Saturday, December 31, 2011

Those Two Little "F" Words

It's the last day of the year and I feel myself compelled to write the ol' year-in-review post. Don't fret: I'm at least self-aware enough to realize my life is not quite so scintillating as to warrant a recap. But though I'm spending the day getting ready for a raucous New Year's Eve spent with my sister's family playing Guesstures and eating parsnip soup, I did want to take a few moments to jot down my thoughts about the past year and consider what 2012 might look like for us. It all boils down to those two little "f" words: food and family.

First, the food...

Bye Bye, Birdie (and Cow and Pig and Fish):  If you are one of my Facebook friends, have spoken to me in person, or have been within earshot of me, then you know: I watched Forks Over Knives and Earthlings this fall and read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. You can thank (or blame, depending on how you feel about the topic) my Mom, because she started it.  The end result is this: I can't be a part of factory farming and since no one else here knows how to cook or go grocery shopping, that means the whole family is on-board by default. I will tell my children the truth about where their food comes from even if it makes them cry or gag (and it should do both, frankly). I've probably blabbed too much about this on Facebook, in my usual overly-enthusiastic way when I get into something new, but so be it. A few have poked fun or joked (I hope) that I'm being mean to make my kids eat all-veggie dinners or suggested they are too young for this (Too young to learn to eat vegetables? What?), but that's okay. I've said before, I'm not exactly known for my staying-power and I'm pretty sure my dear husband is hoping this vegan thing goes the way of my (numerous) past gym memberships and my penchant for Bollywood movies. But if the worst things about this are that we are eating healthier in general, dining out less, and I'm cooking more, then those are changes I can live with.

Yes, you can be a voluptuous vegan: The first vegan recipes I tried were for pies and cookies. If there weren't good baked goods to be had, I knew I wouldn't last long. There were. In fact, there were very good baked goods. I've spent the last month wearing yoga pants, so I can attest:  Vegan baking is just as fattening as regular baking, unfortunately. Vegan "butter" has the same calories as regular butter, so I probably shouldn't have been peeling the paper off the stick of Earth Balance and eating it like a banana, but hey, live and learn, right? Another important vegan baking lesson picked up by my good friend Paula and me: Avocados and chocolate? Just say no. For 2012, I've armed myself with the some healthier vegan cookbooks (read: low-fat, but not no-fat), because I want my food to taste like I'm eating in a restaurant, but I don't want my waistline or my bank account to look like I do.

Vegan cupcakes, and cookies, and thighs!

Enough on food, already! On to the more important stuff--family.

Family trees need tending to, too. This year, my sister Erin moved to Brooklyn. She'd been in Richmond for 11 years before that, close enough for a day trip. Not that I made those very often. I guess I took it for granted that I could go see her any time I wanted to, and just knowing that seemed good enough. Suddenly, she was moving someplace I had never been and for all I knew, I would never go. After all, I'm kind of overwhelmed by big cities. I mean, it took me years not to break into a cold sweat in Richmond, which I viewed as a teeming metropolis until the last few years. Despite the distance, or maybe because of it, Erin and I are closer than ever. It is one of the highlights of the year for me.

But it also illuminates a gross failing on my part: The too-easy habit of forgetting to tend to the relationships of family members and friends who live nearby! I've become painfully aware of how often I've bragged, "Oh, I only live one mile from my parents and my sister and it's sooo wonderful! I just don't know how anyone does life in Northern Virginia without their family!" But in reality, I find myself thinking I can drop by any time and then keeping myself and my children too busy. I don't make nearly enough time for the simplicity of dinners with Stampy and Mimi, and playing with cousins, and just being together as an extended family, not as an event, but as a way of life.

Less is more and more left me empty handed. The choice to homeschool our children was mainly a choice for a particular envisioned lifestyle. But this year I lost sight of that quiet vision and loaded the girls' schedules with extracurricular activities, each one worthwhile in its own right. But when I imagined crafting a childhood experience for my daughters, I didn't picture the majority of it playing out in the minivan as we hurtled towards the next place we needed to be.

Hello, 2012 calendar: May your squares stay empty and white.

Teaching a child gratitude is the hardest job of parenting. We surprised our girls with their first trip to NYC this summer. After Anthony paid a million dollars and a kidney for two bicycle-rickshaw rides through Central Park, the girls stomped off in a huff over being a handed a mere Gatorade instead of an ice cream cone by their apparently incompetent mother. I walked away for a deep breath and a cry before unloading on Erin, who was acting as our tour guide and host for the weekend: "What ingrates! I mean, how about 'Thanks for the awesome trip to New York, Mom and Dad!?'" My sister pointed out that God probably feels the same way about us (I think she said "us," as in the universal; maybe she said "you" and called me out). I asked her to pass the humble pie.

Odds are, I haven't taught gratitude well, because I haven't learned it well. I'm determined to be a better student in 2012.

So, what am I hoping to carry with me into the next year?


Happy New Year!

    Saturday, December 24, 2011

    Unto Us a Child Is Born

    You might guess by its title that this post is about Christmas and you would be partly right. It is about a particular Christmas and a particular child.  No, not the Child.  This post is about my second daughter, Chloe, who, as it happens, was also born on Christmas Day, but a mere 8 years ago and to infinitely less significant parents.

    Chloe will always be my favorite Christmas present of my favorite Christmas. She was actually due on December 16th. I was excited about that due date as it afforded me the joys of a Christmastime baby with enough of a buffer to be pretty well back on my feet by the holidays. Sometime in November, though, my doctors inexplicably changed my due date to the 20th.  I nodded obediently, but muttered something under my breath about knowing the conception date and silently resolved not to let go of the 16th as my real due date. So, when December 17th rolled around, in my mind, I was a day overdue.

    Like every woman in her last days of pregnancy, I was uncomfortable. My skin was so tight and itchy and dry, not only because I was a thousand weeks pregnant by this point, but because my skin is always reptilian in winter. I was taking  three hot baths a day which, thankfully, offered some relief from the sensation of wearing a skin suit two sizes too small and fashioned out of sandpaper.

    That is, until our hot water heater broke on December 22nd when I was, by my mental calendar, 6 days overdue.

    I drove to my parents house a couple of times a day to take hot baths and showers then I went home and stared at the tiny red velvet Santa dress hanging in the nursery.  My sister Nicki bought it for the baby and I imagined bringing her home in that dress.  I had to resign myself:  This baby wasn't coming before Christmas.  A Santa dress was not going to make sense after all and next Christmas she would be too big to to wear it, so I should just give it away and we probably won't have another baby and even if we do, who knows if it will be a girl or if it will born around Christmastime! Snifflle! Choke! --Wait! Was that a contraction?-- No? SOB!

    On December 23rd, a week late (or 3 days, depending on who you trusted and I only trusted myself), Anthony sent me for a 90 minute prenatal massage. My mom probably broke down and called him, begging to be rescued from the weeping, raving Beluga that had barricaded itself in her bathroom.  The very idea of a massage lifted my spirits considerably. I knew the spa where he had booked it, so I imagined the beautiful candlelit room with its soothing New Agey music. I hoped for the soft-spoken Middle Eastern therapist with the beautiful accent and the expensive perfume. She was always so sweet and quiet; she would make me feel better. I could feel the tension start to ebb just thinking about it.

    As I checked in for my appointment however, the receptionist informed me that, she was very sorry: The music in the massage therapy rooms wasn't working. Did I want to reschedule? This gave me pause, but I was desperate. Unfortunately, I didn't get the quiet, expensively perfumed Middle Eastern lady either. Instead,  I got some woman who I had just seen leaning against the building on a cigarette break before I came in.  She had tried to clean up a bit, so now she smelled like smokey soap (or maybe it was soapy smoke) and never stopped talking the entire 90 minutes about all manner of grim topics that had to do with other kinds of massage establishments recently raided by the authorities.  Before you ask, the answer to the question "Why didn't you tell her to stop talking?" is this:  I'm a wimp. Instead, I kept my monosyllabic responses as infrequent as possible hoping she would get the hint (she didn't). Lying on my side, I attempted to hide my crying face in my armpit. Practicing effleurage on my round, draped belly with my free hand, I silently prayed, "Lord, in the Bible, you made a donkey talk.  Please make this one shut up."

    Nevertheless, by Christmas Eve, all the disappointment, discomfort, and disturbing massage experiences were forgotten.  I was calm and ready to have a nice Christmas with my little girl, 22 month old Bronte, and my husband.  We would welcome our new baby after Christmas and that would be just as wonderful as if she had come before Christmas. In fact, it gave me a chance to make up for some of the time I had wasted whining and acting like an all-around sissy instead of appreciating a few more special days with my Bronte before the new baby arrived.   We got all dressed up: My husband in a tie, me in a black dress with a red rose print and--why not?--black, high heel boots, and Bronte in a little red velvet tunic and pants to match the Santa dress Nicki had bought the baby.  We had a wonderful dinner at my mother-in-law's house, exchanged gifts with her, and headed home, happy and content. I settled into bed at 11pm and fell asleep instantly.

    Only to wake up abruptly at 11:07 pm.

    My water broke.

    My eyes flew open, but I didn't move. Anthony was still awake next to me watching TV.

    "Anthony? I think my water broke."

    "What?!  No way.  Maybe you wet your pants."

    "That's totally possible at this point in the game, but I don't think so."

    He got up and walked around to my side of the bed and ripped back the comforter.  "Oh my gosh, get off the bed.  You are going to ruin the mattress!"

    I couldn't help laughing as he hoisted me from the bed and up to a standing position ("Isn't gravity going to make it worse?" I asked),  then he ran to get some towels.  I picked up the phone and called my mom, as she was coming with us to the hospital. After an emergency C-section with Bronte, Anthony and I wanted her 20+ years experience as a Lamaze instructor and natural childbirth coach to help us avoid another one if possible (Translation:  Sometimes a girl just wants her mother!). She answered the phone the same way she had every time I called her for the last week:  "Did your water break?"

    "Yes," I told her, laughing.

    "I don't believe you."

    "It did! Ask Anthony. Anthony!" I held up the phone for him to yell a confirmation to her and looked over to him, startled because mere seconds had passed and yet he was now somehow fully dressed and packing a suitcase.  I was still standing in my nightgown squeezing a towel between my knees and had every intention of showering, doing my hair, and putting on my make up.  Oh, and I hadn't called the doctor yet.  It struck me that he might be nervous.  I returned my attention to the phone.  "He's packing, but trust me. I'm standing on a stack of towels.  In fact, I should go.  My doctor told me to call if my water broke."

    My mom yelled to my father and my younger sisters, Megan and Erin, "Renee's water just broke!" then to me, "I still don't believe you."

    "Okay, well. I'm going to the hospital, so....if you're still coming with us, come on over in like an hour."

    I hung up and called Nicki.  She picked up the phone saying "No way."

    Eventually, I convinced my doubting family that I was, in fact, going to have this child, whether they believed it or not.  My mother drove Erin over to our house so she could stay with Bronte. I kissed my sweet, sleeping child goodbye, vaguely aware that when I came back, she wasn't going to be my "baby" any more but a toddler, a little girl. I thought of how we had fawned over our only child--one that I thought I would never have--for the last 22 months. I remembered finding out I was pregnant with this second baby and looking over at Bronte sitting regally in her high chair, playing with her Cheerios: As happy as I was with my news, I had the fleeting, guilty thought:  "She has no idea what's coming her way: She's about to be dethroned!"  But then I realized I was only slightly older than her when Nicki was born. I don't remember ever being an only child and Bronte wouldn't either.  Now, about to give birth, I looked down at my girl, still my baby for a few more hours, with her head full of dark curls, sweaty with sleep.  I can't imagine a minute of my life without Nicki.  "I'm going to get you a best friend for Christmas," I whispered.  Anthony and I crept quietly downstairs, exchanged gifts by the tree, and headed for the hospital.


    Like most expectant moms, I had a birth plan. Like most birth plans, mine didn't work out as expected. My doctor had promised me I would be free to move around, to make myself as comfortable as possible so I could work with my body as it worked with my baby.  In reality, I was hooked up to no less than nine different things at once and flat on my back most of the time. My focal point was a beautiful Willow Tree sculpture my mom had given me of a mother holding her toddler. She told me it reminded her of Bronte and me. As I was lying there getting an amnio-infusion, watching my birth plan go up in smoke and fearing another c-section, I was staring intently at my sculpture perched on the bed tray when the nurse came in and pushed the tray aside. I saw the mother and child start to wobble a little, and then a lot.  I looked to my own mother whose eyes were widening. She grasped desperately for the tray edge as it rolled out of reach and the little wooden figure picked up momentum, now swaying precariously from side to side.  I opened my mouth to cry out then closed it just as I watched it tumble to the hard floor and snap in half.

    I closed my eyes.

    When I opened them, my mother had pulled her chair up closer to me.  She leaned toward me, looked in my face and said, "Renee, I know exactly what you are thinking and this isn't a sign that you are going to have another cesarean. It is just an accident. We shouldn't have put it on the tray is all." I nodded through my tears, hoping she was right.

    Anthony is a solutions guy by nature and he immediately went into action.  He picked up the two pieces of my broken figurine and went out to the nurses station, hunting down some glue and white bandage-like tape.  He and the poor nurse, who felt just awful and kept apologizing, poor thing, put my little focal point back together, and perched her right back up on the tray, barking at anyone who came near it the rest of the day.

    My bandaged and repaired focal point...and focus. Mom offered to buy me a new one, but I love it just the way it is.

    Whatever the setbacks, the discarded birth plans, the broken focal points, no one gave up on me. They helped me push through, in every sense of the word, and deliver the old fashioned way.

    My doctor handed me my baby girl at 3:15 p.m. on Christmas Day, 2003.

    Our Christmas Baby

    Anthony leaned over my shoulder and stroked her head with his forefinger.  "Hello, Chloe Renee. We love you!"

    "A Christmas baby!" my mom sighed.

    "Ha! Too bad we can't name her Chloe Christmas!" I laughed.

    "Chloe Noelle!" we all said at once. And that was that. When this favorite little Christmas gift of ours was about three years old or whatever age toddlers become aware that they have middle names, we explained that her name means "Christmas" in French and so, for a number of months, that's exactly how she answered new friends who asked her her name:  "Oh, I'm Chloe Christmas Mora."



    A couple Saturdays ago, all three of the girls scrambled up onto our bed to present us with their Christmas lists. They were very precise. I launched into a mini-lesson explaining that while I understand how exciting it is to write wish lists or letters to Santa, part of the fun of gift giving is for the gift giver, too. It's fun to look around for a special gift, something I think you will love or that suits you perfectly, maybe something you've never thought of!  So, yes, make your list.  But keep in mind,  it is merely a list of ideas or wishes, not a list of demands.  Not a ransom note.

    Finally writing out Chloe's birth story, I feel a little sheepish, considering my lecture to the girls . My wish list--a time line, a birth plan, the perfect circumstances as I would design them--had been a ransom note.  I'm so grateful that my body didn't cave to its demands. God's perfect timing was far more dramatic and exciting than the tidy and comparatively dull plans I had drawn up for myself.

    Chloe's birth wasn't the dream birth I had envisioned, but then, whose is? I'm sure Mary didn't sit around staring at a feeding trough and imagine laying her infant Son in it. I rather doubt, in her last trimester, she would have included "take long journey on donkey" in her birth plan. In the moments that she first realized how it was all going to play out, I wonder if she wanted her mother? I'm sure Joseph was desperate to make things right for her. But when it was all said and done, when she was was catching her breath, resting with her child snuggled up to her neck, she "treasured all theses things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

    All mothers have their treasures. Mine is my very own Christmas story to cherish and pass on to my daughter.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2011

    The Little Seed That Could

    When I was 18, my uncle John got me my first college job working  for Riggs bank. One of my co-workers was a Nicaraguan gentleman named Jose. He was married to a lovely Kuwaiti woman. Jose and his wife had a little boy and though I can't remember his name, I do remember being fascinated by this child because, despite being only four or five years old, he was fluent in four languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, and French.  I watched--or, more to the point, I listened--to him play and talk with his parents in the stately, marble-columned lobby when he would come visit his father at the bank.  

    I made a mental note for my future: Produce adorable multilingual geniuses.

    When the future finally arrived, I had forgotten about Jose and his son, as well as my mental note to provide the world with multilingual cuties. Writing this, it seems impossible that marrying a Latino didn't spark the memory, but I guess I was distracted by all the birthing and child-rearing and homeschooling.  

    But my point is this: As I woke up this morning, I realized that the idea to raise multilingual children wasn't planted 6 months ago when I did a Google search and found Language Stars.  It wasn't planted 14 months ago, when my sister, Erin, returned from earning her TEFL certification in Barcelona and explained the importance of starting foreign language studies in elementary school. 

    No, the idea was planted years and years ago, when I was barely not a child myself. When I was still 10 years away from meeting my husband and nearly 20 years away from having my youngest child!

    Recognizing how long this little seed laid dormant, buried beneath other dreams and priorities, quietly waiting to be remembered, I'm more grateful than ever for the past 5 months that it was nurtured into growth through our lessons at Language Stars with Clèmentine.  She has become much more than just a French teacher to us:  She is a part of our family story that, as I now see it, has been 24 years in the making. 

    The girls playing Language Stars and singing "Bonjour, Les Amis!" with their stuffed animals and intermittently arguing over whose turn it was to "be" Clèmentine.

    Monday, December 19, 2011

    I'll Be Home(schooling) For Christmas

    Every year, we take the entire month of December off from our homeschool lessons so we can enjoy the Christmas season. My expectations for this time of year are always wholly idealized and rarely realized.  

    What can I say? I'm a dreamer, and I don't care who knows it!

    Whatever letdown I might experience when my plans are frustrated is sort of forgotten from year to year (kind of like the "discomfort" of childbirth--my mother raised me not to use the word "pain" in relation to the birthing process--that is reduced enough in our memory that we're willing to do it again.  Smart thinking, God!). So, as each December approaches I gear up, full of hope and anticipation, for a month full of nostalgic Christmas carols and inspiring worship services and creative baking and classic Christmas movie watching and stress-less thoughtful gift-giving! 

    Despite staying committed to packing away the books on December 1st each year, all those lovely things just never seem to happen. I see the stretch of school-less weeks before us and the expanse of free time and what do I do? I fill it! I over-commit, my specialty, and the next thing I know, I'm frantically whipping up some cookies on December 23rd, more to avoid a feeling of failure than to enjoy the spirit of the season.

    (A quick aside here and a little insider tip if you receive a Christmas-themed Chinese take-out box of rum balls from me: The strength of the rum balls is directly proportionate to the level of failure I'm feeling at the time. If your confection has just a hint of something that might be rum or might just be rum extract, then I was jolly and felt that I was pouring enough Christmas spirit from my heart into my baking.  If, on the other hand, you eat one of my rum balls and your lips go numb and you don't feel comfortable breathing while lighting the candles of your Advent wreath, well, let's just say that rum ball is probably also mixed with tears).

    This year, things are different. Because we planned a two week vacation in November, we decided not to take December off.  When the first of December rolled around, the girls were ready to pack up their books as usual, despite the fact that we had only been back in town less than a week. When I reminded them we wouldn't be taking December off, they were horrified. 

    We haven't succeeded in doing our schoolwork every single day and we'll definitely be doubling-up in January, but a curious thing has happened as we've continued to plug away at our lessons most days. We've baked a lot of cookies. We've watched a lot of Christmas movies. We actually did a craft that involved glitter and glue, two substances that should be illegal, in my opinion. The girls have choreographed The Twelve Days of Christmas. We only have Daddy left to shop for. We haven't quite finished decorating and I've decided not to send out a Christmas card for the first time since 1994. I still want to find time to take the girls for a picture with Santa, because I have a sad feeling that their belief in him will be packed away with the ornaments and lights this year.
    I woke up today and decided we are not going to crack the books this week after all, but we are still going to learn.  Our lesson plans have been revised and simplified as follows:

    • Reading: Luke 2:1-21; Usborne children's adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol; Van Allsburg's The Polar Express (I usually read this to them myself but they can never understand the last page because my "voice gets funny")
    • Writing:  Re-write letter to Santa, fill out gift tags, address mailing labels
    • 'Rithmatic (specifically, fractions): Measure ingredients for various baking projects, doubling when necessary
    Will we still be doing schoolwork in July?  Maybe. 

    Am I feeling like a failure about it?  Try one of my rum balls this year and decide for yourself.

    No tears (or rum).  Just love.

    Tuesday, December 13, 2011

    The Nut Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree, Apparently

    On a recent Saturday, I called the girls into my room to spend a lazy morning snuggling in my bed, watching a movie.

    "What are we going to watch?" they asked, as they clambered up, racing to get to their favorite spot.

    Carys voted for the long version of Pride and Prejudice (I count this as one of my mothering triumphs). Brontë and Chloë begged for Never Say Never, and though I vetoed it, it was only because I already had my own ulterior motives for the morning, and not because I'm not a Belieber (I mean, why fight it?).

    I tucked the girls in around me and queued up Forks Over Knives on Netflix streaming. The one sentence summary of this documentary (and I'm in no way doing it justice) is that it promotes a plant-based, whole foods (read: vegan) diet  in response to the onslaught of diseases and ailments caused by our mass consumption of processed foods and animal products. My mom and dad had been raving about it and had abruptly gone vegan after watching it (though Mom hates the term and won't use it), so I was curious and thought I could turn it into a health lesson for the girls, if nothing else. In truth, I didn't expect them to watch the whole thing.

    Five minutes went by, then ten. They stuck with it. I was impressed, but still expected them to grow bored, give up, and run off to play at any moment. 

    Fifteen minutes in, I was already understanding why my parents were so enthusiastic about excluding animal proteins from their diet when Brontë said, "I'm getting a bad feeling about this..." 

    I chuckled.  "What do you mean?" I asked, assuming she was referring to the inevitable disappearance of Chicken McNuggets from her life.

    "I don't want to get diabetes and I probably already have it!" she cried, with a shaky edge to her voice.

    Geez. Where do they get such melodrama from?

    I assured her that no, she probably does not have diabetes, but yes, it is good to think about what we eat and we probably do eat too much junk and that's why we are reconsidering how we approach food.

    By the time I finished watching Forks Over Knives, I was ready to jump on the vegan bandwagon, but I know myself and I'm not exactly the queen of consistency. I'm also squeamish about wasting food, so though I might make a decision not to eat any more meat, I'm not going to go downstairs and throw away a freezer-full of it.  We were going to have to use the phase-out approach: As we use up what we have in the house, we will replace it with vegan selections.  With this in mind, we polished off our bacon and eggs for dinner that night, though I must say, none of us were too enthusiastic about it after FoK.

    The kids whimpered.  "We don't want to eat it.  It's going to give us cancer." 

    Sigh. This is backfiring on me. I want them to think negatively about bacon and eggs next week, when I feed them tofu scramble, not today, when I'm trying to be thrifty.

    After they finally choked it down, they ran off to play; but only a few minutes later, Chloë was back.  

    "Mommy, my chest hurts."

    Now, earlier--and I'm not making this up--she had been trying to do push ups with Anthony, the kind where you come up and clap your hands underneath you. I reminded her of this little fact and assured her that her chest probably hurt due to her attempt at being G.I. Jane.

    "No, it was the bacon!" She started to wail now: "I HAVE HEART DISEASE!"

    I turned to Anthony for help, but he gave me a look that said "You made this crazy, now deal with it." So, I assured my daughter that 7 year olds don't usually have heart disease, then called my mother to talk about the movie and laugh at what hypochondriacs my children are.

    Cut to 24 hours later and I'm calling my mother again.

    Now, let me just pause here to say I'm not a big fan of the TMI blog post, but this one is pretty mild, so bear with me.

    It was the next night (the night after heart-disease night) and I was getting the girls ready for bed. I went to the bathroom and I noticed I was peeing blood. For whatever reason, I shrugged it off, but when I went to the bathroom again a little later and saw the same thing, I had one moment of sanity that reasoned "urinary tract infection" and then the crazy took over and started arguing that I didn't have any other symptoms of a UTI, so it probably wasn't one.

    What if I have...?

    That's why (fill in the blank) didn't work out...because I'm probably going to die!

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing scary health-wise ever happens during a doctor's office hours, so what else could I do but call my mother?

    I rattled off my list of fears to which she replied "Oh, good GRIEF, Renee!"  She calmly told me to just call the doctor in the morning and offered to watch the girls while I went in for an appointment. "In the meantime," she suggested, "why don't you Google 'blood in urine'?"

    "Oh, I don't know...I don't want to be a cyberchondriac," I countered, a statement she probably couldn't even hear over the clattering of my laptop keys as I instantly did exactly what she proposed.

    I started through the list. None of it sounded good, except for the benign UTI, and some of it sounded as bad as all the things I'd been imagining, like bladder cancer. The only one I was sure I could rule out was prostate cancer.

    Mom continued to reassure me as I read through the page.

    Suddenly, I blurted out:  "Um, never mind. I'm an idiot."

    I read the following blurb to her:

    Urine can be colored pink, red, or brown for reasons that have nothing to do with bleeding in the urinary tract:
    • Foods: beets, berries, and rhubarb in large amounts

    I had forgotten.  

    In my zeal to embrace all my new-found knowledge I'd gained watching Forks Over Knives the night before, I had hit up some vegan cooking blogs that morning, then run off to Harris Teeter with a few new recipes in hand.  I had made a vegan pumpkin pie and a huge platter of beet chips, all before 10 a.m.  No one liked the beet chips but me, so I had eaten them.  

    All of them.  

    All day long.  

    In fact, I had eaten nothing but beets that day.

    I hurriedly hung up the phone with my mother's laughter still ringing through it, doubly embarrassed for having scoffed at my poor kids' hypochondriacal moments. I ran to their rooms and apologized and told them about my own stupidity.

    We've continued to read and watch films on veganism.  We're close to eliminating all animal products from our diet and we're having a lot of fun experimenting with vegan cooking and baking. We try not to sound too crazy when we're talking about it, but it seems that part just comes naturally for us sometimes.

    Monday, December 12, 2011

    Une Mère et ses Filles à New York

    Last week, my in-laws, who are visiting from Guatemala, took the girls and me to NYC for an early Christmas present! We had a wonderful time seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shopping at FAO Schwarz, and reciting lines from Elf as we dodged cabs and marveled at the tree in Rockefeller Center.

    I let the girls each pick out one item from FAO as a souvenir. All three of them are obsessed with stuffed animals, which I must say, I find to be the most pointless member of the toy family.  If you've been to FAO, you know as soon as you make it through the doors, you land in a huge stuffed animal wonderland and the girls instantly went crazy running around agonizing over which one they wanted. Eventually, I coaxed them into exploring the rest of the store before deciding on what they wanted to buy.  Ninety minutes later though, we ended up right back where we started: Stuffed animal world.

    The nerd in me is always looking for an opportunity to turn whatever we are doing into a pop quiz opportunity and happily, a few days earlier in our Language Stars class, Clèmentine had taught them various animal names. So, I joined in the fun, asking them to identify the monkey, lion, zebra, tiger, and elephant in French. The girls finally settled on the horse (cheval), elephant (éléphant), and penguin (penguin) despite my suggestion that if one is determined to buy  a stuffed animal from FAO Schwarz, she should at least choose a more interesting one like a meerkat or okapi.  Oh well, their selections may have been run of the mill, but it was still music to my ears to hear them ask for said éléphant, penguin, and cheval in perfect French with ease. 

    Our trip to New York brought two other aspects of our French language studies to light. First, studying French has turned me into a stalker. After our little success in Epcot last month, I found myself especially alert to the voices around me in New York. I'll be frank: I wanted another opportunity for the girls to interact with a native French speaker. One afternoon I was in a shop and I overheard two women speaking to each other in French. I sidled up to them, trying to eavesdrop. I could only pick out a word or two.  They moved on.  I followed. The older woman looked at me and I gave her a friendly smile before turning my focus to a mercury glass fig I was pretending to buy and she picked up her conversation with her friend. I followed them all through the store as stealthily as I could manage, without ever quite managing to understand enough of their conversation to throw in  a passing comment en français without making a fool/creep of myself.

    The second thing I realized on our trip is that my children have replaced whining with speaking in French. We took the bus to New York.  Knowing that I will in no way tolerate any kind of whining or fussing in public and probably also realizing that I'm a sucker for anything they say in French these days, all their typical traveling laments were cleverly translated.  Instead of the usual, nasally "Mommy, I'm staaaaaaaaaarrrrving" (five minutes after we boarded the bus which was a whole 15 minutes after we finished breakfast at Union Station), I heard instead a sweetly spoken "Mama, j'ai faim. Je voudrais un biscuit." I could see that Chloe was dying to grumble that she was hot in the sweater I made her wear, but as she opened her mouth to say so while yanking on the collar of it, I shot her the "don't you dare" face and she reconsidered before recomposing her disgruntled look into an angelic one and whispering, "Il fait chaud." 

    Needless to say, their plan worked: I was doling out cookies and yanking off sweaters faster than you can say "Bien fait, mes filles!"

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    Taking Off the Training Wheels

    We spent last week in Disney World celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary with our family.  The girls had been counting down the days--all 289 of them--since we booked the trip and they were beside themselves with excitement for each day's planned activities.

    Except for one.

    They weren't overjoyed for Epcot day since there aren't as many rides and they are forced to saunter along while the grownups check out the different "countries" at a leisurely pace.  I tried to liven things up for them with the promise of going to the France Pavillion. "It will be fun! We'll buy a souvenir for Clèmentine and there will be employees there who speak French!"

    They weren't buying in. 

    By the time we got to France, much later in the evening than we'd hoped, the girls were exhausted and disinterested.  They didn't want to go into the shops. They didn't care about the Eiffel Tower or the simulated Parisian streets. They didn't want to eat at the restaurants or dip into the parfumerie. They wanted to go back to the hotel and go to bed.

    Just when I had given up on seeing the fireworks, we rounded a corner and ran into  a crêpes stand. In a last ditch effort to load the girls up with enough sugar to make it through until 10 p.m., I sent the little ones to a table with their cousins while Brontë, my husband, and I hit the crêpes stand. Waiting our turn, I noticed the name tag worn by the girl working the crepe stand. It read "Lilian" and underneath that "Grenoble." 

    I turned to Brontë. "This girl is from France.  You should place our order in French."

    She agreed immediately.

    When it was our turn, we moved up to the window.  Lilian looked to me and I pointed down to Brontë whose head was barely higher than the counter.

    "What would you like?" Lilian asked her.

    "Bonjour. Comment ça va?"  My daughter looked nervous, but she spoke up loudly enough to be heard over the surrounding clamor of the other passing tourists.

    Lilian leaned forward and lowered her head so she was eye-level with Brontë. She asked Brontë her name in French, though she didn't say "Comment t'appelle tu" as we are used to; her syntax was a bit different. But Brontë heard "appelle" and figured out what she meant.

    "Brontë.  I mean--Je m'appelle Brontë," she answered, remembering to use a complete sentence as she must in her Language Stars class.

    Lilian asked how old she was and Brontë dutifully answered "J'ai neuf ans."

    People were starting to line up behind us, so I nudged Brontë to go ahead and order.  

    "Je voudrais deux crêpes chocolat, s'il vous plait."

    Lilian obliged and began making our crêpes, asking Brontë if she was learning French in school and Brontë told her that we take French classes each week. When Lilian told us our total (and I thought "Mon Dieu!"), Anthony handed her the money to pay and we started to leave.

    "Bon soir!" Lilian called after us. "Keep studying your French. It is very good!"

    "Merci! Au revoir!" Brontë answered. 

    Her nervousness melted away and a big smile broke out on her face.  She had done it! She had ordered in French and made a little bit of conversation, not with me or with Clèmentine--both of us would have been encouraging no matter how well or how poorly she had done--but with a stranger who had no vested interest in her, no obligation to be supportive or even play along or prolong the conversation by asking questions. 

    I had been worried when we started Language Stars that Brontë and Chloë (9 and 7) had already missed the critical window to start learning another language. Frankly, it has been their 5 year old sister who seems to be absorbing the information more naturally. But this little encounter proved me wrong. The little one may be quicker at absorbing what she's learning in French class, but it is her big sister who has gained the confidence to test herself and venture out on her own.

    Friday, November 11, 2011

    The Power of a Praying Child (to Embarrass Her Parents)

    My girls love our church and the girls ministries activities they participate in mid-week.  I'm so thankful that they have other strong women in their lives to encourage and build them up spiritually and fill in the gaps that I'm no-doubt leaving, despite my efforts.

    Witnessing their childlike faith builds my own. Most of the time, their first response to negative things like illness, stress, or fear is to pray. I remember once Chloe was complaining of a sore throat.  As I started digging through the medicine closet, she scolded me:  "Mommy!  I said I'm sick! Why haven't you prayed for me yet?!" 


    Of course, they also pray for things like American Girl Dolls and for their sisters' character reformation ("Dear Jesus, please make my sisters stop being so bossy").

    This Wednesday, I received some disappointing news that sunk my mood for the day. Bronte, by far my most sensitive child, started following me around asking me what was wrong, seeming worried and frankly, making a bigger deal of it than was necessary.

    It dawned on me that we were going to church that night. I stopped what I was doing and turned to her, offering her less of an explanation than a word of warning.

    "Bronte, I'm fine, ok? I am just not in a good mood.  No big deal and, not to say this was your plan, but please don't go to your class tonight and put up a prayer request about your grouchy, stressed-out, mean  mother."

    It sounded really crappy and I quickly tried to backpedal hoping I didn't just create a new prayer request revolving around deep psychic wounds inflicted by said grouchy, stressed-out, mean mother:  "I mean...I'm sorry.  I will cheer up and you can have whatever prayer request you want, of course."

    Too late.  Now she was in a bad mood (And no wonder. I suck).  "I wasn't even going to do that, Mom.

    She sighed and stomped off.  I sighed and stomped off after her, apologizing again, and feigning a cheery voice to prove all was well while offering her some Halloween candy.

    Cut to nine hours later as we were driving home from church. I asked each one of them how their class was and they asked me how the youth service went. Everyone seemed to have a great night and the girls mentioned that they had put in requests ranging from prayers for our dear friends who lost their home in a fire this week to safe travels as we head out on our vacation.

    Then, it happened. 

    And by "it" I mean the retribution I'd earned for potentially quashing one of Bronte's prayer requests in the interest of my own pride and not wanting her teachers (my friends) to know that I can be a jerk.

    The five year old chimed in from the backseat.

     "Mommy, I prayed for you tonight in my class."

    Oh boy. Lord, here's a prayer request: Please don't let this be about what a grouch I was today.

    "What did you pray for me about?" I asked, trying not to dread the answer.

     "I prayed for the bumps on your face."

    Now, I wish I had beautiful skin, but I don't. I'm 42 years old with skin that looks like the before picture on a Proactive commercial.

    "Oh. My. Gosh. CARYS!!!"  This was not going to be good (although, hey, prayer answered: It wasn't about what a jerk I can be!).

    "It's okay, Mommy.  I just told my class that you have bumps on your face and that I told you that I think it is because you must not take enough showers."

    I screamed.  Bronte and Chloe screamed (I had enough presence of mind, however, to realize their screams meant they are aware they shouldn't embarrass their mother during prayer request time). My mother-in-law, who was also in the car, screamed with laughter.

    I started sorting through a mental list of churches I could switch to.

    Carys started crying.  Over all commotion she bawled, "I told them that I was wrong and that that wasn't the reason!" (But not that I do actually shower daily, I noted).

    I quieted everyone down and reassured my baby.  "That's okay, sweetie. Thank you for praying for me! That was so nice and thoughtful of you!"

    The last thing I want to do is hinder my children's prayer life. If that means that other moms hear about my bad mood and bad skin, so be it. I suppose there is something to be said for discretion, but how to teach them that without them feeling like they can't speak what's on their heart or that they have to cover up for my shortcomings?

    Until I figure that one out, I've decided to be willing to be humiliated. It's a small price to pay for children whose first response is to pray!

    Thursday, November 10, 2011

    Fashionably Late

    What does a 5 year old do when saddled with the mind-numbingly dull chore of waiting in the customer lounge of a car dealership? 

    Play with Mommy's iPhone, of course!  

    And what does Mommy mutter under her breath when she realizes that by handing over said iPhone to the girl, she has circumvented an hour's worth of whining and misery?  

    "Thank you, Steve Jobs."

    Yes, I know I'm late to the party. But I'm still grateful, not only for meltdown-prevention invention, but for the laughs we enjoyed later upon discovering the little one's penchant for photography.

    Here is the gallery.



    Wild Life

    Carys' favorite tiger, Mr. Stuffy (aka Richard Parker, as Mimi and Mommy like to call him)

    I think this is Mr. Stuffy's self-portrait, actually.

    Monday, October 31, 2011

    The Language of Love

    Each week, we come away from our French class with plenty of reinforcement on the basics and lots of new material. As I've mentioned in my previous blog entries, our vocabulary continues to grow and the girls and I are having more and more fun working French into our day to day routine. We are comfortable with talking about general things like our meals, choosing which color dishes or crayons we want to use, and expressing how we are feeling (hungry, thirsty, tired, sad).  We can even talk about the weather a bit, something that got a little more exciting this past weekend with an unexpected October snow:  Mommy! Il neige! Il fait froid! Since we started our Language Stars classes in the summer, we haven't had many chances to to use these particular phrases till now, so the girls were just as excited at the sight of the flurries as they were in their ability to describe them in French.

    Still, these phrases are generic and though they are necessary and we are diligent about practicing them, we don't typically stand around each day asking each other our names or having conversations about what color cereal bowl we prefer in English. Every family has their own personal lexicon of pet phrases and inside jokes. One of our latest little pleasures has been translating some of ours into French. For instance, where we used to have a back and forth exchange of "I love you! / I love you more!", we now have fun with it in French:

    --Je t'aime!
    --Je t'aime plus que tu m'aime!
    --Jamais! C'est impossible!

    This little exchange had an unanticipated benefit. Carys (5) approached me 30 minutes after finishing her breakfast last Friday:

    "Mommy, j'ai faim." (I'm hungry)

    Now, this is an ongoing battle with my little one. I'm trying to teach her to identify between actual hunger and thirst or boredom, because there is just no way she can be hungry again so quickly after a meal!

    "Carys, that's impossible. You just ate.  Let's go have a glass of milk."

    She scrunched her brow in what I thought was disappointment or defiance and said nothing for about 20 seconds. It turns out, she was thinking of her French.

    "Mommy.  Jamais j'ai soif."

    Never I'm thirsty.

    It may not have been grammatically correct, but I got the message (and still made her drink her milk). I knew she didn't just mean that she wasn't thirsty right now, but that the next time she says she's hungry, she won't be thirsty then either! More importantly though, she was plucking vocabulary and meaning from other situations and putting them together herself. 

    It was sort of terrific actually.

    I've also had the chance to use French to turn around a situation that was going downhill fast.  Carys hates to wear any shoes except Crocs. This means that anytime I try to get her to wear tennis shoes or boots, the whining and crying begins. During one such incident I asked her, Pourquoi pleures-tu? She had no idea what I was saying at first, but with enough gesturing and pointing to her tears, she eventually blurted out, "I'm crying because I don't want to wear shoes!"

    As I laced up her sneakers, I distracted her by translating her complaint and repeating it with as much melodrama and as thick a French accent as I could manage:  Je pleure parce que je ne veux pas de porter des chausseures! Sure enough, she was soon trying to hide her smile from me and finally had to give in and burst out laughing.  Bronte and Chloe soon joined in and asked me to keep saying it, adding, "That's why we love French:  Even a goofy sentence like that sounds beautiful!"

    Friday, October 28, 2011

    Making Friends with Mrs. Darling

    "All children, except one, grow up."  
    --J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

    Here is a picture of one of my favorite, most serene moments from our 2011 beach vacation:

    Watching my husband and children play on the beach, I felt total peace and contentment.  A verse from one of my favorite hymns came to mind:
    "What heights of love, what depths of peace,
    When fears are stilled, when strivings cease..."
    To know me is to know I am a neurotic wimp with some pretty specific and enduring fear issues, so I won't pretend to put myself forward as some warrior mother or a model of unflappable serenity.  But there are some fears that have been stilled. Some strivings that have, at long last, ceased.
    To say I had not looked forward to my forties would be an understatement. I had truly dreaded it, taking as my motto that line from When Harry Met Sally when Meg Ryan sobs that 40 is "just sitting there, like some big dead end."  
    I was convinced life would be all downhill from 40. I would no longer be able to fool myself that I was still young. I would need to mourn the end of the childbearing years with a considerable measure of wailing and gnashing of teeth. And all those aspirations I hadn't quite managed to achieve yet--write a book, lose 20 pounds, take cello lessons, learn how to work my camera--?  Too late: I had missed my chance.
    Man, 39 year olds can be so immature!
    As I sat on the beach watching my family this summer, I remembered these things. I laughed about some of them and cringed over others.
    I thought of how I whined about turning 40, when a family friend struggling with breast cancer was praying to make it to 40.  She died a few weeks after the birthday she had longed for and I had dreaded.
    I thought of my younger brother and sisters and how wonderful it is to watch them come into their own, start their own families, and that the age gap between us that always seemed so huge has diminished and become irrelevant.
    I thought of how Anthony and I, no longer run down and harried from caring for infants and  chasing toddlers around the house, have the energy again to stay up past 8:45 and the freedom to have actual, uninterrupted conversations again and have even managed a few trips away--just the two of us.
    I thought of my daughters and the pleasure of seeing their personalities take shape and the list I keep of funny remarks they make.  I sighed about the little pain I feel when they don't seem to need me as much and the relief when they decide they haven't quite outgrown me yet.  I smiled thinking of the conversations we have, the topics of which have finally expanded beyond snacks and tattling and wants, but about friends, plans, fears, and dreams.
    Today is my birthday. I'm 42.

    My fears about turning 40 were, of course, totally unfounded, as all my 40 year old friends had told me beforehand.  My life did not end.  

    But my perspective about it has changed.

    At the end of the summer I read J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.  I wasn't all that interested in reading it, to be honest, but my sister Megan begged me to, as it is one of her favorites. She had suffered through James Baldwin's Another Country at my request and hated every word of it,  so I really did owe her one.  As I read the first paragraph of Peter Pan, my throat tightened painfully and my eyes stung with tears:

    "All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end."
    This is where the focus of my life is, not in wishing I could "remain like this forever," but in wishing my children could! It isn't seeing my life rushing by that makes me wistful, but watching them rushing through theirs.  I don't identify with Peter Pan (though I obviously did at 39!) or even Wendy, who loved to play at being a grown up, but knew full well she was really still a child. 

    No, I am happy to be a friend of Mrs. Darling, savoring those prickly-sweet moments of my daughters' childhood adventures. I still have dreams, but they mostly come down to this: Being what they need me to be while they still need me and, however much I put my hand to my heart and try to resist it, helping them grow up until they don't.

    My girls took me out to my favorite Thai restaurant for my birthday lunch: My treat! :)