This girl is funny...not skinny.

This girl is funny...not skinny.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

And Finally: Welcome to the family Part 2

Good afternoon!

Now is the final installment of my Christmas stories for you to enjoy.  (Barring, of course, any new sort of fresh fun and freakishness that may happen in the next week.)  I want you to enjoy this long awaited story, a story that was my very first "Holiday Horror Story" sent in to Bob and Brian Radio Show years ago, and it holds up today.  So grab a soda, or an adult beverage, sit back, and enjoy:

The Christmas we got engaged, Hubby lived in the Milwaukee area, while I was living in the Detroit area.  Since I was a teacher, I had 8 days off for Christmas break, and I was going to make the most of it.  My flight left Detroit at 10 PM Christmas Eve and landed in Milwaukee at 10 PM Milwaukee time.  (Time zones are as close as we're going to get to time travel, I'm certain.)

Hubby, the as yet unengaged hubby, picked me up at the airport in Milwaukee, and drove me to Manitowoc, two hours north. 

This is where you have to start paying attention, otherwise, this story isn't going to be funny at all.

So we got to Manitowoc around midnight.  Hubby proposed, in the snow, in a gigantic weeping willow tree overlooking both a school playground, and Lake Michigan.  (everybody saw  AWWWWWWWWWWWW)

We celebrated Christmas with my parents that night because, the next day, Christmas day, we were going to drive down to Jefferson, WI, (2.5 hours south of Manitowoc) for Christmas with my grandparents.

Which we did.

We stayed overnight in Jefferson, then drove 3.5 hours NORTH to Marshfield, WI, where we stayed at my uncle's home.  (The no flush house) We celebrated Christmas with my mother's family, and slept in the church basement.  (NOT having sex, of course!)  The next day, we hopped back into Hubby's car...did I mention it was a JEEP WRANGLER....complete with bone jarring shocks and iffy heat.  We drove almost 4 hours southwest to the Twin Cities for...wait for it...Christmas with the MOTHER IN LAW. 

Let me back up:  The Mother in Law...or MIL for short, and I knew each other.  After 4 years of dating, we'd seen each other a number of times and we had a very....polite...relationship. One of the first things she ever said to me was, "I never questioned any decision Hubby ever made."  And I've always sort of added, "until now."

Anyway, it wasn't that we didn't get along.  We were just very careful around each other.  I think neither of us ever figured the relationship would last, so why rock the boat about it?

So we pulled in to her place pretty late in the afternoon two days after Christmas.  We were excited to tell her our big news, and I was really excited for the layer of manners to be stripped away and the two of us having a real relationship.

Be careful what you wish for, my friends!

We got to the front door and MIL's fiance, let's call him Edgar, met us with a stressed look on his face.  "You are in trouble," he says to Hubby.

So much for excited to share our big news.

"What happened?"

"No one called her on Christmas."  Edgar spoke in whispers and looked over his shoulder.  "Your sisters didn't call her, no one from her family called her.  Not all day."

Okay, that seems bad, but did you SEE the amount of driving we did?  Oh, and this was 21 years ago...long before cell phones were available to 8 year old girls who like Justin Bieber.  So in order to call the MIL at some point on Christmas Day, Hubby would have had to place a Long Distance Call from someone's phone or...

he could use a payphone!

The ultimate pay as you go phone. If you put 10 coins in the little slot, you'll get to talk for five minutes
yeah, even in 1989, finding a payphone on the two lane highway between Marshfield, WI and the Twin Cities was a long shot.

So now the three of us stood there, in the kitchen, watching the door, waiting for it to open,  like three mice waiting for the cat to charge in.   And then, in she came.

"Merry Christmas!"  All three of us shout, hoping that the noise will wipe the away the cloudy look from her face. "We got engaged!, Sorry we didn't call!  Merry Christmas!"

Hugs all around...everything is going really well...until...

She leans in to hug me and she whispers these words into my ear:

"That's not the way to start out being in the family."


I'll let that sink in for a moment.  You can imagine the shiver that went down my spine and the sick, twisted feeling in my stomach, a feeling I managed to have every time we visited MIL for the first ten years of our marriage.


Hubby and I celebrated our 20th anniversary this year.  I'm very happy to say that MIL and I now get along very well, and I absolutely love  all of my in laws. 

So there you have it, my friends, my best Christmas stories.  Hopefully I've given you a few moments of laughter and a little enjoyment.  As for you, and yours, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy and safe New Year! 

See you all in 2011!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Story #6: Welcome to the Family Part 1

Good morning!

It is finally time for me to tell the story of my engagement Christmas.  It's a two part story, one involving my side of the family and the other involving Hubby's.  I was torn as to which half to tell first, but in the end, I decided to tell it as it happened, chronologically.  So today, my family welcomes Hubby.

In the fantastic TV show "Designing Women" the great actress Dixie Carter had a quote that sticks with me decades later regarding family:

I'm saying this is the South. And we're proud of our crazy people. We don't hide them up in the attic. We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off. See, Phyllis, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they're on.

In my case, I think history will reflect that crazy was on both sides, though not always the same people and not all the time.  My extended family embraces moments of eccentricity tightly like a cherished family tradition.  Keep that in mind, my friends, as you read this.  I tell this story not to mock, but to amuse and comfort.  It's completely normal for family members to lose their mind, especially during the holidays. 

So, with that in mind...sit back and enjoy "Welcome to the family...Part 1"

We got engaged at Christmas, Hubby and I.  I was the only one in the family who didn't know it was happening apparently.  He and I had been dating for more than four years, but I lived in Detroit and he lived in the Milwaukee area during 1989, so he was able to make engagement plans without any attempt at secrecy.

We got engaged on Christmas Eve and then made the rounds of family gatherings.  (More on that tomorrow.)  The day after Christmas was the family gathering for my mom's side of the family.  (This was the group of the Flashlight Christmas fame.)  The gathering that year was held at my uncle's home up in the Northern part of Wisconsin.  I always liked going up there.  First of all, my uncle, the pastor of a small country congregation, had keys for the church and the school which meant we had access to a lot of space away from the adults.  Second, the parsonage where he lived was a big, sprawling home on a huge lot.  Plenty of snow and climbing trees all around.

There were a few quirky rules, however, about water usage.  I know there was a technical reason for the rules, but over the years I've forgotten what those reasons were.  Something about a filling a holding tank too quickly or something.

I'm sure if you lived in the house, rules such as "All dishwater must be thrown out the window and not drained down the sink" made sense.  And, if you're just a small family doing your daily business, the "NO FLUSH" rule wasn't a problem.  However, when you have a group of nearly 45 people roaming around, many of whom were teens, the concept of not flushing was inconceivable!

To be fair, and to quote the Fockers of "Meet the Fockers" fame, the real rule was, "If it's yellow, let it mellow, if it's brown, flush it down.

It wasn't like Hubby hadn't met these people, by the way.  A couple of my cousins attended the same college I did, and, being in the family for more than four years, he had a working knowledge of the family.  What he didn't know, though, was there's a way the family behaved around a "boyfriend" and a way they behaved around a member of the family. 

The flushing thing was a start.  DO NOT FLUSH.  I'm not saying my aunt and uncle were obsessive, but I will say this:  I walked out of the bathroom once, and my aunt was standing there, a stern look on her face.  "Did you flush?"

"Uh, yes..."

"You're really not supposed to."

"Uh...that's sort of gross."

"Yes, but it saves money to not flush."

"Oh...okay.  Sorry."

(For the record, it's the only time I've ever apologized for flushing after using a toilet.)

The bigger issue, for Hubby at least, was the dishes.  See, he's a good guy, my hubby.  He was raised by women  (more on that some other day) and he knows how to help out in the kitchen.  So after dinner that night, he offered to wash the dishes.  No small feat, given, again, the number of people and the fact that while they had a dishwasher, aunt and uncle didn't like to use it.

So Hubby spent a solid hour washing dishes while the rest of us dried and put away everything.  He was very good about using the little pink plastic bin that aunt had in the sink, instead of just using the sink.  He got all the dishes, the pots, the pans, the silverware, all clean.  And then...when he was done...he dumped the water from the bin...down the drain.

I'm not saying my aunt over reacted.  I will say this:  There would have been less yelling had a nuclear missile landed in the front yard.

"HOW COULD YOU DUMP THAT WATER DOWN THE DRAIN?  YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO DUMP IT OUT THE WINDOW!"

This in front of all the cousins and the other adults.

"I'm sorry...I forgot."  Says hubby.

"Well, you're not doing the dishes anymore!"

(For the record...well, you know.)

Hoping to escape more punishment for his crime of dumping water down a sink drain, Hubby wanted to go to bed.  The good news was, everyone under the age of 25 was not sleeping in the house, we were sleeping in the church basement.  The bad news?  Aunt and Uncle had separated the church basement with a curtain, boys on one side, girls on the other. 

Before I go one word further, I will say that I was raised in a very conservative, very religious home.  I hold to many of those beliefs even today, and when I was 22 I was certainly NOT going to break any of those rules in front of my extended family, CERTAINLY NOT the "no premarital anything!" rule.  And let me also say, I was the GOOD cousin.  I was never in trouble, and was always very polite.  Okay, so I flushed!  But other than that, I was a very well behaved child.  Mostly because my mother took great pains to make sure I didn't step out of line in front of the family...ever.  What I'm saying here is that no one involved in this story had any reason what so ever to think that Hubby and I were going to do anything remotely improper.

So there we are, my cousins, my new fiance, and I.  Settled into sleeping bags on either side of the curtain.  And then....

"Sarah, you can't sleep anywhere near the curtain."  This from one of my female cousins.

"Why not?"  asks I.

"Because you and Hubby are going to try and have sex, and we're supposed to make sure you don't."

Across the church basement, from the other side of the curtain, I could hear Hubby laughing.  As if there was anything remotely erotic about sleeping bags, a church basement, and a multitude of cousins all around.

Later that night I had to get up and use the bathroom...a bathroom in which I could flush!  Of course, this meant crossing past the curtain to the girls bathroom.  I stood up and took a step and a chorus of "Sarah's trying to have sex!" rose from the row of sleeping bags.

It was purely coincidence that the next morning we made our escape...I mean we to to leave early. (We had to drive several hours to see his mom...the story I'm saving for tomorrow.)  Hubby and I packed up after breakfast.  We did not flush, and we did not help with the dishes and, most importantly, we did not have sex!

Welcome to the family!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Story #5: Now let us all sing together

Good afternoon.

So today is the 20th which means tomorrow and Wednesday is all about the Christmas engagement stories!

But, today...I have to tell you a story from my 8th grade year that makes my mother laugh wildly every time she thinks of it.  And that's something that doesn't happen very often.  This one may take a bit of explaining, but I think, in the end, you'll find the humor the way we did.

One of the cornerstones of traditional Christmas Eve experiences is the Children's Christmas Eve service.  This is a church service where little girls put on a lot of velvet and curl up their hair and boys are wrestled into sweater vests and clip on ties so that they can stand up in front of church, sing a few Christmas hymns, and recite in unison  "FORUNTOYOUISBORNASAVIORWHICHISCHRISTTHELORD!"

It's a big deal, Christmas Eve services.  Cameras, cam corders whir in the back as 8th graders sit sullenly until it's their turn to stand up and recite, and there's always some 4 year old who cries so hard he wets his pants. 

When I was one of those surly 8th graders, our Christmas Eve service was lead by the pastor's wife, an imposing figure of a woman we're going to call...wow, I don't have a clever name for her because, well, she's was so singular.  I'll call her Mrs. because if I call her anything else, someone, somewhere, might sue me.  But I swear to you every word of what I'm about to tell you it true.

The high point of our Christmas Eve service the year I was in 8th grade was the singing of Silent Night and Peace Peace.  This is a musical number that is performed generally with a children's choir and an adult choir.  The kids sing Silent night and the adults sing Peace Peace, which goes like this:

Peace, Peace, Peace on earth and good will to all
This is the time for love
This is the time for joy
Now let us all sing together
For peace peace peace on earth.

When done correctly, it's magical.

Mrs. was one of those grand women who believed in over dressing for everything.  At 6'3" 275 lbs., she was hard to miss.  But when she did up her mountain of curly red hair, painted all nine of her fingernails bright red  (you read that right, she was missing the pinky finger on her right hand at the knuckle.  Just a stubby finger...no red nail.) and donned something sparkly and flowing, she was a vision of Vegas like chic.  She was the choir director for the entire church, which means the choir, the junior choir, of which I was a member, and the school kids who couldn't really sing or didn't want to be in junior choir but were forced to be in the church service all fell under her bedazzled waving arms. 

Her vision for this song was sort of a theater in the round magic that really should involve a couple of teamsters to pull off.  The senior choir was to line up behind the junior choir on the altar area.  No risers, so the senior choir was sort of buried in the back.  The non singing kids were on either side of her standing in lines.  The organist...and this is key, was in the balcony BEHIND HER.  And the big part was that the organ was backwards in the balcony.  In order for the organist to see what was going on on the main floor of the church, he or she had to look in the mirror on the organ.  Oh, and the organ bench was actually higher than the balcony railing, so there was always a certain degree of danger in playing the organ.

The service itself went pretty well.  No one cried that year, or wet their pants.  All we had to do was get through "Peace Peace" and we were free to go home and enjoy the real meaning of Christmas...you know, the present part.

The organist, a darling woman who shared my maiden name, and I will call her Ruth, because that is her name, fired up "Silent night" and the kids started singing on all three sides of Mrs.  Then, with a point of a long red claw, Mrs. started the senior choir. 

I'm not sure how it happened...okay, sure I am.  The members of the senior choir couldn't see Mrs., so therefore they buried their faces in their music and ignored the fact that the organ, and with the organ the children, were pulling farther and farther ahead of them.  (Average age of the senior choir...84) 

In a move that was unheard of...and is now legendary, Mrs. stopped the show.  "Stop, stop!  Ruth!  Stop playing!"

Mrs. just stopped Christmas Eve.  Just like that.  I was in the front row of the Junior Choir...it was all I could do to stop from laughing out loud.  Then tension in the church was a heavy cloud.

Not for the senior choir though...the bass section, God love them, didn't hear her shouting to stop...and in a silent church, the four basses growled out, "NOW LET US ALL SING TOGETHER!" before an Alto shoved them with her folder.

There was a horrible, delicious stretch of time when the room was silent, waiting for something, anything, to happen.  Mrs. took a deep breath, raised her enormous arms, the light of the Christmas tree twinkling off the five diamond rings she wore on her nine fingers.  "Ruth, take it from measure 84," she said.

We moved from that town a year later, and I don't know what became of Mrs.  I do know this:  That Christmas Eve became a legend across Wisconsin and to this day I will run into someone and we'll get to talking about Christmas music and they'll say, "Well, I'll never be able to sing "peace peace" with a straight face again."

Now, my friends...tomorrow: PART ONE of the engagement story!

Friday, December 17, 2010

FOR THE RECORD: A few rumors and whatnot I'd like to clear up!

Good morning!

So I've been to Gold's twice this week, just walking in minding my own business.  One Tuesday the GM Mark, the one guy in the place NOT fearful of me after my "Screw you fee" rant back in August, accused me of something.  Yesterday the same GM suggested some alternative exercises for me.

That got me to thinking:  I bet there are a lot of misconceptions going around about me, and maybe there are a few things I should update.  So let me take a moment to set the record straight on a few things:

1)  I DID NOT SHUT DOWN THE POOL AT GOLD'S

Yes, I was there last week Thursday, the night the newspaper was tossed into the pool, thereby upsetting the delicate balance of the ounces of water to gallons of chlorine in the pool.  The pool was then closed for several days while it was cleaned and refilled.  However, contrary to what MARK the GM would have you believe...I DID NOT THROW THE PAPER INTO THE POOL.  Everyone knows I don't read when I work out. I watch movies.

2)  I AM NOT HIDING FROM MY Wii.

I realize it's been a few weeks since I last stepped on the Wii fit and got my hula hoop groove on.  I am NOT hiding from it.  I know I'll get a scolding because it's been a while...that's not why I ignored it this week.  I've been busy.  Really.  No, seriously.  I've been busy.  I'm not afraid of my Wii.  I'm NOT!

3)  I HAVE ACTUALLY LOST SOME WEIGHT

In spite of what you may think after reading this blog, I have lost 14 pounds since the early part of October.    Not earth shattering, but most of that weight loss has come since the week before Thanksgiving...weight loss during the holidays, a real trick!

4)  I AM A VERY NICE PERSON AND NOT SCARY AT ALL
It was recently admitted to me that...well I shouldn't call him by his real name, so I'll call him BRYAN...over at Gold's was, indeed, afraid to meet with me and with Dee after the "Screw you fee" incident.  In spite of what he may think, and what my Gold's membership picture may look like, I am a VERY nice person and I do NOT bite the heads of small children off by the light of the full moon.

5)  YES, DEE HAS LOST WAY MORE WEIGHT THAN I HAVE...AND I'M NOT JEALOUS.

Dee has worked with her stalker...I mean her personal trainer...very hard since August and I'm really proud of her...she's lost 34 pounds!  Now, while I think the amount of time her personal stalker...I mean trainer...spends watching for her at Gold's is very unhealthy, and in spite of the fact that he ignores the injuries she sustains during sessions with him and continues to inflict injury to her, I have to admit, the results are fantastic. And I'm not jealous...not really.  Honest!

6)  THE STORIES I TELL ARE MINE AND THEY ARE TRUE.

Believe it or not...I may seem like a completely normal person with a boring life, but my stories are mine.  While I may exaggerate a tiny bit for humor, the stories are real, the people are real (the names are not).  Believe me, I can't make this stuff up.

7)  I AM SARAH THE AUTHOR, I AM NOT FLO

Penny, a friend of mine from church, told me the other day that I'd make a great Flo from the Progressive Insurance commercials.  I had to agree with her.  I would love to be Flo.  That or a movie critic.  However, the closest I've come to actual celebrity is that I am Sarah the Author, and you may have hear me on the Bob and Brian morning show on  1029 The Hog.  My love for obscure trivia and for touting Dream in Color has lead me to a few shameless moments on the radio in Milwaukee.

8)  FINALLY

No, Rick Springfield has NOT filed a restraining order against me.  I know, some of you may have heard that...mostly because I said I was expecting one, having given him a copy of Dream in Color last spring.  One of my newest friends asked me if I thought it was a little creepy that perhaps Rick didn't read the book, but maybe his wife did...Not creepy, exactly.  More like...okay, a little creepy.

On the same note, I bumped into a darling older lady from my church while working the school open house the other night.  She introduced me to her friend, another little older lady.  Then she said, "Oh, and this nice lady wrote a book." 

There was some oohing and aaaahing, and then she said, "Yes, you wouldn't know this was a little church lady with what she wrote.  Whoo hooo....."  (picture an older woman fanning herself.)

Soooo.....I guess that's a positive review, right?

So there you have it, my friends.  A few things cleared up.  And again...I DID NOT THROW THE NEWSPAPER IN THE POOL.

Just wanted to be very clear on that one! 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

If you put cheese on it and give it a fancy name, they will eat it!

Good morning!

I'm not so sure this is actually a Christmas story, so I'm not labeling it as such, although it did take place at a holiday event during the holidays.  In fact, it happened last night. 

Since my kids are in the school run by our church, I am constantly bringing some sort of food to the building.  Not sure how I got on the funeral food list, but I get phone calls once a month or so to produce something for a funeral.  I bring stuff when there's a bake sale, or if some volunteer group I'm in is putting on a pot luck dinner.  I bring food to school/church for anniversary dinners, for teacher appreciation days, and for parties I host a couple times a year with my Sunday school Class.

Typically I make brownies.  Who doesn't love brownies?  I keep half a dozen boxes of brownie mix on hand because I never know when that phone is going to ring and I have to bake a pan of brownies.

Lately, though, I've noticed that I've been asked to bring something other than brownies.  It started quietly enough.  I was called to make something for a funeral, and I said I'd make a pan of brownies, and the coordinator said she had enough bars, thank you, could I bring a veggie tray or something?

Then there was the cheer leading dinner where, again, no dessert was needed, but could I make a jello salad?  (As a side note...Jello is not now nor has it ever been a salad.)

Then there was the hot lunch event for the grandparents where I was asked bring a fruit plate because they were getting a cake.

Bought baked goods?  At a church?  I was starting to smell that something was up.  Maybe, after almost 20 years, the church and school are tired of my brownies?

Truth be told, I wanted to embrace this as an opportunity to open up my cook books and find something new to share with my school and church family.

Yeah, I know.  I had a hard time believing that too, and I just typed it.

So last week I read, belatedly, that we were holding a school open house on the 15th.  School families were going to supply all the food needs for the dinner.  The various items were split by grades, and, lucky me, the upper grade children were to bring "Main Dishes."

Again, no brownies for me.

Not a problem, though.  I am a casserole maker. I come from a long line of women who make casseroles (known to my people as Hot Dish) for various reasons all through the year. We of course produce these steaming hot bowls of combined food glued together with canned cream soup for church potlucks. We make them for families who have a serious illness befall them. (Because nothing says "Get Well Soon, you're in our prayers" quite like a dump bowl of noodles, ground meat, and a sauce of some sort.) We make hot dish for someone who has had a death in the family. (And there's actually a slide rule for which casserole gets made for which event.) My grandmother did it, my mother certainly did it, and, in spite of my general loathing for cooking, I carry on the tradition.

So I pinned the note about the hot dish to my office wall so that I wouldn't forget that I had to bring one, by 5 PM, to church on Wednesday night.

Since I work until 4 PM, there wouldn't be time to assemble and cook a hot dish after work. This would take some planning.  No problem, thought I, I have until the 15th of December. That's ages away.

Which is why, yesterday morning, at about 5 AM, I was standing in my kitchen, cursing myself for watching the Biggest Loser finale and going to bed instead of, you know, shopping and planning a dish for the dinner.

My go to casserole involves hot dogs, noodles, and Velveeta cheese.  I was out of two of the three items.  I hadn't defrosted any hamburger, and I had no tuna.  Frankly, I was stumped, and about to plan on bringing pizza to the dinner.  (I found out later that a number of parents did that...smart people!)

I stood there, in my jammies, staring into my fridge.  Then I remembered:  We had chicken for dinner and there are leftovers!

Cut up chicken is good in a casserole.

Noodles! I have twisty noodles!  Those are fun.

YES!  I HAVE CREAM OF CHICKEN SOUP!

Cream of anything soups are the foundation for casseroles.  Cream of Mushroom soup, for those of you who remember Garrison Keillor's radio show, is known as "Lutheran Binder" because we use it so often in our pot luck dishes.  So using Cream of Chicken is both a solid menu choice and fancy.

Now...I needed to beef up this chicken casserole because a three ingredient casserole doesn't look like I'm trying.

SOUR CREAM!

Recently a friend of mine shared a fantastic slow cooker chicken and rice recipe in which sour cream is the star.  We never have sour cream, but we did yesterday morning.

Now, a veggie...I need a veggie.

CORN!  We have CANNED CORN!

By 5:30 I was assembling the most yellow casserole I've ever made.  Sitting there in the disposable pan  (You won't catch me losing a pan in the church kitchen...again!)  I realized I needed a topping. 

Cheese.  Cheese is a good topping on everything AND people like cheese on stuff.

Not sure what's in the dish?  It's okay, it's covered in cheese!

The only shredded cheese we had was a fancy Romano/Parmesan/mozzarella blend that someone in the house bought at a gourmet food store.  Well guess what?  That fancy cheese was now the topping for my pitched together casserole.

After work I raced home, and stuck my creation into the oven for half and hour to warm up.  What came forth from the oven, was something very, very yellow, that smelled faintly of feet.  (Note to self:  Parmesan cheese and corn to NOT meld to make a nice smelling food.)

Still, I had ten minutes to get this to church.  The good news?  I had a name for it.  CHICKEN CORN CHOWDER CASSEROLE.  The better news?  NO ONE ever asks what a hot dish at a church pot luck is.  They just eat it.

And eat it they did.  I didn't actually get to eat at the dinner.  I was helping with the open house.  But when I went downstairs, I noted that there was not one bite left of that yellow, foot smelling dish.

Crap I yanked from my fridge...give it a fancy name, cover it in cheese, and stick it on a table at a church pot luck dinner and they will EAT IT!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Story #4: A Tender Tennessee Christmas

Good afternoon all!

So Bob and Brian, the morning show guys on my favorite local radio station, The Hog, like to read stories from listeners about this time of year.  They call it "Holiday Horror Stories."  Yes, many of the stories I've told here  (and of course, the engagement TWO PART story, which is yet to come) have been read on the air over the years.

The stories they read are, as the title suggests, horrible.  Seriously.  We are a messed up bunch over the holidays.  And looking at my own Christmas memories, so many of them involve some sort of family tension.  Which is why, for this Christmas tale I'm about to tell, I've chosen my very best, sweetest, and most wonderful Christmas memory.  Think of this as the calm before the storm of Holiday Horror I'll be unleashing next week.

This took place the same trip as the prune induced fath-athon of a couple stories ago.  The point of the trip was to travel to the Deep South and check out the antebellum homes in Mississippi.  As luck would have it, Memphis, TN, was on our way down.  I'm so glad it was because it was Christmas Eve, 1986, when I fell in love with Tennessee.

My family has always been devout church goers, so attending church on Christmas Eve was not ever a question.  The mother in law of one of the teachers on my dad's faculty (I'll call her Mrs. T) lived in Memphis and offered to let us spend Christmas Eve at her house after a service at her church.  She and her husband weren't going to be at the house, they had a party to go to after church, but Mrs. T couldn't bear the thought of us spending Christmas Eve in a hotel room.  (Because, by that point of the trip, we'd gotten over the residual effects of the prune room in Kankakee and we were back to sharing a room.)

The church was a very small mission church, hardly the type of place we were used to.  Maybe there were thirty people there, and with the four of us, the room was full.  It was a very, very small church. 

I don't remember much about the service.  It was a Christmas Eve service, but very different from any I'd been to.  The difference, in our experience being that there wasn't an army of grumpy kids barking out the good news of Christmas in robot like unison.  ("FORUNTOYOUISBORNTHISDAY   INTHECITYOFDAVIDASAVIOR WHICHISCHRISTTHELORDANDTHISWILLBEASIGNTOYOU YOUWILLFINDTHEBABEWRAPPEDINSWADDLINGCLOTHES  LYINGINAMANAGER.")

Instead, this was a beautiful, heartfelt service with 30 other people.  And at the end of it...the most amazing part.

These people, these strangers, came up to us and asked if we had someplace to go.  "Y'all can come over tonight if you'd like.  Or, if you don't have anyplace to go tomorrow, we're having brunch at 9.  Come on over."

First of all, it was the first time I'd ever heard someone say "y'all" that wasn't on the show "The Dukes of Hazard."  Second, while people in Wisconsin are plenty friendly, I don't know that any stranger has ever offered me a place at their Christmas morning celebration.  I was 19 at the time, the child of two hardworking people who were very generous with their time and talents when it came to helping those around them.  And yet there was something so eye opening about these people. complete strangers, offering us a place to be on Christmas.  We thanked them all, told them we were going to the T's house for the evening,  (which, if you think about it was amazing, since we'd never really met the T's either.)  and that we were getting back on the road Christmas morning.

To this day, almost 25 years later, I don't recall much about that vacation without help of a photo album.  But the feeling I had that Christmas Eve, in the face of such sincere, unasked for hospitality, has never left me.  I fell in love with Tennessee that night and I've never forgotten it.  (Probably a big reason why my current work in progress is set in Tennessee.)

What have I done with this feeling, have I shared it?  I'm ashamed to say it took me several years to reach out to others at Christmas the way that little church in Memphis reached out to four travelers.  But yes,   I now open up my home to anyone who is alone at Christmas.   And every Christmas Eve, as I look over the assembly of folks in my house, I think of that tiny little mission church in Memphis and I thank them for teaching me a lesson I may never have learned otherwise.

So Merry Christmas my friends!  And if you're in the Waukesha area on Christmas Eve, stop in.  We're the house with the flying candy canes in the front yard.  Ask the delivery guy at Feng's Chinese restaurant.  He'll get you there.

Friday, December 10, 2010

It's official: I'm a cranky old lady, and I'm not taking it anymore!

Good morning!

I have to take a small break from my Christmas stories past for a moment to lodge my very first old lady rant.  I didn't realize I was an old lady until I started telling this story to people, but now I realize it's official...I'm old, I'm cranky, and I'm not taking it anymore!

Last week I was closing up my office for the weekend.  I had a headache and I needed to get something fast and easy for dinner because I was hosting a Party lite party at my house and didn't want to cook (Okay, I never want to cook.) or mess up the kitchen before my guests arrived.

There is a national chain sub shop near my office.  I won't mention the name, let's just say they pride themselves in being "FREAKY FAST."  I go there easily once or twice a week for lunch.  I love their veggie sub.  Since the shop is between my office and home, I thought it would be great to pick up subs for dinner.  But since I had a headache, I didn't feel like standing in the shop because, well, the music is always, always always BLARING.  Normally that doesn't bother me that much, but like I said, I had a headache.

So I called ahead to place an order by phone.  The woman answered the phone and I said, "I'd like to place an order for pick up, please."

She:  "Is the order for more than 5 sandwiches?"

I:  No, it's for four.

She:  I can't take a phone order for anything that's not more than five sandwiches.

I:  What?  You can't take my order?  I'm a three minute drive from your shop.

She:  Well, it takes us less than a minute per sandwich so we can't take a phone order for four sandwiches.  Phone orders have to be for more than five sandwiches.

I:  (Wondering why she doesn't just say SIX)  so you're refusing to take my order?

She:  I can't take a phone order unless it's for more than five sandwiches.

So I hung up and drove the three minutes to the shop.  I entered the store at 4:06.  I walked up to the counter.  There were five employees visible.  Two were cutting plastic wrap on the counter to my left.  One was on the phone, I can only assume NOT taking phone orders, one was in the back, washing something, and one was standing behind the cash register looking at me.

The music was blaring.

I walked up to the cash register and looked up to the menu board.  The guy looking at me didn't welcome me to the shop.  Didn't say anything.  I looked at him. He was looking at me.  I looked at him, then looked at the menu board, then looked at him again.  He kept looking at me, saying nothing.  Everyone else was busy, and not looking up because they didn't hear me because the MUSIC WAS BLARING.

Finally, Staring Guy says, "I don't know what to do."

I gotta be honest.  I've NEVER been told that at a restaurant.  And I've certainly never said it at a job.  "I don't know what to do?"  hey, Ding Ding, how about poking one of your coworkers with something pointy and waking them up to the fact that a PAYING CUSTOMER just walked through the door?

At this point I have a mental clock ticking in my head.  That might have just been my head pounding I don't know. 

So after staring at me for a few more ticks, he walks back to the guy in the back.  I hear nothing  (Except for the music) but I can read body language.  There's a lot of pointing and shrugging.  I guess when the music is so loud, employees have to resort to a sort of primitive sign language to communicate.  But the good news is that everyone in the surrounding area can hear the music.

(Plastic cutting guys still haven't looked up and Phone chick is still on the phone...probably refusing to take orders.)  Guy in the back strolls up to the cash register like I haven't been standing there for an eon.  He takes my order.

Then it gets interesting.  See, normally there's a line of people assembling sandwiches because, you know, they are FREAKY FAST.  Not on this day.  On this day NO ONE is assembling anything.  Guys are cutting plastic wrap, girl is on the phone, Staring guy is Staring and cash guy starts working on my four sandwiches.  Phone girl gets off the phone and joins cash guy.  (On a side note:  Neither washed their hands or put on gloves before handling my food.) 

Staring guy kept staring.  Cutting guys kept cutting.  Music kept blaring.

They finally bag up my order and I leave.  The time:  4:16.

I spent 10 solid minutes in the store.  And all because they refused to take my order over the phone.  Had they taken the order over the phone, the entire transaction would have taken six minutes, including ordering time.  Instead, if you count the phone call, my order time took 14 minutes. 

Oh, and my headache didn't get BETTER standing in the shop with the music pounding. 

But at least I can rest assured that plenty of PLASTIC WRAP was cut.  (Although why they needed that much, I don't know.  They wrap their sandwiches in paper.)

Yes, I did send a sternly worded email to the corporate office. And now I'm waiting for something from them...free coupons, free sandwiches for life, something like that.  Maybe Staring guy will get trained before he's unleashed on the unsuspecting public.  Anything.


Meanwhile, in telling this story one thing has become abundantly clear to me.  I'm going to make a MOST EXCELLENT ANGRY OLD WOMAN!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas story #3: Who needs "The Ring?" We've got Grandma!

Good afternoon!

Now, there are some people who would refuse to tell certain stories simply because well, it might be unseemly or it's a private matter, or, as in the case of this particular story, it might seem insulting to those who have passed.

If you've read this blog, you know by now that I have zero edit button when it comes to telling my stories.  So sit back, buckle up, and get ready to remember the stuff your elders used to tell you to keep you in line!

This is going back to my grandmother's gigantic old house on church property.  I can't swear to the fact that this happened at Christmas, but it was winter and my cousin, I'll call her Lily, was there, so chances are good that it was.

I've mentioned before that my grandmother, who is now in Heaven, had emotional problems.  At least that was how it was explained to me when I was little.  I think sometimes that my twisted sense of humor and the skewed way I'm able to share stories that might seem too embarrassing or dark to talk about is because the real core of my grandmother's issues were glossed over for so very long to us grandkids. 

Grandma was paranoid schizophrenic.  It was a condition that went untreated for decades mostly because, while mental illness now is finally coming out of the shadows and being treated like any other illness, when my grandmother started exhibiting signs of her illness, it was still called "nerves," or some other ridiculous thing.  The long and short of it was that my grandmother was a very ill woman for most of her adult life and for more years than anyone cares to count we called it things like nerves, emotional problems, temperament.  Jeez, I'm surprised her doctors didn't just give her some laudanum and call it a day.

However, if we're going to see the bright silver ring around what could be perceived as a family tragedy  (my grandmother lived to be in her 90's, she enjoyed her great grandchildren very much and she is now happy in heaven, so there's a happy ending.) it could be that I have a closet full of stories like the one I'm about to tell.

Recently, Peaches has developed an addiction to the movie "The Ring." In this movie, if you watch a certain videotape, the phone rings and then you die. Well, I have to believe that the screenplay authors of that gem knew my grandmother and the story of the killer sewing kit pins.


When we stayed at my g-parents house at the church, the girls always slept in the very back bedroom.  This was an amazing room.  There was a little roll top desk, a closet you could hide in and never be found because most of the adults never even bothered to realize that there was a closet door tucked away in the corner behind the desk.  There was a door that went outside to an upstairs deck where sometimes grandma hung laundry.  Most of the furniture in the room was cast off stuff that parishioners gave to my grandfather.  (Seriously, two old people living in a house the size of Tara from "Gone with the Wind?"  The house was full of other people's battered couches and army cots and old chairs.) 

My cousin Lily and I are the two oldest girl cousins, and we are less than nine months apart in age.  (I delight in pointing out that Lily is older than I am.  Not something I was jazzed about when we were kids.)   We were truly best of friends as kids and our favorite game when we visited grandma was to have fashion shows with the paper dolls that grandma kept.  It never bothered us that it was always the same four or five paper dolls wearing the same outfits.  We always came up with new names for the outfits and where the girls would wear the outfits.  It was a game we played into our early teens. 

Anyway, for some reason, this one time we found an old sewing kit in the desk.  See, in the days before cable TV and computers and video games, we had to make do with what we had.  And apparently, this time around, we thought it was a good thing to play with sewing pins and needles.

Ahhhhhh the good old days!

So Lily and I stuck these pins and needles all over the room.  In blankets in curtains.  I think we pretended to be seamstresses and cobblers.  Doesn't matter.  What matters is Grandma caught us playing with them.  And this is when things got interesting.

Whether it was her illness, or just because she wanted to pass on the proper way of doing things to her grand daughters, I don't always know.  I know now that she loved us, and that the pressure she was under every single day to be perfect for those around her must have been tremendous.  So when I talk about her, it's with a sense of humor and a touch of awe that she managed to get from the start to the end of every day for so many years without actually setting fire to the furniture.  Given the wild thoughts that raged in her brain all the time, it must have been a battle. 

 When she saw us playing with the pins and needles  (and keep in mind, we were probably 9 or 10) instead of yelling at us to put the stuff away, she sat us down and told us a story that simultaneously horrified and amused us.

"You can't play with pins and needles, " she said.  "There was a story on the news about a girl who played with pins and needles. And one of the needles got into her veins and rolled around in her circulatory system until it pierced her heart and she died."

With that, she supervised us cleaning up the pins and then she returned downstairs.

For the rest of the evening, Lily and I would look at each other and say, "My arm feels funny."  And then fall down laughing.  Hey, ten is not exactly an intuitive age.  We figured this was just another one of those silly things Grandma said sometimes.  We didn't bother telling our parents because, well, why go all the way downstairs and bother them?  Then they'd realize we were still up and they'd put us to bed.  Who wanted that?

This joke ran late into the night.  "Good night Lily.  Oh, and my arm feels funny...like a pin is in it!"

"Good night Sarah...my arm feels funny too."

Of course, I'm the one who never knows when to end a joke.

Early the next morning, I woke up and decided to continue the fun from the night before.  So I shook Lily awake and said, "Hey, my arm feels funny."

Lily got a horrified look on her face.  She got up, and went out of the room.  I figured she had to use the bathroom or something, so I got back into bed.  A few minutes later she returned, in tears, with Grandma in tow.

"Grandma, Sarah says her arm feels funny and there might be a pin in there and she'll die!"

Grandma sat down on my army cot  (Lily always got the old couch.  The benefits of being older.)  and took both our hands.  "Girls, that didn't really happen.  I just told you that story to make you stop playing with my sewing kit."

I'll give you a moment to comment amongst yourselves, my friends as I wish you a lovely afternoon!

Until my next one!  And remember, the story of my engagement Christmas is a two parter!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Story #2...let your light shine...someplace else!

Good afternoon!

Okay, so this Christmas story thing isn't moving quite as quickly as I'd hoped, BUT  I dug one out of my memory banks that (And I should tell you that story #1 was deemed "Best Story EVER" by my Sunday School class!) I think you might enjoy.  So here we are:

Christmas with my mom's side of the family was always a sort of chaotic wild ride.  When I was older, I would come to realize that all sorts of mental and emotional issues ran amok in my family, but when I was 11, all that mattered was spending a wild time with my 8 cousins in my grandparents' sprawling old parsonage.

Most of the time the adults would stay in the big dining room while the children, ranging in ages from Cal, the oldest at 14 to Kimmie, the youngest at about 2 would command the upstairs, the attic  (when it wasn't FREEZING) and the cavernous basement.  Except for being moderately polite when we crossed from the upstairs to the basement through the dining room, we children had nearly no adult supervision, provided we didn't do actual bodily harm to each other.

The other thing you should know about these Christmas Gatherings is that my grandmother bought each grandchild exactly the same gift each year.  From eldest to youngest, we all got the same thing.  Be it the year of Scarves and hats, or the year we all got Mc Donald's coupons, it didn't matter.  All nine of us got the same thing.

Which brings me to the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER at my grandparents' gigantic house:  The year of the flashlight.

My mother's family always celebrated Christmas the day after Christmas.  This was so that those who were ministers in the family would be able to join the rest of the family.  This tradition lived on until only very recently, sometime after my grandmother passed and my uncles and mother became the heads of their own families with their own traditions.  December 26th was a date set in stone as any other high festival day in my family.

The tradition was as simple:  Go to grandma's house for dinner on the 26th.  Eat a large dinner, open gifts, then, children, disappear so that the adults could talk.

In the days before Game boys, computers, cable TV  (or more than one TV in a house) CD players, or texting, the nine of us had only each other in a massive house to amuse ourselves.  We often played outside, in the dark and cold because there we could play endless games of 7 steps around the house, or burrow deep in the piles of snow left by the county plow trucks in the church parking lot behind the house.  Often we would spend hours in the second story of the garage, a hidden place where we pretended to be (usually) Jews hiding from the Germans.  (Not sure how 9 German Lutherans came up with that, but we all wound up becoming students of history in one way or another, so I guess it was a natural thing.  That, and the "Diary of Anne Frank" was always assigned in school so someone in the family was always reading it over Christmas Break.)  Sometimes we pretended to be the Ingalls family, too, facing a hard winter. 

Ah, the things we did before Computers!

Anyway, gift opening was something that came between dinner and playing for hours without having to answer to adults.  We enjoyed it well enough, certainly, but since this wasn't the BIG CHRISTMAS, we really were more eager to just go and play.

So one year my grandmother decided that the gift of the year would be flashlights.  Nine children ages 3 to 14, all with a flashlight.

In normal years, we'd bundle up and go outside to terrorize the countryside with these amazing lights.  But that year, the year of the Flashlight, it was far too cold to go out.  So, gift opening over, the children were sent upstairs.

Normally this would not have been a problem.  We were just as capable of playing upstairs as we were out doors or in the garage.  But nine children, all with flashlights, have only one purpose:

MAKE IT AS DARK AS POSSIBLE AND CHASE EACH OTHER.

Of course, we could play such a game in complete and total silence so as not to disturb our elders.

Right.

The upstairs had a long hallway that reached from the front all the way to the back of the house.  A perfect runway for a game of "CHASE IN THE DARK WITH FLASHLIGHTS."

I'm not saying we were loud...That would be a gross understatement.  I will say that the windows shook with the shrieks of the middle children (I'm one of the older kids)  and the howls of the younger ones. 

One cousin, the tattle tale  (and isn't there always one in the bunch?) informed the parents of our game.  (Seriously, like they didn't know?)  One parent came upstairs and told us to settle down and be more quiet.

Yeah, that lasted about four minutes.  And then...ooops! All the lights upstairs went off again and the chasing and yelling and shrieking continued.

Seriously, was there another result from giving 9 children flashlights?

But, this fantastic noisy game came to an end, as all good things do.  I believe no tattle tale was needed.  A few of the younger cousins ran up and down the main stairs, a cardinal sin, and that was the end of that.  Flashlights were taken and packed in parental suitcases to be returned later.

Still, when I hold a flashlight in my hand, I can't help but remember that night in my grandparents' house with my beloved cousins, racing around the upstairs of that glorious home, screaming in the dark.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Christmas Story...#1

Good evening my friends!

Well the Christmas season is firmly upon us.  Yes, the season of peace, joy, love, relatives, disapproval, disgust, despair and burnt cookies is upon us.

I've decided that this year, my friends, I'm going to share with you some of the best Christmas stories from my life.  Some of them are sweet.  Some of them are funny.  Some of them I probably shouldn't be telling you, because, well, some of my family members read this blog.  (Wait, who am I kidding?  NONE of my family members read this blog.  Not a one.  Not even my mother who says, "You know, Sarah, you always write your best when you write about real life."  "So go read my blog," says I.  "Oh know, "  says she, "I'm not reading anything called a blog."

Whatever.  I'm 43 years old, and I've been married for going on 21 years.  Frankly, if my extended family can't stomach the stories I'm about to tell, then they need to get a funny bone transplant because, as we all know, tragedy plus time equals humor.

THIS IS FUNNY STUFF!

I'm not sure how many of these tales from the holiday side I can pull out into the light, but I will promise you this:  The story of the Christmas Hubby and I got engaged is a TWO PART ER, not to be missed.

SO, let's begin with tale from my college years.  Pour a cup of tea, gather the kiddies around and let old Auntie Sarah tell you about the trip DOWN SOUTH.  (I'll have to break this up into chapters over the next couple days because, my friends, too much happened on this trip for just one blog.)

My family's vacations could be depended on for two things:  1)  there would be car trouble.  My father was that deadly combination of man who was too poor to buy a good car and too bookish to know how to fix the crap mobiles he bought.  Every major vacation we took involved at least one trip to a repair shop, always out of state and almost always on a Sunday when everyone was closed.   

The other thing we could depend on when traveling with Danny and Donna Dull  (The name my father gave himself and my mother.) is that Donna, ever the bargain hunter, would book us into the cheapest, most improbable housing ever.

Christmas 1986 was very exciting for me.  It was my first Christmas with a serious boyfriend.  (Okay, every boyfriend I had was serious, but this one wound up marrying me.)  I was a sophomore in college.  I just finished my semester course on US history.  (The final exam was on the Civil War.  The Professor...I'll call him Wonderful Warren Winter mostly because those of you who know him will know who I'm referring to...never ONCE mentioned the Civil War in any of his lessons.  We did, however spend two weeks of the semester on the TABLE OF CONTENTS.)  I was pretty certain I'd aced the test  (I did) mostly because of my enduring love for the Civil war (Thank you Clark Gable).

The trip was a strange one first of all because it was at Christmas.  For as long as I could remember, we'd stayed in town for Christmas Eve because brother and I were in some church service or another.  If we traveled, it was on Christmas Day and then to our grandparents' homes.  Second, it was strange because we hadn't taken a major vaca in several years. 

But Donna had the Blue Car  (A car that would later burst into flames on the way home from Brother's driving test...but that's not what killed the car ultimately.  The car died three years later on that magical trip from New Ulm Minnesota to Wisconsin.  You know the one.)  packed and an itinerary planned, courtesy of Triple A Triptik  (In the days before Garmin, Tom Tom and the Internet, all we had was Triple A)  Danny at the wheel  (Brother couldn't drive yet and I was...a girl.)  we headed out.

Our first stop was in Kankakee, IL.  You know, romantic Kankakee.  Well that first day was just a driving day anyway.  Packed in a car with my mother's "snacks" and my dad's democratic way of radio sharing  (Everyone makes a cassette tape and we will listen to them in order.  No, Sarah, we're not listening to your loud crash bang music.)  a big reason why even today I love the musical stylings of Roger Whitaker.

We got to the Hotel No Name late that night.  Really late.  Now, my mom had asked for a non smoking room.  My dad, a former smoker, always gets sick at the smell of smoke now, and Brother and I hadn't gotten over the "Sniff your Brother" years.  (Oh, I haven't told you that story, have I.  Well, that's for another day.)

The room we got, the room all four of us SHARED at Hotel No Name was a non smoking room in the sense that no smokers were sleeping in it at the same time we were. 

That wasn't the worst of our problems, not by far.  See, I'm a very light sleeper, and I don't fall asleep easily.  In the days before Tylenol PM, I would often fall asleep only when completely exhausted.  On the flip side, my father is a very loud snorer.  And, oh yes, I grind my teeth, something that makes my mother insane.  I once woke up, at the age of 9, with her trying to tie a silk scarf around my neck and slip it between my teeth.  I'm not making a word of this up.

So, putting the snorer, the light sleeper/tooth grinder who lives in fear that her mother, who loathes dentist bills above all things, will try to jam something into her mouth, and the mother who is just waiting for that first sound of scraping in the same room meant that NO ONE, and I mean NO ONE got any sleep.

We sat around the hotel room, watching bad TV  (in the days before Cable) and eating the one sweet thing in Donna's bag of "Snacks."

Prunes.

Yes.  The three of us  (Donna was too sensible for this sort of thing) ate and entire jar of prunes.  A big jar too, not that wimpy little prepackaged, oh these aren't prunes these are small plums packet.  No, Danny, Brother and I ate nearly two pounds of prunes. 

It should not have surprised one single person when, at about 4 AM, we all awoke to the delightful sounds of our own farts.

"Global Gas," Brother called it.

Oh, and my mom's system is very suggestive so it didn't  take too much wind breaking on our part to get her to join in.  There we all were, sitting in a bad hotel room in Kankakee, blowing stink at each other.

"Well, at least it covers up the smoke smell."  Leave it to Danny Dull to find the silver lining.

At some point, when you're traveling with your family, manners go out the window.  Locked together in a car and a hotel room long enough, all the trappings of civilization will melt away and a family of four can, and will try to destroy itself with its own flatulence.

After about a half an hour, the battle began in earnest.  My mother, horrified that we were so rude, tried to ignore us until it became obvious that Brother and I were NOT going to sleep any time soon.  She then booted Brother out of bed with Dad, and moved in with him.  Yeah, like he smelled better.  At least he was by the window, which he cracked open a bit so that unsuspecting early risers could get a whiff of the toxic air that filled our room.

Did I mention it was December?

So mom's howling for us to stop farting and be quiet and go back to sleep.  Meanwhile Brother and I cannot stop laughing and farting and farting and laughing. 

Go ahead...try not to get gassy at the thought of these guys.  Can't do it, can you?
At 5 AM the local TV channel comes back on the air.  The only show on, and I'm NOT making this up, was the Three Stooges.

NOTHING fuels a forceful flatulent free for all quite like an hour or two of the Three Stooges. 

I haven't been back to Kankakee since that trip.  But I cannot look at a prune even now, all these years later, without thinking about that nasty hotel room and farting with my brother in the early hours of the morning.

And that was only day one of that trip!

The difference between a Meijer employee and a heart attack? Not much.

Good afternoon everyone and Happy Holidays! When I was little I lived in Michigan, home to a wonderful store called Meijer's Thrif...