Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bloom Where You Are Planted {Grandma Rose}

Today, my Grandma Rose went home to be with Jesus, to worship Him forever alongside of the love of her life, my Grandpa Sam. She had a long, full life and I was so very blessed to call her my grandmother.

Grandma Rose was born in the midst of some very hard, spare years in both America's story and her family's story. She was one of 7 children and lost her mother at a very young age. She grew through the years into a beautiful young woman with a gentle and kind spirit. She caught the eye of my Grandpa Sam at a young age and their love story is one that I had tremendous privilege to see in person, even well into their final years together.

As I sit and process her passing, the memories are tumbling. 

Snippets of the great tenors and Italian arias wind through my mind. 
Smells of deep red marinara sauce and fried chicken cutlets come alive. 
Her incredibly soft arms are brushing mine while I sit next to her at the table,
listening to the loud, boisterous laughter between the aunts, uncles,
cousins, in-laws and "outlaws" that were always welcome at their table. 
Thanksgiving feasts of turkey, stuffed shells and lasagna 
spread along the two long tables in their basement.
Sitting at her old-fashioned dressing table, pretending to be 
a grown-up "fancy" lady while playing with her hats, pins, and pearls.

Perhaps one of my favorite memories that I replay the most often, even now, is one that took place in her kitchen almost every time I was with them. Grandpa Sam used to pretend to spar with her as she washed the dishes or folded kitchen towels. He was a huge boxing aficionado and he would dance around her, punching the air and saying "Come on, Ro! Have a go with me. Give me your best shot." Her blushing brush-offs and sweet, almost embarrassed and yet tolerant smiles brought me such peace and enjoyment as a kid. Even at that young age, I remember LOVING how they brought us in to their love story with his winks at me when he snuck up on her in the kitchen. With how she rolled her eyes when I would giggle at her "Oh, Sam" responses. As an adult (now that I've learned so much more of their story before they became the patriarchs of this big family we are now), I see so much more. I didn't know it then though. I didn't know how much those moments would come to mean. I just knew I felt loved. By watching their love. 

Grandma Rose wasn't one of those hot-house roses, fragile and easily overcome by the elements. She wasn't green-house born and raised, withering easily for lack of water or care. No, my Grandma Rose was a Knock Out Rose. Yes, she was a beautiful woman. A knockout as they said back in the day. But I'm talking about these beauties. Knock Out Roses are known for their full, lush blooms and for being very low maintenance. They don't require specialized care, perfect soil or optimum sunlight to thrive. They are drought-hearty and their roots spread wide, allowing them to spread and grow well in almost any place they are planted. They bloom where they are planted and then some.

My grandmother was that variety of woman that bloomed regardless of her surroundings. She had a hard childhood. A really hard one. She and her siblings were forced to cling tenaciously to each other, to intertwine their roots and hang on for dear life. And hang on they did. Back then, there was very little special care available to that scrappy immigrant family. They just had to dig in and do life together. When they married, she welcomed my grandfather's even larger family as her own. Together, along with her siblings and his, their love and commitment crafted even deeper roots and lush, full family trees. Their tenacity yielded our close-knit, loving extended family. It was, as I've said before, a wonderful way for a child to grow - connected to generations before me.

Grandma Rose wasn't as loud and boisterous as others in our family were. Usually, she'd be found working quietly in the kitchen, watching the kids playing in the yard from the window over her sink. Or quietly joining the conversations from her spot behind the long counter. She was gentle. Soft-spoken. Humble. Honest. The perfect straight-woman to Grandpa's light-hearted antics. She was steady. Reliable. Comfortably predictable and constant. Along with my Grandfather, her quiet, persevering root system spread its life to three beautiful daughters onward to 10 grandchildren and now to 19 great-grandchildren. Those blooms are beautiful and plenteous and growing still.

We didn't know it when we named her, but our little Mei Mei's personality couldn't really be more opposite from the great-grandmother for whom she is named. But I DID know that the beauty of a Rose, that the joy and life it gives, takes many different varieties so it felt like the perfect fit at the time. In the years since Mei Mei has been home, I've learned that my grandmother and her little namesake share some very similar hard beginnings to their stories. Difficulties that my grandmother overcame and used as a root system to build the life she shared with my grandfather. My grandmother's story and my daughter's story began worlds and generations apart from one another. Nevertheless, their roots are deeply intertwined now. That is the miracle of family, is it not? It is my dearest dream that our Mei Mei will push that root system even deeper, spread it further, and continue the legacy of beautiful, plenteous blooming. That she will carry her name proudly and feel rooted to the heritage into which she is now grafted. No matter the hardships she has faced or will face as she grows.

For several years now, my best friend has been suggesting to me that I fill the front garden with Knock Out Roses because nothing else has grown well there. This Spring, I will do that. I will plant several rose bushes in honor of The Knock Out Rose that my Grandma was. I will remember and I will tell my children that so very often the most beautiful blooms come out of the hardest of hardships.

Good bye Grandma Rose. Thank you for your gentle, loving ways.
Thank you for digging in and doing the hard stuff and creating
this beautiful family we love. Give Grandpa Sam a huge hug for me.
And maybe just a fun, soft little punch in the arm.
I know you have it in you! I love you.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Merry Christmas From The Gang!

It's a beautiful chilly Sunday afternoon here at The Gang's Headquarters. Most of the gang is here, sprawled out watching football or Octonauts, coming down off the sugar high that is characteristic of our traditional Cookie Decorating Day. We're waiting for Shaggy and the lovely Miss A to arrive for family pictures and a late dinner together. It's the first quiet, peaceful afternoon we've had together for far too long. 

With the pace we've been keeping and the many "out of the ordinary" additions to the calendar that have come these last ten days, we only just this weekend got around to making holiday treats. Normally, I spread the baking out over three weeks so it works out that I'm replenishing the batches continuously. Like, a slow steady month-long IV drip of butter and sugar. It's glorious! This year, I just couldn't get that routine up and running and The Gang has been letting me know of the lack of holiday treats around here. No one has ever accused me of doing things half-heartedly and in the last 48 hours, LadyBug and I have made 3 double and 1 triple batch of The Gang's favorites. There's Christmas bark, Butter Pecan Turtle bars, German Christmas Cookies (now fully frosted and beautifully decorated) all filling up my cookie bins and my fridge at once. It's glorious! All that was missing were Shaggy's favorite White Chip Orange Craisin Cookies and I could hang up my apron. 

It should have been no surprise to me that by lunch-time today, I was operating in auto-pilot. As in, everything I've made in the last two days has required a lot of brown sugar. A. LOT. Turns out, auto-pilot may just have produced my new favorite cookie of all time!!!! Since they turned out so incredibly tasty and rich, I thought I'd give a present to all of you and share the {BRAND SPANKIN' NEW} recipe!

White Chip Orange Craisin Cookies
1/2 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. butter-flavored shortening, softened
          (This is tweak #1 - the original recipe calls for 1 c. butter)
1 1/2 c. dark brown sugar, packed
           (This is where autopilot came in - the original recipe called for white sugar.
            So I set about tweaking the recipe from this "mistake." This TASTY mistake!)
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 tsp. orange extract
           (This is tweak #2 - the original recipe doesn't call for any.)
1 Tbsp. orange zest or dried orange peel
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
2 c. oats
1 c. craisins
1 c. white baking chips

Preheat your oven to 375.

Cream together the butter, shortening, and sugar. When fluffy, add eggs and beat in vanilla and orange extracts.

Slowly add the orange zest, flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Blend till all dry ingredients are incorporated.

Fold in oats, craisins, and white baking chips. Batter will be thick and heavy. And SUPER YUMMY!

Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes until edges are dry but do NOT overbake these goodies.

True confession time: the original recipe on which this one is based is an old W#*ght W@tchers favorite that called for things like "light butter," a sugar/sugar substitute blend, and egg whites. NOT that that particular version ever really got made around here.... because, well, "light butter?" As if. I mean, I might have made it the W#*ght W@tchers way once, a looooong time ago. But never again. Ever. And now? With the change-out from white sugar to lovely dark rich brown sugar? Oh.MY.LANDS. I ain't NEVER goin' back, sister friend. NEVER.

So, there ya have it. Thank you, auto-pilot! You are my new bestie bestie, as Mei Mei says. About everyone. Ha!

Merry Christmas
from The Gang's Momma and her gang!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Another "Thumbs UP!" {a review of The Palest Ink}

I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of Kay Bratt's book review team for the last couple years. We even have our own snazzy name - she calls us "Kay's Review Krew." So when I was contacted about reading and reviewing another book connected to her series called The Scavenger's Daughters, I was ELATED. It's available THIS WEEK for purchase and I highly encourage you to rush right over to Amazon and get your copy now.

The Palest Ink is a pre-quel that expertly peels back the layers to the father figure from The Scavenger's Daughters, Benfu. Each chapter gives the reader another peek into the character of the man who dedicates his whole adult life to investing in the treasured daughters whom he finds and brings to his home. The experiences of his life BEFORE he became The Scavenger are woven together in this book in such a way that the reader can say, "Oh, that is why he understands the plight of loneliness so well." The reader FEELS the sense of isolation and other-ing that his daughters grapple with in the other books, when reading of the solitary confinement he experiences in his re-training camp. That sense of "coming home" that happens when his daughters bloom and grow under his and Callie's care is rooted in this book's unfolding of the deep contentment and connected-ness they find together as Callie nurses him to health after he escaped his brutal living conditions. All of the things that happened to him, that formed his convictions and his principles that we see as the benevolent and loving father are deeply established as a response to the life changes that were thrust upon him as a young man during the Cultural Revolution. I completely appreciated and enjoyed how well Kay wove those themes together and tied them up so neatly, as she reached back to "flesh out" this character that I grew to love in The Scavenger's Daughters series.

In addition to weaving Benfu's past so expertly for the reader to understand his future more deeply, Kay did a wonderful job of detailing the harsh realities of the early days of the Cultural Revolution in ways that were both honoring to the Chinese people and educational to the reader. I was always very interested in this particular era of world events and did a lot of reading as a student but it was thrilling to this self-proclaimed history geek to learn more and to put "faces" to the events about which I had learned. I loved learning, via this fictional medium, more about the thoughts and feelings of those who embraced Chairman Mao's ways and about those who were leery of the changes he brought. In particular, I found the elimination of creative expression, poetry, fine arts and music to be far more difficult to imagine as I read this story than even when I was learning about it in school. It's more personal to me now, given that I'm parenting two beautiful creative little girls who are similar to many of the characters about whom Kay writes. To think that they might have lived like that makes this story all the more poignant. Truly, to me, it makes all of these books that Kay has crafted more meaningful and poignant.

If you haven't read the other books of The Scavenger's Daughters series, you ought to purchase them all when you go buy The Palest Ink. Then settle in with a warm blanket and spend your cold winter evenings immersed in the beautiful world of Benfu and Callie. You won't regret it for a minute!!!!!

**I was given a complimentary copy
of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.**

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Tapestry

See that babe in arms? That's my Uncle Johnny. He passed away yesterday, leaving a legacy of kindness, gentleness, and love of family. He was the last of my grandfather's siblings to pass away, the youngest son in a big, loving, Italian family.

Of course, none of them were perfect, but every single memory I have of these great-uncles and great-aunts is just that: GREAT.

Outbursts of laughter around overloaded tables.

Good-natured teasing and bickering.

Stories of stark but happy childhood.

Bear hugs & kisses until you were gasping for breath.

And yes, food. LOTS and LOTS of food at every single gathering.


Not a bad way to grow up. Not at all.

By now, you all know I'm hopelessly sentimental when it comes to matters of family and legacy. Uncle Johnny's passing has provoked a myriad of memories all rife with emotion today. Anchoring all of those feelings is an overwhelming gratitude, I'm so incredibly grateful for the great big tapestry that both sets of my grandparents' generation wove for me and my generation.

This tapestry has been many things
for many people in our family.

A work of art, giving testament to the family's status and standing in society. A witness, if you will, of that which they have achieved together.

A rich backdrop, giving color, depth, and texture to our collective coming story as new immigrants to this country. Bringing their history to their present.

A thick and stable rug to stand upon, when building a life together. A plush but firm "take your stance" kind of setting point.

A soft landing place, a net of sorts that was wide and secure into which they could fall when hard times rocked them off their feet.

A warm wrap into which they could burrow when life felt cold and brutal.

Today, we mostly think of intricate tapestries as works of art to be hung on a wall. But a true family-woven tapestry wasn't always meant to be just gazed at and admired. Admittedly, we aren't as familiar with the many uses that a hand-woven, artfully crafted tapestry can have in today's world. We don't need one piece to do all those things anymore. We have Wayf@ir for rugs and T@rget for sweaters, right? But if you look back in history, family tapestries had many functions beyond their artisan beauty.

It strikes me that my family tapestry has both beauty and function that is sadly becoming more and more rare in this culture in which we live. I'm proud to declare that I will stay anchored to both families who wove this tapestry before me. I will continue to teach my children well in the art of weaving their rows to grow it strong and beautiful for generations to come.


Uncle Johnny, say hi to Grandpa Sam for me. Enjoy your reunion and your time to worship Jesus to the strains of heavenly Italian opera with him. You are missed here. All of you.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Allllllll-most Fall {and a recipe!}

Yesterday was a cool and breezy day full of little hints of autumn. Football was on the tv screen. BBE spent the whole afternoon prepping our fire pit and side yard for LadyBug's "end of summer" bonfire with friends. The Boss was working in the master bath, prepping for our big re-do (pictures coming soon) that starts on Tuesday. I had spent all Saturday afternoon filling the freezer with yummy casseroles for those weekday afternoons full of junior high football games and other Mommy taxi duties. Yes, fall is definitely in the air these days!

I was really looking for something easy to make for the family, given that I'd cooked for 4-5 hours straight on Saturday. I knew left-overs one!more!time! wouldn't cut it for the Gang, no matter that I felt wiped out. I also think I might be brewing a cold, so I was pretty motivated to simplify my day. This recipe was JUST the ticket! It's been going around the interwebs in a few different forms, with a few variations. It sounded really delish and easy to pull off so I gave it a whirl for The Gang this Sunday. It felt like just the right "introductory" fall meal. 

True to form, I couldn't just leave the recipe alone, so I'm sharing here what I did. Feel free to make it your own. It was indeed very easy and all The Gang members, including Shaggy and Miss A who joined us for Sunday dinner, gave it a huge thumbs up! I hope you all enjoy it as much as we did. The kids are eating it now, as I type this, for a delicious left-over lunch.

Slow Cooker Chicken and Dumplings

 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast, in 1-2” chunks
   (or 6 skinless chicken thighs)
2 Tbsp. butter, chunked
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cans cream of chicken soup
1 can chicken broth
2 cubes chicken bouillon
1 12 oz. bag frozen mixed veggies, steamed and drained well
Cornstarch and cold water (if needed)
1 roll (10 per pkg) refrigerated biscuits, quartered
Flour to coat biscuits

  1. Lightly spray a crock pot with baking spray. Place chicken in bottom of crock. Over the chicken, dump the butter, onion, soup, broth and bouillon.
  2. Cover crock pot and cook on low for 4-6 hours. If using frozen chicken, cook on high for same amount of time then reduce to low for the remaining time.
  3. Around the 3 or 4 hour mark, add steamed, drained veggies and stir well. Re-cover and allow to cook for an additional hour or two.
  4. While you are waiting for serving time, quarter the biscuits and toss them to coat in all-purpose flour.
  5. About 30-45 minutes before serving, thicken the mixture with cornstarch and cold water (shaken together well) if it’s too loose and soup-like.
  6. Drop flour-coated biscuits onto the top surface of the chicken mixture and cook with lid on for another 30 minutes. (For a single batch of these proportions, you might not need the whole roll of biscuits.) Do not stir!
  7. Once the biscuits are puffing and the broth is really bubbling well around them, it''s ready to serve. Be careful, those biscuits are HOT HOT HOT inside! Enjoy this hearty dish with your family!
I'd be interested in hearing what you did to change it up for your family's taste buds. I'm thinking that I might do a combo of white wine and chicken broth, with a dash or two of rosemary or dill added in with the liquids next time for a little added burst of flavor. There's just something about those flavors that really speaks "fall" to me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why Break With Tradition?!

It's time for the annual First Day of School post. And for the "First Time In Forever," you all get the added treat of updated peeks at my gorgeous gang. I know, it's been a while since you've seen their faces 'round these parts o' the blogosphere!

{You are more than welcome for THAT ear-worm... 
it's blasting in the kitchen right now and I succumbed. 
I am weak. I admit it. And now I'm laughing at you
because you are hearing Ana in your head just like I am.}


Our "bonus daughter" had a VERY momentous First Day yesterday. She returned to us late Friday night from summer at home with her family in Beijing. She's still a bit jet-lagged and trying not to be anxious about all the SAT prep work she has ahead of her and layered on top of her Honors course load. In spite of it all, she made it to the bus on time and is officially a SENIOR!!!!!!

Today, we sent our LadyBug back to the public school bright and early. For those not following me on F@cebook, she came home in January to do cyber-schooling after some health issues that made the public school pace and routine pretty hard to manage. It was a great season of refreshment and retreat for her and she is confident that she is ready to handle her JUNIOR year. Seriously, how did this sneak up on me like this?

Next to head out the door was Li'l Empress. This girly of ours was so ready for her new school year to start. She's super excited to be in the upstairs of her building - it's a milestone that all the rising third graders wildly anticipate in our little school community. Yes, I said it. THIRD. GRADE.

After Li'l Empress climbed happily on her bus, Mei Mei and I ran inside to finish getting ready for the morning. Then we were OFF to the elementary school for their annual Back To School Celebration. It's always so fun to meet the new teachers, say hi! to the old teachers, and catch up with friends after the long summer apart. I'm particularly thrilled that Li'l Empress is going to be with her sweet little buddy "S" again this year. She's a sweet friend and so very encouraging and kind to all her classmates. It goes a LOOOOONG way for my girl to have that security and confidence in her friendships.

As soon as Li'l Empress' class was escorted into the building to start the day, my little Mei Mei fell apart in a puddle of tears. She kept saying over and over, "I miss my sissen" and wiping her tears with her Beebee. She was a soggy mess by the time we got to the van. It was decided that a little pit stop at the local Chick-Fil-A was in order, to cheer our spirits and distract both of us from missing our Li'l Empress.

Then, suddenly, it was time. Yes, that's right, the day has arrived. Mei Mei began her first day of PRE-SCHOOL today. Oh, my heart. This girl was a STITCH to listen to once I told her it was time to get ready for her drive to school. Giggling to herself while I dressed her. Wiggling in her seat trying to eat lunch. Covering her mouth in "OH!'s" of anticipation and looking over my shoulder on the 5 minute drive to see if we were "dere yet?"

Until we walked into the building. Upon which time she started muttering under her breath, "I not want go pee-kool, Momma" over and over like some tribal chant. I exercised HERCULEAN effort to not crack up and to take her anxiety as seriously as she wanted me to, but man, it was hard. SUCH a HOOT.

Oh, and yes, Yes, that IS in fact the very same dress that Li'l Empress wore on her very first day of pre-school. I'm totally a sap like that and I am so excited that she chose it from the line-up. And that I'm still smarter than my kids most of the time to make her THINK she chose it. Yeah. I still got it, baby!

I hung out with her for about 20 minutes, chatting with the teachers and helping her feel comfortable. It was fun to point out to her all the things that Li'l Empress enjoyed when she was a student there. Once she was sufficiently distracted and feeling comfortable, I headed out and the teachers reported that she only cried for about five minutes. And I didn't cry at all. :)

It sure helped to have her little buddy in the classroom - he's the youngest son of the director from our adoption agency AND LadyBug babysat for him and his big brother all summer long. Here she is watching for his car to pull up to the drop-off door. Both his mom and I got the story later that they held hands when they walked together and that he is her new "bess fren." So cute!!!!!

When we headed back to pick her up at the end of the afternoon, her very first words to us were "I had SUPER! FUN! today! Mom!" She had all kinds of great stories to share and pretty much was wiped out and ready for bed by 6:30.

You might have noticed that BBE has no First Day pictures. That's because the poor kid got hit with a a nasty tummy bug that kept him up most of last night. Prayers that no one else gets it here would be so appreciated. We have BIG family plans for the holiday weekend and we've been looking forward to them for the whole summer long!

So there you have it. The Traditional First Day wrap up. Thanks for hanging in there for it all. Hopefully soon I will have something incredibly wise and deep and important to write about. Till then, all these cute pictures of my kids make me happy. And it's my blog, so that's all that really matters, right?

Hope your First Days were momentous and memorable too. Here's to a GREAT 2015~2016 school year!!!!!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Summer Fun... {A wrap up and a recipe!}

We started and ended our summer with some pretty significant parties. There's not much this Momma loves more than a big celebration of friends and family. And we've had LOTS of fun entertaining this summer, now that the deck and pool area are finished and the landscaping is grown in. The grass is lush and we still, even months later, are raving to ourselves about how restful and refreshing it is in our backyard. We have our own mini-retreat center after years of battling weeds, ugly rocks, ground-boring bees, and drab, colorless aesthetics. I'm so proud of the hard work that The Boss and my blue-eyed boy put in together to create this haven for our friends and family. 

Freshly washed and ready for the first big event back in May!

LadyBug had a Sweet 16 Bonfire and Night Swim party
on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

We "upped" the awesome factor by throwing
over 200 glow sticks into the pool once it was totally dark.
It was SO pretty!

BBE filled 11 hanging baskets with wave petunias in brilliant
red and purple for her party and for the second event,
my mom's 70th b'day celebration just two days later.
All these weeks later and the petunias are still hanging in there!!!!

So at the OTHER end of the summer fun was the Pool Party
we hosted for the local-to-us members of our adoption agency community. 

It was a great mix of old friends and new,
including some beloved staff members from the agency.

Everyone brought their own meat to grill for dinner plus a dessert or side dish to share. I'm telling you this because I made this amazing potato salad that MUST be shared before potato salad season officially winds down. I made it last week for a family event at my parents' house and it was such a hit that I had to try it again. Yes, I made it up. It's a tweak on The Boss's favorite Red Bliss Potato Salad but with a couple twists.

Blue Cheese & Bacon Potato Salad

 5 lbs red potatoes, washed and cut in bite-size pieces.
Boiled in salted water till fork-tender
and then set aside to cool to room temperature.

Equal parts of blue cheese dressing and light mayonnaise.
For 5 lbs of potatoes that is about 1 cup of each.
I particularly like this brand of dressing as it's yogurt based 
and so smooth without being too thick or rich for mixing.

**I am NOT being paid to endorse any of these brand name products.**
Oh, how I wish I were.

About 1 c. (give or take to preference) of crumbled bacon
1 medium Vidalia sweet onion, diced
1 (4-6 oz.) container of blue cheese crumbles
Parsley to mix in to taste AND parsley to garnish on the top.

Mix it all together very well, making sure that
 the salad is a little thicker than you wish for it to be when
serving time actually comes. It will loosen up when refrigerated.

This is one of those salads that DEFINITELY tastes better
when it sits in the refrigerator overnight for the flavors to blend. 
It pairs really well with any beef you might be grilling, 
but it's also super yummy with Balsamic Vinaigrette Marinated Chicken!

Next up will be The Gang's annual "First Day of School" post. I can hardly believe summer is over and my gang is all heading off to school already. ESPECIALLY, {gasp} our little Mei Mei. She's heading off to the sweet little pre-school that Li'l Empress attended when she was 3 and 4. I'm under no illusions that this will be an easy transition for her but we've been talking it up big for the last three weeks and her tour of the building and intake assessment will hopefully still be in her memory banks as a positive experience.


One can hope, right? Right?! Sigh... I'm not even sure I believe that. But I'm telling myself that over and over, particularly when she melts down over me leaving her side to run to the grocery store or meeting a friend for lunch. EVERY time. Pray for us, ya'll. Just pray.