Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Just a Little Something

I found a little treasure in my post-holiday shopping: this silver, bejewelled ornament just waiting to be filled with something special. Of course, it could be hung on the Christmas tree, but I think I will keep it out through the winter filled with beads and baubles.

With a little floral foam tucked inside, won't it be pretty for posies?

Pink roses give a romantic look for Valentine's Day, while a lit votive gives a warm glow to a cold winter's day.

What could be better than finding such a special treasure with so many possibilities for adding a touch of beauty to a neglected corner of the house? 

Finding two -- one to keep and one to share with a friend.

Your visits, kind words and prayers have meant so much to me this year. You bring sunshine to my days, so it seems only fitting that I offer you a little loveliness in return. Leave a comment below to enter this silver ornament giveaway, and I will announce the winner in the New Year. Blessings to you, sweet friends!

"If instead of a gem, or even a flower, we should cast the gift of a loving thought into the heart of a friend, that would be giving as the angels give." -- George MacDonald

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Recipe for a Lovely Birthday

Take one bouquet of pink roses.

Add a dressed-up storebought cake.

Sprinkle in some touches of pink and generous amounts of family time.

Yields a lovely birthday for one very grateful mommy.
"Our birthdays are feathers in the broad wing of time." -- Jean Paul Richter

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from Our Family to Yours!
Joe and Melissa Lester

Christmas 2010: Emma, 4; Carson, 11; Mary Ashley, 6; and Christian, 9

Photos by Allison Hilyer Photography

"Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow or turning" (James 1:17).

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Waiting to Love

She greeted the clerk with a warm smile as she entered the department store. It had been a long day with her classroom of 19 energetic third-graders, and she was eager to get home. She just needed to pick up a baby shower gift, and she would be on her way. Her mouth watered with anticipation as she thought about the chicken and vegetables left simmering all day in the crock pot at home. She was ready to put her feet up for a bit and enjoy her dinner before heading to mid-week Bible study with her husband, Mike.

The shopper strode to the back of the store, glad for an opportunity to visit the baby department. She spied a rack of infant sleepwear and quickly selected a pale blue baby gown covered in soft brown puppy dogs. Mrs. Nelson will love this one, she thought, picturing the first-grade teacher's puppy-themed classroom. She picked up a khaki chenille blanket and plastic puppy rattle and headed back toward the front of the store.

Fishing a coupon from her purse, she slipped into the check-out line behind two other customers. An elderly gentleman collected his bags from the clerk as a young woman placed her merchandise on the counter. The young woman spoke in hushed tones to the baby strapped to her chest in a front carrier. The young mother's eyes looked tired -- I remember those days, the shopper thought wistfully. But even fatigued, the young woman was very pretty. She looked relaxed yet put-together in a coral-colored shirt -- shiny brown hair swept into a loose ponytail. Her porcelain skin bore no signs of age or worry, and her countenance was soft as she kissed the top of the infant's head.

The shopper smiled as she observed the mother and baby, her mind drifting to her own daughter. Carolyne and Mark would be coming down for Christmas, and she suspected they might have an announcement that would at last make her a grandmother. Her eyes twinkled at the possibility.

The shopper did not recognize the store clerk and thought she must be new. The red-head looked slightly uneasy behind the register as she scanned the young mother's first item.

Only now did the shopper notice the young woman's sizable pile on the counter -- an elegant selection of slacks, skirts and blouses, so much like the style Carolyne preferred. The young woman pulled a few more items out of her stroller: several dressy outfits for the baby; a pair of pink toddler shoes;  and a pretty stone bracelet.

The young mother offered an apologetic smile to the shopper standing behind her in line, which the woman returned with a reassuring shrug.

The clerk blushed as she fumbled with a few of the items, struggling to remove an anti-theft tag from one of the garments. "Do you have any coupons?" she asked the young mother.

"No, I don't," the young woman replied with a sigh.

"Are you sure? No value dollars or store coupons?"

"I'm afraid not."

The shopper surveyed the young mother's sizable pile of merchandise, then looked down at the three small items she clutched. Clearing her throat, she spoke: "I have a coupon she can use."

Surprised, the young woman protested, "Oh, no, you don't have to do that."

"That's all right, Dear," said the shopper. "You are welcome to use my coupon." She extended her hand, offering the coupon to the clerk.

The clerk scanned the coupon for the grateful young mother, but said the discount could only be applied with the use of an in-store credit card. "Do you have an account?" the clerk asked hopefully. When the young mother explained that her card had been dormant for a couple of years, the clerk suggested they reopen the account, adding, "It should only take about five minutes for the computer to process the request."

The young mother turned to the shopper, embarrassed for another delay to slow the purchase.

"That's all right," the shopper said before the young woman could speak. "I don't mind waiting."

Minutes passed as the computer stalled and had to be re-booted. After several tries, the transaction was finally complete -- generous discount applied. "Thank you so much," the young mother said to the shopper as she loaded her bags into the stroller.

"You are very welcome," the shopper replied, placing her shower gifts on the counter.

The young mother pushed her stroller toward the exit, but as she neared the door, the shopper noticed that one of her items had fallen out of the bag. "Oh!" she gasped, chasing the young woman to the exit. "Dear, you dropped this."

Something washed over the young mother's face as she took the bracelet -- relief? gratitude? sadness? The shopper could not read her expression. The young woman stared at the bracelet, fingering the smooth stones for a moment before whispering her thanks. The shopper offered one last reassuring smile before returning to the counter to complete her purchase. But she turned back just in time to watch the young mother step out of the store, a single tear shimmering on her cheek in the afternoon sunlight.


Perhaps I have told this story from the wrong perspective. In truth, I actually know very little about the shopper who stood in the back of the line and much more about the young mother with whom she shared her coupon. You see, that young mother was my sister. And what that benevolent shopper did not know -- what she could not have known -- was how deeply her kindness touched our family.

Jennifer entered the store that day physically and emotionally drained after keeping vigil at our mother's bedside in the hospital the night before. She had packed so hurriedly for the trip to Alabama that she did not have enough clothes to last the week. The bracelet she nearly left behind -- its strands of pretty stone beads attached to a silver tag engraved with the word "strength" -- replaced a broken, nearly identical bracelet she had bought to commemorate her trip to visit Mother during her treatment for multiple myeloma in Salt Lake City.

Jennifer struggled to keep her composure as she shopped that day, filling her stroller with clothes without even pausing to try anything on. What she did not reveal to anyone in the store -- what she could not share, lest the dam break and her tears flow -- was that our mother had died the night before. Jennifer was buying clothes to wear to her funeral.

In the refuge of our parents' home, my sister broke down as she recounted this story to me. Through her kindness, this loving stranger unknowingly mothered Jennifer through one of the most difficult errands of her life. I am so thankful that in that most difficult moment, this woman demonstrated patience and extended her hand in generosity. She may never know how her tenderness soothed my sister's broken heart.

I share this story today -- a busy, errand-filled, hurry-scurry day -- to remind us that we cannot know the burdens carried, the challenges faced or the wounds suffered by the strangers we meet each day. Or how much comfort our simplest acts of kindness might bring.

When Jennifer unpacked her shopping bags at my parents' home that day, she discovered that she had misplaced the pretty little pink shoes she purchased for her 2-year-old daughter. The shoes never turned up in their van, so she assumes she left them behind at the store. I like to think they went home with the benevolent shopper who reached out to my sister. Mis-bagged by the clerk, perhaps they fell out of the woman's shopping bag when she tossed it into the trunk of her car. And maybe, just maybe, as she heads out today to finish up her holiday shopping, the kind stranger will discover that tiny pair of perfect pink slippers -- a poignant reminder of the afternoon she took a few moments to walk in a stranger's shoes.

" 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'  Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' " (Matthew 25:35-40).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas P-art-y

We celebrated the beginning of Christmas vacation Friday with a festive Christmas pARTy. Sisters Emma and Lizzy and brothers Garrison and Gavin joined my four children for an afternoon of creative fun. Creative friend Katy Larson applied her artist's touch to design adorable party printables -- including invitations, tags, bunting, bottle labels and treat-bag toppers -- that pulled our theme together with festive flair.

Art studios where groups can gather for art classes have grown in popularity in our area. I loved the idea of letting the children paint canvases together, but a studio party can be expensive. So I decided to gather supplies to lead the children in a simple art project at our house.

A visit to the art section of Hobby Lobby yielded all the supplies I needed to carry out our party. Wrapped canvases would work well for this project, but I opted for the more economical three-packs of 9" x 12" artist canvas panels. Along with our canvases, I purchased one tube each of Amsterdam Standard Series acrylic paint in white (PW6), red (PR23) and green (PY74). Squirted into clear paint pots, our three tubes provided more paint than we needed to complete nine paintings. A variety of craft and art paintbrushes gave the children plenty of options -- different strokes for different folks, right?

Here is an example of a completed painting from our Christmas pARTy. I painted the backgrounds green days before the party, thinning the paint a little with water so the color would not look quite as saturated. I gave the children the choice to paint a Santa hat or stocking -- the designs inspired by the graphics Katy used in our printables. Here is a view of the dining room table, ready for our artists in residence to take a seat.

A green plastic tablecloth topped with a runner of thick wrapping paper (Hobby Lobby) provided a worry-free work surface.

I set each place with painting supplies atop the painted canvas.

Festive bunting, party snacks, art supplies and some of the children's school art projects added an artful touch -- united with polka dots in our bright red-and-green color scheme.

My printer is giving me trouble, so I was not able to re-size Katy's stocking and Santa hat graphics as planned. So I asked Garrison and Gavin's dad to draw and cut out patterns for us on card stock. He did a wonderful job, and the children chose which graphic they wanted to use for their painting. The older children traced their own patterns, and I helped the younger. Then with a squirt of red paint into each child's paint pot, we were ready to get started.

The children were bouncing off the walls when they arrived -- so excited to begin their Christmas vacation. But once their brushes touched the canvas, it was amazing how their energy was channeled into their artwork. As they filled in their stockings and Santa hats, you could hear a pin drop! There is just something so relaxing about the stroke of the paintbrush.

As the children finished their first layer of paint, I collected their canvases to dry on the counter while they took a snack break.

A few simple snacks hit the spot for our little artists. A bottled water at each place gave the children something to drink -- not to be confused with the shallow plastic cups for rinsing paintbrushes. To fit all the food on the narrow sofa table that sits behind our dining room table, I filled a vase with tortilla chips and nestled an ice scoop inside. A bowl of spinach dip provided a colorful complement to the chips. Red velvet cupcakes balanced the salty with sweet, and fresh strawberries provided bright spots of red on the buffet. My "stroke of genius" Friday morning was to thread the strawberries onto extra paintbrushes. I put a dollop of Cool Whip into a parfait glass, added red sprinkles, and nestled the fruit skewers into the "holiday snow."  The children loved this snack, and it only took minutes to put together.

After snack time, the children painted the white accents to their stockings and Santa hats. Their personalities really came through at this point. Some of the children used a foam-tipped brush to add polka dots; others sprinkled the wet paint with a dusting of fine glitter; some opted for a clean and simple look. Once the white paint dried, the children completed their masterpieces by outlining the pictures with a black permanent markers.

Here are our artists in residence making holiday memories.

Santa hats provided a sweet favor. To make these, fill a disposable icing bag with a scoop of red and green candies. Secure the bottom with a twist tie, and cut off the excess bag. Hot glue small pom-poms around the base of the hat and a larger one to the top.

Our guests returned home with a gift bag full of goodies. Cute stocking tins from Hobby Lobby held a sparkly ornament from Wal-Mart to remember our time together. Katy designed adorable Santa hat treat-bag toppers (click the collage to get a closer look) printed with a holiday message on the back from Carson, Christian, Mary Ashley and Emma. Filled with sweet treats, our gift bags reminded our guests how much fun it is to make memories together.

And, of course, the highlight of our afternoon was stepping back to admire our gallery of Christmas artwork. Since the party, I have applied two coats of clear acrylic sealer to preserve our canvases. Here are our masterpieces:

Clockwise from top left: Having a ninth canvas allowed me to paint one as well; Mary Ashley's stocking, titled "Sweet Love" and set aside as a gift for her daddy; Christian's stocking; Carson's Santa hat; and Emma's stocking.

Thanks for joining us for all our Christmas pARTy fun. We had a wonderful time, and I am already thinking about what we will do next year to kick off our Christmas vacation.

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." -- Pablo Picasso

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rudolph Cookies

What a week this has been! From year to year I forget how busy the last week of school is, with holiday parties at every turn. I have been busy cooking and crafting all week, but wanted to pause for a moment to share these easy reindeer cookies that were a hit at Emma's preschool Christmas party. I saw this idea in Family Fun awhile back. To make these, dip Nutter Butters in melted chocolate almond bark and place dipped cookies on wax paper. While they are still wet, position broken pretzel pieces under the cookie for antlers and a red candy on the tip for the nose. Allow the chocolate to harden, then make the eyes with white icing and mini chocolate chips. And there you have it -- the most famous reindeer of all!

Last year's Gingerbread House Party was such a great way to kick off our holiday break that we are hosting a little celebration today when our half-day of school ends. I told the children they could each have one friend over for the afternoon, and they chose our favorite pair of sisters and favorite pair of brothers. Garrison, Gavin, Emma and Lizzy will be joining us at our dining room table, where we will be channeling holiday excitement into a fun afternoon activity.

Come back next week for details of our Christmas pARTy!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Alice in Wonderland Party

I'm late, I'm late, posting about a very important date!

A few weeks ago, the girls and I attended a very special birthday party. We stepped into Wonderland for a few hours to celebrate the much-anticipated birthday of a friend who became queen of our hearts this summer.

Mom Heidi planned a Mad Hatter tea party and carried out the theme with charming details. Guests donned hats for the tea and found a variety of tempting treats that said "Eat Me."

What Queen of Hearts could resist these suckers?

The children's eyes lit up when they learned they could fill their own goodie bags at this candy buffet.

Isn't that lollipop topiary adorable?

I must admit, I don't think I have ever felt more grateful to attend a child's birthday party. This was a most special celebration because of the presence of the honorary guest.

Was it Alice, who told the children her story and led them in games and songs?

Was it the Red Queen, whose regal authority sent Emma to my side?
The White Queen, who graciously accepted Mary Ashley's hugs and flowers?
Or the Mad Hatter, who taught all the children his silly dance?

I do believe it was the tiny Alice in Wonderland sitting on the throne.

That is our dear Lily Murphy, the little girl so many of us prayed for this summer after a drowning accident nearly took her life. You can read her mother's account of that harrowing experience here. More than 5,000 people around the world prayed for the Murphys during their ordeal, following Lily's progress through the Pray for Lily Murphy page on facebook. Lily has made a remarkable recovery, with no cognitive damage at all.

Watching Lily giggle and play with her friends, you would never know how close she came to death this year. Looking at her mother's face -- full of emotion and gratitude to celebrate another birthday with her daughter -- you could not forget.

What a Wonderful God we serve. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Spelling Bee Celebration Dinner

Last week we shared one of my favorite family dinners ever: a bee-themed celebration on the eve of Christian's participation in the school spelling bee. We were thrilled for Christian to represent his class in the bee, and I wanted to plan a special family gathering to honor the work he put into preparing for the competition.

I have had ideas buzzing for this bee-themed dinner for a while, but kept the celebration a surprise. Christian was so surprised to come home from school and discover our kitchen table set up for a special night.

Add Special Touches

This celebration came together with the help of several creative friends. Sweet little bee tags made by Katy Larson let Christian know this evening was all about him. Katy is a wonderfully talented photographer, graphic designer and party planner. I have gotten to know her through blogging, and I am so glad she is putting her considerable talents to use through a new party planning business. Find out more here.

Spend a Little

Soup bowls with a beaded edge were a steal from Dollar Tree, and I will have plenty of opportunities to use them since they are white. Napkins from Party City were an inexpensive way to bring out our black-and-yellow color scheme.

Save A Lot

Shopping the house and borrowing party goods helped keep costs low for our special evening. Fabric saved from a previous project served as a graphic black-and-white table cloth, and letters usually displayed on the wall made a great statement hung from our chandelier for the evening. Yellow-rimmed plates purchased from Target years ago served as chargers for our soup bowls, and ribbon from my stash tied the look together.

Party-planning friend Nancy Itson allowed me to borrow a basketful of decorative items to pull the theme together, including wired bees, leftover bee fabric, a pretty yellow pitcher and a beehive tea set. Sharing party goods among friends is a great way to go all out for an event without spending unnecessarily on items you won't likely use again.


I could not resist one splurge for this otherwise economical tablescape: these Wallace Silver Napoleon Bee spoons.

I have actually been eying this pattern for a while and know we will get a lot of use from these. We seem to run out of spoons quickly around here, so we can look forward to using these spoons in the morning to eat our Honey Nut Cheerios.

Serve Supper

For our pre-bee dinner, we enjoyed a meal that was letter-perfect. For the main dish ...

Of course, we had alphabet soup! Along with our soup we enjoyed warm, toasty whole-grain rolls with honey butter.

Nancy gave me the idea to mix up honey butter and sculpt it into a hive. To do this, I mixed 2 sticks of butter with about 2 tablespoons of honey. I pressed the honey butter into a teacup lined with dampened cheese cloth, then inverted the butter onto a saucer. I used spoons to further shape the dome, then finished off the hive with a pecan door and wired bees.

Bee-themed cookies provided a sweet finish for our meal. I discovered Lisa Stone of The Cookie Jar on Etsy and could not be more pleased with the cookies she made for our celebration. They were absolutely adorable, and the hint of lemon flavoring has had me craving more ever since.


Alphabet Soup

I developed this recipe for our spelling bee dinner, and it was well received by the whole family.

1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup matchstick carrots
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 pound chicken, boiled and shredded
96 ounces chicken stock
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
8 ounces alphabet pasta
Saute onion, celery and carrots in margarine or butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and stir. Slowly stir in stock. Add thyme and chicken. Bring to a boil, and add pasta. Return to boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 10 minutes.

One of my goals as a mother is to celebrate the talents and passions of each child -- cultivating a family dynamic of support and encouragement.

I hope our pre-bee dinner showed Christian that no matter what happened at the school competition the next day, he was already a winner in our book.

More than anything, when Christian surveyed the table and sat down for dinner, I wanted all those little details to spell ...

... and let him know that no matter the result of the bee, to us Christian was ...

Christian did a great job in the bee. He lasted seven rounds, and we couldn't bee prouder!

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