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jer ryder legos Christmas tree

The middle of our Christmas journey is always just that: the middle.

By which I mean: it is messy and rich and full, crowded with some of my favorite holiday traditions and the constantly-in-motion bodies of my two nephews. We are already a little tired, having flown 1,700 miles and driven nearly another 400.

blue sky highway Texas

This year, the drive happened on Christmas Eve – blue sky, long straight highways, Sara Bareilles and Mumford on Spotify, boy-band holiday music when we started to go a little crazy. It ended with my dad greeting us at the door: “We have to leave for church in 45 minutes!”

There was a mad scramble to wrap the last few gifts, kneeling on the guest room floor surrounded by Scotch tape and scraps of wrapping paper. I barely had time to brush my hair before we piled into the car. J and I snapped a photo in front of the lobby Christmas tree before heading inside, hoping we could get a seat – the 4:00 service tends to be crowded.

k j Christmas tree church fbc

Somehow, in spite of the lead-up, I was able to relax then: to exhale into one of my favorite church services of the year. You can count on a few things at my parents’ church: glittering, glorious Christmas trees; Doris on the pipe organ; familiar faces from my childhood and teenage years; and all the verses of as many carols as possible.

candles Christmas Eve silent night fbc

This was Christmas: relishing the third verse of Joy to the World and holding hands with my mother as we lifted our candles during Silent Night. This was Christmas: listening to a string quartet, my husband’s tenor voice, the babbles and cries of so many babies.

This was Christmas: coming, perhaps, no closer to understanding how or why God came into our midst, but choosing to acknowledge and celebrate. We cannot explain, but we rejoice.

moms tree gifts

We headed back to my parents’ for a pre-gift-exchange smorgasbord: cheese and charcuterie, apple slices and carrot sticks, square pretzels topped with chocolate and mint M&Ms. My nephews, decked out in their Santa shirts, could hardly wait to get to the unwrapping, but first we snacked, and then we listened to my sister read the story that still moves me, every year. “For unto you is born this day.” Unto us a child is born, and nothing will ever be the same.

nephews unwrapping presents gifts Christmas

This was the year of the Legos: the boys are obsessed, and they received sets from multiple family members. (Their other favorite thing was a pair of tiny laser guns – a gift for my dad, who still loves to get toys at Christmas.) We had presents that night and stockings the next day, and there were chocolates and new socks, scarves and Starbucks cards and fancy tea (for me).

The weather – after a freak dust-and-rainstorm, complete with tumbleweeds – continued mild, and we spent two afternoons in my sister’s backyard playing football and baseball and climbing on the swing set. We grilled burgers and ribs and did full justice to all the traditional holiday sides (most of them potato-based). I went for a few solo runs in my parents’ neighborhood, looping through the familiar roads under (mostly) bare branches and blue sky.

sneakers rocks running west Texas

The hubs, fighting sinus trouble, won the Best Uncle Award for playing every kind of sport (and Lego) we could squeeze in. My brother-in-law showed off his model train, and more quietly, his grilling skills. I slipped out onto my sister’s front lawn to snap pictures of the sunsets. And the best, as always, was being together.

If you celebrated, I hope your holidays were lovely. Now: onward into 2019.

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cotton mural texas

The shape of our Christmas journey has changed a little over the past few years.

When we moved to Boston, J’s parents and sister were still living in the eastern suburbs of Dallas, where he grew up. My father-in-law talked for years about retiring to “the country,” but I secretly never believed they’d actually do it. Until one summer day in 2015 when they shocked us all by announcing they were moving to a tiny East Texas town we’d never heard of.

Now, instead of staying in the suburbs, we fly into DFW, pick up the rental car and drive east for about an hour, to a cluster of small towns set off the highways amid cotton fields, (mostly) defunct railroad tracks and a few smallish lakes.

lake ray Hubbard Texas

It’s still a relatively quick drive into Dallas, and we end up going in at least once while we’re there, to meet up with J’s high school choir friends and sing Christmas carols. My husband, the lifelong choir nerd, is not a fan of most pop Christmas music, but he loves – and so do I – the chance to sing a cappella arrangements of the classics.

girls caroling

It always takes us a few songs to warm up, and there’s always at least one carol we don’t quite hit (this year it was O Tannenbaum). But we find our way through the familiar sheet music, singing Hark the Herald and Joy to the World, O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Come All Ye Faithful (with at least the first verse in Latin). We always do multiple renditions of Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Jingle Bells, and this year, Kelly had a surprise for us: actual sheet music for the absurdly complex version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We wind up with a few non-Christmas classics: the alma mater (even I know all the words) and The Lord Bless You and Keep You.

The weather was mild this year: blue skies, brisk but not biting winds, and temps in the vicinity of 60 (!) degrees. J took advantage of the hotel’s fitness center, but I made several drives to the park we discovered last year, where, it turns out, I love to run.

park pond blue sky

At the front end of a 10-day trip filled with people, those long solo loops around the pond and the neighborhood saved my life, and helped settle me after a rough travel day.

We kept a few of the traditions we’ve established over the years: the caroling party, a trip to the local pie place to meet J’s aunt and cousins for lunch (and pie); the family gift exchange, where my niece, Annie, got more presents than all of us (also a tradition). And we tried a few new things: Korean barbecue with my sister-in-law, some Tempranillo at the local winery, my in-laws’ new church.

I struggle sometimes to savor our days in East Texas, because I’m already looking forward to what always comes after them: Christmas in my hometown with all the traditions I love, and a few crowded, love-filled days with friends in Abilene.

But this year, for whatever reason, I was (mostly) able to slow down and enjoy this first leg. I wanted to really notice the blue sky and the cotton fields and the sun-bleached buildings. I wanted to remember: there is real life out here, in this place. I wanted to pay attention.

We’re (slowly) finding our way into the new year over here. I hope you are too.

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ryder poppy cards

A couple of weeks ago, I hopped a plane to west Texas, leaving behind emails and work to-do lists for a different kind of busy. My older nephew, Ryder, was turning six, and I’d planned to head home for his birthday party and a t-ball game, plus some Mexican food and time with my sister and parents.

The family texts flew back and forth in the days before my trip: party plans, flight schedules, what to buy Ryder for his birthday (answer: Nerf guns and Uno).

But on the day before I left, my sister and dad both sent a different kind of text: bring a dress in case the funeral happens while you’re here.

Frank, a longtime family friend of ours, had gone into the hospital in mid-April. It caught us all by surprise: he was 56 and healthy, and we were all stunned by the infection that took over his body. We had expected a long recovery, perhaps weeks in the hospital. But I stared in disbelief at the early-morning text my sister sent with news of his death. I still don’t quite believe it’s real.

I slipped a dress and a black cardigan into my suitcase, alongside my red shorts, running gear, flip-flops and a stack of books for the plane. After a long flight to Dallas and an even longer layover, I finally landed amid thunderstorms on a Wednesday night.

The next few days, it seemed to me, contained all of life: board games and Tex-Mex lunches, t-ball and the funeral, church on Sunday morning. There was, of course, lots of playing with my nephews: climbing around on their backyard fort, shooting baskets in the driveway, playing with the new Nerf guns in the living room. Tears and laughter and chaos. Grief and love.

“Life’s full,” my coworker Janet is fond of saying, usually with a wry smile in response to some fresh crisis, or a week like this one: crowded and crossed with the glory and the pain of life, all at once.

This trip was certainly full, and at times I could barely keep up: watching Ryder and his teammates run through the dirt at the t-ball fields, pushing Harrison (my younger nephew) in the swing and filming them both running through the sprinkler with my dad. Hugging Kim and Abbye, Frank’s wife and daughter, on a Friday morning that felt otherwise so ordinary. Eating chips and queso at Rosa’s with my mom and sister, before making a Target run. Holding Harrison on my lap at lunchtime, and admiring his new big-boy bed. Talking work and vacations with my parents and brother-in-law. Sitting outside at my sister’s house after the boys were in bed.

I went for three solo runs through my parents’ neighborhood, admiring the ocotillo and oleander, breathing in the fresh air under the big sky. Afterward, I sipped tea and ate breakfast in my mother’s kitchen, flipping through the local paper, which included, unbelievably, Frank’s obituary. We sat in a side pew at the packed funeral on Saturday morning, surrounded by so many faces I know and love. This church is part of the architecture of my life, and these people – not only Frank and Kim but so many others – are part of my family. We wound up the funeral by singing “It Is Well with My Soul” through our tears, Doris playing the organ as she has for decades. The next morning, we spent most of the Sunday school hour sharing stories about Frank.

There’s no tidy way to wrap up such a post; it feels unfinished, like the weekend itself, like life. Kim and her grown kids are at the beginning of a long road of grief, and Ryder and Harrison are wrapping up the school year. I’m caught, as always, between missing the cozy world of my hometown and being fiercely proud of the life I’ve built in a different city, hundreds of miles away.

I flew back to Boston that Sunday night, grateful to get back to my own house and my husband, who had been at a conference in L.A. while I was in Texas. But I also believe I was exactly where I needed to be that weekend: stepping back into a town that isn’t my current address, but which will always be home. Cheering for Ryder and his buddies as they batted and ran. And standing with my community, in grief and in joy.

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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betsy boys presents christmas

I never quite know how to write about Christmas, once it’s over. The presents have all been opened and admired, the holiday cards (finally) sent out, the suitcases packed and repacked and finally unpacked. We’re back in the routine of work and winter and daily life, and the 10 days we spent in Texas, driving up and down I-20 to see people we love, seem very far away.

This year will go down as the year of not-quite-normal: so many of our usual family traditions were altered or skipped over altogether. My sister has two small boys and was hobbling around in a knee brace this year (see above), so we opened family presents at her house instead of at my parents’ on Christmas Eve. For the same reason, J and I drove to Christmas Eve service by ourselves, slipping into a center pew to listen to a sermon by an unfamiliar minister. My dad, despite his best efforts, could not find any eggnog, so we missed having our annual cup together. And the small-child chaos was such that we completely forgot to read Luke 2 aloud before diving into the presents.

My husband’s family moved to a new house in a new town this summer, so we spent the first weekend of our trip navigating unfamiliar territory – a string of small towns in the East Texas countryside. The weather swung wildly from unseasonably warm (73 degrees on Christmas Day) to icy sleet and snow two days later. Our favorite Mexican restaurant was closed on the day we tried to go, and I had a 24-hour bug earlier in the week that prevented me from enjoying another Tex-Mex meal with my parents. All in all, it felt – I have to say – a little weird.

And yet.

On a breezy Monday night, J and I stood in a semicircle and sang Christmas carols a cappella with a few of his choir buddies from high school. The notes of those familiar tunes – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” an absurdly complicated arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – touched something deep inside me. This was our second time at this choral reunion, and though I am technically an outsider, they welcomed me like an old friend. Afterward, we walked to a local bar for snacks and cocktails, and told stories and laughed late into the evening.

My in-laws may have changed their address, but we are always sure of a welcome there: from J’s parents, his sister, the two cats, and three-year-old Annie, who jumped on J the minute we walked in the door and hardly let go for three days. She danced around, effervescent with joy, trying out her new rocking horse while clad in a pink princess dress. “Look at me, Uncle Miah! Watch me, Aunt Katie!”

jer annie shoulders smiles

It felt odd to be at Christmas Eve service without my parents, but their church, where I grew up, is still and always my favorite place to be on that night. We found seats in front of some family friends and lit our candles during “Silent Night.” Our beloved music minister, George, led the service with his customary joie de vivre. I slipped through the crowd to give him a hug afterward. And that felt – unmistakably – like Christmas.

My grandparents drove up from their house near San Antonio, and Pop brought me a gorgeous bookcase that he’d worked on for months. Neno brought a stack of old photos for Betsy and me to look through, and we spent a happy afternoon in Betsy’s kitchen, riffling through them and laughing and telling stories while we snacked on Pop’s guacamole and took turns making dishes for Christmas dinner.

We had all our traditional favorites: smoked brisket with Neno’s barbecue sauce, sweet potato casserole, Mom’s cranberries suspended in Jell-O, peanut butter kiss cookies. We ate several meals around the table that Pop made for Betsy, with my nephews in their high chairs and all of us squeezed in elbow to elbow. We had stockings at Mom and Dad’s on Christmas morning, with Mom’s three Christmas trees twinkling, and Dad and I sneaked in our favorite parts of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

cookie monster christmas eve telephone

“The best is being together, even if it is chaotic,” I said to Mom after Christmas, when we were discussing this year’s craziness. And it might sound cliched, but it’s true.

The best was sitting on the big sectional couch in Betsy’s living room, telling stories and cracking up at inside family jokes and hugging my nephews (when they stood still long enough). The best was catching up with multiple friends in Abilene, cramming in so many stories from the past year, sitting around a table until nearly midnight and laughing until our sides hurt. The best was chicken and dumplings around Frankie’s table, homemade pizza with Laura and Bill, cups of chai with Lisa and Mike, hugs from Shanna and Calvin and Gail.

The best, always, is heading two thousand miles south and west, knowing what’s at the end of that road: home. (And those small, wiggly cuties we love.)

jer harrison christmas

I hope your holidays were wonderful, and that 2016 is treating you right so far.

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bookstore lenox ma interior

We recently (re)visited The Bookstore in Lenox, MA. A bookish wonderland.

We are heading straight for Thanksgiving and, as always, I’m thankful for good books. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks
Right before finishing her latest book, the novelist Serendipity Smith disappears. Her daughter, Tuesday McGillycuddy, must travel to the land of Story to find her mother (with her faithful dog, Baxterr) – but the adventure doesn’t go quite as planned. Sweet, whimsical and so fun. Found at Book Culture in NYC.

The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton
Why do we travel? What do we gain from exploring new places? How can we become more thoughtful travelers? Alain de Botton explores these and other questions in this series of travel essays, with “guides” such as Vincent van Gogh and John Ruskin. He’s an observant, lyrical and occasionally cranky narrator. Thought-provoking and highly enjoyable. Recommended by Laura.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly
It’s springtime in the Texas Hill Country, and Calpurnia Tate has all she can do to keep her brother, Travis, and his ever-expanding collection of stray animals out of trouble. Meanwhile, Callie keeps learning about astronomy and biology from her grandfather and starts assisting the local vet. A fun historical novel with a wonderful, spunky heroine. (I also loved Callie’s first adventure, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.)

A Place We Knew Well, Susan Carol McCarthy
For 13 days in October 1962, the U.S. held its breath as tensions in Cuba ratcheted up and up. McCarthy explores the Cuban Missile Crisis through the lens of a tightly knit family in a small Florida town. Tense and well-crafted. I loved protagonist Wes Avery: such a deeply compassionate man.

Between Gods, Alison Pick
Raised in a Christian household, Alison Pick was shocked to discover that her father’s Czech relatives were Jewish – some even died in the Holocaust. In her thirties, preparing for marriage, she undertakes the difficult journey of conversion to Judaism. Pick seems more interested in religious participation than a personal connection with (either) God, but this is still a luminous, moving, achingly honest memoir. Found at The Bookstore in Lenox.

Girl Waits With Gun, Amy Stewart
After their mother’s death, Constance Kopp and her two sisters are living peacefully on their farm in rural New Jersey. But when a powerful, ruthless silk factory owner hits their buggy with his car and refuses to pay up, things get ugly. A witty, whip-smart, action-packed novel of a woman who became one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the U.S.

Plainsong, Kent Haruf
Two elderly rancher brothers take in a pregnant teenage girl, at the suggestion of a compassionate teacher. Another teacher must raise his two young sons alone after his wife leaves. A luminous, quietly powerful story of ordinary people acting with great generosity and kindness, told in Haruf’s spare, beautiful prose.

Sheer Folly, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple’s 18th adventure finds her at a(nother) country estate, doing research for an article and investigating a(nother) crime. These books are my Cadbury milk chocolate: smooth, sweet and delightfully English.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Four days in West Texas

sunset sky west texas

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: the sunsets in my hometown are the best.

I may have lived in Boston for almost five (!) years, but every so often, I feel the gravitational pull toward the plains of West Texas, where I grew up. My parents and sister still live there, and last week I hopped a plane to go and spend a few days with them.

I love our annual holiday odyssey across Texas, but it inevitably involves a rental car, mounds of luggage and a lot of schedule-juggling. These solo trips, which I take every few months, are looser, less demanding. They’re not exactly calm (I have two small nephews), but they are their own brand of relaxation.

striped rug bare feet

We wear out the road between my parents’ house and my sister’s. I stand barefoot in my parents’ kitchen in the mornings, sipping tea while my dad brews coffee and flips through the local (typo-riddled) newspaper. We go to church on Sunday morning and watch golf on Sunday afternoon. And we eat a lot – a lot – of Mexican food.

(We also headed to my favorite soda fountain this time for lunch and a strawberry milkshake. Best in the world.)

katie milkshake

My sister has two boys now, and they’re both growing like weeds. Harrison was a tiny infant at Christmastime, but he’s seven months now, and he’s a (mostly) happy little chunk of love.

betsy harrison

Ryder is three (how is that possible?) and much harder to photograph, because he’s in constant motion. His favorite thing to do is play with trains, and his favorite playmate is my dad.

dad ryder trains

I’m lucky to get to come back here and hang out every once in a while. To answer Ryder’s thousand questions and hear him call me “Kiki.” To laugh with my mom and try on clothes with my sister and trade wacky movie quotes with my dad. To stand in a pew on Sunday morning and sing the hymns we all love. To enjoy my brother-in-law’s excellent grilling skills and quiet humor. To be surrounded by, and immersed in, love.

Boston is where I live, and where I’ve built a life I love. But West Texas is still and always my home.

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