Friday, December 30, 2011


Three sisters with the best mom in the world
My mother had certain phrases she used regularly.

As kids dressed to the nines we could count on her to send us out the door with "Act as nice as you look."

If we came home from school with sad stories about mean girls and the day-to-day trauma of junior high, she would spend a few seconds sympathizing, then remind us not to do battle in the mean wars. "Kill them with kindness," she'd say.

And she had little sympathy for the hormonal tears that left us awash during the teen years. "Wash your face," she would say tartly. "You'll feel better."

When her daughters, now with new babies of their own, called for advice, she had the wisest counsel: "Trust yourself. You have good instincts and you know more than you think you do."

And every time we pulled into the driveway at the farm, she shut off the car with "Home again, home again, jiggety-jog."

Two years ago today we let Mom leave, a day after the fall that had ended her life as we knew it. I don't question the divine wisdom that designated her time to die; she had started down the slope toward Alzheimer's and she feared this loss of dignity much more than she feared death.

But I miss her. I miss her wisdom and her sense of humor, her compassion and her common sense. Today I'm fighting tears, so I'll wash my face and feel better. I know she wouldn't have wanted her life prolonged past her mental expiration date.

She's home again.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Things I Learned: Christmas Edition

Christmas is not simply a day of religious wonder and family togetherness, it also is an educational experience. This year, for example, I learned several things.

1. I should probably check my pantry before I make out my shopping list for Christmas morning cinnamon rolls...

...or in 10 years I'll have 10 little bottles of maple extract with one tablespoon used out of each.

2. My children have inherited my mad skillz when it comes to wrapping presents.
In defense of the Boy who wrapped this, a bird feeder with multiple spikey thingies for the birds to land on is an uncommonly complex wrapping challenge. This, though? Looks exactly like what I would have solved that challenge. But...

3.  ...who cares? In an hour all that wrapping paper is going to look like this and no one will know which presents (Husband's) had lovingly-creased mitered corners and which (mine) did not.

4. Those ham-and-water products in the supermarket sale bins this time of the year cannot approach the deliciousness of the locally-cured ham provided by my farmer brother. This Christmas dinner centerpiece would have made a meat-eater out of Ghandi.
Also, I need a new cutting board. The first item on my 2012 Christmas list.

6. Snuggies don't fit into stockings, but now that all of the Boys suspect that Santa buys at Wal-Mart, that's not such a big deal.

6. If I had known how lovely it is to have grown-up children, I would have given birth to 20-year-olds. They are good-humored, adaptable, helpful, and (usually) good sports about their mother's blog. They also know how to work the camera timer so that I can take an out-of-focus shot and wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas from the House on the Corner!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Eve

It's the Eve.

If Clement Moore's children had been in college, he would have written about the morning before Christmas, rather than the night before Christmas. The time is approaching double digits, and the Boys are still nestled all snug in their beds. It will be the last calm moment until after the holiday festivities: Tomorrow morning I won't dawdle over my coffee as I scramble to put Christmas dinner in the oven before leaving for church.

Before I had children, I had a vision in my mind of how Christmas mornings would unfold. Shiny-faced poppets arranged on the stairway in their matching pajamas, bright-eyed with anticipation and squealing with delight at the sight of overstuffed stockings and Santa's generosity.

Sometimes that happened, but frankly, having four children exponentially raises the odds that someone will not get to sit in the spot he wanted to open presents, someone will be unhappy with Santa's thick-headedness in choosing gifts, someone will be inexplicably grumpy. In short, Christmas morning with toddlers and teenagers is an enormous sleigh-full of emotions, and as a mother who insisted on carrying the emotional baggage I was often bone-tired at the end of Christmas day.

Fortunately, I have matured along with my children. As I get older I put less pressure on myself to make Christmas magical. I only do the Christmas traditions that I love to do (baking bread and knitting) and have joyfully released the traditions that television's idea of a perfect Christmas forced on me (oh, my heavens, the hated decorating of sugar cookies). I don't stress about mailing my cards before the 25th; my friends will know I'm thinking of them as I address their cards next week. I trust the Boys to be happy, or not, knowing I really don't have much influence over this choice.

I'm deeply contented this Eve, and filled with joy that the birth of Christ is the event that brings us together in celebration.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good Eve.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Surrounded by Pestilence

All the boys are home. Aaaahhhh!

Last night I basked in the contentment of having these four lovable scamps within touching range. I was knitting, a couple of Boys were playing video games, one was reading quietly, another was checking Facebook. I was practically Mamsy surrounded by her Four Little Peppers.  Then Lovable Scamp #2 reached for a throat lozenge.

Cue the shower scene music from Psycho. Wreep! Wreep! Wreep! Wreep!

"Are you getting sick?"

"Yeah, I think I caught something on the plane."

Well, that is just peachy. Most of my memories from the past 20 years have been sanitized by childbirth amnesia, which is to say that I generally remember the touchy-feely warm glow of motherhood and have mostly forgotten the grittier details. One gritty detail I have not forgotten is that when one Boy gets sick, almost inevitably the germ finds us all, and then it is Not Pretty.

This is Christmas week. The next three days are packed with activities, followed by  the one week of the year that I have six lovely, uncommitted days and lots of leftovers in the fridge to keep me out of the kitchen. I will NOT get sick.

For the rest of the evening, I walked surreptitiously behind Two sanitizing surfaces he might have touched. I washed my hands at least a dozen times, and made sure someone else loaded the dishwasher. (Dirty cutlery, you know.)

This morning I congratulated myself when I woke up feeling JUST FINE.

Then I got to work found an e-mail from the co-worker in the next office. The subject line was "Sick."


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Love From Your Elderly Aunt

Here's what I love about Christmas clothing: It is festive. It is colorful. It is seasonally appropriate. It never wears out. (Indeed, since it's only worn once or twice a year, Christmas gear is the "Wonderful One-Hoss Shay" of the clothing world.)

Here's what I hate about Christmas clothing: Apparently it is TOTALLY, EYE-ROLLINGLY, APPALLINGLY un-chic.

Well, huh.

This week my cool friends (and sons) on the internet have been attending Ugly Christmas Sweater parties. An entire seasonal industry has grown up around seasonal clothing if you believe NPR (and really, who doesn't?) and apparently the only ones of us who wear such stuff un-ironically are the seriously fashion-impaired and elderly great-aunts.

I offer the photo that illustrates today's post as proof that I belong in the first category. You see the 15-year-old velvet vest festooned with beaded poisettias, and the holly-berry mock turtleneck. You may not see the candy cane earrings, but I assure you they are there. (Also, you see that I put on not one speck of lipstick before posting my picture to the World Wide Web.Please disregard that part.)

As for the second category--hey! I am great-aunt to 16! And in my mind, great-aunts are the ones bring the rum-balls to the Christmas feast and thanks to their advanced age get go through the buffet lines first. I can do those things, too.

So merry Christmas to you whippersnappers, with your leggings and hair feathers. I'll keep rocking the velvet and poisettias. As an elderly great-aunt, it's only appropriate.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Gifts

I have given the Boys my Christmas list every year since they were old enough to read, and every year I hear the same complaint.

"You are so hard to buy for."

And I always defend myself.

"No, no, no. I'm easy to please. I like any kind of kitchen gadget, coffeepots and vacuum cleaners, almost anything as-seen-on-TV, things that warm me in the winter or cool me in the summer, things that are whimsical..." and I go on, and on, and on.

This morning as I left for work I glanced in the front window at the still-lit tree. The living room was peaceful and orderly but by the time I sleep again it will not be. Today everyone is traveling, one from four hours north and the others from seven hours south. A storm is blowing in from the west, and all will be racing to reach the House on the Corner before the snow does.

At the risk of sounding like a heartless mother, most of the time I don't yearn for the Boys to be home. We believe each was providentially guided to his current situation, and knowing that all are in good places for these stages of their lives fills my cup beyond overflowing. 

By tonight, God willing, everyone will be under the same roof. I'll have chili on the stove, and after the mountains of luggage and dirty laundry have been unloaded we'll sit at the same table to eat.

I'm easy to please. This is all I want for Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Tablespoon of Cream

When we moved to Small Town one of the first women I met was L. She was the school librarian, a tiny little lady who barely came to my shoulder, wearing a neat pastel pantsuit, and the expression on her face can only be described as a twinkle. I don't remember what she said to me at that first meeting, but I'm sure it made me laugh; I loved her dry wit from the first moment.

Although her hair was white, she seemed ageless--she could have been one of the wise and wonderful women who came to life in her books: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Mary Poppins. Miss Marple. She didn't have children of her own so all of the children who passed through the high school on their way to adulthood became her children, and she treated them with the respect and occasional tartness each deserved.

I knew her for a quarter of a century and she was changeless--her neat style, her height, her grin and sense of humor did not age.  Even after she retired she kept track of the the students who had passed through her library doors,and they stopped at her table at Wendy's to show off their new babies. Deep in my heart I believed she was immortal.

She was not immortal, though. Astonishingly healthy until just a few weeks ago, she developed a stubborn infection in her pacemaker wires, and yesterday she was gone. It was a shockingly swift transition.

I love coffee, especially coffee with cream. Over the years I have experimented with healthy alternatives to this high-fat additive, but I finally realized that I would rather have my coffee with one tablespoon of cream than with a quarter-cup of fat-free half-and-half.

Sudden death is shocking, especially in those who, like L. or my mother, have lived with warmth and wit and have touched so many others. Each could have had many more years of life, but quite certainly these years would have been of diminishing quality. Even as I mourn L. and continue to miss Mom, I realize the richness of their lives was pure nearly to the end.

God gave each of them a tablespoon of cream.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


The subject line on the Boy's e-mail was the same as the title of this post. When it arrived this afternoon, I opened the attachment to find a screen shot of his grades, then whooped so loudly that I was glad no one was passing in the hallway.

This kid had bitten off a big chunk of academic meat this semester, with four courses most people would consider extraordinarily difficult, as well as one general ed course and an hour of marching band. At the mid-semester mark he was wondering if he would make it through the semester with his academic standing intact.

School had always come easily to him, and it had taken him a few semesters to learn how to study. That homework can't be delayed until the hour before class. That difficult concepts must be mastered layer by layer. That there's no disgrace in asking for help from professors or from brainy roommates.

Unlike high school, when a poor semester grade point average would cause loss of driving and internet  privileges and earn a stern talking-to from his parents, Boy knew the stakes now are much higher. A poor semester here could mean loss of scholarship money, a consequence that could lead to...well, knowing how much he loves his university we try not to think of that heart-breaking consequence..

Today he learned that the studying has paid off, and sent the report card to share the joy.

"You know," he said, "this has been my hardest semester so far, but I've enjoyed these classes the most."

To learn that hard work pays off, and that tackling difficult concepts is more rewarding than filling a schedule (and a brain) with fluffier material?

Yay, indeed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Boy Barometer

My younger sister was rummaging around in the baking cupboard at The Farm looking for ingredients for her swoon-worthy cinnamon rolls when she uncovered a bag of chocolate chips. Mom probably bought them for a baking project which means they are, at a minimum, two years old.

"You can tell these aren't in my house," R. commented. "They wouldn't have lasted a week."

Ah, memories.

Before the exodus of Boys from the House on the Corner, baking chips were on every week's shopping list. The Boys were bakers extraordinaire, although at that time this pretty much was the beginning and ending of their cooking prowess. So chocolate chips for cookies, butterscotch chips for Rice Krispie bars, peppermint chips because they were on sale, mini-chips for muffins--I bought them all. If the Boys weren't baking, they were snacking, and the opened half bag of left-over chocolate chips soon was a quarter bag, then just eight or nine chips rattling around in the bag. No one ever finished off the bag and threw it away, though.

After I got home from The Farm I checked the chips supply in my own baking cupboard. Nine bags. Nine bags of chips that have been untouched since the house quieted down in mid-August. We have enough chips to last most families for a good year or two.

But for us? That supply will last until Tuesday. The Boys are coming home Monday--I'd better stock up.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Party Like You're 84

It's hard to follow up the spectacular day my Dad had last Friday, but Saturday was pretty cool, too.

He celebrated his 85th birthday with four of his five children, two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren, and you'll be glad to know we partied like octogenarians. Notice the dried fruit, beta-carotene-rich carrots, and the birthday bierocks that were our lunch.

Never fear, though. We had cake. Oh, did we have cake.

Of course, we were too cheap thrifty to bake a separate cake when the decorative centerpiece of the building dedication hadn't yet been eaten so my  frugal older sister edited the icing. (It gives a whole new meaning to "blue-pencil.")

Then it was time for presents. First opened was a new Nordic hat for his twice-daily heart-healthy walks. The crowd went wild.

"Try it on!"

"Try it on!"

Then the wraps came off to reveal a new holiday sweater. Again the chant went up.

"Try it on!"

"Try it on!"

The third gift came in recognition of Dad's five swimming gold medals from the Senior Olympics. He carefully unfolded the tissue paper and pulled out of the gift bag...a Speedo.

And at that point, the clamor for him to model his presents ceased.

Happy birthday, Dad!

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Better Dream

My father did not grow up dreaming of being school administrator.

He was born during the Dust Bowl years and he dreamed of being a farmer. But back then, as now, farmers usually are farmers because they are born into farm families. Dad was born into a family that milked a few cows but didn't have enough land to support more than one son, and he was not that son.

So Dad became a schoolteacher, and because he had been shaped by genetics and circumstances to aim high and work hard, he became a topnotch schoolteacher.

He became such a good teacher (winning national awards) that he was recruited to the faculty of a newly-formed vocational-technical school, and within a couple of years he had been selected to be the school's director. It wasn't necessarily a great promotion; at that point the vo-tech had classes meeting in half a dozen classrooms across the tiny town where it was located and the final motion at every board meeting was that the business officer pay the bills "as far as the money goes." Honestly, no one would have been too surprised if the doors had quietly closed.

But my dad, who had dreamed of being a farmer, turned out to be spectacularly suited for his new job as the director of this school. He was organized and persistent, and he passionately believed in his institution's ability to prepare young people for the workplace, if they also were willing to aim high and work hard.

For 28 years he shaped the school, pushing it toward excellence with hard work and sometimes pulling it along with nothing more than his stubborn belief that the school needed to be better. Then, as he watched the campus take shape and students win national skills competitions and graduates make good lives with their new skills, Dad didn't let up. He kept pushing for better programs and better facilities, and for accreditation that emphasized quality. He still dreamed of farming, so in the early mornings and late nights he worked the land he and my mother had bought and where they were raising five children.

Last Friday, the day before Dad's 85th birthday, the vo-tech school (now a technical college) named its student union after Dad and Mom. The dedicatory plaque talks about Dad's "vision, commitment, and leadership," and about Mom's support of his vision. It doesn't list all the people whose lives were changed for the better because my father believed so strongly in vocational education; that list could have covered most of the walls of the building.

He might have been a fine farmer but that dream took a back seat to his vision, and thousands of graduates saw their dreams come true because his did not.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cranky, Again

Ever have one of those days where everything seems to fall butter-side down? That's today.

I instant messaged Boy#1 that I was cranky, and that every.single.thing was irritating me, including the snafu-d reorder of institutional Christmas cards that means they won't be here for another week, and the retirement home taking mother-in-law to her physical therapy appointment on the wrong day, and the annual Christmas play that I liked better when it was in the smaller theater space, and dadgummit who ordered those paper towels in the bathroom that shred when you try to pull them out of the holder?

This was his reply:

So, last night, I looked up Harry Morgan's Wikipedia page
And today he's dead
I wonder if I killed him.

He wins. No matter how crazy-making my day has been, at least I'm not worrying that I killed Colonel Potter

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Snow Magic

Last night when I went to bed my shoulder ached. I fidgeted for a while, trying to find a comfortable position, and finally took an ibuprofen to help me sleep. By morning I was feeling fine, so I finished off 30 minutes in the gym (aka: basement) and stepped out the back door for my walk-around-the-block cool-down.

Everything was white.

My reaction was instantaneous: I grinned like a six-year-old.

In spite of my bah-humbug attitude toward weather extremes, there's something magical about the first snowfall of the year. It's as if the tired landscape has had a makeover,  the drought-stricken lawn looking less stricken and the leafless trees suddenly less naked and more seasonally appropriate. This morning the final dregs of what the weatherman would call "snow showers" sifted down, sparkling under the streetlight. I circled the block noticing which neighbors left their tree lights on all night, and silently thanking them for adding to the atmosphere. Then I leaned back to catch a couple of flakes on my face, and went back inside, knowing that by noon this fluffy dusting would have blown away.

I won't be so delighted by any other snowfall this winter. I'll remember that snow is cold, wet, and often treacherous, and I'll watch forecasts and hope none of the Boys will be preparing to travel when the snowflake appears on the weather map. I'll sigh at the knowledge that I'm now old enough that my shoulders and knees are more reliable predictors than the TV guys.

But today? Today I was six years old again, and it had snowed.

Monday, December 5, 2011

An Open Letter to the Boys

 Ho, ho, ho, Boys!

It's that time of the year again: Santa Claus is on his way! (If the Santa in the illustration is any indication, you may want to double-lock your windows and doors and make sure any children are nestled all snug in their beds, because he looks kind of creepy, but I digress.)

As you know, your father and I are slightly deficient when it comes to coolness. We were never the parents who kept up with trends, and on the hipness scale we've veered away from "Uses Newest Slang Correctly" and settled squarely on "Get Off My Lawn." 

However, because we love you very much, we have spent a fair amount of time discussing Christmas gifts for the four of you. These discussions always go something like this:

Your father: So what should we get the Boys for Christmas?
Me: I dunno. What do you think?
Your father: I dunno., that wouldn't work.
Me: How about new cookware for everyone? I love the set I got last year.
Your father (wondering if I hit my head and now thought I had only daughters): ......
Me: I dunno.

So in the interest of seeing your eyes light up on Christmas morning at the sheer COOLNESS of your gifts, we need some lists. You know the rules--no live animals, no vehicles unless you want to relive the hilarity of the year Boy#4 got his Corvette and everyone except him thought it was sooooo funny we'd found that model of Matchbook car, no firearms or explosives, etc. And put on some speed, because ohmigosh only 14 shopping days left, allowing for shipping of online purchases, and if you think any of my purchases will not be online you don't know me at all.

Don't leave the choosing of cool gifts to your parents. Otherwise you might end up with a lovely new Dutch oven. 

Santa's Elves

Friday, December 2, 2011

Chicken Dinner!*

Among the many phrases the not-yet-grown Boys learned to parrot with accompanying eye-rolling was "Yes, we can afford it, we just choose not to buy it."

Back in the day when the young'uns were young and I was working full-time but non-salaried as a mother, this phrase was used often as we walked through Wal-Mart and were dazzled on every side by Lego sets, Star Wars paraphernalia, and stuff SO COOL it just didn't make sense to not buy it right then and there.

"Can't we afford it?" a Boy would ask after I marched by the fabulous toy without putting it in the cart, and I would answer "Yes we can afford it, but we're choosing not to buy it."

This was, of course, a total lie.

Okay, it wasn't a total lie. We were not poor in the sense that we ever lacked for anything important, including music lessons in multiple instruments for multiple children. But every dollar was pretty much spoken for, with not a lot of wiggle room for gratuitous Lego sets and light sabers.

That's why I was absolutely flabbergasted when my name was drawn for the gift card given away at Small College's health fair yesterday. Even now, with two professional salaries in the family, having FIFTY DOLLARS that are not earmarked and pre-tagged is just a mind-boggling embarrassment of riches. This little card could become new Christmas placemats, or a stash of yarn, or a plug-in-able kitchen appliance. I get goosebumps just thinking of the possibilities.

It occurred to me that I'm probably more excited about a modest gift card that will be used to support a big box store (albeit one that employs local folks) than Donald Trump is when he buys a new island. After all, he probably can justify buying a chain of islands easier than moms with four kids in college can justify buying a completely random kitchen gadget.

Donald, you could not possibly be as rich as I feel.

*Hmmm. Perhaps not everyone is familiar with the phrase "Winner, winner, chicken dinner." It seems to have puzzled some of my readers. Feel free to use it liberally in connection with yourself.