Monday, February 2, 2015

DIY: Family Photo Wall

Last year, shortly after the holidays, I spied a cute re-vamp of a family's photo collection and tucked the idea away in my mind for future reference. Then in June, when The Boss lost his job and we had lots of projects lined up that were free or really inexpensive to fill some of his time, I pulled out the idea again from the recesses of my brain and got him going on it while I was using the days to sort through end-of-the-year school papers for each kid. He took a ton of frames from storage and various spots all over the house and spray-painted them all a high gloss black. This part of the project was totally free, as we had the paint (we always have glossy black spray paint, it's a staple!) and the frames were mostly sitting in storage unused and dusty. They turned out beautifully and it was a quick and easy way to create a unifying theme for the big project I had brewing in my head. I started a file folder of all of our most current favorite pictures of the Gang and started printing and tucking away other things I wanted to round out the project.

However July got really busy with some other pressing projects and then so many other issues took over (many of which I'll share in my coming series of gang member updates). Finally, during Christmas break, when The Boss was working from home and the bigger kids were free to watch the two little girls, he and I dug in and finished the project. Here's a peek, with a progression of the two days' worth of work.

This is how the big wall started out. I loved the simplicity of that large twig wreath over the couch but other members of the Gang made fun of it regularly. I moved it to the front living room and the proportions there are much better for the new space but some gang members still mock it. Sigh.

I had this family photo from November 2013 put on a large canvas, thanks to a great coupon code from my sister to Easy Canvas Prints. It was a new idea to me, though I'd seen others do it and I'm really pleased with the way it turned out. I am thinking of other projects now that I can do to update and freshen our walls around here!

This was the starting point, using our family photo as the anchor. We had previously placed all our favorite pictures into the newly sprayed black frames and tried really hard to get a good mix of shapes and sizes and orientations of the pictures. To give us a better perspective of what the final product would be, we laid the pictures out on the floor in front of the couch, arranging and re-arranging with help from LadyBug, who has an incredibly artistic eye. Her suggestions and tweaks were almost always "spot on!"

We just built on the anchor line and filled in with a combination of posed and candid shots. We also included some of our favorite artwork from our different trips to China that have meaning for us. But something was not quite right. It just felt, even with the couple pieces that we were still fitting into frames, that something was off-balance.

Baby BlueEyes came in from playing with the little girls and agreed that something was "missing." Right away, he said, "Hey, what about the 'Our Family' quote you have up in the dining room? That's black and white and it's a perfect size for the big empty space you can't quite fill."

Well, what do you know? He was right! It's a perfect fit for the space! Apparently, HE has a great eye for aesthetics as well. I'm still impressed by his suggestion!

Later that day, I headed down to our local crafting store and found the script-style letter "W" to add to the top of the arrangement. And there you have it! Our Family Photo Wall is done. Well, almost done. I've got about three or four other pictures I want to print and add. I'll just  move the picture of my handsome soldier boy up a little bit. But that's the beauty of this arrangement. We have a good amount of wall space still to work with AND we have things placed in a way that I know exactly what I can add and where.

I got so excited by all the work we finished that day that I took some extra time that weekend to find frames for all our updated cousin and extended friend & family pictures, too. I love having all the people we love best in pictures where the kids can see them and stay connected that way. Some of the annual Christmas cards we got were just stunning and lent themselves well to framing, too. There's a really inexpensive idea for you - at no extra charge! Take those Sh#tterfly cards of your sister's kids or your best friend's family and frame them! Youarewelcomeverymuch :)

I'm so pleased with the project and the whole thing cost us less than $100, canvas, mats and lettering included. Even when I go and print the three or four pictures I am working on, this will still come in under a hundred dollars. SO exciting to have current pictures of our gang - I seriously still find myself looking at the wall and sighing in happiness.

Friday, October 3, 2014

DIY {Card Catalog Upcycle}

At the end of August, I was out walking in our neighborhood with LadyBug and came across this gem sitting at the end of a drive-way, waiting for the trash service to come by. I hustled back to the house and asked The Boss to heft it home. I had a PLAN!

That afternoon, I posted a picture on my F@ceb00k wall and started a guessing game with my friends to see who might be able to "see" what it could become like I was seeing it in my head.  I guess I drove a couple friends crazy - I even got some private messages IMPLORING me to spill the beans to them! What fun my friends are!!!

The Boss had some sanding and glue-ing to do, as the laminate on the top and back were a little water-damaged. But in short order, he finished that step and turned it over to Baby BlueEyes to remove all the hardware and clean out the drawers. Like how he saved the tedious part for the kid?! Ha!!!

We had some dark primer in the basement. There was some skepticism about whether it was still good because we are pretty sure it was from painting our kitchen beadboard, back in 2010. It went on smoothly enough so I think we're good. All those little drawers standing up with their new primer remind me of little soldiers for some reason.

After The Boss did a TON of reading about creating a faux vintage look, he started by painting a base coat of the milk-chocolatey brown that we used in our dining room back in 2009.  Are you sensing the theme here? Yup. Upcycling on the cheap, using what we have on hand as much as possible. That's the goal!

The next coat was a thinned-out glaze of black with plenty of brush-strokes left to create a washed, worn kind of finish. This part is always hard for The Boss. He's such a perfectionist and the uneven, randomness of this look really stresses him out. NOT enough to hand the paintbrush over to me, but enough to make him doubt himself and second-guess my vision (that he already, admittedly, struggles to see the way I see it)

I am, oddly, NOT a perfectionist in these kinds of projects. I have a general ballpark in which I want the look to fall but if it's close, it's okay with me. I like the lack of symmetry and the quirks of hand-finished work. It is definitely NOT how I operate in most other areas of my life. Which might add to his stress, now that I think about it. 

Once a couple coats of a polyurethane were applied to seal and protect it from the wear and tear of all our big and little Gang members, it was ready for some after-market add-ons. The Boss spent almost an hour at L0we's the other day, texting pics of various leg styles and lengths to me. We settled on these and he spent his day off (from his part-time job at T@rg3t) finishing the legs to match the cabinet. Pretty impressive work, if you ask me!

He brought it in to the house and added the legs while Mei Mei looked on. Her first response when she saw it standing up was, "Oooooh, WOW!" My thoughts exactly, sweet girl! Look at how perfectly those legs blend in color, shape and size! And being the detail-nerd that I am, I'm also excited about how closely the knobs of the table match the turn-work on the legs. I know, NO ONE would notice that. But I do. And I love it!

What's even more perfect than the spot-on match is that the legs and the hardware to attach them are THE ONLY expenses we incurred to finish this project. I love me some cheap upcycling!!!!

The Boss and Mei Mei sat down and put all the brass hardware back into each drawer. And re-tacked each card-plate in the original holes. Well, to be more accurate, Mei Mei cheered daddy on and sang songs from Frozen while Daddy worked the hardware. Heh. 

The excitement was growing - I started cleaning the spot I planned to put it. Oh, man. There was a lot of dust back there... I think someone needs a re-definition of the chore card labelled "Dust Downstairs." Harumph...

Finally, it is DONE and in its new home. I could NOT possibly love it more. Really. It's so much better than I pictured it. It's absolutely my new favorite piece in the whole house.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Family Day {6}

Six years ago today, in a dusty hot Civil Affairs office in Xi'an,
a beautiful squalling baby girl was handed to me.

Six years ago, my arms finally got to embrace
what my heart had been holding for months.
YEARS, if you really know my story.

Six years ago, this lovely, spunky, sensitive, little firecracker
changed me forever as only the gift of life can change.

I'm so grateful for the gift she is to our home. To our family, immediate and extended. I love the way her little mind works, always thinking, always processing. She's intuitive and inquisitive. She's loving and expansive. She's a treasure and it's such an honor to parent her.

It's a beautiful day for our family to look back and remember. It's even more exciting to hug her tight and revel in the forever that stretches ahead of us. We are blessed. Beyond measure, we are blessed.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Uh Uh"

As Mei Mei gets increasingly more verbal, you know, with actual discernible words and phrases, we are regularly amused by the things that come out of her mouth. One of my favorite things lately has been her non-word communication. By that, I mean her little "Hmmmm?" when she hasn't heard us clearly the first time. Or the "Uh HUH!" when she whole-heartedly agrees with a suggestion. Or the humming she does to her babies when she's talking to them and putting them down for their naps.

Well, yesterday, she pulled a new one out of her bag o' tricks.

She spent most of the morning happily playing between The Boss's phone, the iPad, her baby dolls, and the table coloring or "typing" like Mommy. Around 11:30, I noticed that she looked pretty tired so I put lunch on a fast track. I treated her to "chippies" on her plate (potato chips) but reminded her that she had to sit in one of her two booster seats for her meal while I worked on the school calendar. Neither of those options suited her AT! ALL! so she put herself in the corner and boo hoo'd for about 5 minutes. I repeated her choices to her and proceeded on with my work, just quietly and gently reminding her after about 10 more minutes that she had chippies on her plate and she was free to eat them when she made a choice about the two seats. The pull of the salty, crunchy, yumminess finally won; she climbed into her booster seat with a big, aggravated sigh to let me know she was totally put out with me.

I watched over her plate, reminding her to eat the hot dog and the chippies equally. When the chippies were finished FAR sooner than the hot dog, or the carrots for that matter, I told her that there would be no more chippies until some bites of the dog or carrots were finished. She quickly shook her head and said, "Uh Uh" in strong disagreement with my instructions. I calmly repeated my directive and walked over to the sink. She kept repeating "Uh Uh" through her copious tears and shaking her head in between trying to lick the salt off her fingers and her plate.

When it finally appeared that she just could not shake her despair, that exhaustion had taken over all sense of logic, I calmly cleaned her up and changed her diaper. All the while, she was frantically shaking her head and telling me "Uh Uh" over and over. I was trying hard not to laugh at how CLEARLY and ridiculously her tired little self was behaving. That would only serve to escalate her needlessly.

I carried her up the stairs and rocked her quietly in the chair, praying for her and NOT singing. See, when I started to sing (as per our normal pre-nap snuggle routine), she started with the "Uh Uh" again. I was fine with that, so I rocked silently.

But every few seconds, with lids drooping heavier by the second, she'd get out a sleepy little "Uh Uh." Each one more slowly drawn out than the last. Until there was barely a whisper of one last "Uh." 

That is, until I laid her down in her bed. Upon which she burst out one final "Uh Uh" more vehement than them all.

I am so proud of myself. I held the laughter in till I made it to the hallway and shut her door.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

First Day of School!!

There's been a LOT of firsts for this Gang this summer. And today marks what we hope is the last of the firsts for a little while. It will be nice to settle in to a familiar routine for all of us, but particularly for Li'l Empress and Mei Mei who seem to be having the hardest time (not surprisingly) with all the new stuff going on in our lives.

Last night, Shaggy and Miss A showed up to wish the Gang well on their respective first days. And to meet the newest member of our Gang. Yes, we have a new Gang member. We are welcoming a Chinese exchange student into our home. She came by last night with her parents to meet us and drop off some of her belongings. She moves in today with the rest of her stuff. She's a junior at the local Christian high school and we are all excited about what this relationship will hold for our families. Please pray with us for her transition. It's her first time in an American school, living with an American family, and a big one at that. We want this to be a great positive experience for us all! I'll share more about her as we get her settled, after I ask her permission to do so.

Without further ado, here's all the Gang that headed out the door. ALL three of them by 8 a.m. I might add. Sheesh, that feels really stinkin' early, for all of us!

Today is LadyBug's first day of HIGH SCHOOL!
Yes, my baby girl is a 10th grader.
She was very nervous about the HUGE building
she has to navigate but super excited to see all her
BFF's again. I'm so glad she has so many friends
who will muddle through it with her.

Baby BlueEyes starts middle school today.
I am positive he's going to shock his friends
with how much he's grown over the last three months.
He wasn't nervous at all that I could tell.
I love his confidence!

He was, however, very sad about saying good-bye to these two munchkins.
He kept telling them how much he'd miss them today.
I got a little choked up. He's such a great big brother!

Li'l Empress has been worrying and nervous for three days
about going to school without her big brother.
She did great all morning long, even saying good-bye to him
without tears. Until the bus pulled up.
There's no picture of her waving as she climbed up
because I was peeling her off of me and strongly
encouraging her that she would be safe
with the new driver on the new bus without her brother there.

By the time I met her over at the school for their Welcome Back
festival, she was working on her smile and feeling more settled.
This part of the "first day" is familiar to her now so she was able
to enjoy the hugs from friends that she hadn't seen all summer long.

Her teacher is new to us as a family but has been at their school
for a very long time. And every report I've heard has been a positive one.
We are excited to have her on our "team" for Li'l Empress's journey this year!

And thank you, Jesus, for this precious friend.
This is her little BFF from church and though they aren't
in the same class this year, she's absolutely still a gift from God
for our Li'l Empress. SUCH an encourager - seriously, it chokes me up
how sweet and compassionate she is.
When they were heading into the building in their separate lines,
"Little Miss I" gave Li'l Empress a "thumbs up" and
shouted, "Good luck today!"
How cute is that?

So now The Boss and I are hanging out with Mei Mei and trying to decide what to tackle first. No surprise, after our long holiday weekend with friends, I've got lots of daily tasks on which I should catch up. And tons of pool towels to wash and fold. Hopefully that will keep my mind busy so I don't think about how ridiculously short this summer felt. And how crazy quiet it is in this house right now.

Share your first day links in the comments. With my slower paced day (cuz gosh, when's the last time I only had one kid to take care of?!) I'll come by and say hi!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Muffins For Dinner?! YAY!"

I have so much to share about the goings' on of the last three weeks - but until I gather the pictures and the words to share the new stuff, here's a great idea for a yummy Summer dinner I made for The Gang.

Fair warning, I tweaked this from another recipe so it's not entirely original to me. I had four big zucchinis in the fridge that were graciously shared with me and one of them needed to be used immediately. So I washed it down, cut off the mushy ends, and slice it length-wise into four "spears." Then I de-seeded it and ran each spear through the food processor using the grating blade. A 14" long zucchini yielded about 3 1/2 cups of shredded zucchini.

Ham and Cheese Crust-less Zucchini Quiche

1 large, chopped onion
1/4 c. butter
2 cloves garlic, pressed
4-1/2 c. baking mix (Bisquick)
2 tsp. dried parsley
1 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
6 eggs
1/2 c. milk
3 c. shredded zucchini
1-2 c. chopped ham, to preference
3/4 c. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 c. parmesan, shredded (optional)

In large skillet, saute the onion and garlic in butter till soft and slightly golden. Add shredded zuke and continue to saute on lowered heat till the zuke has softened and is starting to release its juices. Set aside to cool slightly.

In large bowl, combine parsley, baking mix, parsley, basil, and thyme. Beat together the eggs and the milk and pour over dry ingredients. Lightly mix till just moistened. Add the zuke, ham, and cheese and finish mixing gently till all of it is incorporated. Don't over mix!

Pour into 2 generously sprayed deep dish pie plates, or 2 9x13's, or a deep 11x14. Bake at 400 for about 18-22 minutes until they are golden brown and have raised gently. They will be moist and dense inside but a knife inserted in the center should come out clean to be sure they are done.

This time around, I poured it all into 22 sprayed muffin cups. (Yes, I was just shy of the full 2 dozen but I liked that they were nice and high and full when they were done. It's a trade-off, I guess!) I used my Pampered Chef muffin stones and they turned out moist and lightly golden all around. Li'l Empress thought I was kidding when I told her we were having muffins for dinner and Mei Mei shocked me into tomorrow by downing 1 1/2 of them. She - of the great veggie boycott! We let them dip the bites into their choice of mustard and served it all with a side of salad and broccoli.

It's another healthy way to get some good veggies into your kids and they really are delicious.  I've got two really big ones zucchinis left and I'm getting a hankering for my other Summer Favorite. Anyone else have a good zucchini recipe - other than zucchini bread! - that they want to share? Share some of your favorites in the comments!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Field Trip to the Frontier

Last week, we took a few days to drive to the Shenandoah River Valley to see The Boss's parents. The Boss and Baby BlueEyes were planning to help Grandpa clear some brush and cut some trees into firewood. The girls and I had big plans to read, watch movies and do our nails.

However, knowing that those three sedentary activities would NEVER occupy Mei Mei long enough to actually be relaxing for anyone, I reached out to one of my adoption groups to see if any of my on-line friends would be interested in a meet-up. It took a little back and forth but finally, my friend and I settled on the Frontier Culture Museum of VA.  I'm not being paid to say this, but GUYS! If you are ever in the vicinity of Staunton VA (just south of Harrisonburg), get yourselves there for a day. It will take a full day and you should wear good walking shoes and bring a good amount of water. But it is SO worth the admission fee and the effort. What a BEAUTIFULLY maintained and managed piece of living history this place was.

The museum traces the history of the three or four main people groups that left their Old World to make a life in the Americas. Beginning in the 1600's with the enslavement of West Africans and moving through the English, the Irish, and the Germans, each exhibit is a real, working depiction of that slice of history. MANY of the structures across of the huge "campus" (for lack of a better word) are original to the region that they depict, having been disassembled and shipped to the site. There were interpretive historians on site to weave stories and give us a glimpse of daily life at each major exhibit (except the West African site. That kid was a little bit of a dud. :) ). There were animals roaming in the pastures and ducks and geese in the paths squawking for our attention (which BBE happily gave. In spades! Oh my word.) We were all completely captivated.

Here's just a few pictures of our great day. Sadly, I didn't get any pictures of the West African exhibit. It was super dark in the huts. Plus the younger kids were a little unsure of themselves in the new setting with new people. Plus plus, my new friend and I were talking our faces off getting to know each other while the kids explored. Most of the photo credits go to LadyBug.

The 1600's English farmhouse was the second exhibit on the walking path.
The dining room, work room and family room all in this one space.

This beautiful side board is an original piece.
From the 1600's!
Yes, I was drooling. It was full of lovely earthenware dishes
and cookware. More drool.

The kitchen was quite small and off the main living space, behind the stairs.
It was quite drab compared to the adjoining rooms.

The front of the 1700's Northern Irish farmhouse.
It's an original home structure, from Ulster.
The side building attached there on the right is the Weaving Room.
Each family had to produce a regular quota of cloth to pay their rent to the English landlords. 

This sheep was fantastically large.
And sat in the shade of the pasture like a dog.

Here's my gang with our super-fun travel mates!

The 1700's German farmhouse had many pieces of lovely furniture
with hand painted finishes. Quite familiar to this PA history buff :)
 This trunk was huge and very intricately painted with
a faux wood grain finish, very typical of that era.

This is the 1820's farm that is mostly still the original structure.
It's typical of the farms in the post-Revolutionary era in this
part of Virginia and surrounding colonies.

Just a few of the HUUUUGE sunflowers
in the garden of the first farm house.
The gardens of this log cabin were fantastic!

This is a farm typical of Virginia in the 1850's .
It was a massive home, with several outbuildings
and barns to support the family. 

The two little peanuts that are responsible for
this field trip so the Mommas could take the friendship
from on-line support to real-life relationship.
I love what the adoption community has added to our lives!

A great day was had by all and we came away with a lot of great memories and some wonderful insight into the rich history of Virginia spanning several hundred years. Really, if you are in the vicinity, you MUST go! And take lots of pictures. I'll bet it is simply breathtaking in the fall with all the colors changing.