I may not be the most adventurous eater around, but I have come a long way from my childhood when I thought that iceberg lettuce was exotic and that potato pancakes were the height of ethnic cuisine. In Bratislava, I have blindly ordered from a menu written in Slovakian only to be presented with a dish that might have been goose liver or honestly could have come from any other related species. I’ve smiled politely while dining at a Korean professor’s home and happily munched on whatever delicacy he presented. While I may not seek out the most outlandish dishes that various cuisines have to offer, I’m not dining on pot roast and potatoes every night either.
My four year old son, however, has recently shown me up. On a recent trip to Baltimore the whole family sat down for a late lunch outside on a sunny afternoon. While the adults dined tapas-style, the children grazed on their grilled cheese sandwiches and fruit. Suddenly my son looked up from his plate, pointed across the table, and exclaimed, “What are those shells doing over in that??”
Calmly, his grandmother responded that that was paella and those shells were actually mussels that you could eat. Disbelieving, my son reached for a mussel and looked inside the ridged dark shell. My heart stopped and my eyes bulged out when my mother-in-law explained how to eat mussels, and my son deliberately put one in his mouth, began to chew, and ate it.
Clearly, I have been underestimating my son. While I know that given enough exposure to different foods children will eat almost anything, I have never seen my son so deliberately choose to try something new and to stretch himself. You couldn’t pay me enough to pop a mussel into my mouth, and here is my young son tossing one back like it was no big deal and then telling everyone that it was truly delicious. I am in awe of his spirit.
Back at home and preparing his uninspired breakfasts and his lackluster dinners, I am reminded of this lunch in Baltimore when my son proved to me that at the tender age of four he is capable of so much more than I suspect. His palate is not yet locked; his destiny is far from written. Given a little encouragement and opportunity, he will continue to surprise and amaze us with what new snacks he might munch on and with what wild, new adventures he might choose to embark on. Not only is it time to start sharing my curry dishes or my husband’s favorite okra and tomatoes with him, but it’s time to start challenging myself and moving out of my comfort zone just like my son is.
For months now, my son has been eagerly looking forward to his first day of preschool. He played with his lunchbox, asked questions about his teacher, and daydreamed about what fun toys there would be at his school. On his very first day, he swiftly kicked off his shoes at the classroom door and jumped headfirst into the world of preschool with nary a look back at his sister or me. He was fine.
Two weeks of preschool later, and I’m second guessing my decision to send him to school as we already have contracted our first preschool illness—pinkeye. Oh, I know that childhood illnesses are almost a rite of passage for preschoolers, and I’ve heard school likened to a Petri dish, but I honestly thought we would have at least a month of school under our belt before I had to write “sick emails” to his teacher.
While I admittedly found my son’s illness a little annoying and inconvenient at first, at the end of his sick day, I changed my tune. For the past four years, I have managed to have a very open schedule with my children. We have had a playgroup with friends that we have religiously attended and a German class once a week, but that has been it. No music classes, no soccer, no library story times. And that has been all by design because I have completely cherished our slow-paced days together. We can meet friends at the park on a whim and stay as long as we’d like because we have nowhere to be. We can spend all day driving out to the blueberry farm and having lunch in a little town on the way home without feeling like we were missing out on some other planned activity. For someone who is reluctant to commit to structured activities, the past four years have been a lazy bliss.
And this year, with the enrollment of my son in preschool, my gently rolling days have come to a halt. We now have somewhere to be in the mornings, and I have to watch the clock all day long so that I don’t incur the dreaded late pick up fee at his preschool. Just two weeks into the school year, and I found myself contemplating having a preschool dropout for a son. And then comes his pinkeye, and I was gifted with an unexpected day of relaxation. Although the day started off with a seismic battle over eye drops, my children and I quickly realized that it was going to be a fun day—a day of puzzles on the dining room floor, grabbing a scone at the coffee shop, and picking hot peppers from the garden. In the midst of a September that is more black ink than blank spaces on the calendar in the kitchen, this quiet day with just the three of us hanging out was a welcome oasis, a special treat, and it almost makes me look forward to the next sick day.
These days, my children seem to be casting off milestones like they were old clothes. First day of school? Check. Learning to read? Absolutely. Climbing trees? Nonstop. The older my children get, the harder it seems for them to have those novel experiences. In their few short years, these are some jaded kids already—they’ve seen so much, tried so many new foods, been so many interesting places.
On a family vacation to the mountains of Asheville, NC, my children were playing in a field near the cabin where we were staying. Suddenly, my son stopped his digging in the sand, stood up straight, and exclaimed, “What is THAT?” I followed his outstretched arm and had to laugh when I saw what had captivated his attention. Standing in the grass near him was a horseshoe pit.
With all the beauty of the mountains at dusk, the twinkling fireflies, and the gently burbling stream in the background what my son just had to investigate was a horseshoe pit. He carefully approached the sandpit and gingerly picked up a horseshoe and whispered, “What is this?” When I told him it was a horseshoe, he very solemnly declared, “This is something new for me. I have never, ever seen a horseshoe before.”
And then it hit me. I’ve overestimated my child. When I think of special “firsts,” I think on a grand scale. I think of flying on an airplane, riding on a fire truck, or dancing in the surf at the beach. For my son, however, every day can be full of brand new events. Seeing a horseshoe in a field was a genuine thrill for my son and one of the first things that he told our neighbor about when we returned home.
As a parent, I spend a lot of time scheduling events for my children. We have playdates with friends, we go out for pastries in the mornings, and we explore new museums. To keep things exciting, we don’t do the “same old thing” all that often. And I’m beginning to realize that it’s not my children’s needs that I am catering to by wanting to do “new and exciting” things all the time, but it is my own need for the novel. My children are quite content looking for the unusual in their everyday life—the butterfly snacking on the flowering vine in the front yard, the blue fire truck in the town next door, or the horseshoe in the grassy field in the mountains.
As a mother I have formed some very deep attachments to some very odd things. Tiny striped washcloths that I used to bathe my babies are still folded in their top dresser drawers, and I can’t bear to part with my son’s beloved red bowler shoes—shoes that he loved so much as a toddler that we had to buy a second pair when he wore out the first. No object, however, defines for me the first few months of motherhood as does my children’s “funny music ball.”
When my son was seven weeks old, my husband’s parents flew across the country to visit us in Portland, OR. My little baby was already cementing his reputation as a squirmy, discontented infant when my mother-in-law returned from a thrift store shopping trip with The Toy. As soon as she pulled the brightly colored Kouvalias music toy out of her bag, my son was enchanted. He instantly stopped his squalling and reached his scrawny little arm out towards the gently bobbing yellow and red balls of the wooden Greek toy. From that day on, whenever the witching hour hit, all I had to do was settle him on a blanket and wind up the music toy. The swaying balls focused his mind, and the haunting melody emanating from the toy seemed to soothe his restless soul.
My son and his younger sister have moved on to other toys and pastimes—we are building towns out of blocks, baking muffins in the kitchen, and making up silly stories for each other. The little music toy, however, still sits on my dresser, and whenever I look at it, I have to smile a bittersweet smile. This little wooden toy not only reminds me of how mysterious and challenging and absolutely puzzling motherhood was at the beginning (and still is), but it also reminds me of just how far my children have come. While it takes a little more than some dancing wooden balls to fully capture my children’s attention these days, the music toy still has the power to make my children smile and laugh. And when I hear my son idly humming the wistful melody of the music toy while he plays with his wooden trains on the dining room floor, my heart soars and my eyes start to tear up just a little bit.
With no fanfare, no streamers, and no cheering, I am happy to finally declare that Birthday Season at our household is officially closed. After the chaotic sprint of birthday-birthday-mother’s day-birthday-father’s day-birthday, I’m done. I’m spent. I’m planned out. I have made more cupcakes that I ever thought possible, I have fashioned more paper pinwheels than is healthy, and I have cut and curled more party hats than I care to admit.
By nature, I’m a pretty lazy person who likes to keep things uncomplicated. Children’s parties for our family involve no games, no decorations to speak of, and typically no outrageous theme. They are actually just get-togethers with our friends and families that happen on or around a child’s birthday and therefore involve cupcakes for dessert. Reflecting on this year’s birthday season, I have realized that most of the parties that I have organized have followed the following set of guidelines hereby known as “Throwing a Good Enough Birthday Party for the Preschool Set.”
1. Take it outside. My kids have the good fortune (from a party planning standpoint) of being born in the warm weather months, which admittedly in the South can stretch for most of the year. All of their parties therefore have occurred outside of our tiny home—on our back deck or in neighborhood parks. Not only can your forego the silly step of tidying your home just to have it trashed by children but the cleanup is so much easier when the party is outside. No worries about spilled drinks if they just land on the deck or the picnic bench!
2. Who needs games when there are bark chips? My kids are still young and really don’t care why their friends or grandparents have come over; they are just excited that there are so many wonderful people to play with. In the absence of adult created games and contests, the kids invariably create their own: How many cousins can fit in a cardboard box? How much bark can we pile onto the slide?
3. Don’t cater to the kids. Who wants to stop and eat when there is so much fun to be had? When my kids get together with a large group of their friends, they seldom stop to eat anything beyond fresh fruit and a birthday cupcake. Instead of planning meals and snacks around things that I know they will safely eat but that I find unappealing, food at recent birthday parties has included things like gourmet pizzas with garlicky spinach and pancetta, orzo vegetable salads, and Asian style cole slaw. The adults are happy not to be dining on hot dogs, and when the kids get hungry enough, you’ll be amazed by what they will agree to eat!
4. Forget the prepackaged theme. Save yourself a lot of time, trouble, and money and resist the urge to deck out the tablecloth, napkins, and party favors with some animated character’s visage. Instead, try decorating around a simple idea like summertime or snowflakes. For my son’s summertime party, we made pinwheels out of brightly colored paper to decorate his cake and used paper goods in primary colors. We let him pick the color for his cake’s icing which resulted in a memorable yellow frosting with an odd shade of puce as the accent color. My clever sister-in-law used the time of her son’s birthday party to create a fun party—she invited kids over for a Donut Party at 9 am and asked kids to come in their pajamas for some tasty breakfast treats.
5. Start your own traditions. Before my children were even a glint in my eye, I had bought a set of wooden circus animal candle holders. I have used these animals on every one of my children’s birthday cupcakes save one cake. And you know what? That cake just didn’t seem right with the little tiger and giraffe on it. Start a tradition with your children’s birthdays, and they will always remember it as will you.
6. It’s not about you. At the end of the day, if the kids have had fun, the party was a success. Keep it all in perspective and have a great time with your family and friends!
Maybe it’s the haunting whistle at five in the morning or perhaps it’s the gleaming steel curves of the engine, but there is something about trains that taps into a deep corner of my soul. It could be the romance-the vagabond lifestyle, the ease of which one can hop off of a train and instantly be in the heart of a new city. Or maybe it’s the pioneer spirit-looking at the open countryside filled with infinite possibilities. Regardless, as I contemplated the best way to get my family from Minneapolis to Milwaukee on a recent family vacation to the Midwest, I couldn’t shake from my mind the idea of taking the train. Sure, flying would be faster and maybe even more economical, but an airplane would be just one more opportunity for our luggage to get lost. We could have rented a car, but that option would have left us with children complaining of the monotonous views from the windows and wanting to stretch their legs. So, the train it was.
While it was no Japanese bullet train or the Orient Express, my children could not have enjoyed their six hours on the Empire Builder more. From the moment we boarded the train and climbed up a narrow staircase to our seats, the fun never stopped. There were complicated footrests to master and train table charts to look at. There was the observation car with its oval side tables and views of the Mississippi. There was the excitement of the dining car where we sat at a table with strangers and ate ice cream with tiny paddles. Every moment held a breathtaking discovery.
Watching my children embrace the experience of traveling on a train, I couldn’t help but think of the first train trips that I took in Europe and the indelible memories that they have left. How could I ever forget sitting on my pack in a cramped hallway while 70 German teenagers on a school holiday trip chattered the night away? And my heart still skips a beat when I remember the shock of having a border guard in Hungary burst into our train compartment in the middle of the night with his German Shepherd growling at us.
In a world that measures achievement by tasks accomplished or the distance one has gone, traveling by train forces one to slow down. The calming rhythm of the train and the measured pace of the scenery slipping by the window always has a meditative effect on me, and it had the same effect on my children. As we gazed idly out the window, we commented on the birds that we saw or the red barns in the distance. And perhaps that is the romance of the train-this communal experience with one’s fellow passengers and with the landscape, all of which is something that kids seem to be hardwired to enjoy.
When the weather turns warm and the skies keep their light until late, our family’s thoughts turn to the evening stroll. And while it is lovely to walk around our block and greet our elderly neighbors on the corner taking in the firefly show or to stop and swing for a spell in the park, I have begun to realize that I am looking for a little more interaction or a truer sense of community from our evening summertime walks.
At least once a week since summer landed in North Carolina, we pack a picnic supper and head for the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on the campus of Duke University. After spreading out our checkered tablecloth on a spot of the South Lawn in the shadow of one of the great magnolia trees, the adults proceed to dine upon the salads, fresh bread, and couscous that I packed. My children and their friends humor us by eating a stray bite of chicken or melon as they run by chasing each other, kicking balls perilously close to the reflecting pool, and rolling down the hills toward other picnicking families.
After we all accept the illusion that the children have had a full supper, we have to make The Rounds. Even my two year old daughter knows the route that we take through the gardens after supper. First stop: the pond at the base of the formal gardens to check on the koi and to hope that the bullfrog will make an appearance. Next we are off to the iron bridge to admire the bride who is having her photograph made in the dreamy, dusky light. By the now the children are tiring as they trudge up the grassy hill towards the ultimate pay off-the duck pond where, if we are very lucky, the great blue heron will take off over the water with its wings almost grazing the glassy surface.
These evenings spent at the gardens are more than a meal; they become a communal event. Not only do we usually arrange to meet friends to share our supper, but we often serendipitously run into old friends, former coworkers, or “that woman from the coffee shop who is always so pleasant.” Out on the great lawn, there are generations of families eating together and laughing and kicking around the soccer ball. Older girls are holding the hands of their little cousins who are struggling to walk on their chubby little legs. There are people from all walks of life and from many different cultures in the gardens in the evening, and we are all there for same reason: to enjoy life with the people that we love and in a natural surrounding that is serene yet full of life and grace.
My husband calls these outings our evening promenade, and we are not alone in these events. Around the world, people celebrate life by meeting on the steps of a church, strolling around the village plaza, or walking down a wall on the edge of the sea. From North Carolina to a village in Mexico to a bustling European capital, we are all looking for that connection to each other and making an event out of celebrating the gentle close of another day through our evening promenade.
Everyone has their odd little quirks as a parent, the things that you want your children to be interested in because, if you are honest with yourself, you are into them. Some of us sign our kids up for art classes so that they can learn the joy of expressing themselves through wild finger painting. Other parents whisk their children off to mandolin lessons because they always wanted to be bluegrass musicians.
My deep dark longing for my children is for them to learn German. Oh, I know that there are more “useful” second languages for an American child to learn—Spanish may be more practical on a day to day basis and Chinese may serve them better in the emerging economic world, but I love German. German is often dismissed as a guttural, ugly tongue, but I think it is a charming language of its own. I like the order of its grammar, its odd tendency to throw any and all verbs to the end of a sentence, and the mile long nouns that make beautiful sense once you decode them.
To this end, I have been speaking to my children and reading to them in a decidedly non-native accent for years now. My children will humor me by sprinkling their speech with German nouns—Käse, Trinkflasche, Schuhe. Still I think my older child views our German conversations (if you can call it that when only one person does the talking) as an oddity, as a silly pretend language. I can still remember the day when, as an 18 month old, he heard another mother admonishing her son on the playground in German. My son stopped playing, cocked his head, and you could read on his face—“They speak our code, too!”
Fast forward another 18 months, numerous Feuerwehr books, and some amusing German DVDs, and my son started attending his first little German language class. We are interlopers at this class—most of the other children have at least one “actual” German parent, and many will be returning home to Germany once their parents’ tenure in North Carolina is through. My son seems to enjoy these orderly classes—he sings the little welcome song as he pushes his fire trucks around our living room, and he proudly displays the Eisbär that he made that week, but I’m not naïve enough to think that he is truly gaining in fluency. What I hope that he is getting from his classes is what I enjoy about taking him there—forging connections with people. I love listening to the German mamas talk about their children or what they will be doing for the holidays. I love answering their precisely phrased English questions with my own freewheeling German. I like being the “odd man out,” and I want my son to experience that feeling and to welcome it and hopefully someday to seek out that same sensation in other cultures and with other languages and with other people.