A Tale of Two Cardinals

Two CardinalsI never thought much about birds, certainly not Cardinals. Undoubtedly, the males with their brilliant red feathers are eye-catching. Yet not that long ago, I believed that collecting bird memorabilia was better left to those with little to do. Now Cardinal keepsakes are finding their way into my home.

Most people who grow up in Ohio probably know that the Northern Cardinal is our state bird. It is also the state bird for Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

For most of my life, I was just too busy to even notice the crimson creatures who commonly nest in a pair. A pair, that’s what my late mother and stepfather of more than 35 years were. When they died less than five months apart eight years ago, I didn’t think that the holidays would ever be joyful again.

After all, every Christmas my husband and I would fill our car with food, gifts, and suitcases, and make the trip from Ohio to Philadelphia to spend the holidays with my parents. Both my mom and stepfather were musicians. She was a church organist and choir director. Neal also became a choir director later in life, although when he was young he traveled the world with the Navy band. They were an ecumenical couple, since my stepdad was a Baptist, but Mom played and directed music wherever the “Spirit” led.

My beautiful mother

My beautiful mother

Christmas at their house was all about music, too. When my husband and I would arrive, often Mom would invite us to join whatever choir she was currently directing on an interim basis. My hubby and I would both try to graciously decline, but somehow Christmas morning would find us reluctantly dressed in choir robes with my mother directing away.

On our last Christmas together in 2009, my then 77-year-old mother insisted I escort my stepfather to the church platform. By then, he was almost 80, and legally blind from diabetes. Still she wanted him to stand behind her as she accompanied the choir and congregation on the pipe organ as they sang Handel’s Hallelujah chorus. I can still hear his deep baritone voice, as he sang out the notes he must have known by heart.

It was such a shock when “Teddy Bear” as he affectionately called Mom died suddenly ten months later in October 2010.  Following her death, my stepfather’s broken heart stopped beating in less than five months, too.

After someone you love dies you often find out things about them that you never knew. For instance, after my mother’s death my sister shared how Mom would often look out the window above her kitchen sink to watch the birds that would gather in their foliage filled yard. I also learned that the crimson-colored Cardinals were a favorite.

After their deaths, as the holiday season began approaching, I was dreading another Christmas without them. I had no idea how I was going to be able to celebrate or create new traditions. Then one day, I was looking out my own kitchen window when suddenly I spied a Cardinal near the evergreen tree in my backyard. There was a second less colorful Cardinal who landed on one of the tree’s branches. Instantly, I realized that these birds were a couple.

I didn’t know then that Northern Cardinals nest as a pair, and that the female is tan, and often has red in her wings or tail feathers. Nor did I know that the male is incredibly protective and that he sings loudly to keep other males away.  So like my stepfather who always kept a watchful eye on my mother. All I could tell was that these two lovebirds were singing a duet. As I watched the Cardinals communicating, suddenly my gloomy mood turned to one of amazement and joy.Neal and Glenna Sprang with Christina Ryan Claypool, daughter

It was then I began seeing Cardinals everywhere, since they remain in the north all year long. For instance, while passing a store downtown bookstore displayed on the glass window, I saw a picture of the red Cardinal with a story about the Christmas legend that surrounds the beautiful bird.

As for the legend, according to www.relijournal.com, “The Cardinal [is] christened the “Christmas Bird” for its spectacular red color….A glimpse of this brilliant bird brings cheer, hope and inspiration on a gray wintry day. This is nature’s reminder for us to focus on our faith; the Cardinal’s scarlet plumage represents the blood of Christ shed for the redemption of mankind.”

For me, two Cardinals singing together were a Heavenly sign reminding me that those we love live on in our hearts. May this season of unexpected miracles bring you the renewed hope found in the One who is the Creator of Cardinals. Merry Christmas and God blessings to you and your family!

Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy and Ohio APME award- winning freelance journalist and Inspirational speaker. She has been featured on Joyce Meyer Ministries Enjoying Everyday Life TV Show and CBN’s 700 Club, and has an M.A. from Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Her website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com. Her novel, Secrets of the Pastor’s Wife was released fall 2018. 

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Battling the Day after Christmas Blues

Christmas tree with presents and fireplace with stockings --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisTwas the day after Christmas and in every store, shoppers were returning presents galore:  an ill-fitting sweater, a calendar of cats, unwanted perfume, and NFL hats. They stood in long lines, their foreheads glistening with sweat, disgruntled that they hadn’t been waited on yet. You see, the clerks were all tired and too burned-out to care, while the recipients of gift cards were finding sales everywhere.

The above lines are my brief parody of the well-known Christmas poem, Twas the Night before Christmas written by Clement Clark Moore in 1822. This poem is also commonly referred to as A Visit from St. Nicholas because according to www.carols.org it “redefined our image of Christmas and Santa Claus.” The poem is a classic read for many American youngsters on Christmas Eve, as today’s “visions of sugar-plums dance in their heads.”

The problem is that in our society, children are not fixated on receiving small pieces of sugary candy, but rather on big ticket items that most parents cannot afford. Likewise, the jewelry store commercials have led countless bewildered mates down the path of purchasing a budget-breaking bauble on credit.

No disrespect intended, but maybe you’re one of the sentimental suckers who fell for these ads. Now the day after Christmas you’re experiencing a massive case of post-purchase dissonance. That’s a technical term for the sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re concerned that you’ve spent more on an item than you probably should have. Take heart, I’m sure you did make someone very happy, despite the fact that the gift probably won’t be paid off until Christmastime next year.

Even more depressing are the commercials portraying perfect families gathering to sing carols and toast eggnog. The truth is that many of us spent Christmas alone, or with a tiny remnant of our geographically dispersed families, possibly mourning either deceased loved ones or broken relationships.

Just days ago, the gaily wrapped presents under the tree promised some kind of hopeful Christmas spirit. Now, trash bags filled with ripped wrapping paper and torn cardboard boxes might be a mocking reminder of these unfulfilled expectations. However, the true gifts of Christmas are rarely presents in a box that can be returned the day after Christmas. Rather, they are simply unexpected gifts of love that create memories that can be cherished forever. The greatest example is the origin of Christmas itself, when a baby was born in a Bethlehem stable bringing love to the entire world.

Besides remembering the true reason for the season, it can also be helpful to recant the blessings of holidays past, to battle the day after Christmas blues. One of my miracles happened when I owned a thrift store near the Lima mall and my now adult son was a preteen. Our car had a flat tire the day before Christmas Eve, and Zach and I walked blocks in the sub-zero temperatures back to my store.

Besides the car, I had an old van to haul merchandise, but it had also refused to start the day before. As a single mom, there had been some rough moments, but when I woke up that Christmas Eve, I had no idea how things could work out. I opened my store, praying that I might make extra cash for the vehicle repairs. But where would I find a mechanic on a holiday?

Then early in the afternoon, a slight built young man with dark hair came in and asked if there was any work that he could do to earn $50.00 for a bus ticket, so that he could get home for Christmas. When I asked him what kind of work he did, he told me he was studying in the automotive program at University of Northwestern Ohio. Less than an hour later, he had changed my car’s tire and got the van running again. I gave him the money he needed for his bus ticket, thanking him profusely for his help.

After he left, I stood frozen and speechless, awed by the power of divine intervention. I never saw my Christmas Eve angel again. But this year, when I needed to be reminded of Christmas miracles, I remembered his visit. I’m hoping this column reminds you of your own memories of past holiday blessings, and of all the miracles still to come. These blessings will never be found in a material present. Rather they abound when we come to know the tiny baby born in a manger who is our heavenly Father’s greatest gift of love.

Tis` the day after Christmas, but there’s no need to feel down. Just remember that miracles of love still abound. Happy New Year to all and to all a good day!

Christina Ryan Claypool is an author, inspirational speaker, and wanna-be poet. Contact her at christina@christinaryanclapool.com. This column was originally published in The Lima News.          

                    

 

 

 

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Advice for those Grieving this Christmas

Christmas Dining TableThe holidays are upon us and some folks don’t feel so merry. This is especially true for those who have lost a loved one recently. Grieving can make the glitter of the Christmas season grow particularly dim.

Admittedly, grief comes in stages. One milestone for me occurred late in the fall of 2011, when the remaining leaves on the trees were ablaze with breathtaking color. However, that Sunday afternoon the skies were dark and heavy with rain. The weather matched my downcast mood. When a rented moving truck pulled into my driveway, my heart sank. I inhaled deeply then waved to my stepsister, Cindy, and her husband, Mark. To me, it felt as if the Indianapolis couple were transporting the body of a loved one, instead of our parents’ old furniture.

Losing my mother, Glenna Sprang, suddenly in 2010 was devastating. There had been no warning or preparation. She was a Philadelphia organist who played two church services on the morning of October 10th. That same afternoon, pain from a kidney stone gone terribly wrong sent her to a Pennsylvania hospital where she died three days later.Mom and me

Mom was 78. Even though she had been in excellent health, I should have realized she wouldn’t live forever. Five months later on March 5, 2011, Neal Sprang, my 80-year-old stepfather of 35 years died. Theirs had been an age-old love story. Two hearts so intrinsically intertwined, that one couldn’t keep beating for long without the other.

My stepsister and her husband had made the difficult trip to our parents’ home in Philadelphia to retrieve the furniture that we had inherited. For me, there was my grandfather’s writing desk, a birds-eye maple vanity, and a mahogany table with six chairs. Long ago, Mom and “Dad” had purchased the dining room set from a church rummage sale.

That old table has seen many wonderful memories of Christmases past. Every holiday, formal china and the good silverware would be set on the linen tablecloth, which would be laden with my mother’s steaming homemade dishes. The iridescent flames of the candles decorating the centerpiece would reflect in the crystal chandelier. For hours, my siblings and I would gather around the table sharing stories and laughing solicitously at my stepfather’s corny jokes.  

For awhile, there was an eerie silence that greeted me each time I gazed at that Duncan Phyfe table that ended up in my dining room in central Ohio. Its presence reminded me of the permanence of my parents’ passing.

Then last December, I met Rev. Philip Chilcote who gave me some great advice on how to deal with my parents’ loss. “In a particular family, you might have five children….who lose a parent and that’s five totally different griefs,” explained Rev. Chilcote who is the chaplain at Wilson Hospice in Sidney, Ohio. He is also the bereavement coordinator for the organization who assists the families of hospice patients with their own grief issues.

In addition, sixty-year-old Chilcote is the pastor of Sidney’s First Christian Church. In his role as a minister he has walked alongside countless families devastated by the loss of a loved one. “Grief is a re-adaptation process meaning we have to learn to live our lives without somebody who has always been there,” said the hospice professional. “We have to learn to adapt to a different world. Not only is the world different, but we are different,” he said.

For grieving individuals creating new traditions and rituals is important. Some folks try to ignore the loss, but Chilcote believes that you should, “include the one who is gone in what you do.” For example, if you normally hang Christmas stockings, the expert who has led grief support groups for two decades, suggests that you should hang a stocking for the individual who died.

If the deceased family member “always had the chair at the end of the table,” Rev. Chilcote says that you could leave the chair empty, or choose someone to sit in their place. As for giving, if it was your tradition to purchase a $50.00 gift certificate for the late family member,  you could make a donation to a charity or ministry in their honor, or give to a neighbor in need.  

“People can buy a special candle and at the place at the table where they sat you can light the candle…and go around the table and have each person say what they meant to you,” suggests the seasoned grief counselor. “Tell funny stories about them. Most people who die, wouldn’t want you to be sad,” he added.

My parents would definitely not want the joyous season to be filled with mourning. They were both church choir directors who believed that Christmas wasn’t about presents and mistletoe, but rather about a baby born in a Bethlehem manger whose love lives forever.

That’s why I took Rev. Chilcote’s advice last Christmas and kept my stepfather’s place at the table empty. I placed a candle where my stepdad always sat, and lit it to honor him and my mother. My mother was always too busy serving to sit much, but I made sure there was an empty china coffee cup, since she always enjoyed her pie with a cup of hot coffee.

This past year, I tried to create new family memories around my parents’ beautiful dining room table, realizing that was why it had been entrusted to me. Memories that would make my mother clap her hands in delight, and my stepfather comment, “Very good,” a saying he used when something pleased him. I no longer feel sad when I look at the table, but rather grateful that I was given such a gift.

Yet if you are reading this and you are too depressed to partake in holiday festivities, know that it really will get better. You never stop missing your loved ones, but when we know Jesus, we know that there will be a great reunion someday soon. For now, in the words that my mother always signed her Christmas cards, I wish you, “Peace, Love, and Joy,” this holiday season. 

 Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy award winning freelance journalist and  speaker who is the author of the book, Seeds of Hope for Survivors. Visit her Website at  www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in the Sidney Daily News.

 

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Giving Thanks when it’s not easy

As we observe Thanksgiving week, everyone seems to be talking turkey, family gatherings, and all about giving thanks. Yet, maybe you haven’t been at the top of your game lately, which can make it difficult to have an attitude of gratitude. Whether it’s losing a loved one, unemployment, a chronic health crisis, or a financial dilemma, life’s circumstances can really get you down.

Down is where Los Angeles judge, John Kralik was when he began to write his 2010 memoir, “365 Thank Yous,” later known as, “A Simple Act of Gratitude.” The book’s back cover says that this inspiring story is about how, “… writing thank you notes – led a hopeless, angry, middle-aged man out of despair and into a wonderful life.” Kralik’s book is not really as much about writing thank you notes, as it is about becoming aware of the many blessings one is granted daily.

For example, Ed Ball is grateful for, “…family and friends.” Ball is the executive director of Ohio’s Shelby County Veterans Service Commission. Ball graduated from Sidney High School in 1976 and two days later was in basic training. After a 20 year career in the Navy, he returned to his hometown, and today assists those who have served our country.

Although for many military families, Ball admits that it is, “A tough time of year…We have a lot of veterans not only here in Shelby County, but across Ohio [and all across our country] that are deployed to Afghanistan,” he said. There is an upside though, because “We had 2,000 personnel [from the Ohio National Guard] return…this year. They will be spending the [holidays with their families]…for that we are grateful,” said 55-year-old Ball. 

Still for many there is an empty place at the holiday table. I know my Mom and Stepdad’s absence is something that I’m still getting used to after two years. Like me, many of you might have a loved one overseas, recently deceased, or just absent due to a broken relationship. Or you might spend your holiday dinner alone, since many families feel the fracture of divorce or even simply geographical distance.

Still there are things to be grateful for, no matter our circumstances. Because in another book about gratitude titled, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, author, Ann Voskamp displays how it is the little blessings that folks often overlook.  Voskamp’s memoir is all about answering some difficult spiritual questions like, “How does one slow down enough for the soul and God to live in synch?”

After all, to experience gratitude one must reduce life’s pace, and become aware of the significance in the seemingly insignificant. Thankfulness not only at Thanksgiving, but all year long can be a powerful tool indeed. “To fully live – to live full of grace and joy and all that is beauty eternal. It is possible, wildly,” writes Voskamp in her poetic style.

Truthfully, I haven’t always known a lot about gratitude. Rather, I lived much of my life with the cup half-empty mentality, like many Americans concentrating on what I didn’t have. Not so much desiring material things, rather missing the little blessings that are easy to take for granted. Now I strive diligently to appreciate what each day brings. And sometimes on holidays when your family is broken, or you are grieving for someone who has passed away, I know this isn’t easy.

Still regardless of what is going on in our lives, if we look closely, we will usually find that there is much to be grateful for. After all, there is a God who loves us unconditionally, who will never leave us alone, and who can do anything but fail.  For now, from the Road Less Traveled, a Happy Thanksgiving holiday to you all, and remember to give thanks!  

This column is dedicated to Kimberly Winegardner, my precious friend who won her final battle over cancer on Oct. 1, 2012, by going to be home with her Lord. This column is an excerpt from a column written for the Sidney Daily News on Nov. 22, 2012.

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