Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Magic Words

Today our house saw more Christmas festivities since Grandma, Grandpa, & Co. showed up. There were presents, games, and even a play.

During the play, the Christmas Fairy Queen reigned supreme while her servant prepared a feast for their dolls. My favorite line from the play? "Bibbity, bobbity, duct tape! And frogs!"

Kids make Christmas so much fun.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Kindness-- One Definition

There is a lady in our congregation who has decided to give us a most delightful Christmas gift for the last two years. She watches our children so that we can go on a date and finish up our Christmas shopping for the children without them seeing what we're buying.

This year, she stepped it up a notch because when I walked in the door, this is what I saw.

A table set for supper. (And, evidently, a funny blur to the right.)


And this is what I smelled.

Homemade beef noodle soup


Though it is possible that I also smelled these, too.

Chocolate chip cookies that she also baked at our house.


I didn't, however, smell this because it's artificial. Our kind friend not only rushed to make food with the children to surprise us, but she also helped them make our personalized wreath.


How did she know I've been wanting a wreath for on our door?


The kids had a blast, and we did, too. What an amazing Christmas present! 



And because I didn't post a Merry Christmas post. . .




Merry Christmas!


Monday, December 19, 2016

Vacation Leftovers

I thought a few other vacation pictures were noteworthy because they were taken by my children. I don't know why they chose their subject matter, but it's an interesting insight into the minds of boys. So, in no particular order. . .


Braum's was a fast-food joint we visited twice on our journey. Only my husband ran in, but we all enjoyed their burgers and shakes. But not their fries. I wasn't impressed by their french fries at all. If you see this one along the road, try it out.

The only fast food place we stopped on our trip.



Punch Buggy!




A giant gold dome




I'm guessing this one is because it's not Hardee's.




Oklahoma's capitol building



???




I'm sensing a vintage vehicle theme.





My fault. I thought it was a cool fence.





Historic Route 66 sign



Old school I didn't notice when we were driving

We actually stopped at this next one. Pops it was called. Giant soda bottle and. . .



. . . super cool soda store!


Cool architecture and pretty displays.

We went in for a potty break and to buy Daddy some souvenirs for his 40th birthday. I was more than nervous taking the little ones into a store with so many glass bottles, but we didn't break anything. AND if you're ever driving by, it had the coolest bathrooms of our entire trip. Cool faucets. Cool architecture. Tourist trap, but a must see.

Friday, December 16, 2016

_The Hancock News_ Column--December 14, 2016

My first year of teaching, a fellow teacher assigned her students to create a “50 Things To Do Before I Die” list. I hopped on board and made my own bucket list. I don’t know what notebook or box it might be tucked away in now, but if I ever find it, I can cross off one more item; this weekend I made a gingerbread house.




I took full advantage of my daughter’s birthday and convinced her she needed a cake with a gingerbread house on top. I didn’t have to twist her arm for her to agree to a cake topped with huge upright cookies covered in frosting and candy.






Visions of five lit candles on a pile of crumpled cookie walls flashed through my anxious head, so multiple times I ran to the computer to see what kind of advice I could find from the total strangers online. Miraculously, I managed to construct four standing walls topped by a roof tiled with chocolate nonpareils. A gingerbread girl wearing a pink sugar dress stood in the snowy frosted front yard surrounded by a white chocolate pretzel fence. Even if it looked like it was made by a preschooler instead of for a preschooler, I was proud.






Even better, the kids were wowed. (It doesn’t take much to wow kids.) The preschooler was thrilled with her cake. What they didn’t know was that while the outside looked nice, inside the house a bottle of balsamic vinegar was propping up one side of the heavy roof to keep it from caving in.




So often when people hear that we have seven children they exclaim, “I don’t know how you do it!” So here’s the magic answer: I have lots and lots of bottles of balsamic vinegar. If you know me, you’re probably one of those bottles. 

None of us can build the gingerbread houses in our lives without a support system of some kind. I have a husband who fixes breakfast so I can type up a newspaper article. I have a mother who entertains the little ones by “pretending” to take a nap while they play house so that I can make ready for a birthday party. I have a father who teaches my sons to play cribbage because I don’t often have time for games. I have children who walk the dog, feed the guineas, and unload the dishwasher.

In our church, I have friends who teach my children music. I have friends who always have an empty lap and a willing ear to listen to the little ones. One friend who sits behind us in church always lends his watch to quiet the baby; while my babies have proven that those watches can literally take a licking and keep on ticking, he is sporting his third watch in twelve years. 

I see bottles of vinegar every time I go to town. When I visit the library, the librarian helps me as I juggle overdue books, oversee book selection, and change baby diapers. The lady at the bank is so kind to remember my children with a lollipop each time we go through the drive-thru. People at the grocery store are nice even if my frazzled brain is distracted, and I nearly collide into them with my cart.

Then there are those bottles that I don’t see often or at all. I have one far away friend, a mother of eight, who calls whenever she has a semi-quiet moment. She sweeps her kitchen while I rock a baby, and together we try to support each other in friendship. Other “friends” are people online who write knowledgeable articles about cooking, stain removal, or homeschooling. A quick call to my mother-in-law answers any questions the internet doesn’t know.

That bottle of balsamic vinegar didn’t have to do anything special to be helpful; it just had to be its own sturdy self. Sometimes we think we need to do something extraordinary to be helpful, but I think that most often we just need to be ourselves. 

In this time leading up to the holidays, it’s easy for stress and chaos to reign. As you prepare for all the fun, remember that ordinary little acts of kindness by ordinary people add up. Holding the door, not scowling when you are cut off on the road, or offering your place in line to somebody with little ones grabbing at candy bars could be the one small bit of support that keeps a stranger’s day from crumbling around her shoulders. I never thought I’d give this advice, but go ahead and be a bottle of balsamic vinegar!

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

I could offer you our gingerbread cookie recipe, but after digging into that house and cake several times now, I’m tired of sweets. I imagine you will be, too, before the season is over. Instead, here’s a balsamic vinegar recipe. While balsamic vinegar is a bit sweeter than others, it’s still healthier than cookies when you pour this basic vinaigrette over a salad. We often add our favorite herbs or seasonings to change things up a little.

Basic Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground pepper
1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil


Add all ingredients to a small glass jar. Screw the lid on tightly, and shake it up until it’s mixed well. For variations, add 1 tsp. dried herbs, dijon mustard, minced onion or garlic, or curry powder.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Pioneer Woman Experience

Way back at the beginning of November we traveled for two weeks. We drove too much for the liking of some little kids, but we did get to see new sites.

The one that was most exciting for me was this little spot in the middle of nowhere, Kansas. This log cabin is a replica of Laura Ingalls Wilder's little house on the prairie. That was the first big book I read as a child, and I've worn out copies of the series from so much reading. They're still my favorite books as an adult. While this site was closed for the season, we were still able to walk around and see what was outside of locked doors.

I actually started to get emotional when we pulled up here!


Since we were headed to the Oklahoma City area from here, it wasn't too far out of the way to go to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where Pioneer Woman (a.k.a. Ree Drummond, blogger extraordinaire and Food Network star) had just opened her new store, The Mercantile, earlier in the week. My kids watch her show with me on Saturday mornings, and my little girl (the middle one) really loves her.

Pawhuska is a little town, but it seemed hopping on that Saturday afternoon. You can see why in this picture. 

Approaching The Mercantile, the line to get into the store.


And on the other of the building, there was another long line.

I'm guessing this was the line for the restaurant.

At this point, my husband and I knew we'd not be stopping because seven children and a line that looks like it would take hours isn't my cup of tea. I'm also not into waiting in line to shop in a store of any kind. But I decided I wanted to take a picture of the lines for this blog, so we hung a left and turned around. While we were doing this, two children swore they'd seen Pioneer Woman's husband, Marlboro Man (a. k. a. Ladd). The adults weren't buying it. 

On our way back through town, we saw this:

This hand-held sign reads "Cool Stuff".

So we followed and went around the block. And wouldn't you know, cool stuff appeared. If we hadn't been driving for so long with little children, I would've stopped to look at the cool stuff more closely.


Metal bison and roosters qualify as "cool stuff."


On the way past PW's store, I did get some pictures (namely the ones above). AND see the fellow in the cowboy hat below? That's the husband the kids had spotted before, out mixing with the crowd. 

Ladd Drummond

So then we drove on out of town, into the eventual sunset. And there were many, many tears from my disappointed little daughter. I felt horrible. It was the one thing on the whole trip she was looking forward to, and I just couldn't make it right. 

However, on our way to the interstate from there, I saw some gorgeous scenery. I pulled out the camera to take a picture, rolled down the window to take a picture of it, but since we were driving the speed limit which is so fast out there, I clicked on this instead:


The Drummond Ranch

While I didn't plan it and don't actually know if that is Pioneer Woman's family's ranch, I thought it was a funny accidental shot. And the possibility that the vehicle we saw coming out of the drive might have been her beloved Pioneer Woman seemed to calm the crying girl down a little bit. But not entirely. Disappointment is a sad thing.

This was some of the scenery I was trying to get a shot of:







Not long after, we noticed this field.

Windturbines, oil, and cattle grazing 

We guessed that whoever owned that land was making a killing on one spot of land. Talk about maximizing potential!


Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Little Late or Early?

I'm not sure if this post is a little late for Small Business Saturday or a little early for Cyber Monday, but here it is anyway.

My friend Sarah recently opened up an Etsy shop. It's called MountainMamaBySarah, and right now she's selling baby toys. She is such a talented lady, let me tell you. Earlier this year she threw a tea party birthday party for her daughter that was so perfect in every detail. I wish I had her skills! Anyway, if you need to buy a gift for a baby, consider her.

I also have a talented family who I've highlighted in another post.

Alas, at the time of the last post, I didn't realize my cousin (the one who dethroned me as the only little one in the family and who was darned cute doing it) also had an Etsy shop. Not only does she sing and do all sorts of music-y stuff (she's a music teacher), but she can make just about anything, and she makes it all well! Anyway, her shop, KTsQuilts, features quilts (especially cute ones for kids) and other things (like little zippered totes that would be cute and useful for kids). There's also a range in prices--from stocking stuffer types of gifts to the more expensive (but well-made) quilts. Please check out her shop.

There. That's my little unsolicited publicity for friends and family. Have fun shopping!


Friday, November 25, 2016

_The Hancock News_ Column--November 23, 2016

Narrowing down my 2016 gratitude list to make it small enough to fit in a newspaper column is no easy task. I’ll try anyway.

Last year our toddler boy began getting carsick regularly. He vomited multiple times even while going straight on the interstate. We could get to town and back, but anything else was a risk. Enter Sea-Bands. These little elastic wristbands press on an acupressure point and, for our little man, work like a charm. No vomit mess in a van equals an extremely thankful momma.

Also on the toddler front, I’m so thankful for Paw Patrol because that’s what I’m bribing my little one with for potty-training. Call it lazy parenting, but those cartoons make less mess in diapers for me to clean up. 

I’m thankful for food. I don’t need to feel hunger pangs to enjoy the basics. I love our fresh guinea eggs when they’re laying and a warm piece of homemade bread. I love a ripe peach and the first veggies from our garden. And unless you think I only eat healthy things, I’m also thankful for the occasional Coke and bag of Cheetos.

I’m grateful for the table that seats our whole family. I’m even more thankful the election’s over so that we can sit down to a meal without being interrupted by Donald or Hillary calling to ask for my vote. 

I’m thankful that we were able to go on a vacation. While driving halfway across the country with little kids has its own challenges, I loved seeing the scenery of Kansas and Oklahoma for the first time.  I’m thankful I was able visit the site of Little House on the Prairie because Laura Ingalls Wilder is my all-time favorite author. None of it would have been possible without Juleea, our kind neighbor who took care of the animals while we were gone. Thank you!



While I enjoyed our vacation, I can agree with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home!” I’m so thankful for my home and the walls that were painted this year. I’m thankful for how well insulated it is and how it keeps out the cold winds I hear blowing outside. 

More than any earthly thing, I’m thankful for the blessings of family-- church family, too-far-away family, and the family inside our home.  I’m so blessed by my husband who warms up a cloth bag of rice to put under the covers to keep my feet warm at night. I’m thankful for the son who crocheted a colorful bathmat out of cut-up t-shirts for me; the rug is slightly misshapen, but it keeps my feet off the cold bathroom floor.

I’m thankful for the son who begged to stay home from the auction he so badly wanted to attend because he thought Mommy would need his help. I’m thankful for the son who patiently sat in the bathroom telling stories to the potty-training toddler who didn’t want to be alone in the bathroom.

I’m thankful for the little girl who’s growing up into her role of big sister, kindly and gently fixing her little sister’s hair for church when Mom was busy with a fussy baby. I’m thankful for my preschool daughter’s cute little voice; it matches her sweet personality. 

I’m grateful for my toddler-boy who keeps me on my toes. His tantrums are fierce, but his hugs are even fiercer. I love those hugs.

And then there’s the baby who everybody adores. She’s been my clingiest baby, but I cling to those hours of nursing and cuddles and care-taking because I don’t know if there will be another baby or not. I’m thankful for those huge baby grins when she plays pat-a-cake or stands up all by herself without holding on to anything. 

And most of all I’m thankful for the Son I did not bear but who bore all my sins so that I can find joy in all my other blessings.

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

I don’t mind the cold weather so long as I’m inside where it’s warm. I’m super-thankful for warm things in winter, especially soup. This soup recipe I found in my Oma’s recipe drawer years ago, and while I don’t remember her making it, I’ve made it a ton of times because it is delicious.

Pennsylvania Dutch Soup

1/2 cup dried white beans
1/2 cup dried kidney beans
1/2 cup dried pinto beans
1/2 cup dried lentils
1/2 cup dried split peas
2 Tbsp. salt
ham hock or ham steak
3 Tbsp. parsley
1 clove garlic
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. oregano
1 bay leaf
1 chopped onion
1 large can tomatoes
2 Tbsp. wine vinegar
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced carrots
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. cumin

Put the dried beans in a large pot with the 2 Tbsp. salt and cover with water to soak overnight. In the morning, rinse and drain the beans. Add 8 cups water, the ham, parsley, garlic, 2 tsp. salt, pepper, oregano, and bay leaf. Simmer for 2 hours then add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 1/2 hour. Remove the ham, dice it, and return it to the pot. 


Monday, November 21, 2016

Today's the Day

It was a little chilly in here yesterday, but I was determined to cook those chills away. I also asked my husband to get our wool blanket out of the top of the closet and throw it on the bed. I put the kids in footsie pajamas. I put on a sweater. And it all worked! Until dark. I waited and waited and waited until midnight. Then I turned on the heat. Today is the official 2016 Heat Day!

I didn't set a new record. I guess that's what happens when you try to cheat; you just don't win.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Turning on the Heat-- Sort Of

We returned on Monday from a two-week-long vacation. It was chilly in our house, and a couple of little ones were sick. I caved and had my husband turn on the heat.

However, we haven't used the heat since then. It seems all the hot air we generate keeps things toasty in here. So this year, I'll record two dates. The first one is November 14th--the one that wouldn't have happened if we'd been home the whole time. The second date will be ?-- when we actually need to keep the heat on for winter-- my official 2016 Heat Day. Is this cheating? Maybe, but it is, after all, my game and my rules. And I want to beat last year's record.

Last year we made it to November 23rd.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

_The Hancock News_ Column--November 2, 2016

People are curious when they find out that we homeschool our children. Usually they wonder what is required of us to teach at home. The requirements are different in each state, but here in Maryland, we are required to regularly teach the same subjects that are taught in public schools and to have portfolios of each child’s work reviewed each year. 

We do that, but some days, it’s a real struggle to fit in everything between frequent diaper changes and nap times. The bad days find us still at math or literature in the evening hours. Because we don’t have a set-in-stone schedule, the only bell we have to pay attention to is the dinner bell.

Our schedule isn’t the only thing that’s different from regular school. Instead of sitting at desks, our children sit at the dining room table. But sometimes the dining room is too loud and the wooden chairs too hard, so you might find my students doing their work on their beds or sitting next to their teacher on the living room couch.

And just sometimes, my students escape altogether and head to the great outdoors. I call it recess. After about half an hour of good exercise and play time, I call them in.

But not last week. I couldn’t help myself. You see, the wind was blowing, and the autumn leaves were raining down on the children. The football lay forgotten, and the children ran to and fro, trying to catch the leaves before they fell to the ground.

From the vantage point of my rocking chair, I could hear their laughter and shouts, and I could see the pure joy on their faces. Such a simple game, the catching of leaves. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

I wish I could honestly say I would’ve joined them if the baby hadn’t been asleep on my lap, but I know I wouldn’t. There’s too much grown-up in me, worrying about laundry and what’s for dinner and such. Sadly, I just don’t think I remember how to forget the time and be so joyfully carefree.

But I can sit in my chair, watch and appreciate, and put off school for a little while longer. In a worrisome world of drugs, violence, and elections, I can allow my students to chase leaves; I can give them a few extra moments of childhood.



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

Childhood means nothing if not milk and cookies. My friend shared the following recipe with me just today, so I’ve not tried it out yet, but, trust me, she doesn’t make bad food! She also said they are best right out of the oven. If you don’t want to decorate them as pumpkins, I’m sure they’re just as delicious as plain circles.
Pumpkin Cookies

2 cups flour
1 cup quick or old-fashioned oats, uncooked
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup solid pack pumpkin
1 cup chocolate chips
Assorted icing, candies, raisins, or nuts for decorating

Preheat oven to 350℉. Combine flour, oats, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Cream butter; gradually add sugars, beating until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla; mix well. Alternate additions of dry ingredients and pumpkin, mixing well after each addition. Stir in chocolate chips. 


For each cookie, drop 1/4 cup dough onto lightly greased cookie sheet; spread into pumpkin shape. Add a bit more dough to form stem. Bake 20-25 minutes, until cookies are firm and lightly browned. Remove from cookie sheets; cool on racks. Decorate, using icing or peanut butter to affix candies, raisins, or nuts. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Chopped Up Pumpkins

We don't really do Halloween, but this year we did carve up some pumpkins. The kids had excitement, then frustration, then fun, then pride at the end.

First up, the one I made from a template I found online here.  I was impressed by how it turned out, and it wasn't really hard with the $4 carving kit my husband bought.

Lamb with lion


Next up is the pumpkin designed by the girls. I drew what they wanted, made a template and transferred it, and Daddy helped them carve it.


A tulip and a cross--simple and effective.


Finally, after way too much deliberation, the boys settled on Luther's Rose. Now, I was quite impressed with this one because they did it all by themselves. They started from a coloring sheet of Luther's Rose and had to pick out what they should carve out. It's not perfect, but they have ideas already for how to make it better next time. 


Luther's Rose, minus a few features



Saturday, October 22, 2016

_The Hancock News_ Column--October 19, 2016

At last the leaves on the trees are figuring out what I’ve felt in my bones for a few weeks; it is finally fall. 




I love the change in seasons. It doesn’t matter which one it is, I get excited as one season gives way to the next. Maybe it’s the newness of the new or maybe I’m plain tired of the old one. Regardless, I never regret moving on to colder or hotter or wetter tomorrows.

But we also order our days in seasons that have nothing to do with the weather. Our family is in the midst of our fall birthday season. With four kids’ birthdays in as many weeks, I struggle to continue liking cake. It is also school season, which means times tables, poems, and lessons about the fall of Rome fill every spare minute. Thankfully, I have more time to devote to our studies now that the garden season is winding down.

Cooling temperatures seem to mean allergy and cold season for us. This last week we came down with some sort of coughing, sore throat, and stuffy nose sickness. Nobody was too sick-- just sick enough for me to allow a few extra cartoons and fewer chores and grammar lessons.

Unfortunately, our little sick season meant that planned visits with my parents couldn’t happen; since my mother has COPD, our sniffles can easily land her in the hospital. 

We’ve all had to adjust to this new season of Grammy’s severe COPD. Tears of disappointment sometimes accompany these adjustments. It’s a big downer for us when we can’t be with my parents for fear of sickness or when Grammy can’t do what she wants to do because it’s too strenuous. 

But think of those big snows in winter, the ones that cause accidents, halt emergency services, and bring us all to our knees. Isn’t all that devastating snow so beautiful! The whole world, it seems, is cozied up in a fluffy white blanket that muffles all the noisy busyness of our lives.




My mother’s condition is awful, but God still works good through it. My mother may have to limit her activities, but that gives her more time to sit in her chair, a lukewarm mug of coffee in one hand and the telephone in the other, simply listening to her grandchildren.

She listens to them read, complain about their mean mommy, and rattle off their Christmas lists as well as their dreams for the future. Because of COPD, my mother, though far away, is available for her beloved grandchildren-- and they know it. And to be honest, that is more beautiful than the purest of snows, the reddest of autumn leaves, the coolest splash in your favorite swimming hole, or the most playful lamb frolicking around the greenest spring pasture. 

***************************************
I love all things autumn-- the bushels of apples, the colorful displays of pumpkins and winter squashes, and the smell of all those wonderful fall spices. My husband created this recipe, and I think it is the quintessential fall meal. I like it for the orange colors, the salty sausage, the sweet apples, and those lovely spices baked in a warm oven on a chilly autumn day. My husband likes that it only dirties one pan. The kids just like that it’s yummy.



The measurements on this are approximate. My husband has never measured, but he adds one layer at a time with these proportions, depending on the size of the baking dish. This is so easy to tailor to the taste of you and the crew that you’re feeding, so add your own favorite twists and fall flavors if you wish.

Fall Harvest Supper Bake

In a 9 x 13 casserole dish, layer the following ingredients in the order given:

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch cubes
4 apples, cored and quartered
1 onion, cut in 1-inch chunks

Sprinkle this with salt, pepper, garlic powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and ground cloves, to your taste.

Next, crumble one pound raw bulk sweet Italian sausage over the top, topped by 1/2 stick butter, cut into small cubes. 


Bake, uncovered, in a 350℉ oven until sweet potatoes are almost tender. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with about 1 cup of Craisins (dried cranberries). Gently stir before returning the pan to the oven to bake until sweet potatoes are soft. Serve with toasted pecans sprinkled on top, if desired.


*This post was shared at Strangers & Pilgrims at Home for The Art of Home-Making Mondays.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Fall Birthday Season

It's that time of year again; time to post pictures of birthday cakes.

Happy 1st birthday!

A breakfast birthday requires muffins, of course. They were applesauce spice muffins with some cream cheese drizzle. The baby was about as impressed with them as she is with any food-- not very. The rest of us liked them though, and I was happy to start our birthday season off with a non-cake cake.

Later that day. . .

Garden birthday cake

The new 9-year-old had this cake designed (actually on paper) since we planted our garden. It is a rough diagram (missing a few things) of our own garden. Clockwise from the upper left hand corner: ground cherries; pumpkin patch complete with straw, vines, and deer poop; beans on a cattle panel trellis; popcorn; more pumpkin patch; and tomatoes. Even the deer poop was tasty. My son not only designed this cake, but he helped make it to his specifications, too; he was happy with the result.


Next up, an unadorned pumpkin pound cake.

Plain but perfect. . . 


. . . as an ice cream sundae topping!

Again, the new 11-year-old was extremely specific about his birthday "cake" desires. He wanted lots of toppings, and he was not disappointed-- even if we forgot to get the toppings out of the cupboard.

And finally, the newly-turned 3-year-old loves him some Paw Patrol, so that's what he got.


Chase is on the cake!

My husband helped me out with this one by buying the toy. Those toy cakes are so simple! The kiddo especially appreciated the extra dollar I spent on the themed plates. He was so cute with the whole birthday routine since he was well-rehearsed from his siblings' parties. 

And, I'm not sad to say, birthday cake season is over 'til spring, but apple dessert season is in full swing. . .