October So Far

It’s been months since my last post, and who knows how long until the next one. All four kids are sleeping so it’s now or never, a quick unedited update on life right now. The kids are 4, 4, 2, and 1. It’s early fall. Harvest is underway in the corn and soybean fields. A few trees have turned. We start most days with thin bright autumn sunlight and chilly air when we step out on the porch. By afternoon nobody needs jackets but the cold quickly returns as day fades into clear starry nights.

Since I last posted we sold our house, moved from North Carolina to the Midwest (a Job-like saga involving shingles, other illnesses and injuries, and multiple ER trips), and settled into our new home. We miss our Army life but live near much of our family now and enjoy frequent visits from other relatives. It’s great to be back in the beautiful Midwestern landscape with the gorgeous Midwestern seasons.

We took two trips to my parents’ cabin on Lake Michigan over the summer and reveled in a family-focused season of outings, yard work, reconnecting with old friends, hiking, pool trips, and play after a very stressful spring preparing to move. We plowed through many intense years before that of work and increasing numbers of small children. This year, with a break from work and slightly older kids we loved getting to milk the hot summer days for every last drop of goodness.

The Man started his new job in late August. His new work schedule is very family-friendly and we get to see much more of him than we used to. The twins started preschool two mornings a week in September. We spend our down time working around the house and yard, and embracing the season with fall bonfires, family get-togethers, apple-picking trips, autumn hikes, and cozy evenings sipping hot cider and reading in our home while the wind whistles up the hill past our house. Life and parenting hold plenty of hard parts and stresses but we’re loving this season together.

It would be hard to write detailed posts catching up on every detail of our family life over the past summer so I thought I’d start where we are now, and perhaps catch up on bits of the past as time allows.

My Dad’s Mom (Gram) came into town for a visit last week. Carl wrapped up night call in the ICU and, as usual, was swarmed by the kids with the usual “DaddyDaddyDaddyDaddddeeeeeee!” chorus while he tried to eat breakfast. He caught a short nap before we headed out to meet up with Gram/Great Gram and my Mom at a nearby apple orchard for cider, cider doughnuts, and a little outdoor playtime for the kids.

The weather turned chill and dreary but the kids had fun seeing the farm animals and playing on the hay bales and tractor. We finally got to introduce the younger two to their Great Gram.We didn’t pick apples this time since it was our fourth orchard trip of the month and we still had a stockpile in the fruit bowl. Plus, after eight cider-doughnut deprived years in the South I’m focused on milking the fresh orchard doughnuts season (not on the calendar, but just as real as Advent or Winter) for all it’s worth. We particularly like this orchard because it doesn’t charge for admission like some of the more touristy local options. You pay for any apples you pick or the doughnuts/cider you consume, but it’s free to climb on their little collection of hay bales and let the kids watch the animals.

We obviously have a ways to go on the “staged photo opportunities” front: 

A downpour nixed our plans for a weekend fall festival so we took the kids to Costco and let them ride in the carts and try the free food samples. Don’t let anybody tell you our family doesn’t know how to party.

The next day my parents and Gram came by for an easy pizza dinner. After many years away with the Army, we know proximity to family is a privilege and a pleasure. The kids love it when relatives come over. They adore their grandparents on both sides of the family and spent a significant chunk of the evening trying to copy my Dad’s coffee drinking by sipping their water just so. Gram won Annie’s affection by reading the I Spy book about 300 times and we finally packed the kids off to bed exhausted, hyper, and happy.

The next evening we all gathered at my parents house for another family dinner, this time with my brother, sister-in-law, and newborn nephew as well. I didn’t take any pictures, but did get to snuggle a sleepy (and shockingly-light-compared-to-our-tubby-one-year-old) baby for a good chunk. After Gram flew back to prepare for the hurricane we filled the next few days with more mundane tasks – school for the kids, partial work days for The Man, catching up on laundry, evicting frogs from the window well, walks, outdoor time, pre-dinner hiking, meals, and the litany of everyday life. The swings Granny (Carl’s Mom) gave them for their birthday are big favorites. While in general our new neighborhood is less friendly and inviting than our old neighborhood our next-door neighbors are an exception. We have a lot in common. They, too, are Christians with four kids, some transracially adopted, and most homeschooled. It’s fun having them over for the occasional meal or, this week, a bonfire with s’mores.

On Wednesday the kids’ school took their fall field trip to a local small farm and pumpkin patch. Funny how parenting can crush your pre-kid opinions. I was full of ideas on how others should raise their kids before we had our own. These days, others who don’t have kids or have completely different families are still full of opinions on what’s best for our kids. Having heard the litany from many others that we’re too lax/too mean/too relaxed/not academic enough/etc. I really try to keep my parenting advice to myself unless asked for it (although it does slip out sometimes and I apologize!). What goes around comes around. Parenting real kids in real time can change formulaic assumptions. We’ve always planned on homeschooling our kids, but right now for this year it’s clear that Annie’s special needs will best be served by immersion in an environment full of other small children to model typical behavior. It’s likely we’ll homeschool in the future. Right now, though, the twins attend Montessori school two mornings a week, and Annie has an aide to work one-to-one with her as she plays with other kids and completes tasks. We like the Montessori focus on independence and sensory play, both areas where she would receive therapy regardless. We’re not fans of early academics for our kids since studies tend to show pushing intensive academics on typically-developing young kids has no long-term benefits and often significant negative side effects. However, we are fans of rolling with a kids interests and natural bents, and finding the best resources for them at a given age. We’re happy to see Annie getting the focused attention she needs at school right now, with Jack along for the ride. Two days is just enough for social immersion without taking over our family schedule. It leaves lots of time for outdoor play, imagination at home, reading picture books, listening to music, and normal home activities.

Along the line of “things we didn’t particularly like before small children” were touristy farms and pumpkin patches. However, the kids loved the school outing – everything from seeing the animals and riding behind the tractor to playing in the giant field full of play structures, tunnels, a sand pit with construction vehicles, a tire swing, a tent, and similar preschooler-magnets. They had a grand time, and at $2 a head (and free for the little ones) it was an inexpensive, low-key, and fun family outing. We love having a larger-than-average family, but admissions costs can add up when there are six heads! I suppose our goal should just be to have so many kids that we always qualify for the group rate and can skip past all the individual fees…

 Our new home sits on the edge of farmland. We have an acre and a half in the last neighborhood before clusters of homes give way to croplands, pastures, prairies, and woods. We loved our years camping and hiking in North Carolina’s beautiful terrain, but the hiking options close to our home were limited. We tended to hike the same three or four trails over and over again on days when we couldn’t leave town. In contrast, there are a couple of dozen great trails within a ten or fifteen minute radius of our new home. We love the ability to run out for a hike when we have a spare hour or two. Pre-dinner hikes are a new favorite. A couple of days ago we hiked a trail down to the river before heading home for leftovers and bedtime:

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I don’t want to paint a deceptively rosy internet picture. Life with this many small children can be utterly exhausting. Parenting kids with special needs is hard. We have so many medical specialist’s appointments to make that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of them all. The dishwasher has been broken for two months. We haven’t found a church or developed any close friendships in our town yet. We miss our old friends, our old church, old colleagues, and our old small group. One child is definitely in the theoretically-but-not-fully stage of potty training messes. My to-do list stretches longer than my arm. The mess, the laundry, the whining, and the tantrums sometimes threaten to drown us. But, in all that, there is joy, satisfaction, and reward. We are so grateful for this life with these kids in this place.

 

Town

Will you come on a walk through town with us? Let me introduce your friendly tour guides:

“Mom. I don’t speak English yet. Also, the fat pink thing keeps grabbing my hair beads. Make it go away.”

Oh. Never mind. Beg your pardon. Let’s check with the backup tour guides. Guys?

“These are the Methodist church steps. We like the church steps. We will go up and down the church steps for the next hour. Your readers will be very interested in the church steps Mom. See?”

“No, kids. They probably won’t.”

“Well the Grandmas will. And the Aunts. See, we’re cute! Who wants to walk through town when they can see us climb up and down these stairs fifty times!”

“I do. But you’re right, at least the church is pretty.” (Top and bottom cut off because Annie proceeded to step in a fire ant nest and I ditched the camera to wipe hundreds of swarming ants off her legs with my bare hands.)

Today’s weather was perfect for a meandering walk through town this morning. We detoured off the main street for a wander through the farmer’s market. The sweet lady who bakes cakes and has watched the twins grow up from babyhood gave us free scones. We spotted motorcycles, puppies, cars, fountains, and a pig statue in a store window. We threw tantrums (well, some of us) and climbed walls. A good day in any toddler’s book.


Out Solo

I often take all four kids out by myself for walks around the neighborhood, tricycle rides, playing in the yard, or car-based errands like the bank drive-through. Going to actual destinations by car is a different story. I managed baby twins out and about easily, and even outings with three kids aged one and under were doable. Going anywhere with all four kids aged three and under is much more difficult. Without a second adult to help with the prep/potty/diapers, into car, out of car, activity, into car, out of car, resettle at home routine it can take so much time that everyone is starving, cranky, and in need of a diaper change with missing socks before I’m half done.

However, things are shifting. Josie is 10 months old and has reached the point where she doesn’t spontaneously combust from a late nap or feeding. Jenny can walk with reasonable stability and copes with the occasional missed morning nap. The twins are dramatically more capable and mature at 3.5 than they were at three. In the last month I’ve taken all four out alone for hikes, errands, park time, the town festival, and the nature center among other things. I’m enjoying the ability to slightly relax the tight daily routine that keeps our family ship under sail. Yesterday I took them out for a quick one mile hike before dinner. We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon and lovely walking. Lest taking two three year olds, a one year old, and a baby hiking alone sound too Mary Poppinsish I’ll add that one child had to stop at the public restroom where the twins touched everything (then licked their hands). Also, I had to bribe them past the playground at the end of the hike with cookies to get home in time for dinner, which they then refused because they’d just filled up on cookies. Also, Jenny woke up with vomit caked into her cornrows this morning. You win some, you lose some.

Currently Reading – Late April Edition

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The Man: Still reading the Wingfeather Saga. He’s on Book 3 and loving it. This being an ICU week, it’s more “reading” than reading. He’s only actually read his patients’ charts and sympathetic “I’m sorry you had to stay all night with a sick patient and catch two hours sleep on the office floor”-type texts from his wife

Me: Just finished the last of the Morningside Heights trilogy, Anything for Jane, and moved on to another book in my TBR stack. The kids absconded with it this morning, so until I dig it out from under a couch or in a cupboard your guess at the title is as good as mine…

The Kids: As always, we read big stacks from the library and our own stash every week. I only record the standouts worth revisiting here. Our current chapter book is Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty McDonald. I’m reading half a chapter or a chapter out loud after the twins’ bedtime picture book and hymn each night.

This week’s big favorites from the library (repeating the picture here because I’m too tired for hyperlinks tonight and I trust your google skills) are Lola M. Schaefer’s One Special Day and One Busy Day, Jonathan Bean’s Big Snow, and Elisha Cooper’s Train. 

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Schaefer’s books were such a fun discovery this week.I love her whimsical and engaging art. Her stories are simple but creative. One Special Day tells the story of a little boy named Spencer who is strong, wild, funny, and muddy,yet oh-so-gently welcomes his brand new baby sister with love. Sweet but not saccharine, funny, and the art is delightful. Each page is full of tiny little details that kids love to spot. I think this is an ideal book to give a new big brother or sister. Unlike many “a new baby is coming” books it doesn’t give a list of negatives about baby siblings. It’s completely positive.

One Busy Day follows Spencer and his little sister a few years down the line as they play together through a long and imaginative day. Again, great art, and the grownups and the kids in our house both enjoy it. Both books are ideal for the 2-5 age group.

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We’ve already read and re-read Jonathan Bean’s wonderful At Night many times. His book Building Our House made waves in children’s publishing circles in recent years (though I’ve yet to read it). He was homeschooled and his new book This is My Home, This is My School is the first traditionally-published picture book about homeschooling. I’d never heard of his Big Snow until I saw it at the library last week but I’ve fallen head-over-heels for it. The kids adore it too. It follows a little boy through a winter day as he alternates between”helping” his Mom in their home (with disastrous results) and checking outside for snow. This book perfectly captures the impatient anticipation little kids feel for snow, the pleasant warmth of a cozy winter home, the quiet wonder of a blizzard, and the contentment of a happy family. It’s set around Christmas but never specifically mentions the holiday so it’s a pretty good all-around winter (or anytime) book. Each outdoor page has fun little details to spot around the town. I liked that the Mom is dark-skinned with curly hair. It is so hard to find good Christmas books with black main characters for our kids!

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Last but not least on this week’s library favorites list is Elisha Cooper’s Train. We’ve borrowed it in the past and it’s always a pleasure to revisit. This book takes you across the United States by a series of trains. The book opens with a commuter train leaving an East Coast city, hands off to a passenger train en route to Chicago, continues on through the great plains by freight train, hands off to an overnight train through the mountains, and completes the last leg to the west coast by high speed train. Cooper’s beautiful watercolors and evocative text are pleasing for kids and adults alike. This book strikes just the right balance between keeping the story moving and introducing informative details about trains and railroads to young readers. Bonus, this book depicts a wide variety of races and families. We also borrowed another of his books, Beach. That story dragged a bit and the art felt less varied (though beautiful) but it, too, did a great job depicting racial diversity.

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What are you reading these days?

 

In the Kitchen: Pantry-Clearing Meals

Movers won’t generally ship opened packages of food, easily perishable items, or liquids so we’re in a pre-move push to eat up the pantry and freezer contents. My meal-planning this week centered around “stash busting” dishes.

Roast Pork with Dried Apricots from the (so far) infallible Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Slow Cooking. So good. So, so, so good. We sat down to this meal after a chilly afternoon’s hike with the kids and quite literally moaned from happiness over our meal. It’s fabulously flavorful and moist. I used the stovetop method, plus dried thyme and spicy brown mustard because that’s what I had on hand. Bonus, it used up the big pork roast I’d purchased on sale months ago and tossed in the freezer. The kids also liked it – served with…I forget? Definitely one to keep in mind for dinners with guests – it’s very low maintenance and hard to mess up.

Steak with Chimichurri Butter. I received a free subscription to Martha Stewart Living after taking a survey this winter. The most recent volume included this mouth-watering recipe for Chimichurri Butter. I just used some steak from the freezer, pan fried it, and served with the Chimichurri and a big salad. Delicious – I deeply regret waiting this long in my life to discover Chimichurri sauce!

Chicken Thighs with Leeks, Potatoes, and Spinach. This was a good dish! It’s simple but tasty. I used ground coriander and bigger potatoes cut up. I enjoyed using the multi-stage approach to cooking an entire meal under the broiler. The lemons are really key – they provide a large part of the sauce’s freshness. Served with rice to soak up the sauce.

Louisiana Red Beans and Rice. This was also a nice recipe worth making again. It’s another one that used up lots of ingredients from the fridge and pantry. Some recipes for Louisiana red beans call for ham hocks. We didn’t have any on hand, but this version was still delicious. I more or less followed the recipe except for not measuring, using red pepper instead of green, and throwing in some oregano since parralel recipes called for it. Delicious served with rice. Nice flavors, but still mild enough for the three-year-old contingent with just a touch of background heat. If we didn’t have young kids I would increase the spice.

Also cooked recently: waffles for a big waffle breakfast with friends, smoothies to use up our frozen fruit, a so-so double chocolate skillet cookie from Martha Stewart Living for Bible Study, and chicken nuggets (also pretty unexciting thanks to really tough meat).

Recent Reads

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When I was a kid my family rarely watched TV. However, my parents often had the radio on in the background. Car Talk or Old Time Radio accompanied Saturday morning chores. NPR, Rush Limbaugh (*shudder*), and Chicago’s classical station rode with us in the car. We must have been hushed hundreds of times for talking too loudly during “traffic and weather on the eights” as we navigated rush hour jams. Remember when you depended on the news helicopters and broadcasters instead of a smart phone traffic map? The Man and I don’t listen to the radio much these days – just a little classical and the excellent sacred music program on Sunday mornings – but 2015 was the year I discovered podcasts. They’re good company for chores and add a little adult mental jolt to days with the littles. Two favorites are Modern Mrs. Darcy’s “What Should I Read Next” podcast for grown-up reading suggestions and book discussions, and Sarah McKenzie’s Read Aloud Revival podcast for kids’ and youth reading ideas. I’ve found so many good books through both of them.

Right now The Man is enjoying The Wingfeather Saga books by Andrew Petersen. They’ve been mentioned on both the podcasts for fans of series like Narnia and Harry Potter. Supposedly the first book is a bit less good than the rest of the series, but worth pushing through. I’m next in line for the books when my husband finishes.

I just finished two Modern Mrs. Darcy recommendations: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl and Morningside Heights by Cheryl Mendelson. Reichl’s book is a funny, poignant, and always mouth-watering account of her years as the food critic for The New York Times. Restaurants in NYC maintained such a keen watch for critics (then lavished them with special treatment) that she created a series of disguises to slip in under their notice. I enjoyed the book, and look forward to dipping into her other works.

Cheryl Mendelson’s Morningside Heights was a treat. I’m so glad it’s the first in a trilogy – more to enjoy! Mendelson is a Harvard Law graduate who later transitioned to academia. Out of that intellectual background came her surprise bestseller Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. It’s a smart but eminently readable and practical home manual. I love the introduction, when she confidently upholds the idea that you can be a well-educated intelligent hardworking woman who still finds joy and satisfaction in a well-run and pleasant home. It’s my Mom’s standard wedding shower gift, with good reason. Who knew you could write a page-turner about laundry? When Mendelson turned her clear and warm voice to fiction, the result was an Austen-like novel set in modern New York. It’s funny, creative, thoughtful, philosophical, touching, and engaging. The views are often different from my own, but it’s delightful. A lovely discovery!

Our local librarians generally pick great books to display on top of the children’s bookcases. I dashed in for five minutes over the weekend to fill my arms with books they’d set out (didn’t even attempt digging through the shelves!) before hustling home for a house showing. The twins adored “So Much” by Trish Cooke, illustrated by the always lovely Helen Oxenbury. A baby and his mother greet a parade of visiting relatives. Each showers him with love in their own way – reading books, kisses, dancing, wrestling, hugs. In the end you discover that everyone has gathered to surprise Daddy for his birthday. I don’t know that I’d pay for this one, but I like the snappy African-American vernacular text, sweet depiction of an extended family, and the way it’s prompted Jack to walk around gushing “I love you SOOOOOOO much” ;). Good for the three-and-under crowd.

One I will consider buying is the gorgeous Nature’s Day by Kay Maguire. This meaty but deliciously tempting book is ideal for introducing younger kids to nature observation and seasons. Beautiful illustrations and tid-bitty text are arranged thoughtfully. The book covers eight settings (“the fields” “the pond” “the garden” through each of the the four seasons. So, for example, you first see what’s happening with birds, the woods, the garden, fields, the pond, town, etc. in Spring. In the summer, fall, and winter sections you revisit each location. What’s happening in the orchard in fall? What might you spot in the winter
woods? It’s a British book, but generally translates well to the American landscape. Though it’s written for kids, I learned something on every page. It makes an excellent resource for browsing at home, or scanning before heading outdoors to spark observation. A gem.

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