Columns

Gifts That Keep on Giving

The tree’s been taken down, the heavenly host wrapped in bubble wrap. Winterberry dishes are back in their boxes, and the last Christmas cookie crumb has been devoured. But I still have lots of holiday joy to anticipate.

That’s because on Christmas morning, my husband gave me some gifts that keep on giving – he gave me gift cards to a few of my favorite places.

I can already hear some of you groaning.

“Gift cards are for those too lazy to shop!”

“Gift cards are so impersonal.”

“Who wants to open a piece of plastic on Christmas morning?”

The answer to that is ME!

For many couples gift-giving can be incredibly stressful. High expectations meet limited resources. Subtle clues misread. Misunderstandings run rampant.

Example: Just because I needed a set of kitchen scissors, did not mean I wanted to find them under the tree on Christmas morning.

Some couples abandon gifts all together and focus on their children, or donate cash they would have spent to local charities.

That’s all well and good, but Derek and I enjoy giving presents to each other. It’s fun to watch your loved one’s eyes light up when they open a gift that delights them.

For example, this year Derek found a leg lamp under the tree – a replica of the one in our favorite holiday film “A Christmas Story.”

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Of course, this led to a discussion about whether this was a seasonal display item, or something that should shine from our living room window all year long.

Like I said, gift-giving can be stressful.

Moving on.

Years ago, we figured out that taking the time to write a list of things we’d enjoy receiving eliminates disappointment, while still keeping surprises alive. You see, we don’t buy each other everything on the lists, so the receiver still doesn’t know what will end up under the tree.

And there’s always off-list purchases like the leg lamp.

When our nest finally empties, things may change. Our sons might not gather around the tree on Christmas morning. There might be grandchildren we’d rather dote on or trips we’d like to take. Traditions have to match whatever stage of life you’re in.

Which brings me back to gift cards.

Derek knows I have a hard time spending money on myself. Nine times out of 10, I’ll see something I like or need and talk myself out of buying it. It used to drive him crazy that I’d dither over buying a new pair of jeans.

“Just buy the jeans!” he’d say.

But I’d demur.

“I’m sure I can find them on sale, somewhere else.”

Then he discovered when he gives me gift cards, I actually enjoy using them.

They gave me permission for small luxuries I normally avoid – like picking up coffee at a drive-thru.

And no, giving cash is not the same thing at all.

The best gifts show how well the giver knows the recipient. Derek understands if he gave me cash, I’d spend it on someone else or give it away. He also knows my favorite shops. He’d never give me a Cabela’s gift card, and I’d never buy him one from Victoria’s Secret (though he really seems to enjoy my purchases from that particular store).

Equally important, we both are happy that our hard-earned dollars stay local instead of being sucked into the endless emptiness of the Internet.

Surprisingly, a survey conducted by Consumer Reports determined that more than 25 percent of all gift cards given are never used.

That’s not the case in our house.

The last scrap of crumpled wrapping paper may have hit the recycling bin, but I’ve got a couple of envelopes set aside with my name on them. At some point, probably next month, I’ll pick up a coffee, drive to a spa for a relaxing massage, and then indulge in some guilt-free shopping.

I’m all about the anticipation, and gift cards can make the magic of Christmas last long after the tinsel – and the leg lamp – have been packed away.

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Columns

A trip to the past with the kids

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They didn’t exactly press their noses against the glass, and they didn’t squeal like the tiny girl who danced in front of them when she spotted the sugar plum fairies, but our two younger sons pronounced the animatronic Christmas displays at the Davenport Grand Hotel “pretty cool.”

When the Downtown Spokane Partnership pulled together volunteers to restore some of the displays that once adorned the windows of The Crescent department store, I knew I wanted to see them again. Taking Sam, 19, and Zach, 24, with me was just a bonus.

It’s not often you get to revisit your childhood with your kids. To my delight, the displays haven’t lost any of their magic. My favorite elf roasting a marshmallow at the North Pole was back, as were the busy beaver family chopping wood.

While I fondly remember The Crescent Christmas windows of my childhood, I also have more recent Crescent memories.

I worked at the downtown department store and later the NorthTown store from 1986-89. I started as a waitress in the Grill restaurant downtown. Located on the sixth floor, adjacent to the larger tea room, the restaurant was once called the Men’s Grill. Its wood-paneled walls and black leather chairs harkened back to an era when business was conducted over gin martinis at noon, and the only women present were serving the drinks.

Five days a week, I’d park at what was then the Coliseum (for free!) and hop on a shuttle that dropped me off at The Crescent’s front doors. I think it cost me 30 cents each way.

My uniform was a form-fitting, zip-up black dress that hit several inches above the knee, topped by a short white apron. Kind of like a French maid outfit, but classier.

Derek and I were engaged at the time, and he still fondly recalls that uniform.

Though the men-only designation was dropped years before I worked there, the Grill was still a regular luncheon spot for city movers and shakers. In fact, the only time I was stiffed out of tips while working there was when I waited on the mayor and a table of city employees. That’s no way to get re-elected, folks.

My “regulars” included a trio of sharply-dressed older gentlemen, whose weekly liquid lunches were legendary.

I was 20, and had never even tasted a cocktail, but now I wonder how much work they got done later, after a lunch of two double martinis a piece – usually sparsely accompanied by bowls of chicken and rice soup, and plate of Lavosh (a type of flatbread or cracker).

They were kind men and great tippers. When they learned that after my wedding, I’d be transferring to retail sales and working at NorthTown, they were sad. They each left a $20 tip and notes wishing me well.

Speaking of my wedding, my employee discount came in handy. I purchased a designer gown on clearance and found the perfect veil, all for about $200.

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Years ago, I sold the dress when it became apparent that I wouldn’t have any daughters to hand it down to. But I kept the veil. Who knows? Maybe someday, I’ll have a daughter-in-law who wants to wear it.

Around the time I transferred to NorthTown, The Crescent became Frederick & Nelson. I ended up in the shoe department with a couple of old-timers who’d worked downtown in The Crescent’s heyday. I loved hearing their stories, and I put what they taught me about customer service into practice.

I must have learned well, because my commission that first year paid for Derek and me to go to Disneyland.

The final week of my department store career came the week before Christmas. Our first child was due New Year’s Eve. I could no longer see my own feet, let alone help elderly ladies try on shoes.

Almost 30 years later, standing outside the Davenport Grand with my sons, the past came to life again, along with the glittering Crescent Christmas window displays.

Magic and memories.

“Pretty cool,” indeed.

Columns

Missing Milo

He joined our family on a beautiful spring evening. Nine years later, he left us on a cold November morning.

None of us have gotten used to the silence his absence left behind.

Milo James, a svelte tuxedo cat, was our family’s first pet – unless you count sea monkeys and goldfish.

We’d intended to adopt an older female cat. Preferably a white, fluffy, princess-y type feline, because I’d grown tired of being the only girl in our house.

But a hyperactive ball of dusty gray fluff caught my eye at the pet adoption event. He was literally bouncing off the walls.

“My goodness!” I said. “This little guy needs Ritalin.”

He jumped. He hopped. He spun in circles. In short, he was just like the rest of the boys in my house.

“No,” Derek said. “Not that one.”

I dutifully looked at the other cats, but I couldn’t help wondering if all Milo’s frantic activity was just a desperate plea for attention.

“I want to hold him,” I said.

“Not a good idea,” Derek replied.

But a store employee unlocked Milo’s cage. I picked him up, fully expecting him to squirm, or scratch, or climb up my hair, but instead he laid his head on my shoulder and sighed.

“Let’s go pick out a bed for our new cat,” Derek told the boys.

That playful kitten grew into a sleek, bossy cat who quickly took charge of the household. He was a creature of order and habit. He expected breakfast to be on time, at the same time every morning, and the ruckus he raised if it wasn’t, was impossible to sleep through.

When it was bedtime, all I had to say was, “Night night, Milo,” and he ran downstairs to the boy’s room he’d chosen as his own.

He never slept in that fancy cat bed. Not once. Why would he when the other beds in the house were bigger and contained warm humans to snuggle with?

Milo appointed himself the household greeter. His was the first face each of us saw when we returned from work or school.

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But he did have some less charming habits.

He was a committed and dedicated swiper, and he focused his attention on my desk. Anything left unsecured was fair game. Most mornings I come down to my desk and find my notebooks, calendar, pens, post-it notes and mouse on the floor.

Sam would catch him in the act and yell, “Milo! Leave Mom’s desk alone!”

Milo would gaze at him, unblinking, and proceed to knock everything to the floor.

He was also a prodigious and sloppy sneezer. Few things are more disgusting than stepping on a spot of cat snot in your bare feet first thing in the morning.

For someone with sneezing issues, he was mightily offended if anyone in his vicinity did the same. A sneeze from one of us prompted a loud yowling lecture, followed by an annoyed exit.

He didn’t like change of any kind. Re-arranging the furniture elicited anxious mutterings, so imagine his reaction seven years ago when we brought home a tiny tabby kitten named Thor.

Milo sulked for days. He hid under our bed and refused to come out, until hunger finally made slink downstairs.

Thor became his devoted, annoying acolyte, and Milo eventually tolerated his presence.

Two weeks ago Milo got sick. Really sick. I rushed him to the vet and was told his bladder was completely blocked. Urinary problems are common in boy cats who only eat dry food, and Milo turned up his nose at wet food or treats. He was a stubborn creature of habit.

His illness resulted in a four-night stay at the Pet Emergency Hospital. He seemed to rally, and we brought him home on a Monday evening.

He made his rounds. Cuddled with each of us, and spent the night on the couch curled up with Thor. But in the morning he was worse. Much worse. He hid under Zach’s bed or in his laundry basket. He refused to eat.

A miserable week passed, with daily trips to the vet. It was too much for Milo, who hated any kind of disruption to his schedule.

He grew silent. We grew sad.

And one evening the four of us made the choice to let him go. It was an agonizing decision, but Milo let us know he was done. He was sick. He was tired. He wanted to go.

So, on a Friday morning we gathered around him in the vet’s office. We held him. Kissed him. Told him how much we loved him.

He laid his head in my hand as the vet gave him the first injection. My face was the last thing he saw and the last thing he heard was my voice telling him what a good boy he was.

Turns out Milo didn’t have nine lives. He only had one. And we are forever grateful that he spent it with us.

All Write, TV

Of cats and conference calls

This week’s Front Porch segment is bittersweet. It features Milo, my tuxedo cat and the embarrassment he caused me during a business call.

The episode was taped last month. Sadly, Milo passed away this week, so he missed his network debut on Spokane Talks on Fox 28.

But I doubt he would have been interested. Milo was very difficult to impress.

Click here to watch this week’s segment.

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Columns

A soldier’s letters home

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Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m now in the barracks and have just a short time to write before the lights go off. I wanted to ask you to send my clarinet. They are forming a band in the company and I want to join it. The commander is very strong for anything musical. He said if we send for our instruments, the army would take care of them for us. They will ship them any place we go….

Please write soon.

Your “Private” Son,

Love Jack xxx

The letters came from Fort Devens, Massachusetts, from Camp Pontchartrain, Louisiana, from Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, and the Philippines – approximately 150 in all.

Jack Rogers enlisted in the Army in 1943, at age 19. He was assigned to the amphibious engineers unit and spent three years on active duty, two of them in the South Pacific.

When he returned from the military, he embarked on a lifelong career as an artist, illustrator and teacher. I met him many years ago when he taught art at my sons’ elementary school.

A founding member of the Spokane Watercolor Society, Jack started the art department at Spokane Falls Community College in 1963 and taught there for 26 years. He never actually retired. In fact, he was still painting and teaching the last week of his life.

He was an amazing, inspiring man, and I wrote several articles about him for this newspaper. I also included Jack and Fran Rogers’ story in my book “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.”

Recently, I went to Fran’s 95th birthday party. As I was leaving, their daughter Nancy asked if I’d like to read some of the letters Jack wrote home while serving during World War ll.

I eagerly pored over them when Nancy dropped them off. I thought I knew Jack and World War ll history pretty well, but these letters offered a new glimpse of military life during the war and they also reveal Jack’s wit and talent for telling a tale. Many of the envelopes are illustrated with his whimsical sketches and drawings.

Boy Mom, you ought to see me sew my insignias on. I can almost thread the needle every time. And as for my laundry, well they give you plenty of G.I. soap. We have plenty of water the rest is just plain elbow grease….

Please write real often.

Love Your Private Son Jack

Even the more serious anecdotes feature Jack’s flair.

Last Thursday Red was on guard. He felt a little sick, so he sat down and went to sleep and the O.D. caught him. Well, if you don’t know it that is a very serious offense in the Army. Friday they had a court marshell (sic) but no one would testify that he was actually asleep, so they charged him with sitting down while on duty.

Lots of Love, Your son Jack, good nite Mom xxx

He often couldn’t tell them exactly where he was or what his training entailed.

“You know, military secrets,” he wrote.

But in one letter he enclosed a small card emblazoned “Ancient Order of the Deep” that certified he’d crossed the equator aboard the S.S. Extavia on May 10, 1944.

Last night we slept on deck as it was too stuffy below. Although the steel deck didn’t have much spring, it was a lot cooler.

He asked his mom to send him things like white handkerchiefs, jockey shorts and coat hangers. She dutifully noted his requests on the backs of the envelopes.

In a 1944 letter from New Guinea, Jack already sounds like an old soldier instead of a young recruit.

Company had a rifle and personal inspection. It was the first we have had since leaving the States. How I remember the days when you shined your boots ’til you could shave in them, stood in ranks thinking of all the things that could hold up that weekend pass. Did you remember to tuck your handkerchief all the way in the pocket? Could you have missed a button, or could some dust have gotten on your rifle?

But a letter from Dutch East Indies shows that he and his buddies were still kids at heart.

They got a bulldozer and fixed up a softball field. And we have a league started in the company, playing in the evenings and Sundays. It sure roused a lot of company spirit.

It reminded me of what he’d said in an interview.

“Our whole company was made up of kids – kids dressed up as soldiers,” he’d said.

On Dec. 23, 1944, Jack wrote of Christmas plans.

Cornie is now fixing up a little java for us and we broke down and opened one of our fruit cakes. We were talking tonight that we would get us a small palm and decorate it, but I’ll be darned if I know what we’d use for decorations.

Jack’s unit was the first one back into Manila, Philippines, after Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous landing, and they served as part of the occupational forces in Japan. They were torpedoed by subs and shot at by kamikazes.

The letters from home served as their lifeline – their connection to the world they’d left behind and the world they wanted to come back to.

Good nite Mom and don’t worry about anything on this end. Write soon. Your loving son, Jack.

All Write, TV

Driven to Drink

I taught them to eat solid food.

To use spoons. To use the toilet. To tie their shoes. And somehow I also ended up teaching my four sons how to operate a motor vehicle.

In the most recent episode of the Front Porch on Spokane Talks on Fox 28 Spokane, I recount how son #3 ended up driving me to drink! Watch here.

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Columns

A prayer to find their way home

Grime had worn grooves on the backs of her heels.

Flip flop season was quickly veering toward boot-wearing weather, and I wondered if she had warm shoes – or a place to bathe.

The September sun was brilliant in a cloudless sky, but the chill in the air made me thankful for the sweater I’d shrugged on as my husband and I walked through Riverfront Park.

The girl caught my eye as we waited at a crosswalk. Her thin shoulders bowed under the weight of a backpack, and her arms were filled with plastic bags. Clothing dangled from them.

Her companions, a large man on a small bike, and a beanie-wearing, vaping teen, mostly ignored her. She kept her head down, her long hair hanging in greasy ropes around her face. One of her companions had to nudge her when the crossing signal flashed.

I worried about her feet and her bare legs. They weren’t the kind of dirty a kid gets from playing barefoot all day. It looked like it had been a very long time since her last hot shower.

We stopped at a restaurant entrance, and the trio kept moving. I paused, watching her walk away.

A few weeks later in my suburban neighborhood, I went out to get the newspaper from our box. An angry shout startled me.

“Give me my coffee right now!” a woman shrieked.

I’m pretty addicted to my morning cup of Joe, but I don’t think I’ve ever sounded that furious when asking for it.

I looked down the street and saw a woman in a pickup truck, yelling at a small boy on a bicycle. Neither the truck nor the boy looked familiar.

Turning away to retrieve the newspaper, I heard her shout again.

“Give me my coffee! I am so sick of this. You do this every morning and I’m sick of it!”

Her anger floated like a vaporous cloud, shattering the Sunday morning stillness. But her words intrigued.

Did this boy steal her coffee and take off on his bike every morning? That would definitely be rage-inducing behavior.

Did the kid do it just to provoke her? How far away did they live that she had to get in her truck to track him down? Was it the coffee-stealing or other behavior that the woman was sick of every morning?

From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of her reaching out from the truck and snatching a white cardboard cup from his hands as he stared at her.

They were too far away for me to see the kid’s expression, but I have no doubt he was glaring.

I walked slowly back up the drive, wondering if I should intervene.

Suddenly, the boy spoke. Well, screamed. An expletive.

The woman floored the truck, speeding past my house.

“I’ll show you ‘expletive’ !” she screamed as she drove by.

What had been an awkward, but potentially amusing anecdote became a heartbreaking glimpse into a family’s struggle.

I don’t assume this woman is a bad mom, nor do I infer this boy is a budding delinquent. I’m not making an album out of one small snapshot.

After all, I’ve had my share of painful encounters with angry kids. I’ve been the perpetrator and the victim of enough harsh words to know that no one gets out of parenting or childhood unscathed.

From my front porch I watched the woman race up our street in one direction, while the boy furiously pedaled off in the other.

Shaken, I closed the door and walked up the stairs into a home where my well-loved family slept.

And I then remembered the girl with the dirty feet walking away from me on a downtown Spokane sidewalk.

Dropping the newspaper, I bowed my head.

I prayed that the girl with the grimy feet had walked safely to a shelter where she was warm, well-fed and clean.

Then I asked that the woman in the truck and the boy on the bike would circle back to each other and discover forgiveness and healing.

More than anything, I hoped that all three would be able to find their way home.

All Write

Register now: The Art of the Interview

 

I’m delighted to be presenting “The Heart of the Matter: The Art of the Interview,” at the 4th annual Spokane Writer Conference, Saturday October 20 at 10:15.

Maybe you have this amazing grandfather who served in WWll and you want to preserve his story, but he gives you one-word answers. Perhaps you know a fabulous woman who is quietly helping homeless teens, but she’s loath to talk about herself. We’ll discuss interviewing methods that focus on having conversations that allow the speakers’ natural light to shine. In this workshop, we’ll discuss how to ask the questions that will give you the information you need. And you’ll learn how to glean information from body language and how to use the context of a story to  help you pinpoint the direction you’d like to go.

There are only a few spots left! Did I mention it’s FREE?

I’d love to see you at this class, so don’t delay. Click here to register today.

 

All Write, TV

I Believe in the Sanctity of the Grocery Cart

In this week’s Front Porch segment on Spokane Talks I share about the time a stranger accosted me in the produce aisle and tried to convince me not to buy the corn in my hand.

Like that’s never happened to you.

Here’s a link to the episode and a hint: Mom was right. Don’t talk to strangers!

Tune into Fox28 Spokane at 6 PM next Sunday to hear my thoughts on Velcro.
Never a dull moment!

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