Things that Make Life Worth Living…Fall Edition‏

The fall season is easy to recognize in Minnesota: it’s that time of year when Minnesotan Orange Vests stop carrying “Drive Slow” signs while hunting for pot holes.  Leaving the road sides and hot asphalt behind as winter approaches, Minnesotan Orange Vests migrate to the woods.  There, the native Orange Vests take up their rifles, on an eternal hunt for the elusive “tirty-point buck.”

While fall is appealing as that brief span between the end of road construction and the beginning of the snow flying, the beauty of fall extends way beyond the Minnesotan humor.  Fall is a glorious time of year around here.  Red leaves on the maples, yellow school buses on the road, orange pumpkins outside the stores, green combines in the field, and clear blue sky on crisp mornings–it’s those things that make life worth living.

For me, it’s all the little things that add up to a good life.  With that in mind, I made a list of all the things that make life worth living this fall:

–Canoeing down the Root River on the last warm Sunday in September with 15 of my family members.  My favorite moments: Nursing my one-year-old while paddling and successfully steering the canoe, channeling my inner Sacajawea. Hearing my brother burst out in “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” on the river at the mere mention of the band Meatloaf.  On the last stretch of trip, moving the paddle through deep, quiet water with the depth of the river below, trees all around, blue sky above, flanked by four canoes filled with family.  Outdoor time on the water with family is a slice of Minnesota at its best.

–Speaking of meatloaf, Sunday dinner at Mom’s, with a big pan of Mom’s signature meatloaf, with mashed potatoes and squash liberally coated in brown sugar and butter.  It was the quintessential fall meal on a day that glittered with sun in the afternoon and had a shivering chill in the evening.  Family sat around, bellies filled with all sorts of homemade goodness.

–Pulling in the driveway at home on that crisp Sunday evening, to a world of a completely silent, star-lit night with cool fall air all around, that tingling cold that chills and is alive with energy.  If there hadn’t been four exhausted kids, I would’ve suggested lighting a bonfire and sitting there until way past a sensible bed time.

–Watching my nephew’s first 7th grade touchdown, replayed instantly during Sunday brunch from his phone, through the crazy wonders of modern technology.

–Our baby sleeping in my arms on Sunday morning in church.

–Seeing my sister move back home to Minnesota again, after 20 years in another state.

–Heading out to take care of feeding chickens on a rainy morning with our two little kids in a running stroller.  I stood out in the drizzle hanging out with kids and chickens, filling the waterer, watching chickens on the hunt for morsels in the grass while kids trying to catch them.

–Having my husband notice this scene from the upstairs office, and open up the window and yell, “I love you!” because he married such a darn amazing woman.

–Crunching leaves underfoot.

–Getting to vicariously relive high school joys by seeing my three adorable nieces’ homecoming dresses.

–The smell of wood smoke curling into the air on a chilly day and a big stack of wood ready for the coming winter.

–“Playing” in Mom’s attic with my younger sister, rescuing some dresses from attic oblivion.  We dug out another sister’s old prom dress, Mom’s 10th class reunion dress, and someone’s prairie dress from the 70’s or so.

–Seeing the vintage dresses put on again:  my niece tried on her mom’s prom dress (amazingly stylish by 2012 standards), my daughter with extravagant dress taste choose that 35-year-old prairie girl dress for her first day of school, my sister tried on my mom’s 10th reunion dress, a classic little black Audrey Hepburn number.

A vintage prairie girl dress: my daughter’s pick for the first day of school.

–Good neighbors…who have kittens.  Four new kittens, one for each of our kids, are the perfect addition to our place in the country.  Softer, friendlier and more cuddly than chickens, our kids are in love, even if they won’t ever lay eggs for us.  The kittens will, however, spend some time in a bike basket and probably have to wear a doll dress at some point.  That’s a cat’s job.

Our kids are so happy to have four new fluffy kittens to hold.

Kittens keep our 18 month old happy for a long time.

–Good neighbors, part two…Good neighbors who come bearing gifts of a trailer full of wood, and then help out with cutting up more for another load.  And the goodness of getting to have those neighbors over for a Saturday night supper of pot roast and steamy bowls of fall vegetables and rhubarb apple crisp dessert.

–Homecoming in our new hometown, watching our kindergartner and first-grader excited and proud to walk down the street in the homecoming parade in Lanesboro, MN.

–Standing next to my first grade daughter during the school song at the pep rally, and glancing over to see her proudly knowing the words and belting them out in support of her new alma mater and hometown.  Seeing her feel completely a part of this place even though we’re still new around here got this mom a little choked up.

A full couch relaxing on movie night.

–Beginning a Friday Movie Night at our house.  Relaxing on the couch after we’re all tired from a week of “the grind” is just what the momma ordered.  A chilly night makes hanging out close to home all the more appealing, so I implemented (yes, our relaxing is serious business) pizza, popcorn and movie night .  The movies?  Until we run out of good ideas, we’re going to show our kids “the classics” from our childhood, all the movies that we loved seeing growing up.  We started with “Charlotte’s Web.” I almost never sit down and watch TV, much less watch something with my kids.  Intentionally watching a movie, snuggled up on the couch with pizza, popcorn made on the stove, and some kids clamoring to sit close, makes a perfect fall night.  It’s just the sort of thing that makes endless dirty dishes and laundry all worthwhile.

What do you love about fall?  What makes life worth living?  Popcorn does it for me.  On a chilly evening, why not take ten minutes and amaze your family with a batch of stove top popcorn.  In the age of microwave popcorn with fake butter, this forgotten delight is nothing but the real deal.

Stove Top Popcorn
(Homemade Buttery, Salty Deliciousness)

3-4 T. oil
1/2 c. popcorn kernels
3-4 T. butter
Salt to taste

In a 2 qt. saucepan, heat oil on medium high heat.  Put 3-4 popcorn kernels in the oil as it heats.  When these kernels pop, the oil is warm enough, so pour in the rest of the popcorn.  Give the pan a shake to coat popcorn with oil, and cover with a lid.   Next, lift the pan off of the burner for 30 seconds, before returning it to the burner to pop the corn.  (Removing the popcorn from direct heat for 30 seconds allows the kernels to come to the same temperature without scorching them.)  As kernels start to pop, occasionally shake the pan to sift unpopped kernels down to the bottom.  When popping ends, pour popcorn into a large bowl.  Melt butter and pour over popcorn.  Salt to taste (a few good dashes will do), and give the popcorn a stir to mix it all up.  Do your best to share.


Lessons Learned from Gardening‏: Letting Kids Plant is (Mostly) Wonderful

I really need to get out more often.  Sometimes show tunes from Oklahoma pop into my head for no apparent reason, especially if I don’t get enough sleep at night.  Looking out at the end of the summer garden from our porch on a lovely fall day, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” popped into my head.  I resisted the urge to spin around grandly like Julie Andrews atop a mountain meadow (since that’s the wrong musical), but since nobody else was around, I started singing it, but then I had to fix the lyrics, since our corn really didn’t do much this year.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow, there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.  The corn is as high as only my thigh, and the weeds look like they’re climbing clear up to the sky…oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day, I’ve got a pretty strong feeling, sometimes things don’t go my way.

Anyway, the garden is on my mind today.  Anyone driving past from the road probably takes a gander and thinks, “Man, those folks should just mow down that weed patch,”  or maybe at best, “Look, I see a few sunflowers in that big pile of weeds.”

All in all, if ample opportunities for learning equate success, then I’d say our first garden “on the farm” is a success.  Perhaps the garden is not a success by traditional standards, but I’m all for learning and didn’t have delusions of weed-free grandeur, anyway.  Without further ado, here are my Lessons Learned from Gardening:

1.  Letting Kids Plant is Wonderful.  Planting days with kids playing in the freshly tilled black goodness rank among my favorite days this year.  I love letting kids feel ownership about our garden.  They planted in a fairly free-form manner, with creative rows and non-specific marking techniques, a very fun experience.  This leads me to number two…

2. Marking the Rows is Even Better.   The downfall of casually marked rows is that weeds overtake the whole darn garden by the time seedlings grow big enough to identify.  This isn’t any great epiphany I’ve revealed, but some things you just have to learn by experience.

3. String and Sticks: Cheap, Yet Priceless.    Mark my words! Next year, sticks and strings will mark the rows!  And if I forget this over the winter, please remind me so we can keep the weed population a little more in check.

4.  Sunflowers are Awesome.  Nothing gratifies kids and adults alike like planting a seed and seeing phenomenal growth.  Our sunflowers blew past the weeds, shot up during the July drought, and just give us a grand sense of awe everytime we stand near them.  It really is a little bit of magic to see something dwarf even the tall neighboring field corn.  I can’t wait to have sword fights with the gigantic dried stalks.  I know I can out-joust a five-year-old.

5.  Eggplants and Swiss Chard Thrive in Hot and Dry Weather.  We have boatloads of both in the garden.

6. We Don’t Really Like Eggplants and Swiss Chard.  At least, not in the quantities they proliferated in our dirt.

7. Mulch = Good.   It really works.  I spread several inches of straw around our cucumber and muskmelon plants, and the areas remained fairly weed-free all summer.  The sad irony: the cucumbers and muskmelon plants all died.  But hey, at least they weren’t weedy, right?

8. Bugs =  Bad.  We didn’t use any sort of chemical herbicide or pesticide on our garden, and apparently, that made it look like a bright, shining beacon to every insect in the county.  It’s hard being the organic island in the sea of treated corn fields.   Bugs saw our garden patch and thought we were saying, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  They huddled and breathed free all over our garden, and ate our lettuce, cabbage, an entire zucchini plant, and on and on…  We had a grasshopper infestation of biblical proportions, and being so well-fed in our garden, I’m sure they’ll return nice and strong next year, too.  Yay.

9.  Not Pickin’ a Bale o’ Cotton.  My husband found a packet of cotton seeds in the novelty seeds section in a hardware store in Montana.  We took them here to Minnesota, and I had grand visions of my children toiling under hot sun, learning the trade of picking cotton.  The image of Sally Field, crawling on hands and knees with bloody bandaged hands, harvesting the last puffs of her cotton crop in that movie Places in the Heart came to mind.  Or more likely, a home-grown cotton ball fight would’ve been a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  Either way, cotton didn’t show up.  It probably didn’t help that this Minnesota farm girl had no clue about cotton seedling identification.  Never really weeding that part of the garden probably didn’t help, either.

10.  Amish Tomatoes Rock.  We bought our tomato plants from the Amish Auction, and those buggers produced like champions.  Before the plants flopped over from weight of tomatoes and kid trampling, some were as tall as me (5 feet 7 inches, if you’re curious).  My one-year-old daughter loves the deep burgundy-colored cherry tomatoes that grow on those plants, and frequently has tomato seeds stuck to her chin, her hair, and behind her ears.  Among several failures, those tomatoes are a shining success.  Hallelujah!

Our tomato-lover, chowing down with a cherry tomato in each hand.

11. Operation Bean Tent = Success.  Thankfully, our bean tent worked just as planned.  The custom-engineered maple pole frame survived every windstorm, and the beans climbed up and produced just as promised on the seed package (which is more than I can say for some other seeds).  Yep, those tree-trimming scrap branches and that $1 packet of bean seeds produced bucket loads of enjoyment this summer.   Our tomato-eating baby girl is also now a bean-picking machine.

Standing in front of the towering sunflowers, happy to discover more string beans.

12. Our Soil is Par Excellence.  One neighbor told us that the soil in our neck of the prairie tests as the most fertile anywhere, even better than the soil in Iowa, where people feel quite lofty about their soil quality.  This makes me puff up my chest a little bit, even though I have absolutely zero influence on the innate soil quality of the area, and it was pure luck to stumble upon such nice land.  Just the same, with my lackadaisical weeding practices, I fully believe in the quality of our soil.  We grew weeds more resplendent than any I have ever seen before.

Finally, a few garden notices…

AWOL: Potatoes, peas, and carrots.  If any of you know the whereabouts of these vegetables, please contact us.  Our potatoes went AWOL after a promising beginning, and the peas and carrots never really reported for duty.

RIP:  Cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, zucchini, watermelon, and muskmelon. (Or do you call it cantaloupe?  I never know what to call it.)  Whether it was the bugs or the over spray from the helicopter crop dusting the nearby corn field, either way, you died before your time.  You looked so promising, and so many unfulfilled dreams lay in your wake.  You are missed.  Thankfully, we can just resurrect you next year in our new-and-improved garden.  See you then.

Are You Settled Yet?

The peaceful view from the front porch makes it easy to feel like we’re home.

“Are you settled yet?” Ever since we moved into our new place in late March, people every so often ask me that question. I never really know how to respond. What exactly does it mean to be “settled”?

For some reason, I have this irrational, nagging fear that if I say yes to the question, somehow people will instantly have x-ray vision into my house, where they’ll scan our rooms with a tally sheet and determine scientifically if we are indeed settled or not.

And when they walk in, they’ll see how I never really got my summer clothes out of the laundry baskets and hung up in the closet, see the boxes stacked in the toy room, notice that our stuff in the attic and basement doesn’t get addressed, and my perennial garden is really mostly a weed patch. Seeing all the “someday” projects, there will be an official woman in a schoolmarm outfit with a tight bun in her hair saying, “Ah ha! It appears as though someone’s NOT really settled, are they!” And then hanging my head, I’d receive my ten demerits.

These guys have many friends up in the attic, all waiting for some attention several months after moving.

If “settled” means life is organized, like a nice, smooth running machine…well, then that answer is no. Not only am I not settled here at our new home, but I’d have to say by that definition, I maybe haven’t been settled in my whole adult life.

Maybe feeling settled means comfortably knowing all the back roads and every nook and cranny of your town. Then the answer to that is no, too. Our house is just on the far edge of the Lanesboro school district, so our kids go to school in a town that is still pretty new to me. Growing up north of St. Charles, Minnesota, the town of Lanesboro,  though just a half hour away, seemed like a quaint little town in a faraway distant land. Turns out, it’s not so distant at all, and now it’s home.

In Lanesboro, my kids now know exactly where to find ice cream, the school there has become pretty familiar, and I’m very well-acquainted with the city park and playground. But I know I’ve got a few years before I have that insider local knowledge of where to find all the really cool things. Someday, I’ll show people around the town and say things like, “Just past the house with the three-legged dog, and right before the crazy lady with 50 cats and a purple porch swing.” (I’m not sure that exists in Lanesboro, but please let me know if it does.)

I don’t mind not feeling settled in that way. In fact, I love it. I’ve both moved back home, and at the same time, to a new place. It’s the best of comfortable familiarity and the excitement of new things to discover. In so many ways, though, I look around and see a to-do list that reminds me that we are long from “settled.”

On the other hand, maybe the question “Are you settled yet?” really means, “Do you feel like you’re home? Do you breath a sigh of relief when you pull in the driveway after being gone?” And then, the answer to the question is a big, resounding “yes.” This is home.

The notion really struck me on Labor Day. During the lunch time downpour that day, our kids sat outside dry and cozy under the shelter of the porch roof, eating chicken noodle soup on the wicker loveseat, wrapped in blankets. We had a quiet, lazy morning, tired from a busy weekend of my sister’s move. I had absolutely no desire for anything or anywhere else but being right there.

Unfortunately, though, our baby girl was sick with a fever and I also suspected a bladder infection. I made the call to take her in, and I headed to Rochester with her.

Sometimes it’s fairly enjoyable to head to Rochester and run errands with my kids. This was not one of those days. Sometimes I hate Rochester. It’s not Rochester, per se, it’s really any big town. And perhaps hate is too strong of a word, but I do certainly enjoy leaving when I’m done. There is something about traffic, continual stoplights, and endless stores that drive me crazy.

Add that usual town tension to carrying an antsy baby into a waiting room with a dozen sick and/or injured people ahead of us, and I really just wanted out. Out of the waiting room, out of town, out to our porch to listen to rain in the rocking chair on the last day of summer vacation.

On the way home, the further I got from town, the happier I felt. Turning south heading out of Utica, I felt my shoulders loosen. I pulled into yard utterly relieved, and it struck me how much this place feels like home. Like a refuge. Three kids lined up on the steps to peek over the railing to see me pulling in the driveway, just the sight I wanted to see.

It was supper time and the bowls of chicken noodle soup still sat on the porch from lunch, but I’d have to say I feel settled into our busy, peaceful life out in the country. It’s nice that we’re alone out here, and at the same time, also feel like part of the community. There are still so many names to put to faces, and faces to put on places along the roads by our house. But after just moving in at Easter, we are thankful to know enough friendly neighbors to have a full night of trick-or-treating stops for our kids on Halloween.

I feel like I’ve planted my feet into the dirt up to my ankles, and I have no desire to go anywhere. It is awfully nice black dirt, after all. So to answer the question, “Are you settled yet?”, the answer is yes. When we pull into the driveway, our three-year-old no longer says, “There’s our new house!” He simply says, “We’re home!” And we are, unpacked boxes and all.

Making Butter for the First Time, Courtesy of Laura Ingalls Wilder

I learned a new skill this week thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Ok, to be honest, Laura Ingalls Wilder provided the pioneering spirit, and a search on the internet provided all the concrete instructions I needed.  It all started with a bedtime story.

My current bedtime book for our kids is the classic Little House in the Big Woods.  When I was a child, my sister read many of the Little House books to me, starting when I was in kindergarten. Even though I was only five at the time, the stories in the book resonated with me, and I have strong memories of so many of the details in the chapters as I reread them now to my kids.

Last night’s reading was no exception.  We piled into my five-year-old son’s race car bed, four kids and a mom, reading before bedtime.  My two little ones practiced gymnastic feats, leaping off the tail end of the bed, while my five and six-year-olds listened.  Last night we read the butter-making chapter.

As I read, my kids looked at the drawing of Mary taking a turn churning the butter.  I read about cream sloshing in the butter churn, using bits of shredded carrot to tint the pale winter butter, and molding the finished butter with imprints of a strawberry and leaves, “Laura and Mary watched, breathless, one on each side of Ma, while the golden little butter-pats, each with its strawberry on the top, dropped onto the plate as Ma put all the butter through the mold.”  I always loved that part.  It was just like I remembered.  (Books are nice that way.)

Then I had an epiphany.  I stopped reading and said, “Hey, do you want to make butter tomorrow?”

Yes!  We have an abundance of cream in our fridge after a stop at Kappers’ Big Red Barn in Chatfield, Minnesota, a local dairy that sells their milk and CREAM in half-gallon glass bottles.  We sipped away a quart of cream already in our morning coffee, making Half and Half suddenly seem downright watery, but we had plenty of cream left for a little butter project.

So today, I did what every person in 2012 does when they want to make butter for the first time: head to the internet.  I found a great ten-minute butter tutorial video on YouTube, and I was set.  I took a pint of cream out of the refrigerator, and let it sit out to reach room temperature by the time the kids came home from school.

Three kids eager to help (for a little bit, anyway).

My three-year-old son put the whisk attachment on my KitchenAid mixer.  (He’s been cooking for two years now, so it’s fine.)  With all of the kids gathered around, we fired up the mixer and watched the cream become whipped cream: “Ooh, Mom!  Let’s just stop and eat the whipped cream!”  Not a bad idea, but we kept with our original buttery objective.  Whipped cream began to “fall,”  got clumpy and a bit watery, and then in a matter of seconds, there was a complete change.

Almost in an instant, the mushy mass separated, and there at the bottom of the mixer bowl was a pile of liquid (buttermilk!), and clinging to the beaters were chunks of butter!  Eureka!

When the butter separates from the liquid, turn off your mixer.

The whole process of turning cream into butter took maybe five minutes   Of course, when the magic moment of butter creation happened, my kids had already lost interest and I had to call them back into the room.  We make things in the mixer all the time, so the whole process looked fairly unremarkable.  We turned on the mixer and it made something.  Yep, just like always.

No, kids, this is different!  It’s amazing!  It’s BUTTER!  Even though it happened just as all the recipes said it would, there is still that bit of magic in doing something on my very own for the first time.

Fresh buttermilk, ready to use in baking.  One pint of cream yields approximately one cup of butter and one cup of buttermilk.

I poured the buttermilk into a jar to use later in pancakes.  Then just like I saw on the video, I pressed the butter with a spatula, working out the remaining buttermilk while rinsing it in cold water.  Salt added, I gave it a taste, and then another taste or two.  In a side by side comparison between store-bought butter and freshly made butter, there is absolutely no contest.  Fresh butter has a rich, full-bodied flavor, tasting like whipping cream in butter form (which, of course, it is).  Store bought butter tastes flat and bland by comparison.

Thank you to Laura Ingalls Wilder for the butter inspiration.  Making something for the first time is immensely satisfying.  I am still truly amazed that something that we use so often is really so easy to make.  I had no idea.  People make homemade bread, sure, but homemade BUTTER…wowee cazoweee.  And the funny thing is, with a good mixer, it’s extremely easy.  I made butter in less time than I need to cook a frozen pizza.  Who doesn’t have that much time to play around?

After my pioneering butter foray, am I converted to always making my own butter now?  No, probably not.  But I definitely will be making it again.  Watching cream turn into butter is pure cooking magic, and we all need a bit of magic in our lives.

I am not a baking blog, but I do love food.  After all of this talk about making butter, someone out there wants to know how to do it.  Here you go!

Homemade Butter
2 cups cream
1/4 tsp. salt

1. Allow cream to sit out and warm to 50 degrees or so.

2.  Pour cream in a mixer. Alternative: pour the cream into a jar you can shake.

3. Mix cream until it separates: You will see yellow chunks of butter floating in watery buttermilk.  Takes 3-5 minutes in a mixer.

4. Drain off buttermilk, save to use in pancakes, biscuits, or just drink it like Laura Ingalls.  It’s good for you.

5.  Knead butter chunks together with a spatula for a few minutes, pressing out the liquid.

6.  Rinse butter in cold water while kneading with a spatula until the water runs clear.  Buttermilk left in the butter will cause it to spoil more quickly.

7.  Mix in salt (if desired).

Congratulations!  You made butter!  Enjoy.

Finished homemade butter with buttermilk in the background. Flavorful, fresh, and delicious.

Chores, Chicken Memorials, and Children: Our First Summer in the Country

A summer that was both bursting at the seams with fullness, and at the same time all too short… I think that’s how it’s supposed to be, though.  Life should always leave you wanting to come back for more.

As I write this, we are on the last day of “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” summer vacation.  I know the calendar says September, but I’d really like another August.  Jumping on the trampoline until 9PM and then heading in for a rhubarb crisp night cap is all done.  Up and at ’em breakfasts and a big yellow school bus in our yard, bright and early, will be taking its place.

Two of my kids will be climbing up the big steps of the bus, leaving only two kids at home.  I’m feeling the usual ambivalence about school starting and summer ending.  I don’t know whether I want to cry or jump up and down with excitement.  Currently, it’s the former.  Over and over everyone tells new parents, “They grow up so fast,” and yet it still comes as an overwhelming surprise.  How do I have already have a first grader and a kindergartener?  Didn’t I just have our first baby just a few years ago?  Oh yeah, that’s all it takes.

Whether I like it or not, school is here.  Last week we headed to the school open house, where my daughter’s first grade teacher asked the customary ice breaker, “What did you do over summer vacation?” My daughter’s first response?  “CHORES.” At home my daughter later commented that she couldn’t wait for school again, because school is EASY, but the summertime means kids have to work ALL THE TIME.  The poor girl.  I didn’t realize I ran a slave labor camp over the summer.  I did allow the inmates to go swimming, play at parks, and get ice cream, though, on several occasions.  (Time off for good behavior, then back to the trenches.)

While at “summer work camp” our kids didn’t slave away making our new MN license plates, but they did proudly install them with the impact wrench.

Actually, this whole summer’s been a series of firsts for us, as the first summer in our new home and our first summer as a family in Minnesota.  We filled the last three months with new little discoveries, I watched our kids grow and develop, and we immersed ourselves in life in the country.

I’ve always loved exploring new places and discovering things I didn’t know were there.  In elementary school, I’d spend my Saturdays exploring the woods in the “back 40” of our farm, in the valleys that connect to the North Branch of the Whitewater River.

This summer had that same sort of exciting feeling of discovery.  We happily discovered the rhubarb patch behind the chicken house, discovered black cap raspberries in abundance on our land, discovered  the chicken house actually has a cement floor (and someday, we will scrape the floor clean to reveal it all), in the cement under the water hydrant we discovered the name of the little boy who used to live here, and we took in a kitten discovered in the windbreak.  On the bigger scale, we are in the midst of meeting a whole new social circle and getting to know the area around our new hometown, as well.

More than anything, though, what we did this summer was just soak in our first summer living life in the country.

We ate meal after meal on our new outside table, which I love all the more because it was free and comes with a great story.

Back in May, I prowled St. Charles during the City-Wide Clean Up with my kids (my always-willing bargain hunting companions).  That sunny afternoon we picked up ice cream from the Oasis and drove around in the van, licking cones and scoping out the cast-offs.  “Eeew!  Look at that old couch!  I bet a dog barfed on it.”  Such colorful children I have.

I then spotted a nice table out on a sidewalk.  I pulled over to take a look, wondering how many children I’d have to abandon to get the table in my van.

Almost instantly, two guys from across the street asked me if I wanted it.  Before I knew what was happening, they hoisted the table up, and carried it back across the street to where my van was parked.  And as I pulled the double stroller out of the back of the van to rearrange things, those two guys flipped the table over and grabbed tools out of a pickup to take off the table legs.  In no time flat, they had the table legs removed, and they were jockeying the table top and legs into my van.  Did I mention that these guys weren’t even the owners of the table, just people from across the street?

Within five minutes, I had a table for six tucked into my van, along with a double stroller and four kids.  It was an Indy 500 Pit Stop of the bargain-hunting world.  I pulled away after thanking them, absolutely dumbstruck and giggling to myself.  That’s small town life at its best, when two strangers willingly drop what they’re doing and help a mom load a table into her van for no other reason than to just be friendly.  Thank you again for the help, whoever you were.

That table, combined with some new wicker furniture from a Craig’s List find, combined to make a porch that’s seen some heavy-duty lounging this summer.  Sitting out on the porch with a blanket and watching rain pour down in a thunderstorm became a new favorite for our kids.  And I just realized the other day that I never even once sipped iced tea out there on a hot day.  I really need another summer to get that straightened out.

Life in the country wasn’t all about lounging this summer, though.  We also had a few real life lessons about animals. Over by the back fence, we have a homemade cemetery where the kids buried three chickens and the kitten.  They discovered first hand that little animals are fragile, and can’t take being squeezed too hard or accidentally locked out from water and shelter on a hot day.  Life is precious, fragile, and once its gone, it doesn’t come back.  When the first chick died, our kids learned the routine for a proper burial, digging a hole, placing the chick in the ground, and my six-year-old took it upon herself to deliver a lengthy eulogy and prayer.  We lost those animals all in July, and by the end of the month, they knew the routine, and even our three-year-old insisted on delivering a special prayer for the kitten.    

A happy day, when the baby chicks first arrived.

As valuable as those lessons about life and death are, I’m especially happy that we haven’t had any more “learning opportunities” since July.

On happier notes of farm life, we watched so many things grow and thrive this summer.  Our chickens that arrived as tiny little fluff balls earlier in the summer are now sassy teenagers of the chicken world.  Our sunflowers in the garden are triple the height of our amazed kids, towering over the nearby cornfield, and most importantly, towering over even the most ambitious garden weeds.

And of course, our kids all grew like crazy this summer.  No surprise to any parent, all the pants that sat dormant all summer are now worthless for the fall.  I watched grow spurts where a single small child ate a bratwurst and a half for supper and three eggs plus cereal for breakfast.  I saw our baby’s chubby thighs stretch out into longer legs and her feet jump a shoe size in two months.

Our baby enjoyed a lovely dog bowl foot soak while Spot got a drink on a hot summer day.

Taking it all in, from chores to chicken memorials to children, we had a summer that was both bursting at the seams with fullness, and at the same time all too short.  I think that’s how it’s supposed to be, though.  Life should always leave you wanting to come back for more.

My Gladiolus is Acting Up Again: A Hometown Reunion

Back in high school one of my favorite times was driving Mr. Diesel home from cross country practice with the windows down on warm days, blaring “Small Town”.  Mr. Diesel was my decidedly unsexy by 16-year-old standards ’82 Oldsmobile Delta 88, and the John Mellencamp tape was pretty much worn out by my older sister, but in those moments, I felt completely at one with the universe.  Driving down country roads, wind in my hair, livin’ the small town life, I knew that John Cougar Mellencamp (yeah, he’ll always be “Cougar” to me) and I were completely simpatico on small towns.

My small hometown, St. Charles, Minnesota, is everything that people dream of when they think of great small towns.  Like many people, though, I felt the need to strike out on my own and make a life for myself.  I moved 1,000 miles away to Montana for college, and for the most part, lived in Montana ever since.  Six months ago, though, I moved back home to Minnesota with my husband and four kids.  Life’s a whole new adventure back home again, taking in all that small town life has to offer.

By my best count, it’s been at least ten years since I last meandered the streets of downtown St. Charles, taking in good old Gladiolus Days, the annual hometown celebration.  That’s nearly a third of my life with no parade, no street vendors, no garage sale mania, no Gladiolus Days Road Race.  Living in Montana during those years, the timing never worked for us to come to Glad Days since school always starts there the week before the big bash.  After a ten-year hiatus, it’s really fun to be back.  Or perhaps I should say, I’m glad.

When I first told our kids about Gladiolus Days, they wrinkled their faces into a questioning glance and said, “What’s a ‘gladiolus’?”  I do admit, if it’s not part of your common vocabulary, the word sounds more like a reference to some sort of disease than a flower, as in “I need to go to the doctor, my gladiolus is acting up again.”  All kidding aside, I enjoyed telling my kids about Carl Fischer and how he made the town of St. Charles legendary for his work with the gladiolus.  I told them how I remembered as a kid driving past his big field of flowers on the way to swimming lessons in the summertime, how everyone in town knew and respected his work, and how he remains famous for his glads still today.

Behold…the Gladiolus.

When we rounded the corner onto Main Street on Saturday, my six-year-old spied buckets of flowers for sale on the corner of 14 and Main, and said, “Oooh, are those gladiolus, Mom?”  So, yep, my little Montana natives now understand “gladiolus.”  My hometown festivities began on Saturday morning when I headed to the road race.  I met up with Alison, who was my cross country and track teammate and friend all through junior high and high school.  I don’t know how many miles we logged together over the years, or how many workouts we gutted out together, but I do remember the many crazy ways we entertained ourselves over the miles.

We haven’t seen each other since high school graduation, though, so logging another 3 miles together during the race meant all the more.  Getting to chat during a run with a friend of 20 years and catch up on some details of our lives, we discovered we both married mechanical engineers (good taste, obviously…).  She’s a doctor; I’m a mom.  And we still crack up at remembering the couple of times we made clandestine detours to the Oasis during practice.  (Sorry Mr. Arnold, I think it was mostly in junior high.)   Most importantly, courtesy of Gladiola Days, we both had a reason to get together on a Saturday morning and reconnect a friendship that’s endured through distance and time.

After the race, I hung around long enough to meet a friend’s new baby and watch my friends’ kids compete their little hearts out in the Marky Fun Run activities.  Then I took my sweaty self and my family downtown to indulge in some street vendor fare.  As we baked on the pavement enjoying pronto pups, pitas, and pop, I saw old neighbors walk by and had a chance to chat in line with our former veterinarian.

My mom repeatedly told me to never, ever put a plastic bag on my head. But when it’s the candy bag on the way to the parade…well, then I make four exceptions.

Saturday was fun for me, but Sunday was definitely the main event for my kids.   Before the parade, we steeped them in parade etiquette.  Wave to the people throwing candy, and you’ll get more candy.  Say thank you.  Don’t get too close to the tractors.  When the motorcycles circle around, get off the road and give them room.  And if you’re lucky (unlucky?), the dragon might blow smoke on you.

The pink tractor, running on girl power, was my daughter’s parade favorite.

After brunch at Grandma’s, our two oldest kids hopped on their bikes, and our two little ones climbed in the stroller.  We wove down the streets and made our way down to sit by my high school friends.   With our four little kids all geared up to see fire trucks, horses, tractors, beauty queens, and grab gobs of candy, anticipation was high.

My six-year-old daughter waved for the full hour and a half of the parade.  Her reward?  Her gallon-size Ziploc filled way beyond capacity with all her loot, including a pair of sunglasses, a beach ball, and a paint stick, and endless candy.

My husband, Jarred, who’s never seen the Shriners on motorcycles before, thought the weaving formations, locking brakes, and tassels flying on fez hats were a fine bit of parade magnificence.  He marveled that they are even allowed to do that in this age of extreme safety measures.  In a role reversal, my five-year-old son, in contrast, was not impressed.  After the Shriners whizzed past a few times, he said in the disgusted voice of a grumpy old man, “When are those stupid, loud motorcycles going to leave?!”

And like any good small town parade, we hung around and talked to friends until the kids were crying and begging to leave, feeling sweaty, hot, thirsty, and tired.  We didn’t have as much time to catch up as I hoped, but our baby was fully coated in sugary stickiness and bits of grass and sported a dirty diaper, and the stroller was weighed down with all sorts of candy and brochures from politicians.  I believe that fully covers a complete Gladiolus Days Parade experience.

By the time we made our way back to Grandma’s, my baby girl was dead to the world, and never even opened an eye as I changed her diaper and laid her down in the crib for a real nap.

A trip to the Oasis capped off the afternoon.  Word spread at Grandma’s that Sunday was the last day for the Oasis, and in record time, the mention of ice cream gathered a crew of 15 nieces and nephews and parents meandering down the street toward the Oasis.  While we waited fairly patiently in line, the cousins filled the mechanical ride-on pony a fair bit beyond the ordinary load, and a half dozen kids all enjoyed a 25-cent ride several times.

Finally, cones in hand, we licked up the last tastes of summer ice cream.  And like a good mother, I helped rescue my three-year-old from drippy cone mess by making a quick licking pass all around his cone a few times.  Unfortunately, in saving my son from getting ice cream drips, I neglected my own cone.  A huge blob of my cherry dip cone wax and ice cream landed squarely on my sister’s toes and flip flop.  Sometimes, my efforts at looking like a respectable adult are just completely futile.  I’m still pretty much that same five-year-old that struggles to get through a dip cone before it completely covers my hand in white rivers of sticky, melted ice cream.

I’ll try to master the dip cone next summer.

Ice cream from the Oasis, the Gladiolus Days Road Race, and the big parade all added up to a great weekend in St. Charles.  After living out of state for most of the last 14 years, there’s a comfortable familiarity in crossing paths on the streets of St. Charles with people I’ve known for a lifetime, having 30-year friendships in my mid-thirties, and holding a lifetime of memories at every corner of a town that is clearly a thriving community with so much to offer.

The appeal of my hometown didn’t escape my five-year-old son, who told me, “When I grow up, I’m going to live in St. Charles.  It has a HUGE parade!  And all kinds of garage sales!!  And good ice cream!!”  What more could you want?  It’s good to be home again.

An Interview with Kids: Ten Minutes Well Spent

Go find a small child and take ten minutes to interview him or her.  I don’t know what you’ll hear, but I do know that you won’t be disappointed.

A few weeks ago I sat down with each of our three oldest kids and gave them a one-on-one interview.  The entire process immediately took on an air of importance to them because we went off somewhere quiet and private (those being relative terms, of course).  I spoke with only one child at a time, so I could really listen to their answers with undivided attention.  In a house with lots of activity and competition for attention, believe me, that got noticed.  Just Mom, listening to me?  Not cooking lunch at the same time?  This must be important.

We sat down at the kitchen table and outside in the back yard.  For ten minutes with each child, I did nothing but ask, listen, and write.  And of course, giggle, nod, and provide an “Oh wow!” when appropriate.  For all of the time I spend with my kids, around them day in and day out, I spend relatively little time intently focused in on any given child.  As a parent, I don’t think I’m unique in this.  At any given time, my mind is sorting through a million things while I’m doing the simple tasks at hand.  When I’m helping someone brush teeth, I’m thinking about that insurance form to drop in the mail.  It’s pretty easy to not be present.

An interview, however, by nature requires full presence and engagement.  I wish I could say I came up with this meaningful activity all on my own, but I didn’t.  I borrowed this idea from Kate Riley’s blog, Centsational Girl.   In my chosen profession of teaching, it is standard practice to beg, borrow, and steal good ideas, so that’s what I did.

I now present the interviews with my 6-year-old daughter,  5-year-old son, and 3-year-old son.  For simplicity, I’m labeling their responses by their ages: 6, 5, or 3.  Their responses are endearing to me as their mother, but I also know that ideas out of any child’s mouth always entertain.

What was the happiest day of your life?
6: Christmas! No, the last day of school.
5: The day when you didn’t have to cook at all.
3: Happiest day is my mom.

Christmas, the almost happiest day of my daughter’s life. (Practicing the traditional Christmas Shoot Out.)

If you could change what thing in the world, what would it be?
6: Candy!  Plant a candy tree and make it grow everywhere you want.
5: I’d change lunch to brunch.  I’d only make brunches.
3: My mom.

When were you most afraid?
6: Late at night. It scares me if a wolf will come.
5: The Wizard of Oz.  I couldn’t get to sleep thinking about the witch.
3: I think a monster makes me scared, because because my dad just kills the monster.

“I’ll get you, my pretty!” keeps my 5-year-old up at night.

What do you want to do for a job? 
6: A person who draws and paints.  Kind of be an artist.
5: Artist.  Use lots of colors and makes some splatters and drips, use some sand, even tree leaves.  Like Antique that paints on TV.  Her paintings are so beautiful.
3: Hmm…let me think about it.  Do what makes me happy, that way I’m not so sad.  And I’ll step on the monsters.

“Happy little trees” make Bob Ross a favorite with my aspiring artists.

His first landscape painting. The new Bob Ross is a red head.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
6: My “blankie” and family.
5: You.
3: Hmm…That little baby over there (pointing to his sister).  She’s a cute little baby.

She’s the one thing her brother can’t live without.

Describe your perfect day.
6: Go to the big park with Mom and Dad and my family and my friend.  Spend some time with my family and play with my friend.
5: On a hot day going to the Mississippi, watch a little TV, swing, jump on the trampoline.  That’s all.
3: Maybe I’d fly an airplane when I get bigger.  I’d just be flying all by myself.

Who are your friends?
6: McKayla, because she’s fun. Boston, he asks me to race.
5: Carter, Shelby, Jackson, Keara (his cousin).  I know that cousins can be friends, but you can’t marry your cousin.
3:  My friends just be nice to me, and not eating me because they’re nice.

And then I asked them about myself!

What was Mom like as a child?
6: Fun.
5: I don’t know!
3: I think you wanted a toy to play with.  And I was a little girl, too (this is my son).

What does Mom do when you’re not around?
6: Take a nap if she’s really tired.
5: Clean the house.
3: When I am sleeping, you are just making lunch for me.

What’s Mom’s favorite food?
6: That pizza that’s new.
5: Salads.
3: Dandelions.

What’s Mom really good at doing?
6: Cooking!
5: Writing your articles.
3: Good at making supper for us while we’re all sleeping.

What’s Mom really bad at doing?
6: Jump roping!
5: Hmm…That’s a hard one.  Can we skip it?
3: One time my mom was sick, and I was very sad that she wasn’t coming into my room and nursing me.

What’s Mom’s favorite place?
6: With her friends.
5: Olive Garden.  Some day can we go there?
3: My mom’s favorite place is at home with me.

How do you know your mom loves you?
6: Because she takes me to bed at night and doesn’t want me to be too tired in the morning for school.
5: You give me hugs and kisses!  That was easy.  Not hard at all.
3: When I was a baby, I was just born out of your tummy.

After interviewing my kids, what did I learn?  My daughter knows that I send her to bed because I love her.  I am perfection in the eyes of my 5-year-old son.  My 3-year-old’s ideas reach far beyond his current speech abilities.  And as for me, I just need to slow down and be intently present every now and then.  To everyone.

Go on.  Take ten minutes.  From the mouths of babes…