My husband was the second reader at Mass today. Of course I always expect to find meaning in the readings or the homily, but hearing John read the following this morning hit eerily close to home: Brothers and sisters: I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress. My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.
Was it no more than a coincidence that this would be today’s reading and that John would be the one to read it, almost exactly one month after our house burned down? I don’t think so.
The gifts continue to flow in from so many generous and thoughtful people, from friends and strangers alike. Today I want to share two that touched me especially because of their link to my past.
When I was in the first grade, my mother had a Christmas party for me and all the girls in my class. This became an annual event, anticipated by my classmates just as much as by me, that we called “The Cookie Party.” Each girl was given a piece of hot-cross-bun dough to knead, add nuts or candied fruit to, and shape, and while my mother baked these, we decorated sugar cookies–three per girl–with some trying to make them pretty and others piling on as much icing as possible! This party took place each year until I graduated from St. Joseph School.
So when Emily started at St. Joseph, it felt right to revive this tradition. I even got my mother to run the party. Things had changed, though. Growing up with two brothers, Emily was closer to the boys in her class than the girls. So we had to invite the boys too. Boys added another dimension–flour flew through the air, dough was pounded more vigorously. Also, people seem busier these days. They don’t R.S.V.P., and they don’t bring their kids to every party to which they are invited. Eventually we began inviting just those children who kept returning year after year. And they did enjoy and look forward to the annual event.
The cookie party was labor intensive and messy! When William started kindergarten, I had a new idea for a Christmas party–a Christmas bedtime story party. Kids would come in their pajamas, and listen to some Christmas stories. Then I would serve hot chocolate and sugar cookies–decorated in advance! The children got to take home their Christmas mugs as party favors. I did this party for William for three years, and then last year when Lorelei was in kindergarten I did it for her.
This brings us to another tradition–the Christmas book tradition. This one, too, has its roots in my childhood. Like many children, we were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. At first, it was whatever present under the tree struck our fancy. Later it evolved to being a certain present–a book–my mother would have ready for us so we could read it before bed as we tried to fall asleep (never so hard as when you are a child on Christmas Eve!). I had a book for Emily to unwrap on her first Christmas Eve–an alphabet book by Steven Kellogg–but by her second Christmas I had decided the book should be a Christmas book. I gave her “The Clown of God” by Tomie de Paola–who became one of my favorite children’s authors.
With five children receiving a Christmas story book every Christmas Eve, our collection of special books grew. We had a large box of very special Christmas books that we brought out at the beginning of each December and read throughout the month. They were in the garage with the Christmas decorations, and now they are ashes.
“The Clown of God” remains my all-time favorite. Here are some others I recall: “The Silver Package,” “We Were There,” “Who’s Coming to Our House,” “The Other Wise Man,” “A Christmas Miracle,” “The Cat in the Manger,” and so many more.
The other day we received a card from the family of a little girl who was in Lorelei’s class last year and attended the party. Little Gracie herself had the idea to send us Barnes and Noble gift cards to help replace the books that were lost. I still have not cried a river over all this, but this is the kind of gift that brings tears to my eyes.
And here’s another: one of the people who attended my cookie parties, starting when she came to St. Joseph in 5th grade, was my friend Katrice. We became close in high school, we were in each other’s weddings, and she and her husband are devoted godparents to our oldest son.
When we were planning our wedding, Katrice’s dad was starting a photography business and trying to build up a portfolio. He offered to do our pictures for the cost of the film. He printed all the pictures and then gave us the negatives to keep and to have larger prints made of the ones we wanted to frame and for our album–an album made for me by my high school roommate. We were very pleased with his work, and in addition to the album full of 8 X 10s we had several photos framed around the house.
Well, those are ashes too now. The negatives are in a supposedly fireproof box buried in the ashes of what used to be our office, and we may or may not be able to find them out–it took about 8 hours for John to find the rings that were in his jewelry box in our bedroom. So imagine how exciting it was when Katrice arrived at my house the other day, bearing her dad’s portfolio with five 8 X 10s from my wedding, including the one of the entire wedding party! She brought a frame for that one, and put it on a table angled toward the front door, so that in her words, “Everyone can see this is John and Leslie’s house when they come in.” It was the very first family photo to be displayed in our new home.
When you are hit with a tragedy, being part of a community is a wonderful thing. In the 20 years we have lived in Knoxville since our marriage, John and I and our five children have become a part of several communities, and all of them have rallied round to provide prayers, support, and gifts to get us through this crisis. Although the support itself does not surprise me, the magnitude of it does. It has been amazing.
We’ve received cards and gifts from all the schools our kids have attended, people John works with, our church, our family, and even from communities that our extended families are part of–their churches, their friends. I am going to talk about all of this a little at a time. It’s too overwhelming and I guarantee if I put it in a list format you would get tired and stop reading before you got to the end–it’s that much.
What I want to write about today is how touched I’ve been to be remembered by connections that are more remote timewise. We have Facebook to thank for that. I was an exceptionally good person about keeping in touch pre-email and pre-Facebook. I may be the last person left on earth who likes to write actual letters on paper, although even I have slacked way off on that in recent years. But no one can keep in touch with everyone–or at least we couldn’t before Facebook.
John graduated from law school when Jake was a baby, so that was over seventeen years ago. As you go through the hell that is law school, you naturally become close to your classmates, and we enjoyed a fun community with those folks at that time. Hardly anyone else had kids, so everyone enjoyed Emily, who was six months old when John started school. It was sad when so many of our friends, including all the ones we were closest to, moved away after graduation. There were letters and visits, but people get busy and it gets harder. Right after the fire, we heard from the wife of John’s best law school buddy. She had some furniture–including a little girl’s four-poster bed, that she wanted to give us. The problem was that they live in Nashville (that’s a three hour drive–Tennessee is a long state!).
We were pondering how we might get over there at some point when I got another message. Laura had decided that she was going to rent a U-Haul and bring the stuff to us herself. And that is what she did. With her son’s help, she loaded up one morning, drove to Knoxville all by herself, helped us unload the very nice things she brought and put them in the storage place, gave us some hugs, and then turned around and drove back to Nashville so she would be there in time to pick her kids up from school.
Back when I first got on the internet–maybe 1995–I became involved with the Usenet Newsgroups. I hung out at misc.kids.pregnancy and misc.kids.breastfeeding for several years, until Lorelei was maybe a year old. When you spend so much time talking to people, especially when you are in a situation where you have a lot in common and share about things that are important to you, you really start to feel like you know them, that they are not virtual friends, but real friends.
But the newsgroup traffic evaporated, and knowing most people only by their newsgroup aliases, I lost touch with almost everyone. I would think about the different folks sometimes and wish that I could find them again. I did hook up with a couple on Facebook, and then one bright mom created a group for us former newsgroup junkies and pretty soon many of us found our way over there. Now we chat more about big kid issues, but it is still the great community of a bunch of knowledgeable women ready to listen and to offer good advice.
Keep in mind that I don’t know any of these people in person. We are friends and yet we are strangers in a way–wouldn’t know each other if we passed on the street. And yet one woman has already sent me a box of her daughter’s very cute clothes that they went through together for Lorelei. And another is going to send me some things as well.
I graduated from Georgetown in 1989. I have kept up close friendships with only a very few people, that mostly through Christmas cards and the occasional letter. And the people I knew best are not very active on Facebook. So I was very, very excited and touched by what I received in the mail yesterday. One friend–a housemate my sophomore year–had sent me a very generous gift card. Another–one of my compatriots from the Liberal Arts Seminar, but who I don’t think I have seen since 1990, except perhaps at reunions–sent TWO BOXES of clothes from New Hampshire. One of the boxes contained brand new clothes from the Gap and Old Navy, at least one complete outfit for every child left at home. I was overwhelmed.
Thank you, thank you, everyone. (Personal notes to come, I swear.) [I never did finish those–it was too much. I still feel bad about it.] You are keeping us going through all this. You really are.
Once we received a printed thank you card for a gift we took to a wedding we attended. It said something like, “Words cannot express how much it meant to have you at our wedding. And thank you for your thoughtful gift.” I’m not kidding–that was IT! Not even a handwritten signature.
Well, just because words cannot fully express our gratitude doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I’ve written thousands of thank you notes–four wedding showers, a wedding, and five kids with, I believe, seven showers all together generate a lot of gifts, not to mention birthdays and Christmases–and I’ll be writing more in the days to come, although not for awhile yet. And I am also going to make as many grateful posts as I can here, both to provide some relief from all the gloom I am dishing up, and to keep up my own spirits.
Because despite what some people have indicated by their kind comments, I don’t really feel like a person with a positive attitude right now. The fact is I feel very, very sorry for myself and my family. Without mincing words, this is a terrible experience. More on that later.
But the kindness of so many people does help. It really does, as do the many prayers which are holding us up at this time. Today I want to highlight two especially thoughtful gestures.
My grandmother–Mima–loved to crochet. Even after her first stroke she was able to continue with this favorite hobby. Mima made afghans for all of us when we were children, she made them for our weddings, and she made them for her great-grandchildren. She gave them to friends as wedding and baby gifts as well. She always had a spare one on hand if you needed a quick wedding present. She made baby ones for the Ladies of Charity layettes. And she used her leftover yarn to make lap rugs for old people in nursing homes–she said the loudest, tackiest combinations were the ones in most demand.
Two weeks ago, we had close to twenty afghans that Mima had made–two from my childhood, a crib blanket and soft layette blankets for each of my first four children (pink, blue, yellow, and green), two she made for me to use at Georgetown, one she made for my wedding, one that she made to match my wallpaper in my old house, and a few she had made for Jake and Teddy.
After the fire, two remained: one that Emily has with her at Spring Hill, and one that was undamaged by water or smoke in Lorelei’s room.
A couple of days ago I received a Facebook message from someone I went all the way through grade school and high school with. Susan was two years ahead of me. I have not actually seen her in person, I don’t think, since high school, but after Mima’s first stroke she was her speech therapist, and my family thought very highly of her.
Mima had given her an afghan for her baby and one for her own bed, and she wanted to give them back to me. “They belong with you now,” she wrote. [Another friend followed suit later. So thoughtful.]
On that same day, Jake received a very special and moving treat from a fifth grade class at Sacred Heart Cathedral School, where Lorelei is in first grade. The kids knew about the fire, of course, and because their teacher is the mother of one of Jake’s friends, they heard about Jake. They decided they wanted to do something special just for him. So he was taken to SHCS after school, not knowing why, and surprised with cupcakes and a poster and one of those giant checks like in the sweepstakes pictures. One of the little kids had actually donated his own $50 birthday gift card (Jake wanted to give that back but the child was absent.). They had stayed after school just so they could surprise him. He was so delighted and touched.
Materially speaking, Jake of all the kids lost the most in the fire. Emily’s room was entirely burned but she had a lot of things with her. Jake’s was the only one of the downstairs bedrooms to burn and the only things to be recovered were two watches on his closet shelf–one of them John’s father’s so that was actually a pretty big deal. Jake collects knives and he got two of those, plus a book and a record album, out of the den in the basement, soot-covered but undamaged otherwise. He had a habit of putting his things upstairs where he could easily find them in the morning, and his clothes were all sitting on the sofa in the living room waiting to be folded, so all of it was burned.
And unlike Teddy, who has reached a state of enlightenment (his words) and doesn’t care about personal possessions, Jake does care. He likes nice clothes and had been working to assemble a wardrobe. Yesterday a very happy Jake went to Kohl’s with us and bought shoes and a jacket. He will probably go shopping again today.