Last Day of School

We officially kicked off summer with Annie and Jack’s last day of preschool in June and Annie’s class party at a park. We surprised them afterwards with ice cream for lunch at our favorite ice cream shop to celebrate a job well done.

The party was both fun and just as nuts as you’d expect when 40 or so preschoolers and their little siblings gather in one place (the morning and afternoon special ed and Spanish-speaking classes all celebrated together).

Mrs. G!

We’d never planned on public school for our kids but ended up there via a roundabout course for Annie. Her special ed classroom, teacher, and district this year were true gifts, rare even in the special ed world. We couldn’t have imagined a better learning environment for her. She attended class in a simple, peaceful room with a near-magical teacher, two great aides, and just 6-8 special needs students. On most days one or more therapists for speech, occupational therapy, or physical therapy also worked in the room. The teacher firmly believed in emphasizing play and outdoor time over worksheets and formal academics (as do we) and Annie grew by leaps and bounds. The school bent over backwards to accommodate our concerns and desires as parents. She only went for half days four mornings a week, the bus picked her up from our driveway, and her class spent lots of time integrated with the small classroom for native Spanish speakers next door so they had typically-developing role models. We couldn’t have imagined a better year for her than with this particular teacher in this particular program with this particular class. It also gave us a small community of parents and kids where our family was “normal.” Not only did Mrs. G shower our daughter with extravagant love but she constantly encouraged our family throughout the year. Praise God for the Mrs. G’s of this world!

Jack did preschool at home via the same battered Alphaphonics book my Mom used to teach me, huge library lists (especially the “Our Favorite Picture Books for….” monthly recommendations on Read Aloud Revival), lots of outdoor play, work at home, and the wonderful hands-on curriculum A Year of Playing Skillfully. We take a Charlotte Mason-ish approach with stacks of quality books. He loved his park district basketball class in the fall and enjoyed plenty of play with neighborhood kids and the kids at church. He especially loved any play that involved sensory work for his hands: tracing in shaving cream, water beads, making playdough, sculpting clay, painting, making arctic “snow”, etc. Jenny and Josie joined in on much of the preschool play though we don’t worry about any academics at their age.

In the fall we’ll attempt a new Special Ed kindergarten class for Annie, and, hopefully, a homeschool co-op for Jack. The first one we’d chosen disbanded for the year so we’re still figuring out our options. One of the nice things about living in this generation is that educational choices are flexible. When I was being homeschooled there was very much a “homeschoolers vs. the world” mentality, in large part because “the world” was constantly attacking homeschoolers and their right to educate their children as they saw fit. You were A Home Schooler, or A Public Schooler, or a Private Schooler and most viewed crossover between camps with disapproval. Decades later and homeschooling is relatively normal and familiar. In our family, and many I know, attitudes toward education are flexible. Homeschooling may be ideal for all kids one year. In the next year, private school or public school or a co-op may best suit the children’s and family’s needs. We are lucky to have options!

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Jenny Turns Three

Jenny turned three earlier this month. Barnes & Noble sent her a coupon for a free birthday cupcake so we kicked off her celebration early with a mother-daughter trip to the bookstore. She was a little bewildered at first but warmed up to the idea after her first bite of chocolate cupcake. Reading (and her shoes) are her great loves so we gulped down stacks of books in the children’s area along with time at the train table. She basked in the undivided attention and beamed the whole time.

In our house the birthday kid picks the food for the day and wakes up to a decorated dining room. We started her actual birthday with donuts for breakfast plus squeezie packs of applesauce. Individually packaged anything is a big treat around here because Mom and Dad are cheap! After breakfast we hit a favorite park to burn off all that sugar energy.

We ordered pizza for lunch on the way home, and at the last minute called my Mom and asked if she wanted to stop by for lunch with us. Annie does not do well with crazy days or big events but we were glad Grandma could stop in for an hour to make things a little bit extra special. Jenny loves Thomas the Train so we had Thomas plates and some of our trains out on the table for decorations. Easy-peasy. Our oven’s been on the blink so the cake came from a local French bakery. It was fabulous. I hope our oven breaks again for the next birthday to give me an excuse! Unlike last year, when she couldn’t yet chew, she knew exactly what to do with her cake and ice cream this time!

Jenny loved her gifts – her new schoolbus and Daniel Tiger trolley were big hits. This is the first time we’ve done party favors. We’d hoped they would distract the siblings from the birthday kid’s toys but not surprisingly, since they’re only four, four, and one, they were hard to pull away. We eventually shooed them up to nap to give Jenny a little predator-free time with her new toys before bed.

After the kids’ naps, afternoon snack, and a little time playing in the yard we took a long family walk. The Man and I actually had a dinner to attend that night (we forgot that date was Jenny’s birthday when we penciled it into the calendar) but it’s just as well since at that point all four kids had taken in just about all the birthday excitement they could handle.

We left a screen-less window open during our walk and came back to a surprise: a chickadee in the house.

A few days after Jenny’s birthday some relatives were able to meet up at a local ice cream shop for a last-minute low-key family party. It was the simplest party – singing Happy Birthday and eating ice cream. Completely relaxing and fun. The kids ran around in the warm weather, the adults got to talk, and who doesn’t love ice cream? It’s an ideal birthday celebration for Annie to attend, too, as she (and her parents) didn’t have to deal with the stress of gifts. She has a hard time even when the gifts are for her. Skipping them at Jenny’s party let all of us relax.

We loved our time in the Army, but after so many years away it’s a treat to have so much family nearby – the Man’s dad and step-mom, his sisters, two sets of my grandparents, my parents, and one of my brother’s with his wife and son all live with an hour and a half of our home. We even get to see the Man’s mom from Canada more frequently since she’s only one flight away now instead of an extended trip with two flights and layover. The Man’s side of the family was too busy with school and work to be able to meet up during Jenny’s birthday week (his own twin sisters had their birthday that week too) but it’s still great to have them close enough for afternoon visits, holidays, or quick weekend trips.

Our sweet Jenny had a great birthday week. What a joy this kid is! We’ve loved watching her growth and emerging personality this year. She is the easiest, sweetest, most happy-go-lucky kid and completely skipped the terrible twos. We often joke that it’s a good thing she wasn’t our first child; we’d have thought we were wonderful parents, not realizing that if you’ve had one child you’ve…had one child. I think the results of parenting are about 25% parenting effort and 75% whatever personality your kid popped out of the womb with! This year Jenny has progressed from a very quiet laid-back baby into a more boisterously cheerful toddler with a zany personality. She likes to crack jokes and run in circles around the house singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite!” at the top of her lungs. I could count her tantrums on one hand. While she’s a sinner like the rest of us and sometimes tries to snatch a sibling’s toy she’s also incredibly kind and tender-hearted. When she sees a sibling crying she’ll often take off like a shot and return with their favorite toy. She’ll hug and pat her baby sister when she’s upset (a gesture the baby sister does not always appreciate!) and is quick to share. She’s very sensitive to other’s emotional distress – even a sad page in a picture book will make her cry or bury her face. She’s also very sensitive to correction from us and will sometimes burst into tears when we tell her “no” – not because she’s mad, but because she’s sad to have displeased us. Her favorite things on earth are her shoes and reading books, closely followed by cars, bikes and strollers, slides and swings, puzzles, baby dolls, and Daniel Tiger. She graduated from feeding therapy two months ago. After almost three years of therapy she can finally eat normal foods and drink from a cup like the rest of the family. That was her last therapy, and she’s otherwise very healthy and completely typical for her adjusted age – pretty amazing for a kid born 3.5 months early! She’s started hiking on her own legs a lot this year and is incredibly wiry and strong. She’ll do pullups on the park equipment for fun, and is constantly climbing up the fridge or onto the counter to get at the (forbidden sink) or swinging from the underside of the table. We call her the tree frog. She’s a snuggler and especially loves cuddling in on my lap with Josie for the little girls’ end of day story time. She loves playing with her big brother and sister, especially riding bikes around the house with Jack and reading books or singing with Annie. She’s highly social after an initial burst of shyness and often makes friends at the playground and charms guests. What a gift this sweet girl is to all who know her!

 

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.

 

Fireside

It may be spring, but most days are still gray and drizzly with a blustery chill that seeps in around the windows. We’re making frequent fires in the fireplace to cozy up the house before the nights become too warm. Last night the Man suggested pushing back the couches and moving the table into the living room for a fireside dinner.

Our vent fan is out of order so dinner itself was all simple oven-friendly or raw foods – salad, roasted chicken thighs, and quick homemade biscuits. Bless whichever previous owner planted daffodils all through our yard and woods. I’m forcing forsythia blossoms on the mantel and keeping cheery daffodil bunches on the table for meals. As soon as the marauders  kids are released after dinner the flowers go back up to a safe high shelf. Decorating magazine dreams and small children are not easy friends.

Our current read-aloud is Charlotte’s Web. I usually try to keep a chapter book going with the kids. Last night we read a bit more after dinner. It’s largely over the little ones’ heads, but the twins are at the age where they can track with chapter books and enjoy stories with fewer pictures. Jack, especially, listens closely and leads his siblings through all kinds of imaginative play scenarios inspired by our reading. Little House on the Prairie led to lots of wagon rides and playing in the cabin. We’re also reading through a children’s Bible with the kids right now. The other week, Jack announced he was going hunting, disappeared into the mudroom, then emerged with an imaginary bowl of soup for me a la Jacob and Esau. I’m not sure what birthright he was trying to trick out of me; he’s already the eldest.

I’m eager for warm weather, hiking, and swimming but I’ll miss cozy evenings cuddling babies by the fire and reading with the Man after the kids are in bed.