Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bridal Veil in Bloom

In full bloom right now, our Bridal Veil bush looks lovely still wet from a soaking spring rain.

Arranged into a bouquet, I hope its blooms brought sunshine to a friend who just had a tonsillectomy. This basket of cozy treats whispers, "Get well soon."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Easter Egg Hunt

Although the weather was chilly for our church Easter egg hunt yesterday, this rite of spring reminds us that warmer days are on the way!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Creativity Blooms ...

When Grandma comes to town! We have flowers in profusion since my grandmother spent the night with us. She loves painting and was happy to give the children an art lesson the afternoon she arrived.

Watching her interact with my children brings back so many fond memories of the times I spent sewing and painting with Grandma during my childhood. She helped fuel my creative passions.

Our masterpieces (clockwise from top left corner): Carson's blue vase holds flowers for Mom; Mary Ashley picked up quickly on Grandma's instructions on painting petals, resulting in a pretty bouquet of blue flowers; Emma was quite decisive in choosing what to paint, resulting in a picture that looks like an impressionist landscape to me; and Christian's rose bush was a request from me, after he completed his first piece: a slightly less sentimental sign for his bedroom that reads "If your name is Mary Ashley KEEP OUT!" I will treasure the bouquet (center) that Grandma painted, as well as the memories of seeing my children gathered around the kitchen table to paint with her -- each stroke of the brush drawing them closer to one of the most precious people in my life.

"What children need most are the essentials that grandparents provide in abundance. They give unconditional love, kindness, patience, humor, comfort, lessons in life. And, most importantly, cookies." -- Rudolph Giuliani

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Garden Party

The table is set for a garden party honoring a very special guest.

To our delight, my grandmother spent a night with us earlier this week. I tease her that she can't just pop in and out when she comes to visit because we all want our share of special time with her. We celebrated her arrival with dinner outside in the fresh spring air.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reigning Cats and Dogwoods

Have you ever seen a dogwood tree bloom kittens? Our cats Sonny and Sarah looked precious snuggling up in the branches of our dogwood recently. I hope your day brings some unexpected delights!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Spring Teacher Basket

A sweet little bird heralds the arrival of spring for Christian's first grade teacher. Packed into a hat box, I hope this simple menu of chicken casserole, fruit salad, banana bread and chocolate chip cookies gave Mrs. Morrison extra time to relax on a busy weeknight.

Chicken Casserole

3 cups cooked chicken, diced (3 to 4 chicken breasts)
1 box long grand and wild rice
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1 can French style green beans, drained
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 sleeve Ritz crackers
1 stick margarine, melted

Use chicken broth to cook rice according to package directions. Let most of the liquid cook out. Mix all ingredients through soup and place in a greased 9x13-inch casserole dish. Top with crushed cracker crumbs and melted margarine. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes. May freeze before baking. Serves 6 to 8.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Kiss from Kentucky

For a sweet taste of Kentucky, try one of my favorite desserts: a Nonesuch Kiss.

While most people go green for St. Patrick's Day, I find myself feeling blue each year longing to visit one of my favorite sites in the Bluegrass, Irish Acres Gallery of Antiques. When Joe was in law school at the University of Kentucky, I travelled the winding, scenic back roads from Lexington to nearby Nonesuch many times to visit this antiques emporium. My cares would gradually slip away during the 20-minute drive as I admired the rolling acres of lush green farmland, dotted with horses and lined with white fences and rock walls.

My best girlfriend, Vonda, introduced me to Irish Acres. I still remember that first visit. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and it felt so good to breathe the clear country air when we stepped out of the car in Nonesuch. Irish Acres is a 32,000 square foot gallery housed in an abandoned schoolhouse. Eying the nondescript red brick building, I was a little confused when Vonda stepped ahead of me and insisted that she open the door. "I want to see your face," she said with a grin.

I gasped as the heavy white door swung open. On a later visit when I took my mother for the first time, stepping inside she said, "This must be what heaven is like."

Visitors to Irish Acres are invited to step into a different world. Twinkling lights glimmer in the dimly lit lobby, casting reflections on delicate crystal and polished silver. Soft music and a warm, spicy fragrance beckon friends to come in and explore the two-story emporium. With an eye for detail, the proprietors of Irish Acres have filled room after room with antiques and gift ware.

When it is time for lunch, Irish Acres offers a full-service luncheon at the Glitz. Housed in the basement, this unique restaurant has been featured in Southern Living. The three-course menu changes every two weeks, with entrees including the likes of artichoke pancetta tart, seafood crepes or chicken Florentine with smoked Gouda sauce.

Featured desserts rotate on the menu, but I always encourage first-time visitors to the Glitz to try the restaurant's signature dessert: the Nonesuch kiss, a delicate meringue shell topped with mocha ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, sliced almonds and a cherry. Oh, my! If it is true that Irish Acres looks like heaven, then I am quite certain the Nonesuch Kiss will be served inside the Pearly Gates.

Irish Acres closes each year after the holiday season and opens again on St. Patrick's Day. My heart always feels drawn back to the Bluegrass this time of year, knowing there are new treasures to be discovered in the antique gallery. Since I was feeling a little blue last week, I made my own version of the Nonesuch Kiss for St. Patrick's Day. Now living in Alabama, I rarely make it back to Irish Acres, but each bite of this special dessert takes me back down winding, scenic paths in my memory to visit the Bluegrass -- a sweet kiss from my old Kentucky home.

Kentucky Kiss

My attempt at recreating the Nonesuch Kiss, the signature dessert served at The Glitz, a full-service restaurant in the basement of Irish Acres Gallery of Antiques in Nonesuch, Ky.

6 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
Mocha or coffee flavored ice cream (I used an Edie's light coffee ice cream)
Hot fudge
Whipped cream
Sliced almonds
Maraschino cherries

Preheat oven to 170 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a drinking glass or round cookie cutter, trace twelve 3 1/2- to 4-inch circles onto the paper. In a mixing bowl, with an electric mixer beat egg whites, salt and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add almond extract. With the beater running, gradually add sugar, and beat until stiff and glossy. Gently spoon the mixture into a decorator icing bag. Pipe shells onto the parchment, and bake for 2 1/2 hours or until hard. Meringue shells can be made a couple days ahead of time and stored in an airtight container. To make a Nonesuch Kiss, top a room temperature meringue shell with coffee- or mocha-flavored ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, sliced almonds and a cherry.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring Cleaning

Pretty tulips wait in little vases for the girls to do some spring cleaning before they can take the flowers to their rooms.

Spring break has given us some extra time to devote to much-needed projects around the house. Joe has been painting and making repairs, and I have been doing some sewing and organizing. Unfortunately, the children haven't seemed to catch our productive spirit. The house has gotten progressively messier throughout the break, so I asked the children to work on their rooms. Five-year-old Mary Ashley asked if her 3-year-old sister could help her pick up toys, but I reminded her that Emma has quite a mess to take care of in her own room. "Oh, yes," Mary Ashley agreed, nodding her head. "Emma's room is a pink sty!"

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Banana Bread Breakfast

Fresh-baked banana bread topped with sliced strawberries and white chocolate strawberry yogurt makes a delightful breakfast. Perfect with a cup of tea!

Banana Bread

I have been making this recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book since I was a newlywed -- and a new cook.

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (2 to 3 medium bananas)
1/3 cup shortening, margarine or butter
2 tablespoons milk
2 eggs
1/4 cup chopped nuts (optional)

In a large mixer bowl combine 1 cup of the flour, the sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add mashed bananas; shortening, margarine or butter; and milk. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed till blended, then on high speed for 2 minutes. Add eggs and remaining flour; beat till blended. Stir in nuts, if desired.

Pour batter into a greased loaf pan. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 55 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Remove from the pan; cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Wrap and store overnight before slicing. Makes 1 loaf (16 servings).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Painting Pottery Eggs

Every year I look forward to taking the children to paint Easter eggs at a local pottery studio during spring break. Yesterday's rainy weather gave us the perfect opportunity to spend an afternoon carrying on this tradition.

I can't wait to add this year's painted eggs to our collection!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spring Springing

"Springtime is the land awakening. The March winds are the morning yawn." -- Lewis Grizzard

Soft green roses and bright pink carnations fill a favorite container. This is the first of several ceramic bunnies that will be hopping out of the cupboards to make an appearance this spring.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Storybook Tea Party

Invitations fashioned to look like little books -- complete with bookmarks -- invited my children to The Storybook Tea Party. I folded an 8-inch square piece of two-sided card stock in half to make the book cover, and printed the text that follows on paper cut down to 4-inches by 8-inches.

Once upon a time, there were four children named Carson, Christian, Mary Ashley and Emma. Their mother invited them to dress up like favorite storybook characters and join her for a tea party at the edge of an enchanted forest.

Eager to experience the magic of story time, the children donned costumes and gathered their favorite books for a delightful afternoon of reading together.

The whole family piled onto a favorite quilt, enjoying the mild spring weather and dappled afternoon sunlight. Surrounded by good books, tasty nibbles and the ones they hold dear, the children learned that the best way to lose yourself – and find yourself – is in a good book.

Our springlike weather was perfect for yesterday's outdoor tea party. My late grandmother's Desert Rose china suited our gathering at the edge of the woods, and fresh tulips clustered in crystal vases added flashes of color to the setting. A wooden bin sat ready with a selection of favorite books, and the clear blue sky invited us to lounge for hours. A simple menu of "berry good book" scones and almond cream, cheese cubes, fresh strawberries and a pot of fruity herbal tea was perfect for a relaxing afternoon.

A favorite quilt made a great lounging spot, especially with a cluster of pillows piled around the edge. A small wooden table held tea time favorites, and a stack of books held a wicker tray of treats. All our storybook setting needed was a cast of characters.

And what a varied group we entertained -- among them an athlete, a superhero, a princess and a pinkalicious ballerina! I donned a bandanna and apron to serve tea, and the children guessed right away that I was Cinderella.

To commemorate our special afternoon of reading, I gave each child a journal for writing their own stories.

I found this colorful four-pack of notebooks at Wal-Mart and printed little nameplates on card stock and glued them to the front. You could also use this idea to make custom bookplates when giving books as gifts or party favors.

Five-year-old Mary Ashley has already been carrying her open journal around, pretending to read from the empty pages as she relates the events of our storybook tea party in vivid detail. So maybe one day she will fill its pages with beautiful stories of her own.

As long as our family has the opportunity to gather around a good book, we can all expect to learn, grow and dream together as we live happily ever after.

"A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins." -- Charles Lamb, 1833

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Celebrate Reading

There are so many ways to cultivate a love of reading in children through celebrating books. Books make a wonderful baby gift, especially when embellished with handmade bookplates and presented in a personalized book bag. When one of my nephews turned 1, my sister-in-law planned a storybook-themed birthday party and invited guests to bring a new book for the birthday boy. Preschoolers would enjoy a book swap party complete with story time. And older children can organize a book drive or start a book club.

I have a special afternoon planned for my children today, and I'll share all the details of our celebration of books tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book Nooks

"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers." -- Charles W. Eliot

My kids love the thrill of visiting the book fair at school; a trip to the local library is always a fun outing; and a great reward is a trip to the local bookstore. But the internet brings us even more opportunities to encourage our children to read and even write stories of their own. Here are a few interesting sites I have discovered:

  • Preschoolers will enjoy exploring Lookybook to view picture books at no cost. They can even make their own bookshelf to display their favorite titles.
  • Check out the Internet Public Library's Kidspace for links to web sites meant to enhance children's enjoyment of favorite storybook characters.
  • Kids of all ages will find something worthwhile on Big Universe. Free options include creating and sharing books online. Animated graphics make the writing process even more fun. For a membership fee, print your own stories and read other books online.
  • Budding authors will enjoy Tikatok, where they can write and edit stories online. Upload scanned artwork to enhance the story, or mail artwork to the company. Publish the books for a fee.
  • A number of retailers sell illuStory kits to help children make their own books. Amazon stocks several varieties here.
  • Featured on Oprah and The Today Show, Pajama Program distributes new books and PJs to underprivileged children. For more information, visit the web site.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My Favorite Childrens Book

I grew up treasuring Little Golden Books. My girls love Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious and anything princess. My boys love super heroes and Star Wars. But my all-time favorite book to read with the children is this one:

I discovered Bunny and the Beast by Molly Coxe when Carson was 2. We read it so often that one evening when a phone call interrupted our story time, Carson quoted the entire book, even mimicking my inflections!

The vivid artwork in Bunny and the Beast is a visual feast.

Do you have a favorite childrens book from your childhood, or one you particularly enjoy reading to your children today?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Pages from My Life

My father gave me a childhood I treasure. As a young girl, I was deaf and blind. Restless and wild, I lived in a silent prison until a teacher named Annie Sullivan spelled W-A-T-E-R and brought the world to the palm of my hand. I lived in a little house with Ma and Pa. My name was Mary, and my siblings were Laura and Albert. Growing up on the prairie, I knew that Laura and Almonzo would be together forever. As for me, I was waiting for my prince. My stepmother tried to keep me from true love, but I went to the ball, the glass slipper fit, and we lived happily ever after.

My childhood was filled with adventure, mystery and romance, all because Daddy taught me to lose myself – and find myself – in books.

I come from a long line of readers. A librarian for many years, my late grandmother felt at home surrounded by books. My late grandfather was a college professor, an avid reader who filled journals with notes from his studies. When my grandmother remarried a book lover later in life, books had so overtaken this bachelor’s home that she had to remove books from the stove and bathtub to set up housekeeping.

If I was a bookworm by nature, my father provided the nurture. He was the one who worked to pass on the love of reading. Story time was a nighttime ritual I relished as a little girl. With funny voices and sound effects, Daddy breathed life into the pages he read. Together we cheered The Little Engine Who Could to keep trying, shook our heads at the antics of Curious George, and yawned sleepily when the time came to say Good Night, Little Bear.

You couldn’t spoil a child with books, in my father’s opinion. Even when money was tight, he could always spare a few dollars to order a book from the Weekly Reader or book fair at school. With great anticipation I awaited the arrival of each book, knowing that new friends awaited discovery inside. (And I got a lot of fabulous kitten posters for ordering!)

Daddy marked special occasions with the gift of a book. My favorite present under the Christmas tree often turned out to be the book my father chose just for me. I can recall many times when I stayed up late on Christmas night, so enthralled with a new book that I had to read just one more page, one more chapter, before I could turn out the light. Now that we children are grown, the adults don't always exchange Christmas gifts, but the tradition of reading on Christmas night continues. After a day of playing with their new toys, when evening falls my children are ready to climb into my lap so we can read their new “D-Dad books.”

Books are still the perfect gift for my father. A shirt and tie bought for variety are received with polite appreciation, but a new book makes his eyes light up. His personal library has surpassed 5,000 volumes, but he can always make room for one more.

I am so thankful that my father taught me to love reading. Daddy showed me that the best place to find yourself – in life and in books -- is somewhere between “Once upon a time” and “The End,” because that is where the magic happens. And when you are a reader, you approach each book -- and each day -- with anticipation, eager to see what the next chapter brings.

D-Dad takes time out to read Emma's birthday book to Mary Ashley during the party, February 2007.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Growing Camellias

Blooms from our camellia bush fill a favorite teacup.

Looking for tips on growing camellias, I couldn't help but think about spiritual applications for the information I found. Because just as camellias offer a refreshing burst of color in the stark winter landscape, as Christians we stand out as lights in a dark world. Here are a few reminders to help us bloom even when cold winds blow.

  • Camellias prefer neutral or acidic soil, but they can thrive in slimy soil. As humans we may prefer easy circumstances, but often we experience the most spiritual growth during difficult times. Romans 5:3-5 explains, "[W]e also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us."

  • Camellias will outgrow their allotted space unless the plants are kept in check. They will flower better with regular pruning. We too benefit from our Father's pruning, ridding us of evil characteristics like pride, arrogance and greed. Psalm 66:10 says, "For Thou hast tried us, O God; Thou hast refined us as silver is refined." Cynthia Guy, one of this week's ladies lectureship speakers, talked about the process of refining silver. She said a refiner was asked how he knew when the silver was ready. His answer, as he watched the silver respond to the heat of the flame: "When I can see my image in it."

  • Deadheading as petals fade helps the plant avoid wasting energy setting seed. Too often we waste energy dwelling in pits of worry, doubt or unforgiveness. Spiritual deadheading will help us invest our energy in growing spiritually. When we confess our weaknesses to God and repent, He is faithful to help us. And with an upward focus, we can climb. Philippians 3:13-14 challenges us, "Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

  • Most important, camellias need shade to thrive. Despite their hearty tolerance for difficult soil and winter weather, camellias need a sheltered environment to flourish. This is the key for us as Christians too. How can we survive even during difficult times, grow even in a harsh environment, and bloom even in a cold winter? We can thrive because we live in the shelter of our Father's hand. The psalmist praises, "From the end of the earth I call to Thee, when my heart is faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For Thou hast been a refuge for me, a tower of strength against the enemy. Let me dwell in Thy tent forever; let me take refuge in the shelter of Thy wings. Selah" (61:2-4).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Spinach-Artichoke Dip

Spinach-Artichoke Dip

This recipe is easy to throw together with a few staple ingredients.

2 packages frozen creamed spinach
10 ounces sour cream
1/2 jar artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
1/2 package dried onion soup mix
1 1/2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese

Defrost spinach in a microwave-safe bowl. Stir in the rest of the ingredients, and microwave about 2 1/2 minutes or until heated through. Stir once more and sprinkle with shredded Parmesan. (This recipe will feed a crowd; I usually prepare half for our family.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Thinking of Home

Tomorrow I will be speaking for the ladies session at the Faulkner University Lectureship in Montgomery, Ala. If you live nearby, please join me at 11 a.m. in Lester Chapel for a session on the topic "Making Home a Haven." The lectureship will be going on through Thursday, and you can find a full schedule and directions to the campus here. I hope you will join me for a dynamic, faith-building spiritual experience!

(Just a note: I took the photo in the center of the collage in New Orleans. It's the house I would choose if I could live in a pink house!)

Monday, March 2, 2009

What a Week!

Carson and Christian enjoy a rare snow day in Alabama.

This week was certainly one to remember! We began the week with Carson in the hospital fighting a stomach flu that day by day swept through the whole family. When I last posted, I hoped Christian and I would be spared. But stomach pains hit me just as Joe was packing up to leave town for a business trip. Being home alone with four children and a stomach virus made for a long and difficult night. Just as my symptoms were beginning to ease, Christian came down with the bug too. Also during the weekend while Joe was away, we experienced torrential rain and tornado sirens, a leak in our roof and then snow. I was half expecting to fight a wild animal before the week was through!

But we made it through! We are so thankful to be resuming our normal routines, and flavorful food never tasted so good! Last week was challenging, but it brought more than its share of blessings too.

This pretty gift basket was an unexpected gift.

I learned that Emma's Sweet Shoppe themed Tea for 2 was voted best birthday party idea on Tip Junkie, so thank you for your vote! Joe coached Carson's basketball team to win the championship, and my name was drawn to win a gift basket at Rumbling Waters Baskets and Gift Registry in downtown Wetumpka. And so many of you shared sweet thoughts with me while we were sick. I appreciate your prayers so much, and now I am praying that others will be spared the illnesses that seem to be so prevalent right now.

I'm so glad to be getting caught up, and I'm wondering, what were the highs and lows in your week?

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