30 September 2010

Big Alice's Apple Kuchen: Another Dead Aunt Story

I was standing funeral home's parking lot playing hacky-sack with some family members when Franny asked “whatever happened to that deaf lady? You know, Old Rubber Face” to which Herbert replied “don’t you remember, we buried her years ago” to which someone else replied “oh yeah, with the apple cake!” to which everyone replied in unison “OH YEAH. THE APPLE CAKE!”

Big Alice had already been gone nearly a decade, more than half our lives, and we were still talking about her apple cake. It was that good.

For a woman who could not hear and rarely spoke, Big Alice could communicate across an ocean with her facial expressions. In fact, it was not until Herbert’s mention in the parking lot that day that I realized she was deaf. In my mind, we had spoken dozens of times. Heck, we were pals! She played in my blanket fort. I fetched her unfiltered cigarettes from the patio. She saw me hide brussel sprouts into my napkin and didn’t tattle. I didn’t say anything when I saw her taking a swig off a wine bottle in the kitchen just before she took it out to the table. Herbert’s news that she was deaf came as shock. In vain I searched my memory for the sound of her voice.

Isn’t it strange how the very young and the very old have no problem communicating without words?

Big Alice was born somewhere in western Austria. I’m not entirely sure where, but I know she spent most of WWII in a work camp in Eastern France. The fractured stories conveyed across various members of my paternal grandmother's family are not pretty, nor are they my stories to tell in this forum. Sufficient to say, Big Alice survived on little more than her sense of humor. She lost her hearing at the age of 23, when a respiratory infection went untreated and spread to her ears and nose. Although she could speak just fine, you rarely heard a word cross her lips. After the war ended and she came to America to live with my Great Aunt Long Shirley and Uncle Karl, she was discouraged from speaking German in effort to assimilate. She learned to read and write in English just fine, but without the ability to hear her own voice, never became comfortable speaking in English with others. Unfortunately, the others did not feel comfortable speaking German in post-war America. Things are different now and we all go crazy celebrating our Germanic heritage, but back then, Big Alice had to rely on her hands and facial expressions as a mode of communication, hence the nick name, “Old Rubber Face.”

Her other nickname, Big Alice, was misleading. The woman weighed as much as a wet hamster. The name came only after she had a daughter, dubbed Little Alice, whose daughter then became known as Tiny Alice. As fate would have it, Tiny Alice recently had a baby girl named Emma, which is a lovely name, but I was really looking forward to one day adding an entry to my address book under the name Infinitesimal Alice.

There's always next time.

A trio of Alices was not unusual. Most of the members of my father’s extended family share the same 6 or 7 first names, all named after a handful of people who died long ago and far away. One Thanksgiving at Baby Shirley’s house (note: Baby Shirley was pushing 50 at the time), someone called out from the kitchen, “Hey Joe, you have a phone call” and five men and two women stood up.

And that’s not even counting the kiddy table. And by kiddy table, I mean a locked basement covered in tarps, duct tape, and a dozen buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The visual of 20+ children without adult supervision, screaming and squealing and playing Pilgrims and Indians while sucking on drumsticks might strike you as something out of Lord of the Flies, but to me, it just seemed like a normal family activity.

Tangent: When I tell you my Dad has a big family, I don’t mean he had a lot of brothers and sisters. It grates on my nerves when I hear people define “family” as a circle of immediate blood relatives. Family, at its best, is so much bigger and more wonderful than just a tiny group of people with a common gene pool. Some families are related by birth, some by circumstance, and some by love. When I was a kid, my grandfather would meet me at the bus stop and walk me home and ask me about my day. One day I came home and reported that there was boy on the playground teasing my friend Michelle and saying she didn't have a family because she was adopted. My Grandfather asked me what I did about it and I told him, rather proudly, that I ran and got the teacher who immediately stopped the teasing. He looked at me disappointed and made a tisk-tisk noise with his tongue. I asked him what I should have done instead and he said “Beat the shit out him.”

That’s family.

My dad’s family defines its members by an elaborate and extensive phone tree where three people call three people and so on and so on. It was initially started back in the 50’s as a typical cold war precaution, but it is still alive and kicking today, used mostly to pass along news of  births, engagements, and unfortunate passings. Email could do the job, but what is the fun of that? This way, when someone dies, the phone tree starts off and three people call three people and so on and so on, and before you know it, everyone knows and everyone is cooking. This means that within two hours of someone’s death, their living room will contain no less than 12 casseroles, 10 cakes and pies, 8 trays of cookies, 5 pickling salads, 3 bottles of wine 2 cheese trays and 1 tomato aspic. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, there will be a roast turkey on the doorstep come morning, courtesy of Baby Shirley’s eldest daughter, Hairy Frances.

Everyone has a special dish. It never changes. For example, Baby Shirley’s middle daughter, Baby Roberta, has been making pinwheel cookies for forty years and no one makes them quite like her. If you see pinwheel cookies, you just know they came from Baby Roberta because no one would dare step on her territory. Don’t even bother asking for the recipe. She makes them the best and it’s not even worth trying anything else. If I lived in the area and someone died, I would be in charge of bringing over a veggie tray. It doesn’t matter that I don’t eat raw vegetables, there is no room in the baked goods department where I rightly belong. I’ll need to wait until someone in charge of cakes and pies dies before I get a crack at delivering something good and tasty. This territorial land war over dessert cobblers is how the legend of Big Alice’s Apple Kuchen was born.

Prior to her death, Big Alice would always bring a delicious and wildly popular apple kuchen (fyi: kuchen is German for cake). Regardless of how much food was around, it was always the first dish to go. She only made it when someone was born or when someone died. Big Alice was high up on the phone tree and the kuchen didn’t take long to make, so she was usually one of the first to arrive. This meant  if you wanted some kuchen, you needed to get your butt over to the house faster than everyone else. It brought out strange and competitive behavior. One time I saw Uncle Sloppy Joe sneak some in his pocket and nibble on pieces as they carried Old Rusty Uncle Karl’s casket out the door. That might seem rude to you, but it’s probably what Old Rusty would have done if the situation was reversed. The kuchen was just that good.

The afternoon Big Alice died of a sudden aneurysm, everyone said “what a shame” “what a pity” “at least she didn’t see it coming” and agreed it was a good thing to be taken without great suffering or pain. They went on their way and said “see you shortly” before hanging up the phone.  By 6 p.m. Little Alice opened the door to see Aunt Shirley carrying a glass Pyrex dish covered in foil. It was kuchen. The gesture was sweet and passive aggressive. By making apple kuchen for Big Alice's funeral, she would secure it as her signature dish for decades to come. She wanted to win the popularity contest. Can you blame her? I couldn't. And neither could Aunt Roberta when she showed up carrying an aluminum tray of her own rendition of what else, apple kuchen. Then the Rauches showed up with more kuchen. And the Millers. And then Big Franny. And then Hairy Frances (she was tired of making turkey)....and so on until 7pm there were THIRTEEN APPLE KUCHENS spread out on the dining table. Each were delicious and slightly different, but none were quite the same as Big Alice's Apple Kuchen. Everyone agreed to hold back on claiming the sacred kuchen spot. No one made it for many years. Until now. I have taken it back!

Before she died, Big Alice gave her recipe to Little Alice, who gave it to me here. And now I'm giving it you! It's no great secret and I'm positive she left out something special, but it comes pretty close. It's easy to make and easy to customize to suit your family's taste. the end result is somewhere between coffee cake and apple pie. It keeps well and goes great with ice cream.

1 Box of yellow cake mix
1 Cup of light sour cream
1/2 Stick of melted butter
1 Egg + 1 egg white
1/2 Teaspoon salt
Pinch of cinnamon

Mix well and spread over the bottom of a 13"x9" pan. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes.

While that's in the oven, mix together with your fingers:
3 cups of peeled apples thinly sliced (or something around 3 cups, that's around 4 apples decent sized apples)
1/2 Stick melted butter
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 Cup Brown Sugar
1 Teaspoon Cinnamon
Pinch of lemon zest

+2 Tbsp of Brown Sugar for sprinkling

After the apple mixture is tossed and the cake is in the oven 15 minutes, remove it but leave the oven on. Arrange the apples in rows across the top of the warm cake and sprinkle with 2 Tbs of brown sugar. Return it oven and cook 30-35 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Serve warm with fresh cream or ice cream!

Happy Kuchen Y'all!

29 September 2010

Can you spot Lola? Her autumnal camouflage is seamless!
Tomato Red & Turquoise, Oh My! 

Sweater weather is here and I couldn’t be happier. Mother Nature has turned my little tree lined street into a beautiful, golden riot of color. Mother Nature will never be outdone but I can certainly do my part to color coordinate!

My apartment is on the ground floor of a busy street, right in the middle of the city. Upside: there is always something to look at out the window. Downside: Bars on my windows. Solution: hang stuff on the bars!

It gives people something to look while walking the dog or running to the train. Plus, Lola appreciates the attention, as she sits in the window most of the day while I’m gone. I swear, she is just like a supermodel with fur. 

  1. Get yourself a nice autumnal leaf garland. You know, the raggedy one in you keep in the garage. Yeah, that one.
  2. Spray paint the leaves, preferably something with a gloss finish. The paint will look nice, but more important, it will provide a smooth surface for painting by hand later on.
  3. Wrap the garland around a hoola hoop and remove 80% of the larger leaves from the garland. Just yank them off, no need to be gentle here. Leave a few on the vine for texture, especially the small ones that might be difficult to paint.
  4. PAINT YOUR LEAVES!  This is the fun part, especially with kids involved. When the kids realize that each leaf feeds into a larger project, they are less likely to be precious about their results (read: even older kids who always say “but mine won’t turn out good” will be inclined to pitch in). But heck, it’s really fun without kids too. Mindless, tiny painting projects like this are very therapeutic for us big kids too :) I use regular acrylic paint from the craft store. It is surprisingly durable, even outdoors.
  5. Favorite Trick, aka “Khaki Pants for the Painterly”...Whenever I have project with a riot of color or texture, I like to add a “neutralizing pattern” to harmonize the color pallet. Black and white stripes are a whimsical classic, but there are plenty of others…navy with white polka dots or gray and beige herringbone are two of my favorites, or, some prefer textural tones like burlap or copper tone metallics….the list goes on. Here, I just used Elmer’s glue to attach to some silk leaves, but you could certainly use paint or paper too.
  6. Hot glue the leaves directly to the hoola hoop and TA DA you are done!
Happy Autumn Y’all!

24 September 2010

 For someone who spends so much time with flowers, you would think my favorite would be something exotic or interesting. Nope. I like daisies best. Actually, I like anything yellow and happy looking. I'm not picky about the matter. My favoritism extends far outside the flower realm!

Now that we are nearly at the end of the series of coffee filter flowers, I'm hoping to show a different way to assemble your flowers in hopes it will spark some ideas! The running stitch on these is a bit time consuming for me, but my quilting friends seem to think it makes the process much easier. Y'all will have to tell me what you think. The main advantage to assembling this way is, unlike the other previous flowers, this has no stump at the bottom. This means you can hot glue them on to flat surfaces. AND I KNOW Y'ALL LOVE THE CRAP OUT OF HOT GLUE.

For the lantern above, I just hot glued a bunch of dahlias to the surface of an old lantern. It's really easy. I think adding the second ball at the bottom makes it look a little more like a fixed piece than a party decoration. I wish I had made five of them to hang in a vertical line --wouldn't that be nifty?!

1. Fold three previously dyed filters and half and cut large rounded petals and a hole in the middle.
2. Spread filters on top of one another so the petals stagger like fish scales.
3. Fold in half again.
4. Using dental floss or button thread, sew  a running stitch along the bottom of the filter.
5. Pull thread to gather. Tie off.
6. Fluff individual petals.


Daisies use the exact same process, just different shaped petals. I like to use two white filters and two yellow, but the ratio is very flexible. These daisies came our nice and floppy, the way I like them, but if you wanted stiffer/sturdier petals, just mix a couple spoonfuls of artist's gesso into the dye mixture.

Wouldn't these look lovely glued to the top of a box. You know it's a bad sign when I start thinking of gifts to suit the wrapping and not the other way around :)

Happy weekend!

oops, I nearly forgot!...... WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER!
Thank you to everyone who took the time to leave a comment last week following last week's giveaway. Winner of the crimper and 200 steel pix is "it's me ...Twinkie Chan!" which is easily the best screen name ever. Selection was totally random. Congrats Twinkie! I'll be emailing shortly :)

23 September 2010

Paint Chip Art

Artwork courtesy of Behr, Premium Paint Chips. Pudding Face Kitty Snoof courtesy of Tzeitel, The Cat.

Did you hear that? It's the sound of my Crazy Cat Lady Ranking exploding. Yes, again. Totally worth it.

Kitty and the artwork belong to my friend Bird, who is not only my bestie, neighbor, and aunt to Lola, Bird is the one person who lets me hang random art experiments all over her walls. As you can see from the background on these photos, I make a lot of, um, art. This piece is an off-shoot of my birthday resolution.

Birthday Resolution? What’s that?

Why I’m glad you asked! A birthday resolution is like New Year’s resolution, but without the dieting and unpleasantness. I use it an excuse to take on a new daily habit, skill, ritual…no big whoop, just something that helps me look back on a year and feel really good about some aspect of personal growth. Feel accomplished. Make up for the serious lack of smash cake in my life. One year I learned a new word in Spanish every day. Another year I read the newspaper every morning. One year I said I would learn the ukulele…errrr...that didn’t go so well.

Last year, I said I was going to start a blog. Setting up the dang thing took ten minutes, but figuring out what sort of blog I wanted took some time!  I’m big on research…started out by noting the blogs that I liked that crossed my path the first couple of months…then everyday I would comment on something I liked….then everyday I would note a post/article I liked for its content….then every commentary formula…..then every layout…the color scheme…then font face…etc, etc. Six months and a whole lot of cyber surfing later, I identified enough patterns of stuff I liked to read, and used it as the skeleton of stuff you might want to read. In July 2010 this blog was launched. Let me tell you, for all the buildup, it started out, uh, shall we say, anti-climactic. But now, it is one year since the journey began and y’all are here and reading this. Goal accomplished. Give myself a cookie!

This year, my little ritual is something closer to a journal. I’m not big on keeping a diary, but a small memento to take away the sentiments of the day would be nice. Playing off my old 1,200 Names for Yellow piece, I’m going to name colors. I made myself a stack of blank swatch cards and grabbed a lot of painting scraps….a little snip and a dab of glue, I’m in business. For the next year, every night, last thing I‘ll do is select a color card and write down a name and date. I know this sounds very artsy fartsy, but really, all I’m trying to do is make a memory. My hope is that at the end of the year I can randomly pick up a card dated March 31, 2010, with a blue swatch called “STORM CLOUD” and recall that was the day I got stuck on the train in a tremendous thunderstorm and met a charming lady in a straw hat sitting behind the bearded man who smelled of Amstel Light.

You see, it’s all very logical.

So, 365 days in the year means I need a lot of color swatches. Initially I was going to rely on paint swatches from the hardware store, but decided it would I wanted to make use of the piles of scraps in my craft stash. Problem was, I already started grabbing pinches of paint swatches from various hardware stores. What to do what to do what to do?

Art! The answer is always art.

There are so many cool people out there making amazing stuff with paint chips. This one is easy, but you should check out some of the possibilities. I initially saw something similar to this in a model home five or six years ago. It was a giant 6’x8’ piece in a simple dining room with one of those glass tables. It was the first piece you saw when you walked through the door and I just thought WOWZERS I WANT ME SOME OF THAT. I apologize for not crediting the original artist, if you happen to know, please feel free to let me know. I’m big on giving credit where credit is do.

One painters canvas from the art or craft store (can also just paint a board white)
Paint chips
Foam Mounting tape
Bias tape or ribbon to run around the edge of the canvas.
This is so quick/cheap/easy, it hardly warrants a tutorial

1. Get yourself a bunch of paint chips (go rainbow, or coordinate your home interior)
2. Cut out squares of solid color. You could try to make them the exact same size, but that would drive me crazy. I just eyeball to keep them within half an inch of each other.
3. Tear off 1” squares of foam mounting tape. Mounting tape is super sticky, very durable, and more important, it will raise your color squares off the canvas just a tiny bit. The shadow it gives really sets them off. You could just hot glue them to the canvas, but the foam tape makes a BIG DIFFERENCE. Give it a chance!
4. Figure out roughly how many squares you can fit running the length and width of your canvas. You can try to line them up exactly, but again, that would drive me nuts! This isn’t brain surgery, so don’t take it so seriously. Just stick them up and go for it! No one is going to notice if some of them are slightly skewed or off center. In fact, it will enhance the overall character and charm of the piece. Embrace imperfections!!

Hot glue some ribbon or bias tape around the edge and SHAZAM you are done!

I’m generally not big on the concept of “filler art”…Personally, I would rather live with an empty wall then buy something just to fill the space. However, this piece is sort of a happy medium. There is no great thought or skill in making it, but by gosh, it makes for crazy eye candy!

21 September 2010

Some people say summer ends with Labor Day. Others claim it’s the Fall Equinox. In my house, autumn begins with an apple picking.

This time of year, when the light is bright and the air is crisp, there is something in me that itches to get out in the country. Places with no streetlights. Places with more tractors than people. Call it my inner farm girl, but I tell you, there is nothing more satisfying than taking in the harvest.

OK OK OK…“the harvest” was barely a bushel and it came with wine tasting and there were no combines or overalls involved…but gosh darnit, it felt great!

As a city dweller, apple picking is something of an excursion. It takes two hours to get to a decent orchard but man is it worth the trip! If you have never enjoyed what it feels like to grow your own food or to pluck it from the Earth, I suggest you start with apples. Apple orchards are pretty easy to find all over North America, and they make for a wonderful adventure. Depending on the type of apple, the arrival time will be staggered throughout the Fall, so you a re pretty much guaranteed to walk away with something great. And there is something wonderfully symbolic about apples. So beautiful. So wholesome. Fresh. Clean.

A visit to the apple orchard has become something of an annual tradition. I like to go with friends and pack a picnic. This year we went just down the road from my favorite Blueberry Farm, DeGrandcahmps, to McIntosh Orchards and Winery, in South Haven Michigan. Did you ever find someplace off the beaten path that was so special that you didn’t want to tell anyone for fear the secret would get out and ruin your special discovery? McIntosh is like that. I’m tempted to keep a lid on it, but the family that runs this place is so special and their goods are so wonderful, I feel like it’s a disservice to keep it to myself. Honestly, my standards are high. This place exceeded all expectations. If you or anyone you know lives within an hour of Chicago, I highly suggest you forward this post or this link asap. Kids and adults will enjoy themselves silly and they will thank you for it later.

McIntosh Orchard isn’t just an apple orchard, no no no, it’s a cider mill and winery. They carry lot’s of semi-dry fruit wines…blueberry, apple, peach, pear, plum…all excellent and around $10 a bottle. A bargain. As someone who saves their sommelier skills for Diet Coke tasting, I cannot claim to be an expert, however, I know a good thing when I see it: this is Good Stuff.  They also sell a lovely collection of gift items, including these lovely milk bottle candles. One of those items that I saw and said “Why didn’t I think of that?!”…so easy to make, but the smell of these candles….oh how I wish the internet could convey smell!  These candles where so delicious. And can you read their names? That one up front in called Barn Dance, and yes, it really does smell like a barn dance! Like fresh pine and a wood burning stove with a hint of citrus and musk. 

Just a little further down the Blue Star Highway is my ALL TIME FAVORITE ANTIQUE PLACE: Sunset Antiques. It is unfair to call it antiques, really, more like a well-edited collection of eccentric rif raf, or what the call “junque” (somehow saying “junk” in semi-fake-French makes it more legit). Most of it is outdoors, shaded by a gigantic elm tree.Well over an acre. They carry everything from old restaurant signs to astronaut suits to taxidermy moose heads to wooden doors...all of it dirt cheap. I’m still kicking myself for not buying that Hurdy Gurdy!


Back to life, back to reality.
I see a lot of apple baking in my future!

20 September 2010

People have been calling me Peaches for many years, but Aunt Peaches is new. When my niece Abigail was born last December, it felt like I had been waiting for her since I was a child. Isn’t that strange?

Being an Aunt is a big deal for me. I'm sure a lot of you are Aunts and Sisters and Mothers and Grandmothers and Caregivers and Brothers and Daughters and Sons and Spouses...the list goes on as long as you like, but the point I make is that everyone is special to somebody. You are special to somebody. I am special to someone else. That 19-year-old guy who cut me off in his Ford Bronco yesterday afternoon, that Buttmunch with Attitude, is somebody's baby. Somebody's brother. Somebody's friend. To somebody, he is special.

In the world of somebodies and specialness, the relationship between Aunt and niece is particularly sacred to me.  In my life, Aunts have always been a source of comfort, guidance, encouragement, and, sometimes, a swift kick to the rump when I needed it most.  And Aunts certainly don't need to be related either. As soon as title is issued, the relationship is sealed: Y'all are family.

They say it takes a village to raise a child...truer words have never been spoken. My Mom died when I was pretty young and it was a village of Aunts who picked up the pieces. Some of them were my parent's sisters, but most where good friends and neighbors who became as close as family, if not closer. These women would swoop into my life one afternoon at a time and teach me life's most important lessons; everything from driving instructions, to cooking lessons, to sewing projects, to embarrassing visits to the doctor and the ladies underwear department.

Most of these women were busy with lives and families of their own. I rarely saw any one of them more than once every few weeks, but, whatever time we spent together, they packed in as much love and learning as possible. They knew I didn't have a mother and wanted to pack their motherly wisdom into every minute we shared. In this regard, I consider myself extremely fortunate. Don't get me wrong, losing your Mom sucks, but the way I see it, my life lessons came to me like one of those Church fundraiser cookbooks...you know, where every member of the congregation contributes two or three of their very best lessons....Mr. Johnson's Famous Crab Dip and Sheriff Trotters House Seasoning and Amy Caldwell's Banana Bread...a diverse collection of the very best formulas for success. There’s no back-of-the-box recipes in those cookbooks, just thoughtful, time-tested, quality stuff. Yes, those books are always scattered, and sloppy, and sometimes the spelling is laughable, but I tell you one thing; the food is Damn Good.

But I digress. One day I'll write a post on Why People are Like Cookbooks …another time...back to the Aunts....

Some of the Aunts never had time, or maybe they felt too awkward to hang out one-on-one. Instead they would drop stuff off on our doorstep, usually with a lovely note.
I was baking nut bread and thought you might enjoy some. Call anytime.

Random gifts of food are a pretty normal thing when someone dies, especially when it comes to a new widower/single father...but after months passed, the gifts turned from food to more random items; jumbo packs of socks, hand soap, school supplies, etc..
There was a double coupon in the paper on plastic forks this morning so I picked up extra. We won't use them, I'll just save you the trip. Call anytime.

It’s not like my Dad couldn't afford to buy us stuff, it just made them feel good. They slept better at night knowing our household paper towel supply was taken care of.  As I got older, the Aunts started dropping stuff off specifically for me. Teenage years are awkward for all girls, and they wanted to be sure I didn't end up confused and misguided. One time my dad opened the front door to find a small shopping bag on the stoop. It was tampons. Think that's embarrassing? You should have seen the note Aunt Laura left on it.
Wanted to be sure you had some of these around the house. Let me know if you need any help with instructions. Call anytime.


The way my dad dropped that bag you would think it contained a severed head. God Bless Aunt Laura.

My favorite doorstep gifts always came from Aunt Dooney, a generous and eccentric woman with a penchant for story book sweaters two sizes too small. Even in her 50s she could stop traffic with her good looks. The lines around her mouth and eyes indicated a history of happiness, struggle, and a fondness for tanning beds. She grew up dirt poor and married her high school sweetheart at age 15, Boon. They lived on a shoestring for many years, until one day in the late seventies when Boon found the shell of a Motel 6 Jacuzzi tub down at the dump. He strapped it in the back of a flatbed truck, filled it with water and his beautiful wife, then drove around town with a sign that read $5 WATER RIDES ON WHEELS.

Ten years later they owned a fleet of limousines and the biggest house on the block. The American Dream.

Aunt Dooney quit working 60+ hours a week as a waitress and stayed home as a lady of leisure. She took up tennis down at the country club and watched soap operas as if it were her job. As the World Turns was her favorite. She was never seen without lipstick and pastel pearls. Despite their new found wealth, Aunt Dooney still shopped like she was living hand-to-mouth. It was Aunt Dooney that taught me how to clip coupons and only buy on sale. She filled their massive home with second hand furniture and thrift store finds. She didn’t have any kids of her own and was quick to spoil me and the many other children lucky enough to know her. Because she knew how much I loved playing dress up, she started buying me $5 bridal gowns in kindergarten. As I got older the thrift store dresses kept coming. Even when I was way-too-mature for Halloween costumes. She'd find a stained quilt or a tattered leather coat and drop it off with a note...
This was too good of a deal to pass up! Tear it apart and put it back together. Now go make something pretty!

When I was 17, Aunt Dooney left a package on our door that looked a little different. Her gifts came from the thrift store and usually came delivered in a paper bag, clean but rumpled with little ceremony or expectation. This one was in a handled shopping bag with lavender tissue peeping up. It was unusually large. I recognized the handwriting as soon as I opened the note;
I know you are used to secondhand, but prom is coming up and I wanted you to have the very best. I saw it in the store and knew it was made for you. It will look so beautiful. I can't wait to see you in it!

It was a dress. A giant, peach, ruffled prom dress. We are talking Melanie Hamilton-Wilkes Style Big Ass Dress.

Now, Peaches is my family nickname, and plenty of people, even those who don't call me Peaches directly somehow associate me with the color peach. Today I love it, but then, I hated it. Passionately. And even if that dress had been a different color, there is no way in hell I was going to be seen wearing it to my prom. I would like to tell you that if I had to do it over again, I would be mature enough to suck it up and wear it, but no. I don't think I could do it. Some things are just never going to change.

Aunt Dooney was such a sweetheart and I knew it would break her heart if I didn't wear it. I told my Dad and cried and pretended it was eating me up inside, when really, I just wanted to make sure I got the dress I wanted. You know what he did? He made the ultimate sacrifice. He lied for me. He called Aunt Dooney and told her he had already bought me a dress a long time ago, and as lovely as this dress is, he could see it cost a pretty penny and should probably go back to the store.

I guess he just assumed she would drop by and pick it up, but she didn't. A week went by, that dress stood in the hall. Made me sick with guilt every time I saw it. I hid it in the closet. When nearly a month had passed, my Dad started pestering me to take it over before it could no longer be returned. I ignored him. One day he picked me up at the mall and I saw that shopping bag with the lavender tissue sitting in the back seat. I knew we were making a stop on the way home.

This was a big deal. My dad never told me to do anything I didn't want to do. Prior to that moment, I can only think of two occasions when he said no to me and both involved dessert. And he wondered where my crazy sweet tooth came from?

But today wasn't about dessert. It was about doing the right thing. This woman had been looking out for me for years and I was not going to be rotten towards her, not if he could help it. He couldn't force me to wear the dress, but he was going to make sure I didn't sweep the dress under the rug, my relationship with Aunt Dooney going with it.

Aunt Dooney's house was old colonial. Very traditional, except for two cement bunny statues on either side of the door. Like long eared foo dogs with teeth. She named them, and I can't remember what, but it had something to do with evil twins on As the World Turns.

My Dad pulled up in the driveway and turned off the motor, reached across to my door to pull the handle. I knew that move. This was his way of saying, Sorry kiddo, you are doing this one your own.

Of course, my plans to leave it on the doorstep was dashed when she saw me on the steps. She greeted me with the same, warm, loving hug she had always given me. One of those hugs where you squeeze the other person like a teddy bear and sway from side to side for a minute and say when did you get so big?! Ooooooo you smell so good, I just want to bottle it up!

While bottling one's smell was creepy, the hug helped. The pit in my stomach dissipated. All was good.

We talked for a minute or two and then I said I had to run, Dad was in the driveway, I just wanted to drop off the dress. It was so generous of you to do that, and I'm so sorry I'm not going to get a chance to wear it.

I'll never forget the look on her face. It deflated like a punctured pool toy. Her voice changed as she looked down on the ground and muttered something about Don't worry, I'm just glad you got it covered, it'll get used another time, no big deal.

Have you ever talked to someone when the words in their mouth don't match the look on their face? It's awkward. It's especially awkward when you know someone is doing that to appease you. Yes you, the 17-year-old Buttmunch with Attitude. I puttered around for a minute then excused myself and walked to the car, my tail between my legs.

Prom came and went and I don't even remember what I wore. I think it was black with feathers. Does it matter? No.

I recently got wind that Aunt Dooney past away following a lengthy battle with cancer. Apparently she had been teetering on the edge for months, but was determined to hang in long enough to watch  the final episode of As the World Turns. You know, I hadn't seen her in ten years, maybe more...but in the back of my mind, I think of her every time I go into a thrift store. I think of her every time I see a soap opera or clip coupons. I think of her when I see ladies wearing sweaters two sizes too small and when someone gives me a good long bear hug. I think of her when a young, exhausted waitress takes the time to look me in the eye and smile. I think of her and I smile too.

Now she is gone and I will never get a chance to show her that peachy prom dress. This necklace isn't going to make up for what has past, but it's a lovely, happy reminder of a lovely, happy lady.

1. Salvage some silk scraps from an old blouse you picked up at the thrift store 5 years ago that’s all stained and too small, but you still love it something rotten. Yeah, I know you have one too. Or better yet, take an article of clothing someone gave you years ago that you have never worn, but don’t have the heart to get rid of, for fear it will hurt their feelings.  Use this project to make something new and special.

2. Make yourself some Luzianne Iced Tea. Technically, one should avoid ice tea anywhere north of Memphis, but you can make an exception for home brewed Luzianne.

3. Soak the silk scraps in leftover tea for at least an hour. Overnight is better. If you added sugar and lemon to your tea that’s just fine. If you want, you can infuse some scent to your necklace by adding a drop or two of essential oil in your tea about now. I like eucalyptus.  

4. Cut a paisley shape out of polar fleece or felt, and cut the silk scraps into 20 circles, roughly the same diameter as a coke can. I like to encourage fraying by rubbing the edges together and pulling loose strings with my fingers.

5. Pinch the center of one silk circle, forming a tuffet shape.

6. Sew your tuffet to the center of the paisley, fray side facing the outer edge. Repeat around the perimeter of the paisley shape.

7. Sew a few pearls in the center/exposed portion of the paisley shape. Aunt Dooney was never seen without her pastel pearls!  Make a simple bead chain out of remaining pearls and there you go: a peachy keen necklace in all it's ruffled glory.
Whoooooooweeeeeeee...for such a simple necklace this sure was a long post. Thanks for letting me ramble. Sometimes, when someone leaves us, it's a small comfort to channel our sadness into something creative. It also feels good to take a minute to sing their praises from the mountain tops. Guess this blog is my new mountain top. Thanks again :)

Now go make something pretty!

17 September 2010

When I started posting about these coffee filter flowers, I got a lot of questions and feedback from brides-to-be looking for alternative centerpieces. Thanks to all y’all who reached out and showed interest –you made my day many times over :)

Ladies: this one is for you!

It’s also for everyone looking to make some specials accents for a party or shower, or even just an arrangement for your home or office. I keep bundle of these on my desk at work and you wouldn’t believe the attention it gets. People see it in my office and stop in their tracks to come in and touch it and feel it and ask how it was made. Granted, these arrangements aren’t everyone’s taste, but they sure are a conversation starter!

Today I'm showing one centerpiece, "the Shirley Temple" that is super economical and easy to make, plus two other options that are similar in cost, with a couple extra special flourishes. Never can have to many flourishes. I'm hoping you will see these as a starting off point for your own design. Don't just copy mine --get down and dirty and design your own! That's the fun part!

Now, before we get started, I need to introduce you to my little friend: THE CRIMPER. My #1 Gizmo of Choice. They have been around forever and even sell them at larger craft stores, but outside the trade, I don’t know anyone who owns one. It’s a shame. There are oodles of cool things to do with them (more on that down the road!)…essentially, the crimper wraps each ‘tuffet’ with a ‘tooth’ that you can jam into Styrofoam or foam board or screen mesh. You ever watch the rose parade and wonder how they got those flowers to stick to the underside of that dragon’s belly? Chances are a crimper had something to do with it.

Handheld crimpers go by many names, and you can get them three ways:

* Buy one on line. Note: according to that amazon link there were only 5 left today, so, you may have to hunt a little.

* Buy one at a craft store with a decent floral supply section (30% success rate on this method).

* GET ONE FREE by taking part in my first giveaway! I’m giving away a brand new Handy Pick Crimper kit with 200 steel pix. Shipping free within North America. And because every box needs a little box padding, I’m including a random assortment of coffee filter flowers to get you started. Can you tell these tutorials are leavin me with a WHOLE LOT of flowers hanging around the house?

Sooo, are you interested? All you have to do to win this beauty is:

  1. become a follower 
  2. leave a comment on this post.
I just added the follower gadget yesterday –for the few of you that were already followers (y'all are the best!) don’t worry, you are in the running, just leave a comment :)

One comment per follower, please. The winner will be selected randomly by Lola, on
September 23, 2010, at 11:59pm EST. Please be sure to leave your email in your comment so I have a way to contact the winner. Note: If the winner is comfortable sharing photos of something they make with the crimper, I would love post them at a later date. Cool? Good luck ya’ll!

$3 and 5 minutes: Shirley Temple
Someone once told me they once met Shirley Temple on an airplane and she was a mean old coot. I find that hard to believe when I look at those wonderful old movies of her all precious and frilly in her polka dot dresses. And, have you noticed, Shirley Temples are just about the loveliest cocktail running! All pink and sparkly with a maraschino cherry. How could anyone with a cocktail that pretty turn out to be a meanie-head? Sigh.
I digress…the container on this came from Mardi Gras beads hot glued to an empty can and spray painted red. Fact: a house isn’t a home without a few Mardi Gras beads hanging from the rafters, so don’t even try to tell me you need to go out and buy some. Worst case, you can use some old Christmas garland for the dollar store, but my beads are abundant so that’s what is here. For the “cherry” effect, I spray painted some dried bachelor buttons, but just about any dried wild flower or seed pod would give the same effect.

$3 and 10 minutes: Jan Brady
Jan Brady was easily, The Best Brady. Don’t even talk to me about Marsha.  Jan was the one rockin orange and pink bell bottoms when Marsha was complaining about her maroon velvet prom dress. Grossamundo. This arrangement has a soup can base with some fabric hot glued around the circumference. This container was free because I always have empty cans and black and white stripe fabric around the house. Yeah, I’m weird that way. In case your not weird like me, I made you black and white stripe paper that you can print at home. Wrapping paper would work nice too. The time on this one goes to cutting multiple batches of shapes and colors; a combination of hot pink with rounded edges, and these sunny ones made from orange, yellow, and brown star shapes.

$3 and 20 minutes: Truly Scrumptious
Inspired by the marvelous hats of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s heroine, Truly Scrumptious, this arrangement is very easy and economical. She took 20 minutes because I insisted on making a few cream colored roses, and attempted to add height with some curly willow with jagged scraps hot glue to the tips to look like blossoms. It was just about impossible to photograph in my apartment, so you will have to take my word for it: she is gorgeous.  I can only imagine what it would look like to see ten Trulys scattered around a large room. Talk about atmosphere! It has taken me a long time to learn that the key to good looking white flowers is to rinse them with a hint of color. Here the jagged mums have a whisper of pink and the cream roses were made from filters rinsed with Diet Coke. Yeah, tea would work, but I am big on Diet Coke.

* Note to self: need to learn the trick to photographing white stuff.
* Note to self: need to do a post on ways to make art with Diet Coke.

And here is how you make them. Fast!

When I say “five minutes” I expect you already have your filters dyed and dried. The flower making and assembly honestly took me less than five minutes each. I timed it. All three of these were assembled before I went to work yesterday. That’s the power of the crimper! That also explains why some of the photos are dark and orange colored…sorry y’all, it was an early start.

Besides a few cents spent on coffee filters and paint, the vast majority of the $3 goes to Styrofoam. In my neck of the woods, anything bigger than your hand runs $2.50 and up. Bahhhh! I hate paying retail!
* Alternative: If you are making dozens of these, you can cut your spending even further by substituting Styrofoam for insulation foam spray like this. A $4 can fills 15+ large soup can containers. Read the directions carefully and remember it’s designed to fill small spaces, so you will need to partially fill your container with rocks/sand/crumpled paper, then just tape off the top to allow the foam to do its work…..24 hours of dry time and you are good to go!

1. Take 4 pre-dyed filters. I left the ends white to add texture, but you just go hog wild when it comes to color.
2. Fold in quarters
3. Cut edges.
4. After you cut all the flowers  (I estimate 6-10 flowers per centerpiece), separate and scatter randomly. This will ensure each layer of petals looks different and will add an overall richness to the final piece.

5. Choose 4 filters. If some of your filters are darker, put one on top (it should eventually end up on the inside).
7. Fold in quarters.
8. Twist the end slightly to form a stub.

9. Insert a steel pix (that’s what they are called, it a single stell pix a steel pick. Hmmm. Ponder...
10. Insert the twisted stub in the gripper jaws of the crimper and squeeze together.

11. Take a peek to make sure the teeth gripped around the stub. The first few times you use it, you might have an extra tooth or two sticking out, in which case a pair of pliers will do the trick.
12. Fluff to your heart’s content!
*Note: If you don’t have a crimper and want to do this anyway, I suggest you tape the stump to a plastic knife like this. It’s slower and doesn’t give the same fluffy results, but it works. 

13. Insert Styrofoam in your container.
14 Fill any gap space between the Styrofoam and the container with extra filters, making a ruffled color.

15. Insert flowers into the Styrofoam, working from the outside inward.
16. TaDa!!!!!

Hope you like it. Again, the crimper takes a little practice but you will get up to speed in no time!

Check in next Friday for more coffee filter fun with Daisies and Dahlias!  

14 September 2010

Internet: meet Bernadette. If y’all were neighbors (lovely thought) you would know her already. She sits in my window all year round, never changing her gaze or location. The one thing that does change is her head gear. In fact, it changes all the time. Bernadette is kind of like those plastic geese with the seasonal costumes that were so popular a few years ago. Whatever happened to those geese anyway? I haven’t seen one in ages....

Like Lola, Bernadette loves her hats; snow caps and earmuffs for the winter, delicate vintage hats and Easter bonnets in the spring, sunglasses and visors in the summer, not to mention birthday part hats, witches hats, Statue of Liberty tiaras, etc.. Come fall, she is all about leaves. Last year’s leaves were paper, this year it’s pipe cleaners!

I have been just crazy about pipe cleaners since this ring craft at my BFF’s bridal shower.  It has trickled into every corner of my life. Y’all will have to wait and see the turkey extravaganza I’m planning come November.

This is a great craft for kids: quick results, zero mess, and a great addition to any dress-up cupboard.  Pipe cleaners are such a flexible material (no pun intended). You can make all kinds of goodies with them, but I think crowns and tiaras are a great place to start. There are thousands of variations on these, but I’ll show you a basic crown and let you take it from there. The sky is the limit!

Let’s get this party started!

Note: From here on in, when you read “twist” I mean twist the pipe cleaners together so they are jointed together. Test your joint with a swift tug. For me, this means physically twisting them around at least twice. For children, or those with a delicate touch, three or four times might be better. You decide for yourself.

Pipe cleaners, at least 12, depends on head size
Drinking straws, cut in half (no longer than 5”)

1.    Use two green pipe cleaners to form a circle around your head.
2.    Twist loose ends smoothly around the circle.

3.    Twist the end of one orange pipe cleaner to your circle.
4.    Slide two straws on the orange pipe cleaner.
5.    Twist the other end of the orange pipe cleaner onto the green circle, roughly two inches down. A careful woman would measure for consistent results. Me, um, not so much :)
6.    Slide the straws to the base of the circle leaving a loop of exposed pipe cleaner at the top.

7.    Twist the exposed orange pipe cleaner, forming a loop.
8.    Repeat steps 3-7 until you cover the entire green circle.

9.    After pushing up the orange loops, you will essentially have a crown. Yay! you can stop now, or, add some reinforcement with a second set of triangles running all the way around (highly suggest taking this step if kids plan to play with the crown more than once). start by attaching a red pipe cleaner to the green circle, making sure the joint is halfway between two straws.
10.    Identify the “halfway point” on your red pipe cleaner (by bending it) and twist to attach to the green circle, exactly half way in-between the next set of straws, weaving it in-between the straws as you go. The weaving really helps to reinforce the crown shape. Repeat all the way around.

11.    To turn loops into triangles, just pinch.
12.     Looky there!

13.    TaDa!

Note: Keep in mind, even if you want a solid color crown (everyone seems to wants gold and silver) I suggest you use different color pipe cleaners the first time. I can tell you from experience, even with “big kids” it just makes the explanation and learning process a whole lot easier for everyone :)

This project is just a basic structure, but as you saw with the drinking straws, you can thread stuff on to the pipe cleaners before threading them to incorporate all kinds of fun;
* Beads
* Feathers
* Ribbon
* Silk flowers (take them apart to find the hole in the center…I’ll show ya’ll some I made another occasion)
* Dry pasta (a manicotti crown!)
* Sequins
* Buttons
* Christmas tinsel
* Foam shapes
…oh the places you will go!

Be sure to check out these matching rings.

This project is linking to Craft School Sunday at www.creativejewishmom.com 
Y’all have heard about my obsession with Liberace. Not only could the man play the piano, he did it wearing rings the size of club sandwiches! Honestly, who doesn’t love a big fat cocktail ring? Especially when it was made by loving little hands.

Must give credit where credit is due: I learned about these rings at my BFF’s bridal shower, from Masha, who saw this clip on the Martha Stewart Show. Martha’s guest, The Pipe Cleaner Lady (that’s really her name!), breaks it down nicely. You can tell she has shown thousands of people how to do it. Be sure to check out her website for all kinds of cool ideas.

My fall themed variation is a little different. I found that twisting two pipe cleaners together made them thicker, stronger, and less likely to snag. Try it out and see for yourself!

  • 12 pipe cleaners, but I suggest you get more. Once you make one of these babies, you will want to make more in a hurry!

 1.    Twist two pipe cleaners together making one long strand. I chose warm colors similar in tone, but you have fun and pick for yourself!
2.    Repeat process four more times, resulting in 5 double strands of pipe cleaners.

3.    Take two green pipe cleaners and twist together 2” in the middle. This will leave four long ends.
4.    Bend the green pipe cleaners in half and insert the ring finger of your non-dominant hand, forming a loose “X”
5. Pinch and twist the green pipe cleaners around several times. The end result should be a ring around your finger with a helicopter propeller on top.
6. Use the green pipe cleaners to attach the five double stands you previously twisted. Note: TWIST HARD on this one. This particular twist is important and your final ring will go all loosey goosey if this juncture is not secure. Little hands may need help with this part.

7. Take the tip of a double strand and pinch it in toward the center.
8. Continue your pinch and roll up the double strand similar to a snail, winding as tight as you can.
9. Repeat on the other strands until your petals are done. Arrange as you see fit. I like the asymmetrical look, but some prefer to cup them toward the center, similar to a rose or a dahlia. Y’all have fun with that.

10. For stems, take the four green pipe cleaners and loop them back toward the center/under the petals. Twist to secure.
11. Pinch and twist the green loops together forming the stems.
12. And there you have it!  I dare you to make just one of these. Once you conquer the flower ring, move on and experiment…sparkle rings, bracelets, cat hats…the sky is the limit!

This is a super fun party project for kids and adults. It can be simplified or expanded in so many ways. I made these at an annual picnic with hundreds of kids of all ages, and everyone caught on pretty quick. I did a couple demonstrations and then the ripple effect took place....before you knew it the older kids started showing the younger ones and so on and so on. Don’t you love it when that happens?

 Side note: look, I am not advertising for anyone here, but I spent a good deal of time researching deals on pipe cleaners and this appears to be it. Of course, you can always buy cheaper at the craft store with a 40% off coupon (you know who I’m talking about!)…but if you are buying large quantities for a party, this online source has quality stuff at a decent price. Feel free to do your own research; I’m just trying to save some time.

13 September 2010

You know a movie is good when it inspires you to make a hat for your cat.

Have you seen Labyrinth? If you did, it’s probably been a while. Like, twenty years, right? Unlike most of my childhood obsessions (HELLO NKOTB), this movie has stood the test of time. On the surface level, Labyrinth is a visual feast with a classic story and a few dozen goblin Muppets, not to mention David Bowie in marvelously tight pants…but as an adult, you look at it a little deeper, start thinking…before you know it some unexpectedly personal and powerful things come out of the woodwork.  Movies can be funny that way.

Jim Henson was a genius. Design*Sponge did a Living In feature on another one of his movies, The Dark Crystal, last week and it got me all aflutter thinking about Labyrinth. Of course I had to watch it asap and oh boy, it sparked all kinds of creative output, including, drum roll please: a cat hat.

Now, Lola loves her hats. As you can see form the look on her face, she really enjoys dressing up. So while we were watching and I was busy making tiaras with pipe cleaners (more on that tomorrow)…I was so taken aback by this one scene, that, without realizing it, before you knew it, she had a new hat!

It sprouted out of this scene featuring the Chilly Down song by a group of amazing Muppets called the Fire Gang (if you know the part I’m talking about, you will get a kick out of seeing how they made it back in the day before CGI technology). The Fire Gang is bit endearing a petrifying at the same time. They seem so cute and cuddly, but also know they could reach out and snap your neck at any moment. Just like my Lola!

…but I digress.

Bottom line: next time you need some inspiration, or a headdress for your cat-child, please take my advice--treat yourself and look into Labyrinth!

10 September 2010

Back in my failed former days as a window dresser, I got some good advice from Tanja, the Grand Dame of the cosmetics department. Originally from Romania, Tanja was widely renowned for her eyebrow waxing skills and had arrived at a point in her career when she only had to take one appointment a day, then happily dragged it out all afternoon. Most of the time was spent smoking and laughing and singing gypsy folk songs about beet salad, then more smoking and dispensing advice about important things like men, business, and unwanted hair. Of the many things I learned from Tanja, there are three golden nuggets that stand out;
  1. Never brush your teeth with blue toothpaste.
  2. Men with excessively bushy eyebrows are likely to cheat on their wives.
  3. Women will buy anything wrapped in roses.*
             *Women married to men with excessively bushy eyebrows should expect a lot of roses.

How can I explain how happy it makes me when I hear from you? Comments, questions, emails…my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. If you have a blog, you probably know that already. Seriously, it’s better than Christmas presents and birthday cake. OK, well, maybe I shouldn’t be dissin on cake

A number of you sent inquiries/emails about the coffee filter flowers posted last month. Up until now, I have done my best to address them individually but they are starting to repeat. This leads me to believe that ya’ll want to see some more coffee filter magic.


So I’m going to devote the next month of “Friday Flowers” to various blossoms made from coffee filters.

Please don’t think I’m a One Trick Pony. On the contrary, I’v got all kinds of other projects in swing! But these flowers are so simple and easy to make, and if one person can make use out of them, then it’s my pleasure to share.
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