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.


  1. Love this! Your gingerbread house looks fantastic. :-)