Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Ideals

It had to be Scotch Pine.

No spindly Spruce or Fir for us with their short needles. We always always got a Scotch Pine.

Long needles filled in the space between the branches so you could hardly see through the middle of the tree to the other side. Perfect for poking your hand when reaching to hang an ornament or crawling up under it to give it a drink of water. Those Scotch Pine needles could last well into Spring as we continued to find strays that had been missed by our rocket-shaped Electrolux canister vacuum cleaner.

After Thanksgiving we saw Christmas trees bundled and lined up in front of the 7-11. Tree lots popped up in vacant spaces along the highway. We might visit two or three places but often found ours at Wolfe Nursery. I breathed deeply, taking in as much of the woodsy scent as I could, running up and down the long aisles looking for one that wasn't too tall or too short or too crooked. Eventually, a winner was declared and carefully tied down in the trunk of our car for the trip to its new home.

Everybody had something to do because getting ready for Christmas was a big job. First, the bench had to be moved from its place at the living room's big picture window and put in the kitchen in front of the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. Then Daddy took down his big saw from the garage wall to take a little off the bottom of the tree so it could take in water and stay moist and green until Christmas was over. Getting the tree centered and fastened tightly into its stand was a group effort. Daddy held the trunk while Mother and Debbie told him which way to tilt it, and David and I crawled underneath to tighten the screws that held it in place.

Next, time to untangle the lights. Big red and green bulbs, some with star-shaped plastic reflectors. Our little blue and white record player sat on the bench in the kitchen playing Firestone Christmas records while we decorated the tree. Ornaments were sorted and hooks were ready and waiting. Icicles went on last. They took a long time if you did them properly, adding one at a time instead of throwing them on by handfuls.

White fluffy stuff that looked like sparkly snow was spread out on top of the piano. The nativity set went there when I was little. Later, I helped Mother fold magazines that were spray painted red, and Daddy drew faces for styrofoam heads and those choir dolls sang faithfully from the piano every year. (I still have them.)

Candles were set in their places throughout the house. At each end of the piano, on the coffee table and in each bathroom. Bayberry, cinnamon, sandalwood and sometimes vanilla or pine. When I was old enough, I got to light them. In the middle of the kitchen table, on either side of a little pink poinsettia Christmas tree, Mother put tall white candles that dripped all different colors. I watched them during supper to see which color would drip down next.

The front door got special attention, too. Daddy even changed the porch light to a spotlight to show it off for the neighborhood. One year we wrapped it all in bright red foil paper and made it look like a giant Christmas present. Another year, he made a big sign that said "Merry Christmas from the Dillards".

At some point in the process someone reached deep into the front closet to pull out a stack of the Christmas Ideals magazines that Aunt Fiesty sent every year and put them on the coffee table. I'd read each one and travel to mythical places where Christmas came with snow and children hung their stockings on real fireplaces and got sleds and puppies and kittens on Christmas morning.

Now, we're ready for Santa. Or the relatives, whichever comes first....

My mother, Marah Dillard, with our Scotch Pine tree, Christmas 1972

Thursday, May 07, 2015

A Blue Teddy Bear

A few months ago I got a message on Etsy from someone who was looking for a blue teddy bear. Alyssa said she worked for an online retailer that likes to go above and beyond for their customers. She and her team had searched for months trying to find a very special blue teddy bear like the one that had been lost by a little boy with autism. The boy's mother had tried to replace it with something similar but it just wasn't quite the same. They hadn't been able to locate it anywhere and now Alyssa wondered if I could make one like it.

I could tell from the photo she sent that it was very different from the teddy bears I make but I said I wanted to help and I'd be glad to look around and see if I could find another Etsy artist who could make one. I started right away and after finding some similar handmade bears I remembered I'd seen many of the toys my daughters grew up with listed on eBay so I decided to look there. I thought I might at least find a similar one that would tell me what company had made it.

After some searching... there it was. It looked exactly like the bear in the photo. Same blue fur, same floppy look, same pink nose... it was the same bear.

I sent the link to the teddy bear to Alyssa and she was ecstatic! She said, "You have my entire team in awe! We have been searching for at least two months! Thank you for the bottom of my heart! Can I please have your email address I would love to send you and your family some friends and family coupons. Thank you, thank you, thank you, a million times more!!!"

Oh, that online retailer!

What they didn't know was that I'd just begun searching for a job for the first time in decades and had been feeling pretty down about my prospects. It made me feel really good to know that I had made a difference for Alyssa and her team and especially for that little boy.

A few days later I heard from Alyssa again. The blue teddy bear had arrived and it was perfect! They had decided to tell the story of how this had all come together for their customer and since I was a big part of it, they wanted to include me. Would I be interested in allowing someone to come to my home for a video interview?

Well, why not?

So, besides my new friend, Alyssa, I now have a new friend, Sara, who came to my home to ask about what I do and how I ended up finding a very special blue teddy bear for a very special boy.

I guess knows what I know from selling on Etsy. It's not just Customer Service. It's a relationship.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Sheeba, the Office CatI first met Sheeba when I stopped by the office at the SPCA of Anne Arundel County. Sheeba was Rita Melvin’s office cat for the day and she greeted me with joyous meows at the safety gate in the door. As I stepped back to let Rita move the gate, Sheeba protested loudly and took a flying leap up to my shoulder as if to say, “Oh, no! You’re not leaving yet! You just got here!”

I spent the next hour or so talking over volunteer possibilities with Rita while Sheeba did figure eights in my lap so I could do a thorough job of petting her on all sides. Sheeba was as busy and playful as a kitten so I was surprised to hear that she is over ten years old . She purred and meowed and made little noises of satisfaction and I’m pretty sure she thought I had come just to see her.

Shelter cats get as much loving as our cat caretakers and volunteers can give them but it’s never as much as if they had their own family in a forever home.

Sheeba was recently moved to a foster home from the shelter, where she's been since May of last year. Foster families provide a place for animals who need a quiet place to recover from illness or surgery or who just need a little extra attention and a break from shelter life.

I went to see Sheeba recently in her foster home so I could take a few photos and share her story. When I first arrived she came running to see who had come to visit. I think she remembered me, but she was a little shy at first, probably wondering what I was doing there. She is definitely a curious cat.

Sheeba at the sewing machine

It didn't take her long to get used to the sound of my camera's shutter and relax. (I think she was trying to figure out why my hands were busy with that clicking box I was holding instead of busy petting her!)

Sheeba watches me

Sheeba loves that big bay window at her foster home, running to see what's up when she hears a car go by then staying just to soak up the sun.

Sheeba loves her window

Sheeba at the front window

She has her own special perch in front of another window that lets her keep watch over the squirrels in the backyard, too.

Sheeba at the back window

By now, Sheeba is accustomed to having me follow her around and point my funny little clicking black box at her. Maybe she realizes I'm taking her picture because it seems like she's started posing for me.

Sheeba on her perch

Sheeba posing

When she's had enough of solitary posing, Sheeba decides it's time to jump into her foster mom's lap for some hands on attention in a cozy chair. That means a lot to a cat at any age but especially to an older cat like Sheeba. 

Sheeba needs a home

I hope this lady with the heart of a kitten finds her forever home soon. If you're interested in adopting Sheeba or becoming a foster family, please call the SPCA of Anne Arundel County at 410-268-4388 or check out our website. So many like Sheeba would love to hear from you.

You can see more photos of Sheeba in my Flickr album.

Friday, February 20, 2015


I haven’t written much for this blog lately. The fact is that for the past few months I’ve been in an emotional (and sometimes spiritual) survival mode.

It was almost a year ago that my husband’s car was totaled by a loose highway reflector bracket that flew up into his front grill and spiraled it’s way through the length of the car, flattening a tire and popping open the trunk as it exited out the back. It was only a 1997 Skylark, but it had belonged to his mother, then came to us when she died a few years ago. After a few months and lots of red tape we did get a settlement from the state highway department but it wasn’t enough to replace it. Thankfully, some very generous friends gave us the key to an extra car of theirs and said, “Keep it as long as you need it.” There is a God.

Last fall we hit a crisis point with our bank and are still scrambling to make arrangements to pay what we owe so we can keep our house and deal with other creditors, too. That’s what happens when you spend a few years losing a job or two and your insurance premiums keep going up until they drop you and the “good” car needs repairing and you have to have glasses so you can see to do your job and… well, I’ll spare you the details.

Last fall I also had to have eye surgery. It was just a routine exam for new glasses when the problem was discovered. Mine was not the kind of laser surgery that fixes you up good as new in a day or two, this was the kind that takes a few months to heal, limiting your ability to function well in the meantime. I’m grateful I had wonderful doctors and other medical professionals and insurance to pay for them, plus a husband and daughter at home to look after me.

I was almost back to normal when I got sick on Christmas Day. It started with a cough and quickly went into a sinus infection, as little sniffles tend to do with me. From the description of other friends who got the flu and were left with a lingering cough, I’m guessing that’s what started it all. And just to remind me that I’m only a frail little human, bronchitis set in for another week or two for the big finish.

Today, I’m feeling like myself again. Finally.

Mind you, I’m well aware that these challenges we’ve been facing are a drop in the bucket compared to a cancer diagnosis or the death of a spouse. But I confess that as these issues piled up I waffled from a fierce determination to overcome them all to facing my own helplessness and just trying to hang on for another day.

If I have spoken to you at all during the past few months, please know that every smile, every friendly wave, every “I’m praying for you” - whether in person or over the internet - has been tucked away in my back pocket and carefully saved, to be taken out again and again as needed to shed a little light on a particularly dark day.

Thank you.

In October of last year, when I was feeling especially powerless to change my situation, I decided to volunteer at the the Anne Arundel County SPCA. I needed to spend a little time with animals who have always calmed and comforted me. During a time when I felt like nothing I did was making a difference I thought I could at least make the day a little better for the homeless animals cared for by the SPCA by giving them a little time and attention. It’s amazing how a few purrs and tail wags can change your whole perspective on life and teach you something about God and Grace.

A couple of weeks ago I took pictures of an Animal Wellness Event at the SPCA where several volunteers use their skills and training in Reiki, massage and other healing touch modalities to benefit the animals who may be stressed or having trouble adjusting to shelter life. It was the first time in quite a while that I’d covered an event, though I used to do it frequently years ago. It felt good to get back into the groove and stretch those old muscles of observation and storytelling. At the end of the evening when I started to gather my things and drive home I found Pebbles Cuddles, our official office cat, curled up for a nap on my coat. I think I’ve been accepted into the family.

Thank you, God, for your grace.

Thank you, family and friends, for your love and support.

And a special thank you to Pebbles Cuddles and the Anne Arundel County SPCA.