Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Remembering Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving, I really do. And not in the way of so many modern folks, where the word of the day is stuffing, and not just the sage and chestnut variety in Tom Turkey, but also all those Black Friday bags, filled to bursting with sales and stress. 

No, as a child of the 1970s, Thanksgiving is a much richer cornucopia of memory for me. In a time where it seems like society was far less wary, and I daresay, also much more joyful, I remember childhood pageants and wearing gray and white Pilgrim hats made of construction paper. I remember turkeys traced carefully around an outstretched hand onto paper...if you haven't ever done this, it's fun to try...it's amazing how much an outline of a hand can resemble a bird in full feather. Of course, I remember the table laden with steaming deliciousness, the cranberries glowing like rubies, the fancy relish trays and salads and golden breads, the mounds of mashed potatoes just begging for gravy, the turkey coming out of the oven with such pride and excitement, and the intoxicating perfumes of cinnamon and pecans filling the air with the promise of pie. The sense that this was not just food, not just a meal, but a feast, coupled with the clamor to fit all that abundance on a table set with its very best linens and finest china only seen once a year...all of this was the very sparkling essence of 'holiday', too dazzling for such a cheap thing as 'hype.' 

I know it might sound sappy, but I remember people saying grace much more than I remember anyone yelling at a football screen. Maybe that's just the kind of home I came from, but I kind of think that might have been a similar experience for most of my generation. We ate and ate some more...and just when the leftovers were tucked into Tupperware, unbelievably we'd circle around for a turkey sandwich with a scoop of cranberries, and of course, the best part, cold stuffing.

I have always been a nervous hostess, and so the way I have conquered that is to do as much ahead as possible. To my delight, over the years, I have learned that most Thanksgiving dishes can be made ahead and lose no quality in the freezer. So I leisurely make that stuffing, stir up that gravy, mash those potatoes, bake that bread, even roast the turkey and finish the pies...and store them all in the freezer. I often will do a dish a day or so, but it is so much easier than trying to cram everything in on the holiday itself.  Just a slight note of caution: I make gravy from scratch, and do find that it requires a bit of extra stirring/whisking to get it smooth again after freezing, but it does turn out fine. And there are many freezer mashed potato recipes online, so give them a whirl. Often, they have extra ingredients, like cream cheese, to keep them freezer-safe, but honestly, I have just frozen plain mashed potatoes, reheated them again, and no one has been the wiser. They may need to be stirred a bit when heated through, but that is all.

I set a formal table the night before or the day of the holiday. This is quite a task in itself, because our home is so small that our tiny gate-leg table needs to be taken out and expanded to its full size in the parlor in order to truly accommodate the dinner. (And the formal aspect of the parlor is a nice setting...a plus, in my opinion.) I also set out my serving bowls with utensils, which will be used for side-dishes, so I can see how everything will look on the table, and if it will be aesthetically pleasing.  (This picture was taken from last year's celebration.)

I take out my frozen delights (stored and wrapped in my casserole dishes) the night before and keep them refrigerated. My 'cooking' on Thanksgiving consists of mostly thawing and heating food back up. A platter of sliced up turkey reheats beautifully in a microwave, while my squash or sweet potato dish, mashed potatoes, and stuffing go into a medium oven (about 325 degrees) for 30 minutes. Cranberries,a premade relish plate and a salad or two are finishing touches. I like to cook, but I don't like high pressure, so to me this leisurely way to prepare the feast really helps me to savor this time of year and--believe it or not--relax on the big day, just like my guests. It feels much more elegant to me and I feel so much more composed.

It surely is not how the Pilgrims did it, but it certainly works for us.

I hope you have a Thanksgiving brimming with abundance, but most of all, in these troubled, often frenetic times, gratitude. The magic of this holiday is the determination to discern the blessing in life, underneath the difficulty. I am raising up my glass of sparkling cider to you all.  



Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Simple Meal at a Pretty Table


Being casual has a way of catching up with a person, and---well, sooner or later it can slide into full-out sloppy. I must plead guilty to this, as this kind of 'casualty' (pun intended) happened a few weeks ago. Our ten-year old niece was over for her monthly visit, where we create an afternoon just for her, playing board games, painting and stringing beads, and even learning how to do Tai-Chi. We also have a take-out meal of her choosing...usually Chinese. This time, like so many others, as our 'fine dining' degenerated into a litter of styrofoam containers, crumpled paper napkins and sticky puddles of sweet and sour sauce on hastily grabbed and mismatched dishes, I realized that indeed, I had sorely forgotten to practice what I preached, and well, the simple act of a shared meal had degenerated into a piggy fest. I needed to clean up my act. 

The strange thing about it is that setting a nice, formal table used to be habitual for me--at a time in my life that was much more chaotic than it is now. When I was a single mom with two little boys at home, I used to get up earlier than I had to, setting the table with thrift store placemats and cloth napkins as a prelude to a hot breakfast, before we plunged full-force into the noise and stress of school and work. It made me feel like I was giving just a little bit of extra nurturing to my precious ones who I would not see again for most of the day. 

When my sons were teens, one of them brought home a troubled friend who was going through a variety of family and social issues. I will never forget the look on his face when breakfast was served on yellow gingham placemats with perky yellow napkins in holders beside each plate. How heartwarming it was to see this young man, awkward and wary, look at this table and say, "Wow." He said to my son that he couldn't believe this was how we ate our meals all the time.  Sadly, we could not have this boy with us for longer than a week, but I hope that during his stay he was able to feel warmly valued and included at every meal.  

Things have been difficult financially for us right now. Hubby is at a place in his career where he is working out of town, and the commute is eating up a huge part of his income. This is supposed to be a temporary thing, and we are white-knuckling it with as much prayer as we can muster until it is over. I can't say how often I have been torn about returning to the outside work world, and every single time, another problem occurs that must be handled at home, and yet again, I am reminded that I would have had to take off time from the office to get this handled. 

And so, as I realize yet again that God's plan really is for me to find gratitude and joy in my current homemaking circumstances, I am also realizing how crucial it is to intentionally search for the grace and loveliness in each day. To honor our dignity as human beings. To honor the dignity of our loving home. And a huge part of this is to greet my tired husband at the end of the day with a good meal set at a table that will delight the eye and refresh the soul.

Even leftovers taste special on fine china, and tea in an elegant cup with a saucer just tastes different. On my exceptionally busy homemaking days, tea-lover that I am, you will often catch me sipping my green tea from a coffee mug. A mug is utilitarian, and it is appropriate on those busy, rush-rush days. But a fine tea cup, filagreed with a touch of gold, painted with delicate flowers...now that's a whole different experience. There is something about a tea cup that whispers of the finer things in life, that time is fleeting and this moment truly matters.

I love how a carefully-set table makes us sit a little straighter and maybe speak a little more softly. It makes us mind our manners, and can make us feel pampered and luxurious, even if we are eating the simplest of fare. It gives us optimism and hope and reminds us that we are worthwhile.

And so, I informed hubby that no longer would I be falling down on this particular job...fingers crossed. I have been very conscientious about keeping bottles and packages off the table, instead placing condiments in separate simple bowls. Is a bit of extra dish-washing?  Well, only a moment more, and its so much nicer than looking at a ketchup bottle or sour cream container. The meal in these pictures was simply some chili I pulled out of the freezer and re-heated, but set this way, even hubby relished every bite, and he is not a huge chili fan. A little bit of corn bread, also from the freezer, a couple of bowls of chopped green onion and cheese, and our humble meal was a treat for all the senses.

I use my grandmother's sugar bowl (in the foreground) for a butter dish. We use real butter at our house, and found that we were tired of dealing with a hard brick every time we took it out of the refrigerator. Now I leave that bowl on the counter, and the butter stays nice and perfectly soft. The placemats were a gift from a friend, but most of my collection comes from thrift stores. Often at Walmart these days, the only table linens I see are plastic, which I personally dislike, so I resort to the thrift stores, where so many table linens have been donated because people think they are a hassle to keep clean. I snap them up, often purchasing them for pennies, and have never found them any harder to keep clean than any other piece of clothing. We use napkin rings at our home for the same practical purpose as the Victorians did. Not only are they ornamental, but in middle-class homes of the time, they were meant to delegate who's napkin was who's, so they could be reused a couple of times during the day, thus also saving on laundry. Here's an interesting article about the Victorian's use of napkin rings from the Chicago Tribune.

As we enter further and further into fall, I cannot help but reflect on the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. It's one of my favorites, where we decorate a fancy table and load it with elaborately prepared dishes. But we can have a touch of this every day, if we so desired, and it would not have to cost us any real money or effort. 

A simple meal at a pretty table with our favorite people and a sincere prayer--is really all we need.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

It's Fall!

It's pumpkin-spice-a-licious Fall! And although our budget is far too tight for me to load up my cart with all the tempting crafty treats out there I'd love to have, I did manage to pull out a few treasured bits of eye candy. First of all, I thought I'd show off the chair I'd salvaged from the dumpster a few months back. Some odds and ends of trim paint, and 'voila!' , it just begs to be a resting place for a big pot of chrysanthemums. 


Our dear Anna cat, otherwise known as the Duchess, has claimed this chair for her own. We are fortunate that she doesn't seem to shed a great deal. She left it for a moment, and I'd thought I'd show some simple changes I'd made in this nook. The doilies came from the Dollar Store, the plant is a silk version of what is known as 'lambs-ear', and the two books are authentically Victorian, both dating back to the 1800s. One is a famous treatise on thrift by Samuel Smiles, and is an actual favorite of mine that I've read several times, while the other is a children's book of Mother Goose rhymes. The bowl looks fancy and fragile, but is actually plastic...a good thing considering that Anna often sunbathes in the near window.  Recently, our lamp flew onto the floor when little ballerina kitty missed a step, something she hardly ever does, but I realized that perhaps the lamp would have to be moved.

A couple of the Halloween trinkets so dear to my heart; I delight in 'pretties' like these...
The lovely napkins underneath, that so remind me of an October sky, were a gift from a dear friend who knows how much gorgeous linens thrill me. 

The hand-made pottery cup brings the colors of sunset to the parlor tea table, a gift from a fellow artist and dear friend. There's nothing better than objects in a home made by people you personally know, love, and respect.

Watch out if you come into the kitchen. Boo!

 And out comes my Grandma Ellen's gorgeous dresser runner, still in great shape after over, I am guessing, at least seventy years. (And of course, she is the namesake of this blog.) She loved to embroider, and her stitches still are as bright and precise as they day that she made them.

The little honey pot with the bees on it is also vintage, and those of you who collect Depression glass might be able to identify the little golden pitcher on the table. It belonged to my great-grandmother. I suspect it might be a bit valuable in a monetary sense at this point, but I would never part with it.

 What I find with seasonal decorating is that everything does not have to exactly correlate with the holiday. For instance, the bowls above will make appearances in different parts of the house from roughly September through November, because I love their golden color. They came from hubby's travels in Asia. Another thrift store place-mat adds a bit of blazing autumn orange.

I LOVE these placemats...again found at a local thrift store.

I don't do much in our downstairs family room, but really enjoy making one focal point near our television. A handful of brilliant sunflowers brings the an easy touch of Indian summer.

Thank you for touring my autumn house, and don't hesitate to come on by for a trick-or-treat!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

More than a Crock of Old Spoons

Autumn is arriving early this year, the faintest bit of apple in the air, and a sense of time passing every time we mow the yard. The skies in my area have been sullen gray for weeks due to the drifting smoke of the California fires, and have proven to be a subdued backdrop to the school buses that have bloomed everywhere like startling yellow mushrooms. I never rode a bus, and actually walked to school, from elementary to high school, something rarely done nowadays. And along with my 'Dick and Jane' readers, I carried this lunchbox. It is just starting to develop rust on the other side, but overall, it really shows that even as a little girl in knee socks, I did like to take care of my things.

It's another day, and yet again I stand at the sink, up to my elbows in dirty dishes. In fact, it seems that day and dishes are inextricably linked with each other. I don't mind, though.  Of all household tasks, I actually enjoy this more than most; it gives my mind a great opportunity to roam, and my hands keep time with my thoughts in the hot, lemon-scented water. Today, I continue to mull over this little crock of utensils on the counter, and it occurs to me that I received this complete set over 30 years ago. The metal utensils were a wedding gift from my marriage with my previous/late husband and the wooden spoons came from the Dollar Store, bought at a tough time when even some wooden spoons for a buck were a major purchase--and a treat--for me.  Even the whimsical little flower pot that holds them is nearly two decades old, and although I indeed remember who gave it to me, I sadly can't remember what kind of posies it once held.

I like antiques, but many of them I seem to make myself. Yes, I do have carefully selected treasures purchased from actual shops, like my vintage hat collection and some of my books that date back to the 1800s. But many more of my possessions wear the patina of age, simply because it has been a long-held belief of mine that there is great value in holding on to things if they are still serviceable or beautiful, and if they retain a major place in my heart.

Now, that doesn't mean I'm a pack-rat, or in modern terms, a 'hoarder'--not by any stretch of the imagination. Most of my adult years were spent re-locating to different parts of the country, and nothing, absolutely nothing can help in weeding out the unnecessary like having to box and haul.  Many of my items have been donated over the years, and seldom are they ever really missed. I savor the serenity of empty corners and meticulously ordered cupboards.  But I also do not seem to have that craving for newer, better, more. I do not automatically think that replacing equates improving. I am grateful for that blessing, and as such, I cherish what I do choose to keep.

I believe there is an energy to things that have been well used and well preserved. There is a comforting warmth to a wooden spoon that has been darkened and smoothed from years of clopping against mixing bowls of chocolate chip cookie dough. This spoon will feel different in the hand than even the shiniest new plastic one. Every time I pull out that cheese grater, I think of tacos and teen-age sons, and how many bricks of cheese I grated for them over the years in order to fill those growing bodies. The spatulas have tossed thousands of pancakes and folded over as many omelettes, as well as scraped off more than I'd like to count of burned grilled cheese or other assorted mishaps. And how many servings of chili or Campbell's tomato soup that ladle has dished out is anyone's guess.

I believe that much of the problem in our country today is that we have become a throw away society. Until the mid-twentieth century and the advent of the credit card, thrift used to be a primary value, as ingrained in our American consciousness as Detroit automobiles, Coca-Cola, and the Statue of Liberty. We were a nation of factories and manufacturing; we made things, but we were truly strong because we took care of things. We repaired things, mended them, polished them, made them last, and kept them organized. And this kind of attitude pervaded our families as well. I know that there will always be the argument that there were problems back then, too, and there most certainly were.  But overall, it is undeniable that this country was one where sacred marriages weren't trashed by divorce, homes were tidy and steadfast, friends and neighbors were in contact for decades, and children weren't disposed at a daycare.

 Our quest for the shiny new fad has in some ways blinded us to the fact that not everything new is better--in quality, in design, or even in materials. In fact, one could easily argue that many older objects have demonstrated their endurance simply by still being here, intact and useful. 

Above are two tea cups given to us by our adopted English 'grandmother'. The cups are authentic English bone china, but the reminder of this sweet lady's hug and smile far exceeds any antique show pedigree. And because they are so precious to us, they are not packed away in some dark cupboard, and they make regular appearances on the breakfast table, filled with piping hot green tea. Irreplaceable they may be, but precious things tenderly used remind us of the fragile blessing found in each single moment, and I am grateful for every sip.

As a homemaker, I am also a caretaker, taking care of the things that help to take care of us. It's a delicate balance.  I am surrounded by things that mean so much to me, because they have been loved and used and yes--shared, many of them laden with memory.  However, my home will not ever be a museum, a chilly place where objects are exalted over people. Even the most treasured things are still just things. They can never be more valuable than the loving, beating hearts around us. If something gets accidentally broken or stained, that's part of life, too, but at least it was enjoyed and well-used.

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" were the bywords of Americans fighting their way through the dust and deprivation of the Great Depression, and indeed, that philosophy not only helped them survive, it strengthened them into victors during World War II, and the most prosperous country on Earth during the nifty 50s.  Wouldn't it be amazing if our society applied this perspective to our modern consumerist age, to our blizzard of credit card debt?

Just a thought.      


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Ellen Swallow Richards, the Founder of Home Economics

When I think of Home-Ec class, I think of sewing skirts, baking muffins, and pretending for a week that a hard-boiled egg was my infant child. The goal of the 'egg project' was to get a feeling for how fragile a baby could be, but really, coddling an omelette ingredient with a face penciled on its shell could never even remotely match the experience of trying to diaper a colicky little human who in between red-faced screams is peeing straight up in the air...but I digress. 

Essentially, however, I remember Home-Ec as being the one class my mother insisted that I take, imagining that there I would finally learn the basics of running a household, and finally learn how to read recipes as voraciously as I read Tiger Beats and Gothic novels. Unfortunately, she did not know that Home Economics, a prime target of the 1970s women's movement, was no longer a sophisticated place where a girl could learn every wifely skill under the sun, graduating with a full knowledge on nutrition, deportment, child psychology, complicated, from-scratch cookery, and the organizing of a house, from basic rooms to banquet tables. In fact, by the time I made it to high school Home-Ec, the class was pretty much considered an easy A, with all the oven- warm muffins you could eat.

Few women today know that the Home Economics movement was started by a brilliant female student at MIT.  Ironically, the very same Massachusetts Institute of Technology that graduated astronaut Buzz Aldrin from the first moon mission also developed the academia around the running of the modern home.
Ellen Swallow Richards
This student was named Ellen Swallow Richards, and her ground-breaking spirit easily fits in with MIT's alumni of distinguished thinkers in physics, electrodynamics, engineering, and mathematics. Graduating as a chemist from Ivy-League Vassar College, Ellen Richards applied to MIT in 1870 and was the FIRST female student accepted. She was passionate about using her knowledge of chemistry and systems of order to change the management of the home and family life. This was a time when infant mortality was so high it touched nearly every family, and also a time when store-bought food was often 'stretched' with chalk and other harmful products. Richards felt that science and a sense of the value and dignity of the home could alleviate some of the squalor and sickness she witnessed in the growing cities.

To Richards, the woman as homemaker was the backbone of society. Her skills were not only what kept her family cohesive, she was hugely responsible for their health and well-being. This was life and death to her, and this zeal was conveyed in the original classes she founded. Richards was also convinced that strong women at home led to the growth of healthy, morally strong communities. 

She was coming into this line of thought while first wave feminism was also beginning to get traction. According to the book "Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century", housework was already being demeaned as mindless by early suffragettes.  When someone opined to her that maintaining the house was a trivial task that took only a short time to learn, Richards famously--and sarcastically-- retorted, " If the piano or violin can be mastered in six weeks, so can housekeeping."

I outgrew my 'Teen Beat' and Gothic novel phase, and now in middle age devour everything written about domesticity that I can get my hands on.  No, it wasn't the baking of muffins that moved me here, and it certainly was not the egg baby. Instead it was decades of discovering, by trial and error, how complicated, relentless, sacrificial, and indeed inspiring it is to run a house well, to turn four walls into a haven that satisfies the needs of our loved ones, juggling the constant physical demands of food and clean clothes and orderly rooms, as well as cultivating thrift, fun, education, values, health, and a sense of peace, trying to create something stable in a world that is constantly in chaos. It is a task that has so many areas in which to excel, so many skills needed, and above all requires a well-honed sense of time management. Homemaking requires humility and it requires imagination and most of all it requires experience. It also requires making a heck of a lot of mistakes.

One of the favorite books in my collection is a Home-Ec book from the late 1960s. At this time, second wave feminism is advancing on the horizon, but this book still manages to uphold and maintain much of the lovely values of the traditional home.


Here it talks about all the details required in setting a formal table

Here it talks about deep cleaning the kitchen, including taking apart the range.

Isn't it fascinating that in this era, where celebrating women and their accomplishments has become daily discourse in media and in academia, that this scientist and engineer, a woman who believed that gracious homes made gracious societies, is unheard of today? I find it no accident, no coincidence, that as our civilization dismisses the loving and disciplined gestures once found in the home, that the streets are growing more and more violent by the day. 

It matters what we are doing, ladies. It matters enough that a distinguished scientist, with many other accolades to her credit, devoted her knowledge and wisdom to good homemaking, and all the positive things that come from it.

And on that note, I think I'll end here and go bake some muffins.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Being OCD With Your Refrigerator Puts Dollars in the Bank

Today I thought I'd share one of the ways hubby and I are able to pare our grocery budget down to around $200 a month. This amount includes toiletries, and encompasses approximately 90 meals, because I pack a small breakfast and lunch for hubby nearly every day. (And those 90 meals are just for him...actually double this to 180 if you really want to get an accurate picture of our household.)

I have truly tried, but I just am not a coupon-clipper. No offense to those whizzes out there who have shelves upon shelves stocked with paper towels, toothpaste, and cereal, but I either lose the coupon, spend all my time organizing them, or most often, forget to use them entirely. I am a devoted buyer of generics, and except for the occasional box of macaroni and cheese, box of jello, or can of tuna fish, I really don't buy anything labeled a 'convenience' food. I buy the most basic products I can, and make my own salad dressings, pancake syrup, among a host of other things. I'll go into this more in a later post.
A spotless and organized refrigerator will save you serious bucks, and is always a delight to open. I have even read of interior designers putting a small bouquet of cut flowers in their fridge just for a little bit of decoration, but I can't say I've ever gone that far.

I go through mine about twice a week, looking at what leftovers I have that are usable, and putting them together in new combinations. Anything that is spoiled is of course discarded, but this kind of approach usually results in very little food waste. A bit of cold chicken in one container, a spoonful or two of green peas, a cut-up onion, and some leftover pasta, and you're well on the way to a fine comfort-food casserole--just make up a seasoned white sauce or add a cream soup as a binder. Or you might have the makings for a pleasant main-dish salad with the same ingredients...and all you've done is clean out your fridge. Get creative, a few extra tortillas, some beans and rice, a quarter of a green pepper, and a little bit of cheese can make several lunches of freezer burritos, all from a few odds and ends from last night's Mexican meal. I used to have days where I put together freezer meals, but now I simply double up on dishes that I know freeze well, and usually have something to pull out for a quick dinner in a pinch.

Another trick I learned from the chef in the book, "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace" by Tamar Adler is to always put leftovers in a container where they fill it in an appealing way. For example, if there is only one serving of rice left, put it in a small one-serving container. This has a psychological effect, and seems to make the food look less 'left-over', than if it is just puddled at the bottom of the original bowl. I have been known to take a little leftover entree and sprinkle it with a new topping of cheese or parsley and put it in a new bowl. It's much more tempting for lunch the next day that way.

Right after a shopping trip, or at the latest, the next day, I 'process' all of my perishable groceries. This means that a head of lettuce will be washed, torn up and put into an air-tight container, so that I can easily make a salad or add a leaf or two to a sandwich. Hamburger bought in bulk will be divided into sections and wrapped up for the freezer. Grapes are washed, taken off the stems and put in an appealing bowl. I might see that I have a great deal of eggs, and hard-boil a few for a quite protein snack. A little bit of leftover applesauce, spaghetti sauce, chili, grated carrot or any other leftover that I know is freezer-worthy will be popped in there--dated of course--and sealed to be used at another time. That big hulking watermelon that takes up an entire shelf will be cut down to size and chopped into delicious, help-yourself chunks. I'll move all the leftovers that need to be eaten right away to the front of the shelves so they can be quickly grabbed, and will arrange 'like thing with like' such as all my dairy products together, so that I can better see what I have too much of, and what we're short on.

 I have some pottery bowls that have a hand-painted Italian look to them, and it is so fun to pile rosy apples in one and onions and carrots in another. Below was a photograph taken a few years back, same dishes filled with garden tomatoes. Someday, I'm going to make a still-life painting of this. :)

My husband loves stir-fries for his lunches, so I will make up a huge pot of rice, portion it into small plastic containers, and do the same for the stir-fry itself. (Stir-fry, by the way, is an excellent way to use a bunch of leftovers, as well.)   He also loves rice and milk for breakfast, so I will make up containers of cut-up apples and raisins and pack those with a container of rice. (Hubby has a carton of milk in the office fridge.) These are meals that are ridiculously cheap, and have nourished people all over the world for hundreds of years.

The goal is to see your groceries as precious things bought with your hard-earned money. It is also important to make everything in the fridge as 'ready-made' as possible, whether as a quick snack, or an ingredient for that next gourmet delight. I like to have lots of cold finger foods and produce ready in the summer, and conversely an array of quick-microwave-meals in the winter.  It delights me to no end to be able to say, "foods are in the fridge, help yourself." 

And of course, it is so nice to wipe the fridge out as one goes with just a bit of hot water and dishwashing soap, so everything is always sparkling and sanitary. This is no zone for moldering science experiments here!

At $200 a month for groceries, we are all already below the USDA Official Food Plans  lowest average for a comparable family by $161. So already, we are spending almost half of what the government believes an average family of two spends, and our budget includes toilet paper, toothpaste, and the like. So, right off the top, we are saving almost $200 a month. Cleaning my refrigerator and using up the leftovers is quite literally saving me about $2400 a year, and that's a conservative estimate. It really could be more.

Every fourteen day pay period I make up menus for seven days only, counting on the fact that we almost always have leftovers for a second day. If you factor in the other unplanned dishes I throw together from odds and ends towards the end of the pay period, that radically cuts the cost down per meal even more.

$200 divided by 180 meals equals roughly $1.10 a meal. (Remember three meals a day for two people equals six meals a day x 30 days a month.)
I estimate with the extra cooking I do that we actually get things down more to about 80 to 90 cents per meal per person.

In our society, being orderly and exacting about things is often viewed as being compulsive. Our ancestors would have simply thought it was smart and resourceful. Value and use what you have to its fullest, be creative, avoid waste like the plague, and you will find prosperity in hidden places.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

We bought a house; God gave us a home

June is upon us, with its symphonies of birdsong and the iris promenading in their purple ballgowns. It's hard for me to believe as I type this, gazing occasionally out through the open front door at the expanse of brilliantly green grass and blooming trees, that so much could happen in a year.  Only twelve short months ago, we decided to buy our first house, an 800 foot 'shack', as some close to us called it. Not only was it so tiny that people walking by often did not realize that a house was even on the grounds, but it had been a rough rental property where at one point, according to our neighbors, TEN men had been camped out at the same time. The house took your breath away with the reek of cat urine, and had been completely gutted and painted by the landlord in order for it to be put on the market. Only twelve short months ago, we took a deep breath, kept the strait-jackets in reserve in case of emergency, and took ownership of what seemed to be nothing but problems disguised as a mortgage.  
 I remember pacing in this kitchen, trying not to explode into total hysteria, because the movers could not fit all of our boxes into the house. I have moved many times in my life, and you would never have guessed by the utter chaos around us that every box had been carefully labeled corresponding to the room in which it belonged. It seemed that the second we entered this house, nothing went according to plan. Things were far more filthy than we would have imagined after a fresh paint job, and there was no room for ANYTHING. Flowers on the far right in the above picture were a housewarming gift from the banker and the realtor, but I quickly began to wonder if we were celebrating making the mistake of our lives.

And how wonderful it is that I was so completely wrong. After days of thorough cleaning, and weeks of getting the rodents permanently out, the kitchen was the first pleasant surprise. Understand, we kind of bought the house without really looking at it, because the price was right in this over-inflated market; we had received a home-buying grant for this part of town; and most importantly, the house sat on two lots, which had great potential for ministry. So all I really knew about the kitchen was that it was the size of a shoebox and full of mice droppings. I discovered that most of the cupboards were the sturdy 1930s originals and the storage was simply unbelievable. My grandmother's entire heirloom set of china is in those drawers and the upper cabinets hold everything from an ice cream maker to all of my plastic containers. The cabinets and drawers are deep and high, spacious enough to hold pots and pans, table linens, and even all of my Christmas china. I still can't believe after all the years of having to lug out my Christmas china every December, now it's just sitting right there on the shelf. I even have a drawer or two with little or nothing in them, and I have all the tools and gadgets of a very serious cook.

We also learned that a little bit of paint could pack a HUGE punch. Best thrifty hint ever: we used the sample jars that they sell at paint stores and used them to paint accent walls. For the kitchen,I wanted a yellow so buttery, it looked like it was fattening. This room actually used took two sample jars, because I loved the main accent wall so much I kind of went crazy painting accent panels on the cupboards and trim.

I believe the red cabinet handles may be original. We bought an antique folding table for this room, an extravagance, I know, but it was the only size table that would work. Our ancestors indeed know how to live in small places.

Here, I am, realizing that it is indeed possible to be horrified and elated at the same time. We literally had to climb over boxes to get through our front parlor, and our couch barely fit into the largest room. I still marvel at the fact that we slept in this house the very first night, but we did. (How did I even get sheets on the bed?)  We had moved from a 1979 mobile home, and had always been minimalists. It was quite the shock to be stuck in an avalanche of our few belongings! 

According to plan, we did wind up making this room a 'parlor' and a formal office space, but to our chagrin, realized that the adjoining room, which we intended for a family room, would have to be our bedroom instead. The downstairs stair case was simply too narrow to bring our bed down!

Below is the same point where I was standing--roughly--in the previous photo with the mountains of boxes. The main thing we did in this room was to paint an accent wall a soft, mauvy beige. This is a color that is quite accurate to the 1930s color palette, and even hearkens back to the Victorian era.

The entry way going downstairs was actually the first area we got done, only because we discovered that one particular bookcase fit there perfectly. The artworks in that corner are still some of my very favorites, created by artist friends who mean a great deal to me.

We had quite the adventure in the bathroom. It didn't need much initial work, but when I was painting it on a steamy July day, the toilet erupted with an exploding geyser of water rising UP through the bowl. I'd never seen anything like that--except at Old Faithful. After calling the water company in record time, I discovered that they were testing the water main...and attempting to give me heart failure. 

But on to more pleasant things...Here I went with another very pale, delicate yellow, and an additional color that is a little light brown, purple, beige combo, a color that just always makes me think of doilies and grandma's house. Someday, we hope to get the dingy, paint-spattered vinyl flooring replaced but that, unfortunately, is at the bottom at the list for now. (Oh, and I should mention that this room was so small, an entire paint sample jar pretty much covered it..)

Dear husband read online that in houses of the 1930s, they liked a color palette that was cool, like soft blues, violets, and lavenders. We kind of combined all three and painted one accent wall this lovely enigmatic gray and lilac. Moving a queen sized bed and and one bureau in order to paint, in a room where there is hardly room to walk around the bed was, however, far from lovely. In fact, the bureau that you see got wedged in sideways into our tiny clothes closet, because I had the brainy idea that it might fit in there. It didn't, and to this day, I look at the gashes in the closet casing and wonder how in the world we got it loose and back out. It had to have been that prayer we quickly said, when fifteen minutes had gone by and despite our groans and sweat, it was as stuck as stuck could be...and then suddenly after the prayer, it popped right back out. God cares about even the tiniest details in our lives.

But even now I love to look at this wall the moment I open my eyes in the morning. I believe the color makes the room look a bit bigger, and it makes me feel cool and calm. Dave's uncle, who helped us with much of the handyman work declared it 'the color of a Pennsylvania sky,' and as a former resident of that fair state, I'm inclined to agree.

And so now, let me take you downstairs, or as I referred to it then, the 'dungeon of all dungeons.'

Yes, this decrepit cell was supposed to be our laundry room. The washer and dryer that the seller assured us were functional were simply a repository for caked dirt, grease and hair, as well as other substances I'd rather not think about. After a full day meticulously trying to scrub out the crud, I discovered that no matter of persuasion or button pounding could get the dirty hunk of metal to work. After clearing out a full trash bag's worth of fast food wrappers and cigarette butts behind the dryer (nice), I bravely turned it on only to discover an odor that smelled like the prelude to a house fire mixed with skunk. And yes, all this escaped our inspector. After a few weeks of $15 a pop at the laundromat, we decided that a new washer and dryer on sale would actually save us money, and greatly please the lady of the house. The appliances were carted out and up the narrow stairs, and we thought things were rolling along, until it was called to our attention that the sewer needed to be completely overhauled. Pipes were so caked with rust that the slightest bit of movement could completely break them open, spilling out some particularly nasty contents. The floor drain was also completely unusable and hadn't been clear for probably decades. The floor drain had to be redrilled, and new master pipes put in place.

This was a bit of a complication, because on top of just being noisy, dirty, expensive work, we had just had a tile floor custom laid. The tile was a top priority, since the cement floor was crumbling and constantly dusty, not a good thing for my asthmatic lungs. The tile floor was laid by one of my favorite people, a man who's heart is as strong as his work ethic. He lugged bag after bag of cement down the steps without complaint and managed to make a semi-smooth, level floor from a surface of nothing but hills and valleys.

I absolutely adore this room, because I have never really had a bonafide laundry room before. A little bright white paint and some vivid art work helped brighten up a windowless corner.  It used to seem a lot more spacious, but a local alley cat adopted us, and that is her kennel (with her four-week-old kittens) that you see in the foreground. No, she isn't the best thing for my asthma, but she does decrease my stress, so I figure that it balances out.
And last but not least, is our family room and mini library. The only thing I did in here was to paint the far left wall a yummy caramel color. It took us an entire afternoon to arrange the furniture in here; it was like playing a Herculean Jenga game with enormous puzzle pieces.The space is so small that we can confidently say that this is the only way that all these components will fit. Thank God, they did!

This is where we kick back and occasionally tube out. The chair you see directly was a garage sale find for $20.

 And just off of this family room is our tiny library. This is quite a multi-functional space, since it is a private worship area for my husband, (an Anglican priest), his dressing area, a space for his religious books, and also for my collection of domestic and home management books. We loaded nearly 500 books down the steep stairs to get this task accomplished. I adore the scent of books, and turning that printed page, but wow did that love leave me nursing my sore back and leg muscles.
This is just a fraction of our books, however. Dear husband still has five large boxes in our shed. There are also other full bookshelves throughout the house. The piles of notebooks are all from his seminary work, and their are many of his civic awards on the walls and shelves.

There is still so much to do, but it is dizzying to see how far we've come. The Christian mindset is one of redemption--that nothing should go to waste, and that all people are made in His image and thus are valuable and paid for with the most costly of price. This view extends to things like homes as well, that we are encouraged to live our best lives and see the possibilities in even the most humble of circumstances. Sometimes a bit of heavenly glory can be found somewhere where the floors might be uneven and the windows leak.

'Bloom Where You're Planted' really is a profound saying.

 I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be.