Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Painted Rocks

I've been mistaken for a creative person, but what I actually am is an avid borrower of non-patented ideas. I also am surrounded by great friends who bring smooth rocks, containers of paint, and brilliant suggestions to my kitchen table. Gail and her three children joined us for an art project of painting rocks and distributing them in parks for other people to find and keep.

Our project started with the happy chaos of selecting rocks, distributing paint, finding the right brushes, and choosing what we wanted to paint. Then we settled down to work and watched our rocks come to life.

The car my 3-year-old masterminded
 and couldn't part with.

While one layer of paint was drying, we baked other rocks at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, or until they were nice and hot. Then we used crayons to color the hot rocks. The crayon melts as you draw, filling in crooks and crannies and smoothing out the picture. Warning: Melted crayon runs, so if you try it, don't expect perfection.

"Painted" with crayon. Also a rock my son couldn't part with.

After lunch, the younger children drifted off to play and we moms and an almost-adult-daughter sat down with paints and rocks. It was quiet and restful. We painted every rock she brought. 

My favorite. Gail painted it.

Once the rocks were dry and sprayed with a clear sealant, we gathered children and rocks and went to parks to distribute them. The children put them on playground equipment, on edges and ledges, and in other noticeable hidey holes. 

We left Gail's pie on a picnic table.

It was easily our favorite art project of the year, making it a great way to end a school term.

Not long afterwards, our family went to Virginia to visit grandparents. I noticed a small, beautifully painted rock on their back deck and asked about it. The rock was a gift. Someone had anonymously placed a painted rock on every mailbox post on their street. 

I felt warmed by the story. Someone else out there knows the fun of planning, painting, and placing rocks for other people to enjoy. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Lasagna, Redeemed

True story. Unfortunately. 

I felt accomplished when we left for church. A gigantic salad crisped in the fridge. Homemade French bread was sliced, seasoned, and reassembled into a garlic loaf. A gooey chocolate dessert called enticingly from the counter. Best of all, a gorgeous, meaty lasagna waited in the oven on Delayed Time Bake, a feature that would give us a table-ready dinner when we walked in the door. 

It was important to have our food ready immediately upon arrival because three Brazilian schoolteachers would be with us. They had a tight schedule and needed to leave by 2:00, which wouldn’t give us much time together.

Our link to the Brazilians was through the University of Delaware. International students who came to university to learn English could sign up to receive a host family. As hosts, we brought them to our home twice a month so they could practice English, visit an American family, and learn more about our culture. We enjoyed our interaction with them so much that on this occasion, we invited church friends to come for lunch and share the fun of a multi-cultural friendship.

When we got home from church, the Brazilian ladies stopped by our Rose of Sharon to take selfies and group portraits. I smiled, enjoying their laughter and rapid Portuguese.

And then I saw John at the front door. His eyes sent frantic messages I could not understand.

As soon as I stepped within whispering range, John said, “Something smells burnt.”

My lasagna.

John opened the front door, and from the smell that wafted onto the porch and down to the Rose of Sharon, I knew our lunch was in serious trouble.

I crept to the oven, scarcely brave enough to look inside. And there was my double-sized lasagna, not just overdone but charred beyond recognition. The delayed start had malfunctioned, and the lasagna baked for the entire four hours we were gone. I pulled the pan from the oven and surveyed it with morbid fascination. My beautiful lasagna was now a solid, black rectangle that thumped woodenly when I tapped it. Later, it would slip from the pan in one piece, an astonishing specimen of cookery-gone-bad.

But now, guests streamed through the front door, directly into the kitchen and within sight of their ruined lunch. Chefs in small houses have no secrets. Oh well. I wasn’t going to be like my relative who apologized profusely over every recipe she served. I decided to face the obvious with good humor.

“My oven malfunctioned,” I said to the Brazilian ladies, hoping their grasp on English was robust enough to understand. “But don’t worry. I will make something else.”

I ran to the basement for home-canned spaghetti sauce. I stirred every spaghetti noodle I owned into boiling water, praying God to multiply the amount and to please, please erase the memory of this culinary disaster from our guests’ minds. It would be humiliating to be remembered internationally by an inedible lunch.

I served the meal, poured water, and offered extra Parmesan. I brewed coffee and took comfort in the happy chatter of my guests. It sounded like things were turning out all right. Who could know? Maybe the lasagna would be a darker memory to me than it was to our friends.

But before I got too comfortable with this idea, I saw the visiting children hovering curiously around the lasagna. Their mother is my good friend and a renowned cook who doesn’t burn Sunday dinners to this degree.

“Was this—was this real food?” a pixie-like girl asked. She pointed at the pan with a milk-white forefinger.

“Yes. It was your lunch.”

“Oh.” Her voice was small.

“Was it—was it our dessert?”

Five years later, the host program closed (no reflection on the lasagna), terminating our flow of international guests. Our friends, the ones with the darling pixie, gave birth to a son.

Wanting to celebrate his arrival, I baked homemade French bread and used it to make garlic loaf. I tossed a gigantic salad and baked a decadent chocolate dessert. Best of all, I delivered a gorgeous, meaty lasagna to their door.

I was hardly home before my friend sent me a text saying, “Now this is real food!”

It was lasagna, redeemed.

I only regret that three Brazilian teachers hadn’t joined them for lunch. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Bungled Birthdays

Each November, a high percentage of my friends give me cards or gifts on my birthday. I don’t know how they do it on time so consistently. I have puzzled over this for years and came up with a list of possibilities:

1.      My birthdate (11-11) is easy to remember.

2.       I am unwittingly more vocal about my birthday than most people.

3.       I associate with people who A) are uber organized, or B) have eidetic memories.

4.       Remembering birthdays on time is normal.

That last point concerns me the most. I do remember my friends’ birthdays—usually a week late. Occasionally, the reason I have remembered a birthday at all is when someone says, “For my birthday this year, my husband…” And I stand there feeling small and then smaller, knowing I have done it again.

I want to honor my friends like they honor me. I want to be thoughtful and giving, so every year I turn over a new leaf. I add Remember friends’ birthdays to my annual goal list. Because of this, my January and March friends stand a higher chance of hearing from me on their birthdays than my unfortunate June friends or, bless them, my December friends.

I used to be a secretary with acceptable accuracy and believe that birthdays shouldn’t be harder to remember than paying quarterly taxes. I tried checking for upcoming birthdays at the beginning of each month like I used to do for taxes in the office. This almost worked for the entire month of January. Turns out that Barb’s birthday is too close to the 1st, so I even missed that one. On another year, I wrote names on my calendar, which helped a little. But then, when I missed a birthday, the name glared at me from the page, adding guilt to grief and highlighting the old question: “How long after a birthday can you give a person a present?”

This year when I underlined and highlighted Remember friends’ birthdays on my Annual Goal List, I prayed about my problem. Almost immediately, I thought of the calendar on my phone. Being a pen and paper kind of girl, I do not use the calendar on my phone for my schedule. I hate seeing a month full of quiet gray dots that signify anything from “Lunar New Year” to “Host Hospitality.” (Do they make colored dots? They should. Gray dots for days I can ignore, blue dots for important events, and blinking red lights for birthdays.)

I wouldn’t have bothered trying to use my phone calendar except I heard it has those alarms you can set. Alarms are even better than blinking dots. I spent half my morning figuring out how to enter birthdays and set alarms and the other half feeling confident and happy. Smug, even. To the surprise of all my friends, I would clamber onto the highest plains of normalcy and remember birthdays like the best of them.

I gave Lydia Ruth chocolates on her birthday in February and invited Gail to my house on hers. I gifted Sunday school students with timely tokens of my love. This business of remembering birthdays gave me a sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of overcoming a severe fault. 

On March 31, my phone dinged, notifying me of Lydiann’s birthday. I immediately stopped what I was doing and sent her a text. I love having people in my life who freely credit God for the redemption and deliverance He has given. Lydiann is that kind of person. I blessed her for that trait and sent birthday greetings. On her birthday.

Warmth filled my whole kitchen.

Then I received this response from Lydiann: “Thank you very much! I receive your blessing. Our story really is a story of redemption. My birthday is actually May 31 and not March 31. Did you see it somewhere that I would’ve made a mistake and filled it in wrong?”

I hadn’t. I crawled to the church directory and double checked her birthdate. She was right, of course. But my embarrassment was tempered by knowing that my system—even when flawed—was working.

On the morning of April 25, my phone pinged reminding me that it was Anna’s birthday. I love Anna. She is warm and friendly, fun to chatter with, has a child in my Sunday school class, and another one due to arrive any day. I wanted to be especially sure to remember her birthday this year. I was arranging books and crayon boxes in my class area at church when she walked in. This was my moment. I launched into a cheerful, “Dah-dah dahn dahn dah dah…” to the tune of Happy Birthday.

Anna certainly seemed surprised. She was stunned into silence and appeared startled. Puzzled, even. Her husband looked amused.

My confidence wavered. “It’s your birthday today, right?”

“No, my birthday is in December. December 2, to be exact.”

I felt betrayed. Crushed. My failproof system had let me down horribly for the second time in less than a month. This time, I didn’t know what went wrong. How could I have gotten the date mixed up to this gross extent?

And then I knew. Right date. Wrong Anna. The birthday girl lives in Oklahoma. My husband only knows her as “the cheesecake lady” because for my birthday one year, Anna sent me a homemade lemon cheesecake in the mail, forever cementing her position in our minds as one of the best cheesecake bakers and best birthday gift givers ever. Hers was a birthday I planned to remember.

I apologized to Anna-at-Church and crept back to my phone to add a last name to the notification.

I haven’t abandoned my new system, but I am eyeing it skeptically. What I need to do is awaken the secretary within me and devote an entire morning to my calendar. I want to verify that each benign gray dot holds accurate, complete information and includes all my friends. This should be good news for the December birthday people, particularly Anna who might receive not just one but two greetings from me in the same year.

In the meantime, my friends, happy birthday to you all!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Martyrs' Remembrance Night in Two Perspectives

In what I hope will be the start of a tradition, our church held Martyrs’ Remembrance Night on Good Friday. The invitation said we would meet by candlelight and, upon arrival, we should quietly find our seats. I really looked forward to the evening. In my youth, the courage of martyrs inspired me, even giving me a sense of nobility as if I too could do this if God asked it of me. Their deaths increased my faith.

But now I have young children.
 What if a candlelight service remembering Christian martyrs
inspired fear, not faith, in an eight-year-old?
Apprehension mingled with anticipation.

We fell behind in our cleaning jobs that Good Friday as I talked about martyrs with my children, trying to prepare them for the event. We talked death being a door to life. About heaven. At 3:00, we talked about Jesus' death. About the angels who must have inwardly strained to rescue Him from the cross. About the mounting anticipation in heaven that will culminate when the Father says, “Son, its time.” 

Time? I was suddenly aware that time was getting away. We scrambled to complete necessary cleaning and shopping before overnight guests came at bedtime. Our evening service was scheduled to start at 6:30, and the announcement had included a plea for everyone to be on time. 

I was not.
I ran late all afternoon.
Adrenaline pumping. Blood pressure rising.
John was partly responsible for the Communion portion of the service
and needed to leave before the children finished eating supper.
I stayed behind with a slow-eating child.
And with another child who misunderstood instructions,
delaying our departure still further.
Desperation set in.
Leave the guest room as is.
Drive as fast as you legally can.
Silently slip onto folding chairs in the back of a dimly lit church.

Once I was settled and calm, I tuned into the beautiful service. By flickering candlelight and a small light on the podium, five stories were told: Perpetua, a young mother who chose death instead of offering a single pinch of incense. Michael Sattler and his wife. John and Betty Stam, missionary martyrs who left a small child behind and the legacy, "Afraid? Of What?". A Romanian pastor who understood that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’ and said to his captors, “Your greatest weapon is to kill. Mine is to die.” A martyr whose dying words became the song I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back!

Their strength. Their faith. Their willingness to die. Their stories gripped me, and I felt my spirit reaching upward. Pressing in towards God.

The child on John’s lap was not inspired.
“Mom,” he hissed. “Why it be dark? I wanna go home.”

We stood to sing “Faith of Our Fathers." Tears pooled in my eyes. I will be true to thee, ‘til death. Death is only a passageway into life. No turning back! Glory awaits!

And then it was time for Communion. I glanced across the auditorium and sensed how meaningful this time would be for our congregation. Observing Communion on Good Friday at the close of a service where we remembered people who loved Christ more than physical life brought an almost-palpable sense of sharing in His suffering. It held the potential of being the most meaningful communion I have ever been to.

But my child was done.
The last straw was when his dad went forward to help the other deacons pass out the emblems of Communion. He fell apart emotionally and cried from the time John disappeared from view until we were on our way home. He flopped disconsolately across my lap.
My best mothering skills couldn’t quiet him.
The hurried afternoon, late arrival, an inconsolable child--
So much for nobility. I too was done. 
I decided I would leave as soon as I had participated in communion,
slipping out as silently as I had come.
But then the pastor said,
“Be very sure you do not eat and drink unworthily.”

The bread felt white hot in my fingers.
Which is worse?
To partake when you are in the middle of a parenting fail
with a crying child hanging off your right leg
and unsanctified emotions welling within you,
or to not partake at all
and need to dispose of the bread you are holding.
(Do you feed it to a gasping child?)
This was Communion. Holy and sanctified.
I partook but instead of reflective meditation on His sacrifice,
my thoughts were ones of grasping desperation, Lord, help me!

The child flopped against my arm when I held the tiny cup of juice,
threatening to bleed its purple contents down the front of my skirt.
I shook my head at his insistent,
“But why it be dark, Mom?”

Again, the pastor’s warning haunted me—
What does it mean to partake unworthily?

Lord, I need You!
A single swallow.

A whisper to my other children, “I’m going home. Wait for Dad.”

My son and I left. He wailed down the darkened corridor in the basement on our way to the vehicle. When I pulled into the driveway at home, our guests were waiting.
I would ask my husband later about that verse.

The next morning was better. The power of the stories still gripped my soul. None of my children had nightmares. The guests had clean beds and sufficient breakfast. And I had heard John’s thoughts on that troubling verse: “Eating unworthily is when you trust in your own righteousness.”

I tasted immediate relief and a portion of God’s graciousness, for in the middle of the Love Feast, trusting in my righteousness was not one of my many faults. I was desperately grasping for His.

I still hope Martyrs’ Remembrance Night becomes a Good Friday tradition. I need to hear gripping stories of real people who refuse compromise and find God’s grace sufficient—even in death. I want these annual reminders that God's grace is always sufficient.

Even for harried moms who slip, late, onto folding chairs in the back of the church.

Monday, March 1, 2021

February Fun Days 2021, Part 2

Learning is hard work and school can become tedious. That's why I like to spice up the month of February with a fun activity every school day. Sometimes our fun extras are low-key and easy like Mismatched Sock Day. Other events take forethought and involvement like a Presidents' Day Dinner or Chinese New Year. You can see some pictures of the first half of our February Fun Month here and pictures of our Presidents' Day Dinner here

And now for the final stretch of our month: 

Shark Day..........................................................................................

Sharks infested our schoolroom floor! Touching the floor meant losing life or limb, a risk nobody dared to take. We set up chairs, cushions, and boxes for safety purposes. Our precautions kept us safe and they also gave this old girl far more exercise than she bargained for. By the end of the school day, I invented Shark Repellent to spray myself with if I needed to dodge into the room for something easy. 

Do School In Your Pajamas Day.........................................................

(Go, homeschool!)

Hat Day that morphed into Robot Day..............................................

Both children chose not just a hat but an entire robot head. I laughed almost every time I walked into the school room and saw my robots dutifully working. 

After school, we exchanged our robot hats ("Aww! They'd work, Mom! I'm sure they'd pass!") for our regular face masks and went to a thrift store to see if they had any deals on bunkbeds. We didn't find any bunk beds, but we found a lovely stack of books. One of them was titled Robots, a fitting end to Robot Day. 

LEGO Day.........................................................................................
As an early birthday present for Tyler, my dad helped finance a LEGO set Tyler was saving money to buy, so it made sense to have LEGO Day while he was still assembling his newly acquired set. I gave them extra recess to devote to the building project and served lunch on LEGO themed paper plates.
Idea for next time: Give the children LEGO challenges to complete. 

Opposite Day......................................................................................
We missed honoring National Opposite Day on its official day in late January because we were in the middle moving across town. So I added Opposite Day to our February Fun Days. It happened to land at a time when we had lots of snow and great sledding. We observed Opposite Day by playing first (sledding at a park during school hours) and working later (finishing school a little later than normal). 

National Gumdrop Day.......................................................................
National Gumdrop Day fell on Presidents' Day this year. Because we had enough fun and activity happening on Presidents' Day, I separated the two. The children earned a gumdrop for diligence, neat writing, good scores, and about anything else they could convince me was reward-worthy. They were so enthusiastic about earning edible prizes that I thought I should try the same idea on National Eat Brussels Sprouts Day.

National Pancake Day.........................................................................
Pancakes for supper! It gave them something fun to look forward to all day.

Art Day...............................................................................................
We interrupted math class to draw Abe Lincoln, an idea I wished I thought of on Presidents' Day. 

We followed the instructions on Art Hub for Kids to draw
Abe. Art Hub is our go-to for step-by-step drawing tutorials.
After recess, we used pasta and grains to color pictures. 

Our final project was making cardboard cities. I hung them above my coffee bar in the kitchen and love my latest decor. 

And just like that, February Fun Days are over. If you have ideas for us to use next year, let me know in the comments below. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Presidents' Day Dinner

American presidents rarely gather by the dozen. But that is what happened in our dining room last evening.

I spent a lot of my day preparing for their arrival. Unlike the White House that has a calligraphy department to handprint dinner invitations, I needed to make my own place name tags. Unless I miss my guess, the chief calligrapher's position remains secure, even if Biden sees the name tags I made for my dinner guests.

Inside each place name tag, I printed interesting tidbits about our presidents like, 
"Thomas Jefferson was fluent in English, Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish. He also spoke some Dutch and Arabic. Jefferson claimed Spanish was so easy that he learned it in 19 days at sea." 
And one more: 
"Jimmy Carter was a speed reader, having been recorded reading 2,000 words per minute. The average reading speed of most adults is 250 words per minute. Also, Harry S. Truman read every book in his hometown library."

I planned my menu days in advance, selecting president favorites from Wide Open Eats and Insider. The lists on those two sites vary. Wide Open Eats attributes fried apple pies to Franklin Pierce, for example, and the Insider says his favorite food was fried clams. But why wouldn't they vary? If you asked me last Saturday what my favorite food was, I might have honestly told you it is hot-from-the-oven Garlic Naan from Taj Mahal, an Indian restaurant John took me to on a date. But on a cold winter day with wind howling around the house, it wouldn't feel dishonest to say a hot bowl of chili is my comfort food. 

So two lists of presidential favorites make sense to me. Plus, it gave me more options to choose from. Our finalized menu looked like this:

The leather britches listed on the menu came from no one's closet. In Appalachia, green beans used to be strung up and dried to be preserved for winter. When they were rehydrated and cooked (often with fat or ham hocks), they gained a wrinkled, leathery appearance. Leather Britches, then, are dried green beans. Ours were imitation leather; I found out too late about the dried bean part. 

I also selected Hoppin' John, a rice and bean dish, because of its name. (When children are your target audience, recipes like Leather Britches and Hoppin' John look good on the menu.) I happened to have a ham hock in my freezer for the first time in my life. When simmered for a long time with the dried beans, it added a delightful flavor to the recipe, making Hoppin' John my favorite dish of the evening. 

At least three presidents listed apple desserts as a favorite food, so I felt it was fitting to end our meal with one of those. Apple Pan Dowdy is basically apple pie with the crust cut into squares and overlapped on top. I used this recipe from Martha Stewart and am sharing the picture from her site since I didn't take one of mine. It was good enough that I understood why John Adams chose this as his fave.

Rutherford Hayes banned alcohol from the White House, which earned his wife the name "Lemonade Lucy." That's how we picked lemonade for our beverage. And I should note how fun it was to make Mamie Eisenhower's fudge using her recipe. It makes a lot--plenty to share with friends. 

Our Presidents' Day Dinner was a great education for our whole family. Ken Albala, a professor who teaches a course on the Great Courses Plus, says that just as you can learn much about history through art, so you can learn much about history through food. I agreed with him when I read about Abe Lincoln treating honey like a delicacy all his life because it was one luxury in a poverty-stricken childhood. Andrew Johnson naming rice and dried beans as a favorite food and Donald Trump famously serving McDonalds to guests in the White House also verify that U.S. history can be mapped through foods our presidents enjoy. 

Here is a fun fact to end on: 
"America is only as old as four presidents' lives. President Biden was alive at the same time as Herbert Hoover, who was alive at the same time as Andrew Johnson, who was alive at the same time as John Adams, who was 40 when America was born."
--Philip Bump, The Washington Post

Credits to Katrina Lee for the dinner idea and for going out of her way to send me the photo props. You can see her Presidents' Day Dinner on her websitekatrinahooverlee.com.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

February Fun Month, Part One

One of my schoolteacher role models is Deana Swanson. I follow her blog, The Plain Professors, and I cob ideas she uses in her classroom, tweaking them if needed to fit my school of two. Deana suggests six months of school is long enough for winter doldrums to set in, so she implemented February Fun Month in which every day of the month has a special activity to do or something to celebrate. By adopting her idea, February became my favorite month of school. In late January, the children help me decide what activities we will do. Many ideas come from The Plain Professors or the National Day Calendar, but this month we added some of our own as well.

February Fun Days, 2021, Weeks 1 & 2:

Backwards Day
Traditionalists that we are, we usually study school subjects in the same order every day. But on Backwards Day, we reverse that order, starting instead with Science and ending with Arithmetic. 

Groundhog Day/Bring a Critter to School Day
We watched Punxsutawny Phil predict six more weeks of winter, a believable guess, considering the piles of snow all over town. We don't own a groundhog, stuffed or otherwise, so the children invited other stuffed friends to join them in school for the day. 

Mix-Up Day
In this favorite, the children pull slips of paper from a hat, shake them from a gravy shaker, find them in nooks and crannies, pop balloons to retrieve them, or unwrap them like gifts. No matter what system I use, they always love Mix-Up Days--particularly the extra activities I include like treats, extra breaks, or unexpected art projects. 

Popcorn Day
We usually don't have midmorning snacks, but this day, we ate our fill of flavored popcorn. 

National Bubblegum Day
Chew gum during school hours? Not here, except on National Bubblegum Day.

Green All Day
The children used green ink to write spelling words and ate salads for lunch. 

We made green collages.

Wore green

Drew green plants in our creative journals

Day 100
Another annual favorite happened to land in February this year. 
My children never saw candy bar
letters before--for a good reason--
but they enjoyed getting acquainted.

After receiving their letter, we had our regular school day with irregular activities mixed in:
--Measured 100 yards and ran the 100-yard dash. No Olympic records were broken, probably because we had six inches of crusty snow and six pounds of snow gear.
Oh, and because Tyler was carrying the measuring tape,
a detail he said definitely hindered speed.
--Put together 100-piece puzzles
--Learned to say 100 in French and Spanish
--Found out who was President, what stamps cost,
and what a new Chevy cost 100 years ago
Drew pictures using numerical
100's as the base

Traditional Day 100 lunch

Mismatched Sock Day
No-brainers like this one add interest to a school day without exhausting the mom. This year, I chanced upon cheap, silly socks in time to surprise the children with them on this unusual holiday.

No Desk Day
A day in which no child may do bookwork at their desk. 
Spelling Class

Chinese New Year
Another annual favorite. This year I learned about Chinese children receiving red envelopes with crisp money or notes of blessing in them. I found a template on this website and printed envelopes. To receive them, the children had to bow to me and say Thank you in Chinese. Well, sort of Chinese. We learned it from Google Translate and you know how reliable that is. My children didn't receive money in their envelopes, but found fun activities to do instead. 

Being low on red paper and not being superstitious,
I used a variety of colors.
Eating popcorn with chopsticks. 
Most of us were successful...

--We drew Chinese flags in our creative journals and made Chinese lanterns. 

I made place names for our Chinese dinner.

A delicious ending to a full week.

That brings us up to date! Next up for us is a Presidents' Day dinner made up of favorite foods of our Presidents. Guests have been invited and excitement is mounting. Speaking of that dinner, I have shopping to do and food to prepare.

Later, friends!