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.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Two Christmas Parties

Dec 4, 2017: Brooke, Dylan, Mary, and Jake at Chalet.

I got to take part in two parties this Christmas season, which always makes the holidays feel more festive. The first invitation was unexpected but happily accepted. My son-in-law Jake works for a large resort, and they throw a lavish Christmas party each year, to which each employee may bring one guest. Last year they held it at Chalet, one of the top five most expensive restaurants on the mountain (meaning, I've only eaten there maybe a dozen times in twenty-seven years). Chalet's food is amazing, so I commenced to give Jake a hard time about choosing me for his "plus one." Surely he understood it would be best to take his mother-in-law. Dylan would get over it, right?

Jake opens his white elephant gift right after I chose mine.

Naturally, I did not prevail, and Dylan won the coveted position. This year, though, Jake texted me with an offer I couldn't refuse. Their roommate, Brooke, who'd moved here from Pennsylvania back in August, was also working at the resort now, but she didn't have anyone she wanted to invite. Did I want to be her "plus-one" for the night? After all, the party was going to be at Chalet again this year. Is that a trick question? Ummm...heck yeah!

Dylan was last to choose a gift, so he got to steal any gift in the room!

So I got to enjoy not only the food (I ordered the steak plate), but also the zaniness of Jake's co-workers and the fun of their white elephant gift exchange. When we drew numbers, I got #21 and Jake got #22, but Dylan drew the highly-sought-after #50, which meant he would get the last gift on the table, but he could steal anyone else's gift in the entire room. The present I opened was a pair of binoculars and a Swiss army knife-type tool for hunters, but by the end of the evening I'd been traded down to a bag of baby clothes for a toddler girl. Which, of course, I have no need for, but I've tucked it away for the next baby-girl baby shower I attend. (They are very cute outfits.)

I don't recall what was in the bag Dylan opened, but it didn't matter, because he already knew exactly what he wanted. All throughout the game, he'd had his eye on a particularly soft blanket someone else had opened earlier, and he went straight to it, claiming it despite the cries of its previous owner's dismay.

A plate of appetizers at each table. The duck bites were to die for!

We had a great time, but I'm also glad I was able to go and spend one final evening with Brooke, who left us the very next day. She'd decided she needed to return to her home state of Pennsylvania, so she repacked all her things and mailed them ahead, and then on the night following the party, Dylan and Jake drove her to the Valley, where she caught a flight home early the next morning.

Dec 16, 2017: Beautifully decorated tables at the church Christmas party.

Next up was the annual Rainbow Lake Ward Christmas party at the church. I was rather more involved in this party, since the Relief Society had been asked to organize it. Thankfully, it became a team effort with plenty of help from every organization, as well as the unexpected blessing of having the Wagon Wheel Ward's decorations already put in place for us!

It just so happened that Wagon Wheel Ward (the ward attended by my daughter and son-in-law, as well as my dad and step-mom) had their Christmas party the night before ours. Since there were no activities being held at the church the following day, they agreed to leave the tables and chairs and their decorations up for us. The plus for us: we didn't have to decorate, and their decorations were amazing. The plus for them: they didn't have to put everything away.

A not-so-traditional Nativity with six Marys holding their babies!
(And only two Josephs, apparently a role that was not quite as highly sought.)

The Relief Society provided most of the food, handled the serving of it, and covered the kitchen cleanup. The Young Women youth group provided rolls for the meal. The Primary (children's group) provided the Nativity and the music. The men--High Priests group, Elders quorum, and Young Men youth group--handled the cleanup of the cultural hall and putting away all the tables and chairs. Other than the potatoes taking longer than planned to warm for dinner, everything ran like clockwork!

"We Three Kings" sung by a quartet featuring Dirk, Andy, Trace, and Josh.

For dinner, we served ham, twice-baked potatoes, green salad, and buttered rolls. Dessert featured raspberry cheesecake, fresh donuts, and cookie platters. There was so much food left by the end of the night that we were able to prepare many gift meals for home-bound families in our ward, plus some extra goodies for those who helped with the cleanup

Erika beautifully sang "Where Are You Christmas?"

I didn't get many pictures of either event. Lately it seems like I'm having a hard time multitasking. Once I get into a conversation or get distracted by the arrival of the food or pause to enjoy the entertainment, I completely forget that I have my camera with me. By the time I remember, the food on the plate has been decimated, the performance is ending, or people are crowding past the intended subject and all I get is a blur.

It's been especially tricky since many of these events involve my new Relief Society calling. I want to take pictures as I always have, but now I feel a little guilty when I know I should be focused more on preparing food or serving dinner or putting away leftovers or washing up dishes. So I sneak away to snap a few shots before hurrying back to tend to duties.

At the very end, Santa made a surprise visit for the excited children.
(With our bishop, Grant Berges, on the right.)

Of course, people sometimes say we should put away our cameras and instead "live in the moment." While I agree with the sentiment, and I sometimes try to do that, I also realize that my clearest childhood memories are those that include photos in the family album. Looking at them occasionally throughout my life has freshened those memories with each viewing. Instead of fading with time, they continue to be vividly rooted in my memory.

Besides, I am in the moment, even when I'm taking pictures. A memory is no less memorable just because you caught it on "film." And I hope that these captured memories will bring joy to my children and others we love throughout the remainder of their lives!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Welcome, Christmas!

A new wreath on the front door for Christmas 2017.

Last Christmas, I didn't decorate my house. There were a number of factors behind my lack of holiday spirit a year ago. To begin with, it was my first Christmas with an empty nest. All of my children were married and had moved away, and I was a little overwhelmed that there were no stockings to be hung and no kids to wake me early, excited to open their gifts. 

Second, I was very stressed at work. This was partly due to recent administrative changes, which created an environment that no longer brought a sense of satisfaction, and partly because I knew it was my final year in a career I'd enjoyed for so long and hadn't intended to leave so soon. 

Third, I was struggling with constant knee pain and other health issues that left me with little energy beyond what it took to teach my classes everyday. Gift-shopping and gift-wrapping were about all I could manage at the end of the day.

Finally, I knew the days of trudging through the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree were now a thing of the past, and even decorating a large tree without my kids' help was no longer a realistic goal. Nonetheless, I am still stubborn and picky, so I spent most of December 2016 searching for the perfect small, artificial Christmas tree. By the time I found one I liked, it was almost Christmas and decorating just wasn't going to happen. Nothing more than a small tree with no ornaments, and the packages stacked below.

The first half of December was busy this year.

So I made up my mind that there will be decorations this year! Not the kind they feature on TV, of course, with outdoor decorations synced to music and enough lights to rival Las Vegas Boulevard. I started small, with a new wreath to match our new blue metal roof and our new blue-and-white twinkling Christmas lights and our pretty, blue front door. Just that little spot of Christmas brought me more cheer than I'd expected.

The Nativity I bought in the 1980s in Nogales, Mexico, takes center stage.

It's been slow-going. My energy is still limited, my knees still hurt a lot, and the first half of the month was pretty hectic, both with scheduled activities and with the often unexpected needs that can arise with my new calling in Relief Society. I'm not sure I'd have accomplished anything at all if I were still teaching. The calendar has quieted this week, though, and the need to rush things has fallen away. Peace. I like it.

This year I combined two scenes I'd always placed on separate shelves.

Thus, I spent three days on the living room, refusing to feel pressured to get it done immediately. On the first day, Mark helped me get the deep-cleaning done, from sweeping away cobwebs in the corners to moving furniture so I could clean behind it. We were both quite sore at the end of that day!

I blended the Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer figurines with my
Christmas-tree forest tableau. Why didn't I think of that before?

On the second day, I did more dusting and started putting up some of my old decorations, but with a new twist on how I placed some of them. On the third day, Sarah and Dylan helped with more decorating and setting up the tree. They were awesome!

As always, the candy dish is filled with Skittles for my kids during the
Christmas season. I'd prefer M&Ms, but then I'd eat them all myself!

The only thing I didn't get set up was my favorite Nativity, the one I purchased just a few years ago. I had already placed the Christmas-tree forest and Rudolph figures on the shelf where I'd always put the Willow Tree Nativity in the past, thinking that instead I would put that Nativity on the coffee table with the Christmas tree. Once we got the Christmas tree up, though, it was clear that they wouldn't both fit very well into the limited space.

Nativities don't need to be elaborate!

I may not put up the Willow Tree Nativity at all this year, but I haven't completely counted it out. Maybe it will fit on top of the roll-top desk...

The Christmas tree and gifts commandeered the whole table.

We've found a little time to enjoy an old tradition from when my children were small, of watching Christmas movies together during the weeks before Christmas. It's not as easy, with all the kids' varied schedules, but two Sundays ago we had fun watching A Christmas Story together, which Jake had never (gasp!) seen before.

Not as many gifts under the tree this year, but I'm finally accepting
that my kids don't need as much from their mom as they used to...

Then, after our Sunday dinner this week, when the guys were all gone, Sarah and I sat together and watched the ancient (1960s) television movie, The Littlest Angel, starring Johnny Whitaker. It always makes me cry when he goes home for his box of treasures and then hugs his mom, and all she feels is his warmth in her heart, not knowing her son is gone and will never come home again. I tear up just thinking about it!

Gifts from all of us to Jacob and Danielle in Utah.

Unlike the decorating, this year's gift shopping seemed to go quickly and smoothly, like never before. That, I'm sure, is due entirely to the extra time provided by retirement. I started looking for and buying many of the presents in mid-November, and I ordered more gifts online than I'd ever done before. In the end, everything was wrapped and ready--including those that had to travel to Utah for Jacob and Danielle--and in the mail a full ten days before Christmas! That was a first for me!

I had to get creative and redesign this box in order to
fit in all the Utah gifts, to avoid using a much-too-larger box!

Another fun aspect of the Christmas season is the Christmas cards arriving in the mail; not as many as in the pre-electronic-communications past, but still enough to light up my heart. It's also fun when friends show up unexpectedly on the doorstep, bearing small gifts to let you know you are thought about and loved.

Homemade Rice-Krispies-treat Christmas tree from my friend Liz.

I forgot to take a picture of the plate of homemade candies my friend Wyndie makes and brings every year (to be honest, I was too busy gobbling up all the fudge without offering Mark any--but I did give him all of the divinity and half the caramel!). However, I did capture these two sweet surprises from Liz and Carol.

Whisk and hot pad from my friend Carol.

There are just so many wonderful moments that come to us at Christmas time, and every one of them comes through the hands of those who love us and the warmth of the Spirit sent by Him whose season this is. 

Merry Christmas from our home to those who mean so much to us all year long!