Connections

Tomorrow I’ll join my extended family for a weekend gathering we jokingly call ShrinerFest. Because of COVID it’s been three years since my three siblings, their children, grandchildren, my sons, and all of our spouses have gathered, although I did see my siblings in person last year. In the intervening time, many important events have taken place off-stage, away from the full circle of family.

One niece announced her engagement. A nephew got engaged to a woman some of us haven’t had the opportunity to meet. Our two sons married in small COVID-style weddings. A niece and her husband welcomed their first child earlier this year. My second oldest brother and his wife had a rough year. She and their son-in-law experienced bad fractures requiring surgery and rehab. My sister-in-law also had a close family member die of cancer.

Despite the distance (we are spread across five states) we’ve all done our best to stay connected via text and calls. We’ve congratulated each other about joyful events and commiserated about the hard times. We would have preferred to visit in person, but we did what we could manage, and our connections stayed strong. 

I expect our weekend together will encompass lots of storytelling, silliness, and good food. Cousins who are scattered across the Midwest and are still getting to know each other will likely bond over fantasy football or the best way to cook a Beyond burger. No doubt we’ll talk about wedding plans and new houses. 

My two older brothers, younger sister and I will fall into familiar patterns. Although our interests, politics, and religious views aren’t always aligned, we’ll focus on what we have in common and try to avoid topics that jangle nerves! 

As always in this group of 25, there will be emotional cross-currents. Sometimes grievances might get aired quietly off to the side (Why’d she say___? I can’t believe he did that!) After all, we are still family and although there is a lot of love, there are also strong personalities. 

As we drive away I expect to be tired, but I’ll let the good moments sink in. We’ll talk over whatever changes—for better or worse—we see in the extended family. I might be shaking my head over some new development. But no matter what, I’ll be grateful we were able to be together again, fostering connections and cementing our ties.

Simple Peace

Sixty-six degrees at eight in the morning on July 4 in Door County. My hands smell of lavender from making bouquets and the harvest piles up in an old, rusty green Suburban Garden wagon. The cold spring delayed sprigs maturing, but the first varieties are now ready. These mornings of working at a table with a sweeping view of blooming lavender rows, friends bent over the bushy plants, and collies running offer a respite from news and worries.

Yes, the world is dipping and swaying for huge reasons, and it is hard to be proud of the state of our nation. I couldn’t get into the goofy happiness of a small town 4th of July parade and snapping pictures of kids on decorated tractor wagons and the grocery store staff pushing decorated shopping carts. I haven’t absorbed the sickening news of another mass shooter at a different parade. National discord and gun violence keep Americans in an uncomfortable state of anxiety so I’m looking for moments of simple pleasure to build personal peace of mind. I’m talking really simple pleasures:

Fresh peas, shelled by someone else.

Sunshine and cool air this morning.

Birdsong.

Two fawns playing in a neighbors’ yard.

Straight from the field strawberries.

Farmers market greens and cherry tomatoes.

Giggles of a happy infant granddaughter.

Our eight-year-old granddaughter singing.

Music while working.

A short pile of books.

Family and good friends a call or text away.

Some days you must restore your own core to keep pushing through your role in the bigger world. Here’s hoping you can create a list of simple pleasures to support minutes of personal peace.

Love Finds a Way in COVID-Times

Picture a wedding. What comes to mind? White dresses, bridesmaids in matching colors, extensive guest lists, showers, bachelor/bachelorette parties, walking up the aisle, flowers and music, elaborate receptions with carefully chosen (and usually expensive) food and drink, cake, first dances, honeymoons. Gifts. Lots of gifts—at showers, for bridesmaids and groomsmen, party favors for wedding guests, and gifts for the newly married couple. Of course, this vision wasn’t always so.

During WWII many couples, including my parents, improvised their weddings. Mom and Dad rescheduled twice and finally got married on the third try. Their wedding resembled the small, intimate weddings that have become common during COVID-Times. 

For some, the simplicity has been freeing. Too often weddings take on a life of their own. The couple can become performers of a script they didn’t wholeheartedly choose. 

This spring when our sons marry, they will have the essentials: love and commitment. Close friends and family standing by to support them. Meaningful vows. A pleasing setting and celebratory food. Joy. Everything they need.

Although my parents didn’t live to see their grandsons marry, there’s a pleasing symmetry in these small COVID-style weddings. When the times call for it, love finds a way.

A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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The World of Holiday Greetings Has Changed

For the last several years, a friend and I have gotten together every December to address Christmas cards and catch up over tea. She still writes at least two dozen, while my output has dwindled to less than 10.

I used to love Christmas cards. I tended to indulge in the expensive ones printed on high quality paper, the ones with artistic designs or humorous sentiments. Sometimes I bogged down with signing them and getting them to the Post Office, but I always got them out before New Year’s.

While doing business as Ellen Shriner Communications, I began handcrafting holiday cards to send to ad agency and marketing clients. Instead of dropping off clever client gifts or food treats (a common practice in the communications world), I made a charitable donation in my clients’ honor and hoped the cards would remind clients about my creative work. I also sent the cards to close family and friends.

Every year, I wandered the aisles of the now-defunct Paper Depot and let the stamps, vellums, fine cotton card stock, and gorgeous imported papers inspire me. For a month, I holed up in my office planning, writing, printing, cutting, gluing, and assembling 50-60 cards. Many years, I made several versions because I was attracted to multiple ideas, and it was fun to experiment.

The card with red ribbon involved dried flowers from my garden. For the one on the far right, I drew ornaments in watercolor. For the one in the center, I hand cut starbursts with an Exacto knife so the gold vellum would show through.

By the end of 2010, I was winding down my business and had accepted a hospital marketing job. I could have continued making the cards for family and friends, but handcrafting cards no longer gave me as much pleasure, and the world of holiday greetings had changed.

For many people, sending Christmas cards had become just one more thing on a long To Do list. Friends and family were relieved to let go of the tradition. Often the cards I received seemed to be guilt-induced (Dang! She sent me one. Now I need to reciprocate), and I didn’t want to cause that discomfort.

For me, Christmas cards had been a way to stay connected with out-of-town family or friends I rarely saw. Often the cards summed up how the year had gone, and that ritual reflection felt worthwhile.

Now a yearly missive is less important. Calling is so cheap and immediate that the most important people in my life already know what’s going on. As a writer, I’m at the keyboard most days and can dash off a quick email to friends. Social media has made it easy to stay in touch with an extended group of people.

Maybe one day I’ll rediscover the creative fun of playing with fine papers, glue, and an Exacto knife. But this year, I’ll sign a few store-bought cards and write a handful of personal notes. Of course, nothing replaces visiting in person, especially over a cup of tea!

To all of our blog readers: the WordSisters send lots of affection and appreciation for our connection. Happy Holidays!