Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Green House- by Audur Olafsdottir- Connections

Today on our second day of driving to Arizona I read the book The Greenhouse by Audur Olafsdottir.  It was charming and drew me in completely.  

The story starts in Iceland and the author’s skillful and vibrant descriptions of the scenery and culture reminded me of the stunning photographs my friend Rebekah took when she visited Iceland a year ago.  The main character is an Icelandic young man named Lobbi. He is grieving the death of his mother, who was an avid gardener and grew roses in her greenhouse. 

Lobbi leaves his nearly eighty-year old father and autistic twin brother to go to another European country–we are never told which one– to resurrect a famous rose garden at a monastery.  The descriptions of how he transforms the garden reminded me of the children’s novel The Secret Garden, a book I read to all my elementary school classes and to my own children. In the novel a little orphan girl named Mary transforms a garden with the help of her friend Dickon and a boy in a wheelchair named Colin. Just as the children are healed and given hope and happiness because of their time in the garden, so too restoring the monastery garden has a positive effect on Lobbi. 

Lobbi’s life is also changed for the better because he is asked to look after his daughter Flora Sol while her mother works on her thesis. Flora is the result of a one night stand and Lobbi has had little involvement in her life until she arrives on his doorstep at the monastery. He grows into a much better, happier person as he learns to love his daughter and becomes something of an expert at caring for her. It reminded me of the movie Jack and Sarah which I saw many years ago. Jack is mourning the death of his wife and has fallen into a spiral of drinking and depression. Having to care for his little baby daughter Sarah is his redemption and changes his life for the better in many ways. 

Interesting things about the book……….

The Greenhouse has won all kinds of literary awards.

Lobbi and his Dad are always trying to cook and bake the things Lobbi’s mother did before she died, so there are some good descriptions of food, recipes and cooking. 

Olafsdottir doesn’t use quotation marks, but rather hyphens when people are speaking, and she doesn’t say who is speaking, but somehow you always know.

There is a priest in the book who loves movies and when people come to him for advice he recommends a couple of films that might help them. 

The book doesn’t have a perfect fairy tale ending. 

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Make New Friends But Keep the Old

with the T-4s 2011 on the stairs

Yesterday was warm and lovely thanks to old friends. My friend Esther and I drove from Winnipeg out to Steinbach to have lunch with Debbie and Glenys. We are all former teaching colleagues who became personal friends. Over the years we haven’t always been able to get together much, but now that our children are grown, three of us are retired, and I am home from Hong Kong, it is easier to arrange to meet.

IMG_3180We had lunch at Glenys’s beautiful home. Here is Esther posing in Glenys’ livingroom. It was Esther who instigated our reunion this summer with a trip to Gimli. In the fall I invited everyone to our condo for brunch. Yesterday Glenys was our hostess. She has collected so many unique and lovely Christmas decorations.

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Glenys could be an interior designer if she wasn’t a teacher. Her home was so warm and inviting and the Christmas decorating she had done could have been featured in a magazine. She had made a chicken lasagna for lunch and Debbie had brought an orange almond salad. There were all kinds of Christmas pastries and sweets for dessert. We visited for hours. 

IMG_3177Since her retirement from teaching last year Debbie has been working in a scrapbooking store and studio called The Scrapbooking Cottage. She sells supplies and gives customers advice and help. She had brought along materials for each of us to make a memory book for Christmas 2011.

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I’m not a crafty person but with Debbie’s expert advice and help I made this festive folder for cards, photos, ticket stubs, programs and other memorabilia from this year’s holiday season. 

I am looking forward to our next meeting when I get home from Arizona. We are trying to think of a name for our little group –Golden Girls seems too ‘old’ and our initials don’t seem to make a sensible word, but we’ll come up with something. 

In the evening my husband Dave and I had a reunion in Winnipeg with three other couples, who all live in Winnipeg now, but used to attend the same church as we did in Steinbach. The three couples are much younger than we are and are in the midst of raising toddlers and school age children. We all brought three tapas items and had a feast with waaaaaaaaaaay too much food.  Somehow the men ended up in the living room and the women in the diningroom after dinner and the conversation covered  a myriad of interesting topics – home schooling, books, picking a church, PHD thesis topics, turning 30, travel, day care and book clubs for children. 

We made so many new friends during our six years in Hong Kong and they enriched our lives immeasurably.  Yesterday it was nice to get together with old friends and realize it isn’t that hard to re-establish connections and have a great time with old friends too. 

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And So This is Christmas and What Have You Done?

And so this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun. 

Those are the first lines in the song Happy Christmas written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1971.  It has a joyful, lilting tune but is really a serious song encouraging us to think about the needs of others, including those  ‘near and dear’ to us, the poor, the old and young.  The song expresses hope those people will have a happy coming year free from fear. The opening question is thought-provoking. What we have done to make the world a better, more secure place for others?

When I think of someone who made the world a positive, safe place for those ‘near and dear’ to her, I am reminded of my mother-in-law Anne who died in October.  In this picture she is with my niece Rachel. At her funeral one of her grandsons, Beau, spoke about a time when he was a little boy staying at his Oma’s house. A warning about an approaching tornado came across the television screen.  His Oma told him not to worry but said they needed to go into the basement. The two of them huddled in a corner in the cellar for a long time. I imagine that all the while my mother-in-law spoke softly, talking to her grandson to distract him and keeping her arm around him.  Beau says he has never forgotten that experience because he remembers how utterly safe and loved he felt with his Oma.

My father-in-law is in a nursing home and when I think of people who make the world a less fearful and better place for the old, I am reminded of the caring, patient men and women who make the happiness of the elderly their priority. The staff at the Mennonite Home in Leamington, Ontario laugh with my father-in-law, pray with and for him, encourage him and make sure he is safe, clean and occupied with meaningful activities. They take a personal interest in Dad. People who work in nursing homes deserve recognition and affirmation for what they do to make the world a better, less fearful place for seniors.

Parents of young children need recognition and affirmation too. This is a photo of our Hong Kong friends Jeff and Susan Herzog with their three boys. I follow Susan’s blog as well as the blogs of three other mothers who are my friends and are in the midst of raising young children, and I check out the Facebook updates of my nieces and nephews who are also parents.  As I read about their day to day struggles and joys I realize what an important job it is to parent children so they will become responsible, good people.  It isn’t always easy to maintain secure, loving homes and determine what is the best thing to do in order to raise happy, healthy children who will grow up to be visionary, contributing citizens. It’s a job vital to society.

When I consider someone who has made the world a little less fearful and a better place for the poor, I think of Joy Neufeld, from my former church, Grace Mennonite in Steinbach, who started Soup’s On in the church basement in 2004.  It is a project her fellow church members and the whole community have rallied around. Soup’s On serves hot meals to some 80 people two nights a week and provides nutritious lunches for school children.  Joy’s dedication has made the world a happier, less daunting place for many needy people. Joy is on the left in this photo and on her right is Simone Penner another Soup’s On volunteer. 

As I think about the people I know who have done things this last year to quell fear and give hope I’m inspired and motivated to do my best to be one of those people too in 2012.

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Tempting Choices

I was looking through some old meditations I had written and came across this one about my grandpa which I had published in 1998. It seemed timely for me as I am reflecting on how I can be a better person in the coming year.

Jesus ………was led …….into the wilderness where he was tempted for forty days. Luke 4: 1-2

 

This is my Grandpa Peters, my paternal grandfather. The winter he was 92 years old he lost his driver’s license. He was sad, but he resigned himself to being chauffeured around by his children. When the first fine spring day arrived however, he went outside and was overcome by a strong urge to drive his car. Grandpa was a retired farmer and there was nothing he liked better than to drive from his house in town out to his old farm and watch the work that was going on in the fields. He knew that on such a nice day his nephew, who was farming Grandpa’s land, would be getting out his machines and heading out to the fields to prepare them for planting. How Grandpa wanted to go and watch him work!

He got his keys and went into the garage where his vehicle still stood.  He slid into the front seat and started the engine. Sounded good! Should he take a quick drive? Would it harm anyone?  What were the chances of the police stopping him?  Telling me about the experience later, my grandfather said he put his head on the steering wheel and asked God to help him do the right thing.  He turned off the car, pocketed the keys and went back inside. 

It was reassuring for me to know that even someone with the wisdom and experience of my grandfather was still tempted to make the wrong choices at times. 

In the Bible Jesus is tempted by food, power and fame. We all experience similar temptations. Should I indulge in things that bring immediate gratification but may have long-term negative consequences?  When I am position of power do I exercise that power with care? Do I try to balance my desire for personal success and acknowledgement with what I know is best for everyone else? These can be hard choices but ones that can determine our health, happiness and the legacy we leave for future generations. 

Other posts……

Remembering

The Constructed Mennonite

Station of Tears

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Back When We Were Grownups

Once upon a time there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.

Those are the opening lines in one of my favorite novels, Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups. I just finished re-reading it after about a seven-year hiatus. It was even better than I remembered. 


Rebecca is a widow in her mid 50’s and her four children are grown and starting families of their own. She has a sort of mid-life crisis. What is her purpose in life? Is she really happy? At one time she was a slim, lovely young woman who wanted to be a history professor and was working on a thesis about Robert E. Lee.  After the untimely death of her husband in a car accident she was so busy being a single parent and running the family business she had no time to stay in shape or read or have friends. She says she feels superficial, but when she explains herself she realizes she really means she feels superfluous to her family, even though the novel makes it clear she is neither superficial or superfluous.  Now she wonders what her life would have been like, if instead of marrying the dashing older man she did, and becoming a mother, she had married a scholarly young physics student she was in love with in college and had continued on with her academic career.

Reading Back When We Were Grownups this last week I’ve shed a few tears, perhaps because I too am pondering some of the questions Rebecca was. I am no longer a teacher. My sons are strong, independent men who have lives of their own. What will my new direction in life be? How will I carve out purpose and happiness in a new place and time of life? Rebecca is a person who has a very selective and not always accurate memory of family events–a failing  my family frequently points out to me as well. 

There are many lines and sections in the book I’ve starred during my past re-readings of it. 

When I was eight my aunt gave me a beautiful tall white candle with white lace around it in a spiral. I thought it was so elegant I saved it in my drawer to use on some momentous occasion. One day four years later I came across it in my drawer and it was all yellow and warped and the lace had crumbled. I’d never seen it burning and now I never would. Since then I light my candles any chance I get. I light them by the dozens, all over, all year. Multitudes of candles!

“There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you’ve got.”

All of us love people at least partly for their usefulness.”

“Marriage leads to you knowing more about another person than you should. “

We all dream sometimes how things would have been if we had chosen a different fork in the road.

Back When We Were Grownups ends with Rebecca realizing how rich and rewarding her life has been despite its challenges and the fact that she hasn’t ended up at all where she thought she would. Her family is watching home movies of parties and celebrations and “she saw that she really had been having a wonderful time” all along. 

What next? Well I’ve just discovered that Hallmark has made a movie of the book Back When We Were Grownups and I’m going to watch it this afternoon. 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas 2011- F Words

Family

We went for a family walk on Christmas Day along the river and up to the Forks. 

Before each family member opened their gift in our family gift exchange they had to share a highlight from the last year and something they were looking forward to in the New Year. Since we have a wedding and the birth of a baby coming up in 2012 most of us had similar things we were looking forward to.

 

Our family went together to see a matinée performance of The Nutcracker ballet on December 23rd. We also had a family gathering at my parents that day in the evening. 

FUN

Santa had left special T-shirts in Bucky and Alisa’ stockings with a recurring mantra from their favorite TV show–Friday Night Lights. 

It is a tradition that we do a new jig saw puzzle together every Christmas. This year I was nostalgic and got a puzzle about Hong Kong. Joel and Karen did most of the work on it, although I helped.  

We played a new game I had bought called Smart Ass. Thanks to Bucky who read all the directions and taught us how to play. It is a trivia game but is much quicker than Trivial Pursuit and everyone is trying to answer the questions instead of just one person. Alisa also taught us a new game called Qwirkle which she got for Christmas. 

Films

We went to see the movie War Horse. It contained a brutally honest depiction of what World War I battlefields were like. The scenes in the trenches reminded me of an excellent exhibit we saw at the Ottawa War Museum about trench warfare. Joel thought it would be a good movie to show his high school students in history class. Alisa said it made her want to officially register as a conscientious objector to war.

We also went to see the movie The Descendants on Christmas Eve in the afternoon with Joel and Karen. It was very sad and clearly depicted how messy, complicated and difficult life can be. The main character Matt King is certainly no saint, but faced with a challenging family situation he tries to act with grace, forgiveness and maturity. 

Some NBA basketball was watched on Christmas Day. Since the players have been on strike most of the fall and are finally back on the court who could blame the basketball crazy men in our family from having to get in a few hours of the sport?

Food

Christmas Day we had a whole variety of home-made pizzas and pear, feta and walnut salad with angel food cake for dessert. Christmas Eve we had homemade rice paper wraps, Pad Thai and chocolate fondue for dessert. The 22nd in the evening we hosted a dozen of Joel and Karen’s Winnipeg friends and served chili and munchies. Dave was the chief cook for all of the meals. Christmas morning there were cinnamon buns and biscuits with coffee. Karen had made peppernuts at home in Saskatoon and brought them along.

Faith

Christmas Eve we went to Charleswood Mennonite Church for an evening of music, Scripture and slides of the Holy Land. Dave and I and Bucky sang in the choir and Bucky and Alisa were in the orchestra. Bucky played a lovely guitar solo for The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy. Joel and Karen were there to support the rest of us. 

Before we ate on Christmas Day we did a three-part round of the musical table grace For Health and Strength. We have a very nice family choir. 

It was a fantastic holiday. What next? This morning we will go and see Grandma at the hospital, have a family brunch at a restaurant and take Joel and Karen to the airport for their flight home. Then we need to take down the tree and get ready for our upcoming trip to Arizona. 

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December 23


On December 23rd we were at my parents’ home for a family gathering. Everyone was there, all the grandchildren and children. This was the first time in five years Dave and I had been in Canada for Christmas and the first time we had all been together in much longer since often people in our family travel over Christmas. My Mom was in good spirits even though she’d had dialysis in the morning and hadn’t been able to nap because she was so excited about the family Christmas party.

 

We had a great meal. I had roasted the turkey, my first in many, many years and it was a success thanks to good advice from my friend Esther, the friendly butcher at Safeway who helped me pick it out, and my Dad who helped with the carving and gravy. My sister-in-law Kathy had made creamy mashed potatoes and a crunchy salad, my brother Ken had roasted a spicy vegetable medley and brought this great cheese bread and my sister Kaaren contributed the cranberry sauce, punch and a pyramid of cream puffs covered with white and dark chocolate for dessert. 

 

My Dad had planned a nice little reflection time for after the meal. Here, my niece, Amanda is reading the Christmas story from Luke 2.  Just before that my Dad asked my daughter-in-law Karen, who is going to have a baby in April, to read the story where the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will have a baby. Then Dad asked representatives from the different families to light candles and he read this prayer written by Rabbi Lawrence Pinkster from Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. 

In a world of so many ways of being human, may this season enable us all to see that we are valued and loved for our uniqueness, not for our conformity to someone else’s definition of us.

Judging from the wild diversity of humankind, God seems to delight or find reward in our creativity, which reveals remarkable facets of what it means to be human. We, humans, are like countless varieties of beautiful flowers in a vast planetary garden.

There is so much to appreciate and celebrate if we would only use the light of this season to see each other with love and respect.

My Dad said he was glad in our family we have been able to get along and treat one another with love and respect. 

 

Here, my brother, Mark is explaining the present exchange. We had each brought a gift and so there were twenty to choose from. There are rules about stealing the gifts of others, but only a certain number of times.  Families can plan strategy together in order to get the gift someone wants. My nephew Bryan was the master of this! He launched a five-step plan that allowed his brother Mark’s fiancée to keep the scarf knit by my son Bucky’s fiancée. I ended up with a beautiful framed photograph of a flower taken by my daughter-in-law Karen when she was in Jamaica. 

 

My son Joel, who is from Saskatoon was very happy to end up with a Winnipeg Jets scarf. My Mom is holding her gift, a family calendar my sister-in-law Kathy makes each year, that has lots of family photos and the birthdays and anniversaries of everyone in the family marked on it. 

 

A highlight of the evening was carol singing. My Mom played the piano which was wonderful. She can no longer see well enough to read music but she has a fantastic musical ear and was able to play all the carols by memory. We did a couple German ones in memory of my grandparents. Our little family of six sang Lo How A Rose in harmony a capella. It was the song our family sang in church together in Hong Kong at Tao Fong Shan on Christmas Eve in 2004 just before we left for Phuket where we experienced the tsunami. 

 

There was lots of time for visiting, playing games and taking photos. My favourite of the evening is this one of my youngest son Bucky and his Grandma. 

What next? Well, there are a couple more days of celebrating left to go. I’m looking forward to them too. 

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The Magi Got Me Into Trouble

I photographed these magi on the mantlepiece in a friend’s home

The Magi once got me into trouble. I was asked to include a lesson about them in a Sunday School curriculum I was hired to write for a Mennonite publishing house.  My rendering of the Magi narrative was definitely Biblical but strayed from the traditional way the story has been relayed on Christmas cards, in famous paintings and in children’s Christmas books.   My version of the Magi visit caused a surprisingly passionate response from some of the people who used my lesson. 

I did my research and found that contrary to the way the story is depicted in traditional nativity scenes at Christmas the Magi did not see Jesus as an infant but as a toddler, living not in a stable but in a house with his parents. 

I took a photo of this more traditional depiction of the Magi on the Sagrada Familia in Madrid

The famous visitors weren’t wealthy royal kings but ordinary astrologers. Early Christian writings say there were four of them and St. Augustine said there were twelve. A pope in the year 400 decreed their number to be three.

One year I photographed these Magi on camels who adorn the rooftop of an office building in Winnipeg, Manitoba every Christmas

Some translations of the Bible don’t mention ‘men’, they just say astrologers. Could some have been women? Did they ride on camels? We have no idea. The Bible makes no mention of camels.

I asked Denny Bond the artist illustrating the curriculum I wrote to draw a half-dozen Magi, not in royal robes, but in ordinary clothes, perhaps a little dusty and dirty from travel. I suggested he make a couple of the Magi women and make the Magi different ages and from different races. I requested Jesus be a two-year-old sitting on his mother’s lap. Denny created this watercolour rendition of the Magi Visit and I loved it!

The Magi Visit from the Jubilee Sunday School Curriculum – illustration by artist Denny Bond

I wanted to make the Magi story inclusive and inviting, demonstrating that all kinds of people from different backgrounds and races and genders and classes of society had been invited into Mary and Joseph’s circle to get to know Jesus.  

I had read Richard Gardner’s commentary on the book of Matthew and he said modern-day versions of the Magi might be human rights activists, new-age mystics or ardent feminists. Gentile astrologers would have been considered outsiders in Jewish religious circles two thousand years ago, so it is interesting the Matthew account includes them. 

After hundreds of copies of my curriculum had been sold my editor informed me she was receiving phone calls questioning my interpretation of the Magi visit. Some asked for my Magi story and the accompanying artwork to be withdrawn or changed. My version which strayed from the traditional ideas we had about the Magi proved upsetting to some people. My editor stood by me and the materials I’d written sold for another decade and at one point were translated into Spanish to be marketed outside North America. 

An artistic rendition of the Magi I photographed in Frankfurt Germany

In retrospect, I can understand why some people were troubled by my Magi story. It is never easy to see things in a new way. So much of faith is bound in tradition and that tradition provides stability in a changing world. But if we want a faith that speaks to people in the modern-day we just might have to look at some of our traditional stories in new ways so that they remain realistic and relevant. 

Other posts………..

Finding the Magi Around The World

A Different Kind of Nativity Scene

The Christmas Story at the Sagrada Familia

 

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Christmas Down Under

In 2009 we spent nearly three weeks in Australia over Christmas. We started out on a horse ranch in the Hunter Valley.  The weather was overcast and drizzly but I went for long walks every morning looking for kangaroos in the wild. My record spotting was thirty-two. 

The Hunter Valley is famous for its vineyards and we spent a day touring seven wineries. We learned all sorts of interesting things 

kangaroos are good for vineyards since they eat the weeds

Chinese winemakers are coming to Australia in droves to study the craft

the loud explosions we kept hearing were gas guns being fired to scare away pesky grape-eating birds from the vineyards

making wine casks is becoming a lost art

there are a growing number of female wine makers and in Australia

a book is published annually called Wine Dogs about dogs that make their homes in wineries. 

Next we were off to the Blue Mountains where we stayed at a charming bed and breakfast built in 1905. Our hosts Trevor and Marion served us sumptuous four course breakfasts. 

We toured the Jenolan Caves and learned the early cave explorers gave all the different stalactite and stalagmite formations interesting names so they would recognize them as landmarks that would help to mark their way as they journeyed in and out of the caves.

Dave is looking at one called Lot’s Wife that resembled….. you guessed it a pillar of salt. 

We went hiking at Echo Point and ……….

hit the links at the Katoomba Golf Club. Although I was worried about the many signs that said DANGER-SNAKE HABITAT we saw nary a snake. 

In the Southern Highlands we stayed at the Chinoiserie Bed and Breakfast in Mittagong. Chinoiserie is a kind of furniture and art style that combines European and Chinese influences.  Dominic Wong one of the owners of Chinoiserie was from China and his partner Chris was British so a name that combined Chinese and European influences was appropriate. Chris and Dominic grew 79 kinds of peonies in their backyard garden and their home had been featured in all kinds of house and garden magazines. 


We went golfing in the Southern Highlands, visited a winery and the Cricket Hall of Fame. Dave poses here with a cricket player mannequin in a replica of an old cricket dressing room. Dave taught cricket in his physical  education classes in Hong Kong and went to watch matches as well. He got interested in cricket when we were in India and he saw young boys playing the sport everywhere often with sticks for bats and stones for balls.

 In Sydney we stayed in a bed and breakfast in the resort town of Manley Beach and took a ferry-boat into the city each day.
We visited the History Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art ……..
 We toured the Opera House.……..
We spent a delightful  evening with Shayli Patrick a former student of both of ours from the Steinbach Regional Secondary School who was working as a nanny in Australia

We went biking for a day ……..

 and visited the Taronga Zoo

We rented a car in Australia and Dave did a great job of driving on the ‘wrong side of the road.’  He’d had practice the Christmas before in New Zealand. 

Dave won’t be enjoying the book I got him for Christmas in this kind of setting in 2011. He’ll have to curl up on our couch under his favorite quilt instead.

Other posts about Australia…….

Animals of Australia

Edge of the Trees

Lessons From the Sydney Opera House

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A Christmas Massage

One of the things I really miss about Hong Kong is the massages. They were so inexpensive that we had them regularly. There was a little place in Tai Wai we’d pop into for foot massages and sometimes we’d take the train to Shenzhen in mainland China for an evening of food and massages. I haven’t had a foot massage since we got back to Canada in July.  Often when we had company in Hong Kong we’d take them for a foot massage. Here I’m enjoying a massage with my brother Mark on one of his business trips to Hong Kong. 

 

Yesterday I was feeling a little out of sorts. I’ve been having trouble with a ‘bum’ knee and it’s been interfering with my exercise routine.  I’ve been at loose ends- having finished a number of writing projects and wondering if it pays to start others before we leave for Arizona at the end of the month. My Mom has been having some difficulties with her dialysis treatments this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about Dave’s Mom and how much we will miss her –this first Christmas she is gone. Dave has been good-naturedly teasing me about a couple of my foibles this week and yesterday it caused me to burst into tears. I guess he figured I needed a ‘pick-me-up.’

Today he said we were going Christmas shopping but just a few blocks from home he pulled into a little strip mall and said I was getting an early present. He’d arranged for foot massages for the two of us at Yi Yi Spa on Provencher Blvd. It is owned by two women from Chongqing, the Chinese city where we started our cruise down the Yangtze River.  

There were lovely massage chairs to sit in and the comforting and familiar sound of the women talking Mandarin to each other as they worked. They literally massaged me into a good mood. The masseuses were lovely– telling me how beautiful I was and what a nice husband I had to arrange this surprise for me. They were right!  I do have a nice husband. 

What next? Well if all my Christmas presents are as great at this first one was, I’m going to have a pretty special holiday. 

 

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