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. 

Breakfast with a not-so-famous Tony Bennett

Click on Chewbacca Mom photo to see Youtube video.

It’s easier than it’s ever been to become famous. When a cellphone video goes viral, an individual can gain instant popularity. Last May, 37-year-old Candace Payne became an overnight sensation when she filmed herself laughing hysterically, while wearing a Chewbacca mask. The video became so popular, that Payne ended up being featured on Good Morning America and The Late Late Show with James Corden, among countless other appearances. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg even invited the Texas mom to visit the social media website’s headquarters.

In my formative years before the advent of the Internet, overnight success was almost non-existent. Still, back then a lot of little boys grew up wanting to become a well-known president, and girls dreamed of being a famous movie star or the wife of someone important. When feminism hit in the seventies, a lot of young women also decided they wanted to be president. I’ll bet not too many young people today would desire the notoriety of the oval office, but that’s a whole other column.

Celebrity has never been a huge draw for me. Of course, it would be great to win a Pulitzer Prize like poet Sylvia Plath, or a Nobel Peace Prize like civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet like many renowned people, fame exacted a tremendous cost. The brilliant Plath took her own life, and the inspirational Dr. King was senselessly slain for his convictions.

Anyway, dependent on the size of your pond, there will always be a more famous fish. More importantly, if you climb to the top of the ladder, there’s a good chance you will have to experience the long climb down more than once.tony-bennett-2

For example, famed singer Tony Bennett was definitely not at the top of his game, when I served him breakfast in the late 1970s. I first saw the musical legend early in the morning, as he sat waiting for a server at the former Cascade Holiday Inn in Akron, Ohio. He was alone, reading his newspaper for what seemed like an eternity, while the small group of waitresses where I worked, argued about who should wait on him.

My co-workers seemed awed by his celebrity, so nobody wanted to take his table. I assumed the poor man was hungry, and even though he wasn’t in my section, I volunteered. Mr. Bennett needed breakfast, and I was a struggling college student in need of a good tip. Honestly, I had almost no idea who he was. By then, his career was in a downward spiral, and he was on the fast track to becoming a has-been. Two of his mid-seventies albums had failed to gain popular success, and he had parted ways with his record label. I had heard of his 1962 hit, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” but was too young to be impressed.

tony-bennett-billSadly, I took the singer’s order for Eggs Benedict and served him without even acknowledging that I knew who he was. The talented performer was very polite, and I should have at least complimented him on his incredible voice. Thankfully, Bennett didn’t need my affirmation, because the test of time has proven his enduring talent. By 1986, with a new album and his son as manager, the Italian crooner was back on the map, and more Grammys would eventually follow. The vivacious senior turned 90 last August. Decades since that fated breakfast, he remains an icon among celebrities. For instance, his 2014 CD with Lady Gaga titled, “Cheek to Cheek” won a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.

For me, meeting this amazing performer was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’ve always regretted my omission of not recognizing the importance of his musical contribution. Especially, when he was at the bottom of his game. So, Tony Bennett, if you somehow get a chance to read this, I would like to publicly apologize for being an ignorant kid, who didn’t realize how much joy your music would give to our world. I think you are the greatest. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me, and would you please autograph a “Holiday Inn” breakfast napkin and send it my way?

christina-driving-copyChristina Ryan Claypool is an Amy and Ohio AP award-winning freelance journalist and an inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com, especially if you happen to know Tony Bennett, and you can pass along my sincere apology to him. 

Losing a Child: A Mother’s Journey of Healing

  One of the greatest heartbreaks a parent can experience is the death of a child. However old that child is, it is not life’s natural progression to bury your offspring. Bruce and Catherine Toal of know firsthand how painful losing a child can be. Bruce is a Sidney businessman who is the owner of Everyday Technologies, Inc. among other interests. Catherine has been a stay-at-home mother to their children including: Jonathan, 27, Antonio, 27, who was raised in an orphanage but has been part of the family since he was 15, Zachary, soon-to-be 23, B.J., 19, and 15-year-old Lilly whom the couple adopted four years ago. But missing from the list is their daughter, Rachel Lindsey Toal, who died on Oct. 6, 1994, at the tender age of six.

 Rachel was born on June 24, 1988. Everything appeared fine until she “was seven weeks old, when they diagnosed her with the biliary atresia,” said Catherine. She was “born pink and healthy and gradually became very jaundiced.”

“In babies with biliary atresia, bile flow from the liver to the gallbladder is blocked…An operation called the Kasai procedure is done to connect the liver to the small intestine…However, a liver transplant may still be needed,” according to the Website for the National Library of Medicine.

In baby Rachel’s case, the Kasai was not effective. “[She] actually had a liver transplant at 17 months ….She was a very, very sick little girl,” said Toal. “The match was not a good one. What actually took her life at six and half, she went septic,” explained her mother describing the infection that proved fatal.

“She was beautiful, with big blue eyes, long black lashes, and long, light brown hair. A typical ‘girly-girl,’ our Rachel loved anything pink and we lovingly called her Ray-Ray.” Rachel’s mom wrote these words in her 2007 book titled, Loving the Journey with my King. The large leather hardback also contains 3 CDs of 28 original songs that represent her pathway to healing.

It is apparent, that faith is what drives 52-year-old Toal, but her faith was shattered by her child’s loss. “Our family struggled to survive the pain of losing her, and I was at my wit’s end, with nothing more to give anybody. Depressed, discouraged, and incredibly angry, I waded through the trauma of such loss the best I knew how,” wrote Catherine. “Kind loving friends and family carried us through this trying period.”

Friends and family also pitched in during the years of Rachel’s chronic illness when she was often hospitalized. For those wanting to assist a family with a sick child, Toal suggests doing practical things like: “Cleaning up the house, cooking a meal, picking up kids from school, picking up the day to day routine so the focus of the caregiver is free to take care of that child.” As the situation grew even more serious, she says it meant a great deal when others simply told her, “I’m praying.”

For the parent dealing with the death of a child, the Sidney, Ohio, woman advises, “Trust the Lord with your heart, don’t turn on Him and forgive everyone up front.” She readily admits that some folks make insensitive statements. “Unless they walked it, they don’t understand.”

For Toal, a turning point for her grieving occurred when she was finally able to let go of the anger that she carried for a long time. Later, “An amazing thing happened—something that had never happened before. A song began to form in my heart,” she wrote. “God gave me a song from heaven…” Many more songs would come to her, “I would begin getting a tune and lyrics…and sing them into a recorder.” Not a trained musician, this musical journey began healing her.   

With the assistance of talented musician Drew Cline and Dove nominated recording artist, Kelly Connor Spallinger, Toal was able to professionally produce her collaborated renditions of these songs in her book. They are melodies filled with praise, rather than despair. “The Word [Bible] tells us the spirit of heaviness is depression,” writes Toal. She cites Isaiah 61:3 as her remedy, “To appoint unto them that mourn…the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”

Today, you can often find Catherine Toal at Sidney’s Lion’s Rest Prayer Center. She has spoken at seminars and conferences, and tries to encourage others just as she once desperately needed encouragement during the dark days of losing her precious daughter.

In closing, my personal advice for comforting those grieving comes from Charles Swindoll’s book, Killing Giants, Pulling Thorns, “A little girl lost a playmate in death and one day reported to her family that she had gone to comfort the sorrowing mother. ‘What did you say?’ asked her father. ‘Nothing,’ she replied. ‘I just climbed up on her lap and cried with her.’”

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and speaker. Her website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in the Sidney Daily News on Sept. 21, 2012.