Monday, December 22, 2014

It's in the Smiles ...

Have your Christmas and New Year’s traditions changed over the years? Have they changed since you were a kid? Or even from when you were in college, a young adult versus now, in your ol’ ripe age – whatever that age is?

My husband asked me the other night, when I was making 30+ small little packs of presents for my co-workers and writing their cards, when did my whole gift giving for everyone around Christmas start and whether I have always done it. And it made me recall years past, and how traditions changed for me. I can’t say that they changed because I didn’t like the old ones, because all my memories, as far back as I can remember (and don’t worry: I can still remember even the night when I knew there was no Santa Claus anymore!), are amazingly beautiful and peaceful and rich. But they kind of changed because of different people that spent the Holidays with us, or because I started making my own “new” ones just out of a sense of ownership of who I was, or because I moved to a different culture and everyone around me was doing things differently, and they taught me different things.

Back in the day, when we were kids, I can’t remember that adults every gave each other gifts. I can definitely not recall when mom and dad and grandma even gave any presents to any strangers or even distant relatives. The presents were for the kids, and we would get ONE present, unwrapped, and under the tree, and it came from Santa (Mos Gerila or Mos Craciun). We always had plenty of food though – that was the main tradition, I guess: for days and even weeks everyone would cook fridge-ful of courses, savory and sweet, we made fresh sausages that we hung on laundry lines outside to dry out and then fried them for Christmas Eve dinner. We also made the tree on Christmas Eve. Never before then. And we always had a real tree, growing up. The main family meal is consumed on Christmas Eve in our family. The meals after that (we celebrate Christmas for three days back home) are with friends and distant relatives. But Christmas Eve is for family, for those living in the house.

It’s kind of unfair to say that lots of food was a Christmas tradition, because Romanians cook a lot, no matter what the occasion is, and no matter how poor they really are. Somehow, they will find someone to lend them money for food. And they cook, for birthdays, and name days and Easter, and New Year’s just about as much as they cook for Christmas!

When we celebrated with our relatives, on the farm, in the mountains, we would hang pine cones, and walnuts and apples in the tree, and very little, if any, “fake” ornaments. My friend’s older brothers would cut the tree in the forest in the back yard – the smell of that mountain pine was like nothing I have ever smelled since.

I think I was in middle school when I made the very conscious decision that I would buy a Christmas present to everyone who was going to be in the house. I would buy something small, sometimes a nice smelly soap for my mom and grandma, some socks or a notebook for my sister, pens (always pens!) and a note book for my dad – something small, that I would place under the tree, wrapped in newspaper. I still remember how my fingers would be black with newspaper ink from all the wrapping. I was the only one doing this. When we were in the mountains, with our distant relatives, on the farm, I’d have presents for them, too.

I remember when I left, right after college, my sister saying “we won’t have many presents under the tree this year, since you’re going to be gone”. But I encouraged her to keep the tradition going. Not sure where, really, this urge to “give” sprang from, for me. This was way before moving to America and really being immersed in the consumerism it very clearly displays, as a culture. Now, looking back and trying to make sense of it all, I think it was in the smiles. Romanians are a very stoic and very serious-looking (only “looking”) culture. But everyone, no matter how serious, smiles when they open a gift. Have you noticed that?! I have always loved giving presents and hated receiving them. But I think the main reason for me, is the smiles on people’s faces. The surprise, the unexpected. The unspoken gratitude.

Someone at work asked me the other day whether in Romania Christmas is about “the baby Jesus” or about Santa. Well, the carols are about baby Jesus, more than they are in the US. But the gift giving and food gorging and revolving door of your house for the next two weeks are about … friends, family, love, smiles and togetherness. Catching up, telling stories, counting your blessings, and remembering those who are gone, recalling the happy times of the year or those less than fortunate events and thanking God (I guess, ‘baby Jesus’, you could say) you made it till the end of another one. We’re all about Jesus for Easter, but Christmas, back home is an odd mix of partying, baby Jesus and heathen traditions, too. It’s mostly about the good times had by all, and that includes food, gifts, drinking - and whatever else your family perceives as a celebration.

Nowadays, Christmas is still lots of foods and lots of bounty, in the form of gifts, mainly, for me. I start buying and packing gifts for my family, far in advance, at the middle towards the end of November. By December 1, I try to have all my presents mailed to Canada and Romania – I wrap each gift (and everyone gets more than one) with a smile on my face, anticipating the smile on theirs, when they’ll open it. I do the same when I wrap them for my husband’s gifts, when it’s time to wrap those, closer to Christmas.

I make my tree the weekend after the Thanksgiving weekend. We either host a Christmas party, or we go to one that our friends host – and again, we have gifts for everyone. When we host our own, we hide a pickle ornament in our tree and have our guests find it – this is German tradition my mother in law passed on to us – it’s for good luck and good fortune in the New Year, for whoever finds the pickle.

For Christmas, we sometimes travel to see family – to Canada, more often, or maybe to Michigan, we hope, some day. When we stay home, we unwrap one gift for Christmas Eve (to keep somewhat of a Romanian tradition) and we have our family dinner on Christmas Eve, too – just like my parents do. We also have a big Christmas Day breakfast (usually a rich and warm casserole dish), and my own tradition is to make Mimosas on Christmas Day – I borrowed this from a dear friend of mine with whom I spent four Christmases back in my late 20’s and early 30’s.  Then, we open presents for the rest of the morning, and then we call family who is far, far away.

By the evening of the 25th it all wraps up in this country. It’s funny: Americans start early, and celebrate all the month of December. Romanians fast for most of the time in December, and prep for the “big feast”. Then, only when the calendar announces The Eve, they start celebrating: for three days, first, and into the New Year, till January 6th, the feast of John the Baptist, when the Holidays really wrap up! Romanians are nostalgic, melancholy people – they hold on to things and have trouble letting go. Americans are apprehensive, starting early, but when that clock strikes midnight, they are ready for the next challenge, next party, next “fun” stop: New Year’s and then Superbowl, Valentine’s Day, St. Patty’s Day …

No matter whose traditions you’re choosing to celebrate, or even if you make up your own, even: enjoy and remember the smiles. I do believe firmly that our brains stay younger, more flexible and more ready for what it may come if we subliminally tell them we’re happy. There is nothing better to trigger happiness to your mind, and to your core than a smile.

I dug up this old picture of me, my sister and my parents – it was taken on New Year’s Eve one year – and it always comes back to my mind when I am looking for my “happy spot” for Christmas. It says it all. 

Happy Holidays, all, and to all, a better year ahead!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Childhood Demons

I  remember my Saturdays as a kid. They were always the same: we cleaned the house.
We vacuumed, and dusted, and brushed the carpets, and we put things in order all over the house – my sister and I.

My sister hates dusting. God gave me a husband who does, too. So, dusting has always been my job. I don’t mind it. I like it better than vacuuming, and brushing the carpet, for sure.

But one thing I hated back then was dusting around the doilies that both my mom and my grandmother had all over the house. They had doilies all over the furniture, with little, beautiful, sculptured China dolls on top of them. The doilies creeped me out! Dust will always cling to them, to make them sticky. And they never dusted well. And they would never lay flat! They would always curl up, to have little spots under them where dust could gather and make them extra sticky for next time.

And they felt like spider webs. I never wanted to touch them! They were like living creatures, holding history, and age, and … dust … and old timey creepiness inside their fibers.

My mom is a starch freak! She starches her bed sheets! And her doilies and macramés are so starched they sit flat on the furniture. If I had to pick doilies I can live with, they are my mom’s, because they are so starched, so stiff, they don’t bubble up – they just lay flat. No tricky dust pockets to potentially hold secret creepy stuff anywhere in there.

I just unburied one of her doilies from my huge pile of heirlooms that she constantly supplies, in my closet, and it reminded me of my childhood – of all those Saturdays when I dusted her furniture, and made sure the wood is clean, and her little China doll ladies are pretty and shiny. And … the doilies are clean, too … At least her doilies laid flat – as you can see in the picture. 

My mom's flat doily - she crocheted it, and I can still remember when she did it. But it will never see the sight of my furniture!

I came face to face with my fear of macramé last month, during a trip to Charleston, SC. The client I was visiting at the time suggested that I would stay at this old inn downtown, where they had a corporate rate. The inn was everything people come to Charleston for: old charm, antiques, history, everything … 

My Nemesis bed in Charleston, SC - see the huge doily as the canopy. Cree-py ...!

I checked in, at 10.30 at night, and walked into my room. And misfortune of all misfortunes the whole bed was like an altar dedicated to doilies: there was a doily canopy draped right over the four posts of the bed! My skin started to crawl and I started to cringe! I could only speed dial my husband to say “this place is haunted!!”.

I did not sleep a wink all night, and I left the lights on in the room, all night long. I was too afraid to sleep, in case the huge doilied canopy would collapse on my face and smother me, trap me, for crying out loud!

The smell and texture of ages, smothering me. The stickiness of dust and the webs … Eeww …

And I wonder sometimes why I have so little friends …

Monday, November 03, 2014

Late Fall in the Rockies

"I saw old Autumn in the misty morn stand shadowless like silence, listening to silence." (Thomas Hood)

If you have known me for a while, you know I fight the fall! I fight it for a while. Especially since I moved in The Rockies. I try to tell myself it’s not fall yet till my turkey comes out of the oven on Thanksgiving. I have loved fall, all my life, but here, where I live now, fall is short lived and it’s only the entrance door for the winter – which I hate!

Well, I don’t hate winter. I just hate the length of it. A couple of months won’t hurt. But 4-5-6 sometimes more months in a row … no, thank you! I need my toes exposed!

We made plans for weeks to venture out to shoot some of the colors of this season, but life has been getting in the way, and we have been procrastinating. But we have been lucky to have this beautiful Indian summer of sorts, where we’ve enjoyed warm, bright days with lazy sunlight resting on the still ripening tomatoes. We’ve had timidly chilled nights, with barely a drop of dew on the browning grass in the mornings. But this past weekend, we realized: we must go out and see what there is left to see, because winter is just barely in the air.

We got snow on the peaks this weekend, and it smells like frost! We drove around our house and we captured the tiring season, going to bed for a while. It was probably the last weekend where we could still capture some yellow and red still on the branches. But not very much. But as you can tell, the browns are beautiful too – and so diverse!

Every time I shoot the mountains, in any season, one deep and gnawing feeling pricks my heart: the mountains are where my heart, my brain, my soul, my whole being is! Their gentle or sharp slopes, their majesty, their height, their smells, their aspen and berries, and pines, their trails … leave deep, sharp marks inside my brain and my heart. And I cannot peel away from them! Wherever they are, for the rest of my life, I’ll try to be …

Here are some shots from our short (less than an hour, maybe) drive. 

 Our grass is almost always yellow, but it's muted in the summer. It was fresh and vibrant after this weekend's rains.

The Spanish Fork river, snaking lazily through the canyons - can you see the richness of the browns?! My sister calls brown "the most boring color" - but not in this context!

The long, country driveways and roads look longer and lonelier when they are lines by bright yellow poplars. 

A drive in the country: these sheep were something else: the herd dog had rounded them up in a perfect circle and not one of them was outside of it! Sheep at the mountain heals spells winter prologue to me.  

An open gate, a split rail fence, along the mountainside - the loneliness of the farmland in the big, wide open - you can almost hear life just slowly passing with the swing of that gate in the wind.

What would fall be without the steam coming off of the mountain? It's like the last breath - visible, touchable, real ... 

This is what Utah mountains look like to me: rock, bushes, pines and aspen - all coming together in the most perfect unison of color, texture, shape and height. All singing fall's hymns in all their contrast and harmony.

Aspen are my favorite trees in the fall, but maples are a close second: not so much in the majesty of aspens, as much as in the detail of every leaf: from various shades of red, to various shapes and sizes, they are the blood stream of the season ...

Red berries always spell Christmas to me! And cold - very much cold!  

I am ever the small town girl, very much unlike my big city sister! A small church, a two lane road, and tree lined lonely and empty streets, framed by mountains - that's it! Happiness cannot exist elsewhere, and I am convinced of this! 

On our way back to our house, I had to stop to shoot Mount Timpanogos: the dance of the clouds and their shades all over the valley was absolutely heart stopping! The snow, the rocks, the browns and the very lonely valley just spoke volumes of silence and beauty to me. The world is ready for what it is to come. You can hear the echo, and the surrender ...
Click on the picture for the entire album of this short trip. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Inconspicuous Cat

About 15 years ago, almost to the date, he was caged at PetLand in Greensboro, NC, at Friendly Shopping Center. He was “up for adoption”, for a small fee of $150. I asked the shop clerk “how much did he cost” and he corrected me that “he is not for sale. But he is up for adoption, for $150”. He was ugly, if I have ever seen such a thing as an ugly cat, skinny and had big, ears, full of mites. His eyes were sleepy. He had gorgeous orange tabby markings with not a speck of white or other colors in it. He was a true tabby. A true redhead! In more ways than one. 

I could tell he was making an extra effort to sit as close to the middle of the cage, so kids who were poking their skinny fingers to touch him won’t reach him. I told myself: he will never get adopted! He is too ugly and he is too old to be a kitten. Not old enough to be quite a cat. And he looked angry. Annoyed with all the kids’ poking. No one would see a “family cat” in him, I told myself, as I walked out of the place with my cat food in hand, and I sighed. 

I went home and told my then husband about him. We had $300 in the bank and the mortgage of $750 due in a week. 

Two days later, a Saturday, sometime in the fall, my husband and my then step kids showed up at the door with him in their hands. The ugly kitten, all mites, bones and ever so soft orange fur was now ours – our second kitty, after his bigger brother, Fero.
My first reaction was “We cannot afford HIM! We cannot afford the mortgage this month and you go out and buy a CAT????”. My husband said: “OK, fine, he has a 48 hour warranty, I am going to return him! Give him back”. 

I had him in my hands, and he was scratching and hissing and angry. All claws out and clinging onto my skin for dear life! I said: “NO WAY! He has been through enough already! We’ll love him up to be beautiful!” And the rest, really, is history! 

He never did get a real name. Fero was Fero, and the “little kitty” we just got became Little Kitty. And on his vet certificate, he is still Little Kitty. Not just Kitty, but “Little Kitty”.  
If God went out to design a perfect mold for a kitty, He must have fit my Little Kitty in it. He was the softest cat I have ever touched. The cleanest. The quietest. Like any cat, he was fiercely independent and stubborn. He liked company on his terms and he made those terms very clear! By biting, and scratching and hissing. You always knew his boundaries. And he only had to tell you about them once. 

He was my one true hunter cat! When I lived in a house in the woods of Summerfield, NC, we had mice. He caught them every time they’d dare wander through my kitchen, and would bring them to bed, in the middle of the night, in his mouth, to show me his catch! He was upset when we killed the mouse. It was his pray to kill, so understandable. 

He sneezed, occasionally, because he was allergic to clay, I found. He was even allergic to almost every brand of litter except two! I tried using clay bowls for his food – not a good idea! His nose would get as red as Rudolph’s and it would drip and drip, as he sneezed with all of his body. 

He always let Fero be the alpha cat, and always protected the baby cat, Gypsy. He was stoic, devoted to all his duties and respectful of everyone’s space, as long as they respected his.  

For years, I lived alone, after my divorce. We were all a team, me and the three kitties. I clipped the nails of the other two cats, but I could never do it by myself to him. He was impossible to pill or to put in the cat carrier singlehandedly. It was always a two people’s job. I figured, he was feral for a while, before he ended up at PetLand. You could tell, he did not trust people. 

He slept with me, for years. But always at the foot of the bed. Just enough to be close but not enough close where I could touch him. In true cat fashion, he spited me: with a name like Little Kitty, he grew to be the largest cat I have ever been owned by. 

A very rare sight: Little Kitty bonding with my sister. She was amongst the very few who "got him". And he, her.

Just like I promised him on his first day with me, I loved him up, I think, to be beautiful. Even gorgeous. He still had dreamy eyes and a serious look, all of his life, but the mites went away, and he filled into his large ears and paws.

He never once, that I can remember, got in trouble! He never broke anything, always groomed religiously, his breath never smelled. His moves were ever so calculated and slow, just like a tiger, which gained his nickname in his later life of Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi. He was my tiger. Or “pumpkin”. Or “pinkie”, because of his pink paw pads. Because of his serious allure, he became “Mr. Kitty” to my now husband. And lived up to that name. He always kept a low profile. He ate the longest, because he always took his time, with everything. He was a typical middle child!

Just like with all my cats, we built a whole life together. Some people tell me that 15 years is “old” for a cat. To me, 100 would not be enough! We had to say ‘good bye’ to Mr. Kitty tonight. Just as quietly as he slipped into my life, he slipped away, on his own, after a two month heroic battle with kidney failure (I swear Utah water is killing my cats!). He was 15 and 5 months today. 

I’ll miss so much about him! His constant presence just beside me. His long grooming sessions, his lazy an watchful swagger down the stairs, swinging his fat belly left to right, while sheepishly glancing over his left shoulder to make sure I am following him. His quiet meow. His habit of “rearranging” my coasters: he would knock them on the floor, from the table or the arm rest of the couch. We never quite figured out why just the coasters. 

I hope kitties go to heaven and this way he can meet his brother, Fero, and compare matching bracelets of shaved fur on their paws, from the IVs they got for their kidney diseases. I hope he runs free, with no one chasing him down to clip his claws. I hope he makes someone as happy as he’s made us, and as fulfilled. 

He never asked for much. Not even for attention. A bowl of food, a clean litter box, a bowl of water, and a window with fresh air where he could watch birds, squirrels and cars.

I’ll miss his presence the most. To me, he was the ultimate symbol of coming home.
He ended up being so much more than a kitty with no name. 

Rest in peace, Little Man! We ache and cry and hope you make another world as happy as you made ours! 

Little Kitty:
 May 15, 1999 - October 15, 2014