Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Our Wonderful Life

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo

One of my favorite things about Christmases and New Years past was the gatherings of our families...I mean all of our families. This meant that all of the tios and tias (uncles and aunts) and primos (cousins) would gather at my abuelos (grandparent's) house, but our festivities didn't begin on Christmas Eve, they actually began a day or two after we let out for Christmas Vacation (yes, they called it Christmas Vacation).

We would first begin with the tamale making and that usually took a couple of days - and they were long days. While I loved the company, I didn't like the chore. Why? Well, I didn't like tamales and I felt that if I didn't eat them, I shouldn't have to make them. And to tell the truth, there were a couple of us kids who didn't like tamales. But if there was any murmuring and complaning while the work was taking place, I have no doubt that the majority of it was done by me. But if you understood the numbers in our family and our motto "todo para la familia" it essentially meant that EVERYONE was going to have tamales to take home so EVERYONE was going to work. There
would be enough tamales to last us well into...oh, I would say about February or March; so that meant a lot of work...a lot of masa (dough), meat and hojas (corn husk leaves)..yep, it was a ton of work. One by one, we would take our turn at the tamale assembly line, smearing, filling and folding. But because there were so many of us, we would be done in no time. After all was said and done, we would end up with two, three, sometimes four huge pots of tamales to be cooked. Once they were cooked, we would gather again to "break bread" together or in this case "break open tamales." I did not learn to like tamales until I was an adult and it was a very slow acquired taste...so consequently, I never learned to make them. Yes, I know, for shame! What kind of a Mexican am I? Well, I did learn how to make tortillas by hand and I still make them and I make them round! My sister, Marina, learned to make the tamales and is faithfullly carrying on the family tradition back in California.

All throughout the coming days before Christmas, we would bake and bake until we had enough treats to feed a small army. Of coarse, we were very limited in what we were allowed to eat because we would have a huge Christmas Eve Open House. In the early years, we would have them at my grandmother's house. We would have a wonderful time together with all of the uncles, aunts, and cousins.


We used to open our presents on Christmas Eve and opening presents didn't begin until after midnight (or so it seemed to me). We would open our Christmas presents delighted and extremely grateful for all that we were given. We would then play with our new toys in the living room, while the music played in the dining room and the adults chatted with each other. We would play until we all fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.Our uncles would carry us all to bed and then load up their own brood and their Christmas booty and head on home.

After Christmas was over, we would rest for a few days and start preparing for New Years Eve. We would gather again at my grandmother's and snack, eat, and do our very best to stay up until midnight but we rarely made it. What I do remember is the music in the dining room where all the adults were gathered. As it got closer to midnight, my uncles and aunts would all start dancing. Most of them grew up in the 50's so they danced to that music,some salsa, and cumbia. But the memory that I cherish and appreciate the most - is seeing my single mom being cherished by her brothers as they took the time to dance with her.

As the years passed and we got older (the '70's) the parties moved to our tio Danny and tia Jeannie's house. The Open House got bigger with more friends coming by and the night would last longer. We would open presents there or we would open presents at another aunt and uncle's house. When New Year's came we would gather again,dance to all the disco music - showing our uncles and aunts all the "Saturday Night Fever" stuff. Ha, ha, ha - what fun that was! At times the song that would get us all in the festive mood is Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad." Hearing that song was the "mood changer." First we would start singing, then a little dancing...and then we would break out the Saturday Night Fever album. We would dance until 11:55pm. With a few minutes to spare, we would go outside and make all kinds of racket at the stroke of midnight for all the neighbors to enjoy. Being together as a family was really what we loved.

Now each of us is grown with our own families. My sister has carried on the tradition of tamale making with our precious mom overseeing everything (making sure the masa is perfect, because that is the toughest part to master). My cousins, Anna and Franklin open their home up for Christmas Eve to family and friends. While we are way over here in Virginia missing all of the festivities, I cherish all of our time spent together in the late 60's, 70's and 80's; they were our "Wonder Years."

A side note about giving and receiving...
My mom never talked about our "finances" much, but we were well aware of our circumstances. From year to year, we were never certain of what kind of a Christmas we would have. Sometimes, we were afraid that we wouldn't have Christmas, but God always proved himself faithful and we always had Christmas. About ten years ago my mom told us about one Christmas when things were very, very bad for us financially. She knew that there would be no Christmas for us, I think she tried to gingerly tell us, but we thought she was kidding. She told us that one day she and some of her HP co-workers were at the cafeteria sharing with one another all the wonderful gifts they would be buying this year for their children. She just listened, remained quiet and wore a smile throughout the lunch hour. Later, I am not sure if it was that day or a few days later, one of her friends asked her why she was always so quiet. My mom tried play it off, but her friend wasn't "buying it." My mom, broke down in tears and told her there wouldn't be Christmas at our house that year. Well, I am not sure how it all took place, but her group quietly got together and bought us all gifts. It was the best Christmas we had ever had as far as gifts were concerned. Our gifts normally consisted of necessities (clothing) and we were ever so grateful for them, because having new clothes was a luxury for us. I still remember one year, my sister and I each received a long skirt and blouse and new shoes - and we were thrilled to death! We didn't receive oodles and oodles of toys that year of "our Christmas Angels", but we received more than "a small toy or two." We knew that something special happened that year.

When I became gainfully employed, I never passed the "Giving Tree" at Sun Microsystems without picking up a tag or two for a needy person. I could not deny the gratitude that I felt for those that blessed us as children. I had the opportunity to walk in my mother's shoes for a few years, and have come to realize that as children we only ever had Christmas because of God's faithfulness and the generosity of my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and those "angels" at HP. And because of that, we have always tried to bless others who are less fortunate than us. Yes, things are pretty tough right now for us...as it is for everyone else, but we only need to look outside of our four walls to find that there are others who are worse off than we are. If ten dollars is all we can afford then we give it to a reputable charity who can stretch it and make it go far. If ten dollars is all you can afford and everything you have, don't despair...remember the widow's mite and how pleased our Lord was with her. Luke 21:2.

2 Corinthians 9:6-10

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. 7 You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”[
a] 8 And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. 9 As the Scriptures say, “They share freely and give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will be remembered forever.”[b] 10 For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity[c] in you.

If you are going through a tough financial time, lift your cares to our Heavenly Father, he cares about everything that you're going through. Remember, he is still on the throne and in control of everything (although it may not seem like it right now) and he cares about our every need. If we can pray for you somehow, please let us know by dropping us a note in the comment area.


Our family wishes you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. We are thankful for you and the way that you have blessed us with your love and friendship. May all of God's riches be yours this Christmas season.

Pumpkin Nut Bread

This is one of my favorite things to do with my pumpkin puree (I make my own out of pumpkins). Courtesy of Victoria "The Charms of Tea" Reminiscences and Recipes.

Yield: Two 9-inch loaves

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened - I use unsalted
2 cups packed dark-brown sugar
4 eggs
1 16-ounce can pumpkin puree, or 2 cups fresh pumpkin, cooked, and mashed
1/3 cup molasses
2 cups all-purpose flour - I use unbleached
2 cups of whole-wheat pastry flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 cups toasted slivered almonds or chopped walnuts (I don't use either)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degree F. Butter two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans. (I spray with Pam)
2. In the large mixing bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar at medium speed until the mixture is fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl often. Beat in the eggs, then the pumpkin and molasses. The mixture will look curdled. Set aside.
3. In another large bowl, thoroughly mix the remaining ingredients except the nuts.
4. With the mixer set at low, gradually beat the dry mixture into the pumpkin mixture, just until blended. Stir in the nuts. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.
5. Bake for 60 to 65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a loaf comes out clean.
6. Cool the bread in the pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove the loaves from the pans and let them cool completely on the racks.

The aroma in the house when this is baking is fantastic!

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Rifle - Author Unknown to me

Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squandered their means and then never had enough for the necessities. But for those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big as all outdoors. It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life comes from giving, not from receiving.

It was Christmas Eve 1881. I was fifteen years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me because there just hadn't been enough money to buy me the rifle that I'd wanted so bad that year for Christmas.

We did the chores early that night for some reason. I just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we could read in the Bible So after supper was over I took my boots off and stretched out in front of the fireplace and waited for Pa to get down the old Bible. I was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I wasn't in much of a mood to read scriptures.

But Pa didn't get the Bible, instead he bundled up and went outside. I couldn't figure it out because we had already done all the chores. I didn't worry about it long though, I was too busy wallowing in self-pity.Soon Pa came back in. It was a cold clear night out and there was ice in his beard. "Come on, Matt," he said. "Bundle up good, it's cold out tonight." I was really upset then. Not only wasn't I getting the rifle for Christmas, now Pa was dragging me out in the cold, and for no earthly reason that I could see. We'd already done all the chores, and I couldn't think of anything else that needed doing, especially not on a night like this.

But I knew Pa was not very patient at one dragging one's feet when he'd told them to do something, so I got up and put my bootsback on and got my cap,coat, and mittens. Ma gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something was up, but I didn't know what.

Outside, I became even more dismayed. There infront of the house was the work team, already hitched to the big sled. Whatever it was we were going to do wasn't going to be a short, quick, little job. I could tell.

We never hitched up the big sled unless we were going to haul a big load. Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand. I reluctantly climbed up beside him. The cold was already biting at me. I wasn't happy. When I was on, Pa pulled the sled around the house and stopped in front of the woodshed. He got off and I followed. "I think we'll put on the high sideboards," he said. "Here, help me." The high sideboards! It had been a bigger job than I wanted to do with just the low sideboards on, but whatever it was we were going to do would be a lot bigger
with the high sideboards on. When we hadexchanged the sideboards Pa went into the woodshed and came out with an armload of wood--- the wood I'd spent all summer hauling down from the mountain, and then all fall sawing into blocks and splitting. What was he doing?

Finally I said something. "Pa," I asked, "What are you doing?" "You been by the Widow Jensen's lately?" he asked. The Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband had died a yearor so before and left her with three children, the oldest being eight. Sure, I'd been by, but so what? "Yeah," I said, "Why?" "I rode by just today,"Pa said. "Little Jakey was out digging around in the woodpile trying to find a few chips. They're out of wood, Matt."
That was all he said and then he turned and went back into the woodshed for another armload of wood. Ifollowed him. We loaded the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to pull it.

Finally, Pa called a halt to our loading, then we went to the smoke house and Pa took down a big ham and a side of bacon. He handed them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait. When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a smaller sack of something in his left hand. "What's in the little sack?" I asked. "Shoes. They're out of shoes. Little Jakey just had gunny sacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in the woodpile this morning. I got the children a little candy too. It just wouldn't be Christmas
without a little candy."

We rode the two miles to Widow Jensen's pretty much in silence. I tried to think through what Pa was doing. We didn't have much by worldly standards. Of course, we did have a big woodpile, though most of what was left now was still in the form of logs that I would have to saw into blocks and split before we could use it. We also had meat and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn't have any money, so why was Pa buying them shoes and candy? Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us. It shouldn't have been our concern.

We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the wood as quietly as possible, then we took the meat and flour and shoes to the door. We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice said, "Who is it?" "Lucas Miles, Ma'am, and my son, Matt. Could we come in for a bit?" Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped inanother and were sitting infront of the fireplace by a very small fire that hardly gave off any heat at all. Widow Jensen fumbled with a match and finally lit the lamp.

We brought you a few things, Ma'am," Pa said and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Pa handed her the sack that had theshoes in it. She opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There was a pair for her and one for each of the children -- sturdy shoes, the best, shoes that would last.

I watched her carefully. She bit her lower lip tokeep it from trembling and then tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Pa like she wanted to say something, but it wouldn't come out.

"We brought a load of wood too, Ma'am," Pa said. Then he turned to me and said, "Matt, go bring enough in to last for awhile. Let's get that fire up to size and heat this place up."

I wasn't the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I had a big lump in my throat and, much as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my eyes too. In my mind I kept seeing those three kids huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with tears running down her cheeks and so much gratitude in her heart that she couldn't speak. My heart swelled within me and a joy filled my soul that I'd never known before. I had given at Christmas many times before, but never when it had made so much difference. I could see we were literally saving the lives of these people.

I soon had the fire blazing and everyone's spirits soared. The kids started giggling when Pa handed them each a piece of candy and Widow Jensen lookedon with a smile that probably hadn't crossed her face for a long time. She finally turned to us. "God bless you," shesaid. "I know the Lord himself has sent you. The children and I have been praying that he would send one of his angels to spare us."

In spite of myself, the lump returned to my throat and the tears welled up in my eyes again. I'd never thought of Pa in those exact terms before, butafter Widow Jensen mentioned it I could see that it was probably true. I was sure that a better man than Pa had never walked the earth. I started remembering all the times he had gone out of his way for Ma and me, and many others. The list seemed endless as I thought on it.

Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we left. I was amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what sizes to get. Then I guessed that if he was on an errand for the Lord that the Lord would make sure he got the right sizes.

Tears were running down Widow Jensen's face again when we stood up to leave. Pa took each of the kids in his big arms and gave them a hug. They clung to him and didn't want us to go. I could see that they missed their pa, and I was glad that I still had mine.

At the door Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said,"The Mrs. wanted me to invite you and the children over for Christmasdinner tomorrow. The turkey will be more than the three of us can eat, and a man can get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey for too many meals. We'll be by to get you about eleven. It'll be nice to have some little ones around again. Matt, here,hasn't been little for quite a spell." I was the youngest. My two older brothers and two older sisters were all married and had moved away.Widow Jensen nodded and said, "Thank you, Brother
Miles. I don't have to say, 'May the Lord bless you.' I know for certain that He will."

Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I didn't even notice the cold. When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to me and said, "Matt,I want you to know something. Your ma and me have been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could buy that rifle for you, but we didn't have quite enough. Then yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to make things square. Your ma and me were real excited, thinking that now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning to do just that. But on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in the woodpile with his feet
wrapped in those gunny sacks and I knew what I had to do. So, Son, I spent the money for shoes and a little candy for those children. I hope you understand."

I understood, and my eyes became wet with tears again. I understood very well, and I was so glad Pa had done it. Just then the rifle seemed very low on my list of priorities. Pa had given me a lot more. He had given me the look on Widow Jensen's face and the radiant smiles of her three children.For the rest of my life, whenever I saw any of the Jensens, or split a block of wood, I remembered, and remembering brought back that same joy I felt riding home beside Pa that night. Pa had given me much more than a rifle that night, he had given me the best Christmas of my life.
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