Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thankful for Home, 27 November 2014

Today will be the largest dinner I've hosted yet: Including my sons and little nephews, we'll have 18 for Thanksgiving!  Two of the nephews don't have enough teeth for turkey, but I'm still roasting 33 pounds for the rest of us (12.5 lbs went through the oven yesterday; the other 20.5 get going in an hour).

This year has the extra-special added element of an overseas visit from my sister Kay's family, who we haven't seen for two years.  And the extra-extra special part of their visit is that now they have Baby C...who I've been longing to meet since his birth 10 months ago!  Kisses over video chat just aren't the same thing as mooshing on plump cheeks in person.  Today will be the first time all five cousins--my two boys, Claire's two boys, and Kay's--will be together.  This Auntie is beside herself anticipating all those fuzzy heads whooping, crawling, or drooling all over her house.  It will also be such a joy to see my Dad with his grandsons inevitably piled all over him.

But on that note, there is also inevitable sadness because my Mom isn't here to see and know her grandchildren.  G is the only one who remembers her--and it's hazy at that, since he was only three and a half years old when she died--and she never got to meet the youngest three boys.  Holidays are full of mixed emotions anyway, especially for this tradition-oriented family.  We did things basically the same way every year, from the location to the food, and it's been a slow grief process to gradually form new traditions.

Some of our traditions have remained, however--like having our big dinner at noon and enjoying leftovers and pie for supper--and since this is Kay's first American Thanksgiving in six years, we're leaning on our traditional growing-up foods, too: Turkey with from-scratch bread stuffing, Boston brown bread, steamed green beans with slivered almonds and sour cream, red garnet yams with butter, mashed potatoes and gravy, jellied cranberry sauce (no whole cranberries allowed; my mom tried to introduce that but there weren't enough takers), and six different pies.

Not that different from many other Americans' Day of Thanks fare, but these particular dishes taste like home to us siblings...and I am so thankful for home--for the loving home I grew up in, for the welcoming home I have now, and for the eternal Home my mom has already gotten to.  In some ways, no matter what the joy or sadness, with my Heavenly Father at my side I'm always home.  Wherever you are today, may you feel welcomed home too.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pumpkin Gingerbread (Vegan and Low-Fat), 07 November 2014

Good morning!  Z and I are sitting in front of the fire (yay for our new fireplace!) on this lovely fall morning, having just finished a scrummy breakfast.

A couple days ago, Claire--whose oven has quit working and is having baking withdrawals--brought the nephews over and baked pumpkin cookies while I had Auntie time.  Everyone was delighted.  The can of pumpkin she used was one of those double-size ones, so about two cups of leftover puree found its way into my fridge.  Naturally, I needed to use it up.

(I just realized that the last recipe post I wrote was also about leftover pumpkin, haha!)

Add a craving for my mom's acclaimed gingerbread recipe, and I came up with a vegan, low-low-fat, easy result with a lovely moist, spongy texture.  Since this isn't a food blog, I won't entrance you with photographs of every ingredient and 17 pics of the finished product from different angles; I'll just share the recipe.  Okay, and one picture.

P.S.  I also had leftover cream cheese frosting from Claire's cookies, so for you non-vegan peeps, I highly recommend a good schmear over the gingerbread for a sweeter treat.  Or pair it with a slice or two of sharp cheddar cheese for a healthy-feeling breakfast...like I enjoyed this morning!

Pumpkin Gingerbread

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  Oil and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

In a large bowl, combine with electric mixer:
1 cup canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 cup molasses
1 cup light corn syrup
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups hot* water (about 110 degrees F)

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 3/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. each baking soda, cinnamon, and ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves

Beat on medium speed for 3 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally.  Pour into prepared pans and bake for 50 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  Cool in pans on wire racks, or serve warm if desired.

*If using refrigerated pumpkin, heat water to about 150 degrees F

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Thankful, 04 November 2014

Today I am completely humbled and filled with gratefulness.  I have such an easy life.

When my parents were newlywed college students, they were asked to take part in a broad study that looked at employment history and wages and family relationships.  They continued to be interviewed every few years, and when we kids rolled around, we started being interviewed too.  "Here comes the Interview Lady!" someone would announce, and the rest of the day was spent with a nicely-dressed woman with a clipboard and rudimentary laptop, who questioned the eight of us in turn for hours.

This process has continued with us "kids" into adulthood, and today I had my interview.  I was asked about family relationships, about income, about employment history, about my children, my religion, my personality traits, and so-on (it took three hours; this is a serious study!).  The more questions I answered, the humbler I became.  Yeah, my parents and I have made a lot of good choices, but so much of where I am today has absolutely nothing to do with being "good."  My heart breaks for those for whom the answers to these questions are completely different from mine.

"In the last 12 months, have you ever been without a place you could depend on to sleep?"  No.

"In the last 12 months, how often have you felt you were treated more unfairly than other people?"  Never.

"Have you ever been been personally beaten or the victim of any other violent crime?"  No.

"How often have you gone without something you need, because you could not afford it?"  Never.

"Think about your childhood.  Was there ever a period when your family did not have enough to eat?"  No.

"How often do members of your family have calm discussions?  Every day, a few times a week, once or twice a month, several times a year, or Never?"  Every day.

"Other than spankings, how often do members of your family hit each other?"  Never.

"In the last 12 months, were you ever denied employment because of being treated unfairly?"  No.

"Within your day-to-day life, how often do you feel you receive the same respect as other people?  Every day, a few times a week, once or twice a month, several times a year, or Never?"  Every day.

"In the last 12 months, how often were you unfairly stopped, targeted, or questioned by law enforcement?"  Never.

"Have you ever seriously contemplated suicide?"  No.

"In the last 3 months, how many days of work or school did you miss because you were physically or emotionally unable to attend?"  Zero.  (Yes, even SAHMs can miss work by literally not being able to get out of bed.)

"In the last 12 months, how many days of work or school did you miss because you were physically ill?"  Three.  Three days only.

"During the last 3 months, how often did G or Z seem confused, as if in a fog, or unresponsive?"  Never.

"All in all, how would you rate your satisfaction in life?  Very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied?"  Very satisfied.

My life isn't perfect.  I had an emotionally difficult time answering questions about whether I'd lost anyone close to me in the last four years (Yes, three women); and I answered that my biological mother was 52 years old when she died; and yes, I'd lost a home to a foreclosure.  But I've dealt with those things without ever dealing with discrimination based on my age, gender, ethnicity, or economic status; without ever struggling to buy my children nutritious food; without ever worrying about where we would sleep the next day/week/month.

Why me?  Why do I happen to be a Caucasian in a country where Caucasians are generally treated with respect?  Why did I happen to be born into a family with a continued upward economic trajectory?  Why did I happen to have children born to me without any physical or  mental illnesses?  Why do I happen to be alive in a time and place where women are given at the very least the same legal respect as men?  Why do I happen to even be alive today?

I don't know the "why"s, but I do know this: It's not because of me.  Every single one of those answers could change tomorrow, but that still wouldn't be because of me.

I am so humbled at the gifts God has chosen to give me at this time, and sobered as I contemplate how to share them.  I am so thankful for Today.  Tonight's prayer is that I can be just as thankful tomorrow...whether I'm given the same gifts or not.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Project: Fireplace Transformation

One of the things we loved when we bought our home four years ago was that it had a wood-burning insert in the living room.  Having grown up with a two-story home heated in the winter by a wood-burning stove, I was excited about being able to do that with this house.

Unfortunately, I didn't take into account the fact that 1) no-burn days are rampant; 2) we can't grow or harvest our own firewood like my parents did; 3) this particular stove had a big big flue problem and filled the house with smoke when we tried to light it.  So in the four years we've lived here, we've used the stove about four times.

We repainted the walls/trim before moving in and above is the decor we've had for the last four years, sippy cup not usually included.

This summer, I did a lot of brainstorming.  What if, I mused, we got rid of that rather beastly stove which juts out into our living space?  What if we replaced it with something that turns on with a switch, is efficient, is flat, and isn't limited by burn days?  And what if I painted the brick white to clean up the look of the room?

So I researched gas inserts, efficient heating methods, and many pros and cons of painting brick.  (Turns out that's a topic with heated arguments on both sides, no pun intended.)  Meanwhile, I decided to repaint the wall above the mantel.  In another effort to calm the look of our busy living room, I had decided that it would be lovely to paint white the several walls of cedar planking we have.  Unfortunately, the photos I have don't really showcase the paneling that's above the mantel, but trust me, it's there.

Like my manicure?
I painted that wall at the same time I was doing the media nook in early August, and here's the first incarnation of its redecoration.

If you read my project post about transforming the buffet into an entertainment console, you will have noticed that this Thomas Kinkade rip-off painting always appeared over the buffet.  The painting was actually Jay's first anniversary gift to me and has had a prominent spot every place we've lived.  But when the buffet moved and a tall new-to-us hutch took its place, the painting had to move.  I thought this arrangement was pretty clever, if a little nontraditional.  However, when Mrs. FIL--who is an interior decorator--saw it, she commented, "That painting doesn't really go, does it.  Looks like you're trying to fit something too large in that space."  Hmm.

Back to the fireplace.  At first, Jay didn't even really want to talk about buying a gas insert.  But as I shared with him my findings on efficiency...and discovered a large rebate program in our area...and discovered a contractor offering some manufacturer rebates...and as Jay imagined the ease, beauty, and coziness of fires whenever we wanted them, he got excited and gave me the green light.

So in late September a couple guys came out to remove the beast and install a happy little gas insert!

Check out all that ash on top of the stove!  The flue basically had no draft, which explains why we had trouble keeping a fire going.

This was an exciting part. The two guys huffed and puffed getting that thing out of the house.

Venting hose goes into the chimney.
New insert ready to get hooked up!  Light as a feather compared to the old one.
Et voila!  After a couple hours we had our lovely new fireplace ready to go.  Too bad it was 90 degrees and too hot to run it.

Doesn't that look so much better?
After looking at the fireplace for a couple hours, I decided to pull the trigger: This brick was getting painted.  Not wasting any time, I spent the evening prepping the brick which took a whole lot of elbow grease and a whole lot of water.  You kinda have to wonder how often this brick had been cleaned since it was installed in the late '70s.  It certainly hadn't been cleaned during the last four years...

First I layed dropcloths on all the near surfaces, including the brand new insert.  Why didn't I paint before it was installed, you ask?  Because my paint job would have been destroyed by hauling out the old stove.  In a perfect world, I would have had a day between the old one coming out and the new one going in, but contractors don't really make appointments like that.

Then I scrubbed the whole thing down with a wire brush, dipping it in a mixture of warm water and liquid dish detergent.  I refilled the water bucket after about every two rows of bricks because the water turned so black.

Next, I rinsed down everything with clean water and a cloth.

I rinsed it twice.  And this is the color of the water after just a portion of the second rinse:

Eew.  But having spent a couple hours getting it to this point, I decided the paint would have to make up its own mind to stick regardless of any remaining soot residue.

Next morning after dropping the kids off at school, I taped off the insert and rolled a coat of primer over the brick.

One article I read suggested using masonry primer, but the hardware store I went to didn't carry it, so I just used the regular latex primer I had left over in a can from--ahem--painting our house four years ago.  Waste not want not!  I should have used a roller with 3/4" nap to get into all the nooks and crannies, but I was cheap and decided to use the less expensive 1/2".  That actually ended up being a lot more work though because I had to use a brush to cram primer into the gaps.

No wasting here.  I had not a drop too much of primer to finish the coat. Phew!
After the primer was on, I snuck in a quick bite to eat,

and then rushed to the hardware store to get a 3/4" nap roller for the paint.  No way did I want to do that whole brush thing again.  I grabbed the roller and drove straight from the store to the kids' school; upon my arrival to his classroom Z chided me, "Mom, I'm the last one here!  You're late!"  Yeah yeah.  I'm also covered in primer, kid.

Once back at home, I started the painting.  It took two coats of paint on top of the primer (Behr's "Gallery White" latex interior semigloss, in case your interested, the same as our trim) before it looked really covered.  In fact, after the first coat dried to the touch, it looked like I'd used a flat sheen because so much paint soaked into the porous brick.  It probably could have used a third coat, but I was done with all the cutting-in around edges.  I had also been none too careful painting the brick edges next to the wall, so I touched up those areas too.  (**Note** Mr. Internet gave me some tips on how to avoid getting paint onto the carpet next to the hearth.)

Taadaa!  And the very next day the weather temperature dropped temporarily, so I took advantage of it by opening all the windows and running the insert for four hours to cure its paint.  And even with all the windows open and fans running, our living room still heated up to 80 degrees.  Niiiiice.

First fire.  Yay!!  A month later and we still haven't had a second fire though.  Too darn warm around here.
Now all that was left was to decide on mantel decor.  I thought more about what Mrs. FIL had said about the painting and suddenly inspiration hit.  Remove the frame!  And while browsing at a local home store, I found some lovely green accent pieces, which Mrs. FIL later helped me combine with some I already had at home.

The result?

I love it sooooooooooooooo much!!  It lightens and freshens our entire living room.  And I can't wait for winter weather so that we can have easy, cosy, warm fires every day.

What a transformation, huh?


And after:

It sure makes me happy!  What do you think about painting brick?  Would you give up the crackle and snap of a wood fire for the convenience and efficiency of a gas insert?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Project: Dresser Turned Media Console, Part 1

My mom loved thrift store furniture finds, which is probably why I do too.  During my final year of college, in which I was preparing a voice recital, taking lots of classes, and preparing to marry Jay, my mom took it upon herself to furnish my apartment from thrift stores.

Ikea would have been a more chic option if we'd had it, but we got things that did the trick.  A looooooooong couch that took up an entire living room wall (and took off some of the doorjamb paint getting in), a swivel chair, a little round table for the kitchen, and a nine-drawer dresser for the one bedroom.

Were these pieces pretty?  No.  But they did the job!  In fact, the dresser has been doing the job for the last 12 years; when we moved out of that apartment into our first house, it became a "buffet" in our living room, storing linens, infrequently-used kitchen utensils, and whatever else we managed to cram in.

A vacuum cleaner salesman commented it looked like I lived in a grandma's house.  Touche.
On special occasions, it became an extension of the kitchen for spreading out food or a platform for decor.

See the corner with the folding chairs and table? That corner was our dining room. The kitchen is on the other side of the buffet wall...and about the same dimensions.
 After kids started arriving, wicker baskets (from Ikea this time) were added underneath to hide toys.

G looks for an escaped toy.

When we bought our current home, it continued to serve a similar function, also standing in our--much larger--living room.

Hidden under a tablecloth for the tea party goodies! Also present is the china cabinet in its '80s brass glory.
And when the kids started school, it housed text books and work sheets, plus card games, linens, and even books.

But over this last year, a few things changed: Namely, I got more thrift store furniture.  The buffet drawers slowly emptied as I found new homes for things, and I began to wonder if this highly functional albeit highly dated piece of furniture had outlived its use.

Meanwhile, here's what our living room's media nook looked like.

This cabinet was purchased new (shock) from Ikea when we needed something lockable to keep electronics safe from little boys.

Works just fine, but check out all that wasted space on the sides!  And then on August 11th at about 3 a.m., inspiration struck.  By 9:00 a.m., Jay was at work, the kids were at school, I had a borrowed Sawzall, and my brilliant idea began to take shape.

First, I unplugged and lugged everything out of the media nook...and then wiped down the walls and prepped for paint.  Because why wouldn't I add painting a few walls to my day's activities?

After getting the first coat of paint on, I started with the dresser.  First, drawers out.

Next, I removed the back, which was thankfully a fairly flimsy piece of plywood stapled on.  The back of a hammer took care of it.

After unscrewing greasy drawer tracks from key spots, I got out the saw and created a sub-woofer home.  This actually took more work than I thought it wood would, and after getting a blade stuck and breaking it getting it unstuck in an attempt to trim off a certain edge, I called it "good enough" and committed to cleaning up the edges when I paint it.  Yes, painting coming in Part 2.  What, you thought I enjoy the finish on this thing?

I found a scrap of sturdy OSB in the garage and cut it to fit across the bottom of the sub-woofer shelf, lending extra support.

I can't remember if at this point I was able to put the second coat of paint on the walls, or if it was time to pick up the boys from school.  I do remember that I skipped my afternoon nap to keep working on my living room project.  I do not remember if I cooked dinner.  I can guarantee that I ate dinner, though.

Jay--who was completely astonished and in awe of this brilliant idea that I'd executed by myself without consulting him first--helped me get the heavy pieces moved around and the electronics plugged back in.  I have a recollection of adjusting speaker heights after the kids had gone to bed, so that suggests that I wasn't finished until after 8:00, but this is what I ended up with:

Pretty nifty, eh?  Look how perfectly it fits in this space!  And check out what I did with three of the removed drawers for under-console storage space.  Jay also happened to think that was brilliant.

In Part 2 of this project, the dresser-turned-buffet-turned-console will get a coat or four of lovely white paint and new drawer pulls.  I'll also rearrange the drawers a bit so that the frames are more contiguous.

So what do you think?  Are there pieces of furniture you've repurposed over the years?

Project: '80s Brass to Millennial Brass

I love furniture.  Especially wood furniture.  Especially wood furniture sold for a steal at thrift stores.  Which explains why in my living room alone I have six large pieces, all bought second hand.  Of these six pieces, one is a china cabinet, one is a chest of drawers, one is a roll-top desk, one is a desk-cabinet, one is a tall hutch, and one is a dresser.

Almost all of this furniture needs updating, however, so this fall I'm hoping to tackle some painting.  In the meantime, here is a quick thing I did in August.

Our china cabinet is a rather magnificent piece with solid brass handles and hinges.
The wedding dress isn't usually there. This was on the occasion of my SIL's wedding.
When I found this at the second-hand store four years ago, I told myself I'd update the look by spray-painting the brass black.  I never got around to it.

Then after copious research this summer and deciding that I like a little of the distressed look, I threw caution to the wind and used steel wool to rub all the 80's lacquer off the brass and let it begin to age naturally.  I may regret it in 10 years.  But then I could get out the spray paint after all.

In the picture above, the left handle still has the yellow-gold lacquer, and the right handle has the steel wool treatment.  It's a subtle difference but it gives an entirely different "air" to the cabinet.

At least, that's what I tell myself.  Check back in several years from now and we'll see what the patina is doing!

Five Minute Update, 14 October 2014

This morning has been full since school drop-off, including a brisk walk with a friend and a rehearsal with another friend for a wedding gig this weekend.  My thought had been to hit the grocery store after rehearsal before having to turn around and pick up the boys from school--you know it's time for a grocery run when you don't have bread, milk, tortillas, or microwave popcorn--but I was having such a good time singing and chatting with my friend that shopping will have to wait.  (I had two microwaved hot dogs--bunless--for lunch.  Don't judge.)

So with the 25 minutes or so I have left, I thought I'd pop in and post some updates!  Yesterday I realized I didn't write a single post in September, which I will attribute to the following reasons:
  1. I've been working my bum off during my morning kidless times on home projects (posts about those to follow)
  2. those projects and life in general tire me out, so I spend the kids' afternoon video game time napping (don't judge)
  3. with G in 4th grade and Z in 1st, post-dinner times are filled with homeschool work
  4. by time the boys are in bed, Jay and I want time together, and I'm too brain-dead to write anyway
  5. I feel insecure writing about my home improvement projects because I'm not a famous home blogger a la "Young House Love"
But I miss writing and I am pretty excited to share what I've been working on around here.  So check in over the next day or seven as I get this thing updated!  :-)