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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Our Next Move

No worries, nothing is imminent. (Anyone who has not yet booked a flight to visit felt their pulse quicken, though, right!?) But, what's next for us is in the back of my mind a bit. And we're probably not unlike most people in dreaming lots of going off the grid. Some days we use a shorthand of saying "when we start our sheep farm" and not because we know a single thing about farming. Or sheep. But because we often fantasize about a life more connected. Less driven by someone or something else. And maybe also where we give more than we take.

I am always taking notes of best practices of other families in this regard. When the boys were little and the Mister in graduate school, I had long weekends with the tiny guys solo. I would pull them in the wagon to our local farmers market where we'd linger over honey bees, big muffins, fruits, veggies and the most amazing flowers. A friend we got to know on those sunny, lazy mornings invited us to visit her flower farm. Where her children grew and played among rows and rows of gorgeous flowers and where her husband kept his art studio. Where the closest neighbor was miles away.

And so a seed was planted. Shortly thereafter, we fell in love with an American Four Square on more than a few acres. It wasn't to be, but it sure prepared us to become enchanted with the Four Square that was. I know that is how it will always go. Whether we have an inkling of something or get thrown for a loop, when the right thing at the right time is ready, we will be, too.

That doesn't keep me from clipping (and reading aloud!) every article I come across about people who have left their "regular" life behind and hand in hand, hopped off the grid. Stories about a family who began a surf school on a tropical island, a couple who started selling cheese at their own dairy in rural England, a whole ship full of people providing medical care to Africans, and all sorts of life changing family adventures ripe for beautiful children's books.

I don't think it is just my approaching 40th birthday or Biggest Brother soon turning 10 that makes me think our time as a young family is going too quickly. We don't have unlimited time to watch this plan unfold. Somehow I am already just months away from having 4 children in school.

Even though Baby Sister will only be at Our Sweet School in the mornings starting in the fall, that means I'm mere months away from having no honest reason not to whip up healthy, marginally interesting, and relatively edible dinners at least a few nights a week. Eegads. I did cook lots when the boys were little. Then I got out of the habit and now I'm a bit afraid of failure. Plenty worse problems to have, I know. But here's warning the neighbors that they'll soon and often hear our smoke detector. This coming from someone who once called her girlfriend for coaching when trying to cook bacon (not the pre cooked kind you can zap in the microwave) and even that wasn't enough to salvage it. I'd much prefer making 100 iced cookies or a wedding cake, but those don't nourish growing smalls.

I do long for a house that the kids grow up in. For a place we have a family touchstone. But this adventurous lifestyle we've lived of late suits me for now. It is challenging, exciting and perhaps a bit addictive, too. I think this semi-permanent wanderlust is somehow rooted in our backgrounds in political campaigning. You committed to something and lived it for long days, and in November, you pulled up stakes (literally. Those signs are everywhere). Every savvy campaign staffer, even when he should be manning the risograph (that's telling of the campaigns I toiled in or maybe more, the level of my responsibilities!), is thinking through what is next. Stirring the pot of tonight's soup while flipping through a cookbook for tomorrow's menu (as if!).

As an interim step to exploring a different life, we are contemplating a charitable vacation. I am a firm believer that our children aren't too young to witness how much we have and see how differently others live without. We all know those people are our neighbors. No matter where we live. Some of our most humbling and heartwarming days as a family were spent serving breakfasts to homeless people in the heart of one of the United States' wealthiest counties. Serving homemade meals on Sunday mornings to people dressed like us and who looked just like us. People we walked in the shelter with, thinking they were also bringing breakfast, and yet minutes later found them on the receiving side of the line.  Another lesson I learned on those Sundays was that we would always have enough to serve and that despite my lack of culinary skills, on those mornings my breakfasts were simple but turned out really, really good. Without fail. There is so much for our family to learn in giving to others together.

And I am in deeply in love with city life now but also dream of wandering the edge of the surf or discovering nature in country fields as a family. Where we go to the beach instead of a playground. A life where Baby Sister doesn't mistake grazing British sheep for "little cows."

Make no mistake. We adore London, love our life here, and are thrilled to be continuing to make it our home. I'm fairly sure there are boxes we've still not unpacked. Thinking of leaving causes me to well up with tears in a "They've just paid off the homeowners' mortgage on Extreme Makeover Home Improvement" kind of way. But to be able to live a different life is in my sights. Maybe it will be for a few weeks and maybe it will lead to a whole new chapter. When it is time, I'll be ready. I'm very open to that move, whether it is our next one, or one not yet even imagined. A life in the woods, in a field, on a ship, at the beach (fingers crossed!). Who knows. All the same, I do hope whatever our next move is, it doesn't involve a tremendous amount of my cooking.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

It Was Just Here a Minute Ago

Yesterday's post reminded me of an email I sent to friends when Big Sister was a toddler and we lived in a townhouse in Virginia. Years later, this list still cracks me up.

So, from the Hotmail Files circa 2008:

With the weather improving, we've had our back (kitchen) French doors open to the deck as often as possible.  That allows us to use the deck as another room and the children enjoy playing there while I'm in the kitchen.  Up until this evening, I felt confident that I had a close eye on everyone - particularly (now Big Sister) - as I can see them through the open doors and window and we're constantly talking to each other.  We've all noted Big Sister's affinity for being on the deck and she "asks" to go out often - her first patrol begins just after breakfast.
However, I discovered today that over the last few wks, she has not just been out there patrolling around as we once thought, but rather been busying herself tossing an odd variety of things off the deck.  It explains A LOT of what we were missing lately.  Needless to say, our backyard (it was all just under the deck and not visible unless you really leaned over) looked like a junkyard AND she'll have be watched much closer!  (scroll down - it's a LONG list):
- water bottle
- 2 sippy cups (filled)
- refrigerator magnet
- 2 battery operated bubble wands
- golf ball
- toy airplane
- playdo container
- 2 plastic easter eggs
- ninkie
- dr's office reminder card 
- outlet cover
- toy helicopter
- paper towel
- jingle bell I keep in our hutch
- numerous recipes
- cookbook
- embroidery machine sewing guide
- dress up hard hat
- ruler
- play wrench
- gift bag
- toy saw
- page from book to be repaired
- safety scissors
- 3 monkeys from the barrel
- page of stickers
- top from a yogurt container
- bottle of glue
- Biggest Brother's play beeper
- trade show lanyard
- Christmas decoration made in preschool

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Contents of One Little Red Wagon

The Mister took the gang to the park while I was off to the beauty shop. Yes, I still say that. Also pocketbook. And I consider sweet smelling spray in pretty bottles perfume and not a fragrance. Old school. Regarding new school, though, I did have 4 inches of my locks cut off today! The stylist asked if the kids would recognize me and when my hair had been so short. I think it was when Big Brother was little.  I wasn't sure what Biggest Sister (she of seemingly endless blonde hair that cascades to her waist now!) would think of a style that matched Baby Sister's more than hers, but she greeted me with a smile a 5 year old can't fake! Hooray!

After complete analysis of my new 'do and lots of touching of it by the smalls, I sought to tidy up the detritus of their morning out. I set about emptying the Radio Flyer Wagon (talk about old school!) from their adventure. And about that wagon: The Mister thinks we should start importing them because they are such a novelty in central London. People think we're so clever whenever we pull it around and it always sparks lots of conversations. Perhaps that's how we get off the grid - bringing the sturdy cheer of classic red wagons to the British!

So here was what 4 children packed in one wagon to spend a few hours running and playing in Hyde Park. The Mister should be glad he wasn't carrying it all. I think he'd agree that for our brood, this was travelling relatively light. I consider serving as family sherpa to be my weight bearing exercise most days. To be fair to the boys, who have somewhat sadly outgrown toting lots of extra things and worse, stopped wearing pretend police and fire badges in public, (and given the high level of pink found, too) I suspect the girls contributed to most of the wagon's haul. I can imagine the Mister counselling them that perhaps little of it would be needed, but he wisely decided to stuff it all (them, too I suppose, if there was still room) in the wagon and maintain forward momentum in a valiant effort to make it outdoors while the sun still shone.

4 jackets
1 fleece
1 cardigan
1 pair, pink snowman earmuffs
1 pink sparkle headband
1 set, fairy wings
4 bracelets
1 necklace
1 notepad and pen
1 pink purse (undoubtedly crammed with more items. It has since been spirited away from my evidence pile)
1 ball. Of the football or American soccer variety. (Other than their jackets, this was likely all the boys required)

The kids were beaming, smelling of sunshine, and covered with a thin coat of ice cream and dirt.  More sure signs that spring is on the way. They also reported that Big Sister had been asked by Italian tourists to pose for pictures with them. Tourists taking their pictures is a routine (seriously) occurrence for the smalls. They thought it was funny at first, but now just roll with it. I think they're in many of photo albums (also old school, right? does anyone actually print pictures anymore?) across Asia, the Middle East and throughout Europe. Or maybe more likely, someone is compiling a significant case file in some sort of sartorial child protective services bureau.

If I'm ever hauled before that bureau to plead my case, I'll simply explain that it isn't possible to dress them all just so (nor it is likely they'll soon require less "stuff" to leave the house). Besides, most days 3 of them are confined to Catholic school uniforms. And we're sure the days of their caring all too much about their outfits and not wanting to wear fairy wings at the park will be here all too soon.  So in exchange for being the resident handmaid and sherpa, unflinching stylist, and cheerleader of precious fairies, I'll gladly take the full punishment meted out, which probably starts with unpacking their wagon again tomorrow.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Can I Do This for You?

I promise that I will not subject you to 40 days of proselytising, but I have made it to daily Mass (yes, good counting: that means both times so far this week. And got ashes!) and I'm already convinced that it isn't just a few days' springlike weather in London that has given us all a bounce in our step. I feel the slowing down, the thoughtfulness, the reflection and light that I've been needing.

The hymn below, "Servant Song," has been in my head all week.  One of my favorites. It applies to so much of life. To marriage, families, and friendship. I may have already printed the lyrics and given them to you at some point. (Also Elizabeth Foss' column "Don't Blink" but that's a discussion for another day! Stop Blinking! Unless you are sleeping. That is very important.) Whenever I'm at Mass and see "Servant Song" will be sung, I'm pretty certain it is God winking at me saying, "Here's your song!  Hooray and thanks for coming!" (Because that's really how He talks, right?!)

I often give this hymn to friends when they are moving. We've just heard that 2 wonderful school families who've been very good to us are planning moves. One dear family we adore (4 children, 2 girls and 2 boys just the ages of our smalls but their girls are their oldest - what are the chances?) already moved to France. We can only be thrilled for our friends to begin new adventures in exciting places, but it sure feels funny to be graduating to being a more experienced parent at the school already. Being the new family is nice. Comforting in an ignorance is bliss sort of way. So I am ramping up all my questions to ask of them all before they leave.

Having queried friends whose corporate and military lives have made them move much more frequently than we have, I understand that there are benchmarks for settling in to life in a new place. It has been said that you feel somewhat adjusted in a new home and town within about six months, at a year you've begun to really make friends, and at 18 months those friendships become very strong. I certainly agree with that as it has been our experience, too. This time, though, we feel like we're on fast forward. On Valentine's Day last year, the Mister and I were here house hunting. I must pause here and give a cheer to our lovely friend who kept our 4 children for an entire week while we house and school hunted. She is still speaking to us and the children had likely their favorite week ever in her care. (We're also very lonely for her and hope she'll visit us this summer!  Hint, hint and hurry over!) So we have not quite lived in London a year. And yet, we have dear neighbors and wonderful friends. We love our school. We are home. We are blessed. 

It was lovely being out for Mass so early this morning, walking a regular route and discovering yet again that London is a city of little neighborhoods full of familiar faces. On the way to and from church I chatted with our Spanish trash man (we were so tickled to run into each other blocks from where we usually meet - at my back door!), the Scottish nun from our parish, and our very Irish handyman (who seemed positively delighted to learn I was just coming from Mass!). I had a renewed spirit before it was even time to head out to take the kids to school.

Now while I host a (cheese) pizza party for the smallest people, the Mister and Biggest Brother are back at school to play the drums with the school's Deputy Head Teacher and Biggest Brother's assistant teacher on guitars. Friday Guys' Night Out. In the basement of our sweet little school. 

Mostly, tonight I'm sending this in hopes that you'll let me be your servant.

The Servant Song

Will you let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant too

We are pilgrims on a journey
We are brothers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load

I will hold the Christ light for you
In the night time of your fear
I will hold my hand out to you
Speak the the peace you long to hear

I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I'll laugh with you
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we've seen this journey through

When we sing to God in heaven
We shall find such harmony
Born to all we've known together
Of Christ's love and agony

Will you let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant too

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Happy Pancake Day

I'm noodling through what to give up for Lent. I use the word noodle figuratively because I could give up those edible worms easily. I would miss coffee and wine much, much more.

And in talking about Lenten sacrifices, I hope I'm not doing just what we're told not to do - look forlorn and seek attention for what we're giving up or giving. I do not mean it that way. I swear. Swear in a promise (not cursing) way. You know what I'm saying.

One year I gave up salt, another year I gave up sweets. That really didn't do much because I just loaded up on savories. Most of those sacrifices weren't prayerful efforts to take Lent into my heart. Here we are still learning to live a little differently, so I wonder what I could give up that would be genuinely missed. I have already unintentionally given up margaritas. (And that is big. The only thing that would make a margarita more perfect is a jolt of caffeine. A peppy, boozy slurpee trimmed in salt? Yum!) Also guacamole has already gone by the wayside for us of late. Even more, my mother always taught us that just as important as sacrificing during Lent is doing good. We'll have do lots of that this year.

When Biggest Brother was enrolled in a wonderful preschool at our church in Virginia, I would run in with the 2 little boys (Big Brother just a baby then) like I was on fire. At about 9:15 in the morning. As I fiddled with two whole car seats and exactly one school bag, I was in awe of a mother who would cheerfully unload her van of many, many well groomed smalls and walk into church to attend daily Mass together. How? I wondered most mornings. Honestly, sometimes I also wondered why?

But during Lent that year, I thought that (baby) Big Brother and I should stay for Mass. We were already there. A tradition began. So since I've had preschoolers, I've gone to daily Mass during Lent.

Stop right there. I know what you're thinking. This is taking what people already hate about Mommy Bloggers to a whole new level, right?  Here comes a new one saying that she keeps house, has perfectly charming children, loves arts and crafts and hooray, me, also attends Mass every day!? Are you kidding? I hear you choking across the Atlantic! I do. But stick with me. It is me. Not that you need to be disabused of my children's charms, but I'm certain you've seen most members of my family (namely me) acting poorly. And if you need a recent reminder of our shared lack of grace, see also Big Sister's marathon meltdown and my 20 minutes of ineffective mothering post.

Besides, you already know that I do not do a whole lot more around the house than I enjoy, that my children try to avoid my cooking most days, and that I basically try to recruit them to enjoy pursuits and places that I do, too. So I promise you this is the last spot you'll read holier than thou sentiments. Nothing like that.

The original idea was that it would be a sacrifice for me to give up some free time afforded with a child out of the house at preschool. Time I could be at the gym (remind me again what a gym is?) or grabbing a latte with a baby who wouldn't also want a treat.

But the joke was on me. Turns out, going to daily Mass isn't the least bit of sacrifice as it has become a gift to myself. That peace you feel at church - especially after communion - the lightness and joy with which you leave church, the apologizing and beginning again, the quiet shared reflection, the exuberant offering of peace to others, is mine every day during Lent. Wow. What a blessing. Every morning. I've also made such nice friends among those who attend daily Mass and always feel most connected to my parish then (also during Vacation Bible School but that now feels as foreign to me as a gym. Someday again though, I'm sure I'll visit a gym and spend happy summer weeks in VBS.)

It might surprise you who goes to church every morning. It did me. There are assuredly lots of retirees who are greatly bonded from being churchgoers over a lifetime together, young parents with fidgety babies and toddlers, and plenty of working folks headed to the widget factory with God's grace.  Everyone is spirited (no pun intended) and welcoming. Mass is efficient. Light on singing, heavy on fellowship.

Last year, I deemed myself too busy to keep up my Lenten tradition. In retrospect, I should have prioritized it as I know what goodness it brings me. Knowing that encourages me to make it work this year. That won't be easy. Our church, which is across the street from our school and a 15 minute walk (if I'm solo) from home, celebrates Mass at 7:15 a.m. - exactly an hour before the kids and I leave for school - and 12:30 p.m. - just about when I should be trying to get Baby Sister to nap. Neither of those times will be convenient, but I will strive to make something work, because I need it.

We've talked about how to help the children prepare this year for Lent. Tomorrow we'll all get ashes with our school friends. Today is Pancake Day at school. Children all over the UK will be gobbling up pancakes sprinkled with a little lemon juice and caster sugar and playing games. At home we'll be feasting Mardi Gras style (and not just because I served them breakfast for dinner last night. Poor planning on my part!) complete with lots of green, gold, and purple streamers, beads, and a faux King Cake. Instead of a cake I'm baking brownies and will hide the baby in one. I am already planning my speech for why it is ok and all part of it that EVERYONE WILL NOT FIND A TINY BABY JESUS IN THEIR BROWNIE. THERE IS ONLY ONE. THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN. Also that should Baby Sister be the lucky recipient, she is not to try to eat said plastic Baby Jesus. Because I don't have a party store nearby to get a bag 'o replacement plastic babies for future years and I was the sole person standing watch for weeks after she swallowed a marble once.

So whether it is living without or doing more good, here comes a chance for renewal. That seems like a gift already. Meanwhile, watch that your beads don't get in the syrup!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

City Living and Top Down Days. Two of My Favorites

Living in the city is just like driving a convertible.

You're out in the elements a lot. You are keenly aware of the weather. All throughout the day.  Even when you're not out in it, you know you will be soon and whether it is clear or drippy or a bit chilly, it matters. You have to plan accordingly.

You wonder why everyone doesn't want to do it.

When you catch your reflection passing a window, you think something along the lines of "I am cool." But then you arrive at your destination and realize just how rumpled and weather battered you really are. You see the toll taken on your appearance, but are having such fun that you don't really mind.

You will find new and varied uses for scarves.

And just like driving a convertible, city living is addictive.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bee Mine

I hope you've had a lovely day!  The British don't fuss over Valentine's Day quite like Americans. So we imported partygoers and hosted lots of American moms and small people for a playgroup Monday. The boys were doormen for a while. Big Brother was excited to read to toddlers, Big Sister was happy for a house full of mostly girlfriends, Baby Sister was proud to introduce her little friends to her siblings, and Biggest Brother got to snuggle a baby.  I had a great excuse to decorate extra and early and serve mimosas, too.

Biggest Brother and I wore red, Big Brother wore a favorite t-shirt with "Mom" in a heart and the girls wore heart dresses and pants. During the last minute preparations for the party, Big Brother was crafting this for the door. Seriously. He made miniature heart shaped bunting on twine that spells welcome. Truth be told, I could have used him emptying waste baskets, but this is so super. This was how he decided to spend the last minutes of his first free Monday off school before his house was overcome by toddlers. I hung it from the vintage chocolate box on our door and will keep it forever. Where do they get this love of a theme? I cannot imagine.

A new friend (who just moved here from Chicago) arrived all decked in red with her girls in red tulle skirts and tops that said "LOVE." She was a little sheepish coming in saying, "I couldn't resist getting all dressed up - we love a theme!" Another new friend. I am a lucky girl.

Then last night, an old friend (who has lived in London twice) sent a HUGE box of treats with her Valentine. He visited and that was lovely, too. The abundance of thoughtful (and beautifully wrapped) presents from their family was so touching. Just her exquisite handwriting on a piece of paper is a Valentine to me. My girlfriend knew how little pink heart fanfare there would be here. So she sent it with her husband. She knows exactly what we're missing, or don't have, or have never seen before but should be devoted to. The children all went to bed clutching surprises from their Virginia friends. Big Sister has clung to much of the ribbon for much of the day. I'll get it back so it can adorn a package for you one day.

I sent my friend's husband and the Mister out the door to the pub last night carrying a little pink heart bag filled with treats for her family. On Valentine's Eve. I'm fairly sure those 2 guys were the only ones to arrive that way to our pub. Two dads who have welcomed 8 children over 9 years, they're pretty secure with themselves. And can endure most any embarrassment wives or children might spring on them. Especially while enjoying a beer with each other in a pub. In one of their favorite cities. Catching up. Just the guys.

Today was even nicer. Many thanks to everyone who remembered us as your goodies made our day. The pig was back on the table at breakfast. It just seems funny and festive to see him there. I sense a tradition in the making.

The children surprised me with precious Valentines. Big Sister's was made at school and kept hidden until this morning, Biggest Brother gave wonderful "copuns" and Big Brother said he'd miss spending some of the day with me while he went to a friend's for lunch. The Mister had a huge bouquet delivered.

My day really began shortly after midnight when I had the opportunity to wish Baby Sister a Happy Valentine's Day. Since I was awake, I sent a quick email to the editor of our former town's local news website. Full disclosure: the editor was our next door neighbor and his dad is the kind man who hugged me in our backyards while I cried about the house getting new owners. Minutes later, I got an email back asking if he could reprint my blog post.
Well, of course!  Appearing now on La Grange Patch, it is indeed a Valentine to La Grange, our friends there, and our beloved home.  And I'm sending one to you, too.  All the best this year and always. Bee mine, friend!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Shower of Pink

What could be sweeter than getting a big box of beautifully wrapped pink presents in the mail?  I know.  Making friends with another American new to living in the UK!

I love reading Monograms and Manicures and not just because I covet Hopsy's wardrobe. Her blog is filled with a wide range of stylish ideas and a window into her lovely life. I linked to her Christmas DIY post with my feather wreath, and jumped at the chance to participate in her annual "Pink Swap." The idea is to shop for another blogger for little pink treats and zip them in the mail to her. Reminds me of how much I always liked Drill Team and sorority secret pals. I give much credit to our hostess for encouraging others to give and seek out new friendships. My great fortune was that Hopsy was looking for a blogger to swap with someone else new to life in the UK!

Hooray on all accounts. What an absolute delight to have an excuse to shop for and wrap little pink surprises. My assignment was made even nicer because my new friend has so much cause for celebration. Law School Graduation! Getting Married! Moving Abroad! I thought of her package as a few showers and a housewarming present tied with a big pink bow. Truth be told, I tied hers with a navy bow, but doesn't navy look so nice with pink?!

The best part of the swap has been "meeting" Beantown Prepster. And she treated me to so many beautiful gifts! You can be sure that I had four eager helpers in the unwrapping who also joined me in squealing with excitement. The boys were intrigued by the secret pal-ish part of it and the girls were hooked from the word "pink." Pretty ribbons, sparkles, and pink paper everywhere. I love it all! I love the "just because" feeling of it. Treating someone and being treated in kind! That it is with a new friend is very dear, too.

a beautiful floral mug for big lattes and lots of tea

 Whittard Strawberry and Clotted Cream Biscuits
You know my devotion to clotted cream.

Pretty and Pink (really, that's the name!) goodies for a decadent bath time

Whittard Sweetheart Tea with Heart Diffuser

An early Valentine's Day!  Monday I'm hosting an American playgroup for a little Valentine's celebration. I'll be serving the delicious biscuits and tea, thinking pink and telling them all about sweet Beantown Prepster's kindness!  Thanks, ladies for including me in all the fun. Looking forward to doing it again soon and often!

Friday, February 10, 2012

I'm Melting. In a Sea of Gold.

Big Sister threw a temper tantrum to end all temper tantrums today. The likes of which I can honestly, no exaggeration, say I've not seen in the near decade of my own child rearing and 39 years of living on this planet. At a new friend's house. For a sustained 15 minutes. Nearly 20. I know what you're thinking. I should have just left the play date. Yes, Smartie. I would have. If only I could have gotten Big Sister dressed. She was melting down while wearing only panties. And although I was mightily tempted to walk out the door with her just like that, I'm fairly certain that might have run me afoul of British authorities. And maybe even in a way that would have had my UK visa revoked. And where would we be then? Deported in our knickers, that's where.

Loyal readers know that I think making new friends in a new city is akin to dating. And you should know, too that underpants aren't called that but I keep confusing the terms and end up calling trousers panties or some such nonsense. Anyhow, in every language, today's hysterics were the equivalent of Big Sister melting down at the loudest volume you can imagine (No, much louder! For an endless 20 minutes) in front of my newest crush.

Fresh off a wonderful field trip to an art museum with her sweet class, I was excited that Big Sister and I were off to a quiet ladies' afternoon with new girlfriends. This never happens so nicely for us and it promised to be delightful. Baby Sister was home with a babysitter, a friend was going to deliver Biggest Brother home for me, and Big Brother was at an after school sports club. It should have been a perfect afternoon with 2 moms, a little brother who wasn't ours, and 2 sweet little girls. Only my girl went very, very sour.

My new girlfriend who was our hostess chaperoned the afternoon field trip, too. She and I had about 30 found minutes after the field trip before it was time to retrieve the girls after school.  So we ducked into a coffee shop, just us grown ups, and got to know each other a little better. It was a nice date. My lovely new friend is honestly just that. She is French and very dear. I know you'd really like her and want her to be your European friend, too. She left an exciting career when her first child was born because she'd so fallen in love with her baby that she couldn't imagine going back. Her plans changed on the fly and she's happy to be home with her little people. She likes breastfeeding. She supports her girlfriends with nannies who send their kids to fancy schools and a kazillion classes, but prefers a simple, close knit, less scheduled life for her own brood. We laughed about how often people ask us if we "have help" and how many ways we could answer that creatively! Down to earth. French me. Just really pretty and impeccably stylish. One of my girl crushes and one of the women to whom I'm grateful for making us feel so at home here.

But new friends or old, moms are moms. The good ones anyway, not just to have a crush on, but with whom I want to have a long term relationship. Twenty minutes into Big Sister's underpants clad, red faced and sweaty mania, our time together was slipping away as I was due to get Big Brother from his club. My sweet new friend hustled me out her door, smoothed Big Sister's hair, cut paper hearts for the girls to color, and served a homemade snack. Maybe better, she gave me a few minutes of fresh air to retrieve Big Brother, knowing I was mortified and angry. She also gave me her house keys so Big Brother and I could let ourselves back in her flat quietly with the assumption that Big Sister would continue to be soothed.

When I returned just in time to dash back out with Big Brother and Big Sister to go home to the others and relieve the babysitter, my new girlfriend sent us home with big pieces of the cake she'd baked this morning that we didn't get to enjoy together. She pledged that we'd do it again. Without the hysterics. She loved Big Sister and me. She made it all okay.

We could rehash the how and whys of the tantrum, you and I. Trust me, I already have and I know will continue to cringe when I think of it all. I sent Big Sister straight to her room when we got home. I peeked in and saw she spent most of the time sitting on the floor staring at herself in her closet mirror. I went in to tell her it was time for dinner and to talk to her quietly. I asked what she was thinking about and what she saw in that mirror. She said simply, "God."

When I caught my breath, we talked for a long time about how God thinks we are wonderful. Always and without exception. No matter the worst of all of our possible deeds, way worse that temper tantrums, God knows and loves us. But also that the rest of us, people, we only get to know each other through our actions and deeds. Heavy stuff in my tiny girl's head. No wonder she can't manage to put clothes on. Think of all that she is carrying on her heart.

Make new friends. But keep the old. One is silver and the other gold. I know that is meant to say old friends are gold and new ones like silver, but today, a shiny, little piece of French gold glimmered for me. She glimmered for Big Sister, too and showed me the face of God. And Big Sister, when her tears dried, saw God looking at her, too.

If the hours are rough in my job, the on the job training is worse, and the work it entails some days is more than I think I can manage. But, my gracious, the rewards. They are greater than any others I could hope for.

That being lovingly said, I think I'm due some combat pay today. In gold. Maybe platinum.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

It is a Jungle Out There, Big Brother!

Today Big Brother and the rest of "Class 3" went to the zoo.  They could have taken a bus but it is fairly close to school and they're all city kids so they walked.  It was cold. Even by our Chicago standards. Baby Sister and I curled up for a literary day inside. I spent much of the day fretting over Big Brother and hoping that the extra fleece we'd layered under his uniform jacket was enough. It wasn't.

This last week or so is really the first it has been truly cold since we've been here (which doesn't stop Baby Sister from wearing flip flops (this morning) or dress up heels (this afternoon) to the school gates). I was bemoaning how we'd already lost our Chicago sturdiness, but Big Brother says we just aren't wearing the same good, practical clothes we were in La Grange. He's right although I still sport my LLBean full length down coat and knit cap on the chilliest days.

The boys wore snow pants to school in La Grange for months. Here the kids think their "puffy gloves" are a novelty! A few sparse inches of snow this weekend were deemed by some to be nearly impassable and certainly cause for big snowball fights.

Big Brother is still little enough that he was delighted that I drew zoo animals all over his lunch bag and put banana stickers and lots of silly questions about monkeys on his napkin. I will be crushed (or as the British say, "gutted") when my smalls outgrow that. I'm hoping they never do or maybe more realistically, are always are kind enough to me to let me keep doing it. Last week Big Brother and Big Sister were tickled at lunch trying to figure what shape their sandwiches were. They were cut out with a cookie cutter of a US map. They didn't get it. It kept tables full of kids entertained for a moment. My mother always wrote on our napkins as kids. It is a way to let them know they're being loved by their Momma while they're out in the big, wild world. And that their Momma knows lots of jokes about monkeys.

But a festive lunch didn't shield Big Brother from the elements today. My heart broke when I picked everyone up from school and Big Brother's class still wasn't yet back from the zoo. Finally, they marched down the hill looking like a snaking train of little ice cubes. Big Brother's teacher and my girlfriend pantomimed that it was so cold that Big Brother, my girlfriend, and lots of others had cried because it was so cold.  Oh NO!  Hours later I am still stung by the guilt.  Isn't that the whole point my of being me? Isn't that my job to keep them safe and content? Happy and warm? Just like I tell them when they are sick - I would so much rather it be me.

Happy to see us and warmed by the prospect of being home soon, Big Brother rallied. I still treated everyone to a cab ride home. As you may have heard, it doesn't take too terribly much to convince me to pile my little people in a cab. Once home and in jammies, we enjoyed popcorn on the pull out couch. And because I didn't have Hershey's syrup, I melted chocolate bars for hot chocolate. Just like in "The Polar Express." So very delicious.

Everyone thawed. Everyone was cheered. Big Brother gave us a hysterical impersonation of a gorilla chase. I'm still feeling a bit guilty. You should see what I have packed to walk Big Sister and her class to a nearby (much closer than the zoo) art museum on their field trip Thursday.  Enough extra scarves for a dozen or so chilly little people.

Is it half term break yet? We're all ready for it! I've got the week all planned. It starts with toasting the kids with mugs filled with melted chocolate bars.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

It Is Good to be Baby Sister

It is great to be her chaperone throughout her London adventures, too.  All too soon she'll join the big kids at school, so this week I am extra tickled to be part of the nice things she has going on.  She eats lots of pain au chocolat at charming cafes all over London. Biggest Brother didn't luck out in that way.

Yesterday, after the school run and a coffee with the Mister, we hurried to a friend's high street flat in St John's Wood where we had a perfect view of the Royal Horse Artillery's horses, beautifully uniformed riders, and touching musical tribute. The horses were leaving their barracks for the last time for a new location.  That we don't go a day without seeing horses and riders is a delightful surprise in our city life. 

Some days (Friday afternoon in particular. So sorry, neighbors!) Baby Sister noisily protests having to go out again. It must seem to her that she's forever having to go to and fro.  School drop offs and pick ups, clubs, classes. Sometimes when she's trying to nap. An endless cycle made more troublesome with my stuffing her in winter gear. Admittedly not always a treat.  This is why I held Big Brother Day circa 2007. Baby Sister is due her day when, so accustomed to shuttling around for her siblings, she gets to choose every. single. thing. we do for the day. 

This wasn't necessary for Biggest Brother.  I'd no sooner have woken Baby Jesus from a nap than disturb that Little Prince. I'm holding out hope, though that these little differences will continue to make them all who they are. So far they're turning out pretty super. We're fond of them. Maybe a bit sassy (Insert shrill protest from Big Sister, "I'm NOT Sassy Molassey!"), but none lacking in personality. It's kind of like I say about the Mister. He's not perfect (look who's talking here!). He's perfect for me.  Same with the smalls.  Fingers crossed they think the same about me.

Baby Sister is due her own day to be sure. Meanwhile, though, she is rewarded in other ways. Her siblings send up a huge cheer when she picks them up from school. Last week when she was home with a babysitter while we went to meetings and clubs, they missed her terribly and raced each other down the street to get into the flat shouting her name!  

Not just because it is efficient, but also as a tiny thanks to her, Baby Sister is allowed to wear most anything to the school gates. Yesterday it was one of Big Sister's dress up gowns with mismatched boots under her winter coat. Today it was a tutu with silver shoes (and against her (strong!) will, tights). Snow is mostly gone but it was chilly. And today with a lot of little inside projects, she is watching "Mary Pottins." Here's hoping she doesn't pick up on those accents.  

Baby Sister likes to entertain a sweet porter we see in our daily walk with a little song and dance.  He looks just like all my Irish uncles. She calls him "my man" and gets so excited to see him, her tiny arm waving all over. He is another of her neighbors. Another person who finds her a delight. She told one of the moms at school yesterday, "Cheers!" 

Indeed.  Cheers, Baby Sister.  It is good to be you. Even better to be your Momma.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Love Letter To Our Old House

Biggest Brother sent the following note to his friend in our old town: "London is amazing but it still doesn't beat La Grange."  To be sure, this made my heart break a bit. We probably all would have written something similar.  While I'd never trade the life changing experience of living abroad with the children, part of me will forever be heartbroken for having left our beloved old house, that sweet school, our church, the lovely town, and of course, dear friends and neighbors.

I could go on about all of those. About how terrified I was that first winter of the cold and yet how warm our life there became. That the town was a village quaintly out of another era. About how everyone, including lots of the staff, walked to school so even in Chicago winters (with 2 days' exception in about as many decades) the school didn't close.  About how at lunchtime at school you could go home or bring a packed lunch, but that there was no cafeteria. How Biggest Brother, then in second grade, was on the approved list to bring Big Brother home from half day kindergarten.

I could go on and on (already have, I know). About how I cried the first Sunday at Mass seeing pews filled with strangers, only to make lovely friends so quickly.  How our neighbors, many of whom were from our parents' generation, became surrogate parents and grandparents, and even more, cherished friends.  How the corner store ran a house account and never sent bills.  They knew their customers would pay when they could.  The boys would pull tiny Big Sister in a wagon down the street when we needed a few things.  It was hard to explain to the boys the difference when we arrived in London and they saw markets even closer.

The first night I saw the town when we were house hunting, I thought the Mister had done some elaborate staging.  I was pretty sure I was an extra in a Julia Roberts film set in the Midwest. That night we ate dinner outside and walked around seeing teenagers toss beanbags into boards with their parents in their front yard on a Saturday night.  It is that kind of wholesome place.

I could go on for days talking about La Grange alone. About how the library had a summer movie program for the kids. I dropped them off and no one wanted my cell phone number, or even for me to sign them in. Why would they? Everyone knew each other. The kids would be okay.

But this is all about our house.  The house was magic. We all felt it.  Thousands of miles away and I still do. It was love at first sight for the Mister.  Full confession: while I was captured by the whole town and saw the undeniable charm in the house, and its original woodwork and traditional floor plan, I was leaning toward one in a tonier neighborhood.  It came down to those 2 homes.  The one we were meant to have came and went off the market twice while we were preparing to leave Virginia.  By the time we had our Virginia house sold and were ready to buy, it was ready for us to purchase.  It waited for us. You might think I'm nuts for saying so, but it was meant to be ours.

We could have saved ourselves lots of looking if we'd realized that our email address, which we'd had randomly assigned to us 8 years prior, features 3 numbers. The address of that very house.

The house wasn't particularly fancy or grand but it was perfect for us. A 1920s American Four Square on a tree lined block. The boys had the converted attic bedroom.  A bedroom, drum studio, LEGO suite and playroom all in one. We shared a bathroom with 4 kids and it was fine.  (We still do that now, although the flat has 4.5 baths!).  We made it even more ours. When we arrived, Big Sister was a bit out of sorts and would wake in the predawn darkness. I snuggled her for countless hours against my growing tummy watching the first commuters walk to the nearby train station in the dark, headed into the city.  Our babysitter lived across the street with her parents in the home where her dad was raised.  Her father went to the kids' school with some of its current teachers.

The detached garage, made for cars not as cumbersome as my Surburban, became a playhouse. The kids made a clubhouse in the trellised storage space under the front porch stairs. The fenced backyard was plenty of yard for tiny legs and insurance that they couldn't wander off.

I lovingly researched the house's history although much of that was congenially shared by many longtime residents of our block. Many a new friend arrived at my door only to announce that their popular high school football coach and driver's ed teacher had lived in our house for many years. On the way over to a cocktail party one evening, my girlfriend asked her husband if he remembered our address. He assured her he knew the house. He'd been to a keg party in the backyard years ago. It came to be that I felt like I knew the coach and his 3 boys.

In the movie of my life, I will always cry thinking of when it became very clear that we were indeed selling our beloved home and giving it to someone else.  Our house was very popular when it went on the market and we were out one morning while there were several showings.  Upon coming home, I met our dear next door neighbor in the back yard.  He told me he'd talked to the prospective buyers. They seemed serious and he said, "You're going to get an offer.  It's a nice family with young children. They want to keep it for a long time and raise the kids in the house." He hugged me while I cried. I knew it was good. It was right.  What our lovely house deserved.  New life and owners who would cherish it for a lifetime, if not longer.  Little children who would discover and treasure all the nooks and crannies. Teenagers who would throw great parties. A family who wouldn't gloss over the house's imperfections and quirks, but live with them and show them to their friends.  If we couldn't stay, this was exactly what I wanted for our home. It was time. It was meant to be someone else's now, even if it felt too soon.

If bidding farewell to cars is trying for me, saying goodbye to that house was very sad. Even though we were enthusiastic about London and our life ahead, it was weepy in those last days. The day the movers arrived on a bitter December morning, the crew leader told me his dispatcher had grown up in the house.  I knew he must have meant one of the coach's 3 sons.  Of course. There were a lot of "what are the chances?!" comments among the guys, but I wasn't terribly surprised. It was another magical way of passing that treasured home one to another graciously. In exchange for that happy turn of events, I sent a copy of my house history research to the dispatcher with the crew. Ours was just another chapter in the story of a sweet house in a wonderful town in the middle of the United States. Sometimes it is still hard to turn the pages.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Our Lovely School. Lighting the Way.

If I told you how sweet our school is, your heart might burst.  I know mine nearly did this morning at Mass in the school's "hall" with 200 adorably uniformed little people singing with their lovely British accents, celebrating Candlemas.

One day I'll tell you all about school and how good they've been to us.  How it was love at first sight and sound for the Mister and me.  How staff and families have welcomed us so graciously.  I'll tell you how the school day begins when the Head Teacher comes to the courtyard to ring a giant bell.*

But today, for the first time we are celebrating Candlemas.  At school, at church, and with French friends over crepes tonight.  It is a charming, lively, and daily education living here. I'll have to be sure to remind the children about the traditions of Groundhog Day tonight. But for today, we're shining more light into the world and working to make others happy.  It is a tradition we'll carry on.

*I found a similar bell on Portobello Road. Someday, I am going to ask the Head Teacher to ring mine. Sort of like giving someone a flag flown over the US Capitol, only I'm going to keep it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Go Pie, GO!

I knew I would love the movie "National Velvet" when I discovered two of the main characters are named Pie and Velvet.  Spectacular already, right?! I suppose it is too late to give start calling Big Sister "Velvet." Maybe someone out there will pick up that glorious name.  Go on without me.  I've already given one of mine a cute nickname. Two would be too much. And Big Sister is already called Ladybug around the house.  (Which translates to Ladybird, you should know.)

Even better than those darling names is the actual film.  We watched this lovely 1940s classic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney (and a horse named The Pie) for Family Night.  Do you know about Family Night? Two years ago, on a summer Sunday evening when we were visiting my parents, we rented a movie.  My mother made us snacks and popcorn. It was such fun that we decided to make it a Sunday night tradition.  Even if we've spent the entire previous 48 hours together, we set aside some time for "Family Night." Sometimes it is very simple, like few games of charades or seemingly endless hands of Uno (and look out for Big Sister. She's ruthless at Uno). Other nights is it gooey science projects or a movie. 

"National Velvet" is dated in charming ways, and is without a doubt from another time.  When Velvet (11 year old Elizabeth Taylor) takes a trip without her parents (and to the Mister's dismay, with a young man!) Biggest Brother said, "You'd NEVER let me do that." And although it is set in England, few actors even attempt accents.  Many scenes look like a filmed play.  All of that only adds to the sweetness.

Sweeter still was enjoying it together.  On this night we got into pajamas, pulled out the couch, ate British candy (!) and popcorn. It was glorious, my warm, pj clad smalls cuddling while being transported to another era!  It is a lovely story that stands the test of time.  In fact, there is a very progressive theme about women and girls, which must have been groundbreaking in 40s. In many ways it is very current or maybe better, timeless, in its appeal. We snuggled, positively enchanted for 2 hours and cheered for the thrilling ending (which usually annoys me to no end - especially in the theater - but this was entirely deserved).

Based on a book, the story and dialogue are so well written and there are countless good quotes.  The kind that you would dog ear pages over in a book. And underline.  I do that in all of my favorite books and most book club reads, too thinking that one day it will give the children insight into my thoughts as a young mother.  The Mister is less convinced they'll one day flip the pages of my books lovingly, looking for my messy writing in the margins.

Maybe though for insight and sharing, they'll come talk to me long passed bedtime just as Velvet does. When Velvet appears at her parents' bedroom door in her pajamas, her mother is at her vanity in her nightgown, fixing her hair.  Velvet's mother says, "A dozen times you might have talked to me today but you waited until now.  It is because large dreams come easier when it is dark and still?"

So much to love.  Go, Pie!