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.

A Touch of Magic for the Holidays

You know how every now and then, a moment in your day… a day in a month… a month in your year… is somehow lit with a magical glow? It can happen unexpectedly in the middle of the mundane — a casual glance out the window while mopping the kitchen floor that takes your breath away with a golden-crowned rainbow, or a spontaneous drive on a damp day that turns into a lifelong memory of a romp in a fairytale playground.

This holiday season was like that. Somehow, everything aligned just perfectly to make a magical, memorable holiday. Aaron’s job has been a bit less demanding for the last couple of months, and he’s had to travel much less. My migraines have been much more under control and less intense than before, and the medication I’ve been using has generally been effective in stopping them — I’ve had maybe five or fewer days in the past month that I had to actually go to bed to vanquish one, and only one or two that affected me for an entire day. Sofia has reached an age where she makes a perfect playmate, able to imitate and adore her brother, and she and Niko have been playing together just delightfully — of course they have tiffs and occasional tantrums, but for the most part, watching them together has brought warmth to my heart.

I feel like we jam-packed this season with memories. The kids saw Santa twice. The first time was at our little town’s local tree-lighting, just over a week after we put up and decorated our own Christmas tree. There were cookies, candy canes, hot chocolate, and photo ops with Santa; someone had brought barrels for warm fires; kids ran around tossing glow sticks, which Niko first took for flying angels; and then, after just about the perfect wait time, the gigantic pine tree lit with multicolored lights from top to bottom. The second time was at Niko’s holiday concert (during which he actually stood in his place with his classmates, and sang the appropriate songs at the appropriate times, with minimal support from his teachers).

Memory-making moments can be tricky to orchestrate, but this year we made one after another in joyful succession. The tree-lighting and Santa encounters were certainly stand-out moments, though I didn’t have a whole lot to do with creating them. But that wasn’t all. We made Niko’s very first gingerbread house, and I managed to arrange it with minimal fuss — I made the dough during lunch one day and let it chill during nap time, then let Niko cut out the gingerbread shapes — I have a set of very convenient house-building cutters —  when he woke up, plus a few people and snowflake shapes. Sofia woke up just in time to cut out a few at the tail end of the session. We baked them off during supper, then the next day I mixed up a quick royal icing during nap and let Niko put the house together and decorate it, with Sofia once more pitching in at the end. Then they decorated their gingerbread people with liberal adornments of candy, Niko’s in a somewhat humanoid fashion, Sofia’s with no limits whatsoever. We admired the finished house for a few days, then ripped into it the day after Christmas.

It was a quiet holiday season, but we did get a visit — two visits, in fact — from family. My aunt, who was visiting family in California, came up for a lovely two days, during which she thoroughly charmed the kids and did as much work around the house as I did myself. And we got a surprise visit from Aaron’s aunt a few days ago, a quick stop during a long layover that turned into a pleasant overnight visit when her standby connecting flight fell through. The holidays don’t feel quite right without some sort of family gathering, so having two visits made the season just that much more special.

Santa, tree lighting, gingerbread houses, decorating the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving… treasured memories, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure the weather was responsible for the most exciting moment of the season. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the kids awoke to a magical snowfall. Last winter, our first winter here in our new home, there had been no snow at all; the year before, living in a rental home about twenty miles from here, we’d had snow in February, but none at Christmas. So the sight of that glorious skim of snow covering the lawn brought enormous excitement. We ran through the snow, the kids dug in it with shovels — well, they scraped at it with shovels, as there really wasn’t enough to dig — and we even built a mini snowman together. Then, of course, we went back inside for hot chocolate to warm up, just in time for Sofia to lie down for a morning nap.

Christmas Eve just kept getting better. The snow melted in time to make a drive to a Christmas Eve service at church stress-free, and Niko loved singing songs with us rather than going to Sunday school. Then, back home for barbecue chicken wings that had been simmering all afternoon in the crock pot, and finally the crowning moment — opening a special Christmas Eve box for each child, packed with winter pajamas, a tiny toy, and a baggie each of popcorn and hot chocolate mix. I made popcorn and hot chocolate while the kids put on their new jammies, and then we watched our traditional mini-series episodes of Prep and Landing, a Pixar story about the elves responsible for getting houses ready for Santa’s arrival.

Christmas Day was calm and surprisingly peaceful, for a day that’s often hectic. We’d been cooking for days ahead, which made our labor for Christmas dinner on the day itself minimal. Aaron made beef Wellington, and the sauce he made took a total of three days’ of work, from making broth, to reducing the stock, to finally making a rich concoction that simply isn’t adequately described by the word gravy. I’d made a pecan tart two days before that far surpassed my expectations, the caramel flavor of the filling and the toastiness of the pecans merging to make a dessert I actually liked (I’m not a fan of pecan pie — as a Canadian, I resent the crunchy nuts that interrupt the smoothness of a butter tart-like treat). We started the morning with a semi-traditional Tannenbaum coffee cake, and while it baked, the kids opened their Christmas stockings. After breakfast, we dug into our gifts, enjoying the kids’ delight at their pair of stick horses and other treats. And then we simply enjoyed the day together, Aaron and I working together to finish dinner preparations, watching Christmas specials, reading stories, and going for a traditional Christmas Day walk. Our day was warm, loving, and joyful in a way even a pesky (and short-lived, to my relief) migraine couldn’t spoil.

I just can’t get over how…perfect…this season was. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak — for a catastrophe, an illness, a personal struggle, or whatever, to mar the succession of joyful, peaceful days. But, other than a few unpleasant migraines (including the one on Christmas Day and one on New Year’s Day), it’s just been a peaceful, joy-filled holiday season. We’ve had struggles this year, with changes to my mental and physical health making their impact on maintaining our two-acre home and on our family dynamic, but for the past couple of months it’s felt as though things are smoothing out. We’ve been able to enjoy baking, playing, decorating, shopping, and being a family. I’m grateful for this holiday season and for my patient and supportive husband, and I’m excited for the new year and all the ventures we’ve planned.

Anything For a Year

My dad used to say, “You can survive anything for a year.” While there are obviously some exceptions to this observation, it’s a useful point to keep in mind. If you know a difficult circumstance will have an end point, the hope of a better time can keep you going. It’s especially helpful if you know the time frame; it’s not so easy when you have no way to gauge how long your circumstance will last, or how to move out of it.

I’ve been thinking about milestones, years, enduring, and survival lately. Today, after I loaded photos from Sofia’s second birthday, I began going through our photos, deleting duplicates, unfocused shots, and other unwanted photos. As I was deleting literally hundreds upon hundreds of photos (about 1600 today), I came across two photo shoots I’d forgotten about — in fact, I believed they hadn’t taken place, and for nearly two years I have been regretting their absence. When our daughter Sofia was born, we planned to take photos each month of her first year, posing with a blue-striped lamb. I was so exhausted those first few months, I promptly forgot about these photos after I took them at her one- and two-month birthdays. I was delighted today to discover they existed, but at the same time, I was unprepared for the rush of emotion they brought.

Looking at these photos brings back some fairly traumatic memories. I’m not exaggerating: those first five months were horrific, and in fact Sofia’s whole first year was difficult. She had both colic and a dairy sensitivity, and while eliminating dairy from my diet helped a little, the colic symptoms remained. Those first few months, I averaged two hours of sleep a night. And those hours often consisted of bits and pieces of time: half an hour here, forty-five minutes there. By the time she was a year old, I generally got five hours of sleep at night and considered myself lucky.

It wasn’t just the nights that were difficult. It was nearly impossible to put Sofia down for more than a few minutes at a time. Those photos above were the result of holding Sofia in the Ergo baby carrier for hours until she dropped off to sleep, then gingerly lowering her onto the bed to snatch a few photos, until she awoke once again with screams. Then another quarter hour or so of comforting, then more photos, and so on until the light changed too much for photography. There were far more photos of blurred fists pumping in rage, mouth open in anguished wails, than there are of these peaceful moments. In fact, as I looked at the sweetly resting little girl in the photos, I could hardly believe these pictures were real. My memories of that time consist mainly of tears, rocking, walking, bouncing, and nursing.

As I mentioned, Sofia just celebrated her second birthday. She is now a cheerful little girl, all smiles and giggles. She rarely fusses, and quickly returns to sunshine after a little grouchiness. She runs around after her big brother, who just turned five, doing her best to imitate his every move and word. Her birthday was a simple affair, with just the four of us celebrating at home.  She listened with a big grin while we sang “Happy Birthday,” and then blew out her candles just as if she’d been practicing for the occasion. Later, she proved herself to be a good sport by posing for me with the lamb we got when she was born. Her birthday was as lighthearted, simple, and fun as she herself is.

The juxtaposition of these second-birthday photos with those first- and second-month photos is jarring with the contrast in memories. Those first two months, I knew theoretically that things would get better. Had to get better. No child can scream and demand to be held for eighteen years, right? Surely it would end. But I couldn’t see it, couldn’t even visualize a better time. I occasionally remembered my father’s words — “You can survive anything for a year” — and shuddered. A year of this? I was pretty sure I couldn’t, in fact, survive it.

But around five or six months, things took a turn for the better. Sofia learned to crawl, and began to enjoy real food. She smiled frequently. She was able to lie on the floor or in a playpen for fifteen minutes, half an hour, finally forty-five minutes at a time. She began to nap in a swing instead of only in my arms. I was able to sleep for a solid hour or more at night between waking, then for two hours, and then for an occasional three-hour stretch. Five-hour nights became the norm, then six-hour and even sometimes seven-hour nights, snatching sleep in two- or three-hour increments.

By one year old, she was walking, running, climbing. Trying new words. Smiling more than crying. She rarely needed to be held except to nurse. She mastered a bottle, then a sippy cup, filled with almond milk, as she still couldn’t handle cow’s milk or even gentle formula. Finally, the time came to wean her, and it was like a miracle: she began to fall asleep on her own, without nursing or being held. 

Now, at two years old, she falls asleep readily at nap time and sleeps for two or three hours, twice a day. She goes to sleep at bedtime as soon as I put her to bed, and rests all night long. She rarely cries, and then only for a short time. Smiles are the norm. Words increase daily, as do her adventurous attempts to mimic her brother.

What I’m saying is, This too shall pass. Or, in the words of my father, “You can survive anything for a year.” You really can survive a lot, if you know it will end. I survived five months of constantly holding a distressed baby with next to no sleep nightly. I didn’t think I could do it, but here we are.

I’m thinking of the new parents out there who are enduring the same sleepless nights, the screams that can’t be comforted, the hours of walking the floor. It feels endless. It feels hopeless. But I promise: It will end, and you will survive. One day, you’ll look into your sweet child’s laughing face and shake your head as you remember the distant past, when you believed you couldn’t do it, when you wanted to give up. You’ll wrap your arms around your toddler, whom you love with your whole heart, and you’ll smile as you realized: You did it. It’s over. You made it.

You can survive anything for a year.

A Novel Idea

Screenshot 2015-11-30 21.49.54.pngNaNoWriMo. Heard of it? No? Let me enlighten you. The month of November is designated National Novel Writing Month (though, in fact, it’s an international endeavor). There is an organization dedicated to NaNoWriMo. They recruit published authors, professors, publishing venues, text editing programs, et cetera, and employ them via their web site (NaNoWriMo.org) to encourage YOU, the average literature-loving human with a secret desire to write, in your quest to complete a novel. The goal is to complete 50,000 words of your novel during the month of November.

Last year was the first time I took an interest in the idea. I’d heard of it the previous year, I think, but dismissed it. A novel in a month? I thought. Insane. There’s no way I could do that. 

By last year, I had shifted in my mindset. I now found the idea tantalizing. I probably had a book in me somewhere, I realized. After all, I’d been threatening to write a book for years; surely I could translate some of that energy into some sort of book. I tossed a few ideas around tentatively. But by the time I realized NaNoWriMo had rolled around again, the month was half gone and I had yet to even begin writing. I abandoned it before I had even started.

This year was different. I was plagued by the awareness that I hadn’t yet finished a photo story book I’ve been making for Niko, entitled Niko Picks Raspberries, starring (obviously) Niko himself. I had planned it for Christmas last year — didn’t finish it. Thought I’d do it in time for his birthday this year — didn’t get it done. As I tried to buckle down and finish this little story for Niko, I got to thinking — there is a wealth of story potential in that boy. What if I turned him into a book?

And then, the inciting moment. Mid-September or so,  I was editing a paper for Aaron, who is working on his master’s degree. He is excellent at researching and analyzing and synthesizing the material for a paper, but he doesn’t have as strong a grammar sense as I do. Recognizing my delight in editing, he kindly allows me to take over once the paper is written, editing to my heart’s content. For those of you who don’t personally know me, let me assure you that I actually mean this with no snark or irony. Editing relaxes me the way running on a treadmill works for other people. It brings me to my happy place.

One evening, I was proofreading a paper, making small adjustments using Word’s “Track Changes” option. I rarely even look at the citations, since I was taught to cite sources generally using MLA, while Aaron’s courses require APA formatting, and there’s a good chance I wouldn’t recognize a citation error even if he were to make one. On this particular day, though, I noted that a citation credited “Cautionary Brown, et al.” Huh, I thought. I didn’t think APA used first names. And then, Seriously? Cautionary? Impossible. I scanned nearby lines. Above was a similar citation for “Brown, et al.” On a line below, a reference to a cautionary example of… something, I don’t remember now. Aha. A simple typo. I fixed it and moved on.

Still, the name stuck with me. Cautionary Brown. It was the perfect name for a mischievous child in days of yore. I could just picture him. In fact, I could picture him doing many of the things Niko has done. For example, running through a patch of burr-covered weeds until his clothes were completely full of them, in order to help the plants spread their seeds. It occurred to me that a boy in 1890 wouldn’t be that different from a boy in 2015.

So a spark of inspiration was lit, and when the month of November arrived, I realized I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t sit down to write Cautionary’s story.

Mind you, the story didn’t turn out quite how I expected. It moved itself to 1933 or thereabouts. Cautionary’s name will have to change — charming as it is (as I think it is, anyway), it simply doesn’t work for that time period (quite possibly not for any time period). Still, there it is. A brand-new story, created by me, and inspired — very appropriately — by a typographical error. And it came to be thanks to NaNoWriMo, which created a necessary illusion of an impending deadline and periodic goals.

It’s not done. Not by a long shot. I have perhaps 2/3 of the story actually written; the rest is rough outlines and half-written story ideas. Once the entire thing is complete, it will need a complete overhaul. It will need to be smoothed, connected, expanded, inconsistencies fixed. There’s a good chance entire sections will need to be rewritten to make it readable for my target age group. After that, the book will be about the length of three young-reader novels for that age group, so I’ll then need to work in introductions and conclusions for each section, and then ensure that each can stand alone as its own book. In short, reaching my 50,000 word goal, as tremendously satisfying and exhilarating as it is, is just the beginning. I’m not even close to finished.

But. But. But, I have written 50,000 words of a novel. And I like what I’ve written. I’m as proud and excited as a first-time pregnant mother, full of anticipation to show the world my beautiful baby. Full of terror, too, at the thought of the work that awaits me, at the thought of the process of getting the book ready to be viewed by others, at the idea of actually presenting it to a publisher. Which leads, naturally, to absolute terror at the thought of having my beautiful baby be rejected.

Want to see the cover? Of course you do. Here it is.FullSizeRender

I need hardly add that this is a working cover. I grabbed a free stock photo, added text using a phone app, and color-adjusted slightly. It’s not exactly a professionally-designed book cover. Still, it works for now.

So, there it is. This is what I’ve been doing all month. It’s occupied all my waking moments. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. The story ran through my head as I strung Christmas lights, swept floors, washed dishes, supervised bath time. It pursued me through pulling weeds and planting fall bulbs. It kept me up late and occupied me when I should have been folding laundry. It has consumed me — and, I have no doubt, will continue to do so for some time. But at least now I can rest knowing I’ve met a pretty significant goal.

Big Max

A few weeks ago my husband Aaron came in from the garden and said, “I turned your squash for you.”

“You huh wha bleh?” I said. I had absolutely no idea what he had just said. 

“Your squash,” he repeated patiently. “You have a bunch of squash and pumpkin and melon things out there, and some of them are getting mildewy on the bottom. So I turned them.”

“Oh,” I said, still feeling a little bewildered. “Thank you.”

This would have made more sense to me if it had been a little longer since the hemiplegic migraine episode that sent me to the ER and taught me the word hemiplegic migraine, but unfortunately one continuing effect of a major episode like that is that I sometimes have moments — less frequently as I gain distance from the attack — when ordinary things just don’t compute. Things like the word “squash” as related to the concept of “garden” and “turning,” for example. 

In any case, later pondering revealed the wisdom and kindness of Aaron’s action, and I thanked him with more cognizant gratitude. It also occurred to me that the squash and melons ought to be raised off the damp soil so they didn’t continue to mildew.  

We had just received a shipment of iris rhizomes from a nearby iris farm, and they’d come packed in swirls of long slender wood shavings. The touch and scent of them had immediately carried my mind to my father’s wood shop, my fingers tangling in just such shavings as I breathed in the fresh sharp piney smell of the picture frames or chair legs or jewelry boxes being urged into beautiful forms by my dad’s skilled fingers on the lathe that he’d built himself. Those swirling shavings, I thought, might work to elevate our precious squash and melons above the damp soil. 

Newly arrived iris rhizomes
Newly arrived iris rhizomes in wood shavings

By the way, I’ve been researching — not the real, blood-sweat-and-tears research of libraries and journal articles and interviews, just intermittent online searches — and no one else is talking about having to regularly turn their squash, or pile fluffy wood shavings under them, to keep them from mildewing. I’m pretty sure this is user error. That is, I’ve noticed that the soil in that garden is exceptionally clayey, and I haven’t done much about it. When Aaron helped me plant the squash, I told him they needed fertile and well-drained hills, so he made tall compost-filled piles for them, and they thrived. But the vines, of course, spread well away from the hills, where the soil doesn’t drain as well. So we’re getting standing water with the sprinkler, condensation even when we don’t water, and, sadly, mildew and rot if we don’t provide a bit of extra tender loving care. 

User error, then, is why I’ve been piling shavings under all my lovely bright-orange Big Max pumpkins, my acorn squash, and my honeydew melons, and anchoring them (probably unnecessarily) with burlap for fear of strong winds blowing them away. Periodically I go out and check on the ones that were too small to worry about last time, and give them the wood-shavings treatment, and give my others a gentle turn while wiping condensation off. Now that the fall rains have started again — sort of — we’ve stopped watering that garden, but the squashes are still getting damp.  

Big Max. So shiny! So orange!
  
Pretty honeydew.
 
The melons, lovely green honedews, are a source of pride, anticipation, and anxiety for me. Like the squash, I’ve never grown them before,and for some reason I’m really absurdly excited about them. One day in mid-August I spied one I thought seemed extra-large, and I picked it and brought it inside with enormously high hopes. Those hopes were mercilessly dashed. The melon was terrible. Hard, tart, but otherwise flavorless. Pretty, though.  

Once again I turned to my speedy version of modern research. Ripe honeydews, I learned, have lost their skin’s soft fuzz and have shiny, waxy surfaces. They might sound a bit hollow if you tap them, and sometimes you can see veining on the skin. The blossom end should give a little when gently probed, and they should be fragrant.

That’s why, every few days, as I progress through the squash patch, turning, checking for mildew, supporting with shavings, I pause occasionally by a large honeydew. I glance surreptitiously around. I lift, probe gently, tap, sniff. 

It’s moments like those that I feel a small sense of shameful relief that the home of our kind, sheep-raising neighbors, who almost certainly can tell a ripe honeydew at a glance, is just barely too distant for them to glimpse me wandering through the garden and sniffing the melons. 

Irises, Earthworms, Estivation!

A week or so ago, there was a tap on the door. I almost didn’t respond, thinking it was a hopping bird or swaying branch — who taps instead of ringing doorbells, when presented with so conveniently placed a doorbell as ours, and with no thoughtfully hung “Shhhh…Naptime!” sign next to it? But I did go to the door, and when I saw the big box on the porch and the back of the mail carrier vanishing into his truck with a cheerful wave, I was flooded both with pleased anticipation at the prospect of opening a package, and with bewildered gratefulness at the stranger’s oddly kind consideration. How did he KNOW my kids were napping and I would have curled up in a fetal ball of anguished despair, uttering ululating wails of mourning for the prematurely ended quiet time, had the doorbell rung?
The box was full of iris rhizomes. I’ve never planted irises before, so I was fascinated to see them. The individual iris roots were cushioned by swirls of long, fine wood shavings, reminiscent of those that would pile up under my dad’s lathe when he turned chair legs or picture frames or jewelry boxes. The irises are surprisingly pretty, with fan-shaped crowns rising above the lumpy rhizomes and twisty roots. They look like this:

Newly arrived iris rhizomes from Schreiner’s Iris Gardens    

A couple of days later we said goodbye to my mom, who’d just spent a delightfully out-of-character spontaneous weeklong visit with us, and I was left feeling at loose ends. After we waved her off, I commented to Aaron how nice it was for the morning to still be fairly cool. That’s when I realized it would be a good time to distract myself and the somewhat dejected Niko from missing Meemaw, and dig up the irises’ new home.

The garden bed against our shed, which is a potting and storage shed in one end and a woodworking shop in the larger remaining space, is filled with perennials that could be charming in the right setting but really just… aren’t. They all flower together, in the mid-to-late spring, and then simultaneously turn to scraggle and seed. The various plants all seem to flower along tall stems, with flowers dying near the base as new ones bud and open closer to the top, so they can’t be tidied up by deadheading. They’re always half full of dead flowers, browning leaves, collapsing stems, and seed fluff. This is our second summer here, and I’m finally realizing it’s OUR garden and I don’t have to maintain plants I don’t like. So, when we visited Schreiner’s Iris Gardens this spring, we decided that this haggard, overgrown garden would be the perfect place to fill with vividly colored irises and spring and summer bulbs. No more scraggle and slump.  Gleefully destroying a flower bed.

We’d dug up about a third of the bed, and were starting to think about lunch, when a clump of hard, dry dirt broke open and I saw the oddest thing: a ball of two or three earthworms entwined inside the nearly rock-hard lump. Their little wormy ball was slightly moist, as earthworms are, despite the extreme aridity of the ground that hadn’t seen rain in months. I was fascinated. Turns out, earthworms do something that’s like hibernation, only not, because scientists enjoy using precise words to describe precise activities, and this is something that occurs with certain creatures, including some insects and lizards, during extremely dry seasons rather than cold seasons. Various species approach it differently, but the general idea is the same: they protect themselves by retreating into the ground and going dormant, until moisture wakens them and signals them that their environment is once again friendly. It’s called estivation.

Estivation. Estivate. I love that. Estivation. I rolled that word around in my head for the rest of the day. Estivate. Don’t ask my why I love it so much, I just do. Estivation. And now, not only will we have a much prettier garden bed (thanks to Aaron’s finishing digging it up for me before the first rain since March arrived), but I have learned a new fascinating thing about earthworms, AND I have learned a delightful new word to murmur to myself whenever I need a quiet little bit of tranquillity.

Estivate.

Tree to Plate in Sixty Minutes

Having garden-fresh vegetables was commonplace when I was a teenager on a communal farm in Canada, but we didn’t live in the best climate for growing fruit, with the exception of a few berries. Living in Alaskan cities for a dozen years, I’d forgotten what it felt like to walk to the garden, pick a handful of veggies, and eat them for dinner a few minutes later. And fresh fruit? In both Northwest Ontario and Alaska, most fruit was shipped to grocery stores from far away and was fairly unappetizing by the time it arrived in fruit bowls at home.

This is our second summer in our beautiful two-acre Oregon home. It’s late August, and apples are ripening on the trees in our yard. A few mornings ago, I woke up with a sudden impulse to eat apple fritters. My mom was here for a short visit, so I had both motivation (being in one’s thirties doesn’t inoculate one against the desire to impress one’s mother) and opportunity to stroll out to the trees and do some picking while she made sure the kids didn’t cause a disaster while I was outside. I rolled out of bed, gave my hair three quick twists, and sneaked out through the garage, picking bucket in hand, without my absence being noticed by any small people.

An hour later, I had a full bucket of crisp apples, a bowl full of batter, and a plate of sugar-and-spice-tossed apple fritter rings. One hour. (That even included the amount time the puppy and I spent in the garage regretting that I’d forgotten the garage doorknob doesn’t unlock when turned from the kitchen side, so we were locked out briefly.) Those apples had been basking in early-morning sunlight sixty minutes previously; now they were glistening with sugar and about to be popped into hungry mouths.

I’m not sure why this amazes me so much, but it does — it boggles my mind that I live in a place that I have such easy access to fresh, delicious food right in my own yard. It never fails to fill me with a sense of gratitude and deep pleasure that the earth can provide such bounty, with such ease, and it’s right here for me to pick off a tree and eat…or, if I so desire, fry first and then eat. Yes, yes, I’m getting corny and sappy, and my best friend is rolling her eyes (that is, if she could even bring herself to read yet another gardening/cooking/ Oregon-has-the-world’s-best-climate post) — and I don’t care one bit, because I. just. love. living here.

I used the recipe from a website called Just a Taste, by , for the fritters. They’re what I think of as real fritters — the fruit is dipped in batter and fried, rather than being pieces of donut dough interspersed with chunks of apple. The recipe includes caramel sauce, which I didn’t use, and includes an optional suggestion for tossing the fritters in cinnamon sugar, which I did use — except I used pumpkin pie seasoning instead of cinnamon, and I also added some pumpkin pie seasoning to the fritter batter.

I made a good-sized batch of the pumpkin pie seasoning myself a month or so ago in about three minutes from a recipe I found at Country Cleaver, and I have been using it a lot lately. Yum.

Playground Extraordinaire

Yesterday we tried something new: we packed a picnic lunch and drove to Meinig Memorial Park in Sandy, a drive of about 45 minutes by the roundabout backroads route we took (because at least half the fun is the pretty drive). If you’re ever in that area with kids, I highly recommend that park. It has a huge playground with an enormous, castle-like, maze of a climbing structure. It’s kid heaven. The structure has myriad crawl spaces (which Niko called attics), hidey-holes, and towers. Bridges and passageways connect sections. I counted three slides of different styles and two swingsets, one with baby swings. Tire swings and hanging rings (a swinging version of monkey bars) dot the area. All around the perimeter are benches and seats, making it easy to keep an eye on the kids while resting.

And that’s just the playground. There’s also a huge gazebo, with gigantic tree trunks for supports and smaller ones forming roof supports. Then there’s a little outdoor amphitheater with a half-circle stage and stone seats, all set apart from the rest of the park by a low, wide stone wall that’s perfect for an adventurous boy to run daringly on shrieking “I’M A SUPERHERO!” A creek runs along one side, with a little bridge next to the amphitheater. Away from the busy playground, it was a perfect spot to sit in the sun and eat sandwiches in the fresh air.

The only drawback? The restroom building is kept locked. I presume it’s only unlocked for events or rentals, because we’ve visited twice and the bathrooms have been locked both times. Of course Niko, being a small boy, was delighted to have the opportunity to use the woods instead of a bathroom, but I wasn’t so lucky.

Bathrooms aside, it’s an amazing park. Niko had so much fun, and it made a relaxing family afternoon. What a perfect way to spend the day.

 

Elusive Hummingbird

Hummingbirds, I thought, hibernated. Or migrated. Or something. I’ve never put much thought into what I thought they did, but I’ve certainly never seen them in winter. When my family lived in northern British Columbia, we had the beautiful Rufous hummingbirds at our feeder, zipping around like little red and green living jewels on a perpetual caffeine high. They stayed all summer and then disappeared. [NOTE: If anyone read this when it posted itself yesterday after I explicitly instructed it to publish itself this morning, you’ll notice that I have now corrected my mistake regarding which hummingbird is common in British Columbia. Thank you to my mother for noticing.]

The hummingbirds we have here in Oregon are not as brilliant in plumage as the Rufous, but they’re still charming. My best guess, looking through sites like Beauty of Birds AvianWeb, is that either ours are the Broad-Tailed hummingbird, or I’ve been seeing female or immature Rufous hummingbirds. Anyway, since they are also tiny, high-energy birds, I’ve assumed they must have similar behavior. Gobble nectar all summer, vanish mysteriously once the weather turns cold. When our feeder froze solid in November, I figured the cold plus the lack of food would prompt our own hummingbirds to hibernate. Or migrate. Or whatever.

I kept thinking that until I read a blog post by Garden Fairy Farm, “Feeding Hummingbirds During the Winter.” Wait. What? We have to feed them in the winter? Turns out, hummingbirds are migratory birds. They don’t hibernate. But some of them inexplicably hang around their favorite spots instead of migrating. Oh dear… this could explain why my feeder has been looking emptier and emptier, until there’s now only a tiny bit of red liquid in the very bottom. The hummingbirds are still here! Or maybe just one, or… Who knows? The point is, with few insects for food this time of year (yes, they’re carnivorous — another surprise fact I turned up in a flurry of research after reading Garden Fairy Farm’s post), they actually need the food I’m providing. Apparently they can survive, if necessary, on the wells of sap that sapsuckers store up (another fascinating fact), but their chances of survival will increase if they’re given an additional food source like a hanging feeder.

My poor hummingbird! I feel like a terrible bird parent. Time to fill the feeder. Maybe they’ll reward me by letting me witness their presence this time around.