Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas programs and skating rinks ~ December 22, 1994

David Heiller

Dear Grandma:
Yup, it’s Christmas again. The program at church went well. Some boys in the back row were giggling before the first song, and nudging each other in the ribs. I couldn’t figure out why until they sang the first verse to “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.”
When they came to the line, “Ox and ass before him bow,” they had a big laugh, almost like they were relieved to finally say the A word.
I smiled too. My Sunday School teacher told us not to covet our neighbor’s property or wife or ass. That would get us giggling. Some things never change.
Malika played “Good King Wenceslas” on the piano, and it sounded good. I’ll admit that beautiful music is in the ear of the beholder.
It was fun to hear all the kids play their trumpets and flutes and trombones and clarinets. It takes skill for a kid to play “Away in the Manger,” and know they’re going to hit a sour note, and then HIT the sour note, and smile with the congregation, and keep on playing.
The spirit of Christmas always hits me at Sunday School programs. You can forget about the stress that goes with the holidays for a little while, and watch little kids sing their lungs out on “Silent Night.”
You can smile as Joseph wheels his squeaky donkey down the aisle, and admire the angels with their glittery wings, and remember when you were a shepherd and got to carry a stick like that, with a top that bends over like a big candy cane.
Some friends, Dave and Sue, invited our family to their house after the program, and the Christmas spirit followed us there.
Dave has made a skating rink, and it is close to divine. There’s a little island in the middle, and some rough ice to keep you from going too fast. Mostly it’s smooth as glass.
There’s nothing in the Bible about skating under a bright moon with friends and family, but there should be, along with a bonfire, and a game of Pump Pump Pull-Away, and circling the night with the woman you love.
How many times did we skate as kids on the harbor, on Schnick’s Lake? The best times were at night. Someone would make a fire, maybe bring some hot dogs. Some high schoolers would be holding hands, and we’d make fun of them, until we were old enough to do the same.
Sometimes there would be big cracks in the ice. You had to watch out for them. Danny hit one once and went flying so hard and fast that he chipped his front tooth off. It hurt so bad he cried, one of the few times I ever saw that.
 Cindy and I had quarreled going to our friends’ house last Sunday. We were both stubbornly mad at each other. But we put on our skates and circled the rink hand in hand, and our argument soon disappeared into the winter night. Skating rinks can do that. They can patch up arguments, bring friends and lovers together.
We skated and skated last Sunday. After about an hour, Sue said she could do this all night. I think she was right.
Then we went inside and ate chili and bars and toasted the season with a dose of friendship.
Christmas is a time to count our blessings. Vague terms like friendship and family and love come into focus at Christmas programs and skating rinks.
Things you taught me, Grandma. I thank you for that, and I miss you too.
Love, David

Sunday, December 16, 2018

A 1996 Christmas letter to Grandma ~ December 24, 1996

David Heiller

Dear Grandma:
We were sitting on the bed watching a Charlie Brown Christmas Thursday night. It’s a good show, with good lessons about people and Christmas.

Charlie Brown can’t find the true meaning of Christmas. For some strange reason he gets depressed around Christmas time. He thinks he should be happy, but he isn’t.
He thinks he doesn’t have any friends. Everyone puts him down. There’s commercialism all around.
The kids and I were soaking all this up, saying “Yeah, you’re right” to ourselves. I thought of Mollie, who had taken a verbal beating from a girl on her bus. I thought of the Tickle Me Elmo doll, which some fine folks are selling for up to $500. People can be ugly.
Then Cindy came into the room and asked me to fix the toilet paper dispenser. It had come off the wall, screws and all.
A toilet paper dispenser doesn’t just fall off a wall. Someone had to have pulled it off, probably by accident.
“Who did it?” I asked. Neither of the kids would say. “The TV goes off until I find out,” I said. And that’s what happened.
Charlie Brown’s good lessons disappeared with a click, and some other lessons took their place.

I won’t rehash the next hour. It wasn’t fun. The mood in the house changed. Ι got crabby looking for an honest answer. The kids protested and stormed to their rooms and struggled to find a way to be honest and save face. All over a stupid toilet paper dispenser.
This isn’t the way Christmas is supposed to be, I thought with bitterness as Ι put new anchors in the sheetrock and remounted the dispenser. What happened to the tranquil scene on the bed, soaking in a Christmas classic? I was starting to feel like a cross between Charlie Brown and Ebenezer Scrooge.
Then one of the kids confessed. That broke the tension. I explained that it was all right to break something by accident. I would not have been mad.
“Yeah right.”
“It’s true. Just be honest. I’ve broken things before. I know the feeling.” I meant it, and the kid knew it. I was not mad that the dispenser came out of the wall. I was mad that they didn’t tell me about it.
We talked it out, and peace returned. It was too late for Charlie Brown, but it’s never too late for peace.
My point in all this, Grandma, is that Christmas isn’t a magical time. We’d like to think it is. A time for soft snow to fall, and Christmas carolers at the door, and feel-good shows on TV. And no family arguments about who broke the toilet paper dispenser.
Life goes on around Christmas, and life includes family squabbles. It includes working long hours, and worries about your children, and wondering how you’ll pay the bills, and a million other concerns.
These things are all a part of the happiness and contentment that we yearn for especially at Christmas-time. It’s pretty obvious, I know. Why am I telling you this? You know it already. You were a wise woman. You saw your share of good and bad in your family, which was my family.
I guess I’m telling myself, reminding myself. It’s called putting things in perspective, taking the bad with the good, mixing them up in the right recipe, living a good life, not having unrealistic expectations at Christmas.
Wow, I covered a lot of bases there.
Generally, the sweetness of Christmas isn't lost, but occasionally mislaid.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to Christmas. I hope other people are too. If they aren’t, if they just want it to be over so life can get back to normal, that’s fine with me. But the toilet paper dispenser will still come off the wall no matter what time of year it is.
I’m looking forward to church on Sunday too. I guess that’s a part of Christmas! I asked Pastor Owen if we could sing, “A Happy Christmas Comes Once More.” All the Danes in Askov know it. For some reason it skipped this old German.
But Pastor obliged, and it’s in the service. When we sing it, I’ll think of you.

Love, David

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Bring on the tree, and Christmas ~ December 13, 2001

David Heiller

It hit me in the early morning hours last Sunday that it was time. I had tossed and turned for a couple days over it, waking at about 4 a.m. and then not really falling asleep again.
Momentous decisions are like that, and this was a monster.

It was time to cut the Christmas tree.
Poor George Bailey
 eventually found his cheer.
I hadn’t been ready before Sunday morning. The spirit of Christmas was taking its own sweet time to arrive for me, as usual. I had grumped around the day before, as we dug out the decorations. Why do we have to go to all this fuss? What’s the big deal? George Bailey would have been proud.
Cutting the tree helped change that.
We always cut our own tree from the woods near our house. It’s not the same as going to a tree farm. Those trees are different. They are full and shapely. They could pose in the center-fold of Treefarm Quarterly. Most important, they don’t lose their needles.
Our trees are regular trees. They look like your friends. Not perfect, but solid, and with a good heart. Maybe a little lumpy, and their hair thinning. That’s our tree.

Four-year-old Claire reminds us that even
 the most lop-sided tree can inspire dancing!
Timing is everything when you cut your own tree, because of the needle factor. If you cut your tree early, it can look pretty bare by Christmas. There is no worse sound than when you brush up to a fully decorated Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and hear needles tinkling to the floor by the hundreds. One wag of a happy dog’s tail can denude a tree like that. I speak from experience. Spruce trees are the worst.
Decisions, decisions!
These kinds of thoughts flickered in the dim dawn light on Sunday, until I sat up and announced the time had come.
A couple hours later, we headed into the woods: wife Cindy, son Noah, friend Kendra, and me. I had seen a good balsam tree last year, so we looked for it first. I thought it would jump out at me, The Perfect Tree, relatively speaking. But it didn’t. I might have spied it, but it didn’t look any better, just another year older (like those friends I mentioned earlier). We kept walking, through thick brush, over deer trails, looking at this tree and that.
Our back woods trees were generally quite nice. 
A hole? A good place the the bigger decorations... 
A flat spot? Oh yay! It will slide closer to the wall... 
The needles fall off in the first week? 
Well, it  makes for a good fire-side tale anyway...
“We could cut the top off that one.”
“It’s too thin. How about that one?”
“It’s got a big hole in the middle.”
“That one isn’t bad.”
“It isn’t good either.”
Finally Kendra spotted a nice one. She called us over. We circled it warily. It would do just fine. But it wasn’t quite right.
We kept moving, eyeing dozens of more trees. None came close to Kendra’s.

Then I spied the winner. It’s funny how you know something is right when you see it. That was how I felt. I called the other jurors over, and they agreed. It had that extra special look, as symmetrical and full as a balsam tree in the wilds of northern Pine County can be. And it was right next to the logging road, so we wouldn’t have to drag it through the thick brush.
Noah and Grace: under the tree, a pleasant place to be.
Then I spied the winner. It’s funny how you know something is right when you see it. That was how I felt. I called the other jurors over, and they agreed. It had that extra special look, as symmetrical and full as a balsam tree in the wilds of northern Pine County can be. And it was right next to the logging road, so we wouldn’t have to drag it through the thick brush.
I cut it down, using an old cross-cut saw that only gets used for this occasion. I felt a pang of regret cutting the tree, but it passed like the wind. There is no shortage of trees in our woods, and this tree would not go to waste in the spiritual sense. Quite the contrary. It will enrich our Christmas, just as it did our lives last Sunday morning when we cut it.
Noah, Cindy, and I carried it in, while Kendra carried the saw. The sun shone on the ground that was sprinkled with frost. The woods were sparse and brown, yet with a special beauty that only comes this time of year. Cindy pointed out an old maple tree that had partially fallen down several years ago. It used to be the best maple tree for giving sap, Cindy told Kendra. It succumbed to old age, and I cut it up for firewood. Waste not, want not.
When we got to the house, our simple job was over. I wished it could have lasted longer. We had missed church because of it, but we had gained a beautiful tree, and something less tangible but just as valuable.

The spirit of Christmas had returned for me. It’s all downhill from here.

Friday, December 14, 2018

It was a classic smear job all the way ~ December 12, 1985

David Heiller

There comes a time in every child’s life when they cease being babies, and become something more. It is a metamorphosis from a helpless bundle of pink skin into a human being.
Mothers may not know what I mean, because they spend more time with their babies, and probably never think of them as helpless bundles of pink skin. But to dads, who roll around on the floor with them perhaps for only a few minutes a day, the metamorphosis hits all of a sudden, and sometimes it hits hard.
Malika with her bearded and bespectacled daddy. 
We know what she's thinking about, the last time she got hold of that beard,
or the next time she scores the glasses. 
That’s what happened at our house last weekend. Cindy had been telling me how our six-month-old daughter had been going through a growth spurt, guzzling more milk per hour than a young Holstein. Cindy had pointed out that Mollie was sitting up by herself now, and laughing at her big brother, and babbling in her crib when she woke up at 6:30 in the morning. She was even taking an interest in the mashed bananas that her mother pried down her throat.

I had noticed these changes. I had also seen how Mollie was very interested in my beard now, grabbing tiny fistfuls, doing chin-ups with my face. Noah had done the same thing two years earlier, so I should have been warned about the next step, the change that takes a baby out of the helpless stage and puts them on the same plane with an Amazonian warrior.
Never underestimate a budding grown-up,
even when they are six months old.
It started innocently enough. Mama was in town shopping. I was lying on the living room floor, with my head about a foot from Mollie. Noah sat nearby, playing with some cars, but watching us out of the corner of his eye. He must have sensed what was coming, just as his beard-pulling genes were passed on to Mollie. Mollie jerked her arms back as her eyes moved from a toy in her hand to me. Her gaze settled on my face, and her eyes focused on mine with the intensity of a fox. Her left arm shot out, with no baby jerking and twitching this time. It was an adult movement, a steady, resolute motion that held no hesitation and would not be stopped. Her fingers uncurled from their fist, and re-clenched around the left temple of my wire rimmed glasses. Vice-Grips could not have been tighter. Then with a quick backward pull, she flipped the glasses off my nose and ears, and held them high.
The inevitable followed, as I lay in shock. She took the left lens of the glasses and put it in her mouth, gumming and slobbering so that it would be smeared as only six-month-olds can gum and slobber and smear. Then, and only then, did she relax and smile and shake the glasses in wild glee.
I reached over and grabbed my wire-rimmed glasses. I had bought the frame in college 10 years ago, and I didn’t want to lose them now. Mollie let me have them. Her goal had been accomplished. Her first glasses execution had been a success. And Dad was on notice that his helpless bundle of pink skin was not helpless anymore.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Some priceless Christmas gifts ~ December 20, 1990

David Heiller

Christmas is a time of giving. Sometimes the gifts are worth money. Sometimes they are worth much more.
Take the gift of a phone call home. I called my mother last week, without really planning to. I’d just received a letter from her, and had written recently too. But I needed to talk to her.
I didn’t have much to say. Our Christmas plans, when we could meet in Minneapolis. She talked about the weather in Brownsville, the big snowstorm they had. Noah took the phone, and told her about his deer antler quest, how Grandma Marge at school had promised to bring him one. Then I took the phone again, lingering on small talk, until we said good bye.
After I hung up, I felt better. That calm old voice from home carried with it some inner strength that I needed. Now I realize that phone call was an unknowing gift from Mom.
How about the gift of a walk in the woods? We tramped down an abandoned township road on Saturday afternoon. Binti lead the way, sniffing for squirrels, criss-crossing into the woods on either side.
Binti was moving slower, but never 
turned down a walk, or a Christmas cookie!
It was a joy to watch her, because she’s 11½, and spends more and more of her time in front of the wood stove. She’s stiff in the rear, and almost totally deaf, but there she was, the old Binti, tail wagging, nose to the ground but always keeping us in sight with that radar that dogs seem to have, always knowing where they are and where YOU are.
I must have gone soft on the walk too, because when we stopped for a cup of tea and some cookies, we handed one to Binti. I repeat: WE GAVE A CHRISTMAS COOKIE TO OUR DOG. Never in Binti’s long history has this happened. She seemed to know it too, because she had the cookie chewed and swallowed before we could blink, like she didn’t want us to change our mind. Maybe she knew it was a Christmas gift.
Walks have a lot of gifts, like seeing a couple of deer take off from their snack of poplar bark, bounding across the trail in front of you, then watching a seven-year-old boy leave a slice of apple at that spot, for the deer to find as a treat.
Having that little boy’s hand fit like a glove into your hand as you walk, looking at tracks and searching the ground for the elusive deer antler. These are all great gifts.
I mostly did a ridiculous number of cookies myself,
but when I could get together with my friend
 Carolyn, we made sandbakkels. David loved them!
Cookies are, too. Cindy has been baking almost nonstop, with the help of us kids now and then: Santa’s Thumbprints and peppernuts, Russian teacakes and sugar cookies, rosettes and chocolate cookies.
The cookies seem to grow endlessly on the counter, row upon row, filling Tupperware and freezers and kids and dads. When I got up last Saturday morning, and saw a counter full of peanut blossoms, I thought for a split second, “Not more cookies!” But in the next instant, I came to my senses and realized, “You can never, I repeat, NEVER, have enough Christmas cookies.” Cookies are a Christmas gift, all right.
These are a few of those Christmas gifts that are worth more than anything you can find at the store. You’ve got your own special ones too, and I hope you enjoy them. Have a merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A walk in the woods with Mike ~ December 8, 1994

David Heiller

Mike was working on his 1970 Polaris snowmobile when we drove up Saturday morning. He was using a hair dryer to thaw the frozen fuel pumps. Our 11-year-old son looked at it in disbelief.
He’d never seen anything so old and beat up.
Mike didn’t see it that way.
“It’s the best one I’ve owned,” Mike claimed.

He bought it five years ago for $50, and it runs if you take a hair dryer to the fuel pump every winter.
Mike and Donna at our house, petting MacKenzie.
Mike and Donna live seven miles southwest of Willow River. Donna had told us we could cut a Christmas tree on her land. She was working Saturday, so Mike led us out to the woods. Actually, their two big Labradors did the leading.
We found a beautiful tree right away, a nine-foot white spruce. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close. Towards the top it tapered in a bit, then spread out again, like a crown on the three Wise men.
It was too nice a morning to just cut the tree and go home. So we kept walking. Clouds covered the sky. The woods were full of soft greens and browns. The snow was melting, perfect for making a snowman. Half a dozen grouse flew off along the trail. One would fly, then after a few seconds, another would follow. The dogs nosed after them half-heartedly, as if they just wanted a leisurely stroll too.
My wife, Cindy, said grouse will only flush two times, then they get tired. She had read that in Laura Erickson’s book, For the Birds. Mike said that wasn’t true at all, not from his experience. But they didn’t argue. It was too nice a day, and the Christmas spirit was on them.
Mike led us to some balsams. They were growing in a grove of white pines. The balsams were spindly. Not much sunlight could penetrate there. It was like a cathedral, very peaceful. Some of the pines were dying. Survival of the fittest.
Back in the field, we cut the spruce with a hand-saw that I use once a year, just for this purpose. I felt sad, cutting down this strong tree that had survived so well. The fittest trees don’t always survive.
There’s something wrong about cutting Christmas trees, I said.
Cindy reminded me of the many trees we have planted over the years. I looked around at all the trees in the field that Nature had planted too, and the guilt didn’t last any longer than it does every December.
My son and I carried the tree back to the pick-up like successful hunters. It was 15 years old, judging by the rings on the end.
The day wouldn’t let us go
We were ready to say our goodbyes, but somehow the day wouldn’t let us. Mike pointed to a big spot on a tree half a mile away. He pulled out a pair of binoculars from his coveralls.
“An eagle,” he said. It was on the far side of the field. He and Donna had been watching several eagles feed on something in the field for three days. Another large bird sat in a tree on the near side of the field, about a quarter mile away. It didn’t have a white head or tail, but it was huge. We decided in unison to take a closer look.
We walked through a swamp toward the bird trying to keep as much alder brush between us and the bird as we could. The dogs kept close by Mike’s side. If they went too far, he would call their names in a 1οw, sharp voice. Then they would wait for us, as if they knew we were stalking something.
Finally we came to a big pine tree about 80 yards from the bird. We stepped out for a good look. It was an immature bald eagle, about three feet tall, with a mottled breast and head. It looked at us sternly, as if to say, “You think you were sneaking up on ME?” Then it took off on wings that spread at least six feet. As it passed over the field, two crows spotted it and took off in pursuit. A mature eagle flew off the other way, its white head and tail glowing against the clouds.
We walked until we came to their luncheon: a small deer, with nubs of antlers just poking out. Eagles and crows had picked it over. The back bone was exposed, the entrails long gone. Those birds weren’t wasting a bite. The ground was covered with their footprints. Wing marks showed where they had landed and taken off.
We set the tree up when we got home. It is beautiful, covered with lights and ornaments? It will overlook a holiday of love and family and friends, and tell the story of Christmas past and present, and the story about our walk in the woods with Mike.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

1989 Christmas letter to Grandma ~ December 21, 1989

David Heiller

Sunday, Dec. 17, 1989
Dear Grandma:
We had our Christmas program at Sunday School today. I thought you might like to hear about it. You would have enjoyed it.
Miss Malika and her Christmas dress.
First the good news. Mollie and Noah said their parts without a hitch. Noah said, “Grant us now a glad new year” just as plain as could be. Mollie said: “But a lowly manger was his place to sleep.” The bow on her belt even stayed tied, and she only waved to me once.
The other kids were something too. Like Matt Peterson when he said, “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities.” Matt said that last word correctly. He did NOT say “inquinities”. Matt was worried about that. When he practiced it around the Peterson home, he would say “inquinities.” Matt is the kind of kid who could come up with a pretty funny definition for “inquinities.” But not in front of a full church.
His big sister, Connie, had the toughest part of the pageant. She stood in front, jammed her left hand into an imaginary pocket, looked at her feet, then straightened up, and said her bit, four long sentences, 81 words, without a stammer. Now that was a REAL Christmas Program part, the kind I remember when I was a kid and you were watching me. Was I ever that good in sixth grade?
I don’t know why I like Christmas programs so much, Grandma. Remember how you used to like to sit in the waiting room of the parking ramp when we went shopping in LaCrosse, just to watch people pass by? Christmas pageants are like that to me. You can watch children pass by. Wearing new sweaters and dresses, or stuffed in double breasted suits and red ties, or blue jeans and AAU tennis shoes. And some of those kids, like Natalie Booker, so tiny she surely couldn’t memorize her part, yet she did, and better than most of the others. Some with changing voices, like Jeremy Kosloski, a 13-year-old bursting out of his clothes. Some suddenly pretty, like Corrine Cronin in her blue dress, growing up before your eyes.
Then there’s the music. Bev Peterson played the piano, and the notes just poured out when she did “Jesus, Name Above All Names.” The kids sang great too. That surprised me, because sometimes forget how well kids can sing, when they want to. Mona Sjoblom, the director of our Christmas pageant this year, asked me to play the guitar on “Away in the Manger,” and I gladly said yes. It was a different version, with a lovely melody that’s just about as good as the original. Even people who grumbled about the new­fangled rendition complimented me afterward.
What a joy it was to sit in front of those 25 kids and listen to them sing. Loud, clear voices, not all on key, but that was all right. They haven’t learned yet that they don’t all have perfect voices. I wish they never would. No one in the church complained.
One voice rang out over the rest, Joey Gibson’s. You can always pick Joe’s voice out at our Sunday School. Just follow your ears. It cuts through the others, it climbs to the high notes and reaches them. It tinkles like a bell on a Christmas tree, when angels get their wings. It’s a pure voice, a beacon that mixes with the other voices to make those four songs extra special.
Grandma, we pulled off a darn good Christmas program again. Isaac Sjoblom and Jonathan Zuk didn’t fight like they did in prac­tice. Tory Johnson missed a word, but went back to the beginning and said it perfectly. April Williams read half her part, then heaved a sigh and looked up and said perfectly: “God sent His angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she was to be the mother of His Son.”
Noah and Malika with cousin Sarah.
  Christmas, 1989.
Time stood still for an hour, and this crazy, busy holiday season suddenly didn’t seem quite so crazy and busy.
Even Mollie behaved. She didn’t come down to me when I was playing the guitar, like she did in practice, three times. And like I said, she only waved to me once, and the bow on her belt stayed tied. She tied it herself. Guess she’s growing up too.
And after she said her part, she came to me and sat on my lap. We hugged, and then we sang, “What Child is This?” That was pretty close to Heaven in my book.
I guess you know all about that though.
Love, David