Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kind to Ourselves

There was a time that if ever I had a spare half hour, I would weed the garden, sew something, do some laundry, generally make myself useful.  My husband, on the other hand, would use his spare time to nap.  

I napped too, mind you; I just felt guilty about it.  An emotion to which my husband is, at least in matters of household chores, immune.  (He does things around the house, but his chores are unadulterated by guilt.)

I used to marvel at his capacity for what I perceived to be his self-indulgence.  No matter how much I did in a day, the unfinished portion of my to-do list seemed to loom much larger than the sum of my accomplishments.  How wrong I was.

I have noticed that women in general seem to have a talent for self-recrimination.  We are so ready to take the blame for whatever is going forward.  Why?  Why are we so hard on ourselves, hard on each other?  

When will we learn?  It's not our job to be perfect.  It's our job to do our best with what we've got -- sometimes not even that.  

It's our job to love.  We run ourselves ragged loving everyone else.  But we are created in God's image too -- it's our job to love ourselves just the same.  

I used to carry around so many worries, regrets, was like carrying around a sack of rocks.  I thought, what if I just drop this sack?  Stop worrying about everyone's expectations?  Lower my own expectations to those of an ordinary mortal?

What I learned is that I could take every day just as it is.  I learned I could look at each person and see the good in him or her.  I learned that I could see the good in myself.

Does this seem obvious?  It didn't to me.  Why are we women so reluctant to see the beauty in ourselves?  

Here is one of the many things I have learned from my husband:  when I have a spare half hour, I deserve a nap.  I am worthy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lots of Friends, but Only One Mother

Situation:  4 year old Gem wants to eat her breakfast in front of the TV.  My line in the sand:  we eat at the table together and have conversation.
Gem:  "Adrian gets to eat in front of the tv.  I want to too."
Me:  "Well, breakfast is on the dining room table.  If you want to eat, you need to sit here."
Gem:  "But I want to watch Dragon Tales."
Me:  "Then you're making a choice not to eat breakfast."
Gem:  "But I'm hungry!"
Me:  "Then come to the table."
Gem:  "But I want to watch Dragon Tales."

Around some more until it's time to brush teeth and go to preschool.  Kicking and screaming.  (her, not me)  I went on to teach my classes, waiting for a call from Child Welfare for starving my daughter.

Situation:  14 year old (high school freshman) Gem wants to go to Chloe's with a group of girls after school, then on to Andrew's for a party that evening.  My line in the sand:  I need to go to the party, meet the parents, and make sure it's a situation I approve of.

Gem:  "You don't trust me.  Chloe's mom will bring us and meet the parents."
Me:  "You are 14.  Papa and I are responsible for you.  Chloe's parents are responsible for Chloe."
Gem:  "How ridiculous to go home with Chloe, then to have you pick me up from there to go to the party. Why even go to Chloe's?!"
Me:  "OK, just come home after school.  All the girls can come home with you after school.  I'm happy to bring everyone to the party."
Gem:  "I am so embarrassed to tell Chloe that you don't trust her mom to see that she is supervised."
Me:  "Chloe's mom will understand that I have to see for myself.  I'm sure she feels the same way.  Do you want me to call her?"
Gem:  "Please no!  This is so embarrassing!  I'll probably just come home after exams tomorrow and skip Chloe's house and the party and LIFE IN GENERAL!  I bet you didn't have this kind of micromanagement as a teenager!  Memaw is so nice!"
Me:  "I'll tell you exactly what Memaw told me:  I am not your friend.  I'm your mother.  You'll have lots of friends throughout your life, but only one mother."

Blah blah more drama on Gem's part.  She even squeezes out a few tears.

20 minutes later, she comes back into the living room with a big smile:  "Chloe's mom says could you please bring half the girls?  It's too many for her car anyway and she wants to go in too.  She knows Andrew's parents and said Andrew's mom will probably like having more adults there anyway.  Afterward, can Chloe and Eva and Maylynn sleep over?  Can you make cinnamon rolls for breakfast and take us to the movies to see Tangled on Saturday?"

Who is this kid and what did she do with my drama queen?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Toppletan

Aunts who don't have children spend an inordinate amount of energy and time plotting ways to spoil their nieces and nephews.  That was me for a lot of years -- I've got 24 nieces and nephews, almost all of whom were born prior to my Gem.  (Now I've got 14 great-nieces and -nephews too!)  I have one other sister (Jay) who was a similarly late starter.  (We're not the youngest, not even close.)

Jay and I loved and spoiled our nieces and nephews to the fullest extent permitted by their parents.  We took the girls to tea at fancy hotels, all the kids to the zoo and the park, for rides on the street car, to movies, baked with them, read with them, and generally loved them.  They could sleep over and destroy my house turning the living room into a fort with every pillow they could find.  My husband would just shake his head and smile.  He was powerless to resist.  (You know he loved it.)

For birthdays and Christmas, Jay and I would scour the stores to find just exactly that one gift that would speak to each child.  ND was making his 4th birthday.  Jay and I were leaving Macy's and she picked up a little striped tee shirt on the way out.  It was an afterthought, really; a cheap sale item.  

ND blew out his candles, opened that box, and it was love.  He pronounced it "the Toppletan" (?who knows?) and wore it constantly.  If it was dirty, he would dig it out of the hamper.  His mother (our sister) would complain about the Toppletan -- ND wouldn't take it off!  For Jay and me, the Toppletan came to mean the gold standard in gifts.  I love to make or find exactly the thing that will speak to the person's heart, that will be just what is needed to make him or her feel special.  When I shop, I am in search of the Toppletan.

Teachers usually get presents several times a year.  When I taught full time, I used to love the special handmade cards and pictures I got for various holidays, my birthday, and teacher appreciation day.  My husband used to love the bath salts, which I would just hand straight over to him when I got home.  (What can I say?  I'm a shower and go girl.)  Now that I no longer work in a school, he reeeeeally misses teacher appreciation day, poor guy.

I have used the expertise built up over years of teaching to find the really good teacher presents for Gem's teachers.  A couple of gifts I've given that I think her teachers liked best were gift certificates for a car wash (a really clean car is luxury) and homemade candied pecans.

I think I scored an end-of-the-year teacher Toppletan last May.  Gem drew a couple of pictures and I used my color printer to make them into note cards.  It was easy to find envelopes to fit and I used grosgrain ribbon to wrap 10 cards and envelopes together.  Teachers always need note cards, and these are much more meaningful than some I could just buy in a store.  I got such great feedback from her teachers, I gave them to grandparents (aunts too!).

I usually shop for presents all year long.  When I find what I think someone needs, I wrap it and stash it until the occasion presents itself.  (OK, sometimes I can't wait and I just have to give it to them right away.)  

Last year, I saw the "Easy Reach Grabber."  (a steal at under $5)  I right away realized that every little kid needs one.  I'm sure I needed one when I was a kid if only such a thing had existed in my world.  It was last Christmas's Toppletan.  Several hours on Christmas day were spent poking around the marsh in back of Memaw's house by children who couldn't care less about the expensive video games languishing upstairs.  

This year, I've got binoculars.  And LED headlamps.  Now that's what I'm talking about.  The Toppletan.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's the Time of Year for a One House Open Sleigh

As a mother, I pick my battles.  Some things are worth arguing about and some are just not.  My test:  is it something they're going to do eventually anyway?  Don't sweat it.  Is it something they're not going to learn naturally?  That's where I put my effort.

So:  We are big on sitting down to a family dinner every night.  I insisted that my toddler sit at the table and learn manners that make her a pleasant dining companion.  After all, it's not uncommon for me to spend unpleasant time dining in company with adults who talk with food in their mouths, chew with their mouths open, don't use a get the idea.  Ick.

On the other hand:  There was a period of almost a year when she was 3 that Gem insisted on wearing her shoes on the wrong feet.  Everywhere we went, people would say, "What an adorable little girl!"  and then whisper aside to me (as if I didn't know about it) "You know her shoes are on the wrong feet, Honey."  I would just smile wearily, "Yes.  That's how she likes it."  But honestly, I don't know any grown person who wears their shoes on the wrong feet, so I decided not to care.  (It may be a relief to you to know that this problem did resolve itself.)

Like all little kids, Gem would mix up words on a regular basis.  I am a teacher.  An early childhood person.  A reading specialist even.  But how I cherished those adorable mistakes!  I confess I often did not correct them.  

Once we were in a public place and my 2-year-old decided to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the top of her lungs with a special flourish at "the bombs burping in air."  She insisted that "Jingle Bells" were "on a one house open sleigh."  And the Little Star twinkled "like a diamond ring in the sky."  

There was a little song I used to sing, "The red light says to stop.  The green light says to go.  And in between the yellow light says, 'Caution, now go slow.'"  That ended up as "And beenatween the yellow light says, 'Carwash, now go slow."

Makes perfect sense to me.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

First You Make a Roux

I love any occasion that encourages me to get together with those I love and spend the day cooking and eating.  Now it's 2 days later and in every home across the country, scrumptious leftovers are dwindling quickly.  Here in south Louisiana, turkey on Thanksgiving Day is just a preamble to deliciousness to come:  turkey gumbo.  And like so many good Louisiana recipes, it starts with a roux.

Here's my recipe:

turkey carcass with whatever leavings of meat are on it; I usually cut it into 4 pieces so they fit nicely in the pot
1/2 cup flour
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (not olive -- peanut is good because it can take high temperatures)
1 cup coarsely chopped yellow onions
1/2 cup coarsely chopped bell peppers
1/4 cup chopped celery
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, finely chopped (or a couple of tablespoons of dried if that's what you have)
water or broth to cover
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 to 1 pound andouille sausage (or other smoked sausage you like) cut into 1/4 inch rounds
cayenne pepper and salt to taste
1 bunch finely chopped green onions
file powder (ground sassafrass root)

First you make a roux:  In your soup pot, combine oil and flour over medium heat, stirring/scraping continuously until the flour cooks to a medium brown color.  Some like it really dark, but there's a fine line between dark and burned.  Once I crossed that bitter line and the house smelled dreadful for days. (Seemed like days.)  Now I stay on the safe side and stop when it's about the color of peanut butter.

Throw in onions, bell peppers, celery, and parsley and saute until the vegetables are wilted.

Add turkey pieces and sausage.

Add enough water or broth to cover all the ingredients by at least an inch.  Don't worry if you add too much -- you can always just cook it longer to reduce.  You just don't want to add too little.  Actually, if you add too little, you can still just add more as needed.

Add salt and cayenne to taste.

Cook for a couple of hours partially covered so that the liquid can reduce.  Stir every so often.  Or if you have a husband who cannot resist stirring, let him do it whenever he wanders into the kitchen.  I'm married to a stirrer.

It's done when the meat is falling off the bones and the broth is the consistency you like. (I like it pretty thick.)  Fish out the bare bones and icky bits (skin) at the very end -- they add flavor and texture to the soup while it's cooking.  I also skim off the oil, though some people like to leave it.

Serve over fluffy rice and throw a handful of green onions onto the top of each serving.  I let everyone add their own file at the table.  (Some like it, some don't.)

So good.  I like it with cornbread.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Smack in the Middle of Satsuma Season

For shame!  I walked into a local supermarket the other day and saw this display right at the front door:

Why are these clementines from 500 miles away taking up prime grocery real estate?
Nothing against clementines, but our local satsumas are a toothsome, fragrant mandarin orange that has been grown here for well over 100 years. 

This is what should be at the front of every supermarket in the Gulf South right now:

Satsumas may not be showy, but they're soooooooo good!
Okay, they're kinda ugly compared to the perfectly shaped and uniformly orange clementines.  They are all shades of orange, yellow, and green when ripe.  Their skin is lumpy and loose -- so easy to peel.  They are sweet, tender, juicy, and practically seedless.  Around our house, we just live for satsuma season.  

Thank you, Clementine, but while satsumas are in season we have no need for other citrus.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Katrinas' Blessings

Usually when people talk about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath of flooding and devastation for the Gulf South, particularly New Orleans, they emphasized the -- very real -- tragedy of it all.  I want to talk about the blessings, just as real, it has brought.

It was with a feeling of new possibilities that my family returned in late 2005 to our ruined city, confident that we would help to rebuild it better.  We desperately needed political, judicial, and educational reform.  I was bitterly disappointed as one after another old problem crept back in.  Crime and corruption seemed as rampant as ever and the bad old days seemed to be back to stay.

In the last year, though, I've come to realize that I was wrong.  Reform is taking hold; it just didn't happen as fast as I thought it would.  It takes years to turn around a system so broken, decades even, but it's already starting to show.

Moving Slide Into Place
Around the corner from our house is a school that was scary bad before the storm.  It was a middle school (grades 6 - 8) with poor discipline, failing students, a crumbling building.  Now it is an elementary school, grades K - 8. 

When it first reopened, it seemed to be more of the same.  During morning arrival and afternoon dismissal, slouching kids would loiter around the entrance.  Their dress was slovenly, they would litter on the street, and the way the boys talked to the girls -- so disrespectful.

In the last two years, there has been a change for the better.  In the mornings and afternoons, teachers are outside smiling and chatting with the children, parents, and bus drivers.  The kids are mannerly and pleasant to the neighbors.  Academics are measurably improved.  The principal doesn't crow about the achievement gains, though, because she's not satisfied with where they are -- yet.

Painting a Really Cool Hop Scotch Board

Yesterday, the neighborhood and school communities united to build a new playground and generally spruce up the place.  Two wealthy local families footed the bill and KaBoom! organized the almost 600 volunteers to turn barren concrete into a great place for children to play and learn.  

Starting to Look Like Something!
It was amazing to meet the teachers, parents, and kiddos and peek into some of the classrooms.  (kindergarten -- my fave!)  This school could not have existed 5 years ago.  And now it's only one of many.  If this trend holds, it's no exaggeration to say that even my dreams for a transformed city will be realized.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Every Day Beauties

I love to garden (despite the fact that I have been shamefully remiss in my current garden where I have lived for more than 2 years already).  I love all flowers and vegetables and growing things and the wildlife they bring:  bugs, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  My lush, showy roses and bougainvillea make my heart sing every time I look at them.

Some of my favorites, though, are quiet beauties that most passersby might not even notice.

Waiting for Me to Come Along
Most of my neighbors view obedient plant as a weed.
Angelle Was Here

This insignificant perennial lies on the ground waiting for me to come along.  When I do, I always touch the leaves.  They  obediently fold up.  How fun is that?

Spanish moss is very common;  but could never be mundane.  It has a gossamer beauty all its own.  I usually see it in live oaks or cypress trees, but here it is growing  right on my crape myrtles.

Soon I hope to start my gardening in earnest.  Really, where I live it's hard not to have a garden.  If something gets stuck in the ground, it pretty much grows like crazy.

One of my neighbors with a sense of humor got a garden upgrade when she recently redid the bathroom.

Now that's something you don't see every day.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tearing Down the House

I am grateful for all the children in my life.  Even when they're doing their best to tear the house down and kill themselves in the process.

My dear friend Yasmeen has twin boys, 18 months old:  "Y" and "Z."  Neither she nor her husband has family locally and she has never left the children with anyone but their father.  She has recently been having health problems, though, and when the doctor's office called to say a time slot had opened up in the afternoon, she had to take it.  I was just so excited and honored when she asked me to watch the boys!  I offered to go to their apartment, but Yas decided to bring them here.

Just to say, I am a loving and competent baby sitter.  But these guys were way faster than me.  And somehow in the years since Gem was little, my house has become filled with sharp corners exactly at toddler eye level, drawers and doors waiting to pinch little fingers, lamps just a touch away from crashing to the floor and cutting small bare feet.

The minute Yas left, they were off and running in opposite directions.  I wrangled them downstairs and outside.  We went for a walk during which they attempted to throw themselves in front of moving cars, insert their fingers into the mouth of the neighbor's German shepherd, and enter every house on the block.

The nice lady two doors down has several cats.  Which eat from several bowls stashed around the front porch.  How was I to know that Y and Z love cat food?  Actually, I can remember a time when Gem ate it every chance she got too.

Hey, it's got nutrients.

When we got home, they played the piano with Gem and Y helped me cook supper.  He's quite the chef given his own empty pot and wooden spoon.  Perfect timing:  they started to get fussy just as I was ready to serve.  Gem and I put some old tee shirts over their clothes to serve as bibs and spooned them full of pasta and meatballs.

I could see them starting to rub their eyes and get a little whiny, so I felt a bath was in order.  Cue wailing and tearing of hair.  And that was just to get their clothes off.  I thought for sure once they got into the tub all would be well.  All children love to play in the water, right?  Wrong.  Now I know.

Thank goodness that's just when Yas returned with o.k. news from the doctor (not terrible; not great) and a little time spent all by herself.  (Bless her.)  And a Y and Z so happy to see their mommy!

After everyone left, Gem and I just looked at one another, dazed.  Really, my hat is off to mothers of twins.  I am in awe of what Yas does every day with such grace and serenity.

And Gem and I are already planning what to do next time we get to spend an evening with Y and Z. (Big smile!)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thief of Time

When we bought our house a couple of years ago we redid lots of things, but we couldn't do it all.  Some things had to wait until we have the money and/or time.  Kitchen appliances seemed to be in working order, so they stayed.

Unpredictable dishwasher
The dishwasher was one of these.  It's a temperamental creature that needs just the right touch or else it pouts and all its lights go off.  Usually it works o.k., but it seems to go out on strike at random times.  Sometimes even if it "works," the dishes don't get clean.  

New HD "Dishwasher"
So about a year ago, we decided that we needed a more reliable appliance.  We entered the appliance store with that plan in mind.  Somehow, when we left the store, instead of a dishwasher for me, we had a 42" HD television set for my husband.  

I'm still not sure how it happened.  A year later, the new has still not worn off of our HD "dishwasher."  It gets the internet so our Netflix instant download movies are always on tap.  It has a DVR, so there are always several episodes of Antiques Road Show or What Not to Wear or something just lined up.

Therein lies the problem.  I've never been a big TV watcher, mostly because at any given time there is nothing on that I want to watch.  But now...well...when I'm folding clothes or ironing or sewing and no one is's so tempting to turn it on.  Next thing I know, it's 2 hours later and I haven't got anything else done.  Television is truly the thief of time.

Being grateful.......I am grateful to have my old cranky dishwasher and my new HD dishwasher.  Thankful that my family finds things on the infernal machine to laugh about and talk about.  Now, I need to step - away - from - the - dishwasher.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

23 Reasons for a Happy Anniversary

My Sweetie and I recently celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. 23 years later, we have some very different ideas about what is really important in life.  I know I've changed a lot from that young woman in a white dress and veil.  I've had a wonderful partner in this journey, someone who learns with and teaches me every day.

Here are 23 (of the many) things I've learned from my husband:

  1. Slow down; if it's important, it will still be there tomorrow.
  2. When you're listening to someone, just listen.  Don't be thinking about what you're going to say.
  3. Take naps.
  4. Eat slowly.
  5. Eat dessert.
  6. Eat just a little dessert.
  7. Do big jobs a little at a time.
  8. Make time for love.
  9. Laugh more often.
  10. Let it go.
  11. The very old and very young can do whatever they want.
  12. I am a great cook.
  13. I am loved.
  14. Family is the most important thing.  We are family.
  15. I can count on my Honey.
  16. Honesty is always best; don't take shortcuts.
  17. Be patient.
  18. Give bad news in private; good news in public.
  19. Take vacations.
  20. Do what you love.
  21. Breakfast for supper is better than going out to eat.
  22. I don't have to say everything I'm thinking.
  23. It's o.k. to disagree -- and still love.
Thanks for everything, Sweetie

Thursday, September 2, 2010

I Love the Rain

I really love the rain.  Our average annual rainfall here is well over 60 inches, which suits me just fine.  

Some days are so hot that when it first starts raining it steams right back up off the street for a few minutes.  The rain cools everything off and gets the temperature down into the 70s -- even in August.  That's saying something.  

Also, we have an old house that has settled a little lumpy in places.  If it doesn't rain for a while, the soil shrinks and my back door doesn't open so well.  I am a woman of simple needs.  To turn the handle and feel the smooth opening and closing of a door gives me a certain contentment.  To turn the handle and strain, push and shove against a crooked frame jangles me a little.

I am lucky enough to have a comfortable back porch on which I can enjoy the rain and a cup of tea at the same time.  It's upstairs among the trees and my favorite place to be in the rain. It's a luxury to drink in the fresh smell and gentle murmur of a morning shower.  So grateful for it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Shadow Shot Sunday 2

I took this a few weeks ago when I was in Paris.  The sun came out for a little while that morning creating shadows that brought into dramatic relief the carvings of some amazing Greek statues in the courtyard of the Louvre.  This is a detail of a horse's tail.  I was struck by the dynamic movement the sculptor captured so long ago.  I could almost hear the galloping hooves. 

Now we're back home.  Summer in south Louisiana is way hotter different  than the summer in France.  Back home, there are other beauties.

One New Orleans beauty is okra.  Do they eat it in other parts of the world?  It's fresh in all the markets (and gardens) right now.  It's used in a variety of old-fashioned recipes.  One of my favorites is okra and tomatoes with shrimp.  I made it yesterday to much husbandly acclaim (and daughterly tolerance).

Here's my recipe:

1 1/2 pounds okra cut into 1/3 inch thick "coins" (frozen is o.k.)
1 medium onion, chopped coarsely
a couple of tablespoons of diced garlic
2 large tomatoes diced (chunky)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
black pepper
I actually don't measure ingredients all that much.
  1. In a large cast-iron skillet to medium-high and sautee onions until translucent
  2. Add cut up okra and garlic.  Stir frequently until sliminess is gone.  Add water whenever it looks dry and/or starts to stick.
  3. Add tomatoes and cook until just heated, add cayenne pepper
  4. Stir in shrimp, sautee until just pink
  5. Salt and pepper to taste
I love it with corn bread -- so sweet!  But right now it's so hot (and muggy) here you could cut the air with a knife outside and I didn't want to heat up the kitchen with baking.  I got a crusty country loaf from the bakery.

There aren't too many ways to go wrong; like most traditional recipes there are as many variations as there are cooks.  There's only one rule when cooking fresh okra:  choose younger, smaller pods.  When the pods are too large, they're tough and fibrous.

When Gem was little, she would stick the stem ends of the okra to her forehead and pretend to be a space alien.  I'd stick them to my face too and chase her around.  I remember doing that with my brother and sisters when I was little.  How many other kids were okra space aliens?

On the stitching front, I'm almost finished my niece's butterfly:

I'm excited and think she will really like it.  Yay!

Thursday, August 12, 2010


My grandparents, though their families had been in Louisiana since before it was a part of the U.S., spoke only their French dialect as young children.  When they began school (in the years before 1920), there was a new idea about what it was to be a "good" American.  It meant to be assimilated into the blander greater culture.  They were punished severely (and I imagine incomprehensibly) if they spoke any language other than English.  

Within a generation, their language was made academic.  I studied French in high school.  Lucky for me, I also studied at a French university and really learned the language.  I tried to give my daughter, Gem, the best of both worlds so she is bilingual.  In that way it's come full circle.  

Did you know that (contrary to popular opinion) the United States has no official language?  Yep, and I say that's a good thing.  People always do and always will find a way to get things done across a language/religious/cultural/regional divide.

Some countries have 2 or more official languages:  Switzerland has 4 and they're doing all right.

What it is that makes us want to either be like everyone else or make everyone else like us?  Why can't we just enjoy who we are and enjoy others as they are?  Is it too Kumbaya to think we can?  

I can walk around my neighborhood and find people with many different religions, languages, cultures, and families.  I consider each to be a friend, would gladly go out of my way to help any of them, but don't necessarily look, act, talk, or think like them.  

This was all driven home to me recently when our family returned from a trip to France.  Gem had been there the whole summer; my husband and I just a couple of weeks.  I couldn't believe the negative remarks people made about France and the French.  Whether or not I agree with a country's policies, I would never assume that all its citizens are in lockstep agreement with it.  (I sure don't agree with many U.S. policies.) 

Here's what I think about the French:
  • They love their children and want the best for them.
  • They value family and friends.
  • Most live their lives according to what they see as right and good.  And are doing just fine.
  • They eat very well.
  • The graffiti artists in Paris are ingenious; how do they get into those spots?
All of which I could say about any other people in any other place.  We're all richer when we make connections rather than divisions.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Baby Whispering

My husband and daughter call me "The Baby Whisperer," because my superpower is the ability to make all babies love me.  Really that's not true.  My real talent is the ability to love all babies.  Babies just recognize this and respond in kind.

I am always respectful -- I'm not a grabber, toucher, or kisser of babies I don't know.  But I am irresistibly drawn to make eye contact, smile, and play a game of peek-a-boo.  Since I have the great good fortune to work with young children (0 to 3 years) who have special needs and their families, my baby whispering skills are a great asset to me on the job.

Baby whispering isn't enough, though.  Parent whispering is often the skill I need even more.  Lucky for me, I have a heart to love parents too.  I am in a very privileged and delicate position, entering (intruding into?) a home, a family.  I often wonder how they can bear it; sometimes emotions are so raw and close to the surface.

One gorgeous little boy (M) has so many physical, cognitive, and medical needs that no less than 6 different therapists/care providers come into his home each week.  By the time I arrive on Friday mornings, I can tell Mommy and Daddy are exhausted.  

Last Friday it was obvious that they were distraught over their latest bad news.  They've already been through so much.  I fought my instinct to smooth it all over with optimistic cheer and just listened with all my heart.  I didn't agree or disagree as they talked for a couple of hours.  I tried to keep my expression neutral and not insult them with pity. 

Not for the first time, I tried to imagine what it is like to expect and plan for a new baby, only to relinquish cherished dreams over and over again as first one, then another and another obstacle is placed in your sweet boy's path.  And still find a way to hope; talk about grace under pressure.

I'm not saying that these (or any) parents are paragons or any such saccharine sentimentality.  But I do believe that it takes a special talent to find dignity, humor, and hope in the face of such continued opposition.

That is a real superpower.  M's parents have such gallant optimism about the future because they have a talent for love.  I am grateful to witness and be part of their love for sweet M.  The trick is that we see and value all of M -- not just focus on the disability.

M has worth all on his own whether or not he does the same things the same way other children his age do.  Not everybody gets that -- but I am lucky to see it.  M's parents and I made a list of all the things we love about him:
  • liquid brown eyes with long, long lashes
  • all boy!  He loves motorcycles and will turn his head whenever he hears one on the street
  • dimples when he smiles
  • the way he totally relaxes against my chest when we're reading Good Night Moon
  • a fighter!  He does not like to roll from tummy to back and lets me know.
  • the way he gurgles and smiles when his brother's new puppy licks his hand
  • He spits out his sweet potatoes just like my daughter used to.
  • Until Daddy says, "All right now, M.  Is that manners?" with that stern daddy voice.
  • He's a football fan.  M shows real pleasure watching the big game with daddy, brother, and cousins.
  • No one else will do but Mommy when he wakes in the night.  (a blessing and a curse!)
  • If he is fussy anytime, he will instantly calm when Mommy sings "Sleep Baby."  Just her voice across the room ("I'm coming, Honey!") is often enough to make him content.
  • Big brother plays too rough with M...and M loves it!  Like that time he took him outside to play in the sprinkler...

Well, the real list is way longer than this, but I am already more in love with M than ever just looking at these few things.  What more could any little boy be than M already is?

Happy birthday, Special Boy!  Today you make two, a real milestone.   I'm wearing black and gold for your favorite team.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Shadow Shot Sunday

This picture describes our quintessential Sunday morning breakfast.  Black coffee (for me, everyone else takes cream and sugar) and the crosswords for my sweetie.  He is some cocksure of himself doing this puzzle in pen!

I love the way the shadows bring out the elegant pattern of my china.  I get a surprising amount of pleasure from sitting down to a meal with these unassuming, cream-colored dishes.  They are to me much more beautiful than other, more expensive, patterns I might have gotten.

Thank you to Harriet for giving me the "Shadow Shot Sunday" idea and opportunity.

This morning I made one of my favorite breakfasts:  pain perdu (aka French toast).  I love sweet potatoes and when I cook them, I always bake extra, then puree them and freeze them in 1/4 cup portions.  The night before I make pain perdu, I leave a couple portions out on the counter to defrost.  Here's my recipe:

Pain Perdu

5 slices of whole wheat bread
1/2 cup pureed sweet potato (butternut squash works too)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons cinnamon (I love cinnamon and really don't measure.  I probably put lots more.)
1/2 tablespoon nutmeg (ditto what I said about cinnamon)

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a cast-iron skillet to medium-high.
While that is heating, mix sweet potato, egg, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Liquid will be thick.
Dip a slice of bread (both sides) into the mixture until it's saturated.
Put the bread in the skillet and brown on both sides (about 2 or 3 minutes per side).
While one slice is cooking, be soaking the next.

I like to eat mine with powdered sugar, Gem and Sweetie (dear husband) like maple syrup.  It goes great with fresh berries or any seasonal fruit.  Yum!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Thoughts to Ponder

Every so often I come across a quote that inspires or touches me in some way.  I write it down, fold it up, and put it in a jar in my kitchen.  Once a day or so, I just pull out a thought, ponder it, and move it to the next jar (for thoughts I've already pondered).

I never know what thoughts will come out of the jar.  Sometimes, they are words of comfort:

"To everything there is a season" (Ecclesiastes) or "Housework done imperfectly still blesses your family" (Fly Lady).

Sometimes they are words of advice that I dearly need:  "Leave evil and it will leave you"  (Arab proverb), or "Between stimulus and response, one has the freedom to choose" (Stephen Covey).

Sometimes I get inspiration:  "To unpathed waters, undreamed shores" (William Shakespeare) or "Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling"  (Margaret B. Runbeck).

Often visitors find my kitchen stash of quotes.  After they read a few, they sometimes want to take one away with them.  There is one quote that I continuously have to replace.  It's from the incomparable poet and penseur Maya Angelou, "My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return."

I think I can see why; it's inspiration, advice, hope, and assurance all in one.

Today I worked a little more on my niece's butterfly.  I used a very long stem stitch around the wings and for the smile.

Tiny, colorful seed beads line the inside of wings.

I did some lopsided French knots for the eyes and nose.  For the antennae, I used an outline stitch in blue, then couched it in green.

To capture the sweet exuberance of this butterfly, I'm thinking of the bright colors that a child might use in her art work.  Now I have to figure out which stitches to use for the segment lines along the body.  

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ripening Figs

Just a couple more weeks and they'll be ripe and ready.

There is a fig tree in front of a house a few doors down from us.  Neither the owner of the rental house nor the tenant -- nor anyone else in the neighborhood for that matter -- seems to crave the velvety sweetness of the figs.  Not even my Sweetie and Gem.  Just me and a whole hoard of insects.

As they turn purple, I slip down there and pick bowls of them to take back home and eat.  There are lots I can't get to (I'm petite, ok?) and they drop onto the sidewalk, fermenting in the summer's heat.  Bees, ants, and flies circle drunkenly around the gooey little splotches.

The price of figs in the supermarket being what it is, it's surprising that no one else is picking them.

This year I'm going to do more than just eat them as they ripen.  I want to make preserves or something so that I can enjoy them in the months to come.  Trouble is, eating them fresh is the only way I've ever known figgy goodness.  Fig recipes, anyone?

Sew and Sew

I learned to sew from Sister Barbara at St. C Academy. She inspected our buttonholes and hem stitches with an eagle eye and many's the seam I had to rip and redo. Sister Barbara presided over my first projects, from a simple pencil skirt (with zipper!) to my prom dress that year and I still thank God for her even-handed guidance every time I pick up a needle and thread.

Throughout my college years and adult life I've made clothes, curtains, and costumes.  In recent years, my interest has shifted away from the practical, but I still love to sew.  Mainly I'm interested in hand sewing nowadays, the kind of thing I can curl up with in the living room while everyone else around me is doing their own things.  

I don't like the hassle of setting up the machine and then putting it away again.  So I haven't been constructing any garments, but I do hems and repairs to things that need it.  I also have been making some pictures.  I mainly use fabric (applique), embroidery, and beading.

Gem likes her hair to swoop down over her right eye.  I made this a couple of years ago when her glasses broke and I just couldn't throw her old pair away after they were replaced.  So here is a sort of portrait of Gem with her glasses, some fun boucle yarn, beads, and scraps of fabric I had on hand.

I don't know what she thinks of it, but I framed it and hung it up.

This is a more recent applique.  I love my chickens and this picture of a mama hen with her hatchlings is actually 2 small pictures.  They are mounted, but not framed yet.  

I wonder what Sister Barbara would think?  She would be happy that I am still sewing and enjoying it.  Maybe, though, she would also see me as a little lazy.  You see, I rarely rip out and redo my mistakes.  Instead, I just work them into the picture the best way I can.

Sometimes it really works out.  With this Mama and Babies I measured the background fabric wrong and needed about an inch more in both length and height.  So I set the pieces aside for a while until I happened upon this pretty gold ribbon.  I used a variety of goldish beads to attach the border to the picture and, frankly, I like it better than my original plan.

I have a 6 year old niece, Vava, who is a real artist.  I love her drawings and am using one of her butterflies right now to make a new applique.  Here are some of the fabrics and colors I have in mind:

I learn a lot by reading all kinds of needlework blogs and I've recently read about Gwen Marston's Fearless Quilting.  I don't know if I'm interpreting it right, but I think of it as just what I do.  If I make a mistake, rather than ripping it out, I try to turn it to my advantage.

Kind of like life.  When I do something wrong, I try to have a good heart, pick myself back up, and keep moving.  Maybe it even comes out better than my original plan.  You think?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Handiness Theorem Proves False

I married an engineer.  That means he is extremely handy around the house (can fix or build almost anything) and extremely nerdy around the house (makes waaaay more math references than I ever need to hear).  Over many years of experience with both, I have developed my very own mathematical theorem.

I have tested this hypothesis with a large sample of wives -- spouses, I should say to be nonsexist -- and it almost always has proved accurate.  Being artsy, I don't feel constrained to have 100% accuracy for my theorem to hold up.  (Sorry, math and science types.)  So "just about everyone I have talked to about it" counts as a sufficient sample to prove my hypothesis. 

So here's my Handiness Theorem:
The handiness of the man is inversely proportional to the permanence of his relationship with the recipient of the handiness.  
In algebraic notation, it is h2  + g2  ≥  w2  +  h2 where h = handiness, g = girlfriend (temporary relationship he has to impress) and w = wife  (permanent relationship where not a lot of extra energy is needed because she already loves him).

This means that when my sweetie and I were first dating, I mentioned in passing how bright the lights in my dining room were and that I really preferred more indirect lighting.  The next weekend to surprise me, he colluded with my two roommates and installed dimmer switches in the living and dining rooms.   Motivating both roommates to try to steal him.  Didn't work.  A series of handiworks followed me from one apartment to the next throughout my college years.  (Did I mention my various landlords loved him too?)

Could I have ESP?  Is this why we dated for 5 years before marrying? Hmmmmm...

We became engaged.  The kitchen door wouldn't stay open properly .  Took him 3 weeks to get around to that one.  The toilet ran; another 2.  There were probably more handiness needs, but I can't remember it all.

Now we've been married for almost 23 years.  We live in an old house that almost always needs something done.  Suffice to say that there is a light bulb that has been burned out for a month now.  (I'd do it, but the ceilings are 14 feet high and I can't carry that giant ladder upstairs.)  

Well, shame on me -- I take it all back.  Despite the fact that my beloved husband just hates my chickens (calls them "raisin-brains"), he has built me the Versailles of chicken coups.  We call it the "poulet chalet."

It's actually a 96 square foot poultry compound.  There is a small roosting box which houses a roosting bar and a nest with an external egg door!  (The front of the box even comes off for easy cleaning.)  The food and water hang underneath it.  A ramp for them to exit the box leads to a protected outdoor area, completely predator-proof that I can shut in the evenings. (Even in the city there are lots of raccoons and opossums around.)  This is roofed (8 feet high) very sturdily.

This "protected pen" is inside a larger outdoor pen which has storage for hose, food, cleaning supplies etc.  It has a variety of perches, and lots of room to flap around.  This is also over 8 feet high and walled/ceilinged with hardware cloth.  I planted merlitons, tomatoes, flower and other vines and plants that will offer the chix food, cover and loads of chicken fun.  Other amenities too numerous to mention (and boring for everyone but me).  

Now that's love.  How lucky can one woman get?  Who needs light bulbs anyway?  Handiness Theorem retracted.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Musical Touch

When I was first married, we had a tiny house with 2 bedrooms, each about the size of a coffee table.  My sister was moving out of state and wanted to get rid of her piano.  Unbeknownst to me, she made a deal with my beloved husband:  he paid to have the instrument moved to our house and he could have it.

I first learned about this deal when the behemoth was being hauled into our second bedroom (no kidding, I have friends with bigger closets).  When I asked about it, he was giddy with excitement:  "Isn't it great?!!  Can you believe Perrine didn't think this was worth moving to Virginia?"  I said, "Wow, Sweetie, uh, so you thought it would be a good idea to bring it here?"  

Because, uuuuuhhhh, the one thing we needed was a giant musical instrument that neither of us could play.  Actually, I had taken lessons as a child and had heard my elders remark that I had "touch," which was what passed for musicality in our family.  The truth is, I wasn't much for practicing.  I just wanted to sit down to the keys and amaze the whole room.  After that kept not happening, I gave it up as a hopeless cause.  Suffice to say, there was no good reason for me to give up that kind of house space to a piano.

A few years and one mortgage on a larger residence later, and our sweet daughter Gem turned seven and entered second grade.  We had decided that she should learn to play a musical instrument.  Since we already owned a big honking piano, we had it tuned up and found a teacher.  Mrs. Cradic was a nice lady in the neighborhood and an excellent, patient teacher for Gem.  

From the beginning, Gem liked playing.  She practiced conscientiously and matriculated under Mrs. Cradic's tranquil guidance.  Liked playing, but did it mostly because it was required, like reading and math.  There were times when she said she wanted to quit, but we didn't let her (didn't let her quit school, either).  There were times when she really enjoyed piano, and those became more and more frequent.

Now that she's almost 14, we are all reaping the rewards of Gem's hard work.  She is at the stage now where she plays for herself.  Her classical training mixes nicely with her teen penchant for rock/heavy metal.  She got a chance to participate in a Jazz ensemble at NOCCA, too (not her thing, but had a great time).  

I love working in the kitchen, looking over the stove and watching her as she works out a musical puzzle for herself on the keyboard.  The sound tracks of movies (Pride and Prejudice!), computer games, and iTunes all provide new musical ideas and directions for her curious mind and eclectic sensibilities.  So far the only thing she doesn't like are Christmas carol sing-alongs (maybe this year...Good King Wenceslaus is my favorite).

Gem still studies and practices what her teacher (since Katrina a new teacher -- also much loved) assigns.  She also plays whatever strikes her fancy.  When we signed Gem up for lessons, what we wanted for her was to have this music, this skill that she can enjoy for herself and share with those around her for the rest of her life.  It is such a delight to see this dream taking shape.  Lucky us!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Temper, Temper

Yesterday we were packing to go to a family wedding a long drive away. True to form, my beloved husband asked me all details of the plans (route, times, places) about 4 - 5 times. As we were loading the car this morning, he did it all again. At various times during the drive, you guessed it. It's in him, and it's going to come out.

I find these repeated reviews unhelpful. My first instinct would be a snarky retort, but I know that love means biting my tongue. If I just answer the litany of questions with good humor (and a little feigned interest) we move on to the next topic relaxed and casual. If I let my temper get the better of me, we all end up stressed and snippy.

Years ago I learned that if my husband came home tense and in a bad mood, my reaction made all the difference. Instead of taking offence, I decided to think about how hard my beloved husband works, the frustrations and stresses he deals with every day. I realized that he just needed a safe place to express all of this. With a few minutes of my responding to his agitation in a loving way, he would be telling me about things that happened at the office and thanking me for listening and understanding.

It works the other way too. Times when I have been annoyed at something and fussed about -- what? silly, trivial things ... he has responded to me with patience and tenderness. He knows me so well...knows that I was not really upset at him. He just listened while I let off steam until pretty soon we would be laughing together.

Some say that love is most rewarding in the early days of marriage.  (Then what?  It's all downhill?)  But I have good news for newlyweds:  in my experience, love gets better with the years.  In my case, after almost 23 years love is smoother and easier.  Beloved husband and I have continually striven over the years to anticipate and care for one another's emotional needs. With the passing days, months, and years we accumulate more and more instances of love and caring for one another until it has become our instinct to (mostly) respond to an angry word with a soothing gesture.

Love is a choice, a discipline, as much as anything else. It is a living, changing thing that we are continually creating. Keeping my temper doesn't come naturally to me -- I have to work hard at nurturing my loving relationship with my husband. I know how to value a husband who works just as hard.

When we wake up tomorrow, I know I'm going to hear, "What time is the wedding? Where is it? Do we have the directions? Is it casual or dressy? Is it...?" I'll try to answer with a smile as if it's the first time I've heard it all -- and I will not roll my eyes.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Woman's Work

When my daughter was three, we were driving along somewhere when she (obviously a victim of my penchant for fairy tales) said, “Mommy, you’re our servant.” I managed to avoid hitting a telephone pole and sputtered, “WHAT?”

“Yes, you cook and clean and take care of the house and us. That’s what servants do.”

Now, I consider myself a feminist. I think that women can do the same job as men and shouldn’t be held back or paid less just because they’re women. They should have the opportunity to have a meaningful profession outside of the home.

I work very part time (about 7 hours a week on a schedule of my choosing) so that I can do my real job: make a comfortable and peaceful home for my family. I take pleasure in planning and preparing nutritious meals, keeping things clean, organized, and in good repair. I find creative outlets in sewing, gardening, cooking, and so much more. There is intellectual challenge in budgeting, planning outings, education, entertainment, and other things too numerous to mention. It is truly emotionally satisfying to be the trusted confidante and sounding board for my husband, daughter, family, and friends – and to trust and confide in them in return.

Now that my daughter is 13, I think she has a greater appreciation for and understanding of my job (and knows better than to call me “the servant”). But I run into all kinds of people (even homemakers) who don’t have the appropriate value for the vital contributions of – I’m just going to put the word out there – housewives.

How does feminism – the valuing of women – turn into the de-valuing of the very important work that is traditionally a woman’s? Makes no sense.