summer was here

I washed all the bathing suits and beach towels for the last time today. I folded the towels and put them up high in the hallway closet. I rotated the too-snug swimsuits out of the drawers and into boxes to be packed away and passed on. Then I came downstairs, lit an apple spice candle, and chopped vegetables for one of my favorite fall meals. This is all part of my grieving process, a necessary routine for me as I say good-bye to summer and begin to embrace fall goodness. 

It was a good summer - a perfect blend of nothing and everything. We anticipated these months as Milo’s first true exposure to the wonder of sunshine and water. He was too tiny to soak in all of summer last year, but this, this was different. Experiencing summer alongside my children is one of my favorite parts of motherhood. Life is better when we’re outside - wet, dirty, or stained with red Popsicle. Older siblings get along better when they have an entire park to roam, and they need fewer reminders to keep their hands to themselves when there are diving boards and water slides. Add chubby baby thighs toddling around that park or pool, and you know it’s going to be a good season. 

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We kicked off our summer with a weekend in Red River Gorge. I have strict rules about camping with babies. Actually, I have one strict rule: I don’t tent camp with babies. Instead, we opted for a lovely little cabin, well off the beaten path and just uphill from a small pond. This quiet pond came alive at night as the sun slipped from yellow to pink and hundreds of frogs sang out their mating calls, each boastful male trying to out-sing the other. In the mornings, we ate our breakfast around the campfire and then headed out for days filled with hiking, exploring, and trying to be cool parents by jumping off giant boulders.

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June was filled with lazy days mostly spent at the pool. Long gone were my days of relaxing on the pool’s edge while the big kids swam and baby Milo slept in the stroller. I became a physical helicopter mom as Milo fearlessly toddled around the pool with no regard for the water’s depth. He was drawn to water in any form he could find: water tables, sprinklers, fountains, baby pools. He was also partial to naps in the sun.

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Summer evenings in our front yard give me all the happy feels.  We affectionately (and somewhat sarcastically) call our home Camp Blue Ash due to its wilderness-like qualities. We have no shorten of dirt, bugs, wild animals, or unusual plant life. But we have learned to take advantage of all Camp Blue Ash has to offer; we watch woodpeckers destroy our trees, we compete with neighbors in mole trapping competitions, and we save baby birds who fall out of their nests. (Unsuccessfully, I might add.) 

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July and August were packed with travels. We loaded the van for a week-long beach vacation in North Carolina, and days later we repacked the van for a week-long lake house vacation in northern Wisconsin.

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Vacationing with a one-year-old is a different kind of vacation, and there were many times I felt like I was missing out. 

I stayed back while the others went to the beach so he could take his morning nap.

I stayed back while others went out past bedtime to watch the baby sea turtles emerge from the sand and scurry to the ocean.

I went to the drug store to get cough medicine for a sick baby while the others were at the pool. 

I walked around outside entertaining a baby who’d rather move than sit in a high chair while the others sat down for dinner in a restaurant. 

All the missing out prompted self-pity, and I began to think: If I didn’t have a one-year-old on this vacation, I could do all the other things everyone else was doing. But then again, if I didn’t have a one-year-old on this vacation, then I wouldn’t have Milo on this vacation. And that’s when all the self-pity seemed kind of foolish. 

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Our summer ended with our annual trip to Coney Island. No, not the boardwalk in Brooklyn. Our Coney Island is a rickety little amusement park with carnival-like rides that spin you, twirl you, whirl you, rotate you, revolve you, and then pause for a moment before doing it all over again in the opposite direction. There is a single outdated roller coaster that cannot possibly meet current safety regulations, and a ramshackle Ferris wheel that requires Dramamine for all riders over the age of 30. But our children adore this place, and my blessed husband has a stomach of steel, so while they’re screaming their heads off on rides like The Scrambler and Tilt-a-Whirl, I’m listening to a local show choir sing Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off and watching Milo sit in a train that moves in a circle at about 2 miles per hour. And then he sat in a boat that moved in a circle. Then a rocketship. Then a plane. Then a helicopter. You get the idea. 

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We spent months telling Milo all about this dreamy time of year called summer, and it did not disappoint. 

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I’m pretty sure he liked it.

Til next time, summer.

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fall was here

Fall's the best. Right? The perfect way to ease out of summer without being too depressed that the pool is closed and that we need to start enforcing bedtime. As much as I love making dinner barefoot in my swimsuit, I am such a sucker for fall. And the Beckers had a good one.

We stayed in the pool until the final minutes of the season, closing it down the evening of Labor Day. That pool was my saving grace this summer as the older two darlings swam happily for hours and Milo napped in the stroller. And yes, Andrew looks like this pretty much the entire time we’re at the pool; I could look at that goofy smile forever.

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It was a big year for school in our family.

Charlotte started kindergarten and Andrew was off to preschool for the first time. All my mama feelings were bubbling over as they both strapped on backpacks that came down to their knees. I was confident Charlotte would adore kindergarten; she even laid out her outfits for the entire. But Andrew stepped up and surprised us all, completely forgetting to give me a hug and kiss as he dashed into his classroom on the first day.

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Stephen likes to take my picture on the darlings' first days, too. Look. No tears.

Last year Stephen approached me with a beautiful idea: he wanted to take his dad to Europe. His dad would be turning 75 this year and had never experienced Europe. Stephen had a conference and wanted to bring his dad along, turning that four day conference into a two week vacation. This was a lovely idea that sounded much better when I only had two children. I had a slight panic attack in the days leading up to his departure, but it turned out to be a success on all accounts. Andrew only threw up in one elevator, and I only had to pull off one birthday party by myself.

I'm pretty sure they ate their weight in gelato. I'm so jealous.

Charlotte turned 6 and with Stephen's absence, we decided to break the five year tradition of having her birthday party at the apple orchard. Instead, we took the lead from one of her favorite book characters and dressed up in our Fancy Nancy clothes. Eight of her friends joined us for an afternoon of crafting, cupcake decorating, and "tea." Thank goodness for Grammy's help.

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Even Milo got fancy.

But we couldn't forgo the apple orchard altogether. After Stephen returned home, we spent a blue sky Saturday morning at our favorite little orchard. We have six years of pictures at this orchard, and I adore everything about it.

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Did I mention I adore this apple orchard?

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Stephen's cousin got married in October, and Charlotte was the flower girl. We joined the big Becker family in New York and spent time at Niagara Falls the day before the wedding. These pictures don’t quite capture the freezing temperatures. Milo and I mostly hung out in the car.

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Charlotte has been a flower girl two other times: one was a success and one was a total flop. She was much younger, and to my great relief, being a flower girl when you are six is much easier on mom. I didn't need to entertain her in the back of the church or bribe her with candy to walk down the aisle. In fact, she very much enjoyed getting all fancied up and took her responsibilities very seriously.

 
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Andrew in suit. I have no words.

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Babies and weddings are not the best mix. But babies and bow ties. Oh yes.

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Milo hit the six month mark, and I reluctantly started making him baby food. I've held off as long as possible because life is so much easier when all I need to bring with me is my boob. I also dread the mess. However, it's been about a month, and he shows no interest in food. Fine with me.

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Milo also joined me on his first flight to meet Baby Liam. My dear friend Lindsay had her first baby in August. I originally planned to visit them in September, but a 12 hour stomach bug changed my plans. We finally made it to Atlanta, and I got to smooch all over this handsome little fellow. Lindsay has been spoiling my children from they moment they were each born; I've got a whole lot of catching up to do!

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And because Stephen is the epitome of fun dad, he took the older two darlings to the horse races when I was out of town. They gambled away their quarters, choosing the horses with fun names, but it was a highlight of the fall they are still talking about.

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We couldn't resist the "baby in a pumpkin" movement that swept social media this fall. Milo was surprisingly content for our ten minute photo shoot, and we had some ding-dong-ditch fun with our dear neighbors as we left Milo on their front porch.

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I wouldn't be lying if I said my daughter was named after a spider. I have always loved the book Charlotte's Web, and as I sat with my pregnant belly reading the final chapters to my classroom of first graders in 2012, I settled on the name Charlotte. The night before Charlotte started kindergarten I gave her a copy of the book. Andrew, Charlotte, and I have been cuddling up in the big La-Z-Boy chair and reading our way through. After we finished the book, we celebrated with a themed party and watched the movie.

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Andrew turned 4 the day before Halloween, and man oh man, is that kid the best. Much to Stephen's delight, he has developed a love for opera, particularly Maria Callas. Stephen surprised him first thing in the morning with a new Maria Callas record. He was delighted.

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One of Andrew's favorite gifts was a Nature Explorer Kit that came with a flashlight and whistle. He slept with that kit, and I was awakened at 4 in the morning to the sound of that whistle. (Insert cuss words.) Before the sun was even up, he shuffled down the stairs with that kit. We told him he had to use it outside; a moment later I saw him, heading out the front door to wake our neighbors with that blessed whistle.

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A few days later, the birthday celebration continued at Paw Patrol Live. Stephen tried to roll his eyes and play the "I can't believe I have to go see this show" card, but I'm pretty sure he loved it. I caught him looking up adult Paw Patrol t-shirts on Amazon days before the show. Afterward, we celebrated with pizza and strawberry cake - Andrew's choice, of course.

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Our love for Charlotte's Web continued into Halloween with Charlotte dressing up like Charlotte and Milo playing the role of Wilbur the pig. We tried to get Andrew to dress up like Templeton, the rat, but he wasn't interested. I can't blame him; I wouldn't want to be a rat either. Despite a stormy forecast, we were able to get in a solid hour of trick-or-treating, and good news, only three people thought Milo was a girl. We ended the night with a favorite tradition - spreading all the candy out on our bed and taste testing some of the loot. 

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I was raised in a Disney loving home, and we took our Disney World vacations very seriously. My mom was the ultimate Disney planner, and long before the Internet bombarded vacation planners with tips and tricks, my mom was reading The Official Guidebook cover to cover. She knew the ins and outs of those parks and led our family on the greatest vacations ever. We are all pretty nostalgic about Disney World, and I have been getting the itch to begin my own family memories, especially because Charlotte and Andrew are at such fun ages to go all kinds of crazy over the magic of Disney. I've been in Disney planning mode for the past six months - books, highlighters, post it notes, a mad stream of texts to my brother, who has already led his family in Disney extravaganzas. Stephen keeps calling me Monica Geller; I'm pretty sure he's making fun of me, but I take it as a great compliment. Our children have very little knowledge of Disney World, but we still wanted to have some fun with the great reveal. We sent them on a scavenger hunt around the house, gathering clues about our December vacation destination. The hunt ended with them popping balloons in the basement to reveal a picture of Disney World. We celebrated by eating Mickey Mouse pancakes in the matching pajamas my mother sent us.

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The past few months have also been filled with smaller moments I don't want to forget.

Andrew joined his sister and tried wall climbing for the first time.

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We said good-bye to Andrew's long, floppy hair (inset heavy sigh), and just like that, he's all grown up.

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Milo can sit up which really just accentuates his rolls. Oh yes.

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Charlotte continues to impress us with her never ending love for drawing.

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And finally, fall has been beautiful here at Camp Blue Ash, the affectionate name we've given our home that quite often feels more camp like than suburban like. We're surrounded by gorgeous trees which means the past month has been filled with leaves. So many leaves.

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Happy fall.  

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I owe it all to free cable

I'm writing a book.

Sort of.

I was taught to begin my writing with a strong lead in order to hook my reader, so I attempted a more dramatic approach there. Did it work? Are you hooked? But perhaps a more accurate statement would be: I am making a gift for my children.

If you hang around this place for a few minutes, you will learn of my love for mashing food, recipes, and storytelling. In our home, food sparks memories, and memories spark stories.

This first book is filled with meals and stories of our life before children - the years Stephen and I learned to cook together, party plan together, and open our home and table. I have such a soft spot in my heart for those years because they were the beginning. We were figuring out marriage, adulthood, eating without the Taylor University Dining Commons. We were creating family routines that became such a part of us I can still see them 12 years later.

I want to remember those years.

I want to remember those meals.

I want my children to peek into that first kitchen to see the disasters and the delicious.

The book will begin with a section entitled I Owe It All to Free Cable, the story of how it all began.

Take a look.

*****

I don't have an exact memory of the day we plugged my brother's old, college television into the wall. I suspect it was sometime in early December 2005 as we moved a mix of elegant wedding presents and hand-me-down necessities into a spacious but shady two-bedroom apartment in Arlington Heights. I don't think we initially realized we had inherited cable from the former tenants, and if so, we probably thought it would disappear by the end of the month, or a bill we certainly couldn't afford would soon arrive. 

Both of us had grown up in cable-less homes, so we didn't have favorite shows or channels. It probably wasn't until mid-January that I stumbled upon a cooking show.  I was ignorant to the fact that there was entire channel dedicated to food, and I certainly had never heard of this up-and-coming Food Network star, Rachael Ray. Her spunk and colorful kitchen were an initial draw for me as I watched her prepare a citrus salmon with green beans. I'd only caught the tail end of this 30 Minute Meal show but jotted down enough to help me find this recipe in one of her cookbooks. (We didn't have Internet, so I sat on the floor of Barnes & Noble flipping through each of Rachael's books until I found the citrus salmon.) To my delight, a second episode of this 30 Minute Meal show came on, and I diligently wrote down every detail for her Cornbread Pizza. 

This was the start of my love affair with the kitchen. 

Everyday from 5-6 pm, I would faithfully watch Rachael prepare gourmet feasts in thirty minutes, all the while learning the basics of the kitchen. I learned to cut an onion, dice a pepper, and mince garlic. Prior to this, I couldn't have picked a garlic clove out of a line up. I began buying fresh herbs, working alongside a garbage bowl, and utilizing multiple burners at at time. I learned to butterfly a chicken breast, indent the middle of a burger before grilling, and watch carefully when placing a cheesy casserole under the broiler. Who knew ovens had broilers?

I'd built up a solid collection of recipes by the time the cable company caught on to our free ride and cut us off. 

Those first few years, I relied heavily on Rachael's cookbooks. On our first anniversary, your dad and I waited in line for a picture and autograph with Rachael. I was too starstruck to tell her she'd changed my life, which is somewhat dramatic but also true. Although I don't use many of Rachael's recipes anymore, the following recipes will always hold a special place in my heart - and belly - because they were some of the first. 

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For your dad and I, the kitchen became our special place. We have never had a fancy kitchen, but we have always had a full kitchen and a delicious time attempting all sorts of culinary feats. 

I hope the same is true for you.

*****

Pan-Seared Salmon with Citrus Vinegar Glaze and Green Beans

The recipe that started it all. 

  • 4 salmon fillets

  • olive oil for brushing the fillets

  • salt and pepper

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (I have also used chicken broth)

  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

  • big splash of orange juice

  • small splash of lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar

  • 1 pound green beans, trimmed

  • orange and lemon rind slices

Preheat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high skillet. *See note below*

Open the wine, and pour yourself and anyone else in the kitchen a glass. Be sure there is 1/2 cup left for the glaze. 

Rinse the salmon under cold water and pat dry.

Brush each fillet with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cook the salmon until just cooked through, about 3 minutes on each side.

At this point, I pop the skillet into a 350°F oven to finish cooking the fish for a few more minutes as I finish up the glaze and green beans.

While the salmon cooks, bring wine, vinegar, citrus juices, and brown sugar to a boil over high heat in a saucepan. Reduce the glaze for 3-4 minutes, until thickened. Remove from the heat, and stir in a good pitch of pepper.

To another skillet, add the green beans, orange and lemon rinds, and 1/2 inch of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook 3-4 minutes. Drain the beans and season with salt and pepper.

Drizzle the glaze over the salmon and serve the beans.

*Note* If you do not have a cast-iron skillet, any oven-proof skillet will do. However, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity and tell you to buy a cast-iron skillet. It took me ten years to get one, and everything from pancakes, to brussels sprouts, to salmon tastes better cooked in that skillet. What a tragedy I will never get those years back.

Just add glaze. They'll love it. 

 
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Check back next week for another favorite recipe from the early years.

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