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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Briefly...

Another year has gone by in a flash. I cannot believe tomorrow is the first day of 2016--a year which sounds like science fiction to me. It's true how time speeds up the older one gets, it seems like I was just here the other day wishing everyone a Happy New Year at the start of 2015. This is one year I'm not especially sad to see the back of. Not that I haven't had worse, but I've definitely had better!

My crazy mother sent me a Facebook message last night reminding me to do all of our laundry tonight before midnight. My grandmother always said that washing clothes on new year's day would wash away a family member in the new year. Sigh. Who would dare to tempt fate with something so horrible? So while I know it's silly, I'll be scrambling to catch up our laundry AFTER I get off work tonight. Thanks mom!

Gregg and I will probably be headed to Raleigh tomorrow to visit his sister in the hospital  (she's coming along fairly well since the accident, and we appreciate everyone's concern!) and his mom. It's the only day off we have together for the next few weeks, so we need to do it. Since we're planning to leave very early in the morning, I doubt we'll be up much past midnight after seeing the new year in.

So while I'm preparing to head off to work, I wanted to take a moment to thank you all for being here. Thank you for your friendship, and for writing your own blogs that I enjoy so much. I wish for each and every one of you a safe, happy, and prosperous 2016.

See you on the other side!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dog tired

Too much food, too much alcohol, and too many long hours at work combined with weird disruptions in my normal schedule have worn me out. I have a Christmas hangover!

Today I had to go to work at 5am, and got off at 1:30pm. Despite the ridiculously early hour, I'm glad I was scheduled that way. We didn't open until 9:00, so I spent the first half of the day alone in my department, quietly resetting displays and pulling the clearance merchandise aside. Even after the store opened I continued working like that until it was time to leave. Now I'm off early in the day, and I'm off tomorrow too.

The animals seem tired and subdued. I think they also have holiday hangovers! They all got lots of treats, toys, and attention on Christmas Eve and day. Especially the dogs.



They've both been sleeping all day today.

Marco is sitting on my knee right now. Even he's getting droopy-eyed.


Now seems like a good time to join all the animals in an afternoon nap.
It's going to feel great!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ready or not...

You can stick a fork in me, baby, because I am DONE with shopping! If we don't have something at this point, we'll just have to do without!

I went out for a four-hour trek around town today and got the rest of the stuff we need to have a pleasant Christmas Eve and day. Lots of food, including a honey baked ham from Heavenly Ham (they're expensive but delicious) and a caramel cake and assorted cookies from the bakery down the street. I also picked up a nice selection of imported cheeses, olives, wine and champagne. We always eat really well at Christmas time.

I also got lots of treats for the dogs, and new toys for George and Marco (Ginger doesn't care for toys). It's not Christmas without stockings full of goodies for the pets.

Speaking of toys, I've mentioned before that my friend Marla is expecting a baby in February. Since I'll be an honorary Auntie to the child, I decided to buy a little gift for her this Christmas. She's due at the beginning of February.



That little stuffed dog is so wonderfully soft that you just want to rub it against your cheek. Perfect for a newborn. The book I chose to go with it is It's Time to Sleep, My Love by Nancy Tillman. Her books for children are really sweet, and they have the most exquisite watercolor illustrations.

I invited Marla over tonight after she got off work so I could give her the baby's gift. I prepared us drinks to toast with (champagne for me, sparkling white grape juice for her) and bakery cookies to munch on. We had a nice chat. Before she left I gave her a box of bayberry taper candles to burn for luck tomorrow night, and the gift for the baby. It was so nice to see her and wish her a merry Christmas--we've been friends for  quite a few of them, now.

So it's time for bed on this Christmas Eve eve, and as I went around blowing out candles and turning off lights to prepare for bed, I snapped a picture of our dining room table. I think it looks really pretty, shining there in the dark.


I'm ready for Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas in literature

I wanted to share an excerpt from one of my favorite novels about pioneer life in America. The following is from My Antonia by Willa Cather. Young Jim Burden has gone to live with his grandparents on the prairies after the death of his parents, and befriends a young Bohemian girl named Antonia Shimerda, whose family have recently come to America. Her father was a distinguished, educated man in the old country, but he and his family are struggling to survive in America and are crushingly poor. And as poor immigrants who don't speak the language, they are not treated very well in their strange, new world.

My Antonia is available to read for free online, as it's in the public domain. (I like the Guttenberg site.) It's a wonderful novel of early American frontier life.

XI

DURING THE WEEK before Christmas, Jake was the most important person of our household, for he was to go to town and do all our Christmas shopping. But on the twenty-first of December, the snow began to fall. The flakes came down so thickly that from the sitting-room windows I could not see beyond the windmill—its frame looked dim and grey, unsubstantial like a shadow. The snow did not stop falling all day, or during the night that followed. The cold was not severe, but the storm was quiet and resistless. The men could not go farther than the barns and corral. They sat about the house most of the day as if it were Sunday; greasing their boots, mending their suspenders, plaiting whiplashes.

On the morning of the twenty-second, grandfather announced at breakfast that it would be impossible to go to Black Hawk for Christmas purchases. Jake was sure he could get through on horseback, and bring home our things in saddle-bags; but grandfather told him the roads would be obliterated, and a newcomer in the country would be lost ten times over. Anyway, he would never allow one of his horses to be put to such a strain.

We decided to have a country Christmas, without any help from town. I had wanted to get some picture books for Yulka and Antonia; even Yulka was able to read a little now. Grandmother took me into the ice-cold storeroom, where she had some bolts of gingham and sheeting. She cut squares of cotton cloth and we sewed them together into a book. We bound it between pasteboards, which I covered with brilliant calico, representing scenes from a circus. For two days I sat at the dining-room table, pasting this book full of pictures for Yulka. We had files of those good old family magazines which used to publish coloured lithographs of popular paintings, and I was allowed to use some of these. I took 'Napoleon Announcing the Divorce to Josephine' for my frontispiece. On the white pages I grouped Sunday-School cards and advertising cards which I had brought from my 'old country.' Fuchs got out the old candle-moulds and made tallow candles. Grandmother hunted up her fancy cake-cutters and baked gingerbread men and roosters, which we decorated with burnt sugar and red cinnamon drops.

On the day before Christmas, Jake packed the things we were sending to the Shimerdas in his saddle-bags and set off on grandfather's grey gelding. When he mounted his horse at the door, I saw that he had a hatchet slung to his belt, and he gave grandmother a meaning look which told me he was planning a surprise for me. That afternoon I watched long and eagerly from the sitting-room window. At last I saw a dark spot moving on the west hill, beside the half-buried cornfield, where the sky was taking on a coppery flush from the sun that did not quite break through. I put on my cap and ran out to meet Jake. When I got to the pond, I could see that he was bringing in a little cedar tree across his pommel. He used to help my father cut Christmas trees for me in Virginia, and he had not forgotten how much I liked them.

By the time we had placed the cold, fresh-smelling little tree in a corner of the sitting-room, it was already Christmas Eve. After supper we all gathered there, and even grandfather, reading his paper by the table, looked up with friendly interest now and then. The cedar was about five feet high and very shapely. We hung it with the gingerbread animals, strings of popcorn, and bits of candle which Fuchs had fitted into pasteboard sockets. Its real splendours, however, came from the most unlikely place in the world—from Otto's cowboy trunk. I had never seen anything in that trunk but old boots and spurs and pistols, and a fascinating mixture of yellow leather thongs, cartridges, and shoemaker's wax. From under the lining he now produced a collection of brilliantly coloured paper figures, several inches high and stiff enough to stand alone. They had been sent to him year after year, by his old mother in Austria. There was a bleeding heart, in tufts of paper lace; there were the three kings, gorgeously apparelled, and the ox and the ass and the shepherds; there was the Baby in the manger, and a group of angels, singing; there were camels and leopards, held by the black slaves of the three kings. Our tree became the talking tree of the fairy tale; legends and stories nestled like birds in its branches. Grandmother said it reminded her of the Tree of Knowledge. We put sheets of cotton wool under it for a snow-field, and Jake's pocket-mirror for a frozen lake.

I can see them now, exactly as they looked, working about the table in the lamplight: Jake with his heavy features, so rudely moulded that his face seemed, somehow, unfinished; Otto with his half-ear and the savage scar that made his upper lip curl so ferociously under his twisted moustache. As I remember them, what unprotected faces they were; their very roughness and violence made them defenceless. These boys had no practised manner behind which they could retreat and hold people at a distance. They had only their hard fists to batter at the world with. Otto was already one of those drifting, case-hardened labourers who never marry or have children of their own. Yet he was so fond of children!


XII

ON CHRISTMAS MORNING, when I got down to the kitchen, the men were just coming in from their morning chores—the horses and pigs always had their breakfast before we did. Jake and Otto shouted 'Merry Christmas!' to me, and winked at each other when they saw the waffle-irons on the stove. Grandfather came down, wearing a white shirt and his Sunday coat. Morning prayers were longer than usual. He read the chapters from Saint Matthew about the birth of Christ, and as we listened, it all seemed like something that had happened lately, and near at hand. In his prayer he thanked the Lord for the first Christmas, and for all that it had meant to the world ever since. He gave thanks for our food and comfort, and prayed for the poor and destitute in great cities, where the struggle for life was harder than it was here with us. Grandfather's prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression. Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to know his feelings and his views about things.

After we sat down to our waffles and sausage, Jake told us how pleased the Shimerdas had been with their presents; even Ambrosch was friendly and went to the creek with him to cut the Christmas tree. It was a soft grey day outside, with heavy clouds working across the sky, and occasional squalls of snow. There were always odd jobs to be done about the barn on holidays, and the men were busy until afternoon. Then Jake and I played dominoes, while Otto wrote a long letter home to his mother. He always wrote to her on Christmas Day, he said, no matter where he was, and no matter how long it had been since his last letter. All afternoon he sat in the dining-room. He would write for a while, then sit idle, his clenched fist lying on the table, his eyes following the pattern of the oilcloth. He spoke and wrote his own language so seldom that it came to him awkwardly. His effort to remember entirely absorbed him.

At about four o'clock a visitor appeared: Mr. Shimerda, wearing his rabbit-skin cap and collar, and new mittens his wife had knitted. He had come to thank us for the presents, and for all grandmother's kindness to his family. Jake and Otto joined us from the basement and we sat about the stove, enjoying the deepening grey of the winter afternoon and the atmosphere of comfort and security in my grandfather's house. This feeling seemed completely to take possession of Mr. Shimerda. I suppose, in the crowded clutter of their cave, the old man had come to believe that peace and order had vanished from the earth, or existed only in the old world he had left so far behind. He sat still and passive, his head resting against the back of the wooden rocking-chair, his hands relaxed upon the arms. His face had a look of weariness and pleasure, like that of sick people when they feel relief from pain. Grandmother insisted on his drinking a glass of Virginia apple-brandy after his long walk in the cold, and when a faint flush came up in his cheeks, his features might have been cut out of a shell, they were so transparent. He said almost nothing, and smiled rarely; but as he rested there we all had a sense of his utter content.

As it grew dark, I asked whether I might light the Christmas tree before the lamp was brought. When the candle-ends sent up their conical yellow flames, all the coloured figures from Austria stood out clear and full of meaning against the green boughs. Mr. Shimerda rose, crossed himself, and quietly knelt down before the tree, his head sunk forward. His long body formed a letter 'S.' I saw grandmother look apprehensively at grandfather. He was rather narrow in religious matters, and sometimes spoke out and hurt people's feelings. There had been nothing strange about the tree before, but now, with some one kneeling before it—images, candles... Grandfather merely put his finger-tips to his brow and bowed his venerable head, thus Protestantizing the atmosphere.

We persuaded our guest to stay for supper with us. He needed little urging. As we sat down to the table, it occurred to me that he liked to look at us, and that our faces were open books to him. When his deep-seeing eyes rested on me, I felt as if he were looking far ahead into the future for me, down the road I would have to travel.

At nine o'clock Mr. Shimerda lighted one of our lanterns and put on his overcoat and fur collar. He stood in the little entry hall, the lantern and his fur cap under his arm, shaking hands with us. When he took grandmother's hand, he bent over it as he always did, and said slowly, 'Good woman!' He made the sign of the cross over me, put on his cap and went off in the dark. As we turned back to the sitting-room, grandfather looked at me searchingly. 'The prayers of all good people are good,' he said quietly.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Midwinter Sky

Taken shortly after midday late last week.

Today is the winter solstice. I wish you all peace, health, and happiness as we wait for the return of the Light.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bad luck and trouble

I've said it before, December always means bad luck for me and my family.

The latest: Gregg's sister was in a terrible car accident today. She's going to live, but she's very badly hurt. She has a shattered elbow, broken ribs, a fractured sternum, and an upper femur break in one of her legs so bad that they had to do surgery immediately to insert a metal rod. Apparently her car flipped over and crashed into a tree, and they had to cut her out of the twisted wrecked metal.

Naturally we're very concerned and will probably be going to up to see her in the next day or two. She lives up in Raleigh so their mom is close by, at least. I'm sure she'll be spending Christmas in the hospital and we need to be there to offer her, her kids, and my mother-in-law whatever support they need.

What a terrible day.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Getting There

Hi Friends!

Christmas is only a week away, and despite everything that's not getting done this year I'm getting  into the spirit of the season.

As usual, work has been brutal. Longer hours, crowds of harried, demanding customers, huge shipments of merchandise, a store utterly wrecked each night, and much larger sums of money to deal with every day wears one down quickly.

This year, I've given up on baking and cooking from scratch. Most of our holiday feasting will be on nice but store-bought goodies. Our house has minimal decorations. Just a lighted bough on the mantle, and Christmas candles scattered around the house. I haven't had the  time to do more, what with my dad's recent health issues. There's no one else to help my parents out, so I've been getting them to appointments and being there for moral support on my days off.

Dad had a heart catheterization on Tuesday, and to our surprise and relief,  he had no blockages in his arteries. They still need to figure out why he's having problems, but we're so happy to know that his heart is healthier than we expected. The good news was like an early Christmas gift.

Wednesday night was my book club's holiday gathering.  We read The Christmas Pearl by Dorothea Benton Frank for the month of December, which was, frankly, terrible. As one of the other members observed, "It was like a sappy Lifetime movie". No one liked it very much, but we did have a really nice little party. Everyone brought a dish or dessert  (I bought fruitcake cookies at a bakery because of lack of time) and there was plenty of wine. The food was wonderful, and once the wine started to flow everything began to be quite merry!

After we talked about the book, everyone shared a Christmas tradition they either follow today or had growing up. My friend Marian shared one I'd never heard of. She grew up in the Northeast where it's traditional to burn bayberry candles on Christmas eve, and there's a rhyme to go along with it:

"The candle burned from the tip to the socket, brings joy to the home, and wealth to the pocket."

So the candles couldn't be extinguished, they had to burn themselves out naturally. And they have to be real bayberry candles. I did some research after I got home and it turns out that the custom began with the early colonists. They discovered that the waxy coating of bayberries could be made into sweet smelling, clean burning candles, unlike the stinky tallow candles that were widely used in day to day life.

The problem was that although bayberry bushes grow prolifically up and down the East coast, it takes a LOT of berries to extract enough wax to make candles. For that reason they were usually saved for Christmas celebrations.

Marian still burns bayberry candles on Christmas Eve, and when I expressed an interest in it, she gifted me with a box of them for our house! The only place that sells them around here is Yankee Candle, which happens to be right across the mall from my bookstore. Another condition of the candles bringing you luck (besides burning them all night) is that they're supposed to be given to you by a friend. So yesterday I went to Yankee Candle and purchased several boxes. I'll give one box back to Marian for her kindness in sharing with me, and I'll give the rest to a couple of other friends.


I also bought some small Balsam and Cedar jar candles. I lit one last night and it made our house smell like a freshly cut Christmas tree--very nice.

So despite my messy house, long hours at work, and family responsibilities, I'm getting into the Christmas spirit!

How about you all?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

South Carolina in the 1930s

My maternal grandparents were both born on sharecropper farms here in South Carolina just prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

 They grew up very poor, growing tobacco for wealthy landowners and just barely making a living during those long-ago hard times.

Here are some photos taken around the state in the 1930s, of people very much like my grandparents.

http://www.onlyinyourstate.com/south-carolina/rare-sc-depression-photos/

Sparrows in Winter

Some thoughts from my favorite nature writer,  Hal Borland, about my blog's namesake birds.

A Song for Supper

"Among the daily customers at the Winter bird feeder, the tree sparrows are almost as common as the chickadees, and usually as welcome. One reason is that the tree sparrow, that fellow with a single dark button on his light gray vest, will volunteer a song for his supper even in the midst of a snowstorm. He doesn't go into ecstasies over the weather in December, perhaps, but his is more than a mere twitter even now. By January he will be as much of a songster as a chickadee, and by February he will sing about Spring, regardless of the weather.

The name is deception, for the fellow is essentially a bird of the bushes and the underbrush. Even at nesting time - and the tree sparrow nests up around Hudson Bay - these sparrows stay close to the ground. And the Summer habits are carried south in the Winter. For the tree sparrow is a migrant, sometimes going as far south as the Carolinas. Those that Winter here will be on their way back north no later than April.

Every farmer and every gardener who knows his birds welcomes the tree sparrow, who probably consumes as many weed seeds, ounce for ounce, as any bird alive. In a state the size of Connecticut the tree sparrows alone will eat as much as eleven tons of weed seed in a single season. What they eat at the feeding station is small pay for such a service. And even the handouts are paid for in song as well as service. Who could ask for more than that?

Hal Borland
"Sundial of the Seasons"
December 1959


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Holiday Laugh!

One of my favorite blogs of all time is Hyperbole and a Half by the amazing Allie Brosh. It hasn't been updated in a long time, but there is years' worth of brilliantly funny reading to be found there. She also released a book two years ago (and is working on a second one) that I highly recommend for a fun read!

 I wanted to share one of my favorite blog posts of hers for your holiday enjoyment. My friend Marla and I both laughed until we cried when we first discovered this, and we now make jokes about Kenny Loggins every Christmas. It's become a tradition.

Enjoy!

http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/12/year-kenny-loggins-ruined-christmas.html?m=1

Last of the Season

I went to the small farmer's market down the street this morning to see what vegetables and fruit I could find. They will only be open for another week, and then will close until March. I bought potatoes, onions, and turnips. They were also doing a good business in fresh Christmas trees from the North Carolina mountains, and wonderful looking citrus fruits from Florida.

I'll miss the market for the next three months.

Pine trees and citrus smell like Christmas!

Monday, December 7, 2015

In the dark (literally )

I'm at work and our store (as well as the whole mall we're attached to) is without power. We've heard that there was a bad car accident down the road and a transformer got smashed. That was at 5pm, and we're waiting to see if the power is restored by 7pm so we can get two more hours of operation in for the day. If not we'll be leaving early. In the meantime, there's nothing to do but wait.

There aren't many things much creepier than a dark deserted shopping mall with only emergency lights to see by. I keep thinking of that zombie movie from the 70's or 80's where the hordes of undead flocked to the shopping mall.

I want to go home!


Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Visit with Santa

Last night we had a fun time at the bookstore. It was our annual Christmas event where we have a reading of The Polar Express, and it's also a pajama party for the children. They show up in their pjs and are given hot chocolate and a cookie as they gather around to listen to the story. This year we had a special surprise guest--Santa Claus! The kids were thrilled!








I also had the chance to talk to Santa before the event, to tell him what I want for Christmas. I've been a good girl all year!

Selfie with Santa!

Friday, December 4, 2015

One Week In

If the first week is any indication, December is going to stay true to form and be a total mess of a month. It's simply been one thing after another.

My dad is feeling better, but he had a stress test on Wednesday and when the nurse called him this morning and tried to get him to come discuss the results with the doctor, he put it off until Monday. He's afraid to know what they've found. The nurse did say the doctor found "a blockage". Which I'm sure is going to mean bypass surgery.

While I certainly understand his and my mom's fear, what I don't understand is their desire to remain in the dark for as long as possible. When Gregg had cancer, every single test he had (and there were a lot) were terrifying for us both. Not knowing what's wrong and what is going to have to be done about it is almost unbearable to me.  I prefer to know the worst as soon as possible and to get on with doing something about it immediately.  That's just me. Hopefully dad will keep his appointment on Monday and we'll know how things stand after that.

Gregg caught the illness I had last week. He's felt awful for about 3 days now. Last night he was up almost every hour throwing up. All I could do was offer a warm wet cloth for his face and be there with him. I was sure he would need to see the doctor this morning, but he woke up feeling very much improved. So that's a relief, at least.

We've had another mass shooting in America this week. It's a daily occurrence here and not even very surprising anymore. This time it was a husband-wife team that caused the death of 14 and injured another 21 people. They were Muslims recently back from a visit to Saudi Arabia, but last week it was a crazy fundamentalist Christian that shot up a medical clinic so that makes no difference as far as I'm concerned. It's all terrorism. Churches, schools, doctor's offices, social services agencies....lunatics with guns might be anywhere these days. No place feels safe or sacrosanct anymore.

So with all these bright thoughts I'm sending out....how's your week going?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

December

"This first week in December brings the earliest sunsets of the year, though not the shortest days because sunrise will continue to lag for another month. We are approaching the winter solstice and, in terms of daylight span, the very depth of the year. Now we begin to pay that promissory note we signed last summer for those endless sun-tanned days with early dawns and long, lingering twilight. Nights now are as long as the days were in June.

We pay the debt with coin that has an icy clink, and the coin itself is important as a corrective. These December days are in themselves a challenge to our environment. Man boasts of his power and his control over the world around him. True, he can cut the trees, bulldoze the hills, drive out the animals, discourage the birds, even kill a few billion insects. But he still can't divert the course of a blizzard, temper the winter wind, or put a legal limit on the depth of a snowfall. All he can do is armor himself against them or hide from them, which is something less than domination.

December is going to be itself, no matter what we say or do. Sometimes it has all the trappings of late autumn, and sometimes it is a full-fledged partner of late January. It will bring a full moon this week (in 1968...2015's full December moon falls on December 25th), with moonlight that makes one wonder why we can't leave the moon alone. It will be green with pine and bright with berry, and it probably will be spangled with frost and snow as well as tinsel. And before it ends the days will be lengthening toward spring again."

Hal Borland
"Twelve Moons of the Year"
December 1968

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

World AIDS Day

I just found out that today is World AIDS Day. I wanted to share a link here on my blog to help raise awareness of this awful disease. AIDS is absolutely devastating some parts of the world to this day despite all the gains we've made in treating and preventing it. I hope one day that this disease is eradicated from the face of the Earth forever. It's claimed far too many victims.

I'm remembering my friend Michael Shirley today who died of AIDS ten years ago when we were both only 30 years old. Michael was brilliantly funny, kind, and caring. The world is a darker place without him, and he is loved and missed. If talking about Michael can help raise awareness and prevent even one new infection, then his death will not have been in vain.

http://www.worldaidsday.org/