Tuesday, September 29

Mountaintop retreat

George Vanderbilt's mountaintop retreat, that is.

Have you been to the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina? If not, you should plan a trip there. Really. You'll be amazed.

Here I am in front of the house. See the red-headed woman in the foreground in the orange top? Yep, that's me. That photo was taken this past Friday, on a weekend trip that my husband and I took. Asheville is about three and a half hours from here, so it's a great place to go for a long weekend.

As we planned this trip, my husband and I realized that it had been nearly two years since we'd spent the night alone together anywhere--unless you count the hospital. We'd spent several nights alone together at Duke Hospital. Incredible room service, I must say, but otherwise not quite what I prefer in a romantic getaway.

This weekend, though--everything about this weekend was just exactly what I prefer in a romantic getaway. Most of all, I have my husband to get away WITH. Believe me, those nights spent in the hospital will make you think. As I reflect upon our journey, I am grateful for a husband who is alive and healthy and who, after 24 years of marriage, still wants to share a romantic weekend with me.

I have been to the mountaintop.

Gratefully Unwrapped with Emily at Chatting at the Sky

Wednesday, September 23

Bake someone happy: Chocolate Chip Pound Cake

I want to share with you a favorite recipe. I'm a fair-to-middlin' cook, not a great cook. . . but I think I could call myself an above-average baker. I love to bake cookies, pies, cakes, breads. Maybe I'm better at cooking these kinds of food because these are the foods I love to eat. Hmmm.

I made a birthday cake for a dear friend this week. It's a bit of a tradition that I've established with a few precious friends, all of them fellow moms (you know--the people who are responsible for making the cakes in their families). It's great fun for me to lavish this little bit of love on them on their birthdays.

Nine times out of ten, I'll make them a chocolate pound cake. The recipe was given to me years ago by a sweet woman named Ruby Bea (isn't that a wonderful Southern name?), so my kids always call it "Ruby Bea Cake." Call it what you want; this is one of my favorite cakes EVER. Why? It's delicious. It smells heavenly when it's baking. It travels well (no frosting). It freezes well. And it's easy to make. Here's the recipe. Try it for yourself. I can pretty much guarantee good results.

Chocolate Pound Cake

1 devil's food cake mix (any brand, any variety)
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup vegetable oil (I use canola)
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
1 small package instant chocolate pudding
1 heaping cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt pan (or do what I do and just spray it with nonstick cooking spray).

Place cream cheese in mixer bowl. Beat cream cheese a bit to soften. Add cake mix; beat a bit to combine with cream cheese. Scrape sides of bowl. Add oil, water, and vanilla; beat well. Scrape sides of bowl again. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in pudding mix; beat until well combined. Fold in chocolate chips.

Pour/spoon batter into prepared pan. Note: the batter will be very, very thick. Bake at 325 degrees for one hour, not a moment more. Remove from oven and cool on a cooling rack for 10-15 minutes. Remove cake from pan.

I wish there were a scratch-n-sniff feature on your computer. Mmmmm. Heaven for your nose, right here in this little cake.

Dust it with powdered sugar if you like. Serve it with vanilla ice cream or raspberry sauce if you want to be fancy. Or just cut a slice and eat it with your fingers: it's very dense, so it's a good eat-from-a-napkin cake.

You will like it. I promise. Try it yourself and see!

Tuesday, September 22

Touched by kindness

photos courtesy of LegoLee's Reviews

Last week I wrote about how my son taught me to have a better perspective. He told me that I should celebrate having 100 followers, but I shrugged it off, saying that 100 followers wasn't really that many. He showed me that I was looking at things incorrectly, and that 100 followers was indeed very many, considering that he has only one follower on his blog. He corrected me, and he was right.

What surprised me was how many of you responded to this post with such kindness. But I shouldn't have been surprised: kindness and generosity are the hallmarks of our blogging community. There's something about the relationships we form via blogging that brings out the best in us. Don't you think? Isn't it refreshing?

In response to questions from several of you, here's a link to my son's blog. His name is Lee, and his blog is all about Legos, so the name of his blog is LegoLee's Reviews. He would be honored and thrilled to have any of your sons or daughters or young friends read his blog. And I'm thrilled at the prospect of other people reading his blog as well. Lee doesn't like to write, but I explained to him that if he wants other people to read his blog, he really needs to try to make his writing readable. So he's trying to write in complete sentences, use correct punctuation, spell his words correctly--the very things that he doesn't like to do in school. All those comments from his teachers--"Be sure to proofread your work, Lee," "Correct your punctuation, Lee," "This paragraph doesn't flow, Lee"--those comments never did motivate him to want to make his writing better. I'm betting that comments from kids reading his blog might be a bit more inspiring.

So thank you, my kind friends. Thank you for your kindness in asking about my son's blog. Thank you for caring. Thank you for making up this wonderful blogging community. I am so grateful to be one of you.

--Unwrapped with Emily at Chatting at the Sky

Friday, September 18

Heirloom Day

Marie at Emma Calls Me Mama is hosting another Heirloom Day today. This is such a good idea for a party!

Pictured below is one of my very favorite pieces: my mother's dough cabinet.

The cabinet stands in my breakfast area. It's great to use as a sideboard when we have a big meal; it's an especially handy place to hold desserts. And it's a great place to decorate for various holidays. Right now I just have an old pitcher with the last of my hydrangeas, but it's about time to pull out the pumpkins!

This piece is fairly new to my family. It's antique--late 1800's, we think--but it was acquired by my mother just over 20 years ago. She had a love for antique furniture, and this was one of her most prized possessions. I love this piece, although I wish it weren't mine yet. My mom died 10 years ago this fall, at which point this cabinet became mine. You can bet it will be an heirloom now; I guess we'll have to see which of my boys marries a girl who likes antiques.

See how the drawers are really more like bins? And the top of the base is extra-deep? These cabinets were used to house flour and other baking needs, and the top made an excellent work surface. Hence the name "dough cabinet." These date from about the same period as Hoosier cabinets, which usually had an enameled countertop and included a built-in sifter for flour.

Here's a peek inside the cabinet. It would be a wonderful place to house my everyday china, but the glass doors are a little too fragile to be opened and closed regularly. So I just use it to house some little pieces that belonged to my mother and my grandmother. My favorite pieces are the soup tureen that was part of my grandmother's wedding china and the blue teddy bear bank that was a baby gift given to my mother at the time of her birth.

Another of my favorite heirlooms is the trio of antique angel food cake pans hanging on the wall to the right of the cabinet. These belonged to my grandmother, who was an incredible woman. Her husband left her when their kids (my mother and her two brothers) were school-aged. My grandmother had never worked outside the home before, and she desperately needed a job, but what kind of work is there in a tiny town on the Kansas prairie? She became a cook in the elementary school across the street from her house. This turned out to be a calling for her: she went on to cook for three generations of kids before she finally retired. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of visiting my grandmother and eating in the cafeteria. The cafeteria food at my own school was terrible, but this food was different. The cafeteria was staffed by grandmothers, all of whom were wonderful cooks.

My grandmother's greatest culinary specialty was the angel food cake. She made them often, always from scratch, a dozen egg whites in each one. And she always beat them by hand, using a hand-held whisk. Can you imagine? She beat me arm-wrestling the week before I got married. I was 21 years old; she was 68. Over the years, she collected angel-food cake pans. After she died, all of her grandchildren got a few of the collection. I glued saw-tooth hangers on the back of mine so that I could hang them on the wall. I love the way they look there by the dough cabinet.

Marie, thanks for again encouraging us to take a fresh look at our heirlooms!

Wednesday, September 16

When life gives you DIY lemons. . .

. . . you make DIY lemonade, of course.

My latest project was an impromptu one. I was doing some shopping with birthday coupons from various merchants, when I spied this little beauty.

You've seen these. The in-store version of those vinyl letters that everyone's using. There are several online sources for these. I've been wanting to try them out, but have never gotten around to ordering any. And most of the ones I've seen in stores feature sayings that I wouldn't really want on any of my walls.

This one, though, was something I wanted: just the word "welcome." I'd been wanting to put one of these on the door from the garage into the house. I'd never expected to find this product in a store, but there it was--on clearance! Marked down to $5.49. And then I had my birthday coupon for an additional 15% off. $4.67 out of my pocket, and the vinyl lettering went home with me. I have to admit that I was feeling pretty smug.

You'd think that this product was designed specifically for a door, wouldn't you? Especially since there's a photo of a door on the front of the package. When I got home and took my vinyl letters out of the package, though, I discovered that the size of the image was about 39 inches wide. And the door is about 31 inches wide. My feeling of smugness vanished, let me tell you. Now my door had an inferiority complex, and I had a worthless package of absurdly large vinyl letters. Lemons.

Or so I thought, for a moment. Until I realized that I could do something else with those letters. I cut a piece of 1 x 10 lumber a little larger than the finished size of the vinyl letters. I used a hand-held plane to bevel the front edges of the board a bit. I spray-painted the lumber with some cheap red spray paint I had in the garage and then painted over the red with a new-to-me color, Rustoleum's Oregano.

Then I used some coarse sandpaper to distress the board, allowing a little of the red to peek through the green.

Once my board was ready, I had only to follow the directions enclosed with the vinyl letters to produce a fun "Welcome" sign.

I hung the sign on our screened-in porch, and I like the way it looks. I'd never even thought about putting anything on that sliver of wall above the screens, but I think the welcome sign looks as if it's always been there.

I should give credit where credit is due: Manuela at The Pleasures of Homemaking made a sign for her beautiful porch earlier this year, and her idea inspired me.

What do you think of my DIY "lemonade"? What would have done with the lemons?

Check out the wonderful projects at Kimba's today!

Monday, September 14

A better perspective

A couple of days ago, my 12-year-old son was looking at my computer and said, "Mom! You've got 100 followers! You should do something to celebrate."

"Oh, having 100 followers is not that many," I answered. I was thinking, of course, of some of my favorite bloggers, who have followers numbered in the thousands.

"Yes it is a lot," he persisted. "I only have one."

What was I thinking? This sweet boy of mine has started his own blog. His blog is devoted entirely to Lego products. He's writing his heart out, taking lots of photos, spending every dime he can earn on new Legos and then reviewing him for the reading public. Except that he has no readers. And yet he continues, because he's passionate about Legos, and he wants to share that passion with anyone who would care to read what he writes.

He's right. 100 followers is a lot. Who am I to think it's not a lot, just because a number of bloggers have many more? It's still amazing to think that there are 100 people who have read my blog and have liked it enough to sign up as followers. It's very humbling, really.

Just as it's humbling to hear the truth, once again, out of the mouths of babes.

Unwrapped this Tuesday with Emily at Chatting at the Sky

Wednesday, September 9

What to do with your vacation postcards

The little project I'd like to show you this week is one I completed some time ago. I thought I'd show you now because you might have some postcards you collected over the summer. This is a fun way to use those postcards and preserve your vacation memories.

Last year we got to go on a special trip. At the time, my husband was working for a Swiss bank. He had to go to Switzerland for business, and we got to tag along. Now, if you live in a hot, sticky climate like the one we have in North Carolina, you'll jump at the chance to go to Switzerland in August. Believe me.

Most of the items we would have liked to purchase as souvenirs were very expensive, so we didn't buy very much. But we did purchase a wonderful vintage travel poster (well, a reproduction) from the town we visited and a stack of pretty postcards.

The poster I framed in a traditional Swiss style. I love it.

And the postcards? I considered framing those, as well, but I wasn't satisfied with that idea. Then I remembered this old tray that I had:

I spray-painted the tray black (of course!), and then decoupaged the postcards onto the tray using a disposable foam brush and following the instructions on the bottle of Mod Podge. And look at the result:

Now we have a very useful serving tray that serves as a fun reminder of our trip every time we use it.
Check out all the fun projects at Kimba's!

Tuesday, September 8

A different kind of before and after

This past week has been one of a great deal of reflection for me. Part of that was natural: I had a birthday, on which I turned 46 years old. I am now officially closer to 50 than to 40. Believe me, that'll get you to thinking.

Part of my reflectiveness, though, came from a preoccupation with decorating my house. As August gave way to September, I was consumed with the desire to change the look of our home--to go from the breezy, cool look of summer to the warm, cozy look of autumn. In addition, Sarah at Thrifty Decor Chick hosted a "Before and After" party, inviting her readers to share photos of some of their transformation projects. And today, Jen at Sanctuary Arts at Home is having a "You should have seen it before" party. Apparently a lot of us like to see befores and afters.

Somehow, the convergence of these events got me to thinking about the "before and after" pictures of my life. It's a subject that intrigues me on several levels. On a purely physical level, I'm fascinated by before-and-after pictures because I have some pretty dramatic ones myself. You see, I was the ugly duckling in my family. I was one of three girls. My two sisters were both beautiful girls; they both looked like my mother. And I? Well, I looked a little like my father, but mostly I just looked like myself. And that was not a very pretty picture. For instance, here's a photo of me when I was a junior in high school. This is not one of the horrible pictures. I was actually pretty proud of this picture. It appeared in the local paper. Me and a couple of trophies I'd won at a speech tournament.

Or here's another: my junior class picture.

"Sweet 16 and never been kissed"? Are you kidding? Sweet 16 and never been considered by a boy. My high school years were successful in some ways, but certainly not in the boy department. I never had a single date in high school. Not one. Senior Prom? Not for me.

But it turned out that I was just an ugly duckling. I wouldn't say that I grew up to be a beautiful swan, but I did grow up. And my looks changed. I wasn't expecting it to happen; it just happened. I'll admit that attending my 20th high school reunion was a sweet time for me. My classmates even voted to give me the "20 Years Have Been Kind to You" award.

And while I have no keepsake pictures from the Prom, now I have teenage boys of my own, and I can have my picture taken with them all I want. Like this one:

My heart aches now when I see a high school girl who's not one of the pretty, popular girls. I want to pull her to me, dry her tears, show her my pictures, and tell her that it's not over.

And I think that sometimes this is how God feels about us. When He sees one of us suffering with the state we're in, I think He wants to pull us to Him, dry our tears, show us His pictures, and tell us that it's not over. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11). I hear God saying, "Don't worry: the way things look today is not the way they'll always look." And I know it's true.

Unwrapped with Emily at Chatting at the Sky

Sunday, September 6

Before and after

Sarah at Thrifty Decor Chick is having a "Before and After" party. And Jen at Sanctuary Arts at Home is having a "You should have seen it before!" party. Aren't these great ideas for a party? Judging from what I read around blogland, we all love a before-and-after story. We can't get enough of trash-to-treasure. We want to see what that old piece of ___________ (fill in the blank) looked like before--when it was in Mom's attic, or on Grandpa's back porch, or at the thrift store, or in the pile of garbage. And then we want to see how it looks now, after it's been rescued and revitalized.

These parties got me to thinking. I think that the reason we love these before-and-after projects is because that's the way God made us. God created humans in His image, and His specialty is rescue and revitalization. Think about the word "revitalize." The "re-" prefix means again or anew; the "vita" root means life; the "-ize" suffix makes the word an action verb. So, literally, to revitalize is to give life again. Just exactly what God gives us. No wonder we like it!

Both of these parties require that we show before and after photos. I've chosen to show you a couple of ottomans that I worked on this summer. One was this thrift store find:

And with a little time, some leftover fabric, and my staple gun, now I have this:

If you'd like to read more about how I brought about this revitalization, click here.

The other ottoman is one that I made for my front porch. Here's a before photo of it:

Yes, it started life as an Omaha Steaks Cooler.

And here's the after:

If you like, you can read more about this project here.

Check out Sarah's party and Jen's party to see lots of fun before-and-after projects!

Wednesday, September 2

Custom shower curtain: you can make one!

One of my favorite things about this summer has been DIY Day every Thursday at A Soft Place to Land. It's been so much fun to have a show and tell party to attend!

I'm going to be honest with you, though. . . sometimes I love seeing DIY projects--I get all inspired and full of good ideas and confidence. . . and sometimes I look at the awesome DIY projects and feel silly and incompetent. Kind of like Napoleon Dynamite hanging on to his numchuck skills.

But that's my own insecurity talking. The spirit of DIY Day is sharing and encouraging. Not just look-what-I-did, but look-what-you-can-do! That's one of my favorite things about bloggers: they'll show you what they did, and they'll tell you how they did it, and they'll rejoice with you when you do something.

So, for my show-and-tell today, I'm going to show you something that I sewed. But first I want to tell you that I'm not a seamstress. When people say, "Do you sew?" I usually reply, "What do you mean by 'sew'?"

You see, sewing is something that is sometimes done a certain way, according to well-defined techniques. There's a right way to set in a sleeve if you're sewing a shirt. There's a correct way to attach a waistband if you're sewing a skirt. There's an appropriate way to sew in a zipper if you're sewing a dress.

So I don't sew shirts or skirts or dresses or anything else that requires this kind of technique. Why? Because I don't know how to do it, and right now I don't have the time or inclination to learn how to do it. But I DO sew things for my house--pillows and bedspreads and bedskirts and window treatments and shower curtains.

And here's how I do it. I have four secrets.
  1. I do not use patterns. Why? Because I can't read a pattern guide to save my life. I just create things that can be stitched up with straight lines.
  2. I use three very important tools: a seam gauge, an iron, and good pins. Lots and lots of pins.
  3. I have cheat lines on my sewing machine. I cannot for the life of me sew a straight line, so I put painter's tape on my sewing machine. When I need to sew a straight line, I just guide the fabric along the tape. Works like a charm.
  4. Whenever I come to something I can't do, I improvise.
And here's something I made using these techniques.

Isn't it pretty? I needed a shower curtain for my guest bath. I wanted something vibrant and colorful but refined and classy. You know, like me. So I was thrilled to find this fabric.

I love this fabric. It was $7.99/yard at my favorite discount fabric store. My tub enclosure is 58 inches wide. The fabric was 54 inches wide, so I sewed two panels together to make a nice full curtain. I made the curtain 78 inches long, which seemed like a good length to me. No rule here: some people like their shower curtains to hang from a higher rod than I used, and some people like them to hug the floor on the bottom. You can do whatever you like.

So how did I do it? First, I carefully cut two identical pieces of fabric for the main body of the curtain. (You know the old saying: measure twice, cut once.) Then I pinned and pinned and pinned those two panels together to make the curtain. (Believe me, sewing the seam is a breeze when you've pinned things together well.) I hemmed the sides and bottom by folding the fabric over one inch (using a seam gauge to measure one inch all the way), ironing the fold into place, pinning the hem in place, and sewing a nice straight hem by following along my handy-dandy tape lines.

Second, I made a second panel for the top of of the curtain--a little valance that just lies right on top of the main body of the curtain. Why? I don't know; I just thought it would look nice. I made this one just like the big curtain except in length. It's about 1/5 the length of the overall curtain. I stitched both panels together, one on top of the other, to make the finished product.

When I had the finished product, I thought it needed a little oomph. So I bought a couple of yards of trim to attach to the valance. I tried to sew it on, but I just couldn't do it. No trim-sewing skills. But I do have glue-gunning skills, so I glued it on.

There are lots of ways that you can make a shower curtain hang from a rod. Usually a curtain has buttonholes or grommets into which shower curtain rings can fit. Sometimes a curtain has loops made of fabric or ribbon. Now, I don't know how to make buttonholes. I don't have a grommet tool. And for this project I didn't want to attach loops. But I did have an extra tension rod. So I just folded over the fabric and sewed a rod pocket at the top of the curtain. I hung the plastic shower curtain liner from rings on one rod and the decorative curtain from a separate rod. Like this:

I love the finished product. I love that I can say that I did it myself. And now I love that I can tell you that you can do it, too. If you have a sewing machine or have access to a sewing machine, you can make something like this. And if you don't have a sewing machine, you could sew these straight lines by hand or use Stitch-Witchery or glue to make those straight seams.

You can do it! And I want to see what you do!