Monday, November 23, 2009

It could have been his last day

When my husband George was leaving for work this morning, I said an extra prayer for his safety on the road. He covers so many miles driving to his clients’ homes and schools to tune pianos or do home renovation. Today he was to tune four pianos in a school 50 miles from home. That's a long drive. Then 50 miles back.

I didn't realize that Jacob had said good-bye to George twice, and asked for extra prayer. Jacob had a dream last night that George died. He kept dreaming it over and over last night, but we didn't find out until later.

At 8:30 AM the phone rang. I saw George's cell phone number on the caller ID, but George didn’t respond right away when I said, “Hello?”

“Hello?” I said again. “Hello...?” Larissa came closer, trying to listen in and figure out who was calling.

Finally, George’s voice came on the line.

“Hi, how are you?” Hm, this wasn’t a typical before-work conversation. And he didn’t normally call me at this time.

“Uh, I’m OK. I’m getting ready for work…”

“I, um, I had an accident. I totaled the van. A woman pulled out in front of me and I honked and tried to avoid her, but I hit her kind of head on.”

I could feel my face drain. “Are you OK?”

“I have some pain in my stomach.”

“And the woman?”

“She’s OK. We’re both outside waiting for the police to come.”

“Well, you won’t be able to get to work today, not unless I come and get you, then you drive back 50 miles and drop me off at the office, then you drive back again…”

“Come and get me and we’ll sort it out. Take exit 7 from the highway and then just follow the road south. You can’t miss me. It’ll take you about 40 minutes to get here.”

Not exactly the way I hoped to start my work week with deadlines that I can't possibly meet looming this week and, of course, homeschooling to do while in my spare time I prepare for the Dallas mission trip. But thoughts of deadlines and mission trips faded from my thoughts as I wondered what shape George was really in. Would I find him by the road waiting for me – or in a hospital? Could the pain in his stomach be from internal bleeding?

"What's going on?" the kids wanted to know as soon as I hung up. My end of the conversation hinted that things weren't quite right, so I filled them in on the details. Then I called my boss and left a message that I would be in late, and why.

When I was ready to leave, I gathered the kids for prayer – for George's well-being and for my safety. We couldn't find Jacob at first, and when Alexandra finally located him in the basement storage room, he told us he'd been praying. It was obvious that he'd been crying as well.

The drive south was beautiful this sunny, late fall morning – over hills, past corn fields with yellowed stalks, by farms, horses, cows. I kept wondering just how far south I needed to go. I hadn't thought to ask. Is it possible that I passed the accident site? Could the cars have been towed and victims in the hospital, and I would just drive by and not know where to find them? After all, I'm one of very few people I know who does not have a cell phone, so I couldn't even call my husband from the road unless I stopped in a store or a house.

Worry gnawed at me, and I kept driving until, at last, I came upon a tan sedan whose front end was demolished. Our green van was nowhere to be seen, but there was my husband, pacing, cell phone in hand, beret on his head, talking apparently to the insurance agent. I parked on the side of the road in front of a large, white rural home. I got out of the van and got some information about the accident from Don, the father of the 16-year-old girl who had pulled out from her driveway right in front of George's van. She'd had her license three months and was rushing off to school. She was late and didn't look.

Later, on the drive to see the van in its final resting place where it had been towed, George filled me in. "I was driving along about 55 miles per hour when I saw this car pulling out of the driveway. I thought it would stop. I honked the horn, slammed on my brakes and kept honking, then I pulled into the left lane to try to avoid it, but she kept going right into that left lane. I hit her almost head on. Fortunately, I was going only about 35 at the time. If I hadn't gone into the left lane, I would have crushed the driver's door – and the girl. I don't think that she would have lived.

"Before I hit, I knew I was going to hit and I wasn't sure if I was going to live. There was smoke and smell of plastic and a terrible odor. All the engine fluids leaked. The airbags went off. And then I just walked out. I walked out of the van like nothing happened. And she walked out."

She got a cut on her lip. George is bruised from the seat belt cutting into his chest. But, oh, it could have been so much worse!

This evening at dinner and afterward, we surrounded George with extra hugs, and I shed a few tears of joy. Praise God that we still have George with us today!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Visit to a city mission

A few days ago I left a message for Lily, the head of one of the city mission agencies that I visited two weeks ago on the tour of outreaches to the poor, the immigrants, the drug addicts, the homeless, and the ex-convicts.

Lily and I used to work together more than 20 years ago, she as an engineer designing spectrophotometers, I as a technical writer writing the documentation. I worked freelance at the time, so I eventually moved on, but we stayed in touch through lunches and Christmas newsletters. But I never expected that we'd get back together in the basement of a church as we did yesterday.

Several years ago in her Christmas newsletter, Lily announced that she'd quit her job – retired she put it – and started an after-school program for city children where she worked for $1 per year. Wow, I thought, my curiosity piqued, I should visit her. But I didn't follow through for many years, not until yesterday.

I brought along Alexandra and Larissa so they, too, could get the detailed tour and to hear the story of how the mission began.

We walked into this large, brick church built in 1907. In the basement, the smell of food and the sight of dozens of rather bedraggled-looking people sitting at tables greeted us. I scurried around the building looking for Lily, peeking into the kitchen, the medical office, and the thrift store before I found her.

Lily's soft-spoken voice was sometimes had to hear above the ruckus as we toured the facilities for over an hour.

"You started all this?" I asked her, incredulous.

We saw over 100 people in the fellowship hall eating breakfast and dozens of volunteers cooking and distributing the meal. We observed a wheel chair bound woman coming to visit a social worker. We chatted with a medical technologist, who described how she serves the area's children with virtual medical visits via a computer and cameras, and a link to the local hospital where a doctor communicates with her. "He sees all I see via the cameras and equipment I have connected to the computer." We walked through the store in the church building that sold used clothing for a pittance. And we glimpsed into the food pantry supplied by the local food bank. We saw children darting through the halls, on their way to be picked up and driven on a day trip to an area park or museum, or apple picking. "We take them places every other Saturday that they'd never have the chance to visit with their families," said Lily.

Upstairs Lily showed us the rooms for the after-school day care program for grades 1 though 6. The videography classes for teens. Sewing classes. Bible studies. Men's Bible studies. My head swam with the details.

"How on earth did you start all this?"

"I didn't know what I was getting into," Lily laughed. "I first started the store that sells used clothing. I did that in 1998 while still working. In 2002, I quit my job and first started the after-school program for kids to keep them off the streets and away from the drug dealers. Many of these kids come from homes where the parents work and they would be coming home to an empty house – or to the street."

One thing had led to another as more and more people suggested additional ministries. In fact, we talked with the woman who suggested – and now heads – the weekly Saturday morning breakfasts. "And we also serve dinner once a month," she added. "By the way, Lily, I want to talk to you about an idea…"

"Oh, no," smiled Lily. "Another idea? Later."

Just then a stocky black woman insisted on getting food from the food pantry even though she didn't have the proper documentation. "I don't have any food at home," she claimed. She was kind of belligerent, not meek or polite as if asking a favor, but as if she were demanding a right. She did get her food, but frankly, I'd have a hard time working with people like that.

Still, you could tell by looking around that these people had been beaten down by life. We heard many stories, but the ones that touched Alexandra's heart most were about the Nepali immigrants. Bill, a tall, paunchy man with graying hair, had interrupted Lily's description of some ministry to tell us about these new immigrants.

"These kids get really picked on in the city schools. I would call them assaults. The first day in one of the city high schools, one Nepali was eating lunch in the cafeteria when someone threw a condom in his lunch! Hardly a day goes by when one of these kids isn't thrown up against a wall and frisked for money. One kid had a trashcan emptied over his head in the men's room! Welcome to America. The thing is, these boys come from refugee camps and they've had a life that is way rougher than any of the kids in school ever experienced. They're time bombs waiting to go off. Push one of them too far and they're bound to explode."

What a way to be treated in an unfamiliar culture. My heart broke for them.

Back home, Alexandra couldn't get this conversation out of her head. What school did this happen in? How old were the victims? How could this occur? This kind of thing never happened in their suburban public high school…

My main question was: How can we get involved with Lily's ministry?

The best option I saw was to come to the after-school program and give special presentations. "Show them something from Ukraine – dress in the traditional outfits, talk about the food, anything," Lily had suggested.

Although I've done many such presentations in the past for my kids' classrooms when they were young, my challenge will be to get the girls to do the presentations. We have to take it one step at a time. Perhaps it will be the beginning of something.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Giving hope for Christmas

The kids still remember their presents from last year. It's not because they received fancy gifts, but because each of them had the chance to choose a gift for someone in need. And each of them remembers just what they picked.

Praise God, this year we are still employed and not struggling financially like so many others. So once again, I'm not going to rain needless gifts upon my children, but I will once more give each a wrapped catalog and a check made out to Partners International. They can read and reread the catalog, ponder the needs of others, and select a gift from their hearts. What better way to celebrate the birth of Christ? Would He really want my son to get a video game in honor of His birth - or for him to choose education for three kids in Sudan, feed four poor families, and more...

Harvest of Hope™ - Gifts That Change Lives from Partners International.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I want to come with you

For years I've wanted to inspire others to go on mission trips to foreign lands, step out of their comfort zones, and develop compassion towards others who are unlike them.

During a missions conference last month in the community church I used to attend, one woman told me that my photographs of Senegal, which I had shared with the church, have spurred many to join the church's annual mission trip to that West African country. Each person who has gone represents another life that's been changed.

In the church that we now attend, I organized a mission trip to Mexico last spring. I hope to organize another trip to Mexico in the future, but for now, I'm slowly getting ready to go to Dallas with my daughters on a mission trip to the inner city, organized by Global Expeditions. I've mentioned this upcoming trip to a few friends.

After the church service today, the wife of the assistant youth group leader (who came to Mexico with us) approached me.

"My husband is encouraging me to go to Dallas with you," said Olga.

My heart sank. I was both happy that she had this desire and sad because it was unrealistic. It would be such a big leap for this woman to leave her two toddlers in the care of her parents, who recently came to live with her. But she's an immigrant from Ukraine and doesn't speak English. She wouldn't get much from the trip without knowing the language; she'd need an interpreter (like one of my daughters) with her at all times. Besides, I'm not organizing the trip; Global Expeditions is. So even though I was thrilled with her desire to go, I advised against it.

"When I return from Dallas, I hope to apply what I learn there to some mission opportunity right here in our own city. Perhaps you can get involved with that," I said hopefully.

For years I'd prayed about missions and influencing others to serve or give. I've had my heart broken in Kenya over the suffering of the Sudanese refugees, many of them widows, who, for a daily bowl of food for their starving children, are willing to give up their Christian faith and attend a mosque. Why aren't we Christians in the West supporting our sisters in their time of need? I've shed tears over severely malnourished and dying children, whom I personally met. I've played with the AIDS orphans and listened to stories of rescued street children in Ethiopia. And I've been disturbed by our overabundance in the West, our propensity to buy the latest gadgets for our own amusement, to waste our money on coloring our hair or doing our nails while so many in the world struggle just to feed their families.

I've wanted to share and speak and stir my American sisters and brothers out of their complacency, touch their hearts, stir their souls. And I've wanted to do this full-time. Our brothers and sisters in Africa and all over the world work so hard to help the destitute and reach the lost, but they have so little funds – and we have so much. But most Americans are unaware of the needs. I'm convinced that many would help if they only knew.

Olga wanting to come with me encouraged me. Someday I hope to stir more hearts to action. I keep this dream alive while I homeschool and work full-time writing instructions for equipment.

But perhaps, despite how busy I am and how little I feel I'm doing for God, He really is using me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Are there really people like that here?

Ever since I read Growing Up Empty over a year ago, its contents have haunted me.

I grew up as the daughter of immigrants who came to Canada following WWII after being displaced from their homeland by war. I always felt the pinch of my father’s slim salary, but I never went hungry. Still, I grew up with stories of my own parents’ times of hunger – of drinking the water that the potatoes were cooked in, of wanting a stick of gum that the soldiers had so as to have something to chew, of surviving on bread alone.

But I never dreamt that there we such people in America.

Like the author, who adopted and fed an elderly woman, I’ve wanted to adopt and help feed some family. But where do you start? How do you find the hungry? I can’t just go into the inner city and knock on doors – can I?

For over a year, I’ve wanted to help and get the kids involved in aiding this city’s destitute, but I didn’t know where to start. But last Saturday, I made my first step: I took a tour, organized by a local aid organization, of several churches and other charities helping the poor. They feed and clothe and take children off the streets after school to keep them away from drugs and danger. They rehabilitate the drug addicts and teach job skills to the uneducated. They have a heart for the poor. And among those working with the inner city children is a former coworker, an engineer who retired and now works even harder, but at something that God called her to do.

I felt energized after that tour. At last, I took a baby step towards volunteering. Signing up for the Dallas mission trip was another step. A third step was giving Alexandra Growing Up Empty as a reading assignment.

“Are there really people like that here?” she asked me after reading the first chapter. “Can’t we find them and help? The Bible says to invite in and feed those who can never repay you, like the homeless. Can’t we do that?”

“That’s why I went on that tour last Saturday,” I told her. “I want to find out how to help. We can’t just drive around and pick up a homeless man and take him home, but maybe through one of these organizations, we can befriend someone. Then we can bring them home – or bring them food to their home.”

“Like we brought dinner to grandma last week?” she asked. The girls had cooked corned beef and cabbage with potatoes, and we’d brought that over and eaten with her.

“Yes, just like that.”

Isn’t homeschooling wonderful? I gave Alexandra a book that touched my heart, and now it touched hers. I get to mold her heart the way that I want – the way I feel God calling me to do.

And God willing, we will find someone to help. I know that they’re out there.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A writing assignment unlike the others

Fridays are creative writing days at our house. It's not always easy to come up with an assignment, and last year I used up most of my own ideas. So this year I often search the Internet for more.

I found the assignment below on some link and let the kids have free reign. What Alexandra came up with wasn't at all what I was expecting. It seems that she was affected by reading A Child Called It and her story took a twist I didn't expect at all. But the rewarding part is not only is her writing style rather engaging, but she has also absorbed some of the sensitivity to the downtrodden that I've been trying to impart to my children ever since they were in preschool.

In your composition book, write a story that starts with this situation:

It’s a regular school day, boring classes, same old things. At last you hear the lunch bell ring. You sit down with your friends and open your lunch bag. There is no sandwich, no chips, no cookies. A mystery package has replaced all of that! Slowly and incredulously, you take the package from your lunch bag. Not only did it appear in your lunch, but it has your name on it! What is inside? Who sent it and why?

Alexandra's composition:
Andrew sat in class with all the rest of his classmates, listening to the drone of his teacher's voice. He couldn't understand what the teacher was trying to say. Whatever it was, it didn't seem to be penetrating his head. Instead, he'd been counting down the seconds to lunchtime since five minutes ago. There were 39 seconds left.

As soon as the lunch bell rang, the teacher announced, "Line up, students!" Andrew raced to the coatroom, grabbed his lunch, and dashed to the door. He was third in line. He shuffled his feet impatiently, fighting the urge to grab his string cheese that he'd seen his mother pack this morning, and start eating it right then and there.

Finally everyone was in a straight line, and they marched off to the cafeteria.

Andrew sat down with his friends, Tom and Steven, at their usual table. Each boy pulled out his typical lunch: a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Andrew reached into his, anticipating the usual bologna sandwich, banana, juice, string cheese, and cookies. Instead, he felt a crumpled bag in his lunch box. He pulled it out and peered inside. He reached in and pulled out a lined piece of paper. It read:


I'm sorry, but I couldn't resist the temptation to take your lunch today. I was very hungry and I knew you'd have some cookies in there; you always do. I told myself I'd only take one cookie, but when I saw you had my favorite bologna sandwich, I couldn't resist. I'm sorry I ate all your lunch. It won't happen again.


P.S. It's just that I haven't eaten since Friday.

Andrew glanced into his lunch box. Indeed, it was empty. Buy who could've eaten it? They hadn't eaten since Friday? Today was Monday!

"Hey guys," Andrew asked, "Do any of you have two bucks?"

"Sure, buddy," Tom replied, reaching into his pocket, "but what do ya need 'em for?"

"There's no lunch in my lunch box," Andrew replied. His friends gave him puzzled looks as they looked at his empty lunch box.

"That's interesting," they commented as Andrew took Tom's money and went to buy himself some lunch.

Andrew looked despairingly at the long line as he got into the last place. Today there were chicken nuggets, so lots of people would be buying.

As he stood in line looking about, Andrew noticed a kid sitting at the end of a table by himself. His name was David, and he was quite shy. For some reason many children didn't like him. He was poor and it showed: his clothes had patches and he looked as if he needed a shower. He was also flesh and bones, seemed to have no meat on him.

David glanced at Andrew, saw him watching and quickly glanced away. Suddenly it hit Andrew that this might be the person who'd taken his lunch. Should he ask?

Once out of line, Andrew hurried to his table. He ate four of his chicken nuggets, leaving 2 for David and some tator tots. As soon as both his friends looked away, he hurried off with the rest of his lunch to David's table.

"I noticed you have no lunch today," Andrew said to David. "Want the rest of mine? I'm not hungry anymore."

David didn't glance up, but mumbled "Sure." Andrew hurried away, feeling as embarrassed as David had looked.

"Where'd you go?" Tom and Steven asked as soon as he'd returned.

"I was done with my lunch," Andrew replied. "Wanna play kickball during recess?" he asked, changing the subject.

"Sure," his friends agreed.


The next day, when Davy came in to sit at his desk, he found a granola bar waiting for him. Who could've put it there? he wondered. He glanced at Andrew, sitting at his desk, busily writing something. Then he grabbed the granola bar and went to the bathroom to eat it.


That same day as the lunch bell rang, David hurried with the rest of his class to line up. He didn't bother going to the coatroom, since he knew he had no lunch. But as Andrew passed by with his lunch box, he shoved a paper bag with "David" written on it into Davy's hands. Davy glanced about; no one had noticed. He peered into the bag. He could see a bag of cookies, a banana and a sandwich. Embarrassed, but thankful, he made his way out of the classroom with the rest of the class.

After school that afternoon, near the buses, David stopped Andrew and asked, "Where'd you get the lunch?"

"I brought it," Andrew replied. "Why don't you come over to my house today?"

David looked at him skeptically, then agreed.

From that day on, Andrew and David became fast friends. Andrew always brought him lunch or money to buy some if there was something they like being sold.

Andrew learned from David that his mother and father were divorced, that his mother didn't care what he did, as long as he was out of her sight, and that she used to throw him out of the house if he'd ask for food or was caught taking some out of the fridge. She believed him a nuisance and said he reminded her of his father. If he wanted food, he should earn it.

So David came to live at Andrew's house. Since he'd be at his house all the time anyway, and in the end, Andrew's family adopted him. They always went around together and were quite proud to say they were twins.

The end.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mission to Dallas

Two evenings ago, after we had finished eating Alexandra’s birthday cake and were sitting around the table, Larissa sprang the news.

Timidly, quietly, looking at the table as she spoke, she said, “I want to go to Dallas, too.”

It was another case in not pushing and allowing God to do the work.

Once you’ve been on a Global Expeditions (GE) trip, you’re on their call list. Jacob went on three mission trips with GE (two to Mexico, one to Guatemala), Alexandra went on one (Honduras), and I’ve been a leader on two trips (Mexico with Jacob, Honduras with Alexandra). So in the early fall, we started getting phone calls about joining a holiday trip this year.

“I don’t think so,” I said when I answered the call for Jacob. “I don’t think that the timing is right. We’ve already been on two family mission trips this year – to Mexico in the spring and to Ukraine in the summer. Maybe next summer…”

But Global Expeditions kept calling. They called Alexandra. They called me. They called Jacob again. The answer was always the same. Not now. Not this time.

And then God did something with my heart. I love travel, and I do love mission trips. Wouldn’t it be great to get away from my desk and computer where I spend all my work and homeschooling hours, writing manuals for my employer and schedules for my kids. I sit at a desk and correct assignments, and I sit at the desk reading through grammar books, textbooks, and answer keys. Perhaps I could get away over Christmas break, maybe with one of the girls. Living with a tribe in Panama sounded exciting…

But it still didn't feel right, so I kept telling the Global Expeditions folks no.

Then I read Same Kind of Different As Me in three sittings. (I couldn't put it down.) There are so many needs in our own inner cites. I never before wanted to go on a mission trip to an inner city, but God whispered to my heart, Go! My husband said how could he say no to something like this?

Normally they don't pester, but now I know why those Global Expeditions reps kept calling. On their next call I said, “Yes, I’ll go. I’d like to go to Dallas as a Country Assistant.”

Now you don’t always get to pick and choose your trips when you’re a leader, and the holiday trips usually get Country Assistant volunteers quickly. But to my amazement, there was no Country Assistant for the Dallas trip yet. But why should I be surprised if God had put it in my heart to go there?

Although I would have been happy to serve on this youth mission trip without any of my children with me, I did invite all three to join me. It didn’t take Alexandra long to decide to go. Just mention children, and Alexandra will be there. This trip is about working with inner city children.

Alexandra tried to convince Larissa to go, but she just didn’t want to.

“I didn’t want to go on the Honduras trip,” Alexandra admitted. “Meet all these strangers and sleep with them in the same room? I only went because you made me,” she said to me.

I was shocked! When we had gone two years ago, I thought that she was just as excited about going as I was. Alexandra admitted that she was glad that she went, and that she grew more spiritually during that 10-day mission trip then ever before. But she hadn’t wanted to go.

I had considered telling Larissa that she should get out of her comfort zone and let God use her. But I’m glad that God told her before I did.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sweet sixteen

Yesterday we gained another driver-to-be in the house. Alexandra turned sixteen, and following the precedent set by her brother, I took her to the Department of Motor Vehicles and she got her learner’s permit right on her birthday. She even managed to pass the eye exam without glasses (unfortunately, she rarely wears them). And true to her character, she scored a perfect 100% on the written test.

Because Jacob needed the van to drive to his mechanics class in the morning, Alexandra and I got to the Motor Vehicle Department just before lunch. I’d expected a long line, but there was none, not a single person waiting! It took less than an hour to fill out all the paperwork, take the test, and pay the $92.50 for the permit.

Then I offered to take Alexandra out to lunch.

“I’m not eating until supper,” she announced.

The last several months, she’s been doing a lot of fasting – skipping a meal or two during the day, or not eating for 24 hours. Considering how thin she is, I’m not so happy about this frequent fasting, but she doesn’t do it for weight loss; she does it because the Bible says to pray and fast. I know that she prayed and fasted for our pastor when he had a very serious operation last month, an operation he was told he had only 50% chance of surviving, yet he was back in church within a week! So I said nothing about the day’s meal-skipping.

“Where were you going to take me?” she asked as I turned the van towards home, her interest obviously aroused.

“Olga’s Omelets,” I said. This restaurant specializes in omelets and egg dishes. I had taken all three kids there only once, but it was many years ago, and they still talked about it.

Alexandra sat in silence for a while.

“Where is Olga’s Omelets? How would you get there?”

“I’d take a right on one of these cross streets and drive right through the city. It’s in the city on Commons Avenue.”

More silence.

“OK, let’s go,” Alexandra said, her willpower broken or perhaps her fast put off for a day.

I certainly didn’t want to push her to give up something that she’d promised herself, but I was glad when she agreed to go to lunch with me. This day she was uncharacteristically friendly to me as we went for her permit, and I wanted the moment to last. Unfortunately, for the last several months, she has not been very pleasant toward me and even announced to others that she and I are very different, and she didn’t like me, to which a girl in her youth group said, “I think your mother is pretty cool.” No other mothers in our church travel to Africa, lead mission trips to Mexico, or cook weird (that is, Middle Eastern, Thai, Mexican, etc.) food. Perhaps that embarrasses her.

“She’ll come around,” my husband has assured me over and over as Alexandra’s teenage moods pushed me out of her world.

Didn’t I read somewhere that girls tend to pull away from their mothers during these years? Doesn’t that have something to do with growing less dependent or asserting their own individuality as women? Whatever it is, it’s painful for me. She doesn’t open up to me and often responds in curt, one-word answers. But she fawns on Dad.

At the restaurant, we talked like old friends, shared bites from each other’s omelets, and discussed the mission trip that we’re going to take to Dallas over Christmas break. Through that lunch, I had a peak at what our relationship might become one day after Alexandra outgrows her teenage moods.

Although I had wanted both daughters to go with me on this mission trip, perhaps it was better that Larissa didn’t want to go and that I would spend one on one time with Alexandra.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

This moment in time

Driving home from the grocery store last night, I had an odd thought: for this moment in time, all is well. And the odd thing is, I expect things to go on indefinitely just as they are right now.

Mom is back home and functioning OK. Dad is still sitting in front of the TV hours on end, barely walking from bed to chair and back again, but still alive and not even seriously ill – and he's almost 90. My kids are all living at home. They're all teenagers and sometimes we get a bit too much togetherness, but I can't imagine them not living with me, not being here.

For this moment in time, this fall day, this is reality for me: all is well.

It's hard to grasp that idea of perpetually passing time, especially when the passage of time steals away people. My brother died last year, so I'll never hear his voice again, share a story, or have him offer me a cup of coffee in his office. A cousin died not too long ago; we'll never walk together in his village in Ukraine. My mother's friend has a husband with Alzheimer's, another thief of memories and times gone by.

Even though Jacob doesn't know what he'll do next year, what he'll study or whether he'll work (I think he'll end up at the community college), this is trivial, a small trial in the story of his life, and mine.

But my parents and elderly friends and family, they're at the end of the bench, as one man said. Just not sure which one will get pushed off next. Then again, it could be someone young, like my brother.

But this evening, as fall settles in and frost nips the leaves and sends them whirling to the ground, all is well. Chaotic at times, exhausting, full of rabbits and goats, too many of us cooking and too few cleaning up, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Jumping another hurdle

That’s what it feels like to complete each of the tests in the Apologia science curriculum. Today the girls jumped hurdle number two in Biology. Fourteen more to go. There are sixteen modules in the book.

I think I sweat out those tests at least as much as my kids do. They aren’t the multiple-choice tests that they used to have in public school; these are all short answer!

I assign the test. The kids put it off. They do all their other subjects so the test would come too late in the day when they’re exhausted. They push it off to another day. They study. They procrastinate some more. I assign them material from the next module to push them along.

Then they take the leap: they take the test.

I nervously grade it.

They pass.

On to the next module. The next hurdle is about two weeks away.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Help has arrived!

We couldn’t go on running to feed my dad at his house four times per day while Mom recovers from her operation.

My sister was always late to work because she had the breakfast shift. I had to take time off from work in the middle of the day to fix and serve lunch.

The evening hours didn’t interfere with work, but they interfered with homeschooling. And they do take time out of the day. It was stressful.

And Dad, instead of being thankful, complained to Mom about any little thing we did “wrong.” Not giving him a glass of buttermilk at night. Serving an undercooked egg (even when my brother cooked it exactly 2 min. 10 sec. like Dad instructed). Not giving him enough vegetables. Or water. It was always something, and hearing about his complaints was downright demoralizing.

“We have to get someone in here to take over the breakfast and lunch duties,” I suggested last weekend after we realized that a nurse, even if covered by insurance, would only give him his pills. And that wasn’t the problem. He takes his own pills.

“We should ask around for some middle-aged or older Ukrainian woman,” suggested my youngest brother. “Someone who speaks Ukrainian and cooks the Ukrainian food that Dad's used to. The best way to find someone like that is by word of mouth.”

I sighed inside and braced myself for delivering a lot more lunches.

That was Saturday morning. So we each made a call and put out the word.

By 2:00, we had interview and hired our rescuer. Lydia was definitely sent there by God! She’s 64, has 15 years experience with cranky old people, and was a take-charge kind of woman, yet compassionate and has a servant heart. And my father loved her!

She’s also from our church.

God bless you, Lydia! And good luck to you!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Homeschooling is coming along. The kids are doing labs, taking tests (the completion of each Apologia science test is a celebration), writing reports, giving oral reports, and even learning Russian. The school year is going reasonably well.

But I'm a mess. Working a 40-hour-per-week job and teaching stretch me to the utmost. I'm completely, utterly inundated with work just juggling those two tasks because, after all, I still cook and do some housework. But my mother's sudden hospitalization has driven me to the very edge of the precipice. I have moments of losing it.

In a few days she'll be released from the hospital, but if she goes home, my father's demands could kill her. He thinks only about himself, and whether she is able to serve him or not, he will expect it. And she is so used to that role of servant that she would probably fetch or clean or do whatever just to get him to stop pestering her. So we kids have to either find some place that will take in my mother while she convalesces or find daily help at home. And even if we do find a place for Mom, we still need to find a person to at least come in daily and feed Dad lunch and do some laundry. I can't possibly take time off daily at lunchtime, drive to Dad's, fix him a meal, and go back to work, not even if I work from home. It just tears up the day. If all goes well, Mom will be healing for two to three months! I'd lose my mind.

If Dad was a pleasant person, appreciative of our efforts, flexible – perhaps we could do it. But he is not. He has very particular demands. He eats specific foods prepared a certain way. He cuts tomatoes with a specific knife, as my sister-in-law found out when she gave him THE WRONG KNIFE. But the worst thing is that he so often puts us down that none of us want to be around him. He's close to 90 years old, frail, dependent – but so critical and unpleasant that all of us kids are really struggling with serving him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mom in the hospital

I had just come home from shopping for a birthday gift for my niece when my husband met me in front of the house and said, "The party is canceled. Your mother is in the hospital."

That was on Saturday. Days later, I still haven't caught my breath.

My two brothers and sister had beaten me to the emergency room. X-rays. CAT scan. Diagnosis: ulcer had perforated her duodenum and the contents spilled into her abdominal cavity. Without surgery to clean her out and sew up the hole, she would die of infection.

Prep for operation. Saying good-bye – just in case. Waiting. Praying. Driving home to check on Dad. Waiting some more. Returning to the hospital. Waiting…

Mom made it through surgery and is recovering well, though she's in a lot of pain and sometimes confused due to the medications. But it's Dad who's put a wrench in my already overbooked life. He's 89 and can barely walk, and then only with a walker. He goes from bed to easy chair, where he sits all day watching TV, dozing, doing sudoku, dozing, cruising the Internet on his laptop, dozing some more… Then at the end of the day, he shuffles back to his bed. He needs someone to prepare his meals and place them in front of his easy chair, so my siblings and I divided up the days. I get to prepare the lunches and wash the dishes from the previous meal.

I won't get into details, but it's not been easy. My dad's personality is the opposite of pleasant. Each of us dread our shift. I know it's un-Christian, and I go to the ends of the earth to serve others, but I have a hard time serving my own father. I know this, yet I cringe each time I go over there. Years of putdowns and criticism never go away. I'm an adult – been an adult for decades! – and could easily push his frail body over, yet I still fear him. I'd rather serve a stranger. It's his tongue.

…no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:8)

In fact, over the weekend, my brothers, sister and I reminisced about his insults over the years. How sad. Unfortunately, that's how we'll always remember him. For his tongue.

We can't wait for Mom to get back home, but even when she does, she herself will need care! All of us work, and I work full-time AND homeschool three kids.


Monday, September 14, 2009

A year ago today...

This was the day, a year ago, when my brother Greg was taken off life support. His accident was on September 11, a date that will never slip by unnoticed. Technically, he died on September 13, the day he went brain dead. It's been a year. Seems longer. Much longer.

It still bothers me how my brother's affairs all ended. No will. No administrator. No estate. House being foreclosed. Everything for naught. Meaningless.

The house is still unsold, unoccupied, with gutters that need cleaning and a yard that sorely needs care. The lawn that Greg so painstakingly planted and tended is full of weeds. The flower gardens he created are overgrown or emptied, the hostas dug up and replanted in other gardens, including a memorial garden I created in my own yard. It's painful to go to his house, painful to think about his death, painful to think even of him. Still. A year later.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

She drowned the candy thermometer in caramel

Lately I've been obsessed with cakes - I mean tortes.

I've been baking tortes since I was 14, but only last week did I learn the definition of torte : a cake that uses ground nuts instead of flour.

OK, there's more to the definition than that, but my cakes - I means tortes - never had flour in them. Lots of nuts and eggs and butter and sugar, but no flour. But I digress...

I've been obsessed with tortes the last few weeks, ever since I began trying out new recipes with the hopes that the girls can make a small business out of baking tortes. So I've been outdoing myself brainstorming, researching, and trying out new recipes. Hazelnut Dacquoise. Chocolate Truffle Torte. Mocha. How would Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Truffle Torte sell? Would an almond buttercream taste good in a hazelnut torte, or should I put in a layer of chocolate? What if I put crushed hazelnuts in one layer of the praline buttercream? I have to hold myself back from going to the kitchen to make yet another torte when my refrigerator is already filled with sweets - or when I have homeschool plans to make or homework to grade.

Until I perfect the recipes I want to feature, I haven't involved the girls in the testing, so they've been doing some testing of their own. They love to bake just as much as I do, and I never know when suddenly they'll spread out cookie tins and mix concoctions of oatmeal and brown sugar, or, more recently, caramel chocolate bars with nuts. Mmmmmm!

But alas, accidents do happen, and when I walked into the kitchen last week, I found my digital candy thermometer, which you need for making caramel, a little... um... sticky. All the words had disappeared from the buttons, and the label was curled back.

It was an expensive batch of caramel chocolate bars, but you know, they were worth it. I just love when the girls cook and bake because they want to, not because I ask them to.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

This book is actually interesting!

Those were Jacob's words a few chapters into the first book I assigned him this school year.

What a sad reflection on the literature that I’d assigned him in the past. Not that all books I gave Jacob were boring; in fact, he had enjoyed the livelier books, such as The Red Badge of Courage and Never Cry Wolf. But during the summer I had decided that I would not assign him another book that I myself have not read or one that I didn't find interesting. Looking back, I wonder why on earth I felt that I had to assign him classic books for his own good. If he doesn’t like to read, why give him books that are difficult even for me, an avid reader? Just so he can say he read them???

I had found A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah interesting. It was also unsettling and eye-opening, but very interesting. I guess Jacob found it interesting, too. It's opened his eyes to a new and previously unknown world - and he enjoyed the experience.

I guess I succeeded.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Exploring Social Injustice through Literature

Last year I was bent on teaching Jacob the classics. Moby Dick. Walden Pond. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Yaaawn...

Oh, Jacob read them all right – but they didn’t do anything to instill a love of reading in him. In the end, I’m not sure what he got from these books. He did learn a few things – and a lot of perseverance. And that literature can be really boring. But that’s not what I wanted to teach.

So this year, Jacob's senior year, I changed my approach. None of the books I selected are classics, not in the stood-the-test-of-time way or on the list of must-reads in the local high schools. In fact, when I pre-read some of the books that are on the local high school’s list of assigned literature, I was horrified! For example, I would never assign Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic, with its foul language, focus on sexual thoughts, and visits to brothels, not even if it does give insight to what a wounded Vietnam War veteran goes through. And it wasn’t even well written.

So this year I compiled my own list. I’ve read all these books, so I know what’s in them. I chose them because they touched my heart and taught me something new. And they weren't hard to read.

Yes, all these books have a theme. They aren’t uplifting, and although some have happy endings, what the subjects live through is heartrending. I’m hoping to arouse both awareness and empathy. So I’ve decided to call this course "Exploring Social Injustice through Literature."

Here is the book list:

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah is the autobiographical account of a 12-year-old boy who got separated from his family during a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and how, after struggling to survive on his own, he ends up abducted into the army. The book describes the atrocities of the war, mass slaughters, and how children are brainwashed and drugged to become killing machines. It's a very a disturbing and powerful book.

Sold by Patricia McCormick is a story of sexual slavery, a heart-breaking account of a 13-year-old Nepali girl, Lakshima, who is sold into prostitution by her stepfather and transported to a brothel in India. This difficult topic is handled sensitively. The book is written in free verse. It reads like poetry and hints at the horrors that Lakshima lives through in terse, but poignant language. Although the book is a work of fiction, it is based on true lives and depicts the horrors of forced child prostitution faced by an estimated 300,000 girls worldwide.

City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre - the book, NOT the movie! (The movie was made into a love story, but the original book most definitely is not.) Over 20 years ago, I read this moving true tale of a destitute peasant who ends up as a rickshaw driver living in a slum in Calcutta, a Polish priest who came to live with the poorest of the poor, and an American doctor who joins the priest to help in the slum. Scenes from this stirring book remain with me to this day - the intimate details of the daily lives of the poor, their desperation, and the self-sacrifice of those who try to help them. A detailed and gut-wrenching view of poverty.

Slave: My True Story by Mende Nazer is an autobiography of a village girl in Sudan who was kidnapped, raped, and transported north to the capital city of Khartoum and sold into slavery. Describes the conflict between the Arab north and the black south, and the Arabs' attitude towards the blacks. Mende was severely mistreated, humiliated, and abused until she finally escaped to freedom. Sadly, there are many more slaves like her all around the world today, hidden and suffering in silence.

Where Little Ones Cry: Tragic Stories from War-torn Liberia by Harvey Yoder is a collection of true short stories about different children and how they survived the civil war that recently tore apart Liberia in West Africa. Most stories are not that well-written, but the book is informative, describing the horrors of war from different people's perspectives. My favorite passage, which rings so true, is from a first-person story called "War!" as told by a Liberian woman:

I almost have to laugh now when I think of how war was presented in the history books. Generals and plans. Heroes and marches. Lots of trumpets blowing and people making speeches. Maps showing where armies marched and who controlled which countries. A few pictures of the destruction of buildings and cities.

That is not war. That is just what they tell you about war. War is much more than that. War is screams, death, and horror. War isn't real until it visits you personally...

Growing Up Empty: The Hunger Epidemic in America by Loretta Schwartz-Nobel is about hunger and poverty in America. I read it because of a comment on this blog. Some parts of the book are like a textbook, but the stories of the invisible poor around us are a real eye-opener. I will probably assign only a few select chapters. The stories of an upper middle class wife and mother reduced to poverty when her husband runs off with another woman (and all the money), and the description of the hardships of families in the armed forces were both a revelation to me.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza is firsthand account of hiding in a bathroom for 91 days to survive the 1994 genocide as frenzied Hutus slaughtered Tutsi "cockroaches." She writes how her faith in God helped her survive the genocide and forgive her enemies. All this was happening while Jacob was toddling around the house with his Playskool toys.

When Invisible Children Sing by Chi Cheng Huang is a memoir of a Harvard medical student who went to Bolivia to work with orphans in Bolivia and expanded his ministry to reach out to street children who live in squalor and inhale paint thinner to dull their appetites and senses. Describes the day-to-day life of these children, and what keeps them on the streets.

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski describes how he, an affluent college student, decided to test his faith and live with the homeless for seven months. It gives an insider's view of homelessness in America.

Jacob already read the books below, but if he hadn't, I'd include them as well:

Tears of My Soul by Hyun Hee Kim is the memoir of a woman who planted a bomb that blew up Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. She described growing up in North Korea, being indoctrinated by Communist thinking, then being recruited and trained as a covert-operations expert. Although the author was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for her terrorist crime, she was later pardoned. She described her deprogramming in South Korea and her redemption through Christianity. I couldn't put this book down and read it at one sitting.

A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer is a fascinating and horrifying autobiography of a child who was ostracized by his family and sadistically tortured by his alcoholic and (I believe demon-possesed) cruel mother. Hard to imagine that anyone would treat another human being like this, much less her own child. An inside look into child abuse and what the child is thinking.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung is a personal account of surviving the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia from 1970 to 1979 from the viewpoint of a young child. Since she started out as a middle class city girl but ended up a war refugee, it makes me wonder whether my life might not have a sudden and unexpected turn of events that could lead to completely unexpected results. Powerful descriptions of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Even though the subjects of these books are emotionally difficult, I think that Jacob will enjoy reading them. Hopefully, they'll touch his heart.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Making praline paste can hurt - if you're clumsy like me. I pushed a lone hazelnut into the 370-degree F caramel (I measured the temperature before pouring it), and now I have a blister to remind me not to repeat that maneuver.

My girls keep wanting to earn money, and a way that we've brainstormed is to bake and sell cakes. I'm not talking about the usual birthday cake from a mix; I never even tasted one of those until I was almost grown up. In my home, I grew up on European tortes, cakes baked with pecans and blanced almonds and walnuts, icings made of praline creams laced with Frangelica and mouthwatering chocolate tinged with rum. What I thought was a normal birthday cake in my family is something only the fanciest bakeries can produce.

The idea of selling cakes sprang from tea and cake that I served the youth group after a mission training meeting at our house last winter. As one mother picked up her son, I handed her a piece of George's birthday cake.

"Where did you get this?" she asked after one bite.

When I told her I baked it, she asked whether she could order one for her next party. She still hasn't, but the seed was planted.

So before we dive back into school and (hopefully) launch the girls' baking business, I'm testing out a few new recipes. The girls learn them right along with me. Yesterday's Chocoloate Truffle Cake was a real hit at today's barbecue at my sister's house. And tonight's test cake is has praline buttercream. But I had to make the praline paste.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Things falling into place

We returned from our visit to Ukraine in mid-August. But even after a few days readjustment, I couldn't face homeschooling. I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the high school subjects I need to teach (all three of my kids are in high school!), the paperwork I still needed to turn in to the school district, the projects at work, the mess that I had to sort through in my home office before I could teach, the schoolbooks I needed to order... It all bore down on me.

However, I had to face it: the beginning of school was just around the corner. And somehow, though I can't clearly remember how, things began to fall into place.

First it was the math. We had a tutor for all three last year, but Jacob and Alexandra didn't feel challenged enough. Alexandra had always been in advanced math, but she was bored by the slow pace set by the tutor, who admitted that the level of high school math she was teaching my older two kids stretched her abilities.

I don't recall whether I mentioned the community college pre-calculus class or they heard about it from Peter, a homeschooled friend, but they jumped at the chance to take a challenging class. The best part was that the college class is being offered specifically for homeschoolers in a church building, not on campus. I signed up Jacob and Alexandra.

Next was Physics, which I thought would be the bane of my existence this coming year. I had decided to teach Physics to Jacob, and to double up Alexandra and Larissa and teach them both Biology. I know Biology well – I have a B.S. in Biology – so that subject doesn't stress me, but I fully expected to read the Physics text hand in hand with Jacob, staying up late nights to relearn Physics as I did with Chemistry last year.

Then my friend Nita mentioned that the homeschooling center was offering not just the lab, which is what I had thought, but the entire Physics course. (Driving all that way just to do a lab didn't seem worth it.) A physicist would explain the concepts, provide the materials and do the labs with the students, and be available to answer questions – questions I'd be hard-pressed to answer without investing a lot of time reading and studying. What a relief! I signed up Jacob right away. Then Alexandra decided that she, too, wanted to take Physics to get it out of the way. "But I'll do Biology, too, so that next year I don't have to take a science," she explained.

The math class is at a church 18 miles away on Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:50 – 3:30 PM. Then Physics runs 4:00 – 6:00 PM on Wednesdays, giving Jacob just enough time to drive the 8 miles or so from the church to the homeschooling center. He'll be driving Alexandra and Peter as well, which will be a real help.

Jacob still wants to take a mechanics class as an elective, and I have to figure out how and when before I write my IHIPs (Individualized Home Instruction Plans), but what a relief that a couple of tough subjects have fallen into place!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Burned out

The past year of homeschooling – my first year homeschooling all three children! – was rough. Really rough. By June, I was completely burned out.

Partly it was difficult because my children are older – two were in high school, and one in middle school – and the subjects are harder. I had to jump in with advanced classes, like Chemistry, which I taught myself.

Partly it was trying because for the majority of the school year, I was not well. I still struggled with fatigue and chest pains, symptoms of lupus.

The other thing that made teaching challenging is that I work full-time. Granted, due to illness and God’s hand in the illness and work, I ended up working from home for the most part, and only part-time (30 hours per week) for the first half year of school. But work time is time that I can’t be doing homeschooling. Thus all my planning and grading was done in the evenings, often after everyone went to bed. Even after grading assignments and printing out detailed daily schedules for the next day’s studies, I would lie down in bed and read for an hour or so. Sometimes I read Chemistry; other times I pre-read literature. I read a lot in the last year! And I always turned in well after midnight.

I was so worn out by teaching this past school year that I did no schoolwork over the summer. None. I had hoped to get materials ready, books ordered, more literature pre-read, and IHIPs written. But I did absolutely nothing. I read for pleasure. I dug in my garden. I procrastinated.

Now I have to hit the ground running.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

First day of school... sort of

With all my crazy work hours (another late night at the computer writing user manuals tonight) and because I don't yet have all my books and even courses figured out, it's been hard to get together a "normal" full-day schedule for the kids for that official starting day. So I finally did what I should have done a week or two ago: I just dove in with a couple of subjects rather than the full load.

I started the girls in Biology. At least the Apologia curriculum is very cut and dry: 16 chapters, start at page 1, exercises right in the book. English, on the other hand, is always a little of this and a little of that. So I started with Biology… and English – the structured science, and the smorgasbord of vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing.

This school year Alexandra, in grade 11, is going to study Biology with Larissa, in grade 9, while Jacob will study Physics (gulp!). I like to double them up on the sciences. It's easier on me to have only two subjects rather than three when they start asking hard questions that I have to look up. To be honest, I end up reading entire chapters and trying to keep up with them in the science courses. So it would be tough to do with three high school sciences. Two is difficult enough!

Since I was I Biology major, I'm not afraid of that course. But Physics!? I never quite understood Physics, and I didn't have a good teacher for the subject. So that's the course that I'll be reading and studying right along with my son. But I have another day or two before I dive into Physics because he's been working for Dad in general contracting, making some money and learning new skills.

Meanwhile, I'm still planning, making calls about college level math and mechanics, ordering the microscopes and more Russian books… It's going to be quite a year. Hope I survive without getting sick again.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Just as I was getting ready to dive into intensive scheduling (I had pulled out the Physics book last night) and IHIP writing, work gets in the way. At a sudden emergency meeting this morning for which I had less than an hour's notice, my boss told me that I have until tomorrow to write a basic user manual.

"It's based on the old manual. Just switch out the illustrations," she said.

Yeah, sure.

First, the illustrations hadn't even been created, so the illustator had to work overtime to draw them. Hours later, I'm still working on the callouts for this completely different product. What are all these parts called anyway? Isn't it great that I get to name them? Also, back at home this evening, I discovered that I need still more illustrations. And I think that the illustrations and/or the steps in Start Guide for this product, which is frantically being written by another writer, are not correct. But, of course, it's hard to tell when I don't have the product here at home; it's on my office desk at work.

Second, this product is designed completely differently than the previous model, and it does more things. And that means more writing.

A 24-hour turnaround for this manual? Hardly. But I'm getting lots of overtime... No IHIPs yet, though.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


It was just too much: full-time work, homeschooling three teenagers, organizing a mission trip for the church youth in the spring, and my regular chores as a wife and mother – plus this blog. Something had to go.

It was the blog.

Much as I love to write and share, it was yet another thing on my "to do" list. And I was already overwhelmed.

So I skipped writing about all the meetings we had before the Mexico mission trip – the spiritual training, logistics and tickets, gathering and sorting used clothing, and taking the excess 15 boxes of used clothing to a local refugee aid center.

I didn't write about the Mexico mission trip itself or our enchanting time staying in a Chinanteco village in the mountains of Oaxaca.

I never mentioned that my best friend from fifth grade came to see me in the spring and met my family for the very fist time – and that she was in church when we presented a slide show of our trip and received a donation of a vehicle for a pastor that we met in Oaxaca.

I didn't have time to describe the Adobe Dreamweaver course that I took in night school during spring evenings while my husband and kids were in youth group.

I didn't discuss the grind of the rest of the school year – and the euphoria of finally finishing school – and Chemistry – in late June!

I didn't announce that we finally bought a she-goat this summer – nor did I share about the building of the shed and fence, the death of one of the goat's two kids, and the daily chores of feeding and milking. It's been a steep learning curve!

I didn't describe the continuing saga of my deceased brother's estate, the upcoming foreclosure on his house, and all the unresolved issues because the court denied my petition to be the administrator of his estate – and his ex-wife washed her hands of the whole thing. It's still not over…

And who wants to peck at a computer when you can go outside and garden? Certainly not I.

I didn't hint at our summer trip to Ukraine to visit family and teach VBS to local children.

And I certainly didn't describe all the long hours and overtime I put in during the summer writing user manuals before the release of a new product at our company.

Now I'm facing IHIPs (gulp!) and the new school year (gasp!) with my oldest a senior who doesn't know what he wants to do next year.

Will I be able to handle this blog again?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A show of enthusiasm

At 16, almost 17, Jacob doesn’t get excited very often. He might show some enthusiasm over a sports car or electronic gadget, but not over things to do with animals or nature. Like many teens, he’d become a bit jaded. So when I suggested that he accompany me to the woods behind our house to at least see the taps on the maple trees, it didn’t surprise me that he declined.

Although Jacob initially showed no interest in the pots of water-like liquid that I started boiling on Sunday, by Wednesday, the sweet, golden fluid in the steaming pot had become more concentrated and tasted distinctly of maple syrup, just more diluted. Jacob loves maple syrup. Tasting that concoction seemed to awaken a tiny bit of interest in him.

“Wait, I’ll come with you,” he decided.

I was going to check the 20 or so buckets in the woods to see whether any were overflowing, and if so, I’d pour off a bit so as not to waste the precious sap. Since it was our neighbor who tapped the trees, I didn’t want to just help myself to large amounts of sap, but if they were overflowing, pouring some off the top would leave room for more to fill through the rest of the day. Besides, JD did tell me I could help myself to some.

Larissa ran ahead of me to show Jacob the tapped trees.

“Look, the bark’s wet. This one’s overflowing,” I said.

Larissa showed Jacob how to remove the cover from the metal bucket. He took the bucket off the hook and poured a bit of sap into our pail. There were so many buckets overflowing that we soon filled our small plastic pail. We went home and poured our find into some pots, then returned to the woods with two plastic pails.

At this point, Jacob was hooked. He sprinted from tree to tree checking how full the buckets were. Almost all were overflowing. He showed enthusiasm, and yes, even excitement over gathering so much sap. We brought home five pails of it.

How much maple syrup would we get? We did some calculations…


Concentration of maple sap to syrup is roughly 40 to 1 (if I start with 40 cups of sap, I’ll get one cup of maple syrup).

1 bucket = 2 gallons
We brought home 5 buckets = 10 gallons
At 16 cups per gallon = 160 cups sap
160 divided by 40 = 4 cups or 1 quart!

We don’t’ have the right equipment for collecting and boiling down sap into syrup. By the time we were done collecting sap, we had filled every pot in the house. I set four pots boiling on the kitchen stove in addition to the two on the wood-burning stove, and there was still more sap in our five-gallon water container we used for camping…

The house became a steam bath. Condensation covered every window, and by evening every wall. I understood why the cooking down was usually done outdoors.

We haven’t cooked down all the sap yet. (We had gathered some the day before, too.) But we decided to cook down our first batch of syrup. The syrup is ready when the temperature of the boiling liquid is 7.1 to 7.5 degrees F above boiling water, which we determined was 211.9 F this morning. Thus, when our candy thermometer read 219.0 F, we were done! Since Jacob is our most enthusiastic maple syrup lover, he was the one with the thermometer watching the pot.

So far, we got SIX cups of syrup! That was more than we expected. We hadn't realized we'd carried - and boiled - that much sap.

Can’t wait for the girls to make pancakes!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stomach flu all around

If we hadn’t visited Grandma on Friday, this wouldn’t have happened. After all, she said that she hadn’t felt well and had a bad case of diarrhea. (She failed to mention that she was nauseous, too.) But the kids really wanted to visit my parents and ask them what it was like to live through World War II, so I agreed to go. Halfway to my parents’ house – they live just a mile away – I mentioned that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to go over there. Maybe Grandma was sick with something (stomach flu did occur to me), but we were on the way, so I just told the kids to keep their distance and not kiss Grandma. We had a good visit, heard about my mother searching for her dad in Germany, how the Red Cross helped to reunite them, how my dad used to ignore air raid sirens because they went off daily at the same time and nothing ever happened, and then how his building was bombed soon after he left Dresden. Had he stayed in Dresden, he would have been in that building when it was destroyed...

On Sunday morning, 36 hours after our visit, Alexandra started throwing up. Larissa joined her a hour or two later. My mom called during the morning to tell me Dad was sick with the stomach flu so we shouldn’t come over.

“Don’t worry, Mom, we won’t come. I have my own two here with the stomach flu.”

While George and Jacob when to morning and evening church services, I spent the day at home with the girls. Sunday evening, Jacob retired to bed with a pail by his bedside.

Today classes were cancelled, the math tutor notified, and the kids had a low-key day hanging around the house sharing memories and looking at home videos of their childhoods.

Although I have a stomachache and I’m eating very little, I managed to function normally. I know that this is my body’s manifestation of the flu, and I thank God for not being truly sick (although I bet I’m contagious).

Since George didn’t go to my parents’ house, he was just exposed to the flu yesterday morning. The 36-hour point will come this evening…

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Maple syrup from OUR backyard?!

When Larissa came in after a walk in our woods last week and told me that someone had tapped many trees, I was stunned. I’ve lived here over 20 years and no one had tapped trees before. I didn’t know that there were trees that could be tapped! Not that they were my trees; only a small part of the woods actually belongs to us. It’s just that no one seemed to use the woods at all other than our family. We have bonfires and cook over the fire. George cuts a tree now and then and Jacob chops it into firewood. I’ve dug up ferns to transplant into my garden. And the girls spend hours in the woods, hiking, stalking deer, spending time in nature. They know where the deer sleep, where the screech owl nests, and where the skunk has its den. We’ve always thought of the woods as “ours.”

So who was tapping “our” trees? We wanted to find who the mystery tapper was and considered leaving a note on a tree by the pails. But in the end, we didn’t have to. This Saturday, Larissa burst in.

“I think someone’s collecting the sap. Could you go with me and see?”

That’s how we met our new neighbor, JD. JD doesn’t live next to us; he lives w-a-y behind us in a house on the top of a hill overlooking our neighborhood. He owns the lion’s share of the woods that my daughters play in. And he had just moved in six months ago. Since JD works as a nature guide when he’s not working as a Language Arts teacher, he knows by the bark which are the sugar maples.

“But you can tap any maple. It’s just that sugar maples have the highest sugar content,” he said.

I learned all kinds of things about maple sugaring this weekend:

- That it takes about 43 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

- That you finish boiling sap when it reaches 7 to 7.5 degrees above the boiling point of the water (the water boils at different temperatures, depending on elevation and pressure).

- That I can make maple syrup from trees in my backyard!

JD was kind enough to allow me to take some sap. So this weekend for the first time ever, I made maple syrup by placing large pots of sap on our wood-burning stove. I suppose we can eat it later this summer when we’re eating our other wild foods. Mmm!

Tandem story #3

Perhaps you've had enough tandem stories by now, but I just to share this one. This is the story that when I read aloud, I realized my blunder and laughed so hard that tears were rolling down my cheeks and the words were coming out in gulps. Larissa had to take the paper away from me and read the rest of the story to the others. You see, after Larissa wrote that the horses had to walk, I immediately continued the story and had the horses canter, then gallop! And why was there a stream in the desert? I obviously had not been a careful reader as I bungled the story and blindly added on contadicting information.

Story #3

The frightening thunderstorm finally stopped, and the sun peeked out from behind the receding clouds.

Hannah stood already dressed looking out at the beautiful sunrise. Today would be an exciting day so she’d gotten up early to make it last as long as possible.

She hurried into the kitchen and grabbed an apple for her pet rabbits. Actually, they weren’t really pets because they were to be eaten. Soon she was done with all her chores and now she had nothing to do but wait for her parents to get up and take her to the BLM headquarters where the horse roundup would start.

- - -

Two hours later, Hannah was sitting astride her horse, Appy, with about twenty other riders. Everyone was to go out together as as soon as they spotted a herd, they would get around it and herd it towards a corral. Of course, most people here were amateurs, so who knew what could happen.

“Alright everyone,” said the leader. “Just a few rules. Stay within sight of other people and stay safe. Now let’s go.”

Hannah was riding with her brother Stephen. This was their first time and they didn’t really know what they were doing. They were just going for the fun of it.

Hanna’s horse was grayish-white with a white diamond on the forehead while Stephen’s was all black.

Stephen liked riding horses, but he joked around that he’d much rather have a black Ford Mustang. He went with Hannah because their parents wouldn’t let her go otherwise.

The group trotted off into the desert where Hanna knew the wild herds roamed. She had often gone on trail rides on her own in this area, but she had never actually herded the wild horses.

Hanna looked around to the edge of the horizon. She thought she saw something moving far off in the safebrush. Then the leader had everyone halt.

“See way over there, by that lone tree,” he said, “there’re some horses. But it looks like they’re just stragglers from the rest of the herd. We have to walk now otherwise they will all gallop away.”

Slowly the group plodded over, spreading apart.

“You four,” the leader said to Hannah, Stephen, and two others, “ride over there around back to herd the horses over here.”

They headed over to the wild horses at a canter, but when the wild herd spooked, they took off after it at a gallop. Lucky thing her horse’s gait was so smooth. Hannah wasn’t comfortable racing through unknown territory at such a fast pace.

The wild horses saw the four riders heading their way and bolted. Soon it seemed like a race was underway. Over hills, down valleys, splashing through streams. It seemed that the wild horses could never be caught; they knew their territory well. Stephen secretly hoped they’d get away so he could go home sooner. Hannah wanted to catch them, but still, a small part of her cheered for the wild herd, hoping they could live free for at least another year until the next roundup.

As if they herd could read her thoughts, they suddenly disappeared from view.

“Where did they go?” shouted one of the riders. “I glanced down for a second and they’re gone.”

“But they were in that valley…” said Hannah.

Stephen smiled. He’d seen them walk into a cave, but he’d never tell.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Tandem story #2

This is another tandem story that we wrote yesterday. The previous story had a great ending, thanks to Alexandra. Like the previous story, this one also included dialogue, which makes any story more interesting. Although this isn't publishable material, the children carried on the story line better than I'd expected.

Story #2

The frightening thunderstorm finally stopped, and the sun peeked out from behind the receding clouds.

Amanita stepped out from under the banana leaf where she’d been hiding during the storm. At this time of year, rains were common in Ghana. She was so tired of the mud, the humidity, the heat. Ever since her mother had died of AIDS, 13-year-old Amanita was the head of household, cooking, tending the goat, sweeping, wiping away tears of her three younger siblings who still didn’t understand that mother was gone, never to come back. But there was no one to wipe away Amanita’s tears as she cried herself to sleep, being careful that her three younger brothers did not see or hear her.

Amanita was so thankful that she had that one goat, a Nubian that she had received as a gift from a Christian man who had come to her village a few months before. The dark goat, whom she named Bella, provided enough milk for all of them, enough to ward away the hunger pains that she had learned to live with most of her life. And now Bella was pregnant. Amanita could not wait for the little kid to be born.

Where was Bella hiding? Amanita wondered as she searched her muddy compound by the thatch hut. She saw movement under a bush.

Unsure, Amanita started towards the bush. It rustled again, but now Amanita could hear a dog barking. Village dogs didn’t bark at goats. What could be hiding here?

All of a sudden someone jumped out from behind the bush. Amanita screamed and turned to run. Then she heard laughing as the village troublemaker fell to the ground cracking up. Amanita turned away in disgust. She had plenty of work to do today and she had to find the goat so her younger brothers could have milk for breakfast.

She headed out to look behind other houses, thinking maybe the goat had wandered into someone else’s yard. Indeed, that’s where she found it, chomping away at a neighbor’s garden. She quickly took her away, making sure nobody saw. The neighbor never said anything anyway so she thought she was fine.

She sat down to milk the goat. She used a plastic bucket the same one she used to get water from the well. When they had drunk most of the milk, she then put it in a plastic water bottle she had found. That way she could get water from the well for the goat. Her village was lucky because they had a well; most villages didn’t. In the day she and her brothers went to the forest. They had to gather firewood for cooking. While they were away, Amanita’s youngest brother stayed home in the hut to make sure Bella didn’t get tangled in the picket line and to be there when Bella started kidding.

Amanita heard a yell. She looked up and saw her youngest brother running towards.

“Amanita, come quick, Belle is kidding, but there is something wrong with her!” he panted.

Dropping her sticks, Amanita hurried after her brother. When she arrived, she found Bella still on her picket straining in labor, her eyes rolling from the pain. The birth sac had emerged and burst but nothing was happening. Amanita knew what to do. She had been with several women when they had given birth.

After half an hour, everything was over. Surprisingly, the kid was light brown unlike her mother. After being licked clean and dry by Bella, the kid got up on wobbly legs and started suckling. Amanita was delighted and thanked God for the tiny female goat, which in time would provide more milk for them, maybe even enough to sell.

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)