family, grief and loss, Inspiration, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…Wisdom from a Christmas Stocking

Behold, a hand-knit depiction of a right jolly old elf. And just as it is written, his droll little mouth is drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin is as white as the snow.

This is my Christmas stocking and my oldest personal possession. Almost exactly 51 years ago, this stocking was my traveling companion on the journey to meet my parents for the very first time.

These days, it is referred to as Gotcha Day or Homecoming Day; the day on which a person joins a family through adoption. But in 1967, it was simply thought of by my adoptive parents as the day their prayers were answered.

For the first time, they held in their arms the baby girl they had said “yes” to, the baby girl who had spent the first six months of her life in a foster home because she was born with a congenital deformity that labeled her handicapped and ineligible for immediate placement in a forever home.

I remember my mother telling me that the adoption agency would only tell her and my father that they had a baby for them, but the baby was handicapped. They would not reveal the nature or severity of the disability. My mom told me they didn’t even have to think twice about their answer. God had sent them this baby, and they were prepared to welcome her home.

And so they did. On a Wednesday afternoon in December, the little girl they would name Kathleen Mary first unreservedly offered a toothless smile in their arms as the social worker explained the very simple care of her “handicap” which was ultimately disclosed as a dislocated hip that would be guided into place within a few months time.

The precious Christmas stocking that accompanied the baby was filled with teething toys and rattles that had become comfort items during their little girl’s first six months of life. The stocking was handmade by her foster mother as her foster father, almost certainly, offered his loving praise over her handiwork.

My mother was told that this foster family had recently petitioned to adopt the baby girl but had been denied because their ages fell above the agency’s maximum allowable for adoption. During my first six months of life, this foster couple’s loving care included having me baptized at St. Agnes Catholic Church.

The social worker smiled when my mom told her they would give me the name Kathleen Mary, saying only that it was incredibly close to that which the foster family had me baptized.

A strange truth to many, I have never had the desire to seek my birth parents, but I have thought of this foster family every Christmas; throughout my childhood as my Christmas Stocking was hung with care in our living room and filled by Santa with treats galore and throughout adulthood as each year it holds a place of honor near our Christmas tree. When I learned a few years back that St. Agnes Parish was closing, I called to inquire about baptismal records with the hope to identify these foster parents who tenderly cared for me the first six months of my life.

I wanted them to know how blessed I had been to be placed in my forever home with a family whose faith life was the foundation of who they were and all they did. I wanted them to know that I had a remarkable journey through Catholic schools and the finest Jesuit university in all the land; a journey that led me to a lifetime of friendships and the love of my life. I wanted them to know I was a mom to two beautiful daughters of my own whom, unreservedly, have offered me their smiles for decades. I wanted them to know I still have that Christmas stocking and it means the world to me. I wanted to say thank you.

My call to the Parish Office was placed just days before it was set to close. In fact, the voice on the other end of the phone quickly led me to believe that the elderly pastor was personally manning the phones…and that I caught him in the middle of his lunch.   Between my inability to offer a concise summary of my request and his really loud chewing, I offered to call him back. Well, life interrupted, and I never did.

Not the dramatic ending you were hoping for, I bet.

I most likely will never know the identity of that foster family. In addition, those wonderful adoptive parents, my Mom and Dad, are now both deceased. But I have that stocking to console me–on their combined behalf– over the delicate and often paradoxical emotions of a season that almost demands one to be “merry and bright.”

As I hold this stocking in my hands, I envision foster parents handing over a baby they had nurtured over six months time and had petitioned to adopt. My heart hurts at the thought.

As I hold this stocking in my hands, I have a much clearer vision of the adoptive parents first holding a still bald, toothless baby because that joyous story is detailed in a memory narrated by my Mom. My heart bursts at the thought.

The wisdom offered by this Christmas stocking is not unique to my life story. In fact, it should offer a universal consolation.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are feelings beyond our control that impact our lives everyday and are often exacerbated during the holidays for a variety of reasons.

The holiday season may pose painful struggles; certainly for those who have experienced the death of a loved one, but also for people who yearn for the Christmases they had, but have since lost, or perhaps desired but never even had. Some may crave that family closeness…past or present, imagined or real. Others may mourn unfulfilled childhood desires…realizing your life didn’t travel the path you had hoped.

The wisdom of my Christmas stocking reminds me that in the midst of the darkest winter, the path to an amazing spring is waiting for me…in my own heart.

Maybe the universal message is one of accepting and loving who you are right now, especially if you are sad or angry or feeling empty or lost. Whatever the case may be, you must accept where you are in order to usher in the day when the light returns to your soul and your spirit.

Because I’ve experienced the darkness, I can savor the light in my life.

This past weekend, the candle of joy was lit on Advent wreaths in countless churches and homes around the world. It is that call to joy that led me to consider the wisdom of my Christmas stocking and pray for everyone in my life for whom joy is a really, really tough sell this year…be it because of disappointment or regret, an unfulfilled dream or a broken heart represented by an empty chair at this year’s holiday table.

I pray for strength and for peace in the hearts of those who are hurting.

And I thank God for the perspective my faith provides me, for the strength the Advent season instills within me, and for the belief that an Easter Sunday will follow every Good Friday in my life, until that day when God reunites me with those I loved and have lost– and those I have loved and never even met.

Hoping your Christmas stockings are filled with light, I wish Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

kmp

 

 

 

 

 

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family, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…Fake News!

Our Commander-in-Chief has popularized this colloquialism to the point where even the most casual political observer is moved to call into question anything written or spoken by the Fourth Estate.

Skimming over articles about immigration reform, a potential government shut down and the volatile stock market has left this reader hopeful that the upcoming Olympics will steal every headline with stories of courage, persistent dedication and national pride.

But after tossing the paper into the recycling bin and turning off the television, I spent more time than necessary analyzing an article that turned up while continuing my New Year’s resolution of cleaning/purging things from our home.

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My Mom’s tenth birthday party was considered part of all the news that was fit to print in the Syracuse Herald Journal’s evening edition of September 10, 1941.

Not fake news.

I can’t help but smile at each word of copy and the fact that it appeared in the newspaper at all.  And to think, the very next generation of ten-year-olds would have to stealthily pass out birthday invitations to a select few to avoid brazenly leaving someone out. And the generation after that would be encouraged to invite the entire class just to avoid hurt feelings.

But in 1941, it was socially acceptable to use mainstream media to inform a whole bunch of uninvited 10-year-olds and their parents that they missed out on a table set with birthday cake and water lily candles. That’s hilarious.

I’ve never even heard of a water lily candle. I turned for insight to the all-knowing Google machine, which only succeeded in suckering me into Henri Bendel for their water lily scented candle touted as a great Valentine’s gift. (And I swear I could hear my Grandma Hogan screaming from heaven, “Who the hell would ever spend $30 on a candle? Your Mom’s whole 10th birthday party didn’t cost me that much!)

As I hit “complete order” I whispered to the heavenly voice in my head, “Pipe down Grandma. They’re half-off. It’s a good deal.” Then I opened another storage box and immediately felt guilt-ridden.

 

WAR RATION COUPON BOOKS

These WWII ration books belonged to my Grandpa Frank and Great-Grandpa Sebastian Barthel.

 

Only three months after my Mom’s newsworthy party, the United States would be thrust into war. Shortly after that, families would have been given War Ration Books. I can’t even imagine grocery shopping using removable stamps for certain rationed items, like sugar, meat and canned goods. When your ration stamps were used up for that month, you couldn’t buy any more of that type of food.

Kind of puts perspective on how not making the cut on a birthday party list paled in comparison to worrying about sending a son off to war or how you would be able to feed your family on rations. I remember my Mom sharing the memory of an Army car slowly traveling down Park Street one summer’s day a few years into the war and stopping at a neighbor’s house to deliver the dreaded news of a young soldier’s death. She said the entire street stood quietly except for the sound of the mother wailing. Decades later, you could still sense how deeply haunted my Mom was by that moment.

Am I over-romanticizing a time in history? Is my mind’s eye falsely envisioning the norm of that era being every American holding God and Country in highest regard? Am I creating an undeserved image of a people who respected authority and an authority who respected the people, the balance of power and the potency of peaceful protest?

Probably.

A few weeks ago, a paragraph in a Sunday New York Times article caught my attention, as it suggests we are a more tolerant generation, despite what comments on Twitter and Facebook would have you think.

The article referred to “the first wave of European immigrants coming to America to escape the aftermath of World War II, the greatest refugee crisis in the last century. And yet public sentiment was opposed to immigration. More than two-thirds of Americans then objected to allowing Jews and other Europeans into the United States. For comparison, an April 2017 Pew Research Center Poll found that 48 percent of Americans don’t believe the United States has a responsibility to accept Syrian refugees.”

I guess I don’t want to be in 1941 America, but 2018 America is not that palatable either. The Presidential tweets are bizarre and frightening and not reflective of even a minimum standard of professionalism expected for the Executive Office. On the other side of the aisle, I’ve been disappointed by people I have long respected who, in one breath, are inspirationally calling for the rights and protection of all women, and in the next breath mocking Sarah Huckabee for her physical appearance just because they oppose her politics.

You can’t have it both ways.

I drew a little perspective from Notre Dame’s Daily Gospel Reflection this week that focused on a passage from Mark’s gospel where Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile…it is what comes out of a person that defiles.”

So while it does matter what Trump says, or Nancy Pelosi or Sarah Huckabee or Harvey Weinstein or what anyone else in this messed up world has to say, what matters infinitely more are the words you choose. We can only enact change through what we say, how we say it and to whom.

I don’t mean to come off as some judgmental holier-than-thou windbag. Seriously, I have so many skeletons in my closet that I don’t even need hangers anymore. They just hold up all my clothes, and the worst part is the skeletons win “Who Wore It Best” every time.

But we, as a nation, need to embrace Michelle Obama’s directive at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “When they go low, we go high.” We need, as Americans, to embrace the concept of a “kinder, gentler nation” that George H.W. Bush put forth at the 1988 Republican National Convention. We need to embrace my Dad’s directive to “never burn a bridge” and my Mom’s to “always treat others the way you’d like to be treated.”

I need to count the blessings bestowed upon me in 2018 America and share them willingly with an undefiled heart.

And I will attempt to do so, awash in the glow of a grossly overpriced candle.

kmp

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The front page of the same edition that buried the story of Mary Anne Hogan’s 10th birthday party.

 

 

 

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