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.

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.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Written September 3, 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First day of school, 2012.

First day of school, 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden tomatoes

Garden tomatoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goats, Grace and Golf Carts

Written August 19, 2013.

Good neighbors make good fences.  (Robert Frost had it backwards.)  That’s just one of things I learned this past week.  Another lesson learned: 13 people can ride a four-person golf cart.  Well, at least 13.  We’re not quite sure that is the maximum.

Vacation at its finest: mini golf in a swimming suit with bare feet.

Vacation at its finest: mini golf in a swimming suit with bare feet.

Greetings, everyone!  I’m back from a mini-vacation last week.  Life’s so busy I don’t really know where to start, so I’ll start with the object of much of my attention lately: a billy goat.

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The billy goat, making plans for another escape.

The billy goat, looking innocent while making plans for another escape.

While my husband, Jarred, made a trip to Arkansas to service two of his feed cart scales, the billy goat decided he really needed a change of scenery.  Of course, the time he likes to roam is just at that time in the evening when I want to take one last peaceful glance at the yard and call it a day and put the kids to bed.  That’s when the Spanish billy goat says to himself (in his Spanish goat accent): “You know, I wood love to geeve my ladeez and myself a lovely new place to graze.  I think I shall start with dee corn field and a bit of dee baby lilac bush.”

And so, he tore a hole through the sheep fence, and led his harem out to graze on tender shoots of all sorts of forbidden fruit.  Normally, at bedtime, I’d pass the goat issue off to Jarred and I’d get the kids in bed.  With my partner in crime off in Arkansas fixing scales and eating catfish, I had to take care of it.  Fixing a fence posed a small problem because A) I didn’t know where to find the fencing supplies and B) I’ve never fixed a fence before.

I managed to find fencing wire and wire cutters (in my two-year-old’s tool kit from grandma).  I called my neighbor, Bernice Gathje, and she told me to just weave in new wire to repair the tear in the square grid of fencing.  I put my crochet skills to use in wire, and began to cut wire and weave, sort of.  About halfway in, her son, Bill, pulled in the driveway.  A short time later, I had a mended fence, and he had a frozen chicken to bring home.  I’m very thankful for good neighbors that make good fences.

However, billy goats have plenty of free time on their hands.  The next morning, he busted a new hole in the fence.  This time Larry Gathje brought down a fence panel they hadn’t been using, and helped repair the latest damage on the fence.  That early morning repair gave me just enough time to get ready for my morning destination, which, unfortunately, was my cousin’s funeral.

Grace
My cousin, Sarah (Siebenaler) Hackenmiller was just a year older than me, 36 years old.  Diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis as a baby, she lived twice as long as her original projected life expectancy, but just the same, the time was all too short.  Growing up, she was one of my favorite cousins.  I remember swinging with her and hanging out in the back yard at Grandma’s, and playing with her in the pool during a family reunion.  Sarah was kind, sweet, and fun.  As a child I often felt shy at big gatherings, but she had a quiet demeanor that drew me in.

As an adult, Sarah created beautiful artwork with vibrant colors.  She possessed what her family described as a gentle strength, which she exuded throughout years of treatments, hospitalizations, pills, and surgeries.  She saw beauty in the world around her, and loved her family above all, and she will be missed greatly.

Sitting there at her funeral, honoring a truly good person’s life that was all too brief, felt all too familiar.  Hearing Sarah’s pastor sing a  solo of “Amazing Grace” made my mind drift back to seeing my niece singing the same song at my brother’s funeral a month and a half ago.  Looking at photo displays of her life, and reading the beautiful program with her life story…it was all a wonderful tribute to the her, but so hard to see.  I don’t want to attend another funeral for someone too young any time soon.

On the morning of Sarah’s funeral, just as I rounded up the kids to head out the door, my four-year-old threw up all over the rug and even on computer.  I attributed it to coughing too much, and cleaned him up and loaded him in the van.  Just before Utica he said, “Mom, I don’t feel good.” I slammed on the brakes, found a plastic bag, climbed back to his seat, and held it open below his mouth just as he began another round.

I ended the day of a puking son and a funeral with another hour’s worth of fence repair and reinforcement.

Sarah, though, put it all in perspective.  She wrote not too long ago, “Some days I mourn that I will never be that full time career woman, or the ranch wife in Montana (I know, completely different paths there), or the mom whose little blond daughter will go with her to the grocery store like I did with my mom.  But I also sit and thank God for all I do have and for still being here on this earth with the ones I love.”

I felt completely wiped out, but grateful for a puking child, which means I am a mom.  I have a little blond daughter to take to the grocery store, along with her three older siblings.  I lived in Montana for about 12 years, long enough to know I didn’t want to be a ranch wife, but I did marry a Montana guy.  Fence repair at the end of the day means I am living out in the country with a few animals. I don’t want to take that for granted.  I get to live some of the dreams that Sarah never got to fulfill.  I get to enjoy my family every day.

Golf Carts

I especially enjoyed them all during our mini-vacation.  After goat adventures, fencing, and a funeral, our planned trip to Jellystone in Warrens, WI seemed all the more appealing.  Twenty-one of us hung out together in two adjoining log cabin condos.  They threw in a golf cart with our cabin rental, and we filled that poor little thing far beyond capacity time and time again to shuttle ourselves to and from the water park area.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of the overloaded clown car, but I can assure you, we drew surprised glances everywhere it went.  I also can assure you we traveled at reasonable speeds…I mean, really, floor a golf cart on a hill, and it only goes at walking pace when loaded with that much weight…

By day, we hit the water slides, lazy river, pools, and mini golf, ate, and then ate some more.  By night, we hung out, kids took moonlit cruises on a golf cart and played card games, and we roasted marshmallows over a big fire.

Cody, Katie, Thor, and Justin: Four cousins floating on the lazy river.

Cody, Katie, Thor, and Justin: Four cousins floating on the lazy river.

For me, it was a complete break from my continual mental to-do list: no laundry, no re-organizing, no extra chores, no cleaning.  While my kids napped, I sat and watched a show about cooking wood-fired pizzas and felt completely guilt free.  I hula hooped.  I played some mini golf in my swimming suit with my nieces and nephews.  I took a late night ride through the woods on a golf cart to get cappuccino with my sisters.

After a few days of hard core family adventures and outdoor pool fun, we appreciated coming home again.  And in the words of my cousin Sarah, “I sit and thank God for all I do have and for still being here on this earth with the ones I love.” I am thankful for all of it. Although, billy goat, I’m not sure that includes you.

A Popsicle Week

Written July 22, 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camp Mosdal

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Written July 15, 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four!! Birthday supper celebration.

Four!! Birthday supper celebration.

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

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

Birthday cake issues aside, we had a great night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bounty of black raspberries harvested from our yard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bittersweet Summertime

Written July 8, 2013.

The new ordinary in our family seems to be living life fully, but with an empty space.

By a quick glance of social events that filled our calendar during the week of the Fourth of July, it looks like our life is back to normal.  In the past eight days, we had get-togethers on six of those days.   We swam at the pool, went to pot lucks, watched plenty of fireworks, had a bonfire, stayed out late with friends and family on several nights, and even made a trip to the Mississippi for the first time this season.

My daughter on the Mississippi river, taking in the sunset and breeze.

My daughter on the Mississippi river, taking in the sunset and breeze.

In the midst of enjoying summertime, though, is a sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken void that we all feel.  It’s negotiating life where my brother, Mike, isn’t around anymore.

It’s the void of a husband being gone, the void of a dad who isn’t there to guide and play with his two kids.

My nephew, Daniel, hanging out at a bonfire at our house. (photo taken by my 6 yr old)

My nephew, Daniel, Mike’s son, hanging out at a bonfire at our house. (photo taken by my 6 yr old)

It’s all the times Mike pops into our heads, all the times something happens and we think, “I wish Mike was here, he’d sure love this” or “I wish Mike was here to help with this.”  It happens over and over for me.

It happened on the third of July.  We headed to Rick and Gina Jones’s annual party, where many in my Kramer clan now happily gather each year.  On the way to the party, my husband showed me a jacket that he found in our van.  It was Mike’s jacket with the “Scenic Helicopter Tours” logo, from one of his former jobs.  The last time Mike hung out at our house, he forgot it.  I couldn’t believe that less than a month later, it was already too late to give him his coat back.

Later on that night, we piled into back end of the Joneses’ 1950 (or so) Studebaker truck.  Wind in our hair,  rumbling of engine and gravel below, we took a slow ride to Dover to watch fireworks.

A whole mess of kids piled under blankets along the back window.  It felt like a scene out of Charlotte’s Web, piling in the back of a the Zuckerman’s truck to take Wilbur to the county fair.  Little kids that normally ride in vehicles tightly strapped in law-abiding car seats simply plunked down on the wood floor and peeked through the board sides at the gravel road passing below.

Good food, a ride in the back of a big old truck, and the first fireworks display of the season?  It was grand.  All of it brought back memories of Mike as a high schooler and stories of hay rides on summer nights.

Bittersweet is the word that comes to my mind.  We are in the peak of summertime goodness, and in a way, I feel more of an urgency about life: a need to soak it up, live it fully, not miss out on an opportunity to see the people I care about and do the things that matter.

Throughout my day and in every activity, I have a very real and tangible reminder that life is precious and cannot be taken for granted.

So on Sunday, we had our usual family brunch at my mom’s, then a collection of adults and kids hit the pool for an afternoon of swimming and soaking up summer sun.  Even though we had plenty of water time the day before on the Mississippi, the cool blue of the pool still beckoned on a hot afternoon.

On the Mississippi: Our very proud two-year-old after her first tube ride with her dad. "I no fall off, Mom!"

On the Mississippi: Our very proud two-year-old after her first tube ride with her dad. “I no fall off, Mom!”

After the pool, we headed back to Mom’s for fried chicken and sweet corn.  She happily cut the corn off the ears in long smooth strips for anyone who asked, even for children over 40 and fully capable of doing it themselves.  It’s one of her hidden talents, shearing off the corn in long strips that are completely irresistible.    Pool and sweet corn felt like a little essence of summer on a Sunday afternoon.

And on Sunday evening after supper,  a bunch of us gathered around the table at Mom’s to read out loud some of the cards that came in the mail for Mike.

In the past when a friend had a loss of a loved one, I always felt like any condolences I might give would be totally inadequate.  Being on the other side this time, I fully understand and appreciate just how much a few kind words or a good memory means to a family who lost someone they loved.  Sometimes it’s hard to open up another card that says “In Sympathy,” but it’s so helpful to know that many people share in the loss.

It was amazing and touching to pick up cards from people that nobody had heard from in ages, and to hear that they were thinking of our family, had great memories of the person Mike was, and had been touched by all of this.   The ripple effect of his life very literally reaches across the whole country.

We began writing a few thank you notes, but barely made a dent in the stack.  Realistically, looking at the collection of cards and the list of food that came in following the accident, we very well will be working on thank you notes for a month of Sundays, even with 10 people helping.  It’s a little overwhelming, but hugely touching.

That’s life right now.  Splashing in the pool and corn on the cob intermixed with lumps in the throat and some teary eyes.  A bittersweet summer.

A Footnote:
Tricia later gave me Mike’s jacket, a very unexpected huge surprise and honor.

A few weeks later, we planted a tree in Mike’s honor in the backyard of their family’s new home.  As an unexpected surprise that evening, Tricia presented everyone in the family with a jackets from Scenic Helicopter Tours. When the owner had asked if there was anything he could do, she asked for a jacket for the members of the family. He made it happen. As Tricia put it, we now have “jacket hugs” from Mike whenever we want them.

Decked out in our new Scenic Helicopter Tours jackets...hugs from Mike.

Decked out in our new Scenic Helicopter Tours jackets…hugs from Mike.

My Gladiolus is Acting Up Again: A Hometown Reunion

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

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

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

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

Behold…the Gladiolus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the TV Went on Vacation

Sometimes a TV should be seen and not heard. Or maybe not seen at all. Right now our TV is hiding out behind a tent, taking a little well-deserved vacation.

Roughing it in the living room for a night.

This all started a few nights ago. I came downstairs after putting the kids to bed, meaning to do the dishes, wash diapers, and fold laundry. I was tired, though, and I sat down for “five minutes” in front of the laptop. And an hour and a half later, I peeled my eyes away from the screen and went to bed. No dishes washed or laundry done. I was mad at myself for it and decided it was time for that business to stop.

When I’m tired, I sit down in front of the computer. I let the kids sit down in front of the TV. Meanwhile, the sun is shining outside on our limited summer vacation time, or the moon is up and everyone should be sleeping. Screen time interrupts all of that. The lazy, hazy days of summer fly by at a dizzying pace, and I want to absorb them all.

So, the next morning I told the kids the TV was going on vacation for a week. The laptop was, too. I braced myself for the “No, c’mon, Mom!!”. Surprisingly, it didn’t happen, because as much as they like watching PBS Kids, they felt even more excited knowing Mom wasn’t going to be in another world on the computer. We shut off the TV, put the laptop away in a drawer, and ate breakfast. That was it.

Four kids chopping up rhubarb for a yummy dessert. Even the baby gets to wield a knife.

And then we started living. We played kickball. We made strawberry rhubarb crunch together. We rode bikes around and around the driveway. We watched the chickens peck the ground. Literally.

Before this summer, I never spent any length of time around chickens. I discovered, though, that watching chickens industriously amble around on the hunt for bugs is strangely satisfying. I love when a chicken runs full speed in pursuit of a fluttering moth, or snags a big grasshopper and then scurries away to protect the treasure from other chickens. And who doesn’t appreciate a nasty earwig meeting its end? What good little chickens. Sitting in a comfy chair while watching chickens go about their quiet business provides the same soothing effect as watching a bonfire or a snowfall. Who knew chickens could be mesmerizing?

Turning off the TV also made ample time for creative, inventive play. On Sunday morning, in the lull between getting dressed and heading to church, I overheard the kids in the living room playing charades. Stomping around the room with arms chugging and plenty of sound effects I heard, “What am I?” “A train?” “Yeah, but what kind?” “Passenger?” “Freight train?” “YESSS!!! Ok! You’re turn!” And so, full engrossed, their game continued for another 15 minutes. I’m not sure where they even learned to play charades. Ironically, maybe they saw it on TV.

My ever-so-industrious kids also engaged in plenty of creative activities even when I was not even around. At some point, apparently someone hosted a dance party in the kitchen. On my loaf of bread. When I made toast one day, I pulled out a slice that looked a bit rumpled. I straightened it out a bit and popped it in the toaster. Once toasted, a very clear foot imprint revealed itself, complete with five little toes. A little foot-identification confirmed the foot stamp belonged to a certain very adorable baby girl. I’m not sure, however, who kindly put the slice of bread back in the bag after she stamped it.

Always return stomped bread into the bag, so nobody will ever know.

I bet someone could find all sorts of crafty applications for baby foot prints on slices of bread, but for right now, the toast is just sitting on a plate on top of our microwave. It’s just a little too cute to throw away. Perhaps I should varnish it into a Christmas ornament.

My three-year-old, not to be outdone by his baby sister, spent some TV-free time experimenting in fluid dynamics. His great discovery? A wide orange juice lid, installed horizontally, deep inside a drinking glass, creates a water tight seal and is nearly impossible to remove.

A fun experiment: Shove an orange juice lid in a glass while Mom’s not watching, and create a water tight seal.

Kitchen creations aside, a few days into our TV’s vacation, the quiet in the house became apparent to everyone. My five-year-old son remarked, “It’s been kind of quiet and nice. It’s just peaceful around here.” And it was.

Hanging around in the quiet on a cloudy, rainy night, my five-year-old asked if maybe he could go camping “back by the sheep fence in the trees.” I felt bad that we hadn’t done any camping this summer, not even in the yard. But I didn’t feel bad enough to head out to a cold, rainy night in a tent.

So I did what any parent would do, I told him yes. All he had to do was get the tent out of the attic, haul it outside, carry it through wet knee-high grass, and not get it in any sheep p…resents along the way. And then he needed to do the same with all of his blankets and his pillow.

Considering it for about two seconds, he said, “How about a tent in the living room?”

Now there’s an idea! I couldn’t deny that one. Filed away in my memory bank are many happy times building forts with my cousins for sleepovers in my grandma’s living room. As a veteran living room camper, I knew that the building of the tent and preparing beds would be far more exciting than the actual camping part. A tent, after all, is a tent: first it’s too hot, then it’s too cold. The one consistent is that it’s always uncomfortable. But I certainly would not deny my children the experience of all that adventurous living. No siree. We hooked together the poles, applied a little duct tape help as needed, and they had a fine camp out ready in our living room. All courtesy of the TV going on vacation.

That night, three kids excitedly headed to bed in a tent-filled living room. Giggles, excitement, a little nervousness, and an over-active three-year-old kept them all awake still at 10:30. Sometime around 2:00 AM, all that excitement and ensuing exhaustion led to a wet sleeping bag. Then around 3:00 AM, we had another wet pile of blankets. Who knew that less TV = more laundry? I swapped out wet for dry, tucked in the kids again, and they spent the rest of the night in camping bliss.

The next morning, triumphant in their camping experience, my daughter proudly deemed the living room tent sleepers now had the official title of Junior Campers. Every important feat deserves an equally important title.

Many thanks to our TV and laptop for taking much-needed breaks last week. Turns out we don’t need you two nearly as much as we thought.