Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Very Merry Christmas, Indeed!

There are several important men in my life whom I love very much. One of them is Santa Claus.

Do I believe that one man, dressed in a red suit with white fur trim, races around the globe with his team of reindeer, delivering gifts to every child? Do I believe he comes down the chimney to deliver the goods? Do I believe he makes a list, checks it twice, knows who's naughty and who's nice? I don't. But... I absolutely believe in Santa Claus. And here is why.

"Oh, a rocket ship!! Santa brought me a rocket ship! Oh, how did he know???" were the excited shouts that greeted us Christmas morn, when Aidan went in to find the rocket ship sitting in his chair, waiting for him. He was practically crying with happiness, because in a conversation with Jeff several days earlier, he said that Santa would not bring him a rocket ship since he hadn't told Santa about wanting a rocket this year. Next year, he decided, he would ask Santa to bring him one.

Aidan's reaction was probably my favorite moment of the morning. He was filled with complete joy and delight, due to a gift that we had given him, through the magic of Santa Claus. That rocket ship would not have meant nearly as much to him had the gift tag read "From Mom and Dad"; the magic was that it came from the larger-than-life Kris Kringle, the omnipotent being who knew what Aidan wanted without him having to ask for it. And there's the gift that Santa Claus offers to me - the ability to anonymously give to our children some of their greatest gifts, without them knowing the true source.

While thinking about Santa Claus on Christmas morning, I realized that, in a strange way, we are actually giving quite a few gifts to our children right now, ones that they don't recognize as gifts from us but will hopefully recognize them later - and here's what I mean:

"No, Aidan, you may not have just cookies for dinner. Yes, Leo, we do have to wear shoes and coats and hats in the 30 degree weather. We will definitely watch more television - tomorrow, not today. And could you find a different way to ask me to help you with cleaning up those toys, using nicer words?"

Much of parenting is about giving gifts that may not be fully appreciated or understood until many years later. These are the gifts we give to our children, perhaps not anonymously like we do with rocket ships, but certainly in a way that is not initially seen as a gift from us. Just as Aidan doesn't recognize that I am his Santa, he also doesn't recognize that I am doing a good thing by insisting on him eating well, sleeping often, and behaving nicely.

Was that Mommy you saw kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night? You bet it was.... right after she reminded her children that it's not polite to point and stare.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Highlights (and lowlights) of December...

We have had a lot of fun events this month, which has made the wait until Christmas Day both fast-paced (for mom and dad) and arduously slow (for Aidan and Leo). Despite the very large, quilt-like Advent calendar that hangs conspicuously in our family room, Aidan is always convinced that in two days it is Christmas.... (and finally, it really is only two days away)

Here are some of the highlights of our month:

*Jeff and I went to a holiday party at the Boar's Head, courtesy of the UVA transplant team. It was a lovely event, and a very nice date. It was fun to dress up, for once, and enjoy some good food, good wine, and even a little dancing. The best part was that, despite being a transplant party, we managed to leave with all of our parts intact!

*Our playgroup held its annual cookie and book exchange, and the cookies only seem to get better and better each year. The kids each received a wrapped book - from Santa Claus - who came to pay us a visit! (This year, Leo did not scream while sitting on his lap - because there was no way he'd go anywhere near his lap! Oh well.)

*Sitting with Santa for the Photo Opportunity actually was quite fun, and Leo reluctantly agreed to sit with Santa once Aidan offered to hold his hand. Aidan was like a "bright shiny penny" when he first approached Santa, but in the photograph, he looks pensive... entranced, perhaps? Leo looks resigned to his lot in life - encouraged, but never out-done, by his big brother.

*The four of us went to see "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" put on by a local theater group. While we made sure to cover all the finer points of watching a production (sitting politely, clapping at the end, not talking, etc.) but we failed to cover possible "special effects" that might be used. Thus, the ONLY thing Aidan now talks about whenever anyone mentions the play is that he did not like the cigar smoke in the bathroom from Gladys. He did not like the smoke. He did not like the smoke!!! Aidan has a real fear of fire, and I think we just made it ten times worse taking him to a show featuring the baby Jesus.... and cigar smoke.

*All the moms in playgroup had their big night out at our favorite restaurant, Bang. We exchanged ornaments, funny stories, lots of laughter, and friendship. I say this a lot about the group, but it seems to become truer and truer - we started out as moms who got together for the enjoyment of our kids, and now we're friends who get together for the enjoyment of each other.

*Aidan's Preschool party was very sweet and more fun than anyone expected, really. Jeff and my parents all came to the party. The kids were very excited and so happy. Each class performed a song for the group, outfitted with hats corresponding to their song. Aidan wore reindeer antlers and sang "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and looked as proud as he could be. He was "in his element" at the party, excited to talk to his teachers and introduce us to his friends.

*Aidan and Leo enjoyed decorating a Gingerbread house with Grandma and Grandpa. Leo mostly enjoyed decorating the inside of his mouth with the candies, but the end result is still very cute.

*Tonight, we're headed to my parents' house for a little caroling-and-cookie thing. Our church music director has pledged to play "any song in any key," so I can't wait to hear how she performs one of Aidan's million made up versions of the classics - I'm coaching him on requesting one of his "originals."

*We're looking forward to a "tapas dinner" before church on Christmas Eve. I am playing my flute and singing during the service, and Aidan will be dressed as an angel as part of the gospel reading. We'll leave cookies and beer for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer. And we'll hope, beyond all hope, that our children will be "nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums dance in their heads".... instead of the more likely version - being unable, unwilling to sleep for a single minute due to uncontainable excitement...

Overall, this Christmas season has been relatively stress-free and very happy. The enthusiasm of my children, especially Aidan, is positively infectious. I vividly remember how magical the time before - and during - Christmas felt to me as a child, and I do hope it feels the same for them. I appreciate, though, the difficulty that many people face at Christmastime. It can be a difficult time, for sure, with sadness and worries and disappointments clouding the time that is supposed to feel most joyous. Maybe, though, that is why I feel particularly grateful to be able to enjoy this season with these people, my family.

Merry Christmas to all! May you find peace and joy... and some delicious cookies, too.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Zo Zo

Well, I think I've gone a little overboard on telling our cat that she is bad. Zoe is about a year and a half old and gets into trouble all the time. She gets yelled at a lot. She gets called "bad cat" a lot. In fact, Aidan chants "bady cat bady cat" over and over, just because it's fun to say, I guess, and maybe because he hears it often.

Leo does not exactly dislike Zoe, but he does not really like her, either. He calls her "Zo Zo" and calls the other cat, Alice, the same thing - Zo Zo. He gets upset if Zoe is in his room or near his crib. He gets upset when she jumps on the counter, when she sniffs the couch, when she does basically anything besides sleep. He likes to feed her, but gets upset if she chooses a different bowl than the one he's given her. He tries so hard to snap at her with his fingers, the way Jeff and Aidan do with her when she's doing something bad (like scratching the furniture).

A few days ago, Zoe climbed the curtains using her claws and caused the whole curtain and rod to fall to the ground. I was pretty annoyed about that. I might have yelled at her for it.

The next day, Leo brought a book to me that had been chewed on by the cat. He kept pointing to the bite marks as if to ask, "What the heck is this?" I told him that the cat, Alice, had chewed on the book. (She likes the tannins used in paperbacks). He made an angry face and said "Zo Zo!!!" I corrected him, told him that it was Alice, not Zoe.

We went downstairs and he pointed at the curtain that Zoe had torn down the day before. He kept pointing at it and saying "Zo Zo!! Zo Zo!!" I said "Yes, Zoe knocked that curtain down yesterday."

...and then we were upstairs, and he was using the squirter to squirt water all over the bathroom floor. I had given him the squirter to use on the doors or on his toy train, but not on the floor. I scolded him a little and gave him a towel to clean it up. He pointed to the water on the floor and said "Zo Zo!!!" I thought it was a little strange that he said that....

... and then a little while later, while we were in the basement, I put it all together in my head. He pointed to my shirtsleeve where it is permanently stained with red paint. He pointed at it, looked at me and said "Zo Zo!!!"

Everything that is bad must mean Zoe did it, or contributed to it - at least in his head. He is overgeneralizing the concept of Bad Cat to include anything that is bad - downed curtains and chewed up books, understandably by the cats. But a mess of water and paint stains?

Finally, today, Leo licked a toy cup from his play kitchen and got some little piece of fuzz in his mouth. He stuck his tongue out and scraped it off, then showed me his finger and said "Zo Zo!" I asked him, "Zoe was in your mouth?!!" He affirmed, "Zo Zo!" and pointed at his finger again.

I'm envisioning I could really use this to my advantage in the future. "Zo Zo" could become our code word for "knock it off, that is behavior I do not accept, please behave more kindly, respectfully, quietly, [insert desired adverb here]" and it would sure save me some time and effort. "Leo, I find that quite Zo Zo. Aidan, no Zo Zo....."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Countdown till Christmas on the Literacy Farm...

One of the many wonderful things about having a family of your very own is developing your own, new traditions. One such tradition that we began last year (or maybe the year before?) is one I hope will last even beyond my children have traditionally outgrown its format...

Before December 1 of each year, I wrap 25 books related to the season - the Christmas story, told and retold a myriad of ways; Santa stories; and some winter/snowman stories to fill in the rest. I put the books in a large basket by the Christmas tree, and wait for the countdown to begin. On December 1, we begin the countdown by unwrapping one of the books, chosen at random, and reading it. Each day a new book is unwrapped (the kids alternate - Aidan opens on odd days, Leo, on evens) and a new story is enjoyed. The stories are even more delightful, because they've been hidden away for so long. The kids get to open something every day, which helps avoid the tearing-paper frenzy come Christmas morning. And this year, instead of opening the book in the morning the same time we do our traditional Advent calendar, we wait until evening, until Jeff returns home and we're snuggled next to the tree to enjoy the story together....

A few of our most favorite children's Christmas books:
Christmas Cookies: Bite Size Holiday Lessons by Rosenthal and Dyer- a delicious book filled with richly detailed vocabulary like "anticipation" and "hope" and "tradition" in a way that is totally understandable to a preschooler
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Wojciechowski and Lynch - a beautifully illustrated, deeply moving book about the grumpy widower, who is a carpenter, who helps to replace the beloved and lost nativity of a widow and her son.
The Sweet Smell of Christmas by P. Scarry- my personal favorite book that I read as a child - the story of the Bear family's anticipation of the arrival of Christmas day, with scratch-n-sniff stickers to invoke visceral responses in its readers....
The Night Before the Night Before Christmas - by Wing and Lester - moms will definitely appreciate this cute, rhyming story about a family who is at a total loss on how to prepare for Christmas when Mom gets the flu.... and how, of course, it all works out in the end.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Nighmare Before Christmas.....

I will admit from the start - my head was filled with visions of grandeur this year. I was thinking what a breeze, what a delight, what a joy it would be to decorate this year! I envisioned Aidan, a very capable 4 1/2 year old, listening attentively and carefully to every direction I might give. I dreamed that Leo, moving beyond the stage of putting everything into his mouth, might even allow us to hang the bulbs and more delicate ornaments this year...

Clearly, I was delusional. If I know one thing for absolute certainty, it is this: decorating with children is not fun. People who say so are either lying, or are not telling the truth. Or have not ever decorated with children. Case in point:

As is our tradition, we picked out our tree the day after Thanksgiving and dug out all the decorations to transform our home into a Christmas wonderland. (Never mind the seemingly endless complication of our mid-summer flood, which forced us to relocate many of our decorations to our.... "storage facility." Never mind that the snow people and window lights are still MIA, and that it took exorbitant amount of effort to locate the tree skirt and kids' books. But never mind all that.)

Aidan was simply beside himself with excitement. He even said so. As I frantically tried to unpack each Nutcracker before he could dig the next one out himself (dropping it on the floor in the process) I tried very hard to keep my tone light as I patiently explained why, exactly, the Nutcrackers couldn't actually crack the acorns he found outside... the steel nuts he has from Grandpa's workshop.... and why the solider Nutcracker would actually never do any harm with his sword....

I threw the Nutcrackers up on the shelves in a haphazard manner - at least they were now out of the kids' reach - and bolted in to rescue the glittery faux fruit-embellished wreath that I painstakingly made the year Aidan was born (when I had free time! And didn't even know how much free time I had!!) from Leo's fingers. Leo, undeterred by the abnormally large size of the apple, not to mention the large pieces of glitter covering the fruit, was beside himself that I would not allow him to actually eat the apple. (What was that I was saying about not putting stuff in his mouth?)

Next, I tore through the carefully wrapped tissue paper, seeking each piece to the many nativity sets we have, grabbing the baby Jesus out of grubby hands and rescuing headpieces of the three wise men. I threw them into the china cabinet and locked the paneled door, only pausing long enough to make sure each Jesus was with his Mary.

Finally, onto the tree. And actually, we got off to a very fun start. I love unwrapping each ornament, reminiscing about where it came from or who gave it to me or to us. I have many ornaments from my childhood (although not nearly as many as my brother has - second child syndrome and all) and we have continued the tradition of collecting ornaments on each family vacation we have, starting with our honeymoon in Bar Harbor. And then there are a few ornaments, some of which are Jeff's, a few of which are mine, that are hideously ugly, and yet we each refuse to part with them. We love to harass each other about them, even encouraging the kids to handle them in the hopes that they will break and therefore need to be pitched.... but they are oddly indestructable.

However, as all tree decorating eventually goes, things started to get out of hand. The allure of hanging ornaments was lost, along with at least two ornament casualties. Then Aidan got a hold of the angel tree topper, and alternately tried to balance her on his head while announcing "Caps for Sale!" and playing air guitar with the small lute she holds in her arms with very loud, rock-style gusto. (He somehow manages to get the ear piercing twang of the strings just right.)

Leo, meanwhile, invented a game of his own. He found a small horn ornament of Jeff's, and was blowing loudly on the tiny mouthpiece, trying to play it. Then he would bring it to Jeff, who would hang it up, and the next minute Leo had un-decorated it and was playing it again. It only really turned into a game when Jeff actually tried to hide it from Leo each time.... yet Leo found it each time, and eventually refused to let Jeff hang it at all. He traipsed around with it until dinnertime.

Did I mention that by this point the tree skirt had been found, and Zoe, our kitty, views this tree skirt as her arch-enemy and attacks it every chance she gets? And that this really, really upsets Leo, who yells at the top of his lungs "Zo Zo!! ZO ZO!!!" each time she does this?

Weary and utterly spent, I gave up on the rest. I made a list of what else needed to be done, and checked it twice. As I sat by myself in the living room, filled with a beautiful tree but many empty boxes and unfinished decorating, I marveled at what I was thinking earlier, envisioning my Hallmark-commercial-decking-the-halls bit. But then, from the other room, I heard Aidan delighting in arranging his own nativity set, describing each person and animal to Leo. He told Leo all about the angel Gabriel, and even mentioned that this was where Leo got his middle name. Leo had gotten his hands on a small reindeer that plays "Jingle Bell Rock" over and over when you press on his hoof, and he was absolutely smitten. Aidan kept looking at the advent calendar and marveling at how "soon" it is until Christmas day. Leo learned to say "Mary" and "Ho Ho Ho!" and kept pointing at the lights and signing "light!" And the visions of grandeur returned. And I felt like it was all worth it again, all the aggravation and frustration, just to see what joy the chaos had brought to each of them, to see the transformation of the magic that Christmas can bring.

"Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time." Laura Ingalls Wilder

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Giving of Thanks

On this day in which our nation celebrates thankfulness and all the blessings in our lives, my heart is filled with so much gratitude. And yet, I know that even as I try to express my thanks for all the goodness in my life, words will fail me and cliches will abound. Nevertheless--

I am so grateful for my husband, who is truly my other half. I have loved him for 10 years, which feels like both a lifetime and just the beginning of forever. I am grateful that in our marriage, we have had far more " for betters" and "in health" than "for worse"or "in sickness." I do not know what I would do without my Jeff.

I am grateful for our amazing and beautiful and lovely children. I never knew I could love another human being as much until I had them. I am grateful for the unparalleled joy they bring to our lives, the feeling of purpose and direction they have provided us. I am grateful for what I am able to teach them, and what they are able to teach me. I am grateful that they are so healthy, happy, vibrant, boisterous, creative, kind, compassionate, generous, loving, and downright adorable.

I am grateful for our families, those who live nearby and those far-flung. I am grateful for my parents who live so close by, who support us and our children in more ways than they can possibly know. Our family covers every region of the country, from California to Wisconsin to New England to Virginia to Missouri to Illinois to Michigan to New Mexico. I am grateful for the newest additions, my niece Uli and my nephew Julian, plus my other terrific nephew, Hugo. I am grateful that our children have so many people who love them - grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, cousins, second cousins, and also the dear friends who love our children and who have become like family to us.

I am grateful for my friends, many of whom have children of their own who act as my sounding board, who provide guidance and direction in parenting, either by tacit example or by loud shouts of "don't do that!" or "yes of course!" I am so grateful for my playgroup - we started out as women who got together for our children's sake and have turned into lifelong friends.... (you know, the kind who we'll be with in 15 or 20 years and regale our horrified children with THE most embarrassing kid stories...)

I am grateful for our church community, who supports us even as we struggle and who provide a foundation upon which we can grow our family in faith. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my voice in the choir and my song on the flute, and for the music director and her husband who make it such a pleasure.

I am grateful for Samantha, my homebound student, as well as the students at the Village School. The few hours I spend with them each week are a continuous reminder of my passion for teaching. I know that I will return to the classroom one day, and I will be a finer teacher because of the experiences I have had with them.

I am grateful for our house. In the current financial, economic, and housing crises, I feel most grateful for our home. I feel so fortunate to have a home that is safe, that I love, and that is ours (okay, 6/30ths of it is ours...)

I am grateful for opportunities. I am so grateful for the education Jeff is receiving in preparation for being a nurse, and for my opportunity to pursue a master's degree. I am grateful for the opportunity to dream beyond....

I am so grateful. Even in the daily struggles, the ups and downs of life, the tears of frustration and pain, life is so good. I am keenly aware of the many blessings we enjoy. I am so grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Officer of the Law

I usually wait to group all these "out of the mouths of babes" quotes together, but this one is just too good to wait.

Tonight at dinner, Aidan began talking about a policeman. When he paused, I said, "It's police officer, Aidan, not policeman. I would really prefer you said police officer." He responded, "But I want to call them policeman!" Jeff interjected, "Well, what would you call a woman who was a police officer?"

Aidan paused.... then said, "Police ma'am!"

my Little Big Minds

I have a very small but very wonderful teaching gig at the Village School once a week for one hour. I write philosophy curriculum on a different topic for each month, largely based on the book, Little Big Minds, by Marietta McCarty, and then I get to work with a small group of girls each week, leading the discussions and teaching.

During the month of November, our topic is compassion. Each week, the girls have all had the same heated debate - whether or not compassion is innate or learned. I was not entirely convinced one way or the other myself; I see strong arguments on both sides. My recent experiences with my own children have not necessarily convinced me of one side or the other, but they have convinced me that witnessing compassion in young children is one of the most beautiful things ever.

For awhile at dinnertime, Aidan and Leo argued over what prayer we would say or sing. Aidan often wanted to say his own prayer, while Leo would throw up his hands over his head, his sign for the Superman prayer. What was supposed to be a peaceful blessing before our meal had become a source of stress. So we decided to alternate and let Leo choose one night, Aidan, the next. This worked quite nicely. Then one night, when it was Leo's turn to choose, we asked him what prayer he would like to do. He looked at each of us, then motioned to Aidan. "You want Aidan to choose?" I interpreted. Leo nodded. Aidan simply stared at Leo in amazement, obviously touched that Leo was offering this gift to him. And so, in turn, Aidan chose Leo's favorite prayer. It was a really beautiful moment that I know I will recall with fondness (not to mention proof positive that despite their bickering, they are brothers who really love one another and care for each other in selfless ways.)

Another day, I was feeling particularly frustrated and worn out from the nearly-two year old Leo. Everything had been a battle that day, things like not allowing him to play with heirloom pearls or smack his brother with the broom, daring to clean up the table with a sponge instead of letting him clean it up with the sponge himself, giving him the wrong sippy cup, and so on. To quote an observant grandma I know, Leo is positively relentless. And so after I heaved the millionth dramatic sigh of the day, Aidan looked right at me and said, "Mommy, I am feeling what you are feeling about Leo right now." If that's not compassion straight out of the mouth of a four year old, I don't know what is.

And finally - tomorrow, Aidan is having a party at preschool to celebrate Thanksgiving. He was asked to bring (disposable plastic) tablecloths, and so on Monday, I took him to the local variety store to pick out the ones he wanted. "Look, Aidan, here's one with turkeys all over it!" I exclaimed. "Is this the one you want to get?" Aidan answered vehemently, "NO." "No? Why not?" I asked, shocked. He explained that he wanted plain tablecloths, because he wanted to decorate them all by himself. And while this is not strictly an act of compassion, it certainly is an act of love, of wanting to please other people, and the best part was that it was entirely his idea. It never occurred to me that he could use his art skills to decorate tablecloths. He chose white, because "all the colors will show up well," and he has worked for 3 days straight on making beautiful art. He drew pictures of his classmates, and labeled them with their first initial below each person. He drew leaves, a turkey, a boat, and lots of shapes and abstract designs. He drew his teachers and his class sitting together in a circle. He drew his heart out, his love; he illustrated his thanks.

"From the time we were little children we have all of us, at moments at least,
cherished overwhelming desires to be of use in the great world,
to play a conscious part in its progress."
-Jane Addams

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Unexpected Afternoon

This morning, we were all delighted and surprised to discover a fine dusting of snow on the lawn, the trees, and the rooftops. Aidan was positively giddy with excitement; he had all sorts of theories why it had snowed. He thought maybe it was because we recently had a fire. Or maybe someone actually put on their pajamas inside out by accident, and it snowed. Or that God wanted to surprise us, so God made it snow. He informed us that there were three types of clouds: regular clouds, rain clouds, and snow clouds.

The snow quickly melted, but the chill never left the air. The thermometer never reached 40 degrees, and the overcast sky made me want to curl up with a good book... and a fire. So after Aidan got up from his rest, I built us a fire.

Aidan is impressed that I can do this. Apparently, he thinks it's something only Daddies can do, so of course I wanted to dispell this gender-stereotyping notion immediately. I am not a patient person, but when it comes to building fires, I am the epitome of patience. My Eagle Scout husband, on the other hand, might be chagrined to admit how many fires I've had to "rescue" from his attempts at building the beautiful, warm, full fire that is my specialty.

Leo woke up from his nap just as the fire was comfortably crackling, and we spent the most wonderful afternoon hearthside. The kids brought down their pint-sized chairs and we lounged in front of the fire, reading books and telling "sittin' and thinkin' stories" to each other. We made popcorn and played I Spy. I drank coffee - warm, delicious, pumpkin-spice coffee. Our cheeks turned rosy and pink from the heat, from the sheer pleasure of the laughter, affection, and warmth the afternoon had brought to each of us on this unplanned, unexpected, most cozy and unforgettable afternoon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tree of Thanks

Last year, we began a November tradition, the Tree of Thanks, a tradition I hope will last for many years.
In order to get our tree started this year, Aidan helped me select a small, tree-ish branch to represent a tall, fall tree, and we carefully cut out various shaped leaves from craft foam in the colors of autumn. We "planted" the tree in a small terra cotta pot, held steady by florist's foam, dried lentils, and duct tape. On each leaf, each of us wrote things for which we are grateful, which we then hot glued to the branches. As the month progresses, we will continue to add our gratitudes. On Thanksgiving day, we will ask our guests to add to our tree, and we'll save and date them to read in future years. I'm amazed at how last year, Aidan just barely understood the concept, and this year, he's writing (or drawing) his own leaves, and helping me decipher what Leo might write on his. I love that each of us immediately identifies both the big things - our family and friends - and the small things - saws and rubber hammers (Aidan), cookies (Leo), homebrew and wives who enjoy it (Jeff), and being greeted, on a busy day, with the smell of dinner cooking in the crock pot (Anne). Mostly, I love the conversation our tree brings to our dinner table each night, and the way Aidan thinks about and talks about that tree, often asking me to help him with another leaf or suggesting what we might write later, based on the simple pleasures he finds in life.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

My heart-song

Occasionally, living so close to a college town stops me in my tracks. Even though UVA's setting, while beautiful, is nothing compared to my St. Mary's, I am awash with nostalgia and rememerence from time to time when confronted with the life and times of UVA students....

I took Aidan and Leo to the children's museum this morning, a great way to occupy our time while Jeff is away at clinicals. (Saturdays are hard. We all miss Jeff. It pains me when Aidan can only talk about Sunday as Jeff's only day off....and therefore how excited Aidan is for Sunday to arrive. Soon, this will all change, but the days meant for families can be tough without him.) We had a wonderful time at the museum and eating pizza at Christian's while people-watching. Strolling the downtown mall, we happened upon a group of street performers, an a capella men's group from UVA. Roughly half of the people who were there to enjoy their music were college girls, most of whom were clad in all sorts of (ridiculous) UVA attire, and all of whom were positively swooning, laughing, loving watching "their" boys. Instantly, I was taken back to my own college days, my own experience of watching the St. Mary's men's a capella group, my own memories of swooning over the cute boys, getting the inside jokes that only the students would get, and loving every moment of the event. But then the 20 pounds I had on my back (Leo, in the ergo) and the small hand holding mine brought me back to the moment, made my head spin as I felt caught between two worlds. Simultaneously, I was 16 years in the future, imagining my own two sons among that crowd of young men, beautifully singing, seeing them no longer as children but not yet grown men. Yet my visceral reaction to hearing the voices and seeing the swooning girls took me squarely back to my own college days, and a tiny part of me ached for those days now long gone. I imagine that none of those girls looked at me and thought they'd be in my shoes in just a few short years. I imagine they look at me as just another mom (albeit a young and possibly hip mom) with her two rugrats. They don't know how recent college still seems for me, that I met my now-husband my freshman year, that it seems like it was just yesterday when we attended those a capella concerts together, rode our bikes all over campus together, hung out at the bar together, and now we've got this family, these kids, this whole other life... that I would never trade or change in a million years. I am the happiest I've ever been, yet my desire to have just one more moment as that swooning young college girl was quite strong.

Relaying this story to Jeff later that day, I knew he got it, I knew he knew exactly what I was talking about. And then I realized, I still have the very best of those college days. I still have Jeff. And while he (nor I) was a part of those a capella groups, he is what makes my heart sing still today. He is the never-ending refrian of my contented, happy life. He is the other half of my heart-song. (And yes, that's a reference to Happy Feet, and no, I never would have known that as a college student - only as a young and possibly hip mom.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Cookies that itch

We're getting ready to mail off a care package to Jeff's half-sister, who is away at college, and Aidan was very excited about making the cookies to send along. As we were getting our aprons on and our hands washed, he said to me, "Mommy, can we make the cookies from itch?........ I mean from scratch?"

...and it has only taken me a mere 3 1/2 YEARS to figure this out, but I finally had a breakthrough, a eureka moment on Aidan and Milk. Aidan has resisted cow's milk his entire life, and I've tried every suggestion in the book to get him to drink it. I tried soy milk, lactose-free milk, Pediasure, chocolate milk, strawberry milk, vanilla milk, milk through a straw, milk in a special cup, hot milk, cold milk, lukewarm milk, organic milk, whole milk, 2% milk, milk with cookies, milk in hot cocoa, milk in cereal. (In the very beginning, I even mixed milk with breastmilk, since he loved the latter!) Each attempt failed, and I was reluctant to push any of it, remembering how much I disliked milk as a child and now, I am lactose-intolerant. The solution was found by a fluke, and now Aidan drinks milk several times a day..... he drinks 1%. Who knew it could be so simple? Jeff inadvertently bought the 1% and offered Aidan a drink as he always does. Aidan had one sip and said, "Mmmm, this milk is really good. We should thank the cow who made it!" Hooray! He's been a bonda-fide milk drinker ever since.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Virtual Snowstorm...

I voted this morning, right after I dropped Aidan off at preschool. Afterwards, Leo and I made our usual Tuesday morning excursion to the grocery store, where the lines are usually short, the people are usually friendly, and the atmosphere is usually fairly peaceful.

But today, it was a virtual snowstorm at the grocery store. There were ten times as many people there, all looking a little lost, distracted. The checkers seemed kind of on-edge, warily looking at each other. Lots of people looked out of place, shopping on a Tuesday morning for an odd assortment of items. But instead of sizing up one another over the last loaf of bread, roll of toilet paper, or gallon of milk, today people seemed to be sizing up one another over an entirely different commodity: whether or not that fellow shopper had voted, and for whom they had voted.

People seemed to be buying food that seemed to me either celebratory in nature, or some serious comfort food. Bottles of wine and cheese and crackers in one cart; the fixings for massive quantities of chicken pot pie in the other. Some shoppers wore their "I Voted" stickers on the outside of their raincoats, while others proudly bore the t-shirts of their candidates - strictly forbidden in the booths, mind you. The atmosphere was tense, charged, highly anticipatory and anxious. Much like I feel when shopping before the snow comes, I couldn't wait to get out of there -- and also couldn't wait for what was to come, the excitement of the snow, the results of the long-awaited election.

This year is history-making, to be sure. More than likely, Barack Obama will win the election and become our first ever African American President. Less unlikely, yet still historical, Sarah Palin might become the first woman to hold the position of Vice President. And despite Hillary Clinton's loss to Obama in the Democratic nomination, Clinton, too, has forever changed the way in which we view our country's topmost leaders. When I was a child, adults would give an indulgent laugh if a girl were to say that she would be President of the United States. Today, because of Clinton, and perhaps because of Palin as well, I am guessing that most adults don't bat an eye at the idea of their daughter, granddaughter, niece becoming the next President of the U.S.

This election is important. In fact, I believe it is the most important election of my entire life. The candidates are stark opposites, could not be more fundamentally different, yet the record number of people who are going out to vote this minute, who have already voted, make one point very clear: things must change, and change in a major way. We owe it to our children, to our grandchildren, to our grandchildren's children to do far better than we have done. It is hard not to feel as though I am failing my own children right now, because of the utter mess we are in right now as a nation. I called dozens of people last night, reminding them to vote, making sure they had a ride to the polls, providing information, if necessary, on the candidates. I can't stand making calls like that, and yet, for the sake of my children, and for the sake of our nation, I had to do my own part, no matter how small.

When the snowstorm comes tonight and the results of the votes are tallied and translated into the fascinating Electoral College's magical numbers, I expect our nation will have a fresh start, a new beginning, a new day. I expect that the nation I see today - ugly, bleak, ominous, dark - will be blanketed overnight, transformed and made beautiful, hopeful, and new, like the ephemeral beauty after a snowfall.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The trick for the treat

What a fun day we had! But I will confess this right at the start: last year, on Halloween, I fussed at Aidan, big-time, and have felt guilty about it ever since. In fact, "fussing" at him is kind of putting it mildly... on the other hand, I cannot recall what happened, I can only recall my guilt. (Never mind that Aidan most certainly does not remember) So, this year I was bound and determined that I would have extra patience with Aidan, no matter what happened, because I wanted him to have an extra-fun Halloween.......
.... and we did. We decorated and frosted pumpkin cookies in the morning, did some coloring and stamping with Halloween stamps, and talked on and on about the evening's events that consumed every thought in his mind. He told me that (imaginary friend) Boy was dressed up as a pumpkin this year and (his sister) Fishnika was going out as an artichoke. We practiced trick-or-treating with Leo, whose favorite part, at that point in the day, was knocking on the door. He would run away when I opened it!
We trick-or-treated early at the Martells, and Aidan loved seeing Julie in her candy corn costume. Julie is crazy about candy corn, and there's been an ongoing joke that she ate all the candy corn at my parents' house. So several times before Halloween, Julie presented Aidan with a bag of candy corn, and another bag again yesterday. On the drive back to our house, munching on his thousandth candy corn of the season, Aidan observed, "Mrs. Martell gives out a LOT of candy corn!"
...and that's when the mischief began, and I really had to remind myself of my "no fussing" rule. It was time for the Roths and my parents to arrive for dinner, and Aidan could not contain his enthusiasm. He was beginning to drive me crazy because his excitement was bordering on being completely out-of-control. But as the chaos of dinner, costuming, and trick-or-treating began, and intensified with each new part, I realized how much fun everyone was having, and remembered from my own childhood how great it is to have that rare, nearly out-of-control excitement and enthusiasm.
Of course, trick-or-treating was terrific. Leo insisted on carrying his own bag of candy (even when it grew quite heavy), insisted on helping himself to treats at each door, and then politely signed "thank you" to each neighbor before marching his mouse self back down the drive. Midway through, Clancy and I left the kids with the dads and Grandpa and snuck back to our house to join both our moms, who were contentedly handing out candy and drinking wine.
So there's my trick for the treat - letting go and enjoying the craze and the chaos.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Blog Withdrawal....

I am suffering from blog withdrawal. I have a great desire to write, but have found no time to do so, because the must-do list seemed to grow exponentially overnight. I hope to catch a break here, in the next week or two, before the downward spiral of holiday stress overtakes me for good. (A note on that - I am bound and determined NOT to let holiday stress overtake me, so let the blog speak for itself in the next two months or so to see if that is actually possible....)

Aidan is beside himself with giddy excitement over Halloween, and his enthusiasm has infected Leo as well. While he can't manage "Trick or Treat!" quite yet, Leo has repeatedly said "Boo!" to us, over and over, whenever he sees us. If I walk out of the room and return, he says "Boo!" When I come into his room in the morning, it's "Boo!" When he plays his own game of peek-a-boo, he really plays it for the Boo!

We had our Mostly-Annual Carter Halloween Party this past weekend, and it was so, so much fun. Aidan dressed as an orange and white cat; Leo, a mouse; Jeff, a Political Junkie, and me, a Domestic Diva. (These were perfect roles for us all. Aidan chases Leo around all the time, and Leo squeaked appropriately and protested when he was caught by the cat.) We served all manners of Halloween goodies, and most exciting was the Smashing Pumpkin Ale Jeff brewed especially for this occasion.

...and tomorrow, the "real" fun begins with trick or treating! More to come after I've gotten some semblance of order back in my life. (Okay, scratch that. "Semblance of order in my life" is in approximately 20 years or so, I'm afraid.... so more to come.... whenever I can find my scattered brain.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I might just end up jinxing this, but I am amazed at what the picky picky Leo has devoured over the past several nights of dinners.... I must record it for all of posterity, for when he's back to eating goldfish and craisins, exclusively...

1. sweet potato biscuits - a strange yet delicious recipe that he thinks looks like cookies. And apparently, he thinks they taste like them, too, because he literally fought over Jeff's biscuit for a fourth biscuit! He only interrupted his eating to say, repeatedly "yum yum! yum yum cookie"
2. crescent casserole - eggs, cheese, crescent rolls, fake sausage, veggies - none of these, save the rolls, would he consume individually.
3. Spaghetti pie. Not all that surprising, except it does not meet the standard plain presentation that seems to dominate most toddler (and preschool) palates.
4. Eggplant parmesan! This indicates sophisticated taste, in my opinion. (On the other hand, what's NOT good fried in oil and baked in cheese?)
5. "Mexican skillet casserole" - a hodgepodge of ingredients, but the clincher for him was that we ate it with chips (thanks Caytie!)

The best part of all of this eating, aside from all this eating, is the influence it had on Aidan. Not to be outdone at the table, even Aidan tried half these dishes!!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Shenandoah National Park

It had been on the calendar for weeks; we skipped church for this; yet we nearly called the whole thing off. We were scheduled to go to Shenandoah National Park for a morning of hiking and enjoying nature and drinking in the gorgeous fall colors in the mountains. But it was cold this morning. And we had so much to do. And Aidan's behavior this morning was pretty awful - it seemed he was determined to thwart our adventure, despite his love of hiking. He is, after all, still the F-word - FOUR.

Amid the shouts and screams and squabbles that constituted our attempts at getting ready and out the door, Jeff and I looked at each other in total desperation at one point - desperate to leave, and desperate not to seem as though we were rewarding the very typically-behaved but very frustratingly-behaved four-year-old monster that seemed to have complete dominion over our normally functioning parenting brains.

Somehow, we made it into the car, equipped with diapers, wipes, sandwiches, waters, apples, chocolate chip cookies, and many, many layers - the current barometer reading was a chilly 45 degrees. The hour-long car ride passed remarkably quickly, without the usual "Are we there yet?" interrogation that often begins at the top of the driveway. The ranger who greeted us at the park entrance suggested a short, kid-friendly, highly enjoyable hike about 20 miles into the park. It sounded perfect to us.

The hike was all we had hoped it would be. Aidan was enthusiastic and energetic throughout, pointing out the trail markers, cool leaves he found, and interesting caterpillars and trees along the way. He was in his element. Meanwhile, Leo contentedly munched his pretzel while riding in the Ergo, pointing at the airplanes that occasionally flew overhead. At the halfway point, a gorgeous view of the mountains awaited us, plus an enormous mound of boulders that the boys were fearlessly, eagerly ready to climb. We ate lunch - PB & J never tastes as good as when it's devoured outside - and eventually made our way back to the car. Leo "hiked" a good deal of the way back, with Aidan leading him by the hand at some points. Away from the distractions of toys and books and stuff over which to squabble, they seemed to revel in the company of each other, the huge mountains, the plentiful sticks and colorful leaves.

Our to-do list for the weekend was a mile long, with only a few things checked off. I thought of forty-seven different reasons why it would actually be better to stay home and get those things checked off, to not have to drive way out of the way to hike, to stay warm and cozy indoors. But the little voice inside me nagged me, "Go! Go!" and of course, that voice was right. We delighted in the mountain, the weather, the colors, each other. A day that would have otherwise been unremarkable, forgettable, had we stayed home, instead became another memory etched in our family album.

"Climb the mountains and get their good tiding. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves." -John Muir

The Year of the Horse

(I'm a little late in posting this. I wrote it early October but just now got a hold of the very necessary photograph - the author, circa 1989)...

Aidan wants to be a cat for Halloween. Orange, with yellow stripes, like our beloved (and deceased) cat Hobbes......
....or a fire fighter. Or a chef. Or a superhero. Or a pumpkin. Or a nurse. Or any number of other possibilities, on any given day. I knew this was going to be the case, the inability - or lack of desire - to commit to one costume. Polling other moms, I asked what they do when faced with this same dilemma. One mom advised me to go out right now and buy the costume, so Aidan can't change his mind. But I'm a purist; no matter how complicated or impossible, I think that Halloween costumes have to be homemade. Another mom said that she doesn't have that problem; her daughter has been dead-set on being a princess for months - 364 days, in fact. A third mom has so many costumes in the dress up box that changing one's mind at the last minute is no big deal. So then I thought of yet another mom, and what she did.

Halloween was my favorite holiday as a child. It wasn't so much the candy or the trick-or-treating but the playfulness and mischief of it all, getting to dress up, wearing that costume to school, going on parades through the hallways and in real parades in our town. It is, quite literally, the most childish of all holidays. The year I was eleven, the last year I would trick-or-treat, I decided to be something rather innocuous, boring, forgettable, I think something like a hobo. My mom kept prodding me, Are you sure that's what you want to be? Do you want to change your mind and be something else? This is your last year to trick or treat, you know......

On October 29, I came home from school, sobbing. I did not want to be a hobo. I wanted to be something different! Something special! Something so cool! With a kind and understanding heart, my busy mother listened to me, hugged me, took me to the fabric store, and helped me pick out, from the Simplicity patterns for costumes, the perfect get-up. I was going to be a horse-and-rider. The horse was a large beanbag-like costume with a hole in the center; I would wear it around my waist, with my own legs looking like those of the horse, and a second pair of stuffed legs would create the appearance of my own legs on top of the horse. I was taking horseback riding lessons at the time, and this was so perfect, so original, an optical illusion of sorts. A sophisticated costume for a sophisticated 11 year old. My mother spent the next two days slaving over sewing machine, churning out piece after piece and working late into each night until the horse was complete. And he was beautiful. Dark brown, with a lighter brown mane and tail and a beautiful red bridle made out of ribbon. I loved that horse, loved my costume, loved my mom....

...and loved the lesson it taught me. When it comes to the really, really important stuff in life -- like having the absolute, perfect, unforgettable Halloween costume, especially when it's your favorite holiday and you don't have much time left for silly trick-or-treating -- moms make time for you, because they love you. It's as simple as that. So although "Make Aidan's cat costume" has been at the top of our to-do list for weeks now, it somehow gets pushed below other pressing matters, knowing there's still that chance he'll decide he absolutely, positively MUST be a fire truck come Halloween night....

Monday, October 13, 2008

Race cars in the microwave

For me, one of the simplest pleasures of raising children is found in the most unexpected of ways - finding discarded, abandoned toys in unusual, unexpected places.

In the quiet of the evening, when I am wearily in the midst of the final toy clean up, I am often made to pause for a moment, and reflect on just what, exactly, led the race car to park itself in the play microwave, the small pile of Legos to land themselves next to the cats' food, or the measuring cups from my kitchen to nest themselves inside the ride-on train. Particularly on the days when I felt as though I might possibly run, screaming down the street, at the idea of creating one more train track or building one more Lego skyscraper, I love finding these unexpected reminders of the joy we found in our day. I am taken back to that moment we made "yucky coffee" in the play kitchen, when we created snails and nests filled with eggs from play-doh, or when we lined all the vehicles up for a "car parade."

But there's always something I miss. And that's the part that gets me the most. When was it that Leo tucked that race car away in the microwave? And what was he thinking - will it fit? Will it taste good? Maybe he was pretending it was a large hunk of brownie? And then there are the Legos near the cat food... was Aidan simply escaping his brother, who has a penchant for destroying Lego creations? Was he making a dining table on which the cats might eat? Or did he simply abandon them, his attention stolen by the crayons at the easel, a bird at the feeder?

It humbles me, actually, these discoveries. For as much as I think I know about them, as much as I try to orchestrate a fulfilling day of events, my children are hard at work, orchestrating their own ideas and opinions and ways in which to manipulate this amazing world - with or without me. It is that constant pull between wanting them under my wing at all times, and wanting to push them out of the nest to fly.

"Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some." -Robert Fulghum

Saturday, October 11, 2008

(Anachronistic) To the Moon and Back

This is something I wrote some four years ago, intending on submitting it to a small publication that has since gone out of business, Welcome Home. I remembered it because of the recent book of choice by Leo has been Guess How Much I Love You?
The words still ring true.

*The painting at right is from the book; Jeff painted it in Aidan's "Camp Bearwood" themed room....

The first time I read the children's book, Guess How Much I Love You? I was not impressed. Actually, as a college student, I just didn't get it. I didn't like how Little Nutbrown Hare kept trying to find the biggest way to tell Big Nutbrown Hare how much he loves him, but Big Nutbrown Hare always managed to show Little Nutbrown Hare just a little bit bigger way of loving him back - stretching his arms wider, jumping higher, loving him "to the moon - and back." I didn't like how Big Nutbrown Hare always seemed to "out-do" Little Nutbrown Hare; I wanted the love to be equal.

A few years after that first reading, I received the book at a baby shower. I stuck it on the shelf with many other new books, not giving it a second thought. Then, in one of our earliest days home from the hospital, determined that I would read to my newborn son every day of his life, (never mind he could barely keep his eyes open long enough to nurse, let alone read a book!) I began reading Guess How Much I Love You? to him.

Halfway through the book, I had an epiphany, an "ah-ha" moment. A new awareness, a new appreciation of this seemingly simple book overcame me as I tearfully whispered aloud the concluding sentence - "I love you right up to the moon - and back." Suddenly, and with absolute clarity, I got it. No matter what, Little Nutbrown Hare could not possibly love Big Nutbrown Hare to the same degree, and that was okay: it was okay that Little Nutbrown Hare will never be able to love Big Nutbrown quite as much as he is loved back. A parent's love is somehow always bigger than a child's love, and that parental love is utterly astounding.

As I sat there, realizing how powerful and enormous my love is for my son, I was caught in another sudden awareness - my own parents love me this much. I did not realize the extent to which my parents love me until my son was born. Only now, as a parent, do I understand what it means to love some other person with your whole being and soul. I am deeply in love with my husband and fiercely devoted to my family but the love I have for my son is different than these other loves, unconditional in a way that was not developed or learned. It is an innate, instinctual love. I was not able to understand or appreciate that love until becoming a mother. And to think my parents have loved me like this for more than 25 years! Suddenly, I was overcome with these two powerful and awesome gifts I received: the gift of this new life, this new creation, our son. And the gift of finally, truly knowing, and understanding, the depth of the love my parents have for me.

The book quickly became a standard read, the first of many board books whose words are permanently embedded in my memory. After story time, with my son sleeping peacefully in my arms, I gaze at his perfect face, his smooth skin, his beautiful bow lips and tiny body, and I contemplate the distance to the moon. 480,000 miles, to the moon and back, does not even begin to describe the love I have for this sweet soul snuggled into my shoulder. But it’s certainly a start.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Out of the Mouthes of Babes, Part 2

Leo's first sentence:
"Yum, Yum! Cookie!" [no interpretation needed.]

Leo's second sentence:
"Bump-Pa! Vrooom!!!!" [Grandpa drives the tractor! Gives us tractor rides! Lets Aidan do the steering while I sit on his lap!!]

Out of the mouth of my dear friend's daughter, who I'll call Allie:

Allie: Is this a Webkins, Mom? Because I can't have webkins at school.
Mom: No, honey, it's just a pony, and I know you can't have toys at school.
A: I especially can't have Webkins....
M: Well, that makes sense, I understand you can't have toys at school....
A: You know, I can't have Webkins.... like a sword, or those Star Wars things, or play squirt guns....
M: (the lightbulb going off)..... Weapons! Honey, you can't have weapons at school!!!!

And this last one, which I write with much chagrin. Except it is just too funny not to record.....

(shortly after returning from our camping trip at Mountain Cove Vineyard)

Aidan to Grandma: Grandma, maybe one day you can go camping with us!
G: That sounds nice, Aidan, but we do not have a tent!
A: That's okay, Grandma, you could sleep in our tent.....
G: Aidan, that's so nice! Thank you!
A: Yeah, and you could stay with us while Mommy and Daddy go out drinking!!!!!!

(long silence where Grandma and Grandpa are suppressing laughter)

G: Oh really, Aidan? What were they drinking?
A: (quite indignantly) They were drinking wine, Grandma. We were at a winery!!!!! (exasperated).

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Give them a "Hand" for this amazing "Feet!"

Aidan and Leo created this Halloween decoration today, and it's an understatement to say they put their hearts and "soles" into making it perfect. Aidan used his hands and feet to create the bats and larger ghosts, respectively. He filled in the moon outline with yellow paint, all by himself. And an important lesson was learned about Leo and paint on hands and feet: he hates it! The three smaller ghosts were achieved amidst shrieks, screams and cries of horror... not because it gave him a fright to see the ghosts, mind you, but because of the squishy paint on his feet. Plan B, it seems, is in order for those footprint Christmas crafts I was planning....

Oh, for the love of......

Loveys! Why, oh why, don't they make GPS for loveys? After spending the umpteenth hour searching for the lovey who has been lost umpteenth times, I am fantasizing about simply pressing a little remote control button.... hearing the shrill beep.... and quickly, speedily, heroically locating the lost lovey.

Aidan's lovey, Gladys, is a small, limp, formerly-yellow-but-now-a-shade-of-gray duck. She bears a small blue scar, courtesy of an overzealous painter (Aidan) who insisted she could "watch" as he "helped" Daddy paint.... her beak bore the brunt of Aidan's cutting teeth when he was younger, and is matted and disfigured as a result. More recently, she has become the experimental object of choice in every flying experiment Aidan conducts. (In other words, he constantly flings her around the room.) She's been lost beneath mounds of clothes in the dress up box, cooking away in the (play) microwave, trapped under the seat cushions, and, most harrowing, pinned beneath the garden hose and abandoned in the mulch. Yet she's survived it all, and is loved all the more for it.

Leo has two loveys: Flat Cat, whom he's had since birth, and Flat Lion, who was acquired during one of Flat Cat's first disappearances. Wise moms warned me when they saw Gladys for the first time - buy two loveys, in case something happens to one of them - but everyone knows that there's only one true lovey. Like Gladys, Flat Cat is formerly-yellow-turned-gray, and has no stuffing in any part of her body besides her head (thus, appropriately named.) After watching me wipe down the kids' table with a shot of Windex and a paper towel, Leo apparently decided Flat Cat was a good substitute for a paper towel.... and proceeded to mop up the excess Windex with poor Flat Cat's backside. The result? Total trauma: the two hours it took to wash - and dry - Flat Cat in the laundry.

Why, exactly, are these stinky, floppy, unattractive animals so well-loved? What makes us become so attached? And when I say "us," I really do mean "us." For as much as I sigh and moan and complain when I'm searching for the Lost Duck and Lost Cat (closely followed by searching for my Lost Mind) I am nearly as invested in finding them as my children are in reconnecting with their lovey. Gladys and Flat Cat are with us in the best of times, and in the worst of times. Sometimes, I feel like they are my partners in fighting the tears - frustration, exhaustion, pain, hurt.

I'll never forget the day my dear friend wept when she realized her daughter's "Baby" was lost, forever, at the grocery store. Never mind that SHE had the foresight to have a backup Baby, never mind that her daughter (eventually) came to accept the backup as the original. Perhaps, in our minds as mothers, we realize that those loveys become surrogates, the companions who can sleep each night tucked in the crib or bed, who can travel safely in the car seat, who can snuggle under chins during favorite videos or after a long day of preschool, surrogates for what we feel in our hearts but cannot always provide with our arms.

My father's childhood lovey, Bell Boy, held a place of honor on a shelf in our family room. My brother's lovey, Munchie Mouse, was attached to a quilt given to him on his 30th birthday. My own lovey, Pink Bear, attended my wedding dressed in a tuxedo. And it is with these renewed memories of loveys, lost and found, that I redouble my efforts at finding Miss G......

....who has deftly maneuvered herself into the book basket!!!

Friday, September 26, 2008

... and finally, Boy.

It is long overdue that I introduce several other, very important members of our family. By Aidan's insistence.

For at least two years, Aidan has had an imaginary friend named Boy. Boy and Aidan enjoy countless adventures together, the most notable of which (for me, at least) was when I was forced to put Boy into a time out in the second-to-last aisle of the grocery store due to the mischevious antics of Boy and Aidan in aisles 1-11....

Boy is extremely knowledgeable, helpful, friendly..... and a troublemaker. He teaches Aidan all sorts of interesting facts and ideas. He has a sister, Fishnika, who celebrates a birthday about every third week. (We sing "Happy Birthday" to her, and give her cookies from the play kitchen oven.) Boy has a brother named Calvin; his dad is named Ssssssss, and his mother is, appropriately, Boy's Mommy.

More on the delightful world of Imaginary Friend Boy in posts to come. It's time for the McCain/Obama debate, and I'm guessing McCain wishes he had an imaginary friend right now to do his debating for him.... or maybe that's what he was thinking when he contemplated not participating in the debate?? His Boy could do it for him?

the "Literacy" in the Literacy Farm

I am ecstatic to see Aidan's developing literacy skills, his phonemic awareness, his love of reading and writing. On the newly-sealed driveway the other day, Aidan was setting up the start and finish line for the race he was about to have with (his imaginary friend) Boy. He drew one line and wrote "CTT". He announced, Start. This says "Start." And indeed, it does. With invented spelling, he has just taken one huge leap up the ladder of literacy, making the move from late emergent reader and writer into early letter name-alphabetic stage, where he will begin to recognize words based on their familiarity, begin to track reading according to the salient beginning (and ending) sounds, and begin to read on his own. Very exciting stuff, indeed. While he is still a ways off from having a concept of word and truly reading on his own, I was highly impressed with his rendition of "start." Not only did it have a beginning and ending consonant, it also contained a blend, the "st" sound, one of the harder concepts among beginning readers.

Hooray for my late emergent/early letter name-alphabetic reader!!!

Meanwhile, on the Leo Literacy front, he continues to gain more signs each day. When he lacks a sign, he invents his own, moving his hand up and down in a small motion for "bell," (indicating his desire for the "coffee bell" the boys use to rouse me out of bed), or turning both hands in a small way while saying "vroom!" to indicate car, and in a big way, big hands and VROOM! to indicate truck. The more you try to ignore his signs (more! more! more COOKIE!!!) the more precise and grandiose his signs become. His best word, after Mama, is cookie, pronounced in the cutest little baby voice.

There is nothing more endearing than seeing the two literacy worlds collide, when Aidan sits snugly next to Leo and "reads" books like Five Little Pumpkins or Brown Bear, Brown Bear.

Show and Tell

Preschool Show and Tell is seriously stressful.... for me. Each Thursday, Aidan is supposed to bring in something that corresponds to the letter of the week, something he wants to share, to tell others about, to impress his friends with..... and each week, I want him to have something that is "just right." Something that fits into the decorated brown lunch bag his teacher sends each Wednesday, a tacit reminder: "Parents, you'd better fill this thing with something for tomorrow's Show and Tell." Something he'll be proud to show... and tell. I want him to choose something that he can talk about without inhibition; something he really likes; something that's not too expensive (the camera he wanted to bring) too valuable (his lovey, Gladys) too cumbersome (his brother, Leo) or too strange (a photograph of the "nook", a corner of the family room that has two chairs. And a basket of toys.)

And so the pressure is on. This is definitely Aidan's thing; Aidan gets to decide what to bring. But still, the latent teacher inside me knows that the chosen object at show-and-tell is most definitely a reflection of the kind of parents we are. Or at least, that's what my latent-teacher brain has managed to convince the worried-mother brain of mine. So each Tuesday, we begin plotting what he might bring. I write big, bold reminders on the dry-erase board, because - god forbid - what if he FORGOT show and tell??? What would that say about me as a mother? We contemplate many possibilities. This week, the letter was A. He quickly decided on a photograph of our cat, Alice. I worried... would the teacher think he had his letters confused? Bringing a "C" object for "A" week? Would a small, gray, Lego cat representative be a better choice than a photograph? Should he draw a picture, his own rendition of his cat? Aidan insisted on a photo. When I could not locate a single one on our computer, he decided to take one himself. With our (expensive, highly-guarded) camera. I admit, I got impatient when he took forever to set up the pose, tell the cat to say "cheese," try to see her through the viewfinder, and finally snap the photo. I tried to convince him to let me snap a photo with him and Alice, and he'd have a "double A" picture. He refused to give up the lens. The kid's a natural, though. His photo was just right, ten times better than the one I impatiently snapped at the beginning of the photo shoot. We printed it in 8x10 format on cardstock; I tucked it away in his backpack on Wednesday night, and sent him on his way, confident that Thursday's Show and Tell would be all the rave at the dinner table.

"Aidan! What did the kids think of your picture at Show and Tell? How did it go?" I implored. "They liked it," he replied. "Oh yeah? What did they say? Did you tell them it was A for Alice? Did you tell them you took the picture all by yourself?? What did the other kids bring in???" "Um, I don't remember what they said...." I looked at him, perplexed. I prodded for more answers. I tried every trick in the book, asking "gateway" questions, naming specific kids, trying to get him to open up, give me the scoop on every detail of Show and Tell.

Clearly, and thankfully, Show and Tell is not quite the stress-inducer for Aidan that it is for me. So perhaps I should start my own Show and Tell, with my own friends. What would I bring? Well, for A week, I'd bring Aidan. Or a carefully composed photograph of Aidan. Or an Aidan representative, perhaps the outlined body portrait he's been working on for weeks. I'd bring Aidan, because he's one of my two biggest achievements so far in life. I'd bring Aidan, because of the humility, the joy, the love and laugher he brings to our lives. I'd bring Aidan, because, as my firstborn, he was the definining person in my emergent life as Mom. I'd bring Aidan, despite my earlier disclaimers. He wouldn't fit in the brown paper bag; he's too expensive; he's too valuable; he can be rather cumbersome and strange at times, he's still that forbidden F word... Four.... yet when I meet someone new, when I'm with my friends, when I'm around people I've known forever, the first thing I want to do is show and tell.... show and tell Aidan, show and tell Leo, show and tell Jeff and our entire family.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Birdseed & Trailer Hitches

Two phenomena of childrearing that cease to amaze me: the joyful willingness to eat things that are not food, yet reject the delectables that Mom has prepared; and the ability to view ordinary objects with extraordinary possibilities. Cases in point:

Leo eventually became what we decided was an excellent eater - especially compared to his brother at the same age. He tried many new foods, ate the same healthy choices without batting an eye, and ate heartily. But it was a phase. Suddenly, Leo is Mr. Picky Picky. He goes on only-freshly-made macaroni-and-cheese binges, followed by "snack food only" streaks, followed by rejection of the food he loved the day before. He turns his nose up at anything new, remotely new, or possibly just seen the day before yesterday. Oddly, though, two quirks interrupt his picky stage. One: while refilling the bird feeder with "gourmet seed specifically blended for cardinals and songbirds," excess seed spilled onto the deck. Thinking nothing of it (except maybe that it would entice the birds to come closer) I did not bother to sweep it away. I look over not once, not twice, but three times to find Leo eating the birdseed!!!!! And loving it! (At least he's moved on from the cat food he used to digest daily...)

Two: there are some strange habits I've retained from my childhood. One is eating a birthday candle on someone's birthday, but that's a topic for an entirely different blog. Another is eating raw spaghetti. As long as I can remember, I have eaten raw spaghetti as the rest of the pasta has properly boiled in the pot. It's a trait I picked up from my mother, and it has always baffled Jeff. Every single time I've cooked pasta in the 9 years we've been together, I've eaten raw spaghetti. Every single time, he's stared at me with an incredulous, horrified expression. Much to his dismay, BOTH Aidan and Leo have developed this same affinity toward uncooked pasta, and munch on it while waiting for dinner to be served.

Aidan's ability to see objects in a myriad of possibilities never ceases to amaze or delight me. Ordinary objects like paint stirring sticks become wings of an airplane. Bungee cords become trailer hitches; the trailer itself might be a deck chair, his wooden boat, his brother.... Short-handled brooms become swords and wands. Plastic hangers become "getters." And peanut butter, paired with a superhero cape, apparently makes flying possible among ordinary mortals.

Sometimes, I get exasperated. Why can't Leo just eat the perfectly normal English muffin pizza I've made him? And why can't Aidan simply see a chair as a chair, meant for providing a resting place for the weary? I know I'll come to miss these days, though. When Leo is a famished teenager, eating us out of house and home, and Aidan refuses to get his weary self up from said chair, I might look back on today and chuckle. I guess that's my food for thought, then: this computer, this Internet, this blog, an ordinary object with extraordinary possibility, helping me to remember forever what might otherwise be lost, the daily minutia of childrearing that makes the journey so joyous.

(Clearly, the photos illustrate the flying potential of
Aidan and Leo: Just Add Peanut Butter!)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Happy Campers

The camping trip was a total and complete success! I don't know who had more fun, the grown ups or the kids. It was hot, to be sure. Low 90's, extremely high humidity, hot sun as it was setting. The kids splashed in the baby pools, ran with wild abandon in the open field of grass, played with the flashlights as night approached, and crashed hard into a good night's sleep... well, most of the kids, anyway.

I don't know if it was the beautiful and serene setting, the view of the surrounding mountains and valleys, the distance from highways and busy life, or possibly the great vineyard grapes (kids) and wine (adults) that made the whole experience positively therapeutic, but I will never forget the fun that we all had individually and as a group. Or maybe it was actually the people that made the trip so much fun. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this amazing group of friends, brought together initially by our very young children, yet building friendships far beyond weekly playdates.

It struck me this weekend that most of the kids, the older ones at least, are finally at that age where they will remember these adventures well into their adult years. These memories, built during their formative years, will quite possibly mould and shape who they become as parents, how they spend time with their own families, what memories they try hard to create for their own children. At least, I hope they do. Because although there are some definite rough patches in the road of child rearing, and huge obstacles to overcome, this parenting journey we're on is far better than I could possibly have dreamed of, in part because of the rich reward of the friends we've made in this group.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

WHAT was I thinking?

We're going camping today. Yep, all of us, plus six other families from our playgroup. Fourteen children ages 1 1/2 - 6. We're camping at one family's vineyard, in tents, all night long. I'm wondering what, on earth, I was thinking six weeks ago when I shouted an enthusiastic YES in response to the invitation to camp! A quick reality check: Aidan is afraid of the dark. And thinks that bears are out to get him. And tried sleeping in a tent, in his room, for a week, but never made it more than an hour before surrendering to his own bed. Leo has been sleeping through the night for a mere 4 months. Four months!!! And I am being quite generous, and ignoring the habitual waking-at-five-a.m.-and-needing-some-patting routine. Now Jeff and I used to camp often, and we had some wonderful adventures together - until our last trip, which we affectionately called "Surviving," not camping. [In a nutshell, the hurricane-force winds sheared the bolt off the top of our tent. Undeterred, we bought a pup tent - you know, the boy scout kind.... for boys who are three feet tall.... and tried, for an hour, to boil water for our dinner, but the high winds kept blowing out the gas stove. Finally, we crawled into our tent, exhausted, when that night a herd of wild ponies streaked by us in a stampede. No wonder. When we asked the ranger to recommend a campsite for us, he replied "Western Maryland." We laughed a hearty laugh and thought it strange he was recommending a campsite 200 miles away.....]

Worst case scenario, we pack our stuff in the middle of the night and head home. I don't think it will actually come to that - except that my own vivid memory of camping as a young child is just that. On that trip, with my family and our close friends, the weather was so awful, but we were so determined. It ended in a big sleepover in the middle of the family room, a night I'll never forget, because of the fun, the laughter, and the absurdity of it all. The tent is packed, the flashlights have new batteries.... and the carpet is freshly vacuumed, in case we have to resort to Plan Z.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Proving that Alaska is not an Island...

An idea is born. In a nutshell, it is this: in 10 or 12 years, in the year 2018 or 2020, Jeff and I will lead our family on an adventure lasting 3 to 4 months and covering many continents and countries.

But let me start at the beginning. (And no, not like the beginning of a Michener novel.) In high school, I was a good student in nearly every subject - but definitely not in geography. During my junior year, while studying a map of the world [instead of just our familiar US map] I had an "ah-ha" moment, a sudden burst of new knowledge that finally integrated itself with old schema, a piece of the puzzle that finally fit. "You mean Alaska is not an island?!!" I asked my classmates and incredulous teacher. Think, for a moment, of how they draw US maps. Alaska is always in its own little box, right next to the box of the Hawaiian ISLANDS. I'd never noticed that it connected to Canada until that time in my junior year!

While I have seen many of the greatest attractions and amazing wonders of the United States, I have not traveled outside the country much at all. Jeff and I have dreamed of traveling abroad, but it always seems like one of those way-to0-distant future things. Until now. I read an article in Wondertime magazine about a family who saved money for more than a decade and then took one year off to tour the world. They saw 28 countries in 52 weeks - an amazing and unforgettable adventure. Inspired by their story, Jeff and I have agreed that we want our own tour of the world, with our children, albeit on a smaller scale.

We had earmarked an investment we made two years ago for "something big" in the future, not really having any idea what that might be. We've renamed that earmarked investment to "Proving Alaska is Not an Island Tour". We'll set yearly goals of what we'd like to save, depending on what our budget allows. As the time draws closer and we start planning where we will go, we'll look into opportunities like me teaching at Semester at Sea, or Jeff doing the nurse's equivalent of Doctors Without Borders. We'll look at a trip with the Sierra Club, which offers international, family, service-based trips.

One of the parts of the magazine article that stuck out to me was this: the family described that there was no way they could not go on the trip without losing face, because they had told so many people about it, talked about it for so long, and the trip became a veritable family mantra that it would have been impossible not to do it.

So if you hear Aidan muttering the Carter mantra, "Alaska is not an island...," maybe he's just plunked a few extra pennies into his piggy bank....

Dirty D.O.G. Day

Yesterday when I arrived to pick Aidan and Leo up from Grandma and Grandpa's house, I was greeted by the two dirtiest, sweatiest, and happiest boys I have ever seen as they rode up in the tractor with Grandpa. Leo's normally fluffy, fly-away hair was matted down to his head; he looked as if he'd dunked it in the lake. Aidan's curls were wet and plastered to his forehead. Leo was positively covered in dirt. Dirt was on his face, in his scalp, in the creases of his neck, outlining his diaper, covering every bit of his clothes and shoes.... "What have you been doing??" I implored. They looked positively filthy, and utterly happy. I soon learned that they had been working very hard with Grandpa, moving rock after rock and stone after stone into the trailer and clearing the ground for new grass seed. Whoever imagined moving rocks could be so much fun? I mused.

But that's exactly the point. Moving rocks was so much fun, because it was moving rocks with Grandpa. Cookies have never tasted so good as the ones made with Grandma. Steam cleaning the carpet has never been more fun than with Grandpa. Eating grilled cheese always tastes better at Grandma's house. Indeed, as I consoled a sobbing Aidan who was simply not ready to leave Grandma and Grandpa's house, I remembered what it was like to do the most ordinary of things with Grandma or with Grandpa. I had far fewer chances than Aidan and Leo have to spend ordinary time with grandparents, but I know how magical chores and errands suddenly become when spent with the beloved "AM-ma" or "BA-pa", as Leo affectionately calls them right now.

Regretfully, I did not have my camera with me to capture the dirt. I actually considered loading them in the car, dirt and all, and taking a picture at home.... but they were JUST TOO DIRTY. While this day will probably fade into the collective memories of Doings not out of the Ordinary with Grandparents, (D.O.G, that is) I , for one, will long remember this Dirtiest of D.O.G Days.