Friday, December 28, 2018

For the Kids

During my third year at The University of Texas, I found it necessary to fill three hours with an elective of some sort.  I’d already taken two of the most popular electives on campus, The History of Rock and Roll and Interpersonal Communication.  And I’d taken Bowling 101.  Twice.  I stumbled upon a Social Work class; I don’t remember the name, but I do remember the professor (or at least her first name – Rosalee).  

From the minute I walked into that class until the day I turned in my final exam, my heart swelled with pain and love, all at the same time.  For three hours every week.  

And for as much as I loved that class, I loved the thought of graduating (on time) and getting out of school even more.  Rather than change my major to Social Work, I filled my remaining elective hours with Social Work classes and ended up receiving a “minor” in that degree field (might as well have some kind of designation for those 15 hours!)  

When my Journalism career didn’t turn out the way I hoped (and let’s be honest, I never had any kind of Journalism career to begin with), I tried convincing myself I would be just fine in retail.  Until I made the move to “Management Trainee” and six weeks later, I was told I was "not cut out for management”.  

I joined the line at the unemployment office, accepted my unemployment check, and began a job search in a new field.  Any field.  That would allow me to work 8:00 – 5:00 and not work nights and weekends.  Because … parenthood.  

The stars aligned when I happened upon an opening for the Department of Human Services (DHS).  My application submitted, I took the only job offered to me:  a part-time bank teller position at First Federal Savings & Loan (not exactly DHS).  

Shortly after my bank teller training was complete, I was invited to test for an Eligibility Specialist position with DHS.  Another four weeks passed before they offered me a job, along with a full-time paycheck and benefits!  I gladly accepted.  

On the first day of training, we were asked to share our "why".  Why we wanted to work for DHS.  I, along with about 95% of my classmates said, "because we wanted to help others."  

As an Eligibility Specialist, I certified individuals for (what was known at the time as) Food Stamps, Welfare, and Medicaid.  A few years into my career, I applied to be a caseworker with Child Protective Services.  I honestly don’t remember if I ever tested for the position or interviewed for it.  But I do remember I was not selected.  

Perhaps my heart wasn’t up to the task and that much was evident from my application.  I don’t know.  As a young mother, myself, perhaps I just wasn’t ready.  Ready for the reality that is Child Protective Services.  And maybe it was a blessing in disguise, based on what I now know about why children are placed in “the system”.  

In 1998, shortly after I began working on the administrative side of DHS (now known as the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, or HHSC), I saw an ad in my small-town, 8-page newspaper, seeking volunteers for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).  While my heart liked the idea, as a single mom to a growing boy, I didn’t have the time or energy (and my son, God love him, took up a LOT of my energy) to volunteer.  

Maybe someday …  

Fast forward 19 years and my retirement countdown is just about down to zero.  My retirement from a management position (Take THAT retail establishment!)  

“What will you do with yourself?” I was often asked. 

“Well … I have a new grandbaby to spoil.  I’m going to do some work for my hubby.  I’m going to go to the gym more often.  And I think I’m going to volunteer for CASA.”  

Most in my field knew what that was.  And those who didn’t, responded, “Oh wow!  I could never do that!  Good for you!”  

So what does a CASA do exactly?  In a nutshell, a CASA advocates for children who are in the foster care system.  Children who have been removed from their homes due to neglect and/or abuse.  And children who need a voice in the child protection court system.  More specifically, it’s the CASA’s responsibility to make sure the children’s needs are being met while they are in foster care, to follow the parents’ progress as they do what they need to do to be better parents (which hopefully results in the family being reunited), and to suggest what is best for the children, in terms of their long-term placement.  

While I worried about the strength of my heartstrings, I completed my CASA application.  Those old familiar feelings – simultaneous pain and love – found their way into my heart once more.  

Just three short months after I retired, I began my CASA training.  And after six weeks of both online and classroom training, along with courtroom observations, my classmates and I, armed with all the knowledge and ready to take on the world, were asked to identify the type of case we would prefer (infants, elementary school age children, teenagers? single children, sibling groups?).  

Things just got real.  

In the counties I serve, the number of cases in which the Judge has requested a CASA far outnumber the number of available CASAs.  So it’s not so surprising that the day before I was sworn in, I got the call.  

My first case was waiting for me.  Will I accept?  

I was sworn in as a CASA (by a real Judge and everything!) on a Tuesday and signed the paperwork accepting my case two days later.  

The past 20 months have been a mixture of joy and heart-break, hope and anxiety.  And not just because I have to write a report to the court prior to every hearing (I’m retired, remember?).  

“My kids” have packed up their belongings in black trash bags a total of eight times.  Eight times in twenty months.
Eight moves.  
Eight different caregivers.  
Eight different doctors.
Eight different schools. 
Eight sets of friends. 
Eight new routines to adjust to.  

They are kids.  And while kids are said to be resilient, I can’t help but wonder just how much resilience can one kid have?  

They miss their parents.  The parents who aren’t always able to do the right things.  
They struggle making new friends.
They fight with others and with each other, unable to contain emotions that I imagine would be difficult for an adult to handle.
They long to have a family they can call their own.  Even if it’s not their biological family.
They have nightmares.
They just want to be kids.
They are tired of moving around.  Just tired.  

And.  It.  Breaks.  My.  Heart.  

So how can I do it?  The real question is how can I NOT?  

If not me, then who
Will check on their grades, making sure they’re getting what they need from their education?
Will make sure they have their semi-annual dental checkups?
Will be there to talk to them about things they might not want to talk to their foster parent about?
Will make sure they are not being abused or neglected once more?
Will give them a hug because they need to feel safe?
Will speak for them when they can’t speak for themselves?  

When I see them, my kids, my heart swells.   With love.  The smiles on their faces giving me the strength to do what I do.  And I hope when they see me, they see the one person who’s been with them over the course of the last 20 months.  The one constant in their lives since their world as they knew it, was turned upside down.  

The movie “Instant Family” is based on the true story of Pete and Ellie, who decide they would like to adopt a child and end up with three.  I sat in the movie, one of six people in the theater on a random Tuesday, and cried like I’d just seen “A Star is Born”.  My heart, ready to pop out of my chest, at the thought of being in court when “my kids” find their forever home.  And there were more tears.  Tears of joy.  

When the judge asks for my opinion, I speak from the heart.  And I speak for my kids.  Not only to share what they want, but to stand up for what is best.  For them.  For the kids.

Interested in learning more about CASA or becoming a CASA Volunteer?
In Central Texas: CASA of Central Texas

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Three is a Magic Number

I’m German.  Well … half-German, one-quarter Czechoslovakian, and one-quarter Austrian (if my Grandma's immigration papers are to be believed; she claimed she was Czech my whole life!).  That is to say … I am Eastern European through and through.

And I'm built like a block (my head, though misshapen, is far from a square).  All my life I’ve been a walking rectangle, with no feminine shape to speak of.

Raised on steak (sometimes grilled, but mostly fried) and potatoes because that’s what my father preferred.  I’m sure there were some healthier menu items available too, but which, as a child, I stubbornly refused to eat.

When I graduated high school, I weighed in at 136 lbs.  That didn’t change much over the course of my college career.  I don’t even think I managed to gain the Freshman 15.  The Freshman 5, maybe; I considered myself lucky.  I guess there’s something to be said for walking The Forty Acres.

At my first weigh-in with my obstetrician, the scale showed 134.  And like most pregnant women, I considered being pregnant a license to eat.  And indulge.  My son’s love of peanut butter likely the result of the amount I consumed while I carried him. 

And I baked!  Or at least I tried.  A lemon meringue pie turns out much better if you remove the little wax paper thingy that covers the frozen crust (I didn’t say I was ambitious enough to make my crust from scratch!) 

Homemade chicken pot pie was also a favorite during those 40 weeks.  Except when I just couldn’t resist having some after my labor started.  I’ll not go into the details of what happens to a woman’s body when she puts a heavy meal on top of a contracting uterus.

Just before Evan’s debut, I thought I might break the scale at 174!

I managed to drop some of the baby weight, of course.  And spent most of my adult life bouncing the scale by about 10 pounds or so.

And then … menopause happened.  And I began to wage a battle … no … a war against my own body (The Heat is On).  Five years into my CrossFit journey, I might’ve lost a half-inch here or there, but weight-wise, the scale stayed the same.  And yes, I know I was trading fat for muscle, to a certain degree.

Marrying Keith was a blessing in more ways than one (Prince Charming).  Our meals usually consisted of a grilled meat or baked fish, along with a steamed vegetable and a salad.  I really thought we were eating healthy.  If you don’t count all the bad stuff we ate when we dined out.  Or the number of times we just didn’t feel like cooking and got take-out instead.  Or the late-night snacking.

A visit to my doctor’s office for one malady or another resulted in her scheduling me for an annual physical.  I don’t know what was so “annual” about it, seeing as I hadn’t had a physical in over a decade.  But here I was, getting the once over the way doctors do.  Four vials of the red stuff removed from my body.  It was July 2017.

A perky nurse from the doctor’s office called a few days later with the results.  I wasn’t concerned (though the phone ringing should’ve been my first clue because rarely does anything good come from a phone call from your doctor’s office).  After all … the only thing that has ever turned up on my bloodwork was borderline anemia once … oh … and a cholesterol level that teetered dangerously close to being just over that ill-fated line.  Nurse Perky wasn’t calling just to blow sunshine up my backside.

My cholesterol was a staggering 248.  And my LDL (that’s the bad stuff) was 152.  Even though I’m quite certain she never said these words, what I heard was “heart disease”, “heart attack”, “call the mortician”.

Nurse Perky advised me to start taking COQ-10 and Red Yeast Rice Extract.  Well … if you know me well, you know I don’t do pills.  Unless they’re very, very tiny.  If memory serves, the COQ-10 was somewhat larger than an Aleve.  As for the Red Yeast Rice Extract … forget choking a horse – I think those could’ve choked a hippo (at least in my mind’s eye).  I also don’t do peaches and the only gummies I could find for the COQ-10 were peach-flavored.  Nope.  Nope.  And Nope.    

I bought the COQ-10 pills anyway.  I managed to choke one down.  And decided it was time.  Time to do something I have always said I wouldn’t do.  Diet.  Actually … I didn’t need to diet.  

I needed to CHANGE.  MY.  DIET.

Enter Sally Johnson, Registered Dietician extraordinaire.  Sally and I CrossFit together.  She has seen me at my sweatiest, so I felt comfortable talking to her about my ridiculously-high numbers.  

Our initial conversation went something like this:

HER:  What are your goals?  What do you want to achieve?
ME:  Dropping my cholesterol is the number one priority.  If I can drop some weight, that’s an added bonus.
HER:  Okay then.  Keep a food journal for 7-10 days.  I need to see what you’re eating.  And BE HONEST. 

I did and I was.  And when I put it on paper, I saw it for myself.  We really weren’t eating healthy.  At.  All.

Armed with my food journal and my bloodwork, Sally and I met for coffee (mine filled with sweetener and creamer, hers … not) at Whole Foods.  Let me just say this … Sally is from New York, so there was no mincing of words.  

Much to my surprise, Sally was more concerned about my blood sugar levels than my cholesterol.  Great!  "heart attack" and "diabetes".  Ain't old age great?

There was a lot to change about our diet.  Yes, we were doing some good things, but by and large, if I was serious about changing my numbers (and I was), then big changes were necessary.

Together, we walked the aisles of Whole Foods, with me taking copious notes on all the goodness that we could and should have.  Keith and I agreed and a shopping trip to Whole Foods and a revised shopping list for HEB were planned.  The scale read 168.  It was September 17, 2017.

So what changed?  Well … a lot, actually.  And I don’t want to go into all the specifics because our diet changes were made based on what was needed for me and what my goals were.  In fact, Sally didn’t label the type of diet we've moved to.  I still don’t know nor do I want to know; I think subconsciously, if I knew I was adhering to the latest, trendy diet, my stubborn side would not follow it so religiously!

On a high level, we reduced our grain, (bad) fat, and sugar intake.  I think the biggest changes are these:

·  That spoonful (or two or three) of Reduced Fat peanut butter that I had after coming home from the gym and another two or three (complete with a Hershey’s Kiss) that I had for “dessert” each evening.  Gone.  Now, we blend dry roasted peanuts until its smooth and creamy.  And if I have a craving for peanut butter, it’s either a handful of mixed nuts or our homemade peanut butter and an apple.

·  No more Irish Cream whiskey in my coffee and reduce my sweetener from three (e-gads!) to one.  I do use a little light creamer.  And yes, I know ideally, it would be best to drink it straight, but I just haven’t gotten there.

·  No more sodas.  Even the couple of sips I took of Sprite each night as I tried to choke down my vitamins were a no-no.  “If you must have something carbonated that’s flavored, try Zevia”, Sally said.  And guess what?  I now choke down my daily vitamins with water!

·  And those chicken salad sandwiches I was accustomed to eating for lunch every day?  STOP IT!

·  Toss out the Canola oil; use olive oil or avocado oil instead.

·  And on that note, since salads are such a big part of our diet, change to avocado oil-based salad dressing; you'd be surprised how tasty it is!

I noticed people sharing recipes on Facebook.  Armed with my list of what we should and shouldn’t be eating, I watched intently.  And I saved many.  Each week, grocery shopping included buying lots of new things.  And planning for at least one new meal each week.  Besides, I was getting tired of eating the same things week in and week out anyway.

I’ve never been confident in my cooking skills, but each week, I grabbed the new recipe and worked my way through it.  I was super proud when one turned out.  It was healthy.  It tasted great.  And I made it myself!  And I took pictures!  And posted them on Facebook!  It was my way of saying “look what I created”, but also, and more importantly, to hold myself accountable.  “Likes” and “Loves” go a long way to keeping a person going.  And people asking to share the recipes did too!

Sometimes the meals bombed.  Those have been removed from my recipe book. 

Soon, I was introducing two and three new meals each week.  And I was enjoying cooking!  Much to my mother’s and sister’s surprise, I’m sure.  (oh, how they tried to teach me to cook when I was younger, but oh, I was stubborn!) 

And my husband, my darling husband, says I’ve even created a few dishes that are restaurant-quality (so I make them regularly – asparagus-stuffed chicken and caprese-stuffed chicken, to name a few).

It is true what they say.  Eating healthy doesn’t have to mean you’re eating cardboard!

I realize that being retired has played a big role in all of this.  Not only does it allow me to spend the time necessary in the kitchen, but it allows me to get to the gym five days/week.  And rucking (hiking with weight in your pack) surely didn’t hurt!  Neither does yoga!

And soon, the combination of a healthy diet and working my ass off in the gym began to pay off.  I started dropping inches.  My body started to take on the shape of an hour-glass.  The muscles I’d spent the past five years trying to build, started to actually show.  

I was astonished when my dermatologist took a picture of my back (not because she was so impressed, but because she wanted me to watch a few spots – I have a LOT of freckles!); who knew my back had this kind of definition?  (I certainly didn't!  I never look back there!)  And I started to drop weight.  Each five-pound increment, cause for a happy dance.

And I felt better.  And Keith did too!

February 2018.  Judgement Day.  Time to re-check my bloodwork.

I had just finished a rather grueling WOD (do you remember what that stands for?  Lift Like a Girl) when my phone rang.  It was Nurse Perky.

“Sharon Miller!”, she says, “your doctor wanted me to call you with the results of your bloodwork”.  My palms began to sweat, as they do whenever I get nervous.  Oh wait!  CrossFit.  Just finished working out.  Never mind.

“You’ve dropped your LDL by FIFTY POINTS!”

She went on to say that my LDL was now 102 and my cholesterol was now 182.  “I don’t know what you’re doing, but whatever it is, keep doing it!  Oh!  And your doctor thinks you’re a Rockstar!”  And with that, my new best friend, Nurse Perky, hung up.

Keith and I celebrated that night by going to dinner at Chuy’s, for a cheat meal.

Cheat Meal?  Yes!  We have those too!  I mean … who can possibly resist Dulce de Leche pancakes, ya'll?  Date night is almost always out.  And almost always, we’re eating things that don’t exactly align with our dietary changes.  Weekend home improvement project?  “Hello Papa John’s!  One large pizza, please!   And throw in some cinnamon knots too!” 

The trick is, we enjoy the good stuff.  And then get right back to the even better stuff!  It’s okay to indulge every now and again (or when you’re on vacation).  But you just go right back to what you now know.

It’s been 15 months since Sally and I did the walk-thru at Whole Foods.  And I’m holding steady at 145 lbs.

My point in all this is not to say "hey!  look at me!"  I'm too much of an introvert for that.  But rather … it takes time, energy, patience, and a bit of dedication.  Does it require you to do CrossFit?  Heck no!  I was CrossFitting for five years before I saw any major changes like this.  It's all about the food.  It's true what they say:  it's 80% what you eat and 20% what you do!

And it didn’t happen overnight.  I’ve put in the work (both at the gym and in the kitchen).  At 53, I’m in the best shape of my life.  And I’m confident when they take my blood again in February, that I'll retain my Rockstar status

You know what else feels great?  I went shopping today.  Needed a new pair of jeans.  Jeans that are three sizes smaller than those I wore 15 months ago.  

For that matter, jeans that are smaller than those I wore ... well … ever.

If you’d like to follow or speak with Sally Johnson, you can do so using:
Instagram:  sallyjohnsonrd
Twitter:  @sallyjohnsonrd

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Prince Charming

After two unsuccessful marriages (An Ounce of Strength, Leaps & Bounds), one failed engagement, and a bevy of relationships in between AND after having found contentment with myself and my life, a friend of 20-some-odd years says to me, she has a guy she thinks I should meet.    

“His name is Keith“, she said, “He’s a total neat freak and he loves to travel.”  Hmmm … let me think:

Neat Freak.  Check.
Travel.  Check, Check.

After a phone call or two, Keith and I settled on lunch at Olive Garden.  It was President’s Day 2009.  I’m not sure that it was love at first sight for either of us; in fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.  But the meal was pleasant enough.  And the company was decent too; although I’m not sure I could make a thorough assessment given that he was on the phone half the time doing business.

He had only gotten back into the dating scene a few months prior, so I knew he was dating around.  And it took him another month to ask me out on what we consider our true first date. 

We spent a wonderful afternoon in Gruene, a quaint little town outside of New Braunfels.  We had lunch at The Grist Mill, then popped into Gruene Hall for a cold beer and hot music.  Neither of us wanted the date to end, so we took in a movie (“Taken” – I still think he chose that movie so that I could bury my face into his shoulder!) 

And then there was “The kiss”.  And there were sparks.  And fireworks.  And maybe angels singing. 

And that’s when he stopped dating around. 

And thus began our long-distance relationship, he in San Antonio and me in Kyle, a simple one-hour drive apart.  We talked and Skyped regularly. And sometimes, we were lucky enough to meet for dinner mid-week (usually at The Grist Mill – which was half-way in between). 

Because he was on call every weekend with his business and because he had crappy cell phone coverage at the time, we spent most of our weekends in San Antonio.  On Fridays, when I finished my half-day at work, I packed up myself and the pups and headed south.    

For our first date in San Antonio, he took me for a motorcycle ride in the hill country.  It felt so natural to have my arms wrapped around him – because of course, I was only a little terrified!  

A few months in, he casually asked if I could get a week off work.  He had found a deal to Rome and thought we should go.  I went to another room, so I could call my manager and request the time off and only after I was out of (his) eyesight did I let my jaw hit the floor.

We had a magical trip (how could you not in such a beautiful city?) and after we returned home, he told me he loved me.  HE LOVED ME.  He really loved me.  Months later, he would tell me he was also trying to impress me and asked if it worked.  Well … mmmaaayybee.

Shortly before we met, he had had a pool put in; but in the course of doing so, the back yard became what we affectionately called “the mud pit”.  One of the first projects we took on together was to create a tropical paradise for us to enjoy.  With the help of some guys who had much bigger muscles than me, we installed the faux rock culping around the pool, built planter boxes around the yard (and filled them), planted several palms, sodded the yard, put in a waterfall, framed up the pool deck and then stained it once the concrete was poured.  It must’ve been love if the man managed to get me in the pool in March, when we installed the waterfall (damn, that water was cold!) 

We found we worked really well together. 

Looking back at it now, I’m glad things worked out – otherwise, he would’ve gotten a load of free labor and I wouldn’t have reaped the benefits of all my hard work!    

When I introduced him to my parents, my father pulled him aside and said he approved of our relationship (gee … thanks, Dad.  Because I’m only 44 years old).  My Mom said she had been praying for me to find someone who was the perfect fit for me.  And here he was.

But there was something holding us back.  Something dragging down our relationship.  He wanted to talk about it.  I tried to tell him.  He heard me, but he wasn’t listening.  And I shut down.  And we broke up.

I was devastated.

I couldn’t drag myself out of bed.  I couldn’t stop crying.  I couldn’t eat.  When I did make it to work, I could barely function.  I lost eight pounds in a week and looked totally emaciated.  I begged a “friend” to do something with me – to help keep my mind off of things; said “friend” refused to answer my calls.  Suffice to say we’re no longer friends.

And finally, I started to pull myself out of it.
I went to church.  And I cried through it. 
I went to a movie.  And I cried through it.
But at least I was getting out of the house.

One afternoon, I logged onto my computer.  And there was an IM Keith had sent the night before – something along the lines of “hey there”.  But he wasn’t online at that very minute.  I opened my email and my heart lept into my throat when I saw an email from him.

In it, he said I could obtain an airline credit for the next trip we had booked together, if that is what I wanted to do.  My heart sank, the lump in my throat practically choking me.  “But” … the email went on … he hoped I would go ahead and use it.  With him.  He talked of how the days without me made him realize he couldn’t live without me.  How he hoped I felt the same.  How he was sorry for not listening to me.  And he hoped I could find it in my heart to forgive him and give us another try.

For about the 352nd time that week, I burst into tears.  Only, these were happy tears.  I immediately grabbed a bag and started packing.  Once packed, I called him.  He was already on his way to me.

We spent hours talking about our relationship and what we could do to make it better.  What caused so many of our issues and how to fix it.  And he listened.  And I listened.  And we talked some more.

Fast forward a couple of years and many weekends and home improvement projects later (both his home and mine).  We woke up one Saturday morning in July and he says “I think we need to go look at rings.”  If that was supposed to be a proposal, well then … okay. 

Five jewelry stores and one speeding ticket later, we found the ring.  He’s still pissed about that ticket to this day!

A few days later, it was time to put a ring on it and we sat down to dinner with my son.  My son who had witnessed all my failed relationships, who was old enough to comprehend the abuses that occurred in my second marriage, and who was fiercely protective of his mama.  My young adult son who sat across the table from my soon-to-be fiancé and clearly expressed his concerns (I think the words “if you hurt her, you will answer to me” may have even come out of his mouth).

That night, as he slipped the ring on my finger, Keith promised Evan that I would be taken care of – not only financially, but more importantly, emotionally.

And that’s the thing.

I can honestly say that this man, my Prince Charming, fulfills this piece of his promise every day.  He’s supportive of my goals and my passions; he loves that I'm focused on my health with CrossFit and our diet, he encourages my writing, and he even tolerates my love of the Disney Parks.  He compliments me in some way.  Every.  Day.  He shows me love in some way.  Every.  Day.

In his words, he wants me to have the life I’ve always wanted.  The life he thinks I deserve. What I’ve always wanted was the fairytale; an amazing marriage with just the right guy.  I just wasn’t sure I deserved it, but he assures me I do. 

Whether he knows it or not, he has repaired my low self-esteem. 

At some point during our engagement, his daughter, Courtney, said to me, she knew I was the one when her self-professed neat-freak of a father allowed my pug Dawson, into his home.  Dawson, who shed constantly, resulting in the need to run the Roomba three times over before all the hair was picked up after a weekend visit, and who, in his later years, could not control his bladder and regularly left puddles throughout Keith’s house.  That’s when she knew.

In June 2012, I became Mrs. Keith Miller.  We married at The Club at Forest Waters, a mere 3 miles from where I grew up.  Our reception held in the clubhouse in which my father installed the flooring – and I do believe the carpet he put down when the clubhouse was new, was the same carpet we walked on on our wedding day.  All that aside, it was a beautiful summer day, where we said our I Do’s amongst the beautiful Texas Oaks and a small gathering of our closest friends and family.

In his toast at our wedding, his son, Josh, said he knew (I was the one) when he saw that his Dad had someone to share in his (Dad’s) continual home improvement projects, with an equal amount of gusto and enthusiasm.

From my perspective, we just “fit”.  Just like our first motorcycle ride together.  We “fit”.

And what's interesting to us both is that there were a couple of times in our lives when we were running parallel to each other and never met; we lived in Garden Ridge at the same time and he thinks he even saw me when I was out for my evening walk.  We also worked just a block apart from each other at one point.  But we know our relationship wouldn't have worked during those times - neither of us were in the right place.  God's timing both interesting and amazing!

Even though there’s a 12-year age difference (yeah … let’s think about that … he was graduating high school the year I entered first grade …).  Whether it’s my old soul or his maturity level, I cannot say.  But it’s something we laugh about.  Regularly.  And that’s another thing.  We laugh.

I love his sense of humor, occasionally perverted as it may be.  The things that come out of his mouth, always a surprise.  Often leaving Courtney I only to shake our heads and say, “Step back ladies, he’s ALL mine!” 

His southern (Arkansas) accent, getting thicker as the years go by (and certainly thicker each time we visit his family, who still live there).
I love the way he sings.  Off-key.  And dances, though not all-together gracefully.  And I find it cute that he loves Britney Spears.

And then, there is my very business-like husband, who, believe it or not, has a soft-hearted side that he reserves just for me.  And for our grandchildren.  Our pumpkin girl and man-cub are, without a doubt, his pride and joy.  Seeing him with them, the joy on his face, the light in his eyes.  And I love him even more.

Do we ever disagree?  Absolutely!  (Show me a couple who says they don't, and well … they're lying!)  Does he drive me insane when he wanders off aimlessly without letting me know where he's going?  OMG!  Yes!  Do I ever tire of repeating myself three times over when he's not wearing his hearing aids?  Lord, help me!  YES!  
Is our marriage perfect?  No!  But we’re perfect for each other (yeah … I think I just stole that line from a movie).

How on earth did I possibly get so lucky?  I don’t know.  But I do know I am thankful.  Every.  Day. 

For the friend who introduced us.  For the love that we share.  For the life that we enjoy together.  For him.  

Cinderella should be so lucky.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Deck the Halls

I love Christmas.  I love the warmth that fills a room when it's decorated in the spirit of the season.  I love everything that is shiny and that appears snow-covered (because I've never, in my 53 years, had a white Christmas).  

I love time spent with friends and loved ones and remembering the true reason for the season.  And I love looking at our remodeled fireplace with all the stockings hung by the chimney with care.

And for as much as I love all of this, I love decorating our tree the most.  It's nothing fancy.  I'm just not that kind of girl.  But the ornaments.  That's where the magic is.

When my son Evan was born, I bought (what, in my opinion, was) the traditional "Baby's First Christmas" ornament.  Actually, I bought two and was gifted one, the year 1988.  Every year, I gifted him with an ornament that represented whatever he was into at the time or to mark a special occasion that we celebrated that year.  

When he was 6, like any red-blooded 6-year old, he wanted to be a fireman, so his ornament that year was a Dalmation dressed in firefighter's gear.  The year he got his first vehicle, a Ford F-150, I found a Ford F-150 ornament.  A trip to Disney World always resulted in a Disney ornament.  And when he graduated high school, a Mickey Mouse head (we went to Disney World that year too) with a graduation cap.

When he graduated college and got his "own place", I gifted him the bundle of "his" ornaments to get him started.  But I kept one - from his first Christmas.  It has a picture of him, about age seven months, smiling happily as he sits in his walker, arms out-stretched as if to say "Hey!  Life is sweet!"  And it is always placed on the front of our tree.

Severe allergies as a child (to cedar and pine and lots of other stuff) resulted in us always having an artificial tree.  Except for that one year in college, when my sister wanted, just once, since the time of my birth, to have a real tree.  And I survived.

That was the only year I've ever had a real tree.  It just seemed easier to go artificial.  Easier until I purchased my first pre-lit tree, affectionately know as "The Beast" due to it's stature and girth.  And because it was heavy and hard as hell to get up into our attic.

Over the years, our tree had different color schemes.  For many years, it was purple and green (Evan's favorite color when he was young and my favorite color, respectively); we really had not intended to celebrate Mardi Gras in December.  

When it was time to empty the tree of Evan's ornaments, I went with something a little more "traditional", with red, blue, green and gold baubles dotting the branches.

Sometimes the tree had garland, sometimes ribbon, but always, always, there was a star on top.

When the third strand of lights went out on The Beast, and we tired of trying to find the one bulb out of 600 that caused the outage, we got a new one.  This tree, aptly named "Beast Jr." has flourishes of white and silver, with a few touches of brushed gold.  And pine cones.  Little, artificial, snow-capped pine cones.

And the ornaments.  Oh the ornaments.

As I carefully unpacked them last week, each one brought with it, a specific and special memory.  And oh, what a beautiful way to begin the holiday season.

There are, of course, a plethora of Disney ornaments.  Both those I've gotten during our trips to the various Disney parks, but also those offered up by the Hallmark store and those which were gifted to me.  With 20 or so trips to the parks around the world, I don’t really remember the specific year each ornament was bought, but I remember the feeling of being in the park.  The happiness.  The friendships.  The magic.

Years ago, my friends and I, being the good German girls that we are (and one who deep-down, we know wishes she were German) were in a 9-pin bowling league.  (Don't know what that is?  Google it and prepare to be intrigued!  And yes!  Like most teenagers in our area growing up, my first job was dodging pins as they slammed about following a direct hit with a 17-pound ball!)  At Christmas time, we always exchanged Christmas ornaments.  There was one year, when we had not yet opened our ornaments, and I commented on how ridiculous that year's "bowling ornament" sold by Hallmark was (I may have even used the term "ugly" to describe it).

You know what happened, don't you?  

My friend Debbie, who had drawn my name, had gifted me that very ornament.  I'm so glad she had the best sense of humor and we laughed about it for many years.  We lost Debbie a couple of years ago and Christmas was her favorite holiday.  Now, when I take out that ornament, and place it front and center on our tree, I can't help but still feel a little embarrassed, but having a giggle at the same time.

Of course there are ornaments adorned with my step-children's names, ornaments from their childhood.  And one to mark mine and Keith's first Christmas together (as a couple) as well as one to celebrate our first Christmas as newlyweds.   There's even a menorah ornament (I'm quite sure that's some sort of an oxymoron) to honor my step-daughter's religion and holiday celebration.

There are several ornaments which are 'Texas Orange' (yes, that's a real and official color) and one celebrating my beloved Longhorns' 2005 (football) National Championship.  I remember the final seconds of the game.  Evan and I perched on the edge of our sofa.  And as Vince Young crossed the goal line for the win, we erupted in screams, raising the roof and waking all the dogs in the neighborhood.

There are ornaments with pictures of our granddaughter, my pumpkin girl.  And hopefully, this year, we'll add one with pictures of our grandson, my man-cub, who will turn one in a few weeks.

And then, there are ornaments from around the world.  (And even one that was given to me by one of my former staff that says "World Traveler".)  As I unwrap each ornament, selected during each of our travels, I'm flooded with memories Keith and I have made together.

A sea turtle from the Turtle Farm in the Cayman Islands.  Holding a baby sea turtle (it was perfectly okay and highly encouraged!), it's tiny flippers gently lapping against my hands.  Oh, how it made me smile!  I love sea turtles!  Just ask my granddaughter - she'll tell you!

A laser-inscribed picture of Neuschweinstein Castle.  Walking up the hill to the castle.  Anticipation building as I'm about to see with my very eyes, the castle that inspired Walt Disney and his creation of Cinderella's castle in the Magic Kingdom (or was it Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland?)

An apple and a skyline scene from our two trips to NYC.  Oh, how I LOVE NY!  The buzz of the city, palpable as you hit the sidewalk.  The overwhelming nature of the skyscrapers.  The beauty of Central Park, tucked away amongst the concrete jungle; the brightly colored leaves littering the ground in fall and snowflakes falling from the sky as we walked hand-in-hand.

A hand-painted beauty from Greece.  Where, amongst the beautiful white stucco and blue domed roofs, Keith's pocket was picked!  Alas, he caught the thieves, slapping the wallet from the hand that nabbed it, the wallet falling to the ground, the thieves running from the scene.

The hangy-thingy from China, that's not really an ornament at all, but which we made into one (because I don't think Christmas is widely celebrated in China).  Walking The Great Wall on my birthday was indescribable.  And eating questionable things?  Well … that's a memory I'd like to forget.

A seashell from Bora Bora.  Where the turquoise water surrounded you for miles, the rays inviting you in for a swim, Mount Otemanu standing tall amongst the surrounding motus (mini islands) and the huts over the water with "fish in the floor".

And the golden pineapple from our most recent trip to Hawaii.  Come to think of it, we didn't eat any pineapple during that trip.  Unless you count the Dole Whip.  And the real-fruit pineapple shaved ice.  And the pineapple-infused sausage smothered in pulled pork.  Okay … so we didn't eat any "fresh" pineapple.

In a little over a month, it'll all be over.  All the meticulously-wrapped packages, opened, wrapping paper covering the floor.  The goodies all eaten.  The drinks all drank (drunken?).  The ugly Christmas sweaters, worn.  And we'll box up the ornaments and pack them away for another year.

But for now, I'll soak it all in.  Reminiscing as the tree illuminates each ornament.  All the memories in one seven-foot, five-inch space.

Reminding us how very blessed we are.  And to always, always remain grateful.