Project stirs up sour-happy memories

I’m an ambassador for my friend Sarah’s Project STIR, in which she’s telling families’ stories through their beloved recipes. See the description at the bottom of this post.

PickleQuotePamPickleJars1My Nanny’s homemade pickles were so sought-after, she limited her grandkids to one quart jar of them a day.

I’m talking about the grandkids who lived on either side of her: Keith, Judy, Dan, Mike and Penny. Not me, not my brother (we lived in California), not most of Nanny’s 15 grandkids – just the lucky five who lived on either side of her and Papa in their little rock house on Hilltop Road in Cave City, Arkansas.

PapaNannyWedding1927
Clay and Ila (Brewer) Taylor on their wedding day in Cave City, Arkansas, 1927.

The rest of us lived in other towns (or states) and only got the pickles during visits. I imagine we ate more than a quart when the herd converged on Nanny’s kitchen, though. (Would she have been able to stop us?)

Nanny looks a little surprised to be photographed in her kitchen in 1955. The picture was taken before most of her grandkids were born, but this is where most of us remember her.

My grandparents squeezed a lot of kids (seven), grandkids, spouses and great-grands into their little kitchen/dining room – on Sunday afternoons, on special holidays … heck, just any time we were able to get together. It was a loud, delicious holy mess of people and homemade food. Somehow, we all found a place to sit and eat: at the dining table, in the living room, on the back porch, on the front porch swing or the steps. In the hot months, we’d be out in the yard, especially when watermelons were in season (someday I’ll tell you about Cave City watermelons.)

NineOfNannyPapasGrandkids1968
Eating Cave City watermelons at Nanny and Papa’s, summer 1968. Clockwise from front left: Pam Taylor Hill, Billy Taylor, Mike Mullen, Kathy Taylor Skinner, Judy Mullen Walling, Penny Mullen Snyder, Danny Watson, Jimmy (“JT”) Taylor (my brother), Robin Taylor Vanness. Not pictured: Keith Watson, Suzy Taylor Oakley and the four cousins yet to be born (Teri Taylor, Chris Taylor, Tanya Taylor Harmon and April Taylor Burton).

Only recently, when my cousin Penny created a Facebook page in honor of our grandparents, did I find out just how special it was living year-round next to Clay and Ila Taylor.

My brother and I visited every summer with our parents, until we moved to Arkansas, and then we were there most Sunday afternoons. We have a cousin who’s still in Arizona, and most of the rest have been scattered around Arkansas all their lives.

But those five … those five lived the country life that harried urbanites only dream of nowadays.

Specific to the pickles, though … here’s what Judy said:

“Nanny would can pickles in quart Mason jars every summer. Dan, Mike, Penny and I would start begging for them before the jars would even seal. Then, after we wore her down and so we would have pickles through the winter and next spring, she would limit us to eating only 1 quart a day! She must have canned 100 quarts or more each summer! We had to help can them, too, but it was really not much work for us kids.”

Her sister Penny’s story is slightly different:

“Picking the cucumbers was not fun because they were down on the ground under the leaves. We had to wake up by 7 to pick the garden, but then we could go back to bed. Worst part was the dew was still on the plants and it made you so itchy. Nanny had two giant galvanized tubs and we washed all the veggies in one tub and transferred to the second tub for final wash. Of course the tubs were filled with that awesome water they had [from their well].

“We sat up the washing stations out beside the pump house under the big trees. Nanny always handled the cutting of them because we couldn’t even touch her knives. No matter what veggie she was working on, Nanny would tape up her right thumb with white medical tape to prevent cuts.”

PickleJarsKettle
“Nanny always kept a tea kettle of water hot on the stove,” Penny said. “This is one of her kettles and some of the canning jars. Notice the lines in the glass on the sides and the jars are squared on the corners. Nanny’s jars are probably 65 years old. I have some ball jars about 25 years old that were my canning jars. They have the lines but the corners are rounded.”

Nanny had been canning food for so long (“She never wasted anything,” my mom said) that she had developed a system. Penny still remembers some of those rituals:

“Nanny was really particular about her jars. She sterilized them in the big white wash pans on the stove. I still have some of her old jars. I can always tell them from others because they have lines going down the side. …

“I can just picture Nanny right now wiping down the tops of the jars with her rags that were bleached the whitest of white. She wanted all the salt and alum off the top so the flat and ring would seal properly. Then the entire jar was wiped down with a different rag.

“The cucumbers were always cut, only by Nanny, in one quarter spears or [halves].”

I certainly loved those pickles, but I didn’t know until recently just how many of us salivated – and puckered – over them.

“I still feel my jaws pull a little at the mention of those salty sour pickles,” cousin Pam said.

I know the feeling.

I don’t remember Pam ever drinking the juice, although she apparently did when I wasn’t looking: “Who didn’t love drinking pickle juice!?! Still pucker at the thought.” (Apparently one cousin did not get the pickle-loving gene: Teri said she would rather eat a spider.) But Pam’s sister, Robin, and I would practically race each other to the jar to see who could drain it first.

Pam and Robin’s mom also made awesome pickles, even though she once said hers weren’t as good as Nanny’s. I beg to differ. It’s been a lot of years since I had one of Aunt Donna’s pickles, but I remember that they were really, really good.

Sure, they weren’t Nanny’s legendary pickles. But they were good.

My mom must have been intimidated because, even though she has Nanny’s recipe, which looks well-loved on the sheet of lavender notebook paper below, neither of us can recall her ever making them. (It’s probably a good thing: Her handwritten version is missing an ingredient: alum.)

NannysPickleRecipeMom
Mom has a lot of recipes without titles, but we know this one for sure.

Nanny’s great-grandson David had no such qualms about the recipe. He thought everyone should be able to make his Nanny Taylor’s pickles. He loved them so much he shared them in the church cookbook one year.

His mom, Penny, said:

“Mount View ladies auxiliary decided to make a cookbook and sell them to raise money. Everyone in the church was asked to submit their favorite recipes. I asked the kids about it, and David chose as his favorite ‘Nanny’s Pickles.’ He was so proud! I have always loved church cookbooks because they contain ‘tried and true’ recipes usually handed down. Nanny’s pickle recipe sure has been passed down and has stood the test of time.”

NannysPicklesMtViewCookbookI was thinking about trying to make Nanny’s pickles, but then Penny’s next comment intimidated me a little bit:

“My kids always loved any kind of pickle, especially David. Our mother was able to replicate Nanny’s recipe so the grandkids could eat ‘Nanny’s pickles’ they heard about all their lives. After Nanny had her illness and was in [the nursing home], she would come to Mother’s house most weekends. One time I got the bright idea to make the pickles recipe. Of course Nanny told me every step. These pickles weren’t even half as good as Nanny’s or Mother’s. But the kids loved them and drank the juice like it was soda.”

And then there were Aunt Bee’s pickles. Remember, no one had the guts to tell her they were awful. 🙂

But Project STIR is all about family memories and heirloom recipes. Maybe it’s time my mom and I got over our pickle-making phobia and got together for a batch.

Pass the Mason jars, please.

ProjectSTIR-websiteABOUT SARAH’S PROJECT:

Project STIR is a series of documentary films launched on Kickstarter. The films will follow Abuelitas, Nans and Mamaws passing down heirloom recipes in kitchens around the globe, including countries such as Panama, New Zealand, Turkey, Croatia and England – and United States, of course. Click here to learn more about how to be involved, or simply follow along on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

And I can’t let you leave without mentioning that Sarah has partnered with The Pack Shack, a very worthy organization that feeds those in need (with the help of folks like you and me). Click here to see what I wrote about The Pack Shack recently. (It includes a fun video.)

Follow me on Twitter @OakleySuzyT.

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Preserving family memories through Project STIR

ProjectSTIR-websiteI was going to use this video (below) in Monday’s post, but as I got to thinking about it, I realized that it’s just too wonderful to force it to share space with my own family’s story. I also want to honor my family by spotlighting it solo. Hence, separate posts.

Maybe I’ve just grown super-sentimental as the years have gone by, but my friend Sarah’s new Project STIR has really served to stir things up for me emotionally. It has helped me connect in new ways with my cousins (online) and to reconnect with some of the memories of my family through recipes and food stories.

As an ambassador for Sarah’s project, I get to tell my own story, but before that I want you to watch her first video, which she has been using to promote her project. Then Monday I’ll share with you my Nanny’s pickle recipe, some photos and some of my family’s happy memories. (I sure wish I had a video of my Nanny that I could share with you, and I can assure you that if she were alive today, I would totally have her on camera making her strawberry cake … or her white beans … or her pickles.)

Please watch Sarah’s four-minute video, read the Project STIR description below and come back Monday for my story. (My post will go live at midnight tonight. If you subscribe to Suzy & Spice updates, you will receive an email whenever there’s a new post. See sidebar at right.)

ABOUT SARAH’S PROJECT:

Project STIR is a series of documentary films launched on Kickstarter. The films will follow Abuelitas, Nans and Mamaws passing down heirloom recipes in kitchens around the globe, including countries such as Panama, New Zealand, Turkey, Croatia and England. Click here to learn more about how to be involved. 

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Blogging from A-Z – ‘juvenile’ (type 1) diabetes

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “J.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the Blogging from A-Z page here.)

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MaddyQuoteI can’t even come close to imagining what it’s like to be the parent of a child with diabetes.

Not by a long shot.

I remember when my cousin David’s daughter, Madisen, was diagnosed in October 2007. She was only 6.

David and Kelly freaked out for a minute, I think (wouldn’t you?), and then they got busy. They bought plane tickets to Oklahoma, where another cousin lives. Our cousin D.P. also has a daughter, Kara, with Type 1 diabetes (aka T1D), and David needed advice. He needed to hear from another dad that everything was going to be OK.

And it was, but it took a while to feel that.

He and Kelly were reeling with the new reality that their little girl had a problem they couldn’t fix. Even worse, it was a condition Maddy likely would be dealing with for the rest of her life.

Or at least until we find a cure.

Because “OK” doesn’t mean it’s gone; it means you find a “new normal” and you go with it. Whatever it takes.

You get educated. You seek advice. You get support from other parents. You use every resource you can find to help you – and your child – deal with it.

You fundraise, you walk, you advocate. You protect your baby girl as best you can.

KellyMaddyDave
Kelly, Maddy and David raising money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in 2011.

This is their reality, according to Kelly:

“She will never outgrow it, and every decision we make regarding her care today has lasting implications for her health many years to come.”

Talk about a heavy burden for a parent.

But Madisen also knows how serious this is.

“Dealing with Type 1 Diabetes is a constant balancing act. Sometimes I WIN and my blood sugars are good, and other times I don’t, despite all the hard work. There are no guarantees. Every day is a battle with this disease that I can treat but never control. I have always said this disease will NOT STOP ME from doing the things I love ❤.”

This girl is strong. (I suppose she has no choice.)

She doesn’t let T1D stop her from doing the things she loves. She shows her grit and strength by playing centerfield on a championship softball team:

“I love to play softball and currently play on the varsity team at school as well as on a travel team. My diabetes has sometimes interfered with softball. If my blood sugar is too high or too low the coach may make me sit the bench until my blood sugar is in a good range. This makes me so MAD! It is like I am being punished or something. It is frustrating because I cannot always know when my blood sugar is going to rise or drop. It is not like I can plan ahead!!”

Kelly considers her daughter a hero:

“This is an emotional and physical roller coaster of which we never get off! Madisen wakes up every morning to finger pokes, insulin injections, highs/lows and everything in between. Diabetes goes to school with her, where she must learn and grow as a student all while dealing with blood sugar. She has managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA all through school despite diabetes. She goes to bed each night with the fear of dangerous highs that wreak havoc on her body or even more dangerous lows that could send her into a coma or even death. We turn around and do it all over again the next day and the day after that. Sometimes we all wish we could get off this ride or simply take a break. We have learned that with diabetes there is no break!

I took this photo the day I met Maddy in 2006.
I took this photo the day I met Maddy in 2006.

Most of what I know about Maddy has been from a distance of about 2,000 miles; I’ve enjoyed her company a handful of times during all-too-brief family visits. But I follow her parents on Facebook and have seen countless photos and reports of her as she has grown from a grinning little girl (with a melt-your-heart smile) to a beautiful and generous young lady.

“She has a kind heart and wants to help other kids dealing with this disease,” says her mom.

In Maddy’s words:

“I have had the opportunity to attend an amazing diabetes camp through the Diabetes Youth Families called Bearskin Meadow, where I can be around people who face the same struggles I do. I have had the chance to meet people from all different cities. I will be attending teen camp this summer for 10 days. I hope to become a camp counselor when I am 18. I would like to pass on the important life lessons that I have learned and make a difference to young kids who battle this disease.

Maddy may not know it, but she’s a role model and she makes her family proud.

______________________________________

SOME THINGS WE WANT YOU TO KNOW:

A group of T1D parents welcomed me recently when David invited me to a Facebook group that he and Kelly are a part of. It’s a place where parents can get information and support from one another, and even share their frustrations sometimes. The first question I asked was, “Do you call it juvenile diabetes, type 1, or what?” Then I asked what else they would like folks to know about T1D.

  • “I hate referring to it as ‘juvenile diabetes’ because everyone familiar with it ALWAYS assumes once my son is not a juvenile, he will outgrow diabetes.”
  • “There is a whole movement out there to rename type 1 since all the press and public health messaging is around type 2, but tends to be referred to as ‘diabetes’ so type 1 folks are sometimes treated like ‘well if you just behaved differently you’d get over it.’ It’s an easy correction, but unfair for a kid to have to do it.”
  • Finding the right doc can be a challenge: You have to have a Pediatric Endocrinologist Specialist in addition to their regular Pediatrician to treat their T1D. Most regular Endo Docs will NOT treat kids under the age of 18 with T1D because it is much more complicated (due to kids’ constant hormone changing as they grow, the need for 24 hour on call – usually in close connection with a hospital, and growth factors, etc. complicate the regulation of the A1C).”
  • “Life insurance is near impossible for our kids that have gotten onset as a juvenile … that [our daughter] could afford. … It doesn’t seem the insurance industry is catching up to the medical progress that is being made for T1D and still penalizing all T1D.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

  • Diabetes Youth Families. DYF’s mission: “To improve the quality of life for children, teens and families affected by diabetes. The organization provides education and recreation within a supportive community, encouraging personal growth, knowledge and independence.”
  • Bearskin Meadow Camp.
  • Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. On a mission to find a cure, JDRF is “the leading global organization funding type 1 diabetes (T1D) research. JDRF’s goal is to progressively remove the impact of T1D from people’s lives until we achieve a world without T1D.”
  • National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. The NDIC is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The clearinghouse “provides information about diabetes to people with diabetes and to their families, health care professionals and the public. The NDIC answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications and works closely with professional and patient organizations and government agencies to coordinate resources about diabetes.”

Until there’s a cure, young ladies like Maddy and Kara will keep fighting.

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Monday: K is for (stay tuned).

Follow me on Twitter: @OakleySuzyT

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Blogging from A-Z – family, faith & Friday nights

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “F” … in case you couldn’t tell. (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the Blogging from A-Z page here.)

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For the past few months, Bruce and I have been using Friday night TV as an excuse to spend time with my mom; otherwise I might go two weeks without actually laying eyes on her (we do talk by phone almost daily). My husband of the more-fluid schedule actually spends more time with Mom than I do!

On Friday nights, instead of taking over Mom’s TV as we do in the fall (college football, anyone?), we watch her shows: Hawaii Five-O and Blue Bloods.

At first I watched those shows just because she wanted to. Bruce and I disconnected our TV in 2012, and that decision has been so great that I didn’t want to get hooked on another series (NCIS and an obsession with Law & Order reruns leap to mind). Part of the beauty of canceling satellite is that instead of veg’ing out at our house we’ll go hang with Mom when we just need some down time at the end of a long week.

At first, despite the fact that Blue Bloods stars Tom Selleck (I was a huge Magnum, P.I. fan in the 1980s), I didn’t want to watch. Let’s face it: Frank Reagan is not as hunky and dashing as Thomas Magnum (and, hey, no red Ferrari). It was hard, at first, to see my favorite ’80s star age. And I thought the new Hawaii Five-O was just Friday night filler.

But, as I began getting to know the characters, I realized that these were more than just cop shows. Each one, in its unique way, shows me characters with … well, character.

McGarrett and Danny from the new Five-O are younger family members of the original Steve McGarrett and Danno, although this is not my father’s Hawaii Five-O – except for the awesome theme song. (I used to watch the original series with Dad.) I don’t remember a lot about the original – just the action stuff, which was typical of 1960s and ’70s cop shows – but on the new version, character development is prominent and relationships are important: Besides the friendship between the main characters, single dad Danny strives to teach his young daughter right from wrong, even when he fumbles it sometimes; Steve takes his big-brother role seriously in guiding and protecting his sister; and the cops act with integrity – at least the ones who want to stay on the team. 🙂

Integrity is an even bigger theme on Blue Bloods. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it one of the main characters.

It’s the thing I like best about the show.

Set in New York City, the show is about an Irish-Catholic family of law-and-order types. There is NYPD Commissioner Frank “Francis” Reagan; his father, Henry (former commissioner); sons Danny and Jamie, both NYPD cops; and daughter Erin, an assistant district attorney. Three children and Danny’s wife (a nurse) round out the family.

The most interesting characters to me are the conservative Frank and his liberal granddaughter, Nicky. While their views often differ, they approach things from the same set of values, and an air of mutual respect and love is present in their conversations.

My favorite scene in each episode is Sunday dinnertime. The family members gather around a big table – all nine of them. They begin with a prayer (unfortunately generic and rote, albeit sincere), and the dinner-table rules seem to be “no electronics” and mutual respect (you can tell some ground rules were set a long time ago). The topics can get complex, but there is always an atmosphere of civility and fair play in their interactions.

You can expect the Henry and Danny characters to be hardline, Nicky and Jamie to take a more existential view and Erin to be somewhere in between. Frank wants to be fair and forthright and tends to err on the side of conservative.

I like that the show wrestles with difficult questions – some that, no doubt, the real NYPD has dealt with and still grapples with. I don’t know the realities of New York City’s justice system, but I imagine this show glosses over some of the touchier issues. This is television, after all, and, while I know nothing about the show’s creators or writers, I’m sure they try to avoid controversy.

Every week, Frank, as commissioner, comes up against some type of moral dilemma, and I like watching him wrestle it out. He deals with the press, popular opinion, his PR guy, his granddaughter and sometimes his children, who face dilemmas of their own. I appreciate that the writers include the family’s faith, even though most of the references are subtle.

Not every episode is tied neatly in a bow by the end, but, for the most part, I’m satisfied that Frank either 1) has handled the situation as best he can or 2) will begin looking at it from another perspective and be persuaded by one of his family members (or Garrett, his press guy) to change his mind.

It’s tough being commissioner of the largest police force in the nation. 🙂

A show with perfect characters would be boring, but I’m happy that on Friday nights I have role models to spend a couple of hours with, and this includes my family.

And if I keep watching Five-O, maybe one of these days I’ll hear those words I’ve been waiting for:

BookEmDanno

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TRIVIA QUESTION: Who can tell me which actress has guest starred on both the new Hawaii Five-O (as McGarrett’s aunt) and Magnum, P.I.? (On Magnum, which also was set in Hawaii, her character and Thomas ended up trapped in a bank vault.)

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Tomorrow: G is for God.

Follow me on Twitter: @OakleySuzyT

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Happy New Year – 2014 in review

My goodness, 2014 went fast, didn’t it? So much to tell, so little time to tell it. Here are a few highlights from the year in Suzy & Spice and my electronic calendar. (If I leave out anything important, please chalk it up to Old-Timers Disease – my memory ain’t what she used to be, and I’m liable to forget events both trivial and monumental.)

JANUARY

As we’d done for the previous three New Year’s, we started 2014 with Mac and Michelle’s New Year’s Day Prediction Run, a fun little event (“It’s not a race,” I always remind people), in which the winner is the person who predicts his/her finish time closer than anyone else. I won the women’s division the first two years I entered (see my 2011 post and my 2012 post) – it’s pretty much the only time this slowpoke can win a trophy. Fun times!

In January, I read the first of the year’s 12 books for the local reading group I joined at the end of 2013. We meet once a month, so I had 11 books chosen for me and a 12th that I got to pick for the group to read. I’m going to save the list for a later post because I read books not only for the reading group but on my own, too. I think I will be a bit surprised at the number, once I’ve added them up. (I plan to establish an account at Goodreads in the next week or so, in an effort to catalog the list of books I have read or want/plan to read. Lord, let us hope this doesn’t cause me to add two dozen more books to my TBR list.)

FEBRUARY

SuzyBruceMainStGang121413
Photo courtesy of Hatch and Maas Photography

On Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1), “my TV commercial” debuted. Yeah, you heard me right. Bruce and I made a commercial with a bunch of our running friends in Batesville. A few weeks after my September 2013 heart surgery, Baptist Health in Little Rock had asked my cardiologist to recommend someone for one of the five “Keep On Amazing” stories in its new ad campaign. So a huge crew brought a bunch of equipment to Batesville in December 2013 (a really cold, windy weekend) and spent two days filming us running on Main Street and down by the White River. (Did I mention that it was really cold?) The ad campaign debuted in Arkansas during the Super Bowl, and now Bruce calls me a diva and I have my very own chauffeur, aka my Diva Driver, aka Bruce.

Also that month, my cardiologist and I were asked to appear on Channel 7, the ABC affiliate in Little Rock, for heart health month, so we did that, too. That invitation was the impetus for my deciding – finally – to post my before and after weight loss photos.

Also that month, I paid a teenager to design a whimsical banner for the top of my blog. He did a great job, no?

MARCH

Not much on the blog or the calendar. I did attend a series of gatherings at church in which people interested in better nutrition got together and talked about food sensitivities and such. Very enlightening.

RingoTheRaccoon
Ringo the raccoon is very popular at the annual Chase Race and Paws charity event.

We also participated for the third straight year in the Chase Race and Paws event in Conway. The first race, a two-miler, is for humans only. The second race is a one-miler for pets and their humans. We take the Spice Dogs every year. Pepper and I sat out the pet race last year because of our experience the first time (after about 5 feet, I had to pick her up and carry her the rest of the way 1) to keep her tiny body from being trampled in the starting chute and 2) because, after that, she didn’t want me to put her down – yes, I ran an entire mile carrying my dog). Bruce and Salsa run a pretty fast mile together, and the event is so much fun. We even try to get our friends who aren’t pet owners to participate. Sometimes I whip out my photo of the paralyzed raccoon that the owners rescued and bring every year. Ringo always generates a lot of conversations and photo ops. Here’s where to sign up for this year’s event, which is March 7: http://chaserace.info

APRIL

In April, I finished a really good book, The Well Balanced World Changer, and wrote a review.

At the end of the month, Bruce and I drove to Littleton, Colorado, where we did a couple of trail runs and I got 16 hours of required on-site training to finish up my semester of coursework for wellness-coaching certification. (More about that in the “big announcement” I have for you this weekend.)

MAY

He's why I run.
He’s why I run.

Bruce and I manned the Mission Tent at the annual Take Steps Walk for Crohn’s and Colitis in Little Rock. We were on the committee that helped establish a CCFA chapter in Arkansas in 2010, so we raise money for and volunteer at this event every year.

Memorial Day weekend, we participated for the third straight year in the Easter Seals Rock Run 8K (nearly 5 miles) in Little Rock. This was my first race after getting the go-ahead from my heart doc to push it and see what I could do (I had never been allowed to do that before, having been cautioned not to do “burst activity,” such as a sprint to the finish). I was extremely disappointed in how I felt and how I performed. I finished nearly 9 minutes slower than in 2013. I wanted to cry.

Despite my poor performance at the Rock Run, I still had high hopes for a good running year. And despite the fact that I said I was taking 2014 off from fundraising half-marathons, I registered for the Walt Disney World Half Marathon and began raising money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America through Team Challenge. The race is next week (Jan. 10), so technically I wouldn’t be running a half-marathon in 2014 (although most definitely training for it), but I still had the extremely uphill and discouraging task of raising money for CCFA. (This time the minimum was $4,500.) Alas, for health reasons I withdrew in November. I managed to raise more than $3,700 for the foundation, though, so it wasn’t a total washout. (That doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to see the Facebook posts of my teammates who will be there without me nine days from now.)

JUNE

Another of our favorite races, and again our third straight year: We ran the Go! Mile at Burns Park in North Little Rock, our former hometown. Another disappointing race, and I would have made it in under 10 minutes if I hadn’t nearly choked on a ball of fluff from one of the cottonwood trees just before the home stretch. (We can always come up with excuses, eh?) As it turned out, my time was 10:02.11, more than a minute over previous year’s time of 8:46.47.

I think it was at this point that I finally admitted I was still recovering from surgery and started giving myself a break. This was also around the time I finally decided to see the doc about my blood pressure. After visits to my local doc and phone calls to my cardiologist in North Little Rock, I started taking BP medicine. UGH!

JULY

I published exactly one blog post in July, and it was nothing earth-shattering. In case you care, it was a list of my Top Ten Tuesday – classic books.

On July 31, my mom celebrated her 75th birthday by driving with me to a Little Rock hospital to be with her baby brother, who was dying of cancer. I spent that night in the room with him so his wife, my Aunt Brenda, could get a decent night’s sleep; she and Mom stayed in a hotel room on the hospital grounds.

AUGUST

The annual White River 4 Mile Classic was Aug. 2. I had just returned from Little Rock the day before and was sleep-deprived after the overnight hospital stay, so after an internal debate about whether to run or volunteer, I ended up handing out cups of water at Mile 3 instead of racing (we were short on volunteers, anyway). It was at this race a year earlier that I had an extremely difficult experience and was in tears by the finish line – I had just found out two days earlier that I would need heart surgery, and I was obsessing about it while struggling to run. That was a difficult race for several people because of the weather. We had fainting, memory lapses, an ambulance trip and more. That race is in the history books, and I’m glad. Oh, yes, and I got stung on the forehead by a wasp at Mile 2. So, while the 2014 was better all around (cooler weather, no fainting, ambulances or wasp stings), I was still glad when it was over. I was just ready for some mental and physical rest.

Me with Uncle John, circa 1967, Kerman, Calif. The boy on the left is our neighbor; the woman on the right is John's first wife.
Me with Uncle John, circa 1967, Kerman, Calif. The boy on the left is our neighbor; the woman on the right is John’s first wife.

On Aug. 21, my uncle lost his 5-month battle with cancer and went home to be with his Lord and Savior. Uncle John was 67. It’s still hard for me to believe he’s really gone. It just happened so very fast.

SEPTEMBER

I attended the fifth annual Arkansas Women Bloggers University in Rogers (northwest Arkansas) and had a blast! I listened, I learned, I laughed, I ate too much, and I won an autographed cookbook in a trivia contest because I knew the name of the Pioneer Woman’s husband (Ladd) – I recalled this because I had just watched a Pioneer Woman marathon at Mom’s house a few days earlier! (This is officially my new favorite cookbook, dethroning Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, which held the title for several years.) I came home from the blogger conference loaded with freebies, gifts, door prizes and a lot more know-how about making my blog more appealing to readers and sponsors. (Can’t tell? Well, it was right after this weekend that I started working overtime at my job, and I’m still doing it. So lots of the changes are still in my imagination, although some – more photos, for example – are already happening.) Oh, and I made some new friends at the conference. AWBU was perhaps my favorite thing I did all year. And, hey, y’all, Bruce and I even got in a 2-mile run with a couple of other blogger chicks that weekend. FUN!

I blogged a little more in September: about the previous few months (another retrospective? really?), about the top 10 book characters I’d like to have at my lunch table, and, oh, well, gee … another “catching up” retrospective-type post. (I claim it as my way to “stay in the habit” of blogging when I really am swamped.)

SuzySpiceTeamChallengeCardsI got really neat new business cards made. My co-worker Travis Hon, graphic designer extraordinaire, came up with the artwork and produced them for me via his new printing business, Charlie Bee Studio.

OCTOBER

October was a month of losses and gains for our family. On Oct. 3, my Uncle O.C. died. He was the husband of my mom’s sister Jo, who died 12 years earlier. Oct. 3 was also the birthday of Uncle O.C.’s grandson Nathan, and my brother, J.T. The day we buried my uncle, his great-grandbaby Edison Glass Richardson was born. So, while we celebrated a long and happy life at his funeral (with a wonderful retrospective read by his daughter Penny, followed her son Joseph’s incredible sermon), his granddaughter Bethany was in labor at a Little Rock hospital. Talk about high emotions that week.

DSC02846

DSC02796Just a few days later we gained a cousin when, on Oct. 11, the aforementioned Nathan made Jennifer his bride. I think theirs may be my favorite wedding of all time. It was beautiful in its simplicity, a country setting with hometown folks, food, fellowship and lots of cowboy boots! A few weeks later, inspired largely by this incredible day, I made a sentimental purchase, which you’ll read about in the December entry below.

That same week, I blogged about 1) comparison and 2) the importance of community in a post titled “We’re All in This Together.”

NOVEMBER

JacobWells_MidSouthMarathon2014The Arkansas running community lost a beloved member, Jacob Wells, 45, of Little Rock. The photo above was taken Nov. 1, just a few minutes before he collapsed of heart failure at the Midsouth Marathon, one of nearly 150 marathons he had run over the years. He died a few days later. Jacob was known for his encouragement of other runners (of any speed or ability level), his high-fives, running shirtless (in all kinds of weather) and the many ways he gave back, including running races as a guide tethered to a blind runner. We will never forget him.

My birthday was in November (Black Friday), and I worked overtime that day. Also that month, I got riled up about racism, talked about it, lost sleep over it, and failed to write the post I wanted to write. The post is still in there, swirling around in my head, but when I finally write it I won’t be as overwrought as I was a few weeks ago, so I hope that means it will be a better, more well-thought-out post. It’s time to talk about it, and I will. Soon.

I wrote a history of the White River Christmas Half Marathon & Relay, which Bruce and I were solely in charge of organizing this year (in previous years we were co-directors along with the event’s founders).

We lost another family member: the husband of my mom’s cousin Gwen. I don’t recall ever having met Johnny, but Gwen is a much loved member of our family and I know that Johnny was, too.

DECEMBER

We pulled off the half-marathon and relay, which was great because we’d had to cancel the event in 2013 because of the weather (first, because of ice and two weeks later because of flooding). We raised about $2,600 (don’t quote me on the exact figure – it was somewhere in that range) and helped six families with 18 children! The Christmas Half, the first Saturday of December each year, is a charity event – 100 percent of the entry fees go to help needy families.

SuzysNewBoots12-13-14The next weekend, inspired by a country wedding, this practical girl bought her first pair of cowboy boots. You’ll have to read the post to find out whether I choose the all-red boots, which is why I went boot shopping in the first place, or the other boot in the photo above.

I also blogged about my 5 favorite holiday movies, my 5 favorite holiday TV shows and some great Christmas (and not so Christmasy) music I’ve been listening to. Just click here for all of December’s posts.

And, of course, we celebrated the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. After a couple of months of listening to wonderful music on my own, and then a beautifully quiet and reflective Christmas Eve service at church, I spent Christmas Day with Mom and Bruce, and we quietly sat and watched Christmas movies and ate ham and mashed potatoes. No extravagant gift-giving binges or stuffing ourselves with turkey and pumpkin pie, just, “Happy birthday, Jesus. Thank you for your gift to us.”

That is my 2014 year in review. I’m still working extra hours at my full-time job, but have been pondering, learning, researching, praying over and generally obsessing about some new stuff to come. Tune in for more.

Meanwhile, here are some upcoming things I’m excited about:

  • My 2015 pick for the book group comes up next week, and we’re reading my friend Conrad’s YA novel Adios, Nirvana. He is going to Skype with us for the first 15-20 minutes of our meeting Tuesday evening. We haven’t seen each other in nearly 21 years, so this will be a great few minutes of face time.
  • I have a growing list of books on my TBR (to be read) list, and I can’t wait to dive in. Currently I’m reading Unbroken, about Olympic runner and World War II hero Louie Zamperini. It was made into a movie that came out Christmas Day. Also, my Thursday morning reading group just wrapped up Mere Christianity and this month will be starting another C.S. Lewis book, The Screwtape Letters. Both are awesome works by my favorite author.
  • Saturday I’ll do a photo shoot and interview with Eye On Independence for the February cover. They want to feature me because of the aforementioned heart surgery, return to running and desire to reach out to others with a message of wellness and wellbeing.
  • The big announcement. Stay tuned. In fact, if you want to be sure to hear about it immediately, fill out the Subscribe form at the top right of this page (just your name and email address) and you’ll receive a notification as soon as I post.

If you want to find me on social media, I’m on Facebook and Twitter the most, at least until I get a little more experience with the other forms of social media. I have Instagram, Pinterest and Google+ accounts, but I’m still learning how to use them.

2014 had its ups and downs for me, but it was a good year overall. What was yours like?

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Rules to live by, canine edition

Bruzy_and_SpiceDogs_ChaseRace_and_Paws2013
Bruzy and the Spice Dogs after the Chase Race & Paws in Conway, March 2013. At the Paws portion of the event in 2012, Pepper had to be carried the entire way, so in 2013 she and Suzy decided to serve as cheerleaders while Bruce ran the mile with Salsa.

When Pepper came to live with us (her third family), she came with a set of rules. So did Salsa, but hers were much simpler. Here they are:

Pepper’s Rules:

  1. I require a minimum of five daily feedings (two full meals and three snacks), proportionally spaced throughout the day. I will begin letting you know (loudly and persistently) at least 45 minutes before each designated mealtime.
  2. I am Cute, and I know it. I will use this fact to my full advantage. Deal with it.
  3. When we visit Nanny (aka The Pushover), I will not let anyone have a conversation until she has given me a snack. If we’re there for more than two hours, I will require a second snack. Don’t worry – I’ll give you at least 45 minutes’ notice.

    Pepper & Kalisha Dec. 2004
    Pepper with her original family, December 2004.
  4. I must be kept warm at all times. If you are using the heating pad on the bed and get up for any reason (say, to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, let Salsa out), you forfeit your right to use the heating pad for the next hour, or until it’s time for me to exit the room and make poop on the kitchen floor. If you try to extract me from my heat source, protect your fingers. (Also, I’m aware of your attempts to trick me, such as sliding the heating pad out from under the covers beneath me. Be aware that I don’t approve of this tactic.) If Rule #4 bothers you, buy your own heating pad.
  5. When you feed me a snack, be sure to wear protective gear on your hands. And don’t expect any thanks.
  6. I like to burrow under my fleece blankets (it’s a trait of my breed, the miniature pinscher). I’m tiny, so it’s hard to tell whether that lump is me or just a fold in the blanket. Any time you sit down, make sure the lump is not me. You could kill me.
  7. I shall be picked up at my discretion only. Should you attempt to pick me up of your own accord, wear protective gear.
  8. When we go for our little Princess Rides, which you insist upon calling “walks,” I must be carried after the initial 12 feet (in other words, before we reach the end of the driveway). At certain moments during a Princess Ride, you might get the impression I’ve been carried long enough (or you’re getting sweaty where my body is in contact with your torso) and you might try to put me down. Do not mistake any movement on my part as an indication that I want to walk.
  9. When we’re in public, small children will ask permission to pet me, pick me up or feed me. Permission granted. (Just don’t let them drop me on my head.)
  10. In private, I will tolerate the little nicknames you give me – such as little space heater, pest, poop-head, terrorist, little rat, min-pinhead – as I will hardly know the difference (God gave me a tiny body and an even tinier brain). But don’t call me these names in public; I have a reputation to uphold. (When it’s mealtime, don’t call me; I’ll call you.)
  11. If the outside temperature is below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, I will not go outside to potty. Do not be concerned; I have plenty of places indoors to potty.
  12. I do not like sweaters. Do not attempt to put one on me, even when it’s cold. I will keep warm using a person’s lap, my fleece blankets, your heating pad, a basket of clean towels or a combination of the above resources.
  13. Referencing Rule #12,  it should go without saying that I do not want to be dressed up in costumes, no matter how cute Nanny thinks they are.
  14. When I want to play with my pink squeaky toy (the one that still squeaks), I will let you know that it’s time to fetch it for me. Once you throw it, I’ve chased it, squeaked the life out of it and I’m ready for you to throw it again, you must get up and retrieve it from wherever it is (usually right next to me). You will repeat the process several times before I walk away in disinterest.
  15. When it’s time for Salsa to go outside, such as when she’s in my sunny spot by the glass door, I will let you know. I will continue to alert you until she’s safely outside.
  16. In my role as Emergency Backup Dog, I will assist Salsa in emergencies of Level 3 and above. Examples: falling leaves (Level 3), children on bicycles (Level 2), squirrels (Level 1). Cats: RED ALERT!!! In the event that Salsa’s Emergency Alert System fails to alert you (such as when she’s not home), I will assume sole responsibility for the safety of our household. I ain’t big, but I’m loud.
  17. When in doubt as to which rule takes precedence, refer to any of the above that relate to Food. Remember that Food is vital to my existence. And world peace.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Bruce and Salsa, 2005.

Salsa’s Rules:

When you adopted me, no one knew whether I had been mistreated, but it’s possible. As a terrier (part Manchester, part who-knows-what?), I’m a high-energy dog, but I have a tender heart. Here are my rules:

  1. Give me food and water each day, have at least one rasslin’ match with me every evening (more on weekends), and give me lots and lots of belly rubs.
  2. Love me with all your heart.

And we do. Both of them.

 

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A simple Christmas

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10, NASB

Christmases in the Oakley house are pretty simple. I would characterize them as more sentimental than material, and for that I’m grateful. Being “poor” in worldly wealth (but not in spirit) has its advantages!

These are some of the things that have allowed me to feel abundantly blessed this Christmas:

SHOPPING

Heavenly Treasures global market at our church. I bought gifts for all the women on the Taylor side of our family (immediately family, that is). All the proceeds go to small-business owners (which may simply mean one artisan struggling to feed her family somewhere in Cambodia, Vietnam or another area where poverty is the norm). Blessings: 1) We bought these gifts for a fraction of what we would have paid in stores; 2) they are handcrafted; 3) most of all, we helped someone who’s hurting in another part of the world.

I also took advantage of a clearance sale online and bought seven copies of a book I read years ago – a book I wish I could give to every woman I know: $5 apiece, one for each woman in the Taylor-Oakley clan.

My stepson, Courtney, who lives in Oklahoma, was blessed recently with a promotion and a good raise, and because one of my main missions in life is to help people be good stewards of their God-given blessings, instead of buying him a gift he doesn’t necessarily need, or writing him a check like we often do at Christmastime, we put money into his savings account at the bank where I work.

When I turned 50 last month, Bruce pooled his money with birthday money from my mom, and he took me to the jewelry store. (This is the type of splurge I rarely indulge in, but I figured a half-century was a special enough occasion.) He helped me pick out a beautiful opal ring. I’ve always loved opal, and this ring is so special to me.

So because we splurged at birthday time, we kept it simple for Christmas, although keeping it simple has always been our norm. We have such abundant blessings throughout the year, we don’t buy much for each other at Christmastime. We also have our anniversary coming up next week, so Bruce suggested we combine the occasions and buy a house gift for ourselves. We really don’t know what that might be, but while we were shopping Saturday for my brother and his stepson, we ran across a DVD copy of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” (Bruce is a mixture of realist and sentimentalist, and often the sentimental side wins – he loves the idealism of this movie, and so do I, although I fall closer to the realist side of the fence. And we both love old movies and the great Jimmy Stewart.) So here’s a recap of our conversation in the store when I picked up the movie:

Me: “Do we have this on DVD?”
Bruce: “I don’t think we have it on DVD or anything else.”
Me: “Household gift. Ten dollars.”
Bruce: “Great.”

End of conversation. End of Christmas shopping for Bruzy. Simple.

This type of Christmas spirit allows me to breathe during the holidays, because I hate shopping. It’s a little easier at Christmas because then I’m shopping for others, but I still would rather sit near a sunny window with a good book than fight the crowds at the shopping center.

MUSIC

I could listen to Amy Grant’s Christmas albums year-round. Oh, what am I saying – I do listen to Amy Grant’s Christmas albums year-round. You might hear “Tennessee Christmas,” “Breath of Heaven” or “Welcome to our World” in my car during the blazing heat of July. To me, these songs and albums are timeless and always a breath of fresh air. Each album is better than the last, and she includes some incredibly beautiful pieces in the mix. The last album, “A Christmas to Remember,” is especially full of pieces that cause me to stop what I’m doing (unless I’m driving), close my eyes and savor every note. I also tend to wear out my Christmas albums by: Collin Raye, Andrea Bocelli, The Carpenters, and John Denver & the Muppets. Heck, even the classically trained Bocelli sings with Miss Piggy on his album. My favorite Christmas song? “Oh Holy Night,” especially Martina McBride’s beautiful rendition. Bruce’s favorite? “Silent Night” – and John and the Muppets do a pretty good job of that, singing it first in German (the language it was written in), then English. Bocelli sings it in three languages.

MOVIES/TV SPECIALS

Since we canceled our satellite service in August, I didn’t get to watch wall-to-wall Food Network like I love to do between October and December, and I didn’t get to OD on the sappy movies on Hallmark Channel, but we still have the good ol’ standbys on VHS (taped from TV in the mid-1980s) and a few on DVD. Another challenge this year: Bruce and I had about four weeks to pull together the White River Christmas Half-Marathon & Relay (long story), and my only Christmas-special “viewing” would fall more into the category of background noise. Nevertheless, I got to listen to these as I did my half-marathon work or cooked for family: Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown (I love Linus’ soliloquy on “what Christmas is all about”), and my favorite, the Grinch (another lesson on the true meaning of Christmas, plus it rhymes!). I also had these movies in the VCR: “Christmas in Connecticut” (my favorite Christmas movie, but only the Barbara Stanwyck version) and “White Christmas” – “snow, snow, snow, snow!” I think I even listened to “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” early in the season. Oh, I almost forgot: I did get to sit and watch an entire movie, start to finish, when Bruce and I spent Dec. 23 with Mom watching the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The 1994 version isn’t quite as good as the original, but the cute little girl and the beautiful scenery [and wardrobe] make up for it.) Movies I didn’t get to watch: “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story.” (There’s still time, right?)

FAMILY (FURRY AND FOUR-LEGGED)

Our two fur-babies are … well, my babies. I have a stepson, but I never gave birth to children of my own, and Salsa and Pepper warm my heart every day, even 30 seconds after they’ve infuriated me by wetting the carpet, barking incessantly or begging for snacks. We call our girls The Spice Dogs, and when I created this blog in 2007, they were part of the inspiration for the name (I was also baking spice cookies that evening). They’re good help around the kitchen, too: When I drop a bit of food while chopping, mincing or mixing, they rush to help me clean it up.

FAMILY (HUMAN)

I’m writing this on Christmas morning, 10 a.m. (savoring a steamy and wonderful cup of coffee with my favorite flavored creamer). We’ve spoken to some family members by phone today but haven’t gathered for the big celebration yet. We’ll go to Mom’s later for a feast of food and fellowship (more on the food below). I look forward to seeing those I rarely see throughout the year because of busyness, physical distance or, dare I say, apathy (on my part as much as anyone’s).

Bruce has been sick the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been trying to figure out why this cold/sinus junk has caused me more worry than other recent minor ailments. And why I might have seemed to overreact yesterday when he wanted to run a longer distance than I thought he should. Could it be that we’re “overdue” for a Crohn’s flare-up? The average for Crohn’s patients is 5 years, and his latest flare-up started in 2007 (and I did not marry an “average” guy!). I realize that it’s insane to worry – God has us covered. I suppose it’s just an opportunity to flex my trust muscles; after all, He is the Great Physician.

On Christmas Eve, Bruce got an opportunity to be the social guy that he is. We started with an afternoon run with some dear friends, the Tuckers; a family member, Bill, from out of town whom we had never had the opportunity to run with before; an awesome running buddy, Rita – who is growing to be a great running partner for me because, even though she’s a lot faster, she is sweetly willing to hang back with me, the slow one. She and I have had some great conversations, and she’s really fun (yesterday, we conspired to pretend we ran up a crazy hill when we saw Bruce and Shane – and I swear it was her idea! Unfortunately, we topped the hill and the guys hadn’t paid a bit of attention to us!).

I should have a separate category called Family (Running), because our running family is really precious to us. No space today to count all the ways, but in the spirit of Christmas, I’ll mention the great run last Tuesday night before our Roadrunners club Christmas party. Again, the speedsters took off without Slow Suzy, but Rita stayed behind with me. (She has a good heart.) On another note, I loved being able to attend a Christmas party in my sweaty leggings, running shirt and sports watch. (That’s just the way we roll!) This was only three days after my work Christmas party, which was beautiful and wonderful (except for the slightly inebriated Santa), but for which I made a most unfortunate choice of shoes, one of which had to come off before the party was over because my left foot was killing me!

But back to the main topic: Family (Human). After our run, I rushed to get clean and start the pecan pies, which needed to be out of the oven by 4:45 so we could attend the Christmas Eve service at Mom’s church. This church service has become a bit of a tradition for Bruce and me, starting even before we moved here in 2010. West Baptist always has a beautiful Christmas Eve service (which could also fall under the Music category). As I was whipping up the filling for the pies, I realized that someone had put the vanilla extract bottle into the cupboard with about three drops of extract remaining. (Seriously, who would do that?) Mom – on speed dial – to the rescue. Fortunately she’s less than a mile away. I sent Bruce over there, told him not to stop by our church to make sure the bathrooms were clean (part of his job), not to pass Go, not to collect $200. Just get back here with the vanilla. And he did.

The pies? Well, let’s just say the jury’s still out. I had to leave them in the oven (turned off) and put them back on to bake after all the evening’s festivities. I’m still not sure they’re quite right. But I’m also pretty sure no one will leave the table hungry this afternoon, pecan pies or no.

But wait! There’s more! (Isn’t there always?)

After the service at West, we went to my Aunt Pat’s across the street from our house. Her son-in-law, the aforementioned Bill (running buddy from out of town), had requested a family get-together in the spirit of the old days (the old days of our family, that is). Aunt Pat’s relatives from both sides gathered in her kitchen, which is only cramped when lots of relatives visit. Strange, she noted, we have all this space in the rest of the house, but everyone congregates in the kitchen and dining room. Not strange to me at all – Aunt Pat makes some of the best holiday treats west of the Mississippi. Can you say peanut butter fudge?

And then … we left that party to go to our church, Fellowship Bible Church in the old Landers Theater on Main Street. Whereas the West Baptist celebration was bright, colorful and upbeat, the Fellowship service was quiet, candlelit and reverent. Both services were full of beautiful music, and each was unique and meaningful in its own way. Each service fed my spirit and focused light on the One whose birth we celebrate, and whose Light takes away the darkness.

The Oakleys ended the evening together quietly – mama in her kerchief (OK, a red plaid flannel PJ shirt) and papa in his cap (his ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt), with one of the fur-children nestled under her bed down the hall and the other one begging for belly rubs. Both two-legged Oakleys spent the next hour reading, growing sleepy and sipping … okay, people, I’m not gonna lie. I wasn’t sipping a picture-perfect mug of steamy hot chocolate. I was indulging in a 10 p.m. glass of diet Coke, which I rarely drink after 3 p.m. And Bruce was sipping apple juice or water or something.

Now back to our fantasy.

FOOD

Three things I almost insist on having at Thanksgiving and Christmas are pecan pie, Cranberry Salad (made with red gelatin, apples, oranges, pineapple and pecans) and Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes. (As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t have an Aunt Pearl and have no idea who she is, but we loooove her hash-brown casserole!) And because I’m the one who has a strong need for these three dishes, I’ve become the designated maker of them. How else am I going to be sure it happens? The pies … we’ll see. (Dec. 29 update: Let’s just call them “pie soup” and be done with it.) The cranberry stuff is ready, and the potatoes will go into the oven soon.

I also have a year-round craving to bake, but my schedule doesn’t allow it very often anymore, so the holidays are when I get to indulge in that. Even when I’m tired, baking sweet treats, breads, even pizza dough, makes me very, very happy.

And then there are the dirty dishes. But since this is a post about counting blessings, being with family and remembering our Savior’s birth, we’ll skip over that part.

Post-script: leftovers (lots of them)

Have you ever eaten mashed potatoes for breakfast? Yeah, me, too.

REMEMBRANCES

My dad died 15 years ago this week. Every Dec. 23, I think about the day he died. That was a day full of pain and sadness, but knowing that my dad knew Jesus makes it so much easier. Even on that day, we had a measure of indescribable peace knowing he was no longer in pain (the pain my brother and I had known him to have our entire lives) and he is with Jesus now. Dad had told a relative just that morning that he was ready to go and was not afraid to die. None of us knew then that this would be his last day on earth. But we have the hope that surpasses all human ability to understand, and that’s because we know the Savior he rests with now.

Dad died 11 days before my wedding. In the ICU, when we weren’t sure whether he could hear us or not, as I held his hand I told him he needed to stick around and give me away next week, that I wasn’t ready to let go of him. But the Father had other plans, and Dad was gone within a couple of hours. That’s OK. My plans aren’t necessarily God’s plans, and His ways are not always my ways. He is sovereign, He is wise and He is, above all, GOOD. He takes care of us, even when we don’t always like how He goes about it. But even amid the not-liking, we had blessings: My Uncle Charles and Aunt Pat, who had just arrived at their daughter Kathy’s house in South Carolina when they got the news of Dad’s death in the evening, turned right around the next morning and drove back to Arkansas. They were here in time for his funeral. Now, that’s family.

God has blessed me with good family, good friends, a good job, an abundance of physical comforts (too much sometimes) and an ever-increasing awareness of just how good He really is. I thank Him for everyone He has put into my life, whether it’s to teach me, to reach me or just to bless me with caring and warmth.

As we celebrate His incarnate presence on the earth, may each of you feel His love, remember His sacrifice and give your life to Him.

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6, NKJV

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Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes

This morning, someone at church asked me about our Thanksgiving plans, and naturally our conversation turned to food (I’m sure I was the one to bring it up). She was intrigued by my talk of “hash brown casserole,” and I told her I’d publish the recipe here.

Several years ago the recipe for Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes came into our family. We don’t have an Aunt Pearl, and no one really knows who the heck she is or was. But, boy, do we love her potato casserole! It’s a treat to make this because we reserve it for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It has become my job to make it because I’ll be the one with the biggest serving on my plate (turkey? who needs turkey?), and I’m the one who would complain the loudest if this dish wasn’t on the table. (And being the designated maker of this dish, I can make as much as I want and save some aside in my own fridge – who’s gonna know?)

We’re probably going to eat our main Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant this year, but do you think I’m going to miss an opportunity to make these potatoes? Well, do you? (I didn’t think so.)

So here it is, Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes. And for anyone looking for the nutritional content of this dish, just forget it. Even if we knew, we wouldn’t burden you with that here. It’s Thanksgiving – a time of year we forget we’re supposed to be sensible about food!

I’m giving you the recipe 1) below and 2) as a downloadable PDF. There are two identical recipes on the PDF (I hate to waste paper, so there’s one for you and one to share.) To download the PDF, click the link below, then click the icon; it will download to your computer.

Aunt Pearl’s Potatoes

2 12-oz. bags hash browns, thawed
2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
16 oz. sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 tsp. salt
2 sticks melted butter (divided use)
2 cups crushed corn flakes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In large casserole dish, mix first 6 ingredients (hash browns through salt) with 1 stick of butter. Sprinkle with corn flakes and drizzle with 2nd stick of butter. Bake for 1 hour.

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Correction about Crohn’s donations

I found out today that I’ve been giving people incorrect info about where to mail checks for my half-marathon fundraising efforts.

To recap: I’m running my first half-marathon on Sept. 22 for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. My goal is $4,000, and I have to raise $800 of it by Monday, July 23.

I had said that checks could be mailed to the processing center in Washington, D.C. That’s wrong. The fastest way to donate is by clicking here, but if you’d prefer to pay by check, write it to “CCFA” or “Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America” and mail or hand-deliver it to me.

If you leave a comment below, I’ll email you my address, or if you have my email address or phone number, feel free to contact me that way. If you live, work or attend church near me and would prefer to hand me a check, we can work out the details when you contact me.

I’m updating my previous two blog posts in which I gave the bad information. Sorry about that, everyone!

And thank you for any way you are able to support me as I run for a cure for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

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Goodbye, Sheriff Taylor

(CNN) — “Actor Andy Griffith, who played folksy Sheriff Andy Taylor in the fictional town of Mayberry, died Tuesday at the age of 86, his family said.”

A quick glance at my iGoogle news page while I ate a turkey sandwich during my lunch break Tuesday made me alter what I had planned to write about. The first headline that caught my eye, and that prevented me from reading any others: “Actor Andy Griffith dead at 86.”

I had just spent a hot hour-plus standing in the drive-through lanes at one of my bank’s branches, handing out little flags, patriotic wristbands and bottles of water, just like we employees do each July. In the minutes between cars, I was pondering the Fourth of July and what I would write about it.

I’d been trying to compose a July Fourth post in my head for a week or two, and I had no idea how I could do this day justice with my words. My dad, Bruce’s dad and many of our relatives and friends gave of themselves to their country, something I’ve never done – at least not in the way they did. I’ve never experienced that living sacrifice that so many demonstrated so ably and nobly, many of them before I was born.

So how could I write with any depth of insight about what it took for them to serve their country, both in times of war and beyond?

I can’t.

I can only say how grateful I am to my dad, my father-in-law, my uncles and countless others for what they gave up for me. They gave me a country where I could work, worship, play and love my family, then go to sleep at night without fear.

They gave me a country where a town like Mayberry can exist in every state, if we want it to.

Sure, those days of Mayberry were the 1960s, and we’re much more sophisticated now, aren’t we? We have touch-screen phones, spray-on tans, automated teller machines, and refrigerators that remind you when you’re out of eggs. Heck, I bet that fridge would even order you a dozen eggs and a gallon of milk and have it delivered to your door if you asked it to. We barely have to lift a finger to get through life these days.

But is that such a good thing?

We talk to each other by emailing, IM’ing or texting, not by picking up the phone, dialing and listening to a live voice (yeah, I’m guilty of it, too). The chirping bird I listen to the most? It’s the ring tone I hear when Mom calls me on my cell. At my Nanny and Papa’s house, if you wanted to make a phone call you had to wait for one of the other parties on your party line to hang up. I bet kids today don’t even know what a party line is.

Remember Sarah, the operator on “The Andy Griffith Show”? When Andy or Barney needed to call Mount Pilot or Raleigh, they talked to Sarah first. She had to put the call through.

Sarah knew everybody’s business.

So did Gomer, Goober, Floyd, Emmett, Howard, Aunt Bee and her friend Clara.

And when an outsider happened by, he wasn’t an outsider for long. Some of my favorite episodes involved needy “strangers” who came to town not knowing quite what they had gotten into, but leaving all the better for it. And by the time they left town, they weren’t really strangers anymore. They were just folks.

Remember Malcolm Merriweather, the very proper English butler? He rode a bicycle and taught Opie to draw faces on hard-boiled eggs. We missed him when he went back to merry old England.

Or the businessman whose car broke down in Mayberry on a Sunday – the day before an important meeting in Charlotte? He learned a lot about living the quiet life, just hanging around Mayberry, sitting on Andy’s front porch and listening to the sheriff quietly hum and strum his guitar. (Didn’t you love Andy’s front porch with its swing, where he could peel an entire apple with his pocketknife without breaking the strand?)

If you watched the show as much as I did, you’ll remember these sweet, funny, crazy and wonderful people and their shenanigans:

  • The Darlings (pronounced, of course, Darlin’s). Oh, how they could sing and play that mountain music.
  • The high-strung, rock-throwing Ernest T. Bass. Remember when he tried to get educated to impress “Romena” (Ramona)? Andy tried to teach him geography and such. Ernest T. would sooner throw a rock through a winder than learn manners.
  • Sweet, lovable Otis, the town drunk.
  • Aunt Bee and her pickles that tasted like they were canned in kerosene. Too many Aunt Bee stories to tell.
  • Barney Fife. There’s so much to say about goofy but lovable Barney, but probably my favorite Barney moment was when he told Andy he could recite the Preamble to the Constitution from memory, and then tried to prove it. Classic Barney and Andy.
  • Andy and Barney’s girlfriends, Helen Crump and Thelma Lou. (And before Miss Crump, Ellie the druggist.)
  • Gomer Pyle making a “citizens arr-ay-est!” of Barney.
  • Gomer’s appropriately named cousin, Goober. “Hey, Andy!” “Hey, Goob.”
  • Opie being mama to a nest of baby birds after he accidentally killed their mother with his slingshot. I still cry right along with Opie when he realizes the mama bird is dead.

Some of these were merely moments (or brief minutes) rather than full episodes, but they stuck in our memories and have touched our hearts over and over, no matter how many times we’ve watched. (And if you don’t get the warm fuzzies from watching Andy, Barney and the rest of the folks of Mayberry … well, then, you’re just an old grump!)

1960s Mayberry was a simpler time and place, and I think we like it so much, still today, because our lives have gotten so busy and complicated. And because our good-hearted Andy Taylor was so wise and patient (most of the time). All the town folk took their problems to Sheriff Taylor. With all the goings-on in Mayberry, both silly and serious, they knew he would always come up with the right solution to their problem.

Sometimes the stories made us laugh, and sometimes they touched our hearts. Much of the time they did both. The show was a unique combination of heart and humor, and I hope I get to watch episodes until the day I die. And who knows? Someday I may be watching it in hologram, or with some technology that hasn’t even been invented or imagined yet. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

And when past meets present, old meets new, technology ain’t always such a bad thing.

As I was writing this, a friend posted on Facebook: “Andy Griffith marathon on TvLand.”

I immediately turned on the TV, saw what episode was playing, and texted my brother: “Andy Griffith marathon on TVLand. You working today? The Darlin’s are singin’.”

JT texted back that he was watching, then a minute later: “You did know that Andy Griffith show’s 1st show debuted on Oct 03, 1960.” I texted back: “I knew it started in 1960 but didn’t know Oct 3. That was a great day all around!”

Andy Taylor and Jim Taylor, born the same day.

Who knew a text message could give me the warm fuzzies?

Ain’t technology great?

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