Holiday Highlights

Our newest Christmas tradition is the "Elf on the Shelf." Have you heard of the Elf? The elf -- ours is named George -- is Santa's scout. Each day he perches somewhere and keeps an eye on the children; each night he flies to the North Pole to report to the Big Boss; each morning he's in a new spot in the house, and the kids have to search all over to find him. For a solid month, Mallory's first words upon awakening have been, "Phoebe, let's go find George!" Then she'd instruct me to say "Elf Alert!" if I spotted him first (which, incidentally, I always did). For her part, Phoebe always said, upon finally tracking George down, "Geo-orge, how did you get there?" Chris and I George only forgot to hide one time during Advent. Go George! Now he's in the attic at the North Pole, waiting for next year.

This picture was taken on Christmas Eve morning. Wee little George is in the fireplace, waiting to give his final report to Santa.

Phoebe's contribution to the holiday baking:

Gifts in reusable cloth bags:

Christmas girls on Christmas Eve. They actually both wore these dresses to bed and the next day too. Considering that I found them on sale for $9 each, I think I got my money's worth!

Mallory actually screamed with joy when she opened this Build-a-Bear from Auntie Mimi:

But she has claimed that this -- a bell from Santa's sleigh -- is her very favorite present. When asked why, she said, "Because I'm the only kid in the world who has one." (Notwithstanding that her sister also got one.)

Roller skates!

One of my gifts from Chris. Isn't it adorable?

My favorite gift from Chris, incidentally, was a comic strip he drew of the girls, but I can't get a good picture of it. Trust me, it's priceless.

The girls are shouting "No!" after I asked them if they had enough presents:

So that was Christmas. It was a good one. Tomorrow we're off to Texas, hooray!


Merry and Brighty

It was the last day of school before Christmas break, and my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. G, said that she had a gift for each of us. "I've picked out a book for you," she said (and some students groaned). "I tried to pick one that matched your personalities."

I was alight with anticipation, wondering what book she had selected for me. A Nancy Drew? A Ramona? Perhaps something like The Westing Game, or Harriet the Spy? Mrs. G called my name, and I dashed to the front of the room to be presented with:

Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Which was about a donkey, or a mule, or a burro of some kind, who ferried people in and out of the canyon, and perhaps there were bandits of some kind involved, and Brighty saved -- but the plot is not the point. The point is, this was a book about a jackass, and Mrs. G saw it, and thought of me.

My wish for you, on this holiest of nights, is that, tomorrow and evermore, you never receive, or bestow upon another, a gift as perplexing as this one.

Merry Christmas!


Work it, baby

What I asked her to do:

Stand up straight.
Put your arms by your side.

As you can see, she did all of those things...just not all at once.


Weekend 101

Child Psychology
We went to Target to get gifts for Mallory's best friends. Mallory kept picking out ridiculous items, like Baby Einstein lullaby CDs and 50 cent Power Ranger coloring books. Finally I said, "Mallory, what are you doing? You need to pick out something your friends will like." She said, "But if I pick out something really good, then I'll be jealous that they're getting it and I'm not." I gave her a stern lecture about The Joy of Giving and she eventually found something decent in the Art and Crafts aisle -- although, as she said, "I really hope I get one of these kits too, or else I'm going to cry on Christmas Day." Sometimes I think I've raised a bad seed.

Mother Psychology
I confess that I vetoed many of Mallory's gift suggestions in the Arts and Crafts aisle, by putting myself in her friends' mothers shoes. I don't want to have to help my kid make her own lip balm, or her own super bouncy balls; I don't want to inflict those things on other mothers, either.

Physical Education
Phoebe asked me why I was cleaning the living room. "So Santa doesn't trip on all this stuff when he comes down the chimney!" I said, and then did a pantomime of him falling over a Fisher Price princess carriage. In the process I twisted my knee and hurt my back. Sometimes it does not pay to be whimsical.

Environmental Studies
One of Mallory's presents came in a package full of completely organic "peanuts." They decompose in water!, proclaimed the packing slip. Since I am someone who always has good intentions of recycling packing peanuts, but then lets boxes of them sit around for months until I get sick of tripping over them and then get frustrated and just throw them all out, I was happy to see these eco-friendly peanuts and decided to test them out. I put them all in the bathroom sink, filled it up with water, and...behold! They really did melt away. They also left a gross sludgy goo behind, but, oh well, the bathroom needed cleaning anyway.

Cultural Studies
Mallory has started asking Questions about Santa. How does Santa fit down the chimney? How come he doesn't bring presents for the parents? How does he eat cookies from kids all over the world and not get a stomachache? Who gives Santa a present? At school we learned about St Nicholas, Mommy, and he was a real guy and he died a long time ago so how come people call Santa, St Nick? If I ask Santa for a reindeer will he leave Rudolph in the backyard for me? Well why not, if he's Santa? Isn't he supposed to give kids whatever they want? Huh, Mommy, isn't he, isn't he?

My house, already groaning under the weight of Two Much Stuff, may just explode with the upcoming Christmas Bounty.

Home Ec
So what do you do when you pull out two boxes of baking chocolate -- one of Semi-Sweet, one of Unsweetened -- from your pantry, not knowing they were already open, and all the little squares fall out all over the floor? And the semi and the unsweet get all mixed up? And there's no indication on the wrappers or the squares as to which is which? Is this the point at which you decide that holiday baking is more trouble than it's worth? Or does that come later, at the grocery store, when you discover that powdered sugar is $4.59 a bag? Doesn't that seem like a lot to you? It certainly seems like a lot to me.

Proof of miracles: Phoebe, who hasn't eaten meat since she was 15 months old, ate chicken nuggets on Saturday and proclaimed them "teelicious!" She also ate part of a slice of actual pizza, whereas previously she has only consented to eat the crust. What could be next? Will she allow me to put sauce on her spaghetti? Will she try a turkey sandwich? Will she...I can hardly bear to dream...someday eat a hamburger? We can only pray and wait.


Mallory's Christmas List, Part II

Der Santa.

I hop you like the cookies that I mad for you. And I hop you have a good chrip back. How are you and Mrs. Claus dowing. I am dowing fin. I hop you have a wonderful CHRISTMAS. Wat I wont for CHRISTMAS is a wonderful CHRISTMAS for my famaly and me. And a bell from your slay. And a babby to adopt her name will bee Bailey and she will bee 1 month old. And glova gliter. And my ears to not hurt on the plan and off of the plan. And I wont have a ear infencin.



Mallory's Christmas List

Not a list of what she wants from Santa, but a list of things to do to get ready for the holidays:

Put up the christmas tree

Put up the lights

Put up the avint callindr

get the candalls out

Cllen up

Rap the gifts up

Do some fun stuph

Mack cards

Have slipovers

Mack gift lists


Notes on the Christmas Pageants

Third grade is, apparently, the age at which it is no longer cool to be in a Christmas pageant.

Hence, second graders are more entertaining while singing in Latin (Magnificat) than are sixth graders singing in German (O Tannenbaum).

If you wish your scripture lessons to be read with feeling, volume, and articulation, do not choose seventh grade boys as your readers.

One wonders what the world has come to when there seem to be more video cameras in the audience than there are children on the stage.

The first graders, who sang "No room, no room, there is simply no room!" to the tune of "The First Noel" got the prize for the evening's comic relief.

There is nothing cuter than kindergarteners performing "Away in a Manger" in sign language.

It is all worth it, though, to see your very shy youngest daughter do all the moves to her "Elves and Shoemaker" dance and sing all the words to "Silent Night."

Anyone who chooses to teach music to young children deserves an award. A big one.


My Favorite Photo


...which also sums up how I feel today. Wanting to take a long winter's nap. Wishing my kids still took naps. Wishing they were still small enough to cuddle like that. Waiting for Christmas to get here already.


Having a what-have-I-done moment

So apparently, I'm going to be a girl scout leader.

I'll wait while the laughter dies down.

My sister-in-law, in her infinite kindness, took Mallory to sign her up for Daisy Scouts last fall, the weekend I was in New York. Amy was told there was a huge shortage of Daisy Scout leaders and she said she was willing to help out. She was originally paired with another mom, but THAT mom dropped out, and so I stepped up, and our first meeting is Saturday.

I'm in a bit of a panic.

Things scout leaders should probably be good at:

Dealing with people

Things I am not good at:

Dealing with people

Luckily Amy is quite creative, and good at crafts, and probably nicer than me, so maybe we'll be okay.

Luckily Daisy Scouts are not required to sell cookies.

In part, I agreed to do this because I was afraid Mallory wouldn't stick with it unless I was there too. None of her friends ended up in her troop, and I haven't forgotten the twin disasters of Vacation Bible School and Art Camp last summer, which she dropped out of because, she finally confessed, she was "too shy." I hope my presence, and Amy's, will be enough to make her stick with the troop.

Then again, at a training session last night, I was warned that little girls in this age range do much better at meetings that their moms don't attend; having moms around seem to sap the girls of self-confidence, for some reason. (Two different experienced leaders said this, and based on my own children's behavior from times I've visited their classrooms, I completely believe it.) I'm going to have to have a serious talk with Mallory before all this begins, and explain that she cannot cling to me during meetings, that she has to be independent, and let me help the other girls, and not stick right by my side.

I was only a Brownie for a few years and don't remember much of it. I'm not feeling too confident myself. It occurred to me on my way home last night after training -- my mind all ajumble with rules about field trips and background checks and registration and tunics -- that, if done correctly, Girl Scouts could be a perfect antidote to the prevailing culture, which makes little girls grow up too fast. It will be a nice break from Bratz and rock stars and makeup and shopping. Anything that broaden's Mallory's world beyond Disney and television is a very good thing; I just hope I can do right by her and her fellow Daisies. Wish me luck.


Comfort and Joy

It was Christmas Eve, I was eleven or twelve. A few hours before our family festivities began, there was a knock on our door. It was a man who worked for my father, and I heard him tell Dad that he didn't have enough money to buy Christmas presents for his kids.

My dad didn't say a word. He walked to his desk, wrote out a check, and went back to the door. "Merry Christmas," he said, as he handed the man his money. Then he closed the door and went back to his chair.

I finished the Christmas cookie I'd been nibbling on. I smelled my mom's homemade apple pie, baking in the oven. I thought about the new dress I'd be wearing to church that night; I looked at the presents underneath our tree. I hope I realized, as I realize now, that it wasn't any of those things that made me one lucky kid.


Not what I had in mind

when I asked her to smile for the camera:

Our Christmas cards may be...interesting...this year.


Friday Favorite: My Penguin Osbert

I am deeply fond of penguins, and my house is littered with penguin figurines and penguin cookie jars and oh, I cannot count the number of penguin ornaments on my Christmas tree. I have never, however, wanted a penguin for a pet, and in this way I differ from both Mr. Popper, the hero of the first children's book about penguins that I ever read, and Joe, the hero of my new favorite children's book, My Penguin Osbert.

Joe has had his difficulties with Santa in the past; somehow he never manages to get exactly what he wants for Christmas. This year, he is painstakingly specific in his letter to Santa -- he requests a living, breathing, 12-inch-high penguin from Antartica. His name should be Osbert, Joe adds.

Joe is gratified to find the living, breathing Osbert under the tree on Christmas morning, but his excitement soon wanes when he discovers that Osbert likes to play in the snow -- all day long. And that Osbert likes to take really long, really cold baths -- with Joe. And that Osbert doesn't like chocolate chip waffles for breakfast -- he wants creamed herring instead. Joe begins to think that he made a mistake, and he writes Santa back to ask if a swap might be possible. Santa arranges a solution that is mutually acceptable for Joe and Osbert, if a little bittersweet.

I love the gorgeous illustrations in this book. I love that Osbert enjoys looking at snow globe catalogs. I love that Joe never shirks his responsibility for Osbert, even though it's difficult for him. Mostly, I love this line, which is repeated throughout the book: "I had asked for Osbert, and now I had him. So I [insert objectionable task here]." Which is a pretty nice summation of some aspects of pet ownership, and parenthood too.

Here's a seasonal problem that may only afflict me. Of course I want to donate a book to our bookstore's Giving Tree; I'd rather give books to "the poor people," as Phoebe probably indelicately calls them, than anything else. But this is what happens. I select a tag from the Giving Tree for, say, a 10-year-old girl, and the following inner monologue ensues:

"Let's see, ten years old...naturally, go straight to the L's for A Wrinkle in Time. Maybe I should get the whole Kronos quartet? Wait, though, remember how in fifth grade you brought A Wrinkle in Time for Ms Hinton to read aloud to the class and everyone else hated it? Maybe it's too difficult. Maybe I should do one of these series books...The Babysitter's Club? No, those books suck. Except it doesn't matter what I like, it matters what this girl may like -- wait! Harriet the Spy! I love Harriet the Spy. Everyone would love Harriet the Spy, it is the best book ever. Except wait, what if she's already read Harriet the Spy? How much of a bummer would it be to get one book for Christmas, and it turns out to be a book you've already read? Gah!"

...and so on for ages as I stumble about the children's section, rejecting each book I see for esoteric reasons of my own.

This year, however, the big chain bookstore mere steps from my office (which, yes, is a daily temptation) just ask for donations at the checkout stand -- $2, $5, or $10. You name the amount, you don't have to pick a specific title, you never know if the child ends up with Nancy Drew or Captain Underpants or Meg and Charles Murry. For an obviously neurotic booklover like myself, this is the way to go.


Three Gifts

My mom was a teacher, and every holiday season she received dozens of gifts from her students – homemade bread and cookies, candles and bath salts, coffee mugs and ornaments. One year she came home with a figurine of a teddy bear. It wasn’t a Christmas-themed bear figurine, it was kind of smudged and dirty, the bear had a chip out of its ear. It was not a quality piece, in other words. My siblings and I examined it, and I don’t remember which of us said what we were all thinking: “That’s kind of a crummy gift, isn’t it? It’s not even new!”

My mom said, “You never know. This bear might have been that student’s prized possession, and she chose to give it to me.”

Sometimes the price of a gift is no reflection of its value.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is the Barenaked Ladies’ “Elf’s Lament,” in which an elf complains of being overworked and underpaid. Part of the chorus goes:

“Boys and girls, before you wish for what you wish for
There’s a list for who’s been naughty or nice
But consider the price to an elf!”

The song makes me laugh, but it also reminds me of a friend of mine, who told me once that she refuses to buy Barbie dolls for her kids. She couldn’t stand, she said, to support the manufacture of these dolls, made in a factory in China by little girls who would never get to play with one, or by parents who could never afford to buy one for their own daughters.

I do buy Barbies for my girls – they’re swimming in them – but it’s always with a stab of guilt.

Sometimes the price of a gift is no measure of its cost.

“Did you travel when you were pregnant with me?” Mallory asked.

“Um, no, not very much,” I replied. “Why?”

“Well, Mary had to travel when she was pregnant with Jesus,” she said, “and she was very uncomfortable.”

In the pictures, Mary always looks so serene, but I imagine she was uncomfortable – nine months pregnant, riding on a donkey, delivering in a dirty stable. Then there were all the people descending on her and her baby – the shepherds, the wise men; then they had to flee to Egypt – not exactly a relaxing postpartum period. And in the midst of the confusion and the fleeing and the never-ending tasks that come with tending a new baby, there must have been, in the back of her mind (she pondered these things in her heart, and kept them there), the knowledge that her child was not like other children, that something would be expected of him that was beyond comprehension.

What would it be like, to know that about your child? I heard this line in another Christmas song, sung from Mary’s point of view: “You were born for all mankind, but you will always be mine.” I wonder how often Mary thought: Not my baby. Not my son, find someone else. Knowing that she would have to give him up anyway.

Sometimes the value of a gift is all in the giving.



Seven years from here:

to here:

You used to sleep in the crook of my arm all night long. Now you're almost up to my chin. How did that happen?

You are a wonder. You are stubborn but kind-hearted, distractible but single-minded. You are inquisitive, but you know it all. You are sociable but shy; you are a big fibber who demands accuracy from everyone else. You are growing up, but still so innocent. You are completely familiar to me, but constantly surprising.

Sometimes I feel unequal to the challenge of parenting you, but I'm so glad that I was entrusted with you, beautiful girl. I miss the baby you were, but can't wait to see what happens as you grow. May your seventh birthday be all that you hoped it will be, and your seventh year be filled with luck and all good things.

Happy Birthday, Mallory. I love you.


Ask not for whom the cookie crumbles

I should have known, when I complained about having to make cookies for Mallory's classroom birthday treat, and then rejected someone's well-intentioned advice to send store-bought cookies on the grounds that homemade cookies were better -- I should have known that I would get my comeuppance. Comeuppance rarely thinks of the children.

Mallory looked through the cookie cookbook and selected refrigerator cookies. You know, butter, sugar, you make the dough, shape it into rolls, refrigerate it, and then slice it up and you get:

Except what I got was:

I couldn't send these misshapen blobs, these wafer-thin crepe-like objects, to school with Mallory. So I tried again. Chocolate chip cookies, with holiday M&Ms for added flair.

They, too, were disappointingly flat and crispy:

This happens to all my cookies, in fact. They spread too much, they flatten out, and in two days they're crumbly and dry as dust. Today I did some assiduous googling and discovered that my problem is butter. I need to either melt the butter, instead of softening it, or I need to use shortening instead. I have tried to eschew shortening on the grounds that it's unhealthy, but please, butter isn't exactly good for you, and honestly, it's a cookie. So I know what to do next time I feel the urge to whip up a batch.

Although you have no idea how much it is costing me not to make another batch of cookies for Mallory's class, armed with my new knowledge. It is only the knowledge that this is for a bunch of first-graders, who will only care about the fact that they're getting a free cookie, that is stopping me from firing up the oven right now. (Well, that and the fact that I am firing up the oven right now to make Mallory's birthday cake. And yes, I could have bought that at the store too, so watch this space.)

On the other hand, to prove that I'm not completely hopeless in the kitchen, these turned out very well:


Wrapping it up

My kids are always saying funny things; oftentimes after something particularly amusing, Chris will say, "You're going to blog about that, right?" And I usually mean to, but then sometimes I sit down and try to write it down, and whatever it was that made us laugh so hard loses something in the translation.

This is one example:

Tonight at dinner, Mallory said, "What's a cornucopia?"

"It's a horn-shaped basket," Phoebe said promptly and matter-of-factly, and we just died laughing. When the giggles had died down, Chris said, "Yes, and it's usually filled with fruits and vegetables."

"No," Phoebe said in disgust. "It's filled with pumpkins and leaves and pine cones." And we died laughing again.

Trust me, it really was funny.

So that wraps up Thanksgiving, and that wraps up NaBloPoMo as well. I did it! Thirty days, thirty posts, go me.


On the other hand...

...going up and down the attic stairs to retrieve the boxes of ornaments, and then back up and down the attic stairs to return the boxes, is a real pain in the neck.


The Reason

"Why does Jesus get a tree for his birthday?" Mallory asked.

"That's a good question," I said, because I didn't feel like getting in to the druids and the solstice and all the other things that culminated in us putting up a plastic fir tree in our dining room on the day after Thanksgiving.

But here's why.

We put up the tree so grown-up children can open up a box of ornaments and be flooded with memories:

From 2008-11

(There's one of many gold filigree ornaments my grandma gave me throughout the years, one for each Christmas. There's the Santa I bought on our trip to San Diego in 1999. There's one of the red prisms Chris's grandma gave me on my first Christmas in North Carolina.)

We put up the tree for little girls who exclaim with wonder over each ornament they find. "Is this one mine?" they ask, or "Where should this one go?" or "Isn't this the prettiest one ever?"

From 2008-11

From 2008-11

We put up the tree even though the room around it is a mess and there are a million other things needing to be done.

We put up the tree because our parents did it for us.

We put up the tree because it means that for an hour, we can turn off Nickelodeon and listen to Christmas music.

We put up the tree so every day for a month, we can stop and see something unexpected and beautiful in an ordinary spot.

From 2008-11

We put up the tree, and we don't mind that one strand of lights won't light, and that a great majority of the ornaments are clustered in one spot, the spot the 3-year-old could reach.

We put up the tree to hear our children say, "It's awesome!" and "It's so gorgeous!"

That's the reason why.


Retro Thursday: Food Edition

In honor of all those who slaved over a hot stove this Thanksgiving day, I present this:

This is me, age 10, at the 4-H Food Fair -- in a very rare foray into domesticity. For my entry, I cut up, as you see, broccoli and caulifower, put them on a plate, stuck them next to a little flower arrangement -- and I won first prize! There may also have been a dip involved. The dish was an odd choice for me, a child who never willingly ate a vegetable.

Hope your Thanksgiving meal was better than that.


Quite a Performance

Last night, Phoebe unearthed a stuffed bear that had been moldering, unloved and unwanted, in the stuffed animal pile for at least a year. Mallory saw it and shouted, "I want to sleep with that bear tonight!" Phoebe protested that she wanted the bear to cuddle, and since she was the one who found it, I awarded her the cuddling privileges.

Mallory was inconsolable. She went to bed and cried for five minutes, declaring over and over again that "It's not fair! I never get a chance! Phoebe's so mean!" Then, realizing that the standard fare was having no effect, she changed tack.

"I know why Phoebe won't give me the bear," she said in a quavery voice. "It's because I'm nothing but a big jerk."

"What?" I said, startled.

"It's true. I'm a bad big sister. No wonder she doesn't like me. I never do anything nice for her. Even at school, I'm a bad person. I'm always the last to pack up my backpack when it's time to go. When people are mean to me on the playground, it's just what I observe."

"What?" I said again.

"I observe it when people are mean to me," she continued, and I realized that she meant "deserve." "I totally observe it because I'm a big jerk."

"Now Mallory," I said, "this is just not true. You're not a big jerk. You're a good big sister and a good friend and lots of people love you."

"I just don't know how much more I can take," she said in despair. "This life, it's just so hard for me."

This went on for some time. I was trying to decide whether to laugh or to be concerned about her mental well-being when she played her final card.

"Do you know what would make me feel better about this hard life that I have?" she asked weepily.

"No, tell me," I said.

"If Phoebe...would just...give me the bear!"

Phoebe did not give her the bear. But if I'd had one handy, I would've given her an Oscar.


Five more things about Phoebe

1. Phoebe's imaginary friends are named Apple, Rainbow, and Ellis.

2. At her preschool Thanksgiving feast today, Phoebe ate half a roll, two grape tomatoes, and one baby carrot.

3. Phoebe has a mental catalog of what she was wearing at important times in her life, and she requests certain outfits accordingly. "Today I would like to wear the purple dress I wore to the strawberry patch," she'll say, or, "today I want to wear the red dress I was wearing when Papa filled up his swimming pool."

4. Phoebe will ask for a kleenex, hold it to her nose, and sniff deeply.

5. Phoebe says "loosic" for "music," and "woovie" for "movie," just like her big sister did.


Apparently it's a bigger problem than I thought

Chris says I'm wrong about this:

And to learn, as well, that a certain melancholy letdown is part of the Christmas experience, and that maturity means letting it go and realizing that what we get is not what the holiday is all about anyway.

We discussed it at length last night, and then again this morning, and it was as though we were speaking Portuguese to one another. Rather, that I was speaking Portuguese and he was speaking Dutch. In other words, there was no meeting of the minds.

To clarify -- I had happy Christmases as a child, each and every one. I got what I wanted. I was sleepless with anticipation on each Christmas Eve and went to bed satisfied each December 25th. I still remember the joy of unwrapping the Sunshine Family, and the Speak and Spell, and the Atari 5200. In addition, I learned to say thank you and I learned that giving gifts was important too. But I also learned, and I think this is what I was trying to get at last night, I learned that Christmas is not about getting absolutely EVERYTHING you could imagine wanting. I learned fairly early to...moderate my desires. To NOT ask for a trampoline, for example. Or, to use an example from my own home, to not ask for a Hannah Montana beach house AND a Hannah Montana guitar AND a Barbie cruise ship AND some Camp Rock singing dolls AND four different Webkinz AND a Pixo machine AND a Stylin Fun Studio AND a butterfly house with live cocoons. I guess that's what I need for my kids to learn (and soon!) -- that they can't ask for the world, or they WILL be disappointed. And I, myself, need to give them the chance to learn that, by not indulging their every desire.

I don't think, incidentally, that Chris disagrees with that. He thought that I was wrong about melancholy and Christmas going hand in hand. But by "melancholy" I didn't mean any great sadness or heartbreak or crushing depression. I just meant that feeling of letdown that you get when you realize that the day that you've anticipated for so long -- Christmas! -- is over after only twenty wild minutes of unwrapping. And I don't think that feeling and general Christmas satisfaction are mutually exclusive.

Does that make more sense? Less? Am I as weird as my husband thinks I am?

Ho ho ho!


I have a problem

I tend to buy way too much for my kids at birthday and Christmas time. I overdo. And I know why it is. It's because I remember that feeling that I had, as a child, on every birthday and every Christmas morning, of unwrapping the last present and then looking up and thinking, Is that it? Isn't there something else? That feeling of disappointment that it was over (even though, I hasten to add, I always got very nice presents and I was never deprived of the things I really really wanted, except for maybe the Baby Alive doll). I don't like to think of my children having that feeling.

That's ridiculous, of course, and I need to get over it. Kids need to know that there are limits, that sometimes what their hearts desire isn't deliverable. Plus, in my heart of hearts I know that it's not my job to never disappoint my children; my job is to help them learn to cope with disappointment. And to learn, as well, that a certain melancholy letdown is part of the Christmas experience, and that maturity means letting it go and realizing that what we get is not what the holiday is all about anyway.

So I'm trying. There's one thing that Mallory has asked for several times and I'm just not getting it for her. She'll have plenty of other presents, more than she's asked for in fact, and it'll be fine. Her character -- and my credit card balance -- will be the better for my saying no.


Adventures in Babysitting

Amy hosted a jewelry party last week; Mallory and Phoebe came along with me and were pleased to find another three-year-old girl, Lydia, there as well. We sent them upstairs to play and asked Mallory to keep an eye on the younger two. Throughout the evening, she provided us with these dispatches:

I'm working very hard and not having any fun myself. The important thing is that Phoebe and Lydia have fun.

These girls are playing so nicely together.

This babysitting is wearing me out.

These girls are so cute, I could just cry for happiness.

Lydia is perfect. Phoebe is a handful.

We were all very careful not to laugh until she was out of earshot. She was so earnest. She did a fine job, for her first time babysitting.

I didn't babysit much in high school, and hated it the few times I did, but in my last two years of college I was Babysitter Extraordinaire, the favorite child care provider for a handful of professors in the Fine Arts department. Those professors -- and they were almost all two-professor families -- gave me my first insight into what is now called "Attachment Parenting": they were breastfeeding, cloth-diapering, co-sleeping, whole-grain-eating, PBS-only-watching families. (So are we, might I add, except for the whole grains and the PBS. And the other three don't apply much anymore.) I loved all those kids -- Stephanie and Ross, Anna and Austin, curly-haired Sam, Adrien and James, Emily and Matthew -- and it's almost impossible to believe that they are all now in high school, that they're not the same cute kids I left behind in San Antonio in 1994. Emily and Matt were by far my favorites. Emily was four and had perfect pitch. She'd never even had music lessons, but I could hit a key on the piano and she'd shout, "G!" or "B flat!" and she was always right. Matt was two, and had the chubbiest cheeks and the sweetest smile. He got his consonants all mixed up; one day when I fed him lunch he said, "Frista, I'm just frazy about komatoes!" This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but one day when I was really bored, I googled them. Emily is apparently a very accomplished viola player and poet; Matt is a champion squash (or raquetball?) player. I'm proud of them, my first kids. I wonder if they remember me.


Retro Thursday: Christmas Edition

Another trip down memory lane, via a one-horse open sleigh.

We spent every Christmas Eve at my Grannie and Granddad Renner's house. Every year, someone received, in a gaily wrapped box, a picture of a truly hideous old man. "It's the picture!" the recipient would howl, and everyone would laugh and laugh. Grannie was obviously the gotcha this year. The child in the too-short dress and the bow on her head, to the extreme right of the photo, would be me.

1973. Granddad made, by hand, a dollhouse for Jana and a cradle for me.

1975. I used to be blonde! Note my dress, which, like all my Christmas outfits, was sewn by my mother. I wish I had a picture of the matching, quilted dresses she made for herself, me and Jana when I was around three. They were something. The baby in this picture is my cousin Annie. Also, in the background is the wooden church that Granddad also made by hand, which was brought out every Christmas. I don't know where it is now.

1977. Awww. Please realize that my mother must have made these dresses while she was either vastly pregnant with twins, or the mother of newborn twins. The mind boggles. Also made by hand, by my mother (although not that year): the sequin-y stockings and the advent calendar. I LOVE that advent calendar.

1978. Another Christmas Eve, another Christmas dress, a Dorothy Hamill haircut. I was handing out gifts, a coveted task at Grannie's house. That's my Granddad in the plaid pants, and half of my cousin Caleb.

Best Christmas present ever:

Until this:

1990. My siblings will love me for this one. Aimee is obviously the only one happy to be up so early.

Doesn't that get you in the Christmas spirit?



What a crazy day, both in and out of the office. No time for a real post, but here, as promised, is the outfit Phoebe picked out yesterday:


Perc-fect, right?
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Two Years On...

and working from home with Phoebe in the house isn't much easier. Here's a snapshot of our day:

Phoebe: Mommy, what are you doing on your computer?

Me: I'm working.

Phoebe: Can I go on bluesclues.com?

Me: Not now, I'm working.

Phoebe: Can I go on cheetahgirls.com?

Me: Not now, I'm working.

Phoebe: Can I go on pixiehollow.com?

Me: Not now, I'm working.

Phoebe: But I really really want to see my pages!

Me: Honey, not now. Why don't you go do a puzzle?

Phoebe: O-kay.

(Moments later)

Phoebe: Where is my princess puzzle?

Me: Did you look in the puzzle cabinet?

Phoebe: It's not here!

Me: Which princess puzzle are you talking about?

Phoebe: The princess puzzle that I liked to play with when I was just a little girl!

Me: I am still not sure which one you mean.

Phoebe: The one I played with all next week!

Me: Yeah, that doesn't help me either.


Phoebe: Mommy, I'm really hungry.

Me: Would you like some lunch?

Phoebe: No, I don't like any kind of lunch. I want a snack.

Me: How about some fruit?

Phoebe: Do you have strawberries?

Me: No.

Phoebe: Do you have waterlemon?

Me: Watermelon and strawberries are hard to find in winter, honey. I have grapes, apples, and bananas.

Phoebe: I know, could I have grapes cut up and bananas cut up and apples cut up in a bowl?

Me: A fruit salad?

Phoebe: Yeah! Fewoot salad!

Me: Okay. (Chops fruit) Here you go.

Phoebe: Yum!


Phoebe: I don't want the grapes or the bananas.

Me: Then don't eat them.

Phoebe: But can you take them out of the bowl?

Me: (Sighs and complies)

Phoebe: Yum! Now I have an apple fewoot salad!


Phoebe: Mommy, can I change my clothes?

Me: Why?

Phoebe: Because I need to! New clothes would be percfect for me.

Me: Okay, go pick something out.

(And here's where it would have been funny to insert a picture of the ridiculously mismatched outfit she picked out, but my camera battery is dead. Come back later!)

You get the idea. I'm still glad I get to spend the day with her.

Edited to add: It just snowed for, like, two minutes. Bizarre.

Also: Happy birthday to my mother-in-law!


Happy Birthday, Mom!

...there's nothing like being a parent to put the past in a new light. When you experience what it takes to get one child through one day, you get a little dazzled realizing you were the beneficiary of that, too -- this long chain of giving and receiving. -- Louis Bayard


Two Things About Phoebe


1. Phoebe removes her shoes immediately upon entering the house. Even if she's fallen asleep in the car, and I'm carrying her, still sleeping, into the house, her shoes hit the floor within a few steps of crossing the threshold.

2. Phoebe is never still. If she's sitting in "her" chair watching TV, she has to be scraping something around on the floor with her toe, or banging the doors of the TV cabinet, or fiddling with the blinds. If she's on my lap, she squirms and twitches, or she digs her toes into my legs to maneuver into a different position. If she's on my lap, watching TV, and eating popcorn, she rustles around in the popcorn bowl, lets it spill between her fingers, crumples up each piece, tries to cram kernels in my mouth. In her car seat, she zings the seat belt beside her back and forth, back and forth. In bed, she twists and flops and flips her pillow over and then over again and kicks off her blankets and pulls them back up. It is such a relief when she finally falls asleep. About an hour before she wakes up for good, though, she starts the flopping and flailing and rustling and turning all over again. And then she gets up for another non-stop, skip-hoppy day.
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Love is a battlefield

Mallory asked, "Phoebe, who do you love better, Mommy or Daddy?"

"Mallory, that's not really a nice question," I said. "Love isn't a contest."

"I don't love Mommy or Daddy the best," Phoebe said.

"You see, that's nice," I said, "you should love everyone the same--"

Phoebe continued, "I love my papa the best."


Planning Presents

I am so ridiculously excited about the Christmas present I'm getting from my husband and in-laws that I can't stand it. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. That would spoil the surprise.

I have Mallory just about covered, birthday and Christmas wise, and now just have to hope that she doesn't radically change her mind in the next six weeks. Phoebe is both tougher (because she wants everything she sees, and won't commit) and somehow easier (because she's delighted with anything anyone gives her). The really difficult thing about Christmas and having kids is that you have to plan what you're going to get them and let everyone else (grandparents, aunts, etc) know what to get them as well.

This is turning into a really boring post. I have something else in mind but I wanted to get this posted before time got away from me. I may come back, if children cooperate. Happy Saturday!


Time is money

I bet you thought, when I said I'd be posting every day this month, that I'd be posting something of value every day. Ha! Fooled ya!

Anyway. As the year winds to a close, I find myself sitting on 7 vacation days. I definitely need two days for Christmas. I could take the others any time I wanted -- the week before Thanksgiving, for example, the better to make pies, or a few days in December, the better to go shopping while the children are in school. I could take a day to decorate the house for Christmas. You get the idea.

Or, I could cash in five days and, in essence, receive a bonus week's pay. Which would pretty much almost pay for the plane tickets I just bought.

Time? Money? Which would you choose?


Retro Thursday: Family Edition

Pardon the quality of these pictures. They're old, because so am I.

The one and only picture of me looking cute in a swimsuit.

1974. The corn was as high as an elephant's eye.

My big sister Jana and I discuss how nice it is to not have any younger siblings.


Easter Sunday, 1978. Ignore the adorable children and focus, if you can, on my father's suit.

Aimee, in Underoos!

The twins hamming it up. Love the patches on my brother's jeans.

First day of school, 1984...I guess that would be 7th grade for me. Aimee has no front teeth (aw). Jana is way too cool for school. I don't know why I'm clutching my brother in that way. Perhaps because I'm being swallowed by my puffy pink shirt.

Christmas 1988. Nice buzz cut on Casey. I believe Jana and I were both wearing new clothes from The Limited, the coolest store in town. (Figuratively speaking; our town had no stores.) You can't see them very well, but Jana's shoes, being two-toned, were considered scandalously wild at the time.

That's it for this week! Stay tuned for a very special Retro: Christmas Edition next Thursday.


Just Desserts

About a year after I started dating Chris, I was dubbed the official dessert-maker for all family get-togethers. This suited me fine, as dessert is my favorite part of every meal. Usually for Thanksgiving I make a caramel apple pie. Last night I wondered aloud what else I should bring.

"How about an apple pie and a cherry pie," Chris said.

"No, how about an angel food cake with strawberries?" Mallory suggested.

"Strawberries are not exactly an autumn fruit," I said.

"Well, then, how about a chocolate cake?" she said.

"That would be okay. I wish I could make an Italian Cream Cake like Grandmom does. That's my favorite cake, but mine never turns out as good as hers does."

"Have I ever had that kind of cake?" Mallory asked.

"I think so. I think she made it last Christmas."

"Oh yeah!" Mallory's eyes gleamed. "That was good! Eating it was like...like sliding down a rainbow!"

No one has ever been quite that rapturous about any dessert I have made. Actually some members of Chris's family don't even eat dessert, which I find hard to understand. My caramel apple pie is good, it's fine, except that I don't make my own pie crusts. No one cares except me, and I only care because my mom always makes her own pie crusts, and they are so much better than the store-bought ones. Mom also makes a fruit salad which is divine and which cannot be replicated (I think both of my sisters and I have all tried without success). I'm not sure what I did the one time I tried to make an Italian Cream Cake, but it certainly wasn't the same.

I wonder if, in years to come, my daughters will say to their daughters, "I wish I could make a _______ as good as your grandma does."

Somehow I'm doubtful.

Anyway, what desserts are you bringing, or expecting, or craving this Thanksgiving? I need some inspiration.



"Look at that, Mommy!" Mallory shouted when we stopped at a red light on the way to school.

I glanced out of the window. "Oh, wow!"

"What is it?"

"It's geese! They're flying south for the winter. They're in a perfect V shape right now."

"What are you talking about?"

"The geese."

"What geese?"

"...Okay, what are you talking about?"

"The pink clouds over there. What is it?"

"Oh. Oh, that's the sunrise. It's pretty, isn't it?"

"It's beautiful."

From the backseat, Phoebe said, "See that red leaf up there, on that tree? It's the only one left on its stick."



Somehow this sign, which was posted today in my office break room, was not reassuring:


Somehow it's hard to be annoyed when your six-year-old wastes several inches of precious label-making tape on this message:

"God is in hven and he loves you frever and he wochis over evryone."

Somehow you have to stop yourself from laughing when the same six-year-old makes her auntie guess this in a game of Hangman:


(that's supposed to be like, not lick, just so you know)

Somehow you feel a bit disappointed when your three-year-old calls you over to see how she's spelled her name in Bananagram tiles, and instead of P-H-O-E-B-E you see:


Somehow, you still believe that your children will eventually display the good spelling genes you and your husband have passed on (he, a spelling bee whiz, you, the District Spelling Champion three years running). As for the geniuses in your HR department, they're on their own. Look out for tornadoe's.



Today I found my copies of Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic in the, well,attic, and called the girls over to read. I read these poems over and over again as a child, and I remember the funny ones -- "Sick", and "Lazy Jane", and "How Not to Wash the Dishes". The girls loved "Sick", and Mallory found "Dreadful" hilarious in the way only an older sibling would ("I simply can't imagine who/would go and (burp) eat the baby.") I had forgotten his sad poems, like the one about the long-haired boy, and "Hector the Collector". I had forgotten this one too:

Listen to the MUSTN'TS, child,
Listen to the DON'TS
Listen to the SHOULDN'TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me --
Anything can happen, child
ANYTHING can be.

That one is my favorite, now.


The Ipod Shuffle Post

Here are the ten songs that showed up when I put my ipod on "Shuffle" this morning.

1. Once in Royal David's City -- Mary Chapin Carpenter. I was excited to see that Mary Chapin Carpenter had a Christmas album out; I've already listened to it a few times, even though it is only November 8. I love MCC; however, I admit that some of her songs tend to be a bit slow and ponderous. Almost all of the Christmas songs fall into this category; it's not a very upbeat album. Can't go wrong with her lovely voice, though. My favorite is "Children, Go Where I Send Thee."

2. Pity the Child -- Chess. Chess is an '80s rock opera about...chess. I was very much into Broadway musicals when I was in college--Chess, Phantom, Les Mis, Miss Saigon -- all those classics. It's weird when one of the songs comes up on shuffle, though; out of context, I readily admit that there's a high cheese factor going on.

3. Nightswimming -- REM. My very very favorite REM song. Listening to REM always makes me think of my and Chris's date, which was, in fact, twelve years from next Monday. We went to an REM concert. We held hands. We fell in love. Aw.

4. That Teenage Feeling -- Neko Case. Neko Case describes herself as "country noir." She has a great voice and I love her lyrics; she can paint a picture with just a few words. Example from her song "Margaret and Pauline": "One left a cashmere sweater on a train, the other lost three fingers at a cannery." Sums up precisely how different two girls can be.

5. The Nightmare -- Woman in White. The Woman in White is the latest, I believe, musical from Andrew Lloyd Weber. It wasn't terribly successful, but I had to check it out because it's based on one of my favorite Victorian novels. The music is not quite as catchy as the musicals of the 80s and 90s (see 2, above), but it's very atmospheric.

6. Big Tall Man -- Liz Phair. REM reminds me of our first date, Liz Phair makes me think of our honeymoon, when Chris and I listened to this album (whitechocolatespaceegg) all the way to Washington, DC, and sang "Polyester Bride" to each other on the Metro. This song also has the great line "I wanna be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious; I would have it all if I only had this much." Don't you feel that way, sometimes? (Unless, of course, you are all those things already, and know better.)

7. I'm On My Way -- The Proclaimers. Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.

8. Down Down Baby -- Laurie Berkner. Laurie Berkner is kids' music that doesn't make me want to stick a fork in my ear. Mallory spent a long weekend, when she was about 2.5, asking to hear the "tinker dat" song, and she was so frustrated when we couldn't figure out what she meant. Finally it dawned on us that she meant Berkner's song "We are the dinosaurs," which has the line "Whaddya think of that?" Tinker dat. Phoebe calls the song "March." Every time we get in the car there is an argument over whether we're going to listen to "March" or Hannah Montana.

9. While My Guitar Gently Weeps -- The Beatles. It's the Beatles, what can I say?

10. Here I Am -- Mary Chapin Carpenter. MCC again. I actually suggested to Chris that we name our first born Mallory Chapin. He actually agreed, one day when I was moaning about being hugely pregnant. I thought better of it, but that's how much I like her music.


An etiquette question for you

I have decided that I'm going to try to wrap the majority of my Christmas presents in reusable bags like these. (Wouldn't you like a gift wrapped like that? Is it not adorable?) I wish I could sew, so that I wouldn't have to blow most of my Christmas budget buying these bags, but what can you do.

Here's the question. The idea of using reusable bags is, of course, that they will not be thrown away, that they will be used next Christmas and the next and so forth. But, um, would it be rude to ask for the bag back so that I can reuse it next year, or should it just be part of the gift, and just be passed on so that hopefully that person will reuse it? I mean, obviously if I wrap a gift for, say, the girls' teachers in one of these I wouldn't ask for it back. But amongst family members, should I? Since only my family members read this blog, I suppose what I'm asking is -- if I give you your gift in this gift bag, could I have it back?


Retro Thursday

This daily posting is harder than I thought. So today, you get some pictures from days of yore.

Mallory, age 2

Phoebe, about 8 months:

Happy Hallo-whine:

Bonus! Can you tell which one is which?

More next Thursday!