Story Submitted by Kathryn Manz

Ray Ray the retard. RAY RAY THE RETARD. Their taunts got louder as they got closer. I didn’t really understand what they meant by “retard” but I sure knew who they were directing it at – my older brother, Ray (Ray Ray) and by proxy me, as I held onto his waist while he maneuvered the bicycle over potholes, gravel and a speed bump. This group was hungry for something. Usually, they call out a few mean words or throw a rock or two but all 6 of them are following us through West Hempstead and my brother is NOT going to let us get captured. We just finished our paper route and it was collection day so our pockets were heavy with the paper distributor’s cash and our tip money. These guys screaming after us, wanted our blood and the cash. That was the last thing I thought when a flash of pain hit the back of my head. I woke up just as the ambulance was putting both of us inside. Ray lost balance when the rock hit me in the back of the head and I fell off the bike. The boys kicked the crap out of him until he had an epileptic seizure and blacked out. Then they rifled both our pockets, stole our money, and left us in the middle of Cherry Valley Road. Two more feet separated us from the hole in the chain-link fence that would have secured our freedom. Instead, defeated we quit our paper route. The press boss still demanded his fee for letting us deliver the Daily News.. mom and dad had to scrape that together on top of our ER bills. Oh, and the boys that followed us? I kept tabs on them over the years. They ALL showed up at Ray’s funeral 3 years after they nearly killed us. They got away with it. ALL of them are dead now…most from drugs. ALL got a shot of karma that I must say gives me some small measure of relief.

Story Submitted by Anonymous

Whoever said ‘that which does not kill you makes you stronger’ was never bullied in school. My middle and high school years were in the 80s, so technology didn’t play a role in bullying the way it does now. Of course, no one was trying to kill me; the bullies had no problem pummeling my self-esteem for being bespectacled, smart, tall, and skinny, killing any bud of confidence I might have had. As a grown woman, I certainly don’t feel stronger having endured those six years. Though I was never beaten up, the verbal abuse – it was called being picked on back then – caused invisible bruises that I carried into adulthood. I couldn’t walk into a room without looking down. I didn’t want to make eye contact for fear of accidentally connecting with someone who might see it as an opportunity to be cruel. My childhood escape was writing and drawing. I wrote stories where I defeated my bullies or drawings where they were no longer in power. It enabled me to control a situation that, in real life, I had no way to regulate. My safe space was the newspaper office and my drama class – especially my drama class. My drama teacher knew I was bullied and always had something nice to say. He was the first person to allow me to have something I wrote produced on stage.

I found comfort in theatre and playing characters unlike myself. I truly feel that theatre brings together people with these similar experiences. I was planning a degree in journalism and playwriting, but life interrupted and changed my course. I rediscovered my passion for theatre and playwriting in my late 40s. Because of being someone else on stage, I’ve finally learned to walk into a room of strangers without an overwhelming sense of panic, feeling like I needed to shrink into myself. Instead, I become a character who’s brave and confident, and that helps me ‘fake it, till you make it.’ As crazy as it sounds, when I was a teacher a decade ago, the hardest thing in the world was walking into a classroom with teenagers without feeling like I was still a teenager and waiting for the bullying to begin. It ended up being one of the best experiences in my life because, as the teacher, I got to stop bullying. It felt somehow like redemption. I couldn’t protect myself – that girl who desperately wanted to fit in, but I could protect my students from bullies. I could not fathom being a bullied child in 2021, where there is no escape from the brutality of words and videos on social media. The worst I got was taunts down the hallway – ‘if I were as ugly as you, I’d shave my *** and walk backward,’ not ‘kill yourself.’ Something needs to be done before another bullied child decides he’s had enough and becomes one of two horrible possibilities: a suicide statistic or another school shooter.

Story Submitted by Anonymous

I knew this evening was a well orchestrated plan. I have an incredible memory. My husband often comments on how I can recall the smallest details. Crazy, non important details just stick with me. Yet, on this anniversary I can’t tell you where we went for dinner or what show we took my parents to. I have no idea. My only recall is how I felt, what I heard, and my despair. Utter despair like never before. I believe it was at dinner but I’m not exactly sure, my brother decides to discuss my appearance. In front of my parents, in front of my husband he tells me flat out – “You look like a PIG.” Oh, he led up to that with a tirade of words but that’s the gist. I was shocked, dumbfounded and HURT. The words pierced me – it was like the joy of the evening was sucked away. I don’t know how I made it through the evening, if we continued with dinner or what. I recall going to the restroom and sitting in the stall. I wanted to DIE. I wanted to END IT ALL. I firmly believe if I would of had a razor in that moment I would have taken my life. It would have been over. The ride home was incredulous. Nobody corrected my brother that evening, nobody challenged him. I think he’s been a bully so long and it went on because of many factors. My husband didn’t want to make a scene, didn’t want to ruin an evening for my parents. My dad, always a peacemaker I’m quite sure made a, “Let’s change the subject.” My mother I’m sure sided with my brother in my mind,for she said nothing. Now that we were driving my parents home (my brother and his wife had gone in their own vehicle) my husband decided to bring up the conversation, no – the bullying. He spoke about how horrible my brother spoke, about how mean he was, the cruelty of it all. My mother actually thought it was okay for him to speak like that to me! My husband actually questioned my mother and asked her if she truly believed it was okay to chastise me in this manner and she said, “Yes.” This caused my husband to just retort and let my mother know in no uncertain circumstances that he did not agree with her and he felt she was WRONG! I dont recall my dad saying anything, I’m sure he felt he made his point earlier by wanting to change the subject. My sweet husband while very empathetic truly couldn’t have known just how hurt I was. I was in that bathroom stall alone, I hadn’t had a moment to let him know my feelings. Those horrible thoughts and the worthless feeling I had stayed in me. I lost my voice, I lost my soul. I’ve not shared my truest thoughts with anyone. I consider myself to be a reasonable and caring person. Looking back, those words made me not care about myself, my child I was carrying nor my one-year-old. Nothing mattered. I only wanted to crawl in a ball and never open my eyes again. All because of WORDS. The words from my brother as well as the words of my mother cut deep. I couldn’t open my eyes or get out of bed for DAYS after. My self-worth was gone. I cried and curled up, . It’s been a long time since that night and my children are now grown adults. My husband and I have celebrated almost 45 years of marriage and I’ve learned a great deal since that time about the dynamics of my own parents and their marriage. We are all worthy. YOU are worthy and deserve respect and love. I know Bullies truly have issues under which they hide and the act of bullying has its own reasons. About twenty years after this incident, I was sitting with my brother at the hospital as my father was very ill. I had once again dieted and was quite successful. The weight I had shed was noticed. My brother asked me how much I had lost. “Seventy pounds,” I told him. He then replied, “Wow, I’m really proud of you.” I said nothing. His compliment meant nothing. At that moment all the many years of bullying surfaced and reared their ugly head. I’d like to think God held my tongue. Please do not accept what a bully says or does, know your worth and know you are deserving. Know that there are those that can only feel good by putting down others. Don’t become like them. You are worthy.

Story Submitted by Lori Stokan Smith

A Bunch of Dots in the Sky

“So, are you guys coming with us?” Jim asked Anna, Connor, and Maya, Connor’s girlfriend, at the dinner table on December 21st, 2020. “It’s just a bunch of dots in the sky. What’s the big deal?” Connor asked. Jim replied, “Connor, it hasn’t happened for 400 years. And it won’t happen again for 800 years.” We were trying to coax our kids, now adults at 22 and 23 years old, to join us in seeing the Great Conjunction of 2020, when Jupiter and Saturn would be so close, they would appear as one. It wasn’t working. The blank-faced kids looked skeptical and stayed non-committal. After clearing the table, they scurried off to their rooms, leaving us hanging. I understood their reticence. When Jim first mentioned the Great Conjunction of 2020, I too was a disinterested party. About a week out from the phenomenon, Jim said, “Let’s walk Mango.” I am always in for a walk. We put Mango’s harness on and started walking the long block to get to Bayshore Boulevard. Halfway there, Jim said, “I want to see if we can spot Saturn and Jupiter in the sky. They are supposed to be coming together so closely they look as one.” It was a gorgeous windy night with a tinge of chill, as we looked out at the bay. Orion was clearly showing its armor. We found the red planet, Mars. We made a guess that two dimly lit stars higher in the sky were Saturn and Jupiter; although at the time, we didn’t know we were way off. Jim researched after that night and figured out we should have been looking in the Southwestern sky. We took Mango on more walks, but South Tampa’s tree canopy obstructed any hope of seeing the confluence of planets. We researched and learned the Great Conjunction, when Saturn and Jupiter would be closest to each other, would occur at 6:20 pm on December 21st. On the morning of the Great Conjunction, the news commentators led with the ever-rising pandemic numbers, then ran a story on the confluence of planets. That afternoon, my computer news feed caught my attention. I logged on to space.com and found two wonderfully nerdy scientists* talking as they waited for ginormous telescopes to get the first picture of the conjunction from the Cayman Islands. Their excitement was as contagious as someone with COVID without a mask. One asked the other what was more exciting, a total eclipse of the sun or this conjunction. Without doubt, they both agreed it was the conjunction. They informed us listeners, “The last time the two planets were easily observable when separated by less than 0.1 degrees was almost 800 years ago, during the great conjunction of 1226.” Then, giddily, one scientist said, “Oh wait, I think we have our first pictures coming in.” There it was, a dark screen with two bright dots, Saturn and Jupiter, and four pinpoints, the moons of Jupiter. A closet geek, I was hooked. As we finished dinner, around 5:45 pm, I said to Jim, “We gotta get going.” Jim asked, “What did the kids decide?” I yelled up, “Are you guys coming?” Connor ran down the steps. “Do we have to go?” Jim said, “No.” I said, “Why would you not go? What else do you have to do?” Jim, tired of the kids’ lack of acquiescence, said to me, “Let’s go.” We got into the car and headed for Davis Island, where we thought we could get the best view. As we turned on to Bayshore Boulevard, we were shocked at the amount of people waiting and watching there. I asked Jim, “Do you think all of these people are here to see the conjunction?” As we drove the length of Bayshore, it was clear that everyone was facing the Southwestern sky. Families, groups of friends, young and old were all gathered for the event. Cameras, flashlights, and glowing neon necklace tubes filtered through the crowd. This night seemed like the most communal event of the last ten months – months in which we all felt like our only emotions were fear, division, and death. The Pandemic and the protests had left us weary. Finally, something spectacular was happening. Traffic slowly wound around the curvy streets of Davis Island, with cars parked alongside the road to the airport. We took over a parking spot as one driver left, probably not sure of why these dots in the sky were worthy of leaving home on a cold Florida night. Didn’t he know he was supposed to wait till exactly 6:20 pm when the two planets would be closest? Maybe he did not know this was a Cinderella moment for all of us. People came and went. Some had masks on, but most not. Generally, people eschewed the mask outside whenever possible since the experts said it was ok when socially distancing. It felt nice to not have to hide our smiles behind masks for a few moments. Then, alas, Connor called from the car. “Where are you parked?” He and the girls were close. Directions given, they arrived with minutes to spare. We stood, looking at the night sky. We could only see the two white dots, the planets, up high. We brought binoculars, which gave us a better close-up of the convergence of the planets. We shared them amongst our group, and with a family beside us with little kids. A gentleman next to us allowed me to gaze into his large telescope, which clearly showed not only the planets, but Jupiter’s four moons. I felt a connection with humanity on this night, more so than in all the months since March of 2020. For a few short moments, we threw off our chains of isolation and monotony. We saw the supernatural before our eyes. It was visceral and somewhat soothing. In 20 years, another conjunction will come, albeit much further apart. In another 100 years, a pandemic will come. Time stops for no man. Perhaps God knew we needed a little something special during this long cold winter of COVID 2020. * Paul Cox, Slooh Astronomer, and Bob Berman, Slooh Astronomer and Author ** Definition of a celestial conjunction: A conjunction occurs when two planets, on the same ecliptic longitude, appear to meet each other in the sky, as seen from Earth. Jupiter and Saturn meet every 20 years or so, but rarely do they get so close to each other as in 2020. NASA explained, “On December 21st, they will appear so close that a pinkie finger at arms length. The planets will be easy to see with the unaided eye by looking toward the southwest just after sunset.” https://mashable.com/article/great-conjunction-christmas-star-how-to-see/

Story Submitted by Kathryn Mantz

Every Christmas Eve we dragged a tree into our living room for a fun, colorful and chaotic night of family. My father always brought Chinese Food home and sat close to my mother. Christmastime made her happy. Music rang out from the stereo as we playfully fought over placement of ornaments and location of our soon to be present pile! Later, when the tree was laden with bobbling ornaments and twinkling lights bounced off the walls, Mom put on a Classic movie and let us March with wooden soldiers or see Santa creating miracles on 34th Street! The Hills could also be alive with The Sound of . We didn’t care about the movie. Or the tree and presents. We were happy and safe with both parents fussing over us and that star my dad always ceremoniously placed on the tippy top of the tree as he had us lined up in a row on the staircase up to our rooms – that bright star was hope.

Story Submitted by Caitlin Greene

Poinsettias:

I grew up thinking that my family didn’t have Christmas traditions. We never traveled to celebrate with extended family or made frustrating phone calls where a staticky delay leaves you both speaking at the same time. My father’s family had mostly already passed on and my mother’s family was too far away to even try. This was just the way it was. To this day, our holiday celebrations aren’t the tenuous family gatherings you see spoofed on SNL. We don’t have Drunk Uncles, there’s no debate over politics, and nobody brings a dish so repulsive that we eat out of pity so as not to hurt Aunt Marge’s feelings. The only family that did celebrate with us was my maternal grandfather who moved into our nuclear household after his wife passed away. In the throes of dementia, he became increasingly bewildered by a world changing around him. Technology baffled him and what his waning memory allowed him to remember seemed to change at a horrifying turn on a dime. Constants were crucial for his senility and comfort. For my grandfather, this became his garden. Orchids were his specialty. Anybody who has ever tried to care for them knows what fickle mistresses they can be. But my grandfather and his green thumb knew exactly what they needed. My grandfather emigrated to America in 1962. He left behind his wife and my mother back in the Philippines until he had a solid job and foundation to move the rest of the family over. When my mother took her first PanAm flight to America, she lived in Cleveland while my grandfather held a job in Florida. He drove a thousand miles round-trip to see them each weekend. Even at the end of his life, I saw glimpses of his tenacity. Every year we would wake up on Black Friday and head to Home Depot, my grandfather leading the charge. Home Depot sold poinsettia plants for 99 cents each. We each grabbed a cart and loaded up until we had around 100 plants. Later that morning after breakfast, he planted each one of those poinsettias in the front lawn. A clean row of the bright red flowers framed the stage on which two Christmas deer would stand, twinkling at night. It took the entire morning, always. Even the neighbors looked on; this was our sign that Christmas time was here. It was a Herculean task. One hundred individual holes would have to be dug, each poinsettia placed with excruciating care. My mother and I would help, but my grandfather did most of the work. Our knees got cold and ached afterwards, but my grandfather never complained. This was the kind of gardening you would see done for a lavish theme park display. We stopped planting poinsettias in 2015. My grandfather finally succumbed to old age and died a peaceful death. Firsts are always hard after a death, but his absence was felt the most that first Black Friday. My mother and I did plant poinsettias once or twice, but as the years passed, we stopped all together. I grew up thinking my family didn’t have Christmas traditions. We don’t attend Misa de Gallo on Christmas Eve. If I ever went caroling, it was as a paid singer and not as a willing, enthusiastic volunteer. We didn’t eat bibingka and puto bumbong and we certainly never set up a nativity belen. It took until my grandfather’s passing to realize that family traditions aren’t going to look like what you see on Lifetime or in Hollywood’s newest ethnically inclusive holiday flick. Traditions aren’t defined by one’s culture, they’re the small quirks that make your own family unique. Five years later, I do a small bit of gardening now. The porch is still littered with orchids, of course, they don’t flower quite as well as they did. I finally got two heirloom tomatoes out of a plant of which I could take better care. My parsley and basil plants are flourishing, mainly because they are very low-maintenance. When my grandfather died, we received a small Christmas cactus as a mourning gift. They’re incredibly easy to care for; just don’t over-water them. Getting them to bloom requires a bit more work. Ideally, one prunes the plant until mid-summer, encouraging branching and flowering. My mother and I don’t touch our Christmas cactus often. We water it when we remember and we certainly don’t repot or prune on any kind of regular basis. It sits mostly forgotten on the kitchen table. And yet, every year, at the tip of the dried leaves, we’ll see a tiny pink bud emerge to remind us that the holidays are upon us. Traditions are what you choose to celebrate and pass on each year. Planting poinsettias wasn’t a tradition before my grandfather came to the United States; it wasn’t even a tradition until the last 10 years of his life. Maybe in the future, I’ll make a point of planting and caring for mountains of poinsettias. Until then, I’ll take solace in his presence as the Christmas cactus blooms each year with enough reliability to make even the biggest skeptics raise an eyebrow in unbridled holiday hope.

Story Submitted by Amy C. Ragg

My, how things can change in the span of a year! This time last year, my family and I were at the hospital wishing, hoping, and praying that my father would survive the Sepsis and multi-system organ failure he was battling after post-surgical complications. Mom and Middle Sister took the day shifts at the hospital, Baby Sister, who flew in from Seattle, and I took the night shifts. Machines beeped. Tubes drained. IV’s pumped. We watched. We waited. We laughed. We cried. We reminisced. We drank gallons of coffee, tea, and water. We ate, usually without tasting. We thanked the nurses. We thanked the doctors. We thanked the techs. We brought food and made gifts for them. We wrote glowing commendations for human resources. We stepped away from the outside world. We circled together like elephants protecting their young from predators. We had one job: help Dad get better.

We spent Thanksgiving in the hospital. We ate Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria in shifts. That meal, we tasted, and it was delicious. I ate Thanksgiving dinner for all three meals that day and was overwhelmed with gratitude each time. I was even treated to one of those meals by the wonderful woman who worked at the check-in desk who we all came to consider family.

One week after Thanksgiving, when my beloved ended up in the same hospital on a different floor, the experience was surreal. I found myself popping between floors, grateful that the others were with Dad so I could be with her. I was grateful for the quiet corner of the full-to-capacity hospital where I could sleep in a chair next to her bed. I was grateful for the same doctor who treated Dad to be her doctor, as well. I was grateful when she recovered quickly. I was grateful when Dad began to recover. All in all, Dad was in the hospital for about a month. He was finally released to go home on Christmas Eve. Their neighbors met us in the driveway with dinner. The gratitude washed over all of us. This year, everything is different. Everything. Thanksgiving will be a drive-by and drop off food occasion. Middle Sister is at the house with my parents. Baby Sister is back home in Seattle with her husband and Little Monster. My beloved and I will be at our home. It will be different, but it will be safe. We will be safe. We will be together by phone or Zoom. We will be together in our hearts. And we will be grateful. Always.

Story Submitted by Barry P. Silber

My Gratitude –

When I think of gratitude as I approach my 69th year on this planet, I am struck by the words of the late, great actor and war hero, Harold Russell. Mr. Russell, who lost both arms in World War 2, went on to the win Best Supporting Actor for his role as a disabled veteran in the film, “The Best Years of Our Lives”. He said, “it’s not what you have lost, but what you have left, and what you do with it”. The message is straightforward but inspirational. When I think of my advancing age, I think of the friends and family that I have lost. However, what is not lost, or you could say what I have left, are the memories and how these loved ones impacted my life. Of course, I also have friends and family who are with me and continue to enrich my existence. So, what have I done with the memories of loved ones that have passed away? I celebrate them, just as I celebrate those who thankfully, are still in my life. Recently, I suffered a loss of a different kind: my daughter, son-in-law, and our two young grandchildren moved 1,200 miles away. At first, I was overwhelmed with feelings of grief, despite knowing rationally that this move would improve their lives. I also knew that there would be trips up north, and frequent FaceTiming. However, I realized that I had to do something else not only to deal with my sadness but to make these family members understand their importance in my life. So, I created, wrote, and published a Children’s Book, Zayde and Me, which emphasized my special relationship with my Grandson, Richard. I guess the expression of gratitude can take many forms. With the ongoing pandemic, Thanksgiving just won’t be the same for many families. Yes, it will be just my wife, Muffie, and me this year, but with a planned Zoom session to our extended family. Challenging times call for innovative solutions. With our tradition of beginning dinner with a statement of what we are thankful for, this year I will thank Mr. Russell for his quote, which guides me every day.

Story Submitted by Jim Webb

What Am I Thankful For?

I am thankful for the health, wealth, and wisdom that I have been blessed with.
The health that I maintain in spite of myself because my wife stays on top of it.
The wealth because I am motivated to earn and save by the examples set from childhood by my mother and reinforced by my wife.
The wisdom imparted on me by my grandmother is some of my earliest and most cherished memories.
On the professional side, I am thankful for Karen, “my external hard drive” and Deb “The Web Wrangler”.
I am simply thankful for all of the women in my life who encourage, motivate, and inspire me.

Story Submitted by Young Starr

In Kindness- Over the past few years I have known Debbie who has helped me beyond expectation within her own time. During very difficult times (both challenging and unknown at the same time)-Debbie has ALWAYS been there to help and assist me even when I could not afford to pay for her services. The constant reminder she would bring to me on how special I truly am, has allowed me to overcome my grief and struggles in an instant. I am so THANKFUL to Debbie because she is a rare GEM. Kindness is revealed in our acts as humans no matter what our color, race, and or gender. Debbie has allowed me to KNOW that I too am important. I Salute Debbie and am so THANKFUL to her!