Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves."  ~ James M. Barrie

Now that was fun! And as I drove out of the parking lot, I got the best reward ever… the most beautiful peach-colored sunset was drifting across the entire evening sky.

I woke up today feeling sort of blue, a little down, not my usual self. You see, Thanksgiving is next week, and our family members live more than halfway across the country. I miss the big Thanksgiving turkey that my sister-in-law is expert at roasting, and I miss the fun and laughter of all the families sitting in that wonderful farmhouse out in the country. I miss making the pies or appetizers, whichever was my offering that year. I guess I miss the old days

After all, that's what Thanksgiving is here in the good old U.S.A., right? Having a feast with family, and then sitting around, groggily, watching a football game on TV, and dozing off, right?

Well, yes it is, but maybe it shouldn't be only that! 

This may seem very trite to you, but I started thinking about the word, Thanksgiving… Moping about what I don't have isn't giving thanks at all! And I ought to have known that. I'm old enough to have learned that a long time ago, but I guess I didn't. If I just join those two words the other way around, I have it! Giving Thanks… yup, that's the right way.

And then I remembered what I used to do…  

Have you heard of Operation Christmas Child? It's also called Operation Christmas Shoebox. Does that ring any bells with you? I'd forgotten all about it, and I'm sorry that I did. All you need is a shoebox and the suggestion list. Then you're off on a lovely Christmas shopping spree for a child who lives somewhere in this world and has nothing. You'll never ever meet each other, but you will bring so much happiness and joy to that little one. You can pick whether you'd like to fill a box for a little girl or a little boy, and you can also pick the child's age range, too.

The suggestion list is divided up into 4 categories:  Toys, School Supplies, Non-Liquid Hygiene Items, and Accessories. Each of these categories has suggestions to help you choose the brand new items for this nameless, needy child who you are befriending anonymously. 

There are toys like dolls, stuffed animals, yoyos, and balls that you can include. There are school supplies like paper, crayons, markers, notebooks, coloring books and picture books, too, that you can choose. Hygiene items like tootbrushes, combs, and washcloths will fit just perfectly into that shoebox. I don't think of socks and tee shirts as "Accessories," but they are on the list of suggestions, so in they went!

There is a fifth category called "A Personal Note," and it's optional, of course. But you can enclose a note to the child  and even a photo of yourself and maybe your family, too. The child can see your face, and I bet it would be like looking at the face of an angel! 

At the end of the list of suggestions there is an important paragraph called "DO NOT INCLUDE," and it's written in bright red so you can't miss it. "DO NOT INCLUDE: Used or damaged items, war-related items such as toy guns, knives, or military figures; chocolate or food; out-of-date candy; liquids or lotions; medications or vitamins; breakable items such as snow globes or glass containers; aerosol cans." 

Well, off I went to my nearby store-that-has-everything, and I had so much fun! I got things in every category, things that I would have liked when I was young. It was the most pleasant hour of shopping ever, shopping for someone I'll never, ever know. As I deliberated over colors and styles and sizes that would fit into that shoebox, I kept seeing the wide eyes and the huge smile on my "mystery child's" face.

I'm home now, and all has been stuffed into that shoebox, except a book called "Silly Monkeys" with 5 monkey-faced finger puppets included... oh, and an orange baseball. Not a problem, though.  Guess that just means that I have the beginnings of another shoebox. And I guess that means that I get to go shopping again tomorrow… Think I'll be filling a box for a boy. My husband said he'd go with me. He'll have a much better eye for what a boy would like, of course. An ORANGE baseball, Terry? 

If any of this interests you, just Google "Christmas Shoeboxes," and all the directions are there. They even explain the "drop off" procedure.  

C'mon… this must be just how Santa Claus feels when he delivers his presents, right? After all, Operation Christmas Shoebox delivers these shoeboxes to 10,000,000 kids in this world! Yes, that's TEN MILLION kids who've maybe never received a present of any kind in their entire lives. 

Giving thanks always spills out all over, and sometimes it even brings a sunset that takes your breath away!      

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."          ~ Mario Andretti

"Eat anything you want!" she told me. "Taste everything!"

"OK," I answered, "but I don't like ice cream…"

"Oh! Well, we don't sell much of it. But some people like it so we have it over there in that little freezer, just in case."

It was the second day of my summer vacation. I'd be a university sophomore when September came around, but this was my first day of work at the best bakery in Stamford, Connecticut... my sweet tooth's idea of Heaven!

The doors opened at 7AM, and people crowded in and elbowed their way out for two and a half solid hours, people on their way to work who wanted donuts, croissants, cinnamon rolls, and coffee. The price tags were on the front of each tray, and written on the back of the tags, too, so this new employee could ring up the totals quickly and satisfy the mob.

By 10AM there was finally a lull. The owner left me in charge of the front, while her husband, the baker and co-owner, was in the back making the last batch of strawberry tarts in the compact workroom. It took me two weeks before I found out the secret of bakeries. Bakers' hours are NOT the same as their clerks are. A baker's day begins at approximately 2 or 3AM! His work would be done way before I could go home, but then, as he said, I got to sleep in until 6AM every day. What more could I ask for, he asked!

I was hired to work, so I cleaned the finger marks off every speck of glass in the bakery. I straightened the left-over pastries in soldierly straight lines so they were as perfect as before the shop opened. I polished the wobbly, sliding mirror doors so they glittered. Then I heard the owner/husband/baker yell, "See ya tomorrah," and he was gone.

Now what to do? Hmmm... I stood on one foot… then I stood the other… then on both feet. Then I decided to do some releves from my ballet days. Oh, I know... this must be the time for me to taste everything in the shop. As a good employee, I would follow the owner's directions to a fare-thee-well! 

I did taste… EVERYTHING! Then, since all was quiet on the bakery front, I went back for seconds! By the time I was taking "thirdsies," the homemakers began coming into the shop, and I had to quit my wild foraging. 

As I passed by the glittering mirror, I saw a swath of chocolate smeared on my cheek, but I had no time to run to the lavatory and wash it off. Besides, I thought, it might be good advertising… That, or the customers would think I was licking the very pastries they were buying! They'd call the health department! They'd have me fired on my first day of work! Or worse, I'd be working in the jailhouse bakery… Oops, Terry, your imagination is once again running wild… 

I got a hold of myself quickly when I remembered why I NEEDED this job. It wasn't only that I loved sweets. It was that I needed to buy books for my British Literature classes and paint for my art classes next semester. Without this job, in the fall I'd need to live inside the campus library every moment I wasn't in class, and I'd have to learn how to make paint from the berries that must grow somewhere in those Nebraska fields… Sheesh!

You probably think that I was off work every day at 6PM or something. NO! This bakery was opened until 9PM… 9PM!!! Don't ask me why, because I never asked the owners that question. In fact, I never asked them anything. I just did what I was told. 

As I write this, I'm thinking… what did you do for lunch, Terry? You must have had a break. And what did you do for dinner, by the way? Can't remember… I must have eaten something besides pastries, but I can't remember ever leaving the bakery until 9:01 every night. Sounds like slavery to me. Maybe it was, except for the wonder of eating every good thing that talented baker created.

Now, Connecticut public schools have a longer school year than universities do, so after the lunch crowd had left the bakery that day, the kids from school swarmed in for something good to eat as they ambled home. After all, they needed some energy for the mounds of homework that Connecticut teachers loved to assign. 

 Again there was this lull for about an hour, after the school kids left and before the adults leaving work would stop in to buy fresh baked bread and those beautiful strawberry tarts for their after-dinner desserts that evening. So the owner began chatting with me. She told me that they had opened their first bakery in New York City where they were from, but they had finally left there and moved to Connecticut. 

I listened closely as I crammed another cream puff into my mouth, anxious to chew it up so I could accomodate the brownie with the superb chocolate frosting waiting in my other hand.

"Why'd'ja leave?" That was hard to say with that last bite of brownie sticking to the roof of my mouth.

"We got tired of paying 'protection money' to those 'goons!'"

"Wass that?" I managed to ask as I chewed. And she explained the "protection money" concept to me and how it was initiated and what a "goon" was. It was nearly as exciting to listen to the details of the racketeers as it was to select my next sweet treat to eat.

Well, finally at about 6:30PM the lady owner said that she'd be back at 8:45 so she could count the money, put it into the safe, and lock up. "Will you be alright, Terry?"

"Sure!" I said, thinking of the rising cost of red paint and the campus bookstore's price of just one 5-inch-wide required British Lit text.

But at 6:30PM, it was getting dark. All the other stores on the street had closed a half hour before. The bakery was on the corner of the main street in town and a cross street, and both the front and the street-side of the bakery were made up of large windows. You know what? It feels creepy to be inside a fishbowl! I could see car headlights as they rolled past the windows, but that's about all. But I knew that anyone driving by could see everything inside that bakery… well, like you, Terry. You are the only one in the shop! And they could see things like the cash register sitting right there in plain sight of the passers-by, and, of course, everyone understands that it has money in it… You know, things like that… creepy things like that…

Maybe if I stood behind the back counter next to the cash register, I could run through the workroom and out the backdoor… only if I needed to... just precautionary thinking, mind you. Good idea, Terry, I thought. I think I thought that, but who knows… I had chomped down at least 23 delightful bakery creations so far that day, and I was probably light-headed from all that SUGAR!

As I tried to casually saunter back behind the farthest counter, I accidentally bumped into that darn wobbly sliding mirror door. I barely hit it, mind you! But, part of it seemed to jump out of its runners and crash to the floor, spattering splinters all over the aisle! A jagged piece of mirror was left in its runner, jutting out awkwardly into the space between.

I grabbed a broom and swept up the broken glass, but the huge piece of jagged mirror had me flummoxed. I'm ashamed to say that I was actually frightened of it. I left it leaning out into space there.  

Of course, at about 8:30-ish or so, the lady owner arrived! How would you explain the debris? 

Well, I explained it to her just like I've written it here, and she didn't fire me! I suppose she figured that the worst had already happened… or maybe it was the sight of my tears… or maybe she understood, even back then, that a huge overdose of sugar all the live-long day, that sugar contained in her husband's delicious, mouth-watering pastries, was not the best way to determine if a new employee was going to work out.

Her invitation to eat anything I wanted, had worked brilliantly! The only thing that I couldn't resist for the rest of that summer was the heavenly smell of bread baking. There just isn't any aroma in the world better than that! I never did get over the weird feeling during those night hours that I was on duty in the bakery, though. And I did eat a pastry now and then, but never more than 3 a day… or maybe, 5. Well, it all depended...   

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Why do 'slow down' and 'slow up' mean the same thing? Why is the third hand on the watch called the second hand?"  ~  George Carlin

Why would our next-door neighbor knock on our door on a cold winter night, and then come in, take his shoes off, lay down in front of the fireplace, and plant both his stocking feet on our wall?  That was the question... 

We'd never met him, this man who lived inside the half-circular house on the huge over-grown, tree-strewn, creeping-vine-covered plot of land on the other side of the fence! We'd never even seen a living soul come in or out of that house… unless you counted the naked psuedo-violinist who wandered down the street that dark night, torturing that poor violin with the bow.

He'd knocked on our door one night to borrow a battery, he said... not for a car, if he even had one, but for his flashlight. It was so cold outside that I asked him to come in, of course. When I said, "Warm yourself by the fire," I assumed he'd stand in front of it, and maybe turn around to warm his backside, too. But that, we'd just found out, wasn't his way.

Richard gave him two AA batteries, and he left… warm feet, and all.

It was about a month or two later in early spring when he knocked on our door again and said, "I've got to go on a trip. Would you feed my cat for me while I'm gone?" and threw a set of keys over to me. As soon as I said, "Yes," he left for parts unknown. 

The next day, when Richard got home from work, I begged him to go with me to the house next-door while I fed the cat. But he said, "What are you afraid of, Terry? It doesn't take two people to feed one cat!"

What was I afraid of? What was I afraid of? Hmmm… that was the question… What did I expect to find, anyway? How silly of me to be afraid to go into a house to feed a cat. I liked cats… I LOVED cats… even though I was deathly allergic to them…  and cats liked me. Of course, when my asthma kicked up and I'd be sitting straight up in bed trying to breath and sleep all night, every night, for the next month, it might be a nuisance. But what's a stiff neck and a sore back, while gasping for air, when you're teaching 7 classes of high school kids to draw everyday, all day!

It was a high round-topped wooden door that I approached with key in hand. That door looked like a door in one of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales. I went into the house, and the cat meowed and rubbed my leg, and then she rushed me into the kitchen for some din-din.

I won't describe the kitchen because it might be dinner time for some of you readers. Suffice it to say, the cat's bowl was the cleanest plate in the house, and it hadn't ever been washed except by the cat's tongue. 

Aw, c'mon, Terry, dish the dirt!!! NO! On that first afternoon in our neighbor's house, I was supremely ethical. I would NOT explore the cave… I mean the house. It was none of my business! After all, I was a high school teacher! I must always live according to the highest ethical standards. That's what I preached to my students, and I must live by those standards, even if I, alone, of all the people in these sacred United States……  Aw, SHUT UP, Terry! What did you do on the second day? 

The next day was a whole different story. I wasn't being nosy, though. It was the mysterious dotted line that wandered its way up the enormous two-and-a-half-story wall, from the desk below up to the strange wrought-iron stairway that lead to another round-topped door halfway up the middle of that 2-1/2-story wall. The dotted line was at least 30 winding feet long, going sideways and upwards. What was it? Why was it dotted? Had someone graffittied those dots that went nowhere? Why would they do that in their own house? And what was a room doing halfway up a 2 1/2 story wall with only a wrought-iron stairway to reach it? 

Well, Terry! What was up in that room? 

How should I know??? Do you think I would hazard a 2 1/2 story wrought-iron stairway that was only anchored on one side of the wall? OK, I DID try it, but when I put my foot on the first step, the entire stairway swayed and creaked, and I swear one of the bolts fell out of its hole-in-the-wall and clattered to the floor. 'Nuff said!

Once, this house had been a showplace! That huge half-round front room must have been a small concert hall. It still held a gorgeous grand piano that was decaying under carpets of dust. I tapped one of the keys, and it didn't sing, it screetched. The rest of the room was a rectangle that could have effortlessly seated 24 refined music afficionados. The wood that encased that part of the main hall was teak and cherry wood, too. The room looked just like Gloria Swanson's house in "Sunset Boulevard." But we were in Happy Hollow in Omaha, Nebraska.

And, yes, there was another staircase, an elegant circling stairway, and I did walk up those stairs. Were you chasing the cat, Terry? Is that why you went upstairs? What do you think? That cat never left the kitchen except to greet me at the front door about 4:00 PM every day and lead me to the cat food cupboard door!

Up those stairs were bedrooms, and about the 4th day of me "helping my neighbor," I went up there to look. There was a cavernous master bedroom and others, too, I guess. I would have looked at more, but it was the second room whose door I opened that stopped all my snooping. It was such a small room with a bed that had been slept in the night before… you could tell. There were clothes spattered across that bed and over the floor… teen-aged boy's clothes. That must have been the naked violinist's bedroom. 

That room was private... none of my business… NONE! And finally, I realized… How dare I! That house was none of my business… NONE AT ALL! Who was really the creepy neighbor… who, indeed! At least the cat would never rat me out.