Thursday, December 31, 2009

Meet Leah Bright Maxwell

Leah is the nearly thirteen-year-old protagonist of my second middle-grade novel, The Second Cellar. She's precocious, theatrical, and angry at her father for abandoning her for the summer to the care of an aunt whom she doesn't even know. Just when she resigns herself to three months of pure boredom--with nothing better to do than to poke around in the attic and cellar of her aunt's antebellum Federal-style house, she discovers a hidden room, a second cellar that conceals many secrets. She also learns that her aunt has some secrets of her own.

The Second Cellar is a work in progress. I am resolved to have the rough draft finished by my birthday in June, as a little gift to myself. If I can push through and complete it before that, all the better.

Part of my prewriting work is to search for images that convey my characters to my satisfaction, and this girl does that. I had another picture selected until I saw this redhead. I've always known that Leah Bright had auburn hair. The hard part was finding the perfect face to go with the hair, a face that showed Leah's spunk, intelligence, and courage. Today that search ended.

Monday, December 28, 2009

I Struck Gold!

If I include a site on my list of favorite blogs, I have visited it fairly regularly and found it to be helpful, inspiring, informative, or just plain fun.

Today I discovered a gold mine of a site, thanks to Chuck Sambuchino's interview on "Guide to Literary Agents" with Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Kole, who is fairly new to the agency, maintains KIDLIT.COM. She has gone to the trouble of learning the business from three sides: writer, agent, and publisher. Reading her articles, I feel as though I'm back in college. Better yet, it's as if I'm earning my MFA.

All right. Her focus is kid's lit. But good writing spans the generations, and what Kole has to say applies to (dare I say it?) ALL fiction genres. Check it out for yourself, my fellow writers.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Remember the BRAT

My little granddaughter (who certainly is NOT a brat, BTW) has joined the ranks of the puny in our family, suffering from the digestive virus that continues to plague the region area. In case you are among the afflicted, remember the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. Include plenty of water, 7-up or real ginger ale, and Gatorade, or other drink with electrolytes. Get well soon!

Writing Reflections

I love being a member of Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Southern Indiana Writers' Salon, and American Christian Fiction Writers. Writing is a solitary enterprise, for the most part, so belonging to such groups is essential. We need the objective feedback of others.

As part of ACFW's large general loop and a small critique group, I've learned much about my craft. The loop boasts membership that includes editors, agents, reviewers, professors who teach writing, and writers at all stages in their careers, from the rank beginner to the oft-pubbed author. Thanks to a critiquer who was part of my first small group (and remains a friend and critique partner), my writing is tighter, more precise. I still can be wordy, but I'm improving.

However, if writers were to try to conform to all of the tidbits of advice given--through a loop or any other source--we would all sound alike.  Consider the great writers of American literature for a moment. One can read the short, crisp sentences of Hemingway and recognize his style immediately. He wrote simply and directly. What he lacked in syntax and diction, according to critic Harry Levin, he made up for in action. Faulkner, on the other hand, wrote in a very different style, constructing long, convoluted sentences that painted vivid pictures in the imagination of the reader. Yet, Hemingway and Faulkner were contemporaries. Like them, each writer should have his or her own voice and style.

Good writing applies common sense and survives the trends of the day, giving it a long shelf life. "Lose the tags," we're told. "Introduce lines of dialog with action beats." That's reasonable advice, though it's not really new. The terminology may have changed, but the idea stays the same. If two people are talking back and forth, the writer can omit most of the he said/she saids. Action beats (what actors might call "business") help to eliminate "talking heads" and serve to develop characters and scenes.

These days, we also hear a lot about deep point of view or penetration point of view--same thing. This form of third-person writing sees and understands the scene through the character's eyes, giving the motivation behind the action. It falls just shy of being first-person, showing the attitude at the moment, not in memory or flashback. As with any strategy, it has its faults. It is no more reliable than first-person because of its subjectivity. The character may misunderstand or misinterpret events (which can be exactly what the writer intends). Because it can be very intense, it has the potential to wear on the reader, if carried on too long, so the writer should be discriminating in its usage.

"Show. Don't tell." How many time have we heard that? It is good advice to new writers, who tend to want to tell or describe everything in long, boring paragraphs. But there are times when the narrator needs to tell, to describe, times when some details need to be conveyed to the reader efficiently. Careful revision can eliminate many so-called narrator intrusions, but not all should be cut or changed.

I recently joined a new small critique group through ACFW, and I am so excited. We are beginning a new adventure together on the brink of a new year. I want them to be tough on me. They can rest assured that I will be on them. In the months since I joined ACFW, I have developed a tough skin. I can take it. I will consider each suggestion, though I may disagree, and I may not make all the revisions each one suggests. I'm the writer of my work, so that call is mine to make.

As I pray before each writing session, I also want to remember to pray before I begin reading their critiques, that God will keep me teachable, helping me to discern what needs to be changed and what can stay as it is. I pray that we become a cohesive team while maintaining our individuality--we four and the Lord.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

May you have a blessed Christ-centered Christmas that is full of joy, peace, love, family, faith, laughter, wisdom and warmth.

Christmas Reflections: The Christ of Christmas

The Christ of Christmas
The house is quiet in this predawn hour. Soon my grandsons will come bounding down the stairs and into my room. "It's Christmas, Gran'ma! Merry Christmas," they'll shout. The day will get busier from that moment, so I am snatching this brief time to write the final entry in the "Christmas Reflections" series.

This posting should have been finished by now, but I couldn't find direction. As a writer and storyteller, I had no trouble putting myself in Mary's place. I could imagine her, propped up against the rough boards of a stall, still perspiring from the labor of giving birth, cradling her newborn son in her arms while she examined every wrinkle and pore of His face--the face of God. I could see her bending to drink in His sweet scent and kiss the hollow at the bridge of His nose. I envisioned her slipping aside her robe just enough to put Him to her breast, giving sustenance to the One Who had created her. No doubt she pondered the words of the angel Gabriel, who told her, "He shall be great."

But this was no ordinary baby. With the conception of Jesus, Almighty God condescended from His position to take on human flesh and enter the world of man. The details of His coming were foretold by God Himself, as He escorted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and through His prophets throughout the Old Testament. I love Luke 4:16-22, which says:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. and as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
The Christ did not come to be a cute, giggling, wriggling baby for everyone to coo over. The manger stood in the shadow of the cross. The captives? The blind? The oppressed? That's mankind. Me. You. We are held captive by sin. We are willfully blind to His truth. We are oppressed by our own wickedness. Jesus was born to die on the cross to take away the sin of all who repent and believe in Him. He then conquered Death and Hell by resurrecting from the tomb.

Two millennia ago, a baby was born under humble circumstances to a peasant girl, a virgin until after His birth. That baby is the King of kings, and his prophesied return is imminent. Indeed, the King is coming!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Ten

The Tastes of Christmas

These are a few of my favorite Christmas recipes.

Martha Washington Creams

2 lbs. sifted confectioners' sugar
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups flaked coconut
1 stick butter (not margarine)
3 cups chopped pecans
1 jar drained maraschino cherries (pat dry with paper towel), snipped or chopped finely
Dipping chocolate

Mix all ingredients together; shape into balls; chill until hard. Dip chilled balls in dipping chocolate and let cool. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.


1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chunky natural peanut butter
2 cups chow mein noodles
Microwave the chocolate chips and peanut butter just until melted. Stir together. Add chow mein noodles and toss to coat. Drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper or parchment. Chill in refrigerator. Story in airtight container.

Black Walnut Cream Cheese Fudge

1 six-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 ounces original cream cheese (not low-fat) at room temperature
2 tablespoons milk or cream
4 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon black walnut extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup coarsely chopped black walnuts (can substitute walnuts or pecans)

Butter a 9 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan well; set aside. Melt chocolate chips in double boiler over hot, not boiling, water. Cream the cream cheese and milk together. Gradually add powdered sugar. Blend in melted chocolate chips, vanilla, and salt. Stir in black walnuts. Press mixture into pan. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill overnight or until firm. Cut into squares.

Dale's Date Delight

1 cup chopped pecans
2 cups sugar
2 cup dates, snipped
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
2 teaspoons baking powder
6 eggs, separated
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat egg yolks until light and lemon colored. Slowly beat sugar into the yolks. In medium bowl, mix other dry ingredients (pecans, dates, and graham cracker crumbs). Stir dry ingredients slowly into egg yolk mixture. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add baking powder to the beaten whites. Fold gently into yolk mixture. Pour into an ungreased baking dish. Bake 30--45 minutes, depending on the size of the baking dish. Serve with whipped cream or hard sauce.
Special Note: Dale's Date Delight rises quite a bit, so use a baking dish or casserole that allows head room.

Hard sauce: In a medium-size bowl, using mixer set at medium high speed, beat one stick of unsalted butter (softened), with 1 cup confectioners' sugar until light and fluffy. Add 3 tablespoons dark rum. Serve on Dale's Date Delight or your favorite bread pudding recipe.

Bleu Cheese Ball
1 eight-ounce pkg. regular cream cheese (not low fat)
1 eight-ounce pkg. "1/3 less fat" cream cheese
1 four-ounce pkg. bleu cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
Bring cheeses to room temperature. Cream together in a medium mixing bowl. Form into a ball. Refrigerate until firm. Roll in nuts until well-covered. Gently press nuts into cheese ball. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve with assorted crackers. I prefer plain ol' whole-grain saltines, myself.

Note: Check back. I may add some more recipes before Christmas.

Christmas Reflections: Nine

Christmas Center Stage

I love the pageantry of Christmas. Cantatas, children's plays and musicals, young adults' dramas, "specials," live nativities, and caroling. I think much should be made of the coming of Incarnate God into the flesh of humanity. The birth of the King of kings is monumental, after all. It changed all of history. The entire Bible--Old and New Testaments--points to the 33 years on Earth of the Christ, the eternal Son of God: His birth, life, death, triumphant resurrection, and imminent return.

At church whole families are involved from September until show time in preparations. The walls of the church building resound with music proclaiming the birth of the Newborn King for three months. It is a busy, cheerful time as choirs rehearse, actors learn lines and blocking, children repeat their parts until they say them in their sleep, fathers build simple sets, and mothers sew or alter costumes.

Hearts pound, tummies quiver, and knees knock as presentation time closes in. The scent of candle wax and fresh evergreens waft on the air. Grandparents arrive early to vie for choice seats, the ones providing the best camera shots. Pews fill to capacity, and ushers scurry around setting up folding chairs.

The sanctuary lights dim. The music begins. The chattering audience, filled with electric expectancy, falls silent as the program participants march in.

Then it's over. All that's left to do is to dismantle the sets, fold away the costumes, file the music, store the ornaments, and vacuum the carpet. But for three glorious months the lives of the church family revolved around that monumental moment 2,000 years ago when God became man in the form of a wee babe, born in a borrowed stable to a peasant virgin and laid in a common manger. Therein lies the true pageantry of Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Eight

A Recycled Christmas

Southern Indiana Writers' Salon met and celebrated the birth of our Savior yesterday. While we munched on delectables and sipped steaming coffee or hot cocoa, we talked about the personal significance of Christmas.

One member whose family has grown quite large through the years--what with children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews--said that her family decided not to buy new gifts this year, but rather to give recycled presents.

"Before you picture us going through dumpsters for just the right gift," she said with a chuckle, "let me tell you what we're doing. Any form of recycling is allowed. It just cannot be a new purchase." She explained that her family had visited Goodwill stores, thrift shops, yard sales, and flea markets; rummaged through their own storage rooms, basements, attics, and closets, repurposed items, and hand-crafted creations in order to come up with gifts for family members. Much love and consideration went into the selection of each present.

One day, her daughter was especially excited about a treasure she had found at a garage sale. "It's a little radio that works like new," the daughter said. "It's in great condition. And I paid two dollars for it!" She checked off one name on her list.

The writer added that, since she sews, many of her gifts will be items that she has altered, embellished, or salvaged from other pieces. Homemade gifts provide tremendous satisfaction to both the giver and the recipient, for whom they may become cherished heirlooms.

A recycled Christmas has so many advantages. For one thing, the little plastic cards that get so many people in trouble can stay tucked away in wallets. Those who give such presents don't have to tremble in fear when they see the mail carrier approaching their mailboxes in January. Further, the gifts are true treasures, selected or created just for the individual.

Remember that the Only Begotten Son of God, Himself Eternal God, was born in a borrowed stable. The shepherds knelt before a borrowed manger that had been repurposed as a cradle.

Have yourself a very merry recyled Christmas!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Seven

A Birth Most Imminent

Just hear those sleigh bells jinglin', a ring-ting-tinglin', too. Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

It was a cherished ritual with us--myself and my two daughters. At least once a Christmas season, we would bundle up against the cold, get in the car, and take a grand light tour, stopping off first at a gas station for tall, steaming cups of some specialty holiday coffee or cappuccino. Then, with music of the season playing in the background and us joining in, we'd head for the most spectacular displays we could find, the ones where folks stopped their cars, dimmed their lights, and sat for awhile to take it all in.

You know the spot. You have one in your town, most likely. Perhaps it is a neighborhood where on a special night the streets and walkways are lined with luminarios. Or maybe it's the home of a retired man whose hobby is converting his garage into Santa's workshop and his lawn into a quiet Bethlehem scene once a year.

Giddy-yap, giddy-yap, giddy-yap! Let's go! Let's look at the show. We're ridin' in a wonderland of snow.

We usually visited the flashiest displays first, before wandering onto quiet streets. One night, colored lights shone through a fresh layer of snow, turning neighborhoods into a surrealistic winter wonderland. We rolled the car windows down, willing to endure the cold in order to hear the sound of our tires crunching snow. The icy glow of a nearly-full moon added to the mystery of the scene. We were in an upscale suburb, and most of the properties were decorated to some degree. Brightly-lit Christmas trees stood where they could be seen from the street, electric candles glowed in each window, and wreaths of fresh evergreenery hung on heavy doors of wood and brass.

Let's take the road before us and sing a chorus or two. Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

One house stood out for its lack of adornment.

"Stop," I said to my older daughter who was driving. "Let's go back to that house."

Both daughters asked why. "I can't explain it, but I just think that we should carol the people who live there."

My younger daughter who was sitting in back leaned forward. "Do you know them?"

"No. That doesn't matter."

We went back, parked the car, and walked up to the door. I knocked firmly, and, without waiting for an answer, we began to sing in three-part harmony, as we often did at church.

Silent night. Holy night.

The door opened, and there stood a young man and his wife. He had his arm around her to warm her.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.

The young woman looked up at her husband and smiled.

We wish you a merry Christmas! We wish you a merry Christmas! We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

"Thank you. Thank you so very much," said the woman. "I'm in labor. We're on our way to the hospital. And I was not looking forward to the ordeal ahead of me. But I know I can make it, now. I really needed to hear your lovely caroling."

"Yes," the man said. "Thank you. And merry Christmas to you, also."

On our way out of that neighborhood, God gave us another blessing. A family of deer numbering seven or eight wandered onto a broad, snow-covered lawn just as we were about to pass. Again we stopped the car and dimmed the lights. The deer lingered, watching us watching them. For several minutes we sat there, sipping the last of our drinks, cold by now, before heading for home.

There's a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray. It will be the perfect ending of a perfect day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Six

"I Am Abraham"

Today God gave me an early Christmas gift.

I went to the hospital to get a routine blood draw to check the level of a particular medication. The technician introduced himself to me as I followed him back to the lab.

"I am Abraham," he said with a thick accent. He was very tall and thin, with skin like ebony satin.

"May I ask what country you are from?" I instinctively knew his answer.

"Do you know Africa? I am from Sudan."

"South Sudan?"

"Yes. I am in this country by the grace of God. I had to escape from my country."

As a former newspaper journalist, I longed to sit and talk with him at great length, learning his story, getting to know him. But of course I couldn't. I knew that he was on a tight schedule, and I certainly didn't want to cause him any problems.

"I have prayed for you for years," I said as he filled the vial, "without knowing you."

"Thank you."

"It is an honor to meet you," I gathered up my coat and handbag. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas to you, also."

We met. We talked. We parted. All in a span of about five minutes. But I will never forget meeting Abraham of Sudan, one of the lost boys.

If you don't know who the lost boys (and girls) of Sudan are and what they have endured, their stories are easily available on the Internet. Many, if not most, suffer persecution because of their Christian faith.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blogger Is Being Contrary

Blogger will not let me put paragraph breaks in the "Christmas Reflections: Five." I apologize for their tech malfunction.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Five

One Raggedy Christmas

The tree, bedecked with cherished ornaments, garlands, and twinkling lights, stood in front of the living room window. We had carefully placed the creche on a white sheet beneath it.

While we kept our gift-giving to a minimum so that it didn't usurp the true meaning of the day, that year circumstances curtailed spending all together. The country was in a recession, and my husband was out of work. So I decided to sew. I warmed up the Singer and began working on huge Raggedy Ann dolls for our two little girls. Keeping it a secret from them while having to work in front of them was the challenge. I could do the machine sewing after they had gone to bed. Constructing the body and the clothes was the easy part.

Embroidering the face, the heart, and the "I love you" took many long hours. As Christmas drew nearer, I found myself working much of the day and into the night on the hand sewing. My daughters watched me rooting every strand of red yarn for the hair.

"What are you doing, Mama?" they asked.

I wouldn't lie to them. "I'm making Raggedy Ann dolls. Do you like them?"

Their faces lit up. "Yes! Who are they for?" I knew they wanted me to say that they were for them, but a mama has to have some secrets, especially at this time of year.

"They're for two children who won't have many presents on Christmas morning. I want them to have these dolls. Do you think they'll like them?"

"Yes," each said. They accepted my explanation. I was glad they didn't ask more questions.

Christmas Eve came, and our tree was still bare of presents. On Christmas morning, however, two rather large gifts appeared behind the creche. After we read Luke 2, it was time for them to open their gifts. When they realized that each had one of the Raggedy Ann dolls, they began dancing around.

"But, Mama, you said these were for two other children," one said.

"Yeah!" the other chimed in. They thought they had caught their mother in a lie.

"I never said that." I remembered, because I had been very deliberate in my wording. "I said that they were for two children who wouldn't have many presents on Christmas morning."

That Christmas, they actually received three gifts: a mama-made doll, a lesson in critical listening, and a story to tell to friends through the years. They still have those dolls. In fact, my grandchildren now enjoy them.

Merry Christmas, Dana, Dawna, and precious grandbabes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas Reflections: Four

Nylons for Lunch

I always knew that Santa Claus was a wonderful fantasy. Mama never took me to sit on his lap, at least not that I can recall. Perhaps she wanted to protect me from the disappointment of a nearly giftless Christmas morning. I say "nearly giftless," because I usually got something practical--a new pair of oxfords from Schiff's Shoes , a cozy flannel nightgown from Grant's, or a blouse from Kresge's dimestore. It was never anything frivolous such as a transistor radio from Sears'.

My gifts to Mama were handmade in the early years. After all, one would have to collect a ton of empty bottles to get anything really nice. I was in junior high when I decided that she deserved something better than a potholder woven on a borrowed toy loom or a boot-scraper crafted from pop bottle lids nailed to a small square of plywood. (After all, we lived in the heart of downtown New Castle, Indiana, so we seldom had mud on our shoes, and any snow that might be on them would melt away long before we had trudged up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.) But what could I get her, and how could I pay for it?

I began to walk the aisles of the stores looking for just the right present. One day I decided to go into Mary Woodbury's, the finest ladies' apparel shop in town. How brazen of me to even walk through the heavy brass and plate-glass door! The floor was carpeted in some plush stuff. My oxfords sank in up to the laces. Soft music played in the background. An intoxicating fragrance filled the air. I inhaled deeply, trying my best to be quiet about it. It would never do to sniff loudly in Mary Woodbury's.

I couldn't stand there and take root in the rug, so I forced myself forward to the perfume counter. Mama liked perfume, though I'd never known her to wear anything but Coty's L'Oreal, which was sold at the corner drugstore.

"May I help you?"

I turned to see a well-dressed sales clerk with meticulously coiffed hair. At least, I assumed she was a sales clerk. Could it be Mary Woodbury herself? Suddenly I felt like a ragamuffin who had wandered in off the street . . .which was exactly what I was.

"I . . .uhm . . ." Quickly, I picked up one of the perfume bottles. "Can you please tell me how much this is?"

"Yes, miss. That would be eight dollars." I gulped and hoped she hadn't heard. "Shall I wrap it for you?"

"Uh . . .no, thank you. I think I'll keep looking."

Next to the perfume was the hosiery counter. I walked over to take a look. The clerk stayed right with me. She showed me a pair of Van Raalte nylons that came in a box with tissue paper. How elegant! How perfect for Mama! And they were . . .possible . . .if I really saved. A mere two dollars and ninety-nine cents.

The junior high had no cafeteria, so Mama gave me a quarter everyday for lunch at one of the numerous hamburger joints within walking distance of the school. Doug's, with it's killer hamburgers and steaming chili, was my favorite. Both the burgers and the chili were fifteen cents apiece. During this parsimonious time, I got one or the other and drank water. Thus I was able to stash a dime per day for the Van Raaltes. As Christmas drew closer, I skipped lunch all together. The thought of Mama's getting all dressed up to go somewhere, slipping on those luxurious stockings, and asking me to fasten the clasp of her double-strand graduated pearls (a remnant of more prosperous years) helped me forget my growling stomach.

Two days before Christmas, I walked into Mary Woodbury's and up to the hosiery counter with cash in hand. The same clerk came up to me.

"I would like one pair of the Van Raalte hose, size 9, in taupe, please."

I could have sworn the clerk was pinching back a smile, but she may have just stifled a burp. "Would you like that gift-wrapped, miss?"

I stood on tiptoe and leaned over the counter so that only she could hear me. "Is that extra?"

"No, miss."

"Then, yes, please."

On Christmas morning, Mama ever so delicately loosened the tape of the silver-wrapped Van Raalte box, pausing only to notice the embossed Mary Woodbury's sticker near the bow. Memories of those afternoon hunger pangs vanished in the light of her smile. It was absolutely delicious.

Merry Christmas, Mama. I love you.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Coming December 6, "Nylons for Lunch"
Check back for this, the fourth entry of "Christmas Reflections."

Christmas Reflections: Three

The Candy Counter

Candy came in seasonal waves. Some stayed around all year: assorted gum-drops, orange slices, peppermint and wintergreen lozenges, coconut bon-bons and haystacks, Boston baked beans, and redhots, for example. Those were fairly stable, not melting when the weather got hot. (Most of the five-and-tens were not air-conditioned. That luxury was reserved for a few restaurants and drugstores in the 1950s.) Though some chocolate candy hung around all summer, very little was sold.

Who wanted chocolate in the summer? It would melt before you could eat it. And then there were the worms. Sometimes I'd defy the odds and buy a Hershey's bar in July because I was craving chocolate (yes, the addiction started early). After all, it was well-wrapped in that silver foil. Surely it was okay. But it wasn't okay. It was discolored, and there were tiny worms wriggling and gnawing their way through the bar. Mama said that the worm eggs were always in the chocolate, that they waited for hot weather to hatch.

Come October, all of that changed. The clerks knew the little girl who lived up over McShurley's Shoe Store and the Coffee Shop, and they knew why I kept an eye on the candy counter.

"Sharon Kay, chocolate candy came in today."

"Really? Did you get the maple nut clusters?" Those were Mama's favorites. We didn't buy them often, because they were sixty-nine cents a pound, more than twice as much as a pound of orange slices, but when they showed up in the sparkling glass bin, I would go searching for empty soda pop bottles. If I could find eighteen, I would get thirty-six cents when I redeemed them at the A & P. That was enough for half a pound of maple nut clusters.

Then came Christmas. Forget chocolate! The French creams had arrived. They were so fresh that the sugar shells on the outside had hardly hardened. The inside would eventually stiffen to stone, but right now it was soft. Some were fruit-flavored, while others tasted almost floral, like an elegant, edible perfume.

Along with the French creams came the Christmas hard candies. My favorites were the filled ones: black-walnut pillows, candy raspberries, and chocolate-filled straws. While I always loved the colors and intricacies of of the ribbon candy, I never bought it, deciding that it would be too much of a challenge to eat.

Most of the time, I feasted on the sweets only with my eyes, but occasionally Mama would give me a dime or I'd skimp on lunch to have a nickel for a bit of candy. It helped us to make it through our temporary poverty.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The miracle tree

Christmas Reflections: Two

The Miracle Tree
Money was scarce when I was growing up, at least for us. Like the Marches in Little Women, a "temporary poverty" had settled over our household, or rather our apartment-hold, one that lasted throughout my growing-up years. I'm not complaining, mind you, for I learned many valuable lessons from those times that have served me well. Over and over again, the Lord taught me about His providence and His great love for me.

Take, for example, the year I especially yearned for a Christmas tree. It didn't have to fat or tall or even freshly cut. I just wanted something other that the tiny potted pines they sold in the produce section of the A & P or the ones I crafted out of green construction paper. But, alas, there was no money for presents, let alone something so frivolous as a Christmas tree.

I could wait for the one in our classroom. On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, the teacher would remove the ornaments we had so carefully made in art class and give them back to us. Then she would say, "Who would like to have the tree?" I could envision myself lugging that tree through the snow and up Broad Street hill, leaving a trail of dry needles in its wake. Then I would have to haul it up three flights of stairs and down an interminably long hallway to Apartment 8. Had that been the only way to have a tree that year, I would have done it. But God had another plan.

Mama and I had a routine on school mornings. She would stand in the door of our apartment and wave to me as I walked backwards down the hall, past the trash chute, past the elevator, waving at her until I turned the corner of another hallway.

One morning in early December, I stopped short beside the trash chute. My mouth fell open at what I saw. Standing just around the corner was a gloriously beautiful pastel pink Christmas tree. It looked brand new. None of the artificial needles were crushed from bearing ornaments or being packed away to tightly. Through some miracle of grace, God had given me my Christmas tree. And a pink one, at that. I had never even seen a pink tree before. Then a second miracle happened: Mama let me keep it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Christmas Reflections: One

The Dark Streets Shineth

When I was a child, the streets of New Castle, Indiana--my home town--became magic at Christmas time. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" blared from bell-shaped speakers mounted atop some of the buildings. Shop windows sparkled with colored lights and tempting displays. Wide-eyed children pressed their noses against the window glass to get a closer view of the Terri Lee dolls, Lionel train sets, and mechanized elves. Other tots stood with their parents in the long queue to get inside the cramped little Santa Claus house on the courthouse lawn.

The stores extended their hours from Thanksgiving to Christmas, so the town streets bustled with shoppers in the evening, laughing and greeting friends. Uniformed Salvation Army workers, backs turned to the wind and collars flipped up, rang their silver bells at every intersection.

Since we lived in the Jennings Building, up over McShurley's Shoe Store and The Coffee Shop, I spent a lot of time wandering the stores and the downtown streets, drinking in the sights and sounds of the season like a mug of hot cocoa. Sometimes Mama would give me a quarter and a nickel so I could visit the candy counter at Murphy's dimestore. I would get a quarter's worth of French creme candy, available only at Christmas time, and five-cents' worth of warm Spanish peanuts, my favorite. With those two bags in my hand, I felt like a big spender.

I loved it. The busyness. The music, tinny though it was. The laughter. The candy. The lights. They all contributed to the magic.

But snow lent the real magic. As the air began to fill with large, cold, wet feathery flakes, I would turn down a side street, walk a block or so, and stand under one of the antiquated street lamps. Looking up into its aura, I watched the snow dance in the light. Softly, so that none could hear me save the lamp and the descending snow, I sang along with music from the speakers: "O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Amen.

Dear reader, would you be so kind as to leave one of your own Christmas reflections as a comment? I'd love to hear it.