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)

Oh. Hey. Hi.

Dear friends,

2013

This lovely 2013 day planner is available here.

I haven’t intentionally been ignoring you.

I have been unusually content in some ways, and contentment for me often leads to quiet reflection.

Life has been both perfect and hard, and I’ve been living it instead of writing about it. But I’ve missed you and I thought I ought to pop in and say so.

Our holidays were everything I needed. Kate was home from college for three weeks and I luxuriated in her company. Christmas break was low-key. On Christmas Day, we had a Barbecue feast that was super-simple to prepare and left me plenty of time to laze around with the kids. We dragged an air mattress into the den and piled on blankets and pillows for a marathon movie session. We tackled a zigsaw puzzle. (Who knew CupKate was a puzzle whiz?) We invited friends over and played board games. We had a bonfire. And then we spent New Year’s Eve in Memphis watching my alma mater (The University of Tulsa) kick butt in the Liberty Bowl and enjoying the flavor of Beale Street blues and seafood. The last two weeks of 2012 were so perfect I was lulled into a dreamy stupor, making Jan. 2 a particularly sharp jolt back to reality.

So the hard parts? Well, there’s been more developments on the mountain. Nothing I’m ready to write about. In fact, like most of the saga, Mr. Mom has been handling it alone in quiet frustration because I’ve blocked it out, so I really don’t understand the details of the latest developments yet; mostly I just tried to distract myself while I watched him spend hours on the phone with attorneys and surveyors and adjacent landowners and the dozens of characters that populate this unfathomable story. My most fervent wish is that this chapter of our lives will end in 2013.

Also — I’ve been running, chasing the thousand miles I said I wanted to conquer in my 51st year.  Lawzy, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.  It’s been a mental and physical challenge that I wholly underestimated. The first three weeks almost reduced me to tears several times and very nearly convinced me I could never do this. I have ached. I have been so tired I lost all concentration at work, and I have gone to bed at 7:00 pm more than once. I have mentally shouted at the gods and cursed them for my lack of strength and  stamina. I have found myself hating Missouri and blaming its godforsaken hills for my misery. I’ve sunk to the lowest possible emotional depths a runner can reach without quitting.

I have a glimmer of hope, however, that I’m turning a corner. In fact, I need to wrap up this post so I can head out for a run. I must log a minimum of 10 miles this weekend and I’ve got a hot date with Mr. Mom later this afternoon so I need to get after it.

But, hey, you know what? My waist is making a slow reappearance in my life. It used to be a beautiful thing and it just might be again, who knows? And the other evening my left leg was aching so badly I asked Mr. Mom to massage it. He did two better: He massaged it, he told me how toned my legs were becoming, and he brought me a heating pad. A good man is such a glorious thing and I never fail to count my blessings when I notice them.  Which is one more reason I need to make an appearance here and remind you to do the same. It’s a great way to ease into 2013, friends.

With gratitude {for a sparkly, blessed, challenging, infuriating, totally-normal new year},

Joan, who invites you to tell her how you’re easing into 2013 and what you hope the year holds for you

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

Dear friends,

I spent my evenings last week putting up the new Christmas tree in the Den and spreading a little holiday cheer around the house.

The tree is loaded with all our favorite ornaments:

xmastree

The mantle is festooned:

manatle

And the buffet is adorned with my Grandmother’s Santa Mug collection:

buffet

I’ve got more than a dozen large totes of Christmas decorations. Given that I limited myself to a single tree, the mantle, and the buffet, I think I showed considerable restraint. (I also sent a tote with Kate so she could decorate her college apartment even though I know I’ll have to haul it home for the summer). Gone are the days when it looks like the Macy’s Christmas Store exploded in every room of my home.

Now all I need to do is buy a handful of additional gifts and get to wrapping. I gave up on the whole holiday card thing years ago. I’m deeply appreciative of those folks who take the time to send them, but in an era of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and blogging, there’s really not anyone who desires to keep up with us who can’t do so electronically. I don’t know if I’ve succumbed to the forces of modernity or indolence, but I’ve succumbed.

And, finally, I made reservations for our family at our favorite restaurant for Christmas Eve. I’ll cook on Christmas Day, but our family has always celebrated both occasions and last year I decided I didn’t really have to prepare two lavish spreads in less than 12 hours. The impulse to do it all has faded, thank goodness.

So that’s it. My list is checked twice and the stockings are hung with care. It’s starting to look and feel a lot like Christmas.

With gratitude {for a season of maternal maturity when Christmas can feel like relaxed contentment},

Joan, who’d love to tell you all about the cool tradition she decided to start this year but is still keeping it a surprise from Kate and Parker, who are known to read her blog now and then, so she must keep her lip zipped until after Christmas

Oh Tannenbaum.

Dear friends,

I bought a Christmas tree on Sunday. For most people this would not be remarkable; for me, however, it represents my first tree purchase in more than a decade.

I’m notoriously cheap when it comes to some things. Food is not one of them. Certain other necessary items such as fashionable clothing and shoes and purses are also not among the things I scrimp on. Nor are Christmas gifts.

But holiday decorations — I’m always looking for 80% off or better. Which explains why I only buy lights and wrapping paper and such on the day after Christmas and why our family used the same faux Christmas tree for as long as everybody can remember.

When we left Oklahoma 18 months ago, our not-so-gently-used Christmas tree had long passed its expiration date so we tossed it rather than pack it. The problem was, once we settled into our new home I couldn’t find a tree I considered suitable for our thoroughly modern home.

Maybe I was homesick. Maybe I was too sentimental to unpack all my careworn ornaments and hang them on a new tree in a place that didn’t yet feel like home. Or, maybe, as I claimed, a traditional tree would look silly in my contemporary living area. Whatever the reason, I decided to make my own “modern” tree. (It was a cinch. Mr. Mom cut a tree branch and I spray painted it, strung a bit of tinsel and lights, and hung a few tree-themed ornaments.)

At the time, I thought it was Charlie-Brown cool and funky, my own little art installation. Holiday visitors to our home said they liked it, but I secretly wondered if they were just being polite.

See what you think:

Anyway, this year I just couldn’t get revved up to create another funky tree. Even though Kate is off to college and there’s no way I could ever talk Parker or Mr. Mom into helping me decorate a traditional tree, I was itching to pull out all my beloved ornaments collected since my childhood and throughout my kids’ school years.

For me, Christmas is about cherished memories and my memories, for better or worse, are inexplicably tied to my ornaments. There’s the ones I made in grade school and gave to my mother. There’s the ones I sold to raise money for my high school cheerleading squad. There’s the ones given to me in college by my sorority sisters. There’s the ones hand-painted and given to me by a family friend. There’s several given to me by coworkers over the years. There’s the ones collected for my children, who were allowed to select their favorite Disney characters and Barbie dolls.  There’s a slew of “Baby’s First Christmas” and 2nd, and 3rd, and so on, for both Kate and Parker. And then there’s the ones Kate and Parker made in grade school out of dough or Popsicle sticks and beads. There’s far too many to fit on a single tree, but that’s part of the fun, rotating the display each year.

So I broke down and bought a new tree. I decided to give it a run in the den, where the furniture and colors are far more traditional and where a tree overloaded with homespun ornaments won’t look so out of place. I think I’ll spend Saturday decorating the new tree and playing Christmas carols and walking down memory lane and probably even getting weepy, but what’s the Christmas season without a few tears, nostalgic or otherwise?

With gratitude {for a lifetime of Christmas memories packed away in tissue paper},

Joan, who invites you to tell me about your Christmas tree and favorite ornaments because she’s convinced she can’t be the only woman who knows and treasures the origin of every single ornament in her stash

True confessions. And other Thanksgiving musings.

Dear friends,

I have a confession that will shock you.

It might even make you think differently about me, about who you think I am.

But since I’m all about gratitude, and since it’s hard to be grateful if you can’t be honest, I’m going to tell you my deep, dark secret.

Until today, I had never . . . cleaned my oven.

I know. It’s shocking that a 49 year-old-woman who’s been a homeowner for some 25 years has never cleaned her oven, but it’s true.

Here’s the deal: my mother always did it for me. I’m not sure what’s more shocking — that I’ve never cleaned my oven or that I’m willing to admit my mother always did it for me, but I’m laying it all out here because it’s the season of Thanksgiving and, today, I’m grateful for Easy Off.

By the way, I want to tell you the details of my oven saga because I don’t want you to think I am the kind of woman who would call up her mother and say “Oh hi, Mom. Say, if you’re not busy today, can you drop by and clean my oven?”

The very first home I owned had been a rental. It was a charming brick cottage, but it needed some TLC and, before I moved in, Mom and I spent four hard days of labor cleaning it. My mother had been a property manager for 20 years before she retired and she knew a thing or two about cleaning. Whenever I had a project (painting, wallpapering, cleaning, yard work), my mom was the type of person who would show up ready to work and always, always volunteered for the hardest, nastiest job on the list.  Thus, she cleaned my first oven.

A year later, Mom became our full-time nanny and from that point on, oven cleaning was her deal. (Along with so many other deals I could never repay her but hope I can some day pay it forward with Kate and Parker.)

Anyway, here I am, 18 months into a new house (in which the oven had been spotless when I moved in but was now filthy because, you know, almost two years of cooking!) and holy cow who knew oven cleaning was such a pain?

As much as the Easy Off helped, I can’t really say it was easy to get the grime off. In fact, I didn’t get it all. But I got most of it and my double ovens look a far sight better now than they did this morning. I have a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

In addition to tackling my ovens, I also cleaned every speck of my refrigerator inside and out. That’s another job I never really had to do because of 1) Mom and 2) Kate.  After Mom wasn’t around to help anymore, Kate had a terrific habit of cleaning and rearranging the frig every so often. She’s far more picky about it than I am. I think she’ll be proud when she gets home tomorrow from college and sees the fruits of my labor. It’s very, very organized and sparkling clean.

Finally, I took a bucket of soapy water and a cloth to my kitchen cabinets. You  might guess that’s another chore I never do. I’ll wipe a spot here and there, but a full-scale cleaning is beyond my pay grade. Today, though, it just seemed like the thing to do.

You might wonder what prompted my cleaning frenzy and, of course, it’s not surprising: holiday company. Kate will be home in less than 24 hours and she’s bringing four of her tennis teammates with her for the long holiday. You might have heard me mention that she’s the only American on her team, so there you have it — I succumbed to a fit of cleaning in preparation for the most American of holidays lest our international visitors think poorly of us.

I also made a trip to the grocery store where I dropped $335 lest five college athletes get hungry over the next few days.

With gratitude {for a spotless kitchen, a full pantry, and a soon-to-be-full home, just what this mother dreams of for Thanksgiving},

Joan, who invites you to give Mr. Mom a shout-out today, his 49th birthday, which we’ll celebrate tomorrow with homemade lasagna, chocolate mousse cake, and a houseful of international visitors

One of those days.

Dear friends,

It’s one of those days, baby, where the entire world is sweet and bright and happy.

We’ve had a long morning rain, which all the creatures around our place needed so. It’s just a bit chilly, which practically makes me sing September. My boys are in the next room watching football and talking about plans great and small and the sound of their voices tumbling toward me is music to my ears.

And me? I’m sitting on the sofa with a blanket over my feet, a cup of coffee and a cat snuggled close by, and a view of the scenic Missouri hills stretched out beyond my toes.

I spent the morning constructing a simple reminder of my mantra, seven letters glued to burlap patches, strung by twine and ribbon, and stretched across a mirror to reflect gratitude throughout our home. It’s a one-word poem in tribute to the season of thankfulness otherwise known as autumn.

Join me (won’t you?) in the moment, in the reflection, in the acclamation of a day made for no more or no less than the fullness of our hearts.

With gratitude {for the first in a long season of perfect fall days},

Joan, who saw a similar banner on Etsy for $25 and thought “Psssshaw, I can make that” and promptly did for about two bucks

PS: For many years, my dining room buffet has been the center of my expressions of seasonal decor. It usually starts with twinkly lights and extends from there to a large stash of holiday tchotchkes. I wasn’t quite ready for the explosion of pumpkins and fall leaves I usually pull out after Labor Day, so I went with a muted, faded summer look. Here’s an unedited photo if you’re curious to see the entire tableau.

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