Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve Tea

We just had the most fun afternoon.

It started with this Christmas gift from my friend C.

We had tasted samples of these scones at a shop a month or so ago,
and they were wonderful.
I had looked at the ingredient statement
to find out what made them so good,
and there was nothing all that special on the list.
Then I looked at the directions:
Add scone mix to one cup heavy cream.

So, when I received this gift from C,
we planned a high tea for this afternoon
for ourselves, G, and Elizabeth.
C brought her 3 tiered plate stand,
and my grandmother's dishes fit it perfectly.

On the menu:

Lemon scones, of course,
with butter and wild black raspberry preserves

Tea sandwiches:

Watercress and goat cheese with sliced radishes on white bread

Chives (from our garden, amazingly enough) and cream cheese
with sliced cucumbers on whole wheat bread

Salmon with fresh dill and lemon on rye bread

Curried cream cheese on cinnamon raisin bread


Hummus on bagel chips

Fresh pineapple and orange slices

Thin, crispy butter cookies

And tea, of course.

It was a great afternoon.

And now, it's just G and I, cozy at home,
thankful for the blessings this past year has brought.

I wish you all a happy, healthy 2012.



Friday, December 30, 2011

Reasons to be Cheerful after Christmas

Oscar, by Carlie.

Even though Planet Penny isn't hosting Cheerfulness again until after the new year, I still like sharing my bright spots.

We had a great Christmas with my family, and G held up well all day, with just an hour nap. On Thanksgiving he was worn out after only 3 hours, so it was a big relief to me that he was enjoying himself for such a long stretch on Christmas Day. As well, it was a beautiful cold but sunny, dry day, with no hazardous road conditions (unlike last year) for our 60-some-mile drive to my brother's.

My younger sister had G's name in the Christmas name draw (actually her husband did, but she took on the responsibility) and made G a throw - wool on one side, cotton flannel on the other, with his initial appliqued in red on the hem. She made sure it was long enough for cozy naps on the couch as well as machine washable. It was put to good use right away.

G taking a nap on Christmas Day under his new throw.

My older sister had my name, and, as she does for each gift, created art for the To/From tag. It's not just the quality of her work, it's the imagination and creativity she has to create a drawing just for the recipient. Oscar wearing a Santa hat, with a jingle bell on his red collar, was on my gift - pictured at the top of the post. So sweet.

She gave me two of the things on my wish list - special socks, and a donation to Cathedral Shelter. We all have so much, I'm always glad to have a donation made as a Christmas gift.

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, and I was able to walk Oscar before the sun set, so could enjoy some of the Christmas decorations in daylight for a change.

Shadows of snowflakes in the late afternoon winter sun.

And last for this week, since we didn't have choir rehearsal on Thursday night, some of us got together for dinner and a movie.

Hugo in 3D. So much fun. The grand old 1920's theatre we chose to attend, which is one of the few of the old suburban ones that has not been cut up into multiple smaller theatres, was new to everyone in the group except me, so there was much oh-ing and ah-ing over the restored space.

It's been a good week. Hope yours has been, too.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve: some random, and a Christmas story

A few things to share with you while we're all still in the Christmas spirit...

A wool sweater made for me about 10 years ago by a very talented knitter
who worked at a yarn shop (sadly, now closed).
I love getting it out every year.

The tree image was one she found for a needlepoint pillow and converted to a knit pattern.

She knit little Christmas trees into the sleeves and back,
and used popcorn stitch (like tiny snowballs!) around the hem and collar.

Friday morning I called our broker and spoke with his assistant, Steph. We've never met, as their office is in another state, but Steph (and the broker) are great people - so very nice, so very patient with their less-than-organized client. As we finished the business I'd called about, Steph asked about our plans for Christmas, and then I asked about hers. "Oh, tomorrow morning we're doing Santa pancakes and then packing up and getting on the road to be with our extended families who live a few hours away."

Santa pancakes? When I asked what they were, she explained that when their kids were little, she had bought a Santa-shaped pancake mold to pour batter into, and it's become part of their Christmas celebration. After the pancake is cooked, they decorate it with whipped cream, chocolate chips, and maraschino cherries. And then she sent pictures from last year's breakfast!

How's that for a happy Christmas tradition?

And last, here's a real Christmas story.

My neighbor, J, had decided to cut down the two pine trees, both Christmas tree size, in her yard, because she wanted a different kind of tree there. She wanted to use one of her two pine trees for her own family's Christmas tree and hoped to find a family in need that might want the other.

While volunteering at a local food & clothing pantry doing intakes for new clients, J met a woman (who we'll call R) in pretty dire straights: 4 kids, now divorced, newly impoverished, she was trying to understand what resources were available. She happened to ask my friend J: do you know anyone who might donate a Christmas tree? Bingo!

J told me about R and how she was going to donate her extra tree. J teaches piano in her home, and had asked her students (her 'piano kids') if they would like to make some ornaments for R to have on the tree. I mentioned it to my mom, and she donated ornaments.

What about a tree stand? Another neighbor offered to donate one.

What about lights? I had extra strands of lights to donate.

So: Tree, stand, lights, ornaments.

Then, things got really interesting.

Because I had put out an email to our church members about families needing to be sponsored for the Cathedral Shelter Christmas Basket program, I got a number of inquiries, and we were able to place all those families that had been on a waiting list. Then I got an email from a friend of someone in the parish who liked the idea of sponsoring a family and wanted to participate. We were out of families. But - what about R? So I put this woman in touch with J. And now I'll let J tell the rest of the story, as she related to her mom in an email:

“Hi, Mom,

Do you want to hear a good xmas story?

You know that I offered a tree to a woman I met at the food pantry, right? She has 4 kids and can’t work because she has cancer and is getting chemo. She used to be a surgical nurse. She also has epilepsy from being hit by a drunk driver. Her ex was abusive and now refuses to pay any child support or alimony. He teaches law at [highly acclaimed Chicago university]. R kept holding my hand and crying when I told her we’d give her a real tree. I then asked my piano kids if any of them wanted to make home made xmas ornaments to send with the tree. Here’s what happened:

1. ended up with close to 30 ornaments. Also got a donated tree stand and 3 strands of lights.

2. One mom donated $100 food gift card to Jewel

3. A neighbor gave my name to a woman who wanted to sponsor a family at xmas. She purchased and wrapped a coat and a toy for each child, plus gave a food gift card to the mom.

4. One mom runs a foundation to help families who are facing financial difficulty due to a medical issue. She offered to help R with the application. Given that the mom is on the board and started the foundation, I think R will be served.

5. Same mom is a Family Law attorney. She said the ex-husband ought to be taken out and shot, and has offered her services free of charge to make him accountable. She is tracking him down through the state law board. Can you imagine how pissed and embarrassed he’ll be when his wages at [highly acclaimed Chicago university] start getting garnished for non-payment of child support?

6. One of R’s kids has physical and mental limitations. The School District has said they have no services for her. The same attorney has a sister who has a disabled child and is an advocate for such families. She has offered to advocate for R and her daughter to see what services the district should be offering….because they should be offering something.

7. A piano family has offered to buy a xmas present for each child as well as one for R.

……..all because I wanted a fringe tree instead of the pine trees! I offered a tree….and look at what grew from that!”


Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Remembered Joy: Christmas Eve

Continuing Mrs. Micawber's Advent series (and oh, please read her post for this week! It's so wonderful), I'm remembering Christmas Eves when I was growing up.

Christmas Eves were spent with extended family, having dinner and waiting for Santa's tiny, winged assistant to come check on us. The gathering included my mom's only sibling - her brother - and his wife and kids (who were almost exactly the same age as we were), my maternal grandparents, and some of my mom's aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a very happy and congenial group of people.

One year my mom made hostess skirts for us three girls and for herself to wear to the Christmas Eve party. We each had a different plaid in beautiful soft wool and felt very chic.

Each year the celebration site swapped between our house and my uncle and aunt's. The Christmas Eve party started in the late afternoon, and the main course for dinner each year was a spaghetti casserole with a cream cheese and sour cream filling. One of my mom's cousins always brought a relish tray of celery sticks, green olives stuffed with pimentos, canned black olives, carrot sticks, little sweet pickles. There was a green salad (with iceberg lettuce) with salad dressing made from Good Seasons seasoning mix, and warm rolls with butter.

Dessert was an assortment of Christmas cookies and candy: pecan puffs, fudge, spritz cookies, decorated sugar cookies. Some of the cookies were ones we kids had helped make before Christmas Eve, and that was part of the excitement of the season: helping to roll the pecan puffs in powdered sugar when they came out of the oven; unwrapping squares of bitter chocolate and sticks of butter to add to the heavy saucepan to make the fudge; trying to operate the cookie press to make the spritz cookies; cutting out and decorating the sugar cookies before they went into the oven with cinnamon red hots, green and red colored sugar, multicolored sprinkles, and silver nonpareils.

Also for dessert on Christmas Eve were nuts in the shell: a big wooden bowl, shaped like half a pecan shell, was filled with pecans, walnuts, almonds, and filberts. We sat around the table after dinner, feasting on cookies and cracking open pecans, the kids asking for help from an adult when they couldn't manage one of the nutcrackers.

And then, after dinner, a very magical part of the evening: Uncle Mistletoe! Uncle Mistletoe was Santa's assistant, maybe 8 or 10 inches tall, with a Dickensian outfit. He flew around on his little wings on Christmas Eve, knocking on the windows of children's homes and peering in with his cheery face to see if the children were being good.

Photo courtesy of my older brother;
Uncle Mistletoe spends his days off with him.

As soon as dinner was over, we started listening for Uncle Mistletoe's knock on the windows to let us know he had arrived. We stood by this window, then that one, looking out into the darkened yard, trying to spot him. There were always a few false alarms: "Did you hear that? I think he's at the other window!" And we ran to that window. But no, he wasn't there. And then: knocking on the window! And back we ran to the first window, this time to see Uncle Mistletoe with his smile, his top hat, his wings, and his little mittened hands, peeking in from the side of the window. And then he was gone, and we waited, listening, for another knock. "He's over there!" We rushed to another window, and there he was! Waving his little hands at us, shaking and nodding his head, and always, always, smiling. Back and forth he flew outside our house, from one window to another and then another and back again. Until finally...he was gone. He had other children to visit, so he had to leave us.

Turns out Uncle Mistletoe needed help on those Christmas Eves from my dad or my uncle, who helped him fly from window to window outside the house in the pitch dark. The year that my uncle lost his footing, fell into one of the window wells, and bloodied his head went completely unnoticed by all us kids.

After that excitement my mom's cousin played Christmas carols on the piano, and we gathered around and sang, some voices on key, some voices harmonizing, and some voices wandering all over the place, looking for the right note.

When the older cousins got to high school age and got bored waiting around for the evening to end, they would organize the younger kids and put on a skit. One year it was The Night Before Christmas. Painfully bad. But it passed the time.

Soon after that, the party broke up, the guests went home, and we got ready for bed, because everyone knows that Santa won't come unless you are asleep! My mom organized the milk and cookies for Santa, which we left on the coffee table in the living room, near the tree and the fireplace, so there would be no chance of Santa missing them. We hung our stockings by the fireplace on little cup hooks my dad had screwed into the mantle. And then, upstairs to bed. We each made sure that our slippers were in our closets, because slippers were the clue Santa used to let us know which unwrapped gift was ours: while we slept, he took one slipper of each child and placed it next to that child's gift under the tree. He also filled our stockings and moved all the gifts that had been wrapped and hidden by our parents (and as we got older, by us, too) to the living room and spread them around the Christmas tree.

It was always hard to go to sleep that night - I shared a room with my older sister, and I remember whispering with her in the dark, speculating about Santa, and if we would hear the sleigh bells or the reindeer when they landed on the roof. The excitement of that magical feeling, knowing that Santa was coming (but not until we were asleep!), and that we would have a wonderful Christmas Day when we woke up.

We were, and are still, a very lucky and blessed family. Loving parents, a comfortable home, a safe community to live in, enough to eat. It was a wonderful childhood. Santa was just icing on the cake of our lives.

This recollection is dedicated with gratitude and love to my parents and my siblings, who helped remind me of some things I'd forgotten.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Design by Squirrel

I glanced out the window of my study,
which overlooks the back yard.


What's that orange thing in the pine tree?

Is it a big piece of orange peel,
blown there by the wind?

Or pulled out of the compost pile by a critter?

Let me go out in the backyard for a closer look.

It seems awfully big for orange peel.
And awfully high - higher than the clothes line - to have blown there.

Let me hold the camera over my head
and see if I can get a picture of it.



A mini pumpkin from our autumn centerpiece,
relegated to the compost pile
after Thanksgiving.

I think I'll leave it there in the tree.
It amuses me to think of the process
some squirrel went through to place it there.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And, even though Penny has suspended Reasons to be Cheerful until the new year, it's good for my mental attitude to count my blessings. So, before I get out of the habit, here are my three for this week:

G continues to be his mostly upbeat, cooperative self.
It's been 4 months since that mood shift happened,
and I'm still saying "Thank You" every day.

Saturday I went into the city with a friend and saw the Macy's windows
(not as good as the old Marshall Field's windows, but still fun),
walked around the Chicago Cultural Center
admiring the restored Tiffany dome
and all the incredible mosaic,
and saw Lightscapes, a new feature on State Street.
I had forgotten to take my camera, but this is better.

And last, our teacher at BodyPump™ class last night
offered to teach the class Saturday morning,
even though the Y has cancelled all classes from the 24th until January 2nd.
Lots of us said we would be there if she would lead us.
Isn't that nice of her?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Solstice

Today's the day.

For me, winter solstice is not just the shortest day of the year; it's also one of my favorite books. I read this Rosamunde Pilcher novel almost every year, and no matter what else is going on in my life, I can escape to the world of her beautiful descriptions of people, landscapes, and interiors. It's such a comforting, satisfying story: the really nice people find happiness.

Wishing you a happy shortest day of the year, all you Northern Hemisphere people!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Reasons to be Cheerful

Penny has a very cute story as part of her weekly "Reasons to be Cheerful" post this week; go take a look, and also check out the other links to some cheerfulness.

One of the things I love about this time of year is all the lights and decorations on the homes.

A couple of nights ago, I decided to see if I could capture some of it for you while Oscar and I were on a walk.

I love catching a glimpse of the lighted Christmas tree through the windows, too. This neighbor has a tree on their front porch. They can see our lighted backyard pine tree from their kitchen window, and some years she delivers a cheese ball she has made as a thank you for the view from her window. Isn't that nice?

These people are saving money on electricity: LED lights. It looks more cheerful when someone's home and there are house lights on, too.

This is one of my favorite houses along our walk, winter or summer. Their red and white lights on their porch garland remind me of strings of popcorn and cranberries.

My camera doesn't do really well in low light (though maybe if I found and read the owners manual, I might find some tips), but still, seeing these images pleases me. One of the challenges of taking pictures while walking Oscar is...Oscar. He isn't at all interested in admiring the lights, as he's too busy finding delicious smells to sniff or barking and running after squirrels. And because I am not a good trainer, he pulls on the leash.

Trying to get you a better picture of that porch garland ...

Oops! With just a little jostling from Oscar, it's now a bit impressionistic.

Oh! Now we're into the realm of the abstract! There must have been a squirrel.

My next reason to be cheerful is because a friend of ours is coming for lunch today.

We met her when G was in a research project for people with early stage memory loss, which included cognitive therapy in small groups; she was his teacher, and she was wonderfully patient, caring, and cheerful with G and the other couple of men who were part of his twice-weekly class.

We're going to have cookies for dessert.

Last for this week: our weekly vegetable box, with butternut squash, grey kaboka squash, red beets, golden beets, celeriac, red potatoes, popcorn, dried cayenne peppers, cranberries, and apples. The downside: this is the last week for the season, so we won't get another box until April. But the upside: we will get another box in April!

I hope you are having a good week, with reasons of your own to be cheerful and thankful. As the poet Max Ehrmann said in his famous (but often unattributed) prose poem "Desiderata":

"And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Remembered Joy - Trimming the tree

The five kids on Christmas morning

Taking a page from Mrs Micawber's Advent series on favorite Christmas memories or traditions...

I decorated our Christmas tree Sunday afternoon, while G looked on from his seat on the couch, and it made me think about our tree trimming traditions growing up.

Going to the tree lot as a family to choose a tree was an important part of the tradition. While my dad would hold a tree upright for us to approve, we would walk around it, passing judgment. Too skinny. Big bald spot on that side. Not enough branches at the bottom. No good point at the top. At last one tree would make the grade and be lashed onto the top of the station wagon for the trip home.

We used colored lights and spent a lot of time fussing with the strings to get all the bulbs to light, for if one was loose, the whole string went out.

Some of our ornaments were from my dad's tree when he was a boy, some from his parents' trees when they were young. (Nothing from my mom's side? Apparently not.) Others were school projects, home made treasures, souvenirs from travels. As each ornament was lifted from the box, we talked over where it came from, the occasion it marked, or to whom it belonged.

And as I lifted each ornament from the box on Sunday,
I reminded G of where it came from or the occasion it marked.

One from my childhood.

As is this, a gift from a Brownie troop party.

About 4 inches tall, made by my older sister for me,
she's a mini version of a favorite doll Carlie had as a child.

Knit by my mom.

Purchased on a business trip to Australia.
The back side of this little guy is just as funny.


From a business trip to Taiwan.

From G, our first Christmas together.

A 'Maui angel' from our honeymoon.

Cinnamon stick Santa made by my sister-in-law, K.
He is still adorable.

From my parents to G
when he bought himself a used speedboat.

Quincy, Oscar's predecessor.

I think it's time to get a picture of Oscar on our tree, too.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

By special request

Marigold and Mrs. Micawber
both asked for pictures of the wreath my dad made
(with bow by my mom)

and the complimentary
freshwater pearl and white topaz earrings
from my Cheerfulness post.

(Funny they didn't want to see the replacement headlight, too.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

First snow

We had our first snow of the season overnight.

Very light, but enough to record the movements
of some little creatures.
Squirrels, rabbits...

...and my favorite, a hopping bird.

Oscar helped me look.