From Montreal, With Love

We’ve been gone eight days, but it feels like we have been gone a month. My third Christmas tree story takes place this year, when our family of four decided to break with tradition and drive until we left the country. We went to Montreal, Quebec.

It was all Carolyn’s idea. As I have mentioned here before, my daughter loves adventure and travel. She is also in her senior year of high school and speaks often about how much she looks forward to being done with us, on her own. Just as soon as she leaves for college. Does she know where she wants to go? I hear you say. If one more person asks her that, she’ll burst. I remind her about her deadlines and ask about letters of reference. She promises me, with a toss of the hand, that she has this college business sorted.

Many months ago she asked if we could travel to a foreign locale instead of going to Wisconsin to see our extended families for winter break. I thought this was sweet. It seemed to me she was signalling to us that her last Christmas before she moves away meant something to her, that she wanted to make it count. She says not really. She just wanted to change the routine.

Carolyn suggested Canada in light of the fact that both she and her brother would enjoy a properly snowy Christmas. My son Henry is 14 and loves the feeling of being cold. He got his wish. We left DC, a place where December temperatures were hovering around 70 degrees, for a place where the daytime high was 17.

Our drive to Montreal involved a stop in Rutland, Vermont, a town that represents to my husband what Shorewood, Wisconsin, represents to my boy — the most idyllic years of his childhood. We arrived in Rutland after a harrowing passage through the Green Mountains at night in dense fog. The next day, Paul stood in front of the house with the screened in porch where he once played poker with his grandmother while it rained and lightning struck nearby. He showed us where a candy store had been where he bought comic books, the gazebo in the park where activists gathered to protest the Vietnam War, and the hill where he and his friends raced bicycles.

Lastly, we found the elementary school he attended, which is now boarded up. The kids and I paid attention to his stories. We snapped a photo of the house. I told Henry that one day he may stand in front of our old house on Newton Avenue with his kids, describing what life was like in the early 00s. He laughed.

Watch, I said. Families change.

The next day we drove through an ice storm to arrive in Montreal which had seen quite a bit of snow. The storm had knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto, but in Montreal the weather was kinder. Plows had not yet cleared foot-deep snow in the streets. Cars, buildings, sidewalks and trees were all coated in white, like in a holiday greeting card.

In the weeks leading up to this trip, Henry was concerned about keeping our traditions on the road. Would we exchange gifts on Christmas Day? Would we watch Miracle on 34th Street like always? (We would.) What about a tree? I could see he was not totally on board yet with our travel plans.

About a week before we left, I secretly took Henry to a department store. We bought a few presents. Henry insisted we also buy a small tree, something portable that would fit in the hatchback with all of our luggage. We found a plastic evergreen that stands about 18 inches tall. After that, Henry was more excited about this holiday vacation. The first thing he did when we arrived at our hotel in Montreal was unpack the little tree and set it up on an end-stand with the gifts around it. We didn’t decorate the tree or spend much time looking at it. This tree was just there, in the background, with us all the time. I thanked Henry for setting the mood. “Yes,” he said. “Without the tree, this would be just another road trip.”

I loved the city. One night Carolyn and I walked to holiday-lit, Old Port of Montreal. She bought lithographs from a man selling art under a street lamp, and we got tickets to midnight Christmas Eve Mass at the Notre-Dame Basilica. I am not a church-going person, and Carolyn is a self-described atheist, but we went anyway. We enjoyed the grandeur inside and the roof-raising holiday hymns. Everything was in French which we don’t speak. But we understood well enough. I lit a votive candle and said a prayer for our family’s safe journey home.

One day, all four of us ate at a French-style cafe where the waiter brought a huge platter of meat — sausages and pâte and ham surrounding a pot of fondue. Afterwards, we discovered this meal cost a small fortune. So we bought a loaf of bread and some mustard and lived off the left-overs of that platter for two days.

In the morning, the kids and I trekked a series of snow-covered stairs up Mount Royal to take in picturesque views of the city in falling snow. Carolyn and I toured the Montreal Museum of Fine Art where we saw expert Inuit sculptures made of stone. This was Chrismas like we’ve never seen it before. Everything in Montreal was new to us.

We made two stops on our long drive back to Maryland – for sushi at our favorite restaurant in Sleepy Hollow, and for a walk through Central Park with a friend in New York City. We recapped the week, and got on each other’s nerves. We talked about whether there would be another road trip together anytime soon, since next year Carolyn may have plans to be with other people, or she might be traveling to Istanbul or Paris. Or, she may be surprised to find out she misses us, and all those cozy hours in the Prius. You never know.

We arrived at our home late at night and travel-weary, and we went through our mail which had piled up. In amongst the holiday cards and bills was a large envelope addressed to Carolyn. She took it to her room to open.

Through her door, we heard her holler out — she’s been accepted into that art school in the midwest that she wanted. And they’ve offered her a fat scholarship.

With that, we bid adieu to our winter holiday, and turned our attention to the coming New Year.



Christmas Tree Stories – Part 1

This holiday season, I offer you three stories about Christmas trees, long-past, more-recent past and present. Whatever your traditions for celebrating family, friends and good will, I wish you well and hope you enjoy these. 

The first of these holiday posts is the story of the “Ambrose Christmas Tree”, a poem my mother wrote in 1969, when she had “only” eight children. I wasn’t born yet, but I was there in spirit. By the time it was printed the following year for the family holiday card, she was expecting me. (And there were two more kids after that.) As I was thinking of sharing the poem here, I wrote to ask my mom’s permission. I found out more about that moment in our family, and was amazed at the details a mother remembers more than 40 years later.

“That poem doesn’t tell it all,” my mother said in a recent email. “That was quite a December. We had 5 kids in school and 3 at home, two still in diapers.  That year, the nuns at school requested different items for the kids to bring to school for projects they were working on: one wanted ribbon, another wanted yarn, another spaghetti pasta, another a different style of noodles and so on. Rusty (the oldest) had the flu and stayed home from school. When he started feeling better he decided to put up the Christmas tree. When he took it out of the box, guess what? The major stem was broken. But you know Russ. With a little creativity, some nails, glue and tape, he managed to put it together well enough so that it didn’t fall down…

Finally the last day of school before Christmas vacation arrived. The kids started bringing home all the things they had made. Lea’s project was a huge Santa made of two pieces of construction paper stapled together. It was decorated with glitter. However, when she applied the glue, it ran. So of course her glitter was crooked. She was so devastated. Nonetheless, I placed it on the tree in a very special spot. Everything was so hectic. But every time I looked at the tree I chuckled and started jotting down my thoughts. My little poem just about wrote itself. I started to write a story about it one time, but I don’t think I finished it. I called it: ‘The Red Paper Santa.'” 

Mom said that her mother sent the poem out to people she knew and rumor was that someone read it on-air over radio in Ohio. My mother’s aunt taught in a classroom and used it one of her classes. So, Mom figures it’s okay for me to share it online.  This poem is one of my favorites. I think she should write more. Enjoy.


By Joan Ambrose

When we were first wed, on the yule tree we bought
  All trimmings were placed with a great deal of thought!
Each trim had it’s place which had to be right- – –
  From each piece of tinsel to each twinkling light.

But when all of our children, one by one, came
 Somehow our tree just wasn’t the same.
The bright fancy trims about which I have spoken
 Over the years have come to be broken.

But alas! Alas!  Do not despair!
 This year our tree is the best anywhere!
From the bottom branch to the top of the tree
 It is loaded with new trims.  The finest you’ll see.

There’s a red paper Santa with glitter askew,
 Chains made of paper, fastened with glue.
There are bright little toys made of cornstarch clay,
 And huge wads of tinsel hung every which way.

There’s a paper cone angel with a styro-foam head.
 And our babe in the manger has a tinsel bed.
There are paper plates, glitter, assorted strings,
 Cotton and noodles made into all kinds of things.

This year our tree stands proud and tall
 Boasting so many trims both large and small
Made by our kids with such loving care
 I know it is the best Christmas Tree anywhere.



Looking Forward, Eyes Closed

If we were heroes, my son Henry and I would have the same super power.

He and his dad toured the East Coast by car this summer. Before they left, Henry made a note of a comic book store in New Jersey he wanted to see that is the basis for a reality television show.

During most of the drive there, Henry insisted he was going to wind up on television. And his dad kept reminding him, the chances of that were slim. The store might not be open. The odds that the show would be filming that day were not good; the odds that they would need Henry in the show were even slimmer. Yet, Henry, all full of 13-year-old hopefulness, kept insisting it was not only possible he would be on television, but that it was going to happen.

When they arrived at the store, there was activity out front, but it didn’t look open. Henry hopped out to ask what was going on. Guys at the store entrance told him the store was closed. Because they were getting ready to start filming. And, if Henry wanted to, he could be an extra. Did he ever!

Henry was positioned in the background, looking through comic books, while the main characters negotiated the value of movie memorabilia.

This story brought to mind another well-known family legend — about the time I made a tree branch destroy the picnic table, or at least that is the way it’s told. I had been insisting for weeks that we needed to replace that old, weather-worn, wooden table. My husband disagreed. And then one night, we heard a loud crash – a thunderstorm smashed a tree limb down the middle, removing all doubt. After that, I got my new picnic table. My kids joked that if I had a super-power it would be making things happen by saying they will.

I told Henry he must be the same way. Actually, it’s not so much a super-power, but an ability everybody has — not to control the weather or what time a comic book show will be filming, but to set the intention on what you want and go for an opportunity when you see one.

Setting the intention is one of my top three favorite pastimes. I’m never without a wish, whether it’s modest goal such as giving my next Toastmaster speech, or a grand one-step-back-from-the-impossible aspiration, such as moving my family cross-country for grad school. I enjoy setting a target in the future and breaking that down into steps that start now. As a result, I am in a nearly constant state of anticipation, which can be a lot of fun.

There is a balance though, and I am working on this lately, between planning ahead and making the most of what is in front of me now. A big chunk of happiness lies in appreciating the mundane, because that’s what every wish-come-true becomes once you get used to having it around. Every ‘there’ becomes ‘here’ if you stay awhile. This here is what you have.

So, what if, just for now, everything were exactly as it should be and there was nothing left to wish for? What would happen if I quieted the goal-setter in me and practiced thinking more like that?

About two months ago, I was browsing my city’s downtown marketplace and noticed a table where a nice lady was handing out flyers about the benefits of meditation. She was starting a class for beginners and asked if I would like to participate. I was in a suggestible mood. I said sure. A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a clean, bright room, with my hands folded just-so on my lap, slowly learning to breathe extra-deep.

At first, I found the physical posture uncomfortable and didn’t feel much else, but I sensed that I was onto something positive. So, I decided to trust the process for a while, ‘run the experiment’ as a friend of mine would say. I continued to attend the class weekly and to practice a few minutes daily, gradually increasing the time to about a half-hour. At home in the evenings, I sit half-lotus on a yoga mat, looking forward with my eyes closed, and set an alarm that sounds like crickets. As best I can, I focus on my breathing until they chirp.

Most days, my busy mind hardly sits still. And often there is a lot of background noise in the house. I had my doubts. Within a few weeks, though, I noticed changes in the way I reacted to every-day irritations. More patience, less complaining. And I was more aware of the small things that can make an otherwise unremarkable day seem great. Like the busy chaos of family life on any given Wednesday. Or the calm of an empty house for a few hours. Or the sound of high school marching band practicing in a nearby football field on an August afternoon.

After about a month, I noticed that areas in my life that had been stuck started to shake loose. Old habits lost their grip. I took care of projects around the house that I had put off for years, especially clearing out old junk. I found myself naturally making healthier choices. Fried chicken no longer had the same appeal. I wanted the lentil salad.

The more I focused on accepting the way things are, the more life started to shift in the direction I had wanted it to go, and I noticed a general arc toward greater contentment. I could say more, and maybe I will in a future blog, but for now I will leave it at that. Along the way, I also learned that there is scientific research to explain how this works. Curious readers may want to watch this TEDx Talk by skeptical neuroscience researcher, Sara Lazar. Or check out the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson. There are many approaches to meditation. It happens that the class I found is Heart Chan, a practice based in Buddhism as taught by a long line of Chinese master teachers.

My family keeps me from taking this practice too seriously, especially Henry. To let them know when to leave me be, I posted a sign on the bedroom door that says “Meditation In Session.” My son drew a cartoon on it.

I’m still chronically future-oriented — that’s a part of life and will probably always be my nature. For starters, I can’t wait to see Henry’s television debut. I hope the show used the shots he was in. It won’t air for several months. In the meantime, we already have our family travel plans set for Christmas. And, I aim to do a couch-to-5k running program this fall…

But, I am getting better at balancing the goal-setting with living in the moment.

A few nights ago, my son wanted my attention, to help him construct lego scenes in his room. “Mom, you said you would build the hut for Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker,” he demands.

“Just a second,” I call out from another room, “I need to answer this text message. My friend and I are planning a visit to New York City.”

“You’re procrastinating, again, Mom. That’s not the way of the Buddha,” he teases.

At first, I laugh with him. Then, I pause.

“You’re right, Henry. It’s not,” I say. I put the smart-phone down. “I’ll be right there.”



The Right Words

When I was in my late 20s attending a conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I wandered into the wrong workshop. When I saw that the crowd was thin, I felt badly for the presenter and decided to have a seat anyway.

An older gentleman in a suit sat down next to me. The workshop focused on career development in the field of fundraising. After about ten minutes of class discussion, the man asked me if he could borrow a sheet of paper. I smiled and tore a lined page from my notebook for him. Then he realized he had nothing to write with, so he asked to borrow a pen. I happened to have a spare, which I handed to him.

I thought he was taking notes on the conversation. But a few minutes later he handed the sheet of paper back to me. On it he had written a profound, inspirational note.

I then asked for his name and contact information. It turned out I was speaking with Reuben Harpole, a prominent community leader in my city with a long history of stepping in to mentor others.

Later, when I took him to lunch to thank him, my new friend told me he picked up on the fact that I was going through a little something. I was feeling some career angst at the time, which I had lightly touched upon in my comments out loud. And he felt moved to say something.

For years I kept this reassuring note in a plastic sleeve, sandwiched between the pages of a book, always on a shelf near wherever I was working. I seem to have misplaced it during a recent move, but I read it enough times that I have it memorized. Maybe it will help someone else who reads it today. This is what it said:

“You are doing what you are born to do. The path you are on is yours. You were not born to please other people who have their own purpose and meaning in life. Please God, not other humans. You are okay. When other people do not understand or can’t see the picture, that’s okay. Smile and keep doing what you are doing.”

Also, I haven’t forgotten this important life lesson: whenever you are about town, always carry a spare pen. You never know who might come along and need to borrow one.

Thank you for reading.