Friday, December 26, 2008

One Hundred Luminarios

No matter how long I live, I doubt that I will experience a Christmas Eve filled with the same magic as we experienced this week. Chip and I left the beach house late in the afternoon to achieve two goals: 1) secure a bonfire permit, and 2) pick up all of the necessities both of our families requested for an evening on the beach. We returned heavily laden with firewood, marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers, and the rest of our holiday party had been wonderfully busy prepping the beach for our special evening. Tina then brought out two separate packs of lunch-sized paper bags, one of white bags and the other of traditional brown bags. Chip, Adrienne, Tina, Nathan and I spent the next half hour putting three scoops of sand into each bag, folding down the tops about an inch or two and placing them up and down the stairs that lead from our beach house down to the sand. We placed a tiny tea light candle in each and prepared for dark to create a spectacle none of us could wait to see. After Chip and Fanone treated us to their favorite Christmas Eve dinner, we stepped out into the breezy, misty evening to light our luminarios. It took a little patience and some ingenuity on the part of our resident pyros, but we finally lit all one hundred lights and stepped back to see the mystical path we'd created from our home-away-from-home down to the edge of the thundering surf of the Gulf of Mexico. Spencer set our beach bonfire ablaze, and we spent the next two hours singing Christmas carols, roasting marshmallows, making s'mores and sharing Christmas memories. The mist coming in from the gulf obscured everything beyond a few hundred yards in every direction, and since we have been some of the beach's only residents this week, we could see almost no other lights along the beach except for our one hundred luminarios and our campfire.

The beauty of Christmas Eve and our efforts to make it memorable were tinged with the sadness I still feel in my heart. Peter would have loved this, and as I sat on the steps overlooking the flickering candles and the waves crashing on the shore, I felt overwhelmed by grief for a few brief moments. Letting Peter go this Christmas has been difficult, but we are now past that difficult milestone preparing ourselves now for a handful of challenging anniversaries. Peter's birthday is one month from Sunday followed closely by the anniversary of his baptism and five weeks later by the date of his passing. I don't know how time is passing so quickly, but it is. God is helping our family make it through each new challenge on our road to healing, and even though the tears I shed on Christmas Eve felt hot and bitter, I know that that they are part of the growing, changing process I need to experience in order for me to move on. On Christmas Eve, we lit our luminarios out of hope and joy, not as a token of grief, and hope will continue to carry us through all of the sudden upheavals of emotion that lie in our path as life goes on.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Fried Chicken and Our Arrival in Florida

How many restaurants have you ever visited where the proprietor comes out and sings to you? Well, he comes out and sings at The Old Country Store! We purposefully planned the last day of trip so that we would pass through Lorman, Mississippi, the home of Mr. D and The Old Country Store where we heard we could sample the tastiest fried chicken in the country. We arrived just after 11 a.m., and the dining room staff informed us that lunch would be ready to eat in about ten minutes. It wasn't long before we were seated in the "historic" building (it actually looks about the way it did 100 years ago!) and helping ourself to an all-you-can-eat buffet with the most complete spread of southern comfort food imaginable: mac & cheese, dirty rice, black-eyed peas, collard greens, green beans, sweet potatoes, ribs, corn bread, and FRIED CHICKEN! All of it was prepared by Mr. D who came out to the dining room to sing to everyone about how his mama was the corn bread cooking queen and how she raised him to be the chicken cooking king; mama succeeded! The boys and I all agreed that the chicken was pure heaven, and although I don't feel qualified to declare it to be the best in the country, I sincerely doubt if I will ever taste its equal in my lifetime. We took some pictures with this true southern gentleman and continued our lengthy trek through Mississippi en route to Seagrove Beach and our home for the holidays.

We feel very blessed to be able spend this Christmas with our lifelong friends, the Parkinsons; they arrived safely from Connecticut yesterday afternoon after an exciting adventure getting down to sunny Florida from the snow-blasted northeast, and the party began the very moment they arrived. We've spent the past two days playing games, running on the beach, eating holiday goodies and catching up on old times, and our kids picked up where they left off back in the spring when they saw each other last. We feel the healing taking place just like we hoped, and we look forward to making some amazing memories for our entire family. The house itself is everything we imagined, and the sound of the gulf has been our bedtime lullaby for the past two nights. This will truly be a unique Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Culinary Bungee Jumping

We finalized our preparations today and embarked on our Christmas trip of healing this afternoon at precisely 12:30. Destin, Florida is our ultimate destination; however, we couldn't just drive through the Mississippi delta region without taking a little detour to experience some of the more noteworthy cuisine! For those of you who have known our family for more than just a few years, you know that it's all about the food with the Barrs, and the channel we watch almost religiously is The Food Network. Last year, we saw two shows that each featured the same two Mississippi restaurants: Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, and The Old Country Store in Lorman. Alton Brown visited both restaurants on his show "Feasting On Asphalt" in which he celebrated great American road food along the Mississippi River from Louisiana on up into Minnesota. Gourmet Magazine also ran a special on The Food Network on the restaurants that served the best iconic American food (steaks, burgers, ribs, tacos, fried chicken, etc.), and once again, both restaurants appeared on the show, taking runner-up honors in steak (Doe's Eat Place) and fried chicken (The Old Country Store). When we planned our trip to Florida, we realized that, with a little creative navigating, we could hit both of these temples of taste temptation on our drive, so we planned it all out to arrive in Greenville tonight and have dinner at Doe's to see what all of the fuss was about regarding their steaks.

We pulled into Greenville just after 7 p.m., a full thirty minutes before our reservation at Doe's, and we were able to check-in to our hotel before navigating some slightly confusing directions to our ultimate destination. Doe's Eat Place has been around since 1941, and it's plain to see that it was once a corner grocery that was transformed into its current occupation over a long period of time. We entered the restaurant through the kitchen and got a sneak peek at the joy awaiting us: steaks the size of man-hole covers sliding into the broiler, pans full of french fries sizzling on the stove, and huge vats of their specialty tamales bubbling away. The dining room looks like it hasn't been changed or updated since its first hours of business, and the floors were actually slanted slightly: definitely no-frills on the atmosphere, which was actually part of the charm of this true delta native. We received no menus, but our server was kind enough to tell us exactly what they were serving tonight, giving us a choice between several steaks that would be served family style as well as a healthy selection of accompaniments. We settle on the sirloin-for-four and a "small" t-bone since the boys sounded hungry. We also got two salads, some garlic bread, and a dozen tamales, which they serve wrapped in paper rather than corn husks. The steaks were huge! We found that we liked eating them family style since they gave us all a chance to try some from different parts of the cut, and they came with a heaping mound of their fresh-cut fries. Needless to say, we left Doe's Eat Place stuffed to the rafters and thoroughly enjoyed the unique, down home atmosphere that I doubt we could find anywhere else in the country. Tomorrow, we will head down the Mississippi River road to find Lorman, Mr. D. and his Old Country Store, and some of the best fried chicken in the country. It will probably be yet another exciting chapter in our family's culinary thrill-seeking!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Kiss from Buck

On Thursday last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit my sister, Ali, at her home in Newburgh, New York. My recent business trip to New York afforded me the chance to spend my last night with her rather than at my hotel in the city, so I called her a few weeks ago and made all of the arrangements. She and her husband, Armando, graciously picked me up from the train station in Beacon right around dinner time, and they treated me to their favorite pizza as the heavy rains began falling up and down the Hudson River Valley. I can safely describe myself as an avid dog lover, and Ali has a beauty at home named Buck; he's part Rottweiler, part German Shepherd, and I have been looking forward to meeting him ever since Ali invited me to visit their home. Ali cautioned me, however, not to expect Buck to act like Scamp back in Texas. She warned that Buck is not the kind of dog you just go up to and pet; he's highly protective of Ali, and she indicated that if I just let Buck do his thing without trying to insinuate myself on him, he won't mind at all having me visit. I took that advice to heart, and when I saw Buck for the first time, I immediately had immense respect for this big boy. To picture this dog, imagine a large, muscular Rottweiler with a German Shepherd's tail. His head is easily the size of Scamp's entire body, and he moved with the speed and power around his domain. During our pleasant evening of pizza and conversation, Buck simply sat close at hand and observed; however, at one point, when Ali moved close to me to show me a picture, Armando suddenly ordered Buck to his pen upstairs. I asked if Buck had been stalking me, and Armando smiled and said, "No, but he was giving you that Buck look!" Apparently, Buck goes everywhere with Ali, and if someone he doesn't know gets too close to my sister, he goes into protect mode. I guess Armando sensed that such a transformation was underway, and he defused it before anything further developed. We spent another hour visiting before heading to bed for a lovely night's sleep listening to the torrential rain outside pounding down upon their roof and against their windows.

Armando left for work early the next morning, and while I brushed my teeth, Ali led Buck into the bathroom to have me participate in a ritual aimed at helping Buck warm up to visitors. She gave me a rawhide chew called a pig ear and had me give it to Buck while he sat at my feet looking up in utmost anticipation. He eagerly but gently took the treat from my hand and hurried off to devour it inside his pen at the opposite end of the hall from my guest room. Ali went back to her room to prepare for work while I went back to my room to pack my overnight bag in preparation for my train ride back to New York City. As I knelt down on the guest room floor stuffing laundry into my bag, I noticed movement by the door out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to see Buck entering the room alone, and he headed right for me. I didn't move, and following Ali's instructions, I just waited to see what he was going to do. He walked right up to me, put is big wet nose against my cheek and started licking me! I reached up my hand and started stroking his powerful neck and scratching him behind his ears, which lasted for just a few moments before he silently turned around and loped back out the door. I shared my little Buck moment with Ali as we sat eating breakfast, and she seemed delightedly surprised that Buck had warmed up to me so quickly. I figured that it was either my natural dog charm, or he was just tasting me to see if I'd make a good snack for later! Either way, I left my sister's home that morning with warm feelings from many sources; first and foremost, from being able to reconnect with my sister and brother-in-law for the first time in over eighteen months, and secondly, for getting a kiss from an unlikely friend.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Little Christmas Tree

Tina is my hero when it comes to coping with negative emotions. Yesterday morning, she experienced what we call a "grief burst", an unexpected surge of emotion not tied to any particular memory or trigger and which simply needs to run its course. We've both learned that when that happens, the spouse not so intensely affected just needs to be there. Nothing needs to be said; we've both been there, and these emotional flash floods soon subside. What Tina decided to do afterward, however, is what really impressed me. While the children and me took care of miscellaneous chores and work-related items, Tina went shopping for a special project through which she funneled her grief. When she returned, she had a small artificial Christmas tree and a few dozen miniature ornaments, stickers and other assorted nick-knacks out of which we could make additional tiny ornaments. This little tree, when it was completed, would sit in the vase on Peter's grave, and each ornament represents something he loved in life. For the better part of the afternoon and during a visit to grandma's house this evening, we completed this project of love and found our grief being swallowed up in the wonderful memories of Peter we can readily associate with Christmas. The tree is now finished, decorated with soccer balls, penguins, polar bears, a camp fire complete with roasting marshmallows, presents, Santa, snowflakes, a sled with his name on it, a big heart, and a fat hippo! Peter always loved the song, "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas!", and we even have video of him mouthing the words last Christmas while it played in the background. There is even a little star on top of the tree, and we think it looks just like what Peter would want bringing his resting place some Christmas cheer (even though Tina swears up and down that the tree still needs a kangaroo of some kind). We will deliver the tree this afternoon, and I owe this lesson on how to channel the surging emotions related to grieving to my lovely wife. I hope I can learn how to cope with grief with as much constructive creativity as the weeks and months without Peter melt into years.