Sunday, January 15, 2017

Advent Without Chocolate

If you are a kid, the word "advent," apart from its religious context, usually suggests "calendar," and that in turn brings to mind one thing: candy.

In Christmas seasons past, I have given the grandkids those grocery store advent calendars with twenty-four little doors, each hiding a piece of foil-wrapped chocolate. These enable the kids to "count down" to Christmas by opening a door and indulging in a bite of chocolate every day from Dec. 1 through Christmas Eve.

This year, however, I decided to adapt an idea I stumbled onto on Facebook: buy children's Christmas books, wrap them individually, and let kids unwrap one each day in December until Christmas. That suggestion was enough to start the wheels turning in this old Googie-brain.

I have bookcases full of books to read with the kids when they are at Googie's house. Some are leftovers from my own children, and others I have picked up at clearance events and garage sales. But I have noticed that the Christmas books are hardly ever read. December is usually so busy with Christmas parties, programs, and other events that the kids rarely visit then--and who wants to read a Christmas book in spring, summer, or fall?

On a mission, I scoured the kids' bookcases. Was it possible I could find as many as twenty-four Christmas books? It didn't take long to see that I actually had a few more than that, so I grabbed a bright red bag, dubbed it the "Christmas Book Bag," and lost myself in a whirlwind of paper, scissors, and tape. I would try this "Advent-ure" first with daughter Cookie's four kids. Here are the directions I attached to the bag, which I sent home with them Thanksgiving weekend.

Dear Kids:

Here is a fun way to count down the days until our Christmas together. As you know, I have lots of books at my house, but it seems like we don't often get to read the Christmas ones together. So . . .

Here are the rules:
  • Inside this bag are 24 of my Christmas stories, individually wrapped. Take turns choosing and unwrapping one book each night. Zoomie starts on Dec. 1, then Bootsie, then Pooh, then Sooby--and so on until you read your last book on Christmas Eve.
  • Anyone who can may do the reading aloud to all of you--but you must enjoy each night's story together after you have brushed your teeth and are ready for bed.  
  • Bring the bag of books back on Christmas Day so I can do this project with your cousins next year. That day, I will ask each of you to tell me what your favorite story was.
Have fun reading!
Love, Googie

Post-Christmas feedback indicates that the Christmas Book Bag went over well. I hope to follow this blog post with a review of the books the kids liked most. As for my own favorite, I saved Charles M. Schulz's A Charlie Brown Christmas for Christmas Day itself.


This Hallmark Gift Book, published in 2010, follows Charlie Brown's angst-ridden search for both a suitable tree and the meaning of Christmas itself. Its interactive sound bytes enable us to hear Linus reciting the Biblical Christmas story from Luke 2 and the whole Peanuts gang singing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

True to form, however, Christmas Day came and went in a flurry, and I had to set it aside for another time. That's what often happens to Christmas books--and all the more reason to consider your own version of the Christmas Book Bag for the children you love.

Watch out, Beenie and Heero. There is a big red bag full of books headed your way in a little over ten months.

Afternote: Displaying A Charlie Brown Christmas above is Chi-Chi, a lovable primate who was inadvertently left at Googie's Thanksgiving weekend. You will be glad to know he was reunited with Pooh as a joke "present" on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mama in a Cup

Infallible Rule #1 of kids with cameras seems to be this: If you give a kid a camera, you will get in return a series of photos of the most insignificant things ever.

I remember when I got my first childhood camera, a Brownie Hawkeye that shot black and white pictures from rolls of film loaded into a plastic box that seems huge compared to modern-day cameras. Excitedly, I would balance the box about waist-high, look down into the lens, and click the button that was sure to afford a ton of laughs for Joe down at the drugstore, where I would take the film to have it developed for pickup a few days later.

A kid with a new toy, literally, I snapped pictures of the fire hydrant on the corner, ants on our brick sidewalk, and the feet of the old lady next door. When Mom scolded me for "wasting film," I focused my photographic energies on my baby brother. This is why we have a hundred or so pictures of him either sleeping or crying, which was pretty much all he did there for a while.

So no one was really surprised to see what happened over Christmas when Bootsie's Uncle Teebo turned her loose with the camera on his cell phone. She took a picture of every page in a Berenstain Bears storybook, along with a shot of nearly every piece of furniture in my house. And then, among all those, there was this true masterpiece:

Now you may think this is just a mundane picture of a plastic cup on the end of table where Bootsie sat as her adult relatives played cards. But the precise angle at which she held the camera caught the head and shoulders of her mama, sitting on the other side of the table, in a very unusual relationship to the cup. If you look at it just right, daughter Cookie appears to be bobbing out of the top of a green cup.

I can't adequately describe the decibel level or the duration of the laughter pouring out from me and five kids as we encountered this classic shot while scrolling through Bootsie's camerawork. "Look," I said to Bootsie with my eyes and nose running and my stomach aching from a paroxysm of uncontrollable laughing. "It looks like your mama is in a cup!"

The card game was suspended as players abandoned it one by one to come upstairs and investigate the source of the whoops, hoots, and giggles. With each new viewer, the rest of us erupted again, as though seeing the picture for the first time. If laughing is really as healthy for people as experts claim, then our family should be in good shape for 2017.

We have named this piece of art Mama in a Cup. As for Bootsie, Mr. Whistler had nothing on this girl, who, at the ripe old age of six, is already showing a keenly artistic eye.

In about twenty years, you might want to keep an eye out for new talent bursting on the contemporary museum scene. Bootsie's artwork with crayons, colored pencils, and markers has always been impressive, but now that she has had a taste of success with photography, there may be no stopping her.

I am tempted to go back and see what the magic of Photo Shop can do for one of my old fire hydrants. But no matter how hard I try, I don't think I could achieve anything as artfully perfect as Mama in a Cup.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

If you are like me, you may need some help with the pronunciation of that title. One of several ways to say "Merry Christmas" in Dutch, it sounds something like "VROH-layk KEHRST-fayst." Today, I am operating in that wee portion of my brain that knows a handful of Dutch words and expressions. This is because today I am thinking about Julie.

In late February, Julie came into our home as a special gift and remained here through mid-June. On the surface she was an American Field Service (AFS) college student from Voorburg, The Netherlands, which is a suburb of The Hague. More importantly, she became the daughter of our later years, the little sister my kids always wanted, and a fun, loving aunt (tante) to all six grandkids.

So you can imagine my delight yesterday when we received Julie's Kerstfeest note along with a new container of speculaas spices for making, among other delectable specimens of her native cuisine, Dutch peppernuts (pepernoten). These are quarter-sized cookies, staples of  Dutch Kerstfeest celebrations, that combine 2/3 c. each butter and dark brown sugar, 2 c. self-rising flour, 4 tbsp. of milk with a tablespoon and a half of the magical speculaas spices. Baked on parchment paper at 320 F. for about twenty minutes, they offer Julie a taste of home and me an interesting cultural variation on the traditional Christmas cookie.

Of the many enlightening experiences of Julie's stay with us, I would have to say I enjoyed our joint cooking adventures the most. Among those, she learned the art of preparing American "comfort" foods like meat loaf and potato cakes. In addition to pepernoten, I learned the secret ingredients behind a real Dutch apple pie. Raisins--really? Orange juice--who would have thought?

Together, we took on the challenges of converting grams, kilograms, and milliliters to ounces, cups, and tablespoons. We invented an impromptu glaze for some donuts she wanted to take to school for Koningsdag, or King's Day, a national holiday The Netherlands celebrates on April 27 to honor William of Orange.

We strove to figure out acceptable substitutes for ingredients called for by Dutch recipes but not readily available locally, like caster sugar and custard powder (enter Jell-O instant vanilla pudding mix). No creme fraiche at Walmart? No problem. We looked online and made our own from cream and buttermilk.

And now, a SPOILER ALERT  for you, Julie, if you are reading this before Christmas. (I know your present has arrived, but you are waiting until Christmas to open it.) So you'd better Ga Weg! until Dec. 26 unless you want a sneak peek at what it contains.

Come Christmas morning, Julie will find among her gifts a wooden cutting board in the shape of the state of Missouri. In my way of thinking, it is a perfect gift for her, symbolizing both the geographical specifics of her U.S. stay and the antics of the kitchen we shared for a time.

Vrolijk Kerstfeest, sweet girl, from your American family, including six adoring nieces and nephews. Hopefully, there will be pepernoten on our Christmas table this weekend.

Friday, December 16, 2016

"When We Were a Couple o' Kids"

That title line comes from an old song titled, "School Days." (A quick Google check tells me that it was written by Gus Edwards and Will Cobb in 1907.) When I was little, I learned it from one of those little yellow 78-rpm records that I played until the scratches eventually made the needle arm skip and miss.

I think of that song every time a kid or grandkid of mine starts school. So it has come to mind often in recent months as I have watched Beenie join the rank and file of four-year-old preschoolers.

For him, preschool means new playmates, a gentle introduction to academic routine, a little nudge toward increased personal responsibility, and fun outings to places like the fire station, the library, and the pumpkin patch. For Pa-pa and me, it means we get to see him more, since we deliver him to school three mornings a week and then bring him home to spend the afternoon with us until his mama and daddy get off work.

Beenie's classroom is in the basement of the same church where, twenty-five years ago, I took my own kids to monthly 4-H meetings. It has changed very little since then; thus, every trip down that familiar hallway brings a comforting sense of deja vu. Here I go again, I think to myself, delivering a child I love to a doorway where something new and enriching waits on the other side.

It is a good feeling, and I love every part of the experience: holding that little hand, unzipping the coat, signing my name on the list, and delighting in whatever treasure has been left in the hallway folder to be brought home. Maybe it is a sheet of G's traced with a shaky orange crayon. Maybe it is a pair of butterfly wings artfully attached to a clothespin. Maybe it is a feathered card stock headband in honor of Thanksgiving. Maybe one day it will have Beenie's name printed on it with all the letters facing in the right direction.

Waiting to pick him up at the end of the morning is an opportunity to stand outside the classroom and study bulletin boards reflecting collaborative projects. For instance, during Thanksgiving season each child put a feather on a large poster board turkey proclaiming what he or she was most thankful for. There, among all the "moms," "dads," "families," and other more predictable answers, Beenie seized the opportunity to express gratitude for his "teddy elephant."

Now if Beenie indeed has such a thing, none of us knows about it. What is a teddy elephant, anyway? It is apparently not a subject Beenie wishes to elaborate on upon questioning.

On the last class day before Thanksgiving, a marker board outside the classroom door displayed the children's numbered list of steps for "How to Cook a Turkey." "Pull the feathers off," one child advised, while others reminded us to "Turn the oven to 168" and then "Cook for 5 minutes." Number 7 on the list (of which Beenie was very proud) showed his more practical side: "Put in in a pan." Well, yes. Even when you are four, you know the process is a lot less messy that way.

Our afternoons together are steeped in cookie dough and free play. Beenie's favorite all autumn long has been a role-playing game he calls "On the Way to School." This requires him, me, and any three action figures he decides to pull out of the crate.

Of the three, one is a bad guy, one is a hero, and one is a "kid" on the way to school. Beenie always assigns me the kid and the villain, leaving the hero for himself. As the kid's journey commences, he greets the hero, who points out that a villain has spotted him and is up to no good. Although the villain often threatens, the hero, aided by the very resourceful kid, always thwarts impending evil (with huge, finger-mashing clashes of plastic, I might add). Invariably, the villain ends up either "in jail" (the toddler bed) or on the floor ("hot laba").

Occasionally, for variety, they will all become friends and go trick-or-treating, at which time I also assume the part of the person giving out the candy. Thankfully, I am nothing if not versatile, and, apparently, learned quite a lot from the movie Sybil.

Here, Beenie puts his snack bag in his "cubby" on his first day of preschool back in September. It is hard to believe that was nearly four months ago.

At this writing, Christmas break is about to put our school-day routine on hiatus. I'm not sure exactly when or how things will have changed when we resume at some point in the new year. But here is what I do know: If Beenie has loved this autumn routine even a fraction as much as I have, then both of us are happy.

Meanwhile, rolls of cookie dough wait in the freezer, and a crate of villains, heroes, and kids may be pondering sequels. Or, they may return in 2017 to play the same familiar roles. Whatever the case, the last half of Beenie's preschool year is something to anticipate and cherish.

And who knows? Maybe the villains will all reform in time to get off Santa's "Naughty" list. We'll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

How To Hijack a Birthday Blog

A child's birthday party is a celebration on so many levels. For the child himself, of course, it involves a whirlwind of wrapping paper and a conflagration of lit candles. It features a cake that he gets to choose colors and flavors for, and earns him the privilege of wearing those on his face and clothes for the rest of the day. It is the one day of the year when the world breaks out of its normal orbit to revolve solely around him.

Our sweet baby grandson, Heero, had just such a party yesterday to observe the occurrence of his third birthday two days ago. His mama's parents, Nana and Gramps, offered their home as the party venue and helped out with the chili and trimmings. Somehow, Heero maintained patience until the end of our "Happy Birthday" song before he made his (very short) wish and blew out the candles on his mama's delicious Minion-themed cake ("chocolate with chocolate icing").

The fact that I had no real "jobs" to execute during Heero's party gave me the chance to contemplate birthday parties in general. Their focus changes, it seems, with the various life stages, beginning with this level of delicious anticipation you see here on Heero's face. As a kid, you get to claim your birthday as something belonging just to you. You can be totally self-indulgent without guilt and without even knowing what that word means.

As parents of the honoree, you get to recreate the excitement of your own childhood birthdays. You pick out presents you would have liked yourself, as well as those you think you might have liked if you had been a boy instead of a girl, or vice versa. You put a lot of energy into staging the perfect party that brings delight for your child and deja vu for you. You love seeing your child happy, and share his excitement vicariously.

I remember very well these first two levels in Googie's Hierarchy (Did Maslow ever think about birthdays, I wonder?) of birthday party celebration. They had their time and place, and they were wonderful. But after a couple hours of watching toy assembly amid a flurry of gift bags, tissue paper and bows, I am convinced that grandparents enjoy the best level of all--and I would call this the level of gratitude.

I feel so fortunate to have gotten to celebrate, over the last eight and a half years, the thirty-three birthdays of my six grandkids. Each one shines in my life like a wonderful, unique candle that never goes out. Each perfect little life is a cause for celebration, for laughter, for hope.

We may bring presents to our grandkids on their birthdays, but they are the ones who, without trying or even knowing, are givers of the best gifts--like the chance to snuggle into a blanket with The Night Before Christmas, to dust off classic folk-rock songs at bedtime ("Puff the Magic Dragon,"anyone?), to scoop the seeds out of a pumpkin with your bare hands.

To make snowmen out of old socks, to blow soap bubbles into the backyard trees, to watch ducks swimming on a pond--in other words, to experience one more round of this world's sights and sounds and textures at a life stage when you have the time and temperament to really appreciate them. Sometimes it takes a grandkid's birthday party to remind you that these simple things are the real stuff of life.

And so, little Heero, my big three-year-old, forgive me this diversion, these random thoughts that seem to be hijacking your birthday blog. In five or six years you may read this and wonder what your Googie was smoking on Nov. 6, 2016--or if, in retrospect, this seemed to be the first sign of the dementia.

But in the years that follow, you may come to understand these ramblings and even experience similar sentiments as you become a parent, and then a grandparent, yourself. Then, little guy with a new phone and new walkie-talkies and a new farm set and those new (and very loud) drums, then you will know what I tried to say here--and maybe you, too, will know a gratitude beyond what you ever imagined possible.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Scenes from a Halloween

I'll tell you this right up front--my favorite holiday is Halloween. Always has been. Always will be.

Unlike the other major holidays, Halloween asks nothing of  you. You don't have to mess with a turkey, send out a bunch of cards, or fight for your life in shopping center parking lots.

Instead, you get to play dress-up on a gorgeous autumn evening and go foraging in your neighborhood for delectable morsels that, properly rationed, will last you until Christmas. As an adult, you get to keep doing this vicariously through your children and then, if you are truly blessed, through your grandkids.

Around Googie's house we tend to make Halloween a festival. With four of the six kids living three hours away, it rarely works out for us to be together on Oct. 31. But don't think that means we haven't done our best to observe this most glorious time of year in fine fashion. Here are the pictorial highlights of that celebration.

Here, Pooh, Zoomie, and Bootsie model their costumes following a discussion of the importance of body stance and facial expression in portraying character. The kids have often been beneficiaries (or victims) of my college theatre training. However, they are hams by nature, so I don't think I have done any permanent damage.

Beenie and I spent a recent afternoon learning about all-things-Egypt, culminating in this impersonation of a mummy. Requiring the investment of one and one-half rolls of toilet paper, the costume required fifteen minutes to apply and fifteen seconds to demolish. But the process led us to speculate on some of the more thought-provoking nuances of mummification.

How did mummies go to the potty? Easy--the TP was already there. How did mummies breathe? Well . . . back then they didn't need quite as much air as we do.

Speaking of monsters, no Halloween festival is worth its weight in Laffy Taffy without making a few monsters of our own. Using a foam craft kit from a Hobby Lobby clearance sale after some other wonderful Halloween, Sooby, Bootsie, Zoomie, Pooh, and I construct our Frankensteins.

In the course of the monster-making, I told them about Mary Shelley, who wrote her short, brilliantly visionary Frankenstein novel while at a retreat with her husband and their other writer friends. Yes, kids, Frankenstein was written by a girl. Don't underestimate us.

Politely begging your indulgence here, let me preserve for posterity a selfie with Washington Irving's famous Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow fame. As a special  treat this past weekend, Pa-pa, Bootsie, and I went to see a community theatre musical of the same name.

This lesser known 2009 musical, with book and lyrics by Jim Christian and music by Tom Edward Clark, was highlighted for us due to the musical direction and piano/flute performances of Bootsie's mama, our daughter Cookie. It was thoroughly delightful, and will always be a unique aspect of Halloween 2016.

Finally, no Halloween festival is complete without the requisite cookie-making. Here you see Heero, who will turn three years old next week, capably spreading frosting on an orange-eyed ghost. With brother Beenie's help, we were able to produce this delectable platter of homemade sugar cookies (none of which have survived) to carry us through as we counted down the days to Halloween 2016.

As I type this, the big day itself has arrived. Beenie had his Halloween party at preschool this morning, and Heero is celebrating likewise at daycare. Sooby, Pooh, Bootsie, and Zoomie are getting ready for trick-or-treating Kansas-style. I am thankful to have been able, once more, to share this favorite holiday with all of them.

Next up: the Thanksgiving Wiener Roast. Stay tuned to see if this great Missouri weather holds for us.

But meanwhile, Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"B" is for . . .

 . . . Bootsie!

And birthday. And, unfortunately, busy, which is why I am nine days late getting your birthday blog up, my sweet six-year-old. But let me be quick to make amends.

Although I didn't get to spend the actual day with you this year, we did get to have a great time together on Pa-pa's new boat on the Saturday before:

At least, I hope it was a great time--you do look a little bored here. It was also the weekend that I finally got to pay a very important debt from the summer--the bubble gum ball I owed you from our whirlwind weekend in Springfield.

Remember? I talked you out of topping off your Orange Leaf frozen yogurt with one of those, arguing that frozen desserts and gumballs just don't work together very well. Then, when Pooh proved me wrong, you were a little upset with me. But you were a good sport about the whole thing, and now, hopefully, we are even and I am back in your good graces.

The Springfield trip, when I had the privilege of hanging out (in a motel room, park, movie theatre, fast-food restaurant, swimming pool, dessert shop, etc.) with the four of you while your mama rehearsed and sang was definitely a highlight of our summer. So was Mother's Day, when I caught this cute pic of you blowing bubbles in the back yard.

However, Bootsie-girl, it has been six years since you were this baby on our first Halloween together, and I can't imagine I will ever like any picture of you much better than I like this one.

Anyway, my kindergarten cutie, I hope you know I was thinking about you last Tuesday on your sixth birthday and hoping you would like the baby-doll and Peppa Pig beach towel from Pa-pa and me. I can't even imagine that our family dynamic ever existed without you. Who would have won our all guessing games and put together all our puzzles? In six short years you have found yourself a permanent branch on our family tree, and we love you a bunch.

So today, nine days late, I hope these few words and pictures make for an acceptable acknowledgment of your birthday just past. "B" is for Be happy, my pretty girl, and Pa-pa and I will see you soon.