Friday, December 26, 2008

First Christmas Together

Whenever we enjoy our Christmas traditions, I always think back to the first Christmas that Bill and I spent together. It was back in 2000, and he was down from Canada for a ten-day visit.

Excerpt From Ethan's Journal (age 3)
Bill came for a whole ten days around Christmas time. It was wonderful to spend that much time together. We did all our Christmas shopping together (all in one day). He was so good at picking out presents for you--for everyone, really. He has a knack for understanding what each person would like.

Taken at Mom and Dad's House in Blum

What you enjoyed most was picking out a Christmas tree. It was your first real tree and the first one I'd had since I was a small child. You were very proud that Bill allowed you to help choose it. We also bought a lot of lights and ornaments and a cheap tree stand.

Bill wrestled the tree into the small trunk of my Mercury Tracer. Back at home, he was frustrated to find that the tree's trunk was just a bit too wide for the stand. We had nothing to cut it with, so he used a steak knife! He laboriously trimmed off several layers of bark and wood, and he made that tree fit.

After he strung the lights, we let you hang some ornaments and candy canes. You wrapped yourself in a string of tinsel, and I took your picture.

After all that work, you and Bill were exhausted, and you snuggled up on the couch for a nice nap.

It was a wonderful Christmas, though we had to celebrate a little early so that Bill could see you open your presents....





We told Ethan Santa was coming a little early that year, and we went ahead and put out milk and cookies for him. Ethan was amazed and elated the next morning when he found cookie crumbs
on the plate. I was just as amazed; my family had never observed this tradition, and I'd had no idea how much fun that could be.

Bill gave Ethan a Vancouver Canucks jersey, and he just loved it. It was far too big, but that just meant he could wear it for a couple of years.

The fact that our time together was so limited made that first Christmas incredibly special. With each passing year, we've carried on the same traditions and added a few new ones:
  • Bill hanging lights on the house, with a little "help" from Ethan and a lot of hand wringing on my part
  • Listening to Christmas music and drinking eggnog while we decorate the tree
  • Arranging our Christmas village and our two nativity sets
  • Using the camera's timer to take our own picture for the Christmas card, which tends to be a hilarious and somewhat stressful exercise
  • Baking and decorating sugar cookies with my family
  • Reading The Night Before Christmas for Bill's family in our twangiest Texas drawl
  • Singing Christmas carols with Bill's family and friends
  • Watching A Christmas Story and Christmas Vacation and sometimes The Muppet Christmas Carol
  • Stuffing ourselves each day for a week on Bill's mom's Christmas treats
  • Staying up late playing cards with Bill's family
  • Attending the candlelight Christmas Eve service at church
Now that Allyson has joined us, we're enjoying that extra sense of wonder. May we never forget these little joys!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I've Got My Phone...And Baby Jesus!

This morning, Allyson was getting ready to go to the babysitter. Daddy had her all dressed in her Christmas T-shirt and her Santa cap (which she wears EVERYWHERE, much to the delight of both friends and strangers).

Allyson holding tiny Baby Jesus

When I came down the stairs, she announced, "I've got my phone and Baby Jesus!"

"Huh?"

She patted her jeans pocket, which bulged with an old cell phone she likes to carry around, and she held out the tiny wooden baby from the nativity set on our console table. She is utterly fascinated with the tiny figures that look like the old Playskool Little People.

We have a more traditional nativity scene on our mantle, but I just love the humble wooden figures that Ethan received in Sunday school several years ago. Allyson won't leave them alone, though. She broke Baby Jesus' manger the other day (made of Popsicle sticks), and she's constantly carrying him around. I even caught her putting him in her mouth once, and Bill laughed when he heard me holler, "Don't eat Baby Jesus!"

Allyson was so pleased with her two treasures this morning that I couldn't resist letting her take Jesus along. But she had to leave him in the car so he wouldn't get lost.

One More Cute Quote
We were on the way home from Aunt Emily's tonight, where we'd helped make Christmas cookies, when Allyson pulled the bow off her stuffed pink cat. "Oh no!" she cried. "I broke my ti-ee tat."

"We'll fix it when we get home," Daddy reassured her.

A couple of minutes passed, and we thought she might be asleep. Suddenly she piped up, "I have a idea!... We can call Santa Claus and he can bring me a new ti-ee tat!"

"I don't know," Daddy said. "We can just fix the kitty cat you have."

"No, I need a new one. I need Santa to bring me a new ti-ee."

It's amazing how soon children learn about Santa and toys. (She's only two and a half!) I'll have to help her focus on the real meaning of Christmas. Maybe the nativity set will help.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Maybe I'm Not Suzy Homemaker After All

I've spent the better part of the month in a frenzy of baking, mainly the Amish Friendship loaves that I give out to friends and family each year. I've also baked a 7-Up cake for a Christmas party, four dozen chocolate chip cookies for Ethan's band concert, and 24 cupcakes for his school Christmas party. Of course, I didn't even consider buying any of these treats--as Bill had suggested--because I think I'm Suzy Homemaker.

Ethan and I spent some quality time on several occasions; I supervised while he mixed up the cookies and cakes. I bit my tongue when he spilled sugar on the floor and splashed vanilla on the counter. I realize that he probably won't want to bake with me in another year or so, so I've decided to enjoy these opportunities no matter how messy my kitchen might get. (To tell the truth, it gets awfully messy when I bake by myself, too.)

Ethan is so cute. He is very earnest about the responsibility of measuring the flour exactly as I've taught him: mound it up with a spoon, tap it with a knife, carefully level it off. He runs the Kitchen-Aid for precisely the prescribed length of time. In the end, he is so proud of the results, and I am equally proud of him. I imagine his future wife thanking me someday and telling me, "My heart just goes pitter-pat when I see my man working in the kitchen!"

This past Thursday, however, I wasn't having so many warm, fuzzy feelings about our baking project. Ethan wanted to take cupcakes for his 24 classmates, and I was determined to avoid a trip to the store. I found a yellow cake mix in the cabinet, but no frosting. I scoured my cookbooks for recipes, but they all called for butter, which I didn't have. I finally found a recipe online for a fudgy frosting that called for margarine, cocoa powder, buttermilk (which I did have, amazingly), and powdered sugar. I thought I was pretty clever.

So Ethan made the cupcakes, which were amazingly fluffy. They made thick, lumpy mounds in the cupcake tins. Apparently, I should have tapped the pans on the counter to settle the batter down more evenly, but I didn't know that. They turned out to be very funny-looking cupcakes, kind of like toadstools with big, flat tops. I was a little alarmed, but I tried not to show it.

The frosting was even worse. We were supposed to boil the buttermilk with the margarine and cocoa powder, but it never did come to a boil. It just got thicker and greasier because the margarine seemed to be separating out. I finally gave up and just mixed in the powdered sugar.

I carefully scraped the cupcake tops off the pan and gently worked each cake out of the pan. I only destroyed the top on one, which gave me an excuse to sample one. (It may have looked ridiculous, but it tasted wonderful.)

It took me so long to get the cupcakes out that the frosting had thickened considerably. When I tried to spread it, of course it tore the cake up. So I dropped fat dollops of fudge on the middle of exactly nine cupcakes. And then I ran out of frosting, blast it! Bill came to the rescue by topping the rest with melted margarine and cinnamon/sugar. (I was just done, and Ethan had lost interest long before that.)

The cupcakes looked so pathetic that I half expected Ethan to "forget" them on the bus, but Bill ended up driving him to school. Nevertheless, he brought home 14 of the 23 cupcakes. They looked battered, as if they'd been bumped around a bit on the bus ride home. I felt a stab of rejection. What, were my cupcakes not pretty enough to eat? Had Ethan hidden them under his desk?

Ethan said his teacher estimated that they'd had enough food for three classes, so that was probably the reason our cupcakes were shunned. I tried to give them to his classmate Makayla, who lives across the street, but apparently they still had most of their cupcakes, too. So I guess it was nothing personal.

Well, I've decided I'm not Suzy Homemaker after all. And how it pained me to throw away the last six cupcakes tonight! They were just too stale to eat, my food-wasting phobia notwithstanding. Next year, I'm going to just buy something from the store!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nasty Santa, Nasty Santa!

This morning I took Allyson to toddlers' story hour at the library. Every Wednesday, we listen to stories, sing songs, and make crafts with the other kids. Afterward, we turn in the previous week's books and choose five (or six, or seven) more. And Allyson grabs a video at random from the children's section.

This morning, we got to sing Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer while the kids joyfully shook their little sleigh bells. (Normally they shake the bells to a quirky song about brushing your teeth at a quarter to five in the morning.)

We listened to a cute story about Santa Mouse, and then we sang an old Christmas song that was unfamiliar to most of the kids (and maybe the moms as well). It goes like this:

Who's got a beard that's long and white?
Santa's got a beard that's long and white.
Who comes around on a special night?
Santa comes along on a special night.
Special night, beard that's white
Must be Santa, must be Santa
Must be Santa, Santa Claus.

There are several cute verses about boots and a suit of red and a big red cherry nose, and each concludes with a jubilant chorus of "Must be Santa, must be Santa..."

I wasn't sure whether Allyson liked the song until a couple of hours later, when she burst into song while we were putting away groceries.

"Nasty Santa! Nasty Santa! Nasty Santa, Santa Claus!" she sang.

I swallowed my laughter and said, "Sweetie, it's 'Must be Santa, Must be Santa!'" I sang the correct chorus for her.

"It is NOT musty Santa!" she replied indignantly. Then she went on singing, "Nasty Santa! Nasty Santa!" She was having so much fun that I couldn't argue with her.

I thought back to the week before when we'd gone to the library one evening to sit on Santa's lap. Based on her grumpy expression, maybe "Nasty Santa" is an accurate description of her views on Santa. No matter how he tried, he couldn't get a smile out of her.

Still, she did manage to tell Santa that she wants him to bring her a Princess Barbie this year. Maybe when she unwraps that gift, she'll stop singing about Nasty Santa.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Even Worse Than the Emergency Outfit

Today I learned that the only thing worse than an ill-fitting, mismatched emergency outfit is... no emergency outfit at all. First thing this morning, I baked yet another six loaves of Amish Friendship bread, and consequently I was in a huge rush to get to my 9:30 Pilates class. (Okay, so I'm always in a huge rush to get there--or anywhere else for that matter.)

Anyway, that was the reason I forgot to check the diaper bag to make sure Allyson had a change of clothes. It was also the reason that I didn't take Allyson to the bathroom when we got to the gym. She never goes then, but normally I always take her just in case.

I had finished my workout and was lying on my mat, listening to soothing music and waiting for my head and shoulder massage, when a jarring voice interrupted the silence. "Sarah! You're needed in the childcare room."

Now I suppose I should have been worried that Allyson had hurt herself or gotten sick, but the first thought I had was, "Oh, please don't let it be poop." She was wearing her big-girl panties--the Dora the Explorer mermaid panties, to be exact--and I flashed back to the incident a few days before when I'd had to bring the Poop Spatula back out.

Thankfully, she was only wet. She and the sitter were standing in the bathroom, Allyson's panties and jeans in a soggy heap on the floor. The young lady was rifling through the bag. "I couldn't find any extra pants," she said.

I was so embarrassed! How could I not have brought an extra pair of pants for my potty-training toddler? I searched again for good measure. I found a pair of training pants, some big-girl panties, a Pull-Up, and a cloth diaper. I found two extra shirts and a pair of socks. I even found part of last week's craft from story hour at the library. But there were no extra pants of any kind.

I put her in the Pull-Up, though she protested that she wanted to wear the My Little Pony panties. "No, ma'am," I said. "No big girl panties when you wet your pants."

I looked at her thoughtfully. What should I do? It was still pretty cold outside, and I didn't want to take her out with bare legs. I finally decided to put her in my fleece jacket, which fit her like a potato sack. I had to roll the sleeves halfway up. She looked ridiculous, but so cute, in her evening-length jacket and socks and shoes!

Well, as far as embarrassing parenting moments go, it could have been much worse. It could have been a messy poop. It could have happened at church. She could have been 3-1/2, like Ethan was when he finally got trained.

Monday, December 8, 2008

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I thought I'd share a story about my days as a single mom. Although this was most definitely NOT a funny story at the time, for some reason people just laugh uproariously whenever they hear this story. I think this happened in July of 2001, shortly before Bill moved down from Canada.

I was surprised to learn that the hardest part about being single was mowing my own yard. I had literally never even touched a lawn mower until age 30, when I was forced to learn how to operate our crappy mower. My dad came over on a Saturday and taught me how to start it (with a minimum of three very vigorous pulls), how to push it in straight rows, and how to unclog the blades each time the motor died--about every three minutes when the weeds got too long.

The first time I mowed, it took me a couple of hours. The blisters were so deep that they actually bled. I was covered in a layer of dirt that clung to my sweaty body and made muddy rivers in the tub when I showered. Worst of all, the weedeater flung giant grasshoppers against my legs! When that happened , I let out a girly scream and then felt the tears trickling from the corners of my eyes as I contemplated the months and months of mowing that I could look forward to.

When I told Bill the sorry story that evening, he laughed heartily, and I had to laugh, too, in spite of myself.

Now, I will admit that I was exceptionally wimpy and whiny about it, but you have to understand that my lot was not your average yard. A year or two before, my ex-husband and his best friend had rented a backhoe and dug up most of the topsoil in the front yard. The plan was to bring in better dirt and lay some sod, but we ended up moving out to the country to run our convenience store, and the job never got finished. So the front yard was mainly dust and rocks and some very hardy weeds. The mower would throw out choking clouds of dust and hurl the occasional rock. Oh, and there were also several mounds of ferocious fire ants who were particularly vicious when I ran them over with the lawnmower. I always meant to watch for them, but I usually forgot because I was so preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself.

The section in the backyard between the house and the fence was even worse. This was the destination of the topsoil that had been removed from the front yard. There were three large mounds, about three feet tall, and they were covered in weeds that were often waist-high. It was impossible to push the lawn mower back there, so the only way to cut the weeds was with the weedeater, which I despised. Whenever I went back there, I cowered in fear waiting for snakes to strike at my ankles.

I mowed every Wednesday evening and every Saturday morning, and I never stopped dreading it. I'd get up at 7:00 on Saturday to beat the heat, but it was still around 90 degrees most days.

After a few months, a Good Samaritan suddenly began mowing my yard. I was overjoyed to come home from work one Friday and find it all mowed, even the jungle mounds. It took me awhile to discover the identity of my mysterious benefactor.

I stayed home sick one day and woke to the sound of a lawnmower in my backyard. I hurried downstairs and found my neighbor, Sam. I thanked him profusely, but he just smiled shyly and said it was no trouble. He and his wife Freida had been doing all sorts of little things to look after me and three-year-old Ethan ever since the divorce. This was the kindest thing anyone had ever done for me, and it brought tears to my eyes. I vowed to pay him back somehow if I could think of a way.

Sam's house, my house (after Bill restored the grass)

Sam and his teenage boys continued to mow my yard for several weeks, and I reveled in my Saturday morning sleeps and my soft, smooth hands. But one Saturday morning in July, I took a look at my yard and decided I was going to have to drag out the lawnmower again; maybe Sam had been sick or on vacation.

As I dutifully mowed the weeds and dandelions in the front yard, I noted that Sam's usually meticulously groomed grass was shockingly long. He must not have had time for his own grass either. A little thought began to grow in my mind and take root: I needed to return the favor and mow Sam's front yard.

I carried on a mental argument with myself.

"But I'm so hot and tired!"

"It would only take another 20 minutes, and I'm already sweaty and dirty."

"I just want to take a shower and relax on the couch!"

"It's the least I could do. Think of all the times Sam and his boys have mowed for me."

"Oh, but I don't want to!"

"What would Jesus do?"

"Oh, all right! I'll do it." It was as if I'd heard the Voice of God, and there was no arguing.

I pushed the mower next door and started on the long, lush grass--which was maybe 3/4 of a foot high. In no time, I started to feel really good about what I was doing. But then the thick grass overwhelmed the mower, and it stalled. I pulled gobs of damp grass out and flung it aside, and then I laboriously started the mower again. I repeated this ritual every few feet, and I alternated between feeling sorry for myself and feeling very righteous.

As I completed my first row, just to the sidewalk, I surveyed my work and realized something wasn't right. Instead of a nice, smooth path, the mower had left a dry, brown trail. Sam had Bermuda grass, which was obviously quite different from the St. Augustine I'd grown up with (and the weeds that populated my current lawn). Was this normal, I wondered? Maybe it would just look like that until he watered it again, I decided.

In any case, there was such a stark contrast between the mowed and the unmowed sections that I felt I had no choice but to continue. So I plowed on, mowing a few feet, unclogging the blades, and restarting the motor.

I'd made it halfway up one side of the lawn when the front door opened. Sam's eyes were first perplexed, then angry. "What are you DOING??" he spluttered as soon as he had command of his voice.

"I'm mowing your yard," I said meekly. "It was getting really long, and I wanted to help you since you've been mowing my yard so often."

"But you've ruined it!" he cried. "Just... just, put the mower away. You've done enough!"

"But I have to clean up the mess," I murmured, eyeing the tufts of grass that littered the sidewalk.

"Just go!" Sam said gruffly.

I actually felt scared. Sam and Freida both worked as night guards at the county jail, and up until Sam had started mowing my yard, I'd been a little intimidated at the sight of him in his uniform. (Freida was never scary with her short stature and her ready smile.) At this moment, Sam was pretty terrifying.

I turned around wordlessly, my shoulders hunched, and pushed the mower back to my garage, sobs catching in my throat. I didn't even bother to shower before I collapsed on the couch and wept. The injustice of it! I'd wanted to return a favor, and instead I'd destroyed Sam's lovingly cultivated lawn.

After a few minutes, I resolutely grabbed a broom and headed back over to sweep up the mess, which was untouched. I sobbed as I worked, but I was determined to at least clean up the shorn grass.

Freida opened the door and said, "Please, honey, just leave it. Sam didn't mean any harm. He was just surprised. Now go on home."

"No," I said. "I m-made the m-mess, and I'm gonna c-clean it up."

She went back inside and I finished sweeping. Freida's kindness was even more upsetting than Sam's anger, and I just couldn't stop crying. I curled up on the couch in the fetal position and sobbed for at least 30 minutes. Little Ethan kept patting my head and asking, "What's wrong, Mommy?"

"I'm okay," I said. "I just need to cry for awhile."

Eventually I took a shower and got myself dressed for an afternoon wedding, for the nephew of my dear friend Angela. At the reception, she immediately noticed my puffy eyes and asked what was wrong. As I sadly recounted the story to her and her husband, they couldn't help laughing. I laughed, too, through my tears.

I asked, "But what happened? Why did the grass look like that?"

"You scalped his grass," Peter explained. "You can't cut Bermuda that short. You needed to raise the blades on your mower."

"You can do that?" I asked. He laughed again. "Will it come back?" I asked hopefully.

"Probably not, I'm afraid."

Peter was right. That grass was dead for the rest of the year. It was only about a quarter or a third of the lawn, but it seemed to defeat Sam's spirit. The rest of the grass soon became unkempt, and the weeds in my yard started to encroach on his yard. Every time I looked at that yard, I was pierced with regret.

I made a decorated cookie that said, "I'm sorry!" and I brought Ethan along to help me deliver it. (No one could resist my sweet little son.) Freida exclaimed at my kindness, but Sam didn't say much.

I suppose he must have forgiven me eventually. To his credit, he continued to mow my grass until Bill moved down and took over that duty. But his grass NEVER came back.

I've driven through the neighborhood several times in the five years since we moved, and the grass is still weedy and thin. I wonder if Sam still thinks about that day, and if he ever learned to laugh about it--or if he still laments, as I do, that no good deed goes unpunished.
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