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The Gift Issue

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Mannequin Boutique serves the community and fashionistas.

“We’re all about giving every penny that we can to charity,” says Moe Rouse, proprietor of the Vine Street shop, Mannequin Boutique.  

For two years, Mannequin Boutique, which sells donated high-end designer items from the likes of Prada and Chanel to contemporary pieces from J. Crew and Ann Taylor to one-of-a-kind vintage items from the 1900s, has been giving back from its current OTR location, but Rouse herself has been giving back for years longer than that.  

With the help of one employee and six volunteers, Rouse gives 100 percent of the store’s proceeds to seven nonprofit organizations in Cincinnati: Tender Mercies, the Freestore Foodbank, First Step Home, One Way Farm, Lighthouse Youth ServicesWesley Chapel Mission Center and Caracole. Rouse has been a long-time supporter of these charities because she feels they are smartly run, likes that they support Over-the-Rhine and is familiar with who they help, so she wanted to publicly identify the seven nonprofits as the set list of charities to which Mannequin Boutique would donate.  

“I think it’s unique because it is a women’s boutique that gives all of its profits to charity,” Rouse says. “Even when we do things for ourselves, we try to do them for others.” 

Because the boutique’s merchandise is gently used, customers can snag great buys for the same high-quality items they might find in another boutique or department store.  

“Most places buy from contemporary wholesalers, so you’re getting contemporary, wholesale stuff, which is fabulous. There’s nothing wrong with that at all,” Rouse says. “But for people who can’t afford a $700 outfit, they can come here and get one that’s slightly used that was maybe $1,400 for $200.” 

After shopping at Designer Dress Days in the 1990s, a yearly sale inside the old convention center put together by the National Council of Jewish Women — a national organization that works to provide support for women, children and families who need it — Rouse saw the sale losing its impact. She decided to take it over in 2001 and renamed it Designer Donations for Cincinnati Charities. Rouse ran two yearly sales out of a space behind the old Blue Wisp, but when the building had to be torn down, she moved to her current location on Vine Street and opened Mannequin Boutique.  

“I was at an antique flea market in Lawrenceburg and I saw this vintage, turn-of-the-century mannequin, and I loved it,” Rouse says. “It was just great. And I thought — well, I have to do this, and I guess I have to call the shop Mannequin.” 

Mannequin Boutique provides more than just handbags, jewelry, shoes and clothes — the history behind the vintage items allows customers to walk away with exquisite pieces, each with their own story to tell.  

“We have tails from the turn of the century. We have bathing suits that are wool from 1910,” Rouse says. “We have tuxedos — beautiful tuxedos — that men have grown out of, but they bought at the finest places in the world.”   

A former electronic media professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and current trial consultant, Rouse stays busy, but never fails to indulge herself in the world of fashion. She attends vintage shows, travels to New York every month and continues to make frequent trips to Paris, Los Angeles and Denver to stay up-to-date and in-the-know of fashion’s ever-changing market.  

“If there’s a show on Chanel, I’ve seen it. If there’s a show on Yves Saint Laurent, I’ve seen it,” Rouse says. “You can pretty much show me anything and if I know what the label is, I can generally pick the decade.”

For Rouse, that’s what makes fashion’s vintage market so exciting — figuring out an item’s value and history. But she admits it doubles for a hefty amount of work. “I think it’s probably more work than a regular store,” she says. “It would seem to me that you go to fashion shows, you go to the markets where you buy things, you have certain labels that you like and that you carry, and you choose it and they ship it to you and you know the prices. All of this [deciding on the worth of a vintage item] is kind of shooting from the hip.” 

Despite her frustration of not having time to do more with the store, Rouse is committed to not using the proceeds to hire additional help  — she wants to continue to give everything she makes to charity.  

“I think the stuff we have is really special. I mean, everyone says that, and for everyone who owns a place, that’s correct,” she says. “We have things, though, that are really hard to find.”  

And being able to combine her obsession with fashion with her love for giving back to the community means more to Rouse than the clothes on any mannequin.   

Mannequin Boutique hosts private evening events for those who want to reserve the boutique for shopping, wine and appetizers. Shoppers can pick a charity they want the proceeds from the evening to go to, and representatives from the chosen organizations often come to give a speech. To learn more about Rouse or Mannequin Boutique

Create a chic, feminine storage gift for the girl who has everything.

Instructions

Materials:

  • Glass or ceramic bowl roughly the same size of the doily bowl you want to make
  • Clear plastic wrap
  • Masking tape
  • Doily of your choice — the larger the doily, the larger your bowl will be
  • Liquid starch
  • An additional bowl to hold the starch

Instructions:

  1. Wrap the entire outside of your bowl, including the bottom, with the clear plastic wrap.
  2. Tape down the plastic wrap on the inside of the bowl to ensure that it stays in place.
  3. Pour liquid starch into the extra bowl, about halfway full.
  4. Completely submerge the doily into the bowl of starch.
  5. Let the doily soak for about 1 minute in the starch, then ring out the excess starch into the same bowl (you can reuse this starch to make multiple doily bowls). The more starch you ring out of the doily, the quicker it will dry but the less stiff it will be. The less starch you ring out, the more remains in the doily resulting in a longer drying time but a stiffer bowl.
  6. Place the starched doily over the plastic-covered bowl, carefully lining up the bottom of the doily with the center of the bowl. Gently push down and around the doily to mold it to the form of the bowl.
  7. Allow it to dry completely. The drying time depends on the amount of starch still in the doily, the size, the humidity level and the temperature. It’s a good idea to allow at least 24 hours to dry completely, but sometimes more time is necessary.
  8. When the doily is completely dry and stiff to touch, hold the bowl with the inside facing up and remove the tape that held down the clear plastic wrap. Lift the plastic and doily from the bowl and carefully separate the two.

Photos by Emily Lie

A warming after-dinner (or pre-dinner) drink.

Brandy, one of the world’s first distilled spirits, has been around since Roman times. With a name taken from the Dutch word “brandewijn,” meaning “burnt wine,” brandy was originally developed as a way to preserve and store wine for long ship journeys. To lighten the liquid and lessen the shipping tax, which was calculated by volume, the wine was distilled, concentrated and then put into wooden casks for transport.

Once the distilled wine reached its destination, water would be added back in to reconstitute the drink. But people found the spirit, which had been unintentionally aged in the wooden shipping casks during the journey, was better than the original.

For some reason, brandy is often overlooked in favor of vodka or whiskey when making cocktails — unless you live in Wisconsin, where a brandy Old Fashioned is the unofficial state drink. But brandy makes a great cocktail base, and will warm you right up on a cold winter night.

The Brandy Fix was a popular drink in the 1860s. A “fix” is a type of drink made on the rocks with a spirit, lemon juice and fruit juice or liqueur. Jerry Thomas was the first to write down this recipe in his Bon-Vivant’s Companion, published in 1862. This is one of my favorite drinks to have during the holidays and is very easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. brandy
  • ½ oz. lemon juice
  • ½ oz. cherry brandy or Cherry Heering
  • 2 bar spoons (about 2 tsp.) triple sec

Instructions:

  1. Build ingredients in an Old Fashioned glass over ice. 
  2. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Photo by Jesse Fox

Female-owned businesses revitalize the East Walnut Hills shopping district.

Something interesting is happening in East Walnut Hills. And it’s not just that this once-rundown neighborhood — often forgotten when discussing ‘hood “hipness” in favor of communities such as OTR, Hyde Park or Northside — is experiencing its own urban revival. It’s that the growing business district of Woodburn Avenue is almost entirely powered by women.

Women have been ruling the East Walnut Hills business scene for years with their salons, art galleries, boutiques, fitness studios and more. And since last fall alone, at least five new female-owned Woodburn storefronts have opened, with more in the offing.

“I believe in energies,” says Annie Bolling, who opened the PAC Gallery on Woodburn in 2009 and yoga/Pilates studio, Clear, next door in 2011. “When I would drive down Woodburn, I felt like this place was on the verge. The potential was there. I could see the storefronts filled and people walking up and down the street.”

Officially incorporated in 1866, East Walnut Hills became a destination neighborhood post-Civil War for wealthy urbanites who had easier uptown access thanks to newly built streetcar lines. However, as with many urban neighborhoods in the late 20th century, decay and crime slowly crept in as the suburbs boomed and longtime small businesses closed up shop. These days, however, a combination of factors — including the recession — has inspired creative, entrepreneurial Cincinnati women to step up to the plate and make this charming, historic neighborhood their own.

For example, Bolling opened PAC to address her desire to bring contemporary art to the Cincy masses; Clear followed as an extension of her side job doing private fitness training. Catherine Meguire wanted to feel more connected to her half-French side while living stateside, so in 2011 she opened Le Bon Vivant, a local source for all things French. An opportunity created by the closing of MoCa cafe opened the door for Sandy Vierling to debut Cafe DeSales in early 2012. High online sales traffic from Cincinnati to North Carolina clothing boutique Oomph inspired Arien Agurs to launch a second location here. And finding a modern space that could combine the practicality of a salon with the aesthetics of a creative space attracted Parlour owner Jessie Hoffman to her Woodburn storefront.

East Walnut Hills’ mix of affordable rentals and stately old homes appeals to a diverse group of residents, from young singles and couples to seniors and everyone in between. As the younger generation continues to buck old trends — staying in the city instead of fleeing to the ‘burbs, and holding off on new home and car purchases — creating and maintaining opportunities for neighborhoods like East Walnut Hills to thrive becomes even more vital.

“I’m a city mouse,” Meguire says. “I love the idea of seeing these marvelous old neighborhoods being brought back to life.”

That life is most evident once every six weeks when Woodburn lights up on a Friday evening for the Walk on Woodburn. Organized and promoted by Manifest Gallery and Shawna Guip of Hi-Bred vintage, the walk combines art, food and shopping for a more laid-back alternative to downtown’s Final Friday scene.

“The collaborative mentality is in right now, and it has proven to be successful,” Bolling says. “We are including our community, not excluding them. There’s stuff for everybody here — high end and low end.”

Women own almost one third of U.S. small businesses, and most of those have 10 or fewer employees, according to research by American Express OPEN. With such a high concentration of these small businesses on Woodburn — and with many offering similar products, such as clothing, salon services or art -— you’d think things could get catty quickly. But the women of Woodburn easily defy that tired stereotype; rather than competing, the businesses complement each other, making the street a true shopping destination.

“I think women are survivors, and that sort of attitude lends well to starting your own business,” Bolling says. “We all understand that united we stand, divided we fall. When you put your sweat equity into it, there’s no room to butt heads. What’s good for one store is good for all the stores.”

“Women have courage,” Meguire adds. “We do what we feel we need to do.”

Women-owned Businesses in East Walnut Hills

Cafe DeSales 2835 Woodburn Ave.

Clear 2542 Woodburn Ave.

Hi-Bred 2548 Woodburn Ave.

Le Bon Vivant2801 Woodburn Ave.

One More Stitch1609 Madison Road

Oomph Boutique 2803 Woodburn Ave.

PAC Gallery2540 Woodburn Ave.

Palette Studios 2501 Woodburn Ave.

Parlour2600 Woodburn Ave.

Salon DeSales 2839 Woodburn Ave.

Sole Atelier 2544Woodburn Ave.

StrebelArt2723 Woodburn Ave.

Photos by Jesse Fox

Who needs to go out when you can stay in and watch these gems?

Watching corny holiday movies on basic cable throughout the month of December is a national nostalgic pastime and a rite of passage for pretty much every American. Instead of a night out, spend a night or two in with friends and family and this list of classic holiday movies.

Favorite Holiday Movie of All Time:

Home Alone

No other Christmas movie gets me as excited as this cinematic masterpiece. Snarky, brave, sweet little misfit Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is the youngest in a jumbled family that accidentally forgets him at home in the melee of leaving to spend Christmas in Paris. Forced to fend for himself, you think he’s going to do just fine making well-balanced microwave dinners and buying toothbrushes by himself, but the Wet Bandits, busy burglarizing empty homes in his neighborhood over the holidays, have other plans. Watch Kevin outwit the nitwits, defend his home and learn some valuable lessons on self-preservation (see: shaving scene). The bustling family dynamic is effortless, and writer John Hughes recognized how the world looks through the eyes of children and adults alike, bringing both perspectives together in a way that feels honest and relevant even 22 years later. The score, composed by John Williams — especially Williams’ rendition of “Carol of the Bells” — is amazing. And I wish I could rent the made-for-the-movie gangster film Kevin watches, Angels with Filthy Souls. But I can’t. So I’ll just have to rent Home Alone. Keep the change, you filthy animal.

Most Tear-Jerking:

The Snowman

I vividly remember the first time I saw this wonderful, dialogue-free 1982 animated film, introduced by David Bowie. I was in the third grade, and completely entranced by the gorgeous score and simple story. A boy awakens to a huge snowfall and makes a snowman that comes to life that night. The pair become fast friends, and the snowman takes the boy on a magical journey, including a night-flight over London. The ending is the definition of bittersweet, perhaps the best allegory for childhood. My best friend reminded me of this movie; it’s funny what holiday films perfectly align with your friends’ and family members’ personalities and values. Hug your loved ones after watching The Snowman — it reminds you to cherish the fleeting time we spend together, another allegory exemplified during the crushingly busy holidays.

Best Stop-Motion Animation:

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

This is my mom’s favorite holiday movie, and I have been indoctrinated in the clever (and vaguely creepy) world of stop-motion animation since childhood. Rudolph is born to reindeer Donner and his wife and is ostracized by most of the residents of the North Pole due to his seemingly defective glowing red nose (all of the reindeer laughed and called him names). Rudolph decides to run away with Hermey, an elf who wants to be a dentist, and stumbles upon the Island of Misfit Toys. The tale culminates with Rudolph’s nose saving Christmas. The music is great and the animation, while not Pixar-quality, has a more authentic feel. A whole slew of these great stop-motion films exist, and this particular uplifting story about finding acceptance is the longest-running Christmas TV special.

Best Example of Perseverance Paying Off:

A Christmas Story

Where do I even begin? Is it the yearly 24-hour TBS marathon of this 1983 classic? Or Ralphie Parker’s (Peter Billingsley) borderline-delusional attempts at securing a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas? So many hilarious vignettes, one-liners and subplots abound in this movie, it’s hard to pick the best (my favorite is anything involving Randy, the hilarious little brother). Basically, Ralphie really wants a BB gun for Christmas, but everyone tells him how dangerous it is. He’s not allowed to have it because the adults claim he’ll shoot his eye out — and he almost does. We observe Ralphie’s daily life in post-World War II Indiana (cue awesome costumes) as he doggedly pursues his Red Ryder, only to be foiled in various ways by various foes. The unsung hero of this movie is Ralphie’s cursing, leg-lamp-winning dad. But I think it was the narrator I fell in love with the first time I saw A Christmas Story, who I later learned was author Jean Shepherd, upon whose short stories the movie is based. I notice something new and amusing with every subsequent viewing of this film, but the ache for a simpler time always remains.

Most Inspirational:

It’s A Wonderful Life

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is the American dream personified. He makes hard decisions from a selfless place, and is equally rewarded and rejected. A sad turn of events leads travel-minded dreamer George to assume leadership of the family’s Bailey Building and Loan, setting him up for a far different (albeit happy) life with wife Mary and their four kids. The pressure of the small-town setbacks he repeatedly experiences reaches a breaking point when vital funds go missing from the business. George encounters his guardian angel, Clarence, at this low point, and wishes he’d never been born — and we all know how that goes. George is shown the lives of his loved ones as they struggle without his existence, and learns the impact he has had in his time. Uncle Billy, Clarence and Violet, the secondary characters, are my favorites because of their realism and humor — watch Clarence order a drink. The ripple effect in this movie has always been the most striking element for me, and the sentiment and tangibility of George’s desperation feels especially timely these days. I adore Stewart, and cry (sob) every single time I watch this movie. It stands the test of time with its accurate portrayal of the foibles we as humans encounter and overcome.

Honorable Mentions:

Miracle on 34th Street: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.” Still doesn’t clear up for me whether Santa exists or not.

Die Hard: A friend told me this is his favorite Christmas movie, and I like Bruce Willis.

Babes in Toyland: Little Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves sing about Cincinnati during an adventure in Toyland. Yes, please.

Elf: Modern-day classic. Will Ferrell is ridiculously amusing as a man-child elf in New York City.

An outdoor wedding on a family farm.

For any nature-loving adventurer, an outdoor wedding wouldn’t take even five minutes to consider. And for rock climbing junkie Theresa Hughes, it took very little to realize her then-fiancé’s family farm would make the perfect wedding venue.

Now Theresa Seitz, the Dayton-native was tired of seeing so many restrictions tied to some of her possible wedding locations: closing times, required caterers, expenses and more. So on Aug. 25, she married Donald Seitz at his parents’ 50-acre Kentucky farm. “He was partial to the farm just because of all the nostalgia,” Theresa says. “He had always grown up going down there.”

 But getting married on the farm isn’t the only way the couple feeds their cravings for the outdoor world. Now residing in Cincinnati, Donald and Theresa, frequently go hiking, camping, backpacking and rock climbing, which made Caldwell Nature Preserve the perfect location for their April 2011 engagement. “He really wanted to propose outdoors because that’s kind of who we are,” says Theresa.

A designer at Interbrand, Theresa was adamant about using her own skills to get creative and start planning her wedding, even though it meant a hefty amount of work. She developed a mood board and went Pinterest-crazy to discover what type of feel she wanted to emulate. She designed her own invitations — printed with the texture of tree bark and their initials (T + D) carved in a heart — as a way to reference the oak tree they planted on Donald’s farm to symbolize their love, and she made her own lantern and grape vine table arrangements. She had a photo booth at the reception, which acted as a party favor for the guests. When it was dark enough, they lit  purple and green “wish lanterns” and released them into the sky. With the help of her husband, family and friends, she built the altar they got married on, furnished the barn and built a fence to keep the horses from roaming during the ceremony. “Between family and friends, they’re the whole reason everything worked out,” she says. “They took the extra time to help us set up everything.”

And instead of having her guests drive to a hotel for the night, they camped out under the stars at the farm.

Theresa’s V-neck wedding dress had sheer straps, lace appliqué, crystals and a scalloped bottom. “I’ve always wanted a lace dress,” she says.

But Theresa didn’t buy her dress at a bridal shop. “I went down to Reading and I was trying on all these dresses. I always heard that when you found the right dress, you would just start crying. And I wasn’t getting that,” she says. So she turned to the internet.

“I went to the vintage section and I saw this dress and I just absolutely fell in love with it,” she says. “I was definitely nervous, [but] I have this attitude about everything: If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

Theresa’s bridesmaids wore green dresses and carried white and purple bouquets. Her four-layered, white and chocolate-flavored cake was decorated with ivory icing, leaves, flowers and purple ribbon. Along the aisle, flowers overflowed mason jars, but other than that, Theresa says there weren’t many decorations. “I just thought the farm was beautiful on its own and I really didn’t think we needed to add a whole lot to it,” she says.

Looking back on her special day, Theresa says everything was surreal. “It was almost like I was in a dream,” she says. “Everything was just going by so fast.”

Her favorite part of the day? Walking down the aisle with her parents. “Both of my parents were a huge part of my life and I wanted them both to walk me down the aisle,” she says. “You can see everyone’s faces when you’re walking down the aisle and you can just tell that you’re loved.” 

Give some homemade holiday cheer.

When it comes to giving gifts, it should come as no surprise that I tend to lean toward food.

The holidays are one of the busiest times of the year, and although it can be tempting to just cop out and grab a box of chocolates or a bottle of vino, I try to put together a gift that’s a tad more creative and speaks to the receiver’s tastes.

Gift baskets of gourmet and locally sourced foods are my go-tos, especially as hostess gifts for holiday parties. The items take very little time to accumulate — I gather them while I’m doing my own marketing — and I adore sharing the luxury food items my friends and family wouldn’t necessarily purchase for themselves.

The first thing I do when putting together a gift basket is come up with a theme. Since I’m a visual learner, I find that if I start off with an idea for what I’d like the general motif to be, I can picture the finished gift basket in my head. Then I start building from there.

A lot of the creativity and personalization in a “basket” gift comes from the actual container itself. Instead of heading to one of those chain craft stores, scour flea markets and antique stores. Old wooden boxes and wire baskets have far more character than those cheap, rattan imports do, and they show that you’ve put a lot of thought into your gift. Besides, once the contents of the gift have been consumed, the recipient has a constant reminder of your thoughtfulness. Keep your eyes open throughout the year for such gifting vehicles.

As a chef/cooking teacher, I also love to share the gift of knowledge. This Italian basket of delights with homemade pasta sauce is one of my favorites — I always tuck in a recipe or two with the food items and tools.

So, from the bottom up, let’s build a gift sure to emit a, “Mama mia!” from the fortunate beneficiary.

For this basket, a colander makes the ideal base; it’s inexpensive, practical and if you’re lucky enough to have scored one at a vintage store, visually appealing as well. Line the colander with a brightly colored new or vintage cloth napkin.

Dried pasta in various shapes makes for a fun filler. This isn’t the time to cheap out and hit the grocery store for inexpensive house brands — look for fancy shapes that are Italian and, if possible, die cut. Better yet, head down to Findlay Market for some fresh pasta from Bouchard’s. Just remember, fresh pasta needs to be refrigerated, so you’ll have to assemble your gift basket right before you head out the door.

While at Findlay, give Linda VanSpronsen at Claddagh Farms a visit for her homemade, jarred tomatoes. They’re exactly the thing you’ll need to create the delicious tomato sauce below. The only ingredients VanSpronsen uses are her homegrown tomatoes, basil and salt. If VanSpronsen is sold out, pick up canned San Marzano Italian tomatoes at Madison’s along with an onion, a couple of heads of garlic and some fresh basil.

Finally, grab a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese at Silverglade’s or Krause’s. Then head over to Market Wines to find the perfect bottle of Italian red to slip into the lucky recipient’s basket and enjoy a wine tasting for yourself (on the weekends, Market Wines offers four tastes for $5).

Classic Tomato Sauce

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh oregano or ½ tsp. dried
  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp. salt or to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 28 oz. cans chopped San Marzano tomatoes, with their liquid
  • 1 handful of fresh basil

Instructions:

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. 
  2. Add the onions, oregano, garlic, and salt and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft and translucent — about 10 minutes. 
  3. Add the tomato paste and continue cooking for 5 minutes. 
  4. Add the tomatoes and basil, and stir constantly until the sauce begins to boil. 
  5. Lower the heat and simmer for 1 hour, stirring every 5 minutes or so to prevent the sauce on the bottom of the pot from burning.
  6. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired.

Layers of luxe — like lace, velvet, leather and fur — create textural interest and depth when bundling up for colder weather.

Add some sequins and gold accents to take a winter wardrobe from warm to festive and party-ready… even if you never leave the house.

Left to right On Ashley: Black felt hat with gold ribbon, Tori Kadish, $48, etsy.com/shop/torishop; Black sheer collared shirt, Sloane Boutique, $340, sloaneboutique.com; Black and gold sweater, Alice + Olivia, Soho Boutique, $340, shopsohoboutique.com; Black organza layered maxi skirt, NVISION, $100, nvisionshop.com; Cocktail ring, Kismet, $88, 513-871-7879. On Madeline: Black velvet cape, NVISION, $100; Black rosette mini-dress, Pangaea, $58, 513-751-3330; Black bow pumps, The Mustard Seed Boutique, $24, mustardseedboutique.com. OnBrodie: Black three-piece suit, NVISION, $100; Blue oxford, model’s own (American Apparel); Red ascot, NVISION, store’s own; Black shoes, model’s own (Aldo). On Erica: Leather moto jacket, Soho Boutique, $785; Black lace duster, NVISION, $35; Black velvet strapless maxi dress, The Mustard Seed Boutique, $14; Black oxford wedges, Morrison & Me, $79, morrisonandme.com. On Levi: Red bow tie, NVISION, store’s own.

Left to right On Ashley: Fur tie, Tori Kadish, $35; Cream blouse, Kismet, $34; Gold lace tank, Dries Van Noten, The Mustard Seed Boutique, $99; White flower necklace, Sloane Boutique, $80; Brocade jacket, The Mustard Seed Boutique, $36; Burgundy riding pants, Kismet, $52.50; Black boots, model’s own. On Erica: White fur hat, NVISION, $60; Striped wrap sweater, Pangaea, $74.50; Grey knit sequin shawl, Pangaea, $62; Champagne brocade shift dress, NVISION, $40; Gold-studded cream clutch, Kismet, $38; Black boots, stylist’s own. On Madeline: Fuchsia studded-collar blouse, Pangaea, $44; Green and cream houndstooth sweater, The Mustard Seed Boutique, $98; Red horse/puppy print silk midi-skirt, The Mustard Seed Boutique, $18; Blue feather-adorned pumps, Betsey Johnson, The Mustard Seed Boutique, $65. On Brodie: Brown faux fur cape, NVISION, $50; Red polka dot ascot, NVISION, store’s own; Plaid cummerbund, NVISION, $20.

On Ashley: Black felt hat, Kismet, $44; Fur collar, Tori Kadish, $20; Red and gold skater dress, Pangaea, $46.50; Black boots, model’s own.

On Madeline: Pewter velvet duster, The Mustard Seed Boutique, $42; Faux-sheepskin wrap sweater, Pangaea, $90; Silver and black sequin shift dress, Kismet, $52; Studded loafers, Kismet, $38.5. 

On Erica: Tweed and faux-leather moto jacket, Pangaea, $64.5; Cream blouse, Kismet, $34; Belt, Kismet, $12; Black maxi skirt, NVISION, $30; Brown felt hat, Kismet, $36.

Stylist: Christina Pfeffer

Photographer: Jesse Fox

Models: Ashley, Brodie, Erica, Madeline, Levi the dog

Celebrating the gifts of friendship through ups, downs and more than two decades.

It was an unlikely group of women that sat around the campfire one cool October evening — a clerk, a traveling saleslady, two secretaries, two stay-at-home moms, a nurse and a pastor’s wife — and with seemingly nothing in common, they formed a bond that night which has endured for 21 years.

Long ago I heard it said that if you can count the number of real friends you have on one hand, then you are truly blessed. If that’s correct, I am blessed beyond measure because I am one of that group of eight women, and I am a BRAT.

Like any good sisterhood, my friends decided we needed a name. We have had several acronyms for BRAT, but for about 17 or 18 years we have been the Beautiful Radiant Angel Team.

We began our friendship simply as an escape from the day-to-day pressures of work, family, church and the countless obligations that pulled us in multiple directions. It was the height of the early ‘90s “supermom” culture: We did it all and crammed more into our schedules than we could possibly complete. We needed a break, a get-away, a retreat. 

Initially we planned our “meetings” around our families’ schedules: just before the holidays in early November, right after the holidays in late January, just before school was out in early May and right after school began in mid-August. By year number two, we made the decision to meet up monthly.

In hindsight, it would be difficult to say what kept us together those first years. Perhaps it was the fact that our spiritual lives intersected at the same church. Perhaps it was those initial hours at our second campout when we played “Show and Tell.” It was a talking game we invented to get to know one another. I can still remember the details of each life as we poured out our stories until the wee morning hours. Who would have imagined that somehow we needed one another’s friendship to become who we are today?

At one particularly trying time in my life, the BRATs surrounded me with their love and protection. My sister had just escaped from a bad relationship and her psychotic ex began stalking her. She and her two elementary-aged children moved in with my family for safety. At the same time, my husband started traveling for work and only my 14-year-old son was home with us. The harassment began with my sister, but quickly spilled over to our whole family. 

The ex had our phone bills redirected to his address, and he called every member of our family in every state. We would receive up to 100 threatening phone calls a day, but the police weren’t able to apprehend him. We made so many  911 calls that they started answering the phone with, “An officer is on his way.”

After a brief stay in the county jail on an unrelated incident, the police visited us to say my sister’s ex had put a “hit” out on us with some of the other inmates. So my sister and I took a shooting course, determined to do whatever was necessary to protect our families. When my husband was out of town, the BRATs took turns sitting outside our house to alert us if the stalker made an appearance. After seven months, he was arrested again and put in jail for two years. We could finally breathe.

Shortly after that incident, the BRATs decided our group was complete — no one in, no one out. We now had a history together. An outsider would never be part of the “inner circle.”

One of the BRATs has moved around the country as the wife of a pastor. From Cincinnati, we gave them a send-off to Kansas City, then Albuquerque, then back to the Midwest in Richmond, Ind., now off to Gravette, Ark. But she has always been back for at least a couple of BRAT events each year.

As our lives have changed, so have our relationships. We have vacationed together, picnicked together as families and watched our kids grow up, marry and have children. We’re grandmothers now. How did this happen to us? Or more accurately, when did this happen to us?

Many of us have buried parents and some siblings and we were all there to support each other in our losses. Our children’s lives have not always been idyllic, and we have seen marriages come to an end. As for us, all of the BRATs’ marriages are intact. And this marriage of sorts, which we have with one another, remains strong.

As I write this article, I am packing my bags for our annual November retreat. This year we’re going to Gatlinburg. Last year we celebrated our 20th anniversary in New York City.

A weekend together is filled with laughter, shopping, a BRAT craft, memories of other weekends and eating. We often play cards until late at night, or spend hours talking about what is happening in our lives.

We have learned to love the idiosyncrasies of one another: the paranoid who is afraid of the dark, the BRAT who is always late, the control freak, the leader, the Chaplin, the care-giver, the loud one. The differences make us who we are; the craziness only makes us love each other more.

When I turned 50 (now 10 years ago), the girls decided I needed a makeover. At 10:30 p.m. we went to the store to find the right dye for my hair to hide the gray. Then the scissors came out and clip, clip, clip — I had a new style.  Was there a hair stylist in our midst? No, but my head was in their hands. It all worked out and I haven’t stopped coloring my hair since.

And when I redecorated my living room a couple of years ago, one of the BRATs made the comment that it was “about damn time.” How can we tell each other what we really feel and still stay friends? The better question is how can we not?

We share the same philosophy in life. We believe in having fun and loving our husbands, our lives, our kids, our grandkids and our religion. We talk about our feelings, our challenges and our ups and downs. We have endured the soccer years, the teenage years, the college struggles and now the reward of being grandparents. When one of us hurts, we all bleed. When one of us struggles, the others come to our defense. We often laugh and say if one of us needed a kidney there would be seven in line to be tested for compatibility. And it’s very true.

In looking back at our lives, we all realize the value of this friendship. There have been books written about us, pages of albums filled with photographs and more crazy crafts than any of us can count. We have enjoyed laughter, stories, fears and financial difficulties. We have changed jobs, changed houses, changed cars and changed churches. But the one thing that’s been consistent in our lives is this wonderful, crazy thing called friendship.