I sympathize with everyone who lost their luggage on Southwest Airlines during the Christmas holidays.
The day after the September 11 attacks, I made the first of many calls to US Airways to see about retrieving my suitcase, which had been impounded at La Guardia Airport. After hours on hold, an airline employee asked for a description of my bag in order to locate it.
“It’s black,” I began.
“And I bet it has wheels and a pull-up handle,” she said.
This didn’t look promising.
She tried another approach. “Okay, if I open your suitcase, what will I see that tells me it’s yours?”
“Well, I have a pair of black slacks, a black turtleneck…and, um, a black skirt.”
I was in New York for Fashion Week, for God’s sake. Editors wear black, not Hawaiian prints. But I learned a valuable lesson: Something in your luggage must be easy to identify.
Miraculously, the airline found my black-wheeled-suitcase-with-handle in the impounded baggage. However, when I returned to Michigan, I marched into “Frederick’s of Hollywood” and bought the loudest leopard bikini panties – with a strategically placed red heart – that I could find. For many years, they were the final item I packed on every trip. I wanted to be sure that if another airline employee ever asked, ‘If I open your suitcase, what will I see?’ I’d have a much better answer.
First, let me say I’m not a Grinch. I have done Christmas above and beyond for nearly a quarter of a century for my children. I have hosted Christmas cookie exchanges, decorated trees fit for a Fifth Avenue shop window, dressed the dog in holiday attire, baked cookies for Santa, and wrestled holiday lights into the bushes. There’s not much Christmas I haven’t done.
Just not this year.
My children are older now and celebrate the holidays in their own homes (in other states.) Yes, it was magical when my kids would stumble down the stairs on Christmas morning and I’d watch their amazed little faces glow as they discovered the gifts under the lit tree. I have beautiful memories of those moments and I will cherish them forever.
However, this year I hung brand new stockings on the mantel – without embroidered names – and erected a 4-foot tree instead of a towering one. I’ll spend Christmas in my sister’s home as a guest rather than a host. I feel a different kind of anticipation: Spending Christmas with the person I shared a room with when we were small, the sibling who raised her family in another part of the country (and abroad) while I was busy raising mine. That’s the calmer, peaceful holiday that I’m cherishing this year.
Suzette’s early Christmas rituals occurred in a snowy New England city, with aunts and uncles, neighbors, and friends gathered at her grandparents’ dining table. The scene was pure Norman Rockwell.
Norman Rockwell never painted this one.
Though she never had a brother – at least not a biological one – 14-year-old Suzette LeBlanc acquired 150 of them when her father became Commandant of the Sanford Naval Academy, a boy’s boarding school on the shores of Lake Monroe in Florida. The family moved into a small apartment on the school grounds, where Suzette began to feel like something on a specimen slide in biology class.
For a time, parents sent their sons to military school to learn structure and discipline. They wanted a strong male influence. They did not, however, want girls. So, Suzette’s high school education occurred elsewhere, at a parochial school thirty minutes away.
When the Sanford Naval Academy emptied of students during Christmas break, the Commandant’s nightly ritual of Cutty Sark—consumed in his reclining chair facing the television—drove his wife and daughter out of their small apartment to search for something festive.
They found it in the lights on the twenty-foot tree which glowed brightly in the middle of a deserted Quarterdeck. The space had once been the lobby of a luxury resort hotel that was converted to the military boarding school. Suzette liked to think the original hotel probably had a similar Christmas tree, but then, they probably also had more guests to enjoy it.
Chairs in the far corners of the room disappeared in the dark, along with offices, classroom doors, and the stairway leading to the upper floors. Surprisingly, the illuminated area surrounding the tree seemed kind of cozy as her mother settled on one couch and Suzette on another, basking in the Christmas lights.
When it came to enjoying holiday decorations at the academy, it was either a feast or famine: the small tree in their claustrophobic apartment or the enormous version in the deserted school lobby. Odd that both spaces felt equally empty to Suzette, lacking in the warmth that gives holidays their special meaning.
She knew that a Christmas tree alone does not constitute a holiday. That came in the form of the midshipmen, those young gentlemen-in-training, who arrived at her door in the evenings under the pretext of questions for her father. In truth, she figured they needed her mother’s attention more, along with some semblance of family life.
Suzette never considered herself to be an only child, yet the seven-year age gap between her and her sister made it seem so. Magically, their apartment had filled with new siblings. A handful became regular guests at the dinner table since an invitation from her family provided a chance to escape the crowds and sameness that was served in the Mess Hall.
She guessed that midshipmen joined the family based on some combination of her father’s opinion of them, her mother’s intuition, and her own tolerance of their friendly overtures. They filled a void she scarcely knew existed, and suddenly, they were gone.
The Christmas tree was the last remnant of weeks filled with cookies, gift exchanges, and a senior midshipman known as “Big Mac’s” arrival as Santa at an ice-cream-and-cake party hosted by the academy for sixty children from the Methodist Children’s Home. It provided a backdrop for photos during the Christmas Formal Dance where Suzette was escorted by a quiet, young man from Panama with soulful brown eyes.
Those activities had lessened Suzette’s “transplanted Yankee” loneliness and filled her with a sense of family far greater than the one she had been born into. The midshipmen needed the LeBlancs as much as the family needed them.
New rituals replaced her Norman Rockwell Christmas, yet tonight, Suzette couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that she’d been jettisoned in favor of the boys’ real holiday, the one spent with family members who shared their name.
Sitting in the empty Quarterdeck, mother and daughter wondered aloud about the midshipmen’s homes, their parents and if the boys might miss them, too, when they returned to their native habitats.
“I bet Big Mac and his brother are cold in Connecticut.”
“Yeah, the kids from New Jersey probably are freezing, too. The boy from Panama isn’t too happy either, since it’s the rainy season there.”
Suzette stared at the colored lights. She didn’t want to go back to their apartment just yet.
“This tree is huge. I wonder where the school bought it.”
“I don’t know. We can ask your father. It really smells terrific though, doesn’t it?”
They sat in silence for a while. Suzette wondered how her mother could live with a man who drank himself to sleep each night in front of the television. Both women missed the young men who had become such a part of their family until the boys joyfully abandoned them to return to their biological ones.
The temporary nature of those bonds became clear that night as the Christmas tree shimmered with blue and gold ornaments above “gifts” wrapped in shiny metallic paper.
Suzette knew the boxes beneath it were as empty as her heart.
Excerpted from The Anchor Clankers. Renee Garrison is an award-winning author and past president of the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.
Forgive me, IKEA, because I’ve heard yours are amazing. But the version my sister prepared when we were growing up was inedible. (My mother, however, was thrilled when sis tackled recipes from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls.)
At the dinner table my parents praised her, while I choked down enough to pass muster. The menu may have been lacking, but the conversation was good. Back then, my parents were on to something.
A youth mental-health crisis that was building for a decade before the pandemic, has worsened over the past two years. In 2021, 44 percent of high school students said they felt persistently sad or hopeless in the past year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, mounting scientific research shows that gathering for regular meals and conversation might be one way to build children’s emotional resilience. (Having TV on in the background has been found to reduce the quality of children’s meals.)
I know it’s hard to deal with conflicting schedules of working parents and kids. But avoiding digital distractions and eating family dinners together is worth the effort.
There is a proven way to help children learn and it’s free: Read aloud to them.
Young children who have lots of stories read to them enter kindergarten as much as 14 months ahead in language and pre-reading skills. According to educators, while listening to stories, children learn a more sophisticated vocabulary than they are likely to hear elsewhere, while also picking up grammar, syntax and general knowledge. The more children under five are read to, the richer and deeper their language capacities become (with positive effects later in English, math and other subjects.)
Even better, it works for students 12 to 13 years old, too!
In a study lead by the University of Sussex, 20 English teachers read novels to poor-to-average students for three months. Morale and test results soared. Children who once hated English lessons were practically racing into the classroom to find out what happened next. When given reading comprehension tests, average readers made 8.5 months of progress while poorer students made 16 months of progress.
The simple act of a teacher reading aloud a few times a week produced students who were happier, more motivated and more capable academically.
In the foreword of his book, The Place of Books in the Life We Live (copyright 1923), author William L. Stidger writes, “Books are like the windows of a tower. They let light in. Every life is a growing tower. It is put stone by stone. The higher it grows, the darker it gets if we do not put in a window here and there to give light. That is what a book does to a life. It lets light into that life.”
Well said, indeed.
Stidger believed that a book could frequently be the turning point in the life of a boy or girl, man or woman. It can change the course of a human life, awakening the soul like nothing else. In addition, he believed that books would keep the soul and the world alive, raising people to greater heights.
One of the greatest things we can do is to encourage others to be eager readers. We can give books for gifts and urge others to expand their horizons through the creation of excellent reading habits.
Keep reading, my friends, and inspire others to do the same!
My Irish ancestors always viewed the glass as half empty.
I have a tendency to do the same, which isn’t unusual since people are influenced by the way they were raised. Yet I’m trying to change, since optimism helps us be more resilient, have better pain management, stronger immune function and longer lifespans. Fortunately, experts say that optimism is a style of thinking and not a fixed personality trait.
I’ve always enjoyed trying a new style.
Psychologists believe that it’s possible to boost optimism with practice: They suggest starting by limiting the negative elements in your life. Fill your social media with people and organizations making a positive impact. Spend more time with people who are optimistic. Listen to upbeat music. Try meditation.
Of course, when your car doesn’t start or your boss frustrates you, negative thoughts can wear you down. But experts advise us to get out a piece of paper (I have plenty) and write down three things about the situation that could help you see it more positively. (I’ll let you know if it works.)
Full-time optimism may be impossible to achieve, but I’m setting small goals to make me feel less pessimistic. My glass is beginning to look half full.
Renee Garrison is an award-winning author and president of the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.
Planning the Florida Authors and Publishers annual conference is exhausting work, but the benefits are worth it. There are speakers, networking events, name badges and swag bags, along with the President’s Book Awards Celebration to honor excellence in the publishing industry. I hope those who attend learn a ton of new things and are inspired by our workshops! That’s why I have a few suggestions on how to make the most out of FAPACon 2022.
Tip #1: Plan which sections to attend
Writing conferences like FAPACon share an agenda with attendees at least a few weeks before. I circle any talks, panels, or round tables that interest me. That way, I can “relax” during the conference itself and focus on the sessions and networking without worrying if I’m missing something important.
If different sessions run at the same time, I find a “conference buddy” to share sessions with — each of us taking notes and then sharing the important information with each other. (Some conferences also record sessions live, so you can access the replays later for the ones you missed.)
Tip #2: Find your peers
As writers, we can spend a lot of time sitting alone in front of our computer. And while we tend to have our social media friends, and gatherings, nothing beats meeting other writers in person — especially if they write in the same genre as you.
But how do you find those peers and approach them in the first place?
If your conference doesn’t have genre- or topic-specific meetups as part of the official schedule, create your own: Look for a Facebook group or other forums for attendees to chat in. Post something a few weeks before the conference asking: “Are any other historical fiction authors coming? If so, I’d love to meet up!” Set it up on the first day, so you’ll find your peers and be able to enjoy the rest of the conference in good company.
Tip #3: Make the most of the bar
I meet the most interesting people at conferences by hanging out at the bar — and that’s usually where I have the most insightful or productive conversations. Bars, lobbies, and coffee shops are where people go to relax during a conference. There, it’s much easier to strike up a conversation, mingle, and get to know other people.
Do you want to talk to one of our speakers? Most people will try to intercept them after their talk, which leads to massive lines trapping the speaker inside the room when their talk is finished. They may be exhausted from their workshop, and eager to leave the room. Offer to get them a drink (or a coffee) or just politely ask whether they’ll be at the bar (or in the lobby) later, so you can chat with them in a more relaxed setting.
I’ve always envisioned being buried in a cavernous mausoleum, with a large bar and seating area. (That way I know my kids would visit.) However, I just learned of a new option: reefball burials.
A “reefball” is a large mass of rough concrete in the shape of a ball. Holes are deliberately left in it to allow fish and other creatures to use it for feeding, security and development. The cremated remains or “cremains” of an individual are incorporated into an environmentally safe cement mixture and installed in a marine environment that can benefit from an artificial reef. (I wouldn’t be fish food.)
Imagine – a final resting place that helps restore marine environments and establishes new habitats for fish and other sea life. A Sarasota Company, Eternal Reefs, is the only firm in Southwest Florida currently providing such a service. There are more than 750,000 reef balls in oceans around the world, according to the company.
It’s nice to think that, even after my death, I could support marine life long into the future. Plus, my kids love boating, so maybe they would still visit…
Some people snoop in their friends’ medicine cabinet. I prefer to peek at their bookshelves.
If you want to understand someone’s true personality, take a look at his or her library. The books that they read offer a psychological profile of their tastes, interests and values. I believe book-centered rooms are the ultimate escape, the place to head for to think and read, regenerate your spirit and ideas.
· The library is a room of secrets. Add a hidden compartment to your bookcase, something Mr. Holmes would approve of.
· Books you love to read, plan to reread or need for reference, should never be out of reach.
· Standing on chairs or beds is no substitute for a sturdy, stable library ladder.
· Two comfortable chairs and good lighting are the most important elements of a well-stocked library.