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Family Life | Mary Biever | One Writing Mother
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A Sew Sew Blog (or Death by Needlepoint)

Me-maw's sewing patternsphoto © 2010 Jamie | more info (via: Wylio)
I hate needles. Not the shot kind, but the sewing kind. When I was a kid, we had a Buttoneer, so I never had to sew on a button. I’m so bad at alterations, even with scotch tape and duck tape, that God gave me a mother-in-law who is a professional seamstress.

I took shop instead of home economics and have never sewn anything or learned how. I’m so bad at sewing that my children knew it the moment they were born. As soon as they could talk, if a sock got a hole or a knee needed patching, they put the mending back and brought it out when Grandma came for a visit.

I thought I had it made. Until my daughter inherited her grandma’s passion to sew. Fine and dandy at first – Grandma gave her sewing lessons, and I didn’t even have to look at the sewing machine I inherited from my great-aunt.

Grandma was a perfectionist with a lifetime of tailoring experience – she willingly shared her expertise. And she controlled herself pretty well when my son decided to slide coins into her backstitcher like a piggy bank – we were saved when Richard took it apart and removed all the money – and it still worked afterwards.

My daughter took the sewing project through 4-H. But I got too comfortable in my nest of mediocrity…

The first problem was when I made the mistake of taking my daughter shopping a few years ago for a supplies. She wanted to make a Christmas tree skirt. Patterns scare me. The list of materials required can give me hives. Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth, asked the help of our sales clerk, and got all the notions and stuff to go with the skirt. By the time we bought all the tassles and beads, it cost almost $100. Oh well.

Then Grandma saw the pattern and supplies. A week at a time, I began to realize what a bad job I had done of selecting a pattern with my daughter. The tree skirt was 6 feet in diameter, with a radius of 3 feet. Each section had hand embroidery and beading on it. Then, after it was pieced together, a bottom layer was created to contrast with it. Then it had to be hand quilted. Finally, tassles were put on it.

That tree skirt probably took 75 to 100 hours to complete in time for 4-H fair entry. By the last 40 hours, it was most definitely not a labor of love. She did finish the skirt, it won champion, and then it won special merit at the State Fair.

The only problem is the skirt’s too big. So it sits in storage, waiting for my daughter to one day have a living room large enough for her giant, beautiful tree skirt.

The saga was so unpleasant that my daughter quit sewing for 4 years. This year, she decided to try again – to sew her spring formal.

Once again, I ventured to the fabric store with her. The helpful clerk translated the notions on the pattern. Only later have I learned that we bought Brand V patterns, which may say easy but are hard. And that dress that looks so pretty on the front of the pattern has a complex pattern of pleats, combined with boning and completed with a full lining underneath.

This time, a friend offered to help my daughter make the dress.  She said nothing of how hard the pattern was; I didn’t discover until I saw them working through a sew day.

Thanks to my friend and mother-in-law, who have filled in my sew sew gap. You have given my daughter skills I could never teach her. Her formal is beautiful, thanks to the skills you have given her which I obviously lack.

As of my second strike, I’m officially retiring from the pattern shopping business. 

Life’s too short for a death by needlepoint.

Starting Sourdough

Sourdough starter, day 2photo © 2010 Miles Goodhew | more info (via: Wylio)
Each year, I see families start making friendship bread and discover the sourdough becomes like the sorcerer’s apprentice. They look for people to give starters to and how to handle all that it makes. Then they get tired of it and throw it all out.

Instead of relying on sourdough for only one recipe, why not make a starter, feed it, and incorporate it into varied recipes? In addition to pizza dough, my family likes sourdough coffeecake and bread. Sometimes I make pancakes or biscuits as well. 

Sourdough Basics and Coffeecake

Choose a container to keep your starter. I use a plastic butter tub and mark the lid with a sharpie. Don’t use metal containers or spoons.

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup milk 

Day 1 – mix starter in a large bowl and cover loosely.  (I use plastic bowl and wooden spoon – not metal.)

Days 2, 3, and 4 – stir daily

Day 5 – add 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, and 1 cup milk.  Stir until smooth.

Day 6, 7 and 8 – stir daily

Day 9 – Feed again with 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar and 1 cup milk.  Stir until smooth.

This ferments and stirring daily stirs it down.  After the dough is built up, you can refrigerate.  You need to take it out every so often and feed it.  I usually take it out of the refrigerator and let it get to room temperature, feed it and then bake it out of it 2-3 days later.  Then feed it and let it work 2-3 days.  After sourdough has fermented, if your budget is tight, feed with 1 part flour and 1 part water.  Example if you use 2 cups starter, replace with 1 ½ cups flour and 1 ½ cups water.  Do not use a metal bowl or spoon.

If your starter starts to grow mold, throw it out. If you see dark liquid pooling on top, that is “hootch.” You can either throw it out or stir it back in.

Sourdough Coffee Cake 

This coffeecake was a staple at my daughter’s preschool. I love the recipe because the ingredients are simple, and it’s easy to make.

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ tsp. Baking soda
  • ½ tsp. Salt
  • ¼ cup oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla
  • 1 ¼ cup sourdough starter

Mix with hand mixer just until well blended.  Pour into a buttered 9 x 13 inch pan.  Sprinkle on the topping.  Then drizzle melted butter on top.  Bake for 20 minutes at 325 degrees or until done.

Coffee Cake Topping

  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 T flour
  • 1 tsp. Cinnamon
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • ½ cup chopped nuts (optional) 

Mix together.  This is enough topping for 2 coffee cakes unless you like a lot of topping.

My Favorite Pizza Crust Recipe

A crisp pizza crustphoto © 2009 SallyK | more info (via: Wylio)
Sometimes I post that I’m making pizza crust, and people ask for the recipe. Here goes – this recipe is doubled because I have a 14-year-old son who has an enormous appetite. So you could cut the recipe in half.

Often, friends begin making friendship or sourdough bread in the wintertime and have no idea how to use up all the sourdough they make. I use the starter to make biscuits, coffeecake, bread, and my family’s favorite – pizza crust.

I mix the crust in my Kitchenaid.

Mary’s Sourdough Pizza Crust

  • 2 cups warm water
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 4 T yeast
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup sourdough starter

Put warm water into mixer with yeast, oil, salt, and sugar. Add starter. Alternate flours, 1 cup at a time, mixing until the dough is fully formed, with all flour absorbed into the dough. Depending on your humidity level, you may need more or less flour. Your sourdough starter may be thicker or thinner and also require an adjustment of either water or flour.  That is why you add 1 cup of flour at a time and let each cup absorb while the mixer continued working.

Mix the dough until it is a ball and when you turn off the mixer, you can push your finger or a spoon into the dough about an inch, and the dough begins to bounce back. Once the dough is made, put it into an oiled bowl, cover with a cotton tea cloth, and let rise for at least 1 hour.

When dough has finished rising, knead it for a few moments before rolling into crusts. (Do NOT skip this kneading, about 60 seconds – you will have a much better crust if you follow this step.) Preheat oven to 425. Cut the dough into thirds and roll out 3 pizza pans of dough. Spray the pizza pans with nonstick cooking spray and sprinkle with 1 tsp. cornmeal before placing crust on the pan. Pierce the crust with a fork to reduce the air bubbles. I like to braid the crust edges before topping the pizza because I think it looks nicer. Cover with sauce and toppings and bake until cheese is browned.

Note on the flours: You can use all-purpose flour for the full amount. However, I have found that mixing the two gives a better texture – best described as a slicker texture between the crust and the toppings. I do not like pizza doughs made entirely with bread flour. Sometimes, I use 2 cups of whole wheat flour for part of the all-purpose mixture. However, my family doesn’t like it.

Note on pizza sauce: 1 pint of sauce is enough for 3 pizzas. Each year, I can our own pizza sauce from our own tomatoes but always run out. The most cost-effective way to have pizza sauce, if you buy it ready-made, is to buy an industrial-size can (my favorite is Ragu from Sam’s). Then measure 1 pint each into 1 quart freezer bags. Freeze the bags flat and label them with the date of freezing. Freeze the bags and then pull them out each time you make a batch of pizza. This will more than cut the cost of your pizza sauce in half.

Toppings: I like to put a layer of baby spinach leaves on every pizza I make. It makes me feel a little better about the cheese on top.

Convention Adventures

Vendors 11photo © 2009 Bill Ward | more info (via: Wylio)
This weekend, my family is selling Bethlehem Books at a homeschool convention. We’ve sold books for them at conventions for 9 years. I love their books.

Sometimes, we’ve travelled to Indianapolis and southern Illinois to sell. It’s a family adventure, and our kids are integral to our sales team. You never know what will happen next.

Memorable adventures:

  1. Once in Indianapolis at the RCA dome, the line for vendors to park was too long. Richard idled our station wagon while we got the cart out on the sidewalk, loaded the boxes, and the kids helped me push our inventory uphill while he waited in line. By the time he got into the convention hall, we had set up our display.
  2. Our daughter loves to read and would charm visitors, as she told them the story lines of her favorite books.
  3. Our son was the reluctant bookseller. In his early years, he dressed in costume (Pioneer Boy)  He would sit with his toy guns behind our vendor area, crouch behind a chair, and pretend to shoot our customers. They took it in good stride.
  4. One year in Indianapolis, while we were rotating showers that night, the pipes thumped as walls vibrated. The shower head spigot broke while on, spraying water full force over the bathroom, at 10 p.m. It took an hour for them to get it fixed and cleaned.
  5. Because the RCA dome was so large, we used 2-way radios. Our son was most colorful on the radio. As I took him with me on a bathroom break, he grabbed a radio and broadcast. “Mom has to pee. We are going to the bathroom. When we find it. We’re almost at the bathroom. Now she’s going to the bathroom. I’m waiting on Mom to finish going to the bathroom.” His play by play broadcast at our booth, to the snickers of our customers.
  6. Conventions offer interesting souvenirs. There’s the time my son bought a skunkskin cap (a la Davy Crockett) at the pioneer booth. My kids always cringed when I bought owl pellets or animals for us to dissect. My biggest scare came the year our son bought a 6 foot long toy wooden rifle. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t carry it that night as we walked from the Convention Center to our hotel. When we packed out at convention close, I disguised the toy rifle by wrapping it in tablecloths and nestling it in our book boxes.
  7. Pioneer Boy (my son) discovered Gameboy and Nintendo. If you wanted to find our booth, you would just look for the booth with all boys in the whole hall gathered around him and his games. If there had been a vendor booth for video games, he would have been a natural sales guy for them.
  8. Then there was the convention when vendors were kept out of the keynote and the vendor hall was closed. Vendors’ kids started playing. My son and some Mennonite boys took a trebuchet toy and lobbed balls with it across vendor hall floor. Until a ball crashed into a vendor display and knocked everything over.

Now that my kids are older, our adventures are milder. But I will always treasure our Convention Adventure memories. And I’ll appreciate the lessons my kids got in salesmanship, inventory, setup/displays, and computation of sales with tax.

Teach Your Kids To Be Prepared

joyful and chaotic music from first ever concertphoto © 2010 woodley wonderworks | more info (via: Wylio)
Caution: I was frustrated when I wrote this blog, and it probably shows.

If you have your kids in an outside program, music group, or sport, please help teach them a simple lesson: Be Prepared.

I write this after 15 years of having my kids on sports teams, music groups, clubs, and classes.  Yes, I’m sure your week was busy. So was mine. But there are times in life we still get things done during tough times.

Let’s imagine there is an activity with 10 kids. Then imagine of those 10 the following:

  1. 1 is always late
  2. 2 never practice
  3. 1 tries to practice the night before to make up for skipping the rest of the week
  4. 1 never brings the right tools or equipment
  5. 1 has a terrible attitude.

If those roles rotate from week to week, that means the teacher, leader, or coach has 40% of those involved on time, practiced, prepared, and ready to go. The other 60% hold those who did what they were supposed to back.

A music class cannot play harder music if half the class refuses to practice. If your kid is in a group music class, and you don’t make sure your kid practices every night, then the whole group plays simpler music. Then MY kid doesn’t get what I paid for – a challenging, fun music program. It could be music or anything else.

I understand different families have different standards. However, when I pay for opportunities for my kids and your kids’ failure to prepare drag down the bar of expectation, I grow frustrated. When I’m the teacher or leader of such groups, I’m doubly frustrated because I know what the kids were capable of, prepared for it, but we can’t get there.

What are the secrets to success for a great class or activity? Be:

  1. On time
  2. Practiced
  3. Tools ready to go
  4. Attitude ready to focus and work.

Parents can impact their kids’ future work ethics. It can be a positive or negative impact.

If you take the time to schedule an activity and get your kids there, and often to invest in it, doesn’t it make sense to make the most of the opportunity?

Kids who know to be prepared are better prepared for life.

My Big Fat Getaway Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Turkeyphoto © 2006 Rich | more info (via: Wylio)
This is a Biever travel Thanksgiving story the year my mom won free hotel rooms in Nashville, Tennessee, several years ago.

Richard and I researched information, coupons, and maps and packed following our checklists. Welcome to my spontaneous trip.

We met at the hotel Thanksgiving afternoon. “Give us your hotel key,” my kids said. “You’ll lose it.”

When we reached my mom’s room, a crash slammed the door. In rode my sister, riding the luggage cart pushed by my brother. “Anyone wanna ride?”

For Thanksgiving night dinner, we went to Hard Rock Cafe. As we ate, Elizabeth pointed to a man outside, “Mom, why is he lying on the sidewalk when it’s night and 30 degrees outside?”

“I think he’s drunk.” He left a few minutes later.  Bruce Stringsteen screaming was the fa-rararara of my Thanksgiving story.

The next night, we went to the Melting Pot. Suddenly, my sister looked sick. I thought she was about to choke on bad food. Big sister mode in gear, I told her, “Spit it out. We’re family. It’s ok.”

She spit it out – the stem of a cherry, tied into a knot. Then she did the same to 3 more cherry stems and told us, “When I used to bartend, this guaranteed great tips.”

When we left the restaurant and got to the car, I realized I had lost my keys. So I raced back. The new guests tried to help, using their cell phones as lights. I found 2 napkins, plus the Santa pin from my coat, but no keys. Then Richard found my keys in my purse. He took them for safekeeping the duration of the trip.

Daytimes were culture clash. We scheduled  a museum, science center, zoo, and Parthenon. My siblings shopped. In the middle of the museum, my daughter complained, “Why don’t we get to go to the mall?”

“Malls make me cranky.” So I compromised. We went to the mall, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. My sister took my daughter shopping, and harmony was restored.

We had interesting family conversations with our kids afterwards. I assured my son tying a cherry stem into a knot in his mouth was a life skill he would not need.

That Thanksgiving will be memorable – the one without a turkey but lots of memories. My kids learned many other useful life skill, including how to take a trip without losing hotel keys, jewelry, and car keys.

That alone should be proof that God exists, and He is good.

Unlikely Valentines

Photo courtesy of Michael Gray Photography

Twenty years ago, I married my total opposite. I suspect there were bets on how long our marriage would last.       

How were we incompatible? Let me count the ways:      

  • I was a mouthy Scot-Irish harridan; he was a quiet German worker.
  • I was raised a wandering Protestant but was so angry at God I wouldn’t argue with Him; he was a cradle Catholic.
  • I was the product of divorce; he had parents who loved each other.
  • I loved classical music; he was a rocking blues guitar player.

Our priest insisted we have 10 1-hour 1:1 pre-marital counseling sessions to build a strong foundation. At the end of the 10 weeks, the priest said, “You’ll help each other grow. Mary, you’ll say whatever you think and will venture where angels fear to tread. Richard, you see God in silence and contemplation.”       

Photo courtesy of Michael Gray Photography

We had no idea what we would face together:      

  • The loss of a baby.
  • Fertility issues and a high risk pregnancy that sent me to St. Louis for treatments and the birth of our son.
  • A home and business fire, a year after we started our business.

With every challenge, we grabbed our shovels and dug our way out together. We celebrated great times too:      

  • The birth of our children.
  • My children and I survived their child births against tremendous odds, thanks to modern medicine and the hand of God.
  • My husband’s steadiness gradually wore down my anger so I could first argue with and then listen to God.
  • The Sunday morning after our fire, we were on our knees together in church, wearing borrowed clothes and praying, begging God to help us.  Our family and business are still here 10 years later.

What helped 2 opposites who attracted stick together long-term? A Marriage Encounter weekend 15 years ago helped. Also, we’re still at church every Sunday.  Each time we kneel together, I remember that terrible Sunday 10 years ago after the fire and thank God He’s providing for us.      

No matter what happens, we’ll work our way out of it together.      

For a girl from an unstable childhood, choosing a good guy husband was the road less travelled. And that made all the difference. I got the happy ending.      

Thanks, Richard.  

(Thanks to Michael Gray Photography for letting me use this photo here and being there way back when.)

Gardening Lessons

A single pack of lettuce seeds can provide lots of salad for a family.

What fresh food can you grow this year?

Growing conditions aren’t perfect. Some families garden in containers or rooftops because of sun and soil issues. 

Each year, I plant our garden, with the grudging help of my kids. Living in the middle of town, we have challenges. We’re shifting our garden plot around the shady areas from neighbors’ trees.

The kids do different experiments in the garden each year as part of their 4-H garden projects. When they complain, I tell them the day may come when they need to know how to raise and preserve their own food to survive and if so, I want them to know as much as possible.

What have we learned from gardening?

  • Thomas Edison was right when he said opportunities are dressed in overalls and look like work. They smell like sweat too. Sometimes manure. Good things can come to those willing to work with manure.
  • If we wait for the perfect conditions to start, we’ll never grow a thing. Start with the soil we have and improve it.
  • Hedge your bets – diversify. One year, it was so cold my kids exhibited broccoli at the fair in late July. None of our standby tomatoes, beans, or peppers did a thing. I’ve raised decent broccoli once since.
  • Daily attention & incremental progress yield better results than a flash in the pan, astroturf push.
  • Sometimes, you do everything right, and the weather just isn’t.
  • The unplanted seed doesn’t sprout.
  • The seed eaten by the pesky bird today might just get passed back to the garden tomorrow and sprout. So don’t stress the spilled seeds of today. Instead, focus on cultivating the ones that get planted.
  • There’s always next year.

The best part of a garden is picking food fresh off the vine, eating it, and discovering how much better it tastes than produce at the store. As a mom, I think of the better vitamin content. As a cook, I think how fun it is to experiment at harvest time. And where on earth I’m going to put up this year’s harvest.

Then by this time each winter, I rejoice at how great the freshly frozen corn tastes and savor that home-canned tomato sauce.

Sometimes all it takes to begin is to plant a seed and tend it.

My Blue Dot Miracle

Blue dots and how they helped my husband notice and meet me… 

Every Midwestern town has a fall celebration.  My town had Corn Day.  Businesses close, the downtown is full of family-friendly games, and the Corn Car begins the parade with a Corn King, Corn Queen, Corn Prince, and Corn Princess.

Richard was dating a different girl at the time, whose best friend was one of my brothers.  My brother described Corn Day; Richard and his girlfriend of the time wanted to see it for themselves.  I wasn’t there because I had proudly outgrown Corn Day.

So they joined my brother on a Corn Day pilgrimage and met my family.  My mom’s house has a hallway full of family portraits.  Richard noticed one girl had a blue dot in the middle of her nose in every picture.

Another brother had gotten angry at me and put a single blue dot, on my nose, in every single portrait.  Richard asked, “Who’s the girl with the blue dot?” 

 The answer?  “She’s another sister away at school.”

 After their Corn Day adventure, Richard and that girlfriend broke up. 

 A year later, a girl I worked with told me she knew a guy she thought I would like.  I agreed to let her give him my phone number.  She gave him my name and number, and he wondered if I were the girl with the blue dot.  So he confirmed my name. 

The girl who gave him the number strongly encouraged him to call me, telling him she thought we would get along well. 

He debated for days whether or not to call.  Then he thought about the blue dot girl.  Was I so awful that my brother would retaliate with a blue dot on a wall full of photos? 

Finally, he took the gamble.  Our first phone call lasted 3 hours.  It was our first and last blind date.  We had a wonderful time and were together from that day forward.  Our wedding was two years later, twenty years ago.

Had my brother not dotted the photos, I don’t know if Richard would have risked the call.

We never know how today’s pieces will fit into tomorrow’s puzzle. After the fact, I’m thankful for all the blue dots!

This story helps me to remember to give thanks in all circumstances, even those involving ornery younger brothers.

Llama Drama and Leadership Training

Her Llama invitation

“I want to have a llama program and llamas for bring a friend night,” my daughter, the new president of an urban 4-H club, told the planning committee last fall.

A city girl turned Future Farmers of America member who participates with a Livestock Club and raises backyard chickens, she wants to study agriculture. After seeing a llama program last year, she’s been obssessed with them.

I stayed out of her way to see what she would do.

She asked the church hosting our meeting’s permission. They said yes.

She scheduled the llama lady. Then she messaged the head leader it was set.

I called to give him warning before he saw her email. Dead silence on the phone. “She told us she wanted it in the planning meeting,” I explained.

“But I didn’t think she was serious!” he answered.

“You’ve known her for years. If you don’t tell her no, she does what she decides. If you do tell her no, she may still do it,” I told him.

I knew the girl who designed her 5th birthday cake with an erupting volcano on a Pacific island filled with palm trees, with cowboys and Indians fighting in canoes off the coast didn’t joke. (Yes, I decorated it.)

The church called. Because the meeting room had carpet, they wanted tarp on the floor.  She assured them and me that the llamas wouldn’t poop indoors. And she packed our tarp.

She drew a llama graphic and created a Facebook event so members could invite friends.

As we spread the tarp, I gasped in panic that it was close to a denim couch. “Won’t they eat the denim couch cushions?” I asked.

“Mother. Llamas are related to camels, not goats,” she admonished me in her strictest voice.

I shut the classroom door, worried the llamas would get loose and charge through the church halls.

Meeting time began. The llamas stayed on the tarp. They did not escape. They did not eat the denim couch. And they did not poop indoors.

And several kids brought friends.

Huge sigh of relief.

A leadership lesson smacked me when it was over.

If we want to groom teen leadership skills in a changing world, sometimes we have to give them space to try their outside the box ideas.

Some fail. Others work. All teach lessons.

Don’t worry. Be happy.

Hakuna ma-llama!

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