Tag Archives: nostalgia

My Crazy History of Christmas Cookies

No matter how old I grow, my stomach will always cherish one hallowed holiday tradition: cut-out, frosted Christmas cookies with colorful sprinkles.

During my childhood, Christmas cookies had such a short life expectancy that baking them hardly seemed worth it. The December appearance of a mixing bowl at our house ignited a war to determine who would “help.” When Mom or I dared take a restroom break, the kitchen was plundered by cookie-starved barbarians.

The first holiday stay at my future in-laws’ home completely muddled my Christmas cookie worldview. Perfect reindeer, Christmas trees and Santas were baked, with no fear of masked marauders. After decorating them like a culinary Michelangelo, my future mother-in-law openly displayed her creations on kitchen counters.

It was like visiting an unguarded art museum.

A kind woman, she chose not to prosecute me. When I married her son, she gave me her recipe!

Forgetting my brothers now lived hundreds of miles away, I baked a typical triple batch. My new husband and I ate little stables and mangers until Valentine’s Day — and loved it.

When our eldest, aged two, took her debut Christmas-cookie-baking lesson, the initial batch of dough hit the floor. Experimenting with the mixer’s beaters, she distributed another batch on the ceiling.  Finally, I shoved a bowlful into the refrigerator to chill. She parked in front of it.

Toddler: Cookies ready yet?

Mommy: No, honey. They have to get cold.

Toddler: (Yanking on fridge door) Don’t want cold cookies!

Mommy: We’ll bake them, but first, they have to get cold.

Toddler: (Suspiciously) Okay.

Mommy: I’ll set the oven timer—

Toddler: For the ’frigerator??

Mommy: (Looking heavenward) When it dings, the cookies will be cold.

Toddler: Okay. (Sits in front of oven.) Timer ready yet?

Later, she mixed frostings so that her mossy green and dark blood-red Christmas cookies could have graced a vampire’s holiday table.

As my slate of helpers grew, I learned to make dough one day, then bake/decorate the next. Using this system, we survived two decades of making Christmas cookies.

New sons-in-law, however, scorned cookie cutters as insults to their rugged individuality. They custom-designed mutant mittens, alien reindeer and Christmas carburetors. With the appearance of additional little helpers over the years, we once again turned out dozens of Christmas vampire cookies.

Worst of all, Grandma sneaked store-bought dough into the equation.

Now, a few years later, the grandchildren make their own — circumventing Grandma’s appalling shortcuts — and bring them to family gatherings.

With them taking charge, our family’s Christmas cookie history should flourish for generations to come.

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What favorite cookie will you bake (and sneak) this Christmas?

Boring Old Dad?

Many pay tributes to caring but unexciting dads who worked hard, fixed things, and helped keep them out of trouble — most of the time.

In honor of my dad’s 90th birthday.

My father did the basic dad drill, too. But boring?

Never.

A pastor, he refused to wear neckties. He led his congregation in “Joy to the World” … every Easter. Even my siblings and I listened intently to Dad’s sermons — because we often comprised the subject matter.

As a missionary, Dad approached challenges in ways that wouldn’t make Sunday school storybooks. Take, for example, the Mexican Chicken Wars.

Fifty years ago, our home in Linares, Mexico, featured an outhouse and nightly rat races. Though poor, my folks shared with neighbors living in shacks. Ready to open his thin wallet, Dad still drew the line at “Thou shalt not steal.”

Gilberto, the mission compound caretaker, said thieves targeted our chicken coop, an important income source for the mission. Determined to protect his feathered flock, Dad kept his ax beside his bed at night.

Those who didn’t know the Ten Commandments would learn them fast.

Soon, Dad awoke to the chickens’ squawking, grabbed his ax and headed for the henhouse. Stooping low, he spotted unknown blue-jeaned legs walking through the orange groves. He let loose his war cry, swinging the ax above his head.

The thief saw Dad — a tall, shirtless phantom with burning eyes who wielded a shining blade. The would-be robber dropped shrieking chickens and scaled the mission compound wall like a terrified spider.

Dad returned the chickens — vastly relieved the ax wasn’t meant for them — to their nests.

A week later, Dad awoke to another hen house ruckus. Again, he swung the ax with Old Testament vengeance.

This crook, however, screamed, “Aaron! It’s me, Aaron!”

Gilberto had checked on the chickens’ safety, too. They were fine, but Gilberto nearly lost his head to Dad’s ax.

Throughout his pastoral career, Dad confronted numerous dangerous situations. He housed ex-gang members and ex-prisoners and provided protection for domestic violence victims whose husbands/boyfriends vowed vengeance.

But few scenarios matched the peril Dad faced when, hiding behind church classroom partitions with his fishing pole, he cast a big, sugary doughnut amid members of a weight-watching group.

That incident nearly drove his guardian angel to drinking. Still, Dad survived to finally retire at 77. He now lives in the Louisiana piney woods where he was born and raised. Occasionally the angel chews his nails when Dad, now 90, wields his ax in a forest full of rattlesnakes.

But the angel’s not bored.

Sigh. Neither am I.

 

Your extraordinary ordinary: What’s your favorite dad story?

Oh, Baby!

Each day, young mothers parade past my window, taking children to the nearby elementary school.

I feel for pregnant moms whose steps slow as the months pass. Although decades have gone by, I remember well those exhausting days. I doubt these lovely young women believe their husbands’ reassurance any more than I believed mine, who told me I was beautiful.

What insanity had blinded his usual astute vision? Seven months pregnant with our first child, I felt like a walking ottoman.

“Turn around.” Hubby gave me a gentle push. “Look in the mirror. See? From the rear, you can’t even tell you’re pregnant.”

“So if I just walk backwards, nobody will know?”

“It means you’ll lose weight fast after the baby’s born.” A family practice resident at the local hospital, he knew how to handle cranky women in their last trimester.

I kissed him goodbye. Would I splurge and take the bus to my part-time job or ride my bike through our quiet neighborhood? I grinned. Each time I rode up on my three-speed, Mr. Plunkett, an older man in my office, threw his window open in horror.

Mrs. Phillips!” he shouted. “Come in and put your feet up!”

He always brought me a glass of water. Where was my mother? Did my husband really find this acceptable?

But graying skies made a ride risky. Mr. P. might have a coronary if I rode up amid thunder and lightning. So I decided to take the bus.

I donned my pink maternity outfit and slipped into comfortable shoes I’d bought when I no longer could see my feet. I arrived at the bus stop five minutes early, drifting into daydreams of nursery rhymes and rock-a-bye songs.

“Hey, Pink Pants!” Masculine voices called over my shoulder. Long whistles echoed through the air. “Hey, baby! Oh, baby!”

I stared at my stomach, confused. Sure, I was going to have a baby, but—? I cast a cautious glance behind.

Two linemen, perched atop an electrical pole, hooted at me. And yes, unless I had lost feminine instincts along with my waistline, ear-to-ear lecherous smiles gleamed on their faces.

Blank disbelief washed over me—then a joyous rush of wickedness. But Niceness pointed a finger at me, and I wavered. Should I? Or shouldn’t I?

I turned around and waved sweetly at my admirers, who nearly fell to the ground.

I waddled up the steps onto the bus. As it rolled away, I watched them hugging the pole, trying in vain to hide scarlet, guilty faces.

“Whoa, baby,” I whispered to my stomach. “You’re already knocking ’em off their feet.”

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite prego story?

These James Whitcomb Riley Days

My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, read James Whitcomb Riley poems, along with other Hoosier literature, after noon recess every day.

She brought poems and stories to life in a way that made my ears and mind tingle.

However, she enforced “rest time.” We had to lay our heads on our desks while she read, an indignity that smacked of kindergarten naptime. After all, we were nine-year-olds, soon to reach double digits.

We didn’t need any dumb rest time.

Decades later, I realized that after policing a playground resembling a crash derby without cars, then facing a similar classroom scenario, she might need the break.

Not all of Riley’s poems topped my “favorites” list. Braver classmates asked Mrs. Baker to read “Little Orphant Annie.” Why did they like those repeated references to “gobble-uns” that would get us if we didn’t shape up?

I already slept with my knees near my shoulders to avoid giant spiders lurking at the foot of my bed. Adding gobble-uns to my nighttime freak-out list didn’t induce much sleep.

Even more frightening, Little Orphant Annie had to do lots of housework.

The James Whitcomb Riley poem I liked best was “When the Frost Is on the Punkin’,” which celebrates autumn in Indiana. That poem tasted good, like tangy cider, and still does:

“But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.”

However, James Whitcomb Riley never would have received an A on a grammar test. He would have been the very first down in a spelling bee.

Mrs. Baker and other teachers deluged us with homework, tests and even demerits to ensure my classmates and I spoke and wrote correctly.

Yet my teacher read us his poems almost daily.

Grown-ups never made sense.

Despite my confusion, James Whitcomb Riley’s magic sang in my head and heart. A Hoosier like me, he wrote about the land and life I knew and loved. He instilled pride into us for who we were — kids in a country school in a county where farmers helped feed a nation and the world.

His poems still resonate with me, especially on a crisp, fall Indiana morning with a shimmer of silver on my lawn, and gold, russet, and scarlet leaves flying in the chilly, sunny breeze. James Whitcomb Riley still reminds me of all I cherish in my native state.

Even if he didn’t know how to spell.

 

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Did your childhood teachers read to you? What was your favorite read-aloud story/poem?

 

Infallible Camping Lists

When our children were small, I maintained a camping list as complicated as a theological treatise. It grew so wise and wonderful that our daughter, now taking her family camping, borrowed it. “I don’t want to forget anything.”

Ha! Campers always forget something.

I balked at handing over my ragged, penciled/inked, 25-year-old list. Part of me celebrated. No more worries about taking Scooby-Doo Band-Aids, the only kind our five-year-old would accept. But I sniffled anew over our empty nest.

I sobbed, “My camping list. …”

Hubby’s face stiffened in his familiar you’re-insane-but-I-won’t-say-it expression. He didn’t protest, “But you hate lists.” Or even, “You didn’t lose it 25 years ago?”

Still, he couldn’t comprehend how listings of bug spray and Imodium® evoked tender memories a mother could cherish.

He did offer to make a new list.

Eyes shining, he plopped beside me. “What do we want on our camping list?”

“We”? I had sort of wanted to do … anything else.

He read me. “If we collaborate, we won’t forget anything.”

We discovered — gasp! — that we define “essentials” differently.

He cannot survive without disgustingly healthy oatmeal raisin cookies. I refuse to leave the driveway without my beloved Pecan Sandies Shortbread cookies. We do agree that a hike without trail mix is like a cruise — not that we’ve taken one — without a buffet.

Hubby stood firm on one point: no melty, messy chocolate chips.

I stood firm. Trail mix without chocolate is not trail mix.

Believe it or not, we completed the list before Christmas.

In hopes of rescuing your future campouts, I include tips on camping items that should never be forgotten:

  • Rain tarp. Leave behind extra clothing (who cares what you look/smell like?). But don’t forget a rain tarp, for which — at 2 a.m., with water drip-drip-dripping on your forehead and your children/grandchildren floating away — you would pay a million dollars.
  • Buckets. Bailing with your spouse’s shoe will make a tenuous situation worse.
  • Coffee. Overlook a drinker’s joe or means to brew it, and she may tie you to a tree and invite bears to dinner.
  • Entrance rug. Leave it behind just once and you’ll sleep with a stampede of muddy footprints across your pillow.
  • Pillows. You may have included enough bags of marshmallows to substitute, but you’ll share your sleeping bag with a tribe of hungry raccoons.
  • Swimsuit. Bring both pieces.
  • Blanky. Do not forget your child’s blanky, eyeless teddy bear or one-armed Barbie® Doll. If you do, for the sake of the entire campground, be prepared to break into a small-town Walmart at 3 a.m. to find a substitute.
  • Soap. Finally, pack separate soaps. Otherwise, you might find yourself outside the men’s showers, yelling at your dearly beloved to remember your needs, then explaining them to the park ranger.

The good news: even if we’ve forgotten camping list essentials, we’re still married.

But with a new, untried list … with no Scooby-Doo Band-Aids … will we survive the next camping trip?

 Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What item would make the top of your list? (Hint: Room service does not count.)   

OMG, It’s Monday! Prayer: Celebrating My Boy Scout

O my God, You knew — though we didn’t, at 15 and 16 — that we’d be sharing the same boat for a lifetime. Thank You that we celebrated my Boy Scout’s birthday the way he likes best! And OMG, with Your help, may we paddle together for many years to come.

 

The First-Day-of-School Drill

Empty nesters like me have forgotten the, er, thrill of the first-day-of-school drill, right?

Not quite.

I may forget where I left my car … in my garage, because I walked to the store.

But I still can feel Mom brushing my hair into a tight ponytail that relocated my eyes. Before the bus arrived, she asked if I’d changed my underwear, then hugged me goodbye.

Clutching a box of unbroken crayons, I entered a classroom that smelled of chalk dust and my teacher’s flowery perfume.

We were issued information cards to give our parents. I could read and knew my address and phone number. One blank, however, stumped me.

After school, I asked Mom, “What’s sex?”

She straightened.  “Honey, where did you hear about sex?”

“It’s on the cards—”

What cards?”

“The school cards.” I handed her mine.

Why did she chuckle? “The school wants to know if you’re a girl or boy.”

“I’m a girl!” Mystery solved. I felt immense relief.

She probably felt more.

Fast-forward 25 years. My eldest, starting kindergarten, also knew how to read. We had practiced our address and phone number. I had instructed her about sex blanks.

She donned her Strawberry Shortcake backpack. I plunked my toddler into a stroller.

The school, though located across the street, seemed a world away.

“Time to go,” I said brightly.

“I want to go by myself.”

My heart shriveled.  “But—but—all the other mothers get to come.”

“I don’t want you to come.”

“You might get lost!”

“We visited my room. Two whole times.”

How had she mastered a teenage eye-roll? “Uh—”

She looked carefully both ways and crossed the street. But at the school’s entrance, she paused.

She needed me! To my two-year-old’s delight, the stroller and I galloped madly toward the school.

But my kindergartener had disappeared.

Now I paused, chewiing my nails. Should I risk another eye-roll?

Instead, I slunk home and suffered. Had my child indeed found her classroom?

Or had aliens abducted her?

When the school’s dismissal bell rang, the sight of the familiar little figure saved my life. “How was school?”

“Okay. But I didn’t like the cookies.”

She’d found her room! She’d filled out her information card herself. She knew her sex.

But she had balked at the teacher’s listing her race as white. “I told her you said I was pinky-beige.” My daughter groused, “She put a ‘W’ in the blank anyway!”

Apparently, my child had taken our racial discussions to heart. …

Ah, the first day of school. I may be a spectator now, but I haven’t forgotten the thrill of the drill.

As if I ever could.

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What first-day-of-school memory stands out for you?

Sweet Summer Brew for Yankees

The sun bestows its Midas touch on the flavorful brown brew in my oversized glass, stuffed with ice cubes, chilly rivelets running down its sides.

Does anyone speak of this popular summer beverage as “iced tea”?

Only dictionaries, menus, maître d’s — and column writers who must meet editing standards — have touted good ol’ ice tea with the superfluous “d.”

As southern temperatures soar, my Louisiana relatives greet visitors with a simple “Ya’ll come in and have some tea.”

If you, too, are a Yankee, please note: Never ask if the tea is sweetened or unsweetened.

“Unsweetened? In this house?”

Loyal southern citizens would rather fight the Civil War again than drink unsweetened tea. Even consumers who add artificial sweeteners warrant watching.

So I will try to lose weight before my September visit.

The locals drink it even at breakfast. Just recalling childhood memories of endless frosty glasses consumed while eating huge sorghum-laced biscuits adds layers to my physique.

My mother, though she did not possess the southern genetic code necessary to produce true sweet tea, was an exceptionally wise Yankee. As a young wife, she studied her in-laws’ iced-tea technique and learned the correct way to dump endless scoops of sugar into hers.

For years, Mom’s sweet tea helped cool and fuel her skinny little kids throughout sweltering summers. She steeped teabags in a pan with a ceramic lining — why, I don’t know, but I followed her lead for years. While it brewed, she recruited a child to “throw ice.” Money being short, she never considered store-bought bags. Trayfuls lasted mere minutes. Instead, Mom filled gallon milk cartons with water and froze them. We children took these cartons to our solid cement porch and threw them.

Most of the time, deliberately breaking anything resulted in an immediate Judgment Day. Part of the perk of throwing ice included the soul-satisfying shatter, classified, unbelievably, as “helping Mom.”

When Dad arrived, brown and weary from hammering nails on a sizzling roof or covered with paint, she filled a jar with cracked ice and poured her blessed sweet tea over it, resurrecting his body and soul.

A half century later, I know pitchers of sweet tea will await me when I visit Dad, along with glasses chock-full of ice. No pumpkin chai or caramel truffle for us, and never decaffeinated.

He and my relatives know better than to mess with a great brew.

Better than I, for the last time I visited, I asked, “Is this tea sweetened?”

 

 

What’s your favorite summer tea? Sweetened or unsweetened?

 

 

 

 

OMG, It’s Monday! Prayer: Whoa! What a show-and-tell!

O my God, when a solar eclipse invaded my childhood, I dove under my bed. (No scientific curiosity there.) Decades later, I no longer fit under beds. So today I will marvel as You direct celestial traffic with a flick of Your finger. OMG, Your power still blows me away!

 

August Baby

To very-soon-mothers-to-be walking along my street, in malls, and parks: my heartfelt sympathy. I gave birth to an August baby, too.

My final month, I holed up in our bedroom, the rental’s only air-conditioned area. Trying to buckle my shoes, I wriggled like a June bug on my back for two hours, then sallied forth in bedroom slippers to buy slip-ons.

At the store, a terrified teen clerk eyed me.

“Bring me cute shoes without buckles,” I ordered. “Or else!”

He came through … and probably vowed lifetime celibacy to shield him from cranky, pregnant women. Women wreaking vengeance on people with flat stomachs, no stretch marks and normal body temperatures. On anyone not carrying August babies.

My helplessness gave way to well-shod confidence. No more June bug imitations. With God’s help, I could do this.

I even volunteered to conduct my church’s evangelistic survey. I walked on my heels, as with any shift toward my toes, my watermelon-sized stomach would have dropped me onto my nose.

But I wore cute shoes. With no buckles.

Most residents, after glances at my stomach, demonstrated kindness. Crusty homeowners collared Chihuahuas and offered glasses of water. One irate lady shooed me into her recliner. Did my mother know I was doing this?

Later, fellow volunteers and I discovered my survey had proved the most successful! However, our team leader nixed the others’ tucking pillows under their shirts for follow-up.

I did not participate. August Baby had other plans.

The day before her arrival, I weeded flower beds. Throughout my pregnancy, I had charted a religiously healthy diet. But that day, I deserved chili dogs drowned in beans, cheese, onions and mustard.

Stuffed, gritty and exhausted, I announced, “I’ll shower tomorrow.”

My husband, a sleep-deprived resident physician, yawned. “Me, too. Don’t go into labor tonight.”

We collapsed. But August Baby woke us at one a.m. to announce her imminent arrival.

Not only did I have to confess my heinous dietary lapse to the nurse, but every hospital staff member came to meet me.

That’s Dr. Phillips’ wife?”

“Yeah, the one with the dirty nails.”

August Baby, however, made me forget everything. So what if the overflowing obstetric wing made us spend our first hours together in a hallway? Since many staff were on vacation, my long-awaited bath was postponed. …

August Baby and I spent many sweet, sweaty, squally summer nights cuddled too close, her soft skin and hair damp against mine.

But my daughter learned early to go with the flow. Her sunshine-tinged hair, eyes, and smile always have reminded me of August richness, of the treasure I received, dirty nails or not.

August Baby, you were — and are — golden.