Summer Vacation for Mother’s Day

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Dirt under my fingernails, dandelion pollen on my neck, a little baby slobber on my shirt, homemade cards on my table. That is all I’ve ever wanted for Mother’s Day.

“Are we on summer vacation now?” my kindergarten daughter asked me this weekend. Decked out in a swimming suit, she was running around in the warm sunshine at a park on Saturday, sliding down the slide and eating an ice cream sandwich as a treat. I understood the feeling completely. It did feel like summer. She knew they hadn’t had the official last day of school, but dressed in a swimming suit, school felt like a distant memory, even though she was there just the day before.

I call that a pretty great Mother’s Day weekend. It’s a little late, but happy Mother’s Day to everyone! Thank you, Mom, for making a welcoming place where we can gather every Sunday and get together with family. Thank you, Cheryl (Jarred’s mom), for being the wise one who started Jarred on mashed potatoes early and for making our kids feet cozy in winter with wool socks. And obviously…to both of you, thank you for so much more.

As for me, with weather that felt like summertime and with a full weekend of good things, I couldn’t ask for anything more. On Friday and Saturday I got to dig in the dirt and shovel rocks, weeding the hostas and reviving some landscaping on the side of the shed. It’s a project I’ve been wanting to work on for years (literally), but was one I just had to let go last year with a new baby. And as my neighbor astutely pointed out, finishing a project like that is all the more gratifying because it lasts. A job well done on laundry, cleaning, or a meal lasts only hours, or sometimes minutes, but with any luck, that landscaping should last a long time.

On Saturday afternoon we watched my oldest daughter’s dance performance at school. While she was doing some hoe down moves to “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” my eyes were getting a little misty sitting there watching. Getting to have that moment of seeing my daughter up on stage in a cute costume and giving a dance performance her all…that is a pretty great reward. It’s the very visible reminder of why I made those weekly trips to town after school, loading 3-6 kids up in the car and delaying supper for dance practices.

We ended a very summery Saturday with a bonfire. For the occasion, I literally blew the dust off the bottle of Jose Cuervo in the back of the cupboard and officially re-opened margarita season. Last year between the heat of summer and nursing a newborn, my cocktail of choice was water on the rocks, by the gallon. An occasional margarita on the porch on a summer Saturday night is pretty wonderful, though, and always reminds me of the summer I worked in a Mexican restaurant.

All combined, it made a wonderful end to a great day: a first margarita in nearly two years, a fire, a beautiful night. We even had technologically enhanced star-gazing. With my brother’s Google Sky app, we could hold his phone up anywhere in the sky, and the stars and planets would show up labelled on a chart. It was amazing, no more guessing about Mars or Venus or the North Star.

After a full day with landscaping and dance and just being busy, I could have gone to bed at 8:30 and easily fallen asleep, but on a beautiful evening, it’s hard to pass up spending time outside. Sitting outside until nearly midnight with just shorts and a t-shirt feels like being set free after winter jackets and mittens. Ah, (almost) summer…

On Sunday for Mother’s Day, I once again had the reminder that I’m in a pretty choice position. With four kids in elementary school, I got a mother lode of handmade presents: a painted pot with a marigold and an original “Mom” poem, a coupon book for favors like cleaning and five-minute back rubs, a not diamond but “dime-on” necklace made of clay with a dime stuck inside, and a laminated paper locket necklace with a school picture inside. The kids also made presents at Sunday School, so my flower garden now has five hand-painted clay pots made into garden lights by flipping the pots upside down and tucking solar lights in the drain holes. I love them.

I’m sure I’ll enjoy the other stages of motherhood, but having a crew of elementary aged kids is so much fun. I love the honest, sweet simplicity of presents made in school and kids that are so excited to give a gift. For days ahead of time, the anticipation builds: “I am making your present! You are going to LOVE it!” I always do. My first grade son wanted the gift to be a surprise so much that he actually told me he forgot the gift at school, and all along it was hiding in his underwear drawer, where he thought I’d never see it. He was right.

My kindergarten daughter was so excited that immediately when she got off of the bus on Friday, she ran to me and had to give me my Mother’s Day gift. I asked her if maybe we should wait, but she couldn’t. She doesn’t know it, but having a little blonde girl flying off the bus bursting with excitement to give me a present is the best gift she could give me.

Being up on Saturday night later than usual, all I really wanted on Sunday morning was to sleep, maybe all the way until 8:00. One by one as my kids woke up, though, the bedroom door opened and in walked someone with a present in hand. If someone interrupts my sleep with a present, well…I can’t really complain about having that kind of blessing in my life. As for my two youngest kids, they have no clue what Mother’s Day is, but our baby gave me plenty of slobbery kisses and my two-year-old daughter celebrated the day by wearing three of her favorite dresses. That’s just right.

Not only did I get two necklaces made by my kids, but I also received a dandelion and lilac woven necklace, artfully crafted by Jarred when he took kids to the park on Sunday. He read my article last week and said “I didn’t know you liked dandelions. THAT is easy!” Move over Hawaiian leis, I received an authentic Minnesotan dandelion lei, very fancy, indeed. Holding a fussy two-year-old, my dandelion necklace broke relatively fast, but my admiration of it remains. Later, the topic came up of my necklace and someone said “Oh, that explains the yellow stuff on your neck.” Yes. Dandelion pollen. I really do shower, honest.

Dirt under my fingernails, dandelion pollen on my neck, a little baby slobber on my shirt, homemade cards on my table. That is all I’ve ever wanted for Mother’s Day.

Written May 16, 2017.

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Dandelions and Marshmallow Guns

When it comes to dandelions, the world pretty much divides into two camps: love or hate. Flower or weed. Cheery springtime yellow flower or scourge upon the perfect lawn. People even divide up into particular neighborhoods about dandelions. Okay, perhaps it’s not just about dandelions, but the preferences are often clear. Drive around in the springtime, and you’ll know by looking at the lawns. On one block you might find dandelions in every yard, and in another neighborhood, a dandelion is an embarrassment.

What a shame. Not liking dandelions, that is. To me, dandelions are one of the welcome signs of spring. If my kids don’t pick enough dandelion bouquets for me, I sometimes go out and pick some on my own.

As a senior in high school, when it was time to pick the class flower, I campaigned for the dandelion. Think about it…local, abundant, blooming at graduation, free. What’s not to like? I don’t remember ever actually voting, but in some sort of non-democratic fashion we wound up with a teal-tipped white rose as the class flower instead. I’m still disappointed.

People claim that dandelions aren’t real flowers, but I am certain that teal-tipped white roses do not exist in nature, and therefore are the ones that are “not real flowers.” I don’t lose sleep over the class flower issue, but it does sometimes pop into my mind in the spring when the dandelions reappear. And over 20 years later, I mention it in the newspaper because I still think dandelions are beautiful.

And right now, dandelions are in their prime: in full bloom, no messy-looking seed heads, just glorious yellow everywhere. I truly love this time of year more than any other time. In May it feels like the world is in the peak of springtime: days of blue sky and loads of sunshine, grass is lush green, apple trees are beginning to bloom, the tulips are out, dandelions blooming. It’s school field trips, graduations, open windows. Everything just feels alive with springtime, and the excitement of summer right on the horizon.

On the Run
On Saturday when I went running, everything around seemed full of that springtime life. At one point on my 3-mile loop there was a point when I was struck by it all. Heading up the incline of a small hill on a gravel road, to my right was a hay field, vibrant green dotted all over with the yellow blooms of dandelions, on my left was a freshly planted field, as deep, dark and rich as soil gets….the soil so rich that you almost want to eat it. In front of me, the sun shone right down directly in front of me on the road, and all around the sky was a deep blue.

For a second, I literally stopped in my tracks, and I wondered if heaven looked something like that. That of course made me think about my brother Mike up there. After my run, I sat down on the porch swing for the first time in a long time, feeling pretty darn lucky for the place I call home and for the people I have here with me.

Party On
This weekend, our home was especially lively. Add four extra 10 year-old boys for a birthday party on a beautiful Friday evening, combine it with our six kiddos, and the energy of kids in spring burst from every corner:

Two gallons of lemonade guzzled, a trampoline in constant use, outside cats getting hauled into the house and carried around, two big homemade pizzas devoured, one giant chocolate chip cookie evaporated. A marshmallow gun gift resulted in children, cats, and chickens all getting pelted. Bonfire with a Lord of the Flies-like swarm of boys all around, a few bonus fountain fireworks lit off, kids in sleeping bags filling up the living room. Sounds finally quieting around midnight. Waffles, blueberries and whipped cream for breakfast, and strong coffee for parents.

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Trick candles on a giant cookie cake seem like fun…until nine kids blow all over the cookie.

And the remnants of the party: one dirty sock of unknown ownership, marshmallows scattered all over the yard but soon cleaned up by willing chickens, staying up late Friday night turned into all eight people in our house taking Saturday afternoon naps. Lots of good memories.

It feels like with May we are finally getting the sunshine that we didn’t seem to see all winter. If I could, I’d completely cease all indoor projects and just stay outside. (Can I just stop doing dishes until winter?) Sunshine in May makes the classic rock on the Sunday drive seem all the better and the return of sundress season all the more welcome. Bring on the long days of light and extended evenings. We have a full list of plans in the works for the summertime. How much can we squeeze into three months? As much as possible.

Of course, we need to have plenty of time for the important things like picking dandelions and pelting one another with a marshmallow gun. Next time, I get a turn before the marshmallows run out. Pow pow pow!!

Written May 8, 2017

The Flurries of Springtime

DSC_1422 (2)Springtime in Minnesota: on the radio this afternoon I heard that the Twin Cities area has snow, and in one month, the kids will be out on summer vacation. I can’t seem to decide if I should keep mittens available or start filling the dresser drawers with shorts again. My ten-year-old keeps asking to wear shorts to school on any given morning that the weather looks even remotely pleasant, and by “pleasant” he considers anything above 40 degrees to be acceptable. Perhaps some mittens with his shorts?

Last spring I remember being in baby mode at this time of year, with our little guy arriving at the end of May. This year, though, spring is taking me by surprise. Right up until Easter, all of my thoughts were centered around making a trip to Montana for Easter. Something about packing up a family of eight, driving 950 miles one way, and being gone from home for a week just seems to fill all my time and thoughts. Spring and summer plans about everything else just went to the wayside.

My epiphany moment was literally when we pulled into the driveway at home at 5 AM after the all-night drive home from Montana. That was the moment that it really struck me that April was nearly over, and at the time, it was about six short weeks until summer vacation. In a few short weeks, the relative quiet of two little kids at home during the day will be replaced by six busy kids, all here, all the time.

And now, I feel like I’m in catch up mode. The flurry of a big trip really just makes the next few weeks become a complete blur. Every day I think “today I’ll get a good nap to catch up” or “today I’ll get in bed early,” and then it just doesn’t happen. I make meals, I get kids on the bus, I wash load after load of laundry, I pick up messes, but I couldn’t hardly tell you what day it is.

Last week my schedule filled in with four separate trips to a doctor’s office: an ENT visit, an audiology visit, a well-child check for my oldest daughter, and as a bonus, the strep throat that I had at Easter came back, so last Tuesday I had a visit for myself. The nurse offered that I could just get a shot of penicillin, and that sounded way more appealing than trying to remember a pill three times a day for ten days, so I took her up on the offer. One shot? Simple. No problem.

As I walked into the room for my shot, I planned to roll up my sleeve until she said, “It’s going to go in your butt.” Oh. Wait. What?!?! They still do that?? She mentioned the needle was pretty big and guys say it hurts quite a bit, but I also needed to make sure I kept my muscles relaxed. Oh, yes, of course, I feel very relaxed. It’s funny how quickly I wasn’t quite as excited about my “once and done” shot. I did decide though, that if I could handle giving birth six times with no pain medication, I’d probably be okay with a shot in the rear.

I will say, though, for the first two days afterward, I couldn’t really decide if it was my throat or my back side that hurt more, but neither one felt very spectacular, and I wasn’t very excited about any of it. Around day three, though, that shot really seemed to kick in and made life turn around. As the week went by, I kept wondering why I felt so tired, and I’d remember that I still had strep throat. Oh yeah…

I had to get better by the weekend, though, because this past weekend happened to be Girls Weekend at my sister’s cabin on the Mississippi. It’s one of my favorite events of the year. As the schedules worked, unfortunately none of my sisters-in-law could make it, but my sisters were all able to come for the evening. For a few hours six sisters sat around a fire. That’s pretty special indeed to not only have so many sisters, but to be able to get together with all of them for an evening and that four of us could stay overnight to enjoy coffee and omelettes together in the morning.

For one evening and morning, the only little person I took care of was my baby boy who goes along with me everywhere since he’s a nurser. Meanwhile, my husband and five kids stayed home. As a bonus, they got to spend some extra time with Jarred’s dad, AKA Grandpa David. David recently retired and bought a kit airplane that he plans to tinker on and build. The plane parts he bought happened to be in Iowa, so it all worked out perfectly that the owner of the parts agreed to deliver his plane parts to our house, and David will load them up onto a trailer here at our house and then take them all back to Montana to build.

In the meantime, while Jarred and David are working on reconfiguring the trailer and on some of the plane parts, we get a little bonus visiting time with grandpa here. Our kids only disappointment is that Grandma Cheryl stayed in Montana because she is a school bus driver, so they’ll have to wait until summertime for her to be able to come and visit.

So, with a busy house and lots of activities, we’re quickly spinning toward summer vacation. Just yesterday I signed a permission slip for an end-of- the-year school field trip and sent in a registration form for my oldest daughter to go to 4-H camp this summer. My oldest son had a birthday last week, turning double digits…the big 10. He’s got birthday party plans on his mind and asked if he could have a sleepover for his party this weekend. Add four more 10 year-old boys for an evening? Oh boy. That’s just a little bit of the flurries of springtime around here right now.

Happy May, everyone!

Written May 1, 2017.

World Down Syndrome Day…Because Down Syndrome is My World

We are going to give him every opportunity we can to learn, grow, and become the best person he can be. We want that for every child.

World Down Syndrome Day is on March 21. The date (3/21) is significant because it is the triplication of the 21st chromosome that causes Down syndrome. The day is globally recognized as a time to spread awareness of what it means to have Down syndrome, and share the vital role that people with Down syndrome have in their communities.

For me personally, I don’t need a specific day to be aware of Down syndrome, because Down syndrome is my world. Rather, a sweet little ten-month old baby boy is my world, and he also happens to have Down syndrome. Because of him, anytime I see anything about Down syndrome, my eyes are open and my ears are listening.

Something that caught my eye is a new video that was released in conjunction with World Down Syndrome Day. The video is called “Not Special Needs,” and it can be seen on youtube.com. It’s a humorous but thought provoking two-minute video that highlights the paradox of suggesting that someone’s needs are special. If you are on the internet and have two minutes, check it out.

Picture a guy in relaxed bliss on a massage table with a fluffy cat rubbing his back : “If people with Down syndrome needed to have cat massages, THAT would be special.” It has a few more funny scenarios of what would be “special needs” like wearing a suit of armor or eating dinosaur eggs. But what people with Down syndrome really need are “education, jobs, opportunities, friends, and some love, just like everyone else.” Those are not special needs, but human needs.

In the world here at our house, it’s the same concept, but different. We don’t have special Down syndrome baby toys, just baby toys. I don’t have Down syndrome baby food or outfits. It seems kind of funny, but the realization that there aren’t special toys, food, or clothes was comforting to me when he was brand new. He’s just a baby.

When he was born, I felt overwhelmed because I didn’t know how to take care of a baby with Down syndrome. I remember sitting on the couch and talking to my sister-in-law Tricia about it. She pointed out that he just needs love and for his needs to be met, the same as all babies. That made sense to me; that I could do. And the advice was meaningful because Tricia has extensive experience and education on the subject, with starting an adult family home and for years caring for her own sister Rose who had Down Syndrome. We just need to take care of him, just like we’ve done with all of our kids. And so, we do.

But it’s not just business as usual; he has expanded our world. A few months ago my kids noticed a display in the children’s department at Target. One of the models of children’s clothing was a little boy with Down syndrome. They were all excited to see that and commented how cool it was to see a kid like their little brother. I agreed.

I’ll be honest that the cynical part of me used to sometimes roll my eyes, thinking that sort of inclusiveness felt like a very staged and calculated move from companies trying overly hard to be politically correct. I’ve changed my view, though, as a parent of a son with Down syndrome. I’m happy that the executives in big marketing departments have expanded their perspective, and I view that inclusiveness with gratitude. Kids are just kids, and they happen to come in all sorts of packages. Yes, it is cool to see a little boy like my son on a billboard.

It’s cool to see because it makes me excited for the future. I can’t wait to see what he is like when he gets older. I can’t wait to see the person he becomes. Each one of our kids share similarities with each other, but they are each so unique in their personalities. Sometimes my mind moves ahead in time, and envisions what our family dynamic is like when our kids are older. I see good things ahead.

My oldest daughter commented one day “he’s such a peaceful little soul.” She so perceptively nailed it. He truly is a peaceful little soul. He has been since day one. I can’t wait to see how his personality grows as he gets older.

Right now, though, he’s just our sweet little baby boy. He’s just a few days shy of ten months. He loves crinkling up paper and shoving it in his mouth before it gets taken away. One of his greatest joys is sock removal. He loves holding spoons in each hand while in his high chair and making racket with a big smile or lots of concentration.

He’s developed his balance enough to become a champion sitter. He loves hanging out on the carpet in the action with other kids, grabbing blocks and dumping them out of the bucket, and playing peek-a-boo with blankets.

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And, he’s a lover. He often reaches out to get from one person to another to give hugs and snuggles. He gives real hugs at bedtime, reaching arms out and wrapping his hands around his siblings’ necks. He gives big open mouth kisses on our cheeks. And, he’s a real, live baby. That means in the middle of snuggles, he’ll also reach out and grab handfuls of long hair. Or Dad’s cheeks, or his brother’s nose. HONK!

He gives all of us so much joy. We get big smiles when he wakes up, smiles for kids when they come home from school, and when everyone is laughing at the dinner table, he’s watching us and smiling because we are.

And as he grows, we are going to give him every opportunity we can to learn, grow, and become the best person he can be. We want that for every child. So, from us, happy World Down Syndrome Day…because someone with Down syndrome is our world. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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A Good Heart and a Bounty of Babies

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Three baby cousins at Grandma’s house. 

In a fast and furious blur, week one of summer vacation is in the books.

Life is pretty busy when the projects that I have on my list for the morning don’t get done for days.  My poor six-year-old has been begging for a haircut for weeks. Every day I say I can cut his hair that day, and then at the end of the day, he goes to bed with a shaggy, sweaty head once more.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

And as much as I just want to tackle all of the things I see that need to be done, sometimes I get big reminders that I can’t add a newborn and lots of nursing to life and still keep up the same daily list of projects to do.  Last week I spent one of the days mostly laying in bed with a fever and a case of mastitis.  Antibiotics and rest took care of it. I am so thankful that Jarred’s mom Cheryl was still here.  She made it possible for me to be able to just “be sick” that day and get better. Even grown ups need a mommy sometimes.

Later in the week, the big event was our baby’s echocardiogram.  It went well.  Our little boy doesn’t have any heart issues that require surgery or long-term care.  In the course of the scan they did find a tiny hole of a few millimeters, a secundum atrial septal defect. The cardiologist said that very likely the hole would close on its own as he grew, but either way, it was nothing that required further attention or monitoring.  I’m very thankful for that.

As I navigated the Mayo jungle of parking ramp, subway, elevators and corridors, I walked with the baby tucked into my front wrap-style baby carrier.  It’s basically a long stretchy piece of fabric that you criss cross front and back, and it makes a pocket that the baby sits in, snug against your chest.  It’s very cozy and so much better than lugging an infant car seat.

It also gets a lot of attention, in a sweet way.  I can’t tell you how many times I saw people’s mouths say “Awww…” as they caught a glance of this little bundle of baby on my chest.  Older people, especially.  By the time we finished and got back to the car, I had to smile at it all.  It made me appreciate how little and new he is all over again, and realize again just what a brief time this is when a baby is so small.

Speaking of babies, I’m happy to share that our little boy isn’t the new baby in the family anymore!  I have a brand new niece, Josephine Lily.  My sister Victoria and I had due dates just a day apart, but with my little guy showing up a week early and her little girl showing up over a week late, their birthdays are two weeks apart.  It’s pretty amazing to have two cousins so close in age.  A big congratulations to Rian and Victoria Jones and big sister Genevieve!

With her new addition, this past Sunday it was a baby fest at Grandma’s house: two newborn babies and their cousin William (son of Steve and April Kramer), who is only three months old but looks like a little linebacker by comparison.  Adding in my three-month-old nephew Eli in Montana and a great niece and nephew, my cup runneth over with all of these new babies in our lives.

With all of the new life around, we also still have an empty spot in our lives. This coming Sunday is a day I’ve been staring at for a long time on our calendar. It’s Father’s Day, and very poignant is that the day also marks three years that my brother Mike has been gone. I wish I had some sort of profound thought that made sense of it all, but I don’t. He was a great father who was active in the lives of his kids in every way, and three years later, while everyone grows and changes and continues with life, there is no question that he is still very loved and missed.

As for the dad at our house, I’m grateful for my husband who in the course of one day does things like making the best gooey cinnamon rolls with our kids and also teaches them how engine compression works.  A few days ago Jarred cut a tree down in our windbreak. Before he cut it down, he asked if any of the kids wanted to come out and watch. Only one did. I told him he does too many amazing things with big equipment on a daily basis that seeing a giant tree fall down didn’t even sound awesome. We both laughed.

Happy Father’s Day to the awesome dads, the ones here on earth and the ones up in heaven.

An Echocardiogram, a Grandma, and Seven Calves

When the baby is missing from his crib, there is a good chance it's because he's being held on the couch by his big brother.

When the baby is missing from his crib, there is a good chance it’s because he’s being held on the couch by his big brother.

It’s 5:00 in the morning, and for right now the house is quiet.  It won’t last long, though.  School is out, and it’s day two of summer vacation.

At 6:00 a few kids will trickle downstairs. They don’t have to be awake that early for anything, but they always are. Regardless of whether they go to bed at 8:00 or late at 10:00, they always wake up promptly at 6:00.  Someday when they hit that teenage stage and I can’t get them awake until noon I might miss this time, but right now I wish the day started just a little later.

I could use a later start because right now, I’m running on baby time: lots of nursing and diaper changing at all hours of the day, intermixed with ordinary life.  Baby time also makes me continually surprised how fast a few hours can go by.  When our baby starts to squirm and fuss, that usually means it’s time to nurse again.  So often I think, “I just nursed him,” and then I look at the clock and realize that an hour or two or three has gone by.  Without a baby’s tummy to mark time, hours go by so quickly in a day.

He’s two weeks old now.  Two weeks in “ordinary time” goes by in a blink, but with a new baby, it feels like a lifetime of living happens in a matter of days.  That lack of sleep combined with a big life change makes all of time seem blurry.  Hours slip by at night, but a baby grows and changes so quickly that a few days can make a huge difference.  In some ways, it feels like he’s always been here, even though he’s so very new.

We’ve been looking at his cute little sleeping face and tiny hands for two weeks.  He’s so irresistibly sweet that I find that after I’ve laid him down for a nap in his pack and play crib, he often disappears.  I’ll look over on the couch and see that he’s been scooped up and sleeping in the arms of an older brother or sister.

In these last two weeks, we’ve also had big news to digest.  I haven’t mentioned this earlier because we were still waiting on official test results.  However, the results confirmed what we suspected when he was born.  Our baby has Down Syndrome.

It’s all come as a complete surprise, with no indications of this during pregnancy. At my 20-week ultrasound, everything checked out just fine.  I remember commenting to Jarred toward the end of my pregnancy that this had been such a completely healthy pregnancy, with everything being just right all along the way (right down to having the least back pain of any pregnancy, with my sixth baby). For a healthy, ordinary pregnancy, I’m so very thankful and it puts me more at ease now.

When he was born, we suspected he might have Down Syndrome based on a few things about his appearance, and he was tested at his five-day checkup. For right now, he is otherwise doing just fine and he’s nursing well, which is important.

Because heart defects are common with Down Syndrome, he is scheduled to get an echocardiogram done this week, which is essentially an ultrasound of his heart. During his ultrasound at 20-weeks pregnant his heart looked good and at his five-day checkup the doctor did not hear any murmur, which are both good signs.

Long term, there are plenty of things to monitor health-wise and obviously things we’ll need to do to help him developmentally, too.  To be honest, at this point I don’t know what all that entails, but I know we’ll be getting a very good education on it all over the years.

So, this little guy took us by surprise.  It’s not what we were expecting, but I also feel like everything is going to be just fine.  I believe he’s here to bring good things to our lives and we’re going to learn so much from him.  We just love him and we’ll just take whatever we need to do in stride.

And truly, he’s just a part of the family.  We’re figuring out our new summer routine with six kids at home.  We also added seven Holstein bull calves to our little farm this week. We’ll be raising them for beef over the next year and a half, and right now, our kids are fascinated by the seven cute calves we’re adding to their chore projects.

With the busyness of life around here, we’re especially thankful for Jarred’s mom, Cheryl.  She drove 1,000 miles on her own to come and see the baby, visit our family, and be a set of open arms for a week.  It’s great to have Grandma here.  All the little things she does are big to us, and she adds a peacefulness to our lives when things feel a little crazy.

That means a lot in a week with an echocardiogram for a baby, six kids home for the summer, and seven new calves in our shed.

A Basement Dungeon Getaway

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Written  in January 2014.

Someday when I retire, I’m going to flee for part of every winter and head to a sandy beach. I’m going to sit and tan my wrinkled skin, feet in the sand amid turquoise waters, a book in one hand and a drink with an tiny umbrella in the other.

That longing for sun and sand happens to me every year, especially when I see all sorts of decent Minnesotans fleeing southward to sun in the dead of winter. My brother’s family just got back from an island hopping cruise in the Caribbean. A friend on facebook just posted that she was heading off to “paradise” with her husband.

Right now, though, we’re pretty much staying put right here. The pay I get from staying at home with kids is the intangible kind which pays in the long run, but doesn’t really work for buying plane tickets.

And really, who needs a sandy beach when you’ve got a basement dungeon full of 98-year-old spider webs? Last night, that’s just where Jarred and I spent a romantic evening.

Normally, on a Sunday night after the kids go to bed, a grand night is watching a movie on the couch and still getting to bed at a decent time. Last night, my big plan consisted of cleaning up the kitchen and then just heading straight to bed. But my husband kindly invited me down to the basement, where he planned to saw into water pipes to work on the boiler that’s been a persistent problem this winter.

I was elated.

Our basement is standard old farmhouse basement fare: It’s best feature is a cement floor. It also sports limestone brick walls, dim lighting, long strands of cob webs, a creepy back room containing an old tank, and a bonus outhouse-like “bathroom” stall with a hole in the floor where a toilet used to be. Bugs and spiders thrive year-round in our basement sanctuary.

Usually, my use of the basement consists of making a bee line to grab a paint can and darting back up stairs as fast as possible. Or sometimes, I dart downstairs with a flash light in hand, go to the “control center” in the dungeon, stand on the wood block step, and flip whatever circuit breaker blew and then dart back upstairs again.

In my mental plans, I want to clean up the basement and arrange it into less of a storage hodge podge. When I go down there, my main thought, though, is just to get back upstairs as soon as possible.

I did agree to go downstairs last night because I was asked to moved anything on the floor that shouldn’t sit in two inches of water, on the off chance that the pipe sawing and repair turned a little ugly.

I couldn’t think of any valuable and water soluble items off hand, but I did know it shouldn’t all get wet down there.

The first thing I did when I went downstairs to help was slip on my boots.  And spill hundreds of parts.

In the process of adjusting my boot, I knocked over and spilled Jarred’s container of hundreds of neatly sorted solderless connectors.

In non-technical terms, solderless connectors are blue, yellow, and red little plastic thingeys about the size of a noodle. They roll really nicely across a cement floor. I spent the first ten minutes of my “helping” picking those thingeys up and resorting them.

By the way, I did an excellent job sorting and no dead bugs accidentally made their way into the compartments.

I then directed my efforts toward moving things around in the basement, which doesn’t involve any plumbing or soldering. I came across my boxes of Christmas plates, the white china ones with holly leaves that have been abandoned for the last few years.

After shoving my boxes of Christmas plates around, knowing I still had no space for them in the kitchen, I had a Eureka moment: the basement cabinets.

Down in the basement are a set of the original wooden kitchen cupboards, almost 100 years old. Right now they look a little worse for the wear after sitting lonely in a damp basement for 35 years or so, but with glass doors on top and original hardware, I really like them. And behind the latches, the glass-doored cabinets stay relatively bug-free.

While Jarred fired up the Sawzall and cut some pipes, I unpacked my Christmas china and put it in the cabinets. My packing material of choice was newspaper (actually, the St. Charles Press) dated 2010. I remembered that when I packed those plates, I was pregnant with my little girl who is now almost three. At the time, we had our little log house for sale in Montana and we planned on buying a place in Osseo, Wisconsin.

Later we sold that house, the Osseo deal didn’t work, we rented a house for a year, and finally moved to our house in MN, where the plates sat in the basement for almost two years. It was like opening a Christmas plate time capsule of years gone by.

And somehow, the basement now seems a little less like a dungeon with nice plates on display behind glass cabinet doors. Or maybe a nicer dungeon at the very least.

CAM00232 (1)

By the end of the evening we had unpacked Christmas china and a boiler that no longer sent the hot water down the drain instead of into our pipes to heat our house. In the process, the basement never flooded, not even a teeny bit.

While those vacations on sunny beaches are the kind where people wish they’d never end, the very best part of our basement dungeon getaway was the get away from the basement when the project was done. No, I didn’t need seven days and six nights to feel like I’d had my fill. And, there’s no need to “ooh” and “ah” over basement dungeon getaway photos. However, you might say “eew” and “eh…”

The silver lining in a night spent in the basement: plates finally unpacked after years spent in boxes.

The real silver lining is a boiler repair, but that’s not very pretty. Instead, just imagine the children’s book with Mike Mulligan in the basement of the new town hall looking happy and satisfied while Mary Anne the boiler pleasantly keeps the meetings warm. It’s like that.

The silver lining in a night spent in the basement: plates finally unpacked after years spent in boxes.  The real silver lining is a boiler repair, but that's not very pretty.  Instead, just imagine the children's book with Mike Mulligan in the basement of the new town hall looking happy and satisfied while Mary Anne the boiler pleasantly keeps the meetings warm.  It's like that.

Whether your getaway is on the beach or in the basement, wishing you warmth and coziness as the Polar Vortex once again heads our way… Stay warm, everyone!

Greetings from Frostbite Farm, MN‏

Written January 2014.

Something about a -50 windchill on this Monday morning makes all other thoughts that don’t concern cold and survival just evaporate.

When we got up this morning, something wasn’t working properly with our heat. That means the upstairs is currently 48 degrees, and downstairs the thermostat reads a balmy 58 degrees. My husband figured out the problem, and the house is getting warmer again, but it’s a slow process.

In the mean time, I layered up the kids and wrapped them up in blankets, and at the moment, they are very content sitting and watching movies. We have a wall-mounted fan heater in the kitchen, and currently, the dog and the two young kids are vying for the cozy warm space right against that heater. Somehow, the dog is winning.

My two-year-old and our dog, hanging out in their favorite cozy place by the heater.

My two-year-old and our dog, hanging out in their favorite cozy place by the heater.

In the kitchen, the crock pot is cooking a chicken, venison steaks are thawing for lunch, a pot of beans simmer on the back stove, and I turned the oven on to make it warm enough for bread to rise. We are a long way from any danger of freezing, but something in that visceral cavewoman part of my head sees the cold outside and starts thinking I better start cooking, so we don’t just all freeze or starve to death. I know logically that we are indeed not freezing to death, but that doesn’t matter.

I just have to keep cooking anyway.

Last night before I went to bed, I thought, “It’s going to be cold, I better put some beans in a pot to soak overnight, so they can cook in the morning.”

And then I realized where all of this is coming from. In my head are the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter that I read to my kids earlier this fall. Most specifically, the October Blizzard chapter stands out, when they lived in a one-room tar paper claim shanty out on the open prairie.

While I didn’t realize it last night, that feeling like I better put some beans out to soak overnight with oncoming cold came straight from Caroline Ingalls in the blizzard chapter. ” ‘I’m glad I put beans to soak last night,’ said Ma. . . .Now and then she spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. She put in the bit of fat pork. ‘There’s nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day,’ said Pa.”

I agree with Pa. If I could talk to him, I’d give him a good old Minnesotan “You betcha.” Our two-year-old didn’t really touch her pancake for breakfast, but she ate three warm, steamy servings of pinto beans doused in butter, salt, pepper, and cheese. Beans are cold weather food. You betcha.

On this blustery day, my mind drifts to the stories of extreme cold and hardship from the Ingalls family, “She put more wood in the stove and broke the ice in the water pail to fill the teakettle. The water pail was less than half-full. They must be sparing of water for nobody could get to the well in that storm. But the snow on the floor was clean. Laura scooped it into the washbasin and set it on the stove to melt, for washing in.”

There’s nothing like a little Laura Ingalls to add some perspective to hardship. Our pipes upstairs froze overnight, but all in all, it’s not so bad. We still have heat and running water downstairs.

This morning I’m frustrated that our dishwasher isn’t working because one of its water lines froze up, which means washing the mound of dirty dishes by hand. I really hate washing dishes. That is nothing, though, compared to waking up in a shanty with snow on the floor, let alone looking at that snow and thinking, “Oh good, now I can have water for washing.” No, life is pretty cushy by that comparison.

However, I actually did break ice in the water pail this morning. Granted, the water pail was in the unheated shed where the chickens live, and it’s the same thing we’ve been doing since the temperature went below freezing.

In another chapter of the same book, Pa tells his girls to stay in bed until he scoops the snow pile off of the top of their quilts. As for us, I dressed my kids in layers, but their day of “winter hardship” includes hanging out on a couch with cuddly blankets, holding my smart phone. On my phone they’re watching a movie on Netflix, essentially holding a little personal TV right in the palm of their hands. But wait, my husband also has a smart phone, so sometimes they have two different movies playing at once. And sometimes my older son then turns on our laptop and plays a game on that.

I think I’d be happier if it was the electronic devices that froze up on cold days.

On the positive side of this cold day, my kids sufficiently warmed up enough to decide they wanted snow ice cream. They went outside and collected a bowl of clean snow. Then while I worked in the other room, my seven-year-old and six-year-old worked in the kitchen mixing snow, cream, sugar, and vanilla together until it tasted like ice cream.

I was impressed. They made something that tasted like ice cream with no help from me, didn’t make a colossal mess in the kitchen, and did it all while keeping peace with a very opinionated two-year-old who desperately wanted to add in her own personal touch to the final product. That’s no small feat.

Maybe tonight we’ll make an apple pie for supper and top it with a little snow ice cream. A little extra heat in the house from the oven, smell of baking apples and cinnamon…that sounds like a perfectly good way to end a perfectly frigid day. While it’s not beans, I think Pa Ingalls would approve.

New Year’s UnResolutions

Sure New Year’s was a few months ago, but as you may notice, none of my resolutions include posting my columns in a timely manner.  Maybe next year for that one.

Written Jan 2, 2014

Happy 2014! With every new year, as soon as the kids stop blowing those noise makers in my ears, I start hearing people talk about the “R” word.

Resolutions.

By definition, “resolution” means firmness and determination to take a course of action. But as soon as you tack on the words “New Year’s” in front of resolution, it all becomes a joke, as in “Oh ha ha…yes, of course you are going to work out more this year…for about two weeks…” Aren’t New Year’s Resolutions those plans that you make and then just completely discard by Valentine’s Day?

So this year, I’m making some un-resolutions. (And no, that is not technically a word…yet.) I hate to say I’m resolute, because well, plans change, and things come up. And when it comes to unresolved, I’m quite good at that. I have plenty of unresolved projects in my life. In the last month alone, I’ve created an astonishing number of unresolved projects all over the house while Christmas took a priority.

Theoretically, when the holidays end, I’ll have all sorts of time to start fresh and tackle a few projects in the new year. Here are some of my Wintertime Unresolutions:

Paint the Kitchen Cabinets
The first time I walked through this house, I thought “If I bought this place, I’d paint the kitchen cabinets white right away.” We’re sneaking up on two years in this house, so I think I’m finally ready to take on that “right away” project.

I actually did start painting the cabinets about a month after moving in, starting the project at about 11 PM, when I finally had some quiet time. Obviously, I was way overtired if I thought I should drag out the paint to start a home improvement project two hours past my bedtime. I did paint for an hour or so before bagging the project for months on end.

This past spring, I primed a few more cabinets one afternoon. But when that winter snow finally melted (at the end of May, I believe), all the indoor projects ended and all attention went to outdoor projects. Make hay while the sun shines…or paint the porch, in my case.

Currently, when people look at my cabinets with about 1/4 covered in the streaky primer coat they tentatively ask, “Is that how you are going to keep them?” Um, no. I just thought it’d be nice to really drag out the ugly transition stage for a really long time.

Currently, my cabinets are a classy mix of half streaky paint and half dark wood.  Be it resolved that the cabinets will actually get painted this year.

Currently, my cabinets are a classy mix of streaky primer and dark wood. Be it resolved that the cabinets will actually get painted this year.

With a frozen world outside and my youngest kiddo sneaking up on three, that seems like the ideal time to tackle that kitchen.

Paint the Girls’ Room
When I moved in, I also thought, “I’ll paint the girls room ASAP.” And of course, you can guess what’s happened. The girls’ favorite colors are blue and purple, but the current walls are orange, brown, and dark green sponge painting…pretty much the opposite of those favorite colors. For an added touch, the room also sports a wall paper border that is partially missing due to an industrious baby who liked to help out with home improvement while stuck in her crib. Apparently, she didn’t want the border, either.

When I get that kitchen done, the long-neglected girls’ room is next on the list.

Read Three Books
In the course of the year, I fairly easily read 500 books. Sounds impressive, right? And of course, many of those books are the classics. Classics, as in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Harry the Dirty Dog, Green Eggs and Ham, Goodnight Moon…you get the picture. When it comes to adult literary selections, though, I’m really lacking.

I hate to say this, but in some ways, majoring in English partially killed my desire to read. I regularly cranked through 100-200 pages of intensive reading a night. Remembering all details, characters and plots while making inferences and identifying underlying themes burned me out for quite some time. Just when I really started liking reading for enjoyment again is about the time that babies arrived on the scene. And no surprise, sleep deprivation and increased work load aren’t really conducive to reading novels.

My modest goal this year is to read three books. (I won’t say “adult books” because that leads people to thinking that I shop for my books in that run-down store on the wrong side of the tracks.)

Three books in a year seems like a laughable amount when I’d read that much in a week in college or in the summer during high school. However, three books is a vast improvement to the half of a book that I read on my own this year. How embarrassing.

I found some new reading inspiration, though, on the latest trip to Montana. I brought home a small stack of books from Grandma Grace’s collection, and seeing them makes me want to sit down and curl up with a good book at night. And best of all, I won’t rack up any library fines.

A new little stack of books from my husband's Grandma Grace is the inspiration for reading books for myself again.

A new little stack of books from my husband’s Grandma Grace is the inspiration for reading books for myself again.

Looking at my list, I realize my un-resolutions are pretty minimal. That is the point. In my head are easily another 20 big projects that I’d like to take on in 2014, but for now, I’m starting fairly simply. If life taught me anything in 2013, it’s that things don’t always go as planned. So I’m starting with just paint and books.

Throw four young kids into that mix, and that seems like plenty of opportunities for un-resolutions for the start of the year.

Happy New Year, everyone!

2013: A Year in Pictures (And a Few Words, Too)

This week, a picture is definitely worth a 1,000 words (to me, anyway). As you read this, the rush of Christmas is over, but as I write this, I am in still in the midst of one week to go before the big day. If you know me, you might guess that I haven’t wrapped a single present, haven’t touched the pile of Christmas cards I ordered a few weeks ago (in order to get them done with plenty of time, of course), and probably have a messy house. Yes, yes, and yes.

With that holiday crunch pressing, it gives me a sense of perspective to look back at the year and see all of the things that we’ve done. Here are some of the big events of our life that I chronicled in this column this year:

-Acting in my very first play, “Leaving Iowa,” and then again later on in the locally produced “Cinderella” silent movie.

Photo by Pete Keith of Laneboro Community Theater.

Photo by Pete Keith of Laneboro Community Theater.

-Raising our first bottle lamb. Our kids held him like a puppy, and now he’s big enough to ride. He survived and thrived. Jarred wants to eat him for Christmas, I’m not so sure.

IMG_1905

-A mother-daughter run together at the Fools Five, where my seven-year-old ran her very first race.

first race

-Missing my brother Mike Kramer in so many ways, big and small. Even in a crowded house on holidays, there is a feeling of someone missing. Thank you all again for your continued kindness and support for our family.

Mike at work: a talented pilot, doing a job he loved.

Mike at work: a talented pilot, doing a job he loved.

-Making the best of a hard summer with a fun campout for our son’s birthday, we slept under the stars and ate a hearty breakfast on the porch.

Summer breakfast on porch

-Raising my first set of meat birds successfully. I hauled them to get processed on my 35th birthday, and felt like it was a great way to start my next year of life.

chickensinpickup-1

-Celebrating a wedding in the family, my nephew Mark Manemann married Sheila McNallan. My son was the ring bearer.

mark and isaac

-Four kids dressing up for Halloween and having the requisite trick or treating night out on the town. (Spot stayed home.)

halloween 2013

-Celebrating Thanksgiving in Montana with my husband’s side of the family. We took our Christmas picture with his ’64 pickup that hasn’t made the trip to MN yet.

family photo 2013

Thank you for following our adventures over the course of the last two years. It’s still quite surreal and humbling to think that part of every paper is devoted to the tales of my family’s life each week. I don’t see most of you face to face, but I hear bits and pieces from family or friends. Every once in a while there is an “Oh, you’re Kathy’s (insert relation)? I like her column.” It’s really very kind and nice to hear. I never really know whose lives I might touch.

If you miss a week, want to reread something later on, or share it with someone else, you can find me online at http://www.kathyschronicles.com. All of the articles are there, just a few weeks after they come out in the paper (I’ve never been known as punctual). You can also follow Kathy’s Chronicles on facebook, and get updates of the articles as I put them on my website.

if you ever have comments or ideas to share with me, feel free to send an email to the paper, just include my name, and it will get to me. Or write a letter. Or call. Or send me a message on facebook.

Thank you for being part of the wonderful small town community that makes SE MN such a great place to call home. I couldn’t be happier to raise my family among so many good people. Wishing you all many blessings in 2014.

~Kathy