Guess what’s happening on the mountain?

fu

Dear friends,

There’s a lot happening on the mountain. I haven’t written about it, in part, because it’s complicated and, in part, because it’s all moving so fast. But since I’ve been away from this space for a while I thought I’d give you a quick, simplified, update to get my blogging juices flowing again.

In this installment, when I was at the bottom of the pit of despair, I told you about an adjacent landowner with a lot for sale whose property had been encroached upon by the Unfriendlys. (In 2010, Junior had moved his fence and electric gate off the boundary of his property onto the adjacent landowner’s property and onto a county road.) This encroachment created a “cloud” on the landowner’s title, complicating his attempts to sell the property.

I viewed the situation as another example of the Unfriendly’s ruthless, despicable, unstoppable behavior and the story  made me despair even more. Mr. Mom, however, saw it as an opportunity, and he wasted no time seizing it.

You might recall that when the district court ruled against us, we were left landlocked. At this point, the Unfriendly’s mineral rights, which Mr. Mom had purchased as leverage, became a moot point because, as we learned, you can only exercise mineral rights if you have access to said property. With no access, we had no legal way to pursue our mining claim and, thus, posed no threat to the Unfriendlys.

When Mr. Mom learned the Unfriendlys had encroached on an adjoining landowner looking to sell, he stepped in. Last year, Mr. Mom and his brother bought the landowner’s 2-acre parcel for cash at a bargain price. The tactic gave us immediate access to the Unfriendly’s property, meaning we could pursue our mining claim and once again use it for leverage in settling our easement dispute. However, the encroachment forced us to petition the court to clarify the boundary in a quiet title action.

Then, once the Appellate Court ruled in our favor in the previous court case, it meant we had successfully forced the Unfriendlys to defend multiple fronts simultaneously — an ancient war strategy cleverly adopted by Mr. Mom.  Better yet, because the Unfriendlys had unwisely encroached on a county road, the county was enjoined in our petition to the court and has a stake in seeing that the Unfriendlys correct the situation.

So for the last year, this is what Mr. Mom has been working on. He hired a boundary attorney to pursue the encroachment; a mining attorney to pursue our mining claim; and he’s still working with O’Malley on the condemnation hearing, which is scheduled to be heard in district court in April.

Yes, we’re racking up legal bills, but so are our neighbors. (Two things we’ve learned about attorneys: You get what you pay for. And like doctors, you’d best hire a specialist. You don’t want a dermatologist doing the job of a cardiologist.)

So it’s not surprising that we were recently contacted by a man named “Pal,” who says he’s a friend of the Unfriendlys (there’s an oxymoron, huh?), that he has been empowered to negotiate on their behalf, and that the family wants all of this to stop. He says Mrs. Unfriendly’s husband is quite ill, Mrs. Unfriendly is becoming more and more unfirm, and Junior and his sister never wanted to fight anyway. Pal says they want to settle.

Their opening volley suggests otherwise (it would take an entirely new post to describe the ludicrous details of their proposed settlement), but still — it’s a sign we’re getting on their nerves.

‘Bout time, don’t you think?

With gratitude {for the patience, wisdom, dogged determination and tactical brilliance of an ace strategist},

Joan, whose new obsession is House of Cards and, murderous instincts aside, thinks Mr. Mom is about as adept at managing enemies to his favor as Frank Underwood

Moderation is not my strong suit.

Dear friends,

MjAxNC1iNzQwY2QxOGNiNDRmODU2_52c83870d2672

A few days ago I told you about the Great Caffeine Detox of 2014, so I thought I ought to tell you things are going great. I’ve been headache free for days, I’m drinking more water than I ever thought imaginable, and my mind is once again clear and able to focus. Boo yah!

The other thing that has developed in an unquenchable level of energy. Marathon quilting is only one manifestation of this energy. Last weekend, I spent an entire day single-handedly spring cleaning my home. My boys were gone from dawn to well past dusk and I had the house to myself. I had planned to watch movies and take a nap, but early in the day I noticed Parker and his friends had tracked some mud in the house and I stopped to clean it up.  Twenty-four hours later, I had managed to:

  1. rearrange the furniture, rugs, throw pillows and lamps in four rooms,
  2. sweep in places that hadn’t been swept in a long time,
  3. sort through surplus books and box up dozens of volumes for charity,
  4. do the dishes and scrub the kitchen,
  5. do a load of laundry,
  6. reorganize my quilting supplies
  7. and do a thorough organization, cleaning and purging of my kitchen desk and all its drawers.

Tonight, it finally occurred to me that the source of all this energy might have a teensy bit to do with the fact that in addition to giving up caffeine, I also stopped biting my nails in 2014. I’m a lifelong nail chewer and two weeks ago my nails and cuticles were gnawed to the nub and dreadful looking. In fact, in the last weeks of 2013, my obsessive nail biting was rivaled only by the persistent eye twitch I had developed. (I can only imagine how mentally balanced I appeared while sitting through several meetings simultaneously chewing and twitching.)

Oh, and there’s one more thing. I also started a new eating plan, wherein I do a modified fast two days a week. (Read more here.) A friend recommended it and I was intrigued and dove in head first, as I am known to do.

So I’m not drinking caffeine, I’m not biting my nails, and two days a week I’m not eating. I’m not sure why I tackled three vices at once but, hey, when you’re cleaning up your life, I guess it pays to use a big broom.

With gratitude {for this burst of new-found willpower and energy, for however long it lasts},

Joan,  who realizes she’s a bundle of nervous energy but will take any kind of energy she can get

One sizzling quilt.

Dear friends,

Can you believe that I recently completed quilt #16?

Granted, three are baby quilts and two are mini-quilts, but still. In some 38 weeks, I have made SIXTEEN quilts. It’s kind of amazing and kind of crazy. (Okay, lots of crazy.)

Yesterday, I put away my sewing machine after quilting all day Saturday. I needed a break and I was a getting a little unnerved by how much the center of my home resembled the floor of a garment factory.

Besides, I’ve decided to start sewing elsewhere. Eventually, I plan to take over Kate’s room. Next fall, she will be leasing an off-campus apartment in her college town, and I think the days of her needing a bedroom here for extended periods are over. I’d be sad, but I’m cheered at the prospect of a dedicated sewing space.

Until then, I’ve decided to start sewing in my bedroom. It offers far more space than Mr. Mom and I really need and has a huge window, in front of which I plan to locate the new desk/sewing table I’ve ordered. At least when I make a mess in my bedroom, I can simply shut the door and I’ll still have clean a table for family dinners.

In any case, this is an awfully long preface for what I really wanted to tell you — which is quilt #16 is a real sizzler. I absolutely adore it. See what you think:

sizzlecu

I made it as a surprise for someone many of my readers will recognize: the author of the “Sizzle Says” blog. If you read her blog, too, you already know Sizzle had a tough 2013. A quilt seemed like just the thing to send her a little cheer.

I wish I could say it was my idea, but it wasn’t. Regular reader and friend Maridel sent me an email in early December recruiting me as her partner in crime. She paid for the materials and I contributed the labor. Together, we shipped it off to Sizzle on Jan. 6  with wishes for health and happiness in the new year.

I’ve only seen a few photos of Sizzle’s home, so I had to guess that modern fabrics and design with a mix of soft and bold colors would fit in. Here’s the quilt in full:

sizzlequilt

Sizzle tweeted that “thank you doesn’t seem like enough for the beautiful quilt handmade by my friend.”

I assured her that thank you is always enough.

Trust me. I’m a bit of an expert.

With gratitude {for friends in need and friends in deed},

Joan, who’s headed to Florida next week for a business trip and expects she’ll take a little sewing hiatus until February

Just in time for the Super Bowl!

Dear friends,

buffalolettucewraps

Ever since we made Buffalo Wings for our non-traditional Christmas dinner, I’ve been craving them. Problem is, they’re a pain to make (all that deep frying!) and not particularly healthy in big doses. I’ve noticed a wave of “buffalo” style recipes lately and I decided lettuce wraps would be a healthier alternative. Unfortunately, I didn’t like any of the recipes I found.

So I made my own. It’s perfect, and I mean that most sincerely. And , hey, just in time for the Super Bowl!

You can thank me on Feb. 3.

Joan’s Buffalo Chicken Lettuce Wraps

1 head of iceberg lettuce, carefully torn into large leafs

3 stalks celery, split lengthwise and sliced thinly

1 large tomato, chopped

3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into sticks

1 rotisserie chicken, skin and meat removed

6 TBLS butter

1/4 to 1/2 cup Frank’s Hot Sauce, depending on taste

2 oz blue cheese, crumbled

Bottled blue cheese dressing (or make your own using this fabulous recipe)

Remove meat from rotisserie chicken and chop or shred. Discard skin.  Discard carcass or use to make broth. Combine chicken, butter and Frank’s hot sauce and heat in microwave until butter is melted, about 1.5 minutes. Mix well and taste. Add more hot sauce if desired.

Serve all ingredients salad-bar style. You can make wraps or layer the ingredients tostada-style over large lettuce leafs. Serve carrot sticks on the side. This recipe served 2 adults and 2 teenagers in our family.

With gratitude {for healthier, easier recipe alternatives, just in time for a Super-Duper eating day},

Joan, who loves her some Buffalo wings but doesn’t like the heartburn that accompanies a multi-wing indulgence

PS: this dish goes especially well with Anheuser Busch Shock Top Belgian White beer, especially the 6% version sold in Missouri

You can call it a mid-life crisis if you want. I prefer an empty nest embrace.

Dear friends,

I think I’ve told EVERYBODY but the readers of this blog that I bought a new car.

You already know about my tragic crash on the ice, wherein I totaled my beloved eight-year-old Honda Accord that was supposed to see me through Kate’s tuition bills.

And you know about the list Parker gave me for car shopping.

Turns out, I bought the third car on his list. And it wasn’t even a close decision.

Here’s why:

2013-Subaru-BRZ-Carscoop2_1

I’ll understand if you want to cry that you have car envy. My Saburu BRZ is a very sparkly charcoal grey (think “glittering slate”), but otherwise looks just like the one in the photo. I’d show you mine but it needs a good wash after picking up a few layers of winter road grime.

My car is a two-seater with a six-speed manual transmission. With a top speed of 140 miles per hour, incredible handling, and enough bells and whistles like XM radio, bluetooth, and navigation to dazzle me, it’s the car of my dreams.

Darn that boy knows his mother.

You know what I love as much as anything? That Mr. Mom loves this car. I think he loves it as much as me and it’s the first time in our lives I’ve seen him like this.

The thing is, Mr. Mom used to design, build and race drag cars. He’s worn a Nomex fire suit and a five-point harness and driven the quarter mile in so few seconds it would make most people scream. In his early 20s, he built the engine and transmission for a 1968 GTO, which for some folks is the holy grail of muscle cars, and he still likes to talk about the charms of that pretty little ride.

At the time, I had recently purchased a used 1982 Nissan Pulsar and I was crushed when he suggested it was a POS. I, of course, thought it was the cutest little sports car ever, but I think he had a better sense of its many design and mechanical failures after replacing the car’s ball joint and brake rotors in the parking lot of my apartment complex on a bitterly cold day in January 1986.

Is it any wonder I fell in love with the man? I mean come on. He did a $300 repair job (in 1986 dollars!) for free after meeting me only 10 days earlier, all because he felt sorry for the college girl working three jobs who couldn’t afford to fix her car or even to tow it to his shop.

Anyway, the man just doesn’t get excited about production vehicles, so when he said he liked this one, a LOT, after I already knew I was smitten, my heart went pitter-pat.

Since I drove it home on December 12th, I’ve taken way too many photos of my BRZ and posted several on social media in ways that would suggest I’m a newly licensed 16-year-old male, not a 50+ female. And I’ve showed it off in person to anyone who will give me a minute.

I don’t even care. I.Love.This.Car.

And I’m shouting it for all the world to hear.

With gratitude {for the car of my dreams that is also loved by the man of my dreams},

Joan, who knows how to get on it, and isn’t afraid to, so drivers in Missouri watch out

PS: Check out this smokin’ cockpit

2013-Subaru-BRZ-interior

Chinoiserie crush.

Dear friends,

I have a crush. While many crushes can be fads, mine is not new; in fact it’s age-old.

It’s chinoiserie, and if my growing predilection for clean, stripped-down spaces weren’t so strong, I’d probably have a home filled to the brim with china and tapestry and art and furniture adorned with Chinese motifs.

As it is, I mostly admire chinoiserie from afar and dream of winning the lottery so I could build a winter home, stuffed with the finest examples of the decorative arts, and a summer home as pure and simple as a Hans Wegner chair. (I am nothing if not multi-dimensional. Or antipodean; you pick.)

But a couple of months ago while fabric shopping, I tripped across several patterns that stopped me dead in my tracks. I knew I had to buy them and I had to find a purpose for them or my soul would forever be diminished and forlorn.

Here’s what I came up with:

miniquiltcollage

I made a mini-quilt — 20″ X 13″ — with my treasured fabrics and I sent it off, Unaquilter style, to my friend and regular reader Maridel. She lives a couple of hours away in a mid-century ranch carefully curated with the loveliest objects d’art. I hoped the mini-quilt would fit right in at Casa M’del, either on a table or buffet or perhaps as a wall hanging.

I know you might be thinking “Mini quilt? What a rip off!” But let me tell you . . .  hard core quilters LOVE mini quilts. They’re low commitment and manageable canvasses on which we can play out our many creative fantasies.

The pattern and the piecing are both improvisational, as are the various decorative stitches. I had as much fun making this quilt as any I’ve touched. I loved it so much I thought about keeping it. But it wasn’t meant for my home, it was meant to travel down the interstate a ways, so off it went.

Fortunately, M’del thinks so, too, because she sent me the sweetest thank you note.

And that’s what makes the Unaquilter’s heart go pitter-pat.

With gratitude {for endless opportunity to find creative fulfillment},

Joan, who invites you to take a look at the mini-quilt in full:

miniquilt

Love. Sew. Patch.

Dear friends,

Despite the horrendous Headache Threat Level that has nuked my entry into the new year, I have managed to rack up three — that’s THREE — quilt finishes so far in 2014.

I figured my head hurts whether I’m up or down, so save 14 hours spent in bed on Dec, 31-Jan. 1, I’ve been sewing through the pain.

As for the first finish, I can’t tell you about it until it arrives at its new home, later this week or next. Same for the third.

But the second finish was for Kate, and she’s headed back to college in possession of one of the cutest and warmest quilts I’ve made.

Take a close-up look:

tenniscu

Last spring, I attended some pretty chilly college tennis matches (where chilly equals wearing a coat, hat and gloves and still being cold). I noticed some of the girls carried blankets to wrap around themselves in between matches and that’s when I got the idea that my CupKate needed a tennis-themed quilt to take on the road.

I purchased the fabric nine months ago and even cut it into the proper size squares. And then I got distracted by other projects and the tennis quilt has sat unattended all this time.

I vowed to get it done before she left home in January, but two commissions kept me busy through December. By Jan. 3, I knew I had less than a week to get it done so I sprang into action, spending all of last weekend sewing, squaring and arranging 122 blocks of green, yellow and black fabric. (Kate’s college colors are green and black.)

I failed to take a photo of the entire quilt before she packed up and left home, so here’s one she took with her phone from her apartment. It’s not great quality but you get the gist:

tennis

On Black Friday, I just happened to score some extra-soft white flannel with tiny lime polka dots for $1.75 a yard. It made a perfect — and extra warm — backing for the quilt. And while shopping the day after Christmas, Kate tripped across some black fabric with miniature tennis balls and multi-colored racquets that was perfect for the binding.

I’m so glad to get this one off the sewing table and into heavy rotation. Kate’s tennis season starts Feb. 4 and, if January has been any indication, she’ll need every ounce of warmth she can lay her hands on.

With gratitude (for deadline-induced productivity},

Joan, who’s relieved to report she’s been headache-free for a couple of days, though her energy level is still in the basement without liquid stimulants

PS: If you are at all interested in the quilt pattern, it’s called a disappearing 9-patch and you can find a tutorial here

A metaphor for 2014.

Dear friends,

metaphor

I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or anything, but I do want to state for the record that 2014 has kicked my butt in only nine short days.

If I were a dog, I’d be dirty, wet, and three-legged.

I had a wonderful, peaceful, joyous Christmas so I can’t say for sure why the new year has gotten off to such an inauspicious start.

Well . . . I can offer one very big reason: I’m detoxing. I decided on Dec. 30 to give up caffeine even though I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I’ve had what I will politely call a headache ever since.

For the first 24 hours I felt fine. I even bragged about how fine I was. Then the apocolyptic headache set in on day two.

For the next five days, my Headache Threat Level was: Holy *&%$. (Don’t really know how to interpret Holy *&%$? Let me just say that on New Year’s Eve, I took a pharmaceutical cocktail that would have rendered most people comatose and went to bed at 6:30 pm. only to wake up a few hours later at the same Headache Threat Level.)

Then for three more days my Headache Threat Level was: Good Lord Caffeine is Poison.

Today — day nine of my New Year’s resolution — my Headache Threat Level is: I’m Really Annoyed and Tired and I Want to Cry.

Oddly enough, my caffeine detox has coincided with a virulent strain of insomnia. I haven’t slept past 2:30 am in a week. Sleepless and decaffeinated is not the path to a good life. Or so it seems on day nine of the new year.

By the way, back when my Headache Threat Level was Holy *&%$, I concluded cold turkey was a poor strategy and decided to drink a cup of coffee. I took two drinks and thought it tasted terrible. Gag-reflex terrible. That’s when I decided caffeine really is poison, my body must be trying to tell me something, and I encouraged myself to hang in there despite the winching pain.

During the decaffeinated, sleepless stupor we’ll call 2014, a few other choice developments have occurred. Like a winter storm that left us with sub-zero temps and a foot of snow. Like a flood in my office.

Like three lost breakfasts in a row.

You see, because of the winter storm and poor road conditions, Mr. Mom has been driving me to work every morning. And for the last three mornings, I’ve taken my breakfast to work with me in a plastic baggy. Only I haven’t enjoyed said breakfasts because somewhere between the curb where Mr. Mom drops me off, and my office some 50 feet away, my breakfast has disappeared.

I figured I had managed to leave my baggies in Mr. Mom’s truck each morning. However, I found that explanation odd because it would have been just like him to text me something like “Hey, you left your breakfast in my truck this morning. Want me to save it for you?” I meant to ask him about it each evening but my fluctuating Headache Threat Level destroyed my memory.

Anyway, I’m still relying on kind drivers to shuttle me around town and when Kate and Parker dropped me off after taking me to lunch today, I caught a glimpse of something odd buried in the snow and slush by the curb.

It was yesterday’s breakfast.

(See photo above. For the record, that’s an orange and a boiled egg.)

There was no sign of the other two breakfasts, but I’m sure we’ll find them after the thaw.

That muddy, icy bag of mangled breakfast is a perfect metaphor for my 2014. I think the universe wanted me to see it. For a much-needed laugh, I suppose.

Or as a reminder that even when my breakfast is mangled, my coffee cup is empty, and my office carpet is wet, my friends and family keep me trucking.

With gratitude {for the ability to muster gratitude at this point},

Joan, who has nowhere to go but up in 2014

With much love,

Dear friends,

ruth

Yesterday I was in my office opening mail and came across a large envelope that was marked “personal.”

I didn’t even notice the return address before I opened the envelope to find a Christmas card and a stack of very old papers and letters. I opened the card quickly to see that it was from Mr. Mom’s Aunt Ruth, a relative I met for the first time last summer at this family reunion.

Ruth is in her mid-80’s. To me, she looks almost exactly like Mr. Mom’s mother, Rita. I have missed my mother-in-law terribly since we moved to Missouri, and seeing as she wasn’t able to attend the Iowa reunion, I spent two days soaking up the company of her seven siblings who did. Ruth and I bonded immediately even though we’d never met. I filled her in on Rita’s children and grandchildren and she told me stories of the family and the farm. At one point while we were talking, she looked at me intently and said “My, you are beautiful.” I laughed loudly and said “Oh, Ruth, I knew I loved you!”

As I poured over the contents of Ruth’s envelope, I found a slip of paper upon which Ruth had typed: “I have been sorting through old cards and letters. Perhaps you and yours would like to have the enclosed. If nothing else, collect the stamps. Ha.”

The package was a treasure trove of family history. Among the enclosures were: a scrapbook page containing the 1955 wedding announcement for Mr. Mom’s parents, along with a wedding invitation and an embossed napkin; a baby announcement for Mr. Mom’s sister mailed from Rita to Ruth in 1959; an undated still-life drawing by Rita; a poem written by Rita to her sister Ruth on the occasion of Ruth’s 10th wedding anniversary on March 10, 1956; and several letters from Rita to Ruth over many years.

Earlier that morning, I had written a Christmas card to my mother-in-law telling her how much I missed her and the years when we lived just down the road from each other and spent every Christmas together. My heart was more than a little heavy — and then I opened a surprise envelope and so much of Rita’s life spilled out. Both the gift and my longing were overwhelming so a flood of tears soon spilled onto the stack of papers in my lap.

I didn’t have time to read every letter at that moment and, besides, like a favorite box of candy, I wanted to savor the contents. But I did pull out one letter from the stack dated Jan. 4, 1968, and began to read a detailed and personal letter between sisters. Eight pages long, it included an update about each of Rita’s four children. My heart skipped a beat when I reached this passage:

“(Mr. Mom) is a darling, so sweet and good-natured. He likes so much to have someone talk just to him and listen just to him. He wants to help and to share, and he tries very hard to be nice. There is a little jealously between him and (his younger brother), but it’s mostly one of wanting a little more attention for himself. He likes to set the table and help vacuum the rug and he’s pretty good about picking up toys. If he catches his mama or his daddy sitting down, he’s sure to crawl into his or her lap. He makes some charming observations about various things. For example, one day when I came home from school, he was playing in the front yard with his little neighbor friend. I said “Come on in and get ready to go.” He asked “Where are we going?” I said “I’ll tell you in a minute.” So he turned to his little friend and said “Mama doesn’t know where we are going.” And one windy day, he was looking out the window watching the trees sway and he came to me and said “I know what makes the wind blow. It’s the tree branches that move around and push the air all over.”

I don’t know if Ruth could have imagined how moved I am by her thoughtful gesture and how much I treasure the contents of her envelope. It’s a much-needed tonic for the woman who misses her husband’s mother, her own mother, and the regular family interactions lost over so many miles.

With gratitude {for the old-fashioned act of letter writing, the inclination to save paper ephemera, and a sweet aunt’s Christmas gift to a sentimental fool},

Joan, who’s not one bit surprised Mr. Mom’s helpfulness and good-natured disposition was on full display at age five

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

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