December 31, 2010

Not a Hangover, Hanging On

Some folks do not remember parts of their New Year's Eve celebrations because they've celebrated a bit too much. I've not had this issue, no hangovers on New Year's Day for me, but in December 30, 2006, I had a "hanging on," one I've never forgotten. And, this morning when I woke up, it was all I wanted to write about; for the first time. It seems that as I've practiced more and more the craft of writing, memories and experiences in my life want to be described, accurately and in detail. This must be why so many older people write memoirs, I think. There is finally time, space, and the need, to tell the story of one's Big Events...

I don't remember it being of distinguishable weather in any way when I woke up in my bed the morning of Dec. 30, 2006 in Lancaster, Ohio. There was no sense of excitement in looking to the left, out the narrow, old wood-framed window, to see if snow was falling, though I think it was in the thirties and there might have been some old snow clinging to the base of the huge tree that dominated my tiny backyard and spread its bare branches across the sky in the view from my secondfloor window. My first spring in this century-old house seven years earlier, I would open up this window at night, kneel in front of it, look out at the moon, visible through the budding leaves on this big tree, rest my arms on the old wooden sill, and feel a sense of expectancy and happiness that filled a common word with so much gratitude: "home."

I was thankful to be back in Ohio (having moved from Florida), to have a house (pictured above), to have this tiny city lot with a big tree in the backyard.

On this nearly-the-last-morning of 2006, I was alone in the house. My eldest son, Bryce, was settled and stable in place that fit his needs, a nursing home an hour away. My younger son, Jesse, after working hard for three years, had added college to his schedule and goals. He'd been home for the Christmas holiday, as had Bryce, and it had been a wonderful time together, the three of us, with my sister, Joan, living just down the street. Joan had retired from corporate/city life and also had bought a house in Lancaster, a small town of about 30,000, located forty-five minutes from Columbus, Ohio, a big city with all the wonderful amenities of a metropolitan area. (Bryce and Jesse are in the photo at left, encouraging me to "just take the picture, already." Christmas 2006.)

When my nest had become empty in 2001, I gave the house about a year, then did some painting and reorganizing. I loved my "new" bedroom. The colors were based on my beautiful Maximillian Pionus parrot, Gracie. Her body is green, but she has lavendar breast feathers, gray edging on her tiny green head feathers, a bright red underside to her lowerbody/vent area, and vibrant green tail feathers edged in royal blue. My bedroom was large because it had been two small bedrooms, unused, and I'd knocked down a wall (literally, with a hammer and some loud music) and then decided to paint two walls pale green, two walls pale lavendar, the trim grey and then I found drapes and bedding that incorporated lavendar and green and used red accents in honor of Gracie's tail feathers. I also had grey carpeting installed. (Here is a photo of Gracie taken in 2009, which shows her beautiful colors.)

I loved my comfortable bed. It was perfect for me. My mother had visited in the summer of 2006 and we'd gone to an auction out in the countryside. I'd bought an old wooden headboard, or perhaps she'd bought it for me . . . in any case, it fit beautifully in the room. (See the photo below of Joan, me, and Mom at the Lancaster Music Festival, July 2006.) My father had given me a marbletop antique table decades earlier and it was a good match next to the bed. I had a small TV, loads of books and a big poster of the movie "Amalie" across from my bed. Jesse had introduced me to the movie on a visit to see him after he'd first moved East.

There was a small kerosene heater in the wall of my bedroom, and though I was careful never to use it at night when I slept, to always leave both of the doors to the bedroom open and to have a carbon monoxide detector in the room, I loved to turn it on at night to warm the room while I read, since I kept the heat at night at a cool fifty-five degrees. I loved the blue flames and the sound of it.

And so this was the relaxing room that I fell asleep in on December 29, 2006. I was likely tired from the holidays and perhaps planning what my business would face in the coming year. But, on second thought, I think I simply felt "rest" and a feeling of exhaling the year and getting ready to inhale 2007.

I love the holidays, but they felt stressful to me then. A lot of driving, a lot of money issues as December and January were lean business months, a lot of cleaning and cooking and the good stress of people around and snow and all the emotional "stuff" around Christmas. Nothing I'd want to change, but still . . .

November of 2006 brought the passing of my mother's dear companion and friend, Joe Kahn, from cancer (here are Joe and Mom at left). My sister, Joyce, and I were with Mom when he died, at his son's home in Palm Springs. It was a very emotional time.

In no way comparable, but still a loss of some kind, my beloved Goffin's cockatoo, Bailey, had died in a traumatic way several weeks earlier. She was six and should have lived thirty or forty years. A real comedian who called me "Mama!", I missed her very much especially as I had just signed a publishing contract for my first not-self-published book, "Open Your Heart with Pets: Mastering Life through Love of Animals" (by Dreamtime Publishing). Ironically, I was also working at this time on illustrations for "Still Her Spirit Sings" -- about the death of a beloved pet. (Here is a photo of Bailey in my then-office. She loved to watch the green flashing light on the printer, and would "hand" me the papers as they came out!)

I woke up about seven in the morning on December 30th, 2006. Tyler, my Pekingese, was sleeping at the foot of the bed. Jackie, my Chihuahua, claimed the center of the bed and was keeping the covers, and me, warm. I barely needed the electric blanket my mother had sent to me, but I was thankful for it.

When I opened my eyes, I immediately felt a tingling in my left arm and in my chest a bit too. It wasn't the first time. I'd had unexplainable intense, sharp, seconds-only pains in my chest years earlier after my divorce, and a clutching, achey pain around my heart in 2000 during a time of deep worry related to my elder son, who is disabled. Also, in Sept. 2001, he and my sister and I were in NYC; we were supposed to be at the WTC on 9/11, but luck or angels or God or happenstance intervened and we were in our hotel room when tragedy struck; still, it was a profound experience for me, psychologically, and I added it to the things that might affect me physically as well.

Many tests between 2000 and 2006 showed nothing really wrong, nothing conclusive. I'd been to a good cardiologist at Ohio State; I had a competent internist who had cared for me for seven years. I was pretty sure this was a carpel tunnel, nerve thing, which I am prone to get in both of my hands and arms, or an asthma thing, what fun! (Below, Jackie and Tyler in Feb. 2006)

I slid out of bed, lowered Jackie to the floor and we padded our way down the steps, my right hand trailing along the wooden handrail as I descended the steps. There was nothing fancy about the stairs in my house, but at the bottom, in the tiny foyer, was a huge square window and I loved this window. It was what I saw each morning as I came downstairs and I'd crocheted a pretty white curtain for it. The wooden trim was also white and the walls were pale blue. On one side of the window was a big round white plate with the face of the sun on it. On the other side of the window two gold frames held photos taken by a friend of mine, a budding photographer. One was of a man with a butterfly on his chest and I loved this photo. Everything in this part of my house was light, bright, even in the winter, and I was generally happy each morning to come downstairs and start the day.

As I went about my morning routine and washed up the breakfast dishes, my arm still felt weird and my chest did too. Something just felt off. I had talked to the physician's assistant just a few months earlier about the once-in-a-great-while mysterious "heart" things, and since all the tests were normal, she told me that, still, if I had any problems or concerns I should just go to the ER (two miles down the road) and have it checked out.

What to do... ? I didn't need the added expense of an ER visit, but I had met my deductible for the year and it was almost the end of the year. If I waited a few days and then had to go in anyway, I'd have to pay for everything out-of-pocket. But, it was New Year's Eve weekend... I debated this for about half an hour, then put some newspapers on the floor for the dogs and closed the kitchen half-door, making sure they had their food and water, as well as checked on Gracie and three other parrots in my care (rescued parrots) and fed my tropical fish. "I'll be back by lunch!" I said, cheerfully, throwing on a coat and closing the back door.

When I got to the ER of our small, yet quite competent, hospital, I felt a mixture of concern and embarrassment. I was sure it was nothing. My heart seemed to be more than a muscle; it took its role in my emotional life literally, and seemed to hold all the heartache I'd ever felt. I need to restart yoga lessons, I thought.

After I was checked in, the wait was not long...I remember the lovely water-wall sculpture in the waiting room. And I wondered who would come through these ER doors in the next 72 hours of a New Year's Eve weekend.

(Here is a photo of me at the Book Illustrators Show at High Road Gallery in Worthington, Ohio, in 2006. Shown are watercolors from Turner's Flight by Chris Davey.)

I was given an exam and an EKG. It was normal, but the doctor wanted to do a CT scan of my lungs to rule out an embolism, so off I went down the hall to the scanning department, where the rooms are cold, the machines are white, and there is a weird quiet sound, not quite a hum, that is punctuated by the sound of clangs and clacks and soft mechanical sounds and murmurs of medical professionals. I've been in these rooms often enough in my life to be able to immediately close my eyes and remember the sound, sight and smell of them; a sort of nothingness with something there, is the only way I can think to describe it. As well as the thought, "Well, let's just get through this and I'll be home soon."

The technician injected the IV with dye. I was covered with a white sheet and I think I was in a hospital gown, but I know that I did have on my Mickey Mouse watch with a brown leather wristband on my left hand. I wore no other jewelry. No one in my family knew where I was. As the flat "board" I was lying on slowly began to move through the big white donut shape of the CT scanner, I held my breath a bit. I remember looking up at the top of the inside of the machine, there was a tiny red dot and a sign that said "Don't look directly at the laser dot" or some such thing. Too late, I already had.

The test took only two or three minutes, and I was soon pulled out of the scanner. Immediately, I felt something was wrong. My watch was feeling tighter on my left arm. My tear ducts were burning. Things I'd never felt before. It was confusing, but real. I looked to the right, to the floor. "I feel sick! I feel really sick." I told the technician. "Oh, I feel so sick..." I lay back and I don't know if I closed my eyes but I know I couldn't see anything anymore and all there was was the sense of the guerney being pushed, fast, down the hallway and back to the emergency room.

Suddenly, there were people all around me, lots of hurried talking, machines and beeping. I could hear loud beeping, but I couldn't keep my eyes open. An IV was inserted in my left arm. A cool cloth was put over my forehead. "Is the doctor here? Is the doctor here?" I repeated. My head felt like my brain was going to explode and I struggled, mightily, (probably the only time in my life I would use "struggled mightily" to describe my efforts) to stay conscious. I believed that if I went "under" I would never wake up.

Everything felt fast, like a scarey movie where the scenes are sped up, where the guy is standing still but the hallway he is in is moving fast, like the main character is in limbo, but everything else is in havoc. And my life didn't flash before me, I could barely think. I couldn't verbalize my thoughts. But my sons, not their names, not their faces, but the essense of them and who they are to me, filled what was there of my mind and I knew I could not give in to whatever was happening to my body, I could not leave them, they needed me.

Well, to be honest, I didn't want to leave my youngest because I needed him, my love for him, my delight in seeing him grow up --- he had already been independent for five years, since age 18, he would be fine, but I love being his mother and I wanted to know all the wonderful things he would do in life. Also, he didn't have a relationship with his father, I was essentially his only parent. Kids in their twenties still need parents, right? Even the independent, smart, talented ones...

I didn't want to leave my eldest, Bryce, because I was his only advocate, who would speak for him if I was not there! I had to get through this! Why, oh why, had I not told anyone in my family I was going to the hospital? Is this what it felt like to die? Was I going to die? So this is it? (Above, is a photo of me with Bryce and Jackie in 2006.)

I can't say that I prayed or bargained with God. There was no conscious thought, only feeling. And, I wasn't the bargaining type anyway. Six years earlier I had asked God for the biggest miracle of my life, on behalf of Bryce. He'd granted it and I felt that I'd used my one big request and the rest of life I'd have to just do the best I could on my own.

I do not know how much time actually passed between the time I had a reaction to the CT dye and the time the heart monitor returned to a normal beeping pattern and I was able to open my eyes and knew I was not going to die, but I bet it was about half an hour. I looked up to the right and there was a nurse there. No one else. The IV had been disconnected. The cloth removed from my forehead. The other staff were back at their desks, their stations, their places by other bedsides. "You'll be okay," I think she said. She must have said something. I must have asked something, but I don't remember really. I do remember thinking, Something Really Big just happened to me and now you're all off to something else? Yes, big things happen all the time in hospitals, I later realized.

I asked to use the restroom and holding the cotton gown tightly in back with my right hand I made my way down the hall, opened the door, and looked in the mirror. To my shock the whites of my eyes were entirely red. Not bloodshot, blood red. Yikes! My lips were swollen.

I returned to the guerney and asked if I could have my purse and my cell phone. I called my sister, Joan, who was only three miles away. She came right over, of course, and we talked for a bit, I don't remember anything much that was said except that she was there and I was so glad to see her. No one would make a mistake in my care with her there! Twelve years older, quick and assertive, she was a good one for speaking up, something difficult for me. A few years earlier, I had brought Joan to the hospital after she'd had a bad fall, literally fallen on her face on the concrete while walking my dog, Buster, who was staying with her. Her beautiful face! I'd been nervous and worried for her and gave the registration desk the wrong house number for Joan who, face bleeding underneath a plastic bag of ice, was still thinking clearly and corrected my mistake. (My wonderful sister, Joan, below, with her parrot, Simon. In the kitchen of my house around 2006.)

As it turned out, the doctor wanted me to stay overnight "just to be on the safe side." So, Joan offered to go to my house, check on the dogs and birds, and I was so thankful for that. I still was not thinking well, I don't remember the entire rest of the day! I don't remember going upstairs to the hospital room, or anything about the rest of the day, or any worries.

I do remember thinking, briefly the next morning before leaving the hospital, of the man I had been dating for almost two years. It was a long-distance thing because he worked at a job that posted him at different power companies throughout the country and he was now working in Colorado. He was a good man, but I'd been out to visit him before the holidays and felt that things were not quite right. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was in the general direction of him saying he wanted to build a life with me, but my feeling that he didn't really love me, personally, particularly, and likely never would. It would be a deep friendship with some romantic feelings, but was that enough? He had never said "I love you," and that bothered me.

I was not unhappy being single; I'd been on my own for several years. My divorce in 1991 was horrible; I would not get married again unless I was convinced it would last the rest of my life. I wanted to love and be loved, but something was lacking and I knew it.

I asked Joan to call him and tell him what had happened to me. I talked to him later that weekend. Something in his weak response, or what I perceived as a weak response, convinced me further that if I had died he would not have missed me as much as I'd hoped. For me, that was not good enough and our relationship ended a few weeks later.

When I left the hospital the next morning, New Year's Eve, my heart deemed healthy and a strong mental note "allergic to CT dye" (along with a whole lot of other things I already knew I couldn't take)... I was relieved in the hum-drum feeling of driving down the dirty-wet road and pulling up beside my tall, old house. I parked on the side street and went in the back door and there were Jackie and Tyler, so happy to see me, as was Gracie who chortled away from her cage and big Jake, a 30-year-old Amazon saying "Hellooooo. Whatcha doooin'?" (Here is a photo of Jake, below. When Mark and I married, Jake went to live with a cardiologist and his wife in beautiful North Carolina, and when they adopted Jake, they also adopted his "girlfriend" Tina, age 20-something.)

The clean dishes were in the strainer, just where I'd left them. The dogs had been good and Joan had been by. I picked up the newspapers from the floor and threw them away. I started a new pot of coffee. I turned on the television. I retrieved the newspaper from the front porch. I took a shower and put on comfortable, clean clothes. I settled in for a relaxing holiday with a little dog by my side and a good watchdog on the ottoman by my wool-socked feet. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. That night I stayed awake in my sweet, cozy bedroom long enough to see 2006 turn to 2007. Ah...Home...

My heart turned out to be okay, and I recently (Dec. 2010) had a stress test and the results came back yesterday, "normal"! Yeah! Except for a strained back muscle from lifting something I shouldn't, I am in good health. (Even considering the fact that the insurance company has denied covering the cost of the stress test, though I will pay as of January $935 a month for private health insurance with a $2500 deductible. Oh well...)

After the CT dye scare 12/30/06, I had another trauma soon after, in February 2007 when I received a deep puncture wound to my right hand from a dog I had tried to rescue (and was not able to keep). The wound was severe and I fought to keep my little finger, finally going on IV antibiotics and every-other-day visits to the doctor. Insurance deductible for 2007? Check!

But, with March and spring came hope. I met the love of my life, Mark Williams. It was love at first sight for me in the Barnes and Noble that day, when we talked and I looked into his open-hearted, friendly, intelligent face . . . and days later when I read his poetry, years of it printed out and stacked neatly, and saw a Chagall print above his fireplace, and met his dog, and saw his interest in an exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum of Art (Andrew Wyeth) and ate the meal he carefully prepared for me, learned his family history, laughed with him. In everything he did, every care he took, I knew this was someone I could love and who would love me in the way that I needed. We were married in August of that same year.

Bryce continued to do well in his life from 2007 on, he is happy and stable now, though does have health problems and his deafness increases. He began working at a sheltered workshop and he began selling his artwork and crafts at a beautiful gallery for people with disabilities. He and his girlfriend, Sarah, have been friends for six years now, and their relationship has given them both much happiness. Jesse graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia in 2009; the firm where he worked while in school put him on salary after graduation and he is doing well and in a relationship with a wonderful young woman whom we love as well. My mother celebrated her 90th birthday this past month. My sister, Joan, now lives in Florida near Mom and our sister, Joyce. My graphic design business has enjoyed stability for several years and Lucky Press is growing in exciting ways.

Mark and I bought a house in Athens, Ohio, in the summer of 2008, and now I have new windows to look out of, new trees to gaze at, a new bedroom that I also love, especially because of the man in bed next to me. If I am ever again in an emergency room, it is likely my husband will be by my side, and like Joan, he is also good at speaking up.

So, while this has been a long post, and more for me, perhaps, than for you (there is probably a rule against that...) It was good to wake up this morning, write this all down, and then move forward into the New Year. 2011! Two thousand ELEVEN! Here so soon.

I am so looking forward to this wonderful year and wish you and your loved ones and businesses and happy endeavors all the best as well!

Much love from Athens, Ohio,
Janice Phelps Williams

December 28, 2010

Psalm 121

My long-time friend, Katharine Pumphrey Knapp, recently posted a photo of the two of us in 1976 on Spring Break in Daytona Beach. At that time, Katharine and I often sang together and one song she accompanied my guitar and melody with her beautiful harmony was Psalm 121, which I had put to music in honor of my grandmother, Helen Greene, who passed away while I was in college.
The video below is the sound of my singing this Psalm in the early 1980s. The photos are just random scenery from Mark's and my home in Athens, because for some reason YouTube would not accept my video without graphic images in it...
I wish Katharine's voice was on here as well (she and her husband, Mike, just got a pro Karaoke machine, so I expect some tunes at some point coming from her!). I'm playing the guitar here too. The cassette tape held up pretty well for almost 20 years! Though, editor that I am, I wish I could "tweak" it just a bit!

Jessica Bell, who is a wonderful author with a forthcoming book from Lucky Press next year (the book is entitled "String Bridge" and LP is my publishing company) is also a lovely singer, a professional performer (unlike me!), and she has shared her music with me and her blog followers. She said she'd like to hear my voice, so Katharine, my "old" friend, and Jessica, my new friend, here it is!

PS: Mother, I finally figured out how to get those old songs on my computer!

December 26, 2010

12-26-2010: Routes 22 and 33 in SW and SE Ohio

For over nine years now, I have driven from Lancaster to Washington Court House, Ohio, and back, and for the last two years the trip was extended from/to Athens. Having made this trip two or more times each month, in all seasons, I've come to love the trees along the way, as well as the changing landscapes, farms, and buildings.

This morning I made the trip again, to take my son Bryce back to his home. When I left him in Washington Court House, I soon encountered the first scene below and wanted to capture the curvy fingers of the finer branches on these trees, against the gray December sky. This began a pleasant two hours recording my favorite scenes on this road, travling east on Rt. 22 from Washington Court House to Wilmington to New Holland to Circleville to Lancaster . . . then turning southeast from Lancaster to Sugar Grove to Logan to Nelsonville, and then home to Athens on Rt. 33.

The coiled fencing in the photo above reminded me of an abstract or "outsider art" drawing.

I have passed this sign hundreds of times over the years, but today I thought it looked the best against the stark white landscape.

There are many barns and farms between Washington Court House and Circleville, a span of approximately 20-25 miles. Most of the barns are quite worn looking. In the summertime the fields are beautiful and lush and green abounds everywhere. But now, in winter, all the colors stand out against the white ground and sky, and I noticed the pale green on this trailer, as well as colors in other scenes; colors usually overpowered by the natural greenery of spring and summer.

These farmers are proud, hardworking people. At other times of year large farming vehicles make their way down Rt. 22, like mechanical dinosaurs on a mission.

As I approached this intersection in New Holland, the green of the traffic lights seemed very pretty to me.

Happy's was closed today, but I have stopped there in the summertime for ice cream!

This car makes an effective advertisement for a local business near Circleville, Ohio.

This windmill wishes someone would repair it.

As I was driving along, I saw coming toward me a vehicle with flashing lights followed by this big truck with a "for sale" sign on it. I pulled off to the side, rolled down my window (to the 12 degree, with wind chill, air), and poised my camera. The driver seemed pleased that I thought his vehicle photo-worthy.

These structures remind me of ladies in dresses. I do not know why. I would have liked to have gotten a photo of the whole line of these structures, which extends as far as the eye can see...but it will have to wait for another day.

At other times of year, these fields are beautiful gold.

I liked the blue of these tanks.

Circleville is also known for its annual Pumpkin Festival. Its nickname is "Roundtown."

I love old brick buildings.

The day began to take on a serendipitous feel, as this train approached just as I was there to take its photo as it passed in front of the grain storage area.

...and then I noticed that this woman was probably a lot colder than I was...

A few years ago, Circleville commissioned this mural, which I think was very well done.

After passing through Circleville, farms and pastures reappear and the entrance to this historic farm has a drive with facing trees that I think of as "the elders." The Elders have greeted me as I've driven past month-by-month from 2001 until today. I have many photos taken from the side, but this is the first time I've pulled into the driveway and looked at these trees head on. There are always new ways to look at old things.

Until today, I had never noticed the flag behind a gas station on Rt. 22, as well as the sign underneath it.

This business (Aunt Eek's Store) is rather well-known because a few years ago, for many years, the proprietor put white crosses on the land next to his store in honor of those who gave their lives in service in Iraq. Some folks did not like this display and vandalized it; the Columbus Dispatch did an article on it. When the field seemed full of white crosses, it wasn't too long and I noticed all the crosses were gone. I wondered why.

When I turned the car around to get a photo of Aunt Eek's Store, this herd of deer crossed the road. Just like with the train, it seemed so coincidental, as if the world around was answering my search for great things to "notice" with my camera.

Years ago, I had a close call on this same road with four deer which passed in front of my car just after sunset. This time, I was practically at a stop when they crossed by and as there were ten of them, I'm glad! My car is not very big and would not have fared well.

I love this pretty barn, and the sweet cow framed in the doorway.

...and there is a nativity scene in the hayloft!

Behind this fence are many, many "lite wreck" cars covered with snow.

Another mile, another farm!

Heading SE now on Rt. 33 south of Lancaster and toward Logan, the landscape begins to take on a different shape. No longer flat, the roads wind through the gentle hills and rock formations are easy to find. This one is about a fourth of a mile from the main highway. Since I was passing by, I decided to get a photo of it as well. I've only one other photo of this rock, and it was in the summertime. This road winds through Clear Creek Metro Park.

Here is the creek that runs through this park. I turned my car around at a fishing access parking spot.

And here I have taken a photo of the big rock coming at it from the other direction!

As I left Logan and headed to Nelsonville, the snow picked up.

In Nelsonville, you can ride the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway!

Nelsonville, Ohio, is home to the wonderful Rocky Boot company.
(Great wool socks here too!)

You can get Ping Pong balls 2/$1. They used to be 4/$1, I think. I have always thought this a very funny sign.
Well, it was another 17 miles south to Athens...but the road gets faster, hillier, and there is not a good place to pull off for photos... Soon I was home and starting a pot of chicken soup... It's about done now!
I hope you had a lovely holiday weekend. Thank you for viewing my photos, taken in just a few hours' time. It's amazing what you might notice when you take the time to travel thoughtfully and pay attention to the journey.
I dedicate this post to my wonderful husband, Mark Van Aken Williams. He is not only one of the smartest, most talented writers I know, but he also is very adept at giving the perfect gift. He gave me my wonderful camera last year for Christmas and today I celebrated an entire year of taking pictures with it.
Janice Phelps Williams, Athens, Ohio
Photos taken with a Canon Rebel camera.

December 21, 2010

A Patchwork of Christmas Memories

This morning when I opened my eyes, before I rose from bed, lifted our tiny dog onto the floor and padded my way to the coffeemaker... a bevy of Christmas memories fell from my mind like slick playing cards tossed across a table. I made the coffee, grabbed a Christmas cookie, and made a list of my top Christmas memories...

1. I do not remember the Christmas day I received a red tractor, but I do remember the tractor and riding it up and down our driveway in Canfield, Ohio (likely the following summer). I guess somewhere between Christmas and the following June, I reached the age where memories were consciously imprinted in my mind! I loved that tractor and decades later saw one just like it in an antique store in Florida...with the price tag of $325.

2. The Christmas I received a toy swimming pool that was chewed on by our Boxer, Ringy, stands out as "first bad Christmas memory." But look at this wonderful dollhouse!
3. Other memorable childhood Christmas presents: a black lacquered music box complete with dancing ballerina. Something in it broke, but was fixed by my cousin's husband. I thought he was great, until years later when I learned the reason for their divorce: he had beaten my cousin and she'd lost her unborn baby. I always think of that when I remember that music box: not everything is as beautiful as it might seem. Dancing was a big part of my childhood, and later, when I read "I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can" I learned that ballet was not always as beautiful as it seems either. I guess you could say, this is all part of the transition from childhood to adulthood; understanding the layers that weave through what we see.

Here is a photo of me with the '60s favorite (and '70s, '80s, and '90s) Barbie and Ken. It was at this time of my life that dance predominated.

Another favorite childhood gift also involved a music box. It was earlier than the jewelry box, because I was a young girl, probably 8 or 9, and my father bought me a chime that attached to my bedroom door. Every time the door was opened, music would play. I loved that gift!

4. In my early teens I spent a Christmas in a horribly ancient wing of South Side Hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. (Note: I mistakenly ID the hospital in my post, but have corrected it.) The hospital was packed and though I was there to have a tumor removed from my neck, I had to be placed in a room near the psychiatric patients and one of them yelled "Jannie, Jannie" all day long, which really freaked this 14 year old out. I remember looking out the 19th century window and feeling like a waif (I was waif-like then) imprisoned in some high tower just longing for Christmas. My sister, Joan, rescued me, however, when she and a friend showed up with a small Christmas tree for my room. (This was a private room, and very small.) I still remember her coming in the door with that tree. Yeah!

I did get to go home for a few hours on Christmas Day, but, tubes in the side of my neck, there are no photos of me that Christmas, and traipsing back to the hospital did not make for a happy teen. This was before children's floors in hospitals had cheerful murals, video games, and nurses with interesting smocks. No Robin Williams with a red nose on the floor, just a guy yelling "Jannie" all day long...

5. My father always took me with him to pick out my mother's present. He gave her a Goebel Christmas plate each year and usually something else as well. So, this required a trip to the jewelry store, and this made an impression on me as a young girl. I remember the Christmas I was 17. We shopped in Sharon, Pennsylvania, and I remember standing on the street corner with my father and big huge snowflakes were falling. Everything seemed like a Christmas scene from a pretty card, and I loved these annual shopping trips with my dad. (All of those blue plates of my mother's now hang above the cupboards in our kitchen here in Athens.)

Memories of shopping with Dad were paired with searching for the perfect Christmas tree and in 1977, we were in a new home with a 16-foot cathedral ceiling. Dad and I went out to a tree farm and I located the perfect tree. It was about 7 feet tall and my dad did not say: "It's too big. It's too expensive. It won't fit in the trunk of the car." Nope. He said, "Yes. Let's get it." And as I watched the tree salesmen wrestle it into the trunk of my father's car, using lots of rope and the top and trunk extending from each side, I gave thanks for a father who knew the power of "yes."

6. A few years later, I was in my second year of college and was given my first ever box of flowers from a boy...a big box of white carnations was delivered to my parents house at Christmas and I thought it was just wonderful! Favorite presents at this time: a hand mixer and a Texas Instruments calculator. Throw in a few books and I must say nothing much has changed in the decades since, just the snazziness of the appliances.

7. Then, the next year, the death of my first cousin, Ruth Ann, who died after giving birth to her second child. A very sad Christmas. As were the next few years with the loss of my grandmother (whose birthday was in Dec.) and the murder of my first cousin Donnie, who was a wonderful, artistic, young man in his twenties who just happened to get off a bus and walk past a business in Cleveland that was in the process of being robbed. The robbers came out of the store and shot the witness five times in the head. My sweet childhood friend's body, covered with a sheet, was shown on the news that night, another statistic of urban violence.

8. In college I dated a young man who was Roman Catholic. He gave me a beautiful gold cross necklace for Christmas. His family was quite upset because it was not a crucifix. This was my first experience with the divisiveness of Christmas...

9. My first Christmas as a mother, I traveled from Florida to Ohio with baby Bryce. It was my father's first time seeing his first grandchild and, as my parents had lost an infant son, a time of comfort for them too.

10. Two years later, back to Ohio for Christmas with another son in tow, for Jesse was born and now 6 months old. I remember traveling on the plane with a 6 month old and a 2 year old. The seats seemed bigger back then... This would have been just before real concerns were surfacing about Bryce's development, so this was what I think of as a rather "innocent" time as a mother. I hadn't faced the big issues yet, though my body must have known something was up. I arrived at my parents' house with an illness that would last almost a year, and coincide with a crisis in my marriage and the labeling of my eldest son as "handicapped." My body, perhaps, knew what I did not...

When the boys were a little older, we traveled to Ohio again at Christmas time, and they were old enough now to really enjoy the snow. My parents bought them matching blue outfits and my sister took them for rides on her snowmobile. This was their first memorable experience with snow.

11. There were several Christmas firsts:

1980s: The first time I saw the Christmas Boat Parade in Sarasota, Florida, and learned you don't need snow to have a Merry Christmas.

1990: The first holiday after my divorce, when shared custody was in place and I woke up Christmas morning to an empty house, since I would not see my boys until noon that day. I remember this very clearly. But the holidays in succeeding years settled in with new traditions and the boys enjoyed having Christmas at three places, Dad's, Mom's, and Grandma's.

1998 and 1999: Through difficult circumstances, Bryce was not able to be with us at home these two Christmases. I was happy in 1999 to be back in Ohio near my sister, Joan, but these were bittersweet holidays. I wish I'd known that better holidays were just around the bend....

The Christmas of 2001, when my youngest son, Jesse, returned home for the holidays after having graduated high school and moved to CT. Bryce was also with us. We had a beautiful tree and it was a fun holiday, giving thanks for our good luck on 9/11, when Bryce, Joan, and I were in NYC.

2007: Mark's and my first Christmas as a married couple. Bryce and Jesse joined us, as did Mark's dad and my sister, Joan. What a great day, as we celebrated so many blessings, especially the blessing of being together. Mark gave me a beautiful gold watch, which I treasure. It was also the only time Mark's dad has been able to visit our home, so it was a very special time in our memory.

2008: Our first Christmas in our home in Athens, Ohio. Finally settled in a place that feels like "home"... with both boys visiting and Joan living nearby (here she is Christmas 2008, with our friend David Pike) it was a wonderful holiday.

12. My mother makes Swedish Tea Wreaths every year at Christmas (we are not Swedish, but that didn't seem to matter...). These are given to neighbors and enjoyed by our family on Christmas morning. When I moved to Ohio, I asked Mom for the recipe and began the tradition of making these same deliciously sweet morning breads for my little family.

I've left out other Christmas memories, happy and bittersweet, because of the limitations of a blog post (it's not a book, as I have to remind myself!). I guess the point of all of this is the comfort that comes when one is ... ahem ... middle-aged and has many years to remember, and sees how events and circumstances weave together, how all those different moments, the good the bad the wonderful, make up a real life, a rich life, a blessed life.

When I was a girl it was my happy job to decorate the tree. I loved doing it and afterward, when it would be evening, and the lights would all be lit (the big old style bulbs that got hot!), I would lie on my back in front of the tree, feet toes-up under the lower boughs, arms behind my head, staring at the beautiful lights and ornaments, taking in the smell of pine. I believed just about anything was possible in the face of such easily created beauty. I still do.

(You can see photos of my favorite ornaments at this Facebook album.)

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Janice Phelps Williams, 12/2010