Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Rest of the Story

Nov 4, 2017: One of the big Ponderosa pines in my yard,
with the dead branches trimmed away.

When I wrote the post about my new metal roof and the amazing volunteers who installed it for me a couple of weeks ago, I focused solely on the roof and the work that went into it. However, there was another huge effort those volunteers undertook in my behalf on that first day, and I'd like to recognize their work, as well. It was certainly no less important to me than the roof!

A few days before the roofing project began, one of the contractors stopped by to check things out and mentioned the oak branches hanging low over a portion of the roof in back. I told him I'd be quite all right with having them cut back those limbs if someone brought along a chainsaw. So, on the morning of the project, cutting off those branches was the first thing that happened before they began.

Another big pine that stands about 10 feet from the one
in the first photo, while in the process of also being trimmed.

Once the roof project got rolling along, a few of the volunteers who weren't immediately needed on the roof offered to trim away some of the dead branches on the trees around my house. I was thrilled and gratefully accepted.

My property isn't that big (.35 acre), but it's heavily treed with pines and oaks. Raking leaves and pine needles is a twice-yearly headache, but I do love my trees for their greenery and their shade. Lately, though, I'd been noticing a lot of dead lower branches on many of the larger trees, as well as some heavy branches hanging so low that they were getting in our way. Without a chainsaw of our own, it was really too big a job for Mark and me to handle.

The men got right to work on removing the lower branches from my very tall Ponderosa pines. These were branches that hadn't had pine needles for many years. It was a huge job, requiring tall ladders and a far each. Pretty scary at times, especially with a chainsaw. One of the men, Darny, finally went home to get his pole-saw so he could cut off some of the branches without a ladder. He worked for hours, and it was quite demanding physically. I don't know how he did it!

Notice the fat juniper pine behind the beanstalks
on July 24th of this year, against my west garden fence.

Charlie handled most of the chainsaw work. One of the first things I asked him to do was completely remove a juniper pine that was partially growing into the wire garden fence at the back of the house. Not only do I feel that junipers are the ugly runts of the pine family (unlike my beloved Ponderosa pines), but I also hated that it blocked the late afternoon sunlight from a large portion of my garden. Right next to it was a young oak that also blocked the sun. (By young, I mean maybe forty or fifty years old.)

This stump is all that's left of that juniper pine now!

Charlie was happy to cut out the juniper, right down to a below-ground-level stump. He was less than enthused at the idea of cutting down a healthy oak, though. I agreed; I do love my oaks. They're beautiful and they provided excellent shade in the summer. So I asked if he minded cutting it back, just to let more sunlight through. He obliged and, in fact, cut out much more than I'd expected. 

Since Gambel oaks tend to reproduce from root sprouts rather than acorns (which also fall all over my yard every autumn), they are often found growing close together in clumps. In fact, they can grow so closely together that they almost appear to be one tree with many trunks. Most of my oaks grow in groups like that, including the one Charlie pruned for me. When he was done, he'd removed all but one tree (or trunk) and the lower branches. It will be perfect when spring returns.

Next year, the west end of my garden will get a lot more sunshine!
The juniper by the fence is gone, and the multi-trunked young oak formerly
to its right has been trimmed back to a single slender trunk beside the fence.

At one point, I told Darny the story of the ugly bush in my front yard (which I almost cut down because it was growing through my chain-link fence) that turned out to be an apple tree in disguise. I didn't discover its true identity until several years ago, when Dylan and I were raking pine needles and I was mad that someone had apparently thrown apples into our yard. "Where are all these apples coming from?" I demanded in frustration. Silly me. Despite my second husband pruning it before we got divorced, it still looked like an ugly bush. A really tall ugly bush.

My ugly apple tree-bush, just about to get pruned back.

I mentioned my plan to go online and learn how to prune the apple tree correctly, now that the weather was getting cold enough for the tree to go dormant. Darny recommended that I instead ask Charlie how to prune the tree. He said he and his wife had some trees that weren't doing so well until Charlie came and pruned them, and now they were great. So I did. And as soon as I asked, Charlie headed right to the tree and started in.

The apple tree after its pruning, with half the tree
now disembodied and laying on the ground!

He cut away more than half the tree, which was almost alarming, but then he explained his reasons for doing what he did, as well as what steps I had to take next. I already knew that pruning was important because a tree that has too many branches to maintain has less energy to send upward to nourish those developing blossoms and apples. He went on to point out that a shorter, wider tree with most of the branches growing outward rather than inward is an apple tree that will be easier to pick apples from!

How the apple tree looks today, after I finished
the rest of the recommended trimming this afternoon.

So today I finally went out and finished the job. I used a long-handled lopper to cut away the remaining small branches around both trunks (Charlie had cut out two or three trunks), and then I selectively cropped the upper branches so that they were well-spaced and most were growing away from the tree's center. At last, my apple tree looks like a tree! The only thing I didn't do was cut back the tops of the branches, to keep the tree shorter. That will be a job for someone younger and more agile, such as one of my children... Now, to wait until the warm weather of late spring to see if we get blossoms, and then September to see if we get apples. If I didn't totally kill the tree today...

The north oak tree in the front yard, which I haven't trimmed yet.
Notice the low limbs & small branches sticking out everywhere.

Then, since I was in a "lopping" sort of mood, I moved on to the two Gambel oaks right in the middle of my front yard. You can see in both the photo above and the one below that these are typical groupings of several oaks growing together. I didn't get to the one pictured above today, so it still has a bunch of new trees and tiny twisted branches growing on, in, and around the trunk and the lower part of the tree. A few of the larger lower branches still droop down and get in the way, although Darny took care of a couple of the worst ones when he was here.

Notice how straight-up the left side of the tree appears. That's because there were two really long branches that reached over the fence and drooped low enough to scratch my car when I pulled into the driveway, if I wasn't cautious. Darny was kind enough to get rid of them on my request.

The south oak in the front yard, which I trimmed today.
It looks so nice and tidy now. My OCD is satisfied!

The oak to the right side, though, I tackled with a vengeance this afternoon. It was a much more complex task than the apple tree and I spent about an hour and a half at it, lopping away, often with both arms raised above my head while I strained to cut through higher limbs that were larger than usual. Once, the lopper closed with a snap when the handles were on either side of my head, and it delivered a blow to my right jaw with all the strength I'd been mustering. It's still a little sore, but I guess I know now that I don't have a glass jaw! A while after that, I managed to knock myself in the left temple, and I lost count of the times branches directly above me landed on my head. When I was finished, my hair was peppered with bits of bark, and more had settled itchy-scratchy inside my clothes.

To say that my whole body throbbed by the time I was done would be a gigantic understatement, but the sense of accomplishment I feel now is almost heady. I can't wait to recover enough to tackle the other tree!

Now there's a huge pile of limbs to be hauled away! A few people carved up 
some larger limbs for firewood, loading them in their trucks, but still quite a pile!

I also need to mention that there were three other men whose assistance was invaluable in the tree-trimming effort. While Darny and Charlie chopped branches, these men patiently picked up the fallen twigs and branches all across my yard and hauled them away to a pile in a corner of the driveway. That in itself was physically demanding, and I appreciate them so much!

The fun hasn't ended yet. A group of my roofing-and-trimming heroes were talking in the hall at church on Sunday. As I passed by, one said, "We were just talking about you." "Uh-oh," I replied, laughing. They explained that they're arranging to have the Young Men youth group do a service project, at my home and others, raking up leaves and branches to haul away. The blessings keep coming, giving me so many reasons to give thanks this Thanksgiving and always. God is goodness, and many are the good hands that do His work. I'm deeply grateful for each and every one!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Little Things

A new shower curtain rod and butterfly clips make me oddly happy.

It might seem strange to wax poetic over something so small as a new shower curtain rod, especially after the great blessing of having a long-awaited metal roof put on my house just eight days ago (for which I am more grateful than words can express). Yet, I think that's one of the beautiful things about human nature. Our ability to find fun in the smallest things is there to make life meaningful on a daily basis, if we take a moment to look for those simple joys.

Yesterday, while Mark was cleaning the bathrooms (his only weekly indoor chore, because toilets make me gag), I told him to throw away the old shower curtain liner and take down the shower curtain so I could put it in the wash. At the same time, I noted the increasing rust on the old curtain rod, the same one that was in the bathroom when we bought the house twenty-four years ago. Later that afternoon, while we were out running errands (I got a $203 refund on leftover roofing materials, hooray!), we stopped by Walmart to buy a new shower curtain liner. That's when I noticed a stack of curved shower curtain rods nearby.

In the past, whenever we've stayed at a hotel or resort with curved shower curtain rods, I've always thought that someday I'd get one for my home. I love how it holds the curtain away from your body, because I hate hitting the wet curtain with my arm or hip while showering. It's one of those things that creeps out my OCD and makes me feel less clean somehow.

So, although it was more pricey than a straight rod, I put the curved rod in my cart. Then, as we wandered on down the bathroom goods aisle, I saw a box of butterfly shower curtain clips. Okay, I admit there was nothing wrong with our clunky, old, round, pink clips (other than being a bear to snap open and closed). But, hey, as long as I was making changes...my five-year-old shower curtain is still in great shape and has butterflies on it.

I'm sure that watching Mark and me trying to figure out the instructions on the rod and then install it would have been like watching a Three Stooges comedy. Eventually, though, it was up and seemingly solidly in place. And the butterfly clips were so much easier to use than the old pink ones. What can I say? I love it. I almost look for excuses to walk in the bathroom (is it too soon to comb my hair again?) just so I can enjoy looking at it.

Oh, I know that a few months from now I'll barely even notice the new rod and clips. A year from now, I'll also be so used to the new roof that I no longer pause to admire it each time I pull into my driveway. That's another aspect of human nature. We tend to take for granted that which is there everyday.

And so the challenge is to keep our eyes open and our senses attuned to simple joys, to cultivate a continuous feeling of Thanksgiving that makes us aware of our multitudinous blessings, the greatest of which cannot be purchased at Walmart. The love of family and friends, for instance. The kindness and charity of those who are willing to serve selflessly. Inner strength and humor and resilience to face life's challenges. The satisfaction of honest work and accomplishment, a job well done. The beauty of the natural world and the privilege to live in freedom. A good night's sleep. A quiet moment of calm. A baby's laughter. A big bear hug.

And, above all, the tender mercies of a Heavenly Father who loves His children and a Savior who gave Himself to redeem us all.

May our lives continue to be richly blessed, and may we all have clarity to recognize the little joys that surround us, just waiting to be acknowledged. Happy Thanksgiving!

Not to focus too much on material blessings, but I wanted to share this fun timepiece. So far, I haven't gotten so used to this clock that I no longer notice it, even though I've had it for five months now. My dad and step-mom have a similar clock, which plays songs by the Beatles on the hour, and I've always admired it. When I decided to use my stipend for hosting a student teacher in my classroom (last spring) to splurge for something I'd always wanted, I chose this. It plays six different classical pieces on the hour. With the flick of a switch, it will play six Christmas songs instead. The kids and I are excited to finally flip the switch on Thanksgiving, because none of us have heard the Christmas songs yet. One more week!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A New Roof

November 8, 2017: The front view of our brand-new metal roof.

Typically, a shingle roof will last about twenty years before it needs replacement. When we bought our house in 1993, the roof was only a few years old and in good shape. But that was in 1993, twenty-four years ago. We've badly needed a new roof for the past five or six years, with one serious leak during Winter 2006, but it's hard to come up with a couple thousand dollars for materials and roofers when you're a teacher and single mom. Thus, I've basically held my breath and hoped for the best throughout the summer monsoon rains and winter snows for the past several years.

Our new roof, as viewed from the back of the house.

Then I retired. Although that has locked me into a modest income which will still require my masterful (ahem) budgeting skills, I did receive an immediate blessing in the form of relatively generous benefits from the school district upon retirement (such as the district buying back my 112 unused leave days). Not only would I be able to put a roof on my house, but I would be able to afford the metal roof I've been wanting. I admit to gasping and then gritting my teeth at the $3,030 price tag, but this type of roof is extremely desirable when you live under the threat of forest fires for up to one-third of the year every fire season.

(A week after the roof was installed, Mark and I hauled the leftover materials--some edge trim and lots of screws--back to the roofing supply company. They took them back and refunded me $203, bringing the cost of roof materials down to $2,827. That sounds a little bit better!)

Nov. 4, 2017: The old shingle roof on the morning the project began.

The cost would have been higher if I'd also had to pay for labor, but I received another great blessing in the form of our high priests group from church. When I mentioned my intention to put on a new roof, the high priests group leader told me not to worry about it. He'd get a crew together and even gather shingles to put on a roof with little or no cost to me. Tempting...

However, I explained that I wanted a metal roof and, since I could actually afford one at the moment, I was going to do that. I'm pretty sure he gulped before admitting he had no expertise in metal roofs, but then he told me he knew people who did. Over my protests, he insisted that he'd get a team together to install my roof, even if I was paying for materials.

Unwrapping the materials delivered by the roofing company.

He was as good as his word. It was a lengthy process, about eight months from that conversation to completion of the roof, but he quickly took the load off my shoulders and ran with it. Contractors from church got two estimates on supply costs for me, so all I had to do was choose the color and call in my credit card information.

When the materials were delivered two days before the project began, I had a little panic. I took a picture of the tiny pile, texted it to one of the contractors, and typed "I'm having a hard time believing there's enough here to cover my whole roof!" He was amused. "Good, it's thin!" he texted back.

Removing low branches hovering over the roof, with my blessing!

The first two men arrived before 8:00 on a Saturday morning. They expressed some concern regarding how many men would actually show up to help, but they needn't have worried. Less than an hour later, there were about fifteen men working hard to complete the task at hand despite the autumn chill.

We had about fifteen men from church there to help do the job!

Close to half of those men were in their seventies and eighties, but these were men who grew up in a time when people learned how to work hard and take satisfaction in a job well done. They were most impressive! Each man was invaluable to the team and the task.

Laying out waterproof paper to protect the metal from the shingles.

One of the nice things about a metal roof is that the shingle roof doesn't need to be removed. They did put down a layer of paper sheeting to protect the underside of the metal from grating against  the shingles, which could lead to corrosion and rust, but my two layers of shingles remained in place. I'm hoping that will mean a little extra insulation that, perhaps, will positively impact my winter electric bills. We'll soon see.

Measuring and installing the eave trims (or whatever they're called).

I offered to help. I offered to feed them breakfast. I offered to bring them a case of tacos for lunch. They turned down every offer, providing their own water, milk, doughnuts, and breakfast burritos. So I settled in to watch and chronicle the project with my camera. Occasionally I brought them paper, pencils, and Sharpies as they requested them. 

Josh, Dirk, and Fred pause for a photo.

I'd been told by a couple of people that a metal roof was quick to install, only two or three hours. That was not the case. One of the contractors told me that an experienced team can put one on in about six hours. However, most of the men on this job had never done a metal roof before, so there was a learning curve as the contractors trained them in the process. They had expected to finish the roof in one day, but after almost seven hours they were forced to call a halt when a brief but solid rainstorm passed through. Even after the rain stopped, the wet metal was too slick to walk on safely, so they agreed to reconvene on Wednesday, four days away. 

The metal sections start to go on.

Making big progress!

Getting these huge sections on the main roof was a three-man job!

The siding between the back of the front roof and the top  of the
back roof was warped, so they decided to cover it with metal.

I think it looks way cool with the little metal wall instead of siding!

Not everyone returned for the second day to complete the job, but that's because they didn't need as many men to finish up. Besides that, it was a weekday and I'm sure several of the men had to go to work. Nonetheless, we still had about ten men there. There was still one section of roof to complete, plus much of the trim, and they worked hard for another six hours. 

The team returned on Wednesday to complete the job.

In the end, they spent more than twelve hours putting my roof on. How do you thank someone for that kind of commitment in both time and energy? All I can say is, those men are my heroes. I thanked them profusely, of course, but I think the best thing I can do is find a way to pay it forward. Someday there will be a need that I can fulfill for someone else, and I can only hope to do so with the same kind of dedication as these men showed.

Finishing up the back side of the roof.

The next project that needs doing is new siding on my place. The old redwood siding is pretty well warped and faded, and I don't like it enough to fix it the way it is. I'm not really a fan of redwood, you see. Four years ago, another man from our church volunteered to put new siding on the south face and the chimney (you can see it, tan and light-blue, at the right side) so I could refinance my house. I love those colors more than I'd expected and would love to redo the siding on the rest of the house in those same colors someday. I'm not sure I have the means to commit to that dream yet, though.

Meanwhile, I have a new roof with a thirty-year warranty. I'll be ninety-three by the time it lapses, perhaps in an assisted living center by then, perhaps in a nursing home, perhaps even dead. It's doubtful that I'll ever have to worry about another roof, and that's a great feeling!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

First Funeral

Our new Relief Society presidency: Karen (el presidente),
Megan and Liz (counselors), and Mary (secretary).

Our new Relief Society presidency has been in place for two months now, and it has been quite the learning experience thus far. The most awesome thing about it has been working with the other three amazing ladies called to serve as president and counselors of this ward organization. They are such an inspiration and example to me. Second-most-awesome has been the increased opportunities to serve, something which I admit has always been an awkward area for me. What if I don't know what to say or do? What if they don't want my help? What if I screw up somehow? Yet I fully expect to grow in this area as service opportunities continue to come along over the coming years.

One of the duties that often fall to the Relief Society is the handling of funerals. Thank goodness that it's no longer the same as it was when I was a child and the RS sisters were called upon to wash, prepare, and clothe the deceased's body prior to the viewing. I'm not sure I could have handled that. Even when my own mother passed away fifteen years ago, I couldn't bring myself to touch the shell that no longer held her spirit. I'm so grateful for morticians and other funeral home personnel who respectfully handle those details for those of us who cannot.

Today, the focus of service when there's been a death of a ward member is in seeing that the needs of the surviving family are being met, physically and emotionally. On the day of the funeral, the RS generally plans, sets up, and serves a luncheon to the family and other funeral attendees so they can relax and visit after the funeral and graveside services. Not long after I was called to this position, I wondered about this new and rather intimidating responsibility, but I had no idea how soon I would experience it firsthand.

Karen cut up six hams!

Almost immediately after our return from our northern California vacation, within the space of about a week, our ward lost three great ladies. One was the mother of a woman in our ward, who finally lost her long battle with cancer. It wasn't decided immediately whether services would be held in the Valley, where she passed away, or here on the mountain. However, I just received word that we'll be providing a luncheon after her services this coming Saturday.

Another was an elderly lady who'd been struggling with more health issues than I can recount, including a mysterious malady her doctors couldn't identify. When they finally discovered what was making her sick, the Lord wasted no time in releasing her from her pain and calling her home. Karen and I had visited her at home just a week before I left on my trip. A few days after we returned, she was gone. Her desire was for a quiet graveside service only, which will likely be held in Snowflake, where her closest friends and family live, so we probably won't be involved.

Another Karen is on our meetings committee.
She's a super-duper trooper!

On Saturday, though, we participated in the funeral of an incredible, stalwart woman by the name of Jean Lee, who was a well-known and much-loved figure in our community. Given her very large family (I learned on the day of the funeral that Jean is my step-mom Kathy's cousin) and huge circle of friends, we knew it was likely to be quite a large funeral. And it was. My guess is that there were between four hundred and five hundred people who attended the services. Literally, no parking spaces were left outside the church, with standing room only inside.

Twenty-five tables were set up, with eight chairs at each, but it was
still standing room only. We fed almost 250 people at the luncheon.

The Relief Society wasn't directly involved in the services, which were planned and carried out by the family and funeral director, but Karen, Megan, and Liz attended the chapel services. I remained in the kitchen to receive the rolls and "funeral potatoes" (sort of a Mormon tradition, similar to scalloped potatoes) brought in by volunteers. However, by sitting near the door to the hall, I was able to hear parts of the talks given by her children, as well as music provided by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The funeral actually started about fifteen minutes early because Jean was a no-nonsense lady who always insisted, "If you're not ten minutes early, you're late."

Beautiful floral arrangements at each table.

Prior to the funeral, hundreds of people lined the halls, waiting in line for the viewing. I sneaked in myself to see the casket everyone was talking about, which was handmade by one of Jean's sons. It was an absolute work of art and a fitting tribute to his mother. I'll always remember the beautiful craftsmanship and the striking elk-horn handles.

All in all, it was a beautiful and touching event. Jean will be missed by all who love her, but I suspect that when she knew it was her time, she was ready. She had been a widow for many years, and I love to imagine the joy of her reunion with her beloved Floyd.

When the funeral ended and the mourners followed the hearse to the cemetery for the graveside service, that's when our responsibilities kicked into high gear. Twenty-five tables needed to be decorated; dozens of pitchers needed to be filled with ice and water; six hams needed to be carved; a dozen casserole dishes filled with funeral potatoes needed to be taken from the oven and prepped for the serving tables; and salads, rolls, and donuts needed to be placed in large serving bowls and platters. (Jean was famous for her homemade donuts.) All the while, we kept asking ourselves, "Will there be enough food for a crowd this large?"

Miraculously, we had just enough. Everyone got a meal before the rolls and donuts ran out. There was even enough leftover salad, potatoes, and ham to assemble small meals to be taken to the homes of a few needy families that evening.

Larger floral arrangements were brought in from the funeral 
to be enjoyed at the luncheon.

When it was over, after about six hours on our feet, we were all ready to go home and put our sore feet up for the remainder of the night. We joked about how our very first funeral just had to be the largest one we'll likely ever be called upon to do (knock wood...). We supposed that any others that may follow will seem light by comparison. Especially now that we know what to expect, since this experience was new to all four of us.

We also joked about why the bishop called a foursome of "gimps" like us to a calling that could more easily be done by younger, healthier ladies in their twenties! Karen is struggling with toes that have been broken and re-broken, wearing a boot; Megan also wears a boot for a broken foot; Liz has had some recent health challenges, including gall bladder surgery just a few weeks before the funeral; and me...well, take your pick. Scoliosis (back pain), trochanteric bursitis (hip pain); sciatica (numbness, tingling, pain in hip and leg), overly-pronated arches (foot pain), ongoing issues from knee surgery and a torn meniscus (pain in both knees), and some remaining edema (swelling) in my feet and ankles as I recovered from our long drive during our vacation. As they say, "Gettin' old ain't fer sissies." It was indeed a hard day for each of us. And yet, what can be more satisfying than a tough job well done for those we care about?

My friends Eugene and Wyndie with their first grand-baby, 
little Gemma. This was my first chance to meet her!

This event was not our show alone. There were so many helping hands who made it all happen, from the volunteers who prepared food, to the men who set up tables and chairs, to the crew who came at the end to help with cleanup, to A'Lece who ran a nursery for little ones so their parents could focus on the services, to those who volunteered to run errands so we could do our jobs, to a young girl named Claire who kept asking what else she could do to help... Literally, we could not have done it without everyone's help. Thanks to each one of you for your willingness to serve and help make this day special for a grieving family.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Two October Birthdays

Sarah at her 28th birthday party, two days after her birthday.

I can't believe it's been almost eight weeks since I last posted to this blog. Our fifteen-day vacation to northern California took a lot out of me, both in preparing everything beforehand and in recovering afterward. Still, I can't let October end without looking back on the birthday celebrations of two of my favorite ladies, my daughter Sarah and my daughter-in-law Danielle.

Sarah turned twenty-eight on Friday, October 27th. We didn't have time to do a proper party on her actual birthday, due to the usual work-schedule mayhem, but we did get together that night to have dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant, El Rancho. None of us eat out often because none of us can really afford to do so, yet we always manage to celebrate birthdays according to this family tradition. 

Sarah gets the star treatment at El Rancho, with deep-fried ice cream.
I think maybe Chris didn't know he was going to be in the picture, too... 

It's fun when the restaurant staff comes out, loudly singing "Happy Birthday to You," serving you a bowl (or, this time, a cup) of delicious deep-fried ice cream, placing a sombrero on your head, and taking your picture to post on their Facebook page. We've been doing this for more than twenty years, since back before there was such a thing as a Facebook page!

Dinner at El Rancho, from left to right: Brooke (Dylan and Jake's
friend and roommate), Jake, Dylan, Mark, Mary, Sarah, and Chris.

We finally had Sarah's birthday party on Sunday, as part of our weekly family dinner. She chose our dinner menu of pasta combo and garlic bread. Pasta combo is an old family favorite, which consists of spaghetti noodles, Italian dressing, shredded Parmesan cheese, diced tomatoes, and shredded chicken. It is yummy! Along with it, Dylan made his garlic bread, which is always so much tastier than the pre-made type.

Sarah's gifts from her parents, waiting to be unwrapped.

After dinner, we watched the old, classic Halloween cartoon, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I hadn't seen it in decades, but it made me nostalgic because, as kids, my siblings and I used to watch that cartoon when it aired every single year in October. Besides that, we'd just visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, almost four weeks ago. Thank goodness, the museum was spared from the tragic wildfires that roared through Santa Rosa just four days after we were there. However, sadly, I heard that his widow was barely evacuated in time before their house was destroyed.

Sarah opens a card from her husband, Chris. It got us all laughing!

After the cartoon, it was time to open presents. From Chris, Sarah got an iTunes gift card, which she already started using that very night to download ringtones for her brand-new iPhone. He is also getting her David Archuleta's spanking-new album, Postcards in the Sky, but they haven't been able to find it available anywhere yet. Soon!

Sarah with her gifts from her dad.

Sarah has to wait a bit longer to get her gifts from both of her brothers. Jacob found a gift that he says is perfect for her, but he can't order it until November 7th. However, he sent a picture of it to Dylan, who says she will love it!

Dylan and Jake have already ordered Sarah's present from them, but it won't arrive until sometime this week. I've seen a picture of it. She'll love that one, too!

Sarah with her gifts from her mom. (And a photo-bomb by Dylan...)

Mark got her a purple sweater (her favorite color) and a beautiful necklace to go with it. From me, she got a vase of Halloween flowers with a black cat attached, because Halloween is a big part of my memories of her birth, since we were both still in the hospital on Halloween night back in 1989. I also gave her a little black-bear figurine, with a hidden hidey-hole when you pull the bear out of his hollow log. About two months ago, Sarah lost her wedding rings when she took them off somewhere and then couldn't find them. Eventually, weeks later, Chris stumbled across them. I told her this little bear will keep them safe for her whenever she needs to take her rings off in the future!

A new cheesecake recipe this year. Oh. My. Gosh. Delicious!

For dessert, Sarah requested my sugar-free cheesecake and some mint-and-chip ice cream. However, I tried a new cheesecake recipe this time. We've loved the recipe I've been using for years, which purportedly was based on Cheesecake Factory's six-carb cheesecake, but I never felt the texture or flavor were quite right. Then, last week, I found a recipe that's supposed to be for the actual original cheesecake from Cheesecake Factory. So I used that one this time, just switching out the sugar for Splenda/Stevia and adding sugar-free chocolate chips.

I forgot to take a picture of the finished project until it was almost gone!

I wasn't too sure about it when it first came out of the oven. I was afraid it was too spongy and wouldn't set up correctly, but after a few hours in the fridge...let's just say, I struck gold! Super fluffy and creamy! It got two thumbs up from everyone. I'm tossing the old recipe in favor of the new one, which really is the closest I've ever tasted to our favorite Cheesecake Factory treats!

We got to watch Danielle open this gift via Dylan's iPhone.

The day after Sarah's birthday, on October 28th, Danielle celebrated her 24th birthday. We haven't gotten to be with her on her birthday since she and Jacob moved to Utah in September 2015, but this time we did get to spend a few minutes with her via cell phone. (Remember when seeing each other while talking on the phone was nothing more than science fiction?) It allowed me to watch while she opened the gift I'd sent her, a little figurine of a dragon reading a book. Danielle loves to read and has even written a book (as yet unpublished), which in itself makes the gift perfect for her, but this dragon has quite a history all its own.

Danielle first saw a version of this figurine back in March of 2015 at the Renaissance Festival. This one had purple wings (or maybe they were blue), but Danielle fell in love. She was so sad that they couldn't afford it at that time, being young newlyweds of only nine months. Exactly a year later, after they'd moved to Utah, the rest of us found that same shop at the 2016 Renaissance Festival. When I saw another of those dragons there, I remembered how disappointed Danielle had been to leave it behind, so I decided to buy one for her 23rd birthday, seven months away. The one I wanted was sold out, so I ordered and prepaid for one to be made and mailed to me by September, this time with wings in Danielle's favorite color, pink. However, I waited and waited, but the little dragon never came. Then I couldn't find the receipt (anyone who knows me knows that I save and organize all my receipts and never lose them!) and none of us could recall the name of the shop. I looked up all the shops listed for the Arizona Renaissance Festival; I looked up websites for every possible shop; I asked around; I posted on Facebook; I even tried to find photos of dragons in the same general style online. In the end, I had to wait until the next Renaissance Festival, in February of this year. There was the shop, Whimsy Winks (which, as it turns out, does not have a website). I told my story to the sculptor, who thankfully remembered my order. There'd been a mix-up on their end, wherein someone had mistakenly marked that the package had been mailed. Meanwhile, someone else thought my pink-winged dragon had never been claimed and had returned it to a shelf in back. Thankfully, they had brought it with them from North Dakota and, thankfully, they hadn't put it back out for sale. Finally, the reading dragon was coming home with us. Since then, we've treated it like spun glass!

After all the stress and worry and waiting, I just had to "be there" when Danielle opened the package. It was a year later than planned, but it was home with her at last. That made it so much more worthwhile to see her eyes light up as she recognized her little dragon. I'm so happy that she loved it as much as I'd hoped she would.

Happy birthday to both my girls!

A closeup of the reading dragon.

Friday, September 8, 2017

We Have Cucumbers!

Four of my five biggest cucumbers, as of this morning!

I'm trying really hard to not bore everyone with my garden. Believe me, I want to post a photo of every new vegetable and every little harvest, but I've been reining in my enthusiasm. However, it's been more than three weeks since my last garden post, and I'm just too excited to not share that we have cucumbers at last!

There's my fifth large cucumber, and a newly formed baby one above it.

I knew they wouldn't start to appear until late August or early September. While most all of our other crops in past years ripened during August, we never plucked a cucumber from the vine until September. I was more concerned that my rabbit-assaulted vines would be too damaged to bear fruit. They really do not look healthy and are even a bit stunted despite my Herculean efforts to save them from the beasts. And, due to being stunted, they haven't been climbing the trellis like they should be. Even so, they have been blooming wildly and there are many cucumbers developing, including five that will be ready for harvest in no time.

September 3rd: Tomatoes galore!

It cracks me up to remember that a month ago I was worried that all my green tomatoes would never ripen, due to my ongoing battle against the blight, which has cleared up since the daily heavy rains finally eased up a week or so ago. Now they are ripening at a rate of one or two per day, which is far more tomatoes than Mark and I can keep up with eating. I've been offering them to my kids (except Dylan, whose list of edible vegetables is short: french fries, mashed potatoes, and pizza sauce). Luckily, Chris, Sarah, and Jake like them.

Today, five days later, the basket is full again!

And today there are still five more ready to harvest, plus one almost there.

I've been using them in every way I can think of, and so far none have gone to waste. They are so much more delicious in different salads and on sandwiches and burgers than the store-bought variety. It will be hard to go back to the relatively flavorless tomatoes from the produce section when the fresh ones are used up over the next couple of months.

A favorite from my childhood: tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches.

Besides, our growing season will be cut short due to leaving for our vacation on Sept. 29. We usually start getting freezes in early- to mid-October, and everything must be harvested then, ready or not. But we'll be losing a week or two this year. Two days before we leave, I'll pull every green tomato off the bush and put them in brown paper bags (single layers). There, they will ripen nicely at varying rates, keeping us in garden tomatoes for a month or more. And we'll take the almost-ripe tomatoes on the road with us!

The green beans and tomatoes harvested two days ago, September 6th.

The green beans are still producing at an unbelievable rate. I can pull a full quart bag's worth of beans off the vine every three to four days. Thankfully, unlike tomatoes, the beans can be frozen whole to be cooked months later, still firm and plump and delicious.

I have five quarts of beans in the freezer now (Sept. 3rd bag not pictured).
We've already cooked and eaten three quarts from earlier in August.

The trickiest thing about plucking green beans is that they're so dang hard to see! If only they weren't the exact same color as the leaves and vines. For instance, I'll see a group ready to harvest on the other side where I can't reach, but when I move around to grab them, I often can't find them again! Or I'll just miss them one day, and by the time I see them a day or two later, they've grown too big. That's the thing about green beans. You can't just ignore them and leave them on the vine until you're ready. If they get too large, they're pretty much inedible. Tough and woody and yucky.

The pepper plant at center back has gone barren, although it's still alive.
The plant at left has only the one bell pepper on it.

I've given up hope for a large crop of bell peppers. The damage done by whatever insect was attacking them was too much for one of the plants, which never put out a single pepper. It has a few healthy leaves left, but everything else was snipped off. The plant that produced the sole bell pepper I've harvested thus far has again grown one single pepper, which is almost ready to be picked. There are a couple of blossoms left on the plant, but they don't appear to be in a hurry to transform themselves in peppers.

This is the only pepper plant doing well, with five healthy bell peppers.

The third plant, though, is hanging in there. In fact, it has five decent bell peppers growing on it right now, with a few others just starting to form. I'm going to call this effort a success...just not a HUGE success. Like the cucumbers, these plants seem slightly less than healthy, likely due to the early damage from dastardly intruders. Next year, I'll do better at protecting them in their early stages.

The strawberry plants have grown huge, and two are making berries again.

As for my strawberries, the new little plants from the runners have pretty much taken over that garden plot. (I also need to do some weeding.) Again, next year I'll be wiser, having learned that you need to limit each plant to three runners in order to keep them producing berries. Meanwhile, I have a bunch of young strawberry plants that I'm willing to share with anyone local who'd like to come get them! I hear they transplant well. Really. Not kidding.

Today's harvest. I've had seven or eight ripe berries so far this week.

Meanwhile, two of my strawberry plants have started putting out berries again, and the critters seem to be ignoring them this time. (Hear me knocking wood?) I'm glad I got to enjoy a few final, late-season strawberries. They are almost excruciatingly delicious! And I've learned this, as well: pick strawberries in the morning while they're still cool, and don't wash them until just before you eat them. That keeps them fresh about a day longer.

August 29, 2017: Gardening is glamorous...not!

The photo above isn't exactly flattering, but it's a great example of the toll taken on gardeners by the hardships of growing green things. It was supposed to be sunny all day on that Tuesday in late August, so I went out to water the garden toward evening. I was halfway done when I heard thunder rolling in the distance, dark clouds came scudding in, and I was trapped in a torrential rainstorm. Fighting insects and critters and weather and blight; having dirt under your nails and bugs crawling up your legs and mud splatters on your clothes...it isn't always pretty. The question is, is it worth it? Hmmm...