Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Christmas Tradition Upgrade

I want to thank everyone who helped the economy by following tradition and shopping on Black Friday, especially those of you who did not trample anyone in the process. That had pretty much been a joke until this year when a young man was killed by a stampede of bargain hunters at a Wal-Mart store in New York.

My one and only experience of Black Friday shopping occurred probably thirty years ago. I let my sister-in-law talk me into standing outside K-Mart waiting for the doors to unlock. I felt suffocated by the crowd when we all crammed through the doors. Thank goodness no one stood in the path.

Inside the store, people grabbed and slam dunked merchandise into their shopping carts. I was pushed and shoved aside while frantic Christmas shoppers jerked merchandise out of my hands. Finally, I walked out of the store without buying anything. To me, this was the ugly side of Christmas and only verified Jim’s mantra, “Christmas is too commercialized, and no one remembers what it’s all about.” The birth of Christ was less important than department store Santas.

Jim was called “Scrooge” and “Grinch” because of his lack of enthusiasm for presents. It was up to me to purchase all the gifts because he wanted no part of it. Our anniversary is five days before Christmas and Jim always wanted to exchange our gifts on that day, but I always held back a few “Christmas presents.” We married young and I had a lot of growing up to do before I finally admitted that Christmas had become a time of pressure for me and lacking in the “Merry” department.

From the time our kids were small, we always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. After they were grown, we began to limit our gift giving to one small gift. Men bring a gift for a man, and women bring a gift for a woman. The first year we had the gift exchange, my youngest son said, “This is it, Mom. Do not buy anything else!” From that moment, I no longer had to worry about size or taste, want or need for any of the adults in the family.

Then the grandkids were born. Soon we were back to buying loads of presents. Even Jim got involved in the search for toys to make their eyes light up. Have you noticed how hard it is to buy for kids, especially when they get older? The presents start getting more expensive and the kids more particular. You begin to think you are throwing money at gifts that just get pushed to the back of the play room.

A few years back, I begin to notice I was spending more and more money for fewer presents and didn’t always feel good about my selections. Then, I came up with an idea. I began to buy my grandkids Certificates of Deposit for their education. I still get them other gifts, but I don’t feel like I have to buy them a “big” gift. The big gift is something they won’t outgrow or push aside after a few hours of play.

Traditionally, my kids, grandkids, and a few special people come to my house on Christmas Eve. My youngest son, Rob, makes his chili and we have a deli tray. It is a relaxed, joyful celebration. This year, Rob is on call and can’t come. He says that will be true for the next seven Christmases! After throwing a few ideas around, my oldest son, Eric, suggested we have our celebration on the Saturday before Christmas. It is such a brilliant plan that I couldn’t imagine why I hadn’t thought of it.

The CDs are bought, I have my “woman’s gift” and a few hours of leisurely shopping and I’ll be done. No Black Friday required! I feel good about Christmas, and I know Jim would have liked our tradition upgrade. After all, this year’s gift exchange will be on the thirty-ninth anniversary of a Hawaiian wedding between a college student and an Army Sp/4 on R&R from Vietnam.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It’s Easier to Be Thankful if You’re Not a Turkey

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but for most people it just gets lost between Halloween and Christmas. As soon as the Halloween costumes and decorations go on sale, Christmas carols fill store aisles with holly jolly holiday tunes. The TV Guide is jam packed full of Christmas specials and Christmas music plays in about half the commercials. A nearby town had their Christmas parade this weekend—a full week before Thanksgiving!

Some people already have Christmas decorations up, but I’m still in autumn mode. I don’t want to skip Thanksgiving. It’s time to reflect on the things I’m thankful for. The economic crisis has made me think about things I normally take for granted. With my hemorrhaging 401K, I’m thankful I’m still employed. With all the defaulted mortgages, I’m thankful my home is paid in full.

I’m thankful none of the diets I’ve gone on have worked. I have extra pounds to tide me over if I have to cut back on my grocery bill. If I miss a few meals, I will be thankful to have an entire new wardrobe of “skinny” clothes in my closet.

My car has more than 100,000 miles on it, but I’m thankful I do not have a car payment. I’m thankful that gas prices have dropped, and I no longer feel like I need to take out a loan to fill my tank. Maybe I can actually go somewhere now.

When every bone in my body aches, I’m thankful that I’m not a herring. (OK, that’s an old joke and I “borrowed” it.)

I am most thankful that I have family and friends that I love. I’m thankful my sons married terrific women and my four grandchildren are healthy. I’m thankful my cat has to sleep from time to time and isn’t climbing the walls twenty-four/seven.

Maybe we just need to slow down a bit. At least enough that we do not miss a holiday that only involves gathering family together and eating ourselves silly. It reminds me of home, pumpkin pie, dressing, cranberries, and turkey. How can people not love this holiday best of all?

Thanksgiving does not have the pressure of Christmas. No one expects us to put on our happy face and know the ideal gift to buy. It is perfectly acceptable to be reflective and a bit pensive at Thanksgiving. No one is forced to be merry and ho-ho-ho at every opportunity. We can be ourselves at Thanksgiving without being called “Scrooge” or someone saying “Bah-Hum-Bug!”

Have you ever noticed that people will ask you what you got for Christmas, but they won’t ask you what you are thankful for on Thanksgiving? We really aren’t pressured to be thankful.

I’m thankful that I’ll be eating a turkey instead of being a turkey served as the main course on Thanksgiving Day. Yes, everyone except turkeys can surely find something to be thankful for. If nothing else, just be thankful that if you aren’t thankful no one else will take it personally. So have a happy turkey day if you want. Be thankful, if you so desire. But please, please don’t forget Thanksgiving in your rush toward Christmas.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Life's Unsolved Mysteries

A good mystery book ends with the mystery being solved, but we go through life with a series of unsolved mysteries. At any particular time in our lives, we puzzle over why things happen.

Why did a relationship end? Why do nations fight wars? Why do people develop life-changing diseases like Alzheimer’s? The “whys” of real life mysteries can drive us berserk.

Last night, I picked up the Sedalia Democrat and two front page headlines caught my immediate attention. “Fundraiser planned for Bruce reward coffers” was an update on Dana Bruce, a 23 year old mother of two, who went missing on October 5. Flyers with Dana’s picture are posted at most Sedalia businesses. Wooded areas have been searched and a person of interest interviewed, but Dana is still missing and nothing has been resolved.

Another story on the front page “Missing wife’s husband arrested” is about Michael Yarnell’s arrest in connection with the disappearance of Michelle “Angie” Yarnell. Twenty-eight year old Angie disappeared October 23, 2003 from the Ivy Bend area of Morgan County. Angie’s husband claimed she ran away with another man. Michael Yarnell admits to sending a postcard to Angie’s mother indicating that Angie was alive and well and on her way to Texas. Where is Angie? That question still can’t be answered five years later.

Hopefully, these mysteries will be solved eventually. If family members do not have a happy reunion with their loved ones, they will at least find closure. It seems that no matter how bad the news, we face the known with courage, but we fear the unknown.

What were Dana’s goals before she went missing? What were Angie’s dreams? Whatever happened to these young women, their lives veered from the pathways they had traveled. Their fates are unsolved mysteries.

Why did Jim develop dementia? What happened to our hopes and aspirations? This is my life’s greatest unsolved mystery.

Life is not a book, and we are not the authors of our own pages. Too many times, our biographies are cut short, and our legacy is an unfinished manuscript with a lot of loose ends. Our pathways through life are mysterious, and we don’t know exactly where they lead or when they will end. We do our best to conquer our fear of the unknown and complete our journey with faith that in the end we learn the answers.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Taking Inventory

At work we are conducting our annual inventory. I’m no longer directly involved in the process, but I remember the headaches, frustration, and anxiety of trying to reach an acceptable discrepancy between what you have on hand and what you should have.

This morning, I have been cleaning house, and I thought about all the stuff that I have crammed into this house after eighteen years of living here. I can’t imagine taking inventory of all the items I own. In the first place, I would have to find everything. I’m still looking for the computer connection for my MP3 player. If I ever find it, will it be in a logical place, or some place where I stuck it to get it out of the way? It wouldn’t get counted in the inventory if it’s still missing.

Jim used to call me Imelda Marcos Junior because of all the shoes I have. The last time I counted (at his insistence!) I had fifty pair. As far as how many pair I have now—we won’t go there. I watch these people on TV help packrats like me clean their closets. “You have a hundred tee-shirts? Oh. My. God. Throw ninety-seven of them in this big trash can and we will buy you a new wardrobe.” Nope. Keep your new wardrobe. I like my memories. I just need a bigger closet!

If my 401K completely disappears, I could live by selling my stuff on E-Bay. I wouldn’t even miss most of my “inventory” for a few years.

I no longer count my collectibles. I display part of them and pack part of them away. Seasonal decorating gets to be such a pain, that I wonder why I do it. I need to take down Halloween and put up Thanksgiving. Fortunately, those two overlap some. I hate to take down my fiber-optic witch before anyone gets to see it. Last year I left my decorations up for a few extra days and my granddaughter said, “Halloween is OVER, Grandma Linda!”

Sometimes when I have a moment of quiet time, I begin to think strange thoughts. Last night as I drove home, I began to think about things I’ve done in my life that I wish I hadn’t. Things that I knew were wrong, but plunged into them anyway. I began to take inventory of my dark side. When we ruminate, it’s our failings that bear heavy on the soul and seem to clog up the inventory. In fairness to myself, I should inventory my accomplishments and the good things too.

I’ve always heard that we should count our blessings which sounds like another inventory. Thankfully, I couldn’t possibly inventory my blessings either. Not even an industrial strength calculator would be capable of that task.

So, at work, inventory is bogged down and holding up my October month end closing, but in my personal life, I’m just plugging along. I’m the only one accountable for any discrepancies between what I have and what I should have, and more importantly, the person I am and the person I should be.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Remembering American Veterans: Some Gave All

Branson celebrates “Veterans Week” out of respect for those who served our country. For several years, Jim and I traveled to Branson for this annual event. Patriotic songs are performed by talented people dressed in glittering red, white, and blue costumes.

Our first stop in Branson was always the 76 Music Hall where we registered Jim for his ARMY, 169th Engineers, Vietnam nametag. Until we began to celebrate Veterans Week in Branson, Jim had not experienced the pride associated with fighting for his country. Jim and I both had tears in our eyes when a man saw Jim’s nametag and shook his hand. “I just want to say thank you, and welcome home.” Vietnam veterans returned home one at a time on commercial airlines—no parades, no thank you, no appreciation.

Vietnam irrevocably changed Jim. He felt more stigmatized than honored for most of the years following his tour of duty. Jim suffered from post traumatic syndrome before anyone knew what it was. He became withdrawn, suicidal, paranoid, and sank into a dark depression. Eventually, he received psychiatric treatment and with medication improved. Yet, throughout the remainder of his life, Vietnam was a burden on his soul.

At a Country Tonite show, one of the performers sang, “All Gave Some, and Some Gave All.” Most people probably think of the soldiers who died on the battlefield as the ones who “gave all.” Jim stood beside me in the darkened theatre, his solemn face changing colors because of the flashing stage lights. As I held his hand, my arm brushing against the denim of his Levi jacket, I knew in my heart that Jim was one who gave all.

Today, my sister-in-law and I visited the Veterans Cemetery in Higginsville to place red, white, and blue flowers in front of Jim’s niche in the columbarium. The cemetery, peaceful and quiet, beneath a cloudless blue sky, is in stark contrast to sweaty soldiers carrying M-16s through a Southeast Asian jungle.

How many will pause on November 11 to honor our veterans? Or has Veterans Day simply become another excuse for retail stores to have a sale? I know that in Branson, at least, veterans will be thanked, honored, and welcomed home with a parade that begins at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

As long as our country sends troops throughout the world to fight in wars, it is our obligation to provide support to veterans for as long as they need it. Outer wounds are visible, but scars on the heart may be the deepest. All gave some and some gave all to keep the stars and strips flying high and proud over this country.