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Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Thesis for Christmas

I will never forget the first Christmas James and I spent together as a newly married couple.  We lived in a very small, two bedroom apartment that did not have air conditioning, a dishwasher, or a washer and dryer.  We paid $395 a month for the apartment, which was all we could afford as students at Utah State, working part time.  That Christmas I was working through the winter break at the Merrill Library on Campus.

It was a frigid and gray afternoon, and all the study cubicles were empty.  The only other person in the library was a student employee from the Circulation desk, shelving journals in the stacks.  It had been a quiet shift and since there wasn't much to do or any students to help, I had plenty of time to sit and think.  My thoughts wandered to Christmas, which was only two days away, and to the Relief Society lesson that had been given the week before.  It had been on service.  I felt sad because I hadn't sought after opportunities to serve that holiday season.  I said a silent prayer, asking Heavenly Father to bless me with a service opportunity and to help me recognize it when it came my way.

The phone rang, startling me out of my silence. 

“Serials Department, this is Aleisha. Can I help you?”

“Hello,” a woman with kindness in her voice, said into my ear, “I was wondering if you could help me track down my father's thesis.”

After a title search in the library's online catalog, I located the thesis in the Special Collections department. Materials in Special Collections are never available for check out.  I knew the thesis would be available for “in library use” only, and that a copy of it could be made using the library's Xerox machines.  I explained this to the woman on the phone.

“I'd love to get a copy of it,” she said.  I told her the location of the Merrill Library, as well as where she could go to find the Special Collections department.

She said, “That might be a problem for me because I'm calling from St. Paul, Minnesota.  I wanted to surprise my father by giving him a copy of his thesis for Christmas.  I know this is very last minute, but I didn't have the idea until a couple of days ago when he was talking about it.  He mentioned his copy had been misplaced years ago.  He expressed a desire to read it again.  I thought it would be a nice gift for him for Christmas.”

We talked about what her options were, such as having one of the library staff copy the thesis and then mail it to her.  She would have to be billed for the copying and mailing, and I knew my boss would prefer to handle all of that.  I suggested to the woman—whose name I found out through the course of conversation was Robyn—that she talk to my boss, Emily, after the new year.  Emily was out of the country for the Christmas holiday.  Robyn would have to wait until the new school semester started.

She was silent on the other end of the phone for a few seconds before she said, “What if YOU just copied it and mailed it to me?  You would probably have to send it via FedEx and pay for overnight shipping so it gets to Minnesota in time for Christmas.  Could you do that for me?  Would that be alright?”

I couldn't speak.  I didn't know what to do.  Robyn was asking me to pay for the copying and mailing of her father's thesis out of my own pocket.  Initially, I panicked at what she was asking of me.  I quickly began adding up the expense in my head.  I estimated the total cost to be about twenty dollars, which doesn't seem like a big deal now, but when you are a student working part time for $6.50 an hour, and just barely making enough for the monthly bills... well, twenty dollars is a lot!

Robyn sensed my hesitation and said, “You have my word, I will pay you back."  Then she laughed and said, “I would even be willing to give you a tip for all your help.”

At that moment a strong and distinct feeling washed over me, and I felt peace.  I felt the spirit whisper to my heart, “Aleisha, you prayed for an opportunity to serve someone for Christmas and this is it."  I knew I could trust Robyn, I knew I was supposed to help her, and I knew everything would be okay.  I quickly agreed to help Robyn and even expressed joy over the chance to make a Christmas wish come true.  I told her "no tip required."  I was sincerely happy to serve.

About two weeks later, I received a card from Robyn Hansen.  It read:  “Dear Dear Aleisha— Thank you so much for the work that you did on my behalf and on the behalf of my father...Please accept this reimbursement and “tip” that I promised.  Hope it is helpful to you and your new husband.  Best Wishes, Robyn.”  Enclosed was Robyn's business card stating she was an “Attorney at Law” and a check written out to me for one hundred dollars!  I was completely stunned!

One week after receiving Robyn's card, a letter came for me from her father, Robert L. Wieman.  It read:  “Dear Aleisha, Thank you very much for making a copy of my Master's Thesis, 'A Semi-Quantitative Spectographic Method of Analysis for Copper and Cobalt in Plant Material,” dated 1949, for my daughter just before Christmas.  Somehow, over the years, my copy had been lost.  I was anxious to once again go over the work I had done in the Chemistry Department at Utah State back in 1948 and 1949... My two years spent at Utah State were very pleasant.  I enjoyed your state, your city, and your university.  I was well treated by everyone at the school and in the city.  Thanks again!  I was so pleased that you went the 'extra mile' to help my daughter get my favorite Christmas present to me on time.  Sincerely, Bob.”

That year, Robyn and Bob reminded me that Christmas is about charity, sincere love and kindness, and small miracles.  I like that Webster Dictionary defines “miracle” as “a wonderful thing.”  A check for a substantial amount of money when you have none is a wonderful thing.  A stranger thanking you for being partially responsible for the receipt of his best Christmas gift, is a wonderful thing.  Christmas is about many wonderful things.  Christmas is about service--a special and beautiful time of the year to forget yourself and do something truly kind for a loved one, a friend, or a stranger.  Robyn and I were both recipients of Christmas service that year.

Mother Theresa once said, “Spread love everywhere you go...Be the living expression of God's kindness.”  I am grateful for people who are examples of God's kindness; who carry it in their eyes and in their smiles, who radiate it in their acts of selflessness at Christmas time and always.  I am grateful for Robyn for being an expression of God's kindness that year, and for reminding me of the desire I have to be that same kind of person.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I'm Thankful for Arm Floaties

Metaphorically speaking, I often feel as though my life is a vast sea of monotony and I am drowning in it.  Okay, okay!  Maybe not "drowning."  That does sound a bit dramatic.  More like, "treading water."  I often feel as though I am treading water, attempting to keep my head above the surface of my mundane responsibilities.  "Waves" of laundry constantly crash down on my head, "undertows" of trips to the grocery store try to pull me down to my watery grave.  (Sounding dramatic again?  Have you been to Wal-Mart?  Have you tried to shop with two fussy and hungry children in your cart?)  Then, there is the steady frothing and churning of toys to be picked up, diapers to be changed, and peanut butter sandwiches to be made.  The sound of my vacuum cleaner might as well resemble the sound of the tide coming in!

I do the same things over and over and over again.  I get up, fix breakfast, clean the kitchen afterward, bathe Lilly and dress both kids, play with Barbies with Lilly (and why is my doll always naked?  even that never changes), fix lunch, clean the kitchen afterward, put Cam down for a nap, frantically mop or vacuum or clean toilets or put folded laundry away, fix dinner, clean the kitchen afterward (notice how I can't seem to get out of my kitchen), bathe Cam and dress both kids in pajamas.  We end the day with our night time routine--brushing teeth, reading storybooks, cuddling, and saying prayers.  The next day:  Repeat.  The day after that:  Repeat.  Repeat, repeat, repeat!

I make an effort to be grateful for the things that break up the monotony in life--the proverbial "life rafts" that drift by me.  Sometimes, they are big things--a zoo play date, a trip to Grandma's house for the weekend, a library Halloween party.  In my "sea of monotony" metaphor, these activities are like the Coast Guard.  Or David Hasselhoff in his red, lifeguard swim trunks.  They save me.  BUT... Most of the time, the things that break up the monotony are small.  Very, very small.  They are mere arm floaties--like the bright pink pair I had when I was a child. 

So, a couple of weeks ago I set out to improve myself.  I know I need to try harder to notice, and then be grateful for, the arm floaties I get handed.  In my new-found goal to appreciate the small things, and in my heightened sense of awareness, I discovered:
      *Lilly informing me she no longer wants to call me "Mom."  She would prefer to call me, "Mother."  (I stifled a giggle when she said, "From now on, you shall be my mother and I will call you, 'Mother.'")  
      *Cam and Lilly playing together in Lilly's room, giggling hysterically as if a private joke had passed between them.
      *Cam crawling down the hall, "speedily" following me into his room while exclaiming, "Mumm-mumm-mumm!" 
      *Lilly telling me she's thankful for Jesus because, "He's the one who gave me my heart and put it in my body." 
I discovered I've been the recipient of wonderful arm floaties!  My kids have been the givers.  When I take a step back I see there's a lot of love in my swirling, monotony sea.  There's joy in there too.  The small things--when looked at through thankful eyes--prove to be bigger than what was once thought.  And maybe the big things--the outings and events, the vacations and adventures--aren't the "Coast Guard" after all. 

My kids are.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thankful He Showed Up

James and I were married on the 16th of August, in the Logan LDS temple.  (Seven years ago!)  It was a beautiful, summer morning--blue skies dotted by the occasional cotton-like cloud, and a warm breeze in the air, soft enough to resemble a whisper.  The sun was shining as brightly as the delicate bead-work on my white wedding dress.  I knew it would be a lovely day.

James and I had been told to arrive at the temple one hour before our ten o'clock ceremony.  I remember my heart raced in my chest as my dad pulled the family van into the temple parking lot, a couple of minutes before nine.  Butterflies flitted around in my stomach as I walked to the front doors with my parents.  I was nervous and excited, anticipating the events of the day and the start of my new life as Mrs. James McDaniel.       

James had not yet arrived, so I was asked if I'd like to wait for him in the foyer.  I sat down in a chair, nervously rubbed my sweaty palms across my skirt, and waited.

Ten minutes went by.  An elderly woman, a temple worker with perfectly coiffed hair as white as her dress, approached me.  "Is the groom here yet?", she asked.

"No," I replied, and managed a smile.  She patted my shoulder and left.

Ten more minutes went by.  I heard my mother whisper, "Do you think we should call him?"  My dad stood up and took his cell phone out of his suit pocket.  The white-haired temple worker who had inquired about James, returned to my side.

"Still waiting for your beau?", she asked, gently.  I nodded.  It felt as though my throat had turned to sandpaper.  I could fill tears welling up behind my eyes, threatening to gush down my cheeks.  I held them back, like a dam stopping the flow of a river.  I was desperate to keep the dam from breaking.  I was the bride.  I was not going to cry.  I was not going to ruin my "wedding day makeup."

The temple worker asked, "What does he look like?"  I was barely able to choke out the word, "Tall."  Before she left she said, "I am going to watch for him."


Madness!  My dad was using his cell phone to call James!  A man behind the desk at the entrance to the temple, used a phone to call the McDaniel's home number.  The kind, elderly woman who had asked about James, enlisted the help of another temple worker to "stand watch" by the front doors.  (All they knew was to watch for a "young man" who was "tall.")  My mom was trying to offer me words of comfort.  More minutes ticked by!  My dad said he'd wait and watch for James outside.  A male temple worker offered to go with him.  Our guests were starting to show up; perplexed expressions on their faces when they saw me in the foyer AND with no groom!  A man I did not know, sitting across from me, gave me a dewy-eyed smile that seemed to say, "Oh you poor thing.  I feel so sorry for you."  I refused to hold his gaze for fear I would leap out of my chair, dive across the sitting area, and punch him in the head!  I was trying to keep it together--staring at my hands clasped in my lap, refusing to look at or talk to anyone, frantically trying to swallow the lump in my throat.

And then...

James walked inAnd the room lit up.  His clean-shaven cheeks were slightly flushed from his dash into the building.  He looked beautiful.  I watched as his dark brown eyes searched for me, for my face.  When our gazes finally met across the crowd, I saw an apology in his eyes.  I saw love there, too.

The details that would explain why James was late are not important.  It was unintentional, obviously, and he felt bad about it.  I could have let myself wallow in all the emotions an ordeal like that would provoke--anger, fear, pain, frustration.  I could have taken a simple misunderstanding and let it "rain on my parade."  I didn't.  Instead, I held James' hand, looked at his face, and thought, "I'm thankful he showed up."

There have been many unforgettable moments since then; moments as numerous as the blades of grass in a field, moments when I've thought the same thing I thought on our wedding day:  "I'm thankful he showed up."  Every time he takes my hand, or touches the small of my back, I'm thankful he showed up.  Every time he laughs at my stupid jokes or silly stories, I'm thankful he showed up.  Every holiday.  Every birthday.  Every kiss.  Every baby blessing, and every funeral.  Every time I hear his key unlock the front door.  Every time he smiles at me, I'm thankful he showed up.  Every time he offers me his handkerchief and a shoulder to cry on, I'm thankful he showed up.  The birth of our children, college graduations, good days and bad days.  Every movie date, every thoughtful gift, every card containing his sweet sentiments for me--I'm thankful he showed up.  The times we've moved, the times we've been sick, the times we've been scared.  The stressful times.  The joyful times.  Every argument, and every lesson in forgiveness.

Every moment.  Every day.  I'm thankful he showed up.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cam Cuddles

My little man, Camren, is a cuddler.  He loves to be picked up, held, carried, hugged, and cuddled by me.  I love it!  I feel blessed to have such a cuddly baby, especially when his soft chubby arms are reaching around my neck.  "Cam cuddles" are like blue skies and sunshine to me, and I believe I experience true joy when I feel his little hands on my cheeks.

The very first time I cuddled with Camren was a precious and unique experience.  It happened shortly after his birth.  My incredible labor and delivery nurse--a grandma, with short, funky hair, pretty teeth, and fine lines framing the outer corners of her eyes--took impeccable care of me through the whole "birthing process."  She treated me with tenderness and kept me informed of all that was happening.  While Camren was being cleaned off and diapered, she explained to me that newborn babies have a difficult time maintaining their body temperatures.  For most hospitals, placing babies in warming bassinets is standard procedure.

"Lately, doctors are preferring the skin-to-skin contact method as a way to obtain the right body temperature in the baby," my nurse said.  "We put the baby on the mother's chest so that they are skin-to-skin, and then place a warm blanket over them both.  The baby will reach the right body temperature faster that way."  She looked at me and smiled kindly, and asked, "Would you like to try it with your baby?"

"Yes, absolutely," I said.

My nurse brought me my red-faced, wailing baby boy.  He was wearing only a diaper and a cotton cap.  She put him on my chest and proceeded to cover us with blankets.  Within moments, Camren's crying stopped.

And the world stopped for me.

I barely noticed the activity going on around me--James feeding me pieces of graham cracker so the pain medications I had taken wouldn't upset my stomach, my nurse placing warm blankets on my head as a way to combat the shivers and shakes the epidural had given me, my doctor congratulating me, the busy "hustle and bustle" of the nurses at the foot of my bed.  It all fell away; fading into the background like the last slivers of a sunset behind the mountains.  I was aware of one thing:  the faint rise and fall of Camren's chest against mine.  I've never felt closer to heaven.

Last night, I found myself cuddling with Camren while rocking him to sleep.  I did not sing my usual lullaby reserved just for him--Barbra Streisand's, "My Man."  Instead, I sang "Happy Birthday" and thought about how quickly one year had passed.  I thought about how precious my time with my baby boy is, and how future years may bring a time when Cam won't want to cuddle with me anymore.  "That's okay.  You can just hug me," I whispered into the darkness of his bedroom.  He was sound asleep.

As I laid Camren down in his crib, I softly whispered a birthday wish:

Happy Birthday, Cam.  My life is better because you are a part of it.  As you learn and grow on your life's journey, as you evolve from a little man to a big man, may you always remember to hug your mother.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I Heart Art

For as long as I live, I will never forget the moment I walked into the Grande Galerie of the Louvre museum in Paris, France.  There was a palpable energy in the air of that magnificent place.  It was alive and electric, a hum that seemed to reverberate through the palatial halls.  I felt it course through me, from my fingertips to my sneaker-clad toes.  Maybe it was the rich history found within the paint and the brush strokes on those canvases, that gave tangibility to the energy in the air.  Maybe it came from being surrounded by works of art that emanated absolute creative brilliance.  Or maybe the energy was originating from one lone masterpiece--mysteriously beautiful and luminescent, shielded behind panes of glass, guarded by several middle aged men in navy blazers... Leonardo Da Vinci's, "Mona Lisa."

The Mona Lisa is quite lovely in person.  In fact, she took my breath away.  She made the hairs on my arms stand on end.  The sight of her made me want to cry, I was so moved.  I stood before her in that crowded, vibrant gallery--barely moving, barely breathing--and let the awe I felt wash over me.  It was incredible.

I love art and have always enjoyed art history.  My interest increased after visiting several museums across Europe, and especially after seeing Da Vinci's extraordinary work.  I was hooked!  I took art history courses while attending Utah State University.  I read art books, journals, and periodicals while working on campus in the Serials department of the library.  I attended art shows whenever I could.  I purchased prints and framed them.  I tried to surround myself with art.

Now, ten years later, I am surrounded by a different kind of art.  Prints of famous artwork used to adorn my refrigerator, but have now been replaced by "paint with water" pages and construction paper preschool crafts.  These works came to fruition at the hands of a budding young artist--one I am particularly fond of.  She works primarily in crayon and Crayola markers.  She is notably talented, despite her lack of experience or education.  The potential is there.  I can see the potential for greatness.

I have laundry to do.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Four Years

My baby girl is four years old today.  As I prepare to celebrate with pink cupcakes and princess castles, I can not help but think back to the moment of her birth--the awe and joy I felt when I heard her cry for the first time.  Easily one of the greatest moments of my life.  I vividly remember my thoughts as a nurse placed her in my arms, only minutes old:  "She is beautiful.  I can't believe she's mine."

Lilly was born at 1:03 in the morning.  I remember how quiet Cottonwood hospital was and how that stillness felt like reverence.  The halls were empty.  The nurses spoke in hushed voices.  The lights were dimmed to a soft, creamy glow.  Windows to the outside revealed nothing but a black canvas.  It was peaceful.

After I was settled in my room, and after James had returned from giving Lilly her first bath in the nursery, we sat in silence; the two of us exhausted, but calm and happy.  It wasn't long before I heard a gentle knock at the door, then heard it open.  I heard the wheels of a bassinet on the hard floor, and knew a nurse was bringing my daughter to me.

I am certain I will never forget the sight of her.  She was tightly swaddled in a standard hospital baby blanket--like a little "burrito" baby--and all I could really see of her was her tiny head.  She had so much black hair!  My eyes immediately went to the bright pink bow stuck on her head.  Pink.  It invoked images of princesses, Barbie dream cars, fingernail polish, and satin dresses.  It was the perfect shade of pink.

Four years later, Lilly is wearing "perfect shade of pink" pajamas the night before her birthday.  The house is quiet and peaceful, like that hospital was, and the only light on is a star-shaped nightlight in Lilly's bedroom.  I tuck her into her princess sheets, and briefly recall the image of that tightly swaddled, newborn baby.  As I say goodnight and turn to leave, she whispers a question to me she has asked every night for a week, "Is tomorrow my birthday?"

"Yes, Lilly.  It's tomorrow.  Tomorrow is your birthday."

She grins happily at me, says, "That's good," and rolls over on her pillow.  I start to close her door behind me, but decide to leave it open just a crack.  I stand in the hallway, peeking in at her.  As I watch her fall asleep I think, "She is beautiful.  I can't believe she's mine."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Chicken Bra"

My daughter, Lilly, loves to lend a helping hand in the kitchen. She laboriously drags a chair from our dinner table across the sandstone-colored tile floor in my kitchen, to the small counter space by the sink. She climbs up on the chair, and then stands at attention--ready to take culinary direction from me, "Mama Betty Crocker." She is my right hand, my assistant. She is the perfect sous-chef.

One Sunday night, I decided to make "Autumn Stew" for dinner. (A fantastic and savory concoction of chicken, celery, carrots, onion, bay leaf, and thyme. Two pinches of allspice and a cup of apple juice added to the broth is what makes a "non-seasonal" stew autumnal.) Lilly was by my side, as usual. She patiently stood on her chair that was pulled up to the counter, and waited for me to chop all the vegetables--the salt and pepper shakers in her little, four year old hands. Her job was to season the vegetables, then dump them into the pan of olive oil.

"Mom, what are we making?," she asked.

I explained to her that we were making soup. I described the process to her, showed her the various ingredients we would be adding to the pot, told her the wonderful names of all the seasonings, and even had her smell the Allspice.

"You can add the Italian seasoning to the chicken, if you want," I said to Lilly as I began to saute the onions. "I'll let you pour the chicken broth into the pot too. You can help me stir everything together."

She grinned at me and happily said, "Okay."

The onion sizzled and the oil jumped and danced around in the pan--for a moment, those were the only sounds in my cozy kitchen. Lilly and I stood in silence, enjoying the warm aromas of vegetables and spices cooking on the stove top, enjoying the nearness of each other--her soft arm leaning against mine, her breath on my shoulder, my hands helping her hands with the spatula. My little sous-chef.

Suddenly, she turned to me, as if startled by a thought in her head. I saw perplexity on her face and in her bright eyes as she looked up and asked, "Chicken bra?! Mom! What the heck is chicken bra?!"