Thursday, December 31, 2015

Our Christmas Day

Sarah, Dylan, Chris, Mary, Mark, Kathy, and Myron together on
Christmas Day 2015.

After starting off Christmas Day pretty much like any other day of household drudgery, things began to feel slightly more festive around 1:00 that afternoon. That's when Chris and Sarah came over to help me prep the dishes for Christmas dinner. We got the green bean casserole (a low-carb version we all actually like better than the original!) made and into the fridge and we prepared the turkey for the oven.

As soon as we got the turkey in the oven at 1:30, we headed over to the theater to meet my dad and Kathy and finally see the  new Star Wars film, Star Wars: the Force Awakens. Dylan and Jake had gone to see it on the opening night, a week earlier, but the rest of us hadn't seen it yet. It felt odd to go out to a movie on Christmas Day, but it was fun and the movie was excellent. 

I didn't know so many people went to the theater on a major holiday, but there was a line when we arrived more than 30 minutes before the first showing. When we bought our tickets, there were only 11 seats left! Luckily, Dad and Kathy were already inside, saving seats for us!

Our living room on the morning of Christmas Day.

Once the movie was over, we all headed back to my house to finish making dinner. Jake had taken out the turkey when he got home from work, so we put the green bean casserole in the oven, put the potatoes on to boil for mashed potatoes, and melted butter to cook the corn in. Then I made gravy while Sarah prepared the rolls to be warmed and made the stuffing.

Dinner was good and so was the often humorous conversation. We were so pleased to have Dad and Kathy join us. Often they already have plans for the holidays, with Kathy's side of the family or friends, so it was a rare treat that they were free to be with us. We enjoyed visiting for a long time after dinner was done.

And then it was time to open the last of the gifts. Jacob decided that living in Utah was no excuse to miss out on the opening of family presents, so he arranged to be with us via Skype. That made it even more fun. He and Danielle showed us their gifts, and they got to watch us open ours.

And here's the final rundown on everyone's hauls:

Mark with his cache of gifts.

Mark received from Chris and Sarah: a Skeet Shooting game.

From Jacob and Danielle: a headlamp for when he goes night fishing.

From Dylan: a nice, big fishing net to add to Mark's new collection of fishing gear.

From Jake: a Mr. Coffee coffeemaker so Mark can have fresh-brewed instead of instant every morning.

From Mary: a remote control Grave Digger monster truck; a Pie Face game; a pair of warm slippers for stepping outside in the morning, since the puppy chewed up one of his flip-flops; a pair of heavy-duty Brahma work boots; and since he needed some warmer clothing, I gave him snow gloves (for scraping snow off my car in the mornings), a dark blue thermal shirt, and a flannel shirt.

Mary's gifts.

I received from Mark: a pair of lovely, heart-shaped, cubic zirconia earrings.

From Chris and Sarah: Dr. Ben Carson's book, A More Perfect Union. I can't wait to read it!

From Jacob and Danielle: A 2016 calendar featuring family photos. Sweet!

From Dylan: the Star Wars prequels trilogy, episodes 1-3. (I've never owned them; just the original episodes 4-6.)

From Jake: a beautiful opal pendant (resting on top of the book).

Here's a closeup of the earrings from Mark. Pretty bling!

This is the wrapped box the earrings came in. Mark is getting better at this romance stuff:
"To Baby, From Your Love."

Here's the January page of the calendar.
What a thoughtfully personalized gift!

The opal pendant from Jake.

A funny story about the opal necklace: While I was searching for Sarah and Danielle's gifts, I came across this pendant. It was the last one left and on sale for almost half-price. I thought it was so elegantly lovely that I nearly bought it for myself, but I reminded myself that I rarely wear jewelry (except earrings) and reluctantly handed it back to the saleslady. Several days later, Jake wanted some ideas for what I'd like for Christmas, so I mentioned this necklace.

We were all Christmas shopping in the same store at this time. After awhile, Jake found me and told me he'd tried to buy the pendant, but it was gone. We even went back over to the jewelry department to check. However, he assured me he'd found me something else (judging by the small box, it was also an item of jewelry, so I wondered for the next few weeks what he'd chosen). Well, he'd fooled me! When I opened the gift on Christmas Eve and expressed my delighted surprise, he said, "It wasn't there anymore because I'd bought it!"

Dylan goes gangsta with his gifts.

Dylan received from his dad (Mark): two boxes of rice crispy treats studded with M&Ms. (Who doesn't love those?)

From his mom (me): a remote control car; a make-your-own mini lightsaber kit (missing from the picture); a video game called Rare Replay; two DVDs, Max and Safe Haven (he loves that movie); an update of the Guess Who? game the kids all loved so much growing up; a Minions Fart Blaster; a party-size bag of M&Ms for his dispenser; and a 2016 calendar featuring puppies and kittens; and in his stocking a ton of candy plus a small R2-D2 candy dispenser.

From Sarah and Chris: an Xbox gold card for three months of online play.

From Jacob and Danielle: a GoPro-type action camera with a mount for Dylan's snowboard.

From Jake: a K'Nex All-American Roller Coaster building set; a Minecraft Story Mode video game; and a set of nice headphones for Xbox.

Dylan and Jake spent a whole day building this very cool
K'Nex All-American Roller Coaster.

Jake with his mother lode of presents. It's obvious that he's a Star Wars fan!

Jake received from Dylan: a remote control Star Wars X-wing fighter; part one of season nine of Dr. Who (another thing Jake's a big fan of); two Star Wars mugs with hot cocoa mix; and an ornament of R2-D2 wearing antlers!

From Jacob and Danielle: a warm plaid blanket and an ornament of a Star Wars stormtrooper holding a candy cane.

From Chris and Sarah: a Star Wars Lego building set of Luke Skywalker.

From Mark: a box of Russell Stover chocolate-covered nuts.

From Mary: a remote control car; a make-your-own mini lightsaber kit; an R2-D2-shaped Bop It! game; a pair of Star Wars drinking glasses featuring C-3PO and R2-D2 (they'll be handy when he moves into his own place...); and in his stocking a ton of candy plus a small Darth Vader candy dispenser.

Santa brought this game for the whole family!
It's quite challenging.

I didn't take pictures of the married kids with their gifts this year, but here are a few highlights:

Sarah's new engagement ring from Chris.

When Chris and Sarah came over after the movie, Chris was carrying a big wrapped box for Sarah. He hadn't allowed her to open it that morning, but had told her she had to wait and unwrap it in front of her family. So we all watched as she unwrapped progressively smaller boxes nestled inside each other, until she came to a small jewelry box at the heart of the gift. Inside was a new engagement ring. The one Chris gave her when they got engaged almost 6 years ago had broken and lost many of its small diamonds. Sarah loved it, but it was no longer wearable, so she was thrilled with this new ring. It really is beautiful. Nice choice, Chris!

Sarah's opal necklace.

One of the things I wanted to do this Christmas was to buy both Sarah and Danielle some kind of jewelry featuring their October birthstone, opal. Sarah was born on October 27, and then 4 years later Danielle was born on October 28. I wanted to present them with the real thing, but I soon found out that genuine opal is far more expensive than it was ten years ago. So we all ended up with "created" opal, which is still beautiful.

Danielle's opal necklace.

As for the guys, both Jacob and Chris got chef's aprons because they are both amazing cooks who love to whip up delicacies in the kitchen. Jacob's came from Alcatraz during our October vacation. I found Chris's apron at a craft fair here in the pines way back in August. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of it, but it's covered in a fun print of all sorts of dog breeds. Very fitting to an animal lover like Chris!

Jacob's chef's apron from Alcatraz Island.

Mark got each of our kids a nice box of candy for Christmas. With limited resources for this holiday season, he decided that candy is always dandy. He was absolutely right. Those candies didn't last long at all!

Family togetherness!

After the gifts had all been opened and admired, we said our good-byes to Jacob and Danielle, who signed off their Skype account, and then we broke out the chocolate silk pie. My dad and Kathy soon said their farewells. It was so fun to have them join us!

Dylan assembles the Pie Face game while Jake assembles Luke Skywalker.

We ended the night with the hilarity that ensues while trying out the new games of the holiday. Pie Face was particularly hilarious. We highly recommend it! As it turned out, Christmas was a wonderful day despite its nontraditional beginning!

Sarah took the first hit during the very first spin of the first round of Pie Face.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Our Christmas Eve

Gifts under the tree on Christmas Eve 2015.

We broke from tradition a bit this year. It has always been our practice to open gifts on Christmas morning. That's how it was in my family growing up, and that's how it was in Mark's family, so that became the established tradition in the Carter home when Mark and I had our children. I love the old home movies of tousle-headed, sleepy-eyed kids stumbling from their bedrooms into the living room, eyes growing wide with wonder as the proof of Santa's late-night visit appeared before their dazzled eyes.

Dylan sorts the presents into four piles, one for each of us.

On occasion, we might allow the opening of one gift on Christmas Eve. Usually, in the Butler family, it was a pair of new pajamas made by Grandma Haley so we could wear them to bed that very night. Usually, in the Carter family, it was either pajamas (from Walmart) or the new calendar I chose for each child every Christmas. Never anything terribly exciting. Those were reserved for Christmas morning.

Dylan poses with his stack of presents on Christmas Eve.

With a houseful of working adults this year, though, we had to rethink things a bit. On Christmas morning Jake had to work from 6:45 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and Mark had to work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. At first I was somewhat of a die-hard, telling everyone we'd be getting up at 5:30 a.m. so we could open our gifts together on Christmas morning, as we'd always done. After enduring a bit of muffled grumbling, however, I relented.

Jake with his pile of gifts.

Jake told me that he and his mom always had to work on Christmas Day, so their tradition was to wait and open gifts in the evening after they got home and had Christmas dinner. I considered that idea but decided against it, mainly because Walmart actually closes on Christmas Day, which meant Dylan would be home all day. For us, Christmas is a day to play with your new toys, watch your new videos, read your new books, and play your new games. I wanted Dylan to be able to enjoy his new gifts on Christmas Day. 

Mark enjoyed his first real Christmas since 2010.

So we all agreed to Option 2, and we opened our gifts on Christmas Eve. We still had to wait on work schedules, since Dylan worked until 8:30 on Christmas Eve, but by 9:30 we were all settled in the living room and ready to share our gifts.

We got a chuckle comparing my pile of 3 tiny gifts to the guys' huge piles!
However, they were all thoughtful, amazing gifts and I loved each one. 
Besides, I get my greatest fun from watching my family open their presents.

Dylan and Jake build their own mini-lightsabers.

We did not open every gift under the tree, just the ones we got for each other among the four of us. The gifts sent from Utah by Jacob and Danielle and those we received from Chris and Sarah we would wait and open together when Chris and Sarah joined us for Christmas dinner later on Christmas Day.

Success! Now they are both true Jedi!

It was fun opening our gifts on Christmas Eve, but it definitely had a different vibe. Even Dylan commented on how different it felt, not quite the same magical feeling as when we wake up on Christmas morning. For this year, though, I'm sure it was the better option than having four not-morning-people-type adults getting up before the crack of dawn and trying to act cheerful!

Dylan got this M&Ms dispenser for Christmas 6 years ago.
Every Christmas since then he gets a huge bag of M&Ms to fill it up.

As for the gifts we opened, I'll wait and share those in my next post about Christmas Day. As you may know, it's my tradition for each person to gather and display all their gifts together to be featured in a photo. That may seem silly now, but I started doing this back in the 1970s, and decades later it's fun to look at those old pictures and think, "Oh yeah, I remember when so-and-so gave me that! I loved that old gift!"

Dylan starts assembling one of his gifts, a K'Nex building set.

Christmas Day itself was pretty strange without the traditional gathering and opening of gifts to start it off. I got up at 7:30 to drive Mark to work. Then I washed dishes from dinner the night before (Mark had grilled steak and I'd made a big green salad for our quiet Christmas Eve dinner), and then I washed four loads of laundry before jumping in the shower. Meanwhile, Dylan slept late and then played his new video games all afternoon. Pretty much a typical day so far.

Santa fills the guys' stockings after midnight. There was no stocking for Mark,
so Santa filled a zip-lock bag for him!

Things began to feel a little more Christmas-ish around 1:00 on Christmas Day. But then, that's a story for another day!

A few gifts left under the tree to be opened on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Gone Gone Gone

Dylan captured these shots of Ryker jumping through the snow.
December 13, 2015

Why is it so easy to get attached and so hard to let go? We only had our new puppy Ryker for two weeks, but in that time he became part of our family.

After the first week, Dylan decided he just wasn't ready for the challenge of raising a puppy. I resisted for a few days, but I finally had to admit the timing simply isn't right. With Dylan being a full-time student and working at Walmart most days, and the rest of us working full-time jobs, it was difficult to give Ryker as much attention as a young pup requires. And the loss of sleep was taking its toll on all of us.

Part of me would have liked to wait until the end of Christmas break. Possibly, after I was able to work with him for two more weeks, he'd have been more mature and well-trained enough for us to keep him. But, the truth is, it would have been even more difficult to say good-bye after a whole month together, for Ryker as well as for myself. And, the fact is, it's a whole lot easier to find a new home for a cuddly two-month-old puppy than a three-month-old. As it stands now, Dylan's friend Justin is very excited to welcome this adorable little guy into his life.

Here's my version of Ryker's romp through the snow (30 seconds).
(The flashes in the foreground are caused by snow blowing off the trees and roof.)

Ryker takes a nap in his little bed on the couch, his favorite spot.
December 15, 2015

Besides, Ryker is still very much a puppy, with a lot of energy and a desire to play hard, even when the humans in the house are busy at other tasks. And he still needs to chew and bite with those youthful pit bull jaws and sharp puppy teeth.  Our hands and arms are scarred while our socks and hems are pocked with tiny holes. Not to mention two phone chargers, an Xbox controller, and one of Mark's flip-flops that have bitten the dust. (I did warn everyone to put their stuff up out of the puppy's reach. Puppies are going to do what puppies do.) 

Come January 4th, when we return to school, Ryker will still be too young and it will still be too cold outside to banish him outdoors all day. I can't have the house destroyed during our absence, so Ryker would still be trapped in his playpen all day most days. I hope his situation in Justin's home will be better. 

Sometimes it's just hard to get comfy.

Both Sarah and I have shed tears over Ryker's going. Dylan has struggled with the decision, too. Sarah would have taken him, but there's really no room for more pets in their little apartment. I even toyed with keeping him myself, but there are still all the problems listed above, as well as the fact that I can't even keep up with everything on my plate these days, from the extra duties I've taken on in my job to the inability to simply handle household duties as I hobble around on my painful right leg. Taking on the sole responsibility of chasing after and training a puppy day after day just isn't realistic right now.

Ryker battles a vicious, crunchy-spiked, blue monster and single-handedly saves our home!
(53 seconds)

Still, we made a lot of progress in the two weeks he's been with us. I bought some Christmas bells to hang on our front door, specifically so he could learn to ring the bells whenever he wanted to go outside, rather than barking or scratching at the door. At first he rang the bells because they were something new and interesting to nip at and play with. However, he figured out within one day that someone opened the door for him any time he made the bell ring, and he quickly began nosing the bells for that purpose.

After he learned how to let us know he needed to go outside, the number of puppy puddles and poopy piles dramatically decreased. And those accidents that did occur were due to human failure, not a bad puppy. For instance, waking to a whining puppy at 5:00 a.m. and letting him out of the bedroom, but not taking him outside to do his business, means a cleanup on aisle one later on. Not that I'm naming names or anything... 

Ryker rings the bell to be let outside.

It took less than two hours on Saturday night to teach Ryker to "Sit!" He has a very healthy appetite, so he was motivated to figure out why I kept shoving his hind end down each time I gave the hand signal and said the word before he could eat the treat. I was sure I'd have to do a refresher course the next morning before I showed off his new skill to Dylan, but I was pleased that Ryker remembered exactly what to do as soon as I called Dylan in to see his new trick. He's one smart puppy!

December 22, 2015: Ryker demonstrates that he knows how to "Sit" for a treat!
(1 minute 18 seconds)

We will miss you, sweet little Ryker. We wish only the best for you in your new home, and may your new family give you all the love and attention you deserve!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas Comfort

Remembering the Reason for the Season.

There are so many wonderful things to love about Christmas time. I love the tender reminders that God loved His children enough to send a Savior and exemplar, who began life as we all did, in the form of an innocent infant. I love the opportunities to celebrate and spend time with family and friends. I love the music. I love the upbeat greetings of total strangers we meet, so many sharing the same positive feelings engendered by the season. I even love the shopping crowds as we each struggle to find the gifts we hope will most please our loved ones, even though we know they'll love anything that comes from our hearts.

It always begins with the tree.
November 29, 2015

One of my favorite things about Christmas is inviting its spirit into our home with the little touches that bring cozy comfort and warm our hearts while we count down to Christmas Day. For us, it usually begins with choosing the Christmas tree, whether it comes pre-cut from Walmart or from  an hours-long search for the perfect fresh tree in the forest. This year, probably for the last time, we chose a forest tree. That was two weeks ago.

Then two strings of lights brighten up the tree.

I was wandering alone in the woods, not wanting to slow down everyone else with my gimpy knee, when I saw our tree in the distance. The trees I choose always seem to speak to me, saying, "I'm the one." Often, after it's cut, I wonder if I made the right choice. This time was no different. I looked at the nice trees chosen by Sarah and Chris and Brenda and thought maybe I'd made a mistake. Yet it always seems to turn out well.

The finished tree makes me happy. It reminds me of the trees of my youth. 
And there are only a few more gifts left on my list!
December 13, 2015

This year's tree was about a foot shorter than usual, and about two feet wider! I wasn't sure how it would fit into my tiny living room. It required a lot of trimming of branches to achieve even a close fit, but we did it. The long branches were less sturdy than I'd hoped, so we had to be slightly more selective about which ornaments to hang this year, but the tree holds all of our most treasured ones. 

And, for some reason, weeks before we hunted out our tree, I purchased two boxes of tinsel on impulse. I hadn't put tinsel on a Christmas tree since the mid-1960s, when my mom enlisted the aid of us kids to place the tinsel on the branches one piece at a time. Seeing the tinsel brought back so many memories that I decided to revive that tradition, at least for this one year.

The tree is made more special by the ornaments collected over the years.
Each one has special meaning, memories connected to loved ones.

As it turned out, the tinsel was perfect for this tree, helping to fill in the gaps between branches. And, what can I say, I love the retro look! I admit, I was torn regarding the best method to apply the tinsel. My mom was a firm believer in placing it on the tree one strand at a time, so I always thought that was just how it was done. Imagine my surprise when I learned, as a teenager, that one of my aunts applied it by standing back and tossing the tinsel at the tree, one handful at a time. And her tree always looked nice, too.

I decided to split the difference by putting the tinsel on the tree by draping it gently over the branches in small handfuls, five or six strands at a time. It still took several days to do the entire tree, and I think it could have used another box or two of tinsel, but I really like the result. I do love glitter and sparkle, and the fluttering tinsel reflects the shimmer of lights beautifully.

Of course, if I'd known we were going to have a new puppy in the house right before Christmas, I might have rethought the whole tinsel plan. I seem to spend a lot of time picking up tinsel from the floor and re-draping it over the branches!

My camera won't capture Christmas lights in the dark very well.
Dylan took this one with his nicer camera after we finished decorating.

Once the tree is done, the rest of the room must be enhanced with Christmas decorations, as well. Most of my little Christmas scenes go on my shelves year after year, so if you've ever been on my blog at Christmas time, much of this won't be new to you. But here they are again anyway!

Entertainment center shelves are adorned with Christmas treasures.

My Willow Tree Nativity is my favorite, but this comes in second place.
I bargained for this hand-painted Mexican Nativity in Nogales, Mexico, in the 1980s.
I love to see José, Maria, and Jesus in traditional Mexican garb!

I only fill the candy jar at Christmas time, with Skittles.
I can't use M&Ms or I'd eat them all myself!

I added two new trees and more mini-gifts to my Christmas Tree Forest this year.

The red-and-white-striped peppermint tree is new to my Christmas Tree Forest, above, and so is the largest ceramic tree with the little bulbs. Mark's Grandma Helen, who raised him, had that exact same tree (the big ceramic one), which she kept on the headboard of Mark's waterbed between Christmases. When you plug it in, the bulbs and star topper light up, which is very pretty in a darkened room. I never saw it again after Mark and I divorced in 2006, of course, and when Helen died in March 2011 the tree disappeared, probably claimed by a relative.

Then, a month ago, I saw this tree in a Hallmark sale pamphlet. I showed it to Mark. "Remember this tree?" I asked excitedly. He wasn't quite as enthusiastic as I was (men), but he agreed that it would be nice to have for its sentimental value. While Dylan was too young to have memories of the tree, Sarah and Jacob both remembered it from their great-grandma's house. So a few days later I was able to purchase it at the local Hallmark for 30% off.

Those of us who were kids in the 1960s remember these characters
from the annual TV presentation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
We looked forward to it every year!

A tiny little Nativity called "Christmas in a Nutshell." Both it and
the clothespin angel were made long ago by my sister-in-law Dana.

I love to relax in the soft glow of colored lights and soak in the ambiance created by these memories on my tree and shelves every year at Christmas time. These subtle reminders of the joyous reason we celebrate Christmas make our home feel so warm and comforting. It's my favorite place to be, especially when we're surrounded by family and friends. That's what Christmas is supposed to feel like.

Christmas scenes to enjoy.