Friday, December 31, 2004

Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New

Thanks for thinking of me during my absence -- it was a very interesting time away with family to celebrate my aunt's life, but I'll post more about those things in days to come.

Today I'll post about my New Year's Day preparations, including the recipes I'll be using for "my" version of Spicy Hoppin' John. E.R. has included some high-faluting, hoity-toity French inspired recipe on his blog. Not to say his version wouldn't be wonderful, but hey, mine is simpler and only takes one big pot. (And I'm not dissin' E.R., but good gawd, his has parsley in it! We may have to have a taste-off one of these days and see which one is best -- I'm game for eating a few bowls of his version just to be fair...)

I've already given you some background on where the dish came from, combining African legumes (the black-eyed peas) with Carolina rice dishes.) No matter the history of the food, it's a good substantial meal for starting the new year.

Spicy Hoppin' John
1 lb. (2 c.) dried blackeyed peas
8 c. water
1 medium ham hock
16 oz. tomatoes, cut up
1 c. chopped onion
1 c. chopped celery
1 Tbsp. salt
2 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. dried basil, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 c. long grain rice

Rinse peas, combine peas and water; let stand overnight (or bring to a boil, let simmer 2 minutes, cover and let stand 1 hour.) Do not drain. Add remaining ingredients except rice. Cover and simmer until peas are tender, about 1 1/4 hours.
Lift out ham hocks, remove meat from bone, dice and return to pea mixture. Add rice, cover and simmer 20 minutes or until rice is tender. Add more water if desired. Remove bay leaf.
Makes 12 to 14 servings.

If you are in a rush, you can used canned blackeyed peas and cook onion and celery in a small amount of water before adding all the other ingredients.

This is so easy and so flexible. I've made it so often now that I dont' really consult the recipe all that often. The seasonings can be adjusted and varied, depending on what you have on hand. I'm happy as long as it has the black-eyed peas, onion, rice and pork.

Here's what I consider the world's finest cornbread recipe. It may be that I like it so much just because of the name of it. But it is wonderful, name not withstanding.

Crescent Dragonwagon's Skillet-Sizzled Buttermilk Cornbread

1 c. stone-ground yellow cornmeal
1 c unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/4 c. buttermilk, preferably Bulgarian style
1 large egg
2 to 4 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 c mild vegetable oil, such as corn or peanut
Pam cooking spray
2 to 4 Tbsp. butter

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt.
3. In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the buttermilk. In a second bowl, whisk together the egg, sugar to taste, and the oil, then whisk in the buttermilk.
4. Spray an 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet with Pam. Put the skillet over medium-high heat, add the butter and heat until the butter melts and is just starting to sizzle. Tilt the pan to coat the bottom and sides.
5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and quickly stir together, using only as many strokes as needed to combine. Scrape the batter into the hot, buttery skillet. Immediately put the skillet in the oven and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cut into wedges to serve.

Mmmm, mmm. Wipe my chin because this sounds too good to wait until tomorrow!

However you choose to dine tomorrow, I wish you a Happy New Year and hope that 2005 brings you blessing upon blessing!

Monday, December 27, 2004

Going to Be With Family

I just got a call that my aunt Shirley died last night. She was my mom's sister. So I will be traveling to Kansas City to be with family this week.

I don't know if this happens in other families, but there is a tendency for life events to be clumped around the same dates in my family. Mom died Dec. 24 five years ago. Shirley died Dec. 26. Mom's favorite aunt died at the age of 101 on New Year's day 2000, just a few days after Mom died.

It happens on my Dad's side, too. He died on Aug. 23, 1976. His sister died on Aug. 26, 1978.

My Mom's dad died on Jan. 16, my uncle's birthday. My cousin's birthday is Jan. 15.

Oh, I also had a great uncle who died on Thanksgiving.

It just seems odd to me that there are all these coincidences. And it makes holidays difficult. We go on, but it's not the same.

I'm not sure when I'll be back but I will sure miss reading all my friends' blogs this week. See you when I can, and everyone take care.

I guess I dare not wish you a Happy New Year... but my best thoughts are with you all.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Memories of Santa

There's a great biography of Santa showing on A&E right now, and it brought to mind my own memories of Santa's visit to my house when I was 3.

That year was my first memory of having a Christmas tree. It was beautiful. We had driven to a tree lot, and as my brother and I sat in the car and waited, Dad and Mom picked out a tree and negotiated the purchase. Now, I do not recall that the tree was tied to the roof of the car -- Dad was always very particular about his vehicles and I don't think that would have been agreeable to him. But we did get the thing home.

The tree reached to the ceiling in the dining room and was draped with the large colored lights that were the style of the 1950s. I still favor those over tiny lights or strings of white bulbs. The colors were part of the magic for me.

Bob and I were allowed to help put on a few ornaments, but most of our effort was put into the tinsel that we draped on the tree. Bob was notorious for building bird's nests, as my parents put it. It was a hand-size clump of tinsel that was stuck in the branches in one motion. We had no idea the tinsel was supposed to be separated out and placed carefully.

Days before we got the tree, Mom, Bob and I had walked over to visit a neighborhood greenhouse. It was a place I loved to visit, owned by an old man who always took great joy in our visits. I can still smell the earth in which the plants grew, and I feel the humidity from the water they drank. Even now, visiting a greenhouse makes me feel more alive.

On this particular visit, I was running through the tables filled with plants, inhaling the intoxicating essence of life. At the end of one run, the gardener stopped me by kneeling down in front of me. In his hand was an angel, made of delicate yellow mesh stretched tight over her wire wings. A gold halo circled her head.

"Merry Christmas!" he said. "You can put this on your Christmas tree."

Of course, at that point I had no idea what a Christmas tree was, but the day the tree went up, I ran to my room to collect my little yellow angel.

She was a treasured perennial on our trees until the late 1980s, when my mom put her on the tree for the last time. Her golden retriever was as enthralled as I had been, and ate her. It broke my heart. I still get weepy about my angel meeting her demise because I've never seen another like her.

The crowning glory of my first Christmas tree was a tin star, which I had the honor of placing on the top. Dad lifted me up to the tip-top and let me put it on. As soon as I was finished, I ran down the block to get my best friend, Bubbie, and together we ran back to my house so he could see our beautiful tree! He was duly impressed and excited. The next day, he came to fetch me to see HIS tree!

Another part of the tradition in our house that year was the Christmas Cleaning. It's something I try to continue, but probably not quite as excitedly. It was my job to scrub the ribbed chrome trim on the dinette table. After all, I was the one who had filled those ridges with grape jelly and who-knows-what through the year. I was a diligent scrubber, certain as I was that Santa would not be happy to find a dirty table when he stopped by for cookies.

I'm sure the house cleaning was followed with supper and baths, during which time someone sneaked wrapped packages under the tree. And instead of getting into pajamas, I was wearing a pretty dress.

Photos were taken -- the kind of picture-taking that left us blinded by flash bulbs. We'd chase the dark spots around the room after these sessions as part of the fun. I know we were giggling and running around like loons when there was a commotion at the front door. I couldn't focus well enough for a minute to see what was happening, but my Dad was opening the door to a visitor -- a noisy visitor who was hollering "HO HO HO".

In walked SANTA CLAUS, complete with the red suit, white beard, black belt and boots and bells jingling! It was pure magic! I was dumbstruck. All I can remember of it is Santa standing there, talking to ME. Who knows if I peed or laughed or hugged him -- that part of the memory is just gone. It was the first time I was truly star-struck.

It wasn't until 5 years ago, just days before my Mom died, that I finally knew the truth. We were having our good-bye talk, remembering all the good things through the years. She asked me what my favorite Christmas was, and immediately my mind went back to 1958 and Santa's visit. She was so pleased.

Finally it dawned on me that I never really knew the back story of that visit, so I asked her, "Who was Santa?"

Well, Santa was my dear neighbor, Walter Ruby, who was built to play the part. Walter and his wife, Josephine, lived two doors down from us. Her parents, whom I called Grandpa and Grandma McDaniel, lived between us.

The McDaniels and Rubys were like family to me. During my early childhood, they took on the role of extended family, taking care of me while my brother was in the Cerebral Palsey Center in Norman. Often my parents would have to make the drive from Ponca City to Norman to take him to and from the center, and on some of those trips my presence would not have been appropriate because of the business that had to be discussed about his care.

So on those days, I would arrive at the door of one home or the other, carrying a half-gallon of milk and a white paper package of bologna cut at the butcher counter of the corner grocery. Both households opened their arms to me without hesitation, loving me as though I was one of their own. I never knew any differently.

And so Santa's visit, even those 40-some years later, meant the world to me. Even more than the jingle of the bells, that red suit filled my home with pure love. And that's what Christmas was made for in the first place, long before Santa came to help share it.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all of you who stop by to read my little blog every now and then! I hope today is a day of great peace and joy for each of you as we celebrate the birth of our Savior.

"For unto us is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." --
Luke 2:11

One of my favorite parts about the Christmas story is Mary's willingness to accept her part in the Lord's story. Here was a girl -- by today's standards, a child -- who finds herself being told by an angel that she is pregnant. She's engaged to Joseph, who doesn't take the news well. He was going to quietly set her aside, basically divorce her since the child was not his. He also got a visit from the angel, who set him straight.

But Mary's story is captured in the canticle, also called the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46-55.

This portion usually is set to music during choirs' Christmas cantatas. We had an especially lovely version of it this year in "A New Birth/A New Beginning," a cantata written by John Purifoy.

The song is a duet, between the angel Gabriel and Mary:

Mary, Mary, do you hear?
Mary, Mary do not fear.

Who is there?
Who is there?
This voice in darkness so,
I'm so afraid,
What is it now that I must know?
Yes I hear,
I hear your voice from deep within my heart.
What is this message now that you impart?

Fear not Mary,
O favored chosen one,
The Lord is with you,
and you shall bear a son.
Son of the Highest,
Jesus is his name,
exalted his kingdom,
endless is his reign.

I am the servant of the Lord,
and I am among all women blessed.
I'll not fear what comes to pass,
the very Son of God is here at last.

He will do many great and mighty things,
and holy his name shall ever be.
I am blessed with Holy Child,
my soul does magnify his name adored.

For I shall ever humbly be
the servant of the Lord.

I am blessed and I humbly rejoice
in soul and spirit, in mind and voice.
In me his favor finds holist accord.
My steadfast soul does magnify the Lord.

I am the servant of the Lord
and I am among all women blessed.
I'll not fear what comes to pass,
the very Son of God is here at last.

He will do many great and mighty things
and holy his name shall ever be.
I am blessed with Holy Child
My soul does magnify his name adored.

For I shall ever humbly be
the servant of the Lord.

Friday, December 24, 2004

The Answer:

Do not look inside here until you've taken the quiz below about the missing line. I've posted the answer as a reply. NO PEEKING EARLY!

The Missing Line: A Quiz

This is a quiz that will only be fair to native Oklahomans who have lived in the Oklahoma City TV market for a few decades.

Today's quiz concerns Oklahoma's "official" Christmas carol, the B.C. Clark jingle.
For those two of you who don't know, B.C. Clark is a venerable family jeweler that has been in Oklahoma since territorial days, long before statehood -- since 1892, to be exact. That's one of the great lines from the jingle.

Copies of the jingle, printed on a pale blue parchment paper, are available for the asking at any of the B.C. Clark's stores. I got several copies one year at the Penn Square store to take to a choir Christmas party for grins. We had a blast!

You can hear the jingle at this link: B.C. Clark jingle where you can also download a copy of the sheet music (if you don't feel like braving the crowds on Christmas eve. And I don't know anyone who would do that just for a song.)

Here are the words, not quite as prettily typeset as the B.C. Clark official version:

Jewelry is the gift to give,
'cause it's the gift that'll live and live.
So give the gift you know can't fail
From B.C. Clark's anniversary sale.

Most sales are after Christmas
But Clark's is just before.
'Most everything is marked way down,
Savings you can't ignore
At Oklahoma's oldest jewelers,
Since 1892.
So give the gift you know can't fail
From B.C. Clark's anniversary sale.

That's the jingle in its current entirity. Now, back to the quiz.

Q: One line was cut in 1977. What was it?

Background: As originally taped, the jingle ran 35 seconds. Most TV commercials were 60 seconds long at that time, so the jewelers had plenty of time to show products and make pitches to viewers. However, in 1977, standard commercials were cut to 30 seconds. With it went part of the jingle, which became background music for the visuals.

B.C. Clark Jewelers started running the jingle in 1956. At 48 years old, it is the oldest continuously used Christmas jingle in the country. Traditionally it is aired each year for the first time during the 10 p.m. news on Thanksgiving night. Then on the Friday after Thanksgiving, tradition is to tape members of the public singing the jingle at the Penn Square store. They tape for hours and the advertising agency cuts the tape down to commercial lengths to use during the season. It's a lot of fun to hear how badly many people sing. I think this also may have been the forerunner to karaoke.

OK, so what's your answer? Do you know the missing line? I'll post it... later. NO CHEATING ALLOWED.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Story of Matilda, the Christmas Hippopotamus

(This is for ol' E.R. Taken from a story I wrote in December 2000)

Visions of sugar plums weren't dancing through the heads of Oklahoma children in 1953.

No, what marched through their heads -- what they longed for -- was a hippopotamus for Christmas.

A hippo?

Yes, a hippo.
No crocodiles. No rhinoceroses. Only a hippopotamus would do.

And that's how Matilda the hippopotamus found herself at home at the Oklahoma City Zoo on Christmas Eve that year.

Santa is in the business of granting special wishes. But a hippo? Surely Santa slipped the reindeer a few extra vitamins for this special delivery.

The song "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," featuring the voice of a 10-year-old Gayla Peevey, sold more than 300,000 copies on the Columbia Records label by mid-December 1953.

The song inspired a campaign by WKY-TV and The Oklahoma City Times to raise enough to buy a hippo named Matilda.

And it took a lot of coins to buy the three-year-old hippo. Nearly $4,000 was raised, most of that in nickles and dimes sent in by children.

What child could dream that singing a song would really bring them a hippopotamus for Christmas? Or imagine that people would still cherish the song nearly 50 years later?

The little girl is now Gayla Peevey Henderson, living in California.

"It's true. Every Christmas people start contacting me," she said with a laugh.

"I was just 10, so it was all just kind of exciting and unexpected and fun. It was kind of a bonus to the whole thing to have the hippo actually be bought and donated to the zoo. Who would have ever dreamed that such a thing would ever happen?

"It was really a very fun experience. I got to meet so many other people, and the connection with other kids with them sending in their dimes and nickles was just really nice."

As much as Henderson enjoyed her singing career and seeing her song inspire children to buy Matilda, the fame that came along also took a toll.

"I know that people find this really hard to believe, but it's true. All that show business stuff was just too hard for our family to handle. It was very disruptive," Henderson said.

"My dad transferred to San Diego just so I could go to school and be normal. I was going into junior high. I was about 12. It was kind of nice. I was able to go to school, and we re-established ourselves here. I went on to college and met a nice guy and got marrie -- pretty normal stuff. I've had a wonderful life totally away from show business. I do still sing, but it's primarily at church.

"I still do some songwriting, but basically it's a pretty normal life. Every Christmas, somebody tracks me down to talk about the hippo song," she said.

Henderson has been married 37 years (in 2000).

"It's wonderful and unusual in this day and age to be married that long. I attribute that to being pretty grounded in our church and Christian faith. He's a teacher," she said.

She said her husband doesn't remember the hippopotamus song from his childhood, but he smiles when he hears it. The song has been played on "Ally McBeal" and "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Henderson's daughter, Sydney Forest, is a professional singer and songwriter.

"She writes songs that are in movies and animated films. She just completed writing a musical with her husband. ... She claims the music was passed through the genes."

The flip side of the record was "Are My Ears on Straight?" which is used a lot in dance studios for children, Henderson said.

Henderson was born in Oklahoma City and moved to Ponca City before she entered first grade. She and her family lived there for five years.

She sang on WKY-TV on "Sooner Shindig" and "The Chuckwagon Gang" programs. The president of WKY sent a demo tape to Columbia which led to Peevey's record contract.

"I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" was recorded with the Mitch Miller Orchestra. She performed the song on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Matilda the Hippo lived with her mate, Norman, at the Oklahoma City Zoo until March 1998. She had eight babies. She died in 1998 when she was being moved to Disney World in Florida where she would have retired with Norman.

"I was so very sad when Matilda died and was so happy I got to see her when I visited the Oklahoma City Zoo about 10 years ago," Henderson said.

Here are the lyrics. If you want to hear it on your computer, click here.

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
Don't want a doll, no dinky Tinker Toy
I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
I don't think Santa Claus will mind, do you?
He won't have to use our dirty chimney flue
Just bring him through the front door,
that's the easy thing to do

I can see me now on Christmas morning,
creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise
when I open up my eyes
to see a hippo hero standing there

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles, no rhinoceroses
I only like hippopotamuses
And hippopotamuses like me too

Mom says the hippo would eat me up, but then
Teacher says a hippo is a vegeterian

There's lots of room for him in our two-car garage
I'd feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage

I can see me now on Christmas morning,
creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise
when I open up my eyes
to see a hippo hero standing there

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles or rhinoceroseses
I only like hippopotamuseses
And hippopotamuses like me too!

The Story of Hoppin' John

This goes along with the season as well as the desire to live well while living frugally. It also meshes with Erudite Redneck's post about chow and how folk food around the world has a lot more in common than not.

Spicy Hoppin' John has been a tradition in my household every New Year's Day since probably 1977 when it was introduced to me by my then-boyfriend's mother. Before that, I had never in my life eaten a black-eyed pea.

And that's what Hoppin' John is -- a traditional southern dish made primarily of black-eyed peas, some form of pork (depending on the household tradition and what's available), rice and tomatoes. A pot will feed 20 people more or less (I tested the theory last year for a New Year's party and 12 of us ate well with plenty of leftovers). It will also sustain smaller parties for a month or so.

So, how did this dish get its name? One story attributes the name to the custom of inviting guests to eat with, "Hop in, John." Another suggestion is that it is derived from an old ritual on New Year's Day in which the children of the house hopped once around the table before eating the dish.

The reason this is considered a "southern" dish is because black-eyed peas are a legume common to North Africa. And of course it came to this country through the slave trade. Couple this with the rice economy of the Carolinas and you have a merging of folk cuisines, combining the black-eyed peas with rice. Such food mixing is a common occurrence in our culture's history -- look at Cajun combinations of French legacies with the swamp food available in Louisiana as another example.

In any event, eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is supposed to bring good luck. Eating greens is supposed to ensure wealth in the new year. Sounds like a prescription for dinner to me! Add the cornbread too, just because it's mmm mm good. I particulary like Crescent Dragonwagon's Sizzlin' Skillet Cornbread for the occasion (I'll have to post it later, company is on the way right now.)

Anyway, Hoppin' John, being a folk dish, does not require a fancy recipe. Modern conveniences such as canned vegetables makes it very easy. I don't do the dried bean routine nearly as often any more since I can simply grab 3 cans for $1 and be that much farther ahead of the game. Fill a large pot with black-eyed peas and add pork. That can be leftover ham, a hambone, salt pork, jowls, whatever is cheap and handy. The cheaper the better. Cover with a good amount of water. Chop up an onion and throw it in. Cover and simmer for a long time. (Usually measured in football games. Don't let the pot go dry.) Before eating, throw in a couple of cans of tomatoes (I used juicy stewed ones) and another can of water with a can of rice. Let it simmer til the rice swells up and the tomatoes are hot. Have the cornbread and greens ready too. Then eat. And eat and eat.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Home Economics and Life Lessons

I think we all have a pretty basic idea of what it takes to manage money correctly. If we fail to do so, we will get slapped up the side of the head by reality sooner rather than later.

So, once in a while we need a refresher on handling money wisely. Here's some tips:

1. Jimmy Carter was right. If you're cold, put on a sweater. I have a programmable thermostat on my furnace. Most of the time, I have the heat set at 69 degrees. But since I've been working from home the past two years, I sometimes give in to the temptation to go punch it up a few degrees when I get chilled. Duh. Why was I surprised to find that my gas bill went up from $41 last month to $101 this month? Yeah, we've had some cooler days. But it's my own dang fault that I upped the gas use. I would have been more comfortable and saved some money if I'd followed Jimmy's advice to put on a sweater. Socks help too, and I have scores of socks. Pretty cheap warmth if you ask me.

2. Cook at home. Fast food has little going for it. It's fast. You get full. You get fat. And your car gets full of litter. Buy groceries and use them. It would not be hard to spend $10 a day on fast food. Spend that at a grocery store and you can eat well for three or four days. You'll eat better, be healthier and your house will smell good because you cooked.

3. Shop well. I've been without my grocery store (well, it's not really mine, it's just the one closest to my house) for months. So I've really cut down on my shopping trips because it's 4 miles to the next store. Good news! My local store reopened under different ownership on Friday! I had to go check it out. Apparently thousands of my closest friends also had the same need. I got the last parking place on the last row of the lot. Inside, it was elbow to elbow. I started having a panic attack when I was trapped in the meat department with no room to move any direction. Somehow, things loosened up enough for us to get out of the gridlock, but I learned a lesson: shop at off-peak times, once the new-store rush is over. On opening day, they handed out maps of the store. Now I can plot my purchases ahead of time and not spend a lot of time browsing.

4. Shop around the perimeter and ignore the center of the store. You'll find fresh fruits, vegetables, bread and meats around the perimeter of almost every store in the country. Junk food and non-grocery items are found in the aisles in the center of the store. Know your store layout and plan your shopping trip to take advantage of whole foods and avoid the body clutter.

5. Use what you have. My pantry is well stocked. So is my freezer. The plan is to use what I have before I go shopping again. I have plenty of frozen slices of turkey and ham stored since Thanksgiving. I can thaw a packet at a time to make soup or add to a casserole.

6. Make do. Growing up, I had to learn to be self-sufficient and make do with little. When I turned 12, I got a used sewing machine for Christmas. From then on, I had to make all of my clothes and my mom's. That carried me well past college. I also taught myself to knit when I was 10, and I've made a bunch of afghans which are great for keeping warm. Self reliance can also include growing a veggie garden and using the produce. Seeds cost next to nothing.

7. Turn off the lights. And the TV. Especially if you've gone to another room. I hate to admit that I have 4 televisions in my house. Too often I catch myself wandering to another room, turning on the tube and settling in for a while. The problem? I forgot to shut off the TV in the room I just left. Duh.

Well, life's changed a bit since I got that first sewing machine, but there are still plenty of ways to keep from wasting money.

My goal this year is to keep this motto in mind: "Live within your means and within your seams."

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Don't think about it

Q.: What weighs 2,000 pounds and wears glass slippers?

A.: Cinderelephant, of course!

I told E.R. this silly little joke yesterday and warned him not to think about it during his graduation. Can't wait to hear how it went.

See, my dad told me this one when I was 9 and told me not to think about it. Um.... that was 40 years ago. HAR! Does that mean I have a memory like an elephant or is there just some sick psychological game involved when you tell someone not to think about something?

Anyway, I still like the joke. Here's another one. It's a little longer:

Q: How many elephants can you get in a Volkswagen?

A: Four.

Q: How do you know when an elephant has been in the refrigerator?

A: Footprints in the butter.

Q: How do you know when two elephants have been in the butter?

A: Two sets of footprints in the butter.

Q: How do you know when there are three elephants in the refrigerator?

A: You can't shut the door.

Q: How do you know when there are four elephants in the refrigerator?

A: You hear their VW going "Beep! Beep! Beep!"

Well, I'm off to a cleaning challenge. I have a couple of hours to work before calling my friend to check in and compare notes. We haven't done challenges for a while but today is a good day for it. I've got some intense cleaning to do today and the time to do it.

Later, I hope to write about a matter of home economics. See ya!

Friday, December 17, 2004

Whoo hoo! I'm FREE!

I may not have a degree to show for it, but I just finished my last writing assignment for the year. Next week is ALL MINE! Even better, there are no meetings, no rehearsals, not even any parties. Nothing until Christmas Eve Communion service (not counting Sunday morning church, of course.)

I feel just like a kid, or an E.R., who just ended the semester! No more homework, no more books. No more teachers' dirty looks!

Why am I so giddy? Well, because I realize, just like a kid out of school, that time is perhaps the greatest gift of all! I can do whatever I want to with it. It's the right color and the right size, and it doesn't add any unwanted calories. (That's not to say that I'll necessarily choose to avoid added calories during this week.)

It's even better than money, because I can spend it as richly as I like. I can read until I get sick of reading. I can go for nice, long, leisurely walks. Boy, my body will like that! I can get my house clean, maybe. If I want to, I can take a long, hot bubble bath.

Hmmm, what to do first? I know! Get out of this skirt and sweater and get into my comfy sweats! Ahhhhhh!


Wednesday, December 15, 2004

I love Jimmy Carter

I'm watching an interview -- the second I've seen this week. First was with Tim Russert; this one is with Jay Leno.

He's such a delight -- speaking honestly about his career, particularly about why he's become such a prolific writer since leaving the White House. He's just published his 19th book and says he had to write to pay off his debt. He was deeply in debt after being "involuntarily retired," as he put it.

He also speaks sweetly and with all good humor about his wife, Roselyn, to whom he has been married 58 years (can you believe that! He just recently celebrated his 80th birthday).

The new book is called "Sharing Good Times." I look forward to reading it. Maybe I'll get it for myself for Christmas.

And I've put Mr. Carter on my list of people I'd most like to meet in this lifetime.

Goodnight, Moon

The moon is incredible tonight. It's low in the southwest sky and it must be close to the Earth because it is huge and golden. It's a crescent tonight, the perfect "lullaby" moon. You can almost imagine a baby nestled in its curve, sweetly dreaming the dreams of infants. Don't you wonder what they dream of?

I just came home from the church choir party -- the moon was so fascinating I very nearly drove past my house (and yes, I've lived here since 1996, so I should know where it is).

The choir party was wonderful, but that's because the people are so much like family. I don't know what I'd do without these folks. Tonight we enjoyed great quantities of food and music, singing just about every Christmas song 30 or so people could think of.

Even so, with such a warm group to love, I can't help but be sad this time of year. It just washes over me, usually triggered by one or two particular songs. Silent Night can do it. So can "O Holy Night." I can't even listen to sad country Christmas songs -- it's just torture.

My mom died on Christmas Eve five years ago, and there are times when it seems like it just happened. The end of her life was a holy time and I was blessed to spend the last several weeks with her. Everything between us was resolved. She gave me her blessings and we spent hours and hours talking about life. I was able to get my aunt to come visit her just a couple of days before she died, and that was the greatest visit ever.

Days before, Mom and I both knew she would be gone before Christmas came. We told the doctor -- he had his "doctorly doubts" but we knew. He couldn't even speak to me when it turned out we were right. He expected more time. But Mom and I have always just known things like that.

I barely had signed the papers for hospice care the night of Dec. 23. I kissed Mom good night, told her I loved her and asked her if she needed anything. She had been shaking violently all evening -- her hands and arms just couldn't rest quietly.

She looked up at me and told me she loved me and that I should go home and rest. So I patted her arms and hugged her and kissed her on the forehead. I was so sad to say good night -- my heart knew.

It was about 8 p.m. when I left her to go home. I couldn't rest, so I sat in my den, near the phone, just waiting. The phone rang at 1 a.m. Dec. 24 with word that she "had expired five minutes ago." I told them I would be right there.

It took me about two minutes -- the nursing home was just a couple of blocks from my house. I caught the staff by surprise -- they were all gathered in her room, crying and saying their goodbyes. It turns out that they had all come to her room to find out why she wasn't singing dirty songs. Huh? I didn't know she did that, but apparently every night it was her habit to start singing, loudly, all the bawdy songs she remembered from her time in nursing school. This night, she was quiet, so everyone dropped by to find out why she was being so quiet.

When she had her friends all around her, she smiled at them, they told me, and said she was so happy to see them all so she could say goodbye.

They gave me all the time I needed and wanted to be with her before I called the funeral home to make the arrangements for her to be picked up. In that regard, everything was handled well, as smoothly and kindly as it possibly could have been. My hometown funeral home had an arrangement with a local funeral home, and I was able to handle all the legal documents and business paperwork at the office the next day, by fax.

The hard part was knowing what to do after I cleaned out her room. It was Christmas Eve. What was I supposed to do? I was alone, devastated.

That night I went to Christmas Eve service at church. I sat on the back row and cried like a baby while the soloist sang "O Holy Night." As always, the service concluded with "Silent Night" as we lit candles to light the sanctuary. That's why I can barely listen to these songs now. As beautiful as they are, they've taken on a painful memory.

Since then, I've come to terms with making new holiday memories and trying to create new traditions. Even so, it's difficult. I have no close family left -- aunts, uncles and cousins, mostly in Missouri. So I have to make my own way. I've created new family ties with friends, but as dear as they are, it's not the same.

I don't wallow in self pity -- it's just a period of some sadness that I acknowledge and endure. I feel the pain, a little less each year, but it will always be there.

It does make the reason for Christmas more personal, though. After all, it was for that moment in each of our lives that the Christ child came to be our Emmanuel. His coming brought redemption to our deaths, and through Him we shall spend eternity in His glory. And that's something we can all celebrate, no matter what sorrows we carry.

May you each feel His peace this season.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Happy Holiday Houses!

Here's wishing all of you a joyous holiday season! I wanted to share a couple of photos of gingerbread houses made by Michele Foster of Choctaw. She's won a couple of first place awards in the gingerbread division of the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show, held annually the last weekend of the Tulsa State Fair.

The first house she entered in the competition included a fence, car, doghouse and sandbox. Everything on the property was edible.

"I used candy canes for fence posts and the posts that hold up the carport," Foster said. "Then there was royal icing for the roof and the grass. The fence is gingerbread. The sand is ground-up gingerbread. The dog house even has a little dog in it, named Sugar, for our dog."

Foster even used gingerbread with red royal icing to make the car, which features a tag with her husband's initials.

"There's a tree in the front with a tire swing made of gingerbread. I get a little crazy with it," she admitted.

A second prize-winning house was made of chocolate ginger-bread.

Michele's houses have been featured as part of a special program on The Food Network about the Sugar Arts Show.

One of the things that fascinates me about Michele, besides her culinary skills, is her personal story. She's another "epiphany" person.

"I used to work for Xerox repairing copiers," she told me. "After the bombing I couldn’t stand the thought of my kids being blown up by a madman. And I had always wanted to be a bakery chef."

She decided she could run a bakery and be more involved with her children and feel better about both her career and her family life.

"Ten years ago I could not decorate a thing. Now I am amazed at what I can do," she said. "I never thought I would be able to do the things I’m able to do. It blows me away."

How did she learn her craft?

"I got a book. That’s how I learn to do most of the things I do. That and playing. Mostly people do things the hard way. I try to find easier ways to do things," she said.

"A lot of times it depends on what I have on hand. This was not a cheap hobby. I make some of my own tools and make what I can. I cut my own boards, make my own tools. I cut unusually shaped boards."

She operated her bakery, named "The Sugar Fix" for a few months before she became ill and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She wasn't able to maintain a full-time business, so she now works as a wedding consultant and makes special occasion cakes and sugar art for family and friends.

Michele also has written a cookbook, "The Sugar Fix, the Recipes and Rantings of an Obsessive-Compulsive Cook," which is available at Author House.

You can see more of Michele's work and read more about her at her web site, The Sugar Fix.

Happy Birthday!

Happy birthday to RJW! And many more!

Today was also my brother's birthday, which makes it easy to remember RJW's. It's also my traditional decorating day, if I do any decorating.

We sang our Christmas cantata at church this morning. I'll have to have a nap before I make any decisions about decorating. Does lighting a candle count? That might be it unless I get a second wind later this afternoon.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Just part of Oklahoma life

It's Saturday. And it's noon.

Those of you who live in Oklahoma know what's happening right now, don't you? Yep, the tornado sirens are being tested.

Every week. Saturday at noon. WhooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOO they go for a couple of minutes.

We live with it, barely noticing it. It's like a whistle in a factory town, just marking the time. The state clock, if you will.

We live with it, because we know there are a lot of times each year we have to rely on that sound -- unless of course, we have televisions turned on with the world's best meteorologists letting us know what intersection a tornado is hanging out at.

If you've ever been a child growing up in Oklahoma, you learn how to read the weather for yourself at an early age. It's almost instinctive. You can read the clouds, feel the air pressure and recognize the color of the sky long before there's a hint of that "It sounded like a freight train" sound. If you hear that sound, it's too late.

Even so, we listen for those whistles too, because we don't go outside as much as we did 40 years ago, and too often these critters of destruction sneak up on us when Gary England isn't on our TV sets. The sirens aren't as specific as Doppler 2000 radar or whatever version they use now, that shows the street maps. They are intended to warn a huge populated area, just in case someone is out in the back yard hoeing the veggie patch.

Well, it's December, not much chance of a tornado today, but we never take such things for granted. There was a tornado in the area a month ago today, which is pretty unusual.

Whoops, it's nearly a quarter past tornado whistle, and I need to run. I've got to get to a Christmas ornament exchange at 1. See you all later.

Friday, December 10, 2004

How do you think that makes me feel? Hmmm?

I've spent the past 7 hours in a skirt, panty hose and heels, first for a business meeting and then because I had a couple of errands to run before getting home. The shoes were the first thing off when I walked in the door. Ahhhhhh!!!

Then I get settled in and sit down at the computer, thinking maybe SOME visitor may have stopped in to post a hello in the visitor's thread.


Not one stinkin' person bothered to say hello. For that matter, I only got one reply to the miracle post. Seems to me that was big enough news that people would have had SOMETHING to say, along the lines of Wow, what great news! or something.


Fine. Just fine.

How do you think that makes me feel? Hmmm?

Isn't it bad enough I had to dress up? I even put on LIP STICK for Pete's sake.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Grab the closest book!

Time for another episode of "Read That Book"! E.R. started this challenge on his blog tonight, so I'm passing it along. (Check out his blog at Erudite Redneck. )

The idea is to take the closest book, and write the second (full) sentence on page 23. Cite the book, publication date and author as well. Then repeat this on your own blog. The notion is that we'll get a snapshot of what each of us is currently reading (or what's handy in the closest bookcase.)

Here's mine:

"Against the background of the two Indian criminals secured in the St. Louis jail, Lieutenant Governor Cruzat sent a surgeon to conduct an inquest."
--Slavery and Crime in Missouri, 1773-1865 (2001) by Harriet C. Frazier.

Be glad. Last time we had this challenge, I embarrassed E.R. and other guys with a citation from a book on menopause. I've moved them away from the computer so I won't do that again by accident.

Welcome visitors! Say HI here!

Hello to all of you who come by to read and leave without posting a comment! And JTB, thanks for your comment! It's good to see you around here and I welcome you to post any time!

Same with you other lurkers -- RJW, I know you're out there.

BC, I see you too.

And I know there are others of you -- now and then you let me know you've read something here.

So this thread is just for the lurkers. Feel free to come on in and just say hi -- no commitment to comment on content needed! (I tried to use all the "c" words I could think of.) It's good to know you're out there, somewhere, in the dark... looking at your little blue screen...

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Miracles DO Happen!

I have some spectacular news! My aunt called me tonight to catch me up on this week's family news. There's so much going on at present that the bi-weekly report takes a while. But buried deep in tonight's phone call was a miracle that was almost skipped over amid all the other reports.

I have a male cousin, now in his early 50s, who has been HIV positive since the early 1980s, shortly after AIDS/HIV was discovered. Before long, he had full-blown AIDS.

Fortunately, M. was part of a pioneering group of patients in San Francisco who were chosen early on to be treated with some of the greatest drug cocktails used against HIV. He works hard at keeping himself fit and eats very healthfully. To look at him, you'd think he was just a really buff, beautiful man. And he is. (I've always had a crush on him, since we were kids. He's a cutie!)

He's also got a very strong immune system working in his favor. Doctors have studied his physiology to try to learn more about this virus and what it does to its victims.

For more than 20 years -- closer to 25 years now -- M. has been fighting this virus. He's lost one life partner and many, many, many friends. He's a fighter and an activist and a fine human being.

And now, he is also HIV-free, according to his latest tests. He has told the family now that there is NO indication that the virus is present in his body.

Praise God! Miracles DO happen, every single day.

I hope to talk to M. soon directly to learn more about his miracle. For now, I'll be content to thank God.

Can you believe it? We humans have managed to conquer the virus before we've conquered the prejudice that came along with it. One miracle at a time, I guess.

Entertaining Angels Unaware

I've just experienced one of those moments that makes you stop dead in your tracks for a minute or two.

It came in the form of a simple Christmas card. I didn't recognize the address and there was no name on the envelope. My first thought was that it was a charity soliciting donations, since there were several of those in the mail today too. So I put it to the back of my bundle, going through the cards from old college roommates first, glancing at the bank statement.

Finally, I opened the mystery card, which contained a photo of a baby I didn't recognize -- at least not until I read the note in the card:

My name is J... I remembered your name from when you told the pharmacist how to spell it and lookd you up to wish you a merry Christmas. I met you in Walgreen's and you were so sweet to my baby, 9 mos., N... So I hope your holidays are bright and thank you for being the doll that you are. You made my day that evening & I'll tell N... how beautiful you said she was when she grows up. Thank you! God bless!"

I remember the night well, last spring. I was having trouble because my pharmacist was telling me my benefits card wasn't showing my pharmacy benefits (this was a COBRA screw-up). Anyway, I was having a hard time, but there was a woman in excruciating pain with a fractured tooth who came in seeking any help she could get. I tried to talk to her but I knew that she was hurting too bad to take in what I was saying to her -- I wanted her to go to St. Anthony Hospital which had, at least at one time, an emergency dentist on staff. My own dentist had told me that's where he sends all his patients who have trauma injuries for initial treatment.

Her baby was scared with mom being so upset and was crying. She paused for just a second when I looked in her eyes and spoke to her and touched her cheek. Just enough to stop her crying and get a little smile from her. It helped mom calm down too. The pharmacist helped her find an over-the-counter product to help ease the pain until she could see someone that could help her.

I never knew who she was -- just someone in the pharmacy hurting about as bad as she could at the time. But look what she did -- she remembered, and more than that, she acted on that. She's blessed me beyond my ability to say it.

Here's a link I want you to check out. This is a good song. But don't jump to leave it behind when it sounds like the song ends. There's a very quiet part that comes back in after the "end." Wait until you hear the little girl's voice singing.

Angels Unaware

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Ugh! Pass a book!

On the glowing recommendation of E.R., I decided to try a new adventure today and had lunch at Ron's at Mayfair Village. I got a chili cheeseburger and man, what a treat it was! Basically, it's a regular cheeseburger (with mustard, onions, pickles) put on a plate and then drowned in chili. You have to use a knife and fork to eat it, and you soon understand why there's a roll of paper towels on each table.

It was great, about 5 or 6 hours ago. Not so much now.

I think reading a lot of history books must give one a cast-iron stomach. Obviously, I haven't been reading enough lately. I can only say how glad I am that I've been taking my Lipitor, or I might be in the emergency room tonight having an angioplasty.

Ooooohhhhhhh, someone pass me that copy of "Slavery and Crime in Missouri 1773-1867" on the top shelf. I can't seem to reach it right now. Otherwise, I'll have to veg out and finish watching the Charlie Brown Christmas story. Hmmm. Not a bad choice.

Whoops! Saved by the bell! The UPS man just delivered a box! Oh boy!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

The book by Mitch Albom has been made into a TV movie which shows on ABC tonight (in just a few minutes, actually.) I really enjoyed the book -- it was very different. I'm looking forward to seeing it as a movie, just to see how certain parts are handled. There was a great deal of dream-type action which was hard to follow in parts of the book. This might be one time where the movie has the potential to be better than the book (sorry, that sounds like heresy to me, but it could be true.) It might be easier to follow what parts are dreams if it's visual.

Anyway, we shall see.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Feeling lost

It's 2:45 Saturday afternoon. Nobody in my blogging circle (edited to add: EXCEPT FOR TECH!) has posted anything for days. Heck, neither have I, not since Wednesday. I'm missing everyone's posts.

I must say thank you to all of you who posted on my last entry. Your support has lifted my spirits and helped me shake off a lot of my insecurity about what I'm doing. Especially Teditor, I appreciate your comment very much because you are probably the one person who best understood the situation in my old place. Others know too, but you know to a greater degree about some of the worst of it.

Anyway, it's kind of a strange day. I slept very late -- some kind of an electrical anomaly shut my clock off about 9 a.m., and I was aware enough to get it reset. But then I thought "Hey, it's Saturday." And then I let my face smash back into my pillow for a while longer.

I'm really worried about my cousin, whom I referenced in the previous post. I think she is at a critical point. She needs to be in rehab, should have been in rehab before now. But she's not capable of making that decision for herself. The rest of her family is embarrassed, and I am afraid she may die of embarrassment if we can't get over it and get her the help she needs. I'm on the outside of the circle of people who should rightly make that decision for her, so I don't know how I should proceed. I wish Dr. Phil would swoop down and get her someplace where she can get these drugs out of her system. It is at the point now where she may very well lose her job of 17 years because she didn't return to work when she was supposed to. The doctor refuses to see her, and she's gone as far as to alter the doctor's statement about when she was cleared to return to work. If she loses the job, I think that will certainly seal her fate and she will lose her life as well.

Her son will turn 21 years old on Tuesday. When I was 21, I lost my father. But I still had my mother and brother. He will not. His father is in prison (at least as far as I know) for life for drug-related charges. He was raised, for most of his life, by his grandparents who live about a mile from his mother. He's chosen to live with her for the past few years. In no way is he prepared to deal with losing his mother.

My fear and sadness is that this sickness has gone on so long without resolution that the momentum to do nothing is too great to overcome. I hope not. I'm not so sure why it is we continue to listen to the patient when she refuses our offers of help. If she had appendicitis, we would take her to the emergency room no matter how much she said she didn't want to go. If she broke her leg, we'd make sure it was set. Why, then, do we allow her clouded judgment to keep us from getting the help she needs to get away from substance abuse? Of all times, this is the critical time for us NOT to listen to someone with such impaired decision-making skills.

As I said, I am afraid that her parents' embarrassment, and anger, will keep them from making the right choice. I think they are hoping that some friend will talk to her and suddenly she'll just decide to stop what she's doing because it isn't cool. Well, that won't happen. It hasn't happened in more than 21 years and there's no indication that any friend's comments will be able to overcome her addictions.

I'm going to go out into the sunshine for a while and think about this some more. There's so much going on with family. And I feel like the planet Pluto -- out on the periphery, caught up orbiting the sun but so far removed from it that I can barely see its light. Ah, yet another painful part of being without my own nuclear family.

When I come back, I'll have some good stories to tell. More stories about epiphanal living that just blow me away. It's amazing what you can learn about people in a short conversation.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

A Kick in the Pants

This week Dr. Phil has dealt with a couple of topics that hit home with me -- one concerning the "black sheep" of the family and the other being "Real Talent? Or Get Real!"

I see a connection between the two, a junction where, it seems, I may have set up a lounge chair and planted myself the past couple of years. I think it's a pretty good thing I had the chance to see these two shows this week.

I don't really consider myself the black sheep of the family. I have a cousin, just a little older than me, who has clinched the title fair and square. Said cousin has been the sacrificial lamb for all the family's dysfunction, a role she's embraced with great gusto. In the previous generation, it was an uncle, and before him, a great uncle.

The problem with a shrinking family is that there's only a couple of kids in the following generation (one clearly will be the black sheep of that generation). And so far, there's only one newborn baby in the generation after that (hard to say this: it would be the generation of my grandchildren, if I had any!)

Though the "black sheep" title seems to have been assigned, I have kind of stepped out of my expected role, probably causing plenty of eye-rolling and tongue-wagging behind my back.

You see, I had the audacity to leave my straight-and-narrow road. I quit a very good job, not to take another one, but "to pursue other interests."

My plan -- my dream -- was to write a book and do volunteer work that I could not do while working. But like so many people who plan to write The Great American Novel, I scared myself, very badly.

I started out, convinced that this was just a new job I was taking on. I would create my own structure, set my own schedule and go about the work of writing like any business.

Um, yeah...

You see, I was well prepared and equipped to do my former, regular job. I knew what to do and how to do it. I'd had years of training and education and decades of experience. I could claim my expertise, rightly.

Even though it was a semi-related field (writing and editing), it was completely different from the discipline of writing a book. Arrogance and ego ran smack into inexperience and ignorance. Ouch.

This is hard to confess, friends. I have written a lot during this period. But it's been a mish-mash. I've done regular freelancing on a weekly basis (sorry, I would be exposing other people's work personae if I explained what I do more specifically). It's hard and interesting work, but at least it doesn't pay well.

Other than that, I've written personal essays which could be chapters for a book. But there is no structure. I've done it willy-nilly rather than with a plan. I might be able to salvage big chunks and put them together, but I need to start again and do it right.

So here comes the part from the second show, about real talent or get real...

Dr. Phil had invited several people who had big dreams to be actors, singers or some other "star". They were all certain they could succeed in the dream job if they could only get the chance to prove it.

Nevermind that they hadn't trained for the work, or seriously explored what it takes to succeed. They were just "sure" that their native talent would overcome any and all obstacles, if only their loved ones would pay attention for a minute and SEE how great they are.

Well, it was embarrassing for them to get truthful criticism and evaluation on the show. They were hurt, angry, humiliated.

So the realization hits me that I needed that kick in the pants. I've been fooling myself (almost). And that's about all.

I've had to come to terms with the fact that I've been squandering my time, which is a sin, I believe. You see, in 1990 I nearly died and had to have an emergency surgery. It was a very bad time for me. Yep, I had a near-death experience, complete with seeing the light and hearing God's voice. Thanks be to Him that what he said was "Not yet." I was sent back to this world with the message "Redeem Your Time."

I woke up this morning with that message repeating in my mind. And so today I started over, started anew to accept the gifts that I've been given. It means getting serious -- either get this book written or get my tail back to work in some productive manner. Start earning my keep again, so to speak. Stop squandering my time.

I'm working on sharpening my ax, so to speak. I spent a chunk of time at the library seeking inspiration and information. I'm refocusing my attention and intentions to do this.

And now, I've exposed this secret to you guys. Wish me luck and determination, OK? Thanks.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Let's Go Shopping!

I have a rule: Never pass up shopping at an authen-tically quaint country store, if you can help it.

Vaughn's Orchard in Weston, Mo., is one of those places. My Aunt Dot introduced me to Vaughn's last year, I believe (maybe the year before.)

It is real -- not a characature of a "country store" kind of place. It's a real orchard, with rolling hills filled with apple trees pruned to produce the best fruit on strong branches. You can pay a small fee and pick your own or buy a bag or box inside. All they ask is that you not waste food if you do go picking.

Inside there's a separate area for the apple sorting machinery. With supervision, they give tours during the working season, which kids love to watch.

The apples are off-loaded on the conveyor belt and then the machine sorts by size as employees pick out bad ones. At Thanksgiving, the season is over and the orchard is doing its maintenance work to shut down for the winter.

Back inside the store, you'll find all manner of treasures from cured hams hanging from the ceiling to gourmet delicacies in the freezers.

Shelves are stocked with jams, jellies, butters, relishes, sauces and dressings. All the good things of life! Some special treats: genuine Vermont maple syrup bottled in tiny, delicate art bottles made in Italy. They are works of art that satisfy the eye as well as the taste buds.

Margaret may be there to help box up your goodies, but don't forget to look upstairs.

They also sell some decorative items and antiques upstairs. This time of year, they've got a Christmas tree set up in one corner, decorated with apple ornaments.

The apples may be gone for this year, but they will be back! Count on it. Meanwhile, 'tis the season to turn our attentions to home and hearth. Pick up some goodies to make it more fun. I did! (Don't go telling, but I did my Christmas shopping while I was at Vaughn's.)

Oh, one more thing: Vaughn's has a glass jar on the counter that holds miniature Cherry Mash candy bars. Mmmmm good. I've always loved Cherry Mash but the small ones are every bit as satisfying as the bigger ones. And they are made just down the road in St. Joseph, Mo. Someday we may do a tour of St. Joseph -- but not today.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Weston, Mo. -- A Spirited Town

Welcome! Let's get in the mood for Christmas, shall we? Today we stop at Weston, Mo., a village of about 1400 people in Northwest Missouri.

Weston has a long, colorful history. It's situated on the Missouri River, just on the east side across from Leavenworth, Kansas. It was a part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and Lewis and Clark made part of their journey through Weston.

The river has been the lifeblood of the land around Weston. Not only did the river open up paths for trade, but it also contributed to the rich, fertile farmland (some of which has been in my family since the Civil War.) Some of the crops of this area are tobacco, hemp, corn and soybeans. Weston was a major tobacco trade center until recently, when the last tobacco sales barn closed on the west side.

Weston has been hit hard by several disasters. First, in 1855, a fire destroyed most of the downtown area. Three years later, in 1858, the river changed course and flooded the town, destroying the port. And third, the issue of slavery during the Civil War ripped the area apart.
Platte County, Mo., was very much a slave county, immediately adjacent to Kansas, formed as an abolitionist state. Kansas became known as "Bleeding Kansas" during the Quantrill raids on Lawrence, Kansas. The whole area saw bloodshed during the border war between Missouri and Kansas.

The population had grown from 300 in 1840 to 5,000 in 1854. After the turmoil of the 1850s and 1860s, a mere 900 residents remained in 1870.

Today, Weston, like many small towns, is capitalizing on its history. A historic building which once was home to river boat captains and traders is being converted to luxury apartments.

The St. George was supposed to open in late summer, but workmen were working hard the day after Thanksgiving.

These days, spirits other than historic figures keep the town going. Weston is home to McCormick Distillery. There's a gift shop downtown that sells some of the wares.

Just down the road from the distillery is one of the area's many wineries, Pirtle Winery.
The winery is housed in an old German Lutheran Evangelical Church. The owners offer wine tasting daily. Pirtle's is best known for its mead, which is a honey wine. Several gift items are also sold at the winery.

By Thanksgiving, area residents are loading freshly cut Christmas trees on top of their cars and merchants have decorated for the holiday. The street downtown is crowded with shoppers taking in the Victorian atmosphere that has been recreated in the 21st Century.

Shop owners have a competition to decorate their store windows around a theme.

Here's one who used the Dr. Seuss book, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Huge green hands came down from the ceiling on each side of the window, ready to snatch the goodies on display.

But you know, there's always a good reason for every action, don't you think?

No holiday visit to Weston is complete without a visit with Father Christmas. He makes his first appearance each year at Weston's Open House, held in early November.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery

Leavenworth, Kansas, is a significant little town for several reasons. It was located on both the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail (look for markers around town with information on Lewis and Clark and the trails.) And it was established as a cantonment in the 1820s to protect trade routes after Mexico gained its independence from Spain.

It was a key location for the U.S. government in quelling Indian uprisings and was in the thick of the bloody border wars between Kansas and Missouri during the Civil War.

Leavenworth became a city two weeks after Kansas was opened for settlement in 1854.

Today it is home to the Army's Fort Leavenworth, Saint Mary College, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. (Side note: My mom was never good at following directions, and more often than not would wind up at the penitentiary any time she tried driving to the family farm in Northwest Missouri. Ah, she never could get the hang of "TURN RIGHT! NOT LEFT!" in the directions.)

Leavenworth is also the location of the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, adjacent to the V.A. Medical Center.

More than 22,000 soldiers and their qualifying dependents are buried here. The soldiers were interred here starting as early as 1827 when malaria and other diseases started claiming lives of those in the cantonment.

Among those buried here are Union soldiers, seven Confederate prisoners of war, 12 American Indians whose bodies were found during the building of the V.A. Medical Center (relocated to a mass grave -- the only one in the cemetery). Over the years, thousands of soldiers' remains were moved to the cemetery from other locations.

Row upon row of white head-stones covers the 36 acres dedicated to the ceme-tery.

About four years ago, I visited the cemetery with a Missouri historian. We came upon an area on the north side, below a hill, where hundreds of concrete vaults were stored. I tried to find them, to show a photo of how many burials they were prepared to perform. There are no vaults stored there now -- they have all been used.

On the way

There are several ways of getting to the farm from OKC. This time I took the Kansas Turnpike to Bonner Springs, then went up through Lansing and Leavenworth, Kansas. I kind of wanted to take the old way in so I could go "Over the River and Through the Woods." Oh yeah, I picked this particular spot because it fits the bill, but there is another "extra" reason...

Beverly had postal service from 1946 to 1960. Now, there's one antique store there and another business that changes often. I think it was a bar this time, but I can't remember for sure.
It's located at the intersection of the Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific R. R., and the Kansas City, St. Joseph & Council Bluffs R. R. It is six miles west of Platte City, where residents now have to go to vote. It's classified as a "hamlet." Cool. I like being named for a hamlet. I don't think anyone lives in Beverly any more. Platte City actually claims the antique store. To give you an idea about the size of the area, Platte City (the "big" place in this whole area) has a population of 3,700. Camden Point, where my family is centered, has 343 residents. Platte City's claim to fame is its courthouse, built in 1866. Bonnie and Clyde were convicted there in 1933 after a bar gunfight.

There's some powerful interesting history in this area from the Civil War. But that's all for another time, in another format.

Wednesday morning in Missouri

When I awoke Wednesday morning, there was no rain. It was a beautiful, crisp, sunny morning, with 7 inches of snow on the ground that fell between 1 and 7 a.m. Here's Buck, (all 125 pounds of him) eating a big face-full of snow at my aunt and uncle's house.

My cousin and her husband and I had stayed at a motel in the next tiny town from the family farm, about 9 miles away, and drove back to my aunt and uncle's house on gravel country roads. It wasn't too bad, but we were all taken by surprise. The power had gone off at their house for several hours during the night. But we enjoyed the beautiful, quiet serenity of the snow-covered country and took advantage of the moment to shoot Christmas card photos. Each year of their marriage, my cousin and her husband have had a photo taken together to send out. If you promise not to tell, I'll show you the one I took for them this year. If you get one in the mail, act surprised, OK?

We had a hectic day Wed-nesday, and I wasn't able to get away to shoot some beautiful snow pictures like I wanted to. But at the end of the day, I was outside getting a breather just as the moon was rising over the east field. I was happy.

Fall's nearly over

Around the neigh-borhood.

"Bob and Larry" looking a little worn out on my front porch.

The collage of leaves which cover my front yard. P.S., don't forget to clean your gutters once the leaves stop falling at your house.

These were all taken Tuesday as I was leaving town for Thanksgiving. It was a rainy day -- I battled rain and fog all the way to Missouri.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Epiphanal living

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we're about to enter the period of the church year called Advent.

Advent is the period of time which covers the four Sundays before Christmas. It's a time of preparation for the coming Savior, sometimes marked by prayer and fasting. In my church it is also a period of study and is one of the periods of activities specifically for families. It's a way of helping children understand that there is a spiritual aspect to the Christmas holiday as well as a chance to pile up a bunch of loot.

We were talking about the paradox of the Christmas season in Sunday school class. Some of my friends in our singles Sunday school class are parents, trying to co-parent with former spouses. They confessed that they often feel a competition with their children's other parents and family members, trying to come up with the most presents. They're often over-stressed by multiple commitments in a short period of time as well as the need to perform perfectly and stage a Martha Stewart-type presentation.

What's missing? Could it be that the Savior came as an infant so we'd be forced to listen carefully? Are we missing the quiet and time to listen to the Quiet Voice?

I have to confess that my Christmas holidays have never been a pleasant experience. In my childhood, Christmas was sometimes shared with cousins and grandparents in Missouri. I loved my time spent with cousins, but the gatherings always added another layer of criticism and punishments from my grandmother.

I was raised in an athiest household, so my only exposure to the spiritual aspects of Christmas came from my Aunt Dot and the time spent at the Christian Church of Camden Point, Mo. I remember being stunned to attend a Christmas eve gathering at the church. Santa was there and had presents for all the children. I figured since I didn't go to church I would just sit quietly until it was time to go home. But Santa called my name that night! He had a present for me!

This was the second time I had gotten a present at a gathering away from my house. When I was 6, there was a family Christmas party at Conoco in Ponca City, where my Dad worked. It was a pretty heartbreaking affair, I think especially for my mother. The children all received a mesh stocking filled with hard candy and an orange. Then there were boy gifts and girl gifts. My "gift" from the company was a three-inch-tall hard plastic doll that was broken to pieces when I unwrapped it. I was disappointed, but my poor Mom nearly started crying. My big gift that year was a pair of shoes -- she had stood me on the dining table on top of a piece of paper and had traced my feet so "Santa" would know for sure what size shoes to bring me.

So it's foreign to me to think about the abuse of children through overindulgence at Christmas. And indeed, that's what I consider over-gifting -- abuse. Excess creates greed and a sense of entitlement. It's also overwhelming for children to have so many things that they can't focus on or appreciate any one item.

Maybe it's because of my earlier experiences -- being thrilled by a simple gift in that tiny Christian church one Christmas -- but for me the gift of the holiday is found in quiet, listening to that tiny, quiet voice of the One who came to be the ultimate gift for us all.

Taking that time for quiet reflection can also open the door to Epiphany, the time that comes right after Christmas. Epiphany is, simply, that "Aha!" moment when you finally "get it." It's the lightbulb moment when one sees with greater clarity the lesson in a moment or an experience.

Though we're not to Epiphany, the season, I've been witness this week to people who are living what I call epiphanal lives. There has been something in their life such as an illness or a spiritual awareness that has caused them to turn their lives in new directions.

One is a woman in western Oklahoma who owned and ran a restaurant with her husband. A year ago, she started studying artwork and learning to paint with oils. About the same time, they moved into their dream home -- an extraordinary home sited over a creek with red rock bluffs. The roots of 100-year-old burr oaks on the facing bank are as entwined as the couple's love.

Just as the couple was moving into their new home, her mother died. And within four months, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and had a heart attack. A defibrilator was inserted in her chest to shock her heart back to life if it stops.

She told me her prognosis is not very good as she gave me a tour of her home. She showed me the great room which was actually built out over the creek, cantilevered above the bluff with glass walls on both sides. Then we moved to her art studio, just off the gourmet kitchen.

But the part of her home she was most excited to show me was her shower, in the master bath.

"Go on through the curtains," she urged me. I started to poke my head through the shower curtain just to take a peek when she planted a hand on my back and shoved me on through.

I found myself standing in a space roughly the size of a car wash, with three separate shower heads (one was a rain shower, another a waterfall, the third a massaging spray) and steam. I'd estimate the shower room was about 10 x 10 feet. We sat on the built-in bench which easily could seat four people.

I giggled at the absurdity of it all as she started up the steam and told me how she could add different aromatherapy oils to a little inlet. She talked about the parties they've held in the house and how, at times, she and her girlfriends would sneak off for a little steam and a few glasses of wine.

"We've had up to 12 people in here at a time," she said.

About that time we heard the male voices of those we had left in the great room, looking for us. There was her husband, the architect, an attorney and the photographer who was working with me. We hollered for them to join us, and pretty soon we were all chatting -- until we all stopped in the same instant, realizing we were in the shower, for gosh sake.

So then we moved to the patio and the outdoor fireplace, which she called the most sensuous part of the house. "You can feel the companionism of the fire," she said. I loved the way she expressed it.

Though she acknowledges her physical being may not last forever, she said she intends to make her remaining time one wild ride. She has devoted herself to her art and has every intention of being the best artist she can be.

I'd say she is well on her way. She had a show opening in 50 Penn Place the day we visited her home. Not bad for a novice who had never painted a year ago.


The next epiphanal life I encountered was the next night at a benefit concert in Kingfisher at the middle school. Two bands (made up mostly of the same people) were performing. The first set was the bluegrass band (The Bonham Revue). Incredible music played for a small crowd in the auditorium of the middle school. After an intermission with some reconfiguring, they reappeared as City Moon, a country-western band. One of our guys from the singles group is in the bands, so a group of 10 of us made a road trip to listen. Despite small numbers, they raised a honkin' big amount of cash to benefit a woman with sky-normous medical bills.

Aside from whooping and hollerin' to the music, we talked with some of the other guys in the band. They were telling us about some of the off-stage stunts they pull on each other during performances trying to crack each other up. They've got things right: Music and performing have to be fun or there's no point in doing it.

On the trip home, my friend (who's engaged to our band pal) was telling me about the banjo player who was pulling the most stunts that night. I asked about his day job. Turns out he started out as a stock broker and now is some sort of administrator/bean counter at a hospital in an eastern Oklahoma town.

He, too, has experienced the epiphany and found music as his creative outlet. Actually, all the guys in the band have. They all have day jobs running the gamut. But they've been pulled together by a small voice, with a definite musical flare. And they prove my theory that music is often a prayer that reaches the parts of the heart that words cannot touch.


The last epiphanal life came to me as a story being told by a girlfriend on our drive to the benefit concert. A friend of hers needed to pick up a gift while they were out shopping and wanted to go to a particular candy store well known for its chocolate.

The proprietor seemed especially content with life, meeting all her customers with a cheerful conversation and extraordinary service.

"I used to be a baker," she said, out of the blue. "But one day I woke up and decided I liked chocolate better."

She said she makes less money and works much harder now, but she's much happier. Chocolate will do that for you.

So will listening to the Quiet Voice.

Can you hear it?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

TV with impact

Did you guys know I'm a Nielsen household? Well, I am. I've been asked three times to keep a diary of my TV watching. I'll be putting my latest diaries in the mail tomorrow. Y'all should be scared if people really pay attention to what we report collectively as the TV viewing of the American public.

That aside, today (which was not part of my reporting period) was an interesting day for television. Two programs in particular had quite an impact on me. First was Oprah Winfrey, whose topic today was "How Clean Is Your House." Featured was a woman whose house was so filthy she had not allowed anyone inside for two years. Her pets had turned her house into a toilet, and she had not washed dishes probably during that whole time. Her floor was carpeted with nearly new clothes -- it was simply easier for her to buy new ones than to do her laundry. I won't even describe the scenes that made me wretch.

I'll do a separate post later about why this program was so important. I think, personally, that Oprah hit the nail on the head when she said to the woman that she needs ongoing psychological help to deal with the issues that got her to that point. But I also think that pronouncement was not particularly newsworthy to the woman and definitely was not a helpful comment. There are avenues of help available, which I'll discuss in the next post on the topic.

The other program that blew me away was on ABC -- a Prime Time special with Peter Jennings interviewing President Clinton at the opening of the Clinton Library in Arkansas. What an interview! My favorite part was when Clinton laid blame squarely at Jennings' and ABC's feet for their coverage of Ken Starr's garbage regarding the White Water investigation.

ER (the program, not the blogger) is on NBC right now. I have always loved this show but I'm starting to feel like it's run its course. During the commercials I'll be doing intense spurts of housekeeping. I feel like WATCHING television, not BEING ON it. And I can feel the Oprah producers peering through my windows, just in case...

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Freedom to think and write

We would all like to think that we're free to write about whatever we want to on our blogs without fear of having to explain or justify our thoughts. This is one reason we use aliases. The down side is, we sometimes have to invite people to come read our blogs in order to get responses and feedbacks. We want it all -- the freedom to say what we'd like to, without getting gigged about it, and yet having an audience that will respond.

This is a painful conflict at times. For example, my post below about lost love. I thought I made it clear in the disclaimer there that I DID NOT WANT TO BE CONTACTED (off blog) about my thoughts. It was not clear enough.

So I am posting this link, which I found on Southern Belle's site. It gives a great explanation about some of the unspoken etiquette of blogging. This is a new world and the rules aren't widely known (if indeed we may assume there is an etiquette involved in anonymous or semi-anonymous writing. I DO make that assumption in some cases, and expect to have those wishes to be left alone respected.)

Anyway, I hope this link and the information contained in the disclosure prove to be helpful and useful. I'm also posting it in my side menu for future references. And anyone who agrees and would like to have a similar link on their site may get a button from the site itself.


Monday, November 15, 2004

Three-Alarm Decisions

Disclaimer: The thoughts below are just that: thoughts. I have no intention of acting on these thoughts; I have no intentions of ever speaking them to anyone who has been in my life in the past. In no way would I want these thoughts to be interpreted as a signal that I am predatory or have designs on anyone who is off limits. OK? So don't even start with me. Don't ask me for details. These are, simply, thoughts. The end.

Sometimes there are critical points in our lives when we make decisions that have lifelong consequences. And some of those critical points come at times when we don't have a damned clue about how to make those choices.

We can be impulsive and jump into situations that are no good for us and wind up in a world of hurt. This includes getting drunk and trying to drive home from a party, and hurting or killing people. At best, we may realize we have no idea how we got from point A to point B, which is 50 miles from our intended destination of point C. If we're smart after being this stupid, we wind up being so scared that we learn not to do this again. Peeing in your pants when you wake up driving 65 mph on a strange road is still preferable to crashing into another car and killing someone else's friend, mother, or lover.

Six times in my life I've had to bury people who were close to me after someone got into a car in that state. That's too many people to lose to Jose Cuervo, my friends.

We can also over -think decisions to the point we make "safe" choices that are no good for us. And just like losing someone in a drunken driving accident, we can pass up the chance for the great love of our lives.

I was 18 years old – a freshman in college living in the dorm. In 1973, it was a big deal to have “co-ed” dorms; pretty tame by today’s standards considering the guys and girls were separated by an elevator lobby.

He had come to see my roommate, one of his high-school classmates. She was on her way to some sorority party so we got the briefest of introductions. We discovered we had other mutual friends, and soon we were wrapped up in a conversation that lasted for hours. He lived on the other side of my dorm floor, so we ran into each other often and got caught up talking.

At some point he caught my gaze with the darkest brown eyes I’d ever seen, and wouldn’t let go. The kiss that followed was repeated, often, during the next four years.

Passion was kept in check by ambition. We both had strong drives to do well in school and lay the groundwork for our futures. I’d been taught by my parents, especially by my dad, that it was ultimately important that I be able to support myself without needing to rely on a man to take care of me. Absolutely nothing was to get in the way of my becoming a modern, independent woman in their eyes.

And so I remained both obedient and rebellious.

My parents didn’t discourage me from drinking. They did teach me to be responsible about it and said they’d rather have me drink a fifth at home than a beer somewhere on the road. So I remained sober until that fall freshman year, when one fateful night I drank a pint of Bacardi rum mixed with Coke. Every drop. While keeping a diary.

Like I’ve said, I don’t believe in drinking and driving. So I walked that night – from one side of the room to the other, on top of the furniture to avoid touching the floor. My roommates caught me walking on top of a desk when they came home that night and tried to put me to bed. I didn’t understand the physiology of what I was doing – it made no sense – but as soon as they would put me into my bed, I was springing up and walking again. I thought the bed was launching me like a catapult.

They almost had me down in bed again before they realized I was getting sick. They kind of guided me to the bathroom where I spent the rest of the night, locked in.

Mr. Brown Eyes came the next day to visit and heard part of the story from the roommates. The rest he deciphered from the diary. He kindly pointed out that by the end of the notebook, I was writing one letter per page.

It was an awakening moment, after I sobered up. I realized I could have died of alcohol poisoning. And I realized I would be like the alcoholics on both sides of my family if I didn’t put a stop to this right now. That fateful pint pretty well sealed my decision not to drink as an adult.

So with renewed vision, my resolve was strengthened and I remained committed to my goals during the remainder of my college career. I drew the line with alcohol, as well as sex.

As tempted as I was by those brown eyes, we never crossed a certain line. And I was tempted, powerfully tempted. But we had each said there was too much at stake to take the chances of being derailed by the byproducts of lust. OK, I said that more than he did. His fear was being thrown off his career path by love.

Countless times I can remember telling him that I had no intention of getting married and starting a family until I was established in my career. Countless times he vocalized his fears that I was born to be the soccer mom with the wood-paneled station wagon (this was pre-mini-van days). I scoffed at the “domestic” label, even when I baked him a birthday cake from scratch and made a fancy swirled pattern in the frosting.

I realized the depth of his fear when I saw his face blanch at the sight of that cake. On one hand, he was touched by the gesture, but his male eyes (those beautiful, dark brown male eyes) must have seen shackles reaching out from that cake.

We continued our push-me-pull-you entanglement through our senior year, and even the summer after graduation. The bittersweet end came when he had to leave the state to go to graduate school.

Even to the end, we played the game. Completely drawn to each other, fighting to resist the powerful, unexplainable magnetism, we continued to spout all the reasons why we couldn’t, we just couldn’t, there are good reasons why we can’t, we can’t, we can’t.

And we didn’t. We couldn’t.

We couldn’t let go of reason long enough to listen to love. In the 30 years since then, I’ve often wondered if he would have changed his mind if I had changed mine and simply admitted what I felt for him.

It’s only now, this minute, that I’m able to cry about it. How different would our lives have been? I dare not think of it too much. Everything would have been different. But we did what we did and life is what it became.

So many friends fought this same battle and lost the fight. Many started their families in a moment of passion mixed with abandon and an open, loving heart that allowed them to set reason aside. Several of my girlfriends had to drop out of high school because of pregnancies. Every one of them is still married to the same man. The ones betrayed by biology in college are together as well, and now are grandparents.


I scarce can believe it because I never did become the soccer mom. I got so good at avoiding love – seeing it as a weakness -- that I didn’t marry until I was 32. It was a disaster that ended a mere three years later, with no children born.

The rest of my family is gone now, so I remain alone.

My brown-eyed sweetheart has been very successful in his career, I've learned. He
found the love of his life in grad school and they’ve remained married all these years. They have three children, the youngest in high school, probably fighting her own battles now.

I hope every minute of their time together has been happy beyond words.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Chili tonight, hot tamale

We're having a chili cook-off at church tonight. My entry is simmering away, almost ready. This is an annual event we have to introduce all the new members who have joined the church in the past year. It's also a good-spirited competition to see who can garner the most votes for their crockpot concoctions. The categories are 1, 2 or 3-alarm chili. Mostly the men like the kind that can blister paint.

We do get some interesting entries, using a variety of meats or other ingredients. Mine is plain-ol' plain-ol. I'm not looking to win a prize, but in my 11 years in the church I've never taken a crock of chili and I felt like I was taking advantage.

Many folks bring a muffin tin so they can sample small amounts of several varieties. We're expecting 22+ crocks tonight.

I wanted to warn y'all that I've got a blog entry cooking in my head, too, that is ever so much more spicy and steamy than my chili. The ingredients will include passion and longing and decisions made long, long ago that changed lives. You've been warned... I'll give you time to digest this while you decide if you're up to a 3-alarm post.

See you later this evening.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Seeking the warmth

A friend of mine was in town for an appointment today so we had a late lunch together at Cracker Barrel. I love Cracker Barrel -- I know it's marketing and as my mother said the one time I took her there, "It's a tourist trap full of crap." OK mom, but I like it. I love the food, and I could shop there for a couple of hours every time I go in. In fact, I usually do. Like today.

Friend needed to find some small gifts for a Secret Santa exchange at her work. She hasn't participated in this kind of exchange before and really, wanted nothing to do with it. I offered to help, feeling confident that we could find several small, inexpensive items that would be appropriate.

So off to Cracker Barrel we went.

First, we fortified ourselves with a hearty, warm lunch. Chicken and dumplings with okra and fried apples for me. Chicken and rice for her. We were both sated and happy for the second phase of our mission.

After we paid our dinner checks, we mosied around the store half. Perfect time for our efforts -- there are Christmas ornaments galore for sale right now. The Halloween items and almost all the Thanksgiving things have been pushed off to the discount corner where prices are cut 50 percent to 75 percent. Oh, but back to Christmas...

My initial suggestion was to get several of the old-fashioned candies and treats that you can only find at Cracker Barrel and other nostalgia vendors these days. Ah, first snag... so many people are diabetic these days that candy is a no-no. OK, continue.

Here's another thought: They carry Yankee Candles (my personal favorite! my preferred scent being Home Sweet Home, but I also like Sage and Citrus and Midnight Dream. Today I picked up a Harvest votive.) Oh, but not for the exchange. Too many people allergic to scents. Hmmm. This is getting tougher.

Next suggestion: Old fashioned toys, like a Slinky, or a kazoo, or ...

There it was. A bottle of bubbles waiting to be blown. Ka-ching, we have our first sale!

The kazoo also made it into the shopping basket, but alas, the Slinky, at $5, was a little over the budget.

Next was the bonanza. There are several small Christmas trees set up among the sale displays, each containing a particular collection of ornaments. Bingo! We quickly find some really, really cute ornaments that complete our job. She's happy. I'm thrilled.

We pay for the purchase -- five items for less than $8. THEN the clerk says "Would you like those gift wrapped, for free?"

Our eyes and mouths opened wide and we said in unison: "YEAH! HOW COOL!"

A good half-hour later, our tiny little purchases are individually dressed boxes wrapped in rustic gift paper with small burgandy bows. Cute as can be. Getting the wrapped packages will be as much fun as opening them for the presents inside, I'm thinking. Very good.

So let me suggest it to you. If you're hunting for gift ideas, go have a good, better-than-home-cooked dinner at Cracker Barrel, then browse the store. Get your friends some good candy, some almonds or cashews or peanuts. Then check out the toy section for checkers, Slinkies, Wheel-Os and board games for anyone and everyone. Pick up a CD of nostalgic music, gospel songs or old radio programs. And let them wrap it all up for you, for free.

You can even get a holiday dinner to go, complete with pie.

They're open for Thanksgiving, serving the whole meal with dessert for less than $10 a person. Count on the lines being long. Maybe I'll see you by the fireplace.