Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas 09

We had a really lovely Christmas this year. I expected the opposite. We've been moving and remodeling and unpacking and remodeling some more. We've been building for chickens and the dog. We broke ground for part of the garden and planted. Normally I knit for the kids for Christmas. We don't have much of a budget for Christmas and they enjoy getting things made especially for them. But with so many house things going on all Fall, I did almost no knitting, aside from a special project for someone outside the family. And since Gregory got an expensive present for his birthday, he had no money left in the budget for Christmas. However this year we decided as a family to really focus more on giving to others. It is the day we celebrate Jesus's birthday and we know He loves people. We've been so inspired by our friend Bob the Builder, who has given so much to us over the last couple of months. So the kids decided to buy presents for each other from the little bit of money they each had and we spent a good chunk of time baking presents and visiting neighbors.

Their generosity with each other filled the space under the tree with presents.

The kids excitedly gathered in front of the Christmas tree on Christmas morning this year, eager to give their gifts to each other.

Each gift, while not expensive, resulted from a great deal of thought and planning.

Gregory couldn't wait to give Michael a dart gun of his very own. Michael constantly played with Gregory's old gun and the single dart remaining from the original collection. In fact, Gregory spent a good portion of the money he had been saving for a special computer game to give Michael a deluxe dart gun with plenty of darts. Gregory's thoughtfulness really touched me because my kids don't get much money to spend on themselves. They really have to save for a long time for the things they especially want.

My lovely daughter enjoys giving to others more than anything. She started the Christmas present shopping and infected Michael. Gregory quickly caught the giving bug later.

I asked Gabrielle what she wanted for Christmas. For a long time she wanted the last 4 books in a set she'd started reading a couple years ago. By the time she asked, the publishing company had gone out of business and the books were out of print. Fortunately, a few months ago I purchased the last few books knowing they would soon no longer be available. Gabrielle couldn't believe she finally had the chance to discover how the story ended.

We also got Gabrielle a charging station for her iPod. I'm hoping this will keep her from losing it. Now she has a place to keep it.

I stumbled upon a sale at Toys R Us the week before Christmas and found a Transformer toy for Michael. When Michael opened it he told us he always wanted one. How convenient.

Since Gregory didn't get a Christmas present from us, we let him open all of the general gifts.

One of our neighbors sent over a gift and I had picked up a couple movies for the family as well.

Grandma sent gifts to everyone including a nifty multi-tool for Kurt.

Kurt had a tool themed Christmas. I purchased a set of tools when we moved which Kurt has been using during our home remodel. These were an early Christmas present.

Kurt found a lovely vintage cedar chest at his store which he thought to give me for Christmas. However, Kurt couldn't finally decide to get the chest because he wasn't quite positive I would like everything about it. Then one day I visited his store while he was out. As I waited for him to return, I looked around and found the chest, which I bought on the spot. I'd been wanting one for a long time. In the end we decided it would be my Christmas present anyway. It needs to be refinished and I am hoping Kurt will put it in the queue of ongoing projects and get to it soon.

Our home remains my favorite Christmas present by far. Bob the Builder recently brought over another surprise.

I had mentioned I wanted to put up some 2 x 4s along the wall in the kitchen where no cabinets would fit. I told Bob I could use the small shelves for canning jars. Apparently when I turned around he rolled his eyes and started measuring. He told Kurt not to tell me, but he would take care of my canning shelves.

Bob the Builder amazed us once again. These shelves completely outdo anything I could conceive. They are beautiful and the gleaming rows of jars look fantastic in my kitchen. I love being able to see what I have canned too. It helps me plan.

The sun room is very close to being finished.

We still need doors to close the hole between it and our bedroom and we need a new ceiling fan. My warping board still sits under the coffee table stowed until I paint the wall upon which it is to be mounted. Even still, I LOVE my sun room. It reminds me of the lanai in our old Gulf Breeze house. And Michael got me a little table top fountain for the sun room for Christmas, like the one we had in Gulf Breeze. Yes, we had a very good Christmas indeed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Busy, Busy, Busy

Like always, December rushed by in a whirlwind of busyness. Gregory's thirteenth birthday sprang upon me despite my firm belief he could not possibly have grown so old.

For more than a year, Gregory wanted an iPod Touch.

But he dared not hope for one. They are out of our budget. Little did he suspect I found a good buy online. Of course, we didn't want to be too obvious.

I'd sort of suggested Gregory could expect a new computer game for this birthday. After all, an iPod plugs into the computer and you do play with it.

Gregory's last iPod died after being sent through the washing machine no less than 5 times. Either Apple makes an amazing product to survive 4 washings or my front load washing machine cleans marginally, if at all. Unfortunately, I suspect the latter.

Gregory swears there is no way this iPod will go into the laundry. I suspect he may be right because he never puts it down long enough to forget about it or wash it. In fact, I told Gregory I would need his iPod on Christmas Eve so I could put it under the tree. The iPod is also Gregory's Christmas present. At first he wanted something under the tree, but now he is not certain he can part with the iPod even overnight on Christmas Eve. I'm glad he is happy, though I'm not too happy about seeing him constantly wired to the thing.

Despite all the distracting work of moving and renovating, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of having a teenager in the house.

Nevertheless, I had to put 13 candles on his cake. Unreal. It really seems like he was just a little guy not that long ago. I realize all parents say that, but it is really true.

And my little fellow, who once could not blow out the few candles on his cakes, easily blew out all 13 this year. Happy birthday Gregory.

Squeezed in between the holidays, our friend and hero Bob the Builder and his mighty son Adam spent a couple of days helping us with a couple of tiling projects.

This time I got to use the wet saw so now I think I could tile by myself if I had to tile by myself. And since we have some tile left over and there are no floors in two of the closets, I anticipate tiling by myself eventually.

Kurt also got a few lessons in tiling.

Kurt worked with Bob in both the master bathroom and the kitchen. Not only is Bob amazing when it comes to building and installing stuff, but he is a good teacher as well.

Bob also taught me how to do the grout part of tiling. Grouting isn't hard in itself however, being hunched over freezing cold tiles in the dead of winter in a room without insulation when one is no longer young can be a bit of a challenge.

After grouting and incidentally after Bob left which is generally when things are likely to go wrong, I tried to seal the grout with a couple different products. The grout never actually sealed according to the descriptions on the products. Kurt and I sought help and we couldn't actually find anyone who had successfully sealed their grout to the place where it wouldn't absorb water afterwards. I now suspect grout sealing is not real. I think someone is making a lot of money with an idea that just sounds good. However, if someone has actually sealed their grout to the point where it is no longer absorbent, I'd sure like to hear about it.

Gabrielle and I decided to continue our Christmas baking tradition this year despite not being very moved in yet.

So we spent a couple of long days making candy and cookies.

And we piled the goodies onto 25 plates, which was the number we thought we needed.

Kurt brought a couple of the plates to work and the rest went to our new neighbors and friends at church.

The kids and Kurt were relieved to find plenty of left-overs. We ate them pretty fast though.

Gabrielle decided to participate in the Christmas program at church this year.

The kids were all so cute.

At first Michael said he wouldn't participate. He has never liked being in front of a crowd.

Everyone wanted him to be the donkey.

They didn't have anyone to play the donkey role.

But every day, Michael refused, until the morning of the production.

Finally, Michael agreed to be the donkey. (I think he had such a great time meeting our new neighbors the day before when we brought our Christmas goodies around the neighborhood that he finally decided people were fun.)

Although Michael told us he would be in the Christmas production, he told us he would NOT sing.

And he didn't. Gabrielle did a great job in her angel role and sang beautifully, which is not a normal thing in this family. We really don't have good voices in general and mine is absolutely terrible.

While Michael looked bored and sleepy. (I love that Michael still fits into the Dale sweater I knit for him a couple years ago. However, this will be the last year he will be able to wear it.)

I don't know why he refused to sing.

Since he sings all the time at home.

But that is my quirky little guy.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sugar Cane and Turkey

All moving and remodeling things must pause for harvest and holidays and we've had both this last week. After unpacking as much of the kitchen as possible in the couple of days I had available, I took a break for Thanksgiving and for harvesting our sugar cane. We finally faced the challenge and cooked one of the giant turkeys we raised this year. It fit into the oven just fine.

However, there was a bit of an issue getting it into a pan.

Even after thawing, the turkey sat on top of my roasting pan, obviously way too big for the largest pan in my house. So Kurt ran out Thanksgiving morning and brought home the largest disposable pan he could find.

It just fit and we bent up the sides for extra holding ability. But the pan was shallow. Too shallow. I used a cookie sheet for support and to catch any drips AND I installed an oven liner.

Praise God we were able to cook the thing. I wasn't sure we'd be able to do it there for awhile. And really, the fire that happened when the shallow disposable pan filled up with juices and overflowed caused very little damage to the inside of my new oven. And really, had I seen the instructions warning against putting the liner on the bottom of the oven, we may not have had any damage at all from the fire itself.

Several people suggested I cut up the turkey to cook it, but I wanted to stuff it and stuffing a turkey cut into pieces just didn't seem right.

Besides, I'd made my own bread crumbs for the stuffing already and really wanted to use them. The stuffing turned out really good and I am glad we roasted our turkey the old fashioned way, though I really am going to have to find a larger roasting pan for the future. We gave two of these giant turkeys to friends and both of them had extra large roasting pans from their mothers. I'm pretty sure my mom doesn't have one for me. I'll have to figure out something else before Christmas or cook a smaller turkey.

We were very blessed to be allowed to harvest the sugar cane from our old house in Brewton last week. We pulled a borrowed trailer to Brewton and cleared the field in about three hours with a single machete. We pulled the cane home and the day before Thanksgiving, while I baked pies, the kids stripped off leaves.

Stripping leaves is not an easy job because the leaves are sharp and will slice up your arms. Gregory has really made a huge effort to be a good and reliable worker lately (after a couple talks with Bob the Builder and his parents) and he did the bulk of the stripping work.

I am so proud of Gregory. Not only did he work hard and make sure all the leaves got stripped in a single day,

but he maintained a really good attitude throughout a very long work day.

I really appreciated his attitude since Gregory doesn't even like the cane syrup. He is the only one in the family who doesn't like it.

Gabrielle helped without complaining as well.

Michael sort of helped.

But mostly he just played.

The kids only had one day to strip leaves instead of the three they had last year if they didn't want to do it on Thanksgiving. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, we traveled back to Brewton to press the cane at the Wilsons' house.

I love the Wilson family. They are such great people. I really respect the lifestyle they lead. They raise lots of their own food and work together as a family. And they have THE BEST way to cook in winter.

The have a fully functioning, intended for the job, wood-burning cook stove.

I LOVE this stove. It keeps their home so warm and cosy (though I think they have a wood burning stove in the living room for heat as well). And they cook on it too! How cool is that???

Pressing the cane this year was much like last year.

Mr. I.J. drove the 4-wheeler down to the pasture with the cane mill to watch.

Though this year he selected a few stalks of sugar cane to plant. He told me he wanted some cane for "chewin and a bit of juice".

While some of the men piled up the cane and then fed it into the mill. Mr. John David once again spent hours driving round and round keeping the mill cylinders in motion. While I wasn't at the house visiting with the Wilson sisters, I sat and visited with Mr. I.J. I enjoy the stories about his younger days in Brewton, especially the stories about raising and processing sugar cane. He told me they used to make Whiskey from the cane juice skimmings. He told me about pressing cane and boiling it down late into the night and about selling the syrup. He told me a little about the mule that once powered the mill. Some of the whiskey stories made me laugh. Part of me wanted to know how to turn skimmings into whiskey, not to drink it or anything, but just to know how to do it. And really, it is not like I would ever try making it. I just like knowing how to do things, things people don't do so much anymore. In the end, I never screwed up my courage far enough to ask how.

The men took shifts, straining to push the large canes in between the pressing cylinders.

Jason walked over to say "hello" and took a shift as well.

Gregory took frequent shifts throughout the day.

The men had to be ever mindful of the beam going around and around. It got me a couple of times before I remembered I did best visiting with people instead of trying to push sugar cane into the mill.

Gregory had an enjoyable chat with Mr. I.J. over one of the turkey sandwiches I'd made for lunch. Gregory also borrowed Mr. I.J.'s cup and drank a whole lot of the cane juice. He doesn't like the cane syrup, but Gregory drank more cane juice than anyone. We were warned the juice has a bit of a laxative effect, well quite a bit, but it didn't seem to phase Gregory.

He worked all afternoon with few breaks.

And I think he only got bonked once.

Unlike me. I should have sat in the chair like Kurt or stayed away all together. You don't really get hurt or anything since the pole proceeds at a slow, steady pace. You just get pushed and then embarrassed.

The entire time we spent with the mill, the Wilson sisters played with Michael.

They are such sweet ladies. At one point Miss Wanda pushed Michael on the swing.

He told her "yes" when she asked if he wanted to go high.

I really don't think he knew what "going high" meant. Either that or he changed his mind quickly. But he never said a word and Miss Wanda didn't realize how terrified Michael was until I said something to her - after I took a blog picture.

Once we got home with our eight and a half, five-gallon buckets of sugarcane juice, I started the race to boil it into syrup. Sugar cane juice spoils rapidly so it needs to be condensed to syrup quickly. Cane syrup is shelf stable and lasts for quite awhile.

When we moved into our Foley house, we upgraded some of the appliances. I saved the old stove with the idea we could build an outdoor kitchen of sorts for cooking cane juice into syrup. We still need to build something to protect the syrup from falling leaves and bugs so this year we once again boiled the juice in the house. I talked Kurt into bringing the old stove back inside (since we have room where the refrigerator is supposed to go after the floor gets installed). Then I convinced him I should use both stoves to process the cane juice faster. Kurt simply had to convert the cord on the old stove to work with the dryer outlet, which he did. I love my clever husband.

Working with two stoves cut the process from four days to two, much to my relief. It also kept the juice sweeter which makes for better syrup in the long run. I told Kurt I like having two stoves and want to keep both of them inside for now. He doesn't like the idea but I figure as we get stuff put away and messes cleared up, there might be room for the extra stove in the laundry room.

Each five-gallon bucket holds enough juice to fill up a large stock pot.

And with four stock pots going at the same time, condensation filled the house pretty quickly.

And naturally that meant "rain" once again dripping from fixtures, vents and even the ceiling. I thought a dehumidifier would help so Kurt dug ours out of the workshop. We've had it stored for at least four years and I was glad to have a reason to use it again.

I meticulously cleaned up the dehumidifier and plugged it into a kitchen wall outlet. The small explosion and burst of flame flipped a breaker and ended my hopes to remove moisture from the air. Kurt tried to fix it, but a mouse had long ago attempted to establish residency in the inner workings of the machine. Either the nest or the mouse snacking on the wires caused the dehumidifier to short out and the explosion made it permanent. Lousy rodents. I'm glad we have cats now and I hope this particular mouse became dinner for one of the cats at some point.

Kurt thinks our "barn cats" have been overly tamed by the kids, but we still see them with mice periodically. They are doing their job and I am glad they are around, no matter what they do to the screens.

After a good 12 to 13 hours, the sugar cane juice foams more orange and with smaller bubbles, signaling that it has become syrup.

We got five and a half gallons of syrup this year. I'm so grateful to have it around again. We ran out a couple months ago and oatmeal is just not right without it.

I had to stay with the syrup all day, each day again this year, but didn't get much knitting done. While I did a little knitting on the second day of processing, on the first day I cracked and shelled the bag of pecans the Wilsons gave to us as we were leaving.

I'm so grateful for the people who share things like pecans with us. I wish we had a producing tree ourselves, but since we don't, I am grateful for friends who share.

On the pet front, Strider has become a much happier dog.

He likes to sit on the top of the hill left from our pool installation and sometimes chase chickens. We are trying to break him of the chicken thing. He is supposed to protect them. Silly dog. I'm really going to have to pray for the means to distract him with dairy goats as soon as possible.