Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Dinner: A Visit to the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC

Biltmore House in Asheville, NC
Yesterday my fiancé and I went to the Biltmore Estate. It is only an hour away, but I've never been before and I've lived in this area all of my life. Chuck surprised me with season passes to the estate so that we could enjoy the spring and summer flowers, fall foliage, and Christmas at Biltmore. All of these are supposed to be spectacular sights.

Gardens at Biltmore on April 27, 2013. Picture by Julie Scruggs.

Biltmore was built by George Vanderbilt in 1895. The cottage was only a day's rail trip from New York. At the time he built the home, he was still a bachelor, but that would soon change when he met the lovely, Edith and they made their home at Biltmore. Their home soon became a place for their family and friends to visit. They opened their home giving them a place to relax and have fun. Edith Wharton, a famous writer of the time was often a frequent guest.

Edith Vanderbilt and her daughter, Cornelia

Edith strived to make her guests as comfortable as possible. She would spend her mornings planning the meals and the day's events. Some of the amenities their guests could enjoy were a heated indoor pool as well as a bowling alley. This is the early part of the twentieth century when many homes didn't have indoor bathrooms or electricity.

People have often commented when they find out about Sunday dinners I cook about how difficult that must be. It is challenging and often time consuming, but it is so rewarding to have my family and friends at my home for a meal. Sure we could go to a restaurant, but there you're confined and really only able to converse with those seated beside you.

Today I'm taking it easy, we're having chicken (cooked in the deli at the local grocery store), mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese, brown and serve rolls, and a cake (baked in the bakery at the local grocery store). Sunday dinner doesn't always have to be an elaborate meal. All of this will take less than an hour to pull together, but it is so worth the time and energy it takes to have time to spend with my grown children, my grandson, my father, my brothers and their families, and friends. I encourage you to skip the restaurant and invite everyone over.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Widow's Walk: What I Learned While Grieving For My Husband

Last week a friend of mine lost her husband in an accident. While I had time to prepare, she didn't. She said good-bye to him before he left for work and he was gone less than an hour later. My first thoughts were on praying for her and her daughters. 

Death changes your life. Your version of a normal day will never be what it was. After a few days, family and friends return to their normal, but the spouse and children are left struggling. What is normal now?

On Saturday I had lunch with a woman who lost her husband several years ago. We got on the subject of things that helped us in the days, weeks, and months after such a devastating loss. Here are some of the things we talked about that we found that helped us. 

Some say it takes a year and a day. Grief does not have a schedule.

There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They do not follow any order. You can experience them all in a short period of time. Grief is messy and unpredictable.

Find a few movies that make you laugh or give you comfort and watch them when you need to. Mine were Bruce Almighty and The Lake House.

Give yourself permission to take the day off from everyone and everything. Stay in your pajamas and watch gameshows. Cry. Wail. Plant flowers. Anything that you want to. It is your day, but the next day – resume your normal schedule.

Find a hobby or something to do. I liked to work puzzles. It kept me busy and kept my mind off of things. Beware of busyness though, it can only mask your emotions for a short time.

Some restaurants and places will be difficult, but one day they will be special again.

Keep a journal.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. So many will offer by saying “Just let me know what you need.” Dinner. A movie. A trip to the mall. Allow people the opportunity to help.

Don’t feel bad about wanting time alone. You have a lot to process.

When you want to cry, but you’re afraid you’ll fall apart and never pull yourself back together,  set a timer for five minutes. Allow yourself those five minutes to wail. You’ll find that you’re probably done after four minutes (at least for that moment). There is something about allowing yourself a few minutes of letting your emotions out.

Walk. Workout. Try a class. Do something physical. Some who lose a spouse, gain weight while others lose. Having a physical outlet will help you at least feel better physically and it will also help with some of the stress.

Know that around six months, there will be a moment that really knocks you for a loop. Give yourself a little down time. 

If you have children, spend time with your kids, they lost him too. Take a trip. Do something fun. And it is always great to try something new rather than a favorite of the one you've lost. One day those things will you give you comfort, but usually not at first.

Turn resentfulness into thankfulness. This doesn’t happen over night, but I found that when I focused on the good times we shared, I could be thankful and accept things better.

Also know that it is the little things that will get you. I caught myself crying over dryer sheets and Toaster Streudel. You don't know what will get you.

There are some wonderful grief support groups. Give one a try, it might help. It helps to be with others who have also suffered such a loss.

On anniversaries and special days, send a balloon up to heaven. You can include a note if you choose.

There is no wrong or right answer. You have to do what is best for you and it will take some time to figure it out.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: Therese Anne Fowler's Z

There's nothing like losing yourself in someone else's troubles to make you forget your own.
—Zelda in Z, A Novel Zelda Fitzgerald

As I read a novel, there are usually a few sentences that always make me stop and take a second notice of. I love highlighting these, but of course only if it is my novel.

And in Therese Anne Fowler's latest novel, Z, there are quite a few highlights. Therese makes the scenes of the novel jump off the page and into your mind. I could see Zelda and Scott in New York, Paris, and Montgomery, Alabama.

Zelda was such a magnificent woman, but I've only thought of her as the woman behind the man. I've heard that she was the inspiration for many of Fitzgerald's female characters, especially Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby. Daisy was never a favorite of mine and I didn't know if I really wanted to know anything about this woman.

I'm so happy that I had an open mind. This is not a memoir, but Therese spent many hours doing research. She made every effort to have the Fitzgeralds in the proper place and time according to their life. She read many letters written by Zelda. She read their novels. Notice I said their. Zelda wrote many stories, essays, and even a few novels. She wasn't trained like Fitzgerald, but she quips that she had a wonderful education for Scott used Zelda as his reader for most of his works. Zelda often offered suggestions, plot points, and was considered his muse.

Zelda wanted more than the typical marriage, children, and home that her sisters and friends had. She and Scott marry and the adventure begins. They live in New York and Paris. They vacation in Europe. They spend time with Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and many other wonderful writers of that era.

Their perfect life is not so perfect. Scott drinks a lot. Zelda is infatuated with the ballet. She spends so much time dancing and perfecting her performances that she is offered a professional position as a ballet dancer. Zelda also has dark times and Scott turns to many doctors and institutions to help his wife. Scott is not an angel. Both husband and wife engage in affairs. Zelda is often hospitalized and incapable of caring for their only daughter, Scottie.

Despite Zelda's shortcomings, I couldn't help but love her. She is so misunderstood by her family, friends, and even herself. And the medical community of that time does not know how to deal with the mental problems she has.

The Fitzgeralds lived a life of excess. They were free with their money. They liked to drink. They loved to socialize. Scott earned an exorbitant amount of money, but never learned to manage it, spend all you have, there will always be more later. Scott eventually turned to Hollywood, where his screenplays fared better financially than many of his novels.

Even though I knew how the story ends, I couldn't help but hope for a happy ending. And while that isn't the case for Zelda, I was happy to have read her story. Zelda was an accomplished writer, dancer, and painter and I feel that Therese Anne Fowler did a wonderful job of humanizing the woman, who I once only thought of as the woman behind the great F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I am looking forward to reading some of Zelda's work, and I can't wait to reread The Great Gatsby through a new lens.

I first met Therese a few years ago at a writer's conference. She was so encouraging. It is always wonderful to meet a kindred spirit, a person who shares a similar interest and passion. I've read all of her novels and loved each one. I've seen her grow as a writer. Each new novel is better than the previous. I'm so happy to see other readers finding her works. She truly deserves to be part of the New York Times Bestsellers.

And on a special note, today is also Therese's birthday and it is so wonderful that we also have that in common. I'm looking forward to lunch tomorrow where Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC is hosting Book Your Lunch with Therese Fowler. There are still a few tickets left so if you're in the area, you should treat yourself.

                                —The Great Gatsby

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Happy Birthday to Me and My Brother, Randall

Randall and Connie
I was only three years old when I celebrated my birthday alone for the last time. My little brother, Randall was born the year I turned four. He did actually miss the actual day, but with our birthdays only twenty-four hours apart, there were many shared birthday parties and cakes.

When we were kids birthday parties were held in your kitchen or your backyard if the weather permitted. There weren't any special decorations or goody bags. You had a cake usually baked by your mother, Kool-Aid, and a birthday present. Sometimes we had ice cream, but not always.

One year, we each had our very own cake. My birthday is the 22nd, while Randall's is the 23rd. On the 22nd, Mama invited all the kids from the neighborhood for cake and Kool-Aid. When everyone left, there was a small solitary piece of cake.

As Randall got ready for bed that night, he was upset. You would think with his birthday to come, he would be excited. After some questioning by our mother, Randall said, "I don't want all those other kids coming to my birthday. Did you see what they did to Connie's cake?"

Mama laughed, but the next day it was just a family celebration, which also included Lisa, our honorary sibling, who lived next door. Randall's cake actually lasted a couple of days.

Today for Sunday dinner, I decided to make one of our favorites, spaghetti and meatballs. And I was nice and made my brother's favorite cake, orange cake with orange icing.

I told Randall he would have to take any cake that was left home with him.

"And I've got a gallon of milk," he said with just a little sparkle in his eyes. "I'll probably gain a couple of pounds though."

I'm sure he'll be enjoying a nice slice of cake and a tall glass of milk as he watches the Amazing Race tonight.

I used to hate sharing a birthday with my bratty little brother when we were kids. But now I think it's kind of cool. Happy Birthday Little Brother!

Come back tomorrow where I'll be reviewing Z, A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. And it just so happens that we celebrate the same birthday - April 22nd.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: Wings of Glass

"Why doesn't she just leave?"

I've heard so many people say that about women in situations of domestic abuse. Somebody is belittling you, threatening you, and causing bodily harm. Why would anyone stay in that situation?

Loss of confidence. Low self-esteem. No feelings of worthiness. No money. Fear.

Those are just a few of the reasons why women might stay in those situations.

Penny Taylor is the heroine of Gina Holmes' Wings of Glass. The only problem is that she doesn't know she is the heroine of her own life story. As a shy teenager, she immediately becomes enthralled with Trent. He's so handsome, so worldly, and he pays attention to her. He convinces her to leave her family and marry him. She's cut off from the only world she's ever known. She assumes that her family no longer wants her since they did not approve of Trent.

The honeymoon is quickly over. Trent doesn't want Penny to work so she stays at home keeping house and praying that she will be able to make Trent happy. A kind lady from the local church stops by, but Penny pushes her away. She's afraid of how Trent will respond. He doesn't want Penny having anyone over.

Trent is hurt in an accident at work and loses his sight. It quickly becomes apparent that he has been having an affair, but Penny finds out that she is pregnant. She is sure that God will heal her marriage. Since Trent cannot drive, Penny is free to go to the grocery store. She has the opportunity to get out of the house without him.

She stumbles upon a job opportunity - cleaning houses. She works with one woman, who is also pregnant. They commiserate on their conditions, but Penny is cautious about revealing anything about Trent. It doesn't take long for Penny's new friends to realize that Penny and her unborn child are in danger.

Once many years ago, I was a victim of domestic abuse. Thankfully my situation was not as severe as Penny's, but my family and friends rallied around me and helped me and my children out of that situation. As I read Wings of Glass, all I could think was that could have been me.

Gina Holmes is a master storyteller and I've added her previous novels, Crossing Oceans and Dry as Rain to my reading list.

Gina is featured on today's She Reads blog post.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Crockpot Lasagna

I am always searching for something that is delicious and yet easy to make. Yesterday I tried a new recipe out on my hubby to be. This only serves six, which would be way to small for the brood that comes to my house, but this is the kind of recipe you can drop in the crockpot, go to church, come home, add a salad and garlic bread and there you go. Dinner is served.

Crockpot Lasagna
1 pound(s) uncooked 93% lean ground beef   
1 small uncooked onion(s), chopped   
1/2 tsp minced garlic  
28 oz canned crushed tomatoes   
15 oz pasta sauce (whichever flavor you prefer)
1 tsp table salt
1 tsp dried oregano      
1/2 tsp dried basil    
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste   
1 cup(s) part-skim ricotta cheese   
1 1/2 cup(s) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided   
6 item(s) uncooked lasagna noodles, no-cook   
1/2 cup(s) shredded parmesan cheese

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef, onion and garlic; cook, stirring frequently, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon as it cooks, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in crushed tomatoes, pasta sauce, salt, oregano, basil and red pepper flakes; simmer 5 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, stir together ricotta cheese and 1 cup of mozzarella cheese. 

Spoon 1/3 of beef mixture into a 5-quart slow cooker. Break 3 lasagna sheets in half and arrange over beef mixture; top with half of ricotta mixture. Repeat with another layer and finish with remaining 1/3 of beef mixture.

Cover slow cooker and cook on low setting for 4 to 6 hours. Remove cover; turn off heat and season to taste, if desired. 

In a small bowl, combine remaining 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese; sprinkle over beef mixture. Cover and set aside until cheese melts and lasagna firms up, about 10 minutes.

Serves 6.

Don't tell you family, but this is a lighter version of your ordinary lasagna. If you prefer, you can also add zucchini and mushrooms.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Remembering Dawn

Dawn and Ryan (1987)
A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves - a special kind of double.  ~Toni Morrison

With Easter comes a little melancholy for me. Twenty-five years ago on April 5, 1988 my sister Dawn died. She had been in a horrible car wreck and suffered multiple injuries. Her boyfriend had been drinking. They were only a mile or so away from home. He survived — she didn't.

I was angry for a long time. I didn't understand why she died. I watched my mother overcome with grief. My brothers, Dad, and I all wandered through life in a daze. We went through the motions of life doing what we were supposed to.

My family is not affectionate. When I had children, I would remind myself to hug, kiss, and tell them that I loved them. It wasn't difficult since I've been blessed with two affectionate kids. The last words my sister said to me were "I love you." Strange. I think it was the only time she ever said it to me.

Years later I would come to find that she also said that to our brother, Randall. Even stranger since those two fought all the time. 

My Mom had the most difficult time. You're not supposed to bury your child. Mom grieved. She cried. She spent many afternoons in the cemetery sitting by her daughter's grave.

Ten months after we lost Dawn, I gave birth to a daughter; I named her Amanda Dawn. In 2000, my brother Dennis and his wife had a daughter; they named her Elizabeth Dawn. It was our way of honoring and remembering the sister we loved and lost.

Grief comes in many forms. One brother doesn't like to talk about it. The other loves to relive the memories with funny stories. Each year on April 5, we would send our mother flowers. She needed a little brightness to help her through the day. 

Pink was Dawn's favorite color, but if you knew her in high school, you would remember her wearing black Ozzy Osbourne t-shirts, blue jeans, and an army jacket. It was just her style for that period of her life. I think she liked it in part because it drove our mother crazy. 

Dawn's favorite at Sunday dinner was macaroni and cheese and corn. Like me, Dawn spent many hours in the kitchen with Grandmother and Mom. Making Sunday dinner would often seem like an orchestrated ballet, we each knew what we needed to do and we worked together to get dinner on the table.

After my sister died, I realized just how much our mother loved us. Seeing her mourn, the tears, the pain, and the loss of herself. Mom was never quite the same again. She never shrugged her responsibilities, but for a long time she lost her joy. One morning, I went to visit Mom. It was early on a rainy Saturday morning. Despite the bleakness of the day, the hydrangeas were in full bloom — brilliant, bright, and blue against the gray day, and there tucked between them was my Mom. 

Mourning Dawn

As rain falls
on this gray morning,

my mother leans
against the peeling paint,
her body wedged

between two blue hydrangeas,

the only landscaping
in our bleak yard.

Her face, wet with tears
and rain,

mourning her daughter,

Monday, April 1, 2013

Review: And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry

And Then I Found You by Patti Callahan Henry is She Reads' April selection of the month. Join us at She Reads where we will be talking, blogging, and having some great giveaways this month as we discuss And Then I Found You.
A Patti Callahan Henry novel is like having dinner with a good friend. You laugh, you cry, and you get caught up in the story.   
Patti Callahan Henry’s latest novel, And Then I Found You begins with thirteen-year-old Katie Vaughn on the first day of spring, a day of new beginnings, the day that will change her life. Every year, Kate continues to celebrate spring by doing something new. And every year, Kate receives a letter from Jack, her first love, the boy who gave her that first kiss on the first day of spring.
            Now at thirty-five, Kate runs a successful boutique. She’s found an engagement ring hidden in her boyfriend, Rowan’s bedside table. She should be elated, but she’s scared. Kate has a secret that her boyfriend doesn’t know. Maybe if she can see Jack once more, she can finally move on.
            The story is revealed through two point of views and follows Katie from her youth at thirteen through 2010, where the reader finds an adult Kate still grappling with the effects from a decision she made in her youth.
            I met Patti last year at the SC Writer’s Conference, where she was the keynote speaker. I was lucky enough to have dinner with her. She shared with us the plot of her forthcoming book. The idea for the book originated with her family’s past. Her sister had a baby she put up for adoption. Through the wonders of social media, mother and daughter were reunited many years later.
            And this is where the idea for the story began. I think all writers begin with some thread of the truth that evolves as they answer the question, what if? 

If you want to know more about the story behind the story, Friend Request is available on Kindle.