Burgers, Brews, and Baked Goods

Quiet weekends at home are few and far between these days. But when we do stumble upon one, we make the most of it. Here are a few highlights from our first and only free weekend in June:

Friday Night: Alfresco dining on buffalo burgers from Gearhart’s Meats, strawberries from Baronner’s Farm Market, and kolsch from Marzoni’s.

Saturday Night: As if we don’t have enough hobbies, we are now homebrewers. Our first attempt, a summer wheat, is currently brewing in our garage. Stay tuned for a full photo recap of phase 1.

Sunday Night: I baked a cake. I just can’t get enough strawberries this season, and I blame The Pioneer Woman for my most recent obsession.

How do you spend your quiet weekends?

Sidenote: I’m considering merging Wiley Wifey and The Culinary Couple. Thoughts? Any advice from WordPress wizards out there?

Posted in life as newlyweds | 1 Comment

Father's Day Tribute

In the midst of June birthdays and surprises and graduations, I nearly forgot the most significant milestone of the month. And today, Father’s Day, is the perfect time to honor it.

My dad was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer five years ago this month. He was a smoker for 30+ years, and like many before him and many since him, he tried to quit numerous times. But he just couldn’t kick the awful addiction that is nicotine.

In the spring of 2004, Dad’s voice began to go hoarse. The family doctor diagnosed him with severe acid reflex disease. And so Dad ingested a purple pill daily and slept with his head propped on pillows and a humidifier on his bedside table.

After more than a year with no sign of progress — and persuasion from a very persistent wife — Dad sought a second opinion.

I remember that day in June. I was sitting on my old slipcovered couch in my third floor efficiency in State College. I was nervously nibbling on a piece of chocolate with my phone by my side. When it rang, and I heard my mother’s quivering voice on the other end, I knew the results of the biopsy without having to ask.

It was stage IV laryngeal cancer, and aggressive treatment began immediately.

Dad faced seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I took off work nearly every Monday during those two months to drive Dad down I-83 to Baltimore.

{Inner Harbor, Summer 2005}

In the beginning, while he was still feeling well, we stopped at Inner Harbor for crab cakes and fried oysters or at the movie theater for a matinée. But before long he lost his ability to taste and swallow. The chemo drugs made him nauseous, and the pain medication made him lethargic. We had a very long and difficult journey ahead of us.

That Thanksgiving was a quiet one with immediate family only. Dad insisted on roasting and carving a turkey, even though he could not enjoy it.

And Christmas was much the same. We were all anxiously counting down the final days of the year to find out whether Dad’s treatments had been successful.

{Christmas, 2005}

Unfortunately, we learned in early January that they were not. The combination of radiation and chemotherapy had not been enough to remove the cancer from his larynx. While the news was not what we had hoped to hear, there was another option: surgery.

Dad had a full laryngectomy on February 1, 2006. It was incredibly scary to see my dad in that hospital bed. He had dropped to just over 130 lbs that winter, and his skin looked pale and fragile. His hands had lost the proud callouses they had gained from years of sanding and staining wood, hammering nails, and shoveling dirt. Also, there was a hole the size of a quarter in his neck.

{February, 2006}

The surgeon had completely removed the site of Dad’s cancer — the larynx, which serves a greater purpose than providing a voice. It separates the trachea (breathing tube) from the esophagus (eating tube). And so when it is removed, breathing must occur through a hole in the neck, called a stoma.

In the days following surgery, Dad learned to breathe through his stoma and properly clean and care for it. Despite not having a voice, he still managed to make the doctors and nurses laugh with sarcastic scribbles on his Magna Doodle — that Mom had purchased just prior to his surgery. (Speaking of my mother, she’s pretty amazing, too. The patience and endurance she demonstrated during that time in our lives still astonishes me.)

But there were a few bumps along Dad’s road to recovery. Specifically, he developed fistulas — tears in the suture site caused by weak, radiated cells. The fear was that if the tears were not repaired, he would never be able to swallow. Rather than having to surgically repair the fistulas, Dad’s surgeon recommended he receive hyperbaric oxygen treatment.

Basically, Dad had to wear a space helmet and sit in a pressurized “submarine” for two hours a day, five days a week, for eight weeks. I’m not kidding.

Thankfully the “dives” did their job. As the fistulas slowly closed, Dad was able to ditch the Magna Doodle and learn to speak with his new voice prosthesis, specifically designed for him. It’s the size of your pinky nail and slides into place between the trachea and esophagus. To speak, Dad breathes in through his stoma and pushes the prosthesis valve to force the air into the esophagus. It’s called esophageal speech.

{Final hyperbaric oxygen treatment, April 2006}

And following a procedure to stretch his esophagus (which had shrunk during radiation), Dad was finally able to swallow again. For eight months, his only nourishment had come from a can that was dumped down the feeding tube that connected to his stomach through a hole above his belly button. You can imagine that simple foods like oatmeal, scrambled eggs, ice cream, grapes, and cheese must have tasted like a fiesta in his mouth!

And you can appreciate our absolute gratitude when Dad was able to share his first full meal with us following my brother’s graduation from Penn State in May, 2006.

{Penn State graduation, May 2006}

Roughly 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer each year, and only about 3,000 have full laryngectomies. But my dad has never been one to follow a crowd.

In the five years since his diagnosis, Dad has regained his suntan, his sweet tooth, and his calloused hands. And he’s settled into his “new normal.” His voice may be raspier and his hair may be longer, but he’s Dad. And he’s here.

{Vermont, 2007}

{OBX, 2008}

{August, 2009; credit Robert Winton}

Since 2005, Dad has walked in the Relay for Life with other cancer survivors, and he’s visited numerous elementary school classrooms to discuss the harmful effects of smoking.

{Relay for Life, 2007}

He’s consumed ales and fish and chips with his son in London.

{London, 2010}

He’s watched his youngest daughter dive and jump and graduate from high school.

{State Track and Field Meet, 2010}

He’s walked his oldest daughter down the stairs on her Wedding Day.

{August, 2009; credit Robert Winton}

And he has danced. Oh, has he danced.

{August, 2009; credit Robert Winton}

He’s gained a second son.

{OBX, 2008}

He’s celebrated 30 years of marriage to his high school sweetheart.

{Spring, 2009}

And he’s gotten lots and lots of wet puppy dog kisses.

{Spring, 2010}

Thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to whistle through a blade of grass and how to hit the sweet spot on a golf ball and how to eat a raw oyster. And for showing me how to be a fighter and how to live life.

Cheers to you on this Father’s Day and many, many more to come. I love you!

Posted in family first | 9 Comments

Graduation Party: Menu

Friday morning following Laura’s graduation ceremony, Mom and I got to work on the party menu. We purchased the necessary ingredients and began preparation for:

Appetizers
Fruit with Strawberry Cream Cheese Dip
Meatballs
Cheese and Crackers

Main Course
Lasagna
Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables
Macaroni and Cheese
Tossed Salad
Crusty Italian bread

Desserts
Chocolate Cake
Strawberry Shortcake Cake
Coconut Cupcakes
Chocolate Trifle

First up: Desserts. I finally got to break in my pristine KitchenAid stand mixer. (Yes, I brought with me my own mixer, baking pans, measuring cups, and casserole dishes. Because we were hosting close to 40 people.)

Mom started with the Hershey’s chocolate cake, and I got to work on The Pioneer Woman’s strawberry shortcake cake. Mom cracked eggs and measured cocoa while I sliced strawberries and sifted flour.

And before long, the kitchen looked like this:

But no worries. Because amidst cleanup, I may have snatched finger fulls of this:

And then it was on to rounds 3 and 4 of the desserts: dangerously delicious coconut cupcakes from Ina Garten and a simple crowd pleasing trifle with multiple layers of brownies, chocolate pudding, and whipped topping.

And before we called it a day, Mom assembled two dishes of macaroni and cheese, and Nick (who arrived just in time to help!) and I stewed the sauce for the lasagna.

Saturday morning was a flurry of final prep work: throw meatballs into crock pot, grate and slice five varieties of cheese, assemble two casseroles of lasagna, roast vegetables for three dishes of penne, make fruit punch, pick up beer and balloons, and finish the decorations. Whew!

But we all pitched in and pulled it off with time to spare.

And despite the humidity outdoors and the heat generated indoors from two ovens baking seven casseroles, the meal was a success!

Honestly, one of my greatest pleasures is cooking for others. I savored every compliment (and bite!).

(View more photos from the celebration.)

Posted in holidays and parties | Leave a comment

Graduation Party: Decorations

I didn’t quite get to all of the projects I had planned for Laura’s graduation celebration (i.e. napkins Gocco’d with “Class of 2010”). But I think I did a pretty darn good job considering how busy I have been.

First up: Graduation announcements and party invitations, designed in Adobe Illustrator and printed via Vistaprint.

I carried the colors, fonts, and shapes from these pieces onto all other paper party elements.

Round cards to display menu items, including this perfectly chocolate cake:

And a “CONGRATULATIONS” banner strung from twine with photos of “Laura through the years” down each side:

The dining room table was simply set with a red tablecloth, roses from the graduation ceremony, Laura’s diploma and tassel, and wallet-size senior photos. And in a last minute stroke of genius, I decided we should use her mortar board as the guest book. Sweet idea, right?

We also displayed Laura’s senior sports collages and the completely awesome peacock painting she completed in her senior art class. (I’ve already bragged before about her athletic and artistic accomplishments, and these photos are further proof.)

Next up: Find out what we did with three bags flour, four boxes of sugar, at least 12 sticks of butter, six boxes of pasta, and several pounds of produce.

Posted in getting crafty, holidays and parties | 2 Comments

A Milestone

Congratulations to the final family member to join the Dover High graduate club!

Dad received his diploma in 1973 and Mom in 1974. I walked across the stage in 2000 and Andrew in 2002. And eight years later Laura turned her tassel!

Laura was ecstatic to have both of her siblings home for the big event, including our brother straight from British soil! (Unfortunately, Nick was not able to take off work, so he joined us later for the Saturday celebration.)

The Thursday evening ceremony was short and sweet, and we were all thankful to be inside an air conditioned auditorium. (Though, admittedly, I missed the intimacy and sentimentality of the high school football field.)

I then served as Laura’s personal photographer and snapped lots of pictures of her and her friends — trying my best to trick my camera into thinking the auditorium was filled with natural light.

And, of course, a photo with the proud parents …

… and supportive siblings.

Following the festivities, we returned home for finger sandwiches and pies with our grandparents. (Who else is fortunate enough to have grown up within 10 miles of extended family?)

Congratulations, sis! I’m so proud of the smart, artistic, and compassionate woman you have become. I can’t wait to see what adventures lie ahead!

And to demonstrate just how much love and pride I have for my little sister, I spent the next 24 hours in the kitchen with my mom preparing for her party. Details to come!

Posted in family first | 3 Comments

A Great Big Surprise

I hinted in my previous post that my brother, Andrew, gave us a great big surprise last week. Let me fill you in.

I traveled home on Friday evening one week ago to celebrate Laura’s 18th birthday and Dad’s 55th birthday. We ate burgers on the back porch and retreated indoors when the dark clouds rolled in.

The storm had nearly passed by 10:30, but we continued to chat in the comfort of the family room. Mom and I were each on a recliner, and Laura and her boyfriend sat side-by-side on the couch. Dad had just stepped into the kitchen, leaving our two Goldens waiting for his return. (Nick stayed in D-ville since my Saturday and Sunday mornings were reserved for the girls.)

Faint rumbles of thunder and occasional flashes of lightning continued outside. And then another sound — louder and clearer — occurred at the French doors. My first thought was “Holy crap, there’s a man standing at our door!” And then, as my eyes focused on the figure, I saw Andrew. But my head said it couldn’t be Andrew. Andrew lives almost 4,000 miles away in London.

Everyone else in the room was experiencing the same conflicting sight, and then the figure flung open the door, and sure enough, it was Andrew! There were screams and squeals of disbelief as Andrew entered the house and Dad rushed back into the room. I repeated at least five times: “What are you doing here?” There were hugs all around and tears from Mom. And Andrew captured video of the entire dramatic scene.

I have honestly never felt more shock than I did in that moment. It was unlike a birthday party or bridal shower surprise because it was completely unexpected. The thought never even crossed my mind that Andrew would catch a flight from London to Dulles and then drive a rental car to Dover without any of us privy to his plan.

Andrew said he just couldn’t stay away during such a celebratory week. (In addition to the birthdays, we celebrated Laura’s high school graduation.)

Of course we had to share the excitement with Nick, so Andrew called him from my phone to really throw him off. Andrew set the phone to speaker, so we all heard Nick’s groggy voice answer “hello.” He was especially disoriented from sleep, and it took at least three minutes for Nick to realize he was talking to Andrew who really was on this side of the Atlantic.

Andrew spent the remainder of the week surprising other family members, visiting friends, playing golf, watching Sports Center, and consuming his favorite American foods and beverages.

Thanks for the awesome surprise, bro! It’ll be a tough one to top.

Posted in family first | 5 Comments

Spa Day (in photos)

Laura turned 18 last week, which called for a very sweet celebration! Mom and I surprised her with a trip to the Hershey Spa for cocoa baths, cocoa massages, and unlimited Hershey’s Kisses.

Before slipping into our plush robes, Laura and I visited the fitness center. Because that meant we could eat more chocolate throughout the day, right?

We had lunch in the Oasis, walked around the garden, and relaxed on the most comfortable Chaise lounge chairs.

Did I mention there was chocolate? There was. In every room. I drank at least two cups of hot cocoa — despite the balmy temperatures outside — and ate no less than three desserts, two chocolate muffins, and 12 Hershey’s Kisses. It’s a chocolate lovers paradise.

In the late afternoon, we each retreated to our own private rooms for 15-minute soaks in foaming whipped cocoa baths. Then it was on to our 50-minute massages — with chocolate scented massage oil, of course. Everything was just divine.

Side note: My brother, Andrew, may have outdone our surprise Saturday with a Friday night surprise of his own. Story to come!

Posted in family first, travel bug | 5 Comments