Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas blessings

Christmas this year was a little more chaotic than usual. The lesson learned: When circumstances change and Plan B, or even C, is called for, a can-do husband, adaptable children, and a generous heavenly Father keep the blessings showering down!

Among our challenges: family members’ move to a new town and a new home three days before Christmas, a travel delay due to SNOW, the resulting day’s delay of our annual day-after Christmas gathering, grandchildren on the ailing list, and our oven going out during Christmas dinner preparations.

But all arrived safely at Baboo and Nana’s; little ones responded to prescriptions; and the only casualty of the oven’s death throes was the sweet potato casserole.

So that I don’t forget, here is my sampler of Christmas 2010 blessings:
Husband Walter and I shared a Christmas-evening meal and visit with my 91-year-old mother.

Breakfast time included lots of conversation and laughter. Sons Jeremy, left, and Walt plus grandchildren Charlie and Walker visit with Baboo around the breakfast table Monday, Dec. 27.

Granddaughter Molly Kate, decked out in one of her holiday ensembles, requested to have her picture taken with her favorite piglet (Really. . . it’s a Christmas pig from her great-grandmother, Grandma Sugar!)

Grandsons Nate, left, and Luke entertained themselves with Yu-Gi-Oh cards, Legos and rousing battles with Nerf weaponry.

Granddaughters Stella, left, and Charlie showed off their matching Christmas frocks.

Our sons and daughters-in-law were able to visit with my mother and my brother from Virginia and his family when they arrived at our home Tuesday, Dec. 28. I loved that our grandchildren could be with their great-grandmothers--Grandma Sugar on Monday and Mamaw Carpenter on Tuesday. It was so great that they could also renew their acquaintance with their Great-Uncle Mike and Great-Aunt Sonya and visit with their almost grown-up cousins.
My brother Mike, left, and his family, wife Sonya and offspring Matthew, Amanda and Becky; Mother, front center; and our son Walt.

Cousins sharing a bedtime Max and Ruby video 
Our courageous daughters-in-law Sarah and Katie are not to be seen in the few photos I was able to snap. That is because they were busy shepherding children ages seven months to eight years, changing diapers, providing helping hands and generally serving as ministering angels.

Blessings indeed!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Missing in action

“Snow” in New Orleans
I have been missing in action in the blogosphere lately. Slow-to-no Internet has stymied my blogging efforts for the past few weeks. We did have Internet in the hotel room during a two-night jaunt to New Orleans last week. But after “urban hiking” and major eating, I experienced major “slow-to-no” blogging energy.

The photo above is of a Fulton Street Christmas display in New Orleans. Periodically artificial snow – some sort of bubble substance – started falling throughout the “tunnel” of Christmas lights and decorations. It looked realistic, especially during our daytime visit when the winds were howling and creating a blizzard.

We are at a coffee shop for a few more minutes to access Internet. So to all blogger friends out there: I have missed reading your posts and hope to catch up after this holiday. To all my non-blogger and blogger friends:

May your Christmas be blessed with joy and meaning!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Whataburger . . . what-a-makeover!

A mystery at Whataburger
Sunday after church, husband Walter and I quite often make a fast-food stop at Whataburger. Today included the Whataburger visit. I like the chain’s whataburger and fries. For about a decade and a half in the 1980s and 90s, my position required a bit of travel for meetings and conferences. After a couple days dining in upscale style, I had to depart the herd and find me a hamburger, or in the words of a colleague who often attended the same functions, a “greasy” hamburger.

There is, however, another appeal to the Whataburger in our hometown for me. And it is definitely a weird one. The women’s restroom there provides an instant makeover for this 63-year-old grandmother of 6. What can I say? I look in the mirror and nearly always experience a jolt of surprise. Gray hair has turned to sparkling silver. Lines have disappeared. Eyes that were in hiding under droopy lids have suddenly made a cheerful return.

Reason says it is the combination of lighting and the color of the wall tiles. Maybe even the strength and position of the light sources contribute. Maybe. Or it could be some kind of delusion. But I have rarely, if ever, observed such a transformation anywhere else, real or imagined. 

"Maybe, just maybe," I think as I sail out the door with smile at full power, "it’s magic!"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hats off to mommy blogs

This grandmother enjoys periodic dips into a variety of “mommy blogs.” Maybe they remind me of the joys–and challenges–of my own days as a mom of little boys. Here are two of my favorites plus one new one that had me laughing recently:

There is no way I could resist our daughter-in-law Katie’s blog that stars our granddaughter Molly Kate, almost three, and grandson Walker, seven months old. Abundant photos and text help me and other relatives “see” what is going on with the Louisiana Skupiens and the people, places, things and events that fill their lives.

Six children, life in a new home not quite completed on a hill in Idaho, temporary outdoor toilet facilities and SNOW. This blogger offers delightful and thought-provoking words and images about marriage, mothering, creativity and the responsibilities, rewards and challenges that come with each.

Erin, mommy of three sons, nails the endearing—and challenging—little-boy mix of testosterone, tenderness and vulnerability. My first sample was a narrative of a creative cover-up of Christmas-tree mayhem in her Dec. 7 post. But her Dec. 13 post of “Saving the Toys—One Suitcase at a Time” produced major artery-declogging laughter.

Today’s communications technology makes it possible for us to be bombarded 24/7 with news of the dire, the deadly and the dastardly. These blogs offer a reprieve—a visit with young families who are celebrating the significance of day-to-day moments while nurturing their young ones. A picture of hope for the future! 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Central Grocery in NOLA

One fourth of a Central Grocery muffuletta
A treat on our recent overnight trip to New Orleans was a muffuletta lunch at Central Grocery in the heart of the French Quarter. The round muffuletta’s tasty, crusty bread is filled with Italian cold cuts and cheeses. But what really makes a Central Grocery muffuletta a hit with me is the olive salad. Besides olives and olive oil, the salty salad also includes other finely chopped and colorful veggies. I am not much of an olive fan. Let me rephrase that. I do not like olives. But I love this sandwich.

Before this latest trip, it had been years since we had indulged in a muffuletta from Central Grocery. We used to walk into the Italian market , order one, take it to a park along the Mississippi River and split it--a fourth each for our two boys, husband Walter and me.

The day came, however, when I had to get serious about cutting down on salt in the diet. About the same time, the days of walking into the grocery and ordering our sandwich ended. The lines waiting to order were always extending out the door when we would check. Okay, I admit it. After several years without a Central Grocery muffuletta, I would have ignored the dietary restrictions about salt and gone for it. In fact, we would have even waited in line, but not out in the heat.

This time, however, the line was just inside the door. Translated, that means just inside the air-conditioning. Even though it was November, by 11:30 a.m. the temperatures had risen to high 70s or low 80s, well above hubby’s comfort level. We squeezed inside, and I shopped while Walter stood in line between the narrow aisles. 
Destination . . . ordering and pickup
Most people were there for the muffulettas only, but I saw a few buying other items. I did buy a souvenir--seeds for mixed salad greens.

The seeds were packaged in Italy with instructions in . . . ta dah! . . .  Italian. The package did have that little zone map and chart of planting times that I am used to. I spent some happy moments figuring out planting times, comparing the package’s recommended planting seasons for Italian coastal zones with our Gulf of Mexico coastal zones, all the while savoring future salads.

In days gone by, it seems I remember watching the assembly of our muffuletta. The arrangement is different now, and no photos are allowed behind the head-high shelving that conceals the prep area. A review here gives a little history of the establishment and does mention reducing grocery space to make way for expanded seating. 
A fish-eye view of Central Grocery interior
The counter-style seating is nothing fancy. It was not crowded when we were there, and we enjoyed the cool temperatures as well as the locals and fellow-tourists who shared the space.
Counter-style seating serves locals and visitors.

As we were sitting down, a former colleague from pre-retirement days appeared. I had always enjoyed keeping up, via her photos, with her twin grandbabies, her son and his wife. I followed her back to where they were waiting in line and met them in person. Seeing these now not-so-little-ones in person was an extra treat.
A little Central Grocery lagniappe was seeing Marjie, left, and meeting her son, daughter-in-law and twin grandsons.

My search for the grocery’s history turned up a lot of reviews that included extremes both positive and negative. Some mentioned that the sandwiches were prepackaged. I don’t know if ours was or not. But it looked the same, wrapped in white butcher paper. I still give the whole experience a thumbs up!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Football Christmas

NFL or college team attire was the order of the day for an early Christmas celebration of the extended Skupien family. Nephew Ryan and wife Melissa hosted friends and relatives this year. Most showed up in black and gold Saints jerseys, warm-up suites or T-shirts touting the team’s Super Bowl win.
Nephew Ryan Byrd ladles up a bowl of gumbo

Sound strange for an annual Christmas fete? This is not the first time that the extended Skupien clan has agreed on a dress code for such a gathering. There was the Christmas that we all wore pajamas that Grandma Sugar had given us the preceding Christmas.

And then there were ski trips. The rule for those jaunts was that everybody had to go out in public, usually to rent our ski equipment, dressed to code. One year it was thrift-shop night. You had to assemble your ensemble for $5 or less from a local thrift-shop. Another time a fireman theme recognized Ryan’s joining the ranks of firefighters.

A few Christmas Saints:

Great-nephew Ashton, right, and mom Stephanie

Son Jeremy and his little one Walker

Great-niece Trinity

Husband Walter, AKA Baboo, and Walker

Great-nephew Miles and his “E-Maw” ready for the hayride to go watch the afternoon’s Christmas parade

Little Saints Walker, left, and Molly Kate celebrate gift exchange in their own styles.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Apples: In the holiday spirit?

Husband Walter and I were on a recent hunting and gathering expedition. He was hunting in the deli. I was gathering in the produce section. That is where I saw these apples.
Apples do their part for Christmas color

I had to snap a photo of the tasty green stocking stuffers and their equally tasty red cousin. Was the single rosy-red gala apple in the midst of bright green apples the result of some unauthorized holiday decorating? Or maybe the holiday spirit moved the gala apple . . . literally. When I came by a second time on my way to checkout, the gala apple was gone. Granny Smith green reigned uninterrupted.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thumbs up: Marigny Brasserie in NOLA

Frenchmen Street Po-Boy
Our venture into the popular Marigny Brasserie (pronounced MER-ih-nee) on our pre-Thanksgiving jaunt to New Orleans has put that establishment firmly on our “visit-again” list. Yes, that po-boy above is as huge as it looks, and I ATE ALL OF IT.

We had had a scrumptious feast of rich seafood dishes at Mary Mahoney’s the night before we left home. Our plan for the Marigny was for more casual fare. I still wanted something distinctive and if possible, unique to this new-to-us eatery. Just reading the menu (you can read it here) was a treat.

The Frenchmen Street Po-Boy caught my eye. I anticipated two problems. I have eaten my share of po-boys, a popular sandwich on luscious French bread (the degree of lusciousness depends on the restaurant’s source of bread). A half is usually a meal for me.

Walter had his own meal picked out, but valiantly agreed to help me finish the po-boy if I ordered it. The result of our dual compulsions to “clean our plates,” and eat and eat to “get our money’s worth” can get us into dietary trouble at buffets and in restaurants known for abundant servings. But Walter was ordering the traditional club. He anticipated no trouble agreeing. First problem solved.

The second problem was that the Frenchmen Street included fried food—fried green tomatoes and fried gulf shrimp. The little diet-policewoman in my head screamed “No, no, you know fried doesn’t agree with you!” My brain’s vacation side said “Oh, shut up!” Second problem solved.

Waiter Tommy O
Tommy O was our waiter. I am not sure if that was his real name or stage name. Regardless, he was great. He was new to the Marigny and had never tasted the Frenchmen Street Po-boy but assured me that locals loved it. When he delivered it, it was even bigger than I expected and a visual feast.

The French bread looked crusty perfect; lightly breaded shrimp spilled out the sides. My first bite was an explosion of tastes. It took me a LOT of bites to identify the ingredients that were exciting my non-gourmet taste buds so much. There was the green-onion mayonnaise, the lightness of the fried green tomatoes and shrimp, a good pop of hotness, Cajun style. I couldn’t tell if it was the shrimp or the fried green tomatoes that supplied that distinctive Louisiana spiciness.

And I didn’t dare sacrifice a single bite to culinary detective work. My taste buds and the part of my brain wherever those taste sensations wind up would have mutinied and done something terrible to me. They wanted that marriage of flavors.

I can’t believe I ate the whole thing! Contributing to our experience was the lively -- but not Bourbon Street raucous -- atmosphere. All the tables outside were filled with diners obviously enjoying good food and beverage, conversation and laughter.

Although there was a larger dining area, we chose seats in the bar next to the windows with a great view of the vibrant Frenchmen Street scene. We are teetotalers, and Tommy O kept our water glasses filled. While we were there, several families with little ones, all seemingly well known to the wait staff, shared the bar and the dining area.

Our walk from our hotel to the Marigny seemed a little creepy to me. We hit an area that wasn’t well lit and had little traffic, pedestrian or vehicle. We hadn’t quite charted our path accurately but kept going east until we hit familiar territory.

The walk back to our hotel in the French Quarter was an entirely different story. It topped off the evening perfectly. In our stroll on Frenchmen Street, we saw restaurants, bars, coffee shops and establishments with live music pouring forth, all packed together in just a few blocks. Music wasn’t the only thing flowing out of the doors. Customers spilled out. They expanded their obvious enjoyment of the lively establishments to include doorways and sidewalks.

Now I am looking forward to another visit to sample more of the Marigny’s fare and Frenchmen Street’s music. More about the Faubourg Marigny district from Wikipedia here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wish granted: Bellingrath Gardens 2010

Toyland in lights
Yes, the desire to visit Bellingrath Gardens’ Christmas lights – expressed in my previous post—was fulfilled spectacularly Saturday evening.

Ginny from "Let Your Light Shine" left a comment on my earlier post asking to see more Bellingrath photos. Her similar post of beautiful 2009 Christmas lights from a Richmond, VA, garden had prompted my "wish list" post. So Ginny, thanks for the encouragement. For a look at her latest photos featuring a few unusual lighted decorations in her area, go to her Dec. 5 post here.

Two little ones joining our group this year – plus record numbers of visitors sharing the gardens with us -- changed the photo dynamics.

Grandson Walker The Reindeer and mom Katie enjoying a world of lights during our wait for tickets

Once inside the gardens, granddaughter Molly Kate was enamored with a living room complete with fireplace, milk and cookies for Santa, all in lights. She was so excited that she abandoned her “no pictures” policy temporarily. She actually asked us to take her picture with the “house.”
Molly Kate picks her spot, poses and says “cheese” right on cue.

Yep, this Nana was just as interested in photographing grandchildren as capturing images of lights. Of even more interest was seeing six-month-old Walker’s reactions and participating in non-stop conversations with an enthusiastic two-and-a-half year old.
Walker taking everything in

The huge crowds, all friendly, congenial, courteous and patient, did limit photo opportunities, but the enjoyment was unlimited.

Grandma Sugar made the trip with us for the second year in a row, this time agreeing to use a wheelchair for the long, up-hill-and-down-hill stroll through the gardens. I had to include the photo below of two lovely good samaritans. I was traveling light with no way to record their names, but they rescued Grandma and me from uncooperative double doors at the top of a steeply inclined entry. And they were not the only good samaritans of the night.
 Good Samaritans helped Grandma Sugar and me.

Just a few more snaps:


Rocking horse and top

What was Molly Kate’s favorite?  No hesitation from this little one. It was the same as mine. “The ocean.” I had no chance to take 2010 photos in this underwater habitat. Molly Kate and I were too busy walking among the lighted crabs, seahorses, flounder, squid, jellies, seastars and other electric sea creatures.
Undersea scenes from 2009

What a night! Enjoying Bellingrath, one of my favorite Christmas treats, with loved ones, plus the presence of good samaritans, congenial crowds, and courteous, efficient staff—all lights that glowed even brighter for me than the beautiful scenes lighted by electricity. Truly a magic Christmas in lights!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

On my wish list

Under the sea at Bellingrath Gardens, December 2009
For the first time in three years we will miss the Christmas lights at Callaway Gardens at Pine Mountain, GA. There is still hope, however, that we will make the trip to Bellingrath Gardens closer to home.

Tonight may be the night, with youngest offspring and family arriving for a Christmas gathering of the extended Skupien family tomorrow. Bellingrath’s “Magic Christmas in Lights” features more than 3 million lights in 928 displays throughout the 65-acre garden estate.  There are two facts that make a visit to this Christmas lighting display extra special: All the light features are “homegrown”-- designed, built and maintained by the Bellingrath staff. I like that go-local connection. They are also designed with the garden’s history and location in mind.

View from the Asian garden December 2009
These local artisans’ inspired use of the varied natural features of rolling hills, lake and river, as well as the meticulously planned gardens, serves up delightful experience after delightful experience. Go here for a behind the scenes video of how they produce the seasonal display.
Okay, there are really a bunch of other reasons I like it. Our 2009 walk was like being part of a huge, friendly family, sharing my reactions throughout the colorful extravaganza: an enthusiastic return to childhood, awe at the ingenuity of the displays, quiet thoughts of the meaning of Christmas.

Then there were the spontaneous, and admittedly inelegant, guffaws (Is there any other Christmas light show out there that includes a family of armadillos, the scourge of southern gardens . . . at least mine!).

More Christmas lights:

Bellingrath: A garden of lights ( My Dec. 6, 2009 post)
Callaway Gardens, a holiday delight (Husband’s Nov. 30, 2010 post)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Digging ‘mums’

Molly Kate digs mums?
On her Thanksgiving visit, granddaughter Molly Kate wanted a repeat of her gardening experience of several weeks earlier. I understood the toddler speak about feeding the hungry plants (she sprinkled Osmocote generously on lettuce, green onions and bell peppers, the only things I had growing at the time). 

But I couldn’t understand her preoccupation with wanting to dig mums. I didn’t have any mums. I think I heard mom Katie suggesting Molly Kate was referring to the worms that populate my compost pile. MK's 6-year-old cousin Nate had introduced her to earthworms during a shared digging session in early November. She apparently wanted to dig for worms again.

So dig she did . . .

. . . and filled a container with compost and earthworms.

A granddaughter’s industrious and enthusiastic digging for “mums” is another after-Thanksgiving blessing that I am thankful for.