Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye 2009 and Happy New Year!

Before 2009 ends, I am tallying up a few experiences of the last few days that I am thankful for:

#1 Having children and grandchildren spend time in our home. An especially wonderful surprise was the same feeling of togetherness that I experienced as a child. It was delivered by my husband, sons and daughters-in-law the morning after our Dec. 26 family Christmas gathering.

Five grandchildren ranging in age from toddlers to a seven year old woke up hungry and ready for breakfast. Baboo, also known as husband Walter, whipped up pancakes, eggs and sausage. The little ones chowed down and moved on to entertain themselves. Then parents and grandparents enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. We stayed at the table long after appetites were satisfied. The conversation, joking and stories flew.

Afterwards I realized that the warm happiness I felt was the same feeling I had when I was the little one. My parents and their siblings and spouses sat around the table swapping stories and jokes while my cousins and I played. That southern storyteller trait has not been entirely eradicated by television and electronic communications. The parents of my grandchildren can still weave magic for me.

# 2 Colored Christmas tree lights. I know some folks consider them less sophisticated than white twinkle lights, even downright tacky. But they are pieces of colored happiness to me. My love affair with colored Christmas tree lights began as a child. It was only as an adult that I started remembering what things looked like to me before grade five. At that time an eye test revealed my extreme nearsightedness. Christmas lights pre-eyeglasses were soft, glowing, overlapping globes of color. When I was 13, a little brother entered my life by adoption. He shared my love of the lights and learned his colors from the Christmas tree lights.

Second son Jeremy was a little over two months old his first Christmas. The lights elicited wide-eyed wonder and endearing baby sounds from him. This Christmas it was a joy to have two little girl grandbabies who are enthusiastic about the colors of lights on the tree. I loved the moments with Molly Kate touching lights and telling me all the colors. Stella, a few months younger, touched and identified “geen” and “boo.” She expected me to take care of articulating the names of yellow and red lights.

#3 An unexpected visit with friends and family. Walter and I were able to join my mother, brother Mike Carpenter, wife Sonya and offspring Amanda, 18, Becky, 17, and Matthew, 15, for an all-too-brief visit at the home of Elton and Joyce Raby, family friends in Hattiesburg. The Rabys’ daughter Susie also joined the group. Time flew in laughter, music by Amanda accompanied by Mike at the piano, and catching up.

As our time together came to an end, Mr. Raby presented Mother with a certificate from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. The certificate recognized him as one of the museum’s founding donors and acknowledged his donation in memory of his friend and my father, Cecil Carpenter, World War II veteran. The Carpenters and Skupiens ended the evening with pizza at a local eatery then we headed for the Coast.

#4 Time with my husband. I treasure Christmas moments with Walter. I get a kick out of him in his Baboo role, sending grandkids into shrieks of laughter and mock terror, feeding them and cuddling them. But I also savor his sending me into shrieks of laughter and mock terror, feeding me and cuddling me.

Okay, it is 11 p.m. I guess it is time to think about those pesky resolutions. Hmmmmm. I think I will just have two: Live every moment in the moment. Give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Home for the holidays

We have been blessed that our growing family has been able to make it to our home for a “day-after” Christmas celebration Dec. 26.

And on the day after that – Dec. 27 – representatives of three extended families were on hand for an early birthday celebration for our granddaughter Charlie who will turn four on Jan. 4. Her dad Walt took the photo below of the entire assembly.

Charlie’s mom Sarah came up with the idea of having the party at our home instead of in their home in Georgia. It was a great idea. Not only is our home closer to more family, but family members visiting parents could also come. Sarah and Charlie spent a morning of girl time, shopping for food, favors, cake and other essentials. With some volunteer help, Sarah pulled together a wonderful “Princess Party” while, at the same time, channeling the energy of four active children into constructive activity and convincing one disgruntled male five-year-old of the necessity of eating off a “princess” plate.

By candle-lighting time, all the children were on board with the princess theme and Charlie, wearing part of a princess costume that was a Christmas gift from her cousin Molly Kate, was truly in her princess element.

Cousin Amanda captured the birthday girl’s excitement and joy with the photos below.

Every gift received a dramatic grand opening, and Charlie tried on costumes, from tutu to fairy.

She examined and appreciated every card.

The cousins below were among those helping make it a fun day:

Becky with Princess tiara

Molly Kate getting into her balloon throwing stance

Ashton anticipating birthday cake

Family celebrating with Charlie included her two great-grandmothers, three great aunts, two great uncles, both sets of grandparents, three aunts, two uncles, and six cousins plus her parents and her three siblings.

She enjoyed them all, resplendent in her varied costumes.

And she continued the princess theme the next day. She prepared for cold weather, attired in a new jacket, accessorized, of course, with one of her princess tiaras.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A joyful Christmas season

The photo above is our oldest son Walt and my father, the late Cecil Carpenter. One of my very best Christmas Eve memories is Walt's birth. Thirty-eight years ago today I was in the hospital with our new arrival. I had done the finger and toe check, handling him tentatively in my inexperience. I thought he was beautiful. It wasn’t until much, much later that I learned my brother-in-law and wife would joke that they were coming to the hospital to see “Elmer Fudd.” Well, it was true that Walt was almost bald, with just a little bit of almost silvery-blonde hair that looked like it had been drawn on with a pencil. It was a good thing that by the time I learned of the Elmer-Fudd allusion, it was funny to me. The newborn look disappeared quickly, but one thing never changed: I still think he is beautiful, inside and out! Happy Birthday Walt!

Oh, and in case you are wondering what that photo has to do with Christmas, it is the only one of Walt as a child that I have access to right now in digital form, lifted from my brother Mike's Facebook album.

Yesterday we added another joyful memory to our store of Christmas-season blessings. We learned that the little one our son Jeremy and his wife Katie are expecting in May is a little boy. He will be our sixth little grand-Skupien and our third little grandson. A merry Christmas indeed!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cousins’ Christmas

An only child for my first 13 years, the abundance of cousins in my extended family filled my childhood with “almost” siblings close to my age. I am so happy that my mother-in-law Helen Skupien, also known as Grandma Sugar, is helping our second generation of Skupien cousins develop the same close childhood relationships that I treasured. Those relationships were in evidence at the annual Christmas-season gathering at Grandma Sugar’s home in Biloxi, MS. The celebration was filled with the cousins’ energy, excitement and enthusiasm. 

The photo below by our son Jeremy captures their shared intensity as five-year-old Ashton, left, opens an old-fashioned game of Twister. Providing an audience are Skupien siblings Nate, five; Luke, seven; and Charlie, three.

Grandma Sugar’s brood of Skupien cousins includes six grown grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Below, from the left, girl cousins Molly Kate, 21 months old, Trinity, six, and Charlie, three, show off their well-practiced ability to pose for group photos. Molly Kate had fallen in love with a spray of Grandma Sugar’s Christmas flowers and makes sure they are in camera range.

Below, the two youngest girls, Molly Kate and 19-month-old Stella try out their chairs created by Aunt Lila Skupien. 

Grandma Sugar is a super shopper. She has most of her Christmas shopping for the little ones done by the end of January but keeps adding to her stash throughout the year. And she makes sure she gets top value for what she spends. The dancing and singing Christmas critters below were a hit.

And below, little Stella, long past her bedtime, immediately latched on to her new best friend, a Christmas bear Grandma Sugar gave her.
Walter and I arrived home a little later than our sons and their families, and all five of our grandchildren were sound asleep, worn out from all-out partying -- and maybe with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fulfilling a retirement goal

One of my top reasons for retiring in 2008 was to be part of our grandchildren’s lives while they are still small. Nine days caring for grandchildren this month – four days with our 21-month-old granddaughter in Louisiana and five days with three of our four Georgia grandchildren -- have showered me with the blessings of retirement and affirmed that my decision to retire was the correct one.

Here are just a few of the blessings of these latest visits:
# 1 Experiencing a Nativity story acted out by Fisher Price Little People and a Santa, snowman and reindeer, all under the direction of a 21-month-old. Molly Kate’s version included Joseph coming by to share his snack of “yogurts” with Baby Jesus.

#2 Bath time laughter. Seven-year-old grandson Luke discovered that a dab of no-tears baby body wash in the mouth allowed him to create super-sized bubbles. He sent his brother and Nana into paroxysms of laughter.

#3 Observing the transfer of knowledge between siblings. What a delight it was to observe five-year-old grandson Nate inducting his 19-month-old-sister into the skills and excitement of wielding a light saber. Towers of blocks fell to the two fledgling Jedi warriors as Nate built and rebuilt towers for himself and his sister to knock down.

# 4 Being with grandchildren when they wake up. Morning wake ups are always a great time for snuggling, confidences and pure grandparent joy.

# 5 Having a glimpse of the daily pattern of grandchildren’s lives.

#6 Having daughters-in-law and sons who trust us to take care of their little ones.

# 7 Having daughters-in-law who provide written notes about food, schedules and other pertinent information that help ensure a safe and happy time for their offspring as well as Nana and Baboo.

Thank you God for the blessings of family -- and retirement!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Savannah sampler #3: Green

The background for Savannah’s exhilarating mix of history, art, and tourism is definitely green. Even in late November when my husband Walter and I visited this Georgia tourist mecca, the city’s historic district was lush with green. The photo above is one of the 22 squares that are part of the original design of this city founded in the 1700s.

Glimpses of small private gardens offered a fascinating counterpoint to the public squares.

The green of Savannah seems as anchored in time as the structures in the historic district. 

At least one of these townhouses above was constructed in the early 1800s. Maybe all were, but I didn’t check the plaques on each of these houses on Jones Street. The oaks and shrubbery on this block have that long-established look quite different from the manicured landscaping typical of new residential construction.

That same timelessness marked the sago palms, oaks and other mature plants that framed picturesque grave markers in the city’s historic Bonaventure Cemetery.

Savannah’s abundance of green even gives a distinctive look to urban necessities such as parking meters . . .

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Savannah sampler #2: Burger at Clary’s

Husband Walter and I were finishing up our final walk-about of a recent visit to Savannah’s historic district when we happened upon Clary’s Cafe just in time for lunch. Clary’s at the time of the John Berendt book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a cafe and drugstore. In the non-fiction chronicle of scandal, murder and Savannah society, Clary’s is a major cog in Savannah’s rumor mill. It introduced readers to Luther Driggs, a regular at the diner and an embittered inventor who, among other eccentricities, glued strings to live flies as an anti-boredom strategy in his day job.

The drugstore part of the operation was no more, but the counter seating and small-town diner lives on. Walter and I split the half-pound Clary Burger. Our waitress Ollie Zudor embodied the best of Southern diner waitresses, friendly, speedy, competent, and longsuffering.

I’m sure about the longsuffering part. She didn’t have a meltdown when I asked her to wait to set our meal down until I could get the photo above. What you don’t see is that in her left hand (and arm?) she was balancing two heavily loaded plates for another pair of diners. We left Clary’s with full stomachs and good memories.
Savannah sampler #1
Savannah sampler #3

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bellingrath: A garden of lights

I thought our visit to Callaway Gardens’ Fantasy in Lights would be our ultimate Christmas lighting experience of 2009, but Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, AL, proved me wrong. A Friday, Nov. 4, excursion with my husband Walter, mother-in-law and her friend Carol put Bellingrath’s Christmas wonderland right up there with Callaway Gardens.

A blessing of retirement is the time to work in more visits -- long and short -- to fascinating places. The lighting displays at both Callaway and Bellingrath were dramatic and fun. But Bellingrath was truly a garden experience, and the differences were delightful. 

Beds of flowers created out of colorful lights bloomed everywhere. Unlike the Callaway drive-though, Bellingrath offered walking paths only, all handicapped accessible. The designers capitalized on opportunities for intimate tableaus, surprises tucked along paths bordered heavily by shrubs, and vistas across open spaces and the lake.

One of my favorite scenes was the ocean experience. Colorful and abundant sea critters lined the path. Above us were blue waves. Unobtrusive moving lights simulated an ocean floor dappled with sunlight filtering through moving currents of water.

Walking also encouraged congenial connections with strangers. The same groups would pass us, then we would pass them, trading observations and banter about everything from the absence of the predicted rain and snow to families. One little girl recognized Grandma Sugar as a sympathetic ear and struck up a conversation every time she was in range. It turned out she was missing her big brother, a Marine who would be away from home and on duty for Christmas.

Oh, and for me, an endearing Southern touch in the midst of the deer, raccoons and other forest creatures created out of lights were several armadillos, a little more attractive than the ones I suspect are the culprits attacking my vegetable garden plot.  

We made the trip into Alabama to honor a gift “coupon” we had created and given Grandma Sugar (Walter’s mom) a number of Christmases ago. Immediately after that Christmas, she faced more than a year of health issues. The coupon was mislaid and forgotten until it  resurfaced recently. Even though predictions of rain and snow created some uncertainty about our outing, Grandma Skupien is undaunted by mere weather. We all bundled up and headed out accompanied by Walter’s mantra “We will go as far as we can for as long as we can.” We were glad we did.

What I’m reading lately

In October I finished reading the New International Version of the Bible and started a refresher read-through of the King James Version. I’m in the book of Numbers now, and sometimes it feels like I am just slogging through, often having to back track when I zone out and don’t register what I read. But yesterday I hit a stretch in Numbers 20-24 that was a timely reminder of two common tendencies humans exhibit in our relationship to God.

The first is the tendency to have short memories. How often are we like the children of Israel when they complained about their water supply and about how tired they were of the manna that God provided for food? Had they forgotten how the power of God had sustained them time after time in the challenges of their sojourn in the wilderness? Sometimes I panic when faced with a trying circumstance, even though my personal history is filled with God’s supply of answers, resources and grace. What a relief when I finally remember that I can depend on Him.

Balaam in Numbers 22 brought to mind the temptation to pay lip service to God’s will while persisting in fulfilling our own will. Balaam is best known for having a donkey that talked and that was smarter than he was. He is an example of operating in league with forces against God’s will and trying to stay in God’s will at the same time. It doesn’t work. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Savannah sampler, #1

Pulaski Square, one of 22 in Savannah

Meticulous preparation for travel, whether brief or extended, has always seemed to me a necessity for having the best trip possible. A recent trip to Savannah, GA, disproved that personal theory. The Nov. 22-24, 2009, excursion was a delight, in spite of the fact that we did little preparation.

What we did do was read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, referred to in Savannah as “The Book.” Author John Berendt weaves a tale, based on fact, of murder, the Savannah’s elite, and over-the-top characters. The action plays out against the backdrop of picturesque locales and the personalities engaged in rescuing and restoring Savannah’s historic residences and buildings. It was entertaining and, better than any travelogue, sparked a desire to see the Savannah of “The Book.” Walter also rented the DVD, and we snatched opportunities to watch the movie in installments over several days.

We were in Savannah about 40 hours, arriving on Sunday and leaving Tuesday after lunch. 
During our hours there, of course we had to visit the Mercer House, the home of Jim Williams, the Savannah resident central to “The Book.”

And just as described in “The Book,” old homes in use and in various stages of restoration were evident in any casual stroll in the historic district. We did not take any kind of tour, and I had little idea of the history of the intriguing structures I noticed, except when dates were noted on the facades. 

An oval plaque labeled this block above, for example, as constructed in 1852.

This block was a mix of elegantly restored units 

and those in need of rejuvenation.

All shared wonderfully crafted wrought-iron newel posts and handrails.

Another pre-trip experience introduced us to the Savannah connection to Moon River, a favorite song of Walter’s. One evening when we had both collapsed in front of the TV, Walter flipped through the channels and landed on a special about Johnny Mercer, the songwriter and singer responsible for creating the lyrics of more than 1,000 songs, including Moon River. Turns out Mercer was a Savannah native.

This statue of Mercer is at Ellis Square near the historic City Market. The one on the right is my husband Walter. Walter isn’t the only fan. Many of Mercer’s songs created a memorable accompaniment to my early years in the 1950s and early 60s.

Bonaventure Cemetery was already on our to-see list from reading “The Book.” We added finding Johnny Mercer’s gravesite to our list. Old Savannah families evidently take marking the graves of departed relatives extremely seriously. 

Tombs, towering obelisks, large angels and other distinctive markers appeared through a green curtain of shrubs, sago palms and the branches of enormous oaks draped with trailing tendrils of Spanish moss. The afternoon of our visit was overcast, heightening the sense of drama. 

The Mercer’s family plot did not disappoint. 

A bench engraved with a number of his most famous song titles, his signature and a caricature of his profile occupied a corner of the plot. 

Visitors had left flowers and pennies on the bench and on his grave. They had adorned the other Mercer graves with roses and other blooms. Mercer lyrics were also in evidence.

On his grave, “And the angels sing.”

On his mother’s grave, “My mama done tol’ me.”

On the marker of his younger sister, Juliana Mercer Keith, “Dream – when the day is thru . . .”

On the grave of his widow Ginger was “You must have been a beautiful baby.”

When we left Bonaventure Cemetery, we drove over the towering Talmadge Memorial Bridge spanning the Savannah River. We headed to Tybee Island, just to walk along the Atlantic for the first time since 1989.

Even on this blustery, overcast, rainy afternoon, the lure of the ocean had folks out walking the beach.

Admittedly, our method of sightseeing in Savannah could hardly be classified as organized. I would put it in the same category with meal preparation and cleanup when we camp – the “mosey” method. We do a little bit, mosey over here or there, do a little bit more, mosey back again until it is all done, or in the case of Savannah, until we had to leave for home. It was great! But we plan to go back. There is still more to see, to do and to just be, our favorite travel activity.