Why should sugar cookies only be made at Christmas? Sure, these melt-in-your mouth delights are associated with the holiday season, probably in part due to their colorful sprinkles or icing. But when I was a kid, we had sugar cookies for all sorts of seasons and holidays. Shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day, leaves in the fall, bunnies at Easter, not to mention the host of fun cookie cutter shapes that weren’t holiday related that my mom would use for any-time treats.
Granted, I don’t make sugar cookies as often as my mom did, but I am trying hard to make it happen more than just at Christmas. This week I baked a batch of Valentine’s Day cookies. Mostly for the kids to take to the retirement center for gift bags for church members, but of course, we kept some at home. And because I think we should all have fun with sugar cookies year-round, I’m taking this opportunity to share the recipe.
What I love about this recipe is not only does it produces great sugar cookies, but that every time I pull it out of the cabinet, I’m flooded with memories. In these days of searching on the tablet for a recipe on Pinterest, it is meaningful to me that my favorite sugar cookie recipe is printed on a card that says “From: Susan Skarbek,” our neighbor from when my family lived in Marietta, GA. Susan was my mom’s friend and the mom of one of my best friends. It’s been more than 30 years since I lived in that neighborhood in the suburbs of Atlanta, but every time I use the recipe I remember playing Smurfs in the front yard or Barbies at the Skarbek’s house with Bethany and Jessica.
So what makes this recipe the best? According to my mom, it’s that it uses only powdered sugar, not granulated sugar. The other trick to making it work? Patience. It seems like every time my mother shared her cookies with other people, they would ask her trick to rolling them out. I am here to tell you, this soft, sticky dough will be the bane of your existence, even after it has chilled three hours in the refrigerator. My mom’s tip was to use parchment paper, not waxed paper. I like to roll mine out straight on the sanitized granite counter top. But even with that, at least one roll out of dough will stick, and you just have to scrape it all up and start again. I’m here to tell you the effort and the frustration is totally worth it, these are some of the best cookies ever! To get you started, here’s the recipe.
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1 cup butter (real butter makes them even more melt-in-your mouth, but margarine helps make them easier to roll out)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
Cream the sugar and butter. Add egg and flavorings. Mix thoroughly. Sift dry ingredients together and blend into the butter/egg mixture. Refrigerate two to three hours.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Divide dough in half and roll 3/16” thick on lightly floured parchment paper. Cut with a cookie cutter and sprinkle with sugar. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake seven to eight minutes, or until just golden.
Two things happened on Tuesday that made me think about books and reading.
First, the kids and I went to Barnes & Noble to spend our Christmas gift cards. It was a teacher work day, and what better way to spend a day out of school than surrounded by books? This might sound strange to some of you, but it was the first time I had taken kids had been to Barnes & Noble, and it was absolutely magical. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we don’t have books in the house. Since they were born we’ve patronized our local library, coming home with piles of books after each trip. We’re also lucky to have a great local bookstore in Diana’s. But there’s just something awesome about walking into Barnes & Noble. Rather than being overwhelmed, the kids seemed to feel immediately at home. Caroline was back and forth between young readers and young adult, Carter found his special place in the non-fiction section on art.
I drove home feeling so excited about the fact that my kids spent two hours in a book store and still weren’t ready to leave.
Then, that night, I was involved in a conversation on Facebook where a friend from college mentioned starting an online book group, and I flippantly remarked that I might join, but I wasn’t sure I had time to read the book. Of course, the immediate response was, “Karen, there’s always time to read.” That got me thinking. She was right. There’s always time to read. After all, wasn’t that what I was trying to teach the kids? Wasn’t that why we spent our day out of school reading books and finding more things to read?
The thing is, I don’t have the time to read that I used to. When I was younger, when people asked me what I liked to do, my answer was always “I like to read.” And I devoured books. But now, I have a pile of novels by my desk that I want to read, and while I am slowly making my way through them, the pace frustrates me. There’s always a meal to cook, laundry to do, dogs to feed, or floors to sweep. It seems like as soon as I sit down with my book, someone yells, “Mom,” and my train of thought is broken.
But I truly believe the way encourage a love of reading in our children is to be readers ourselves. So even though my nose isn’t in a book 24/7 like it used to be, that comment on Facebook led to personal reflection, and I realized that rather than worrying about the novels I’m not reading, I should be paying attention to the things that I am reading. Once I thought about it a little, I realized, I am reading.
Here’s what’s on my plate right now:
Entertainment Weekly. Magazines seem to be a great answer to what to read when I only have short periods of time. I like the reviews and the writing in this one. It joins Redbook and Rachel Ray with the three subscriptions I keep renewing.
The Wilkes Journal-Patriot. I’ve always been a proponent of reading the local paper to stay up with what’s going on in the community, and I’m very pleased with how this paper reports on local news. They have a great editorial page as well.
The Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order. I was given this book when I joined the session, having recently been elected to serve as an elder. My father used to refer to it all the time, and I always thought it was just a boring list of rules. Which, technically it is, but it’s also enlightening to see how the Presbyterian Church is laid out and get a clear picture of the denominations’ guiding principles.
The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende. No explanation needed on this one, it just happens to be the novel of the moment for me.
The Tales of Uncle Remus. I read to the kids before bed, almost every night, and a couple of weeks ago I decided to go for something a little different. It started with me pulling out my Norton Anthology of American Literature. We read Mark Twain’s short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County,” and the next story was “Tar Baby,” which they convinced me to read, probably mostly so they wouldn’t have to go to bed. Both of them laughed so hard that I got the book of stories at the library, and it’s been a fun read.
I think that many of us grow up thinking that when you say you love to read, that means you read novels, or classic literature. But you don’t have to read novels to love reading. Read the news. Read magazines. Read instruction manuals, self-help books, motivational works. I think that’s what makes a trip to Barnes & Noble so inspirational. It reaffirms that reading is for everyone. No matter who we are or what stage of life we’re in, there’s something out there that will pique our interest and expand our minds. And hopefully foster a love of reading.
Every family has its own Christmas traditions, and I love that we enjoy so many of them. In our family making sugar cookies decorated with sprinkles is one thing I do with the kids every year at Christmas, and Bill and the kids make buckeyes, or peanut butter balls with the peanut butter showing through the chocolate at the top. These are just two of many, including decorating the tree, watching Elf, and looking at other people’s Christmas light displays.
I wouldn’t list Christmas cards as one of our big traditions. Maybe because it isn’t something we sit down to do together as a family. But I love opening up the mailbox this time of year and getting cards from friends scattered all over the state and country. Most of them send pictures of their kids, and I love it when there’s a little note about what they’re up to. It’s a great way to stay in touch.
I have to admit, there are times when I wonder if it’s worth the effort to send Christmas cards, when so many of us are logged onto Facebook, and we see our friends’ kids smiling faces at different activities all through the year. Doesn’t social media do the job that Christmas cards used to do, helping us keep up with friends who are scattered across the country, who we might not talk to on a daily, or even monthly, basis, but we still care about?
My answer to that question is, no. Facebook doesn’t do what Christmas cards do. Those personalized cards are still worth it.
Granted, my list is pretty short, and really only includes close friends who live in other states. But the reason for sending these little missives through the mail year after year encompasses more than what Facebook can bring. For one thing, it’s more personal. Sure, I can post a picture of Caroline in her first band concert, or Carter singing at the Veteran’s Day service at school, and all my “friends” will see it. And by all, I mean those who happen to see my post in their newsfeed during the time they log on. So will my friends see it? Maybe, maybe not. Also, with Facebook, we lose the personal touch. Most Christmas cards include more than we’re willing to share with the world on Facebook, the details of your life that really speak to who you are.
So the next couple of nights I will spend a few hours writing letters and addressing envelopes. It’s just one way of spreading a little love and good cheer this time of year. Something that can’t be replaced by Facebook.
There are some plants in the garden that seem to thrive no matter how hot and humid August gets. My zinnias are one. Those flowers just never stop! But it seems like most of my perennials wilt during the overbearing weather of late summer, a lot like we as humans do. Those days when you just step outside and break a sweat can be tough. The weather completely zaps your energy before you really even get anything done.
So when my coneflower quit blooming and the hibiscus succumbed to an insect that totally disseminated its leaves, I figured it was getting to be the time of year to start cutting back and moving on. After all, the first frost would be just around the corner.
But then I had a happy surprise. Through the month of September, when the days were warm but not as hot as August, I started to see a revival of sorts in my garden. Not only were the mums and asters blooming, which they’re supposed to do in the late summer/early fall, but some of my perennials started to perk back up and bloom again. I’ve had a second round of blooms on my rose bush, the coreopsis, and the ‘Going Bananas’ daylily.
Here we are in the third week of October, and I have a garden that looks like an odd mix of early spring and late fall. Maybe the name of that daylily was symbolic. Is this a sign that our climate is going bananas, when I have daylilies blooming on October 19? Late last year, after our first frost, we had a warm spell long enough that some of the forsythia and other early spring bloomers started blooming. I worried that they wouldn’t bloom again in the spring, but they did. And now we have a summer that seems like it just won’t end.
It’s hard not to worry about climate change. This article from Slate.com written in March and updated monthly, shows in a humorous way just what we’re experiencing. What will our world be like in 20 years, or 30, when my children are adults and raising children of their own?
I can only hope that we are taking steps now to stall some of the dire affects climatologists warn us of. And in the meantime, I will ease my worries by enjoying the blooms in my garden. After all, it’s hard to deny that a cheery yellow daylily brightens up your day!
I have to admit, August isn’t my favorite month in the garden. The squash and green beans that were so lush and productive in June and July are have given in to bugs and powdery mildew. The flowers that looked so perky and perfectly mounded in the spring and early summer are now overgrown and straggly. No amount of cutting back seems to bring back that spring-time vigor.
But all of that doesn’t keep me from going out to the gardens. There are still plenty of zinnias to pick, and a few tomatoes that have escaped the nibbles of deer. And the other day, when I went to see what produce I could scrounge from my mid-August garden, I found my flowers alive with butterflies. It was the most I’d ever seen in one place. I only have about a two-foot line of zinnias out at the vegetable garden, and I counted seven butterflies there at one time. They were so intent on getting the nectar from the flowers some of them didn’t even move when I came near them. A few would fly up and away only to come back and light on another flower.
Watching those butterflies made me happy. There are many reasons why gardening is touted as a good activity for stress relief, and the connection to nature is one of the biggest. It’s so peaceful to watch the butterflies at work, collecting nectar. And so beautiful, with their colorful wings flittering against a background of colorful flowers.
Here I was, thinking it was the ugly stage of the garden, when I was overcome with beauty. If you look for it, there’s beauty in every stage. The colorful leaves of the fall, the stark limbs of shrubs in the winter, each season has its highlights. Thinking of the garden is peaceful in so many ways, but it also brings peace when you realize that just like the garden, life itself is beautiful at every stage. So many articles and blogs write about the fleeting moments of early childhood, and how that time is gone before you know it. It is. But then the next stage comes, and the next. And each is beautiful, fun and awe-inspiring in its own right.
The other day I when I was sitting on the porch at my parents’ house, the smell of gardenias hung heavy in the air, and I breathed it in deeply. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these iconic southern flowers, the smell is sickeningly sweet, in much the same way as old-fashioned roses whose blooms perfume the air with strong fragrance, enough to inspire perfumes and poems. Yet the fragrance of gardenias is nothing like roses. Gardenias have their own unique smell.
For me, the smell of gardenias inspires vivid memories of my grandfather. Sitting on the porch that day, I could see in my mind as clear as day my grandfather sitting out there too, wearing his button-down, short-sleeved shirt and dress pants, usually in a tan or brown color, reading the paper or going through the mail. We spent a lot of time out on that porch. It was the house that he grew up in and then lived in once he retired from a career as an industrial engineer, and he loved it.
Out on the porch, he taught me about what it meant to be a Presbyterian, and he also taught me about other denominations as well. When I dated a boy who went to the Church of Christ, Grandpa handed me a book with a chapter to read on the history of that denomination, and then we sat on the porch and talked about the differences and similarities between my church and Chris’s. The porch was where we had conversations about the environment and the need to recycle, something we disagreed on greatly as I was passionate about conservation, whereas he came from a generation that was taught the world was ours to use. And the porch was where he got out his scrapbook from World War II, and shared some of his memories with me and my brother.
He also liked to eat lunch out on the porch, and the summers when I worked at the bank downtown, I would walk the three blocks to Grandpa’s house and join him and Grandma for lunch on the porch. I probably associate egg salad with that porch as much as I do gardenias.
All of these memories and more flooded my brain the other day on the porch, and all because of the smell of the gardenias. The funny thing is, Grandpa wasn’t someone you would normally associate with flowers. He didn’t garden, that was my grandmother’s arena. He didn’t even do yard work. He paid someone to mow the lawn.
But for some reason, he loved those delicate little white flowers and their sweet fragrance. When the gardenias were in bloom, he always had one in his shirt pocket. And there were vases with blooms set out all over the house, so no matter where you went you could smell gardenias.
No wonder I associate Grandpa with that smell. His house was probably the only place I was around gardenia blooms as a kid, so every time I smelled them I was with him.
And now I’m thankful for the memories that those flowers conjure up. Not only of the man who studied and read and liked to have serious conversations, but of a man who saw beauty in the world and appreciated it, in his own way. He may have had a stern demeanor, but he had a soft side as well. It was something I got a glimpse of once in a while, on rare occasions. I saw it when he held out his arm to help my grandmother down the stairs, in an unspoken gesture of compassion. I saw it when he spoiled my cousin’s cat Mosca, giving her treats and letting her sleep on his lap. And I saw it when he bought himself a very thick, heavy winter coat just so he could come to the high school football games and stay warm while watching me play in the marching band.
For me, I will never be able to see a gardenia without thinking of my grandfather. And maybe those gardenias were important to Grandpa for the same reason they are for me, for the memories. For a smell that brings to mind a time of life filled with family and home.
On Tuesday, Caroline came home with homework. Something she wasn’t expecting during her last week of school. They were going to write an essay, or maybe just a paragraph, she wasn’t sure, on “What C.B. Eller Means to Me,” and her homework was to plan out her essay and come up with a strategy. Being her last week of fifth grade, her last year at this great little elementary school, I guess her teachers were wanting them to reflect on their time there before moving on to middle school next year. So I hijacked the assignment. I am doing it for myself, because listening to her brainstorm made me realize just how much I appreciate this school and everything it has meant to my kids, and how much I’ve grown to love it.
What C.B. Eller Means to me:
A Home Away from Home. C.B. Eller is like a second home for my kids. And when I say that, I don’t mean it’s just a place where they spend most of their time. It’s a place where they feel safe and loved, just like at home. I remember clear as day, just like it was yesterday, Caroline as a kindergartener walking herself in to school on the second day, all by herself. Most of the other moms were still walking their little ones in, but Caroline had informed me on the first day that she didn’t need me in the morning. And even though I had a tinge of a sentimental feeling rise up in me while I watched that jaunty little girl walk into school, I felt totally confident in letting her go. I knew that she had a teacher who loved her, and school staff and administration who were there for her. Ever since that second day of school there have been countless ways these great people at C.B. Eller showed me that they cared about my children like family — notes of encouragement, high fives from teachers, teachers who eat lunch with the kids even though they could be having down time in their room or the teacher’s lounge, a secretary who always has a smile on her face, a helping hand from the principal to jump over the puddles getting out of the car on rainy days — it’s the little ways they show they care that matter most.
It’s more than just EOGs! Even as early as preschool, parents of Caroline’s friends were talking about the dreaded EOGs. Will our children be able to handle the stress? Should schools be teaching to the test? What is too much when it comes to practice tests? It’s a big worry, but not for us, thank goodness! Yes, the kids at C.B. Eller take EOGs starting in third grade, and have more assessments from the time they’re in kindergarten than I ever did. But teaching to the test isn’t the priority at this school. They learn all year long, and when it’s time for those end of grade tests, they’re told to get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, and do their best. And along the way, in addition to a few days of tests, Caroline has been able to take part in a wax museum filled with notable North Carolinians, do three different science fair projects, work on research of a topic of her choosing (which happened to be sink holes for some reason), make applesauce in a crock pot to honor Johnny Appleseed, learn how Christmas is celebrated around the world, and countless other hands-on learning opportunities that you don’t find on a standardized test.
The Field Trips. Yes, one of the things I love about C.B. Eller are the great field trips each class goes on. In addition to great performances at the John A. Walker Center at Wilkes Community College, Caroline has gotten to go to the North Carolina Zoo, Grandfather Mountain, Catawba Science Center, and many other places where she explored and leaned new things.
In the end, I can see why it was hard for Caroline to put into words what C.B. Eller means to her, because even though I can go on and on about how much I love the teachers, the community, and the things she has learned at this school, there’s a part of what this school means to me that just can’t be put into words. I’ve watched my daughter learn, grow, and make lasting friendships and wonderful memories.
And maybe most importantly, what I love about Caroline’s time at C.B. Eller is that it has prepared her for her next adventure — middle school here we come!
If you asked me in any given year, I would say April is a pretty uneventful month for the Alley family. There aren’t any birthdays, big occasions like the first or last day of school, or weather-related events like sledding or swimming. It’s just a month of days where we go to school or work, do our chores around the house, and live life in ordinary days.
But now that we are at the beginning of May, I took the opportunity to look back at the camera roll on my phone, and it turns out this April has been pretty eventful in a variety of ways.
- The kids and I hiked to the top of Stone Mountain, the full 4.5 mile loop. This is a big one for us because even though we live so close to this wonderful state park, we haven’t hiked that trail together. It was so beautiful up on top, and the kids appreciated the time just sitting, taking in the view, more than I imagined they would.
- We all experienced our first Merlefest, which turned out to be even better than I expected. It didn’t hurt that an old friend from college was playing at the event this year, and it was pretty cool to see Jeni & Billy perform, and then get pictures afterwards!
- Carter and I got to visit SciWorks for the first time, and quickly became huge fans of this science museum in Winston-Salem.
- Caroline proved she is well on her way to growing up by becoming a server rather than a spectator at the library’s annual Storybook Character Breakfast, as well as trying out instruments and making the decision to be in band in middle school next year.
- Carter got the chance to go on his first real fishing trip, heading over to Kerr Scott Dam with his father and grandfather for a boys’ day out on the lake.
All the fun activities in April afforded plenty of family time. But I’m also thankful for the opportunity to try new things and partake in new experiences. Spring is a time for new beginnings. We see it every year as the leaves bud out on the trees, baby calves frolic in the pastures and little birds hatch out of fragile eggs. But it doesn’t always correlate to new things for me. Spring can be just another season, months full of days consisting of work, cleaning the house, working in the yard, and keeping up with the kids and their school work and activities.
This month reminded me how important it is to try new things. Whether that’s blowing into a trumpet even if your heart is set on playing the xylophone or learning how to put a minnow on a fish hook, we learn from all of our experiences, both big and small.
I’m thankful for all the big and small things I got to experience with and through my kids this month, and look forward to many more months full of days of fun adventures!
In my many years editing for Carolina Gardener and reading various gardening publications, I became very familiar with the extension agents’ favorite saying: “Right Plant, Right Place.” Basically this means you want to understand the environmental needs of a plant before you put it in the ground. You don’t take a sun-loving zinnia and plant it in the woods, just like you wouldn’t put the shade-loving heuchera out in an open garden with full sun.
So when my grandmother gave me a bunch of Lenten rose babies, I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I dutifully planted these shade garden plants in the shade. I dug up a nice little area in the wooded spot of our backyard, right by the bench Bill had bought as a birthday present for me years ago, the beloved bench that has been in three different backyards and is still going strong. I planted them the same fall we moved into this house, in 2008.
For years, I watched those plants, pulling weeds around them, watering them when necessary, and nothing happened. Nothing. It has now been eight years, and while those plants are still there, nothing has changed. They still only have two leaves each. They’ve never bloomed, and they haven’t even grown. I read all I could about Lenten roses, and asked a couple of people who were writing for Carolina Gardener at the time who were experts, and the reason for their struggle remained a mystery.
After my grandmother passed away, I was helping my parents clean out her garden, and there were multitudes of Lenten roses. The plants kept re-seeding, and no one had been there to keep the population under control. My mom offered for me to take some, and at first I said no. I felt like a failure, because I hadn’t been able to do well with the first ones Grandma gave me. But in the end, I couldn’t resist. I love these flowers, the greenish-white harbingers of spring, and I’ve always wanted them in my garden. So I tried again.
This time, I really wasn’t worried about whether they survived or not. After all, I knew where I could get more. So I recklessly planted them in front of our house beside a couple of rose bushes. A non-shady, mostly sunny area right out in the open. Totally against everything I’d known about the perfect spot for Lenten roses. But I needed something for that space. And you know what? These two plants have grown like gangbusters! After two years, I now have big, healthy plants, and this spring I was blessed with a full spray of blooms.
I’m not saying you should ignore cultural requirements and plant with reckless abandon in your garden. I can’t explain why the plants did better in one spot than another. All I can say is, I’ve learned that it pays to experiment a little. These little flowers that bloomed so beautifully in a place where they shouldn’t have grown well showed me that stepping outside your comfort zone just might be a good thing once in a while. Maybe I can learn a thing or two from these beat-the-odds Lenten roses.
When I was in the 8th grade, my class trip to Raleigh included a stop at Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro. I will never forget overhearing one boy exclaim in excitement about his first ride on an escalator. Having lived in Atlanta as a child, and traveled with my parents to other cities, escalators were no big deal to me.
Now I am a parent, raising my children in a small town. We moved here because we like the sense of community a small town affords, the absence of big-city problems like traffic and crime (well, there is crime here, but not in the same volume) and the opportunity to hike in our own woods and fish in our own creek, among other things. But I am fully aware that there are disadvantages too, like the fact that our community is pretty homogenous, and opportunities to experience the arts are few and far between. I don’t want my kids to be the ones who go on a field trip and have never ridden an escalator. A few years ago one of my friends reassured me that wouldn’t happen, because as a parent I would make sure to expose them to a variety of things.
And she was right. At least I hope so.
One of those opportunities came last weekend. Bill and I took our kids to the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Peter and the Wolf, part of the Discovery Concert Series for Kids. It was a great event. They had activities before the concert that included an “Instrument Petting Zoo” where Carter and Caroline each got to try their hand at playing the violin, the cello, the flute, and the clarinet. And we got to experience the world premiere of The Wild Woods, a piece commissioned by the Winston-Salem Symphony written by a young and very talented composer, Viet Cuong. That was a very modern piece, with lots of atonal music and interesting rhythms. I can’t say the kids appreciated it as much as I did, but between that and Sergei Prokofiev’s family friendly music, they got a good introduction to the symphony in a concert that was appropriately kid-length.
On the way home, I talked about how much fun we had, getting out and doing all those neat things today. And Carter piped up from the backseat, “Yeah, I got to ride an escalator four different times.”