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

Beyond the adjectives.

Dear friends,

It is the evening of Thanksgiving as I write this. I’m sitting in a comfortable chair by the window, which is slightly cracked so I can hear the rain. Kate is asleep, gripped by a long nap that won’t seem to release her. Her roommate, Houda, is sitting beside her in bed, glued to her laptop where she’s spent most of the afternoon typing furiously. Parker is stretched over the loveseat in the kitchen, eating cheese and crackers. Two of our visitors, Lusy and Barb, are at the kitchen island drinking hot tea and eating creme brulee. Doug and another visitor, Kristina, are in the den, talking tennis.

Life is perfect.

A year ago as I fretted over my oldest child leaving for college, I never could have dreamed our Thanksgiving holiday would bring us a houseful of international guests and so much joy in seeing my sweet CupKate cross our threshold again. I didn’t know then that different, as in my life is going to be so different when Kate leaves, often means lovely if you can scrounge up just an ounce of patience.

I kept my camera close by most of the day to catch the memories. I snapped this shot of Kate’s roommate:

And this shot of everyone filling their plates:

And this shot of us gathered around the table:

And this shot of a new dessert recipe I tried:

And this shot of my dinner plate because oh lordy:

After our meal we all crowded into the den, where the Tryptophan worked its magic and I fell asleep on the floor and missed half the video the girls had chosen.

Later, Mr. Mom and I rallied just long enough to do the dishes before collapsing in the den again for more television, more food, more laughter, more everything wonderful.

Speaking of wonderful, that’s the word the girls keep using to describe my cooking. The turkey, the leek bread pudding, the ginger cake with cinnamon whip, the creme brulee, the spiced cranberries, the brown sugar and ginger mini cheesecakes — it was all wonderful today. I joked I would have to teach them more English adjectives and they joked I would have to teach them to cook.

Perhaps, but tomorrow I’m teaching them the art and science of Black Friday shopping. We’re headed to St. Louis for treasures unknown.

Those of the known variety, however, are right here with me during this precious moment in time.

With gratitude {for a life marked by more adjectives than wonderful can begin to describe},

Joan, who will be wearing her sweat pants and athletic shoes during Black Friday shopping because you never know when you might need to break into a full-out sprint

Abundant blessings.

Dear friends,

Not what we say about our blessings but how we use them is the true measure of our thanksgiving.

— W.T. Purksier

My heart is full this Thanksgiving, brimming with gratitude for our abundant blessings.  Our table is full and our bounty is evident.  A house full of guests, love for each other, good health, a delicious meal shared in safety and comfort . . . peace . . . these are the jewels of this day I dare not take for granted. May we use these blessings, in measures large and small, that reflect a glad and generous heart.

And I wish you, dear friends, abundant blessings.  Drop in sometime this holiday weekend, won’t you, and leave me a comment letting me know how you’re spending your Thanksgiving?  Power eating . . . football cheering . . . napping . . . traveling over hill and dale to see loved ones . . . whatever your activity, I wish you good cheer and godspeed.

I’ll be here on our beautiful Missouri acreage, happily humming ‘round the kitchen, delivering stealth hugs and kisses to any child within arm’s reach, and steeping in the life God has granted me.

With gratitude {for abundant blessings},

Joan, who’s got 13 tasks on her Thanksgiving to-do list today and has already completed three of them while the six other souls in her home sleep soundly

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

Taking notice.

Dear friends,

With gratitude {for glimpses of wonderful whenever or wherever they may be found},

Joan, who loves all verse,  free or rhyming, simple or eloquent, abbreviated or epic, and the poets who dare put words to paper

Home sweet home.

Dear friends,

I got the best surprise ever last night. Kate called after dinner to say her tennis coach cancelled their practice scheduled for Sunday and gave her a free pass for Monday — so she’s home for the long weekend!

I ‘m absolutely giddy about having my CupKate home for an unplanned visit. I made Pioneer Woman’s Baked French Toast this morning and I’m just waiting for the aroma to wake the kids.

By the way, it’s still raining slow and steady  in our neck of the woods. I feel blessed beyond measure — Mother Nature is smiling upon us and we’re all together under one roof. I’m one Mamma who couldn’t be happier.

With gratitude {for three days with the three people I love most},

Joan, who’s not leaving the kitchen this weekend and whose holiday culinary line-up includes barbecued chicken and baked beans, grilled salmon and Midnight Pasta, and green chili chicken enchiladas

What I did on my summer vacation.

Dear friends,

Since Mr. Mom once accused me of writing posts that sound like “summer vacation” essays, I thought I’d tell you what I actually did on my summer vacation, where summer vacation equals Memorial Day.

I sat in my favorite chair for a long time.

This chair in my master bedroom gets good light and is my favorite place to write. I worked on my next installment of The Mountain. It was the hardest one yet to write. I wasn’t feeling it. That’s the trouble with blogs. Like everything else in life, sometimes you enjoy them and sometimes they’re drudgery.

Then I laid on the sofa and watched television for most of the day. When I got bored by what was on television, I napped. Or looked out the window at the view.

Both were acceptable diversions on a lazy holiday.

I also helped Mr. Mom make a kickin’ pot of beef stew. And I ate two cupcakes, which means my cleanse took a hit. I’ll do better tomorrow.

I promise.

I also filed my nails and prepared a document for an early Tuesday morning meeting. There’s always chores. Even on holidays.

I got up at 6 am, so I kind of expected more from myself. But you know, the previous several days were a tad busy, what with all the graduating and celebrating and river canoeing we did. By the way, here’s a shot from our trek down the river on Saturday.

That’s Parker, one second after I should have snapped the photo at the apex of his rope swing. iPhone cameras weren’t made for action shots, I learned. Or for rivers, for that matter. I promptly put it back in a Ziploc bag and called it good.

So now you know how I spent my summer vacation. How did you spend yours? Please tell because, well . . . I’m curious.

With gratitude {for a long weekend with plenty of activity and the right amount of non-activity},

Joan, who is part over-achiever and part sloth depending on what day it is and what’s on television

Mother’s way.

Dear friends,

My mother, circa 1985.

Like any daughter, I have a wealth of memories of my mother from my childhood.

But as a grown up, I have one abiding memory, a thread of recollection that runs throughout my life from young adulthood to now.

This memory is of my mother’s words – the question I most often heard her ask: How can I help?

How can I help?” is the question she asked more often than “How are you?” “How can I help?” are the words she offered more often than “I love you.” For my mother, service was love, and she stood by to help in any way that she could, on any day that she could, with anything I needed.

If Mom heard I was going to paint, she’d ask how she could help then show up with a roller. (My mother and I must have painted thousands of square feet together over the years.) If she heard I had purchased wallpaper, she’d ask how she could help then show up to watch the kids. (Strangely, she could do most anything but never learned the art of wallpapering.) Garage sale? She’d show up to tag and organize everything — and she was a master at pricing for a quick sale. Spring cleaning? She’d volunteer for the most difficult tasks, like tackling my oven. When I bought my first house at age 26 and declared I was going to spend Memorial Day weekend refurbishing the oak floors, she spent three days on her hands and knees beside me.

Mom, helping me string twinkly lights for my wedding reception, 1991.

When I was seven months pregnant with Kate, my mother heard me talking about taking a week’s vacation to decorate the nursery (on a shoestring budget, of course, because Mr. Mom and I had little money). She decided to take a week’s vacation, too. We set up two sewing machines, side-by-side, in the soon-to-be nursery, and together we made curtains, blankets, a quilt, a dust ruffle, a crib bumper and more out of coordinating fabric purchased on clearance. Then she painted while I wallpapered. I was 30 and she was 63 and it was one of the loveliest, albeit exhausting, weeks I ever spent with my mother. But when it was over, I had a dream nursery for my first child, purchased with not much more than the elbow grease of an expectant mother and her tireless assistant.

Sweet baby Kate in the nursery her mother and grandmother made, 1993.

And as if she hadn’t done enough over the years, she raised my children, serving as our nanny, cook, laundress and errand girl for the first 11 years of Kate’s life. She’d show up at 7:00 am so she’d have to time to prepare breakfast for anybody who wanted it — and, invariably, before I walked out the door to go to work, she would ask “Is there anything special I can do today?”

As a young woman with my own selfish interests, I always thought it odd that my mother was so eager to help. Every once in a while, I wondered why she never seemed to cultivate her own interests. As I grew older, I also grew to understand my mother’s heart and to realize service in any form – cooking supper, ironing a dress, scrubbing a shower – was a tangible expression of love for her, and expressing her love was her primary interest. I truly never knew a woman more selfless.

In recent days as I have contemplated Kate’s impending move and our diminishing time together, I have been unusually attuned to her needs, and I have stepped in to offer more assistance than is typical for me given that is Mr. Mom’s territory. As I helped Kate paint a sign Wednesday evening, it all of a sudden hit me – that’s why my mother was so eager to help! All that time she spent working beside me was not only an opportunity for her to express her love, it was also a chance for her to spend time in the presence of her “busy” adult daughter.

I can’t believe it took me 49 years to figure this out. I always thanked Mom for helping me, but I don’t recall ever thanking her for spending time with me.

And that was her real calling in life.

With gratitude {for the priceless blessing that comes with being loved beyond measure},

Joan, who will give her children an extra hug today on behalf of their Grannie who loved them so very much

I miss thee, my Mother! Thy image is still
The deepest impressed on my heart.

                                                             -Eliza Cook

A bit o’ Irish cheer.

Dear friends,

My St. Pat’s Day started early, ended late, and was chock full of Irish cheer.

I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people having a great time. Or wearing so much green. Even the animals were decked out.

I was jealous of this outfit. Next year I will plan better.

And I’m not sure what it takes to get an invitation to the roof party, but I intend to find out. Talk about a primo spot for the parade route.

Not long after I snapped this photo, the best street-side spots filled up. Six city blocks were packed like sardines.

Glad I’m not claustrophobic.

The more crowded it got, the more fun folks seemed to have. Check out this group:

There were floats galore. Two hours worth, actually. And lots of marchers. I haven’t a clue what these parade participants represent, do you?

A gorilla, a green-haired guy, Mario (?) and a gun-toting camo girl riding on a tatooed man — all splattered in blood. It made my brain hurt trying to ponder it all. I’m not that deep.

This guy was billed as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Clearly, they have cold beer in hell.

This one . . . I’m not sure. Three Humpmen of the Armageddon?

I had the most fun watching the spectators. There were plenty of sights to behold.

There’s nothing like a parade in a college town.  Something about the influence of carefree youth makes you want to kick up your heels and embrace the blarney, at least for one day.

With gratitude {for the opportunity to enjoy the best minor-holiday celebration ever},

Joan, who thinks she and Mr. Mom accessorized really well for the St. Pat’s gala

Cupid’s little gift.

Dear friends,

We’re spending our Valentine’s Day in a winter wonderland.

Well, let me be more specific — the kids are snowed in and today is their second day in a row with no school. They couldn’t be happier with Cupid’s little gift.

(For the record, I’m not snowed in because managers never get snowed in, especially when they live 10 minutes from their offices.)

The snowflakes arrived sometime after we went to sleep Sunday night and have been accumulating ever since. We were awakened Monday morning at 5:50 am by Mr. Mom’s cell phone (alerting us to our school closing). Normally, such a sign would be all I needed to stay in bed and avoid my morning run. But I knew the conditions were only going to get worse in the coming week, so I bundled up and hit the road.

If you’ve never gone for a walk or a run in the dark while snow is falling, you’re missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. If ever our world is perfect, and perfectly still, it is just before dawn in a snowstorm.

I’m used to running in the dark in all seasons. Our neighborhood is typically awake and moving (including a fair bit of traffic) at 6:00 am. But Monday morning, not a soul was stirring except for me and my dogs Frito and Ed, who weren’t about to let me leave the yard without them.

And boy did we have fun making tracks in the pristine snow! We covered three miles in 34 minutes (snow always slows me down some — it’s a little like running in sand) and when we got home, the sun was just coming up. I decided to grab my phone and try to take a photo of me and my snow-running companions to remember the beauty of this particular morning, but my dogs were having none of it. As soon as I knelt down, they took it as a sign we should play and began romping all over me.

Take one, and Frito is no where in sight. (By the way, don’t laugh at my “school guard” reflector harness. I told you I run in the dark and there’s usually enough traffic that I really need the cars to notice me. Before I bought the harness, I was forced to jump in my fair share of ditches because of clueless and/or sleepy drivers.)

Take two, and Ed wants me to scratch his belly while Frito runs around behind me.

Take three, and Ed barks at Frito, who has decided to chase a squirrel.

Take four, and Frito finally shows up, but I manage to photograph my house instead of me.

There is no take five, because at this point, Ed has knocked me on my back and Frito has decided to lick my face. Then we all decided to roll in the snow until my butt started freezing (my NorthFace running pants are warm, but not THAT warm) and I called an end to our impromptu but highly exhilarating play date.

With gratitude {for beautiful, amazing, magical snow days, whether I get to stay home or not},

Joan, who has been bah-humbugging her way through a Midwestern winter devoid of snow until she finally got her wish this week and wishes to thank Mother Nature for listening