The Christmas Gang

 

There is an ancient British tradition called Ganging, from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, meaning ‘to go.’ For fifteen hundred years, in what evolved from a solemn prayer ritual, village folk would gather to go ‘beat the boundary.’ They walked all around the parish to impress upon the youngsters’ memories the place they called home.

 

Their elders dunked them in dividing streams, knocked their heads against bordering trees, and made them climb over the roofs of houses built across the line so they would never forget.

Our family has a gentler holiday tradition, a celebration as much as a reminder. Our Christmas tree is nothing like those featured in House Beautiful. It’s topped with a Star of David, as we also celebrate Hanukkah.

The oldest ornament, a cellulose umbrella, decorated my great grandmother’s tree. We carefully hang Grandma Rhea’s handmade ornaments, dioramas inside blown eggs dressed in velvet. My children’s contributions are made of Popsicle sticks, glitter, and clothespins. The marshmallow snowman has grown sticky and yellow, with a tiny bite taken on the sly from its backside, but it makes me smile, and bookmarks an era.

I hang up the key to the house where I grew up, and recall my childhood, running barefoot through the back alleys of Detroit. The little Polish dancer wears the same costume my dashing husband wore performing with his dance group Polanie. The glass pen celebrates the year my first book was published. A tiny guitar marks the year my husband broke his leg and, instead of sulking on the couch, taught himself to play guitar. It hangs near Eli’s tiny oboe, and Bea’s violin and clarinet. A small glass bottle contains ash from Mt. St. Helens, collected from my pants cuff in 1980, when I was caught bird watching in Eastern Washington during the eruption.

Each Christmas, we carefully remove our ornaments from their tissue paper cocoons. As we hang them on the tree, we retell the stories. It’s like a crazy quilt, where scraps of colorful memories are pieced together and, voila! E pluribus unum! From the contributions of individuals we have compiled a portrait of one family, and from the many generations we have pieced together one history.

Ganging, or beating the boundary, is a tradition that teaches children their limits and sets rigid boundaries. Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: It’s Not This Time of Year Without…

Today (we are all survivors)

We are all survivors, of our personal histories, our family lines, and of the human race.  Since the dawn of time, think of the families ended abruptly by a bullet, a spear, a club, a predator, illness, by accident and even by someone’s own hand.

Today is the anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy invasion in 1944.  It was the day my Uncle Lewis was launched onto the Normandy beaches into a cruel war.  I think it no coincidence that today is also the anniversary of my father’s death in 1965.

The day before he died, while his kids ran and laughed and played in the yard, my father planted a walnut tree—just a stick of a sapling–by the side of the house.  Did he know what he was going to do?  Did he plant that tree as his own memorial?

I hope not, because someone else is living in that little house in Detroit, and my Dad’s walnut tree is long gone, cut down in its prime.  This I know, because I drive past each time I go back to visit my Aunt Loena.   So these words must serve as a memorial to a World War II vet who came home without his little brother and best friend.  That was the sin he could he never quite forgive himself for.

My army buddy, Jack Oliver, attended boot camp with Uncle Lewis.  He helped me understand that my father was as much a victim of the war as my uncle.  When the War Department tallies the casualties, it counts the dead, the wounded, the missing in action.  But no one ever takes into account the broken hearts and broken families left by the wayside in the wake of war.  If they did, perhaps they would stop sending our children off to fight and die.

But today is a day a of forgiveness, a day of understanding, a day to be thankful that life goes on.  It is a day of sorrow, but most of all, today is a day to love.

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Vivid.

The Secret Object I Keep Hidden in My Underwear Drawer

null

Yes, I really do have a secret object hidden in the back of my underwear drawer.

It was in a bag earmarked for the Salvation Army, a tiny doll-sized white cotton undershirt, but I snatched it back from among the outgrown feet pajamas, baby booties, and Alice-in-Wonderland dresses.  Then I tucked it into the back of my underwear drawer.

It isn’t an heirloom or valuable in any way, except to me, because both my kids wore it as fuzzy-headed milk-scented most-beautiful-in-the-world newborns.  Once in awhile it still sees the light of day.  Not on those “hurry-up-or-we’re-going-to-be-late! mornings,” but on quiet afternoons when I’m putting away freshly folded laundry.  I can still smell the baby shampoo and feel the round little tummies that filled that shirt.

Recently I realized that no one in the world would know or care what happened to that little shirt unless…I showed it to my daughter Bea and told her about her first night home from the hospital. She was wearing the little shirt, or one just like it, while lying beside me on the bed to nurse.  By the soft moonlight shining in on us I watched her, filled with awe at the sight of this new person looking up at me like a little old wisewoman.  I marveled at her perfect little toes and her tiny feet and those exquisite fingers.  Just as I was moved to tears at the miracle of life and birth, she reached up with her tiny finger and DOINK! poked me right in the eye. Ever since then, I told Bea, she has kept me from taking myself too seriously.

I told Bea how four year old Eli rubbed her tummy and told his baby sister all she would need to know to get by in the world. “You only get to drink milk now, but when you’re big you get macaroni and cheese from a fork. You’ll learn to walk and then run, but be careful or you might fall and scrape your knee and bleed, but blood has platelets that make a scab, but don’t pick it or it’ll bleed again…”  What a warm, wise welcome into our family!

On my kitchen wall is a picture Bea drew of a paintbrush and an artist’s pallet.  Underneath she wrote,”Only the artist knows the story of her painting.”  Too true. So tell your stories to your kids, your friends or your enemies, lest they disappear when you do.

Whether you write them into your memoirs, or tell them from your mouth, let them see the light of day, feel the moisture of your breath, live in stark black beauty on a crisp white page.

One day Bea might show that tiny shirt to her children and say, “When I was a baby…” Even if it finds its way to the Salvation Army, she might say, “My mom once saved a tiny white undershirt from the rag pile and kept it in her underwear drawer.  Sometimes she took it out, and told me stories about when I was a baby…”

All words and images copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck

(Except “Mrs. Bradley Ripley Alden and Her Children” painted by Robert Walter Weir, 1852)

The Christmas Gang

IMG_8630.JPG

There is an ancient British tradition called Ganging, from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, meaning ‘to go.’ For fifteen hundred years, in what evolved from a solemn prayer ritual, village folk would gather to go ‘beat the boundary.’ They walked all around the parish to impress upon the youngsters’ memories the place they called home. Their elders dunked them in dividing streams, knocked their heads against bordering trees, and made them climb over the roofs of houses built across the line so they would never forget.

Our family has a gentler holiday tradition, a celebration as much as a reminder. Our Christmas tree is nothing like those featured in House Beautiful. It’s topped with a Star of David, as we also celebrate Hanukkah. The oldest ornament, a cellulose umbrella, decorated my great grandmother’s tree. We carefully hang Grandma Rhea’s handmade ornaments, dioramas inside blown eggs dressed in velvet. My children’s contributions are made of Popsicle sticks, glitter, and clothespins. The marshmallow snowman has grown sticky and yellow, with a tiny bite taken on the sly from its backside, but it makes me smile, and bookmarks an era.

I hang up the key to the house where I grew up, and recall my childhood, running barefoot through the back alleys of Detroit. The little Polish dancer wears the same costume my dashing husband wore performing with his dance group Polanie. The glass pen celebrates the year my first book was published. A tiny guitar marks the year my husband broke his leg and, instead of sulking on the couch, taught himself to play guitar. It hangs near Eli’s tiny oboe, and Bea’s violin and clarinet. A small glass bottle contains ash from Mt. St. Helens, collected from my pants cuff in 1980, when I was caught bird watching in Eastern Washington during the eruption.

Each Christmas, we carefully remove our ornaments from their tissue paper cocoons. As we hang them on the tree, we retell the stories. It’s like a crazy quilt, where scraps of colorful memories are pieced together and, voila! E pluribus unum! From the contributions of individuals we have compiled a portrait of one family, and from the many generations we have pieced together one history.

Ganging, or beating the boundary, is a tradition that teaches children their limits and sets rigid boundaries. Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.

©2017Naomi Baltuck