We are apartment hunting which has me deeply nostalgic for our current apartment even as we live here for a few more months. Reminiscing the present is like writing a greeting card to yourself every morning when you wake up. Things become overwrought with significance.
It was originally our landlord’s idea, but once he suggested it, it felt right to us too. Comparing us to us back at our apartment tour, we now feel just a percentage too big, maybe 15%.
Four years, two infancies in our bedroom, a few rooftop drinks, lots of sleeping-in with light blazing onto our pillows (the eastern reach of the eastern time zone), watching rain fall over the park from the windows, watching the tops of the trees change from flowers to leaves. Actually, much of life lived through the windows, often open on both sides like a railroad car, like a porch you happened to enclose with brick walls and place sixty feet in the air.
Joan helping me in the kitchen, Lux in the bathtub, listening to The Last Battle, the sound of the narrator’s British accent coming through the door over her light splashing.
Lux watching the Hancock Tower’s weather beacon visible from her window and reciting the code to us as if it contained predictive magical powers: “Steady blue, clear view. Flashing blue, clouds due. Steady red, rain ahead. Flashing red, snow instead.”
The mice, a revolving chain of them, heedless of the abrupt disappearance of their elders.”I just saw something scamper in the kitchen, it looked like a bird, but I think it was a mouse.”
Four years with just a bathtub for bathing (such a lovely old fashioned word), fun years where I mentally added shower to the amenities I would enjoy on vacation, even when we were just staying over at a friend’s house for the night.
It’s hard to leave a stage you still love.
Because we still love it, we have become persnickety rental hunters. We have no interest in replicating our space, we want everything we’ve loved so far, but more! Small, quirky, south facing windows, wood burning fireplace, pets welcome, heat & hot water included, washer & dryer, quiet at night, a real patio, wood floors, same fifteen minute commute for Joe. Because this Christmas list continues to be a hopeful prayer of mine I will avoid blasé language, but suffice to say Boston’s rental market is not in the business of making dreams come true.
Around this time of year I often visit friends with yards, kiddie pools, sidewalks, climbing trees, front porches, and extra bedrooms, and I have to stifle my awe of it all. Act natural like them. They shrug at the grandeur, “well, we’re thinking of re-doing the kitchen.” Their children totter from thing to thing, express boredom, ask for snacks. I become overwhelmed by the probability that my children would act the very same way in such circumstances, instead of turning into joyful competitive cyclists or champion swimmers like I secretly imagine.
(that said, I affirm any dissatisfactions with space, no matter how much of it. Having looked at approximately two hundred real estate listings, I believe we can say that space does not equal human comfort–comfort typically found in things like light that pools on the floor, windows that open, hearing your family while you cook, a room looking clean after you’ve cleaned it, the way a wall can expand a room instead of dividing it.
Is it odd or totally natural to experience deep identity crisis with a new home? Why are we as humans always leaning into things to make them who we are. Must your clothes, job, children, home, aspirations, facebook profile remind you of your value?
Naturally the girls hate the idea of moving. Like a loyal friend, they sing the praises of our current space (“Isn’t it so quiet on this street Mom?”), brush over the negatives or simply don’t see them (“I don’t want to say this out loud around anyone because I might hurt their feelings, but we live on the top floor.”)
You could make the argument that fertility is arranging this need for a new apartment. We have outgrown it. It worked for the 3rd infancy, but with all five of us walking now, it feels clumsy; the enforced minimalism more insistent than we want it to be.
Fertility can seem like a moving walkway that keeps turning me into new things and handing me things–infancy, baby, kindergarten, drop off and pick up, doctors appointments, feeling late a lot, nights on zappos analyzing miniature sandal straps, grocery lists peppered with apples and peanut butter jars, afternoons that begin when I pack the snacks and end with a bowl of tuna fish between us on the floor, me scooping spoonfuls into their mouths.
To some extent I feel like an active participant, in others, like leaving this apartment, I feel like decisions were made by some other creature.
One potential negative of sharing Planet Earth II with the children is that when you then show them a live stream of baby eagle hatchlings in the nest–waiting sweetly for a nip of the raw fish lying just inches away–they much their graham cracker and ask “When do you think the predator is coming?”
a now, a few notes on Alma before another month slips away:
She still has eczema, especially around her ankles, patches of dinosaur skin that blister red and itch. It’s hard for me to know how much it bothers her. After moisturizing her skin (primarily I use compounds with coconut oil), I pull on socks and then booties, and tuck her pants into those. If I leave her skin bare, she itches it and scratches herself fiercely. But if the skin is covered, she doesn’t seem to notice it.
I miss seeing her bare legs and feet though. Clothes are a poor varnish for babies’ perfect bodies.
Because of the eczema and the potential of food allergies causing it, I’ve delayed weaning her. I’m happy to be nursing a bit longer than I did with the other two, though I think we’ll be done by the end of the month. I sense that she’s weaning herself, and feeling very cuddly as a result, often pulling herself onto my lap to sit, or crawling merrily behind me while I pace (as it must seem to her) the apartment.
She plays by herself the most of all three of them, often crawling into the girls’ room on her own and slowly destroying it. I lean into the doorway and find her settled on Joan’s pillow, her tongue-tap “ta, ta” as she tosses, one by one, a stack of cards over the edge of the bed. She turns to glance at me, grinning. We smile at each other for awhile and then go on with our duties.
She now gets frustrated when she isn’t given something she wants the moment she wants it–like being allowed to climb on the table and pinch cereal pillows out of the girls’ bowls, milk dripping down her arm. She sees my iphone as a possession which we share; she likes to coo at softly while holding it with both hands. Fortunately I have two other children so I know that the cellphone ownership-mimicry gradually fades and it is not an early indicator that you have developed a creepy tech-obsessed enfant terrible.
She is very happy when imitating a pretentious stage reader. She comes upon books left on the floor, and settles down cross legged to examine them. She grabs the edges of the pages and flips at random through the book for several minutes, never looking up, all the while running a loud, low-pitched tone, like an aged generator that happens to drool. She often does this while I’m reading aloud too, perching next to me and nearly over-droning my voice while I read to the girls. If she finds me reading to myself, she grabs the edge of the book and flips through it as if looking for a page number, slowly pulling it away from me. She thinks it is hilarious if I try to read aloud to her in my lap, giggling loudly and then demanding the book for herself.
The girls are extremely indulgent of her and hate to hear her cry. If Lux is sitting next to her in the car, she’ll drape her hair over Alma’s fingers to yank on, sing to her, dig through her backpack to find distractions. Lux’s teacher told me she is often raising her hand and asking “if babies can come” to any school event being announced. Joan will cry ALMA! and dart around the house looking for a toy to give her.
I do find myself often stalling on a request of Joan’s because Alma needs something, which I regret. I’d like to streamline my actions and the household revolutions more cleanly. Right now I’m often feeding one, cleaning up after the other, in endless cycle.
There’s no denying that a thirteen (to eighteen!) month old is a chaotic element for a household. You never know where they are or how they might be attempting to poison themselves. They require constant vigilance, and if I could find a robot to follow her around and undo her every action, that would be fantastic. That said, we are absolutely obsessed with her presence in our lives.
A hot chocolate stand setup in 20 degrees is a very popular thing, almost too popular for us to keep up with! Lux watercolored the sign, and we found a spot in the sun next to our neighbor’s house. Mini marshmallows (in the Luxardo can) and whipped cream were included with purchase. Joan sat sedately behind the table, Lux eagerly filled cups, and our neighbor friend counted out change. They sold out quickly, and we learned a few lessons, like: always start with two gallons of milk, buy more cups than you think, and practice basic business habits (“thank you!” “have a nice day!”) beforehand. There was lots of talk about next time, and I’m already looking forward to it.
They made way too much money, because everyone was overpaying, which led to an easy lesson about net profit after cost and tithing.
Lux spent the rest of the day making jokes about how gross profit sounds like “gross pockets.” A thing, I might say, she knows quite a bit about.
I struggle to type anything against Ina Garten, but her onion dip recipe is a mix of sour cream and cream cheese which is too sweet to go with onions. Julia Turshen’s adds mayo to sour cream with a 1tsp douse of sherry vinegar. An action that suggests that you put the “salt and vinegar” in the dip instead of the chip. (Her dip recipe, though I did a thin-sliced caramelized onions version instead of roasted scallions.)
My super bowl weekend was a new jar of pickles and gin martinis with fresh orange juice, the girls running down to the neighbors’ to color while I cooked venison burgers in silence, save the sizzle. Reading Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen, which is excellent so far. Too many twitter checks for me, for sure, but what’s a savvy girl to do these days? I saw a pussy hat out in the wild, shopping with her daughter, and I realized: these pink handknit babies will be with us all winter! We’ll see them out: pulling sleds, loading up groceries, examining birthday cards in the aisles of Target, shoveling sidewalks. A cheering thought.
This week I listened to vintage Diane Rehm episodes. She has already retired from her daily radio show, but before she did, she replayed old favorite episodes. In one, an interview with her best friend, they confess that they’ve spoken to each other every morning at 7am for over thirty years. ADULT. GOALS.
(Thank you to reader Julia for suggesting these wireless headphones for nap time listening/doing, right when I needed something to ask for Christmas! Thanks mom.)
But I began by listening to her interview with Fred Rogers, a show which sounded like a pillow and a blanket had curled up to talk to each other and recorded it for radio. Quiet and deeply soothing. I listened to the whole thing on the couch and nearly teared up it was so encouraging.
After the episode finished I immediately hunted down the current best-method to watch Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which is: all seven seasons streaming on Amazon, free to prime members. What a gift to modern parents! The girls have both watched Daniel Tiger, the cartoon iteration produced by PBS that carries many of the same sensibilities (and the background-ambient feeling that this is all just a rouse to make better parents out of us), but I see a big difference between the shows. On the Neighborhood adults are running into each other all day and interacting: well mannered and thoughtful. You see adults shaking hands, asking after each other’s health, thanking each other, and bidding good day. You see Mr. Rogers make a point to greet his local shoe salesman, his grocer, his milkman. Watching this social courtesy modeled in slow-motion on television is really quite something.
Another wonderful thing from last week: I had the great pleasure of visiting 177 Milk Street, Christopher Kimball’s (founder of Cook’s Illustrated) new endeavor in downtown Boston. Like Cook’s Illustrated, Milk Street has a TV and radio show and a bimonthly magazine. However, unlike Cook’s Illustrated, they have designed their kitchen to host monthly classes and talks. It is a wide open space with fabulous big windows, located right in the heart of downtown. They are offering free cooking classes to Boston teenagers, which is so cool.
I went with a gaggle of wonderful-cook girlfriends to see Julia Turshen. Julia was a wee bit shorter in person than I expected after seeing many photographs of her fabulous hair. She was soft spoken yet an amazing public speaker. She made several simple recipes for us but even in their simplicity we were all able to pick up a few professional tricks. For example, before mincing garlic, she always crushes the cloves under her knife to flatten them. Genius. When adding garlic to a pan of olive oil, she tips the pan for a minute so the garlic can merrily slosh around and very-nearly fry. She said she roasts pretty much everything at 425–easy to remember!
There’s something reassuring about watching a professional do things you do in your kitchen every day.
So we began with glasses of wine, potato chips, and scoops of her scallion chip dip. Then we sat and watched her cook (luxury!), then we got to taste everything and get our copies of Small Victories signed. It was really fun and I highly recommend it for your next outing.
The photo above is from when I made her turkey and ricotta meatballs along with her very easy to doctor-up can-of-tomato sauce. The next morning I turned the leftovers into shakshuka, where you poach eggs in the simmering sauce (takes about ten minutes, just dump them in and put a lid on the pan) and then serve with a crumble of goat cheese.
Even if you skate alone ice skating is romantic because it is a valentine to winter. People leave their cozy couches and make their way in the cold to a clear patch of blue ice. Then they lean down and yank-yank on their skate laces, totter like penguins over rubber mats, and finally step with their steel spindles onto the frozen water.
A few sail away like pretty ships, but many, many, slip and slide, fail, flail and laugh. Get back up, grab their friend’s hand, do it again. Laugh at themselves, lunge into the wall, gently push off, start over. Adults do this! They pay to do it! Sure, some of them are high on drugs, or optimism, or both. But they do it and it’s inspiring to see.
Sometimes you see someone walk out, just a guy, dressed in sweats. Maybe he’s slouching. His hat is covering his eyes. He walks to the ice and all of sudden it’s like he’s dancing. You can’t help but watch his ankles because they are like two birds weaving through the trees. He’s so good! Did he play hockey? Did his mom used to take him skating as a kid? Does he love to skate by himself on Tuesday afternoons every week? We’ll never know. Without them saying a word, you get a secret peek into your neighbor-human and you see how talented and graceful they are, and you just admire them so much, these strangers.
Coming back to our 700sq feet home as a family of five after an expansive sunny vacation is like parachuting into a gray November day from a bright one in June. You’re happy to have your feet back on the ground, it feels familiar and cozy and yet…crowded. Certainly there is too much stuff, and look: we’ve brought more back with us! Why are the book shelves already full? one wonders with a stack of new books in-hand.
It’s a puzzle to find a spot for everything, and the trick is to take pleasure in the solving of it.
Over Christmas, my sister-in-law Hannah got me into this book Super Nutrition for Babies. I’m really grateful because reading it has been a wake up call for habits in our house. I find that you begin parenting saying to yourself my children will never order off a kid’s menu, or I’ll never buy kraft mac & cheese by the dozen and then things just happen. It starts to feel normal to have bags of animal crackers, pretzels, bread, and frozen waffles filling half your cart, or you get demoralized when they don’t fall in love with your roasted root veggies with horseradish on first kiss.
In particular, I was often offering Alma the same easy finger food as Joan: tossing pasta and fruit on her tray while I prepared a vegetable, only to find her full once I offered it.
So, after highlighting half the book on my kindle, I plowed into this week in full pursuit of a protein diet for the whole family, slipping lots of hard boiled eggs in (“here, eat this egg while I make you a sandwich”), keeping a steady supply of baked sweet potatoes in the fridge, and offering cheese or cold chicken for snacks. I made my first very tiny batch of bone broth. I poked around our seafood section for salmon roe for Alma, and I realized they sell white anchovies, a very mild and tasty fish, preserved in oil and vinegar, that all three girls love. I had never noticed it! I pestered our butcher counter and learned they tuck (incredibly cheap) frozen lamb liver and heart in nearly hidden spot in the freezer aisle.
I’m very glad to be shifting habits around in the pantry and refrigerator. These types of things are always followed by a briefly higher grocery bill, packing the wrong snacks, and lots more mental work. I’m trying to take it slowly and not be disappointed when change doesn’t come about with brilliant success. For instance, several times this week Lux ate nothing out of her lunch but the raw veggies I sent–all of the proteins (chopped chicken, container of yogurt) didn’t appeal to her by the lunch hour.
Upon reflection, nourishing this family is probably THE hardest job I do. I’m often amazed at how much time it takes to plan, prep, feed, and clean up. Other times I realize how important it is, and try to take up my pantrykeeper mantle boldly.
A rope ladder for Christmas, technically for Joan, but enjoyed by all three girls. Most of Joan’s play is imagination-based, she could pack a covered wagon full of salvaged post-it notes and beaded necklaces before you could say “cholera”, so it’s nice to have simple (mess-free) toys that facilitate her adventures as well.
I started the The Good Earth, published 1931 by Pearl S. Buck, mid-December in the two weeks after Joe’s brother died; wretched strange weeks when the girls and I were sick with one morphing virus, a flu-cold, flights were delayed, our planes home sat on the tarmac then skid into airports hours late, we seemed to tuck them into bed, fall asleep listening to them cough, and then drag them out again before the sun even bothered to wink awake.
At the memorial service for their uncle the girls crumpled with me in a back row in grumpy feverish moods, wiping their snotty noses over and over, hiding their flushed faces in their elbows as old friends of the family stopped to say hello. The service was beautiful but our children weren’t, a fact that both prickled our pride and seemed fitting. One family member dead and well remembered, the rest alive and hard to look at. Each morning I woke up expecting our hack-coughs to be emptied overnight, no. Meanwhile our hero Wang Lung gratefully accepted his morning bowl of hot water, in bed, served by his new wife just after she carefully stoked the fire and served another bowl to his father.
Naturally there was no mention of Christmas on the pages of The Good Earth–though there is occasionally a fearful and fitful devotion to various gods, grabbing an incense stick when things seemed worrisome, cursing them loudly when things fell apart. Wang Lung’s marriage to O-lan is pragmatic, met with unexpected kismet and peace, yet there is still the unerasable impact of O-lan’s deprived childhood–the details of which are eluded to only vaguely. Wang Lung made no move, ever, to fix or soothe what had happened to her. Meanwhile I chased the girls with ointments of various types, devoting fifteen minutes to cajoling a smear on their red skin that was raw from their furtive side-wiping. The girls seemed to collectively give up eating, their proud young playground muscles almost immediately disappearing into knobby knees. At a certain point all three began to watch me as nothing but a kleenex threatening an attack on them. I fell into the role, really, it was almost impossible for me not track their snuffles and new symptoms with a graph chart.
Steadily I closed my senses to the american christmas hoopla around us that did not frame our Christmas this year at all. The sweet heaven-bound songs of the memorial service rang instead of carols, toast and soup replaced hot cocoa, sleeping late and watching movies, often oblivious to the accomplishment of festive traditions around us. Joe and I mostly looked at the girls, but when we managed to look at each other it was difficult to avoid the topic of missing Ross or preemptively imagining how sad this or that were going to be without Ross. Steadily Wang Lung remained devoted to his land, wholly disinterested in political events in his country and often oblivious to anything beyond the demands of his social structure. The narrative pours out like hot tea, the irony-free meditations faintly fragrant and soothing. Pearl Buck was the child of American missionaries, she held the duality of American and Chinese worlds in her mind, but she loved the Chinese one most, I think. Her flattering sketch of the countryside, the affectionate description of the “loaf of bread wrapped around a stick of garlic,” the laboring, planting, harvesting, well-earned resting that framed Wang Lung’s noble year. The pre-revolution farmer peasant world was harsh indeed, but you can tell she loved it. The GOOD earth.
I was thrilled to see the Wirecutter’s review of kids headphones. There is not enough said about the brands on the market that don’t offer volume-limiting. When marketing to kids, it should be an obvious inclusion. After 80 hours of research Wirecutter’s resulting choice, a pair that goes for $100 on Amazon, looks pretty great. But I’m skeptical of bluetooth with kids—it sounds like a nightmare trying to resolve the pairing anytime it goes wrong (and you know it would). But the comfort level looks amazing for a child over age seven.
That said, the pair they awarded second place to are the OnanOff Buddy Headphones, which we’ve had since last spring. Built-in-splitter. Yup. I know. Brilliant. Solves so many issues, no matter what weird scenario you’re in–only one of the airline seat tvs in your row is working, only one of the downloaded shows is actually interesting, one of your iPads died enroute. And they retail for $33. Recommend.
Alongside the tiny-door cardboard calendars for the girls, this year I’d like to do a book calendar to mark the passing days of December. Unwrapping and reading a favorite book every morning sounds lovely. I first encountered this idea on Andrea’s bookscout blog two years ago. I’d love to wrap them up this way created by Oh Happy Day, pictured above. Brown paper book packages tied up with string.
Last year out of the twenty or so holiday books we checked out of the library, I found twelve favorites that the then-four-and-two year old loved (that means I need to come up with thirteen more!). I look for books that have detailed illustrations and writing that hints at even more of a story than it tells. All of these have that!
Here are last year’s favorites:
Christmas in Noisy Village, Astrid Lindgren // by the author of Pippi Longstocking, enchanting stories that portray life in a tiny Swedish village. Three small neighboring houses celebrate together, bake gingerbread once a year, and expect bright new rag rugs on Christmas Eve. It’s a peak into some amazing traditions that you’ll want to copy. amazon
The Tomten, Astrid Lindgren // This is a book that should be creepy but instead it’s calming. Last year it really spoke to two-year-old Joan. It’s quiet story about a tiny elf that wanders around a farm and checks on everyone who is sleeping. It’s not particularly about Christmas, more about quiet winter nights. Joan spotted these sweet Tomten ornaments in a catalog and I couldn’t resist getting them for her to accompany the story. amazon
The Christmas Party, Adrienne Adams // I feel that Wes Anderson must have used Adams’ illustrations as inspiration for some of his own characters and dialogue. These trim and buttoned-up bunnies are so charming. The rich pastel colors are a break from the REDGREEN illustrations of many Christmas stories. amazon used
The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, Gloria Houston // It really doesn’t get better than Barbara Cooney illustrating a snowy mother & daughter tale set in Appalachia. If your town has a Christmas tree, time the reading of this book with a visit to see it. amazon
Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Robert Barry // a rhyming romp, fun to read, plenty of critters scattered across the pages, and the moral of sharing the season. “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree came by special delivery…” amazon
The Night Before Christmas makes for fantastic reading aloud no matter, dare I say it, how many times you’re asked to read it. The poem is packed with vocabulary words and simply by reading it I feel like I’m introducing the girls to our rudimentary American approach to Santa. Two favorite illustrated editions of mine: by Roger Duvoisin or by Holly Hobbie.
Joy to the World, Tomie dePaola // gives children a peek into some of the Hispanic Catholic background of our traditions, like Poinsettias flowers. DePaolo’s illustrations so soothing and cozy, yet artfully Romanesque. amazon
The Jolly Christmas Postman, Allen & Janet Ahlberg // I submit to you that you’d better buy this one, and you may have to re-buy it after a time, because those letters are just too fun for children to keep them in one place! amazon
Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien // Though Joe read this one as I kid, I don’t know how I managed to miss it! A collection of illustrated letters that Tolkien wrote to his children for over twenty years. swoon. Please note: buy the 1999 version that I’ve linked to, or a much older one. There is an edition from 2004 that omits many letters and abruptly cuts off others–outrageous! amazon
The Littlest Evergreen, Henry Cole // A story told from the tree’s perspective: too little to be cut, he is instead dug up and brought inside, only to be planted after Christmas. He has a long life alongside the family. We loved the forest illustrations. amazon
Two wordless tales: I find that children love wordless books because it makes the reader-adult talk so much more!
Don’t Forget Me Santa Clause, Virginia Mayo // a little boy who notices his crib was skipped by Santa, so he tags along to the North Pole to get his due. Warm cozy illustrations and good for houses with sibling babies. amazon used
Peter Spier’s Christmas // Peter Spier’s spirally sketchy warm fuzzy spilling-over-everything illustrations are so amazing. The holidays in this book are not tidy, but rumpled and doing the best they can. amazon
Please share your favorites, I would love to check them out!