Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Christmas Story

In the winter of 1986, life was good. I was a single mother with one adorable, healthy, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy; I had a good job; I had a not-so-good second job; I had a fixer-upper house; and I had one spoiled rotten Doxie dog. Norman Rockwell might not have been impressed with the broken-down white picket fence in the back yard, but I thought of my life as having “good bones.” A little sanding, some spackle, a new coat of paint and everything would be perfect.

Money being a bit on the short-side, Christmas was something I planned long-range. The clerks at the lay-away counters at WalMart and K-Mart knew me by name. Of course, the best-laid plans of Santa’s helpers can and do go awry from time to time. This year I was completely blind-sided by an animatronic, story-telling bear called Teddy Ruxpin. About three weeks before Christmas, my son, Derek, started talking incessantly about this Teddy Ruxpin toy, so I checked it out to see if it could be worked into The Grand Christmas Plan. I was horrified to discover this new must-have toy was a whopping $75! No way was this going to fit into the budget. Period. This was all my precious baby could talk about, and I couldn’t afford it. I was crushed.

As I cruised the toy department hoping and praying I could come up with a suitable substitute, my eyes were drawn to a tiny stuffed bear, wearing a stocking cap and a Christmas sweater. I picked him up, adjusted his little sweater and stood there looking at him and, as I did, a New Plan suddenly came to me.

On Christmas Eve, after my son set out the requisite cookies and milk for Santa and finally went to sleep, I set my New Plan in motion. It was risky, but I thought it just might work. I retrieved the tiny bear from his hiding spot, and I sat down at the kitchen table and composed a note. A note from Santa to Derek. It went something like this:

Dear Derek,

Thank you for coming to visit me in the park and giving me your Christmas list. I know you asked for a Teddy Ruxpin toy, but I have been looking all over trying to find the perfect boy to take care of this little Christmas bear. He is very special and he needs a very special boy to take care of him. You have been such a good boy this year I know you are the only boy I can trust to give him the special care he needs. I hope you love him as much as I do. Merry Christmas!


I finished setting up the rest of the toy delivery from Santa, set Special Bear on top and tucked the note under one fuzzy little leg. And, yeah, there might have been a tear or two. I crossed my fingers, looked up at the ceiling, and went to bed.

The next morning, Derek bounded into the living room, and I stood back and watched. He picked up Special Bear, saw the note, and brought it to me to read to him. I read the note, took a deep breath and looked up at him. And this is what I saw.

Like magic, it was as if all thoughts of Teddy Ruxpin were gone. He was never mentioned again.

And, yes, Special Bear still lives. Every year since, he has occupied a place of honor in our home at Christmas and a special spot in our hearts. I always smile, give him a hug and adjust his sweater when I unpack him and remember that Very Special Bear Christmas. And, every year after Christmas, he is lovingly snuggled into his bubble wrap, placed in his special box and packed away.

I always knew there would come a time when Special Bear would get passed to a grandchild and, after some discussion, it was decided the time has come for Special Bear to work his Christmas magic for my precious granddaughter. So, I gave Special Bear a booster-shot of love with one more hug, triple-bubble-wrapped him and placed him in a new box for his journey, along with two pictures I found of that special morning. Just so my son will know which box Special Bear is in, I did this. Think I overdid it?

And, when they ask me at the Post Office if I want insurance on this package, I’ll laugh, because you can’t put a price tag on what’s in that box. Christmas is not about the Teddy Ruxpins. It’s about the love and the Special Bear places in your heart.

Stuffed Bear - $4.99
Pictures & Frames - $24.95
Magical, twinkly, smiley, love-filled, makes-you-teary-eyed memories – PRICELESS

One word of advice though – take LOTS and LOTS of pictures, because you never know when a Special Bear moment will happen.

“Oh, would that Christmas lasted the whole year through, as it ought,” Charles Dickens lamented. “Would that the spirit of Christmas could live within our hearts every day of the year.”

MERRY CHRISTMAS! God bless us every one!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Mimi Teaches Me Italian

Someone recently asked me to name the 10 most important people in my life - people who have taught me a life lesson or were the catalyst for a major change in my life. When I asked her if I could name animals, she laughed and said "of course!" because, like me, she knows animals can change your life in strange and wonderful ways. So, this is the story of one of the most important "people" in my life, who just happened to have four legs.

We had been married only six months when my husband received new orders and we were transferred to an air base in Sardinia, Italy. A little research revealed that our new base was a NATO base, which had very limited shopping, no medical facilities and, most importantly, no base housing. We would be living in an Italian village several miles from the base, completely surrounded by people who did not speak English, with no phones or television. Having lived all my thirtysomething years within 100 miles of where I was born, I was excited and anxious in equal measures.

What I had not anticipated was the total terror I felt at not being able to communicate with the neighbors and village shopkeepers I had to deal with every day. The few rudimentary Italian phrases I had been practicing weren’t much use when I couldn’t understand the rapid-fire responses. Trying to find and buy something as simple as a light bulb would sometimes take an entire day. And some days I simply couldn’t muster up the courage to go out the front door.

One beautiful, Mediterranean morning, I was sitting on the back terrace contemplating the long, lonely, quiet day ahead, when our Italian landlady came out her back door and started calling, “Mimi! Mimi!” As I sat there waiting for the “Mimi” to show itself, a beautiful, longhaired, snow-white cat bounded out of nowhere and flew up the back steps to the landlady’s kitchen door. Right then and there, Mimi became my mission.

My mother has always called me a “cat magnet” because cats seem to gravitate to me wherever I go. This cat was different though. Every morning I stood on the terrace and called to Mimi. I tried to entice her with tidbits from the refrigerator. But still Mimi steadfastly refused to come near me. Then, I decided to try some American cat food. I filled a dish and left it on the terrace. In short order, she was daintily devouring every last morsel, as I watched from the door. Over the next week, I moved my chair closer and closer to the dish and, eventually, she allowed me one or two quick scratches behind her ear before she scampered away.

Deciding that I must sound very strange to her because, after all, she had never heard English before, I began talking to her in Italian as she ate. I spent hours looking up words and phrases in my English/Italian dictionary, just so I could “converse” with her, and this seemed to meet with her approval, because she stayed for longer and longer periods.

After a couple of weeks, I began leaving the back door open, hoping Mimi would eventually make herself at home. When she finally did, as cats will do, she completely took over. Mimi became a permanent fixture in our household and would appear with lightning speed whenever I called. Our landlady took this all in stride but seemed to be baffled by my attachment to her cat, especially when Mimi chose to have her kittens on our balcony.

What that dear lady never understood is exactly what that cat meant to me. Mimi was a friend and companion to a scared and lonely woman in a strange and frightening place. Hours of conversing with Mimi in her native tongue, so to speak, gave me the courage to try it out in the world outside my door. Her gentle, furry friendship comforted me when my courage flagged. Her kittenish antics gave me reason to laugh out loud on days when I thought I would scream from frustration. She reminded me that life is what you make it.

One day at a time I won Mimi over, and one day at a time I faced the language barrier and the newness and wonder of living in a foreign land. Grazie, Mimi, l’amore sempre. You were my first Italian friend and, thanks to you, you were not my last.