Appalachian Thursday – Christmas Countdown

Christmas 1974Guess what? It’s 12 days ’til Christmas! Yup, Christmas is less than two weeks away. Are you ready? Are you counting down with joy and anticipation? Or is there a little how-will-I-get-everything-done dread mixed in there?

When I was little, we had a count-down to Christmas wall hanging my mom made. It was in the shape of a Christmas tree and had 24 little beads from which we would suspend 24 little, felt ornaments. There was an angel that went at the top as well as a Santa, little wrapped packages, a candy cane with sequins–it was wonderful. And I always got to hang the first ornament since my birthday was December 1.

I LOVED counting down to Christmas when I was a child growing up on the farm in WV. Each year I looked forward to all the things we got to do as we counted down. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  • Singing carols in the car. Snapping our fingers for reindeer hoofs up on the housetop. Dad substituting our names as he sang, “First comes the stocking of little Sally (his nickname for me).” Rudolph and Frosty and oh, what fun!
  • Decorating sugar cookies. I now know this makes my mom a saint. Arming three kids with frosting and sprinkles is a bold move.
  • Decorating the Christmas tree we cut on a neighbor’s farm. Dad did the lights and hung his one ornament remaining from childhood–a tattered cardboard Santa. We Santagot to do the rest. And no clumping icicles, if you please.
  • Hanging our stockings and posing for a picture looking up the chimney. As if we thought Santa would be up there before we went to bed.
  • And if we were lucky, sledding and playing in the snow!

My husband and I have our own traditions to mark the days until Christmas–a gathering with friends, Christmas Eve services, fudge (the marshmallow fluff kind), and stealth decorating (he’s not as big a fan of glitter and greens as I am).

But all too often our grown-up traditions get bogged down in hurry and self-imposed pressure to make this Christmas the best ever. This December I’m encouraging you to remember what it was like to be a child counting down the days–not wondering how you would fit it all in and get it all done–but wondering how much longer must I wait?

Because we are children, after all. God’s children. And what we’re waiting for is a chance to celebrate the best present ever.

Merry Christmas.

The Pleasure of Boring Days

snow dogWell, we didn’t quite get the foot and a half of snow predicted, but I’d rather the weather forecasters overestimate than under. Still, it began snowing Saturday and there was a lovely layer of snow when we woke Sunday morning. The result was a delightfully quiet day at home.

In light of the forecasts of impending doom, I did my usual weekend shopping on Thursday. And church was cancelled on Sunday. Which meant . . . most of my typical weekend tasks were off. Which meant . . . the chance to experience a bit of boredom.

Of course, being bored REALLY means doing the stuff I’d like to do every day. I read (Where the Crawdads Sing), I tromped around in the snow with my husband and dog, I began a jigsaw puzzle, I worked a crossword, I plotted a new story, I cooked and ate, I put up Christmas decorations . . . in other words, I just did what I felt like.

Being bored is LOVELY.

Of course, it’s lovely because it doesn’t happen very often (and because we didn’t lose power). I suppose it might get old after a week. Or two. But, for now, I’m grateful for a bit of boredom.

Appalachian Thursday – Mountain Saints

devotionalAppalachia is about people as much as it is about place.

We have a lovely Christmas tradition at my church. Our pastor gathers scripture for each day of Advent (December 2-24 this year) and assigns them to volunteers who then write a short entry for a devotional that’s handed out to the congregation.

I think this is our third year and I LOVE reading the thoughts and ponderings of my church family each morning. Of course, I also LOVE sharing my own thoughts. This year I was given two scriptures–the first being Psalm 90, a Psalm of Moses. Not your typical Christmas reading. I’d just been to visit one of the saints of the church (in her 90s) when I sat down to write my entry for December 4. I was struck by how much she and Moses had in common. And so I wrote this about one of the amazing people in MY Appalachia:

EVERLASTING
Psalm 90

Establish the work of our hands . . .

Her mother made the dress, stitching love and hope into every seam. A 1950s confection of white lace over taffeta, sleeveless with opera length gloves, tea length.

Let your work be shown to your servants and your glorious power to their children . . .

There was one child, a girl, a pearl without price. Now the child watches over the mother, offers what comfort this world holds.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us . . .

Her brother survived the war. After peace was declared, his plane crashed in the ocean. Afflicted with just twenty-one years.

The years of life are but toil and trouble . . .

Oh, but the joy of a good man. A good marriage. Sixty-seven years. She can close her eyes and see him on the day she wore white lace over taffeta.

You sweep the years away like a dream, like grass renewed in the morning . . .

She knows the joy of thrusting her hands into soil, of making flowers grow, of inviting life to spring from the earth. The pot on the windowsill reminds her.

A thousand years in God’s sight are nothing more than yesterday . . .

Without saying the words, she loves these mountains that are as old as the world. Older than she is or ever will be. Made from the same dust.

The Lord is her dwelling place.
From everlasting to everlasting . . . God.

Car Commercials and Birthdays

birthday giftsIt’s that time of year. The time when car commercials begin subtly hinting that this year a Jaguar or new SUV would be the perfect gift.

And while I wouldn’t say no to a Jaguar (even if it DID have 981 miles on it), that really isn’t my idea of a good gift. Rather, this past weekend was my idea of good gifts.

Yup, I turned 39 + shipping on Saturday. (I’m 47, I just get a kick out of that phrase!) And the people who love me best knew EXACTLY what kind of gifts I’d like.

There was the delightfully thoughtful gift from my husband–a new office chair for all my writing (plus dinner out!). We’ll actually shop for the chair this week since he’s also thoughtful enough to know I’ll have a strong opinion about it.

There was the collection of items from Mom & Jean. They commissioned a bookmark painted with watercolor thistles (my dog’s name) and queen Anne’s lace (my bridal bouquet). There was also a Luckenbooth shipped all the way from Scotland with a “stone” made from the compressed stems of Scottish heather. Sigh. If you don’t get that one, read The Christmas Heirloom. Now I have my own brooch passed from mother to daughter.

Then there was all the singing. The ladies at church sang to me (and Meg, who shares my birthday) as we decorated for Advent. Dad sang his own made up version of a birthday song for me. Mom sang. And best of all, my almost eight-year-old niece belted out Happy Birthday twice. And she remembered that 12/1 is my birthday. Remembering birthdays is her super power.

Finally, we extended my birthday into Sunday to celebrate with my adopted family (also Thistle’s godparents–dogparents?). Since mom’s far away and not up to baking anymore, I called her for the recipe for MY chocolate cake and made it myself. My friends asked me what I wanted for supper (adobo chicken and these AMAZING crispy potatoes) then we topped it off with Mom’s cake.

So am I just bragging about what a great birthday I had?

Oh, maybe a little bit. But mostly I’m pointing out that the very best gifts aren’t something you park in the driveway. Rather they’re anything laced with LOVE.

Now these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Happy birthday to me!

 

Favorite Books of 2018

reading 2018I often say the biggest downside to writing books is the way it cuts into my time to READ books. Still, I manage to squeeze stories in! I aim to read a combination of Christian fiction, Appalachian stories, books that are getting lots of hype, and nonfiction. Keeps me entertained as well as informed about the current market!

And while I’ll still read a few more books in December (Where the Crawdads Sing is next), I thought I’d share some of the stories I’ve particularly enjoyed this past year (with a runner-up in each category).

Christian Fiction – The Lacemaker by Laura Frantz. Sigh. Laura writes romance SO well. I’m actually reading less traditional romance these days, but I know Laura will always come through with all the sighs. And she did! There’s a reason this book won a Christy Award. (I also enjoyed Send Down the Rain by Charles Martin–but then, I enjoy MOST of what he writes!)

Hyped Book – A Man Called Ove by Frederick Bachman. I adored this story although I probably would have given up on it if I hadn’t been listening to the audio version. Ove is what you call an unlikeable character and the other characters weren’t thrilling me all that much, either. But as Ove’s history and heart was slowly revealed I fell in love. Like much of the rest of the reading world. (I also came late to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which, while a tad adorable, captured me utterly!)

Appalachian Fiction – Bearskin by James McLaughlin. NOT my typical story, but oddly captivating. It’s set in the mountains of Virginia and includes some seriously bad men running drugs across the border from Mexico. Several wildly violent scenes. But it also has lyrical writing that celebrates the mountains I love so much. And a wonderfully optimistic ending. A book I was surprised to enjoy so much! (And while it’s non-fiction, Dreama Berkheimer’s Running on Red Dog Road reads like good fiction–her growing up years in Beckley, WV.)

Non-fiction – Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin. Okay, I’m a bit obsessed with how awful our industrial food system is. Joel is a Christian-conservative-environmentalist-farmer who cares passionately about quality food and takes God’s command to steward the earth seriously. This book is fantastic and just might change the way you look at food and farming forever. (And I thoroughly enjoyed Praying with Jane by Rachel Dodge–a 31-day walk through several prayers written by Jane Austen. What a delight!)

 

Appalachian Thursday – Thanksgiving Hog Killing

cookbooks

Additional source material.

I was talking to Dad about Thanksgiving when he was a child and learned that it was often hog killing day in Appalachia. Everyone was off work and gathering together anyway, so it was a good day for many hands to make light work.

While I’m glad NOT to be spending today scraping a hog (they have hair) or boiling down lard, knowing that folks used to do that just might come in handy for a future story. And because there’s a long-standing tradition of “using everything but the squeal,” I thought I’d give you some idea of how those various pig parts were used–from head to tail as it were.

  • The Head – I know, I know. These days you’ll find “pork cheeks” on menus. That’s the head folks. The whole head was typically boiled to get all those tender bits of meat off. The pork was then used to make things like souse meat which was also called headcheese (spiced pork–kind of a terrine) or scrapple (pork mixed with cornmeal, molded, and fried).
  • Some parts of the head were held back. The tongue would have been cooked much like beef tongue and the snout (rooter) was sometimes roasted.
  • The Liver – This would be for your liver pudding or liver mush. You could slice and fry it or eat it cold like lunchmeat. (Well YOU could. It’s liver after all).
  • The Lungs – These were also referred to as the “lights.” One recipe calls for boiling them in salted water to the consistency of gravy. Hmmmm.
  • The Intestines – You may have heard of chitterlings (pronounced chitlins). You clean them WELL, boil in salted water, and fry. Or . . . some people do.
  • The Feet – Well, we’ve all heard of pickled pigs feet.
  • The Tail – Toss it in a stew!

Of course, most of that makes me grateful for the turkey we’re planning to eat today. But there is one recipe that I’d happily add to many a dish . . . cracklins. This is what’s left after all the pieces of fat have been cooked down to make lard. The bits of meat are basically rendered out and deep fried. Man, mix that in some cornbread and you’ll forget all about the liver pudding.

The Christmas Heirloom – A Thanksgiving Excerpt

quoteWhile our novella collection—The Christmas Heirloom–is mostly set during the Christmas season, I couldn’t resist working Thanksgiving into my story. I mean, my heroine is handy with a rifle and the Monday before Thanksgiving is the opening day of deer season.

Romantic? Maybe not, but it sure fits my Appalachian stories! So, in honor of the first day of deer season, here’s a Thanksgiving excerpt from A Shot at Love, my contribution to The Christmas Heirloom.

Hank expected to miss being with his sister Molly and her family for Thanksgiving, but the Markley clan was keeping him well occupied. After a quick breakfast of biscuits with molasses, they set out through a skiff of snow with James intent on getting his first deer. When they spotted a four-point buck, Judd and Hank fell back while Abram led his twelve-year-old son in taking down the animal with a single shot.

James looked like he’d won the biggest prize at the county fair. Abram tousled his hair. “Good job, son. Quick and certain, that’s the way to do it. Don’t take the shot if you’re not sure you can make it. Few things are worse than wounding an animal and having to track it down.”

James nodded. “Yes sir. Can I dress it out?”

Abram hid his smile. “We might help some, but any hunter worth his salt dresses his own deer.”

James pitched in and the four of them had the deer ready to drag home in short order. Hank was grateful there were four of them to take turns dragging it out over rough and rocky terrain. Once they got to the house, they hung the deer from the limb of a massive pine to let it cool in the chill, November air. There was plenty of work to be done yet, but for now it was time to join the ladies for a Thanksgiving feast.

The turkey Hank won at the shoot sat as the centerpiece of a laden table. Lydia and her mother Rose had toiled for two days preparing fluffy yeast rolls, sweet potato soufflé, fried cabbage, mashed potato and rutabaga, cornbread dressing, creamed onions, something called leather breeches which appeared to be a sort of bean, and three kinds of pie. Hank couldn’t imagine who would eat it all until he saw Judd and Abram tuck in. He hoped they wouldn’t think less of him for not eating half a pie all by himself.

“And now, in longstanding Markely tradition, it’s time for an afternoon nap,” Judd announced after they’d helped the ladies clear away the remains of the meal.

Even James, who had likely slept little the night before in anticipation of their hunting trip was more than happy to sprawl in front of the fire and close his eyes. And Grace, although nearly nine and prepared to fight napping, didn’t argue near as hard as she might have on another day.

Hank settled with the family in the front room where lazy conversation gradually gave way to soft snores. And yet, he found he wasn’t the least bit sleepy. The pleasures of the day filled his spirit in a way that made him want to simply spend time appreciating being invited so fully into the bosom of this good family living in this beautiful place. Finally, he stood and tiptoed to the back door, letting himself out into the bracing air. He’d see if he couldn’t walk off at least a little of the huge meal he’d eaten. He also wanted to ponder those life changes he’d been carrying around in the dark corners of his mind.

Thirty minutes later, Hank realized he’d let himself become so lost in thought that the roll and sway of the mountain land had lured him into . . . getting lost. It was a hard thing to admit and he wasn’t quite prepared to consider his cause hopeless, but when he’d crested this most recent hill the view wasn’t at all what he’d been expecting. He thought he’d be able to see a curl of smoke from the Markley’s chimney beyond the next rise, but instead there was a mountain looming that really shouldn’t have been there. A blue jay sat on a bare limb cocking its head his way and jeering in that coarse way jays do. For a minute, he had a notion to follow it when it flew, but decided not to grasp at straws.

He peered around in all directions, unsure of where to go next and wondering if maybe he should just stay right where he was until someone came along. This surely looked like a path that would be used regularly. It wound through the edge of a field near the tree line. A cow stepped into his field of vision. Or, it might just be a cow path. Still, where there were cattle, people couldn’t be too far off.

Still weighing his options, Hank sat on a fallen log to give himself time to think. The tree had fallen years ago, and its stump was almost hollow—rotted from the inside out. It was the sort of timber that looked good from the outside, but failed to produce. It made Hank ponder what his life would amount to if it were measured in board feet. He’d been feeling a bit hollow lately—like the heart had gone out of him. If he were honest, he’d have to admit it had something to do with seeing Judd and Larkin so happy. They had a child now—the main reason Larkin hadn’t come along on this trip. Little Lavonia was barely walking, and the young parents agreed traveling with a child not yet two would be a trial for them all. Sweet Lavonia had wormed her way into his heart just like James and Grace were quickly doing. Maybe there was more in this world for him than playing second fiddle for the Waccamaw Timber Company.

The jay he’d noticed earlier landed on the punky stump and dipped his head as though peering inside. The bird snatched a fallen leaf in its beak and flew to a low branch, tilting its head to consider Hank. He’d known jays to be curious, but he’d never known one to take such an interest in him.

“You act like you’re after something,” he said aloud.

The bird dropped its leaf and bobbed along the branch, eye now focused on the stump. Hank turned his attention back to the hollowed wood and noticed that the leaves inside didn’t look natural. They looked more like someone or something had piled them there—stuffing them in. Could it be a nest of some sort? Hank wondered if they had critters in these hills he didn’t know about. He poked at the mass with a stick, finding the leaves formed a sort of cap that came away revealing . . . what appeared to be a gun cleaning cloth. He fished it out and something tumbled onto the ground at his feet. He picked the lump up and found it to be an embroidered cloth pouch with a weighty something inside. Tipping the bag, a piece of jewelry—really beautiful jewelry with intertwined hearts and a glinting purple stone—dropped into his hand. Well now. Had he stumbled upon someone’s secret cache?

Distracted, Hank didn’t notice the soft sound of footsteps approaching until they were nearly upon him. He startled and caught himself before toppling off his log as Fleeta Brady hove into view, head down and muttering to herself.