Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Slaughtering Trees for a Good Cause

 Each year, I look forward to receiving that very first Christmas card.  It doesn't matter the sender, the artistic design, or the poetry within.  Each brings a warm feeling to my heart.

Each card represents love. 

In this day and age of rapid-fire point and click, people rarely have the spare time to undertake such an antiquated tradition like mailing cards at Christmastime.  Yet, many still do, not for tradition's sake, but to say I love you without ever speaking those exact words.

While I'm usually pro-reducing my carbon footprint, in this case, I find the trees' sacrifice is worth it tenfold.  There is just something about knowing that somebody, somewhere took the time to hand write warm wishes to my family in this very tangible form.

I affix all of them to a closet door near our foyer, a surface I will see numerous times each day as I work around the house.  Quite often, I catch my children stooped before the door, small hands opening the cards and reading the names within.  They, too, know the value in receiving mail such as this.

There are those that have been enhanced with metallic foil accents and those attacked by glitter that continues to drip upon my floor all season long with each touch.  Then, there are those with the heavily lacquered surfaces hanging beside others frosted iridescent with Southern pipe dreams of a white Christmas.
I love them all.  The angels, the flocked trees, the ornaments, the Happy Holidays, and the Merry Christmases.  Their colors and messages delight until after the new year has come.

The simple things of the season sometimes have the most long-lasting impact.  An envelope, a store-bought card, and a stamp--here's betting I'm not the only one who appreciates this little offering of love this season.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Un-Fashionable Christmas Tree

Take away all the arguments about how Christmas should or shouldn't be celebrated, all the talk about calories, and even the self-imposed drama...and still, I absolutely love this season of the year, if for no other reason that because I appreciate beauty.   Walk into any florist or department store, and you will be confronted with an artistic vision of loveliness packaged in at least one Christmas tree.

You know the trees I’m talking about, the kind where everything matches from tree skirt to topper, where there are no ugly paper "ornaments" young children made in school, none awkwardly glued back together after an altercation with said child (or maybe the family pet).

Over the past few years, I’ve watched Facebook photos depict a trend shifting away from angels hovering from on high to decadent ribbon bows that weave glittery trails down from that uppermost perch.  I’ve also watched the family tree turn into little more than a generic decoration, one that could be stuffed in the van, transported down the street to the neighbor’s house, and plopped down in that new space, all without anyone knowing the difference.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love those trees.  I drool over your perfectly spaced ornaments all in perfect ombre gradations of blues and silvers.  I longingly gaze at the rolls of ribbon woven sparkling throughout your branches and think how perfectly they would accent my own home’s decor.  Sometimes, I even grow a bit envious of your well-lit branches that shine a pristine glow of bright white through your front door as I pass by.

But when it comes time to erect my own family's tree each year, I don’t go out and buy the seven foot green pre-lit one I always said I’d own whenever I had a house of my own.  I don’t buy the perfectly matched ornaments of fashion that I still give a wistful glance each time I ever so slowly stroll by that aisle of the store.

No.  Instead, I pull out the same retro pink tinsel tree and with eyes aglow, open the treasure box that houses so many priceless gems from years gone by.

There are the dozens of crocheted snowflakes my mother stitched and starched, the beaded snowflakes, angels, soldiers, and candy canes she I made in bulk, many with fellow GA's and Acteens at church.
There is the yo yo candy cane I used for my "how to" speech in that 3:15 pm college speech class on Tuesday/Thursday, the one with the uber-feminist teacher who scared me speechless.  On the same branch hang the blue mittens one of my Bible study ladies knitted and the African cloth-covered ball from a WMU meeting, ever reminding me each year to pray for a people group I will likely never meet face to face this side of heaven.
Close near the bottom is the hand painted reminder of Mia, as well as both her well-worn collar and that of her brother, Ming, my first two adopted cats who filled my heart when I could not yet fill that hole with the children I longed for.
Then come a friend's gift of crocheted wreaths, all bearing images of my babies in years past.  The baby's first Christmas ornaments.  The Lenox bells celebrating husband's first Christmas together with me in marriage.  They join together with dozens of others, an eclectic blend of the handmade hung beside a purple cross, Scripture-glittered balls, the Poky Little Puppy, Cat in the Hat, and John Deere, each which has its own story to tell.
At the top go those most precious, those I still want far out of my children's reach.  But "precious" doesn't mean "fashionable" or even worth anything at all.  Always out of reach is the gingerbread with the gnawed off arm along with the face and buttons carefully picked off by tiny little fingers--my tiny little fingers that couldn't imagine a world where what looked like a cookie wasn't actually a cookie.
Nearby is the tiny angel formed of glitter-rimmed tulle, a dented Styrofoam head, age-yellowed cotton ball hair, and crinkled aluminum foil wings--a craft my mother created so many years ago in her youth.

These are the treasures that decorate our tree, each telling part of our story, each revealing something about each of us five individuals who live together collectively as a family beneath this roof.

These are the stories we tell year after year as we decorate, tales so oft repeated that they knit together to form the very tapestry of our family that shines, albeit with a different kind of beauty each Christmas.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Color of Money: Fiscal Responsibility and Our Children

It all started when my daughter's late October birthday left us with a perfectly-coiffed American Girl doll in the house. The book-like magazines had been littering our tables since before her birth but had only recently become a big deal when a few friends received dolls from their Grandma...and especially when a few other friends started bringing their dolls to church. 

As those dolls sat quietly in worship, we sang hymns and read the Scriptures.  All the while, Amelia took notes, but not on the sermon.  Instead, she gazed longingly down the pew and across the aisle at Josephina and Felicity.  That's when my Samantha doll--who had thus far lived virtually unnoticed in the glass-paned hall cabinet--became a constant topic of conversation. 

Didn't I ever change her clothes? Brush her hair? Take her out to play with?  As I wiped the satsuma-sticky fingerprints from the glass for the umpteenth time, I couldn't help but think, "Sure. Before I had three living dolls to dress each day!" 

I received my one and only American Girl doll for my Sweet Sixteen birthday.  Turning sixteen wasn't the big deal.  But receiving the doll sure was.  I had waited a lifetime of years until that "big" birthday, probably the only one where I received a gift costing $100, such an extravagance for my family who never spent that much on gifts.  Back then, a party meant mama's homemade chocolate cake with the boiled pink marshmallow icing, a quart of ice cream from K&B, one or two friends, and whatever family was within driving distance.

Back then, Pleasant Company only produced the historical dolls.  Kit. Molly. Felicity. Samantha.  I loved them all and knew my daughter would, too, even if the company had changed hands and gone off into what I considered a more narcissistic versus an educational direction with their "Just Like Me" line.  So, for Amelia's fifth birthday, I picked out the newer period doll, a brunette Jewish girl, as a gift from Oma and Opa.

Just like that, Rebecca was part of the family.  Overnight she had become a fixture at the breakfast table, a captive audience on the sofa when we read books (to her, of course), and emotional support on the trip to the doctor's office for the annual checkup.  That's when this mom put her foot down--no, she could not come in the germ infested place.  Yes, she really must stay in the van. Period. 

Wasn't she beautiful? (Yes.) 
Could we read another chapter in her book? (Yes.)
Didn't I want to change her clothes for the tenth time this morning? (Uh....not really, but yes.)
Could she wear some of Samantha's clothes? (Sure.  She can wear the outfits Grandmama made long ago.)

And then came the biggie:  "When can I get some more American Girl stuff?

This was a problem.

Birthdays come but once a year, Christmas gifts are always bought months in advance, and my children don't start earning an allowance until they start Kindergarten.  What's worse, for some reason, money doesn't grow on trees at this hay farm.  All this I made quite clear to the frowny face that stood watching me put on my morning make up.

Then, I had an idea.  That toy kitchen she really didn't play with much anymore?  I'd been wanting to get rid of it.  Why, she could sell it on Craigslist.

"And use the money to buy American Girl doll stuff!?" she screamed.  "Yes! Yes! Oh, thank you, Mommy!"

She ran from the bathroom and began yelling down the stairs, "Oh, Emerson!  I'm going to get more American Girl doll stuff for Rebecca!"

That Sunday evening, out the door went the kitchen and in her "expense account" went $150.  As expected, it wasn't long before the boys decided they, too, would be willing to sell an unused toy to earn a little money.  What about that Lego table that they no longer used?  Everybody built on the dining room table or floor anyway, and it was just taking up space.
Husband grinned as he watched me haul the Lego table outdoors for a pickup the next day.  "I better be careful.  If it's not nailed down, my wife is selling it." I rolled my eyes at him but still couldn't help but smile.

The boys smartly decided to sit on their money and wait to buy some new Angry Birds game for the I-pad when it came out in mid-December.  But Amelia's money was burning a hole in her pocket.  The next few weeks were a whirlwind of this five year old girl having a crash course in how to use her money wisely. 

If you have X dollars but want A, B, C, D, and E, what can you do?  I watched, a little proud, as Amelia would choose something, shake her head, then put it back.  Since it was now her money and not Mommy's cash, she was suddenly unsure if this was what she really wanted.  After two trips to the store, Little Miss Indecisive still hadn't bought a thing.  The doll kitchen at Target she was so sure about?  No.  Too expensive.  The frilly dresses?  Nope.

Finally, she settled on an Our Generation pink stable (A.K.A. "pony house") from Target, a velvety purple Christmas dress with a white fuzzy muff, and a black cloth-covered foal she named "Diamond" from Wal-mart.

Just like that, she was broke again.  This mother was never more thankful to see an empty pocketbook.

Since then, Amelia has asked me a few times if I'm sure she has no more money left.  Yes, I'm always sure.  She sighs, but there is no more fretting over toys when we go to the store.  She now routinely asks me how much items cost and whether that's a lot or "a little money."  And she's already looking forward to next August when she can start earning her allowance to save for what she wants.

Selling their no-longer-used toys on Craigslist and then guiding them to make wise decisions with "their" money has been a great lesson for all three of my children, but it's also been good for their parents as well. 

Like most parents who grew up with much less than children typically have today, husband and I want to give our children everything their little hearts desire, but we know that's neither good for them nor is it financially possible.  The I-pad the boys want?  Sorry.  They'll still have to continue using dad's when he comes in from work.  This little exercise, though, has allowed us to talk about giving (or selling) to others those things we no longer use, earning money because everything is expensive in this world, and being wise stewards of what money God gives us.

And the best thing?  This mother didn't even have to use her preachy voice when explaining these truths.  They lived it. They learned it. And just yesterday, I caught them giving each other financial advice in the back of the van.  Now that's what I call success.