A Series of Fortunate Events

Normally, milking a goat for the first time would be a pretty memorable event for me. But this past week, I almost forgot I even did that. It’s really spring and life is running at full speed at our house.

The to-do list started while driving home in the evening on the Sunday after the big May snow storm. I noticed that the final patches of snow melted in the fields. I pointed it out to my kids, reminding them how we still saw plenty of snow around at noon that day. As I contemplated feeling confident enough to finally pack snow pants and mittens for the season, my six-year-old said, “We need to get our crops planted, Mom.” That’s what he calls our garden.

Wait a minute. He’s right. What?! Snow pants…garden…I’m sorry, but I just have trouble wrapping my head around a garden when I helped my kids build a snowman two days earlier. I just haven’t allowed myself to get excited about a garden this year when every time I look at seed catalogs, we get a snowstorm. With summer vacation just a few weeks away, it’s finally sinking in that the time is now to get all of our projects in high gear.

New Kids on the Block
The goats living at our place have been quite busy themselves.

 Our kids holding the new goat kids, with their little sister impatiently waiting for a turn.

Our kids holding the new goat kids, with their little sister impatiently waiting for a turn.

Right now we’re hosting four “foster goats” at our place. They belong to my brother and his family. On Tuesday, I looked out at the goats in the pasture and wondered when my husband put our little lamb in with the goats. Then I noticed the “lamb” was the wrong color and half the size he should be. We had a new baby goat!! I wandered into the barn, and discovered Big Momma (because that’s her name, of course) had not one baby, but twins. In this age of instant communication, I snapped a picture with my phone and sent it to my brother and sister-in-law to share their new baby news.

Then I noticed that Big Momma had a big swollen udder on one side and a teat swollen like a water balloon. I’m no goat whisperer, but I am a mom, and I know from experience that that sort of thing hurts, a lot. I called my brother, Mike, and we talked about it, and I decided I’d try to milk her by hand to relieve some of the pressure.

Now, before you get the wrong impression about my animal skills, let me tell you about my previous goat experience: Once, when I was in third grade, I saw pygmy goats at a petting zoo while visiting my sister in Oklahoma. One of the goats nibbled the corner off of my paper bag from the gift store, which bothered me enough that I still remember it to this day.

I remember that many of the goats at the zoo were hugely pregnant. Somewhere, there is a picture of me from that day sitting on one of those pregnant goats. Because when I saw a big heavy pregnant momma, I thought it would be fun to take a picture riding her. Now isn’t that, um, sweet? So, that is my experience with goats. Yep, I’m a regular James Herriot.

Between my husband (who also has never milked anything) and I, along with the assistance of four kids, a billy goat who bumps you when you bend over, and a curious dog, we managed to get about a pint of milk in a bucket, and probably another cup on the floor. We fed the goat milk to our bottle-fed lamb, who at first had no interest, and then decided the milk was quite tasty, and he sucked it up.

We took the edge off for Big Momma, and Lamba Lamba Ding Dong (Lamby) had some milk that came from a live animal, not a bag of powder. It was already past bedtime for the kids, so we called that a success, or good enough, anyway.

Sand Mountains
Before the little goat kids stole the show at our house, the big attraction of Tuesday was a new mountain of sand. My husband ordered two truckloads of sand for the base of what will eventually be a concrete floor in our shop. For the short term, though, our kiddos play in sand pile heaven.

We topped the sand pile with a child-sized wooden bridge, a free find from the curb in Utica. The bridge is meant to be a landscaping feature, but temporarily on a sand pile, it makes a perfect spot where the kids can dig a tunnel. Everyone, of course, needs a little spot to dig and hide.

A New Herd of Grass Mowers
Automatic, self-guided grass mowers were another addition to our springtime projects. On Wednesday, we added ten ewes to our list of random farm animals that we are collecting. Seeing sheep in our pasture is nothing new, since last year our neighbor rented out the pasture for his sheep. This year, however, we actually bought the sheep. After the sheep arrived, I looked at my husband, Jarred, and said, “We just bought livestock for the first time.”

Next project on the list? Fencing off more land for the sheep. They want plenty of grass, and we don’t want to mow everything. Win, win.

A Herd of Kindergarteners
Friday was a big day at our house: a birthday party with a slew of kindergarten boys, and a brand new play set for the yard.

When we moved here a year ago, we left our swing set in Montana, with a promise to the kids to get a new one here in Minnesota. Our kids reminded us fairly often of that promise. A Sunday conversation led to a great solution to our play set dilemma. My brother’s kids were outgrowing theirs, and we needed one…perfect!

The play set that is now in our yard is the same one that I remember playing on with my nephew and nieces while I babysat them back in high school. The wood set is about 15 years old, but my brother’s an engineer, so that sucker still looks just as sturdy and as good as new. With a new colorful canopy in place and the slide still a bright yellow, it’s a hugely exciting addition to our backyard.

On Friday afternoon, my kindergarten boy, along with ten buddies and a few cousins, all played on it for the first time. Our kids had no idea that my husband was getting that play set, so when they hopped off of the school bus and spotted it in the back yard…well, I bet you can imagine the excitement… I have to say, I love it, too.

As if a birthday party and new play set weren’t enough, the goat named Baby also had a new baby that day. Little kids at the party got to see a brand new goat kid, play in an enormous pile of sand, climb on a new play set, and play with Lamby, who roams around the yard like a second dog. We capped off the night with a bonfire, and called it a great day.

On Saturday, I was pretty much worthless after wrangling a busy party, but my husband had the energy to make a new tree swing for the giant oak tree in our backyard. He built it big enough for an adult, so we all took plenty of turns on it. The kids declared that it was a Mother’s Day gift for me, and so, it was. I do love tree swings.

Mother’s Day Queen
On Mother’s Day, my cup runneth over with little kid presents: a paper locket necklace, a decorated picture frame, toast in bed, and a paper crown declaring me “Mother’s Day Queen.” I wore my crown, ate specially made toast, and read to my kids the Mother’s Day letter I wrote for them, the one printed last week in the paper.

Wearing new my crown and  locket, reading a special letter to my three-year-old.

Wearing my new crown and locket (and my pajamas), reading a special letter to my three-year-old.

My kitchen floor is a muddy disaster and I could give you a mile long list of imperfections around here, but all that aside, when we have four kids running around chasing a lamb, holding baby animals, playing on sand piles, and swinging from a tree swing, sometimes I feel like we are permanently on vacation out here in the country.

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To My Kids on Mother’s Day

To My Kids on Mother’s Day,

On Mother’s Day, I want to tell you thank you for making me a mom.  Some mornings when I come down the stairs I don’t look very excited to be awake and making breakfast, and some nights I ask you if we can switch places and you can put me to bed.  Sometimes you drive me crazy.  But the truth is, I wouldn’t trade you for anything.

My kiddos and I making the best of the crazy May snowstorm by building a snowman.

My kiddos and I making the best of the crazy May snowstorm by building a snowman.

To #1, my seven-year-old girl:  I am so amazed by you.  I love your artistic, creative projects and paintings that you make and your beautiful handwriting.  You are so helpful when you know I need an extra hand.  I’m proud to have a little girl who is so thoughtful and considerate of other people and genuinely kind.  You are fun and silly and calm and quiet.  You are a wonderful, responsible big sister.  I love getting to run with you.  I also love hearing you read with such expression, and I love that you read the other kids bedtime stories.  You are so good at understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings, well beyond your years.

To #2, my six-year-old boy:  I just love the way your mind thinks about things.  You have such a clever, organized, imaginative mind.  You are my boy who will probably help me learn how to be organized.  Even when you are so sleepy in the morning, you take the time to fold up your pajamas neatly.  I love how you can design buildings and mechanical things in your head.  I love your crayon drawings of tree houses that you color in deep, bright colors.  I love that you ask to play a board game, with just you and me.  I love your fancy bike riding tricks.  And do you know what I really love?  I love seeing how much you love your little sister.  You can always make her smile.

To #3, my three-year-old:  I love your sense of humor and your little jokes.  You make me laugh.  I love to see the projects you create using your two favorite things: strings and hooks.  You are so creative, and I can’t wait to see the things you will make when you get bigger.  You are a sweet boy with a kind heart.  Sometimes you look at me with so much love in your eyes that I can hardly imagine someone could love me so much.  I love watching you run.  You bounce and skip across the grass so lightly that you look like you are floating.  I can tell you are thinking a lot because you ask good questions and you use big words when you tell stories.  I like reading with you on my lap before nap time.

To #4, my girl that just turned two: How did we ever get such a great little girl?  You are such a loving little person.  I love watching you take care of your babies: rocking them, singing them songs, and making nice beds for them.  Everyone just falls in love with you because you’re so friendly.  You like being held by so many people and you will give a hug to anyone that needs one.  You are also such a smart and funny little girl.  I love your silly dances and how you tell knock knock jokes, even when you’re nursing.  You make me laugh.  I love when you tell me the bathroom floor is “hot lava” and I can’t touch it, or when you pretend I’m “baby monster” and you try to take care of me.

Being your mom is a lot of work, but all of you are also so much fun.  I love watching you grow and learn.  It’s fun to look back at pictures of you from when you were babies, and see how much you’ve grown.  I love to see you learning your letters and learning to read.  I’m proud of how you are learning that being part of a family means that we all need to help out and love each other, even if we don’t always get along.

You might not know it, but I learn a lot from you.  You teach me to give even when I’m tired, and you help remind me to have fun and enjoy the best things in life.  And one of the best things in life is being your mom.  Thanks for being my kids.  

Love, Mom

Celebrating Cornmeal: Three Fabulous Ways to Enjoy that Box in the Back of the Cupboard

Written May 7, 2012.

With Mother’s Day on my mind, I become more and more amazed each year at my own mom’s feat of raising a baker’s dozen. Growing up, I didn’t give much thought to the enormous challenge of raising all of us, but now as a busy mother of four, it is all the more impressive to me to think of being pregnant with and raising triple the number of kids that I currently have. Wow.

My mom did it all with a lot of hard work and plenty of on-the-fly creative innovation. This week’s column is inspired by one of those ideas. Back in the day, my mom did something that amazed the ladies in her Homemakers’ Club. During a meeting at our house when all the ladies in the neighborhood got together, one of those times that we tried to have our house looking like everything is beautifully in order and always clean, my mom deliberately made a big mess on her kitchen island.

Doing Cornmeal”

Taking the container of cornmeal, my mom dumped a pile out on the counter, pulled up a little stool, and gave my then preschool age younger brother a selection of little tractors. While she bustled around the kitchen getting ready for her gathering of ladies, my brother happily farmed the cornmeal, plowing rows, scooping it into wagons, and dumping it into piles.

A pile of cornmeal became a staple on our kitchen island for years. Sometimes we swept the cornmeal and tractor collection into a little plastic container that lived on the island, but much of the time a generous cornmeal pile resided on display on the counter top with tractors in various states of farming and it made a ready play spot that attracted all ages. We all loved “doing cornmeal,” and even adults in the family absent-mindedly smoothed the cornmeal into piles or steered a tractor through a pile while we mingled around the kitchen island during a Sunday noon conversation.

Growing up, my mom let us “do cornmeal” in the least restricted way, as an uncontained pile on the counter. Today, kids in our family still play with free spreading piles of cornmeal on Sundays at grandma’s (my mom’s) house under the helpful supervision of my older brother. He’s an always willing uncle who holds little kids on his lap and helps them with their cornmeal farming (and keeps the pile of cornmeal from dumping all over grandma’s carpet).

A pile of cornmeal, some tractors, and an uncle around to catch any spills is a great Sunday afternoon at Grandma’s.

As for me, I usually contain the piles in 9 x 13 cake pans when we play with cornmeal at our house. Giving each kiddo their own pan and pile prevents jurisdictional disputes, and the Ziploc labeled “Kid Cornmeal” always gets plenty of use at our house.

Cornmeal as a toy has undeniable appeal. It’s cheap, versatile, the grainy, smooth texture of cornmeal sifting through hands is irresistibly satisfying, and it feels just slightly naughty to get to play in a mess. In the middle of the winter, a pile of cornmeal becomes an indoor sandbox. Tractors pulling mini chisel plows and discs make beautiful little trails in the cornmeal, and little skid steers can scoop it up and fill any number of things. Add a few measuring cups and spoons, and a cornmeal pile becomes a pretend kitchen. I really don’t need to over explain it. Dump out a pile in front of a kid. Add a few play things. They will be happy for a long time.

Sweet Cornbread

And as much as we love to play with cornmeal, we also love to eat it as cornbread. Cornbread is one of those foods done poorly way too often. You know the kind, perhaps when you sink your teeth into cornbread, it reminds you of the spray foam insulation you used to seal up your attic. Or maybe when you take a bite, your mind travels back in time to the Civil War, and you wonder if perhaps the soldiers’ rations tasted about like this: a dry, tasteless, grainy belly-filler that could remain in the same miserable state for weeks and still taste just the same.

If you’ve spent a life eating cornbread that shatters in your mouth instead of crumbles, or think it is only an acceptable food product once it has been liberally slathered with a layer of butter and honey, today is the day to try something new. I have a cornbread recipe that is sweet and moist, and so good that you don’t even need to coat it with butter or honey (although that certainly is not against the rules).

I found this recipe on the back of the Albers Cornmeal box. Since discovering it ten years ago, this is the only recipe I use for cornbread. The recipe claims 12 servings, but our family of six (four of which are six and under) eats most of the pan in one sitting.

Cornbread this soft, sweet, and tasty is probably illegal in some states. Go on, make a batch. Eat it warm, and it’s better than cake. (photo from albers.com)

Sweet Corn Bread

(Makes 12 servings)

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar

  • 1/2 cup corn meal

  • 1 Tbsp baking powder

  • 1/2 tsp salt

  • 1 1/4 cups milk

  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten

  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil

  • 3 Tbsp butter or margarine, melted

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 8-inch square baking pan.

Combine flour, sugar, corn meal, baking powder and salt in medium bowl. Combine milk, eggs, vegetable oil and butter in small bowl; mix well. Add to flour mixture; stir just until blended. Pour into prepared baking pan.  Bake for 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm.

So, it’s time to take that box of cornmeal out of the back of the cupboard. You know the one. You bought it out of a sense of obligation, feeling like you should have cornmeal on hand because that is the proper thing to do as an adult, because your mom always has some.

Then you stuck the cornmeal in your cupboard, and it slowly worked itself to the back where it still sits today, probably years after you first bought it. There is a good chance that the plastic on top is still intact. And there is also a good chance that even if it has been long neglected, that cornmeal is probably just fine.

Blow the dust off the top of your cornmeal box. Give a pile to your kids to play with, and while they are busy, make a batch of corn bread. No need to feel guilty if you eat four of the twelve servings. You can work it off by sweeping up any cornmeal your kids spill on the floor.

Cornmeal + Ants = “Cornage”

Or, better yet, don’t sweep the cornmeal. Most fabulously of all, a little known value of spilled cornmeal is that it is a natural pesticide for ants. Ants take the food back to the nest, but cannot digest it. The cornmeal swells in their stomach until they burst. KERPOW! Goodbye, ant problem. Now, don’t you love cornmeal even more?

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

© 2012