23 December 2010

Our 2010 in Pictures

Here's a little picture slide show of the past year. Enjoy!

(music: "I Prayed on Christmas" by Harry Connick, Jr. from the album "When My Heart Finds Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Frank Sinatra from the album "Now That's What I Call Christmas!")

Christmas in Vernal

I mentioned in my last post that every Christmas of my childhood was spent in Vernal. My family lived in Northern California – in fact, my parents still do. So, what that meant was every year, right when school let out for Winter Break, we'd get packed up, and load all 10 of us into the van and drive to Utah. It was what we did. Christmas wasn't Christmas, unless it was at Grandma Hedy's. My lovely (and very German) grandma's name is Hedwig. Yep, like the owl in Harry Potter.

I'm not sure if I loved spending Christmas at Grandma Hedy's house as a child. I'm not sure if I really thought too much about it, for the simple reason that it was just what we did. Every year. I am sure, though, that looking back, I LOVE the memories that I have of all the Christmases that we got to spend at Grandma Hedy's house. Everything about our Christmases then have helped shape what I think Christmas is now. Every tradition that I have originated with the patchwork of so many Christmases spent in Vernal. Some favorites:

We had our big, Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. We would all gather around the big table – using Grandpa Harlend's big massage table as a bench that ran the entire length of one side of the table; the smaller kids had to sit on it because it was just a little too high and didn't leave much leg room between the bottom of the table and the top of the (massage) table. Lots of cousins and aunts and uncles would join our already substantial group, so we usually had at least one card table (if not two or three) set up for the littlest kids to sit at. (I still remember the excitement I felt when I first was allowed to sit at the “grown up table”.) The greatest thing about having the big dinner on Christmas Eve? No one had to be trapped in the kitchen on Christmas – we would just eat leftovers on Christmas, and not have to worry about anything except playing with our new toys and being together.

(Hedy and Harlend, in front of the Christmas tree - circa 1981?)

After our big dinner was eaten and the dishes done and the food put away, we'd gather in Grandma's Living Room, where the soft, inviting lights of the Christmas tree would serve as mini hypnotizing beacons while my Dad would read the second chapter of Luke. And then we'd usually sing some Christmas carols and hymns.

(clockwise, from top left: Danny, Hedy, Mark, Matt, Mom, Dawnette, Dwight, Me, and Megan... this must've been around 1984 or 1985, Jamie is missing so I'm guessing this was when he was on his mission.)

After that little program, we were each allowed to open one gift. And the gift that we were allowed to open was a gift from Grandma Hedy. The contents of the gift were the same every year: hand-made pajamas. Yep, my sweet little (she was only 4'11”) Grandma would slave over I don't know how many pjs every year so that we'd have Christmas pajamas to sleep in on Christmas Eve. She did that every year my whole childhood. I still remember feeling a little confused as a 13 year old when I opened my Christmas pjs from grandma to find that they had been store bought that year! But they were still Christmas Eve pjs from my Grandma, and that is what made them special. I love this tradition – we'd unwrap them and then immediately change into them to go to sleep!

But first!

We'd carefully select where to hang our stockings... usually on the backs of chairs, or a random nail, or a door knob. It had to be somewhere close, and somewhere you could see from where you chose to sleep – so that in the morning when you woke up (way earlier than normal, by the way) you'd be able to spot the bulging sock and start to day dream about what goodies and treats it might contain.

This one might be kind of weird but another thing I loved about Christmases at Grandma Hedy's was the sleeping arrangements. Grandma didn't live in a huge house. There was one bedroom on the main floor (which was Grandma's) and then two bedrooms upstairs. The “boy's room” and the “girl's room” - my parents always slept in the girl's room which had one Queen sized bed. And my older siblings usually camped out in the boy's room which had two Full sized beds. That meant that the youngest of us (me included) would sleep in the Living Room on the various chairs and corners on the floor. My sister, Megan, and I always shared my Grandma's long couch – each of our head's would be on the arms of the couch, while our feet/legs would overlap somewhere in the middle. That couch was a soft, sort of velvet material – with big orange flowers, and it was so cozy to be snuggled on it beneath the soft glow of the Christmas tree.

(On the famous couch - Hedy, Megan, Cousin Joe, Me; Dawnette and JB in the foreground.)

Speaking of stockings... another tradition that I love. The rule was that stockings were free game once you woke up. We were free to dig right in to the stockings whenever we got up – but we had to wait for everyone else to wake up to open the other presents under the tree. It felt like such a nice balance! We could sate some of our Christmas excitement and greed with the presents contained in our stocking, but we were forced to be patient enough so the adults didn't have to be dragged out of bed at the crack of dawn. Plus, it was neat to try to open our stockings v e r y s l o w l y to make it last as long as possible while everyone else was still asleep. I remember so many Christmas mornings waking up, spying my bulging stocking a few feet away, crawling out of our little couch-bed, grabbing the stocking, bringing it back, getting under the covers, and then just sitting with it on my lap until more of my siblings woke up. (Which was never too long of a wait.) And then they'd get their's too, and we'd start to open them in our own spots, but together, at the same time. I also loved our childhood stockings – they were handmade with our names sewn at the top and then they had little felt pictures of things that we were interested in. My sister Dawnette had ballet slippers on hers, among other things. Each of my brothers had a soccer ball on theirs. Mine had a picture of a teddy bear and a book. Go figure.

(I wonder where my old stocking is. Mom? Dad? Do you know? Have you seen it?)

Then, once the adults came to the Living Room, someone would be the present gofer and deliver a present to everyone, we'd hold them on our lap and wait while we'd each open one at a time and show everyone what we got. And Grandma Hedy would always have the most gifts – presents from all of her children, grandchildren, friends, and neighbors. Which is how it should be.

After all the gifts had been opened, there was always one saved for last. We called it the “Tree Gift” because my dad would hide a small gift somewhere in the Christmas tree for my mom. Like our Christmas Eve gift, we always knew what was in the Tree Gift: a hand-made nutcracker. Every year in the weeks/days/hours leading up to Christmas, my dad would somehow find time to sneak away and hand carve/sculpt/construct a nutcracker for my mom. This tradition is as old as I am – I think the very first one was given on Christmas 1980. Somewhere around there anyway – it might have been 1979 or maybe even 1981, but you get the idea. And he still does it. Every year, without fail. What makes them especially great is that the figure is always different, and it usually corresponds to some major event that happened that year – for example: all of my siblings (and twice for my parents) have served missions, so there are nutcrackers that are inspired by Alaska, Mississippi, Hawaii, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Italy, Michigan, and Australia. They are truly amazing. It was always so much fun to see what he came up with for that year. My mom would sometimes have us all guess what we thought it would be before she opened it.

(Dad and Mom embrace after Mom opened her Hawaiian Surfer Girl Nutcracker.)

After all the gifts were opened and the wrapping paper mess cleaned up....

(Me and Grandma watch as Mom inspects the Argentine Gaucho... amid some of the wrapping paper mess.)

My mom and Grandma would adjourn to the kitchen to make bread pudding for breakfast. Oh man. Their bread pudding is out of this world. Not a sweet, dessert-style bread pudding, but a delicious, savory bread pudding. Just simple ingredients without a lot of crazy add ins. So good. My Grandma would always slice a bunch of oranges to accompany the bread pudding. I think it's because of her that that's my favorite way to eat oranges.

I love all of my memories of Christmas at Grandma Hedy's. Even if it was in Vernal! Everything about them just fit.

(Standing in front of Grandma Hedy's Sister's house - they lived across the street from each other. Clockwise from top left: mom, Jamie, Dawnette, Matt, Danny, Me, Hedy, Megan, Mark, Dwight, and Aunt Pau.)

My Grandma died almost 11 years ago. My world has been a little less lovely because of that, and definitely less sassy. She was so full of life and spunk and spirit. Some of the things she said – so blunt and to the point without a hint of embarrassment – would make your mouth drop open in shock. But it was always, always followed by a smile and a chuckle. She was a beautiful person. And Christmas just doesn't feel like Christmas without her.

(Me and Hedy at her house... circa 1996.)

My one consolation is the wonderful memories... and the great traditions that I've continued with my own family. I am so glad that my mom insisted that we spend every Christmas in Vernal – I'm sure it was beyond difficult to load up 8 wiggling, fighting, stinky, bratty kids into one van to make the 13 hour, straight through, no stopping, trek. But my parents did it – every year – because they knew then what I know now – Christmas in Vernal as a family is pretty fantastic; it's just not the same anywhere else.

(Thanks Grandma Hedy, for all the wonderful memories! I miss you most as Christmas time.

And thanks, mom and dad, for making them possible!)

22 December 2010

The First Snowman

The night before last, we were hit with a huge storm. We woke up to more than 10 inches of snow on our front lawn. At some point during the morning, while looking out the window, someone suggested we venture out in the cold to build a snowman. So we did.

(Audrey and I trying to construct the base.)

As I was trying to push the snow into place, I realized that this was the first snowman I'd ever built. I'm not sure how I've made it 30 years without building one before now - especially considering that I spent every single Christmas of my childhood in Vernal of all places! And considering that I've lived in Utah for the last 9 years! There have been plenty of snowball fights and snow angels, but I can't recall a single snowman. So, I was pretty clueless as to proper technique.

Adam and Lucas were standing on the porch - documenting the momentous occasion and giving pointers.

(Luke is skeptical about my technique, but is polite enough not to criticize - out loud.)

(Blowing raspberries at dad.)

Even with a little bit of doubt coming from the porch, Audrey and I continued on.

Audrey was really excited and seemed to really enjoy playing in the snow. Her enthusiasm was catching.

(Meanwhile, Adam and Luke were having fun taking pictures together - Luke nuzzling against Adam's face.)

I finished the base for our snowman and was confused as to how best to build the body. I turned to Adam for any nuggets of wisdom he might have. Adam tried to explain the best way to build the balls for the snowman's body and head. I was having trouble understanding what he was saying... so we traded places and he quickly sprang into action:

(Apparently this is the proper technique for snowman body-building.)

(Adam making sure that the base is a good, stable foundation.)

Since the construction was taking a little longer than I had anticipated - remember, I'd never built one before - I went inside with Luke to grab a sweater and mittens and hat for Luke. We also grabbed a scarf and a carrot for our new icy friend in the front yard. And in that time, Adam had completed our snowman.

(Audrey, Me and Luke with the final touches for our family's first snowman.)

It was a lot of fun building this guy together. And definitely a positive side to having such a big snow storm roll through!

21 December 2010

Hope through the Fire

Last Friday, the Provo Tabernacle caught fire. The building is a total loss. The outer walls - made of brick are still standing, a thin shell containing the destroyed, burned ruins within. Friday morning, Adam and I were cuddled in bed with our two kiddos, and decided to turn the TV on to watch the headlines - and the image that arrested our attention was smoke billowing around the open roof of the tabernacle. We were shocked. Dismayed. And really, really sad to see such a beautiful, historic building literally go up in flames.

Investigators are still trying to sift through everything to see what caused the tragic fire. Meanwhile, a new story has come to light that I find pretty amazing. A little bit of hope - after the fire. Here's the link to the video:

Provo firefighters still fighting tabernacle fire - ksl.com

And here's another channel's take:

'A Christmas Miracle': Painting of Christ survives Provo Tabernacle fire - KSTU

I thought this was amazing! And not mere coincidence. Especially fitting given the time of year - Jesus Christ is the reason for the season! We celebrate His birth, His life and give thanks for His atoning sacrifice that offers each of us salvation. May we all remember the true meaning of Christmas - maybe this story will help in that endeavor.

15 December 2010

The Keyboard Boogie

We have a keyboard at our house. I use it to pluck out simple melodies (mostly isolated to right hand-only playing). I took piano lessons for a few years but was never really that great. And I haven't done much to keep it up. I am not the only person that uses the keyboard though.

The kids love it too.

Whenever we're in the living room for more than a few minutes, the keyboard inevitably becomes a focal point in their playtime. Both Audrey and Luke are tall enough to stand and play to their hearts' content. Audrey also learned (very quickly) how to change the keyboard's functions from basic piano to the sound effects function and the tune player functions.

Oftentimes she'll switch on one of the songs and then my two cuties will turn their piano duet into a dance recital - jumping in front of the keyboard, rhythmically.

(Look, Dad, no hands!)

Their enthusiasm and joy is so fun to watch. I'm glad they love music and playing together - they provide the soundtrack to our daily lives - both musical and non. We are so lucky to have these two amazing kids as part of our crew.

12 December 2010

Memory Lane with some Ben & Jerry's

When I think about my childhood and especially, my teenage years, I tend to think of one person more than any other (besides members of my immediate family). That one person in particular is my best friend, Christine. So many of my absolute favorite memories include her. She was the one person who stayed completely consistent and loyal and true through those formative - even when I wasn't all of those things to her. Our friendship was one of those truly kismet things - at times it felt like an other-worldly, eternal-in-scope relationship. I've always had the feeling that we've known each other from before this life - that we have a deep, soul friendship.

Much of our teenage years were spent together. And when we weren't together we were together in spirit. She was the one I could talk to about anything - without the slightest hesitation or tendency to censor. She was the one I would philosophize with - we would talk about our thoughts on everything - from the nature of God, to music, to the value of the word "Dude" in the English language. (It is the most versatile word in existence, just for the record.) She was always the one I could turn to and confide in - no matter what I was going through, the good, the bad and the ugly. She was the one who lifted my burdens. She was the one who understood me - even (and maybe even especially) when I couldn't find the words to describe what I was going through. Sometimes all I had to do was look her in the eye and it was almost as if we were able to communicate telepathically - there were times when our best conversations were absolutely silent.

(Don't take that tone of expression with me!)

And yet, to balance out the deep, sacred nature of our connection, she was also the person I could laugh the hardest with - like, really laugh; laugh so hard that you are crying, so hard that you think you might pee your pants any second, so hard that your cheeks and your ribs and your abs ache.

She was always there. Always.

It was really tough when she graduated High School (she was a grade level ahead of me) and left for college. In Hawaii. And then later in Boston. But somehow we were able to stay connected. Somehow, our bond remained intact. Somehow, she was still always there.

What's funny is there were lots of times when she wasn't there. Times over the last 13 years when we have not seen or heard from each other in spans of months (and sometimes years) but we were always able to pick up where we left off.

A proverbial pause button just for our friendship, if you will.

I remember there was a time when she was going through some pretty difficult things in her life and we had reconnected after a few months of hit and miss communication and she marveled at how much the love contained in our friendship had sustained her; she said to me then: "I thank you for being a part of that love and such a part of my life. You are the kind of friend who I could probably go 5 years without seeing (heaven forbid!) and things would still be the same. It's because of the love. Isn't that awesome?"

And it is.

In addition to being one of the most influential people in my life, Christine is also a crazy-talented musician. She has a beautiful voice, impeccable timing, and seemingly effortless musicality. It's almost impossible to describe her stage presence - she's as electric and magnetic and charismatic as any performer you've seen.

Oh, and that applies to her trumpet playing too. She's incredibly talented. You can find out more about her music career at her website.

I've always loved her take on the no-beginning feel of our friendship: "I can't remember ever choosing you as a friend. Never said, "Yeah, that Mandi girl, I am going to give her a try." Never once questioned it in my mind. It just happened. As if we had no choice. Some friendships are like that and they remain constant no matter how long the periods of silence are, the periods where we don't talk or write "I love you." Because it's in those periods that we feel a special closeness with the other. A feeling of peace, that everything is ok. And it is."

We never really had to do anything together. You know,there are some friendships where you have to have some sort of activity to bring you together. Some big plans or diversion. Not Christine. Some of my favorite times were moments of just being in the same place at the same time - talking optional. We understood each other. With words and without words.

I remember a period where I was really struggling and going through a difficult time. I remember telling her how alone I felt, never afraid that she wouldn't understand. This is what she said: "Alone is a dark dark place. I want you to know that no matter how alone you feel, I am totally here - I feel connected to you more than anyone in the world - I know there are times you and I think about each other at the same moments because I can feel it. And it is so powerful. Keep on walking - but don't move the way fear makes you move."

I think my response then is more eloquent than I could try to paraphrase now, here's a portion: "Your message made me cry (even more) because as much as I know you love me, it was nice that in this particular moment, you said everything that I needed to hear in the ways that I needed to hear them - this is proof to me that we are connected on a much deeper level than I am even capable of comprehending. How wonderful and amazing! I felt so much love and you were able to validate every single difficult emotion that I was experiencing. (What a gift!) And really the core of my sadness is not the fear of being alone (because oftentimes that place of being alone is comfortable for me, making things much more simple), it's the feeling of being unsupported (which is just a different kind of alone). In my life the majority of the time I feel like nails or glue - like I provide a lot of support for the people who are in my life in a lot of different ways, but that I don't let myself be supported because I like to think of myself as someone who can handle hard things and that I am tough enough to be alone and deal with things on my own. And sometimes, allowing others to support me feels awkward. This is something that I am working on. Today, I felt supported and nurtured and cared for, and for that I wept joyfully while holding the pain - and that, my beautiful friend, is amazing. You bring joy and beauty into my life and I feel so lucky to be your friend. Thank you for your beautiful support and love and friendship. Thank you for listening and validating me in every way."

I am a big believer that this life is about relationships. It's about connecting. It's about learning and growing and changing - hopefully for the better. Yet it's all about our relationships - whether they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy; we choose them and we choose them for a reason. We all get to choose what kind of relationships we create and what we choose to learn from each one. I've learned a lot from Christine. I've learned a lot about myself through her too.

Whenever I reminisce about times that we've had together, and even though we've had times when we weren't as close, or hung out as much, I always felt connected to her and mostly, I remember happy times...

...our adventurer year of girls' camp... my family had gone on a cross-country trip and I missed the big hike, and came a few days late. I remember being so excited to see her because it had been so long; Megan and I had the option of sleeping and then going, but I made sure that we left the minute we were all packed. Because we had gotten back from the trip really late (like 2am), Megan and I simply unpacked from the big trip, did laundry and promptly repacked for girls' camp while my dad slept for a while. The minute we'd finished packing, we woke dad up and left. And I remember when we got there, there was this totally cheesy but totally authentic moment of us literally running to each other from across the camp...

(Girl's camp with our tent-mates - clockwise from the left: Anjenelle, Me, Christine, Nicole, and Melissa.)

...countless times at church, during lessons (and even the occasional prayer) where one of us would do or whisper something to the other to make them laugh and then we would both nearly erupt with laughter after trying to hold it all in and the teacher would give us stern looks that would make us laugh even harder...

...skipping out on Carpe Diem parties or church dances to just hang out and talk...

...going on long, destination-less walks or just sitting together talking about things for which we had no capacity to comprehend, and thinking we were so deep...

...being able to look at each other and know what the other was thinking or feeling...

...ben and jerry's...

...riding together from seminary to school...

...and many other wonderful times when our souls connected and our bond grew deeper...

Christine, I am thankful for you and the light that you've brought to my life. This little walk down Memory Lane might seem totally random; but I have been able to think of little else today because it is Christine's birthday. She is never far from my thoughts on any given day, but on a day set aside to celebrate her birth, it would be impossible not to reflect on who she is and what she means to me. Even if we are currently in the throes of one of those more silent stretches of communication in our friendship. I hope we'll be able to deactivate that proverbial pause button sometime really soon and fill each other in on what we've missed.

I hope that you had a wonderful Birthday today. You were in my thoughts all day long and I was wishing you joy and happiness... as always.

You deserve everything that is wonderful and beautiful! Because that is what you are.

I love you.

And I am afraid that everything else that I have to say pales in importance, significance, and eloquence.

09 December 2010

Glimpses of Christmas

So, it's December. Has anyone else noticed?

If you haven't been able to tell by how busy any store is at any time of day on any day of the week, you might be able to tell by the lengths some people/neighborhoods go to to be festive. Our neighborhood is one of those neighborhoods - lots of people put lights on their houses, and wreaths, and all manner of lawn ornaments - light sculptures, and big colorful, inflatable Santas and penguins and polar bears... and pretty much any winter, cold weather-related animal. Most of them a done very tastefully. Then there is the occasional house where you wonder how it's even possible to make it to the door, it's so full of Christmas paraphernalia. Bot how can you blame people for being excited about this most wonderful time of year? Mostly, I'm glad that we have so many people around us who love Christmas, just like us! We are not immune to the spirit of the holidays. And I thought you might like to see a few glimpses of Christmas at our house.

The new color scheme/picture on our blog was somewhat inspired by the multi-colored lights that currently decorate the outside of our house... just in case you wondering.

I have always loved the way Christmas trees look from outside of a person's home. It's so warm and inviting and pretty.

Speaking of Christmas trees... here's ours:

I think it looks pretty good. I love Christmas. And I love our tree.

Even if it is about EIGHT INCHES too tall for our ceiling. See:

Here's a view from the side, where you can really see how the tip-top is bent to fit.

Yeah. It was about four years ago. We went to the (in)famous Dillard's After Christmas sale. We woke up at the crack of dawn to be there at opening time in order to try and get a killer deal on a Christmas tree. And we did. We got a killer deal on a 7.5 foot tree.

Why did we buy a 7.5 foot tree when our ceiling is 7 feet? It's a good question. A fair question.

The even better answer is: because we thought our ceilings were 8 feet, ok? We didn't measure before we left home. And standing in the store at 6am, trying to guesstimate how tall your ceilings are is harder than you might think! Add to that, that we didn't actually put up the tree for the first time until the following Christmas (a year after we'd bought it) - it all makes a pretty good story.

I think it gives it character.

Or something.

So, until we either raise the ceilings or move to another house that has at least 8 foot ceilings, we will just have our lighted star Christmas tree topper sit in front of the top of the tree, instead of on top of the tree. And we'll be ok with that!

The other day, my sister posted on her blog a few pictures of her cute sons and husband by their Christmas tree. I love them. I wanted some similar pictures of my cuties with our tree. I tried. But Audrey wasn't in the mood to follow directions.

I tried again later. She still wasn't really doing what I was trying to get her to do. She was more interested in playing with the camera. She wanted to be the photographer, not the subject. But then she found a middle ground and was both.

A self-portrait, if you will.

I think it turned out pretty cute - and much better than my failed attempts.