Thursday, December 29, 2005

December 29, 2005: Stephen and Me: A Slice of Childhood


Stephen and I spent many weekends with our Dad in the greenhouses where he worked at the Geneva branch of Cornell's Agricultural Experiment Station. Our mother must have appreciated those afternoons when we went with Dad, although she was just as often there too, as his faithful assistant. The smells and textures of a greenhouse are so lovely: the rich chocolatey soil, soft as silk; the crunchy white peat; the rotten-egg stench of sulfur blocks. Stephen and I would bring our cars and drive them on the concrete walkways. We'd take frequent trips into different rooms of the long row of greenhouses, which were barren on weekends but never dark, saturated with the flourescent glow of artificial light competing with the sun streaming in the dirty glass.

I dream sometimes still of greenhouses. Of dark brown dirt running between my fingers, of the periodic hiss of the radiator and the chug of the automatic watering system kicking in. Of tables and tables in room after room of living things--brown sticks of apple trees, purple cabbages, and lush green tomato plants.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

December 28, 2005: My Brother's Visit

Stephen left on the 26th. I am not so true to myself when I am around my brother. We weren't always like this, of course. Stephen and I are two years apart, but we may as well have been twins, the way we were paired together. I have few childhood memories that do not include him--next to me, in front of me, behind me. In nearly every photograph in the family albums we are together, sides touching and heads tilted together, almost level. One shows us, around ages four and six, in a silver-colored recliner watching television, a bowl of popcorn on a single TV tray across our laps, four legs sticking straight out beneath it. Our smiles are identical, bottom rows of tiny teeth white and eager.

We were our parents' second family. Seven year separate Stephen from the youngest of our three older brothers; sixteen years stretch between my oldest brother and me. Their childhoods were spent on an orchard in southern Illinois when our parents were young and poor; we share none of their stories of tractors stuck in mud or crops ruined by hailstorms. We grew up in New York, with a scientist-professor for a father and a bridge-playing Welcome Wagon hostess for a mother. Our parents were middle-aged before we entered kindergarten. We know now, of course, that our parents' lives were much different, much more complex than they appeared to be, but back then it seemed that our father went off to work each day in a brown cardigan and our mother baked and cleaned.

Our older brothers drifted here and there, sullen around the dinner table, out with friends at night. Stephen and I stayed together, holed up in our attic playroom or outside in our tree house. We liked quiet. In my memory few words were exchanged between us; I can't even hear the sound of my brother's voice. Instead we communicated by anticipating each other's wants: We will color our pictures first, then play with Tinker Toys later....Give me the purple car....

But of course memory plays tricks--children do chatter. We did have voices, and we must have used them; but our quiet natures found a peaceful rhythm in each other. We rarely fought. My mother swears Stephen hovered over me like a guardian angel from the moment I arrived. Throughout my childhood he presented me with carefully made gifts. A rag doll with black yarn hair and thick red lips. A two-story doll house, complete with shingled roof and wall-to-wall carpet. A wooden diary bound with leather ties, my name etched jaggedly onto its cover with a woodburning tool.

His generosity overwhelmed me. By all right he should have kicked me around some. He should have pinched my arm at the dinner table or thrown my baby doll in the toilet. He should have left me behind to walk home along after school or tormented me with stories of kidnapers and monsters. After all, not only did I usurp his briefly held position as baby-of-the-family, but I caused more than a little commotion as the first girl child born to either side of the family in nearly forty years. Everything I had was new--clothes, dolls, china teacups; he faced a childhood of hand-me-downs and broken cars. Grandparents bought frilly pink things for me, brown itchy things for him. One statement made regularly to my parents characterized my existence: "You finally got your little girl. You must be so happy! You must spoil her rotten!" So I accepted each of my brother's gifts gratefully, but more than likely with a certain amount of nonchalance. My station in life was to be the receiver of all good gifts.....

Monday, December 26, 2005

December 26, 2005: 2005 Reading List

Breath, Eyes, Memory (by E. Danticat)
Sarah (by Mark Halter)
Daughter of Fortune (by Isabella Allende)
The Prodigal (by Bevery Lewis)
Unspoken (by Francine Rivers)
The Priest (by F. Rivers)
The Warrior (by F. Rivers)
The Prince (by F. Rivers)
Follow the River (by James A. Thom)
New Stories from the South, 2004
The Broker (by John Grisham)
A Skeleton in God's Closet (by Paul Maier)
Mutant Message from Down Under
Father Melancholy's Daughter (by Gail Godwin)
Last Girls (by Lee Smith)
In Cold Blood (by Truman Capote)
A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, and The Thanksgiving Visitor (by T. Capote)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (JK Rowling)
The Jungle (by Upton Sinclair)

On Writing (by Stephen King)
Bad Girls of the Bible (Liz Curtis Higgs)
Wild at Heart (John Eldredge)
The Great Hedge of India (Ray Moxham)
The Savage My Kinsmen (Elizabeth Elliot)
The Dream Weaver (?) (By B. Wilkinson)
Mere Christianity (CS. Lewis)
Apples (Frank Browning)
Total Money Makeover (Dave Ramsey)
Help for the Harried Homeschooler (Christine Field)
A Girl Named Zippy (Haven Kimmel)
A Very Small Farm (William P. Winchester)

Read-Aloud Novels to Kids
(This does not include dozens of pictures books and short chapter books)
Eric Liddell
Genghis Khan and the Mongel Horde
Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?
Daughter of the Mountains
William Carey
Theresa of Calcutta
Shadow Spinner
Hittite Warrior
Mara, Daughter of the Nile
The Magician's Nephew
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The Horse and His Boy
Prince Caspian

And the Winners Are...
Fiction: Not a great year for fiction. I'd have to say the priest series by Francine Rivers was the best, although that doesn't fully qualify as fiction. I hope to make some great fiction discoveries in 2006.
Nonfiction: This is tougher, but Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover definitely wins. Apples and A Girl Named Zippy come in second. I loved Stephen King's On Writing. Sounds scary, I know, but I found it fascinating. Horrible language.
Kids: This is hard, too. I love Sonlight! But, I guess I'd have to choose Narnia, of course, and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase after that.

And now I need to head out to the library to replenish my reading supply...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Saturday, December 10, 2005

December 10, 2005: Quick Party Fare

I had the loveliest party last night, which I will blog about separately, and got all kinds of nice compliments about the finger food. This was the easiest party I've ever prepared for! Below are the recipes. This was enough for 10 people, plus leftovers on the chocolates and beans.

Tangy Bean Salad
1 can (15 oz) garbanzo beans rinsed and drained
1 can (15 oz) dark red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (15 oz) pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup frozed whole kernel corn, thawed
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 can diced green chiles
1 teaspoon grated lime rind
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp salt
Mix together and serve with tortilla chips (Scoops work great with this).

Marbled Peppermint Bark
Crush 6-8 candy canes by unwrapping your candy canes and putting them in a zip lock bag. Wrap a towel around it and smash them with a hammer! Melt 2 16oz bags of your favorite chocolate chips in the microwave. (This is truly better if you use namebrand semi-sweets rather than an off-brand.) Stir often. As soon as this is done, melt 1 16 oz. bag of white chocolate chips separately. While you are waiting for the white chips to melt, add the peppermint to the melted chocolate chips. Mix well and spread evenly on a cookie sheet. When the white chocolate is completely melted, drop by spoonfuls onto the chocolate and swirl with a knife. Put in fridge until hard. Break apart and put on a nice plate.

Easy Cheese Puffs
3/4 loaf unsliced bread (I used French)
3 oz. cream cheese
1/4 c. shredded or cubed sharp cheese
1/2 c. margarine or butter
2 egg whites, beaten stiff
Cut bread into 3/4 inch cubes. Melt cheeses and margarine together. Blend and cool. Fold in stuffly beaten egg whites. Dip bread cubes in mixture. Bake on cookie sheet or stone at 400 for about 10 minutes or until lightly browned.Best if served a little warm.

Friday, December 9, 2005

December 9, 2005: My Christmas Baby

It's one of the most common questions asked in any group as an ice-breaker: "Tell about the best Christmas present you've ever received." No one can ever top my gift, as having a baby on Christmas Day easily surpasses the shiniest bike or even Ralphie's (of "The Christmas Story") long-coveted BB gun.

I didn't really expect to have a baby on Christmas Day, even though the ultrasound clearly gave December 25 as my due date. Who ever has a baby on her due date? I should have known, though. Jesse was due on March 27th and born on the 29th; Laurel was due on August 29th and born on the 27th. It would only make sense that the one due on the 25th would actually be born on the 25th!

The baby was generous enough that morning to wait until after the older two had opened their presents. I didn't head to the hospital until noon of Christmas Day. Duncan James was born a little after 5 p.m., weighing in as plump as a Christmas turkey at 10 lbs. But not all was tidy and sweet. Duncan had aspirated meconium in utero and was whisked off by ambulance to the NICU at a different hospital, his daddy right there with him. I was left alone on Christmas Day, my precious gift struggling for breath.

I was released early the next day (Randy's birthday) and we spent the next six days in a fog of home and hospital, trusting that the Giver of all good and perfect gifts would restore ours to us. On New Year's Eve we brought our treasure home and placed him in the spot that seemed most natural: under the Christmas tree.

Duncan will be five this Christmas Day, and, like Mary, I still "quietly treasure these things" in my heart and ponder them often. This blue-eyed boy is as generous today as he was the morning before his birth, bestowing his smile on all and bringing joy to his family's world throughout the year.

Sunday, December 4, 2005

December 4, 2005: Christmas Tree Day

The rain held off long enough for us to go to Baker's Creek and get our Christmas tree. We have the fattest spruce we've ever seen! And here is one of my favorite e.e. cummings' poems to commemorate the occasion:

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don't be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i'll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you're quite dressed
you'll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they'll stare!
oh but you'll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we'll dance and sing
"Noel Noel"

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Nov. 24, 2005: Daddy T's Cheese

Thanksgiving Day my brothers and I reminisced about Uncle Henry's cheese. Uncle Henry was a novelty to us. He smelled of wealth and culture and came bearing all kinds of exotic cheeses from the Pauly Cheese Co., of which he was president or CEO or something important. He couldn't have visited more than three or four times during my childhood, but it was always an occasion. Those cheeses coated in red wax, soft and sharp and smelly!
But our mother interrupts, saying that nothing could ever beat Daddy T's cheese. Daddy T's cheese was fresh and heavy. Mom would go to Aunt Mabel and Daddy T's store and he'd sneak her slivers of cheese while she sat up on the counter. He'd give her and her friends handfuls of peppermint drops and lemon drops, shooing away their pennies. In the midst of the Depression, Aunt Mabel and Daddy T offered simple gifts that were more precious than pearls.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

November 23, 2005: Lazy Sausage Chili

Here's a really fast and easy recipe for this weekend when you are way over turkey.
1 cup chopped zucchini
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 lb. ground mild Italian sausage
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 jar spaghetti sauce (I used marinara)
1 can beef broth
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups fiori or bow ties (uncooked)
basil, dried or fresh, to taste

1. Cook sausage, onion, and garlic 8-10 minutes or until done. Crumble sausage and drain.
2. Add spaghetti sauce, broth and water. Bring to a boil. Stir in pasta. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, 7 minutes. Add zucchini and basil. Cook 3-5 minutes. Ladle soup into bowls and sprinkle with grated mozzerella. Serve with baguettes. Makes enough for 6 people.

Mystery Folders: Encouraging Independent Work

One of our best devices for encouraging independent work for our kids has been our "mystery folders." Each child has a colored file folder of his/her own, decorated in his/her own style. Each night I put a "mystery" assignment in each folder (usually different according to age level of child). These are almost always sheets I have downloaded from the internet and have been quite varied. One important aspect is to keep the material fresh and enticing; I rarely use regular math or grammar worksheets, for example, unless there is something exciting and unusual about them. While I consider this folder as learning time, I also strive to keep it disguised as pure fun!

A normal week will include brain teasers, coloring pages, directions and supplies for simple crafts, crossword puzzles, mazes, and connect-the-dots. We have covered many of the 50 states by coloring state flags ( and have become familiar with many artists by coloring famous paintings. The children are not allowed to look at their mystery folders until it is time for independent work. At that time, one child will do his/her mystery folder while I spend 15-20 minutes working with another child. It is amazing how much I can get done with this one child while the other is occupied with the mystery folder! And at the same time, the "mystery folder child" is learning to work independently.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Nov. 22, 2005: Precious Parents

I was struck tonight once more by the preciousness of my parents. Right after supper, while the kids played with friends, we played a few hands of cards with my parents. Dad and I were eating Hershey's kisses, and we joked about saving the foil wrappers until we had enough for a sheet of foil. Mom said: "You know I used to do that." I'm thinking that nothing surprises me about my mother's Depression-era frugality. So she goes on to explain that, as a girl, she used to save bits of lead foil until she had enough to sell. This was just one way to earn a little extra money to help out. (First we had to comprehend that the foil was actually made of LEAD!)
Then Dad goes on to tell about how once, while out hunting foil along the road, he found an absolutely unheard of treasure: a $5 bill. His mind was spinning with all the possibilities of what he could do with $5, maybe even buy a BB gun! When he got home, his parents were obviously in a heated, worrisome discussion. Turns out his Dad had lost a $5 bill somewhere that day, and they were absolutely distressed about what to do. He was making $50/month, so that $5 represented a tenth of his income--and their mortgage was $22/month.
I cherish these card-game moments. It seems the best stories always come out around the table. My grandfather used to always say, "Are we gonna talk, or are we gonna play cards?" A little of both, Pa, a little of both....

Saturday, November 19, 2005

November 19, 2005: Do These Things Happen in Your Homes?

OK, so rarely do I manage to blog twice in a day, but here is what happened this afternoon. Laurel (8), Duncan and I are in the living room and smell poop quite strongly. I smell Duncan's heinie. A little smelly, but not much. We go into the bathroom and I wipe him. Not much there. Certainly not enough to merit the odor, which reminded me of pig farms in Iowa. So Laurel goes upstairs and says the fateful words: "You'd better come upstairs and see this!" So I go up, and the sink is smeared with poop. I mean, GLOBS of poop. Also an alien action figure and a giant dinosaur egg half. Poop is also in the toilet and dribbled on the seat.

WHY??? You ask? I have no idea. What would possess a child to SCOOP his SISTER's POOP (that's right, it wasn't even HIS) out of the toilet and into the sink with a giant dinosaur egg half? What would possess a child to smush it around in the sink and then ADD WATER?

Oh, I should mention that my little treasure will be 5 on Christmas Day---I know you were imagining that he was 18 months old, but NO, this is an almost 5 year old! Serenity. Serenity. Breathe deeply.....

Friday, November 18, 2005

Nov. 18, 2005: The Best Bruschetta

November 18, 2005
The Best Bruschetta
I love having Thanksgiving at my brother's house. They make all the big stuff, and I get to bring fun extras, like pies and appetizers. I made this bruschetta for our annual Soup and Pumpkin Party, and it was a huge hit. I am bringing this to our Thanksgiving get-together for an evening snack.


3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, finely diced
salt to taste
1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
3 TBS chopped pitted black and/or green olives
3 TBS finely slivered fresh basil or 1 tsp. Dried
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
pepper to taste
one baguette or other bread, sliced into 1/2 inch slices

1. In colander, season tomatoes with salt, stir, and let drain for about 45 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine oil, olives, basil, and garlic until well mixed. Season with salt and pepper. Add to tomatoes to mixture and stir to combine.
3. Broil or grill slices of bread. Put tomato mixture on bread slices and serve.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

November 17, 2005: Australia Unit Study

Australia Unit Study (younger elementary)
Below is a unit study we did on Australia several years ago. We repeated much of it again last year when we studied Australia in Sonlight 5. My kids LOVED this study. Enjoy!
Unit Study on Australia
(Resource list at end of study)

Day 1
We started our unit by reading Australia: One the Other Side of the World. We then read Wombat Stew and decided to concoct our own Wombat Stew outside!! We read the book again as we created our stew. adding such ingredients as leaves, acorns, sticks, insects, etc..

Day 2
We started by reading Koala Lou and Possum Magic, both by Mem Fox. We watched an excellent PBS video, Hidden Worlds: Down by the Billabong. Later we made the Australian flag and read chapter one of Australia. After lunch we sang Waltzing Matilda, read the history of the song and its meaning, and talked about Banjo Patterson.

Day 3
We read an aboriginal folk tale, Whale’s Canoe, a couple of times and read the next couple of chapters of Australia. Later we began watching our next video.

Jesse spent some time on the Enchanted Learning website, looking at animals, flags, etc. He took a quiz on Australia and got all but one answer correct! For a couple of hours Jesse created aboriginal type art, making various lizards and an echidna costume. We reread several of our favorite Mem Fox books.

Day 4
Read Snap! by Marcia Vaughan.
This was our day to study Aborigines. We read The Peopling of Australia and Down Under: Vanishing Cultures.
We recorded the sections of Australia on our mark-it map and started the major cities. Day 5
Today we concentrated on the map of Australia. First Jesse outlined and filled in a map of the territories and major cities. Then he took a quiz (listed as for 6-9th graders) about the locations of cities and got all but one right, without looking at the map!
Our next project was to make an edible map of Australia. We made peanut butter cookie dough (Jesse was in charge of finding the right measuring cups and spoons) and shaped it into the continent. Later in the day we decorated the giant cookie with star sprinkles for the major cities, chocolate chips for the mountain ranges, and fish along the coastline. We divided it into territories with icing. When Daddy came home, Jesse told him the names of all the cities and then we ate it!
Jesse spent some time on the National Geographic Down Under website. He didn’t get enough time to explore it fully, so we’ll look at that again tomorrow.

Day 6
We read most of our picture books again before returning them to the library. Jesse made out an at-a-glance sheet of Australia facts.
Jesse perused Australian websites in the morning. At the Aboriginal bark art site, he got ideas for his own bark art and went outside to collect bark. We will also make bark out from the directions below.
Jesse read The Rainbow Serpent and we perused James Cook together.

To make Aboriginal Bark Art
1. First thing in the morning soak a pre-cut piece of brown paper with water.
2. Crinkle the wet paper into a tight ball, unroll it and set it out to dry.
3. Later, take the dry, crinkled brown paper and create artwork using red, black, yellow, and white tempera paints and a paintbrush.
4. The drawings should represent a story that the student is interested in.
8. The drawings should be in the same style as and use the same techniques as authentic Aboriginal drawings.
Day 7
Today we did our bark art paintings. They look awesome. We watched Wonders Down Under and then took a field trip to the zoo! We saw kookaburras and blue-tongued skinks. At home we read “My Grandma lived in Gooligulch.”

Australia: One the Other Side of the World by Penny Stanley-Baker. 1986. ***** Emilie U. Lepthien (Children’s Press, 1982)
The Peopling of Australia by Percy Trezise
Speculates on how the Aboriginals came to live in Australia.
Down Under: Vanishing Cultures. By Jan Reynolds.
A day in the life of an Aboriginal girl. ****
Toad Overload: A True Tale of Nature Knocked Off Balance in Australia by Patricia Seibert *****
Excellent story of the cane toads in Australia.
James Cook: Across the Pacific to Australia by Clint Twist.
Details Captain Cook’s famous journeys.

Koala Lou by Mem Fox.
Possum Magic by Mem Fox.
Wombat Stew by Marcia Vaughan*****
This is our absolute favorite!! Wombat Divine by Mem Fox (great for Christmas, too)
Snap by Marcia Vaughan
Whale’s Canoe by Joanna Troughton
The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey. An Aboriginal myth.
My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch by Graeme Base. Hilarious!*****

Hidden Worlds: Down by the Billabong
Nature of Australia: A Portrait of the Island Continent (There are at least 3 videos in this series)
Great Cultures, Great nations: Aborigine: Triumph of the Nomads
National Geographic’s Really Wild Animals: Wonders Down Under


Zoom School on Enchanted Learning: Australia
Includes music, stories, history and more.
Tales from the Billabong: Stories and Games
History of the Aborigines
Great information, lots of photos!
Australian lingo:
Australian Woolshed: Activities
Australia’s Unusual Animals
Australian A-Z Animal Archive
Aboriginal Bark Paintings
Animal Myths and Legends: Kangaroo Gets a Pouch

Parent Resources
Good lesson plans here.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Nov. 11, 2005: Tracy

I was struck Wednesday night once again by just how amazing it is to have a best friend. (I am talking here about a best girl friend. My husband is in an entirely different and wonderful category.) Tracy called me the other night right in the middle of a commercial break during "Lost." If it had been "Survivor" night, she never would have called; unfortunately, she missed out on the first season of "Lost" and we all know how that goes. Anyway, I love that I can say to her, "I love you, but I'm watching 'Lost' and I just can't talk to you right now." I love that she understands that and doesn't even put on a show like, "Hey, what's more important--talking to me or watching TV"--because she knows.

Tracy's mother died over 2 months ago now. It is hard to imagine Tracy without Joan. Even before I knew Tracy, I knew Joan. Tracy's older sister Lauren had all sorts of Joan and Big Ed stories. Joan and Big Ed were such a part of their lives that they couldn't even have a conversation without some mention of them.

Tracy is a gifted storyteller. Sometimes I think I have more vivid memories of her childhood than I do of mine, even though we didn't meet until college. The dining room table that Tracy and her friends refinished before Joan got home after a wild party one night....the evening glass of wine that she and her mom shared on the back stoop after supper....the baked chicken and rice that always gave her a headache....Aunt Nina....Sharon, Laura Bedoon and Mena....

I love that I can hear Tracy's voice so clearly. I hope she can hear her mother's voice so clearly.