Thursday, November 29, 2018

Holiday Perfection

One year I struggled to create a Hallmark-perfect holiday season. Instead, chaos ensued.

Chicken Soup for the Soul shared the story of my goofy failure in their new release, "The Wonder of Christmas."

Holiday Perfection
The kitchen’s mustard-yellow oven mocked me from its 1970’s built-in perch. I glared at the offensive appliance, roughly the size of a child’s easy-bake oven. Next week our entire family would arrive for Thanksgiving dinner in our new home. I wanted everything to be perfect, but there was no way to fit a turkey in that tiny oven.  
Who lived here before us? Elves? 

My husband Jake shuffled into the room. “It’s midnight. What’s wrong?”
“Why did the builders put a miniature stove in a large home?” I fumed. “I can’t make a perfect Thanksgiving turkey in this stupid thing.”

Jake rubbed his eyes and yawned. “Let’s replace it.”
My heart did a momentary happy dance before reality crashed in. “We just moved. We don’t have funds for a new one.”
Jake wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “We’ll buy a used one.” He gestured to my nemesis. “We can rip this out now if you want.” 

At midnight, the idea made perfect sense. We grabbed tools, removed the old built-in appliance, and cleaned the decades of greasy dirt left behind.

The next morning we found an online ad proclaiming, “New stove for sale. $60.”
Hopping into our pickup, we drove over for a look. A friendly young couple met us at the door and led us around back to large shed. The husband said, “We bought this stove back home in Iowa, but there was already one here when we moved in last year. This one’s just been sittin’ in the shed, so we figured to sell it.”
I swiped a layer of dust off the appliance with my finger. Underneath it the white stove gleamed. It looked perfect. Since sixty dollars comprised our entire remodel budget, we bought it. The two men loaded it into the truck, and Jake and I drove home congratulating ourselves on finding a bargain. 

Once we maneuvered the stove into the kitchen, we notice an odd smell. 

“It probably just needs a good cleaning,” I said. We scrubbed every inch we could reach, inside and out, but the odor increased.
As the stench permeated the entire house, Jake shared his horrible realization. “I think a dead mouse is stuck in the insulation, but I can’t get to it without ripping the stove apart.” 

“Holiday guest expect aromas like pine boughs or gingerbread. Our house reeks of rodent carcass. We need to do something,” I whined.
So we ran the self-cleaning feature repeatedly every day. 
By Thanksgiving the stink had dissipated. Mostly. I felt confident that by the time our guests arrived, the delectable scent of perfectly roasted turkey would cover any lingering odor.
Humming, I stuffed the turkey, slid it into the new range and inspected the side dishes. Ruby colored cranberry sauce, potatoes waiting to be mashed, pumpkin pies from the bakery all passed the perfection inspection. 

The freshly cleaned house looked perfect, so I dressed, put on makeup, and did my hair. I wanted to look perfect too. Or as perfect as possible despite wrinkles and acne.
As family members arrived we greeted them, gave the house tour, then sat together, chatting and laughing. After a time Jake pulled me aside. “Honey, the turkey isn’t cooking.”

I hurried to the kitchen and opened the stove door. The huge raw turkey perched sadly in the cold oven.
 Agh! Had I burned out the stove with repeated mouse cremations? I stood paralyzed, dismay tap dancing across my brain.
My eagle-eyed mom glided into the kitchen and within seconds pointed out the problem. “Sweetheart, it will cook faster if you turn on the oven.” She tapped the knob, firmly fixed in the “off” position. 

Panic set in. “What are we going to do? There’s a house full of people and nothing to feed them except raw turkey!”
Jake sauntered downstairs and brought up large ham from the basement fridge. At my questioning look he winked. “I wanted it on hand just in case.”
And he was perfectly right, as usual.
That Thanksgiving our family ate ham sandwiches. And ribbed me unmercifully about not turning on the stove.
Although far from what I’d envisioned, that Thanksgiving was perfect in its own way. While munching my sandwich, I realized I didn’t need to strive for magazine-perfect food presentations or a picture perfect house. 

My focus didn’t need to be on perfection, but rather gratefulness. I looked around the table and thanked God for the people in my life.

My husband who showed me love in unexpected ways, like ripping out a stove because it bothered me. And having the foresight to tuck away an emergency ham.
My mother who still taught me cooking basics--like flipping the knob to the “on” setting.
And our precious daughter and grandson, siblings, cousins. I silently thanked God for the perfect blessing of having family together.

We invited everyone back for Christmas. This time, rather than trying to make everything perfect, we decided to skip the fancy turkey dinner and offer crockpots of soup instead.
I even made sure to turn the dials onto the “high” setting so the soup would cook in time for Christmas dinner.

Only one thing would have made those crockpots of soup more perfect.
If I’d remembered to plug them in.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Miss America, Cheese, and True Love

Have you seen the Miss America parodies in the movies or on TV?
A cheesy host asks the contestant, "If you could have one wish, what would it be?" The young woman simpers and answers in a sugary voice, "World peace."         
I'm not bashing the Miss America contestants. They're intelligent, talented, and beautiful.
I cheer for those young women...even with my cellulite thighs and bat-wing triceps flapping.
And even though I've experienced many times when I didn't feel intelligent, or talented, or beautiful.

Or worthwhile.

Or loved.
Have you ever felt like that?

Hold onto your Kraft American singles because this may sound as cheesy as the mock Miss America host.
If I could have one wish, I'd want everyone, young and old, to know this:

You are special. 
You are loved. 
You matter. 

Since the Miss America Fairy won't be swooping by to grant my wish, consider this.

You matter so much that God says to you, “I’ve never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!" Jeremiah 31:3 The Message.

May that truth bring peace to your world.

Photo of Mitzi Strother, Miss Florida 1941 from

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Thor at the Door

After a volatile marriage and an ugly divorce, I'd sworn off love. But the book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Miracle of Love, reveals the true story.

The judge banged his gavel, and I followed my lawyer out of the courtroom, past my glaring now ex-husband.
My steps echoed down the polished marble corridor. Each footfall took me further from the pain of betrayal, infidelity, and alcohol abuse. I almost danced with elation. The attorney eyed me strangely. “Most people are distraught when they get divorced.” 

Distraught? I felt like I’d escaped from a horrible prison. Caring for my fifteen-month-old daughter Patty was my top priority. Now she wouldn’t suffer growing up in a dysfunctional, abusive home. We’d been set free.

A few weeks after the divorce my best friend Debbi asked, “When will you start dating again?”
“Never,” I replied. “My new mantra is, ‘Every man on the planet is a conniving sneak, existing only to wreak havoc on unsuspecting women’s hearts.’”
Debbi laughed at my irrational words. “You don’t mean that. Someday you’ll find true love.”
Love? No thank you. I didn’t want a new relationship. I didn’t even want to look at a man. 

Until a Norse god walked out of my neighbor’s home. 

Tall. Tan. Fit. Gorgeous.
A modern-day Thor was visiting Frank, my middle-aged neighbor? I looked away from the enticing vision and repeated my “all males are evil” mantra.

A few days later Frank stopped by while I weeded the lawn. “Hey Jeanie, I’m letting the neighbors know my buddy is staying with me for a while. He works night shift. He’s a super guy.” OK, Thor was a super guy staying with Frank. Fine. It had nothing to do with me. 

The next day I glanced out my bedroom window and spotted Thor standing next to a black pick-up. He looked up and down the empty street, then hopped into the truck bed. What was this guy up to? Thor removed his shirt and stretched out to nap in the summer sun. His muscles seemed to reflect the light. I stared open-mouthed. Whoa, did this guy pose for romance book covers? Yeesh.

I dragged my hormones away from the window and practiced my man-hating mantra. Perhaps a bit overboard since this guy was way out of my league.
Still, there was no harm in looking. Spying on Thor’s afternoon tanning sessions became a daily ritual. I’d climb onto my mattress and peer out the small rectangular transom window above my bed. 

After a week, guilt forced me to stop. I established Commandment Number Eleven: 

Thou shalt not ogle thy neighbor’s guest. 

A round of deep house cleaning would take my mind . . . and hormones . . . off my neighbor’s virile friend. While Patty napped I threw on a ragged sundress and pushed my hair into a messy ponytail. No sense putting in contacts or using make-up.
An hour of scrubbing later, I grabbed the window cleaner and headed toward the bedroom. “Just to tidy up,” I told myself, “not to peek at Thor.” Sure. Even I didn’t believe myself. But Thor wasn’t in his usual spot. A knock on the door interrupted my spying attempt. 

Thor stood at the door. Had he spotted me ogling him? Fresh sweat beaded my upper lip. I wiped it with a sudsy glove and stammered, “Oh. Yes. Hi, um . . .”

When I fell silent, Thor gave me a shy, easy smile. Wow, this guy put toothpaste commercial actors to shame. “Hi, I’m Jake.” He pointed over his shoulder at my neighbor’s house. “I’m staying with Frank.”
“Uh, that’s nice.” I inwardly cringed at my inane response.
“Frank talks about what a nice lady you are.”
“Um . . . thanks,” I said.

He looked down for a moment, lifted his head, and blurted, “Would you maybe go out with me sometime?”
I stared into his electric blue eyes. It felt like I’d touched a high voltage line. I glanced at his wide shoulders. Too tempting. I lowered my eyes. Bad move. His shorts revealed his long muscular legs. I blinked hard and admitted, “Look, I just ended a bad marriage. I’m not interested in dating.”

Thor—Jake—blew out a relieved sigh. “Same here. My girlfriend and I broke up last month. I’m not ready for a relationship. I hoped we could go to the movies or something. Just friends.”
“I’ll go out with you if my babysitter is available. But remember, just friendship. Nothing more.”

Jake lit up like a Christmas tree in Times Square. “Great! Here’s my number. Call whenever it’s convenient for you.” He waved goodbye. I closed the door and wondered why such an attractive man would invite me out. A glance in the mirror revealed my full bedraggled glory.

 I looked like a sweat-doused monkey in rubber gloves. Yep, his line about “just friends” explained the invitation. 

That weekend Jake treated me to a movie and dinner even though it wasn’t a date. “Hey, I appreciate you going out with me. I’m glad to pay,” he said.

Despite his handsome appearance, Jake was endearingly humble. We talked non-stop. During dinner Jake said, “You’ve only eaten a few bites. Is the food OK?”
“It’s great. I’ll take it home in a doggie-bag.” Paying the sitter would bite into my limited budget. My leftovers would provide three delectable meals for Patty. Since I wasn’t eating much, Jake politely stopped eating too.

He drove me home and I invited him in. “Patty’s been asleep for an hour,” the sitter said. She grabbed her pay and left. Patty awoke just as Jake and I sat down on the couch. I walked her out and warned Jake, “Don’t be offended. Patty shies away from men.”

Patty pulled her tiny hand from mine and toddled straight to Jake. He patted the sofa and asked, “Want to sit with us?” She held up her arms. I froze, shocked.
Jake scooped up Patty and sat her on the couch. She snuggled against him. Jake grinned at me and patted the cushion again. “Are you joining us?” 

We spent the evening chatting and laughing. When Patty grew sleepy I tucked her in bed and returned to Jake. “I had a great time tonight.”
“Me too,” he said.
I scooted closer. “Just to remind you. I’m not looking for a relationship.”
“Me neither.” He laid his arm across the back of the sofa.
I leaned toward him, “Just friends.”
He brushed my cheek softly with his thumb. “Friends.”
We gazed into each other others eyes. He cupped my face like precious porcelain as I lifted it toward his. Our lips met for a heartbeat of eternity.

The next day Jake knocked at the door, his arms laden with bags. “You seemed to like the restaurant’s food last night. I wondered why you didn’t eat much. When you tucked Patty in I checked your fridge.” His gentle kiss eased my embarrassment over the empty refrigerator.

Jake spent the next months proving his trustworthiness. His honesty, generosity, and love silenced my man-hating mantra. When Jake proposed the following year, I don’t know who was more ecstatic, me or Patty.

After thirty-three years of friendship, love--and unabashed ogling--I still thank God that “Thor” came to my door.

Jake, Jeanie, and Patty's son

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Look Back and Move Forward

Have you ever felt like, no matter hard you try, you're not getting anywhere?
That's where I've been lately.
It seems that no matter how much I do, I fall farther behind.

And I'm missing the here and now because I'm fretting about what needs to get done.

Last month our thirteen-year-old grandson was out of school for two weeks with a fractured knee. After a week and a half on heavy painkillers, he finally felt well enough to do some schoolwork.

My husband brought home the books, worksheets, and report packets from each of our grandson's classes. We piled them in a towering stack next to his chair. His eyes bugged out. "That's Homework Mountain. How am I supposed to do it all?" he asked.

I told him, "Don't worry about doing everything. Just pick one subject and work on it when you feel up to it."
He heaved a sigh and grabbed his science book.
An hour later he put the book and completed worksheet packet on the opposite side of Homework Mountain. "One down, ten to go," he muttered.

But after resting he picked up another book. This time it only took twenty minutes to finish. He plopped his work on the finished pile and crowed, "Oh, yeah!"

For the next two days he chipped away at Homework Mountain. He'd glance at it, then look over at the work he'd done. 
He called me over each time he completed a subject so we could celebrate. Soon the pile of finished reports and worksheets reigned in middle-school splendor.

He said, "Hey Grandma, I kept looking at what I needed to do, then looked at what I'd already done. And I finished two weeks of work in two days!"

Sometimes we need to look back to see how far we've progressed. decided to take a cue from my grandson.

I've been beating myself up for not writing more. But when I looked back over the past few months, I see progress.

My stories are in three of the latest Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

Another story is coming out in LIVE magazine, as well as an article at Inspiration Ministries.

Instead of focusing on "I'm so Far Behind Mountain," I'm determined to look at accomplishments, no matter how small they seem, and give God the glory for it all.

How about you? Where do you see forward momentum in your life? What will you celebrate?

Even if we don't feel we've accomplished much, the bible offers this encouragement from Zechariah chapter four:

"Do not despise these small beginnings..."

After all, even a baby step forward moves us in the right direction.