A Christmas Story

He didn’t miss the bus. The bus missed him.

That’s what he told the officer.

It was the first day he was supposed to take it, but for whatever reason, the bus had not come. Maybe the driver hadn’t been told, or perhaps there had been a miscommunication between the school and his parents since English was not their first language. Whatever the case, they had left for work believing that the bus would be coming along shortly.  The boy waited. And waited. And waited a little bit more.

Then, fearing he would be late for school, the fifth grader began to walk.  He wasn’t completely sure which direction the school was. He waited at intersections of streets with names like Hamline and Lexington and Snelling until the lights turned green during the morning rush hour. His red backpack full of books began to get heavier with each step. His stomach began to growl. He thought about the lunch his mom had packed for him that morning. Food that didn’t smell or taste like the lunches his friends brought to school. Food that tasted like home to a Somali boy crossing busy streets all alone in a huge, gray, city on a blustery December day.

The yards were bare and it was in the 30’s as he started out. He passed houses strung with bright Christmas lights. A large plastic Santa in a bright red suit smiled at him from one yard. As he walked, he looked for anything that looked familiar.  His tennis shoes made soft smacking sounds on the sidewalk.

He was more alone that he’d ever been before, and more alone than any 5th grader should ever be in the middle of a city. He didn’t have a cell phone.  His mom and dad were at work. The school probably thought he was home with the flu.

Suddenly, he heard a giant clap of thunder that made him jump and it began to rain. He kept walking. The rain turned to sleet, and then to snow. His shoes got wet and he could feel the beginning of a large blister forming on his right heel. His thin Dollar Store gloves were soaked. He pulled them off to blow on his hands and dropped one into a puddle of slush. The boy began to limp because of the blister. He could feel fear creeping in next to the cold.

This is where the story gets a little miraculous…

The half-frozen, very lost boy stopped a burly, red-bearded, young man wearing a green Camo jacket to ask for directions outside my daughter’s apartment. The man had already called the police and explained that he was waiting with the child until help arrived.  The miserable, shivering, boy stood a few feet away stealing glances in our direction as we talked about where the school he was looking for might be.  I walked over to the boy and told him that I was a mom. That everything was going to be okay and that I was going to take him into the building to let him warm up until the police came.  His dark eyes welled up with tears and he nodded, limping behind me up the stairs to the building.

Inside, I took both of his hands in mine to warm them up. He told me his name was Abdullah. I asked him where his gloves were and he told me how he’d lost them. I offered him hot cocoa and a Christmas cookie and he stopped sniffling. After a few minutes, the police officer arrived. She asked the boy a few questions and made a call to the school. Finally, he climbed into the back of the police van. The man with the red beard went back to his life. I went back to mine.

I have thought about Abdullah a lot this week.  How, in the midst of fear and confusion, he reached out to a stranger.  How it was possible for a fifth grader to be lost for over two hours while his parents were at work, unaware. How a kind young man with tattoos and piercings on his way to work stopped to help a child, and then stayed. How a mom who looked nothing like his warmed his very cold hands between her own.  How a police officer called him “Sweetie” as she asked him questions. Years from now, when the boy remembers the day he was lost in a city of strangers, I hope he remembers all of this. All of us.

Because here’s the thing. We are all connected in the most remarkable ways, Abdullah. You, the man with the beard, the police officer, me.

We just are. Trust that. Always.

Merry Christmas.


Keeping warm

He got one nearly every Christmas. In our family, this was as predictable as the oyster stew, divinity, and rice mush my grandmother served on Christmas Eve.

It was always wool, with two pockets that buttoned, and it was always, always, plaid.

It is hard to shop for older men. What they really want – their youth…more strength… bones that don’t ache…money can’t buy. This is why they generally end up with Pendleton shirts on Christmas Eve.

A week before Christmas, their wives or daughters (because, let’s be honest, it’s always their wives or daughters) rush to the only clothing store left within sixty miles that still sells quality clothing for men and pick out a shirt. Then, they have it wrapped in heavy, foil paper and a plaid bow, go home, and place it beneath the tree.

The fact that my grandfather received a plaid shirt every Christmas became a running  joke with his grandchildren. Every year, as he opened the box he would look in our direction, eyes twinkling, and yell “Oh! A Pendleton shirt! How did you know? It is JUST what I needed!” then throw his head back and laugh as only he could. But he wore every one, and sometimes until there were holes in the sleeves at the elbows.

I remember my favorites. One was navy and deep forest green. Another was tan and teal. After decades without him, all the rest have faded from my memory but one.

I’m wearing that shirt right now.  It is a rich plaid of brown, gray, black, and red. There are patches on the elbows. I had the shirt tails cut off years ago because there were burn holes left from too many years of too many cigar and pipe ashes.

Each December, I take the shirt out and toss it over a turtleneck on the days when I need a little extra warmth and encouragement to get All the Things done. I remember how the wool scratched my cheek when I hugged him hard and how the smell of Old Spice and pipe tobacco lingered in the wool for at least a year after he wore the shirt for the last time.

The shirt that warmed him decades ago still warms his grand-daughter. Isn’t it amazing how long a good wool shirt can last? How long a memory does? And don’t even get me started on love. We’ll be here all day.

Remarkable, really, when you think about it.

How long some things last.


Parchment paper mothers

I had one job. One.

The Girl came home last weekend armed with a caramel recipe. She needed a bigger kitchen, all the ingredients, and possibly even a couple of days with her folks. Or maybe she was just hungry for a good caramel.

She has tried to get a decent one out of me her entire life.  Most of the time when she asks me if I can do something, my answer is, “Yes, I think I can do that.” For example, I learned how to do a ballet bun when she was five years old. And against my better judgment, I let her talk me into painting her bedroom the color of stomach flu medicine when she was ten. When she wanted a custom sewn prom dress, I drew it with colored pencils so the seamstress knew what we were talking about. Her first apartment is decorated with painted thrift store furniture and hand-stitched curtains that I made. She asks. I get to work. That’s how it has always been. That’s what moms do.

But when it comes to cooking, the six most dreaded words out of her mouth during the holidays are “We should try to make caramels.” This year, instead of asking, she took matters into her own hands. First, she bought a fancy candy thermometer. Then, she tested its accuracy. Who knew that testing a candy thermometer was a thing? Not me, obviously. Then, she got after me because I was not measuring the salt correctly and she made me do it over. She melted and dumped and stirred. The goo began to change color and the temperature began to rise. She stirred some more. The molten goo began to bubble dangerously close to the top of the pot. In horror, we watched as it burped once very loudly and began to overflow all over my cook top. At this point, I may have uttered a not very Christmas-y word or two as I transferred it to a larger pot. Grim-faced and resolute, the Girl continued to stir. She was going to get her caramels with or without me.

While she stirred, I prepared the pan in which to cool the goo. The recipe called for buttered parchment paper. I am not a parchment paper type of mother. In my 40 plus years of cooking and baking, not once have I ever looked into my pantry and thought, “Yikes! I am out of parchment paper! Better put it on the list!” If you are a parchment paper mother, good for you. I’ll bet you make great caramels, too, don’t you?

Trying to cool a batch of caramels on waxed paper instead of parchment paper is a really bad idea. When it comes to caramels, the only thing waxed paper is good for is wrapping the darned things. The next hour was spent surgically removing shreds and wisps of waxed paper from the bottom of the cooled slab. The good news is that despite the fact that her dopey, caramel challenged mother very nearly ruined the whole batch because she did not have parchment paper, the candy turned out perfectly.

She got her caramels. My stove top is cleaned up. We have decided that caramel making will be her job from now on. She will bring the parchment paper. I will just watch. Maybe if I’m good, she’ll let me lick the spoon.

Joy to the World.


I am currently tethered to an electrical outlet in order to write this piece because a week ago, my laptop battery gave up the ghost. This has thrown me into a tizzy because I am used to moving to the sofa in the living room to write.  There’s an outlet behind the sofa, but in order to get to it, I have to contort myself in ways I no longer contort very well. And so, until my new battery arrives, I’m stuck in my office near the closest wall outlet.

I am wondering if my iPad battery is going to be the next one to go because it sure seems to drain down awfully fast.  To charge that little technological time-waster, I need to plug it in.  If I want to use it while it’s charging, I have to dangle the top half of my body over the arm of the love seat because the cord is too darn short. This makes all the blood rush to my head and my eyes all wonky.

My phone battery is fine. However, since things always seem to go to pot in triplicate around here, I give it about a week. That’s just how it goes around here. Don’t ask me why. It’s a mystery.

In other news, I had lunch with a group of old friends today. We shared happy things and a few sad things, too. Mostly, we laughed and filled in the blanks for each other. There seem to be more blanks to fill in all the time. It is good to have friends. It is better to have old ones. Old friends know which blanks to fill.

In the two hours we visited, none of us checked our phones. Nobody wasted a single minute on Facebook. Other restaurant diners may have seen us and thought we were just a group of older women having lunch. They didn’t know that what we were really doing was re-charging. They could not know that when we said our goodbyes, our batteries were full.

The cord of friendship tethers us, one to the other.

It stretches, but never breaks.