Last year, my big girl wanted an apron for Christmas. I wanted to make her one. I knew I was capable of making her one. But I was exhausted by December—the end of year stuff and the birthday holiday stuff and the grief stuff. So I let it go to make space.
This year on our fall walks, my big girl started talking about a collecting bag to put leaves and acorns and fancy rocks in on our walks. This year on our fall walks, I started to envision making a messenger bag. I pictured it slung across her body, easy to open, slowly filling with pine cones and bits of bark.
Last year, I needed to let go. This year following through on my plan brought joy.
I found the fabric. My sister talked me through the cutting and orientation of the pieces over the phone. Then I moved the hissing hot iron over the fabric, smoothing it before measuring, marking, and cutting.
I maneuvered the thread through all the ups and downs and turns needed to thread my machine as though it hasn’t been months and months since I used it last. I checked and rechecked that I’d pieced the fabric together correctly. Then I made fast, confident seams, my foot light on the pedal, my fingers moving the fabric through.
Even as the clock ticked late and I knew I needed bed, I kept working, coming each night to a clear stopping point. I don’t have a place to leave my machine set up, though sometimes I wish I did. This was a quick project, but I put off doing it because I had to clear a spot to set up. I worked late because I could only work on it once the girls were asleep, the light from the domed overhead lamp spilling down on my fabric spread across the kitchen table.
I’m impressed I didn’t get the owls on the bag upside down or that the pocket didn’t end up in accessible between the lining and the out fabric. But more than that I’m pleased by the process. There is something satisfying about creating something palpable, something you can hold in your hands.
Throughout this month, we’ve been reading stories about homemade gifts—the button string Mary and Laura make for baby Carrie; the train and doll and bracelets Erkki makes for his brothers and sisters in The Best Christmas—stories about the pleasure of making and giving.
This time of year gets so busy, so emotionally full. It’s easy to let go of the making. On Cyber Monday, I was tempted by an explorer’s kit from Cricket Media that had a messenger style bag, a water bottle, a compass, binoculars, string and knot tying instructions all in a cute little suitcase. And it was 70% off! One night at 11:30 when I was trying to find a piece of lining fabric that would go with the owl print I had picked and wondering if I’d finish the bag in time, I wished briefly that kit were being shipped to me.
But I’m so glad I passed. We didn’t need the rest of the pieces, and I needed to make this bag. I enjoyed the process of figuring out how to make it work, the measuring and cutting, the pinning and stitching, the turning and snipping. I loved the focus. I loved creating something with love.
And when my big girl opened it up and put it on and declared she wanted to go for a walk RIGHT NOW so she could use it, I smiled.
“You know I made that for you,” I told her.
“Really,” she asked wide eyed. She looked down at the bag, “I didn’t know. It looks so REAL!”
We did take a walk in the misty, late afternoon fog. It was the kind of day we probably wouldn’t have been inclined to go out, but the bag drew us on.
Barely steps from the car, the girls found a side path they had never noticed, a fairy house, a fort, as if the bag open us to adventure on the familiar walk.
The dog loped and zoomed back and forth ahead of us. My big girl put bits of birch bark, a couple of leaves, a cat tail exploding into a mess of fluff into her bag. It was just what I envisioned back in the fall when she couldn’t hold all the pretty leaves she found. I smiled and breathed in deep the damp air.
In December I let go of a lot to make space, but sometimes I choose to hold on and craft joy.
My girls and I put up the Christmas tree the other day, and I love to sit in its gentle glow. Ever since I was a kid, I loved decorating the tree, finding favorite ornaments, telling the stories behind them.
Our tree has some ornaments that came from my childhood home—felt animals sewed in a childish hand, the delicate glass snowman and balloon a teacher gave me, a simple red ball with my name and the year of my birth.
Our tree has ornaments I’ve given to my husband or our family over the years—a geologic survey marker for Mount Washington, a wheelbarrow for all the gardening we do together, a green canoe and a toboggan from the years we bought those items to enjoy.
There are ornaments I’ve made for my girls, like the ladybugs from when they turned four and two with corresponding spots and the felt hearts with their names.
If you look, you will find a lot of cardinals. Glass balls with painted red birds, plump birds sewn from felt, a felt heart with a cardinal cut out of birch bark overlay. And the red birds from other babyloss mamas: the needle felted ball from Jenni, the paper circle from Amy, the cookie cutter tree with a reddish feather from a bird nicknamed “the desert cardinal.” It’s not surprising to find cardinals at Christmas, but mine are for Henry.
When Henry was in the hospital, somebody gave us a stuffed cardinal, the kind you squeeze to hear its call. My dad still talks about how it got Henry’s attention, whether the news or the bright color. The cardinal link started there, but it was seeing a cardinal, all red, streak across the bleak landscape that solidified it for me. That sudden brightness reminded me of Henry’s smile, the way it lit everything up, the way it made me smile.
People tell me about their cardinal sightings and let me know they’re thinking of Henry. That makes me smile too. Some days, just when I need it, I catch a glimpse of that flash of red. so bright on a dark day.
Last night, after stories, we turned off the light and sat in front of the fire looking at the tree. I sang my girls their songs, my chin resting on a blond head, my cheek against a nearly five-year-old cheek.
I thought the dark was going to rise up: the missing, the would-be eight year old not here. But instead what bubbled up was love, stretching me tight, expanding me. For a moment, it wasn’t dark and light, here and not, life and death, all those forces that pull me in two directions through this month. I thought it would be, but instead I expanded with just fullness, just love.
Just when you feel you are going to break,
when the light-dark of this month
and all that you do to embrace the light:
the birthday party planning
figuring out when you will go see the trains and the Christmas lights
and is there time to make cookies?
starts to feel like too many to dos,
when you wonder what else you can peel off,
you get a reminder to go for a run.
You get a reminder to slow down.
You take a walk, feel the bright sun, and notice the silver-white frost still furring the shade.
Just when you don’t know what to do next,
your neighbor says, “Pulled pork for dinner—with stuffed jalapenos and beer?”
Just when you are cursing this month and wishing again that you could jump ahead to January,
you get a message from a friend. “It’s December. How are you?”
Just when the darkness is settling,
the lights on the tree you did put up, joyfully, thoughtfully
with the stories of each ornament,
glimmer and set the room aglow.
Sometimes, just when, you need help, a hand, a smile, it comes.
I think my favorite gift this Christmas season is wrapped up here. It isn’t for me or even from me. It’s from my big girl to her great-grandmother.
It’s a crudely sewn cardinal crafted of felt because as she told me earnestly, “Big Nana loves birds, and I think a cardinal is her favorite.”
Big Nana who taught me patiently to sew many, many years ago. Big Nana who sews so neatly you’d think a machine did it—front and back, inside and out. I can’t wait to see her open this little stuffed bird with it’s big, uneven, loving stitches.
We’ve had a flurry of projects here lately. Some were done before Christmas, but since we celebrate with my family closer to New Year’s, we had extra time to wrap up some of this gift making.
I didn’t direct any of it. I offered suggestions when asked and helped locate materials. I threaded needles and knotted the ends of seams. I spelled words and read recipes. And when I found myself frustrated by the frequent requests, I reminded myself that this is the spirit of Christmas, thinking of others, offering something you think they will love, giving of yourself.
So there’s been sewing—a penguin for her cousin because it’s her favorite animal and two pillows because my little girl wanted to get in on all this present making too and felt pillows are what she can do right now. We’ve made a book, molded and baked a clay ornament, braided fleece into a snake, and baked coffee bread.
Quietly one day, by herself, my big girl found one of the pearl beads leftover from her birthday party and a scrap of gold ribbon. She used a glue stick and some clear tape an made me a bracelet.
My bracelet makes me smile with the remembrance her excitement watching me open it. The coffee bread, a favorite family recipe, was received with enthusiasm. I don’t know how they the other gifts will be received. I do know they were made with love and thoughtfulness and care, and there was great joy in making and the giving.
May these simple gifts—the love and caring, thoughtfulness and joy—find you in the new year.
What was your favorite gift this year? What simple gifts do you cherish?
Not surprisingly, Big Nana loved her cardinal. She was impressed with the sewing. “You can teach her the overcast stitch next.” I remembered suddenly learning the overcast stitch myself, the word sticking with me. I don’t remember what I was sewing, but I remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room and carrying my project into the dining room so she could rethread my needle for me.
The other gifts were met with kind enthusiasm from the cousins. The kitty ornament my big girl made for her little sister was not met with such kindness. The little one pouted that she wanted a sewn cat, not a clay one. “I’m going to color on it,” she scowled. She hadn’t changed her tune by the time we put away the tree. One of the things I love about putting up the tree is telling the stories behind or different ornaments. This kitty in tea cup has a story to it.
I just had a cookie for breakfast. Second breakfast, and it had orange in it, so that counts right?
As we’ve been reading our Christmas stories, so many times there is an orange in the toe or the top of the stocking, something juicy and sweet and just right this time of year.
My kids often find an orange or a clementine in their stocking, and I remember my older daughter pulling hers out one year, “A real orange!” In the midst of toys and candy, she still noticed that orange.
We’ve been eating oranges lately. I picked up a few at the store to make those chocolate-orange cookies I had for breakfast and had to go back to pick up some more because my girls ate them in smiles for snack at school and dessert before I got to baking. I ate some too, and I wondered why I never buy oranges. It’s time for oranges now, that splash of color, burst of juice, vitamin C, and natural sweetness.
So go get some oranges, and if you don’t eat them all first, make these cookies. (You really only need the zest, so you can still eat that orange as long as you zest it first.)
Double Chocolate-Orange Cookies
1 c. sugar
2/3 c. butter, softened
1 Tbsp. grated orange peel*
1 1/2 c. flour
1/3 c. baking cocoa
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 c. chocolate chips (bittersweet or semisweet)
1/3 c. sugar (or a little more as needed)
1 tsp. grated orange peel*
* The peel of one orange should work out just about right for both the cookies and the coating.
- Preheat oven to350º F.
- Mix 1/3 cup sugar and 1 tsp. grated orange peel. Set aside.
- Cream 1 cup sugar with the butter and 1 Tbsp. grated orange peel in a large bowl. Beat in the egg until well combined.
- Add your dry ingredients: flour, cocoa, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. (You can mix them together in a separate bowl if you like, but I’m lazy and never do.)
- Mix in the chocolate chips. (Go ahead and do this in the mixer. It doesn’t matter if the chips break up a little.)
- Shape dough into small balls balls. (Sometimes I do 1 1/2–inch balls, sometimes I go a little smaller if I want to stretch the batch or know the cookies will be out with lots of other cookie types.)
- Roll balls in sugar-orange coating mixture. If it looks like you will run out, just add a little more sugar and mix it up with the remaining coating. (If you end up with some extra, it’s yummy sprinkled on top of blueberry muffins.)
- Place coated balls on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Flatten to about 1/2-inch thickness with bottom of glass.
- Bake 9–11 minutes or until cookies appear set.
- Cool slightly before moving from cookie sheet. If you are eating them soon, serve with the pieces of the orange you zested to make the cookies.
They sorted through the bags looking for the tags, checking the numbers. This year they can read the numbers on our Advent calendar themselves.
22 . . . 19 . . . 18 . . .12 . . .9 . . . 11 . . . 8 . . . 6
Even before the book is out of the cloth bag, jolly with gingerbread men, they start exclaiming, the little one peering over the big one’s shoulder.
“Oh, I LOVE that book!”
“Me too! I luv it”
And then “Can we read it now?”
I sit on the couch and snuggle in on either side of me, a red head resting on one side, the a blond one on the other. I melt into that middle.
“On Christmas eve, many years ago,” I begin.
My big girl half shivers next to me, anticipating the rest of the story, and leans in a little closer. I smile and keep reading.
I heard the bell for many years, but then nothing. I worried that I’d never hear it again, that Christmas would be quiet and dim in our house.
Even though this month is still full of shadows, light has returned—the gentle glow of the Christmas tree, the warming light of the fire, the dancing excitement in my girls’ eyes.
They run around the house sometimes singing “Jingle Bells” and shaking the bracelets they made with tiny bells pipe cleaners. It’s a tinny sound, but in that enthusiasm, I can almost hear the richer, magical tones of that other bell.
When I’m done reading, we sit for a minute in the warmth and light and quiet before, I prompt them, “Time to get ready.”
The sky, and with it the room, has brightened. The bus will be here soon. In the bright kitchen, I stir oatmeal and call out to the girls to get dressed, but throughout the day there is that moment of peace and warm light and maybe a little magic.
Do you hear the bell at Christmas?
In the comments, share something that gives you comfort or joy this time of year.