среда, 28 ноября 2012 г.

The Hockey Skate Thief

By Christina Holder Oker

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.
~Albert Pike

"Hey, want to play with us?" The wind came sliding down over the ice, carrying the high-spirited sounds of the players' anticipation. Each time the puck neared the opposing goal, the cheers and jeers grew louder. I stood at the edge of our town pond and watched the neighborhood kids' hockey game. I wished I could play too, but I didn't have skates.
"No, maybe later...." I said, trying to discipline my voice to show indifference. We were poor, but we were also proud. World War II had just ended, and we were refugees in the small town of Osterode, Germany. Barely enough to eat, and as if poverty was a disgrace, we veiled the truth. Instead of pride, disappointment and loneliness walked with me on the way home.

With my head low and drooping shoulders, I entered through the kitchen door. The aroma of simmering potato soup greeted me. Miss Gertrude, our landlord's maid, sat at the table opposite my mom, in front of her some bread and jam. She often brought us food. Knowing my mother would not accept stolen goods she always insisted, "Don't worry... it's from my ration," or "Don't worry... it was a gift."

"What's wrong?" my mother asked seeing my brooding posture.

"I wish I had skates," I blurted out, falling into the chair between them. "So I could play in the hockey game."

"But, you know my child..." my mother was stopped by Miss Gertrude.

"Guess what?" Jumping from her chair with an unexpected vivacity for someone so plump, the maid repeated, "Guess what? Just today I had to clean out the landlord's attic and among the many things he no longer needs was a pair of hockey skates." She headed for the door shouting over her shoulder, "I will go and get them right now."

My mother bit her lips and started to put the bread and jam away. "She is too good," she mumbled, walking to the stove to stir the soup. "I don't know how we will ever repay her.

Ten minutes later, Miss Gertrude returned with a pair of skates under her apron. "Hurry," she said. A smile played around her lips as she handed the skates to me. "Hurry, hurry, go and play."

My mother drew her eyebrows together but before she could question her, Miss Gertrude assured her, "Yes, yes, it is all right. They were headed for the garbage pile."

I marveled at my new possession, the adjustable screw to the shoe skates with its glistening sharp edges. No longer able to contain my delight, I gave my mom and Miss Gertrude each a quick hug. Grabbing my coat, gloves, and skates, I ran for the door.

A light snow began to fall, turning the town into a winter wonderland. When I arrived at the pond, the hockey game was still on.

"Hey, you can be on my team," one of the kids yelled, his cheeks red from the wintry air. I hastened to fasten the skates to my shoes. Somewhat out of breath, I joined the game. And while the snowflakes danced all around us, we played until darkness came and lights glimmered in windows of nearby houses.

The exhilaration of that first hockey game, almost a lifetime ago, and the joy of the many games that followed, will always stay with me. And so will the lingering question of whether that kind, generous maid, Miss Gertrude, was a hockey skate thief.


The Thank You Note

By Jeanette Hurt

Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns.
~Author Unknown

Many times we do something positive or say something kind, but we don't see the impact it has on other people. We may practice these "random acts of kindness," but we never know what happens next. One time, I was lucky enough to find out.
I was returning from a business trip to northwest Wisconsin when I stopped to refuel and get a snack at one of those travel plaza/gas station combos on the expressway. It was late, I was tired, it was starting to rain, and all I wanted to do was get home, but home was still more than two hours away. I was feeling slightly crabby, and my back hurt from all the driving.

I went inside to buy some veggie chips and a sparkling water. The checker smiled at me, and we chatted for a moment. I don't remember exactly what she said, but I do remember the kindness she showed me. Our brief interaction brightened my spirits, and when I got back in my car, I had a smile on my face. My car and my stomach were both refueled, but more importantly, I was refreshed. Her small act of kindness kept me going on the last leg of my journey home.

The next week, I was cleaning my purse, and I came across the receipt. The receipt reminded me of the clerk's warmth, and it had the address of the store. On impulse, I decided to write a quick thank you note to her manager. I normally don't write thank you notes — in fact, except for my wedding, I've never written many notes of thanksgiving or gratitude — but I've learned to heed such promptings.

Initially, I felt a little awkward, embarrassed even, to be writing a thank you note to a gas station manager, but I set aside my "feelings" to listen to my gut. I told the woman's manager exactly what I've just shared with you — that his employee's kind words and caring attitude stood out to me, brightening my trip home. It took all of five minutes to write the note and affix a stamp to the envelope. I dropped the missive in the mail, and that was that.

That is, until a week later, when I received a thank you note for my thank you note. That clerk — Robin is her name — wrote me back. As a result of my note, she received a commendation from her manager, a company award pin, and then, to top it off, a merit raise. I was stunned, and the note brought tears to my eyes. Robin's kindness inspired me to return her positivity, and there it was — a small, mini chain reaction of goodness.

In these challenging times, it's especially important to spread joy and gladness whenever and wherever we can. Whether it's a note or a kind word or even just a smile, a little gratitude goes a long way. More people complain than give thanks, and I've heard it said that it takes ten kind words to overcome a single harsh one. It sometimes takes a conscious effort on our part to say more positive words than negative ones, and to do more positive things than negative ones, but the ripple effect of that goodness is powerful.

Mother Teresa advised us to "do small things with great love." Oftentimes, when we do such small things, we don't get to see the effects of our kind words or deeds, but every so often, we're blessed to discover the positive outcome. If there's one thing I've learned from writing that short note it's to give in to the impulse of kindness when it strikes.

You never know what good may come of it or where it might lead you.

In the Basement

By Kathy L. Baumgarten

I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.
~Louisa May Alcott

Thunder and lightning come and go in our lives but therein lies a lesson. When the sun comes out again, the raindrops on the leaves will sparkle like diamonds. If we stand long enough to watch the last of the clouds blow away, we will also see that the storm had nourished us in a way that we could not predict. It was in such a storm that I learned to have hope.
I must have been four or five years old. My father had died and our mother had to work, so our grandmother came to stay with us one summer. Our home was surrounded by lovely trees, but this terrified my mother whenever a storm blew up. I didn't understand then what I do now — about house insurance deductibles and how much money a widowed secretary with a mortgage and three kids could actually have at her disposal in 1962 to pay for repairs. Impossible numbers must have swirled in her head with every thunder clap. Worse yet, we lived on an island where the waters frequently attracted lightning.

But, oblivious to all these facts, I was standing on a chair by the window really enjoying the sight of the trees fighting against the wind when I heard the phone ring. My grandmother answered it with the shaking hands of someone who'd only ever gotten bad news over the phone. My older sisters sensed trouble, and I recall that a shadow fell across their countenances as Grandma put down the receiver and shepherded us down the basement stairs.

"Grandma, who was it?" they pleaded as we descended. "What's wrong?" It had been our mother calling from work to order us to seek shelter. Grandma, anxious that nothing would happen to us on her watch, complied. At the bottom of the stairs, I stood and watched the old woman pull over a chair and instruct my sisters to drag over the old shaggy pink rug for us to sit upon. The basement, rarely used, was dimly lit with only a bare bulb or two and a pair of cobwebbed windows through which I observed the wind bending the grass flat. I sat by her right knee, my two sisters on her left, and enjoyed the cozy little situation I found myself in for the first time with family members that I loved. As I happily took in the scene, I noticed how peaceful Grandma appeared compared to my sisters.

"What if the tree falls on our roof, Grandma?" they asked. "Who will pay for it?" More pleadingly, "Where will we live then? How will we eat?"

Suddenly alarmed, I looked eagerly to our grandmother. As our father's mother, I held her in high esteem. Touching her, I always felt a connection to him. Today, I know that some family members felt she was a woman of small intellect who, putting everything in the hands of the Lord, unflappably stood her ground. But I was small and looked to her.

She was just smiling and shaking her head.

"Grandma," I ventured, comparing her face to those of my older siblings, "why aren't you afraid?"

She looked up, and we looked up with her. I think my sisters only saw the floor joists and impending doom, but somehow I knew she was focusing her eyes on something farther away than the rough-cut boards, pipes and metal ductwork. "God will watch over us," she declared as the lightning cracked.

My sisters disagreed heartily. Where was God when our father died and left us destitute? Where was God when our mother locked herself in her room sobbing and left us to our own devices? Wasn't it God making the storm? Didn't God grow the trees that were perilously near our eaves, which would take out the hall window if they brushed too close?

I looked at my sisters and weighed their complaints, and then I looked back at Grandma. She sighed a little, folded her hands, and looked up again. And you know what? We were already in the basement. We couldn't hide any deeper from the storm; we had done everything in our power to protect ourselves, and I knew that. When she repeated "God will protect us," making that promise again, I made the first and most valuable decision of my whole life, one I need to remind myself of time and time again. I decided that I liked my grandma better at that moment than the fearmongers. In her seventy-plus years, she had seen many trees felled by storms, watched many loved ones fall around her, but she had still learned, or taught herself, the inner discipline to look beyond the situation at hand and trust that there was something bigger at work than what she could fully understand. I'm just sorry that she never knew how much I needed to see her looking from the basement out at the storm and declaring, against all doubts, that it was going to be okay.

Years later, as I lay in my sleeping bag beside a Rocky Mountain lake with another storm raging around me, I felt the same thrill as that day with Grandma in the basement. I smiled at the power and might of the storm, certain that the sun would shine again in the morning. My tentmates, shuddering in their bags, began to murmur as my sisters had so long ago. "How can you be so calm?" they charged. "We're camped at the highest point on the mountain, and metal poles are holding up the tent! We'll be toast if we take a direct hit!"

I didn't know then how to tell them why I enjoyed the storm, but I do now. When the wind had died, I followed my grandmother up the stairs. I watched her place her hand tentatively to turn the doorknob, not knowing what the storm had wrought on the other side. Then I saw the sun break upon her face and the great relief that rose from her heart. I heard my sisters laugh and saw them jump up with joy. Perhaps I was awfully young to make the decision to follow Grandma's way, but the more I've opened doors and seen the sun greet me in my own life, the more I have hope that there are many more sunny days ahead.

My Reality TV

By Susan Struth

In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.
~Alex Haley

It was "dumpster day." The amount of clutter in our house had increased proportionately with the number of people and pets who live here. New items come into our house daily but very little goes out. The dumpster beckoned me as I considered the scope of the job ahead.
My husband and I trudged from room to room to purge our home of unused and unnecessary items. In my manic search to throw out anything that hadn't been touched by human hands in recent history, I went into the family room. Everything was fair game and the old Disney videos were no exception.

I dug through the videos and gleefully tossed aside those meant for preschoolers, not teenagers. My daughter, Katie, and her friend, Kim, entered the room. "What are you doing?" Katie questioned.

"Cleaning. If you see something you can't live without, speak up now or forever hold your peace." As the girls looked through the outcasts, I stumbled upon containers of family videos.

"Katie, look... videos of you and your sister when you were younger!" The descriptions on the sides of the tapes showed a journey through time, with birthdays, vacations, births and recitals.

"Can we watch the day you taped me and Kim while we played in the snow?" Katie asked.

"Sure, why not? I could use a break," I replied. The three of us plopped down on the couch.

"Remember how you yelled at Kim to get off the sled?" asked Katie.

"I did not!"

Kim laughed, "Yes, you did."

Confidently, I replied, "The proof is on this tape!" The next few minutes were filled with laughter from both the video, and the three of us, as we watched it.

Nicole, my older daughter, entered the room. "What are you watching?"

Katie replied, "A video of the day Mom yelled at Kim."

I looked at her and rolled my eyes. The proof came moments later. Evidently, my idea of speaking firmly is perceived as "yelling" by my kids. So much for instant replay.

The movie marathon continued and even the dogs joined in. Teddy, our over-sized Wheaton Terrier, barked at his own voice when he heard it on the tape and Mollie, our Miniature Schnauzer, joined in the chorus.

Over the next two and a half hours, the four of us sat in a row on the sofa munching on Goldfish crackers and watching the past seventeen years of our lives unfold before our eyes.

Precious moments, long forgotten, were acted out as if on a stage. My older daughter is now a mature young lady who talks about politics, life and college. But that afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing her filled with the joy of a six-year-old while she rode her bike and acted silly. She seemed much louder than I had remembered.

And we'd all forgotten Katie's use of the word "mudder," most commonly heard in the phase "You're not the mudder, Cole" directed at her sister Nicole's bossiness. I'd always wished that we had caught her "muddering" that word on tape... and much to my delight, we had!

Just like an America's Funniest Home Videos production, we watched a two-and-a-half-year-old Katie glide on her stomach down our new slide. Halfway down, she stopped herself with her hands. Suddenly, Katie was no longer visible through the video camera lens. I panned the camera to the right and saw she had fallen off. We could hear her cries of, "Bug, it's a bug!" in the background. I walked closer to the slide and the camera eventually exposed a tiny, transparent bug barely visible to the naked eye in the center of the slide. Katie bawled in the background, "Go home to your mudder, bug!" I heard my own laughter in the video, which reminded me how enjoyable my time with them at that age had been.

My husband walked by with his arms filled with old board games. He stopped and turned his head in my direction and gave me a, "Hello... wanna help me?" look.

Instead, I smiled and said, "You should come watch with us. These videos are great!" He shook his head and continued out the garage door.

We watched a little while longer, but I realized my husband's recent trip past me was a sign to continue with my real mission for that day. I resumed my chores, but something inside me felt different.

Katie spent the rest of the day calling me "Mudder." Nicole, who was working in a summer kindergarten program at that time, kept making comparisons to herself at the age of six and some of her students. The antics she found so endearing in her students were some of the very things she used to do.

As my girls have reached their teenage years, I have often wondered where I am headed. I have wallowed in a mid-life quandary, which sometimes plagues me and makes me want more for myself.

When I watched those home videos, I was able to momentarily cast aside what I had previously felt. Maybe it's not only about where I am heading in the future, but also what I have done in the past.

It's easy to see what others have, but easier to miss what is right in front of you. That afternoon was one of the best moments of my life — an afternoon of television I will never forget.

Now, that's reality TV!

суббота, 24 ноября 2012 г.

Love Fills My Shopping Cart

By Janet Perez Eckles

Oh, my friend, it's not what they take away from you that counts. It's what you do with what you have left.
~Hubert Humphrey

My friend's excitement blasted through the phone line. "I'm going to the mall. There's a fifty percent off sale, just in time for Christmas. You want to come with me?"
That chance to get a bargain would usually spark in me a quick "yes." Before she'd have finished the sentence, I would have been grabbing my purse, but not anymore. Not now. Shopping was erased from the list of things I enjoyed. So much I missed, so much I needed to do, to accomplish, to live for. All vanished. All wiped away by the retinal disease that had robbed me of my remaining eyesight just a few months before.

Tears flowed with each step of my painful adjustment.

"Mommy, can I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?" my five-year-old asked.

A simple task, but now, groping to find the pantry and the items in it wasn't that easy. Trying to distinguish jars or cans from one another increased my frustration. Anxiety cramped my stomach as I feared I couldn't be a "normal" mommy to my three-, five-, and seven-year old sons.

It was the Christmas season now, and my tasks multiplied. I had to try harder to squelch my fear. While following my routine, I fumbled with apparent resignation, but inside I still longed to have even a tiny bit of eyesight.

I would have been satisfied even with the miniscule amount of sight I'd had just the Christmas before. It had allowed me to distinguish the boys' facial expressions and the sparkle in their eyes when they opened their gifts.

But this Christmas season, I saw a gray nothing — no red or green, no colors, no shadows; nothing.

Although reluctant, I accompanied my husband, Gene, on shopping trips. I held onto the shopping cart and he pulled it through crowded aisles.

"Look at that," he said. "Jeff would love that."

I smiled and looked in his direction.

"Honey, I'm sorry," he said.

I shrugged my shoulders. "Hey, I forget too."

But I never forgot. The truth was that time and time again, out of habit, I glanced in the direction of the object, but with no retina function, my brain didn't register anything. That part of my life was painfully empty... as empty as the shopping cart seemed to me.

Then, one cold morning in December, I inhaled a long breath and vowed that this upcoming Christmas season would be the one where I would conquer my emotions and follow through with the usual holiday tasks. I lined up all the boxes holding decorations against the wall.

"Okay, guys, who wants to watch a movie?" Gene rounded up our sons, giving me the time to arrange the decorations.

"You go with Daddy," I said, "and maybe I'll have some cookies for you later."

Months of practice made baking easier, the burning episodes less frequent, and mistakes like using flour for powdered sugar were also a thing of the past. I navigated through the kitchen with relative ease. Even doing laundry and cleaning became simpler each time I did them. Barefoot, I could tell which spots I'd missed while sweeping the kitchen floor.

I reached into the storage boxes filled with Christmas treasures, and the moment my fingers touched an item, the shape and texture told me what it was. Since I'd seen it while sighted, memories of its color painted the item in my mind. I decorated each area of the house, leaving the tree decoration as a task for our sons and leaving Gene the job of placing the star atop the Christmas tree.

I raised the volume of "Silent Night" on the stereo and relaxed on the sofa. My darkness suddenly had a soothing melody.

Christmas morning came quickly, and I heard the high-pitched voices of our sons outside our bedroom door. They came in and rushed to our bed. "Guys, get up, we want to open presents."

Each voice had a distinct sound and I could tell their mood by the inflection and tone. They jumped, giggled, and teased each other as we wiped the sleep from our eyes.

I reached for my robe and held out my hand, "C'mon, let's see what Santa brought."

Leading me by the hand was normal for them. But this time, they rushed out the door and headed toward the Christmas tree in our family room.

I followed the familiar path to the couch. A fresh pine scent wafted through, and bells on the tree chimed as they lifted packages to find theirs.

"Let's take turns," their daddy said. "And don't forget to tell Mommy what you got."

I sighed inwardly. My husband's thoughtfulness warmed my heart, but following that instruction would be difficult in the midst of their excitement.

"Look what I got." Joe ripped wrapping paper and placed it on my lap.

I reached out my hand. "Show your mommy."

It wasn't really the gift I wanted to see, but the expressions of delight that matched their words. I longed to see the sparkle in their eyes when they opened what they had asked for all year long.

That's when I realized that dwelling on what I couldn't see threatened to erase the Christmas joy. I fought the temptation to sink into self-pity, and swallowed hard to keep the tears inside.

My husband appeared behind me on the couch and whispered in my ear, "Are you okay?"

I nodded. "I'll be back."

I rose from the couch and groped my way to the bedroom. I sat on the bed and chided myself for being unable to handle this time with my family.

I had been so strong, had faced tough moments with courage, but now… why the sadness, the anguish and impatience?

I couldn't understand. With a tissue, I pressed my eyes and sobs poured out.

My husband slid beside me on the bed. "What can I do for you?"

His sweetness and warmth further emphasized my sorrow. I was disappointing him, causing an added burden for him. With emotional distress, I'd failed in my role as a wife to him and a mom to my sons.

And when anguish nearly overwhelmed me, I suppressed one last sob and looked up. "God, help me to have the courage and strength I need."

"This is the best present yet!" one of our sons cried out.

I held my breath and paused for a few moments. My son's words brought a sobering truth that opened the eyes of my heart. His gift delighted him. But I had missed mine, overlooking and disregarding my greatest present — the one that filled the emptiness of my dark world. It was in the family room — it sang to me with little voices, with little arms that hugged me, and with the sweetest melody of each "I love you, Mommy."

I stuffed the wrinkled tissue in my pocket and reached for Gene's hand. "Let's go. I don't want to miss a minute of this."

I had asked God to help me cope. But rather than just coping, He taught me to enjoy what lies beyond physical sight, what the warmth of love offers and what truly holds meaning and purpose.

Years have passed, and I now do a better kind of shopping. Walking through the aisles of life, I find the bargains of a lifetime. I put in my cart a large package of appreciation for what I still have, followed by boxes of creativity to tackle all the tasks of being a mom and wife, a good supply of courage to defeat thoughts of gloom, and even add a few jars labeled "sense of humor."

Equipped to care for my family, I wait with anticipation for each Christmas, when the gift of their love delights the eyes of my heart.

Into Her Arms

By Alandra Blume

There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.
~Ben Williams

"Hey, Bonnie! Your leg any better?" I asked my Aussie/chocolate Lab mix when we came in the door. Her bobbed tail wiggled and her long brown body squirmed closer. She looked at me with her one green eye. The other was blind and a nasty purple.
"Oh, you're still limping. I don't know how you manage to get yourself so banged up — first your eye all those years ago, and now your leg."

"Would you all come into the kitchen?" Dad asked. His voice was choked.

"I've just gotten word," he said. "Your Uncle Alan passed away a few hours ago."

The words hung in the air like daggers. They could only hurt me if I believed them — but the truth slowly sunk its cruel blade into my heart.

The next few days were endless in their tears, heartache, and worry. Always in my thoughts was Paige, my sixteen-year-old cousin whose father was now dead.

When I saw her, she said nothing. When I visited her home, she said nothing. Her face was pale, her blue eyes expressionless, and her blond hair pulled back. Saying nothing.

On my way out their door, I froze when I saw a picture of Alan's dog, Annie, hung on the wall. The beautiful chocolate Lab had died four years before, but suddenly memories flooded my vision.

My bearded Uncle Alan, middle-aged, slim, average height... his calm voice growing excited as he rewarded Annie.

"Sit, Annie. Stay." He placed a treat on her velvety muzzle.

"Catch! Good girl, Annie! Shake... good. Roll over...."

They nuzzled each other, Alan caressing her soft brown fur, her long tail wagging. I imagined I saw them together again — together, happy. I knew Alan was in heaven. I knew that he and Annie were reunited.

"You know, I never liked that dog," Paige said. I turned, wiping the tears from my eyes.

"Dad sure did love her," she went on. "It was awful when she died, after he rescued her, trained her, and kept her all those years."

"Yeah, I know," I managed.

"You remember how he buried her on the hill? He'd always told Mom to bury him on that hill. So we're going to, right alongside Annie."

The day of the funeral dragged painfully by. Paige's friends surrounded her the whole time. She spoke to them, and they received her hugs and tears. I gave her one hug and drew away, realizing I wasn't needed and longing to do anything for her. If I could ease her pain, then somehow my own would shrink.

But she got through fine without me.

Days afterward, I paced, cursed myself, racked my brain for a way to cheer up my cousin, to say I was there. Not that she needed me — she had her other friends.

But things came to a head when Bonnie's blind eye got worse.

"Come here, Bonnie. Come here!" I chirped.

She came eagerly, still limping. I rubbed the white hourglass on her chest and scratched her brown ears, silky as rabbit fur. Her eye was oozing. I reached for the phone.

"Bonnie, you're going to hate this, but we've got to get this taken care of, even if you're going to fight the vet like a demon."

We dragged her to the vet, snapping and growling, but finally the sedatives kicked in and the vet removed Bonnie's blind eye.

"It was ruptured," the vet told us. "And causing a lot of irritability and pain. We've sewn the socket up, but it's swollen."

The medicines knocked Bonnie out and made her act drunk. She stumbled and fell, couldn't eat, couldn't drink. She couldn't bear for us to leave her. She looked scared, her heart rate was high, and her legs shook uncontrollably.

Thanksgiving came amidst all the confusion.

"It's important for us to be together — especially now," Mom said. "So we invited the family over. We'll move Bonnie to the bathroom and let her sleep."

"When do you think she'll come out of it?" I asked.

Mom sighed. "It won't be for a while yet."

Thanksgiving filled our home with vines of orange and yellow leaves twisting around the banisters, maroon cloths draped over tables, wood and glass polished, stone hearth swept, burgundy curtains drawn back to let in the light of the November sun. The smells of pumpkin, potatoes, turkey, and apple pie perfumed the air.

Everything was ready, including Bonnie, who we carried away to the bathroom. She was so weak she couldn't stand, and it was painful to watch her — barely able to open her eye halfway.

I dreaded seeing Paige. Much as I longed to, it would be so awkward not knowing what to say.

All the family tromped in. They piled their muddy boots and designer clogs in a corner and got in line for food.

The entire time, something was missing. Alan was gone. I missed the heated political discussions where we all agreed with each other, but pretended we didn't. I missed him competing with Dad in Guesstures, pulling Paige's hair, hugging my aunt, laughing at Grandpa's jokes.

We sat in the living room, the adults on the plush couches, wicker chairs in an uneven circle. Paige sat with her back against the hearth, her knees drawn up to her chest, blocking out those around her, her face mournful. Why was there nothing I could do? If only I could help...

I couldn't stand it any longer and went to check on Bonnie.

"Hey, you're awake!" I laughed. She was alert and standing at the door, triangular ears perked up, looking as well as ever.

"You must've smelled that food! Let's get some exercise."

Instead of going to the kitchen like I expected her to, she bounded into the living room, straight to Paige, to whom she'd never shown personal preference before.

Bonnie's stump of a tail bobbed furiously, her nose cuddled into Paige's neck. Paige looked surprised as her hands went up to Bonnie's sides.

"Go lie down, Bonnie," Mom commanded.

"No, no! She's fine, really," Paige said.

And something happened that warmed me all over.

Paige smiled. Really smiled. That sweet, happy grin that Alan said he loved to see. For the first time since his death, I saw joy in my cousin's face, and quick tears came to my eyes when Bonnie plopped into her lap like it was the most natural thing to do.

Thank you God, I prayed. Even though I couldn't help her, Bonnie could. She knew Paige was hurting. I guess wise words and glorious deeds aren't needed — just being there is all that matters.

Bonnie wouldn't be lured away from Paige for food or toys, and that in itself was a miracle. The sight of an old, torn-up, bob-tailed, one-eyed, limping dog comforting a mourning girl who didn't even like the animal reached into my very core — that was the miracle.

For a moment in the history of this hurting world, two creatures came together and offered each other comfort, the solace of a kind touch and having someone to hold. Those few moments made a world of difference in the lives of all who witnessed it.

As the hum of afternoon voices drifted around us, Paige sat there with one arm encircling Bonnie's chest. Maybe she was thinking of the love her father had shown his own dog. I don't know. All I know is that the smile never left her face the rest of the day.

Her Make-a-Difference Life

By Theresa Sanders

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
~William James

"I've something to show you," my girlfriend, Sue, said the minute I opened my front door. Shivering, she stepped inside, accompanied by a blast of cold air that would make any polar bear happy. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Sue and I were about to embark upon one of our heartfelt gabfests. I get together with Sue, a single mom and teacher, several times a year, and her laughter stays with me long after she's gone.
We did our typical hug, how are you, you look great routine before settling into my living room, where Sue took a gallon-sized Ziploc bag out of her purse. "Rae made these," she said with pride for her tough-minded, tender-hearted, twenty-seven-year-old daughter. "She's selling them for extra money, doing all she can to supplement her job. Want to buy some?"

The "some" she was referring to were homemade holiday greeting cards, hand-stitched and adorable. I fell in love with a card featuring a plump embroidered snowman, its blue on black background and silky white thread already putting me in a Christmas frame of mind. Wanting to support Rae, I bought ten dollars worth of cards, but there was only the one snowman, and I told Sue I'd have trouble parting with it. She confessed to feeling the same way — she had one snowman left for herself — so we agreed to mail them to each other for Christmas, thus ensuring we'd each get to keep one. Now I know that sounds crazy, but my friendship with Sue is all about crazy.

After she went home, I smiled when I glanced at the snowman I would eventually send her. But the card didn't make me think of Sue as much as Rae, so impassioned about her job at AmeriCorps, the humanitarian aid organization. I knew Rae earned less than $10,000 a year and had a mountain of school loans and bills to pay, but I also knew that she would sacrifice whatever was needed to continue her work. It inspired me to see someone so young making such a difference, despite financial struggles of her own, and it put a bit of perspective on our country's current dire economy.

It all started for Rae when she traveled over a college spring break to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. During that time she discovered that she loved working outside, elbow to elbow with fellow students and faculty. She was first up on the roof each morning, last to put her tools away at night. Volunteering for Habitat confirmed what she was just beginning to understand about herself — she wanted to help others for a living.

This confirmation was further reinforced by a missionary trip to Africa that summer. Rae had heard about the trip at school, and in a matter of months, had raised the necessary funds to go. If Albuquerque had whispered in Rae's ear, Africa truly opened her eyes. She'd seen how Africa was portrayed on TV, but the sheer poverty there didn't hit her until she experienced it in person. She was unprepared for the magnitude of human suffering and felt instantly ashamed of all she had back home in the states. She and her mom had certainly never been rich in the "land of plenty," getting by as they did on Sue's teaching salary, but they had a full life, and they had never gone hungry.

As Rae's group traveled through the slums of Nairobi to the orphanages of rural Kenya, she realized just how much she'd been blessed. Her heart went out to the children most. Curiosity clear in their wide, dark eyes, they poked at her freckles and stroked her blond hair. They delighted in the cookies and soccer balls the volunteers brought — things that Rae acknowledged she'd taken for granted all her life — and more than anything, they just wanted to be hugged. That was the paradox of it all, she marveled. These kids were truly happy, grateful for simple things. She met one little boy in a place called the "Blue Estates," so dubbed for the "houses" made of corrugated blue tin, with potato sacks serving as beds and water the color of mud. At journey's end, Rae couldn't stop crying. This little boy had become her friend, and chances were she'd never see him again. What would his future be?

With Africa forever in her heart, Rae knew she could never go back to an office job, although some people said it was time to get "real" work. She ignored their advice and joined AmeriCorps, where she's now employed with a program called "America Reads — Mississippi." In a Jackson inner-city school, she helps kids from kindergarten to fifth grade with reading and life skills, and she knows these kids don't have it easy. Most don't sleep well or have enough to eat; some come ready to fight. So Rae does what she can. And if she ever feels a twinge of envy over someone else's designer jeans or cool car, all she needs to do is remember "her kids."

She's comfortable with her life because she lives within her means. She and her fiancé Eliot, a Habitat staffer, have shopping down to a science, frequenting discount stores and donating to Goodwill. They laugh a lot too, which contributes to one of Rae's main goals: to show her kids, with their sad eyes and fragile smiles, how to laugh. She probably gets that laughing thing from her mom.

It's spitting snow when I run out to get my mail a week after Sue's visit. Back inside, I open a familiar-looking envelope, and there it is: my snowman, the one that Rae made. Inside, Sue had written: "Here's mine, as promised!"

I laugh, despite the grim economic reports and the concern that some in my family may lose their jobs. Overwhelmed by Christmas, I finish my cards several days before the big event. I know Sue must be wondering, so inside hers, I jot: "Finally yours — bet you were worried!"

I can almost hear her laughing across the miles, and somehow just the thought of that makes me laugh too. It occurs to me that maybe that's how we're all going to get through this, with a little laughter, a little craziness to keep us sane. Maybe we should try viewing our dire American economy not purely in materialistic terms, but as a chance to get back to the heart of things. Maybe this is our opportunity to rebuild our "land of plenty" in a different way, a kinder way, to join together and be grateful for our blessings, or as my friend Lisa says, to rejoice in the fact that we are here and alive.

Maybe we must remember, as another friend Ellen once told me, that God's timing is always perfect, and that our human connectedness is part of a larger divinity that's as powerful as reaching out to a small boy in Africa, or as simple as... exchanging little snowman cards.

четверг, 22 ноября 2012 г.

A Couch for Two

By Ferida Wolff

Rise to meet him in a pretty disorder — yes — O, nothing is more alluring than a levee from a couch in some confusion.
~William Congreve

My husband and I have been married for four decades and we have learned each other's preferences and dislikes. Sometimes they compliment each other, sometimes not. We know that we both don't care for surprise parties, for instance, not for us or for our friends. It doesn't mean that we won't attend one when invited and have a good time, but our children know better than to throw one for us. We also know that he likes action pix and I don't, but as we are both fond of going to the movies, we'll check out the reviews and pick a film that appeals to us both. We usually can find a way to cooperate.
One of the things we don't do well together is shop, and shopping for furniture is one of our least favorite things. We have different taste and agreeing on something is not an easy task. I like unusual; he likes classic. I prefer clean lines; he gravitates to curves. Yet sometimes we switch sides and confuse each other, like when I fell in love with an old-fashioned settee upholstered with medallions and swirls for our spare bedroom, and he took to a Danish modern table with no-frills chairs for our breakfast room. Our home reflects our eclecticism.

So when the day came that our old den couch needed replacing we knew we were in trouble. Someone would need to compromise.

We started out by checking home magazines for ideas. When I found something I thought had possibilities, I brought it up for discussion. Our conversations went something like this:

ME: What do you think about this sofa? It looks like a cross between seventies funk and Grandma Moses.

HIM: I hate it!

When he found something he liked, he showed it to me.

HIM: Here's a nice traditional couch. It would look great in the den.

ME: Let's keep looking.

The magazine route obviously wasn't working. So we decided to brave the furniture stores. This was a major decision for both of us, given his aversion to shopping and my habit of always wanting to go to just one more store. I didn't want to miss anything.

The first store we checked out was just down the road but it set the tone for the others.

ME: Wow, this is great! It explodes with color. What do you think, hon? Hon?

My husband was already off to another section of the store. I took it as a sign that we hadn't found the "right" couch yet.

Over the course of a week we must have seen every couch in every store in and around our neighborhood with pretty much the same result — no purchase. And the thought of extending our search was getting us both a bit ornery.

ME: Why don't you like anything I like?

HIM: I do, just not in our house.

We were getting desperate.

"I had enough," my husband said. "I could live with the old couch."

Only that wasn't an option. The problem was that we had given away our old couch. Our search continued, now out of necessity.

We found a couch (sort of) that we both thought we could learn to like. So we bought it and hoped for the best. It was delivered the next day.

"What's that smell?" I asked when the deliverymen removed the plastic coating.

"What smell?" said my husband.

I stuck my face into the fabric.

"That smell," I said.

"You're imagining things," he said.

Maybe I was. For two days I pretended everything was fine. By the third day, I was wheezing and had a violent headache. There must have been some kind of finish on the fabric that I was allergic to. Fortunately, there was a satisfaction guarantee from the store; the couch went back.

My husband groaned. He knew what was coming. The search continued.

"There's one more store we haven't seen," I said. "Let's give it a try."

He reluctantly allowed himself to be led into the store. A salesperson met us at the door and asked us what we were looking for. We were silent for a moment. Oddly enough, we had never really thought about it. The priority was just something we both liked; we hadn't defined it.

"Well," she said, "do you have any style in mind? What colors do you like? Do you want a cushy couch, one you can sink into, or a firmer one?"

We hadn't a clue. We just wanted what we wanted. Now what was it?

"It has to be deep enough," my husband said at last.

The salesperson looked at us with a question in her eyes. But I smiled because I knew what he meant.

"Yes," I said. "That's exactly right."

It was less a matter of style, though we did have our outer limits in regard to that, than of room. What we wanted, we suddenly knew, was a cuddly couch. We liked to snuggle up together at night to watch TV. Our couch had to accommodate our reclining, cuddling bodies. And even though we are both small, the two of us together needed a bit of space.

Now that we had a focus, our search through the store was easy. We passed on any couch that lacked that cuddle-ability.

We eventually found a simple Italian contemporary couch with sufficient definition to suit my husband and enough simplicity to satisfy me. To make sure it had the right cuddle factor, we tested it out in the store when we thought no one was watching, lying down side-by-side to make sure it was a good fit. It was perfect! We bought it on the spot and walked out of the store holding hands.

And it wasn't even a compromise. All we had ever needed was a couch for two.

The Great Thanksgiving Challenge

By Ruth Jones

I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks.
~William Shakespeare

My friend Marilyn and I had just settled into a booth at our favorite coffee shop. "BookTalk is at my house next month," I said. "I hate getting ready for it."
"I know what you mean," Marilyn answered. "I spent a week cleaning when it was my turn in February, not to mention baking two cakes."

"Not to mention that it's all over in a couple of hours. All that work for two hours!"

Marilyn nodded as we sipped from steaming cups of latte.

"And if that's not bad enough," I said, wiping foam from my upper lip, "my entire family is coming for Thanksgiving this year. I love them dearly, but you know what that means?"

"Yep. Cooking and cleaning, changing sheets, wondering what to feed everybody for breakfast. I go through the same thing every year."

The chimes on the coffee shop door jingled and a bedraggled woman entered, carrying two super-sized shopping bags stuffed with odds and ends. Twists of gray hair escaped from the ratty scarf covering her head. Nothing she wore matched, and one black canvas high top had a hole at the big toe. As she passed us, it was evident she hadn't bathed in days.

"Would you listen to us?" I whispered, feeling ashamed of myself. "We sound like two ungrateful curmudgeons."

"That poor woman probably can't pay for a cup of coffee."

"Do you think she's homeless?" I asked.

Marilyn shrugged her shoulders. Then she grabbed her wallet, and headed for the counter where she paid for the woman's coffee and an apple fritter. The woman smiled, showing bad teeth. I heard Marilyn invite her to join us, but the woman shook her head and settled into a soft chair in a sunlit corner of the shop.

"That was nice," I said when Marilyn slid back into the booth.

She rolled her eyes. "That was guilt."

I nibbled a piece of chocolate biscotti. "You know something? Some days, all I do is complain."

"Me, too."

"Take BookTalk for instance. Those women are smart and funny. I'm honored they asked me to join the club. The last thing I should do is complain about having them come to my house for a few hours."

Marilyn glanced at the woman thumbing through a tattered People magazine. "I don't know why I always see the glass half empty when it's more than half full," she said.

"We should stop complaining — it's a bad habit." I said this with more conviction than I felt.

Marilyn set her cup down just as a megawatt smile broke over her face.

"What?" I asked.

When Marilyn gets that look, it always means some bold plan has taken hold of her brain — usually one that includes me.

"We'll give it up. Complaining. We'll give it up for Thanksgiving."

"You mean Lent. That's months away."

"No — I mean we'll stop complaining and start being thankful. Just in time for Thanksgiving. It takes thirty days to drop a habit and thirty days to start a new one."

"So what's your plan?"

Marilyn leaned back and crossed her arms. "A challenge. We'll keep a diary. Write down every complaint. Then think of something to be thankful for, and write that down too."

"What if we can't think of something to be thankful for?"

Marilyn pointed to the old woman who had fallen asleep in her chair. "You can think of something."

"Then how will we know we're really keeping track? It would be easy to cheat."

Marilyn stuck out her little finger. Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. Pinky swear. We'd been doing it since junior high.

"Challenge accepted," I said.

Thanksgiving Day was a month and a half away. Could we really drop a bad habit by then? And replace it with a new one?

The next morning I poured my cereal and picked up the milk carton only to discover it was empty.

"I can't eat cereal without milk," I muttered. Then I caught myself, not believing the first words out of my mouth that day took the form of a complaint.

"Great," I said, talking to the cat. "Can't even start the day right."

And there it was: complaint number two.

"This is going to be harder than I thought," I said, searching the desk shelves for a notebook. "Why can't I ever find what I need when I need it?"

Welcome to my world, complaints three and four.

I grabbed the phone and dialed Marilyn's number.

"What's up?" she asked, way too perky for early morning.

"I've been awake fifteen minutes and all I've done is complain," I complained. "This is hard!"

"No kidding. Jim forgot to make the coffee last night — his job — and I had to wait ten minutes for the pot to brew."

"Did you write that down?"

Marilyn laughed. "Can't find a notebook."

"Neither can I!"

"Okay — quick — what are you thankful for?" she asked.

"I'm talking on the phone with my best friend and the cat is purring in my lap. What about you?"

"I'm drinking coffee in a warm kitchen and about to go work out," Marilyn answered. "See? This won't be so hard after all."

But it was hard. Hard to believe I complained so much about trivial things. Hard to believe I wasn't more thankful for my family, my friends, and my health. My mind kept wandering back to the homeless woman, and I caught myself saying little prayers for her.

BookTalk met at my house the first week of November. In preparation, I cleaned and cooked and complained. But I recorded the blessings, too: my husband cheerfully moved furniture to accommodate thirty women; the cheesecakes I baked were perfect; my friends in the book club complimented my beautiful home — and I realized they were right.

As weeks passed, I noticed my notebook recorded more blessings than complaints. Marilyn reported the same phenomenon. That's not to say we didn't complain — we did. Just not as much. Maybe the complaints dwindled because we realized we had so much to be thankful for.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, Marilyn and I met for coffee again, comparing stories of the holiday weekend and sharing what we'd written in the pages of our notebooks.

"It's interesting," Marilyn said. "I don't complain as much now. And when I do, the complaints sound more like problem statements than whining."

"I feel better about myself, too. And about life in general." I took a sip of creamy latte. "I guess we owe that homeless woman a bushel of gratitude, don't we?"

"Yeah," Marilyn said. "We sure do."

вторник, 20 ноября 2012 г.

Butter's Ball

By Debbie Acklin

Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that.
~Bill Shankly

I heard the thumping on the roof, followed by a short period of silence, and then there it was again... and again... and again. I knew exactly what was going on. Supper was in the oven so I snuck outside to watch the show.
Our seven-year-old son was tossing a small football onto the roof and then trying to catch it as it tumbled back down. Nearby, haunches vibrating as he squatted in his ready-to-pounce position, sat our striped yellow cat, Butter. Our son's goal was to catch the football before it hit the ground. Our cat's goal was the same.

Nothing infuriated our son more than Butter catching that football — Butter was not only a poor sport, he was a bully. If he got the football, he ran around the yard, teasing the young boy who was pursuing him. Once he was bored with that game, he would dash under the house where he, and the ball, could not be reached. This was almost a done deal. Sooner or later our son would miss, and the game would be over. This created a lot of tension during what should have been a time of leisure.

As I watched, the ball took a wild bounce. Butter sprang into action, leaping high to snatch the ball out of mid-air. The pursuit began. Of course Butter could not be caught or outmaneuvered, but that didn't stop our son from trying. "You stupid cat, give me back my ball!" he screamed at Butter while Butter zigzagged around the yard, crouching and leaping to evade his pursuer. Our son was very quick, but not as quick as our cat. When Butter was finished with the torment he zipped under the house.

My son was as angry with me for giggling as he was at Butter for stealing his ball. He kicked at a dandelion. "It's not funny. He won't give it back."

A few days later, we sat in the den, watching TV. Butter pranced into the den with the football in his mouth. No one could imagine how he had slipped the ball past the whole family or where he had hidden it.

Both our son and daughter would hit the floor where Butter was waiting for the fun of watching them scramble after him, over and behind furniture just to come up empty-handed. Butter could clear each piece of furniture in a single leap or slide under a low area when necessary. He would actually sit and wait for them to catch up with him, so sure was he of his prowess.

Butter did not understand the concept of gravity, and as far as we could see, those laws did not apply to him. He would run straight at a wall, making an impossible last minute U-turn, sometimes banking off the wall. Our children would skid into the wall like they were sliding into home base. Butter would stand in plain sight, waiting for them to recover.

We enjoyed watching this chase so much that my husband and I would momentarily forget our responsibility to stop this chaos and settle the children down. Once we regained our parental senses and control over the household, straightening up the mess, Butter would disappear. When he smugly returned to the den, the football would be missing. My children would search the house over, but never once did they find that football.

Then, one day, the football would just mysteriously reappear. Maybe it would be inside on the floor or on a piece of furniture. Maybe it would be on the lawn or the porch. Butter allowed our son to reclaim his football when Butter felt like it. Sometimes our son would be allowed to play with the football for several days, uninterrupted. Those days Butter would innocently prance around the yard, seemingly without interest in the boy or the ball.

The day Butter died, the football was missing. And even when we eventually packed up and moved from that house, we never found that football.

I Named Her Lily

By Galen Pearl

Every child begins the world again.
~Henry David Thoreau

"You will never, ever be able to adopt this child." I read the words again. "Don't even think about it." The e-mail went on to explain all the reasons why it would be impossible for me to adopt the girl I had left behind in China.
I thought back to that day. She was on the other side of a room filled with kids, mostly girls, at the orphanage in Nanjing. She was already grown, a teenager, not a child. She glanced at me and smiled. I fell in love. "Don't be crazy," I told myself. "You have four kids already. You do not need another child." But I made sure to get her photo and her name before she walked out of the room. Just as she disappeared from view, she looked back at me and smiled shyly. It was all I could do not to run after her. I didn't know if I would ever see her again.

Once I was back home, I found a way to sponsor her in school and correspond with her. Her delicate Chinese characters were a magical secret code. Whenever I got a card or letter from her, I would race to one of my friends who spoke and read Chinese to translate. I scribbled down every word so I could read them again later.

Meanwhile, I started making inquiries about adopting her. I sought advice from adoption agencies, from friends at the State Department, from former law students of mine now practicing in China. Surely someone could give me some encouragement.

But no one did. No matter where I turned, the answer was the same. She was not on the list of children available to adopt, and there was no way to get her on the list. She would soon be over the age limit. The Chinese government frowned on people selecting their own child, especially before being approved. And no, there were no exceptions. Not ever.

Why, then, was I so sure that she was meant to be my child?

I didn't give up. I kept asking. And then, in the midst of all the discouraging responses, I got an e-mail. "I have spoken with someone who thinks that she can help you." The first glimmer of hope. Oh, but so many things had to fall in place in my country and hers, through the bureaucratic red tape of two governments. I didn't hesitate. "Let's get started."

It was only then, when I thought that it was possible, that I sent a letter to the person who mattered most. I wrote to this girl I had only seen for twenty minutes and asked her if she would like to be part of my family. I described our life and sent pictures. I tried to be as honest as I could. I told her I couldn't make any guarantees, but if she wanted me to be her mother, I would do everything in my power to make that a reality. She was about to make the most important decision of her young life.

The days stretched into weeks as I waited for her response. When it came, I stared at the one English word in the midst of all the indecipherable characters -- mother. My ever-patient friend soon translated the rest. Yes, she would like to be my daughter.

Now we were in a race against the clock. Everything had to be completed before her next birthday. Like Cinderella when the clock struck midnight, she would then be over the age limit. There was no room for errors or delays.

If I wrote about all the people who made heroic efforts on both sides of the ocean to make miracles happen, it would take up this entire volume. Many of them I never knew and couldn't even thank. But step by step we got closer to the time when I would get on the plane and go to China to bring her home.

With the adoption plans moving forward, I wrote to ask her if she wanted an English name, and if so, what name appealed to her. She replied that in China, parents give their child a name that represents a wish or hope for the child. She wanted me to choose her name, to state my wish for her.

I thought about all that had transpired since I met her. I thought about her courage to leave behind everything that was familiar to her. It was like being born again.

So I named her Lily, the flower of Easter, the flower of life resurrected, with the hope that her new life would bring her joy and fulfillment.

A year and a half after that fateful day when I watched her walk out of that room, I sat in another room in Nanjing, waiting for her to arrive. When she walked through the door, I saw that same shy smile. I said hello to her in Chinese and held out my hand. With the pure trust of a child, she put her soft hand in mine, and we began our new life together.

I recently ran across that e-mail from the expert telling me that I would never, ever be able to adopt that girl. I just smiled. Never, ever underestimate the power of a mother's love.