Valentine’s Day Gift Guide

I have never studied the love languages (I should do that, I know), but even without reading the book and studying it, I can tell you that my love language is gifts. I LOVE giving people gifts and will literally seek out occasions to do so. It should come as no surprise that I am all about celebrating little holidays like Valentine’s Day whenever I can buy giving people cute gifts. I’ve rounded up some of my favorite gift ideas in this post.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you shop through these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

I tried to give a few options for kids, guys, and girls in the selections I made. Most of these items are available from Amazon (I checked to make sure shipping was available by Valentine’s Day), but I also included some small businesses that are local to Tuscaloosa.

  1. Rush Hour Logic Game – Jack loves playing a similar game to this on my phone, so I am getting him this game so he can still have the same challenge with less screen time.
  2. Green Toys Fire Plane – My boys are OBSESSED with the movie Planes Fire and Rescue right now, so this fire plane is perfect for them. I also love anything by Green Toys. They are made from recycled materials and are super sturdy and hold up great. My boys have tons of different toys from this company and they are all in perfect condition after hours and hours of play (even being in the sandbox).
  3. Leap Frog 100 Words Book – I got this book for my niece for Christmas and she loves it! It is perfect for toddlers who are just learning to talk and for older kids who are learning to read.
  4. LED Flashlight Gloves – Jeff is constantly working on some kind of project for me, and he loves flashlights, so I thought these would be a funny, but also useful, gift for him.
  5. Personalized Pocket Knife – Order by Feb. 5th for delivery by Valentine’s Day! Jeff has this exact knife that we got him for Father’s Day last year (I think). It is a great size and the engraving looks awesome.
  6. Oontz Angle Waterproof Speaker – This is a perfect gift for your hubby or for a teenager. We have one and love that it is super portable. It also sounds great, especially for a speaker at this price point.
  7. Earring Set for Teen Girls – I gave this set to my cousin’s little girl, who is a pre-teen, as a Christmas gift. I love that the set comes with multiple pairs of earrings and I love the rose gold and silver metal colors.
  8. Bounce Battle Game – We have the original Bounce Off game and love it. The Bounce Battle game takes the challenge to another level and it great for all ages of players.
  9. The Office or FRIENDS themed coffee mug – This is the perfect gift for a coworker or friend.
  10. Monogrammed Stationary – You can customize the colors and fonts on this set to make it perfect for the person you want to gift it to. These would be great for a new bride or newly engaged person who has new initials and will need to be writing lots of thank you notes for shower gifts.
  11. Snap N Strain Strainer – If you have a friend who loves to cook, this little contraption is the best and they will love you forever for introducing it to them.
  12. Skinnytaste Cookbook – My mom has this cookbook and I have had it on my wish list forever. It has super yummy recipes and the photography in the book is gorgeous. This would be perfect for anyone who loves to cook.
  13. Valentine’s Day Tea Towel – Tea towels make super cute gifts when paired with a favorite candy or even a Starbucks giftcard.
  14. Dainty Gold Necklace – I love how dainty this necklace is. It will go with everything.

I love supporting small businesses when I can, so I have also linked some of my favorite shops in Northport and Tuscaloosa if you are local.

  • Jennaration Boutique – This boutique carries cute clothes, shoes, and accessories.
  • Wildcat Nutrition – I swore I wasn’t going to be one of those people who got addicted to these nutrition shakes, but I have to admit that they are good. I sometimes stop by here for a quick breakfast or lunch shake. The staff is super friendly, and they offer gift cards!
  • Udderly Joyful Soapworks – I found this soap at the Tuscaloosa River Market. The soaps are made with goat’s milk and they smell amazing. They are our favorite soaps to use.
  • Hudson-Poole Fine Jewelers – This is my favorite jewelry store in town. Jeff and I got our wedding bands here. The people who run the store are super nice and helpful, and they have a great selection of jewelry at all different price points.
  • Expeditions – This is where Jeff almost always goes to get my gifts for any occasion (usually on the day of the occasion – gifts is NOT his love language). They have clothing and accessories, and a few years ago he got me a great wallet/keychain that I love and still use every single day.
  • Clayfully Unique – My coworker recently started this jewelry shop and makes the cutest earrings. You can find her shop on Facebook or Instagram. Look how cute these earrings are:

Of course, I love getting the boys in on the action when it comes to gifts, and I found some really cute free printables that you can print out and let your kids color and pass out as fun little Valentine’s Day happy gifts for friends or teachers:

I hope you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day!

The Best of January 2021

After the year we all had in 2020, I decided it was definitely time to focus (there’s that word again – get ready to see it a lot this year) on the positive in 2021. Each month, I’m planning to share a favorites post where I include random things that have made me smile or that I have found and loved during the month. I think this will be a really fun post each month and hope that you will share some of your favorites in the comments as well!

Songs I’ve been listening to on repeat:

Books I loved this month:

  • Praying Through The Bible for Your Kids – I saw this book mentioned on Instagram and immediately bought it. I love that it leads you in reading through the Bible in a year, which I have actually never done before. For each day’s Bible reading, there is a short devotion and prayer to pray over your children. I have loved it so much that I bought a second one for Jeff to have so we can read through it together. If you don’t already have a daily devotional, I highly recommend this one!
  • All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg – I am a sucker for Southern writers (wonder why?). I have read lots of articles by Bragg in the past, and I honestly can’t believe that I just now picked up this book by him, but I absolutely loved it. I probably drove Jeff nuts while I was reading it because I was constantly finding lines I loved and texting them to him (that kind of thing is normal when you marry an English teacher, by the way). If you are from the South, I definitely think you will love this book. If you aren’t from the South (bless your heart), it will make you wish you were.

My most popular recipe this month:

Exciting things happening around Blueberry Hill:

  • We signed Jack up for K4 this month! I can’t believe my first baby is about to be old enough to actually go to real school, but he is excited. We will find out if he gets chosen for the class (it is a lottery system) in a few months, but we are hoping and praying he gets in!
  • We also signed Jack up for t-ball this month! The season will start in March and we are SO EXCITED! This is one of those things I was most looking forward to when we found out we were having a boy and I hope he loves playing.

Best purchases of the month:

  • We combined some Christmas gift cards with a great rebate deal on Amazon and got a Eufy robot vacuum at the beginning of January, and it has definitely been one of our best purchases. We got it to replace our old robot vacuum, which we had for two years and was completely worn out. Since every robot vacuum needs a name, we named our first one Robo Kitty (since we have pet cats and it was like a third pet running around on the floor) and we have kept that name for the Eufy. One thing we absolutely love about the Eufy is how quiet it is. With our other robot vacuum, we usually turned it on as we were leaving the house in the morning because it was so loud and we didn’t want it running while we were home, but with the Eufy, we can turn it on pretty much anytime. We like to run it at night after the boys go to bed and it is quiet enough that it doesn’t disturb them or us.
  • This might be a little technical and be behind-the-scenes info that nobody asked for or cares about, but I got a new plug-in for the blog this month that allows me to make my recipes much easier for you to access, save, and print out. I’m in the process of updating all my old posts to use this recipe card feature, and I’m basically geeking out every time I update one and see how it looks when it is published. I hope you love the new format as much as I do, and I hope this makes it easier for you to find and use my recipes in the future.

Some favorite moments from this month:

In Focus: Finding Blessings and Avoiding Bitterness

Do you ever have a day when you kind of get down on yourself and feel like you’re just not doing a very good job? I think it’s a pretty normal thing for most people, but I especially seem to second guess myself and worry that I’m not doing things right since I became a mom. Yesterday was one of those days for me, and despite the fact that I know I am doing the best I can and that my kids are overall happy and healthy, I was feeling like I didn’t quite measure up. Of course, the last place a person should go when feeling that way is social media (where I feel like we do nothing but compare ourselves to others), but when I did have a quiet moment alone, that’s where I went.

That’s when I saw a post on Facebook shared by Her View From Home. I typically love their articles, but in this particular one, the writer was having a pity party about how hard motherhood is. Something about it didn’t sit well with me, but I figured I was just having a bad day and tried to move on. As I went about my day, the article kept coming back to my mind. There was just something about it that I couldn’t get out of my head. The writer seemed so unhappy, and sounded especially bitter towards her husband because she claimed he didn’t help her with the baby. I’m not trying to judge the writer of the article, because I know that motherhood is hard. I know that sometimes you just need to vent, which is basically what her article was, and I also don’t know her actual situation. However, as I kept going back in my mind and thinking about the article, which was titled “Dear Husband, I am Not Superwoman,” I wondered if her husband actually asked or expected her to be Superwoman in the first place or if that was an expectation she placed on herself.

I think often women, and especially mothers, tend to place ridiculous expectations on ourselves. We are afraid to ask for help because we WANT to look like we are Superwoman. We WANT to have it all together. We WANT to be great wives and mothers and businesswomen. We keep filling up our own plates, and then we are upset when it gets to be too much to handle. We often act like that if we took a break the world would stop spinning. That kind of mindset makes us feel important, but at the same time it leads to burnout, disappointment, and bitterness towards others who don’t recognize our struggle to keep up and help us (even though we never ask for help).

The more I thought about it, I felt a pricking in my heart. I’ve been guilty of feeling just like the woman in that article. I have had bitter thoughts about my husband sleeping (or trying to sleep – our kids were LOUD) while I was up with a fussy baby in the middle of the night. I’ve been guilty of trying to do too much and causing myself to be overwhelmed and irritable and then lashing out in anger towards my husband. I’ve been guilty of looking at the greatest blessings of my life and feeling burdened by having to get up one more time or fill one more sippy cup or pick up one more toy or clean up one more mess. I know that it is natural to get frustrated, and it is easy to let that frustration turn into bitterness, especially when it is coupled with the exhaustion of early motherhood and the constant comparison trap of social media.

This morning, as I was getting ready for work, my mind went to a story I recently read in my Bible study of Genesis. Abram is introduced in Genesis 11:29, and one of the first things we are told about him and his wife Sarai is, “But Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30). Shortly after that, God makes a promise to Abram: “And I will make thee a great nation…” (Genesis 12:2). The man and woman with no child receive a promise that they will have a family – that a great nation will come from their household. The next few chapters follow Abram and Sarai as they follow where God leads them, and despite God’s promise, they don’t have a child. In chapter 16, Sarai decides to take things into her own hands and gives Abram her servant, Hagar, to be his wife so she can have a child for him. This was a sin, and both Abram and Sarai knew it. They took matters into their own hands instead of trusting God, and Ishmael was born. He was destined to be “a wild man” who would never be at peace with those around him (Genesis 16:12). Abram now had a son (but not the one God had promised him), but he also had a sad, disappointed, and bitter wife.

Sarai had tried to be Superwoman. She wanted to give Abram a son. She wanted to fix the problem, but she did it her own way and then it didn’t live up to her expectations and she ended up feeling worse than she felt before. She was irritable and bitter (the Bible says that Sarai “dealt harshly” with Hagar – so she took her anger and bitterness out on the servant who had no control over her situation in the first place). See, Sarai was so focused on what wasn’t going right and what she didn’t have, that she was missing out on all the blessings God was pouring out on her household. Abram was communing with God, praising God for what He was going to do in their lives (see Genesis 15), and Sarai was miserable because she was plotting and planning and trying to fix something that was never hers to fix in the first place. Her expectations of how and when she should give Abram a son didn’t line up with her reality, and she let her frustration with that lead her to sin.

Despite Sarai’s sin, God still blessed her with a son. He changed Abram’s name, which meant “high father” to Abraham, which means “father of multitudes,” and he changed Sarai’s name, which meant “my princess” to Sarah, which means “the princess of many nations” and he gave them a son they named Isaac. Their family became a great nation, and Jesus himself was one of their descendants. God was faithful and kept His promise to them. He is still faithful and He still keeps his promises today.

But, when God came to visit Abraham and Sarah to tell them that it was time and they would have a child, do you know what Sarah’s response was? She laughed (Genesis 18:12). Her laugh was not a laugh of joy, like Abraham’s laugh when God told him that Sarah would have a child in Genesis 17:17, but her laugh was one of bitterness and disbelief. She thought she was too old to have a child. She had let herself become guarded and bitter. She didn’t even believe it could happen anymore.

All that got me thinking…how often do we let our unrealistic expectations lead to bitterness? How often do we hold up the image of how we think something is supposed to be and then get upset when our reality falls short? How often are we so focused on the ways our expectations aren’t being met that we miss out on the blessings that are right in front of us?

Last night was tough. Henry is sick, and he was fighting sleep like a champ. I was exhausted, and honestly, starting to get a little irritable as I tried to rock him to sleep. But then I heard Jeff and Jack laughing from the bathroom where Jeff was finishing up giving Jack a bath, and once again, I felt something prick at my heart. While I was sitting there, feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, my husband was having a great time laughing with my son. He was enjoying his time with him instead of worrying about rushing through it to get to something else. He was laughing with joy, like Abraham, while I was in the nursery starting to feel bitter thinking that every other one-year-old in the world goes to bed before 9:00 and that I must be a bad mother since I don’t have my kids on a schedule and that I was just so tired…

I read a lot of comments on that article I mentioned earlier. Lots of them were mean. Some people were mom-shaming the woman for not having her baby on a schedule, some were telling her to leave her no-good husband, and some were even comparing their lives to hers and telling her to toughen up because what she was calling hard didn’t sound hard to them. What would I say to that mom? I would tell her that I understand. I would tell her that I’ve been there. And then, I would ask her why she thinks she needs to be Superwoman in the first place. I would try to gently remind her that we aren’t designed to be able to do it all – that we are made to depend on each other and that it is okay to ask for help. I would remind her that men aren’t mind readers (and they also aren’t always that smart – see Genesis 16:2 where Abram went along with Sarai’s stupid plan) and that she needs to communicate with her husband and tell him what she needs. I would let her know that her worth is not defined by what she accomplishes in a day, and when she feels tired and weary, she can find rest in the arms of Jesus (Jeremiah 31:25).

My takeaway from that article and my own bad attitude yesterday is that I can’t allow my slight disappointments and frustrations and failures to live up to my ridiculous, Instagram-Influencer-worthy expectations make me bitter. Motherhood is hard, but it is also an honor and a gift from God. I don’t want to miss the blessings of it because I’m focused on every little thing that hasn’t gone my way.

My word for 2021 is focus, remember? I’m trying to focus on the blessings and not let my expectations of the way I thought my life would or should be cause me to miss out on this beautiful life God has blessed me with.

The Bonus Merchant

My students are currently doing some research on Zora Neale Hurston, who is one of my favorite writers. I never read anything by Hurston until I was in college, and I instantly fell in love with her style of storytelling. I felt like this would be a great time to revisit this older post, where I shared a short story that I wrote when I was in college. Here’s the original post from September 23, 2016:

When I was in college, I actually earned two degrees – one in English and one in Creative Writing. I needed the English degree so I could teach, so it’s the degree that is hanging on my wall, but I was most interested in writing and was going to school on a Creative Writing Scholarship, so I took all the classes to complete the Creative Writing program as well. This story is one that I wrote my junior year of college. I was studying African American Literature that semester and loved the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. She was a master at using dialect in her stories, and I loved how it made her characters so realistic and relatable. I was inspired by her use of dialect to write this story. The local radio station in my hometown did actually have a Bonus Merchant just like in this story, and my grandfather used to tell about hearing a woman respond to the radio’s call just like Ivie does in my story. I have always listened to the story and laughed, but after reading Hurston’s stories of everyday life in the South, I was inspired to think about what kind of woman would actually answer that way and why she might do it. I had so much fun creating the character of Ivie Bridges, and I hope you enjoy reading about her!

I was able to go present this story at the Mississippi Philological Association meeting at Mississippi State University in 2014, and it won first place in my campus writing competition and was published in our literary journal, The Dillitanti. Of the stories I have written, this is one of my favorites.

The Bonus Merchant

It all started when the phone rang on Friday morning.  “Ivie Bridges?”  The voice that said her name was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.

“Yessuh?”

“Good morning, ma’am,” the voice boomed over the line.  “Do you know the Bonus Merchant?”  It was the local radio announcer, calling as part of his weekly show.  If Miss Ivie had taken a minute to think about it, to realize who he was and why he was calling, she would have cheerily announced that the Bonus Merchant was Turner’s Grocery and she would have won forty dollars.

But Miss Ivie didn’t have time to think, so she just said, “Naw, Ah knows lots a Merchants, but Ah don’t believe Ah knows a Mistah Bonus.”  The radio announcer laughed so hard that he accidentally hung up on her.  Ivie just shrugged, dropped the phone onto its receiver and went back to her chores.

James Reed was lying on the floor of his mother’s kitchen, fixing the drain on her sink, when he heard it.  He chuckled to himself and shook his head.  “Mister Bonus,” he said with a grin.  “That’s funny.”

On Saturday, her name was on everyone’s lips as they opened up their storefronts and the farmers came into town to buy their weekly supplies.  The old men who spit and tell lies on the porch of the Courthouse slapped their knees as they told it over and over.  Even the kids were talking about it as they rode the loop and sat on the tailgates of their trucks in the high school parking lot that night.

By Sunday, everyone in the county knew the name Ivie Bridges, and on Monday morning, the owner of the newspaper himself walked up the beaten down dirt path in Ivie’s front yard and knocked on her door.

Miss Ivie peeked through the curtains on the kitchen window and saw the man standing on her porch in a stiff-collared cream-colored shirt, starched grey pants, and shiny black shoes.  He was tall and skinny, with wavy brown hair and freckles sprinkled across his boyish face.  “Lawd,” she muttered under her breath, “he must done be at da wrong house.”  She pulled her hands from the dishwater and wiped them on her apron.

“Mizz Ivie.”  Miss Ivie turned around and saw eight year old Parris Harris, her neighbor’s granddaughter, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the den with her bare feet spread wide and her hands planted firmly on her hips.  “Dey’s a man at da do’ fo’ you.”

Miss Ivie had been up since her neighbor’s rooster crowed at a quarter till five, but she was still wearing her slippers and had a scarf tied around her hair.  She patted her damp brown fingers over the scarf and pulled its knot tight.  “Ah’m a cummin’,” she said.

“What dat man doin’ out heah?” Parris asked, crossing her arms over her purple t-shirt.  “Mama done said dat if da man from da car lot come ‘round again, we ain’t supposed to tell him nuttin.”

“Hush, child,” Miss Ivie said.  “Git on outside and play wit yo’ friends.”

Parris raised her chin in defiance after being dismissed, but when her eyes met Miss Ivie’s she reconsidered, dropped her chin, and lowered her eyes to the floor.  “Yessum.”

When Miss Ivie walked into the den, the man waved through the screen door.  The kids had flung the wood door open wide, but hadn’t invited him in, and he was still out on the porch.  “Miss Ivie Bridges?”

“Yessuh?”  Miss Ivie tugged the door open a little ways, but didn’t step aside to allow the stranger inside.

“I’m James Reed,” he said, holding his hand out to Miss Ivie.

She shook it, but still stood in the doorway.  “Yessuh,” she said.  “You write fo’ da paper.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I done paid my bill, Mistah Reed.”

“Yes, I know.  That’s not why I’m here.”

Miss Ivie’s large eyes rounded.  “Den why is you heah?  Dis a good ways from where you stays up on dat hill outside town.”

“I want to interview you,” James said, pulling a little spiral notebook and a pencil from his shirt pocket.  “For the newspaper.”

She laughed.  “Interview me?” she asked.  “What fo’?”

“Well, I just wanted to talk to you,” James said, “and I thought I would write about you as the Person of the Week.”

“Person of da Week?” Miss Ivie asked.  She shook her head.  “Dere ain’t nobody wants to read ‘bout me.”

“I think they will.  You’re a pretty popular person around town lately.”

“You mean dere’s a a buncha folks laughin’ ‘bout me in town, right, Mistah Reed?” Miss Ivie asked.  “Ah know dey’s a laughin’.  But Ah don’t care.  Dey can laugh if’n dey feel like it.  Guess it’s good ta have somethin’ to laugh about.”

“So you did it as a joke?”

“Twatt’n no joke, Mistah Reed.  Ah’s jest busy, what wit all dees kids ‘round.  And Ah’s jest watt’n thinkin’ straight.  Ah didn’t know dat wuz da man from da radio, or’s Ah woulda fo’ sho told him dat Turner’s Grocery wuz da Bonus Merchant las’ week.  Dat pot o’money wuz nearly forty dollas.  I sho woulda took dat money if’n Ah hadn’t been so busy.”

James looked around at the group of kids playing in Ivie’s yard.  “You keep these kids every day?” he asked.

“Sho do,” Miss Ivie said, standing up straighter and smiling.  “’Specially in da summers.  During school too, sometimes, if’n one of ‘em is sick or somethin’.”

“So you run a daycare?”  James counted seven kids in the front yard and three little ones on the den floor behind Miss Ivie.

“Naw, Ah don’t know nothin’ ‘bout dat,” she said.  “Ah jest keep watch over ‘em while dey mamas is at work.  Ah don’t really keep ‘em, jest watch after ‘em a bit.”  She looked over at the clock on the kitchen wall and started to push the door closed.  “’Cuse me, Mistah Reed, but Ah’s got ta git ta cookin’ dinner, or’s dem kids gone be thinkin’ dey’s dyin’ a hunger pains soon.  Sorry, now, but dey ain’t no story fo’ yo’ paper ‘round heah.”

“Wait,” James said, stepping closer to the door.  “Could I come in and talk to you while you cook?  I won’t get in the way, I promise.”

Miss Ivie rolled her eyes towards Heaven and shook her head.  “Ah reckon so,” she said.  “Might as well stay fo’ dinner, too.”

James shook his head.  “That won’t be necessary,” he said.  “I don’t mean to be any trouble.”

“Tain’t no trouble,” Miss Ivie said.  “One mo’ ain’t never gone make no difference, da way Ah cook.  ‘Specially one as skinny as you.”  She opened the screen door for James and he followed her into the kitchen.  She had wide shoulders and hips, and she shuffled her feet when she walked.  “You’ll have ta ‘cuse da mess,” she said, even though the little house was spotlessly clean.  “Ah hadn’t done my moppin’ yet.”  She pulled a chair out from under a little round table by the stove that was covered with a red and white checkered tablecloth and patted the top back rung.  “Have a seat, Mistah Reed.”

“Thank you.”  James sat down and flipped open his notebook.

“Ah read yo’ paper ever week,” Miss Ivie said.  “Ah ‘specially like da stories yo’ Mama write ‘bout da Bible.”

James smiled.  “Thank you,” he said.  “I’ll tell Mama that.  She’ll be tickled.”

“Ah used ta work wit yo’ Mama,” she said.  “She a real nice lady.”

“Yes, she is.”  James watched Miss Ivie put a large black skillet on the stove and turn on the gas burner.  She plopped a big scoop of Crisco into the skillet.

“You like fried chicken, Mistah Reed?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Miss Ivie smiled.  “Ah make da best fried chicken yo’ ever gone put in yo’ mouth,” she said.  “Ah don’t like ta brag on myself, but Ah’s proud a my chicken.”  She took a bowl of chicken out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter, then pulled a large brown paper grocery sack out of a drawer by the stove.  “Yo’ Mama used ta cook some good rolls when she worked at da school wit me,” Miss Ivie said.  “Ah ‘member how all da kids would come in da lunch room jest a sniffin’ ‘cause dey smelled ‘em cookin’.”

James watched her dump some flour into the grocery sack.  She tossed in a pinch of salt, a few shakes of pepper, and a generous dash of cayenne pepper into the bag before she placed the chicken down into it.  “Have you always liked to cook?” James asked.

“Oh, yessuh,” Miss Ivie said.  “Ever since Ah was high-tall,” she said, motioning about knee-high.  “Ah’d climb up on da stool in my Mama’s kitchen an’ do whatever she did.  Could cook by myself by da time Ah’s sebem or eight.”  She folded the top of the bag over a few times and gave it a good shake.  “Den Ah gots da job at da school, cookin fo’ da school kids.”

She dropped the first few pieces of chicken into the grease and they bubbled and popped and hissed.  James grinned when he saw some little faces peering in the screen door behind Miss Ivie.  One of the boys, the littlest one, pressed his nose to the screen, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

Miss Ivie saw them, too, and she winked at James.  “Whatchu doin’ leanin’ on my screen do’ like dat?” she said, turning around and shaking a wooden spoon towards the door.  The kids jumped, but then Miss Ivie smiled and they laughed and ran back into the yard.  “Dem two little ‘ens is mines,” Ivie said.

“Your children?”

“Naw,” Miss Ivie rolled her eyes at James and shook the spoon in his direction.  “Ah’s too old fo’ dat,” she said.  “Dey’s my grandchillen.  But dey stays wit me.”  She lifted a lid off a large pot of what smelled like turnip greens and stirred them with one hand while she flipped chicken with the other.  “Dey Mama’s in Memphis bookooing around, tryin’ ta be a singer or somethin’,” she said.  “But dey Daddy’s got hisself a real good job up in Detroit, buildin’ cars.”  She nodded towards a framed picture hanging on the wall by the refrigerator.  “Dat’s him, dere,” she said.  “His name James, like yours.”  She smiled up at the picture and hooked her thumbs in the pocket of her apron.

“I remember him,” James said. “He graduated a few years after me, I think.”

“He been savin’ his money, and he say he gone bring a car a his own down heah when he come at Christmas.”

“That’s great,” James said.  “What kind is he going to get?”

Miss Ivie shrugged.  “Ah told him to jest pick him out a nice one,” she said.  “It’ll be a sight when he pulls up in his very own car.”  She lowered her voice a little and grinned.  “Ah can’t wait ta see Patrice Riley’s face when my boy comes up in his own car.”

“Who’s that?”

“My neighbor ‘cross da road,” she said.  “She act right top-superior, like she better dan da rest of us ‘cause her son went to college an all.”  Miss Ivie shook her head.  “Don’t git me wrong,” she said, “Ah’s right proud a Eddie, but his Mama… whew.”  She shook her head.  “But dat’s a story fo’ another day.”

She pulled the first pieces of chicken out of the grease and dropped in the rest.  “You ain’t serious ‘bout puttin’ me in da paper, is you, Mistah Reed?” she asked.

“I am,” James answered.  “I think people would like to read about you and your cooking and how you watch these kids in the summers.”

Miss Ivie wiped her wide hands on her apron.  “Ah really didn’t mean ta say what Ah did, Mistah Reed.  Ah’s just so busy, what wit da kids and gittin dinner fixed, dat I just plumb didn’t think about what Ah was sayin’.”  She gingerly lifted a piece of chicken to check how brown it was getting, shook her head and dropped it back down into the bubbling grease.  “Ah knew dat voice was familiar, but Ah jest couldn’t place it.  An’ when he ask about da Bonus Merchant, dat jest wadn’t what was on my mind.  You know, we still gots da party-line on dis side a town, an Ah guess Ah jest thought he was lookin’ for da Merchants what live down da road.  Ah jest said it and had already hung up an’ was going ‘bout my chores again when Ah saw Patrice Riley cumin up da road a cacklin’ like a hen.  Nex’ thing Ah know, everybody was askin’ me if’n Ah knew a Mistah Bonus.”  She flipped her chicken over and rested her hand on her hip.  “Like Ah said befo’, if’n folks wanna laugh, Ah guess dey can jest go on an’ laugh.”  She let a hearty laugh out, as if to make her point.  “It is kinda funny,” she admitted.  “But Ah sho wish Ah’d got dat forty dollas.”

“What would you have done with the money?” James asked.

Miss Ivie pursed her lips and her big eyes rounded, then she shook her head and laughed.  “Don’t matter,” she said.  “Tain’t never gone happen, no how.”

“What?”

“Well, Mistah Reed,” she said, “Ah’s a been savin’ up here and there when Ah can. Ah really want ta open me up a restaurant.  Ah think Ah’d be real good at it, an’ like Ah said, Ah cook da best chicken yo’ ever put in yo’ mouth.”

“That sounds like a great idea,” James said.

Miss Ivie shrugged.  “Jest an old woman a dreamin’,” she said.  “Don’t pay dat no never mind.”  She took the last of the chicken out of the grease and stacked in on a platter.  James helped her carry all her bowls and dishes out to the backyard to the two picnic tables under the big oak tree on the edge of her yard.  She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled.  “Come on!” she yelled.

Kids appeared from all directions.  Each came up to Miss Ivie with their palms out and she checked their hands before she handed them their plates.  A few of them got dirty looks and instructions to “git yo’self washed up ‘fore you come up heah fo’ yo’ dinner.”  James sat with the kids and ate some of the best fried chicken he’d ever put in his mouth.

Parris Harris sat beside him, swinging her bare feet over the firmly packed dirt that covered the back yard.  “You gonna write ‘bout Mizz Ivie, huh?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Whatchu gone say ‘bout her?”

James slowly chewed on his bite of chicken and shrugged.  “I don’t know yet.”

He helped Miss Ivie carry all the dishes back to the house, but she waved him away from the sink.  “Yo’ Mama’ll never fo’give me if’n Ah let you git dat pretty shirt stained,” she said.

“Miss Ivie, are you going to let me write about you for the Person of the Week article?” he asked.

She shrugged.  “It’s yo’ paper,” she said.

“But I don’t want to write about you without your permission.”  Miss Ivie shrugged again and chewed on her lip while she washed the dishes.  “Just think about what Miss Riley will say when she sees the paper,” James said.

“She’ll keel over dead,” she said with a chuckle.

“Plus, the Person of the Week gets forty dollars,” James added.

“Really?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The article appeared in that Wednesday’s paper.  James wrote about Miss Ivie’s cooking and how she took care of all the neighborhood kids during the summers.  He talked about how she loved to read his mother’s weekly Bible study column.  He bragged for two paragraphs about how good Miss Ivie’s chicken tasted.  And he ended his article by saying that, although Miss Ivie didn’t know Mister Bonus, Mister Bonus (whoever he was) would be proud to know her.

A framed copy of the article hangs on the wall by the cash register at Ivie’s Place, its edges starting to yellow and the print beginning to fade.  People drive for miles just to taste Miss Ivie’s fried chicken.  She doesn’t cook much anymore, but she sits on a stool by that register and greets every customer who comes in.  Last week, Ivie’s Place was the Bonus Merchant for the local radio station.  I was sitting at my usual booth when James Reed came in for his plate of fried chicken and turnip greens.  His hair is streaked with grey now, and weekly helpings of Miss Ivie’s fried chicken and turnip greens have put a little weight on him, but he still has freckles splashed across his boyish face.  James walked around the counter and hugged Miss Ivie.  “Miss Ivie Bridges, do you know the Bonus Merchant?” he asked with a wide grin.

“Naw,” Miss Ivie said, tossing her head back and letting out a hearty laugh.  “Ah don’t know no Mistah Bonus.”

*Note – The African American dialect used in this story is in no way meant to be disrespectful or demeaning.  The style of this story was inspired by the writing style of African American author, Zora Neale Hurston.  She often used dialect in her stories to show how African Americans really spoke.  That was the intention here – to tell a real-sounding story.  I referenced Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression” to develop the dialect for Miss Ivie’s character.

Get outside!

A treasure to a little boy does not consist of money, gems or jewelry. He will find far greater pleasure in the wonder of a rock, pebble, stick or beetle.
— Author Unknown

I shared earlier this month that my word for 2021 is FOCUS, and one of the things I want to focus on this year is getting outside with my boys more and spending less time in front of our TV and phone screens. When it comes to screen time, I am the worst at setting boundaries. I often end up plopping the kids in front of the TV with a movie on in order to have time to get chores done. Doing away with screen time completely is not my goal (though I admire those parents who are successful in doing that), but I do want to be intentional about how we use our time and I definitely want to spend more of our time playing outside and being active.

I recently found this account on Instagram that focuses on the importance of getting kids outside and just letting them play. I have loved following along with this account for the last few weeks and getting ideas for fun activities to do with the boys.

What are some of your favorite outdoor activities for little kids? I’d love for you to share yours in the comments!

Southern Skillet Cornbread

This is probably the first recipe I ever memorized and made on my own. Of course, I was taught to just mix it “until it looks right,” which is a Southern cook’s favorite thing to say. All the women in my family make great cornbread and I remember eating it multiple times each week as a side for our meal (Or, for me, it was often the basis of my meal. Especially if black-eyed or purple hull peas were around).

Since it’s hard to show you how to make it “look right” via the world wide web, I figured out some measurements for you. And now, without further ado, I present to you the best cornbread recipe on the planet (yes, I am biased, but I am also right).

Southern Skillet Cornbread

Difficulty:BeginnerPrep time: 5 minutesCook time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Spray a cast iron skillet with cooking spray, then put the tablespoon of butter in the skillet and stick it in the oven while it preheats to 450 degrees.
  2. Mix together the cornmeal, egg, and buttermilk. Start with one cup of buttermilk and add more if needed to get to a pourable, but not runny consistency.
  3. When the oven is preheated and the butter is melted, pour the batter into the skillet on top of the melted butter (this makes your cornbread have a perfect crunchy, buttery crust).
  4. Bake for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.
  5. Let cool in the skillet for about 5 minutes before turning out onto a plate and slicing.

Notes

  • I like to use yellow cornmeal, because that’s what my Mamaw Hopper used and it was the secret to her oven fried okra (that recipe is on the blog, too!). However, my mama and Mamaw Gibson use white cornmeal and that works, too. Just MAKE SURE to buy self-rising cornmeal, or you will end up with a corn pancake (I know this from experience – the first time I tried to make cornbread for Jeff when we were dating, I just grabbed the bag of cornmeal in his kitchen and started cooking. I didn’t notice that his was NOT self-rising and I was super upset when I went to pull it out of the oven. Don’t make the same mistake I made.)
  • If you don’t have buttermilk, you can google how to make your own with vinegar or lemon juice, but what my mama always did when she was making this with “sweet milk” (what we call regular milk in the South) was add about a tablespoon of mayonaise to the mixture. Sounds crazy, I know, but it works and really helps your cornbread’s texture.

While your cornbread bakes, you can enjoy this story (and also whip up this soup or this chili, which both go really well with cornbread…just saying):

When I was a freshman at the University of Alabama, a guy in my class was complaining that the one thing he missed most about being at home was his mom’s cornbread and that he couldn’t find a restaurant anywhere that made it like her. I told him that I could teach him how to make it and made him a grocery list and told him exactly what cast iron skillet to buy (this one, in case you’re wondering), and he eagerly took my advice. I figured he would probably never actually cook the cornbread, but apparently he did over the next weekend, and when he came back to class the next week he found me and thanked me and said that he had to call his mom to tell her that he learned to make cornbread even better than hers. So I really am telling you the truth when I say this is the best cornbread you’ve ever eaten.

Welcome 2021

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to shop through these links, then I may earn a commission based on your purchase at no extra cost to you.

I know that most people are saying good-bye and good riddance to 2020, but as the year ended and I started reflecting on how we filled our days, I realized that despite the fear, confusion, and division that rocked the world in 2020, we were extremely blessed.

2020 started with me on maternity leave with a one-month-old Henry. I went back to work for about a week in March before the world shut down and I ended up staying home with the boys until school started again in August. That time at home with my boys will forever be my favorite time – and I am extremely grateful to have been given that time to stay home with them and get to experience Henry’s firsts and get to watch Jack grow into his role as a big brother.

Other fun moments in 2020 included a family trip to Lake Fort Smith in Arkansas with my parents, celebrating Jack’s birthday (and Papaw Hoot’s, which is just two days after Jack’s) with a small family dinner and a trip to Chattanooga to go to the aquarium, a new job that I started in August at a school that is much closer to home and cut my commute in half, celebrating Henry’s baby dedication and first birthday with family and friends, our annual beach trip the week of Thanksgiving, and a sweet holiday season with our two boys.

I know 2020 was hard for a lot of people – and there were parts of it that were hard for us, too – but when I look back through the pictures on my phone, I see so many happy memories of simple moments spent with family and for that I am grateful. I think a lot of people are giving the new year way too much power, insisting that things have to be better or believing that something is going to change just because the calendar flipped over to a new page. I love a fresh start, and always love this time of year for setting goals and making resolutions and reflecting on how far I’ve come in past goals, but I don’t have any hope in the year 2021 itself. Instead, my hope comes from the Lord – I can definitely testify that He was with our family in 2020, and I believe that He is the one who will continue to be with us and give us hope and joy in the new year.

With that said, I do have some big goals and plans for this new year. I typically pick a word for the year to kind of guide me (last year’s word was strong, and I succeeded in getting stronger in lots of ways in 2020). This year, my word is FOCUS.

I was having a hard time choosing a word and thought about not even having one this year, but then I found a devotion book by Cleere Cheery Reaves (@cleerelystated on Instagram). The title of the book is Focus, and the book takes a deep look at one word a week to grow spiritually. I really like the idea of reflecting on one specific word or idea each week, and I feel like since this book is set up as a weekly devotion instead of a daily one, I will be much more likely to stick with it and complete it. I like that I can just read the devotion in the book on busy weeks, and on weeks where I want to study more or go more in depth, there are extra Scriptures included for me to explore. I am really looking forward to reading this little book and spending time meditating on the theme word each week.

Another way I want to apply the word FOCUS in my life is by being super selective in what I say “yes” to. One thing I learned about myself from 2020 is that I am so much happier when I don’t have a full calendar. I love slow days when there is nowhere to go and nothing to do but just be with my boys at home and see what we can get into. I am planning on focusing my time and energy on the things that bring me joy this year: my family, my faith, and this space. I want to spend less time just filling my days with things other people need me to do or say I should do and I want to make more time for creating and writing and doing the things that fill my cup. I also want to focus on spending quality time with my boys – less time in front of the TV and more time outside, for example.

One thing I accomplished in 2020 was making working out a more consistent part of my routine. I want to continue to focus on my health and continue getting stronger and healthier in 2021.

Here are a few other random goals I have for the coming year:

  • Read one book a month that is not school related.
  • Never go to bed with a dirty kitchen (because waking up to a mess stresses me out and is not a good way to start my day).
  • Create routines that work for the boys and STICK TO THEM (I am so bad at routines…but I know that we need them and that it would really help ward off meltdowns with the boys, which have been happening on the regular lately).
  • Be more mindful about the stuff that I buy and what I bring into my home.

Here are a few of the books I am planning to read this year to help me reach my goals:

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? If so, what are yours? I’d love for you to share in the comments!

Happy New Year!

Christmas Recap

We officially had our last Christmas celebration on Sunday, and although this year’s Christmas was a little different than normal (just like everything in 2020), it was still filled with sweet memories.

Something about the start of this season just felt off – we weren’t nearly as busy as normal (which was actually a good thing). Despite not being as busy, I was somehow very late in getting my Christmas decorations put up. I normally try to decorate right after Thanksgiving and have it all put up before I go back to school after Thanksgiving break, but this year I still had a bare tree two weeks before Christmas. Jack didn’t seem to care, though, and he loved helping me decorate when I finally got out the ornaments.

The boys’ daycare did a great job making the season special for them with all kinds of fun activities and themed days – they had a gingerbread day where they made and decorated cookies, they visited the North Pole and met Santa (Jack’s favorite part of that was riding the big school bus from one building to the other – Henry, on the other hand, HATED that trip and was not a fan of Santa), they had a birthday party for Jesus, and they had a pajama day where they watched Christmas movies.

Poor little guy…NOT a fan of Santa!

This was the first year Jack has really been into Christmas, and it was fun to see how excited he was about everything. He wanted a tree in his room, which we put up and covered with blue lights. He also couldn’t wait to see Santa and tell him all about what he wanted for Christmas – a real airplane that he and Henry (and later he added Mama and Daddy) could ride in together. We have no idea where that idea came from, but he stuck with it and consistently told us that’s what he had asked Santa for. Let’s just say that Santa had some trouble finding such a plane. Even Amazon couldn’t help. So Santa had to call in some reinforcements and ask Daddy to build a plane.

I found some plans on Pinterest, and Jeff and I went to Lowe’s and bought all the wood and supplies, then Jeff got to work building a plane in our basement. He finished it a few days before Christmas, and I painted it on Christmas Eve right before we left for my family’s Christmas Eve dinner (nothing like waiting until the last minute, huh?). Of course, we couldn’t let Santa take credit for the plane since Jeff built it (I wanted Jack to know his Daddy made it), so Santa brought Jack an airplane book with a note attached explaining that the plane was too big to fit in his sleigh, but that he had told Jeff that’s what Jack wanted and Jeff built it for him. Jack was so excited to go see it after we read the letter from Santa! Jeff says that I’m more excited about it than the kids are, but I am really proud of him for building it (it is the first thing he has ever built, and I think he did a great job).

Other than the plane, we kept it pretty simple with presents. Santa filled the boys’ stockings and brought one small gift, and then Jeff and I tried to stick to just a few simple gifts. I basically followed the something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read plan and stuck to about 4 gifts total (besides the plane). Jack ended up with a guitar, some cool new underwear, pajamas, and a new bedtime Bible story book (which we have been reading every night since Christmas and he has loved). Henry got new pajamas, a Bible story board book, some toy cars, and a new stacking toy.

It was actually kind of nice having fewer gifts to open on Christmas morning because the boys weren’t so overwhelmed and had time to actually play with the things they got for a little while instead of us just shoving another box their way.

After our visit from Santa, we went to my grandparents’ house for Christmas breakfast and then spent the day at my parents’ house letting the boys play with their new toys.

On Saturday, we met Jeff’s dad at his river cabin for lunch and to exchange gifts. Jack got to go fishing on the river with Jeff, which he loved. It was a beautiful day on the river and a nice way to spend the afternoon.

On Sunday, we had Jeff’s mom and our niece and nephew over for lunch after church. Jack loves getting to play with his cousins and all of the kids enjoyed playing on the plane and out in the yard with all their new Christmas toys.

Cousins taking a trip in the boys’ new plane

All of our gatherings were small this year, but it was a nice change for them to be that way.

Family Pictures 2020

We had family pictures made a few weeks ago, focusing specifically on Henry since he had just turned one, and they turned out so good! Heather from New Creations by Griffin’s Photography has been taking our family pictures since we got married and we love working with her! She always gets the best shots of our crazy bunch. If you are in Northport or Tuscaloosa, I highly recommend her!

Christmas Activities for Kids – Character Analysis for Any Story or Movie

I know a lot of you are doing a version of hybrid school or homeschooling this year, so I wanted to share a fun activity I do with my students each December. The printables for these activities are available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store and are suitable for ANY short story or novel your child has been reading. Since they are not specific to any story or book, you can save this activity and use it year after year no matter what your children are reading at the time.

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Christmas-Characterization-Activities-for-ANY-Story-6306480

I always end up with a few flex days around exams when I don’t want to start something new, but also don’t want to just show a movie. That’s where these activities come in – I have my students choose a character from a story or book we have read and complete the following Christmas activities for that character:

  1. Santa’s List – First, I have students decide which characters from the story belong on Santa’s nice list and which ones belong on the naughty list. I always have my students provide textual evidence to back up why they placed each character where they did. This is a fun little activity, but it really gets them thinking about the characters and their motivations in the story.
  2. Character Christmas Ornaments – For this activity, students design a Christmas ornament that represents a character from the story. Again, I require textual evidence and for all the designs and symbols used to be based on the story we read. After the students design these, I often cut them out and laminate them and we will decorate a classroom tree with them.
  3. Character Stockings – For this activity, students will analyze the character by creating a stocking for him or her and filling it with gifts. This activity includes the most writing of all three, as students have to explain why they chose the gifts they picked to fill the stocking.

All of these can be done with any short story or novel, or even a movie. They are great little activities to keep kids occupied and help them practice critical thinking, analysis, and writing skills. I use this for my high school students, but it could easily be used by younger kids.

If you purchase this activity, please leave me a review and let me know what you think!