Bound by Tradition

Have I mentioned that I grew up holiday-free? It’s one of the defining aspects of my character — now, as an adult, I love holidays like a kid because they’re all new and exciting, but I’m never sure how important they are to other people or whether I’m celebrating them quite right. Half the time, I only remember after the day has passed. Both this year, in kindergarten, and last year, in preschool,  Niko had no Dr. Seuss-themed shirt on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and last year he failed to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, because I forgot each time that the holidays were approaching. This year I did manage to purchase some St. Patrick’s Day green for the kids and me, and I did remember to get it out on the day, but only because I set two reminders on my phone.

I grew up as part of a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, and abandoning both secular and religious holidays was a choice we embraced as part of freedom from the chains of tradition, worldly entanglement, and religious law. Of course,  non-celebration then became a religious law…but that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, our abstinence from holidays was a practice that derived from a sincere desire to have lives characterized by simplicity, with our focus on God rather than getting caught up in the frivolity and materialism of celebrations.

However, Easter is a holiday that was embedded in my psyche from a young age, albeit loosely. There were no visible trappings of the celebration in our community; we had no egg hunts, no frilly pastel dresses or spring hats. We did have giant, revival-style church services in the spring near Easter time, forever connected in my mind because of the abundance of seasonal candy for the event, but they had nothing to do with the holiday in reality; they just happened to be scheduled in the spring.  Despite our church’s eschewing of holidays, though,  Easter Sunday generally did feature Resurrection-themed songs and sermons, though the word “Easter” wasn’t necessarily mentioned. After all, unlike Christmas, Easter is celebrated at the historically correct time, just after Passover; and its celebration is much less gift-centered than Christmas, thus contributing less to the corruption of the soul. Occasionally someone would get unusually enthusiastic in the delivery of an Easter Sunday message, with a jubilant cry of “He is risen!” from the pulpit, echoed by a wide array of responses from the congregation — from a few sober  Amen’s, to a rousing Glory hallelujah! or two, to a few rebelliously traditional calls of He is risen indeed!

Anyway, what with the appearance of the best candy of the year, the onslaught of songs featuring imagery of rising from graves, and the occasional Easter sermon, Easter is a holiday that has remained on my radar — in the distance, anyway — from childhood on.

In past years, Aaron and I have let Easter pass with barely a nod — we often had a family dinner with his parents, but we didn’t do much ourselves. When we moved to our current home in Oregon, though, we realized that our move-in date would coincide with Easter. The first night we spent here was the Saturday before Easter. So we celebrated with Easter baskets for the kids (Sofia was just a baby, so hers just had enough in it to satisfy three-year-old Niko’s need to include her), and we had an egg hunt — Niko’s very first.

The next year, Niko discovered the joys of dyeing eggs. And decorating cookies. We did both with friends, which made it just that much more wonderful. Sofia was now big enough to tear into her own little Easter basket and even collect a few eggs, with help. We had a special Easter breakfast — Finnish pancake, a childhood favorite of mine. And Tradition was established.

Last year, we went all out in preparation — Aaron and I found Easter presents for the kids together, we bought them both clothes for the occasion, and I, wanting to continue Tradition but caving to exhaustion and a bad cold, bought a sugar cookie mix for Niko. I even made the kids silly little sock bunnies, which I stuffed with rice and barley scented with an essential oil blend of warm orange and cinnamon. DSC01213 (1)

I loved Niko’s excitement leading up to the big day. “Guess what’s happening NEXT WEEK!” he said to me for an entire week, after Aaron had whispered the surprise to him, and “Guess what’s happening THIS WEEK, Mom! Guess!” for another whole week. He kept asking about the Easter Bunny and what he might bring, and where does he get the eggs, anyway? He knows, intellectually, that the Easter Bunny isn’t real, but his heart isn’t in it. When we read Jan Brett’s new Easter Bunny story, he confided that he really did believe in the Easter Bunny.

Niko flung himself into Easter preparations with delight. He was thrilled beyond words when I showed him the shirt I’d gotten him to wear on Easter. He reveled in the anticipation of the egg hunt and Easter basket. Not in the least disappointed by making cookies from a mix instead of from scratch, he happily stirred, rolled, and cut. When I got out the little tubes of writing icing to decorate them (another shortcut that was so very helpful), he authoritatively instructed Sofia in the correct ways of decorating them. We didn’t decorate eggs, sadly — I ran out of both time and energy.

Then, on that Easter Saturday (Aaron had a business trip for which he had to leave on Sunday),  I followed our year-old tradition and made a batch of Finnish pancake, my own recipe this time, which was so well received we ate almost the entire dish within half an hour. Niko and Sofia got dressed in their new Easter finery, and then we presented the toy-filled baskets. The kids loved their aromatic bunnies and springtime treats. While they explored their baskets and played with their kaleidoscopes, Aaron disappeared outside, as per Tradition, to hide eggs in artistic locations. Niko and Sofia hunted enthusiastically, filling their  baskets with candy-loaded eggs. They ate the decorated cookies. They read Easter stories. In short, they celebrated Easter thoroughly.

And now comes the conundrum. I haven’t just established Tradition. No, it’s worse: I’ve become entrenched in Tradition. My holiday-eschewing self is now trapped in the need to make Easter perfect for the kids — but this need is at odds with the reality of my personality, my history, and my health and general energy level. The obvious solution is to tone it down, little by little, year by year, until the kids are content with a handful of chocolate eggs and a store-bought, pre-decorated sugar cookie.

So, naturally, I’m amping it up this time. This year I started early! I purchased a spring dress for Sofia months ago, and successfully convinced her that it’s a special dress to be worn only on Easter — an endeavor that took more effort than all the cookie decorating and egg coloring of previous years. Finding an appropriate shirt for Niko (one that can be re-worn for school) was harder, as he’s at an awkward in-between size, but after patiently searching for just the right one, I finally found a reasonably suitable one. I have been researching egg decorating, and made an excursion to Goodwill a few weeks ago to find silk ties to dye extra-special eggs with colorful prints. I’m trying to learn how to empty eggs before dyeing so we can decorate eggs ahead of time and enjoy them as decorations, while not getting rotten egg odor. I’ve been eyeing the seasonal toy aisles for the best Easter selections. I’m pondering the virtues of mixing up a big batch of cookie dough and freezing it for later. I’ve halfway decided to sew the kids bunny stuffies from some of their baby pajamas, using a pattern I saw online. I even bought an Easter wreath at 50% off several weeks ago.

In short, I’m finding — somewhat to my surprise — that I’m anticipating the holiday almost as much as the kids are. Instead of the preparations being an energy drain, I find that they’re a bit invigorating. While I acknowledge that I feel somewhat bound by the tradition, I’m realizing that not all bonds and not all traditions have to be negative. As I’ve discovered over the last few years with Christmas celebrations, allowing myself to succumb to these formerly forbidden (or at least discouraged) activities is strangely freeing.  This formerly holiday-free mom is embracing the Easter spirit, and it’s so much fun.

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Finnish Pancake

When I was a little girl, my family spent seven years on a remote British Columbia trapline. With no electricity, refrigeration was only available in the winter, so eggs were a rarity — and when we did have them, they had to be used up quickly. Some of my favorite foods are the result of this sporadic need to consume eggs: quiche, egg gravy over biscuits, and my ultimate favorite, Finnish pancake. This last dish is like a beautiful marriage between a sweet soufflé and a custard. It can be served with fresh berries and powdered sugar, with syrup, or on its own.

We moved back to civilization, in the form of a group of communes clustered around a tiny village in Northwest Ontario, when I was eleven. Eggs were always available here, but they were portioned carefully: we did have refrigeration in the community kitchen and could store them, but since we didn’t raise our own chickens, the eggs had to be purchased. Cooking for thirty or forty people at a time uses up a lot of eggs when you’re making egg-rich dishes. So here, too, Finnish pancake was a rare treat. It was made even more rare by the fact that a lot of the people with whom we shared meals didn’t care for it, so when it was my mom’s turn to cook breakfast, she usually chose a more universally pleasing meal.

After I moved away and got married, Finnish pancake wasn’t a food I thought about much. I made it once or twice, using recipes I found online, but they were never the way I remembered my mom’s turning out. Why I didn’t just ask my mother for her recipe, I don’t know. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, thinking it would be a great Easter breakfast choice, that I suddenly developed anew my passion for Finnish pancake. I tried all the recipes I’d tried previously, considering the possibility that I might have made a mistake when making them earlier. I tried similar dishes, like clafuti, and pannukakku or pannu kakku (which is Finnish for pan cake), and German oven pancake. They were all good, and my family ate them happily, but none of them turned out like my mother’s. All of them rose less dramatically, were much thinner, felt less firm and dense, and just… were not the same. They all had similar ingredients and methods, but one thing I noticed that was different among them was the inclusion of baking powder — some had it, most didn’t. Maybe if I could find the perfect amount of baking powder, I could make my mother’s Finnish pancake.

After months of failed attempts, I texted my mother. “Do you use baking powder in your Finnish pancake?” She didn’t, which destroyed that hypothesis, and I expressed my frustration at being unable to get my Finnish pancake to turn out like hers. She said, “Why don’t I just send you the recipe?” and proceeded to do so, after finding her worn recipe card that she had copied from a friend years before. Problem solved!

Except… it wasn’t. Even my mother’s recipe didn’t turn out like the Finnish pancake of my memory. However, it was much closer, and by comparing it to the other recipes I’d found, I was able to see how it differed from them and then adjust those differences. After more attempts than I bothered to count, all of them delicious but not quite right, I finally produced the delectable dish of my childhood. It took nearly a year, but by the next Easter, I had perfected it and scribbled it down.

Now it’s almost Easter again, and I realized this would be the perfect time to share this delicious breakfast favorite, which my kids devour like starving wolves and which my husband has pronounced “very good.”

This recipe fills a large casserole dish. I sometimes use a deep, 9-inch, round stoneware dish, and other times I use one that’s about 8″x12″. The depth and size of the dish will affect the texture and cooking time somewhat, but not enough to worry about. What is important is that the sides are high enough to allow the batter to rise at least double in the oven. It makes about 8-12 slices, depending on the size of pan you use, which is enough to feed my family of four with just a little left over. By the time Sofia is in school, Im sure I’ll need to double the recipe to satisfy everyone’s appetite.

First, collect your ingredients:

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla
  • 3 cups of warm milk
  • 6 tablespoons of melted butter
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 3/4 cups of flour
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • More sugar, for sprinkling

Heat the oven to 425ºF.

Start by lightly beating the eggs in a large bowl, using a hand mixer.

In a separate dish, mix the warm milk (warming it a bit keeps the butter from congealing), vanilla, and melted butter. Use a third dish to combine the dry ingredients. Add about 1/3 of the milk mixture to the eggs, beating the mixture until it’s combined. Continue to beat the batter while you add 1/3 of the flour mixture.

Repeat this twice more until all the ingredients have been combined. The batter should be pale yellow, slightly frothy, and very runny. Pour the batter into an ungreased casserole dish. It should fill the dish about a third of the way, no more than halfway.IMG_2892

Bake it for 40-60 minutes, depending on the depth of the dish. If desired, open the oven about five or ten minutes before the end, while the top is still a little moist, and very gently sprinkle sugar on top.

When the pancake is done, it will be golden brown, dry on the outside, slightly cracked, and very puffy, with the top rising to the top of the dish or above. It will still look wet under the cracks, and there might be butter in small pools on the surface.   It will collapse quickly as it cools, leaving a slightly higher crust around the edge; this is not evidence that you’ve made a mistake, it’s just the way Finnish pancake is. I recommend letting it rest for at least five minutes on the counter.When it first comes out of the oven, the center underneath the crust will be slightly wobbly and wet-looking, like custard. You can eat it like that, right out of the oven, but my kids tend to like it better after it’s had a chance to rest, cool, and set up a bit more.

Finnish pancake is extra delicious and very pretty when it’s served with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and fresh fruit on top — sliced strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are our favorites. You can also eat it either buttered or unbuttered, with maple syrup, with powdered sugar, or plain. It’s delectable no matter what.

Sock Bunnies

Last year, as I was thinking of filling Easter baskets, I decided I wanted to make special stuffies for the kids.  As I scanned the internet for easy ideas, I came across a pattern for a sock bunny. I loved the idea, because Niko had a thing for collecting and playing with socks at the time, so we had quite an assortment of socks that were either worn or had lost partners. The bunnies were so easy to make, and so loved by the kids, that I thought I’d share my process. I made a few changes to the original pattern, which you can see by clicking here. 

First I chose two socks, one for each bunny, that were tall enough to work with and not too worn. Of course, you could use new ones, but I liked the idea of upcycling what we already had.

I wanted the bunnies to be heatable, so instead of using regular stuffing, I used rice, because it works well for heating in the microwave. You can see in the picture that I used two types of rice, arborio and jasmine. This wasn’t for any creative reason, I just didn’t have enough rice to use only jasmine. I used the socks to measure the rice ahead of time to make sure I had enough.

To give them  a comforting aroma, I scented the rice with a couple of drops of essential oil. Lavender oil is traditional for bedtime and relaxing, but since we all had miserable colds, I went a different route. Niko’s first, beloved babysitter always used DoTerra’s OnGuard oil when Niko or anyone else in her home was feeling under the weather. She would dab it onto the bottoms of his feet, avoiding the sensitive skin of his face, or put it into a diffuser. It has a warm orange-and-spice scent, and it’s supposed to improve immune response and help with congestion. I have no evidence for the immune part, but I can testify that it does help open up congested sinuses. Remembering how comforting that scent was to someone suffering from a cold, I added a few drops to the rice and mixed it well. I made sure not to use too much; any essential oil has a powerful aroma, and the orange and cinnamon in OnGuard is especially strong.

When I made the first bunny, I filled the sock about two-thirds full, then sectioned off a large bottom part with my fingers and cinched a thread around the dividing line. This was a little difficult, because the top kept wanting to fall over and dump out the rice. The second time, I ended up pouring out the rice in the top section before tying it off, leaving the heel empty. Then I firmly tied the thread just above the rice. This approach was much easier. I put a dab of fabric glue onto the knot so the kids wouldn’t accidentally untie it later.

I made sure each heel, above the cinched thread, had as much rice as I could pack into it while making sure this section was smaller than the bottom part. I used thread to tie this section off. This time, I used fabric glue both on the knot and on the inside of the sock where the thread pulled it tight, to prevent rice from falling out later.

Next, I oriented the bunny with the round heel, which would be the bunny’s nose and face, toward me. I carefully cut down the middle of the empty top of the sock, with the cut lined up with the center of the heel. I cut away a diagonal, slightly curved piece at the end of each half of the fabric. Now the top of the sock looked roughly like bunny ears. The ears were open and prone to fraying, and I wanted to give them a more finished look. I didn’t have access to my sewing machine, and that miserable cold had exhausted me, so I used the fabric glue one more time. Folding each edge of the ear under, I ran a line of glue along one side and used clothespins to hold the edges together, and let the bunny dry overnight. Besides making the ears more durable, securing the edges also gave them a more defined, less floppy look.

I’d put off my project so long that the next morning was Easter. Before the kids woke up, I got out my fabric markers and gave each bunny a face on the rounded heel of the sock: eyes, heart-shaped nose, and smiling mouth. I tied some ribbon over the thread that defined the neck,  with the fluffy bow just under the bunny’s chin. I finished just in time to add a bunny to each Easter basket.DSC01213

I was gratified by the kids’ responses: they immediately hugged them, and Niko was instantly reminded of his babysitter. He said, “It smells like Joey!” as he inhaled deeply. Despite how rushed the end of the project had been, I was satisfied.

A year later, I’m pleasantly impressed with how much sturdier the bunnies are than I’d expected, given that they are held together with ribbon and glue. I had to mend each one recently because Niko bit holes into them (yes, really), but the construction remains intact. And both kids still adore them and ask for them to be warmed up at bedtime, even though they each have a store-bought microwaveable toy. It was a project that was both insanely easy and durable, which is a win in my book.

 

 

I Was a POOPCUP

Not long ago, I came across a new phrase in an article from the Scary Mommy site: POOPCUP, or “Parents of One Perfect Child Under Preschool Age.” I chuckled, because it wasn’t that long ago that my husband and I fell into that category. I distinctly remember my parents-in-law declaring that our son was a perfect child when he was a baby. He seemed never to misbehave. Delightfully affectionate, quick to learn, always obedient, never throwing tantrums — at least, when they were watching. They were convinced that he was perfect, and even occasionally mentioned this conviction to Aaron’s sister, the mother of four beautiful, amazing, active, well-disciplined children (and who is an inspiration and wonderful example). We tried to explain that he wasn’t perfect, that he had occasional fits and temper tantrums and moments of disobedience, but they rarely saw that side of him, so they continued to happily believe that Niko was perfect. And, despite those little hiccups, we privately agreed that we had this parenting thing well in hand.

Yes, when Niko was a baby, Aaron and I were blissful POOPCUPs.  We didn’t know it, of course. We thought we were very hardworking, well-scheduled parents who were generally nonjudgemental of other parents whose children were sometimes less angelic. We knew that Niko was unusually mellow and easy to teach, and we knew that his manageability had more to do with his temperament than with our own skills as parents. We also knew that much of what others saw as his amazingly calm and sweet temper was a result of our knowing when he would be at his best, and taking advantage of it. We made sure he was fed and ready to take his first nap of the day in the car on the one-hour drive to see Aaron’s parents, and we made sure we left immediately after dinner so that his evening grouchiness could happen away from everyone else. On trips to the grocery store or the mall, we took a similar approach: we went out after a nap, snack in hand, and made sure we were done before it was time for the next round of eating, sleeping, and eating again.

Despite knowing that much of Niko’s sweetness was his own lovely personality, it was hard not to take some credit for it. We’d watch sympathetically as another parent attempted to wrestle a rigid or thrashing child into a shopping cart, and then when the duo was out of sight, we’d murmur, “That must be so hard. I’m sure glad we waited till after Niko’s nap to shop.” We didn’t think we were being judgmental. But deep down, we were thinking, Too bad that mom didn’t do the same thing. Scheduling is everything!

Then we had Sofia.

Long pause for effect.

By the time Sofia arrived, we’d been noticing that our little boy, still as sweet and compliant as ever, was becoming more and more… well… active. Hyper. Distracted. He was at the age that we expect a toddler to be able to follow not just one simple direction, but two or three in a row, but not Niko. “Put your clothes in the laundry, put on your jammies, and go potty,” we’d say. He would cheerfully run off to obey, only to forget what he was supposed to do. Sometimes he’d come back to ask what we’d told him to do. Other times, he’d forget entirely and become distracted by a book, or a toy, or his reflection in the mirror. Even one simple instruction was often more than he could manage, and his sometimes almost manic hyper behavior was often more than I could manage in my enormously pregnant state.

So, when Sofia arrived, we were already starting to experience a little parental adversity. But none of that was enough to prepare us for the reality of welcoming our little girl home.

Sofia was as different from her brother as a lion is from a kangaroo. While Niko had a regularly scheduled Fussy Time for a couple of hours in the evening for about two months, Sofia was fussy all the time. Niko slept through the night before three months; Sofia still woke up several times a night at nearly eighteen months. When I was pumping and freezing milk for Niko, absolutely nothing I ate bothered him. When I was nursing Sofia, a single accidental swallow of milk or bite of cheese would magnify her constant crying to unbearable levels. Niko loved being held by absolutely anyone; Sofia hated being held by anyone but me and, occasionally, certain relatives. If I put tiny Niko in a bouncy seat while I worked in the kitchen, he’d kick his legs happily while watching me. If I put Sofia down anywhere at all, even if I was right next to her, she’d scream as if she were being tortured.

When you have just one baby who takes regular naps, eats on a schedule, and has predictable times of being fussy, it’s pretty easy to plan visits and outings to maximize on his good nature. When you have a baby who cries constantly, often even while being fed, who seems to constantly want to nurse but hates bottles and reacts painfully to every formula you try, who panics when she’s set down even for a moment, it becomes a little harder. And, when you add to that mix a toddler who has outgrown morning naps, is in constant movement, can’t remember instructions no matter how badly he tries to please you, and has to be constantly monitored because his impulsiveness often causes damage… well, it’s safe to say you’re no longer POOPCUPs.

Now we had to manage two kids, with different schedules and needs. Now we were the ones being eyed by strangers as our baby shrieked and our son ran in circles. We now understood why some kids seemed a little out of control: they simply had active bodies and exhausted parents. It turns out, much to our astonishment, that not all babies can be scheduled.

Since we’ve left the happy land of POOPCUPs, we’ve learned to cope. We often split the kids between us. Niko stays much calmer when he’s on his own with an adult, and Sofia by herself isn’t very demanding. In fact, in some ways, they’ve switched roles; Sofia is now, at three, mellow, cheerful, helpful, and capable of following directions. Niko is also cheerful and helpful — he tries to be, anyway — but no one who spent more than five minutes with him would call him mellow. We’ve learned ways to help Niko remember instructions, and ways to help him stay calm. That easily-scheduled baby is now a routine-dependent boy; depart too far from the expected progression of a day, and he becomes anxious and hyper. We’ve learned to warn him in advance when something will change, and let him know what to expect when we do something new. With Sofia’s newfound cheerfulness and a better understanding of how Niko works, life is generally a bit easier now. 

Still, no matter how many coping techniques we learn or how many management methods we adopt, and no matter how successful we may appear to observers, we now have a constant awareness that we’re just one missed snack away from those hassled parents we pitied back when we were POOPCUPs. Adding a second child has been humbling and eye-opening.

So, to all you parents out there who have children who are a bit less than perfect: it’s okay. You’re in good company. There are plenty of us out there, and we’ve got your back.

And to those still happily traversing the POOPCUP road: you’ll understand. Whether it’s after you’ve had a second child, or when your single child reaches tweens or teens, at some point, you’ll understand that even the best-parented child will have moments of imperfection, usually at an inconvenient and embarrassing moment. When that happens, the rest of us will be here, ready to listen sympathetically. We’ll have your back, too. And until then, please — don’t judge us. We’re doing our best.

Goodbye, Winter

 

As spring approaches, I find myself pondering how different Oregon winters and springs are from all the other places I’ve lived. I have a long history with winter — real winter, that is; I grew up in cold places. First my family lived in Northwest Ontario, where temperatures fall to -40° C (which, incidentally, is the same temperature as -40° F… fun fact!) or lower, at least a couple of times each winter. Then we spent seven years in remote northern British Columbia, where winters were less cold but much snowier — the snow routinely accumulated past six feet, and our downstairs windows would be blocked by snow by the end of winter no matter how many times we tried to shift the piles of snow that slid off the roof. We waited with happy anticipation for the snow pile from the eaves of the woodshed to meet the roof, so we could climb to the peak of the roof and slide off in glorious swoops.

We moved back to Ontario when I was eleven, and I discovered afresh the experience of having one’s nostrils freeze together in the frigid air. On the playground (well, parking lot, really) at our tiny church school, the girls’ mandatory long skirts would freeze stiff in the cold wind and chafe our calves during outdoor recess — also mandatory, down to -20ºC.

At the age of eighteen I moved to Alaska. I fell in love with my husband there and ended up staying for fourteen years, mostly in the Anchorage area, which niftily combines the cold of Northwestern Ontario with the snow of British Columbia. It’s not quite as cold as Ontario (or the interior of Alaska) or as snowy as British Columbia, but there’s enough of both to satisfy all but the most demanding winter enthusiast.

All three of these regions have four things in common: long winters, darkness (getting worse as you go farther north), short summers, and agonizingly slow springs.

In Northwestern Ontario, the end of winter generally starts sometime in  March, as the days slowly start to get longer. The snow gets wet and heavy. Roofs drip. Dirt roads gradually appear beneath the ice, and promptly turn to mud. Slowly, so slowly, the giant piles of snow from plowed roads shrink, and driveways turn into small rivers. By the end of March or  beginning of April, roads are often clear of snow. Of course, snow doesn’t stop falling, but the fresh snow gets churned into muddy slush within a few days of falling.

Then comes a day, perhaps sometime in March — around the same time roofs start dripping — when someone gazes out at the scrubby trees that grow in the thin soil atop the bedrock of the Canadian Shield and says, “Is that… green? Do I see green?” Someone else comes to look, and others crowd in. “Nah, you’re imagining things.” But within a couple of days, that optimistic viewer is vindicated, for the bare grey branches now exhibit a faint green tint. It’s barely visible. If you look closely at the tree branches, you won’t see leaves — you’ll see leaf buds just beginning to swell. Despite the faintness of the color, though, this promise of green signals the true end of winter. Several weeks or a couple of months later, probably by mid-May, most of the trees have baby leaves, and by the end of May roses and sometimes lilacs are in bloom. There have been instances of snow in May in Northwestern Ontario, but it doesn’t happen often. Those baby leaves are the beginning of spring.

In the parts of Alaska and British Columbia where I lived, the progression is the same, if a little later and a little slower, with one difference. The winter is so very dark further north that it’s a real occasion when the sun rises as you’re driving to or arriving at work, and when the sun is still up when you leave work. For much of the winter, you literally will not see the sun unless you’re lucky enough to have a day off that coincides with a clear day. So, in Alaska, those glorious first days of sun on your skin, rather than the first green, are the first sign of spring — even though the air is just as cold as before, and the hems of your pants get just as frozen on the way inside, and you have to scrape just as much ice off your windshield, as before.

Our family came to Oregon four years ago, fresh from the long winter and slow spring of Anchorage. We arrived early in June, after leaving our Alaskan home at the end of May. In Anchorage, the trees still had no leaves, and mud abounded. Here, June was full summer. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Grass was a happy green, and lacked that unpleasant sogginess of Alaskan grass after several feet of snow has melted into lawns. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Real summer!

The following spring, we moved from our rental to a permanent home on two acres. We moved in March, just before Easter, and we got to see the onset of spring in a way we’d never experienced before, since our rental home didn’t have a lot in the way of plants. We ooh’d and ahhh’d at each and every new flower, delighting in identifying mystery plants as they each burst into bloom in turn.

The strangest and most wonderful thing to us about an Oregon spring, though, wasn’t the abundance of flowers or the greenness of the winter grass. It was the trees. First of all, Oregon has a lot of evergreens — not just conifers, but broad-leafed shrubs too. Combined with the ivy and moss twining over the massive trunks and branches of trees and the ever-green grass, it’s never really not green here. But even the deciduous trees behave differently here. There’s no gradual onset from bare grey branches, to pale green mist, to buds, to leaves. No, these trees are already making new leaf buds as the old ones fall. You can see that barely-visible green all winter. Then, at some point — as early as mid-to-late February — the early-blossoming trees and shrubs, like plums and forsythia, burst into bloom, along with daffodils and crocuses. Soon after, you notice that the trees look a little more green — and within a short day or two, there are baby leaves everywhere. Here, spring isn’t agonizingly slow — it’s as fast as instant coffee. It lasts long enough to savor it, but its onset is as quick as adding water and stirring.

This year was a bit different than the previous three, and I found myself musing on how much I don’t miss Alaskan winters. We got snow in November this year, and we continued to get occasional snow until… well, until last week. Several times, it accumulated enough for the kids to make snowmen and snow angels. School was closed over and over — we had to readjust the school calendar to make up nine snow and/or ice days. (Do you know how many snow days we had in the Anchorage School District while I was teaching there? Maybe one true snow day over that five-year period, with another one or two days each year for ice.) Niko’s teacher told me, around the middle of January, that between in-service days, holidays, and bad-weather days, there had not been one full five-day week since mid-November.

Niko and Sofia were ecstatic about the snow. Each time flakes appeared in the sky brought a thrill of joy. For me, though, those mornings of begging the kids to slow down on the porch before they slipped on the ice, and scraping windshields, and having to sit and wait while the windows defrosted and defogged, weren’t filled with joy, but with disbelief tinged with resentment.  I’d moan internally (and sometimes not so internally),  We moved here to escape this!  Of course, the fun of seeing the kids go crazy playing in the snow was almost enough to alleviate the snow-induced grouchiness. Almost. That snow was more enticing to the kids than the best toy in the world.

And the snow made everything look so beautiful — winter flower buds peeking through the snow, branches coated with a thick layer of white, fairy lights on the tree in front of our house sparkling through the frost. It was lovely to look at. Like the kids’ delight in the snow, the beauty of the landscape was nearly enough to balance out the resentment. Still, as I chipped piles of icy snow from the porch, it was hard not to feel betrayed by the weather.

The unusually cold and snowy winter delayed the onset of spring, too. Everything is starting at least three to four weeks later than last year. Daffodils just bloomed two days ago; last year they were blooming in February. I saw one single blossom on our plum tree this morning, in the middle of March — last year, the whole tree was in bloom by the second week of February. The cold had one benefit, though — my dwarf irises and pink hyacinths, the first flowers to bloom, had not a single slug-munched petal this year, a far cry from the vicious attacks before buds had even opened in past springs.

But there is one thing — one single thing — about this longer-than-usual winter that is, in fact, awakening nostalgia. The cold winter, now (probably) ended, is finally demonstrating just one redeeming quality. The trees and shrubs have been hoarding their energy, refusing to fatten their leaf buds. Until now. Over the last few weeks of slowly-warming weather, I’ve finally seen that harbinger of spring: a green haze lightly touching all the trees — and not vanishing within days in an explosion of leaves this time. This spring, I’ve watched as the green increases oh-so-gradually. And this time, like all those years in Canada and Alaska, the green haze is true to its word, delivering spring gently and slowly. Every day I see new evidence that winter has released its grip on my little corner of the world. Slowly, slowly, buds are growing, flowers are opening, and tiny leaves are appearing here and there. It’s not (thank God!) the long process it is in colder climes, but this year, for the first time since we moved here, it really is a process. And I’m loving every single slow moment.

 

Freedom

A few days ago I wrote a post about my son’s upcoming first day of kindergarten and my resulting angst. As with many parents, that first day of “real” school is a huge letting-go milestone. I wrote about my fears and worries, the difficulty of handing him over to someone else.

However, upon a few days’  worth of thoughtful consideration, I’d like to recant those statements.

Today is the day. And the truth is, now that the time is upon us, I’m finding a strange joy bubbling up from some hidden source deep within. To my surprise, I find that I’m ecstatic that my wiggly, high-energy, million-questions-a-day, Neil-Degrasse-Tyson-watching boy will be someone else’s responsibility for six and a half hours a day. I’m delighted that I will be able to focus my attention on my two-year-old, who’s sometimes overlooked in favor of her big brother — maybe she’ll finally learn the difference between pink and purple (though I’m beginning to suspect she just likes the word “purple” more than “pink”). I’m thrilled to consider the possibility of occasional quiet time at home.

In fact, to be honest, I’m nearly tremulous with anticipation at the (perhaps too optimistic) thought of getting STUFF done! I have a whole list in my mind. Ready?

  1. I will SEW! I will finish fixing both the kitchen and dining area shades, which I made a year ago but are not perfect. The dog ate the string of one, and the string of the other is threadbare and lumpy and no longer catches properly. They both need dowels added so they rise smoothly without drooping. Possibly I will make them workable before my husband gets around to ordering more modern, sturdy wooden blinds sometime in the next few months, rendering my shades redundant.
  2. More sewing! I will make adorable appliqué bird pillows for the kids’ beds, to go with their future beautiful fairytale forest bedroom. I’ve never appliquéd, nor have I ever sewn pillows, nor have I yet found a pattern. Still, it’s on my to-do list.
  3. I will perfect the garden! Weeding! Trimming! Pruning! Mulching! Fall planting! Naturally, my two-year-old will follow me about like a well-trained puppy, pulling only actual weeds, never picking up my pruning shears and definitely never using them to chop into my roll of landscape fabric.
  4. Writing! I will catch up on multiple projects. Possibly I’ll write a chapter or two in my embryonic book, or edit the already-existing chapters. Maybe I’ll do some writing for the kids. Maybe I’ll keep up on this blog. Who knows? Anything could happen.
  5. I’ll shop! JoAnne Fabric, here I come! With only one toddler, firmly secured in the cart, I will stride through the aisles like a boss. I will gracefully promenade between rows of calico with not a single pause to dash after an errant child. The glassware and faux gardening tools will have no need to fear questing fingers. We’ll shop with confidence, just me and one small person whose arms are still too short to grab for interesting paint kits.

I’m sure you get the idea. Yes, I’m still anxious about my son’s future career as an elementary school student. Yes, I’ll be thinking about him all day. I’ll miss him and wonder how he’s doing every ten minutes. Still, I can’t help thinking ahead to all the time I will have with just one child for six and a half hours, five days a week. I’m a little bit excited.

What’s more important than all that freedom I so optimistically anticipate, though, is my growing belief that all this missing each other and hours away from each other will make our time together a little less stressful and more joyful. I think that my son will benefit from a more relaxed mom, a more refreshed mom; one who, after a daily break that might feel a little too long, will be more than willing to answer endless questions about the intricate workings of octopus tentacles or ant mandibles or crystalline structures. I think that I might be a little less “touched out”, as mom lingo has it, and more welcoming of my sweet boy’s need for hugging and contact. I’m excited that I’ll see him learning and growing in kindergarten, and I’m excited for the refreshing break each day so that I can be a better mom to a boy who deserves my best.

It’s going to be a great year.

Inside Out

This week, my life is turning inside-out and upside-down. I’m viewing my future from a new, uncomfortable perspective.

What is this event that’s triggering such a torrent of emotion? My son is starting kindergarten. In three days, I’ll be depositing him in his new classroom, leaving him in the hands of a stranger. A kind, compassionate stranger with both a degree in and experience in special education — but still, to my anxious mother’s mind, a stranger.

I taught in Anchorage, Alaska for five years, three of which were in second grade. Each fall,  particularly in second grade, I watched with tactfully-hidden amusement as the parents lingered next to their little ones’ desks — giving one last hug three times, snapping photos, checking to see that supplies fit into desks. I bit my tongue to keep from telling them, Just go! They’ll be fine! I kept my amusement to myself and refrained from giving advice, knowing (in theory) how hard it is to walk away from our little ones. After my son was born, I had a bit more understanding of what it was like to leave a beloved child with someone else. But then, he was just a baby, his personality undeveloped, and our babysitter quickly became like a member of our family. I didn’t have as much difficulty leaving him as these parents did with their children.

Now, as my almost-six-year-old is entering kindergarten, I believe I finally understand what my class’s parents were going through. I think constantly about that moment three days from now, when I’ll walk away from my son and leave him till 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m nervous — terrified, to be honest — for him and for me.

My son is a quirky little boy, with foibles and idiosyncrasies in plenty. He received a  diagnosis of ADHD and began receiving special education services at his preschool in the spring. The diagnosis helps his dad and me understand some of his qualities, and he now takes medication, which makes him both easier to manage and happier. But despite these positive developments, I worry. I worry that someone he encounters won’t recognize or appreciate the curious, bright little boy disguised under his twitchy and excitable exterior. I worry that his teachers won’t be willing to try unusual methods to help him focus, like giving him extra breaks or letting him stand up to work. I worry that his busyness and impulsiveness will alienate both the adults and children at his school and prevent him from making friends.

As a teacher, I knew my own capabilities in the classroom. I knew that I worked well with many “special” kids. I tend to project a gentle, calming atmosphere. Having ADHD myself, I have an inside knowledge of what tends to work for these brains. I’ve put many hours of research into learning about the world of autism. I worked hard to find support for students for whom our regular curriculum wasn’t working. I also knew about the amazing staff in our school, and to whom I could go for advice and support for students that weren’t as easy to help. So from my perspective, I had no doubt that these small ones were going to be in good hands from that first day of school on. I knew their parents would soon relax, as they saw that their children were doing well.

As a parent, though, I find it hard to automatically accept this same knowledge. I’ve met with staff at Niko’s new school; I attended the Kindergarten Roundup with its overwhelming onslaught of information; I met his new teacher at the Open House this past week. All of these encounters were completely positive. I’ve heard rave reviews of the school from adults who have fond memories of attending there as children. Of course, I’ve also seen the excellent ratings available online. Objectively, I know that there’s every reason to trust the teachers and other staff to care for Niko and provide a good atmosphere for his education.

Still, there’s that quiet terror striking into my soul. I’m about to send my son to school. Not for three hours, three or four days a week, as we’ve been doing the past two years of preschool — no, this is the real deal. From 8:00 am to 2:30 pm, five days a week, he’ll be launching into his educational career. For six and a half hours a day, he’ll be out of my reach. He’ll be learning from someone else, subject to another person’s disciplinary methods, and influenced by another person’s opinions and beliefs.  I feel that I’m on the brink of an entry to a new world: the world of parenthood of a school-aged child, that until now I’ve only seen from the outside.

Suddenly, I’m both terrified and humbled. Finally, I know what those parents of my second-graders were feeling. I’m on the other side of the parent-teacher interaction now. It’s my turn to send my little one off into the big world of elementary school, trusting his teachers to support and guide him in ways I can’t do. I only hope I can be as brave as the parents of my second-grade students were each year, as they gave their children encouraging smiles and backed out of the classroom to leave them in my hands. Now it’s my turn to remember: Just go. He’ll be fine. It’s my turn to put on a brave face and an encouraging smile, to walk away, to let him take his first steps to growing up. It’s time to let go.

Eight Plants That Have Forgotten It’s Fall 

There’s something odd about our place here in Oregon. There’s some quality that hints of eternal youth, of continual renewal and transformation. A touch of Eden, perhaps. Oh, not for us human residents — this magical spring of youth is reserved for our plants.

Take our wisteria vine, for example. Look up how to grow wisteria, as we did when we moved here a bit more than two years ago, and you’ll learn that wisteria blossoms in the spring and then fades. That’s the normal course of events. But not ours. Our first summer, it blossomed at least twice. The following year, it put out blooms at least four times (I lost count near the end), tender green buds appearing just as the flowers from the previous wave of color began to fade. This year, it’s currently in its fourth wave of blossoms, with the velvet-soft buds of the next incarnation now appearing. It will be September any minute now, but that wisteria is determined to flower ceaselessly.

Then there’s this lovely hellebore. It’s an early spring flower. This one appeared in late January or early February, a rich purple with faint greenish tinges. An earlier-blooming hellebore, which was a delicate white, bloomed in December and faded as this one was at its height. Another purple one lost its blossoms by May. But this one is still blooming. The purple color has faded, allowing the underlying green to take over. You can see the brown seed-cases in the center, and a touch of dry brownness along the petals’ edges. But this dainty, fragile spring  blossom  is still holding its own, refusing to die off. It’s August 30, and here it is.

Our raspberry harvest was in June, just as it was last year and (to a lesser extent, due to neglect) the previous year. This year, after extensive work over the past two summers improving the raspberry bed, we had the best harvest yet. Naturally, I assumed that the June harvest was the end of it. Apparently I thought wrong. Yesterday, as I trimmed and weeded and supported young green canes, I found…this. A handful of tiny green almost-berries! Today, as I finished pruning dead canes and tying up young ones, I found two more plants that appear to be making new berries. I had no idea this was possible. I’m not sure it actually is — and yet, there it is, another piece of evidence that our home holds a few grains of the Soil of Youth. img_9251

We took a walk Sunday evening, Aaron and I and the kids. Niko and Sofia munched apples they’d filched from our trees and picked frothy blooms of Queen Anne’s lace as we strolled down our driveway to the lane — season-appropriate actions that were entirely expected for the end of August. What was less expected was what we found as we passed the plum tree at the end of our driveway. As we paused to examine a branch that overhung the driveway and needed to be trimmed, I gasped. “No way!” The branch sported a twig inexplicably laden with flowers. That’s right. Plum flowers! In (nearly) September! img_9192

This next one is, I think, actually appropriate to some varieties of strawberries — a second, smaller, crop of berries in late summer. A couple of weeks ago, we noticed blossoms in the bed of strawberries that was originally here before we moved to this home. This week, we’ve been picking the occasional berry to snack on. It’s a delightful, probably normal feature of whatever variety these plants are, and I halfway expected it. What I didn’t expect was for Niko to find a red, ripe berry in one of our new Hood River strawberry beds — a variety not known for producing a second crop! Once again, magic has touched our garden. (Most likely a seed or runner crept over to the neighboring bed from the twice-bearing bed…but I prefer the more magical explanation.)img_9254

I’ve been told that lavender, promptly harvested, can produce a second wave of flowers. The past two summers, I harvested the buds just before opening for the most fragrant bouquets, carefully hanging and drying them — and waited in vain for a second crop. This year, an extended wave of migraines kept me indoors for the peak lavender harvesting time (you can blame them for my lack of blog posts, too). I finally managed to trim the flowers as they were fading, long after the ideal time, and tossed most of them into the compost. Since some of them had already gone to seed, I expected no further flowers from them. And yet, here they are, weeks later, a charming display of dainty buds and flowers.

When I was growing up in Northwestern Ontario, most of the roses around our place were wild roses. All of them, wild or domestic, were spring flowers. Once the summer heat arrived, they were done blooming. Here in Oregon, it’s a different story. As long as dying flowers are kept trimmed, these roses will produce flowers until the first frosts. I know it really is normal for this area — but it thrills me every time I look out at our rose bed filled with vibrant color!

Last week, I decided to tackle some overgrown shrubs that provide shade along two small ponds and screen the lawn from the driveway. As I trimmed and hauled away branches, I leaned down to pull a few weeds from the shady pond garden — and there, nestled in dark green leaves, was a purple primrose! In the spring, that primrose plant had provided a splash of color in that dark corner, with multiple blooms, but of course the flowers faded as summer approached. Maybe the overgrown shrubbery had provided enough shade that this plant was tricked into thinking it was still spring. Who knows? All I know is that it’s one more example of the magical, eternity-tinged properties of our garden. A slightly faded, bug-eaten example, but come on! A primrose, at the end of August? That’s got to be real garden magic. img_9347Whatever the reason for the magic touching our home, I’m grateful and delighted. Grateful for the beauty, grateful for a respite from pain that allows me to enjoy it, and grateful for our life here in the country after too long hemmed in by a city’s concrete. Delighted by the surprises I encounter nearly every day.

The Joy of Natural Consequences

I’m not a perfect parent; really no one is, but I particularly am not. How do I know that? I’ll give you the first two reasons that come to mind:

  1. When a child (especially the oldest, age five) encounters a natural consequence of poor choices, I am filled with a deep, bubbling glee. Sometimes I manage to refrain from laughing. Sometimes I don’t. Always, I make a point of quickly detailing the cause and effect involved in the situation. I’m pretty sure a perfect parent, or even a really good one, would respond with sympathy and compassion in the discussion of the action and consequence. I don’t manage this.
  2. When a child finds themself* in an uncomfortable circumstance, my first response is not rescue or assistance. My response is to pull out the phone for a picture. Only after it has been duly recorded do I smother my giggles and help them.

    DSC06931
    Photo first. Rescue later.

This week, my son has been particularly difficult. I could count on one hand the number of times he’s obeyed immediately this week. Dawdling, forgetting what he’s been told, not hearing what he’s been told, outright disobeying… as many parents can attest, this gets exhausting. Time outs, scoldings, loss of privileges, loss of possessions, vigorous expression of irritation (yes, I’ve been guilty of yelling) — all to no avail. He’s continued to drift through life completely unaware of the instructions of his parents.

That’s why this imperfection of mine has come up, twice in the last two days. Twice now, Niko has been brought up short by an immediate and uncomfortable consequence to his actions. And my glee has overwhelmed me.

We have a creek, a drainage ditch really, running across one end of our property. In summer it’s dry, but in winter it’s full and overflowing from the rainfall. Niko knows he’s not allowed in it. Even with not much water in it, it’s deeper than his boots. With the recent heavy rains, it could actually be dangerous, with its swift flow combined with the slippery rocks on the bottom. So I’ve explicitly told him, of course, not to go in. Multiple times.

Yesterday we had snow. Just a bit, but enough to make the kids enthusiastic about going outside. After approximately thirty minutes’ worth of donning warm clothes, we went down the hill toward the creek, where it’s open and has plenty of space for running. Niko made a beeline for the creek. “Stay out of the creek,” I called, as he raced toward it. “Don’t go into the creek,” I repeated as he continued. I was answered by a liquid plop. He had jumped in.

As I hauled him out, his boots full and his pants soaked to the thighs with icy water, I couldn’t resist pointing out the obvious. “Didn’t I tell you to stay out of the creek?”

“Yes.”

“And now you have to go inside while Sofie plays.”

“Whyyyyyyyyyyyy?”

“Because you’re soaking wet and your boots are filled with water.”

Wailing with sorrow, he trudged inside with Aaron, while Sofie and I played in the snow for another ten minutes or so. Sadly, I failed to get a photo. All I got was one of Sofie, preparing to throw a handful of snow at the house, an activity made more thrilling by her conviction that she was getting away with something.

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Enjoying the snow, minus her soggy brother.

However, this was not the most satisfying such event of the past two days. That honor falls to today’s dramatic demonstration of natural consequences. You see, I’ve been working on a new skill with Niko, one that he really should have learned by now, but which he’s been resisting on the grounds that it’s much too hard to do. What is this terribly difficult skill? Snapping his own pants. Yes, I have been asking my five-year-old to learn to fasten his own pants when getting dressed — a tyrannical demand, to be sure, but what can I say?

Efforts to teach him to snap his pants have been marked with considerable frustration from both of us. He gets floppy-arm syndrome, moaning “I can’t! It’s too hard!” while pawing ineffectually at his waistband. Neither of us have enjoyed these training sessions, but I’ve continued to nag him. “Snap your pants, please!”

Today Niko and Sofia accompanied me down our driveway and to the end of the lane to haul out the trash. They puddle-hopped their way down the road, helped me investigate the mailbox, then splashed back up. Midway up our driveway, as I urged Niko to hurry UP, because I needed him through the gate so I could close it, he obediently broke into a halfhearted jog. As he jogged, his waistband began to slip. “Wait –” I called, but I was too late. The pants plunged to his knees, and he sprawled flat on the muddy gravel.

I was immobilized with mirth. I feel a little bad for this, but I truly could not move, I was trying so hard to keep my laughter from bursting out. He also couldn’t move, bound at the knees as he was by those pants. I finally got myself under control enough to capture a couple of photos, then extended my hand to help him up.

“This is why you should snap your pants,” I pointed out. “Haven’t I been telling you to snap your pants?” Dripping with muddy water, cold and exposed, he nodded reluctantly. “Well,” I told him sternly, “this is why. If you’d snapped your pants, this wouldn’t have happened.” The sternness was spoiled just a little by a snicker I couldn’t restrain. I mean, honestly, it was pretty funny. As you can see:

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This, ladies and gentlemen, is why learning to snap your pants is worthwhile.

So, there you have it. I’m not a perfect parent. I rejoice when natural consequences remove the necessity of scolding and imposing my own mean-mom consequences. I laugh when my kids find themselves in pickles. And I take photos when I should be helping.

And then I post those photos on a public blog.

*The Washington Post‘s Bill Walsh recently wrote a piece, filed in Opinions, regarding this year’s language adaptations. One of them was the surrender to the inevitability of the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. That is to say, when a writer needs to refer to an individual, unknown or unidentified, who may be male or female, the WP is now accepting “they” to fill this need. For example, “If a student talks during a test, they will be given a zero.” As Mr. Walsh pointed out, this is a far from new development; it’s been used, he says, by Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and the translators of the Bible, to name just a few cases. And it has a precedent: the word “you” was once solely plural, the singular pronouns being “thee” and “thou.” We’ve long since accepted “you” as a singular pronoun. Now that the WP accepts “they” likewise as a singular, I feel perfectly comfortable using it in my own writing. So there.**

**Yes, this addendum was mainly for my mother. You’re welcome.