Friday, December 27, 2013

Homemade Christmas

This year Phil and I began brainstorming for Christmas before Thanksgiving. We wanted to be smart and thoughtful with our gifts, and this meant spending more time instead of money on people.

In October we made our first batch of soap using the instructions from Phil handled the chemicals and essential oils because websites suggested pregnant women not participate in these sorts of experiments. (Everyone is always pooh-poohing on pregnant women doing cool stuff.) The most surprising bit in the experiment was the lye, which we purchased in the form of drain cleaner from home depot. Mixed with water, the lye heats up all on its own and forms the base for the soap. To this we added our oils: palm, coconut, and olive.

The second most surprising discovery was the color of our soap, which I believe was caused by the red palm oil. That creamy pumpkin color inspired Phil's clever labels: Phil's Naptha—a play off of Fels Naptha, which is an orange laundry soap.

We had our doubts about whether the experiment would work because we used an old iffy scale for what was supposed to be precise measurements. That's probably why we used the entire bottle of peppermint essential oil to scent our soap. We waited four weeks for the soap to cure and then tested it. First on our hands and later we dared use it on our faces. It worked. The scent was even delightfully pleasant. It's safe to say we'd do it again, although second time around we're going to use a precise scale and purchase our supplies in bulk. Buying the ingredients in small quantities is not cost effective.

Our next project was inspired by the old apple tree at Grandma Seelye's house. The tree had continued to produce fruit even though its trunk was half hollowed and inhabited by ants; however, this year the tree gave up the ghost, leaving the gnarled, hollow branches for Grandma and Grandpa to chop down. On one home improvement visit to the Seelye's, Phil and I learned that Grandpa Seelye was using a handsaw to cut the tree down limb by limb. Phil volunteered to finish the job using his reciprocating saw, and I suggested we take home a branch to slice into BBQ sized chunks for Kirk Stevens for Christmas. Using his table saw, Phil chopped the branches, and with each slice we found an intricate wooden swirl. The rings were so beautiful we displayed them on our kitchen table.

Phil then strung the wooden rings on a wire so that they look like a moose's vertebra, and then he packaged them in a homemade box.

About a week and a half before Christmas and with most of our family members checked off our list, I was still searching for the right gift for Lois Thorpe. I wanted to make her the advent calendar that she'd put on her list several years ago, but I was afraid we didn't have enough time. Phil, who fears no duration of procrastination, was undaunted by the project. So I researched the calender, bought the wood and candles, and Phil took care of the rest.
He made a spiral template using AutoCAD and pieced together the figurines using various google silhouettes: a tail here, donkey ears there, those legs, and that nose. The figurines progress around the spiral with a candle for either the 24 days of advent in December or the 40 days of lent before Easter.
Phil used my parents scroll saw to cut out the wood. Linseed oil stained it. See Ann Voskamp's website for the real deal. Hers, which is made by her son Caleb, uses pieces of red oak linked together to prevent the wood from splitting. Our red oak was a single sheet of wood and thus, the spiral split along the wood grain. Phil and I were holding our breath for fear that the entire piece would fall apart. But after he shot several pins into the split, the spiral held together for the drilling and packaging that came next. We're pretty sure Thorpe loved it.
Yes, it was a sweet homemade Christmas. We made pot pies for Jacob and Grandpa Jerry Stevens. 
We brainstormed three date night ideas for Heather and Jeff Himes including letterboxing supplies, movie night materials, and a romantic dinner. We printed two copies of a prayer book that I've wrote for my mom and the Finchers. We found a new crock pot for Jessica and an umbrella stroller for Gretchen Stevens on Craig's list.

We filled Lee's stocking with walnuts and fishy crackers. We wrapped up his fuzzy blanket for his Christmas morning gift. And then . . . AND THEN Phil breaks the bank by buying me a new MacBook Air. For shame! The indecency of it all! Oh my, it works fast. I suppose I can't hold it against him. We had such a lovely Christmas, and the celebration isn't over yet.

Lois Thorpe told us how Christmas is a celebration that lasts beyond the 25th of December, and Phil and I have decided to do just that. Since Phil has Christmas to New Year's off, the celebration continues with family visits, lights, Grandpa Seelye's 90th birthday, haircuts, and walks with Daddy. We will continue to read the Christmas story to Lee. We will continue to talk about the special baby that came and our baby that is coming. The doctors say soon. In fact they don't think I'll make it another week. Oh dear! Time to pack our hospital bag.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


7 days until Winter Solstice
11 days until Christmas
18 days until January
28 days until baby’s due date

This was what life was like before any more little ones came.

The mandarin oranges were ripe on the tree. The Boston Ivy was dropping it’s rusty red leaves. The stag and the moon and the lady with cookies were all opened on the advent calendar. And I’ve just made fresh bread with my free bread maker. Phil and I ate slice after slice slathered in butter and dipped in the turkey broth simmering on the stove.

The green corners of our home are shaping up as Phil and I have moved pots here and there, replanted, transplanted, and made way for new plants. We hope to buy a Ginkgo in honor of the new baby. Lee received a navel orange, grapefruit, and strawberry tree. Perhaps the new baby will also get a Hollywood Juniper, but a Ginkgo will be enough. It is a tree that I’ve written into my story. Both Phil and I love it.

The garden against the house is producing lettuce, carrots, beets, arugula, cauliflower, nasturtiums, and slugs. I use the lettuce in salads and turkey sandwiches. I use the slugs to teach Lee how to smash slimy things. He is learning how to find his gnomes every morning, how to smash the curly seed pods off the ornamental pear trees, how to get Daddy to chase him, how to request his sippy cup by touching his nose and making “Shhhh” sounds, how to pull down his own pants. He is refining his skills, catching himself when he falls, lifting and holding, pronouncing words, using the potty sign to postpone bedtime. 

And we are learning too, learning how to pay one another attention in front of him, how to handle a bowl of rice purposefully dumped on the floor, how to hear him without giving in to his every whim. We are counting down with him.

I've been wrapping the Christmas packages one by one. They decorate our home like giant peppermint candies. They contain works of our hands, crafts, time, and thought. There is an art to giving gifts. And the art must be enjoyed by both the giver and the receiver. We will have to wait until Christmas to see what the receivers say, but these days the givers are enjoying getting their hands full of dirt and their hair full of saw dust.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

All His Needs

Multitasking: it’s a necessary skill to mother. I don’t mean acting like you’re listening while checking facebook, or chatting on the phone while trying to cook. Those combinations don’t work well. I mean going about the necessary business needed to keep a household running in the midst of watching children. This is necessary. I cannot let my 20-month-old wander freely doing whatever he wills while I swiff or meal plan or change the sheets on the bed. I cannot ignore him for such durations of time.

I suppose if and when I have multiple children, I will become better at ignoring them, but for now I haven’t perfected that skill. Oh yes, I do believe it is a skill because I’ve seen a dozen mothers at central park who do not have it. They follow their children around the play structures: “No Mariah, don’t pick up that pinecone.” “Come here, Mariah. Let’s climb up these steps.” “No Mariah, don’t lay down on the floor.” "Mariah, look at the doggie!” “Say hello, Mariah.” “Say goodbye, Mariah.” Yes, I have memorized these children’s names.

The real trouble is being a first time mom. Every irksome whine and needful grunt sets off a little alarm in my head. I must answer it. I must do something. I haven’t the endurance to do otherwise. I suppose it’s like standing. Trisha Hail once told me that after she joined the Orthodox Church she used to get stomachaches and back aches and feel nauseous from standing for the long church services. Now she does it easily and with impeccable posture. She’s built up her strength.

My focus muscles haven’t been built up yet. I can’t continue chopping vegetables when I hear a little person whining. I can’t go for more than 5 minutes without making sure I know the whereabouts of my little monster. If I hear cries, I must look. If I hear requests, I must listen. I don’t do it because I’m trying to be a good mother; I can’t help it. If I don’t, I start inventing horrible visions of my boy eating snail poison in the backyard or clogging the toilet with his cloth diapers or laying unconscious somewhere. 

Like I said, it’s a skill, a strength that I haven’t yet built up. But I know that I must. I am not here to meet everyone’s demands. I am not capable of healing all discomforts, nor should I try. My attention is not the most valuable asset, the most desirable treasure, nor necessary for happiness. Lee is about to find out.

I’ve got about a month left here. One more month before it all starts again. We’re back to square one. The next baby will know nothing, will be able to do nothing, and will need everything. And I must be there to give it. Perhaps that’s where the difficulty lies. Lee has gone from needing everything to needing less and wanting more, but I have yet to make the transition myself. Who else will meet his needs, if not me?

And who is to decide what he needs? He has passed beyond needs to desires. He wants a mandarin orange even though he’s had diarrhea for the last four days. He wants Phil to chase him around the house even though it’s bedtime. He wants to go outside in his socks in the rain. He wants to eat toilet paper. He doesn’t want to sit on the potty chair. What he wants is no longer what he needs. What he needs is not necessarily what I want to do. I must let him be without. I must let him feel disappointment, frustration, and loss. The sooner he knows that I don’t fulfill him, the sooner he will start searching for the ultimate fulfillment: the one who gives endlessly for our good. We both need that One.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Stick or Treat

We ran out of candy Halloween night. I should've anticipated larger crowds. Two years ago when Philip and I strolled around Uptown Whittier on Halloween, we were flabbergasted at the quantity of people. The sidewalks were reminiscent of Disneyland's Main Street at Christmas time.

I thought three bags of candy would be enough, but those were gone before 8 o-clock and the Batmans, Wolverines, walking dead, and princesses kept coming. So Phil started to tell kids that we had no treats left, only tricks. For one non-suspecting boy dressed up as a Minecraft character and unable to see out of his box-head costume, this meant a spoonful of pumpkin guts in his goodie bag. Phil had a tupperware full of the orange slime that he'd carved out earlier that evening.

I think dressing up as a convict was getting to Phil, that and his scruffy beard. We were wearing our orange coveralls gifted to us by my mom to help in household projects. Lee too had a black and white striped costume: "Alcatraz Swim Team," it read.

We'd put on our getups, rolled the fire pit into the front, had dinner, made smores, and drank hot apple cider in the comfort of our own yard to participate in the festivities without wearing ourselves out with needless candy acquiring for a child who doesn't eat candy.

When the last candy was gone, Phil got creative. He began passing out sticks for kids to toss into the fire.

"I made it! I made it!" one little superhero exclaimed.

"This has been the best house the entire night," a parent wearing Incredible Hulk boxing gloves said.

The cool, the weary, and the intimidated stepped up to our fire ring to toss the chards into the flames. I was impressed with how the little children thanked us after they were done. Even the pathetically dressed skateboarders wished us a good night after throwing in their sticks.

I thought I'd encounter Satan and witches and demons. Sure there were a few bloody clergymen, but the night was primarily tame and polite and good fun. You wouldn't think so given the decorations around Uptown, most of which would frighten anyone under five and even some six-year-olds.

In the morning Lee and I took a stroll up and down our block collecting candy wrappers. No smashed pumpkins. No egged cars. No blood or glass on the street. I suppose elsewhere criminals were at work using this questionable holiday to their advantage, but on Comstock the criminals were safely tucked into their beds by ten.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Over the Bridge

My clothespins hang on my laundry line like freshly caught fish, and the sunlight slices horizontally into my kitchen windows. Lee and I watch the days growing shorter, so we greet the mornings early with a walk, and in the evenings we watch the orange sun set before Philip gets home. The air is as dry as the brown leaves that the stroller crunches. We collect seedpods up and down Greenleaf, Bright, Comstock, and Broadway. Then we place them on the kitchen table for Phil to identify during dinner. It’s a plant ID test.
We have settled into our new house rather like Cinderella’s foot into that glass slipper. It feels like we’ve been sojourners for the last several years and now we’ve come home. Despite the stained toilet, the receding shower grout, the dishwasher with a soap dispenser that doesn’t open, the gaps around the screens for flies to enter, the stucco peeling off the foundation walls, the splintering wood floors, the painted-shut windows, the outlets that don’t work, the front porch light that doesn’t turn on, I have found a new peace in this unfinished place. It is who I am. I am quite unfinished. And as soon as I believe I have fixed one thing, two more things fall apart. It is the way with old houses, I think. But it is beautiful.

I am in love with the white trim around the windows. I am in love with the open spaces between the kitchen, living, and dining rooms. The old wavy glass on the front windows is magical. The sagging wooden floors are perfect for Lee’s cars. The five doors—six if we get one unstuck—usher in such pleasant fall breezes. And the redone kitchen is a masterpiece. It functions well. It stores all my worldly possessions with room to spare. Now the yard spaces are ours: a breakfast nook, a sideyard with a garden and row of citrus trees, a front porch with views of the brown hills, and a backyard with a great big avocado tree for climbing and hanging wind chimes and a tire swing.

 In the evenings the front porch is shaded and cool. We can watch the sunlight change colors on the tops of the podocarpus trees and on the craftsmen homes across the street. Our neighbors string up orange Halloween lights and walk their dogs while Phil and I sit in our rockers and people watch. We talk about our future dreams for the house, what tree we should plant in honor of the new baby coming January—Hollywood Juniper, Fig, or Saucer Magnolia.

I give Phil the small news for the day, though to him it is big news. Lee told me three times this morning that he had to use his potty chair. He spent a good five minutes pushing your Allen wrenches in and out of various holes around the house. Our backsplash is scheduled for installation on Wednesday. I planted lettuce, carrots, and beets. The butternut squash is almost ready for picking. The baby was playing me like a cahon today.

I welcome the movement inside. It is so much less foreign and frightening second time around. I know what is coming and while I still have moments of wondering what in the world am I doing—I can’t be a mom; I’m still the same me that I was when I was little—, those wonderings come less frequently. I have crossed the bridge and I can’t go back.

Two years ago at my first SCBWI conference, a speaker explained how the older we grow, the better we become at understanding our childhoods. That is the tragedy of it all. The more we understand it, the farther away we are from it and the harder it is to relate to it: to speak in a teen’s voice, to write for the young reader, to see the world at 40 inches tall, to cram sticks into cracks and follow ant trails and hear Mommy and Daddy talk about Christmas.

At my first SCBWI conference I had yet to part ways with being a child. I was still holding on, with white knuckles and tears in my eyes and a 5-month-old at home. As I sat in the Marriott Ballroom for my second SCBWI conference this last August, I looked back and saw the bridge behind me. I’d crossed. It was gone. I could do nothing to go back. Now I was looking over the river at a waddling little toddler. He was pushing Hot Wheel cars down an empty carpet tube and slipping down a slide into an inflatable pool. He was pulling all the DVD’s out of their boxes and leaving the broom lying across the den. He was digging like a mole into my lap and collecting seedpods on our walks.

I have gone over so others can follow. Let them come. one by one, into each new season.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ways to Lower Your Grocery Bill

This is a not a list for the individual who is short on time. This is the list for the person who enjoys working with his or her hands, who doesn't mind waiting for dough to rise, who plans meals ahead of time, and who isn't afraid of looking slightly unusual. If convenience is what you want, you must pay extra for it. If experimenting in cooking is what you hate, stop reading. The fact of the matter is this: making things from scratch saves a whole lot of money.

1) Only buy meat on sale.
2) If you must buy meat, make it last the week. Use it more like a garnish than a main dish.
3) Buy chicken with the bone and skin on. It's much cheaper than boneless skinless.
4) Buy bars of soap instead of liquid soap.
5) Don't buy Kleenex. Use soft toilet paper instead.
6) Never buy pre-grated cheese. Instead buy a brick and grate it yourself.
7) Never buy pre-grated cabbage, lettuce, or carrots. Buy a head and grate it yourself.
8) Buy cucumbers in season and make your own pickles.
9) Buy dry beans instead of canned beans.
10) Make your own bread. You'll save about three to four dollars a loaf depending on what brand you usually buy.
11) Use vinegar and baking soda for cleaning. These two ingredients can replace a myriad of expensive cleaners.
12) Make your own nut-bars for lunches and snacks (
13) Make your own yogurt. A $3 gallon of milk can be used to make 8 lunch-sized servings of Greek yogurt, which would cost you about $13.
14) Grow your own vegetables.
15) Buy the store brand instead of the popular brands.
16) Don't buy paper napkins. Use cloth.
17) Use a kitchen towel whenever possible instead of paper towels.
18) Don't buy jams and olives, but do let family members know that you would love these items for Christmas.
19) Don't buy cookies. Make them yourself.
20) Reuse the plastic containers that food come in as tupperware. You will never be short of tupperware again.
21) Don't buy instant oatmeal. Use old fashioned rolled oats.
22) Make your own room sprays.
23) Grow your own herbs.
24) Take walks where you know neighbors' fruit trees might drop fruit.
25) Buy in bulk.
26) Go to the grocery store less frequently to limit impulse buys.
27) Tortillas are less expensive than bread.
28) Don't buy non-stick cooking sprays. Just use butter or invest in a Misto (
29) Buy juice concentrate instead of bottled juice or make your own ice tea.
30) Invest in a filtration system (Brita) instead of buying water
31) Water down your dish soap
32) Use oatmeal or Cream of Wheat in place of cereal for breakfast.
33) Don't buy shaving cream. Invest in a good quality shaving brush and work soap into a lather.

I find it interesting that most of these money saving ideas are both healthier and more environmentally conscious. This was purely accidental. I had nothing in mind but the money.

FYI: I haven't found coupon cutting to be cost effective when cooking the majority of my meals from scratch. Coupons usually compel me to buy products I wouldn't normally buy. Plus, I would rather use my time to knead bread than cut along the dotted lines in newspapers.

There you have it. I've cut our grocery bill down by $200 per month by doing these things. And that's feeding a family of two adults and one toddler.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Lee in the window and hands all a helping

 Rubbish composting and little eyes sleeping
Views of the hills that all seem to sing
These are a few of my favorite things.

Holes that are gone and debris stacked in piles

Complete kitchen walls and Philip all smiles

New and old lemons and peppers to bring
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the tools drill, when the dust clings
When I’m being a crab
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so mad.

Clean copper pipes and blooms that can’t hide
Green Boston ivy climbing there on the side
 New baby to welcome before next spring
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the back aches, when the clothes clings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fred Taylor

My dad taught me to jump off high up places. He taught to me to question the automotive repairman, that scars are trophies, that “clean” is relative, and that some candy tastes best when slightly stale.

He used to point at trees or radio towers or rocks and say, “I bet you could climb that.” He still makes the best wilderness eggs: all runny in the middle with a crust around the edges, fried in bacon grease with a side of spuds. He sees difficulties as adventures, summits as destinations, and the wilderness as his living room. And still, he was man enough to see the Swan Princess with me when I was in grade school.

My dad is a desert kind of guy. On multiple occasions he drove his motor home down roads that caused the drawers of cooking utensils and the cabinets of snacks and even the refrigerator door to swing open and vomit paraphernalia onto the plastic carpet runners. His goal was to find a location where we could see no signs of civilization. This was probably done in order to light off illegal fireworks. Though, he did explain that if you’re going to do the deed, you’ve got to take responsibility for it. Thus, he reported and gave up his hundreds of dollars worth of fireworks to the ranger at the Canadian border while we kids sat quietly on the couch and felt so sorry for poor Daddy.

He has never been unclear about his expectations: all kids must be on the motor home’s couch or on the back bed when at dump stations, all toys left out at home will be confiscated or thrown away, Saturdays are yard work days, no boys in girl’s bedrooms, and absolutely no man, woman, or child shall be shown mercy in the game of Risk even if they cry. Nothing could tame that driving desire to conquer the world, even if his only son owned South America and his oldest daughter only wanted to hold onto the Pacific Islands.

My dad knows how to execute plans. He knows how to research a project, get others excited about it, and be the driving force that accomplishes it. He read about rocks, and showed us how to find geodes and quartzes. He read most every display in the historical or geographical museums where we stopped on vacation, and he sought to dumb down the language to explain it to us kids. He took us to tour the Jelly Bean factory and gave us the money to invest in the dentist’s chair. He would look at us with bright eyes when thunder shook the motor home.

He taught us that grades and sports mattered very little in the real world, but finances and being an alert driver mattered much. He had a soft spot for animals, though we might not have known it based on his firm discipline. He loved a good dog that could walk the trails with him, bark at helicopters, and “stay” on command. Cats were tolerated too so long as they caught their fair share of rats. And even though the rule was no animals in the house, he came to allow the cat to sleep in my room.

He has never stopped learning. However, he has yet to learn that even though he poo-poo’s Father’s Day, this daughter will still use the day to admire his strengths, appreciate him for his faithfulness to his wife and family, and thank him for his example in so many areas. Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bread and Animal Noises

I have a view of my neighbor’s white roof from my dining room window. I can see their backyard and newly redone garage with its shiny turbine vents. I can see the white roof of their neighbor’s too, and the white rooftop beyond that. The electric and telephone wires hatch the view like spider webs.

The view makes me want to leap from rooftop to rooftop singing “Chim-chimney, chim-chimney, chim chim cheree . . .” twirling a broom over my head and using the bathroom vents as launching points. That’s probably not good for the shingles, and I probably couldn’t make it from one house to the next unless I had a pole vault or grappling hook.

I’ve found myself thinking like this on many occasions. If I tie this sheet to the top of this chair and then secured it to the ground at an angle, I could have myself a little ramp. Wow, there’s a lot of room under this bed; I wonder if I fit. Hmmm . . . this packaging has such interesting dips and rises; it could be a city; I can fit all Lee’s blocks into it—and I entertained myself for a good five minutes doing it. How many cherry tomatoes can I eat before I have diarrhea? If I fill this cookie sheet with water, will Lee splash in it or sit in it. Sit in it; I should’ve known.

How marvelous thinking like a little boy is! I remember this way of thinking, not because I was a little boy, but because I was three feet tall and had an imagination. How sad all those little children must be who grow up without exercising their imagination!

I must work twice as hard now because I must keep Lee distracted long enough for me to spray paint the bathroom towel rods or change the smoke alarm or scrub his table mats or knead bread. I attempted to make fresh bread from scratch yesterday using one of Aunt Luanne’s recipes in Aunt Robin’s cookbook. And I’ve learned many things from this first bread baking experience.

1)    Be sure you add all the wet ingredients before kneading.
2)    Placing the dough in a warm place doesn’t mean to keep the oven on
3)    Be prepared to sweep and mop and wipe down all the counters when done
4)    Flour and water make glue
5)    One-year-olds cannot help
6)    Baking bread takes all day
7)    Homemade bread is far more satisfying than store-bought bread

I produced about two-dozen cornmeal crescents. They looked similar to Pillsbury’s crescent rolls that you peel out of a package, roll, and bake. But mine were large and smelled better and had the denseness of a pound cake. Maybe they weren’t supposed to be like that, but they were delicious. I spread one with jam and butter for brunch. Lee wanted one too, along with watermelon and cherry tomatoes.

Yesterday I sat him in the freshly churned dirt beside the tomato bushes, and he found and ate the red ones unassisted. He popped them in his mouth and let the seeds run down his bare chest—I’d taken off all his clothes knowing this was coming. Then he ran his fingers through the soil, crumbling dirt clods and pointing at ants.

On Wednesdays we watch the trash trucks lift our cans. They grind and roar and pop so that Lee often jumps in my arms as he watches. Yesterday morning when I went in to get him up, he was standing in his crib, peaking through his window curtains at the trash truck in the alley. He pointed and said, “Truck,” very clearly. I called Phil to tell him this exciting news. He wants to know it all.

Phil’s homecomings are so rich. He often joins Lee and I next to our Ikea bookshelves reading bedtime books. I pull out “100 First Words” and Lee sits on it and points at the pictures: a chick, a ball, a car, a motorcycle. Phil makes the right sound affects to all the noise-makers in that book. He can make different sounds for the dump truck and the tractor, the motorcycle and the sports car. But he has a pathetic little scream/yelp that he makes whenever Lee points to the goat. Phil said he’s doing a screaming goat. I personally think I can do better animal sound affects than him. I grew up with chickens and know both what a chick sounds like and a chicken that just laid an egg. Fish, penguin, and camel sounds, though, are not my specialty.