Birthday Electrician

A month ago, I celebrated a birthday.

Well, actually, I spent my birthday cuddling my 15-month-old in bed while we both tried to recuperate from a miserable flu, while my husband wisely took our son out for a father-son outing so I could have a quiet house. By the time he got home, he was feeling the first symptoms of flu himself, but he still managed to finish assembling a creamy, light, espresso-and-rum-soaked  birthday tiramisu, which he’d started early that morning. He spent the following morning in bed while I was starting to feel a little more like myself, and then, with a superhuman effort, he made the delicious dinner he’d planned…and then relapsed from having worked too hard, too soon, and spent the next day resting too. We didn’t have a birthday date. We had a birthday week-of-recovery.

Birthday tiramisu.
Birthday tiramisu.

So the day itself wasn’t exactly sublime. But the effort (and the high levels of deliciousness) made me feel pretty special all the same. And despite the all-around misery, Aaron came through with a perfect gift. My birthday present this year was a bit less tangible than usual, but it was the best ever. Aaron hired an electrician to come to our house and install ceiling lights in our tiny attic room, the first step in turning the space into a craft room for me. In less than five hours, he’d fixed faulty wiring that the previous owners had rigged, placed the track lighting I’d chosen in just the right place, and put a bright flat light in a space that was once a window. It’s showing signs of the beautiful room it will become. But more than just an attractive room, it’s a promise. A promise that someday I’ll have a tiny space that is mine, where someday (when kids can be left alone for more than 30 seconds without disaster descending) I will be able to work quietly, alone, and not clean up my mess. It will be a space for ongoing projects, for never-finished projects, for someday once again grading papers. A space for writing and planning. My own spot. An unbelievable luxury.

In the works, possibly to be completed by midsummer: Painted walls in two shades of green (neither of which is the one currently on the walls); wainscoting, which Aaron will build, on the lower half of the wall; a stained-glass window to place over the former window opening; and dark wood flooring. Eventually, storage cabinets and shelves, at waist height so they double as work surfaces.

Sometimes I shake my head in amazement at my good fortune, my blessing, to be married to a man who knows me well enough to know how important it is for me to have both time and space for quietness. Considering that our lives right now don’t allow for much of that, it’s not an easy thing to see — the importance of a quiet place. But he saw it, and acted on it.

I guess this post serves as a very public Thank You to my sweet and perceptive husband. I love you.

Fluffy Tutu

Sofia turned one last month, and we celebrated with a cake smash photo shoot. I made a polka-dot cake, decorated a plain white backdrop with a simple birthday banner, and dressed her in a pretty blue-and-silver tutu I made for the occasion. The polka-dot cake was a surprisingly successful learning experience, the birthday banner was an easy last-minute impulse craft, but the tutu is what I’m really proud of.

I had an idea in my mind of how I wanted the tutu to look, but I couldn’t find a tutorial online for one that worked with the materials I had on hand. So I just struck out on my own, designing as I went. I started by pulling out the tulle I had stored away in a bin. I had a swath of pretty, rich, blue tulle, some silver sheer fabric (not really tulle, but I made it work), and lots of white tulle. Then I opened my ribbon box and found some narrow, sheer, silver ribbon. I rummaged through my sewing box till I found a pack of wide elastic. (The silver butterfly in the photo is for a headband that I planned, but didn’t have enough fabric to finish.)

I wanted the tutu to be fairly long. To decide how long to cut my pieces, I put Sofia into a dress she has with a tutu skirt, made a note of where the waist fell, and measured the skirt. The tutu I wanted to make would have a waistband, while the tutu part of the dress we tried on started a bit below her waist, so I added another inch to the length, plus another inch for a seam allowance. For Sofia, that put the desired fabric length right around 8 inches. I used her body to measure my elastic waistband, too. I didn’t want the elastic to have to stretch in order to go around her waist, so I just circled her waist snugly with the elastic and cut it to that length.

To make a layered look that showed off the blue and silver, I cut each piece 4 inches wide. I didn’t have a whole lot of the blue and silver. I just kept cutting until I ran out, then cut about as much white as I had of both blue and silver. On my dining table, I laid out my strips in alternating, overlapping colors: white, blue, white, silver, white, blue… I arranged them so that each one overlapped the previous by about half its width.The white was barely visible, but it added needed bulk. My goal was to have a row of overlapping fabric that was about twice the length of the elastic I’d cut for the waistband, but I didn’t end up having that much on hand. If I’d planned ahead, of course, I could have calculated how much I needed and purchased accordingly. (This is what we call Crafting With ADHD. Seriously. It usually works out anyway.)

Once I’d laid out the whole array of fabric, I used matching blue thread to baste the fabric pieces together. Basting is stitching in such a way that the thread is easily pulled, either for temporarily holding fabric in place, or for gathering. I started by pushing the needle all the way through the first layer of fabric, drawing the thread through, then tying a firm knot in the end so it wouldn’t come pulling out prematurely. Then I alternated long stitches and short stitches (but not tiny ones — that would make the thread hard to pull later), making sure to catch each strip of fabric at least once. I basted all the way across, and then laid out the elastic band next to the fabric. Finally, I gathered the basted fabric together by gently pulling on the loose end of the thread, pushing the fabric back toward the knotted end, until the width of the basted-together fabric matched the length of the elastic. To secure the fabric, I quickly stuck a pin into each end of the fabric to hold it to the elastic.

Next, I turned the whole thing over and pinned the fabric to the elastic with sturdy quilting pins, folding the fabric over the elastic with a bit left over to tuck under. I put a pin every few inches. Since the fabric was already basted and gathered, I didn’t need a lot.

With the fabric pinned down, I used a needle and the blue thread to hand-stitch the fabric over the elastic. I used what I was taught to call a blanket stitch, though it’s actually more of a hybrid between the blanket stitch and a catch stitch. (The first link in the previous sentence goes to an instruction manual from Coats & Clark, 1959, and has instructions for both stitches; the second one is a more detailed tutorial for the catch stitch.) Using my thumb as a guide for stitch width, I pushed the needle down and back up in a right-to-left direction at the end of each stitch, then looped the needle through the stitch to secure it before the thread pulled all the way through. Setting the end of the stitch backward like that, plus catching the thread in a loop, makes this a very secure stitch. I just barely caught the front layer of fabric with the needle — the stitches don’t show at all. Each stitch caught the very edge of the elastic fabric, keeping it secure so it didn’t roll inside the waistband. Finally, I whip-stitched the two ends of the elastic band together. Stitching the waistband took me about twenty minutes.

If you have a good sewing machine and don’t mind the stitching showing through to the other side, you could just machine-stitch it, but I wanted invisible stitches — and, having been raised without electricity, I’m more comfortable with hand-stitching anyway. I should also add that this is NOT a good method to use if you want the elastic to stretch a lot. I fit the elastic band to sit gently on Sofia’s waist, so it only has to stretch a little as it goes over her hips — stretch it too much, and the stitches will start snapping. If you wanted the elastic to fit more snugly, you would stretch a shorter elastic length over the ungathered, basted fabric, pin along its length, and release it, letting the elastic do the gathering.

At this point, I could have been done. However, I didn’t think the finished product was as fluffy as I’d wanted.  If I’d had more fabric and could have gathered the tulle more tightly, or added another layer or two, it might have been fine. But I really wanted more pouf. I remembered a pretty tulle fairy dress I’d seen when searching (in vain) for a tutorial. The creator had used little tulle pieces to tie off the ends of the long tulle strips, and it had made a deliciously frothy bottom of the skirt. I knew I couldn’t recreate the look with what I had, but it did give me an idea for something a little similar. I used blue tulle pieces to tie off the white and silver strips, and silver ribbon to tie off the blue tulle. And voila! A sweet little tutu was born.

Birthday Polka-Dot Cake

Sofia turned one during the second week in December, and we decided to do a cake smash celebration with her, like we’d done when Niko turned one. I wanted a cute cake for her to smash that would coordinate with a perfect outfit for marvelous pictures. Aaron suggested that I make a polka-dot cake. I was mildly hesitant, because it seemed complex, but when he showed me a cake pop pan he’d found, I decided it seemed doable.

It was simultaneously easier and harder than I’d expected. First, of course, I did a search for how to make a polka-dot cake. I found a blog called “Once Upon a Pedestal,” by Deborah Stauch, which featured a tutorial for a polka-dot cake. Later on, after I’d gone through the whole process of making the cake, I found another blog, “Easy Baked,” which had a polka-dot cake tutorial that included some troubleshooting ideas that the original post didn’t have. This one was actually referenced by Ms. Stauch, and the author used Ms. Stauch’s instructions for her own cake. I wish I’d seen it when I was originally looking, because I ran into some problems.

Basic steps: Use two cake mixes; color one batch however you want your polka dots; bake your cake pops till they’re just done; surround them with the second batch of batter in layer pans; bake them a second time. Simple. Easy-peasy. Right? Ha.

The tutorial I followed suggested adding pudding mix to the cake mix. The idea was that this would make the cake denser, and the circles would be less likely to float. Unfortunately, what I thought was pudding mix in my cupboard was, in fact, Jell-O mix. Then I realized that my cake mix was a pudding cake. Problem solved! I thought. Ha.

Another instruction I didn’t follow was to use two cake mixes. I only wanted to make two layers in itty-bitty pans, not the three layer pans that the original tutorial suggested, so I thought one mix would be just fine. Incidentally, upon measuring (later, of course), I discovered that my mini pans were the same size as the pans Ms. Stauch used: six inches across. So one mix wasn’t enough even for my two pans. My guess is that if I’d done two, I’d have had enough to do seven balls per layer, rather than six, and also cover them more thoroughly in the pans.

I mention these errors just in case someone else reading this thinks taking shortcuts is a great idea. I think the cakes would have been MUCH easier, and looked better, if I’d just followed the instructions. What actually happened: the batter didn’t sufficiently cover the cake balls, and they floated up above the surface of the cakes. I salvaged them by covering them with a damp paper towel and setting another pan on top. It worked okay, but it could have been better.

Anyway, the end result was surprisingly pretty, considering all my mistakes. I measured out enough batter for the balls and tinted that batch with Wilton Moss Green gel coloring. I tinted the rest with Wilton Creamy Peach gel coloring. I baked the balls first, of course. Using my 12-ball Nordic Ware cake pop pan, I baked them for exactly 12 minutes at 350 degrees. This was the one thing that worked perfectly. They came out a beautiful soft green with not even a touch of brown, and all but one popped out of the pan without a hitch. You can see how they looked in the photos below.

Then I poured a little bit of the peach batter into the 6-inch baking pan (actually too much batter — it pushed the balls upward as it rose), arranged 6 balls in each pan, and poured the rest of the batter over. As you can see in the photos below, it really wasn’t enough batter to thoroughly cover them. A little more would have been better. I then baked the cake just like a normal cake. Afterward, I had to weigh down the top for 10 minutes, using a damp paper towel topped with another pan, to press down the round top with protruding green balls. This wouldn’t have been necessary if I’d just followed the directions.

I used whipped cream for the topping and filling. I used the peach for this, too. I used a flat metal spatula (like a giant butter knife), dipped in hot water, to smooth the sides. I’m not an expert; it didn’t turn out perfectly smooth, even though I spent an inordinate amount of time in the attempt. But it looks a lot better than it did before Aaron, who’s actually got some experience with cake decorating, suggested the hot-water method. Then, for the top, I used a flower tip on a pastry bag to make little flowers all over, and I dropped a pale-green sprinkle into the center of each flower. For a final touch, I poured more sprinkles around the bottom of the cake to make an irregular band of pale green.

It was a bit of an anxiety-causing process, doing all this work decorating a cake that I couldn’t be sure would look pretty when I cut into it. And I had no backup plan, of course. When I finally cut into the cake just before getting Sofie dressed for the cake smash pictures, I was so relieved at seeing how well it turned out. Polka dots in more or less appropriate places, colors complementary to each other, no horribly obvious flaws, and it looked adorable with the tutu and birthday banner I made for the occasion. Whew!

Birthday Banner

Sofia just had her first birthday, and we celebrated by dressing her in a tutu and smashing a cake. Of course I needed pictures, so I set up a sheet for a plain background. We’ve done this before, for Niko’s one-year-old cake smash and for family photos, and it’s seemed fine. But this time, as I looked at the white sheet draped against the fireplace, it just looked…inadequate.

I was feeling a bit doubtful about the photo shoot, anyway. I’d made Sofie a pretty blue-and-silver tutu and had considered making a matching blue polka-dot cake, but I let Aaron talk me into doing a more girly peach and green cake. I wasn’t sure how the photos would look with two completely different color schemes.

And then, inspiration hit — during my two hours home during Niko’s preschool morning, of course, on the morning of the day I planned to take Sofia’s pictures. There’s nothing quite like a deadline to inspire. What I needed was, of course, a sweet birthday banner pulling three of the colors together. Out came my big pad of  12×12 scrapbook paper. I found three pages that were just right — a soft peachy orange stripe, and two subtly patterned pages in a pretty blue and mossy green.

Then I went to the computer and found a font that could easily be converted to an outline — Marker Felt. I enlarged it to 250 point, changed it from black to empty outline, and printed it out: “ONE YEAR OLD.” If I’d had my craft stuff properly organized, I’d have done this on my Cricut cutter. But printing it and then cutting out the letters worked just fine. After I cut the letters, I cut triangles from the colored paper. I made sure they were identical by folding the paper into quarters, then cutting diagonally. With the font size I chose, this made just the right size of triangles.

Next, I glued the cut-out letters to the triangles, using stick glue so the letters didn’t get bubbles or become warped. I got some pale green narrow satin ribbon out of my box of crazily tangled ribbons (pausing to re-skein and sort them), and measured it against the fireplace wall to make sure I had enough length. I carefully glued the triangles along the ribbon, spaced to make two swags. Then I hung it across the white backdrop. It took a few tries to get it balanced just right, but I managed it… just in time, too, because 11:00 came just as I was tying it off, and I had to leave to go bring Niko home from preschool. The whole project took exactly an hour and a half, and that included nursing Sofie, changing her diaper, and rescuing ribbons and paper triangles repeatedly from her curious fingers.

When I sat Sofie in front of the backdrop with her cake, I felt an exquisite relief: The birthday banner accomplished its hoped-for task of pulling together the disparate colors. It made a bright, cheerful setting for the first-birthday photos. Success!

Birthday Angst

Niko has turned four. It was a bit of a letdown for him, I think. It seems he was expecting to be noticeably bigger, and to FEEL different. Instead, here he is, still himself. Maybe he’ll feel better after his little family celebration today, with balloons and hats and dinosaur decorations on cupcakes he helped make.

For me, his birthday is a source of anxiety. I don’t know how to celebrate birthdays. I certainly don’t feel up to organizing a multi-family celebration like the one we recently attended, which was lovely but would have left me a distressed mess of nerves if I’d been in charge of it.

I remember my own fourth birthday. I was allowed to wear my favorite dress: green gingham, topped with a white pinafore with an apple embroidered on the front. I walked with my parents and brother through the frosty winter early-morning darkness from our small house to the commune’s main gathering area (known as the Tabernacle – this was a religious commune) for breakfast. I was so full of excitement that I hopped up and down as I announced “I’m four!”

To my astonishment and distress, this was greeted with a unanimous refusal to believe my news. “No way!” “You are not!” “You’re still three! You’ll be three FOREVER.” I was on the brink of tears as I wondered if my mom had been misinformed. However, these were kind people who knew me very well and loved me as much as my own family did, and they quickly saw my worry and surrounded me with hugs and congratulations. I remember the smiling faces, being swung high in the air by a pair of strong friendly arms, the feeling of warmth fizzing inside at the rare display of excess attention.

And that was it. No birthday song – for years, I thought that was a fiction, something that authors invented for the benefit of their book characters. No hats, no balloons, no special meal. I had my first birthday cake two years ago, when I announced to Aaron that, despite being in my thirties, when many people are happy to stop counting the years, I wanted a birthday cake. He came through with a lovely pink grapefruit confection, topped with shimmering pink frosting and candles. I ate far too much of it and was satisfied that I had now had a birthday experience.

So I really don’t know what birthdays should be like. And I worry that I’m not coming through for Niko. For me, it wasn’t a big deal. None of my friends had birthday celebrations, either – or Christmas, Halloween, or any other “worldly” or “pagan” celebration. I didn’t feel left out or deprived. But Niko’s friends have moms who fling themselves into birthdays with joyous abandon. His friends have large gatherings with party favors, games, and excited kids shepherded by cheerful parents. I worry that, at some point, Niko will notice that his mom – with the social anxiety that comes from a constant sense of feeling like a cultural transplant, plus, thanks to ADHD, the difficulty focusing enough to plan an actual party – isn’t up to par.

I don’t mean this to be a depressing post. Niko is a happy little boy. We will conclude a fun, Niko-focused day (ToysRUs! Lunch at McDonald’s!) with a small family celebration. We’ll wear hats. He’ll have balloons. We made fondant dinosaurs for cupcakes. He will get to tear into a few gifts, some of which he chose himself. And we have a tentatively planned play date with his best friend, for later this week, at which he will have yet another dino cupcake. More importantly, he has a family who loves him.

Yes, my sweet boy will be fine. But still, the anxiety persists. Maybe it always will. All I can do is keep on trying. Trying to act like a normal person who wasn’t raised on a commune. Trying to pretend these new cultural activities make sense to me. And, most of all, trying to be a good mom to my kids. After all, isn’t that what we all want? And I’m pretty sure, from talking with other parents, that we all feel inadequate. Anxiety-ridden. Filled with self-doubt. We all second-guess ourselves.

Maybe I’m not so different, after all. Commune girl or no, when those feelings are distilled and examined microscopically, that’s what I’m left with. I just want the best for him. Just like you.