Campfire Nights

The Man often comes up with fun variations on our regular routine. I can get into “systems mode” where I keep doing things the same way just because change sounds exhausting. Habits are helpful, but only when they don’t keep our family from better things. Case in point, The Man came home from the grocery store a couple of weeks ago with hot dogs and fixings and suggested we let the kids roast hot dogs over a campfire for dinner. My internal monologue went “Gah! It’s so much extra work! We have to haul everything outdoors. We have to build a fire. The kids always try to climb into the fire so it’s stressful for the parents. They’ll smell smoky and need baths. I just want to have a routine dinner and put the kids to bed so I can get some rest!” Externally I said “Okay.” He was right, of course. The kids were over the moon with joy, and we all had a great time. They’ve matured a great deal since last fall, so we did not spend the entire time chasing children off the edges of our fire pit.

After dinner we invited our next door neighbors over for s’mores. Like us they are Christians, have four kids and do a mix of private school and homeschooling. We love chatting with the parents. Their teenage son mows our lawn, their teenage daughter sometimes babysits for us, and their younger two happen to be adopted just like our kids. The twins worship the ground they walk on. Jack (4) frequently tells us that he will marry their youngest daughter when he grows up.

Asking folks over for s’mores by the campfire is my favorite form of hosting friends. There’s no advance tidying, no food to prep, and after you gather up the chocolate wrappers and put away the chairs cleanup is done. My other favorite easy hosting option is breakfast or brunch. We stick with a simple meal like waffles cooked at the table, fruit salad, and bacon or sausage cooked in the oven (switched to eggs when we had Muslim friends over, of course!). Baked french toast would be another great option. Our kids are often in their best moods in the morning, and everyone likes breakfast foods. In addition, guests don’t have to wait around for an hour and a half when we transition straight from dinner to bedtimes for cranky little kids. Welcoming a mom for tea or coffee is another easy one. This summer we’d like to make a big batch of lemonade and cookies or watermelon and just have neighbors over to chat on the porch. What are your favorite simple ways to be hospitable without over-complicating things?

We repeated the meal a week later and plan to continue the fun over the summer. We’d like to add in other campfire cooking options like dutch oven/foil packet meals or bratwurst.

Back at the Mound

My Mom watched the kids last week so we could get out for a hiking date. We love to take our kids hiking but sometimes it’s nice to go at an adult pace without stops for every pebble, leaf, and mud puddle! The woods are a spring fairyland right now. We stopped for coffee in the quiet little farm town near our home on the way back. It reminded us of our early married days in San Antonio, TX when we’d often leave first thing in the morning, drive into the Texas Hill Country, eat a picnic lunch somewhere on the trail, then meander back home in time for dinner and evening reading or a movie. 

Easter Sunday 2017

Easter Sunday fell in the middle of an ICU night call stretch for the Man. He spent all night working in the ICU, needed recovery sleep for most of the day, and had to go back in to work on Easter night. We all had the stomach flu last Easter so it was a bit of a bummer to miss church on the biggest feast day of the year again. Still, we can’t complain since he had both Christmas and Thanksgiving off this year. That’s only happened a handful of times in his whole medical career!

The kids and I had a lovely start to Easter itself. The kids woke up to chocolate rabbits and a new book each (The Easter Story from Scholastic, The Twenty-Third Psalm and The Lord’s Prayer illustrated by Tim Ladwig, and When God Made You by Matthew Paul Turner). We don’t do filled Easter baskets – not for any deep philosophical reasons, just because I didn’t grow up with them and them seem like another parental obligation resulting in junk and sugar all over the house ;). These cinnamon rolls from Smitten Kitchen turned out perfectly for breakfast and we all loved them. I only noticed her note about switching to a different recipe after making the original, but I have no complaints about using the old one. It was great! I sang Easter hymns at the table with the kids and read the Easter story. The Man arrived home from the hospital after breakfast, stayed awake long enough to gulp a cinnamon roll, and stumbled upstairs to sleep. The morning went a bit downhill from there – overexcited kids on sugar highs, food to prep, girls’ hair to do, and four wiggly people to wrestle into their Easter finest. It’s possible some maternal yelling occurred. Maybe. Likely. Definitely.

My brother and sister-in-law invited us for our nephew’s baptism, followed by Easter brunch at their house. Knowing one of our kids really could not handle that much extra stimulation in one day we limited ourselves to brunch. We were bummed to miss the baptism, but the great surprise bonus was that the Man woke up just in time for lunch and was able to join us at the last minute. We had a delicious and fun meal with our relatives, my sister-in-law’s family, and some of their friends. I can remember Easters with snow on the ground during my childhood so an outdoor lunch with sunny warm weather was a nice treat! My Dad took a few family photos for us. We’ve never yet caught a family photo with all six of us smiling and looking at the camera. This day was no different, but at least we’re all in the picture.

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I thought my brother did a brilliant job coming up with a make-ahead brunch menu. He picked items that required minimal attention during the quick turnaround between church and 20 people coming right over after the service. He had quiches and ham waiting in a warm oven, cold asparagus in a lemon vinaigrette, scones, sliced tomatoes with mozzarella, a fruit salad from my Mom, and deviled eggs from me (I used the Joy of Cooking recipe for the first time and brought the filling in a ziploc so I could just snip the corner and pipe it in on arrival – it was much better than my usual slapdash version). They served pre-made cakes from the grocery store and had juice, mimosa fixings, and water steeped with berries all prepared in advance. Definitely a menu to copy if you want a fabulous brunch that lets you sit and talk with your guests rather than fluttering round the kitchen.

On the longish car ride home we bribed the children with the promise of a bear cracker at home if they managed to stay awake. Over-sugared and oversocialized small children + no nap for kids + no sleep for Daddy before another night of ICU makes a scary math problem. Luckily three out of four made it and went down peacefully for naps (the fourth played quietly in her room, so success all round). The Man also went back to bed and slept for most of the afternoon in preparation for another night at work. After their nap the kids and I took a long neighborhood walk to keep the house quiet for him until dinner time. We got back just after he’d woken up and headed down to the basement to exercise: “It’s Daddy!”

This was our second year observing the liturgical octave (eight days) of Easter, building on our long-standing tradition of celebrating the twelve days of Christmas and, of course, Lent and Holy Week. This post from Better than Eden summarizes my growing appreciation for the drawn out holiday octave. It is so much more relaxing and meditative as the parent of many young children when you can enjoy Easter at a leisurely pace instead of cramming everything into one day and never getting any rest yourself! We went to bed knowing that Easter had only just begun. Seven more days lay ahead for Easter hymns, Easter stories, special foods, family fun, and secular traditions like an egg hunt.

A Hike at the Old Farm

The Man spent large chunks of Holy Week and the Easter Octave on call in the hospital but we still squeezed in lots of outdoor time in the sunshine. This week we tried a couple forest preserves we’d never visited before along with low-key walks and playground visits. These pictures were all taken on a walk at a local farm that the local conservancy bought for public use. It felt like we should be filming a BBC Jane Austen production in this scenery.

By some miracle not a single child fell in the creek (though someone did throw themselves down in the mud during a tantrum). Jenny completed the entire hike on her own two legs, a first for her. Thanks to her start as a micro-preemie she’s tended to meet physical milestones a bit later than normal but we’re seeing huge progress as she approaches her third birthday. She graduated from feeding therapy last week, too! At one point she balked in the trail, terrified of a dead tree trunk up ahead. Before I could help her Jack (4) stepped in, took her hand, and walked her safely past reassuring her that it was just a tree as they went. It’s a sweet moment to remember in the midst of the raucous sibling battles that sometimes break out around here.

 

Nature Notes, April 6th – 14th

This is the first of many blurry and shadowy photos ahead as I usually just snap quick photos for later identification, usually while juggling a child or two (or three, or four). We spent this afternoon at the park. I found a robin’s nest in the highest tower of the playground. What beautiful eggs! We lifted each of the kids up for a peek, then shooed them away to protect the nest. I hope the parents don’t abandon it. They picked a busy place to raise their babies.

A week ago only small bushes and the crabapple trees were leafing out. Why do they sprout leaves before the larger trees? The willows came to life again at the same time. For several days the treetop landscape from our hill was all grays and browns, interspersed with fresh yellow-green patches in all the damp valleys and pondsides where the willows grow. We have one in our backyard, too, which makes me happy. I love willows. A week later and many of the larger trees are putting out leaves as well. I found out an interesting tidbit while reading. We often worry about a mid-winter thaw confusing the trees and triggering too-early buds. However, it turns out that trees rely not on the temporary temperature but on receiving a set total number of cold days to start budding. That’s why you want to plant trees grown in your own area. Among other problems, a southern tree planted in the north could be programmed to leaf out too early for this area and get killed off by frost.

The crocuses are dying off. Daffodils are at peak bloom. Many yards have large patches of pretty blue squill. I took the kids on a hike earlier this week where we saw mayapples popping up, trillium, bloodroot, one lonely first bluebell, and this hard-to-identify flower. The closest match I could find in my wildflowers guide was cutleaf toothwort (a Harry Potter-esque name if I ever heard one). It’s a perfect match in leaf, bud, color, and design except that every description of cutleaf toothwort I read said it has four petals and this has five. Any naturalists want to help me out?


At home that afternoon I realized we have large patches of violets in the yard. We also have a redbud tree I hadn’t spotted before. You can’t see the flowers in the pine-shaded woods unless the sun hits it just right so it snuck under our radar. My Mom identified the last plant below as phlox, but wasn’t sure of the variety.

On another hike on Palm Sunday we heard spring frogs by the hundreds in a pond. We also saw lots of deer tracks, and found a large patch of fur where a deer was rubbing off its heavy winter coat.

I usually think of herons as solitary birds but the other day five white herons flew low over the road in front of my car. I’ve seen many others, mostly blue, flying in pairs lately. It turns out that herons nest in heronries of up to 150 birds in the spring. Given the numbers I’m seeing there must be one nearby. They usually pick isolated places to nest like islands or more remote patches of woods so I suppose we won’t get a look. From what I’ve read, what we think of as a white herons is often just a white stage of the blue heron. Either way, they always look eerily prehistoric to me.

Much earlier this spring I saw a huge flock of unfamiliar big birds flying high overhead. Another flew over as I picked the kids up from school the next day. They had unfamiliar and beautiful calls I’d never heard before. Annie’s aide wondered if they were herons, but a heron’s call is a hoarse croak. I finally pinned them down as sandhill cranes. Quite a rare thing to spot (and hear!) around here as they’re not local and just fly through during their migration to northern breeding grounds after a winter in the warm South.

Many other birds are back to stay. I’ve seen lots of cardinals and robins, of course. Pigeons, gulls, and swallows have returned. Jack has a great memory. After hearing a mourning dove for the first time a couple of weeks back he heard another on a walk this week and recognized it right away. The marshland is full of red-winged blackbirds. I see several hawks a day, including a couple of small hawks or falcons I don’t recognize. Are they juveniles or another variety? A pretty little house finch hung out by the dining room window as we ate this weekend and sent me off on a long rabbit trail to identify it.

Bees and wasps are back, and we came out to find box elder bugs in tight little clusters covering the front of the house by the hundreds. Annie had a grand time gently poking them off. Then Josie staggered up the front steps, toddled over to inspect a giant clump, turned around, and slowly, placidly…sat on them. Good thing we’re used to laundry.

We’ve had lots of beautiful open windows weather lately. Long walks, hikes, park afternoons, picnics on the deck. Spring!

 

A Weekend in New York

I’ve attended an annual weekend of meetings and family reunion activities in New York since elementary school. Earlier this month we left the two little ones at home with the Man’s father and stepmother and took the twins along on a whirlwind trip to NYC. Warning: numerous blurry cellphone photos ahead.

As you can see, they were thrilled when we finally loaded up the car and headed out. Annie wore that face-splitting grin all the way to the airport.

Jack and Annie behaved beautifully at the airport. That is, until we each took a child to the restroom before boarding and Annie encountered the automatic-flush toilet. Automatic toilets and potty training are not a match made in heaven. It flushed every time she moved which resulted in her repeatedly leaping off and trying to claw her way up my body to escape the diabolical toilet.

Lollipops kept the kids’ ears popping during takeoff and landing. I always rolled my eyes at what I thought was a bit of a hippie artifial dye phobia but it turns out one of our kids reacts very poorly to artificial dyes with through-the-roof hyperactivity and meltdowns. I’m now a big fan of the YumEarth Organics brand of candies. They’re more expensive but use plant-derived colors and the flavors are rich and fruity.

As somewhat jaded adult passengers it was fun to see the thrill of flying through our preschoolers’ eyes.

The Man’s seat bookended an otherwise empty row so we spread out. Jack talked Daddy’s ear off for the entire flight and Annie stretched out on my lap and fell fast asleep soon after takeoff.

We’d been in New York City all of thirty minutes before Jack picked up a new and colorful expletive from several construction workers in the cab line then loudly interrogated us about it in front of the crowded queue: “Why are they saying ****? WHY DO THEY KEEP SAYING ****?” Thanks, Empire State.

At the fancy-schmancy hotel the twins had the priciest mac n’ Cheese dinner of their lives which hopefully wiped Jack’s shiny new cuss word from his memory. It was spectacularly good mac n’ cheese. We know because we were ravenous ourselves and provided significant, um, “assistance” to our children. We’re used to 5:00 PM dinners with toddlers, not fashionable 8:00 PM gatherings!

After the kids’ dinner we all changed and headed up to a cocktail reception. At this point the twins were hyper and it was impossible to catch a still picture. Perhaps we should’ve understood that as a warning, but no… *cue JAWS music for the evening’s progression*. We said hello to lots of extended family and acquaintances while the twins hid their faces, begged to be held, or thrashed. We tided them over with juice and snacks, then quickly ushered them back to our room.

We’d arranged a babysitter for them while we attended a dinner for the adults. Unfortunately that’s where things really fell apart. One kid was stretched to the breaking point from the lack of routine and anxiety. The other was off the rails with excitement from the novelty. Then they started feeding off one another’s wild emotions. A little after 9:00 we got an emergency text from the babysitter asking us to return because the kids were throwing things, hitting, and pulling hair. No pictures, so you’ll just have to imagine our horrified faces staring at our phones in disbelief. The Man hurried back to find the sitter in tears and two small berserkers on the rampage. They had, among other things, thrown and shattered a glass. They’ve never behaved that way before or since. We were appalled, but also learned to reset our expectations for future trips. Our kids clearly need a parent’s hand on the first night after traveling! Children were dealt with, riot acts were read, the babysitter was thoroughly compensated, and the preschool crowd did much better for the rest of the trip.

The next morning we joined extended family for breakfast and the twins ate their weight in pastries from the buffet. Bonus, we got to meet a new niece who was even cuter than her pictures. As a kid I dreaded these gatherings. I always got sick on the planes, had migraines throughout the weekend (a sort of air travel hangover), felt claustrophobic in Manhattan, desperately craved and couldn’t find introverted alone time, and dreaded making conversation with so many people through my painful teenage shyness. This year I realized how much I’ve come to love meals with all these lovely relatives from around the world. It’s a privilege to get to see them each year and I appreciate the tremendous amounts of work put into planning it all. I still get claustroph obic in Manhattan and feel utterly drained by the end but time with so many interesting and kind family members is a real treat. Any given meal might hold conversations with an academic, a homemaker, an editor, an attorney, an engineer, a ranger, a rock climbing guide, an illustrator, or any one of dozens of other careers and lifestyles. My extended family members are warm, funny, smart, and creative, and I’m so lucky to know each of them.

While I sat in business meetings for the morning the Man took the kids to his much-beloved Metropolitan Museum of Art. He used to visit often as a college student and then later as a young man working in New York. He loved fulfilling a long-held goal of taking his own kids there. We may have spoiled them for life. It’s hard to beat the Met for your first art museum experience! Or at any rate your first conscious art museum experience. They slept through some perfectly nice exposure to art as babies.

After a group lunch with relatives we showered the kids with dire warnings and left them with the babysitter again. Thankfully, they behaved perfectly. The Man and I sat in more meetings for the afternoon. Keeping in mind the kids’ disastrous evening the night before we opted for calm and quiet family time after the meetings. We took the kids for a walk, grabbed dinner for them at a little pizzeria, and enjoyed low-key time together. They were pretty psyched to have an entire bottle of apple juice each since juice is a treat reserved for illnesses in our home.

We left them with sitters again (still with significant trepidation on our part!) and headed out for that evening’s scheduled cocktail party and dinner. Once again, the kids behaved perfectly and went right to bed. Phew! We both enjoyed our dinner with family. I’m so lucky to be married to my calm, confident, kind husband and enjoyed watching him across the table. Every so often I stop and quietly marvel over the fact that, out of all the people in the world, I get to be married to him.

Another family breakfast, another morning of meetings (the twins joined us for some and did well) and we were off. Annie felt desperately tired and kept leaning over on me in the cab and in the airport while trying to fall asleep. To keep her awake until the flight we walked long rounds through the terminal. Our hallway had a wide window overlooking the runway and the twins could’ve stayed for hours watching the planes take off and land. When we boarded our plane the flight attendants asked if the kids wanted to see the cockpit. The attendants and the pilots were very kind and welcoming and Jack has since announced he wants to be a pilot when he grows up. I think he’s inspired by the glowing prospect of pushing All! Those! Buttons!

We all felt wiped out from activity and engagements by this point. Annie crashed promptly after takeoff again and slept until landing. Jack found his second wind and talked with at his exhausted parents for the entire flight. That said, he behaved very well and worked his way through books, coloring, snacks, and my last resort, a barf bag puppet:

We returned home to two happy and well-cared for toddlers. My in-laws were so kind to look after a couple of rambunctious babies for the weekend – they even made dinner so we wouldn’t have to worry about it that night! Jenny asked us for apple juice several times an hour for the next two days so we suspect some grandparent spoiling occurred – which is just as it should be! My own grandparents frequently snuck us cookies or gummie bears, and, paradoxically, bribed us to brush our teeth with M&Ms.

We love the open prairie and peaceful woods around our home but it was fun to take a quick special big-city trip with our big kids!