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.

Family Pool

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 44 & Oxford 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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cold tea & peanut butter crackers

I pulled into the driveway just after 4:00 to pick up Charlotte. For over a year, my dear friend had been on full-day babysitting duty while I was teaching. Two days a week, my one-year-old daughter joined forces with her one-year-old daughter, and despite the cuteness overload, I have no doubt they were a handful together.

I gave a soft knock on the door and let myself in. I could hear murmurs coming from the kitchen, and as I walked past the family room, I noticed a Bible laying open on the coffee table. Next to it was a journal, pen, and mug. Nosiness got the best of me, and I leaned over to peek into the mug. Sure enough, still half full with a sorry looking tea bag floating on top.

I wondered if it was my daughter who caused the abrupt ending to this quiet time.

I knew the frustration of a passage unread, thoughts unwritten, and a drink turned cold.

Bible study looks different when you're the mom of little ones.

*****

A few years ago, I was invited to join a Thursday night ladies' Bible study. As a working mom, my sole evening commitment was unloading three lunch boxes, washing an ungodly amount of dishes, and repacking breakfasts, lunches, and snacks for the following day. I also had a standing date with Netflix and the loveseat. Venturing out on a weeknight really wasn't my jam.

Nevertheless, I signed up, bought my book, and really enjoyed the first week. I completed my homework, and despite the exhaustion and touch of nausea that had slowed me down the past few days, I headed out on a cold, February night for another week of Bible study.

About an hour in, the nausea and overall feeling of yuckiness had increased. Should I excuse myself?  Was I sick? Should I take off work tomorrow?

Then it clicked. What took me so long to put it together?

I stopped at CVS on the way home and sure enough, baby number two was making himself known. He continued to make himself known over the next months by forming a one man mutiny against energy usage,  the smell of Kroger, and food that wasn't a bagel. I skipped that evening commitment of washing dishes and packing meals, and instead headed straight for the loveseat. It was at least four more months before I rejoined the world.

I dropped out of Thursday night Bible study.

I felt guilty so I got up early one morning to work through some of it on my own, but I puked instead. 

Bible study looks different when you're the mom of little ones.

*****

After moving to a new town this summer, we were immediately drawn to Bethel Cincinnati - a church of passion, diversity, and commitment to Biblical truth. In so many wonderful and challenging ways, Bethel is different than any church Stephen or I have attended. One such challenge includes keeping our children in the service with us during the musical worship.

There is great value in singing and dancing alongside your children and allowing them to see a roomful of adults worshiping through music. But let's me honest, containing toddlers in a church service is a very specific kind of torture. My armpits get sweaty just thinking about it.

I want to be clear that not once have I been given a raised eyebrow or disapproving look by a stuffy church goer. In fact, quite the opposite. This beautiful body of Christ is gracious and welcoming - playing peek-a-boo with my children and easing my embarrassment with a wink and a smile when my darlings are out of sorts.

Charlotte has adjusted to this time, and is willing to be held or sit and listen. Whew.

Andrew has maneuvered under chairs and tables at an alarming speed. Eeks.

This leaves me with two options - get those elbows to the ground, grab his ankles and pull, or dangle snacks to lure him back. 

The power of Cheerios; it's a beautiful thing. All the mamas out there say, "Amen!"

The other week we were about thirty minutes into the service, and I could tell Andrew was done. We were reaching a rather climatic part of a song, a moment where you can feel the presence and passion of the Holy Spirit. The worship team had led us to repeat powerful descriptors of our Jesus.

"Holy, holy, holy. Mighty, mighty, mighty. Worthy, worthy, worthy."

Everyone was engaging with the Lord in personal ways - some were dancing, some were lifting their hands, some standing in silence, and some on their knees.

I, on the other hand, was seated with a package of peanut butter crackers squeezed between my knees, one hand catching crumbs from my son's mouth, the other hand lifted to Jesus as I repeatedly sang out the word "Holy, holy, holy."

"When do I go to my class?" whispered Charlotte.

"Soon."

Holy, holy, holy. The band continued.

"Mo cack pees?" asked Andrew with bulging cheeks.

"Finish the ones in your mouth first." Oh the crumbs.

Mighty, mighty, mighty. The instruments dropped out as voices sang.

I fell to my knees - not in reverent submission but because Andrew had knocked over water that was spreading toward the row in front of us. I wiped up the mess, and slowly pull out another cracker, waiting for him to swallow round one. You can't rush the snacks; they have to last at least five minutes.

"Mom, is this the last song?"

"I'm not sure, Charlotte."

Worthy, worthy, worthy.

Sunday morning looks different when you're the mom of little ones.

*****

Both of our children were handed over to church nursery workers since they were old enough to lift their heads. The sign on the nursery door said "three to eighteen months," but I snuck them in at two months, and thankfully, they were content to play and sing and eat piles of Goldfish crackers in my absence. 

This beautiful routine took a nosedive as we began attending Bethel Cincinnati this summer. After surviving the first half of the service (see above), I was eager for the pastor to pray over our children and send them to their own rooms. 

It might have been his age or the new church or the whole moving to a new town thing - most likely a combination of all - but when it came time to plop Andrew in the arms of a sweet nursery worker, he was not having it. 

"Give him ten minutes. He'll be fine," I said as I hurried out of sight, his screams echoing down the hallway. 

About ten minutes later, a nursery volunteer's head popped into the service, made eye contact with me, and gave an apologetic look. I hurried to the nursery to find Andrew, red-faced and covered in snot.

I scooped him up and rambled on about how he'd been in a church nursery since birth, and I'd never been called out of the service before. I'm pretty sure I even used the phrase "rock star in the nursery." Ugh. I was so embarrassed. No one wants to be the mom of the clingy, screaming child. 

And because his hysteria resulted in a successful rescue from mom, he pulled the same stunt next week - and the week after that, and the week after that. 

Stephen and I spent the next two months rotating nursery duty, leaving the other responsible for a sermon synopsis on the drive home.

Sunday morning looks different when you're the mom of little ones.

*****

I imagine these are scenes the Lord knows well - an attempted quiet moment in His Word interrupted by nap time gone wrong, an expectant mom whose spiritual disciplines are replaced with cries of exhaustion and sickness, a juggling act in the middle of church, and an embarrassed mom sneaking out the back door ten minutes into the sermon, again.

But I also imagine the Lord filled with compassion and a good sense of humor for the moms of little ones who keep seeking Him, clinging to Him with one hand and doling out peanut butter crackers with the other hand.

God is not interested in my sacrifices. It is not about my completed Bible studies or solemn worship. It is not about diligent sermon notes or guilt Satan wants to pour on me. It is about grace, and this rings louder when you're the mom of little ones.

"For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace."

John 1:16

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