Thank you, Mom for Your Gifts

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Mama Watering the Roses

My Late Mama Watering the Roses

This week I received a loving card in the mail from one of my three dear daughters. In it she expressed her thanks to me for what I had given her as well as for what I continue to give her. She lives at quite a distance from me so we do not see one another often. We do however do our best to keep in touch with mail and emails. It was a precious card and it was even more precious to read her acknowledgement of the little things I do for her as we continue to communicate and to share our lives together.

Although I cannot write her a letter or call her on the phone, I began thinking about what I might be grateful to my late mother for. There is a long list beginning with how she always insisted on my wearing a hat on the beach and cover up as well to protect my skin from the sun. Today, with the prevalence of skin cancer among my contemporaries and even those younger than I, I am especially grateful for her good advice. It is thought that the early exposure to excess sun is a precursor to skin cancer. She had a permanent tan on her back from her teenage years of sun exposure in Cuba where her German father was in the diplomatic service; later she had numerous bouts with skin cancer.

Though I haven’t thought much about this until recently, I realize that she was an immigrant, and what that meant especially in her early years in the country. Like many others who came here from elsewhere, she cherished her citizenship and was proud to be an American. She also contributed in many ways, from joining in the war effort as a civilian—I remember the brown uniform she wore for some kind of civilian women’s defense organization to the lovely art she created that graces the homes of many even today.

It was the outset of what became WWII that she married my father and came to this country from Germany. As a child I remember seeing a movie taken of part of their honeymoon showing Nazis marching. She had to endure suspicions and even dislike for her nationality, even from her in-laws. Fortunately she spoke perfect English and quickly became a citizen. She was herself very courageous, and she encouraged me to stand up for myself when I was picked on in school for not being athletic or slender. In addition she always supported me when I shared my grief at not being able to fit in.

She encouraged my creativity, keeping the little booklets I made for her even until I was much older and then giving them back to me. She applauded my early efforts to play the guitar and urged me to write my own songs. She pushed originality as a virtue, praising it above all in everything I did. I think of her often and wish her well as she makes her way through whatever is next for us all in the afterlife. I am sure her bright spirit is still learning and growing and perhaps she is in some way practicing the art she did so beautifully in this life to enhance the walls of the angels’ heavenly homes.

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Lenten Discipline, Spiritual Discipline

icicles-2Regardless of one’s spiritual orientation, self-discipline can be helpful to one’s personal growth. In the days before supermarkets or even grocery stores, for people in spiritual or religious communities or congregations to find enough to eat in the latter months of winter could be difficult especially in the six weeks before Easter. The Christian religious institutions of the day dedicated this time, known to Christians as Lent to the spiritual practice of fasting. From a practical standpoint, this extended what supplies remained. It also provided a spiritual bonus to do so. Making a virtue of necessity, the Lenten observances of the past centuries helped individuals get through the scarcity of food.

When I was growing up of course food was abundant. Fasting certainly was not a necessity. I was taught that the way to fulfill my Christian Lenten obligations was to give up something I might enjoy eating. I was told that fasting wasn’t just about going without a meal or not eating meat; it could mean giving up chocolate, or ice cream or sweets in general during Lent as a discipline instead of not eating meat on certain days or whatever else might be considered appropriate.

My great aunt Alice was a woman of character and community mindedness. She was a great believer in doing good and volunteered in a number of organizations as well as gave generously to charities. She had a different approach. She believed in taking on rather than giving up something during Lent. She would assume extra volunteer work or make a special effort at that time to visit elderly or invalid family members or friends.

I have come to believe that my Great Aunt’s idea of a good Lenten discipline is more meaningful as a spiritual practice than giving up desserts or candy. However, I am not one to visit the sick, nor am I usually involved in any community activities of a volunteer nature. Instead I believe that for me to fulfill the spirit of this period I can take on a practice of deliberate focus: to enhance my awareness of gratitude and of opportunities for me to give. I can become more mindful of my blessings, spend more time acknowledging the kindness of friends and family, and be more aware of whatever opportunities may present themselves for me to be kind and thoughtful to others.

Self-discipline can consist of an act of rigorous denial or of observing and then acting as might be appropriate. One can lead a spiritual life whether or not one has taken vows or lives within a specific religious or spiritual setting. If my Lenten practice becomes a habit or enhances my ability to be more mindful, that will do me more good than giving up candy. In the process it may also help me to be more aware of when I can do someone a kindness. By prioritizing these attitudes in my everyday life, I can enact a Lenten discipline that will do more good in general than simply fasting from anything I might enjoy eating.

After the Gifts Are Unwrapped

gifts-4  In days gone by when my children were small and Christmas was something of a big production, by the evening of the 25th everyone was satisfied to play with his or her toys, eat the festival leftovers and chill out. It was then that I would take my guitar in hand and drive with it to the Beverly hospital to play for the patients. I was a regular volunteer there so I would don my pink volunteer jacket and go around to the wards and private rooms to play Christmas music together with my usual folk tunes.

During my time in Manchester-by-the-Sea I used to play my guitar several times a month and sometimes even more often for the patients who were well enough to be listening. However I did have to be mindful of my lyrics. This being in the days of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, my repertoire consisted mainly of traditional folk songs, some of which had lyrics that might not sound cheerful such as: “Go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead,” or one that began “When I’m dead and buried, don’t you weep after me,” a rousing spiritual that was great fun to sing as long as I omitted the first verse and went right into the body of the song.

On Christmas night I felt as though with all the visitors having gone home by then, the patients could use a bit of cheering up. After all, the visitors were returning to their families and friends while the patients were still in their rooms or wards and perhaps more aware of being there than usual. It was heartening to see the welcoming smiles on their faces and to receive their enthusiastic approval. More than once someone who had been relatively comatose would actually clap their hands and manage a smile.

Today my children are grown and gone and my family is for the most part scattered far and wide. Holidays are quieter. Nor do I play my guitar any longer, though next year I hope to have learned some carols on my new harp. However, I don’t expect to be singing them in a hospital. Life brings changes, some welcome, some not so. The happy memories of Holidays past become gifts to cherish with joy, more so perhaps than any other gift beneath the tree.

Now that the presents have been opened and our holiday meal consumed, I find myself reminiscing to myself over past holiday celebrations. I note familiar faces that have moved on from my life. Some still walk this earth others do not. I am reminded of the places where I have lived in the past and see again the rooms as well as the homes that hold the memories of holiday times. Each year holds its blessings. I am grateful for each and every one, and most of all I am grateful to be able to celebrate with joy the love that flows to me from those who each year remember me.

 

Christmas Expectations

kathys-christmas-wreathsI remember one Christmas my parents gave me four or five board games. The difficulty was, I had no one to play them with. My parents didn’t play children’s games; we lived in the country and there were no kids in the neighborhood; and my schoolmates lived in other towns. Gas being dear—this was during WW II–people did not drive their children around for play dates. My usual Christmas presents were clothing or things I needed. Great Aunt Alice gave strange presents—one year she gave me a wood burning kit that was difficult for me to figure out how to use. I looked forward to stocking presents; they were more fun. Best of all was when I got old enough to play Santa along with my parents and participate in filling their stockings.

I had a small book of the poem by Clement Moore that I always enjoyed rereading at Christmas. Eventually I knew most of the poem by heart. “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” These verses have given us all an image of Santa and how he does things that has remained with us through many generations. We expect that he will wear a red suit, come down the chimney, arrive on a sleigh with reindeer, and so on. Cookies and carrots for the reindeer are part of our expectations for his Christmas Eve visit. Presents under the tree on Christmas morning are another. Does Santa always wear a red suit? Or can Santa dress in ordinary clothes?

“Santa Claus is coming to town,” as the song goes, and, some warn you’d better be good or else. “He’s making a list,” as the song goes. There used to be talk of Santa leaving a lump of coal or something else that is undesirable in the stocking of children who were not good enough to deserve toys. One of the original Santas—St. Nicholas, provided dowries for young ladies who otherwise would not have been able to get married. Some cultures used to include a kind of negative Santa called Black Pete, who tagged along to punish or otherwise be unkind to those whose bad behavior merited it. Must gifts be a reward or can they simply be a sign or love from the giver?

The advertisements on television create enormous expectations. The shining allure of the latest toy or newest communication device creates desires that may lead to major dismay if they are not forthcoming. What may be lost in the light of all these expectations is the unexpected, unadvertised gifts that this time can bring: the peace of loving hearts gathered together and the good will that comes from sharing. The opportunity to participate in the love and merriment that is part of the holidays is the real blessing, the actual present to be gained at this time. Those who are too focused on their expectations may well miss out on this, the real gift of this season.

Tasha Halpert

 

 

Pennies from Heaven

Grammy and Emilia 04My grandmother grew up in a time when a penny, not mention a dollar was worth considerably more than it is today. She also grew up in an era when there were few occupations of any status open to women besides marriage. If you were single and not a member of the “working class,” not much was open to you in he way of employment. You could be a school teacher or a companion to a wealthy older woman otherwise, you most likely lived with your parents and or a sibling, or helped care for those in your family.

I used to enjoy the stories she told me about her growing up years in the big house she shared with one sister and one brother. I remember having tea with my great grandmother in that house when I was very young. Like her, even many years later my grandmother had tea every day at four o’clock. When I was with her I was given ginger ale in a very thin glasses etched with a delicate design. I remember how it tickled my nose as I drank it.

While I was growing up, my grandmother and I were very close. She loved me dearly, and one way she showed it was to save all her pennies for me. When she came to visit, she would hold them clasped in her large wrinkled hands. I would place my small hands together just under hers. Then she would glide her closed hands over mine and say aloud, “Hold fast all I give you, hold fast all I give you, hold fast all I give you.” On the third repetition she would open her hands to let the pennies fall out, and I would open mine. The pennies would pour in, filling my small hands to overflowing.

Even today I love it when I find pennies lying about on the ground or even on the floor in stores. To me this is a sign of good luck. The other day I brought some items to a consignment store. One was a purse and I put a penny inside. I have always put a penny into every purse I have ever given away. When I told the person at the counter what I had done, she smiled and told me that when she found pennies it felt to her as though they were a sign from her late husband that he was still with her. “He loved finding them,” she told me, “though they had to be face up. On our wedding anniversary, and on his birthday both I found a lot of pennies all face up the way he liked them.” Pennies are special to her also.

Though they have lost much of their value monetarily today, a penny is more than just a penny to me. However, back a long way in time, a penny was a significant amount of money. There were even coins in common use smaller than a penny. But then life was cheap and for most people times were hard. Now periodically there are movements to get rid of them entirely because it is said they cost more to manufacture than they are worth and they slow down the process of making change. A number of countries have discontinued them, substituting five and ten cents as their lowest denomination.

For me a shiny penny is more than a coin. It is a symbol of my childhood and a way to access memories from that time. Seeing my grandmother in my mind’s eye, hearing her voice as she chanted the magical words, “Hold fast all I give you,” brings up even more memories of my days with her, of the stories she would tell me about her girlhood and what it was like for her growing up. I am older now than she was then, yet the memories have not faded. Like shiny pennies lying on the ground for me to find, they bring me a happy feeling in my heart.

Tasha Halpert

The Gift of a Smile by Tasha Halpert

bigsmile          One of my happy childhood holiday memories is of my father sitting by our fireplace near Christmas time, wrapping cartons of cigarettes, boxes of whiskey, ties and other items that he distributed to the various individuals he did business with. There was always a big pile when he was done. Then he would load them into his car and the next day he’d hand deliver them. Occasionally I got to ride with him. This was always a great treat.

Christmas memories are in themselves a gift of the season for me. I delight in recalling the images from my childhood: my mother playing carols on her violin on Christmas Eve, the table at my Great Aunt’s set with gleaming crystal and shining silver, the tree, all decorated with the carefully preserved ornaments and the foil tinsel that was always saved from year to year. I cherish these and other memories. It is always a treat to hear those of others as well.

As I was shopping in our local market a grocery wagon drew up next to mine. The sweet faced older lady pushing it beamed in my direction. “I just loved your last column in the paper,” she said. She went on to tell me a special Christmas story about her son when he was a child. I was very touched and thanked her, not only for the compliment but also for sharing her happy story.

To me that kind of experience is the same as receiving a gift from Santa Claus. Santa, whose origins go back hundreds of years to St. Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, and the Christkindl that became Kris Kringle, is seldom seen without a smile on his face, and no wonder. His job is to bring joy to the hearts of those who celebrate Christmas. The glee of young children who cherish Santa is not misplaced. Santa is about love. He does not spend money, just time and effort.

The smile of love cannot be purchased nor must it be paid for. Smiles and friendly words are to me more precious than anything money can buy. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of a baby. How appropriate! The smile of a baby is perhaps the most special of all gifts. Those who are privileged to receive such a gift know what a treasure it is.

To me a gift at the holidays whether given or received is a kind token of affection. When I give, it’s not because I feel under any obligation to do so, rather I like sharing something I believe the recipient will enjoy or appreciate, and if not that he or she will pass it on to someone who might like it more. When people give to me I am always delighted because someone has acknowledged their fondness for me. In other words, I feel blessed.

It is said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Perhaps that is true. For myself I feel equally blessed whether I am giving or receiving. It does not matter to me whether I am the recipient or the donor. What does matter is the smile I see when I look into the eyes of my friend, family member or even a stranger and the exchange of kind regard that I feel free to accept.

 

Peace At Christmas, by Tasha Halpert

Johnnys tree2Even as a small child I was aware of the chaos of war. During the second World War my mother’s parents were still in Germany. My mother had not heard from them for almost ten years. Finally when the American forces broke through, her parents were able to communicate. I watched her wrap packages with food, clothing, and other necessities. Although there was still chaos and difficulty in Germany, at least my mother’s heart was at peace.

My cousin who lived in Cuba in the forties endured strife growing up. She wrote me of how shots might ring out and everyone took cover. I grew up without any direct experience of this kind, and I was fortunate. Now it seems that no one in the USA is safe from warlike behavior. What can we do to combat the fear that has begun to pervade our once peaceful atmosphere? I believe that on one hand we can raise up our courage and refuse to be intimidated, and on the other that we can work for peace within our own lives, most especially now.

The words “Peace on Earth” resonate throughout our Christmas carols and scriptural messages, and even our Christmas cards. Yet to think about peace amidst the hectic shopping, baking, wrapping, mailing hustle bustle of the holidays seems difficult. However I can promote peace in small ways.

I can invite a friend to Christmas dinner, bake cookies for the kind man who takes care of my car, listen sympathetically to someone who needs an ear. I can hold the door for someone or the elevator, volunteer to be of help where help is needed. Equally important, I can nurture peace in myself through meditation, eat well for a peaceful stomach, and of course, get enough sleep.

Taking time for myself is vital to my sense of peace. Remembering to breathe deeply, especially during a nature walk helps me feel peaceful. So does hugging a tree. When I am on my feet a lot I take fifteen minutes to lie on my bed with my legs straight up against the wall. This feels wonderful and it pacifies my body. When I feel more peaceful within myself, I influence the atmosphere around me to harmonize with my peacefulness.

I can talk all I want about the need for peace and the lack of it in the world, and that will change nothing. Alternatively I can set about making peace myself, promoting peace in my own way. I can be of service in the cause of peace. While I cannot influence nations or even large groups of people, I can be of help in small ways and thus help make peace.

There is a story about monkeys on an island learning to wash their food. When enough monkeys did that, those on neighboring islands began doing the same. There was no communication between them yet they were influenced. When we are peaceful within ourselves we help others to become more peaceful. When I work for peace in my own life, I am also working to bring peace in the world around me, and perhaps, who knows it may even spread out from there.