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: