Wednesday, March 30, 2011

One Sunny Day

Days and days of gray skies and rain, and then this: a day of perfect sunshine. All the flowers open back up and shake off the drizzle. Just one day of sunshine and blue skies. Today and the next day and the next and next we're back to rain. The grass is past my ankles but the ground is too soggy to mow. At the end of all this rain, we'll buy flats of flowers and get our hands very, very dirty. (Photos taken by my 13-year-old daughter.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Our firstborn turned 18 today. He came home from college this weekend to celebrate.We had a relaxing weekend, out to dinner last night and chocolate cake this afternoon. His friends were here most of the weekend, of course. His car wouldn't start, so his Dad had to drive him the three hours back to college this evening. He can pretty much walk anywhere he needs to go in Nashville, so hopefully we'll just get his car to him when the semester ends in just six weeks.

What can I say about him? He is more than we ever could have imagined. He is so familiar to us, yet he never ceases to interest and even amaze us. We love to be with him. We miss him when he's away, but we are thrilled for this new part of his life. He is smart, witty, kind, compassionate, brilliant, gifted, diligent, and even responsible. I feel tremendously grateful to be his mother.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Weekly Wrap-Up

This is really a day-in-the-life post, as documented through the eyes of my 10-year-old with the camera. He took all these photos of our Thursday, a fairly typical day, including this self-portrait:

He's a handsome little guy, isn't he? I don't know why he's wearing a hat.

The door to his room. You don't want to see what's beyond that closed door. And yes, I let him tape things to his door. It needs painted anyway.

Time to start school! OK, actually it was time 20 minutes ago. Busted.

The cat doesn't care that school's starting late. He's just happy to be allowed on the furniture.

The tarantula doesn't care about anything. Neither does the gnome.
Math is always the first subject of the day. We did four lessons on Thursday in a feeble attempt to "catch up." I don't really have anything to catch up to, but I'd like to finish the book by the end of May. Theoretically.

After Duncan finishes math, I send him off to go read Old Yeller while I help his sister with her math. I wish he'd hurry up and finish this so we can watch the movie.

After both are done with math, we read The Last Battle together. We are sad to be nearly done with the Chronicles of Narnia, but we need to finish the book by Sunday evening. Duncan has a book report to do in his book club on Monday at co-op. This month's book club book is supposed to be about a war, so we thought this was perfect.

I like how Duncan took a picture of the map. We didn't actually do any geography this week, but I'm glad he's thinking about it.

At lunchtime, Duncan's friend Emery came over. He hangs out with us twice each month while his mom teaches at the local community college. The photos that Duncan took while he and Emery played were very revealing. I had no idea that they were sledding on leaves into the road. (Don't worry, Emery's mom, it's a dead-end.) I'm just glad to see that Emery is wearing shoes, since we had a cold snap that day.

Eventually it was time to go to Cub Scouts and American Heritage Girls. Duncan brought the camera but forgot to use it. ("Oops! I left the camera somewhere at Cub Scouts," he says on the way home. Luckily, it was in my purse.) I love this picture he took of the courthouse on our way home.

Nearly six o'clock, and our school day comes to a close. At home, we had beef stew waiting for us in the crock pot.

How was your week? You can wrap it all up at Kris's Weekly Wrap-Up.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I wonder what I was thinking then. Was I wondering how I would change into my "going-away" dress, or was I really living in the moment, relishing the thought that I was a bride?

We used to have all kinds of dreams about the future. We used to imagine three kids in the backseat of our car. One by one, they came.

We lost one, too, which no one expects. You don't expect a lot of things.

We couldn't ever have dreamed up the life we have now. We couldn't have imagined the unbearable sweetness of a blond-headed boy on a red tractor in the bright green grass, or a tiny brown-eyed girl in a purple fairy costume, or a boy with a big smile dressed in Batman underwear and yellow boots, holding an umbrella in the rain.

We never could have imagined that our firstborn son would be coming home from college on our 22nd anniversary to celebrate his 18th birthday. That we would own a minivan and have a guest apartment. That we would homeschool our children.

Forget fine china and candlesticks and bath towels. These are the real gifts we should all receive in abundance on our wedding days, wrapped up in tiny boxes that expand with the years: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, gentleness, faithfulness. Perseverance. Compassion. Humility. Hope.

I am so tremendously, on-my-knees thankful that God directed us to one another. And that we listened, in spite of ourselves.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Anniversary Weekend in the Smokies

It's a tradition of ours to spend a weekend in the mountains (in Townsend, the "peaceful side of the Smokies") to celebrate our anniversary. We never actually do this on our anniversary (March 25) because Jesse's birthday is March 27. We have toyed with the idea of going someplace else, but we are suckers for tradition. And with nearly 900 miles of trails in the Smokies, we have a lot of territory to explore.

This year we took our Saturday hike to Grotto Falls. We generally try to avoid two things when visiting the Smokies: Gatlinburg and most-visited places. Something about crowds and nature just don't mix well with us. (And why do people flock to Gatlinburg? We continue to be mystified.)

But you have to drive through Gatlinburg to get to Grotto Falls, and we really wanted to see Grotto Falls because it's one of those places that people say, "WHAT? You've never been to Grotto Falls?" —and because I demanded a short hike. Last year's 8-mile "flat" hike (I need to keep remembering that Randy's definition of "flat" is relative and has nothing to do with the "flat" of Iowa, for example) was a bit more than I wanted this year for a leisurely Saturday afternoon.

The hike itself is an easy 1.3 miles. It actually took us a couple of hours or more because we stayed with a man who had fallen and broken his leg. Randy was great at talking to him, keeping him comfortable, swapping Boy Scout stories with him. After an hour or so the search and rescue guys got there, and we headed up to the falls with about 50 other people.

Grotto Falls was pretty, and we do want to bring the kids back because they would love to walk behind the falls. Check out Randy's blog to get an idea of what the falls really looks like with a bunch of people there. You kind of have to wait your turn, on weekends from March through October.

After the hike, we drove around Roaring Fork Motor Trail, which was quite beautiful. It reminded us a lot of Cades Cove without the valley, with lots of cabins around. We stopped at the Ephraim Bales homesite, which is in the most spectacular setting.

I love to imagine what it would be like for this to be my front yard. Yes, I know. Hauling water, building fires, outhouses, and all that. Still.

We ate at Miss Lily's Cafe in Townsend for dinner that night, and I have to say two big thumbs-up for Miss Lily's. The food was absolutely perfect. Miss Lily's is a tiny bit off the main road through Townsend, so you might not see it unless you are looking for it. Locals, turn left by AJ's Hearth and Kettle restaurant and look to your right. Miss Lily's is the log house right there. I had the shrimp and grits, and Randy had the low-country pasta. Both were fabulous.

On Sunday we took a short hike before heading back to town to get the kids.

We intended to stroll along Middle Prong trail, but Randy thought it would be fun to explore an unmarked trail, properly called a "manway." In other words, it used to be a trail maintained by the Park but isn't any more. We had to climb over lots of fallen trees, which was fun.

I absolutely loved this trail, er, manway! Oh my goodness—I can't wait to bring the kids, some friends, and a picnic. The hike was easy and actually, truly "flat." (Please understand: I'm not against uphill hikes; I just like to know what I'm in for.) There were tons of rocks and caves for climbing on top of and possibly into, and lots of excellent swimming holes.

That's us, celebrating 22 years of being the Smalls. He's my rock. And my river.

If you want to read all the details about our hikes and see more pictures, take a look at Randy's blog, 900 Miles. He only got to add 1.4 miles to his trail count, but I don't think he minded too much.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Reclaiming Family Time (Simple Homeschool)


If you’re reading here [at Simple Homeschool], you probably homeschool or are considering homeschooling. So of course, you’re someone who always puts family first. Right? I mean, don’t we, as homeschoolers, just naturally put our family life before everything else?

Gulp. Raise your hand if you’ve ever wondered what happened to those quiet family evenings spent together, if your car is full of wrappers from fast-food restaurants, or if you look at your calendar and try not to hyperventilate.

The truth is, homeschoolers can be just as overextended as everyone else, and like everyone else, we can fall into the trap of replacing family time with other activities.

I am not here to chastise you for the time your family spends at outside activities. Some families function best on an activity-packed schedule. Some couples enjoy connecting while they watch their kids practice soccer in the evenings. But some of us feel overwhelmed when we look at our calendar and think, “I just have to get through two weeks, and then we’ll have a free day.” …

{Come on over to Simple Homeschool to read the rest of this post!}

simple homeschool

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring Break

I didn't intend for this to be a week of spring break, but somehow that's exactly what happened. On Monday our co-op was on spring break, and I foolishly had scheduled an orthodontist appointment for Laurel for that afternoon. It made sense at the time. Randy and Duncan are the smart ones: they went hiking at Ijams Nature Center.

It was a dreary day, but they had a great time anyway. Lots of wildflowers are just peeping out, like these pretty little bloodroots:

This was a very educational day for Duncan. Here he is getting an invasive species lesson from his Dad; those are seed pods from the terribly invasive Empress Tree (Paulownia).

On Wednesday, Randy cashed in one of his Smokies shuttle tickets that I had given him for his birthday, so Duncan and I met him at Tremont, left his car there, and then drove to Elkmont. Randy's goal was to hike from Elkmont to Tremont. We hiked with him up to the Avent Cabin.

I loved this cabin. It has a great story behind it, as most of the cabins do. This particular one was used as a studio by the artist Mayna Avent in the early-to-mid 1900s. If I could have a quiet cabin like this, I could write wonders. Here's background information on the cabin and how to get there, in case any locals are interested. It's a short hike--just a little over a mile--to the cabin from the new Elkmont parking lot.

Randy's always so good about showing Duncan exactly where we are in the Smokies and where we're going. At age 10, Duncan is determined to be either a park ranger or a botanist.
The park was alive with spring, river rushing with plenty of rain and flowers just about to pop out everywhere. We saw a few little yellow violets and lots of daffodils (homesteaders always planted daffodils).

We left Randy after our short hike to the Avent Cabin and drove back to town. He hiked the 10 miles to Tremont. You can read all about that hike on his blog and see lots more pictures. He's now finished 25% of his goal to hike all 850-900 miles of trails in the Smokies!

Today Laurel and I joined the teens within our support group to do a service project. Second Harvest Food Bank of East TN was flooded a couple of weeks ago and much of their food was tainted and supplies damaged. We took about 15 teens to work putting labels on cans of beans. They labeled something like 4000 cans of beans in just a few hours.

We may not have done a lick of math or grammar, but we had a fantastic week spending time with Randy, enjoying spring, and serving.

Tomorrow Randy and I head out for our annual anniversary trip, back to the Smokies to a very, very quiet cabin. With a hot tub. Enough said.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Bradford Pear

My 13-year-old daughter shot these photos of the Bradford pear in our front yard. They are everywhere this week, dotting the still leafless landscape like giant puffs of dandelions. They line every entryway into every subdivision, these landscapers' favorite ornamentals. They are the reminder to those with allergies to get their prescriptions renewed and buy a box of Kleenex or ten.

Still, they are pretty and score points as the harbinger of spring among trees. And most importantly, this very pear tree is the favorite climbing tree out of all the dozens of trees in our yard. I can't imagine how many hours our three kids have spent in its branches, and for that alone, I am grateful.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On the Menu (with spaghetti sauce recipe)


What a long, strange trip I've been on. Actually, I haven't been anywhere, but I have a scarcely had a moment to breathe in the past 10 days, much less form many coherent thoughts.

Really, I've just been busy. My oldest was home from college for spring break (10 days), and with him come 2-3 friends, who are here pretty much all the time. Here's how that goes. I spent hours and hours devoted to food, whether in the kitchen or at the grocery store. I feel this compulsion to feed my son when he's home, partly because he's so dang skinny but mostly because he's so very appreciative of home-cooked meals.

We've had some fabulous meals in the past 10 days. Most are tried and true favorites:
Randy's Famous Sunday Night Fried Rice
Penne a la Betsy
Easy Enchiladas
Rainy Monday Beef Stew
Tortellini Chowder
Pot roast

But I did add a few new ones:

• Pioneer Woman's Chicken Cacciatore is one of our new favorites. I use chicken breasts instead of thighs and leave out the green pepper (Dr. H. despises cooked green peppers).

Korean-Style Fried Fish with Kiwi is another new one. I would never have imagined such a thing, but Jesse read or heard about this somewhere and begged me to try it. Absolutely fantastic! I used tilapia and followed the recipe exactly except for the chives. This is definitely going on our master menu list.

Pioneer Woman's Stuffed Shells were fantastic and served 8-10 people, including 4 teenage boys. I didn't have romano cheese so I used mozzarella, and they were fabulous.

I also have been making my own spaghetti sauce lately. Making spaghetti sauce always seemed frivolous to me when a jar of Ragu was so easy to open, but I am truly swayed over to the other side now. Also, I like to smell this in the crockpot all day.

Crockpot Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs
1/2 onion, chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
Sauté onion in about 2 TB butter until soft. Add garlic and sauté for a minute or so.

2-3 cans of chopped or crushed tomatoes
1-2 cans (15 oz) tomato sauce
1 can tomato paste plus 1-2 cans of water
2 TB brown sugar
Italian spices, 1-2 TSP of each: basil, oregano, salt, pepper. Some red pepper flakes (about 1/4 tsp)
About 6 dashes of Tabasco sauce.

Put everything in the crockpot and cook on low all day, or on high for a couple of hours and then on low. Taste after a few hours and adjust spices. You might want to add a bit more water.

1-1/2 lbs. gr. beef
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup Parmesan
2 eggs
Salt, pepper, and Italian spices (about 1/2 tsp of each)

Mix all together and form into meatballs. Place around the rim of a dinner plate. Cover with wax paper and cook for about 7 minutes on medium-high power. (Adjust for your own microwave.) They should be almost done but still show a little pink. This makes about 2 plates of meatballs. Add to the crockpot for at least the last couple of hours.

Serve it all with your favorite pasta and focaccia or buttery bread. You can freeze whatever leftover meatballs and sauce you have.

I have no idea what we're having to eat this week, besides maybe some chicken on the grill. I am, quite frankly, tired of preparing big meals. But since I have a family to feed, I'll be searching around the internet for more good recipes, and I might even consult a few actual hard-copy cookbooks that I have.

Linked up on Menu Plan Monday at I'm an Organizing Junkie and Tasty Tuesdays

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

College Break

My oldest son, who will be 18 in a couple of weeks, is home from college for spring break. When he is home, that means his two best friends, who are 20 and 17, are here pretty much all the time. I'm actually not exaggerating. They both go home every couple of nights, but rarely for more than 24 hours. One goes home more frequently than the other, because he is still in high school and his mom actually makes him do school.

His friends are very, very loud and talk all the time. I am sitting in the kitchen while supper cooks and listening to them in the living room. I don't think his one friend has stopped talking for more than 30 seconds at a time. It's kind of a funny thing because, like us, our son is an introvert. He must crave moments of quiet, and yet he loves having them here, filling up his break. The truth is, they are part of our family.

I'm glad they feel welcome here. Sometimes I want them all to leave. I'm not such a laid-back person that I enjoy having loud, talking people glued to my living room furniture 24 hours/day. But they are part of my son, and so they are part of me.

And they earnestly say things like this to me, after I suggested to one of his friends, who is obsessed with Twitter, that he might want to consider finding real-life friends: "But why? I have Jesse, and he is everything anyone could want in a friend."

That actually got me a little teary eyed, to think that my son is such a good friend.

This, however, had me a little worried:
"You know, I can totally see us sitting in one of our living rooms when we're like 35, and we'll just still be sitting around all day, playing video games, sharing music and stuff."

No. No. No. Please?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Weekly Wrap-Up

I was shocked this week, when figuring out how we were doing on number of math lessons left vs. number of school days left, to see that we only have about 12 weeks left of school! We have a few vacation days and a week-long trip scheduled in there, but my goal is to be done the last week in May. (And in case you are wondering: we have more math lessons than school days. As usual.)

Highlights this week:
• On Monday Laurel did a presentation on Joni Eareckson Tada for our literature circle, and Duncan did a book report on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for his boys' book club. I didn't get to see Duncan's, but Laurel did a great job. She put a lot of research into the project and made a gorgeous display board.

• Tuesday night was the annual Pinewood Derby, in which Duncan took 5th place.

• Duncan had his first speech therapy session on Thursday. We had his tongue clipped back in November, after finally realizing that he wasn't going to grow out of his "R" sound difficulties like his brother did. Clipping is a good start, but he'll need speech therapy for awhile to retrain his tongue. We both loved his therapist.

• Jesse decided to cut his one Friday class that wasn't canceled already, so he came home for spring break a day earlier than we expected. Such excitement! This was the longest we had gone without seeing him since he's been at college—9 whole weeks. I love having all my kids sleeping under one roof.

• On Friday we finished our second to last book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy. Yes, I know, we are reading them "out of order." I've read them enough times that I can pick whatever order I want. The kids both loved this one. I can't believe we only have one book left to go.

• We went to Winter Jam 2011 on Friday night. I helped chaperone our support group's teens, but Duncan got to go with a friend and his dad, who runs Feed Your Faith. Mike has good connections and got VIP passes and front row seats to this huge event.

That's Duncan and Caleb meeting Michael Tait of the Newsboys. The rest of us, by the way, were about 20 rows from the very top of the stadium looking down on 16,000 people. But I am SO happy that Duncan had this opportunity!

This weekend I'm looking forward to a little relaxing, spending time with my family, before gearing up for an extra busy week coming up. After Monday we'll be halfway through co-op classes, which seems unbelievable. This year is going incredibly fast.

Linked up at the Weekly Wrap-up

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pinewood Derby

With two boys, this is our ninth (and second-to-last) Pinewood Derby. We've moved from a homemade track and stopwatches back when Jesse was a little guy to a local fire station, which now hosts the Pinewood Derby on an amazing high-tech track with all the electronic gadgets to make a fast and error-free derby.

The excitement's always the same, from generation to generation, whether the derby is in someone's backyard or on a super-fast track. Boys and derby cars: thrill of the race and a secret hope of winning. (Duncan placed 5th out of 38 cars, less than 0.01 sec from getting a trophy.)

Linked to Wordless Wednesday, Parenting by Dummies, and 5 Minutes for Mom