Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hello ... I'm Grams and I'm a Christmas Addict

That's right, Grams is addicted to Christmas, specifically to Christmas decorations. Since the first year we were married, I have decorated my entire house for the holidays. At times I've been way over the top, covering virtually every space with decorations. I have ornaments for the bathrooms, Christmas linens for the kitchen, Christmas quilts for the bedrooms, etc. One year, I actually "gift wrapped" the throw pillows that go on my bed and sofa.

Since we married in November, that first Christmas was upon us before we knew it. We couldn't afford lavish or fancy decorations. So I made most of the decorations from Styrofoam, sequins and pipe cleaners. A couple of strands of lights and a few inexpensive glass balls made a lovely tree that first year. Grams spent hours pushing straight pins with sequins and beads into Styrofoam balls ... so much so that my thumbs were sore for days. I still have some of those ornaments. They are among my favorites.

That was the beginning of my addiction to all things Christmas. Every year since 1975, I have added to my collection of ornaments and decorations.

Feeding my addiction has never been a problem. At the job that I held for 32 years, we had an ornament exchange every year at the Christmas party. My bunco club also exchanges ornaments. When we travel, my souvenir of choice is an ornament.

When we had our children, I began ornament collections for them. Each one started with a "Baby's First Christmas" ornament and we added at least one ornament every year. When Katy married, one of her bridal shower gifts was a big box filled with her ornaments. And last year, I was delighted to present a box of beautiful ornaments to Marie, my new daughter-in-law, at her bridal shower. Accompanying both of these gifts were "Our First Christmas Together" ornaments.

This year, we'll start a collection for our little princess with a beautiful "Baby's First Christmas" ornament. Her Mom has already told me that she's enchanted with the Christmas tree. I can't wait until she comes to Grams and Grandad's house for Christmas.

We have used an artificial tree since Nick was born in 1981, because when he was little, he seemed allergic. A few years ago, when we had to replace our old tree, I was determined to get a tree with a smaller circumference ... something that wouldn't take up so much room. But when we went shopping, we just couldn't bring ourselves to buy a smaller tree. So, I still have a huge tree that takes a big chunk of my living room. But, I'm willing to admit that I love it. It even rotates on its stand. And considering that, since I passed the kids' ornaments on to them, it now has fifty fewer ornaments on it, I wonder how I ever fit them all on the tree.

In recent years, I've begun to realize that my addiction is out of control. I have so many decorations in storage that I couldn't possibly put them all out at the same time. There are boxes that I haven't even taken out of the closet in three or four years. But I do love unpacking my ornaments and placing them on the tree every year. I can still remember where I got each one. It makes me think about people I don't see any more, trips we've taken, and things that happened which are commemorated by special ornaments. I especially treasure the handmade ornaments that my kids gave me when they were in elementary school.

Grams is wondering ... is there a twelve-step program for Christmas addicts?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Grams Made Easy Beef Tostadas

This is a great recipe for a busy weeknight dinner. Everyone will enjoy it.

1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 can (15 oz.) light red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (11 oz.) condensed nacho cheese soup
1/3 cup bottled salsa
8 tostada shells
1 cup shredded Mexican cheese
Shredded lettuce
Chopped tomatoes
Chopped avocados
Sour cream (optional)

In a large skillet cook meat and onion until meat is brown and onion is tender. Drain off fat. Stir in kidney beans, soup, and salsa. Heat through.

Spread mixture on tostada shells. Top with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, avocados and sour cream if desired.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rethinking Thanksgiving

Grams has been ambivalent about the Thanksgiving holiday for a number of years now. Don't get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving. I embrace the "Americana" of it. I love the fact that it is a purely American holiday. And, clearly, I love the food. The only thing better than the roast turkey and cornbread dressing with cranberry sauce that we have at mid-day is the sandwich I have for dinner.

I realize that we all celebrate Thanksgiving in different ways. My mother always made a huge traditional meal for Thanksgiving and for many years the family gathered at Mom and Dad's to spend the day together. We started early with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and we always watched football. It was especially interesting when I brought my Aggie husband into my family of UT fans. And, of course, we all enjoyed watching the Dallas Cowboys, even when they lost.

As the years went by, traditions began to change. My siblings all moved farther away and gathering for Thanksgiving became impractical and unlikely. As we married and had our own families, it was natural that each of us made our own family traditions.

For a number of years, my sister Bylinda and I would cook and both of our families would get together for the day, usually at her house. Three years ago, after my father-in-law died, Grams decided to host a Thanksgiving for my husband's mother and sisters at our home. His brothers already had commitments to their in-laws. And, our children both celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with their own in-laws, which means we get them for Christmas and that works for us.

Out of consideration for my husband, I won't go into detail about the fiasco that ensued, but by the time the kitchen was cleaned and the guests were gone, both of us were frustrated, hurt, and angry. After that day, both Grandad and Grams decided that we didn't need that frustration. We summarily "resigned" from participating in future Thanksgiving celebrations and informed family members of our decision. We decided that we would make our own modest meal at home spend a quiet day together topped off by going to a movie. Alternately, we might plan a get-away weekend for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Last year, we picked up a turkey dinner from our local grocery store and had that quiet day together at home. It was great. We talked with our kids and other family members on the phone. I will admit that I felt a little twinge of guilt when my mother-in-law told us that she and one of my sisters-in-law went to Luby's for Thanksgiving dinner. But all-in-all both Grandad and Grams were happy with the quiet day.

This year, we were just too tired to do a big Thanksgiving. In recent weeks, we made several trips back and forth to San Antonio with a detour to El Campo for a funeral last week and, honestly, the idea of a drive to Seguin was just too much. But, having to do something with my sister, Kay, complicated our plans for a quiet weekend. Kay lives in a group home just a few miles from us. She often travels to spend holidays with one or the other of my siblings, but this year, she stayed with us.

Kay wants to be involved in everything you are doing and she craves having the hubbub created by a large gathering. Let's just say that a quiet weekend with us was not what she had in mind. How can I describe a five-day weekend with Kay? It's like having a very young child as a house guest. She wants to know what you are doing every minute of the day; she wants to "help" with whatever you are doing; she has a million questions; she gets up extremely early; you can't leave her unsupervised; she has no concept of privacy; and she has something to say about everything. Needless to say, I was relieved to take her home yesterday.

When I asked Kay what she wanted for Christmas, her reply was "I just want to have my whole family together." I explained to her that all of us getting together for Christmas is not in anyone's plans, since we all have families of our own and live far apart. I pressed her for another idea, but she was unyielding. The only thing she wants for Christmas is to have her whole family together and she doesn't understand that we all have other demands and commitments. I didn't even try to explain that we actually don't want to all get together for Christmas.

This discussion with her has led me to rethink future Thanksgiving plans. Maybe we can't all get together for Christmas, but surely some of us could gather for Thanksgiving, just because it would make Kay happy for that one weekend. We all have so much and she has so little. So Grams is going to begin a campaign among my siblings to gather for Thanksgiving next year. We'll see how receptive they are, but I know at least a couple of us can pull it off.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Grams Made Easy Baked Cod

1 1/2 cups plain breadcrumbs
1/2 cup fresh parsley
2-3 garlic cloves
zest of one lemon
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
4 (6-8 ounce) cod fish fillets
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 400. Line your pan with aluminum foil and lightly brush with olive oil or spray with cooking spray.

Combine parsley, garlic, lemon zest, and coarse salt on the cutting board. Finely chop, then combine with the breadcrumbs in a shallow plate. Brush top of each fillet with olive oil. Press fillet into the crumb mixture.

Place fillets in baking dish, crust-side up. Bake until firm, about 12-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Serve with lemon wedges.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How Quickly They Forget

Grams has had it with "the mean girls." You remember "the mean girls" from junior high and high school. The one's who were always part of the "in crowd" and always thought they were a little bit better than everyone else. They were often bullies and had something unkind or nasty to say about anyone who was different. There was even a movie called "Mean Girls." It's tag line was "Watch your back."

Oh, I've known "mean girls" all my life. In high school, we called their little groups "cliques." Years later in the work world, they were referred to as "the A-Team." But my most recent run in with the "mean girls" has been on an internet message board and on Facebook.

For more than three years now, Grams has been active on an internet message board for people who have had weight loss surgery. The common threads for membership are that most or all of us have been morbidly obese at some point in our lives and have opted to have weight loss surgery of one kind or another and most of us live or have lived in the State of Texas. This message board has a reputation as being one of the best and most supportive boards around. And I would like to give credit where credit is due ... they were extremely supportive of me when my mother was dying and my husband was gravely ill.

Active participation in a support group is an integral part of recovery from morbid obesity. Most of us didn't get morbidly obese simply by overeating. There are many underlying issues that must be dealt with. Often there is transfer of addiction from food to alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. My doctor's support group only meets once a month in Corpus Christi, so I found this online support to be of great value as I was preparing for my surgery and learning how to live the post-surgical life to be successful at maintaining my new lower weight and healthier lifestyle. I have received a great deal of very valuable guidance, advice and instruction from my "friends" on said message board. I also like to think that I have provided valuable advice and guidance to "newbies" on the board as a way of "paying it forward."

I said all that to say this ... lately the tenor of many on that message board has become nasty. Some of the women on this board have been covertly snipey and nasty to other members ... on a regular basis. Some of it is not so covert. And, unfortunately, this nastiness has migrated to the same group of friends who interact on Facebook. They refer to it as "stirring the pot."

Whatever happened to tolerance and understanding? The particular person that the most recent "pot stirring" has been directed at is going through a rough time. While I would concur that she's probably too involved in the lives of her adult children, I don't see any reason to be so unkind to her. Maybe she hasn't handled these problems the way others would have, but she has been kind and supportive to many who are on this journey. But, because they seem to think she has too many complaints, they are intolerant and unkind. They talk about her in veiled terms and give her sarcastic advice to pass on to her adult children. Didn't their mother's teach them "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all?"

Because of this, Grams has mostly stopped posting on the message board. I still visit once or twice a day to catch up on recent posts, but I rarely post, because I don't enjoy what's going on. That's not good for me because I have learned so much there. And it's not good for others because I have valuable experience and advice of my own to share.

I would think that these formerly obese individuals might remember how it felt to be left out and not part of the group. I feel sure that sometime in their collective pasts they must have been on the receiving end of such an exchange. Surely they must have experienced some of the feelings of being outcast that most morbidly obese people have experienced. How quickly they have forgotten! Shame on them! And ... shame on me for not calling them on this behavior and standing up for a person who was being made fun of and bullied.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Grams Made Leftover Chicken Vegetable Soup

An easy soup made from whatever you have left in your refrigerator.

4 cans (14-½ oz. each) Chicken Broth
1 cup quick-cooking brown rice
1 large bag frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, water chestnut, peppers, onion mix)
1 large can diced tomatoes (with or without spices)
1-2 cups left-over chicken, cut up in bite-sized pieces
1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
Any other veggies of you may have in the refrigerator

In a large saucepan or stew pot combine broth and rice. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat. Cover and cook over low heat 15 minutes or until rice is tender. Add veggies, chicken and parsley. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

I use leftover rotisserie chicken in this recipe. Use whatever you have in your fridge.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Technology or Not Technology

Grams loves books! Anyone who knows Grams even a little bit knows that I am an avid reader. I love to read almost anything.

I remember distinctly the first time I could recognize the words "See Spot run" in my first grade primer Fun With Dick and Jane. To be able to see printed words and to understand what those words meant when I saw them on the printed page was pure magic. I was hooked from the very beginning!

Sometime shortly after my first grade year, sets of World Book, Childcraft and Golden Book Encyclopedias appeared at our house. I suspect that my Aunt Nava bought them because I know that such an investment would probably have been too large of an expense for my parents. I spent many hours poring through these books. I especially loved the Golden Books. They were beautifully illustrated and written for children and I wish I had them today. Childcraft was full of fun experiments and good instructions for hobbies and kept me busy many summers. And for several years those were pretty much my only books. I learned nursery rhymes and fairy tales from reading them over and over again. I used those encyclopedias well into my teens.

In 1964 when my family moved to Corpus Christi I discovered something new to add to my reading enjoyment ... the bookmobile. I knew about libraries, although I don't remember ever going to the library before our move. But to a 10-year-old girl in a new city where I didn't know anyone, the bookmobile was a godsend.

That summer, every other week, the bookmobile would drive up to the recreation center right around the corner from my house and open its doors from 9 a.m. until noon. This was when I got my first library card. Before I could borrow books, my mother had to take me downtown to the big La Retama Public Library and get me a library card. Books became my new best friend! The bookmobile introduced me to The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I learned about adventures with The Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Call of the Wild. I don't recall many of the other books I read that summer, but I do remember being consumed by reading to the point where my mother would occasionally nudge me out the door to go outside and play. I can point to that summer as the beginning of my lifelong love affair with books.

As a teenager I discovered trashy novels. I'm pretty sure I would have been in big trouble if my mother had known what was contained within the pages of Harold Robbins' books, and The Carpetbaggers and A Stone for Danny Fisher which I read around the age of 14. After high school I discovered romance novels. I started with Harlequin Romances but soon advanced to such notorious bodice-rippers as Nora Roberts, Johanna Lindsey and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.

Although I still occassionally indulge in a trashy romance novel, I like to think my reading has evolved. Thanks to the influence of my son-in-law, who is a high school English teacher with very sophisticated taste in books, and the Book Snobs (my ladies book club), I now read a wide variety of books including bestsellers, classic literature, mysteries, Victorian novels, biographies, almost anything.

I love the tactile nature of holding a book in my hand and leafing through the pages. I like the way books smell. I like the idea that other people have read this exact same book and then passed it on for someone else to enjoy. I love walking into someone's house and looking at the books on their bookshelves. I like to pick up a book that was printed more than a hundred years ago and know that it has been read by generation after generation of people. A big part of the joy of reading is sharing books. There is nothing I enjoy more than reading a book and passing it on to a friend or acquaintance for them to enjoy.

Keeping my nightstand from being buried by books is a constant challenge. I'm not even a "book saver." I don't keep most books, I read them and pass them on or sell them at Half Price Books to get more books. But still it would be very easy to turn into one of those people whose house is defined by stacks of books, magazines and newspapers.

A couple of years ago, my kids gave me an MP3 player and a subscription to Audible.com. Since then I do at least half of my reading by listening to books on my MP3 player while I'm driving. I thoroughly enjoy it and have listened to books that I would probably never get around to sitting down and reading.

For quite some time now I've been looking at and reading reviews of the Kindle and now the new Nook. I must admit I love the idea of instantly downloading books to such a device and of having all my books in one lightweight and easy to carry electronic device. I'm attracted to the idea of less clutter. I've considered asking for one for Christmas or my birthday.

Here is the conundrum. It won't feel like a book; it won't smell like a book; you can't share it like a book; and it won't actually be a book. You can still tell your friends about it and encourage them to read it, but you can't hand it to them and say, "I really enjoyed this and I want to share it with you." I think that's at least half the fun of reading. I'm not quite sold on this new technological approach to books. So, for now at least, I'm sticking with my stacks and bags of actual hard-copy printed books. I'll keep my clutter in order to keep the joy of sharing books with my friends.

I'd be interested to know what you think, especially if you already own an electronic device for books. Should I leap into the 21st century or stay safely ensconced in my clutter?

Grams Made Zucchini Bread

This is one recipe I've been making since I was a new bride. I got the recipe from a co-worker with the unusual name of Yettave Zietlow. Grams especially likes this bread topped with a glaze, Grandad prefers it plain. Either way, it's really good.

3 eggs, beaten
2 ½ cups sugar
3 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup oil
2 cups zucchini, shredded
1 cup nuts
3 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
½ cup raisins or dates (optional)

Beat eggs, add sugar, vanilla, oil and zucchini. Add all dry ingredients and mix well. Pour into two loaf pans. Bake at 350ยบ for one hour.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Grams Made Kalamata Lemon Chicken

This is one of the first recipes that Grams made when I finally learned to cook in my mid-fifties. It's still one of my favorites. I always keep these ingredients in my cupboard and freezer so I can always make this.

4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
1 tablespoon olive oil
2/3 cup dried orzo
1/2 cup drained, pitted Kalamata olives
1 14-ounce can chicken broth
1/2 of a lemon, cut into wedges or chunks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried Greek seasoning

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 4-quart Dutch oven brown chicken in hot oil over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, turning once. Stir in orzo, olives, the can of broth, lemon wedges, lemon juice, Greek seasoning, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Cover; bake for 35 minutes or until chicken is tender and no longer pink.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Make Time for Family

I always thought that I came from a pretty big family. Grams grew up with five siblings and dozens and dozens of cousins. But we lived about 500 miles away from the extended family, so we only saw them once or twice a year and then only some of them. For the past 30 years or so, I've only seen them at occasional family funerals.

When I married Grandad in 1975, I gained a huge extended family. Early in our marriage it was not unusual for complete strangers to ask "Are you related to Emil? or Monsignor Tim? or Ruth? or Sophie? or Henry?" At first I just responded, "I don't know, that's my husband's family." But as the year's passed and I finally began to learn and know the family members, I could answer yes and then explain the relationship. Like "he's my husband's uncle," or "she's my mother-in-law."

Seriously, Grandad's family is HUGE ... and more important, Grandad's family is close and caring and loving. As a new bride, I felt overwhelmed just by their sheer numbers. It took me years to learn names and faces. There were so many of them at our wedding, we didn't seat our guests by whether they were guests of the bride or groom. We just filled up the church. It would not be exaggerating to say that more than 75 percent of the guests were Grandad's family.

I have come to love them all and I love getting to see them. There are two reunions every year. In June, the extended Valenta family gathers for the "big" reunion. It's not unusual for the crowd to be over 150 people, all cousins, aunts and uncles. Then in October we gather for the "small" reunion. This event is only the direct descendants of Adolph and Louise Valenta of Corn Hill, Texas, my husband's grandparents.

This past Saturday, approximately eighty members of The Valenta Family took over the Moravian Hall in Corn Hill for our annual fall family gathering. We started with registration at 10:30 a.m. Everyone brought a covered dish meal for a pot luck lunch. There were door prizes and drawings. Organized activities included a fish pond for the kids, horseshoes, washers, bingo and a silent auction. Some played dominoes. We spent hours just visiting with each other and catching up on each others lives.

Lunch was a delicious variety of foods and, as usual, the dessert table was spectacular. There was enough left from lunch for us to share a quick dinner before we all headed home. The day always ends with the offering of a mass for the deceased members of the family at nearby Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

It was our little princess' first reunion and she was a big hit. She was the youngest baby there this year, and she got lots of love and attention. I especially enjoyed attending the reunions when my kids were babies. As soon as we walked in, someone would take the babies and they would just be passed around all day long. It was like a day off for me. I could see them but didn't have to tend them and I knew they were getting lots of love, attention and care. The little princess got the same treatment.

It was a gloriously beautiful fall day in central Texas. Small groups gathered outside under the trees to watch as others played horseshoes and pitched washers. And, in the Czech tradition, a fair amount of pivo was consumed. For any of you who may not speak Czech, pivo is beer.

This annual fall family gathering is my favorite get-together of the year. I really enjoy seeing the family "elders." Visiting with Grandad's uncles makes me feel almost like I'm seeing my father-in-law again. His aunts are beautiful, wise and accomplished women. They are 21st century women who cook, can, quilt and sew like their mother did.

Only three generations back, this family immigrated from Czechoslovakia bringing very little with them. They truly represent the American dream. As a whole, the family is healthy, accomplished and successful. Most of the members of my husband's generation have college degrees and good jobs. And they seem to genuinely like each other and enjoy spending time together.

A very close friend sent me an email this morning telling me that the father of a mutual friend died this week. She said, "This got me to thinking about how life can sometimes pass us by and how much I have missed getting together." I agree with her. It's so easy to get caught up in being busy and forget to make time to just be together.

Grams made it ... time to spend with family that is!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Grams Made Roasted Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 Tablespoon olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 Tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon capers
1 teaspoon caper juice

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Trim and cut cauliflower into small florets; spread in a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil; season with coarse salt and ground pepper. Toss to combine. Roast, tossing once or twice, until cauliflower is golden brown and tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

In a small skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Cook garlic cloves, stirring often, until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Add capers and caper juice. Pour over cauliflower, and toss to coat. Serves 4.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Haunt-a-holics

In most neighborhoods, it seems that the Christmas holiday season creates something of a frenzy of competition to have the best holiday decorations. Our neighborhood is a little different. Yes, we definitely decorate for Christmas, but Halloween seems to inspire more creativity and competition. A few of my neighbors take Halloween seriously. And it seems that no matter who moves in and out of the neighborhood, there are always at least two neighbors in competition for the best Halloween decor.

Usually, around the first of October, jack-o-lanterns start appearing followed by spider webs, ghoulish windsocks, scarecrows, ghosts hanging from trees, mummies sitting in lawn chairs and the obligatory grave headstones.

Then it turns into a competition. It seems like every year, somewhere in the neighborhood, there are a pair of houses that get carried away. They're usually right next door to each other and every few days something new is added to one or the other. It's fascinating to watch as a few innocent pumpkins turn into a full blown graveyard with every variety of ghouls and ghosts.

This year is no exception. Right around the corner from where we live, there are a couple of houses whose owners seem to be a little carried away. Over the past few weeks it's been interesting to check every few days to see what's been added. Here are a few photos but it's hard to do justice in a snapshot. Just as a point of reference, the black "wraith" hanging from the tree must be more than 20 feet tall. Both yards have full-blown graveyards and giant ghosts hanging from the trees. There are skeletons clawing their way out of some of the graves. They have everything from mummies and Frankenstein to giant spiders.

Hey neighbors! I think the neighborhood kids may be starting to cross the street instead of walk in front of your houses. Maybe you've gone too far. Is there a twelve-step program for "haunt-a-holics?"

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Grams Made Salmon with Lemon-Dill Butter

My sister-in-law gave us seven or eight large salmon fillets. We love salmon, but there are only two of us, so I had to get creative after a few weeks. I don't remember where I found this recipe, but it's easy and yummy.

4 salmon fillets (skinless)
Olive oil
4 Tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon dried dill weed
1 Tablespoon lemon juice

In food processor, combine butter, dill and lemon juice and process until blended stopping to scrape sides when needed. Set aside.

Coat salmon fillets with olive oil and cook 5 minutes on George Foreman grill or 4-5 minutes on each side under broiler.

Serve salmon with one dollop of lemon-dill butter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Big Granite Dome or Milestone?

About eighteen miles north of Fredericksburg, Texas on Ranch Road 965 an enormous pink granite dome rises out of the Texas Hill Country.

Enchanted Rock is the 500 feet high centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. And, it's impressive. You can see it from miles away. It is designated as a National Natural Landmark and is among the oldest exposed rock in North America. Enchanted Rock received it's name from reports of spirit lights and night time noises emanating from the giant rock. The Native Americans had great respect for the huge natural monument, and some would not set foot upon it. Others used it for ceremony or observation and possibly human sacrifice.

I first saw it about 6 years ago when Grandad and Grams were weekending at a Sunday House in Fredericksburg. We had heard our daughter, Katy, and our soon-to-be son-in-law, Travis, talk about hiking at Enchanted Rock so we decided to take a drive out and see it.

As you wind through the hills it suddenly appears in the distance. From the day I first saw it, I wanted to stand on the top. At that time, I weighed in at 300 pounds, making such a climb impossible, or at least highly unlikely. But it became a dream that I tucked away in the back of my mind and my heart.

Three years later, when I was in a San Antonio hospital bed recovering from gastric bypass surgery, I still thought of standing on top of Enchanted Rock. When Katy and Travis visited, I told them of my dream to stand on the summit of Enchanted Rock. They enthusiastically agreed to take me to hike it when I was in good enough shape to make the climb. Thus my dream became a goal.

In the ensuing three years, I have walked many miles in my neighborhood and at the nearby nature trail. I have worked hard to retrain my eating habits and learn to live a healthy lifestyle. On September 27, 2009, I celebrated the three year anniversary of my surgery and the loss of 125 pounds. I knew it was time to tackle my long tucked away dream. We chose a date and I began training in earnest to hike up Enchanted Rock. On Sunday, October 18, we made the drive from San Antonio to Enchanted Rock.

We hiked the Loop Trail to the far side of the Summit, past Moss Lake to Echo Canyon where we began our climb to the Summit up the West side of the dome. The hike around the Loop Trail was beautiful. We saw all kinds of cacti and, even this time of year, there were wildflowers. We took a short side trail to an overlook that gave us a beautiful view out to the West. When we got to Echo Canyon, the hike became challenging. The approach is littered with huge boulders and loose rocks. Traversing this terrain is tough for a novice hiker and climber.

After hiking a few yards into the boulder field where I actually had to begin climbing over boulders and stepping across gaps, I looked at Katy and Travis and asked them a one-word question, "Seriously?!" They both were extremely encouraging and reassuring; they told me I could do it. In fact, not only could I do it, but they were going to make sure I would do it.

As I scrambled, sometimes on hands and knees up and across the boulder field, a family of four came walking along and passed us. Yes, they were just walking briskly along with poles in both hands, upright the entire time, and passing us right up. It occurred to me that perhaps I should follow them; and I did for a short way. But they were headed a different direction, so we made a turn toward the summit.

We cleared the boulder field and began climbing the smoother granite face of the dome. It was steep and challenging. Katy encouraged me to climb at an angle and track back and forth across the hill. I had to stop every 50 yards or so and catch my breath. This was truly challenging. I might have even quit, except I knew that the only way down was up and over. We climbed and climbed. Every time I thought I could see the Summit it turned out to be a lower outcropping. It seemed to take forever. My legs felt like lead and at times I couldn't catch my breath. Travis and Minnie, their Jack Russell Terrier, led the way. Katy stayed right by my side every step of the way.

As we neared the Summit and I realized I was actually going to make it to the top, I was overcome with emotion. I began sobbing aloud and could not catch my breath. I had to sit down. Travis and Minnie climbed back down and joined Katy and me as we took a break. As we shared a Granola bar and an orange, we talked about how far I have come. Just a few years ago, I could not walk through an air conditioned mall without sitting down to catch my breath. Now I was climbing the face of a huge granite dome. After a little rest, we resumed our quest.

When we finally stood on the Summit of Enchanted Rock it felt amazing. The 360 degree view is awe inspiring. Small pools of water are accumulated in the natural indentations on top of the dome. A lone tree grows there. There were also lots of people at the top. We had taken the path less traveled. Most visitors go up the South face of the dome, a much easier climb. We descended that way and were passed up by many, many kids. Apparently this climb is a piece of cake for the kids. They were often running up and down, not even out of breath.

With the help and encouragement of my wonderful daughter and son-in-law, I had reached a major milestone. It was so much more than I expected. Not only did I feel a sense of accomplishment and follow-through, I felt an opening up of possibilities. Dreams can come true if you're willing to put in the work.

Was it worth it? Absolutely! Would I do it again? Positively! I don't have to sit and watch other people any more. I am no longer an observer; now I am an active participant in life. I don't just dream of doing things, I actually do them!

So next time you're driving through the Texas Hill Country and see Enchanted Rock in the distance, don't just think of it as an enormous granite dome ... think of it as a milestone. It was hard ... but Grams made it ... because I can do hard things!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Grams Made Three-Bean Turkey Chili

This recipe came from my good friend Janna Shoe. She served it for Book Club and I loved it. I've made it several times now and it's always a hit with everyone.

1 pound lean ground turkey
1 small onion, chopped
1 can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes, undrained
1 can (15 oz.) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 can (15 oz.) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (15 oz.) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce
1 can (4 oz.) diced mild green chiles
1 to 2 Tablespoons chili powder
salt to taste

Cook and stir turkey and onion in a skillet over medium-high heat until turkey is no longer pink. Drain and discard fat. Transfer to a crock pot.

Add remaining ingredients; mix well. Cover and cook on high 6-8 hours.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Just Do One Thing

Bloggers around the world have been asked to participate in the 2009 Blog Action Day today. We have been asked to dedicate today's blog to Climate Change.

Grams is not an expert on Climate Change. Sure, I've listened to Al Gore speak about global warming. I watched An Inconvenient Truth. I'm aware of efforts to save endangered species. The only remaining flock of Whooping Cranes winters near my home in South Texas. Grams has been aware of ecology and somewhat informed about climate change since I was in my teens many years ago. I was a sophomore in high school when Earth Day was first celebrated.

The challenge to blog about Climate Change made me stop and think about it. It seems that a chain of events has already been set in motion. It's clear to anyone who is paying attention that the change has already started. We're all hoping that it's not too late. If we start again today, can we change the inevitable or is climate change a forgone conclusion? Isn't the problem too big? Will I be able to make a difference? What can one person or one family possibly do about Climate Change?

Grams certainly doesn't have all the answers. But I know that one person and one family can make a difference. Here's what Grams and Grandad already do.
  1. We have replaced our disposable, one-time use paper napkins with washable reusable fabric napkins. They don't add anything to the laundry we're already doing and using them saves a few trees.
  2. We have our own green bags that we keep in my car so we can use them whenever we shop. I even have two little ones that fit in my purse for anytime I just run in to pick up one or two items.
  3. We keep our air conditioner set on 78 degrees in the summer and in the winter our heat stays at 67 degrees. Since South Texas is hotter than the face of the sun, this is the biggest sacrifice we make, but it also saves us a bunch on our utility bill.
  4. Grams has replaced disposable plastic storage and sandwich bags with reusable containers.
  5. Grams buys fresh produce instead of canned goods. There's less waste with no containers to dispose of.
  6. Grams buys local produce whenever possible. It's healthier, it's good for the environment and it supports local farmers. The fact that is tastes better is an added bonus.
Grams hasn't quite mastered the art of unplugging all the appliances that are not in use, but I pledge to work on that one next.

None of these things are hard or expensive or that big of a deal ... but they make a small difference. And that's what it's all about. If everyone will just make a small difference, just change one or two things in your own home, together we can make a difference globally for Climate Change in a positive direction.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Grams Made Hamburger Stew

This is my version of a stew that my mother-in-law used to make. I use fresh vegetables where she used frozen or canned. It's one of our favorite winter weekend meals.

1 lb. Extra-lean ground beef
4 large russet potatoes, cut into chunks
1 onion, sliced
1 lb. Carrots, pared and cut into chunks
1 can tomato sauce (15 oz.)
1 can tomato paste (6 oz.)
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

Brown ground beef in stew pot or dutch oven.

Add all other ingredients. Add two cans of water (use the tomato sauce can). Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes and carrots are done, about 30 minutes.

You may also add a can of corn and/or a cup of rice when you add all the other ingredients. We like it better on the second day when we reheat it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

We're Really Good at Halloween

My neighborhood is really good at Halloween. No, I mean it. We're really, really good at it! And we've been good at it for a long, long time.

The Halloween frenzy started innocently enough. Years ago, when the neighborhood was new, there were not many children. In fact for a long time it seemed like ours were the only ones ... not literally, but it did feel that way for a while. As more people moved in and the younger couples started having babies, the Halloween festivities grew.

On Halloween night we would block off the street and there would be carnival games in every driveway. Kids could bob for apples, go through a spook house, toss bean bags, etc. There was even a costume contest. Some years, after the kids were put to bed, parents would meet at the corner and have wine and cheese to wind down.

These photos are from Halloween around 1987 or so. The kids in these photos are in their late twenties and early thirties now. Some of them come back and bring their own kids now. The old carnival has evolved to a huge party at my next-door neighbor's house. Everyone brings a covered dish. We usually have hamburgers and hot dogs and we eat dinner before the trick-or-treating begins. In addition to all the Halloween candy, there are homemade popcorn balls and decorated cookies.

Neighbors bring lawn chairs, ice chests and our own bag or basket of candy. Kids trick-or-treat by walking from person-to-person around the driveway. Then they head out, accompanied by a few adults, to knock on doors around the area.

In our neighborhood, trick-or-treating often continues well into teenage years. We love that and we embrace it. Teenagers, with fangs and fake blood run through the neighborhood, toss water balloons and spray silly string at each other. And ... some of them still trick-or-treat. It's good clean fun and I love the fact that they're not too grown up to participate in the festivities. Most of the adults and parents are sitting outside and everybody is keeping an eye on everybody's kids. My kids embraced Halloween well into their high school years.

Several years ago when our baby left for college (that's him bobbing for apples), we felt that it was important to keep doing the activities we had always done. For the first few years, Grams made a covered dish and around sundown on Halloween we would head next door to participate in the neighborhood festivities. But, Grams soon discovered that it's just not the same and I didn't really enjoy Halloween any more. I missed my kids and I would get a bad case of the blues when Halloween came around. Grams soon concluded that this was one of the areas of my life where adjustments were called for. So for the past several years, Grams and Grandad have opted out of the neighborhood festivities and gone to the movies. That way I don't have to resist eating any Halloween candy and I don't get the blues. With just this small adjustment ... Grams made it!

Grams Made Chicken Enchilada Casserole

This is one of our favorite recipes. It's good enough to make for company and it travels well for covered dish dinners. You can make it more or less spicy by using hot or mild enchilada sauce. You can also use green or red enchilada sauce for variety.

12 corn tortillas
2 cups cooked, de-boned, shredded chicken breasts (rotisserie chicken works great)
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, halved and cut into 1/4 inch slices
2 greed or red bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch strips
2 cans Enchilada Sauce
4 cups grated Mexican mix cheese

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until the slice start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add peppers and cook until tender, about 7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

When ready to assemble, preheat over to 350 degrees. Dip 6 tortillas into sauce, one at a time, to soften, and use them to line the bottom of a 9" x 12" casserole pan.

Top this layer with all of the shredded chicken. Next layer half the cheese. Top with the other 6 tortillas dipped in enchilada sauce.

Pour the remaining enchilada sauce over the casserole and top with the remaining grated cheese.

Bake until the casserole is heated through and the cheese is melted, about 30 minutes.

Serve with salsa, sour cream, or both if desired.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mothers and Friends

I had lunch with two good friends and former co-workers today. I hadn't seen them in a couple of months and it was great to spend an hour visiting, swapping stories and laughing. All three of us are moms with children of varying ages. We have stayed in touch since leaving our common employer more than three years ago.

Our children range in age from 10 to 30 and among us we have 5 girls and 2 boys. But we always have the best time talking about them and sharing our motherhood stories.

Isabel has two extremely precocious daughters who are in elementary school. I love the stories she tells about them. They are both so smart. The things they say make me think that both of them are smarter than your average bear.

Today Isabel related that recently she was very angry and yelling at the younger of her girls. After a while, her daughter looked at her and said something like "Mommy, some of the people inside of you are ugly and I don't like seeing them."

Then the fun really started. We spent the next several minutes laughing uproariously while suggesting alternate names for Isabel's other personalities. My favorite was Carlotta and we laughingly suggested that next time she's angry she might remind her daughter that she doesn't want to see Carlotta.

Joanne went on to tell us about how her son recently went alligator hunting. A couple of weeks ago when she asked me if I had any recipes for alligator I thought she was joking. She reported that the alligator skin is being tanned so he can have boots made, although it may be a long time before he can afford the custom-made boots. And, since she now has an alligator head in her freezer, she has set aside a specific part of her freezer just for her son's wild game. That way not only does she not have to eat it, she doesn't even have to see it. Let's just say that her son is a major contributor to the gun ownership statistics in Texas.

We talked about how great it is when your kids finally get old enough and mature enough to stay by themselves for short periods of time. Isabel reported that her girls are now old enough that she occasionally leaves them for very short periods of time like to run to the pharmacy. I told her a cautionary tale of my two children dialing 9-1-1 because they thought our neighbor's house was being burglarized. It turned out that they were having their windows replaced and the people "breaking in" were the contractors. We all still laugh about that and my neighbor says they absolutely did the right thing.

I think the bottom line is that mothers don't have to keep a sense of humor ... but it helps. Mark Twain summed it up well.
"My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it." -Mark Twain

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Grams Made Tropical Ham and Pineapple Kebobs

This recipe is great for dinner and it makes a beautiful "party food." Even kids like it.

3 Tablespoons brown sugar (I use brown sugar Splenda)
2 Tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 pound full cooked ham, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 (15 ounce) can pineapple, drained
2 medium green peppers, cut into 1 inch chunks
24 medium mushrooms, cleaned
Salt and pepper

In a medium bowl, combine brown sugar, vinegar, oil, soy sauce and mustard. Thread ham, pineapple, green pepper and mushrooms alternately on skewers. Lightly oil grill and heat to medium high heat. Grill skewers, basting liberally with brown sugar mixture, 8-10 minutes, turning and basting until nicely browned and glazed. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Truth About Texans

A 1997 television commercial for Frost Bank, titled The Code, features a young boy standing in front of a corn field talking about what it means to grow up as a Texan. It goes something like this --
"I'll be as hearty of mind as I am of body. I'll be a straight shooter and a square dealer. My family name will be sacred and my word will be as good as any contract. I'll remember the Alamo. I'll stick by my friends and I'll eat more chicken fried steak."
Grams is proud to be a Texan. I was born in the piney woods of east Texas and have lived on the coastal plains of South Texas most of my life.

For a good part of my early life we lived with my granny in a little house that was described as being at the corner of plumb and nearly -- plumb out in the country and nearly in the creek. Now, Grams is a typical suburban housewife.

When you grow up in Texas you learn early about the Texas mystique. Every middle-school student in Texas is required to take a full semester of Texas History. And honestly, I should be embarrassed to tell you that I was an adult before I realized that everyone in the USA doesn't actually study Texas history. Imagine that!

Texas is where Colonel Travis drew a line in the sand before the battle of the Alamo. It's where "Remember Goliad" became the battle cry for freedom after Colonel Fannin and his men were massacred. Once a sovereign nation, Texas entered the union by treaty rather than by annexation. The dome of the Texas Capitol is the only state capitol that is taller than the dome of the United States Capitol.

And Texas is big. How big? In square miles, it's 268,601, second only to Alaska (which is at least partly ice). In population, there are an estimated 24,326,974 Texans, second only to California.

Texas is so big that it has five distinct areas, each very different in ethnicity, culture, topography and climate. It's is the land of charming small towns, quiet back roads and three of the ten largest cities in the USA. There are places in East Texas where you would swear you were in the Old South. Driving across the Panhandle you might think you're in the high plains of Nebraska. And there's no place like the Texas Hill Country, where every Texan loves to go to float the river and get away from it all.

Texas has many more dubious distinctions. We're famous for counties where dead people cast votes in presidential elections. We own more guns than any other state in the union ... two for every man, woman and child. And it's legal to carry a concealed weapon, if you have permit. It's the home of Dealey Plaza where JFK was assassinated as well as the home of the Enron debacle. And, yes, George W. Bush is a Texan.

Texas is home to ranchers, roughnecks, astronauts and scientists. We've got NASA, the Riverwalk, the Dallas Cowboys, the San Antonio Spurs, Galveston and Padre Islands and the old Spanish Missions.

We have world-class medical centers and we lay claim to the best cancer treatment center in the world. Our universities are second to none. Almost one quarter of the oil produced in the U.S.A. comes from Texas.

Everyone knows that the women of Dallas have their own style. And, those ladies down in Kingsville, home of the King Ranch, have a look of their own, too. Texas women are known for their big hair and their big hearts. Western wear is appropriate for Saturday night and Sunday morning. Cowboy boots can be worn by women and men with jeans, dresses or tuxedos.

High school football is our game of choice. There's not a better sports rivalry anywhere than the rivalry between the fighting Texas Aggies of Texas A&M University and the Longhorns of the University of Texas.

And our food is uniquely ours. We have our own kind of barbecue and we don't put beans in our chili. Tex-Mex is our brand of Mexican food. We like our steaks chicken fried. And, oh by the way, we drink our tea sweet with ice ... and we start drinking it when we're still in diapers.

Porch sitting is an art in Texas. There's nothing better than sitting on your porch watching a blue norther bring a bit of cool air after a long, hot Texas summer. And if you don't happen to have a porch, just pull up a folding chair in the garage and watch from there.

We're flag-waving patriots. Our kids still say the pledge of allegiance every morning in schools across our state. There are 23 major military installations in Texas and we love and support the men and women in uniform. We're proud to be Americans and we're proud to be Texans.

And, yes, we have our own way of saying things. We say "howdy" and "y'all." We might invite you to "come in and sit a spell" or tell you we were "just fixin' to" do something. If we don't believe what you're telling us we'll tell you "that dog won't hunt." We "run with the big dogs" and live in a place than can be "hotter than the hinges of hell." And if you ask for directions don't be surprised if they sound something like "turn left at the Dairy Queen and keep going until you get to the place that used to be a Wal-Mart." And a someone pretending to be something they're not might be referred to as a "drug store cowboy" or "all hat and no cattle."

Contrary to what you may have heard, all of us don't ride horses, wear boots or carry sidearms. Most Texans don't want to secede from the union. And, hey, some of us even voted for Obama. But hush, don't tell anyone, we don't want to spoil our image.

Grams Made Turkey Chili

Leftover turkey from Thanksgiving Dinner? After I've had at least one turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce sandwich, the rest of the turkey goes into this dish. It's a nice change after all that holiday food.

2 cups chopped onion
4 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 cup chopped green pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
2(35 oz.) cans crushed tomatoes
2(15 oz.) cans kidney beans, drained
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 chicken stock or broth
2-4 Tablespoons chili powder (to taste)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon dried hot red pepper flakes
2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 to 4 cups of shredded, cooked turkey meat
Sugar

In a large stew pot, cook the onion and green pepper over medium high heat, stirring, until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for a minute or two more.

Add tomatoes, tomato paste, stock, beans, oregano, salt, pepper and cooked turkey meat. Bring mixture to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, for an hour.

Salt to taste. Add 1 to 3 teaspoons of sugar to take the edge of acidity off the tomatoes, if desired.

Happy Birthday, Mom

My mother, Annie Louise Chapman Skelton, would have been 86 years old today. She died two years ago of renal failure. Grams could go into a lot of details about my mother and her life, but I'm going to try to resist the urge to air my family's "dirty laundry." Suffice it to say that my mother's life was hard and our relationship was often strained. Some of her life's difficulties were beyond her control and many were the result of her own actions. I'll just leave it at that.

She was a stay-at-home mom with six kids, two of whom had severe handicaps. She raised us in an age before dishwashers, clothes dryers and air conditioners. She made us do chores and she took us to church. While our friends ran the neighborhood from dawn to dark, she made us stay inside during what she called the "heat of the day." And we were not allowed to play until our chores were done.

She always had to know where we were going and who our friends were. When we got older, we were never allowed to go "cruising" like our friends. Anytime we left the house we had to have a specific destination and you better know that she was going to call and make sure we were where we said we were going to be.

She made us go to bed on time and she woke us up early. The girls learned to sew and keep house. The boys mowed the lawn and raked leaves. She made sure that those of us who could got at least a high school diploma. The possibility of incurring the wrath of our mother kept us out of serious trouble. We all knew that if we got in trouble at school, we'd be in even more trouble when we got home.

And she spanked us ... often making us go out to the tree and cut our own switch. But the tree was not necessary, we were often spanked with whatever was handy including but not limited to the back side of her hairbrush, the fly swatter, or the bottom of her flip-flop.

I can honestly say that many times the knowledge in the back of my mind that I would have to answer to my mother kept me from doing things that would have been stupid, wrong, illegal, immoral and just generally bad. I never understood the term "god-fearing" but if you had said "mom-fearing" I would have totally gotten it. I had a healthy fear of my mother that kept me on the straight and narrow.

Two years ago today my sisters and I spent the day at my mother's hospital bedside. We took presents and her favorite cake and celebrated her birthday with her. She was already slipping in and out of consciousness and could only take the tiniest taste of her birthday cake. It was the last day she had any signs of awareness.

Two days later I was called upon to make that decision that we all hope we'll never have to make. My mother's doctor wanted to start dialysis ... and without it, she would die.

Mother had been ill for a long time. As she got older, mom had trouble with falling. She was diabetic and didn't eat right. She had fallen many times and not been able to get up on her own. We had moved her into a senior citizens apartment complex a couple of years earlier hoping she would at least be able to get help when she fell. Her health continued to decline, but she was determined to live independently. After one hospitalization, her doctor admitted her to a nursing home. She promptly called a friend to come and get her.

The real decline began the week of Thanksgiving in 2006. As the result of one of her many falls, she broke her hip. A few months after that she also broke her leg. During the last year there were numerous trips to the hospital and she was in and out of diabetic shock and diabetic comas repeatedly. Ultimately, she did end up in a nursing home, but she was never content with life there and always thought she would move back home.

Mother had lived for more than forty years with only one kidney. One of her kidneys had been removed sometime around 1962 as the result of a kidney stone that severed an artery. At the time we lived way out in the country and she almost died before they got her to the hospital. All of my life I remember her saying that there were two things she never wanted ... one was for one of her children to give her a kidney for transplant and the other was to be on dialysis. I think she always knew that when she died, it would probably be from kidney failure.

My mother's doctor recommended dialysis immediately telling me that it would only be for a couple of weeks and then they would be able to stop it. He had been my mother's doctor since the mid-1960s and, in my opinion, they had become friends and he was no longer objective about her care. He actually told me that he believed she would want dialysis. I was shocked to hear this in light of what she had always told me.

I spoke with both the urologist and the nurses who both told me that once they started dialysis it was highly unlikely that they would ever be able to stop it. Her one remaining kidney would not become healthy and start functioning as a result of dialysis.

I called all of my brothers and sisters who all concurred with me ... no dialysis. As I passed this word on to the hospital the nurse I spoke with reassured me that this was the best decision. There were many people who did not concur, among them my mother's doctor and the chaplain at her nursing home.

I have agonized over this decision many times over the past two years. I know that it was the right decision and, moreover, I know it was what my mother wanted. But that doesn't mean it was easy and there is always that little doubt in the back of my mind that maybe she had told her doctor something that she never got the chance to tell me.

I spent the next week shuttling between the hospital my husband was in and the hospital my mother was in. Mother died on October 16th. Because of my husband's illness and the fact that she was buried about 500 miles from here, I did not even attend her funeral. I tell myself that I did what I could for her while she was alive. I call to mind the scripture from Luke "Let the dead bury the dead." And I am at peace.

And now, some advice from Grams ... make sure your loved ones know your wishes. It doesn't matter whether you are young or old, healthy or ill. Some day you or someone you love may be called upon to make a similar decision. The greatest gift you can give them is the knowledge that they did what you wanted. Don't make them decide for you. Tell them in advance what you want.

Happy Birthday, Mom ... I just want to let you know that ... Grams made it!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Grams Made Monkey Bread

I first tasted this delicious sweet bread when my next-door neighbor, Mary Lou Simmons, made it for our bunco club. There's a little bit of work involved in rolling the biscuits quarters in cinnamon and sugar, but other than that it's extremely easy. I love to put it on one of my pretty pedestal cake plates and then just let everyone pull it apart and eat it communally while we sit and talk. You really have to bake this in a "tube pan" or it won't get done in the middle. I use my Bundt pan. Thanks to Mary Lou for sharing the recipe.

1 stick Butter
1 1/4 cup Brown Sugar (packed)
4 cans Biscuits
1 cup Pecans
1/4 cup Cinnamon

Melt Butter and stir in 1 cup of Brown Sugar.

Mix Cinnamon and Brown Sugar together in a separate bowl.

Cut biscuits into quarters and roll each quarter in Cinnamon and Brown Sugar mixture.

Spray pan with nonstick cooking spray. Pour half of butter and brown sugar mixture into bottom of pan. Sprinkle one-third of the Pecans in, then fill pan by stacking coated biscuits and pecans. Pour remaining butter mixture over top.

Bake at 350 degrees until done (30-45 minutes).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Learned a Few Things from Those Baptist Ladies!

Grams was born in 1954. That makes me a baby boomer. I grew up in the sixties and came of age in the seventies. Mine was pretty much the last generation of women who didn't really expect to work. While many of us went to college, we thought we would marry, have babies and be stay-at-home moms. That didn't work out for most of us. We ended up juggling full-time jobs along with our traditional roles as wives and mothers.

As a baby boomer, I had a front row seat to the events of the last half of the 20th Century. I was in first grade when John Kennedy was elected president. I was 9 years old when he was assassinated. I learned to take cover under my desk during the Cuban Missile Crisis and I was only 8 years old when Marilyn Munroe died. I attended segregated schools until I was 10. I was 13 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I was 15 when Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the moon in the same year that all those "hippies" gathered at Woodstock. I was a senior in high school when the Israeli athletes were killed at the Munich Olympics. I watched as Watergate brought Richard Nixon's presidency to an early end. I remember when Saigon fell and the last marines left Vietnam. Burning bras and burning draft cards were beamed into my living room along with the race riots and anti-war protests of the sixties and my television set gave me a front row view.

Of all the changes that have taken place in my lifetime, in my humble opinion, the most important has been the changing role of women. The women of my mother's generation were the last of the old-fashioned "Mrs. Cleaver" type women who stayed home, made dinner and raised children. Today's young women don't realize that the opportunities they have were not available just a generation ago. They don't even have to think about it.

I'm definitely glad to have seen the liberation of women. Most women of my generation thought that if they did work for a few years it would be as a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. There were not a lot of other choices. Today's women can dream of being anything and can actually achieve those dreams. My daughter-in-law is a rig supervisor for a major oil company. She works on an oil rig in Canada where she supervises a crew of men. And if her pay and advancement in the company are any indication, she's damn good at it. Just a few years ago it would have been unheard of for any female to hold such a position. Yet she didn't even hesitate to go for the job she wanted.

I love to tell people that I was raised Southern Baptist, but I overcame it. Truth be told, I mostly say that to aggravate my mother, but religion is a topic for another day. What I want to say is that I learned some important things about how to be a woman from the ladies of the Baptist Church. And I worry that many of those traditional things are in danger of disappearing.

The ladies of the Baptist Church always took food to the house when someone died. They gave bridal and baby showers. They brought casseroles when someone was sick. They cleaned each others houses when one of them had a long-term illness. They hosted graduation teas. They babysat for each other and sat with sick parents. In short, they supported each other as only women can. I am afraid that these things are being lost in the brave new world of today's women. I'm even more concerned that these traditions are not being passed on to our daughters.

So next time you're invited to a bridal shower or baby shower, put on your Sunday best and take your daughter with you. When your neighbor has a new baby, take a casserole. When there's a death in the neighborhood, organize the neighbors to provide a meal. Host a tea for a girl you know who's graduating. Offer to babysit for a friend who needs a night out. Be there for other women and teach your daughters by your example.

With a lot of support from other women ... Grams made it. Let's make sure the next generation of women makes it too!

This post has been linked to the GRAND Social blogging event.

How Many Doctors Does It Take?

This is a long story; there's no way to make it short. Grams has reached a point where my frustration is overflowing this morning. My close friends already know this story, so if you're tired of hearing it, just skip today's post. I'm hoping that just writing it down will be cathartic.

Shortly after Christmas in 2006 Grandad came down with a bad cold that he just couldn't shake. By the end of January, it had become full blown bronchitis with a cough that just wouldn't quit. Especially at night, he would be wracked with coughing. He went to his general practitioner (doctor number 1) and was given antibiotics and cough syrup. He got better, but still had trouble with coughing at night.

At about this time I noticed that Grandad's occassional snoring had turned into a nighttime wheeze. At my insistence, Grandad visited my ENT (doctor number 2). Doctor number 2 did some x-rays, ran some tests, and started Grandad on an asthma medication with instructions for him to return for a follow up in a few weeks. While taking the asthma medication, the wheeze began to show up occasionally in the daytime, particularly after exertion. After more testing and a change in medications, doctor number 2 reported that Grandad's problems did not seem to be asthma nor allergies. He then sent Grandad off with a referral to a pulmonologist (doctor number 3).

Doctor number 3 got him in quickly, I think it may have even been the next day. He really took the time to talk with Grandad to try to understand what was going on. He listened to Grandad's chest and told him that wheezing at night is almost always indicative of a heart valve problem. He immediately referred Grandad to a cardiologist (doctor number 4).

The cardiologist scheduled him for an echo cardiogram within the next day or so. The technician began the procedure and almost immediately stopped and went to get the doctor. I was not with Grandad at this appointment, but he called me as soon as it was over and told me that he wasn't sure what had happened, but he knew it was not good.

The next day, doctor number 4 called and scheduled a heart cathertization for early the next week. This required day surgery and Grandad's first visit to the hospital. Enter doctor number 5, the cardiologist who actually performed the heart cath. The heart cath showed that Grandad had ruptured cords in his mitral valve and resulted in an overnight stay. The next morning they performed a procedure (I don't remember what it's called) where they ran a camera down Grandad's throat to look at his heart.

Results were conclusive that the cords of the mitral valve were indeed ruptured and the mitral valve would have to be either replaced or repaired. Doctors number 3, 4 and 5 conferred and concluded that repair was preferable to replacement. Since that is not done in Corpus Christi, later that day, he got a referral to doctor number 6, Dr. Gerald Lawrie, a world-famous heart surgeon at Methodist Hospital in Houston. Dr. Lawrie is the surgeon who later repaired Barbara Bush's heart valve.

We arrived in Houston a couple of days later prepared for heart surgery. We began at the surgeon's office with a quick (and I do mean quick) meeting with doctor number 6. He reported that he would repair the mitral valve using the DaVinci procedure which is a revolutionary new robotic procedure. It's less invasive than the traditional open-heart procedure and usually has a shorter recovery period.

When we left doctor number 6's office, we went directly across the street where Grandad did pre-admission check in. The next few days are kind of fuzzy for me, I think surgery was two days later. I do know that there was enough time for Grandad's mom and brothers to drive in from various points around the state. Our son was living in Houston, so I had a place to stay and, of course, our daughter came in from San Antonio.

The day of surgery started off with a phone call from Grandad reporting that they were taking him into the pre-op area about two hours earlier than anticipated and that we should come to the hospital "now." We threw on our clothes and dashed to the hospital in time for a quick visit before they took him into surgery.

We moved to the cardiac surgery waiting area where we passed the next 14 hours or so. Methodist Hospital is an amazing hospital. They do an excellent job of patient care and they are also very conscious of the care needed by the patient's family and friends. The cardiac waiting area is staffed all day long by volunteers who make sure each family gets regular updates on their loved one. And ... they have their very own Starbucks right in the hospital ... something that endeared them to Grams.

As the day went on we got occasional updates ranging from reports that everything was going well and they were actually ahead of schedule to no updates at all. We heard other family groups get reports that their loved one was finished and doing well. We watched as they hugged each other and left the waiting room. We sat silently as one family got the news we all dreaded. And we waited.

Sometime around 3 p.m. my nerves got the best of me and that feeling of impending doom set in. I tried hard to keep my spirits up, but by this time we were no longer getting any updates at all. I was convinced that something terrible was happening. Sometime around 5 o'clock the volunteers left for the day. And we waited. We tried playing cards to distract ourselves. It was not fun so we finally quit. And we waited. We were left with only one or two other families, none of whom had been there as long as we had. We saw new families come and go as their loved ones had emergency surgeries and still we waited. Friends and co-workers dropped by throughout the day. And we waited. Sometime around 7, someone came out and reported that he was out of surgery and the doctor would be out to see us soon. We spoke with the doctor standing in a corner of the Cardiac ICU.

He explained that the surgery had taken longer than expected because the instruments were not long enough. Because Grandad is 6'5" tall, he had to make adjustments and compensate for instruments that simply would not reach where they needed to go. The report was that he had replaced all the cords in the mitral valve with titanium cords and had placed a ring around the valve to assist with its function. He further instructed all the male blood relations who were present to see their doctors as soon as possible, because the weak cords in Grandad's mitral valve is a congenital problem and it's likely that other male family members have them. He reported that we would be able to see Grandad in about an hour.

(The actual amount of time that he was in surgery has been disputed by the doctor. I know that they took him to surgery sometime between 7 and 9 a.m.; it was sometime between 10 and 11 a.m. when the volunteer told me that they were ahead of schedule; and Dr. Lawrie did not come out until around 7 p.m. I believe he was under anesthetic for about 9 hours. Dr. Lawrie says it was only 4. Either way it was a long time.)

At this point, the rest of the family left the hospital and headed for their homes. All of them had to drive several hours. Grams, Katy and Nick began making phone calls to report Grandad's status to other family and friends. Hours passed and we heard no more from the recovery room.

Sometime around 10 p.m. enough was enough. The desk in the waiting room had been unmanned for hours and we had heard nothing since our talk with Dr. Lawrie around 7 p.m. Nick got up, walked across the waiting room, opened the ICU door, walked right up to the desk and said something like this. "My mom has been here since 6 a.m. The doctor told us at 7 that it would be about an hour before we could see him. I need to take my mom home. So, I need you to check on his status and let me know whether we can see him or not. Either of those is fine, but I need to know now. We've waited long enough."

The answer was that of course we could see him now. However, they did and said nothing to prepare us for what we would see. He was not awake yet and was not breathing on his own. My grown son took one look, shook his head to say "no" and headed back out the door. My daughter was a rock. She stood there holding me up while we both tried to be brave. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. We only stayed a few minutes.

When we returned to the waiting room to gather our things and leave, one of the other ladies who had been waiting came over and hugged me. She explained that her husband was undergoing his 5th heart surgery. She also expressed concern that the hospital staff had not prepared us to see a post-surgical heart patient. She took a few minutes and explained to us that what we had seen was totally normal and nothing to be upset about. I didn't get her name, but to this day I sincerely appreciate her kindness and comfort.

We went home and tried to sleep. The next day we began scheduled visitations in the CICU. Two of us were allowed in for 10 minutes once every four hours. He remained there for 3-4 days. He had been under anesthesia for so long that he had a lot of trouble waking up. When he was awake, he was not lucid. He did not know where he was or what day it was. Sometimes he didn't know us.

It seems that when you are a world-famous heart surgeon, that's all you do. We did not see Dr. Lawrie on a regular basis after surgery. His patients were assigned to nurse practitioners and staff cardiologists for follow up care while hospitalized. Enter doctor number 7. I don't even remember his name, but he reminded me of Jafar, the grand vizier from Disney's Aladdin. You couldn't hear him coming and he was difficult to understand. But he was the doctor who came by the hospital daily to see Grandad.

Once Grandad woke up and was moved to a semi-private room, his recovery was quick. Within a few days we were on our way home and his care was turned back over to his local doctors (doctors numbers 3 and 4).

Where do I go from here. Initially, Grandad's recovery seemed uneventful. To my delight his nighttime wheezing was gone. He seemed to be on the mend and we thought he would soon be as good as new. However, he soon began to have chronic pain in the right side of his chest and sometimes he was short of breath. His blood pressure fluctuated and sometimes he had bouts of dizziness and/or excessive sweating. He also had no stamina and could not do anything strenuous. This continued through the summer and he was referred to a pain management specialist (doctor number 8). He has taken a wide variety of pain medications off an on since surgery. None of them gave him relief.

Our frustration has been that often when he got to the doctor's office, nothing would show up. They never saw what was happening. Usually, by the time he got to the doctor's office everything seemed fine. No one ever actually said it to us, but I think they thought he was a hypochondriac or drug seeking. At one point they sent us back to Dr. Lawrie in Houston who met with us, listened to us and then told us that recovery was just going to take more time. We were pissed off to say the least. We had driven several hours to see him and he just blew us off. No tests, no examination, nothing he couldn't have done over the phone.

In October of 2007, approximately 9 months after his initial heart surgery, Grandad woke up one morning and could not breathe without excruciating pain. We met the doctor at his office on a Saturday morning. In addition to pneumonia, he was diagnosed with a "crust or scab" covering the outside of his left lung. He was admitted to Christus Spohn Shoreline Hospital and we met doctor number 9, a cardio-thoracic surgeon.

Coincidental to this hospital admission, my mother was in another local hospital dying of kidney failure. By the time they recommended surgery, she had slipped into a coma and it was clear she would not survive more than a day or so. When the surgeon recommended that Grandad have surgery to clean out his chest, I asked if it could be postponed a week so I could go bury my mother. The answer was an emphatic no. Surgery was indicated as soon as possible. My mother died within hours and he actually had surgery on the same day she was buried some 500 miles away.

The surgical procedure was called a thoracotomy. This is one of the most painful operations a person can have. As with the initial heart surgery, it took several hours longer than anticipated. The incision runs across his back and down to his right side. Recovery was long and extremely painful, but we were hopeful that they had found the source of his pain and that we would soon be feeling better. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

A year later, the frequent trips to the doctors continued because Grandad still did not feel well. Nick and Marie were soon to be married and they were all home for a bridal shower. When Grandad woke that morning he could not breathe without a lot of pain. He finally called his internist/pulmonologist who instructed him to come to the hospital. We woke Nick and had him take Grandad to the hospital while we went on with the shower. This time was different. When he walked from the ER entrance to the triage room, his blood pressure plummeted and he became very short of breath. Needless to say, they admitted him.

As Hurricane Ike bore down on the Texas coast, Grandad underwent a battery of tests, x-rays, scans, etc. in Christus Spohn Shoreline Hospital. He received two rounds of IV antibiotics because he had a persistent fever. During this hospitalization we met doctors number 9 and 10 who were brought in for consultations. The hospital was evacuated with the exception of Grandad and three or four other patients on the telemetry floor. It was eerie to be in an almost empty hospital. He was sent home on Thursday after five days in the hospital with no diagnosis. They never identified the cause of the fever, but he felt better by the time he went home.

Once again, it didn't last. After only a few weeks all the same symptoms returned. Generally, he just feels like crap and can barely perform the most mundane physical activity. In the past three years he has taken a wide variety of drugs for high blood pressure, blood thinners, and pain. He has also seen doctors number 11, 12 and 13 ... two of them are neurologists, one in Houston and one in Corpus Christi ... the other is an endocrinologist in CC. They have determined that he has an enlargement on one side of his thyroid and a pocket of fluid on the other side. They are continuing to monitor the thyroid and a follow-up visit is scheduled for later this month.

Last week, the pain in his chest again became unbearable. This time the diagnosis was pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of the lung. He was given two steroid injections and told to take Tylenol.

Yesterday he called his cardiologist to follow up regarding a change in medication suggested by his internist/pulmonologist. This morning, when her nurse called him back to follow up, she suggested that perhaps he should go to the Mayo Clinic. He immediately said no, that it would be too far and too expensive to go there.

Grams is convinced that this is exactly what he needs to do. There is no doubt in my mind that it would be the right thing to do. In fact, I've been hoping for exactly this referral. Hence my extreme frustration today. While I understand his concerns about the cost, what really matters to me is him getting well.