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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Here I Lay My Ebeneezer

I had a really cool experience today. The Boss and I took Mei Mei to our local Intermediate Unit location to have an Occupational Therapy assessment performed. Back in June, her speech therapist and I noticed some fine motor skills and a couple processing issues that have been lagging behind. Nothing is super alarming, but when these particular skills are taken in relation or proportion to the progress that she is continuing to make in the other areas of her development, it is worth checking out.

We are preparing to send her to pre-school in the fall and this time of year when her IEP is being renewed, we are especially mindful of all of the areas of development that need our continued attention. The new IEP and the results of this evaluation will also be super useful in determining exactly HOW much she has caught up in the areas that sometimes fly under the radar (ya know, when one is the youngest of 6 kids in a very busy, active household.being made in other areas) and how to get her moving forward in other skills.

The OT also gave us a sensory profile to complete while they worked together at a separate table. (Have you ever filled one of those out?! Oh, man they are so cool. I was really getting into it, thinking about the answers for Mei Mei and then how I'd answer for Li'l Empress. Times like this make me feel like I ought to go back to school and get another degree!)  Anyhoo.... As I was reading the questions and ranging out the answers, I was also listening to Mei Mei interact with the evaluator and giggling at how our girl has grown in the two years since she's been home.

Full interactive conversation.

{Almost} complete sentences.

{Almost} completely understandable to a stranger.

And big dashes of her own little {okay, who am I kidding, HUGE!}
personality thrown in just to keep the evaluator on her toes.

It was pure delight to observe and think on for those moments. I know I'm biased, but the evaluator commented several times about "how much fun" this kid is. Make no mistake, she had to be brought back to task quite a few times and reminded to use her polite kind words to express herself. But she really was so much fun to watch.

I sat there for a few seconds as it was wrapping up, just immersed in gratitude. I'm so thankful for the moments when God stops me in my hustle bustle to show me where we've been and where we are heading. It was so much MORE than the assessment of skills in that moment, it almost felt "holy" - like my very own "Ebenezer."

1 Samuel 7:12 (NIV)
“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up
between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, 
saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

"Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"
by Robert Robinson, 1757

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here Thy praises I'll begin;
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I've come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
How His kindness yet pursues me
Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me
I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I'll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Revving High

Driving home from the dermatologist the other day, I was choosing winding country roads to avoid the summer construction on the main thoroughfares. About 5 minutes into my meandering way, I found myself behind a candy-apple red new Porsche Boxster. It was stunning. Sleek. Shiny. And oh! so! RED! It was GORGEOUS. Really, just drool-worthy even for a non-car girl like myself.

As we were driving, I noticed that the sedan in front of the Porsche was holding very tightly to the 35 mph posted limits. Driving sedately and carefully around all the curves and over the hills. I also noticed that the Porsche was revving pretty high. At the intersections, the driver was gunning it while he waited for the sedan to move through the stop signs.

I found myself empathizing with the Porsche and its driver. It's an obviously high-performance machine, built for speed and power and finesse. The driver was being responsible and choosing to obey the laws of the road. He could have easily pulled out and whipped past that bland, tan sedan with a burst of power that would leave us both in his dust. But he chose to hold the course and rein in what is obviously incredible (and untapped) horsepower. I could almost feel their combined frustration and restraint in my staid Mom-mobile behind him.

In that moment of empathizing with an inanimate object and a total stranger, I think I heard the Lord suggest to me that this must be exactly how Mei Mei feels most days in our life together. I almost laughed out loud at the analogy but the more I've thought about it, the more I realize it to be true. She's by far and away the highest horsepower of the 6 of my Gang members. She's revving on high all! the! time! Except when she's asleep. She is exuberant! She is excited! She is high highs and low lows! Reining her in is hard work. Teaching her to follow the rules of the road brings me to my knees, figuratively and literally, more times than I ever remember with even my "high revving" soldier boy. Frankly, for this "older" momma, that is sometimes exhausting! It's kind of hard to be that honest about it but for those of you who are blessed to know Mei Mei in person, you know exactly what I'm talking about and are likely nodding your head with a big ole smirk right now.

This analogy that the Lord dropped in my heart gave me a fresh dose of compassion for my girl that sometimes is sorely lacking. Frankly, it's embarrassing to admit that, too - my compassion is far too often flagging when it comes to the all-consuming task that parenting her can be. I struggle sometimes with how BIG! this girl makes everything to be. It's inconvenient to "go there" with her in her great! big! feelings and great! big! expressions. It sometimes gets in my way, thwarts my agenda, pushes my plans to the side. See? Embarrassing character flaw, for sure. In the wake of that reminder, I've been counting it as God's graciousness in showing me this word picture, complete with the sounds of revving engines in a quiet countryside,
Romans 2:4 "Don’t you realize how patient he is being with you? Or don’t you care? Can’t you see that he has been waiting all this time without punishing you, to give you time to turn from your sin? His kindness is meant to lead you to repentance." ~ from The Living Bible
And though it's a few days late, I can't leave the post without celebrating Mei Mei's birthday. She's an astounding FOUR YEARS OLD now. As tired as I find myself to be at the end of every day, her spunky, (mostly) joyful, and exuberant spirit is a gift to our family than cannot be measured. She is funny, sassy, mischievous, and ALL! IN! with whatever she does. We are so thankful, and yes, humbled, at the privilege of parenting her. Even on the days that the big! feelings! are great big cranky feelings. I cannot imagine our home without her and I'm grateful that the Lord sustains me with encouragement for the task. Especially when it comes in the shape of a gorgeous red Porsche.

Happiest of Happy Birthdays to Our Mei Mei!