Monday, May 25, 2015

Happy Memorial Day

I hope this holiday weekend finds you enjoying a relaxing time with family. We kicked off summer in Grand fashion with a trip to the Gulf Coast. Look for more photos from Point Clear, Ala., in upcoming posts.

Happy Memorial Day!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Floral Teacher Gifts 2015

"A teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, and touches a heart." ~ Anonymous

Every year we surprise teachers with a floral gift in a vessel they can re-use. Here are a few images of the glass pitchers the girls and I found at HomeGoods, brimming over with bouquets to celebrate a wonderful year.

We appreciate our teachers for pouring themselves out for their students daily and wish you all a wonderful summer.

Have a lovely Memorial Day weekend!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Ballet-Class Party

"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive." ~ Anais Nin

One of my favorite events of this spring was a casual gathering we hosted for Mary Ashley's dance class. The girls attend many different schools, so for months I had intended to plan a mixer after their Friday class.

Precious party goods from Meri Meri, like the sweet garland pictured above, set the tone for our relaxing evening. Dessert Plates, Party Cups, Napkinsand Cupcake Decorations from the same line fit our theme perfectly.

When a Friday evening opened up -- such a rare opportunity in spring -- we issued a quick invitation for a girls night after class. Pizza and a movie seemed like the perfect way to unwind after a hectic week. I had promised to keep the soiree simple, so although I admit briefly considering making our own, Emma and I picked up pizzas while Mary Ashley was in class. Watching An American Girl: Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight with the ballerinas was a real treat, as they couldn't resist an occasional pirouette. Above you see our living room, ready for our relaxing evening. 

Tiered servers laden with store-bought cupcakes and candy drew the attention of all the dancers. Several saved the picks to take home.

This get-together brought the sweetest blessings of friendship! I wondered if we might need to do a game or activity to break the ice, but the girls chatted so easily with one another that they required no help from me. Early on, Mary Ashley slipped away from the group to tell me, "Mommy, most of these girls like to sew!" Her delighted smile -- and the joy all the girls shared -- was definitely worth the effort to bring everyone together.

The group had a wonderful time together, and several mothers thanked us sincerely, adding that this was just what their daughters needed. Leading into the spring production, I think the girls looked forward to practices and performances even more, knowing they would be sharing the stage with friends. And we couldn't ask for a sweeter group than the girls of Briarwood Ballet!

"In my friend, I find a second self." ~ Isabel Norton

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Mother's Day That Wasn't Quite

... my day, that is.

Oh, the weekend started out with promise.

We had made it through a hectic week that included several deadlines for me, the end of the law-school semester and graduation for Joe, wrestling workouts for Carson, football practice and a jamboree game for Christian, nightly ballet rehearsals for Mary Ashley, and a choir concert for Emma -- all of that on top of school and church commitments. I took Friday off from work, determined in those few hours of quiet to make our house look less like a storage room for our spring activities and more like the center of our family life. Joe's parents would be joining us on Sunday for worship and a matinee performance of Mary Ashley's spring ballet production. I had been planning our brunch for weeks and couldn't wait to gather everyone around our table for a festive Mother's Day celebration.

Friday morning found me humming a happy tune as my housecleaning plans quickly shifted to creative projects (somehow that always happens). By lunchtime, I had put together a shelving unit for our screened-in porch and was ready to tackle a couple of painting projects.

However, as afternoon melted into evening, my to-do list seemed to keep growing, and the work stretched into the wee hours of Saturday morning. After a scant few hours of sleep, I awoke to more housework to complete before serving as a volunteer for Mary Ashley's first matinee performance. Dressing for the show, I wasn't feeling my best but determined to press on.

The ballet was breathtaking -- a true joy to behold -- and I left the production happy that Mary Ashley had been invited to spend the afternoon between shows with a friend from class. I kissed her goodbye and told her I would pick her up after the evening performance -- 9:30, based on my estimate. Off I went to get groceries and flowers for the next day's celebration.

By this point, my throat was hurting and I felt achy and tired. But it was time to pick up the other children -- Emma from a neighbor's house and the boys from an outing with friends. When we dropped off the other teens in their group, little did we know it would take us hours to get back home thanks to a train that stopped on the tracks, backing up traffic at the railroad crossing for miles. (Oh, and this was after a heart-stopping near-death experience in which a huge truck nearly hit Carson on the driver's side ... but that's another story.)

By the time we reached home, I was exhausted. Joe suggested the two of us run out for a quick bite to eat before picking up Mary Ashley. We slipped out -- my cell phone left behind, the battery dead, following our afternoon expedition. Little did I realize, Joe had also left his phone.

Soup and a steaming latte were a balm for my sore throat, and we enjoyed catching up on the day's events. When we discovered that neither of us had a phone, I grew concerned that we would lose track of time and suggested we head to the venue. Turning on the ignition to his car, Joe pointed out the time: 9:30. Only a few miles away from the performance, our timing should work out perfectly.

Imagine our surprise when we rounded the curve to see the parking lot nearly empty -- the building pitch dark ... and locked. "Oh, no!!" I realized with a start. "The show must have started earlier than I remembered!"

Without our phones, the only thing we could do was return home to check in. When we reached our driveway, I flew into the house and called for Mary Ashley. "Is Mary Ashley here?" I called out to the other kids. Emma came downstairs, and seeing my panicked expression, nearly started to cry. "Where is Mary?" she pleaded.

I ran into the bedroom to charge my phone, waiting impatiently for it to turn back on. Our answering machine blinked with a message from her ballet teacher, saying the show had ended at 8:45. Would we be there soon? Joe rushed back to the school to see if they were still waiting somewhere. In the meantime, I reached a teacher and found out that a classmate's mother had picked Mary Ashley up when we couldn't be reached. I grabbed my keys and raced to their home -- finally reuniting with our daughter a little after 10 o'clock.

Although initially she was relieved to know we were safe, on the ride home Mary Ashley's joy turned to grief as she recounted the evening. As we pulled into the garage, she was bawling. "I was one of the first girls ready to go," she said between sobs. "I waited and waited, until finally everyone had gone but me. Then the teachers started leaving, and they started locking the building." My heart was crushed knowing I had let our sweet girl down -- especially when I had expected her to be so pleased to see that Joe and I were both there to pick her up.

After explaining the mix-up and snuggling with Mary Ashley, she seemed to feel better, but I only felt worse. When she left our room to get ready for bed, I started crying -- softly at first, but soon the tears were coming in great heaving waves. We had worried our precious daughter and inconvenienced the ballet staff, as well as her friend's parents, and it was all my fault. I was so humiliated -- and sick on top of that. And I still had hours of work to do in the kitchen to prepare for our brunch the next day. I felt completely exhausted and overwhelmed.

Go to sleep, Joe urged. We could eat out instead of cooking at home. In fact, his parents had already suggested it. I cried at the thought of giving up the brunch at our house, then cried harder knowing I would need to stay up most of the night if I wanted to do it. Reluctantly, I agreed that we should just go out to eat and headed to the kitchen to put up the ingredients I had intended to prepare. Realizing this was the first year since Mary Ashley had started ballet that I hadn't hosted a gathering in honor of the event, the tears kept streaming.

The next day was Mother's Day, and I felt like the worst one ever.

Joe soon joined me in the kitchen, wrapping me in a warm embrace. "You are a great mommy," he said. "You are such a servant mommy that even on a day that is supposed to be about letting us pamper you, you want to turn it into a time to serve us."

He helped me put up food, then reminded me, "We don't love you because of what you do for us. We love you for you."

Sunday unfolded differently than I had expected -- without a pretty tablescape at home to commemorate Mary Ashley's ballet or a tantalizing menu to honor Joe's mother -- but it brought blessings just the same. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at a restaurant, with the kids snuggled up beside me and kind words of encouragement all around. Eating out afforded us a little time to relax and visit before heading to the show -- a performance that amazed all of us with its loveliness and message of hope.

In the end, although my Mother's Day weekend did not match my vision of perfection, it did hold a few lessons worth passing on. (Besides double-checking pick-up times and making sure both parents never leave the house without at least one cell phone.) Someday when Mary Ashley feels like the worst mom ever, I hope that she will remember that her own mom felt that way sometimes but was never too proud to apologize and try to start again. I also hope she will realize that sometimes in life we need to let go of something good, like a brunch, to accept something better, like much-needed rest.

So, yes, maybe this wasn't my weekend -- not my best moments and definitely not according to my plans. But as it turns out, I wound up getting exactly what I needed this year for Mother's Day:

A gift of Grace from the ones who love me most.

"And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Peach-Infused Tea from Tammy Algood

Many thanks to Tammy Algood, author of Sunday Dinner in the South, for sharing her recipes, advice and encouragement on A Little Loveliness. To conclude our series, today the talented hostess shares a thirst-quenching refresher. Peaches are such a nice complement to freshly brewed tea. Can't you just picture enjoying an ice-cold glass of this smooth beverage on the front porch? I'm sure it tastes even sweeter when shared with friends. If you are feeling as inspired as I am to rekindle the tradition of gathering together to break bread after Sunday-morning worship, let's challenge ourselves to share lunchtime fellowship with someone soon.

Peach-Infused Tea

This tea recipe calls for fresh peaches, but works equally well with farm-fresh nectarines or apricots. I like the version sweetened with agave nectar best. You’ll find it bottled and sold in the baking aisle of the supermarket.

Yield: 8 servings
7 cups water
8 peach-flavored regular-size tea bags
2/3 cup agave nectar (see sugar substitute below)
2 cups peeled and sliced fresh peaches

Place the water in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil and remove the pan from the heat. 

Add the tea bags and steep for 6 minutes. Remove and squeeze the tea bags, then discard. Add the agave nectar to the steeped tea and stir well to combine.

Place the fresh peaches in a pitcher and add the tea. Cover and refrigerate. Serve cold over ice.

Sugar Substitute: While the tea steeps, place a cup of water and 1 cup of sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer and immediately remove from the heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar and add to the tea.

Coming soon, reflections on Mother's Day and a ballet-themed gathering.

Photos from Sunday Dinner in the South. Used with permission.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Mother's Day Craft: Make a Watercolor Mug

Joe and I have been teaching third-graders in Bible class on Sunday morning, and they are absolutely precious! I wanted to plan an easy Mother's Day craft for our group and loved this idea I found on Pinterest.

Watercolor Mug Classroom Craft

White mugs
Disposable table covering
Paper towels
Post-It Note
Nail polish remover
Disposable bowl
Warm Water
Disposable bowl
Warm Water
Bright nail polish
Clear top-coat nail polish

1. Collect mugs. You will need a mug for each child, and it is always helpful to have a few extra on hand. I ordered a case of two dozen from this link at Dollar Tree for our Sunday-morning Bible class of third-graders. With visitors also participating in the craft, we used most of our mugs. A few did not turn out on the first try, so although the kids could wash off their original mugs, it was helpful to have a few extras on hand. For a smaller class, getting a case might still be an economical choice because you can plan to make a different mug craft for Father's Day.

2. Set aside time. To be sure we caught any kids who were sick or out of town before Mother's Day weekend, we worked on these the two Sundays before. We had excellent attendance two weeks ago, so we divided the class into girls and boys. Carson was in class with me that morning, as Joe stayed home with a sick Emma, so he taught our lesson with one group while I made the craft with the other.

3. Set up a crafting station. We have round tables in our classroom, so I set up one for our project area. If you can do this in a ventilated area, that would be advisable, as the fumes from the nail polish get pretty strong. (This seemed to bother our boys more than the girls!) To protect clothing and classroom surfaces, cover the table with a disposable tablecloth. Set a paper paper towel, mug and Post-It Note at each place. Remove any labels from mugs. Have a bottle of nail-polish remover on hand. Two aprons will be helpful to protect clothing -- one for the teacher and another to drape over the children's clothing when each takes a turn in the crafting chair. Fill a disposable bowl (one that will not be used for food after this project) with warm water. Position a box of toothpicks and extra paper towels within easy reach. You will need bottles of nail polish -- varieties that are not quick drying. The colors need to be dark or bright; we used Essie colors Mod Square and Play Date.

4. Craft mugs. Drizzle a little nail polish onto the surface of the water, and dip and remove the first mug, careful not to get polish on the rim. Work very quickly, as the polish dries very quickly. If the results are pleasing, invert the mug onto a paper towel to dry and label the piece with the child's name with a Post-In Note. If the first attempt at dipping did not leave a smooth watercolor design, quickly wipe away the polish with a paper towel. If this does not work, use nail polish remover or soap and water. If a little paint stays on the mug, this will not affect the final outcome. Use a toothpick to remove polish from the surface of the water before dipping the next mug. The kids loved taking turns to do this, as the polish quickly dries to a film over the water -- a fascinating reaction! Repeat this process with remaining mugs. Once the designs are dry (we waited from one week to the next but a few hours should be sufficient), lightly brush a clear top coat of polish over the watercolor design. Allow this to dry completely before giving as a gift.

5. Handle with care. Watercolor mugs are not microwave safe and should be hand washed gently.

In our third-grade class, we can't wait to surprise our sweet mothers with a handmade gift that will remind them that we love them a latte!

Wishing you a blessed weekend celebrating the influence of the women who nurture us -- mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, teachers, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Happy Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Sunday-Dinner Tips from Tammy Algood

When Joe and I bought our first house as newlyweds, we made a commitment to practice hospitality. Although our cottage was small and I was still a novice cook, we would invite one or two couples to join us for lunch after church on Sunday. I made the same few meals over and over, but week by week we discovered wonderful new friendships. Sometimes we even prepared food ahead and offered an impromptu invitation to whoever joined us on the pew! These days, our family of six is more likely to sit down to lunch at a restaurant after church, but reading Tammy Algood's new book, Sunday Dinner in the South, has reminded me how special it is to break bread together at home. In this post, the food personality and cooking-school instructor offers practical advice for continuing this culinary tradition. 

What advice would you offer someone new to entertaining?

Cookbook Author Tammy Algood
First of all, my number one rule is to relax! Guests and even family members will quickly pick up on your stress if you are allowing self-imposed demands to consume you.

Planning is the key to making sure you are able to spend more time visiting with your friends and still serve a meal with confidence. I love a pretty table and will frequently have it set and ready either early in the day or the evening before. Also, pull out your serving dishes and serving utensils as well so that everything is ready.

Making sure you have everything you need is essential to keeping stress at bay. That’s why I pull all my recipes and do a quick inventory of what I have on hand. This eliminates pantry and refrigerator clutter by regularly rotating ingredients and also keeps costs in control.   

What practical tips can you offer for menu planning?

Don’t be afraid to prepare things ahead of time. Utilize the freezer! The recipes in this cookbook give guidelines as to what can be assembled ahead. If you want to prepare something for immediate consumption, do as much prep work as possible beforehand (i.e. chopping, measuring, mixing, etc.) to make assembly a breeze.

Can you share one of your secrets of Sunday-dinner success?

Appetizers can be a real help and I don’t think that many use them enough during a noon-time meal. They serve the very excellent purpose of keeping hunger pangs in control and, if necessary, these can be served in the den or on a sunny patio to occupy your guests elsewhere, giving you time to put some last-minute items together.

And a final word of advice?

Certainly don’t hesitate to involve your family and friends in the cooking process. It blesses everyone!  

Do you have fond memories of Sunday dinners shared or advice on keeping this tradition alive? If so, please share in the comments.

Stop in tomorrow for a sweet Mother's Day craft.

Tablescape photo from A Little Loveliness. Author photo used with permission.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Sweeten Your Sunday with Strawberry Lemon Squares

I was recently given a review copy of Sunday Dinner in the South, a lovely new cookbook of recipes and reminiscences by Nashville food personality and cooking-school instructor Tammy Algood. My father is a minister, and some of my dearest childhood memories involve this culinary tradition. Whether we were sitting down as a party of six for a cozy family-style meal or enjoying a festive afternoon with other members of the congregation, those fleeting hours of fellowship after Sunday-morning worship provided a wonderful respite from the responsibilities of the week. In this series on A Little Loveliness, Tammy shares practical tips and easy recipes -- encouragement for all of us to bring loved ones to the table to share in the delights of food and friendship. Today, enjoy a dessert bursting with fruit!  

Strawberry Lemon Squares

I have been making these dessert bars for eons, and I never get tired of them. They have an extra bonus of traveling well if you are having dinner on the grounds. They can be served without the garnish if you are taking them to another location.

Yield: 12 to 15 servings

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3/4 teaspoon lemon zest, divided
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter, cut into cubes
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup strawberry preserves
2 cups whipped cream
1 pint fresh strawberries, washed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch baking dish.

In a medium bowl combine the flour, powdered sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon of the lemon zest. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or 2 forks until crumbly. Press into the bottom of the prepared dish and bake 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Place the cream cheese and white sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat at medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and blend until smooth. Stir in the lemon juice and remaining 1/4 teaspoon zest.

Spread the preserves evenly over the warm crust and top with the cream cheese mixture. Bake an additional 30 minutes or until set. Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours.

When ready to serve, cut into squares and top with a dollop of whipped cream and a whole quartered strawberry.

"Meals are always best when shared, and Sundays tend to put us in a different frame of mind from any other day of the week. It's a more reflective day and perfect for breaking bread together." ~ Tammy Algood

Photos from Sunday Dinner in the South. Used with permission.

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