Evolving Christmases that still Sparkle

It wasn’t that long ago, at this time of year, a week before Christmas, I’d be deep into making check marks on lists and when I forgot my list, I’d make more lists. It was the one time of year that I welcomed chaos and felt like a well-oiled machine as I moved from one task to the next in anticipation of the magical few days that lay ahead. Since 1986, because I was the only one in the family with a child, an 8 month-old baby specifically, Mom said I needed to have Christmas at my house to make my life easier. I gladly accepted, relieved that I wouldn’t have to haul baby Thomas and the large pile of equipment that would accompany him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mom was handing over the role of hostess to me, a role I would hold for the next 32 years. Had I known what the passing of the gavel would mean to me over the next three decades, I would have been more gracious in my acceptance. Then again, maybe she didn’t realize it at the time that she was forever surrendering her role of hostess, although secretly, I think she was happy to pass it on and finally become the guest that got to relax, hold the baby and compliment the hostess.

I embraced the role — the schedule, the food (thank goodness for sister help on that one…), the decorating and the multiple trips to the store, the airport, the liquor store and the shopping mall, usually with babies, toddlers or children in tow. It exhausted me and energized me at the same time and I wouldn’t have changed or delegated one task or responsibility.

Our family did our big celebration and all of the present unwrapping on Christmas Eve. We changed this from Christmas Day when my kids brought home girlfriends and boyfriends that eventually became a part of our family and had other family traditions to take part in. With my kids no longer anticipating what Santa would bring them, it didn’t really matter if we opened our gifts on Christmas morning or Christmas Eve. Traditions are added, usually very organically without even knowing it and they are also let go of because they are outgrown. Arranging hand decorated cookies and carrots for the reindeer on a special plate for Santa that was only used on Christmas Eve was a part of our Christmas Eve ritual, then one year it didn’t happen. It just stopped and no one mentioned the tradition that became a bookend to starting the bedtime routine in anticipation of Santa’s arrival.

As the kids left home for college, the date for our family Thanksgiving also changed from the 3rd Thursday of the month to the 3rd Saturday. This was also a tradition that evolved after my kids began to have obligations at their boyfriend or girlfriend’s homes for the holiday. I decided that eating two meals on the actual day of Thanksgiving was a terrible idea and not fair for the hostess that got round two. My son Grant began referring to it as “Fakesgiving,” fake in the date, but traditional in every other aspect. Thanksgiving, or Fakesgiving, was also a holiday that both my Mom and my Mother-in-law graciously handed the hostessing duties to me not long after I inherited Christmas. I happily accepted and also realized that although I don’t consider myself to be a control freak, it appears that on Thanksgiving, I am. I like a specific way of preparing the turkey and its sides and prefer waiting until dark before sitting down to the meal. Tables simply look better under the glow of candles.

These are the times I look on with deep fondness and nostalgia. They are also the times that were sacrificed when I moved to Boulder and was no longer was the place where everyone gathered — the headquarters. Not everyone came back for Thanksgiving but they did for Christmas and until 2020, when none of us traveled and a lot of Christmas took place over FaceTime, my children and their partners, my siblings and my parents had all been together for the holiday and up until 2018, it was at my house. I knew I wouldn’t always be the hostess and my house the headquarters but couldn’t possibly anticipate what that would feel like until 2018, when we celebrated our first Christmas at Mom and Dad’s retirement center in one of the rooms they offer for gatherings. I was still living in Kansas City, but my sister, in anticipation of my move and my loss of the role of hostess, thought it would be a good idea to ease into our new reality gradually, suggesting that we celebrate at Mom and Dad’s place the Christmas before my move. It would be one less obstacle to maneuver in what would be a trying year of firsts after my move. She was right and although at the time I didn’t think so, a year later, when I was living in Boulder, I was grateful for one less new tradition to experience when everything at that point was new to me. We brought the food, the wine and the laughter and had a great time as we were all together and that’s all that mattered, or so I kept telling myself, but it was hard. It was hard not having it be in my house with candles lit, greenery hung and lights twinkling. It was easier and far more practical given that Mom and Dad lived 40 minutes away and no longer drove at night, which meant someone would have to put down the wine glass early on in the evening to be available to take them home. I knew that in my head, but in my heart I missed sitting in my living room with chairs pulled out of the dining room and squeezed into any place there was room. I can take myself back to a specific moment, right down to the smell of our traditional Christmas Eve meal of lasagne still lingering in the air, and random notes of Celine Dion periodically audible over the sounds of conversation taking place, punctuated with laughter. I’m sitting on the couch with a sister on one side of me and one of my kids on the other, taking turns leaning into them and absorbing the moment. The love in the air so thick that nothing else really mattered. It was my favorite night of the year.

The chaos of Christmas. The noise. The laughter. The traditions. The taking turns reading the poem on the gift that the giver would attach — a tradition that started with my Grandpa and has been happily carried on throughout the generations. It started with my Grandpa as a few lines that would give a hint as to what the gift was but has evolved throughout the years. When my kids first started writing poems, they were in grade school and by the time they were in high school and college, some of the poems were several stanzas long and the delivery often topped the contents of what was under the wrapping paper. That, along with the “pie gifts” are traditions that have held strong for four generations in my family. The pie gift originated with my Grandma (wife of the one who started the poem tradition) who would select small gifts for everyone at the Christmas dining table and wrap them in white tissue with a long ribbon that reached each individual plate. We’d all pull our ribbons to collect the gift and would unwrap them before the meal began. That tradition evolved into drawing names for the gifts so the hostess (me) wouldn’t have to buy over a dozen small gifts. Over the years, poems were added to the pie gifts, something that new members to the family either embraced or dreaded. I remember watching my father-in-law, usually a very soft spoken man and more of an observer than a participant, beam with pride when his two page, very eloquently written poem, was being read. I think it became his favorite part of our Christmas celebration. We still do the gift exchange although it has evolved into a Yankee swap stealing game, and a few have given up on the poem writing.

Christmas has changed because life has changed. We have been blessed in my family of birth to still have our original six, so the grief in feeling the loss I’m experiencing in the natural evolution of change, pales compared to the loss that most of my peers have experienced at this phase of life.

Just as my mom did over almost 40 years ago, I have begun the process of handing over my role as hostess, although not completely. Last night I hosted my Boulder family for dinner and our Christmas celebration. It was wonderful, and thoughtful and shimmering in the glow of candlelight and Christmas lights. There wasn’t the amount of chaos we had had the previous two years because my son and his wife and their two young daughters now live in Portland. Their absence and was felt, especially knowing they won’t be back to Kansas City this Christmas. Thankfully, my other son, and his wife, who I haven’t seen since August, will be. I’m learning, still, at age 68, to be grateful for what is present and not what’s missing, but I’m human and a mom and it’s the season of Christmas, which makes all the emotions feel like they’re written in bold font.

In the midst of watching my 6 year-old grandson and 4 year-old granddaughter open their gifts, I was able to pause and absorb the moment while feeling the familiar thread that began over 35 years ago — the strong thread of love, whether it’s sixteen or more people seated at two dining tables and gathering in the living room afterwards, the first to the room getting dibs on the comfortable furniture, or five people at the table with a seat for everyone in the living room. It’s the same pull of love that was still present in the room last night long after the gifts had been opened and the hugs and goodbyes exchanged. Celine Dion was still providing background music because oh I do love you at Christmas, Celine, and the wax was still soft from the candles that my granddaughter, Muna, was chomping at the bit to blow out most of the night because blowing out candles to her means making a wish. I’m guessing she is still wishing for a unicorn to ride to school. Keep blowing out those candles, Muna and I’ll keep lighting them for you.

Change is hard, no matter how it’s presented, even wrapped up in Christmas paper with a poem attached. Last night I decided to set the mourning aside for what had been and what I missed and the beautiful chaos that permeated my life every day for at least 2 weeks a year, and embrace what was, because at that very moment, it was all that mattered. As I reached down to get a ribbon from under the coffee table that had been missed in the clean up, I couldn’t help but notice the sparkle of my new sequin-covered slipper socks that Muna gave me for Christmas. My feet are either barefoot or in well-loved shearling scuffs, so the iridescent sparkles on my feet looked unfamiliar and very fancy! Change. Embrace it. Adapt it. Keep walking around in it until it feels natural and comfortable. Wear the sequins instead of well worn slippers because I think my granddaughter wants me to be fancier. Next week some of my family will celebrate Christmas with Mom and Dad at the retirement home where they live. We won’t have lasagne, or people gathered in two different rooms at two different tables, both decorated in holiday plaids accented with votive candles and greenery and Celine won’t be singing in the background. What will be present will be the very familiar thread of love, still be encircling us we do our gift exchange, some with poems and others with excuses. It’s not the same, but neither are we. We’ve aged, we’ve moved, we’ve become parents, we’ve become grandparents and great grandparents and some of us have even gotten fancy and now wear sequined slippers and that’s what I’m choosing to embrace this Christmas. Change, but with the same energy that is still the first thing that is felt in the room….love.

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas filled with love, new memories and maybe something fancy.

My new sparkly side.

Two of my many gifts this Christmas.

Thanksgiving 2023

The “gang” less Ned, who is always the photographer.

Thankfulness. Today’s the day. I spend time every day with lists in a gratitude journal, but today is the day we get serious with those lists — the equivalent of getting out the yellow highlighter and saying it out loud. I was driving back to Boulder from Kansas City after celebrating my Mom’s 90th birthday, so had nine hours to ponder. My thankfulness list felt particularly long this year, even though it’s not been an easy year for me. As I mentally recapped my time in Kansas City with family, I wondered how many of my friends still have both of their parents? I could count them on one hand, minus the thumb and index finger. My sisters and brother and I arranged for a family dinner in the private dining room where Mom and Dad live. Mom chose a Thanksgiving dinner theme, which surprised me at first given all the choices, but when she explained why, it made sense. Our entire family has not been together for Thanksgiving since I was in college. Since my early 20’s, I always had at least one sibling living out of state and given that they always came home for Christmas, Thanksgiving became the holiday that was missed. I’m seeing the same pattern continue with 2/3 of my own children who live on the west coast. As I sat at that table celebrating Mom’s 90th, I thought about what an honor it is to be able to celebrate a parent entering their 9th decade. Four months earlier, I was in town lighting candles on a birthday cake and pouring glasses of champagne as we celebrated Dad’s 95th birthday. My family is truly blessed. Mom’s parents died in their mid 60’s and Dad’s in their late 70’s and early 80’s. They’ve created a new longevity thread in the family that I’m happy to weave my own life span into.

My knee. When thinking about it before surgery, gratitude certainly wouldn’t have been a word that I would have used. Instead, it was something I wanted to get through, passed, beyond and over with. I marked the day on the calendar when I’d be able to fly again and started making plans for when I’d get my life back, starting with my 50th class reunion at week 8. I didn’t give a thought to the lessons, the realizations and the gift that the process that began several months before the surgery, would bring. My doctor told me to get as healthy and strong as I could beforehand, and so I did. Anyone who knows me, knows that I will take a challenge to the inth degree, to prove something to myself more than anyone else. For three months, I directed my daily efforts on just that. Obsessed is a word that comes to mind, but the obsession paid off with a relatively easy and faster than expected, recovery. Since my surgery, my doctor has asked if it would be OK for him to give patients my name to call me before their upcoming knee replacement surgeries. I’m on my 3rd “patient consulting.” One more, and I’m going to have to send him a bill. Going through such a big physical and emotional process became far more than replacing an old knee with a new one. My new knee, which I named Rhoda, became the lens into parts of myself I hadn’t seen in a very long time and for some aspects, never. I was able to find my vulnerability, my strength, my compassion (for myself) and my words to document the process. My sisters came for the first week, a gift that I’ll always be grateful for, but once they left, I had a lot of time on my couch alone. My daughter would come by daily, but the nights were long, sleeping on my couch, still not ready to tackle the 18 steps to my bedroom. I would have never predicted it, but I have good memories of those evenings. I allowed myself to go deep and feel it all. I cried. I wrote. I planned and I made daily lists in my gratitude journal. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was creating my own retreat and it felt good. I also reconnected with a high school friend who was two weeks behind me on her knee replacement. It was such a gift to be able to message back and forth with someone who knew exactly what I was feeling, both physically and emotionally. And I healed. I had to cancel a volunteer trip to Tanzania and a sister trip around Colorado that had to be changed to a post op week of care for me. But I’m still calling it a journey of growth and one I’m so grateful to be on. If you saw me walk across a room or go down stairs now, you’d never know I had a knee replacement 2 1/2 months ago, but I know it because it still feels strange. Not painful, but strange.

Yesterday I joined my friends on a 4.5 mile hike that is relatively flat, although the first half of the hike is spent pacing precariously around large rocks. While walking the rocky path, being very mindful, I heard my doctor’s words “don’t fall, you’ll mess your knee up and I’ll have to go in and fix it, which you won’t like…” over and over again. In the beginning, I felt like a 90 year-old woman (no offense, Mom, maybe I should say 91…), in high heels, on ice, mindful of every step. After a short while, Dr. Bowman’s words faded and I felt like my old self again, weaving in and out of the rocks in search of the dirt. I was back. I was back with the group of friends who I first met when I came to Boulder. The friends who became my tribe and made me feel connected to the town where I had moved not knowing a soul short of my daughter, my son-in-law and my two year old grandson. The sky was Colorado blue, the weather was in the 60’s and I was weaving my way in and out of conversations with everyone in the group. I was back and although not with the strength yet to tackle hikes with much elevation, being back was enough. Thankfulness. It’s an adverb, it’s a noun and today it was a verb — walking towards the flatirons in Boulder, Colorado with a group of people who I feel connected to.

Later today, I’ll have Thanksgiving dinner with my daughter and her family. I’ll miss my west coast kids but it gives me peace to know that they also will spend some time today in gratitude for their family. As the hostess for Thanksgiving for my family of origin and my children for many years, I’d always stress the importance of the “thankfulness” part of the holiday, with the never changing menu coming in second. I tried many different approaches including 3 x 5 cards that everyone wrote what they were thankful for on the cards then the cards were placed in the center of the table and read throughout the meal. No names were on the cards so we also had to guess who wrote them. We’re family. That part was easy. In all the things that were sold, given away or thrown away before my move to Boulder, somehow those cards made the journey. I found a stack of them the other day and will wrap up my thoughts on thankfulness by sharing:

I’m thankful that we’re all sitting at this table together.
I’m thankful for pumpkin pie.
I’m thankful for Grandma and Grandpa.
I’m thankful the Chiefs are playing later today.
I’m thankful for my health and every person at this table.
I’m thankful that I don’t have to do the dishes afterwards. (I’m still puzzled by that one, because no one got a pass on clean up…)
I’m thankful that Mom cooked such a nice meal. (I moved that one to the top of the stack).

And Christmas wasn’t ruined…


I have a strange perfectionist tendency that says if I do something once and have success with it,  then it has to be done the next time and every single time after that until the end of time. In this case, I’m talking about traditions, more specifically, Christmas traditions.  For starters, I’m a Virgo and this is simply what Virgos do, but I’m also from a family that holds onto traditions,  close and tightly and next to their hearts,  especially when it comes to Christmas.  At age 59, I know I’m in a very small minority of people who can say that they have spent every Christmas of their life with their entire family.  Every.  Single.  One.  My parents, my siblings, my sibling’s spouses, my own kids and now their significant others, all come together for a few days that holds the same kind of magic that it did when I was a small child.  We do Christmas well, and because of that I’ve always been a tiny bit afraid to make any changes to the many traditions that have made their way through the generations.

There was a point a few years ago when I realized that I was doing a whole lot of things simply because I had always done them, and while the end was accomplished, the process suffered while I trudged through tasks that I didn’t really enjoy.  Baking, cutting out and icing cookies was my first tradition to hit the dust, and lo and behold, Christmas was not ruined.  It almost pains me to admit it, but I do not enjoy baking  and whether Christmas cookies or birthday cakes, I fail miserably at the task, probably because I simply don’t enjoy it.  I will knit Christmas stockings with names and designs knitted right in and load up mantles with nature’s bounty until the cows come home, but I will leave the baking to someone else.  I’m throwing in the towel and the cookie sheets and am calling myself done.  And finally, I’m able to say that it’s OK.

Our family tradition of putting a hand-written poem on every one of our gifts that gives a hint as to the contents inside,  has made its way through 4 generations unscathed as well as our tradition of “pie presents,” which are small presents that are placed on everyone’s plate for Christmas dinner.  Both traditions remain strong, while evolving to suit the expanding and maturing crowd.  The poems have become every comic in the family’s moment of fame when it’s read (which is everyone, by the way) and the pie gifts have transformed into a pre-Christmas Yankee swap, with a whole lot of trying to out do the next guy taking place.  Both have survived the holiday cuts because it is something we all enjoy.  Baking for me, not so much.  Writing Christmas cards, which I sadly gave up a few years ago because of time constraints, has also been dropped and not picked up again… at least not yet.  And still,  Christmas was not ruined.

The traditions give us a growing history and are carried until they become cumbersome, then hopefully, we have the presence of mind to let them go.  Poems that started out with a couple of lines that my young children would scribble onto a sheet of paper have grown into witty works of art, many that I’ve saved over the years.  Give up the cookies, the cards and even the outdoor lights, if you will, but please oh please save the poems, my children.  You will be the carriers to the next generation.

While some traditions are held tight, and others are let go of, what really matters and what has become the biggest tradition of all isn’t wrapped up or baked or sent in the mail, but rather is the gift of a family coming together, once again,  for a few days of magic.  It’s the gift that is wrapped up in memories and continually given and received with open arms and hearts and topped with a hand written poem that speaks of love and family and Christmas magic.  THIS is the tradition that I have no doubt will be carried safely in the hearts to the generations to come.

Wish all my family and friends a very Merry Christmas!

Feeling just a little more grateful this Thanksgiving…


I’m finding my field of gratefulness stretched out just a little bit further than usual this Thanksgiving season, to the northern African country of Morocco, specifically.  As much as I like to think that I’m helping to better someones life when volunteering,  if only a few moments at a time, the reality is that the people who I am supposedly helping, whether that means teaching English to or simply being attentive and loving to a child at the orphanage, give me far more than I could ever give them and the gift of gratitude is the gift I take away.  The greatest gift of all.

There were so many reminders of gratitude during my stay in Rabat, but two in particular that I can’t seem to let go of.  The first one was during my trip to Fes.  I met a very interesting young man while on the train and had the opportunity to chat with him during the entire 3 hour journey.  He was 23 and from the country of Georgia, but was going to school in Rabat, working on his masters degree in Middle Eastern politics.  He spoke several languages fluently, but apologized for his poor French, hardly worthy of an apology to this barely bi-lingual person.   His stories were more like a history lesson to me and I was amazed by his knowledge of American history, which put my own knowledge to shame.  One of his stories that particularly touched me, was when he told me about his memories of 9/11.  He said he was in the 3rd grade and he remembers watching the videos of the planes going into the towers and how afraid his parents were, even for their own safety.  I certainly could understand the fear, yet at half a world away,  assumed they would feel more isolated and somewhat protected.  His response are words I will not soon forget.

“America was the last safe place in the world and now it wasn’t.  The whole world was afraid.”

I’m thankful that David happened to claim the seat right across from me on the train that morning, even though my first thoughts were hoping he wouldn’t be someone who would want to talk, as I wanted to sleep.  His words and his reminder that the world is far bigger than our U.S. borders, made a huge impact on me that I won’t soon forget.

The second  reminder I got was something that Mohamed told us during one of our first lessons on Moroccan culture.  He told us to never lose sight of the gift we have simply by the name of the country that is imprinted on our passport as it puts us ahead of most of the world.  Our passports are worth far more than we realize.  It is so easy to forget this, especially during a time of such political turmoil in our country.  It’s a difficult, timely and expensive process for a Moroccan to get a tourist visa for the United States and the chances of being chosen through the lottery system in place are slim.  I had a couple of women in my class that were perfecting their English in hopes of going to the United States to visit children and grandchildren who lived there.  I was so sad when Mohamed told me that their chances of visiting the United States were very slim, yet they continued to plug away at their English lessons, their energy fueled by such a tiny thread of hope.

So underneath my table of abundance this year at Thanksgiving will be the faces from Morocco – a girl at the orphanage reaching her hand out to me through the bars of her crib, a young man on a train who opened my eyes to a reality a world away from mine and to the dark blue booklet that I guard with my life when I travel outside of my country’s borders that says, “United States of America.”

Yesterday, while finishing up on my unpacking, I picked up one of my shirts and was drawn to its smell and couldn’t seem to figure out why it seemed so familiar. Then it hit me.  The orphanage.  I had gotten clean clothes from the laundry before I left Rabat and they must use the same soap that they use to launder the children’s clothes at the orphanage.  Now that I know, I find myself burying my face into a memory to insure that it won’t be lost.  I’m not quite ready to let go.   I know that as life goes on and memories start to fade a bit, a thread of connection to Morocco will remain and no doubt,  will present itself to me when I become too complacent with what I have.  But for now, with my Moroccan memory still vibrant and with its scent still in my clothes, I will go deeper on my list of what I have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.  The stories, the people and a hand reaching out to me  to communicate as she had no words, for starters…

To all my friends and family, I am thankful, over and over again,  to have you in my life.