Budding Ornament Collections

We have a very cool collection of ornaments that we've collected from all over the world. When I was a kid I had an aunt who would send me a personalized ornament each year as a Christmas gift, which is how my collection started. My mom always collects a hand-made ornament from each place around the country and world she visits, so when S and I were married we started doing the same.

Here are a few of the ornaments we collected during our first year of marriage.

The White House ornaments, a gift from S's mom each year:
 The handmade ski ornaments that were escort cards at my brother and sister-in-law's wedding last year.
 The beehive, a gift from my mom for our first Christmas last year.
 The hand-carved lobsterman, a souvenir from our honeymoon in Maine, and who just happens to be the most expensive ornament we own. But we splurged because he reminds us of our last night on our honeymoon where we feasted on lobsters overlooking the ocean after cooking them on a campfire.
 A bell with Santa riding a camel through the desert.
 A woven cross from Ireland.
 A sea turtle with a shell in the center, woven from palm leaves.
The airplane, of course. It's missing a few props to be S's plane, but it's a plane nonetheless.
 A hand carved bear to remind us of the baby bears that came running through our campsite during the first night of our honeymoon. And of the baby bear who came traipsing down the path as I stood in my underwear in 40 degree water trying to clean off from a 12 mile hike while simultaneously trying not to get hypothermia (or eaten by the mother bear).
 Sometimes the hand crafted rule is thrown out when, for example, the only store open in a particular location only has one ornament or thing that could possibly pass as an ornament. (We'll tie a string around just about anything if it's hand made, representative of the location and ornament-like).
 The hand painted shoe (I'm not sure of the country's significance, but I like shoes, so it works).
 And then sometimes there are just ornaments that are totally wacky and encompass every stereotype of a location. All this guy needs is a cup of shave ice next to him resting on that turtle's head.
 We also have a few ornaments that I made, like this black dog made of Sculpy clay.
 We also have some ornaments purchased at home, just because they appeal to us, like this flower and bee Steinbach ornament.
Occasionally I envy the trees with theme or single color decorations, but I love that each of our ornaments has a story. Are you a new-theme-each-year family or an ornament-with-a-story collector?

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A Very Special Gift

We had a wonderful Christmas this year. We celebrated with family, like we do every year, and in January we'll celebrate again when S's younger brother, also a pilot, arrives home from a deployment. One of the best things about this year's celebration is that we were able to select and cut a Christmas tree from the farm with my family.
This is what a "real" tree looks like. As a kid I thought that fake trees referred to trees that were purchased from a tree stand and their perfectly shaped branches made them "fake." Now that we've entered the world of faux trees I understand the difference between a from-the-woods tree, which we have here, and a from-the-tree-farm-tree, which is what the majority of non-faux people have.

It seems like all around the blogesphere people were celebrating a little more generously this year, and our family was no exception. We gave gifts to our families that we hope they'll truly enjoy and we received gifts that we absolutely love.

Among several smaller gifts for our kitchen and for my shop, my parents gave us a new house number for the beehive. It's something I've wanted to purchase for a while, but just haven't done. We don't show our house number in photos, but currently it's a cut-out of a pig that our home's original owner made. We want to keep the pig, but it's not sophisticated enough for our tastes so we're going to hang it on the shed and prominently display our new cast steel number.

I gave S several much-needed new tools: a Dewalt circular saw, a Milwaukee sawzall, a Makita angle grinder/cutoff wheel, and a bucket-caddy tool organizer, along with the Milwaukee driver/drill I gave him early, for a project a few weeks ago. And just to make sure he knows I don't expect him to work on projects all the time, I gave S a pair of Cole Haan slippers and a Steinbach nutcracker to add to our collection.

The big surprise came after I thought we had opened all our gifts. S and I each had a nice pile of stuff to enjoy, but when I said, "what a great Christmas" S and my  mom both said, "it's not over yet." And then S appeared with a huge box with a label from my mom to my dad.
Apparently the label was a decoy because the gift was very much for me: my dream sewing machine.
It's a Bernina 440QE, which to me is the Rolls Royce of sewing machines. I love to sew and have been making bags from recycled sails to sell in our etsy shop for a couple of years, but I've always sewn on ancient machines that I've resurrected from near-junk. This machine is amazing. And it was a total surprise. I had no idea S was buying me a sewing machine. The bottom line is that they're expensive and I'd have to make dozens of bags to pay for one. I just didn't think it was in the cards. Ever.

The best part about the gift is the amount of time and effort that S put into finding it, buying it and arranging with my mom for it to be a surprise. S was dedicated to making me happy. 2010 has been tough for us. We have a lot to be thankful for and in many ways it's been a wonderful year, but it's been a tough year nonetheless and being happy was a big challenge at times. This gift is more than a generous Christmas gift from S to me; it's a very clear reminder that we're a team and we'll do whatever it takes to bring the other happiness. Here's to a happy and healthy 2011. Thanks, darlin'.

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Chocolate Biscotti with Variations

This year in anticipation of several holiday parties and visits with friends I made a dozen batches of biscotti. My two favorite combinations were chocolate-chocolate chip and chocolate mint dipped in candy canes.
Biscotti wrapped in packages of four for our neighbors
This is my third  year making biscotti for Christmas, but I wanted to try a new recipe and it ended up taking a few tries to find the right one. I started with a Martha Stewart recipe that I thought I had used successfully before and ended up with dry, brittle bricks. Annie's-Eats version ended up the winner. They are appropriately hard for good into-cocoa dipping, but not dry and the addition of espresso powder gives them a full, deep chocolate flavor. I'm addicted.

This recipe makes a lot of biscotti; it can be halved if you want fewer.
Chocolate Biscotti with Variations
makes enough to share, total number of biscotti depend on how you cut them

1 1/2 sticks (12 T.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
4 cups flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 c. instant espresso powder
1 1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
2 t. salt
3 cups chocolate chips, mint chips, white chocolate chips, or some variation of chocolate and nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
1. In a stand mixer, beat together sugar and butter until well combined, the mixture may be crumbly. Add eggs and vanilla, beating well for a few minutes. The mixture may never become smooth, but this doesn't matter.
2. Sift together dry ingredients and slowly add to the butter mixture, mixing until just combined.
3. Add your choice of mix-ins, stirring until combined.
4. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and lightly flour your hands. Split the dough into four equal parts and create four logs about 10" long. The dough will be sticky so try not to handle it too much.
5. Place logs onto two cookie sheets lined with a silpat or parchment paper. Space the logs evenly apart leaving plenty of room for spreading, at least 4 inches from each other.
6. Flatten logs ever so slightly, to about 1 inch high.
7. Bake logs for 25 minutes, or just a bit longer until they are firm in the center and cracking. You don't want them to be rock hard, but some ovens will require 5-10 extra minutes.
8. Remove from the oven and cool for 15 minutes, leaving oven on.
9. Slice each log on a slight diagonal in 1/2" to 1" wide slices. Arrange slices on the cookie sheets with cut sides down/up.
10. Return to the oven for 10 minutes, until centers are firm, but not rock hard. Cool on a wire rack.

To decorate with candy canes, melt 12 oz. of dark chocolate in a double boiler. Put a dozen candy canes in a ziplock bag and crush them coarsely with a rolling pin. Dip the ends of the biscotti in the chocolate and then roll in the candy cane pieces. Place on a silpat or parchment paper to cool and harden. I dipped just the tops and sides of the ends so there would be no chocolate underneath to melt onto a napkin when served with cocoa or coffee, which happens to be how I've been eating these every single day for weeks.

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After Christmas Sales

We scored a rocking faux Christmas tree on Sunday. It was marked down to 20% of its original price, which was super-fancy-tree high and totally out of our budget last week.

Score one for us! We bought the tree with money given to us as a Christmas gift from S's grandparents, thanks Ana and Grandpa!

I never had a faux tree growing up; even going to a tree farm
and not choosing a tree from our woods seemed like cheating. But the expense of a tree in the city plus the impracticality of buying a real tree and leaving a drying fire hazard in our house if we go away for the holidays tipped the scales in the direction of faux. If we ever move back to the woods then we'll opt for real, but for now we're psyched to have a faux that can pass for real, if you hold your nose and don't notice the missing fresh-tree scent.

Anyone else joining us and embracing the faux tree this year?

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Stocking Excuses

I admit it, the blogging has been a little light lately. But it was for good reason; since Thanksgiving I have been feverishly working on a Christmas stocking for S to match the one my nana made me for my first Christmas. Knitting it consumed all my free sitting-around time when I otherwise would have blogged. And the good news is I finished it at 9:35pm Christmas eve, just in time to stuff it with gifts from Santa.

I'll embroider his name around the top in time for next Christmas so it matches the other five old-time stockings.

Do you have a collection of hand knit stockings for your family?

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Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from the beehive! We're enjoying our new gifts: tools and other toys for S, a Bernina sewing machine for me(!!):

And a spiffy red reflective coat for Feeney:

Dinner was the most amazing Christmas meal I've ever had. Our family went to an historic inn with an excellent restaurant. We had so many options at all the stations that we had to study the menu earlier in the week to plan our attack. I went for the seafood dishes with a few split lobsters, lobster stew, scallops. crab meat, and shrimp.

It was delicious and all from local farmers and fishermen. I vote that going out become a new Christmas tradition; it was so good!

Merry Christmas everyone.

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Replacing the Basement Entry Door

Before S and I called it quits for a holiday week of no projects we decided tackle one last major project: we replaced our basement entry door.

We ordered the door and replacement basement windows in late November from the Home Depot in anticipation of this winter's basement project. It didn't take us any time to decide on a Jeld-Wen door and windows; we love the windows in our sun room/office and would use Jeld-Wen for any project in a heartbeat. We just wish they loved us as much as we love them; we could certainly use a sponsorship to replace the ailing windows in the rest of the house.

Because the basement entry is a lesser used door in our house, we decided to go for the cost savings of a steel door, rather than a fiberglass door. The con to that decision is that we're told steel doors dent easily. We chose fiberglass for the shed doors for this reason, but decided that we'd be less likely to dent a door we rarely use. We chose to get a door with windows in it since we'd like to eventually make the area by the basement entry into a guest bedroom. I wanted a fully glass door, but it didn't qualify for the 2010 energy tax credit, so we went with windows on the top half.

Apparently custom order doors come in "standard" sizes, which meant that ordering a door 1/4" smaller so it fit into the existing concrete opening with a little play on either side would cost us a few hundred dollars. Our next option was to go a couple inches smaller, which could cause problems when we move and have to move the freezer out of the basement. So we went with the standard size, said a little prayer, and got our a chisel to widen the door open ever so slightly. It worked like a charm and saved us $300. Since we decided to go with an out-swing door to replace the old in-swing, we were able to chisel away concrete on the outside of the 10" deep opening, leaving the old door intact and the cold air out of the basement.

Before we took out the old door we went to the Depot to grab some trim wood. While selecting our wood a stack of two dozen precariously stacked boards from the next shelf over fell from several feet up onto my foot. My foot that was wearing a stupid little ballet flat (I didn't realize I would be picking lumber or I would have worn something more substantial). Big fail for Home Depot, bigger fail when we returned the next day to find the wood re-stacked in a way that it was again leaning forward and to the left, with no guard rails to hold it back.
In the morning while I waited for an x-ray in the radiology department at our local hospital wearing just a sock on my outrageously swollen foot, S took the old door off. By the time I got home from the hospital it was time to fit the new door in place. There's a lack of photos before this point because of said trip to the hospital. Suffice to say, the old door was a disaster with its boarded over window and missing locks (it was secured with several metal bars across the entire door, ghetto style.)

The Jeld-Wen installation instructions told us to use adhesive caulk on the threshold of the door for a concrete application, so we used some variation of liquid nails made specifically for doors and concrete. S oozed on several lines of the goop while I held the door, tilted away from the threshold.
S identified the wires leading out of the old door's header that were actually important (directv, power to the exterior light, etc.) and cut those that were not (old phone wires, cables to nowhere, etc.) It turns out that only three of the dozen or so wires actually went anywhere, which means far less of an eyesore going forward.
We used shims like we had with the sun room/office windows to get the door as level as possible; not an easy task with concrete.
 And then once the door was as level as it was going to get, S used his new hammer drill to drill through the frame under the weatherstripping, and through the concrete. We secured the door with masonry screws and a few masonry nails since we weren't convinced the masonry screws were doing a great job.
As with the windows, we filled in all the gaps around the door with minimal-expanding door and window Great Stuff, which stopped all the airflow coming inside. We started with a door with no threshold and no sweep between it and the concrete floor, so this step made a noticeable difference right away.
S installed the door knob and deadbolt, making sure the latter locked directly into a hole drilled into the concrete for extra security.
We re-secured our door alarm and called the project done for now. We'll have to wait until it's warm again to paint the ready-primed door. Project one of our basement overhaul is complete, now to move on to replacing windows, and hopefully the big project of the winter: a new bathroom.

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Happy Vacation Week(s)!

We're finally taking a few days to relax after a very busy build-up to the holiday season. Our vacation started on the 18th.
Marked on our advent calendar with a rolled-up Home Depot receipt, naturally.
We're enjoying the holidays at the beehive and taking a break from projects for a few days, but not from blogging. We whipped up lots of delicious eats in the kitchen and tackled some very new-to-us challenges on our latest projects. We'll share just as soon as we sit down to enjoy some of these 20 pounds of biscotti sitting on the counter.

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The Most Frustrating Project Yet.

We've been working on what has to be THE most frustrating project ever and we're near our wits' end. When we finished the sun room, making it into my office this summer, we knew we'd have to figure out how to heat it this winter. Because we believe that any job worth doing is worth doing right, we aren't satisfied with a temporary space-heater plan.

We originally thought we'd add a branch off the duct work for the house, but that would require putting a significant hole in the foundation or brick siding. So we decided to look into other options. I grew up with forced hot water baseboard heat so we looked there next. But while browsing the selection at Northern Tools we came across wall heaters with built-in fan blowers. The wall heaters would mean no sacrificing precious floor space, plus I'd be able to move the furniture around at will, which is something I love to do.

Having settled on a wall-style heater we set to work looking for a model that would run on 120v, thereby negating the need to run more power out to the office. We found a model that claimed to have slightly more than 5,000 BTU output, which all calculations indicated would be plenty for the 135 square foot space. We hit "buy now" and set to work planning the install.

And that's where it started to go downhill. First we discovered that the wire to the office only had 15 amps of service. One of my printers (I use two) pulls 8 amps. The monitor pulls 5. The heater, 12.4. Using the existing service wasn't going to work. So we decided to run a new line to the office exclusively for the heater, with an extra outlet near the window for the a/c unit I use in the summer (so we don't waste energy cooling the entire house when I'm working in one room all day). S and my dad literally spent 8 hours trying to get a new wire from the basement to the office without: a. drilling a new hole in the foundation and; b. crawling under the office in the crawl space.

We were successful in not drilling a new hole, but if you look closely you can see S's shoes in this photo that I took as he disappeared into the crawl space on day 2 of the project:
We probably shouldn't have listed "stay out of crawl space" as one of our goals because the whole project was smoothish sailing after that. S removed a panel of the plywood covering the floor insulation and my dad fished a wire out to him from the basement. S then fished the wire up into the sun room and out the socket hole they cut earlier.
And while they were in there, they replaced the old school, original fabric covered wire that services the existing office outlets. 
 (view from the basement)
Our super long cathedral ceiling light bulb changer from our last house came in super handy as S and my dad fished the new wires across the top of the ceiling in the finished portion of the basement into the unfinished section. The ingenious solution kept us from taking down paneling to string the wire around the perimeter of the room and back to the service panel in the unfinished portion of the basement. They hooked up the new wire to an empty 20amp breaker and the replacement wire to the existing office breaker. 

Back in the office, we finished wiring up the new outlet/junction box-to-be and power to the existing outlets and then waited patiently for UPS to arrive with the new heater. The new heater that I thought would roast my toes and fingers while I work away in my wonderful little space....
The heater arrived with a template on the back of the box showing exactly how much wall to cut out for installation. S carefully cut the box, I traced it on the wall and then he cut out the wood wall with his reciprocating saw.

The heater fit into the space perfectly on a dry-run so we fished the wire up the wall from the junction box/outlet we put in near the floor and wired the heater according to the instructions.
I was super excited when we screwed on the faceplate and thought the unit looked pretty nice and far less obtrusive than baseboard would be. I took a few photos and then we placed our digital thermometer on my desk, turned the heater on high and set a stopwatch so we could report back to my dad just how fast the room heat up.
And that's where this project became a monumental frustration. The room warmed to tepid at best and it took several hours to get there. At this rate we'd be turning the heat on at 5am so I could be barely comfortable enough to work covered in a down blanket, wearing a vest, hat, and my usb heated gloves at 8. I don't even think the thing can manage to keep the room at 60 despite all the insulation, the great windows and Feeney's body heat next to me. I. Am. So. Disappointed.

The bottom line is that this heater won't do. It's less effective at heating the room than our $50 space heater that S bought for his ultra chilly bathroom in Maine 5 years ago. It was advertised as heating 222 square feet so I thought it would rock our 135. And even now the BTU calculations show that it should be sufficient, but I suppose sufficient isn't the way to go when I want heat and I want it fast.

The real kicker is that if we want anything more powerful we need to run 240v out there, which means a different gauge wire, a wire that could have been run instead of the yellow one in the photos above. I'm angry at myself for not thinking of it first. The whole goal was to not run a new wire and even when we decided to run new wires I had such tunnel vision the project that it didn't occur to me to beef up the project. And now I'm cold because of it. And stuck with a giant hole in a wood wall.

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Cranberry Orange Bread with Toasted Pecans

Our neighbors in Maine have given us holiday cookies every year for the last 29ish years without fail. Two of my favorite treats are their twisted shortbread peppermint candy canes and the mini loaf of cranberry orange bread. I've never made cranberry orange bread before; in a season of excess a few slices from the mini loaf satisfied my cravings for the year.

Now that we don't live anywhere near Maine and S likes to take slices of quick-breads for breakfast each morning I had the perfect excuse to try my hand at a slightly more healthy version. It's delicious and I can't stop taking little chunks from the loaf in the freezer every time I crave something sweet.

Cranberry Orange Bread with Toasted Pecans
makes 2 loaves

2 large egg
2 c. sugar
1 stick butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/2 c. unsweetened apple sauce
2/3 c. fresh orange juice
zest from 2 oranges (~2 T.)
2/3 c. low fat or fat free sour cream
1/4 t. orange extract
1 t. ground orange rind (from the spice rack)
2 t. salt
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
2 c. flour
2 c. whole wheat flour
12 oz. cranberries, chopped (one bag)
1 c. pecans, toasted until aromatic and coarsely chopped

1. With the paddle attachment in a stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add butter, beating well. Add apple sauce, orange juice, zest, extract, rind, and sour cream, mixing well.
2. Whisk together dry ingredients and add to wet mixture, mixing until just combined. Do not over mix.
3. Fold in cranberries and pecans.
4. Pour into two 9x4 loaf pans.
5. Bake at 375 for 20 minutes, reduce heat to 350 and bake for an additional 40-45 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean.

Cool in pans for 15 minutes before turning onto a wire rack. Cool completely before cutting and serving.

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Santa Comes Early so a Rotten Roof can be Fixed

We have a little shed roof over our basement entry that failed our home inspection just over a year ago. It has two problems, first the wood that attaches to the side of the house is rotten and second, the pitch of the roof is nearly flat so that it barely sheds water and certainly doesn't shed snow. We're not expecting to get another record breaking winter for snowfall this year (at least S isn't, I'm expecting a repeat performance) but we've ordered a new basement entry door and figured we'd tackle both roof projects before installing the new door.

Since replacing the rotten wood means drilling into the brick and the whole hanging shutters thing with the cordless drill was a total chore, I decided to give S one of his Christmas gifts early. A Milwaukee 1/2" hammer drill, complete with a bow fashioned from a Home Depot shopping bag.
Merry Christmas, S.

This morning while I went to get an x-ray on my foot to see if it was broken after a pile of lumber fell onto it from a shelf five feet or so off the ground last night when we were buying supplies for today's project, S got to work supporting the shed roof with some 4x4 posts. By the time I got home from the hospital with a clean bill of health and a still incredibly swollen foot, S had the rotten 1x6 that attaches to the side of the house and the partially rotten 2x4 next to it chiseled out and the new pressure treated 1x6 up and ready to be hammered into place.
We found these masonry nails that expand as you hammer them into the brick for a secure hold, which are supposed to create a much stronger bond for wood to brick than the masonry screws we've used for other foundation projects.
The nails require pre-drilling so S whipped out the shiny new drill and got to work securing the 1x6 to the brick wall.
Then he hammered in the compression nail things and sure enough, they were way more secure than the masonry screw we tried first.
After the 1x6 was securely fastened to the wall, S cut some notches out of the 2x4 so each joist could rest on it and secured that to the 1x6.
With all the rotten wood replaced S moved on to increasing the pitch a little bit. If you notice above the notches are cut at an angle so the joists can move down just a bit. This made it possible to cut off a few inches of the 4x4 posts that the roof rests on over on the other side of the stairwell. Now the whole roof rests on new pressure treated wood and has a bit more of a slope, all without disturbing the roofing material itself.
We're picking up the new door that we ordered tonight so the whole area will get a total makeover very soon. S's dad suggested putting a skylight on the roof to let more light into the basement room through the window on the new door. We'll keep scouring Craig's List for a deal on a used one and maybe try our hand at a skylight this spring, once all the snow melts.

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Changing the Dining Room Again!

We have a list of things to blog about that rivals a 10 year old's Christmas wish list. It's longer than my own wish list. We've been working like crazy and cooking up a storm around here. I'll play favorites with the list and tell you about a project that I absolutely love. I love all our projects equally, but this one is just a touch more exciting than usual.

A few weeks ago I blogged about a sale on West Elm's large rectangle capiz pendant, which just happens to be something I've coveted forever. And also just happens to be something we purchased the morning I blogged about it. Thanks, S.

S's involvement in project that involve electrical work stop at the electrical part. So after he took down the old fixture (which was new in our last house and will be wrapped up and stored for our next house since it fits the square-table configuration perfectly) and put up the new one. Since our old fixture and the horribly dated Goodwill donation it replaced were round and the new one is a rectangle some of the old green ceiling and round hole were no longer covered.
I marked the ceiling where the new fixture hung and then proceeded to fill in the open space with some joint compound. As I've mentioned before, I'm our resident painter and somehow anything to do with joint compound, sanding or scraping falls under the "painting" category around here. After letting it dry for several hours, I sanded with the rough side of a barely damp sponge to cut down on sanding dust and then applied a second coat of joint compound to fill the deeper holes that couldn't be filled with one coat. After sponge sanding the second coat I pulled out our pale blue ceiling paint and touched up the newly filled area. Then we hung the lamp.

This pendant is my first foray into the world of capiz so when we opened the box to find hundreds of pieces of blue tape wrapped around folded plastic bags, I was kind of shocked.
It took several hours to carefully unwrap each little string of shells after S hung the fixture. I assure you that the unwrapping part took significantly longer than the two minutes of electrical work and probably longer than all my prep work. Look at all those baggies and blue tape!
But the end result is sooooo worth the effort and makes a huge difference in the feel of the room, not to mention the light output since we've gone from one to three bulbs. To really show off how sophisticated the whole area is now I set out our Thanksgiving table early to show off to holiday guests.
The new pendant fits the whole room and the rectangle table so well and the little shells are so pretty. I love, love, love it. Thank you West Elm for the sale, thank you to the person who wrapped each of those shells so they arrived at our beehive so perfectly intact and thank you S for agreeing to purchase another dining light just a few short years after my last dining light obsession.

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