THE LONG WAY HOME By Lori A Alicea

It’s just something we love to do.

Our adult daughter laughs and says it borderlines “lame”.

Our grandchildren whine if they happen to be tagging along.

Maybe the slow lane of the back roads isn’t for those in a hurry.

But taking the long way home is a mini-date however far the drive, when you’re filling the love tank of the one sitting next to you with your gallons of quality time.

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Some may call it the cheap seats, but the best seats in the house get a private tour of God’s country most eyes will never go out of their way to see.

You must be willing to escape reception and disconnect from the busy grid of life. Willing to lose your way along the winding paths where most GPS’ are unable to find the dropped breadcrumbs of your location. Willing to drown out the voices of your to-do-list, and enjoy the simple pleasures together of the long way home.

The calendar has recently ushered in the first week of November and the fashion show of leaves and their brilliant wardrobe color changes down the runway of fall is almost drawing its curtains to a close.

But an encore performance is reserved for season ticket holders willing to slow down or even stop for fall’s final show.

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With December just a month away, you can almost smell the pine trees of Christmas with the wind gently blowing from your rolled down window and the heat cranked up on high.

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Taking the long way home this time of year, it’s never too early to bring out of hiding those holiday CD’s we’ve been secretly playing anyway since the summer heat of July.

Yes, we are those people who praise God around the Thanksgiving table for his baskets full of blessings, but celebrate also with a Christmas tree perfectly placed in the living room corner, trimmed and beautifully lit as a night sky of twinkling stars.

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Still holding hands and allowing the overflow of our hearts water a conversation for two along the miles of the long way home, it’s no surprise we’re still married and in love after all these years.

The long way home gives you time to reacquaint yourselves with one another, as life changes from day to day like the four seasons do, and one must dress appropriately for the weather escorted in.

Are we there yet?”

Usually not, when the compass of our travels is a constant turn to the east or west down roads where the scenery isn’t familiar and stirs your curiosity for any hidden log cabins to discover.

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Then is the map you follow for those log cabins you long to see for the umpteenth time, stopping at the edge of their driveway and dreaming together over a few sips of our coffee, adding a childlike gift to our Christmas list once again this year.

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The best seats in the house can be purchased for the price of a few gallons of gas and uninterrupted moments of time except to enjoy and take in the view of nature’s carefree children chasing each other around the trees and deep into the woods of their private playground.

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Money can’t buy me love.”

But quality time together taking the long way home will always fashion two hearts for love.

Love is never about the what, the where, the when, the why, and the how.

True love is about “the who” you’re with; that special someone seated next to you alongside the long way home.

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Discovering this, you’ll realize the counterfeits of romance pales in comparison.

GOD WITH US  By Lori A Alicea

Two thousand years ago a prophecy fulfills in a humble stable at Christmas:

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son,
And they will call him Immanuel.
(“God with us”)
Matthew 1:23 NIV

An angel proclaimed this birth announcement of good news and great joy to shepherds tending their flocks nearby:

“Today in the town of David
A Savior has been born to you;
He is Christ the Lord.
This will be a sign to you:
You will find a baby wrapped in
Cloths and lying in a manger.”
Luke 2:11-12 NIV

Just as the angel said, these shepherds found the Christ child sleeping on a bed of straw with his parents Mary and Joseph in wonder and awe beside.

The shepherd and all who heard of this miraculous birth were in amazement.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:19 NIV

Mary gave birth to her son named Immanuel, “God with us.”

I’m wondering in the still and quiet moments of December do we find these gifts that Mary treasured. Do we ponder the joy from the simple song of a mother’s heart,
“God with us.”

A baby who was born
To die for us;
To save us;
To live in our hearts and yes;
Be with us.

In the busy throws of shopping, celebrating and preoccupation with the holidays, is the “great joy of our Savior’s birth” being treasured and pondered? Are we in amazement as the shepherds were and spreading this good news?

This Christ child born at Christmas is the same to us yesterday, today and forever, He is always with us. (Hebrews 13:8 NIV)

Looking back at the most unpredictable year of 2020, a year that caught the world off guard and stripped so much, I’m questioning in the nakedness of the year leading to December, were we reminded of the treasures hidden in our hearts? Were we comforted in the pondering, “God is with us.”

Queuing up the video of my own life these past twelve months, inquiries into the emptiness and loss question did I open and hold onto the gift of “God is with us?”

Did I embrace these gifts that God was enough when church doors closed and saints they gathered online?

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church at homeDid I allow you God to be enough during those painful weeks of lock down which didn’t allow us lonely grandparents to embrace our grandchildren?

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screen CumbeeDid we sense you “with us” and did we bloom when the reality of our next “address” caught our expectations off guard?
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Did we sense you enough when children’s smiles were hidden beneath these coverings?
mask school - Ayva first day of kindergartenmaskLord, I had a difficult time watching our beloved mother celebrate her 80th birthday from her bedroom window. Did I sense you “with us then?”
party window - momparty guests - moms familyLord, our family had more of a difficult time saying good-by from the cold window panes peering into our mother and grandmother’s room, unable to express our love when heaven’s angels came for her.

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goodby cova saying goodbygoodby grandkids saying goodby from windowOur final good-by remains a chapter unable to articulate, but yes God,
you were with us.
Yet, still a painful “letting go” for three generations beyond our mother’s life.

funeral a goodby ayva looking at grandma (2)funeral a goodby neese jake david looking at casketI sensed you enough God, though still wanting my mother to fill her empty chair this first Thanksgiving without her.

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I admit I’m asking for a cup of contentment during a smaller Christmas gathering this year; the first time in my life that extra tables won’t be set up to accommodate our family guests.
“God be with us.”

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I’m asking for an ocean full of contentment God to mask the loneliness without our Hawaiian grand-babies these last ten months.

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Lord, do we need a special pair of glasses to see that you are enough?
Do we need to bring into clarity your presence in spite of what our natural eyes can or cannot see?

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Forgive us God when we didn’t see you “enough” or “with us” in 2020.

Regardless of empty arms, empty hearts or empty anything, God you will always be enough.

All that’s needed in the still and quiet moments of December is for us to find those gifts that Mary treasured. To ponder and celebrate the simple song of a mother’s heart, “God with us.”

A baby who was born
To die for us;
To save us;
To live in our hearts and yes;
Be with us.
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Merry Christmas and Peace Be to Everyone!

A TEN YEAR BELATED SURPRISE AT CHRISTMAS  By Lori A Alicea

Surprises are hidden in boxes of every size.
Surprises are one’s heart on display for the affections of another.

Surprises might be planned or impromptu.
Surprises are wrapped and tied with a bow in the unexpected.

Surprises are a kiss from God to say “I’m thinking of you.”
Surprises take the breath away of one fully unaware.

Surprises might appear late though arriving on time decades later delivered as a soldier’s love letter to his bride during the war.

True surprises are marked in time, never to be forgotten.

Turning back the pages of my life, I can only recall a few complete surprises that waited for me on the other side of the door; surprises I truly had no idea were planned.

Not liking to be the center of attention, this is probably a good thing.

But God delights in giving to us through others.
It is in our receiving where God and those He partners with is honored back.

With eyes always noticing the details, it’s difficult to catch me off guard. Although, one winter morning thirty-one years ago and eight months pregnant, a dear friend did just that with an unexpected celebration waiting for me and my baby girl as I entered the workspace. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

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I love the reveal of the “not knowing”; our post-it-note from God to expect the unexpected.

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God loves us immensely through others. I have never forgotten this endearing surprise.

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Surprises are often late, years in the making for some.

This particular surprise came ten years after the fact, a surprise some would question its unusual timing.

It was Christmas the year of 2004 when we as a family gathered for the holidays.

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These pictures frozen in time from ten years ago warm my heart as our parents and grandparents were still with us. To have them seated at our Christmas table again would be the best gift ever.

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IMG_5468Nothing was out of place this particular Christmas except that our Texas family came and our son was home from college.

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We honored our Lord and Savior’s birth in song as we always did in years prior.

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One detail blatantly off though that Christmas was David wearing a suit in my mother’s apartment, a small place known to be unusually hot with a large family gathering together.  He never wore a suit before at our holiday events.

But celebrating our ten year anniversary two months prior that year of 2004 and still crazy in love with one another as we still are today, I really didn’t question it much.

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Yes, surprises are often late in their arrival, even ten years after your wedding day.

You see, ten years prior I received a telephone call from my Pastor while working, asking the question if I wanted to marry a handsome man named David seated in his office during our conversation.

I screamed on my end of the telephone, “Please tell David I said yes!!!”

Interestingly, being clouded by love, David failed to bend a knee and ask me himself; a gesture of honor every girl dreams about, even the second time down the isle.

Taken back by a Christmas surprise and ten years after the fact, David redeemed a holy moment and asked me on one knee to marry him in his own words.

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I never saw this coming.
If I did, I would have worn something better than those “bad mom jeans.”

That Christmas of 2004 was a year to remember.
My husband blessed me with a gift I have hidden and treasured in my heart since.

It’s never too late for a surprise.
You can never go wrong with the unexpected.

Life needs to be full of giving and receiving.
May our arms be full of surprises, planned and impromptu.

Might we take the breath of those unaware often.
May we remember to expect things from God in the unexpected.

May the kisses of God be expressed in our surprises,
whether timely or belated years after the fact.

Countdown To A Christmas Miracle By Lori A. Alicea

It’s the day after Thanksgiving in the year of 2000, and the holiday spirit couldn’t be any more exciting. The stores are bursting with shoppers and the smell of Christmas is in the air. Bell ringers are everywhere and Santa is taking orders from all the good little boys and girls. Holiday music is playing on the radio, and everyone seems to agree that Christmas truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Looking through the fantasy eyes of a child at Christmas is so amazing. They still believe the unbelievable. They hold out hope for the impossible. They just know that somehow when Christmas morning arrives, all their dreams will come true. Of course when they wake up to their presents under the tree, they scream because they know that Santa didn’t forget them.

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How priceless to have a childlike faith at Christmas. Why does growing up cause us to lose the faith of a child? If only we as big kids could still believe the unbelievable. If only our hearts could hold out hope for the impossible. God has never forgotten us. He showed up on that first Christmas morning with His Son lying in a manger. And with every magnificent sun rising in the morning, God displays his unending faithfulness to show up. But why do we still doubt the Faithful one?

This particular Christmas I was having the most marvelous holiday season. For the first time in fifteen years, I wasn’t working and now enjoying my new professional title, “stay at home” mom. If dreams really do come true, I was living the dream of a lifetime. My wonderful life felt richly full, like a well springing up, spilling over and over. I couldn’t contain my happiness.
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Though Christmas for me was tremendously ecstatic, I couldn’t ignore the sad faces of the others in the family. Minus my income this year, Christmas would arrive without us being able to afford presents for the children. What mother couldn’t feel sad about that? For just a moment I wallowed in guilt, wondering if I made a mistake about my job. But I decided that choosing my family was the best choice and that God would have to take over during this holiday season.

As a child I remember watching the Charlie Brown Christmas show. While all his friends thought that Christmas had to be great lights and fancy ornaments, Charlie knew the true meaning of this holiday. That a baby boy was born in a humble stable; that three wise men traveled far following a bright star leading to this child lying in a manger. How this little boy was born with nothing, but would soon grow up to give everything. This is what Christmas meant to Charlie. This is what Christmas should mean to us all.

I decided that baby Jesus in the manger would be all that mattered this Christmas. I would count my blessings and name them one by one. I would begin to celebrate the joy of my family. And I would allow God to give us back our childlike faith by believing in the impossible. Whatever happened this year, Christmas was going to be the best ever.
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Though nobody was in the mood, I prodded that Christmas should continue and we should do all that we could to make this season special. So, with holiday music playing, hot chocolate simmering, it was time to trim the Christmas tree. Though we didn’t have money for a fresh tree, we did have a small artificial one to place in the bay window. I brought out all the ornaments that the children made during their early years of school. I loved looking at these works of art when my children’s hands were small. We hung lights around the window and lights around the tree. We decorated this miniature spruce with love as if it was real and when we plugged in this magical display, it looked as magnificent as a store front in Chicago on Michigan Avenue.

The advent calendar says it is now four weeks until Christmas. It seems strange not to be participating in all the holiday stress of planning and shopping. I really didn’t know what to do with myself during this time. But I do know the birth of Jesus was constantly on my mind. As Christian radio stations played Christmas music around the clock, a celebration of true Christmas resonated in my heart.

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One morning, my husband David and I were having coffee, talking about Christmas. He said he was so sad that he didn’t have any gift to give me this year. But a smile beamed from my face as I shared that he gave me the best gift ever, he gave me back my home. I meant this if I ever meant anything. Of course then we talked about gifts for the children. What would we do for them? I remember the Lord entering our conversation at that moment as he said, “Ask of me”. At that moment David and I looked above our dinner table as a plaque hung there for our reminder, “With God, all things are possible”. We stared at each other, got excited and begun to have the most childlike conversation. If we could give anything to the children, what would it be? Dreaming big, I declared I wanted to give the gift of memories this year. For my girls, I would give the gift of hope in the form of a hope chest. For my son, I would give the gift of promise with a diamond ring. And if God had any money left, I wanted to sew a quilt for each of my kids.

I always wanted my daughters to have a cedar-lined hope chest with the upholstery seat to pack away special things for their future. I thought it would bond my girls and me as we shopped for dishes and silverware, planning for their marriage someday. This chest would represent hope for a husband, dreams for a woman and a heritage passed from a mother to her daughter.

Our son was turning seventeen two months after Christmas. I wanted him to wear a gift of promise for this pivotal birthday. For the past year, our son had been on dating review, proving to us that he would honor and respect the girl he wanted to date. I tried to explain that this girl was somebody’s daughter and more importantly, God’s daughter. If he didn’t honor her during dating, a mother and two fathers would be hurt. Not to mention that he could emotionally wound this girl for life. But come his seventeenth birthday, if actions established trust, our son was free to date with our blessing. So, for this Christmas, I wanted to present our son with a diamond ring, representing his promise to God to honor him during his dating years until marriage.

After that morning of “ask and receive” revelation, David and I waited with bated breath to see what God would do. Sitting with our hands folded as Christmas inched closer, tested a husband and wife’s faith tremendously, but God has never failed in the past. Why start believing otherwise now. The advent calendar says it is just three weeks until December 24th.

Going to the mailbox has always been exciting to me. You just never know what surprise might be waiting. That Christmas, so many holiday cards of thoughtfulness arrived. If presents didn’t decorate the bottom of the tree, we at least had glittered cards to ring in the Christmas cheer into our home.

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I remember one particular afternoon, unusual excitement built as I made that walk up the hill to the mailbox. What did the mailman bring to us today? As I pulled down the door from the bright red mailbox, I reached my hand to grab what was inside. As I began to walk back down the hill, I sifted through the mail. Bills and junk make its way to the pile as usual, but oh, something different, a card from the Ladies Ministry at my church. Those ladies are so sweet to think of me. I couldn’t wait to open the letter, so I just ripped it apart like a little kid. Inside I found inspiring words of peace and good will. But as I finished reading the card, my eyes soon watered while my shaky hands held the faithfulness of God, a check for $150.00.

What three powerful words to live by, “God never forgets”. When the road gets rough with no place to go, when the night is so dark you wonder if you’ll ever find your way, when life becomes a puzzle that you just can’t put back together, remember, God never forgets. That Christmas afternoon, God’s promises became alive in my heart. God showed he cared enough to be there for me even in the small things.

I held that seed offering in my hand and marveled at God’s provision. While $150 in the natural surely wouldn’t cover the cost of two hope chests and a diamond ring. But I thought if Jesus could feed the multitude of five thousand with one small lunch and still have twelve baskets left over, what do I need to worry about? Who had time to worry anyway, the Christmas clock was ticking and power shopping was calling my name.

With two weeks left until Christmas, I had to move quickly. First on the list was finding two Lane hope chests lined with cedar wood, topped with an upholstery seat. I looked everywhere. I scanned the newspapers, checked out antique and resale shops, looked at naked furniture and even searched through bargain basement stores. But finding a hope chest within my price range became a futile effort.

With the hope chest search halted for the moment, I decided to shop for my son’s diamond ring. Like before, I searched the newspapers, visited resale shops and all the local jewelry stores. But as with the hope chests, I couldn’t find a diamond ring affordable.

At this moment, I had to admit that despair began to overwhelm me. I remember praying to the Lord while coming home from my last effort of shopping, “What am I to do?” I know the Lord didn’t put all of this on my heart for nothing, but it is now one week until Christmas and I still didn’t have two hope chests and a diamond ring.

While stopped at the light, waiting to make a final turn to my house, I’m thinking about the diamond ring I wanted to find for my son. While starring at the oncoming traffic, I couldn’t believe my ears when God began to speak as clear and audible as if he was sitting next to me in the flesh. God answers the question in my mind, “Where is this ring?” He said to me in His kind and gentle voice, “Don’t you remember? You always wanted to give the wedding band from the hand of your son’s father (my first husband), to him whenever he started dating”. With these words, tears overtook my eyes, because the voice of God just spoke. He shows up just like He always said he would. God never forgets.

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Since I had packed away this wedding ring many years ago, I had forgotten what it looked like. Finding the box was even more of a challenge, as I had moved three times since, but once the treasure hunt was over, I was excited to see this hidden surprise. When I slowly opened the box, sparkling on its velvet lining was a beautiful ring encircled in small diamonds. Who could have ever imagined such a priceless gift? Only God could have ever imagined. Immediately I took this ring to the jewelers to have it sized and cleaned and then wrapped for Christmas Eve. One gift down and two remained. The advent calendar says it is now four days until December 24.

By this time the tension is mounting, but my kitchen plaque still reminded me that “With God, all things are possible”. Miracles are always a moment away, even four days before Christmas. I was sitting back at the table where my husband and I made our original Christmas requests. In my heart I knew God was sending me a miracle, and that miracle came when the telephone unexpectedly rang. On the other end was a woman from my care group. She said she overheard me talking about my gifts of memories. She said that in her house was an old hope chest that wasn’t being used anymore. With a little bit of sanding and staining, it could look good as new she said. So, with this she wondered if I would be interested. Just as with the diamond ring, God overwhelmed me once again. If God pours His blessings from the sky, flood season was in high gear. In response to this generous woman, I said I would be honored to receive this gift.

As my husband and I were driving over to pick up the hope chest, my husband reminded me that we needed two hope chests instead of one. By this time my faith had swelled, ready to burst that doubt just could not enter in my mind. So I slowly looked over at my husband and simply said, “God doesn’t forget”.

I was so excited to arrive at this generous woman’s house to see the gift that God wanted one of my daughters to have. When we got there she first offered me some tea to share with her. As I am sitting at her table, I noticed many baskets hanging from her kitchen ceiling. At that moment I was reminded of the twelve baskets left over from the multitudes meal, all starting from a little boy’s lunch. Then I thought of the seed offering given to me in the afternoon mail; how it was yielding more than one mind could conceive.

After drinking tea with this friend of mine, she took me to the room where the hope chest sat. Just as she said, it needed the touch of a loving hand. But if love rested in the eye of the beholder, surely, I could see the love God wanted to give through this chest. After seeing my gift, I gave my friend a hug, coming from a truly grateful heart. Words couldn’t express my joy.

Just when I think it’s time to pack the chest and leave, my friend stops me and takes me to one more room in her house. Just as God says he is our God of the unexpected, I was not expected to see what I was about to see. Way in the corner of this room, underneath the many boxes that lie above it, sits another gift of my request, hope chest number two. But this time I felt I needed to go to heaven and give God a hug in person. How could one person take in all of this generous love from the Father? But that is how loved our Father wants us to feel all the time.

With four days until Christmas, two hope chests need to be sanded and 3 nosy kids at home, how could my husband be able to refinish this furniture without anyone suspecting. Of course God steps in once again as my sister calls to ask if the kids could spend the next 3 days with her as she has been missing them. What a mighty God we serve. He even organizes the babysitting.
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With the kids taken care of at my sisters, my husband and I rush to the store to buy sandpaper, stain, upholstery fabric and lots of coffee. Surely the next few days will be all nighters. After we pay for the needed items for the hope chests, I realize one final miracle has occurred. God had money left over to purchase material for the quilts I wanted to sew for the children.

With Christmas approaching in just hours, our house sounds like Santa’s elves working at the North Pole. The sander is blasting in the garage, the sewing machine is zooming in the kitchen and the cat is wondering what in the world is going on. If David and I ever bonded in our marriage, it was during this holiday season when Christmas was on God. How could love ever be more evident?

Christmas Eve has finally arrived and what joy is to be. I look at these Lane hope chests and can touch the love of the father’s hands that refinished them. I hold the quilts that will wrap around my children’s arms on a cold morning and can touch the love of the mother’s hands that made them. I hold the diamond ring that my son will wear and can feel the love of the father’s hands that once wore it. Christmas Eve has finally arrived and I can feel the love of my Father who went out of His way to show His unending love for me.

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HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS  By Lori A Alicea

The Alicea house is officially decorated for Christmas.

Every corner of every room has been kissed by Christmas, and the warmth and love of our hearts for friends and family is on display, welcoming everyone into our new home for the holidays.

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I can’t wait to pour that first cup of coffee served with homemade cookies baked from my mother and mother ‘n laws recipes, while seated around the table with those we have cherished throughout the years.

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I must confess though, the grand-kids have scarfed every last cookie I keep for them in the freezer, so I’d best get baking again before that unexpected caroler or shopper shows up during our Alicea Holiday Open House.

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Yes, our sweet elves get to enjoy a decorated tree set up just for them to enjoy in their room when they visit. Although I secretly enjoy these ornaments more as the mother they were crafted for from the hands of my children when they were small.

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And yes, our grandchildren’s stockings have all been hung with their excitement in mind, knowing their socks will be filled and full by Christmas morning.

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But make no mistake, the little girl in me is overcome with excitement from the festivities of lights, music, decorations and all the wonderful things she is blessed to do for her family.

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This little Christmas girl finds joy in the smallest of details.

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While peering through the windows of each other’s homes during the holidays can stir the same delight as a child flipping through the pages of a Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog, the December merriment’s of 2020 though for most have been diluted in the cups of our holiday cheer.

Holiday travel to our loved ones has been curtailed or cancelled.

Traditions we have come to look forward to have been removed from December calendars.

Family gatherings will be smaller around the holiday table.

Loved ones have gone on to be with Jesus this year.

Isolation from family, especially during the holidays, stirs up deep loneliness.

The list goes on and on.

But even in our aloneness, God is always awake to hear our prayers.

He never leaves us alone.

Never will never I leave you; never will I forsake you. Hebrews 13:5 NIV

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Thankfully, we can gather in his presence to pray, to call on His name and be still and know that He is God, in all situations; especially the lonely ones.

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I’m always encouraged remembering that first holiday home of our Lord Jesus, a humble beginning in a barn, a bed of straw for our Savior, a birth met in the loneliness of the night, yet a glorious “missed opportunity “ for those who looked for the Christ Child in the grand, a royal place instead.

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Lord, keep me from “missed opportunities” of witnessing your hand in my life and those that I love during this holiday season.

Lord, for those who walk through the doors of our home during days of December, may they feel at home because you are at home here also.

Lord, take me back to humble beginnings, to remind me that even if you are our only gift this Christmas, if you are the only one seated at the dinner table with us, our hearts are full because you are more than enough today and every day, especially during our home for the holiday.

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THE EMPTY CHAIR By Lori A Alicea

Honoring those families,
those loved ones not taking their seat at the holiday table this year.
We celebrate you, we miss you, we honor you this season of change,
The Empty Chair.

We welcome in the holidays,
Festivities begin.
November to December end,
These days are penciled in.

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The list of things to do is long,
With many meals prepare.
And tables set to celebrate,
Those seated in each chair.

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The holidays, they dare to change,
In subtle ways appear.
When looking back the portrait of,
The family then last year.

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Emotions indescribable,
Without you seated there.
Your smile and sweater worn remains,
Our mother’s empty chair.

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So many tables set for us,
Remember all you do.
Our mom who gave us memories,
In turn, we gave to you.

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When gather for a family meal,
Remember what we share.
And treasure those we’re seated by,
Who occupy each chair.

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Because the portrait might just change,
From what we’ve always known.
The table set this holiday,
Could find one all alone.

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Forgive us if we tend to stare,
Our mother’s empty chair.

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And see her with a deck of cards,

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Or love her grand-kids there.

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Another table has been set,
Another home reside.
Though missing you this holiday,
With Christ you sit beside.

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Mere words or thoughts could dare convince,
Her absence us prepare.
How much we miss our mother’s chair,
And see her sitting there.

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OUR ANGEL TREE Angel  By Lori A Alicea

Thanksgiving is still a week away yet Christmas made its debut appearance weeks ago unveiling its new holiday line on store shelves of businesses everywhere.

Strands of Christmas lights, wreathes and decorations of all kinds usher an early season’s greeting to the small town we live near, where many in the community have given themselves permission to break rank with the holiday calendar order and take part in these “tree trimming” festivities inside their own homes.

xmas tree

For this “kid at heart” who secretly embraces a Christmas spirit year ‘round and can be caught red-handed playing holiday music in July, the kickoff of December albeit before Thanksgiving, delights the little Christmas girl in me who refuses to ever grow up.

As magical and undeniable that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year to many, there are others facing great challenges, hardships, and pain where Christmas can’t leave soon enough; many of their stories depicted as angels on Angel Trees everywhere, presenting an opportunity to bless mere strangers disguised as a chosen angel.

Christmas decoration wooden angel on a Christmas tree. Close-up.
Christmas decoration wooden angel on a Christmas tree. Close-up.

In the hustle and bustle of shopping on strapped wallets for most, it’s easy to walk by and pretend we didn’t notice the Christmas needs of strangers hanging as angel ornaments on an Angel Tree strategically placed in store entrances to inspire a heart-felt connection of generosity. I confess to be that passerby of numerous Angel Trees over the years.

But this particular December, an Angel Tree stands in the corner of our family living room decorated with only one angel to select from. Our Angel Tree angel keeps us up at night in our thoughts and prayers. I dare not be a passerby this year.

Our angel’s Christmas list is short, one item to be precise; a list requiring a miracle from the hand of God; a Christmas miracle we can still believe in as all things are possible with Him.

Our Angel Tree angel isn’t asking for much.

Our brother just wants

To Live.

mark connie hospital

Like a bad dream we wished we could wake up from this terrible nightmare; no doubt our brother wishes the same.

Every next breath for my brother is a dear gift yet an agonizing struggle for him as well.

Our brother’s health crisis is beyond our understanding as growing up, we’ve only known and loved our “big brother” as one watching over us five sisters with eagle eyes, protecting us with strong arms and yes, even scamming us from time to time over chores and allowances as brothers do.

siblings church directory

Nothing ever changed in our relationship with our brother moving into adulthood.

siblings family photo

Whenever the family faced a challenge, albeit financial, health or an emotional kind with our parents or one of us, Our Angel Tree angel could always be seen walking through the door with answers.

mark coming home from work

Regardless that a thousand miles and months between his visits stood in the way of a mother embracing her son, a mother never took for granted an Angel Tree angel’s love whenever he came into town.

mark with mom

Our Angel Tree angel was honored in the final act of his military father, who bequeathed a son back the gift a father’s country bestowed upon him for his military service.

mark receiving flag at dads funeral

Our Angel Tree angel has been more than an angel to two little girls who grew up in the arms of their uncle; a man who loved them more as the children he never fathered, and gave them everything a daddy’s heart could pour out into their lives.

siblings mark christina brittany

This Angel Tree angel was more than a bright light in our sister’s eyes during their final year this side of heaven, as they struggled with their own Angel Tree angel request

To Live.

siblings belinda mary

A “big brother” driving a thousand miles to pick up our sister for one last homecoming with us, then taking her fishing before dropping her off on the journey back, remained a sister’s dearest memory of her Angel Tree angel.

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Our baby sister never felt more loved and safe when she was rescued and brought into the home of her Angel Tree angel where her daughters and siblings never left her side until heaven came for its newest angel that day.

siblings mary picture

Our Angel Tree angel has loved only one woman since their holy day of matrimony decades ago.

mark connie wedding

Still to this day, you never see one without the other.

mark connie by tree

When the minister declared on their wedding day that “these two have become one”, Our Angel Tree angel’s wife remains in this battle with him, fighting and helping her angel

To Live.

mark connie hospital

Our Angel Tree angel’s wife fights in hope, fights with God’s Word, fights to help him breath with all the love she has for her Angel Tree angel; to help him Live as he has requested.

Christmas decoration wooden angel on a Christmas tree. Close-up.
Christmas decoration wooden angel on a Christmas tree. Close-up.

These thousand miles between us are bridged by a sibling’s love for their Angel Tree angel only a close knit family can understand.

We pray that Jesus will be the best gift, the only gift you’ll need this Christmas morning.

We pray that one shake of a holiday snow globe brings back irreplaceable memories of Christmas mornings we shared together as children, never forgetting you’ll always be
Our Angel Tree angel,

with us now wanting to be the same for you.

Lori sibling xmas

IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS By Lori A Alicea

With the Christmas holidays finally here, most of us have completed our shopping and gifts of all sizes and shapes have been wrapped and placed under the tree to honor our longstanding tradition and spirit of giving.

So many gifts have been purchased from wish lists, ideas, hunches, or desperate last minute resorts when a person is too difficult to buy for.

When the long-awaited mystery inside the wrapping paper is finally revealed, gifts have a way of sparking a range of our emotions.

From tears, screaming and jumping for joy for the gift idea that you nailed.

To the eye-roll and half-smile of the present you’re confident will be returned or re-gifted.

Or the recipient who laughs or stops mid-sentence in their remarks of their newly unwrapped gift, “Ohhhhh…you shouldn’t have”.
Translation….you shouldn’t have.

There are those gifts from an elderly grandparent or person of “limited means” you appreciate because it’s their thought that counts.

Sometimes though Christmas pauses with a moment you least expect, catching you and your heart unaware and off guard when you receive that present you first have to wonder about for a few minutes, then breathe out a bit of Christmas “awe” as you realize that what you hold isn’t the gift,

But the priceless THOUGHT is the GIFT.

This was Christmas for me years ago, but I remember the details like yesterday.

Gathered around the table after Thanksgiving dinner that year, my husband’s family and I rummaged the Black Friday newspaper ads for ideas to clip out and share between each other for our secret Christmas gift exchange.

All night long we laughed, passed newspaper pages around and clipped out three ideas for our personal wish list.

One idea out of character for me as I am not a “girly girl” who primps and pampers herself for hours, was this sweet manicure set complete with polishes and lotions that caught my attention. Prior to this gift exchange, I wasn’t one to paint my nails, but this adorable manicure set had me thinking that maybe I should start.

When the evening finally drew the curtains to a close at this family Thanksgiving dinner, with most members ready to share their wish lists with a secret Santa, decisions were made at the last minute to nix the gift exchange idea, citing no plausible reason than “just because”, maybe next year.

With my wish list in hand sighing one last time at the manicure set I could have easily bought for myself, crumpled and threw the paper of ideas into the trash, walking away never discussing my Christmas desire nor giving any thought of it the rest of the Christmas season.

While Christmas is a time of secret Santa gift exchanges in many relational circles, Christmas is also a sentimental time to remember your neighbors.

On our country rural street of 350 North where we lived at the time, there were only five houses with five mailboxes at the end of each our neighbors two acre plot of land. Old wooden fences divided most of our properties, and neighbors talked to each other from time to time at the fence, getting to know one another in small talk.

Old man Chester lived with his wife on the east side of our property, and widowed Betty on the west. In our twenty year stay living on 350 North, we became close friends with Betty who took an interest in our blended family and collie.  Chester on the other hand, we occasionally waved to while mowing the grass, plowing the snow, or drinking coffee outside on a sunny day.  We learned of him through his habits and ways, as neighbors usually do living so close in proximity to one another.

This particular Christmas something seemed “off” at Chester’s house. His driveway hadn’t been plowed for weeks.  Newspapers piled up on the front porch.  We rarely saw an evening light burning through Chester’s windows.  We hadn’t seen any sighting of Chester or his wife during the month of December that year.  So, with a tin of homemade Christmas cookies and a worried look, my husband David walked over to Chester’s front door in neighborly concern and softly knocked.  Not expecting an answer with the windows completely dark, David still knocked a few times and to his surprise, a weary neighbor greeted my husband and opened his home for a Christmas visit.

For over an hour, I waited anxiously for my husband’s return. Off and on while busy making cookies, I looked up at our two-acre driveway through the kitchen window for a sighting of my husband David.  Finally, catching a glimpse of him in the moonlit night walking back down the driveway and into the house, he somberly took a seat at the dinner table where I joined him.

Re-telling his visit with Chester, my heart broke to learn that our neighbor had been holding a faithful vigil near his dying wife’s hospital bed these last December weeks, who sadly entered into eternity a few days prior, leaving behind her grieving husband of over fifty years.

Receiving news like this the “lists of Christmas” begin to pale in its relevance; the baking, the shopping, the caroling, the tree lighting, etc. are irrelevant when someone loses a loved one. In the hurt of someone else’s deep wounds and pain, Christmas could do all of us a favor and exit early until another December next year.

But to my surprise, Chester’s sorrow hadn’t quenched his spirit of giving, and sent an unexpected Christmas present home to me, a neighbor he mostly knew in passing.  Taken from the hospital box of his wife’s belongings that still sat on the living room floor when he first arrived home without her, Chester reached inside and handed David a small tin that bore the name of the hospital where Chester’s wife had lived her remaining weeks.
this one 1A small hospital gift to his wife was now a gift to me. Removing the top portion of the tin, it revealed an early desire of my Christmas heart I had forgotten about but God hadn’t; a manicure nail set, albeit miniature.
this oneAt first glance, Chester overwhelmed me when during the darkest hours of his life; he was emotionally willing and able to think of somebody other than himself, by giving me a gift that embodies the sentiment:

“It’s the thought that counts.”

Moments later, God overwhelms my heart realizing when no one knew about this gift but Him, God reveals Himself in a hospital manicure set meant for somebody else, yet through a grieving man, prompted the spirit of giving to me.

So often at Christmas we look for the biggest present, or the most expensive, even the prettiest, wrapped gift under the tree.

Sometimes at Christmas, the best gifts are the least expected.

When I least expected, a gift of a different kind was waiting for me under my Christmas tree so many years ago.

What I had forgotten my Heavenly Father remembered.

The Father who knows every detail of my life that …the very hairs of your head are numbered… Luke 12:17 NIV

He Remembered.  

The Father’s THOUGHT of me that Christmas was His GIFT.

PICTURE IT By Lori A Alicea

Christmas thirty years ago, I never pictured it.

Christmas thirty years ago, if you could picture it, was just the three of us, a newly single mother watching her two young children sit in front of the camera for their annual holiday portrait, an insert to the family Christmas card.
XMAS Jake and Candy 2Back in the day, portrait studios were located in the “big box stores”. Closer to the holiday when I usually scheduled our photo session, multiple procrastinated families like mine crowded the couches waiting impatiently for their name to be called, as photographers were unfortunately behind schedule during the final weeks of Christmas.
XMAS Jake and CandyI doubt any young mother pictures it, and I was no exception.
I didn’t think of it, I didn’t imagine it.
I wasn’t in denial, I just didn’t picture it.

I doubt most of us picture it although it’s happening to us all.

The only picture that mattered to me thirty years ago were those of my little boy and girl dressed in their holiday best.

An annual gift wrapped up as a Christmas portrait that only a mother could truly appreciate; a parent’s attempt in preserving the Christmas faces of her children as a keepsake to reflect on when the passage of time caught them growing up.
XMAS Jake and Candy 1I never pictured it until thirty years later when I opened up a packed box of my mother’s belongings, finding a stack of clippings from my old column she saved, stumbling upon a specific column that took me back to the portrait studio where I picked up my children’s Christmas pictures for the holiday season that year.
XMAS Jake and Candy 3EVERYONE’S LIFE IS A STORY WAITING TO BE TOLD
By Lori A. Alicea

No telling how many people cross our path and we never know their name or story.  Faces are everywhere.  Crowded streets; busy stores.  We rub shoulders, but barely make eye contact.  We all have a story, but who takes the time to wonder?

Waiting for my purchase at a local Photography store, I got my first glimpse of him, an old man with downy white hair, possibly in his eighties, sporting an old flannel shirt and yellowed jeans, wearing shoes that had seen better days.

This man didn’t see me as he entered the store, but I followed him around with wondering eyes.

Sitting close by, the exchange between the old man and clerk was audible.  He inquired about the special.  By his casual appearance I assumed a future appointment was in the making.  Assuming wrong, he reached for a coupon from his pocket for a portrait taken that morning.

Directed to the sofa by me, we both sat in silence.  I could hear grandpa’s labored breathing.  I watched grandpa’s wrinkled hands folded, as if in quiet prayer.

In that moment the words to an old song began to play in my head, “If a picture paints a thousand words”.  In that song I began to wonder about the words that painted this old man’s portrait.

Father? Husband? Friend? Lonely? Happy? Rich? Poor?  Who was this person?  Surely he belonged to somebody.  Was grandma alive?  Did grandpa have kids?  If so, do they call?  What about his dreams?  Fulfilled?

Encouraged by a mutual smile, grandpa and I engaged in conversation.

Grandpa told me he was having his picture taken to send in cards to his family.  Grandpa said he didn’t know how long he’d be around, and wanted everyone to have a picture to remember him by.

What a beautiful man, what a lovely idea.  An old man with a story, a book destined to be a best seller, a picture of a thousand words.

I wish I had an extra hour to hear the “rest of his story”, but the clerk was calling my name.

I purchased my pictures and turned around to leave, but stopped long enough to smile at the old man and bid him good-by.  Grandpa smiled back and wished me the same.

Weeks later I wondered about grandpa.  Was grandpa’s picture a delight to whom ever received it?  Was grandpa’s picture a reminder to spend more time with him?  Did grandpa’s card get lost on the stack of other mail?

My questions will remain unanswered.  But that day an old man reminded me no life should ever go unnoticed.  That each life is a picture of a thousand words, a story worthy to be read.

…………………………………………..

Thirty years ago I was in my late twenties and the eighty year old man in the story could have been great-grandfather.
great grandpa in ava illinois

Thirty years later and I now thirty years older, the eighty year old man in the story could have been my father.
dad and cookiesYou never picture it when the “second hand” of your life’s clock is ticking down the minutes.

You never picture it when you’re blowing out another candle on your birthday cake.

You picture it through the lens of the old photographs taken of you in your twenties, thirties, forties and those fifties, soon to open a new chapter in my sixties, when you wonder:

How can it be that so much time has passed since my young children sat in front of the Christmas camera, kids who have grown up themselves and are now taking pictures of their own family at Christmas.

We must picture it that age can’t be controlled any more than the weather.

But you can number your days; to keep watch and value the life you have been given; to not waste our minutes and hours on matters that don’t matter.

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.”
Psalm 39:4 NIV

 …What is your life?
You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
James 4:14 NIV

In twenty years I will have attained the age of the man in the story.

Twenty short years and beyond;

I need to picture the impact I want to make with my days and live it in front of the lens and those I am sharing my life with.

Might the story of my life and the story of your life boast a best seller.

Might the story of the old man in the Photo store cause us to be more vigilant and read between the lines of those we rub shoulders with; even strangers we share a couch with for a few brief minutes while waiting, because:

… an old man reminded me no life should ever go unnoticed.
That each life is a picture of a thousand words, a story worthy to be read.

MY CHRISTMAS GIFT OF OLD By Lori A Alicea

Christmas as a grandmother of ten changed everything for me.

Remembering how my grandparents put so much thought and festivity into Christmas Eve for us six kids and our cousins, an evening we looked forward to every year, stirs me to be a memory maker as my grandfather and grandmother were, to intentionally leave behind indelible Christmas card moments in the minds of our grandchildren.

Maybe our grandchildren watching a Hallmark movie might remind them of the lovely decoration creations that Gaga breathed holiday life into her house with.
USE as main pictureMaybe the old fashioned Christmas tree and specially wrapped gifts all stacked by the warm fireplace, waiting for anxious good little boys and girls to open might re-create a Norman Rockwell painting in their memories.
USE xmas tree presentsMaybe the Christmas table’s wintery themed centerpieces and place settings for everyone might remind them to always give thanks for those family members and friends sitting beside them for dinner.
2018 alicea xmas 2For me as a grandparent, it’s my inner child’s delight to unwrap the gift of our grandchildren’s excitement through every planned and unplanned moment of our Christmas gathering. I pray the next generation of grandparent’s experience the same holiday joy with their grandchildren as that last two generations have.  I pray I am honoring my grandparent’s legacy as I pass onto my grandchildren those Christmas memories they so generously gave to me.

Christmas Eve at my grandparents wasn’t the themed Christmas’ of today, yet holidays with them was every bit as memorable.

My grandparent’s tree was simple with its homemade ornaments and star, yet lacking in luster minus the sparkle of twinkling lights we use today, as the heavier miniature bulbs were popular in their day. I lavish though the ornaments that were passed to me from my grandmother’s tree, thinking of her just the other day when I decorated my own tree with a few of her treasures.

My grandparent’s cardboard fireplace set up in the basement corner looked authentic to a young girl as the plastic Santa sleigh and his reindeer did. I never told grandma, but I looked forward to seeing that fireplace every year, as we didn’t have one at home.

Grandma’s tables were accentuated and lit with holiday candles, which permeated the air with a Christmas fragrance of evergreen.
USE AS MAIN PICTURE 1Stacked by the fake fireplace were all of grandma’s gifts, each wrapped and topped with a pretty bow. Every grandchild snooped and found the package that bore their name in the stack.  With “ants in their pants” they counted the seconds until present time.
USE bowChristmas at my grandparent’s house was not the extravaganza of Christmas’ today. But Christmas at my grandparents nevertheless etched in my heart these framed moments I can see with clarity and enjoy today.

I remember all those rounds of pool with my cousins using the “kiddy pool table” that grandpa let us destroy over the years, while keeping the adult one hidden and covered.

Grandpa wowed and impressed us every year with the unveiling of his newest inventions awaiting a patent. Grandpa was super ingenious and had an infectious laugh.

Grandma kept our appetites satisfied before dinner with appetizers of meatballs and assortments of cheeses and crackers.

Once the dinner bell rang, I can still see Grandma Bertie going up and down the stairs to set the table with her famous roast and side items that completed our dinner. I sure missed her meals when Christmas Eve dinner became too much for grandma to prepare.

But my sweetest memory of Christmas at my grandmothers, was finding the table of her homemade Christmas cookies and peanut butter balls. I stuffed my mouth all night long full of her confections. The plate of cookies was as round as the table.  Grandma had to have baked for days to fill that plate.

When my grandparents passed away, we adult kids were allowed to go through their house and take whatever items remained of their life. I was blessed to inherit my grandmother’s cookbook full of holiday cookie recipes.  That sad day I secretly asked my aunt if anyone had taken grandma’s beaded two-layered table cloth sewn by my great aunt and crystal plate, both which decorated my grandmother’s cookie table every Christmas Eve.

Aunt Bonnie took me to a closet where this “Christmas Gift of Old” hung in quiet silence, hidden probably for years from that final Christmas Eve my grandmother hosted. My aunt was more than proud to say I could have this coveted memory.

Oh the years as I child I admired the intricate time consuming detail of this table cloth while eating my grandmother’s cookies. Now, as an adult, I still admire the time my great aunt gave to making this tablecloth, the inheritance that now covers a table during my holidays. I even serve my Christmas cookies on the same plate my grandmother did, taking me back to the days when Christmas was simpler, yet whose wonderful memories have stood the test of time.

I miss my grandparents and times spent with them as a child at their house on Christmas Eve.

It’s funny how so much energy and money is spent on Christmas gifts that most, including myself, can’t remember what we give or get from year to year.

But I’ve never forgotten my grandmother’s ornaments or cookie table cloth
USE TABLECLOTH FINAL
and plate inherited all those years ago,
USE cookie platter
invaluable gifts from a woman who has no idea how much I appreciate, the holiday gifts given in her honor,

My Christmas Gift of Old.