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A recipe for family

I’ve been missing my grandmas this month, having lost one twenty years ago and another a month ago.

So I’ve been baking all their favorite recipes.

On St. Patrick’s Day I made my sweet Rose’s soda bread. I first made it right after college, living in Boston, when a St. Patrick’s Day card from my mom made me call her in a panic because it would be my first year since age four without her famous Irish soda bread.

The recipe is still on the back of that Snoopy card from my mom, though the See’s cocoa-and-nougat Irish potatoes that accompanied it are long gone.

My kids love the family’s soda bread. I love the bread. It’s one of our Springtime rituals. And for the first time in twenty years, my soda bread tasted terrible. It was dry and crumbly.

I felt I’d failed grandma.

She will likely forgive me, since she’s a swell old gal, and was known to muddle perhaps one recipe a year herself. And because I never question her patience with and love for me. Ever.

But that recipe got me thinking about all my heirloom recipes. My great grandmother’s honey cakes, the recipe for which my aunt gave me on my wedding day, nestled in the sterling silver tiers on which she used to serve them. My uncle’s crepes, a special treat for the kids the morning after thanksgiving, which we wolfed down as the grownups lolled about in sleeping bags and we giggled at how much powdered sugar we could keep off the table by just licking it off the thin pancakes.

During this nostalgic romp through my food memories, I found my beloved grandmother’s Crested Butte Chocolate Cake recipe. I love this recipe. I used to swear by this recipe to impress and nourish the friends who made me feel adored. But since a treasured aunt, my godmother, gave me the phenomenal Moosewood Cooks at Home, I’ve been making their 6-Minute Chocolate Cake. To the exclusion of my grandmother’s old standby, and my favorite.

Finding the cocoa-dusted recipe cards for this cake made my week.

I made my nieces this wonderful cake for a family celebration of birthdays and loss. To celebrate the end of a very stressful month. To celebrate my son turning five. To celebrate love and life. And grandmas.

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Yes, he cut his own piece. And he ate a every bite.

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Super Fly

As Peanut developed his birthday present wish list this year, he got engaged in a writing project in class. They’re working on nonfiction writing, and are researching to become experts, then writing a book with catchy chapter titles. It’s incredible to watch.

Peanut chose to cultivate expertise in carnivorous plants. We worked together on how to group the information. Should Venus flytraps be their own chapter? Should all pitcher plants be their own chapter? Should the plant types come up only incidentally as he writes about the ways in which carnivorous plants lure, catch, and digest their prey?

One morning, on a hike, a lovely friend asked Peanut what he was working on in school. And as he explained it, another friend turned to me and asked if we knew about the local carnivorous plant nursery. What in the holy awesome?!…No, we didn’t.

Then that night, a brainy science-y toy catalog came in the mail. Peanut leafed through and found a carnivorous plant terrarium. What in the amazing coincidence?!….Cool!

I didn’t know you can just go to Sonoma County and buy a Venus flytrap and a sundew. I didn’t know you could have them in and around your home. Neither, it turns out, did my expert. He thought they were magical tropical rarities, not local realities.

So I offered to take him and to buy some plants for his birthday. He lit up like a dancer allowed backstage at the Nutcracker.

The guy who toured us around the nursery got his first bug-devouring plant when he was 11. And he still has it.

Peanut is 9. And now is the proud owner of a pitcher plant, sundew, and Venus flytrap. Not the WKRP kind. The real kind.

He even talked me into getting his brother a carnivorous plant. Because he’s awesome that way.

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pitcher plant half full of insect devouring acid. Now living on my desk in case of trolls.

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Small people mining the yard for flytrap prey. Together. Without fighting. Nothing brings brothers together like sacrificing insects to plants.

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The three Musketeers, saving us from wayward aphids one drop of acid at a time.

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Venus Flytrap. Note the shriveled, black head at about 4:00 on this plant. The heads can only close 2-3 times, and if they don’t catch something tasty, they go black. All heads go black, the plant dies. Somewhat like the dreams of academics.

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Sundew. All those droplets are acid. D. capillaris, for those who care. Pink sundew.

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Sundew for the brother. Cape sundew. D. capensis. Proud devourer of six aphids this afternoon. Score!

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Yin and Yang

Writing on the circle of life is trite and cliche, but here I am again, a year later, with another birthday/deathday post.

Last year my friend died on my youngest son’s birthday. The end of one life at 44 and celebration of 4 years for another offered a roller coaster of emotion that forced me into hyperawareness. I took 450 photos at the beach that day, and kept 85. I can recall the physical position of my body for each of those 85, and how many tears or deep breaths followed each.

This year my eldest is having a birthday on the same day we bury my grandmother. The morning included giggles and chess and special treats. The midday involved tears and reciting prayers, hugging and trying to tolerate loved ones. And traffic. Jesus Farnsworth Christ, the traffic. Then laughter and french toast dinner and gifts and a long chapter book.

My brain almost shut down with exhaustion that night, having stimulated every single part of my neuro-cognitive-emotive mind, from memory to emotion to quantum physics and stifled Church giggles. (Seriously, if you tell a group of Irish Catholics that the response to the interstitial prayers is ‘Lord, have mercy,’ you can’t help but laugh when, by the fourth round, they’re all saying, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ Such is religious Pavlovian response, and I reserve the right to laugh out loud, even at a solemn event, when my brother shrugs and says, ‘Lord, hear our prayer and also have mercy.’)

The nature of life is death. We know this. But there are quite a few days of full-blown glorious life before we reach our eventual death, even if we die, as my friend did, painfully young. The counterbalance to joy is sorrow. And exhaustion. My sorrow on this birthday-deathday was keenest at the point in my reading where I said, “look at all she has left.” Because I was lucky enough to have a grandma whom I adored, meet and love my children. I don’t know that life gets better than that. I really don’t. Accomplishments and glorious food and wondrous sunrises and breathtaking hikes…these pale beside the knowledge that my beloved lived long enough to love what I made. To forgive me my tresspasses as I forgave those who trespassed against me. To offer a sign of peace.

Peace be with you. And also with every single person on this planet, amen. Please. Every single person, forgetting none. Genuine peace. Thank you. Amen.

Of course it’s hard to have a memorial, regardless of circumstance; and it was particularly hard to have a memorial on the day my amazing baby turns Nine. I felt I couldn’t fully mourn because I had a cake to make, a boy to cherish, a life to live. Nobody is fond of death. We rarely talk about it, except when we need a cathartic release of all the stress and pain woven into our daily lives. You can’t cry about a tough meeting, but you can cry about your grandma’s stroke. You can’t cry about the pressures of co-parenting with a person with priorities so completely different you wonder why you ever made it past the first date, but you can cry that your friend died too young, leaving his children irreparably altered. This sorrow, though, is always tempered by the joys of life. Nobody’s death is all of another person’s life. We all have parts of ourselves untouched by even the closest loves. I feel guilty that part of my life are seemingly undisturbed by grandma’s death, just as I feel guilty that parts of my life don’t change just because my children live, thrive, grow, and blossom.

As hard as it is to say goodbye, I loved my grandmother. That’s richer than chocolate mousse. She loved me. That’s sweeter than clean, clear water on a hot day. We told each other we loved and appreciated one another. That’s better than gold. Heck, that’s better than applause. I saw her a few days before her stroke, and brought her a favorite treat that she enjoyed with marked pleasure, despite all her frustrations about not being able to read, walk, or hear as she wanted to. She high-fived my son and told me stories from her time as a young mother, a time when women had to quit their jobs once they married because employers assumed marriage was for childbearing, women were exclusive childrearers, and work was for men. It was a good visit. And it was one of hundreds.

I’d still really like one more talk with her. Or ten. Or maybe one thousand. Yes. One thousand more talk, please.

We are a miracle, my family. Your family is one, too, with all its blemishes and warts and struggles and eases. We are miraculous because of those who came first, who built, and who endured.

My grandmother did these with style and grace.

"My mom used to say, 'Am I responsible for all this?'"

“My mom used to say, ‘Am I responsible for all this?'”

And so in honor of my dear, sweet grandma, I offer a birthday card. Because life doesn’t stop, even when there is pain, even when there is sorrow. In fact, life becomes more sweet, and I pay even closer attention.

Happy next phase, grandma. May your next eternity be peaceful, restful, exciting, and funny. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, forever.

Happy, happy birthday to my incredible, hilarious, impressive Nine Year Old. May your next 90 years be full of people like your Great Grandma: kind, understanding, resilient, and welcoming. And may you bring some piece of that to the people you meet, as well. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, too, forever.

Peanut, 2006-infinity and beyond.

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And

Rose 1916-2015.

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One fine howdeedo

Let me catch you up on the past 48 hours.

One of the best people on the planet, who has been fighting cancer and winning every time the catabolizing bastard raises its disgusting head, thinks it might be back.

The boys finally agreed to ditch their beds for a bunk bed. Little guy screams a lot at night, both in his sleep and wakefully needing my presence. Turns out the toddler bed was too small and when he kicked the walls of the former crib (that kid sleeps like the kung fu master in Shao Lin vs. Lama) it woke him up. Now in a bigger bed he just screams all his dreams in their entirety. Without waking up. “No! No! I said no! Go away! Mommy go to sleep!”  [I swear on all that’s true and good that was last night at 2am.]

In the process of putting together the bunk bed I had to disassemble that restrictive toddler bed. The one I put together as a crib seven and a half years ago, seven months pregnant with the biggest right turn my life has ever taken. My babies are really and truly gone, the last few hex screws said.

A dear, dear friend who has been with our family for every high and low for the past 30+ years died last night. I hope it was painless and I hope her wonderful friends heal knowing what a special friendship they shared. I have lots of treasured memories and photographs and I consider myself very lucky to have had her in my family’s life.

A member of the family rodentia has apparently chewed through our emergency box and has tasted everything but the bandaids.

Two friends have told me stories tonight about their friends dying and leaving small children behind. And one told a story about a child dying and leaving parents behind.

My eldest child, whom I adore and who drives me nuts at least 50% of the time, turns seven in a few days. First slumber party.

My youngest child, whom I adore and who drives me nuts at least 50% of the time, turns three in two weeks. First real party.

Syria is breaking my heart. North Korea is breaking my heart. The frogs, the bees, and the icebergs are breaking my heart. A solid percentage of Africa and Asia are breaking my heart.

The house needs to be cleaned, furniture moved, lunches made, food cooked, feelings stuffed down and ignored, others feelings fanned out for everyone and their cat to see.

What?! Oh, you know what I mean.

I know that this is what life looks like. Life, parties, fear, death, hope, constant low-level panic, love, really loud dreams, and rats.

And there’s only so much crying I can do. Because there are only so many ineffective, preschool-made bean-bag ice packs in the freezer. And a forty-year-old woman who averages 5 hours of sleep a night and two showers a week can’t possibly be seen wandering aimlessly through her day with puffy eyes.

Because if someone asks me what’s wrong, I’m going to tell them.

Life and death are what’s wrong.

Party excesses

Ah, partying. Good times. Nah, not the type we used to talk about. Not the late night, chemical substance enhanced, blistered dance feet stuff. I’m talking about parties thrown for the prepubescent set because a good friend wrote me a delicious rant about obscene birthday parties. (I have permission to post this, in case you’re worried that I’m a willy-nilly email copy-and-paster. Let’s call this large direct quote a guest post so you don’t worry that I’ll similarly rip off your rants. Unless you want me to.)

Here is the rant/inquiry/musing/conversation starter:

>>>When did children’s birthday parties as events become de rigueur? To be clear, I do not have children of any age, size, or variety. I am sitting in my wooden house throwing stones at all the glass I see. Having said that, being a woman tip-toeing her way towards 40, I have a lot of friends with young children. And from what I can tell, it seems commonplace to throw hardcore parties for children under the age of 10.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for big family and friends-of-family get-togethers for the 3 and under crowd. Similarly, as kids get older and get what birthdays mean, I’m all for getting their friends together for cake, whether gluten and refined sugar free or from Costco, and games and meltdowns and such. But it seems that among my middle-class friends, Events are becoming commonplace. Like the birthday party at the beginning of Parenthood. (The movie, not the TV show. Although I do like the TV show, the movie is really more Gen X. I mean, I know Martha Plimpton has resurfaced in “Raising Hope”, but she was in Goonies and dated River Phoenix–how much more Gen X can you get??)

Anyway. When did it become reasonable to invite every kid in the class to a birthday party? When did it become normal that a seven year old gets a spa party? Or cheerleader lessons? And when did goodie bag distribution become required? Maybe I’m just having a “when I was little, we didn’t have mountain bikes, we had Schwinn’s with banana seats, and we didn’t have TVs in our room, we had a black and white TV in the living room without a remote control with rabbit ears, and we didn’t have iPods, we had the radio and maybe Walkmans with mix tapes made by recording FROM the radio” moment. Or maybe my friends really aren’t middle class. But it seems like kids these days are being raised with crazy expectations. If you’re having spa party at seven, what happens when you turn ten? Thirteen? Sixteen? Graduate from high school? Is there a parade in your honor? Aren’t these things ridiculously expensive? <<<

Well? What do you think? I haven't been to one of these extravaganzas, nor have I hosted one. We're cupcakes-and-art-project birthday party types. We host burritos-at-the-playground birthday celebrations. We're an invite-one-friend-for-every-candle-on-the-cake family.

What do you do? What is considered standard among your friends, families, and school? What's your line for too much?

[Thanks for the guest post, Dear Friend. For the record, I still have mix tapes I recorded from the radio. I was AWESOME with the record/play/pause button dance that resulted in not-even-close-to-seamless transitions.]

Busy, busy, busy

It’s Peanut’s half birthday, so we’re making half cupcakes (tinfoil folded into each well in the tin) and half wrapping a half present (a toy that got lost or broken gets replaced on half birthday).

And Peanut is going around writing his half name. “Pear,” it turns out, is exactly half of Peanut. Or so he has declared.

See what I learn while inventing reasons to bake and serve chocolate in a month with no holidays except a long-distance uncle’s birthday?

So I’ve mentioned before what a weirdo I’m raising. Not to be dismissive or judgemental or anything. But he’s a weirdo of untoward proportions. This coming from a HUGE weirdo.

I’m taking a shower in the new house, and he comes running in. “Mommy. I need you, I call you.” Um, there’s a few words missing in there, and I need clarification. “If you need me, you’ll call me?”
“Yes.” And he turns, runs out, and slams the bathroom door.

Two minutes later, he comes back, peels back the edge of the shower curtain and says, “Mommy. Peanut just checking to see if you okay. You okay, okay, mommy?” I can’t help but smile, in that, “man, if someone has to love you, it’s sure a fine opportunity to have someone love you for their complete dependence on you” way. “Yes, baby, I’m okay.” He nods and runs out.

Two minutes later, he comes back, pushes the curtain aside, and says, “Mommy almost all done,” and leaves before I can answer.

Two minutes later, he comes back, peers around the curtain and says, “Mommy, Peanut getting angry Mommy in shower. Mommy all done shower. Peanut no want Mommy shower.” I explain that he can control his body, but he can’t control my body. “Peanut body want play outside. Peanut body no outside no Mommy. Peanut WANT control Mommy body.” And runs out.

Hours later, while he was in the tub, he kept insisting on having a cold bath. Cold bath, need a cold bath. Nope, sorry. It’s 65 degrees in the house (don’t worry–we’re not ogres. There is heat, and it’s on. It’s just set to go off at 57 degrees.) So Spouse announces it’s time to get out of bath (yes, of course he annouces five minutes then three minutes then one minute. What do you think we are, rookies?) Peanut drain the tub himself, then refuses to get out. He plays, no joke, for 10 minutes in a dry tub, naked, and covered with little water drops that he refuses to let us wipe off with (gasp) a towel. Window’s open. It’s November. (Granted, it’s November in the East Bay, but it’s still November.) He takes the tub toys and builds a pretend birthday cake. At least one hundred times. Each time he sings, “Yay, mommy birthday cake! Yay!” My birthday is later this week. We haven’t mentioned it in days. But he’s preparing his pretend celebration already.

So as he’s making the pretend cake, he pulls a cold, wet washcloth on his knee, and proclaims, “Ooooh. That cold. That no good idea, put that on Peanut leg. No good idea. Try something different.” And he builds another cake, with a washcloth fondant.

Um, there’s a thin, thin line between special education and gifted education, I’m guessing. And we’re living life on that line every day.