The last Thursday in November in the United States is proclaimed Thanksgiving Day. Tomorrow, my wife and I will gather at our daughter’s house with her and her family. Our son-in-law’s family will join us to celebrate the day, too.
We will have all of the usual Thanksgiving meal trimmings: roasted turkey and dressing, homemade mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and an assortment of homemade pies. It will be scrumptious.
We are grateful for this bounteous meal and warm home where we will feast. But more importantly, we will be most grateful to share it with family. Loving family relations can never be taken for granted.
We will also remember those who have passed on and those who aren’t as fortunate. Gratitude must come with the recognition, responsibility, and desire to help the least, the last, and the lost.
We are halfway through the season of Advent already. Advent in the Christian tradition occurs the four Sundays before December 25. That is the day earmarked as the birth of Jesus.
Advent is generally understood to be an annual time of preparing and waiting for Christmas, the personal recognition of the birth of Christ. For many, Advent is a sacred, significant time.
For others, Advent is just another word in the Christmas vocabulary. It’s familiar to us, but do we genuinely consider its implications in our hustle and bustle before the big day? Perhaps a better question is this: Do we even know what Advent means?
A concise, accurate answer to that question would be to recite the four universally accepted Advent themes: Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love, most often celebrated in that order on Advent Sundays.
I remember as a youngster having an advent calendar in our home. My two brothers and two sisters and I would take turns opening the little doors to reveal the contents hidden behind each tiny flap.
Each day of Advent revealed a colorful illustration, scripture, or word to ponder, or perhaps a suggested act of service to others.
I just remember the pent-up anticipation of what lay hidden behind each door. It was a successful subliminal modeling method for the Christmas waiting.
To be clear, no one would have described our family as devout. We were “religious” only because we celebrated Christ’s birth and attended the local Methodist church regularly.
But as youngsters, we naturally got caught up in all the secular holiday hubbub. Later in my life, I was introduced to knowing and respecting that other religions had solemn and festive holidays.
Consequently, the older I have gotten, the more I sense a spiritual link between the lights of Christmas and those of Hanukkah. It is a significant element of our Judeo-Christian history for this septuagenarian.
That understanding creates a deeper meaning to Advent, one too often ignored. While we wait for Christmas, Advent also calls us to reflect on what has transpired in the course of history, personally and collectively.
Human history is full of cruelty by one race, tribe, or religion to others who look, live or believe differently. The Trail of Tears comes to mind.
White settlers of our nation literally and brutally pushed out Native Americans from their homelands, where they had lived for generations. Those indigenous peoples not only lost their land, but many also lost their lives in the agonizing march west.
A similar but lesser-known atrocity occurred in Illinois and Wisconsin in 1832. The bloody Black Hawk War opened land to white settlers who replaced the Sauk, Fox, and other native nations.
Nor can we ignore the unethical enslavement of an entire race of people for economic purposes. That indictment, unfortunately, applies far beyond our southern states, where slavery was a way of life.
Perhaps you can add personal examples to this lurid list. Sadly, such horrific atrocities continue today around the globe. We only need to look at the headlines for confirmation.
The oft-overlooked reflective aspect of Advent requires each of us to acknowledge and confess these wrong-doings. Doing so is part of the necessary preparation for the celebration of Christmas.
So, Advent, like life itself, has a dark side. We must allow the season’s light to infiltrate the darkness that is all around us. Preparation, anticipation, and repentance are the main ingredients of Advent.
The principles of Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love help guide us through these dark times into the light. That is what Advent is all about.
The guy playing the piano really is a preacher. Larry is my wife’s first cousin, and while he played a church hymn, our niece planted a loving kiss on her husband’s cheek. The couple had driven down to surprise us at a long-delayed family reunion. I really went to capture Larry in action when Rachel created a cute diversion worth sharing.
“Behind the Preacher’s Back” is my Photo of the Week.
My four siblings and I were most fortunate. We had a loving, caring, creative, dependable mother. We will miss her always.
Though our dear mother died nine years ago, I can still hear her soothing voice. I can also hear her sterner vocalization, to put it delicately. We weren’t perfect children, after all.
She did her best to discipline us appropriately when we needed it. Unlike my ornery younger brother, I never tasted a bar of soap, however.
Mom’s lovely paintings showed her creative side. But she was a perfectionist. My brothers, sisters, and I discovered piles of both finished and unfinished paintings that Mom thought were less than her best. Many of those watercolors now accent walls in our homes and those of our adult children.
Mom’s self-esteem matured as she aged. She learned to drive at age 40 and loved her grandchildren with matronly devotion.
Mom also had no hesitation about putting Dad in his place when it was appropriate. The specific inflective tone that Mom used always got Dad’s attention. Unfortunately, like most males, it didn’t register in his memory bank.
Mom was a near mirror image of her mother, Birdie Pearl. Grandma Frith’s kind and gentle lilt revealed her Virginia roots every time she spoke. We loved to visit her on the job at a local bakeshop, where each lucky grandchild left with a yummy sugar cookie.
Grandma Frith enjoying a boat ride.
Grandma Frith visited us for Sunday lunch every third week. We had to share her with Mom’s two sisters and their families, who lived nearby. Grandma Frith sat quietly at family gatherings, contented to watch her 17 grandchildren run wild. She was a stately woman indeed.
I also remember my grandfather’s mother, whom we called Mom. Like Grandma Frith, her curly silvery hair bespoke simple eloquence. The yellowy square homemade noodles of her chicken potpie were positively delicious. The chickens and eggs came right out of the coop behind the old rickety house.
Nostalgia, though, can’t rule my admiration for caring, gracious mothers. My wife and my daughter serve as prime examples, though I likely am prejudiced. These are two energetic women on missions. They leave no stone unturned in their quest for truth, justice, and their energy to get things done. Others often are the beneficiaries of their drive, desire, and creativity.
It’s been four years since we moved to the Shenandoah Valley to be close to the grandkids. We have enjoyed watching them grow. And grow they have. All three will soon be taller than Nana.
I have equally enjoyed observing the interaction between their mother and father. I am glad that our dynamic, expressive daughter has adopted and implemented different parenting approaches than what my wife and I used.
Ours weren’t wrong. I just wish we had been more patient and took more time to ask and listen to our children when they were children. Our daughter and her husband have a good handle on that with their active trio.
I also see new life and vibrancy in the mother that I love most, my wife. It took us a little while to settle into our Virginia setting, but Neva took her magic gift of hospitality to a new level once we did.
Neva smoothly shifted into high gear during the pandemic. She sewed, cooked, fed, washed, ironed, drove, delivered, and brightened the lives of grandkids, old friends, strangers, family, and neighbors.
I am grateful for caring mothers everywhere who have helped mold lives young and old, including mine. Faith poured into loving action does that.
My wife and I had big plans to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. The pandemic significantly altered them.
In that regard, we know we are not alone. Scores of folks have postponed anniversary celebrations, weddings, vacations, reunions, bucket list trips because of the coronavirus.
Even with having received our second vaccine, we plan to mark our momentous occasion in a much more subtle way than initially planned. Staying safe is paramount.
Instead of an exciting vacation-like shindig with family and friends for our Golden Anniversary, we will overnight at a local bed and breakfast. It’s the prudent thing to do.
Like most couples, we have taken plenty of risks in our life together. Now is not the time to do a highwire act.
Our risk-taking lifestyle began when we married less than a year after we had met. We haven’t let up one iota in all those 50 years, until now.
We were so young then.
Our unified approach to life was a simple one. Neva and I have tried to put our faith into action in service to others. We recognized that doing so meant taking risks, but we were game. That has always fueled our marriage as a couple and as individuals.
After our March ceremony, we spent the summer of 1971 operating a hikers camp halfway up Pikes Peak in Colorado. It was a voluntary service assignment through the Mennonite Church that set the tone and tempo of our life together.
Our marriage has been and continues to be about relationships and service. It’s why we spent careers in public education. It’s why we participated in community non-profit boards and organizations like thrift stores and volunteer fire departments.
Doing so took time away from our family, which was a sacrifice unto itself. Even at a young age, our daughter and son understood. Consequently, they have grown to be creative, productive adults with successful, service-minded careers. We couldn’t have asked for more.
It’s a no-brainer that grandchildren are the long-term rewards of parenting. They were the main reasons we pulled up stakes from our beloved Holmes County, Ohio, to move to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
We wanted to be near the grandkids to watch them grow, participate in extra-curricular activities, and help in any way we could. Evan, Davis, and Maren have been risk-free blessings beyond measure.
The pandemic, however, made it challenging to shift to infrequent interactions with family, friends, neighbors, and church members. We are grateful for the new friendships and renewed friendships we have made since we settled here nearly four years ago.
We were thrilled to find circles of friends, like those in Ohio, who mirrored our shared values. Trusting in one another and graciously encouraging each other to use our gifts for others has been the loving ingredient that has bound us together for half a century.
Neva and I both know that we could not have made it this far on our own. Family and friends, some now departed, have served as both models and encouragers, especially in trying times.
It’s the little things that have enriched our marriage. After 50 years together, we have learned not to take ourselves so seriously.
Each marriage is different. It’s finding the comfort zones of those differences, sharing household responsibilities, as well as laughter and tears that have kept us forever holding hands.
We have learned that it’s the everyday moments together that truly matter. Being comfortable with extended quiet times, surprised by a tender touch, a smile, or word of appreciation are a few examples. Saying I was wrong, I am sorry, please forgive me, I love you became the icing on the wedding cake.
We have appreciated all of the well-wishes and congratulations that we have received from family and friends. It’s that sure foundation that has kept us loving and living for 50 years together.
My brothers and sisters and I were fortunate. Our late mother was as loving and caring as we could have ever hoped.
Mom exhibited those endearing qualities for as long as I can remember until she died eight years ago. Even in her final months as Alzheimer’s took its toll on her memory, she remained pleasant. As her adult offspring, we embraced her goodness as often as we could.
As a gang of five youngsters, I’m sure we didn’t fully understand or appreciate just how kind our mother was. Still, each of us tried to express our love and affection for our kindly mother, especially at Mother’s Day.
As I recall, our elementary school teachers spurred us on with class projects that created gifts for our mothers. The fact that most of the teachers were mothers themselves likely influenced their desire to honor our mothers.
The art teacher helped with that cause, too. She had us make cards or draw flowers or paint a landscape for our mothers.
Ironically, my only male teacher in elementary school was perhaps the most resourceful. Mr. Bartley arranged for a local greenhouse to have a variety of violets for us to choose as Mother’s Day gifts. We walked from school to the nursery, picked our flower, and handed over the dollar bill that sealed the deal.
Our mother loved flowers, so I was most pleased with the teacher’s decision. It just so happened that the lovely plant that I had selected bloomed as a double-violet. Mom’s smile doubled, too, when she saw the frilly bloom.
Mom cultivated flower gardens around the exterior of our red-brick bungalow. She loved the bright tulips, the white, yellow, and blue irises, and the showy roses.
I loved them, too. One particular red tulip stood out to me, and I wanted to share it with my teacher. Mom took time out of her busy household chores to carefully dig up the flower and place it in a terracotta flower pot for my teacher.
Not only did she grow flowers, but she also painted them, too. When my sister Claudia brought home a fragrant, bulging bouquet of lavender lilacs, Mom was moved.
She placed them in a pitcher and was so enamored by them that she also painted a stunning oil still-life that perfectly preserved that marvelous gift. Fittingly, my sister still has the painting that she inspired, “Claudia’s Bouquet.”
Mom did her best to feed her hungry flock on Dad’s meager salary. Supper was always ready by the time he arrived home from work. Her Sunday noon meals were the highlight of her culinary skills.
Besides being an artist and homemaker, Mom enjoyed sports, too. If my brothers weren’t available, Mom would take time away from her household chores and play pitch and catch with me. She threw straight and hard, too.
You can imagine with our brood that our mother’s patience could easily wear thin at times. She was never mean or harsh with her discipline, which I think made us kids feel even more guilty for whatever offense we had committed.
I’m glad there is a day designated to honor and remember mothers everywhere. I realize that not everyone had a happy and loving relationship with their mother. It’s all too easy to take a mother’s love for granted or to think that all mothers are as devoted as mine was. I wish they were.
I am glad that Marian Frith Stambaugh was a caring, loving person. And I am incredibly happy that kindness and creativity are her motherly legacies.
By definition, Holy Week transitions from the jubilant high expectations on Palm Sunday to the sadness and disbelief of Good Friday to the sacred joy of Easter morning.
This year Eastertime is symbolic of the current world situation. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, Holy Week mirrors the global state of human existence amid the coronavirus pandemic. We face the same human emotions today as that mixed crowd of humanity 2,000 years ago.
Our lives have been turned upside down in this evolving medical crisis. No one can escape the grasp of the pandemic’s ramifications, whether we contract the virus or not. We are all affected.
We all had high hopes with the advent of spring, especially at Easter. Now, all of that has changed. Unless you are one of the few remaining skeptics, reality has hit hard.
Personnel on the frontlines of helping to stem the epidemic are stressed and very fearful for their patients, their families, and themselves. Even following all of the recommended precautions has not been enough for some.
Schooling has taken on a very different and dynamic atmosphere for students, teachers, administrators, and parents alike. Challenging doesn’t begin to describe it. Nor does frustration, especially for those denied the much-anticipated pomp and circumstance of graduation ceremonies.
For those who live alone, the elderly, those who struggle with mental issues, or live with special needs, fear invades the interactions of daily living. Coping has never been harder.
Many have lost their jobs, income, and insurance benefits. Others employed in businesses deemed essential encountered the ignorance of others. The outrage of service workers filled social media as entire families show up to buy a hammer or just browse big box stores, clearly ignoring the social distancing safety recommendations.
Misinformation stokes the fear and invites unfounded rumors, which only leads to more confusion and doubt. Opportunists who price-gouge only see personal and financial gain in this time of crisis.
Where then is the Easter joy? We must look through the numbing heartache to see it.
The warming weather, the blooming flowers, and budding trees, the emerald green grass, the colorful migrating birds, the friendly waves, and well-wishes of walkers as they pass by are but a few expressions of hope. Springtime’s renewal parallels that of Easter morning.
We should sing prayerful praises for those who tirelessly toil to save lives and defeat this virus. First-responders, law enforcement, pharmacists, doctors, nurses, utility workers, grocery store owners and their employees, and delivery people are only a few of today’s heroes.
Globally, folks with a passion for helping have unselfishly responded. Scores of caring people are making homemade masks and donating them to local service agencies.
Here in Harrisonburg, Virginia, many people have sewn and donated thousands of masks for businesses, the hospital, medical offices, fire departments, the volunteer rescue squad, and not-for-profit groups that shelter the homeless. My wife is one such person, though I doubt she would want me to tell you that.
In a pandemic, contagion ignores race, ethnicity, politics, borders, and social status. We all are potential victims and potential helpers. Our humanness makes us vulnerable, afraid, uncertain and exposed. And yet, it is those very qualities that inspire us to join as one at this most difficult time.
Together we must use our gifts and skills for the common good to rise to this once-in-a-lifetime threat. Only then will the anguish of Good Friday transform into the gratefulness of Resurrection Sunday’s love.
December’s mainstay holidays are cloaked in mystery and miracles. Darkness to light summarizes the current holiday season theme regardless of which ones you observe.
Hanukkah, Christmas, and even the winter solstice share those common qualities. They each come with their own history, a bit of mystery, and a requisite for reverence. The three even overlap in time, traditions, and symbols.
Hanukkah and Christmas each have deep, overlapping religious roots, while the winter solstice has pagan origins. All three, however, connect winter’s darkness with some concept of light. In fact, the triumvirate celebrates light in authentic, yet distinctive practices.
Besides illuminating light in the year’s darkest time, this triune of holidays has another commonality. The celebration of all three can last for days in keeping their specific purposes.
The winter solstice occurs when the sun reaches its farthest southward point for the year. That is precisely 9:19 p.m. EST on December 21. In Universal Time, the winter solstice is December 22 at 4:49 a.m.
The winter solstice marks the latest dawn and the earliest sunset. It is the longest night and shortest day for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, it’s just the opposite for those south of the equator.
History and archeology show us that earth’s early peoples recognized this critical point in whatever way they marked time. They understood that the sun’s path could be predicted on a regular route across the sky.
Archeological wonders like England’s Stonehenge and Peru’s Machu Picchu stand as evidence of this. Indigenous peoples in America’s southwest also marked the end of darkness in similar light-filled ceremonies.
Historians are still unraveling the mysteries of these cultural rituals. Fire and light were essential symbols in most of these ancient celebrations. I marvel at how those two entities connect to Hanukkah and Christmas.
This year Hanukkah is celebrated by the Jewish faith from December 22 to 30. Hanukkah is the commemoration of a historic miracle involving light.
The Jewish holiday arose after the temple in Jerusalem was recaptured from cruel ruler Antiochus. Wanting to rededicate the holy temple, the Judah victors found only enough olive oil to burn sacred candles for one night. Mysteriously, the menorah candle burned for eight consecutive nights, establishing the miracle of Hanukkah.
Christmas, of course, is December 25, most likely assigned that date to coincide with the winter solstice and Hanukkah celebrations, according to some historians. They reasoned that if the shepherds were guarding the grazing sheep, the season would have been one other than winter.
Regardless, Christmastime is a celebration of another kind of light. It, too, is rooted in a miracle, that of Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus, meaning, “God with us.”
Christians begin the Yuletide season with the Advent preparation four weeks ahead of Christmas Day. Some sects of Christianity then extend the celebration to January 6 or Epiphany or Old Christmas, which the Amish humbly celebrate.
For me, in this blend of holidays, the light brings anticipation of better things to come: lighter, longer days, a hope for a better, sunnier new year, the joy of personal peace by walking with the light, and the love of all Creation.
The vibrant spirits of the season, miracle and mystery, gently weave the interconnected holiday celebrations together with the threads of hope, joy, peace, and love. Will we allow ourselves to be wrapped lovingly in this warm garment more radiant than the brightest star?
I pray that the mystery of miracle envelops you and yours in joy and light this holiday season.
Of the more than 2,000 photos that I took on a recent two-week trip with my wife, one single photo stands out for me. It wouldn’t win any photo contests, but it best represents the sentiment of our journey to Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory.
The picture could have been of the ubiquitous and colorful fireweed blanketing a misty alpine meadow. During our visit, I captured the brilliant pink flower in every stage of blooming. But that’s not it.
I could have easily chosen one of several digital landscapes of the Knik Glacier. Our friends Doug and Rosene took us there on our very first day in the 49th state. The views were stunning, the experience exhilarating. But, no, that’s not my favorite photo.
The early morning view from Flat Top Mountain overlooking Anchorage, Alaska could certainly qualify, too. I could faintly see the grand mountain Denali through the morning haze. That wasn’t it either.
Other possibilities were the many snapshots of caribou grazing in meadows in Denali National Park and Preserve. For shooting at some distance through the window of a refurbished school bus, I thought the photos turned out pretty well. However, none of those shots could compare to my favorite.
I had hoped to see a bull moose while on our trip. As we approached the end of our Denali tour, we spied one lumbering through the brush 100 feet from the bus. Even my first bull moose pictures couldn’t match the one that touched me most.
We much enjoyed our walk around the frontier town of Dawson City, Yukon. With its dirt streets and eclectic set of residential and commercial structures, it looked like a set right out of a John Wayne movie. As lovely as that assortment of Dawson photos was, they couldn’t measure up to my pick.
You should see Emerald Lake, a beautiful body of water worthy of its colorful name in the Yukon. Surrounded by mountains dotted with forests and meadows, the shots I got are some of my favorites, but not the favorite.
Shortly after that, we stopped at the quaint village of Carcross, built on a spit of land between two sparkling lakes. I captured a flock of ducks twisting and turning in the sky over Lake Bennett. As ecstatic as I was, those pictures can’t compare to my most precious shot.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
Where the duck were.
The narrow-gauge train.
Johns Hopkins Glacier.
Entering Glacier Bay.
Margerie Glacier with a tour boat for comparison.
The narrow-gauge train trip down the mountain gap from the Canadian border to Skagway, Alaska was breathtaking. With a clear sky and divine mountainous scenery, the shot of the train crossing the trestle over a river is calendar-worthy. Nope. That’s not the one either.
I had high expectations for getting shots of several different glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park. Sea, air, and light conditions made for perfect shots. But as you likely have surmised, they aren’t my choice either.
I was fortunate to capture memorable photos of gorgeous scenery, thrilling wildlife, spectacular glaciers, and eye-catching architecture. Yet, none qualify as my shot of shots. What is?
My favorite photo of our dream vacation is one of the best I have ever taken of my wife. Neva is standing at the stern of our cruise ship as it slowly eases out of port to begin our brief voyage.
The smile on her face is both precious and priceless. As she looks back at the camera, Neva’s radiance lights up the dim evening setting. It wasn’t the anticipation that created that glow. It was the pure pleasure of being there together.
Our grandkids are growing in so many ways. The most apparent transformations, of course, are their physical changes.
On their last visit to Nana and Poppy’s Ohio home, we had family photos taken. That was April 2017. At 5 foot 9 inches, I was taller than all three grandchildren. Not anymore.
When we returned from a recent trip to Alaska, I could no longer make that claim. Both Evan and Davis have outgrown me. Two years makes a big difference when you are growing youngsters.
In fact, Davis is challenging his older brother for tallest sibling bragging rights. At 15 and 13, they both likely have some growing yet to do.
When Nana asked Davis if he was the tallest in his middle school, he said not by a long shot. One classmate is already 6 foot 3 inches.
When I asked what sports the tall teen plays, Davis quickly replied with one defining word: “Guitar!” That’s what I get for stereotyping.
We took the sprouting trio out for our annual before-school-begins breakfast at their favorite eatery. Since it was already going on 10 a.m. by the time we arrived, the outing was more like brunch. Growing youngsters need their sleep.
The discussion around the breakfast table revealed other sorts of growth. They each shared about their recent trip to the west coast.
The highlights they named surprised both Nana and me. They all liked the Chihuly Art glass garden in Seattle. Riding motorbikes and four-wheelers in Oregon was a close second, followed by watching surfers at Huntington Beach, California with cousins they got to meet for the first time.
We talked about the upcoming school year. When asked about the classes they would be taking in high school and middle school, each boy pulled out a smartphone and read off their schedules. Little sister, who isn’t so little anymore, is excited to have her best friend in her fourth-grade class.
As they chattered on and we waited on the food, I couldn’t help but reflect on their younger years in Texas, where all three were born. We enjoyed those infrequent visits, although the hot Lone Star summers often kept us inside playing with Matchbox toys and changing diapers.
Now they live in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and so do we. They are the primary reasons we moved here from the beloved Buckeye State more than two years ago. Living five miles apart is much more convenient than five hours by airplane.
Watching the grandkids change so quickly is both gratifying and a bit scary. We relish each moment, even the predictable squabbles of youth and siblings. I’m thankful that the role of grandparent is less harried than that of the parent.
Evan, Davis, and Maren all have their various likes and dislikes, gifts and abilities. It is both a joy and a challenge to keep up with their busy, young lives.
We bundle up and watch Even pitch even if it’s 40 degrees with a stiff northwest wind. I marvel at Davis’ preference for quiet, personal time, whether on a solo bike ride or being in his room. I shake my head in disbelief at Maren’s packed after-school schedule. How she manages soccer and choir practices, and piano lessons that sometimes follow one another is a mystery to me.
The grandchildren are growing. Nana and I relish the rapid changes that seem to occur daily. We anticipate with wonder all that is yet to come, thankful we’re here to help and take it all in.
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