Saturday, December 28, 2019

CHRISTMAS 2019 (with a Little Thanksgiving Thrown in for Good Measure)

It has been over a month since I showed up here at my blog.   A month!  (If Instagram is any indication, most of the bloggers I used to follow aren't really showing up at theirs very often either, so I guess I'm on trend for a change.)

I never even managed to get anything written up about Thanksgiving chez Pearl, and it really was quite blog post-worthy.  It was a two-day celebration, actually, with all but son #2 and his wife and three little ones here for turkey and trimmings on Thursday, and then the whole gang (five boys, five wives, 16 grandkids) here for a more casual brunch on Friday--and I never got around to blogging about it.  Of course, this is no biggie to the Internet world, most of which doesn't know my humble little String of Pearls exists.  But I like the idea of having our family memories archived here, as a kind of online scrapbook, before I'm robbed of the ability to remember life events clearly.  (I hope that never happens; but you never know.)

Before I continue, here are just a few snapshots of our Thanksgiving celebration.

Anyway, moving on--

I thought I'd dust off this poor neglected old site (I'm practically choking here--I'm allergic to dust mites, you know) and jot down some memories from our Christmas festivities this year.  It is, after all, still Christmas, and will be until the Baptism of Our Lord on January 12, the first Sunday after the Epiphany (why do some people think Catholics have no fun?  We have the MOST fun!).  So I have lots of time to talk about the most wonderful time of the year, my favorite holiday of them all.

If you come here often, you know that in March of 2017, we made a big life change and sold our longtime home in NH and relocated to VA, in order to be closer to our grown sons and their families.  When we moved here, there were three sons who lived between 35 and 50 minutes from our new house.  Then shortly after we settled here, our oldest son made a career switch that by some miracle had him working out of DC, at least temporarily, so he joined the party and moved 17 minutes from us.  That meant that all of our boys who were married at that time were now nearby, and all of our grandchildren as well.  (Our youngest was still single and stationed in Germany; he got married this past Sept. and currently lives in OK with his bride.)  When we moved here, we had seven grandchildren; in the almost three years that we've been Virginians, nine more have been added (five of them came along in 2017 alone!).  And we get to see them all often.

While we were living up North, we had two Christmases that involved our kids driving long distances to be with us and also included the joy of having grandchildren with whom to celebrate.  In 2014, we had four little people opening their Santa gifts at our NH home; in 2016, we had six of them.  Things had not gotten too crazy yet--and we also had so much more space in our beloved Colonial than we do now.

Fast-forward to 2019--with a smaller house and ten more grandchildren, from eight years old down to less than two months--and you can imagine the chaos!  It's glorious, and joyful, and really so much fun.  But I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say it gets a little crazy!

The first two Christmases we were in this new house, we cooked filet mignon for all the adults (which had become our traditional Christmas dinner main course when our boys got old enough to appreciate it), after feeding the younger crowd.  But having that kind of a special sit-down meal while simultaneously wrangling all the children and babies was just getting too logistically hard to smoothly pull off, with the way our numbers have been exploding.  And I wanted my husband to relax, instead of manning the grill and worrying about making sure the steaks had the right amount of pink inside for everyone.  So this year, I made ahead trays of pulled pork, lasagna, and homemade mac and cheese, and I warned that it would be a more casual type of meal, with the food kept warm in chafing dishes and people eating whenever they wanted to.  But there were so many munchies out as well, and most of us filled up on those beforehand and then the casseroles got a little overheated and dried-out by the time people were ready to eat.  Hmmm...there is obviously more tweaking that needs to be done.  But when your family grows as big as quickly as ours has (a great problem to have, by the way), having holiday meals that go off without a hitch gets kind of tricky.

In my quest to come up with the PERFECT way to handle feeding my gang (is there a perfect way, though?), I think next year we're going to split our festivities up into two events: one intended only for the kids and the other for just the adults.  And I'm not going to waste my time on homemade mac and cheese when a vat of Kraft from the box would have made all my little peeps so much happier!  I think we're going to have a birthday party for Baby Jesus with all the kids' favorite foods and cake and ice cream for dessert, and we'll save the fancier menu for the adults-only affair.  Papa and I will give the grandkids their presents at the little kids' party, but we'll save gift exchanging with our grown kids until we can do it without the surrounding chaos.  (Stay tuned for a post on the subject of the adults-only party idea very soon--because we actually had one of those this year and it was fantastic!)

In spite of the fact that I was worried about the food and whether it was good/hot/moist enough by the time it got eaten, I think a good time was had by all.  Everyone came over in the early afternoon on Christmas day, after going to Mass and opening stockings and Santa gifts at their own houses.  Our youngest son and his bride were not with us (they were out in MI with her folks this year), and actually son #3's wife stayed home with their new baby girl, who had just recently been hospitalized for almost two weeks with RSV.  But everyone else was able to make it (including our daughter-in-law Braveheart's parents, who are local as well), and I can't tell you how thrilled I am that they were actually able to spend part of the day with us on the 25th!  When your kids get married and move away from you, you never know how many of them you're going to be able to have with you for the holidays.  I am abundantly blessed, to be sure--and don't I know it!

Without further ado, here is a Christmas photo dump.

Hugging cousins.

 I love my girls.

And I love my boys.
They all got those silly shirts from us for Christmas. :)

By the end of the night, there was dancing--and performing--on tables.  (So it must have been a good party.)

If you're still here, congratulations!  And if you haven't had enough of us Pearls yet, tomorrow I'll be back to tell you about our awesome adults-only party!

Friday, November 22, 2019

Reflections on "Theology of Home" (#2)

I am about two-thirds of the way through Theology of Home, a lovely book that was gifted to me recently by one of my daughters-in-law, Preciosa, as a way to thank me for watching her children for the day (a favor for which no thank you gift is ever needed, by the way--but this one was much appreciated).

We have only known each other since she started dating my third-born son in 2012, but this D-I-L knows me.  She could not have picked a book that speaks to my heart as loudly as this one does.

Theology of Home is all about the importance of creating a warm and beautiful dwelling where the members of your family can gather and feel loved, safe, accepted, and part of something so much larger than themselves, where their family history and memories are on display through photographs and souvenirs, where guests always feel warmly welcomed...a light-filled sanctuary where they feel God the Father's presence in every little nook and cranny. Because rather than merely dealing with the physical aspect of a home's beauty--the renovating and decorating and furnishing projects with which all the popular HGTV shows are primarily concerned--this book exposes the deep underlying truth that the reason human beings crave a happy earthly home--a "true north," no matter how far they travel in the world--is because they are yearning (whether they are conscious of it or not) for their eternal home in Heaven.

Just as the members of our families who have gone to their eternal homes live on in the next life, the photographs of these deceased loved ones that grace the walls of our earthly homes keep them alive in our memories.

In our dining room: my dad (who died in 2016), my mother-in-law (who died in 2009), and my 
father-in-law (who died in 2003).  The ornate carving above the photos was my M-I-L's and I
acquired it after she passed away; it reminds me of angels' wings, and I hung it above the pictures
of these three with the hope that they are now together in their Heavenly home.

Here is a quote about family photographs from Theology of Home: "There is scarcely a human alive that has not, at some point, felt a keen desire to be both there and here simultaneously.  But the limitations of humanity quickly remind us that we can't be in two places at once...We bridge this gap in our homes with photographs of loved ones...that remind us of the times and places we wish we could relive."

Family photos have always been the backbone of my wall décor.  I used to watch a silly TV show called "Trading Spaces," where two families would trade house keys for 48 hours and with the help of designers, redecorate a room in each other's homes.  I was fascinated by the idea of these folks being able to trust someone else with changing the appearance and personality of the places where they lived, which I never could have done myself.  My youngest son (now 26) once came into the room when he was just a little guy and watched the big reveals of an episode with me. When he saw the before shots and the afters, he said, "Those rooms look terrible now.  Where are all the family pictures?"  He was used to a house that had walls plastered with those, rather than designer-style statement pieces of art.

My only worry is that as my family continues to grow (we are at 16 grandchildren and counting now), I will run out of wall space!

Dear readers, if you cherish the concept of HOME, with all the many deeply emotional elements those four simple letters imply, you would love this book.  The title is spot-on, for it truly is a theological treatise on the very meaning of the word, and it illustrates how every aspect of human life here on earth is ultimately tied in with our need for God and our desire to be with Him in eternity.  It also emphasizes the importance and worth of work done in the home, which seen in a theological context can hardly be thought of as repetitive drudgery: "Whether it's baking bread, pruning a garden, sewing a dress, or even sorting and folding clean laundry, when done with love and in this context of order and freedom [which can assuage fear and anxiety], what was a burden and chore is transformed into a means of sanctification."

Before Theology of Home found its way to me, I had already been inspired  many years ago, when my five sons were still young boys, by similar words in a book that my husband got for me called Holiness for Housewives.

This slim volume was life-changing for me in a way, because I began to see the folding and putting away of every load of clean laundry, the washing of every dish, and even the scrubbing of every toilet as joyful endeavors, because these seemingly menial tasks I was performing were necessary to make our home an orderly world where everyone's needs were lovingly taken care of.  It's not that my husband didn't help me with household chores, because he did; but because he was the one who went out in the world to work and support us and I was the one who stayed home with the kids, the lion's share of the housework fell on my shoulders.  After I read that sweet little book, though, I began to enjoy the work I did around the house on a deeply spiritual level (I mean it!  I did!), and instead of resenting the never-ending chores required to keep our household running smoothly,  I truly began to see housework as a means of sanctification.  Every act performed with sacrificial love for my family became almost like a prayer.

Depending on your vocation in life, holiness will look different for everyone.  For the woman who works primarily in the home, these words from St. Frances of Rome should be an inspiration: "It is most laudable in a married woman to be devout, but she must never forget that she is a housewife.  And sometimes she must leave God at the altar to find Him in her housekeeping."

That sentiment might sound archaic and sexist and who knows what else, but I think there is so much beauty in it.  To know that being "just" a mother and homemaker is noble work is to be a true feminist--IMHO, as the kids say nowadays.

Anyway, getting back to Theology of Home--

I love the way the authors handle the subject of LIGHT, and how important it is for the comfort of body and soul.  Children are often afraid of the dark, but never the light. And there is so much symbolism involved; after all, Christ is the Light of the World, and "darkness, like sin, is characterized more by its deprivation.  Light can, in an instant, cast out the darkness."

As I read a section of the book about candles, and how sitting by candlelight should not just be reserved for romantic dinners, I realized it had been ages since I'd lit real wax tapers for a special family meal.  I used to do it all the time, but in recent years I've gotten lazy, and I've been relying on electric lighting or on pillar candles with LED faux flames.  Well...I have been inspired to light candles again.  As the authors point out, even in a group where creating a romantic atmoshphere isn't the goal, when the only light comes from a campfire, a fire pit, a fire in the fireplace, or candles, conversations feel "cozier and more engaged" as people huddle together near the light. 

Not only am I determined to bring more candlelight back into my home because of this book; I am also determined to eat at the table more often.  As empty nesters, my husband and I have gotten into the habit (when none of our kids are visiting and it's just the two of us) of eating in our respective recliner chairs, with trays on our laps, while we watch a movie or an episode of Glenn Beck together.  While I have been thinking of this as a cozy routine, I wonder if perhaps we need to make an effort to set the table nicely--with candles--at least more often than we do now.  Even when it's just us. 

Yesterday, I was telling my middle son that the last time his dad and I visited the treat aisle at Trader Joe's, I'd made an impulse purchase and brought home a gingerbread house kit--the first one I've ever bought in my 61 years of life.  "I don't know why I never thought to make them with you guys when you were little," I said.  This son and his wife Preciosa have already begun the family tradition of making gingerbread houses with their children every Christmas season, so my boy joked, "Mom, you failed us!"  For just a second, I thought, "I did!  Their childhood contained no gingerbread house-making contests!  That should be a staple of childhood!"  But then I thought, well, we did dye eggs with them every Easter.  And we carved pumpkins at Halloween.  Gingerbread houses just weren't part of our family's "thing."  Neither my husband nor I have any memories of making them with our parents and siblings when we were young, so I suppose it's not that surprising that we didn't think to make them with our kids.

That random conversation about gingerbread houses led me to think of the homes where my husband and I were raised.  We both grew up in comfortable, middle class families, in nice but relatively modest houses, with lots of siblings (he was one of 8, I was one of 5) but not a lot of extra money for things like fancy vacations, new cars, or top-of-the-line wardrobes.  Our family cultures were different in some ways, but also alike in many others.  Both families have always cherished time spent together more than anything--just talking, laughing, eating, drinking, telling old family stories over and over.  When we have reunions, we rarely have any special "activities" or "events" planned; the plan is usually just to hang out in someone's home and enjoy being together.  Our "love language," if you will, is quality time spent together.

Just as a happy, cozy home where the members of the family feel safe and loved is a reflection of the love of our Heavenly Father and the eternal home He has waiting for us, this love of spending time together, too, is a foretaste of what the afterlife we yearn for has in store: it will not be about the material things we enjoyed on earth, but about the people we love here.  They all play a part in our journey back to the Father.  "It will only be in the next life that we will fully understand the effect of our prayers for our ancestors in purgatory and how they, in turn, intercede for us."  Indeed, we make the strongest connections of our earthly lives with our families, in our homes.  And not even death can really separate us.  We are all connected, forever, in ways we will never fully understand in this life.

I feel as if I've gone off on too many tangents here, so maybe I should end this post and pick up later where I left off.  But just one more thing before I go: I am going to a book talk in Falls Church, VA tomorrow, where I will meet author Carrie Gress and have her sign my copy of Theology of Home!  I will be sure to let you know all about it next week!

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Blogging is Writing...Right?

My last post  here at String of Pearls bemoaned the fact that my writing career has been somewhat less than stellar, in terms of worldly success.  I have had two Catholic novels published, one in 2012 and the other in 2014, and if I measured their value by the number of book sales they've generated, I would feel like a bit of a failure as a writer.

But never fear, it was not a sad or negative post!   Because I do believe that the path my life took is exactly the one God had mapped out for me.  I know that writing success is not measured in dollars, at least not in God's eyes.

And what a bonus blogging is--because even if I don't have another novel in me, I have this marvelous writing outlet.  If nothing else, dear readers, I can still come here any day I want, write up a post, and push the "publish" button.  I am so grateful for this blog--which has brought so many blessings into my life over the years.  I have "met" people here whom I would otherwise never have known, and these connections have enriched my life in countless ways.  (One of these people is Kari Burke, author of a lovely pro-life novel called The Life I Dreamed.   If you can get your hands on a copy of it, do!)

So today, I am doing a very writerly sort of thing--the sort of thing I used to do when I was writing my second novel, Erin's Ring: I am sitting at a table at Panera, with my laptop plugged in and my stomach way too full after a pretty awesome lunch (comprised of half of a Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwich and a cup of tomato soup--is that TMI?).  And I am blogging--which is writing...right?

I've been meaning to reply to some lovely messages that were left in the comboxes of my last few posts, but I've been so busy that past few days with family events and activities that I haven't had the opportunity.  So that was the first order of business today.  And hopefully, while I'm sitting here without all the usual distractions of home (my favorite place to putter mindlessly), I'll also be able to type up a second installment of the "Refections on Theology of Home" series I started here.

If I was at home, I might put blogging on the back burner and instead find a piece of furniture to paint--like a sweet little antique table that my mother-in-law gave me decades ago.  This humble pine beauty started its life with us as a side table in our NH family room, with a honey-colored stain and a country-style stencil treatment.  Then it was painted black and used as a bedside table in the guest room.  It's been languishing in the basement storage area of our new house for the past few years, still black but nicked-up and looking a bit worse for wear, until just the other day--when I decided it should have a new home in our VA family room and gave it a chalk paint makeover.
My favorite hue for giving a room a "pop of color" is red!

I love that when I look at this little red table, I am reminded of Mom.  Because of that, I could never part with it.

I am an incurable homebody, and I can always find a thousand little projects like that one to work on in my endless quest to make my home as cozy and comfortable as it can be.  And don't even get me started on baking.  (Does anyone else out there find baking to be a deeply therapeutic activity?)

Luckily, with a family as big as ours is now, there is always a birthday cake that needs baking--so Grammy's Bakery is always open for business.

Well, that's it for this post, which is seems to be about nothing (like Seinfeld--remember that hilarious episode?).  It's kind of all over the place.

But hopefully I'll be back next time with more cohesive thoughts inspired by Theology of Home--a book that is beautifully written and filled with gorgeous photographs, a book that I highly recommend.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

I Just Pray That God is Pleased with My Books; If So, Then So Am I

I received an email recently that I've been expecting, but it kind of broke my heart a little bit nonetheless.  The publisher of my two novels, Cheryl Dickow at Bezalel Books, informed me that Erin's Ring had only sold 9 copies this past year (and it has hardly been a bestseller at any time since its publication in 2014), and therefore she could no longer afford to make it available for distribution.  I know it broke her heart a little, too, because she'd had such high hopes for this book.  She pictured it being used in Catholic school classrooms and homeschool programs, as a part of the history, reading, or religion curriculum.  But despite the fact that it received two Book Awards from the Catholic Press Association in 2015, my sweet little historical novel filled with endearing Irish immigrant characters just couldn't find its audience.  What this means for Erin's Ring is that once they run out of the stock they have on hand, Amazon and other booksellers will no longer have new copies of the paperback available on their sites--although they offer used copies for sale from other sellers, in varying conditions at varying prices.

A year or two ago, Cheryl had to drop my first novel, Finding Grace (published in 2012), from distribution for the same reason.  The good thing about this book, however, is that unlike Erin's Ring it is also available in the Kindle format.  But otherwise, henceforth only used paperback copies will be found on the Amazon site.

RIP, my babies!

And RIP, writing career.

Okay, that is just extremely dramatic!  And seriously, how can I be sad about the way things turned out when I had the opportunity to do what I love--to write fictional stories that showcase the beauty and truth of the Catholic Faith, of married love, of strong family bonds, and of openness to life--and not only that, to fulfill a girlhood dream of being a published author?  I always thought that was an unreachable goal for me, and it happened.  How blessed am I?  My husband used to joke--years before I ever got around to starting work on Finding Grace, after decades of being a SAHM--that I would one day write a blockbuster book that made me a millionaire, and he could retire early and be supported by my earnings in old age.  Ha!  He's 61 and 1/2 now, and mandatory retirement in his line of work is 65.  So with this latest email from my publisher, I would say that his dream will not be coming true!

God has a plan for all of us; and even though I question Him sometimes, I know this to be true and I trust that He knows what I need to get to Heaven a lot better than I do.  If my books were meant to sell like hotcakes, they would have.  (I've told this story before here at the blog, and if you are a longtime follower, forgive me for the repetition: my husband, who makes me laugh every day, would always say, "But they're selling like lukewarm cakes.")

Early on, I was somewhat involved in the world of Catholic authorship.  My husband and I attended a Catholic Writers Guild/Catholic Marketing Network conference in NJ in August of 2013, and Finding Grace was a finalist for a Catholic Arts and Letters Award that year.

I even stepped way (way,WAY) outside of my comfort zone at that conference and did a short interview with EWTN when they stopped by the CWG booth!

Wow, looking at these photos for the first time in years, it seems like a whole lifetime ago.  And truly, it was.  Not too long after this conference, we had a whirlwind 11-month stretch during which three of our sons got married.  And in the summer of 2013, I only had three young grandchildren; but before long, our sons' families would start to multiply at breakneck speed, and this Grammy's life would become more and more about traveling afar to see them and less and less about traveling afar to do author-type things.

But I would not trade the full and busy family life I have now, with all five sons happily married and at last count, 16 grandchildren--all of whom live within an hour of their Papa and me!--for all the tea in China (or all the 5-star reviews and massive book sales in the world).

So I am not a bestselling author.  But I am an author.  And what's most important of all to me is that I believe God is pleased that I used whatever talents He gave me to give glory to Him--or at least I hope and pray He is pleased.  The fact that these two books didn't succeed in the eyes of the world is not the measure of their worth.  Even as I sit here, feeling a bit down about the fact that my books will not be as easily available to the young souls who might be inspired and edified by their messages (which are in direct opposition to the messages with which they are being bombarded by our increasingly secular-humanistic world), I realize that they were published for a reason, and if just one reader was meant to find them, he or she will (or has).

Luckily, I will still be able to order author copies of my books for myself, to give as gifts or to sell here at the blog.  These author copies are considerably more expensive than they used to be, so I can't offer the same lower prices that Amazon could, or that I used to.  But if you're interested in either book, there are yellow "Buy Now" buttons on the sidebar at the right on my home page under the images of the book covers.  If you click on one of those buttons, you will get to a PayPal page and can make your purchase there.

I am offering signed copies of my books here at String of Pearls, for the following prices (which include shipping and handling):
Erin's Ring: $12.00
Finding Grace: $17.00

I'm thinking that maybe with the holidays approaching, I'll run a little blog book giveaway.  What do you think?  I could offer one of the novels...or I could offer a copy of My Little ABC Book (a labor of love for my family which was never expected to be a commercially successful project!).

Which of these three books should be the giveaway item?  If you have any preferences, let me know in the comments.

I don't know if I'll ever write another book...but I'm glad I'll always have this little space on the Internet to come to when the writing bug hits.  God bless you for stopping by!

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Hola, Hermosa!

Remember this post that I wrote back in May, in which I told the story about how our third- and fourth-born sons and their wives announced that grandchildren #15 and #16 were on the way?  (They did so in hilarious fashion--it's a fun post, if you haven't read it yet and you'd like to take a minute to do so.)

Anyway, #15, a sweet granddaughter, came in October, and I wrote about that new little one here, in a post titled "Hola, Hermanita!"  She got a Spanish blog handle because her mama is of Spanish descent.  Well #16, another precious granddaughter (bringing the String of Pearls total to 9 granddaughters, 7 grandsons, so far), is part Hispanic as well.  Her mama is half Cuban.  So this new little Pearl gem is going to be known here at the blog as "Hermosa."  She joins brother G-Man (5), sister Princesa (3), and sister Rosita (2).

On Nov. 9, the Saturday before Hermosa arrived, my daughter-in-law Preciosa was 39 weeks along and feeling as if she could go at any time (she'd been five days early with her first three babies).  My hubby was on a trip, so I asked if they'd like me to come and help out for the day, and said if they wanted I could even stay overnight just in case things got going.  We live about 35 minutes away, and I probably would have made it in time if I'd gotten the middle-of-the-night call; but I was alone anyway, so I thought, why don't I just come for a sleepover?  Preciosa's mom was en route, driving all the way up from FL to help out with the three older kids when her daughter was in the hospital having the baby.  But she was not due to arrive until Sunday--so my boy and his better half were all for the idea of me staying the night.

The baby did not come on Saturday.  But I got to have movie night on the couch ("The Grinch," a new animated version), in jammies with popcorn, with my adorable grandchildren.  So it was a win for me.

It had previously been decided that if Preciosa didn't go into labor on her own over the weekend, she would be admitted to the hospital on Monday morning and labor would be induced, so this is what eventually happened.  I had been relieved of childcare duty on Sunday, after Preciosa's mom arrived.  But on Monday afternoon, I took over for her so that she could be there while her daughter was in labor.  As it turned out, she was also there in the room when the baby was delivered and this was a thrill for her, as it was the first time she'd been present.  (She'd been at the hospital when each of her older three grandchildren had been born, and had met them shortly after their births.)  My husband joined me for babysitting duty at about dinnertime, and after we'd gotten the kids to bed we waited together for the news, which came at about 7:30 p.m.

We received some pictures of our precious new baby girl via text.  What a wide-eyed little beauty!

We headed back home Monday night, because my husband had a work trip scheduled the next day.  But I was able to go over to the hospital and meet this newest addition to our ever-growing family the evening following her birth.

I have to say that I thought she was the most beautiful one-day-old baby I'd ever seen.  Well, at least since last month, when I saw one-day-old Hermanita.  And actually, since the times I've seen every single one of our 16 grandchildren at a day old.  (That's not me being biased, that is just objective truth!  We have the most beautiful grandchildren on the planet!)

Yes, son #3 and his wife have certainly got their hands full these days...but their hands are not as full as their HEARTS!

And this Grammy's heart is pretty full as well.