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Eight Years and Three Tables

“Mommy I only like the oranges,” Caden tells me. I look across the kitchen table to see his plate untouched but for the oranges.

“You need to eat something else,” I say, “Then you can have more oranges.”

He scowls behind his plate. “I already tried everything and I don’t like it,” he says, though I know he’s lying. (That he’s tried it. This is an end-of-the-week scraps-for-dinner kind of meal so it’s probably true he doesn’t like it.)

I ignore him; I don’t want the fight. I’ve already gotten up to get Nolan some milk and then my own water where I’d forgotten it on the counter. Nolan suddenly jumps up and runs over to play with his new LEGO set in the living room. Caden follows.

“Boys!” I say, “Put your butts in your chairs! It’s time to eat.” This happens again, once, twice, three times before the LEGO set gets taken away for good for a full 24 hours. This is all punctuated by Tyson joining us at the table (delayed because he was fixing the sprinkler system outside), another request for oranges (only oranges), Brooklyn telling me she doesn’t like dinner, either (sigh). I’m out of my chair more than not. Five minutes into dinner and I’ve eaten three bites.

“Hey Google, set a timer for five minutes,” I call across the room, “Okay, everyone needs to sit here until the timer beeps. I don’t care if you eat. You just have to sit here and talk to us.”

Cue more general anarchy, moans, groans, spaghetti-limbed bodies draped across the bench. I get in another few bites.

Once Google relieves them, the boys dash off to play. Nolan, frustrated by the whole experience of needing to actually sit in his chair to eat dinner, grabs the long, thick, wooden pole we use as a security measure to keep the patio door closed and locked. He starts swinging it around, though this is something he knows he’s not supposed to touch, much less flail around the room. Tyson and I corner him around the kitchen table - me on one side, Tyson on the other - and I almost take a pole to the face before grabbing it away. (“Goddamnit” is something that may have come out of my mouth.) Tyson walks him over to the bottom step for a three-minute time out.

“Well this was enjoyable,” I say to Tyson, the first words I’ve said to him since dinner began, “I’m leaving.” And I abandon my mostly-untouched dinner and step over Nolan to walk out the door.

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We’re eight years into marriage and this is our third dining room table. Our first table wasn’t really a dining table. Which was fitting, since we didn’t really have a dining room.

It was a card table, black, the kind with legs that fold in. We had black folding chairs to match, just to keep it classy. It sat on the carpet and wobbled a little when we cut chicken or pizza slices.

We only had four chairs: more people than that and someone had to sit on the futon, an arm’s-length away in the living room. Though we rarely had company. We were newlyweds and a state away from anything familiar; it was usually just us at the table.

I remember how silent our whole apartment complex was, how we sometimes turned on the TV while we ate just to hear someone talk besides ourselves. Eight years ago and our table was the antithesis in every way of what it is now.

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Our second table was gifted to us by my parents for our first anniversary. I’d been eyeing the set at Target, a small, square table and chairs. We’d moved across town and despite having a larger apartment, it didn’t really have a dining room, either. We shoved the table against the wall, pulled it and the fourth chair out anytime we had guests.

And we had guests, now. After our move we joined a small group, made friends. We hosted our small group and baby showers and Thanksgiving and Downton Abbey watch parties. Our early memories around this table involve lots of friends and bottles of Spotted Cow.

Two years later we brought our twin babies home, setting their carseats on top of that table. The same table where we ate foil-pan casseroles dropped off by friends, our dinners now punctuated by cries. Many nights I walked back and forth during the dinnertime witching hours as I tried to eat and nurse two babies simultaneously. Later I would set my laptop on that table (and often a beer) as I began to write again, stretching out my rusty fingers and brain to put words on a page.

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This table moved with us to the Twin Cities, along with my 20-weeks pregnant belly, just a year and a half later. We brought that table and the memories of friends and new babies seated around it with us.

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We’re on our third kitchen table now. The second one was absurdly small for our new space: our first house that, yes, has an actual dining room. This table has a stainless steel top: smooth, flat, easy to clean. Any hesitation I felt about the coordinating cream-colored, upholstered chairs with three kids under three vanished when I saw how easy it would be to wipe that top down.

I see the progression of a couple, of a life and a marriage in these three tables in eight short (long) years. I can trace our path from baby newlyweds to very young family to house in the suburbs. Sometimes this life is everything I’ve hoped it would be and other times I’m dodging my three-year old brandishing legit weapons at the dinner table. Sometimes we have to make use of Google as a timer, remind them to put their dishes away, clear away piles of markers and paper and masterpieces before we can sit down to a meal.

Still, we make a point of sitting down here most nights as a family.

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“Mommy I like this dinner!” Nolan says as he runs down the steps the very next night, seeing the plates of food on the table.

“Me, too!” Caden and Brooklyn chorus, joining us. Tyson follows them down the stairs and gives me a quick kiss before sitting down next to me.

Tonight we pray and pull out the set of dinner table questions at the kids’ request. Everyone eats their panko-crusted chicken and broccoli and asks for seconds, thirds.

Caden pulls a card from the stack in the middle of the table and I read it to him. “What is your favorite place to eat?”

“Hmmm,” he thinks, and I wait for it, the answer of McDonald’s or Chick-fil-a or the restaurant we go to with the trolly inside that serves their favorite spaghetti and meatballs.

Then: “Here! At home. I like the food you make, mommy.”

I don’t know if they’ll remember the nights we yelled, the nights they “didn’t like” any of the food, the nights I let four-letter words pass my lips, when they bargain and whine and shout and cry over each other. I don’t know if they’ll remember eating naan with rice and curry, homemade pizza, or Happy Meals around this table.

But I’ll remember what happened here just like I remember the meals and the life we built around its two predecessors. The good, the bad, and the in-between. I sure hope they remember nights like this. I hope this table makes up a piece of their story, too.

This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series "Remember This."

Forget Later

We’ve all heard it. Too many times, probably. Maybe as soon as we pushed those babies out of our bodies or welcomed them into our homes.

They’re only little once. Enjoy it. You can clean the mess later.

When exactly is later? I wonder, as I load up the dishwasher with the things we’ll need if we want to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner again tomorrow. In my head I picture a very literal “later”: a kitchen overcome with over a decade’s worth of dishes to tackle, after my youngest has presumably left the house. Twenty years worth of encrusted grime. Maybe we could use paper plates, but then who would take the garbage out? (Also: the environment. Not good.)

I think of the kids’ bathroom wedged between their bedrooms. How can I possibly clean this later? I can’t do it even after they’re all asleep. The sound of the toilet flushing would wake up the twins on the other side of one wall; running the water to scrub the bathtub would wake up the third on the other side of another.

I look around the playroom after a joy-filled afternoon of play and sigh. The last thing I want to do is deal with this later. It’s a disaster. Absolutely worth it, since all three kids played together so well with everything from puzzles to their play kitchen. But still a complete and total watch-where-you-step-because-you-can’t-see-the-floor disaster. It’s not fair to expect me or my husband to clean this all up later when we didn’t make one iota of this mess. To excuse the kids from their part in this so we can “enjoy them now and clean up later” seems absolutely absurd. And exhausting.

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Read the rest over on the Twin Cities Moms Blog.

Notes From a Polar Vortex

I saw it coming late last week when I looked at my weather app. Wednesday loomed large, -16 for the high. Yikes. School would certainly be cancelled since the windchills were predicted to be more than 50 below. Yuck, I thought, I guess winter is finally here.

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The last time we left the house was Sunday afternoon. We saw The Little Mermaid, went out for dinner. There was a winter storm warning, we were supposed to get a snowstorm before the deep freeze hit, though the sky was still sunny and clear when we drove to the movie theater. By the time we left dinner it was dark, about 6:00.

“Let’s swing by Target,” I told Tyson, “I’ll just run in quick. We could use some things to get through the next few days if it’s really going to be as bad as they say it is.”

I ran into Target, threw some necessities in the cart: bread, eggs, marshmallows for hot chocolate, stickers from the dollar section, a rotisserie chicken for soup.

By the time I walked out 15 minutes later, it had started snowing.

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Monday would have been the day to leave the house. It wasn’t that cold yet. The 6-10 inches of snow predicted petered out to a measly 4-5. But school was cancelled. I’d been prepping for Wednesday in my head, but Monday was called off already by late Sunday evening. I heard it was because the Department of Transportation wanted the roads as clear as possible - the more traffic the more the fresh snow would get packed down on the roads, making it impossible for the plows to clear, and impossibly slippery as it got colder. Salt wouldn’t work to melt the ice with the subzero temperatures headed our way.

Because of that, we stayed home, off the roads. We had a couple of playdates, went outside three separate times to play in the snow, drank our hot chocolate. Let the adventure begin.

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That was my first thought: this was all some big, grand adventure. Except instead of being really exciting, the adventure was survive being trapped inside your house for a bunch of days with three kids under five.

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My next thought was to wonder about the homeless. Where would people go? There’s no way to survive this, not without shelter. My heart and mind kept turning back to them. I did hear that shelter workers were out, full-force, to help and encourage people to find shelter. And that city buses and other public transportation would be running all night as a place for people to find refuge from the cold. It made me feel a little better. But only a little.

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I raided my drawers for my coziest sweaters. If we were going to be trapped inside, I was at least going to look the part. Maybe this wasn’t an adventure so much as the ultimate hygge challenge. I made plans to hygge the shit out of this thing: I pulled out our warmest blankets, drank hot tea and coffee, sat in front of the fireplace, planned my baking schedule.

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Tuesday we walked over to a neighbor’s house for a change of scenery. We bundled up: inner fleece jackets zipped into the outer waterproof ones, snowpants, boots, our warmest hats and mittens. All for the 2-minute walk four houses down and across the street. I warned the kids that we couldn’t stop to play; we just had to walk straight over and go inside. I told them how dangerous this cold was, tried to explain frostbite.

“Do bugs give you the bites?” Brooklyn wanted to know.

“No,” I told her, “The cold does.” It was very confusing.

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It was weird that we couldn’t leave the house, a sort of forced confinement. I mean, we could have - and eventually did - but we were strongly advised not to. And with all the reports of cars not starting I didn’t exactly want to successfully leave the comfort of our home only to risk the car not starting to return, leaving me stranded with three kids. Not to mention the cold just plain hurt your face.

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It felt sort of like a holiday, except not. Everyone was pretty cocooned up in their own houses. And Tyson still had to work (maybe a downside to working from home?). My motivation went to nil, just like it does between Christmas and New Year’s. I could’ve/should’ve written more, prepped more for the kids’ upcoming birthday party, maybe even cleaned my house. Instead I embraced my cocoon, more often opting for books and blankets than not.

(I finished this book in just a couple of days, and made some decent headway into both this one and this one.)

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Besides the homeless, I wondered about employees missing work because their businesses were closed, or parents who still had to work but suddenly had children to take care of for four straight days. So many businesses were (justifiably) closed, but what if their employees couldn’t afford to miss work, even for a day? I viewed this all as a lark, my grand hygge adventure. I winged up prayers for those who thought this was anything but.

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By Wednesday I was over it. We all were. Wednesday was the worst day of all. We’d already been through two days of this and then Wednesday rolled around. I mean, the entire state was shut down. Schools, restaurants, stores. Even mail delivery was suspended.

In my own house, there were more tears, yelling, and tantrums than the previous two days combined.

“DON’T PLAY WITH A TOY BY YOUR BROTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT HIM TO TOUCH IT!”
“HE WILL STOP CHASING YOU IF YOU STOP RUNNING.”
“RESPECT YOUR SISTER!”

Angry mom came out on Wednesday. She enforced an unprecedented 11:00 am quiet time because we could no longer all be in the same room together. She shook her fist at the heavens for allowing such a thing as a polar vortex to exist. She self-medicated with strong coffee and cookies.

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Monday we baked chocolate chip cookies. Wednesday we made compost cookies. Today we made granola muffins.

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Generally speaking, I noticed a pretty clear divide in the emotions of parents whose kids were home all day every day for four straight (week)days.

The parents whose kids were usually at school (and could easily be home to accommodate this change in schedule) seemed thrilled.

Those of us who are usually with our kids for the bulk of the day anyway: not so much.

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Wednesday afternoon some neighbors came over.

“I hope they don’t get any of those bites!” Brooklyn said when I told her they were on the way.

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Thursday, we left the house.

We had to. We were desperate for groceries and a change of scenery. There was the sense that the worst was over. I loaded everyone up in the car (noting the -26 degree temperature displayed on the dash) and just prayed we would make it back home. (Spoiler alert: we did.)

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More polar vortex recipes: chicken and dumpling soup. Swedish meatballs. Pasta alla vodka.

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Well, that’s one way to close out January.

Godspeed tomorrow, preschool teachers. They’ve been home with us all week. TGIF indeed.

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Lemon and Ricotta Pound Cake

Being that it’s my birthday week (I get to take over the whole week, right?) it’s only fitting to share one of my favorite sweet recipes. Not exactly a birthday cake, though I wouldn’t complain if you showed up at my house with a few candles stuck in one of these, freshly baked. It’s more of an everyday sweet cake. One that goes with everything from coffee in the morning to tea in the afternoon. (Or half-slices snuck from the pantry at any time of the day while your kids run around like crazy people.) And, really, isn’t that the best kind of recipe of all?

Every year when the calendar switches over, my mind immediately turns toward spring. So do the stores, it seems, since everywhere seems to be exploding with pastels and florals. It’s actually depressing to walk through the Target aisles since here in Minnesota we’re still very much in the depths of winter. I grasp what springiness I can in the produce department, through citrus. It’s brightness reminds of what’s to come, hopefully sooner than later, unlike some years when the snow doesn’t melt until nearly May. I’M LOOKING AT YOU 2018.

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Brooklyn and Nolan helped me make this cake one afternoon while Caden was otherwise engrossed in some LEGO creation or other. They helped me measure the flour. (I swatted Nolan’s hand away from eating the flour plain as he’s been known to attempt. Blech.) They tried to guess what each ingredient was. “Now it’s time for sugar?” No this is baking powder. “That’s sugar?” This is salt. “Is that whipped cream?” No this is ricotta cheese. I scattered granules of sugar on the counter once it was actually time for that beloved ingredient, for them to dab up with their fingers.

I showed them how I zested and then squeezed out the lemons into a sieve, quizzed them on why you couldn’t just squirt the lemon juice straight into the bowl. I wonder if they’ll remember these baking lessons when they’re older, the same way I remember my mom showing me how to scoop and then level off cups of flour and sugar. (Even if I rarely take the time to tap and level off the cup now. Whoops.) Maybe they’ll remember how I showed them to scoop out a stray piece of eggshell from the batter, by using another piece of shell to break through the gooey white and remove the offending chunk.

I don’t know. Tyson told me the other day that he realized he has memories from preschool. “They could be creating memories right now!” he told me excitedly. I laughed; it’s true. I remember, vaguely, a few of my own preschool experiences. A warm spring day spent picking dandelions outside, sitting on the rug at circle time, a sheet printed with four bears to dress any way we desired, how I vividly remember using shiny foil to make one bear into an astronaut.

Maybe they’ll remember these baking sessions. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll remember, more tangibly, the way the cake comes out of the oven, it’s golden brown top crunchy and sweet. How excruciating it is to wait until the cake is cool enough to cut. And the way a slice of lemon-y pound cake tastes in the middle of a winter afternoon.

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Lemon and Ricotta Pound Cake
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Every time I make this cake for someone they ask for the recipe. It stays magically moist if kept stored tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. I’m not sure for exactly how long, though, since it’s never lasted more than two or three days in our house. Modified slightly from here.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

  • 1 tsp. Kosher salt

  • 1 1/2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese (do NOT use the low-fat stuff!)

  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

  • 3 large eggs

  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

  • zest of 2 lemons

  • juice of 1 lemon

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan well with butter.

  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

  • With a mixer, cream the butter, ricotta, and sugar on medium speed for 2-3 minutes. At this point the batter may be lumpy; don’t worry, it will bake up fine in the end. Add eggs one at a time, beating until combined and scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla, zest, and lemon juice and beat until combined. Add the flour mixture, beating on low speed until incorporated.

  • Pour the batter into prepared loaf pan. Bake 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. (See note below.) If the top seems to brown too quickly, cover loosely with foil while the rest of the cake continues to bake. Let cool about 15 minutes in pan before removing to cool completely on a cooling rack. (Or just forget about it entirely like I do and let it cool in the pan. Your choice.)

NOTE

  • I’ve noticed this pound cake bakes very differently for me depending on the type of pan I use. For a metal pan, plan on the 50-60 minutes noted and maybe needing to use the foil. For a glass pan (like Pyrex, which I prefer), plan on 60-75 minutes. I always check it at the 50-minute mark to gauge where it’s at, then set the timer at 5-minute increments so as not to over bake. Once the toothpick emerges cleanly and the loaf appears to pull away slightly from the edges of the pan, it’s good to go.

Below Me

I walk through the kitchen and step on a stray Cheerio. Into the dining room and my stockinged feet crunch up a half-eaten cracker. I strip my socks off and toss them in the general direction of the laundry room only to walk in the living room to step directly on - most nightmarish of all - a LEGO.

I really need to look down more.

You’d think I’d have learned this by now, almost five years into being a stay-at-home parent. Most of my life these past five years has happened below me. My two-year-old has even been demanding it of me lately. “Mommy! Look a-me!” he says. Which means he wants me to squat down at his level, to look him in the eyes. Sometimes I sigh because it means I have to abandon the task at hand. Slicing an apple, stirring the pot of macaroni, wiping down the kitchen table. All things that I could continue to do while also listening to him talk. Things that also all take place below my eye level.

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There is a spot in my lower back, just to the right of my spine, that pinches in pain anytime I remained bent over too long. I know exactly where it is, can pinpoint its precise location, though it only acts up if I spend too long sitting on the floor to do puzzles or fold laundry without back support. (So...for a decent portion of my day.) It could be one of the ravages of aging, sure. I attribute it to parenting. All that work I do in the space 42 inches from the ground on down.

I’ll feel the twinge in the middle of the night when my body, which was previously dozing comfortably beneath a pile of blankets, is woken by a call of, “Mommy I need you!” I blindly fumble my way down the hall to readjust someone else’s blankets, and as I bend over there it is, that shot of pain. Or when my son tells me to “look a-me”, and I bend over too fast, a motion my body apparently wasn’t ready for. I grab my back with my hand, a 30-something who maybe looks wizened before her time.

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Read more about my aching back and all this life that’s happening below me over on the Twin Cities Moms Blog.