A tale of two trees.

Dear friends,

xmastree

If you’re like me, Christmas is the most sentimental time of year. By the time my birthday rolls around in early December, I am inevitably lulled into a month-long reverie of reminiscences that make January and its stoic resolutions seem like an especially cold slap in the face.

Decorating the tree has long been the focus of my nostalgia. I have collected dozens of ornaments over nearly 40 years. I’d like to claim they are each carefully wrapped in tissue and stored in tidy containers, but the truth is while some are, most aren’t, and my containers wear the heavy dust of a basement I rarely venture into.

Still, when I open my boxes and begin the ritual of adorning the tree, it’s as if the concentrated essence of Christmases past fills the room like the steamy aroma of mulled cider. My kids know the drill: I put on my favorite Christmas music (classics recorded by the likes of Tom Petty, the Eagles, and John Mellencamp); Parker manages the bird’s nest of wire hooks, pulling them free one by one; Kate attaches a hook to each ornament and passes it to me; and I select the perfect spot for each and every ornament. Along the way, I tell the same stories year after year after year.

“This doll is the from the set of six wooden ornaments I sold in high school to raise money for my cheerleading team. This is the dough ornament I made in middle school, the only one Grannie saved. This is the cross stitch ornament my sorority sister at TU gave me my junior year. This is the first ornament I purchased for Kate after she was born. This is the first ornament Parker made and brought home from Kiddie Kollege. This is the ornament I bought on the trip to Yellowstone – remember how sick Parker was with chicken pox on our trip?”

Besides my own enjoyment, the annual recitation is likely a thinly veiled stab at maternal immortality.  If I keep telling the stories, as my rationalization goes, my kids will remember them and pass them on. And some December day, four or five or six generations from now, my timeworn ornaments will hang on a tree and remind a great-great-great-somebody of Joan-Marie. Sometimes I think that’s all a mother really wants. To be remembered.

But this year, for the first time, we broke with tradition. I was at the dining room table sewing up a birthday quilt for a friend back home – too busy to pause I declared – so Kate decided to take charge. Parker fell in line with the hooks and Kate carefully curated my collection with a discerning eye.

“I’m done,” she declared, far too soon to have paid proper homage to each of my ornaments. “What?” I said. “You can’t possibly be!” “Come look,” she teased. “It’s beautiful. And not at all like your tree.”

And there, in our den, was a Christmas tree straight out of a magazine. “Look how balanced it is,” Kate said, beaming. “It’s a perfect mix of white, gold and red. Not cluttered. Not overdone.”

I was speechless. There were no popsicle-stick stars with plastic beads hot-glued on. No Hallmark/Disney frames with faded photos of every deceased but beloved pet in our family’s history. No tiny coffee mugs with each of our names painted on, purchased on family road trips from roadside souvenir joints. It was if our ornaments held a beauty contest and only the loveliest and most elegant made it on stage.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, surprised by an unexpected dose of equanimity. “Really, it is. I can’t believe I like it, but I do. You’ve done a lovely job.”

“I like it, too” Parker added quickly. “Since we’re finished, can I go hang with my friends now?”

And just like that, this old dog proved she could learn a new trick, even on the touchiest of topics, on the most sentimental of days. Instead of insisting my children watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with me (another of Joan-Marie’s treasured traditions), we turned down the music, turned up the college football game, and settled into a new holiday rhythm, one no less modulated by a mother’s heart, but newly attuned to the vicissitudes of family affections.

With gratitude {for holiday family time, whether by my own design or another’s},

Joan, who likes her Christmas trees like her baked potatoes — loaded

Day 29 and 30: Yeah, yeah, I’m behind.

Dear friends,

holiday

On day 29 and 30 of the month of Thanksgiving, I was so busy being happy I didn’t have time to post why I was happy.

So much for daily posting!

But rest assured my daily gratitude was in full force.

I don’t know why, exactly, but my joy-otometer has been red-lined. Something about having a house full of college girls and plenty of time to cook and nest. I did more dishes in six days than I’d care to do in a month, but I suppose if you’re gonna eat home-cooked food, you’re gonna have to hit the sink. It was a small price to pay for so many smiles and a Tweet from my daughter on day two of her break that said “You know you’re home when momma’s in the kitchen cooking away.”

To return the favor, Kate decorated the house for Christmas while I quilted. Talk about luxury! Parker hauled the boxes up from the basement and Kate unpacked and arranged. From my vantage point at the dining room table, I gave advice and sang Christmas carols while my Bernina merrily hummed along in unison.

I learned that Kate is much more a minimalist than I am — even in my new pared-down phase. Declaring my approach to Christmas trees “cluttered,” she created a lovely if spare tree in a perfect balance of red, white and gold trim. She also took an understated approach to to the mantle. At the last minute, I pulled out several of my favorites, including the old-fashioned wooden sign I like to hang in our kitchen, and we called it good. There’s just enough holly-jolly adornment to know it’s Christmas without being overwhelmed by either the decor or the eventual chore of putting it away.

Finally, in a furious burst of seasonal energy, I finished two quilts and mailed them to unsuspecting recipients. (Photos to come when the gifts are no longer surprises.) Standing in line at the Post Office I was insanely happy at the prospect of sending my latest creations out into the world. And in a perfectly symmetrical turn of events, I arrived home to find a package for me: eight new bundles of fabric from my favorite online retailer, ensuring the Unaquilter is restocked to spread all kinds of joy throughout her land.

With gratitude {for nearly everything that makes my heart full, crammed into a single, glorious week of November},

Joan, who turns 51 today and is too happy to care (unlike last year’s angst-filled milestone)

Day 28: The Turkey Trotters.

Dear friends,

turkeytrot2

On the 28th day of this month of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the family and friends who humored me by starting the day with a 5K.

It was a chilly 25 degrees and I must have asked each person in our group no fewer than five times if they were dressed warmly enough. Parker answered yes more than once then froze to death without gloves and a hat. (Told ya!)

Must be why he flew through the course. He placed 6th out of 67 runners with a very respectable 24:17.

I flew through dinner afterwards.

plate

And later, I’m going to fly through pumpkin cake and pecan pie.

A girl’s got to play to her strengths, don’t you think?

With gratitude {for one of the most memorable Thanksgivings ever},

Joan, who didn’t come in last (or even next to last) among her group, which is no small feat given she was the oldest of the six Turkey Trotters

Day 18: Employed!

Dear friends,

parkseed2

Parker and friends shoveling seed in the hazy grain elevator.

Today my boy got a job. So on this 18th day of a month of Thanksgiving I am grateful for gainful employment for the youngest member of our family.

It’s not Park’s first job and won’t be his last but should tide him over until he leaves for college. During the summer he worked long hours for good wages, hauling hay for a handful of local farmers and shoveling seed at a nearby grain company. I’m proud to say he saved the majority of his earnings and has a bank account Kate salivates over.

But when hay season ended in early September, he found himself unemployed until today.

Starting next month, he’ll be a cook at a new Buffalo Wild Wings franchise that’s opening in our town. Score! Our family loves wings. We cook them frequently and go out of our way to try new wing joints whenever we’re traveling. B-Dubs (as the teenagers call it) is one of our favorites. Given the local restaurant’s kitchen staffing, I can’t imagine we’ll pass up many opportunities to eat wings made by our favorite cook.

Pass the hot sauce, will you?

With gratitude {for paychecks and a new excuse to eat wings},

Joan, who celebrated Parker’s announcement by making his special request for supper — biscuits and gravy (hey, when it’s good, it’s worth having two days in a row!)

Day 11: The Sportsman.

Dear friends,

park

On Day 11 of this month of Thanksgiving, I can’t help but reflect on our home’s favorite sportsman.

Parker is the only 18-year-old male in our home and, as such, is by far our family’s finest athletic specimen. He runs a 21-minute 5K without practice, dunks basketballs with little effort, contorts his 6’7″ frame into amazing twists and flips off the high dive, and has a wicked (and frightening) tennis serve.

But it’s his talent at motorsports that really makes us pause. He’s only been riding since we moved to Missouri, but Mr. Mom says he’s a natural.

Parker spent last weekend competing in the Hillbilly Grand Prix, a well-known off-road motorcycle racing series. He took 5th place in his category, Class C Sportsman. (I know nothing about it, but Mr. Mom says it’s a step above the rookies and purely recreational riders, and a step below the money class.)

Mr. Mom competed in motocross for years until he gave up motorcycles for drag racing, so he knows quite a bit about the sport. He taught Parker to ride and figures he’s a fair judge of his skill. When he says he’s impressed by Parker, I take it seriously.

Of course it helps that Mr. Mom is turning our acreage into a motocross wonderland. Here’s Park trying out two new logs jumps Mr. Mom built.

http://instagram.com/p/f58wjAqhkG/

Watching a young man compete at something he loves in the prime of his life is — for this mother — as mesmerizing and alluring as Greek mythology. Like Hermes, the beautiful boy of my daydreams slays athletic obstacles, escapes danger and seduces those who would detour his aspirations. Who needs lore when the lionhearted is right under your roof?

With gratitude {for the beauty, grace and fearlessness of young manhood on full display},

Joan, but you can call her Athena of Textile Artistry

Parkie Park.

Dear friends,

Park

Today my sweet boy turns 18. I don’t know where the time went but it sure offered lots of surprises, challenges and delights.

No parent wants to admit it, I suppose, but you can’t help but compare one child to another. Once you have two or more children on deck and you get your sea legs, you eventually learn that the inevitable comparison is fine as long as you allow each child to find his or her place in the family without excessive relativity.

Kate has always been calm and composed, bordering on stoic. Two and a half years after Kate’s arrival, Parker blew into our lives like a sudden summer storm. He kicked up all kinds of dust and, by comparison, we found him impulsive, intense, headstrong, and — once we decided to admit it — wildly entertaining.

As a toddler, we nicknamed him Park the Shark because he was always in motion, gliding through our home, watchful for any opportunity to exploit a moment of uncertainty or chaos to his advantage. Kate mothered him from the beginning, which meant Mr. Mom and I often found ourselves in the role of amused observers, wondering how this unique and captivating creature found his way to us.

Over the years, he’s mellowed considerably. But he’s still the family muse, wit, and impossible-to-stay-mad-at moppet, albeit a very large and very hairy moppet. Last weekend, Kate surprised him with an early birthday present and he climbed on her lap (all 6 feet and 7 inches of him) and gave her several exaggerated hugs. He could get away with murder in our family and his three enablers are well aware of their susceptibility to his charm. (Don’t believe me? Talk to his father who purchased the boy a very expensive motor bike for his 18th birthday.)

No matter how much he grows or matures, he’ll always be Parkie Park to his mother, the woman who once wrote that his electric blue eyes are “the lapis pools of my undoing.”  As downfalls go, I’ll take my fetching boy any day.

With gratitude {for the pleasure of the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the thoroughly bewitching power of a son},

Joan, who’s still mourning the loss of her baby’s curls

parkcurls2

and who hopes her little daredevil chases all the thrills on his bucket list

snow

Sad. With a side of busy.

Dear friends,

sadapple

In every year of my work life, there are two weeks so busy that all others pale in comparison. One is in April and one is this week. It’s one of those weeks where my assistant prepares a two-inch binder with 20 tabs and dozens of sheets filled with details about the meetings, appointments, dinners, and other special events I will either attend or preside over.

Had I not fallen prey to a bug of some sort and stayed home several hours on Monday and Tuesday, this week would have easily topped 70 hours. As it is, I probably won’t surpass 60, which I suppose is a blessing all things considered.

So that — in part — is why you haven’t heard from me for a few days.

I’ve also been sad . . . which combined with busy tends to result in “lights out” on this page.

Saturday is my mother’s birthday. It also happens to be my 22nd anniversary, and when it finally occurred to me a week ago that the date was rapidly approaching, instead of thinking about ways to express my continuing affection to Mr. Mom, I thought about how much I miss my mother. I was trying to prepare for a dinner party, but instead I sat on my bed and cried.

I can’t believe she’s been gone three years. I can’t believe I still cry when the magnitude of her absence hits me at weird moments. I’ve always thought it is important to honor the grief, though, so I took a break from cooking and spent a half hour in solitude thinking, in part, how much Mom would have liked my menu and thought my dinner party kicked butt.

By the way, in case I never told you the story . . . on our wedding day Mr. Mom and I pretended we forgot my mother’s 62nd birthday. We had breakfast with her and she spent most of the day helping me decorate our reception hall, but I never said a word. At the reception — after we cut the cake — I stepped forward to speak, intending to tell everyone it was my mother’s birthday and to deliver a loving tribute. Instead, I dissolved into tears and Mr. Mom had to speak for me. After we sang Happy Birthday to her, I gave her a surprise gift: a mother’s ring made by the same childhood friend who made my wedding band. A few years later Mom told me it was the best birthday of her life.

I remember that on the days I miss her. On the days I think I didn’t bring enough light and love into her life, I remember that day and it helps.

Then on top of my run-of-the-mill sadness, I learned on Monday that one of Kate’s friends from back home died after an extended illness. Ashley was a beautiful and radiant 20-year-old woman and her loss has left my hometown — and my daughter — reeling. The funeral is today and Kate will be there but I won’t (what with all the events in the two-inch binder with 20 tabs).

I know a little something about Ashley’s parents’ pain after watching my mother lose an adult son. Still, in spite of everything I think I know about grief and heartache, I find myself with few words of understanding or comfort because losing a child at the cusp of adulthood seems to me a grievous and unbearable loss.

I know. Losing a child anytime is a grievous and unbearable loss. Maybe this feels especially acute because I have two children who are on the cusp of adulthood. Two children who were friends with the girl who departed her promising and sparkling life so very early and who remind me how precious and fragile every loved one is, whether 18 or 80.

So I’m sad. With a side of busy.

All things considered, I’d rather be sad, because it reminds me to snap out of busy, which is just another way to describe an auto-pilot life where insufficient attention is paid to what are often inconvenient but urgent matters of the heart.

With gratitude {for emotions that remind me I’m human and I’m living a magnificent and messy and beautiful and brutal and ephemeral life},

Joan, who really wishes she could hold Kate’s hand today and will be so very glad to give her a big hug when she arrives home late tonight for Fall Break

Creative cousins.

Dear friends,

I mentioned in my last post that I drove several hours on Saturday for an adventure. The fun involved going to the westernmost point of Missouri (Joplin to be precise) to  meet up with my cousin and enjoy the bounty of a huge crafts and vintage goods show.

Called “2 Friends and Junk,” the event features dealers from three states and travels to four cities over six dates. It was an extravaganza of repurposed, upcycled, handcrafted, vintage, and new wares. I bought everything from old advertising flour scoops to upcycled costume jewelry.

My cousin Allison (named after our grandparents’ surname) owns a design and vintage furniture business in Tulsa and was a featured vendor at the show. Here’s a photo of her display taken with my iPhone:

jopinbooth

Isn’t is awesome? She has a real eye for form and color, and she comes by her love of junking honest. (Both her mother and mine loved nothing more than a good garage sale, flea market or auction. Oh how I wished they were alive to see her thrive in this business. They would be so proud of her.)

And what was especially fun for me is that she agreed to sell my quilts. If you have a keen eye, you’ll notice two of them in the bottom left corner of the photo above.

What’s funny is that Allison wanted to approach me about carrying my items and I wanted to ask her, but neither of us wanted to impose on the other. But the more I thought about the stresses of leasing my own booth and the pressure to be the sole provider of inventory, the more I worried that Magpie Quilts would never get launched. After this post, a regular reader and friend from my hometown emailed me to say I ought to sell my quilts though a woman from our town who is opening a new store. I thanked Juanita for the idea, but reminded myself I have a family member doing the same thing. A few Facebook exchanges, texts and a phone call later, we had it all worked out.

For my Oklahoma friends and readers, you can find Farrar Design and Magpie Quilts at the River City Trading Post in Jenks. (You can also find Farrar Design on Facebook.) If you fall in love with the wares of either of the creative cousins, we’ll be delighted.

With gratitude {for great suggestions and unplanned solutions to life’s minor challenges},

Joan, who risks annoying her new retailer by showing you this photo of the cousins from a family wedding but thinks they were exceptionally cute flower girls in 1974

vickie's wedding

The Beverly Hillbillies.

Dear friends,

phyllis & jm beach

Yesterday I spent six hours driving alone on an adventure I’ll tell you about on another day. Suffice to say, I had some time to kill in the car.

With no one to talk to and only a classic rock station to keep me company, I inexplicably decided to call my sister. I hadn’t talked to her in more than a year.

This story isn’t about the dynamics of our relationship. Like many family bonds, ours is complicated. The fastest and most polite explanation is that my sister has lived a colorful life. And I have lived a conventional one. Thus, our paths diverged a long time ago.

“P” is 10 years my senior. She married and moved out of our home at age 18 and I have but a handful of memories of us living under the same roof. The photograph above is one of them. It was taken on the beach in Santa Monica, California, in 1968.

A year earlier, my brother Markie was injured while serving in Vietnam. As soon as he was transferred to a California veteran’s hospital, my mother — twice divorced by then — quit her job, loaded P and me up in our rattletrap car (a Nova perhaps, I’m not sure), and moved us to Santa Monica to be near my brother while he convalesced. One of the few vivid memories I have of that time is of my mother driving P and me across the Arizona dessert at high noon with an ice chest that was empty long before the sun went down in an automobile with no air conditioner.

I have a vague recollection of the apartment we lived in and the Kindergarten I attended. (Whenever I smell overcooked peas, however, I am instantly transported to that California school.) Two rare but clear memories of that time include:

  1. The image of a standard green street sign — a prominent Southern California boulevard — with my maiden name on it; and
  2. The opening credits of the television show Marcus Welby MD, which included footage of a Santa Monica street we drove down many times (and which always delighted the grade school fan I became after we moved home to Oklahoma).

I’m not sure how long we stayed on the West Coast — a year, perhaps. Regrettably, my life as a Southern Californian is a hazy blip on the radar screen of my life.

But while talking to P on Saturday, she reminded me of a story from the Golden State that surprised and amused me. She says we were joined at the hip during that time because my mother worked long hours and I was often left in her care. She didn’t go into detail, but it seems one day she and I had managed to pick up a car full of hippies (you can imagine Southern California in 1968, right?) before driving through Beverly Hills. Who knows what we were doing — P has learned it’s best not to elaborate with me — but it wasn’t long before she was pulled over by a police officer.

“It was a piece-of-crap car, you know, with Oklahoma plates,” P explained, “and we were driving around a pretty ritzy neighborhood. The cop told me to get you home right away, and to make sure I dropped off the hippies AFTER I exited Beverly Hills.”

She laughed while conjuring this happenchance memory for an infrequent listener who has been reluctant to relive shared adventures. I laughed, too, and smiled at the sound of my nickname, JM, being spoken by a voice so distant and yet so familiar. For just a moment I was spellbound, captivated by the impromptu intersection of two lives that so often digress. I ended the phone call then, afraid we might break the spell and hopeful I could hold it in solitude long enough to inspire another phone call on another day, to grasp one more chance to darn the raveled sleeve of sisterhood.

With gratitude {for the inclination to make the phone call},

Joan-Marie, but like my sister, you can call me JM

Why? What do you do on a Friday night?

Dear friends,

It was a long week. A long week with a VERY GOOD middle, but a long one nonetheless.

So what’s a girl to do at the end of a long week besides cook a tasty supper and quilt a little?

Oh — you mean that’s not what you do?

(If that sounded snotty, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be. Truth is, I never cook on Fridays and I only recently started quilting, as you know. So it’s not what I do either, except last night I did.)

I have no photos of my supper so I guess I won’t talk much about it. I’ll just say this: I made the most sublime risotto with Shitaki mushrooms purchased at the Farmer’s Market. I wanted to eat the entire pot, but I pushed away from the kitchen island and walked to the dining room table. (Where I quilt.) I’m pretty certain I’ll eat the rest of the risotto for breakfast in the morning, but I know you won’t hold that against me.

After supper, I made a patchwork potholder. I’m kind of embarrassed typing this, because you know . . . Patchwork. Potholder. It sounds like a bad 8th grade Home Economics project. But it was surprisingly fun.

potfront

I trust you’ll overlook the fact that it’s a little lopsided and my curved binding is puckered. You sew, you learn.

But look — even the inside of the pocket is cute!

potinside

I get style bonus points, right?

The thing is — I needed I small gift/giveaway for an upcoming retreat. AND I needed something to hold several slips of paper for a drawing. I came up with the idea for a quilted heart potholder after I realized I could put the slips of paper in the pocket and get double-duty out of it as a giveaway.

I designed it myself and drew my own pattern, which is a pretentious way of saying it took me longer than it should have. (About three hours.) I’m hoping future potholders will go faster.

Future Potholders of America. I’m thinking I might have coined a phrase for a cottage industry.

With gratitude {for Friday night adventures involving Italian rice dishes and the kitchen linens that tote them},

Joan, an aspiring Miss Future Potholder of America

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