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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Our Christmas of Catastrophes

Most Christmas memories blend together as a collage of moments in the scrapbook of memories we all carry in our minds.

But there is one from my childhood that stands out. It was our Christmas of Catastrophes in 1953 when I was 10 and living in a small apartment with my two brothers, my parents and our cat, Kitty.

Chicago was under a snow and ice siege…freezing, slippery conditions that kept us inside as the biggest and most anticipated holiday of the year approached. We were excited. Our Greek mother had taught us to sing “Silent Night” in Greek to impress our relatives when the big day arrived.

We decorated our tree that just missed the ceiling and sat tucked into the corner of our small living room. The ornaments were vintage now, mostly glass tinted with silver and gold designs and old world themes, from my parents early Christmases together.

Some of our strung colored lights were candles with rising bubbles that appeared when they were lit. Once decorated, the finishing touches were slivers of silver tinsel hung from the branches. It was a happy time for a working class family in the immigrant neighborhood.

Nothing seemed different this particular Christmas except for the nonstop severe weather and the sheets of ice everywhere. The most popular Christmas song that year was Nat King Cole’s recording of “The Christmas Song.” My father who loved to sing in bars and at weddings had to have it.

He called all over the city to find a copy of the 78 record platter and finally found one. Under other circumstances, my father would not have ventured out in the Arctic grip the city was under, but he was obsessed with the song and was determined to have it for Christmas. So he cleared the car of its snow and ice and began his trek to the record store.

Our cat Kitty, we discovered, was fascinated by the slinky, snakelike glimmering tinsel dangling seductively from the branches. It was a new cat toy to play with and bat with his paws. However, it didn’t stop there. Kitty wanted to taste the tinsel, and with one stubborn tug pulled down the tree.

Branches snapped, ornaments rolled across the floor, some broke, and we gasped. With tears and laughter we put the tree upright and repaired the damages as best we could to restore it to its pristine state.

It was dark now and my weary father returned with his precious record only to find worsened street conditions for parking his big Caddie. As he attempted to seesaw into a spot, he hit the car in front and in back of him. Totally exasperated, my dad now had car insurance and damage issues as well as unhappy neighbors to deal with. He finally gave up and came inside in a foul mood.

The earlier excitement and family cheer were now gone. But there was still one more catastrophe that day. My dad unwrapped the coveted record from its packaging only to discover it was cracked and unplayable.

We did recover from that awful day and still had a good Christmas in spite of the cat, the tree, the car and the broken record. It was an unforgettable Christmas, our Christmas of Catastrophes.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Cat photo by Palmer W. Cook

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Follow the Signs

In an old Steve Martin film, LA Story, his character is asking for a “sign.” He finds it on the side of a freeway, a blinking directional sign, a kind of modern oracle to guide him. I can relate.

In times when life seemingly presents no answers, I grope for them anyway and somehow they appear when I least expect them and in the unlikeliest of places.

Coming from the doctor’s office, something prompts me to glance at the rear window of the car beside mine, with a sticker that asks, “Have you thanked God today?” There it is—the message at a time when I’m at a loss for solutions to my child’s serious health problem.

And the signs and their messages keep coming. After an eye-check up, I glance at a parked car’s bumper which shouts,
“Got Faith?” More questions to remind me that I have the answers within me.

Driving on the way to teach my multi-cultural, adult college class of Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Caucasians: a composite of soldiers back from multiple Middle East tours of duty; single parents, some never been married; some from inner-city projects and gangs; some who have served time—all wanting better lives through education and a coveted degree.

It’s a daunting challenge and responsibility to teach to this diverse population and their mismatched skill levels.

I’m waiting at a stoplight thinking about this night’s class, and to my right I see a church’s corner sign that reads, “Do More Good.” No specifics, no details or steps to take…just do more good. Seems so simple, yet profound, reminding me of what I can do.

I have learned that when I need them, the signs appear. I just have to follow them.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photo by Asif Akbar

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Scariest Place

I crept down the concrete steps praying, “I shall walk through the valley of death and fear no evil.”

Repeating it again and again, I approached the heavy, wooden door with dread— the entrance to the largest, darkest place I knew at 8 years old, a damp, sunken basement storage room that stretched in a black void across the old apartment building filled with immigrant families’ possessions.

Whenever I opened the door, I froze by what I heard but could not see: garbage-fed city rats, feral cats, and insects living in a dark world of total blackness outside of civilization and daylight. Their scurrying sounds and animal scratchings inhabited the blackness.

Frantically, I mustered all my courage and ran to the middle of the darkness, blindly navigating by instinct to the center of the room until I found the cold, damp concrete wash sinks, my buoy in the sea of darkness. Above them hung my salvation, a single light bulb and its dangling string, a lifeline in the immense blackness.

Fighting panic, I whistled to scare off the creatures of the dark. If I could only find the light before they found me. Only the light could save me. I groped the air for the string, desperately standing on my toes and waving my arms above the sinks, grasping for the slender string before the eternal night's creatures claimed me.

Blinded by the blackness, I grabbed for the light bulb’s string.

When my small hand caught it in mid air, a dim light entered the space, and my body sighed with relief as the string swayed above me.

That single, small light conquered my terror in the dark space. The other living things became silent in their hiding places as I found my way to our storage locker.

I know now that the dark, scary place is a metaphor for when the blackness and the unknown seem to engulf my life. Sometimes it is hard to find the light when there are fearful things around me and I cannot see where I am.

At those times, I remind myself I can overcome the terror of the dark when I grab hold of the light.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Bulb photo by Szekér Ottó