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Posts Tagged ‘Texas’

sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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betsy boys presents christmas

I never quite know how to write about Christmas, once it’s over. The presents have all been opened and admired, the holiday cards (finally) sent out, the suitcases packed and repacked and finally unpacked. We’re back in the routine of work and winter and daily life, and the 10 days we spent in Texas, driving up and down I-20 to see people we love, seem very far away.

This year will go down as the year of not-quite-normal: so many of our usual family traditions were altered or skipped over altogether. My sister has two small boys and was hobbling around in a knee brace this year (see above), so we opened family presents at her house instead of at my parents’ on Christmas Eve. For the same reason, J and I drove to Christmas Eve service by ourselves, slipping into a center pew to listen to a sermon by an unfamiliar minister. My dad, despite his best efforts, could not find any eggnog, so we missed having our annual cup together. And the small-child chaos was such that we completely forgot to read Luke 2 aloud before diving into the presents.

My husband’s family moved to a new house in a new town this summer, so we spent the first weekend of our trip navigating unfamiliar territory – a string of small towns in the East Texas countryside. The weather swung wildly from unseasonably warm (73 degrees on Christmas Day) to icy sleet and snow two days later. Our favorite Mexican restaurant was closed on the day we tried to go, and I had a 24-hour bug earlier in the week that prevented me from enjoying another Tex-Mex meal with my parents. All in all, it felt – I have to say – a little weird.

And yet.

On a breezy Monday night, J and I stood in a semicircle and sang Christmas carols a cappella with a few of his choir buddies from high school. The notes of those familiar tunes – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” an absurdly complicated arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – touched something deep inside me. This was our second time at this choral reunion, and though I am technically an outsider, they welcomed me like an old friend. Afterward, we walked to a local bar for snacks and cocktails, and told stories and laughed late into the evening.

My in-laws may have changed their address, but we are always sure of a welcome there: from J’s parents, his sister, the two cats, and three-year-old Annie, who jumped on J the minute we walked in the door and hardly let go for three days. She danced around, effervescent with joy, trying out her new rocking horse while clad in a pink princess dress. “Look at me, Uncle Miah! Watch me, Aunt Katie!”

jer annie shoulders smiles

It felt odd to be at Christmas Eve service without my parents, but their church, where I grew up, is still and always my favorite place to be on that night. We found seats in front of some family friends and lit our candles during “Silent Night.” Our beloved music minister, George, led the service with his customary joie de vivre. I slipped through the crowd to give him a hug afterward. And that felt – unmistakably – like Christmas.

My grandparents drove up from their house near San Antonio, and Pop brought me a gorgeous bookcase that he’d worked on for months. Neno brought a stack of old photos for Betsy and me to look through, and we spent a happy afternoon in Betsy’s kitchen, riffling through them and laughing and telling stories while we snacked on Pop’s guacamole and took turns making dishes for Christmas dinner.

We had all our traditional favorites: smoked brisket with Neno’s barbecue sauce, sweet potato casserole, Mom’s cranberries suspended in Jell-O, peanut butter kiss cookies. We ate several meals around the table that Pop made for Betsy, with my nephews in their high chairs and all of us squeezed in elbow to elbow. We had stockings at Mom and Dad’s on Christmas morning, with Mom’s three Christmas trees twinkling, and Dad and I sneaked in our favorite parts of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

cookie monster christmas eve telephone

“The best is being together, even if it is chaotic,” I said to Mom after Christmas, when we were discussing this year’s craziness. And it might sound cliched, but it’s true.

The best was sitting on the big sectional couch in Betsy’s living room, telling stories and cracking up at inside family jokes and hugging my nephews (when they stood still long enough). The best was catching up with multiple friends in Abilene, cramming in so many stories from the past year, sitting around a table until nearly midnight and laughing until our sides hurt. The best was chicken and dumplings around Frankie’s table, homemade pizza with Laura and Bill, cups of chai with Lisa and Mike, hugs from Shanna and Calvin and Gail.

The best, always, is heading two thousand miles south and west, knowing what’s at the end of that road: home. (And those small, wiggly cuties we love.)

jer harrison christmas

I hope your holidays were wonderful, and that 2016 is treating you right so far.

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bookstore lenox ma interior

We recently (re)visited The Bookstore in Lenox, MA. A bookish wonderland.

We are heading straight for Thanksgiving and, as always, I’m thankful for good books. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks
Right before finishing her latest book, the novelist Serendipity Smith disappears. Her daughter, Tuesday McGillycuddy, must travel to the land of Story to find her mother (with her faithful dog, Baxterr) – but the adventure doesn’t go quite as planned. Sweet, whimsical and so fun. Found at Book Culture in NYC.

The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton
Why do we travel? What do we gain from exploring new places? How can we become more thoughtful travelers? Alain de Botton explores these and other questions in this series of travel essays, with “guides” such as Vincent van Gogh and John Ruskin. He’s an observant, lyrical and occasionally cranky narrator. Thought-provoking and highly enjoyable. Recommended by Laura.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly
It’s springtime in the Texas Hill Country, and Calpurnia Tate has all she can do to keep her brother, Travis, and his ever-expanding collection of stray animals out of trouble. Meanwhile, Callie keeps learning about astronomy and biology from her grandfather and starts assisting the local vet. A fun historical novel with a wonderful, spunky heroine. (I also loved Callie’s first adventure, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.)

A Place We Knew Well, Susan Carol McCarthy
For 13 days in October 1962, the U.S. held its breath as tensions in Cuba ratcheted up and up. McCarthy explores the Cuban Missile Crisis through the lens of a tightly knit family in a small Florida town. Tense and well-crafted. I loved protagonist Wes Avery: such a deeply compassionate man.

Between Gods, Alison Pick
Raised in a Christian household, Alison Pick was shocked to discover that her father’s Czech relatives were Jewish – some even died in the Holocaust. In her thirties, preparing for marriage, she undertakes the difficult journey of conversion to Judaism. Pick seems more interested in religious participation than a personal connection with (either) God, but this is still a luminous, moving, achingly honest memoir. Found at The Bookstore in Lenox.

Girl Waits With Gun, Amy Stewart
After their mother’s death, Constance Kopp and her two sisters are living peacefully on their farm in rural New Jersey. But when a powerful, ruthless silk factory owner hits their buggy with his car and refuses to pay up, things get ugly. A witty, whip-smart, action-packed novel of a woman who became one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the U.S.

Plainsong, Kent Haruf
Two elderly rancher brothers take in a pregnant teenage girl, at the suggestion of a compassionate teacher. Another teacher must raise his two young sons alone after his wife leaves. A luminous, quietly powerful story of ordinary people acting with great generosity and kindness, told in Haruf’s spare, beautiful prose.

Sheer Folly, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple’s 18th adventure finds her at a(nother) country estate, doing research for an article and investigating a(nother) crime. These books are my Cadbury milk chocolate: smooth, sweet and delightfully English.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Four days in West Texas

sunset sky west texas

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: the sunsets in my hometown are the best.

I may have lived in Boston for almost five (!) years, but every so often, I feel the gravitational pull toward the plains of West Texas, where I grew up. My parents and sister still live there, and last week I hopped a plane to go and spend a few days with them.

I love our annual holiday odyssey across Texas, but it inevitably involves a rental car, mounds of luggage and a lot of schedule-juggling. These solo trips, which I take every few months, are looser, less demanding. They’re not exactly calm (I have two small nephews), but they are their own brand of relaxation.

striped rug bare feet

We wear out the road between my parents’ house and my sister’s. I stand barefoot in my parents’ kitchen in the mornings, sipping tea while my dad brews coffee and flips through the local (typo-riddled) newspaper. We go to church on Sunday morning and watch golf on Sunday afternoon. And we eat a lot – a lot – of Mexican food.

(We also headed to my favorite soda fountain this time for lunch and a strawberry milkshake. Best in the world.)

katie milkshake

My sister has two boys now, and they’re both growing like weeds. Harrison was a tiny infant at Christmastime, but he’s seven months now, and he’s a (mostly) happy little chunk of love.

betsy harrison

Ryder is three (how is that possible?) and much harder to photograph, because he’s in constant motion. His favorite thing to do is play with trains, and his favorite playmate is my dad.

dad ryder trains

I’m lucky to get to come back here and hang out every once in a while. To answer Ryder’s thousand questions and hear him call me “Kiki.” To laugh with my mom and try on clothes with my sister and trade wacky movie quotes with my dad. To stand in a pew on Sunday morning and sing the hymns we all love. To enjoy my brother-in-law’s excellent grilling skills and quiet humor. To be surrounded by, and immersed in, love.

Boston is where I live, and where I’ve built a life I love. But West Texas is still and always my home.

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katie-ryder-dad

Because I’d flown down to Texas for work earlier that week.

Because it was still chilly in Boston and gloriously warm in my home state.

Because, if I end up anywhere close to my hometown, I can’t not go see my family. (In Texas, 300 miles counts as close.)

Because I needed to laugh with my dad and hug my mom and joke around with my sister.

Because this little guy was turning two.

blowing-out-candles

Because there was a tractor cake. (And tractor decorations and tablecloths.)

tractor-cake

Because I couldn’t pass up the chance to play with trucks and read Sandra Boynton board books and hear him call me “Kiki.”

Because weekends with family are rare and precious and so much fun.

ryder-grin

Happy birthday, Ryder B. I’ll be back soon.

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texas capitol austin tx

I recently flew down to Austin for a work conference. Translation: I found the perfect excuse to visit my home state after an absurdly long, bitter winter.

The conference was interesting and informative, but what I really loved – and, let’s be honest, the reason I went – was the chance to spend three days basking in the sunshine, wandering downtown Austin, and eating as much Tex-Mex food as possible.

austin mural waterloo records

I’d only been in town an hour or so when my friend Adam and his wife Maggie picked me up and took me to dinner at El Alma, a hip little Tex-Mex restaurant with a beautiful patio, delicious queso fundido and savory enfrijoladas. Adam and I have been friends since eighth grade, but we hadn’t seen each other for several years. There were a lot of stories to tell, a lot of talk about work and travel and where our lives have taken us (and some serious hometown gossip) to cram into a couple of hours. I left sated, both with spicy salsa and rich conversation.

The next night, Alyssa took me out for Oaxacan food at the charming El Naranjo, where we feasted on fresh guacamole, a trio of spicy salsas, and rich, velvety mole dishes.

chicken mole el naranjo

We talked for hours about travel and family, writing and books, and we shared a melt-in-your-mouth almond flan for dessert. (No photos of the flan, as it disappeared too quickly.) Alyssa and I tweet back and forth regularly, and I reviewed her lovely memoir for Shelf Awareness, but this was the first time we’d met in person.

After two full days of conferencing and networking (which included meeting Marisa, a blog friend and Austin native who was also at the conference), I was “all out of extrovert,” to quote my friend Camille. My third night in town was entirely solitary, and it was glorious.

I changed from my buttoned-up conference clothes into a casual tee and skirt, then meandered down Congress Ave. to a little shopping area on West 2nd. Most of the shops were too pricey for me, but I loved wandering in and out, soaking up the sunshine (it was sandal weather all week long).

mosaic butterfly austin tx

I did find a gorgeous pair of earrings at Csilla on Congress, and I bought a couple of gourmet treats at Con’Olio. (Blackberry ginger balsamic vinegar. Someone is speaking my love language.)

waterloo records austin tx

It’s a long walk from West 2nd to my favorite intersection in Austin: West 6th and North Lamar, which holds the trifecta of Waterloo Records, Amy’s Ice Creams and BookPeople.

amy's ice creams interior austin tx

I had time, though, so I hiked my way up there, and browsed the racks of CDs at Waterloo (wishing my music-loving husband were with me). I eventually made my way over to BookPeople, where I wandered among the shelves for ages.

bookpeople austin tx interior

I only bought two books – a heroic act of self-restraint on my part – and I got to eavesdrop on a Q&A with Ann Brashares, author of the Traveling Pants series, which I love. (She had just done a reading from her newest book.)

wahoos-tacos

At 9:00, I realized I was starving, so I headed up the street to Wahoo’s, home of mouthwatering fish tacos and – what else? – excellent chips and salsa. (I must have eaten my weight in the latter during my trip.) The bass music was thumping and the walls are covered in surfboard and skateboard stickers, and I was the only person eating alone, but I didn’t care. Every bite was so delicious.

I stopped at the Royal Blue Grocery on my way back to the hotel for a teeny carton of lemon frozen yogurt, which I ate in my room, shoes kicked off and feet up. And the next day, I hopped a plane to my hometown to spend the weekend with my family (of which more soon).

Austin, it was fun. See you next time.

katie texas capitol austin tx

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Every December, my husband and I pack our big suitcases with clothes and Christmas presents, trade our down coats for lighter wool ones, and hop a plane to Texas. We live and work two thousand miles away from our families and many of our dearest friends, but once a year, we get to spend about 10 days driving up and down I-20, seeing as many of our loved ones as we can.

stockings christmas texasStockings at my parents’ house

We started in Dallas, opening presents and eating at our favorite restaurants with my husband’s family. We saw a magical (if tearjerking) movie, and we drove out to East Texas to spend the day with J’s aunt and uncle, whom we hadn’t seen in five years. Despite four (yes, four) instances of the fire alarm going off at our hotel, we enjoyed having our own space – especially the free wi-fi and the cozy reading chair.

J’s niece, Annalynn (17 months), entertained us all. She’s a sweetie:

annalynn

The day before Christmas Eve, we headed west to my hometown, stopping in Abilene for a long lunch with Shanna. My nephew, Ryder, was waiting for us when we arrived:

ryder book papa d

This kid is so much fun. At 19 months, he’s a bundle of energy, and we all spent large portions of the next few days chasing him around. He wasn’t sure about J at first, but bonded with him pretty quickly:

ryder jeremiah

(Throwing golf balls in the backyard is apparently big fun.)

We made, and ate, all our Christmas favorites: sweet potato casserole topped with pecans and brown sugar, fluffy mashed potatoes, hot rolls, whole cranberries in Jell-O, green bean casserole. We grilled ribs one night, steak another night, and toasted each other on Christmas Eve with eggnog. Even the boys (my husband and brother-in-law) got more than enough to eat:

food christmas eve jeremiah stephen

We went to my parents’ church for the Christmas Eve candlelight service, one of my favorite evenings in the whole year. Our beloved music minister, George, is receiving treatment for cancer, but he was onstage leading the carols, his voice as strong as ever. We sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Mom’s favorite, and ended with Dad’s favorite, “Silent Night.”

This was the year of the camel, since my dad is obsessed with the Geico hump day commercial. My sister even bought him a T-shirt:

camel t-shirt dad christmas

And we must have watched the commercial 15 times. The best part was watching him laugh:

dad betsy laughter

Ryder’s favorite gift was a tractor he can ride (closely followed by a pair of socks with tractors on them):

ryder opening tractor

His legs don’t quite reach the pedals yet, so we all took turns pushing him around.

ryder tractor fun

Mostly, we just had so much fun hanging out with my family.

mom betsy kitchen

(That’s my mom and my sister, in my parents’ kitchen – where we spent a lot of time.)

Christmas 2013 106

We ended our trip with three days in Abilene, where we lived for eight years (including our undergraduate years, J’s time in graduate school and our first two years of marriage). I never take many photos there because we’re too busy hugging everyone we know and talking as hard as we can, trying to catch up on all the news. But I did snap this photo of J playing dominoes with our hosts:

donagheys 42

So that was our Christmas. Merry, bright, magical, and full of hugs and Tex-Mex food. Pretty wonderful.

How were your holidays? (And happy belated New Year!)

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