A Gold Standard

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OUR SECOND GRADER AT THE end of March brought home a writing assignment from school that tickled my husband and me.

“A thing more important than a pot of gold is my parents Pam and Dave because they help me in hard times,” he wrote. “They feed me, buy me stuff, help me with homework.”

Carl, 8, printed these words on lined paper framed with the black outline of a pot and topped with coins he colored yellow before drawing a dollar sign on each one in pencil.

When he left the room, we laughed out of happy disbelief that he wrote “buy me stuff” third, instead of first, on the list of things that he values about us.

This kid loves to shop and pesters us often to head down aisles with the slip of paper that tells him how much money remains in The Daddy Bank – the tally my husband keeps of Carl’s cash reserves garnered from generous friends and family members.

We figured that introducing the bank concept might help him learn how to save and spend more wisely.

Not everyone agrees.

The materialism in our culture jaded one mother I know so much that she banned her two boys from celebrating anything with gifts including Christmas and birthdays.

But her boycott seems destined to backfire.

For one thing, materialism describes an attitude about things versus the possession of things.

A poor person with nothing theoretically can be as materialistic or more materialistic than a rich person with everything.  

Secondly, I believe we practice sharing and delighting when we give and receive gifts, be they with or without cash value.

Who wants to get rusty in those areas? 

So, my husband and I give our boys toys along with broccoli and set bedtimes, and we trust that they will grow up with a healthy sense of love’s symbolism.

Re-reading Carl’s assignment shows me that maybe, just maybe, our gifts of service – helping him through “hard times” and with his homework – already might be received as gratefully as our ability to buy him “stuff.”

His writing hints at the developmental progression from concrete to abstract in all of us.

If a child consciously cherishes a thing, he then consciously may cherish an action and, finally, a relationship with himself, with others, with God.

After all, stuff and service both only go so far in terms of how much they can enrich a life.

Both seem like coins in the pot – things we can stamp with value and bank – versus the rich veins of gold running on mysterious paths through the earth awaiting discovery.

Carl’s teacher last month asked him and his class to write about “a thing more important than a pot of gold.”

This month, with Easter fresh in mind, I am taking the same challenge to cherish treasures unseen by faith once again.

I pray for what I cannot pay for – for hunger and for joy in my life and the lives of my children.   

The hunger is to know more of God and His ways. The joy is to celebrate what is known already, and the blessing is a gold standard that puts lesser things in the proper place.   

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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Andy’s Leprechaun Trap

IMG_0649ANDY’S KINDERGARTEN HOMEWORK LAST WEEK challenged him to build a leprechaun trap, another sure example of the imaginative springboards kids get these days.

I love it.

How delightful to see him gently peel a green foil shamrock with filigree borders from our kitchen window. Then, he mounted it atop an empty notecard box he found in our shelves loaded with toys and unsorted junk.

After coloring the margins with lime green crayon, my boy laid down an entire roll of Scotch tape in neat horizontal lines across the cover.

I eyed the ridged tape lines thick as shaker shingles and wondered aloud about the heavy duty fortification.

Andy, 6, shot me a bemused look before proceeding to the trap’s interior design.

“It needs to keep the rain out, Mom,” he said.

After weatherproofing the trap, he baited it with a chain of reflective shamrocks and tiny bits of marshmallow that he stuck all over in a one-nibble-for-me, one-pinch-for-the-trap fashion.

That way, the leprechaun’s slippers would get mired, but he wouldn’t starve waiting for Andy to find him the next morning.

I wished then as much as I’ve wished for anything, really – that I could make a nimble sprite for him to find trapped in sweet stuff.

Instead, I explained away the empty box, explained that leprechauns cleverly avoid capture to keep the path to their pots of gold secret.

Disappointing as this was for both of us, it did give me a segue into the ways Andy can catch something more important than a leprechaun.

His older brother Carl, 8, jumpstarted the conversation over dinner recently by admiring Andy’s towering social skills on the playground.

So, I interviewed Andy as we ate as if he were an expert, and the kid just rocked that interview.

Me: Andy, why do you think you are so good at making new friends on the playground?

Andy: I don’t know, but I think it starts with me walking up to a person and looking into their heart.

Me: What are you looking for, exactly?

Andy: I’m looking to see if they need a friend, if there’s even a little bit of lonely in their heart.

Me: Oh? If there is, then what do you do?

Andy: I ask them if they want to play. But I always tell them that they can pick the first game, and that I will pick the second game.

Me: What else do you do to make sure that once you’ve made a friend that you keep that friend?

Andy: Don’t be rough on them, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. Never ever say something mean or say a naughty word to your friend.

Is that not building a better mousetrap?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

 

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Why I Can’t Send the Cats Packin’

20130824_153247MY HUSBAND GETS AN AUDIENCE when he walks into the upstairs bathroom at night.

Our two cats jump on the closed toilet seat lid before hopping on the toilet tank lid to lick their whiskers and watch him dish kitty food.

For them, the rattle of dry mix sounds like trumpets at the theater – the signal to take their seats before the red velvet curtains sway open and they may feast on what lies before them.

But recently, two typically male breaches in lavatory courtesy stopped the show.

One of our little boys both forgot to flush and forgot to do what all girls and women want boys and men to do religiously.

Andy, 6, forgot to close the toilet lid after he forgot to flush.

So, when the first cat jumped up for the nightly show, she fell into the brine of little boy pee up to her soft belly fur.

The cat skedaddled then, dripping like a Labrador fresh from a duck fetch.

20130824_15340820130824_153534IMG_1820This caused David to drop the kitty chow and chase the cat with a towel over and under couches, down and up basement steps and around the dining room table as she scrambled for cover – a quiet place to cleanup and figure out what went wrong in her evening feeding routine.

My husband is an engineer.

The chaos, what with the cat flicking pee water over furniture and floorboards, about unhinged him.

I can’t fault my out-of-state friends and relatives for passing on our standing invitation to visit us in Colorado when I know stuff like this happens in our house.

Yet, every family with pets probably goes through episodes like this, the ones that threaten to send the four-leggers packing for the humane society.

I always beg for a stay, though, because our cats are our kids’ dollies, the ones they dress up and talk with to reenact the days of our lives.

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For instance, when Carl, 7, and Andy viewed photos of Ray in December during his sleep apnea test at The Childrens Hospital in Broomfield, they thought he looked like a cute mummy with his head swaddled to secure electrodes.

IMG_0223 Next thing we know, one of the cats is skulking around with an inside-out sock on her head.

“Why does that cat have a sock on her head?” I hollered while removing the cat’s headgear.

Carl, with a straight face, explained that the cat might need a sleep study.

However misguided, this boy loves this cat.

IMG_8989 Carl named the tiger cat Black Susan after the black cat in Laura Ingalls Wilders’ Little House on the Prairie series we read. He carries her on his shoulders the way his daddy carried him before he hit 40 pounds.

 

He also traps the cat at the bottom of his sleeping bag so that they cave it together and mummifies her in toilet paper.

IMG_1811Even little Ray, 4, likes to chase the other cat – an orange tabby Andy named Bow and Arrow – into the basement bathroom. With the door shut and the lights off, Ray stalks her with his flashlight in and out of the dry, empty tub.

I am sure that both Black Susan and Bow and Arrow would prefer the serenity of a single retiree or anyone with a soft lap and a penchant for novels or cable TV.

But these cats are young. They won’t pass their first birthday until April.

So, instead of considering them at risk for a kitty variety of post-traumatic stress disorder, I am hoping that David will keep feeding them and changing their kitty litter.

They need to earn their keep, and we need our fur fix and the adventure they bring to family life.

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Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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Ice Cream Unlimited

IMG_0592MY DAD STILL ENVISIONS THE surgical team that removed his tonsils as body snatchers.

They came for him that day in 1944 gowned in pale green scrubs and caps with white masks. Then, they pulled him from hugging his parents and wheeled him on a gurney down a long, linoleum hallway to an elevator en route to the operating room at Evanston Hospital in Evanston, Ill.

The elevator doors closed.

Dad, just 5, started crying then.

Tears turned to some form of trauma on the operating table as the doctor told him to breathe into a mask that looked like a black megaphone while counting down from 10.

Dad eventually woke up in a ward noisy with about 50 other kids crying from surgical wounds or sickness. Then, he felt that pain in the back of his throat that reminded him why he was there.

“It left an imprint,” he said last week when I called from The Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora to let him and my Mom know that Ray, 4, survived the same surgery. “But the one good thing was that there was ice cream and as much of it as you wanted.”

So much has changed for kids undergoing a tonsillectomy in the 70 years between then and now.

IMG_0577On Ray’s surgery day, he and I held hands as we strolled back to the operating room. There, we smelled his clear mask, one laced with bubble gum fragrance, before the anesthesiologist gently cupped it over his nose and mouth.

Then, we held hands again.

As I told him what a big boy he was and how much I loved him, the mask filled with medicine. Ray gulped a few times and whimpered a bit. But then, he drifted off to La La Land.

IMG_0581About an hour later, as he roused from the anesthesia, I got to cuddle him in a rocking chair beside his bed.

Hospital staff then led us to a private room on the sixth floor. They pushed the gurney and pulled the red wagon with our luggage while I carried Ray, a groggy boy tethered by the intravenous line on the top of his left hand to a pole with a fluid bag dangling from it.

Then, as this 30-pound patient emerged from a mental fog, we watched “Despicable Me 2” – a 98-minute film rated PG due to “rude humor” and “mild action” – three times together.

IMG_0598Our nurse told us that during her rounds, several other families were watching the same movie that debuted in 2013 and popularized the minion characters – goggled, bright yellow creatures that toil on a jam canning production line, the legitimate work their boss does to leave his life of crime.

In the mid-1940s, my Dad listened to radio shows like “The Shadow” at home.

But at the hospital, ice cream – not entertainment – helped him pass the time and soothe his sore throat.

IMG_0612 I doubt anyone then took issue with giving a child a bottomless dish of the cold, creamy dairy product.

IMG_0611Now, though, our nurse told me that some parents want to forgo the classic treat.

They want their kids to eat broccoli, brown rice, fish and strawberries.

IMG_0616My husband, David, underwent the surgery in 1978 at age 5.

He secretly snacked on popcorn during his home recovery time with disastrous results.

The popcorn tore the incisions open, which caused him to hemorrhage and his father to faint on the kitchen floor at the site of the blood.

IMG_0617David’s mother, pregnant at the time, then needed to rush both of them to the emergency room.

Lyrics from the American folk rock band, The Byrds, serve here. The group’s 1962 hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season),” somehow makes the biblical message from the dusty third chapter of Ecclesiastes catchy.

Alas, there is a time for ice cream unlimited when something hurts and needs healing – a time off from the usual due diligence to recover with one of life’s luxuries.

Ray’s nurse put it this way.

“Everything will swing back into balance when he gets past the pain,” she said. “So, baby him.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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Usual Underdogs Double As Everyday Olympians

IMG_3513 MAYBE A SECRET CRUSH ON one of the snowboarding beauties at Sochi drove the women’s halfpipe commentator to gush during the first week of the Winter Olympics.

“She’s a machine gun of awesomeness!!!” he hollered as soon-to-be gold medalist, American Kaitlyn Farrington, went airborne with one stylish trick after another before skidding to a stop.

My husband and I – two couch potatoes cheering Team USA in the glow of our basement TV – took up his exuberance by repeating the phrase and laughing at how goofy we all get when an underdog delivers.

Our son with special needs regularly turns us into that guy, that overexcited commentator so wowed by what just happened that he can barely talk straight.

IMG_3504Since 2009, when Ray got diagnosed as a newborn with Down syndrome – a genetic condition that causes intellectual disability and some physical challenges –we have learned that usual underdogs can double as everyday Olympians in the games they play.

IMG_3506IMG_3499IMG_3509For instance, I coach Ray, now 4, with a game I made up to train his brain to learn colors and the concepts of under and over.

It starts with me giving him mini M&Ms to hide under colored cups – a red M&M under the red cup, a blue one under the blue cup, and so on.

Then, I give him a flashcard with a color for him to place over the like-colored cup. When he makes a match, he gets to lift the cup and gobble the candy under it.

During the early phases of this game, Ray mismatched colors more than 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent of successes seemed more like lucky guesses.

He also called every color, “geen.”

Now, though, this boy matches the cards to the cups without much color confusion, and the color names have begun to roll off his tongue.

No wonder I sent my husband the following text message in January – “Ray said ‘yellow!’” – and we both celebrated as if our little guy just barreled across some finish line first on a world stage.

We might as well be those parents in parkas standing at the bottom of the halfpipe shaking cowbells and waving flags.

IMG_3514I suspect that we share the same joy and satisfaction in supporting our children as they push limits – be it at special education preschool classes in Erie or at Rosa Khutar Extreme Park events near Sochi, Russia.

As Farrington made her gold medal run, her parents held a small, hand-made sign that read: “Cowgirl up!”

The spirit of the Olympic Games and of parenting comes down to that, comes down to getting onboard and riding again and again to refine abilities whatever the stopwatch or scorecard shows.

Let these games begin for us all every day.

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Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.  For more Mommy Musings, visit http://mellskog.pmpblogs.com.

 

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Go time!

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A HOLLYWOOD WRITER RECENTLY CAUGHT my attention as I wiped kitchen counters, and my boys parked at the table transfixed by “The Incredibles” — the 2004 animated film playing on my laptop computer.

“I never look back, darling! It distracts from the now,” said Edna “E” Mode, the short, half-Japanese, half-German fashion designer character who makes superhero outfits.

So much of the holiday season invites reflection – counting blessings at Thanksgiving and revisiting faith and family traditions at Christmas.

But that scripted line, the New Year, and Frontier Airlines’ “Holiday Hangover” sale all conspired to prompt my purchase of two tickets recently.

IMG_0310With my January birthday boy in kindergarten now, I reasoned that he would appreciate what I appreciate about flying – how it reinforces the power of the present, the power of go time like nothing else.

IMG_0315IMG_0320The successful fashion forward Edna “E” Mode would approve.

So, on a Friday afternoon in early January, Andy and I bugged out of Boulder County to catch a plane from Denver back to the Midwest. There, we planned to celebrate the birthday he and Grandpa Mellskog share – his sixth and grandpa’s 75th– together at the Mellskog farm in Illinois.

Once onboard, we peered out our oval-shaped window as the pilot taxied on the tarmac. The gentle stops, starts and turns felt as familiar as all our earthbound travel.

IMG_0336IMG_0330IMG_0348Then, though, the nose of the plane reached that line at one end of the runway where all planes stop before they go as if on fire.

What could I possibly say to Andy about this phase, the one that crystalizes the brainpower and ingenuity born by the Wright brothers in a field outside of Kitty Hawk, S.C., in 1903?

I usually sit very still during this halt and silently thank God for all of the men and women who delighted in doing the math and tinkering with the engineering required to go airborne.

Then, the engine roars to life. My back presses into the seat, and the pilot picks up enough speed to lift off before the pavement ends.

IMG_0382Suddenly, just when I think we must be leaving a trail of nuts and bolts behind, the whole ride changes.

We don’t need rubber wheels anymore, don’t need level concrete.

How can I explain the marvel of this to a boy who wanted very much to pack a saguaro cactus and a nutcracker in his suitcase as perfect birthday gifts for Grandpa?IMG_0385

I cannot.

Instead, I explain words such as “banking” to my boy, who watches as the world below – Lego-like with tiny streets, houses, fields and lakes – shrinks over the dipped wing tip.

How fun to get a bird’s eye view.

IMG_0326Nevertheless, I hope that the sensation of cutting anchors and heading into new territory after a fast and furious run sticks with Andy more than anything.

No one can get a ribbon around it, but the concept of focusing on a fresh start makes this ticket an evergreen gift.

It is still January… Happy New Year!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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Blessed are the street sweepers

IMG_0454AS WE PARKED AT THE peace march, Andy from his booster seat in the back of the car  used the word “friend” a record six times in one sentence to size up the equity issues the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed.

“Mom, before he came along, a white friend and a brown friend couldn’t be friends — even if they didn’t have any other friends and each friend needed a friend,” he said.

At 6, the boy immersed in kindergarten friend-speak got the gist.

Andy and I got out of the car then with his older and younger brothers to walk the sidewalk along Public Road — the main street through Lafayette, Colo. — toward a group on foot lead by a policeman on a motorcycle, his headlight aglow on the sunny, 50 degree-plus day.

When Andy’s teacher walked by with her family, we jumped into the street to join them in celebrating King’s life.

Together, we marched to the historic Pioneer Bilingual Elementary School, and we listened to gospel choirs. We colored a giant MLK poster that read, “How I am maintaining Dr. King’s legacy,” and we joined other kids tying feathers on dream catchers.

IMG_0490IMG_0484IMG_0500I figured the fire marshal might show up at any moment for how many people packed the school. So, I peppered my kids with the stock reminder: “We need to be Jell-O, not jellybeans, guys!”

But in the midst of the crowds, I also reconsidered street-level work and one of my favorite MLK quotes germane to it:  “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

I first marched in honor of MLK in St. Paul, Minn., on a frigid day in the early 1990s at the invitation of Sue, a college friend of mine in her first year of social work.

However bracing the wintry weather, the march helped me reflect on the racial equality underway in society and the racial reconciliation undertaken by my church — a refreshing place in south Minneapolis where blacks and whites shared pews on Sunday at 11 a.m., the hour still regarded at the most segregated one of the week.

Marching today while mulling over MLK’s street sweeper quote prompted me to glance at the small marcher holding my hand, to reconsider my four-year-old son with Down syndrome — a genetic condition that causes a degree of intellectual disability.

IMG_0512IMG_0514IMG_0518The public very often sees people like him, particularly adults with the telltale almond-shaped eyes, flatter faces and shorter limbs, sweeping floors or spraying glass refrigerator cases in grocery stores.

King’s message shines on since his assassination because it not only covers civil liberty, it covers dignity due to someone giving back their best at whatever level.

It covers Ray.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote.

And that quote is short enough to memorize for ready reference year ’round.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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A Keyhole on Mercy

 

IMG_7590IMG_7593IMG_7597THE MORNING BEFORE SHE DIED, my grandmother shook her head in an it’s-no-use sort of way, looked at my mother and me and told us the truth.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it this time,” she said.

IMG_8936IMG_8938IMG_8937Grandma passed away in her sleep the next morning – sometime between 4 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 30 – about three weeks after her 95th birthday and the fall that cracked her pelvis in two places.

Many times she stood before what she called “the pearly gates” of heaven without them opening, and some of those incidents came with comic relief.

In 2012, her beautician dropped her comb and scissors to call 911 when Grandma slumped in the styling chair.

A friend from our church back home in Galena, Ill., works as a 911 dispatcher and emergency medical technician. He rode in the ambulance with her to the hospital.

“C’mon, Helen. Talk to me,” he said.

At this juncture, my grandmother – who appeared unconscious – responded as if they were in a tiff.

“What do you want me to say?” she retorted from the gurney.

IMG_8313IMG_8366Another time, she collapsed and looked unresponsive in his dad’s Main Street frame shop.

During the hubbub before the ambulance arrived, someone asked, “Does she have a pulse?”

“I have a pulse.  I’m not dead yet,” she quipped from the floor.

But this December, angels crowded Grandma’s nursing home room in Galena.

So, my husband and his parents shepherded my three young boys so I could park myself on the metal folding chair beside her bed for her final eight days.

IMG_8365There, my fanny went numb and my back stiffened by the end of the watch, one spent holding her hand and waiting on her with other family members.

IMG_7571IMG_7464But that hard place gave me a front row seat on how mercy works at eventide, when the lights in one life flicker.

IMG_7577In as much as Grandma underwent a process on her deathbed, I underwent a process beside it to become more merciful.

IMG_7582Though staff kindly and competently cared for her around the clock, Grandma’s poor health welled up before me — her exhaustion, skeletal body, lower lip swollen from an allergic reaction, trembling muscles, and eyelids droopy from morphine.

Holding her wasted hands, I reflected on how they once flawlessly typed 100-plus words a minute on a manual typewriter and nimbly tickled three decks of keys on the organ while her feet danced on the giant keyboard below the bench.

IMG_7579IMG_7276Viewing her this way gave me a keyhole on mercy, a narrow, de-cluttered sightline on how facing poverty of any sort can serve a dual purpose.

It caused me to reconsider my rags and my riches – where I need help and where I can give it.

IMG_8291I hope such reflection at the end of 2013 helps me walk more humbly and more compassionately through 2014.

IMG_0290Looking back, that process began for me in earnest this summer, when I helped Grandma get into her pajamas at the nursing home after she spent the day with us at the farm.

“Pam, I don’t know why I can’t do this by myself anymore,” she said.

By the end of her life, we spoon fed her ice cream, chocolate pudding and applesauce. We lifted her cup so she could sip coffee through a straw.

We held her hands.

20131221_173928On her last day, Grandma sat up for about 10 seconds in a surprising burst of energy.

“Hello, Grandmother,” I said. “What is it?”

She never missed a beat.

“I’m alright now. I’m alright now, Pam,” she said, before sinking into her pillow and falling fast asleep.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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A Walk in the Woods with Dad

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ON THE EVE OF THE eve of Christmas eve, we three Mellskog kids usually bundled up to perch in the same place – on the high fenders of Dad’s 1956 WD-45 Allis-Chalmers tractor.

Before we left our barnyard in Illinois to cherry pick our Christmas tree – always an Eastern Red Cedar culled from the farm’s back acreage – he took the rusty, upside-down coffee can off the tractor’s exhaust pipe.

Dad fired up the engine then, and it popped like corn as we put-putted on two tiny tires and two jumbo ones through snow drifts on the fields and valleys between our house and the Galena River.

I live in suburban Colorado now. Sometimes, in April or July or October, I size up Christmas trees commercially grown on the flat lots flanking nearby state highways and county roads.

Unlike the trees that stood in our livingroom every Christmas during my childhood, none of them look windblown or slightly misshapen from growing on a slope.

But heading into the woods with Dad and my younger brother and sister every Dec. 23 yielded something more than a tree, a free tree at that.

The trip gave me a silent night in the midst of so many usual ones filled with our family’s chatter and bustle.

Just before the tractor jerked forward in the barnyard, we gripped one of its dented red fenders or Dad’s shoulder with our mittened hands. Then, we rode without a word amid the clatter of the engine and the jingle of the tire chains.

We made this trip at dusk, when Dad finished working.

During the drive, I would watch the late December sky unfurled like the satin underside of royal robes of gold, crimson, fuchsia or robin’s egg blue.

Then, the strong light so far above faded, and the world became lavender on white.

In this atmosphere, the leafless trees bore witness to something that sticks with me still – how their trunks and arms and fingers to the very tips all lifted up for more light while it was to be found.

Dad finally cut the engine.

We usually parked about 10 yards into a ravine near a black cinder road, the lasting mark of a 19th century track pulled up in the early 1960s by the Burlington Northern Railroad.

I suppose we could have talked then.

Instead, the deep snow hushed the woods so much that I listened to the quiet.

As Dad pulled the chainsaw from the tractor’s front-end loader, we huddled together breathing like a pack of baby dragons in the frigid air through our scarf masks.

Then, we huffed and puffed uphill after Dad in the knee-high snow until he stopped to shop a tree for our livingroom.

We must have talked some, because he always vetted trees with us.

Today, he tells me that we picked 25-foot tall trees that stood no chance of fitting under our eight-foot high ceiling.

Back home, he re-cut the base of the right-sized tree we harvested to plane the surface. He then mounted it in a stand filled with his special hooch of corn syrup, water and green food coloring.

Dad thought our Christmas tree would look better longer that way.

Now, decades after the needles have fallen and been swept up, I know he was right.

Merry Christmas!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

 

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A Skinny Christmas

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WHEN SHE BURST INTO TEARS on the third floor tile steps of the downtown Minneapolis YMCA, my first thought was, “Aw, c’mon, girl! Fuhgettabout your checkbook!”

The Gulf War broke out in January that year, in 1991, and the recession that officially ended that July still bore down on the country when we met that December day a week before Christmas.

She clutched her gym bag.

A moment later, mascara ran everywhere as she let out all of the sadness and shame she felt for being broke during the holidays.

The young woman worked out at the Y on a scholarship and usually took the Friday night fitness class I taught there for 10 years. So, I knew her a little bit.

I listened, and I could relate to her fix. I was underemployed then and needed to borrow money from my kid brother more than once just before pay day to keep my rent check from bouncing.

But cold as it seems, my first response probably reflects the real me, the person who grew up hearing her maternal grandmother say rather cheerfully, “Well, this year it is going to be a skinny Christmas.”

Grams turned 95 this month.

As a young person she celebrated Christmas every December throughout the Great Depression. And somewhere in the depths of it, when her father’s once successful stone cutting business in Chicago went under, she got something good for life: In as much as you cannot steal Christmas, you cannot buy it either.

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When Grandma said “skinny Christmas” she soft-peddled a message I hope to hand down to my kids, her great grandchildren:  Give what you can, be it a little or a lot or something that cannot be bought.

During our skinny Christmases, which came and went, she wrapped inexpensive jumbo bars of Hershey’s dark chocolate, and we kids wrapped hand-written coupons good for backrubs or vacuuming or fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.

I never will know how the distraught young woman on the steps managed to get right with the season.

All the pressure she felt to give “nice” gifts made her want to hibernate instead of celebrate with her family.

None of my boys can count change yet. But,  already I am wondering how to pre-empt the same type of Christmas fallout down the road for them.

I suspect part of it will come from passing along the skinny Christmas sensibility – the confidence to celebrate Christmas humbly with thanksgiving and joy whatever their fortunes allow.

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I wish it were as simple as me sitting downstairs in a pool of lamp light to write them the same note in my finest cursive as they slept upstairs all cozy in their beds.

The note would touch on what I know about giving from Grandma and all the years of giving and receiving since.

Who doesn’t appreciate the gifts that delight – the ones that provide kids and adults new props for play or show?

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But these gifts usually retire to a toy box, jewelry box, shoe box, drawer, cabinet, closet or garage.

The lessons of a skinny Christmas come down to giving intangibles – say, good humor, good cheer, good faith – which keep well in the heart and are not for sale.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942.

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