Thursday, March 29, 2007

the lilies neither reap nor spin

Any given morning I wake with the question, can I slip into the bathroom for my toothbrush before the rush? How quickly can I get the coffee brewing? Did the kids choose clothes last night? Is there some sort of acceptable protein for the lunchboxes? Five hundred and ninety-seven questions later, after the children and my husband loudly puzzle every clothing combination and every food option and what sort of coat to wear and if a hat is necessary, they exit as my hair stands on end like a tribe of exclamation points. I try not to physically shove them out the door, try to remember to wave them goodbye instead of fiendishly locking the door behind them and collapsing into a pile on the floor. If any tolerance for noise and information remains, I turn on “grown up radio” to catch the news, but usually One More Word and I Will Explode, eardrums begging for the sounds of wind and seagulls in the distance.

Only after my own breakfast, my own muttering through the days chores do I wonder what I should wear for the day. It’s inconsequential. I try not to grab the exact same thing I wore yesterday, unless there is a good reason. But it’s tempting—Not Deciding, for another day.

On Friday, though, I left for an interview five hours south of here, and goodness knows the first thought about interviews is my least consideration on a normal day: What On Earth Shall I Wear?!! It’s been four or five years since I interviewed with complete strangers. I’m at the end of my long pale season, the end of a run of antibiotics, too. It’s the end of a stretch without exercise and there is not one compelling piece of clothing in my wardrobe that is warm enough for cool spring weather and inviting enough to make me want to wear dress clothes. I eye the gorgeous autumn red batik dress, light as a feather but so sophisticated—short sleeves, though. I’d just end up covering it with a sweater. So goes each item in my wardrobe as I pack, not this, I’d be too hot. Not that, I’d be too pale. That sweater looks better when I weigh ten pounds less. A turtleneck might not give me necessary options in a stuffy room. The groovy army pants (a throwback to my college days) are too hip-hugger-y. (Um, bare midriff even for a momentary raise of the arm is A Bad Idea in an interview, especially for a forty-four year old not in svelte condition.) Because the weather might be snowy or rainy or really warm, I pack four different interview outfits into a giant duffle, with shoes for hiking, for rain, too. Nothing in my bag is remotely spring-y— my few pink belongings are too light and summery, so I’m stuck with the comfortable blacks and burgundies. And I drove south to my friend Dianna’s house, four hours away. Not before obsessing, though: did I remember the makeup bag? That would be a disaster to forget. The directions? Snacks so I don’t get jittery? A water bottle? Gas?

The Jetta needs spring cleaning, filled with road sand and kid accoutrements and my husband’s gym bag, his change collection, an assortment of napkins. I throw it all in the seat behind me where I can’t see it, fill the tank at Flannagan’s corner and speed away before traffic gets too bad. I didn’t pack music—so much to think about this trip. I packed knitting and reading in case traffic stopped entirely on the busy corridor from Boston toward New York on a Friday afternoon.

Saturday, the morning of the interview, I chose the most comfortable of the dress clothes in my duffle, plain black slacks and a trim burgundy cardigan, the black Dansko shoes so comfortable for making my way around a strange college town, and an additional airy red turtleneck. A green-gold organdy hair ribbon, just because it doesn’t match anything but my eyes, and because it was tucked into my tapestry handbag. I remind myself to remove the purple watchband and do-it-yourself Episcopal rosary bracelet before the interview—they don’t match anything either. One roots me to the world deep within, the prayerful world where stories ferment and spring up from the rich compost of a long life. The watch ties me, theoretically, to the world other people inhabit, where “on time” matters, where parking meters need the correct number of quarters, where the driver ought not forget to check the gas guage. The watch keeps time, but I look right past all of its practical reminders, more often than not.

When I emerged from the bathroom in the morning, Dianna said she would hire me on my looks alone—I hired Dianna seventeen years ago to be an RA in my dorm, across the continent from here, so she is required to say that. I remind her that most of my interview competition will be recent college graduates, so I hope fashion isn’t the primary consideration. I look like a hippie mom in dress clothes. I look like I’ll find a place to change as soon as my interview is over. But it is a nice thing to be able to match lipstick, mascara and clothes. It just needs to “pass,” that’s all, not to impress. I just need to avoid being glaringly overdressed or underdressed. And I need to avoid anything fidgety-making—no scarves or necklaces or dangly anything. No midriffs!

I followed Dianna’s driving directions, pulled into a parking space two blocks away from my destination, and found the Yale School of Graduate Studies with enough time to drop by a fruit stand for marvels like fresh pineapple slices, snow peas, ripe strawberries, peeled kiwi and a spicy ginger beer. I found a warm corner of a courtyard and dressed myself in an additional layer of bright sunlight and the heat from the stone wall behind me. I dressed myself again with my journal and inkpen and the wash of words produced by the first truly warm sunlight of spring. I remembered visiting “the tanning roof” of my own college dorm, as the only person not in a bathing suit, on March afternoons, with my journal and pen, just like this. I dressed myself in my past and my hopeful future, in the writing program I hope to join this summer. I dressed myself as a writer preparing for a public reading, snacking on fresh pineapple slices and other decadences. The decadence of quiet, the decadence of being unnecessary for a day, to anyone but myself and these interviewers. They need a worthy student to gift with thousands of dollars—I don’t mind being needed, in this instance. Need me, please.

When I entered the building ten minutes before my interview, my eyes would not adjust to the dim lighting in the stairwell. I heard voices coming toward me in the dark. Are you Denise, they asked, the sweetest thing to hear in an unknown building, in an unknown city, in a hallway too dark to see. I said yes and they explained they’d talked right through lunch and needed a break. By all means, I said, take a break, it’s so beautiful outside, and the fruit market is just down the street. I found a sunny gothic nook with stained glass windows, and an old-fashioned wooden student desk propped in the alcove. I opened the window for the breeze and the sound of students playing in the small quad. The ginger beer I saved for the very last five minutes, hoping to clear my throat of all traces of cough and congestion.

Then my three interviewers returned and we sat around a table, each of us talking and taking notes and finding one another’s enthusiasm. The clothes were fine—I forgot to remove the watch and the rosary popped out of its place, so my wrist was dangling a tiny silver cross covered with grapevines. I don’t wear crosses as jewelry so I felt a bit self-conscious—I wear the rosary-bracelet to pray, when I drive, to remind myself of gratitude and life’s blessings. I fidgeted with it—no one cared. I hope they paid as little attention to my clothes as I did to theirs. We could’ve talked for hours, but our forty-five minutes ended with more to consider, and with great encouragement. They like my writing. They think grad school sounds phenomenal. So we agree.

I returned to the fruit market and this time piled up food from the international food buffet—curried chicken, buffalo wings, spare ribs, asparagus, avocado, and more fruit. Another ginger beer for the road, and a little piece of dark chocolate. Two hours to the turnpike station, to change into the comfy army pants and a warm turtleneck, with warm socks and leather rain boots—the snow began in the next stretch, but the warm was already fading away. I untied the green hair ribbon, kissed the little rosary-bracelet, peeled open the chocolate and took my giant bag of interview clothes home, up the entire coast of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts in the mix of snow and rain.

I’ll find out about the interview in late April. Meanwhile there seems to be much bright sunlight and I’d better pack my journal and find me some. Another day finds me in my army pants and a new black shirt, with the same green ribbon, and a few pleasant chores before my children finish school.

I hope it’s spring where you are. I hope there’s hope where you are. I hope your clothes don’t matter where you are, and if they do, I hope you are comfortable and at home in them, and in yourself. And near a sunny window, near some fresh fruit, near some newness and joy.

Friday, March 23, 2007

spring chickens

I recently learned that some blogs are purely how-to writing: knitting blogs, spinning blogs, cooking blogs. Mine is a writing blog, but some fiber arts folks come by, too. I am polishing my "I can explain anything that I can do" skills for use in magazine writing. My first paid writing is for a high-end fiber arts magazine by a publisher that produces BEAUTIFUL books. I'm thrilled to have the name on my writing resume, and I'm thrilled for the check, coming soon to a mailbox near me!

Several of my fiber arts friends ask how to make chicks-- it's not literary, not deep, but here are some quick pictures. Initially, the "chick" is a ball of firmly wet-felted wool. I tie off the neck with really firm string, while the stuff is still damp, and pinch/pull the back to form a tail. When these "chickie-bodies" dry, make deep "V" cuts from the tail toward the head, to form wings. Eyes can be embroidered or needle-felted and the beak is a diamond-shaped piece of commercial felt, folded in half and sewn-on at the seam. Untie the "collar" or make a prettier one.

One dozen chicks await wings, eyes and beaks, and the race is on to get them finished, into their felted-egg homes, and into the two or three stores on my list. I'm packing my tools for a weekend trip to a scholarship interview, leaving in a few hours.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

15 minutes to relax

It's my first bird's nest. I owe it all to my kids' school, really. I need to find some twig-colored yarn for the next one... and brown speckles for the eggs, instead of the green flecks. Still. I like it.

More writing soon.

the bird grandma

By the time I knew her, she was a bird with wrinkled skin the texture of feathers. Everything about her was soft, her birdy chortle of a laugh, her words as she said, “My lands!” and slapped her soft knee. Her nose grew beaklike, too, and everything about her diminished except her bright, dark bird eyes, watching the world sharply.

My father’s mother stood upright in my youngest years, holding my fingers as I learned to walk on the stepping stones in her yard. As I grew taller time bent her spine into an archer’s bow, the invisible line of gravity pulling more taut each year until her body inscribed a letter C or a question mark. Then the C closed and she became a small tidy bird with her head very nearly tucked under her wing. Her arthritic hands were small letter Cs, also, with gothic knobs and twisted calligraphy.

It’s Satchmo who makes me think of Grandma these days, how my brothers and I loved to have Grandma as a babysitter. When we slept over at her house, she fed us stacks of Twinkies and let us stay up to watch Johnny Carson with her, playing rummy until we were all maniacally wound-up. So my mother thought to have Grandma babysit at our own house, instead, thinking we children would get more sleep. My parents would leave the house, exacting promises that we would take it easy on Grandma. As soon as she left the living room for the kitchen, my older brother would leap up on the couch and change the hands of the big clock, to put off bedtime by another hour. Then we would call her into the living room while Burl changed the kitchen clock, to match. And sooner or later she would settle in a comfortable chair, trying to figure out what to do with three rambunctious children. Immediately the cat would climb onto her lap and she would start the bird dance of shooing away a persistent animal. My brothers and I found this endlessly entertaining, as she grew more flustered until she shouted at us to get “that varmint” away from her.

Satchmo, too, is drawn to the family member who is least likely to want him, and that is Scott. Satchmo is not a lap-climbing kitty, yet, but meows incessantly at Scott until he is petted and scratched to his heart’s content.

Somehow I doubt I will ever hear the word “varmint” used again by a person truly at home with the word. In mountain terrain there is a large furry mammal called a “marmot,” which sounds enough like varmint in my mind that every mention of the animal makes me smile and think of my birdlike grandmother and her twinkling eyes, as sometimes, just at the right time, the cat would walk to her lap on quiet feet and sneak quietly in, and my varmint-hating Grandma would rest her c-shaped hand onto the warm cat until both were calm enough not to notice the passing of time.

“I think he likes you,” I would whisper.

“Well, I don’t like him,” she’d say, “but he’s alright for now. As long as the varmint is sleeping.” And if conditions were right she would fall asleep, too, in the big rocker, my tired old bird grandma plumb worn out by her grandchildren, her lap a nest for a wild varmint with a loud purr.

Monday, March 19, 2007

she sheds slippery sleds down by the seashore



Finally! A little tiny welcome winter! That's the Atlantic back there, Gloucester Harbor-- even the sledding is scenic, here.

designer gifts


Brendan designed and created these bookmarks for two classmates. I want one!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

the parenting waltz

My children are at a good age right now: after bedtime, my husband and I congratulate each other and fall onto the couch to decide what is next: chores, or bed, or reading or watching a movie. There will be no bed-wetting, no diapers, no needing a bottle of milk, no waking, most nights. We’ve been parenting toward this for a long time.

So last night we offered to care for Lila, a three-year-old neighbor. When she arrived with a huge diaper bag, complete with pull-up diapers, toothbrush, pjs, a blanket and a teddy bear, we parents turned to look at each other. Oh, yeah, I remember what that was like! Yeesh, what if we mess up?

Everything went smashingly up until bedtime. Lila gobbled down our homemade chicken soup, a pile of strawberries for dessert, and proudly showed us how she brushes her teeth. We found Brendan’s outgrown folding bed in the attic, and outfitted it for a sleepover. She enjoyed the ritual reading of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. She did not mind the dark and remained quiet for a long time. Half an hour passed, and then I heard the wail, “ I WANT MY MOMMY!”

Uh-oh. I picked her up quietly, trying not to rile up my two (impossible), trying to settle her in. “Do you need to go to the bathroom before bed, sweetie?” She nodded. Madeleine took this opportunity to discuss bathroom habits at length until I was able to hush her. Lila and I walked quietly to the bathroom, where she told me she “goes by herself.” I held her hand as we walked back to the darkened bedroom and once again I halted Madeleine’s lecture.

With a sigh, I picked up Lila and put her head against my neck, rocking to a slow waltz rhythm. Twenty minutes passed. When she went limp, I stood up to put her in the bed, which of course woke her, so we were back to the chair. “I am too hot,” I thought. “I have independent children so I don’t have to do this. I was just in the middle of a project.” I considered the near-slavery I felt during bedtimes past.

Then Lila offered the tiniest yawn, and then a second one, and her lightness in my lap reminded me of the goodness of near-slavery, of having no choice but this: to care for a warm little being in need. I sat in the corner chair with Lila for another hour, in the dark with my own thoughts and this little rhythm lulling. Her mother arrived to take her from my arms. We draped her in the blanket for the walk home.

Warm and sleep-drunk myself, I skipped my project and went to bed, too. The old days: that’s exactly what happened in the old days.

irish breakfast

This is the beginnings of something I need to finish, a dozen scenes from a trip to Ireland in 2005, made all the more exotic because it was my first travel break from children in several years. Sorry to break it off in the middle, but it's unfinished. Amy, Myrna and I hosted two of the groom's friends in a traditional thatched cottage that was quite drafty and rustic-- Con offered the nightly dose of Dylan songs, complete with guitar and harmonica, and I'm hoping he shows up soon for the fame and fortune that will be his in America. I was the only married one, and far older than anyone else in the bunch, and I was happy to take my role as food problem solver, once I got the hang of roughing it.

The warped griddle would have none of me. The eggs cooked unevenly on the sputtering butter, while I cursed electric stoves.

”Hey, Con? If you had to pick between slightly overcooked eggs and slightly undercooked eggs, which would you prefer?”

“Homecooked eggs, Denise! I have a choice? Undercooked, definitely.” Great: the eggs were officially done, then. The toast was not-quite-burnt in the oven. Perfect. At least we had real butter, today, and I snagged ground coffee from The Brides’ Family, at the cottage next door. Runny eggs, blackened toast, and real coffee, not bad for day five.

I arrived in Ireland with specific instructions from the Groom: drink three times more water than you think you might need, as this helps with jetlag, and sleep on the plane as early as you can. I tried, but I was so excited! I arrived at five a.m. in Amsterdam, my first time off of the continent of North America, and I wandered happily, calculating Euros and enjoying real coffee and real bread, served on real china. I wrote in my notebook—sleepless is nothing. Inconvenience is nothing. Hunger and discomfort are nothing at all. I am alone, traveling, responsible for no one but myself, and everything, everything is good.

It was mid-winter dark, and too early to see any sights, and my two hours free didn’t seem like much. I purchased a magazine and a set of Van Gogh puzzles for my children. I ate breakfast. I eavesdropped on cafĂ© conversations. I simply felt alive—I thought of all the years I was single, all the airports I’ve traveled. I breathed slowly, drank slowly, pressed the croissant crumbs with my finger and gobbled up every tiny bit. Free.

Dublin airport seemed like a bus station in comparison, tired around the edges. I walked through customs and into the bride’s family, huddling near a minibus and waiting for me. I’d never met them, but I hit it off with an elderly couple, adopted aunt and uncle it seems, and a cousin. And we were off. December rain, winding roads, countryside green and full of rural scenery. Children were battling with parents, adults were battling with carsickness. The bus stopped a number of times for bathroom breaks, and we arrived in the beautiful middle of nowhere, at a set of cottages in the middle of a pasture. I pulled a whiney bunch of half a dozen children into the gravel circle for a game of Frisbee, and another of tag, and whatever entertainment I could devise, making myself a hero by simply behaving like a creative parent. Glad I didn’t bring my family along. I had a choice. Where were the bride and groom? We had no working phone, no keys, twenty of us, pacing, some grumbling louder than others.

Then she arrived. Christine long ago swore off her youthful habit of pleasing everyone, but her spirit puts everyone at ease, if they let it. Black hair, black eyes set in porcelain skin, and a smile to light the world. People don’t forgive her foibles merely because she is insanely beautiful, that’s not it, but she is insanely beautiful in that regal way that makes a whole countryside better, acceptable. In her presence, it seems everything will be alright. And people do forgive her everything; how could they not?

Christine unlocked doors and set the sleeping arrangements, and people grumbled because they are her relatives and they’d been traveling for two days, some from New York, some from Florida. Some had a stomach bug, and were quarantined to rest. And I got to stay with baby Naimh, playing patty cake and distracting her from the family grouchiness.

“I’ve not told anyone, but you’re staying with us,” said Christine. I lit up, not to have to sleep near children or The Italian Relatives. “And I’m wondering if you’d like to go to bed right now.” It was two p.m, and the answer was yes. I set up shop in Naimh’s nursery, on a futon, and slept for six hours. I woke to darkness in an unfamiliar house, pitch black night. I wandered downstairs and showered, with no trace of people, anywhere.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

forgetfulness

I am still working at that short Lenten meditation for my church newsletter...

Forgetfulness is such a deeply-imbedded part of my nature that I forget others do not suffer the same. Forgetfulness is a good trait in a reader—I can pick up the same novel after just a few years, and I recall characters, but nothing of the plot.

Perhaps it’s my forgetfulness that draws me to stories of time travel and time loops. I love the movies Back to the Future and Groundhog’s Day, and my daughter Madeleine is named for the author of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. In time loops, the protagonist must reach recall a future event, at the very time he is absorbed in the present moment: he lives in two different times. He must remember to change a few small things—and then all of human civilization will be saved, or at least a romance will be saved. But everything will be different.

And perhaps my fear of forgetfulness makes Memento the most crushing movie. The protagonist cannot remember how reality fits together, nor his place in it. He can’t remember who is on his side and what version of the story to trust. It’s both a terrifying story and a terrifying metaphor, to be lost in a story that can’t be deciphered.

The cycle of the liturgical year provides its own time loop—because I grew up in non-liturgical traditions, sometimes the cycle’s turning catches me off-guard. Wasn’t it just Christmas? How can it possibly be time for Holy Week again? I forgot it was coming, and then Lent simply appeared after Ash Wednesday.

Liturgy is a string tied around a finger, a reminder to “remember into” that strange future and out of that strange past, remember who we are and where we are in this story. God offers the same grace in each telling of the story: God creates, God redeems the creation because of great love. At least, that’s how the Book reads. In this story, however, it is we who must remember to change one small, important thing: we must be mindful, to listen for what we need to hear this time around. We don’t know how, but the Christian story says we will be joined with God in the end of this long, long season of ashes, where we live absorbed in the present. We don’t really forget that Jesus did the work for us—but on the other hand, don’t we all forget? We forget every day. We get absorbed.

Ash Wednesday and Lent and Holy Week are our opportunity to remember that it is God who made us and not we ourselves. We are dust, to be certain. Some days I feel more dusty than others. And somehow we are also the dear children of God, made to be so by the resurrection of Christ.

Remember who you are, and don’t forget. Listen carefully. Don’t forget.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

winter fantasy II: brendan's dream


I can't see his eyes, but look at the happy smile... Oh, for the fans back home in Indiana, that's called a "boogie board." It's a shortened, lightweight version of a surfboard-- on a wrist-leash so you don't lose it, as you can see from the picture.

With only the tiniest bit of skill, the average mortal (i.e. even me) can catch a wave and ride all the way to the beach. Children scamper off for the next ride, while adults wonder how to wrench themselves from the wet sand.

Brendan has his dad's natural athleticism and his mom's determination to catch a wave, a good combo for a boy living by the sea. Of course, the ocean won't be warm enough until July, so there's still a few months to wait.

winter fantasy I: madeleine's dream

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

sick house

“I can’t possibly drive us to pick up Madeleine,” I gasped to Brendan. “I look green and sick.”

“No, mama. You look um-pletely reg-a-lur,” Brendan insists.

“Not sick?”

“Tired a little, but not sick.”

“Well I feel sick.”

“But you look reg-a-lur. Just the same. Get in the car.” Brendan and I have spent the last two days together, and I’ve gotten used to him bossing me around. Usually I remind him he is not the boss and may not speak to me in that tone, but this time he’s talking sense. I get in the car. Someone needs to pick up the girl. We visit a drive-up for the first time this calendar year, to fortify ourselves with hot chocolate for Brendan, and hot cider for my blazing throat.

And we drive. Brendan is sick enough that he doesn’t ask a single question for the twenty-minute drive. We make the turnaround as quickly as possible, and he doesn’t ask a single question on the way home, either.

I stayed home yesterday to nurse Brendan through a cold, and silly me, I caught the cold myself. I managed to find Madeleine a playdate after school, feeling satisfied to keep her away from our sickhouse—now of course her playmate is home with the throw-up flu today. I’d be nervously watching for symptoms, if I wasn’t too sick to care right now. It’s just a cold. Just the aches. Just the sore throat that won’t end. Just something.

The funny thing about parenting while sick? I do the exact same things as when I’m not sick. Empty the dishwasher again, move the laundry again, make dinner again. Same tasks, but without much joy. I daydream of my mother, feeding me toast and tea, changing the cool cloth on my head, and of sleeping, sleeping, sleeping until I feel better. Not for me—not today. If she were alive I would call her to elicit sympathy—but there is no one to call except other moms, who know this story well and live it everyday.

I’ve gotten a lot done this week, strategizing to publish my writing, talking shop with other writers, proposing stories, writing publishers. I’ve uncluttered vast swaths of my condo, one section at a time. Four bags of paper to the recycling, two boxes of stuff to the thrift shop, hunting down hand-looms on eBay for a friend, and teaching children to weave. I’ve given my cat a stringent refresher course on using the litter box, at the price of a few nasty blood-lettings. Even in weather below freezing, I’ve gotten kids out to play for a bit of fresh air, almost every day.

And last night we ate chicken pie for dinner, one of those miraculous combinations of leftovers, a pie more delicious than all its ingredients. I’m feeling very smart, now, that I baked two pies, so the spare pie is tonight’s dinner. My imagination exited hours ago, but that buttery crust and the mashed potatoes on top will taste just as good tonight, with the chicken, carrots and peas in gravy. It's not quite chicken soup: it's glorified chicken soup.

The children have the nerve to ask me what’s for dessert. I don’t know. I’ll make it up as I go along. Just a few more hours and we will all be in bed, with me dreaming of my mother, toast and tea, and them dreaming of another day at school, if we can only manage to all be well tomorrow

Sunday, March 04, 2007

winter comfort food: hot cocoa

Brendan stops pushing his little trucks across the floor when he hears the bounce of the soccer ball on the stone terrace at street level. It’s been a long damp stretch of weeks when we’d normally have snow, but the weather has merely been cold, and precipitation has been rain or sleet. So his brows raise and he scampers to the window. I’m trying to train our cat to sit in a chair with a human being, which can only be achieved by scratching his chin so much that Satchmo closes his eyes, so that he forgets his skittishness for a few moments.

“It’s Isaac!” Brendan says, and Satchmo jumps as quickly as he can wiggle free, onto the big bay window where the horses stand in their wooden barn. Each is carefully saddled with a purple ribbon sash, and all are looking out the barn windows, out of our window.

“Ask if you can play.”

He is weighing his decision. Isaac is twelve, tall and confident. His new afro makes him appear taller, and shows off his dark eyes. Brendan caused a whole neighborhood scuffle a few months ago, by demanding to take back his whiffle ball and halting a huge ballgame. Sometimes Isaac has friends visit, also. Sometimes Isaac says no, which is his right. He is twelve. He doesn’t have to say yes just to be nice.

Brendan runs to the porch, calling, “Can I play with you, Isaac? Can I play?”

He returns from the porch. “He said yes, mama. But I don’t know. There are so many things I could do inside, too.”

“Go, you! The sky will be dark in just a few minutes. You haven’t played with Isaac in a few weeks. You don’t want to miss it.” Brendan puts on his coat and chooses his slippy-soled shoes—he’s dying to free his feet from the heavy thermal hiking boots he wears in case of snow and mud. “Stay where I can see you from the window,” I call. The “okay” trails off as he scampers down the steps.

I peek out the window just as Brendan snags the ball and Isaac greets him with a big grin, nodding at the small boy’s play. Brendan has learned a lot about soccer in the past four months, now that he is playing on a team in a league. And he looks taller and more confident, himself. I walk to the stove to scramble up a dinner.

Just the children and me tonight—Scott is tutoring, so I make kid-friendly foods. Tomato soup, a leftover baked potato cut in wedges and browned in butter, red pepper rings and slices of a delicious pork loin steak. For a treat, we will follow all the healthy foods with tortilla chips served with peach salsa (my favorite) and sour cream (Madeleine’s favorite). Three vegetables, a bit of protein, salty crunchy things, perfect. Dinner will require a lot of dishes but there’s very little preparation.

Madeleine peeks up from her book and looks out the window. “No soccer for me,” she said. “Wait, is Mariah coming out?” I watch her run for her coat and hat, and I turn off the heat under the potatoes and the soup. It will wait.
Madeleine and Brendan have known these neighbors all of their lives. Isaac and Mariah visited on New Years Day, the year Madeleine was born. They were each four years old that first winter we lived here. They visited often, as soon as Madeleine was old enough to walk and play toss. Madeleine’s first word after “mama” and “daddy” was “kids!” which she would shout out the window of our third floor perch. Brendan, born two years later, called them both “I,” then later “I and Ri,” with a fun mispronunciation sounding like “Ay and Wye,” also shouted out the window. Both children spent hours setting up Brio train tracks and eagerly gobbling my snacks while entertaining my little ones. I was sad when I needed to describe, later, that big kids need to play with big kids sometimes, and while they love us, they sometimes choose to play with others. Neither of those “big kids” has siblings. Both are endlessly affectionate and kind, especially for adolescents, but they are no longer an everyday part of our lives. We take them when we can get them.

So I postpone our little beggar’s feast of dinner offerings until it’s too dark to see.

When I finally call them, they run in the door, hurriedly washing hands and starting the tub running (in advance of a post-dinner dip). “Something smells YUMMY,” gasps Brendan. “I am one hungry mungry,” Madeleine whispers with her eyes wide. A candle-lighting, a table grace, and they tear into everything with great glee.

After our little supper, Brendan heads to the bath and Madeleine pulls the violin out for her practice.

“Just so you know, we want hot chocolate for dessert,” Madeleine calls, as she begins Ode to Joy.

“Is that something like ‘please?’” I ask. She nods brightly. “It’s covered,” I say. The pan of milk is already heating on the stove.

Heavy cream and maple syrup go into the whipping bowl on the counter. A quarter cup of sugar and a heaping spoonful of German cocoa go into a mug. The sugar and cocoa are mixed in the mug with a bit of hot milk, then poured into the pan and whisked. The cream whips into peaks after a minute in the food processor. A splash of vanilla goes into the hot pan and a dash of wintergreen into my mug and Madeleine’s, then I haul the dinner dishes into the dishwasher and sink. When the cocoa steams, I pour it in mugs, topped with big dollops of whipped cream and a last sprinkle of cocoa. Brendan already has donned his pjs and comes running. Madeleine’s violin is tucked back into its case. We gather around our candle and talk about our day for the length of one slowly sipped mug of chocolate.

Then it’s Madeleine’s turn in the bath, and Brendan makes his bed and practically falls into it. There is no time to choose tomorrow’s clothes—both children are tired from running and the cold evening air. They insist I “tuck them in,” which is actually me hauling their sleeping bags closer to the heads of their beds. It’s a silly request, but they won’t be asking me for this attention in a few years, so I oblige them with a hug and a smooch.
And it’s another day.

I’m having a long argument with winter, this long drizzly winter without snow. I’m having a long argument with the God who has gifted me with this love for writing, though no corresponding gift of income, as of yet. But I have no argument with my role as a parent these days. Whatever their needs and whatever the hassles, it’s a good season for parenting, for simple dinners and long mugs of hot cocoa drunk around the light of a single candle.