Giving my Kids Nothing this Summer, Again

Summer vacation officially kicks off in a few days, and I’m feeling the squeeze of my self-inflicted to-do list. In a moment of excitement or insanity, I agreed to host an end-of-the-year sleepover party, inviting the 15 girls in my daughter’s 5th grade class. In one week, our baby boy has a minor surgery to get tubes put into his ears to drain fluid.

My brain is full of camps, swimming lessons, 4-H projects and all sorts of things we “should” do this summer. And at the point where my head is swimming, I came across just what I needed to hear. As it turns out, it was my own words that I wrote four years ago at the beginning of summer. I’d forgotten that I wrote this, but it’s just what I need to remember all over again. I know I’m not the only one who needs to hear it, so I’m sharing this again with all of you.

Here’s to more of doing nothing this summer…

Kathy, May 2016

 

“Giving my Kids Nothing this Summer” (Originally printed May 2013.)

My original plan this week was to write about our summer list of things to do, you know, to feel like our family has a “successful” summer. Making plans and writing to-do lists does have value. It helps me get things done. But sometimes, a to-do list is a load of garbage.

I can’t speak for past generations of mothers, but in the circles I run in of moms with kids at home, we spend a lot of time trying to do it all right. We try to make meaningful memories, create precious moments, provide engaging learning opportunities, all that. But maybe, just maybe, we need to try less hard, too.

My oldest child is just finishing first grade. What do I remember about my summer after first grade? The only specific thing I remember was that I had short permed hair that my grandma said looked like Shirley Temple. In the summer time I would go days on end without combing it. Much of the time my hair looked more like a rumpled Afro than Shirley Temple’s ringlets.

Combing my hair? What a waste of time.

I had ant hills to smash on the edge of the driveway. I needed to make sure I was the one who raced down to the mailbox first when the mailman came around noon, a highlight of the day. I was busy riding my bike down the field lane and learning to ride down the gravel on the driveway without wiping out and scraping up my knee.

I don’t remember many other specifics, because the summers growing up all sort of blend together in a sort of sweaty, Kool Aid, dandelions, swimming in the freezing water at Whitewater kind of way.

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Isn’t doing nothing just the best?

On a visit to Whitewater a couple summers ago, I spotted a mom lugging a huge plastic tote down to the beach while trying to wrangle her kids. The tote was neatly labelled “Beach Toys.” I imagined her pulling it from it’s special shelf in the garage and loading it up in the van. As she emptied it, out came every sort of wonderful beach implement imaginable.

Part of me admires that sort of amazing, logical organization. And part of me just wants to puke. That level of perfection is just too much. Many of the toys didn’t get touched.

Seeing that tote made me think of my own days as a kid playing at Whitewater. When we made the trip there as a kid, if I wanted a sand toy, it was my job to get it. If I brought something, it was probably an empty Cool Whip container from the cupboard. Fairly often, we just went there with nothing. Sometimes we dug a pop can out of the beach garbage can to use as a digging toy and water carrier.

No tote full of toys, and we were happy at Whitewater. Very likely, my next older brother suggested we were superior in some way because we were kids that could make our own toys. He was good at always making us feel like we were part of some sort of secret elite force of little survivors.

Sand, water, kids. What else do you need at the beach?

I tell this to remind myself that when it comes to kids, less is often just as good as more. A big tote full of toys is fun, but so are hands, sticks, and rocks.

Sometimes I’m like that mom lugging the tote. I love my kids and I try to do my best. The trouble is, it’s easy to think “best” and “more” are one and the same. They are not. It is a fine line to balance between wanting the best for your kids and crippling them because they get everything they want. Innovation and ingenuity often comes from those moments of creating something out of nothing.

I want to give my kids more “nothing.”

A few nights ago I spent 15 minutes hauling boxes up to the attic. While I was up there, three of our kids played out on the porch. I came down to find discover three kids completely enmeshed in their own imaginary world of playing house. I said hi and then ignored them in that sort of way that doesn’t make them self-conscious of a viewer, putting on a show for mom. They did their thing.

My seven-year-old “Mom” decided it was bedtime, and put her two-year-old baby to bed. She tucked in her sister on the wicker couch using her favorite blanket. Then, while I got the mail and seemingly ignored them, I listened to my big girl sing a lullaby to her little sister, who pretended to sleep.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a sweeter lullaby than that one I heard that evening. There’s nothing on my summer list of fun activities that’s any better than that.

I give up.

And I think I probably should. We made a list of fun things to do this summer, but most remarkable is that what the kids want is pretty darn unremarkable. They want to go swimming. They want to have bonfires. They want cousins to come over and play. Simple things.

And that’s probably how it should be.

They’re little kids. Hot, sticky, endless summer days with messy hair, scraped up knees, dirty feet, popsicle drips and grass stains…that about covers it. Anything else is just details.

So, it’s settled. We’re doing nothing this summer.

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Summer Vacation for Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written May 16, 2017.

Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor Puking Children‏

Memories of last year’s road trip…Alone in the middle of nowhere with puke, diarrhea, sick crying baby, mess, four kids to care for and still 700 miles of driving to go before home…now this is livin’.

After a week of jam-packed family time in Montana, we are HOME! Yesterday we pulled into our driveway at 5 AM after 16 hours on the road.  (Wrote this after Thanksgiving 2013.)

Wide open views from the (in town) backyard of my husband's parents in Montana.

Wide open views from the (in town) backyard of my husband’s parents in Montana.

By all-nighter road trip standards, we had a great trip: dry roads the whole way, no close calls with deer, no road construction, no vehicle issues whatsoever, no sick kids. And for all of that, I am very thankful.

By ordinary living standards, it is pretty miserable: crammed van stuffed with people, Christmas presents, and luggage, not enough leg room, tired kids that cry when street lights pass over, feeling too hot then too cold over and over again, two exhausted parents that don’t feel like driving but just want to get home, just under 1,000 miles to cover.

When we finally arrived home, we carried the kids into their beds, and felt thankful for winter darkness at 5 AM that let us sneak our kids into bed and keep them sleeping for a few more hours. After riding in constant motion for 16 hours on the road, when I flopped into our bed, that nice, flat, motionless bed felt like it was moving.

I’m glad I’m not a trucker. I’m also glad this isn’t last year’s road trip.

Last year my husband Jarred stayed in Montana a little after Thanksgiving to work on a scale project. That meant when it was time to saddle up and head back to Minnesota to take the kids back to school, I performed the feat of hauling four kids from Montana to Minnesota by myself. Last year, my oldest was 6 and the youngest just 19 months. For extra challenge, we added in stomach flu.

When this was fresh in my mind last year, my husband hadn’t arrived home yet, so I didn’t really want to publicize that I was home alone with four kids, and I never did write about it. Nothing like sitting in a van for hours on end, though, to bring back those fond memories that really are just too good to not share…

Last year’s solo road trip went fairly smoothly for the first few hours. I left at nap time and the kids all rested. A few hours in, I congratulated myself for rigging up our DVD player with the plastic tie from a garbage bag, which enabled the kids to see the screen and be content, which of course, meant I could drive.

About an hour later, somewhere on Hwy 212 east of Broadus, MT, on the stretch of road that is about 100 miles of no civilization, stomach flu kicked in for my baby. I heard a gurgling sound, and looked in my rear view mirror to see her puking all over herself and her car seat. I immediately pulled over and put on my flashers, although I don’t recall if anybody ever actually drove past.

Here are a few realities of puke in a vehicle:
1. Car seats have bottomless crevices.
2. Baby wipes become both bath tub and washing machine.
3. Smell permeates quickly and lingers indefinitely in a confined area.

I cleaned up the poor little girl, stripping off her dirty clothes and bagging them in a plastic sack. I scooped up chunks and wiped down her car seat with copious amounts of baby wipes. And I really wished it had been just puke, but it was an all-inclusive stomach flu, so I also had to change her leaky messy (and very smelly) diaper as well.

Alone in the middle of nowhere with puke, diarrhea, sick crying baby, mess, four kids to care for and still 700 miles of driving to go before home…now this is livin’.

After that episode, I managed to crank out a few more hours of driving, but by 7 PM in Rapid City, I was completely spent. We checked into a hotel and after wrangling check-in, luggage, and settling down kids in unfamiliar beds, we went to sleep.

Four kids hanging out in the hotel with Mom.  As you might guess from all the smiles, this was not the trip with the stomach flu.

Four kids hanging out in the hotel with Mom. As you might guess from all the smiles, this was not the trip with the stomach flu.

Kids are early risers, and by 6 AM with everyone awake, we dressed in swimming suits and headed to the hotel indoor pool. A little relaxing in water, hot tub, and water slide made the thought of a day full of driving a little more bearable. That combined with some waffles, and we felt ready for another day on the road.

I forget the details, but picture an endless day in South Dakota alternating keeping peace, passing out snacks, making gas stops and cranking out miles.

Needing a break at supper time, we pulled into the McDonald’s in Worthington, MN. Normally, I hate McDonald’s and its Play Place with claustrophobia-inducing tunnels that smell like stinky feet and chicken nuggets. That night, though, I was thankful for a spot for the kids to run around and play while being contained.

Just when I thought we’d have a little down time, stomach flu hit again.

I hauled my little three-year-old son into the bathroom with a terrible mess in his pants. While my two oldest kids played in the Play Place (and I felt paranoid about not being able to watch them), I cleaned up my son in the McDonald’s bathroom. Meanwhile, I tried to keep my baby from touching anything gross in the public restroom. And of course, everything in a public restroom at toddler height is pretty gross.

By the time he seemed clean again, I’d used half a package of baby wipes. I bagged up the wipes along with the completely filthy pants and threw it all in the garbage. No pair of handed down sweat pants is worth the cleaning effort at that point in a long road trip.

I just consider those pants an offering to the road trip gods. The McDonald’s bathroom garbage seems like an appropriate place to make an offering to road trips gods, right? Every time I go past Worthington, MN, I think of those pants. In my head, they’re still sitting in the garbage can. I hope they’re not.

I dressed my little boy in clean clothes, we all washed our hands very thoroughly, and my kids had a little play time before the last four hours on the road. You know when you’ve been on the road for a while when “just four more hours” sounds like a relief.

At our last gas station stop of the trip, I refueled and went inside the store to quickly grab milk and eggs for home. Milk and eggs are essentials for survival at our house.

I walked inside to find only one half gallon of milk in the entire store. With a crew of avid milk drinkers, a half gallon of milk is a joke. When the cashier told me they had no eggs left, that was the point in the trip that I about lost it.

Throughout that trip, I really tried to just be calm and roll with whatever came up: puke, yelling, crying…I knew we’d all survive all that. But after 30 hours alone on the road with four kids, I really just wanted to punch the guy who had no eggs. That was my last straw.

When I get gas, I don’t need 25 kinds of energy drinks or 50 kind of tobacco, and my kids don’t eat lottery tickets. But, I really do need milk and eggs, especially on the tail end of a 950-mile trip.

All frustrations, sickness, and exhaustion aside, we arrived home safely that night. Road trip mission accomplished. I tucked four kids into their own beds at home and for several days after, I held down the fort, but was pretty much worthless.

Last year’s trip was definitely a feat of motherhood endurance.

And today, I’m once again exhausted after a long road trip. But all in all, I’m thankful for the relative easiness of this road trip compared to the one last year at this time.

More than anything, despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes with these trips, I am committed to what these road trips mean: connection with family. With my husband’s family in Montana and mine in Minnesota, we’ve committed to a lifetime of road trips in order to keep connections with family that we love.

Being held by Great Grandpa Thelmer on Thanksgiving morning is just fine.

Being held by Great Grandpa Thelmer on Thanksgiving morning is just fine.

gingerbread house tag team

Five cousins show off their completed houses.

Five cousins show off their completed houses.

Exhausting road trips mean hugs from Great Grandma and Grandpa, making gingerbread houses with Montana cousins, eating breakfasts with Grandma and Grandpa, my kids watching Grandma sew their Christmas blankets, and countless hours playing and reconnecting.

And for that, neither snow, nor rain, nor puking children will stop us from hitting the road.

My Friday Night Happy Hour: Pizza, Popcorn and a Pig Pile

Of all the routines in my life, one of the most important to me is Friday night. That is my Happy Hour, although it involves no bar.

Happy Hour for me is Movie Night: pizza, popcorn, and a pig pile of kids on the couch.

We started Movie Night a year ago. I think it all began with sheer exhaustion. Without fail, every single week I am completely wiped out by Friday night. All I want to do is just sit on the couch and zone out. I don’t want to make a fancy meal, I don’t want to have a discussion about table manners, none of it. I just want to sit and not feel obligated to do anything.

All I want is to just throw a pizza in the oven and watch a movie…

Hey, why don’t we don’t that…

So, out of that weekly exhaustion was born one of the routines that our whole family looks forward to the most: Movie Night. Turns out, at the end of a week, we ALL just want to sit and hang out and do nothing.

My four-year-old has a calendar with simple labels so he can keep track of days. School days are marked with “S” and on Fridays, I drew a little picture of our television to show Movie Night. Every time he sees that day, he cheers. Our two-year-old reacts the same way: she says “Movie night!” in the same excited and relieved way that she says “You’re home!” when someone returns.

We all need a mental break, snuggle time on the couch, and easy food. It’s the one meal a week that we don’t eat at the table. We make popcorn and pizza and head to the living room.

Three kids in a flurry of gobbling olives and making pizza creations.

Three kids in a flurry of gobbling olives and making pizza creations. (Groceries still not put away from the afternoon trip to the store.)

Pressing out the dough

Relaxing on movie night is special enough that my kids often dart upstairs to put on their “movie night pants:” soft, fuzzy pajama pants that feel so comfy after a long week. Then we turn on a movie. Sometimes, we just pick something from Netflix that is family friendly (keeps the kids entertained, but doesn’t drive Jarred and me crazy with boredom).

My favorite nights are the times when I find a classic, something we watched as kids. It’s so much fun to share E.T., The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and The Andy Griffith Show with our kids. I love watching something familiar, but seeing it with new eyes from an adult perspective while at the same time, getting the joy of watching our kids see it for the first time.

Just last week, we watched Swiss Family Robinson. Growing up, that movie was a family staple. We watched it over and over and over. We quoted lines. Seeing it again after about a 20 year gap, I see lots of flaws in the storyline. But through the eyes of my kids, I can suspend disbelief. Of course it is perfectly reasonable (and totally fabulous) for a little boy to snare a wild baby elephant and make it a tame pet in the next scene. Why couldn’t a clever family fight off a band of pirates?

Watching the opening scene at the kids' picnic table as the pizza bakes.

Watching the opening scene and munching popcorn at the kids’ table as the pizza bakes.

And best of all, my kids completely cracked up at my very favorite part. During the pirate attack, the lead pirate picks up a coconut bomb, and examining it, says something that sounds like “coconut” in another language, “Doydoynut?”. Then, dismissing it as nothing “Eh…” he tosses it behind him, where it explodes right in front of another bad guy pirate, who gets blasted back. In true Disney style, there is no blood shed, just comedy.

My seven-year-old read Swiss Family Robinson and then watched the movie last year at school, so she prepped her siblings ahead of time to watch for the “doydoynut” part. My two-year-old excitedly acted out the coconut scene and giggled. She told us that was her favorite part, which is impressive, since she hadn’t even seen the movie yet when she announced that.

So last Friday, when we got to the coconut scene, we backed up the movie three or four times to fully appreciate the “doydoynut” and laugh hysterically.

And that’s why I love movie night.

My kids sit in a big pig pile all over us on the couch. They fight over who gets Mom’s lap (a precious commodity). We hang out for two hours, and have no agenda other than just to be together. I sit and hug them and feel their cozy, warm smallness. My six-year-old who often tells me “I just can’t ever get enough of your hugs” fills up his hug bank on the couch.

Movie night...picture Mom wedged into that little open spot on the couch.

Movie night…picture Mom wedged into that little open spot on the couch.

And while we sit, the kitchen full of dishes just sits and waits, and so does the big pile of laundry upstairs.

Downstairs on the couch, I get to snuggle with my kids and teach them a few inside jokes from my childhood. So now I can say “A doydoynut? Eh…” and make them crack up, just the way I did with my siblings growing up.

I think that’s important. Sometime, I’m going to be a very old lady in the nursing home making a joke about a “doydoynut” and cracking myself up. And that’s when I’ll need my kids to step in and tell the nurses that I’m not crazy. Or maybe they’ll say that I’ve always been that crazy. That would be fine, too.

Movie Night Pizza Crust
On movie nights we started out just throwing frozen pizza in the oven, but one night I decided to make pizza from scratch.

We discovered, like many things, homemade tastes better. I don’t know if I’m clever for making my own pizzas or an idiot for turning the one brain-dead cooking night into a cooking event, but we now make our own pizza. I mix up dough in the Kitchenaid mixer, and then each kid gets a dough ball and creates their own personal pizza while I make the big pizza.

Sometimes, you need a big brother to help flatten out your dough.

Sometimes, you need a big brother to help flatten out your dough.

It turns the table into a pizza topping mess and health code inspectors would arrest me for how often the spoon gets licked and then returned to the sauce bowl, but it’s really fun. It makes more work for me, but I love that my two-year-old can make her own pizza. I also noticed that when they make their own pizzas, they almost always clean their plates when eating.

The pizza crust is a make and bake recipe…no rising involved (no planning ahead needed). Once you’ve had a little practice, you can start completely from scratch and have a hot, baked pizza in about 35 minutes, which is not all that much longer than it takes to cook a frozen pizza. If you have lots of little helpers adding their own unique flair to the cooking process, it will take slightly longer.

This recipe makes enough dough for one thick-crust recipe, or one thin crust recipe plus four mini pizzas.

No-Rise Pizza Crust

1 cup hot water
1 pkg. yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons oil
corn meal

1. Add yeast and sugar to hot water, stir, and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, mix flour and salt. Add in the yeast mixture, which should be bubbly. Add oil. Mix well.

3. Mix with dough hook attachment on mixer or knead by hand for 5 minutes until dough is soft and pliable. (You can skip this part, but your crust won’t be as tender.  Five minutes of kneading is the secret to making dough that’s so soft and nice that you just want to roll in it.  We discovered this by accident when I left the mixer on and walked away, and it made the best crust ever.)

4. Sprinkle pizza pan lightly with corn meal to prevent sticking. (Do not skip that, you’ll regret it.) Roll out dough and add desired pizza toppings.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Makes one pizza.

I like to use 1 cup of whole wheat flour with 2 cups all-purpose flour to give the dough a little more heft. I also often make Cheese-Stuffed Crust: Roll out the dough a good inch past the edge of the pan, sprinkle mozzarella around the perimeter, fold over the dough and seal it in. It makes a cheesy bread stick at the end of your piece of pizza…mmm…

Now, go forth and make pizza! Have a movie night!

Trick or Treating with the Pig Farmer‏

Childhood Halloweens are pretty well etched into my memory, but the one that stands out in my mind is the year that my brother Mike dressed as a pig farmer and took us trick or treating. That was the infamous year of the Skeletor and Cactus Incident.

Normally, Mom drove us on a long winding loop “around the block,” about ten miles looping around to our neighbors out in the country. We spent most of the time in the car and made less stops in our night of trick or treating than kids living in town, but most neighbors loaded us with a treat bag, so we always hauled home heavy bags of candy by the end of the night. Just the same, every year we wondered if maybe kids in town were collecting more than us, and every year, Mom assured us that they indeed were not.

That particular year, I remember standing in the kitchen ready to go, probably waiting for Mom who was trying to get a few more things done. I’m guessing I was decked out in some combination of a costume and a winter coat, like most Minnesotan kids trick or treating.

Just off of the kitchen was our utility room, where everyone came in and out when doing chores. While I was impatiently waiting to go trick or treating, my brother Mike came in from doing chores in the hog barn. I think he was about a junior in high school at the time.

I don’t remember the particular conversation between Mike and Mom, but looking back, I’m guessing I was impatiently waiting in the kitchen to go trick or treating, and Mom had baby Victoria and about ten kids at home and a million things on her plate and didn’t know how to make it all happen. Mike offered to take us younger kids trick or treating.

I’m sure Mom was relieved, but to me, this immediately was a problem.

Mom ALWAYS took us trick or treating. How could Mike possibly do it the exact same right way that Mom did it? And what was his costume? Halloween only came once a year, this had to be done right.

Mike smiled and told me, “I’m going to be a pig farmer!”

He definitely looked every bit like a pig farmer. Mike, fresh from the hog barn, still had coveralls on and his olive green chore boots, commonly known as “shoot kickers,” well, something close to “shoot,” anyway. To keep warm, he might have thrown on top a green Pioneer Seed Corn hooded sweatshirt, full of holes and covered in grease.

Then he reached up above the cereal cupboard to the cabinet where we kept the garbage bags. He pulled out a gigantic black garbage sack, and said he was all ready to go and fill it up.

That’s when I began to protest. I was young, but old enough to know something embarrassing when I saw it.

“Oh no, Mike, you can’t wear that. It’s not a REAL costume. And you can’t take a garbage bag. That’s not a real trick or treating bag.” Halloween has to have a certain mystique, and that wasn’t what I had in mind.

Acceptable costumes came from our big cardboard box in the attic of musty-smelling costumes. Like the Gene Simmons Kiss mask that repeatedly tormented grandkids in later years (sorry, Jason). Or the homemade Indian costume made from a sheet. Or the stained ghost costume made from some other sheet. Or maybe one of Mom’s rumpled wigs from the era when wigs were the thing for a while.

Even one of those creepy masks that was supposed to look like a little kid or the disturbing red-nosed clown would be ok. Also acceptable was a vinyl store bought costume from Henry’s Variety, like my awesome Tweety Bird costume in kindergarten.

Now, those were REAL costumes. That’s how it was supposed to work.

My protests were fruitless. Mike knew he was a farmer, and that was that. Off we went, three young kids and our pig farmer big brother, off for a night of trick or treating in Mom’s Bonneville. In hindsight, my embarrassment about Mike’s chore clothes “costume” seems pretty pointless, considering almost every stop was at a neighboring farm.

Our first stop without exception was Grandma’s house, right next door. Grandma Kramer always had a beautiful yellow banana ready for every trick or treater that stopped by. Unfortunately, Grandma’s bananas often looked a little worse for the wear after getting banged around, scrunched, smushed during the night of trick or treating.

After Grandma’s, we made our way around the neighborhood. Mike stopped at all of our usual stops, and added in a few extras, too. Mike was a talker, and he was more than happy to spend an evening making little social calls at all the neighbors in the name of taking younger siblings trick or treating.

I remember being impressed by how easily he talked to everyone. As I kid I felt shy every time the door opened and I had to talk to a someone that I only saw a few times a year, but Mike loved every minute. Our routine that night became saying “trick or treat,” collecting candy, saying “thank you,” and then waiting, and waiting just a little bit more while Mike talked to the neighbors.

At Jerry and Mary Connelly’s house, we stopped in and collected our candy, said thanks, and then stood around and waited while Mike talked and talked. Which brings me, then, to the Skeletor and Cactus Incident.

That was the era when He-Man and Masters of the Universe were very cool, so my younger brother, Matthew, was dressed up as Skeletor, He Man’s evil nemesis. That Skeletor costume was one of those vinyl ones, the kind that made loud noises when you moved and often ripped by the end of the night.

This is just what the costume looked like.  Thank you, internet.

This is just what the costume looked like. Thank you, internet.

Matthew was maybe just four or five at the time, but he faithfully wore the cheap yellow Skeletor mask for hours. You can imagine the type of mask, it’s the kind that they now recommend you avoid because it impairs your vision.

Well, little Skeletor, standing there at Connellys and waiting quietly while Mike talked, shuffled and stumbled backwards, and landed right in Mary Connelly’s cactus plant collection. Real live fully intact cacti. Feeling shy and embarassed, he got up quickly and didn’t say a word about it, and probably worried that he wrecked one of the plants. And then we all waited a little longer while Mike talked a little more to our neighbors.

When we got back into Mom’s car and started to head back out onto the gravel road, Matthew finally shared his predicament: the poor kid had cactus spines stuck in his back side. He had stoically stood there the whole time, and never said a word about it.

I clearly remember sitting in the dark night on the gravel road with just the dome light of the Bonneville for light. With a cumbersome shuffling of costumes and candy bags and coats, Mike laid Matthew across his lap and opened up the Skeletor costume. He then plucked the cactus spines out of Matthew’s poor little “biscuits,” as Mike called them. I felt so bad for Matthew. Cactus spines are tricky things, tiny and hard to see in low light, so it took a bit of doing for Mike to make Skeletor ready for more trick or treating again.

Imagine a costume just like this, with a few cactus spines added in the back.

Imagine a costume just like this, with a few cactus spines added in the back.

Cactus free, we rounded out the night. Just before heading up the hill back to our house, we made a stop at our aunt and uncle’s house, where Donna always had the cutest little paper Halloween bags ready for us, and always made us feel special. The last stop of the Halloween night was always Elsadie Hansgen, then we headed home.

I’m sure we ran into the house and gave Mom the full report of the highlights of the evening, while dumping out our candy into cake pans so we could see it better and sort through it all. Then came a little giddy gorging followed by hiding the cake pans of candy in our bedrooms so nobody else would steal the precious loot.

All in all, it was a fine Halloween.

Lessons learned? Never under estimate the pain tolerance of a little boy dressed as an action figure. And sometimes, the real super heroes come dressed in s*** kickers.

No photo exists of my long ago Halloween night with a pig farmer and Skeletor, so you have to use your imagination.  As a substitute, here are my kids this year: Iron Man, a Witch, Elmo and a Skeleton, Spot the dog as himself.

No photo exists of my long ago Halloween night with a pig farmer and Skeletor, so you have to use your imagination. As a substitute, here are my kids this year: Iron Man, a Witch, Elmo and a Skeleton, Spot the dog as himself.

Back 40 Adventures

I do believe that to grow up properly, every kid needs to spend a little time on exploring adventures. My favorite playground growing up was our “Back 40:” about 240 acres or so of cropland, CRP, woods, rolling hills, ponds, and ravines on our farm.

Around 5th grade, my Saturday afternoon jobs were to vacuum the den and haul everyone’s clean clothes from the utility room up to the bedrooms upstairs. I particularly hated vacuuming the den. Usually, I made it an all day affair stalling to avoid the 15 minutes of vacuuming, and often enough, everyone tripped over the vacuum for a week because I never actually vacuumed.

My biggest motivation, though, to complete the torture of vacuuming for 15 whole minutes was going out exploring afterward. Once I had my afternoon jobs done, I was free to head outside.

I’d grab my jacket, and head upstairs to get my special survival gear fanny pack off the hook in my closet. My “survival pack” was a bright red fanny pack with the Kool Aid man on the front. I’d ordered it after carefully saving Kool Aid Points from the back of every drink packet all summer long.

Inside I had all the survival essentials: matches that I’d waterproofed in melted wax, a short candle, an emergency poncho, a jack knife from my brother, a lighter, fingernail clippers, a candy bar, a space blanket and even a toilet paper packet from an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) that came from one of my siblings in the military.

I’d tell my mom I was headed out exploring and promise to be back by supper. Then I’d call Sparky or Bandit or Buck to come along, and the dogs and I headed out on a walkabout to the back of the farm.

I’d round the corner at the silos, go past the yellow shed and hog unit, and past the windbreak. When I climbed over the gate, leaving the farm yard and entering the open fields, that marked the official start of exploring, just a girl and her dogs.

After a few trips, the dogs knew the routine, and eagerly took off ahead of me down the field lane, zig-zagging back and forth, following any scent trails that crossed their paths and marking their territory with a seemingly endless well of “marking spray.” I walked down the dirt path of the field lane and passed the corn, soybeans, and hay, and usually headed out toward the pond.

On the way to the pond I’d usually avoid the big stand of pine trees that my family planted before I was born. I was fairly sure someone would be hiding behind one of those trees. In hindsight, the possibility of a “bad guy” randomly waiting behind a pine tree on the back of our farm, ten miles from town seems awfully remote, but at the time they seemed dark and scary.

When I reached the pond, I’d throw a few rocks in, watch the splashes, and let the dogs walk in the mud and get a drink.

Most of the time, I’d then head to the woods. On the back end of the farm, past the pond, we had rolling tree-covered hills which connect to the Whitewater Valley. I’d crawl on my belly to get under the barbed wire fence, and then follow along animal trails.

I’d walk along logs, climb up steep hills, and make my way through thick underbrush. I’d flip over rocks to check out the bugs and dig in mud with sticks. I’d collect little treasures and sometimes find secret hideouts. I’d imagine where I would sleep if I was stranded out there all night, and what I would do to survive.

Periodically, when I hadn’t seen the dogs in a while, I’d whistle and call them back. They’d circle back within sight to check in, and head off again on their adventures. As long as I had the dogs along and my survival pack, I knew I was safe.

Once I plucked a little white daisy-like flower with a yellow center, and had a sick feeling in my stomach seeing that it began to “bleed” after I picked it. Slightly afraid I’d done something bad, I told Mom about it later, and learned first hand about the blood root flower.

Another time, I brought home a dried out weed with a large swollen round bulge near the top. That’s when my brother, Greg, taught me about wax worms. I believe we later smashed open the bulge on the weed to check out the wormy contents inside.

Mostly, I just wandered…because I could. That was the era when I loved books about dogs and the outdoors, and read through everything I could get my hands on by Jim Kjelgaard, the author of Big Red. In elementary school, I spent a lot of time doing what other people wanted. Out exploring, though, I had independence. I could wander anywhere I wanted as long as I stayed on our land.

I loved the smell of wet dirt and damp fall air. I liked the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. I crunched on crispy old leaves and felt the soft squish of thick piles of pine needles on the ground. I loved the thrill of being off alone on an adventure, relying on myself to remember my paths and get back home again before suppertime.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids' exploring adventures.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids’ exploring adventures.

I was always struck by the world apart from our house. Inside our house was all the business and busyness of life, projects, things to do, TV, noise, people. Outside exploring, the world was nothing but wide open fields, woods, and quiet.

As a kid, my Saturday afternoon exploring was the favorite part of my week, and I couldn’t imagine what kids did in town when they didn’t have their own farm to explore. When looking at my watch told me I needed to head back in time for supper at six, I always felt a little sad that my exploring was done for the week.

I think that little explorer in me is partly what lead me to head to Bozeman, Montana for college, to Seville, Spain to study abroad, and to still have a need for new adventures. The explorer in me is also what sent my kids outside today to go play in what I jokingly call our “Back Four,” the windbreak of tall pine trees on the east side of our land. I’m fairly certain that trees, dirt, and burdocks are essentials for learning.

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.

When Life Hands You a Puffball…‏

Written October 7, 2013.

If I look out in the sheep pasture and see something strange on the ground, generally speaking, “maybe we could eat that” isn’t the first thought that comes to mind.

However, there are exceptions to every rule. Last Saturday happened to be one of those exceptions.

Freckles the sheep helps show off the puff ball discovery in the pasture.  (When did sheep and puff balls enter my life?!)

Freckles the sheep helps show off the puff ball discovery in the pasture. (When did sheep and puff balls enter my life?!)

We originally set out for the Great Apple Harvest of 2013. With four long-established apples trees on the back corner of our land, I had happy visions of bags full of apples. I would bake them into all sorts of things that would fill our house with the aroma of fall and make everyone swoon with homey contentment.

As it turned out, the apple harvest was pretty much just that: AN apple. Okay, realistically we maybe found 30. And, they certainly were, um, “organic.” Of the 30 apples, Asian beetles and bees inhabited at least half. I could almost hear the bugs drooling in sheer ecstasy, “Oh…I’m living in a house made of food…nom nom nom….”

A few weeks ago, my husband mentioned it was time to pick the apples. At that point, I really was in denial about fall setting in, and I told him I just wasn’t ready for apple picking. Funny thing, apple picking isn’t really like making a dentist appointment, where you pick the time that works for you, and maybe put it off for a month if things just don’t fit in the schedule.

By the time we moseyed back to pick our apples, we found most of them on the ground, already turning into compost. I had visions of apple sauce, apple butter, apple pies… Compost is all well and good, but nobody comes into a house and says “ooh, is that compost you’re making ?” and if they do, it’s probably not a compliment.

After strike one on the wimpy apple harvest, I thought “Hey, we’ll just add the last of the rhubarb, and make apple rhubarb pie!”

A few weeks ago, we discovered that the rhubarb rejuvenated itself and we had a whole new crop of crisp stalks ready for the picking. When I saw it that day, I just wasn’t ready to tackle a pile of rhubarb, and figured I’d come back another day. (Are you noticing a theme?)

And…strike two, rhubarb. Thank you to the goats and/or sheep who escaped and munched off my last good batch of rhubarb for the season. All we found were a few trampled stalks and some telling raisin-like droppings. Why, goats and sheep, why?

They didn’t even add brown sugar or oatmeal. It couldn’t have tasted good. It’s also apparently slightly toxic for them, according to the internet. I never noticed any animals with ill effects, so they must have all eaten just a little, sharing nicely. Polite sheep and goats. That’s the silver lining.

The other silver lining? Tomatoes! With no killing frost, our tomato plants are troupers. They are out there in the weed patch garden, just making tomatoes like crazy. My husband and a collection of kids picked off the last of the tomato bounty. It is a beautiful sight to behold.

Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes!  Doesn't it look so farm-y with the barn in the background?

Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes! To me it looks like a little slice of country heaven with the barn in the background…

Our best harvest of all, though, happened to be the one thing we had no plans of finding. A day or two ago, looking out across the yard, I thought an ice cream pail must have blown into the sheep’s pasture. On closer inspection, I discovered a volleyball-sized mushroom that I swear just showed up overnight. A puffball!

Way back in the recesses of my mind is a memory of one time coming home from the Fall Festival at St. Aloysius with a giant puffball mushroom that my mom then fried and we ate. It was such an oddity that it stuck in my head.

Heading online once again, I checked various websites to find out about our amazing pasture fungal growth. Turns out, if the inside is creamy white and uniformly smooth with no gills, it is indeed edible.

Oh yes, we are in puffball heaven. We hunted down five puffballs total. That makes four more puffballs than we could ever really consume in a reasonable amount of time.

The Great Puff Ball Harvest of 2013.  Holy puff balls!

The Great Puff Ball Harvest of 2013. Holy puff balls!

And that’s kind of how it is in life. Sometimes, you think it’s apples that you’re going to find, but it’s really puffballs. And puffballs aren’t apples, but they are pretty amazing.

Puffball pie, anyone? Just kidding. We did eat them sauteed with onions in plenty of butter. On top of our Saturday night pot roast they tasted utterly delicious. (That’s just how Martha Stewart would say it.)

And for dessert, we did manage to whip up a fabulous apple rhubarb crumb pie with the last pickings of the season.

Pot roast with wild mushroom and apple rhubarb crumb pie. Not bad for some stuff we found laying in the yard.

A side note:
Completely unrelated to anything about puffballs, on Sunday all of my sisters and I attended Les Miserables at Rochester Civic Theater. Ordinarily, sisters getting together isn’t that big of a deal, but there are six of us, so it does become a big deal. By our best count, it’s been 18 years since we last did anything together with just the six of us sisters together. That makes this newest photo of the six of us all the more special.

The six sisters together: Karen, Deb, Mel, Kathy, Vicki and Sues.  For the record, I also have seven brothers. : )

The six sisters together: Karen, Deb, Mel, Kathy, Vicki and Sues. For the record, I also have seven brothers. : )

Pie and Two-Year-Olds: Yes, You Can

Today, I made pie with my two-year-old. Martha Stewart would probably not approve of the non-exact nature of our baking. We stopped mixing crust because my daughter needed to set a cricket trap by the refrigerator.

Smiling at her very first little pie.  Seconds later she poked her finger in the big pie and stacked her little pie on top like a pyramid.

Smiling at her very first little pie. Seconds later she poked her finger in the big pie and stacked her little pie on top like a pyramid.

I have a love/hate relationship with Martha Stewart. My new favorite guilty pleasure is watching Martha Stewart Bakes on PBS in the evening after the kids are in bed and the dishes are (usually) done. I watch with a little bit of reverence and a little bit of disgust.

The woman truly is undeniably talented, and undeniably pretentious. For me, one of the highlights of watching the show is listening for new pretentious names she uses for common objects and ingredients.

Just last night, she used her “pastry cutter” to cut some dough into a circle. Now, I don’t think Martha would appreciate this, but her so-called pastry cutter looks exactly like what average people refer to as a pizza cutter.

I understand that “pizza cutter” conjures up images of some guy with a beer belly throwing a frozen pizza in the oven and watching a little football. And of course, that association is unacceptable when one is doing serious baking. Wanting to be like Martha, the next time I need to cut up a pizza, I’m going to call out from the kitchen in very crisply pronounced words, “Has anyone seen my pastry cutter?”

When I receive confused looks, I will count that as a success. One step closer to Martha.

And in some ways, Martha has even outdone herself. In years past on her cooking shows, I recall her referring to “confectioners’ sugar.” That name, apparently, has become far too commonplace. I notice that she now uses a product called “10X sugar.” Oh, Martha. We all know it’s just plain old powdered sugar.

I just keep waiting for her to find a new name for eggs.

On the positive side, watching Martha does inspire me to bake. My approach, though, is often decidedly un-Martha Stewart, because I welcome kids, and by extension, chaos into the mix.

With fall in the air, I felt the need to bust out the pumpkin pie again. This is a recipe that’s simple enough that you can employ a two-year-old to do much of the work. In fact, I do.

There are few things more satisfying to a child or a parent than letting someone little take part in a real job. When you eat a pie, and the tiniest person at the table says, “I made it,” there really is no greater pride than that.

For pumpkin pie filling, I use my mom’s time-honored recipe. It’s actually quite famous. You will find my mom’s recipe printed on the back of every single can of pumpkin, so I won’t reprint it here.

The recipe I want to share is for pie crust. Crust is the hard part of pies. It’s the part that usually makes people nervous enough to head to the freezer section and buy something in a box that comes from a little dough boy in a baker’s hat.

Homemade crust, though, tastes so much better. This crust is easy. No rolling pin required.

I originally found this recipe on the internet. When 178 people give this recipe give this a recipe a very good rating, I count it as a pretty safe bet.

No Roll Pie Crust

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup ice water
1/2 cup oil

Directions: Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Place dough in the pie pan, and press it out evenly with your fingers. Fill with favorite pie filling and bake. Makes one pie crust.

Here’s a measurement of the easiness: About two years ago, when my oldest child was five and the youngest was a baby less than a year old, I made this with my kids AND two of my sister-in-law’s children, ages four and two. That’s right, six kids ages five and under helped make a pie for a bedtime snack. Granted, it was a little chaotic, but it was doable. They all helped pat the crust in place.

Six kids ages five and under helped me bake a pie for a bedtime snack.

Six kids ages five and under helped me bake a pie for a bedtime snack.

Today, I made pie with my two-year-old. Martha Stewart would probably not approve of the non-exact nature of our baking.

We stopped mixing crust because my daughter needed to set a cricket trap by the refrigerator, “I need to catch him. I’ll be very nice to him, Mom.”

She also tested the texture of the crust by wrapping some on her arm. I have not yet seen that technique on cooking shows, but I’m not Martha, so I may be mistaken.

Concentrating on mixing up the pie crust.

Concentrating on mixing up the pie crust.

I let my daughter shape her own pie in a tiny toy pie pan. She added crumbled popcorn and sugar powder from a pixie stick to the crust. I also noticed she added almonds and cashews to the pumpkin filling while I wasn’t looking. I’ve got a real innovator, one with pumpkin pie filling all over her mouth.

We didn’t bother with trying to emulate Martha’s perfectly fluted crust edges. Neat and orderly also went aside with a flour explosion on the table and little fingers dipped in pie filling.

In the end, imperfect crust still tastes good. Germs will bake away at 350 degrees, and happiness and accomplishment from making a pie is long lasting. That’s why I do my baking with a two-year-old.

Beware the Purple Footprints

I knew it wasn’t good when the first thing I saw was a purple footprint on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. I followed the purple footprint trail to the bathroom, where I could hear running water…

On the first day of school, I sent a ready and fairly willing first grader and second grader off on the bus. When the bus pulled away, my four-year-old son went peacefully back to watching Sesame Street. Meanwhile, my two-year-old daughter still slept upstairs.

7:15 AM: First day of school, two kids ready for a great new start to the year, heading off to 2nd grade and 1st grade.

7:15 AM: First day of school, two kids ready for a great new start to the year, heading off to 2nd grade and 1st grade.

It was so quiet.

My husband and I had a cup of coffee at the table and grinned at the silence. By the time we finished our coffee, my daughter woke up and wandered downstairs. Once she had something to eat, I headed upstairs to get the shower I’d been meaning to take since 6 AM.

I left my two kids happily watching Elmo and Big Bird, which generally means they are fully engrossed for at least long enough for me to take a shower.

In the shower, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. After a long summer, the new school year felt like a fresh start. It’s been five years since I taught in a school, but every beginning of the school year still gives me that excited feeling of fresh beginnings, learning, and new activity.

Standing in the warm water, I pondered a more peaceful existence and a more organized routine. I thought of fall coming, and cozying up to Friday movie nights and Saturday night pot roasts in the dining room. And feeling a little breathing room, I let my head roam to all of the projects I might get done this fall. In the short time since the bus pulled away, I already felt refreshed and ready to take on the world.

I should have known better.

It seems that my two-year-old had far too many creative juices flowing to just sit and idly watch television.

Soon after I stepped out of the shower, my four-year-old came in, casually telling me that his little sister was painting downstairs. Uh oh. I asked, “What’s she painting?” He shrugged his shoulders and wandered off. I don’t know if he wasn’t sure, or if he was too busy to answer, but either way, it didn’t ease my fears.

Still wrapped in a towel, I headed downstairs to inspect. I knew it wasn’t good when the first thing I saw was a purple footprint on the floor at the bottom of the stairs.

I followed the purple footprint trail to the bathroom, where I could hear running water. In the bathroom, purple hand and footprints covered the toilet and went up across the bathroom counter.

The trail ended with a two-year-old, wearing fleece pajama pants while sitting in a sink. Water filled to the brim and sloshed over the sides as the faucet continued to flood still more water into the sink. My daughter sported a shirtless purple tummy as she diligently scrubbed purple feet with her purple hands.

8:30 AM: Painted toilet. Not exactly what I had in mind for a great start to a new school year.

8:30 AM: Painted toilet. Not exactly what I had in mind for a great start.

This was not quite how I envisioned my peaceful school year.

I cleaned off my artist, the toilet, and sink.

Then heading into the toy room, I discovered her primary “canvas,” our Hoosier cabinet. On the white cabinet door I found an impressive abstract finger painting in purple, pink, and green. It looked like the sort of thing someone young and industrious might accomplish in, oh, the length of time of a shower (once they climbed the cabinet and retrieved the paint from a high shelf).

I also discovered she used some of the “good” paint that doesn’t easily wipe off. Glittery purple paint apparently has an excellent pigment. When wiped with a damp rag, it “fades” to a neon fuchsia pink.

It’s episodes like this that make me think the universe has a little sense of humor. Just when I send two kids off to school and get a feeling like “Ah, life will be easy,” there is my two year-old, stepping up her game with a painting on the cabinet and purple footprints across the floor.

Granted, it could have been worse. It wasn’t ponds of chocolate syrup swirled all over the carpet. It also wasn’t an iron turned on and then left face down on the carpet until the smell of melting carpet fibers filled the house. No, it wasn’t as bad as other episodes I’ve seen with her older brother.

Looking on the bright side, the girl IS ambitious, and what a self-starter. While I showered, she engaged herself in experiential learning, used large motor and fine motor skills, studied the fine arts, and honed her problem solving skills.

Theoretically, that sort of learning activity is a teacher’s dream come true. But on the first day of school, when hopes are high for children’s future achievements, I just wish my daughter had a little less drive and creativity…at least while I’m trying to take a shower.