Sunday, December 30, 2012

Article #13 "The Perfect Christmas Letter"

Every year I attempt to write the "perfect" Christmas letter. You know the one, bragging on my three "precious," "angelic," and "oh-so-intelligent" little boys; my "strong," "hard-working," and "sensitive" husband; and the job that I "absolutely love." Christmas is a time for joy and the spreading of good cheer, so naturally we write Christmas letters to our family and friends of only the pleasantries from the past year.

The year 2009 was a rough year for my family, and I remember all too well that early December evening as I sat down with my laptop, cursor blinking on a blank Microsoft Word template, awaiting the first tap tap taps of my "jolly" news from 2009 for our annual Christmas letter. I began to type:

"Dear loved ones,

I hope this letter finds you rested and content during this busy time of the year. 2009 has certainly been...."

And then I paused, searching for the perfect word to describe what 2009 had brought for my family. The year flashed before me, and a thought crossed my mind: what if my letter wasn't all rainbows and lollipops? What would my letter look like if I was honest about it all, and I didn't leave the "bad" out?

"Dear loved ones,

We are flat broke. We embarked on a basement/master bedroom remodel that is now going on year two. All of our savings are going into this major headache of a project, and we had to use the Christmas money that we get from my father to purchase gifts for the kids...from "Santa.” Mark and I have had four major arguments this year, one in which I stomped out and "hid" at my office for eight hours (but boy, did I get a LOT of work accomplished)! I've been diagnosed with diabetes on top of my epilepsy, and my skin cancer has returned for the fifth time, requiring me to receive radiation (golly, that's always fun). Jackson still struggles with his reading, Benjamin quite frequently gets a spoonful of horseradish for foul language, and Hayden...well, he's a teenager (that should sum it up for you). My job is extremely stressful, and the probability of me meeting my goals are slim in this economy. Mark has traveled more this year between his job and his obligation with the National Guard than he has in the eleven years we have been married, leaving me (sometimes weeks at a time) to be alone with the three boys and all of their extra curricular activities. My license was taken away for six months due to the epilepsy, and so I was dependent on others for even small things, such as going to the grocery store for a gallon of milk. Mark had to have a root canal, which set us back an entire house payment, and the family doctor had to write him an excuse to give to his commander stating that a bad knee would keep him from completely participating in the National Guard PT test. My father is suffering from MS, my mother suffers from constant worry about my father, my brother, my special needs sister, and the world in general, and my siblings...well, that's another letter. Some days I feel like I'm going to explode; other days are great, and that is the beauty of mood swings..."

I sat back in my chair to evaluate what I had just typed. I had to smile. This is why Christmas letters are limited to only the "good,”- my goodness, I wanted to jump off a bridge after reading all of that!

But I continued my letter...

"and yet, despite all of these struggles, God has been so good to us! In February I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. In April we became members of a church that we adore! In May, Mark and I were baptized. The boys have made new friends through youth groups and Sunday school. Mark and I have been blessed through the church with new friends who have the same morals and life goals as we do. Just last week our oldest son Hayden was baptized, having accepted Jesus has his Lord and Savior. We have a roof over our heads, food on our table, and we both have jobs that we are passionate about! So to sum it up, 2009 has been LIFE CHANGING for us. We are coming to know Christ in a more intimate way, and we are amazed at what we were missing out on before!

And so I write to you, wishing you a very Merry Christmas! May the Lord bless you as he has blessed our family: with faith, knowing that He is God; with commitment, to build on our relationship with Jesus; and with light, the light of God to help us find our way through the darkness!"

There it was, my "perfect" Christmas letter! The good, the bad, and the ugly! This has become our new annual letter - a way for us to share with everyone we love a message that no matter how bleak life may seem, there is always light!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,
The Dudenhoeffers

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Article #12 "Popo's Store"...

My great-great grandfather, Charles Czarlinsky (the first) was born in Prussia on October 20, 1850. At the age of eighteen he immigrated to America, eventually settling in Jefferson City, with no resources other than his own intelligence.

He established a store in Koeltztown, Osage County, which he managed for several years before coming to Jefferson City in 1888. He became manager of the J. Siegfried clothing store, where he remained for ten years. He then helped organize the Globe Mercantile Company on March 3, 1899 with a capital stock of $10,000, he being secretary and manager of the company. On May 1, 1900 he purchased controlling interest of the Globe Mercantile Company, later calling it The Jumbo Store. Several years before his death, the store was moved to 304 East High Street and renamed Czarlinsky’s.

Charles’s son, Benjamin Czarlinsky, took over the family business after his brother Sol became ill and his father died. Benjamin was my great-grandfather and the father of my “Popo”(the name I called my grandfather, Charles “Charlie” Czarlinsky). I grew up in the Czarlinsky store under ownership of my grandfather.

Located on East High Street in downtown, Jefferson City, I remember the smells of the store; the scent of a man, strong and woodsy. I was enchanted with the beautiful jewel tones of the silk ties, the endless rows of crisply starched dress shirts, and the three-sided, full-length mirrors where I could dance and pose to my hearts content. I loved to take my shoes off inside the store and walk on the thick, wool carpet. Of course grandmother would shake her finger at me and tell me that ladies never went without shoes. My brother and I would often weave in and out of the clothing racks, hiding from our mother, whispered giggles from underneath the sports coats. Grandmother would follow us with a bottle of Windex, wiping tiny fingerprints from the glass display cases.

We spent a lot of time at the store. I truly believe my strong and outgoing personality was developed within the walls of Czarlinsky’s. My grandfather would have me sitting up on the counter top, granting me permission to operate the cash register, teaching me to smile and make small talk with each and every customer. It seemed that my grandparents knew everyone in town, I was in complete awe of their social circle!

On Saturday afternoons, after helping grandfather set out new merchandise and helping grandmother to dust the shelves and dress the mannequins, grandfather and I would sneak out the back of the store when grandmother wasn’t looking, and climbing into grandfather’s Cadillac, we would drive down the block to Central Dairy for peppermint stick milk shakes! On Thursday’s after school, grandfather would treat me to freshly fried onion rings at Daisy Delight, which at the time was located next to Czarlinsky’s.

We had our traditions, and my favorite was during the Christmas holiday! Grandfather offered to pay me one dollar for every Christmas bow I could make. I vividly remember sitting in the back of the store, just in front of the men’s silk ties, with a large, metal machine, almost as big as me! Grandmother would place a laundry basket underneath to collect the bows as they came off the bow maker. I would place a tiny, sharp piece of plastic (this would be how the bows attached to the wrapped boxes) and add just the right amount of shimmering, silky ribbon. Using every muscle in my body, my tiny hand would crank the spindle around and around until a beautiful bow was created. That first year that I was old enough, I turned out three hundred bows! And to my grandfather’s surprise, he quickly revised our agreement: “Did I say a dollar per bow? I meant a dime!” I was seven years old at the time, so I let it slide thatyear!

As I grew older, I was promoted from “bow maker” to “present wrapper!” I LOVED wrapping the gifts, although oftentimes grandmother would have to hurry me along, “This is not the time to be a perfectionist,” she would say as the customers were lined up waiting for their wrapped gifts.

When my grandfather passed away in 1999, Pastor Gene Roooney shared a story of my grandfather closing up his store one cold, winter’s evening and seeing a mother and her two children walking without any coats to keep them warm. Calling the woman and her children over, my grandfather walked to the back of his store, grabbing three coats of various sizes and giving them to this family in need. It was a story I had never heard, but I was not surprised.

Czarlinsky’s closed their doors in 1986; I was in junior high. My grandfather went on to sell men’s clothing at Dillard's in the Capitol Mall. He was a legend to all of his regular customers who often counted on him to choose their entire wardrobes for them – accessories and all – for each season. He was a true artist in the world of fabric, style, and color, and was known as the “master of the suit!” Today, in my office, as a reminder to me of what success truly is, I have his well-known-around-town license plate that graced his caddy all of his adult years: “C-suits.”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Article #11 "The Ultimate Gift..."

As the holidays draw near I am reminded of the importance of family; not just the importance of but the blessings of having a family. Earlier in the day as I was sifting through photographs from Christmas years past, I came across a picture of my brother and me. I was eight, Cal had just turned four, and we were sitting in front of the Christmas tree in the apartment that we lived in with our mother just after our parents had divorced. I was all dolled up in a festive Christmas sweater, the curls in my hair tied back with a Christmas bow and of course, my enormous round glasses. Cal was dressed in a bright red Christmas sweater that had his name boldly embroidered on the front, a mischievous grin painted across his face. You wouldn't know it from this photograph alone, but there was a story unfolding before the twinkle in our eyes.

My mother, my brother and I had recently moved into a townhouse located on the east end of town. My brother and I shared a bedroom on the second floor, Barbies on one side, Hot Wheels on the other. Of course, every now and then I would find my Ken doll underneath Cal's bed, tangled in sewing thread as if he were a hostage, one of Cal's many ways of irritating me.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, hairbrush in hand, admiring the bouncy curls my mother had created in my hair. I was eight years old, convinced that I would be the next Marie Osmond. I smiled my best smile at my reflection and practiced my introduction, "It is very lovely to meet you." I wasn't sure what to think about the events that were about to take place. My parents had divorced a year earlier, sending my brother and me into a world of unknowns, confusion, and fears. We had endured so much already - moving, new babysitters, rearranged schedules; and now my brother and I would soon meet a man whom our mother had been spending quite a bit of time with. He was a man we could clearly see made her happy, but at the same time, it was all so much for an eight-year-old and a four-year-old to take in and understand.

The apartment was filled with smells of chocolate meringue pie, the delicious dinner my mother had prepared, and cinnamon candles that burned throughout our tiny home. The Christmas tree was decorated with homemade ornaments from elementary Christmas parties and twinkling white lights. A Christmas record crackled holiday tunes sung by John Denver and Anne Murray.

The doorbell rang. Butterflies twittered deep inside my tummy. My mother floated into the front room, smoothing out her apron. She placed my small hand in hers and called up the stairs for my brother to come down. Sliding down the stair rail and jumping in front of my mother and me, Cal flung open the front door.

There stood my mother's prince, all six feet four inches of him. He looked like a body builder, strong and lean. My mother beamed as she invited him in. I extended my arm and reached for his hand, "Hello, it is lovely to meet you." Erwin smiled a warm smile and took my hand, "Hello Betsy; it is very nice to meet you, too!" Cal hovered beside my mother's leg, his arms wrapped around her thigh. "Hello Cal, I'm Erwin." Cal scurried off towards the couch, jumping onto the cushions, a show unfolding as he began to show off for this new man in our lives!

Sitting on the couch next to Cal, Erwin held out two wrapped packages, one for Cal and one for me. Without hesitation, Cal ripped through the red wrappings to reveal the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears A Who. I carefully began to unwrap my gift. Peeling back the scotch tape I slid my finger underneath the shimmering paper to reveal a beautifully illustrated children's dictionary.

I watched as my mother swooned over Erwin. Remembering my mother's suggestions of politeness, I entered the kitchen to grab a plate of cookies to offer to Erwin. I reached up to the counter top to take the plate of goodies and saw an envelope. Curious, I grabbed the envelope and read the scribble on the front: "To Cinderella." It was for my mother from Erwin. "He loves her!” I whispered to myself, thinking that one day I would have my own "Prince Charming."

December 10, 1982 was the night that Cal and I met the man we would come to call “father” for years to come. A man who rescued my mother, and really, my brother and me. A man who would love us as his own. He would teach us right from wrong, he would instill faith within our hearts, he would encourage us to be the best, and he would become the greatest influences in our lives, one memory at a time.

It was the ultimate Christmas gift. No, it wasn't Horton Hears A Who or a  lovely children's dictionary. It was the gift of love, understanding, patience, and protection. It was the gift of a father.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Article #10: "Letter To Heaven..."

The Christmas season has arrived! Colorful lights outline homes, decorated trees twinkle in picture windows and favorite Christmas carols play on the radio! I love this time of the year. My mother had journeyed down to her basement to bring up the plastic storage containers marked, “Christmas D├ęcor” along with the nine foot pre-lit Christmas tree. Rummaging through boxes of miscellaneous items still needing to be sorted through from the move, she stumbled upon a shoebox filled with letters. I had just finished up dishes from the evening’s meal when I received my mother’s phone call asking me to come right away. She explained to me over the phone that she had been looking for my Christmas stocking, and she found something that I needed to see immediately. Less than fifteen minutes later I was sitting on the edge of my mother’s bed when she handed me the bundle of envelopes. I sat overwhelmed as I realized what the envelopes were: letters to my mother from my brother when he was away at boot camp in South Carolina in September of 2001. As I began to flip through the envelopes, I hesitated. There, in my hands among the envelopes, written in my brother's handwriting was a letter addressed to me. I looked at my mother. She began to cry, "I found it within the stack. It must have gotten lost, but now, it is yours." I carefully pulled the letter from the others, and I opened it.

Dear Butt-C, (a term of endearment between my brother and me)

Hey, what's up! It's 1:50 am on Sat. morning, I'm in boots & camouflage working "guard duty"...this stinks!

I just wanted to write & tell you that I do miss you and that I am SORRY for the way I've been the last year or so...I've been a walking PBS special.

I hope we can mend our troubles. How is your family doing?'re not pregnant again...are you? HA!!!

Oh, you ask "how's boot camp?"’s TOUGH!

Anyway, write back if you can!

Your brother Cal

PS. I love you.

I cannot begin to tell you what filled my thoughts, my mind, my heart. You see, my brother enlisted in the US Army in May of 2001. He was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for boot camp and was later stationed in Junction City, Kansas at Ft. Riley. Before enlisting, Cal had been tangled in a nasty web of bad decisions. The Army was his "escape,” his fresh start.

I held the letter my brother wrote to me eleven years ago, and after reading it a dozen times, I grabbed a piece of my good stationary, and I began to write:

Dear Cal,

Let me begin by telling you how very proud I am of you! You were an amazing father to your two precious babies. You could light up a room and make everyone laugh, not just any laugh, but a gut-wrenching, deep belly laugh. Your smile was crooked, but could bring out the joy in all of us. Your love for our mother was unique, strong, real, and still lives within her heart even though it is broken. Your heart was as big as Texas, and the love you held for ALL of your family...well, we can still feel it today!

Everyone has made mistakes Cal, including me. Without our mistakes, we wouldn't be able to grow, to learn, to share our testimony with others. Your mistakes do not define who you were, Cal.

You are so loved, and even as you wait patiently above, we still love you, here from earth. This outpouring of love for you was greatly represented at your service, where over 1,500 people, dear brother, came to honor YOU. It was YOUR day, a day I feel that you never had but much deserved; and sadly, it became a day that none of us expected, nor how we had planned "your" day to be.

I miss much that it literally hurts my heart. But I also envy you, the love you must feel from our Heavenly Father, the warmth that envelops you, and the unending happiness you must feel above.

Know that I am here, representing your memory, loving on your babies...adamant that they remember you and know how deeply and completely you loved them and always will.

Forever missing you,

Your sister “Butt-C”

PS. I love you, too.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Article #9 "Power Girls!"

As the mother of three growing boys, my world seems to grow less and less feminine each day. I am surrounded by sweaty gym clothes, basketballs, footballs, dirty socks, lifted toilet seats; and I often dodge Nerf gun bullets. Where is my pink? My sparkles? I need some “girl” time! I adore my boys; I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the whole wide world. But two weeks ago I was offered the opportunity to spend the week with my dear friend’s two daughters while she and her husband traveled out of the country, and I didn’t blink twice at the offer! Leaving my husband as a “single” father for the week, I packed my zebra print bag (which sports my name monogrammed in hot pink), and I was out the door! I couldn’t wait to spend the week submerged in nail polish, hair bows, make-up, scented lotions, and secrets!

Caraline, age twelve, has a BIG personality. She has so much energy that, I get tired just watching her. She creates a laughter deep within me like no one else can. She has a softer side but is careful to guard her heart. She is very creative and also incredibly smart. She might just rule the world one day.

Abigail, age fifteen, is absolutely beautiful, both inside and outside. Her smile is enough to melt your heart. Abby is sensitive, kind, and compassionate. She is also silly, spontaneous and sporadic. She is strong in her faith and passionate about helping others. She is multi-talented, and when she sings, you cannot help but be drawn into the richness of her charm.

My week with the girls was good for my soul. I felt young and energetic! We laughed until we cried (and one of us even wet our pants, but I won’t divulge which one of us has the weaker bladder). We ate junk food, shopped till we dropped, and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, gushing over boys and watching chick flicks. What we did not do was remember to feed the animals, bring in the mail, and in one of my OCD moments, I ruined their couch pillows by attempting to wash them in the washing machine.

There was another mishap when one of us (it’s still being debated which one of us is the guilty party) threw a roll of paper towels on top of a burning candle, causing the roll to go up in flames. I was quick to put the fire out and all was back to normal (as normal as it could be with me in charge)!

Perhaps my most favorite moment of the week was not in the silliness we generated; it was not in the laughter we boasted; nor was it in the impromptu activities we created. Rather it was found in watching these two delightful girls give up their time and their hearts to volunteer, as they do each Wednesday evening, for a local children’s program where they teach the word of God to the inner city kids. Caraline and Abigail’s mother introduced the program to a local church, and alongside their mother these girls have contributed to its growth. What spoke to me was that their mother was gone this particular week, a perfect opportunity for the girls to take the week off and do something for themselves, and yet they continued their mother’s work without a second thought of bowing out. I watched amazed as Abigail and Caraline took over the evenings schedule, following the outline of their mother’s labor.

Looking back, most of our laughter and goofiness was wrapped up within the evening as we loved on these tiny children who want and need nothing more than positive attention. I cherish the week that I shared with Abigail and Caraline; a week that allowed me to frolic in all things pink. But more importantly it was a week where I was challenged to be less about self and more about others.

And at the end of that week, although I was anxious and thankful to return to my boys, I realized how proud I am to be a woman; because even dressed in pink with polished nails, we are the caretakers in the world!