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Holidays

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Thanksgiving Gratitude

I first shared this post November, 2007. I don't think I could write anything else that better reflected how I feel this Thanksgiving or every day of the year.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my US friends, and to everyone, I wish you a year filled with abundant blessings and gratitude!

Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes of which all men have some." ~Charles Dickens~

          In a couple of days it will be Thanksgiving, and I must admit, I know exactly how the Pilgrims felt. They invited their new Native American friends over for dinner, and they were astonished when they stayed for three days! Talk about a challenge! Those early American hostesses needed to figure out how to turn leftovers into savory meals that would nourish and sate a houseful of noisy guests for what was perhaps the first 3 day weekend! As I prepare for my out-of-town children to descend, I check and recheck the pantry and fridge to make sure I have enough on hand to keep their tummies full and their taste buds delighted. Unlike the Pilgrims, I have the luxury of planning our meals and sleeping arrangements, but I can visualize our creative foremothers, scratching their heads under their starched bonnets, and coming up with yet another way of serving the Thanksgiving bird! (Which, I’ve been told,  was pheasant, not turkey!)

            When thinking about this year’s Thanksgiving story, many delightful tales come to mind. There was the year my brother and his wife bought a turkey that was so huge it wouldn’t fit in a roaster, and they placed it directly on the lowest rack of the oven. (Instead of cleaning the oven afterward, they threw it out! They really did need a new oven, this just hastened the process!) Or the year my daughter brought home 2 college dinner guests. One was from India and one from Korea. Neither had celebrated an American Thanksgiving, and after loosening their belts and reaching comatose levels of gluttony, they whole-heartedly concurred that America was truly a wondrous place! Or the Thanksgiving when I threw up every 10 minutes (a terrible case of morning sickness) and was fearful that the smell of roasting turkey would forever be nauseating to me! (Fortunately, I got over that!)

            Finally, I decided to share a story that has nothing to do directly with Thanksgiving, but it is in fact, all about giving thanks. My mother grew up on a farm in a tiny town in Texas. My maternal grandmother, Bushia, had 13 children. Before she passed away she had buried four of her own children; her first born died of heart problems when she was just three days old, a ten month old son died of pneumonia just as he was learning to take his first steps, a son was killed in the Korean War, and her oldest son died of a heart aneurysm. I can’t even begin to imagine taking care of so many people while spending a total of TEN YEARS PREGNANT! But most significantly, I can’t imagine living in a time and place where common childhood illnesses were life threatening. (My fraternal great-grandparents lost all five of their children in one episode of influenza before leaving Poland and starting all over in America!)

            But on to my story! One day my cousin and I were visiting Bushia. We were sitting around the kitchen table comparing notes, and I suppose, complaining…a lot. (In our defense, I wish to point out, at the time neither of us were married, and we were bemoaning our boyfriends, not husbands and children, so I gotta think Bushia’s reaction was probably fueled by listening to her own daughters complain, and we were simply the recipients of the proverbial “final straw” syndrome!) She was busy fussing in the kitchen, coming in and out of the room, and not directly involved in our conversation. We were shocked and aghast when on one of her “pass-throughs” she stopped, slammed her hand on the table, and said, “You women have it so easy today. When I was a young woman I didn’t have dishwashers or washing machines. I couldn’t go to the grocery store to buy dinner, and there wasn’t a television to watch if I got bored. I didn’t worry about how much attention my husband was showing me, I was too busy! So was he. A good day was a day that everyone got fed and no one died. Stop whining and start being grateful for what you have.”

            With those words she went about her business…even in old age she was always busy making her house a home and providing for the comfort of others. And she was happy…or maybe a better word was content. My cousin and I continued to sit around the table talking, rather shame-faced, both making a silent pact to NEVER vent around Bushia again! But in my heart, I knew she was right. Not that our lives today are perfect and without worries. We have concerns today that my grandmother never had to contend with, but the most valuable lesson I learned that day was that happiness is not something given to you by other people or things; it’s something within you that permeates everything you do. Every day you can choose to focus on the things you don’t have or be grateful for the things that you do.

            So this Thanksgiving, and every night before going to sleep, I take a moment to ponder my day. In the simplest of terms, if I can say “Everyone was fed today and no one died” it WAS a good day, worthy of praise, and a reason for Thanksgiving!  

Christmas with the Girls

Tonight is our annual Girl's Night Out (GNO) Christmas Dinner. Actually, this really hasn't been a Girl's Night Out group in quite some time...we're now more of a Kick Off Your Shoes, Curl Up on the Couch and Stay at Home (KOYSCUCSH) kind of group! We began as friends then started a reading group, but soon realized only half of us had read the assigned book, and "which half" changed every month! Our titillating discussions went something like this...

Someone: So, what did everyone think of the book.

Someone Else: Oh, don't say anything about the end. I'm not done yet.

Someone Different: Hey, did anyone see (insert new movie) this weekend? What'd cha think about it?

At this point knew it was time to give up the guise of being a literary group. My girlfriend's husband affectionately referred to us as the "Books Aren't Us" or the "Unbook Club". He hit the nail on the head. It's not that we aren't literary people. Most of us are teachers and voracious readers, heck, some of us even belong to book clubs where we actually read and talk about books. It's just that when we get together, there are so many personal things we want to catch up on, that the books got in the way.

Realizing we were no longer a book club, we decided we would be an Out To Dinner (OTD) group. Every month someone would pick a restaurant, and we'd meet, eat, and have a chance to chat. THIS was definitely more in line with our collective need. We did this for a number of years then something happened. It was subtle at first, then blatantly obvious. Without a predetermined decision, the number of times we went out to dinner started to diminish and simply gathering at a friend's home began to gain momentum. Today, we do not have delusions of grandeur. We are what we are. A group of friends, content to snuggle together on the couch with a glass of wine and chat or meet at the local coffee shop on Wednesday mornings and catch up. We've been through many things together; death and births, illness and accidents, promotions and job losses, marriage, divorce and remarriage, retirement and second careers. And what we've come to appreciate is that it doesn't matter what we do, as long as we are together.

At Christmas time we like to have a special evening. We have dinner at my house, I make the main dish and everyone brings a little something, and for a few short hours, we can leave the chaos of the season at the door. (I spoke about one of our gatherings in Sweater Flambe.) Tonight I am making a very yummy dish called Chicken Supreme. (My children affectionately refer to it as "Barnyard Sampler" because cow, pig and chicken are all used in the recipe!) A lovely dinner and friends...it just doesn't get any better!

CHICKEN SUPREME

4-6 chicken breasts, halves (I use boneless, skinless)

4-8 strips of bacon

1/2 pint sour cream

1 can mushroom soup

1/4 pound chipped beef

5 ounces white wine

Wrap a strip of bacon around each half of chicken breasts. Put side by side in baking dish which has been covered with a layer of chipped beef. (Or place 2 pieces of chipped beef under the chicken breast and wrap the breast and chicken breast together with the bacon. Mix sour cream, soup and wine. Pour over chicken. Do not salt since bacon and chipped beef supply the salt. Cook uncovered at 300 deg. for 2 hours. The sauce will almost be absorbed and the chicken nicely browned outside.

*If bacon is especially fat, use half strip of bacon.

Serve with rice.

Is there anything special you do with your friends at Christmas?

Polish for a Day

I have a strong Polish ancestry. With the possible exception of contamination from an amorous invader that I am unaware of, I am 100% Polish. (Poland's history is laced with invasion and occupation from...well, from just about all neighboring countries!) I think I'm fairly rare today...a fourth generation American with a pure blood heritage. It stopped with my children, however. Their father is...well, he's a mutt. Nothing wrong with that; mutts have many wonderful qualities including hardiness and longevity. But this does mean I can't share my pedigree with my children; they too are mutts! What I can share with them, however, is the few remaining vestiges of my Polish ancestry.

You would think with all this Polish blood pulsating through my veins that I would be well versed in the culture and traditions of Poland, but I'm not. Both my maternal and paternal great-grandparents were born in Poland and came here hoping to improve their lot in life. Like most immigrants, they settled with their own kind. They spoke Polish in their homes and amongst their friends. It was their children, my grandparents, that ventured out into the American melting pot and brought English into their homes. So, the progression was, my great-grandparents spoke predominantly Polish, my grandparents spoke Polish in their homes, but English everywhere else, my parents could read Polish and speak it well enough to converse with their grandparents but English had become their native language, and I, well the only Polish I know is this rather naughty song that some relative taught me, but it would prove useless if I needed to communicate with a Pole!

Polish traditions followed the trend of the Polish language, with each generation giving up a little more of their connection to their motherland, until now, I'm left with the cultural equivalent of a little naughty ditty! The only time my Polish ancestry surfaces is at Christmas dinner. I serve pierogi (stuffed dumplings), kielbasa (sausage), golabki (stuffed cabbage), makowki (poppy seed bread), kluski (thick buttered noodles), kapusta (sauerkraut), mizeria (cucumbers and sour cream) and sernik (cheese cake). If that sounds Greek to you, it does to me too! In our house we use the English words for most of these foods.

The lovely thing about Christmas dinner, besides some seriously delicious food, is my connection to my past. There was a time when these foods were a mainstay in my ancestors' daily life. Today, they are reserved for special occasions; actually A special occasion, Christmas dinner. I wish my grandparents were still around to share this feast with us. Since they can't be, at Christmas I bring not only the memory of Bushia and Grandma Pearl in the kitchen with me, I bring their pictures. On my kitchen counter are photographs of my grandmothers as young women, taken at a time in their lives when they would have been busy preparing Christmas dinners. I rather think it would make them happy to know I still feel a strong ancestral tug. I also have pics of my mom and daughter there too, even though they spend the day helping me with Christmas dinner. But it pleases me to see the 5 of us together, knowing full well, that if not in body, certainly in spirit, we're sharing in the festivities of Christmas day, and that although my connection to my ancestry may be tenuous, it's still alive!

Christmas is a wonderful day to connect with our past. Do you observe any traditions on Christmas that you consider a link with your ancestry? Please share!

It's a Wrap!

For any of you that have been with me since last Christmas, you know I've already conceded that I am obsessive, and where Christmas is concerned, certifiably insane! (Check out A Tad Bit Obsessive!) Over the years I've created so many traditions that I need to start preparing for the Holidays in June...truth be told, I should actually begin the day after Christmas when a virtual cornucopia of perfectly good items are being marked down, but I never seem to mustard the internal fortitude necessary to battle the post Christmas crowds! My first real delve into Christmas comes in June when the women in my family go on our annual "Girl's Trip". (The Girl's Trip will require several blog entries to share hair raising adventures like our night with the ice pick murderess, popping wheelies on sand dunes with a 7 person minivan...my sister-in-law never truly recovered from that one, or forgave me...and an explanation of why you should never leave 7 cowardly women alone in a wax museum!) But all this is fodder for summer writing, back to Christmas! I use the girl's trip, with our insatiable foraging through as many shops as possible in a three day period, to begin collecting stocking stuffers and Advent tokens, thus begining my own celebration of the season! 

Anyway, one of the more evident traditions that evolved over the years was my gift wrapping practices. After a natural Darwinian evolution, my packages took on a homespun look, being wrapped in plain brown packing paper, with wide burgundy ribbons, and a heart attached to each gift, symbolizing, of course, the love that was being given along with the gift. When my children lived at home, I wrapped EVERYTHING separately; if they got a pair of socks...2 packages, a book trilogy...3 packages, and so on. I firmly believe that opening gifts is as much fun as owning what's inside! And, besides, if it took me 6 months to prepare for Christmas, I think it should take at least 6 hours to open gifts! Okay, a little hyperbole here! Maybe not 6 hours, but a goodly amount of time! And besides, when wrapped, the gifts were beautiful and became an integral part of my Christmas decorating.

But today's blog isn't about wrapping gifts; it's about what we have fondly come to call "The Great Gift Debacle"! Every year my children could ask for and get 1 gift from Santa. He's a busy guy, right? So many children, so little time! Well, every year I would buy special Santa wrapping paper and only those 3 gifts, the ones from Santa, would be wrapped that way. They would then be tucked away until Christmas morning. The rest of the gifts, from my husband and me, were wrapped in brown paper and were also hidden until Christmas morning. As the children got a little older, I began to put a few of the gifts under the tree as they were bought and wrapped. And, as my lust for gift wrapping increased, and my propensity to wrap socks and underwear separately grew, gifts began to overflow the tree and were stacked in nooks and crannies. Eventually, all of their gifts, except for Santa's would be under the tree days, sometimes weeks, before Christmas. For my children, having their gifts strewn about in this manner was both torture and tantalizing! For days before Christmas, the children sat around the tree, looking at gifts, shaking them, measuring them, and smelling them, trying to figure out the concealed contents.

This had become a tradition. And far be it for me to break ANY tradition. But one year, when my children were in middle school and high school, I had an idea...a scathingly brilliant idea. In order to thwart their sleuthing, I coded all their packages. I numbered each gift, and I kept the master list hidden. That year, when they picked up a gift to inspect, their only clue was a number! This put a new twist to their game. Not only did they try to figure out what was inside the package, but who it belonged to! When Christmas morning finally came around, I went to get my master list. Hmmm...I could have sworn I put it in the brown hutch. No, wait, I remember now...the last time I wrote something on it, I was at my desk. Hmmm...not there! Where did I put it? After 15 very long minutes, I gave up. I had to come back in the room and tell them I had no clue as to which packages belonged to anyone!

So, that morning, we played Christmas roulette. I'd pick up a package then look at it, shake it, measure it, and smell it and give my best guess as to who it belonged to! There was a lot of bending back the corner of boxes, as everyone tried to decide if the gift was intended for them. Snickering and out right laughter ensued as partially opened boxes sailed through the air seeking its rightful owner. It took a very long time to open gifts that morning. I'm still not sure that every box found its rightful owner, but close enough that everyone was satisfied! And, no, this did not become a new tradition. From then on, I went back to writing everyone's names on their packages. But that Christmas morning, amidst mayhem and confusion, one of our most beloved memories was born!

BTW...around April, when I was getting something out of the china cabinet I found THE LIST! As it turned out, losing it proved to be a wonderful happenstance! Do you have a favorite holiday mishap that turned out wonderfully? Please share!

Actions Speak Louder than Slush

Let me set the stage...late afternoon Thanksgiving Weekend, a snowstorm...no, a slushstorm...and (insert ominous music here)... THE MALL.

The principle characters...me, an extremely exhausted mom with my 9 year old son that just finished up his Christmas shopping.

The plot...after an exhausting but productive shopping spree, mother and son battle the elements and make what must be a four mile trek out to their car. It seems for the holidays The Mall annexed property in the next county to accommodate the hordes of shoppers. Having procured the WORST possible parking spot in the whole lot, tired mom sits in her seat and starts the car. She kicks the heat up all the way hoping to restore the feeling in her frozen toes before making the drive home, when 9 year old son in backseat says, "Uh oh, Mom. There's a problem." Nothing good can come of this! She's begins praying for something simple like frostbitten fingers or a frozen seatbelt buckle. But alas, something far worse! When looking at a receipt The Boy notices that the Hallmark shop accidentally forgot to charge him for a $1.95 Troll he bought for his sister.

The conflict...9 year old son wishes to return to the Mall to rectify the situation. Near crazed mom wants to drive away fast and never look back! What to do?

At this point two axioms wrestle in the mother's thoughts. First, "Actions speak louder than words", and second, "Do as I say, not as I do". This is the type of moral quandary we face everyday as parents. We wish to teach our children to do the right thing...to be honest, to be fair, to take turns, to be compassionate, and to live by the "Golden Rule". Trouble is, as time goes by, rationalization has infiltrated our own personal values and our actions are often in direct conflict with the lessons we wish to instill in our own children. Mom's internal value system can easily identify the absurdity of tromping through the snow yet again for a measly $2.00. She can rationalize that someone, somewhere this week probably overcharged her by $2.00 so, in the long run, it all evens out. When faced with the Artic conditions, distraught mom wonders if it isn't time the child learned the nuances of honesty.

But there he sits, receipt in hand, with his integrity still intact. So, going against every survival instinct the mother possess, she turns, looks at the imploring eyes of her 9 year old son and says as enthusiastically as she possibly can, "Glad you caught that. Okay, let's go!" And back they tromp...through what has now escalated into a full fledge blizzard, to right a wrong. The salesgirl at the counter is not impressed. Her manager is standing behind her frowning. She'll undoubtedly be reamed later for her carelessness. Plus, the salesgirl is clueless as to how to fix this situation. Increasingly annoyed manager asks her to step aside as she takes over the transaction. The line behind them is getting ugly. Mom can feel their stares boring through her skull. No one is applauding her actions. No one is congratulating the boy for his profound honesty.

But, as Mom bundles up yet again to make their way back out to the car, SHE is proud; proud of her son, and yes, proud of herself. Sure, someday the son will start making his own rationalizations, but not on her watch. As long as she has anything to do with it she will encourage his moral behavior. She will also humbly learn from it!

Our children need us to be the people we hope they become. Although daunting at times, and near impossible at others, it is the gauntlet that challenges us to be our best!