Wednesday, December 8, 2004

It's Not Christmas Without the Nativity

It is hard to believe the Christmas season is upon us again. Christmas merchandise crowds the aisles of Wal-Mart and festive commercials adorn the media airwaves, but for me, Christmas arrives thanksgiving evening after the last leftovers are eaten and we settle in to set up our family Nativity. Every year as we unwrap our Nativity, I am overwhelmed with memories of Christmas’ past; visions of my childhood, vision of my adulthood, and visions of the many changes that have occurred in my life.

I bought the beginnings of my Nativity just before Christmas in 1980. I had graduated high school the previous May, and I began working in the local Hallmark store. Anne’s Hallmark was a wonderful place to work and I think it is there that I became an obsessive collector. It was really hard to work in such a wonderful place and not fall in love with collectables. I have written of my obsessive collection of Hallmark Christmas ornaments, so this story is about my Nativity…probably my most precious heirloom.

When I began working at Anne’s, I immediately fell in love with Enesco Imports porcelain figurines, which were modeled after Biblical quotes. Precious Moments, and I have trouble calling them anything else, are whimsical children in all arrays of poses. I began to buy a figurine every few weeks and my collection grew to almost 30 in the two years I worked at Anne’s.
If any of you are avid collectors, you’ll know what I mean when I say I began to obsess over the yearly catalog, which would contain a picture of the newest editions to the Precious Moments. I would drool over the catalog and start planning who would join my collection. In the beginning, I bought pieces because I liked them; later I would buy pieces that reminded me of sentimental moments. So, when I first saw the Precious Moments’ Nativity, I couldn’t help but fall in love.

First produced in 1979, Anne’s would not get the nine-piece set until the Christmas of 1980. As soon as I saw the tiny baby Jesus with Mary, Joseph and the little lambs, I placed an order for a set. I saved for three months to have the money to afford my Nativity. By Christmas Eve, I was able to retrieve my Nativity from Anne’s lay-away, and the nine pieces were lovingly arranged on the top of our pie safe. Mary sits on a wooden box, head bowed and one hand reaching out to the baby Jesus. Joseph is standing by her side, his tattered robe covered in patches. The baby Jesus is asleep in the manager and his blanket is covered with the same quilted patches found on his father’s robe. There are four little lambs; three are white and one is black. The black one and one white one are lying down and the other two are standing. There are two shepherds, one with a lamb and one without. I also added in fresh cedar boughs I had cut from the farm, and one pillar candle to serve as the star. The colors of each piece are muted pastels and they are beautiful when reflected in candlelight.

After that first Christmas, I began to added regularly to my Nativity. The next year I bought a little donkey with quilted patches on each flank. He is my favorite of the animal pieces, so cute and frumpy. My parents got me the cow that year for Christmas, and with the exception of one other, are the only two pieces that I have not bought with my own money. The cow has his head turned and there is a tiny bluebird on his back. The Christmas of 1981 was the year of the “controversial” piece to the Nativity. The piece was to be the Star of Bethlehem, but it looked too modern to go with the rest of the pieces. Several family members and I had many discussions over this particular figure. It is an angel holding a flashlight over her head. We thought the flashlight was not the right item for the symbol of the Star, but we I hated to not have a piece to the set. I didn’t until the next Christmas that I needed to add it to my collection, and now I’m glad I did.

In 1982, Amber was celebrating her first Christmas, and I added two new pieces to the Nativity; the resting camel with a patchwork hump and the little goat with his beard and horns. This was also the year that a family member received the most spectacular piece to the Nativity collection, “They followed the Star”. This piece was actually three separate pieces, the three wise men riding camels. The camels, each standing on long, tall legs, tapered down in size, as did their riders. The smallest camel carried a very young wise man that, in turn, was carrying a teddy bear. The middle one was carrying a larger shepherd who was holding a small gold star attached to a stick, which he dangled over his camel like the carrot on a stick. The largest one camel carried the largest shepherd, who had his hands folded in prayer. I was so jealous! I really wanted wise men to complete my Nativity, but I could not afford the three large camels with their wonderful wise men. I also could not afford the three smaller wise men that were also produced that year. These wise men were not riding camels and were about the same size of the shepherds.

The next few years, I didn’t add to the Nativity because I didn’t have the money to spend. But this didn’t damper my love for my collection and I began to display them in a glassed cabinet where I could see them every day. They stayed in this cabinet until my divorce in 1986, when I boxed them away with care and labeled them “Fragile—Do Not Drop!” The next year, with a full-time job and two small children, I used my Christmas money to buy “Tubby” the pig to add to my Nativity. Tubby is so round and squat with his name quilted onto a heart on one side and a brown chicken on his back. Tubby would be the last piece I would buy for the next 10 years.

I quickly learned that children and Precious Moments do not mix. My first causality was my little black lamb, and I didn’t even have children of my own yet. My niece was so enthralled with my Nativity, that in her excitement, she dropped the black lamb and broke his head off. I remember crying so hard, but this was before I had children of my own, and I didn’t realize I would have many more disappointments. I managed to glue his head back on, and now, every year as I unwrap him, I am reminded of the good times I spent with my niece. All three of my own children have broken pieces of my Nativity. Actually, Amber and Marie each broke the same piece at two different times. The both managed to break the halo off the controversial Star of Bethlehem. Now it is firmly attached with super glue. When she was five, Christine broke the blue bird off the cow’s back, and that blue bird has never been found.

Christmas is here again, and gazing at the Nativity brings back the joys and memories of Christmases past. About five years ago, I finally completed my collection when I was able to buy the wonderful wise men riding the camels. For the past 20 years or so, the Nativity has also shared the limelight with Santa’s cookies and milk on Christmas Eve, but as the girls get older, this tradition is fading. Everyone has his or her own memories and traditions related to the holiday season, but to me, it is not Christmas without the Nativity.

© Bobbi Rightmyer, December 2004

Thursday, May 6, 2004

See Ya in the Funny Papers

In Loving Memory of
Ella Belle Camden Devine
October 21, 1914 to April 4, 1986

I remember going to church with my Granny Devine almost every Sunday when I was a little girl. She had her special row and pew where she always sat – four rows back from the front, piano side. It was always taken for granted that this was where Granny would sit.

I also remember her using the hymnal as a back support during the sermon. Her back was swayed from many years of hard work, but I can vividly remember her back bending in the opposite direction as she slid the hard book behind the small of her back. How did that little book help her back? At the tender age of 8, I had no doubt that this little ritual helped
Granny’s back pain. She told me it helped and that was all I needed to know.

Blind faith – I had that with my Granny when I was little. I thought she was the greatest woman on earth. She could cook a feast for 12 in her tiny kitchen, whip up new curtains on her sewing machine, and leap small buildings in a single bound. There was nothing that Granny couldn’t do in my eyes. If I hadn’t seen her for a few days, Granny would always say, “I haven’t seen ya in a month of Sundays!” Reading the Sunday comic strips was always a favorite ritual between us, and almost every time I would leave her home, I could count on her saying, “I’ll see ya in the funny papers.”

She made me a leather coat when I was eight or nine. It was three-quarter length, hanging almost to my ankles, and made of the softest leather I had ever felt. I have no idea where the leather came from, but I do know that Granny took it to Cricketeer to sew because the machines were more heavy duty. She also made my sister a coat, so me and Amy matched.

I remember the year that Mom and Dad got us three kid’s new bedroom furniture for Christmas. We all got twin beds with a nightstand and dresser. Actually, Amy and I shared a dresser, but we also shared a room at that time, so I guess it didn’t matter. I was just glad that I didn’t have share a bed with my little sister anymore. Although she is three years younger than me, she could lick like a mule.

That Christmas Eve, after finishing up rituals at Granny’s house, we headed home to wait on Santa. I should have known something special was going to happen because Granny came home with us. That was something she never did on Christmas Eve, but this year she did, and we were thrilled. What we kids didn’t know was that while we were cooking, eating, and unwrapping presents at Granny’s house, our new bedroom furniture was being delivered, unloaded and assembled in our rooms. When we got home that night, we were so surprised!

My bed was a four-poster twin with tall slender posts. Of course, Amy and Brent’s bed were just like mine. But what was different were the new bedclothes and curtains. Amy and I had a pink flowery pattern with ruffles at the bottom of the bed spread and more ruffles around the pillow shams. The curtains were simple and straight, and they were the same pink flowery pattern. Brent’s bedclothes were some type of colonial theme – soldiers, trucks, I’m not sure I really remember mainly because I never went into my brother’s room.

I learned later in life that Santa didn’t bring the wonderful bedclothes for our new beds. Granny had made each and every one, with a little help from my Aunt Ginny Ann. This in itself is amazing when I think back on it, because this was not the only thing Granny had made for us that year.
We each had new jammies, lovingly hand sewn, with coordinating robes, and crocheted house slippers to match. When did Granny have time to do all this? She must have spent the biggest part of her “down time” from Cricketeer laboriously working over her sewing machine to make wonderful surprises for her grandkids.

Granny was always doing a different kind of craft, or sewing another new pattern. I guess this is where I developed my love for crafts. Granny taught me how to crochet when I was ten; I am sure this was something she learned to regret. “No, you’re not holding the hook right. Hold it this way. Now you’ve got the yarn too lose. Don’t pull so hard.”

Crocheting has never been a very strong area of mine, but I have managed to make several family members their own Afghans throughout the years. Whether these Afghans have ever seen the light of day, I’m not sure, but they were a labor of love learned from my wonderful grandmother.

She also taught me how to do embroidery and needlework. I learned this more quickly and actually had fun during the learning process. I think Granny was relieved when I took to needlework, because she steered me away from crocheting after that. Needlework is a hobby that I still enjoy and most of my immediate family has one of my original works.

There is probably not a day that goes by when I don’t think about my Granny Devine. She was such an amazing woman and she is missed by more than just her family. My oldest daughters were only two and three years old when Granny died, and they don’t have many memories of her except for photographs and my remembrances. The only regret I have is that Granny never got to meet my youngest daughter or my wonderful husband. I’m sure they would have loved her just as much as I did and still do.

Miss you Granny – see you in the funny papers.

© Bobbi Rightmyer, May 2004

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

The Birds Are Back in Town

As we near the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the parade of birds in my backyard have multiplied ten-fold. Actually, most birds never left—many of them make the wildlife of our backyard their permanent homes—but the migratory birds are beginning to make the first re-appearance. This year I am hoping to attract some bluebirds and some purple martins. Mosquitoes are the favored diet of the purple martin.

Mourning doves—as a group—are my favorite songbirds. Lucky for me, the mourning doves are year ‘round inhabitants to our area. During the spring they nest and raise their young in the pine trees that line our property. They pick a nice firm pine bough, throw a few pine needles on it and proceed to set up house. We have lost plenty of dove eggs because the wind really whips through our pine trees. Fortunately, the doves appear to have more than one brood each season. When I woke up this morning, there were at least 15 pairs of doves scratching for food in the bird feeding station. Their gray feathers were all sleeked back, and they all moved with a little hop and skip. Whenever one of the birds “spooks” at a noise, they all lift off in a sea of blue feathers; that sleek gray color turns into a sea of blue when the birds are in flight. Later the same day I checked the bird feeding station again, and all those doves were still there—roosting on the ground!

During the summer and fall, the doves patrol the garden edges, as well as flower bed borders. They prefer foraging the perimeter of a feeding area instead of plowing right to the middle. It is also during the summer that doves like to roost on the overhead power lines. It is not uncommon to come home from work late and find 40 to 50 birds quietly lining the power lines. Listening to the soft “coo” of the doves is a wonderful way to lower your blood pressure after a hard day’s work.

If mourning doves are my favorite musical bird, then the Cardinal is the most beautiful. Male or female, there is something about those red feathers that just makes you want to smile, especially during the winter, when the trees are bare. Cardinals are the first birds out in the morning and among the last ones seen at night. The male Cardinal always watches out for the female—who said chivalry is dead? Cardinals mate for life and you can always tell which two belong together. The female is able to forage for seeds while her mate is standing guard. This year I have been able to count eight pair of Cardinals in my backyard at one time.

Chick-a-dees, finches and wrens love thistles seeds and you can usually find them waving above the garden as they cling to a thistle flower or seed head. I purposely don’t clean up my gardens in fall and winter because they are so beneficial for the wildlife. I keep a special thistle feeder in the bird feeding station just for these birds. It is really fun to watch a finch hang upside down from a feeder to eat thistle seeds.

Of course, I have to mention my resident Blue Jay—he is so loud, he is hard to forget. Late afternoons are when Mr. Blue Jay makes his appearance—he must not be a morning person. He is great at running all other birds away from the feeding station. He usually starts on the Redbud tree in the side yard. Chirp, chirp, chirp! His cry is loud enough to wake the cats inside my house. After he has scared the other birds off, he heads to the feast. I have learned over the years that the Blue Jays prefer cracked corn and sunflower seeds, but he has to test every feeder, just in case someone changed the menu. The Blue Jay really is a beautiful bird, but I just can’t get past his rude behavior.

There is a red-tailed hawk that patrols the farm next to our home. He is a beautiful thing when he is soaring through the air! He makes his home in the fencerow bordering the property line; daily I see him sweep down through the bare tree branches. With the farmland next door to us and the brush piles I’ve created in the backyard, he has his choice of all types of food. I try not to think about the fact he may be eating the rabbits that burrow in our yard. Mice—he can eat all the mice and rats he can find. Talk about a natural exterminator.

About three weeks ago, I came home from work and as I pulled into the driveway, there was a young red-tailed hawk sitting on the ivy-covered utility pole anchor cable in my front flowerbed. I go so excited I stopped the car half in the road and half in our driveway. The care must have startled him, because he took flight and I watched until he was just a little speck on the horizon. Baby hawks—I love it! More hawks means less mice and voles.

This winter I have been reading up on birds in our area, trying to identify some of the other feather friends who fly in to visit, and I’ve been recording observations of the bird antics in my backyard. Birds are sometimes hard to photograph, but I have managed to get many shots from the windows. A zoom lens helps, but I usually end up with pictures of blurred birds or bare tree branches. I will sometimes only get three or four good pictures out of an entire roll of film. Keith is much better than me at photography; his photos are accompanying this article.

So, grab the kids, head outside and enjoy the last fleeting days of winter. Spring will be here soon enough, with Summer not far behind. Take these last few days to enjoy the cold crispness of the winter air. And while you’re bundled up, go watch the birds, take a few pictures, and thank God for the beautiful day.

© Bobbi Rightmyer, March 2004