Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Every December, my husband and I pack our big suitcases with clothes and Christmas presents, trade our down coats for lighter wool ones, and hop a plane to Texas. We live and work two thousand miles away from our families and many of our dearest friends, but once a year, we get to spend about 10 days driving up and down I-20, seeing as many of our loved ones as we can.

stockings christmas texasStockings at my parents’ house

We started in Dallas, opening presents and eating at our favorite restaurants with my husband’s family. We saw a magical (if tearjerking) movie, and we drove out to East Texas to spend the day with J’s aunt and uncle, whom we hadn’t seen in five years. Despite four (yes, four) instances of the fire alarm going off at our hotel, we enjoyed having our own space – especially the free wi-fi and the cozy reading chair.

J’s niece, Annalynn (17 months), entertained us all. She’s a sweetie:


The day before Christmas Eve, we headed west to my hometown, stopping in Abilene for a long lunch with Shanna. My nephew, Ryder, was waiting for us when we arrived:

ryder book papa d

This kid is so much fun. At 19 months, he’s a bundle of energy, and we all spent large portions of the next few days chasing him around. He wasn’t sure about J at first, but bonded with him pretty quickly:

ryder jeremiah

(Throwing golf balls in the backyard is apparently big fun.)

We made, and ate, all our Christmas favorites: sweet potato casserole topped with pecans and brown sugar, fluffy mashed potatoes, hot rolls, whole cranberries in Jell-O, green bean casserole. We grilled ribs one night, steak another night, and toasted each other on Christmas Eve with eggnog. Even the boys (my husband and brother-in-law) got more than enough to eat:

food christmas eve jeremiah stephen

We went to my parents’ church for the Christmas Eve candlelight service, one of my favorite evenings in the whole year. Our beloved music minister, George, is receiving treatment for cancer, but he was onstage leading the carols, his voice as strong as ever. We sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Mom’s favorite, and ended with Dad’s favorite, “Silent Night.”

This was the year of the camel, since my dad is obsessed with the Geico hump day commercial. My sister even bought him a T-shirt:

camel t-shirt dad christmas

And we must have watched the commercial 15 times. The best part was watching him laugh:

dad betsy laughter

Ryder’s favorite gift was a tractor he can ride (closely followed by a pair of socks with tractors on them):

ryder opening tractor

His legs don’t quite reach the pedals yet, so we all took turns pushing him around.

ryder tractor fun

Mostly, we just had so much fun hanging out with my family.

mom betsy kitchen

(That’s my mom and my sister, in my parents’ kitchen – where we spent a lot of time.)

Christmas 2013 106

We ended our trip with three days in Abilene, where we lived for eight years (including our undergraduate years, J’s time in graduate school and our first two years of marriage). I never take many photos there because we’re too busy hugging everyone we know and talking as hard as we can, trying to catch up on all the news. But I did snap this photo of J playing dominoes with our hosts:

donagheys 42

So that was our Christmas. Merry, bright, magical, and full of hugs and Tex-Mex food. Pretty wonderful.

How were your holidays? (And happy belated New Year!)

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christmas books bookshop window tree stockings

City of God: Faith in the Streets, Sara Miles
My friend Kari loves Sara Miles, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read – a meditation on finding God in San Francisco, as Miles offers ashes to people on the streets on Ash Wednesday. She captures some tender, moving human moments, though some of the other themes (the gentrification of the Mission neighborhood, for example) felt repetitive. Messy, hopeful and sometimes lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 4).

The House of Hades, Rick Riordan
Seven demigods are racing toward the Doors of Death – five of them on a flying ship, the other two from inside Tartarus. If they don’t seal the Doors, the earth goddess Gaea will wreak havoc on the world, but can they complete the quest and survive? A fun installment in Riordan’s fast-paced Heroes of Olympus series, jam-packed with entertaining mythological references. Lots of slapstick and adolescent humor, but some moments of self-awareness too: the demigods are growing up.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
My friend Julie gave me this book years ago, and I read it every December. It’s a gentle story of love, loss and new beginnings, of Christmas in a tiny Scottish village and unlikely friendships. The familiar scenes make me smile and the ending makes me teary. Rereading it is one of my favorite Advent rituals.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
I love Patchett’s novel Bel Canto and adored this collection of essays on marriages (failed and successful ones), the writing life, the genesis of the bookstore Patchett co-owns (Parnassus Books), and her friendship with an elderly nun. Witty, wise and beautifully written. Now I’m debating which of Patchett’s other novels to read next.

To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing, Simon Garfield
I loved Garfield’s On the Map, and he tackles the subject of letter writing with his signature gusto. He traces the evolution of letters’ role in society, the development of the postal service, and provides excerpts – some touching, some scandalous – from great letter writers. Woven throughout are a series of World War II love letters, which are romantic, frustrating and endearingly human. A fabulous book on a wonderful subject.

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
It’s almost Christmas in Mitford and Father Tim Kavanagh has a secret – he’s restoring a lovely old Nativity scene as a surprise for his wife, Cynthia. Several of his fellow townspeople have Christmas secrets, too. Sweet and heartwarming and funny, like all the Mitford novels.

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers
A stalled car brings Lord Peter Wimsey to a remote East Anglian village with a beautiful set of church bells, and a set of dark secrets. Murder and floods follow, but of course our intrepid detective solves the mystery. Moody and fascinating, with an unusual solution to the case.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

What are you reading, as the year winds down?

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Advent: the waiting

Here we are again, at the turning of the year, when the physical world grows dark and quiet and the church begins to talk about Light.

Since Advent came right on the heels of Thanksgiving this year, we spent a good portion of that Saturday decorating and preparing. We started at church, where we hung pine garlands and set out cyclamen and poinsettias:

advent church window flowers

church advent brookline

That evening, we decorated at home, hanging stockings, playing Christmas music while we trimmed the tree, and setting out a stack of Christmas books:

christmas books charlie brown

christmas tree

I lit the peppermint-vanilla candle I bought in early November when I visited my family in Texas. It had been hiding in the cabinet, waiting, like the rest of the Christmas decorations. And although I’m burning it every night now, and the decorating is all done and the shopping is mostly done, I’ve still been waiting.

I waited for various holiday events: our children’s Christmas pageant at church and our office holiday lunch, both of which happened this week. We ordered in from Chipotle at the office, blasted Christmas music, and all of us wore festive hats:

joy committee hgse party

At church, my husband reprised his pageant role as a wise man. That’s him on the left, in the turban (my scarf), with the “frankincense” (a tea tin from my collection).

wise men brookline

I was a spectator/costumer/enthusiastic picture-taker. The kids were angels and various animals, and I welled up at the familiar words, spoken by Sierra, age seven: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

brookline pageant christmas

I’ve been soaking up the quiet in front of the tree every evening, playing all my favorite Christmas CDs, finally rereading Winter Solstice (after finishing my Harry Potter reread). I’m dipping into Watch for the Light when I can, savoring the words of Madeleine L’Engle and Kathleen Norris and Alfred Delp, still looking forward to the words of Brennan Manning and Annie Dillard and Gail Godwin.

I’m still waiting, though, for a few cherished traditions: the Christmas Eve candlelight service at my parents’ church, family gifts on Christmas Eve night and stockings on Christmas morning, eggnog with my dad around the fire and the reading of the story from Luke 2. Some traditions have shifted, or are shifting, to accommodate travel schedules and new family members, but always we are together, and that is best of all.

I’m also waiting as we are all waiting: for Christ to come, for the Light to break forth in the cold darkness that sometimes surrounds and overwhelms us. I’m waiting for the day when sorrow and sighing will flee away, when the wilderness will rejoice and blossom, when all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

I’m finding comfort in the words of Isaiah this Advent, in the majestic phrases like the ones I used above, which speak of joy and gladness and the dawning of a new day when sorrow and suffering have no place. That day may still be a long way off, but for now, I am content to rest in these words, and wait.

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We put up our big, beautiful Christmas tree this past weekend, listening to Elvis, George Strait and Charlie Brown while we did so (it’s tradition).

christmas tree

My husband picked up takeout from our favorite Indian restaurant, while I unraveled and strung the lights.

lights christmas tree decorating

I am my mother’s daughter – I love small white lights, lots of them – and also my father’s daughter, because I love the mismatched, heirloom, handmade, funky ornaments on my tree.

Most of our ornaments have stories, and every year, I snap a few photos to share with you. Here are this year’s gems:

fenway ornament apple

I bought this ornament for J the first year we lived in Boston, from a handmade craft market downtown. It makes me smile, especially in light of this year’s World Series win. (Hanging above it is an apple that I think came from my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Drake.)

angel christmas tree ornament

This angel also came from a teacher – Mrs. Hicks, who directed a pull-out program called Project Challenge at the school I went to in first grade. My name and the year are on the back.

suitcase travel christmas ornament

My mom gave me this suitcase last year. Three of the four cities (Rome, Paris and New York) are places I’ve visited and love.

moose christmas ornament

During my year in Oxford as a graduate student, I had an American friend whose nickname was Moose. I found these silver moose ornaments at Northlight, a Scandinavian housewares shop on the High Street, and bought one for him and one for myself. (They’re difficult to photograph, because they reflect everything.)

telephone booth christmas ornament

This ornament came from a Christmas shop in my West Texas hometown, but it represents my love for the UK (and its red phone boxes).

Do your ornaments have stories? I’d love to hear them.

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maison blanc window

It’s that time of year, when the stores put up their Christmas window displays (already?) and everyone starts making gift lists and travel plans. I love the sparkly, starry magic of the Advent/Christmas season, but I do not love the anxiety that sometimes comes with trying to find the perfect gift for every person on my list.

After years of swinging wildly between different methods (including a couple of years where I tried to make every single gift), I’ve finally come up with a few holiday-shopping strategies that work for me.

1. Start early. I am a staunch advocate for enjoying each holiday as it comes – it makes me slightly sick to see candy canes and stocking stuffers fill the stores right after Halloween. And while I love the red cups at Starbucks and the Christmas music, I am committed to savoring November (and Thanksgiving).

But a little planning ahead for Christmas shopping can save your sanity in mid-December. (Especially if, like me, you often travel a long distance for the holiday and need to get your shopping done early.) So…

2. Make a list. Or, in my case, a spreadsheet. Yes, I’m serious. I have a simple Google spreadsheet with the names of everyone I need to buy for, along with gift ideas and the names and prices of items already bought. I can track who I’m buying for, what I’m buying, and how much I’m spending, all at the same time. (Bonus: I can check it at the office if I’m planning to do a bit of shopping on my lunch break.)

3. Decide how many gifts you can reasonably make. If you are even remotely crafty (and I am), it’s tempting to think you can make gifts for your entire family, and maybe you can. But you will save some serious time (and stress) if you consider what is possible for you – and what handmade gifts will actually appeal to everyone on your list.

For example, I am a knitter, but my sister does not wear scarves (they make her itch, no matter what they’re made of) and my husband already has more handknit hats than he’ll ever wear. And most of my family lives in Texas, so they don’t need many knitted winter items. But this year, I am making a few pairs of cozy slippers from this fun book. And if I’m tempted to make anything else, I’ll consult this handy make-or-buy flowchart from Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

4. If you see a reasonably priced gift you like, buy it. I am a maximizer by nature – I like to weigh all the options and I tend to second-guess myself, especially when I’m buying a gift for someone. (Also, the men in my family – my husband, dad and brother-in-law – are much more difficult to shop for than the women or the kids.) But at Christmas, as at other times of the year, I’m on a budget, both money- and time-wise.

So, if I see a book I know my dad will love (like American Triumvirate, about three incredible golfers) or a DVD my mom has been wanting (like Downton Abbey, season 1), I go ahead and buy it. This saves me a lot of mental back-and-forth, and it saves time, since I don’t have to go back to the store and buy it later. (The examples above are both gifts I bought last year, which were huge hits.)

5. Take the pressure off yourself. For me, this means not pushing myself to make every gift (see #3 above) or to buy everything from handmade shops or local stores. I am a huge fan of local, independent businesses and sites like Etsy – and I do buy a lot of gifts from those places, especially my favorite local bookstores. But if my brother-in-law wants a certain country album or I find an adorable outfit for my nephew at GapKids, I go ahead and buy them, from big-box stores if necessary. (See #4 above.) There’s no sense in buying a quirky handmade or local gift if it’s not what the person really wants.

6. Have fun. I know holiday shopping can be stressful, but ultimately it’s fun to buy (or make) a gift to light up the eyes of someone you love. (Someone please remind me of this when it’s Dec. 15 and I’m still struggling to finish up my list!) You may have a few panicked moments (I have them every year), but ultimately, a bit of planning and a little less pressure can make the shopping experience much more enjoyable.

Also: shop windows at Christmas are wonderful, no? They make me long to curl up by a fire with a cup of hot cocoa and Sarah MacLachlan’s Wintersong album. (That window at the top of this post is from Oxford, long ago, and the one below is from Boston – my beloved Brattle Book Shop.)

christmas books bookshop window tree stockings

How do you shop for the holidays without losing your mind? (I’m always looking for additional tips.)

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brookline booksmith shelves interior

Royal Blood, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch (Her Royal Spyness) travels to a spooky castle in Transylvania for a wedding. But odd things happen during her journey, and once she arrives, a wedding guest is poisoned. Georgie joins her beau, Darcy, in a spot of sleuthing to find the killer – but will she be next? And are there really vampires lurking nearby? A fun send-up of the gothic novel/vampire genre, plus an intriguing mystery. And Queenie, Georgie’s new maid, is hilarious.

Naughty in Nice, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana finally gets to go somewhere warm and exotic – Nice in the winter! Once there, she gets asked to model by the great Coco Chanel – but a valuable necklace goes missing after the fashion show, and then an odious neighbor turns up dead. Accused of murder by a bumbling inspector and determined to clear her name, Georgie tracks down yet another killer. (She does get a proper holiday after solving the case.) Great fun.

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta, Jen Lin-Liu
While honeymooning in Italy, Jen Lin-Liu began wondering about the connections between noodles in China (where she had been living) and Italy. She traverses the ancient Silk Road, visiting Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan and other countries, taking cooking classes and sampling various cuisines. I enjoyed the social observations and descriptions of food; less appealing were Lin-Liu’s angst about her brand-new marriage and her frustrations with her non-foodie husband. Still an enjoyable (and at times mouthwatering) read.

The Twelve Clues of Christmas, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana and the usual cast of characters – her actress mother, hapless maid, Cockney grandfather and handsome beau Darcy – end up in a quaint English village at Christmastime. But each day seems to bring a new and tragic death, and Georgie must keep up her duties as social hostess while worrying that a killer is lurking nearby. A clever mystery plot, with appearances from characters I love, and lots more Darcy (always a good thing). So much fun.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Emmuska Orczy
I knew Jaclyn had loved this book, so when I found it for fifty cents at a thrift shop, I snapped it up. The exploits of dashing Scarlet Pimpernel, his league of gentlemen, and his clever French wife Marguerite were so much fun. Romance, intrigue, swashbuckling adventure – a perfect, classic confection. (I do adore classics that don’t take themselves too seriously.)

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

What are you reading?

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china cabinet bookcase books

The Last Night at the Ritz, Elizabeth Savage
Set in Boston, this book follows four old friends through a night fraught with secrets and complications. The narrator (never named) indulges in frequent flashbacks, musing about her college days and various love affairs. Lovely descriptions of Boston/Cambridge and some wittily quotable lines, including my favorite: “It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.” But I had trouble caring about any of the characters, who struck me as self-absorbed and petty.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown
I love Brown’s blog and enjoyed this discussion of her research on shame and vulnerability, and how the latter is key to authentic relationships. (Also an interesting delineation of the difference between shame and guilt.) She’s a social worker, a researcher, a teacher, a mom, and a fellow Texan whose plainspoken style resonates with me. Thought-provoking, especially if you “don’t do vulnerability.” It is a powerful thing to be seen, and to let others see you.

The Pigeon Pie Mystery, Julia Stuart
I loved Stuart’s previous book, The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise, set at the Tower of London. This book takes us to Hampton Court Palace in the 1890s, with a quirky assortment of grace-and-favour residents, their servants, and local merchants. Princess Alexandrina and her maid, Pooki, come to live at the Palace after the death of the Princess’ father. When one of the palace residents dies after eating pigeon pie at a picnic, suspicion falls on Pooki, who made the pie. Determined to clear her maid’s name, the Princess investigates. Fun, although it’s difficult at times to keep the large cast of characters straight.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
The cover of this one looks like a romance novel, but I swear to you it’s not. It’s my seventh time to read this story, in which five people (loosely connected, and all dealing with life crises of some kind) end up in the same house, in a small Scottish village, just before Christmas. None of them are expecting a festive holiday, but they find joy and healing and laughter (and a bit of Christmas wonder) together. I cry at the end every year.

A Share in Death, Deborah Crombie
Jessica has been raving about this mystery series featuring the Scotland Yard detective team of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, so I picked up the first one. While on holiday at a Yorkshire timeshare, Duncan gets mixed up in a murder case involving several of his fellow guests. He begins investigating and puts Gemma on the case in London (to the chagrin of the local inspector). I liked the introduction to Duncan and Gemma, though the plot and the construction of the mystery both felt so-so. Still, always good to begin at the beginning, and I’ll probably read the sequel.

Glaciers, Alexis M. Smith
I’d seen this slim novel on several “best of 2012″ lists, and the writing – precise, lyrical, luminous – did not disappoint. The story follows Isabel, a quiet twenty-something library worker in Portland, through a day in her life (interspersed with flashbacks). I especially loved her affinity for old postcards and other ephemera. The plot felt somewhat lacking, but this is the sort of book where action is beside the point. Quiet and lovely.

99 Blessings: An Invitation to Life, David Steindl-Rast
A thoughtful yet whimsical collection of blessings, giving thanks for everything from dragonflies to children’s questions, from tears and old fences to healing hands and the Internet. The prose is gentle and lyrical, and I love the overarching theme, especially in the face of recent tragedies: we keep saying thank you, dark though it is. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 12).

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

What are you reading lately?

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flowers church advent light

Last Monday night, J and I drove across town to the home of our friends Chris and Hannah, for their annual Advent readings. Every year, they make a pot of mulled cider, buy some festive goodies, and invite friends to join them as they light their Advent wreath and read from the week’s lectionary, and from the beautiful book God With Us.

This was our first time attending their readings, but as I listened to the words of Isaiah and Luke (and Scott Cairns), cradling a mug of cider in my hands, it struck me anew: during Advent, we wait together.

Sometimes the spiritual life seems like a solitary journey, a long, solo trek down a road that’s often dark, as you stumble your way forward, talking to a God who never does answer in the way you want him to. The tradition I grew up in emphasized a “personal relationship” with Christ, which is a valid and beautiful thing. But when I struggle, or feel joyful, or have questions, I also work through those times with my community.

After two years at our wee church in Boston, J and I are part of the team of people who make things happen. We helped decorate the church for Advent, with wreaths and candles, and flowers on the windowsills. We help plan services, choose songs, print bulletins. We answer questions and make announcements and wash dishes after the monthly potluck. Sometimes it feels like a lot of responsibility. But we are never alone, even in our small congregation. We sing and pray, grieve and rejoice, live and love, together.

My memories of Christmas, whether musical or literary or simply nostalgic, are filled with the faces of those I love: my parents and sister, my husband, my extended family, my friends, my fellow expats in Oxford. And as I continue to practice Advent (a relatively new tradition for me), I practice it in community.

We light the candles on the wreath; we read Zechariah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s strange, exhilarating words. We sing all the Christmas carols we can, and we start every service with “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” And we wait for God to come, both as the baby in the manger and as the triumphant King. We wait for his justice and love to break through in our lives.

We wait together. And that is true comfort, and true joy.

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We’ve hauled our tree and ornaments up from the basement, put on the Christmas music, and decked our halls. As per tradition, I snapped photos of a few treasured ornaments to share with you.

red boots ornament

Sweet Bethany sent me these red boots last year. They look just like my full-size red wellies.

eeyore bell ornament

This bell-ringing Eeyore was a gift from a high school boyfriend. He spent years hiding in a drawer, till I found him, dusted him off and put him on the tree.

green christmas ball ornament

My friend Courtney gave me this glass ball back in seventh grade. Her familiar, loopy handwriting makes me smile.

teapot mount vernon martha washington

J and I visited Mount Vernon this summer on our trip to D.C., and came home with this wee reproduction of Martha Washington’s Blue Canton everyday teapot. It brings to mind three of my favorite things: travel, tea and adventures with my love.

snowman ornament christmas tree

This snowman’s origins are lost to history, but he’s been part of my family’s Christmas collection for many years. I love his red hat and tiny bottle-brush tree.

I am staunchly devoted to my mismatched, eclectic, storied collection of ornaments – unwrapping them each year is like opening a series of tiny gifts. I’ve come to love the tradition of sharing them with you on the blog. Check out my first, second and third ornament posts for more stories.

What kinds of ornaments hang on your tree – do you have matched sets or a colorful hodgepodge?

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When I moved back to Oxford to spend a year earning my master’s degree, I shared a wee house in East Oxford with three English girls.

One of my new housemates, Lizzie, worked at Starbucks. In fact, the first time I met her, to introduce myself and pick up my house key, was at Starbucks on the High Street in central Oxford. I sipped nervously at a raspberry smoothie, studying the blue-eyed girl across from me, hoping she wouldn’t regret opening her home to an unknown American she’d met via Facebook.

Before long, Lizzie transferred to a new Starbucks shop in Headington, up the hill from our house. Despite my preference for independent cafes, I dropped by occasionally when she was on shift. I am not a coffee drinker, and I don’t particularly care for Starbucks teas (my usual drink of choice there is a chai latte). But in early December, I was hankering for a peppermint hot chocolate, so I stopped in and ordered one.

red cup with journal

The girl at the counter, one of Lizzie’s co-workers, stared at me in confusion. “We don’t have any peppermint,” she said.

I frowned. Surely she was mistaken? Even across the Atlantic, the red cups and red aprons had come out in November, and the board behind her touted various holiday drinks. And I knew from my own time as a barista that many cafes keep peppermint syrup on hand year-round. No peppermint? At all?

I shrugged. Perhaps they were out. “I’d like a regular hot chocolate, then.”

A few minutes later, Lizzie came over to the table where I sat, sipping my non-minty drink, and I told her they’d better order some peppermint, since the holidays were approaching quickly.

She stared at me with the same look her co-worker had worn.

“No peppermint? She’s mad! We must have a whole case of it in the back room!”

After another second or two, we both burst out laughing.

The next week, when I dropped by and ordered a minty hot chocolate, Lizzie stared at me with a straight face, her blue eyes dancing. “We don’t have any peppermint,” she said.

As her co-worker (a different one this time) stared at her as though she’d gone mad, we both cracked up again.

It’s been five years, but every time I order a peppermint hot chocolate, I think of Lizzie, and smile.

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