom was really depressed and quiet, and it was hard to carry on a conversation with her. My aunt and I talked, while Ashley tried to get her grandmother interested in something. She told her about her own 16th birthday she’d just celebrated, even though she’d already told her several times, so they decided to celebrate Ashley’s birthday!

Suddenly the mom I’d always known was back! The mom I hadn’t seen in quite a while. She started talking, and even eating her lunch (which she didn’t ever enjoy doing), and by the time the waitress brought out her birthday cake, she was laughing and even smiling! Something she hadn’t done in so very long….. I took so many pictures of her that day, and she didn’t mind, like she usually did. She even blew out the candles on her cake and helped serve it! Usually she’d sit there and let someone else do it because she didn’t want anyone to know what was going on.

At one point my aunt spilled her coke, and some of it went in the cake, and my mom laughed more than I’d seen her do in years! We stayed at the restaurant for so long, I was beginning to think they’d try to kick us out. One of the presents I’d bought her was a book called “A Mother’s Legacy”. It was full of questions for her to answer so we could always remember things about her and her childhood. She and her sister had a wonderful time with it, reading and answering almost every question in it, and laughing like teenagers, having a wonderful time, just like we all used to all do. Mom had more energy than I’d seen in ages.

It was a wonderful day. And for that time, as brief it was, I had my mother back, the way she used to be before the aging process started stealing her memories. It was truly a gift from the Lord, and I have thanked Him so many times for this special day. I’d gladly relive it as many times as possible.

We never know when the time will come that our loved ones will no longer be here with us. Each day with them is a gift to treasure. Because those days are numbered, and one day we will all be wishing for that one special day to be repeated.

What day would you relive with your loved one if you could? Please feel free to share in the comments below. We’d love to share your memories.

What Do You Do With the Gifts?

The gifts were all beautifully and lovingly wrapped, and placed carefully under the tree, name tags reading “To Mom” with love. You’d had so much fun shopping this year. It seemed like you had no trouble finding gifts for anyone, especially for her. And you couldn’t wait until Christmas morning to see her face when she opened those special gifts you’d gotten for her. It was going to be the best Christmas ever!

But then, the phone call came; or the knock on the door. And all of your Christmas plans were suddenly and irreversibly changed.

Because your world was turned upside down. And instead of merry and joyful, you were sad beyond belief, and plunged into a sea of grief and sorrow that you didn’t know existed. Unfortunately, it did. And now you were living in it, drowning in it.

And all those gifts suddenly became awful reminders that your world would never be the same, and for the next several years, Christmas would no longer be your favorite holiday, but a reminder of the deepest hurt you’ve ever felt.

Instead of having a huge family dinner, with lighted candles and your best china, you’re planning a funeral. Instead of selecting your best holiday attire, you’re searching through your closet for your most somber outfit, and selecting the final outfit that she’ll ever wear.

Christmas? It’s the furthest thing from your mind.

Until you look under the tree and those gifts are staring you in the face. You’d interspersed hers with everyone else’s as you usually did, so it would be more fun handing them out. Now you see each and every one of them as if they were all placed together in one pile. A painful reminder staring you in the face that she’s not going to be opening them. Ever.

So what do you do with the gifts?

That may sound trivial in the overall scheme of events. Some may say it’s a selfish question. Or it may sound like a simple question, one easily answered, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth of that question.

The gifts were bought for her. Wrapped with your love in brightly colored paper; tied with holiday ribbon by your own hands. To be given with love. Now they’re a painful reminder; a stab to the heart when you see them. The act of opening them when they aren’t supposed to be yours, when they were bought as gifts for your loved one, is something you can’t bring yourself to do.

If you haven’t experienced it, you cannot imagine the pain. It’s one thing to not be able to buy gifts for her that first Christmas she’s gone; it’s entirely another to have to do something with gifts already wrapped and tagged.

A friend of mine unfortunately found herself in this situation many years ago. Fortunately her husband stepped in one morning and took the gifts and put them somewhere so she didn’t have to deal with that, as well as everything else. To this day she has no idea what he did with them. Which is probably just as well.

The best advice I can give? Do what feels right for you. Have someone else handle it if you just don’t think you can. There’s no shame in that, and there’s nothing to be embarrassed over.

After all, you have enough on your mind. It’s not about the money, the cost of the gifts. It’s about your emotional well-being, and how you can best begin to heal after a traumatic loss. But it’s unfortunately something that comes up when a loved one passes away this time of year. And I’ve seen nothing written about it; no suggestions of ways to best deal with the situation and the emotions it brings.

There are a few suggestions I can offer that I’ve heard from others who’ve gone through this, instead of returning the gifts, either before or after the holiday.

One family donated the gifts to a local shelter, still wrapped, with the name tag changed to simply read “from [their loved one’s name]”. That way they knew the gifts would be put to good use and brighten someone else’s Christmas, as well as allow their loved one to make a final contribution to a charitable cause.

Another family decided to give each family member one of their loved one’s gifts to open in her memory, and then decide whether to keep it as a memento of her, or give it to someone else who would enjoy or need it. As each person opened the gift, they told a story about what their loved one would have probably said about the gift; and of course that also came with a lot of tears.

One other family said they changed the tags to “from [loved one’s name] all the way from heaven” and hid the non-personal gifts around the house to be found throughout the year. Clothing gifts were donated to charity.

It’s not easy losing a loved one at any time, but during the holiday season that loss is magnified, and any reminders of what has been lost can bring on the sadness and depression at any point. It’s natural. And expected. Leaving their Christmas gifts around can make it worse, but so can the decisions of what to do with them.

Bear in mind what your loved one would want you to do as well, if you can. Sometimes it’s hard to see further than the next few hours, let alone the next few days.

The best advice I can give…do what’s right for you. And don’t let anyone’s criticisms change your actions. Unfortunately one day they may go through this as well, if they haven’t already.

Hang in there. It does get easier over time. Next Christmas will be better. The memories will linger, and although you don’t think so now, they will gradually get easier to remember.

Finding An Angel

For anyone who’s gone through it already, you know the pain of going through that first Christmas without your loved one is unlike almost anything else. It was bad enough when you lost him or her. You didn’t think it could get any worse. Well, it really can’t….until you lose another loved one. But going through a holiday like Christmas for the first time without that special person, when so many memories are tied into that holiday, well, it can be one of the most emotional times of that first year.

For me, there were a lot of moments during that first December without my mother, which brought not only a rush of memories, but buckets of tears and a lot of streaked makeup running down my face. Even when you finally start to get into the Christmas spirit a little bit, those memories sneak in and hit you where it hurts the most.

But somehow the Lord always gives us certain “divine appointments” with others in similar situations who also need to know they’re not alone, and He sends them right into our path to make each of us feel a bit better.

He certainly did that for me that first Christmas without my mom. Shopping that year was extremely difficult. There were so many happy faces, heading out to buy gifts for loved ones. I was missing my mother terribly, and the last thing I felt was happy. Although I’d always had trouble deciding what to buy for my mother, there were certain items I could always get her that I knew she’d like. And of course, in every store I went in that first year, there was something I started to pick up, thinking I’d get it for her. Then I’d remember, she isn’t here anymore, and it stayed on the shelf.

One evening when I was trying to shop, I overheard a lady in a gift shop talking to a friend on her cell phone about some of the Willow Tree angels she was thinking about buying. (I also collect them and had given several to my mother.) She’d made a comment to the store’s manager about how she could find the gifts she needed for her friends, but she just couldn’t get into Christmas this year. The Lord prompted me to speak up, and I said, “Neither can I.” She asked why, and I told her about my mom.

Then she told me her husband had died two months ago, about the same time as my mother, and how much she was missing him. We talked about how we each felt for several minutes, and in that time, I knew I was ministering to someone who needed comfort more than I did. She tearfully made a comment about coming in the store to look for angels, and I told her we’d both found one. Both of us cried and ended up hugging each other, like old friends. I guess the people in the store thought we were a bit crazy, but I really didn’t care.

We’d never seen each other before in our lives. Obviously we both needed to share our grief with someone we didn’t know, because Christmas is meant to be shared with loved ones more than any other holiday. Why I didn’t exchange information with her I don’t know. But I pray she has found her peace as well.

Willow_Tree_Angel

How do we make it through one of the most difficult holidays during our first year of grief? Unfortunately there are no easy answers, no right or wrong ways to survive the season. Even now, after nine years, when I stand in the kitchen making cookies, or planning Christmas dinner, or writing out a Christmas shopping list my mother’s name isn’t on anymore, or hearing “Little Drummer Boy” or “Silent Night”, it still brings back bittersweet memories, as well as a few tears.

May I never reach the point of not remembering.

And may I always find someone new to share a bit of Christmas hope and love with, just at the moment they need it the most.

When Holidays Hurt

Over the last month I’ve had three close friends lose their mothers. Two were expected, although it does not make the loss any less painful, but one was most definitely not expected. It was a total shock; unexpected, and without warning. And the lives of those left behind to mourn and grieve were forever and irreversibly changed.

Going on with everyday life after losing a loved one, parent, spouse, or even worse, a child, is one of the most difficult things to do. Reminders are everywhere, and those first days, weeks, months, are a constant reminder of what was, and what will never be again.

At this time of year, during the holiday season, it’s even worse.

That’s when holidays hurt. A lot.

We cannot help but remember back to the previous years, remember how we celebrated with our loved one, and in most cases not having any idea that it would be our last holiday with them.

That empty chair at the table is a painful reminder of what was lost. That missing face in family photos is very evident, a glaring hole in a canvas. Some families, at least that first year, set a place at the table for their loved one and put a picture of them there. Some will edit their holiday photos and insert their loved one’s picture in it somewhere.

For some, it helps. For others, it’s an even more painful reminder. Because their photos, along with our memories, are all that we have left of them. And in the first few weeks and months, those memories are almost as painful as the loss.

Fresh grief is the worst. And at the holiday season, it’s almost insurmountable.

If you haven’t experienced it, there is actually no way to really and truly understand the pain someone is feeling. It’s almost a physical ache, a knife in your stomach that you can’t pull out; a pain in your chest that overwhelms you.

Well-meaning friends try to make you feel better, but again, unless they’ve been through it, they honestly do not know the depth of your pain. All you can do is accept their condolences, and thank them for what they say, because they do mean well, and want to help. Yes, we know he or she is in a much better place, but right now, during this holiday season, we want them with us to share just one more day of memories!

To those of you who are wondering how to help your grieving friends at this time of year, I can offer several suggestions. Be sure to reach out to them, let them know you’re thinking about them. Offer to take them to lunch, or meet for a cup of coffee. If you haven’t been in their shoes, don’t be afraid to preface your conversation with something like, “I don’t know exactly how you’re feeling, and I can only imagine. If you want to talk, I’m here for you.” Remind them as well as show them you care. And make sure they’re not going to be alone, especially on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. Because those two days can seem to be two weeks long when you’re grieving.

The first holiday season is the roughest. I know. All too well.

When you’re grieving, holidays can really hurt.

But take heart…it does get easier. Time heals the emptiness and your pain will be eased. You will never forget them, but you will learn to manage your memories.

Be thankful you had them for the time you did. Be thankful you have your memories. Be thankful for the love you shared.

Hold the ones still with you close, and make as many memories as you can. Because you never know when you’ll need them.

God, Where Were You?

When my mother died before I could get there?

When my friend’s child was killed in an auto accident?

When I miscarried my baby?

When my husband/wife was dying from cancer?

When my child was born with a life altering, debilitating illness?

When my friend was abducted and brutally murdered?

When my husband left me for another woman, leaving me totally broke and homeless?

When my sister had surgery and became a paraplegic as a result?

When my best friend’s grandchild died from SIDS?

These are all good questions. Some I’ve asked. Some were asked by my friends.

The answers? Those are not up to me to even begin to try and answer. Because I’m not God. Only He knows the answers.

But in our most troubled times, times of great turmoil, unimaginable sorrow and pain, all we can do is cry out to the Lord for answers.

And sometimes there are none. There’s only a deafening silence. Which makes us think He isn’t listening to us. That He doesn’t care. And we suddenly feel we have absolutely no one whatsoever to turn to. And we descend into the deepest void we’ve ever been in.

Because we KNOW we’ll never recover. There’s truly no way to recover.

The good news is…we do recover. Slowly. Sometimes extremely slow. Sometimes it’s so slow we don’t realize we’re recovering.

But, we still ask, “God, where were you? And why didn’t you intervene and stop this??”

And still we have no answers.

We won’t have them until the day we meet Him face to face.

But we do know, although there are times we find it very difficult to keep believing and remembering, that God loves us. All of us. But God is not a master puppeteer who controls us all from above. He doesn’t pull our strings and make us do His bidding. He doesn’t force us to do things. He allows us to make our own choices, and our own mistakes.

Sometimes the choices we make impact other people in ways that affect them horribly. And sometimes things just happen. And we never know why.

But remember that deep void you found yourself in after that tragedy? You weren’t alone. The Lord was with you, comforting you, loving you, holding you, collecting your tears. He knew your pain, and yes, He could have stopped it. But at what cost to so many others? This is the hardest question of them all. Is He supposed to pick and choose from all our prayers and pick the ones He wants to answer because He loves us more than our neighbors?

I think not.

God does not give us trouble. That’s not who He is.

Our troubles come from life. From the actions of others around us. The Lord even told us, “In this world you will have trouble. But I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Notice how He didn’t say, “I will save you from all your troubles so you won’t have any, and your entire life will be easy.”

But He did say, “Come to me, all you who are tired and weary, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) That’s faith, and hope, and love. A promise to be held in heavenly arms that give us comfort when we need it the most. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you, and you will be comforted.” (Isaiah 66:13) And He does. If we only let Him.

Where was God when all those bad things happened? Right there. Beside you. Carrying you. And holding you. Helping you through the pain and sorrow.

And one day, you will be equipped to help someone else survive a similar and sometimes tragic event in their life. Because you’ll know how God pulled you through with the help of others around you.

And it will be your turn to do the same.

If I’d Only Known.

If we could only know for sure that final visits are really final visits, what would we do differently? What more would we say? How would we feel?

“I should’ve said this…..”

“I should’ve asked her more about my dad, about their life together before I was born, and how their lives changed after I was born, and how she really felt about finally being a mom.”

“I should’ve taken her a basket of flowers, or a tray of her favorite cookies.”

“I should’ve said I was sorry for what I said years ago that caused us not to speak for so long.”

“I should’ve been a better daughter/son…”

“I should’ve said ‘I love you’ one more time….”

For me, with my mother, I should’ve asked her how she was really feeling about what she could be facing. I wanted to know – but I really don’t think I could have handled it at the time. I thought it was a conversation that could have waited. I wanted it to be a conversation that could’ve waited. So we never had it.

Unfortunately we don’t usually know the exact day and time of that last, coherent visit. The last time we’ll be able to have a conversation with them. Only God truly knows, although we can certainly get a feeling in our spirit, that we know that we know. That we KNOW. In retrospect, it’s a good thing. Could we actually bear it at the time, knowing it was the last time we’d have a conversation with our loved ones? Sometimes we know. And sometimes we don’t.

Recently a good friend of ours lost her mother. Without any warning. She had their regular conversation with her mom on Tuesday night. On Thursday afternoon she received a call that her mother had been found dead. Fortunately their last words to each other with that last call had been “I love you.”

I was fortunate enough to have talked to my mother on the phone a few hours before she left us. I’d had a good conversation with her, and was quite hopeful that she was finally doing much better, and she was so looking forward to our visiting her the next day. My last words to her were “I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you.” And two hours later she was gone.

Many people are fortunate enough to be with their loved ones when they leave and graduate to heaven. But so many more of us are not. The Lord has His reasons. Or perhaps our loved ones wanted it that way. Who are we to question, even though we do? Questioning doesn’t make us any less faithful. It doesn’t make us hurt any less. It just reminds us that we’re human.

And in our human-ness we can’t help but think of all those conversations we wish we’d had. We play them over in our minds and try to imagine what our loved ones would have said to us. We can almost hear their voices in our minds, answering our questions.

We just can’t make out their words anymore.

In a Little Country Church

There’s just something about those little country churches. Small. Intimate. Simply decorated. No fancy sound systems. No orchestra; not even an electronic keyboard or guitar. And certainly no PowerPoint presentation to display the words to the songs.

This one had just a simple spinet piano, with no microphones to project the music or the preacher’s message; the church was too small to need them. There were about ten rows of old wooden carved pews seating only 6-7 people per row. With hymnals and Bibles nestled in a shelf in front of us. Obviously everyone knows everyone else. Because they’ve been worshipping there for decades. And have probably worshipped there through several different preachers.

This is the type of church I grew up in, as did many of my friends.

The other day we once again visited this quaint little country church to celebrate the life of the 90 year old mother of one of our dear friends, who had advanced to her heavenly reward and joined her beloved husband, who had been called home four years previously.

Sarah Lee and her husband had been married for 67 years when he passed into eternity. Now she is with him once again. Although I’d only met her personally less than five times, I knew her through her daughter, and wished I’d had the opportunity to really have gotten to know her.

She and her husband were blessed with four children, six grandchildren, thirteen great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren, and most of them were in attendance to bid her farewell. She had lived her entire life in this little farming community, raising her family, working alongside her husband on their dairy farm, enjoying being a homemaker, doing her share of volunteer activities, and faithfully serving this little church as a teacher, pianist, and eventually as the first female elder in the church.

As we sat there waiting for the service to begin, listening to the pianist playing some of Sarah Lee’s favorite hymns on that old, but well-tuned piano, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of nostalgia for these beautiful country churches with their small congregations. Everyone, including those of us who didn’t know hardly anyone at the service, were made to feel like part of the family, and felt like we had known them all for many years by the time we left.

Sarah Lee’s service reflected her life and the family she had adored. Held in the same church where she and her late husband had been married seventy years previously, it was obviously planned by loving family members who will always remember and honor the matriarch of the family.

A number of flower arrangements were placed around the casket, and one in particular caught my eye. It contained a stuffed Dalmatian and two toy fire trucks, sent from the county fire auxiliary of which Sarah Lee had been a charter member. I couldn’t help but remember a similar arrangement that had graced the floral remembrances for her husband a few years earlier…an
arrangement of flowers in the shape of a tractor, as a symbol of the farm life her husband had loved and been devoted to.
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Her son-in-law spoke about the woman he had obviously loved dearly, and recounted the story of how he’d once asked her who her favorite child was, and she’d told him a mother has no favorites. “I love them all equally!” Then he asked her who her favorite son-in-law was. He said she had to think about it for a few seconds before she answered, so as not to leave out anyone, “why, it’s you!” Of course, it was, since he was the only one at the time.

Nine of Sarah Lee’s relatives had formed a family choir for the service, beautifully singing three of her favorite hymns, including one of my favorites, “Amazing Grace”. And how fitting it was to have her three great-great-grandchildren “sing” along at various times; I could just imagine her watching from heaven, and smiling in approval, her beloved husband by her side once again.

As we took the short ride to the cemetery I couldn’t help but remember the last time we’d been on this drive, when her husband had been in that same hearse, which had been led to the cemetery by a huge John Deere tractor, and followed a few vehicles back by another tractor pulling a wagon with a model of a cow on it, each symbolizing the dairy farm he and his wife had worked and loved so much.

It was a small cemetery. Just as I’d remembered from the last time, the headstone already in place and marking the location of Sarah Lee’s husband, the ground already prepared to receive Sarah Lee. No amount of camouflage could disguise the preparations that had been made for the casket to be placed in the ground and covered over, after the graveside prayers had been said.

Watching the pallbearers bringing their precious responsibility to the site, I was reminded of a scene in my own life ten years ago, when my own precious mother was laid to rest. It’s a surreal feeling. You’re there, but you’re really NOT there. Unless you’ve sat in one of those graveside family chairs, you can’t comprehend.

Prayers were said, more tears were shed, for a well-loved mother, aunt, grandmother, great- grandmother, and great-great-grandmother. One by one, each of the pallbearers took off their boutonnieres, kissed them, and laid them on top of the casket; their final duties completed.

It was then time to begin to heal, and continue family traditions with those who were left behind, remembering, and never forgetting this very special woman.

Whether we attend a small rustic country church, a modern lavish cathedral, or something in between, it doesn’t matter where we worship, but Who we worship. Because God is God. He knows our hearts. He knows we love Him. And when one of our loved ones leaves this earth for their next, and final, everlasting life, He knows our pain. He knows our sorrow.

But He also knows how the story ends.

Why did this service at this little country church make such an impression?

Because of its simple, yet poignant, reminders that when our loved ones leave us, we must remember not only the essence of who they were and how much they were loved and will be missed, but, as Sarah Lee’s preacher said during the service, “Death tries to have the last word, but it does not. We belong to God in this life, and in the life to come.” We say goodbye for now, but in reality, it’s “See you later.”

Sarah Lee, we’ll see you later!

Ten Years Later

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years. So much has happened since I got that phone call from my mother that Wednesday night ten years ago. Little did I know what that one phone call would mean; what events would be triggered. And how all our lives would be changing forever.

Sure, it was to be expected eventually, but to me eventually didn’t mean then. It meant a time somewhere in the future, or so I thought.

But the future comes at unexpected moments. Tomorrow is today’s future, just like today is yesterday’s future. And on it goes.

Sometimes it feels like just a few weeks ago. Sometimes I still feel like I can pick up the phone and call her. And sometimes I don’t think about it. That is, until I happen to see a photo that reminds me of that other part of our life, back in the past.

There will always be reminders, and moments I wish we could recapture. And I really wish I could tell Mom all about our lives now; the things she missed:

Our daughter Ashley’s college graduation.

The excitement of Ashley and Chris’ engagement, of planning their wedding and shopping for wedding gowns, and I believe Mom would have joined us on that shopping trip.

Sitting beside me, holding my hand, crying together, as Ben proudly walked our daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.
The excitement of Ashley and Chris announcing their pregnancy to us; with my first reaction being, of course, “I have to call my mother!” But there are no telephones in Heaven.

The fun and excitement of Ashley’s baby shower, and how proud my mother would have been to be the expectant great-grandmother!
Words cannot express how much I wish she could’ve shared the wonder and amazement as Ben and I saw our beautiful granddaughter for the first time, and how I briefly imagined I saw my own mother’s eyes looking back at me as I looked at baby Rachel for the first time.

And I so wish I could share my feelings with my mother about being a grandmother, because she always told me one day I’d understand.

We still ride through my hometown on our way to my favorite beach, but unfortunately we don’t go there nearly as often as we used to.

I still look at the house on the left on that road going into town, the house where I used to live, and wish it were still ours, even though I know we did the right thing by selling it. It doesn’t look the same, of course, and I’m sure it’s been remodeled on the inside as well. I prefer to keep my memories of it as it was. It wouldn’t be right to go through it now; it would be too painful.

One thing I don’t do very often is visit the gravesite. I don’t feel the urgency to do so. My memories live on in photographs and other rooms in my heart; the cemetery is not a place where our memories will ever live. It is not the place where my parents are now.

I also don’t regularly put flowers or wreaths on the grave anymore. That first year after we lost her, we did that regularly. And we’d talk to her, tell her how much we missed her. But it didn’t feel right. She wasn’t there to enjoy the flowers or hear us talk to her. We’d given her flowers for lots of occasions over the years, and she’d always told us flowers died, and not to waste our money on them. And trust me, I heard her in my mind telling me that each time I brought flowers to that grave!

We still honor her memory at Christmas by hanging her “Grandmom” stocking filled with the red silk roses she loved so much. This year there will be another stocking beside that one, one with the name “Rachel” on it, and my mother’s legacy will continue.

Yes, it’s been ten years. A long ten years. But I can honestly tell you, even though you may think you will never recover from your loved one’s death, you will. You will not forget them, and your heart will heal.

But you will always miss them, and remember them.