I’ve Moved!

Hey, guys! Just wanted to let you all know that my blog has officially moved to jessicajueckstock.com. I have copied over most of the content from this blog, and all new content will be posted there. Hope to see you there!

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Memories of a Loved One

Dear Grammie,

We knew this day was coming, someday, yet somehow it felt like you might live forever. You were stubborn and bounced back after each close call, and it seemed like you might actually live to be one hundred like you told us all you were going to. I admit I had mixed feelings each time you pulled through—I knew you had lived a good, full life, and I didn’t want you to be in pain anymore. But I was glad for just a little longer knowing my Grammie was still here. It makes my heart glad that I was able to see you one last time at your ninetieth birthday party this summer, and I’m so glad that you felt well enough for that one day to enjoy it.

The first day I knew you were gone, it didn’t feel real. I knew you were in a better place, in no more pain, and I was happy for you. The sadness felt distant. The next day it got harder. You were an incredible woman, and it hurts that I will never feel you hug me again. I cherished those hugs and never ended a visit without one.

Others have said it, probably better than I will, but it bears repeating: you had a big heart with room for everyone. I remember you sticking up for people whom others were criticizing. When I was younger, it used to puzzle me how other kids could possibly have just one or two cousins when I had over fifty of them. Eventually I realized that most people didn’t have nine sets of aunts and uncles on one side and five sets on the other. Now I like to brag about my big-hearted grandmother who bore, adopted, and fostered so many children with love enough for every single one of them. I’ve heard the stories and know my dad and his siblings didn’t have a “cushy” upbringing in any sense of the word, but I know they knew they were loved. You are a big part of the reason I hope Jordan and I can foster and adopt needy children too. Even as you got older you never stopped giving—when you were in your eighties you were taking care of “old” people who were sometimes younger than you!

Going to Grammie’s house was a treat, and we used to do it often. You loved having your children and grandchildren and eventually great-grandchildren around you and always made us feel welcome. Even though it’s been years now since you’ve made them, I think molasses cookies will always remind me of you. I loved getting to spend the night—sleeping on the floor with my siblings or cousins in the back living room, where you had lined the wall with pictures of all your children and their children, and listening to the sound of the furnace coming on and shutting off all night long. I never cared for the powdered milk you served with the cereal in the morning, but I got to put sugar in my cereal, which I wasn’t allowed to do at home. Once when I was at your house, you asked me to smell some laundry to see if it was clean because you had no sense of smell. I had no idea what dirty laundry smelled like, Grammie, but I told you I thought it smelled OK.

Everyone used the side door at your house (and we hardly ever knocked) since your front entryway had long ago become a storage room full of toys and books and relics from when our parents were children. We cousins spent many hours there and upstairs playing and imagining what it was like when our parents lived there. One of my favorite “toys” was the box on top of the bookshelf full of the old eyeglasses your kids had worn over the years. We used to enjoy playing the old piano, too, even though it had gone out of tune a long time ago.

Christmas and Thanksgiving get-togethers at your house are some of the most cherished memories of my childhood. Seeing that little house packed with as many aunts, uncles, and cousins as could make it—and so much food!—the best word I can think of to describe it is “homey,” or maybe “comforting.” I missed those gatherings as more family moved out of the area and fewer people were able to attend. I remember you giving a little money to each of your children to buy presents for their kids so we’d all have gifts to open around the tree in the back room at our Christmas parties.

We kids loved exploring your house and its surroundings. The old barn was a favorite until it became so dilapidated that we were no longer allowed to play in it. Even the outhouse was fun and exciting. We would pick berries or apples in your backyard and run around to our hearts’ content. I remember when one or two of my cousins and my sister and I discovered that we could get into the forbidden attic by climbing up some storage shelves into the loft over the woodshed. It was great fun until you heard us moving boxes and furniture around. You told us we weren’t allowed up there because your foster kids might come back someday and want the things they’d left in the boxes up there. I’m fairly certain we still went up there, but we made sure to be quieter after that.

In 2002 I got to travel with you and my cousin Jenny to Papua New Guinea to visit Uncle Ben and his family. I remember at one of our layovers somewhere in Asia, just as we were about to board the plane, you were selected for a pat-down. You, of all people—the thought of my sweet, seventy-six-year-old grandmother getting searched before boarding a plane still brings a smile to my face. Everyone at Uncle Ben’s church loved you, and you loved them right back. When we weren’t sure about some of the food they ate there, you told us a story about a Filipina woman bringing Grampa a dish of “special” food when he was stationed there and sitting there with him to make sure he ate it all. I remember your obvious confusion in one of the airports we had a layover in when you ordered an espresso and it came in a tiny cup.

I know you prayed for me when I went through my rebellious period as a teenager, and when I turned my life around and went to college, I used to pray that you would live long enough to attend my wedding. Having you there when Jordan and I got married meant the world to me, and I will always treasure the afghan you knit for us as a wedding gift. You have a special place in Jordan’s heart, too. He likes to talk about your spunk and the way your eyes sparkle. After we were married, I started praying that you would be able to meet my first child. When Jordan and I started trying to have kids and I had one, then two, then three miscarriages and it was obvious that you were in declining health, I began to think that it wouldn’t happen. I cherish the memory of you holding my three-month-old little boy when we spent his first Christmas in Maine. I’m sad that he won’t remember you, but I know he’ll grow up hearing about you. Now I imagine you up in Heaven loving my little ones that are there with you.

When I complained about my middle name when I was at an age where it was “cool” to hate one’s middle name, I think it was my dad who told me it was a special name, because it was YOUR name. Dear Esther Andrews, I’m proud to be your granddaughter.

Love,
Jessica Esther

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The Fault in Our Stars, Or, The (Non-) Meaning of Oblivion

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”
William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”

Recently I’ve been hearing about The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The title intrigued me and the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation even more so. And so it was that, armed with a Barnes and Noble gift card from my parents for my recent birthday, I found myself purchasing a copy (along with Patricia Wrede’s Across the Great Barrier and Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, books I have been anticipating reading for quite some time).

Due to massive snowfall last night and closed workplaces today, I had some extra time on my hands and finished Green’s book this morning between breakfast and lunch.

On the surface, The Fault in Our Stars is a touching, tragic love story, rather in the spirit of “Romeo and Juliet” (although, admittedly, slightly less tragic). The protagonists, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, meet at a cancer support group where they bond over a shared joke involving the group moderator’s misuse of the word “literally.” Hazel has terminal thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs; Augustus is in remission after losing his leg to osteosarcoma. At first reticent to love Augustus for fear of hurting him—“I’m like a grenade, Mom,” she laments. “I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”—she finally admits she loves him, no matter how futile their romance must be. And in that romance they both find hope and comfort.

But The Fault in Our Stars is not just a sappy paperback romance; it is not even just an exploration and challenging of cancer stereotypes. It is an intellectual, philosophical work. Green’s protagonists are intelligent teenagers who reference numerous influential authors, from Shakespeare to Allen Ginsberg to T.S. Eliot to William Carlos Williams to Sylvia Plath to the apostle John, among others. Green’s writing style is engaging and thoughtful (although, fair warning, he is not afraid to curse) and encourages the reader to ask deep questions such as “What happens when we die?” and “How should we live our lives?” and “Why do we suffer?”

The Fault in Our Stars drips with metaphor, both as an expression of the personality of “Grand Gesture Metaphorically Inclined Augustus” who “smokes” unlit cigarettes—“You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing”—and as situational elements of the story itself. The pair’s visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, for example, where families fought to live only to fall victim to Hitler’s mass genocide, illustrates the futility of Hazel and Augustus’s own fight against the looming specter of death by cancer.

As a philosophical work, The Fault in Our Stars disappoints. Although Mr. Green raises important questions and hints at the soul and an afterlife, ultimately his world is nihilistic. On their first meeting, Hazel addresses Augustus’ fear of oblivion with these words: “There will come a time . . . when all of us are dead. . . . There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything . . . will be forgotten and all of this . . . will have been for naught. . . . [I]f the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.” Later, after losing a video game, Augustus states, “All salvation is temporary.” This theme of the falsity of “forever” runs as a common thread throughout the entire book.

Logically, a world that ends in oblivion with no promise of eternity, a world where, according to the author himself, “nothing any human being ever does will have any overall effect on the universe,” is a meaningless world. If nothing has any lasting significance, humans should “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Indeed, Augustus “decided a while ago not to deny [him]self the simpler pleasures of existence . . . particularly given that . . . all of this will end in oblivion.” And yet. And yet—the characters live largely in direct contradiction to this stated pointlessness. Hazel is vegetarian so she can “minimize the number of deaths [she is] responsible for.” She cares immensely about the people she will leave behind. Augustus wants to be remembered for something heroic rather than “just another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease” and laments that “the marks humans leave are too often scars.”

Mr. Green’s is a world without God, a world where the soul’s existence is dubious at best, a world where nothing matters and yet, somehow, “We must still serve our fellow humans, and the idea of life itself, as best we can,” for “that’s how we make . . . lives meaningful.” The nihilist’s challenge is the reconciliation of meaningfulness with meaninglessness. The result is a world that is at best, illogical and at worst, depressing, for an existence that ends in oblivion is not an existence at all.

On Being a Childless Mother

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to share this. It’s intensely personal and painful, and sometimes it can be dangerous to share those parts of ourselves. But I feel as if I cannot write anything more until I get this out.

On November 6, 2013, I found out I was pregnant. We had just started trying to grow our family and were so excited to have succeeded so quickly. Then, four days later, on November 10, I began to miscarry. This is my letter to our baby.

Dear Baby,

We knew from the start this could happen—
I with my “defect,” he the miracle child,
And yet, we dared to hope.

When I woke up that Wednesday morning, and I knew,
(It was early, but I knew you were there),
We dared to dream.
Later that day, the confirmation—
You were a faint pink line on a store-bought pregnancy test.
I could hardly wait to tell your daddy. We had hoped for you, prayed for you, and you were coming.
We started planning and dreaming—whom would we tell first? How would we tell them?
Would you have your daddy’s eyes? Your mommy’s hair?
Would we name you after your grammies or your grampas?
I was bursting to share our news.
We thought about practical things too, like diapers and baby clothes and what it would cost to raise you.
I read blogs and pregnancy sites and downloaded an app to track your progress.
“Next week Baby’s heart will start beating,” I told your daddy. He smiled.
We called you “Baby Bean,” “Baby J,” and “Junior.”
We hoped you would be a boy.

And yet, in the hope, there was fear.
The line was so faint,
And I thought maybe I was imagining it, but it seemed fainter still when I tested again three days later.
I started to hurt and hoped it was normal pregnancy symptoms.
But I was afraid.
And Sunday night, it started.
We were visiting friends, saying goodbye, when you began your goodbye to us.

Sunday night, Monday,
The pain in my body could not compare to the excruciating pain in my heart.
Did I lose you? Or did you let go?
Was there anything I could have done differently?
Would my body ever deliver a baby?

We told your family—grammies and grampas and aunts and uncles.
We had hoped for so much happier news.
“Cedar’s little cousin went to Heaven sometime yesterday or today,” I told your uncle Josh,
And I cried. Your daddy and I both cried. We missed you so much.
And our hearts broke and felt like they would not stop breaking.

It was four-and-a-half weeks.
And although you were in our lives just a few short days,
You will be in our hearts for a lifetime.

The Speeding Cyclist

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m riding my bike to work in the cool, low light of morning. I reach the end of our road at the top of a long hill and stop at the stop sign, waiting to turn left. A man in an RV pulls up beside me in the right lane and rolls down his window.

I wait, wondering what he will say, trying to keep my mind alert for a response. I can be pretty terrible at this conversation thing.

He smiles. “Better be careful,” he says.

Oh, great, I think. He thinks I shouldn’t be out on the roads on a bike. Well, I won’t let a misinformed driver ruin my day.

He continues, “There’s a police car behind you.”

Whatever, I think. I’m following all the laws, and then some–headlight and taillight. Helmet. In left lane only to turn left. 

“He’s going to pull you over…”

You’re wasting my time…

“For speeding.” He grins, and my thoughts come to a sudden halt. His joke isn’t really funny–like asking a unicyclist where his other wheel is or telling a tandem cyclist his stoker isn’t pedaling, the joke is funny only to the teller. But I grin back anyway, because he took the time to be humorous instead of rude.

I’m used to rude or inattentive drivers. In the few months I’ve been cycling, I’ve been yelled at, honked at, given the finger, passed closely enough to nearly knock me off my bike, sent into a tailspin after suddenly braking for a reckless motorist who made an illegal U-turn across three lanes of traffic in front of my 20+ MPH bike. And yet here’s a person who treats me as a human and shares his sense of humor with me.

It’s not the first time I’ve been pleasantly surprised–there’s the middle-aged man in the utility truck who tells me he sees me every day and admires my discipline –then honks a hello every time he passes me for the next few months. The twenty-or-thirty-something in the red sports car who asks me how far I ride and then asks which direction I’m going when the light changes so that he won’t cut me off. And this goofball who tells me I’m going to get stopped for speeding.

Hey, I’ll take it.

Personalized Coffee Mugs

You know those gift suggestion lists for “the person who already has everything”? Somehow I feel like parents always seem to fit that category, and sadly, the aforementioned suggestion lists never seem to help. Fortunately, this year, my parents had both made specific requests (Mom wanted a duster like mine, and we’ve gotten Dad into Stargate SG1), but the perfect Christmas gift for Jordan’s parents was eluding us. Then I remembered a blog post I’d read on A Beautiful Mess and mentioned the idea to Jordan. He loved it (and thought they would too), so this is what we did.

How to Make Personalized Coffee Mugs

Step 1: Find the mugs

We searched high and low for the perfect mugs. We wanted white ceramic in a non-ornate style. Hobby Lobby had some in the style we wanted, but they were *huge*–as in, bowl sized. Target had some with ridges, which make for a poor writing surface, and they also had some that were rather fancy–scalloped handles and so on. Target also had one that came with… a sweater (say what?). The sweater could be easily removed, and the mug was otherwise perfect, but there was only one left. We finally settled on a pair that was painted inside, but the outside was perfect.

Obviously this technique doesn’t have to be limited to mugs if, say, you wanted to decorate some plates or something else instead.

Step 2: Buy ceramic markers

I cannot emphasize this point enough. You need dishwasher-safe markers. No other kind will do. These may be marked as glass, ceramic, or porcelain markers, but I believe they should all work the same way. Hobby Lobby didn’t have any, and when I asked a store employee, she recommended oil-based Sharpies. So we bought a red and a black oil-Sharpie, and after painting on our design and letting it set for at least 48 hours, I took a wet washcloth to it (no soap) to wipe off extraneous pencil marks, and the marker started to flake. So we had to go to Michaels to get the right markers.

Step 3: Plan out your design

I drew the design on a piece of paper, then used a pencil to initially sketch it onto the mugs. I finished by going over the pencil with the ceramic marker. You could freehand the whole thing if you have confidence in your artistic abilities; I read somewhere that you can clean up mistakes if you keep a damp rag close by to take care of them quickly. I actually wish I’d just freehanded it because I ended up with some weird pencil flaking under the paint.

You’ll also notice in the picture below that we made one of the mugs left-handed. That’s the beautiful thing about decorating the mugs yourself–you can make them exactly tailored to your recipient!

Step 4: Let the design cure

Depending on the markers you buy, the instructions may differ. The markers we bought required at least 8 hours at room temperature, then baking for 40 minutes in a 375-degree oven, after heating up the oven from room temperature *with the mugs inside.*

Step 5: Fill up your gift basket

Use your imagination! We went simple with a couple bags of ground coffee and hot chocolate packets and put the whole thing into a pretty Christmas box. I don’t have a picture of the whole basket (oops!), but here’s how the mugs turned out. (This is with the oil-based Sharpies, but they were much the same with the ceramic markers.)

Love Mugs

I’d love to hear what gifts you made this Christmas!

Oh, Christmas Tree!

This isn’t our first Christmas in our house, but it’s the first one with any semblance of sanity. Although we don’t have a huge stash of Christmas decorations, we took advantage of the slower pace this year (read: not moving into a new house!) and made a nice little Christmas corner in our living room.

First, the tree.

$40 Thrift-Store Tree!

$40 Thrift-Store Tree!

We got our tree at the local thrift store. We also bought some lights there, but it turned out they were intended for bushes, not trees (they’re arranged in a mesh rather than a string), so we went out and bought some strings too.

Jordan’s coworker said wrapping lights around the trunk makes it look like the tree is lit from the inside.

Trunk-tastic lighting

Trunk-tastic lighting

Then we wrapped another string around the outside.

Purty!

Purty!

And can’t forget the ornaments, of course!

Can't forget the ornaments!

Can’t forget the ornaments!

We have a tradition we started our first year of marriage of buying a special ornament each Christmas to represent the year that’s past.

Our first year we bought a "J"

Our first year we bought a “J”

Our second year (not pictured) was an ornament from the university where we got our Masters.

Last year was a house

Last year was a house

And this year was very special to us as it represented the little life that is no longer with us.

Baby Bean

Baby Bean

I also finally got the nativity set I’ve been wanting for years (it was 75% off!) and some cute stocking hangers. Here’s the view of our mantle.

I love having a mantle at Christmastime!

I love having a mantle at Christmas time!

The kitties enjoy Christmas too–it means warm fires in the fireplace!

Basking in the glow of a dwindling fire

Basking in the glow of a dwindling fire

We didn’t do any outdoor decorations, but we bought a couple wreaths on clearance at the end of the season. I’m looking forward to being festive outdoors next year!

Why We Refinanced

We knew when we bought our house a year ago that we’d be refinancing our mortgage at the first-possible opportunity. Fortunately, we were able to do just that at the beginning of December. Some of the reasons to refinance were immediately obvious to us; others took some time to manifest themselves:

  • Our original loan was an FHA 203k loan. The 203k is a rehab loan, which was a good way to get the funds we needed to turn our long-neglected house into something livable, but it also came with a stupid (in my opinion) clause that the borrower *must* have mortgage insurance for the first five years of the loan, even if the loan-to-value ratio is less than 80%. (Most lenders don’t require private mortgage insurance when the amount owed on the loan is 80% or less of the home’s appraised value.) So we’d continue to pay an extra $238 fee every month if we didn’t refinance.
  • Our original rate was good, but not as good as the new rate. Our FHA loan was a fixed 4% loan. While this is a good rate, we decided this time to go with a 5/1 ARM (adjustable-rate mortgage), which offers better initial rates than a fixed-rate mortgage. The new rate is a whopping 2.75% for the first five years and, although it can adjust after that initial fixed term, it can never go any higher than 7.75%. (There are also caps on how much it can adjust per year.) There’s also a fixed-rate conversion option if we decide to play it safe after five years. But since we don’t know how long we’ll be in the area (not sure if Maryland is our “forever home”), a super-low starting rate is a good way to have affordable housing for as long as we’re here.
  • Our monthly payments were too high. Well, they weren’t actually high, per se, but we’d like to leave the option for me to go part-time or stay at home once we start a family, and the payments were too high to manage on Jordan’s income alone. The low interest rate combined with the new, lower principal make either of these arrangements achievable.
  • Our original bank was a comedy of errors. Let me count the ways: They didn’t send us statements on time for us to make payments, and they didn’t allow online payments. They misapplied our payments in various ways, once even applying the entire payment to principal and then telling us our payment was late because interest hadn’t been paid. They kept telling us to send them our hazard insurance information, even after we’d sent it to them *three* times. They sold our loan and didn’t tell us to whom they’d sold it, instead sending us a letter that said they’d sold it to themselves. (We didn’t discover this last one until we were trying to get the payoff to refinance.) By contrast, our new bank (credit union, actually) has been a pleasure to work with. Communication has always been punctual, professional, and precise. They offer a variety of payment options. Their title officer fought with the bank our loan was sold to (I was party to a conference call when this was happening) when they didn’t want to release our payoff until the middle of January (at which point our interest rate and application would have expired). Their closing options were flexible–we closed on the loan at 6:30 PM in the comfort of our own home.

How has your experience been with mortgages (if you’ve owned a home)? Have you had positive or negative experiences with lenders? Would you consider an adjustable-rate mortgate?

In Which Our Heroine Returns From a Two-Month Absence and Has No Pictures to Show For It

I certainly didn’t intend to be away from here for over two months, but, well, the best-laid plans and all that. Church is cancelled tonight due to snow (!), so it seemed like a good time to get caught up. Here’s a quick rundown of what we’ve been up to, and I’ll plan to go into more detail on some of the items in subsequent posts:

  1. We finished renovating our kitchen! We started mid-August and had hoped to be done by the end of September, but due to various bumps in the road didn’t end up finishing until the end of October. More on this in a later post.
  2. We refinanced our mortgage. We were able to refinance a little over a year after our purchase due to the larger-than-expected bump in our home’s value after the kitchen and other renovations (new roof, windows, HVAC, bathrooms, flooring, siding, …) and our double loan payments (knock out that principal!). More on this later!
  3. We got pregnant. And lost the baby at 4 and 1/2 weeks. This was, by far, the most painful event of the last two months, but I’m happy to say that our faith and family and friends and love for each other pulled us through it, and we came out stronger for it. I may (or may not) talk more about this later.
  4. We hosted Thanksgiving. We had our parents over for Thanksgiving, and I was in charge of Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. Other than forgetting a couple ingredients in the stuffing (which still turned out delicious), there were no real disasters, and I think a lovely time was had by all. It was a much-needed time of relaxation and refreshment, especially coming the tail-end of our loss.

P.S. The title of this post is a bit misleading. I did take pictures of the kitchen renovation and will plan to share them in a future post (or posts). Stay tuned! 🙂

When Life Gets Crazy…

Sometimes life is hard. Mostly, right now, we’ve just been terribly busy, on top of taking turns being sick and stressing about the kitchen renovation we’re right in the middle of. So please excuse my long absence and bear with me just a little longer… I hope to be back with a real post before too much longer. In the meantime, please enjoy some lighthearted entertainment:

1) this blog, whose author is, sadly, taking a hiatus. The archived entries are entirely worth a read if you’re into humor involving grammar and freshmen college students’ inability to use it properly.

2) a fun song with quirky lyrics and a video to match.