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Saturday, November 24, 2012

What a Turkey

The time of year is upon us when one's ability to cook comes clearly into focus. It isn't a pretty sight here, friends. I am not a good cook. It is a part of my mothering that falls way short.

It is only because of the Mister that I know how to boil water for pasta and one of my dear girlfriends walked me through making bacon over a long distance call once. She gave a nice tutorial, but I've since discovered that you can buy microwave bacon. Problem solved.

"What's for dinner?" takes on a special gravity around the holidays. Dinner picnics, baked goods and sampler platters -- my specialties -- are de rigueur for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.

How I wish I could feed my whole crew pastries, iced cookies and cakes and call that sustenance. "Merry Christmas! Here's your plate of brownies!" "So thankful for you! Pass the pie. Again."

But I also see this failing on my part as a bit of a gift. I have set such a low standard in the culinary arts that it is surely a great generosity to my children's future partners. Thanks to me, something they whip up will never, ever pale in comparison to one of my dinners. "Yer welcome!" I tell those future loved ones!

And because I am exceedingly kind to these yet unmet (we assume) people, I will also give them a beloved recipe from my kitchen: toast brioche and top with melted butter. Watch it very closely or you risk burning the whole loaf, one slice at a time. Or so I've heard.

Sometimes I try to cook. On those special days the neighbors are greeted by the symphony of our smoke detector. You should hear my children rave about their great "school dinners."  What kids like school lunch? Mine! They wax poetic about favorite dishes served up in the school hall, which you know is a reflection on my cooking.

I did make a really good chicken tortilla soup this fall and oh, the effort! Only to see it slurped up and gone within minutes. Days of planning, shopping, preparing. Everyone liked it but it was over all too soon. And I'd not thought to make enough for leftovers. I'd no sooner do that again than make Thanksgiving dinner.  Eegads. Speaking of which...

Right this moment, we're just hours from hosting 2 other families for that very thing. Here's hoping they don't read the blog or if they do, that they eat a hearty lunch. The table (kraft paper cloth with crayons at every place) is set, but I am procrastinating every bit of the cooking. I've made darling bags for leftovers, sorted all kinds of fun headwear (pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses), decorated the table and sideboards, made a Thanksgiving tree, and am about to scrub the baseboards with a toothbrush in an effort not to cook. And now I'm writing to you (while wearing an apron -- it's all about appearances! Maybe I'll toss a little flour on my cheeks), knowing the Mister will soon take charge of a hulking, pink carcass.

Meanwhile, I have baked a plate of brownies (topped with sails a la the Mayflower no less!), two pumpkin bread loaves, and there is an apple pie in my oven. Baby Sister and I worked on that last one together. Without cooking, I pull my weight in the kitchen. I set a pretty table, prepare gimmicky desserts, and no one can load a dishwasher as well as yours truly! Those old PR skills about packaging and messaging are still being put to use in my kitchen.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all. I'm thankful for all we have. Especially that which I don't have to cook.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mary Poppins Party for Pounds

So you want to throw your small person a Mary Poppins party on a budget?  I'm here for you!  We've just done it with a bit of time and effort but most importantly, not a lot of pounds. You probably already have most of these goodies at home or can pick them up at your local dollar/pound shop and online.

You, too can keep to a theme and a budget. Remember, the best part of a party is being together.

Step One: Make your own invitations. Tell the kids they'll get "Carried Away" with your little one with a colorful graphic and construction paper.

Step Two:  Create an easy craft that will also get tucked into the favor bag. These are tiny canvases sold in multipacks at Paperchase. I think there were 3 or 5 to a pack for £1. I cut out Mary Popp silhouettes from black construction paper and glued them on. Colorful baubles in cupcake papers and glue bottles around the table and you're set. Big Brothers' services as craft assistance was free. Be sure you write each guest's name on the back before the party to keep them sorted. And not to make you jealous, but I live within walking distance of the Paperchase flagship store. Begin angel singing here. Heavenly.

Step Three: Decorate!  A few bowler hats, a stuffed penguin (thanks, Amazon!), and a black brolly strung above the table might have cost £12 total.  Sprinkle the table with chocolate coins (tuppence) from Poundland and toss around a few tape measures (Practically Perfect In Every Way) on the table. The first photo is during the set up phase and shows the penguin. He ended up at the door in front of another open (Poundland) brolly with a homemade sign (Thanks, Big Brother!) welcoming guests to Cherry Tree Lane.

Step Four: No Bake Cake. Take a cake from your grocery store, strip it and add your own embellishments and colorful piping. I added a black ribbon, 3 sugar penguins and a Mary Poppins doll Gift and cake topper all in one! SO thrifty. Even if the Mister is afraid of dolls. Best part of the cake: two 10 pack of Poundland teaspoons encircling the cake and topped with sugar cubes!

And here's a tip no cake decorator will tell you: If you've moved and cannot find your icing tips, put an icing tube in a baggie, snip a corner, and pipe away.

Step Five: Entertainment. The focus of the party is watching a dvd you probably already own while eating takeout pizza. It is a long movie, so Big Brother suggests your guests get up and dance during the song and dance numbers. And there are plenty of them to get the wiggles out.

Step Six: Dress the part. I'm very sure you already have a white blouse, black skirt, and red bow. Pop on one of those jaunty bowlers, tack a few flowers to the brim and you're more than set. Blazer and carpet bag optional.  Oh, speaking of carpet bag, I found one of those online, too and put it on the coffee table where it was filled with presents as the guests arrived.

Step Seven: Favors. Ever since my favorless wedding, I swear not a single person has left my home without a favor. I kid you not -- I have friends lined up to make favors for my funeral. God willing, they'll be terribly old little ladies when that time finally comes. Still. Favors are paramount in my book, but don't have to cost much. Ours were a cute bag filled with the finished craft project, sidewalk chalk, chocolate coins/tuppence, and a homemade Mary Poppins coloring book (thank you, Google images and clip art). Think broadly - carousel, penguins, London, umbrella, rooftops, etc.

And while you're here I'll close by telling you that we planned this party from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. which was perfect. We weren't racing around early in the morning and had just the right amount of time for a craft, movie/pizza, presents and cake, and playing.  And plenty of the rest of the weekend, too. 

It is just me or are we in the minority of families who actually open presents during the party? Isn't that one of the best etiquette lessons? I think learning to give and receive gifts graciously is a worthwhile endeavor. 

Most worthwhile, though is celebrating your small person.  And getting carried away. Your party will undoubtedly be practically perfect in every way!  I sure hope so.  xo

What's In Your Purse?

There was a time I coveted my own Big Sister's purse. Always. Especially when she was toting around all sorts of interesting treasures for her "baby" -- then our family's first small person. I was working then and would have gladly traded my briefcase for a purse filled with fruit snacks, Polly Pockets and other goodies. It wasn't just then that I was interested in my Big Sister's bag. Just like Baby Sister here, I was always snooping through her purse looking for clues about being bigger.

I never really saw the merit of a true "diaper bag" as it always seemed like overkill to have to lug around so much in addition to a baby on my hip. It seemed like giving up and into frump. A giant bag filled with essentials more likely to be needed on a campout than a dash into the grocery store seemed unnecessary. In fact, Biggest Brother wasn't too big when I started tucking wipes, a spare diaper and maybe a change of clothes into a regular purse and was glad about it. I also usually had a stroller or car or both nearby undoubtedly filled with extra spares.

Then without any babies in tow, we moved to the city. Now whatever I can bring with me has to sustain, medicate, entertain, and protect us for the day out in the elements. My bag is now always stocked with a cloth shopping bag, scarf, rain hat, and tiny umbrella. (The kids all carry their own mini umbrellas in their backpacks, too - it is London.) I also keep an Epipen, bandaids, trusty banadana, crayons and a sticker book tucked away. It has to be entertaining, my bag. Mary Poppins' carpet bag has nothing on mine, I tell ya.

Sometimes the girls will request that we "pack" something for our trip to school. And knowing it can make the difference of our leaving on time, I usually agree. Sometimes is it a dolly, a pair of dress up shoes, a bracelet, a favorite book. But I was still surprised when got home the other morning and realized that a faceless Mrs Potato Head did the school run with me.

Note to Baby Sister's Secret Cousin:  She could use a new Mrs P. With accessories.

I have no doubt that all too soon my tote will be once again be pretty dull. I see those days sneaking up on me and turning me into the "helpful" lady with older kids. I was very happy to give a book to a wiggly toddler in a meeting and a banadana to a tiny injured friend this week.

So, Mrs Potato Head can stick around as long as she likes.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Big Sister Chronicles

Big Sister turned six this week!  She's a doll in every sense of the word and a real joy. So it is only fair that there's been lots of celebrating her here.

All the girls from Year One came over for a lovely afternoon with Mary Poppins. Big Sister was a sweet little hostess and happy to snuggle up with her best buddy for the crafts.

Like last year, she asked to go to the pub for her birthday dinner. It is hard to imagine that this time next year we won't be here doing this. Perhaps we'll have to make bangers and mash Stateside, but it won't be the same without the pub folks who've come to adore Big Sister and love to fuss over her extra on her birthdays.

Big Sister is changing and growing before our eyes. She's still a tough little cookie, but not quite as mercurial as days past. She is a blend of feminine with 2 big brothers and a smarty pants, too. She asked to pack "trainers" for school so she can play football and rugby at breaks. She bonds with boys in her class about Ahsoka Tona, the skateboard park, and LEGOs while mixing well with the girls about Irish dancing, glitter and all things pink.

Her favorite gift was a camera, so she's our new in-house photojournalist. I live in fear of the day she'll report on my degree of mercurial personality swings and post candid snaps online. One day, my friends...but not yet.

And the Tooth Fairy came for the first time for our little lady!  Mary Poppins, lots of friends, pub food, and pounds tucked under pillows. A magical birthday celebration to be sure. Happy, happy birthday, Big Sister from your very big fan club. We love you.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

All The World's A Stage

Truer words were never spoken at our house. Or on the street in front of our house. There is often some sort of musical number going on here. And around the world. The smalls put on an impromtu show in Piazza del Campo in Siena last month. Meanwhile, the Mister and I finished off their pizza and our wine.

That they're musical is all thanks to the Mister. Who always danced and drummed with them as babies in his arms. Left to me, we'd listen to lots of news radio and each other without a soundtrack in the background.  I'm the one who is perpetually yanking an iPod out of the speaker after people have walked away from it. Mostly because I can never figure out how to turn it off. Or down. Or change songs.

I love that music fills our house, but rarely think to turn it on. On the other hand, the Mister has a playlist for parties and Biggest Brother downloaded an afternoon's worth of Mary Poppins tunes for last week's fete. We make a good team around here because they don't really sweat the favors.

When 5 or 6 of us are scurrying to get ready on a school morning I confess that I don't find Biggest Brother trailing me with his acoustic guitar all that charming. Sometimes I mention that to him. When I think about it though, it actually must be funny to see me frantically multitasking (load of laundry, breakfast for Baby Sister, Big Sister's hair, dishes, picking up errant towels, backpacks, "WHO PACKED THEIR READING BOOK?" pajama-clad me announcing to everyone and no one every few minutes that "I'm GOING to get in the shower!") with a Catholic school uniformed minstrel hot on my heels.

Big Brother is beautiful singer and now a piano player and the girls dig their vocals and interpretive dancing. No wallflowers here. I came across this video they made one school morning when I was apparently - finally - in the shower. The time stamp shows we should be getting on the bus in about 5 minutes so you can be sure about the time the song ended I came racing through the kitchen in search of 4 little school children. Funny that I didn't even know what they'd been up to. With all the jockeying for camera time, it's no wonder Baby Sister didn't get in the video at all. Keepers, the whole lot of them!

And today Biggest Brother busked in the cold. A chilly Saturday while the rest of us stayed inside and continued our "Waltons" film festival!  (The Waltons is absolutely worthy of another post. I hope I dream myself onto Waltons Mountain tonight.)  Biggest Brother wasn't out long and we had such fun waving from the windows and cheering when we saw passersby stopping, taking pictures, and even better - tossing money in his guitar case!  His earnings are nothing to sneeze at either: Would you believe almost £20 in two short stints? I'm telling you, the prospect of paying them an allowance for chores is getting tricky. But even though he's spent the money a hundred times over in his head with Big Brother's assistance, playing and singing for an audience was his favorite part of the day. It was priceless. Music to his ears. The limelight is sweet.

Woah. It's always a good time.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Getting Carried Away

A jolly holiday for Big Sister! It's almost time for our flat to host a gaggle of tiny girls to celebrate our nearly 6 year old Mary Poppins. Big Brother is dressed as Mr. Banks. Little suit, poppy, bowler hat and all. Pizza is ordered, a project is on the table awaiting crafters and the living room set up as a theater. We're ready for a party! More pictures and details coming later.

And how super is the Mister for not only agreeing to suspend an umbrella from the ceiling but making it happen?!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Poppies Across the Atlantic

We'll see how late I can make it, but I'm enjoying watching the BBC election coverage. 

A roundtable discussion in Washington is great. Hello, Katty Kay! History in the making, media and politics in one night? No wonder I'm not sleeping. This is well worth the vat of lattes I'll have to endure to get through an earlier than usual morning and a few meetings at Our Sweet School. 

So. It's can't look away now viewing tonight when I probably should be attending to something Mary Poppins party-related or perhaps dozing. But that's nearly impossible when the BBC has teams of folks Stateside to give Mark Mardell a bit of company. Surely my guy Nick Robinson must have a few days off with all this Yankee Doodling. 

The Americans being interviewed by British reporters must wonder what's with all the poppied lapels. Too bad they'll miss my church lesson on Remembrance Sunday. Big Sister calls those "Poohah-pees" not as I say: "PAAH peace." My girl likes me, but she's no fan of my American accent. She hears it, and now fully immersed in proper British English, assumes I'm mispronouncing. A lot.  

My French girlfriends say they completely relate and that their children are always correcting them, too. Sure. But English is my first language. There's that.  

When Big Sister, sweet as she is, imitates my pronunciations, she does it with a look of distain. Or like she smells something a bit off. She is now completely annoyed that I keep telling and retelling this story, but she doesn't read my blog and this is exactly what I'm getting at: We know someone named Miss O'Connell. When I spoke her name recently, Big Sister scrunched her nose. "Momma!" she said, "It's not Uh CAAAHnail, it is OH Cuhnul!" 

In addition to the entertainment factor of hearing more American accents in one evening than I think I've heard all year, watching the polls close from afar has been fascinating. In a bizarre alternate universe sort of way. Seeing pundits I adore and abhor pontificate with an ocean between us is strange to be sure. I feel simultaneously remote and part of it all. Also hopeful that Cook County will actually count my vote and grateful for our many friends here who are watching the election so closely. Some over big bowls of homemade chili! How happy am I that my British friends love a theme? And like America?!

Surely we'll all be drinking lots of coffee (and tea!) tomorrow. Some might even have a bit of champagne or at least English sparkling wines. I'm feeling inspired to make an apple pie. It will go great with a latte or 6 in the morning.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Arrivederci Toscana! And Grazie!

More soon, friends but meanwhile, we're just home from a wonderful week in Tuscany. Our plane landed about midnight and we're in recovery mode for the rest of the weekend. When we've come to grips with having left our villa I'll report back with more pictures and a bit of a travelogue from Barga, Siena, Florence and Pisa. From a wonderful tour (and spectacularly daring driving by the Mister!) of a beautiful country.

Our fantastico knitting librarian should know (and will no doubt recognize her artistry in follow up photos) that her hats were like half-term break uniforms for the smalls.

High adventure, higher vistas, beauty and hospitality beyond compare. Late mornings and later nights. We couldn't ask for more from a school break!  And I can't wait to tell you all about it. But first I'm off to see the skyline over London with Biggest Brother on a date on Bonfire Night and then I'm telling you, I really must tackle the laundry. I might get terribly distracted, though gazing at Baby Sister's picture and remembering the warm breeze that tossed her goldilocks off her tiny face. At the tip top of a quaint Italian village we called home for a few days.