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Adventures in Pruning

Stay tuned to see if I can successfully transplant these
around our new deck before Emmalee’s shower!

Last night David caught me in a rather silly situation. He was mowing the lawn–in an impressive diagonal pattern he learned from my father–and I was cutting some lilac blossoms to arrange in our house. He shut down the motor as he walked past to give me a kiss and a grin. He got a laugh instead: I was singing, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” There were no “kids jingle-belling,” and no one was yelling, “Be of good cheer!” But to me, it is the most wonderful time of the year.

This was the first chance I’d had to really enjoy spring, although it wasn’t my first chance to prune blossoms. Two days prior to my brother-in-law’s wedding, I received a frantic call from my mother-in-law requiring my help decorating the ceremony site of his wedding. Something had happened regarding the florist; just what that was remains unclear today. I committed to bringing potted hydrangeas and cuttings of blooming Red Bud and Hawthorn trees. There our adventure began.

The day of the rehearsal dinner, David and I got up early. The night before we’d had a significant storm, and hail had not been kind to my young Red Bud and Hawthorn trees. My plans of decorating Thomas and Jess’s wedding site with our own cuttings was history. But blessed with a Master Gardener named Kristin in our church family, I had an idea of how to solve the flower crisis. Kristin is one of the kindest people I know. The success she has cultivating her beautiful gardens (and even more beautiful family) must be due to her own sweet spirit and to her beloved Holy Spirit. She offered us her blossoms. She trusted us to prune from her trees while she was at work. I am eternally grateful.

Hawthorn and Tulip Magnolia cuttings now resting–and wilting–in the trunk of our Civic, David and I set out to find blooming hydrangeas. Silly me thought this would be easy. WRONG.  We went to every home improvement store in Murfreesboro and 2 nurseries. No hydrangeas. Apparently we were 2 days too early. Plan B? Grocery stores. Publix had them, so we hit 3 different Publix stores and bought all they had.

Hawthorn cuttings? check.

Potted hydrangeas? check.

The bucketful of cuttings took my usual place in the
passenger’s seat.

Red Bud cuttings? David had an idea with which I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable. He dropped me and the accumulated flowers at home, and he set off for the country. I’m not exactly sure where he went, but 30 minutes later my hero returned with more Red Bud blossoms than our entire tree had held the night before the hail storm.

Three hours early, David and I went to the rehearsal dinner. He drove 30 minutes with branches poking him, and I sneezed my way there surrounded by hydrangeas and fighting car sickness.

My centerpiece for the Rehearsal Dinner, styled by Rebekah.

Our work was worth it. Even Thomas said that the prettiest part of the Rehearsal Dinner was the centerpiece that didn’t cost him any money–unlike those pesky $400 chair rentals! David and I stayed mum about our adventure. 🙂

Congratulations and Best Wishes to Thomas and Jessica! I am oh-so happy to welcome Jess to our family.

Busy as a Bee in Spring

Lilacs intoxicate my home with their smell
for a short 2 weeks each year.

Spring is my favorite season. I love watching life come to all the flora and fauna: the blooming trees and shrubs, and the dozens of bunnies who like to make our yard into a minefield. This year has been especially lovely with the perfect blend of rain, sun, and cool temperatures. It wasn’t until this weekend that I noticed the first bees and wasps, and mosquitoes are still at bay. As my allergies will be until late June.

Almost as beautiful as my husband’s lush green lawn is this
beautiful Weeping Cherry tree, in bloom each spring.

This year is by far the busiest spring I’ve ever had. Beginning the last weekend in March and ending the last weekend in June, I have either a wedding, bridal shower, or baby shower every Saturday. I am heavily involved in several of these, most notably my brother-in-law’s wedding, my sister-in-law’s wedding, and my friend Emmalee’s baby shower. Spring is inspiring the decorations for each event, and in the weeks to come, I’ll share my madcap decorating adventures for each.

"All the Matriarchs Were Infertile"

Originally published at HearTheVoice.com.

My elder said it, my best friend said it, and—to her absolute horror today—my mother said it. Before I struggled with infertility, I have no doubt that I cavalierly said it to some of my friends, too: “Sarah was ninety years old before she had Isaac.” That seems to be the gut reaction whenever you tell your Christian friends that you’re having trouble getting pregnant. To be fair, there is nothing anyone can say to make you feel better. All your loved ones want to do is bolster your faith by reminding you that you’re in good company, that the heroines of our faith had the same heartache that you do.

Consider some of the women in the Bible who struggled with infertility: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth. What do all these women have in common? God “blessed” them with children. And that’s great. In most cases it was miraculous! God looked down from heaven, saw their struggles, loved them, and blessed them with children. Sons, in fact. They all get the happiest of endings in the time it takes to read about three verses of Scripture. This is inspiring, right? This is why our loved ones reference them so readily.

The next time someone tells you about Sarah or Hannah, try to remember that response is coming from a place of love. Then smile tolerantly and forget it! The Bible was not written by women. If it had been, then we’d know more about these women’s day-to-day struggles and not go straight to the resolution of their stories. The matriarchs are minor characters in God’s redemptive story. The miracles of their pregnancies have more to do with the babies they had than the women they were. As a result, their stories don’t offer us modern infertility patients very much help.

The most inspiring woman in the Bible, to me, is granted three verses of Scripture. Anna was the wife of a temple priest, and she did not have children. She went to the temple courtyard every day, and she prayed. Because of her faithfulness, God promised she’d see the Christ child before she died. At eighty-six years old, Anna was doing her habitual morning prayer when Mary and Joseph walked in with eight-day-old Jesus. She saw (or maybe held?) the baby, she blessed Him, and then she died. That’s all we know!

At that very moment, an elderly woman named Anna stepped forward. Anna was a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She had been married for seven years before her husband died and a widow to her current age of 84 years. She was deeply devoted to the Lord, constantly in the temple, fasting and praying. When she approached Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, she began speaking out thanks to God, and she continued spreading the word about Jesus to all those who shared her hope for the rescue of Jerusalem.  (Luke 2:36–38, The Voice)

Just like the matriarchs’, Anna’s story isn’t about Anna. Luke didn’t put it there so infertile woman could identify with her. Her story is in the gospel because she identified Jesus as the Messiah. The fact that she was childless is ancillary. I wish I knew more about her. I wish I knew how she survived month after month of disappointment. I wonder if she was ever pregnant. Did she have a miscarriage? Did she have a baby and then lose him or her to illness?

Anna teaches us something very important. Her three verses of Scripture prove that children are not a reward for a woman’s faithfulness to God. That may not be the primary point of the Scripture, but I know the Holy Spirit slipped the detail in there to give me hope when I needed it most.

Unleavened Bread

Unleavened dough–ready for the oven

If you ever visit New Heights Chapel, you’ll find a church family steeped in tradition. We are a nondenominational church with roots in the Brethren tradition. We have two primary services: (1) a contemporary service with your usual praise songs, prayer, and teaching; and (2) a conservative meeting where the men stand and share what they’ve learned in personal study of the Bible that week, the women are silent and keep their heads covered, and we all sing hymns a cappella. One obvious connection remains between the two services: the observance of communion.

About 5 years ago, the elders asked if I would be willing to bake the communion bread occasionally. No stale crackers for us: Mrs. Seagroves had been baking unleavened bread every week since my family has attended NHC. She was getting older and losing her vision, so she needed the help. The recipe that came my way looked something like this:

Unleavened Bread

  • Regular flour
  • Sugar
  • milk
  • shortening

No proportions. No instructions. She cooked the way my grandmother did: from memory. While there is a certain charm to old recipes, this was a nightmare.

Enter the one tool my grandmother never dreamed of: the Internet. There are days when I genuinely thank God for this miracle of technology. I googled communion bread and found a million different recipes. I had direction. After several months (maybe years) of playing with the technique and proportions, I’ve pretty much got it down to a science. Like Mrs. Seagroves, I now have this recipe memorized, and I’ve enjoyed sharing it with others–some who now bake bread for the church once a month, and others who genuinely love the stuff and want to make it at home. What a compliment!

On this Maundy Thursday, I’m doubling my recipe in anticipation of Easter Sunday and a big church crowd. I’m also thanking God for this connection to my Christian ancestors and, more importantly, for Jesus’ flesh and blood sacrifice that communion represents Easter Sunday and every Sunday.

Communion Bread

An unleavened bread recipe brought to College Heights Chapel by Frank Couch, prepared every Sunday for 2 decades by Mrs. Frances Seagroves, and updated in 2007 by Amanda Haley.

Makes ~200 pieces

PREP 10 minutes
COOK 20 minutes
TOTAL 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 Crisco stick, original flavor
  • 1/3 c sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 c all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 c milk

Instructions

  • In a stand mixer, blend shortening, sugar, and salt with paddle blade until fluffy. Add 1 c of flour, and blend thoroughly. Add half of milk, and blend thoroughly. Repeat, ending with flour. Switch from the paddle to the dough hook, and knead for 3 minutes.
  • Roll dough out on a pizza stone. Using a pizza cutter, cut into squares. Bake at 400 degrees for 18 minutes.
  • When cool, break apart the pieces and transfer to a Ziploc bag.

Additional notes

There is so much fat content in the shortening that it doesn’t matter what type of cow’s milk you use. Go with what’s in your refrigerator already.

Do not knead the dough longer than 3 minutes: it becomes rubbery. Do not skip the kneading step: the dough is too sticky to roll out.

If you have trouble cutting the raw dough, it may be refrigerated for about 30 minutes to firm the dough. If you do this, make sure the dough has returned to room temperature before baking it.

This dough–raw or cooked–does not freeze or refrigerate well. If making ahead of time, store in an airtight container on the counter top.

A Fishy Saturday (Part 3 of 3)

Daddy loved the oysters almost as much as
being served all night!

The problem with seafood meals is that you must eat everything as it is ready. You can’t keep fish warm without overcooking it. That means fish isn’t the best thing to serve when you have company over if you want to be a part of the party. My parents arrived about 5:15, just as David put the oysters in the oven and I was making the roux for the chowder. Daddy sat down at the table and chatted while Mama ran around helping us. We wouldn’t leave the kitchen for the whole evening.

The dinner was haphazard but delicious. After every course I’d jump up from the table and run to the kitchen to plate the next dish. The chowder took longer to cook than we anticipated, so we ended up having our soup after the main course. Nontraditional, sure, but it allowed us to eat everything exactly when it was ready.

By the time we’d finished eating about 7:15, none of us wanted to move.

So we stayed there…and played Canasta! Mama and I dominated for the first 4 rounds, but the boys had a major comeback on the last hand and won it all. At the start of that last hand, we ate Mama’s Chocolate-Cheese Pie. Amazing! It was a brownie-cheesecake hybrid cooked in a pie plate without a crust. It helped sooth our unexpected loss of the game and capped off the evening perfectly.

A Fishy Saturday (Part 2 of 3)

Thank goodness for smart phones. We knew we had no time to waste, so I immediately started googling for a spoon fish recipe but to no avail. This must be a fisherman’s term that hasn’t entered the culinary world quite yet. Deciding to skip Jozoara, we grabbed a quick breakfast at Stones River Grill and planned our attack:

Appetizers: Oysters Rockefeller (because Daddy and I are the only ones who love them raw) and Clams in White Wine Butter Sauce

Soup: Seafood Chowder

Dinner: Red Snapper with Pear-Goat Cheese Salad, Broccoli Cheese Casserole (Mama’s contribution), and Rolls (also Mama–she’s no moocher!)

Step 1: Shopping!

We’d have to get into those oysters. David has seen enough Chopped episodes to know NOT to open them with a knife unless we wanted to add an ER trip to our agenda. We stopped at Chef Mart and bought a oyster knife for $3. Not bad!

Publix was next: shallots, spinach, lemons, canned clams (no use wasting the fresh ones in a soup!), and cream. Lots of cream.

Step 2: Making the Broth

My husband is a real trooper. He got into those carcasses like a pro–after I found him “something silicone” so he wouldn’t have to touch the icky fish. Who knew a grill mitt was multifunctional?

Meanwhile I raided our refrigerator for any veggies on their last legs. Carrots, celery, parsnips, onions: get in that broth!

A few hours later we had the tastiest fish broth I’ve ever had. Our chowder was looking promising!

Step 3: Prepping the Oysters

This was a bit of an adventure for my sweet husband. He gleefully took our new oyster knife and grabbed an oyster. Those shells are locked very tightly! It took him a few attempts to figure out how to pry a shellfish open, but once he did, he was a machine. All were ready in under a minute. We added the spinach and cheese we’d prepared and voila! Oysters Rockefeller were ready for the oven.

Step 4: Cooking the Chowder

In my 10 years as a married woman, I have become a master roux maker. That’s how this delectable dish began: shallots sauteed in butter plus flour plus cream, cream, and more cream. David chopped and added the potatoes, clams, and “spoon fish”; then we waited an hour or so for the best chowder we’d ever eaten. Move over Boston Chowda Company!

Step 5: Sauteing the Clams

Our last dish for the evening was one of the first we’d eat with my parents: Clams in White Wine and Butter Sauce. We didn’t really follow a recipe for this; it was all by feel. I started with a knob (as Jamie Oliver would say) of butter, then I sauteed more shallots. Next I added wine and some porcini mushrooms, and I let that all cook together for a few minutes. I then dumped in the clams and let them steam until they opened. After removing the clams, I added some cream and let the sauce thicken just a bit before I dumped it over the clams and set the whole appetizer on the table.

Stay tuned for part 3: our big meal!

A Fishy Saturday (Part 1 of 3)

Today has not gone as planned. David and I like to head to our favorite local coffee shop, Jozoara, and hang out while I do a little blogging and he reads…over my shoulder. It’s become a nice Saturday tradition that I look forward to. Oatmeal, their Local Latte, and writing.

Before we could go to Jozoara today, I had to stop by Reel Fish. This company is a fresh seafood supplier to many restaurants in Middle Tennessee, and on Fridays and Saturdays the public can buy from them too. Yesterday I went in for red snapper and little neck clams so I could make David and me a fancy dinner tonight. Their credit card reader was down, so the owner let me take the fish with a promise that I’d bring a check to him.

When we arrived check-in-hand this morning, the owner was the only person there. We chatted for awhile about our mutual love of fresh fish, and I paid him for yesterday’s food. As David and I turned to leave, he yelled, “Do you like oysters?” Duh. He went into the refrigerator and came back with a bagful of oysters and another bagful of this:

David making “spoon fish” from mahi mahi.

That’s 2 mahi mahi carcasses. He had sold the fillets of those fish to restaurants, and he planned to make “spoon fish” out of what was left. He told us to take the carcasses home and use a spoon to scrape the remaining flesh from around the spine. It would be enough meat to make “about 2 sandwiches.”

We took our smelly treasure with a smile–and a little trepidation. What on earth were we going to do with all this fish? We now had too much fresh fish to consume in one evening. Impromptu dinner party with Mama and Daddy Womack? You bet!

Stay tuned for part 2 of our culinary adventure!

(Almost) Spring Pruning

I know it’s crazy, but my favorite yard chore comes every year at the end of February: pruning our crepe myrtles. It’s the one time I get out in the yard and boss my husband instead of the other-way-around. I am the pruning queen.

For years I subscribed to Southern Living magazine. It’s great for the new homeowner below the Mason-Dixon Line. It has tips on Southern travel, gardening, and food. The most important article I ever read came in the February 2007 issue. “Stop! Don’t Chop Crepe Myrtles” by Steve Bender taught me how to truly care for the gorgeous summertime trees.

Like most Southerners, I’d been taught to chop the tops off of crepe myrtles every winter to keep them at the desired height. Everyone does it: you can drive down any street in Murfreesboro these days and see the landscape companies chopping the tops off the crepe myrtles in the road medians. Whatever you do, never hire a company that does that!

If you need a shorter crepe myrtle–as the City of Murfreesboro clearly does, and as we do next to our deck steps–then buy a dwarf version such as Hopi. They top out at 8 feet. If you want something tall, as we do on the corner of the house and side of the deck, then go with the regular kind. They’ll get as tall as 20 feet and provide some decent shade in the hot summer months. The only downside is that a tall ladder is necessary for your winter pruning. Preferably a tall ladder and a tall husband, as my 5’3″ frame can’t reach high enough to prune the tops no matter how high the ladder.

If you don’t top them, what do you do? Just “clean” the main branches by pruning off all the secondary growth from the year before. You’ll find the activity is instantly gratifying. Sure, there will be nothing but a bunch of dead-looking sticks coming out of your mulch, but come summer you’ll have clean, healthy plants!

Before
After

Isn’t that better?

Citizen of Smashville

Daddy and me at a Predators play-off game.

I’m a lucky charm. Ask any fan in section 316 of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, and he’ll agree. (It’s mostly hes there.)

Four years ago, my daddy went in with some coworkers and bought 2 season tickets to the Nashville Predators. I’ve always enjoyed hockey–because of The Mighty Ducks movies and a girlhood crush on Joshua Jackson–but going to the games was not much more to me than a chance to bond with Daddy. He loves almost all organized sports, but I’m more “discriminating.” Like my mother, typically I’d rather stay home and cook something fancy. Or sleep.

But I love hockey now. I can throw around terms such as icing (not on cakes), charging (not on a credit card), boarding (not on an airplane), and hip check (not my move in an Ann Taylor 3-way mirror) just as well as all those big guys in jerseys smushed into the tiny chairs all around me. I have not, however, adopted their foul language and generally sour attitudes toward the refs. I’m a very ladylike hockey fan. I just sit there quietly, biting my nails until the Preds score. 🙂

Predators v. Red Wings

I think all the fans of 316 are thankful whenever they see Daddy walk in with me instead of with my husband, David. This is for two reasons: I don’t have to “smush” in between them as my 6’1″ husband does, and more importantly, the Predators have NEVER lost when I’ve been in the audience. Yes, there have been a few close calls in OT, but they’ve always pulled it out with the incredible goal tending of Pekke Rinne.

We tested my powers once last year. Daddy and David were at the game, and I was home doing laundry. (I bet Mama was cooking something fancy or sleeping…) The game came on a different channel than usual, so I was watching a movie and ironing, thinking it had been blacked out. David called me just before the 3rd period to tell me that they were losing. Badly. I hunted for the channel, eventually found it, and watched from home. Apparently my superpowers are affected by distance. I was able to will them to a tie that night, but not a win.

This begs the question, Why does Daddy bother taking anyone other than me with him?

My New Home Office

I’ve always enjoyed dabbling in home improvement. My mother tells stories of me racing home from elementary school to watch Hometime on PBS. I was convinced I could build an entire log cabin from scratch, as long as I had the right tools. I did put together anything my parents ever bought, be it Daddy’s new propane grill or Mama’s new computer desk. They were giant puzzles to me.

In real life, I’ve tiled the back splash in the kitchen, landscaped all around the house, reupholstered furniture, and painted every room in the house twice–once when we moved in, and once with Low-VOC paint because my doctor told me to. (I’ll now admit that second time was mostly an excuse to redecorate!)

The last room on my list of easy renovations was my home office. I’ve worked from home since we moved back to Tennessee doing translation work, writing, and editing for Thomas Nelson Publishers. The original plan was to turn my office into a nursery once we had a baby. It was already painted yellow, and I’d never spent any time improving the furniture or curtains in there because I just knew it was all temporary. A few months ago, I decided it was time to invest in me and get rid of what had become a constant unconscious reminder of my infertility:

 

I had to do this renovation on the cheap. The wall paint was leftover from when I repainted the kitchen, the curtains were a $5 find that I augmented with some trim, the furniture was rearranged, and I framed the Harvard prints myself with leftover fabric and old frames.

 

I lived with the office this way for a few months, loving it but sensing something was missing. I decided I needed a new light fixture. Something that was bold, and something that would put the light closer to my desk to reduce shadows as I worked. I found this at Home Depot:


What do you think? Too much? I wired it myself. 😉