Writing: Flora and Paul

Writing

A few months ago, a friendly acquaintance of mine posted on social media that she was taking part in a “write every day for 30 days” challenge. She’s a writer and a counselor, among many other roles, and I admired her discipline. I wanted to do it, too, but I’m not part of any writer’s group, and I already write so much for work, and I don’t really see this blog as a “writer’s blog,” and, well, let’s just say I’m pretty good with excuses.

This morning, it was different. I’m almost always writing in my head, but today it felt urgent. I decided to write everyday, and here seemed the most accessible and logical place to write whatever it is I'm going to write. I may still post a recipe or a decorating idea, but I might not. Consider yourselves (all three remaining readers) warned.

Flora and Paul

My grandparents met in the 1920s at a “measuring party,” a fund-raiser for the Grassy Valley Church Sunday School. The gist of the event was to guess how tall the fellows were. When the boys were measured, the “guessers” had to pay the difference in pennies. So, if you guessed six feet, and the young man measured up to six-two, you put two pennies in the jar. The party was held near the spring in Fox Holler where neighbors chilled the watermelons they grew. Peppery watercress, or ‘cress as the old timers called it, flourished wild all around the sweet and icy water.

Nannie must have been about seventeen. Her eyes were dark, dark brown, gentle and keen at the same time, but it was her teeth that Granddaddy remembered. She had a smile like stars he said. Granddaddy was tall. He stood six-two in his eighties, so most likely he was even taller as a young buck. Nannie guessed taller and paid the few cents it cost to flatter him. His eyes were piercingly blue. He was already losing his hair, but he had a job, a paying job, not a farm job but a job in town, in Knoxville. Nannie lived with her parents and half a dozen younger siblings.


He started courting her, bringing a store-bought box of chocolate candy every Sunday afternoon to keep her little brothers and sisters occupied. Nannie turned eighteen in May. She walked two miles to the highway and caught the bus to Knoxville and then the trolley to Market Square. She found a barber who agreed to bob her long, dark hair, and then she found a photographer and had her portrait made. When she got back home, her daddy whipped her. For running off to town? I asked. For spending her money like that? “No, for the hair.” Sixty years later, and her lips formed a hard, thin line thinking about it. In December, just two days before Christmas, she married Granddaddy in the living room. I’ve never seen any pictures. They went to Pittsburgh for their honeymoon because he wanted her to ride a train. She wore a brown suit and shoes that hurt her feet bad. When she took them off that night, Granddaddy took out his pocket knife and sliced them into shreds. I asked what she thought about that. “They were brand new,” she said and looked out the window across the road, all the way back to 1926.

We Need a Little Christmas

Isn't it hard to believe Thanksgiving was more than a week ago? My goal is always to have the house decorated by the first Sunday of Advent, and then to add the tree as soon as everyone's home from college. Lots of decorating is finished, but I wanted to change things up and simplify a bit this year, and the result is that I'm still figuring out what goes where. After poring over a few Christmas magazines and books, I decided a little shopping trip might provide some needed inspiration.

I started with the $9.99 boxwood wreaths at Trader Joe's. What a deal! I grabbed two because I love boxwood so much, but the sad reality is that they just don't last indoors here. The Mister saw boxwood wreaths at Home Depot for $19.99, and I saw them at a nursery for $35 and at one of my favorite shops for $85. So, so glad I was able to get them at TJ's!

Trader Joe's wreaths

Wreaths, of course, need bows, and, for me that means a trip to the one and only (well, actually there are three) Wilson's 5 and 10. The original store isn't too far from home, and a trip to Wilson's is always a treat, if you don't mind a certain amount of chaos! You can seriously find anything--archaic office supplies, floral supplies, toys, baking supplies, weird little hardware needs, obscure candies. Honestly, it's hard to put into words. The craziest thing is that the whole store is a bit of a jumble, but you can ask any employee (of which there are many), and he or she can always take you to exactly what you're looking for. 

Wilson's five and dime

Wilson's is famous around here for their astounding selection of fabric ribbon. This is the front half of one side of the aisle!

honor system

The ribbon department has relied on the honor system for as long as anyone can remember. Scissors, yardsticks, notepads, and pencils are stationed about every six feet of the long aisle of satin and grosgrain and silk ribbon.

tartan ribbon

I love the wired plaid ribbon I found this year. Most of the plaid ribbon I see at fabric and craft stores has metallic thread, which isn't my favorite for our house. I'm already planning to purchase some more of this lovely tartan.

We Took to the Woods

After my foray to Wilson's, I headed to We Took to the Woods, a dramatic contrast to the five and dime. One of my favorite spots for inspiration and one-of-a-kind finds, We Took to the Woods features amazing merchandise and merchandising. Shopping here is always a fun experience. They're usually serving coffee and hot cider, and last weekend, they had Bloody Marys!

We Took to the Woods

Fresh greens deck the beams of the small store.

Gumboots for Winter candle

The shop features beautiful books, antiques, vintage tartans and classics, French jams and mustards, Belgian and French linens, and antique silver. One of my favorite items are the hand-poured candles, made here in town and packaged in kraft paper, bark, or tartan. The long-burning candles come in a number of scents. My favorite for this time of year is called Gumboots for Winter. It's a fragrant mix of pipe tobacco, orange, and evergreen.

bristle brush trees

I added a few bristle brush trees to compliment my Santa collection, which I'll post soon.

Next, I made a stop by a nearby nursery to pick up some paperwhite bulbs, which are already underway in the living room. I'm curious how long it will take for them to bloom. I love their fresh scent, but the Mister thinks paperwhites smell like bug spray!

forcing paperwhites

Back home, it was time to do a little online shopping. I love, love, love the family photo cards from vendors like Shutterfly, Snapfish, Minted, and Tiny Prints, but this year I wanted to do something a little bit different.


There's still a family photo on the other side of the card, but for the front I used a picture of our front door that I created in the app Waterlogue. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.

One Christmas decorating and entertaining project that we're already enjoying is this little hot chocolate bar. I set it up on a sled the Mister and I bought on our honeymoon. If only the weather through the window was snowy rather than rainy, it'd be perfect.

hot cocoa bar

The tartan throw both protects the chest from the runners of the sled and adds a touch of color and warmth.

hot cocoa bar

My nightly cup of sugarfree hot chocolate seems like an extravagant treat when topped with a few handful of marshmallows.

It's supposed to be sunny this weekend, so I hope to get some better photos of our Advent and Christmas decorations. I'll share some recipes, too!

Happy Weekend!

Last-minute Thanksgiving Flowers on the Cheap!

The clock is ticking, but it's not too late to put together some pretty, fresh and cheap flowers for your Thanksgiving table without breaking the bank! I just placed an order to have some flowers sent to someone as a Thanksgiving surprise, which left my "flower budget" very, very low. The good news is that the Mister texted me a photo of some flowers at Aldi for $3.99 a bouquet. I chose two bunches--one of roses and one of mums. Aldi (the "brother" grocery store to Trader Joe's) is new in our neck of the woods, and I'm pretty impressed with the savings to be had on staples. The flower bouquets, however, were small and not really anything special. The good news is that I like a challenge, especially when it means taking something kind of ordinary and making it a little bit great.

So I started with these two birch bark containers that I had on hand. These simple guidelines will work for any small container with a wide opening.

birch bark containers

I soaked some Oasis foam for about a half hour and then placed the blocks in the containers.

easy flowers

I'm no master flower arranger (I don't even belong to a garden club!), but I really love messing around with flowers. Thankfully, I've had the opportunity to watch some stellar art museum volunteers prepare for museum openings and events using a combination of grocery store flowers, yard flowers, and a few florist stems. As with any good design, balance is important. So I started with one rose on either side of my container.

grocery store flowers

Then I added one large mum to the center of each container. Most grocery store bouquets have three or four striking blooms and the rest are smaller flowers. Keeping that in mind, I place the larger or different colored blossoms first. My bouquet had two big orange mums, one small green hydrangea bloom, two dark magenta carnations, and three or four small yellow and rust-colored mums. And I had six peach roses.

flowers on a budget

So, once the bigger mums were in place, I added the other flowers, working in threes as much as possible. The photo above shows how the arrangements looked at this point. Not that great, right? The colors worked okay, but the textures and heights are too similar. This is when it starts getting fun for me. I headed out to our side yard to look around and see what might work. The pros call this foraging.

inexpensive flowers for Thanksgiving

I decided the beautifully colored leaves of our oakleaf hydrangeas would add some of the drama I needed. The leaf stems are kind of wimpy, so I used an old pencil to poke a hole in the Oasis and then inserted the leaves. If you're like me, you might be thinking, those leaves are gigantic--totally out of scale. Yes and no. It's the unexpected size of the leaf that makes the whole arrangement more interesting and a little less like something you'd expect to see on tables at the retirement center.

easy Thanksgiving flowers

Even with the giant leaves, the overall texture was still too soft, and the arrangement needed a little height. So, I added a few bare sticks and a couple of small stems of holly. The dark green and the shiny surface make a nice counterpoint to the softness of the other petals. The berries aren't quite red yet, and the slightly orange-ish tint made the holly a terrific choice today. Magnolia stems or even boxwood would have the same effect of adding some structure and contrast.

fall table

So, here the arrangements are on the table. I'm going for a more casual look this year, and will add placemats and heavy pottery dishes, so Big and Middle can load their plates as full as they'd like!

cheap fall flowers

Almost finished, but I still felt like the arrangements needed a tiny tweak. So, I returned to the yard and snipped a few wispy Hemlock branchlets to add yet another texture.


I also like that the evergreen holly and hemlock foretell of the Christmas season ahead.

So, there you have it. It took me about an hour from start to finish, including photography, and a cash outlay of only $8--definitely the best (not-even) $20 I spent this month!

Whether you're headed over the river and through the woods or just into the next room, I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration with people you love.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. Psalm 100:4

Gather Together

The Mister has reminded me several times over the past week that it's not a good idea to marinate myself in the CNN coverage of world events. He's right, of course. The stress of reporting (and watching) in what is practically real time results in inaccuracies, repetition, and an onslaught of "authorities," some of whom have well-educated and well-researched opinions and some of whom don't. It's important to stay informed, and it's critical to remember that there's still a lot of goodness and beauty in the world, as well.  Personally, I'm looking forward to a quiet Thanksgiving and enjoying the last bits of fall around the T&C House.

fall decor

The Mister and I visited the local farmer's market the middle of September for gourds and pumpkins to decorate the front of the house. We added a couple of Jack O'Lanterns a week or so before Halloween, and now it's back to the simple, and mostly green, color scheme. Considering all the rain we've had, I'm surprised they haven't rotted away already.

gourds and pumpkins

I found the concrete (cement?) pumpkin planters at TJ Maxx a couple of years ago. I'm never really sure what to do with the lids.

fall decor

This imari bowl sits in the living room with a mixture of real gourds, cotton bolls, fake berries, real berries, and fake gourds.


Also, in the living room, I filled a wooden tray with a mixture of real and faux to bring some fall into this room. I didn't edit these photos, so I apologize for some of the glare and graininess.

fall decor

On the desk, I added these little fake pumpkins with some fruit from my parents' dogwood tree. When I first gathered those fruits they were red and slightly squishy. Eventually they dried out to these spiky little balls.

Bitter Orange potpourri

In the family room, I added a small pumpkin to my ever-present bowl of Agraria Bitter Orange potpourri alongside a framed vintage Thanksgiving postcard.

metallic pumpkins

In the dining room, silver, gold and white pumpkins mix it up with a tole tray and some dried oak leaves on the sideboard.

fall decor

Random pods, seeds, acorns and leaves make a good base for antlers and an old wooden canoe.

Thanksgiving table

This was our table last year, and I loved how simple it was as far as "flowers." As you can see, there aren't any. I raided the produce basket in the kitchen for clementines and pomegranates, cut some magnolia, picked up a few pinecones and brought in a pumpkin from the front porch. We did use a nice tablecloth, napkins, and china. I'm thinking this year, I may do something more casual.

Our menu is fairly simple, too.

dry rubbed turkey roasted on the grill
cornbread dressing with sausage and pecans
sweet potato souffle
broccoli casserole
mixed greens topped with coarsely chopped roasted Brussel sprouts & butternut squash
macaroni and cheese
cranberry sauce
Sister Schubert yeast rolls 

The Mister's apple pie
pumpkin pie with whipped cream

preschool pilgrim

We have a lot to be thankful for, and we're looking forward to the homecoming of the little pilgrim who made this--truly a self portrait of Middle at age three.

What are your Thanksgiving plans? 

Taste of Fall

Hello again! I've missed you all, and I'm happy to be back to Town and Country House. 

apple picking

Several weeks ago, the Mister and I took a day off and headed for the nearby mountains to do a little apple picking. For almost 20 years, it's been a family tradition to take a trip to Skytop Orchard in Flat Rock, North Carolina. For years, we carried our three kiddos in backpacks and baby carriers, and then as they grew we hauled them up and down the hills in wagons. Later, we tried to keep up with them as they darted through the rows of trees, looking for fruit. Before we knew it, their long legs loped alongside us and their strong arms carried the apple baskets for us.  Last year was the first year that all five of us weren't able to go together. It's bittersweet as children leave the nest, don't let anyone tell you differently.

orchard, skytop orchard, apple picking

Nevertheless, the Mister and I decided we'd like to go apple-picking, even in our "childless" state.

apple shed, skytop orchard

We were able to pick the last of the Honey Crisps along with Galas and Red Delicious. The earliest apples ripen toward the end of August, while the later varieties come in through September and October.

apple shed, skytop orchard

apple picking, honey crisps, apples, orchard

It was a breezy, low humidity day, and we practically had the place to ourselves.

apple picking, honey crisps, apples, orchard

After picking a couple of baskets full, we'd worked up a decent appetite and decided to try Hubba Hubba Smokehouse in Flat Rock, just down from one of my favorite shops, The Wrinkled Egg.


The fragrant wood-fired barbecue smoke was pouring out of this folk art chimney topper, scenting the outdoor seating area with a mouthwatering aroma.

hubba hubba smokehouse

The container plantings were abundant and beautiful all around the patio.

container garden

The Mister went for the chopped pork plate with baked beans, corn salad, and a cheddar biscuit. I confess that I talked him into a side of deviled eggs, which we shared.

hubba hubba smokehouse, barbecue plate

I had the Grits and Greens bowl. Pimento cheese grits topped with collard greens, pulled pork, and (fried) shoestring onions. Good thing we don't eat like this everyday! Mercy!

grits and greens, hubba hubba smokehouse

We would definitely return to Hubba Hubba Smokehouse. In fact, a couple of weeks later (with Big and Little in tow) we decided on the spur of the moment to return to Flat Rock for a day. This time we headed to Connemara, home of Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg.

Carl Sandburg home, Connemara

A National Park Service Historic Site, Connemara sits amid 264 acres in western North Carolina. There are miles of hiking trails along with a working dairy goat farm, begun by Sandburg's wife, Lilian "Paula" Steichen. Lilian was the younger sister of photographer Edward Steichen. He and Sandburg collaborated on several projects, including the blockbuster 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man. Steichen was director of photography at MoMA at the time, and is credited with establishing photography as an art form.

Carl Sandburg home, Connemara

Sandburg died in 1967 and in 1968, Lilian Steichen Sandburg and the couple's three daughters turned the house and its entire contents over to the National Park Service. It is a remarkable time capsule and contains more than 325,000 archived letters, manuscripts, maps, telegrams, and sound recordings. Sandburg's library included more than 12,000 volumes!

Carl Sandburg home, Connemara

One of Sandburg's typewriters in his study.

Carl Sandburg home, Connemara

The Sandburg house was built for the Memminger family in 1836.  Although the property and main house have had some updates and additions over the years, the house will undergo intense preservation in 2016-2017, meaning that its contents are being packed and stored this year. It is quite an undertaking to pack and label more than 300,000 objects!

Carl Sandburg home, Connemara, goats

When our children were young, the goat barns were a highlight of a visit to Connemara.

Carl Sandburg home, Connemara, goats

Each of these prized goats wears a collar with his or her name. They are well-tended, beautiful animals.

Carl Sandburg home, Connemara, goats

After a fun day in the mountains, baking something apple-y seemed like the right thing to do!

apple bread

Apple Bread with Cinnamon Brown Sugar Topping (Edna Lewis recipe with minor adjustments)

nonstick cooking spray
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 heaping cups of peeled and diced apples
2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
4 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 2 small loaf pans or 1 12-cup Bundt pan.

Sift flour, cinnamon, soda and salt into a medium bowl. Transfer 3 Tbsp flour to pans and tilt to coat evenly. Place apples and another 2 Tbsp flour mixture in another medium bowl and toss lightly with chopped apples. In large bowl, combine 1 cup brown sugar, vegetable oil, 1 cup sugar, eggs, and 3 tsp vanilla. Using an electric mixer, beat until the batter is thick. Gradually add remaining flour mixture. Fold apples and chopped pecans into batter. Transfer to loaf pans.

Bake 1 hour or until cake tester comes out clean. Let bread cool in pan on rack.

Melt butter in heavy small saucepan. Whisk in remaining brown sugar, then milk. Whisk until smooth and add remaining 1 tsp of vanilla. Spoon topping over cake in pan and allow to stand about 15 minutes. Carefully turn loaves onto platters and pour remaining topping over. Let stand at least one hour before slicing.

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