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Unexpected Gifts

When we first walked through the house in April, it was basically empty – no furniture or window treatments, nobody currently living there at the time. After we decided that yeah, we were gonna take a shot at buying this house built in 1900 (!), we came back and took a closer look.  I’d found out the hard way, from a house we’d signed a contract on a few weeks earlier, that it was a good idea to open those cabinets, look in the closets, really take your time and decide if you can make this place work. (We backed out of the other house after the inspection turned up some Bad Things, but I also hadn’t realized that the kitchen cabinets were actually horrible inside – I never bothered to open a door or drawer. Doh! The market was insane at that time and we were basically jumping at any house that hadn’t been sold out from under us.)

As we slowly inspected each room, opening cabinets and drawers, we realized that there was actually quite a bit of stuff still here. Pots and pans, dishes, silverware, lace curtains (still in the packaging from the dry cleaner) hanging in the closet.  The upstairs storage area, which I call the attic but really isn’t – it’s just a small room at the end of the upstairs hall with lots of space for storing things – had some holiday decorations in the back.  There was a propane charcoal grill on the back deck. Stuff like that.

We tried to piece together the story of these left-behind items.  The seller hadn’t lived in the house since 2011 or 12.  I found a whole kitchen cabinet filled with inkjet cartridges, markers, first birthday invitations, even photos, and our seller was not in any of them. Leftover invoices in the same cabinet had somebody else’s name, a couple with a small child from the looks of things.  I assumed they were renting the house and, for whatever reason, took off in a hurry and left a bunch of stuff behind.  I also assumed it would all be gone once we actually took possession in June.

But it wasn’t gone.  We opened the door with our new key, walked in, and found all these things in the same places we’d last seen them.  So I ended up with a couple of new pots and pans, donated most of the dishes, gifted to Paige all the things she needed for her new home, and tossed the junk in the trash.

I pretty much forgot about the holiday stuff. I mean, it was June and the holidays were the furthest thing from my mind. Once November rolled around, though, I started eyeballing potential spots for a Christmas tree.  You might remember my dilemma when we moved to the little house in Niles, a house so small that there was no possible place for a full-sized tree.  (I actually considered not having a tree that first year, until Dave insisted that we look at some pencil trees.)  To have multiple possibilities for tree placement was a novelty for me; even in Illinois, there was only one real option for where to put the tree (and I still had to move furniture to fit it in).

“We need to buy a tree this year,” I reminded Dave.  “I hate to spend the money, it would be cheaper to buy it after Christmas, but that pencil tree is just not big enough.  We’ll put that one out on the front porch.”

He held up a finger to stop me.  “Hang on.”

He went downstairs (we have a Michigan basement here, so I try to stay out of it as much as possible).  A few minutes later I heard something thunking up the stairs, and then a six-foot Christmas tree appeared in my kitchen.

He peeked around from behind it.  “It was downstairs! It has lights on it and everything. It’s from Bronner’s!”

I mean, what are the odds?!  This tree is the perfect size for the family room, and it is gorgeous.

I did suggest that we buy a second tree during the after-Christmas sales and put it up in the living room or dining room, but Dave shot that down.  Can’t blame a girl for trying!  😉

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And Then It Was Over

We did not have a white Christmas. As my mom so aptly put it, “We did not have a flake of snow.” Actually, that applies to both Michigan and Illinois – we had a Winter Weather Advisory for 1-3 inches of snow, and my mom (in Illinois) had a Winter Storm Watch for up to 7” of snow. But as I told Dave, it actually didn’t bother me because we were traveling on Christmas Day. I would rather have clear roads, no rain or snow, and cloudy skies if we have to be driving, and that’s exactly what we did have.

We got to my mom’s around 10 am (one of the benefits of living in different time zones … we left here at 8:30 am, it’s just under 2-1/2 hours of driving, and we got to her house at 10 am because she’s an hour behind us). We had a wonderful six hours together, and then we left a little earlier than planned because Eric needed to catch the 4:17 train back to Chicago and we had to get him to the train station in time. We had our usual ham and lasagna for dinner, along with green bean casserole and garlic bread. I’d told Dave when we were driving there that I’d been craving ham and lasagna SO BAD. He thought it was hilarious – what a combination! But it’s what we always have – ham and some type of pasta dish – and mmmm, it’s so good.

We got to spend Christmas Eve with Paige, her boyfriend, and her roommate, and that was awesome. Cinnamon rolls for breakfast, then gift opening; in the afternoon, Paige and Michael made Rice Krispie trees while Dave and I mostly watched, offering cooking advice here and there. We had beef stew for dinner, which was a first for us. I do believe these kids are pickier than even I was, so we had a brainstorming session the week earlier to find something they would both like to eat … and beef stew won. It really worked out well because I got the stew in the crockpot before we left to pick up the kids, and I didn’t need to stop and put dinner together later in the day.

Cinnamon Rolls

Dave’s awesome cinnamon rolls, a Christmas tradition

Dave and I opened our gifts when we got home from Illinois on Christmas night, and we waited until then to give the cats their catnip bananas (I wanted to be here in case they went Catnip Crazy). Let’s just say the catnip bananas were the hit of the day. At one point Maxie hid hers under the Christmas tree skirt, then started diving and freaking out trying to get it back. The Christmas tree did survive, but I’m glad we were here to supervise!

Now we look toward New Year’s Eve, which we CAN’T WAIT for. Appetizers and games and awesome company! We don’t drink at all – Dave has Hepatitis C (and is going back into treatment in March – more on that later) and I take medication that doesn’t mix well with alcohol. But we don’t need to drink to have fun, so it’s all good.

I can’t say I’ll be sad to see 2014 go – we had some gut-wrenching changes this year – but we also had fun, and we made the best out of a bad situation. Hopefully 2015 will be a bit more calm and stable, but as long as we have each other I think we’ll be just fine.

Quick Takes, Holiday Edition

1.  They say our area has a 90% chance of snow on Christmas. It seems hard to believe, with a high today of 48 degrees and Christmas only two days away. But we’ll see – stranger things have happened. The main thing is that the snow they swear we’ll have tomorrow night is not supposed to be of the ‘well, we might get your road plowed by next week’ variety. Just a dusting, not enough to mess up the roads on Christmas Day.

2.  We’re in good shape as far as preparations go, with the exception of one gift for Dave that is obviously not going to arrive by Christmas Eve (or ever, apparently). I’ve already warned him that he’ll be helping me choose a replacement gift on Dec. 26th, hopefully from a seller that actually plans to ship things.

3.  I realized I hadn’t gotten anything for the cats. In the old house we actually hung stockings for them from the stair railing on the second floor. In this house I barely had room for the stockings that belonged to humans (I turned our large hope chest into a makeshift mantel next to the Christmas tree), much less room for the cats’ stockings. I guess not having the stockings out made me blank out on getting them a gift. Yes, I know they are cats. Yes, I know they don’t know it’s Christmas and expect no gift from us. But what kind of mother would I be if I forgot them?!

So I got them some Yeowww! catnip bananas, after seeing photographic evidence of my friend Kellie’s cat loving on his banana. (That sounds wrong, but you know what I mean.) I’ve gotten them Cosmic Catnip toys before but this is a new brand for us. I ordered them from Amazon because I knew they’d get here in time using their Prime shipping and, remember, I waited until the last minute to order them. They arrived promptly and I put them on a high shelf in the kitchen pantry, which is really just shelves off the kitchen that I’ve covered with a curtain.

The cats are now going crazy, pacing in front of the pantry, sticking their heads up inside the curtain, meowing, etc. This is for catnip toys that are in their packaging AND inside their shipping materials. I can’t wait to see what they do when we actually give them their bananas. (Go bananas, maybe? ahem)

4.  We’re in charge of Christmas cookies for dinner at my mom’s on Christmas Day, and I’ve been making a few types each day so we’ll have a nice variety to bring. Yesterday I made Italian anise cookies, which I remember fondly from my childhood. I can’t believe I’ve never made these before, because Dave loves licorice I don’t even know what made me decide to make them – I think the recipe popped up in an Allrecipes email or something.

There are wildly different recipes out there and I was really torn between them; finally I chose one from Food.com and crossed my fingers. If you’ve never had them before, they are almost like a little cake/biscuit type cookie with a glaze on top. We had to go to two stores to find anise extract, but it was worth it – I doubled the amount of extract in the frosting from 1/8 to ¼ tsp (we like the flavor) and they are so good. Dave’s face when he tasted the first one was priceless. He handed me a piece, I took a bite and said, “Oh my gosh, this brings back memories,” and then my eyes filled with tears. Crying over a cookie! But it just reminded me so much of Christmas Eve at my Aunt DeeDee’s house, my dad (who loved anise anything – cookies, biscotti, anisette liquor), and just all those Christmases of my youth when a platter of those cookies always seemed to be present. I am so glad I made them.

Italian Anise Cookies

Our Italian anise cookies — I remember the ones with round sprinkles the best.

This year we have a full day on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I already know I won’t be writing again until Friday. So I want to take this moment to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season, no matter what holiday you celebrate. Thanks for being my friends, for sticking around even when I don’t write for weeks, for your valued feedback and comments and perspective. I hope all your wishes come true!

Older and Wiser: Christmas Cookies

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Christmas and how it was celebrated in other countries. I used to check out library books on the subject. It was hard to imagine following some of the traditions I read about – I distinctly remember being amazed that some people didn’t put up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, and then Santa was the one who decorated it. (Looking back as an adult, I can only imagine how tiring that must be for the parents. There it is, 11 pm or whenever they managed to get the kids soundly to sleep, and now they have to quietly drag out boxes of ornaments and decorate the tree without being caught … not to mention actually setting out the Santa gifts and filling stockings.)

Obviously we weren’t going to be changing our family traditions just because I thought it was cool how people in Denmark celebrated Christmas or whatever, but one thing I could do was bake some of the traditional cookies made in various countries. I remember dog-earing pages of a book called Christmas Cookies of the World (or something similar), just certain that I was going to make ALL of these cookies and try them out.

My eyes were bigger than my ambition, and I only actually tried a few of the recipes. Still, though, it was fun to read about and dream. As an adult, I still have a bit of a problem where Christmas cookies are concerned. Now it’s not so much about trying Christmas cookies from around the world as it is about trying Christmas cookies that just look so gorgeous and sound so delicious.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I tend to go overboard when I plan my baking days. When I was in my early 20s, I failed to take into consideration which recipes were the type that needed to be made and then refrigerated for hours before I could bake them. I’d get the dough made up and then get to the line that said ‘refrigerate for three hours or more’ and just sigh. Now what?!

Other times I’d be more organized; I’d make the ‘refrigerate for freaking ever’ cookie dough first, and while it was chilling I’d move on to something I could bake right away. But I’d plan to make a whole list of cookies in one day, an endeavor that would take me hours and leave me with a sore back and aching feet.

I also learned that I have no patience for cookies that have to be rolled out and decorated. Those were the types that they always pushed on young mothers as a great way to involve your children in cookie baking. Neither of my kids had any interest in this, even though they both liked to cook and Paige, especially, was into crafts. By the time we made the dough and rolled it out and started using the cookie cutters, they were getting bored. They’d wander off while the cookies were baking; usually I could coax them back to decorate a few once they cooled off, but I always felt like I was forcing the kids to join me in an activity they really didn’t care about. Decorated sugar cookies got taken off the list after a couple years of listless participation.

Really it was like this for any kind of cookie. “Want to make cookies?” I’d ask. They would shout, “Yes!” and by the time we were scooping out the dough, they’d be leaning on their elbows, sighing, looking around the room. “If you want to stop, you can,” I’d say, then watch them happily skip off to read or build Legos or whatever while I scooped and baked.

So here I am, 50 years old, and I’d like to think I’ve reached the ‘wiser’ part of ‘older and wiser.’ Okay, yes, I do have at least ten types of cookies I’d like to make this year – I have my tried and true recipes, like chocolate chips and Russian Tea Balls (also known as Snowballs, Mexican Wedding Cookies, etc. etc. – basically they should be called Round White Balls of Buttery Deliciousness Covered in Powdered Sugar). I have a couple of new recipes, because I always like to try a few new ones each year. (Congo Bars, how have I not made you before now?!) And I usually try to make at least one traditional Italian cookie – sometimes it’s pizzelles, sometimes biscotti; this year it’s frosted anise cookies. But I don’t try to make them all in one day. Now I spread the cookie-making joy over a few days, sometimes a week.

I’ll leave you with a recipe that has just three ingredients – butter, brown sugar, flour – and tastes absolutely amazing. This is one of my new recipes for this year because I’d never made shortbread before and wanted to see how they would turn out. Mine looked nothing like the photo accompanying the recipe; they would fit better in a ‘Pinterest Fail’ meme. But how they look doesn’t matter. They are simply amazing – buttery, not too sweet, and very addictive: Scottish Shortbread

Happy baking!

Happy Holidays (emphasis on ‘happy’)

After all the snow we got in November (16 inches before Nov. 15th, another good six inches on Thanksgiving, with little flurries many days in between), I was positive we’d have a white Christmas. In fact, I was a little nervous about whether we’d be able to make the drive to Illinois on Christmas day. It seemed entirely possible that we’d be snowed in.

In Illinois, we lived in a suburb about 35 miles west of Chicago. About half the time that snow was predicted, it wouldn’t show up at all. Usually we’d get just a little bit while other areas got dumped on. I love snow, and this used to drive me crazy. We’d hear the term ‘lake effect snow’ but it never applied to us because we were too far from Lake Michigan and in the wrong direction as well.

When we moved to southwestern Michigan, we got our first taste of lake effect snow. We aren’t right on Lake Michigan – you have to drive 30 to 40 minutes to get there – but we’re right in the little area where lake effect snow seems to develop. In fact, the towns right along the lake tend to get less snow than we do. The boundaries of the lake effect snow area are really dramatic – the storm that ultimately gave us 16 inches of snow dropped just a couple of inches in towns right around us.

So here we are, almost exactly halfway through December, and we’ve had no snow. Not only have we had no snow, but it’s also been fairly warm for this time of year (today I think it’s going to be around 50 degrees). While this is nice for the car – she actually starts up first thing in the morning with no hijinks on our part – it’s not really nice for the whole Christmas spirit thing in general. Even Dave, who is ambivalent about snow, has complained that we should have snow by now.

I’m used to this from Illinois – it was typical for us to have no snow on Christmas and then get tons of snow starting in January. But our ultra-snowy early start to winter had me pretty excited – I’d moved to the perfect place for snow!

Oh well – for some reason, I still feel full of Christmas spirit even without my beloved snow on the ground. Our grass may still be green, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m happy knowing we’ll be able to get to Chicago with no drama on the 25th (assuming the no-snow thing keeps up for the next 10 days), and I’m happy knowing I’ll be able to see my kids and my mom this year on Christmas.

We have cookie-baking plans with Paige and her boyfriend Michael, our gifts are mostly bought, and our budget wasn’t stretched too far beyond its tight confines. Earlier this week Dave pulled me out of the house for a nighttime drive to look at Christmas lights, something we both love to do. We brought out just the right amount of decorations for our little house, my doorway arch is filling up with holiday cards from friends near and far, and Dave has recorded the Christmas specials I remember so fondly from my childhood. (I still cry when Frosty melts – I can’t help it.)

My heart is full and content. While I’d love to look out the window and see white, glittery snow as far as the eye can see, I’m happy instead to look out on our birds and squirrels (and occasional wild turkey).

Welcome, December

Last night I was explaining to Dave what Elf on the Shelf is.  I see it mentioned a lot, enough so that I’ve figured out the whole deal even though our kids are grown and out of the house.  After I finished talking, I sighed.  “I would have rocked the whole Elf on the Shelf thing with the kids.  I wish it had been around when they were little!”  Dave was grinning and nodding; I think he would have had even more fun with it than I would.

That’s the hard part about establishing solid holiday traditions; when the kids move out and move on with their lives, so many of the traditions just stop.  It’s like a little slap of empty nest syndrome every Christmas.

I’ve talked before about our advent calendar traditions; I always had three advent calendars.  That way each kid could do an advent calendar every day, and they alternated days on the third one.  All of our Christmas decorations are up now (except the outside) and I did bring out the advent Christmas tree decoration.  Dave and I are taking turns with it; it’s got drawers with little ornaments inside, and every day you open a drawer, discover the ornament and put it on the tree.

Our advent tree decoration

Our advent tree decoration

I always asked to see what ornament they got for the day.  Paige liked to tease me and  try to sneak the ornament on the tree without showing me, the little scamp.  🙂

On a whim, I grabbed a couple of those chocolate advent calendars for the kids, so I could surprise them on Thanksgiving.  You know the kind – they’re cardboard, and behind each door is a tiny piece of candy.  I presented it to Eric with a flourish and he looked kind of stricken.  “I thought you might get a kick out of this,” I explained.  “Since we can’t do advent calendars anymore, you can do this one at home.”

“OH!”  He exhaled with relief.  “I thought you meant it was for us to do here and I was kinda like, ‘Uh, that’s not really possible’.”  When I realized he thought I expected him to travel here from Chicago every day to do an advent calendar, I got the giggles.  I might have a hard time letting go, but I’m not that bad.

Last year I did Holidailies, where I posted every day for the month of December.  I don’t think I can commit to that again this year but I’ll try to pop in more than usual.  Happy start of December!

Holiday Hangover

Well, I skipped another writing day yesterday…I was deep in the throes of a Christmas Hangover and just couldn’t bring myself to put fingers to keyboard.  The day after Christmas I always feel sad, tired and like I didn’t drink enough water.  After all the anticipation and the activity associated with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I kind of wander around aimlessly, missing the kids and the commotion and needing to hit my Reset button to get back on track.

Happily, this is the effect of a really wonderful Christmas and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I’m fine after a day of readjustment, and looking forward to New Years Eve and a brand new year.

I got an extra gift from the kids this year because they worked it out with their dad to go to his house on the morning of the 26th instead of Christmas afternoon.  Getting the whole day and evening with them was such a treat!  We spent Christmas afternoon/evening at my mom’s house; she threw together a dinner at the last minute and it was absolutely terrific.  We got to spend time with my brother and his family, and the kids got to see their cousins (a rare event now that Paige is in college and Eric is working and living in the Big City).

There were two gifts that were kind of funny this year, as far as coveting and envy go.  First Paige opened a quilt that I made for her (there’s a back story I’ll get to in a second) and Eric was seriously jealous.  His mouth fell open and he said, “Wait…I want a quilt!  Mine is so old it’s starting to fall apart.”  He looked a little sheepish as he admitted this, and I had to remind him that his childhood quilt is really old now; he was 5 when I made it and he’s 22 now.  (Both kids got twin-sized quilts at that age – I let them pick out the pattern and we shopped for the fabrics together.)  Then he reminded me that a few years ago he asked me to make a quilt with the Bauhaus (band) face logo on it.  (That’s being put off til after we move and I have the mental energy to figure out a pattern.)  So we continued opening gifts, and Eric got to his last gift which was…a quilt.  🙂  I figured he’d need a new lap quilt for lounging around in his new apartment!

I got the idea when Paige was home for Thanksgiving break, because she was mending her childhood quilt (fixing some squares that were worn away).  She was going through my boxes of fabric and came across a bag; when she opened it up, there was a huge Millennium quilt top inside.  This was a project the whole family got involved in back in 1999.  I signed up for various swaps where people would send a certain number of 3” fabric squares to other people in the group; the idea was to get 2000 squares and make a quilt out of them to commemorate the year 2000.  We printed out a map of the US and taped it to a cabinet in the kitchen; as the envelopes came in, the kids would color in the state the fabric squares came from.  Our goal was to get fabric from every state in the US and I believe we either met or came very, very close to that goal.  (I still have the map somewhere.)

Dave and I had pieced the squares together in general color groups, 25 squares to a block.  I had two sections done and they were pinned together, ready to be joined into one big quilt.  That’s when I put the project in a bag and forgot about it for 13 years.  (!)  I decided to unpin those two sections, which were each lap-quilt-sized, and finish them so each of the kids could have a new lap quilt for Christmas.  All I had to do was add the batting and backing and quilt them.  I’m really glad that the kids enjoyed the quilts so much!

The other gift that surprised me was a Camelbak filtered water bottle.  This was originally going to be for Paige, since she was filling her regular water bottle up with tap water in the dorm and I figured it would taste better with a bottle that filtered the water.  I ended up getting a great deal on two bottles, and Eric had mentioned almost passing out at work this summer because he was dehydrated and it was so hot, so I figured he could use a bottle as well.

Eric opened his first and Paige just freaked out, talking about how much she had researched Camelbak (she wants to do some hiking trips this summer and was researching the paraphernalia involved) and just generally getting very excited about the water bottle he had received.  She really squealed when she opened her own water bottle a little while later!  After we were all done opening gifts and I was in the kitchen making sausage pepper gravy (while Dave made biscuits), she confessed to me that she had been a bit put out that Eric got the water bottle instead of her.  She was laughing as she admitted this, and it really was funny that both of the kids had their moments of envy because that never, ever happens – they usually both want very different things and would never covet something that the other one received.

I’ll sign off with a picture that Eric took Christmas morning while I was cooking.  I’ve discovered that I prefer pictures taken from above (it seems to lessen the jowly effect) and since Eric is over a foot taller than me, he was definitely taking this photo from above!

Cooking Christmas breakfast...biscuits and gravy!

Cooking Christmas breakfast…biscuits and gravy!

It’s Your Thing (but it ain’t mine)

There are a few perfectly wonderful and fun holiday traditions that we have just never adopted.  Such as:

St. Nicholas Day

I actually never even knew this existed until Eric got into elementary school.  One day he came home from school waving a piece of paper, absolutely thrilled about the fact that St. Nicholas was going to fill his shoe with goodies that night.  I read over the paper, which described the origins of St. Nicholas Day and this wonderful tradition, and thought, “Oh shit.”  I mean, wow – thanks for the heads up, teacher!  I kind of played it off, telling him that I wasn’t sure St. Nicholas visited our house…but he was sure that was just because he’d never put his shoe out before.

So I managed to sneak out of the house, leaving Dave in charge, while I bought some candy (and cursed the teacher).  The kids both woke up to treats in their shoes, which they had dutifully left outside their bedroom door that night.

I believe we might have done this another year or two, but once the teachers stopped bringing it up, I forgot about it again and so did the kids.  (As a side note…kind of weird to have this come up in public school, where they didn’t even say “Merry Christmas” in this politically-correct day and age.)

Putting the tree up on Christmas Eve and having Santa decorate it

I’m sitting here trying to remember if I actually ever knew anyone that did this.  It seems like maybe some people on my parenting email lists way back in the day might have mentioned it as a tradition.  Mostly I remember seeing this in movies, or reading about it in books.  It always sounded kind of cool – you wait until Christmas Eve, set up the tree, then get up in the morning and Santa has decorated it for you!

But I was  A) too anxious to get my Christmas decorations up, and could never, ever have waited that long to have a tree; B) too freaking tired after waiting out my kids on Christmas Eve night before I could set out the Santa gifts and fill stockings (they seemed to fall asleep later and later as the years went by)…there was no way I had the energy to decorate the tree as well; and C) too used to having decorations up for at least a month – I decorate the weekend after Thanksgiving and take everything down after New Years.  Having the tree up just for a week or so seemed sad to me.

Caroling

My mom was here visiting today, and I mentioned how we never went caroling.  I had barely finished speaking when she said, “But Wendi, you can’t sing.”  Truer words were never spoken.  My mom and brother can tell lots of stories about standing outside my closed bedroom door, laughing as I tunelessly wailed along to my Donny Osmond records.  I am not only deaf-deaf, I’m also tone-deaf!

I do remember going out with neighborhood friends when I was really young, and going to at least a few houses to sing our favorite Christmas carols.  This was not organized with sheet music or anything – just a bunch of little kids standing on your porch, belting out “Jingle Bells” until you opened the door.  I told Dave the other day that I can’t even remember ever seeing anyone go caroling in the neighborhood, and certainly never here in this neighborhood.  I can’t imagine anyone would even open the door, if they did hear you.

The one time I did the organized Christmas carols thing was the one winter I lived in Kentucky.  My boyfriend’s family did this as a tradition and it kind of blew my mind – there were a lot of people, all dressed in warm winter finery, sheet music in hand.  They handed me my music and I stood in the back, mouthing the words but making sure no sound actually came out of my mouth.  The last thing I wanted to do was ruin their beautiful harmonies!  (Not that I never sing, mind you – I sang to my kids, I sing to the cats all the time, and I’ll belt out an atonal Happy Birthday without any shame.)

Fa la la la la…

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