Midnight, December 31st

When you’re a kid, you beg to be

Awake at twelve so you can see

The New Year in, except you doze

Try as you might, your eyes just close

You’ll waken to your siblings’ jeer

“Missed it again, like every year!”

 

When you grow up, it’s party time

You raise a glass at midnight’s chime

The night is filled with noise and toasts

And revelry with jolly hosts

You long in secret for your bed

A place to rest your aching head

 

When you grow old, here’s what you know:

The year will come, the year will go

You may as well do what you will

If you’re asleep, it happens still

The New Year doesn’t need you, so

At ten, it’s off to bed you go

 

We watch the years as they stream by

Nobody told us how they’d fly

But for the times we won’t forget

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet

We’ll drink to yours; we’ll drink to mine

For auld lang syne, for auld lang syne

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Grace

I hated her when I was thirteen. My mother, widowed at age forty-two, who got the first job of her life to support my sister and me. In her spare time she cleaned the house, tended a garden, mowed the yard, hung our laundry outside in the sunshine and then ironed every stitch, cooked supper after a full day of work – that’s who was the object of my hatred. I felt miserable inside, and of course, I took it out on the safest person: Mom.

At thirteen, every emotion was exaggerated.   But it felt real to me, that hatred, and I’ll bet it sometimes felt real to her, too.  When December rolled around and Mom asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” I snarled, “Nothing.  I don’t want anything from you.”

In my heart, I knew that nothing was exactly what I deserved.

In 1955, teenagers had no inkling of laptops, tablets or smart phones. We coveted radios. Not the big, boxy, wooden consoles in our parents’ living rooms, but the new, plastic table-top models. That’s what I really, really wanted – my own radio beside my bed, to listen to the Top 40 privately in the dark. How grown-up and sophisticated would that be!  But I was firmly stuck in the nose-cutting, face-spiting mode, so I couldn’t ask, or even hint. And certainly Mom couldn’t guess, because how could she possibly know my secret hopes and dreams?

Christmas morning.  I dragged my sullen self to the Christmas tree, where I was handed a box wrapped in holiday paper.  Silently I opened it and there it was. My own personal little radio, modern in design, red and white with big gold tuning dials. Perfect. Exactly what I wanted.

At that moment, I got my first glimpse of grace:  a gift freely given and totally undeserved. I hope Mom got a glimpse of her true daughter, still there but hidden beneath teenage hormones – the little girl who used to love her and the grown-up woman who would love her again. But then, she knew that all along.

 

 

 

Ordinary Days

Merry wasn’t a Christmas person. It was cruel fate that her mother had named her Merry because she’d been born in December.

“I just like ordinary days,” she confided to her best friend, Jemima. “The Christmas holidays are nothing but a lot of extra work. And it’s all stuff I don’t like to do. I don’t like crafts, I don’t like decorating, I don’t like shopping, I don’t like baking…”

Jemima held up her hands in surrender. “Okay, okay! Let’s stipulate that you don’t like the holidays. Admit, at least, that it’s fun to see your kids open their presents on Christmas morning.”

“It used to be, when they were little and everything was a big surprise. Now they bring me lists in November and then change their minds before Christmas.”

“Why not do it differently this year?” Jemima asked. “Ignore their lists. Surprise them.”

“Oh, sure. As if I can figure out what a thirteen year old boy and a fifteen year old girl would like,” Merry said scornfully.

“If you don’t know, who would? You know your kids better than anybody. Put some thought into it.”

Merry reflected on her friend’s advice when she was trying to fall asleep that night. It was always hard to sleep at this time of year; her brain refused to let go of her To Do list no matter how tired she was. But she did get some of her best planning done during the wakeful hours. Tonight, she thought about her kids and what would truly surprise them.

They had so much stuff. More electronics, jewelry or clothing wouldn’t produce a thrill. Those sorts of presents flowed in abundantly from grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends, anyway. What would really make her children’s faces light up?

Well, Trevor loved dogs. He couldn’t have one, because his sister was wildly allergic, so he spent a lot of time at the fence petting the neighbor’s dog. Merry remembered the shelter she passed on her way to the supermarket. She’d bet they needed dog-walkers after school and on week-ends. It would mean less time in front of the game console for Trev, and more time behind the wheel for Merry, but she was okay with that. In fact, she felt good about it.  She’d make up a book of coupons that Trevor could cash in whenever he wanted a dog-fix.

And Caitlin loved clothes. Merry thought it was more than an adolescent preoccupation; Caitlin was interested in design and her notebooks were full of sketches. At the mall, she inspected the insides of garments with a discerning eye and refused to buy anything that wasn’t well-made, no matter how trendy it was. Merry would set up her sewing machine and dust off her sewing skills to pass along to her daughter.

When the kids brought her their Christmas lists, she accepted them with a smile instead of her usual martyred sigh. “Not promising that anything on these lists will be under the tree,” she said. Caitlin and Trevor looked at her in surprise.

Merry decided to put out only the Christmas decorations that she particularly liked, or that were specially requested by someone in the family. As a result, three big boxes remained unopened in the attic, but what was on display sparked stories and memories. She ditched all the plastic berries and fake snow, got a rosemary wreath for the door and a fragrant garland for the fireplace mantle. The shiny metallic tree went to Goodwill, and in its place stood a small living tree with its roots wrapped in burlap. It would be planted in the yard after the holidays. After they got back to ordinary days.

But somehow, Merry thought, the New Year might be filled with extraordinary days.

 

Last Call

“Call me any time,” the boss liked to say. “I’ll be happy to assist you in any way I can.”

Of course, he wouldn’t be available. He only wanted it to seem that way. He ran a huge hospital, after all, and had a packed schedule. The person who really was available was his assistant, Ruth.  She sat in the outer office of the Most High, and on her desk resided a big, black, multi-button telephone. It was her voice that callers heard first and last. If she could solve their problems, and she usually could, they were content to leave it at that.

The people who called Ruth, whether patients or relatives of patients, were by definition not happy.  Fuses were short. The cost of parking made them mad. The food in the cafeteria made them mad. Too-busy nurses made them mad. Snotty cashiers made them mad. They complained. The savvy ones took their complaints right to the top. It was up to Ruth to take everything seriously, like a homicide detective trained never to smile on the job lest her happy face show up beside a dead body on the six o’clock news.

Still, she found entertaining moments.

“Hello? Hello? I’m callin’ about my wife. She’s up’ere with y’all, and she’s got one ‘a them hyena hurtles.”

Ruth bit her lip hard, knowing instantly that the caller meant hiatal hernia. She managed to speak with the gravitas she knew the poor man needed. It couldn’t be easy, having a wife with a hyena hurtle.

Then there was Mr. Important Guy, who phoned with a complaint. “My wife,” he pronounced, “is in a semi-private room with a woman who groans day and night. It’s driving her crazy.”

“Of course, sir. Let me just check and see what we can do.”

The next day, with Mrs. Important Guy happily ensconced in a private room, a Rolls Royce pulled up at the front entrance. The chauffeur entered Ruth’s office, carrying a giant arrangement of orchids and a note of thanks. That was a good day.

Sad, unsolvable problems arose, too, like the one from a mother in another state: “My son was badly injured in a motorcycle accident. He says he wants to die, and he won’t answer my calls. I’m just beside myself, but I can’t get off work to come there. Would you please check on him and call me back?”

Ruth took the elevator up five floors and into the room of an angry young man whose legs were bandaged together to aid the healing of skin grafts.

“This is hell,” he snarled. “I’d rather be dead than lie here trussed up like a damn turkey.”

“I know it must be tough,” Ruth said, “but your mom is worried about you. Could you talk to her on the phone?”

He turned his face to the wall. Conversation over.

Later, Ruth received a call from the head nurse, who said she’d thank her kindly not to come spying for management on her floor. So everyone was upset, the patient, the mama and the staff. Ruth wasn’t feeling too perky herself.

On her last day, she packed up her personal belongings, cut the cake at the party held in her honor, and said good-bye to her co-workers.

She’d intended to duck out early, but the phone pulled her back every time. When she finally finished solving the last caller’s problem, everyone else had gone home, making rueful, apologetic faces as they departed. She was alone in the office. She smiled at the big, black phone perched on the corner of her desk. No little green lights blinked. No warbling ring disturbed the quiet.

“Good-bye to you, too,” Ruth said. She reached into her purse and pulled out the claw hammer.