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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nine Sundays

A few days ago I scheduled our consumables pack-out.  Last week Brandon picked up all seven of our brand-new diplomatic passports, ready for new visas.  I've been comparing the two airport hotels at the Frankfurt airport (which is closer?  which has better breakfast?).  The weather has turned cooler this week, and I think that summer is really over.  All of those things combined means that it's all starting to get real.

Of course it's not so real that we have our suitcases (I don't really want to think how many that will be) lined up at the door, waiting for our big blue friend, Super Shuttle, to come and take us to (according to the children) the Happiest Place on Earth, Dulles Airport.

It's not even so real that men have shown up with their enormous tri-wall cardboard boxes to stuff in everything that has pathetically attempted to make Oakwood home, instead just cluttering up the apartment for nine months.

But, when you schedule your first event, that fig tree is starting to show its leaves and it's time to start seriously considering the end.

All summer we've played and swum and camped and blissfully pretended that life in America - where Brandon is home for dinner every night and library books are plentiful and parks are almost around every corner - would be our reality for the next forever.  But every time I walked through the woods to our own personal park as the wind brushed the trees before dipping to swirl our hair, memory whispered that I didn't belong here, I'd better hang on tightly to this perfect afternoon, because come November it would all be gone in a hazy memory of a country where rain made trees spring out of the ground and money kept them lovely.

Each time I picked up my weekly ten pounds of library books about Mary Queen of Scots and cells and astronauts and Powhatan and everything you could want all delivered to your local library my revelry in all of this knowledge free for the asking would sour with the voice in the back of my head wondering what I would do when the piles of books were suddenly gone.

I think that sometimes I will grow thin and stretched out with all of the change, worn to the point of breaking with holding on too tight to things that will all be gone - friends, houses, time, schedules, mountains, weather, pomegranates, mangoes, cucumbers, and melons.

I love this life.  I love knowing that any situation I can't stand will magically change if I just wait long enough.  I love swapping my old problems for new ones.  I love finding my way around a new country, new house, new people, new memories.  I love looking forward to something exciting to shake up the routine of normal life, give us a break from everyday.

I hate this life.  I hate making a schedule that works perfectly, knowing in nine weeks it will be wrecked to pieces with a new job, a new country, a new life.  I hate finding things, finding people that I love and then leaving them.  I hate knowing that all things come to an end, and like a turtle I will carry my life around me on my back (perhaps with the help of a few plywood packing crates), never finding a place that is forever my own that I can paint and change fixtures and find the perfect place for every single thing that never ever has to be weighed again.  I hate loving and not wanting to love because it will all be gone, over and over and over again.

Every time my belly gets big enough to balance my pizza plate on, I start worrying.  Will I really be able to handle yet another child?  Is it better to just be eternally pregnant, never getting comfortable, always awkward and slow, weary, weary weary, or to have a newborn baby with the endless cries that nothing will make better and maddening unpredictability and even more weariness?

God knows what he is doing, however; by the end of each nine months I don't care how much that baby will cry and how many times I have to get up, I just want to get this thing out and move the heck on.

And so it will be by November.  I will have counted and recounted how many suitcases it will take (really?? ten???) and stressed about weight and worried that I didn't put enough cans of tomatoes in my consumables and stressed that Frankfurt will be too cold to tourist and said goodbye too many times and felt the walls grow closer by the day until I will be ready to shed this life like a snake grown too large for its skin.  I won't care if I never see Brandon again for dinner or our house is miserably cold or we'll never eat bacon again, just get us the heck out of here.

And then we will be gone.  And life will have moved on.  And Virginia will turn into a memory.

But for now, there is too much time yet to go.  So instead, I worry.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

And Suddenly, Life Got Busy

This year  This month  Last week Sophia hasn't quite started school all of the way yet.  She's supposed to be in first grade, and first grade is when all of the real work starts - Math, History, Science, and Writing.  I was planning on starting after we came back from the beach, but then I decided to make Kathleen's baptism dress.  Then Brandon and I took a whirlwind trip to Seattle.  Then I got back to work on the baptism dress.  And then we went camping.  So last week was the first full week of school we've had in probably two months.  Maybe since Eleanor was born.  Just in case you're getting stressed about my children's academic future, don't worry - I've got it covered.  I can feel the looming fear of totally incompetent semi-adults camping at my house for decades haunting my dreams already.  Maybe if I ignore it hard enough, it will go away.

So this past week was The Week.  Sophia and I have already done some math lessons and she's been joining in on history with Kathleen (nothing like the good old beheading of Mary Queen of Scots to spark a young student's love for history!) so I've not been completely incompetent.  But I guess only accomplishing math, reading and handwriting isn't much when theoretically I'm supposed to be doing spelling, grammar, writing, and literature also in the same day.

But like I said, this past week was going to be the one where I squashed every bit of learning required in between the end of breakfast and the beginning of lunch - which meal, by the way has gotten increasingly later throughout the years.  Back a long time ago when we lived in Cairo, Kathleen and Sophia ate lunch at 11:00, I ate at 11:30, took a nap for thirty minutes, and then had several hours of alone time before the girls got up from their naps.  In Baku, after Kathleen started school lunch drifted to 11:30 for the children and noon for me.  Now that Kathleen and Sophia are both in school and Eleanor has to eat too, lunch now starts at noon (if we're lucky) and I no longer get to enjoy a peaceful lunch alone with my current favorite reading material.  Lunch is no longer a pleasure, it's a source of calories (that is interrupted every three minutes to help someone use the bathroom, clean up a mess, get more of their own food, get a swat to keep them in their chair, or get sent to the corner) that keep Eleanor from dipping below the 15th weight percentile she's currently hanging out in.

Did I mention that this past week was going to be my glorious return to awesomeness?  You know, where I would show the world that you can do it all and still get a nap?  Let me just paste in an email I sent to Brandon Friday, around lunch time.

"It started with Math.  Kathleen did  three tests (which she had forgotten to do earlier) yesterday, which I graded and she had to correct.  The scores were 70%, 60% and 50% - all because she didn’t pay attention or, in some cases, didn’t even work the problem.  Then I had to correct and watch her re-work her homework problems.  Then we had a long discussion about being thorough, paying attention, not wasting time, and not getting distracted.  In the middle I re-registered the car, which necessitated 1. trying to do it online 2. finding out that the county tax was never paid last year 3. calling the county and getting the account number 4. trying six times, unsuccessfully, to use their phone system 5. calling someone who offered no help but checked that yes, I did have the right account number 5. calling back and having it magically work (and finding out that we’ve been paying interest on the tax since JANUARY - this is because my parent’s renters never felt like forwarding the bill to us).  Then I moved on to Edwin’s reading lesson.  He did fantastically.  Then it was Sophia’s turn, which was interrupted every three minutes by 1. the boys fighting 2. Kathleen asking questions about her math homework (she wants to get them all right and a gold star) 3. me giving her a tutorial about long divison (she didn’t understand dropping the numbers down).  And I got Eleanor up, changer her diaper, and fed her.  Then we finished.  Then we ate lunch.  I tried to eat lunch and was interrupted every three minutes.  I’m now putting Joseph down to bed before going to bed myself.  Then I’ll get up and beat the children into cleaning up the apartment so it can be clean for the lady who is coming at 2:00 (hopefully she’ll be late).  

So, you know, just another exotic day in the life of a mother of five.

I’m looking forward to a movie and pizza tonight.

(just so you know, this is a rant, not a call to fix the problem.  I think that the problem started about nine years ago when we started trying to have a baby and then was subsequently compounded every two years or so afterwards.)

Love you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ashley


Maybe, just maybe public school isn't such a bad idea after all?  At least my children will learn something, right?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sophia the Baking Queen

A few months ago after endless pestering from Sophia, I finally let her make cornbread muffins.  In Baku, I occasionally let her mix together some of the ingredients (I'm not sure where that pervasively destructive idea that baking cookies together is fun came from.  I've never had anything but added aggravation when twenty-five little hands want to intrude on my well-oiled cooking machine.  Seriously.  I've spent decades working on my technique and now you want to come and 'help?'  You can help by leaving me the heck alone dumping in one thing.)

She wasn't happy about this arrangement, however, and latched on to the idea that pestering is effective (which, of course, it is) and asked me when she could help me cook.  Today?  Today?  Today?  Finally one day I sat down and wrote her out a fourteen-point child's version of the cornbread recipe I memorized years ago.  Step one: Turn on the oven to 425 degrees.  Step two: get out the four-cup glass measuring cup.

I assigned Kathleen to read the recipe to her ("Mom, it was really hard, but I did it.  I really wanted to go and read a book, but I didn't and read her the whole recipe.  Aren't you proud of me?") since she is still learning to read.  The muffins turned out a little flat - it's a definite skill to learn when that magic point between under- and over-mixing occurs - but they were quite edible.  And best of all, I didn't have to make them.

So next time she asked what she could do to help with dinner, I handed her the recipe and like magic we had hot, homemade cornbread muffins on the table that I didn't make.

A few weeks ago the girls, tired of waiting for me to do something with the black bananas that had been languishing on our kitchen counters for entirely too long, asked if they could make banana bread.  My first reaction was to refuse, thinking of the mess that would inevitably happen.  But I swallowed it in the name of letting them have a little independence and printed off a recipe.  Then I went to take a nap.

When I woke up, the house was filled with warm banana bread smell.  I wandered into the kitchen to find all three of them sitting around the table with thick (only somewhat crooked) slices in their little hands, stuffing their faces.  "It's great mom!" Kathleen announced between bites, "You should try some!"

Curious, I took a slice of my own and slathered it in the requisite tablespoon of butter that fresh banana bread deserves, and bit into it.  Sure enough it was good.  And the dishes were even (mostly) done (because every one know that the most important part of cooking is doing the dishes).

Last week Sophia did it again, without any help from Kathleen, with the same result.  And on Thursday in a stroke of genius, I bribed her into cleaning up the toy room with the promise that she could make cookies when she was done.  Eight-five percent of successful parenting is proper manipulation.

When I was a teenager, my mother would turn to me on a Sunday afternoon and ask what was for dessert.  I was always happy to make something because that meant I got to choose the dessert and lick all of the implements.  My mother was happy because she didn't have to choose a dessert and she didn't have to make it.  It was a good arrangement.  Obviously parenting has never been and will never be about getting a net benefit from your children; you sign up for it because, among a multitude of things, you are interested in advancing humanity in general.  But it is a pleasant surprise when things work out in everyone's favor - including your own.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Camping

I've never thought of myself as a camper.  Growing up, I would attend the ward campout because that's where my family was going and I didn't have a choice.  I attended girls' camp because that was what one did in the summer.  But when my father offered to take me along with him for some real, wilderness-style camping I always said no.  Who wants to hike miles with a heavy pack just so you could be even further away from flush toilets? My mother had this magnet hanging up on her refrigerator and I couldn't help but secretly agree with her.


In college I went camping a few times and enjoyed myself reasonably, but not enough to invest in any serious gear - you know, like a sleeping bag (I'm not sure whose sleeping bags I borrowed those few times).  The last time I went was right before Brandon and I got married, over nine years ago.


Recently, however, I've decided that camping could actually be a fun thing, at least in concept.  The children are finally old enough that some of them would enjoy it and there are enough of the enjoyers that the non-enjoyers are in the minority and so can be safely ignored.  Those who enjoy camping are also capable of hiking (although some of them go hiking under duress), which is the natural companion to camping.  I'm not pregnant.  I don't have a newborn baby.  We are currently in a country where camping is easy (read:bathrooms) and we're going to a country where isn't much else to do with five children but camp.  Large numbers of children are best dealt with in surroundings that allow them to act like they want to anyway and so my childcare efforts are minimized.  Five-star luxury resorts sound like a great idea without children.


So this weekend we conducted our first trial run in the Shenandoah National Forest.  My cousin and his wife and a friend with her two girls consented to come join the circus with us.  Just in case things started going south, we would have witnesses to keep us from throttling an exasperating child.


But before we could head out into the great untamed wild, we had to buy supplies.  My parents had given Brandon and I some unused sleeping bags several years ago, but they had been lost or given away between Utah and Cairo and Baku and we had nothing.  We didn't even have flashlights - at least ones that were in the US.  So I hauled Brandon over to the computer the preceding Saturday night and we spent an unreasonably large amount of money on gear so that we drive over two hours to go and sleep outside.  He reported that the UPS man delivering our packages was not very happy about delivering so many incredibly large boxes (four).  Good thing we don't have to tip the drivers.


We got started a little later than I had hoped (who doesn't when they're going anywhere with five children?), but were pulling away from FSI with Brandon on board by 1:45.  We had an uneventful drive with a few stops and pulled in by 4:45 with plenty of time to unpack the car, pitch the tent, and start our fire (with nothing but a lighter and some paper.  Next time we're bringing something less... boy scouts) before everyone else showed up.


When I planned out our trip I remembered lessons learned from hiking in Baku and attempted to keep everything as simple as possible (with seven people, that can only get so simple).  For food I had one rule: it had to be cooked on a stick.  I wasn't going camping so I could wash dishes half the night, and I had no concern at all for nutrition.  If the children didn't get full on hot dogs, they were welcome to top off with as many s'mores as they liked.


So after lots of hot dogs (and vegetables and watermelon brought by a much more nutrition-conscious member of our party) and s'mores everyone was happily bundled off to bed at an hour late enough to ensure that everyone fell asleep within five minutes of being put into their brand-new all matching green sleeping bags.  Then the adults enjoyed a beautiful three-quarters moonlit after party with even more s'mores.  

Breakfast the next morning was more stick-cooking (sausages and biscuits - originally cooked on sticks until someone more clever than me brought out the tin foil) with a token nutritional supplement of orange juice and bananas.  



After packing up the camp (it's amazing how long that takes when you have twelve people) we went for a child-and-pregnant-woman appropriate hike.


We stopped by a waterfall for lunch and let everyone enjoy their favorite pastime, rock throwing.  


The hike was just long enough - one and half miles round trip - that everyone got good and tired out for the two-hour ride home.


As we drove home, enjoying the gorgeous scenery along Skyline Drive and beautiful silence of five sleeping children, Brandon and I reviewed the trip.  I think we have been worn down by so many small people to take care of, because we both decided that the entire trip had been a stunning success.  Of course there were things to improve on, but we all had a wonderful time.  Our friends were so much fun to have along, the weather was pleasant, the s'mores were delicious, and even sleeping was comfortable.  We're already making plans for the next trip.







Saturday, September 6, 2014

Three Family Events for the Price of One

Last Saturday was Kathleen's baptism.  She turned eight several weeks ago, but between a visit from a college friend and a wedding in Seattle, Saturday was the first free day to baptize her.  This worked out perfectly, however, because my Aunt Kathleen, who Kathleen is named after, also had a birthday on Saturday.  And since Eleanor still hadn't been blessed (mostly laziness), we decided to throw in one more thing to draw the crowds.  I'm very blessed to have family in town who came for the event.  I always love any and every opportunity to get together with family while we can.  


When I brought up the possibility of sewing Kathleen's dress, Brandon offered strong advice against it, citing the beach trip, friend visit, and wedding in the preceding three weeks as a good reason not to do it (and he was right).  I ignored him and did it anyway, finishing it several days before the baptism thanks to his good-natured and patient assumption of my household duties for several days in a row.  I think that I don't deserve him.


So now I've made the girls' blessing dress and the baptism dress.  I informed them that if they would like me to make their wedding dresses, they'd have to be willing to all wear the same dress.  We're going to have to see about that one.


The whole program was beautiful, with wonderful talks and prayers and piano playing from the same kind relatives who came out for the event.  As I watched Brandon lead Kathleen down into the font I was hit with the realization that I now have a daughter old enough to make a covenant with God all on her own.  I've noted the passing years (four more to go until babysitting age!) but their compounded meaning didn't strike me until I watched the ordinance performed by my husband for our daughter.  This is the first in a line of many things that will help me to realize my advancing years and the wonderful blessing of having such special children.  

Kathleen was excited for weeks and weeks and could hardly sleep the night before.  When we came into the children's room Saturday morning she greeted us with a huge grin.  "Today's the day I'm getting baptized!!!" she announced to the entire building.  She is a blessing to our family, adding her sunshine whenever the rest of us are grey.  


After the closing prayer was said, Edwin hopped up and announced, "Let's get out of here.  It's time for cupcakes!"  So we all headed over to a local park and had cupcakes after singing "Happy Birthday" to Aunt Kathleen.  It was the perfect end to a wonderful day.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

And Then There Was Sailing

Little brothers do funny things.  They are small and annoying and drive you crazy and exist mostly to create lego constructions that they then destroy in fantastically loud ways, seemingly forever.  Then one day after you've grown up and become oh so Adult, you wake up and discover that your little brothers that were always noisy afterthoughts to a pleasant family have grown up to be pretty fun to be with.  And maybe, even perhaps, cool.  And then they move across the country.

My brother Sam has always loved sailing.  We lived a mile or two from a neighborhood lake that offered sailing classes on those little fiberglass Sunfishes with the bright sails that were made to be photographed for computer wallpaper.  One Christmas, or birthday, or straight-A semester Sam asked for sailing lessons.  I was wrapped up in my own teenaged world and just figured it was another strange phase my ten year-old brother was going through, like the time my brother Mike wore his neon-colored frog shorts and shirt and hat for a week straight.

One day he talked me out of my self-centered sixteen year-old life and into venturing further out to a county park, Crabtree Lake, that rented larger Sunfishes.  I had a car and he didn't, so we made a day of it.  We sailed around the lake for hours, getting soaked and talking more than we probably had ever in our whole life living together in the same house.  I don't think I had ever spent a day with just him before that afternoon and I don't believe I ever did again.

After Sam graduated from college, he moved out to Seattle and started working for Boeing.  Being single and frugal and old enough to prize solitude, he started looking into buying a boat.  It's funny because we all own cars, and boats of the size and age he was looking for cost as much as a Civic, but buying a boat seems like something so much more momentous.  He was able to find what he was looking for (evidently the boat market in Seattle is amazingly tight) and now owns his very own boat.

We had already built a day into our plans to visit Sam, but when I found out that he had bought his boat, I was even more excited to go and spend the day with him.  Because who doesn't like Seattle on the water?  And boats are cool.



Eleanor's view for most of the day


The day, of course, was wonderful.  We had a beautiful sail (although Sam claimed that it was sweltering.  I think he's been in the Pacific Northwest too long), bookended by a delicious brunch and tasty dinner.  Eleanor behaved herself and I confess that I didn't miss the other children at all (hopefully they will read this when they are much older and can forgive me my callousness).  

I was very sad to say goodbye to my little brother until next summer.  I think one of the great injustices of life is that when you're finally old enough and sensible enough to really, really love spending time with your siblings, you live much too far away from each other.  I always swore that I'd never want to live near family (we never did growing up and it worked just fine thank you very much), but I've definitely changed my tune.  The longer I spend in the Foreign Service, the harder it is to be so very far from family.  We all get together for our annual beach trip which is pretty much the highlight of my children's year, but I miss the more ordinary times when I can just hang out with my siblings individually.  I have a lot of time to make up for, after all.  Maybe we can work something out later, but for now I'll just have one day in Seattle to put up on the shelf with the one on Crabtree Lake.  Hopefully they won't stay the only ones.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Oh the Fun We've Had!

Last weekend Brandon's brother Seth got married.  Despite being from two large families, Brandon (one of nine) and I (one of five) haven't attended any family weddings (or any, for that matter.  I guess we have even fewer friends than I thought) since we were married over nine years ago.  Brandon had one sister get married two years ago, but she chose to get married on 11-11-11.  Which is a pretty awesome wedding date, but it was just after Joseph was born.  I did point out, however, that I was pregnant before she got engaged and chose a date.  I'm very diplomatic like that.

So when Seth started circulating the possibility that he might be getting married, I started looking up plane tickets to Seattle.  Once, long ago, this would have been a Big Trip.  Seattle, after all, is all of the way on the other side of the continent of North America, three whole time zones away.  My definition of reasonable travel, however, has been warped all out of any reasonability and will continue to go downhill after we spend four days traveling to Dushanbe in a few months.  

But since travel is no thing to me, we very happily planned an extended weekend jaunt to Seattle.  My brother lives in Seattle, so we decided to have a two-for-one and visit him too.  Even before I started pricing out tickets I planned on leaving the four oldest children, and after I started calculating totals into mid-four figures, I definitely wasn't going to bring anyone who required their own seat.  Thankfully my wonderful aunt and her husband (the same aunt who came to my rescue at three am) actually consented to take all four of my crazy little monsters beautiful, well-behaved children for four days and nights.  I won't lie that maybe that was the best part of the whole trip.  I'm even more excited for my little brother to get married in March because I'll get have to be gone even longer.


And as if abandoning my four oldest wasn't enough freedom, I actually joined SitterCity (yup.  Paid the money.  Brandon made me) just so that I could hire a complete stranger (who had a background check) to come and watch Eleanor at our hotel room while we partied at the wedding.  Isn't money a beautiful, wonderful thing?


This was my first six-hour, sit-down dinner, speeches and dances and cake-cutting wedding and I have to say that it was awesome.  Mormons tend to have toned down affairs, more of an in-and-out style reception (Brandon's sister joked that she wanted a drive-through wedding where the guest would hand in the present and someone would hand them back a hotdog) for a variety of reasons, one of them being that we're cheap.  When you have to finance three or four of the things you tend to err on the side of simplicity.  


For this wedding, however, we showed up at 3:00 and didn't leave until after 9:30.  There were speeches (which were all amazingly wonderful.  I really wish that someone had said those things to me at my wedding).  There were toasts.  There were pictures.  There were more speeches.  There was a very tall cake.  And there was dancing.  I had warned Brandon that he wasn't going to get away this time and he didn't believe me.  But he should have.  And now he has no excuse for the next Marine Ball.  We had a great time.


Seth and Emily, of course, were handsome and stunningly beautiful (respectively) and Seth smiled more than all of his brothers combined.  The first time I met Emily was at the Sherwood family reunion in July and I was incredibly impressed when she jumped right into the craziness without batting an eye.  One afternoon I wandered to the upstairs great room to find her deep into a game of Risk with assorted nieces and nephews and nary an adult in sight.  Teagan and I have held the sister-in-law club with just the two of us for the last nine years.  You'd think with six boys we'd have members right and left, but we've stayed small for far too long.  But the wait was worth it.  I can't think of a better fit for Seth and a more wonderful sister-in-law to join the insanity.  Congratulations, Seth and Emily!!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Happy Birthday, Kathleen!

Last week Kathleen turned eight.


In a fit of kindness, I declared school to be off in celebration of the day.  We had just been gone the previous week, so what's another day of hooky, right?  As further proof that my brain had been baked too long in the sun I packed everyone up for a morning at the park with a picnic for lunch.



We swung by work and picked up Brandon to play with Kathleen while Sophia and I went birthday present shopping.  Kathleen and her father made a big fort together to pass the time before heading off to a friend's swimming birthday party.


I cooked up Kathleen's favorite meal (bulgur lentil pilaf) to watch in front of her movie of choice (The Princess Bride), but she couldn't wait until later to open her presents.  So we sung "Happy Birthday" with no cake, which was okay because I forgot to buy candles.



I still can't believe that eight years ago she was sleeping in my arms, fresh from the hospital.  I've been grateful to have every single day since then.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pictures by children

A few months ago I bought a small point and shoot camera.  I'm still holding fast against smart phones, so the point and shoot is theoretically supposed to give me a more carry-able option than my big DSLR camera.  That, of course, supposes that I remember to take it around with me and then I have to actually use the thing.

The children, however, are happy to have another camera to steal and use.  Often they start out their photo shoots by asking if they can use the camera and I try to limit the number of pictures taken.  Then they completely ignore me and take as many as they like.  That's how, when I unloaded the camera last night, I had four hundred pictures waiting for me - most of them complete surprises.  It's almost like the days when we had to wait for film to be developed.



Self-portraits are always popular.










Maybe there's a reason our downstairs neighbors complained about 'bumping' and 'thumping.'




Who knew that flash reflected in a TV would be so interesting?






Hey guess what?  When you turn the camera upside down, it takes upside down pictures!!!



Windows, also popular.


And who doesn't like baby feet?


Hey girls! Put that camera away!!  Now!!!