Columns

To all the books I’ve loved before…

In my previous column, I wondered if a love of literacy was hardwired in our family DNA. All four of my sons are book lovers like me. I invited readers to share their bookish memories, and it seems that many of you also caught the reading bug young and have no desire to be cured.

Christy Himmelright of the Tri-Cities wrote “I have all the Little Golden Books that my parents bought and read to me. My very favorite was ‘All Aboard!’ about a train trip from home to see Grandma. The protagonist was a girl, and that was almost impossible to find in any adventure story. Also, it appeared that she was an only child (as I am), so identifying with her happened on a very personal level.”

Like me, Himmelright eagerly anticipated trips to the library.

“The best time was summer vacation when I could go to our little town library and check out the maximum number of books that I could read in two weeks. It seems that I was trudging back there often before the two weeks were up and loading up again with the next selection. I also participated in the summer reading contests, and clearly remember the ‘trail’ that wound through the Reading Forest. It started at the checkout desk and meandered along the top of the walls that showed above the box shelves. To go each time I went into the library and find my marker as it moved along the trail was a thrill that I still feel in my long-ago child’s heart.”

Her lifelong love of the written word endures.

“To this day, I have at least two or three books at my living room chair-side, and one on my nightstand for bedtime relaxation,” she wrote. “I cannot imagine life without books, especially the real ones of paper and binding and covers.”

Patricia Garvin of Spokane recalled the magical moment when words came alive for her.

“In 1948, I was in the first grade. We students had a workbook in which there was a story; we were to remove the pages, which folded on dotted lines, into a small booklet. I vividly recall sitting next to my mother and reading the story to her. I still see the line drawings and remember reading to her, ‘…and down the hill came Wee Woman.’ She was as delighted as I!”

Beverly Gibb of Spokane still has a copy of the first book she remembers her mother reading to her.

“My first reading experience was Mom reading me ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ We both loved Piglet the best,” she wrote. “My favorite books were ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ I’m guessing your boys didn’t read those!”

She guessed correctly. My sons didn’t embrace Anne, but on Christmas morning a couple of years ago, my oldest gave me the complete “Anne of Green Gables” collection. He knows how to delight his mama.

Sometimes literature love leads to book-custody issues. That’s what happened to Bernadette Powers of Helena.

She recalled parents joining the Weekly Readers Book Club, which delivered books directly to their door.

“I was in hog heaven getting books in the mail. I still have most of them including my all-time favorite, ‘Half Magic’ by Edward Eager,” she wrote. “The story is delightful and the illustrations are amazing. It also became a favorite of my son, Gannon. He appropriated it when he went off to college. When I went to visit him I appropriated it back. We’ve been stealing it back and forth ever since. He moved from Seattle to California a few years ago. There’s a small part of me that suspects he made the move so it would be harder for me to steal my book.”

Joan Becker, who grew up in Spokane, wrote of her eagerness to start first grade, so she could learn to read. Her best friend was a year older and would read comics to her as long as they were getting along, but if they disagreed? No more comics for Joan.

When she could decipher words by herself, the material the school provided proved disappointing.

“Dick and Jane stories comprised the love and hate relationship of others selecting my reading agenda,” she wrote. “After Dick and Jane made their debut, their interactions were way too repetitive to be captivating. I couldn’t wait to purchase my own comic books and go to the library.”

All who responded still retain their passion for the written word.

“As my 90th birthday approaches, I remember as a 9- or 10- year- old growing up in Capitol Hill in Seattle, going on the bus by myself downtown to the library. In those days there were no branch libraries, and it also seemed OK for a little girl to go alone on the bus,” wrote Muriel Rubens. “My parents read to me as I was growing up, as did my two older brothers and sister. I learned to read at an early age, and I loved it and haven’t stopped since,”

As I write, my suitcase sits open beside me. I’m packing for a trip to Ohio to see my twin grandsons, aka “The World’s Most Beautiful Boys.”

My husband glanced at the mound of stuff I intend to pack. Board books for the boys and a paperback for their big sister lay scattered among clothes. My own stack of reading material teetered nearby.

“You’re never going to fit all that in your suitcase,” he said.

He may be right.

However, one thing is certain, even if I have to wear the same outfit every day for a week; the books are coming with me.

Columns

Love in bloom

I don’t like dirt. Not one little bit.

When friends speak of the delight they feel when plunging their hands into rich, dark soil, I shudder.

But I love flowers – their blooming beauty feeds my soul. I also adore fresh berries, juicy tomatoes, tender green beans, and tasty zucchini, things that aren’t possible to grow without getting your hands dirty.

“You can wear gloves, you know,” a friend advised.

That’s certainly an option, but I took another route–I married well.

Once our four sons were mostly grown, Derek eyed our backyard and decided to raise something other than boys.

While I can’t even keep a houseplant alive, my husband’s green thumb, along with his strong back, keen mind and building skills, have created a backyard oasis. Each year, he tweaks his creation and finds new ways to add beauty.

The result?

Pansies, petunias, geraniums, impatiens, in red, yellow, purple and pink, bloom in boxes around our great gazebo. They spill from window boxes along the delightful deck that Derek built.

Bleeding hearts, daisies and star flowers blossom in well-tended bark beds.

Derek spent a couple of summers building a lovely brick retaining wall and walkway around his garden shed. He tossed a packet or two of wildflower seeds along one side, and this year tall blue and white flowers line the path.

Wildflowers

Behind the shed, purple and lavender clematis creeps up the twin trellises he installed on the fence he built, and begonias burgeon in planters throughout the yard.

Crowds of pansies cluster in giant oak barrels. The barrels are new this year, anchoring a sun shade that sails from the great gazebo and is affixed to two towering redwood posts. Derek filled the bottom of the barrels with concrete to ensure the posts would stand firm in our windy weather, and keep our sun shade from soaring off into the neighbor’s yard. Then he topped the barrels with soil and planted the flowers that thrive in their cozy containers.

Also new – redwood boxes for our berry bushes. Our blueberries and strawberries have done well in their containers, but our raspberries have grown wild along the fence line, as long as we’ve lived here. When my sister-in-law gave us a blackberry bush, Derek decided it was time to corral our fruit.

He built three 2-feet by 6-feet boxes along the fence, one for each type of berry. If there’s room, he may transfer the strawberries, too.

Despite its late start due to these other projects, Derek’s raised bed vegetable garden is growing well. We’ve already spotted a couple green tomatoes, the green beans are ready to climb, and our first zucchini is peeking out from beneath its leafy lair.

Each year I shop for annuals with him, and place the flowers where I’d like them, but he does the planting. I weigh in on what veggies I’d like, and once again Derek gets his hands dirty.

When things bloom and ripen, I don gloves and do the deadheading and harvesting, but mostly I just enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Each day after work, I start dinner, and then head to the gazebo. I let the sun warm my legs, I listen to birdsong. I watch butterflies and bumblebees flit among the flowers. My husband has created place where I can let the cares of the day fade, and feast my eyes on loveliness.

FTD coined the motto “Say it with flowers,” but I’m so thankful I don’t have to wait for a floral delivery service to show up at my door to hear what Derek has to say.

Every spring and all through the summer, I’m surrounded by countless beautiful blooms, and each one seems to whisper I love you.

Columns

Grace and the Angel Gowns

For someone who never opened her eyes or drew a breath, Grace Susie Bain, continues to make a difference in the world she didn’t get to explore.

On June 1, 2003, my friend, Sarah Bain, gave birth to Grace, knowing the baby had died in her womb on May 29.

Two years ago, I wrote a column about how Sarah marked what would have been Grace’s 16th birthday, by having her wedding dress made into “angel gowns.”

The Angel Gown program has chapters and affiliates across the U.S. Volunteer seamstresses take donated wedding dresses and create gowns for stillborn infants or babies who die soon after birth.

In Spokane, retired registered nurse and health care executive Peggy Mangiaracina, has been making tiny gowns, tuxedos and cocoons since 2017. Sarah asked me to be present when she gave her wedding dress to Mangiaracina, and shared Grace’s story.

That column prompted an amazing response. Since its publication on May 16, 2019, Mangiaracina has received 56 donated dresses, and turned them into 1,600 angel gowns.

“Sixty percent of those donating the dresses have lost a child,” Mangiaracina said. “And most had never heard about angel gowns until your column came out.”

She said Sarah’s story has resonated with many.

“They told me, ‘Sarah’s story allowed me to feel and share my own.’ ”

Mangiaracina told of a man in Puyallup, who came across the column. His wife died, and he decided to donate her wedding dress.

“They’d lost a daughter long ago, and he could relate to Sarah’s experience of all the birthdays and special events they didn’t get to share with their child,” said Mangiaracina.

Hospitals in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene welcome the gowns, but Mangiaracina is also supplying them to hospitals in California, Texas, Oregon, Minnesota, Montana and Colorado.

“I get as much out of doing this as the parents who choose the gowns, or the people who donate their dresses,” she said. “I’ve found my niche.”

And soon she’ll have more help in this labor of love.

RoxAnn Walker, of Spokane, started making angel gowns in 2019. She made the first one for her granddaughter, Madelina.

“My daughter had a baby with a terminal birth defect and had to end her pregnancy at 20 weeks,” said Walker. “Madelina was too small for any outfit, so I went online and stumbled onto Angel Gowns.”

Walker bought a wedding dress at a thrift store and made a gown for her granddaughter. Her daughter lives in Texas, so Walker asked the hospital there if they’d like to receive angel gowns. They welcomed her gift, and she’s made 80 gowns, so far.

She has wanted to make gowns for Spokane area hospitals, too, but didn’t know whom to contact. I put her in touch with Mangiaracina, and the women plan to pool their talents and expertise.

“I like making something that’s helping make the worst situation in the world better,” Walker said. “The gowns say ‘You’re a little person. You’re here and you’re important.’”

So many lives had been touched by Sarah’s willingness to share Grace’s story. But Grace’s legacy is more than angel gowns

“When Grace was born we were told we couldn’t file a birth certificate because she hadn’t been born breathing. However, we were required by the state to file a death certificate,” Sarah recalled. “The first words out of my mouth and the mouths of so many other mothers who give birth to a stillborn baby were: How can you require me to file a death certificate for my daughter yet you won’t allow her to have a birth certificate? How is this even possible?’ ”

For grieving families, it often feels like one more cruel blow.

In 2005, Sarah, along with many others, embarked on a journey to ensure stillborn children receive birth certificates in Washington state. Finally, after seemingly endless hurdles and delays, on April 6, the state Senate passed HB 1031 allowing the issuance of a certificate of birth resulting in stillbirth. The governor signed it into law on April 16.

Because of the pandemic and resulting backlog, the certificates won’t be available for families to request until October 2022. They will be retroactive, so families can request one for a child that died in years past.

Sarah said the psychological implications of this are huge.

“Before, the state of Washington basically said: We won’t give you a birth certificate because your baby wasn’t born living. but since your baby was born dead, you must file a death certificate. Now they say. ’We see you, we acknowledge you, we honor your child,’ ” said Sarah. “After 18 years with a death certificate tucked away in a drawer for my daughter, I can soon request her birth certificate. Grace matters.”

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, War Bonds

Diminished by their loss, bolstered by their legacy

On a chilly November afternoon, I said goodbye to another veteran featured in my book “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.”

James Loer died on Oct. 17. His wife, Helen, preceded him in death four years earlier.

Just as I’d done at her service, I read their chapter “From Sailor to Preacher” at his funeral.

The author at James Loer’s funeral, November 2020.

Theirs was a simple story of plain people who worked hard and served every community they lived in with quiet devotion. As James said in our first interview, “I can tell you right now this isn’t going to be romantic!”

Indeed, romantic might be too flowery a word to describe their lifelong bond. They married in 1948 in a small ceremony at the home of their pastor while James was attending Bible school.

He’d felt called to the ministry after surviving several harrowing skirmishes when he served in the Navy during World War II. The 13 battle stars on the cap he always wore told more of story than James liked to discuss.

During his funeral, the pastor, used a flag, a hammer, a Bible, and a seed to tell James’ story. The flag for the country he loved, the hammer for the work he did as a carpenter, the Bible for the God he served and the seed that represented his farmer’s heart, as well as all that he’d sown into lives during his many years as a pastor.

At 96, James Billy Loer had lived a full, rich life, and longed to be reunited with his bride.

And then, on the first day of the New Year, another “War Bonds” reunion took place.

Zelma Garinger joined her beloved husband of 65 years, David, who passed away in 2014, before “War Bonds” was published.

Unlike James Loer, David Garinger was an avowed romantic.

In fact, this is how he described the first time he kissed Zelma on Valentine’s Day 1947.

“I had my arm around Zelma, sitting close. I smelled her sweetness. Her dark shining hair and sparkling blue eyes worked their magic on me. Our lips met for the very first time … it seemed so right. Truly she was my Valentine.”

David had served in the Marine Corps during World War II, and after returning home and marrying Zelma, he became a pastor, and later a master carpenter and contractor. He loved art, music, poetry and most of all, Zelma. Each morning, he’d deliver a cup of coffee to her bedside.

The years without him had been long. Zelma had chronic respiratory issues and suffered with chronic back pain, but she still made it to a reading of “War Bonds” at the South Hill Library in 2015.

Zelma Garinger with the author, 2015

After Zelma’s death, her daughter, Janice, wrote me a beautiful letter, sharing memories of her mom.

Zelma had returned to college and earned a teaching degree when Becky, her youngest daughter was little.

Janice wrote, “During hard times teaching children of migrant workers in California’s Central Valley, she shared with us that all her efforts were worth it if she could make a difference in the life of even one child. She was always more than just their teacher. She prayed for them and quietly reached out when there was need. Many books and supplies were personally purchased to enrich her students.

We vividly remember a tiny first-grader who was rescued many nights from her alcoholic mother, then put to bed in our parents’ home, so she could attend school the next day.”

Reading Janice’s memories of Zelma and hearing the pastor speak of James Loer’s life of service at his funeral, brought home just how much we lose as a society when another member of the Greatest Generation leaves us.

The lives they led filled with hard work, hope, courage and sacrifice are simply irreplaceable. We would do well to honor their memories by following the examples they set.

I think the inscription on James’ headstone beautifully sums up both he and Zelma’s lives.

“Life’s work well done.”

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.