A Good Heart and a Bounty of Babies

three cousins.jpg

Three baby cousins at Grandma’s house. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Echocardiogram, a Grandma, and Seven Calves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greetings from Frostbite Farm, MN‏

Written January 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just have to keep cooking anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s UnResolutions

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

Written Jan 2, 2014

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

Resolutions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year, everyone!

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

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

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

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

Photo by Pete Keith of Laneboro Community Theater.

Photo by Pete Keith of Laneboro Community Theater.

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

IMG_1905

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

first race

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

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

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

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

Summer breakfast on porch

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

chickensinpickup-1

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

mark and isaac

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

halloween 2013

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

family photo 2013

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

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

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

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

~Kathy

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.

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!

Of Sheep, A Dog, and Monday Morning‏

It’s a cold, windy, drizzly November morning. This is the sort of weather that really just makes me want to trade lives with Spot the dog.

My day began slightly before 5 AM, when my two-year-old woke up for the day. Her own internal clock, still stuck on daylight savings time, tells her it is 6 AM and time to be awake. Fifteen minutes later, her four-year-old brother with the same internal schedule also woke up for the day.

I also struggle with the time conversion. My trouble is that my internal clock is set to the Hawaiian time zone. At 6 AM, my internal clock says, “No, this is about 2 AM. You really should sleep for another four hours.” And then every day I wake up and find myself somewhere far from white sandy beaches, and four hours lacking in sleep.

I’m still waiting for that extra hour of sleep that we’re supposed to get from the clock conversion of “falling back.”

So today, I considered it a great triumph to get out of bed and get three kids ready for the school bus on time. Three kids dressed in clean clothes, combed their hair, ate a good breakfast, and left the house wearing shoes, warm coats, and backpacks. I strove to maintain the delicate balance of directing them to the tasks at hand “Honey, it’s breakfast time” without overly stressing them about the time crunch “AND THE BUS IS COMING!”.

At 7:30, after three rounds of hugs and “I love yous,” the bus pulled in the yard and they went off to school.

At times, I’ve seriously considered home schooling my kids. There are days like today, though, when the school bus in the yard is a colossal relief. I am truly thankful for an established public education system. In some ways, it’s amazing to me. I simply make sure my big kids are dressed and fed, and a bus pulls up and safely brings them to and from school. All day long, they learn, and I am grateful that it I don’t have to do it all.

Those thoughts were in my tired head this morning as I stood at the door and watched the bus pull out of the yard.

Then I glanced over at the couch and saw Spot, and I have to say, I instantly felt envious. Stretched out on a soft leather couch, he had just come downstairs after his peaceful night of sleep. He decided to start the day off with a nap.

Another day, another nap to take.

Another day, another nap to take.

He glanced up at me with a decidedly guilty look on his face. The look said, “Yes, I am a total free loader. But could I just stay here on the couch anyway?”

I want Spot’s winter job.

In the summer, he stays fairly busy. He lives outside, chases the UPS man, pees on tires, rolls in sheep poop, and acts as our security alarm by barking at every vehicle that pulls in the driveway. That job doesn’t really appeal to me.

I would however, like his winter job. Spot moves back in the house, and he goes on the dole. Other than outside bathroom breaks, he spends his days lounging for hours on end. He sleeps on the couch. He sleeps tucked away in the secret hiding place under the table in the sun room. Sometimes, he mixes things up and sleeps on a pillow that fell on the floor. If Spot and I could just trade jobs for one day, I’d be so happy.

While Spot the dog lives like a king (an inbred mutt king, I suppose), we model our sheep after the White House.

Apparently, during World War I, Woodrow Wilson kept 18 sheep on the White House lawn. The sheep saved man power by trimming the grass, and even earned money through the sale of wool.

At our house, we didn’t get around to mowing our kids’ fenced in play area that one last time for the winter. Looking at sheep that still wanted to graze but didn’t have much fresh grass, we added the kids’ play area to the sheep pasture for the time being. The sheep trim down the grass by the tree swing and play set, and hopefully, by spring, all the free fertilizer will be worked into the ground.

It’s very presidential of us.

It’s also pretty amusing. There’s something very entertaining about looking out the kitchen window and seeing sheep graze just a few feet away, plucking up grass by the washline or tree swings. Every time, for a split second I think “Oh no, the sheep are out!”

Sheep grazing by the swings and playset...a sight I never would have predicted two years ago.

Sheep grazing by the swings and playset…a sight I never would have predicted two years ago.

And then of course, my mind wanders to the sheep I see in cartoons. In my head, I picture the sheep sneaking up on the trampoline when nobody is watching, four skinny legs and fat woolly bodies bouncing up in the air. I picture a sheep snickering as she shoves her buddy down the slide, four legs sticking straight up in the air with a woolly back going down the yellow slide. Someday, maybe I’ll catch them in the act.

So, that’s life on a Monday morning. My oldest kids headed off to school, the sheep are doing who knows what at the playground, and the dog is gearing up for a full day of napping. I’m pondering a cup of coffee, but from the bathroom, I can hear my two-year-old asking for help with toilet paper. And so, my week begins.

Shared this story on The Prairie Homestead.

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.