Monday, November 29, 2010

Things Jemma Says: Christmas Edition

While watching the ballet yesterday, during the part where the dad, wearing his nightshirt, "heard a clatter and sprang from his bed to see what was the matter":

Jemma:  "Who's that?"

Me:  "That's the daddy."

Jemma:  "Pfft!  He has a dress on!  Boys don't wear dresses!  Is that his bathrobe?"


While waiting in line to meet Santa Claus:

Me:  "Jemma, what are you going to ask Santa for when you sit on his lap?"

Jemma:  "A snack."


After sitting on Santa's lap:

Me:  "What did you ask Santa for?"

Jemma:  "A black cat."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Kicking off the Season of Joy

In the four short years that we've lived in this house, we've developed a handful of Thanksgiving weekend traditions that I really love.  No matter if we're home or up north on Thanksgiving day, we head out on Friday or Saturday when we return to Hart's Christmas Tree Farm to chop down our Frasier Fir.  This year, it was approximately 27 degrees, cloudy, and windy, so what usually involves a leisurely hayride followed by some videotaping of traipsing around the field debating the merits of each tree became this:

11:14 a.m.:  Dismount wagon hayride, spy tree inches from wagon, declare it to be "The One."

 11:15 a.m.:  Jason saws tree down immediately . . .

 . . . while Annie and Jemma huddle together for warmth.

11:16 a.m.:  Get right back on the exact same wagon that brought us out to field and return to have tree bailed, etc. as quickly as possible.  No petting of various small animals, no hot chocolate.

11:45 a.m.:  Snug and happy in a booth at The Corner Bar.

Later that day, we brought the tree inside and decorated it together, requisite listening to Perry Como and John Denver Christmas albums and annual fighting over who gets to hang the Rudolph ornament included.  

We made a fire after dinner and ate homemade vanilla pudding that Jason made with the girls earlier in the day.  Annie stirred, Jemma added the ingredients to the pan.  It was yummy.

This afternoon, to wrap up our weekend of kicking off the Christmas season, we went for the third year in a row to see the 'Twas the Night Before Christmas ballet downtown.  We got dressed up and loved seeing our favorite parts and waited in a long line to sit on Santa's lap afterwards.  I worry that this might be Annie's last year of believing in Santa, and I don't know how many more photos like this are in our future, so these are pretty priceless.

Since we were all fancy, we went to Rose's for dinner afterwards, where Annie tried (and loved) her very first creme brulee and Jemma was content with extra caramel corn.  Now they're in bed and we're on the couch watching Christmas Vacation while the tree twinkles away, gearing up for a big, busy week and feeling, thanks to our traditions, like the Christmas season is really upon us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

After Thanksgiving Dinner

After five-plus hours of eating, drinking, talking, laughing, playing Go Fish, watching football, doing puzzles, and other various Thanksgiving traditions, I drove our family of four home from Holland.  As the rain fell outside and E.B. White's voice read Charlotte's Web aloud, one by one the others fell asleep, Annie's head tilted far to the left, Jemma's round cheeks flushed pink and scrunched forward, Jason's hands still holding a plate of leftover turkey on his lap even as he snored.  I looked to the right, looked in the rearview mirror, thought, Everything that's most precious to me is in this car right now, hurtling towards home, towards a solid month of holiday coziness and cheer. 

At home, we piled out of the car, changed into jammies, lit a fire, and watched movies on the couch until the girls went to bed.  And now the fire's down to its embers, I'm on the couch with holiday issues of cooking magazines and a glass of porter, thankful for the big things (family, friends, health, home) and the little things, too, like watching my children sleep in the car on a November afternoon.

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Good Things, November 2010

More art projects on weekends, like painting pine cones gold

and drawing pictures to welcome Daddy home from his Iceman bike race

and making portraits to send to cousins;

riding the carousel at the mall;

making apple crisp

and praying before dinner

and combining Smitten Kitchen granola with greek yogurt and Williams-Sonoma pecan pumpkin butter for the perfect breakfast;

saying farewell to the last of the leaves;

catching first snowflakes on tongues;



celebrating my mom's 60th with a shopping trip and dinner out; freak temperatures in the 60's that enabled plenty of outdoor runs and happy afternoons on the playground; new treasures from Etsy hung on the walls; homemade Advent calendar completed and ready for 24 days of counting down; 80% of Christmas shopping done!; looking forward to a cozy Thanksgiving weekend replete with extended family meal, Christmas-tree-getting, downtown tree-lighting event, and family trip to the ballet on Sunday.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Do you ever start to count up your great, good fortune or stop and think about the vastness of your blessedness and feel like somehow it's too good to be true?  Does it make you feel that your life has been charmed for the past thirty-three years and that, sooner rather than later, your luck is going to run out?  Because I think this way sometimes.

There are people who are fighting cancer, people who are taking care of children who are fighting cancer, people who are losing children to drug overdoses and parents to dementia and spouses to car accidents.  There are people who are going through wretched divorces and people who have lost all their money and people who have no house, no job, no food, no worldly possessions at all.  There are people who want very much to have a baby but can't have one.  There are children who want very much to be loved by a family but don't have one.  There are so many people hurting in so many ways for so many reasons every minute of every day that it boggles the mind.

But none of these things has happened to me.

My parents are alive and healthy.  My grandparents, even.  My children - conceived almost the moment they were wished for - arrived healthy.  I run down the checklist:  strong marriage, happy children, lovely home, loving family, loyal friends, financial security, supportive community, health, strength, food, fortune.  I am so incredibly blessed and lucky, and mostly this fills me with an abiding sense of gratitude and wonder at the goodness of life.

Sometimes, though, it feels the way it feels when you remark to someone that, gee, your kids haven't puked in a pretty long time or, gosh, it's amazing that Jason speeds so much but hasn't ever gotten a ticket.  It feels like, up the sky somewhere, the god of karma is going to wake from his slumber and realize that the scales are all out-of-whack for that one family down there, the one in the brick bungalow.  It feels like a streak of luck that has to come to an end, like a tide that's going to turn, like a reckoning that's due.  It feels like waiting for a kid to wake up puking at midnight, like the flashers of the cop car pulling over a silver Audi on the highway.

It's silly to think this way, I know.  But almost everyone I know, by this age, has been touched in some way by at least some sort of challenge or tragedy, and so I look around and I can't help but wonder how I will cope when it is my turn.  Can't help but wonder when my turn will come.

Sometimes, I want to greedily gather every single person and thing that is near and dear to me and pull them close, wrap them in a shroud of that fluffy white cotton that comes in fancy jewelry cases, make it so nothing bad can ever happen.  Other times, the knowledge of my fortune makes me feel like I should be doing so much more - eleventy billion times more - with my time and resources.  I feel perversely guilty about my good circumstances  - I have done nothing to make my body fertile, nothing to prevent my parent from getting cancer - and the guilt makes me feel like I owe something - Something Big - to society.  But I am not sure this is how the world works, either.

I am not sure that these are the feelings that Thanksgiving is meant to conjure up, but I just want to state for the record that on this late November day when I ran in short sleeves and jumped in puddles with Jemma and practiced saying los colores en Espanol with Annie, I am acutely aware of my many, many blessings.  When circumstances change - tomorrow, next year, next month, in 2018 - I don't want to look back and sigh that I didn't know how good I had it.  I know.  I really do.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Weekend Project: Advent Calendar

The fact that Jason is in Chicago for most of the weekend + the fact that the girls have already been asking me for weeks "How many days until Christmas?" = this weekend's project, the Advent calendar.

Our family doesn't own a re-usable Advent calendar.  We just . . . don't.  It never seemed like a holiday necessity until about last year, and now that I'm actively looking around for one, I'm not drawn enough to anything to want to spend that much money on it.  Plus, I don't want anything where I have to hide candy inside, then listen to my children ask for the candy constantly, then feel as though the advent calendar is adding to the sugar overload of the holidays.

But then I found this, and it's perfect.  It's a paper (envelopes, to be precise) countdown-type calendar that kids can create with a little help, some envelopes, 24 slips of paper, the downloadable PDF for the numbers, some kitchen twine or ribbon, and clothespins.  We got started on it this morning, and though our version does not look as lovely as the one I found on design*sponge, we had fun deciding on activities to put inside the envelopes.  Jemma glued the numbers to the envelopes, and Annie wrote the activities on slips of paper to go inside.


Since we normally would have made a Christmas List for our backdoor blackboard, we've just assigned each activity to a day and we'll count down to Christmas with fun activities like "Write a letter to Santa," "Make Christmas cookies," "Read the Christmas story," "Draw a picture for your teacher," "Have a fire," "Drink hot cocoa," "Dance to The Nutcracker," and "Decorate your bedroom" instead of pieces of candy.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Preschool Progress

Jemma's first "progress report" came home from preschool in her little red bag today.  I put progress report in quotes because, come on, they're three; how much progress can they have made with Play-Doh and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in the approximately nine two-hour sessions they've had so far this year?

In spite of my skepticism, I smiled when I read it.

"We are very pleased with how beautifully Jemma has adapted to our classroom and her progress is very appropriate.  She's a delight!"

Last Thursday, Jason and I got to take Jemma to her classroom for a Parents' Night (no siblings!) and get a little glimpse into how she spends her hours there.  When we brought Annie to this night three years ago, I remember locking eyes with Connie across the room and exchanging looks of "holy-crap-my-kid's-in-preschool-and-we-really-aren't-in-college-anymore" while watching Annie and Ben do their thing.  This time, everything just seemed normal.  It feels normal to have a pre-schooler.  It feels normal to stand back and watch her frost a sugar cookie, sing a song about a worm, recite a nursery rhyme with motions.

Jemma was so proud to show us what she does, and so poised among her classmates.  She exudes a bright, happy confidence and she glibly calls out every answer when Miss Ruth and Miss Diane ask questions.  She folds her hands to pray before she eats, she asks for a million glasses of water, and she is not the very last one done eating.   She knows how to write all her letters, spells STOP and ANNA and DAD and LOVE with letter tiles.  She can zip her coat.  She wants to empty the contents of her red bag the second I pick her up from the playground because she cannot wait one moment more to show me the things she has made.

It's true.  She is a delight.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Keeping it Real

You know what I love?  I love it when you meet somebody new, or maybe just get to know them a bit better than you did before, and you discover that you really like them.  They're fun, they're honest, and - bonus! - they have a kid or three the same ages as a couple of yours.  Subsequently, I love it when you and that person decide to force your children to be friends so you can hang out and drink coffee and talk cookbooks.

Anywho, this happened (happily) to me recently, and this person began reading what I write here, and made some sort of comment about me being "a machine."  And when I stopped laughing, I went back and read a few of my recent posts.

When I started blogging about two-year-old Annie and baby Jemma, it was partly because I wanted to keep a record of our life - their lives, before they would remember them - and partly to stay in touch and tell my stories to some friends who live far away.  But there was another reason, too.  I realized that I was often caught up in the drudgery and sometimes-thankless tasks of parenting; I realized that I often talked about my days as if they were just hours to be gotten through; I realized that I wasn't focusing enough on the good.

I'm a realist by nature, but one who wants (and tries consciously, with varying degrees of success) to be an optimistically-inclined realist.  I think this explains my long-documented and long-mocked love of the inspirational quote, my affinity for reading memoir and essays, my curiosity about people who have done big things with their lives:  how can I do this better?  How can I make this work?  How can I keep myself aware that each moment of even the most thankless task is a gift?  How can I laugh about the ridiculousness that is a toddler?

So I started writing here, and when I scroll back through the weeks and months, I see that I do tend to paint a fairly happy picture.  I tend to focus on the good, the perfect days, the adorable photos, the memorable one-liners and not the negative, though that seeps out every now and then when I need to vent it out.

But I want to keep it real here, too, so that my grown-up girls will be able to read here and see that every mother struggles with certain things, to see that each day was not rosy-cheeked babes in arms and a piping-hot meal on the table and a clean, happy house.  I want to keep writing my slice-of-life posts and celebrate the everyday things, but I want to remember things as they really were, too.


Sometimes our dining room looks like this:

and our front entry looks like this:

Sometimes I get in bed with a book when Jemma has her quiet time and I don't get out until she's up.  Sometimes Jemma wakes up from her nap and looks (and acts) like this:

Sometimes I plan to make Barefoot Contessa's Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic for dinner, but when I go to start it at 4:15 on a Monday afternoon, I realize that the first step is "Hack your whole, raw chicken apart into eight separate pieces like so" and when my knife hits the bone that holds the leg to the body, I immediately decide to make Whole Roast Lemon Chicken with Croutons Plus a Lot of Garlic That I Already Peeled.

Sometimes we go to Annie's parent-teacher conference and hear the word "spitfire" more than we would like.

Sometimes I don't make the bed.

Sometimes I cook lots of great things during the week for dinner, but sometimes I go to the grocery store on a Monday morning and my meal plan, written on the back of my grocery list, goes "Monday, grilled cheese and tomato soup; Tuesday, eggs and toast; Wednesday ???? . . ."

Sometimes I wait to do laundry until I'm about to run out of underwear.

Sometimes I eat a lot of the kids' Halloween candy while they're not home.

Sometimes I feel like this about my life:

but I think I'm going to want to remember the times when I feel like this:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Apple Tree, by Annie

Annie took some time over the weekend to write and illustrate a new book.  I am too lazy right now to photograph it page by page and upload the photos, but I want to share the story because it's pretty great.

The Apple Tree

For Mom and Dad

Capter One:  The Frend

There lived a tree.  It had a frend.  Her name was flowr.  Flowr was tree's Best Frend.  The tree and the flowr grow and grow tile the tree startid to grow appl's on it.  The appl's were so chiney that wene evre pepple waelkt by they wohd think they were the most chineyist  appl's evre.

Capter Two

Flowrs days past by cickly and flowr's brit petls beygan to die and tree was sad but then tree fouwd anothre frend.  He was happy agene becuas he had a new frend.  But he still mist flowr but he was glad he had a new frend to play with.  The End.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Things Jemma Says: Bob Marley Edition

Me, in response to Jemma asking why I'd called her into the kitchen to "help" with the applesauce instead of letting her stay in the hallway and do a puzzle with Annie:  "Because I'm tired of hearing you two fight about every little thing."

Jemma:  "Well, but Mommy, every little thing is gonna be alright."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tradition: First Day of Snow

The first flurries of the season were in the air today, so when Annie got home from school, we continued our family tradition of having hot cocoa to celebrate the first day of snow.  I'm not one to welcome winter, but it's on its way, so better to embrace it than bemoan it, right?  Cheers to a cozy, healthy winter full of fluffy snow, abundant sunshine, lots of outdoor fun, and plenty of hot cocoa!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Heart of Gold

We are strolling through the grocery store, Jemma perched up in the seat of the cart, the better to see things and ask for them.  On this trip, she's wheedled her way into getting apple cider, bananas, and cheese sticks, none of which were on my list.  We're heading toward the deli when she says, out of nowhere, "In TWO MONTHS it'll be my birthday!"  She makes her eyes big and looks at me, waiting for a reaction.

"It will!" I agree, and inside I am rebelling against having to say she is four.  I want to keep saying that she is three ("free") for several more months, possibly several more years.  But she is already moving on, listing the things she wants for her birthday.  I am trying to pay attention (the better to write these things down when we get home, or else my brain will never remember) when she stops, mid-item, and changes direction.

"And then for Annie, we should get a pink Cinderella dress."  She nods firmly.

"It's not going to be Annie's birthday," I say.  "Also, Cinderella has a blue dress, and we already have it."

"She has a pink dress, the one that the stepsisters ruin when they're mad at her," she says, and I agree, she does, though I am not sure if that dress is ever in a store.  And again, I mention, it's not Annie's birthday.

"I don't want Annie to be sad when I open my presents and she doesn't get any" she insists.

"Well, when it was Annie's birthday, you didn't get presents.  You just knew that it would be your turn to get presents in December," I remind her.  She does not disagree with this, but she is not changing her mind.  She wants to get Annie some presents.  She wants to get Annie some presents on the occasion of her fourth birthday.  She wants to get her a pink Cinderella dress, and shoes to match.

This girl.  We don't deserve her.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween 2010

Halloween is another holiday that, like Christmas and children's birthdays, seems to have morphed into a full week-long celebration.  You'd think that, given my historical indifference to this holiday in particular and my tendency to be "over" things if they begin to drag on too long in general, I'd have been "over" Halloween when the 31st finally dawned brightly yesterday morning.  But I wasn't.  After the wearing-the-costumes-to-dance, the school parties and parades, the family pumpkin-carving and Charlie-Brown-Great-Pumpkin-viewing, I was still into my black cat and my Dumbo as they traipsed from Party Number One to Party Number Two to trick-or-treating around the blocks near our house.  Admittedly, I was only as "into it" as someone who lamed out on a costume can be.  Some years, I am inspired; others, not so much.  But I have already promised Annie that I will be a witch with her next year, and I think I made up for my lack of a costume with the treats I brought to Party Number One:  pumpkin cupcakes with salted caramel frosting topped with BACON.  Oh, yes I did.

Now, the pumpkin cupcakes themselves were nothing to get excited about (and I'm on the market for a better recipe, so send it my way if you have one), but the frosting was spectacular (like, still licking at the bowl hours later, hoping there might be one more speck of sweet/salty goodness).  I come late to the sweet/salty food party.  I used to be of the opinion that nothing was too sweet for me, and saltiness in my desserts was just getting in the way.  But, lately, in my middle age, I have started to find things too sweet, and this frosting would be one of them if it wasn't for the salt.

Salted Caramel Frosting

1/4 c. sugar
2 T. water
1/4 c. heavy cream
1 t. vanilla
12 T. unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 t. kosher salt
1 c. powdered sugar

Stir sugar and water together in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until dissolved, then continue to boil without stirring until mixture is a dark amber color, about 6 minutes.  Remove from heat and immediately stir in the cream and vanilla with a wooden spoon, stirring quickly until mixture is smooth.  Set caramel aside to cool to room temperature, about 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat butter and salt together on medium-high until very light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add sugar, beat well, scrape down bowl, and beat again.  When caramel is cooled, add it to the bowl, and beat until it's combined.

Frost your cupcakes and top with small shards of very crisp bacon.  Trust me.

I didn't take a picture of the cupcakes, but I think the black cat and Dumbo were cuter, anyway:

It was a very, very happy Halloween.