Julie’s Stuffed Baked Potatoes

September 9, 2011 | My Jottings

(From the archives…)

I hope your Easter was a special day touched in some way by the love of friends, family, and God. Easter reminds me that with Jesus there’s always hope, no matter how occasionally hopeless things might seem. Not only did Jesus rise from the dead, but His resurrection power can bring other dead things to life. Dead hearts, dead relationships, dead people – nothing is too difficult for Him.

We went to church where we could hardly find a place to sit, so our family had to sit two here, three here, two here, etc. Then we came home and started the food preparation for our Easter dinner. Later on in the day the grandbabies had a good time searching the big yard for candy-filled eggs.

My son-in-law Chris was in charge of the ham. I’ve always been so ho-hum about ham (that sounds like the title of a book – Ho-hum About Ham) until I try the baked hams that Chris prepares. He rubs some stuff on the ham, puts it in the oven in a roaster for 90 minutes, and then it invariably turns out so scrumptious that I rave about how ham is my new favorite meat. Then in a few days I’m back to being ho-hum about ham, until the next time Chris makes a ham and I’ll be all wound up about it again.

My daughter Sharon made roasted fresh asparagus, which I had never eaten. I could have written an essay entitled Ambivalent About Asparagus, but after tasting this, I have changed my tune on a food once again. Sharon also made spring-like desserts: homemade lemon squares and made-from-scratch carrot cake, the latter of which I am enjoying while typing this blog post.

Sharon and her middle child Mrs. Nisky made their famous Nisky’s Biscuits as well. Nisky’s Biscuits have two ingredients, two, and they are the flakiest, tastiest biscuits ever. Have you ever made delicious biscuits with 1) Self-rising flour and 2) whipping cream? Neither have I. I will be making them soon, however, because Nisky’s Biscuits are easy and yummy.

I made my favorite salad, Panzanella, that’s the most wonderful salad I’ve ever tasted and that is no exaggeration. If you want to make something that everyone will rave about and will require you to have printed copies of the recipe nearby each time you serve it, go to the Food Network’s site and check out The Barefoot Contessa’s recipe for Panzanella.

I also made a staple that I’ve been making for at least twenty-six and a quarter years: Stuffed Baked Potatoes. Many of you probably make your own version of these, but I’ve been surprised lately to hear of enough people who’ve never made these, so I thought I’d share. Stuffed Baked Potatoes are easy and most people think they’re fancy and delectable. I make them at least twice a month – they’re a nice change from regular baked or mashed potatoes.

Sharon took the photos of my Easter journey through Stuffed Baked Potatoland, and I hope you’ll try them and let me know how they turned out for you.

You will need large baking potatoes, cheese (I used colbyjack but you could use cheddar, jack, pepper jack, whatever), blue cheese dressing, parmesan cheese, butter, green onions, and McCormick Salad Supreme.

First, bake your potatoes. I have two ovens, which comes in very handy on holidays. I baked my large baking potatoes in the smaller upper oven (you can see the pizza stone I store there) while the not-so-ho-hum ham was cooking in the larger oven below.

While your potatoes are baking, take some green onions and chop them up pretty fine. I used about 4-5 onions. One nice thing about this recipe is that you can just put in as much or as little of everything as you like. Experiment with the flavors and adjust as you go. You’ll see how I did that later. I use the green and the white of the green onions. Some people call them scallions but I never have. Maybe one of you can tell us why they’re called scallions – is it a regional thing? I don’t care as much for that name because it reminds me of the word scallywag, and the word scallywag reminds me of a certain person that I would prefer not to be reminded about when I’m making Stuffed Baked Potatoes.

This next part is important. Have all your ingredients ready in a bowl while your potatoes are baking, because it’s the heat of the baked potatoes that will cause everything to melt together nicely. Below you can see that I tossed in about two heaping cups of grated colbyjack cheese. We were feeding a lot of people on Easter.

Next, I added about 3/4 cup of blue cheese dressing and about 3/4 cup of Parmesan cheese. You could use less or more of either ingredient. I happen to love blue cheese dressing so I put in a lot. Maybe it was even closer to a cup of blue cheese dressing.

If you look closely now, you can see that the first potato is in there (I’ll get to that in a minute) and I also threw in about 3/4 of a stick of butter. This is Easter, so don’t worry about fat grams. You could worry about that the day after Easter. Oh wait – Easter is already past. Well, don’t worry about things anyway.

Now I just started to mash things together a little bit. My potatoes were done baking. I smooshed things around with the fork while my daughter took photos with her very nice camera that she uses on her very nice website for her very nice yarn business.

When the potatoes are done, I take them out one by one, hold them in an oven mitted hand, and gently cut them in half, taking care not to ruin my beautiful oven mitts.

I take a large spoon, and while cradling the hot potato in my mitt (please try not to notice the holes in my mitt) I gently scoop out the very hot potato innards.  I try not to ruin the skin, but sometimes it happens. See how there’s very little left of the innards? Then you can just set these forlorn looking skins on a baking sheet.

And they will look like this. Sort of like sad spudwaifs.

Because I have made this recipe hundreds of times, I can tell by looking if it’s what we’ll like. I could see after smooshing and mashing that for the number of people we were going to feed, we needed to add another handful of cheese. Just stir and mash with a fork until the hot potato innards have melted most of everything, and until you don’t have any clumps of unmashed potato left. If you do, that’s okay though. Potato clods never hurt anyone.

Now you can take your holey mitts off and start to fill the empty potato skins. The mixture will be cooled off enough to use your hands. Grab a few globs of cheesy goodness and press them into the potato skins.

Make sure you delicately lift your little finger as you do it, as a polite Englishwoman would do when sipping her afternoon tea. I’m not sure why this important, but just take my word for it.

When you have enough in a skin, it will look like this:

Not too much – just a little mound of the potato/cheese mixture will do.

You can find this product in the spices aisle at your grocery store. I’ve used it for years for just this one dish, and it adds color, great flavor and interest. It’s supposed to be for salads and pasta and I’ve never used it on either. Just on my Stuffed Baked Potatoes. (When McCormick comes out with a new product called McCormick Stuffed Baked Potato Topping, maybe then I’ll try it on my salads and pasta.)

Here are all the potato halves, stuffed with that delicious cheesy mixture, sprinkled conservatively with the Salad Supreme, and lined up ready to go back into the oven. If you lean to the left politically, then you could be a liberal sprinkler. For the most part I’m a conservative sprinkler.

I then bake them at about 375 or 400 degrees (I can’t remember which) until they get hot all the way through, maybe about fifteen minutes or so. Then about five minutes before I’m ready to serve my Stuffed Baked Potatoes, I turn on the broiler and begin to watch them carefully. I want them to get just a little bit darker and start to bubble. You could let them get browner than this if you like – just keep an eye on them.

Above, I took them out and thought they needed another two minutes under the broiler. Here’s the final result below:

And they are all gone.

These also freeze really well, reheat really well, taste good the next day for leftovers, and some people even like them packed in their lunches.

How do you fix your Stuffed Baked Potatoes?

Sharon and I were talking about all the variations that would be good with these – bacon bits, broccoli, rosemary, and a few other things I can’t remember now. What else would you add to your Stuffed Baked Potatoes?

Let me know if you try them.  Have a wonderful week…

A Year of Nots

September 8, 2011 | My Jottings

(From the archives…)

First grade at Workman Avenue Elementary School was a year of nots for me.

I did not have a really close friend yet, so I spent recess time wandering around deep in my thoughts, talking to myself a little bit.

I did not like most foods, so spent lunch time in the cafeteria hoping others would offer me their peanut butter balls that came in the tiny paper cups. When it was time to go outside for lunch recess, I always took the mashed potatoes and hamburger gravy, peas, and cherry cobbler that I did not eat, walked to the cafeteria garbage can and threw them away. I also did not eat the fish sticks, the pizza, or the spaghetti and meatballs.

It wasn’t a concern because I was not that hungry. Abba Zabbas and cottage cheese were usually waiting at home if I was.

In first grade my hair did not have bangs. My mother always took an uncompromising moral stand against bangs. She believed little girls’ foreheads should be seen and not covered. And the rest of them covered and not seen. 

Consequently, one small drawer in my room was not lacking in a wide variety of plastic headbands.

I did not think I’d better chop off my hair right before picture day, like I did when I was in Kindergarten, here.

At age six, I began to be aware that my parents did not have a solid marriage. I felt this deeply and probably spent a lot of time walking around at recess begging God to please not let them split up.

In Southern California in 1963, I was miserable and petulant if I was not allowed to swim as often as possible.

I was not close to my older brother Steve, who regarded me as a pest he did not want to have around.

I did not see my oldest brother Larry enough, as he was twenty-one when I was six and did not live with us anymore.

I did not miss very many afternoon episodes of Mighty Mouse.

One afternoon during story time on the rug, my teacher Mrs. Weber asked the class if they believed in the devil. I was a Sunday School goin’ girl so said yes, and when I described to her what I thought he might look like, Mrs. Weber laughed and mildly snickered at me. I was a little embarrassed and did not like that. (Mrs. Weber was in her fifties then, so I do not think she’s alive today. I would imagine that no matter what side of the spiritual fence she ever came down on, she is not snickering about that topic now.)

My mother had a friend named Mary Wyles who did not ever miss a Wednesday visit at my house with my mom. They did crafts together and talked over the matters of their hearts.

I had a little red bike with training wheels and did not like it when it was stolen from our garage less than a year after I’d received it for Christmas.

In first grade I had not yet eaten anything green except celery and iceberg lettuce, had not had a nibble of cheese, or a taste of an egg.

When I was in first grade, I did not realize how wonderful it was to have a back yard with two nectarine trees, one apricot tree, one peach tree, one plum tree, and a lemon tree with fruit the size of oranges.

I did not know that two chocolate donuts mushed up in a bowl of whole milk was not a healthy breakfast. And apparently my parents did not realize this either.

I did not realize then how I could have been the poster child for Gummy Bears, but hindsight is everything. (Click on the photo for further confirmation.)

I did not know that twice-yearly trips to Disneyland was not the norm for other little boys and girls of the world.

In 1963 I did not have a clue that I would do better in school the following year.

I did not know that someday I would drink from a water fountain and not have the water run out of my nose.

In first grade I realized my mother had a slightly crippled foot (due to a botched spinal anesthetic), and that was why she sat in the car and did not go into the local Alpha Beta grocery store, and sent me in with a list and a check instead.

There was never a time when Knutsen Cottage Cheese was not on the list.

Right around this time I decided I would like to be a grocery checker (we didn’t call them cashiers) when I grew up, and not a nurse or a teacher after all.

Even at age six, I was not afraid of deep water.

I did not understand puns yet, and had no idea how humorous it was to have a dentist named Dr. Payne.

I did not know a lot of things.

What I also did not know when I was in first grade was that God was really there with me at all times. I did not know yet that He had made me and was going to see me through a lot of things in the coming years. I knew He loved me because my Sunday School teachers told me so, but I did not realize what kind of love and keeping that would turn out to be.

I did not know that He would save my life over and over again, and that He would not ever let me go.

I did not know that no matter how tied up in nots, Jesus can take any life and make His light and presence known in the deepest of darks.

Even today, I sometimes do not remember that this is His promise to His children.

During the year of nots, Jesus was there. He never left me.

He will not leave me now.

And He will not leave you.

Have you called out His name lately?

If not…why not?

A Sitting Ovation

September 7, 2011 | My Jottings

(From the archives…)

I’ve been thinking about thankfulness, and what it might mean to the Lord, and what effect it has on my life. When life is not going as expected, it sometimes takes an act of the will to be thankful, especially if you’re a person who usually sees the glass half-empty rather than half-full.

I am so very grateful for many things in my life. God has been good to me and I thank Him every day for the mercies and blessings He has poured out on my family. But I also know that when I’m overwhelmed or worried regarding one aspect of life, that lack of trust in Him unfortunately tends to overshadow the other areas that are going well. And then I find myself in a ditch, stuck and desperately needing to get back up on the road He has called me to.

A few years ago I was doing a Bible study with friends and the speaker talked about how she gives God standing ovations when He does something wonderful for her. She said she believes that if we make a big deal about something the Lord does for us, He might take note of our thankfulness and be apt to do something for us again. She also remarked on how when we give gifts, we’re so pleased when the recipient really likes what we’ve given and shows it, and how disappointing it is when we give to someone who shows little or no gratitude.

Well, I have been trying to hone my gratitude skills. A couple of days ago I learned something that made me experience a tiny shred of hope about something big I’m praying and trusting God for. It’s something that is absolutely impossible without God. In the natural, what I learned the other day wasn’t really all that huge, but I was not going to get caught being ungrateful. I had to run an errand right after this teensy bit of hopeful information came to me, and instead of just saying under my breath, “Thank you, Jesus” and letting it go at that, it occurred to me that maybe I could put a little more effort into my thanks for a change. That aforementioned Bible study came to my mind, and as I drove I began to clap my hands (mostly at stop signs and traffic lights) and thank God out loud for what He did. Pretty soon I was sobbing and applauding Him passionately and crying out to Him in praise and thanksgiving at the top of my lungs. I drove and clapped (carefully), steered and praised, crying out to Him for the longest time, that I had noticed! I saw the little thing that He did! I knew it was Him! And I was offering my best, loudest, most vigorous praise and thanks that I could give. I was truly overtaken with gratitude and wanted my Father to know it.

Now, I’m not entirely comfortable with really wild and loud public displays of praise and worship. I know this is my problem and I do not judge others who are free to express their feelings for the Lord in ways I probably never will. But by myself in the car the other day, I felt completely overcome with the desire to make a big deal out of even the (seemingly) smallest answer to prayer, and didn’t care a whit who might have seen me. I wanted the Lord to know how thankful I am for His help and love in my life and in the lives of those so close to my heart. 

Psalm 47:1 – Oh clap your hands, all ye peoples; Shout unto God with the voice of triumph!

I’m assuming that anyone reading this blog post is sitting at their computer. For what or whom can you give God a sitting ovation today? Do you dare clap your hands in gratitude for anything He’s done for you or given to you? How about for drinking water? Clap your hands! For healthy children? Clap your hands! Do you have one friend? Clap your hands all you people!

What do you thank Him for today? And tell us, did you really clap your hands?  :)

Neti Pot Basics

September 6, 2011 | My Jottings

(From the archives…)

If you know what a neti pot is, you probably either love them or they disgust you so thoroughly you gag when you hear the words neti pot even uttered.

For the few who might not know what a neti pot is, here is a photo and a definition:

Historically, neti pots were used in India, to assist in clearing the nasal passages. The neti pot was introduced to the West approximately thirty years ago, and today many people in the West have taken up a modified type of neti practice called Jala Neti (water neti) using a neti pot.

The use of a neti pot requires mixing up a saline solution that will be poured through the nasal passages. A typical saline solution is a mixture of around one pint of water with a teaspoon of salt. In modern times, saline nasal irrigation (SNI) has become more widely accepted as a home remedy to relieve conditions such as allergies (hay fever), colds and mild sinus infections.

If you’re curious you can see a demonstration of someone using a neti pot by clicking right here. Also essential to neti pot basics is keeping your neti pot clean.

Anyway, I know people who have used neti pots with great results, and I myself have used one; once I got over the initial feeling of drowning (which goes away after you’ve used it a couple of times and understand what’s happening to the water) I found the clear-breathing feeling afterward quite refreshing.

My son-in-law Jeremy has allergies and I thought he’d be a perfect candidate for a neti pot, so I bought him one. He used it now and then and did get relief.

Here comes the part of the story that is not for the faint of heart. In fact, if you gag easily you might want to just move on now to the next blog you planned on reading today.

Not long ago Jeremy felt like he was coming down with a sinus infection. Having used his neti pot in the past with good results, he decided to nip this issue in the bud and try irrigating his sinuses as a first line of defense.

When Carolyn found out that he had done this, she winced and said, “You probably don’t want to know where that neti pot has been.”

Oh dear. Guess where it had been?

Before I tell you that, I’ll show you the Neti Pot Culprit. This is 2 1/2 year old Audrey. She is the sweetest little girl. She loves to call Michael Bocka instead of Grandpa. She used to call me Backa instead of Grandma, but now she expertly says Grandma. So when she comes over, she runs into my arms and squeals to us both, “Hi Bocka! Hi Grandma!” Bocka and Grandma: not what I had thought we’d be called, but we’re good with it.

Audrey is an inquisitive, busy child who loves to explore. She likes to smear cold cream on upholstered furniture, enjoys breaking eggs by the dozen on the kitchen floor to see what they’ll feel like under bare feet, and thinks water is the funnest thing to splash and play in.

Audrey found Daddy’s neti pot and thought it would be so fun to scoop some water into it and pour it out on places in the house that badly needed watering.

But here’s where the Auds got the water to put in the neti pot:

Are you gagging yet? I truly hope not. I would hate to have my blog labeled The Blog That Makes People Gag.

But now you know what happened, don’t you? Jeremy used his neti pot to irrigate his sinuses, after Audrey had used it to scoop out some water from a place other than the sink. And in no time, Jeremy’s sinus infection got worse. Alarmingly worse. Ragingly worse. The infection quickly traveled up to his eyes, the appearance of which gave new meaning to the word bloodshot. Of course he saw a doctor. Thank God for antibiotics – he’s well now.

Audrey, Jeremy and the Neti Pot Adventure notwithstanding, have you ever used a neti pot? If so, what were the results?

“On the way to the zoo…”

September 5, 2011 | My Jottings

(From the archives…)

Have you ever been in God’s Waiting Room? I think most of us can identify with having been there at one time or another, when we’re praying and waiting and trusting that He will move His mighty arm and intervene in the people and situations close to our hearts. My husband and I considered ourselves nearly permanent residents in God’s Waiting Room as we prayed for a loved one for over twelve years. I lost hope more than a few times, but Michael never did, and God did move and did answer our prayers, and there isn’t enough praise on the earth to express the wonder and gratitude I have felt for His power and faithfulness in that situation.

But then along comes another trip to the waiting room, and instead of diligently calling to mind what God did in our lives while we waited on Him before, I am kicking at the walls and pounding on the door and wanting out, now. I’m tired, and don’t want to be here. I’m having a hard time remembering how God sustained us when we were here last. I think this new room is smaller and has fewer windows than the one we knew before. There also seems to be an electrical problem in this waiting room because the lights don’t always work. Sometimes I sit here in total blackness.

So a few months ago when I read an account about C. S. Lewis and his conversion to Christ, I was encouraged. I have long been a fan of Lewis. I think his work Mere Christianity could convince any person honestly seeking the truth about Jesus. And The Chronicles of Narnia will always be some of my most beloved books.

While I’ve read most of Lewis’s writings, I have yet to read Surprised by Joy, where this quote comes from. Lewis writes about how quickly and without notable fanfare he went from not believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, to believing that Jesus is the Son of God.

“I know very well when but hardly how the final step was taken. I went with my brother to have a picnic at Whipsnade Zoo. We started in fog, but by the end of our journey the sun was shining. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.”

C. S. Lewis was riding in the sidecar of a motorcycle, and while on the way to the zoo, he believed. And 20th and 21st century Christendom has been powerfully impacted because on the way to the zoo, Lewis believed.

So sometimes God does a magnificent work in a short time. Perhaps this stint in the waiting room might not take twelve years. Maybe not even twelve months. Only God knows. But what might happen if I keep praying and believing on the way to the grocery store? How might God move in the hearts of those I love as they load the dishwasher? What miracle might take place as they’re putting on their shoes?

If C. S. Lewis can quietly become a follower of Christ while riding in a motorcycle sidecar on the way to England’s Whipsnade Zoo, then God can certainly perform lasting and cosmic works in me and in those I love in a relatively short period of time. Of course I don’t know how long it will take for Him to do His work. His ways and thoughts are not my ways and thoughts. But I do know that He is good and He can be trusted. I don’t always keep that in the forefront of my mind…when I’m clawing at the walls of this waiting room and kicking at the door and screaming to get out, I guess I’m not patiently trusting Jesus and casting my burdens on Him as He wants me to do. But I’m trying. Some days are better than others.

In the meantime, I’m thinking of what happened to C. S. Lewis on the way to the zoo. And praying that God will do even more wondrous things for our families on the way to the grocery store. And on the way to the gas station. And on the way to work. And on the way to school. And on the way to bed. And on the way home…

Mr. Contreras

September 3, 2011 | My Jottings

(From the archives…)

They are the caterpillar years. Those awkward years between childhood and adulthood when we’re no longer the adorable little kids we once were, and aren’t yet the cool grownups we will be. The caterpillar years are often marked by growth spurts, acne and sudden (or perhaps I should say sullen) personality changes that make parents uneasy. Those years are often pivotal in people’s lives and I know more than one person who remembers the junior high school years as the time they made the choices that steered them toward success or failure in future years.

In the Midwest, children in the caterpillar stage attend what is called Middle School. Where I live now, Middle School used to mean seventh, eighth and ninth grades, then was changed several years ago to include fifth through eighth grades. In Southern California it was called Junior High School, and when I attended, it meant just seventh and eighth grades.

At Traweek Junior High School, I experienced a lot of firsts. It was the first time we moved from classroom to classroom for our different subjects. It was the first time I had a locker. It was the first time we had P.E. (Physical Education) and had to change our clothes for it. It was the first time I went to a school dance. And because several elementary schools fed into this junior high school, it was the first time I was in classes where I didn’t know most of the other kids.

I also remember every single one of my teachers. In Kindergarten, Mrs. Staton played the piano and daily gave us graham crackers and a small carton of milk. I remember that in first grade, Mrs. Weber tsk-tsked at me and gave me a C in Deportment. In second grade Mrs. Lokken taught me to say “Rabbit!” and told my father at parent conferences that I had real potential. He told me, and I thought maybe things would be okay after all. In third grade, one of our fifty weekly spelling words was our pretty teacher’s last name: Giauque. In fourth grade, Mrs. Migdal taught us how to make dioramas to illustrate books we read. In fifth grade, Mrs. Rorex kindly let me wear a pair of her shoes when mine got drenched on the way to school as I walked through the dew-soaked soccer field. In sixth grade Miss Curry taught us about poise by example and Venezuela by text.

In seventh grade, when I wasn’t even aware that over the summer I had turned into a caterpillar, I had several teachers: Mr. Wade, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Rose, Mr. Neely, Mrs. Kiger (who taught P.E. and weighed and measured us all the first week – I was 5’7″ and 95 pounds) and Mr. Boyd. We had left off our beloved hopscotch and turned to hanging in the halls in what we thought were cool clumps. The days of playing foursquare faded into days of figuring out how to wear eye makeup and how to dance to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and look like we’d been born doing it.

By the eighth grade, I knew girls who “went steady” with new boys every couple of weeks, but I was getting taller and ganglier, and I was never one of them. I remember a boy I had a crush on from a distance, and how blissful I thought life would be if he would cast a glance my way. In the wisdom that comes from hindsight I can see that if my prayers had been answered about him, I would probably have ended up a motorcycle mama or at the very least a disillusioned and lonely young woman.

Enter Mr. Fred Contreras. In eighth grade he was my teacher for two classes each day – English and Social Studies. I was surrounded by brilliant students who could do advanced math in their heads and probably went to M.I.T. and are now wearing pocket protectors and working for NASA. I was just a tall, freckled and skinny thirteen year-old who liked swimming and books, in that order. School had largely been a pleasant experience for me and I had done fairly well, but Mr. Contreras was a different kind of teacher, and broadened my little world in a way that still plays out thirty-eight years later.

Perhaps the most striking thing about having Mr. Contreras as a teacher during those angst-laden caterpillar years, was that he treated us with respect and without a hint of condescension. Last time I checked, junior high school students were in the running for the most annoying humans on the planet, but an observer in Mr. Contreras’s classroom wouldn’t have gotten that vibe from him. I’m sure each morning he looked out at the blase, pimply-faced, short-skirted group of us and saw an ungainly bunch of caterpillars, but I also think he saw what we could become. He knew we were in transition and these were hard years for many of us. But he also knew we were capable of a lot and that someone needed to ask us to step to the plate. He did, and we stepped up.

His was not a classroom where crowd control was needed. Author Frank McCourt wrote that his first momentous words uttered as a teacher were “Stop throwing sandwiches!” In his whole career as an educator I doubt if Mr. Contreras ever had to issue that command. His serious, quiet manner carried an air of authority that we understood meant we were there to learn.

We read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (out loud) and Steinbeck, and suddenly Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew seemed like cartoon characters in comparison. I still like the older Nancy Drew books, but back in eighth grade I recall thinking, “Does he expect us to actually get this stuff?” He did expect us to get it, and with his help, we did.

We all sensed that he cared about us as human beings. Our class loved and respected Mr. Contreras so much that when we found out the date of his birthday, we all conspired with his wife Kathy on how to surprise him with a classroom party. Taking donations so we could purchase for him the six-inch thick The Complete Works of Shakespeare was effortless – every student wanted to give. We all signed our names inside the front cover, to convey to him that the way he had treated us and taught us, really meant something. We also learned that he liked the song “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” so gave him a CCR record. We might have been just another class of thirteen year-olds to him, but he was not just another teacher to us.

After many years passed I started teaching my three daughters at home, and I pondered how much books had impacted our lives. I wrote a letter to Mr. Contreras about what a wonderful teacher he had been. I often think nice things about people and fail to tell them; I decided not to go that route with him. Since then we have exchanged e-mails and occasional phone calls, and now that I’m fifty-one I guess I should call him Fred. It doesn’t roll off the tongue easily, because I still think of him as Mr. Contreras.

When my father died in late 2007 my husband and I flew back to California to attend his funeral, and we were so grateful to also be able to have dinner with Fred and his wife Kathy.

We check in with each other now and then, and still talk about what we’re reading. Fred is retired now, is still married to Kathy, and is the father of three grown children. He and Kathy have a granddaughter they delight in. He fights the same disease my husband does – Parkinson’s – and he’s been an encouragement and help in freely sharing about his journey with us.

I don’t think my metamorphosis from those awkward caterpillar years has resulted in me becoming a butterfly – I’m more of a moth sort of woman. I’m not a spectacular specimen and I do a lot of unnecessary and unproductive fluttering around. But I am attracted to light, and spend most of my days wanting to draw close to the One who called Himself the Light of the world.

Once in a while a marvelous teacher steps into our lives. I have had excellent teachers throughout the years, in school buildings and in the school of life, but Fred Contreras is the one who stands out in my memory the most. If you asked him he would probably modestly claim to only have been doing his job, but for me he did more than that. He let us know he cared. He opened a door for us to an amazing world of literature. He looked at us and paid attention when we spoke. He treated us like the people he knew we could be, not the insecure geeks we thought we were. He was a pretty serious man, so when he smiled or laughed we noticed and took it in.

When I graduated from eighth grade at Traweek Junior High School I asked Mr. Contreras to sign my yearbook. In keeping with who he was, he wrote (in strong and beautiful handwriting) a short but sincere and very encouraging note to me, which I cherished and half-dared to believe. He made me feel like I could really succeed at whatever I put my hands to.

There are still things I would like to do before I die, but some days I really doubt that I’ll ever be able to accomplish them. Then I think of Fred. And I can still picture him standing at the front of that Southern California classroom, looking out at all of us and fully expecting us to succeed.

I’m so thankful to be able to share about Mr. Contreras. Everyone should be blessed with a teacher like him.

W. W. G.

September 2, 2011 | My Jottings

(From the archives…)

We’ve had a tradition in our family for almost two years now, and it has a name. We call it W. W. G., which stands for Wednesdays With Grandma.

Each Wednesday, I pick up seven year-old Clara and six year-old Elijah after school and bring them back to our house. Ever the germphobe, I first have them wash the gajillion elementary school micro-organisms from their hands when they come in the back door, then they have a snack at the kitchen table and tell me about their day. Typical snacks at Grandpa and Grandma’s house are: mozzarella cheese sticks, a handful of peanuts mixed with raisins, raw almonds and Carr’s whole wheat “cookie crackers,” bananas and baby carrots, or Greek gods honey yogurt. I also give them each a glass of water and a Flintstone’s vitamin. Elijah chooses orange and Clara grape.

Then they both settle in to their favorite things to do here. Elijah usually heads for the Legos and starts putting together swords, robots and Star Wars light sabers. Clara might take out a book that she’s read five times already but still enjoys. Last week it was Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary. Elijah will sometimes take out a large illustrated version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, lay on his stomach on the den carpet and slowly page through the drawings he’s seen a hundred times. Last time he pointed out the fox in the woods that he thought was a spy for the dark side, and the faces in some of the Narnian forest trees. Sometimes they both open the Grandchildren Drawer in the kitchen to take out their art supplies, and Elijah draws comics and Clara an illustrated game or journal. Once in a while they play checkers or Battleship while PBS kids TV is on. They like Curious George and Arthur.

After about an hour it’s time for Clara to change into her leotard and tights, and I drive her to dance class. Elijah stays with Grandpa and they have man time. Clara takes a backpack with her pink ballet shoes and her black tap shoes, and when I drop her off inside the studio, I then collect four year-old Vivienne, who is in the class right before Clara’s. I drive Vivienne home to her house, and remind her that when she is six it will be time for her to join W. W. G.  Then I return home and put the finishing touches on dinner.

Michael and I set the table and get everything ready. On Wednesday we have seven people at the table for dinner so we add a chair. Then I head out again, this time to pick Clara up from her dance lesson. She and I listen to a G.T. and the Halo Express CD in the van on the short ride home, and it brings a joy to my heart that I can’t describe, hearing her pure little voice singing many scripture passages set to music. “Grandma, maybe I should test you on the verses sometime soon, and help you with the ones you forgot!” she said recently, and I told her I thought that was a fantastic idea.

When we get home I serve everyone dinner and we eat together. Clara and Elijah always remind us to pray before we dig in, and everyone in our household enjoys the company of the little ones. They help us to laugh and chat about fun things while we enjoy eat one of my crockpot creations and a green salad.

Clara and Elijah are usually the first ones to finish eating (it doesn’t take long to eat two lettuce leaves and a tablespoon of chicken and rice casserole), and they know it’s time to pick up the toys and get ready for church. I take them to our church’s Wednesday night services, where something for every age is offered. It’s usually packed. Clara attends the little girls’ Prims class, and Elijah goes to Royal Rangers. They both love it. I sign them in and then go upstairs for prayer and worship, where I’m thankful for the darkened sanctuary and the music that leads me away from thoughts of things that weigh on my heart, and instead nudges me to thoughts of my God and His love and delivering power and willingness to help us as we walk out our puny lives. I take a purse-full of Kleenex and use it all up.

By the time church is over it’s already past the kids’ bedtime, but I figure W. W. G. is so special it’s okay if they miss an hour or two of sleep once a week. We leave church and as we drive home Clara and Elijah tell me about Royal Rangers and Prims and what they learned. And what candy they ate. When we arrive home they trot upstairs to get ready for a bath while I tend to things I need to do for those we care for in our home.

Upstairs when the huge tub is filled and ready, Clara and Elijah take a short bath and play with the small bin of toys I keep in our linen closet – there’s a tail-less brontosaurus named Bronto, a lime green tugboat, a plastic pirate, some large jacks, and a funnel, among other things. I put in a teeny bit of LOC from Amway (my favorite product by that company) and turn on the jets, and soon the bubbles are puffing up to their shoulders. They make hairstyles, beards, and bubble cakes while I read aloud to them. Right now we’re reading Stormy, Misty’s Foal by Marguerite Henry. Soon I wash their hair, drain the tub and go turn on the electric baseboard heater in our bedroom. I put two pairs of clean underwear and four socks on the top of the heater so after they dry off from their bath, they’ll put on something really toasty. They never fail to smile and remark about this. “Grandma, my socks are so warm on my feet!”

While they’re putting on their jammies, I prepare the pallet on the floor of our bedroom they like to sleep on. We have room in other bedrooms, but they prefer the pallet. I lay down a large blanket, doubled. I put two pillows down, one on each end, so they sleep foot to foot. Once they’re dressed they put on their slippers and we go back downstairs for a snack (because they usually don’t eat a lot of dinner due to the fact it had lettuce or tomatoes or wrinkle-your-nose “sauce” in it). They might have half a peanut butter sandwich, or a cheese stick with a handful of almonds. Then they brush their teeth at the kitchen sink, and give Grandpa a hug and a kiss goodnight.

Back upstairs, Clara and Elijah choose a book from the children’s bookcases in our dressing room, and they settle in for the night on their pallets. I turn on some soft classical music. I make a big show of covering them first with “the applesauce blanket,” which is a pale yellow Vellux blanket they like. Then I cover them with a down-filled comforter and they smile as it settles down on them. They know they have about ten to fifteen minutes to look through their books. Elijah often chooses a children’s Bible with unique illustrations, and Clara last chose The Seven Silly Eaters.

When they start to get sleepy, which is in no time at all, they set their books aside and we recount the things we’ve done together that day. None of it is that momentous, but we recite aloud what we did anyway. It’s a way to try to hold on to the preciousness of ordinary things done with these children I adore, and they seem to grasp why we do it.

Sometimes I tell them what I think they might be when they grow up. Elijah, who is an amazing puzzle worker and Lego builder, hears from his grandma that he will be a problem solver when he is older. I take him on my lap and quietly tell him that God might use him to build up, either buildings or people, that he might be called to help others solve things they’re struggling with, to help make sense out of puzzling and difficult situations. He looks at me tenderly as I try to bless him with my feeble words, and he seems to be taking it all in like a sponge. Then he looks into my eyes and quietly says, “I don’t like your breath.”

I tell Clara that perhaps she will write and/or draw someday and people will want to read her thoughts and ideas. I tell her that she is so patient and loving with her little sisters and is such a fine example to them. I tell her that when she’s older, Elijah and Vivienne and Audrey will recall what a wonderful big sister they’ve had, and that the way she treats them now will pave the way for loving and beautiful relationships when they’re all grown up with families of their own. I tell Clara that God will use her to bring peace and joy into peoples’ lives, and that she’s already doing that, even though she may not fully understand what I mean.

Then I might sing a song or two to them. They like “Jesus Wants You For a Sunbeam” and “The Life of the Voyageur” and “Victory in Jesus.” When Clara was three she often requested the latter song by saying, “Gwamma, will you sing ‘Bic-ta-wee in Jesus?’ ”

I then pray briefly and ask God to give them deep sleep, good dreams, and for Him to keep His hands steady upon them their whole lives, to keep them close to Him and loving Him with their whole hearts. They might not know all that this entails, and I might not know it either, but God does. I’m so thankful He can read our hearts when our words fail.

Within minutes they’re fast asleep, and I slip back downstairs to take care of tasks still calling my name. I clean the kitchen, visit with others as I get medications ready, talk with them about what the next day might hold for them, ask them about what they’d like to do for the coming weekend, etc. My dear husband might rub my feet and scratch the grooves left in my ankles from my SmartWool socks, which is a little bit of heaven for me. Before we both head upstairs for the night, I make sure everyone in the house is fine and tucked in or has everything they need. I lock the doors, turn out the lights, turn down the furnace.

Each Thursday morning when we get up there’s a lot to do. I lay out clothes for Clara and Elijah, quietly wake them up and tell them I’ll see them downstairs when they’re dressed. Then I go down, still in my exceedingly attractive red plaid flannel nightgown, to turn up the heat, begin making lunches, setting out medications, making each person a different breakfast, feeding the dogs and making sure they go out, and more. I might even throw in a load of laundry right away. Clara and Elijah always come down with sleepy smiles on their faces. They like to have Maple Pecan Crunch cereal for breakfast, and I always put a small handful of fresh pecans on top.

Once they’re dressed in their school clothes, we turn on the television for a few minutes while I do Clara’s hair, which is very long. Mostly I put it in a French braid. They brush their teeth again, I give them each a small snack to take to school with them, and they make sure they have their backpacks before they put on their coats, gloves and shoes.

Clara and Elijah usually take the bus, but on W. W. G. I drive them the six blocks to their school. In the few minutes it takes, I remind them that it won’t be long before the next Wednesday With Grandma, and that I’ll be thinking of them and praying for them every single day. When we pull up in front of the school with many buses, cars, crossing guards and children bustling around, I hop out to slide open the van door for a last hug.

“I love you! Jesus is with you today!” I whisper in Clara’s ear and in Elijah’s ear as I kiss them goodbye and watch them both run off to the front door of the big brick building.

I drive the six blocks home, wiping tears and blowing my nose and praying for all seven of my grandchildren, not just for the two that are old enough and near enough to have W. W. G.

Wednesdays With Grandma.

Who knew a day in the middle of the week could mean so much?

Words Pack a Wallop!

September 1, 2011 | My Jottings

(From the archives…)

I’ve said before that while growing up, my favorite thing in the whole world was to swim. I grew up in Southern California, and many families there had built-in swimming pools in their back yards, but my family didn’t have one until I was a teen. During the early years of my life I had to wait to be invited to a friend’s house to swim.

One hot summer day when I was about ten years old, a neighborhood friend named Jackie invited me and my good friend Christy over to enjoy her pool. We did back dives and front flips off the diving board, we turned pale and wrinkled from the chlorinated water, we coughed from the mixture of smog in the air and bleach in our lungs, but I didn’t care – to me it was all a magical concoction of what made a perfect day.

After a couple of hours of fun, I noticed Jackie whispering to Christy, and later found out that she had invited Christy to spend the night at her house, excluding me. I was hurt, but I went home thankful I had been able to swim. Several days later when I was invited to Jackie’s house again, I decided to be bold and ask her why she had asked Christy to spend the night and not me too. Jackie wasn’t an unkind girl, but she was serious and rather forthright for her age. I saw her wince as she considered what to answer me, and these were the words she spoke:  “Julie, you’re dull.”

If ever a word packed a wallop, that one did. Deep inside I thought it might be true – I knew I wasn’t one of those exciting little girls who had swarms of people around her all the time – but I had never heard someone describe me as dull, and as that word reverberated in my head, I began to think of ways to liven myself up, ways to become more exciting or entertaining. I thought I was going to have to tap dance, juggle or tightrope walk in order to keep people from thinking I was dull.

But somehow over the years God kept me from truly attempting to change my personality. He brought other people into my life who liked me the ho-hum way that I was. Nevertheless, that word packed a wallop in my young heart and soul and occasionally I fought the thought that I had to entertain people in order to interest them. When I had matured a bit I was able to let go of that false way of thinking. Lucky for all of my friends that each time we’re together they haven’t been subjected to waving pompoms, trick roller skating, or quickly constructed balloon animals. When I began to understand more about who I am in Christ, the word “dull” gradually lost its power and I could look upon that memory of Jackie with a smile.

Proverbs 18:21 says:  “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

This is a strong verse, but I have seen firsthand how my own words have walloped others, and I have cried bitter tears over careless things that have slipped out of my mouth. I am sick and tired of bringing death with my words, and want to bring life. Even when a negative report is called for, I know it can be brought with words of life.

I read that the average person spends one-fifth of his or her life talking. Are you 50 years old? Quite possibly, you’ve spent ten years talking. If all our words were put into print, the result would be this:  a single day’s words would fill a 50-page book, while in a year’s time the average person’s words would fill 132 books of 200 pages each. Among all those words there are bound to be some spoken in anger, carelessness, or haste, just the very situations Proverbs cautions us against. Someone wrote, “Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

James 3:2-6: We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.

Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.

Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

A contemporary example of the tongue being a destroying fire and a deadly poison, is Adolf Hitler. I read that for every word in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, (which means “My Struggle”) 125 people died during World War II. One hundred twenty-five deaths for every one word. Speech can be a matter of life and death.

In my family during my youth, I saw and experienced the damage that an untamed tongue can inflict on people. There were also many kind, encouraging and life-giving words spoken in our home, but somehow the negative words always seem to pack the biggest wallops, don’t they?

My friend Jackie uttered those walloping words to me over 40 years ago, and I still remember them, but they no longer have any power over me and don’t hurt a bit. In fact, I’m inclined to agree with her. But I don’t feel that need to be someone other than who the Lord created me to be. If I’m not the most sparkling, sanguine person in the room, I’m okay with that. Fuddy-dud works for me. I honestly don’t feel the need to juggle or tap dance or liven myself up anymore. :)

These days I’m learning to hearken to the powerful words of Someone Else, and He’s not telling me that I’m dull. (Okay, He’s not telling me I’m scintillating either). His words do pack a great wallop, but for my good and for His glory.

He is telling me that I’m loved with an everlasting love. He’s telling me I’m worth dying for. He’s telling me I need His discipline in my life. He’s telling me I can find all I need at His feet, and that I will never find a friend like Him. He’s telling me that my careless words and many other sins give me a desperate need for a Savior. He’s telling me that He is that Savior.

Could you believe that He’s telling you the very same things?

Truly one of the hardest things in life for me, is to not blurt out a complaint, a worry, or an observation that might be too harsh for the hearer. But I am thankful for opportunities to change.

This morning I woke to find my heart still beating and my lungs drawing breath. That must mean there’s still hope. Like David did, I’m asking the Lord to daily create a clean heart in me, so that the words that are produced there are life-giving words. I want my words to bring warmth and life to my husband, to my children and grandchildren, to my friends, and even to the stranger who crosses my path. I want to speak words that flow out and bring to others encouragement and truth, light and hope. Words that pack a wonderful wallop, and are remembered for years afterward, because they brought life…

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