Musings on language, images and life

Month: December, 2010

Wonder (The Story of “The Goldfish Christmas”)

Twenty-five years ago I was presented with the most wonderful gift my 6-year-old self could imagine. It will forever be known as The Goldfish Christmas.

Admittedly, the first Christmas we decided to change our gift giving practices ranks pretty high on the list, yet it does not hold a candle to the the magic of Christmas 1985. Dad was new to his career as a full-time musician and Mom had left her job as a teacher to stay at home with us full-time. Cash was tight, so the big Santa gift had to be creative. As the story goes, Dad headed to the pet shop on the 24th, picked out four goldfish, and carefully placed them in a thermos full of water so they would survive the sub-zero temps.

When Annie and I awoke on Christmas morning, we were greeted by the most amazing sight. Two bowls — one with red rocks, the other with blue (our favorite colors, respectively) — containing two goldfish each. In those days, my mom would videotape our reactions to the Santa gifts so that my dad (who always had to work on Christmas morning) could still enjoy our initial reactions. The video shows us in flannel nightgowns, as we giddily emerge from the bedroom with huge smiles. I see the fish first and exclaim in my incredibly nasal voice “Goldfish! Real live goldfish!” Annie giggles, her blond curls bouncing as she follows me over to the bowls. As we peer into them, we are visibly struck with a sense of gravitas.

Annie and I have relived The Goldfish Christmas many times since 1985– we agree that the power of the goldfish was entirely tied to the fact that Mom and Dad had entrusted us with something alive, something vulnerable. In the video, we spend quite a bit of time staring into the bowls, contemplating the future of our piscine wards and our own futures as caregivers. Anxious to start their lives with us off on the right foot, I quickly name mine– Rudolph (he had a red nose) and Violin (a clin d’oeil to my budding love of classical music). Annie looks at me calmly as I proclaim their given names. She has already decided on hers — “Big Dan and Little Dan,” she coos shyly. A double homage to the man who, unbeknownst to her, had rescued them from the overcrowded pet store tank a mere 20 hours earlier.

Each Christmas since The Goldfish Christmas, I find myself hoping for the same sense of wonder I felt the moment I looked into my bowl. As I glance downward at my swelling abdomen and feel the first flutters of life within me, I realize that I’ve finally gotten my wish this year.


There but by the grace…

Today I did something I rarely do; I palmed a homeless man a bill. Typically I’ll go buy a sandwich for someone in need, or if I have some food in my car I’ll pass it out the window. I learned this by watching my parents do it when I was a kid. I almost never hand over money. I’m not trying to say that I am indifferent to the situation. Far from it. I just prefer to plan my assistance a bit better, whether it’s in the form of a donation to a non-profit or something as “small” as buying a cheeseburger to make sure the person has food in his or her belly. [Full disclosure: This is probably the result of spending too much time in Europe, but I am always a bit skeptical of people on the street corner or in metro stations who only seem interested in money.]

I saw him as I was about to exit 394 today. As I inched up the exit ramp, I wondered if I still had a granola bar in my bag that I could hand him. My gaze traveled past his soaked boots, his cracked hands holding the a “will work for food” sign and up to his face. He looked like my dad or one of my Westmoreland uncles. Another path, another place, a missed opportunity. On autopilot, I reached for a bill in my wallet, rolled down my window and planted it in his freezing hand.

Sure, most of us work hard for what we have, and that’s something to be proud of. But I’ve got to believe that a large part of my happiness and success has to do with much more than hard work. It’s the result of being born into a wise and supportive family and community, of having the opportunity to see, learn, and understand things that I would not have had I been born into any other situation at any other time. It’s partially the result of the decisions I’ve made, yes, but it has everything to do with the people who have been there waiting to help me at each turn.

I don’t pretend to understand God or theological matters. There are those much better poised than I to address such things. John Bradford’s oft-quoted phrase popped into my head as I drove away from the exit today: “There but by the grace of God go I.” It bothered me, which is why I’m writing on it. It’s easy to leave the concept of grace neatly tucked away in the realm of the abstract or the divine. However, based on what I’ve seen, learned and understood in my short life, I have to believe that the concept of grace has much more to do with those around us, with the people we encounter each day, than most of us realize.

One of the many definitions of “grace” is “goodwill.” So simple yet such a nebulous concept— most of us purport to be supporters of it, yet it easily becomes lost in paradigms of entitlement and systems that encourage greed. I am grateful for who and what I have in my life. Do I believe I am entitled to this happiness, that I alone have somehow “earned” it? Not for a second. The truth is that I am here by of the grace of many (be they earthly or divine) who have shown me goodwill and given me the opportunity to thrive. It is only natural that I continue the cycle, even when my actions seem small, unplanned or inconsequential. Impact happens at many levels. My project for 2011 is to explore grace in its myriad forms, to better understand what connects me to this world and those in it.


Snowed in. Although we get a lot of snow in Minnesota, rarely are we are told by the powers that be (i.e. MnDOT) not to go out. An industrious, hearty lot, Minnesotans (and one Californian I know very well) often react incredulously to this news. “It’s not that bad. I’m just going to run to the store,” said the aforementioned Californian at 11am this morning. Curled under a blanket and not about to go anywhere, I replied “godspeed” as he donned his boots and bounded out the door. A man who frequently makes the 4- hour trip to Duluth in the worst weather conditions to surf in the ice cold waters of Lake Superior, my husband is not easily dissuaded (read: I’ve learned to pick my battles).

He returned 1/2 hour later, boasting about the “badass”ness of his snow tires and carrying bags full of ingredients for what he’s always called “Russian nut cookies.” As he prepared the batter for the bready exterior and the sweet nut filling, the house began to pulse with energy emanating from the kitchen.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard 2010

When I sat down to help him shape what would be over 80 cookies, he told me about how his mom got the recipe he was using today. When Michael was a child, his “Baba” used to make these cookies each holiday season– without a written recipe. When she started to lose her faculties later in life, his mom and her sisters decided it was important to create a written recipe so the tradition could continue. They mixed the batter, stuck Baba’s hand in it and, depending on the consistency, she said say “more milk, more flour,” etc. In this way, they recorded the ingredients and amounts based on her sensory memory.

Michael’s eyes lit up as he told me the story. We laughed as we rolled out the tiny circles and stuffed them with nut filling. I teased him about his overstuffed, pudgy cookies (he called them his “porcine beauties”) and he chided me for my daintier renditions. In the middle of trying to settle a bet over who’s cookies had baked up better (basically not exploded filling all over the cookie sheet), Michael said “making these with you was really great today. Your family has a lot of traditions that I love. It’s important for me that this becomes a tradition for you, me, and the baby.”

“Agreed,” I smiled. When I think over the traditions I grew up with as a child, most of them were created by my parents (sometimes on the spot). And some of the most unlikely would-be one time events have become traditions (like making my Mom “read” the picture book Father Christmas). Traditions become what they are because we infuse them with importance. What makes them meaningful is the memories they evoke, the feeling of community they create. This is what it’s all about. These are the things I remember when I am far from home. These are the things that keep families strong as members come and go, as the shape changes. These are the things that provide a point of connection from one person we love and value to another. Enjoy your traditions this holiday season… and tell me about them if you are so inclined.