Up In Smoke – Hopeful Thoughts For 2012

Photo by Christina Romero-Cross

I went to my friends Tina and Henry’s home on Christmas Eve for a mince-pie and a glass of mulled wine and left having satisfied more than my appetite for sweets.

Tina’s an artist and she had two ceramic vessels that she’d made sitting in a featured place with small slips of paper layered around them and several ink pens nearby. She spoke briefly about her intention for them when I arrived, but after being swept up in conversation almost as soon as she finished, I only remembered her plan for them as I was putting my coat on to leave.

We were encouraged to write a burden we wished to be rid of in 2012 on a slip of paper and drop it into the vessel on the right and if there a secret something we hoped for in the new year to write it on another paper and put it into the left container.

I did not hesitate with my hopeful wish or my relentless burden and after a quick scritch-scratch on the paper, I was done. The next morning I felt lighter already as if the act of writing both down had lifted a weight from me overnight. I know that sounds silly and too simple, but it’s true.

The vessels and the papers inside are destined for a big beach bonfire on New Year’s Day. The ceramic containers are made to withstand the fire while the papers inside are baked to ash.

I like that.

I like the idea of my dreams and doubts going up in a puff, while sausages and marshmallows roast on sticks over the same fire. I imagine Tina and Henry’s twins will be dancing and twirling around the beach while things crackle into dust and it seems right that children should be playing nearby.

Children are naturally hopeful and isn’t hope a part of why so many of us think a wish or resolution has a chance for success even if we make the same one every New Year.

Please feel free to share any of your rituals for the new year in a comment below or leave a link if you’ve written your own post for 2012.

Going Home

Marg & Miranda - 1990

On Christmas Eve, my step-mom’s Aunt Margaret died. Born in a small town in Alabama, she was the youngest of ten children and the last one to go. Called Marg by her family (pronounced like Mog) she was more like an older sister to Cullene than an aunt making the loss even deeper for Cullene who is an only child.

Later today she will be going with my sister Jennie to Marg’s military funeral in the town where they both grew up. I wish I could be there too. Marg was just about my favorite of Cullene’s family although she wasn’t the only one in that group that knew how to have a good time. She was quick to try to make you laugh and I always loved a visit that included her.

In declining heath after a stroke two days before turning 87, she eased gently out of life just as the much of the world was slowing down to focus on family and Christmas celebrations.

I’d like to think that there a was great party waiting for her after she let go. With nine brothers and sisters all gone before her, I can almost hear her feet on the front porch and the screen door slamming shut behind her. Her brother Bab’s there too hurrying across the room to snatch up his baby sister folding her into a big hug before shouting over his shoulder and calling the family in with the words “Hey everybody, Marg’s finally here!”

I wrote a post that included memories and more about Marg last September and have copied it below. 

Making Gifts From Photo Memories

I used to make large and unusual photo collages to give as gifts to mark special occasions. I began doing it about 25 years ago when I became frustrated with the amount of photographs I was taking and the lack of ways to display them. Albums seemed tedious and too many framed images felt more like clutter than a way to share a memory.

I came across a photo in my files of one collage I made and thought some of you might be interested. It was a gift for my step-mom’s aunt Margaret who served in the Navy during WWII and stayed in long enough to retire.

Born in a small town where everyone knew and loved her, her desire to see a bigger world and the courage to venture into places where women from small towns usually didn’t go, would have made her my type of role model when I was growing up. I put this together for her 80th birthday about eight or nine years ago. It’s not my best collage, but it is one of my sentimental favorites.

It’s smaller than most of the collages I’ve done in the past, only about 24 inches tall and 14 or so wide. I didn’t have as many photos to work with as I normally do. I’m used to having loads to choose from, but because it was a surprise I had to work with what Cullene had on hand.

Knowing that the Navy was such an important part of Margaret’s life, I enlarged a V-Mail letter and envelope from my great-uncle Hugh who died towards the end of WWII. I used it as a backdrop and tried to position it so that it would not be obvious that he was writing to his parents.

I wanted to project a feel for that time during her history and thought it was a good stand-in since I didn’t have any written by Margaret. I made photo copies of the old photos Cullene gave me and tore the edges before gluing them on with rubber cement. I like to use different textures normally and this was actually a bit too glossy for me.

Personalized Party Favors

I also made little party favors (memory items) for each guest at the 80th party to sit at each of the place settings. I based it on a story Cullene told me about how in those days small happenings made the newspaper in the close-knit community where she and Margaret grew up.

Since she broke her arm playing on bales of cotton, I decided to make mini bales with a laminated photo copy of the news clipping attached to it. I can’t help thinking how nice it would be to live in a place where a little girl’s broken arm during play was part of the news.

Full As A Tick And Other Thoughts About Food

Christmas 1960 - Elizabeth Harper - Looking Full As A Tick

It’s early 9:15 in the morning here and I still feel full from all the food I’ve eaten over the last few days. John and I may have had a quiet Christmas with just the two of us, but lord did we eat!

More than a time or two the words ‘ I’m full as tick, ‘ may have crossed the lips of one of us and you won’t need to wonder which if you remember I’ve got southern roots. Our different geographic histories were also clearly illustrated by the foods that filled our plates.

John made all of his traditional English side dishes and I made the ones that have graced my family’s southern dinner table for as long as I can remember so that in the end it looked as if we had both made a complete Christmas dinner with only a shared turkey and gravy between us.

While I’m talking turkey, I have to say that John’s turkey this year was amazing! On big holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, turkey tends to be more as an accessory item to me, something I’m supposed include but don’t want too much of as there are more exciting choices to be had. This year the turkey was perfect in taste and texture and I stuffed down more of it than usual.

Speaking of stuffing, John made his in the bird and I did a cornbread dressing in a pan like my family does in Georgia. I used cornmeal carried over on my last flight since I haven’t been able to find any in Cornwall.

Have a look at our dinner plates on Christmas day, they may look like they have the same food, but if you look closely you can see the difference. John has more of the roasted root veggies along with his stuffing and the English version of a ‘pig in a blanket.’ Here it’s a sausage wrapped in bacon while in my family it would be a cocktail weenie wrapped in a biscuit.

John's Christmas Dinner

I had one chance to grab a quick shot of John’s plate as he had his knife and fork in hand and was waiting impatiently to begin. Multiple shots were not a possibility so this one will have to do. Notice all the plain ‘healthier’ veggies … there’s only a small dibble of my contributions seen at about 9 and 10 o’clock on the plate. He did compliment me on my broccoli bake (we’d call it a casserole) but that means something less special here.

My Christmas Dinner

My plate has a mix of both of our dishes. A good southern girl is raised to be polite and eat a of bit of what’s offered, but I focused mainly on things I made like my sweet potato casserole which is always heavenly and the previously mentioned broccoli which I successfully modified slightly by substituting regular bread crumbs with cornbread crumbs instead.

The pink stuff as John likes to call it, is what we refer to as a congealed salad and it’s made from a recipe Cullene has had for many years. I love this cranberry, cream cheese and jello concoction, and no holiday meal is complete for me without it. John likens it to something here called Blancmange which sounds as if he’s saying Blamonge.

The end result was the same for both of us with empty plates and overfull bellies. In a time where many people don’t have enough, I was acutely aware of how fortunate we are to have so much.

The taste of special dishes served only once or twice a year acts as a link for me and probably many of you too reminding us of past holiday meals shared with family and friends and perhaps, it’s the feelings triggered by memory along with a mix of sweetness and spice that makes us overindulge at times.

Here’s hoping your heart was a full as your tummy and that your meal was shared with someone you love.

' Cheers ' from John Winchurch At Christmas

Sharing Secrets, Support, & 500 Posts

Christmas Day 1986 - Cullene, Gene, & Elizabeth Harper

Twenty-five years ago today, I was newly married and in my last year at the University of Georgia. I was also newly pregnant in this Christmas photograph taken with my dad and step-mom, but they didn’t know it yet. Barely twelve days into the pregnancy, there were no tests available back then that were sensitive enough to confirm what I already knew.

I hadn’t planned on adding a baby to my goals for the new year and even though it was very early, I was already worrying about how I was going to balance being a mom with the career goals I had for myself.

For years when I looked at this photo, I focused on the briefcase I was holding and the memory of the feelings I had at the time. My excitement over their gift was tempered by my fear of the future. We were uninsured for pregnancy and were already living pretty frugally and I just couldn’t see how we were going to manage it.

I may have been smiling in this picture, but the secret growing inside me dominated my thoughts that Christmas and I worried that Cullene would sense that something was different about me.

That tiny bean of a baby became my daughter Miranda and it is largely for her that I began this blog in June 2008. From the time she was born I worried as many mothers do that something might happen to me and she would never know how much I loved her or who I was. That eased a great deal as she grew up, but when I choose to marry John and move to another country some of those feelings resurfaced.

I thought writing about my life here might be a way for her to see what was happening with me in England. I also hoped it might help to maintain and strengthen our relationship even though I was so far away.

‘Gifts of the Journey’ evolved very quickly into something more as I bravely wrote and made public those first bog posts. I found myself sharing many things I would have normally kept private. Thoughts and stories that while not as revealing as some might think, were huge leaps of faith for me as I posted things about myself that I worried might be too much.

Today marks my 500th post and it seems right to use a Christmas photograph that once made me think of things I was afraid to say.

When I look at it now I can see what I didn’t then. I was so fearful about the future that I missed my father’s hand on my shoulder and my hand touching Cullene. I missed how embraced and supported I really was, grounded by Cullene’s careful, nurturing nature, and braced by my dad’s belief in me.

Age and introspection have a way of clarifying things and I can easily recognise the benefits I receive from those of you who read my posts and are kind enough to support me through your comments. I may not always comment … I’m slow with email too, but I always, always, read and appreciate your thoughts and the time you take to share them.

Your interest in my words creates a lovely ripple effect in the pond of my emotional life and I am grateful for your continued presence and friendship.

Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate this day and thank you all for the gifts you share with me.

xo

Ghosts Of Christmas Past – Feeling Connected

Baby's First Christmas 1960

Harper Family Christmas - 1960 - Gene, Elizabeth, & Judy

I’ve always been someone who asked a lot of questions so much so that sometimes when I say,”John …” from another room he will answer with, ” Let me ask you something ” repeating words he’s heard me say many times before.

It’s disconcerting for some people, they think I’m being nosy or too intense, but all I really want to know is who they are and what matters most to them.

Years ago, someone said that he wished he could talk to his girlfriend the way he could me. He added that he felt connected to me in a way he wished he could have with her. I told him that I thought questions were important when it came to feeling connected and the reason he felt connected to me was because I’d encouraged him to share who he was by asking the right question.

I said that he needed to ask his girlfriend a few questions that mattered to him and then listen. Ask and listen … don’t think, plan your next question, or worry about having to fix anything, just ask your question and pay attention to the response. I heard later that they got married and from what I see on Facebook, they still look very happy together.

I wish I knew more of what my mother and father dreamed of for their own lives growing up and what kind of life they imagined for me that first Christmas. I wished I’d asked more questions when my father was living and my mother still speaking to me.

Sometimes we think we have forever … another year, another Christmas, another chance to connect and we put off important questions until it’s too late. People die or leave us in some way and the things that need saying are lost or never asked.

Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Think of the one question you wish you could ask and then consider what’s stopping you and move past it.

Missing My Girl At Christmas

Miranda, Asda, ComedyI knew it would be hard to live so far from my daughter when I moved to the UK and I knew there would be times when it would be more difficult, but must the Universe feel compelled to send me constant reminders at Christmas!

There’s a comedian here in the UK who shares my daughter’s name and this holiday season there seem to be television commercials and signs for her everywhere. It makes me want to shout, ‘Enough!’

My Miranda is never far from my thoughts. I generally have a photograph of her as my screen saver on my laptop and images and reminders of her are scattered throughout the house as well.

I won’t bore you with all of them, but some of my favorites are in the photos below. They’re mostly a few quick snaps from this morning taken in a way to avoid the dust and pre-Christmas mess so be advised they’re not my best work.

This photo was taken by my brother-in-law, Leon when Miranda was not much more than one. It’s the first thing I see when I walk into my studio space.

I had this copy of one of my favorite pictures of me with Miranda put on canvas last summer. It was pre-digital and the best copy I could find so it could not be reproduced any larger and keep the sharpness. I love seeing this when I do my hair and makeup in front of the mirror in the hall of my studio.

I have a more recent of photo of Miranda on my desktop, but I try not to put any taken too recently on the blog to give her a smidge of privacy. She was in a friend’s wedding last month and looked so pretty in her role as maid of honor that I wanted to post it, but not without discussing it first.

She made this when she was in pre-school or kindergarten and it sits in an old piece of furniture I rescued years ago from a barn on my grandmother’s property.

I keep a dresser tucked behind the sliding glass doors in my studio that house my closet or wardrobe as they would call it here. ( More can be seen in this post )

It’s here that I keep a few bowls that Miranda made me when she was a little girl and there are some cards from her and photos as well.

The puppy pic is her precious boy and the picture below is from our mother-daughter camp days.

 These dusty images are next to the bed and the bookmark is one she gave me about five years ago.

This was from a Christmas photo taken in 2009. It was my only other Christmas without her and I used a big bowl she painted when she was young to give us an angel in the dining area here. The ornament was only there for the holiday.

Angel Bowl I went through a big angel phase about twelve years ago and Miranda really made me smile when she made this gift for me.

I like to keep a favorite photo of Miranda in the kitchen and I see it every time I come into the house as we almost always enter through the kitchen door.

She’s twelve in this photo taken in Paris when we went for the Millennium New Year in 2000.

Finally, here’s a shot from when I tried to grow Sweet-Peas in the back garden because it was my nickname for her when she was a baby. I need to add that I’m not known for my gardening skills and my poor plants did not flourish or even sprout.

Miranda’s work keeps her too busy to visit during the month of December and she has little time for much else until January. I think next year I may suggest that I fly to see her in January and so we can celebrate Christmas on January 6th, the original date for early Christians.

Anyone else out there having to get creative about how they see family during holiday celebrations?  

My Christmas Blunder – 2011

Child, Gifts, Christmas

I love Christmas!

Except for a few years when I was a bit ‘ Grinchy ‘ due to job stress and people pleasing fatigue, I’ve always loved it. And while I know Christmas isn’t all about the gifts, I do get excited when I think the people I love opening a present that I hope they’ll enjoy.

I’m not sure why my daughter looks so thrilled with this little sweatshirt since it was clothing rather than a toy, but I’d like to see her face when she opens the gifts I sent her this year. I’ve only been away from her one other time at Christmas and thanks to iChat, I was able to see her open her presents on Christmas Day.

Being a UK-based Santa now has some limitations which are lessened a bit by my ability to shop online and email gifts to different family members in the US for wrapping and delivery.

I sent some gifts this year directly to Miranda that I had wrapped here and had some sent from Amazon that I asked her wrap for me and to take to her Grandmom and my sister, Jennie. I also sent my step-mom Cullene a gift to wrap for Miranda.

Here’s where it gets interesting …

I was on the phone a couple of days ago with Cullene who was acting as chief elf for the gift I had sent to her house for Miranda. I was telling her all about the package that was coming and how I had searched through hundreds of similar products on the internet before finding what I wanted on Etsy.

While I was trying to describe the gift to her, I decided I’d make it easy and forward the email receipt with an attached photo and send it to myself in the same email. I thought I was being pretty smooth until I pressed send and nothing showed up in my email inbox. My first thought was that the file might be larger than I thought and it was just slow.

So I went to my sent file and discovered I had made a big mistake.

I bet you know where this is going … yep, if you guessed that I cc’d Miranda instead of myself, you’d be right!

What quickly followed was a mix of phone calls and emails. I couldn’t reach her by phone so within a few minutes I was in a full-blown panic and moved from calling to email.

Notice how my subject headings go from a wordy babble, to shouting and ordering in just three emails.

Subject: Delete the ETSY email I sent you by mistake or you will know what one of your Christmas presents is !!   ( This one looks as if I’m giving her options here, but I’m really not. It’s an or else moment if I’ve ever seen one. ) 

Subject: DO NOT open the ETSY EMAIL!!!!  It’s a MISTAKE AND WILL REVEAL YOUR PRESENT!!! ( Right, now I’m really getting bossy, but I’m still informational about it.)

Subject: DON’T OPEN THE ETSY EMAIL!!!!! ( No pretending here, I’m just saying don’t do it!)

After waiting for what seemed like forever and moaning a lot to John about my stupidity, I received an email that she sent from work.

It was simple and to the point with a clear lack of her mother’s excitable energy and overuse of exclamation points.

Subject: All emails deleted without opening

Phew!

How about you … any Christmas blunders happening in your world or is just me who can’t keep a secret?