Columns

Taking the unexpected gifts of COVID-19 into post-pandemic life

On Jan. 17, 2019, Derek and I whooped, hollered, and danced at Northern Quest Resort & Casino as REO Speedwagon made us feel like teenagers again – albeit teenagers whose ears rang for hours after the high-decibel show.

We had no idea a global pandemic meant it would be three years before we’d return to the casino for an indoor concert.

On April 24, we eased our way back into the live music scene to see Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. Clad in his trademark polka-dot shirt, he promptly tore into a number and busted a string on his guitar.

The enthusiastic crowd roared.

Guy, 85, delivered a lesson on the blues, tracing the history of the music and downplaying his part in its evolution.

Then he grinned

“I’m gonna play you a song so funky, you can smell it,” he said.

And he did.

Last week, we upped our funk level when we saw “Hamilton” at the First Interstate Center for the Arts. The promise of seeing this award-winning show is what prompted our purchase of Best of Broadway season tickets, oh so long ago.

While we’ve enjoyed the season, this is the show we’d most anticipated. Some things are worth waiting for and “Hamilton” is one of them. Who could have imagined a Broadway show about the architect of the American financial system would be such a phenomenon?

The stellar cast captivated the crowd with the musical’s mix of hip-hop, R&B and big Broadway sound and we were thrilled to see downtown Spokane bustling again.

I’m happy our calendar is again filled with all the activities we missed during the pandemic, but despite the fear, isolation and loss COVID-19 ushered in, the shutdowns also offered some unexpected gifts.

Recently, my friend Jill reminded me of our pandemic walks along the Centennial Trail. For years, we’ve stayed connected via lunches, coffee dates and countless happy hours. Suddenly, none of those things was possible.

So we took our conversation outdoors. Every week, we met at a trailhead and walked and talked – relishing in movement, in the beauty around us, in seeing another human face-to-face.

Spokane River seen from The Centennial Trail

Those outings were a bright spot in a dark, scary time.

It’s great to share a meal again, but I think we’ll lace up our walking shoes and hit the trail before our next happy hour.

Speaking of meals, weekly family dinners, including our two sons who don’t live at home, became sacrosanct during the shutdowns. Cooking is how I show love, so feeding these young men fed my heart.

Our little “bubble” of five savored the connection of familiar faces around the table, and we even brought back family game night. It gave us all something reliable to look forward to during an uncertain time.

Now that our activities have expanded, we’re considering making family dinner a monthly event instead of weekly. But I miss my grown-up boys, so you can be sure this mom will still regularly gather them around my table.

I got the hospitality gene from my mother. Not being allowed to see her for six months, even though she lives less than a mile away, was one of the worst things I experienced during COIVID-19.

When I finally received notice from her care facility that outdoor, masked visits were allowed as long as there was no physical contact, I immediately scheduled a visit.

We met under the portico.

“Oh, I can’t tell you how beautiful you look to me,” she said.

I laughed through my tears.

“Yeah, these masks make us all look good.”

Thankfully, now I can visit her room as often as I want, and though masks are still required, hugging is allowed.

While I’m delighted by the return of live entertainment and dining out, and all it means to our local economy, I hope I never lose the pandemic-sparked appreciation for things I used to take for granted.

The healing balm of a walk outdoors with a friend.

The boisterous conversation of a shared family meal.

The joy of a warm hug from my mom.

Perhaps I needed a pointed reminder that the things I value most don’t cost a dime.

Columns

Twin time with a side effect of earworm

Every generation of parents has that one song.

A song that’s a repetitive staple of a preschool children’s program. The one that gets stuck in your head no matter how hard you try to shake it.

For my generation, it was the Barney “I Love You” melody. It played at the close of every episode featuring the big purple dinosaur.

I love you; you love me

We’re a happy family

With a great big hug

and a kiss from me to you

Won’t you say you love me, too?

This song is so incredibly obnoxious it was used to torture detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

I don’t bring this up to inflict pain upon parents who still have flashbacks of childrearing in the ‘90s, but to explain why this morning I woke up singing, “Baby shark, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo….”

Yes, we recently returned from a trip to Ohio to visit the World’s Most Beautiful Boys, our 2-year-old identical twin grandsons, Adam and Nick.

Technology is a wonderful thing. We haven’t seen the boys in person since October, but thanks to Skype video chats, when we walked through their front door, their excited shrieks echoed through the house. It’s like their favorite TV characters magically showed up in their living room.

Derek, Adam, Cindy, and Nick Hval

Adam launched himself at Derek, jabbering a mile a minute, and I corralled a half-naked Nick into a big embrace. Nick has reached the clothing-averse stage, just like his dad at this age.

When you live thousands of miles from your only grandchildren, a welcome like that does a lot to help you endure five days of “Baby Shark.”

For these COVID-era boys, getting in a car with Nana and Papa is a big adventure, and now they’re getting verbal enough to express their enjoyment.

The first day we took them to our Airbnb it was raining.

“Swish, swish, swish,” said Adam, watching the wiper blades across the windshield.

This prompted a rousing version of “The Wheels on the Bus,” with Adam doing all of the hand motions.

The next day, as Nick watched the budding trees fly past the car windows, he uttered his amazement.

“Wow! Tree! Wow!” he said.

After a couple of drive-thru restaurant visits for lunch, we decided to take them into Wendy’s for their first dine-in experience.

Adam and Nick Hval “dining out.”

Saucer-eyed they looked at the bustling lunch crowd, too enthralled to make much of a dent in their chicken nuggets. However, the french fries and barbecue sauce were a huge hit for Nick. He carefully dipped a fry in the sauce, tasted it, and then scooped the sauce up with his fingers.

Let’s just say we all wore barbecue sauce that afternoon.

We knew they were ready for an outing when Nick looked out the window and pointed to our rental car.

“Car go! Go car!” he said.

In addition to language development, their play skills and fine motor abilities are dramatically different since our last visit.

While Adam still likes to taste a crayon or two, he spent almost an hour every day quietly coloring in the coloring books we’d brought.

Nick enjoyed putting the animals in the zoo train and pushing them all through the house. As always, I brought a new stash of board books. This Nana’s heart melted when at different times, I caught them both quietly turning the pages of a book.

Despite their exuberant energy, when tired they’d crawl up into our laps with a blanket and zonk out in our arms. And no, we didn’t put them down. We held them and sometimes dozed along with them.

No matter what educational children’s television program we tried to find when we cuddled up on the couch with them, every single one seemed to play “Baby shark, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo …”

But the lingering echoes of that annoying tune seem a small price to pay for the memories of our sweet grandsons in our arms.

Columns

A love letter to teachers

We’ve all struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’ve had to learn new ways to work while constantly adapting to ever-changing pandemic restrictions. But it often seems like educators bear the brunt of community ire, as they try to safely navigate the return of students to in-person school.

Perhaps that’s why the response to my recent column recalling an SFCC instructor who influenced my decision to pursue writing struck a chord. I wrote of my hopes that our son, Sam, now teaching English 101 at Eastern Washington University, might also be an encouraging influence on his students, and I asked readers to share memories of an educator who impacted them.

Here are some of the responses I received.

When Cheri Moore attended Northwest Christian College (now Bushnell University) in Eugene in 1979, she was married, pregnant and a full-time student.

She loved her 7 a.m. New Testament Exegesis class until morning sickness hit.

“After missing several classes in a row, I went to see the professor during his office hours and explained the situation,” Cheri wrote. “He told me to do the best I could and to find someone to get class notes and assignments from when I missed a class. The next time I missed a class the prof popped into the cafeteria during lunch, dropped his class notes, including the assignment for the next class, on the table in front of me, then leaned over and whispered in a stage whisper ‘Don’t tell Dr. Root, I hear he’s a stickler about note sharing.’ Every class I missed from then on found Dr, Root handing me his notes at lunchtime.”

• • •

Bill Reuter’s most influential educator was his fifth-grade teacher at Finch Elementary in Spokane during the 1949-1950 school year.

“She was hard on me, expecting better from me the entire year, no excuses accepted,” he recalled. “I still remember once being in tears after a very trying lesson. My report card grades were lower than in previous years, but I kept trying. I later realized how a teacher can set you on a career path to something that can be rewarding. After graduating from North Central High, I attended Eastern Washington College of Education and followed in her footsteps. I was then employed by Spokane schools as a teacher and principal for 33 years.”

His teacher? Emma Reuter, who also happened to be his mother.

• • •

Michael Groves recently visited the Seattle area to see his former Shorecrest High School history teacher, Bruce MacDougall, now 88. Groves graduated in 1976 but stayed in touch with his teacher. MacDougall’s love of travel rubbed off on his student in a big way.

“From 1980 through 2005, I was fortunate to make around three dozen trips abroad, strictly as a tourist,” wrote Groves.

He visited six of seven continents during that time with Antarctica being the only holdout.

“Because of his (MacDougall’s) influence on me, I’ve had a chance to go into Red China on that opening journey in 1980,” he wrote.

Other trips included: Christmas Eve and morning in Bethlehem’s Manger Square; his 30th birthday at the Taj Mahal; his 40th at the Vatican in Rome; riding a camel in the Gobi Desert on his 45th; and witnessing a new century unfold in Australia on New Year’s Eve 1999.

“I don’t think that any teacher, anywhere, had as much influence on a single student like he did in my case, both in my personal life, and my time away from my job in traveling the globe,” Groves said. “Thank you, teach!”

• • •

Judy Felgenhauer gave a special shoutout to her Susanville, California, fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Marguerite Crane.

“She gave me my first ‘C’ ever – in handwriting,” Felgenhauer recalled. “But she encouraged me to practice and provided much support. She also helped cement my love of reading. Each day she read to us from a children’s classic.”

They stayed in touch over the years and when she graduated from medical school, Mrs. Crane sent her former student a pair of earrings that Felgenhauer still treasures.

Felgenhauer is the pediatric divisional lead physician at Providence Medical Group and is medical director of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children’s Hospital.

“Whenever someone tells me I can’t possibly be a doctor because they can read my handwriting, I credit Mrs. Crane,” she said.

So here’s to you, teachers, school board members, professors and support staff.

We see you. And most of us are profoundly thankful you keep showing up for our kids.

Columns

Losing Lance

As I write this, there have been 778 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents. By the time you read this, there likely are more.

On Sept. 6, those numbers became deeply personal when a longtime family friend died of the coronavirus.

Lance Lehman and I were born the same year. We met him and his wife Jodi at church in 1992, and soon Lance joined my husband’s men’s group. Every Friday morning a small group of guys met for Bible study and prayer. Before long, those friendships grew to include their wives – most of us at-home moms with young children.

The friends you make when your children are young often become like extended family. Baby showers, birthdays, girls’ nights, guys’ outings, all that time shared weaves cords of connection.

When Lance and Jodi and their four kids moved to Colville in 2005, those connections loosened but didn’t break.

What broke were our hearts at the devastating news of his death. He was 55. He and Jodi looked forward to celebrating their 30th anniversary in November. His three grandchildren adored their “G-Pa.” The adoration was mutual.

Lance often said, “If I’d known being a G-Pa was so much fun, I would have done that first!”

Lance and Jodi Lehman, December 2019

Here’s what I remember about Lance Lehman.

I remember his years working at Costco (18) and how brave he was when he decided to go back to school and pursue a career in dental hygiene.

Playing trivia-type games with him and Jodi was hilarious because he was six years older than she, and got our ‘80s music/movies themes while poor Jodi was still grooving to the ‘90s vibe.

He ALWAYS wore shorts. Even in winter. Even though his legs were as white as snow!

I remember the camping trips, game nights, Fourth of July celebrations and countless potlucks our families shared.

Lance adored his two girls and did his best to figure out the whole hair situation.

He delighted in his two sons.

I remember his unwavering faithfulness to Derek’s men’s group and how he never missed a meeting. How after they moved to Colville he pondered coming to Spokane, just for their Friday morning gathering.

Lance loved to golf and planned and organized many outings for the guys. He was complicit in an epic prank at one of those. I was pregnant with Sam, and one of Derek’s friends pretended to get a call from his wife, saying I was trying to reach him because I was in labor. I wasn’t. But the guys enjoyed watching Derek panic, and throw his golf bag over his shoulder while scrambling to the parking lot.

I remember the very distinct, Lance-way he said my name.

can still see the beaming glow on his face when he walked his daughter, Lexi, down the aisle at her wedding.

On Friday morning amid funeral preparations, Jodi shared more memories with me.

“He loved to sing,” she said. “If he didn’t know the words, he made them up. Lance enjoyed going into the kid’s rooms in the morning to wake them up by singing ‘I Saw the Light.’ He thought it was hilarious. They did not.”

Lance loved camping, especially at Haag Cove Campground on the Columbia River near Kettle Falls. They’d recently purchased a new trailer and in July they took it up to the Cove. They had so many plans for that trailer.

They had so many plans.

His favorite food was Bonzai Burgers at Red Robin. Every time they came to Spokane, he had to have one.

His faith was vital to him, and he wanted to share it whenever he could.

“Lance’s heart was to reach the lost for Jesus,” said Jodi. “He’d offer to put his clients on his prayer list. His work became his ministry.”

She grieves for their three grandchildren, the oldest is only 4.

“I miss him on behalf of my grandbabies,” she said through tears. “They won’t remember him.”

She drew a shaking breath.

“Someday it will all make sense.”

While we wait for that day, I ask you to remember that those listed on the COVID-19 death tallies are more than sobering statistics. Each number represents an individual who left behind a grieving spouse, children, parents, siblings or friends.

To someone that number was a person like Lance, who meant everything to those who loved him.

Columns

Together again, time with Mom a priceless gift

When my brother told me our mom could have a designated emotional support person, all I could picture was a fluffy service dog wearing a bright orange vest.

At the end of February, the governor allowed for one individual to be able to visit their loved ones in assisted living facilities. While my brother takes care of Mom’s finances and doctor’s appointments, I attend to her personal needs. In other words, I’m her toilet paper, toothpaste, soap and lotion gal.

Since Mom could only have one ESP, it made sense for that person to be me. Plus, I look better in orange.

Actually, I was relieved to learn I wouldn’t have to wear the vest or remain on a leash. All that was required was the completion of a fair amount of paperwork, and an introduction to the automated sign-in process. At every visit I fill out a health questionnaire and take my temperature. Surgical masks are required at all times, even though Mom is fully vaccinated.

Small price to pay to be able to see my mother again.

On Feb. 24, I walked through the doors of my mother’s apartment for the first time in a year.

“Surprise!” I said. “Do you recognize me with this surgical mask?”

She laughed and reached for me.

“Of course, I do!” she said. “You’re my baby girl!”

And then we cried because that’s what we do when we’re happy.

“I’m your ESP,” I explained.

She shook her head.

“Now, honey, you know we don’t believe in things like that.”

I grinned.

“Well, believe it or not I’m going to come see you every week,” I said.

Then I got busy checking her cupboards to see what she needed. Alzheimer’s has decimated Mom’s short term memory. As she likes to put it, “My short term memory is – very short!”

This made it difficult to discern what personal supplies she needed via phone calls. For a while she would try to go through her cupboards while I was on the phone with her, but that worsened her anxiety.

For months I’ve had to guess how much toilet paper she had, or if she was out of deodorant. That caused me anxiety. However, I was relieved to find I’d done a pretty good job guesstimating.

I was wrong about her candy stash, though. Every week she’d tell me she was out, but I assumed she’d forgotten some still in the cupboard. Nope. Mom’s sweet tooth is impressive.

As I sorted, tidied and organized, I paused in front of her wall calendar. It was still on March 2020. The world stopped for a lot of us that month, but not as completely as it did for our elders in assisted-living facilities.

Gratefully, I hung her new calendar.

I wanted to take a picture of us, so I fetched Mom’s hairbrush.

“My goodness!” I said. “Your brush is missing a lot of bristles.”

She nodded.

“Yeah, it’s losing teeth as fast as I am.”

I brushed her hair, and told her I’d bring her a new one. Then I dabbed a touch of lipstick on her and snapped a few photos.

Cindy Hval with her mom. February 2021

“How come you’re taller than me now?” she asked. “I was always taller than you.”

I assured her the only growth spurt I’d had was COVID-19 pounds.

She shrugged.

“Must be gravity.”

The next week I showed up with the biggest size bag of her favorite Wintergreen Life Savers I could find.

“Oh, my goodness! I’m going to have fresh breath until I die!” Mom said.

I pointed out I bought her the party-size bag, and she said, “Honey, if they find out we’re partying they aren’t going to let you come see me anymore!”

But they will, and now that we’re in Phase 3 she can have additional visitors, not just her designated emotional support person.

I unwrapped her new hairbrush and slid it through her silver hair while she reminisced about babysitting my boys when they were little.

She caught my hand and held it to her cheek.

“I’m glad you didn’t forget me,” she said.

It doesn’t take ESP to understand how precious these visits are for both of us.

Columns

Take Your Husband to Work Day

I’m not one to complain, but the pandemic put a real crimp in my dating life – even though I’ve been dating the same guy since 1985.

Get dressed up and attend the symphony? Not this year.

Groove to the Doobie Brothers? Postponed.

Enjoy the smash Broadway hit, “Hamilton”? Not going to happen for a while.

Even dinner in a restaurant followed by a movie at a theater wasn’t possible until recently.

Derek and I had already perfected date night at home long before that was our only option. Mainly because for many years as parents of four, living on one income, it WAS our only option.

We’d put the boys to bed at 8 p.m. He’d grill steaks, while I set the table, lit the candles, and popped a Michael Buble CD in the stereo. Then we’d watch whatever movie we’d picked up at Blockbuster.

Yes. This was back in the olden times before music streamed to your phone and movies to your television. Back in the days when you had to plan ahead if you didn’t want to get stuck renting “The Aristocats” because the latest “Terminator” movie was long gone by 5 on a Friday night.

With one kid left at home, we’d been enjoying stretching our wings, until COVID-19 clipped them, but good.

We’re profoundly grateful that neither of our jobs were impacted by the shutdowns. In fact, we’ve both been busier than ever, which makes having fun together an even bigger priority.

That’s why earlier this month I announced it was “Take Your Husband to Work Day.”

Derek owns his business, so he has some flexibility. When I told him I was driving out to Cheney for an assignment about urban chickens, he sighed.

“I’ve always wanted chickens,” he said.

“There’s some kind of chicken tractor involved, too,” I said. “Why don’t you take the afternoon off and come with me?”

The chicken tractor sealed the deal, and the game was afoot.

“I have an interview across from Northern Quest after the chicken interview,” I told him. “How ‘bout I drop you off at the casino, and then meet you for dinner when I’m done?”

He grinned.

“It’s a date!”

Derek enjoyed talking chicks with the flock owners, and as an avid gardener he loved learning about the permaculture environment the father-daughter duo was creating in their backyard.

I had just enough time to drop him off at Northern Quest before my next interview. Knowing he rarely carries cash, I gave him $40 and told him I’d text him to get us a table at Epic when I was on the way. I figured he’d be fine for the hour my assignment would take.

Which is what I told the photographer, as he worked to shoot the photos of the couple I was interviewing.

“I dunno, Cindy,” he said shaking his head. “I think this assignment is going to cost you more than you’ll make on it.”

Ha ha! Photojournalists are such kidders.

The interview ended up taking a bit longer, so I wasn’t surprised when I texted Derek, and he said he was already seated. When I joined him, he confessed that he’d gone through the $40 in 45 minutes.

“I felt so bad, I got you $20 out of the cash machine,” he said, sliding the bill across the table.

We enjoyed our meal, and then I took his $20 into the casino, where I quickly won my $40 back, plus $8.47.

Stunned, by my speedy recoup, Derek just shook his head. So, I gave him the $8.47. It only took him 5 minutes to lose $8.

Still, a good time was had by all. I came home with the $40 I left with, and Derek has a voucher for 47 cents in his wallet.

I’m also relieved that we’re moving into Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan this week. Creative dating probably isn’t sustainable on a freelance journalist’s income.

One thing is certain: The next time it’s Take Your Husband to Work Day, I think we’ll avoid casinos.

A date at an Eastern Washington University Football game. Hope to be able to do that again, soon!
All Write, Columns

Framing your story

Meme makers had lots of fun with 2020.

To be clear, there is nothing funny about a global pandemic, murder hornets and horrific wildfires, but honestly, it seemed the year was one disaster after another. The great thing about humans is our ability to use humor to diffuse our angst.

Take this meme for example: “2020 is a unique Leap Year. It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March and five years in April.”

Or this one: “If 2020 was a math problem: If you’re going down a river at two m.p.h. and your canoe loses a wheel, how much pancake mix would you need to re-shingle your roof?”

Everyone is hoping 2021 will be better (I refuse to ask how it could be worse), and signs are promising. The vaccine is rolling out. The election is over. And most of us never saw a single murder hornet.

Someday, we’ll be on the other side of COVID-19, and I wonder what stories we will tell our children and grandchildren about our experience.

Maybe something like this:

“Once upon a time, in 2020, a horrible plague swept over the world. Many people died. Many more got sick. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t hug people, and everyone wore masks. Stores ran out of toilet paper and flour. Schools closed, and most of us learned to work from home.”

It’s a grim narrative, fit for a grim disease, but it’s not the whole story. In 2020, babies were born, businesses launched, books written, bread baked and outdoor treks enjoyed.

For me, one of the best things about the year has been writing the Pandemic Project series for this newspaper.

The idea started simply. A reader wrote, sending pictures of a quilt she’d finally had time to refurbish and she asked, “I wonder what projects others are tackling during this time?”

My editor forwarded me the note.

“Do you think this could be a series?” she asked.

So, I wrote a call out for stories, and the responses flooded my inbox. People eagerly shared how they’ve been using their unexpected down time.

From small needlework projects, to elegant patios and decks. From quilts, to chicken coops. From flower gardens, to greenhouses, to cookbooks, people proved that staying home didn’t stifle creativity. In fact, it unleashed it.

I think the reason these stories struck such a chord is that they stand in stark contrast against the daily roster of things we can’t do.

We can’t go to concerts.

We can’t go to movies.

We can’t visit our parents in retirement homes.

The ever-changing rules and information often results in fear, an unexpected side effect of the virus. Fear isn’t a bad thing. It’s hardwired into humans and warns us of impending danger. It can keep us safe, but it can also cripple us.

I’ve seen fear-induced rants turn to rage on social media. For example: anger at those who balk at the mask mandate, and anger at those who comply with it. The flip side of the same coin.

It reminds me of what I told my sons about anger when they were small.

“It’s OK to feel mad. Everyone gets mad sometimes. It’s what you do with your angry feelings that matters.”

The same thing applies to fear.

That’s why I enjoy writing the Pandemic Project series so much. Every week I get to talk with people who’ve channeled their worry, their fear, their sadness, into creating something new, or trying something they didn’t have time to pursue until a pandemic slowed their pace.

Perhaps one day I’ll tell my grandchildren this:

“Once upon a time, in 2020, a horrible plague swept over the world. Many people died. Many more got sick. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t hug people, and everyone wore masks.

But every week we had family dinner, and I fed your uncles the meals they loved when they were little. We watched movies, played cards and made memories.

I couldn’t visit great-grandma Shirley, but we waved at each other from windows while we talked on the phone.

Papa went to work every day, so people could buy the tools they needed to build and fix things, and I wrote stories about the wonderful things people did with their time at home.

It was scary, but in the quiet and slowness of a careful world, we finally had time to appreciate the small things – things that in the busy, noisy times, seemed to slip through our fingers.”

So much of a story is in how it’s framed. Beautiful things shine all the brighter against the darkest backgrounds. Every breath offers an opportunity to add to our story. What will you add to yours?

Columns

Sometimes you just need Christmas to linger awhile longer

Perplexed, he peers into our dining room from his perch on the deck, a red Christmas ornament dangling from his ear.

Rudy the Reindeer rarely sees this far into January.

That’s because I’m a by-the-book kind of holiday decorator.

In my home, Christmas music, movies, and décor are forbidden until the day after Thanksgiving. That’s when the autumn wreaths go down, and the Christmas greens go up. Our everyday boring, white stoneware dishes are packed away, and my fleet of Pfaltzgraff Winterberry is deployed.

All the artwork on my living room walls is replaced by Santas, skis and holiday prints. I pack away the garland of harvest leaves from atop the piano and unearth evergreen garlands dotted with twinkling white lights.

Out come the Nativities, the Norwegian Christmas candelabra, and of course, the leg lamp replica from our favorite holiday film, “A Christmas Story.”

I’ve finally embraced the artificial – our tree goes up when our sons join us for post-Thanksgiving Turkey Noodle Soup. We appreciate having all hands on deck to trim the tree, not to mention hefting heavy holiday bins from the basement.

The hanging of the greens occurs outdoors as well, with lighted garlands and small wreaths draped along our stair railing and around the front door, a small lighted tree replacing my cat figurine on the front steps, and a wreath with a burgundy bow bedecking the door.

After hanging the snowflake garland above the backdoor slider, Derek affixes Rudy the reindeer to his watchful post on the deck.

But what goes up must come down. Preferably on Jan. 2, and certainly no later than the Feast of Epiphany (Jan. 6 this year for those keeping track at home).

Like I said, I’m a stickler for rules and am counted among those who groan when my neighbors leave limp holiday inflatables in their yards well past the New Year.

However, as 2020, blessedly drew to a close, I surveyed the glimmering green and red warmth of our home. Our sons had untrimmed the tree before the New Year chimed, but I was left to dismantle the rest of Christmas alone, and frankly, for the first time I can remember, I wasn’t done with Christmas.

I wasn’t ready to dim the evergreen lights and quench the candelabra. I love our ski-themed wall, with the cross-country Santa figurine, swooshing on the table below.

And to my surprise, the leg lamp has grown on me, and I enjoy switching it on as darkness falls, knowing Derek will see “the soft glow of electric sex” welcoming him home when he pulls into the driveway.

Since our oldest son’s birthday is Jan. 8, I always keep the Winterberry dishes out until after his cake has been cut. That way he can eat birthday cake from a plate that says, “Joy” or “Cheer” or “Wish.”

But this year, Ethan enjoyed his birthday dinner among all the other Christmas decorations I hadn’t begun removing.

After his celebration, I slowly filled the green and red bins. Walter, our junior tabby, inspected each bin from within, as I carefully wrapped candles, glassware and greenery.

Derek was even slower to remove the outdoor décor, not that there was much to take down. Our youngest son, his usual holiday helper, was busy with work and school this year, so no lighted candy canes, reindeer or trees dotted our front yard. Even so, he was reluctant to remove the garlands and wreaths.

We didn’t talk about it much.

He didn’t complain about the bins stacked in the dining room, even though he knows I’m a creature of order, not clutter.

I didn’t mention the outdoor lighting that lingered until this past week.

Honestly? I think this year with the world so filled with discord, disharmony and despair, had left us drained. But the beauty that is Christmas, reflected in simple lights and cheery decorations, offered a much-needed lift to sagging spirits.

As I write, the holiday bins are neatly stacked in the basement, the greenery gone from the front door. But Rudy still peeks at us from the deck each evening as we sit down to dinner, and I smile when I close the blinds.

To heck with rules.

Rudy can stay as long as he wants.

Columns

Sock-wearing, sweater-toting, vitamin-popping can only mean one thing….

Apparently, I’ve reached the stage of adulthood in which I must wear socks around the house. I’ve always been a barefoot kind of gal, so this came as quite a surprise.

I do wear socks with my walking shoes or boots, but when I get home I shuck my footwear and let my tootsies go au naturel.

But this winter I started feeling the cold.

Last week, I donned some fluffy pink socks that Derek had bought me a while ago, and noticed they said “Kissable” on the sole.

If you have to wear socks, I guess it’s not a bad thing to be kissable.

It’s not just my toes that are noticing the chill. Last summer, I started grabbing a sweater before I left the house.

One evening as we headed out to enjoy patio dining at one of our favorite restaurants, I wondered aloud if I should run back inside and get a sweater.

“It’s 80 degrees!” Derek said.

I paused.

“Yes, but a breeze may come up,” I said. “Or what if we have to sit inside and the air-conditioning is set too high?”

He shook his head.

“You’re the one who insists on sleeping with the bedroom window open all winter long,” he pointed out.

This is true, but sleeping next to my husband is like sleeping with a sturdy old-fashioned furnace (and just as noisy).

While a newfound appreciation for socks and sweaters doesn’t necessarily indicate advancing age, my recent multivitamin purchase is certainly a harbinger of decrepitude to come.

I’ve never been a supplement fan. Other than whopping doses of Vitamin C when the crud is going around, it’s been 20 years since I last took a daily vitamin. That was because I was pregnant, and then nursing our youngest son.

Before that, it was Flintstones chewables.

When my kids were little, I dabbed in gummy vitamins for a while, but the habit didn’t stick.

At my last eye appointment, however, the doctor noted the developing stages of age-related macular degeneration.

“It’s common in nearsighted people as we age,” he said, and he recommended a supplement known to support macular health.

Did he really have to say hurtful things like “age-related,” and “as we age”?

“And of course, you’re taking a daily multivitamin,” he added.

Gulp.

Nevertheless, I took his advice to heart and immediately purchased vitamins specific to eye health. At my next trip to Costco, I looked for a multivitamin suitable for women of a certain age.

It turned out to be the exact supplement I purchase for my 89-year-old mother.

This sock-wearing thing is proving to be a slippery slope!

The good news is, I’m not totally ancient, yet.

I know this because in November my mom had a dental emergency. Now, this is not normally good news, but it gave her an excused absence from her quarantined retirement home, and it gave me the first opportunity to spend time with her since late September.

Mom likes to introduce me wherever I take her, even if it’s to people I’ve previously met on numerous occasions, so she introduced me to the receptionist and to her dentist.

“This is my daughter. She may look young and beautiful, but she’s a GRANDMA! Can you believe it?”

Who knew a mask-wearing benefit is camouflaging mom-induced blushes?

But more important, this goes to prove that I may have advanced to the sock-wearing, sweater-toting, vitamin-popping age, but I’m still not too old for my mom to embarrass me.

All Write, Columns

Readers make writer’s job enjoyable

While tidying up end-of-the-year paperwork, I dislodged an overflowing folder from the top of the filing cabinet.

It was my reader feedback folder, filled with printed emails, cards and letters I’ve received from newspaper readers this year.

Sifting through them, I’m amazed anew at how columns pounded out from my windowless, basement home office, find their way to readers across the region and prompt response.

Before COVID-19, I did a fair number of writing workshops and speaking events, and at almost every one I’m asked, “Where do you get the ideas for your column?”

After all these years, I still haven’t found a pithy answer, because writing a personal column is well, pretty personal. That’s why it’s such a joy to find something I’ve written resonates with others.

Thumbing through the notes, I found a response to a column I’d written when I discovered what the phrase “Netflix and Chill” means in contemporary culture.

The note was from Dean, 73, who said, “You rascal, you!”

I’ve never been called a rascal before. It was epic!

An email from Stan, a fellow author, and former teacher, said, “You really know your vowels and consonants.”

I immediately forwarded that one to my editor, whom I’m sure has wondered at times.

A column about anticipation drew this response from Gina, who said, “I do have the feeling of your words in my soul today.”

No writer could wish for more.

Publishing a segment of my quarantine diary prompted a comparison to Erma Bombeck that absolutely thrilled me.

When I bemoaned in print that the shutdown order had limited my wardrobe to gray yoga pants or gray sweatpants, Bob wrote, “I look forward to Thursday’s for your articles. Please don’t ever stop. Stay healthy and wear whatever you want at home.”

I’m confident, Bob would approve of today’s usual deadline attire – a fluffy pink bathrobe and matching bunny slippers.

Sometimes reader mail offers important validation on critical issues. When I wrote of my horror at discovering my husband had used MY MONDAY MUG, Marcia wrote, “By the way, the mug thing made sense to me.”

I forwarded that one to Derek.

He didn’t reply, but he hasn’t used my Monday mug since.

Cards and letters sent to me at the newsroom are now forwarded to me at home.

When I wrote about a benefit of pandemic life was discovering the joy of the newspaper crosswords, a thoughtful reader enclosed a pencil with her card.

An elegant typewritten note on gold-trimmed stationery proved delightful, especially since it was written in response to a column about my cats.

Arlene wrote, “When there is so much sadness in these difficult times, you brightened my day on October 22 with your cleverly written article about Thor and Walter Scott.”

I don’t know if the column was clever, but I do know that my cats are.

Jan sent an email that made me smile.

“Thanks for your column – one of the few items I can BELIEVE IN THE SPOKESMAN!! (caps courtesy of the writer). Hang in there.”

I’m hanging in there, and I hope Jan is, too.

Bombeck once wrote, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

It’s a line I’m privileged to walk twice a month.

In fact, the column that generated the most feedback this year blurred those lines a bit.

I wrote about my first masked, socially distant outdoor visit with my 89-year-old mom. She lives in a retirement facility just blocks from my home, but six months had passed since I’d been able to see her in person.

Readers shared their own stories of being separated from family members during the pandemic.

Bill wrote he’d been apart from his bride of 53 years for 22 weeks.

“If some of my friends read your article, they may now have a better understanding of what I’m experiencing,” he said.

Humans weren’t made to live in isolation. This year more than ever, I value the feedback of faithful newspaper readers.

Thank you for reminding me that even in the midst of a global pandemic, our stories can still connect us.

Here’s to a brighter, better, and healthier New Year.