That Annoying Little Sister

One of the burdens I was forced to endure in my childhood was a pesky little sister. She was insufferable and, at four years my junior, way too young to be any fun. My mother always forced my brother and me to include her in our activities. It was like having an extra shadow. It was traumatic to say the least.

As we all grew older and eventually up, we managed to transform into young adults. The burden became less, and eventually the accidental friendship that occurs amongst siblings took place.

Life happened and we are no longer young. We are also no longer geographically close.

According to Google Maps, we live 1517 miles apart. We don't have coffee together nearly often enough. When we do, it's a delightful time. It is funny how that annoying little shadow metamorphosed into a refreshing visitor.

My sister Leah and her husband are visiting us this week. They are from very northern Minnesota. Their trip to North Carolina fast forwarded their spring to summer.

Today we visited the village of Oriental, North Carolina. It is always a fun place to visit. Today it was even more fun.

There is really no moral to this story. Enjoy your family.

Therefore we must be normal!

My family has been accused of being normal from time to time. I don't recall anyone actually making that accusation of me personally. At our house normal equals dull and that is an insult.

I understand that people who use that term on us do so in innocence. They see us as a family with all adult kids excitedly doing things together. The automatic association is with some iconic 1950's family television show. Hence the association with normal. That is forgivable.

Please allow me to set the record straight.

On Christmas Eve, when normal people are out in droves getting gifts for that hard to buy for person on their list, we are home having Reuben sandwiches and competing in our annual Night Before Christmas poetry contest!

There is deep meaning and symbolism associated with the Reubens. First they are yummy! Second, we like them. Third, it is a fairly easy, fun way to feed a big group without spending a lot of time. Okay, so maybe deep and symbolic were overstatements. We do Reubens because they are fun and easy.

The Night Before Christmas poetry contest, however, is, well, is not really deep either. In fact, it's not a contest at all. And it doesn't have to be poems. We simply set that time as the end of preparation and the beginning of celebrating the birth of our Savior.

I started this tradition several years back, because it was far too easy to fill up all our time with cooking, and baking, and putzing about with random, endless preparations. No more! When the Reubens hit the skillet, the Eagles gather like … well, like vultures. (Now, there's a lovely metaphor!) It is like the bell at the beginning of the prize fight, the shot to start a race, the lines being thrown from the dock to launch the ship … Well, you get the picture.

After we feast on Reuben sandwiches, we crowd into the living room and share our poetic creations. Some of which are not poems at all. Rumor has it, this year will include a fire poi show. (outdoors, of course) Take that on the nose, Normal!

So, for clarity I am including a submission of mine from a couple of years back.

Bethlehem Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas in Bethlehem town, the villagers were clueless to what was going down

Too busy to reach out, unwitting decline, they missed their own meeting with the Divine

That town was abustle with relatives aplenty, the homes were all full the Inns held too many

The town square was packed with travelers from afar, 'Cause for taxes a census was forced by Caesar

The travelers and towns folks with great consternation, were oppressed by the Roman army occupation

Yet one traveler was troubled beyond all the others, a pregnant young girl far from midwife or mother

They'd traveled too far all the lodgings were proffered, a cave hewn from stone was best they were offered

A shelter for cattle 'cause all else was taken, there history was made and creation was shaken

The Word became flesh, reaching out to His own, redemption was offered from God's Holy Throne

Eternal life freely to all has been given, the humble receive, repenting, are forgiven

Some history repeats it is said by the wise, tonight looks like it could be one of those times

Tis the night before Christmas in this little town, so many are clueless to what's going down

Too busy to reach out, unwitting decline, they missed their own meeting with the Divine

- RV Hodge   2012


Soup with chopsticks! Where's the hidden camera?

Ahh, yes! That … was part of our Christmas in Japan.

The memory gate is opened and my emotions are suddenly flooded. They come like waves, one after the other, crashing into my mind and overwhelming my senses. We were in Japan: Okinawa, Japan, to be precise. And the trip was everything and more than we had ever expected. It was two years ago, and we were in Okinawa for eighteen days of adventure with the family!

As Hodge adventures rank, it was fairly low key, in that we did not intentionally plan anything that would put us at imminent risk of life or limb. As our travel experiences go, it was nothing short of amazing.

In our time there, we tried all manner of unfamiliar foods, eating at local establishments where English was not spoken and the menu was semi-mysterious. Then came the Udon Noodle Soup place.

Chopsticks for eating soup looked like a great way to prank Americans. Seriously, the operation looked impossible. But a quick look around the room revealed many locals happily eating their soup with chopsticks. It's no wonder they don't have a problem with their weight there.

My wife wisely ceded defeat and grabbed a spoon. I, on the other hand, stubbornly used the chopsticks. It was war from the beginning. Chopsticks make perfect soup stir sticks. I pretended to be getting the upper hand while chasing the little bits around the bowl. Microscopic quantities made it to my mouth. It smelled wonderful … maddeningly wonderful. I suddenly realized what the great krill-eating whales must feel like. Satisfaction seemed impossible.

My kids, between jokes about my skill level, offered that it would be okay to use a spoon. I must have looked pathetic. I don't normally growl at my food, but that seemed like an appropriate response. I think that part did not happen out loud, otherwise the normally very polite Japanese people may have responded with alarm.

With each frustrating technique attempt, the bowl crept closer to my face. Then at last I had a breakthrough. The victory was mine! With each sortie of those thin bamboo sticks I got flavor, texture, and volume! That soup tasted every bit as wonderful as it smelled. I mentally rode in the victory parade and with each successful scoop came another metaphorical shower of ticker tape confetti! That lasted about five bites.

Then, daughter Rochelle, who lived in Okinawa at the time, indicated a table near ours. She glibly pointed out that I was doing it just like one of the locals. My pleasure was checked only barely by the laughter of the kids. I was indeed using the same technique as the girl at that table. She was about four. I happily pointed out that she had a four year head start on me and I had already caught up!

Our Okinawa Christmas was indeed a wonderful experience. It flew by too fast as all pleasures tend to do, but each experience left us with great memories.

I pity people who have carbon copy Christmas experiences. We do have a few traditions that we repeat, but sharing the joy of different and sometimes surprising experiences really creates awesome memories for our family.

This year, who knows what surprise adventure may be lurking under the tree …

That Tacky Star

It's been nearly thirty years running that we have topped our Christmas tree with a hand-made aluminum foil star. It has seen better days.

It was hand made by me our first Christmas in our own cabin in Alaska. Our old star had suddenly become obsolete. The design was so inadequate that it required electricity to light up … and we did not have electricity. We did not have indoor plumbing either. For that matter, we didn't have much. We would have been considered poor by any standards, but we were so, so far from poverty.

While it is true we had very little of this world's “goods,” we had enough to eat and firewood for the stove, and we had our loving little family. Doesn't that just sound cliché?

Sorry, schmaltz may sell, but I don't do it. The real story is we had all of the above, and a huge sense of adventure. Actually I had a huge sense of adventure. And it was following that dream of adventure that led us to that point.

I had been “going to Alaska” since second grade. In my defense, I promised my wife adventure when she signed up to marry me. She probably got a lot more than she bargained for.

So there, in our tiny cabin that would have never made it into a Norman Rockwell painting, I cut out a star from the cardboard backer in a spiral notebook and wrapped it with aluminum foil. It was simple and crude, but it worked, and the foil reflected the lamplight very nicely. We were poor in money, but fabulously rich in imagination, and we were surrounded by adventure. It was not a vacation, it was real life.

In our real life, it seemed that there was always something going wrong and we would have to overcome the circumstances, sometimes at way below zero temperature. But we did overcome and years later we relish those experiences of long past.

Which brings us back to the tacky star. It is symbolic of so much more than I can share here. It is a small token of our life of adventure in Alaska. It is a testimony that being broke could not stop us from celebrating the birth of Christ. In fact, it may have helped. It is a reminder of times when we had so little, which in turn, reminds us to appreciate what we have now. And it faithfully sits on top of the tree, reflecting the lights around it.

It is sufficient, and we are pleased with sufficient.

Wolves, and bears, and Christmas socks, oh my!

Long, long ago in a cabin, located in a valley deep in the north woods, where the streams freeze solid and the air stands still, lived a family of wolves. We ate our meals voraciously, ripping the oatmeal from the bowls like …

No, not wolves, not really, more like bears. No, not bears either. I'm not sure what we were. We were not normal. We clearly shared characteristics with those animal clans, but we didn't fit in with them either. Our family has just always been different.

By my early teen years, I had discovered that I did not really “need” anything for Christmas. Yet, my parents wanted to get me something cool. Socks were perpetually at the top of my wish list, which, it turns out, is not normal behavior.

I first became aware of our differentness one year when I was about ten. That was a few years before we had moved to the cold north woods of Minnesota.

We, as a family, voted to forgo Christmas gifts for our family and help a family in need. I don't know how my mom found out about that family; she was a secret agent I think. I'm pretty sure that family did not speak English.

We, my siblings and I, were beside ourselves with elation to pick gifts for the “needy” kids. We had no clue we were a poor family ourselves. We labored over choices between multiple small toys versus one larger toy. We knew there was a budget to live within and we had to make the money stretch. As kids, we really had no clue how the parents knew when the magic stream of money from Dad's wallet would suddenly stop, but somehow they knew.

Some of that money also needed to go for blankets and candles for the poor family. Their electricity had been shut off and they needed some lights. And food was included in the must get list as well. All that seemed like an annoying way to inhibit good toy purchasing, but we understood it had to be done.

Then came Christmas Eve when we made the delivery. Anticipation of something is often half the fun and that event was no exception. The Buick station wagon was stuffed to a delightfully uncomfortable level and we set out for the poor side of town. Our normally raucous behavior (remember, we were like a pack of wolves) was intensified by the deep emotion that can only be received by giving.

Then it happened. We pulled up slowly to the tiny, dilapidated house that bore the number we were looking for. It was dark and somber. We became still and silent.

Mom went and knocked at the door. Slowly a large family emerged. They were self-conscious, probably even embarrassed. We were subdued by their discomfort. Slowly we began to hand gifts across the little fence and the packages of blankets, which I had resented, felt priceless. The candles became light to their darkness. And the oh-so important toys … were received with subtle delight!

We left in somber silence. Oddly, I don't remember any tears, but there were undoubtedly plenty.

The next morning, Christmas Day, we awoke to find presents under the tree! What? We thought we were not doing gifts this year! There were fewer than normal, to be sure, but I was confused. It took me until I had kids to get it.

When school reconvened and my friends told about their Christmas, I was shocked by how much stuff they had gotten and did not appreciate. Had I changed? Or was I finally aware that we were not normal? I had never felt like I fit in, and at that moment, I knew I never would.

At fifty something, I still don't feel like I fit in. I'm totally okay with that.

Two Unforgettable Christmas Gifts

Some Christmas gifts mean more to me than others, simply because they touch me deeply. The two gifts that resonate the deepest into my soul are actually the same. Oddly enough they were not gifts at all ... they were my dad.

I have always held my dad in high esteem. Probably too high at times, but that speaks to a different part of the human condition. I used to refer to him as the Iron Man, which had nothing to do with a comic character and everything to do with his determination, will, and strength.

The first time my dad was "the gift" of Christmas, he had a near-fatal work accident. Dad was an iron worker and a ladder gave way, plummeting him thirty-five feet. That was 1970 if memory serves me correctly. He still bears many of the scars from that accident. I was in grade school. The great joy was that Dad came home from a protracted hospital stay, on Christmas Eve! In retrospect, that was probably too early, but I think he was ready to be out of that place as well.

Yes, that is etched into my memory. It's probably etched into my DNA.

The second was quite different. I live nearly two thousand miles from my parents, and a few years back, my dad suffered a stroke. The reality of aging is not lost on me. I have no delusions that I or any of my family will dodge the maladies that are common with getting old. I know we each have a finite number of days and that is that. But a stroke is mysterious. It can leave invisible scars and long lasting effects without warning. And, as if that was not enough, it can be abruptly fatal.

So that December, as my dad lay in a hospital bed in Duluth, Minnesota, partially paralyzed and unable to speak, I frantically scrambled to make emergency travel plans. One of my sisters intercepted me before I made the trip and suggested that Dad seemed to be stable with signs of pending improvement. Her advice was that if I showed up, Dad might give himself up.

If you do not understand what a conundrum is, re-read that last paragraph.

I stayed home. I put on a confident facade for my wife and kids. And I died a little inside.

I resented Dad's condition of helplessness, and I resented my own. I am a boat builder by trade. I have no idea how to fix stroke victims. The image if my dad, Iron Man, in such a condition really got to me. Then I heard a song on the radio. It was a familiar Christmas song that had been one of my favorites from the first time I heard it. You may be familiar with it: Mary Did You Know.

One of the lines in the song says:
The lame will leap,
the dumb will speak
the praises of the Lamb

I can't say I had any Divine Revelation or assurance of my dad's recovery. It was that it spoke to me at a very deep level and I drew comfort from it. He did recover very well, and Dad was once again home before Christmas.

Consequently, every time I visit with Dad I am reminded of that song. And every time I hear that song, I am reminded of that uncertain time with my dad.

Here is a brilliantly done a cappella version of the song by a group called Pentatonix.

Mary, Did You Know? - Pentatonix