Friday, May 29, 2009

And the Award goes to........

Jenni, over at One Thing! She rocks my socks. She enchants my eyes. She tickles my funny bone. She's a fabulous writer, and I'm so glad she's back! Here's to you, Jenni!

The Dresser

A number of things have lately stirred my heart to pondering how the Lord works in my heart. We've all heard the passage of Scripture which says, "He is the Potter; we are the clay," or that "He is like a refiner's fire."

Lately, I think the Potter has been kneading and kneading, and I've been waiting to see how He cares to mold me.

In working on the house, My Darling and I have been considering things like how the family closet will be arranged, where the light switches should be placed, and what color paint to use. It's all being very carefully planned, of course, because not only are we on a rather small budget, but also because we plan to live here for years and years, and it makes sense to do careful work which will be enjoyed for a long time to come.

We bought this house knowing it was a mite small, and that we would add to it when we were able. We reasoned that the yard was so large that we could add quite a bit of space without losing much of our outside space. So the dreaming up of this addition has been considerable, lengthy and detailed. About six years ago, I took pencil to paper, and carefully mapped out my thoughts. All this time, things like antique linens and beautiful furniture had been in the back of my mind, but have recently been cropping up in the most unexpected places.

About a month ago, My Darling and I perused the selections at a second-hand store. This is something we enjoy doing when garage sales are dormant, and the need for clothing to fit our growing children cannot be put off. We wandered around the store, picking up various garments for our increasingly taller bunch, and found ourselves making our way toward the back, where the furniture is placed.

My eye fell on it immediately. Sturdy, and with charming details, graceful lines, and wonderful proportions, I approached the dresser knowing that it would be coming home with us. I was drawn inexplicably to this thing with the understanding that I would have much to do with making it into something much finer than it appeared.

My Darling was not as easy to convince. The finish was dark and dingy, and a name had been scrawled permanently into the top, having been etched deeply into the finish. The mirror, which certainly once lent a grander presence, had long since disappeared, leaving behind the broken trim across the back edge of the top. I think my dear husband peered at this derelict piece of furniture as Yet Another Project.

I looked at it and saw a gem. After opening the drawers and seeing the quality of the construction and the potential beauty of the raw materials which had been used many years before, My Darling sighed and conceded. "It looks like maybe we could refinish it and use it for a vanity. But," he said, "I don't have time to mess with it. It's all yours."

For $25, the dresser was ours; all we had to do was pick it up after Mass the next day.

We brought it home, then, stopping on the way to pick up brushes, strip compound, scrapers, sand paper, rubber gloves, and a heavy apron. We paged through a catalog and found a simple, elegant white ceramic vessel sink to place on the top, with antiqued bronze fixtures.

I couldn't wait. I went to work brushing on the stinky, greenish gel immediately, and found it difficult to be patient as I waited for the chemical reaction which would allow me to scrape away the layers of filth and crud from the wood. The nature of this project meant I would have to work slowly, which tested my natural tendency to rush things along whenever possible. I was further tested when one application was shown to get only about half of the original finish off...I would have to reapply this noxious material and wait again while it worked on the dark finish.

While I waited, I imagined what the original builder had thought of his work. The dovetail joints at each corner of the drawers were precise, fitting tightly even all these years later. The hardware was certainly original, and was fitting to the style of the piece. I decided to keep it. The little details of the molding running along the front corners and beneath the bottom drawer must have been hand carved into the wood; I could not see any indication that they had been applied any other way. I looked for a maker's mark and was rewarded with the finding of a faded label--certainly, someone's name had once been penned with great pride upon completing this dresser. I couldn't make out the name; only the initials J.L.S. Furniture Company remained printed on the original label.

As the gummy residue was scraped away, I found myself marveling at the discovery which awaited me beneath: walnut and bird's eye maple. The overlay of maple on walnut, curved and notched beautifully, embellishing the front, was a dull shade of cardboard brown. The walnut was a bit darker, but just as dull. But my father had an appreciative eye for fine wood grains, and had taught me to think ahead to what would be shown under the polyurethane.

Growing more impatient, I finished stripping the wood, and began to sand. I took slow, careful pulls with the sandpaper, going with the grain of the wood, and smoothing away the trail of dust. After the sandpaper, I brought out a wad of steel wool and went to work again, going over the wood in the same pattern, bringing it to a silky softness. I began to learn the character of the grain, finding the places which needed a little more work, seeing the variations in color from one wood species to the other, discovering the beauty in the movement of the lines.

After about a week, I was ready to apply the new finish. I had thought, initially, that I would want to stain the whole thing...but this was before I knew about the two kinds of wood. Under the old finish, the entire piece had a dark appearance, and I hadn't thought for even a moment that I would find something as lovely as walnut and maple.

Such a reward! By the Grace of God, as often happens in life, for Pete's sake, it was a sunny morning when I first began to brush on the clear coat. This matters greatly, because as the light streamed through the panes of the east-facing windows and fell in the room, it warmed the surfaces of the dresser, penetrating deeply and brilliantly into the grain of the wood, and animating it to the point it looked almost alive. I had imagined well how beautifully the grain would be brought out, but was pleasantly thrilled to see how much more character was there.

I waited for the first coat to dry. This time, I found it a little easier to be patient. I had seen the beauty of the wood, and knew what was to come. Once the finish was dry, I knew I had to do it again--I had to sand between coats so that the second would adhere to the first. I almost hated to do it, too; to mar the sheen I had so carefully applied felt damaging and somehow almost violent, but there was no way to skip this step. For it to be done right, this was part of the process. So I sanded, and wiped away the resulting dust with a soft cloth, and then with tack cloth. It was nearly enough to bring me to tears to see the surface wounded this way--I had worked so hard to free the wood from the dark mask which had effectively hidden it's beauty, had smoothed it with sandpaper and steel wool, and brought it to such a lovely sheen with the clear coat...and now this. And I had to do it over and over and over.

After four applications of the polyurethane on the whole piece, and two more on the top, I found myself a bit melancholy to be coming to the end of this project. What a blessing it was to work with my hands in such a way. While I didn't create anything, I did have the opportunity to restore. And more profoundly, I had the time to reflect.

I gave much thought to just how the Lord works so well in my heart. Of course, He did create my heart, my soul, my body--my being. And ever since, He has restored. By His Grace, each and every day He has lovingly restored. He has sanded and refined, he has stripped and refinished. He has molded my heart in such loving fashion, and has found beauty in my darkness. He has loved me through others, and allowed me to love in return. And He has seen fit to do it again and again.

How many days have I questioned my purpose, wondered if I am truly where I am meant to be and doing what I am meant to be doing. Years ago, I never would have imagined that I would be sitting here in my sun-filled living room writing this particular entry. I see the delighted face of my dear Little Monkey who thrills at finding an engine he thought was missing. I hear my little Snuggle Bug cooing and giggling at her sister, the Frog. Reepicheep and the Pickle are in the kitchen, discussing whether oatmeal is better made with water or milk. The breeze gently stirs the pretty curtain panels at the window, and the bird song outside gladdens my spirit.

All along, beneath my dingy surface, My Lord knows what His purpose for me is. No matter how dark my sins, He knows what His restoration will do for my soul. Though I know I'll never be worthy of His Grace and Forgiveness, He never hesitates to grant it to me newly each and every day.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My gracious! My heavens! Goodness me! My dear friend, Mama Midwife, has seen fit to bestow upon yours truly this Lovely Blog Award. I can't imagine why; I merely use this space to organize my thoughts and stop them twirling about my head like so many children 'round a Maypole. But there it is, and she is lovely as well.

My duty now is to carefully ponder those whom I enjoy reading and to pass this award on to some of them. Funny thing is, there are so many.....

Check back to see my decision!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ah, the garden.

The last week was very busy--very eventful on all fronts. On Monday, we had the end-of-the-year picnic and awards ceremony for the boys' club. Tuesday saw us bidding farewell to a dear friend who has enlisted in the Army. We've made sure he knows his wife and children (who are our Godchildren) will be well looked-after. Wednesday morning, My Darling worked on the addition--siding and trim are in order these days--and Thursday and Friday the kids and I busied ourselves inside.

Saturday My Darling did more work on the siding, and then Saturday evening we went to Mass. Now, we almost *never* go to Mass on Saturday. We just don't. We are a Sunday morning family, and we like it that way. Our Sunday Mass begins at 11:00, and Benediction comes anywhere from 12:00 to 12:30. We arrive back home mid-afternoon, depending on our errands, and spend the afternoon together as a family. This weekend, though, there was to be a May crowning of a beautiful image of Mama Mary, and we wanted to attend. Fortuitously, when I turned to leave the Church, there on the steps stood our dear friend, Fr. E. The Godfather himself (and another very dear Fr. E.!) was waiting to meet for supper with the Bishop, and so we indulged in a few minutes of long overdue conversation. What a lovely surprise!

We ran our errands, did our grocery shopping and picked up materials for the house, and prayed or Rosary on the way home.

Since we attended the vigil Mass, Sunday was left entirely to us as a family. What a strange thing it was, to rise, share our breakfast, and then not ready for Mass! (And for those keeping track, it's about 3 hours between the end of our breakfast and the time we receive Jesus in the Eucharist--one of the reasons we so prefer the late morning Mass!) Instead, Sunday was very leisurely. My Darling brought a couple of chairs out to the side of the house. I filled my bird feeders, and we sat with our steaming mugs of coffee and watched the finches and siskins vie for position with the grosbeaks. When my Monkey awoke, he came out and joined us, snuggling in my lap with his cup of hot chocolate. The trees whispered quietly above us, and the sun warmed our backs.

I also began looking critically at my front gardens.

When the whole day stretches before a gardener--a day full of the promise of clear blue skies, gorgeously mild temperatures, and twelve bags of mulch waiting in the wings...well, it's a good day in the life of a gardener! Considering that last year saw my energy waning about this time (I was, after all, busy!), there was plenty to be accomplished this weekend. Three gardens were waiting on me, and no help for it. I removed sod for Pete's sake--sod which had the nerve to establish itself atop the permeable fabric I had so carefully laid beneath the mulch. Ugh! I sweated. I yanked. I pulled. I grimaced. I may have grunted a time or two. And the birds chattered furiously above me, scolding me for daring to invade the area below their favorite feeder!

Ha! I was not to be deterred. My poor, neglected gardens needed some TLC, and I had no intention of allowing them to sink even further into disrepair.

And so I dug in. By the middle of the afternoon, I had weeded, thinned, and mulched my front beds, and clipped several thousand dry, dead twigs and branches from my poor crab apple tree. I increased the amount of waste in the compost bin by nearly half. I also collected some large rocks from the backyard, and built them into a wide-based pyramid in the center of one of the gardens, with a flat-sided rock at the pinnacle. I topped it off with a large terracotta saucer, and filled it with water, so that my little friends at the feeders can catch a drink and a splash with their meals. They love it! And what a beautiful contrast it is to see the bright yellow of the goldfinches against the warm brownish-orange of the clay beneath their little feet.

My children also worked hard that day. The Pickle and the Reepicheep delighted in helping me by hauling weeds and sticks to the compost. As I pruned my beautiful little crab apple tree, Reepicheep picked up the twigs and stacked them for the village to toss into the mulch machine. Monkey had a great time helping My Darling, picking up nails or small scraps of siding to be discarded. And the Frog did a wonderful job lending a hand with my little Bug. It truly was a glorious day. Perhaps I'll get back to posting pictures, and snap a few of what we did.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Where has it gone?

The time, that is. Where, indeed?

She is six months old today. Six months ago, at this very moment, I was gently laboring to bring my beautiful little girl into the world. Today, at this very moment, she sleeps soundly in my lap, her dark hair damp against her brow. Two teeth gleam in her pink gums, with the promise of one or two more pushing through in the next few days. She rolls, she creeps, she nearly sits. She plays, she babbles, she sings affectionate love songs to her siblings. She munches on her teething toast and freshly mashed peaches, and yet slurps appreciatively whilst snuggled to my breast. She delights in nestling into the hammock, peering curiously into the trees and carefully watching the clouds, the birds, the trees above her.

She is growing well into a little girl.

While a great portion of my heart yearns for her small babyhood to linger and last, I am yet eager to witness her first teetering steps, hear her first meaningfully articulated words, and celebrate every new milestone of growth.

And so it goes.

My six-month-old little Snuggle Bug.......Where has the time gone?

Monday, May 18, 2009

For MamaMidwife, re: our earlier conversation.

I love this song.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mmmmmmmm........Beef Stroganoff!

I know, it's been nearly a month.

At the behest of a dear friend, and perhaps a little late, I'm updating briefly. I do PROMISE to come back later (today, if at all possible).

Though the hour is a bit early for such a thing, my Darling and I cooked up a batch of beef stroganoff this morning. We promised a meal to a young couple from church who so recently welcomed their first child. Becoming parents for the first time is physically, emotionally, and intellectually exhausting--like going from 0 to 100 mph with a full stomach, a cup of coffee with no lid, a carton of raw eggs balanced on top, and no seat belt. Don't get me wrong--it's exhausting with each subsequent child, but that first one is just plain overwhelming all the way around.

Anyway, the stroganoff is cooling nicely, having been packed up into tidy little containers, and will be delivered to the new parents shortly.

So then I was thinking, That does smell pretty tasty. I wonder if my readers would care to know what goes into the pan? Of course, I flatter myself by this thought, but it's nice to venture that more than one person out there would be interested in what goes on in my heart and in my home.

At any rate, here's my own recipe for Beef Stroganoff. Bear in mind that I feed a hungry family of 7 at my table, with 6 of them requiring hefty portions, and one just beginning to turn herself into a toothy grinner.

2 pounds ground chuck
1 medium vidalia onion, chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 - 6 1/2 ounce cans mushroom pieces and stems, drained, juice set aside
Freshly ground black pepper and sea salt to taste

2-ish cups sour cream
Mushroom juice from the two cans
2-3 tsp. Lea & Perrins Worchestershire sauce
1/4-ish cup white wine (I've been using a lovely Chardonnay)
1/4-ish cup 1/2 & 1/2 or heavy cream

When beginning the meat, also begin boiling water for noodles. I generally add about 2 tsp. olive oil and a bit of salt to the water.

Brown meat, along with onions and garlic. I like to use the jarred minced garlic--the kind in light oil (two teaspoons of this would equal two fresh cloves). Add mushrooms as the sauce is being put together, after draining the cans into the sauce. If necessary, drain fat from meat--but a bit of good juice is a nice addition to the dish. Whisk together ingredients for sauce. The measurements are generalized because I mix it by eye--that is, the right consistency is something akin to melted ice cream. If it's too thin, I add more sour cream. If it's too thick, more wine or more cream.

Add the sauce to the browned meat, and simmer, covered, just below a boil while the noodles finish cooking. I like this recipe with medium egg noodles, but you could use whatever kind your heart desires. The kids would probably get a kick out of bow tie or shell pasta. Maybe I'll throw that at them one of these days to see the smiles I'm sure would come of it. :)

Another aside--we bought a side of beef in March. I must say, it was one of the best things we've ever done. For just a bit the other side of $700, we have every cut of beef a person could want, including delicious steaks and prime rib, for Pete's sake, in our very own freezer at any time of the day or night! Because it was so well processed, I never have to drain any fat from the ground beef after it cooks. It is literally only meat juice, and not fat, which issues forth. I can't explain it--usually I go for ground chuck at the store, because it's leaner than ground beef, but has more flavor than ground round. But this cooks up like round and tastes like beef. It's amazing.

What's been on your table recently?