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Ghostly Tricks

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Doris and Mary having a good laugh with Abbey – our best caregiver of all. (About 10 years ago)

Over the past 14 years, Mim and I have cared for more than twenty elderly people who have lived with us in our home, usually one or two residents at a time. Almost all of them have lived out their last days with us. Some of them lived with us for just a few days, some a few months, and some a few years. We have been honored to have cared for them as they journeyed from this life into the next life.

Today is All Saints Day, a day to remember each one of them, along with all the other people who have been close to us throughout our lives, and who are no longer with us on earth.

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Mim helping Doris get dressed up for Halloween.

One of our former residents, Doris, has actually been on my mind a lot lately. Doris lived with us almost four years, and she and her family became close members of our extended assisted living family.

Doris had a good sense of humor and liked to joke around with people. She often warned us that she was going to come back and haunt us after she died. Well, she’s come back. Really! I didn’t want to believe that she would follow through on her joking threat, but I can’t think of any other explanation for what has happened.

Several months ago I replaced my 5-year-old HP laptop with my first Apple product, a MacBook. The biggest challenge I had with my transition into the Mac world was getting my big fancy Konica Minolta laser printer/copier to work with the Mac. After hours of trial and error plus long phone calls to Apple Support, I finally was able to download a third-party printer driver that works pretty well – not perfectly, but at least I can print most documents.

A couple days after I finally got the printer working, I tried to boot it up one morning, and it was completely dead. I tried everything I could think of – with no success. I finally placed a service call with Konica Minolta to have them come out to fix it. The printer appeared to be completely dead. Not even the copier function would work.

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My Konica Minolta printer/copier is an excellent color laser printer, but it’s big and heavy.

This printer/copier is a large, heavy, floor model – something I don’t move around very often when I clean house. But I decided to do a little cleaning that day so my office would look better for the Konica Minolta repairman. I tugged the printer in one direction, then the other, to “walk” it away from the wall so that I could vacuum behind it. I couldn’t believe what I saw! The printer cord was plugged into a surge protector/power strip, and the power strip was not plugged into the wall outlet. It was plugged into itself! I called Mim over to take a look. She was as shocked as I was. I unplugged the power strip from itself, plugged it into the wall outlet, turned the printer/copier on, and it worked just fine. I immediately called Konica Minolta to cancel the service call.

img_1600Mim and I tried our hardest to figure out how that could have happened. Did one of us sleep-walk (which we’ve never done as far as we know), struggle to pull the printer/copier away from the wall, mess up the cords, and then shove the printer/copier back in place – all without waking up or making enough noise to wake up the other person or even our dog? Did someone break into the house the previous night while we were asleep and do it as a practical joke? The printer had worked the night before, but not that morning.

Hmmm. Practical joke… The only person we could think of who would do a practical joke like that was the ghost of Doris… In my mind, I’ve given Doris a high-five, and we’ve had a good laugh over it.

I’m sure Doris isn’t the only friendly ghost who has visited our home. The most usual time for ghosts and angels to visit us has been when one of our residents is near death, and a deceased parent, or spouse, or even a stranger comes into the room of the person who is near death. This visitor has come to comfort, or possibly escort the resident to the next life. Mim and I have never seen any of the special visitors ourselves, but several residents have told us about them.

All Saints Day is a time to remember all who have died in Christ, and who are now gathering in heaven to praise God. That includes Doris, even though she may sometimes sneak back down to earth to play a practical joke on us.

The image of a crowd of saints gathering together in heaven is suggested several places in the Bible. For example, Revelation 7:9-10 says:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

In 1864 William Waltham How, an Anglican bishop, wrote a hymn using this image. Forty-two years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a new tune for the hymn, creating one of the most moving and dramatic of all Christian hymns – “For All the Saints.” Here are the first and last verses. (You may want to google the title for the rest of the words.)

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who They by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, of Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

For me, the highlight of All Saints Sunday is playing this hymn on a pipe organ and hearing the congregation loudly singing the joyful words. It puts a lump in my throat every year.

On the other end of the musical spectrum is a spiritual that describes the same image – “When the Saints Go Marching In.” There are many different verses for this song, both sacred and secular, the usual first and last verses are:

O when the saints go marching in,
O when the saints go marching in,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when the saints go marching in.

O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when they crown Him Lord of all.

In Cambridge, my hometown, the “Fight Song” for the high school football and basketball teams is “When the Jays Go Marching In.” (The Cambridge mascot is the blue jay.)

Back to our assisted living residents that I’m remembering today. Helen had been my first grade teacher, and had always been an enthusiastic fan of our school sports teams. (Her husband had been the high school principal and the football coach.)

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It was a special privilege to care for my first grade teacher in her last months.

The most fun I ever had playing the organ for a funeral was for Helen’s. For the postlude I played the majestic descending opening line of “For All the Saints” and then played its mirror image in the ascending opening line of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I kept weaving these two tunes together as the people processed out of the church. It was the most fun juxtaposition of very different melodies on the same subject I’ve ever played around with.

I don’t know if Helen thought I was playing a joke on her by making up that postlude, or not, but I’m pretty sure she was smiling along with me and her friends and relatives as they processed out of the church.

Thanks to Doris and Helen and many of our other residents, there’s no doubt in my mind that ghosts and saints still have a sense of humor.

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Our “All Saints Wall” where pictures are mounted of all the people we have cared for in our home.

Congratulations to My Great Niece Mollie

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Mollie at her first gymnastics meet at age 6

I was inspired and I learned a lot last Saturday – actually 2 Saturdays ago. It was a great day!

Prior to that Saturday, I had never been to a gymnastics meet. I guess that doesn’t make me a very good great aunt, since my 17-year-old great niece Mollie has participated in gymnastics since the age of 6. That Saturday Mim and I decided to take the opportunity to watch Mollie compete at the State Gymnastics Meet being held in Madison at the Alliant Center.

I knew Mollie always liked to run and jump and turn summersaults. I remember watching her demonstrate her skills when she was still a toddler. On Saturday, we were able to see how those skills have developed.

I said I learned a lot on Saturday. I learned that gymnasts perform and compete in four different events – bars, beam, floor, and vault. Without going into details, I concluded that bars and floor are the most fun to watch, the most graceful. Beam and vault are the scariest to watch. I admit, I was scared for everyone competing in every event. I can’t imagine having my body do any of the things they all do with such strength and grace.

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A still shot of Mollie performing on bars.

Watching these incredible gymnasts perform brought back humble memories for me of tumbling in gym class when I was in grade school and high school. One of the things we were required to do was run, jump, and turn a summersault over someone lying on the mat. Then over 2 people on the mat. Then 3. Then 4. Believe it or not, I managed to be successful – until it was 5 people on the mat. My head landed on the fifth person, and then my body didn’t follow through quite right, and I ended up with a very stiff neck. As I recall, I even missed a couple days of school nursing my neck, although I never saw a doctor about it. Fortunately, by the time I got back to gym class, we were finished with that exercise, and the class had moved on to rope climbing – which I simply refused to do. I wasn’t going to climb up a rope to touch the ceiling of the gym. What if I fell and broke my neck!? I got my only D in all my years in the Cambridge School System for my non-performance in gym class that semester.

My great niece Mollie is very different from me. I’m sure she could have tumbled over 5 bodies by the time she was 3. I think she must have been born with springs instead of bones, considering how she can flip her body around. But besides being born with springs, she has worked really hard training her body to do what she and her coach want it to do. Her daily routine for years has been to go to her gym in Madison to work out for a couple hours after school – every single day.

944877_1655880611344242_714344027203013612_nThe result of her dedication was becoming Number 1 in the state of Wisconsin for gymnastics in 2016. She placed first in all 4 events, which also meant she was first overall. We were all so proud of her.

What made me the proudest was the way Mollie and the other gymnasts all treated each other. During the Awards Ceremony at the end of the competition, Mollie’s name was was the first one called because she had placed placed first in the first event. She climbed up to the top spot on the platform and was given her medal. When the 2nd place winner was called, as she climbed up to the number 2 spot on the platform, Mollie reached down to give her a big hug. The same for the 3rd place winner. Everyone seemed genuinely pleased with each others’ accomplishments. This behavior was repeated for each award for each event. Similarly during the warm-ups and competition, all the gymnasts hugged and cheered each other on. Kindness was on display everywhere throughout the meet.

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Mollie’s kid sister Gracie declaring that her “gold” medals really aren’t gold, but impressive nonetheless.

Although Mollie is still a junior in high school, this will be her last year to compete in the state gymnastics championship. She has received a full athletic scholarship to the University of Kentucky. She will speed through her senior year of high school to graduate in December, and start college and gymnastics at Kentucky in January 2017.

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Mollie with her proud parents.

But she’s not quite finished with competition for this year yet. Her next meet will be in St. Louis for Regionals, and depending on her status there, she may go to Nationals at Fort Worth. (She’s competed at Nationals the last two years.)

I’m truly excited for Mollie. And I’m proud of her gymnastic skills and accomplishments. I was amazed to watch her on Saturday. But most of all, I’m thankful that she’s already learned so much about kindness.

KINDNESS is my special word for this year, and I’m delighted to see it popping up all over. Last week I blogged about kindness in end-of-life care. This week I’m blogging about kindness in gymnastics, and specifically as demonstrated by my great niece Mollie. Who knows where I’ll see another amazing demonstration of kindness next… I think I chose a great word to focus on this year!

P.S. I’ve attached a youtube video below that shows Mollie in action.

Tap Dancing in Church

you_make_me_feel_like_dancing_tap_dancing_cat_poster-r51004af4ca5e48cf85af6aa87fffa6f0_w2q_8byvr_512That was a first. A woman tap danced to my postlude in church Saturday evening. I was playing a pretty jazzy arrangement of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” on the piano, and I heard some rhythmic tapping. It sounded great, and I sensed a few people gathering together to watch someone near the front of the church. Unfortunately, I couldn’t look up to see what was going on because I had to keep my eyes on the sheet music I was playing. The woman tapped throughout the whole postlude, and then left before I got a chance to meet her. Mim told me it was fun watching her, but she didn’t know who she was. I really enjoyed the percussion sounds that her tapping added to the postlude. I think I had just as much fun playing for her as she must have had by tap dancing.

I wondered what prompted the woman to start dancing. Maybe she tap danced to the postlude because she couldn’t resist the jazzy beat of the arrangement (by Melody Bober – my favorite piano arranger).

Or maybe she did it because of Pastor Jeff’s homily. He talked about having the courage to do what God calls us to do. After all, we are God’s children, and we should have the courage to do what we feel we are called to do. Perhaps for her, she was being called to express her joy, and to praise God through tap dancing.

Or maybe both of the above.

I just finished reading the book, A Song to Sing, a Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice, co-authored by Don Saliers, a theology professor and church music director, and his daughter Emily Saliers, a member of the Indigo Girls, a folk-rock duo known for their vibrant music and social activism. In chapter 2, entitled “A Sound Spirituality,” the authors say,

imagesThe human body with all its senses is the primary location of the impulse to acknowledge the glory and power of God. Rituals, whether sacred or secular, always involve the body and its senses – what is heard, seen, tasted, touched, and given bodily expression in movement and gesture. … Spirituality is not an idea in the brain but rather a disciplined bodily experience that grows deeper with practice. … 

Unless we pay no attention or deliberately suppress our senses, the body is always being touched by music, is always ready to become a musical instrument. (p. 21-22) 

Maybe the tap dancer allowed herself to become a percussion instrument to become a part of the music and to experience its joy.

The tap dancer was not the only person who was touched by the jazzy music at the end of the worship service. Several people talked with me after the service, saying how the lively postlude gave them a physical lift, some extra energy to finish out their day.

The Bible tells us to make music and dance to praise God.

praisehimdancePraise God with trumpet sound, 

praise God with lute and harp.

Praise God with tambourine and dance,

praise him with strings and pipes.

Praise God with clanging cymbals;

praise God with loud clashing cymbals!

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!

[Psalm 150:3-6]

God has given us the gift of music, and has provided some suggestions for how to use the gift.

A couple weeks ago in this blog I explained that my spiritual practice throughout Lent this year is to spend some time alone playing prayerful music on the piano every day. Music is more than a means of offering joyful praise to God. It can be a means of communicating with God, expressing feelings of all kinds. One of my favorite hymns is “My Life Flows on in Endless Song” by19th century American Baptist minister Robert Lowry. Here are some of the words.

55497b4c76534024d9fccb9c960bc7edThrough all the tumult and the strife,

I hear that music ringing.

It finds an echo in my soul.

How can I keep from singing?

Over the next several weeks, in church (and anywhere) we’ll be singing songs like: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done,” “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” “Thine Is the Glory.” The music will help us feel and express emotional extremes as we strive to understand God’s love for us, and learn to reciprocate that love.

Praise God for the gift of music. And tap dancing as one more way of experiencing that gift!

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The Emotional Jackpot

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Mom’s 8th grade graduation picture. Mom is at far right.

As I was thinking about what to write in my blog this week, I picked up my mom’s little black book again. This is the little hardcover “Memorandum Book” that Stella Lillesand, my mom’s Sunday School teacher, had given her in 1921, when Mom was 13 years old. Mom had used this book to write down Bible verses as she memorized them starting on October 2, 1921 and ending on August 5, 1923.

Her first entry was “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14) Her last entry was “But thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord.” (I Corinthians 15:57)

I decided to look up any verse she might have memorized the last week in January, this week almost 100 years ago. On January 29, 1922 she wrote, “A friend loveth at all times.” (Proverbs 17:17) When I read that, I thought I’d hit the emotional jackpot. My best friend, Mim, and I have celebrated the week between January 24 and February 1 for the last 27 years.

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January 29, 1922 – Bottom of left page

The last week in January of 1973 I met Mim at a small group Bible Study in Chicago. I had just accepted a position as an editorial researcher for The World Book Encyclopedia and I needed to find an apartment, move into it, and be ready to start my new job in three days. I was staying with my friend, June, while I looked for an apartment, and I’d gone with June to her church Bible Study.

After the Bible Study, Mim walked across the room to talk with June and to meet me. When Mim found out I was under pressure to find an apartment and move in three days, she invited me to stay with her in her apartment until I found a place of my own – regardless of how long that might take. On February 1 of this year, we will have lived together 43 years. I never did find a place of my own.

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Mim and me in our first apartment in Chicago – 1973

By the time Mim and I had lived together 16 years our friendship had deepened and our lives had become quite intertwined. When a close friend of ours died without a will, we realized we should have wills and power of attorney documents drawn up for ourselves. We asked our Lutheran pastor if he would be a witness to the signing of our wills. He said he would be happy to do that, but also suggested that we might want to have a Blessing Ceremony for the church to bless our loving relationship and our lifetime commitment to each other. Both Mim and I thought that was a great idea, and on January 24, 1989 our pastor and a few close friends gathered in our home for our Blessing Ceremony.

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A picture from our Blessing Ceremony – 1989

Just two and a half years ago, on September 15, 2013, we added one more date to our list of anniversaries to celebrate – the day we were legally married.

All three of these dates are very significant to us. Being legally married conveyed the same rights and privileges to us that all other legally married couples have. That’s a huge relief from a practical standpoint. The Blessing Ceremony is when God and the church blessed our commitment to love and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. The day Mim and I met each other and Mim offered me her friendship, along with a place to stay, marked the beginning of a loving friendship that was surely a precious gift from God.

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Our Wedding Picture – 2013

I think God put a pretty bow on this gift, perhaps a “God-wink,” by letting me discover that the Bible verse my mom memorized the last week in January of 1922 was “A friend loveth at all times.” God gave me the gift of a very special best friend 43 years ago, a friend who loves me at all times, just as God intends for us.

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Christmas in Jail

City-County Bldg from City Hall

The upper floors of the City-County Building in Madison, Wisconsin are part of the Dane County Jail

“This is the first time I’ll be in jail over Christmas. I’ve been in jail a couple times before, but never over Christmas. I feel so bad for my family. Being in jail hurts my family more than it hurts me. I feel so bad for my kids. I’m really hurting my family by not being home with them for Christmas. I can’t let this happen again. I’ve got to get my life back together.”

The young woman struggled to keep tears from seeping out of her eyes as we went around the circle in the jail chapel, talking about what the Christmas story that we had just read in Matthew and Luke meant to us today.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like for my mom to be in jail over Christmas when I was a little girl.  It’s hard to picture my mom being in jail. I think the most illegal thing she ever did in her life was speed up to 70 miles per hour to pass a car on curvy Highway 12, driving from Cambridge to Madison on her way to work in the morning. The speed limit was 65 back then, and she had a gadget in her car that buzzed when she reached 66 mph. That didn’t happen very often.

Family Portrait - about 1960

Family portrait, about 1960: Nancy, Dad, Mom, Danny, Marian

But supposing Mom was in jail, whether guilty of anything, or not… What would Christmas have been like for me?

  • No Christmas baking: No cut-outs to frost and decorate. No Norwegian cookies. No date bars. No new recipe experiments – Mom tried out one or more new recipes every year. No homemade peanut brittle. No Holiday Hill whipped cream cake…
  • No one to ensure the whole house was decorated for Christmas, not just the tree.
  • No one to help us memorize our parts for the Christmas program in church.
  • No perfect Christmas presents. Mom always figured out what we wanted most, and managed to do all the Christmas shopping during the lunch hours of her job in Madison.
  • No one patiently trying to teach us patience on Christmas Eve as we waited for Dad to finish milking the cows and then come back into the house so we could open our presents.
  • No Christmas stockings. Mom always gave each of us one of her old nylon stockings with runs to set out on Christmas Eve for Santa to fill with an orange, an apple, a candy cane, and a few small wrapped presents for us to open on Christmas morning.
  • No special dinner on Christmas Day. Pan-fried chicken was my favorite.
  • No one to play Scrabble with me on Christmas afternoon.

I understood the young mother’s point in the jail circle. Christmas is a very important time to be with family, not to be sitting in jail. But that’s the situation for her this year. The other inmates understood her point, too. They felt the same way.

As we continued around the circle, we got to me. I commented that hearing the whole Christmas story read in one sitting – the shepherds, Jesus’ birth in the stable, the wise men – reminded me of a question that’s printed in the bulletin of one of the churches I’m playing at this Sunday. “If you could play a part in the Nativity story, which role would you want: shepherd, inn keeper, wise man, angel, Mary, or Joseph?”  I said that I would either want to be an angel or a shepherd. It would be so much fun, so thrilling to be singing – or playing an instrument – to be welcoming Baby Jesus into the world. Several of the inmates explored this idea for themselves. One said, “Oh, I’d want to be a shepherd. It would be so exciting.”

Nativity images

When we all finished sharing our thoughts on what the Christmas Story meant to us this year, it was time for our annual Christmas carol sing. I went to the piano and Chaplain Julia handed out song sheets. She told the inmates they could keep the song sheets if they wanted, but she would have to remove the staples before they could take them out of the chapel. Most of them wanted to keep the song sheets.

Christmas carols

Chaplain Julia said they could request two things – the song to sing and which verses to sing. The first song requested, as soon as Chaplain Julia asked for requests, was the last song in the booklet, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The requester asked for all verses. Actually, all verses were requested for every song we sang. And, boy, did we have fun singing! There was never a long, awkward pause waiting for a request. As soon as we finished one song, another request was immediately out there. The women sang every song with enthusiasm, as a truly special women’s choir. I think we all identified with the angels. We sang a lot of angel carols – “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” As usual, we ended with “Silent Night.”

When we finished singing, Chaplain Julia asked me, “Could we choose to be Baby Jesus in my question of who we would like to be in the Christmas Story?” She said, “It would be wonderful to be Baby Jesus and feel all the love of everyone singing to me.” The inmates agreed.

I guess a little miracle happened in jail last Thursday. The women who came to the chapel to worship God and sing Christmas Carols, walked in feeling the weight of being in jail over Christmas, away from their family and loved ones. When they walked out of the chapel and were escorted back to their cell blocks, their spirits were lifted. I’m sure some of their spirits were still praising God, singing “Glo-ri-a in ex-cel-sis De-o.” God’s love was being experienced right there in jail.

angels and Mary and Jesus

This picture may be bleached a little too white, but it still shows love – wondrous heavenly love and peace present on Earth.

 

 

Gratitude for Thanksgivings Past

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Mim

One day last week when Mim and I were out walking Floey, Mim asked me, “Are you looking forward to Thanksgiving this year?” I thought for a minute, and then replied, “Not really. I’m not dreading it, but I’m not excited about it. We don’t really have any special plans. Oh, we’ll have a nice dinner at home, but we’re not expecting a house full of friends and relatives, like has been the case for many Thanksgivings in the past. But Mim’s question got me thinking about Thanksgivings Past…

We don’t have a family Thanksgiving tradition that we’ve followed for years and years. We usually have a big turkey dinner, although Mim just reminded me of one Thanksgiving on the farm during our B&B days when we spent the day cleaning up the yard and we put a pizza in the oven for our big dinner when the work was done.

When we lived in Chicago we established a tradition for several years of having a big family dinner in our two-flat. Mim’s mom came down from Minnesota and spent a week or so with us. My mom and dad came down from Cambridge and spent the 4-day weekend with us. My brother and his family and my sister and her family all came down for the day.

Family at Thanksgiving in ChicagoWe fixed the traditional turkey dinner and served 20-25 people. We arranged our dining room table and several folding tables into a T-shape so that we could all fit around the “same table.” Our downstairs neighbor joined us and contributed the stuffing. It was a fun family gathering, although a bit chaotic to get that many people seated together in a moderate size dining room. My mom gave me a double set of stainless steel “silverware” for Christmas after our first Thanksgiving in Chicago so that we wouldn’t have to borrow from our neighbor next time. My mom felt that everyone should have enough china and silverware to serve a sit-down dinner for as many guests as they invite, even if it’s 24 guests – regardless of the size of their dining room. You can always squeeze a couple more people around a table, but everyone needs their own place setting.

Since Mim and I have lived in Wisconsin (since 1992), we haven’t had a regular pattern for Thanksgiving. Sometimes we’ve gone to my brother’s for a Thanksgiving dinner; sometimes to my sister’s; sometimes both! Sometimes we’ve hosted family and friends of our assisted living residents. All of these Thanksgiving dinners have been times of being thankful for good food and for the wonderful people who are a part of our lives.

My happiest Thanksgiving memories of all come from the time when I was a child and I was helping my mom get everything ready for the big dinner. Usually there would be about a dozen people all together for dinner. My first job of the morning was to crawl under the dining room table to unlatch the lever so that the table could be pulled open for two leaves to be put in place. Next Mom and I would put on the lace tablecloth together. Then I set the table with the “good dishes” and silverware. My next job was to carry up folding chairs from the basement and set them around the table, interspersed with the regular dining chairs. If needed, I added the piano stool and organ bench. Two kids could sit together on the bench.

roast turkeyMom never thought she knew how to roast a big turkey, so the Cambridge Bakery took care of that for her. All we had to do was have someone go to the bakery to pick it up when we were ready to eat. That was Dad’s job. Mom fixed all the rest of the food – potatoes, gravy, stuffing, corn, squash, green beans or peas, cranberries, fruit salad, clover-leaf rolls, and pumpkin pie. The beverages were apple cider (from a cousin’s apple orchard in Lake Mills) and coffee.

nut cupsJust helping Mom get all the food ready was fun. We worked together well. She told me what to do, and I knew how to follow directions. But the absolutely best job of all for me was filling the nut cups. That’s what made Thanksgiving special. Nut cups. I don’t know why that tradition has fallen out of favor these days. It’s a real loss. The nut cups themselves were small paper cups covered in brightly colored crepe paper. Mom always picked up bags of M&Ms, candy corn, candy pumpkins, Brach’s bridge mix chocolates, and a can of peanuts.  I carefully counted out an equal number of every piece of candy and every peanut as I filled each nut cup. I had to be fair. Then I placed a nut cup at the top of each plate to the left of the glass.

candy corn and pumpkinsWhen we hosted Thanksgiving dinners in Chicago, I carried on the nut cup tradition. I couldn’t find crepe paper nut cups in the stores anymore, so I made some square ones out of construction paper and put a Thanksgiving-themed sticker on each one. They also doubled as name plates so we could politely tell each person where to sit. The ingredients were the same except we substituted foil covered chocolates for the bridge mix and mixed nuts for the peanuts. (The Georgia Nut Company outlet store was just down the street from us.)

Thanksgiving chocolatesBack to Mim’s question, I guess what’s special about Thanksgiving this year is that I took time to remember all my Thanksgivings Past.

In yesterday’s JESUS CALLING devotional reading, Sarah Young wrote that Jesus told us:

As you sit quietly in My Presence, let Me fill your heart and mind with thankfulness. …

As you go through this day, look for tiny treasures strategically placed along the way. I lovingly go before you and plant little pleasures to brighten your day. Look carefully for them, and pluck them one by one. When you reach the end of the day, you will have gathered a lovely bouquet. Offer it up to Me with a grateful heart. Receive My Peace as you lie down to sleep, with thankful thoughts playing a lullaby in your mind.

The tiny treasures I’m discovering today are all kinds of wonderful Thanksgiving memories – especially nut cups!

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Thanks, Maria. That Gives me an idea.

A couple years ago, around the first of November, Chaplain Julia of the Jail Ministry invited the women inmates worshiping together in the jail chapel to tell each other about some of their family traditions related to Halloween and All Saints Day. She especially encouraged Maria to explain to us what her friends and family did in Mexico to celebrate the holiday, Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).

An altar set up in a Mexican home for celebrating Dia de los Muertos

An altar set up in a Mexican home for celebrating Dia de los Muertos

Although Halloween (All Hallows Eve) and All Saints Day are Christian celebrations, different cultures around the world have adapted these days in different ways to incorporate the history and legends of their own societies. In Mexico, ancient Aztec beliefs are incorporated into Dia de los Muertos – the day to honor family members and friends who have departed. An ancient belief is that the gates of heaven are opened on October 31, and all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to come to earth to spend 24 hours with their families. On November 2, spirits of adults can come down to earth from heaven to join their families for a day of celebration.

In preparation for these heavenly visits, many families set up a special altar in their home and decorate it with pictures of their departed loved ones, along with candles, flowers, fruits, and favorite foods of the departed to entice the spirits to come back home for the day. Some families take the food and decorations to the cemetery, to the graves of their loved ones. Then the extended family has a big picnic in the cemetery with all these special foods. The family spends much of the day reminiscing about their departed loved ones. In spirit, the departed souls join their earthly families for this day of remembrance and celebration.

Cemetery being decorated for Dia de los Muertos

Cemetery being decorated for Dia de los Muertos

With a little coaxing from the jail chaplain, Maria told us how her family in Mexico used to celebrate this special holiday. She talked mostly about preparing all the favorite foods of their departed loved ones, and getting together with their relatives at the cemetery for a big picnic and time of reminiscing. It was a very happy family celebration.

I’ve thought about Maria’s story often over the last couple years, especially around Halloween and All Saints Day. I wish we observed a tradition like that in our own culture. I think the closest thing we have to Dia de los Muertos in the U.S. is Memorial Day. Although I put flowers on my parents’ grave for Memorial Day, most of the emphasis of the day is on remembering veterans of U.S. wars. I think of the day as a patriotic holiday more than a family remembrance day.

Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church

Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church

For All Saints Day this year, I played the organ at the Oakland Cambridge Presbyterian Church. Besides playing the usual “For All the Saints,” I incorporated some old hymns that might prompt us to remember some of the saints who have touched our lives directly, such as our parents and grandparents. When the pastor read the names of the church members who had died in the past year, I played softly on the piano, hymns like “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” and “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.”

When I got home from church, I thought more about how Maria’s family used to spend the time from October 31 through November 2 in Mexico, a time for remembering the saints of the church, especially the saints who have directly affected them, like parents, grandparents, siblings, and close friends. I decided to celebrate Dia de los Muertos in my mind this year. Maybe we can carry it out in reality next year. I hope so.

I thought about my mom, my dad, and my sister – the three members of my family of origin who are no longer with us on earth.

Family portrait, about 1960

Family portrait, about 1960

My mom’s favorite meal (actually, it was the whole family’s favorite meal) was pan-fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet corn (the kind Mom had frozen herself), a fruit salad held together with a sweet fluffy dressing, home-made clover leaf rolls – re-warmed in the oven so butter would melt on them, coffee, and schaum torte with ice cream and strawberries for dessert. That’s the dinner Mom usually made when we had company for Sunday dinner.

Just thinking about all that food makes me hungry for it, and prompts me to remember the wonderful times we had squeezing a dozen or more people around the dining room table to share the meal. I remember mumbling along with everyone as we recited the Norwegian table prayer together – in Norwegian. I never did learn it beyond the first phrase, Jesu Navn gar vi til bords…  

I’d love to establish a new tradition for my family for All Saints Day based on the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos. I’m not ready to abandon the tradition of welcoming trick-or-treaters to our house on Halloween, but I’d like to add time on All Saints Day to remember the saints who have personally touched my life, family and friends who are now departed. I’d like to set up a little altar, maybe on the buffet, with some flowers, pictures of the special saints in my life and in Mim’s life. And then, we will have a special dinner with the favorite foods of our saints as we reminisce about them. I can already taste that pan-fried chicken dinner. (Maybe on alternate years, we’ll have to have lutefisk – Mim’s mom’s favorite!)

Thanks, Maria, for giving me the idea…

A family dinner about 30 years ago

A family dinner about 30 years ago