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In Memory of My Grandma or: LIFE’S SHORT: EAT THE PIE

(Grandma Beck and me adoring one another.  It never faded.)

On Thanksgiving Day, 2013, my maternal grandmother, Wanna Lillian Nester (known to everyone as Beck), slipped away from this life in the wee hours of the morning.  She died quietly, but she most certainly didn’t live that way.  She put a lot under her belt:

 

94 years, 10 months.

Nine siblings.

One husband.

Two daughters.

Two granddaughters.

One great-granddaughter.

Seventeen presidents.

Over 4,000 pies (and that’s a VERY low ballpark figure.)

One wicked sense of humor.

and

Millions and millions of memories.

I am of the opinion that my grandmother loved few things more than feeding people.  I have had many a bloated belly that can attest to that.  Countless guests have sat in her kitchen, nearly foundered, only to hear:  “Weeeell…you’ve hardly touched your pie.”

I loved watching my Grandma Beck cook.  Not as much as I loved eating what she made, mind you, but it ran a close second.  I’m lucky enough that she taught me to make a handful of her favorites.  But, what my grandma taught me was about much more than just cornbread (or pies), it was about taking care of people, about showing people that they’re special.

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(Grandma Beck giving me pie crust pointers, and making me laugh, New Year’s Eve 2011.)

She certainly made me feel special.  Her love for me was powerful and unconditional.  It wasn’t complicated, or riddled with caveats…she simply loved me.  No.  Matter.  What.  I knew that she ALWAYS had my back.  She would have fought a grizzly bear (and I would wager good money she would have won) to save me from even a moment of discomfort.  She made me feel brave; because she was brave.

Grandma Beck loved Wheel of Fortune, she loved her faith, she loved tostadas, she loved complaining about trees that drop too many leaves (or other such trivial irritations), she loved cooking and baking for others (have I mentioned pie?), she loved getting dressed up, she loved being silly with her family, if her upstairs bathroom was any indication she was fond of decorative soap (although I never talked that one through with her), she loved snow, she loved her tiny glass and porcelain shoe and pocket knife collections,  she LOVED Christmas more than anyone else I’ve ever known, and for a period of time she was deeply enamored with Pillsbury Toaster Strudel.

(Grandma Beck 1970 something…thrilled about what appears to be some sort of kitchen appliance…her enthusiasm was so genuine.)

She hated being far away from her family, she loathed Richard Dawson (“Ugh.  There’s old kissy face” she would say through a grimace every time she saw him on TV),  wouldn’t tolerate haircuts that showed her ears, had a lifelong animosity toward ill-fitting shoes due to her impossibly narrow feet (“My foot slides forward!” she said more times than I can count), harbored resentment toward quite a few politicians (who will remain nameless), couldn’t stand low-cut tops (“Are you a-goin’ out in THAT?” I heard more than once), simply would not abide Christmas decorations that were up past December 25th, and was never known to enjoy being told what to do.



(This poor tree didn’t know that certain death was around the corner.  It’s lucky it made it past midnight Christmas Day.)

But you know what she loved more than she loved OR hated any of those things?  Me.  My cousin.  My mother.  My aunt.  Everyone in her vast circle of family and friends.

Grandma Beck was generous, funny, prideful, loving, judgmental (sometimes hilariously so), compassionate and kind.  She didn’t just walk, she sashayed.  Her smiles were contagious.  She was ornery (she loved pranks), adorable, sometimes impatient, steadfast and loyal.  She had the ability to get away with just about anything she wanted and by all accounts should have behaved as if she was spoiled rotten but she didn’t.  She never complained about or shied away from hard work.  She was unabashedly feminine (with a love for all things sparkly), and she was tough as nails.  She was resourceful.  She was a lot of things I aspire to be, and her foibles were ones that were easy to forgive.  She would give you the shirt off of her back, but if she wanted her way, she was getting it.  Somehow ALL of it was endearing.  She charmed everyone she met instantly.

 Listening to the comments, condolences and reminiscences from those who knew my grandma, I heard certain sentiments again and again.  Many people commented on her cooking and baking, her wit, her encouraging nature, about how she was always laughing and smiling, about how she was beautiful and always smartly dressed, among many other things.  But the thing that struck me most deeply was just HOW many people who weren’t in her immediate family thought of her as THEIR grandmother/mother/aunt.  They considered her family by choice.  They loved her, and she loved them back.  Not with a tiny part of her heart…with all of it.

We have a limited amount of time here on this spinning blue and green globe.  Every day we wake up with the opportunity to make a difference.  To make someone smile.  To make someone’s life better in some way, big or small.  To love them completely and fearlessly.  To make them a pie…and to give them a larger slice than you take for yourself.  My grandma was on this planet for 34,554 days, and in my humble opinion, she did good work in the generous amount of time she was allotted;  she made a difference.

Grandma Beck had a habit of, after finishing a particularly trying chore or an eventful day, arriving home after a long trip, or some similar activity, of exhaling and saying through the exhale:  “Wheeeee.”  It occurs to me that this funny little habit was so appropriate for her. It’s as if she was saying:  “Well, that was EXHAUSTING…but you know what?  It was FUN.”  I imagine, in some ways, that’s an apt description of her life as a whole.  Why?  Because she decided to smile and laugh, even during times when anything other than stomping her feet must have been difficult.  She was so resilient.

My heart ACHES to feel her arms hugging me again, to hear her laughter and see her smile, but she’s somewhere else now.  She’s probably trying on halos:  “Well, now this one would be ok, but it keeps sliding forward.” she’s probably saying to the (hopefully patient) angel in charge of wardrobe.  Although she’s closed the book here on earth, she’s by the side of those of us who knew her, in what she taught us about living.  About the benefit of making the right choice, not just the easy choice when it comes to giving something of yourself every day.  Nothing would make her happier than to look down and see all of us hugging our families, helping our neighbors and for heaven’s sake…finishing our pie.

God bless Grandma Beck,

Laura

(With her great-granddaughter 13 years ago.)

The Christmas Tree Conundrum

 So, you say you can’t afford a Christmas tree?  Well, not to worry friend, do I have the solution for you!

SIX EASY STEPS FOR A NO-COST CHRISTMAS TREE!

 As Thanksgiving gave way to Black Friday and Black Friday paved the road to full on, bell-ringing, jingle-horsing Christmas, I realized something.  This year, for the first time ever, I couldn’t justify the expense of a Christmas tree for my daughter and myself.  Things are tight.  Not just sort of tight, tight tight.  As in, “Pardon me, but do you have to buy two packages of Top Ramen to get the sale price?” tight.

 Not to be discouraged, I set to mulling over possibilities.  What you see below is the end result:

 In October I cleared overgrown ivy, underbrush and all sorts of critter infested debris from the backyard of the building where I live.  Three days of sweat, scrapes and spider bites netted a pile of detritus taller than me (not a great feat in and of itself, as I am shockingly short, but impressive nonetheless) and about the width and breadth of one and a half largish SUVs.  This is all only vaguely interesting until we get to the part where I single handedly dug up, chopped down or tore out by the roots SIX dead trees.  Now you’re seeing where this is going, right?  The trees varied in height from just under 20 feet tall to just over 30 feet tall.  It bears no pertinence to this story, but for the mere sake of bragging rights, I’d like to point out that one of the two ripped out by the roots (by little ole me) was the over 30 footer, but I digress.  

 Luckily, the management company that runs my building isn’t exactly what one might call ‘on the ball’, let’s just say they’re about as interested in building maintenance as Kim Kardashian is in “those heavy things with the pages.” Although I had requested pick-up of this Toyota 4-Runner sized pile of yard waste, and had been assured on multiple occasions that it would be done, still it sat in the backyard mocking me.  I clambered over the pile, extracted the two most interesting specimens and hauled them to the garage.  After some trunk sawing, some limb breaking and some swearing I managed to get them into the house, one in the living room and one in my bedroom.  

 I will save the how-tos for later (see below), but let me say a few words, first, about the why you too might want to take on a project just like this one:

Reasons to create an ersatz Christmas tree from discarded dead timber:

1.  It is economical.  FREE!  Imagine the least you’ve ever paid for a Christmas tree…now let it sink in that even THAT far exceeds the cost of this tree.  Which is nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  Now, parlay that savings (about 80 dollars for a six to seven foot tree, here in LA, at the local mom and pop tree stand I have shopped in the past) into stocking stuffers for the kiddos, a donation to a local toy bank or groceries and you’re ahead of the game.

2.  It is environmentally friendly.  If you’ve used an artificial tree in lieu of the real deal in an effort to suck up to mother nature, reconsider.  Your motives are solid, but the end result is a tree mass produced (probably in China), from chemicals which can’t have done the planet any good in the production stage and, which at the end of its useful life, will spend the rest of eternity NOT breaking down in a landfill.  When you’re finished with the tree in this project your options are many…break it down and use it for firewood, add it slowly to your compost pile or borrow a wood chipper from Steve Buscemi and turn it into mulch.  Many communities have Christmas tree drop off stations, where the flotsam and jetsam of Christmas recently past can be left, free of charge to then be turned into compost and mulch for public areas.  Even if you just toss it in the trash, you’re one step ahead of a tree made from non-biodegradable materials.  

3.  It’s a change of pace and a conversation starter!  “Why, what a lovely and interesting tree you have there!  However did you come to fashion such a delightfully different holiday display?”, your neighbor might comment, to which you can then reply:  “Let me tell you the story, nearby resident! I read a blog on the internet written by a snarky down on her luck single mom and she seemed to think it was a good idea, so obviously I followed suit! DUH!”  

 My daughter loves our tree and so far everyone who has seen it has oohed and ahhed.  One friend even seemed a little disappointed that they had already purchased a tree and said they would love to try it themselves.

4.  You can have a much larger/taller tree than you normally might be able to afford or even find!

5.  It bears repeating…IT IS FREE, PEOPLE!

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Now, onto the how.  Follow these steps and please refer to the helpful hints that follow before you decide to undertake this project:

Step 1.  Be poor.  If you’re not poor like me, alternatively you could try being thrifty, creative, or simply up for a challenge.

Step 2.  Abandon your sense of pride and convince yourself that a dead tree is a perfectly sound alternative to that passe Douglas fir everyone else’s front window is sporting.  

Step 3.  Find a dead tree.  Not everyone will be so lucky as to have a dead tree lying around in the backyard.  Get inventive.  Maybe a quick drive around the neighborhood will leave you dead tree rich.  Perhaps someone has put one out for yard waste pickup, or maybe they have one still in the yard.  Offer to cut it down for them…everyone wins!  Go to local nurseries, Home Depot, etc. and look for dead trees and ask if you can take one away for them.  They’ll be happy to have it out of the way.  You have to have the courage to ask.  This is something you’ll hear from me again in the future.  

Step 4.  Measure, measure, MEASURE!  Be sure it’s going to fit through the front door and into your space before you attempt to bring it inside.  The nice thing about this type of tree, as opposed to a typical Christmas evergreen tree is that you can chop bits off the top, bottom and sides and it won’t necessarily negatively affect the aesthetic.

5.  Bang the tree on the ground a few times before you take it into the house in order to loosen any dangling bits and dislodge any insects.  The reality is you are taking something that has been outdoors for a long time and putting it indoors.  I found one spider on my tree after I had it in the house, but otherwise, all was good.

Step 6.  Decorate and enjoy!  

(But wait…there’s more…read on!)

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 Now, some helpful hints (FYI:  These hints apply to the classic vintage tree and the rustic nature themed tree.  Additional hints for the nature themed tree are listed separately):

1.  Depending on the tree you choose, you may have to MacGyver it up a little when it comes to the stand.  I discovered that my tree was too thin for the stand I had on hand, so I wrapped it with kitchen dish towels before putting it in place.  That did the trick.  You could always use Duck tape.  The fact is, unlike a standard fir tree, this tree only needs to a tree stand in order to, well, stand.  You have no need for the water reservoir (unless you have a pet…oh who am I kidding, child, whom you frequently forget to supply with water) so you could even go the very old fashioned route of the wooden slats nailed into the bottom of the tree.

2.  String the lights on the tree while it’s still on the ground.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  This tree isn’t going to be the tree you’re used to decorating.  In some ways it’s easier (no needles in the way) and in others it is more difficult (no needles to hide the wires!)  Although I did my own lights, one method which I strongly suggest to anyone with a willing significant other is to enlist said sucker, er- I mean, loved one to string the lights for you, and then stand nearby directing them and critiquing their work.  Believe me, you’re going to love this approach.  

 Wind stands up each branch (if the tree is small with few branches) or at least on several branches (three to five branches, minimum, based on the size of your lights for a larger tree.)  Don’t hurdle from branch to branch.  Wind up one branch, back down the same branch and then up another branch.  I used a separate strand of lights for each branch, and had a power strip at the base of the tree.  If you are doing only a few branches, make sure to do an odd number (three rather than two, five rather than four and so on.)

3. Make sure to say ‘branch’ as many times as possible during step two.  As an example, refer to the previous paragraph.

4.  Don’t be afraid to lose branches here and there if they don’t work.  Trim it as you go along…while you’re adding lights and decorations if need be.  This tree is not about symmetry and perfection.  Ultimately you will want a somewhat balanced look, but a natural feel.  Much as you would with a potential partner who chews with his or her mouth open, picks their nose or listens to dubstep, feel free to guide this tree to a better version of itself.  

5.  File this one under ‘Learn From My Mistakes’:  Check to make sure that any branches on which you are going to string lights and hang ornaments (some branches will be too small, so don’t worry about those) are STURDY and still well attached.  After spending the day decorating my classic vintage tree (the only part of decorating this year on which I spent any significant amount of time), a few minutes fiddling with all of the accouterment that goes along with Christmas decorating in general, and hours cleaning up, I sat down around 11:00 pm to survey my work and mere moments later heard a CRACK and a CRASH.  One of the limbs, which had been a little “bendier” than made me comfortable to begin with, fell right off the tree, landing on the granite floor.  There was some collateral damage (Oh vintage bulbs, I hardly knew ye!) but all was set right after a few minutes of finagling the AWOL branch into the tree stand.  Better, however, that this not happen to you at all!

6  Prepare yourself mentally, in advance, for the fact that this is not going to play out like every other year.  You have to adjust.  I have an extensive collection of Star Wars and Star Trek ornaments.  (You know what?  You can just stop rolling your eyes right now.  I am comfortable with my nerd quotient, thank you very much!)  For the tree I was attempting to create, they just didn’t work.  I’m not saying it’s out of the question for you, but this project does lend itself to themes (such as nature) or a classic, almost vintagey theme.  I shied away from my most modern looking ornaments and went for those that were antique/vintage (either genuine or in their style), shiny/blingy or natural/rustic.  

7.  Fill it in a little.  It would have looked just fine without the sheer, shimmery net ribbon I wound throughout the tree, but by adding another layer the tree has more depth and a little bit more sparkle.  Being a human magpie, inexorably drawn to shiny objects, I opted for shimmer.  However, there are SO many options.  See my helpful hints for the nature themed tree for more ideas.

8.  Every tree is different.  The one I had on hand was sort of wispy and had a lot of teeny tiny branches, which weren’t fit to hold tinsel, let alone ornaments.  I broke some off, left the rest and it looks fine, but keep in mind that your tree needs to have at least some branches sturdy enough to hold a lot of ornaments.  I prefer a tree that is absolutely dripping in ornaments, and you may not, but either way, it has to be strong enough for what you have in mind.  Use your best judgement (unless you’re Fred Willard, in which case, ask a friend, colleague or arresting officer to make the call for you, because clearly your judgement is impaired.)  Like me, you may not have the luxury of being picky when it comes to the tree itself, so be flexible when it comes to decorating.  Work with what you have and make the best of it!  Sometimes the happy accidents that come from not having a plethora of choices can bring you to your most creative place!

9.  This tip applies to any tree you’re decorating, whether the traditional evergreen or the one we’re discussing here:  Create a balance with your ornaments, but don’t make it too perfect.  Stand back after at least every third ornament placement and take a look.  Which area of the tree looks bare?  Add more ornaments there.  Is one side of the tree looking a little heavy on red and the other on gold?  Fix that.  Keep larger/heavier ornaments on the lower third and closer to the trunk (but make a few exceptions to keep it a smidge asymmetrical, I can’t emphasize enough that it needs a little bit of imperfection to feel authentic), medium sized on the midsection and the smallest/lightest toward the top.  Mix them all up to some degree, but if you follow that rule for 90% of the ornaments, it should feel “right” when it’s finished.  It’s pretty easy once you start assessing your tree with a critical eye.  You do not need to be a designer or decorator to start noticing things like this.  You just have to pay attention and take a little extra time.  Believe me, it will be well worth it as you stand back when it’s finished and think to yourself:  “Take THAT Martha Stewart!”  You’ll be kicking her behind in no time!  (Disclaimer:  I mean this figuratively and not literally.  I don’t really care who you are, don’t cross her.  I’m pretty sure she could take you, me and the rest of the Internet and come out with nary a snag in her hand-woven sweater.  She’s sort of the Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler of crafts.)

10.  Don’t take it too seriously.  Don’t be discouraged if you have to move a few ornaments or even start over a time or two, in order to get it right.  Do your best and relax…because in the end, it’s just a tree.  Not only that, but it will be gone in a few weeks time.  

11. Use a ladder.  Does this need explanation?  Be careful!

12.  Do not attempt a tree like this if you have:  Curious cats, a rambunctious golden retriever with a destructive tail, really young children who can’t be trusted (read: young children), a loose cannon of an uncle prone to cane waving or if you consider cranberry jello shots to be a legitimate side dish for Christmas dinner (in which case, skip the tree and invite me to dinner.)

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Let’s talk about the nature themed tree.  

Everything with which I decorated this tree cost me five dollars, with plenty of bits and baubles left over.  I wasn’t striving for perfection with this tree.  Once it was in the stand, the entire decorating process took less than 30 minutes, so keep that in mind when you’re mentally critiquing my work.  😉  Once I knew what I wanted to do, I went to a few yard sales with this in mind.  To recreate what I have done, follow these steps:

1.  I used strands of mini lights with each light inside of a grapevine ball.  You could find some like this, or create your own by using pre-made grapevine balls (found at Michael’s and other craft stores.)  Just slide one over each bulb.  You don’t need to use lights such as these, but if you can find something that looks a little outdoorsy, garden inspired, etc. that’s super.  Lights with brown cords instead of green are a plus.  One thing about which I felt strongly was that the tree should have a subtle glow rather than a brilliant shine, so I didn’t use many and the lights I did use were diffused even further because of the grapevine.  As I mentioned in the instructions for the vintage tree, string the lights while you have the tree on the ground.  You’ll be glad you did.  

2.  After the tree was in the stand I added layers of very wide, sheer ribbon with a bit of stiffness, so that I could get some purchase against the branches.  Slick, slippery ribbon will make your job more difficult.  I used some with just a smidge of sparkle, because everything else I was using was natural, but I also had burlap ribbon on hand and that would have been pretty as well.  I wound the ribbon up through the tree loosely.  As I was winding it, I tried to visualize how things move in nature: fire, smoke, dust moved by the wind, etc.  This helped to create a look that felt organic.  It also got a Kansas song stuck in my head for about four hours, so visualize at your own risk.

3.  Next I gathered the flora.  Included in my five dollar purchase I nabbed a particularly sad and timeworn basket of flowers, which looked as if it might have been a Thanksgiving centerpiece when it was young and vital.  When you’re looking for things secondhand, do your best to look past it’s current state or how something looks as a whole.  In this instance I ignored the tattered fall leaves and the floral pick scarecrow and zeroed in on the berries, what appeared to be dried, yellow tinted rice flowers, wooden flowers, orbs and other shapes (in deep brown and white) and the Spanish moss that lined the basket.  I pulled the berries off of the stems about midway down, snapped the stems off of the wooden flowers, pulled out some of the faux ornamental grasses and put the Spanish moss into a plastic bag (to keep the mess to a minimum.)

4.  At this point I applied what I had dissected from the basket in stages.  First, I tore clumps of Spanish moss and placed it on the tips of some limbs, and in the crook of some of the branches.  I then added the ornamental grasses, keeping close to the trunk.  I added berries and then balanced the wooden flowers throughout.

5.  Now it was on to the final details.  I had three large daisy type blooms (silk flowers on tiny little clips) in warm, autumnal colors.  I placed those towards the very end of a few branches.  Last, I had three bags of tiny little ivory colored blooms, I have no clue of what these were made, but they felt almost spongy and were very light, thus allowing me to wedge them onto branches and balance them easily on the tips.  

6.  I wrapped a yard of burlap fabric over and around the Christmas tree stand and VOILA!  Done!

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Helpful hints and tips for the nature themed tree:

1.  Take into account all of the helpful hints from the vintage tree and apply it to this project.  Step back frequently and survey your work, don’t be afraid to remove or start over and work from large to small…placing the smallest items on the furthest tips and the largest items toward the center, but always make a few exceptions, to keep it looking natural.

2.  You can find things for this all over.  Walk into your backyard.  If you have a bush that bears hard berries (and you don’t have pets or small children, or you don’t care for the ones you do) you could cut some of those and use them.  You can use trimmings from various other trees or bushes.  You can gather some moss and tuck it into a few places in the tree.  Put the word out to friends and family that if they have any old floral decorations that they’re ready to discard, you’re more than willing to take them off their hands.  Is your mother’s eyesight failing?  Perfect!  She’ll never miss that arrangement she crafted back in 1989 that’s been gathering dust in the garage, next to a stack of Jackie Collins books.  Yard sales and thrift stores are a great place to find weary dried or silk floral arrangements in need of a new life.  Pick one up for a few dollars and you could easily have half of a tree ready to go!  However, don’t feel as if breaking down and buying a thing or two retail is a failure when it comes to living the yard sale life.  It’s all about making things work, and sometimes that means supplementing a yard sale find with a retail quick fix or two.  If you make a stop at Michael’s and spend five dollars on ribbon or Spanish moss, you’re still doing far better than if you walked into a retail store and purchased everything brand new.  When you do go to a craft store for these types of items, check the clearance area and remember to look at things beyond their original purpose.  You can get great bargains this way.  

3.  When I put my tree together I simply tucked things here or there, wedged, balanced, etc.  A truly industrious sort might hot glue each item into place, but unless you’re making this for year-round use (which one friend pointed out could be done with the nature themed tree), or you just have a thing for hot glue guns (in which case you might consider a twelve step program) it’s probably not necessary.  If you think you might reuse the items after you dismantle the tree, you’re better off not coating the back of each flower with a thick frosting of adhesive.  

4.  Last but not least…one up me!!  I threw this nature themed tree together quickly (under 30 minutes, once it was in the stand), but if you have the time and the inspiration, how could it be done in a way that looks even more ‘fine’, kitschy or interesting?  You could do a small version, add artificial flowers and then spray the whole thing top to bottom shiny white or red (in this instance it might actually be a good thing to use glue).  How about using fresh flowers in tiny little floral water tube picks?  Can you imagine how stunning that would be?  Hmmm…gotta go.  I have another tree to decorate!

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And one last disclaimer:  I am not a scientist, a home inspector or a ventriloquist (the last having nothing to do with this project, but I’m proud of it and want you to know), so use caution and common sense when choosing to try anything I suggest.  I don’t imagine that this tree is any more flammable or dangerous than any other Christmas tree, but what do I know?  I can’t even make a cranky puppet tell inappropriate jokes.  

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