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 To Remember

This holiday season, I offer you three stories of Christmas trees — long-past, more-recent past and present. This is the second installment. However you celebrate the season, I hope you enjoy these. 

At the time of my earlier story about my mom and her Ambrose Christmas Tree poem, I was not yet born. By the time of this second story, I was an adult with children of my own.

The year was 2004. It was the first snowy weekend of December in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

Paul and I and Carolyn and Henry went shopping for a live tree together and brought it home and set it up. We set it in the stand and let it rest a bit first. Then, Carolyn who was 8 at the time and Henry who was just 5 helped decorate the tree. We used lights, candycanes, and some new orgnaments we picked up on the way home from the tree lot. I lit candles around the house and put on some music. Amy Grant was singing “Christmas to Remember.” Our house had dark hardwood floors and white Spanish plaster walls that reflected the ambient holiday light. 

Carolyn remarked several times, “This is the most wonderful feeling. I am all warm and fuzzy inside. This is the most perfect Christmas ever. I feel all smiley and relaxed.” 

The kids wanted us to all get together in the living room to look at the tree. Dad was busy hanging wreaths outside the house. When he was finished and I was done with my tea, we all gathered on the couch next to the tree. Whoops. Henry forgot his blankie. So he ran to get it. Finally, we resettled back into our places, all in a row. Paul sighed and said, “This is it, kids. It just doesn’t get any better than this.” 

In one synchronized motion, we turned together to admire our lovely tree. At just the moment we did so, it promptly crashed to the floor. “AHHHH!” Carolyn cried out as we all watched it tip slightly and then tumble in slow motion. Pop! Crackle! Smash!

Lights out, broken organments, the star topper snapped in two, water everywhere! Paul and I immediately started laughing. Our happy scene went from Hallmark Card moment to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in a matter of seconds. At first, Carolyn was mortified and couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Henry was likewise stunned.  

Paul and I sprang into action. After a little work, we got the tree back up again. Carolyn watched us struggle to find the center point of our wobbly evergreen and quipped, “I think this Christmas is going to be all about balance.”

The kids redecorated with the surviving ornaments. We restarted the holiday tunes and then took our places again on the sofa. At that point, we were almost afraid to look, but we again turned together to gaze at our pretty tree — only now with added appreciation for its perfect sense of comic timing. 

We spoke about the tree as if it had consciousness and knew exactly what it was doing. I pointed out that by falling down just then, the tree didn’t mean to ruin our perfect Christmas moment. I said the tree was just making sure we would never forget it.   

And so, we never have. 

Here’s wishing you and yours a holiday season to remember, with lots of light and laughter. 



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.



The Long, Winding Road

My mind keeps coming back to the long, winding road up Mount Tamalpais.

After a week of bouncing around Los Angeles and San Francisco, showing her art portfolio to college advisers, visiting landmarks and sharing time with family and friends, my 17-year-old daughter and I took a day by ourselves. We rented a car in Berkeley and set out to find the Muir Woods and the seashore.

Our California vacation was the culmination of several weeks on our own together, while her brother and dad have been on an extended road trip. While home, she had been working through a number of action steps on a rising-senior’s to-do list, from completing her art concentration to researching colleges, getting her drivers permit and studying for placement exams. A few weeks ago she had a revelation that wherever she goes she wants to focus on global history. She wants a smaller venue if she can find one, but also a platform from which she can travel the world. For the most part, she takes her upcoming applications and decisions in stride, at least outwardly. I can sometimes feel a little overwhelmed by the tyranny of details, the onslaught of options.

As we started our journey up the hillside on California Route 1, it was late morning. The Indigo Girls were singing “Power of Two”. We listened to a lot of music that day, but the lines of that song would ring in my head for the next week: “So baby we’re fine, we’re okay. And I’m here to stop your crying. Chase all the ghosts from your head. I’m stronger than the monster beneath your bed…” Though its meant to be a romantic tune, the lyrics speak to me as a mom, part guide and part passenger on this amazing route with my daughter where neither of us knows the way. I think I first heard the tune when she was a baby.

The road up Mount Tamalpais curves around bend after bend. The combination of height and tight turns made my knees wobbly. I couldn’t see what was over the edge or what was ahead of us. I hung onto the steering wheel like it was a life raft, trained my eyes on the white and yellow lines marking my lane, and only occasionally glanced over to see the view, which at that point was mostly a wall of fog. We knew grandeur was there even though we couldn’t quite make it out. Once in a while the sun broke through and we caught a glimpse of the low valleys, lush and green and deep. And a moment later, the mist would hide the view again.

When we arrived at the Muir Woods, the main parking lots were full and we missed our chance to park along the road, to hike the main trails to the redwood forest. Carolyn suggested we just keep driving rather than turning back.

So we continued on. We rounded curve after curve, sometimes toward the shoulder rail and sometimes hugging the mountain-side. Cars coming around the other way, especially doubly-tall tour buses, made me inhale and focus. On a rational level, I felt safe, but at the same time I had this strange feeling that the car could slide off the hill at any moment or launch off the curve into midair, as if gravity itself could lose its grip. I took it slow. And paid attention.

It is said that we are born with only two fears, the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear is learned. I remember the moment I learned to fear heights. As a kid I got too close to an open window on the second floor of our house. My dad swooped me up and spanked my behind good and hard in order to keep me safe. This worked. I never went close to an open window again.

Carolyn is proof that learned fears can skip a generation. I’m thankful they do. She stared out the window with a relaxed gaze. In those moments when we caught a sense of how high we were, she was happy to look way, way, down. And to mock me.

Eventually, we left the mountain and stopped for a cup of a cocoa in Stinson Beach, a little town that doesn’t like tourists to use their bathrooms.

We decided to keep driving and to follow the signs to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. We passed through 25 miles of bucolic fields peppered with cows and horses and seaside towns. Most of the time we didn’t speak, except to remark on the landscape. Carolyn worked the radio as it cut in and out and blended musical genres in odd combinations.

I noticed a beached boat on a sand berm and stopped to take a photo. Ladies with paints and canvas on easels told us the boat had been there for fifty years, a favorite subject among artists. I was reminded of the saying that a ship at harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.

We kept driving, up and around a thousand plush, green hillsides. After we arrived at the parking area for the lighthouse, we followed the other tourists up a footpath where dark trees leaned over as if in a storm. An empty park bench overlooked a beach far below, watching waves push foam ashore.

Then we saw the little lighthouse which was set way down the other side of this crest, closer to the water. Such a little landmark for all this fuss, I thought. To get to it, we climbed down a long, narrow staircase. We paused.

We breathed in deep the sea air and stared out over the open water. I thought about how such a small light could have had such an important job, warning ships. It doesn’t take much to tell you where you need to know to go, and where not to. A fog horn sounded. We looked back and saw the drop-off of a the rocky cliff to the water.

On our return trip to Berkeley we decided to go back again through the Muir Woods, to see if there was any more of the forest we could see, now that morning’s veil had lifted. Along the way, we spotted a white heron on the water’s edge. I stopped to get a better look and he flew away. But not so far. I snapped some distant photos as he gracefully stepped among the water grasses.

From the moment they arrive they are already inching away. Kids, that is. To the bassinet, to the room down the hall, to grade school. And they keep stepping. On our first night in San Francisco, Carolyn decided to take a walk on her own in the unfamiliar neighborhood we were visiting. By nightfall I was worried she had gotten lost. A friend asked what would you do if she were living away at college? That’s different, I said. Because then she wouldn’t be coming home to me. We started combing the neighborhood, looking for her. About fifteen minutes later she called for a pick-up. While we were concerned, she was happy as a clam. It was dark and foggy. She didn’t know where she was or how to get back to the house. But that’s not the same as being lost. As far as she was concerned, she was right where she needed to be.

This time, at Muir Woods, we parked at the first chance we got. Now the roads were fuller than they were in the morning. We took the first available trail, a short horse path that wound through brush and trees along a creek. The path led us to the only red wood tree we would see. As we approached, we noticed that it was actually two red woods, rooted closely together. We stared up through their branches to the canopy above. I touched the red-brick bark.

Shortly after that, we got back in the car and headed again up Mount Tamalpais a few more miles. Only now, the fog was gone. We had a bright, clear view of the panoramic valleys and tall bluffs — God’s handiwork, as my sister Edy would say. I took a good long stare at the forested hills that rolled down and away as fast as the years, at a horizon as endless as a young girl’s potential. More than once, I let out a gasp. And I understood why I couldn’t see it all before.

If I had any sooner, I am pretty sure it would have been too much to take.









Life According to Henry

If I get his voice mail, I’ll hear a sweet boy’s voice explaining that I can leave a message, unless I have the wrong number. If I talk to him live, I’ll hear something quite a bit lower with a squeaky undertone, the voice of a young man on his way.

Before he left on a three-week road trip with his dad this summer, I asked my 13-year-old son how we would like to spend a Sunday with me. Henry had two requests. One was to make a pizza from scratch using a recipe he found online. The other was to show me the collection of comic book super heroes and super villains he created. First, we shopped for ingredients and then we spent the afternoon preparing a delicious meat and cheese pizza with room for improvement in the crust.

After dinner, he declared it comic book character time. He sat me down with a portable file box filled with pencil drawings of creatures, robots and people he made up. Ordinarily, tidiness isn’t Henry’s strong suit, but he keeps his comic book characters alphabetized. For each one, he invented a back-story, an alias, a set of super-powers, a costume and relationships to other characters. Some got their powers because of a science experiment gone haywire. Some were alien. Some were super-enlarged bugs or germs. A number of them were organized into leagues. Henry handed me several pages at a time and insisted I read each description aloud. He watched for my reaction. I pointed out the ridiculous. I called several in a row my favorite. He laughed heartily.

That first night we made it through the letter C. We got through the rest of his collection over a period of days and finished just in time to pack for his trip.

While the menfolk are away, I am clearing away the junk mail and old school work and I come across stray drawings of Henry’s, miscellaneous monsters and mutants that didn’t make it into the box. I stop to consider his approach to creativity. At his age, he’s not too concerned about whether his favorite things lead to a marketable skill, although they could. And even though people have been coming up with super heroes and villains forever, he doesn’t worry about whether his ideas are original. He knows they are. And he just likes making them. “Do what you love and you’ll always be happy,” he has told me before.

I set the drawings aside in his room, and give my son a call to see how the trip is going.

“Hi Mom,” he croaks.

By now, Henry is in favorite place, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where grandparents, and aunties and uncles and cousins abound as well as Cousins Subs, his favorite sandwich shop. He tells me about visits to Port Washington and Kenosha and going to the beach and watching the film The Lone Ranger. Understandably, I have been out of sight and out of mind.

I tell him that I am thinking of writing about him this week. He chuckles and asks why. “Because you say smart things,” I say. “Like what?” he asks.

“Like that time you said, you might as well like yourself because you have to be with yourself all the time.” He says he doesn’t remember saying that. But I have it written down. March, 2011.

I ask him if he has been reading. I had sent along a set of books on audio and in paperback that I bought for a family book club experiment. The idea is that father and son could read them on the road and our daughter and I would do the same at home. And then later we could talk about them. To my surprise, it’s working. We’ve read Treasure Island so far and have recently moved on to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which his father recommended, inspired by something Henry did a couple summers ago.

In preparation for 6th grade, Henry needed summer school for math. Each day, he dutifully caught the bus to a nearby middle school. Each afternoon, I asked what he was learning about math. “Not much,” he would say. Only after the last day when he brought his stuff home, did I discover what was going on. Initially, the teachers led him to the wrong room and he never bothered to correct them. So, he spent the two full weeks studying English, a favorite subject that is already a strength, instead of math, which he dislikes. Afterwards, we introduced Henry to the word “scam” and explained that it was not a nice thing to do to your parents. His dad compared him to Tom Sawyer and Henry didn’t understand the reference, then. I think he does now.

“How far are you in the story?” I ask.

“Well, I am past the part where he paints the fence,” he says.

“That’s great,” I say, amused. “Me, too.”

Amy Ambrose,


Teaching DNA — Having a Time with the Time You Have

Aunt Edy, are you there. Still hanging on? I’m sorry you have to die this way. It’s really not fair and you did make a difference…

I had delayed writing a blog entry for this week because I was feeling out of sorts for no particular reason. Then, while filling out some school paperwork for one of my kids, I happened to come across this letter in a file box. It’s a letter my daughter wrote on the night my sister Edy died after a protracted battle with cancer in 2007. At first, finding the letter made me feel worse. But when I read it to the end, I felt better. So that’s why I’m sharing it (with Carolyn’s permission). Maybe someone else will feel better, too.

My sister Edy was a high school biology teacher. She loved teaching and she was good at it. She came to this profession sort of late in life, getting her teaching degree at around age 40. This took some doing over several years. She juggled single-parenthood, other full-time jobs and her studies. At the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had only been working in a classroom for a few years. She fought hard through chemo therapy and radiation. And after about a year of struggle and progress, the cancer came back in new places. So, Edy fought harder for a few more months. But in the end, cancer won. She was 45 years old when she died.

During that year of treatment, my 12-year-old daughter and Edy spent a lot of time together. Carolyn was in the 6th grade and also especially interested in biology. When she needed a project for a school science fair, Edy guided her through a demonstration on how to extract DNA from common vegetables. I didn’t know a person could do that. Using household supplies like rubbing alcohol and meat tenderizer, they actually extracted the DNA from green peas in my kitchen. In the final step, this white stuff floats to the top of a beaker of watery greenness. They also built a model of DNA out of pipe cleaners and wooden beads. Along the way, Edy taught Carolyn the basic structure of DNA, a subject that fascinated her.

On the night Edy died, my daughter was too young to be allowed into the intensive care unit at the hospital, so she wrote her aunt a note in the waiting room where our whole big family had gathered. A close friend of Edy’s read Carolyn’s letter aloud at her bedside while the machines around her clicked and whirred. Edy was heavily sedated, but seemed to be aware of people in her room. Less than an hour later, she was gone.

Carolyn wrote what her aunt had taught her as if she were giving a recitation:

Ahem, DNA is a chain of deoxyribos and phosphate groups formed in helix and attached to the deoxyribos are A,T, C and G. As bound with Ts and Cs bound with Gs, thus creating over a billion different structures defining thousands of different organisms…

As a chronic meaning-finder and a believer in positive thinking, I found Edy’s passing not only gut-wrenchingly sad but also spiritually confusing. I never knew anyone who wanted so badly to live and so deeply believed in her own survival. If positive thinking had any power, she would be here now. Also, it felt like a rip-off. How could it be that she was meant to go so soon, when she still had so many places to go, dances to dance and, especially, lessons to teach?

On a rational level, I knew that my sister’s suffering was over, and also that she died peacefully with her family around. These were blessings. At the same time, her closet was full of new clothes she had bought that summer in preparation for the new school year that fall. She fully expected to return to work. It seemed to me that if life made any sense at all, she would have. She had only just found what she loved to do!

But sometimes life doesn’t make sense. At least not in a way that satisfies. Sometimes we lose people. And that’s just a drag.

I kept reading my daughter’s goodbye note to my sister. In closing, she told her,

See, even at an early death you taught many valuable things. (I bet you can’t find too many 6th graders who know that much about DNA.) You did your best with life and no one can expect more than that.

And there it was. So what if Edy only had four years to teach? That’s four more years than she would have had if she hadn’t gone back to school. At her funeral, we met a number of students whose lives Edy touched in the space of those few years. Her time in and out of the classroom was well-spent, no matter how short.

It turns out none of us knows how much time we have to work with and no one gets out of life alive. That’s not to be maudlin. These are just the facts.

The best you can do is to do your best with life. Even on a day when you are feeling out of sorts for no particular reason. Do your best with life, and no one can expect more than that.

I asked my daughter this morning if she could still recite the structure of DNA. She can. And the foundational knowledge Edy taught her has been built upon with six years of science classes since. So now, when Carolyn rattles off what she knows about deoxyribos and phosphate groups, it’s a much longer speech.



A Wooden Gift and a Start

She doesn’t want dinner with the whole family at the usual place. She’d prefer not to hear about that long, rainy spring and how the sun came out the day she was born. On her 17th birthday, my daughter wants to discuss world history with just me over a platter of Ethiopian food.

Her high school graduation and potential move to college are still a year away, but we can see that moment from here. And neither of us is quite sure how to handle it. She has a lot to figure out about where to pursue her love of art and her love of global affairs. She is ruminating about what she wants to do, and worried about all she has to sort out. It’s exciting and unnerving.

A few weeks ago, as I was thinking ahead to her birthday and gift ideas, our neighbor, Nelson, shared news that he had taken up wood-working and was hoping to start a business. He gets very animated as he talks about turning wood that would otherwise be on a scrap heap into something beautiful. His face lit up as he showed me his first finished item, a cutting board made from a tree that had been struck by lightning.

I wanted a memorable gift for my daughter. And I am all about encouraging people to do what they love to do. So, in that spirit, I commissioned Nelson to make a cheeseboard, a small wooden serving tray, as a gift for her. My daughter routinely sets out an array of cheeses and crackers for herself in the afternoons after school, with kalamata olives and pesto or hummus, if we have them. Her favorites are a reflection of both her Wisconsin origins and her more worldly tastes. A cheeseboard seemed just unusual enough to be fitting, and I thought Carolyn would appreciate the craftsmanship.

As the weeks rolled by, my neighbor gave me nearly daily updates about this project. He was excited to tell me about how he glued walnut, cedar, cherry and purple heartwood in tight rows, then finished and sanded repeatedly with increasingly fine grit sandpaper. He protected the wood with a food-safe blend of beeswax and walnut oil. The result was a simple, elegant piece and a point of pride for him.

After Carolyn’s special birthday dinner, she opened her gifts, including the cheeseboard. I explained who made it and what it was. She slowly turned the board over in her hand, studied the colors of the wood, ran her fingers over its smooth surface. Without looking up, she said, heartfelt, “It’s a work of art. Thank you.”

Her father commented that the cheeseboard will probably travel with Carolyn wherever she lives next and will probably be with her another 17 years from now. He wondered aloud how well it would hold up and where Carolyn might be living then. We joked that the cheeseboard will go with her from address to address, weather-worn and scarred but still in tact, reminding her of us.

“What do you think you’ll be doing in another 17 years?” he asks. The question irritates her. First off, it’s unimaginable to think of herself at age 34 and secondly she is not in the mood to talk about the future and its unknowns. She has a hard enough time picturing where she’ll be headed a year from now. “Can we just drop this subject?” she says, all rising-senior angst. “I was having a perfectly nice birthday until you said that.”

But I was glad for the thought. This is the first household item we’ve ever given her, and it seemed to signal acceptance of things to come and a vote of confidence in her future. Yes, we know you’ll be on your own in a few years, and maybe living abroad somewhere. And, wherever you wind up living, you’ll be doing just fine. We expect you’ll be dining on good cheese and crackers and olives.

I called our neighbor to let him know that Carolyn liked her gift, and that she was a little afraid to use it because she didn’t want to mar the surface. He gave us instructions on how to care for it so that the wood would last a lifetime. He also said this project led to his second sale for his new woodworking business. When another neighbor saw the cheeseboard under development, she commissioned him to build a wooden box for several hundred dollars.