Sharing our Stories on World Cancer Day

The other day, I received one of those "free for a donation" sets of address labels. You know the ones; you dig them out at bill time, which is the only time anybody sends snail mail anymore. This one was from a cancer research group, and featured the various color-coded awareness ribbons.

I took a cursory glance, planning to file it away under "important junk" in my desk drawer. I was taken aback by all the ribbons. I knew pink, of course.  And purple is... ovarian, maybe? But all the stripes, and all the shades -- I was somewhat overwhelmed. Then it hit me:
For someone I know, each of these colors represents a person. Someone they love. Who may still be with us, or who likely isn't. This isn't a gimmick. It's life-altering.

Today is World Cancer Day. Here in Kentucky, the statistics are pretty staggering. As Dr. Mark Evers, Director of the University of Kentucky's Markey Cancer Center, recently said in an op-ed piece in the Lexington-Herald Leader:
Kentucky retains the dubious honor of ranking first in the nation in cancer deaths per 100,000 population among all states, and we have the second highest incidence rate for all cancer sites.

Unfortunately, we all have a cancer story. My mother has a disease that places her at high risk for cancer. For as long as I can remember, biopsies have been a waiting game -- a series of near-misses. I became weirdly immune to them. They'd always turn out okay. Then, one day, we got a biopsy result we never expected. My father was diagnosed. On that day, cancer went from "something you narrowly miss" to "something that will impact my life forever." 

View from the family waiting room at UK's Markey Cancer Center.

I think our sweet friend Allison Tamme perfectly summed up the feeling for many of us. In her recent HerKentucky interview, Allison discusses her her thyroid cancer diagnosis, saying:
It was the most terrifying moment of my life. Nothing will derail your life quite like the Big "C".
A wall of Kentucky Stories at UK's Chandler Med Center.
My daddy is, thankfully, okay now. It's not something our family talks about very much. It was a rough time in our lives, it's over and we're stronger for it.  We don't like to make a big production of it. We mountain folk are a resilient lot; we don't wallow.  But, you know,  it did happen, and it was huge, and it changed my life forever. And I'm happy to share a story that involves making proactive changes. So, here goes:
My father is a two-year cancer survivor.  We lost my fiancé's amazing grandmother to cancer a year and a half ago. At my house, we're making serious lifestyle choices to combat the prevalent cancer, diabetes, and heart disease rates in our hometowns and in our own families. We've overhauled our diets to mainly consist of lean protein and green leafy vegetables. We're going to the gym when we would far rather be sitting on the couch. We don't want to be just another Kentucky statistic.
Today, let's observe, honor, and celebrate by talking about it. How has cancer impacted your life? What are you doing to prevent it?

A Family Lawyer's Guide to a Kids-First Divorce

If you live in Louisville -- whether you're an artist or an attorney, a social change agent or a social butterfly -- you're going to run into Holly Houston.

 This lady is everywhere, y'all. She's a leading family law practitioner, an advocate for social justice and volunteerism, and a writer.  Her bio states: 

A. Holland “Holly” Houston has practiced family law since 1997. She is collaboratively trained but has also most recently been called “a pit bull in a skirt” and told she needs her own tv show. You can email her at She is the co-founder and co-director of GLOW, Greater Louisville Outstanding Women, an organizer and founder of Women Mean Business in Kentucky, an informal regional women’s leadership and business group, a mentor for Louisville Girls Leadership and Chair of the new Human Rights section at the Louisville Bar Association.

"A pit bull in a skirt" -- what a great description! So, when I read that January is International Child-Centered Divorce Month, Holly wasn't just the top of my list for potential guest-posters. She was the list. -- HCW

I was in Judge’s chambers a week or so ago talking to one of our ten Jefferson Family Court Judges about peaceful parenting for divorced parents and parents who are no longer together. On its surface, the concept seems so organic and so mindful of children’s best interests. In what is arguably an age of the most indulgent parenting in our history, parents inevitably put the kids’ needs first, right? Unfortunately in my experience it is the exception rather then the rule that once-intact couples are able to detach from blaming the partner for the breakup, and buck up, shut up and put the kids first.

To be sure, a combative personality combined with a desire to punish and a high need for drama almost guarantee long term, expensive, everybody-loses-litigation that recent studies show has nothing but a negative impact on kids of divorce. On the other hand (and I have seen this be true every time) parents with strong coping skills and support systems who exhibit an ability to shield their children from controversy with the other parent over money, schedules and new partners for example, reach settlements faster and manage to co-parent effectively with well-adjusted kids and few, if any, returns to Court for anything other than minor adjustments to agreements.

The premise of a recent law review article published in the

2013 Fall issue of the Family Law Quarterly, “Deconstructing the Impact of Divorce on Children” by Sol E. Rappaport

, is that following the initial impact and stress of divorce, children of divorce fare just as well as children in intact families. “In fact, most children of divorce are not distinguishable from their peers whose parents did not divorce in regard to behavioral and emotional difficulties,” Rappaport wrote, but for five characteristics he set out on page 361 that can predict long term psychological damage to a child. They are 1) the level of parental conflict (including the children’s exposure to the conflict and the children’s perception of it) 2) parents’ mental health issues that may include depression and active alcohol and drug addiction 3) the level of involvement by what he called the “non-main caregiver” or the impact of an absent parent 4) the financial impact of the divorce to include a parent’s poverty and finally 5) a child’s own perception of the divorce. 

I would add to the list: name-calling to include derogatory nicknames for a parent, disparagement, blaming the child for the divorce or for the parent’s sadness, anger or lot in life, emotional incest (“We’ll be okay honey as long as we have each other” spoken by a parent to a child or “I don’t know what I’d do without you” said to sway a child from spending more time or having fun with the other parent), interrogating the child about the other parent or the parent’s lifestyle or income or new partner, and of course, continued threats of violence between parents or in either family. While it’s clear that job losses and other financial hardships trigger stress for divorced and intact couples, how co- parents manage the stress makes all the difference in whether a parent’s divorce negatively impacts children. 

“Parenting style and parenting skills are clearly risk factors or buffers that can impact how children cope with divorce,” according to Rappaport. A client personality characteristic that seems to be the most damaging in my experience to the case and the parties, both during and post litigation, is angry blaming by one parent of the other for the other parent’s circumstances, the death of a dream, for being a liar or a cheater or just a loser, combined with a desire for revenge at all costs. Blame the other parent and expect your children to model what it looks like to be a victim or a perpetrator. Or worse, watch your child get caught in a vicious triangle of victim, perpetrator, and rescuer. 

When I was growing up, my parents had a scroll that spelled out parental behavior and its consequences on developing children’s personalities: When a child lives with conflict, a child learns to fight, and so on. Unbeknownst to me, that scroll likely foreshadowed much of my approach to advising high conflict/low stress tolerant clients. In a nutshell, you reap what you sow. As an adult, I stumbled on affirmative parenting messages on a friend’s refrigerator of all places that are designed to raise a confident and secure child. Among them: “You can do it.” I’m here for you.” and “I love you no matter what”. [

Ed. note: The scroll referenced the poem "Children Learn What They Live" by

Dr. Dorothy Law Nolte



I have shared those messages over the years with clients in attempts to help them preface the “We’re getting divorced” talk with the kids or to counter overwhelmingly hurtful and negative messages from the other parent. That having been written, affirmations only go so far. Ultimately, a parent’s willingness to do whatever it to takes to prioritize his or children’s emotional welfare, including seeking and undergoing mental health counseling individually or with an ex-partner to bury the hatchet, is the greatest predictor of successful co-parenting in my experience. It takes what it takes.

Retired Judge

Richard FitzGerald

is masterful at structuring settlements to mitigate conflict in two parent homes. When the tide turned toward joint custody as a default in Kentucky many years ago, he was a pioneer here for provisions that forbid unilateral decision-making in joint custody cases in which the parents maintain autonomous homes. While parents share decision making around the children’s upbringing, each gets to set the rules in his or her own home.

Ideally, the rules are shared between households and mimic each other. When they’re not, the children generally are the first to let the parents know they get to do x at mom’s and not at dad’s and it’s up to the parents to attempt to reconcile the rules or not. Different rules around chores and computer time have much less of an impact than a parent’s withholding information from the other in what can turn into a sick game like withholding grades and report cards and recital dates and insurance cards. 

The use of email communication and applications may nip the withholding game in the bud if the parties use applications and software such as Google calendar and scheduling software and scan and email promptly what should be shared documents. Effective co-parenting includes an organized and predictable method to share kids’ activities, track appointments, share assignments and schedule holidays and vacations. Some parents may be able to share information via phone and some may only be comfortable communicating via email. Regardless of the chosen communication though, any tool that negates arguments between parents that children are privy to is a bonus. 

If I have learned anything in Judge’s interviews with kids in custody cases it’s first, that they are likely to say almost anything you will probably not be prepared for and second, they know exactly how to manipulate their parents in high conflict cases to get what they want. Clear communication between mom and dad without children in the middle is probably the cheapest and one of the best gifts divorced parents can give kids and each other. 

Inasmuch as neither practitioners nor clients are naïve enough to believe that downloading an app will solve parental conflict, family lawyers may be wise to recommend their use to save both money and time in cases with low to mid parental conflict. For high conflict cases in which every text turns into a disaster, nothing beats therapy and a parenting coordinator, services parties can agree on between themselves or a Judge can Order if presented with sufficient information that meets statutory criteria. Also, as with all family cases, choice of counsel plays a role. Typically bombastic clients seek litigation happy lawyers. Conversely, clients who want a peaceful resolution will find lawyers who are skilled negotiators and pride themselves as such with no desire for protracted “custody battles” that carry a high price tag for clients and generally very little satisfaction for either parent (not to mention the child). 

Kids are sponges. Parents are models. When parents have their own boundaries and are able to articulate what is acceptable behavior and what they won’t tolerate, they are able to teach the children to how to communicate what they need effectively to the family’s benefit. If it takes counseling to get there, so be it. Most of us could use a little help with a lot. Whether Post-Decree or post-breakup, the truth is parents are inescapably bound together by the children they conceived. What they do to fortify their new entity as parents who are no longer a couple, yet responsible jointly for the well being of their kids, is up to them. In the end, would you rather have happy kids or would you rather be right?

New Holiday Traditions

The holidays are all about tradition. The decorations, the celebrations, the family customs -- no matter your faith or background, there are traditions you observe every year.

In recent years, I've thought a lot about holiday traditions, as my beau and I attend Christmas gatherings with our respective families, and build traditions of our own.

Somewhere along the way, my go-to holiday dish has become Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon. It couldn't be more different than the huge Southern spreads that were customary in my childhood. And yet, I cook it with the same degree of love and attention to detail that my granny always applied to her customary Christmas Eve fried chicken. I find myself making the French beef-and-wine stew for special holiday meals with the people I love. 

This year, my beau and I stayed home for Thanksgiving. Despite the made-for-Hallmark-TV promises that we can all go home for the holidays, sometimes work obligations impose themselves. Since it was just the two of us, we scaled back Thanksgiving dinner to reflect a lower-carb sensibility. Neither Sister Schubert rolls nor pies were to be found anywhere. As we enjoyed our boeuf bourguingnon and pancetta-roasted Brussels sprouts, I realized that, just maybe, we'd created a holiday tradition of our very own.

Have you created any new holiday traditions at your house?

The Christmas Repeal

We don't drink in my hometown. 

Well, people do drink alcohol, of course, but it's never been as socially acceptable to go out and have a glass of wine or a cocktail in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky as it is in the Commonwealth's bigger cities. Part of it is a religious distinction; there's a whole lot of Baptists in our neck of the woods. Part of it is economic; there isn't a lot of extra income for frivolous things like drinkin'. And, more than a little of it comes down to the booze we produce. The Appalachian end of the state doesn't produce Kentucky's storied bourbon. We don't have limestone in our water, nor do we have oak barrels charred to exacting specifications. We have a proud -- or perhaps infamous -- history of moonshine stills. Most of us have a 'shiner or two on our family tree, whether we want to admit it or not. When your spirits are less than legal, you generally don't announce them with pride.

via Maker's Mark

That all changes, come the holidays. Now, it's never been any surprise to me that the 21st Amendment was repealed on December 5th. You need to break out the good stuff for the Christmas baking. And, we may need a little nip in the house, because you never know if company will want some. Even the most devout Baptist grandmas suddenly know their liquor store order when it comes time to make holiday confections. They want Maker's Mark or Early Times. Or rum for the cake. It's not like we drink the rest of the year. It's simply a month-long lift on the Prohibition, in the name of good cheer.

My grandma Margaret would never touch a drop, but she sure would soak her fruitcake. My great-aunt Marie made these weird little cookies with raisins and cherries and a whole lot of rum; they were strangely addictive, and the whole family loved 'em. And then, there are the bourbon balls. My family's recipe. I can't make enough of them during the holidays; everybody wants some. It doesn't matter if you touch bourbon the rest of the year.

This week, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Prohibition's repeal, and the far longer-standing tradition of the Christmas Repeal. Here's my family's bourbon ball recipe, if you find yourself in the mood for drinking or baking.

  • 1 to 2 cups good bourbon whisky (preferably Maker's Mark) 
  • 1 cup chopped pecans 
  • 1/2 to 1 cup whole pecan halves (optional) 
  • 1 two-pound bag of powdered sugar 
  • 1 stick butter, softened 
  • 1-2 bags semisweet chocolate chips (preferably Ghiradelli)
  •  paraffin wax 

  1. Place 1/2 to 1 cup of chopped pecans in shallow bowl. 
  2. Pour bourbon over nuts, immersing completely. Cover and let soak 12 hours to overnight. 
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place pecan halves in shallow pan and toast lightly for about ten minutes. Cream butter in stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. 
  4. Combine bourbon-pecan mixture with just enough powdered sugar to form a stiff ball. Refrigerate to let stiffen slightly. Roll dough into small balls. 
  5. In double-boiler (or a sauce pan placed over a cooker full of boiling water), add a third to a half a bag of semisweet chocolate chips and a small shaving of paraffin wax (no more than 1/4 cup). Heat until just smooth. Dip dough balls into the chocolate mixture. The key is to coat them quickly and make small, frequent batches of melted chocolate. 
  6. Place bourbon balls on wax paper to cool. 
  7. Top each ball with a toasted pecan half, if desired. Results are better if you leave them to cool at room temperature rather than in the refrigerator.


 Our dear friend Erin Smallwood Wathen is back for another gorgeous essay about life, faith, and family. As I prep for the holidays, realizing that I sure would like a new Dutch oven in which to cook Thanksgiving dinner and that I don't quite know where I'll put all of my Christmas trees, Erin's wise words certainly hit home. As always, you can follow along with Erin's blog Irreverin or on her Facebook page. -- HCW

The calendar says it’s Thanksgiving week, and the stores say it’s Christmas already…but what I’m thinking of at the moment is Halloween. Halloween 2 years ago, to be exact.

I followed a sparkly red lady bug and a plush green dragon down the street.

Nevermind it was October 31. It was about 100 degrees outside, and the plush, fuzzy, cozy costume—which would have been just swell in some chilly autumn Midwestern burrow—was utterly ridiculous in the desert. But dang, he was adorable.

We’d just moved from one desert suburb to another… just a few miles apart, but worlds away. The place we’d been the previous year—with a two-year-old witch and a newborn, who went dressed as a newborn—had proved a little disappointing on Halloween. We only knocked on about 8 doors, and of those, only two actually opened and produced candy.

We were in a new neighborhood, expecting more of the same non-Hallow-happenings. But nossir, on our new block, trick-or-treat was an EVENT. We had a potluck on the cul-de-sac, took group pics of the kids, and then went trick-or-treating en masse. Our group had about 8 kids and twice as many parents. And every street we went down, we encountered another mob of kids and their chaperones. Nearly every house was decorated, every porch light on, every resident proffering a giant bowl of tiny treats.

About 12 houses in, my furry monster was burning up, and both of their buckets were full. The little lady bug could no longer carry her load, and I was picking up the trail of M&M packets accumulating behind her. I announced that, since the buckets were full, we were calling it a night.

That’s when one of the other moms said, “oh, this always happens, so we come prepared.” And she pulled out a handful of empty plastic grocery bags and started handing them around.

So…we did another block of houses.

Don’t get me wrong. It was great fun. And I like digging through the buckets, post-bedtime, and hijacking all the Snickers as much as the next mom. But, come on…at some point, you’ve got to acknowledge that the daggone bucket is FULL, and go home already.

This fear of ‘not enough’ whispers anxiety in our ear at every turn. It is the real goblin that haunts us, all the year around; maybe, even especially, into the holiday season. It snatches our happiest moments from us and fills us with dread. Sometimes, it even tries to take hold of our children.

Maybe I should explain a bit about why our old neighborhood was such a –pardon me—ghost town, the year before. It was 2010. And in Phoenix—one of the hardest hit housing markets in the country– that meant that every third house on the block was in foreclosure, pre-foreclosure, short sale process, or just plain empty. That’s why we, along with half the city, found ourselves in a different house the following year.

I couldn’t help but feel that, had the big banks just gone home when their daggone bucket was full, there would not have been quite such an exodus situation. But…the mythic voice of scarcity just keeps pulling at people. And really, the more you have, the more vulnerable you are to the voice that keeps whispering “you need more.”  In very real ways, investors gambled with real people’s livelihood and equity. Eventually, the handle on that bucket broke, and every last gumball rolled out into the street. That was 2008, of course.

Some of us are just coming back, while the big kids who broke the buckets went home with extra treat bags.

Ok, that metaphor has played out. Sorry.

Still, when I think about what it means to practice gratitude, I think of trick-or-treating with young kids, and teaching them to say ‘enough,’ even as the world says, ‘here’s an extra bag so you can carry more stuff.’ That was an important transitional time in our lives, and I learned a lot about simply breathing it all in, and being grateful for what is.  Now that I’m in transition again—from one church call to another; from the desert to the prairie; from parenting babies to parenting big(ish) kids— it all seems like a timely liturgy of thanksgiving.

On that Halloween night, 2 years ago, I hauled a loaded bucket, a full-to-breaking plastic bag, and an exhausted toddler home. I was grateful for my new neighborhood; for doors that actually opened in welcome, for a roof over my family’s head, for healthy kids who could eat candy…and for these fleeting years of glitter and wings and magic.

Out of the overflow, I handed my kid two pieces of candy and I said,

Repeat after me: this is enough. This is all we need.

Favorite Thanksgiving Dish? Easy.

I have one job to do for Thanksgiving. I pack up my family and get us all to Kentucky. No kitchen, no turkey brining, no worrying about the perfect side. This leaves me with plenty of time on the road to  feel nostalgic for my favorite holiday dishes and extoll the virtues of my favorite sweet potato topping. (Pecans, in case you were wondering.) There is one simple dish that serves as my holiday harbinger, and that is my mother's uncomplicated but superb cranberry relish. Although she has made this recipe for as long as I can remember, she won't take credit for creating it. She attributes this recipe to Mrs. Pauline Eblen of Henderson, who is the sweetest little woman you could ever hope to meet. No wonder it's so delicious.

Here's what you need:

2 small oranges, unpeeled
1 lb. cranberries
1 cup sugar*

The mason jar in the back contains coconut palm sugar, which I substitute
for the cane sugar to the right.
The result is not as pretty but every bit as scrumptious.

Slice the ends of the oranges away, then cut oranges into 1/2 inch chunks. Fill food processor with all the ingredients, then chop and grind to your desired texture. I recommend letting it chill for a day or so in your refrigerator to allow the flavors to marry. They will be so happy together, I promise.

Takes about a minute to grind all this to a perfect relish consistency.

Here's some helpful cranberry relish advice that you will want to follow, assuming that you make this once and immediately declare that you wish you had more of this or could save some for next summer. Try buying eight pounds of cranberries and a full bag of oranges. This stuff freezes exceptionally well, so plan on freezing one cup portions that you can easily thaw when you want to add a lovely burst of color to a table or just want a crazy good dollop of tangy cranberries on your mid-May turkey sandwich.

I didn't have any cooked poultry available, so please take my word that this tastes heavenly on any type of bird. Say you have some chicken breasts in the oven, but you become distracted by one child while his tiny partner in crime tosses your timer into the sink. Dried out chicken? Boom. Cranberry relish to the rescue! Imagine a boring leftover turkey sandwich promoted to gourmet status by some leafy greens and the zing from this cranberry relish. But just between us, you don't need anything but a ramekin dish and a spoon to enjoy this stuff.

Digging into some of this deliciousness in a few short days!

What dish signals Thanksgiving and the coming holiday season for you? We would love to hear from you!

Happy {Mother's} Day from HerKentucky

I don't usually give Mother's Day too much thought. We get a little gift for my mom, and one for my granny. There's a special meal or two. Usually a trip to the Red Lobster. And, usually, one of those church services where they hand out gifts to the oldest, youngest, and most prolific mamas. And that's that. By Sunday night, the whole exercise is over for another year.

This year, I've thought a lot about Mother's Day. Maybe it's more than my own WASPy approach to the holiday, which generally entails finishing up family obligations as quickly as possible so I can get home to a glass of wine and an episode of Mad Men. Like virtually every other American woman who has Internet access, I recently ran across this article about the emotional impact of Mother's Day on non-moms. Normally, I'd nod my head and go on. But, for the first time, I really thought about those women who'd love to be celebrating on Mother's Day, but aren't.

Recently, one of the dearest people in my life suffered pregnancy loss. It seems like so many friends and acquaintances have experienced similar heartbreaks lately. I know that so many of them would love to wear the $5 Wal-Mart orchid corsages that proudly proclaim "I'm a Mama on my way to church on the Second Sunday in May!" Something so simple and tacky is, for many, the symbol of a dream come true.

Sometimes, Mother's Day is a celebration. It's the weekend that all the kids come home to visit and bring sweet, if impractical, presents. But, for so many others, Mother's Day carries a profound sadness. There are the women who want desperately to become mothers and those who've lost children. There are women who've had to say goodbye to their own mothers, those who serve as tireless caregivers for sick or aging mothers, and those who don't have a relationship with their mothers. There are so many women out there who are carrying around burdens we can't see. I wish that HerKentucky had the budget to send a dozen roses and an hour-long massage to them all. Instead, we're extending well wishes to y'all in a way that takes some of the hard-and-fast tradition out of the holiday. We wish a Happy {Mother's} Day to you all. It's a little softer, a little less technical, and a little more inclusive. 
Whether the holiday brings sorrow or joy, we want to hear how you're doing. You deserve the spotlight for a few minutes. All of you. Those of you who are moms, who dream of becoming moms, or who've decided motherhood isn't for them. Those of you who'll be celebrating your moms and those who are missing your moms.  While we can't send you all a present, we'd love to hear your {Mother's} Day story, be it happy, bittersweet, or just plain stressful. If you have a blog, please feel free to post there and add a link to the linkup gadget below. Or, you can share what you like in the comments section below.

Most of all, know that the HerKentucky team wishes you all a Happy Day!