A Holiday Tradition Stands Firm: No Green Jell-O Salad

In families throughout the world, the holidays are dictated by annual traditions like pushing down fellow customers in a big box store in an attempt to grab the latest “Scratch Me Santa,” pouring rum in the eggnog punch to see what kind of family secrets grandma will reveal when she’s tipsy, and attending church services for the first time all year in a last-ditch effort to avoid booking a room at the Hell Hath No Fury Inn when death knocks at the door.

In my house, the holidays are dictated by many wonderful traditions like the ceremonial untangling of the lights, the haphazard decorating of Christmas cookies, and the frantic last-minute wrapping of gifts. But there is one tradition that no one in my house wants to give up—at least not yet.

Every Christmas Eve, we follow the same protocol we have since the children were little. My husband fires up the grill, I make a chocolate cream pie, and my now teenagers set the table. Nothing varies … ever. The menu, seating arrangements, formal attire, and post-dinner television movie choice have remained the same since 1994. God forbid if someone has a hankering for green Jell-O salad or to sit at the head of the table instead of on the right side or to drink out of a water glass instead of a crystal wine glass or to watch It’s a Wonderful Life instead of A Christmas Story. It’s simply not going to happen. On this night, our tradition stands firm.

To be honest, I’m not sure why this tradition has remained set in stone since the year genetically engineered tomatoes were first introduced and I first discovered stretch marks. All I know is that it works and that each year, something memorable happens. One year I saw a bright object racing across the dark sky that I was certain was Santa’s sleigh. Another year my husband grilled our dinner in 70-mile-per-hour wind gusts and blizzard conditions. One Christmas Eve, my son dressed up for dinner like Robert Goulet, complete with a paper mustache and suit and tie.

I keep thinking that one of these days, my children who somehow turned 19 and 16 when I wasn’t looking, will tell me that they are heading in different directions on Christmas Eve. But for now, they are certain of one thing in life: they want to spend Christmas Eve the same way they have since they can remember: in our cozy little suburban house tucked away from the world where green Jell-O salad is not welcome, the seating chart remains the same, and the magic of this one night reminds all of us that it is the memories, not the gifts, that provide us the most comfort and joy.

Happy Holidays, from my cozy little house to yours.

 “Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store.”

Dr. Seuss

By Vicky DeCoster, All Rights Reserved

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I Am Still Here: A Life-Changing Mantra

The thing I remember most from that day four weeks ago is the sound of my daughter crying on the phone as I informed her from the side of the freeway that both her father and I had been in a serious car accident. It was my birthday. It was the day my daughter realized how precious life is and how quickly it can be taken away. It was also the day I began to live by these four words:

I am still here.

I am known for a few things in my neck of the woods: my addiction to Hot Tamales, my gift for sneezing like Donald Duck, and my knack for worrying about everything including potential chemicals in my drinking water, the amount in my retirement fund, and the person standing behind me in the grocery store line who has just revealed she has a suspicious mole. But while sitting on the side of the freeway on a windy October afternoon, all that worrying suddenly seemed irrelevant because only one thing really mattered:

I am still here.

Yesterday, I shared the sauna at the gym with a stranger. After a few moments of nothing but the sound of my sweat dripping onto the bench, we exchanged greetings for lack of nothing else than to keep ourselves conscious. Soon, we were engaged in conversation that led to him disclosing that he had recently lost the most important person in his life: his wife. As he contemplated out loud all the things they had wanted to do together, but now couldn’t, I listened. When the sauna filled with silence once again, I shared my story of what I learned on the side of the freeway on that windy October afternoon. In a matter of minutes, two strangers were strangers no more. There are those who might say we were brought together for a reason. Maybe so. I like to think we both helped each other reinforce what we already knew: that living in the moment is the best way to live. After all, we are both still here.

My bucket list is entirely too long. Although I’ve been trying to whittle down the list for years, there are still many things I have yet to accomplish, see, and conquer. My drive to continue seeking adventure is stronger than ever. And so out of the mangled metal comes a positive, life-changing mantra that I hope is contagious.

I am still here.

Feel free to make it your own.

By Vicky DeCoster, All Rights Reserved

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Find a Way

Earlier this week, my husband and I intently watched as Diana Nyad staggered out of the water in Key West, Florida, and made history by being the first woman to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. As I picked up the remote and turned off the television, my husband whispered, “Here we go.” After twenty years of marriage, he was already predicting the future more accurately than Nostradamus.

I sighed, “I don’t think I’m doing enough with my life.” I walked to gaze out the window of my suburban house nestled in the middle of suburbia. “It’s really not hard to figure out,” I said to the cardinal who made the mistake of landing on the deck railing in front of me. “I need excitement.”

There was no need to call the doctor. I already knew the diagnosis: I had just come down with a bad case of adventure envy.

I turned and sat on the couch next to my husband, whose eyes darted about the room searching for a quick escape route. I mentally moved down a list of possibilities. Swimming a long distance was out, mostly because I hadn’t yet been able to make my way across the community pool without first strapping on a life jacket and oxygen. Competing in the Ironman Triathlon was out because … well … see above. Due to my fear of bears, heights, and everything in between, climbing a mountain was out as well. After just a few seconds of contemplation, I was already back to square one in Boringville.

Now that some time has passed, I have come to the realization that Diana Nyad’s record-breaking swim was not just about a woman who sought adventure in her life and found it. Her journey across the sea was more about perseverance, inner-strength, and achieving something no one had ever before. Diana Nyad fought for thirty-five years until she found a way.

You’re never too old to live your dreams.

Life is short. Every day, I have a choice, even here in Boringville. You have a choice wherever you are. Adventure comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and prices. Adventure comes when we step outside our comfort zones, face our fears, and walk into the unknown simply because we believe we can do it. Each morning when the sun comes up, we are all provided with a chance to do something great. It can be as simple as running a mile at the gym or as monumental as swimming one hundred and ten miles from Cuba to Florida. Or it can be somewhere in between like mentoring a troubled child, starting a business, or writing a book. But first, you have to believe you can do it.

Find a way.

Today, close your eyes, hold your breath, and jump into the unknown. You never know who you might inspire. Do it for Diana Nyad.

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A New Driver, a Squirrel, and a Scaredy-Cat-Fraidy-Cat

It is payback time in my house: payback for all the speeding tickets, the erratic lane changes, and rolling stops. It is time to teach a new driver how to drive.

Mere seconds after my fifteen-year-old turned fifteen, she handed me a copy of our state’s driver’s manual and requested, “Quiz me. I want to take the learner’s permit test tomorrow.”

Wasn’t it just yesterday when I was cutting up her meat, teaching her how to write her name, and telling her that pottying in her socks was not a talent I wanted her to boast about to all the neighborhood mothers? A day later, my daughter, with a new learner’s permit tucked safely away in her wallet, held out her hand and asked for the car key. “Let’s go, Mom. I’m ready to drive,” she announced.

I motioned to my husband. “Come join in the fun,” I said as I followed her out to the car. Moments later, we were all buckled in the car: my daughter in the driver’s seat, me in the passenger seat, and my husband in the middle of the back seat. I turned to look at him. “Are those the pillows from our bed tucked around you?” I asked.

“This is the safest place in the car. The pillows are just here for added protection,” he answered as he closed his eyes and folded his hands. Just as I was attempting to decipher what prayer he was mouthing with his lips and wondering why he wasn’t wearing his bicycle helmet, the car lurched into reverse and zoomed backwards out of the driveway. “Brake! Brake! Braaaaaaaaaaakkkke!” I shouted.

My daughter stomped on the pedal. The car screeched to a stop. I methodically began removing each fingernail from the dashboard. My husband began praying louder. My daughter squealed with excitement, “Isn’t this great?”

I took a deep breath. It was time to put my NPR radio announcer voice to work. As I calmly began my lecture on residential speed limits and the importance of checking mirrors before switching lanes, my daughter became acquainted with the power of the pedals beneath her feet. The car weaved gently as she attempted to aim the car between the lines. All was going remarkably well until from the back seat, my husband suddenly yelled, “SQUIRREL! 600 FEET!”

My daughter, who is apparently known in some circles for her cat-like reflexes, stepped on the brake with the same force she used to kill an innocent spider who had made the life-altering mistake of wandering into her bedroom the week before, moved her hands from the 10 and 2 position on the steering wheel, and screamed. Or was that me who screamed?

The anti-lock brakes locked. The squirrel looked like a deer in headlights. The car skidded to a stop. “Everyone okay?” I asked as the squirrel skipped across the road, probably heading for the nearest vet’s office to find a defibrillator to restart his heart. I turned to look at my husband. He had a pillow in each hand, clasped firmly to each ear. His eyes darted from side to side.

“Is the squirrel dead?” My daughter opened one eye, then the other.

“The squirrel is fine,” I answered in my now slightly shaky NPR radio announcer voice. “Shall we begin again?”

From the back seat once, I heard my husband quietly declare in a slightly muffled voice, “Take me out of the oven. I am done.”

As my daughter attempted to perform a “Y” turn in the middle of the road that slowly evolved into a cock-eyed mixture of “W,” “X” and “Z” turns, I came to the realization that somehow when I wasn’t looking, my little girl had transformed into a determined woman who knew exactly what she wanted: independence. I took another deep breath. It was time to start letting go. As we headed home to drop off scaredy-cat-fraidy-cat, I silently expressed my gratitude for the few more precious months I had before she turned old enough to navigate on the roads—and through life—without me.

Just as I reached over to pat her knee and tell her what a good job she was doing, my husband shouted from the backseat, “RABBIT! 15 FEET AHEAD!”

This is going to be a long few months.

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Perspective from the Front Porch

The wicker chair on my front porch begged for a companion. It was one of those perfect summer days when the sky was blue, the clouds were puffy, and the breeze was cool.  Without the willpower to resist the temptation, I plopped in the chair moments later with a magazine in hand and sunglasses perched on my nose. With a gentle sigh, I began reading. It wasn’t long before the clacking of cleats on concrete prompted me to look up and gaze across the street where I noticed the neighbor boy, dressed in his baseball uniform, walking down his driveway to put his gear in the car. As my eyes followed his movement, he suddenly stopped, turned around, and stared at a four-foot-high bush in his yard. It was like a force of nature connected our brains at that very moment. I knew exactly what he was going to do. Without a second thought, he backed up, paused, and began sprinting toward the bush. Just as a cloud passed over the sun, he leaped over the bush, landing on the other side without any idea that he had an audience on the other side of the street. Tucked away in a corner of my porch, I couldn’t help but smile.

As a child, I too had the urge to jump over everything. Urged into action by our relentless begging, my dad worked tirelessly over two weekends and built a high-jump set for my sisters and me. In those days, our summers were not guided by stringent safety rules, but instead, by our imaginations. Every morning, we placed the high-jump set on our concrete driveway and invited the neighbor kids over. With two removable nails to hold the pole and mark our progress, we set the pole at the lowest point, slowly moving it up as the sun rose higher in the sky. If any of us were afraid, we never voiced our concerns. We merely looked at fear face-on and ran right through it. Before long, we were all soaring over the five-foot mark, spurred by our lofty personal goals and the trash talk that accompanied every neighborhood competition. As we each made a running start and sailed feet first over the pole, we never wondered what it would be like to jump over cushy mats, wear padding on our arms and legs, or to don helmets. With nothing to cushion our fall, we never questioned whether we would make it over. We simply had to.

As I watched the neighbor boy that beautiful summer day, I thought about all the people I have met in life since I was a little girl growing up in the Midwest. In my opinion, there are two kinds of people in life. The jumpers, as I like to call them, are the kind of people I want to sit next to at a dinner party. They know life is short. They may not have scaled a mountain, swam with sharks, or sky dived, but they always have a good story to tell. Jumpers get out of bed every morning, face their fears head-on, and leap. Then, there are the wanna-be jumpers. Those are the people who really think about all the things they want to do in life, passionately talk about the possibilities with their friends, and then go home, make a baloney sandwich, and watch re-runs of Criminal Minds on cable.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re all not kids anymore. We have mortgages, bills to pay, careers to build, and children to raise. We barely have time to brush our teeth, let alone to plan an adventure. But I promise, if you just stop for just a minute and think about that kid who sailed over the bush in his yard, it might just change your perspective. Truth be known, it only took him thirty seconds to look around and experience the kind of exhilaration I know we are all secretly seeking.

Today, take thirty seconds and change how you look at life. Start small. Hop over a bush. Jump off the high dive at the pool.  Leap over a hurdle at the track. Do it for yourself—and for the person lucky enough to sit next to you at a dinner party.

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I Hope He Ties His Shoes on Graduation Day

This spring as thousands of high school seniors gather to celebrate graduation, thousands of mothers sitting in the stands with plastered smiles on their faces as they listen to one stilted speech after another will be secretly thinking, Please dear God, I hope this kid does something with his life.

Mothers are bred to worry. From the moment our children are born, we worry about whether they are eating enough, choosing the right friends, driving the speed limit, studying hard enough, and most importantly, whether they will ever be able to make it out in the world on their own without us yelling from behind a tree far in the distance, “Tie your shoes before you trip on something!”

Then before we know it, our children are donning a cap and gown, dreaming big dreams, and telling us that they will be just fine in the world without us. As we take photos, plan parties, and help them choose a college, we remember our own graduation ceremonies and wonder how we ever made it across the stage in platform shoes without falling in front of the principal, God, and the entire senior class. But we also remember how important it was to us that our mothers supported us during a time when we wanted to spread our wings, fly away, and experience life without anyone telling us what to do, how to think, or which fork to use when eating salad.

This Sunday, my life will come full circle. I will be one of those mothers in the stands who will be trying to camouflage a myriad of emotions behind my commencement program as I remember everything that has led up to this moment. As my son crosses the stage, clutches his diploma, and poses for a photo that will somehow manage to find its way to the bottom of a box in his basement one day, I will contemplate the words of advice I have given him since the day he started kindergarten:

Look both ways before crossing. Stand up to bullies. Dot your “I’s” and cross your “T’s.” Never say never. Follow your heart. Pursue your passions. Hug often. Laugh even more often. Do your homework. Be kind to others. Save your money. Believe in your dreams. Think positive. Love yourself as much as you love others. Never stop learning. Give more than you take. Always do the right thing.

Thankfully, all the above words of advice still apply today as I send him off into a world he so enthusiastically wants to conquer in his own way, in his own time. As much as I know how badly my son wants to be independent, I know there will come a day when my phone will ring and he will be on the other end wondering how long to cook pasta, how to get a stain out of his shirt, whether he should feed a fever, a cold, or himself first. But as I continue to dispense advice without a prescription and worry just as mothers always do, I also know this is a time to reclaim my own life again—a life that I hope includes long-awaited travels, continued happiness, and a George Forman Grill.

Change awaits. I plan to embrace my new path in life just as passionately as my son. I just hope he remembers to tie his shoes first.

By Vicky DeCoster – All Rights Reserved 

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Would You Like Some Potatoes With Your Gravy?

In Nebraska where we reportedly having nothing better to do than stare out the window at cornfields and listen to the cows mooing, residents have been nurturing an obsession with gravy since the first homesteaders arrived in 1863. Unlike other parts of the country, informal studies (conducted mostly by me on days when I have nothing else to do but stare out the window at cornfields), have proven that the only way to a Midwesterner’s heart is not through clogged arteries or even through the stomach, but instead through a hefty pile of something mashed under a quart of gravy. Add this fact to the history books, folks: centuries ago, the gravy train stopped here and never left.

This year, as the Easter Bunny lurks in the shadows and waits to ambush the groundhog who is apparently now one of America’s 10 Most Wanted, I will be determining what to serve with my gravy on Sunday. A couple of nights ago, I gathered my family together and asked what they would like on the holiday menu this year. “Gravy!” my son shouted.

“Make that two votes for gravy,” my husband added.

My daughter held up three fingers and smiled. It was unanimous—or as they call it in Washington, D.C.—a miracle. I banged my meat tenderizer on the counter. “The vote passes!” I exclaimed as the self-proclaimed Speaker of the House. “Once again, gravy will be starring in our Easter meal.” My family had just accomplished more in five seconds than Congress had in five years.

As I opened the cupboard and searched for the gigantic soup tureen I use to serve gravy in my house, I thought back to the time we were invited to a friend’s house in a neighboring state for a holiday dinner. Her husband, born and raised in California, is a fabulous chef who slaved over a hot stove all day while we chatted and dreamed of what he would be serving with the gravy. “Dinner is served!” he bellowed from the bowels of the kitchen. A few minutes later, we sat at the table, placed our napkins on our laps, and inhaled the lovely scents emerging from several serving bowls on the table. Suddenly, I heard my son gasp. He leaned over and whispered in one of those loud whispers that everyone can hear, “Mom, where’s the gravy?”

“Hold on,” my friend’s husband replied. “I forgot the gravy in the kitchen.” Obviously relieved, we all laughed uproariously … until he returned to the table … with a creamer in hand. He set it on the table. “Have at it!” he said as he spooned potatoes on his plate. I peered into the creamer which, according to my very unscientific calculations, held approximately seven tablespoons of gravy for twelve people. I made a dent in my potatoes, poured one tablespoon of gravy in the middle, and passed it on to my son while loudly whispering, “Do not take more than one tablespoon of gravy or else.” Unfortunately by the time the creamer made it to my husband, he had no choice but to extract the few dabbles of gravy left in the tiny pitcher with his tongue. Needless to say, we haven’t been invited back since.

It is no secret that sometimes life can be unpredictable. But with that said, I do know one thing for certain in a world full of change. On Sunday in my house, just like on every other holiday, the gigantic soup tureen full of gravy will once again replace flowers and candles as a centerpiece on our table. And as I clasp hands with those I love and stare at my potatoes swimming in glorious goodness, I know I wouldn’t have it any other way … except on biscuits. Yes, definitely on biscuits.

By Vicky DeCoster, All Rights Reserved

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