Monday, March 5, 2018

Until We Meet Again

Ernest DeVon Butler, US Marine Corps.

One week ago, my dad's last remaining sibling passed away at the age of 94. Today, my Uncle Ernie was laid to rest in his hometown of Fresno, California. My father, the youngest of eleven children, drove to Fresno to attend the funeral. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to join them, but I'm very grateful that I was able to visit with Ernie and his sweet wife, my Aunt Alma, just five months ago while we were vacationing in California.

Uncle Ernie and Aunt Alma, at ages 23 and 19.

Alma is now 90 and has dedicated herself to caring for her childhood sweetheart in his declining years. Her gratitude that she was still physically able to do so was so very sweet. She told me recently, on two occasions, that when Ernie passed on she will have fulfilled her mission, and then she plans to join him on the other side of the veil. Such devoted love is a rare thing in this world.

Alma and Ernie with his cousin Eldon.

Until Alma is able to rejoin her forever-sweetheart, I love to think of Ernie's joyful reunion with their two sons, my cousins Bobby and Jimmy, who passed away many years ago. I'm sure there were many happy tears, as well, when he reunited with his parents, my Butler grandparents, Ed and Myrtle. Not to mention the nine other siblings who preceded him beyond the veil.

My Grandpa Ed Butler with his son, my Uncle Ernie.

Ernie and Alma have three children still living: my cousins Larry, Carol, and Bryan, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are a wonderful family. No one I've ever met has been kinder than my dear uncle and aunt. I never doubted I was loved while in their company.

Ernie served in the Marine Corps during the final years of World War II, as a turret gunner on a bomber plane. My thanks to my cousin Debbie's husband, Mike, who posted many of these photos online, allowing me to add them to my collection. I believe they were displayed at the funeral today.

Uncle Ernie Butler, Marine, with his cousin Eldon Christopherson, Navy.

Uncle Ernie on the left.

This map was eye-opening regarding my uncle's dangerous missions.
The green indicates where he was stationed; the blue is where they were bombed.

My dad is almost eleven years younger than Ernie (as the baby of the family, Dad is now 83 years old), so he was just a kid when his big brother went off to war. Ernie was always his hero. My dad may have been the taller of the two, but he looked up to his older brother in every other way.

Uncle Ernie as I'll always remember him.

I wasn't born until 1954, so of course I don't remember Uncle Ernie as a Marine and war hero. The man I knew was soft-spoken and gentle, with a quiet, endearing sense of humor. He made a 23-year career as the Boy Scout Camp Ranger for Fresno County, and he loved the great outdoors. We created many happy memories enjoying family camp at Camp Chawanakee on Shaver Lake at the end of the Boy Scout season each summer.

Uncle Ernie and me, picnicking at White Mountain Apache Reservation.
Oct 13, 1990

Some of my best memories of Ernie and Alma come from when Mark and I moved here to the White Mountains in eastern Arizona during the summer of 1990. Sarah was nine months old and I was beginning a new career as a teacher at the local high school. Everything was new and our closest family was a three-hour drive away. Except for Ernie and Alma, that is, who--as luck would have it--were serving an LDS mission in Whiteriver, just a thirty-minute drive from us, on the Apache reservation. For the next six months or so, until their mission ended and they returned home to California, they filled our empty spaces with love and fun, showing us the sights on the reservation and inviting us for meals and holidays and picnics. I love those memories!

My grandparents with ten of their eleven children on their 50th anniversary.
July 2, 1963

Sadly, with the exception of my father, everyone in the photo above has moved on to the next life, where I trust we will all meet again one day. Front and center are my grandparents, Lawrence Edward (Ed) Butler and Myrtle Van Ausdal Butler. Flanking them are their two eldest children, firstborn Twila Kester (on the left) and second-born Elda Bennett.

In the back row from left to right are the rest of my Butler aunts and uncles: Jean Stokes, Vera Clark, LouDene Shields, my dad Myron Butler, Ernie Butler, Fern Haley, Bonnie Hawkins, and Irene Eugster. Not pictured is eldest son (and third child), my Uncle Lynn, who died when he was only twenty-one, many years before this picture was taken. My dad was still a child when his oldest brother Lynn died.

Until we meet again, Uncle Ernie, I'll remember you and miss you and look ahead to the day when we're finally gathered in the eternal embrace of all those we love.

Monday, January 29, 2018

I'm a Fan of Fans

A souvenir fan that Dylan and Jake brought me from Las Vegas.

Dylan and Jake were in Las Vegas two weeks ago for a friend's wedding, and they stayed on for four days to see the sights and visit other friends who live in the area. When they returned from their trip, they surprised me with a souvenir that I just loved. Not because it was expensive or imposingly magnificent (and I certainly hadn't expected them to bring me anything), but because it was so incredibly thoughtful. 

All of my children have a real gift for choosing things they know will be meaningful to me. I've never been one to have a long list of "What I Wants" or to desire expensive gifts. At my age, if there's something I want that badly, I'll figure out a way to get it for myself. But if you give me something that simply made you think of me, I will treasure it forever.

The wall of Japanese fans in my home office.

So why was a Las Vegas fan so special? The guys checked out some souvenir shops and looked at the usual souvenirs like refrigerator magnets (which are fun, too), but when they saw the fan, they knew it was perfect for me. Jake remembered that I have a whole wall of treasured fans in my office at home and just knew I would love it. He was right!

When I lived in southern California, I worked in a Japanese factory located in Anaheim for almost two years (May 1978 to March 1980). It was called AF Seal, shorthand for American Fuji Seal. All of our executives and most of our management were Japanese men newly arrived in the USA to oversee this new American branch of their company. Some barely spoke English, which made for some interesting situations, along with the inevitable small cultural clashes.

Employees of AF Seal outside our new facilities on Jan 24, 1980.

All of them loved this country, though, and worked hard to assimilate. Most of them adopted American names based on celebrities they admired. The president of the company called himself John, after John Wayne. Another executive called himself Kirk, for Kirk Douglas. My favorite supervisor, production manager Neil, was a fan of Neil Diamond (like me).

For them, work was family. In Japan, employees spent far more time at work than they spent at home, so they cultivated a supportive environment in which relationships mattered. We had parties for every excuse possible, including everyone's birthdays. We had barbecues and ballgames at the park, to which our entire families and our personal friends were welcomed. They even tried to get us to come to work early to do calisthenics with them, but we lazy Americans found that to be a bridge too far...

AF Seal production staff on my final day on the job, Feb 29, 1980.

These men returned to Japan regularly, for personal or business reasons, and when they came back to work they would often have small souvenirs for us. Most often it was a traditional, decorated Japanese fan. Hence, my lovely collection. I display them because they mean a lot to me. I admit freely that I totally hated wrestling with glitchy factory machinery day after day, but the people I worked with were absolutely wonderful. The fans on my wall are a reminder of their kindness and generosity, as well as their occasional bemusement at our American ways and attitudes.

Me with my sister Karla (ages 25 and 19) on our final day at AF Seal.

Oddly enough, AF Seal eventually became family for me in more than a fanciful sense. After she graduated from high school, my sister Karla joined the team. Then, when the company brought over a huge printer, my brothers LeRoy and Jeff hired onto the night crew of the new printing department. Only our youngest brother, Darryl, didn't join up. He was still in high school.

That meant that when our family decided to move to Arizona on March 5, 1980, AF Seal lost four employees all in one fell swoop. I won't lie. I was thrilled to get out of the factory life. Still, it was hard to say good-bye to those who had become like an extended family to us.

Examples of the heat-shrink labels we produced at AF Seal.

In case you wonder what we manufactured at AF Seal, we made heat-shrink labels for products like Kraft salad dressings and wine bottles for various wineries. I still see them on many grocery shelves today. You know the ones, where you twist the top and hope it breaks at the perforations like it's supposed to, so you can open the lid under the plastic.

At AF Seal, the labels were printed onto long, wide sheets of plastic (my brothers' jobs), which were then sliced into narrower sheets. Those were sent to the seamers, which folded and flattened them and glued them along the seam, which was very tricky. That was the machine I ran during my final months with the company. From there, the long rolls of labels were sent through the cutters, which cut them to their prescribed sizes (as seen in these photos) and perforated them. That was the department where Karla worked, and those were the machines I operated for most of my time at AF Seal. Finally, of course, the labels were assessed for quality, and then packaged and shipped off.

Those were some great times. Good memories. But you couldn't pay me enough to work in a factory again!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Hospitalizer

My son Dylan got taken down by "swine flu" (H1N1) when he was twelve.
September 19, 2009

Coming down with respiratory flu is never fun. Most of us probably remember the "swine flu" pandemic of 2009-10, when death rates rocketed and people all over the world wore surgical masks whenever they ventured outside. That one hit close to home for us, when my youngest child contracted the disease. Dylan was an extremely healthy, athletic twelve-year-old who was fine one day and knocked off his feet the next. For a full week he was scary-sick.

That particular flu, H1N1, is especially deadly because it targets healthy teens and adults as much as it does the young, the elderly, and the immune-compromised. H1N1 is, in fact, the same strain of flu responsible for the deadly Spanish Influenza pandemic that infected 500 million people worldwide and ultimately killed 3-5 percent of the world's population, somewhere between 50 and 100 million people. Ironically, the Spanish Flu pandemic began exactly 100 years ago this month, running from January 1918 to December 1920.

This season's predominant strain of flu is the more traditional H3N2, which mostly targets the very young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, as we normally expect from the flu. However, H3N2 is also a master of mutations, making it unpredictable from year to year. It has outdone itself this season, outfoxing the vaccine and overwhelming health workers, hospitals, clinics, and flu-related supplies with unprecedented numbers of the infected. According to reports from the CDC, the 2017-18 flu season is on track to become the worst since the 2009-10 "swine flu" pandemic. As of January 9th, recorded cases were up more than 500%. And it hasn't peaked yet.

The CDC estimates that about 12,000 Americans die during a flu season considered to be "mild." This year, there is concern that the number could be closer to 56,000. Most deaths so far have been among the elderly, but the number of pediatric deaths has been unusually high, as well. Particularly frightening are the many reports of healthy adults dying within days of their first flu symptoms.

In fact, I read that this flu was dubbed "the hospitalizer" in Australia, the continent that suffered from their own H3N2 epidemic throughout their winter flu season before it moved on to us. Keep in mind, the autumn/winter flu season in Australia is from about March to August.

Homemade chicken noodle soup! Thanks to those 
who brought us dinner every night for a full week!

Why am I so interested in this year's flu epidemic? I can't really recall the last time I had a case of respiratory flu, or if I ever really had it before. If I did, I was young and healthy enough at the time to throw it off quickly, like a bad cold. This year, though, I came face-to-face with H3N2. And it was ugly.

And I wasn't alone. I can't remember any other year in which so many people I know, and in many cases their entire families, have been afflicted by such serious illness over such a short period of time. This year's flu doesn't mess around. It moves in with two suitcases and gets down to business.

I (foolishly) expected to be healthier after I retired in June. After all, I'd no longer be surrounded by a classroom full of coughing, sniffling teens every day, right? Not so. In November, I got an especially virulent stomach flu that put me down for nearly a week. Then, on December 5th, I came down with a head-cold and a mild sinus infection that lasted a little more than a week. Not the worst ever, so I congratulated myself on surviving so well. I even told a few people that I should be done with illness until next year. Oh, the lies we tell ourselves.

Just one week after the cold was gone, I was stricken one evening with a horribly raw, burning pain in my throat. What? Not another cold so soon! It was a Thursday evening, December 21st, and Christmas Eve was only three days away. I had plans! This couldn't happen!

But it did. I was diligent in drinking plenty of fluids, resting, and taking home remedies like vitamin C, garlic oil, echinacea, and essential oils. Nonetheless, on Saturday afternoon my temperature hit 101 degrees, accompanied by the most awful body aches of my life and a horrible case of the chills. I shook from head to toe, and feared that I'd bite the thermometer in half (next up, mercury poisoning?) because my teeth were chattering so badly. When Mark woke me to drive him to work the next morning (Christmas Eve), I could hardly stay upright. My temperature was still 101 and the "roadkill" feeling was even worse.

My daughter Sarah, bless her, came to my rescue. She drove her dad to work, and then she took me to a walk-in clinic (the only one in town open on a holiday), where a nasty nose-swab confirmed H3N2. After taking me back home so I could go back to bed, Sarah picked up my ridiculously expensive Tamiflu prescription ($70, not covered by my insurance) and then set me up with chicken noodle soup, saltine crackers, and ginger ale before she went back home. 

I discovered later that Tamiflu is only effective if started within 48 hours of initial symptoms. By the time I took the first dose, it was more like 60 hours after my sore throat began, so I'm not sure whether my $70 was well spent. The drug somehow inhibits the flu virus from replicating itself as  quickly, so the hope is that it gives the body's own immune system more time to fight it off.

Now that I'm on the mend, I shouldn't complain. It's true that I was miserable--miserable--for more than two weeks, and the timing was awful, affecting both Christmas and New Year's Eve. All I could do was sit in a corner, away from my uninfected family, and watch my kids prepare the meals, carry out our traditions, and wait on me. I'm deeply grateful for their diligence, but being so sick sure puts a damper on things.

On the other hand...I survived. I've read of so many others hospitalized with pneumonia and so many others who died unexpectedly, far too young. So I am grateful. While I had all the usual symptoms listed on the health websites--sore throat, fever, body aches, chills, congestion, cough, headache, vomiting (mostly phlegm), diarrhea, and exhaustion--the congestion never went deep into my lungs and the mucus stayed clear during the entire illness. 

Although, I did have the most interesting wheeze from my upper respiratory tract for almost four weeks. It was constant and annoying and kept me awake at night, but it was never boring. Sometimes it sounded like a tiny flute, sometimes like a newborn kitten mewling, sometimes like a miniature goose honking, and other times like a whole variety of sound effects! I don't miss it.

It took more than two weeks, but eventually most of the symptoms disappeared. The only lingering effects are some continuing drainage, an intermittent cough, and most of all, exhaustion. That's the part I'm still fighting, trying to regain my strength even though it's been 4 weeks and 5 days since this whole thing began. Don't get me wrong, I'm much, much better now, and long past the contagious stages. I just find I have to portion out my energy on a daily basis. Like, today I will do dishes; tomorrow I will do light shopping; the next day I will do laundry; and so on. One task pretty much drains me for the rest of the day.

At the end of the first two weeks of illness, I felt slightly more human, so...well, you know how we are: I expected to be able to jump right back into regular life. I tried, but I crashed, and I crashed hard. Literally, just looking at the cover of a magazine and thinking about reading it (because what else could I do all day?) made me unimaginably tired. So I cried a lot and despaired of ever getting my life back.

That's when the wonderful ladies from church stepped in and took care of us (by then, Mark was sick, too, although he recovered much faster than I did, being much younger than me). For an entire week they brought us a delicious warm meal each evening. We enjoyed thick, rich beef stew with garlic bread and apple pie; homemade lasagna and garlic toast; garden salad topped with rotisserie chicken, and rolls on the side; handmade tamales; homemade chicken noodle soup and French bread; and chicken fajitas on low-carb tortillas. Thanks so much to the Rogers, Halls, Badgers, Stewarts, and Prestwiches for their love and generosity! I didn't feel like I deserved such attention, but it made a huge difference.

The past week has been better, as long as I don't push too hard. I'm confident that I'll be back to full strength in a week or two, able to resume my normal life. That said, I've given my kids instructions that, in the event I ever contract the flu again, they're to take me directly to the hospital and tell the staff to hook me up to the necessary IVs and sedate me for about four weeks, because I never want to experience being that sick again!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Welcome, 2018!

Happy New Year! Celebrating at 12:05 a.m. on January 1, 2018:
Dylan, Jake, Chris, and Sarah.

Two thousand eighteen. I can hardly get my mind around it. As a teenager back in the late 1960s, I couldn't even imagine being alive in a year called 2018. The now-not-so-far-away year of 2020 was a  far-distant date for science fiction, not real life. And, really, could any of us at that time have imagined we'd be in our sixties someday? For real?

Yet, here we are. 2018 has arrived, and I am a twice-divorced sixty-three-year-old retiree who has finally learned to let the dream go. All three of my children are independent and capable adults with their own homes and families, who love me but no longer depend upon me. And it's all good. Tough, sometimes, but in the end...good.

Jake's always-delicious homemade lasagna.

One of the great blessings I look forward to at each year's end is being able to see in the New Year with my least, those who still live nearby. Unfortunately, I was still quite sick with flu for New Year's Eve. The fever and aches were gone and I was supposedly no longer contagious, but the congestion and cough were still painful, and the short walk from the couch to the bathroom required a stop to catch my breath.

However, as on Christmas Day, the kids were there to take the pressure off so I could just relax and enjoy being with them. Sarah came over after church to wash my dishes for me...the same piles of dishes we'd used for Christmas dinner six days earlier, still sitting in pretty much exactly the same places they'd been left on December 25th. Bless you, my angelic firstborn child!

Jake had to work on both Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, but after work on New Year's Eve he'd gone home and whipped up one-and-a-half pans' worth of his marvelous New York family recipe of lasagna. Then he brought it over around 7:00 that evening and put it in the oven to bake. Although I was still nauseous and couldn't eat much, what I did take was indescribably yummy...and I saved myself a good-sized slice for the next day!

Decadently gooey brownies for dessert, by Sarah.

Meanwhile, Sarah had prepared us a tray of baby carrots, celery sticks, sliced cucumber, and olives with some French onion dip, plus a bag of chips on the side, so we could snack while awaiting dinner. Dylan worked until 9:00 p.m. on New Year's Eve, so we didn't all sit down to eat until almost 9:30, after he'd arrived.

Sarah also baked the brownies and prepared the fudge I'd intended to make but just didn't have the stamina for. Unlike her amazingly perfect gravy on Christmas Day, Sarah's nemesis is fudge. She never feels like she can get it to the smooth texture she wants. You know, like those silky, shiny fudge platters you see in magazines. Thus, I always make the fudge this time of year...until now. While it's true that the top was a bit rough-looking, the part beneath was great: perfectly smooth and delicious as it's supposed to be. And every bite has been eaten and enjoyed!

Sarah's pan of fudge.

Fifteen minutes before midnight, we put on one of the TV programs showing the Times Square Ball in New York City so we could watch its descent at the stroke of twelve (although it had actually already fallen two hours earlier, when it was midnight on the Atlantic seaboard). The kids donned their party hats, including Chris's crazy homemade hat he'd made with his "consumers" at work, and we filled our plastic "champagne" glasses with nonalcoholic sparkling cider. Then we counted down the final seconds before shouting "Happy New Year!" and toasting the New Year with a clinking of glasses.

Welcome, 2018! You will bring us challenges and trials, along with difficult transitions and frightening uncertainties, but you will also bring hard-won successes and new beginnings and unforeseen joy. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Christmas Miracles

A quiet Christmas morning, before everyone arrives.

Years from now, I may be able to look back upon this Christmas season without cringing. Maybe. While there were many wonderful things about this year's holiday, most of those memories are pretty much buried beneath a nasty haze of burning fever, body aches, chills, raw throat, raspy cough, exploding headaches, stuffy sinuses, constant mucous, nausea, diarrhea, and aching ribs. Yep, lucky me, I came down with respiratory flu just three days before Christmas Day.

I had just gotten over a not-too-horrible head-cold a week earlier, when I was suddenly beset with the scratchy, burning throat. What the heck, I thought, another cold already? By Saturday afternoon, I had a fever of 101 degrees, along with horrific body aches and uncontrollable chills. At one point, I was afraid my chattering teeth might bite through my thermometer. What next, mercury poisoning?

Sunday morning was no better. I knew I couldn't even drive Mark to work. I could barely walk. It was now Christmas Eve and I was worried I would end up in the emergency room, an expense I didn't want to take on. I called my sweet, long-suffering daughter at 5:10 a.m. to ask if she could take her dad to work, and she quickly agreed, despite the distance and the freezing temperatures in the teens. She's a nurturer like that. Then, when we found that only one of several walk-in clinics in our area was open on this holiday, Sarah drove me there. An uncomfortable up-the-nostrils test confirmed the flu, and the doctor wrote me a prescription.

After Sarah drove me home, she went to pick up my prescription and brought me back a supply of chicken noodle soup, saltine crackers, and lemon-lime soda to get me through the next few days. She was amazing. I was able to put myself to bed and sleep away the rest of Christmas Eve.

After adding everyone else's gifts to the pile.

I'd like to say that Christmas Day was better, but the truth is that I still had four more days of high temperatures, body aches, chills, congestion, lack of sleep, and painful coughing ahead of me. It was very frustrating because, as the mom, I felt it was my job to serve my family on this holiday. The kids were all coming over in the afternoon to open gifts and enjoy a big Christmas dinner, which I'd planned to cook with their help. That wasn't going to happen, though. To prevent passing the virus on to the rest of my family, the doctor told me to wear a mask, use Lysol, and stay away from the food!

Enter my Christmas miracles. Dylan, Sarah, and Chris showed up right at noon, ready to go to work. Dylan, who is rather germ-a-phobic, set about disinfecting as much of my kitchen and living room (and me) as he could manage. Meanwhile, I sat in the farthest corner possible from everyone else, coughing into my tissues and sipping on sugar-free soda to stay hydrated.

A few games of Guitar Hero while the turkey roasted and the potatoes boiled.

Dylan insisted on handling the turkey all by himself. Well, except for the part where he had to put his hand up the bird's butt to pull out the neck and gizzard and all. I admit, I wasn't so sick that I couldn't laugh out loud when we heard him gagging over it. In the end (pun intended), Chris came to the rescue. 

Sarah handled the remainder of the meal, entirely on her own. It's not that I didn't think she was capable; it's simply that she'd never been called upon to put together an entire family dinner before. I always took the lead, relying on the kids to help. Not only did she do a great job, but she seemingly did it without all the stress I put on myself for everything to be perfectly timed. She just wandered from chore to chore, unhurried, no pressure, and it all seemed to fall into place at just the right times. I'm sure there's a lesson for me in there...

What amazed me most was the gravy. My mom always made the most perfect gravy. She taught me how to do it, but my results have always varied wildly. Sometimes slightly lumpy, sometimes not thickened enough, never quite as good as my mom's. Sarah has never made gravy in her twenty-eight years of life. She has watched me struggle with it over the years, but never done it. So I was nervous, but Sarah was serene. She asked me a few questions, then assured me, "I've got this, Mom."

I'm not exaggerating. Sarah's gravy was the best I've tasted since my mom passed away fifteen years ago. It. Was. Perfect. Another Christmas miracle. Of course, I warned her, this means she has now landed the job of gravy-maker for all family gatherings for the rest of forever!

Sarah and Chris with their pile of gifts.

My dinner plate was prepared and delivered to me, and I ate on a TV tray in my little corner of the living room. My stomach was a bit unsettled by the flu, so I didn't eat much, but what I had was delicious and stayed down well.

Then, when everyone was done, we gathered in the living room for the moment we'd all been anticipating: the opening of the gifts!

Sarah and Chris's presents revealed.

It seemed like everyone came up with especially great ideas this year.
For Sarah:

Chris gave her the beautiful heart bracelet she's wearing in the pictures. Their other gifts they exchanged at home before they came over.

Jacob and Danielle sent her an adorable, tiny, ceramic violin by Jim Shore.

Dylan and Jake gave her a Yoshi amiibo figure, used to enhance video games. Yoshi is Sarah's favorite Mario Bros. character.

Mark gave her a S'Mores gift set. My kids do love their S'Mores!

Jacob, Danielle, and I must think alike, because I also gave Sarah a tiny violin. Mine is a lifelike replica that comes in a lifelike case (but doesn't play music). I also gave her The Walking Dead Official Cookbook and Survival Guide. We are both huge fans of TWD, and we get together every Sunday night, staying up way too late to watch it.

Sarah and Chris with their gifts.
For Chris:

Sarah gave him a nice gaming headset to improve the quality of his video game experience.

Apparently, Jacob forgot to send Chris's gift from him and Danielle, so he promised to send it by express. You can catch that awkward moment in the video clip below, haha!

Dylan and Jake gave him the video game Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends.

Mark gave him a sausage, cheese, and cracker gift set.

I gave him a large area light to use in the new landscape and home clean-up business he's getting started. I also gave him a ceramic cup filled with chocolate kisses. And a bottle of Poo-pourri. Which was kind of a joke-gift I gave to all three couples. Ahem.

Dylan and Jake with their pile of gifts.

Dylan and Jake's presents revealed.
For Dylan:

Jake gave him the "Happily ever after" wall art and the Legend of Zelda Mystery Box, containing cool items from the Zelda video games, such as the treasure chest, the sack of rupees, and the glass (among others). I want one!

Jacob and Danielle gave Dylan and Jake the Star Wars board game as a couple, rather than separate gifts.

Sarah and Chris gave him a gift card, per his request, since Dylan wants to buy an iWatch.

Mark gave him a bag of Oreos with a gift card attached.

I gave him a box of Skittles with a gift card attached, as well as a ceramic Kit Kat mug filled with candies. And let's not forget the Poo-pourri.

Dylan and Jake with their gifts.
For Jake:

Dylan gave him a Lego Star Wars Millennium Falcon model, a charger featuring a hologram of the Death Star, and the DVD Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Jacob and Danielle gave them the couples gift, as previously named above.

Sarah and Chris gave him a gift card.

Mark gave him a ceramic Darth Vader goblet.

I gave him two half-pound Reese's peanut butter cups (his favorite candy) with a gift card attached, as well as a ceramic Reese's cup filled with candies.

Opening our gifts from Jacob and Danielle, while on the phone (Face Time) with Jacob in Utah.

Danielle's gifts from Mark and me, before we mailed them to Utah.

Being in Utah, of course, we weren't there to see what all Jacob and Danielle got for Christmas, but we do know what we sent them.

For Danielle:

Jacob told me he gave her a small glass figurine. I didn't see it, but I think he said it had flowers and a heart on it. Or maybe puppies or kittens? It sounded pretty.

Dylan and Jake sent her a Mickey and Minnie Mouse puzzle.

Sarah and Chris sent her a gift card.

Mark sent her a box of chocolates.

I sent her a collectible Niffler in a glass case, her favorite beast in the creature-filled film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Jacob's gift from me, before mailing.
For Jacob:

Dylan and Jake sent him a video game he'd been wanting.

Sarah and Chris sent him a gift card.

Mark sent him a bag of Reese's with a gift-card attached.

I sent him a box of pecan turtles with a gift card attached.

Jacob's gift from Mark, before mailing.

Mark with his tower of gifts.

Mark's presents revealed.
For Mark:

Mark got several gifts from coworkers at Denny's, including the long-sleeved red shirt, a can of popcorn, a candy-filled cup, and a pair of gloves (which he passed on to me, being too small for him).

Dylan and Jake gave him a CD, The Essential Ozzy Osbourne (Mark's favorite since his teenage years; he even has "OZZY" tattooed on the fingers of his left hand).

Jacob and Danielle sent him a nice, heavy steel Ozark tumbler, which will be awesome for traveling.

Sarah and Chris gave him a small drone.

Again, great minds think alike. I gave him a larger drone, a calendar of muscle cars for his bedroom wall, and a DVD of the latest Wonder Woman film. We all know Mark's boyhood celebrity crush was Lynda Carter, of the original Wonder Woman TV show!

As it turned out, the smaller drone flew much better than the larger one, so Mark plans to return mine. Good things come in small packages!

Mary with her pile of gifts. I think I may have been a bit loopy by then.

Mary's presents revealed.
As for me...

I got some beautiful gifts from friends, such as the "Watch Me Whip" dish cloth made especially for me by Megan; the gorgeous wall plaque that states: Family is with you every step of the way" from Liz; and the whisk and hot pad from Carol, with a note that read "We whisk you a merry Christmas."

Mark gave me a three-pound Hershey bar...lordy have mercy! I've been too sick to sample it and will probably give much away to the kids. He also gave me a jar of chocolate-dipped pretzels. His best gift, though (other than our children, of course), was a wooden sculpture of two bear cubs wrestling. I love it! Over the past several years I've found I like these black bear sculptures that are so popular in our area. I'm amazed that Mark remembered that I mentioned this several months ago!

Sarah and Chris gave me the newest Atkins book, Eat Right, Not Less, which was just released this month. I was really hoping to get it! I am determined to get my life and health back on track in 2018 (three-pound chocolate bar be hanged!). It's time to do this for myself and know that I deserve to feel good! And Sarah gave me my newest member of the Willow Tree family of figurines. She is beautiful. Sarah and the figurine!

Jacob and Danielle sent me two gifts. The mug featuring pictures of my beloved Elf-lord, Legolas, is actually a belated birthday present. Only four months behind schedule! That's Jacob, my la-la child. My Christmas present is a charm bracelet with a charm for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It's gorgeous.

Dylan and Jake gave me the other wall plaque with the key and the "family is the key to happiness" sentiment. They also gave me a DVD of Valerian, which they saw with me at the theater, and a bamboo fountain. They know I'm always looking for ways to relax. 

I was a little surprised to get three gifts from my baby boy, and I said so. I was touched when Dylan said he felt he needed to show that he appreciated all those years when I made sure they all had plenty of gifts to open and I only had two or three. If our kids only knew that our greatest delight comes from the joy and wonder on their faces, not the size of our own pile to be opened. And then, one day, our joy comes from seeing the thoughtful, giving adults they've become.

Closeup of the bracelet, a charm for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

We had a wonderful day together, despite the illness wracking my body. The people who love us are the reason we endure, the purpose that makes it all worthwhile.

And now, New Year's Eve is upon us, another reason to celebrate, another excuse to gather together. I'm still struggling to get my strength back, and it appears that it'll be a slow process. Nonetheless, I think we've turned a corner. The fevers and aches are gone; just the cough and lack of energy remain. My family continues to step into my shoes while I recover, with Jake making us his legendary lasagna and Sarah bringing the munchies and preparing the desserts. I'll be able to relax and enjoy greeting the New Year with my family, knowing everything is in capable hands.

2018 is going to be a good year.

Closeup of my newest Willow Tree.

Men and their toys! Things get a little crazy while testing out Mark's new drones.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Two Christmas Concerts

Dec 5, 2017: Mary and Sarah with singer Nathan Pacheco after his concert.

So...we got to enjoy two concerts this month, both of them Christmas-themed, both of them during the first week of December, both of them beautiful and fun. On Tuesday night, the 5th, we went back to the auditorium at Snowflake High School, the same place where we'd had such a great time meeting David Archuleta back in June, and this time we saw Nathan Pacheco in concert.

Nathan has gotten a lot of exposure recently, but he's not quite a household name yet. In fact, I'd never heard of him myself until about thirteen months ago, when I stumbled across the online video of his collaboration with David Archuleta on the beautiful song called The Prayer. (Click HERE for the song.) When we went to his concert, that was really all I knew about him other than a few tidbits Sarah had shared with me. She has become a big fan, and she was going to Nathan Pacheco's concert whether I joined her or not! In fact, Mark even decided to come along, being in the Christmas spirit and all.

Nathan Pacheco in concert.

It was a great concert. My favorite parts, as usual, were when he spoke about his wife and children and other facets of his life and career. Hearing an artist perform live is always amazing, but I really like to come away feeling I know the artist a little better as a person.

Although it was billed as a Christmas concert, Nathan sang a few other songs that were dear to him. My absolute favorites were those he sang in Italian. He has a great voice, but something incredible happens when he switches to Italian lyrics. His voice becomes so much more passionate, it simply soars. He has traveled abroad extensively to study internationally, and he's able to speak and compose in English,  Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese (he served a two-year mission in Brazil for the LDS Church).

When we met Nathan after the concert, I teased him that I was a little bit disappointed that he didn't speak with an Italian accent. He laughed out loud and said, "No, I'm just an all-American boy."

An intermission selfie of Mary, Mark, and Sarah.
I was on day two of a head cold; thus, the super-puffy eyes

After Mark took Sarah's and my picture with Nathan and Nathan had signed my CD, I stepped aside while Sarah spoke to Nathan, took a selfie with him (brave girl!), and got his autograph. Meanwhile, I found myself standing next to one of David Archuleta's managers, a lady named Kara. I'm not sure why she was in Snowflake for this particular concert, but Sarah recognized her while we were waiting in line. She follows Kara on Instagram (or one of those things I don't really know how to use...) so she can see what's going on when David is on the road.

I couldn't believe it, but she remembered Sarah and me from David's concert more than five months earlier! She asked me to remind her why David had made a video for us that night, so I explained about my son Dylan not believing it was really David Archuleta who spoke to him on the phone. Then she started laughing, remembering the "Watch me whip, watch me nae-nae" ringtone on my phone that started the whole thing. 

I told her we have tickets to see David's concert in Mesa this coming April, with the meet-and-greet afterward. "It won't be quite as great as the set-up we had here before," she said. I agreed: "Yeah, we both realize that night was a one-of-a-kind magical evening. I know he meets thousands of people, but I've wondered if he'll remember us because the situation was so odd and so recent." She laughed again. "Oh, I'm sure he'll remember you," she said. I guess we'll find out in April!

My signed copy of Nathan's new Christmas album. He signed Sarah's, too.

Below are a few moments from the concert.

That exciting moment when the performer takes the stage.

Nathan Pacheco sings "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Nathan Pacheco sings "Time to Say Goodbye," mostly in Italian. Be still, my heart!

My program and ticket for Sarah's Christmas concert.
December 2, 2017

Our second Christmas concert (which was actually the first), was three days before the Nathan Pacheco concert, when we all attended Sarah's annual event with White Mountain Symphony Orchestra. It was an afternoon of beautiful Christmas music, including a harp duet, a string quartet, and a soloist singing a selection from The Polar Express.

Sarah is at left, directly below the furthest-left choir singer on the stands.
This is the same auditorium where we saw Nathan Pacheco three days later.

It was especially fun having our entire family there this time. Jake even got off work a little early so he could make it. Plus, as I mentioned in my last post, this was Brooke's last few days with us before she returned home to Pennsylvania.

Mark, Chris, Sarah, Dylan, Jake, and Brooke after Sarah's concert.

When the concert ended, Dylan suggested that we go to Dairy Queen for dinner, no doubt thinking about a delicious DQ dessert after our meal. Unfortunately, by the time we got back into Show Low, they had closed down the main street (actually called Deuce of Clubs) for the annual Christmas light parade. And Dairy Queen is smack dab in the middle of the Deuce. So we headed to our next choice, further up the highway toward home, the Mexican restaurant Aliberto's. The food is always good and the company is always fabulous!

Dinner together at Aliberto's after the concert.