Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Joy, Lost and Found

Remember how I talked about having trouble finding my joy in my last post

I am happy to report that things are going much, much better in that department!

First of all, there's having this guy, our youngest son, home again, after not seeing him (other than on FaceTime) for more than a year!

Then yesterday, our oldest son's five kids were over for a little bit while their mom ran an errand.  And the four American Girl-crazy girls (aged 5-9) mentioned that they were going to use little socks as Christmas stockings for their dolls.  So I whipped up some miniature stockings for them, using velveteen fabric and pretty lace that I found in my late mother-in-law's attic.  When my husband, our youngest son, and I stopped by their house a few hours later to drop them off, you would have thought it was Christmas morning. They were so excited and so appreciative.  It is so easy to make those sweet granddaughters happy, and when they're happy, Grammy's happy.

Last night, we had relaxing, low-key visits with our third- and fourth-born sons and their families. Tonight, our youngest son’s wife flies in to join the fun. So! Life is good!  Even when it's hard, even in this strange era of Covid, life is very good indeed.  Deo gratias!  

Monday, December 21, 2020

Joy to the World! They Can't Take Away Christmas!

I've been struggling to find my joy lately.  Hard to say out loud, with Christmas coming...but it’s true.

I have been struck--out of the blue, without warning--with feelings of hopelessness that wash over me, even though I keep reminding myself that I have been so incredibly, undeservedly blessed in this earthly life, and that if anyone should feel joyful and hopeful, it is I.  I blame Covid for this--both the actual illness (which my husband and I recently contracted--together, because that's how we roll!--and have recovered from) and the way it has changed every aspect of life in these once freedom-loving United States. I disappoint myself when I allow those nagging dark clouds to hang over my head, but of course, such is the human condition: we are flawed and weak and just can't do it on our own. We need divine help.  Thankfully, God knew this and sent us His only Son to redeem and save us.  And if we believe in Him, in His boundless mercy and love and the promise of salvation, we will never fall into total despair.

Like everyone, I wonder if we will we ever go back to normal living in this country, in this crazy, unrecognizable world.  (And don't even tell me about the "new normal"; if ever there was a term that grates against my nerves, that's the one.)  It's a sad state of affairs when a simple friendly greeting on the street--instead of the more common nervous sidestepping/eye-averting reaction that coming into contact with fellow earthlings tends to illicit in many these days--surprises you, makes you feel elated, and renews your hope in humankind.  I miss smiling at strangers with more than just my eyes. I'm sorry that I took it for granted when such a thing was so normal none of us could imagine it ever being otherwise. I can't help but wonder: what is it doing to babies and small children, seeing all those covered-up faces all the time and not being able to read expressions?  How will it affect their development?

Yikes, it's a tough world out there.

And boy...if ever we needed Christmas (and don't we always?),  this is the year.

My baby, the youngest of my five boys, arrived last night and will be joined by his wife when she finishes up a work project in a few days.  So for a couple of weeks, we will have all of our kids and grandkids close by (five sons, five daughters-in-law, 17 grandchildren).   That is something to celebrate.  A Christmas miracle, as far as I'm concerned.

And of course, we have the most important Baby of all coming, in just a few days.  

I'm sorry for the negative tone of this post.  But I was struggling with difficult emotions for several weeks, not wanting to admit them to anyone; then recently, I became aware that some of my loved ones had been battling in a similar fashion.  The struggle is real, as they say.  And being able to talk about it made me feel less alone--so I thought if anyone reading this could relate, it might help to know that there are lots of us out there in the same boat.  We've got to stick together and pray for each other, and with God, all things will be possible.

If I don't get back here beforehand, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!  If we remember the true "reason for the season," how can we feel anything but merry, right?

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Stockings Are Hung by the Chimney with Care

My husband and I are eagerly anticipating Christmas, and having our youngest son and his wife (whose blog handle is Babisiu) here with us in VA over the holiday. As of now, those plans are going forward...and I don't know what I'll do if they fall apart, because it's been MORE THAN A YEAR--incredibly!--since we saw those two cute kids in person.

Our "baby" and his lovely curly-headed bride, who got married in September of 2019, flew here to be with us last Thanksgiving.

Remember holidays like this?  What a difference a year makes!

They were also supposed to fly up for a Pearl family reunion in NY, celebrated at our "Oyster Haven" VRBO house on Lake Champlain, this past July.  But he's in the Army, and due to the Covid pandemic there were strict travel restrictions in place for all military personnel at his base.  So we didn't see them in the summer.

My husband and I were planning to fly out to be with them at their house this Thanksgiving, but alas, our boy came down with Covid and his last official day of quarantine was the Friday after Thanksgiving.  (He's fine now, by the way; he had flu-like symptoms but he has fully recovered.  And Babisiu never even caught it from him--so I guess it's a really contagious virus...but sometimes, inexplicably, it's not.)  Anyhoo, needless to say, that recent Thanksgiving trip was a no-go.

After hearing all of that, I'm sure you can understand how much I'm looking forward to this upcoming visit at Christmas.  The basement is all ready for them!

When we bought our "new" VA house in 2017, it was, as far as we were concerned, move-in ready.  It was not a fixer-upper, which we'd both decided we didn't want to deal with at our age (especially after coming from a home we'd worked so hard to make perfect for us over the two-and-a-half decades we lived there).  The one project we did hope to tackle was finishing off the basement, so that we would have a big family room/playroom for our grandkids and a guest retreat (mostly for our youngest son and his wife, the only ones in the family at this point in time who don't reside near us in VA).  We paid someone else to have the bathroom put in.  But during the turbulent year that was 2020, my amazing husband finished off the rest--electrical, insulation, lighting, walls and ceilings--he did it all, with me as his bumbling assistant.  And now we have what is almost a little apartment down there.  The only thing missing is a kitchen!

The bedroom is small, but really cozy.

After we finished the basement project, we got a discarded fireplace mantle from one of our sons and his wife, and we mounted it on the wall in the play area of the basement.  I decided to give it the trompe l'oeil treatment (which is something I've always enjoyed, because I love me some whimsy when it comes to home decor).  I'm so excited that it gives me a place to hang stockings for the two eagerly-awaited Christmas guests that will be staying down there.

The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that my kiddos will soon be there!  Seeing them again is the only Christmas gift I need this year.  God willing, that's the gift I'll get!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

An Open Book (Dec. 2020): Two Tales, One Tragic and One Magic

Hello, Open Bookers!  I can't wait to see what you've been reading.

Here's my first recommendation for this month: The Girl Who Came Home, a novel by Hazel Gaynor, a writer of historical fiction who is quickly becoming one of my favorites. (You might remember that I adored Gaynor's The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter, which I mentioned here at the link-up back in the summer.)

This particular book drew me like a proverbial cat to cat-nip.  I have always been strangely fascinated by stories of the Titanic disaster, a tragedy as epic in proportion as the vessel itself.  But this one has an element that I truly could not resist: it features a group of would-be Irish immigrants traveling to America in steerage on the "unsinkable" giant's maiden voyage--and these fictional characters are based on the true story of 14 delightful young people who came from the same parish in Ireland.  (The Girl Who Came Home is dedicated to the memory of these real life “Addergoole Fourteen.”) How could I not read this book, I ask you?  You know how I love all things Emerald Isle, don't you?

Well, maybe you've never been to this blog before and you don't.  So before I go on telling you about the page-turner of a NYT bestseller I just read, here's a quick (and shameless!) plug for my own 2014 YA novel about some plucky Irish Catholic immigrants in 19th-century New England, Erin's Ring (a recipient of two Catholic Press Association awards that has most definitely not been a bestseller, but I think is worth a read nonetheless).

Okay, now let's get back to The Girl Who Came Home. In Gaynor's deft hands, the tale of these ill-fated 14 Irish souls from the fictional town of Ballysheen comes vibrantly alive for the reader.  I was sucked in right from the start, and also utterly thrilled that the Catholic Faith and practice thereof is mentioned frequently, without any preachiness (or any derision, which is unfortunately the way of most modern fiction, I find).

Being Catholic is a normal and vital part of these Irish characters’ lives, and it is treated as such. Seamus, the boy Maggie Murphy loves, gives her a silver hairbrush and some Rosary beads as parting gifts before she sails away from him, possibly forever. The last thing Maggie, her Aunt Kathleen, and the other dozen Titanic-bound travelers do before they leave Ballysheen to set out on their big adventure is to attend Sunday Mass at their parish church. Afterwards, the priest blesses their horse- and donkey-drawn carriages--bound for a train that will take them to Queenstown in County Cork, where they will board the ship--with holy water, and he says a prayer for protection. When the Ballysheen 14 get to Queenstown, they are pleased to find out that there is a cathedral not far from the Rooming House where they are staying for the night, and so they will be able to attend Mass in the morning before boarding Titanic.  I found these references to the deep faith of the characters so beautiful, and especially poignant knowing the horrors they were about to encounter at sea.  There are so many references to prayers offered during the voyage across the Atlantic, Rosaries said, and blessings bestowed by priests (and after the ship strikes the iceberg, many terrified passengers, understandably, turn to prayer).  The Ballysheen 14 even attend Mass on the ship.  Yet I believe that a reader of any faith could read this story and not feel uncomfortable or offended by these religious references, because historically, they are undoubtedly accurate.   

The story does go back and forth in time (a literary device that I particularly enjoy, if it is done well--and it is done to perfection here).  Readers are taken from those fateful days aboard Titanic in1912 to suburban Chicago in1982, where we meet Maggie's great-granddaughter, Grace.  Grace has decided to take a break from college, where she has been studying journalism, to help her mother cope with her father’s sudden and unexpected death. Before leaving school, Grace is offered the opportunity to write a feature article for the Chicago Tribune, but she can't decide what to write about. She's not sure the offer will even stand, if and when she ever goes back to finish her degree--but then fate steps in.  Maggie has never told her Titanic story to anyone, but after 70 years, she finally decides to tell it to Grace, giving her granddaughter the feature story of a lifetime to write about.

Grace’s published feature in the paper leads to the recovery of 14 long-lost letters from Seamus, the sweetheart Maggie left behind in Ireland when she sailed away on Titanic--the boy she never forgot and still loves.  It also puts Maggie in contact with the one other survivor from their Ballysheen group, after many years without contact.  Oh my goodness, dear readers!  It’s all so touching and romantic!

This is a thoroughly engrossing story, beautifully written, with such a poignant and satisfying conclusion.  And no way will I give even a hint of how it urned out!  Read this book yourself; it's a "must read" if I ever read one. The characters live and breathe and make you care about them deeply.  And feel free to share it with your favorite young adult reader, because there are none of those pesky scenes of physical intimacy to worry about.  The faith, perseverance, and sacrificial love displayed by the characters is truly inspiring. Is five stars the most you can give?  Okay then, five stars.  And two enthusiastic thumbs up.

My next recommendation is a different animal altogether, a sweet and thoroughly enchanting fairy tale of a novel called Comfort and Joy, by bestselling historical fiction author Kristin Hannah.

I picked up a paperback copy of this relatively short book on the spur of the moment, while on a Sam's run with my husband.  I noticed the Christmas-themed cover (who can resist a Christmas story?) and saw that it was written by the popular author of a couple of my all-time favorite works of historical fiction, The Nightengale and Winter Garden (I figured it had to be a good one if Hannah wrote it).

This is not historical fiction, but I struggle to categorize its genre.  The subtitle is a fable, and that describes the book pretty well.  It's not romance, although it is an extremely romantic story (it will make you fall in love with love); and it's not fantasy, although it does require the reader to suspend disbelief and go on a fantastical trip to an alternate world that could be a dream but might be reality.  (I know!  It sounds a little crazy--but it's crazy good, I assure you!)

I was touched to find that there are several references to attending Mass, saying prayers, and lighting candles for loved ones at church.  The story revolves around characters who are suffering unimaginable losses, who have gone through life-changing recent tragedies.  For Catholics, turning to God at such times is as natural as breathing, yet I don't often find positive references to religion and prayer in modern works of fiction in our secularized world, where God seems to be all but forgotten...but like a breath of literary fresh air, Hannah includes them in this tender, lovely, and strangely believable fable.   

As if this book wouldn't have been good enough already (I couldn't put it down and read it in two sittings), it's also got an added feature that makes it irresistible to me: an Irish character!  In the middle of the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest, Hannah's main character, Joy, meets Daniel, a handsome, dark-haired Irishman with a sad past and a hint of a brogue.  Is he real, though, or just a dream?  

Oh my goodness--read this book, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.  It will make you believe in love, in miracles, in the magic of Christmas.  And what a perfect time of year to read it!

That's it for me (but head on over to Carolyn's blog for more "must reads").  I'll be back here at the blog soon, I hope, or in what I hope will be a much brighter New Year.