Saturday, December 31, 2011

“A hand pointing in the direction of the past”


A memoirist’s musings for the end of the year

Your job and mine, as memoirists, is to serve as “a hand pointing in the direction of the past.”

But here at SM 101, we do more than that. We do more than tell stories from the past.

Here we dig deep within those stories to discover what God has done for us—stories about His constant companionship each day, each year.

The beauty of memoir is looking back, examining, and discovering significance we might have missed at the time.

So now, at the end of 2011, it’s good for us to reflect on the past twelve months because too often we don’t take time to recognize that, in the words of dear old Samuel, “The Lord has helped us every step of the way” (1 Samuel 7:12, NIRV).

Back in the 1800s, C. H. Spurgeon pondered that same verse in The King James Version: “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

He wrote:

“The word ‘hitherto’ seems like a hand pointing in the direction of the past. Twenty years or seventy, and yet ‘hitherto hath the Lord helped us!’”

Or, in today’s language, “Whether we’re twenty years old or seventy, ‘the Lord has helped us every step of the way.’”

Spurgeon continues,

“Through poverty,
through wealth,
through sickness,
through health;
at home,
on the land,
on the sea;
in honor,
in dishonor,
in perplexity,
in joy,
in trial,
in triumph,
in prayer,
in temptation,
—‘hitherto hath the Lord helped!’”

If we invest time in looking over Spurgeon’s list in light of our own past twelve months, we’ll see that every day, in each event, even in the worst of times, God has always hovered in our midst, working out His best plans.

For now, jot down a list, make a few notes, and promise yourself—and your family, and God—you’ll write those stories in 2012!

Each story is worthy of being told.

Each child and grandchild needs to know your stories.  

Each story can be a celebration of what God has done.*

Always remember, and never forget,
what you’ve seen God do for you,
and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren!
(Deuteronomy 4:9)

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*Links and related posts:

Your stories: Not because of who you are, but because of who God is,

What’s your memoir’s ultimate purpose?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Diana Trautwein’s story, “A Christmas Remembered”

Here’s Diana Trautwein’s riveting Christmas vignette,
the fourth* and final of our guest blog posts.

A Christmas Remembered

Christmas was one week away. As usual, I had more to do than I had hours in the day. Would I manage to keep all the plates twirling overhead as the final countdown loomed? Just the night before, our nine-year-old had played in a school concert; he complained that his foot hurt and I noticed that he limped as the brass section marched into place.

That morning, he clearly didn’t want to go to school; he was slightly feverish, so I told him he could take the day off, tagging along on my errands. “You can rest in the car at the grocery store, honey, but I’ll need you to come in with me at church. I’ve got a rehearsal for Sunday morning.”

As our trio sang into the microphone, I kept one eye on the balcony, where I watched Eric entertaining himself. My tall, lanky son was crawling his way around the balcony floor. “That’s odd,” I thought.

As we headed back to the car, I commented, “It looks like that foot is really hurting you. Can you remember anything that might have caused your ankle to twist?”

“It’s not my ankle, Mom. It’s my heel. The bottom of it is so tender, I can’t step on it at all.” That was odd, too.

At home, I took his temperature; it was now 102 degrees, triggering a call to the pediatrician. Dr. Graves was a large, kind, and careful doctor, never given to alarmism. She laid Eric out on the table, examined him and looked at me hard.

“I don’t like this at all. I don’t like the combination of fever and severe bone pain. I’m calling an orthopedist right now and I want you there ASAP.”

My heart sank. I had dragged this kid all over town. Could he be seriously sick? The entire orthopedic staff was out, having their annual Christmas party, but the doctor came back to see my son. He looked grave.

“I am admitting this boy to the hospital. Take him there now. I am certain that he has osteomyelitis, a serious infection of the bone, and he needs to be on IV antibiotics immediately. You can count on a three-week stay.”

Three weeks??

Now thoroughly frightened, I called my husband and then admitted our boy. We took turns returning home to tend our two older daughters and to pack a few things; we would need to trade off nights at the hospital for as long as it took.

Suddenly, all those plates spinning around in the air came crashing down around my feet. Presents still to buy and wrap? So what? Christmas baking unfinished? Too bad. All of it went on permanent ‘hold’ as we contemplated our son’s illness.

We had called our church prayer line as soon as Eric was admitted and we knew our large circle of family and friends was praying for our boy. We spent our time talking with medical personnel, arranging for our daughters’ care, accompanying Eric to all of his tests and scans.

The orthopedist said, “It’s too risky to cut into his foot for a culture, so I’m guessing the cause of this infection. I’ll try two drugs that should make a difference - IF I’ve guessed correctly.”

We gulped and nodded, hoping that he was as good as his reputation. We sent up wordless cries to heaven as Eric was hooked up to his IV tower, and we began to wait.

A bone scan had revealed a hole the size of a quarter in the bottom of his left heel. Something was literally eating his bone away. He and his dad had taken apart an old jungle gym the week before and both of them had used their feet to kick at rusted joints. We guessed that the problem had its source there.

But the outcome? Completely unknown from day to day. At day four, another series of x-rays and scans were taken. The hole had shrunk considerably! And the pain and fever were lessening. Thank you, Lord! The doctor was astounded at the speed of Eric’s recovery, commenting that the Christmas spirit had accomplished something medicine alone could not.

We took him home on Christmas Eve, two full weeks sooner than expected. He was on crutches for Christmas morning - but he was home! The baking was still undone, the presents were not wrapped - but none of that mattered. Our family circle was complete; together, we opened the last window on the Advent calendar, welcoming the Babe of Bethlehem to our world, grateful beyond words for God’s gift of antibiotics and for well-informed guesses!

You’ll enjoy Diana’s blog, DRGT/Just Wondering.* She’s a deep thinker and eloquent writer, a woman after God’s own heart.

*Links and resources:

Samantha’s Christmas story,

Kathy’s Christmas story,

Nancy’s Christmas story,

Diana’s blog, DRGT/Just Wondering,

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nancy Franson’s Christmas vignette, “Julotta”

Your Christmas vignettes, continued ~

Our guest blog posts—vignettes you wrote—continue today with Nancy Franson's Julotta. (If you missed our first two, Samantha White's* story or Kathy Pooler's,* click on links below.)

Nancy's story stirred up fond scenes from my growing-up years. I know you’ll enjoy it, too:


When my husband, the beloved Swede, and I were newly engaged, he took me to visit the church where he and his family worshiped. My father-in-law had emigrated from Sweden as a child and had always been a member of a denomination with strong Scandinavian roots. As we walked into the sanctuary, I swear, I noticed everyone's hair and eyes were the same color. The blond-haired, blue-eyed congregation smiled politely at me, the tall, dark-haired, brown-eyed visitor.

Because once upon a time, my hair really was brown.

While sitting in the pew, I quickly scanned the church bulletin filled with names of folks from the congregation--Johnson, Swenson, Anderson, Lindquist,  I felt like raising my hand and announcing, "My grandmother's maiden name was Donaldson," in hopes that the good Scandinavian folks would accept me as one of their own.

During communion I tasted my piece of bread and recognized a familiar flavor. It was Swedish Limpa. I realized then that these folks were serious about maintaining their Swedish heritage. I wouldn't have been surprised if, instead of wine, the communion cups had been filled with coffee.

Some years later, when our daughter was nine years old, we were heavily invested in reading The Little House on the Prairie series. Stories of immigrants and pioneers captivated her imagination. I saw that a local church, founded in 1898 by Swedish immigrants, was hosting a traditional Julotta service at 6:30 Christmas morning. The senior beloved Swedes had recently moved nearby, and I thought attending this service with them would be a lovely way to celebrate Christmas morning.

It had seemed a good idea at the time. At 5:00 Christmas morning, I wasn't so sure. We had to wake our children (What kind of parent wakes their kids Christmas morning?) and drag them out the door, past the tree and its pile of waiting presents.

Temperatures had dropped overnight causing light rain to freeze on roadways. I watched out the window as a pair of headlights appeared and a car slowly made its way down our street. It had to be my in-laws, I thought. Surely no one else would be out at that time, in those conditions. We cautiously made our way over dark, twisting roads, breathing silent prayer for one unfortunate traveler whose car had fallen prey to the slick conditions.

The tiny sanctuary in the church was lit only by candles placed on the windowsills. We slipped quietly into the wooden pews and were called to worship:

    Varen icke forskrackta. Se, jag badar eder en stor gladje, son skall vederfaras allt folket...

     Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all people...

Winter in Sweden is cold, dark, and dreary. Because of its geographic location, winter days are long and dark until the solstice on December 22. Christmas celebrations, in contrast, are rich with images of light dawning and candles glowing. Throughout the service, in both Swedish and English, we listened to scriptures and sang hymns celebrating the birth of the One who is the Light of the World. As the service progressed Christmas morning dawned, the sun's light slowly overcoming the dark sanctuary.

At the close of the service, we were treated to coffee, mulled cider, and Swedish breads. We listened to stories from elderly members reminiscing about Julotta services they had attended as children. Many recalled how their parents and grandparents had traveled by sleigh, bundled in blankets, to welcome the dawn of Christmas.

It was a blessing, sharing with these folks a celebration of their Swedish heritage. Even greater, however, was the opportunity to rejoice in the heritage which both the beloved Swede and I share. We are privileged to know that, for each of us, generations of relatives have called upon the Lord and taught the scriptures to their children.

    ...surely (we) have a delightful inheritance. Psalm 16:6, NIV

And, at the end of that Christmas day, celebrating Julotta was what our daughter said she enjoyed most.

All hail to thee, O blessed morn!
To tidings long by prophets borne
hast Thou fulfillment given.

O sacred and immortal day,
when unto earth, in glorious ray,
descends the grace of heaven.

Singing, ringing, sounds are blending
praises sending into heaven
for the Savior to us is given!

(Traditional Swedish carol)

Thanks for this heartwarming story, Nancy. In Seattle I attended school and church with lots of Swedes and Norwegians—and now call some of those dear ones my relatives—so your images, traditions, and even surnames brought back fun memories for me.

Nancy originally published her story December 8, 2010, at her blog, Out of My Alleged Mind, at

Be sure to come back Wednesday because Diana’s Christmas story will grab your heart.

*Links and resources:

Samantha’s Christmas story,

Kathy’s Christmas story,

Nancy’s blog, Out of My Alleged Mind,

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kathleen’s “Christmas Past”

Your Christmas vignettes, continued ~

In mid-November* I invited you to send your Christmas vignettes and promised I’d select one to publish here the week before Christmas.

In the end, I decided to publish four vignettes, not one. I trust you enjoyed the first one last Saturday, Samantha White’s story.* I sure did!

Today, you’ll enjoy the second one, Kathy Pooler’s Christmas Past:

Christmas Past

The smell of spicy tomato sauce mixed with the hearty laughter greet me and my family as we climb the circular staircase to my Nana’s home after traveling six hours. When we open the door at the top of the stairs, aunts, uncles and cousins surround us with warm hugs and loving smiles. I am five years old and can hardly contain my excitement as I throw off my coat and return the hugs.

We are celebrating Christmas Eve in traditional Italian fashion with a Feast of the Seven Fishes. Christmas Eve in the ancient Catholic Church was a sacred fast day, on which no meat could be consumed.

The table extends the length of the dining room and is adorned with Nan’s finest off white crocheted table cover and gold-rimmed china plates surrounded by sparkling silverware and shiny goblets. Pretty soon, I know the center of the table will be crowded with steaming bowls of pasta, sauce and baccala (salted cod fish), silvery smelts, crab cakes, baked Mackerel, boiled shrimp, trout and calamari (squid).

My five-year-old taste buds rebel against the fish but I love my Nana’s spicy, warm tomato sauce and homemade pasta. My mouth waters before I even put a forkful of sauce-drenched pasta into my mouth.
I run into the kitchen to see my Nana stirring the sauce. She wipes her hands on her red gingham apron and bends down to wrap her arms around me as we both squeal with delight.
“Oh, I’m so happy to see you, Katarina (my name in Italian)” she smiles as offers me a spoonful of sauce after blowing over it a few times.
The smooth, tomatoey sauce slides down my throat and warms my insides.
“Nana, this is so good, like always,” I say as I close my eyes and take in the sweet taste of home.
“Well, it’s ready.” Nana says.
With that Mom and Aunt Rose begin draining the pasta over the sink, laughing together as the steam clouds their glasses. I join the parade of relatives delivering the heaping bowls to the center of the table.

Uncle Fred pours the homemade red wine from the gallon jugs. Grandpa and Uncle Vincent have made a new batch from the winemaking machine in the basement. I think about how they both came over on the boat from Naples when they were sixteen and eighteen and wonder how they could ever leave their family behind. I love when we all get together. There is always laughter.
As Nana places the tomato sauce in the center of the table, Grandpa says grace then holds up his wineglass,
“A Saluda!”
Even the children get a small glass of wine. “It’s good for your blood” is the mantra.
I’m sitting between Uncle Michael and my six-month-old brother Tom who is in a high chair. I pass on the yucky calamari, even though the adults are getting seconds of it.

Uncle Fred is placing his closed fingers to his lips then spreading his hand out in compliments to Nana.

Everyone loves the fish. I love watching them around the table, while avoiding the fish.

Uncle Pete is telling another joke about the time Aunt Annie scolded at a little kid who returned twice while trick or treating, “You’ve been here before, little ducky.”

Aunt Annie flicks her wrist, tapping his arm as the crowd howls.

Before I know it, the bowls are nearly empty and we’re all sitting around with our hands on our bellies. It seems like it all happened so fast. The table is cleared and Mom and Aunt Rose place trays of pears, apples, tangerines and all kinds of nuts, walnuts, almonds and pecans in the shell for dessert.

All the women gather in the kitchen to wash dishes while the men sit around the table and start playing cards.

Aunt Rose looks out the front bay window and motions the four little cousins to come into the living room. “There goes Santa around the corner!”

With noses pressed against the windowpane, we see the fluffy, white snow falling against the street light, disappointed that we missed him. We believe with all our hearts though that he was there.

Kathy, you’ve written a story full of rich details and images, laughter and love. Your Aunt Rose’s sense of fun tickled me. I chose the above Christmas image for her—entitled Christmas Roses, by Lizzie Lawson. It’s from an antique book of the same name, now in the public domain, which she co-authored with Robert Ellise Mack.

Have a blessed Christmas season, Kathy. We all know what will be on your menu.

Be sure to visit Kathy’s blog, Memoir Writer’s Journey,* where she shares hope, one story at a time. She says her memoir is about “the extraordinary events that have occurred in my ordinary life through my faith in God.… Along with sharing my writing journey with you, I want to reach out and share how hope works in my life, to hear how it works in your life. We are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.”

Saturday, ya’ll come back for our next Christmas story—either Nancy’s or Diana’s—I’m keeping it a secret until then.

*Links and resources:

Send me your Christmas vignettes,

Samantha’s Christmas story

Kathy’s blog,

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Samantha’s Christmas story

In mid-November* I invited you to send your Christmas vignettes by December 10 and promised I’d select one to publish here the week before Christmas.

Your responses were fun, and I send a big thanks to everyone who sent a story.

I’ve decided to publish four vignettes, not one, and today you get to read Samantha White’s story. It will give you a big smile. I wish I could have known her mother. You’ll see why when you read this story.

My family was Orthodox Jewish, but my mother, bless her, knew that Christmas was about more than the birth of Jesus, it was also about light breaking through the darkness, bringing peace and love and joy, and she was determined that her children would not be "passed over" when light, joy, and love were being dispensed to all the other children in our overwhelmingly Gentile neighborhood.

So, amidst the observance of Hanukkah and all the other business of December, every Christmas Eve Dad brought two wooden orange crates up from the cellar and nailed a plywood plank across the top, joining them into something resembling a fireplace.

My little brother and I watched while Mom covered it with crepe paper printed with a design of bricks, marveling as the boxes took on the realistic look of a fireplace. We tacked a couple of socks to the "mantel" and Dad carried the "fireplace" into the living room. Then my brother and I went to bed to await Santa Claus's visit to our house.

Now, we absolutely knew that the fireplace was made of orange crates and that we didn't have a chimney. But we also knew that this was Christmas Eve, and Santa did not discriminate among good little children on the basis of the religion their families practiced.

So on Christmas morning we bounded to the living room to find our proof that goodness was rewarded: gifts of toys and books, with tags reading, "From Santa Claus" were piled in front of the fireplace, and soon the living room was strewn with torn red and green gift wrapping paper and ribbons, and we were happily at play.

Since Christmas Day was also a secular holiday, Dad stayed home from work and my grandparents came to visit. Before they arrived, however, we all bustled to clear away the traces of Santa's visit—the tell-tale debris cleaned up, the "fireplace" dismantled, the crepe paper folded and put away, and the orange crates returned to the cellar, until the following year. When my grandparents arrived for dinner, no traces of our revelry remained.

My brother and I never left the faith of our ancestors, nor forgot our religion, because of Santa's visits to our house. If anything, it helped us understand how much it means to share joy at the darkest, coldest time of year, and to be with family, and to believe in rewards for being good. As we grew older, we learned that we could give as well as receive, and that in giving lay the even greater joy.

Now, don’t you, too, wish you could have known Samantha’s mother? What a spunky gal she must have been!

I recall my sweet grandmother making a makeshift fireplace with crepe paper printed to look like bricks—what a hoot!

Samantha, author of Someone To Talk To: Finding Peace, Purpose, and Joy After Tragedy and Loss, is a psychotherapist and Positive Aging Coach.* Click here to see her brand new blog, Peace, Purpose, and Joy.

Wednesday I’ll share another story with you. Will it be Diana’s? Or Kathy’s? Or Nancy’s? I’m not telling. You’ll have to come back!

*Links and references:

Send me your Christmas vignettes,

Samantha M. White, MSW, LICSW

Samantha’s blog, Peace, Purpose, and Joy, 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December’s details for your memoir: touch and taste

If you want readers to enjoy our stories—and keep reading them—use sensory details to add interest and texture to your December stories.  

In recent blog posts we considered sight, smell, and sound.*

Today we’ll think about touch and taste.

Helen Keller said: 
“I feel the delicate symmetry of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch, or the rough shaggy bark of a pine…. I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower, and discover its remarkable convolutions.… I place my hand gently on a small tree and feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song….” (emphasis mine)

If you write a story set on the equator, December will feel different from a story set in Alaska. Describe the feel of running across white powder sand on the seashore. Capture the feel of a scratchy wool scarf around your neck and icicles hanging from your beard.

Also write taste into your stories. For some of you, December flavors include peppermint candy canes and mincemeat pie.

My Scandinavian friends' favorite flavors include lefse, herring, salmon, and lutfisk.

Hanukkah meals involve potato latkes and other dishes cooked in oil as a reminder of the holiday's miracle.

What tastes and flavors can you describe in your December stories?

“Just like the Five Ws are pathways for information, the Five Senses generate details. We all begin with our eyes, I think, but we should move quickly to our ears and our noses. Rick Bragg wrote a paragraph about a state fair in West Virginia and, I swear, he had all the senses covered, and when I closed my eyes I could taste the funnel cake, and smell the sausage and peppers, and see the flashing of neon, and feel the stuffed toys.…

“… It's crucial that the focus drive the details. By that I mean that you don't include the detail of someone's messy hair unless it has something directly to do with your story (she ran a marathon while pregnant).”  (Roy Peter Clark,* emphasis mine)

“Detail makes the difference between
boring and terrific writing.
It’s the difference between
a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting.
As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors.”
(Rhys Alexander, Writing Gooder)

Review previous posts (links below)* and write sensory details into your December stories: Invite readers to see, smell, hear, feel, and taste what you experienced.

*References and links:
Sight, smell, and sound,
December details for your memoir,
Roy Peter Clark on Facebook live chat,