Holiday Cards


Our interest in creating photo holiday cards usually coincides with the arrival of the first baby. Here’s our son at 3 months old.

Like many folks, I dropped the ball sending out Christmas cards last year.

I wasn’t happy about it, but something had to give and it was cards to my friends and family. I simply didn’t have or make time for the annual tradition.

But I threw together a card at the last-minute this year, and am still in the process of getting them in the mail. Years ago, I’d have chastised myself and anyone else who didn’t send their cards before Christmas, but I’m a little more forgiving these days. Cutting people a little slack is one of the perks of getting a little older and wiser.

Most of all, I’m eternally grateful that everyone kept me on their Christmas card mailing list despite my sluggishness last year. In a different time, I’d have been deleted immediately for failing to keep up my end of the bargain.

But I did sense some annoyance. One of my oldest friends who usually scribbles a few words sent a card without so much as her signature. I think it’s her way of telling me to get my act together. In truth, assembling and getting cards out in the mail is not that big a deal. It’s certainly a lot better than feeling like a chump or slacker when you receive cards and don’t send anything in return, as I did last year.

I understand why cards fall through the cracks during the hectic holiday season, but I’m heartened by the number of people who still honor the tradition. It’s one of the few times of the year that my mailbox is stuffed with personal mail and it’s fun opening picture cards and seeing how kids have grown.

One of my sister Joanne’s greatest laments of empty-nesting was sending out a Christmas card without a photo of her three children, but we all get there eventually. “I’m now one of those people sending out a card that no one will really care about,” she said, or something like that. I’m not sure that’s true, but I get it.

We all love pictures, particularly of our friends and family featuring their children and pets. And here’s a little confession: I never throw out a photo Christmas card. I keep them in boxes in my pantry and my closet because they’re too precious to toss. They capture a moment in time, a tangible wish for love and good tidings from one family to another in this very crazy world. I guess I want to cling to the cards and what they represent forever.

My Christmas card photos began in December, 1997, when my son was three months old. I dressed him in a fuzzy red onesie and drove to Joanne’s house for a photo shoot. As I balanced him on my knees and held his hands, Joanne trained her 35 mm camera on my little man, but he refused to cooperate. He fussed and wouldn’t crack a smile.

“He looks so unhappy,” I lamented. “I can’t send out a photo of him looking so miserable. People will think I’m a terrible mother and that he doesn’t like me.”

He finally cooperated, managing a gummy grin befitting a Christmas card and official introduction to my family and friends. But it marked my uneasy introduction into the world of Christmas card photos. I realized it’s not easy to get a great shot, particularly when dealing with tiny children who have a mind of their own.

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This year’s card was a no-brainer: a shot from trip to London for a nephew’s wedding.

I thought things would be easier the next year when he was 15 months old. I snapped about 500 photos of him at a herb farm called Catnip Acres to capture his cuteness and personality, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I ended up sending out two different cards, one capturing his profile and another head-on. (Hey, if they occasionally produce two different magazine covers for Esquire and People, why not my Christmas card?)

My quest for the perfect card continued with the arrival of my daughter in 2001, and I learned the first lesson of parental photo taking: it’s impossible to get a great shot of both kids. If one was smiling, the other’s eyes were closed, and visa versa. Forget about adding the dog to the mix. I usually just ended up with her tail as she darted from the photo.

As a parent, it’s such a relief to get a decent Christmas card early in the year. A few years, I used photos from our annual summer vacation in Martha’s Vineyard for the card. So what if the kids’ hair was soaking wet from the surf? They looked happy and relaxed and the background of the meadow was fantastic. Best of all, I had my card photo. Whew!

Weddings are also a great time to capture Christmas card photos. Everyone is happy and dressed up, and there’s usually a relative or friend around willing to take the photo. As much as I enjoy some selfies – who am I kidding, I really can’t stand them – it’s wonderful to see photos that don’t involve seeing someone’s telltale sleeve or arm in the corner.

There is also the nearly forgotten self-timer option. For years, I was in charge of manning the camera for my mother-in-law’s annual Christmas card photo on the beach. I took enormous pride in perfecting the art of dashing from the camera to the assembled family while the camera flashed and beeped. This was before digital cameras, so I had to do it at least 10 times to ensure we got a decent shot.

One year, my mother-in-law hired a professional photographer for the shoot. But everyone was so stressed out by the experience – why is he wearing that wrinkled shirt? Why didn’t she comb her kids’ hair? Is that really what you plan to wear for the photo? – that by the next year we were back on the beach with the self-timer. We continued the tradition until my mother-in-law’s final summer in 2003.

It was important for my mother-in-law to show her family together, even if was just for 24 hours. Her children were scattered around the globe, so getting us together was no easy task. One year, we couldn’t pull it off and had to photo shop my brother-in-law David into the shot.

Of course, there’s a lot less pressure for the perfect shot with today’s wide assortment of cards, which feature collages for multiple photos and even spaces on the back for extra photos. But as in most things in life, sometimes less is more. I tried to insert at least two photos of my children onto the back of my card this year, and was scolded by Shutterfly for using photos with poor resolution.

I finally decided to leave to space blank because every photo I chose was poor quality. When my son asked why I was leaving it blank, I said, “I can continue to try to find a decent photo or I can check out and get these in the mail sometime before the new year. I’m going with the second option.”


We have Annie Oakley to thank for our long and storied history with personalized Christmas cards.                  (Photo courtesy of

Christmas cards began in 1843 in London. The first known personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. She was in Glasgow, Scotland at Christmas 1891, and sent cards back to her friends and family in the United States featuring a photo of her on it. She was in Scotland, so she’s wearing tartan in the photo. Annie reportedly designed the cards herself and they were made by a local printer.

In keeping with Annie’s travel theme, I used a family photo from a trip to London last July for my nephew’s wedding for this year’s card. My sister-in-law Ann took the shot as we stood outside the church in 95-degree heat and sipped champagne after the late afternoon ceremony. I guess I’m most stunned that all of us look decent  despite the fact that we were sweating profusely. Perhaps that it why we all appear to be glowing.

I converted the shot to black and white to give it a vintage feel. I chose a black and gold card frame because the photo was too big for all of the other cards. It worked out well, but it wasn’t studied or planned. Our gigantic heads were just wouldn’t fit into most of the other cards.

I still have about 20 cards to get in the mail, and hope they’ll arrive by New Year’s Day. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it’s the best I can do. Sometimes – no often – that’s enough. I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season. Thanks for your love and support, and . . .






Shady Characters


Three shades of shades: The Anna Wintour-inspired black frames, modern Aviator and Clubmaster.

There’s nothing more annoying than having someone ride your bumper in a traffic jam.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation is doing roadwork along Interstate 95 during the holiday shopping season, creating backups in the southbound lanes. I was trying my best to be patient when I noticed a late model Honda Accord practically in my back seat.

As we inched through traffic, the young woman behind me remained too close for comfort. I looked at her in my rear view mirror and it all made sense: she was wearing the most ridiculous sunglasses I’ve ever seen. One look at her shades and I knew she’s clueless. Who would wear huge sunglasses with white rims the size of ski goggles?

“What is with the sunglasses?” I muttered, sounding like a character straight out of Seinfeld.


It felt like the woman’s sunglasses were this big. But they actually were more like the shades below.


The sunglasses provided a welcome distraction for a few minutes. I wondered if any of her friends thought they looked silly too, but were too kind to say anything. We all bite our tongues when someone wears a surprising new pair of shades or glasses, but sometimes it’s impossible to keep quiet.

This happened the other day during lunch with an old friend, who has always worn his signature round wire-rim glasses. He startled me when he put on a pair of retro Clubmaster glasses, which made him look like Truman Capote.

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I wasn’t prepared for my friend’s new Clubmaster frames. Then again he looks good in round wire rims too.

“What are you doing?” I asked, studying his new frames. “Are you trying to be a hipster or something? Where are your old frames?”

My friend was a lot more tolerant than most people would be in that situation. Most people would tell me to buzz off and mind my own business. But glasses and sunglasses say a lot, making an instant statement to the world that we’re dorks, don’t give a damn, want to look cool, hip, sexy, trendy, irreverent or didn’t have time to put on eye makeup.

They’re one of the few things we wear on our face and significantly affect our appearance yet they’re often bought with very little thought or deliberation. We go into stores, try on frames while salespeople peer, and choose something. It’s a little like buying a bathing suit: you want to find something and escape as quickly as possible.

But like many things in life, the frames often look very different when you get them home, making you wonder what you were thinking when you bought them.

The Curmudgeon recently bought new frames for his prescription lenses. I was thinking something classic and sexy along the lines of Tom Selleck’s specs in Blue Bloods, but no. He arrived home with a pair of glasses that are squarish and boring, no better than the smaller square frames he replaced.


I was hoping the Curmudgeon would pick out something like Tom Selleck’s Ralph Lauren frames (above). But he chose a squarish frame. His brother Ted, left, chose a similar frame. The kid in the middle doesn’t wear glasses.

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“Seriously?” I said when he came home with them. “This is what you came up with?”

“I asked you to come with me to the optician and you refused, so this is what you get,” he said. “The woman at the place took one look and said they were me.”

So I have another woman to blame. I should have known. Guys will believe anything a woman other than their wife tells them. This is why so many guys are walking around with ho-hum glasses and bad toupees. They’re listening to women who don’t have a real stake in the game.

I used to wear glasses for distance. On my first newspaper job, I was wearing glasses when one of the Curmudgeon’s friends entered the newsroom and whispered, “Who’s the librarian?”

Yea, I looked like a first class dork. I switched to contact lenses, but am among the small percentage of the population whose distance vision actually got better with age. I don’t need glasses for distance, but am helpless without readers. I’ve got about a half-dozen pairs around the house, though I’m often without them when I need them most.

I never cared much about sunglasses until the early ’80s, when they became a status symbol for me and every other yuppie on the planet. We can credit Tom Cruise for starting the trend. He wore Ray-Ban’s original Wayfarers in the 1983 movie “Risky Business.” I don’t know what was more memorable: Tom dancing around in his skivvies or wearing his mega-cool shades.

He followed them up with classic Ray-Ban Aviators in 1986’s Top Gun. If Cruise isn’t getting a cut of Ray-Ban’s sales action, he should be. The man’s almost single-handedly generated billions of sales with his movie roles.

I bought my first pair of Vuarnet sunglasses – black lenses with black frames –  in the ’80s and wore them as I tooled around in my red Saab 900 with its removable radio (remember those) listening to Tears for Fears and Whitesnake. It was the Reagan area, a time of upward mobility when people judged you by your car, clothes, timepiece and eye gear.


I bought my first pair of Vuarnet sunglasses in the mid-80s. Here, Mick Jagger dons a pair.

I bought my second pair of Vuarnets after I lost the first pair after about two months. When I lost that pair, I stopped wearing expensive sunglasses. I was barely getting by on a reporter’s salary and had no business buying expensive shades, at least during my salad days.

I took the plunge again about 15 years ago, shifting to Ray-Ban Aviators. They’re predictable and unoriginal, but they’re classic and cool. And I was flattered beyond words when a female lifeguard at a pool pulled me aside and said, “I like your sunglasses.”

But I lost that pair and then broke another. I replaced that pair, and broke them again. They are now sitting in my purse, broken and of no use to anyone. I’m now running around with a pair of $15 sunglasses that I bought last summer in London, and a pair of $25 Goodr sunglasses, which are good for running (or jogging or plodding as the case may be.)

But as is the case in Christmas shopping season, it’s often impossible to resist a chance to gift ourselves. This occurred during a stop to the Sunglass Hut to purchase a present for a loved one. As I was about to pay, the saleswoman told me I could save $40 on a second pair.

Well, maybe just a quick look. I asked about Ray-Ban Aviators (will I ever learn?) and the girl scrunched her nose.

“Maybe it’s time for a new look,” she suggested. “Try these.”

I tried on a new pair, and then a second. And then I stumbled across maybe the greatest invention I’ve seen in a long time: a machine that takes your headshot and lets you see what you look like in your sunglasses. The machines, called Smart Shoppers, are located in Sunglass Hut stores. They allow you to try on frames that are not in stores, buy them, and have them directly mailed to you. (I guess they figure you can try on the frames in the store while you’re standing there.)

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The Smart Machine takes a photo of you and then lets you virtually try on frames.

Unlike mirrors, the machine gives you an accurate picture of what you look look like so you’re not walking around like you just got off the ski slope. I’m pretty sure they should be standard equipment for any store selling frames because they make the process easy and fun. You just stand there and tap different frames, even ridiculous ones that make you look like Anna Wintour.

Now, if we could only get a machine for bathing suits.












I shifted to Ray-

Light Years


I hid when the Christmas lights were pulled out of the basement and garage, intentionally busying myself with hanging snowflakes, arranging  nutcrackers and placing sparkly reindeer on the mantel.

I’ve been handling the lights for the past 34 Christmases, and well, I needed a break. I know what a pain they are, emerging in a tangled mass no matter how neatly you store them. And then there is the frustration: strings that don’t light or light up only half way, making you wonder if you should toss them or hide the dead side near the trunk.

After more than three decades, I’ve seen and done it all. I even paid an astronomical amount of money at the local hardware store for lights guaranteed to work for three years. They didn’t, but I never returned them because I was too lazy and overwhelmed with other Christmas stuff.

A friend went the artificial route, buying a lighted tree off Amazon and going all out decorating it. But the next day, the tree wouldn’t light. Amazon offered to send her a new tree, but that would involve dismantling her decorated tree and starting over again. Um, no. Convenience is one of the reasons people go the artificial route in the first place.

She was told she could keep the broken tree, and would be sent a new one for next year. She opted to just hang new lights on the broken tree to spare herself the hassle of starting over. I don’t blame her: I hate to do things twice, particularly something that I only expect to do once a year.

But it raises the question: why can’t someone invent a set of Christmas lights (or artificial trees) that will light year after year? I know there are gadgets that look like glue guns to fix lights, but those look like a headache waiting to happen. They remind me of those replacement kits for broken lamps. Only the most handy and patient people would go through that kind of trouble to save a lamp. Most of us just buy a new one.

Putting up the Christmas lights is a major decorating ordeal, ruining our hopes of having a wonderful holiday moment. The first step is to find the lights, untangle them and separate the good from the broken. The second is to actually string them on the tree with about a foot’s clearance from the wall.

I know there are people who do this job alone. But let’s face it: it’s a two-person task. You need a person on one side to hand you the lights and another person to guide the lights around the tree. It’s best if that person is on the slim side and has long arms to reach between the tree and the wall or window.

I decided to busy myself with other tasks to avoid the lights. My son knew what I was up to, coming into the dining room to ask why I wasn’t helping with the tree. “I’ll be in a few minutes,” I said. “I’ve just got to do a few things in here.”


I got my wish. The Curmudgeon began attacking the lights, separating them into piles as though he was sorting legal documents. Within minutes (well, about an hour), lights were covering a chair, couch and the floor. And then the fun began: he started stringing the lights on the tree, losing his patience after about a minute.

“Will someone help me?” he screamed. “And get this Christmas music off. All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth isn’t real Christmas music. Someone put on Silent Night or something else. Just not this.”

We put on Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas, a snappy tune that puts everyone in a great mood. My son began dancing in the corner as the Curmudgeon screamed, “Hang these. Take these. Start placing the lights on branches.”

The scene reminded me of why so many people have problems with Christmas. We all have wonderful images of family togetherness and unity trimming the tree, and then there is the reality: needles in your head from crawling under the tree to put it in the stand, sap marks on the ceiling and the coup de grace: the lights.

I guess this is why people take pictures of the finished product and post pictures of their glorious trees on Facebook, Instagram and other social media. No one takes pictures of hanging the lights or the process of trimming the tree. Then again, it’s not something anyone really wants to document or remember.

Perhaps this is why my Facebook friend Kate recently posted a photo of her tree with the caption “Done!” I think we all understood her glee.

As is the case most years, we’ve been forced to divide the tree decorating into two days: the lights, and then the actual decorating. The lights took so long to hang that no one had the time, energy or interest in the actual hanging of ornaments, candy canes or tinsel.

But the lights are up, and I must say the gentlemen did a wonderful job. The lights are evenly spaced and plentiful, capturing the beauty and outline of our fresh tree and concealing most of the gaps in the branches. There is nothing I love more than the glow of a Christmas tree in a room, or the sight of a lighted tree in a distant window.

It’s especially wonderful when I have absolutely nothing to do with it.


The almost finished product.




G & The Gang


All seven of us gathered to celebrate our mother’s 85th birthday on Saturday.

I told the Curmudgeon I was writing this for my mother’s 85th birthday.

“It about time you wrote something positive and got off of my back,” he said. “Finally, you’re writing about something good.”

The Curmudgeon loves my mother, but so does everyone. She’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. She’s quiet and unassuming, but she makes a lasting impression by being so nice.

Mom’s big heart was one of the first things my cousins and oldest childhood friends mentioned when I contacted them and asked them to share memories of Mom. That, and her love of soap operas. I swear she introduced a whole generation of kids to the joys of Another World and The Young and the Restless, though my Dad dismissed her shows as garbage.

“I remember coming over to your house almost every day after school to watch Another World or (Guiding Light),” my friend Lizzie writes. “While we sat there and watched the programs, your mother was folding a mountain of laundry. I couldn’t get over the amount, but of course it made sense; there were so many of you! And even though there were so many kids running around, she was always so welcoming to your friends, like me and Robin. I LOVED going over to your house!”

Lizzie remembers coming over and seeing one of my little sisters standing on a chair washing dishes. I don’t remember that scene, but we all had chores. As one of the three oldest, I was on kitchen duty beginning at age 10. I was in charge of cleaning pots and pans, and still take pride in the fact that I can clean burnt-on grease with the best of them.

Robin, who lived across the street, said having just one younger brother was often boring, so she’d come over to our house looking for action. It wasn’t too hard to find in ’70s suburbia when a playdate involved opening your door and seeing who was around.

“My house was quite boring at times so I ran away to yours for some excitement,” Robin says. “I clearly remember decorating your Christmas tree. That I really loved.”

My cousin Denise still cherishes a small box my mother bought her as a souvenir as we wrapped up our annual trip to Cape Cod with her family.

“Aunt Gerry told me to pick something out,” Denise writes. “I picked out a pretty jewelry box and when I brought it back my mom thought I would never use it. Over 40 years later I still have that jewelry box Aunt Gerry bought me. I keep money in it like $2 bills and silver dollars.”


A souvenir box from Cape Cod. That sounds like something my mother would buy her niece.

My cousin Bob reminded me that Mom and her sister Joan used to talk on the phone every Saturday morning. Yes, they did. If you were silly enough to try to interrupt the phone call, my mother  would wave you off as if to say, “Talk to the hand.”

“I think that was the highlight of my mom’s week!” Bob recalls. “It was always better to ask my mom for something after one of the Saturday telephone calls because they put her in a great mood. My Dad knew this as well.”

Mom took center stage at a party in her honor on Saturday, where she puzzled everyone by ordering coffee and a large beet salad. She brushed off cake, but did indulge in a birthday cannoli that arrived with a lighted candle. I swear she looked like a little kid blowing it out.

At 85, Mom is proof that age is just a number. She’s something of a dynamo, showing no signs of slowing down and expressing shock that I nap more often than she does.

I worried about G after my father died in 2009, leaving her on her own for the first time since 1956. My parents were married for 53 years and were always a couple, dining out twice a week while we were growing up. My Dad insisted on it, saying it was the only time they could talk without being interrupted by seven kids.

As the mother of two, I get it. It’s often impossible to get a word in edgewise with children under foot. But I also marvel at their bravery: they often took us out to Sunday dinner after church, marching to our table as we followed like ducklings. I still remember other patrons looking up and asking, “Are all of those yours?”

Like many of her generation, it was important for G to raise well-behaved children and she believed that the only way was to expose us to certain situations. She doesn’t understand why today’s kids need picture books and snacks to make it through Sunday mass, noting, “We never did that. We just brought you to church and expected you to behave. Children have to learn how to sit still without all these distractions.”

With seven kids and 17 grandchildren, I guess you could say G is a bit of a parenting expert. One of her greatest feats was raising seven girls without ever having a lice scare. She put our hair in ponytails and braids every day to avoid the scourge, but I think she was lucky. Very lucky.

I’ve seen other people who fell apart and gave up after losing a spouse, too consumed with loneliness and grief to enjoy life. I worried about G because, well, I just did. But she’s carried on in fine fashion, relying on her family, close friends and yellow Lab Maggie for companionship.

G keeps herself busy, playing bridge at the Senior Citizen Center a few times a week. She’s in charge of hiring someone to landscape the entrance to her street and collecting money from neighbors, most of whom cooperate. She goes to movies and out to eat with her close friends. She has dinner every Sunday night at my sister Janet’s house. She’s engaged in her community, recently voicing her opposition to a zoning project in her hometown.

When she called me to discuss the proposed project, I said, “Don’t you think it’s a little late in the game to become a rabble rouser? Why are you getting yourself involved? Don’t you have better things to do?”

I thought I was being funny, but I offended her. She thought I was being critical – which I was – but I really hurt her feelings. She began to choke back tears, and I quickly apologized for questioning her involvement in civic affairs.

If she wants to be a community activist at this stage of the game, who am I to judge? I guess I was just a little surprised because I’m used to being the loudmouth of the bunch.

I think my mother’s greatest gift is her love of children, and doing her best to nurture each child. She didn’t compare us to each other – ever. She encouraged me to play golf and tennis, though she is not a sporty girl and doesn’t have a competitive bone in her body. When I was a little chunky in junior high school, she suggested I might try limiting myself to one dessert a night.

To my frequent consternation, she refused to get involved in kids’ stuff, dismissing me with a “Well what did you do?” when I’d come home and relate that I was mad at someone. She had no interest in our tiffs with friends, realizing only foolish adults meddle in such affairs.

Perhaps her hands-off approach stemmed from the clear delineation between adults and children in our family. Though I know parents who want to hang out with their children on weekends and vacations, it was an us and them mentality and we all knew where we stood.

One of the greatest shocks in life is that we all need our mothers, no matter how old we are. They’re our first bond to life, our source of love, nurturing and protection. We count on them to be around to tell us that everything will be OK, our spouse is acting like a jerk, or our kids will outgrow their obnoxious stage. And let’s face it: it’s nice to be able to call someone Mommy when you’re 60.

I’m not the type of person to call my mother every day, and I drive her nuts when I don’t return her phone calls. But this is our little dance. She knows that I love her and would do anything for her. Heck, I’ve been having Thanksgiving at my house for 30 years mostly as a favor to her.

I don’t know how much I rely on my mother until things go south. One of the toughest periods of my life was waiting for my son’s adoption to be finalized. We were all on tender hooks for about a year as the case dragged through the courts. The adoption could have fallen apart at any point. I’m not sure I could have gotten through it without my mother’s support and kind ear.

She’s the only one we brought to Probate Court with us when the adoption was finalized. Other than my wedding day, it was the happiest day of my life and I wanted to share it with her.

I’ve counted on her during other dark periods, even asked her to go to doctor’s appointments with me to shore up my courage. And though I often think of her as shy and retiring, she’s pretty brave when she needs to be.

She had one of her knees replaced a few years ago because, as she told her doctor, she wanted to dance at her grandsons’ weddings. She did, kicking up her heels on the dance floor with twenty-somethings and holding her own. I wasn’t really surprised. She could always dance way better than I can too.


Old School Shopping

Seeing holiday decorations, like this trio of wreathes on an historic house in downtown Guilford, CT., puts me in a festive mood.

I’m doing most of my Christmas shopping in person this year.

I usually shop online to spare myself the craziness: crowds, long lines, rifled shelves with missing sizes, packed mall parking lots and cold and flu germs. Who would do that when you can go on your computer and shop with the click of a button?

But here’s the thing: none of the stores are that crowded, at least in southern Connecticut. Stores are brimming with merchandise slashed as much as 70 percent to draw shoppers. And though I may be overstating my case, it’s my little way of trying to keep retail alive.

Over the past few weeks, a large plumbing supply company and bedding store along our commercial strip abruptly closed, leaving behind shuttered storefronts. Our town is dotted with closed businesses with lease signs in the windows, a sad sign of lost jobs, income and broken dreams in our online economy.

This plumbing supply company was a quick and convenient stop for everything from new faucets to toilets. It abruptly closed its doors a few weeks ago.

It makes you wonder what will be around next month or next year. If Sears, JC Penney and Toys R Us can’t weather the tide, can any retail establishment survive in the digital age?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a proud member of AmazonPrime and enjoy the convenience of online shopping as much as anyone else. But I find there’s a certain emptiness to online shopping around the holidays. There’s no sense of accomplishment, enthusiasm or holiday spirit that goes along with it, at least for me. 

The Amazon boxes arrive on my doorstep and I bring them in, often not even bothering to open them to see what’s inside. (How can anybody be so lazy?) I’ve bought the items, but I’m not all that interested in them, perhaps because I’ve made no real investment in the process.

When I go to a store, my senses are engaged, particularly sight, sound and touch. The sight of a sparkly holiday top is enticing, while the feel of a soft gray velour sweater is delightful. (I’m an extremely tactile person. I’m a sucker for anything soft and fuzzy, explaining why I’m sitting here in a new pair of JCrew lounge pants I impulse bought. Let’s keep this our little secret.)

The sound of Christmas carols get me in the holiday spirit, making me realize how much music can influence mood. Standing in the JCrew outlet checkout line, Chris Rea’s “Driving Home for Christmas” comes on, making me wonder how this catchy little ditty slipped my notice for 30 years. I must have been living under a rock.

Shopping in person also gives me a chance to try to get it right with sizes for my daughter the first time. I bring in her favorite jeans to the Lucky Brand outlet store in nearby Clinton, CT.  Though the style has been discontinued, two saleswomen do their best to find a close facsimile.

It’s always fun to see how downtown merchants dress their windows. I love the cardinals in a lighted tree in this store window.

One looks up the style in the computer, determining that they’re a mid-rise skinny jean. When they show me something similar, they ask about my daughter’s body type and whether she’s got muscular legs. This will help determine if they’ll look good or just sit in the closet.

Without prodding, they tell me which jeans they like, and how they hate low-riding (aka hip huggers) that slip below love handles (Doesn’t everyone? Seriously, why are these still on the market?). Our discussion prompts another customer to point out that she’s wearing the jeans I’m considering for my daughter. Sold.

At a nearby running store where I’m the only customer, a saleswoman who runs marathons accompanies me around the store, pointing out the best running pants and equipment for my daughter. She draws heavily on her own experience, giving me insight into why certain socks are great, or why every runner needs chafing protection. (Where has this woman been all my life?)

I’m not saying all salespeople are great. In fact, many are awful, preferring to stack and fold sweaters or chitchat than offer a greeting or assistance. But I don’t think there’s any substitute for a helpful and knowledgeable salesperson. Most are in their jobs because they want to help. They don’t expect you to know as much about the merchandise as they do, and are happy to offer advice if asked.

I know this because I work in a small gift shop that helps support a group of cloistered nuns. One of my jobs is knowing the merchandise so when people come in, I can point them in the right direction. My first rule is to acknowledge everyone. I don’t think there’s anything worse than entering a store and being ignored by a salesperson.

Most customers have a pretty good idea of what they want when they come through the heavy wooden doors. But others are stumped, unsure what to give the grandchild making their Confirmation or the young couple buying their first house.

As a salesperson, it’s my job to help people and I take enormous satisfaction helping them find the right gift. I think people would view salespeople differently if they understood that most of us want to be helpful. I think people would look at shopping in person differently if they realized that people count on it to survive.

With no online shopping, our shop depends on people coming through the doors. Perhaps this is part of the reason that I’m going to stores this year: I realize how important customers and the personal touch are to this whole operation. 

I can’t expect people to shop in person if I’m unwilling to do it, so I’m making the commitment to show up this year. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long, but I’m doing most of my shopping old-school this year.

I’m hitting the stores, chipping away at it an hour at a time like my 84-year-old mother, who still does most of her holiday shopping in person. I’ve had my share of cardboard boxes. Now, I want to feel the weight of a full shopping bag and the sense of accomplishment it brings.

Ring My Bell

Laura has been a Salvation Army bell ringer for 19 years. She’s much better at it than I was.

They say that everyone should wait on tables at least once to get a sense of what servers go through.

The same is true for ringing a Salvation Army bell. If everyone rang a bell for a few hours, they’d be much less likely to walk past bell ringers outside supermarkets and department stores with their trusty red donation kettles.

I know because I was a bell ringer once. In his infinite wisdom, my editor John thought it would be terribly interesting to station me at a Bridgeport, CT., shopping center and write a first-hand account for the Connecticut Post. About the only thing I remember is that my shift seemed interminable, and I was amazed at how many people refused to make eye contact as I  rang, rang my bell.

I didn’t discuss this blog post with the Curmudgeon, nor have we ever discussed the kettle drive. Yet last night, he said out of the blue: “Have you seen that Salvation Army bell ringer at Wal-mart? She’s a little over the top, don’t you think? She’s a little too high on life if you ask me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I was wearing a NY Giants sweatshirt and she said, “Go Giants!” I turned and said, “The Giants suck.”

“Why were you so mean?” I asked.

“If you want to get on my good side, don’t talk about the Giants,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about them this year. It’s a sore subject.”

Oh dear. Is it possible that my dear sweet Curmudgeon is among the ranks who snub bell ringers, or did she just catch him on a bad day? I told him that I was going to make him ring a bell outside Wal-mart for an hour to understand what they do. He seemed terrified and sheepish. At the very least, he put himself in the bell ringer’s shoes, and I’m pretty sure he won’t be as fresh the next time he sees one.

Shoppers rush to get by Laura as she collects money for the Salvation Army. She’ll say “Merry Christmas” and smile regardless of whether they donate.

“That’s really hard to do, so try to be nice,” I said. “I had to do it once, and I hated every minute of it. I can’t believe how rude some people can be.”

My bell ringing gig was the farthest thing from my mind when I ran into Wal-mart for a few things. I was in full suburban mom mode when I heard the bell tinkling. I was suddenly transported back to that assignment, one of many first-person accounts I wrote.  

I rifled through my purse, thankful that I had some cash to stuff into the kettle and would not have to resort to coins. Bell ringer Laura seemed happy with my modest donation: “God bless you,” she said.

“I’ve done this,” I said, stuffing $3 into the kettle. “I once had to ring a bell for a story I was writing, so I know how hard this is to do.”

Actually, I don’t. Though reporters often step into other people’s shoes for first-hand accounts, we’re always wearing our reporters’ hats and know that our time in certain situations is limited. Standing in the cold ringing a bell for hours on end is monotonous and boring. I also found it humiliating because I don’t enjoy being overlooked or ignored by people.

Laura is much better suited to bell ringing than I am. She has a bubbly personality – a glass half-full outlook on life –  and isn’t easily offended. In fact, she claims she can make anyone smile by making eye contact, smiling and wishing them a Merry Christmas. (Apparently, she forgot about the Curmudgeon.) I don’t doubt it. The 51-year-old grandmother from New Haven, CT., has a $1 million smile and warm brown eyes. Her hug isn’t so bad either.

Laura has been a bell ringer with the Salvation Army for 19 years. She earns $10 an hour to raise money, but for years worked as a volunteer to show her gratitude for an organization that helped her family when it was down on its luck.

Laura said the Salvation Army helped her mom, a single mother of six kids, when one of her brothers was murdered in 1979. The organization also stepped in when the family had a house fire.

“They were just there,” she said. “My mother didn’t have an easy time, and they helped her out. I’m not sure where we’d be without them.”

The red kettle has been synonymous with holiday giving since 1891, when the first ones appeared in San Francisco to raise money to feed the city’s poorest people. It quickly spread nationwide and now there are Salvation Army chapters around the world. The funds are used to help about 4.5 million people between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I didn’t ask Laura’s last name and I was pretty sure she wouldn’t give it to me. She said things are much tougher for bell ringers because they have to undergo a background check. She said many longtime bell ringers are not on the job because they could not pass the background check.

“Please write something wonderful about the Salvation Army,” she said. “They really do a lot of wonderful work. I’m here because of what they did to help my family through the years. A lot of people don’t believe in God, but I do. I pray all the time.”

Laura said the current focus of her prayers is her husband, who went completely blind due to glaucoma two years ago at age 55. She said caring for him is a full-time job, noting he’s having a hard time adjusting to the world without vision.

“He says that he should be the one taking care of me, but he’s my husband and this is the way it is,” Laura said. “I’m trying to help him get through. Sometimes, I bring him to work, and he rings the bell. It gives him something to do.”

Stationed outside the Wal-mart in Guilford, CT., Laura rings her bell and wishes people a Merry Christmas, seemingly oblivious to whether they donate or not. She said she understands when people pass her without a donation, noting, “Some people just don’t have the money.  But most people are very giving and nice. It’s pretty much the same everywhere I go. Most people want to help.”

It’s hard to know how to donate these days. We’re bombarded with charitable requests by the phone, mail, on Facebook, at the check-out counter at CVS and the supermarket. But to me, there is something charming about the red kettle campaign. It’s a throwback to an earlier time when people hit the streets and counted on people’s generosity to help their less fortunate neighbors at the holidays.

I can’t ignore the bell, not after ringing one myself. I doubt anyone could.