Friday, December 26, 2014

Our Best Christmas Gifts Ever

As we sat around the table this year at Christmas, I asked, “What was your very best Christmas gift ever?”

Not too surprisingly, three of the guys mentioned bicycles.

My brother-in-love talked about the Stingray he received when he was ten as giving him freedom. He could ride with his friends to school and to the park. It was the ‘in’ bike for its time, and he rode it for years, doing wheelies and flying down the streets of our neighborhood.
My husband said the year he got his J.C. Higgins, the Rolls Royce of bicycles, was most memorable. He and his little brother had gotten up in the wee hours of the morning to play with all the little toys under the tree. They completely missed the big bicycle and tricycle tucked behind it.
This was the best of the best, complete with saddlebags, an electric horn and light, and lots of chrome and trim. Unfortunately, it was also very heavy and had only one speed. In addition, it was really too tall for him, so he had to stand on the curb in order to mount it and leap off in order to stop without the bike falling over on him. Not long afterward, he removed the saddlebags, light, horn, and everything else he could, but he never was able to beat his friend who rode a three-speed.

My brother’s bicycle story was of the year when he was four, and Dad had repainted and refurbished our cousin’s old bicycle for him. After a few weeks, my brother told Dad he didn’t need the training wheels. After watching the kid ride his friend’s bicycle up and down the block, Dad said he’d remove the training wheels when he got home from work the next day. Unfortunately, Dad never returned from work the next day or any other day. So this is a bittersweet memory for my brother.

A great nephew said he remembered being given his older brother’s old skateboard. This gift began an ongoing love affair. After dinner this year, he tackled the hill up the street from our house. It has become mythical in our family since our nephew and his cousin both crashed on the hill. Fortunately, neither sustained serious injuries. We captured the incidents on videotape, and they have been watched by the family until the crashes have become legendary. Nevertheless, no problems occurred this year, so the enjoyment of the new skateboard remained complete.

My best gift was the mama doll I received when I was five. Mary Ann became my best friend throughout my childhood. A couple of years later, she looked pretty sad, but I never stopped loving her. My little brother had bitten off the ends of a couple of her fingers and poked her eyes into her head. Her wig was missing, and her cheeks were worn from being kissed so often. For my sixth birthday, Dad refurbished her, including a new wig and all new clothes.
When my daughter was small, she was allowed to play carefully with Mary Ann only when she was ill. For my Christmas gift when my daughter was in her teens, she located a fancy dress at the thrift shop for my doll, since her old clothing was pretty-well worn out. My beloved doll still wears that dress, and once in a great while a visiting child is allowed to hold and hug her.

My daughter’s best gift was her own TV and Princes phone. She received both when she was about ten. These two items made her feel very independent and grown-up.
Our great-niece told us about the ring which had belonged to her great-grandmother, and which she had always loved. The Christmas after her great-grandmother’s death, she was given that special ring. She wears it today, and it keeps the memory of her beloved relative alive for her.

A friend who joined us for dinner said having her husband released from the hospital for the day in 1969 was the very best gift she would ever receive. His prognosis, following being shot in the head in Vietnam, remained highly questionable, but at least he was allowed to be with his family this once.

Her husband shared his wife’s sentiment. Today, 40+ years later, he is still with us and has accomplished far more than the specialists ever dreamed he would. But that Christmas of 1969 marked the beginning of the promise of a new life for both our friends.

My sister-in love’s answer moved me the most. Her best gift ever was a simple set of jacks and a ball. She told us about spending four years with her sister in a convent, while her brothers lived with the fathers in a different facility. Between several masses each day, meals, school, and chores, she had very little free time. She spent some in the library, but she and her sister found the center of an old golf ball and several smooth stones with which they played jacks. For Christmas, the nuns gave her a real set with a real ball.
Her eyes still light up with joy when she talks about this gift and when she says, “And I was really good!”

I’m certain all of us have received other wonderful gifts over the years, but what was telling for me was the one constant in all the stories we shared. The joy of these gifts lasted long beyond Christmas morning. The boys mentioned the freedom and speed of their gifts, which transported them to other places. Our friends mark the 1969 Christmas homecoming as the beginning of their new life together and his slow recovery. The ring continues to be a reminder of a beloved great-grandmother, while our daughter’s TV and phone made her feel grown-up and more independent.

My Mary Ann still makes me smile. I confess, I usually kiss her cheek before I put her safely away.

What was your favorite Christmas gift ever? When did you receive it? Why was it special?

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Worst Christmas Ever

Recently my brother and I discussed our worst Christmas ever. Even though the ones since then may not always have been joyous, none will ever compare with the worst.

On February 16, 1954, I stepped off the school bus just like every other day. I looked toward our house and saw cars parked in our driveway and along both sides of the street. Some I recognized. Some I didn’t.

As I walked home, I kept running different possible scenarios through my head as to why so many people would be at our house. None of them made sense.

My confusion deepened when I opened the door and saw my aunts, several neighbors, and some of my parents’ friends sitting and standing around the living room and in the kitchen. Most appeared to be crying.

I grew even more alarmed when I looked down the hall. The window blind on the glass back door had been pulled down, leaving the corridor in shadow.

My mother started toward me. She wore a brown and white striped dress I disliked. Her eyes were red, and my dad’s father had his arm around her as they approached.

My first thought was: That’s really weird. They hate each other. Why is Grandpa holding onto my mother?

She walked up to me and said, “Your daddy died this morning.”

I realized everyone in the room was staring at me as if they expected something. Since they had all been crying, I decided to conjure up a few tears. They came more from fear and confusion than from any real emotion.

My aunt brought me a glass of tomato juice.

I was seven years old and realized my whole world had just changed, only I wasn’t really sure quite how yet.

The concept of death wasn’t new to me. My grandfather had died when I was twenty-six months old, and I was still keenly aware of his absence.

My four-year-old brother wasn’t present. I later learned he’d been sent across the street to another neighbor’s house.
Christmas 1953, the year before the worst one ever.
As an adult, I realize what this moment must have been like for our mother. She had been raised to expect to spend her life as a wife and mother. Suddenly, at thirty-six years old, she was responsible for raising two small children without their father. And Dad’s $1000 life insurance policy provided only enough to bury him.

From then on, it was as if my dad had simply evaporated. We never spoke of him, and we were never given permission to grieve for him. The three of us didn’t do so until over fifty years later.

The next morning, I was sent off to school as if nothing had changed.

The atmosphere there contained the same unreality as at home. My father had died the day before, yet no one said anything about it. Not my teacher. Not the other students, No one. There, life went on as usual, only I no longer felt a part of it.

I have many memories of the next few days, but the most vivid is my crying and begging to be allowed to go to the funeral. Following the wisdom of the day, however, I was once again sent off to school.

Just before Christmas, Mom announced we would spend Christmas Eve with my grandmother. She was not like the warm and fuzzy grandmas I’d seen in movies and on TV. Our grandmother was starched and stiff and had the gift of criticism. She had made it clear to both of us that, no matter what we accomplished, it would never meet her high standards. I worked hard for years to gain her approval, only to be met with more suggestions for improvement.

On Christmas morning, my brother and I woke early to discover that Santa had, as promised, found us at Grandma’s house. I remember several gifts I received that year, including a life-sized doll with elastic bands on her feet and hands so you could dance with her. It was certainly not anything I would have thought to ask for. It looked sort-of like this one, only not dressed quite as well.

Shortly afterward, I wandered into my grandmother’s service porch and discovered the boxes and shopping bags from our gifts. In our house, Santa removed the toys from their packaging to put under the tree.

Here was concrete proof that my friends had been right. Santa was a story we were told by our parents. I had asked and asked my mother about what they had told me, but she insisted that a real person in a red suit brought our Christmas gifts.

My first thought upon my discovery was: If Mom lied about this, what else has she lied to us about?

When my daughter was born, I made myself a promise never to lie to her. When she asked me the same questions I’d asked my mother, my stock response became, “What do you think?” Then I’d nod in agreement with whatever logic she had come up with.

When it finally came out that she knew the truth and had for quite some time, I asked her why she hadn’t said anything.

After my assurance that she’d still get her ‘Santa gift,’ her answer made me cry. “I didn’t want to spoil your fun, Mommy.”

What a different scenario from my own childhood when, within the span of less than a year, I lost my father, Santa Claus, and my trust in my mother’s veracity.

It took time before I found the joy in Christmas again, but because we were quite poor, I always knew I would never get the gift I most wanted. The year when all my friends received new bicycles, a much-needed robe awaited me on Christmas morning. I would have to save all my money and earn more before I finally bought my own bike. And even then, I was not allowed to buy the one I wanted.

The year 1954 provides a clear line marking the end of my childhood.

Do you have a worst Christmas story? When was it, and what happened?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Remembering December 7

December 7 is a date we could never forget. First, of course is Pearl Harbor Day. Even though neither of us was born then, we have visited Hawaii often, and have gone to the Arizona memorial numerous times.
Another reason we remember this date is that Larry’s father was born on this date. For years, we combined the celebration of his birthday with my mother’s, which was on December 14. We lost them both in 2011, and it still feels strange to go through December without that celebration.

Because of the Pearl Harbor attack, Dad was drafted, even though Larry was a baby. Fortunately, he served his time in the Navy at Mare Island near San Francisco. Because of his pride in his military service, we asked for the Navy to be present at his interment at Rose Hills Cemetery. We were so moved at the playing of “Taps” and the presentation of the flag to Larry.
We decided that it should go to Shaun, Murl’s only Collins grandson, and eventually to his son, Tyler, the only Collins great-grandson. We had it put into a case and gave it to Larry’s brother, Casey, to keep until it is passed on down the line.

The last time we went to the Arizona Memorial was on Veterans Day a few years ago. That was when we discovered that those who had served aboard the USS Arizona on that day and survived could have their ashes interred within the superstructure of the monument or have them scattered in the harbor. We also met four survivors of the December 7 attack. We loved talking to them and asking questions.
On that trip, the idea of including the interment of a survivor in one of our mysteries was born. However, it wasn’t until our return trip last month that the urgency of writing that story became apparent. The survivors are now in their late 80s and 90s. We lose more of them each year. So our new book, Murder With Honor, will feature a veteran who survived December 7th on the Arizona.

We’ve only written the first two chapters, but we hope to finish sometime next year. We hope it is a fitting tribute to those who survived on the ‘day which will live in infamy.’

Monday, November 24, 2014

Virtual Christmas

I posted this last year, but as  Advent begins, I am reminded what a special year this was and want to share it again. I 'stole' the idea from a co-worker, so it's not original. But we still have terrific memories of the year without 'real' gifts.

A few years ago, during the financial crisis, most in our family were unable to spend much for gifts. We agreed to give the kids smaller presents, but the adults were in a quandary.

Larry grew up with a large extended family. All the kids got something small, but lots of gifts. Auntie Wanda, who worked in a bank, gave each child a crisp, new two-dollar bill. Uncle Francis brought them each a shiny silver dollar. (Kim still has some of hers.) Auntie Margie loved finding loud and crazy socks. She’d shop all year for them. (And Kim insisted on wearing them—with everything.)

Since Larry’s dad was one of six, and most were married with kids, we often had forty or more on Christmas Eve. Dad was the youngest and was sixteen years younger than his oldest sister. We loved having kids and adults of all ages, and we welcomed a new family member every few years.

The adults drew names for gifts with a $20 limit. This meant each couple only had to buy two adult gifts. Names were drawn on Thanksgiving, but we weren’t particularly strict about sticking with the names as drawn. Much horse trading occurred between that date and Christmas Eve.

Everyone knew Cousin Gerry loved getting Larry’s brother, Casey. Both were pranksters, and Gerry loved giving Casey off-the-wall gifts.

One year, she gave him a large box. When he opened it, the only thing inside was a clue to the next gift. She routed him all over the house until he finally located the small box in the center of her cookie plate. It held a $20 bill. Another year, he received a coffee can filled with change embedded in the most awful mixture of white glue, peanut butter, chocolate syrup… Well, you can imagine. He had to run the whole thing under very hot water before he was able to extract his $20 in change.

I always loved buying gifts for Auntie Margie. She had very definite tastes, and most of the rest of them found her challenging. What a coup when I was able to please her, and I did so often.

For many years, we hosted the entire family, but as the older generation died out, and the ‘kids’ grew up and moved away, the group grew smaller until we were left with only our immediate families.

As Christmas of 2009 approached, some of us were faced with limited resources. My sister-in-love, Lucy, had just started a new job. Casey’s company had folded, as had mine. Kim's company had moved her to Texas and was no longer working two jobs. Our niece, Carrie, and her husband were leaving right after the first of the year to move to Utah. In short, times were financially challenging, and money was tight.

A coworker, faced with the same situation in her family, had just gone back to work after nine months of unemployment. Her family decided on a virtual Christmas. 

The rules were simple:
  •        Decide what you would give each family member if money were no object and without any restrictions.
  •         Write a note to each person, along with pictures or other enhancements (web pages, etc.) to let them know what you’d give them and why.
  •          Put your virtual gift in an envelope, and put it on the tree on Christmas Eve.

Everyone took the challenge seriously. And the gifts we received that year far surpassed any material gifts we might have gotten.

I have kept my virtual gifts locked carefully away along with the birth certificates, marriage certificate, and all the other valuable papers. They are that precious.

Kim ‘gave’ Larry a trip to outer space, complete with photos and a web page. I ‘received’ a house in Hawaii.

My brother, who is a classic car fanatic, ‘gave’ Larry a woody and me a ’57 Thunderbird—my favorite car of all time.

Carrie and Loren had just bought a new house in Utah, so they brought the map of their neighborhood. Their ‘gift’ was a house of our choice on the same block so we could live near them.

Larry’s gift was a trip to Hawaii for the whole family. His gift to me was to retire and travel to all the places on my bucket list: Machu Picchu, England, Scotland (again), New Zealand (again), Italy (again), and Hawaii (always). Oh, and he’d go along.

My gifts were all intangibles. To Kim, I ‘gave’ happiness. To my brother, confidence, and so forth. Larry’s gift reads as follows:

To Larry I would give
In God and your faith
            In your work and your play
                        In your family and home
                                    In love and marriage
You are the greatest blessing in my life.
            If I could do it all over again,
I would. You taught me how to laugh
            And play and love (the best parts).
I love you.

We haven’t done it again, but someday, perhaps, we will. I’d recommend it to anyone, whether or not finances are an issue.

My virtual gift for you? A joyous and blessed holiday season and a prosperous New Year. May all your fondest dreams come true.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Aloha Spirit-Part 2

We returned last week from our most recent vacation in Hawaii. This time, we went back to Waikiki, a place I’ve always loved.
We flew Hawaiian Air Lines, and thoroughly enjoyed the flight. Just like in the old days, the upholstery reflects a Hawaiian aesthetic, as did the flight attendants’ uniforms. Hawaiian music filled the cabin while videos of the islands played on the personal TV screens.

On the trip over, we were served lunch. (Unfortunately, I was unable to enjoy any of it since everything contained either cabbage or nuts, neither of which I can eat. Fortunately, I took a protein bar with me, so I had something I could enjoy.) This is one of the few airlines which still serves a meal. On the trip home, I enjoyed the meal.

Once we arrived in Honolulu, we picked up our rental van and then drove into town where we checked into the timeshare our friends had arranged for.

This place had a very strange layout and seemed a bit cramped for four adults. They advertised the maximum capacity as six. We couldn’t begin to figure out how that many would fit!

We slept on the Murphy bed, which dropped down from the wall after much of the furniture was moved out of the way. It was actually quite comfortable—surely much more so than the sofa bed. We’ve slept on those many times and have never found any to accommodate the human body.

However, we never worry too much about space in our room as we spend little time there.

Waikiki itself was a surprise.

Since our last visit, the International Marketplace and all the funky little shops I used to love are gone. Instead, Kalakaua now resembles a Polynesian version of Rodeo Drive loaded chockablock with high-end stores only the Asian tourists seem to be able to afford.
Chanel, Gucci, Coach, Prada, Tiffany, Harry Winston, and virtually every other upscale retailer can be found here. But nearly all of the quirky and uniquely Hawaiian shops and stores are gone.

The large banyan tree, which formed the centerpiece of the International Marketplace, is all that remains. The architectural renderings of the new construction indicate more of the same style stores which already dominate the area.

Visitors to most of these establishments are met with sales people dressed formally in dark suits. They all but ignore American tourists in our shorts and t-shirts.

“Aloha” and “Mahalo” nearly disappeared from the local vocabulary as soon as we deplaned. The warm greetings we used to enjoy—as well as Hawaiian faces—are mostly memories.

Fortunately, the first floor of the building in which we stayed contained a Denny’s restaurant with a terrific local staff. Their selections also reflected the locality with fresh papaya and pineapple on the menu. Another of our favorite locales, the Shorebird Broiler in the Outrigger Hotel, continues to serve a great buffet accompanied by spectacular ocean views. And our favorite special occasion restaurant, Duke’s, still prepares terrific seafood accompanied by a great salad bar.

Each time we plan a trip, we select places we’ve never visited before. This time, we decided to finally visit the Honolulu Art Museum as well as the State of Hawaii Art Museum. Excellent choices.

The highlight of the trip was the special exhibit of Hawaiian Deco at the Honolulu Museum. The show included artwork created between the world wars, including the iconic menu covers from the Matson Line steamships. Several groups of large paintings by specific individual artists were united for the first time. One set had been commissioned for the ships, but when completed, were too large. They were sold to private collectors and corporations. All were loaned to the museum for this show.

We discovered a fabulous Armenian artist, born in Turkey, who studied art in New York and then moved to Hawaii—Arman Manookian.  His vivid images, reminiscent of Gaugin, are striking. He committed suicide at the age of twenty-seven. Only thirty-one of his paintings are known to exist, so being able to see a number of these in one show was a real treat.
We visited several familiar places, including the North Shore, and some continue to be a joy. But the overall feeling of Waikiki has changed drastically.

Would we return? Probably. We still love those few old landmarks which remain as well as the ocean. Are we likely to return to Honolulu soon? Probably not. Much of Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, and Molokai are more reminiscent of the Hawaii we first saw and remember so fondly.

Have you visited Hawaii? What did you like best? What least? How has it changed since your first memories?