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

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12 Days of Christmas, Crammed into 7‏

Written December 2013.

Merry Christmas, everyone! I’d like to wish you something about visions of sugar plums, snow flakes gently falling, silent nights, all is calm, sleigh bells jingling…blah, blah, blah…but I’m just not seeing that at my house.

Here are my own “12 Days of Christmas.” Life is moving fast around here, so the reality is, I’m cramming 12 days worth of activities into just a week. So I guess it’s really…

“12 Days of Christmas, Crammed into 7”

(Go ahead a sing along to yourself…)

In seven days before Christmas, here’s life in this family…

12 Eggs a Day
11 Hungry Sheep
10 Loads of Laundry
9 PM Skate Time
8 Smart Carts to Build
7 Frozen Waterers
6:30 Cub Scouts
5 Christmas Trees!
4 Dozen Norwegian Cookies
3.5 Hours of Christmas Pageant
3 Dentist Visits
2.5 Hours on Bleachers
2 Trees Cut Down
and a Check-Up Before Insurance Changes.

12 Eggs a Day: Our young hens are just getting started on their production, and we now get about a dozen eggs a day. This makes enough for our family and enough to share with Mom who makes brunch for a crowd. By spring, we’ll be getting 40 a day. Hooeee!

11 Hungry Sheep: This really isn’t a surprise, but sheep are much easier in the summer. They just wander around and eat green stuff and they’re happy. This whole feeding hay bales business in the winter is so much more work. I wish they could just climb up in the hay mow and throw down a bale themselves.

10 Loads of Laundry: This was my goal for the week. The reality: I think I washed about four and folded maybe two. The whole trip to Montana thing really did throw me off, although I cavalierly assume every time that I can just suck up the exhaustion and get right back in the groove of life again. January…now that will be the time that life gets all in order. I’m sure of it. Probably.

9 PM Skate Time: My second grader has a skating party on Friday night from 7-9 PM. I don’t even go out that late anymore. The thought of driving to Harmony at that time of night so she can repeatedly trip and fall on the skating rink and then cry in frustration because she’s learning to skate two hours past her usual bedtime…let’s just say I’m more of a Sunday afternoon skate kind of girl.

8 Smart Carts to Build: My husband, Jarred, is swamped in the month of December with eight Smart Carts to build. Smart Carts are cart with a box that can hold feed or small animals (like litters of pigs), with a scale for weighing whatever is in the box. Normally, he gets orders of one or two at a time. He recently redesigned the carts to simplify the construction, but eight at once is sort of a beautiful burden.

7 Frozen Waterers: Jarred also designed a new low-maintenance winter-proof chicken waterer, but he hasn’t had time to finish it yet (see above). In the mean time, we deal with frozen water for the chickens, which means watering twice a day. If I could just teach the chickens to enjoy ice cubes, life would be much easier.

6:30 Cub Scouts: I realize there is no 6:30 in the song, but this is just one of the events in our week of something going on every single night. In the busiest month of the year, we let our six-year-old join cub scouts. He’s pretty excited about obeying the law of the pack.

Wielding a saw, ready for some serious tree cutting business.

Wielding a saw, ready for some serious tree cutting business.

5 CHRISTMAS TREES! That’s the total in our house these days. We cut down a big old beauty from Van Normans’s Tree Farm, and then each of our kids also has their own little artificial tree that they set up, too. But wait, we also have one in the toy room. That makes six. For song purposes, though, we’ll just stick with five. It’s more glorious sounding that way.

 Part of our Christmas tree cutting crew at Van Norman's.

Part of our Christmas tree cutting crew at Van Norman’s.

4 Dozen Norwegian Cookies. First of all, I would like to state that I am not a single drop Norwegian. I am primarily Luxembourger. However, I married into the Norske culture, so when surrounded by Norwegians, learn Norwegian things. Last Saturday night, I spent a wild night of three hours rolling out four dozen Berlinerkranzer cookies for the Norwegian Festival at church. My kids looked at the cookies and said, “Where’s the frosting and sprinkles?” I told them in my serious low voice “There was no Betty Crocker frosting on the cold, frozen fjords of Norway. These are the stark cookies of a rugged, independent people.” And then they asked, “Could we just put sprinkles on them anyway?” They’re only part Norwegian, after all.

3.5 Hours of Christmas Pageant. I love nothing more than seeing little kids dressed up like sheep and wisemen singing “Silent Night,” but as anyone who’s ever helped with a Christmas program knows, those cute little programs don’t just happen by themselves. It took an hour of practice and some tasty brunch to keep everyone’s energy up for the hour-long church service. All told, three and a half hours…plenty of opportunity for practicing patience.

A shepherd, a disgusted sheep and a donkey waiting for the Christmas Play.  The donkey is spitting at the sheep, as donkeys often do.

A shepherd, a disgusted sheep and a donkey waiting for the Christmas Play. The donkey is spitting at the sheep, as donkeys often do.

3 Dentist Visits. Of course, I scheduled these visits back in June, when December seemed forever away and easy…

2.5 Hours on Bleachers. (Yes, this song goes on and on, just like real life.) Last night at school we enjoyed the delights of another holiday performance for 2.5 hours. The first hour was pleasant. Then my two-year-old daughter in a long red holiday dress wanted to leap off the bleachers in exhausted boredom. Not tripping and getting a bloody nose: a Christmas miracle.

2 Trees Cut Down: The highlight of my week was heading out in the frigid cold to Van Norman’s Tree Farm. I grew up just a few miles from there, and even got a plane ride from Willis Van Norman as a kid. I think this was the first time in about 20 years, though, that I’ve been out to their place. It was great to see a former neighbor. Heading there felt like the real Minnesotan tree hunting experience: trees, farm fields, and quiet.

And A Check-Up Before Insurance Changes: I figured the simple thing would be to get a routine check-up before the end of the year. I incorrectly assumed it would be quick. Ninety minutes later, I walked out. That made me a half-hour late to our kids’ dentist appointments (see above). I’m quite healthy, but that routine checkup gave me high blood pressure.

Bonus alternative song ending: And a Frozen In-Floor Heating System. (That’s for my husband, who’s enjoying that in his shop while he’s out their welding.)

All light-hearted Christmas griping aside, may your Christmas be a wonderful one. May your belly be full of delicious food and your heart full of the spirit of Christmas (the silent night kind, not the stuck at a traffic light kind)…and your eyes not too sleepy from staying up too late wrapping presents or being out on the town “spreading good cheer,” yes, that’s what I’ll call it. Happy holidays, everyone! Wishing you all the best.

Westward the Chickens: The Great Roundup, A (Mid)Western

Folks, turn on your deep, gravelly Sam Elliot cowboy voice as you read this today. Go ahead and put in your dip o’ chew. Things are gettin’ a little mid-western ’round these parts. This here ain’t no Louis L’Amour, but it is a bona fide true story.

Winter was a comin’ on the midwestern horizon. As she stood on the front porch sipping her morning coffee, she gazed out upon the land. Miss Kathy felt the chill in the wind and knew the nip of winter was in the air. The steely gray skies on cloudy days had the suggestion that winter indeed was a comin’. Miss Kathy gazed out on the corn stubble horizon, and off in the distance, thought of the herd.

Chicken herd, that is. Well, maybe it weren’t even a herd anymore. Heat of summer and a few careless young hands led to a few losses, but the plucky chickens that survived were a fine lookin’ bunch.

One of the chicken herd surveying her new surroundings from the fence.

One of the chicken herd surveying her new surroundings from the fence.

All summer long, the herd grazed contentedly in the eastern pasture, growing long and lean in the summer sun, spending nights up in the high country of the rafters of the breezy chicken house. But with winter approaching, Miss Kathy knew it would soon be time to make the drive, moving the herd to the wintering grounds of the snug barn by the house.

If left too long in their summer paddock, the trail approaching the chickens would become nearly impassable as the winter snow drifts blew in. The hired help was only waist high, the oldest wasn’t but six years old, and it wouldn’t take much of a snow to make it too difficult fer them to break a trail to water the chicken herd. Why, it wasn’t even a quarter mile to the summer chicken house, but that would be just far enough to leave chickens forgotten on stormy winter days.

And they couldn’t have that. They were depending on those chickens. Well, maybe they weren’t depending on them chickens, but the family was mighty hopeful. Why, some day, one of those hens just might lay an egg.

Preparations were made in the barn for the chicken herd. The little ones scattered in a snug layer of straw, and the trail boss rigged up a brand new window, feeling right proud to make something with his own two hands.

On the day of the roundup, the greenhorns filled their bellies with buttermilk pancakes and sippy cups of milk. The trail boss brewed coffee, preparin’ for the day ahead. When the last pancake was squashed into the floor and the baby had a dry diaper, it was time to head out. Well, maybe not. Turns out, the young crew all wanted to watch Saturday cartoons before gearing up to work.

It seemed to be a simple task. After all, this crew lived in Montana cowboy country for years, where they’d repeatedly seen pictures of John Wayne on display. They’d also watched City Slickers several times, causing Miss Kathy to become an eternal devotee to Jack Palance, the old cowboy. Yes, they reckoned they knew all they needed to know about chicken roundups, but as every chicken rancher knows, sometimes it is the simple tasks that wreak the most havoc on a soul.

They set out on foot, having no horses to ride and knowing horses would just squarsh the chickens, anyway. The roundup began just after high noon, starting off with several minutes of little greenhorns circling around the feathered herd. Plenty of squawking ensued. No surprise, the herd had no interest in being handled. Why, you might say they acted like a bunch of chickens. Indeed, they were.

The trail boss caught one of the plucky ladies, and a few minutes later, wrangled a second bird. The last few, however, proved to be mighty cantankerous. The chicken ranchers backed off, leaving the herd to cool down a bit. Those stragglers retreated to the high country up in the chicken house rafters, and with no fight in them, they were easily caught. Soon after, the entire chicken herd flocked together in their new winter barn.

All in all, it wasn’t a terribly long move, just a couple hundred feet west. Unknowing observers might have said, “Aw, how cute, a kid carrying a chicken across the yard,” not realizing that in fact, The Big Chicken Roundup of ’12 was in progress. Yes sir, that roundup took a solid fifteen minutes, maybe even twenty after helping the ranch crew put on shoes.

Reaching out her fingers fixin' to touch a chicken.

Reaching out her fingers fixin’ to touch a chicken.

With a successful chicken roundup completed, the green horns celebrated with trick riding on their bikes and a little tree climbing on Maple the Maple.

Mighty happy to hold a fluffy kitten after watering chickens.

Mighty happy to hold a fluffy kitten after watering chickens.

That evening, as the sun sank in the west, the family headed out to the barn. Inside, four lively kittens scampered in the hay bales, chickens pecked at the sunflowers left over from the garden, and four half-pint kids ran circles around all of it. Just six months before, when they moved into the place, that building sat cold and empty. And now on that chilly fall night, the lights glowed warmly, and the barn teemed with a fullness of life that made the trail boss and Miss Kathy feel right content with living in the country.

This post linked to The Prairie Homestead’s Homestead Barn Hop #141.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Written September 3, 2013.

Have you seen those containers of parched, bedraggled flowers baking on the sidewalks outside of stores?  Sometimes I feel a little like that.

At the beginning of summer, the flowers looked bright and fresh, ready for sunshine.  And now, they just look a little shriveled and tired.  I get it.

I don’t want to be dumped into the garbage after the first hard frost, but I am ready for a bit of a change.

Just another peaceful summer day on the porch, leisurely petting the cats.

Just another peaceful summer day on the porch, leisurely petting the cats.

This summer’s been a roller coaster of fun intermixed with losses in our family.  It’s been so much more and so much less than what I anticipated our summer might be.  It was the summer that I wrote thank you notes for memorials for my brother and laid rubber on Grandma’s driveway with the kids’ princess bike on the same day.

Traditionally, people sing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” around Christmas, but right now, I think I’ll sing those words for the big yellow bus pulling into the yard on the first day of school.

First day of school, 2012.

First day of school, 2012.

I’m ready for a little more quiet, a little more routine, and a little less heat.  (Yes, I realize that a school bus will not reduce the outside temperature.)  I’m ready for a little less cooking.  I’m ready for earlier bedtimes for kids.  I’m ready for a little less free ranging and a little more order.

This year, my four-year-old will head to preschool a few mornings a week.  On those mornings, I’ll have my three “big” kids, 7,6 and 4, all climbing on the bus. And that means I’ll only have my two-year-old daughter at home on those mornings.

What is the sound of one child playing?  (Isn’t that how the Zen question goes?)

I really can’t even imagine it.  It sounds really fun to just hang out with my little two-year-old sidekick for a little while.  And it also sounds so lonely.  What will she do when all of her favorite playmates climb on the bus?  She’s never been the only child in the house, ever.  And then as soon as I think of that, I just want to take back saying that I’m so excited for school to start again.

One of my very favorite parts of motherhood is watching the ways in which my kids interact.  I love watching the games they invent together.  All of a sudden, they are building a fort or a pirate ship or playing family.  Then someone’s pulling someone else on a makeshift trailer behind the trike.  Then it’s beauty shop time.  Then they are all kitties.

And then, of course, they fight.  Then they annoy each other, followed by bickering over insignificant things.  They are real, live kids after all.  It’s definitely not all Mary Poppins life around here, but we did have some triumphs and successes in the course of the summer:

-Potty Training #4.  For the first time in seven years, diapers and pull-ups are only worn during sleep.  Hallelujah.

-Growth.  I love seeing how much kids grow in the summertime, except when none of the pants in their dressers fit anymore.  My four-year-old son ate two eggs with cheese and a bowl of oatmeal on some mornings.  I can only imagine what I’ll have to cook when they are all teenagers.

Four cousins on a beautiful night at the fair.  (Always take pictures early on at the fair, while the kids are still smiling.)

Four cousins on a beautiful night at the fair. (Always take pictures early on at the fair, while the kids are still smiling.)

-Bountiful Tomatoes and Zucchini.  The rest of the garden is a big weedy mess.  It’s awful.  We planted a massive garden, and then in the midst of everything, it sat unattended.  Our tomatoes and zucchini are amazing, though.  I’m not really sure what else is in there and still alive at this point.  But hey, we have great tomatoes!  And zucchini!

Garden tomatoes

Garden tomatoes

-Homegrown Chicken in the Freezer.  For a first time project, we had great success raising chickens for meat.  And by next spring, we’ll should have over 50 laying hens making eggs for us.  Wow.  Uh, anyone have any empty egg cartons?

-Family Time.  More than anything, the best thing we did this summer is hang out with our family…a lot.  Bonfires, pool time, days at the Mississippi, a trip to Jellystone, Sunday meals, sleepovers, and impromptu gatherings of all sorts filled many of our summer days. In the midst of hard times, there is safety in numbers.  There is also plenty of laughter.

My sisters, Karen Davis and Sue Kramer, taking the mini golf world by storm this summer.

My sisters, Karen Davis and Sue Kramer, on the Fuchsia and Black Team.  Taking the mini golf world by storm during our vacation at Jellystone.

-Acting in a Movie.  Speaking of laughter, my daughter and I have our “big” movie debut in “Cinderella” is coming up soon!  “Silent Movies in the Park After Dark” is on September 14th and 15th at dusk at the city park in Lanesboro.  Just to refresh your memory, ordinary locals star in these locally produced family-friendly films, and the event has free admission.  Just bring a lawn chair and blanket if it’s chilly.

Happy back-to-school season, everyone!  Thanks for watching out for children as you drive the roads.

Your Friendly Local Wicked Stepsister

Written August 8, 2013.

Feather boa, fake mole, lace gloves, crazy hat, mismatched socks, blue eye shadow…all just part of my Tuesday morning this past week. Oh yes, and did I mention that I’m going to be a MOVIE STAR?

That’s right.  I’m going to be on the big screen.  Well, I’ll be on a big screen in a park in Lanesboro, anyway.

The stepsisters aghast at seeing the lovely Cinderella enter the ball. Emily Spende, Stela Burdt, Tom Flaig (not allowed to see Cinderella), and Kathy Mosdal. Photo courtesy of Lanesboro Community Theater.

The stepsisters aghast at seeing the lovely Cinderella enter the ball. Emily Spende, Stela Burdt, Tom Flaig (not allowed to see Cinderella), and Kathy Mosdal. Photo courtesy of Lanesboro Community Theater.

For the second year in a row, the Lanesboro Community Theater is creating a series of silent films for “Silent Movies in the Park After Dark.”  Local people with little to no acting experience (that’s me) get to be in a movie, with no pressure of rehearsals or memorizing lines.

For me, it all started with a simple email from Barb Benson Keith asking if I’d like to be one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.  My first acting gig was this spring as Jessie the waitress in the play “Leaving Iowa,” where Barb directed.  I have great respect for her optimistic, organized, energetic style, so getting an email invitation to be in a silent film that she’s directing put a big smile on my face in an otherwise rather “blah”day.

I showed up the morning of filming not quite sure what to expect.  When all was said and done, the whole experience felt like getting to play pretend in the dress up corner at preschool, except I played with adults who lead fairly ordinary lives most of the time.  We threw on some costumes, listened to a few quick stage directions, and started pretending…I mean acting, while Barb Keith filmed.

It was all fairly simple, with no rehearsals, two takes maximum, and then on to the next shot.  We completed all the necessary filming to be crazy stepsisters in just two hours before lunch, and that included a costume change to dress up for the ball.

As an added bonus for me, my two other fellow stepsisters are moms whose children attend the same ECFE class as my own kids.  We’ve become friends as we’ve spent two hours a week together over the school year.  That made spending a morning together as wicked, crazy stepsisters all the more fun.

Without a doubt, it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.  Picture absolute silliness on the order of things that you usually don’t do once you leave elementary school.  Truly.

I can’t think of the last time I got in a mock fight with two other lovely ladies who gave me a fake punch and tried to put me in some sort of wrestling move.

I certainly can’t remember the last time that happened while I wore a lovely floral print dress with shoulder pads.  It’s also been ages since I wore a feather boa and a leopard print hat and had instructions to paw at a prince.  Really, it’s been such a long time since I’ve done any of those things.

My oldest daughter also added to the fun in this whole movie experience.  My seven-year-old asked to come along and watch the festivities.  I happily brought her, knowing I could trust her to not be an intrusion.  On the way in that morning I joked, “You can tell the kids in your class that your mom is a movie star!”  But then even better, and much to my daughter’s delight, Barb Keith asked if she’d like to be a dancer at the ball.

You can probably imagine the answer.  On the way home I told her, “Well, now you can tell kids in your class that YOU are a movie star!” And then we both giggled.

Thank goodness Grandma Cheryl, who was visiting from Montana, styled my daughter’s hair into a fancy French braid before we left that morning.  She had just the perfect hair for the ball.  Thank goodness, also, for Grandma Cheryl’s willingness to babysit my other three kids at home while I was gone.  Her help made it possible for me to leave the house and do something completely out of the ordinary.

That morning filming “Cinderella” was a total change of pace from the entire summer and from my ordinary “be a resonsible adult” mode.  Everyone needs a chance to cut loose once in a while.  It really made my whole day, and probably my week.

More than anything, I can’t wait to see the final result.

With the filming complete, Barb Benson Keith will turn it all into what looks like a classic silent movie: black and white, complete with captions between scenes and old time music.

“Cinderella” will be part of “Silent Movies in the Park After Dark” in Lanesboro on September 14th and 15th.  They’ll be played at Sylvan Park, the city park on main street in Lanesboro.  If you are interested, just mark it on your calendar and bring some blankets and lawn chairs to cozy up for an evening outside watching locally made movies.

It’s a free, family-friendly event.  Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

A Chicken Birthday Update
On my 35th birthday, I got up at 5 AM and loaded up the whole flock of squawking birds.  My sister-in-law, Tricia, was nice enough to let us borrow Mike’s pickup which has a topper, making it perfect for hauling a load of chickens.  By 6:15, my daughter and I headed to KB Poultry just outside of Utica.  Sun shining, early morning dew…it was a fine birthday morning to be Kathy the Farmer, driving a load of chickens in a pickup.

Mission accomplished: Sixty-seven chickens loaded up on my birthday.

Mission accomplished: Sixty-seven chickens loaded up on my birthday.

Note to self for next time: Put down straw in the back of the pickup ahead of time.  In the short time it took to load them and then drive seven miles, 67 chickens made an absolutely terrible mess on the floor and all over themselves in the process.  Thank goodness for a pressure washer and a nice husband at home.

Mess aside, driving home after dropping off the chickens, I just had a smile plastered to my face.  Driving Mike’s faithful pickup that he’s had for about 20 years, listening to his cassette of twangy Australian classic country music, early morning and a job already done…it just felt like Mike was smiling at all of it.

As an unexpected surprise, we actually had 67 chickens!  I only ordered 60, but the hatchery throws in a few “bonus birds” just in case of loss in transit.  We never actually counted them until that day.  That many chickens completely fill our upright freezer and then some.

This weekend I fired up the grill and we had a little chicken barbecue after a day on the Mississippi.  Thank you chickens, you are delicious.

35: The Chicken Birthday

Written July 29, 2013.

This Friday is a momentous day at our house.  It’s my 35th birthday and Chicken Day.

Eight weeks ago, 110 peeping balls of fluff arrived at our place, 60 meat bird chicks and 50 laying hen chicks.  When I ordered that many, I probably was in a bit over my head: no experience raising that quantity of chickens, no experience raising meat birds.  I knew I’d be fine, though, because just 15 miles away I had the seasoned resources of Mike, my brother, and his wife, Tricia.

Back In June I excitedly wrote about the day the chicks arrived. I now count the day as one of my favorites.

When I pulled in the driveway with my load of chicks and excited kids, lots of helpers were ready and waiting.  Mike and his family came out to help, along with my sister, Karen.  Later in the day my sister, Sue, and her kids came out to see the chicks, too. Mike helped get our little chicks off to a good start, putting up tin around their little pen, adjusting the heat lamps, and mixing molasses in their water to give them a little boost.

As my niece, Katie, helped dip each chick’s beak in water to give them a first drink, I snapped some pictures of baby chicks cuddled by kids.  With a flock of kids, a few adults, and 110 chicks all squeezed into the small pen for the occasion, we were teeming with life and activity.

If I could go back in time, I would take more pictures of that day.  The only pictures I have of Mike from that day are his hands helping my daughter hold a chick.  It’s a reminder to me to take pictures not just of the kids in the family, but the adults, too.

Mike reaching out his hands to help my excited daughter hold a broiler chick.

Mike reaching out his hands to help my excited daughter hold a broiler chick.

One morning a few weeks after our chicks arrived, my two-year-old helped me with the morning chores.  We fed the chicks and then moved on to the sheep.  Instead of my usual “on to the next thing” mode, we stood there for a while that morning just hanging out in the barn.  I leaned on the fence while my daughter stood in the feed trough to peek over the fence and watch the sheep getting a drink.

We stood there, quiet and peaceful, until my daughter was done watching.  That was one of those moments where I stood still long enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful…grateful to have a sweet little girl who made me stop and appreciate what I have.

Later that morning while I was upstairs doing laundry, I got a call from my mom telling me there’d been an accident with Mike’s helicopter.

In the weeks that followed, I continued making treks out to the chicken house to take care of the chicks.  Some days, my eyes got too blurry to scoop the chicken feed.  Every single time I go there, I think of my brother.  I see the work of his hands on the pen.  And all the time in my mind, when I look at those chickens,  I do what I think Mike would do.  Through his years of education, years of farming, he did so many things the right way.  He took care of animals the same way he took care of people.

And so, every morning in the last eight weeks I headed out to the chicken house to feed and water the chicks.  Now that they’re bigger, I’m out there three times a day.  In the chicken world, broilers (chickens grown for meat) are what Mike described as race cars.  Their growth is fast, reaching full size in just 6-8 weeks.  Like a high performance vehicle, meat birds need optimal conditions for a peak performance.

I’ve been working hard on my race car birds: feed, clean water, dry bedding, access to outside.  In eight weeks, we only lost one broiler, very early on.  I’ll call that a success for a first timer.  As they grow, I keep wishing Mike could see my chickens.  The kid in me wants my big brother to see them and be proud.

Eight weeks later, my daughter feeds the now full-grown broiler chickens.

Eight weeks later, my daughter feeds the now full-grown broiler chickens.

My broilers hit the finish line on Friday, Chicken Day (and my birthday).  We’ll load them up and make the short drive to Utica to have them butchered.  And soon after, I’ll have a year’s worth of chicken in my freezer for my family.

I grew up on a farm with beef cattle and pigs, but I never really involved myself in any of the farming.  This summer, then, is my first time raising meat for my family.  I have to say, there’s a certain amount of pride in raising food to feed your family.

I also have a very real and genuine appreciation for the effort and care involved in raising an animal for food.  It’s easy to give very little thought to picking up a package of skinless, boneless chicken breasts at the grocery store.  As a package of frozen food from the store, the image of a chicken on a farm seems awfully distant and disconnected.

This year, though, “farm to table” is very clear to me.  I know that every single time I pull a whole chicken out of the freezer to cook for my family, I’ll think about how I raised that chicken this summer.  I’ll know just where that chicken spent it’s days, and I’ll know just how much effort it took to raise that little fluff ball into a big meaty bird.  I took care of them, so they could feed us.

And while raising a few chickens isn’t anything momentous in and of itself, in the bigger picture it’s just a part of how I want to live.  I want my kids to grow up in the country where they know where food comes from, they know how to work, and they know how to appreciate the simple joys of life.

So on my 35th birthday, I’ll celebrate the accomplishment of raising my first set of meat birds, and celebrate getting to live a life full of blessings.  I’ll celebrate getting the chance to spend time with my brother this year, and learn some of his farming wisdom.

While I certainly intend to live to about 100 like my grandmas, the reality that my brother’s entire life was only nine years longer than my current age is a real reminder of the preciousness of every day.  I don’t know what exactly it is that I’m supposed to do in life, and I don’t know if what I do is “enough.” I do know, though, that I’m thankful to be alive and 35.

A Popsicle Week

Written July 22, 2013.

With colored tongues to prove it, our kids slurped down most of a brand new box of 100 freeze-and-eat popsicles in the past week.  Four kids, a few popsicles a day, times a week…yes, the math checks out.  That box that looked like it would last “all summer” barely made it through the heat wave.  We have no central air in our big old farm house, so popsicles on the porch are really just a requirement for survival.

Cooling off with a popsicle on the porch makes a hot day a little bit better.

Cooling off with a popsicle on the porch makes a hot day a little bit better.

With P.O.P.S.I.C.L.E on the mind, it’s been that kind of week…sticky, messy, and a little sweet.

P is for Panting Chickens.  I do not know the sound of one hand clapping, but I do now know the sound of 110 chickens panting.  On the hottest days, they drank gallons of water, rested in the shade of their breezy shed, and panted.  And panted.  And then panted a little more.  I’m happy to report that they all made it through the heat.

Our chickens don't eat popsicles, so they cooled off by panting.  Being ladylike, the chickens did not pant in this photo.

Our chickens don’t eat popsicles, so they cooled off by panting. Being ladylike, the chickens did not pant in this photo.

O is for On the Banks of Plum Creek.  If our kids get ready for bed on time, I read to them a chapter from Laura Ingalls.  We are now on our fourth book.  This week, we read the chapter about the grasshopper infestation.  I read aloud about how just before harvest, droves of grasshoppers devoured everything green, including the Ingallses’ entire wheat crop.  The family planned to pay off their newly constructed home with wheat money, but instead had absolutely nothing, not even grass for grazing their cows.  Without fail, reading about the struggles of pioneer life puts our own relatively cushy life in perspective.  Feeling hot and sweaty suddenly seemed quite manageable by comparison.

P is for Pools.  At our house we have a kiddy wading pool and plenty of pools of sweat.  Neither one of those really satisfies on a hot day.  A visit to the pool in St. Charles to play with cousins made life all better again.  This week we even swam in a Harvestore silo on two occasions.  Our neighbors ingeniously converted the base of a silo into a great pool with the help of a pool liner, and we got to be the lucky guests swimming at their house on those hot nights.   For the record, we did shower off before jumping in the pools.  While I generally encourage sharing, some things (sweat, for instance) just don’t need to be shared with others.

S is for Slumber Party.  When walking upstairs felt like entering a giant oven, our kids took refuge from the heat with a slumber party downstairs.  We installed our window air conditioner in the toy room, shut the doors, and made it feel like a little slice of cool heaven.  With a few makeshift beds on the floor, four kids slept in cool comfort during the night.  The added bonus?  The loud noise of the air conditioner drowns out any chatting, so they all went to sleep quickly.  Note to self: if the kids are too loud,  just make a louder noise.  Maybe we’ll start turning on the blender or vacuum at night in their rooms.  Well, maybe not.

I is for Ice Cream.  Once in the middle of a hot afternoon when the kids were napping, I just had to take a few spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container.  The cool, sweet goodness of chocolate and marshmallow had magical restorative properties.  With just a few bites, I could face the rest of the day.  For any of you that recently had ice cream at our house, this was after you left.  I promise.

C is for Caps, Black Caps.  The season is short and sweet for black cap berries, so we are braving nettles, thorns, and those annoying gnats to collect the little jems from our windbreak.  One evening as I came in the house shiny with sweat from heat to toe and carrying a bowl of berries, I told my daughter that we’d eat those berries in pancakes in the middle of the winter and think of summer.  She said she’d like to have a little winter snow to play in right now.  I agreed.

L is for Loving Lightning Bugs.   Instead of sleeping with a stuffed animal at bedtime, one night I noticed my seven-year-old daughter sleeping with a jar of lightning bugs in her bed.   She also excitedly told me a few days later, “A lightning bug just peed on me!” She said it with amusement and almost a little bit of pride.  I told her she was very lucky, because I’m much older than her, and I’ve never had a lightning bug pee on my hand before.  In fact, I didn’t know anyone that ever had a lightning bug pee on them.  What a lucky girl, indeed.  With a few loose lightning bugs now roaming about in our house, I’m sure I’m greatly improving my odds of being just as lucky.

E is for Energy (or Lack Thereof).  In the middle of the heat wave, I began wondering if maybe I had some sort of vitamin deficiency or something.  I just felt like I didn’t possess the energy to make things happen like usual.  Everything just looked like too much work.  Then Sunday morning came around, and cool breezes rolled in along with a few drops of rain.  Suddenly, on the walk out to feed the chickens, I felt like I could actually work.  Perhaps all I need is fall, or maybe a swimming pool in the back yard.  In the meantime, I’ll just have some more iced coffee and maybe a popsicle or two.  I think I’ll skip panting like a chicken.

“Chicken Day:” 110 Hot Chicks on the Farm

“Chicken Day” is now one of my favorite memories of the summer and my brother, Mike.  On June 6th, our chickens arrived.  I wrote the article below for the paper the following week.  Less than two weeks after Chicken Day, we lost Mike.  I’m so thankful and happy that we had this day together, where I got to “play farm” with my brother and learn some of his farming knowledge.  I wasn’t at all done learning from him, but I’m so grateful for the time we had together.  

We all had such a great time that we didn’t want the day to end.  Mike and Tricia and their kids, along with my sister, Karen, ending up staying for supper.  We made homemade pizza and popcorn and had a bonfire that lasted until we were too tired to stay up anymore.  A great day on the farm…

When we first moved in here a little over a year ago, a neighbor stopped by to visit. Looking at an empty barn, shed, and chicken coop, she said, “Why, you could have all sorts of animals here.”  I thought to myself, “Animals?  Nah, too much work.  Well, maybe I’d get a cat or two.”

At the time, we owned a dog.  That’s it.

By my count today, 144 animals reside on our little acreage:  the same old dog, along with goats, sheep, chickens, cats and kittens. Sometimes I’m still surprised that they’re here.  Did they just sneak in when I was doing laundry or something?

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Mike helping my two-year-old hold a new fluffy chick.

The biggest batch of little critters arrived here in our minivan just a few days ago.  We headed down to Rushford and picked up an order of 110 balls of fluff from the Farmers Co-op.  In the days leading up to the chicks’ arrival, the kids kept mentioning them, wondering, and asking if they could maybe name a few.  I said yes, you can each name 27 of your very own.  Is that enough?  Eyes got pretty big at that point.

When I walked into the Co-op, four kids beat me inside.  They made a bee line for the little stack of peeping cardboard boxes, and my kids had the lids popped off before I even got inside the door.

It was Chicken Christmas.

My two-year-old had absolutely no need for instructions about proper chick handling.  Sure, I mentioned phrases like “be gentle,” “don’t squeeze it’s neck,” and “that chick can’t breathe when you do that,”  but she was far too busy doling out intense chick affection to be bothered with my ramblings.

Currently, four days after the chicks’ arrival, all chicks are alive and well.  I do count that as a fairly major success considering the amount of loving attention they’ve received over the last few days.

My nephew and son each snuggle a pile of chicks on their laps.

My nephew and son each snuggle a pile of chicks on their laps.

Our kids do recognize, though, that life is fragile, especially for baby animals.  On the ride bringing the chicks home, my very practical seven-year-old instructed her siblings that sometimes a little chick might die, but it would be okay because we would still have plenty of other chicks.  I believe she might have been coaching herself, as well.

On Chicken Day (because such events get names when you have kids), we even picked up fried chicken from the grocery store for lunch.  Perhaps that is in poor taste considering we carried a load of baby chicks home at the same time, but the kids giggled with excitement over fried chicken AND baby chicks, all in one day.  One of them even said, “Someday some of you little chicks will be delicious chicken, too.”

When the chickens arrived home, we had a full entourage of family here to take part in the excitement.  My brother, Mike (our resident farming expert), along with his family, came out and helped set things up in the coop for the chicks.  Two of my sisters came out, too, and a slew of cousins all spent some time helping out with the new little chicks, holding them, and picking out favorites.

A flock of cousins play with the new chicks.

A flock of cousins play with the new chicks.

We set up feeders, waterers, and heat lamps (hence the title “Hot Chicks,” of course), and soon after lunch, 110 busy peeping chicks hopped around in their new home.  We now have 60 fluffy yellow broilers, 25 Production Reds that will someday give us brown eggs, and 25 Americana chicks that will lay the kids’ favorite: blue-green eggs.  The most-loved chick in the bunch is a mix-up: one rogue all-black chick that somehow arrived with our delivery.

And what, exactly, do we plan to do with that many chickens?  Our oldest two kids possess some grand ideas about eventually selling the eggs and making “lots of money.”  We did big math in simple terms, and told them if they kept selling eggs, they could earn enough to buy their very own car when they reached driving age in 9-10 years.

Again, they had wide eyes.

They’re pretty helpful little kids, but I’m fairly certain the person that will actually be heading out to check on chicken welfare, especially when the wind chill is -30, is someone who earned the money for her first car a long time ago.

As if the excitement of 110 fluff balls and future earnings wasn’t enough, the day after the chicks arrived our kids discovered yet another surprise.  In the corner of the shed, in the hay where Lamby likes to sleep, I heard the mewing sound of a new batch of kittens.

In awe of the brand new baby kitten.

In awe of the brand new baby kitten.

All of the kids left the chicks to go check out the new surprise.  We headed to the corner of the shed and found the mother cat with five kittens, a few still wet.  As we crouched around her, I noticed that one was being born at that very instant.

Number six was black with an orange star on its head, which is just what my red-haired boy wanted on a chick of his own, but none had those markings.  It turned out that his request was answered in a baby kitten instead, and one that he got to see be born.

And then, just to blow our kids’ minds completely, our other pregnant cat had kittens the following day.  We now have two mother cats who curl up in the same nest of hay and share nursing responsibilities of the two batches of kittens.   Looks like I’ll need to readjust the animal count that I mentioned earlier.

Article written June 10, 2013.

Camp Mosdal

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Written July 15, 2013.

When summer was just around the corner, we picked up a 12-person tent.  We tucked it away safely in the attic, just waiting for that nice night when we’d set up that new portable house in the yard with the kids.

Then another snow storm came, and another.  And then came the rains.  If you live around here, you know the ones.  The tent sat untouched for about four months, nearly forgotten.

It might not have seen the light of day this summer if it hadn’t been for a sheet of paper tacked up in our kitchen, labelled “Summer of Fun 2013.”  It’s the list we made in about five minutes one morning in May before the school bus arrived, back when the kids wanted school to be done for the year.

When I see the list on the wall, it feels like it came from a lifetime ago, long before anybody could imagine that we’d lose my brother this summer.  I wouldn’t call this the Summer of Fun at this point.  The list is still up on the wall, though, and this week my seven-year-old noticed we really needed to get something checked off the list: Camping.

Last Thursday seemed like the night.  We celebrated a highly anticipated fourth birthday at our house.  With the weather forecast looking good, we decided to haul our two tents out of the attic and camp that night to celebrate.  Our brand new tent is a giant: a 10′ x 18′ two room behemoth.  It’s just shy of the square footage of our kids’ two bedrooms in the last house we owned.

The kids and I hauled our new treasure out under the shade of our walnut tree on a nice flat spot and began to assemble it.  While they excitedly helped, we managed to not lose any stakes in the high grass and nobody busted a zipper or tore a hole in the screens.  With four little kids running around, that seemed pretty successful.

To finally get it all set up, my husband and I exchanged a few short comments with each other, as per the requirement when assembling a new tent.  And when it finally stood complete, all was well.

Our kids immediately began hauling armloads of toys into the tent, to make it a little more “homey,” of course.

Our plans for the evening pretty much ended with “hey, let’s set up the tents,” but with short notice on a week night, a few of our kids’ cousins and my sister, Karen, came over and also spent the night.

In the midst of hauling out blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags, we almost forgot about my son’s birthday cake.  I sat it out on our porch table with candles ready to light, and then got busy doing other things.

Four!! Birthday supper celebration.

Four!! Birthday supper celebration.

Cats, however, love birthday celebrations and do not forget about such things like birthday cake.  I came out of the house with an armful of blankets to discover three cats circled around his highly anticipated angel food cake, busily gnawing away.

My biggest disappointment is that my arms were so full of blankets.  My gut instinct desired nothing more than to scoop them all up and launch them from the porch.  I believe they sensed that as well, and with my scream they called an end to their birthday party and instantly scattered.

Birthday cake issues aside, we had a great night.

My husband, Jarred, even installed our porch swing that evening.  We bought the swing on Craig’s List about a year ago, but just never got around to installing it.  Just when I’d grown accustomed to that porch swing sitting on the ground like a legless bench, all of a sudden, we had a swing!  My little boy sat on it and said, “It’s for my birthday!”  Just knowing I can now go out and sip iced tea on the porch swing makes me feel utterly content.

But, back to camping.  We had fireflies all around, a bonfire, kids giggling in the tent, and a beautiful summer night.  By midnight, the last holdout went to bed.  (Ironically, it was our two-year-old.)  We slept outside under a starry sky, in the peaceful silence of a night out in the country.

And despite our kids’ fears, nobody was eaten by coyotes, not even a little bit.

That peaceful night didn’t last very long.  Around 4 AM began the song bird wake-up call.  By 5 AM, the rooster and my birthday boy were both up.  They both share a love of making excessively loud noises every morning.  By six, pretty much everyone was awake.  Soon after, a groggy but happy load of kids swung on the porch swing.

I believe if you can’t get a good night of sleep, you better at least have a good breakfast.  I whipped up a batch of pancakes while my sister made bacon.  Jarred decided to cook rugged-camp style, and he made a bunch of bacon and eggs over the red coals of the bonfire from the night before.

And then we had a stroke of genius. Almost out of syrup, we mashed up a huge bowl of strawberries that came from the neighbors’ patch.  And then, we topped it all off with a big batch of whipped cream, made from a half gallon jug of cream we got from Kappers’ Dairy in Chatfield.   We ate outside at the porch table with our little crew of campers, eight kids and three adults.  Great food, fun kids and good coffee seemed like a great start to a day.

Enjoying a big breakfast on the porch after a night of camping.

Enjoying a big breakfast on the porch after a night of camping.

We didn’t have any plans, but after breakfast, we herded the kids out to help feed and water the chicks.  Our former fluff balls are rapidly growing into big, meaty birds and good looking little hens.

This happens to be the time of year when our windbreak is loaded with black raspberries.  Jarred had the inspiration to gather a bunch of bowls, and many of us headed out to pick berries.  (And pick, and pick, and pick.)  With a busy crew of helpers, we had 15 pounds of berries when we finished.   The berries are small, and many of the berry pickers were young, so we felt all the more impressed with our bounty.

A bounty of black raspberries harvested from our yard.

A bounty of black raspberries (black caps) harvested from our yard.

By then, it was time for lunch.  I fired up the grill and made burgers.  And for dessert, we finally got around to the birthday cake.  We sawed off all areas of possible cat-contamination on the cake.  Naughty cats. For the tail end of the longest impromptu birthday celebration ever, we sang happy birthday, had cat-free angel food cake, ice cream and berries.

 Cousins celebrating our four-year-old's birthday with some cat-free cake and ice cream.

Cousins celebrating our four-year-old’s birthday with some cat-free cake and ice cream.

Without really making any plans other than deciding to set up our tents, Camp Mosdal turned into a great day…and a half.  By late afternoon the campers went home, and we crashed, tired but happy.

And if you happen to drive by our house, you might still see the tent set up.  Four days later, it still is, anyway.  You can also still find a heap of blankets dumped in our living room from our festivities.  Tents and camping equipment, just like Christmas decorations, are much more exciting to set up than take down.

Putting a Little Spring in our Step

I do believe it takes living with -30 wind chills and knee deep snow to fully appreciate the first 70 degree days of spring. Minnesotans get it.

Our Saturday of soaking in 70 degrees prompted the biggest flurry of outdoor projects we’ve had in a long time, and made what was quite possibly, our favorite day this year. Sometimes, days slip by and I wonder what I accomplished, but then there are days like last Saturday, where we suck every last drop out of the day and knock out more projects than ever seemed possible.

It all started a few nights before. I woke up at 2 AM, not able to sleep with a long list of spring projects in my head. Of course, it made me mad to be awake. No kids are up crying or puking, so why am I awake thinking about putting the sleds away? Finally, I just got out of bed wrote down a spring to-do list. The stupid sleds then stopped plaguing me, and I got back to sleep.

Saturday morning, with sunny skies and a predicted high in the 70s, felt like the perfect time to start checking things off that list. It also helped that we had a pressing project to complete: the day before we picked up 55 shrubs and trees from the Soil & Water Conservation District.

The first project of the day was a chicken run. Our chickens spent the winter in the shed across from our house, and judging by their impatient squawking, they were quite ready to have a little more room to stretch out their wings. Our shed already had a little hinged chicken door, so my husband spent the morning using some old fence panels to build a little access route from their contained pen to the chicken door. By lunchtime, a rooster and his harem strolled around the yard snatching up shoots of green grass and and a few bugs.

I think I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again because it still takes me by surprise: I completely love watching chickens wander around in the yard. I never imagined having any interest in chickens, but I’m becoming quite taken with them. There is something hypnotic and soothing about watching them go about their industrious business of hunting bugs and grass shoots. Sitting on the porch and seeing chickens wander in the yard just gives me that feeling that all is well. I rank it up there with watching bonfires and snow falls. I can’t quite explain it, but I do like those buggers, and their eggs.

Chicken access to outside? Check.

Our chickens enjoyed their new freedom outside.

Our chickens enjoyed their new freedom outside.

Before lunch, my birthday boy (who turned six on Saturday), cleared our sleds off of the porch making room for our summer porch table. Sleds away? Check.

He then helped haul the table legs upstairs from the basement, and by lunchtime, we had our first outside lunch of the season on our porch. That table is a freebie find from the curb during Citywide Clean-up last year, and it provided countless outdoor meals and project space last summer. After a winter packed away, seeing the table again made our porch feel like it’s open for summer business. Porch table set up? Check.

Our 6-year-old celebrated his birthday playing outside with his little brother.  He later helped set up our table in this spot.

Our 6-year-old celebrated his birthday playing outside with his little brother. He later helped set up our table in this spot.

We ate our first watermelon of the season outside on the porch at lunchtime. Granted, we needed jackets on in the breeze, but as Minnesotans with cabin fever, we felt completely happy to finally be outside.

After lunch, our three-year-old with glazed eyes and our inconsolable two-year-old both told me they weren’t at all tired. I went against their, uh, logic and tucked them in for a nap. That gave me three hours to work outside. That, my friends, is a little slice of heaven.

My husband, my oldest daughter and I spent the afternoon putting 25 June berry shrubs in the ground, along with 30 spruce trees.

To the untrained eye, those little spruce trees just look like an ordinary line of saplings, but they are in fact our Christmas Tree Farm. Some day when our kids are teenagers, we’ll go tree hunting right in our yard at Christmas time. Our kids will saw the tree down and drag it into the living room, leaving needles everywhere.

Then we’ll say to our oldest son, “Remember when we planted those trees on your sixth birthday? Look how big they are now!” And then we’ll repeat that again the next year and the next. It’s a long term plan, but I’m excited already. Who wouldn’t like to have their very own tree farm?

Someday, these little saplings will be Christmas trees in our living room.

Someday, these little saplings will be Christmas trees in our living room.

Working outside on a gorgeous day, doing something completely out of the usual routine…I had a blast. Maybe it felt fun because I didn’t do the hole-digging part, but best of all is the excitement of imagining what eventually will become of our afternoon’s labor. Someday we’ll have Christmas trees, and some day we’ll gobble up June berries by the handful. I can’t wait. Berry bushes and spruce trees planted? Check. Check.

Just before supper, we whipped up two pumpkin pies for my son’s special request birthday meal. My six-year-old birthday boy shaped and crimped one pie crust all by himself, and his big sister did the other one. While we accomplished a lot outside, our kitchen looked like we’d had a bomb go off. Ignoring the mess for the short term, we headed back outside to cap off the afternoon with supper on the porch.

And for birthday dessert, we ate warm pie topped with ice cream. Birthday supper? Check.

Our three-year-old told us the day was the best birthday of his whole life.

I laughed. No, it was not his birthday. It was his brother’s. But I had to agree, it was one of the best birthdays ever.

Happy spring, everyone! I hope you all enjoyed last weekend’s sunshine as much as we did.