My Grandmother’s Zinnias

Born in 1879, My paternal grandmother’s life was as different from mine as possible. Prior to World War Two she had visited Italy almost annually. She loved it there and even sent money to help out the family of her gondolier—the equivalent of a taxi driver for the canals of Venice. When I was born, she asked that instead of being called “Granny,” she be known as “Nonny,” a variation on Nona, the Italian word for grandmother. She was very fond of me, her first and only grandchild until eight years later when the first of my siblings was born.

She wasn’t a cookie baking, knitting “granny” sort. She was a forceful, energetic, woman whose hair remained a light brown with occasional gray roots between visits to the hairdresser, for all of her eighty years. She enjoyed my youthful company and we spent many afternoons playing card games or going to the various church fairs that occurred all during the summer months while I was growing up. She would give me money to buy pony rides and trinkets from the White Elephant table while she checked out what was being offered to the people attending the fairs.

For her, because she ran our local church fair for most of my childhood, these were a kind of business trip. One year she had a circus theme and hired an elephant. It was brought from upstate New York for the day. I remember riding on its back in a howdah. The elephant spent the night in our garage, though I was not allowed to visit it, I remember hearing i trumpeting. She enjoyed life and participated in it to the fullest. I loved it when she shared bits of her life with me. It was a very different one from the one I knew, as different as mine was from today’s grandchildren.

She was a passionate gardener and grew lots of flowers as well as vegetables in a number of gardens presided over by Mr. Patch, an Irishman with a squeaky voice. I remember that he wore overalls and seemed always to have a gardening implement in his hand. There were two narrow flowerbeds beside the gravel walk that led to her front porch. Each and every year they were lined with Zinnias. I can see them even now, so bright and strong, like her. I never heard her complain or bemoan her condition. She was an inspiring example of strength and fortitude as well as generosity.

While some of her attitudes and opinions were old fashioned—she believed that a “lady” ought not to have a job or work for money, she kept up with current affairs and read three newspapers daily. She also did volunteer work and gave generously to charity. As I advance in age I have grown to appreciate her more than ever. She loved life. Born in a time before automobiles, during the twenties through thirties and forties, she drove her Pontiac through every state in the union. She passed on in 1959. I feel fortunate to have had her in my life for as long as I did. She was a fine example of aging in a positive way, and as I too age, I am even more grateful to her.

The Gift of Christmas Giving

Laura Dodge's Christmas windowOne of my fond Christmas memories is of my dad sitting by our living room fireplace wrapping and addressing his Christmas gifts to his workers and others with whom he had a working relationship. He was a horticulturalist and his company was on the North Shore where there were many fine estates and special gardens. He was good at designing views and helping the owners of the estates and their caretakers maintain their trees and shrubs.

His gifts ranged from cartons of cigarettes to bottles of whiskey and included neckties and other smaller items of clothing. Some were for the gardeners of the estates, some for those who worked under his supervision. His men and their foreman got the more expensive gifts. Each one was carefully wrapped and labeled. When I grew old enough to help him I delighted in doing so. All things having to do with Christmas have always been special to me.

Many years ago, on the advice of a spiritual teacher, I began cultivating an attitude of gratitude. This practice has since become much more popular, featured in books and by Oprah, on Facebook groups and on a variety of other sites. There is even a lovely, inspiring site devoted to the expression of gratitude called Gratitude.org. It features all sorts of good news together with thoughtful comments and teachings, as well as poetry.

As Stephen and I drove home after delivering the last plate of Christmas gift cookies, I thought how grateful I was to have an opportunity to acknowledge as my dad did, the kindness of those who had been of help. My token plates of cookies seem a small return for all that these people have done for us, yet they are at least a tangible offering on the alter of my gratitude.

Also, since I was a small child I have been the recipient of much for which I am grateful now, even though at the time I was not aware of the benefit. When I have the opportunity to do so, I acknowledge in my heart those who have been kind to me in the past as well as in the present. Some of them have passed out of my life and some have simply passed away. I remember them with gratitude and say a prayer for their happiness wherever they may be.

Thanksgiving is a fine time to be aware of that for which we are grateful, yet Christmas is my opportunity to express that gratitude in a tangible way to those whose generosity I hope to acknowledge. My life would not be what it is without the help I have received along the ways Those who have in the past, those in the present and even those in the future deserve my thanks as well as whatever I can do to pay it forward in gratitude for those who are too far for me to bring them cookies.

 

The Wonderful Jacket

Tasha in hood 2Those of us who come from New England are familiar with Yankee thrift: use it up, make do, or do without. I am of a conserving nature, having in addition to a Yankee father, a German mother born at the outset of WWI. Nothing was ever wasted in the house I grew up in. I thrived on hand-me-downs and thrift shop finds. Over the years I have accumulated clothing items I am happy to see again when their season rolls around. I often develop a fondness for clothing that has served me well.

Recently as I pushed my wagon through the aisles of a grocery store, I saw a woman standing by the meat counter in a unique and lovely white furry jacket. “I can’t resist telling you I think your jacket is magnificent,” I told her. She laughed and said it was from the 70’s, yet she could never bear to part with it. “Nor should you,” I replied. We each continued on our way, pushing our shopping carts in opposite directions.

I smiled to myself. I was wearing a jacket I have had for close to thirty years. It is a fairly ordinary, black, nylon one, with some very useful pockets. Black fur edges the hood. It is warm and comfortable, and probably unremarkable as jackets go. However the story of how I acquired it and what has been done to it since makes it special.

On a trip to the Cape many years ago, Stephen and I were in a consignment shop, poking around. I saw the jacket hanging on a rack, and figured I might be able to use it. I took it down, intending to try it on. “If you can zip it up you can have it,” said the woman behind the counter. I looked down at the zipper and saw that it was slightly frayed on the bottom and could be a bit challenging. When I tried it on I liked the feel of the jacket and resolved to see if indeed I could zip it.

Very carefully I inserted the frayed end into the metal slot and continued to be careful as I zipped it all the way up. The saleswoman was good at her word and gave me the jacket without charge. In the ensuing years I went on zipping it up carefully until finally one year I invested in a new zipper. Along the way parts of the jacket lining began to wear out. I was fortunate in having friends who at different times were able to repair the worn places in the lining so that it looked almost new.

Now when I put on my wonderful warm winter jacket I remember my friends and their generous work on my behalf. I also think how fortunate I was to have found it, been able to zip it up and to have it still after all these many years. What keeps me warm in it is more than the lining or the material, it is the memories and the love of friends that has been sewn into it. How could I ever part with this jacket? I believe I never could, nor do I ever wish to.

 

Giving Thanks is not just for Thanksgiving.

Deb's party food 2When I was growing up we usually said grace only at Thanksgiving, Christmas or on other very special occasions. I don’t remember any special discussion of gratitude in my family. God was often presented as a punitive figure, rather like my dad—as in or God will punish you for that, see if He doesn’t, and “Just wait until I tell your father what you did…” The church I grew up with emphasized being sorry for one’s sins and saying prayers for the protection and preservation of my family and myself. All that changed when I was in my mid thirties and I learned about the virtue of gratitude and its importance for a happy life.

I began giving thanks on a daily basis after a phone conversation with a wise older friend. She told me that rather than complain about what I thought I was lacking, I needed to be grateful for what I did have: good food to eat, a roof over my head, a comfortable bed to sleep in, warm clothes to wear, and so on. She reminded me how important it was to give thanks for the simple yet necessary blessings most take for granted. I believed her. Now these many years later, I am very grateful to her. An attitude of gratitude leads to true happiness.

When we focus on whatever there is in our lives that brings happiness, healing, kindness or friendship we are emphasizing that aspect in our lives. When we complain about our difficulties we are focusing on our lacks and our problems, most of which we can do little to nothing about. There is no happiness in dwelling on our misfortunes. When we do emphasize what is good in our lives it seems magically to increase. Giving thanks for that which we have as well as that which we do not have is an important key to a good life.

Gratitude for the bounty in our lives has been the theme of harvest celebrations throughout the ages. The Pilgrims did not host the first Thanksgiving ever, just their first one here in this country. Giving thanks to a higher power is common to nearly every religious or spiritual path. Most have some kind of ceremony to honor the powers that be that provide them with support and sustenance. After all, if the rains do not fall or the sun does not shine our food will not grow. Not a gardener myself, I know how grateful I am to the market and the farmstand that provide me with good, fresh food.

More than anything else I am grateful for the love that has come to me over the years. I have been extremely fortunate in the people I have met and with whom I have had the opportunity to interact. My friends, past, present and even future are important to me. I am thankful for each and every one. While some of those for one reason or another have vanished from my life, the experience of their past love remains to bless me with its warmth and the joyful memories of our happy times together. I am grateful for that good and for the dear ones still in my life.

Lenten Discipline, Spiritual Discipline

icicles-2Regardless of one’s spiritual orientation, self-discipline can be helpful to one’s personal growth. In the days before supermarkets or even grocery stores, for people in spiritual or religious communities or congregations to find enough to eat in the latter months of winter could be difficult especially in the six weeks before Easter. The Christian religious institutions of the day dedicated this time, known to Christians as Lent to the spiritual practice of fasting. From a practical standpoint, this extended what supplies remained. It also provided a spiritual bonus to do so. Making a virtue of necessity, the Lenten observances of the past centuries helped individuals get through the scarcity of food.

When I was growing up of course food was abundant. Fasting certainly was not a necessity. I was taught that the way to fulfill my Christian Lenten obligations was to give up something I might enjoy eating. I was told that fasting wasn’t just about going without a meal or not eating meat; it could mean giving up chocolate, or ice cream or sweets in general during Lent as a discipline instead of not eating meat on certain days or whatever else might be considered appropriate.

My great aunt Alice was a woman of character and community mindedness. She was a great believer in doing good and volunteered in a number of organizations as well as gave generously to charities. She had a different approach. She believed in taking on rather than giving up something during Lent. She would assume extra volunteer work or make a special effort at that time to visit elderly or invalid family members or friends.

I have come to believe that my Great Aunt’s idea of a good Lenten discipline is more meaningful as a spiritual practice than giving up desserts or candy. However, I am not one to visit the sick, nor am I usually involved in any community activities of a volunteer nature. Instead I believe that for me to fulfill the spirit of this period I can take on a practice of deliberate focus: to enhance my awareness of gratitude and of opportunities for me to give. I can become more mindful of my blessings, spend more time acknowledging the kindness of friends and family, and be more aware of whatever opportunities may present themselves for me to be kind and thoughtful to others.

Self-discipline can consist of an act of rigorous denial or of observing and then acting as might be appropriate. One can lead a spiritual life whether or not one has taken vows or lives within a specific religious or spiritual setting. If my Lenten practice becomes a habit or enhances my ability to be more mindful, that will do me more good than giving up candy. In the process it may also help me to be more aware of when I can do someone a kindness. By prioritizing these attitudes in my everyday life, I can enact a Lenten discipline that will do more good in general than simply fasting from anything I might enjoy eating.

After the Gifts Are Unwrapped

gifts-4  In days gone by when my children were small and Christmas was something of a big production, by the evening of the 25th everyone was satisfied to play with his or her toys, eat the festival leftovers and chill out. It was then that I would take my guitar in hand and drive with it to the Beverly hospital to play for the patients. I was a regular volunteer there so I would don my pink volunteer jacket and go around to the wards and private rooms to play Christmas music together with my usual folk tunes.

During my time in Manchester-by-the-Sea I used to play my guitar several times a month and sometimes even more often for the patients who were well enough to be listening. However I did have to be mindful of my lyrics. This being in the days of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, my repertoire consisted mainly of traditional folk songs, some of which had lyrics that might not sound cheerful such as: “Go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead,” or one that began “When I’m dead and buried, don’t you weep after me,” a rousing spiritual that was great fun to sing as long as I omitted the first verse and went right into the body of the song.

On Christmas night I felt as though with all the visitors having gone home by then, the patients could use a bit of cheering up. After all, the visitors were returning to their families and friends while the patients were still in their rooms or wards and perhaps more aware of being there than usual. It was heartening to see the welcoming smiles on their faces and to receive their enthusiastic approval. More than once someone who had been relatively comatose would actually clap their hands and manage a smile.

Today my children are grown and gone and my family is for the most part scattered far and wide. Holidays are quieter. Nor do I play my guitar any longer, though next year I hope to have learned some carols on my new harp. However, I don’t expect to be singing them in a hospital. Life brings changes, some welcome, some not so. The happy memories of Holidays past become gifts to cherish with joy, more so perhaps than any other gift beneath the tree.

Now that the presents have been opened and our holiday meal consumed, I find myself reminiscing to myself over past holiday celebrations. I note familiar faces that have moved on from my life. Some still walk this earth others do not. I am reminded of the places where I have lived in the past and see again the rooms as well as the homes that hold the memories of holiday times. Each year holds its blessings. I am grateful for each and every one, and most of all I am grateful to be able to celebrate with joy the love that flows to me from those who each year remember me.

 

Full of Thanks and Grateful to Be So

family-dinner-2

A Family Gathering several Years Ago

Thanksgiving is a nonsectarian holiday that most of us can celebrate. I remember in school it centered on the Pilgrims. In first grade we made pilgrim hats and talked about how they lived. Today as a result of our treatment of the indigenous peoples since the first US Thanksgiving, the stories I grew up with have changed somewhat. However since time began harvest festivals similar to our Thanksgiving have been universally celebrated. Throughout the history the expression of gratitude for whatever constitutes our abundance endures.

I wasn’t always aware how important it was to be grateful. To be sure, I was brought up to say thank you when given a gift and often to write a letter of acknowledgment to the giver. However, having an actual attitude of gratitude, as the saying goes, was foreign to my thinking. I can remember my mother saying things like: “Finish your liver, there are children starving in China who would be happy to have it.” Of course, the thought that goes with that is, well send it to them then, however that would have been considered a rude remark and would have merited disciplinary action.

As a child, like most I took my safety, my freedom from hunger and cold, and my warm surroundings for granted. I was sheltered from the knowledge of others’ circumstances; then, the only source of outside information besides the newspapers was the radio. I knew much less about the world than children with access to TV and the Internet do today. Whether that makes one more or less apt to be grateful is moot. It might make an interesting study. However most probably even today gratitude is something we become aware of only as adults. It is very easy for children to take their blessings for granted.

My change of heart began with a simple prayer given me by someone I met only briefly yet who had a profound effect on my life. I was complaining about my circumstances when she corrected me. “Rather than bemoan what you don’t have, rejoice over what you do.” She suggested I repeat three times a day, “Beloved Lord I do greatly thank Thee for the abundance that is mine.” The phrasing can be changed to suit those who have a different belief system to honor whatever higher power they may acknowledge–Divine Providence, the Goddess, Mother Earth and so on.

Oddly once I began to do that, my abundance began to grow and has continued to do so. On another occasion I briefly met a wise woman who among other things, told me to take nothing for granted. I took her advice to heart. As I have continued to be grateful even for simple gifts and to acknowledge my little blessings, they have continued to expand. Eventually I even learned to be grateful for difficulties and disappointments because of the opportunities to learn and grow they provided. At this Thanksgiving as always I will sit down at the table with a heart full of gratitude, and for this I am exceedingly grateful.

Tasha Halpert