Thursday, July 31, 2008

Race to the Birthday Party

A big cause for celebration during our annual Lester family beach trip was our nephew's third birthday. Of the seven grandchildren, Hans is the only one with a summer birthday. So it was really a treat to celebrate with him this year.

Joe's sister, Emily, is a mother, actress, event planner and former Gymboree music teacher. She used all these roles to plan a party for Hans that was simple, fun and inexpensive. And it was the highlight of the week for all the cousins. A few hours before the party, Emily delivered monogrammed book bags to all the cousins. Inside they found little Cars-themed party favors and a bigger surprise: an outfit to wear to the party. Emily found the cousins' coordinating shorts sets and sundresses online for a very reasonable price. The children loved getting dressed up for the party, and it helped set a festive mood for the evening. And now the children will remember that special night each time they wear their new favorite outfits!

Emily delighted all the children by involving them in a birthday-themed music class. Every one of the cousins, ages 2 to 9, hung on her every word as she engaged them in play with maracas, sticks, ribbons and more. Together they sang, clapped, marched around the room -- laughing all the way. She even brought out a parachute! After Emily finished her games, the merriment continued. Little Hans did a happy jig that got all the children on their feet, and Joe's mom led the children in a conga line around the condo.

The highlight of the evening for the children was racing toy cars. Emily matched the children by age to race, two-by-two, across the living room floor. The remaining children waved the checkered flag or cheered their cousins from the sidelines. Win or lose, they all had fun and laughed throughout the races.

Start to finish, it was a great celebration. Hans and his cousins had a night to remember. And Emily demonstrated that even without racing around like a crazy person, you can plan a birthday party that will bring home the Piston Cup every time!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tea by the Sea

Play in the Sand, Relax by the Sea

Then Come as You Are for a Beach-Side Tea!

For years I have thought it would be fun to plan a tea party at the beach, and our annual Lester family beach trip provided the perfect opportunity to realize that dream. So on Monday, after a morning of sunning and swimming, Joe's parents, siblings and their families joined us in our beach-side condo to enjoy tea by the sea. It was a lovely afternoon, and it provided a nice change of pace from the standard lunchtime options we usually enjoy at the beach. A wonderful time was had by all, and I am hoping that another annual tradition was born yesterday!

Our Afternoon Tea Menu:

Lemon Poppy Seed and Cranberry-Orange Scones with Cream and Blackberry-Raspberry Jam

Seafood Salad, Cucumber and PB&J Finger Sandwiches

Fresh Strawberries, Pineapple and Cucumbers

Frosty Jewelled Grapes

Fruit Tarts, Brownie Bites and Tiramisu Squares

Angel Falls Mist Tea

A Grape Treat

Great for children and adults, frosty jewelled grapes are a refreshing treat on a hot summer day. I discovered these at a church baby shower, and I was delighted to learn that they are quick and easy to make. Simply rinse a bunch of seedless grapes, and place them in a freezer-safe bag or bowl. Sprinkle grape Jello over the grapes, and toss to coat. Place the grapes in the freezer for at least 30 minutes. Spoon the grapes onto a serving dish right before serving. Refrigerate or freeze any leftovers.

Note: I got this simple recipe from my friend Leah and didn't write it down because I knew I would remember her directions. When I made it several months later for the first time, I couldn't figure out why my grapes' frosty coating melted into puddles on my serving dish. I told Leah what had happened, and she couldn't help laughing as I told her exactly what I had done. She interrupted my story to remind me that this recipe uses Jello, not Kool-Aid! I tell you this so you can avoid making the grape mistake that I did!

Store-bought items made hosting a tea party away from home fuss-free and stress-free. A brief stop at a local grocery store on the way into town was fruitful; I found seafood salad at the deli and brownie bites and tiramisu squares in the bakery. My easy fruit tarts, made with graham cracker crumb shells, were quick to put together for our beach-side tea.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Sweet Pattern

I have often said that I want to be my friend Missy when I grow up. She can sew, embroider, smock, cook and entertain beautifully. And thankfully for me, she can also teach. So I feel one step closer to becoming Missy after taking a class she taught at my local sewing shop. We made this sweet Childrens Corner pattern, Paulie, and it has been one of my favorite outfits for Mary Ashley this summer. This versatile button-on-the-shoulder romper can be made short or long, and the pattern offers options for boys or girls. I made Mary Ashley's outfit in the capri length, with a wider ruffle on the pants than the pattern suggested. I am so pleased with the way it turned out, and Mary Ashley has loved wearing it. I hope we have made Missy proud!

Raspberry micro-check fabric is cute for summer, accented with lime green buttons and rick rack. Soft pink, yellow and green polka dots add softness to the ruffles, sash and bodice lining.

A lollipop applique with a lime green bow adds a sweet touch.

Now it's time to bring out this pattern for fall!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Surf's Up

We visited Surfside Water Park in Auburn Friday with some friends from church. All the children enjoyed the wave pool. While some of the moms braved the water slides and lazy river with our bigger boys, I hung out with the little ones at the kiddie pool. With a slide, see-saw, floating alligator and raining mushroom in our area, even some of the bigger kids enjoyed taking a dip with us. It was a great day of fellowship, but I think all of us moms are in agreement that we might try a different water park next time.

The alligator that floats around the kiddie pool was usually loaded down with children, but late in the day Mary Ashley got to ride solo. Emma loved riding the see-saw ...

... until she realized it moved and sprayed water.

Doing the wave. You can see more images of our day on my friend Allison's blog.

Friday, July 25, 2008

An Update

Thank you for your prayers on my behalf before my epidural on Monday. (If you're new to my blog, you can read about the experiences leading up to this procedure here.) I always feel anxious when I go in for injections, but your encouraging comments were a great comfort to me. Knowing I had the thoughts and prayers of so many friends made the morning easier.

I received the epidural with no complications. Back home, I took muscle relaxers and pain medication, then rested my back most of the day. Despite muscle tension that concerned me, my back did not go out. That alone was a huge relief. I have tried to moderate my activity since then, gradually adding in housework and exercise as the week has progressed.

At this point I am not sure whether I can report overall success from the epidural or not. My muscles are still painfully tense, but at times I feel that the underlying inflammation in my spine has eased. Other times I am not so sure. I guess time will tell.

I appreciate your continued prayers as I wait for results. Today I am feeling hopeful for relief and grateful for your support. Thank you so much for walking with me during this time!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cutie Pie Guest Blogger

Hi! I Emma. I 2.

I smile 'cause my Mommy feel better.

I laugh 'cause Mommy do happy dance!

She funny.

Mommy say you pray.

She say tank you!

I pray too: Goff our Fodder, Goff our Fodder, we tank you ... .


Monday, July 21, 2008

My Love Squad

"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).

Care and Concern ...

One of my favorite stories is “The Love Squad” by Virelle Kidder. In this touching essay, Kidder shares the comfort she received during a family crisis. After a week-long hospital stay at the bedside of a sick child, her heart sank to find cars in the driveway when she returned home. When she drug herself inside, her closest friends were surprised to see her. “We weren’t expecting you for another hour! We thought we’d be long gone before you got home,” Judie explained with a hug.

Kidder was astonished to discover the work her friends had done. The women had cleaned house, washed and ironed laundry, changed sheets and placed flowers and little gifts throughout her home. The table was set with dinner, with more meals in the freezer. After her friends left, Kidder sobbed as she wandered through the house, overwhelmed with the enormity of their time and effort. Finally, she reveals, “In the living room, I found a note under a vase filled with peonies. I was to have come home and found it as their only identity: ‘The Love Squad was here.’ And I knew that God had everything under control.”

I have shared this story with ladies groups many times over the years, and I feel a swell of emotion each time I read it. "The Love Squad" reminds me that even the smallest acts of kindness take on greater significance for those who are hurting. And I feel inspired to pen a letter, arrange some flowers or make a casserole for someone in need.
For years I read this story and aspired to be a one-woman love squad. Until last summer. Now I struggle to keep my voice steady as I read, hoping tears won't blur the words I could have written.

Crisis Calls ...

I have struggled with lower back pain for years. Daily the pain tries to dictate my activities. Some days it whispers, and I push past it to accomplish the myriad tasks that fill my busy days as a wife and mother. Other days it nags -- grumbling as I do household chores; warning me not to twist and bend; casting doubt on my abilities to get up or stand up straight. And on the worst days it roars, taunting me that the slightest movement might be the one to put my back out. I have endured its seething rage before. I shudder remembering the endless screaming of spasms that send me to bed, robbed of independence and stripped of dignity.

I have done a lot to try to keep the interaction civil between us, my back pain and me. Ice and heat, ibuprofen, exercise, massage. I have tried to smile politely in the face of pain in hopes that ignoring it will make it go away, but when it grows stronger my frayed nerves want to respond with a foot-stomping, door-slamming fit of teenage rebellion, screaming back, "I hate you! You're ruining my life!" Numerous medical professionals have attempted conflict resolution. X-rays, an MRI, pain medication and muscle relaxers. When months of physical therapy did not achieve the results we wanted, the next step was injections.

So on August 1st of last year, I went in for an SI joint injection. I was a little apprehensive, but the procedure sounded simple enough. Besides offering hope of relief, it would be useful as a diagnostic tool. From what I had been told, I expected to either get better or stay the same.

Things did not go according to plan. Instead, they got worse. Much worse. I slept for a few hours after the injection, but as the numbing medication wore off, I felt my pain level increasing. My emotions were raw the next day. I broke down in tears as I talked to my mother on the phone, disappointed to cross off yet another possibility for relief. But then I gathered my composure, put together some sandwiches, and preheated the oven to bake cupcakes. I sat down for lunch with the children, shifted in my chair, and felt horrific pain rip through my back.

I knew I had to get out of that chair! It took nearly 10 minutes for me to pull myself up, and even longer to make my way across the kitchen, using my chair as a walker to get to the phone. I called my doctor's office and Joe, in such excruciating pain that I could barely get any words out between sobs.

The next month was basically ripped from my calendar, as seconds crept by with muscle spasms shrieking through my entire back and down my right leg. Even turning my head was enough to send shock waves through my body, so I would lie for hours trying not to move a muscle. Breathing, praying, pleading for relief. Joe kept a close watch on me, disturbed to see me lying so eerily still. I refused to eat or drink during the worst days, for fear that I would have to be carried to the bathroom. I could not sit, stand or walk, so the trek from our bed to the bathroom was torturous. When Joe lifted me from the bed, the pain was so great that I often passed out. The humiliation I felt at not being able to handle even this simple task on my own was nearly unbearable.

This ordeal was emotionally wrenching as a mother, as I missed out on so many important moments with the children. While I was flat on my back, Christian started kindergarten and Mary Ashley started preschool. It broke my heart not to have an active role in these milestones. At ages 8, 5 and 3, the older children showed understanding beyond their years; but this time was most difficult on 1-year-old Emma. With arms outstretched, she would cry inconsolably, wanting me to pick her up. Three-year-old Mary Ashley was my angel during this time. "You're a good mommy," she told me one day. "Your back is hurt, but you're still a good mommy." Those words meant the world to me, but still, I was not the mommy I wanted to be.

I had a consultation with a neurosurgeon during this ordeal, and he said surgery was not a good option. There was only a 50 percent chance of getting any relief, and he feared I would end up in a worse position. But something had to be done about the inflammation that was out of control in my spine. He was adamant that I needed to have an epidural series as soon as possible. I was terrified to think about getting more injections, but the doctor explained that without getting medication into my spine, even the slightest movement could cause my muscles to spasm.

And he was right. After the first excruciating week, my spasms eased to the point that I could very slowly roll myself over, slide my feet off the bed, let gravity pull them to the floor, then lean on a row of chairs as I used my arms to propel myself to the bathroom. The whole process took about 30 minutes, but it was freedom! Mary Ashley clasped her hands with delight the first time I managed this feat on my own. "Oh, Mommy, you went to potty by yourself!" she exclaimed. Hadn't we just celebrated that victory for her only a few short months before?

Then I woke up in the night right back where I had started. I don't know if I coughed, sneezed or shifted under the blanket, but spasms ravaged my weary muscles again. This scenario repeated itself several times as we counted down the days to my epidural scheduled for the end of the month.

The Cavalry Comes ...

Word spread quickly through our church that I was having back problems, and friends called daily to check on me and to offer their help. Although I appreciated their interest, in the beginning I politely declined offers for help with food and childcare. I was certain I would be back to normal in a day or two and completely capable of handling things on my own. But as the days stretched into a week, then nearly two, I began to wonder.

About two weeks into my ordeal, my friend Clancy told me she and her sister-in-law Missy planned to deliver a meal to me the next day. "Which would help you more?" she asked. "If I took the girls home with me for a little while, or if I stayed to help clean your house?" I hesitated to answer. Clancy and I have been friends for several years, spending time together at church and dinner group. She is a beautiful girl, always fashionably dressed and put together. Her immaculate home reflects her stylish flair also, and the prideful part of me didn't want her to see me or my home in such despair. Yet I knew that my reluctance was not about any judgment I would receive from Clancy; her outer beauty is surpassed by a kind, generous spirit. So I answered softly, "Well ... I guess ... if you could stay a little while ... I could use the help to clean."

It turned out to be a blessing that Clancy planned to come the next morning. During the night I awoke to crippling spasms, and I was unable to get out of bed in the morning to tend to Mary Ashley or get Emma out of her crib. Clancy brought a delicious meal, including my friend Missy's famous lasagna. Little wrapped gifts of note cards, a key chain and a DVD for the girls brightened my spirits. Clancy brought sunshine that day, as she set to work cleaning the kitchen and family room. She was so sweet, popping into my bedroom off and on to chat or ask where things go. She told Joe later that she left the room abruptly when she saw me struggling to get to the bathroom. She didn't want me to see her crying.

Clancy stayed until Joe came home from work. She called on her way home, and unable to get to the phone from my bed, I listened to her message: "Listen," she began carefully, "I do not want to overstep my bounds or offend you in any way, but it just breaks my heart to think of you lying in that bed all this time and none of us doing anything to help. I just feel like between me, Allison and everyone else, we could really help you." And with a few phone calls from Clancy, the cavalry rushed to my aid.

From that point on, a steady stream of friends came, bringing food, entertaining the children, sitting with me to help pass the time. Women from my church washed dishes, vacuumed and mopped. They scrubbed bathrooms and tackled mountains of laundry. Then they even cleaned windows, blinds and baseboards! My house had never shined so brightly. "We don't want you to feel so overwhelmed with housework when you get back on your feet that you reinjure your back," they explained. Family members also came to help, and my in-laws kept little Emma for more than a week.

My friend Allison called every day to see how I was doing. Her faithfulness amazed me, and I knew that each time she asked me "How are you?" she genuinely wanted to know. You will not find a friend more loyal and true than Allison. Known for her sense of humor, she always keeps the group laughing with her silly antics. Yet one-on-one, she is a sympathetic confidante whose eyes fill with tears to know that a friend is hurting. Allison came out to the house several times, often bringing meals and treats from my favorite restaurants. She kept our ladies Bible class updated on my situation and took the lead in organizing help.

We were served in myriad ways, but a few stand out in my mind. When friends came to sit with me one day, Lisa casually mentioned that another friend had sent a few snacks. She would just leave them on the counter and let us decide where to put them. When Joe got home, he looked stunned when he came in to see me. "Uh ... have you seen our kitchen?" he asked. He insisted that I come take a look, and when I did, I nearly fell over -- not from pain but from laughter. I couldn't believe my eyes; there were more than 400 snacks on our counter! Natasha figured I probably treated my children to homemade after-school snacks, and she wanted to provide easy options that would keep me off my feet. The children loved having our own concession stand, and I marvelled at such thoughtfulness!

One of my worst days forever bonded me to my friend Lara. I liked Lara from the moment I met her. I was drawn to her sweet spirit, and I have always appreciated her honesty and humor. One morning, right after Joe left to take the boys to school, I heard Mary Ashley crying from her bedroom upstairs. Soon she was sobbing, "Mommy! Mommy! Please help me! Mommy, I need you!" I pleaded with her to come downstairs, but she insisted that she couldn't. Allison and Lara were on the way, but would not arrive for another 45 minutes, so I felt I had no choice. I practically crawled up the stairs, but by the time I reached Mary Ashley's room, the muscle spasms were so intense I was crying. I collapsed onto Mary Ashley's bed, unable to lift my legs onto the bed. Lara was the first to arrive, and she did her best to make me comfortable. She found my medicine and brought it up, but the spasms were so constant that I couldn't move my arms or lift my head. So Lara put the medicine in my mouth and put a straw to my lips so I could take it. I never, ever would have thought a friend would have to do that for me, but I am so grateful Lara was there for me in that moment of desperation.

The most touching expression of friendship came the night before my epidural when friends met at the church building for a special time of prayer on my behalf. I was so thankful for the cards and phone calls that had poured in from so many places, and it meant the world to me to know that people were remembering me in prayer. But I could not fathom that my friends would stop what they were doing, clear their schedules, leave their homes and gather together to pray for me. I still cannot think about the enormity of this gift without crying!

The next morning, I was absolutely terrified to have another injection, but Joe reminded me that I had the prayer support of a lot of people behind me. And the results were amazing! When I went in for my epidural, my grandmother had to help me get out of the car. I used a cane to walk and struggled to get into the building. But after the epidural, I walked out standing tall, unassisted!

It took a second epidural to control all of the inflammation and a few weeks for me to regain my strength, but by mid-September I felt better than I had in years. I revelled in the little rituals of daily life, so happy to fix Mary Ashley's hair, pick up the boys from school and prepare our meals again.
The pace of life has moved swiftly forward since last summer. But sometimes when I sink into my bed after a busy day, in the stillness and quiet of night, images from last summer flash through my mind. And I realize that the worst time of my life was also the best. Because although I endured suffering beyond what I ever thought I could withstand, I also found myself blessed beyond what I ever dreamed I could experience.

In "The Love Squad," Kidder explains the significance of her friends' service: "I had spent a week praying through a health crisis, begging God for a sense of His presence at the hospital. Instead, He laid a mantle of order, beauty and loving care into our home through these four 'angels.' " I will be forever grateful to the women who united to become my Love Squad. They recognized needs I could not even admit, served in ways I could never have asked, and demonstrated love beyond what I ever could have imagined. Through every step of the way, my Love Squad was here. I am so thankful that when I could not walk, my Love Squad of angels carried me. Because of their friendship, I too knew that God had everything under control.

I share this story with you now because I am scheduled to have another epidural this morning. Thankfully, I have not been incapacitated by back pain since last summer, but it has gradually become a greater part of daily life. I ask for your prayers that this procedure will be successful, so I can remain on active duty on the Love Squad. I've got a lot more casseroles left in me!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Delivering Comfort

In the South, when words are not enough to convey our depth of feeling for a friend in need, we speak Casserole. You can say a lot with a basket overflowing with food. Get well soon. I'm thinking of you. I'm sorry for your loss. I'm your friend, and I am here. With dinner. And dessert.

I put this meal together to say congratulations to a friend from church who has just had a baby, but I must give credit to a few others who helped me welcome little Gracie Kate. First, everyone's favorite Aunt Paula sent love and best dishes with her chicken pot pie recipe. I doubled the recipe and had enough filling for three 9-inch square casseroles. (One for my friend, one for my family, and another to share!) One sheet of puff pastry makes a nice lattice crust for this size baking dish. I filled out our menu with my favorite summer salad and fresh-baked blueberry muffins. And for dessert, I visited the SITS girls new recipe blog, which led me to this great recipe for Stephanie's cheesecake tarts. Her recipe makes 12 muffin-sized cheesecakes with vanilla wafer crusts, but the wafers we bought turned out to be too small for a standard muffin pan. However, they were perfect for a mini-muffin tin, and the tiny tarts turned out dainty and sweet -- just like Baby Gracie Kate!

I like to add a little something extra to food baskets when I can. Pretty details like cloth napkins and fresh flowers add to the presentation and tell the recipient that this task was not a burden but a blessing. Ribbons and tissue paper add cheery color, and a little gift tucked into the basket adds an extra element of surprise. A magazine, some note cards, or a toy are sure to bring a smile. All these elements work together to say, "You are so special to me."

I like to find inexpensive ways to dress up my food baskets, and plundering through my craft closet usually yields some easy options. Like the cardboard box above, packaging saved from a photo album. Without a lid, I couldn't use it for a wrapped gift, but with a piece of scrapbook paper cut to fit the bottom and grosgrain ribbon glued around the rim, it made a perfect disposable dessert container for Gracie Kate's family.

I would love to hear your tips for taking meals to people. Here are a few of mine.

  • Keep Your Disposable Income. Disposable containers are convenient because they make for easy cleanup and don't have to be returned. You can stock up on these when they go on sale at the grocery store, but also be mindful of products you buy that you could reuse. Yeast roll tins are the perfect size for a small casserole. And plastic fruit bowls are great to reuse, as well.
  • Please Pass the Plate. Consider giving someone dessert on a pretty platter, and tell her to pass it on instead of returning it.
  • Put Your Friend on a Pedestal. Present dessert on a cake plate made from a plate and bowl, as described here.
  • For Return, Address. Keep return address labels in your kitchen for labelling dishes you do want back. This is a good use for the labels many charities include with their fundraising materials.
  • Plan Your Menu with the Diner in Mind. Consider your recipient's circumstances. Are there dietary restrictions you need to follow? Will the dish be easy for a shut-in to eat? Is it kid-friendly?
  • Size Matters. Meals that will stretch to feed a crowd can provide several meals for a large family, while a single person might appreciate getting a few individually-portioned meals. When my late grandmother was living alone, I worried that she wasn't getting the nutritional balance she needed. So over a few weeks I saved, froze and labelled individual meals. Then when I visited her, I stocked her freezer with a variety of options.
  • Prepare Ahead. It is often almost as easy to make two casseroles as one, so prepare extra when making a favorite recipe. Stick it in the freezer, and you will have an easy option when a need surfaces unexpectedly.
  • Make Dinner a Family Affair. Allow your children to serve by letting them help prepare food, make cards or deliver the meal. This can provide a great time of family bonding, and your children's exuberance will bring a ray of sunshine to someone who needs cheer. Plus, you are teaching them valuable lessons about the blessings of giving.
  • Don't Take Off Take-Out. When there is an urgent need, sometimes time and schedules just will not allow for a home-cooked meal. Purchasing deli ham or a rotisserie chicken and tossing together a few side dishes might make getting dinner on the table possible. And sometimes picking up a meal from a friend's favorite restaurant might be the best choice. Enjoying take-out might spice up a home-bound friend's routine -- especially if you plan to visit and bring enough food for both of you.
  • Pray Before Every Meal. Be prayerful as you serve others. Using your preparation as a time of intercessory prayer will keep you joyful in service and sympathetic toward the needs of your friend. And if you feel comfortable, praying with your friend when you deliver the meal will be a blessing to you both.

Yes, in the South we are fluent in Casserole. And we'll keep taking meals to friends in need because we know that at the end of the day, what we are really offering is a deep dish of comfort. Because whether the basket holds poppy seed chicken, spaghetti casserole or chicken pot pie, in Casserole it all says the same thing: "I love you. We're in this together. And would you please pass the biscuits?"

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Beach Blessings

"How precious also are Thy thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand." (Psalm 139:17-18).

By the Shore

The Simple Stuff

The easeful days ...

the dreamless nights ...

the homely round of plain delights ...

The calm, the unambitioned mind ...

The simple stuff of Summer Time.

-- Astor Austin Dobson

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Surfer Girls

The girls really progressed during our beach trip last week. They went from being afraid of the ocean at the beginning of the week to splashing in the surf on our last day. Emma loved holding my hands to jump into the pool at the condo, and Mary Ashley loved playing princesses and doing ballet in the water.

Mary Ashley wasn't sure she wanted to play on the beach until I reminded her that picking up shells would be just like picking flowers at home.

Emma loved playing on the beach. She would bring me handfuls of sand, excited to show me the cakes and casseroles she had made. What a good Southern baby!

Sun, sand and swimming will really zap your energy. Mary Ashley is a delicate flower anyway, so she wilted by mid-afternoon after a couple of hours on the beach. When Joe headed out to run some errands one day, Mary Ashley told me, "I will be wide asleep by the time Daddy gets back."

Beach Boys

Our boys of summer feel right at home on the beach -- building sand castles, riding waves and racing across the shore. During our vacation, we awoke one morning to the sounds of Christian running through our beach-side condominium. When Joe asked what he was doing, he explained, "I'm trying to burn some energy." We made sure the boys had plenty of time to play outside each day. One day, when Christian tired of the sand and sun, he asked to go inside to watch TV. "I really need to go in," he pleaded. "I think I'm seasick." Before too long, though, he was ready to head back out. And now that we are back home, we are all feeling "sunsick," wishing we could spend another day on the beach.

Carson has grown so much since we visited the beach last year.

Christian looked like a golden brown sugar cookie after rolling around in the sand.

Catching waves and smiles.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Beach Babies and Sand Angels

We enjoyed a wonderful vacation at the beach in Panama City, Fla., with the children last week. The beach was still crowded with many Fourth of July holiday travelers lingering, but the weather was beautiful. We played on the beach, ate seafood and shopped a few holiday sales during the day. And we were treated to free fireworks nearly every night during our stay!

Shopping Break

We spent a day shopping the outlet malls during our beach vacation. I overheard 4-year-old Mary Ashley telling her 2-year-old sister before we headed to Destin, "Emma, we're going to tea and then we're going shopping. This is a girly-girl day!" The girls and boys split up for the afternoon, so I had Mary Ashley and Emma with me. They were eager shoppers and wanted to model everything. Carson and Christian think that trying on clothes is a pointless chore, so I deal with opposite extremes when shopping. The boys don't want to step foot in a dressing room, and the girls don't want to leave the store!

Emma takes a break on the playground at the outlet mall.

"I sure wish Hartstrings had those polka dotted capri pants in a 4T for next spring," Emma thinks as she maneuvers the dinosaur slide. "Besides being cute as a button, they were on sale!"

Miniature Golfing Buddies

Miniature golf provided a nice change of pace one evening during our beach vacation. Carson and Christian were the most serious about the game, and they did well. Joe helped Mary Ashley and Emma get in the swing of things, and both girls got at least one hole in one. Joe was proud of Emma for holding her club correctly and using good form; I was just amused that when Joe told her to putt the ball in, she would say OK, go pick up the ball, and put it in the hole. They were the cutest foursome on the course!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Taking Tea in the Music City

When I visited my sister, Jennifer, we planned a special girls-day-out to have tea at the historic Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville. I crossed off another tea room from my book The Tea Experience on this visit, but this outing was more noteworthy because of the childhood dreams fulfilled that afternoon. Jennifer and I shared many pretend tea parties growing up. We often brought our favorite dolls to tea, dressed in their prettiest clothes. We talked about our husbands, Ponch and John, who were busy patrolling the California highways, as we sipped hot water from Dixie cups. We spent many hours pretending we were grown up. And although we didn't get all the details right, even then we had the wisdom to know that one of our greatest joys as grown-up ladies would be spending time together.

Both Jennifer and I were reminded of our sweet husbands on this trip to the Hermitage. The last time Jennifer entered the hotel lobby, she was dressed in her wedding gown. She and David spent their wedding night there, so it was sentimental for her to return after more than a decade. And not being familiar with the maze of downtown Nashville, near the hotel I was delighted to spot the bakery that made my wedding cake 14 years ago. If they had been open that afternoon, I would have loved to take a confection home to Joe!

Sitting in front of the fireplace in the hotel's grand lobby, past and future collided in such a meaningful way. Seeing my beautiful sister pouring tea across the table from me brought back memories of all the cups of tea we have shared in our lifetime, both real and imagined. Years and familiarity give our times together an ease that brings as much warmth and comfort as any pot of tea. And yet this tea party was made even more special by the presence of our daughters.

At 4 and 2, Mary Ashley and Emma were all giggles and glee to go to tea. While Jennifer and I enjoyed the full afternoon tea, the girls sampled scones and pastries. Of course, Emma was eager to try everything on Mommy's plate! Jennifer's baby, Caitlin, was on her best behavior as the rest of us enjoyed our dainty treats. Of course, at 6 months, she is already an old pro at having tea parties. When I stayed with Jennifer during their first week home from the hospital, I planned a tea so I could be part of Caitlin's first tea experience. And at 2 months, she came to Alabama for Emma's birthday tea for 2. For our trip to the Hermitage, she wore the pink A-line dress with embroidered teacup that I made for Mary Ashley when she was a baby. Caitlin was a perfect little lady the whole afternoon!

Sharing tea with our daughters in the Music City was a special occasion, but for me the real joy came in knowing that this afternoon was only a glimpse of all the special times to come. I look forward to a lifetime of making memories with our daughters. Knowing that we have been granted the privilege of watching them grow up together, my cup overflows. And thinking of sharing their lives over a pot of tea in the years to come is music to my ears.

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