The Perfect Gift

Ten years ago, I asked my husband, Fatty, if he would make me something for Christmas. He gave me a quizzical look and I blurted out, “I don’t care if you make me a playlist and burn it to a CD. I just want someone to make me something.” He was quiet and slow to respond. I could tell that he wasn’t sure where this was coming from.

“Um, okay, I guess,” he answered.

“And, maybe we should all make each other something,” I suggested. “I’d make something for you and Jane and Kate. You’d make us each something. We could help them make gifts for each other. What do you think?”

“Hmm.” I could see him thinking. “Okay. Sure. We could do that.”

I admit it was a strange request. Fatty is not a crafty guy. That is my department. I have made many handmade gifts for my loved ones over the years. From sewing appliques onto t-shirts and making aprons to knitting dozens of hats and stitching quilts, I have crafted my way through birthdays and more holiday seasons than I can count.

The process of choosing the perfect gift idea, and then literally making it, suits me more than buying something from a store. While I am sewing or knitting, I think about who I am crafting for and by the time I have finished, I’ve done more than just create an item: my love has been poured into it. I wanted my daughters to experience this themselves, to realize there is value in giving something handmade. And I secretly, and selfishly, hoped we would start a new tradition of making gifts for each other.

On Christmas day, we exchanged presents. We practically pushed the boxes into each other’s hands, eager to see the reactions. I knitted something for each of the girls and made Fatty a cook’s apron. He made the girls playlists and burned them onto a CD. The girls drew designs that we screen printed onto t-shirts for Fatty. Jane made Kate a bracelet and Kate painted a picture frame for Jane. All the gifts were thoughtful and made from the heart, just as I had hoped.

The last three boxes that remained under the tree were for me.

I carefully opened the first box, pulled some tissue paper aside and I gasped. Inside was a perfectly round, glass ornament speckled with blue, green, and white dots. It was from Jane, and I was amazed. The second box contained another exquisite ornament in pinks and purples from Kate. The third was the ornament that Fatty made me out of glittering green glass with red and gold speckles. All three were absolute treasures. I looked up at them, smiling, saying nothing. My words were gone, but tears sprang to my eyes. I was touched.

I had a mental list of all the things I thought I might receive from my family, things like paint-your-own pottery, a bookmark, photo frames, or even the playlist on a CD that I had suggested. But I had never imagined something so special and delicate. I didn’t know that you could blow your own ornaments. And how was it possible that our six- and eight-year-old daughters could manage that? The three of them hurriedly told me stories of sneaking to the glass studio one weekend afternoon and how they made the ornaments. I sat there, listening, and thinking that Fatty outdid himself. I got way more than what I wished for.

When the holidays came around the next year, we considered making gifts for each other, but quickly realized it wasn’t practical. Fatty suggested that we all go to the glass studio and make more ornaments for our tree instead. I called and made an appointment.

The next weekend, we went downtown to the glass studio. After checking in at the showroom and choosing the colors we wanted, we made our way to the hot shop. As we walked through the door, I was overwhelmed by the extreme heat from the glass furnaces. I shed my coat and helped the girls off with theirs. They were chatty and, along with Fatty, excitedly explained what was happening as we watched the group before us finish their ornaments.

When it was our turn, the girls went first to show me how it was done. I watched them blow into a small tube, adjusting their breath as the glass artist told them to slow down or give a big puff. The glass grew with their breath and, once completed, the artist added a swirl of glass to the top for hanging. He then placed the ornaments in a large box where they would cool until the following day. Fatty took his turn and then I took mine. I was a little nervous, but I didn’t need to be. It was simple, easy even. All I had to do was follow directions and breathe.

Every year since our one and only handmade Christmas, we have gone to the glass studio as a family and blown four ornaments. Our collection is quite large now – thirty-nine ornaments, soon to be forty-three. When it’s time to decorate the Christmas tree, we start with the boxes of hand-blown ornaments. As we pull them from the bubble wrap, we look at the colors that we have and discuss what new combinations we might add to the mix. Someone always wonders out loud how we can possibly fit more large ornaments on the tree, but no one suggests we skip ornament blowing this year.

When I asked Fatty to make something for me all those years ago, what I really wanted was for him to give me that special time and attention that I was giving of myself when making gifts for others. What he gave me was bigger than that – it was a tradition, year after year of the four of us making the ornaments together. Those are memories I will hold forever.

 

Words and image by Erin Harris.

Being Led

hello there friend

I find him asleep on our bed. The sun flooding the window, picking up the range of brown, orange, and golden tones in his soft coat. I stand there a moment just watching him with his leash in my hand.

“Do you want to head to the river?” I ask.  

 For a ten-year-old beagle, who is a smidgen overweight, his response time is stellar.

He dances around me, not leaving my side as I gather our gear: his leash, poo bags, camera, wallet, phone, and the tiny green tin where I keep a few treats. I grab a jacket and we head to the car. He jumps into the Forester eagerly, bouncing from the front to the back several times before settling in beside me up front. The Cedar River is only a five-minute drive away, and he looks straight forward, watching. Although he knows the word river well, he has been fooled before.

He talks to me as we pull into the gravel parking lot, excited, and I have to use a stern voice to leash him up and get him safely out of the car, along with our stuff.

Under the bridge, just ahead, the river flows on both sides of the road, and I have my choice of parking on either side. On the east side of the road, the small dam built for the salmon slows the flow down, coming almost to a halt in places. Occasionally we picnic here in the grass among the tall evergreens and he gets to wade. When my boys were children, we often came here to cool off, sometimes meeting friends for a spur of the moment picnic dinner. It’s calm here, and I like that we can get right down to the river bank. Here I can let him run off leash a bit, and he loves that.  

 But on this glorious late-fall day we choose the other side: the long, gravel path that follows the river for miles.

I have to coax him to get him out of the parking lot as his nose goes into action. He has a routine, smelling the log ahead of the car and the signposts with information about the salmon that call this river home, lost items, and bear sightings. Once inside the gate he picks up his pace a bit. But this is not a walk for exercise per se; it is a walk for noticing.

It is not long before we both want to stop. He catches the scent of something intriguing and I notice the color of the maple leaves, how they sparkle from the glow of the river behind them. I spot a feather and tuck it into my pocket and see that he has found something less precious: deer droppings. He marks them and off we go.

This dance goes on for a little over a mile. We stop, we notice, I take photos, and he sniffs. Soon we come to a little spot where the river curves a bit and we lose sight of it. But I can hear it rolling, its soft voice a constant on these walks. Here under the tall cedar trees, there is a patch of grass and a picnic table. We stop, and I allow him to roam free a bit as I hit the review button on my camera. Bicyclists pass and another couple comes by with a chocolate lab. I grab his leash as they stop, and we all get acquainted. More sniffing, some circling, untangling of leashes, and talk about the glorious weather.

Before long he leads me to a trail off to the left. I can see it heads down toward the river and, like him, I am a bit curious. He is insistent and, because I trust his instincts and know if it were a bear he would be baying, I let him lead and we step off the main path. We find steps that lead down to the river and what looks like an old rock slide. The slope is overgrown and there is no bank or any way to get to the water without being in it. He does not hesitate as he steps right in and grabs a cool drink. I stomp hard on his leash and snap some photos. The light is beautiful, and the leaves reflect their vibrant colors in the water. We both turn and head back up the stairs.  

Instead of heading out to the main path, he heads down a tiny overgrown trail. Blackberries catch at my pants, and I notice that the trees overhead are dripping with moss. I can see light and the promise of fall colors ahead, so I follow. We wind around a bit, maybe a quarter of a mile or so, both of us stopping to look more closely at what draws our attention — a patch of mushrooms for me and some mysterious smells for him. The trail takes a turn towards the river and suddenly we find ourselves in an opening where we discover more of the rock slide. The river curves and we have a beautiful view of both sides.  

I go a bit crazy with my camera, rushing here and there, wishing I had my wide angle lens. I get down on my knees for closeups and a few macro shots. I pose him in all kinds of different ways, wanting so badly to get him and that glorious view behind him in the frame. But no amount of treats persuades him to give me his full attention, and soon I give up and sit down on one of the flat rocks, thinking about the shot I failed to get.  

I find a safe place to set down my camera and look up. And, then I see it. I see the trees behind the river, gigantic cedar trees and pines that go on for miles interspersed with colorful vine maples in every shade of red, orange, and yellow. I see the blue and green of the water as it flows downstream and how it turns white as it hits the boulders in its way. I think back to the time we floated this river with our boys, who were probably too young at the time – both my husband and I a bit scared as we worked hard to miss those boulders, while the boys laughed and loved every minute. I sit back, take a few deep breaths, and relax.  

Soon he snuggles in next to me, nosing my pocket, wondering if the treats are still open for discussion. I slip a few out of the green tin and he eats them out of my hand. We sit there for a minute or two, both of us looking out at the beauty surrounding us – him feeling pretty pleased with himself for finding this place and me so very grateful I followed.  

 

Words and image by Cathy Sly.

The Lord’s Prayer at a Football Game

At a recent Notre Dame football game, I learned that before they run out onto the field, the players recite the Lord’s Prayer. They say it fast. It’s not like a congregational prayer in church. Nobody’s trudging carefully through this, articulating every word. This is more like a chant one might spit out before walking on hot coals, or jumping out of an airplane. 

I’ve said this prayer almost every Sunday in church most of my life, and each time I stumble on a part of it. “Thy kingdom come,” but not before I have my first kiss. “Thy kingdom come,” but not before I get to go to PROM. “Thy kingdom come,” but not before I have children. “Thy kingdom come,” but not before I win the Newbery. That’s when I’m paying attention. Sometimes my stomach is growling, sometimes I’m trying not to fall asleep, sometimes Hadley and Harper are fooling around, sometimes I’m looking at my shoes and wondering what I was thinking purchasing such a high heel. Though some may argue that the players said the words because they have no choice, and just want to get it over with so they can go play, I wondered as I listened to them, what the prayer would do if I recited it as the football players did: fast, urgently, and seconds before I was about to give my all to something without knowing what the outcome would be. And even if we do rush through the words so we can get to whatever else is next, even if we speak what we don’t understand, do the words make a difference? 

The day after the football game, the four of us go to church to take a communion class. This is not the communion class of my childhood Catholic friends, who for a year spent their Tuesday nights in “CCD” class, studying scripture and whatever else it took to put on that beautiful white tulle dress. Nor is it like the class I took in 8th grade at the Presbyterian church my family went to. I had to write an essay (the horror!) on what it was I believed and why I believed it, and present it to the deacons. Or, maybe it was the elders. Maybe it was both. I’ve never understood the difference.  

Presbyterians girls don’t wear white tulle dresses for communion, but I did get to wear a red Laura Ashley dress with green and pink flowers, and a giant bow that tied in the back. I took my first communion in that dress, and about ten days later, wore it again to my 8th grade graduation dance where I danced to “The Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground, my favorite song at the time. I still need the church bulletin to guide me through the Apostle’s Creed, but I know exactly what to say next when Shock G says, “Alright stop what you’re doin’, cuz I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that you’re used to.” 

The class we were taking Hadley and Harper to, would take about an hour. After that, the girls would be free to take communion anytime it was offered at church.  

We haven’t been going to this church long, but I love it. It’s ethereally nostalgic. I love the old creaky pews, the scent of melted wax and flame, the stained-glass windows and the organ music. Every Sunday I walk in, I remember my childhood. Or maybe I become a child again. Because just as palpable as the sounds and sights and smells, are my childhood memories of going to a church like this: scaling the walls with Lauren and Maren during the ice-cream social, our knees bloody from scratching them along the brick outside, and our fingers blistery from clutching the cement so we wouldn’t fall; talking about which movie was better – Star WarsThe Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi – with Jon and Andrew after having Passover Feast, the bitter taste of parsley dipped in salted water still on my tongue; walking alone into an empty sanctuary and singing “Respect” because I liked to pretend I was Aretha Franklin, and then singing “Peace Like a River,” because the song made me so sad I could only sing it alone. It felt too intimate to declare, “It is well with my soul,” when, even as a kid, I wasn’t sure it was. 

Now, sitting in a chapel facing floor to ceiling windows that look out at stark woods and part of U of M’s Greek row, I don’t know if we are doing this right. Maybe Hadley and Harper should’ve been in Sunday school longer. Perhaps there are some books Jesse and I can read to the girls that explain communion. We should probably all be reading the Bible at dinner instead of playing Settlers of Catan. 

An older couple walks carefully outside along the path toward the church’s doors. Behind them, a group of what looks like college kids walk easier, less carefully. Some of them frolic in trees whose leaves dropped and seem to be waiting for snow. One girl links her arm around a tree trunk and do-si-does with it. Both groups climb the stairs to the entrance of the church, and the older gentleman holds the doors for everyone to enter.  

“Every time you take communion,” one of the pastors explains, “a different part of you will be ready for it.” She continues to tell the children that they might not understand everything about the story, but that each time they take it, they might understand a bit more. 

“Nobody ever understands all of it, “ another pastor says. “You’re stepping into a mystery and you’re standing there for a while.” 

Soon, the bread and grape juice are passed, and Jesse and I share a small, mysterious meal with Hadley and Harper. Hadley sits up straight, hands folded, and watches the pastors carefully and seriously for cues to pray or sing or whatever comes next. Harper twirls her hair and swings her feet, then leans over to me and whispers, “Can I have more?” 

 A few weeks later, the children’s choir is practicing, “Now Thank We All Our God,” at the front of the sanctuary a few minutes before the service begins. So far, the kids have practiced the hymn without the adult choir, which is now standing behind the children, ready to join in and sing. The director explains that when the adults begin to sing, they’ll hear the song differently. It’ll be louder and stronger, she tells the kids, who are dressed in deep red choir robes just like the ones I used to wear when I was in the church choir. Some of the kids stare at her in an effort to understand, others look at the ceiling, their parents, their shoes. 

Hadley’s standing in the back row with the other fifth graders. They’re closest to the adult choir, and when they begin to sing, both Hadley and the girl standing next to her raise their eyebrows in shock. The two girls look at each other and begin to laugh. The choir director was right – the hymn sounds much different when sung with older generations behind them. 

I know the girls’ laughter might be interpreted as disrespect, but I don’t think they’re making fun of what they hear, I think Hadley and her buddy are in awe of it, and I think being in awe brought them joy, and joy manifested itself in giggles. 

I watch these two girls, front and center of the congregation, look at each other and laugh as they try to sing along, and I am thankful. I’m thankful for what I hope is a budding friendship. I’m thankful for a faith that doesn’t ask to understand but hopes for things unseen: like the words from the Lord’s Prayer taking flight after being uttered by football players ready to storm the field. “Give us this day,” they boldly ask as the football is thrown and caught, and taken towards the end zone. “Deliver us from evil,” they plead and shoot up like firecrackers spreading over all of us. We are unaware and perhaps even unconcerned of their power; focused solely on the game, the chill off Lake Michigan pulsing through our winter jackets and boots, the clock’s diminishing time, and the setting sun. “On earth as it is in Heaven,” they land on our hands and arms and shoulders as we spread them to embrace strangers and sing Notre Dame’s Alma Mater together. This is my favorite part of the football game, when for a few minutes, we all hold on to each other and sing – swaying to a melody so strong and beautiful, we all bear it together.  

 

Words by Callie Fayen.