Gifts in Old Boxes

img_1799It was in a box. A gift box from a local Ohio store. One of those sturdy boxes with the department store’s name etched on it. It was the kind of box that once held a crisp, white dress shirt or a silk slip. The box was full of loose photos, newspaper clippings, funeral cards; the bits and pieces and fragments of life that have the tendency to build nests inside boxes and quietly nurture the past.

Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I instinctively knew the man in the photo was Tom’s grandfather, John, and that the photo was one of those “finds” that demanded a frame to enclose it and a shelf to rest upon.

This is a small photo, with a bright light shining upon John. It has a folksy look that always makes me wonder what Norman Rockwell would have made of it.

John spent much of his life as a farmer. We have another photo of him with his first team of horses. John has the same honest, direct gaze in his eyes in that photo, as well.

Like many farmers of his time, of any time, in truth, John also worked side jobs to eke out a sustainable income. Farm life was, and still is hard, struggling from crop to crop, season to season. So it was that John did custodial work for the local school and the Lutheran church down the road; buildings that needed to be kept warm for students and for parishioners, as well as odd jobs that kept everything going.

This photo harkens the holidays. John is standing on a small stage, much like a stage I once stood on in my own childhood. These wooden stages were a few steps up, usually in the church basement or school gymnasium. They allowed for recitations, commencements, ceremonies and meetings. Perhaps you had , or still have, one in your life.

John is looking directly into the camera, a pipe in his mouth, wearing overalls and work shoes. He is leaning on what appears to be a dolly. At his side is a freshly cut evergreen tree. My ever-active imagination conjures up scenes of John and another going off to find the tree, felling it, loading it onto a platform in back of  the “machine”. Farm folk, and some city folk, often called automobiles machines. Finally, the tree would be put to rest at the foot of this stage. A hand-wrought wooden tree stand holds the tree. The tree awaits tinsel and ornaments, a star or an angel on top.

This little snapshot in time speaks volumes of a kind and hardworking man who struggled to make ends meet,  yet, still smiled as he looked his neighbor in the eyes, puffed on his pipe, and held, frozen in time, an act of goodwill and anticipation.

Have you ever found a long-ago gift in a box or drawer or whatever?



Another Gift That Keeps on Giving

img_1736Nostalgia has once again infected me, eliciting an audible sigh, a smile, a tear or two. My nostalgia is filled with gratitude and joy, memories and such. It comes with the bits and pieces of family and friends’ gifts and simple inheritances that find their way onto tree branches and shelves, as well as in the scents, sounds, and sentiments of the season. Many of you experience the same feelings, no matter what holiday or season you are celebrating.

This day, I bade the Antler Man to take down my Christmas plates, which were nestled on a high shelf. These plates are usually employed into service (I’m really missing Downton Abbey) after my birthday and a few weeks before Christmas. They grace our table until Christmas is put away, which is after Epiphany here on the Cutoff. I treasure them for their simplicity and for the memories of my mom that accompany them.

When the Christmas plates come out, so does this platter. I do not know who the maker was. It was a part of a set of  “nice dishes” that belonged to my Yia Yia and were used when we had company. The set had either flowers or a scene in the center. I do not remember them, except for the lacy, gold trim around the rim. This platter must have been a bonus plate – at least it was a bonus for me. One fine day, sometime after Ma gave me the Christmas plates, she gave me this platter. I think she enjoyed my holiday fancies as much as I me.

Ma also gave me this toy banjo, which you can read more about here. It was the only gift she and her siblings received, on Christmas Eve – every Christmas Eve. Each child was allowed to play with it, then sent off to bed. My grandfather would then play with it. Christmas often brings out the child in us in the simplest of ways. We should never lose sight of where simple pleasures may be.

Imagine it. The same present, every year, for all to share on Christmas Eve!


I digress.

The Christmas plates are now on the shelf in the kitchen cabinet, replacing, for a month or so, our everyday dishes. They hold not only  memories of Ma, but, the memories of all those who have broken bread at our table,. They tell of conversations over Irish Mist stew and baked ham, leftovers and lasagna. Our daughters ate Rudolph sandwiches on them and we ate Pinch Cake and Eggs on them. Every one from Grandma and Grandpa, friends with nowhere to go, out of town relatives, and so many others joined us come December, and no matter their faith or viewpoints, their social status or education, no matter for all have eaten on these plates.

My Christmas plates –  ’twas and still ’tis another gift that keeps on giving.

First Gifts

img_1699One of the first gifts I ever purchased with my own earned money was this angel. She sat sedately on a shelf in a five and dime. I was drawn to her sweet, angelic face as she rested upon the shelf. She was gazing down at me.

I gently picked this angel up, held her, turned her around, and discovered something moveable on the bottom. It was a round, wooden wheel, hidden under the angel’s skirt. I turned it, and to my delight, it was a music box.

I wound the wheel, and watched her twirl around, ever-so-slowly, as Silent Night hummed through the store. The angel spun round, her serene face never altering its peaceful expression, her delicate hands gracefully holding her music, her soft cheeks in a sweet blush.

She was the first angel I ever bought, though she was not to be mine. That I would keep her never entered my mind when I discovered her. I was not looking for a Christmas present. I was just looking around in the youthful way of a young girl in the 1960’s.

There was a small sticker on the bottom. It was $3 and some cents. I had about $8 on me; a rather large sum for then. It was money I saved; for what I did not know. I had been doing a lot of babysitting. At fifty cents an hour, it took me six hours to earn enough money to buy this angel. There was a sense of pride and accomplishment at having earned it and a sense of purpose as I made my purchase.


I would give the angel to my Yia Yia for Christmas.

I showed it to my father, asking him if I could give it to Yia Yia. In those days, in my home, it was the right thing to do; to ask first, respectfully. I sought affirmation for my purchase as well. He was kind in his response, and, I recall, just a little surprised. “You bought this with your babysitting money for Yia Yia?”.  It was one of those moments that I knew Daddy was proud of my actions. He told me it would be a very nice gift for her and that Yia Yia would, indeed, like it.

She did! She turned the little wheel and she enjoyed the music, then she put it on her nightstand. Every-so-often, I would hear the tinny sound of “Silent Night” and my heart would swell with love.

After Yia Yia passed away, my Aunt Christina, Yia Yia’s only daughter, gave me the angel. I keep it out and turn the wheel, every-so-often. Come Christmas, this little angel joins a congregation of others who have formed a choir of heavenly hosts atop the piano. She occasionally takes a few turns around her base, or innocently strums a few notes if someone with a heavy footfall walks past.

The oft used phrase, the gift that keeps on giving, comes to mind when I bring this angel out to our Christmas Room each Advent Season. She has gone from the hands of this granddaughter to her grandmother, and then back again. A certain young miss, who first named the Christmas Room, noticed the angel last year. I think it is time to tell her this little story, and to tell it for a few years more, perhaps. I think family stories, no matter how small, have a way of ripening with the retelling and with age. We need to know our stories, to hear them and to receive them in our hearts  first.

Do you remember the first gift you bought with your own money? .


I love that the angel’s book has notes on the pages.


img_1406Navigating the rough, tumultuous afterlife waters, rails, and hidden corners of Nowhere is, well, it is complicated. Nowhere: a place where suspenseful characters, who have died under questionable circumstances, must complete an assignment in order pass through to the world of the truly dead. So it is in Andra Watkin’s riveting “Hard to Die”, a sequel to her first journey to Nowhere, “To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis”, where Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr, finds herself seeking her assignment while circumventing characters even more notorious in the afterlife as they were in real life.

A mix of historical fiction, after-life exploration and spy thriller – this novel is as hard to put down as it for the protagonist, Theo, to die, and it is as riveting as “To Live Forever. . . “ where Meriwether Lewis first appeared. Merry, as he was known by in his time and place, is featured again in this sequel.

Set in the spy and counter-spy intrigue of the 1950’s, Theo becomes entangled with Richard Cox, a former spy turned West Point Cadet, along with a host of other characters, some spies, some otherworldly agents, all who help to keep the pace of this book moving.

The Christmas season is a perfect time for readers to visit ghosts of the past and present – and Andra Watkin’s book is just the book to read as we drift into the longest nights of the year, and it just might be the perfect gift to give or receive.

(Theodosia Burr Alston was the daughter of Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton. Theodosia died at sea. )

Ghost of Christmas Past




Facebook has a little feature where one can click on a link and your profile image is superimposed (or whatever they do) into a Christmas scene. Just for fun, I clicked, and this is what appeared. Can you find me?

I’m the ghost of Christmas past. 🙂

It is really a photo of me, when I was a young lass – none other than the Angel of the Lord at my church’s Christmas pageant. You can find my story of being a fallen angel here. In the photo below, there I am, in all my angelic glory, on the night of the Christmas Pageant, oh-so-many years ago, and from whence the apparition appears – now rising from a couch!

Good tidings!


Woodcuts and Coffee

rootstotheearth_final-275x363Wendell Berry’s words have shown up on several of my favorite blogs recently, and I have, on loan from our Katy, his novel, “Jayber Crow”. It is one of several books that I am currently halfway through.

Does this ever happen to you; this juggling act of two or more books at one time, born out of an insatiable appetite for the written word?

There I was, at the Indian Prairie Library, looking for “One Souffle at a Time” by Anne Willan, when this Wendell Berry gem, “Roots to the Earth”, appeared in the new books section. I was drawn first to Wesley Bates’ woodcarving on the cover, then pleased to see more wood engravings accompany several of Berry’s poems and a short story, The Branch Way of Doing.

From Wendell Berry’s poem, The Current – ‘

Having once put his hand into the ground,

seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,

a man has made a marriage with his place,

and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.

“Roots to the Earth” is such a lovely book. While it has the outward look and feel of a children’s book, it is a really a more mature book and an homage to the earth and soil.

I read “Roots to the Earth” this afternoon, in the company of a few tasty gingerbread men and a steamy cup of coffee.


Attendees to the Naperville Garden Club’s annual Christmas house walk, tea, and market, A Cup of Cheer, receive a cup and saucer to take home. Each year, for over 50 years, the cups and saucers have a new design. I think this year’s are particularly beautiful.

pumpkin-pie-spice-cookbook. . . that’s what Thanksgivings are made of.

I tried a new recipe this Thanksgiving and thought you might be interested.

It comes from a charming little book that my dear friend Kathryn gave me. “The Pumpkin Pie Spice Cookbook” by Stephanie Pedersen is a delicious morsel of a book laden with recipes for appetizers, soups, chili, gratin, crostini, sweets and more. The common ingredient is the aromatic mixture known as pumpkin pie spice.

Cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and mace, each an exotic culinary treasure on its own, all blend together to become a welcome addition to our spice cabinets; pumpkin pie spice. Stephanie Pedersen’s words evoke this mixture’s essence in her introduction by writing that “these ingredients create a symphony of flavor and aroma so powerful, so deeply comforting, that the world smells like a special occasion.”.

Pumpkin pie spice is, of course, most commonly used in pumpkin pie, but these spices are often employed on their own in gingerbread cookies, pumpkin bread, holiday lattes, etc. Just opening a jar of any one of these spices awakens one’s taste buds and calls for baking to commence. Opening a jar of Pumpkin Pie Spice intensifies the sensory sensations. “The Pumpkin Pie Spice Cookbook” is a tasty compilation of recipes using this “symphony of flavor”.sweetspicy-fruit-dip

So it was that while I was resting, with my foot elevated, I thumbed through Ms. Pedersen’s little book in that way those who love all things culinary entertain themselves by reading cookbooks. This treasure had been languishing on a countertop easel amid pumpkins and gourds and a seasonal candle.

I did not thumb far. I was barely into the first chapter on appetizers when this recipe for Sweet Spicy Fruit Dip caught my fancy, and I decided to make it on Thanksgiving. The ingredients were procured, the KitchenAid employed, and in a mix and chill, this sweet and spicy fruit dip was done.

An orange colored dip is cause for a pause and a question. “Uh, Penny, what is this?”. There was some hesitation over the pumpkin dip, but, that first bite is an intriguing creaminess when first encountered, followed by a lingering after taste of the pumpkin pie spice. Pita chips, crackers, and pears took turns being dipped and I do think some of us in the spicy mix that our own family and friend are enjoyed it. You might as well.

I used canned pumpkin instead of pumpkin puree. This makes quite a bit of dip that holds up well for several days.

Other than in pumpkin pie, do you have a recipe using Pumpkin Pie Spice?

Are you employing any new recipes this year?


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