To Sit on Santa's Knee

I sit on Santa's knee in the Detroit Institute of Arts December 1 on Noel Night
My volunteer badge clipped to my red sweater, I stand inside the Detroit Institute of Arts. A reindeer headband accents my holiday cheer. I’m happy to oblige when asked to take tickets for pictures with Santa. As a youngster, I believed in Santa Claus with all my heart.
A sense of expectation swells in the queue of parents and children as Santa poses in his chair for a camera check. Oh the joy of Noel Night in downtown Detroit!
Impeccably dressed in his red and white suit and bearded with his own whiskers, he utters not one “Ho! Ho! Ho!” The twinkle in his eyes says it all. This Santa embodies how I imagine the real Saint Nicholas.
           I recall my dad on Christmas Eve. Ever the prankster, he would point to the darkness outside our living room’s window. “Look! Up there, over the Rivard’s house. There’s Rudolf’s red nose! Listen to Santa’s sleigh bells!”
I’d stand still as a statue and strain my eyes and ears. Year after year, never did I doubt Dad told the truth. After all, I believed in Jesus without seeing Him.
Santa’s cameraman motions thumbs up. I collect tickets and drop them into a box. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas!” guests reply.
I believed Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their elves lived in the North Pole—a place like Heaven. Even when Santa didn’t eat all our cookies and drink the milk we left, I believed in his eternal return Christmas Eve.
Until my ninth year.
That summer while at play, a cousin my age leaned close. “Your mommy wrote my mommy a letter and said she’s pregnant, that she’s always pregnant.”
Unawares, my cousin taught me a new word. By summer’s end, my childhood innocence unraveled entirely. I knew where babies came from and Santa no longer existed.
As the line for Santa thins, I observe his gentleness with the children, teens, and adults. It’s odd. I can’t remember sitting on Santa’s knee as a child. Did I ever tell him what I wanted for Christmas? Miraculously, he always left the desire of my heart under our tree.
Santa looks across the spacious hall and catches my eye. He waves a gloved hand and points to his knee.
I shake my head and point to the ticket box.
“Iris, I’ll take tickets if you’d like a picture with Santa,” my volunteer director says.
Santa waves again.
In a moment of unexpected fulfillment, I sit on Santa’s knee.
“What’s your name?”
We pose for our picture.
“What would you like for Christmas, Iris?”
This Santa is serious about his assignment. I consider what I want most in the whole world. “It’s a hard request, Santa.”
“Go for it.”
Eye to eye, I spoke it.
He sighed. “I don’t have power to do that.”
I nodded. “But you can pray.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“Merry Christmas, Iris.”

Dear Reader, I believe in the first Noel Night with all my heart. God with us. Hope of His world.

Pecan Sandie DNA

Chocolate Lavender Pecan Sandies
They’re the epitome of shortbread. Mom called them Pecan Sandies. Every blessed Christmastime, she’d form the dry dough into small balls and bake them, the buttery scent wafting throughout the house. Then she’d roll the warm cookies in powdered sugar.
     A clueless kid, I munched on our decorated sugar cookies and washed them down with milk. A sophisticated baker, Mom bit into a Pecan Sandie that crumbled in her coffee. I can still see the ecstasy on her face.
     Southerners love their butter, pecans, and coffee.
     They’re not the only tribe who claims these foods as old molecules in their DNA. There are Russian Tea Cakes, Swedish Tea Cakes, and Mexican Wedding Cakes—cousins of the Pecan Sandie clan.
     After 48 Christmas seasons rolling crumbly dough between my hands, I understand. Who could resist naming this simple, exquisite pastry as their own?
     I’m not a Pecan Sandie historian, but I hazard a guess Mom’s recipe is an inherited variation of Scottish shortbread. After all, Mary, Queen of Scots, is attributed to popularizing “the biscuit” in her homeland—a sweet legacy from a bitter life.
     A much happier history, my Great-Granny Annie Chapman Hunt raised dairy cattle. She churned cream into butter then pressed it into molds. She hitched a mule to a wagon and drove to the nearest mining camps in eastern Kentucky to sell her merchandise.
     “I felt real big when Granny let me help her with her butter molds,” Mom said in her last years with us. “We never went hungry, even in the Depression.”
     I imagine Great-granny would’ve had plenty butter available to bake shortbread during long, frigid winters. Every Nineteenth Century Southern cook kept flour in her barrel for biscuits. All great-granny needed was salt and sugar to make shortbread. Nothing fancy for one of the delicate confections on the planet.
     My mother wasn’t sure she approved when I first offered her a Pecan Sandie with mini chocolate chips. She stood by her ingredients with a fixed lower lip.
     Decades later, I developed another new food molecule with one tablespoon of culinary lavender speckled throughout the dough. I promise you, if Mom could’ve smelled the aroma of baking butter, lavender, and chocolate she would’ve jigged for a taste.
     I recently baked a double batch of Pecan Sandies for my herb group’s cookie exchange at Seven Ponds Nature Center. I carried my contribution in the white vintage pail my mother gifted me twenty-five years ago. We celebrated an Appalachian Christmas with her that December.
     Dear Reader, I miss my mother sorely at Yuletide. I believe her Scots/German genetics would’ve eventually developed a new Pecan, Chocolate, Lavender Sandie molecule.
     The epitome of shortbread.

Chocolate Lavender Pecan Sandies

Blend: 1-cup butter with ½ cup powdered sugar; add 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Add to mixture: 1 ½ cups flour, ¼ teaspoon salt, ½ cup chopped pecans, ½ cup chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate), and 1 tablespoon culinary lavender.

Bake for 12 minutes at 400 degrees on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Roll warm in powdered sugar. Cool thoroughly before storing. Yield: 2 ½ dozen.

The Black & White Season

Echinacea seed head with bonnet of snow
The first snowfall thrills my soul. Growing season behind, Nature hides what garden work I’ve left undone under a vast, peaceful blanket. Pure. White. Cold.
                  Should the first snow come after nightfall, I wake to a landscape erased of debris, a most glorious vision to behold. My shoulders relax. One of winter’s many benefits.
                  “Rest and read,” says the land.
                  First, I must make my tracks in the virgin stillness. “I’ll the do hen chores this morning,” I tell my husband.
                  It’s entirely selfish. To hold warm eggs in my hands on a frigid morning is a celebration impossible on hot summer days.
                  Food. Those little hens produce nourishment with such little effort on our part. Nothing like a fresh brood.
                  Deer tracks zigzag across my black and white path uphill. Surfeited by countless shades of primary colors for months, the landscape’s austerity pleases my eyes. Swaths of snow cling to bark like gauze. The patches won’t last long. November is mercurial. I’m old enough to know.
                  “Look up,” cries a jay.
                  I stop. My jaw falls open as his blue feathers fly from the architecture of bare branches.
                  These monochromatic designs remind me of Chinese art I studied briefly in a college art class. I kept the overpriced textbook titled Art Past and Present. It’s helpful to recall what I learned and promptly forgot twenty-four years ago.
                  On this steel gray morning, what I see is darkness and lightness of a single color, what artists call “value.” The low value, darkness, changes to high value, lightness, depending upon atmospheric conditions, such as humidity and sun exposure.
                  From a distance, the trees stand sleek and black, the branches filigree against white. Below, in a garden to the right, three small iron urns appear black holding snow mushrooms.
                  Climbing the steps, the black stem and seed head of a spent Echinacea bloom catches my eye. Layers of ice crystals balance high atop the thistle globe like French women wore their coiffeurs in the Eighteenth Century. Now a few yards away, the three urns reveal their natural rusty color. The closer, the higher and lighter the value.
                  Value, an interesting word with a double meaning. This little plot of land holds a great deal of value for my husband and me. It’s much more than what the real estate is worth. This is our home, where we hope live our last days sowing seed and collecting eggs.
                  When many of our peers are selling their large homes to downsize, we’re planning another fresh coat of paint for the interior of our little house.  
                  It seems this is the winter for choosing paint colors. We’ve had enough of the old low, dark values the past decade or so. Lightness with white ceilings is what we’d like to try again.
                  Now, dear Reader, it’s time to settle into my reading chair before I begin moving furniture this week.
                  I’m drawn to the values of black ink on a white page.

What Our Bones Carry

Stretching my back at 8 months pregnant with my firstborn, November 1970

As you know not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so you know not the works of God who makes all. Ecclesiastes 11:5

November 1956, my father brought home a movie camera. He filmed Mom’s expanded belly wherein our new baby developed unbeknownst to my two sisters and me. Wearing a generous blouse, our mother stood on a ladder and hung tinsel and ornaments on our Christmas tree.
           According to Dad’s directions, the following February Mom walked through our front door in her black furry coat. Dad followed with a bundle of baby blankets in his arms. To our amazement, he sat on the sofa and unwrapped his fourth daughter before his camera propped on a tripod.
Then Mom passed our baby around to my sisters and me, and then to Aunt Goldie who helped Mom care for us. We each posed with baby Patty in our arms, smiling into Dad’s camera lights.
           There was no end to our happiness. We gathered by Mom’s elbows as she bathed Patty in the kitchen sink. When our baby outgrew the sink, Mom carried her to the bathtub. Dad followed with his camera. We followed Dad.
           Month by month, Patty’s bones grew before our eyes as we beheld the miracle of our parents’ love without understanding the fruit of its spirit. We cheered when Patty walked at 8 ½ months. We laughed when she licked buttercream frosting from her chubby fingers. How we loved birthday cakes and ice cream!
Then, like a thief, sorrow came swiftly the summer of 1958. I didn’t know why our parents left my sisters and me with relatives those days and nights while on vacation in Kentucky. We didn’t know Mom and Dad cried in Williamson Hospital. Afterward, Dad drove us home to Michigan as if nothing tragic happened.
My mother presented Dad with their last healthy and beautiful daughter in 1961. Six years later their marriage succumbed to grief and regret smothered by my father’s alcoholism and abuse.
November 25, 1970, my husband drove me from Rosebush to Mt. Pleasant hospital. Two days later, I held our firstborn in my arms, sunlight shining through our Mustang's windshield and upon our daughter’s face. Later, my mother carried a belated Thanksgiving dinner into our doublewide to celebrate the birth of her second grandchild.
To Mom’s delight, two healthy and darling Underwood granddaughters followed. Like my dad, I took movie pictures of their growth.
In the fulfillment of old age, years after my firstborn’s death, Mom breached one of her many secrets. “I miscarried our only son. I felt like I’d let Warren down.”
In context of this history, perennial questions returned this November. Knowing the genetics she carried within her bones, what secret darkness persuaded my daughter to take her first drag of marijuana? Why didn’t the bones that grew within her womb grant her grace to walk away from alcohol and cocaine? Where did the coroner dispose of my grandchild's bones?
Dear Reader, I confide this double sorrow, again resolve to rest these questions in God’s hands, for no one escapes suffering. We do not know the works of God who makes all.
Yet, our Savior wipes our tears and waits beyond the grave. In Him, there is no end to our happiness.

Wrestling Rascals

Mittens on the left, cuddles on the right, nap in rare November sunshine
Mom gave up on dogs when raising my sisters and me. Buttons ran away. Ginger succumbed to distemper.
My mother found tomcats more independent, resilient, and less cost. Our toms would disappear for months and return maimed from buckshot. A former farm-girl, Mom doctored them. I cannot remember the name of one family cat.
           The summer before my junior year in high school, my boyfriend drove me to a pet store. I fell in love with a Cocker Spaniel’s puppy-dog eyes. Without consulting my mother, I took Sweetie home. We became inseparable stargazers. Sweetie my pillow, I confessed what I could not tell another soul.
           Ten years later after many wanderings, I at last settled into our first house and took Sweetie off Mom’s hands. With a husband and two small children, I had no time for stars and confessions. So this is what my mother sacrificed for her daughters to hold and love a pet.
Sweetie’s health declined rapidly. Perhaps she grieved for my mother. Deaf, Sweetie walked into our street one day. The car stopped without injuring her, yet the screeching brakes left me shaken.  
           A neighbor offered to drive Sweetie to the Humane Society. Young and overwhelmed, I accepted. Sweetie’s sad, knowing eyes when I said good-bye still haunt my dreams with regret.
In the following forty-two years, my husband and I have considered adding a puppy to our household. A canine presence supposedly discourages deer invasion and property damage.
However, I will never again put down a pet. And Mel will not suffer again the loss of his dog mangled on the road. We inevitably return to Mom’s conclusion about tomcats.

Cuddles longs for the wide blue yonder

After eighteen years of hunting, our beloved cat Mo rests in our backyard below his gravestone. In perfect timing, our friend Sue emailed a photo of darling kittens waiting for a family. Perhaps they were the answer to reducing our varmint population. And there’s nothing like frisky kittens to relieve heartsickness.
Two Sundays past, not a mile away, we first laid eyes on Mittens and Cuddles. “What do we owe you?” Mel asked a neighbor.
“Nothing, just a good home,” he replied.
“Do you know the sex?” I asked.
“No, my wife can tell, but she’s not here.”

We set the kitties’ kennel, potty, and food in our barricaded kitchen. I recycled spools of thread and paper bags for toys. This distracted the pair from chewing on the leather ties of my L.L. Bean slippers. What one did, the other followed, pouncing and biting and pawing.
The first four days Mittens and Cuddles hid under the Hoosier cabinet whenever frightened, which means they spent hours huddled there. They lapped their water together. Slept together. Waited by the john for their turn.

Mittens plays in a paper bag

Today, after the rascals wrestled a good while, Cuddles curled up for an afternoon nap in the kennel. Mittens stretched out on the fluffy bed Mo rejected.
 Dear Reader, I’m guessing Cuddles is a tom, Mittens a queen. Mom would know. In her old age, she held her cat Socks on her lap.

History of Trees

Old Oak with four toeholds, a favorite stop on my country walks
I’ve walked my country roads for twenty-nine years now. They’re glad for my company, especially this season when their trees cast off their color and I applaud their performance. Lindens. Sugar maples. Red maples. Swamp birch. The Oaks still cling to their leaves. The poor Ash and their tragic end. I’ve already forgotten their structure and leaf. 
There’s one ancient Oak in particular that waits for me. Her extraordinary girth is nailed with four toeholds. “Come play,” they beckon.
            I smile and say, “Not today. Have obligations.”
            Truth is, I’d be trespassing. And what if I fell from a limb? My agility and strength aren’t what they were three decades ago.
But those four toeholds won’t leave me alone. Who nailed them to the tree? A young farm boy, or a hunter? Or a tomboy like me? How long ago?
My last walk I stopped and touched the four boards. “Now listen Grandmother Oak, I just want to know your history. I’m not going up. That’s absurd. You’re not my tree. And if you were, I’m a senior citizen, for heaven’s sake.”
I have a soft spot for trees. As a child I climbed gnarly trunks to pick little green apples. Swung from many a branch. I carved my initials and my husband’s, and a heart around both, on a tree’s bark. We shinned up, hung from it. Posed for pictures. We snoozed in the shade and breeze.
I grew up with trees, I tell Grandma Oak. I’m known amongst my kinfolk for swinging from a branch of a dead tree over a cliff in Kentucky. Of course the dead tree and over the cliff parts were my mother’s hysterical perception. She meant no harm. She never was a tree swinger and didn’t know better.  
            My three girls climbed trees when they were young. My husband and I drove them from our Detroit home to Blake’s Cider Mill in Armada to pick apples for applesauce. We loved my mother’s chunky applesauce with cinnamon. She preferred the indoor sport of cooking.
Our friends Barb and Denny and their three boys followed us to Blake’s for a few autumns.  A perfect match for kids chasing and hiding in an apple orchard.
In the midst of limbs loaded with apples, it seems I was born knowing the legend of Johnny Appleseed. What American child doesn’t know the pioneer nurseryman and hero who tramped from his home in Massachusetts to Fort Wayne, Indiana, planting apple seeds?
Wait a minute. Massachusetts to Fort Wayne, Indiana? That means Johnny could’ve planted trees in Michigan. He owned over 1,200 acres of orchards in the Midwest. That’s quite a history for a barefooted man who sold trees and hard apple cider for pennies.
Dear Reader, this may sound preposterous, but is it possible Johnny Appleseed hammered those four toeholds into Grandmother Oak? Has my imagination swung over a cliff on a dead branch? 
Well, I do have a history of soft spots for trees. I think Johnny would be pleased.

While Dusting My Bedroom Furniture

Front, Maid-of-Honor jewelry-music box, and Al's Christmas gift from 1967

It’s an overture to dusting my bedroom dresser. I wind the key to my Maid-of-Honor jewelry-music box and lift the lid to “Lara’s Theme.” Omar Sharif comes to mind, those years of teenage infatuation.
My older sister who married in December1968 knew the song’s mandolin pulled on my heart's strings. I sang “Somewhere My Love” along with “We Can Work It Out” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” They all vibrated through my vocal cords in conviction and hope.
My husband and I married in January 1970. My sister’s gift has since survived many household purges to produce a tidier bedroom and benefit the Salvation Army. The box’s artwork of a woman reading a letter remains holy—a piece of many parts bind us together, no matter our history, differences, and distance.
What the keepsake and song represent is tangible. The honor to stand beside my sister, hold her bridal bouquet while she declared her vows, is a powerful experience. I cannot deny this any more than the large white jewelry chest that dominates the center of my dresser. Christmas our senior year of 1967, my boyfriend Al removed a tablecloth from my gift like a magician. I had no idea how I’d fill the three tiers and lower drawer of what resembles a queen’s treasure chest.
Al was the first to contribute with a small, silver heart locket and chain. Both chain and locket wait secure in the original box on a hand-painted plate from my mother’s dining room bureau. The box is stacked atop others holding gifts in need of repair and polishing.
Considering my early nomadic marriage, those unsettling years of the Vietnam War, it is another manifestation of grace that I still possess these gifts. As I rub Old English furniture polish into the dresser’s mahogany finish, I’m grounded again to a marriage of forty-eight years.
This is why I find cleaning my furniture a rewarding chore. Often I’ll explore the contents of each box and pouch to review the stages of my life—to remember the places Mel and I have traveled and what beautiful trinkets have sprung from them—and pieces inherited from our parents.  
It’s a comfort to dust the lawyer’s bookshelf that belonged to Mel’s mom and dad. As I read the spines of books we hauled from their home in Grand Rapids, titles such as Prefaces to Peace and The Music Lover’s Handbook, both acquired in 1943, I learn something new about lovers separated by WWII. Perhaps someday I’ll read their copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
I wipe my tall dresser, the bedside table we inherited from my mother, and my grandmother’s three-tiered table. All bear photos of family gone to glory and still with us. They tell love stories and sing songs I hide in my heart.
Praise God, dear Reader, my many loves are with me. All is working out. There ain’t no hardship high enough, ain’t no loss low enough, to keep me from dusting my bedroom furniture.  

Places, People, Poetry

Tahquamenon Falls October 16

But the water I give them shall be a well springing up into everlasting life.  John 4:14

Dad drove our family from Warren to Kentucky every summer for vacation. We came home with a trunk full of canned green beans and corn from Granny’s garden.
Our neighbor Bill Rowe drove his family to destinations such as Yosemite and Disneyland. They returned with more stickers on the back window of their station wagon. When time came to sell their car, his wife Marion stopped by our house and asked Mom if she had a single-edged razor blade to remove the decals.
“No one will buy our car if they know where we’ve traveled,” she said.
I wasn’t envious. The McCoy Bottom and The Breaks Interstate Park with my cousins satisfied my childhood thirst for adventure. I didn’t need Mackinac Island or Old Faithful. I needed kinfolk.
After my parents’ divorce, Mom reestablished her household in the McCoy Bottom. Envisioning a brood of grandchildren, she built a new home with an upstairs roost. The ideal Nana, she fed her grandkids Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast. They swam with their cousins in Aunt Kat’s built-in pool. Mom cooked a mess of green beans and corn bread for supper.
Mel and I walk up Tahquamenon Fall's 94 steps

Although my husband and I camped once with our girls in Michigan’s Wilderness State Park and spent a day on Mackinac Island, I preferred the comfort and company of my mother’s home.
Furthermore, my family moaned the only time I insisted we exit at the Natural Bridge Park off Kentucky’s Mountain Parkway. 
“Mom! Let’s just go to Nana’s,” they pleaded.
Forty years later, there is no gathering of generations in the McCoy Bottom, for most matriarchs and patriarchs are buried on a mountainside and in Lexington Cemetery. Children and grandchildren have grown and gone their separate ways. Aunt Kat’s pool stands stagnant.
Within this gradual and pervasive emptiness, I’ve come to need places and their stickers on my car’s windows. In no certain order, I’ve checked off the following on my bucket list: Yosemite. Muir Woods. Olympic National Park.  Washington D.C. Gettysburg. The Greenbrier. The Biltmore Estate.
Without exception, the places call unsolicited. Most recently, in my Monday night writing group, a friend read a beautiful poem she composed in honor of a childhood visit to Tahquamenon Falls.
I reserved our critter sitter for three days and a room for two nights in the MacCleod House B&B in Newberry. My husband drove us north with my friend’s poem on my mind—94 steps down to Tahquamenon Falls, then upward. I heard the thundering waters as we sped through the golden passage of I75 to the Mackinac Bridge.
On the road to Munising

Suspended above the indivisible space where Huron and Superior merge, I considered both bridge and lakes with awe and praise. For the Straights of Mackinac speak of the constant joining of springs and rivers that endures the winds of time.
And the Tahquamenon Falls, dear Reader, those maple syrup colored waters that submit to perpetual plunges, turn to foam, and flow to Superior?

“Come, drink,” they say. “Buy another sticker.”