Author Leslie Browning shares the story of her mental and physical trauma, and the resultant journey that led her to healing.
I’m very pleased to announce that my article “Return of the Elephant Man,” appears in the most recent JEMA, Journal of the Elephant Managers Association, Volume 29, Number 1. The article is based on a portion of my book The Man Who Loved Elephants, which tells the story of Roger Henneous and his 30 years working with elephants at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo).
Just this week, I was reading No Time to Spare, a collection of essays by Ursula K. LeGuin and found myself thinking how much I would like to meet her.
On Monday, my window of opportunity closed forever.
Rest in Peace, dear lady. Thank you for your many words. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and laughter and for being honest with your readers. Thank you for Ged, and for Catwings. Thank you for so much.
And there’s this, from the first news article I read of her death:
“At the 2014 National Book Awards, Ms. Le Guin was given the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She accepted the medal on behalf of her fellow writers of fantasy and science fiction who, she said, had been “excluded from literature for so long” while literary honors went to the “so-called realists.”
“She also urged publishers and writers not to put too much emphasis on profits.
“I have had a long career and a good one,” she said, adding, “Here at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river.”
We’ll miss you, Ursula.
This blog post is brought to you by the confluence of two things: personal experience and and an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Ms. Le Guin’s latest (?) book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, contains an essay titled, “Would You Please Fucking Stop?” In it, she observes “I keep reading books and seeing movies where nobody can fucking say anything except fuck, unless they say shit. I mean they don’t seem to have any adjective to describe fucking except fucking even when they’re fucking fucking. And shit is what they say when they’re fucked … The imagination involved is staggering.”
What once was a shock word has become a noise to mean intensity. But should it? Or, rather, should it so easily? The word, as she points out, “has huge overtones of dominance, of abuse, of contempt, of hatred.”
Why do I bring this up?
This week I was hunting online to find possible markets for a story I’d written. One specified that they adhered to a strict PG-13 criteria when choosing what to publish, so submitted work should contain no religion-based profanity, certainly no f-bombs, and maybe not even any shits, damns, or hells.
I knew of at least a couple fucks in my story, so I searched them out. Turned out there were more than a few; enough so I began to wonder how frequently profanity invades what I write (or how I speak) without my even realizing it. The answer? More than I’d like, and more than I’m proud of.
It was a gaming-changing moment.
Don’t get me wrong. I think profanity has its place, but it shouldn’t be overdone. I hadn’t thought I’d overdone it, but I found myself wondering whether my story would suffer if I removed not only the fucks, but the shits, damns, hells, and whatnot … or would it be improved?
Know what I discovered?
The lack of profanity hurt the story not one whit. The characters still were who they were, did what they were meant to do, and lost not an ounce of color or personality in the process.
Was I being lazy in using profanity? Maybe. Going forward, I intend to exert a touch more vigilance when it comes to writing and editing, to make my use of those words–as with all words–thoughtful rather than haphazard.
The work–and I–will be better for it.
Out of the Blue: A First Experience with Canine Epilepsy
On August 11, 2016, our eight-year-old Australian shepherd, Holly, seized for the first time.
She was lurking at my side in the kitchen, hoping for a handout, when her feet began to beat a sudden, rapid tattoo on the floor. At first, I thought she was scratching herself or having one of those “dry humping” sessions she occasionally experiences, but when I looked down, I saw at once that this was something very different … and very, very wrong. Her eyes were wild, and her feet skittered against the floor as if trying to keep her balance on ice. In an instant, she collapsed onto her side, legs and feet pedaling frenziedly. Her jaws gaped wide, teeth bared and tongue lolling. Saliva ran uncontrollably from her mouth. She stared blindly as her spine arched in an extreme backward curve. Urine sprayed across the floor.
I dropped to my knees and placed my hands on her thrashing body, trying to let her know I was there. “You’re okay,” I babbled, even though I knew she wasn’t. I screamed for my husband, Ed, who was down in the basement. He came running.
Although it seemed to go on forever, in reality the grand-mal seizure lasted approximately forty-five of the longest seconds of my life. In the time it took Ed to rush upstairs, it was already winding down. With our regular vet forty minutes away, he instead called a local clinic and explained what had happened. They said to bring Holly in immediately; they’d be waiting for her.
Seizures are an indication of brain disease and can happen for a variety of reasons. The term epilepsy is applied when more than one seizure occurs, even if over a span of several months.
Canine epilepsy comes in two flavors: symptomatic or idiopathic. Symptomatic epilepsy has a diagnostic root cause such as cancer, stroke, autoimmune disease, liver disease, low blood sugar, toxin exposure, infectious disease, or congenital brain abnormalities. Idiopathic epilepsy has no identifiable cause. Although it may be inherited–certain breeds seem predisposed to the condition–this need not be the case.
Seizures strike without warning or pattern, and there is no way to determine in advance when they will occur or how severe they will be. They are upsetting to witness, particularly the first time. Despite appearances, the dog is unconscious during the episode and experiences neither pain nor panic, even though their eyes are open and they may vocalize. Duration of a seizure typically lasts less than one minute, though at the time of occurrence it seems far longer to any human witness. If a seizure episode lasts longer than 5-10 minutes, or occurs more than twice in one day, emergency care should be sought immediately.
It bears saying that any dog which seizes for the first time should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
By the time we arrived at the clinic, Holly had emerged from the seizure, but was far from normal. She panted frantically, racing back and forth at the end of her leash in confusion, always returning to us as if asking for an explanation for what she was experiencing. Her tongue hung from the side of her mouth like a piece of bologna, flaccid and uncontrollable. She was desperately thirsty and ravenously hungry.
Dr. Mordasky took a brief history, including contact information for our regular vet and details of the seizure, particularly duration and Holly’s behavior before and during the episode. She gave her a physical examination and drew blood for a workup to rule out poison, infection, or problems with her internal organs. The results came back normal straight across the board.
Since this was Holly’s first seizure–and might, with luck, remain her only one–it was decided to not place her on medication at that time. Seizure meds are extremely strong and carry many side-effects, not the least of which can be damage to the liver over time. In the event of further episodes, we were encouraged to keep a “seizure log” specifying date, time, duration, and behaviors.
We took Holly home, bathed her to wash off the dried saliva and urine, and watched her closely, flinching every time she made an odd movement. For almost a month, nothing happened. Then, on September 8, came the second seizure. This one was shorter than the first–a “mere” 15-30 seconds–with similar behavior afterward. It occurred to me that both episodes had coincided with her having been given heartworm medication approximately 24 hours earlier. I called our regular vet to get her opinion. Dr. Gamble felt there was some plausibility to the idea, so we opted to change Holly’s heartworm medication and wait another month to see what, if anything, would happen. On September 25, Holly experienced a third seizure, but we believed it might be residual effect from the previous heartworm meds, so again we waited. However, on Dr. Gamble’s recommendation, I made an appointment for a neurological consult at Tufts University’s Foster Hospital for Small Animals.
Three weeks passed without event. Our hopes rose that we had found the solution to the problem. On October 20, neurologists at Tufts evaluated Holly’s behavior, coordination, reflexes, and nerve function. Based on her glowing results–and because idiopathic epilepsy most often strikes dogs between the ages of 1 and 3–they determined that her seizures were likely structural in origin, meaning that they were the result of a brain tumor or stroke rather than an over systemic condition such as organ disease, endocrine abnormalities, low blood sugar, etc. An appointment was made for a follow-up MRI and spinal fluid tap on November 3.
Much to their surprise, Holly came through with flying colors. Dr. Scoda, the neurologist in charge of our case, went so far as to describe the brain images as “beautiful.” Without a clear underlying cause for the seizures, we were left with a diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy Because Holly had not had a seizure in almost five weeks, the decision was made to continue to hold off starting her on meds.
“Frankly, we’re surprised she hasn’t had another seizure,” Dr. Scoda said. She smiled encouragingly. “Maybe she’ll be one of the lucky ones who beat the odds.”
Unfortunately, luck wasn’t in our cards. On November 6, Holly experienced her fourth seizure. Two days later, she had another, this one longer and stronger than all the others. That evening, she received her first dose of Zonisamide.
Anti-epileptic drugs are a lifelong therapy whose goal is to reduce the number and severity of seizures. Unfortunately, they cannot eliminate seizures entirely, and breakthrough episodes are to be expected. These drugs are not “one size fits all,” and it may take time to determine the dosage that best fits the needs of your pet. You should never discontinue anti-epileptic medication without first consulting your veterinarian. Doing so could endanger the life of your pet.
It’s now been nearly a month since Holly’s last seizure. We continue to deal with a plethora of drug side-effects–lethargy, muscle weakness, anxiety, occasional loss of appetite, vomiting, and periodic soft stool–but we’ve been assured that these should pass in time, allowing her to return to her “usual” self. That’s in quotes because the reality is that Holly will never be quite who she was before this began. She forgets commands and sometimes displays a lack of confidence she never exhibited before, but she’s still our girl and we love her. We will walk this road together.
Things to remember if your dog has a seizure:
- See your veterinarian as soon as possible. If the seizure lasts more than five minutes or your pet has more than one episode in a 24-hour period, seek emergency help immediately.
- Be proactive. This is a frightening time, but knowledge is power. You should view yourself as part of your pet’s treatment team. Talk to your vet and/or neurologist and ask questions. They should be open and willing to discuss treatment options and any other concerns you may have.
- Do research, but be skeptical of anything which makes exorbitant claims. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian to weigh in. Under no circumstances should you pursue a course of treatment for your pet without first checking its validity with your pet’s doctor(s).
- If you and your vet decide to put your dog on medication, do not stop using it without first discussing this with your vet. To do so could injure, or even kill, your pet.
- Continue to keep a seizure log even if your dog is not experiencing seizures. Note any unusual behavior.
- Keep all vet appointments and have your pet seen at least once a year for follow-up.
- Lastly, remember that most dogs will have fr more better days than bad ones, so enjoy those times with your pet.
Holly remained seizure-free for six and a half months. On May 20, 2017, she experienced a petit mal seizure. Almost a month later, on June 16, she had a 2.5 minute grand mal and Keppra was added to her drug regimen.
She remained seizure-free for five months. On November 17, she had a 1-2 minute seizure in the early morning … and another that afternoon, of approximately 3 minutes duration. Her Keppra dosage was increased and an appointment made to consult with Dr. Hammond, a neurologist at Pieper Memorial Veterinary Center.
After her examination, Dr. Hammond switched Holly from Keppra to Phenobarbital, along with her standard Zonisamide. We went through a month-long adjustment period; she experienced many side-effects but those have largely worked themselves out. As of this writing, she has been free of seizures for two months.
Note: This essay – edited here – originally appeared as a guest blog post on the website of author Stacey Longo.
No Such Thing as a Comfort Zone
“So,” says She Who Must Be Obeyed–aka SWMBO or, for ease of reading, Swumbo–otherwise known as the Fearless Leader of our writers’ group. “I’m putting out an anthology of scary stories by Connecticut authors in October.” In addition to being a writer, she is also a small press publisher. “I’m lining up several authors, living and dead.”
You’d have to know her to appreciate my momentary frisson, and the fleeting image that whips through my head of her in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, dragging Mark Twain from his grave by one leg.
“I want two stories from each of you.” Focused on her laptop, she speaks to the air.
“Okay,” says Dan. He probably has a tattered Navy sea bag in his attic packed with so many stories that all he needs to do is dust off a couple and submit them.
“Okay,” says Terry, although it’s beyond me how she finds time to write with the work schedule she keeps.
“Okay,” says John, with only a slight outbreak of perspiration along his brow. He has so many irons in the fire that I’m pretty certain he doesn’t sleep more than an hour a night.
“Um …” says I.
Swumbo’s right eyebrow twitches, although her gaze never wavers from the computer screen. “Yes?” The frost in that single word warns, “Be careful where you tread, bitch.” It’s enough to make Sauron reconsider invading Middle Earth.
“Well,” I say, being the sort of fool who presses on where angels fear to go, “I don’t know if I’ll have time. I’m in the middle of revisions on the elephant book and need to make that my priority.”
I’m not weaseling and she knows it, but neither is she buying it. The eyebrow climbs a fraction higher. I can almost hear it creak.
“I can try.” Now I’m dithering. Swumbo has that effect on people. “I just can’t promise, and I don’t … really … write … horror.” This is true.
Swumbo doesn’t give a rat’s toches. Slowly, like a leviathan stirring in its primordial ooze, she lifts her head and fixes me with a gimlet eye.
I wilt. “I guess I could rework an old piece.”
“Fuck you,” she says without rancor. For Swumbo, this is a term of endearment. “Just do it.”
Horror writing scares me. Yeah, I know … duh. What I really mean is that it intimidates me. The writing of horror requires, I believe, a gentle hand on the tiller. I don’t go in for the slash-and-burn, splash blood on the walls variety, but give me subtlety and I’m hooked. One example that comes immediately to mind is Stephen King’s The Shining. I tried to lay that book aside when the terror became immense, and failed spectacularly. I couldn’t not read it. That stinking story kept me up all night … and several nights afterward.
If I was going to write two stories for Swumbo, they needed to be my best work. Otherwise, I’d no business being in the craft. And if you aren’t a writer willing to challenge yourself, said a little voice at the back of my mind, why bother?
One of the thing I like best about being a writer is the opportunity to push boundaries–mine as well as those of other people–and conquer new territory. And here I was quailing at the thought of trying my hand at horror? Shame on me!
Somewhere, somewhen, I’d read that Stephen King conjures up the things that scare him when considering subjects to write about. I thought about vacant houses … dolls … clowns (well, we all know that one has been done up tight with a pretty bow) … nightmares … ghosts … vampires …
And then I remembered the house I’d grown up in, a 200-year-old former way station; a house so old that the attic beams bore tree bark and were held together by hand-forged spikes. The field stone cellar had a dirt floor and smelled of ancient dust, an odor like the grave. Cobwebs draped the ceiling joists. Shadows loomed in the corners where oddments of family junk were stored.
I walked closer; afraid, yes, but willing to take a look at what was piled there. A bone emerged. It was a slender one, a fibula maybe, but enough to build around, enough to stand on if I could only find a foot …
It took several weeks, but in the end Swumbo looked at me after reading my submission (“The Cellar,” Tricks and Treats: A Collection of Spooky Stories by Connecticut Authors) and smiled with pride. “I knew you could do it,” she said.
I grinned. Better yet, I knew it.
Note: This piece–written at the behest of host John King and here re-edited–appeared May 2015 on The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life.
At Odds with the World: How Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Changed My Life
I was eight in the winter of 1965; the youngest of three daughters, raised essentially as an only child since my much older half-sisters had escaped years earlier–one into marriage and child-rearing, the other to college.
My parents weren’t bad people, but their lack of interest in parenting in general–and me in particular–was inescapable. At family gatherings I bobbed at the edge of things, a scrap of generational flotsam beneath the notice of all but the most teasingly abusive older cousins. Lost without realizing it, unanchored as only an ignored child can be, I might in time have easily drifted into bad company and worse behavior were it not for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
I came to the book by way of the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim. With Christmas looming, grade school excitement had ramped up to uncontrollable levels. In a bid to curb our exuberance and retain what little remained of their sanity, our teachers decided to forego the usual lessons in favor of a seasonal movie. I remember our class being marched across the hall to join the students in another room, sitting two-by-two on desk tops as other children packed into chairs lined up in the aisles. The lights dimmed and the projector began its soft tac-tac-tac-tac as the reel unwound. The opening chords of sepulchral music, dismal and foreboding as a funeral dirge, silenced any stray whispers. Mesmerized, I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge unfold.
Rather than yet another childish yarn with animals, contrived bits of danger, and a happily ever after resolution, this story had meat in it; hearty food tough to chew and swallow, but more real than anything I’d ever experienced. Though I was terrified by Jacob Marley’s wailing spirits and the Ghost of Christmas Future, dismissive of treacly Tiny Tim (far too good to bear any resemblance to a real child), and amused by kind-hearted Bob Cratchit and the boisterous, holiday-loving Fred, my heart belonged to Scrooge. From the first “Humbug!” his transformative journey hit me where I lived. Here was another soul at odds with the world, adrift and alone. His story offered me the opportunity to examine my own life through his lens, and it laid clear the choice of paths I might follow.
But it wasn’t until I read the book that I discovered gravy for the film’s meat. I’d watched the movie, but I immersed myself in the words, reveling in my new-found friend, that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching covetous old sinner.” In the story of that doomed soul, redeemed not just through the kindness of others and their belief that somewhere inside him lay a beating heart, but also by his own marvelous discovery that he deserved–and desired–a happy life, I found the resolve to move beyond the bare bones of my world and (so I hoped) avoid my own lonely corner of a cemetery.
A Christmas Carol has become such standardized holiday fare that it seems a homogenized lump, barely noticed by most people. Scrooge is perceived as nothing more than a one-dimensional cut-out of a man; a simple villain redeemed by goodness when, in fact, he is the fabled Hero of countless legends, enduring three trials to gain his reward. Scrooge is Everyman. He is us, our imperfections laid stark against a backdrop of Victorian England. In him we glimpse the possibility of our own salvation, a chance to repent, an opportunity to make-over our mistakes and create a different sort of life.
Like all of us, Scrooge is molded by experience and self-perception, constantly balanced on the cusp of choice. Which path to choose is the question that overtakes him again and again, but it’s never so simple a decision as that of good versus evil. Scrooge is not an evil man; he is damaged beyond repair or so he believes, hidden behind walls of his own creation in the misguided notion that retreat and seclusion will spare him further pain.
Rejection is the theme that fuels Scrooge and the thread that united him with me. Having been rebuffed and disappointed so often (either in truth or in perception), he would rather turn his back first than give anyone the opportunity to get close. Dickens paints the picture well: “The cold within him froze his old features, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him …” and goes on further to describe Scrooge as edging “his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”
Small wonder I felt a shiver at our first encounter.
Any sort of parable runs the risk of dry boredom. For a moral story to work, it must engage its readers in ways they don’t at first comprehend, drawing them in, teaching without seeming to. How better to do that then to engage our imaginations by bringing a world and its inhabitants to vibrant life? Dickens’s wintry London isn’t merely cold. “The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed and turned to misanthropic ice.” Jacob Marley’s face, appearing in place of the door knocker, is no vague image but “… had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” The Ghost of Christmas Past, rather than being a solitary image we might easily dismiss, is a figure ” … fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body …”
Dickens set his story at Christmas in order to draw a stark contrast between the perceived general goodwill of that season and the dismal psychological prison where Scrooge hides, but it’s hardly a Christmas tale alone and remains, in its simple truth, a story to be recalled and celebrated at any time of year. In fact, it may be that the tale is strongest out-of-season, when the lesson it teaches isn’t hidden within the ornate trappings of present-day Christmas.
Scrooge, redeemed, does not second-guess his transformation or question the events of that propitious night, but accepts that “Some people laughed to see the alternation in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset … His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”
To paraphrase Dickens: “Howard was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”
Funny thing about this piece is, it was only as I was recording this, hearing my voice speak the word’s I’d written, that I realized it was more about my father, Howard Limbacher–dead three years at that point–than about Scrooge or me. That epiphany brought some much-needed insight into why my dad had behaved the way he did; why he kept not only the world, but also his entire family, at arm’s length; why he lashed out, intent on causing hurt before he could be hurt; and how broken his perceptions were of the people around him.
I don’t know the reasons why he was the way he was, although I have my guesses. His mother was caustic; haphazard in the love she showed her children (if it can, indeed, be called love). I suspect abuse of one form or another. It made Dad withdrawn, while at the same time yearning for love and friendship. He wanted to trust, but couldn’t. I think he was monumentally lonely; insecure; depressed, his self-esteem nil, and deeply hurt by life. I wish that, like Scrooge, he could have found his way past all that to reclaim the life that was his for the asking.
Most of you–dare I say all of you?–are familiar with the iconic tale of Ralphie and the coveted Red Ryder BB gun “with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.” In years to come, I imagine Ralph and his family reliving those moments that led up to his receiving that amazing gift: Flick’s grizzly bear, the dreaded “fudge” word, Randy bundled up for the cold and unable to lower his arms, Mom’s brilliant disposal of the hated lamp, and the Old Man’s facility with language.
Every family has it stories centered around the holidays. These are two of mine:
THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
The yearly trip to pick out a Christmas tree continues to be a big deal for me and my husband; an event we look forward to with anticipation and delight despite not having family–in particular, small children–nearby to share it with.
One year, we drove to a Christmas tree farm in Mystic, CT recommended to us by an acquaintance. On the back seat lay a blanket to protect the car roof, a bow saw, and plenty of stout rope to secure the tree to the car … plus a silent reminder to NOT tie the doors shut as we had one year.
The farm proved to be everything we hoped for–quintessentially Currier and Ives; rustic and without all the hoo-haws and folderol-fiddle-dee-dees adopted by too many places that turn the yearly Christmas tree endeavor into an amusement park. If I sound hum-buggish, I don’t mean to. I just don’t understand why people can’t appreciate for the moment as it is, rather than needing hay rides and mazes and … well … stuff. This place was different; quiet. There was a machine to shake and net the tree (a lovely invention), a small fire for customers to gather round and warm their hands, a pack of friendly farm dogs, and oodles of helpful folk. They pointed us toward the fields of trees, and we set off.
It was a wonderfully crisp day. A dusting of snow that had fallen the night before lent itself to the magic of the moment. As we plodded along, scuffing our boots through tall stands of frost-burned grass and bits of glittery snow, we heard on every side the voices of other families looking for their special tree.
This area was dense with growth, so all we could see of our fellow shoppers was a vague outline or a sense of motion behind a screen of boughs. Off to our right, we could hear the crunch of boots and three voices–two children (a boy and a girl, by the sound of it), and a woman, probably their mother. We couldn’t make out what was being said, but there was a certain petulant whine to the kids’ voices that made it easy to guess–they were cold, or hungry, or (fill in the blank). Whatever they were, unhappy was a big part of it.
The boy’s voice lifted slightly. We still couldn’t make out the words, but the lift at the end marked it as a question. His mother’s reply–exasperated and LOUD–rang clear in cold air for everyone to hear:
“BECAUSE IT’S THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS! NOW SHUT UP!”
Dead silence followed … for all of two seconds, and then the entire tree lot, all those hidden families, burst into laughter.
A VISIT WITH ST. NICHOLAS
I love Santa Claus. In my personal pantheon, he’s right up there with Captain Kangaroo; a kindly gent who loves me no matter what. As my friends and I grew into adulthood, they put aside “rubbish” like Santa with a rapid ease I found disconcerting. I, on the other hand, chose to hang tight to my childlike belief in Santa and all he can stand for.
The first year we lived here in Connecticut, we ended up at BJ’s Warehouse on Christmas Eve afternoon. Don’t ask me why; I can’t recall. Our shopping was done, our packages and cards mailed. The kids weren’t with us that year, so we were anticipating a quiet day of just us and the three cats. Ed was on shift work at the time and had to go in Christmas morning for part of the day, and we hadn’t met many people, leastwise not the sort who’d invite strangers to their homes on Christmas, so I was anticipating a somewhat lonely day, low-key and a little depressing.
We were both wearing our Santa hats as we entered the store. As we passed the candy aisle, Ed said, “Hang on. I forgot to get a cart.” Off he went. As I stood waiting for him, a voice spoke behind me; a voice with a decidedly Germanic accent.
“Are you in competition vis me?”
I turned around. As God is my witness, it was Santa Claus.
Less than five feet tall. (Remember, Santa’s supposed to be an “elf” according to the Moore poem.) A round,comfortably chubby belly. Black boots, red pants, suspenders, white shirt, hat. (No coat; we’d yet to have snow that year and it was unseasonably warm that night.) Long white beard. Wire-rimmed glasses of old-fashioned design. Sparkling eyes. An impish smile and rosy apple cheeks. Heck, I don’t have to describe him to you. You know what Santa looks like.
And there he was. Real.
With a shopping basket over one arm.
I blinked, stunned for an instant, and laughed. “Competition?” I asked. “Never with you!” I spontaneously hugged him, and he returned it. “What are you doing here on Christmas Eve?” I asked.
“Buying candy, of course,” he replied. He winked and went off down the aisle.
Ed was back in less than a minute. “What happened to you?” he asked, giving me an odd look.
I was beaming, my cheeks stretched so high and tight that they ached. “Santa buys his stocking candy at BJs,” I said.
“Just look down the candy aisle.”
He did. “What?” I looked. Santa was nowhere to be seen. In seconds, he’d come and gone. I scoured the store, but he’d vanished … leaving behind a touch of Christmas magic for someone badly in need of it.
Believe what you like. I know the truth.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
When I was a child, I believed our Christmas tree ornaments were alive. When we packed them away in January–each swaddled in its separate wrapping of tissue paper and tucked into a box marked “Special Ornaments;” a visual history of our family or, at least, of my childhood–I believed they settled down for that “long winter’s nap” Clement Clarke Moore wrote of in A Visiting from St. Nicholas.
I imagined them shifting to get comfortable, snuggling down one against the other before drifting off to sleep.
I believed that the roll of our year seemed but one long night to them. When my dad carried the boxes down from the attic the following December, I’d gently open each lid and whisper, “Good morning. Merry Christmas. It’s time to get up.” They would stir … stretch … yawn … and greet me with excitement, as happy as I was that we were reunited for another holiday.
I’m fast approaching my 61st birthday, and I still believe. Each year when I carry out the plastic bins that hold our collection of (“way too many” according to some friends) ornaments and open the lids, I sense their vitality and that thrum of excitement. Time to wake up! Time to hang on the tree!
The first year my husband and I wound up with a smaller tree than usual, it was clear right from the beginning that we couldn’t possibly fit every ornament. His solution was simple and logical: choose our favorites and leave the rest packed.
I was horrified. “You can’t do that! They wait all year for this moment!”
To his credit, he didn’t look at me as if I’d grown another head. “Well, what are we supposed to do? Get a second tree?”
BINGO! I found a table-top artificial tree at Goodwill, put in on our back porch, and decorated it. It was lovely.
This year, we ran into the same situation. The narrow tree fits our living room beautifully, but–alas–it’s too small to hold all the ornaments. We also own a full-size artificial tree we purchased a few years back. Up it came from the basement and now it stands in our dining room, bedecked and bejeweled. I know some visitors will find us odd to have two trees but, really, if they’re friends, they already know we’re odd and they love us anyway.
And, boy, are those trees beautiful!
Thanks to the folks at Books and Boos Press for including me in a terrific day in Colchester, CT, selling books and talking about writing.
Apologies in general to all for my silence here. After a bout of bad weather, I took a tumble in the woods behind my home and wound up with a crack rib. My time behind the computer has been in fits and starts due to pain. I hope in the coming weeks to be better about keeping in touch.