They were scattered all over my kitchen counter, mocking me and my failed attempts to capture the Christmas spirit. These old fashioned tin cookie cutters with their wooden painted handles were once my grandmothers. My aunt had given them to me after she passed away. My daughter was just a toddler at the time, but my Aunt Linda thought that I might like to use them for Christmas baking when she was a little bit older.
Oh, how right she was. I don’t think that I have ever received a more meaningful keepsake.
I have so many fond memories of watching my daughter pull them out of the old red pot where they are kept. The look of excitement on her face is priceless as she carefully selects her favorites; the old fashioned Santa Claus, a gingerbread man, the turtle dove. My son is always next in line, dipping his hand in to fish out the primitive hatchet. And no Christmas cookie sheet in our home would be complete without the silhouette of a camel or lion carved by our boy.
Knowing that my grandmother once held the same utensils that my children are using makes me feel rooted in tradition and the love of family. Baking with Nana Miller’s cookie cutters is always a hallmark of our Christmas season that has brought me so much joy.
Until this year.
I guess I should preface this story by saying that I was feeling incredibly behind with all things Christmas this past week. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get ahead of the game. Exhausted, I collapsed into bed every night without a single vision of a dancing sugar plum. No teacher gift was made by my loving hands. My house was in disarray, and aside from a few packages that arrived from Amazon, not an ounce of Christmas shopping had been done. Everything about Christmas felt like a great big to do list instead of a festive season of joy, and I was crying all the way.
Determined to reclaim it, the hubs and I decided to divide and conquer yesterday. He would brave the crowded stores like the chivalrous man that he is. I would get things caught up around the house and we would eventually meet back together and manage to enjoy the beloved tradition of Christmas baking. Surely, the cookies would bring back a sense of Christmas accomplishment to this household and we could then move forward with great tidings of comfort and joy.
After cranking out a few chores and errands, I picked my daughter up from a friend’s house around noon. Completely sleep deprived, I knew that my beloved tween was most likely going to endure some sort of emotional breakdown if she didn’t have a chance to recharge.
Despite this well known fact and because I was all about making some happy memories if it killed me, I held tightly to my vision for the afternoon. We were moving right along with things at first; talking about her night and the fun that she had on the last day of school. And then, just as I began to take the cookie ingredients from the pantry, it happened.
I won’t get into the gory details as I’m sure you have your own stories from the trenches of raising pre-teen girls, but given my spirit of frenzy and her lack of rational thought, let’s just say that the conversation ended with me sending the sweet cherub to her room for some quiet time. And I was beginning to wonder if I needed the same.
So much for the smell of cookie nostalgia wafting through my hallways.
And as I heard her footsteps trudge up the stairs, my eyes filled with tears of frustration. I had spent the last two weeks chasing down Christmas like a boss. I was doing everything in my power to make jolly happen up in this place and with every effort of striving, it was getting farther and farther away from me.
"Let’s just skip the eggnog and caroling,” I grudgingly grumbled as I stared at the cookie cutters, “This just isn't my year to do Christmas."
Then, like the first snowflakes of winter that fall, the memories of my grandmother began to gently return to me one by one. Her entire life was about the Christmas season but it never pointed to any one tradition, no matter how sweet. Instead, it pointed to a baby who came over two thousand years ago to save the world. She lived a humble life of gratitude because of this and it was because of her example that I came to believe the story of the baby as well.
And despite what I already believed to be true, there I was, feeling like the joy of Christmas depended on me.
I miss the entire meaning of the Christmas season when I forget to celebrate what has already been done, and instead believe the lie that none of it can be ushered in without my hard work.
We eventually did manage to get those cookies baked. After a big hug and some laughter through tears, we decided to try again. And the grace of that moment was yet another reminder that the only work of Christmas that really matters is the work that takes place in my heart by a God who loves me.
This holiday season might just go down in the books as one of the all time, most ill prepared Yuletides that we have ever had. But I can breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that despite what does or doesn't get accomplished, Christmas has already come; without ribbons, without tags, without boxes, without bags, without anything that I could have done or ever could do to make it happen.
And because of this I can find my rest in the midst of a busy season and can sleep in heavenly peace.
She sat there at my kitchen counter like she had done a hundred times before. But this time was different. Her eyes were scanning the walls, floor, and ceiling as she pretended to listen to whatever it was I was rambling about.
“I say we redo your kitchen after Casey deploys,” she interrupted when I paused mid conversation. “We can surprise him when he comes home.”
My best friend, Kelly grew up with a father who is a master craftsman. As a result, she loves to rip out walls and is not intimidated by power tools. I, on the other hand, was feeling intimidated about everything in life at the time.
It was early December and the kids and I were preparing for my husband’s deployment in January. He was leaving a few days after the new year and I could barely breathe at the thought of it.
I stood there for a minute, not sure how to respond to her suggestion. She pitched a few ideas and being the wonderful friend that I am, I told her that I thought a kitchen renovation in the midst of working and having a husband gone sounded like just the thing I needed. She agreed and told me to start checking out Pintrest to get some remodeling ideas. I pinned a few of my favorites and wondered what in the world we had gotten ourselves into.
My husband was gone by the first week of January and Kelly was itching to get started. I had given her some ideas about my “vision” for the kitchen before he left and by the second week, she was rolling a fresh coat of white on the top of my ceiling. I baked cookies while she painted and we talked about nothing and everything the entire time. I remember being so thankful to have the company, but I also remember feeling so badly that she was at my house when she had a million other things she should be doing. I felt guilty, like I didn’t deserve her kindness.
You might be asking why I would feel that way. Isn’t this what friends are for?
Sure it is, but back then, I really struggled with feeling like I was a burden to other people. I had difficulty asking for help and heaped undo amounts of pressure on myself by trying to do everything on my own. I was self-reliant and never wanted to inconvenience anyone.
My sweet bestie knew that about me. She knew that no matter how close we were, there was no way I was going to let her help me. She was well aware that my plan was to hunker down during the cold winter months and do things on my own. But she wasn’t going to let that happen. So, when she sat in my kitchen weeks before and offered up a renovation, it wasn’t entirely because she was up for a DIY episode (although she could totally have her own show.) She knew that she had to find an excuse to come over and check in on me. And what better way to force your way into someone’s home than to offer up a makeover?
Looking back, that part of the story really makes me sad. It breaks my heart that she knew that I wouldn’t call her and ask for help when I needed it. It also makes me so thankful that she stuck with me despite my prideful, hard headed ways.
Another week passed and we began to paint the walls. I still remember the words she proclaimed as she pushed past me when I opened the door….
“We’re just going to enjoy the journey,” she announced, surveying the gallons of paint I had purchased.
I put on a smile and tried to believe that was true. I wasn’t really a journey type of gal. I was more about the checklist.
….. do it all by myself until he returns-double check
But there I was, watching her pry off a lid to one of the heavy cans. This was really happening. Kelly was breaking in and there was no going back.
I picked a beautiful robin’s egg blue and we smothered the walls with it. With every stroke of paint, I repeated the mantra through gritted teeth…”Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the journey.”
By the end of January we were ripping out floors. Kelly’s husband joined in to help with the heavy lifting. Two layers of linoleum and subfloor began to loosen their grip as the three of us pulled out nails and hacked away at it piece by piece. We spent the first part of February cutting wooden planks and piecing them together across my floor.
That month also brought heavy snow and with it, more opportunities to work inside. There’s something magical that happens when your entire town shuts down due to winter weather. One morning, Kelly showed up with a stock pot and grocery bags in hand.
“Let's make chicken soup and work today,” she declared.
And work we did. We pounded and cut and drilled and sanded. And with every new task accomplished, I felt more loved and more important than anyone in the world.
We spent the final few weeks ordering pizza, putting up backsplash and refinishing some of the kitchen furniture. We wrapped up by March and my kitchen looked so beautifully different.
So did my heart.
Kelly had been completely devoted to that project and me for three months straight and I was not the same because of it.
Her friendship that winter not only made my kitchen a more glorious living space, but also showed me what it was like to be loved without having to give anything in return. Every minute that she was at my house of that relentlessly cold season was a sacrifice. It was a gift of incredible support in one of my greatest times of need.
These days, we sit in my kitchen and have an occasional laugh about the stress of that renovation. I wasn’t exactly the most patient remodeler. I'm not sure if we'll take on another project together, but we both agree that if our friendship survived that season of repair, it can survive anything. Oh, and my husband? He came home safe and sound and absolutely loves the kitchen.
I stood there. Looking down. A pool of water beneath me. FAR beneath me. It was the end of summer and I was standing on the high dive at our community swimming pool. It was my last chance to do this...to keep the promise that I had made to my children all summer.
Mom will go off the high dive.
She will climb the tall ladder. Walk the wobbly plank. And jump. Gulp.
This might not seem like that big of a deal to you. I get that. I mean, I had spent the entire summer watching people of all ages jump off of that towering platform into the unforgiving waters below. But here’s the thing. I’m afraid of heights. And when I say that I’m afraid of them, what I really mean is that anything beyond a second story sends me into complete panic. I get nauseous. Everything starts spinning. I may or may not have once been seen crawling my way down the stairs from the nose bleed section in a concert arena. Needless to say, I don't do lofty.
You might be wondering, then, how in the world I got myself into the pickle of promising such a formidable leap to my precious, ever patient children. The answer is simple.
Parenthood calls you to do things that you never thought you would ever, ever do.
I wouldn’t have jumped for my husband (most likely) or a friend or even a bet or dare. But, I had to jump for my kids...to set an example for them about overcoming your fears.
“Who are you kidding?” I said to myself on Memorial Day Weekend. “They know you’re afraid of heights. You’re jumping, Jen. You’re jumping off the high dive this summer.”
So, there I was on the final day that the pool was open for the season; the last possible hour before the lifeguards would blow their whistles and begin to pack up chairs and put them away for safe keeping until next year. To make matters worse, it wasn’t a particularly warm day. It had rained most of the week. The air and water temps were quickly dropping and felt about as warm as the leftover freeze pops that were selling for half price at the concession stand.
I had watched the minutes of the clock tic away all afternoon. The song, “The Final Countdown,” was the obvious choice for the ongoing soundtrack in my mind. My kids, bless their hearts, were done nagging. They had given up hope, I would imagine, that this was ever going to happen. Finally, I mustered up the courage and walked over to the dive pool while everyone else was swimming. I just stood there looking at the towering contraption that brought so much amusement to so many this summer. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I do this?
Then, something happened. I looked across the pool and saw my daughter. She was treading water and just staring at me. She had this look in her eyes that said it all…”You’re not going to do it. It’s too scary for you.”
Well, anyone who is a mama knows that that was all it took. I mean, how can I expect my kids to do hard and terrifying things if I won’t do them myself?
I started to climb the ladder.
The entire experience was absolutely dreadful. I gripped the side rails with my sweaty palms. The ladder rungs felt cold and slippery. Legs shaking, I began to climb to the top. With my daughter’s eyes on me, I decided that this was not the time to hesitate. “Get up there quickly before you chicken out. She CANNOT see you climbing back down the ladder after only having gone half way up,” I shouted in my mind.
As the last rung approached, I began to look out over the top of the diving board. And can I just say? The view was magnificent. Suddenly, lush, green treetops and neighborhood homes came into view. Inspired by the beautiful scenery, I took a deep breath and placed both feet firmly on the board. What happened next was the worst mistake I could have made. I looked down.
Suddenly, things didn’t look so great anymore. The nausea began. My knees felt wobbly. "Dear heavens, "I thought, "The lifeguard is going to need to call a medevac to rescue me."
And that’s when I heard it. A voice that has always been so sweet to my ears. My daughter, yelling from the pool…”Just do it, Mom!” Scanning the pool of bobbing bodies, I saw her. She raised her hand up out of the water and gave me a thumbs up. A lump formed in my throat. There was no going back now.
As fast as my little legs would carry me, I walked right out to the end of the bending board that was the only thing between me and a terrifying free fall. Without hesitation, I screamed a squeal of terror, and descended into the icy waters below. Before I even came to the surface, I could hear them. My friends and family were all cheering for me. I swam to the ladder and climbed out amidst the applause. My sweet friend was standing there waiting for me. We talk a lot about being courageous, she and I. She just stood there and said exactly what I needed to hear....
“I just loved it. You were so brave.”
“You were so brave.” Can I just say how much I needed to hear those words? Not just because of the near death experience of the high dive, but because of life in general. I would never describe myself as a brave person. But that day I was. And it felt incredible.
I realized, on that final day of swimming pool fun that approaching the high dive is usually how I approach things in life. Rather than facing something difficult with complete confidence that I can take a leap of faith and rise to the top, I procrastinate. I let my feelings take over. I tell myself that I can’t do it. Brave is not who I am. This just isn’t for me. It’s too hard.
But on that chilly, September night, I realized that not only can I be braver than I thought, but I can look forward to the outcome of doing brave things.
My only regret about that day is that someone didn’t record it, because if someone would have, I would wake up every morning and watch that video clip. I would say to myself..”Jen, it’s not that scary. Take a leap and see what happens.”
Oh yea...and that high dive waiting for me at the pool? I have a good feeling that it might be seeing me again next summer.