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Grafting Onto Your Family Tree

No matter how "rooted" your family tree is in blood ties --  there is always room to grow lush, beautiful branches that sprout from true friendships! Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

No matter how “rooted” your family tree is in blood ties — there is always room to grow lush, beautiful branches that sprout from true friendships! Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

*In collaboration with Chris Little

When I think about family trees, my mind naturally drifts to how different so many families look than they did in the generations of our parents and grandparents. The “faces” of families today are much more diverse – for reasons such as interracial marriage and building a family through adoption. Nowadays, a family is often comprised of different skin colors, ethnicities and cultures.

As I think about this concept further, I also consider what – or should I say who, really makes up a family tree. Is it biological members of a family – those with only true blood ties to the family line? Or, can a family unit be more than that? I wonder too … if family is also supposed to be about love for one other, and about taking care of one other, and about respecting one other – then what if that is not happening with certain so-called “family members.” Then, are they your family? And then further … are the special people in your life who “make up for” those sour relationships – who do love, care for and respect you, are they your family?

In other words, is a family bound by blood … or love?

I will be very bold and say that I do not consider every person in my blood-related family to be my family. There are a few members in my family who do not exhibit the traits I consider to be worthy of family; and therefore I avoid them as much as I can, and certainly do not let them know much about my life nor infringe upon it. Yes, I feel they are that toxic.

Aside from this, our son is adopted. If I thought that family was only about blood ties, I could not possibly have become his mother. In my opinion, a family is less about blood ties and more about a culture. The term culture encompasses ethnicity, racial identity, family structure, economic level, language, and religious and political beliefs – all of which profoundly influence a person’s development and relationship to the world, from birth and childhood on. And, therefore, also how they integrate into a family and take part in that family unit. So in my mind – and in my world, family is built by choice. The “family tree,” therefore, is not so much about where the trunk of the tree first took seed, or how the roots took hold in the ground – rather about the many thick branches and lush leaves that grew from that initial form.

It is so very difficult for me to understand how others cannot see beyond how a child comes into a family and simply acknowledge that it is a true blessing that the child is there. Perhaps, though, that is because I have experienced the love of those family members in my life with whom I share not one ounce of blood. When I look back on my childhood, I see clearly how in many ways those special people were more of a family to me in the true meaning and experience of the word than many of my “blood” relatives. Just as some people remark that they “don’t see race” (I laugh heartily when Stephen Colbert humorously states this on his television show) as a factor in how they interact with people from ethnicities other than their own, I don’t see how inherited physical and personality traits such as daddy’s eye color, mommy’s nose, and grandpa’s sense of humor are at all relevant in how a family lives and loves together.

The credit for my point of view on this subject really must go to my amazing mother. Unknowingly, she is the one who taught me about the beauty of building a family through adoption. My mother was an “only child” and since she grew up without siblings, she built her family through friends with whom she became close over the years. Therefore, my aunts and uncles on my mom’s side of the family were introduced into my life from those friendship bonds. And guess what? I was none the wiser. There was no talk of how “Aunt So-and-So isn’t my ‘real’ aunt,” nor lengthy explanations and justifications as to why “Mr. and Mrs. X” became my grandparents. I did not find this at all unusual – it just was.

My mother's dear friend who became my aunt holds my son when he was a baby.

My mother’s dear friend, who became my aunt, holds my son when he was a baby.

As an example, there were two wonderful married couples who were very good friends of both my parents, and who then became my aunts and uncles – Don and Louise, who were my godparents and have both since passed away; and Bob and Nancy, who continue to be such a delightful presence in my family’s life.

Two sets of other “relatives” in particular influenced my life in some very profound ways. I can tell you that I have definitely “inherited” my Aunt Mary Alice’s flair for entertaining masses of people in my home without breaking a sweat. Her grace and class, and the way her home made an open, welcoming haven for traveling family and friends no matter what else she had going on in her life, astounds me even to this day. She also imparted to me the importance of moisturizing one’s entire body with lotion daily – clearly a beauty regiment necessity!

I remember my mother once remarked to me about Mary Alice saying, “She saved my life,” as her eyes welled up with tears. You see, Mary and her husband, Bob, had become more than just my mother’s dear friends – they became her family when she had none. It is amazing to me how anyone upon hearing this story could continue to think that a blood tie alone to another person makes them family in the true meaning of the word!

A couple of years toward the end of my Aunt Mary’s life, I had the pleasure of flying to Colorado from time to time where my aunt and uncle lived. My dear Aunt Mary had been very ill for some time, and along with her physical ailments, had begun to show early signs of dementia. Although my Uncle Bob had weekly help in his home and was able to take breaks from caring for my aunt round the clock, I wanted to be present during this difficult time for them both whenever I could. I wanted to help too. I wanted to give something back – no matter how small, to the people who are forever bound to me through love. To my family.

As I stayed present with my Aunt Mary while Uncle Bob played cards with his friends and went to the movies; as I helped to feed and dress her; as I looked into her eyes and smiled; I was overcome with emotion. These people had become my true family and I was so much closer to them than many of those who share inherited traits with me. When my aunt passed away, my heart broke in places I didn’t know it could – I had lost a big piece of it.

I had a similar experience growing up with my grandmother and grandfather. Both of my parents’ fathers had died before I was born, and my paternal grandmother passed away after having seen me only once when I was just an infant. My maternal grandmother battled cancer throughout my childhood and passed away when I was in the ninth grade. So the grandparents I refer to were not the biological parents of either my mom or my dad – they were actually our neighbors.

When my mother returned to work after raising us, she turned to a retired woman in the neighborhood who babysat regularly for help with our afterschool care. To our family however, Edna and her husband, Septimus, became so much more – they became our grandmom and grandpop. I cannot put into words what a special part of my life they became, sharing everything from school days to birthdays. Septimus passed away when I was a freshman in college and when my beloved grandmother passed away in 2001, I felt as though a piece of my life had died too. I assure you that in all the years I was blessed to have her in my life, her homemade cookies, cakes and pies tasted no less delicious; and her presence in my life was no less special, because we were not related by blood.

My "family tree" continues ... my dear friend Alice has now become an aunt to my son!

My “family tree” branches out … my dear friend Alice has now become an aunt to my son!

Now the same need for family must be fulfilled for my son. He too is an only child, and my husband and I are not close with all of our immediate family members. So we are forming a family for him – growing and adding branches to our tree trunk. We have looked outside of our family members for those special relationships of aunts, uncles, and cousins. My best friends and their families have been very present in my son’s life. In fact, my son calls them aunts, uncles and cousins; and just as I did growing up, doesn’t seem to think anything of it. For they are the ones who make the effort to stay in touch across the miles, to send my son special gifts, to visit or host us when we visit them. They are the ones who support us in raising him, uplift us when we experience life’s challenges, and celebrate when we share our joys. They are our family and we treasure them!

The expression, “Blood is thicker than water,” is a misrepresentation of family life. It simply is not true. Although it is sad to say, when you go through a really difficult time in your life, you may well find that those still standing by your side at the end may not be your blood relatives!

In my blog, “Blood is Thicker Than Water and Other Misrepresentations of Family Life,” I share a story which illustrates further my thoughts about true family

My husband and I had been following the Camelot television series and during one episode, Arthur spoke to a man who was afraid of losing his daughter if she ever discovered that he was not her biological father. When Arthur spoke, my husband and I just looked at each other and smiled – finally, a script writer who truly “gets” adoption, who truly understands that families can be built by choice as well. To the man, Arthur said, “It’s not blood that ties you together; it’s the memories you share. Everything you taught her, everything you gave up for her – it’s your love, that’s what flows through her.”

Enough said!

Do you have a special person who has become family even though they are not related by blood? Are there people in your life you consider family members just as much as your biological relatives – and whom you would add to your family tree? Our OTMGR community would be interested to hear your story about those treasured relationships!

From Smallest to Tallest

One of my favorite photos of all time, Easter 2002, when my son was truly the smallest one in the family.

One of my favorite photos of all time, Easter 2002, when my son was truly the smallest one in the family.

By Karen Hendricks

His day has come. I’ve been telling my son for years, that he would only spend a fraction of his life as the “smallest” and that one day he would be the “tallest.” The third of our three children, at 13 years of age, he’s now surpassed both of his sisters, as well as me, in height. Only Dad remains, and there’s no doubt his lanky frame will soon zip past Dad too.

It’s incredible to me, that “my baby” is now at eye level. This is the sweet boy who was always toddling to keep up with his sisters during their baby days. Even though he will always be the youngest, it’s amazing how quickly the roles reversed and he became the tallest. It seems as though his height has zipped higher and higher in direct proportion to his voice dipping lower and lower. It was a shocker last September, as we had to step foot in the men’s sections, rather than the boy’s sections, while doing his back-to-school shopping.

Just more proof that time truly does fly, that it’s so important to savor every day, every milestone, every treasured family moment. I encourage you to take time to step off the merry-go-round of our busy lives to enjoy and celebrate the most special people on earth… our children.

Today: father & son photo, back-to-back, with two inches or less in height difference.

Today: father & son photo, back-to-back, with two inches or less in height difference.

Reflections on childhood:

  • “Every cliche about kids is true; they grow up so quickly, you blink and they’re gone, and you have to spend the time with them now. But that’s a joy.” – Liam Neeson
  • “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”  – Fred Rogers
  • “Nothing I’ve ever done has given me more joys and rewards than being a father to my children.” – Bill Cosby
  • “[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”  – Jim Henson
  • “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” – e. e. cummings

Share the stories of your childrens’ growth spurts… How quickly or slowly did your childrens’ birth-order stair steps become rearranged?

What are your tips for slowing down and savoring childhood milestones? 

Preserving Old Scrapbooks: Taking your grandmother’s baby pictures into their next century

SCAN Venetian Alley

By Chris Little

My great-grandmother Ethel was an intermittently devoted scrapbooker—in high school she clipped and saved newspaper articles detailing school activities and local events she’d attended. In the early years of her marriage she created beautiful scrapbooks of her honeymoon trip to Europe and her children’s infancies and childhoods.

SCAN Amalfi Coast

Today these scrapbooks are more than a century old! They’re in pretty good shape, but they won’t always be. I have been at a loss as to how to preserve them—what’s the best way to store them? And what about acids in the paper pages—were they slowly destroying the photographs? Meanwhile, I’d like to make good digital copies of the old photographs to preserve them—but the scrapbook pages are bigger than my scanner bed. Should I disassemble the scrapbooks, scan the images, and then reassemble them in archival-quality albums? That sounds like a risky proposition, and I’d lose all of Ethel’s charming inscriptions.

FlipPad

Enter my new Flip-Pal mobile scanner! Battery-operated and completely portable, the scanner is set up so that I can just place it over the scrapbook page (or the old family Bible record page, or any document I can’t drop onto my full-size scanner bed), press a button, and scan the image to an SD memory card for upload to my hard drive later.

The scanner’s software even digitally “stitches together” multiple images of a large scrapbook page into one image. Below are six scans I quickly took of one page as an example:

SCAN upper left SCAN upper right SCAN middle left SCAN center center SCAN lower right SCAN lower left

And here’s the final digitally “stitched” version of a scrapbook page my great-grandmother made celebrating the birth of her daughter, my grandmother:

scrapbook page

Yes, that top left corner is a little tight. When I do this for real I’ll loosen the string binding so I can get a better scan of each corner. Still, pretty awesome! So the Flip-Pal will take care of digitally preserving Ethel’s scrapbooks. But what about preserving the scrapbook itself?

Old scrapbooks are tricky because they typically contain so many different types of materials—everything from newspaper clippings to hair ribbons to pressed-flower corsages. These materials each have their own storage requirements, and some of them, like newspaper, are highly acidic and therefore can damage other materials in the scrapbook. And then there’s the glue, tape, and other adhesives that also can be hard on the items they affix to the scrapbook. Even worse, the paper pages of the scrapbook itself can be destructively acidic.

Storage. The key to stewarding old scrapbooks into their second century is keeping them cool, dark, and dry—no more than 65 degrees and 40 percent humidity. Temperature and humidity fluctuations cause scrapbook contents to absorb moisture and expand, then dry out and contract—increasing damage to bindings, adhesives, and the materials themselves. For this reason, beware of keeping your old scrapbooks in damp basements or attics with poor insulation. I just moved all of my great-grandmother’s scrapbooks to the guest room closet—it’s dark, cooler than the other rooms in the house, but pretty much stays the same temperature all year. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I’ve got.

Rehabilitation? I’m pretty sure my great-grandmother’s scrapbooks are constructed of paper boiling with acid that’s slowly eating away at her photographs. My first impulse on discovering them was to deconstruct them and rearrange their contents into nice new bindings, on archival paper, with inscriptions copied in acid-free ink. The National Archives, however, cautions against doing that in most cases—and never before making good-quality photocopies or scans of each page. It turns out that the old black-paper scrapbook albums aren’t all that bad, and even disassembling those old self-stick albums we used to use can be tricky. The key here is to proceed with caution, and only after researching the alternatives. Sometimes the best way to preserve an old scrapbook is just to store it safely.

Want to learn more? Happily, there are many, many resources out there. For instance, the National Archives provides excellent guidance on preserving all kinds of family artifacts. The Library of Congress offers information on caring for and storing old photographs. And the Smithsonian Institute even provides a list of purveyors of archiving supplies! So do some reading and equip yourself to preserve your valuable family artifacts for your children and grandchildren. Then tell us about them!

Researching your family tree: How to get started

My mom, grandmother, and uncle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1953.

My mom, grandmother, and uncle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1953.

By Chris Little

Maybe you’ve got an old photograph on your piano of your mother when she was a girl, that day she took a trip with her family to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Or maybe you remember that great story your grandmother once told you about meeting your grandfather at a USO dance. I still remember my great-aunt telling me about working the air traffic control tower of her regional airport during World War II because all the men were deployed.

If we’re lucky, we’ve got a few of those half-remembered stories swirling around in the backs of our minds. And someday, if we’re even luckier, they’ll swirl from the back to the front and demand that we learn more about them. Let’s say that someday is today, and you’d like to start learning more about your family stories—and the people who starred in them. Where to start? Here are some strategies:

Go to the source. If you’re fortunate enough to have older relatives still living, pay them a visit! Or at least a phone call. Ask them to tell you anything they can about their youth, their parents and grandparents, and the times they lived in. What kind of car did they drive? What did they do for work during the Depression? What are some of their favorite memories of their childhood? Take a notebook—or better yet, a video or audio recorder. These stories are priceless! And if they have a stash of photographs or scrapbooks, ask if you can take a look.

Draft a tree. Start with your parents and grandparents. Note their dates of birth and death, when and who they married, and where they’re buried. How far back can you go? Don’t worry if you have more information for one branch of your family tree than another, and don’t worry if your tree is largely bare at this point. Filling it in is the fun part!

Go online. Now you can start exploring your family tree on Ancestry.com—it’s easy and just as private as you want it to be. Again, start with what you know, then search for possible connections in preceding generations.

Go online some more. Try Googling the names of your grandparents, great-grandparents, and other ancestors as far back as you can go. There’s so much genealogical information online, and more being digitized every day, there’s no telling what you’ll turn up.

Scavenge for facts. Does your family have any old scrapbooks or photographs you can look through? Check inside the front cover of your grandmother’s old family Bible—there’s probably a trove of names and dates recorded there. Talk to your cousins—do any of them have material that could help fill in gaps in your tree?

Do your legwork. Visit the historical societies in the town(s) where your ancestors lived, and the libraries where their hometown newspapers may be archived. Stop in at the churches where they worshipped and ask if you can look for your ancestor in their records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths. Be sure to keep detailed records of everything you find—preferably photocopies.

Talk about it! Tell your friends and relatives what you’re doing—you never know where your next lead or research strategy might come from.

Educate yourself. Subscribe to genealogy blogs and other websites that offer research strategies. One of the fun blogs I follow is Out Here Studying Stones, whose author one day suggested searching for an ancestor’s passport application on Ancestry.com. I’d never thought of it! I knew my great-grandparents had been to Europe in 1909, so I searched for my great-grandfather’s passport application. Bingo! Within five minutes I had his childhood address and his hair and eye color—information I’d not been able to find previously.

Along those lines, here are a few sites that are helpful for getting started on genealogy research:

  • Here’s a nice free tutorial on Family Search, a site operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
  • Here’s another that explains how to use the National Archives for doing your research.
  • Here’s another, from the National Genealogical Society.
  • And here Family Tree magazine lists the top 40 genealogy blogs for 2013.

Share what you know. As you develop knowledge about your family and expertise about researching it, consider sharing what you’ve learned, whether in a blog or a self-published family history book. Giving people the opportunity to respond to your work will help you develop your skills—and could take your research off in new and fruitful directions.

You can start by letting us know some of your research strategies and successes, right here in the comment box below!

What’s In a Name: Part One

Photo Credit: People Equation

Photo Credit: People Equation

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

I hate my name. Well, parts of it anyway. Let me explain …

Several years ago, I asked my mother why she chose the name Jennifer for me. She responded this way: “Well, I was going to name you Jessica. But then I knew some ‘dumb jerk’ would start calling you ‘Jesse.’” I don’t know about you, but I can’t quite figure out why my mom thought naming me Jennifer would be much better as far as name butchering. That name has given people endless possibilities, and apparently license, to call me whatever version they wish–many of which I don’t like!

When I started school, I was called Jennifer until the first year of middle school in the fifth grade. It was the first day of school our well-meaning homeroom teacher said to let her know if we have a shorter version of our name, or a nickname we prefer to be called. This teacher also lived near my family and knew us well, and she knew the affectionate nickname my family had given me (no chance I’m sharing–sorry!). So when she began roll call and called out the name of another Jennifer in the class, that girl said she liked to be called ‘Jenny.’ So, Jenny it would be. When she called my name, however, I said that Jennifer was fine. Yet it didn’t end here. The teacher then asked me if I was “sure” I didn’t have another name I wanted to be called. And … she didn’t let it go until my nickname was “out there.” I was absolutely mortified. My life was ruined. From that point forward I was called that nickname – and I’m convinced that moment was my social undoing as a tween!

When I switched to a private high school, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be Jennifer again. Yet it was not to be so. My new class was very small–17 of us in all–and coincidentally there ended up being another Jennifer in it. On the first day of school she marched up to me, put her hands on her hips and declared, “My name is Jennifer too. I was here first and go by Jennifer, so you can be Jenny.” Completely intimidated, there I stood once again–my name being imposed on me. So Jenny I was. Over time, I got used to my name and the other Jennifer and I became close friends. I even played with spelling variations of the name–writing it first Jenni, and then Jennie.

Is this the image that comes to mind when you hear the name "Jenna?" It is for me - warm, loving, and lots of fun!

Is this the image that comes to mind when you hear the name “Jenna?” It is for me – warm, loving, and lots of fun!

As I got older, my mother and siblings started calling me Jen, yet I never cared for it. On occasion I have hinted that I don’t like to be called Jen, yet to no avail – that shortened version of my name has already taken hold. Now I am also called Aunt Jen by my nephews. In all correspondence and voicemail messages, however, I refer to myself as ‘Aunt Jennie.’ Has no one picked up on this? Ahhh–that name is now being passed down to younger generations!

When we started dating my husband and I discussed the many variations my name has taken, and I told him I’d never been satisfied with any shortened version. It was then that he came up with Jenna–and I was sold! Soon, his whole family began calling me that and eventually, if I developed a new friendship that became close, I asked my friend to call me Jenna. Whatever “a Jenna” is as opposed to “a Jen,” I’m not sure. What I do know though is that I feel most comfortable being Jenna among those with whom I am closest.

Over the course of my life most people have taken my name Jennifer and chopped it down to ‘Jen’–without my permission. This has happened in my social circles and professionally. In recent email correspondence with a newly introduced colleague, he began addressing me as Jen, even though I never signed my name as such. In my professional life, I go by Jennifer only.

I cannot understand why people take liberty with other’s names and think that’s okay. It’s not–it’s rude. I believe a person is entitled to be addressed how they wish. And, if at some point they ask to be called by another name, I think that effort should be made by others. That’s just basic respect.

A couple of years ago I reconnected with a former high school classmate for whom I now work. For his privacy, I will change his name … In high school, he was introduced to me as ‘Sammy’–the shortened version of his name, and nickname by which he was called. When we got back in touch, I learned he was now going by ‘Sam,’ and figured he just found this change to be more socially mature for his age, or a more professional sounding shortened version. I’m really not sure why the change, and I did find it hard to make after being used to calling him Sammy for so long. However, I made the change out of respect for him. I’m still not quite used to it, but if he wants to be called Sam, then Sam it is. Besides, Sam is now my boss so he can be called whatever he likes!

Many people take liberty and license to call people by any version of their name they like.

Many people take liberty and license to call people by any version of their name they like.

Addressing someone by the name they prefer shows respect for that person. Imposing a name on someone that you choose does not. The following is a list of etiquette tips for addressing people which may be used in social situations, as well as the business world:

  • Address a person using the name by which you are introduced – unless and until they tell you otherwise. For example, a new employee at work is introduced to you as ‘Michael.’ You shake hands and continue to address him as Michael until he says, “Please, call me Mike.” Then, Mike it is!
  • If you are unsure as to what name a person would like to be addressed, ask.
  • Don’t make assumptions. Because one person goes by ‘Mike,’ not all Michael’s wish to be addressed as such.
  • In regular situations, it is best to use both a person’s first and last name when making introductions. To use only a first name is not introducing the total person.
  • In a professional setting, keep the forms of address equal. If you use Ms. Smith, you must use Mr. Brown. You should not say, “Mary, this is Mr. Brown.”
  • Mention something about the people you are introducing. This will give them a starting point for their own conversation. “Mary Smith, this is Joe Brown. Joe shares your alma mater.”

In Part Two of “What’s In a Name?” I will share how to make proper business introductions. In the meantime, feel free to share any name butcher or blunder stories you have and how you’ve handled it! Have your experiences affected name(s) you have chosen for your children?

Holiday Heart and Soul

Happy Holidays from “Off the Merry-Go-Round!”

As we countdown to Christmas, our writers took time to share their photos and reflections of their most treasured holiday keepsakes, decorations and more. We invite you into our homes this holiday season, to share our memories, tips and inspiration!

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This has always been my favorite ornament. It was my mother’s, and it was always the last ornament to be put on our tree when I was growing up. I was so happy when she gave it to me. And now I continue the tradition… it’s always the last ornament I place on my tree as well. -Jen Ashenfelter

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I feel very blessed to have a large collection of antique glass ornaments from my grandmother and mother-in-law. Since our living room is painted light blue, I struggle with holiday decorating. Traditional reds and greens look out of place. But placing a mixture of green and blue balls into several big, old brandy snifters brings holiday sparkle to the room. I especially enjoy the nostalgic 1950’s era aqua tones! -Karen Hendricks

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My oldest daughter, a dance major, is coming home from college this week! To welcome her home and add fun holiday decor to her room, my younger daughter and I made ballerina snowflakes and strung them on a garland atop her window. We used oragami paper for the snowflake skirts. -Karen Hendricks

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These are some of my favorite decorations–carved wood angels and trees. Simple! -Chris Little

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My mom, who passed away on December 6, 2006, started my collection of Possible Dream Santas many years ago. She would search for just the right Santa that might reflect “our” interests. We continue to cherish these Santas year after year. Interestingly enough, she even purchased one for me the year she passed away. -Mary Ann Filler

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This is the Santa that my mom chose for my Christmas gift, the year she passed away. It takes center stage on my mantle. It’s still emotional for me to think about how she picked this out despite how sick she was. -Mary Ann Filler

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Our family’s Christmas tradition focuses on three main concepts: One – Preparation for Jesus’ birth, marking the Advent season using an Advent Wreath and an Advent Calendar–which this year is in the form of a beautiful wooden house. Behind every window or door being a treat or small toy…

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Two – Anticipation of news of His coming, having the 3 Wise Men “travel” through our house, a little distance each day (my son loves to move them!), until they reach the Crèche (Nativity scene)…

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Three – Celebration of Jesus’ birth! Baby Jesus doesn’t appear in the manger until Christmas. In our home, Christmas tradition also revolves around the story of the life of Saint Nicholas. We are very deliberate in our teaching and celebration with our son. On the first Sunday in Advent our priest responded to the commercialism and secularism that has taken over Christmas by saying, “You never want your children to think that they don’t need God (because they received so many presents Christmas Day).” -Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

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The stockings were hung by the chimney with care… My grandmother started the tradition of knitting personalized stockings for everyone in our family, complete with our name at the top and birth year towards the middle. My mom continued this tradition by knitting my husband and children their own personalized stockings too. Atop our fireplace is a special painting–artist Dean Morrissey’s whimsical Santa, “Preparing for the Journey.” I splurged on this painting after working with the artist during several festivals. I admired it for several years before treating myself, including a gorgeous framing job by a local gallery & a special inscription and signature from the artist. (My cat Jingles even posed for this photo!) -Karen Hendricks

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Dean Morrissey – Preparing for the Journey

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New fireplace decor for 2013! I adore our two-sided fireplace, situated between our living and dining rooms but it’s not very efficient so we rarely use it. So this year, I stacked white birch logs saved from our beloved tree struck by an ice storm several years back, along with evergreen boughs trimmed from the bottom of our tree, and a string of Christmas lights. It gives the illusion of warmth and fire once again! (Jingles is looking quite annoyed at all these changes occurring in “his” house. HA!) -Karen Hendricks

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Does everyone have one of these handprint wall hangings left over from preschool? This one is from 1997. I saw one from 2010 in a friend’s house (with much younger kids of course) last week. Treasure! -Chris Little

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For our family, this crèche is a beautiful reminder of the true meaning of Christmas. -Mary Ann Filler

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While this ornament is also a reflection of the true meaning of Christmas, it has caused some strife in our household. For reasons I don’t totally understand as a mom, every year my 3 sons fight over who gets to place this ornament on the tree. Last year, we wised up and wrote down a schedule of who will get to put this ornament on the tree from now until the year 2020! Problem solved! -Mary Ann Filler

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This is a new Christmas treasure! A print of chalkboard art from local artist Valerie McKeehan. -Chris Little

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Our angel tree topper has witnessed all of our Christmases as a married couple, as it was purchased during our first year of marriage over 21 years ago! -Mary Ann Filler

Holiday Links:

To learn more about the chalkboard art of Valerie McKeehan, click here for her Lily&Val website.

To see more examples of Dean Morrissey’s gorgeous Santa paintings and other works, click here for his artist page on Greenwich Workshop.

To make snowflake ballerinas, click here for the pattern and instructions (also pinned to our Off the Merry-Go-Round Pinterest board, “Holidays.”)

Do our photos and stories stir up your memories as well? We welcome your holiday ideas, memories and thoughts!

The Immortality of My Parents

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

I gently chided my husband – again – about how he continues to leave the light on in our master bedroom closet once he has exited, as well as the night light above the toilet when he is finished using the bathroom. “But it’s not me, it’s the gremlins,” he emphasized. Now, where had I heard that before???

When my father was alive, blaming similar occurrences on “gremlins” was his way of doing one of two things: either explaining away the great mysteries of life (Where in the world did I put my glasses/car keys/pair of scissors I just had in my hand? Those blasted gremlins again!); or, trying to “get out of” some trouble around the house that for some reason was always inevitably his fault.

In that shared moment with my husband, I realized what I had known all along as I watched my father near the end of his life: that Dad’s life really wouldn’t ever end. It would continue to live on in me, in my family, and in others, since he had touched so many lives in his personal and professional life. I also realized that over the years I have taken on many of my father’s ways – similarly moving about the house and interacting with my family, that it is almost as though he is here with me daily.

Somehow I still can't leave the house without putting on lipstick or lip gloss! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Somehow I still can’t leave the house without putting on lipstick or lip gloss! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in so many ways, I now catch myself carrying on a lot of my folks’ “parent-isms.” So much so that I am beginning to wonder if they actually are immortal! Here’s what I mean:

  • The “gremlins” have apparently followed me from my childhood home to my house.
  • My son breaks out into song with, “Ooo, Eee, Ooo, Ahh, Ahh, Ting, Tang, Wala, Wala, Bing, Bang.” Is that a real song or did my Dad indeed make that up? I refuse to Google it to find out.
  • When my son was showing me something and said, “Look at this, Mom,” I responded, “I see said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw.” Ugh! Another bad Dad pun!
  • I’m beginning to tell the jokes from Reader’s Digest and claiming them as my own.
  • When I am getting ready to run an errand, I frequently pause for one last look in the mirror – My mother’s question, “Where’s your lipstick?” resonates in my ear. I choose lip gloss instead.
  • I keep picking out white shirts for Andrew to layer under his long-sleeved shirts and sweaters. Mom is infamous for saying, “You can wear white with that,” when my sisters and I would approach her looking for color matching ideas.
  • I catch myself posing larger than life questions and considerations to my son as both of my parents were prone to do. Like a 4-year-old really gets my explanation about aging as to why I cannot simply leap out of bed and somersault across the floor at 6:00 in the morning too. “And you too one day will be old.” Yes, Dad – I know that now!

My dad passed away on October 3rd this year (click here for “A Gift from My Father”). Those of you who have also lost a close relative or dear friend know that all the “firsts” (holiday, birthday, anniversary) without them are especially tough. My family and I have held fast to having our own holiday time at home versus traveling out of state between various relatives. We believe it is very important that our son wake up in his own house for holidays and experience the family traditions we have established. At Christmastime, we would visit my parents on December 27th or 28th to exchange gifts since they live less than 3 hours away, yet that was the extent of celebrating holidays outside of our own home.

This Thanksgiving, however, we decided to stay with my mother in my childhood home and join her, and my sister and her family, for the Thanksgiving meal. It all seemed “fine,” yet there definitely was a presence missing. My sister puts out little name cards at each table setting so everyone knows their seat, and when she came across the card that said (“Pop Pop”) she and I both had to take a breath. I sat next to my mom, yet oddly, didn’t know what to say or do. I just kind of reached over at one point and put my hand on her arm, hoping she would somehow know what I wanted to say but couldn’t.

The day after Thanksgiving, my mom and I visited Dad’s grave site and met the gentleman there who would help us choose a headstone that would be eventually shared by Mom as well. It was a bitterly cold day, and the man was far too chatty and cheerful for me. The morning there exhausted and annoyed me, and by the time my family and I arrived back in Maryland that evening I was emotionally drained. I slept most of the weekend.

We have all heard of having a “Blue Christmas.” This is also a Christmas song written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, and is a tale of unrequited love during the holidays. It has become popular Christmas music that causes us to think about anyone we are missing during the holiday season. Here are a few tips I am finding helpful in keeping cheer amidst feelings of melancholy:

  • Create a “tribute” table or other spot in your home where you can see your loved one and have their presence more easily felt.
  • Talk to your loved one (yes, out loud!) every day. Tell them what is on your mind and what you are feeling, whether it directly pertains to your relationship or not.
  • Call family and friends who are still with you and reminisce. Cry together, or laugh as you remember the good times.
  • Find fun activities to join in that are separate from the things you used to do with your loved one. Sometimes a shift in routine can be a welcome distraction.
  • Let yourself feel your emotions, yet try not to become bogged down in them to where you are feeling prolonged feelings of sadness and loss. If that does become the case, find an unbiased professional to talk with, help you sort your emotions out, and cope. After all, losing a loved one – especially around the holidays, is tough.
Setting up a 'tribute table' for my father has been helpful. I can "see" him every day and more easily talk to him. I burn a tea light candle for him daily, and have decided to keep the table up for one year.

Setting up a ‘tribute table’ for my father has been helpful. I can “see” him every day and more easily talk to him. I burn a tea light candle for him daily, and have decided to keep the table up for one year.

I watch my husband and son from our dining room window – building a snowman and enjoying a friendly snowball fight in the first snow of winter. Yet it is more than this present moment I see. I see into the future as well – when my little boy will have grown and one day experience the loss of us, his parents. Will he hurt as badly as I do now? What memories will he hold dear and cling to when we are no longer in front of him? I don’t know. Yet if I am successful at continuing to pass on those delightful little parts of my father and mother, which I am so thankful for and which are now parts of me, my son will have plenty of them to keep him warm.

A time of happiness as we watch our young son grow and become close as a family. Yet what losses will my son experience in the future?

A time of happiness as we watch our young son grow and become close as a family. Yet what losses will my son experience in the future?

Are you dealing with feelings of loss or sadness this holiday season? Feel free to share your story, as well as ways you are coping and helping to bring a little cheer to this time of year.