Christmas cheer

I’m listening to Christmas music; planning Christmas week menus with all my kids’ favorites; dogs are curled up at my feet; tree is up, presents are wrapped: who says the season is all hustle and bustle? I have scaled back this year, planned to focus on a few things rather than many…maybe it’s about seasonal survival, but it feels right. Maybe it’s some social response to knowing that this season, for many, is difficult. But mostly, I want to focus on the real and the good, rather than the tinsel and noise. We’ll have gifts and celebration, but the memories will be of games, good food, fun movies, eight month old Riley, and the rest of us as we share and spend time together. Norman Rockwell? Not even close! But real and meaningful? I hope that’s exactly what it will be.

And just in case I’m distracted and busy for the next couple of days, Merry Christmas! I wish everyone joy, health and peace.

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My kids are coming home

Sometimes you have to experience to understand. I knew as a child that my parents loved me. But I couldn’t understand that fully until I had my own children. Now, seeing the cycle repeat through Stephanie’s eyes, watching her fall in love with little Riley, I know that once again, the parent/child magic is at work.

As an adult, I knew that it was meaningful to my parents and to my inlaws when we visited.  They told us so, they thanked us for coming, for making the time to be with them. For most of our marriage, we have lived many states away from both sets of parents. Visits home were at best a couple of times each year. And some years the trips back to  family were supplemented with visits from our parents to us, in our home.

Now, still in the early years of our children being out of the nest, I realize more fully what a gift it is to parents to have adult children come for a visit. I can’t explain how it is different, having my kids back in our home, rather than visiting them in their homes or meeting somewhere for a vacation. Each scenario is enjoyable. But there is something unique about welcoming them back, about planning their favorite meals, about planning to spoil them a bit in the home setting. It isn’t about control or trying to turn them into children again…too late for that! But it is about recognizing that when they are “home,” there is a unique opportunity to mother, to enjoy having them under our roof again. It reminds me that our bonds, created over the years of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, have stood the test of time, have weathered the stages of growth, and that now, we are not only parents and children, we are friends. We call each other out of choice rather than obligation. We look for opportunities to share.

They have left the nest, but they come back to renew the connection, to reinforce the ties. We’ve done it: we successfully launched two fully functioning young people into their own lives. We let go, and now, we reap the reward of seeing their futures unfold. And next week, we’ll spend time with them here, at home, and it will be good.

Small town Alaska

I live in a small Alaskan island community. Ketchikan has a Wal-Mart, a Safeway, a small mall with mostly local stores. The only restaurants in town that are not local are McDonald’s and Subway…oh, and Godfather’s Pizza. I’ll admit, I frequently miss living in the foothills outside Denver…largely for friends and intangible things. But I also miss the wonderful variety of retail shopping, the plethora of restaurants throughout the city and suburbs, the option of choice. Let’s face it, when Wal-Mart and the hardware stores are out of Christmas lights, you don’t have other possibilities a mile or two away, living on an island. And the funny thing is, Ketchikan is the big city for other surrounding island communities! People come over in droves on ferries to spend the day shopping here…maybe that’s why Wal-Mart is out of colored Christmas lights.

But small towns have other good things. The checkers in the grocery are friendly, and I hear people wishing each other “Merry Christmas” when I’m out and about. Ketchikan puts up Christmas lights and you could almost believe you have stepped back in time at the mall, except that everyone walking by has a cell phone in hand. There are singing Christmas tree productions, holiday celebrations listed in the paper. No one seems to be agitated if the term “Christmas” is used. Of course you can say “Merry Christmas!” This is small town America…no controversy about being politically correct here! 

Alaska has an interesting combination of residents. There are a lot of transplants, like us, who have lived in the state a few years but will likely not be here too long…too far from family and the life we have had in the past. This is a passing through for us. But there are people who have multi-generation roots here. The state only just celebrated 50 years of being a state. And a lot of people who have spent their adult lives here came as children or young adults looking for adventure and higher pay. They say that Alaskans are independent in spirit, and maybe that is true. Alaska is also called the last American frontier, and that is definitely true. You need to be a bit hardy to live here, or at least to live here long. I think we’ve done ok because it is an adventure for us. The inconveniences are still mostly novel. But they also insulate the state from a lot of things that are more common “down south.” One of the positives is that life does seem just a bit more mellow here, a bit more old-fashioned. I actually have an account at the hardware store. I go in and charge to the account, not my Visa card. I never had a local account before. I also have that with the fuel oil company. Who knew these practices still existed? I thought everyone used credit cards almost exclusively now!

I’m not sure where we’ll live next…larger city or another small town. That decision has yet to be made. But regardless, I’m glad I’ve had a chance to experience small towns in Alaska, first Kotzebue and now Ketchikan. It has given me a glimpse of a world that I thought was largely gone, a world where you actually know people in stores or at the post office, where small kindnesses frequently happen and community events bring neighbors out to participate. Alaska still has Norman Rockwell charm, in spite of the rough and tough image people know from TV reality shows. And if you’re fortunate enough to visit Ketchikan, “salmon capital of the world,” check out the local restaurants for chowder and fish and chips…chain restaurants don’t get their fish fresh from the dock an hour before serving to customers. Small town grace and the best seafood you can get…now that’s a great combination!

Nickie

Nickie is my baby. She is the only dog that I’ve ever considered my own. The others in my life were jointly shared with family. But Nickie stole my heart when I saw her, a six-week old, two pound puppie, with the sweetest little face and a tiny little body that could fit in my hands.

We didn’t mean to get another dog. We had a Cocker Spaniel, Sable, who was getting older and wasn’t in good health. I had thought about getting another dog for our kids to bond with before Sable was gone, but as a family, we hadn’t really discussed the idea or made that decision. We were buying a Sheltie to give to my father-in-law for his 60th birthday. We located a breeder in our area who was going to have puppies ready to leave their mom about the time we wanted to present him with his new dog. The breeder had two, and we could choose the one we wanted to purchase.

When we went out to pick up the puppy we were going to give, we walked in and saw two miniatures, tiny little dogs that were twins, the only two in the litter. One was more social, came out to see us right away. The other one seemed shy and quiet. My inlaws operate a Christian student center at a small college, so we thought the more outgoing pup would be the best fit for their environment. But even as we were making that choice, the other puppy was casting her spell. It was a short step from buying one puppy to taking both. Talk about an impulse purchase!

We took both dogs home and settled into a puppy centered life for a while. My inlaws arrived for their visit, were completely charmed with the dogs, and when they left, they took the one we had chosen for them.

We named ours Nickie, or Nicollette Ness Gibson. But she was Nickie, or Nick, from the first. Then as she captured my heart, she became “Little” and then “Poo,” additional names she still has to this day. Nick-names for pets are like names for your kids…you don’t always know or remember where they came from or when they were added. They’re just additional little names that show your affection.

Nickie was a little puff of a dog with a fine coat of fur and a little pointed nose. She had quite the spirit when we got to know her. Shelties are sheep herding dogs, and it wasn’t long before she was nipping at my heels going up the stairs. I guess in the absence of sheep, she decided to herd the humans in her charge. She particularly loved Alex, and became attached to him. He spent a lot of time with her as we were home schooling him that year.

She grew, but not much. Every time we talked with my inlaws, we compared the weight of the two dogs. I thought their vet’s scales must be out of sync with ours, there was a significant difference in the weights of the two siblings as they grew. We were astonished when we saw the two together several months later. Nickie was the runt. She had grown in size, and her fur coat had filled in, but she was only about half as big as her sister. It was really comical to see the two together, knowing that a few months before they had been the same size puppies.

It was not from lack of trying that Nickie was small. She had (and has) a seemingly insatiatable appetite. I think she would eat until she popped if we didn’t limit her food. She’s very protective of her bowl too…get near her when she’s eating and she gets very agitated. We tried to correct that behavior, but never really got through to her. She’s still concerned, at every meal, that her bowl is in danger of being whisked away. She’s so ferocious that our Jack Russell, Pete, won’t even go into the kitchen when she’s eating.

Nickie has been fortunate. She’s on her fourth life now. About a year after we got Nickie, Sable began to get weaker. She finally reached a point of not getting up from her bed, and we knew the time had come to say good-bye. I arranged for our vet to come to the house to put her down and we were all able to be there with Sable. It was a hard afternoon and a sad evening. Just before bed, we were letting Nickie out for the last time before going up for the night. A herd of deer were just beyond our door and Nickie ran over to them, attempting to herd them. As we watched, she followed them up the hill in the darkness. She had never run before, we had let her out without a leash, and because she had recently been chewing at her collar tags, I had taken her collar off to try to stop that behavior. I was frantic, realizing that she was out at night, in the Colorado cold, with no collar to identify her, and could possibly be prey for whatever predators were nearby. We knew there were mountain lions in the area, and she was small enough to be an easy target for almost any size animal.

We looked for her without success, then left the garage door up and the light on, hoping she would find her way home. The next morning she was still missing. I couldn’t really believe she would have survived the night, but we decided to call the vet offices and shelters in the area in case she had been found by someone else, and we continued our search in the daylight. By late afternoon I felt hopeless. Our daughter decided to contact some shelters further from the house, and by some miracle, a shelter several miles away had a call about a dog that matched Nickie’s description. They gave Stephanie the contact information for the person who had reported finding her, and she arranged for Nickie to be brought to the house. Nickie had roamed about a mile and turned up at someone’s back door. Seeing her safe and at home again was such a relief. I had felt so terrible, both for Nickie to be lost, and for our kids, losing one dog to illness, and having the other one run away in the same day.

Her next near-death adventure occured in the Arctic. We took the dogs with us when we moved to Kotzebue, Alaska, in our empt nest adventure. We were living in an apartment building, reserved for hospital staff with pets, appropriately enough known as the “Dog House.” Rob and I had planned to travel to our son’s graduation from Army basic training, and I had arranged to trade dog sitting with one of the nurses at the hospital. Our dogs were going to stay with her and her two larger dogs, and I was going to return the favor when she was out of town. We had a meet-and-greet, and everyone seemed compatible.

The morning we were leaving, I took the dogs to the house where they were going to stay while we were gone. It was November, already dark and cold in the Arctic. I went home to finish packing and had barely walked in the door when my phone rang. The nurse who was keeping the dogs called to say that one of her dogs had bitten Nickie and she was bleeding. I ran back to get Nickie and when I walked in the door, saw blood all over the walls of the front entrance. Nickie had been bitten on the back of her neck, and it looked like she was bleeding profusely. We rinsed off the blood to see the extent of the damage, and saw that in reality, she only had a small bite. I scooped her up and took her home and waited for Rob to come back from his hospital rounds. There was no vet in town, and I thought she needed a few stitches.

Rob was the stand in vet in the emergency. I held a flashlight and he used a sewing needle and black thread to put a few stiches in to close the bite wound. A neighbor agreed to keep her so she would not be staying with the dog who bit her. Although she seemed a little dazed and disoriented, she recovered well, and by the time we got back from our trip, was her old self again.

But she almost didn’t survive that year. A few months later, her appetite was almost the end of her. One evening after work, I was beginning dinner and noticed a couple of bites of steak in the fridge that I had saved as a dog treat. I gave Pete and Nick a bite each, and then turned around to continue my dinner prep. But within seconds I could hear Nickie wheezing like she couldn’t breathe. She had choked on the bite of steak I gave her and was gasping for air when I looked down. I couldn’t dislodge the meat, and realizing she wouldn’t last long, I ran next door to get help. Our neighbor, Jimmy, was a Santa Claus look alike who was the department head of X-ray at the hospital. I had the inspired thought that he might be able to dislodge the meat with his better knowledge of anatomy. The moment he opened the door and realized what was happening, he took Nickie and began to try to save her. He was able to extract the meat, and then he actually gave her a few breaths of mouth to mouth to bring her back around! And what did she do? As soon as he put her down on the floor she began to look for the bite of meat that had fallen when it was dislodged. Fortunately for her, I beat her to it, and she didn’t get any more steak for a long time. We eventually had a nice dinner party to thank Jimmy for saving Nickie. Nickie was introduced to everyone, but she was not invited to eat.

She’s still a chow hound, and she’s broadened with age, although she’s still a small dog. She turned 11 this year in November. Hard to believe we’ve had her this long. She’s still a feisty little being, still loves her food, and she would still like to herd sheep. Nickie has been a joy in my life. She reminds me that good things come in small packages, and that you can outgrow shyness and overcome size to take your place in life. I love her little ferocious spirit, and her funny little ways. She’s my baby.

The power of “no”

I have a “yes” policy. That is, I say “yes” most of the time. My husband says that’s not true. But I say that’s not true…I really do have a “yes” policy, and I like to remind him of that when I’ve just said “yes” to a request from him.

I am a person who enjoys pleasing others. It makes me feel good, and although I think I have plenty of self-confidence, there’s probably some need deep inside to encourage others to like me by saying “yes” as often as possible.

But I’ve begun to give myself permission to say “no.” It is very empowering. I don’t even say “no” so much to other people. But I am learning to turn down commitments that steal my time away from my real priorities or from commitments I’ve already made. Saying “no” can be as simple as not taking on a new chore or project when my to do list is already longer than time will allow me to complete. It is recognizing that saying “yes” to some things is in reality saying “no” to others. And usually when that happens, I find that I have sacrificed some personal plan or desire for something that was not as important to me…but it was a request from someone else. That doesn’t mean that I want to be self-centered or to always put my wishes first. But I am learning (better late than never!) that a “yes” policy can be detrimental to me, to relationships, to my sense of what is important. I’m learning that saying “yes” is not always the right thing, just because I am making someone else happy with that answer. I am learning to have a “no” policy too. And that’s a good thing. Better late than never!

December reality

It has been an expensive week. A bathroom light had to be replaced. A medical bill arrived. A fuel oil bill appeared on my door. (That’s how you know your home heating oil has been topped off…you get a little love note –bill—left on your front door). And this is December…I’m still not done with Christmas gifts or other monthly expenses.

But oh well, what am I complaining about? I see the news stories of how many people are out of work, losing homes, going to soup kitchens, and I know that I’m still among the fortunate, even with unexpected expenses cropping up. At least I have a bathroom, access to medical care, a house to warm. A job that pays for these things…well, Rob pays for some of it, of course…but the point is the same, no matter whose pocket the money comes from. We have it to spend. We are fortunate indeed. And if I really get creative, I can spin it that the money I am spending, even on things like bathroom lights, is helping someone pay their bills and keep going. I like helping the economy, I really do!

Of all times of the year, this is the easiest time for me to be grateful. I know that none of the gifts I am giving are essential. They are all extras, things that are fun or even useful. But not essential. And I would guess that most gifts that people give are in the same category. This is not about making anyone feel guilty, it is about recognizing that even when things aren’t perfect, they are still pretty good if you are warm, fed, and have enough excess to give those non-essential gifts. Why is it so difficult to keep this perspective? Maybe I am speaking for myself…but I don’t think so. Complaining is a way for all of us to vent, to let off steam. The image of the perfect life is out there, in myth and movies. We’ve seen it in our imaginations, and we work hard…don’t we deserve it? And why did my light have to be replaced anyway? I don’t know why life hands us these little irritations. Maybe it is to keep the big picture in perspective…and we know it already. We just don’t stay focused on the positives as much as the negatives. It is just human nature.

So I’m re-channeling my thoughts. My December is not going to be shadowed by the things that went wrong. It will be a celebration of the things that are good, gifts to us all. And when I flip my bathroom light switch, I’ll be grateful that it is working again, thankful for the repairman who replaced it, thankful for the job that allowed me to pay him, thankful for that minor irritation that reminds me how much I truly have.

The Grocery

I’m planning my food shopping list for Christmas. It’s very exciting to me. I’m one of those rare people who actually likes going to the grocery store. The only time I dread it is when I have to go alone. For so many years I could always count on having a kid or two with me, and when Stephanie and Alex were no longer available to go, Rob became my shopping partner.

I really love going at this time of year. The local Safeway is brimming with treats and seasonal offerings that make the whole place seem festive. I like to explore the imported cheese display, check out the specialty foods and consider what candies and tidbits to put in the stockings. I am the resident stocking filler, assisted by Stephanie when we spend Christmas together. There are a lot of choices. Since I rarely buy candy except at Christmas and Halloween, I’m surprised by new products that I haven’t seen or tried before. But I usually pick something tried and true: a Toblerone bar or truffles or one of the particular favorites of our kids. Rob doesn’t really eat candy, so I look at fruit for him. The red grapefruit, Clementines and pomegranates are the best. And they fill a stocking nicely.

When Rob and I go to the grocery I am always in a good mood. I think the connection between the intimacy of meal planning and eating together is what does it for me. (Of course he sometimes finds romantic things to say in the produce department, but that’s another post.) It may seem like an odd choice of words to describe something so seemingly mundane. Intimacy and Safeway?! But there’s something touching to me about planning our meals, what we want to share, who will cook what, and it inspires me to look forward to each dinner, each breakfast. We are not simply eating: we are being together. And I’m happy to say that we are both at our low weight goals for ourselves. So even though I consider myself something of a foodie, and we both enjoy eating, we are NOT out of control. Yay! 

My daughter and I had this conversation a couple of days ago…you are either into food, or you’re not. If you’re not, cooking is a chore and not fulfilling. And while there are times when I am not interested in being in the kitchen either, in general I find a lot of pleasure in the process from start to finish. Now, thinking about what dishes to make when Alex visits for Christmas, I remember the things he liked to eat when he was still living at home: shepherd’s pie, thick potato soup with cheese and bacon; homemade rolls; shrimp; cookies right out of the oven are a few of his favorites. I’m excited to cook for him again and to show him that although he’s been out of the nest for a while now, these foods are still part of coming home and being pampered a bit during his stay.

Food taken to an unhealthy extreme is not good. But like the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, there is a level that is just right: food fills, cherishes, warms the heart. It’s one of the biggest elements families share together. If you’ve been shorting your dinner time, don’t miss the chance to sit at the same table with the people who are important in your life. And at the risk of sounding like a mom, if you are the chief cook and bottle washer in your home, put some thought into the experience. Knowing the food likes and dislikes of your family shows that you are tuned in, that you are paying attention, that you care. I don’t mean food or the table setting has to be fancy to be nourishing; of course not. But as long as you have to eat anyway, wouldn’t it be more fun if the food is good? And the place to start is at the grocery. My advice: make menus and a shopping list, be adventurous with recipes…it is much easier to have great meals  if you are prepared. And then do it from the heart. Look for the intimacy. It’s there between each aisle.

Tradition

What is there about tradition that speaks to the human heart in a universal language? Some people hold on to the traditions they knew as children, some feel inspired to create their own, others choose a hybrid of the two. Whatever the source of tradition in your life, it can be a powerful force. It is the thing that makes certain foods and rituals mandatory for holidays. It dictates in a variety of ways, from small details to the big picture.

I have many holiday traditions; some I keep faithfully while others are a bit hit and miss. I have maintained my commitment to Christmas cards, fresh trees, favorite recipes, music, special Christmas ornaments for my children each year, and a few select holiday movies. But some years are bigger than others. Some years we have been home for the holidays, and others we have been with family. Once we were in Hawaii until December 23, and came home to put up a Charlie Brown tree (about the only one left at our corner Christmas tree lot) and put on a pared down celebration due jet lag and time constraints. But it was a memorable holiday none the less. We’ve all remembered that December vacation in Hawaii.

We have a running debate over white or colored lights. My daughter and I always vote for the tiny white lights while my son and husband are in favor of color. I keep the peace by making an every other year compromise. And I have to admit, whatever the  light choice for the year, once the strands are on the tree, its magic. The tree is a living presence during the couple of weeks we keep it up: first thing on in the morning, last thing off at night. I switch the lights on before I get my coffee so I can sit and enjoy waking up with the soft glow of the tiny lights breaking the darkness at 5:00 AM. The smell is addicting too. Just walking through the Boy Scout lot among the bundled trees is a preview of the scent that fills the house when we bring the tree inside.

The foods of Christmas are iconic and many people share similar traditions of cookie recipes, desserts or main dishes that define the holidays. For our family, our strongest food tradition is Christmas Eve lasagna. Years ago, the first Christmas we lived away from family and were going to be on our own, I wanted to have a special meal that would have meaning to my husband, who was in his intern year of residency. One of his favorite foods at that time was lasagna, something his mom made for him. We had homemade lasagna with all the trimmings for Christmas Eve dinner, and we’ve maintained that menu ever since. It wouldn’t be Christmas Eve with different food: it just wouldn’t be right.

My son loves gingerbread cookies, and somewhere along the way that became one of the season’s treats. Some years we’ve done a lot of baking for gift giving, but others have been busy enough that we only did the bare minimum. But regardless, gingerbread is a requisite, another must-do.

Our Christmas morning food tradition acknowledges my love of baked sweets and my husband’s love of savory. We always have homemade cinnamon rolls and the Southern classic, sausage balls. Add a special coffee and chilled juice and breakfast is easy and ready to serve before or after checking Santa’s surprises.

When our kids were still at home, the three of us had a tradition of a day of mall shopping and then dinner, usually at Red Robin, on the way home. Can’t go wrong with kids and burgers, or my daughter’s favorite, chicken fingers and fries. After the day spent shopping, choosing gifts for everyone, then driving home in the evening with Christmas music playing and snow falling…well, Christmas in Colorado is magic. I hear some of that music today and I am immediately driving along C-470 with two kids in the van, warm and happy with anticipation of the days ahead and satisfaction from the day just ending.

I remember some of the special moments throughout the years: when both kids got bikes one Christmas in Michigan, delivered early by special arrangement with Santa because we were going to travel to family for Christmas Day; or even further back, the Christmas we got our first family pet, a small black Cocker Spaniel puppy our daughter named Sable. Stephanie was five and Alex was 18 months old. Sable was a part of our lives for many years, a wonderful addition to our little family. She was a gift from Rob to the kids, and perhaps the best Christmas gift he ever gave them.

I think traditions reinforce the good from the past, remind us of things and moments and people who have been precious in our lives. Traditions say that we have such wonderful memories, we want to recreate them, or parts of them, all over again. Traditions bind generation to generation, connect the years. In the best sense, they are not rituals that we are burdened with repeating, but a way to link memory with the present, past and future, parent to child. Our son now makes his own gingerbread, and our daughter is beginning her daughter’s Christmas traditions this year. Riley will experience her first Christmas, and although she won’t remember it, she’ll have her special ornament, her little part of the day. And when our son is visiting this year, I’ll make gingerbread for him, and we’ll have our traditional lasagna and say to each other, “This is the good stuff…” And the real meaning is not found in the food or the color of lights on the tree, or even in the gifts, but in each other.

Soft Sugar Cookies

I’ve been on a baking holiday recently. Rob isn’t much of a sweet eater, and I’ve been trying to be good….no baking treats to eat all by myself! But getting a Christmas box ready to mail to our daughter-in-law, Becca, stationed in Iraq, demanded a home-made addition. I tried a new sugar cookie recipe, and I think I have a new favorite. Some sugar cookie recipes are too eggy for my taste, or bake too crispy. These are soft and chewy, and have a great flavor. You can roll the dough if you want, or use a scoop and flatten method for uniform cookies perfect for gift packages.

Ingredients

Method

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees. Combine flour, salt and baking powder and set aside. Cream butter, 1 cup granulated sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla, mix until combined. Add dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Using cookie scoop, drop dough onto cookie sheet. Flatten rounded cookies to 3/4 inch discs, then sprinkle with granulated, turbinado, or colored sugar, as desired. Bake cookies approximately 15 minutes, or until just done enough to hold shape. I don’t let these brown. Remove cookie sheet from oven and let cookies cool for a couple of minutes before removing to cooling rack. The cookies should still have a soft chewy texture when cooled. Enjoy!