They came pelting into the house, all four of them, on that August afternoon in 2008.

"Grandma, come and see what we made!"

Now I'd been a parent long enough to know this could be either a scenario for disaster or a "grab your camera" moment. I took a chance and picked up my trusty Canon SureShot.

About three quarters of the way down our lawn, they gathered around a small tepee made of branches and twigs. Emma, who was three at the time, could fit inside standing up; the others flanked it. They were all grinning from ear to ear, pretty proud of themselves. They posed for a few pictures and then showed me the finer points of the construction, which included a pathway of larger branches leading up to the entrance. It was the sort of project that not only kept them busy and outdoors for a few hours on a summer day, but also fostered the sort of creativity that's sadly lacking in many children's lives these days.

Too soon, their visit came to an end and they headed back home to start school. A month later, the remnants of Hurricane Ike came roaring through Northeastern Ohio, downing limbs right and left and leaving devastation in its wake. When it had passed, we were amazed to see the little tepee still standing tall in the front yard. We called the kids and let them know what terrific builders they were that their creation had weathered a pretty strong wind.

After that, we became curious to see exactly how long it would last. As the calendar moved toward Thanksgiving, my husband decided to put it to use for something he'd always wanted--a Christmas crèche. He came home one night with a ceramic Nativity set of 9" tall figurines. It was pretty complete--Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, a shepherd, two wise men, an ox and sheep, and an angel.

I shook my head. "Not going to work," I declared. "Ceramic won't last a New York minute in this cold."

He let me ramble on and then, in his own imitation of a wise man, went out and put them in the tepee anyway, first adding some straw and stringing an extension cord with a spotlight. The angel was hung from the top, overlooking the Holy Family. I examined his project and found that it was actually pretty nice. It didn't make any difference that because there's so little traffic on our street, very few people ever saw it. Throughout the holidays, every time we drove out the driveway, we were reminded of what Christmas was all about.

In the spring, when the snow had melted enough to bring in the statues, we found they were still in great shape, so we packed them back in their box and stored them with the other decorations.

Christmas, 2009. The tepee was still there. It had made it through an entire year plus of rain and wind and sleet and snow and ice, and many summer lawn cuttings. Out came the Nativity set and once again the Holy Family graced the little shelter that our grandchildren had built. When snowstorms came, the spotlight melted the drifts and kept Baby Jesus warm. We found ourselves keeping the light on almost into February. We just liked seeing it, even though the snow often kept the shepherd and wise men buried.

Christmas, 2010. Ditto.

By now, the kids eagerly looked forward to seeing the tepee when they came for visits. One day, the older ones even expressed some doubt about whether this was the original tepee or whether we took it down and put it back up when we knew they were coming--sort of like Aunt Martha's ugly vase that you bring out of hiding when Aunt Martha is on the front doorstep. But no, we assured them, it was most certainly the original. We hadn't changed a twig.

2011. Not all miracles are momentous, life-changing affairs. Some are almost too small to be noticed at all. We know one happened in our yard as again we find ourselves ready for the "Christmas star" to shine, welcoming all to the stable.


Every day, ideas continually bombard us. We stand there, a bit like Jim Thome, trying to figure out which ones to let go by and which to try and hit out of the park.

Several years ago, I came upon an article in some woman's magazine telling how the author had a special Christmas tablecloth on which every year all the guests signed their names. Afterwards, she would embroider the names as a permanent record of who had been there. Each year was a different color. Hmmm, I thought. That's a good idea.

There were a few problems, however. First and foremost, we didn't have Christmas dinner. Not one with guests, anyway. Because the family is so scattered and Christmas involves transporting gifts, we don't much try to get together for that holiday.

Ah, I mused, but we do generally have a mob for Thanksgiving. How could I take that idea and tweak it? Or, as they say on American Idol, make it my own? I churned that around in my head for a while and eventually a light bulb went on. What was Thanksgiving without cooking? And what says cooking more than--aprons! My "tweak" was that instead of simply inscribing names, we could do a theme, and everyone would put their mark - a thumbprint--along with their name.

At the craft store, I found a muslin apron and some fabric paint. The first theme was a no-brainer - turkeys. Everyone made a thumbprint out of brown paint and added a penciled name. Afterwards, I added red wattles and orange tail and feet and embroidered the names in orange and brown floss, adding an embroidered year at the top of the bib.

It was an instant hit. In the years that followed, we did apples, pumpkins, grapes, pilgrims and Indians, spoons, bowling balls (a Thanksgiving tradition), and on a somber feast in November, 2001, tiny submarines and an American flag, representing our son who had been deployed to the Gulf shortly after 9/11. Last year, it was candy corn. What was especially fun was to see the thumbprints increase in size as the years went on. One of my favorite aprons is the pilgrim one. Granddaughter Caroline once printed her name across half the apron, and added three or four extra bars to the final E. She just started college.

On the day of the feast, everyone in the kitchen has a choice of which apron to wear, although the number of choices now far outnumbers the cooks, since this will be our 20th year.

Thanksgiving has now moved from our house to some of the kids'. I grumbled at bit when that change happened, but it's kind of nice to be in charge of the stuffing, the rutabaga, and the pumpkin muffins, and that's all.

We'll be gathering again this year. It won't be everyone, but everyone will be there in spirit--and in thumbprint.


A Dog Story

His name was Al. In the days before we knew him very well, we'd had loftier expectations and registered him as "Greenbrier's Alex." We should have known better, for even his arrival was fraught with misconceptions.

In the late 1970's and into the 1980's, one of the top family TV shows was The Dukes of Hazzard. It told of the escapades of a couple of back country cousins and featured a souped up Dodge Charger called The General Lee. One of the regular characters was Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, who was always trying to outsmart the Duke Boys. His faithful sidekick was a laid back Basset hound named Flash. Our kids loved the show and we particularly loved Flash, who was rarely roused to do anything more than get up on the seat of the police cruiser. So, when we felt the time was right for a dog, we decided we needed our own Flash.

In retrospect, this was far from being my finest hour and I may never live it down. Who am I kidding? There is no "may" about it. Here's how it unfolded:

I scoured the nightly want ads (acoustic ebay) looking for someone who was selling a Basset. Eventually, my search paid off. A woman was looking for a buyer for a six month old puppy--&75 or best offer. I was excited. The kids were excited. I made an appointment to check it out. A few of the kids went with me.

We were only in the place a few minutes, when a roly poly bundle of fur and floppy ears came charging out into the room, toenails clicking and oversized feet sliding on the bare wood floor. In a second, he was in our arms, wriggling and lapping our faces with his tongue, and all of our hearts immediately melted. This was where he belonged. Permanently.

Which left only the finances to be decided. Best offer, huh? I knew there was someone else coming to see the dog and I wanted to be the person with the best offer. Therefore, I told myself, I had to go higher than the $75. "I'll give you $125," I blurted out. Surely that would win the auction. I know, I know. I have endured gales of laughter every time that story is told, so now I know and have for a long, long time. But hey, I got the dog!

Which is when Al began to show his true colors. At six months old, I guess I figured he'd be at least paper trained. Wrong again. And he didn't really show any interest in it. Not for quite a long, long time. Besides the canned stuff, he considered almost anything "food." He had quite a liking for butter, even to the point of getting up on the kitchen table to chow down when nobody was looking. He once even crunched up a pair of eyeglasses that had been carelessly left within his reach. He wasn't leash-trained, either, resulting in daily walks being more of a daily drag, literally.

The kids adored him. I'd often find a pile of them curled up with Al on top of a floor heater watching television. "See, Al?" they'd say. "There's Flash!"

Al's "home" was a huge cushioned wicker basket that was parked under the counter of our lower level kitchen. The end of the counter was supported by a post and we'd hook him up to the post by his leash. I did have one rule that, most of the time, was obeyed. The dog wasn't allowed in the carpeted parts of the house--living room, dining room, bedrooms.

If you don't know anything about Basset hounds (and want to), I'd advise you to watch an early Tom Hanks movie called Turner and Hooch. Hooch was a French mastiff, much larger than Al, but with the same propensity for--well, there's no polite way of saying it--slobbering. When these dogs shake their heads, it goes flying and the devil only knows where it will land. I got to the point where I wished it would always land on me, rather than the back of the bookcase that separated the kitchen from the family room. Clothes were easier to wash than the back-breaking labor of scrubbing an expanse of wood. Eeeeuuuu, as they say. And enough of that.

I never found out until later, but a favorite activity the kids dreamed up was to put Al in his basket and send it like a sled down the basement stairs, much like the dog Max in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

But by far, the best part of Al's life, according to him, was Tuesday night, otherwise known as Garbage Night. Pickups were on Wednesday morning, so all up and down the street and throughout the development, people set out their metal or plastic cans the night before. And Al knew it. You could almost see the excitement building throughout the day. The entire household would go on alert, because we knew he was plotting his strategy for escape. Front door? Back fence? It would have to be a split second decision. Would I stick my head out to call one of the kids? Between my legs or however he could manage it, he'd be gone. The backyard was fully enclosed by a rickety wooden fence. Under the pretense of needing a potty break, he'd go along each side, nosing the slats gently until he found one that wiggled. A few more nudges and he was out, never to be seen again until the wee hours when, his body stuffed like a sausage, he'd bark to be let in. And out. And in. And out, and so on through the night. If you've ever overdone it at some country kitchen buffet, you probably know how he felt.

There were other exploits--the time he ate an entire coffee cake, or when he pulled me on cross country skis through a park and suddenly took off after a squirrel, or rolled in the manure at a relatives farm, or--it goes on.

Life eventually caught up with Al. He went blind and then his back gave out on him. It was sad to see this rambunctious animal that had caused us so much frustration and tumult and at the same time, given so much loyalty and love, reduced to pulling himself around with his two front paws. The decision was made.

I stayed with Al until the end, as I'd been with him from the beginning and most of his days in between. As the last breath left him, I closed my eyes and saw him in his glory days--ears a-flap and tail wagging as he came charging through the snow to greet me. He'd been worth every penny of that $125.

A Modern Parable

This is a story (the first part, anyway) of a young woman who opened a letter that came in the mail one day and found a check for $200. She had bumped into one of her uncles at a family event a few weeks previous. He had commented that he still felt guilty for not paying her for some work she had done for him some thirty years ago when she was a teenager. The woman had tried to assure him that he didn't owe her a thing, but yet here was the envelope and the check. She didn't want it, didn't need it, and while she remembered doing the job, she had never expected any payment for it.. She wanted to send the check back. But something stopped her. She called her father for advice.

"It was a debt that had bothered him for years," her dad said. "You need to let him pay it, so that his mind is clear."

That story reminded me a bit of a talk I once heard on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest who gave it said that there were three components to the story. First, of course, you have the Samaritan, who gets the most attention--and the most credit. Samaritans and Jews didn't exactly get along at that time and we don't really even know who the injured man really was. Nonetheless, the Samaritan stopped to help, after several other people had passed the man by, reminding us all that we have an obligation to those less fortunate.

There is also the innkeeper, who takes in the man after the Samaritan brings him there, and who trusts that he will be paid later. This, too, is a good example for us who often look with suspicion on people who make promises.

The third figure in the picture is the injured man himself and if you really think about it, he was in the hardest position of all. It's a place that few of us want to be in--obligated to someone else. We resist it. We can do it all ourselves, can't we? We don't need any help.

My mother was as independent as they come. She'd had to pull herself up by her bootstraps so many times, it's a wonder she had any bootstraps left. We all loved her, but we tread carefully. In her later years, if any of us tried to take her arm to steady her over a rough patch, she'd glare at us and say, "When I want your help, I'll ask for it." (And to be honest, the older I get, the more I understand her.) One day, however, she fell and broke both wrists. It's pretty hard when you can't turn on a water tap or the television set or make yourself a cup of coffee, or even get dressed. You don't have much choice.

And so, the young woman swallowed her pride, kept the $200 check, and thanked her uncle. Then she passed the money along to a needy organization, thus paying the good deed forward.

I don't think I'll ever forget how the priest who told the Good Samaritan story ended his talk.

"Sometimes, you have to be the one in the ditch."

Home Improvement

Home improvement isn't always a planned thing. Sometimes it's the result of a completely unanticipated event. It could be a kid proudly scribbling his ABC's in Sharpie pen on your bedroom wall. Or Mother Nature could do what amounts to the same thing.
In the tail end of winter, 2010, I walked through out living room and suddenly spied something new--a shell pink elongated bubble hanging from the upper molding of the wall. It looked like--oh, just use your imagination. It was, I later learned, caused by a water dam, ice that had built up in one of the valleys between different slopes of the roof and then melted on the bottom. The water had nowhere to go but between the dry wall and a few coats of paint. We let the water out and mopped it all up, but to put it mildly, the decor had been seriously compromised.

Life got complicated and we never seemed to find the time to do anything about it. Clearly, the room needed to be repainted, but it seemed more than we felt comfortable handling. Painters were expensive. But it was right out there in full view of whoever came into the house. We considered a few options: putting the Christmas tree in front of it (which would have worked at least until after New Year's) or hanging a picture over it, but even with our rather eclectic tastes, it would have looked pretty odd.

Enter our oldest daughter, who had just shipped her last kid off to college and thus had a bit of time on her hands before she needed to start sending care packages. "I'm coming down to paint," she informed us. And she did, bringing rollers, buckets, spackle--obviously she had done this before. Needless to say, we welcomed her with open arms, and a few old sheets to use as drop cloths.

The first order of business (aside from dealing with the paint bubble) was color--the bane of every redecorator's existence. Ever visit the paint department of a big box hardware store? If you've ever wanted to know what infinity was like, that's a pretty close approximation. Now, I had something in mind, but none of the little paint cards I'd already brought home seemed to work. We were dealing with a stone fireplace with wallpaper above it. Mary began picking up books and other items from the room and holding them up to the wall, the fireplace, and the light, trying to get me to see different colors. Not my strong suit, but we came up with a few ideas and went to get some small sample cans. Within hours, the entire wall looked like a patchwork quilt. We thought one looked promising, but despite his being color blind, my husband's reaction was about eleven thumbs down. Back to the big box for more samples. More patches. More samples. I almost wore the carpet out walking back and forth, squinting one eye to cover up one color so I could see another without distraction. Miraculously, throughout a fitful night's sleep, I came up with a decision--one of the first colors I'd looked at, of course.

Before the painting started, though, things got down and dirty. You know how, over the years, you accumulate things--books, pictures, bowls or figurines and the like? My daughter, a reality show aficionado, believes that if you're going to freshen up a room, you need to go all the way. Why do you have all those books? To read. When? Sometime. Haven't you got a big bookcase upstairs? Yeah. And what about that stuffed polar bear on the mantle? Uh, a gift. It's been up there for years. It's dusty. Uh, yeah. Probably.

Ever seen one of those shows where they're trying to get somebody to clean out the stuff in her closet and the poor thing is screaming and crying because she can't let go of her favorite pair of Crocs? It was a little like that. Not pretty. I let an old microwave cart go to the basement, but argued over a bookcase of the same era--and lost. I'm not quite sure where the marble bookends went, but I suppose they'll show up some day. I was essentially told to put things I wanted to put back in one box, keep but relocate in another and discards in a third. That last box has, at last count, about two items. Including the polar bear. All the boxes are still in the dining room.

So, the painting progressed. Our daughter spent three days going up and down ladders. She is one of the neatest painters I've ever seen, a Renoir with trimming brush and roller. The end result is that the room, foyer, and hall look better than they have for years. The ecstasy was definitely worth all the agony and now I'm ready for company.

Mother Nature sure has a funny way of motivating us.


For those millions who eagerly await my next offering, I'm sorry, but I just--well, forgot and am behind a good four postings. So, am now playing catch-up. Enjoy.