Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Star for Zachary: Part II

At last, Grandfather spoke again, his voice low and reverent. "It led us over hills and valleys. Along stone paths. All that cold, cold night, the Star led us on. But neither of us--Josiah or myself--neither of us felt cold. We kept walking as fast as we could. We thought, like you, that the Star would lead us to a castle or a grand home. But it did not."

Grandfather's gnarled hands clasped together. "It led us into Bethlehem. Into the very poorest part of town. And in the streets of Bethlehem, Josiah and I saw many travelers, coming to register for the census. Even at night, the streets were crowded! I knew about the census; my father had taken us to register in Elaim. The King, Caesar Augustus, had declared that each man return to his birthplace to register." Grandfather had a sour look on his face, remembering that a census had been against the teachings of the Holy Books. "I remember that Josiah and I looked at each other in wonderment, but we did not talk. We kept on walking, following the Star. And, at last, it came to stop."

"Where, Grandfather! Where did the Star stop?" Zachary bounced up and down in excitement. They were coming to the best part of the story.

"The Star--that brilliant, glowing Star--stopped over a stable, a very poor structure cut into the side of the hill. I stood before it, the smell of the hay in my nostrils and the bleating of the animals in my ears, thinking that this could not be the place. It was too dirty, too common, to be the birthplace of a king! Josiah and I thought to leave and return to our sheep before morning. But then..." Grandfather paused and lifted his eyes towards the heavens,"...then we heard the cry of a newborn baby. And we knew. Those of us who had come--and there were many with Josiah and myself--pushed open the rough door and there He was, an infant in His mother's arms. The woman, his mother, she smiled up at us. She did not seem at all surprised to see a group of rag tag shepherds standing before her! She was so young, so pretty. We stared, all of us, and a man--much older than she--led us further into the cave and bade us to look down at the child."

"What did He look like?" asked Zachary eagerly. Surely the Son of God would be handsome and richly robed!

But Grandfather's answer disappointed him. "He looked like any other baby, Zachary. Like you, when you were born. Like your mother, when she was born. Like any other baby ever born. But then, He smiled. A tiny, newborn baby, only hours old, and He smiled. He looked into my eyes and He smiled. And I felt that I had always known Him, that He had always known me. I fell to my knees and I wept."

Grandfather fell silent, the image of the Star in his memory. Zachary closed his eyes and imagined the brilliance of that special Star. If it had happened once, such a beautiful, amazing sight, could it not happen again? Were not all things possible with God? "Grandfather?" the boy asked softly.

Grandfather's answer was equally soft. "Yes."

"If the Babe was God's own son, and the Star was sent so men would find Him, where is He now? Why doesn't everyone know?"

Grandfather sighed. "Some never saw the Star. It was a long, long time ago. Some have forgotten it. Once, about thirty years ago, there were rumors of a prophet who performed miracles. There are people who say He was the Messiah. " Grandfather shrugged. "I do not know. I only know what I saw on that night, what I never forgot. Remember this, Zachary, that God never forgets. He made a promise to us, His people. When the time is right, all the people in the world will know His Son."

"And the Star, Grandfather? Will it come again, do you think? More than anything in the world, I would like to see it!" Zachary's voice held the hope of a small child.

Grandfather smiled and laid a gnarled old hand on his grandson's head. "Do not give up your dream, Zachary! All men need a star to guide them. You are still young, little one, but not too young to follow a star, nor to dream of one."

Grandfather would say no more about the star he had seen. He spent the next few days in quiet thought and many times Zachary came upon him with his prayer cloth over his head. Zachary knew that his parents had forgotten his strange birthday wish. He saw chips of wood shavings near his mother's sewing basket, and heard the whinnying of a new donkey behind his father's workshop. But he did not repeat his wish out loud again, only thinking on it long and hard. If he could see the Star for himself, just once, he would know that God heard his voice, that he mattered.

The days before a birthday are long. Zachary helped around the house and in the shop. He  played with his friends and tried not to hope too much.

The night before his birthday, his mother came to kiss him goodnight. "Your big day is tomorrow," she said with a smile. "What a grown up boy you are becoming! Too big for foolish wishes, isn't that so? Zachary swallowed hard and nodded.

His father also came to bid him good night. "And in the morning, a birthday surprise, eh? I wonder what it will be!" he laughed. Then Father winked at Mother and rumpled Zachary's hair. Grandfather did not come to say good night before Zachary fell asleep, dreaming of dancing stars and singing donkeys.

The light woke him and at first Zachary thought it was still part of his dream. He sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes, realizing it must be the light of morning. But it did not feel like morning. His brain still felt clouded with sleep. He rubbed his eyes again and swung his legs over the side of his pallet.

And there was Grandfather, grinning widely, his eyes twinkling. "Have you seen your present?" he asked, but his hands were empty. Zachary shook his head. For a brief moment he forgot the day. "My present?" he asked.

"Follow me!" Grandfather beckoned and Zachary obeyed, tiptoeing around the pallet of his sleeping parents. Outside, it was still dark. Zachary thought they would head to the workshop where the surprise donkey slept, but Grandfather stopped midway in the yard and pointed overhead.

"There!" he said.

Then Zachary saw it. The Star! It stood high up in the sky, outshining every other star. It's beams angled into the window's of Zachary's house, shedding a light both bright and pure.

Zachary grabbed hold of Grandfather's hand. Neither one spoke.

"What is it?" asked Mother, her hair tumbling down her back from sleep. Father was rubbing his eyes in disbelief, standing there with Grandfather and Zachary. The beams from the Star enveloped them all in a beautiful light.

"The Star!" gasped Mother. She turned to Grandfather. "I remember you telling me of it when I was still a child. I never thought to see it. I had all but forgotten about it and the stories you used to tell."

"It's beautiful," said Father. "Zachary, I thought yours was a foolish wish. But I believe this Star is for you."

"For each of us, " said Grandfather. "The Star is a sign to all who seek God. The Star shines now, as it did long ago, for each of us. It will always shine, in our hearts and in our minds. And we must each, in our own ways, seek to follow it."

Mother hugged Grandfather tightly, then turned to Father. Lastly, she hugged Zachary long and hard, whispering to him, "Thank you for sharing your birthday wish with us. You are a wise and dear child."

"And," grinned Zachary, " a child with a new wooden toy camel and a new donkey!" Mother and Father laughed.

"But most of all, Zachary," said Grandfather, "you are a child with a star of your own to follow."

And, for the rest of his life, Zachary did.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Star for Zachary: Part I

Zachary's birthday was coming soon. He thought long and hard about the present he would ask for. Birthdays came only once a year. It would be awful to waste a birthday wish!

"We are not rich people, Zachary," his mother had said. "Only one present."

Zachary knew his parents both worked hard. He knew his grandfather tried not to complain about the cold that made his knees ache because fuel was costly. Zachary knew that although his family had more than some, they were not rich. Somehow, though, it never felt as if they were poor.

"We have each other!" his father would say in his big, booming voice, lifting Zachary off the ground and swinging him up to his shoulders. Even when the fishing was poor and his mother's vegetable garden blighted with heat, Zachary understood that a family was much better than a wooden top or a new pair of sandals.

After much thought, Zachary decided what he wanted for his birthday.

He told his mother, whispering into her ear as she stirred the stew pot. "Zachary!" she said with a gay laugh. "What an idea! Better pick another gift. Perhaps a little carved camel, such as your friend James has." Mother knew where a smooth piece of wood was hidden that would make a wonderful camel. She went back to her stirring.

Zachary told his father. "Oh, no, son," he said. "Where do you get such thoughts? Listening to the stories of your grandfather? He is an old man and his mind is often confused. Such a present is not possible. Why not a sturdy little donkey of your own, now that would be a gift!"Father knew where such a donkey could be had in exchange for services. He continued swinging his hammer against the iron anvil.

Zachary told his grandfather. "Ah!" said Grandfather, and his eyes twinkles brightly. "An excellent choice! What could be better than a piece of the sky? What could be better than a star to call your own?"

"Mother and Father said that no one can own a star," said Zachary sadly. "They thought it was a foolish wish." It had seemed such a fine idea! Still, Grandfather had not laughed at his foolishness. Was such a thing possible?

Grandfather's voice took on his "story-telling" tone and Zachary settled back happily. Grandfather's stories of his days as a shepherd, spending long nights alone with only sheep for company, were always wonderful and, unlike Mother's, never hurried.

"I am an old man now," Grandfather said, "but once, when I was young--not much older than you, grandson--I too, searched for a star. My own grandfather, my Abba, he had told me what the prophets had said such a star would mean! I searched in the sky and, although I could barely read, in the words of great men. I listened at Temple and in the courts. Ah, they thought I was but an ignorant shepherd boy, but my ears could work just fine.

"I learned, Zachary, that there were many searching for a star, a sign that God had not forgotten us." Grandfather shook his shaggy gray head. "Those were terrible times, Grandson. Terrible times for our people. We needed to find the sign of God's promises."

Zachary nodded. "Father says that at the Temple the scholars still argue. Some say the prophecy of God has been fulfilled. Some say it has not."

Grandfather shrugged. "I do not have much in the way of education. I just know what I was looking for. I know that I needed to see a sign that we, God's chosen people, had not been forgotten."

"Mother says that God put the stars in the heavens to light the way for all of us. That no one person can own a star," said Zachary.

"Your mother is a wise and practical woman," said Grandfather. "But your mother is also wrong. She has forgotten the stories I told her at my knee, when she was very young. She has forgotten that our lives are not forever bound to this earth. She has forgotten how to hope."

"Why has she forgotten, Grandfather?"

Grandfather shrugged. "It is hard to be an adult, little one. There are too many cares. It is only old men and young boys who have time for dreams."

"But the star!" said Zachary. "You haven't told me the part about the star!" It was the part of Grandfather's stories that Zachary liked best, the part he always asked for. It was the part, Zachary reminded himself, that Mother said was just in Grandfather's imagination.

Grandfather was not to be hurried. "I'm coming to it, child. Many men, much wiser than I, hunted for the star. They studied the great scrolls of knowledge, they searched the heavens. Why, I heard that in Capernaum where there is a great telescope, learned men searched each corner of the heavens for years on end. Men from far distant countries also searched for it. They knew what the star would bring. It would mean that we had not been forgotten by God, but that he had sent his Son to us, to teach us and to help us."

Zachary's eyes had, as always, grown wide with wonder. "And did the Star come, Grandfather?"

Grandfather nodded, a faraway look in his eyes. "It come. It came on a cold and dark night, a night so silent that I could hear the heartbeat of my sheep. They seemed to know, too, that something was different. They huddled together in the night, their bleatings soft and scared. Then, suddenly, all was light! It rose up into the sky, so full of brilliance and brighter than any star I had ever seen! It was so bright that the other starts could not be seen at all! I stood and I stared at it and, it seemed to me, I heard singing far off in the distance. Even though I was cold, I felt the warmth of the light from the star. And I shouted for my friend Josiah, who was below me on the hill."

Grandfather was lost in his thoughts now. "And Josiah came running, his cloak flying around him, for he, too, had seen the star. We stood there, the two of us, just watching and listening."

Zachary tugged on Grandfather's sleeve. "And what about the sheep, Grandfather? What did they do?"

"Ah, the sheep, they all laid down together, one warm and soft ball, and they were silent, as if they,too, were listening. Josiah and I stood for a very long time, just watching."

"And, then, Grandfather? And then?" Zachary knew that the best part of the story was coming.

"And then, child, it began to move. Yes, the star moved! We knew, then, that it was not an ordinary star which stays in one place in the heavens. We knew this was a special star. It moved with all its brilliance and beauty, lighting the sky as it moved. And we followed it, leaving our sheep on the hills. Josiah and I followed it, and we were joined by others." He turned to look at his grandson. "Even now, when I think of it, I find it impossible to believe. A Star that traveled! Who ever heard of such a thing! And why should I, just a poor shepherd boy,why should I be allowed to see it? It was so long ago, child, that sometimes I think I imagined it, just as your mother says."

"But you didn't," said Zachary. "You didn't imagine it, Grandfather."

The old man shook his head. "No, I did not imagine it. It was real. I can close my eyes and see it still, that beautiful Star. The Star led us on that night, Zachary, stopping to let us rest, never ceasing its magnificent glow. Not even the passing clouds could hinder it."

"Where did the Star lead, Grandfather?" asked Zachary, who knew the answer. "To a palace? a castle? a place befitting the Son of God?"

But Grandfather did not answer for long moments. Zachary waited patiently. The story was worth the wait.

Look for Part II soon!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Faint Purple Glow

My son is entranced by the iridescent purple glow as I snap the lightstick and bring the liquid to life. My hasty purchase at the Boardwalk 5 & 10 proves cheap entertainment for a four-year old that has thus far screamed and cried through most of our vacation. I slide the string through the hole in the miraculous tool, knot it, and show Kenny how to twirl it around his finger, the phosphorescence making a bright arc in the night sky. He laughs and claps his hands together.
            “Again, Daddy!” he commands and I obey, but this time I let the string slip from my grasp and the purple glow ascends into the black sky, arches, curves back to the beach. Kenny runs to its landing site on sturdy legs and I follow close behind, despite my practically new leather loafers quickly filling with sand.

            It is good to see Kenny laughing, enjoying himself. It seems as if everything at this beach resort has scared him or worries him, from the agonizingly long car ride to the ferocious pounding of the surf against the beach to the crowds and whirls of color at the amusement pier. All have been a source of pain for my young son.

            Kenny picks up the glowing stick and tosses it over his head. His eyes are bright with excitement and his alabaster cheeks reflect a faint purples glow from the light stick. The cylinder loops over his head, a single bright ray in the inky darkness.

            I glance back toward the boardwalk where Beth and the girls are still busy feeding quarters into arcade games. It is hot and noisy in the arcade. This has been the final agony for Kenny, who began a non-stop wail to the embarrassment of his three sisters and the exasperation of Beth. Her patience with Kenny is phenomenal, but I recognize that she, too, has limits. This is her vacation as well as mine. And so far, Kenny has made relaxation a dim hope. So I conceive my strategy and whisk Kenny off, leaving Beth and the girls with whatever peace and quiet reigns in a noisy arcade.

            Here the beach I feel alone, cut-off with only Kenny for company. The lights and the sounds of the vacationers do not penetrate to the water’s edge. Even the sound of the surf is quiet, muffled by the velvet night. Kenny revels in the coolness of the sand. Chubby fingers soon untie sneakers and peel off socks so he can dabble his toes in the same ocean that made him scream only hours ago. He splashes water at me—little imp—and I kick off my own loafers and roll up my khakis, joining him in his frolic.

            He is a beautiful child, my longed-for son. The moonlight reflects pale silver on his blonde head. His pert nose is charmingly pink with sunburn. But it is Kenny’s eyes that usually illicit comment, large hazel orbs that change color with his mood. His sisters are jealous of his long, curled lashes and perfectly arched brows. “Wasted on a boy,” they say and rumple his hair affectionately.

            It is the intelligence I see in his eyes that I admire and long to unlock. Born after only twenty-six weeks, Kenny spent his first six months struggling to survive. Beth and I logged countless hours at the hospital, hovering over his isolette, but it was Kenny who fought to breathe and move on his own, to keep his miniature heart pounding and blood rushing through his infinitesimal veins. “The size of sewing thread,” said one doctor.

            Kenny—unlike many infants born too soon—made it home, to us. He made it home to a life that continues to frustrate and challenge him and likely always will. I sigh deeply and pray that my grief is for Kenny, not my own shattered dreams.

            “Look, Daddy!” shrieks my son with Glee. He is trailing the purple light stick in the bubbles along the surf, tinting the water with purple rays. “Pretty!”

            “Wow, Kenny! That’s great!’ I holler back. He grins. Vacation miseries are forgotten. His world is reduced to only this light, this beach, his father’s rare undivided attention.

            Kenny has had a difficult year. So has Beth. Twice his under-developed lungs sent him to the hospital. Ear infections and sore throats have plagued him. His speech therapist has reckoned Kenny’s vocal skills to those of a two and a half year old. There is no way of knowing yet if his early birth affected his IQ.

            But Kenny’s eyes, so alive, convince me that somewhere inside my small son is an intelligent being. He tosses the light into the air, misses it, laughs at himself, does it again. He flashes me a beatific smile and tosses the stick to me. “Daddy, catch!”

            And I do. For a few moments, we are only a father and son, engaged in a normal game of catch. Then I cannot resist the urge to teach my son something new and I grab the glowing light stick. “Watch, Kenny!” I sketch a letter “K” into the dark night with the iridescent light, and a streak of faint purple remains for a brief moment. Kenny stares intently and I know that, on some level, he is analyzing this trick of his old dad. I draw the letter again, and say, “K. K is for Kenny.” And the purple glow fills the night as I sketch K and after K after K.

            Moments pass. The glow of the purple K’s fades. Kenny, gently, takes the light stick from my hand. Slowly, carefully, he traces a line in the sky. Then another at a 45-degree angle. Then a downward slash. Solemnly he says, “K. Is for Kenny.” Then he points the purple light to his chest. “Me.”

            My mouth opens wide. I want to tell Kenny how wonderful he is, how magnificent, all I ever hoped for in a son, but I say simply, “Yes. You.”

            He laughs. His little arms encircle my leg briefly. Then the fascination of the light calls him again and he tosses the stick further up the beach and races for it.

            Beth and the girls will find their own way back to the hotel from the bright lights of the boardwalk. Kenny and I race along the beach, the waves gently tickling our toes and our shoes forgotten, as he chases after his light, the faint purple glow a beacon in the night.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

How I Learned to Write

My grandmother always called it “the playroom,” but it was bereft of toys or games or anything else that would entertain two visiting grandchildren. Nonetheless, my brother and I spent hours in the drafty place—really just an afterthought our grandfather had tacked onto the dining room—while Mom and Nanny worked on Sunday dinner in the kitchen. A huge desk, immense to a child of six, occupied most of the space, complete with a swivel chair of cracked leather and lopsided proportions. The drawers of the desk were full of old receipts, pens that did not work, and papers from my father’s school days.

The other attraction to the room was a large wood closet, hand-crafted by Pop Pop out of cast-off wood. For some purpose unknown to my brother and me, the inside of the closet featured a set of steps that went nowhere. This intrigued us; we would take turns seeing how far we could go before our heads hit the ceiling. After this novelty wore off, my brother used it to play with his Slinky and toy cars.

But I turned my attention to the desk, that big and imposing piece of furniture with its drawers and pigeonholes and old ink blotter. I took the pens from the various drawers and tested them on the old green blotter, organizing the ones that still wrote into the little wooden boxes along the top of the desk. I carefully put all the papers into piles of size and color. I wrote my name over and over again on the backs of old Christmas cards.

And I made a discovery: deep in a bottom drawer, hidden under a set of oil paints, was a gray binder. The cover featured a Scottish terrier with a red plaid bow. There was still paper inside the binder, white paper with faint blue lines set close together.
I was enthralled.

I took the binder to my father. My brother and I knew that the toys and games we found in the house on Chester Pike once belonged to him; he was the only child to have ever lived in the large house with its curving staircases and high ceilings. He was sitting in the kitchen with my grandfather, talking about things at Westinghouse—the company where they both worked—when I came in with the binder.

My father took it from my hands. “Ah, I remember this! I think I had it in fifth grade.” He ran his hand over the cover, and then gave it back to me. “You can have it if you want.” I held it to me, prized possession that it was, and ran back to the playroom with it. I was already imagining the feel of a pen in my hand, the flow of the ink as it met the white paper. In my imagination, a black Scottish terrier frolicked across the yard, meeting a girl with a red and white bow in her hair. Together, they solved mysteries.

And so, the adventures of Scotty and Alice began to fill the lined pages of the notebook, written in pencil, careful block printing that I tried to make imitate the text of my beloved books. I didn’t plan the stories out in any way; I just wrote. Alice and Scotty found her grandfather’s missing watch, and discovered a nest of baby robins, and located Alice’s brother lost roller skate key. I filled all the pages in the binder, then looked for other places to put my words.

The cast-off envelopes in my grandfather’s big desk were full of blank spaces. Soon, they were full of words. So were the backs of old receipts. They were all stuffed into the gray Scotty binder.
I was becoming a writer. But, except for school assignments, I kept my writing to myself.

The practice on scraps of paper helped me. My teachers read my assignments out loud and marked my papers with big red A’s and stickers. But even as a teacher was extolling the virtues of my latest story, I would be constructing a new one in my head. It was my secret; I lived inside my head, creating my own characters and situations. I could scribble away for hours, content in a world I created. In high school, a teacher submitted one of my poems to a contest and I won. But when the guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to study in college, I said teaching. Teaching was, my parents had pointed out, a safe career for a woman.

I became a Teacher. When people asked me what I did, I said I was a teacher.

I kept writing, filling my stories into new binders, writing into spiral notebooks. I wrote and I taught and I married and raised a family. My family gave me more fodder for stories. My students became poems. But still, my writing was my secret vice, stealthily done after real work was accomplished. My stack of spiral  notebooks grew.

Finally, one summer I got brave. I enrolled in the Writing Institute at West Chester University, spending six weeks in a trailer on the Bull Center parking lot. I wrote. I wrote and I shared and I edited and I heard people—fellow students and our instructors—tell me something I had never heard before: that my writing was good enough to be published. In fact, Lynn told me, “I can’t believe you have not been discovered before.”

Now I write in the open. I write and I blog and I publish my books. Most of the time, people like what I write. Once in a while, they do not. I do not care. I write because I have to, because the stories that inhabit my head beg to be told. I write because it fills an empty void inside of me. I write because it brings me joy.

I am still a Teacher. And a Wife.And a Mother.And now a College Professor and a Literacy Specialist and an Instructional Coach. These are the roles I fulfill for other people.

But I am a Writer for me.