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The Kindess of All Makes up For Christmas Grinch in Oakley, CA

The Kindess of Many Makes up For Christmas Grinch in Oakley, CA

Unfortunately, there are among us a lot of Grinches and Scrooges, and while we would like to believe they all reform at the end of a story, that just isn’t true.  Take, for instance, the good folks who live in Oakley, California, located in Contra Costa County which is part of the nine counties making up the greater San Francisco Bay Area.  For months the “Friends of Oakley,” a non-profit organization, who serve their fair city, had been collecting toys and food donations for those of the community who were down on their luck during these tough economic times; everything to be delivered just before Christmas.

The day after Thanksgiving, all was going very well until the committee arrived at the school where the growing supply of good wishes had been stored only to find that a Grinch had stolen everything.  The empty store room, without nary a can of food left to roll across the floor, told an obvious tale:  this Grinch, more than likely these Grinches, had no intention of returning their cache of goodies.

Of course, the crime was promptly reported to the police department, the City Council and the mayor.  Word of the robbery spread via TV, newspapers, social media, emails, texting and even phone calls.  Many local residents and many throughout the Bay Area wanted to help.  In addition, the “Friends” received word from a retired school teacher living in North Carolina that she too wanted to contribute.  Such outpouring of concern and generosity quickly erased the hanging cloud of gloom and despair.  However, the big question remained:  in less than a month could all the good intentions in the world replace the missing toys, blankets and non-perishable food items that were meant to help and bring a bit of joy to 800 children, 300 families and 100 seniors this Christmas season?

“The response was incredible,” said newly sworn Mayor Kevin Romick. “Wells Fargo Bank joined the effort with a $4,000. gift, Oakley Disposal added an another $2,000. and many other local businesses made like donations.  The weekend before Christmas additional food was contributed by The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties.  While volunteers wrapped and packed, Santa’s helpers in the form of volunteer drivers with trucks checked their lists twice for delivery of two gift cartons for everyone in need.  “There are some wonderful people living among us,” concluded the mayor.  “Probably some are your neighbors”

Thinking about my adult children, including Mayor Romick, it warms my heart to know the apples didn’t fall far from the tree.  Over the years I have been aware of the many charities to which these adults who shared our life and home have contributed both with money and time, their constant support of worthy causes, and their individual efforts to bring comfort and peace to those  in need – you might say to be the answer to someone’s prayer.  And I remember many of Ken’s and my efforts to do the same. I am pleased with my family, all of whom continue to serve their fellow man and if he were able Ken would tell you so himself.  With Alzheimer’s his mind no longer registers the happenings in life, but I know that somewhere deep in his heart he feels the joy.

It is sad to acknowledge that there will always be unreformed Grinches and Scrooges living among us, but the good news is we have wonderful people as well — some of whom are my children – and some just might be your children, or your neighbors and no doubt you.   So, recalling the most famous and most reformed Mr. Scrooge of all time I’ll echo his Merry Christmas, and in the words of Tiny Tim, “God Bless Us, Every One!”

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Santa and little girl

Over 50 years ago his rings gave this Santa a way.

Men wear rings for as many reasons as there are men, and then there are some who don’t wear them at all.  There was a family tale told by my father about his wearing a ring during his younger years. In the early1930s it could have been a wedding ring.  Whatever it represented is really not important.  By the time he was rescued from the side of a threshing machine where he hung by that ring, his third finger left hand, and his grappling right hand searching desperately to find a saving hold, the ring was history.  With his feet firmly planted on the ground, my father said he pulled the ring from his finger and threw it as far into the field as he could.  Never again to wear any rings until he had retired and my sister gave him a birthstone ring, which he loved.  I suppose he felt by then it was safe to garnish his hand with an emerald set in gold.  My dad was fortunate, and seriously, anyone who works around machinery or construction should leave the rings at home.

When Ken and I married we exchanged rings which had been engraved on the inside with our initials and wedding date.  Romantic as it was, we never looked at the lovely cursive letters after our wedding day because we never removed the symbols of our marriage until they were near worn through and we bought replacements.  But long before the replacements, I purchased him another ring for his birthday.

I had received an introductory coupon for a jewelry store in another city – not far away – but not in our shopping hub either.  The offer was good enough that I drove the miles to see what I could find as a special gift. With the coupon and my tight budget I found just the ring I knew he would like.  The design was probably quite common and might even still be available.  Engraved in black onyx was the head of a knight in full armor, and at the time I thought it was somewhat unusual and very handsome – just like the soon-to-be recipient.  He opened the box, smiled his approval, and slipped the ring on his finger where it remained until it needed repair.

My husband was really very hard on jewelry.  Not removing the rings when he did honey-do jobs around the house or replaced a fence, mixed concrete or changed a tire is not the way to keep rings looking their best, especially when I noticed the palm view.  “Good grief,” I once said, “they’re both bent out of shape.  He reassured me they could be straightened when the time came.  I suppose he was right and being the busy, active man he was I didn’t fret over his decision.

As soon as our children started school, he was involved in PTA, and in our school’s Dads’ Club as well.  There were dozens of activities throughout the year.  Not only projects for the school – building sets, planting gifted trees — but fun events for the children:  picnics for the Traffic Patrol, Easter egg hunts on the school grounds, Halloween parties and bringing Santa Claus to the Dads’ Club Christmas party.

Our close neighbors John and Fred, and Ken were all involved in working together for the good of the schools and the children.  They were almost like brothers, and when they weren’t working with the school, or some other worthy organization, they were helping one another almost every Saturday.   Being close friends, we were constantly in and out of each other’s homes almost on a daily basis.  It was a wonderful neighborhood for bringing up children, and we loved their kids nearly as much as we did ours.

While pleased with their father’s involvement, the children of our three families found there was also a down side.  “I know their costumes were great, but I can’t judge them the best, nor can we allow Fred or John’s kids to win.  As judges and workers in the club, it would look like nepotism.  People would think they won because of us,” Ken explained.  I knew what he said was true, but it just wasn’t fair.

The following year our daughter Julie wouldn’t allow her father to see her costume and arrived that evening as a tombstone which I helped her put on after we arrived at the school because she couldn’t sit down.  Clad in an oblong cardboard box painted gray with the appropriate R.I.P. lettered across the front which covered her head and body with arm holes so she could keep her balance Julie was unrecognizable and a contender.  It was all right that she didn’t win, but she did receive the well-deserved credit despite her father.

With Halloween over, the club jumped right into preparation for the coming Christmas party. “Hey, Ken,” asked the club president.  “Will you be Santa Claus.”  Well, of course, he would be Santa.  He loved that sort of thing, and not even our own children knew who Santa would be.

All the neighbors were there and during the program part where we sang the wonderful old hymns of the Baby Jesus lying in the manger, Silent Night and Jingle Bells while the little ones anxiously watched the empty chair next to the Christmas tree on side stage. Ken sat with me and the children, together with our neighbors and their children.  Our Kevin was best friends with Steve and Doug who were the sons of John and Fred, and all three were among the anxious little boys waiting for Santa.

Ken had slipped away to get into costume, and as the children clamored and began to form a line to visit with the jolly old elf no noticed his exit.  One by one the children took their a turn sitting on Santa’s lap telling him how good they had been and reciting their list of hoped-for toys to be delivered on Christmas Eva.  Santa gave each visitor a gift and they went their merry way.  Many of the small ones still believed and came away wide-eyed and excited about their experience.  Steve, Kevin and Doug wanted to believe, but they knew better all the while rattling off their list of wants and accepting the small gift.

Later that night as Fred and his wife Phyllis were putting Doug and little sister Lisa to bed Doug whispered to his dad, “I know who Santa was.”  Fred looked at his boy disbelieving, yet smiling, and replied, “No, you don’t.”  “It was Ken,” said Doug. “I could tell by his ring.”  I guess that’s why Santa should always wear gloves.

Many years later, and it was no wonder, the shank on the knight ring broke so it was away to the jewelers for repair.  Other than a few minor chips on the onyx the ring looked almost new when we picked it up.  Pleased, Ken slipped it back on his finger.  There it remained; the knight on the right hand and his wedding ring on the left.

Several years into Alzheimer’s when the mind begins to play tricks, and forgetting is the usual, I noticed he began to fidget with things: rearranging decorating items or taking them, putting magazines under sofa cushions, hiding keys, confiscating the remote control, insisting it was one of his engineering tools – more signs that AD was winning.  He also began slipping the rings off and on his fingers, playing with them like prizes from a gum ball machine.  One day I found the rings rattling around the bottom of my washing machine after removing a load of laundry.  Ken, no doubt, had placed them in his shirt pocket, soon to be forgotten.

A few days later he asked, “Have you seen my rings?”

Reluctantly I returned them explaining where I had found them and suggesting that he leave them on his fingers.  A week later while dusting in the living room I found them looped onto a fern nearly lost among the greens.  Enough, I thought, I’ll just put them away for safe keeping.  I believe he asked about them once.  I told him if I found them I would give them back.  I didn’t, and soon they were forgotten.  Apparently, the sentiment and the value of cherished items had slipped away with so much of who Ken was.  The rings:  Still put away safely until one day, perhaps, one of my grandsons will grow up to be someone’s  knight in shining armor — just like his grandpa – and I will pass them on.

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Father's Day gift

Most times the best present of all is a visit from a loved one.

“What should I get for Dad?” seems to be one of the most-asked questions falling from the lips of all children whether they are adults or still youngsters.  I recall Ken asking his mother, Rose, what we could get for his father as the arrival of either his birthday, Fathers’ Day or Christmas popped up on the calendar. I wasn’t any better with my dad.  The needs of these two men were next to nothing – minimal – and even minimal was too much.  They had everything they wanted and if they wanted or needed anything else, it seemed they just went out and bought it.  So much for gift ideas!

Nevertheless, we tried, and our children tried.  We might upgrade Dad’s hammer or get a new set of screw drivers, but how often could we do that.    Ken’s father was so funny about gifts.  He loved having us congregate for his birthday and other special occasions or for no occasion at all. But on present days we wanted so much to find something special for him; something he would remember and enjoy – from us.  Nick was an appreciative man, and when he opened our gift we were certain we had selected the perfect item.  Gushing with enthusiasm, he held it up for all to see exclaiming loudly, “Thank you very much.  Thank you very, very much.”  And he was sincere.

He blew out the numerous candles on his cake, and then Rosie served slices of her yummy chocolate confection with ice cream and 7-UP for all.  He was the life of his own party even if they were always the same. 

Lovingly, he would stand at the door as we left expressing how much he appreciated our coming and thanking us over and over for the gifts.  Then he would say to one of the older boys, “Why don’t you take this home?” handing him the after shave lotion which was the gift from Loretta.  To Ken he offered the screw drivers our children brought, and Loretta got the hammer. “Please,” he coaxed, “take these home.”  Now we, the guests, were the ones saying, “Thank you.”  Every gift-giving session with Nick ended in the same way.  “And thank you too,” we all called back relieving him of his just-opened presents. It was useless to object.  No matter what we brought to him, he gave it back to us, or to one of the other guests.  We all just shook our heads and laughed.  I suppose the gift he wanted most, and received, was having his loved ones near: our presence was his present.

My father wasn’t much better although he did keep everything.  He was a handyman so he used the tools, but when they moved and we cleaned the medicine cabinet we tossed the old after shave lotions with the seals unbroken certain the fragrance was long gone – or worse – drastically changed.

Ken was different, truly loving everything given to him.  His interests and collections covered many bases.  A kid at heart, our children and grandchildren knew they could even buy him toys, which the children were allowed to enjoy, but only with Grandpa.  Furthermore, he never gave any of them back.  He was not like his father.  Having once worked for the railroad he was the recipient of a phone shaped like a train locomotive, a miniature train and railroad station which in reality housed a clock announcing the hours with train whistles and a conductor shouting, “All Aboard.”  Grandpa was showered with trains of all gages from “N,” and “HO,” all the way up to match the train he had as a boy. The shelves were lined with miniature cars, trucks, semi cabs with trailers, and heavy equipment.  As a Navy man Ken enjoyed the tiny replicas of WWII battleships, cruisers and PT boats, “The Lone Sailor” figurine standing watch, and to hold up a section of Navy books our son had given him anchor bookends.  One year I asked our daughter-in-law Peggy to finish a hooked rug bearing the Navy seal which Ken had started but never finished — being the great procrastinator.  She did, and he was thrilled as we hung it on the wall. Ken even let everyone know he collected teddy bears.  His home office was the envy of all the grandchildren looking more like a shop filled with collectibles than a serious spot where the man of the house wrote monthly bills and figured his taxes.  After all was said and done I found it to be an endless chore to clean, and a pain and a half to dust, which I did, but only if and when Ken was willing to help.

He also enjoyed new shirts, new wranglers and new ties.  His first gift tie came from our daughter, Julie, when she was 9.  With white-elephant donations through the PTA and a two-day sale, the children were able to purchase affordable gifts for dad come Fathers’ Day.  Selectively, Julie chose the prettiest tie in the whole lot — a wide, hand-painted number sporting a garish Hawaiian sunset that was certain to blind onlookers.  He wore it all day — even to church.  “Nice tie,” commented the brethren – knowingly — “Fathers’ Day gift?”  He nodded and they all smiled.

As Alzheimer’s took his mind, it also took his happy spirit, his joy, and his sense of humor.  His curiosity about a colorfully wrapped package slowly ebbed until there was no longer any interest.  Even the greeting cards that were enclosed are now without meaning – just something to look at and toss aside.  So here it is again: Fathers’ Day, and the question still arises, “What can I get for dad?”

Whether it’s Dad’s Day, Mom’s Day, or Aunt Elaine or Uncle Tony’s birthday, or anyone else’s special day who is stricken with any of the vicious mind diseases the answer is usually the same.  “He/she really doesn’t need anything,” or the caregiver may say, “How ‘bout some new sweat clothes,” realizing the uniforms of the day are looking a bit shabby.  The only real need the victims may be aware of is a need to be fed when they feel hungry.   A plate of cookies brings a sparkle to Ken’s eyes and he might say, “Those are mine, thank you.”  So cookies are always a good gift, or candy; both can be rationed if there is a health problem.

Other than sweets and treats one suggestion as the best of gifts for the afflicted, and the caregiver as well, would be time – your time – time in the form of a visit given by friends and time given by family.  Not a lot, stay for just a little while and then you can leave, but please come again.  From what we, as caregivers observe AD has stripped their memory of everything once held near and dear.  Ken’s face is usually a blank wall as he stares up into the face of a visitor.  Perhaps, he may shake hands – or not.  Typically, there appears to be no recognition, nor does he make much of a comment as he did during the earlier stages of the disease.  At times Ken is chatty, or he may ignore the visitor altogether, or take a nap.  There is no “best” time for a visit.  Most of the day he is unpredictable; at times dozing off while the visitor sits nearby wondering what to say next.

Later, though, after someone has come and gone, and toward the end of the day Ken seems a bit calmer, more pleasant, happier if that’s still possible.  Prehaps deep in his soul the voice of the “stranger” works its way through the slime covering the brain and settles in a place that brings him the most comfort: in his heart where he may feel the reassurance that he is still cared for and loved.

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My friend, Kenny, (not to be confused with my son Kenney nor my husband, Ken) loves winter and everything about it: the cold outside and the warmth inside, the threatening storm clouds filled with buckets of rain, and a blustery north wind eventually pushing him home for a cup of steaming hot chocolate, but most of all he loves Christmas and all that it represents.  And one of his favorite Christmas songs is “Silver Bells.”  No doubt written long before he was born, he hums the melody and chants the words reminding me of another time and place when Ken and I were young and living in the “City.”  The city for us being San Francisco.

We lived in a one-bedroom flat just north of Twin Peaks and three long blocks up the hill from Market Street.   Then it was down the hill to Market Street where we would catch any street car taking us downtown to shop.  Unlike my friend, Kenny, I never did memorize all  of the words to “Silver Bells,” but bits and pieces spring to mind when I think of me and Ken shopping for our first Christmas in the city.  Let’s see, what were some of the words?  “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in Holiday style……….”   Then it spoke of “children laughing, people smiling….,”   and somewhere it told of shoppers hurrying home with their treasures —  and the bells —  “Ring-a-ling, hear them sing….soon it will be Christmas Day….”  It is such a joyful song and the lyrics tell it just the way it was — and possibly still is — somewhere.   

I remember the two of us being part of the happy crowds along Market Street, dodging raindrops as we wandered from one department store to another until we reached the Emporium which was our favorite.  The windows were a panorama of Christmas, mostly winter scenes with colorful lights and delightfully animated.  Everywhere you could see the Salvation Army bell-ringers next to a donation kettle and when you listened you could hear “Ring-a-ling.”   Whether the writers of the song were thinking of the donation kettles we never knew, but it didn’t — and doesn’t — matter.  That’s who we always thought of when we heard the song — and to this day it’s their image — the bell-ringers for the Salvation Army that enters my mind when I hear “Silver Bells.”

A week and a half before Christmas when Ken and I walked through the neighborhood to see the lights and he remembered he hadn’t done any Christmas shopping, I promised him we would go the following week.  Of course, he didn’t remember his remark, but we went shopping anyway.  My list had a few empty spots so we drove to the Mall three nights in a row; short trips so Ken didn’t get too tired.  

I like the Malls.  They are warm and dry and convenient, but this year, somehow, I missed getting wet and I’m not sure if I noticed as many smiling faces and laughing children, but most of all I missed the bells.  In front of the Post Office, there was a bell-ringer and a donation kettle, but I don’t believe I saw any others.  I doubt that San Francisco’s Market Street would be any different.  The Emporium has long since been absorbed by Macy’s, its glory days gone, the display windows dark  and forgotten.  I miss that almost innocent, joyful spirit  from long ago — you know — the way you feel when you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,”  and I wonder if the bell-ringers and the donation kettles are as few and far between in San Francisco as they were here.    Not having them  …….”on every street corner”…… with their silver bells somehow diminishes the celebration of the Season and sharing our abundance.  

The year 2009 is now a Christmas past.  The hustle-bustle is over and so is the cherished music of the season.  I doubt we’ll be hearing “Silver Bells” any time soon and the donation kettle in front of the post office is gone.   

Our Christmas with family went very well and Ken was fine.  However, his AD has advanced considerably since last Christmas.  Opening gifts was meaningless to him even though I coached him through the procedure.  Our daughter-in-law, Sabina, and our granddaughter, Jessica, baked him some cookies.  He was impressed with that gift.  “These are mine,” he proclaimed.  I thought to myself, “A bit of enthusiasm, how nice.”  While each passing year comes with a little more melancholy, I still acknowledge that I have much for which to be grateful, and I periodically pause to express my thanks to the All Mighty.   

Tomorrow, though, I think I’ll go to the Mall and pick up some silver bells at one of the big “After Christmas Holiday Decoration Sales,” but, I won’t be packing them away.  Instead, I’ll keep them close by and ring them joyfully to remind me to keep counting my blessings and that in spite of AD, life is good.

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For a generation or more we have spent Christmas Eve with our daughter  Julie and her family.   In addition to her brothers and sister, with their families, there has been other in-laws, friends, cousins and anyone else who needed a place to be for the Holiday.   In the past Julie’s house has been noisy, crowded and filled with merriment.  However, as children grow up, get married, move away and are caught up in careers or have other new family obligations, our traditions are in a state of flux.   

Last night there were only five little ones under 10 plus  an adorable baby, Rylie Ann, moving from the crawling stage to the standing stage, and two young adult grandchildren.  Their contemporaries were 800 miles away visiting their parents, brothers, sisters and extended family.  It was that distant house filled with the sounds of Christmas we had been so accustomed to hearing: the very joyful sound of lots of children and young people. 

Ken’s Christmas benchmark was noticable this year.  He has become somewhat frail looking, and moves like an older man with faltering footsteps and waving arms rather than the robust mature person he was before AD.   As we approached the steps to Julie’s house I noticed he was fearful of venturing onto the stone-laid walk.  Even though he was supported by two of his sons, he felt along the stones with his feet wanting to be certain they were solid.  Once inside the house, I noticed he was much more subdued during the evening — almost like a shy, clinging child in new surroundings.   It’s times like this when I say he is like Velco. 

Later on, Ken felt more at ease and decided to get a drink of water in the kitchen.  Carefully, he meandered his way between the glass coffee table and the couch.  He did well, but on his return trip, he took a quick right turn at the middle of the clear table top.  (He has macular degeneration in his right eye and his poor vision is now even worse.)  Blindsided and in the dim lights of Christmas he thought the way was clear.   Suddenly, he was falling right onto the glass and into the sofa on the opposite side.  I could see him grimace as he went down.  Immediately, I worried that he might have injured his artificial hip.  The men who were close by leaped to his assistance, but being the stubborn, independent man he is Ken wouldn’t allow the help.  Instead he struggled to right himself.  Although the glass is about three quarters of an inch in thickness we were all concerned it might be broken.  If it wasn’t, the possibility of more pressure on its tilted position  against the base might be the final insult causing it to break and really do him injury.   Still refusing help, he managed to climb over the glass and pull himself erect.  The men picked up the top placing it back onto the supporting base.  No damage and no harm done except for Ken’s shin bone, which was pretty well skinned.

Within a few minutes he had forgotten the accident and settled down next to me.  All evening long he asked,  “Whose house is this?”  Repeatedly I answered, “Julie’s house.”  Not once, but it seemed like a hundred times.    Comparing benchmarks, I could see considerable change during the past 365 days.

We had dinner, opened gifts, exchanged small talk and everyone went home.  As soon as I entered the house I slipped him two Tylenol PM tablets.  He had been sleepy in the car, but by the time we got inside took the pills and brushed his teeth, I could sense him slipping into one of his other characters.  It could have been 12-year-old Buddy, who guards the house like a stockade with the Indians circling.   It was midnight and I was so ready for sleep, but wanted to wrap a few more packages.  He began pacing, rattling the outside doors to make sure they were locked.  After three or four rounds, I lost my temper and he ordered me to leave.  When he does this lately, I lock myself in the computer room and let him pound on the door while I busy myself with “whatever.”    He finally settled down and I wrapped my gifts.   It was 3:00 a.m.

When I woke on Christmas morning, it was 10:00 a.m.   Feeling somewhat refreshed, I quickly got up, dressed and spread out a small morning buffet to munch on when Keith, Sabina, granddaughter Jessica, and Kenney and Peggy came.   I wondered if I would feel up to driving to Antioch with the gifts for Sean and Lani and family.  That decision would come later.  The late-morning visit with two of our sons, their wives and Jessica was lovely.  I was glad they came.  Jess is such a sweetheart and had made me several gifts. 

Approaching 3:00, my morning family had other places to go and friends to see.  A little late for us to be leaving for Sean’s, but if we left right then, opened the gifts and had a bite to eat, we could be home by 9:00.   In addition, we needed to be home when Tim (Julie’s husband) brought their three dogs for a half week’s stay.  They were off to Atlanta to visit their son Pete, ReNea and their four-year-old son, Mason.

It’s been about three  years since we lost our last dog.  Even though I miss not having an animal in the house, I don’t miss having to clean up the piles of hair that seem to float in the air landing on and under everything.  Nor do I miss the compulsory yard duty clean-up brought about by their presence.   It will be interesting to see how Ken does with three spunky dogs.  Meanwhile, Happy Holidays.

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