Friday, January 4, 2019

A Christmas Story

The story below may or may not be based on facts. The names have been changed to protect the innocent (but not changed much!). It's a bit lengthy, so grab a cup of coffee and settle in for a story about the Rudd family's 2018 Christmas.


It was going to be one of those magical, wondrous Christmases for the Rudds. Stan and Brenda. Brenda was a master-planner. To-do lists, calendars, timelines, meal plans and recipes were her constant companions. So it wasn’t unusual that she checked in with her daughter-in-law, Elsie, even before Thanksgiving, to find out what the Christmas plans were for that branch of the family - the branch that held Stan and Brenda’s only two grandchildren.

As it turned out, Chase and Elsie, who had a new RV, were planning to use the kids’ Christmas vacation as their “maiden voyage,” traveling around the state, from state park to state park. They would be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in west Texas with Elsie’s family and then heading back west to Stan and Brenda’’s house, in Central Texas, right after Christmas.

Brenda was glad to have that piece of information. On her calendar she marked out both December 26 and December 27 as possible days that the kids and grands would arrive. Their family Christmas would be a couple days late, but they would celebrate it in style, none the less.

A few days later, Brenda was talking with her good friend, May, about how she and Stan would be alone on Christmas Day. May laughed and said that whenever she and her husband, Randy, were alone at Christmas, they watched the well-loved movie, A Christmas Story, and then, just like Ralphie and his movie family, went out to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner.

And, like Brenda and Stan, May and Randy were going to be alone for Christmas, too. So the two women hatched a great plan. The two couples would spend Christmas Day together, starting in the morning with Brenda’s homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast, spending the afternoon playing games and watching A Christmas Story, and culminating in dinner out at a Chinese restaurant. 

Fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra. 

Brenda was feeling so on top of it! Her calendar was filling out nicely with the addition of these events scheduled for Christmas Day. She didn’t worry about which Chinese restaurant they’d go to, because she was sure that May and Randy had a favorite, probably in nearby Austin, since it had been their tradition for several years. But she did begin hunting for a new cinnamon roll recipe, and she scheduled a day on the calendar just to do a test bake of the top contender.

Finally December arrived, and Brenda began thinking about decorating the house for the grandkids’ visit. Maybe she would just put up the small four-foot tree this year, she mused. But Stan, who was second only to Santa Claus for preserving holiday traditions, insisted that she decorate the big tree. So up into the attic he climbed, passing down the bulky tree and the dust-coated bins containing all of the decorations to Brenda, who stood at the foot of the ladder. Stan put the tree together but left the job of fluffing out the branches and decorating to Brenda. Her to-do list allowed three days to turn their living room into a sparkly, glittery Christmas wonderland, and she took all three of them. Even though she had not wanted to put up the big tree, she had to admit that it was beautiful and inspired her with holiday cheer.

On December 6, with the tree up and all flat surfaces adorned with Christmas glee, Brenda’s to-do list told her it was time to confirm the kids’ arrival time. Thank goodness for text messaging, she thought, and then dashed off her question to Elsie: “So … do you know what day/night we should expect you to get here after leaving Pecos? Just want to be sure that we’re here for your arrival. I’m happy to say I’ve got all my shopping done and most of the gifts wrapped. Finally got the tree up and decorated, too!”

No reply that morning. No reply that afternoon. That was odd, thought Brenda.

That evening her phone rang, and the screen lit up with Chase’s name. “Hi Mom,” said Chase. “Um. I think there’s been a little bit of confusion or miscommunication about Christmas.” Brenda’s heart sank. “We aren’t coming to your house this year.”

“What?!! But you’re on my calendar! And I put up the big tree!” (That was what she thought, but she bit her tongue and carefully formed her response.) “Oh?” was all she could say. Then Chase explained that after spending Christmas with Elsie’s family, they would be heading to Dinosaur State Park for two or three days, and then on to a state park in Huntsville before going back home to Houston. Neither of those parks were close enough to Stan and Brenda’s house to spend a day with them. “I’m not sure what was said that made you think we were coming, but I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.” “Oh well,” said Brenda, “Maybe we can drive up to Dinosaur State Park one of the days you’re there and have a little family Christmas time then. Just let me know exactly which days you’ll be there.”

How had she gotten so confused, Brenda wondered. She scoured her emails and text messages to see what had been said to give her this mistaken idea. Then she found it - Elsie’s text message to her way back before Thanksgiving, the one that said they’d be heading to her house on December 26, the one that prompted her to put their visit on her calendar. Still sad about the news, but thankful that she wasn’t losing her mind, she copied and pasted that text message and sent it to Chase, as proof of her sanity.

Immediately she wished she hadn’t done that! What was she thinking? She had just thrown her daughter-in-law under the bus! That night she couldn’t sleep, worrying about her insensitivity and how it might have affected Elsie.

In the morning Brenda called her and apologized profusely and sincerely. Elsie, the sweetest daughter-in-law ever, said not to worry. “Originally,” she explained, “we were planning to come see you on the 26th, but there were no vacancies in the campgrounds near your house, so we had to change our plans. I guess I figured Chase would let you know, but he didn’t even realize I’d told you about those original plans."

So, that was all sorted out. Brenda erased the kids’ visit from her calendar and adjusted the timeline and to-do list. The to-do list needed a major overhaul - scratch the big grocery shopping, since there would be no big Christmas dinner. No need to do a lot of baking since there wouldn’t be any grandkids snacking around the clock. She was hesitant to add a trip to Dinosaur State Park to the calendar, since the dates given to her were a little vague, so she blocked out three different days … just in case.

Now the plans for Christmas Day, the Chinese restaurant plans with May and Randy, became even more important to Brenda. She began hunting for a new cinnamon roll recipe, since she had promised to provide them for their Christmas morning breakfast. After a few days scouring the internet, she found one that looked to be the ultimately decadent cinnamon bun. As prescribed by her timeline, she did a half-recipe test bake a week before Christmas. She and Stan agreed they were absolutely divine! On her timeline she noted that she would make the dough, let it rise, and shape the rolls on Christmas Eve. She would let them rise again, overnight in the refrigerator, then bake them off on Christmas morning to take to May and Randy’s. She began going through her game closet on a quest to find a couple fun games to take with them. She also pulled out their DVD collection and found A Christmas Story and put it where she wouldn’t forget it on Christmas morning. She still gave little or no thought to the Chinese restaurant plans, as she knew that May and Andy had that under control, and were probably eager to introduce some cute little Asian restaurant to Stan and her.

Just to complicate things, Stan came down with a cold a few days before Christmas. Brenda force-fed him Airborne, decongestants and vitamins, in her effort to get him well before the big day.

Finally it was Christmas Eve. Stan was feeling better, so that was good! Then came the message from May: "I just got a text from a friend, reminding me that we are 'still invited' over for Christmas lunch with them tomorrow. But I don't remember being invited in the first place! This isn't how I planned for our Christmas day to go, but Randy thinks we should go to their house for lunch on Christmas Day. We could still come over to your house in the afternoon and watch the movie or play games and then go to dinner. Or you're certainly welcome to come over here, but all the Chinese restaurants are more over your way. So sorry to have to be making a last minute change like this, but we can still have fun! Oh, and I'm not sure if I told you, but we have to be at the airport in Austin by 9:30 that night to pick up our daughter." 

Brenda was thrown for a loop in more ways than one. First off, she had to eliminate the cinnamon roll project, since they wouldn’t be together for breakfast. She was grateful that she hadn’t already started the dough. And secondly, the party was going to be at her house, not at May’s. And thirdly, it didn’t sound like May had the perfect Chinese restaurant in mind at all. Did that mean that it was up to her to find one that was open? There were only a handful of Chinese places in her small town, and she began making phone calls and doing internet searches. The only one she found that would be open on Christmas Day was a place in the neighboring community of Belton, called “Jake’s Chinese Buffet.” “Jake’s” and “Chinese” didn’t really seem to go together, thought Brenda. She’d feel better if it had been “Lee’s” or “Kim’s.” But “Jake’s?”

Christmas morning dawned. Stan and Brenda ate some breakfast - no homemade cinnamon rolls - and exchanged their Christmas gifts. Opening their presents didn’t make a dent in the pile of shiny packages still under the tree, for Chase, Elsie and the kids. But hopefully they would see them and deliver the packages on the 27th, at the campground. 

Christmas day passed very slowly, waiting for May and Randy. It was about 3:30 when they finally arrived. The four of them had fun visiting and playing a game or two. But there wasn’t time to watch A Christmas Story. Brenda made a mental note: you have to let go of your timelines and calendars. It’s OK if things don’t follow the script!

Before they knew it, it was dinner time. May said she thought Yank Sing, a large Chinese buffet, was supposed to be open. And Applebee's and Chili's advertised that they were open on Christmas, as well. They weren't Chinese places, of course, but any port in a storm, right?! Randy chauffeured them, first, to iHop, which had a line of people standing outside and shivering in the rain. That didn't seem like a great idea. Chili's was just next door. But it was closed, despite its on-line claim: "NOW OPEN." On to Applebee's - another line of rain-drenched people. Well, Yank Sing wouldn't be bad, they agreed, even though they had all pictured a sit-down restaurant rather than a buffet. But even Yank Sing turned out to be closed! That left Jake's Chinese Buffet, in Belton. Brenda and Stan had never eaten there. May said they had, a long time ago, and that she remembered it as sort of a dive. But what choice did they have?

Brenda’s hopes soared, however, when they pulled into the parking lot, saw lots of cars, a lighted sign that read, “OPEN,” and a banner proclaiming Jake’s the “Best Oriental, Best Buffet, Best Business Lunch!” Maybe this dinner, the culmination of their unusual Christmas Day, was going to be a winner, after all!

Stepping into the vestibule, Brenda noticed that an attempt had been made at decorating for Christmas. A tall, droopy, potted plant that she thought might be a dracaena, had a string of Christmas lights wound around it, turning it into Jake's version of a Christmas tree. Sad looking tinsel garlands hung from the glass panels dividing one row of empty booths from another.

A surly waitress seated them at a table and asked for their drink orders. Randy and Brenda ordered iced tea, May ordered oolong tea and Stan asked for hot green tea. The iced tea came to the table quite promptly, but the waitress told May and Stan that she had to "make the teas," and that it might be a while. The four of them went to the buffet to fill their plates while they waited for the hot teas.

The buffet looked a little sad, a little tired, a little sorry and was made up, predominantly, of various chicken offerings: General Tso’s chicken, sweet and sour chicken, orange chicken, chicken and broccoli and chicken wings. Brenda also took a piece of Mongolian beef. By the time they came back to their table, paper napkins and forks had been placed in the center of the table. Still neither of the hot teas had arrived.

Stan was the first to comment on the food. “All of these chicken dishes taste the same.” “Heavy on Chinese Five Spice,” commented Brenda, who was trying to figure out how to eat the Mongolian beef without a knife. She tried stabbing it with her fork and biting off a piece, but it was so tough that she didn’t succeed. But she didn't actually mind, because the small taste she took told her that even the beef tasted the same as all of the chicken dishes.
All four were about to give up on their plates of food when, at last, the two little metal tea pots arrived, each one with an infuser holding a tea bag. “That explains why it took so long for her to ‘make the tea,’” commented May with a wry grin.
“Well,” said Brenda, “This will be a Christmas to remember, and I, for one, have had fun today.” Everyone agreed. “I just figured that you two had a favorite Chinese place in Georgetown or Austin, based on your long-held Christmas tradition.
“Oh, no!” answered May. "That was our tradition before we moved here." Brenda noticed a puzzled look in Randy’s eyes. “What tradition?” he asked. May looked at him with chagrin. “Don’t you remember all the times we ate at Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day back in Katy? We did it because Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas! You really don’t remember?” “No,” replied Randy.
Back home, there were a few minutes to regroup and rehash their Christmas day together before Randy and May had to head to the airport in Austin. 
Two days later, Stan and Brenda made the two-hour drive, north, to Dinosaur State Park. The family enjoyed being together and exchanging gifts. Brenda went with her grandson and Elsie on a walk to the river. It was cold, so they didn’t stay outside long, but it was great to breathe some fresh air and experience a little natural wonder. 

Her granddaughter stayed back at the RV with the men, since she was running a fever and not feeling well.

Stan and Brenda spent the night at a local hotel and came back the next morning for a while. They were glad to see that their granddaughter was feeling much better. Around noon they said their final good-byes and drove back home, where a most beautiful sunset greeted them.

The next morning at breakfast, Stan sipped his coffee and pronounced this Christmas to be the most fun one he could remember. Brenda had to think on that for a while. Nothing had gone according to plan. The effort put into all of her to-do lists, calendars and timelines had been futile. And yet, she had to agree with Stan that this unbridled Christmas had taken them for a wild ride into unforeseen, new and delightful places.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

More Pre-Christmas Activities

December is always the busiest month of the year - and this year has not been an exception.

We kicked off the Christmas season with the Temple Symphony Holiday Concert. Our friends, George and Twila accompanied us. This year the first half of the program featured not only the orchestra, but also the Temple College Chorale, the San Gabriel Chorus and four soloists in a beautiful production of The Messiah. The second half was traditional Christmas music, including, at the end, an audience sing-along. Each year, as a fund-raiser, people can "vote" with their money for who, among a few well-known civic candidates, will get to direct the symphony in one number. This year the winner got lots of laughs, as he stepped on stage, dressed as the Grinch, and directed the musicians in Sleigh Ride.

Next came the City of Temple's 72nd Annual Christmas Parade, about which I've already blogged.

The next evening our book club members got together at Jean's house for a ham dinner with lots of side dishes and desserts. Jean is a lady in her 90s, and she loves to host meals at her house!!!

Our D.A.R. Holiday Tea was on Saturday, December 8, and our church Christmas party/luncheon was on Sunday, the 9th.

On Monday, December 10, our church small group went to visit our group's two "shut-in" members, taking some small gifts and singing Christmas carols with and for them. These two sweet ladies were so grateful for what was actually a great joy to all of us.

The next day, on Tuesday, I treated Rachel, my Literacy Council student, from China, whom I tutor in English once a week, to a Christmas lunch at the restaurant of her choice. She chose Mee Mee's, a Thai food restaurant. Rachel is such a sweet young lady to work with, and our lunch was both delicious and fun.

Our next holiday event was the Salado Community Choir's Christmas Concert. We know many of the people in this choir, and always try to attend. This year's was the best one yet! Among the singers are both Andy and Kay.

On Friday, the 14th, we went to a party at the home of George and Twila (who went to the Symphony with us earlier in the month). In attendance were some of our church friends and some of George and Twila's neighbors. We especially enjoyed having a number of adorable toddlers among us. Twila had two rooms set up with food - the kitchen with savory snacks and the dining room with desserts.

Next we loaded up the car for an overnight visit to see the kids - Chris, Kelsey, Clara and Robert. Our reason for the visit was to attend Clara's school Winter Concert. I really enjoyed seeing Clara's preparation for the concert. She let her mom do her hair and make-up, and got to wear a long, black dress, as prescribed by the school. Clara was glowing and beautiful when we headed to the high school, where the concert was to be performed.

Clara is now in the Philharmonic Orchestra II, and she is the concertmaster/first violin. Grandpa and I were as proud as two peacocks! 

 We drove home on Tuesday, in time for me to attend the Bell County Genealogical Society's Christmas get-together.

And tonight is Ladies' Night Out, when about 15 of us will meet at Long Horn Steak House for dinner and fellowship.

In between all of these festive events, I've been busy making Christmas cards to send out. I made them using my Cricut Maker, which is the fancy paper-cutting machine that Dan gave me for Christmas LAST year. I made five different varieties - 60 cards in all. Shown below aresamples of the five types of cards I made. Some of you may discover one of them in your mailbox soon!

And yesterday I finally started my Christmas baking! It's hard to let a Christmas sneak by without making our family's traditional French Cookies. Until recently I was puzzled about why these were known as "French Cookies," when they came from the Scottish side of my family - namely from my Great Aunt Agnes (who was a McIlwrath by birth). But last year I found the answer. Aunt Agnes' first husband, Fred Hubert, came to America from France when he was a small boy. The cookie recipe and the cookie irons belonged to his family before Aunt Agnes inherited them.

Finally all of the holiday parties are history, and we can relax and enjoy our own sparkling tree until the actual Christmas Day and Two-Days-After-Christmas festivities, yet to come. (There will be posts about them, afterward.) So until then, I wish you peac, love and stockings stuffed full of joy this year.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Signs of Christmas

We've lived in Temple for nearly seven years, now, and until last Monday night we hadn't gone to the Christmas parade. There is a pretty good excuse for having missed them ... my book club meets on the same Monday night as the parade, every year. And to avoid the parade traffic and street closures, we typically meet at a restaurant or a home for dinner for our December meeting. But this year the book club moved its meeting to Tuesday so all who wanted could attend the parade. Dan and I braved the winter weather and took in the Temple Christmas Parade. It was a great way to kick off the season.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


On Monday of Thanksgiving week we began our trek to Albuquerque, to share our Thanksgiving dinner with Tim in his new house.

That first day, we stopped in Abilene for lunch at Panda Express and then continued west to Lubbock where we spent the night. Sadly both of us were as sick as could be that evening - our guess was it was food poisoning, since we'd both eaten the same thing for lunch, and the sickness hit us within 45 minutes of each other. I was sure we would have to spend a second night in Lubbock, and might even have to cancel our plans and go back home. But, as is typical of food poisoning, once we made it through the night we were both feeling just fine the next morning.

About an hour west of Lubbock is Muleshoe, the town where Dan grew up and went to high school. We have often talked about stopping to see one of his old friends, Delton, whom I had also gotten to know during our college years. This time we decided to make it happen. We stopped at the insurance company that he owns and found him at his desk. We spent a really enjoyable hour catching up on things and reminiscing about old times.

We arrived in Albuquerque around 4:00 in the afternoon on Tuesday. We had made plans to meet Tim and a couple of friends, Mike and Paula, for dinner at Cheddar's. It was a great way to begin our Albuquerque visit.

I was so glad to see Tim's new home - the first house he's ever owned. He's so happy to leave apartment-living behind. His house is a townhome, with over 1500 sq. ft., on two floors. All three bedrooms and two of the baths are upstairs. The living room, kitchen, dining area and a half-bath are on the first floor. He has a great view of the mountains from his dining area and his back patio.

I enjoyed a little walk around the neighborhood one morning. I was really impressed with the walking trail that is a block or so away from his house and the native landscaping in all the yards.

Wednesday evening, as the sun was setting, an almost-full moon rose. I took this from Tim's back patio.

Then, on Thanksgiving night the November full moon rose behind some clouds. At first I was disappointed about the clouds, but in the end I was happy with the photographic effect of the clouds filtering the moonlight.

Our Thanksgiving dinner was good. The menu was pretty traditional: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, pasta salad, cranberry sauce and rolls. Of course there was pumpkin pie for dessert. I have to admit there were some challenges preparing such a large meal in Tim's kitchen, but with a little creativity, it came together and was delicious.

Friday was an eventful day. It started with breakfast at Weck's. Weck's has several locations around Albuquerque, and was our very favorite place to have breakfast when we lived there. It didn't disappoint this time, either. Dan ordered "papas" - a mountain of hash browns with a choice of ham, bacon, sausage, carnitas, carne adovada, pollo, or veggies, served with eggs on top and a choice of red or green chili, and warm tortillas on the side! Weck's is famous for its papas.

Since Tim only has a couch and a TV in his living room, we asked him if he'd like to have a nice easy-chair, as well, as a combination house-warming/Christmas gift from us. He was happy about that, so we decided to go shopping. We weren't familiar with the Southwest part of Albuquerque, where he lives, so searched on line to find some furniture stores. The first two we went to were no longer at their locations. For a third try, we headed to American Home Furniture, since we knew where it was located. We got onto Interstate 40, around 4:00 p.m., and had almost arrived at our exit when we got a FLAT TIRE! We called for Mercedes roadside assistance, and I was surprised that the technician who came actually changed the tire there on the side of that busy 5-lane road!

Of course, the spare wasn't a full-sized tire, so Dan dropped Tim and me at the furniture store and took the car to Discount Tires to have the flat checked out. We were so grateful that the puncture (made by a screw) was repairable, so we didn't have to buy a new tire.

Tim found a chair that he liked, and we made the purchase. They scheduled delivery for Christmas Eve, but said if it arrives earlier, they will give him a call and deliver it earlier.

I had made plans with my former boss and good friend, Betsy, to meet her for lunch on Saturday. Dan drove me down to Los Lunas, where she lives, and she and I ate at a wonderful little Mexican restaurant called Teofilo's. There's nothing better than catching up on life stories with good friends, especially over good food! 

When Dan came back to pick me up, Betsy suggested we both come over to her house so we could visit more. Her husband, Ty, was off work, so we got to visit with him for a while, too. Dan and Ty share a passion for motor sports, so that was the main topic of conversation.

Ty and Betsy
The week had flown by quickly. Sunday morning, as Dan and I were getting ready to go to church, and to leave for home afterward, Tim was fighting off some sort of stomach "bug." He sent us off without hugs, fearing that he might be contagious. We learned, later, that by evening he was feeling better and did make it to work the next morning.

We enjoyed visiting the Northeast congregation, where we were members when we lived there. It was great seeing so many people we know and love, after seven years apart.

Then we started home, once again heading for Lubbock for our overnight hotel stay. Driving home, on Sunday and Monday, we drove past lots of typical West Texas scenery.

Cotton fields - most were already harvested, but some weren't.

 Oil pumps.

 Fall leaves. There were lots of them as we drove east from Abilene.

Wind turbine farms - mostly around Snyder, TX.

We arrived home before dinnertime on Monday. It was so good to get home! But we are thankful and happy that we got to spend time with Tim this Thanksgiving week.