December 19, 2022.
Hello, my friends and family. Merry Christmas from the Eastern Shore.
For the last 15 years, the salutation for my Christmas letter has been, “Merry Christmas from Marion Station.” I skipped sending a letter in 2021 because I was in the throes of moving to a new town. After Dan passed away in December of 2020, I left our Marion home. Our beautiful 1890s Victorian house was getting harder for us to maintain after 20 years of living there, and it seemed a good time to move on and leave all of the memories of those years encapsulated into one single time frame – with a beginning and an end. There was a little sadness in leaving. I’ll never forget the mild winters with the occasional snowfall that covered the fields and marshes or the ribbon of thick morning fog on the farm fields in November and the way the crape myrtles bloomed in the summer.
As the years go by, I’ll recall the best of times of our life in Marion … those when our family and friends sat on our wrap-around porch reminiscing, telling stories, and surveying the Somerset landscape. That porch was the setting for so many photographs and was the most “lived-in” space of that house. Many a glass of wine was consumed there. It was a space of relaxation for Dan and me, as well as our dogs, neighbors, and friends. How blessed were to call that place home. It was where all of our grandchildren visited us for the first time, and we not only marked their physical growth on a wall in that house …we also forged rites of passage that shaped us as a family. I can’t imagine a home with more happy memories than that house in Marion Station.
I put the house for sale five months after Dan passed, and a young couple fell in love with it just as we had 20 years prior. Now they’re making family memories of their own, and a new cycle of blessing has begun.
I had hoped to move about 60 miles west to Cambridge. I even found the perfect house there and put in an offer. But it wasn’t meant to be. The Cambridge house I wanted was sold in September and my house didn’t come under contract until November. So, on November 30th – with only three weeks until I had to be out of the Marion house – I went to look at five potential houses to buy. The first one I saw was the one I bought. It looked nice on Zillow – a log cabin in a forest with adequate square footage, a small yard, close to all the amenities, and priced lower than I had budgeted. My heart sank a little when I pulled onto the street and saw that my “log cabin in a forest” was smack in the middle of a 1980s neighborhood of ranchers with all the houses close together and a strip mall at the neighborhood entrance. I knew from the Google map that the cabin was the first house on the left. As I was pulling into the neighborhood, I hoped for the best, even though it wasn’t what I envisioned. It looked SO GOOD on Zillow (such an overused phrase).
Before the house came into view, I paused and slowed the car. I wanted to record my first impression of this place. I cued up my phone camera and let it roll as I pulled into the driveway. I remember thinking, “Oh wow! This is beautiful.” There was something magical going on … like moving into another dimension. As awesome as the first impression was, the inside of the house was less impressive. The appliances were old, the décor was dated, and the backyard bordered the Food Lion loading dock. When my realtor-girlfriend, Alma and I stepped out onto the back deck, I said to her, “I wonder if it gets noisy with that loading dock.” Perfectly on cue a voice from a loudspeaker at the dock called out a message to a dock worker. Yep – it was noisy. I decided it wasn’t for me after all, and we moved on to the next house.
I rejected the next four homes and ended the day defeated. But later that evening I kept returning in my mind to the cabin in the pines. I drove out to it the next day, and I got that same wave of “wow” when I pulled up. So, I stayed a few minutes, walked the grounds (the house was vacant), sat beneath that Loblolly pine canopy for a few minutes … and finally did some strong self-talk. “It’s under my budget. I can fix it up. It has such a good vibe – a lot of potential, and …. actually …. I LOVE Food Lion. It’s my fav grocery store. I’d only have to walk a few paces to get whatever I needed.” I talked myself into it. I called Alma and gave her an offer to present. Three weeks later I was living there.
This cabin sits on a third of an acre. At one time these lots were all forested. The guy who built this house only cleared enough trees needed to place the house. There are 68 trees on this small lot and 38 of those are Loblolly pines, a very common tree to the Eastern Shore. They have tall singular trunks with short, patchy branches at the very top that when clustered together, shade everything at their feet, leaving this lovely open forest floor. It’s like being in a state park …. except when the tractor trailers pull up to the Food Lion loading dock at dawn. Then it’s not very parklike. Regardless of this little imperfection in ambiance, the house is perfect for me.
It’s been a year since I moved in, and I’ve enjoyed renovating. Nothing gets me going like home improvements. Overall, I’ve found this house to be a place of healing. My first morning waking up here was December 22nd – the day after the winter solstice. The same day that the light begins to return, and the days grow warmer and longer. Similar to the Christmas story – the birth of the Christ child marks the coming of light and the vanquishing of darkness. This little baby born in the humblest of circumstances came with the promise that death wasn’t the end, that there is new life coming, and every tear would be wiped away – a healing change for the waiting world. And the signs of affirmation confirmed the message – like the star of Bethlehem, angels singing Peace on Earth, the wise men bringing gifts – a tradition that still partly defines Christmas today. The Solstice, Christmas, and my moving to a new place all marked a new beginning of promise and light for me. And this little house in the pines will always be my best Christmas gift.
I spent last Christmas with my son, Danny, and his family in Florida. I drove back after about a week and was relieved to collapse into bed, glad that the pressures of selling a house, buying a house, moving my stuff, and celebrating Christmas were over. When I woke up the next morning, I could see several inches of snow caked into the tops of all the loblolly pines outside my bedroom window, and massive snowflakes blowing onto the roof and the cedar siding. I love snow. I snapped the photo that appears on the cover of this card that day, and while I was taking pictures of this winter landscape, I noticed an orange tabby cat trudging through six-inch-deep snow. I knew this cat from when we were moving in. He was a stray living under my next-door neighbor’s shed.
I’d see the cat off and on, but in late February I noticed him limping with a badly injured leg. I ended up trapping him with the intention of getting him neutered, vaccinated, and returning him to his space outdoors. But after neutering, his leg was so badly infected that I had to hold onto him for a little while until he healed. I’d never had a cat. I never wanted a cat. I was happy to not have to take care of anything. But after about five days of having this little feral ginger guy live in my bathroom, and seeing what a gentle nature he had, I knew he wasn’t going back to life under a shed. It turns out… I like cats. And I really like Boris (yes, that’s his name). Boris came just when a widow’s grief had stalled my motivation and left me depressed. Sometimes I thought I might die of loneliness or cave under the stress of moving, working, and adjusting. Some of my friends say that Dan sent Boris to me from across the veil. I don’t know about that, but there are some strange parallels between Dan and Boris.
Boris wormed his way into my heart when it was slammed shut and I KNEW I didn’t want a cat – very similar to my beginnings with Dan. And — I know this is weird — but Boris is missing a finger on his front paw – likely from a cat fight. Dan also was missing a finger. LOL Weird. I guess Boris and I ended up rescuing each other. And there we are in the picture on the inside of this card. Yes … I have become that woman… that crazy cat lady who lives alone and treats her cat like a human, spoiling him to death. I talk to Boris about kitchen renovations, the mysteries of stone circles, the value of forest bathing, and why I can’t stand our mailman. Boris eats upscale food (with gravy), sleeps on my bed, cuddles with me in the recliner, and waits for me by the kitchen window. We’re good together.
So, my friends … that’s the update on me. It was certainly an exciting year of transition.
Someone asked me recently, “What is your best Christmas memory?” Instinctively, I recalled my childhood trying to pull from that. Isn’t that where you find your best Christmas memories? I didn’t have many memories of Christmas as a kid. Ours wasn’t a happy home growing up. There were worse homes I’m sure, but for us, Christmas was kind of a sterile time. We always got presents, but there was little celebrating and no tradition. As I continued trying to recall memories of Christmases past, I was warmed by the memories of my own children at Christmas as they were growing up. Those were some wonderful memories.
But during that Christmas memory conjuring, I thought about how awesome Christmas was once Dan and I were empty nesters. We wouldn’t typically see the kids on Christmas day. We visited with them between Christmas and New Year’s. But Christmas day was ours, and it was special – just the two of us – at the old Marion house. The week before Christmas, I would pull up my Amazon Wish List on Dan’s laptop and tell him to buy everything the kids hadn’t already bought me, then wrap it when it comes in. And, of course, he knew I would like the gifts because I had chosen them myself.
Dan appreciated this process because he didn’t have to think about what to buy me or go shopping. Oh, in our first years together there were those Christmases when I hoped Dan would surprise me with some wonderful piece of jewelry or a thoughtful gift filled with romance and sentiment. That didn’t last. Those were the Christmases that included him giving me a pink Mexican burlap pullover. “It’s really warm,” he said – “You’ll never be cold wearing THIS.” I was secretly thinking, “I wouldn’t let you wrap my dead body in it.”
Then there was the nativity set he bought in an art gallery in Granby, Colorado where the clay figurines were all modeled after a woman’s …. oh, never mind. The Amazon Wish List was a safe compromise. And it made Christmas fun. We would both get up on Christmas morning, have coffee and open our gifts from each other. He’d make breakfast – maybe we’d call the kids. There was no rushing. We’d eventually land in the comfort of our porch rockers overlooking our winter gardens, with wool blankets wrapping our bodies while we sipped hot cider or coffee (with Baileys) out of Spode Christmas Tree mugs. We’d think about how lucky we were to be soulmates – living this life that we built together – so grateful to have each other. I think that’s my favorite – and my best Christmas memory.
Christmas seems to enlarge or magnify all the circumstances around us. Love glows a little brighter, and loss seems to sting a bit more. But through that magnification, we can extract joy if we’re feeling blessed and hope if we’re feeling lost. We can win either way. And I guess that’s the Christmas message going all the way back to the first Christmas. The Christ child in the manger shows us that, no matter how bad things can get … we are never alone… and sometimes little messengers (like Boris) appear to remind us of that truth. And conversely, when we’re feeling that abundance of blessing at this time of year, the Christmas spirit moves us to spread the joy, like giving gifts for our families, Christmas caroling, donating time or food for the needy, or something so simple as offering a listening ear to someone who needs to talk. The Spirit grows and multiplies in those who are joyful.
My Christmas wish for each of you – dear friends and family – is for time to stand still enough for you to savor the presence of Christmas. May you be still enough to notice the signs of the Divine Presence in your life – a force that connects every living thing. May you live fully inside those special moments – the laughter of loved ones, the beauty of the sunset, the wonder of a forest walk, the tenderness of holding hands – a touch – a kiss – a hug. The only time we have is now. And at this moment, I am thinking of you, feeling blessed to have you in my life, and wishing you health, prosperity, and the best of moments of NOW in the new year to come.
I loved your falling in love and healing with house and cat. I can relate to both and wish you all the best.
Thanks, Victoria. Wishing you all the best with your new book.