Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Pretty Paper, Pretty Ribbons of Blue

This is one of my favorite holiday songs. I am generally familiar with the Willie Nelson version. I think that Roy Orbison's version may have preceded his.

Some of the lyrics are as follows, as best I can remember:

"Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue;
Wrap your presents to your darling from you.
Pretty pencils to write 'I love you'.
Pretty papers, pretty ribbons of blue."

The ballad surrounds a story line of a downtown press of shoppers who hustle and bustle their ways past a fellow sitting in the middle of the sidewalk singing this song and peddling his wares.. He is obviously handicapped in some fashion or another. There is a description of the encounter by the shoppers who ask themselves if they should stop. The unilateral conclusion is that they cannot because they are much too busy. The song describes the colors, movement and and the lack of connection amongst the crowd, one to another during the holiday season. The lyrics include the onamonapia of the sound of children singing in the background. All in all a very moving holiday tune.

I think back to a time I was staying in Baltimore right next to the baseball park, Camden yards. It was cold and nearing the holiday season. I recall leaving our hotel with a group of people on our way to dinner walking across the Inner Harbor. This has to be nearly 20 years ago. There were 10 panhandlers for every passerby. All of them looking for a handout. Theirs was a very competetive endeavor as some of them were pushing one another posturing for a better position amongst the crowd. I remember emptying my pockets of change and smaller units of cash. It was but a little smear of ointment to a gash that oozed blood. You almost have to be compassionless to survive such an ordeal. Yet that is very difficult for most of us. Most of us would rather not be compelled to come face to face with the problem this land of freedom and opportunity has in meeting the needs of our underprivileged population.

I think of a friend of my wife and mine. Her name was Betty Williams. She had been confined to a wheelchair and a hospital bed for the greater part of her life. We became acquaintances and then friends through an outreach program with our church. The mission was just to befriend her and visit her a minimum of one time per month. Nancy, my wife, visited her by herself for several years. Nancy became part of her inner circle and cashed small checks for her and took her an illicit chili dog and other treats that diabetics are not supposed to be allowed. I fussed at Nancy for doing that and ultimately I became part of the delivery system. Indeed our entire family came to know Betty, including our bassett hound Cleo. We always took time on holidays especially to get by and see her.

She had been confined to a nursing home bed for more than twenty years. When you entered her room her smile and greeting filled the hallway and bored straight through to the center of your heart. She had a little bit of family but their circumstances were meagar. It turned out that Betty had a steady stream of visitors not just from our church but several other churches as well. The more the merrier. She captivated us all with her upbeat attitude in spite of her limited circumstances. I came to find myself stopping by to see her several times a month. I always was lifted by her. I suppose I was ministering to her in a fashion but I recall that often she ministered to me.

She was like a child at Christmas. She always had a pretty good list of things she wanted. They were not expensive requests and it seemed that every year her posse of friends would deliver what was on her list of requests and then more. She beamed with glee over every wrapped gift that found its way to her room. I can still see her big smile and hear her hearty greeting. I remember the time her TV gave up the ghost. I took it upon myself to ask people for a donation to help buy her a new one. It was the easiest fundraiser ever. I had more than enough money to make the purchase in no time. There was enough money left over to buy her a VCR and some videos. She insisted on writing each donor a thank you. Of course she had lost the use of her arms and hands years earlier, so I got the opportunity to write each note for her. She ended each note of thank you " in the name of Jesus Christ, your friend, Betty."

One day, about 10 years ago, I went to see her and another person had taken over her room. Betty had developed one of many infections and this one was more that her frail 66 year old body could bear. In the isolation of an ICU she went home to that God who gave her life. I learned along the way of my association with her that she herself had sold pencils on one of the streets in Tallahassee before she became a permanent resident of her nursing home. So I think of Betty each time I hear this song.

" Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue.
Wrap your present to your darling from you.
Pretty pencils to write I love you.
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue."

Thank you Betty for all you did for me and my family over, many, many years. I hope to see you again one day. I hope I am worthy to kiss you on the cheek and hug you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Zen of Thanksgiving

It was Thanksgiving 1995. My Father-In-Law lay in a nursing home in Tampa suffering with a myolopathy akin to ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. I had just received word that if I wanted to see my father alive that I needed to get to Chattanooga, Tennessee. We had just loaded up in Tallahassee heading to Tampa when that word came. What was I going to do? We only had one car that was road worthy. All local rental car companies were out of inventory. There was nothing left to do but to head to Tampa, leave the car for my family and rent a car in Tampa. Thus I spent this Thanksgiving day entirely on the interstate. I-75 to Tampa and then I-75 and 85 north.

I traveled for a living so driving the interstate was no stranger to me. However, this interstate experience was vastly different. Why? Because you could have shot a cannon down either side of the interstate and have been hard pressed to hit another living soul. My Thanksgiving dinner consisted of a Big Mac at a McDonalds in Valdosta, GA. Along with some fries and hot apple pie and large diet Coke it was hardly the visionary turkey that had dominated my mind along with my Mother-In-Laws corn bread dressing. Add in the other elements of the feast that I was accustomed to and my state of depression deepened. As I drove I noted the bucolic landscapes off to my right and my left where you could see the automobiles gathered. I envisioned all the occupants of those homes gathered around a well dressed table, giving thanks and stuffing themselves with mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and numerous casseroles of broccolli, green beans, squash.

I made it as far as I could towards Chattanooga and finally had to find a room for the night. Exhausted I retired to a room all alone. My little family was safe and warm with my Mother-In-Law back in Tampa eating pecan pie and pumpkin, cherry, apple pies with whipped cream loaded on top. My Kentucky fried chicken with an institutional  piece of some variety of pie hardly seemed adequate this Thanksgiving day. I thought of my son who was 6,000 miles away from me in Buenos Aires on a church mission. How I missed him and felt a kinship with him in being absent from home.

Sleep came with great difficulty. I watched football on TV as long as I could stand it. My mind kept coming back to counting my blessings and trying hard not to sink into despair. I thought of my father and our strained relationship. He who had fought in WW 2 and had floated in the South Pacific 50 plus years prior. 48 hours in that circumstance after his ship had been torpedoed by the Japanese. My Father-In-Law who had been a mess sergeant in that same war and had seen Mussolini hanging upside down along with his girlfiend outside the gates of Paris. I thought of how difficult their circumstances had been all those many years ago and how they most likely wanted nothing more than to sit down with their families and share a meal of any sort. Whether or not it included turkey and dressing did not matter.

I sit here, 20 years after the fact. We just completed a wonderful Thanksgiving with traditional eats of all varieties. My Father did not make it to Christmas that year. We were back in north Alabama to bury him just 3 weeks later. Me, my wife, my two daughters and my son who would make it home from Argentina traveled there and back in a state of Thanksgiving just to be together.

Our minds are reservoirs of an awareness and a yearning for home and all things associated. When that circumstance is altered it is painful to endure. I suppose that all the roads and pathways in our minds lead to but one place. That one place is home where we find warmth, sustenance, association with those we hold dear. There is no effective substitute for it. It is a concept, an image and a zen-like emotional and psychological experience that keeps our GPS honed in that direction. Much more often than we are aware.