True Christmas Story: A Visit from St. Nicholas


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My brother and me with Santa

In some families, Santa Claus comes to call ahead of Christmas Eve every year. Other families take their children to see St. Nicholas at the mall every year.

I only remember one time Santa came to see my brother and me, and one later visit to the mall to see him.

The evening Santa came to our house when I was three made a big impact on me. My brother and I had already had our baths and changed into our footed pajamas. Our mother was reading to us. I don’t recall what the book was, but it might have been “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Or it could have been any of the Christmas-related books our family owned.

A knock on the door.

One of my parents opened the front door to the house. That door led straight into the living room where we sat on the couch.

Guess who it was?


I was shocked. I didn’t know Santa made house calls in advance of the Big Night. But there he was! Fat and red and bearded, just like the books said.

I wasn’t scared of him, like my daughter was many years later when Santa came to see her.

But I was speechless. For a few minutes.

Then, when Santa asked if I’d been good, I nodded vigorously. Probably more vigorously than my conduct that year had warranted.

And when he asked me what I wanted, I had my wish list ready. Within a few minutes I was bouncing on the couch in my desire to tell him everything. I needed a quiet reminder from my mother that Santa hadn’t left his bounty yet, and he wouldn’t for a few more days.

Being a true believer in the “naughty or nice” theory, I settled down and delivered my requests with more decorum. I even helped my little brother remember what he wanted for Christmas.

Santa did leave me plenty of presents that year. And some for my brother, too.

Maybe next year I’ll write about our visit to the mall. I was a couple years older then, but I remember far less about it. The second time you talk to Santa makes far less of an impression than the first.

What do you remember about seeing Santa from your childhood?

Kindergarten Show and Tell


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My brother, about kindergarten age

My brother, about kindergarten age

My youngest sibling was in kindergarten the year I started college. When I came home from Middlebury College for Christmas my freshman year, this brother had a favor he wanted.

“Would you come to Show and Tell with me?” he asked.

“Okay,” I responded, somewhat surprised—why did I need to go with him to Show and Tell? “What are you taking for Show and Tell?”

“You!” he said. Maybe it was unusual for a kindergartener to have a sibling in college, but I didn’t think I was that much of an oddity.

I wasn’t sure what five- and six-year-olds would want to know about college, but I agreed. I could handle them, I thought—I’m a college student.

On the appointed day, I went to kindergarten. I had prepared a few remarks about living in a dorm and going to classes in buildings all over campus and studying really hard. Topics suitable for children still going to G-rated movies. And after a semester of Political Science with a professor who used the Socratic method of instruction, I figured I could field any questions a little kid could throw at me.

When I arrived at my brother’s classroom, I found I was not the only entertainment for their Show and Tell. Some child had brought a new toy, and the little girl who lived across the street from us had brought her Golden Retriever, Macdougall, on a leash manned by her father.

The kids all milled around the dog. “Ooh! He’s so soft!” they said of his fur. He wagged his tail and licked everyone. It was instant love on all sides.

When Show and Tell began, Macdougall went first. More tail wags and dog slobber. More oohs and aahs.

Then the toy.

Finally, my brother introduced me, and I gave my little spiel about college, while the kids looked bored or ogled the dog. “Does anyone have any questions?” I asked when I finished.

One little boy raised his hand.

“Yes?” I said.

“Can we pet the dog some more?” he asked.

So I yielded the floor to Macdougall and his owner for another round of adoration.

When have you been upstaged? How did you handle it?

Charlie Brown and Me, Fifty Years Ago and Today


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MTH in 4th grade

Me in the 4th grade

I’ve been fixated recently on what happened in 1964—fifty years ago—as 2014 winds to an end. Perhaps I should have focused on these events throughout the year, but I’ve only noticed occasionally when the media has reported on anniversaries of major happenings from 1964. I didn’t research 1964 events until this week.

What started my current fixation was reading last week that the first Peanuts television special, Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown, is turning fifty. I watched its first airing in December 1964, and I’ve probably seen about twenty of its annual reruns since that time (though none in the last fifteen years or so).

I remember curling up on the couch in my flannel pajamas to watch the various Peanuts specials during my childhood. But I couldn’t have told you that the Christmas special was the first one created, nor that it first aired in 1964. I do recall when various other Peanuts specials debuted—it was an exciting occurrence for children of my generation.

But look at what else was happening in 1964:

In our culture:

  • The top two hits were by the Beatles (“I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”), but number three was “Hello, Dolly!” by Louis Armstrong.
  • The premiers of both My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins.
  • The first Ford Mustang.
  • Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.
  • The St. Louis arch was under construction.

In world events:

  • Nelson Mandela went to prison in South Africa.
  • Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in a landslide.
  • Three Civil Rights workers were murdered in Mississippi by members of the KKK during the Freedom Summer.

And close to home:

  • My sister was born.
  • A school friend of mine died of leukemia.
  • My fourth grade teacher made everyone call me “Mary Theresa” because there were three Marys and three Theresas in the class.

Other than the “close to home” events, only Mary Poppins had any major impact in my life in 1964, and I don’t think I got to see the movie until it reached my home town in 1965. I was aware of the Johnson/Goldwater election, but it didn’t affect me as a grade-school child. I wasn’t even very concerned about the Beatles.

1964_film_large_thumbAs I peruse the list of notable historical events now, I can see how much the world has changed in fifty years. For an amazing collection of photographs from 1964, click here. And here is the PBS American Experience list of major headlines that year.

These pictures and headlines make clear that 1964 was a pivotal year, politically and culturally. But at the time, my life was confined to home and school, with little awareness of the world beyond.

How do you think differently about past world events as you age?

Hand-Me-Downs: The Little Blue Coat


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As the oldest child, I didn’t have to wear many hand-me-downs. Occasionally, I wore clothes from the daughter of my mother’s friend. When I reached junior high, I sometimes had to wear something of my mother’s. I hated that, because styles meant for a thirty-something woman in the late 1960s seemed frumpy on a thirteen year old. Except for one pair of orange dress shoes which matched a dress of mine perfectly—those shoes I didn’t mind borrowing.

My younger sister had to wear many of my clothes, saved a decade for her. And a few of the pieces both my sister and I wore even reached my daughter.

I think the first garment of mine saved was the little blue coat. My grandmother made this coat for me out of a lightweight wool, sometime between my first birthday and my second. It is lined in satin, and nicely done, though it is clearly handmade. The hem has been taken up and let down many times in its long life.

On the back of this picture of me, my grandmother wrote “the new coat Nanny Winnie made.” The little blue coat was big on me when I first got it, so I wore it a couple of years. See how the sleeves are turned up in cuffs to make it last longer, and it falls well below my knees.

T in blue coat (cropped)

I don’t remember wearing the little blue coat myself. But I do remember when, years later, my sister wore it. By this time, the family had a color camera, so you can see that the coat is blue. Note that the sleeves were turned up into cuffs to fit my sister also.

R in little blue coat (cropped)

And twenty or so years after my sister wore it, so did my daughter. The little blue coat barely buttoned on my daughter when this picture was taken and there were no cuffs—it must have been her second year in the coat. And Easter bonnets were long gone by the time my daughter was a toddler.

M in little blue coat (cropped)

Now, almost thirty years after my daughter wore it, and more than fifty years after my grandmother so proudly made it and snapped the first picture of me in it, the little blue coat hangs in a spare closet in my house, waiting for the next generation of girls.

What’s the oldest garment you still own?

Why Do I Ask Questions At the End of My Posts?


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questions_answers_1The short answer to why usually I ask questions at the end of my posts is that I read somewhere that it was a good thing for bloggers to do to get readers to engage.

The long answer is a little more complicated.

It is true that I’ve read that bloggers should ask thought-provoking questions to hook their readers. But I usually ask the questions at the end of my posts. My purpose is less to hook my readers than to get you thinking.

Why do I want to get you thinking? Well, I hope that this blog provokes some dialogue and that it isn’t purely entertainment.

The stated theme of this blog is “One writer’s journey through life and time”—a pretty broad theme, but it describes a journey I want to take my readers on with me.

Sometimes my journey is through history. I give my thoughts on how the past impacts the present (and future), and I want you to consider these things as well.

Sometimes my journey is through my own and my family’s lives. Readers have their own family histories that impact who they are. I hope my questions help you reflect on the joys and sorrows of your own past and how those who have touched your life have influenced you.

My journal

My journal

Sometimes my journey is into myself. I ask myself questions all the time in my journal. I don’t always answer them, but the questions indicate what’s troubling me at that point in time. When I find myself asking the same questions over and over, it means I need to change something, to work on that area of my life. I’ve made many changes as a result of these questions over the almost thirteen years that I’ve been journaling. (Yikes! That’s the time a kid goes from kindergarten to college—I hope I’ve made some changes!)

So some of my questions are intended to help readers explore their own lives as well.

Do you find yourself pondering the questions I ask after you read? If not, how can I make this blog more meaningful to you?

Judgment in Families and Beyond


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1950-3 20140708_100126It apparently caused quite a stir in my parents’ high school when Catholic Mary began dating Protestant Tommy. Not only was he a Protestant, but he was a member of DeMolay, the Masonic organization for young men.

Yet Mary wore his DeMolay pin proudly.

Although my mother was a devout Catholic all her life, she never evidenced any prejudice against people of other religions. Many of her best friends were Protestants. She became good friends with our next door neighbors, who were Jewish.

I think her ecumenicalism was based on her own family history. Her father was not Catholic and didn’t attend any church as an adult, but she always talked about him as being a very ethical man. He received extra gasoline rations during World War II, because he worked in the lumber industry in Oregon, which was considered to be part of the war effort. She told me on several occasions how he refused to use any of the extra coupons for family outings, keeping the gasoline solely for business use.

Her maternal grandfather also was not Catholic. My mother remembered him as a jolly old Scot who danced a jig with a pillow on his head and made her an upholstered mattress for her doll bed. (The doll bed was still around when I was a child, so I also put my dolls to sleep on the mattress my great-grandfather made.)

And yet, as family lore tells it, that Scottish grandfather’s mother refused to enter her son’s home after he married an Irish Catholic. So perhaps the prejudice of past generations still festered when my mother was young, and that influenced her lack of parochialism.

I can remember as a young child of two Catholic parents (my father converted before my parents were married) thinking that Catholicism was the best religion. I was in primary grades during the Kennedy years, and it seemed to me that to be American and Catholic was the best thing I could be.

But as I grew, heard my mother tell her family stories, and I met many non-Catholic friends of my own. So I came to believe that we are all imperfect in our understanding of truth.

As Pope Francis said recently, “Who am I to judge?” His comment came in response to a question about a “gay lobby” in the Catholic Church. But the Pope’s question is a good one for everyone to ask in a variety of contexts. We are none of us perfect, and we are none of us all-knowing.

And so we must avoid the temptation to judge others of a different race, nationality, religion, or political persuasion than ourselves.

What could the world be if we all refused to demonize those with different beliefs than our own?

Worldwide Gold Rush to California Begins


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My Gold Rush posts this year have traced the spread of the news, from the discovery of gold in January 1848 until the knowledge reached distant corners of the earth. Although Johann Sutter wanted to keep the discovery secret, he could not contain news of such import, as we have seen.

“The United States is on the brink of an Age of gold,” the New York Herald Tribune reported in November 1848. By the end of the month, newspapers on the East Coast were full of the story, but it still wasn’t accepted as a fact by the U.S. government.

In fact, Colonel Mason’s letter regarding the discovery of gold arrived in Washington, D.C., on November 22, 1848, but it took a couple of weeks for the letter to circulate to the highest levels of government.

Brigantine_copperEtchDespite lack of official confirmation of the gold finds, the first ship left the East Coast for California with gold seekers aboard in November 1848. From the East Coast, a sailing voyage around South America took five to eight months, depending on the exact route and the weather. These were the first American Forty-Niners, though as my posts have shown, many other miners reached California well before 1849 began.

New Zealanders received word of California gold in November 1848 when an American whaling ship brought newspapers from Hawaii. News also reached France in November 1848. The Courrier des États-Unis reported the gold find on November 30.

Gold seekers from foreign lands began their travels to California to join those from Mexico and South America who had already arrived.

At the same time travelers from around the world streamed toward California, the first shipments of gold left San Francisco bound for the mint. The first ship to leave port carried over $500,000 in gold.

The government’s San Francisco mint wouldn’t open until 1854. Until then, gold was made into coins by private mints or transported either via sea or overland to the Philadelphia mint.

How quickly would news spread if large quantities of gold were discovered today? What would keep miners from flocking to the site?

A Broken Foot, Horseback Riding, and Christmas Woes . . . And Joys


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gift08Most years about this time I get frantic over Christmas preparations. This year is particularly bad, because I have a trip planned for a week in early December, so I am trying to get as much done as possible before I leave. But I’m not having much success.

When I worked full-time, I took a day’s vacation (or more) during Thanksgiving week to do my Christmas shopping. My goal was to buy everything before Thanksgiving. I refused to participate in the frenzy on Black Friday, and I avoided malls on December weekends as much as possible. Nevertheless, it always seemed like there was something I needed on a December Saturday afternoon.

“Mom,” a kid would tell me, “we’re having our class gift exchange on Monday.”

Or my husband would say, “Do you have anything I could give my secretary? Her last day in the office is tomorrow.” Why didn’t he know his assistant’s schedule sooner?

The only year I avoided the December madness was 1995, the year I broke my foot. That fall, my daughter took horseback riding lessons.

It might seem odd that those two facts—a broken foot and horseback riding lessons—would contribute to the only smooth holiday season I’ve had since my marriage. But because (a) I was immobile, yet able to drive because it was my left foot, and (b) my daughter needed to be driven to a rural location near our home every Saturday morning, I had two forced hours of alone time in my minivan each week when no one bothered me.

I treasured those two hours of solitude. I scooted into the back seat of the van and spread my projects around me. The autumn weather was lovely and I worked in comfort to the sound of meadowlarks.

In 1995, online shopping was not yet available, but catalogs poured into my mailbox by the dozens. I took the most likely catalogs with me on Saturdays, selected gifts for all my loved ones, and filled out the order blanks.

Voilà! Christmas. I was done with my shopping by Halloween.

I’ve tried to replicate that year’s success every autumn since. Unfortunately, my more recent experiences go like this:

  1. On Labor Day, I think to myself that Christmas is around the corner.
  2. On Halloween, I decide to make my gift list.
  3. In mid-November, I realize, “Oh, hell, Thanksgiving is next week.” And I decide to go shopping on Monday, as I always have.
  4. On December 1, I say, “Damn, it’s December.” And because I’m retired, I realize I can shop mid-week. I try to stifle the panic.
  5. On December 15, it dawns on me that I must mail all the out-of-town stuff that day. Or on the 16th at the latest.
  6. On December 20, I wake up in the middle of the night, realizing I forgot to buy so-and-so a gift. But at least my husband is retired now, so it won’t be the gift for his secretary this year.

Now, add in Christmas cards (which, because I worked for Hallmark Cards, I must send), the family newsletter, some holiday travel, and you’ll see why the magic of Christmas has left me behind. Click here for a poem I wrote a few years ago about my holiday woes.

Then finally it is Christmas morning, the frenzy is behind me, and I welcome the day with family and friends and the joy of togetherness.

I really do like Christmas. But only once it has arrived.

What’s your least favorite part of Christmas? How do you survive it?

The Cousins and Rudolph


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4 cousins Nov 1986I wrote on Monday about my children and their cousins. The picture above is my favorite picture of the four of them, primarily because I know the story behind it.

They were singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the adults that were present. The youngest, my daughter, was nineteen months old, and didn’t know much more than “Woo-doff.” The middle two—my son and my niece—knew all the words and most of the tune. Only the oldest (my nephew) could add the “extra” lyrics—you know, the ones that go:

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer (REINDEER)
Had a very shiny nose (LIKE A LIGHT BULB)

The other kids thought he was hilarious.

So in this picture, the four kids are singing away, three of them clapping with delight. Son and Niece carried the melody, while Daughter bounced and clapped to her own rhythm. Nephew, a suave eight-year-old, displayed his boredom with the traditional Johnny Mark lyrics and only chimed in with the special harmony at the end of the lines.

Note that my son was so into the song that he stomped his foot in time with the music.

I laugh every time I see the picture. I wish I had a recording to go along with the picture.

(Just in case you wondered, none of them grew up to be singers. But all four of them won Hall Family Foundation college scholarships while I worked at Hallmark Cards, and they are all responsible and independent adults today.)

What memories of children during the holidays make you smile?

On Cousins, Connections, and the “Social” in Social Media


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First picture of the four cousins

First picture of the four cousins

I envied my children as they were growing up—they were close with two of their cousins. They were close in age, and for their first few years of life they lived within a reasonable driving distance of their mutual grandparents. The four kids played together regularly, stair steps spanning six and a half years.

My nephew and niece were older than my son and daughter. Nephew (the oldest) was charged with keeping order. As an oldest child myself, I know how unfair that was to the poor kid, but he bore it bravely. I’ve learned in recent years (now that all the culprits are beyond the age of grounding) that Niece and Son ganged up on Daughter, the baby. Daughter still has a soft place in her heart for Nephew who saved her.

A litter of cousins

A litter of cousins

The reason I envied my children is that I only had brothers and a sister. One brother was near me in age, but the others were much younger and not playmates in the way closer siblings are. I always thought it would be fun to be part of a litter.

I had six first cousins (all children of the same aunt), but I rarely saw them growing up.

I had a gob of second cousins, but saw them even less frequently. Some of my second cousins live in the Kansas City area, and I finally met them after I moved here as an adult. Three of them are women about my sister’s age, and I was struck by how much their mannerisms resembled my sister’s. The hand gestures, the speech tones—it was like watching my sister in triplicate.

A few years ago, there was a family reunion in Nebraska where I met other second cousins for the first time. I couldn’t see any family resemblances in that part of the clan. There are still some second cousins on that side of the family whom I’ve never met, and I can only wonder how genetics played out there.

Even though our family is far-flung and not close, through the power of social media I’ve reconnected with a few cousins.

Two first cousins found me on Facebook. It’s been interesting to see the pictures they’ve posted of themselves. One cousin looks like our mutual grandmother, another reminds me of my brother.

A second cousin recently found me through this blog. She was researching our common ancestors in Sacramento (though she knew them better than I did). She found my post on the Strachan-Ryan (our shared great-grandparents) wedding. Since then, we have traded emails about our memories, and I sent her a picture I had of our great-grandmother, Cecelia Ryan.

This second cousin and I met once as children, and we both recalled the meeting, but we knew little about each other’s lives since our grade school days. When we friended each other on Facebook, I saw some pictures this cousin has posted of herself. She looks more like my grandmother (her great-aunt) than I do!

And so families continue, generation after generation. Sometimes close. Sometimes not. But always with connections that transcend time and distance.

Social media now brings us together in ways that were impossible in decades past, forging closer connections, or at least letting us see the connections that exist.

When have you been surprised by a connection with a relative you don’t know well?


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