I'd say we're full of the holiday spirit now, with cheer arriving almost daily since our holiday/birthday weekend in Vermont.
(I'll note one downside: the Snowy Owl died. She (or perhaps a juvenile "he") was probably exhausted from her journey from the Arctic and in organ failure (making it easier to photograph her, alas), then she fell through the ice and, despite being taken to a rescue organization, died two days later. I was very, very, very sad, as was Mama--and we decided not to tell the kids. Enough death this year. They got the lesson. So, please don't mention this. We've said the owl moved on so it's not here to be seen anymore. I read today that there's one in Hartford. Hopefully, it's heading south!)
Okay, back to the holiday spirit.
We're decorated (though, somewhat minimally this year), with presents wrapped and cookies baked, too. We watched Bill Murray in Scrooged and the kids even made a small snowman in the weekend snowfall. I did the grocery shopping today and finished my gift buying (I think.) We're not doing a big meal, just gumbo and muffalettas, with Vermont cheeses, homemade (and cookie cafe) cookies, hot chocolate, maybe the NYTimes hot chocolate red wine (!), and perhaps a gingerbread bundt cake from King Arthur Flour.
Go to Cookie Cafe (Dec.3)--DONE
Set up Lego Christmas village--DONE
My birthday celebration--DONE
Holiday weekend away--DONE
Look for Snowy Owl--DONE
Family game night (probably Animal Jam)--DONE (we played Tenzi, too)
Build gingerbread houses
Host cookie party--TODAY
Make holiday wreath--DONE (two, actually--one with boxwood and one with twinkle lights)
Stay up late, a la Solstice Camp Out the night of last day of school
Gifts for teachers, vet, coaches--DONE
Create and send family Christmas card--halfway done (the cards were just ordered)
As you know, it is owling season for me here along the Connecticut coast, especially now since a Snowy was spotted nearby. Last week, I went to a state park to look for the Snowy, walking up and down the boardwalk, checking the marshes where it had been photographed the day before. No luck. And then I spotted a group of photographers in a distant parking lot, so I hightailed it across the beach, past a display of Kindness Rocks and several rock art formations ("Hi," "God," and a heart.) There were four or five photographers and birders with binoculars, some standing on the bed of a pickup; they were all focused not on the beach but on the brush behind.
I whispered, "Good morning! What are we looking at? The Snowy?"
No, and they pointed into the brush. It was an animal. They were so excited.
I looked; I saw it. "That animal at 11 o'clock?" I asked. Yep.
"It's a bobcat," they said.
I raised my binoculars again and studied it again. "Um, that's a marmalade tabby cat. Not a bobcat." They continued to stare, partly in disbelief, until one of the other photographers confirmed: housecat.
I guess birders don't know bobcats. I laughed all the way home.
I try not to get disappointed when I go looking, unsuccessfully, for the Snowy. To paraphrase my dad, "A bad day birding is better than a good day doing chores and errands." I try to think of it as a nice walk outside, but I can't help but be a little disappointed when I don't spot one, especially when it has been in the area.
And so, yesterday, when I saw that someone had posted about the Snowy being spotted that very morning, I headed out. Mama was home with a head cold but decided to go with me. And brought her camera.
I know you know from the pictures already posted how this turns out, but let me tell you the whole story.
We wandered for more than an hour. First where the bird had been spotted; we checked with a gentleman who was also birding but he hadn't seen it. Then we checked along the beaches, heading to the nearby point. We talked to another birder there who hadn't seen Snowy either. Sigh. And so we decided to go home the way we came, via the marsh, for one last look.
That's when I saw her (probably her, or a juvenile, because of all the black flecks.) By happenstance, I looked over the passenger's side at just the right moment and saw the owl on the ground. Mama saw a blur and we rushed to find a place to turn around. I figure I made more than a few moving violations, but there were few people around at midday. We pulled up across from where I saw the owl and I encouraged Mama with the big camera to hop out; she insisted I get out, and so I did, running across the still-empty road. And I just stood there, watching it.
The bird was about 20 feet away, on the ground in the brush near a canal--and a no trespassing sign! It sat there--all thick and fluffy--just looking around, at me, at some of the passing cars, at who knows what. I didn't want to stress or flush the owl, and so I didn't go any closer, stood still on my spot. She was very white with many contrasting flecks. Very puffy, too. So still, except for moving her head (easily more than 180 degrees, but not the mythic 360) and squinting and then opening her eyes.
And before Mama could get back to our spot, the gentleman birder from the beach drove by! He parked (illegally--I wasn't the only one making questionable maneuvers) and stood still watching and photographing, too. We were just amazed at her beauty and quiet.
Mama returned and parked in front of him, deciding it was worth the cost of a parking ticket. And then she took those gorgeous photos with her fancy camera. The other birder left and Mama and I stayed to marvel. The owl just kept her place. And while we would have loved to stay until she flew off, we a). didn't want to scare her, b). had to get Mama to her doctor's appointment, and c). didn't want to cause traffic problems.
This is my favorite of Mama's photos.
I was in awe and joyful the rest of the day. WE SAW A SNOWY OWL IN THE WILD!!!! No binoculars necessary. Complete luck. I've been looking for a Snowy off and on for three years--and yes, we did see one last year (the kids and I) about 300 yards off in the marsh. But this sighting was so much more amazing. And I was glad Mama was with me (she hadn't seen it last year.)
Having enjoyed Vermont so much this fall, we decided to visit again, this time in winter and, after the events of the last few weeks--deaths and politics--it was good for us to get away for a holiday weekend (I'm sorry we missed you this time, Sew and Sow.) And it was marvelous! Here are a few snapshots outlining the fun.
Our first stop in Vermont was the Vermont Country Store. It's a rest stop, snack place, and souvenir shop. We started our holiday shopping, picking up things for each other and friends and family. We did not buy the hat that Bud models here!
A lovely tree with cookie ornaments
Next up: King Arthur Flour. Last time, we arrived very late in the day, when the bakery was almost completely empty of its goodies. So we made an effort to arrive midday. Oh, so good. We had lunch--tasty grilled cheese, delicious homemade kaiser rolls, chocolate croissants, cardamom roll, and my favorite almond cloud cookies. I liked the quote on the wall near the cafe, "All sorrows are less with bread" (Cervantes.) And of course we did some shopping. Sis was so excited to pick up boxes of cinnamon puff muffin mix, her new favorite. And I got some unique mixes--Portuguese sweet rolls, Scottish oat bread, orange cranberry brioche. It was a tasty way to begin the weekend.
Another stop we made on the way was the Vermont Toy and Train Museum in Quechee. There we wandered amid the displays of toys from our childhoods--Cher doll, Luke and Leia dolls, Donnie and Marie dolls, Holly Hobby dolls, various lunchboxes including Holly Hobby, Happy Meal toys, bubble bath dispenses, boxed Halloween costumes with plastic masks, Fisher Price Little People. And there was a great model train through the Vermont countryside in summer, fall, and winter.
In the same complex, there were various shops, including an antiques store, with old photos ("instant ancestors"), tools, tea sets, food tins. Fun to wander with the kids.
And then we arrived in Woodstock, considered one of the most picturesque towns in the country. With holiday decorations, snow, early American houses, a preserved downtown including old dry goods store and pharmacy and unique shops, covered bridge, nearby river, and the surrounding mountains, it really is a great little place. And we were staying at the Woodstock Inn, a venerable hotel sitting back from the town green. (Lambeth, the kids said it was second only to the Lainston as their favorite place to stay!)
In our room were two treats--chocolate-covered strawberries and a notice that we would be riding in the town's Wassail parade, on the hotel's own wagon, both arranged by Mama and the concierge for my birthday!!!! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. It made for the perfect weekend.
But before the parade Saturday afternoon, we spent Saturday morning wandering the town, listening to the high school band play carols, and visiting the Dana House and the historical society with its displays on Christmas past. (This was after breakfast, when we discovered our waitress grew up in the town we live in and her cousin owns the deli near our pediatrician's office. Small world.) Sis and Bud even ran down to the river behind the house, enjoying the snow (which we haven't really had in Connecticut.)
The parade!! Mama had given me a heads-up about it, actually, first to see if I were interested and second so that I could pick a festive outfit. As the theme was Victorian, I wore one of my long historic house skirts and my lovely blue wool cloak from Gommie, under which were layers of sweaters, leggings, extra skirts, and warm socks--because the morning temperature had been 3F!! We all got a ride to the staging area where Sis was in her element around all of the horses. Across from us was the donkey brigade which we just read about in the morning's paper (the group helps youth and adults with developmental disabilities who take care of the miniature donkeys.) The little donkeys wear stuffed animals on their backs and pull small carts, led by their handlers.
And then we got on our wagon, wearing matching plaid fleece scarves supplied by the hotel. The festooned wagon was led by two humongous Belgian draft horses. We rode along with another family and an older couple, singing "Rudolph," "Jingle Bells," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas!" and waving to the crowds (over 2,000 cheering people!) It really was wonderful to see all the holiday cheer. And I liked seeing the old town from the wagon, which put me back in the 19th century. Though, it was pretty cold.
After the parade, we warmed up by the fire at the hotel with hot chocolate (and Bailey's!) At 4pm, we went to look at the town tree, Yule bonfire, and luminaries as the sun set. Dinner was the Wassail Feast at the hotel, with a variety of dishes such as prime rib, sliced salmon, Yorkshire Pudding, pumpkin bread pudding, buche de noel, and trifle. Mama and I made Yard of Flannel--hot apple cider and rum-whipped cream--and sat by the fire.
That evening we sat in the room, warming up from the day. I worked on my crocheted birthday blanket, in Lion Brand Thick and Quick Celestial Stripes. The kids made Rainbow Loom bands and played with their light-up wheelie bopper toys from the Vermont Country Store. (It was a no-screen weekend.)
Sunday, though it was cold again, we went to Billings Farm--with its draft horses, decorated farmhouse, and craft activities. The kids dipped their own candles and then Bud made a pomander with cloves and a clementine. Sis was enamored with the white Percheron draft horses and some more Belgians. And I liked the snow, the barns, and the warm kitchen with apple pie and roasted pumpkins.
On our way home, we ate at delicious Worthy Kitchen (poutine! fried chicken! pickled pineapple!) and then moseyed our way home. We did stop at the lake we'd visited with my folks in October--it was completely frozen and snow-covered. I did a 20-yard hike into the woods and watched Sis poked the ice with her toes.
We got home after dark, with snow falling gently on our town, the last little treat of the weekend.
My favorite photo, from town (actually taken from the car as we drove by.)
There was one uncomfortable thing that happened repeatedly in Vermont: there were a lot of questions about our family, race- and/or gender-based. From the woman at King Arthur Flour who thanked me for having a big heart and adopting Sis, to a white woman who said hi to Mama in Mandarin and was surprised she didn't speak Chinese, to the six or seven people (and I'm not exaggerating here) who mistook Mama for a boy/my son, Sis for a boy, and Bud for a girl. Never have so many assumptions been spoken to us aloud by so many in such a short time. It was rather disconcerting. We've had less trouble in rural Texas, for goodness sake. Come on, Vermont, what's with that? (And no, it wasn't just the tourists from elsewhere.) SaveSave
It was our annual holiday party for volunteers at the historic house, with delicious food and friendly faces. So I made a cake!
As a little girl, I remember our family getting boozy cakes in a box--rum and amaretto, I think--tender, moist, strong, small. They might have come from Foley's. I loved getting a little piece of them. I haven't had a boozy cake in decades.
So when I saw this recipe in Taste of Home AND needed something to take to the party, I chose this cake. And it was delicious, even though I rushed the glazing--I baked it this morning, kept it in the pan, poured half of the glaze on the cake about 20 minutes after it was out of the oven, and then took the cake out of the pan an hour later and glazed the top. Yum!
I can't wait to try it with Amaretto and perhaps almonds.
Rawhide's Whiskey Cake from Taste of Home1 package spice cake mix with pudding (regular size) 1 package (3.40 ounces) instant vanilla pudding mix 3/4 cup 2% milk 1/2 cup canola oil (I used grapeseed oil) 3/4 cup whiskey (I used bourbon) 4 large eggs 1-1/3 cups coarsely chopped walnuts, divided
GLAZE: 1/2 cup butter, cubed 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon water 1/2 cup whiskey
Preheat oven to 300°. Grease and flour a 10-in. tube pan.
Combine the first six ingredients; beat on low speed 30 seconds. Beat on medium speed 2 minutes; fold in 1 cup nuts. Pour batter into prepared pan; sprinkle with remaining nuts. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 60-65 minutes. Cool in pan.
For glaze, mix all ingredients in a small saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat; simmer 10 minutes. Cool 3 minutes. Pour one-third of glaze over top of cake, allowing some to flow over sides. Let stand 1 hour. Remove from pan to cool completely; cover.
The next day, reheat glaze; brush half over cake, cooling before covering. Repeat the following day, using remaining glaze.
My gentle cousin John, son of my beloved Aunt Sis and Uncle Sis (who himself died a week or so ago), has died. I hadn't seen him in years, mainly because he was a monk in France. But I have been hearing stories about him all my life. He is almost a mythic figure, because . . . .
As a teenager, he kept a huge Python in bathtub. For years. I think he finally gave it to a zoo.
He was 6'7" and blond, with a tan and easy smile, and that long thin nose and high forehead from my dad's side of the family
In high school, he took Latin-- our grandad, who valued learning but didn't have much schooling, was so proud
He could juggle--balls, pins, who knows what all. And he taught me. He would juggle with friends in Breckenridge Park on weekends and my aunt would take me to watch.
I think he played basketball for his high school team (I seem to recall there was a photo in a local paper.)
He had a soft voice and laugh and would say "now, now" just like his mom.
I saw him most during the years I spent in San Antonio for counseling at summer camp and then school. He even drove me home from camp one year and we had a wonderful conversation.
He went to Pepperdine and illustrated the cover of the college magazine. It was a play between a photograph and a drawing, with an easel on it. His parents were so proud.
After college, he worked as a construction worker in SF for awhile.
Then he apparently rode the rails (illegally) across the US a few times, like a true hobo.
At some point, he took classical sculpting from a teacher in Italy and sent home a beautiful bust of a woman, which his mom prominently displayed.
When I was in NYC, he stayed with me for a few weeks, sleeping on my floor (he didn't really fit in beds anyway, having to move the mattress down the frame and supplementing with pillows.) I remember him as fairly austere. He ate only Cream of Wheat, didn't like recorded music or even photographs because they weren't "real." There's a photo of us from this time, but I can't find it.
While in NYC, he was sculpting at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, having gotten the connection from his Italian teacher.
Later, he lived in a basic hut (no power or running water) on the moors of Scotland; his parents visited him there.
And then he met up with a Pepperdine friend at a monastery in France. He became Catholic. He learned French. He took vows and became a monk.
As a monk, he traveled both to Egypt and to the Czech Republic doing the work of his monastery. He also helped with the online end of the monastery's retail business. They made jams and I think even wine.
He also got a degree in paleo-calligraphy--the art of ancient documents--from the Sorbonne. His handwriting was beautiful like his mother's, but more flowing.
He wore Teva sandals because he couldn't fit into the regular monk shoes; his mom would ship them from Texas.
Before he took final vows, he came back to US to think things over. And he even did some bartending with his brother for awhile.
I think this was the last time I saw him, at his parents' home on that trip.
We exchanged letters and emails only very occasionally--when I came out, when Mama and I had twins, when his mom was ill and then when she died. We only discussed religion once or twice--when John Paul II died and I sent condolences and he said, as a monk, he wasn't that concerned with the politics of the church. And when I told him about being a Unitarian, he said I should give the Trinity a try. Through his monk-friend I sent him our goodbyes.
Haircuts. Horseback riding. Kung fu. Parent-teacher conferences. Piano lessons. Crochet. Office holiday party. Hospice visit. It's been a pretty regular week around here. And it's lined up to be a pretty standard weekend. More kung fu. Zentangle. Speedskating. Church. Maybe a hike.
We're hanging in. We miss our cat Mojito. We mourn my uncle. I wait to hear that my cousin has died. I liked the rain, but it's nice to see the sun, too. There doesn't seem to be real winter, much less snow, in sight.
Meanwhile, it's not long until my birthday and then on to Christmas and my parents' visit. We'll do our usual cookie party for the kids, maybe do the sock advent calendar (though clearly we're behind--it just doesn't feel like December yet.), keep working on the Christmas Lego village, do some local holiday activities, decorate the house and tree. I haven't managed to do the Christmas cards yet; not sure I'll get to it.