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My American Melting Pot

Holly Tree GapWhat happens in life when you are presented with 2 very different paths to follow and must make a choice?

As I have researched my family tree, I found a young Scottish girl who made stark choices. Isabella Miller, the daughter of Sir Michael Miller and Lady Margaret McNaughten, was born in 1718 in Perth, Scotland, to a life of privilege. She had one brother. Her father’s business was making broadcloth.

In some stories, James McEwen, of a Scottish clan, was an apprentice to Sir Michael. In other stories, he worked in her father’s mills.

Isabella met James, fell in love, and they wanted to marry. Her parents refused because James was beneath their social class. So Isabella and James secretly went to Edinburgh and married in 1740. The Millers were livid that their daughter acted against their wishes and disowned her. She never had contact with her family, or her brother, again.

Isabella and James began to build a life together and first lived in Scotland. They had 5 children.

In 1753, they emigrated to America to build a new life – venturing across the Atlantic with 5 children, the oldest of whom was probably 9. I wonder if the kids asked, “Are we there yet?” while on the boat.

They landed in Pennsylvania and then built a life in North Carolina. They had 3 more children in America – 7 of their children survived to adulthood. James died in 1766 and is buried in Statesville, North Carolina.

In 1798, Isabella went with several of her children to Tennessee to build a new life as pioneers. There is a historic sign in Holly Tree Gap, Tennessee, telling of their arrival close to the present day Nashville. She died in 1814, at the age of 96, in Rutherford, Tennessee.

The story doesn’t end there. Her only brother, David, continued to build the family’s mills in Scotland but never married. When he died in 1810, he gave his fortune to his sister and her children, if anyone ever knew who or where they were. With the War of 1812, there was limited communication, and no one knew of his sister’s children who were building a new life in Tennessee. His estate was worth about 3 million pounds sterling.

Because no one knew where his sister was, or where her children were, the money was held in trust by the government. In 1850, the British Parliament passed a law that claims to British estates would be barred after 1880.

When Isabella’s descendants finally learned of the fortune they could have inherited, they sent an attorney to England to investigate. No one could find the original will of David Miller, and their claim was lost. A January 3, 1881, American newspaper headline read, “Return of J.B. Campbell from Scotland – No Millions for the McEwen Heirs.”

If we look at only material value, what a loss.

I think differently. Isabella saw a chance at love and took it, regardless of the cost to her. She and James built a new life, in a new world. Their children may not have inherited a material fortune. Instead, they inherited the values imparted from a family who worked together to build a home and life in a new world.

And that legacy is priceless beyond measure.

5 Steps to Move From Surviving to Thriving

Not all the chains that hold women back are visible. Ideally, American women are now free and independent to make their own decisions.

But in real life, if a woman thinks and acts independently, it can threaten the status quo and frighten those who prefer that women know their place, stay in that place, and only parrot the party line instead of thinking for themselves. Diversity is a buzzword which sometimes masks intolerance for independent ideas. Sometimes, those who proclaim their enlightenment the loudest are the least tolerant of new ideas.

The reason the Lifetime TV network is so popular is that it taps a chord that many women recognize. We see the Lifetime movies and see women overcoming obstacles and tragedies to the happy ending we all hope will one day be our own.

I once knew of a woman who wrote of her emergence from a conservative religious sect. She wrote of of her spiritual and personal journey, symbolized by her transition from wearing a traditional cap to wearing a smaller cap to wearing no cap at all. At each stage, as she shed the ties that had held her back, she felt more freedom and was able to be who she was instead of who others decided she should be.

I have experienced the same journey in different circumstances, without the visible cap. If you find yourself struggling to survive in a bad situation, how do you move beyond that to a healthier, better place? I have been lucky in my case to have the support of a husband who believed in me and who has encouraged me for the past 25 years. Here are the steps I have found that helped me change my life for the better.

Since my heart attack, I’ve realized it’s imperative to my health – the more I thrive instead of merely survive, the less stress I feel and less likely I am to have a second heart attack.

  1. Remove the negative. If there are people or circumstances that mock, criticize, or rebuke you, remove them from your life. You deserve to be treated with respect. If you set a boundaries others will not respect, remove them from your life. The less time you spend with these people, the less they will be in your head and your heart. When you remove yourself from toxic circumstances, toxic people may try to drag you back into the fray. They may try to fight and argue with you to bully and belittle you back into their preconceived idea of your place. You don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to.  If we stoop to wrestle with a pig, the only thing that happens is we get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Waste as little energy as possible on the negative.
  2. Create a dream team. Find friends who will encourage and inspire you. Choose them carefully. Seek positive people with fresh ideas who value you and what you bring to the table. My husband is my number one cheerleader, and I’m more than thankful for that. I know in my heart of hearts that my husband and kids will always be there for me when I need them.  I am also lucky to have a large group of female friends who support other strong women. There are too many to mention but some include JoAnn Krantz, Elise Barrerra, Jean Godfrey, Lisa Taylor, Kimberly Delcoco, Ami Lloyd, Sherry Wright, Cheryl Mochau, Samantha Rogers, Michele Rogers, Cheryl Martin, Debbie Valiant, and Dana Nelson. They – and many others – encouraged me and saw potential in me, sometimes before I saw it in myself. I’m doubly fortunate to work for a dream team company who work well together. My husband has observed that I come home from my new job happy at the end of each day – happier than he’s seen me in 25 years. Dream team friends will transform your life.
  3. Reframe your thoughts. Seek the positive in current and future circumstances. Words matter. Capture your thoughts and resolve to keep them positive.
  4. Set goals and go for them. Determine what in your life you’ve wanted to do, both short term and long term. Then plan and work to make them happen. Keep your goals front and center so you see them and won’t get distracted by the rest of life.
  5. Have fun. If there is music you like, play it. If you like to dance, dance to it while you play it. If you like to sing, sing. The older I get, the more fun I have because I can more easily savor the moment and care less about what others around me think. Removing the negative parts of my life mentioned in Step 1 removed a lot of anger and frustration from my heart and mind. That in turn made room for me to laugh and enjoy the good parts of life more.

Sometimes, survival is in itself a tremendous feat. Moving beyond surviving to thriving takes work, but it is worth it.

When the thriving happens, it will creep upon you before you realize it. Then, in the middle of laughter, you will suddenly realize that life is better, richer, and sweeter than ever before.

I’m not yet 50, and my own journey with these steps has had stumbles, distractions, and often felt I was walking barefoot uphill on a path that alternated between pits of fire and mountains of snow. The world is a very different place when you find yourself in environments where you’re treated with respect, you’re given credit for your ideas, and you’re given opportunities to make new things happen.

Nevertheless, the journey is worth it. I won’t just survive but thrive!

The Positive Meaning of Frozen and Let It Go

I loved the movie Frozen and its song, “Let It Go.” However, I was recently sent an article discussing the philosophical flaws of the children’s movie Frozen, in particular the song “Frozen.” This article maintains the lyrics and the song have underlying, dangerous themes. I disagree.

Frozen captures the long term consequences of an incident with two sisters, Anna and Elsa, after their parents die. Had Anna and Elsa grown up in idyllic circumstances, the critic might have had a point. However, he misses the point that Anna and Elsa aren’t reacting from that perspective but instead are responding with their limited, tragic experiences.

Elsa has a special ability to create winter. As children, she and Anna experiment with this gift. In an unexpected accident, Elsa nearly kills Anna with her gift. Their parents rush to trolls to save Anna. The trolls save Anna but do so with a price that costs both Elsa and Anna the rest of their childhoods. Their mistakes are similar to what some parents make when they discover their children have been abused: they try to erase the victim’s memory, isolate their children, and respond with more fear than love.

The first response is to erase Anna’s memory so she no longer remembers the accident or her sister’s special power.  However, just because parents try to erase an incident doesn’t mean that it never happened. It just holds and festers, waiting to erupt later. Elsa didn’t forget. She was haunted by what she had done and blamed herself.

That led to the second mistake the parents made. To protect Elsa and others from her power, the family cut itself off. Elsa was cut off from everyone. Anna was isolated from the townspeople. In addition, the relationship between the sisters, who had once been close, was ended. Of course, this confused Anna who didn’t know why her relationship with her sister ended, or why she could no longer interact with other people. She responded by wanting to know other people and as soon as she was able to meet them, she lacked the experience to discern who was a friend and who was not. That resulted in her infatuation with Prince Hans. She was so desperate to be loved by anyone she leaped towards the first person who offered it, not realizing he had other motives.

The final mistake the parents made was to respond more with fear than love. For Elsa, fear became the ruler of her life. The only way she has been able to prove she is “good” is to hide who she is and what she can do. She was never taught how to channel her power and use it in constructive ways. Further, her parents never developed an exit strategy for their isolation. Of course the moment she was forced to interact with other people, including her sister, it ended in disaster. Elsa refused Anna’s request to marry the prince. The clash between the two sisters, and the emotions of her coronation, brought about an unleashing of powers she had never learned to control.

In this context, Elsa sang the song Let It Go. The critic of the song suggests the song means she is rejecting morals and standards.  I think she is rejecting the fear that has held her back most of her life. When she rejects that fear, she erupts in emotions she cannot control. Anyone who has been shackled by fear and breaks those shackles will recognize her first reaction, captured so well in the song. Like a bird that has been chained and cannot fly, when she is set free, her first response is to spread her wings to see what she can do. And that is what she sings in the song, “Let It Go.”

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I’m the queen.The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I triedDon’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they knowLet it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the doorI don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anywayIt’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at allIt’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry

Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
Let the storm rage on

My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back,
The past is in the past

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone

Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway

This song is an anthem for anyone who has ever been held back by fear. The movie doesn’t end with this song but with the eventual reunion of the sisters.

Elsa doesn’t realize she froze the town as she left. Anna left in search of her sister and met Kristoff. With her limited experience, she didn’t recognize the difference between the real good guy and the pretend one until it was nearly too late. When Anna and Elsa met again, Elsa didn’t realize she critically injured her sister.

At the conclusion of the movie, Anna sacrifices herself to save her sister. Her “act of true love” saved the kingdom, and it turned out she didn’t die after all. Having learned that with love, she can control her power, Elsa thaws the kingdom and punishes Hans, who has been revealed to be the bad guy. Anna ended up with the good guy, Kristoff, who truly loves her.

What was really frozen in the story was Elsa’s own heart. She was frozen in time the moment the accident happened. It’s not until Anna saved her with love years later that she warmed up and was able to again respond with love.

The final message I see in the movie is that two sisters, imprisoned by fear, learn to build a relationship with each other and overcome a tragic accident from their childhood. There is nothing dangerous in that message.

Instead, there is a story of redemption.

Role Grandfathers

“Point to the grandpa,” my son, then a toddler was told during an evaluation. The tester held up a card of an elderly man and another card of a chicken.

Nick pointed to the chicken.

I cringed as I watched through a 2-way mirror. They were testing his language comprehension. He didn’t know what a grandpa was because he didn’t have one – not because he lacked language. After the fact, I explained to the testers why he missed that word.

Then we made sure he knew what a grandpa was. The lesson stuck more than I realized. Two years later, as I was teaching a Sunday School class and the topic of absentee parents came up, I addressed it with the kids. I grew up without a dad and wanted to make sure these kindergarteners knew God loves us all. My son told the kids around him, “I don’t have a grandpa. One is in heaven. The other is in hell or in jail, and I don’t know which.”

He had gleaned more about my father than I had intended to tell him. But I hated the fact my kids missed out on having a grandpa – I had 2 good ones who were always there for me, especially when my own dad wasn’t.

God put good men into our world and our community to fill that gap. Yesterday, two of those men died.

Father DeigOne was a priest, Father Deig. The other was a grandpa and 4-H Leader, Les Lantaff.

Father Deig was sometimes known as a priest’s priest. He was a brilliant, tall man who gave great sermons. Though he could understand the most difficult theologians, he put things into simple terms. One of my favorite lines which he often used was, “People sometimes say they are too busy for church. If your life is too busy for God, then you are just TOO BUSY.” I was thankful my son first served with Father Deig, who always made a point to be kind to his servers.

Father Deig was a frugal, simple man who saved money and budgeted carefully. A former school principal, one summer he asked to see what schoolbooks I used with my children – I was homeschooling them. So I took a big stack of books in to show him. Talk about being nervous. A week later, he gave them back to me and told me I was doing a good job. That Sunday, in his sermon, he mentioned that parents are the first teachers of their children, and that is one of the most important jobs in the world.

As Father Deig grew older and more frail, he was determined to go down with his boots on. I remember the Sunday he had an episode at church and needed to go to the hospital. He refused to go and refused to let anyone call 911. Finally, he agreed, and they called an ambulance. When the gurney was wheeled in, he looked at it and said, “I will not use that.” They told him he had to. So he sat straight up on the gurney. They told him to lie down, and he told them no – he was perfectly capable of sitting up. So they wheeled him out of the church, sitting straight up in the gurney.

For the past several years, Father Deig lived and faithfully served at Little Sisters of the Poor.

We first met Les at St. John’s in Daylight, where Father Deig was the priest. Les was active in the parish and was the grandpa of other members of our 4-H Club. In addition, he was a 4-H Leader. So as my kids got more involved with 4-H and St. John’s, we got to know Les. Les was a larger than life character who would help anyone, tell you what he thought, and make you laugh.

I’m a cook, and I cook not just for my family but for fundraisers. So Les’s standing joke for me was that he only saw me when there was food. So when he saw me, he would call out, “Mary, where’s the food?” There are so many colorful Les stories. I wish I could find the video of his giving a demonstration of how to fry an egg. We were making breakfast at the fair as a fundraiser, and my daughter brought in a warm egg, fresh from one of the hens she was showing. Les told me he would give a demonstration on how to properly fry an egg. He put on a total show.

Then there’s the time we made breakfast for the Classic Iron Show, and I served up my first plate of biscuits and gravy to Les. He told me, “Mary, you have to understand how a farmer eats biscuits and gravy. The biscuits are a boat. Then you pour enough gravy on top so those biscuits are floating. Don’t serve this like a city person with a little dab of gravy on each.”

hog roastLes was a retired meat inspector. As 4-H Leaders, we sometimes carve a hog with a hog roast fundraiser for our 4-H Center. Les taught me how to carve a hog and what the different parts of meat are. The first time he taught me, he cut a large piece of the crackly skin (with fat on the other side) and handed it to my daughter to dispose of. Her eyes grew big and after she threw it away, she washed her hands and whispered to me, “I touched…FAT.” This picture was taken the second time Les showed us how to carve a hog and what the meat cuts were. This time, he got my daughter right in there with him.

Les was a great 4-H Leader who would help any kid who needed it and encourage them. He helped my son many times with shooting sports.

After my heart attack, and as Les battled heart issues, we joked about healthier eating. He would point and tell me, “Look at that. I am eating my vegetables.”

Last spring, as I recovered from my heart attack, Les was working in his garden. He raised his own plants from seed and had more plants than he needed. So I went to his home, and he loaded up my car with tomatoes and peppers and gave me a lesson on all the varieties he had raised and what he liked best about each one.

Both Father Deig and Les had battled illness with the same tenacity with which they lived their lives.

They, and other good men, were an answer to my prayer when my children were young. They didn’t have  grandpas. But God put many other good men into our world to stand in that gap, just as he put good men into my own world to stand in the Dad Gap. They were role grandfathers, not just to my own kids to but many others.

In a world where there are so many shades of grey, where some skirt the law and push boundaries so far they go over the cliff of dishonesty, there are good people. Both Father Deig and Les were the kind of good men who stand as examples. There are still honest people who do good things and live good lives.

And we can use their good examples to resolve to do the same with our own lives.

There Must Have Been Someone Good

Why would I want to look at my family tree when I know there are snakes in the branches?

I told my husband that at least 1,000 times in the 25 years I’ve known him.

I spent my teen years trying to establish my own identity despite my family and a scandalous father. A few years ago, when I stopped for gas in the town of my childhood, someone in the store asked me, “Did they ever catch your dad?” I answered yes to a 40 year old sad chapter in my life.

With that background, I had no desire to learn more about that side of the family tree. What other horrible stories were untold? On my mother’s side, there were some Irish roots, and I had visited where the family emigrated from in Ireland.

My husband persisted, “There must have been someone good in your family tree.”

After he pestered me for over a decade, I finally told him, “Fine. You want to dig into my family cemetery. Go for it. But don’t tell me what you find because I don’t want to know.”

So four years ago, he began digging. I didn’t want to know anything he found for a year. He never told me more than I was ready to hear but confirmed to me that there were some good people in that family tree. This year, I agreed to take one of those genealogy DNA tests to find out my ancestry.

I was mentally prepared to get results that I was a blood relative of Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini. Wrong.

For our whole marriage, I have joked that a British Scot Irish crazy woman married a steady, predictable German. The DNA tests showed that I was 70% British/Scot Irish. The other 30% shocked me – 20% Western European, and the final 10% was a mix of Scandinavia, Iceland and Eastern Europe.

I wanted to solve the mystery of my family heritage and started digging. With God’s sense of humor, it turns out the bulk of that Western European heritage is the German for which I have teased my husband.

Those most exciting part was discovering a family tie to the mother of Richard Herbert, Magdalene Newport. She was a lifelong friend of John Donne, who preached her funeral sermon in 1627.

One thing that surprised me is that my roots are so deeply American. The most recent immigrant ancestors I’ve found are one from Ireland in 1830 and one from Scotland in 1794.  The others I have found arrived here in the 1600 and 1700’s.

James Michener could have written of them as a microcosm of pre-revolutionary America. The only distant outlaw I found in my father’s tree was a Hans Mansson who chose in 1640 to go to “New Sweden” instead of being hung for destroying 8 fruit trees in the Crown’s gardens in Sweden. He served as a convict laborer for 5 years and then became a civic leader in what is now New Jersey.

What fascinates me the most are their varied responses to the Revolutionary War.  On one side, there was a Johann Peter Frey who sided with the British Crown and refused to sign the Oath of Allegiance to North Carolina. Then there was a Joseph Whitaker, who was a one of the British 16th Dragoons who captured General Charles Lee in 1776 but deserted in 1777.  Then there were the Germantown Pennsylvania Updegroves who were Quaker Pacifists. Finally, there were more patriots than I can count who fought in the Revolutionary War.

The most disappointing part came when I discovered a family branch that owned slaves – I had always taken pride that none of the family tree I knew about were slaveholders. However, 2 of the 4 signers of the 1688 Germantown Quaker Protest Against Slavery, the first document in the United States to oppose slavery, were Updegroves (or “Up den Graeff”).

So the only thing really left for me to say is my husband was more than right. There are good branches in my family tree.

It makes a difference. Maybe my life is the Michener version of the happy ending where a couple of bad apples don’t spoil the whole tree.

Oh Holy Families

I have visions of an idyllic family experience where real life doesn’t measure up to my visions of a happy little family.

But still, with Christmas break, I want the perfect worship experience with my family while both teens are home.

My hope for perfection gets marred when real life interrupts. We’re getting over being sick, and I was still fighting it. When we sat down together as a family at church this morning, I got hit with a coughing fit that wouldn’t quit. I had to leave. Then I was afraid to return to sit with my family because another coughing fit might make me sick. So I sat on a pew in the vestibule and resolved to spend the service out there instead.

God has to have a sense of humor for me to spend the Feast of the Holy Family at church, recovering from being sick, separated from my own family.

As the homily began talking about self sacrifice and how important that is to family, I saw living examples of it around me. I was outside the cry rooms and saw families working to manage their young children during Mass. As I saw them, I saw reflections of myself and my own years playing tag team parenting games.

  • Parents took their toddlers to the bathroom.
  • One little boy with his dad had to go to the bathroom and then needed a drink. The homily piped through the narthex, “You and I are responsible for the care of each other.” As the little boy walked by me one of his pant legs was tucked in his cowboy boots. I watched his dad lift him up so he could reach the drink of water, and when they walked by I saw the dad had also fixed his pants so neither was tucked into the cowboy boots.
  • There was the toddler who decided he was too big for the cry room and wanted to sit in the sanctuary with the big people.
  • There was the mother with several children in tow who took them all into the bathroom with her.
  • There was the teen girl who went to the bathroom and I suspect was as concerned about her latest text as she was other things before returning to her family.
  • There was the older sister taking her younger sister into the bathroom and managing her.

Each family I saw reflected what the Feast of the Holy Family is about for me. We none live in a perfect world. Life is messy. The first Christmas, Mary had to give birth in a stable because there was no room in the inn.

We often miss the wonder and glory of our imperfections. In each of the mini dramas I watched in the narthex, listening to a homily on families, I saw parents who were doing their job. They were showing up, working through the hard stuff, and doing their best by their kids. I just wanted to reassure each of the young parents to savor these times because these times fly. As they work through the tough times, they will one day remember the times they thought were tough and realize that’s what made them extraordinary families.

In the homily, we were told, “Parents are children’s first teachers in the faith.” What I saw as parents worked through attending Mass with young children was parents who taught their faith by their very presence in Mass.

The miracle of family life is when we surpass the troubles, the illness, and the problems to show love to one another.   Our homily ended,

A family that eats together and prays together will then share their faith with others. As a result true joy will be a radiant light in the darkness, the tender loving presence of God mercifully welcoming all.
 This is what it means to be a holy family.

We show our faith in our daily walk and grind as parents, whether it’s during the changing of diapers or the searching for college scholarships.  Savor these precious moments.

A Semi-British Semi-Lighter Christmas Menu

I still struggle with what to fix for Christmas post heart attack that lets me cook, celebrate family, but try to balance foods so they are healthier for me to eat. This year, we had recently been to turkey and ham dinners, so I wanted something different Christmas Day.

We opted for prime rib on sale, which I’m cooking for the first time this morning. Here’s hoping it works.  Once I chose prime rib for an entree, I decided to go with a British menu – sort of. It’s also a combination of what my family likes to eat. My son loves meat and potatoes, and if I go too low fat, it won’t be a celebration for him. So the beef was something both he and Richard could enjoy.

I’m opting to follow the Old Fashioned Butcher Shoppe’s directions to slow roast the prime rib in a pan with water. Yes, there are other ways to make it. But I don’t want to risk burning it. And I’ve had good experience slow roasting roasts.

Then I added to the rest of the menu. Here’s what we chose and why.

Salad – I like winter salads better when they are a mix of baby greens – this salad will have spinach and Swiss chard, tat soi, and arugula. We’ll top the salad with pomegranate seeds, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, green peppers, carrots, celery, and kohlrabi (from Seton Harvest). The baby greens last longer than traditional lettuce salads and are more nutritious.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes – I’ve learned to make mashed potatoes with garlic, a dash of olive oil and skim milk. The savory garlic and olive oil adds a flavor so we don’t miss the butter or margarine. My family has decided they like this kind of mashed potatoes better than the traditional kind. So a blend of yukon and russet potatoes are simmering for me to mash – I leave the skins on for more flavor and nutrition.

Sweet Potatoes – We have a few sweet potatoes left from Seton  Harvest, and today’s a perfect day to serve them. They are baking along with the prime rib right now. I’ll mash them with orange juice and brown sugar. My family loves sweet potatoes, and this is an easy way to make something healthful they will eat.

Collard Greens – We discovered 2 years ago that our kids like collard greens cooked more than most other green vegetables. Before the heart attack, I cooked them with a spoonful of bacon grease. Now I use broth. Greens are a cheap and easy way to enjoy green vegetables in the winter. And again, if my kids like them, it’s a no-brainer for the menu. They are simmering on the stove.

Yorkshire Pudding – I’ll use the recipe I got from my adopt-a-mom in England almost 30 years ago. I made them once a few years ago for Christmas, and they were a big treat. They are made from a simple batter and cooked in muffin tins, with a little beef broth in each muffin tin.

Wassail - I make a super simple wassail which is simmering now. It’s a bottle of apple juice, with a little orange juice simmering. There are fancier recipes to make it, but my family likes the one with red hots melted into the juices. I couldn’t find the traditional bags of red hot candies, but I did find cinnamon imperial red hots in the cake decorating section and am substituting those.

Egg Nog – Trust me – I’m not touching that stuff. But my family loves it. So I buy a lighter variety that has less saturated fat.

Tiramisu – My daughter always gets creative with desserts. She developed a tiramisu made with angel food cake instead of sponge cake, which we’ll try for dessert. She made it yesterday. Yes, it’s decadent.

But it’s hard for a cook to avoid all decadence on a holiday. My thought is that with the prime rib and tiramisu, there are enough vitamin-packed options on the menu that the amount of the decadent stuff I eat will be minimal.

And I should stop writing this and get back in the kitchen.

Next time I go with a British Christmas menu, I hope we can add real Christmas crackers. Then the challenge would be – who in my family would wear the paper crown?

We Made It Through the Rain – A Christmas Misadventure

Our journey over the river and through the states to Grandmother’s house we went turned out to have more adventures than we bargained for last weekend.

We live in southwestern Indiana, 10 minutes from Kentucky and 30 minutes from Illinois. My family is an hour’s drive away in Illinois, and we planned a family gathering last weekend. Flash flood warnings had been issued because of pouring rain.

Our 19 year old daughter was visiting friends in Central Illinois and planned to meet us there. Her route to my mother’s home would take her 3 hours, including driving through the town where she was in a car wreck last summer that didn’t hurt her but totaled the car.

As we prepared to go last Saturday, I worried about the downpour, flooding, and risk to our basement. So I prayed if our basement were at risk, for something to stop us from going to Illinois. It didn’t. We learned our daughter not only was dealing with rain but also was scraping ice from her car further up north.

Great. So she was going to drive to meet us not only through flooding but also ice. But she assured us the ice was not on the roads. I prayed for her safety. Like all mothers, I wanted her drive to be in perfect weather, under a sky filled with rainbows and unicorns.

We arrived in Illinois and she wasn’t there. We hadn’t heard from her in 3 hours, and it was a 3-hour car trip. I got a call from a different Illinois number, and my heart began to pound. I called it, and it was a gas station on her route – she wasn’t sure where her cell phone was but wanted us to know she was on her way but had had to re-route because of flooding. She was about a 30 minute drive away. She told us which route she was taking and hung up. Then I checked roads and learned her route had closed roads because of flooding. I called the number she called us from again – a Verizon store in Illinois – and they told me she had already left. But the clerk assured me there would be detours.

Great.  Thirty minutes later, she called us again – she had found her phone under her car seat. She was in another town, another half hour away – several roads had closed due to flooding. But she was on her way. A friend of mine I work with was close to her, and I called her with the frantic mom call. She assured me if she got lost or had a problem, we could each meet her half way and find her.

Finally, she arrived. After an hour or so, we left to go home. The rain still poured. We wanted to get home before it got dark, and our son needed to get to work. Our son opted to ride with his sister, and I rode with Richard. As we prepped to leave, I gave the Worried Mother Mantra to her of highway safety tips in driving in rain.

Fifteen minutes after we left, the rain got worse. We were on a two-lane road trying to reach the highway, with no shoulder or place to get off the road. The road was elevated, with farmland on either side, except the farmland was no flooded.

Suddenly, we had almost no visibility. The wind picked up, and it was raining sideways. We could barely see the road, but there was no place to go but forward. I half-expected to see a cow fly across the road like in the movie Twister.  I was afraid to call our son because I thought the ring might distract Elizabeth as she tried to follow us through the typhoon-like conditions. All I could do was pray. And watch the headlights of her behind us. If we went off the road, we would land in the flooded fields beside us.

There was a truck ahead of us that slowed, and we couldn’t tell why until we got there. It was dodging and driving over fallen tree limbs. We did the same.  There was no place to go but forward, through the sideways rain and over the tree limbs. We drove over more tree limbs. Water poured sideways and pounded our car as we drove through the rain.

Finally, we got to the highway. And we drove over more tree limbs. As the rain got a little better, my husband said it was the worst storm he had driven through in his life.  We crossed the bridge into Indiana and debated pulling off at the first place we could find. I was posting on Facebook about our conditions and talking with friends.

Traffic suddenly stopped as emergency vehicles blocked the road in front of us. We couldn’t tell what the problem was. A friend on my Facebook wall told us a house had just exploded. I called my son to tell them a house had exploded. We sat for 30 minutes with a blocked highway. A car in front of us turned around – we saw no reason to do the same because all there was behind us was a road covered in tree limbs. Our son called his boss and told him he might run late for work.

The road cleared, and we resumed our journey. The rain lightened up, and we opted to continue to get our son to work as soon as we could. He was only 5 minutes late. When we got home, we breathed a sigh of relief. It had taken us 2 hours of driving to make a 1-hour trip. We could see water pooling around us on roads, along the side of roads.

Then we started to go inside and realized our power was out. Our backup sump battery had exhausted itself, and our basement had begun to flood. I rushed to a neighbor’s house with a generator to ask if we could connect. Richard and Elizabeth raced to find flashlights to get our outdoor extension cords. We hurried to connect the cords and ran cords from our basement sump pump, through the rain, to our neighbor’s power source. As we stood in the rain, trying to get it connected, our neighbor moved his truck in the street to shine his headlights on us as we raced to save our basement. It was still pouring.

I had misunderstood my daughter and thought we had 6 inches of water in our whole basement. It turned out it only had an inch in a couple of rooms. Had we run 30 minutes later, it would have been a terrible mess.

The sump pump began to work again, and we scrambled in the dark to find candles to spend the evening at home in the dark. I went out to get fast food and hot coffee for our dinner. Elizabeth told us as she followed us in the rain, it felt like she was driving through the Dante’s Peak movie where things kept getting in their way. No matter what, they kept going, and so did we.

After 2 hours, our power came back on. We had no damage in our basement.

Neither Richard nor I could relax until our son got home from work. We hoped the roads wouldn’t be more flooded. He got home with no misadventures.

The next morning, I realized we had made it through the rain. We kept our world intact.

Granted, my coat I had worn outside the night before took 2 days to dry. But we got through everything. Over the river and through the typhoon we had gone, and we came out on the other side.

Sometimes, there is nothing we can do to lower the stress around us. I don’t live in a perfect Sim world where people fit in their assigned roles and everything goes according to a simple plan. My world is messy, with imperfect people, and crazy stories.

There was a whole lot of praying going on to get us through the rain. The misadventures my family gets through together often become the tie that binds us. There’s a life lesson there somewhere that when the going gets tough, you just keep on going.

Our adventures also help me appreciate the quiet times when things actually go right.

Oh Christmas Tree!

A Christmas tree skirt my daughter made as a 4-H sewing project that won Special Merit at the Indiana State Fair.

A Christmas tree skirt my daughter made as a 4-H sewing project that won Special Merit at the Indiana State Fair.

“Real Christmas trees are better than fake ones,” Richard told me 24 years ago as we celebrated our first Christmas. I had grown up with artificial trees and mentally dismissed his comment. But I bought him a small artificial tree with ornaments for his apartment because he had none, and I insisted every home needed the Christmas spirit.

When we married 22 years ago, we continued to use the 5 foot artificial one I had had in my apartment, as well as the one I gave him, and the mini artificial trees. My husband missed the scent of real trees.

Some day, we would have a real one. Twenty years ago, when a local store called Phar Mor was closing, I bought a close out Christmas tree “so we would be ready.” It went into our ornament storage bins. But each year, we looked at the price of a real tree and compared it to just using what we had, and we chose the artificial tree.

When our home and business burned 13 years ago, we replaced that artificial tree with a bigger one I got on sale at 3 a.m. on Black Friday. So we had more room for our growing ornament collection. Most of our ornaments were either made by our kids or are keepsakes of them and about them. We also have a collection of Misfit Toy ornaments I adore.

Each year, we saw the tree stand and decided to “wait till next year” for the real tree. 

One year for a 4-H project, my daughter made a Christmas tree skirt which turned into the sewing project from hell. I sew with a staple gun, but her grandmother is a seamstress. It’s quilted, with beading, stitching, and tassels. It won a special merit. But the skirt was larger than our tree was wide. It was so nice we put it in a special box and put it away to “wait till we have a bigger tree.”

Last year, after my heart attack and surgery, I wasn’t up to putting up our tree. So I sat and watched our kids put up and decorate the tree. I couldn’t help but loved every minute of it. We got out Elizabeth’s tree skirt she had made. I realized there was no point in saving it for the some day perfect year.

This year, I wanted Christmas to be special after everything we went through. We had scraped border from our living room and kitchen to repaint them. I wanted them repainted so Christmas decorations would be beautiful. Except we hadn’t had time to get the painting done.

This year, I bought a can of pine spray to spray so Richard would be reminded of scents of Christmas childhood when he had a real tree.

I finally relented that the painting would happen after Christmas, and the tree needed to go up. So our kids again put up the Christmas tree and decorated it.

The Christmas tree after it was decorated.

The Christmas tree after it was decorated.

Then, two days ago, a friend posted on Facebook that her son’s Boy Scout troop (280 in Henderson, Kentucky) had a close out sale on real trees at their lot. They had 5 trees left. The price was too good to pass up. So I asked her to hold a 6 foot tree for us. Then I texted my kids to find the tree stand we’ve stored for 20 years. We worked out a plan that we would drive our 22-year-old station wagon to Kentucky after I got off work, strap it to the tree a la Christmas Vacation, and surprise Richard.

I had visions of getting the tree into the house, undecorating our artificial tree, and decorating the new, beautiful real tree as a family while watching Christmas Vacation.

The kids couldn’t find the tree stand. We planned via text because we wanted to keep the surprise. So when I got off work, Elizabeth went with me to Kentucky. We told Richard we were Christmas shopping. We slipped out in the old wagon, ready to begin our adventure.

Fifteen minutes later, we were in Kentucky at the Boy Scout tree lot. Three trees were left. When I got out, the guy said, “I haven’t seen that here before.”

“A crazy old lady driving here from Indiana?” I asked.

“No, a station wagon. You just don’t see those any more. I see crazy ladies all the time,” he answered. He suggested we try fitting the tree IN the car instead of ON the car. So I climbed in the car, knocked down the middle row of seats, and we tried putting the tree into the car. At the right angle, he was able to fit the tree into the wagon. It was just a bit inconvenient because the top of the tree came up into the divider between the front seats and covered the rear view mirror. But if we drove a straight show, and I didn’t have to change lanes or go backwards, we should be fine.

Except we didn’t have a tree stand. There was a Rural King a mile down the road in Henderson, so we stopped there next. I pulled all the way into a parking place so I wouldn’t have to back out afterwards. I didn’t want to waste time – we had a tree to decorate!  I felt like a reality show taping the Biever Christmas Vacation episode. I went to the counter and asked, “Do you have tree stands?”

The lady didn’t know, so she asked on the store’s public address system, “Do we have tree stands for a Christmas tree?”

One person called back on speaker phone. “There is ONE left in the store.”

“Where is it?” I asked. They gave us directions to the lone tree stand. When we found it in the Christmas decoration aisle, it looked bigger than the one I had stored for 20 years, and it had no price. No matter. I didn’t want to shop other places with a tree in my car.

My daughter discouraged my urge to buy new ornaments to celebrate the new tree. When I wanted to press the button on the Christmas duck that sang carols, she whispered to me, “Mom, stop it. Act right.”

I told her, “YOLO.”

She answered, “Can’t you at least say ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day)? You’re the one who taught us Latin when we were little.”

I told her, “When I’m in Rural King in Kentucky buying a tree stand while the station wagon’s full of tree, it’s YOLO.”

Elizabeth had to hold the tree stand in her lap while I drove home. Clark Griswold, eat your heart out.

When we got home, Nick came out and helped us get the tree into the house. In the driveway, he learned of my plan. We would move the decorated tree to the side, replace it with the real tree, and then take off all the lights and ornaments to decorate the real tree. He responded with the joy of Clark Griswold’s son.

When we got the tree into the house, we realized it wasn’t a 6 foot tree. It was about 6 inches taller than our 9 foot ceilings. So Nick got shears from the garage and trimmed off the tip to of it so it would fit in the room. I ordered pizza for our Christmas Vacation tree decoration party.

Richard ventured upstairs as he heard my laughter. Yes, he was astounded that we now had a real tree – and 2 trees in our living room.

Nick had helped friends put up a real tree and knew more about it than I did. He said we should get the tree put up and then let it set so the branches would go down. First I heard of that.

Well, the pizza was ordered. So we got the tree standing and had pizza without the tree decorations. Yesterday, while I was at work, they put the lights on the real tree and undecorated the fake tree. They took apart the fake tree and put it away.

Last night was a Friday night, and of course my teen-aged children weren’t home. So Richard and I had our own tree decoration party, complete with a fat free bean dip/salsa blend I made with just a sprinkle of light cheese on top. And yes, we watched Christmas Vacation. It was a perfect date night.

The real tree does smell nice. I’m enjoying watching Richard enjoy the real tree. He’s told me for the first time ever, our home smells like Christmas, even in the living room that will get painted after first of the year.

One of my Misfit Toy ornaments.

One of my Misfit Toy ornaments.

Our tree this year is wilder than in years past. It’s  not a perfect plastic tree. It took a little extra work to get it to stand straight, and it will shed a few needles each day. But it’s fuller and richer. There is no theme to our ornaments other than Misfit Toys made beautiful. Where others see misfits, I see potential. And it blends right in to the real life of all the ornaments from our family’s life the past 20 years.  And having the tree skirt our daughter made underneath just completes it.

The lesson behind all this is either YOLO or Carpe Christmas Tree. Seize the Christmas tree moments in your life right now. Don’t wait until things are perfect because perfect never gets here. What we have is now. Enjoy it in all its imperfection.

Life is beautiful!

The Benefit of Self Reliance. Or Why Using The Health Exchanges Would Be a Backward Step For Me

I do not want to use health insurance exchanges for many reasons. A fundamental reason is it would be a giant step backward for me in my version of the American dream.

In my version of the American dream, poverty was a chapter in the past. When my parents divorced, we had worse than nothing – we had lost our home, our dignity, and our sense of stability. My mother worked, and we struggled for everything. I worked a paper route starting in the 5th grade. We lived in a rental trailer on the wrong street. I remember in 7th grade, I had one outfit of clothes for school and a dress for church on Sunday. So we did laundry every night.

My mother worked, but government programs helped us. I was able to eat at school because of the free lunch program. We got the commodity cheese when it was distributed.  We used food stamps back in the day when they were booklets of stamps.

I hated having to rely on others to take care of our basic needs. When I was in elementary and middle schools, no one really knew who the free lunch kids were. When I hit high school, everyone knew because the only kids who ate lunch in the cafeteria were the free lunch kids. We had an open campus, so you could go out for lunch in high school. I chose not to eat the free lunches. I felt degraded by them. We didn’t have enough money to afford for me to go home and eat or bring a sack lunch. If I had money from babysitting, I would go out with my friends and eat. Otherwise, I just did without lunch. I would estimate that through high school, I did without lunch over half the time.

When I turned 18 and went to college, I was on my own financially. Government financial aid helped me with my schooling. I worked crazy jobs, lived in crazy places, and scrambled to survive. There were times I couch-surfed with friends in between having an actual apartment to live in.

Now flash to 30 years later. I beat the odds and worked my way out of where my life had been. My husband and I have been married for 21 years, and we have owned our own home for 19 years.  We have owned our own business for 13 years. Like any family or business owner, we have scrambled at times. We’ve done what it takes to keep our business running. We have done what it takes to pay for our own health insurance. That has meant extra part-time jobs and budget tightening in other areas.

But we often thought of ourselves as owners of a mom and pop business in a 21st century version of the American pioneers. Instead of working in the fields, we worked on our computers. Instead of harvesting crops to take to market, we used the Internet to send work to our clients. And like those early pioneers, our adventures, and our struggles have defined us and given meaning to our lives.

Having grown up with a helping hand, I savor the reward of a life well lived. I am more than thankful for my life and all we have been given by God. Never underestimate the emotional rewards of self-reliance. Life where I rely on my family’s hard work and trust in Divine Providence is a lot more enjoyable than hoping for a government handout.

I sincerely hope we will not be forced into a government-run health program. It would be a giant step backwards, to a time when my family was incapable of taking care of our financial needs. I am thankful those programs were there.

Nevertheless, having to go into a health exchange would be a giant step backwards for me emotionally. And I hope to have the freedom to move forward – not backward.

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