October Around Here

This month. This month! It was all too much, but much of the too much isn’t really for this space. Some illustrative vignettes:

Inspired by a friend’s dramatic debt reduction, I spend time poring over our spending to cut literally a few dollars here or there. That afternoon, I rearrange my schedule so that I can use a free pass for a fitness class. I arrive at the gym but have have forgotten the pass on my desk. I’m already there, so I pay $5 for a pass, waiting a long time for an entire sports team to enter the gym before they can process my payment. I rush to the class. The instructor doesn’t show up.

We documented a number of issues when we moved into our apartment. A contractor came by in July to measure windows for replacement – while seven need to be replaced, four must be replaced because they can’t be safely operated. The new windows are installed on a Tuesday. The contractor points out significant structural damage likely caused by roof issues and lousy tuckpointing. Four days later, we come home to find rain pouring through one of the windows that wasn’t replaced – not through the window itself, but between the frame and the wall. We report the problem to our landlord, who is predictably upset, having poured buckets of money into his previously low-maintenance rental property over the last few months. On Halloween, less than a week later, we have our first snow, which melts and drips through the frame of one of the new windows.

And so it goes all month, one thing after another, with us doing our best to keep our heads above the waves as we frantically tread water. Appliances stop working. Diapers leak. Everyone gets sick. I get mastitis again.

But despite all of this, projects and events I’ve been planning for months happen at work with minor issues. We almost completely avoid eating out, and so come in way under our food budget for the first time maybe ever. We wear #RedforEd and cheer on our city’s teachers as they strike for a better future. I run to the marathon course and tear up as the new world record holder blazes by. We paint pumpkins and soak up the last spectacular fall weather. The balls roll in the right direction, and time marches on.

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October Reads

October Eats

 

September Around Here

The month starts with a spontaneous trip to the Arboretum on a gray day. We’re members, but have barely visited this year because the baby couldn’t (wouldn’t) tolerate the car. Weather and naps mean that we can’t stay as long as we’d like, but it’s a lovely excursion while it lasts.

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At work, we shut down the intranet that I somehow came to manage nearly seven years ago. The shut-down was supposed to happen in mid-2016. We have a party to celebrate, and I bring a glazed vanilla cake from Simple Cake baked in my grandma’s Bundt pan.

My work isn’t typically tied to the cycles of the academic year, but this year I’ve volunteered for a number of things that keep me busy as the academic year arrives with a roar. I make exhaustive lists in my planner and on my whiteboard. Both are completely filled with text. No wonder I feel like I’m drowning. Deep breaths, and one foot in front of another until the end of October.

We implement Falafel Fridays. The falafel can be accompanied by an exciting veggie side, or by homemade hummus, or by anything we need to use up, or by whatever looks good at the grocery store. We can eat in or get take out or meet at one of several falafely restaurants near us (though regrettably not Beni Falafel – see you in November!). Anything to put at least one meal per week on autopilot.

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We work on making room in our budget, in part because we need to, and in part because we want to, and in part because we’re going to Belgium in two months and travel is always more expensive than anticipated. One week into this new focus on belt-tightening, we notice that our AC is making a strange noise. It stops working completely just in time for a brief but miserable heat wave. Fall is almost in sight, but not soon enough to postpone the repairs, particularly since we still can’t open most of our windows and the new windows, expected in August, still have no ETA. Sorry, landlord. Sorry, eating out budget, but we just can’t cook when it’s 95 degrees inside.

Another month with too much time spent on the road. At the beginning of the month, we drive out to Rockford to celebrate the a number of birthdays (my mom, two siblings, and the big kid) and take family photos with all of the siblings and their kids. A week later, I drive to Iowa to meet my mom and aunt at my grandparents’ house – one last visit to pick up furniture and odds and ends before the house goes on the market. It’s an exhausting out-and-back with an excessive amount of ice cream in the middle.

And then the following weekend, another trip to Rockford to celebrate the big kid’s birthday. His actual birthday is spent doing low-key fun things: pancakes and a special birthday balloon, a farmers’ market walk in the morning, then a run: five whole kilometers, one for every year. Pizza lunch at Jolly Pumpkin, his pick, then meeting his friend at the playground for cake (chocolate, with marshmallow frosting, both from Simple Cake – he requested chocolate with blueberries which I failed to deliver due to frosting miscalculations). A movie on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn. More pizza and cake the next day with his cousins, and many hours of solo time with his grandparents. We can’t deliver much on the present front, but hopefully the happy memories will make up for it.

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September Reads

Also somehow I forgot to tell you that I read the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy this summer, which I LOVED. Also The Egypt Game, for my book club, and Big Little Lies, just because.

September Eats

From the NYTimes:

August Around Here

The month starts on a high note: the baby takes his first steps when I’m at work, and then many more steps not long after. By the end of the month, he is confidently toddling all over everywhere, shaky eggs in hand.

In July, I told my therapist that I was struggling to make time to connect with the big kid. He suggests that putting it on the calendar would be a good start. And so I do, and on Saturday, we bike to the farmers’ market, then to get his hair cut, then to a new-to-us cafe for a brownie, coffee, and chess. It’s a lovely morning in a lovely weekend. In the afternoon, we walk to the campus art museum to take in a remarkable exhibit from Tara Donovan. The big kid comes home and draws pictures of the art to include in one of the near-daily letters to his grandparents.

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Then on Monday, early in the morning, the phone rings. My grandma has declined overnight. I nod in sort of comprehension, finish my breakfast, and unload the dishwasher before leaving for Iowa instead of for work. Grandma is tired, suffering, in and out. When she is present, she is herself. When she isn’t, she calls for help. Everyone looks as exhausted as they must feel: my parents, my aunt, my uncle, the neighbor. We take turns holding her hand, talking to her, listening to the care team, and going through things in her room. I stay until mid-afternoon, when I leave to drive the 3 hours back home in a daze.

Two days later, I am at Maggie Daley Park with the big kid, a visiting friend, her son, and her cousin. The big kid runs ahead into the cauldron-like play area. When we get there, he’s nowhere to be seen. If he hears us calling his name, he doesn’t respond. I run around, half frantic. The park is crowded and maze-like and not a familiar space for any of us. In the midst of this, my phone rings again. I know what the call will be, but I can’t take it because I can’t find my child. Moments later, my friend finds him – he had climbed up into a play structure, got scared, and couldn’t climb back down. I climb up, retrieve him, and hug him, crying and overwhelmed. We decide to get lunch. On our way down Randolph, the phone rings again, and in the middle of noon traffic in downtown Chicago, while the big kid is chattering away about lunch, I learn that my grandma has died. My friend stops in the middle of the street to hug me. We eat lunch – I couldn’t tell you what. I’m too frazzled to explain to the big kid what has happened.

The rest of the day – the week, even – is lost in a daze. A security guard at Whole Foods asks if I’m OK as I cry in the floral section. We take a bottle of wine to the Middle Eastern restaurant and drink a toast over our falafel and salads. I spend two days trying to organize my work life so that I can be out of the office unexpectedly.

Before we leave town, the kids and I make a special trip to the farmers’ market to buy the apples my grandparents grew – Lodi – so that we can turn them into applesauce, a gallon made at my parents’ and another half gallon made at home, the repetitive work of peeling, slicing, and stirring soothing aching hearts, albeit temporarily.

We spend two days at my parents’ house doing whatever we can to help or distract. I take the kids out to harvest beans from the garden, left neglected due to all of the back and forth from the previous week. The baby pulls up on the garden wall and takes a tumble, and I carry him inside covered head to toe in dirt, and happy as can be.

And then we drive to Iowa for the services, and spend a day feeling many things all at once, but mostly feeling exhausted to the bone and turned inside out.

At the end of that week, the baby turns 1. Our wonderful, silly, precious last baby. As with many second-borns, the milestones that were so enormous for the big kid feel slightly less so for the small one, or at least are more easily obscured, or maybe it’s just that everything is happening all at once this month. We celebrate with a beautiful birthday cake at my parents’, and then with a morning trip to the beach, cupcakes and favorite foods, and playtime in the park on his actual birthday. We adore you, little boy.

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And then the next day, we’re off to the northwest suburbs to spend the day celebrating the wedding of a dear friend who snuck off to the courthouse just like we did, opting for a relaxed celebration with a few friends and family months later. It is an idyllic day on the lake – good friends, good food, happy kids – and we feel honored to be included.

I go back to work after a week away, and I’m drowning. Just when I think I might be getting on top of my to do list, I come down with mastitis – I’m fine at noon, but starting to feel unwell at 3, and by 5pm I am in my bed sweating through a high fever. The rest of the week is lost in a fevered haze.

Finally, finally, things start to look up. I work the entire last week of the month, with no sick days or other calamities. We go to a housewarming party, where the big kid kicks off his shoes as if he’s at home. A new coffee chain opens in our neighborhood and we take full advantage of all of the free days and previews. The weather is perfect, and I’m able to go running.

Where did the month go? I don’t really know. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed.

August Reads

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August Eats

My heart wasn’t really in a cooking place this month, but fortunately, it’s high season at the farmers’ market, so we mostly worked with what was available:

  • Tomatoes:
  • Sweet corn, straight into the oven at 350 for about 30 minutes. The kernels steam on the cob, and you can shuck it at the table, using the husk as a handle.
  • Melon upon melon, including a delightful tasting at the farmers’ market of 5 varieties of cantaloupe, 4 watermelon, and 3 honeydew, all delicious.
  • Apples, prepared the way my grandma would: in pies and applesauce.

Also, the first of likely many cakes from Simple Cake – this time the milk and honey cake for the baby’s birthday, with blueberries for the guest of honor, and honey whipped cream for the rest of us.

 

A Monday List

10 Hours of Beverages (5:30am-3:30pm)

  1. Water, with day 5 of antibiotics for last week’s mastitis.
  2. Cold brew, letting the grounds drip awhile before leaving the cheesecloth packet in the sink, where it will have hopefully dried out by the time I get home.
  3. Cold water from the office fridge Brita.
  4. Decaf, from a pod, with oat milk. We’re trying to cut costs, and this is a place where I can economize. It’s flavored, maybe chocolate raspberry?, which reminds me of one of my bosses from my very first job. I can’t remember what her strong feelings were about chocolate/fruit coffees, but I remember that she had them.
  5. Decaf, from a pod, not flavored, prepared for my husband, who stopped by with the kids in the afternoon so that I could nurse. They got caught in the rain. He warmed up with coffee. The baby warmed up with milk. The big kid dried off with my random office towel, then drew at my work table. The kids absconded with my afternoon apple.
  6. Cold brew, made last week from a Trader Joe’s coffee bag, with oat milk, and cold water from the office fridge Brita. I washed the morning beverage containers and filled the afternoon beverage containers.

 

Kay Fesenmeyer, 1918-2019

My grandmother passed last week, my mom’s mom and the last of my grandparents. It’s been an intense week and I have a lot of things that I’m not quite sure how to say, but I wrote and read the following at her service yesterday, so it will have to suffice


When I was about 10, I came down the stairs at the Bon Ton in tears. I had been reading Bridge to Terabithia and, having gotten to a particularly upsetting part, had sought out comfort. Gram asked me why I was crying, and I explained that one of the main characters had fallen in a river and drowned. Gram replied “Well, that’s what happens when you play by the water.”

That was Gram for you. Unsentimental. Matter-of-fact. Not a fan of the water.

She wasn’t a Hallmark grandmother. Delicious treats, yes, but warm hugs and fun adventures? Not really.

Gram was competent and resourceful, storing up that drawer full of odds and ends for the rainy day when we really would need all of those twist ties from bunches of greens. She had a method and a place for everything and god help us if we didn’t follow it, whether it was hospital corners on the bed, moving one of her piles, or recycling even one of her enormous mayonnaise jars.

She was the consummate hostess – or so it seemed to me as a little girl, fingering well-worn decks of cards and tiny tubes of lipstick in the buffet drawers, hints of what seemed like a wildly glamorous social life. Dishes and glassware and recipes for every occasion. Meals with friends at the Outing Club. Records on the kitchen stereo from way back when. Strawberry sodas for the grandkids. The elegance of shrimp cocktail and a relish tray frequently refilled.

She cared about her friends and family, even though she didn’t always show it. When you called the Bon Ton, both Gram and Gramp would be on the line, even if you just needed to talk to one of them, and even if it made it hard to have a conversation. I can’t remember a single meal with them that didn’t involve a litany of news and gossip about this patient, that neighbor, the other acquaintance.

She was a proud woman. Proud of her accomplishments, like being head nurse on the fancy ward at Harper Hospital, where she out-ranked her doctor husband. Proud of her children’s achievements, like Nanc touring with the Highlanders, Mom doing synchronized swimming, Tom performing with the University Marching Band. She may not have said so at the time, but she paused to tell these stories to me again and again when we looked at photos during my visits. She was proud of her in laws and her grandchildren, too – Mark’s musical abilities, Jenn going to school to become a nurse, Victor off to college. But also the sort of proud that holds on to hurt like armor, reminding us of times when we – or life – let her down. She never finished her degree. She left behind her career to raise a family. Her husband was always busy. Her children grew up to be teenagers and then adults with lives and choices she didn’t always agree with. Her grandchildren got tattoos and divorces. Her body failed her.

As people have expressed their condolences this week, I have said: it’s complicated. She was complicated. And I’ve spent a lot of this last week thinking about that, and how I want to remember her, the wonderful and the complicated.

I don’t remember, for example, the time she spanked me with a pie scooper. I don’t believe it happened, but Mark does: perhaps we have chosen to remember differently. I remember lying across the custom cutting board over the kitchen sink while Gram washed my hair, the cold acidity of the apple cider vinegar she used as a rinse, my legs dangling off the end of the counter.

I remember crackers from the bowl on the kitchen table, and games of cribbage after dinner. Playing dress-up and grocery store with things she’d set aside. The beauty shop on Fridays, and her nails carefully shaped with a file from her red zippered pouch. Sending me out into the backyard to pick raspberries for breakfast, the grass still wet with dew. Signing into AOL to check her stocks, tracking them carefully in her notebook. Taking her rings off to make pie dough, her wedding band paper thin from decades of wear.

I remember her hands resting on Gramp’s shoulder the summer he had his bypass surgery. She opened his collar to show me the top of his scar, and then lingered there behind him, one of the few shared moments of genuine tenderness I can recall. She was from a family and an era that didn’t show affection easily; her love language, like mine, was acts of service. Her love for him – and for her family – was expressed in hundreds of thousands of shirts ironed and eggs poached and pies served. At his services, she patted his bow tie in an approving way, later telling us that she would miss him, but not the way he was at the end.

I don’t think I understood that, not really, until last week, when I saw how frail she was, her body ready to be done. That’s not the Gram I’ll remember.

I’ll remember her in her house slippers and slacks, attending to her piles, the queen of her castle. Or turning on the radio in the kitchen when it was time to go.

July Around Here

Work unexpectedly extends the gift of a long holiday weekend. In Belgium, this is called “making the bridge”.

We spend the 4th at my parents’, in part to get out of the city, and in part to celebrate my dad’s retirement. We bring a spumoni cake – not the brilliant ice cream thing making the rounds in the NYTimes, unfortunately, though this is equally spectacular – and veggie kabobs and our swimsuits. The baby loves the pool as much as anticipated, though he gets overwhelmed quickly, retreating to the safety of a snuggly towel on Papa’s lap. The big kid can finally touch the bottom of the shallow end with his tippy-toes, which is exciting for all involved.

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More early morning walks with the kids, sometimes with coffee, often with foraged fruit. One morning we hear chirping and look over to spot two juvenile raccoons snuggled up together on a porch rail, calling for their mama. The big kid and I imagine what they might be saying, or what he and his brother would say if they couldn’t find me.

The baby masters hands-and-knees crawling over the July 4th weekend. He’s been scooting along on his belly for what feels like months, and all of a sudden, he’s off! It’s so fun to see him exploring, though it feels like we’re constantly pulling things out of his mouth. I suppose that’s all part of being a tiny scientist.

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These curls! I’m dead.

I pass a blissful morning in personal and professional conversation on the patio at Spoke and Bird. We used to go here all the time when we lived in Pilsen and it was around the corner from the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens and on the way to the Lakefront Path. I grumble about work, but I’m deeply grateful for the many opportunities for professional connection it affords me, and particularly for the flexibility to have mornings like this.

We find a little push-cart for the baby on the neighborhood Buy Nothing group. He discovers it with glee the next morning, crawling over in his sleep sack to start playing. In what feels like no time, he’s doing laps in the kitchen, pausing to inspect the washing machine with every pass.

I spend what feels like weeks agonizing about how we’re going to make a second work trip to Champaign work for our family. All of us in a hotel room for 2.5 days sounds miserable. The baby moves around too much at night to safely sleep in a hotel bed BUT ALSO nurses too much at night to expect that nights away will be anything but difficult for everyone. The big kid would love a night or two with his grandparents, but that means extra time in the car, which is the thing the baby hates more than anything in the world. Ultimately, we decide that the best way to make it work without messing with nursing is for me to miss the first evening of activities. I feel terribly guilty asking for this, even though I know that it’s the best possible compromise for my family.

Once I’m there, I feel like it’s important to make it clear the sacrifices involved, and to make visible the struggle of balancing the personal and the professional. In the parking lot after the last session, another participant approaches me to thank me for saying what I did. These sessions were her first time away from her kids as well, though hers are quite a bit older than mine. I feel deep gratitude that she shared her experience with me.

And being away isn’t as difficult as any of anticipated – as always, the anticipation is worse than the actuality. I soak up the solo time – back to back runs in dear and familiar places, meals and drinks with good good friends, painting my nails, loads of coffee – but after one night am ready to be home.

The big kid asks for a bow and arrows for his birthday. Their birthdays are coming up soon, one in August, the other in September. How quickly the time is passing. The big kid looks so small in photos from last year. It hurts my heart sometimes to think how abruptly his world changed, and I’m grateful for the extent to which he’s been able to take it in stride.

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We weather a dangerously hot weekend, deeply grateful for central air conditioning, particularly after the misery of last summer’s heat. Our experience of the heat wave pales in comparison to that of our family in decidedly un-air conditioned Belgium. And then it’s over nearly as quickly as it started, the temperatures dropping by 30 degrees overnight. We go out for a walk and are unexpectedly caught in a severe thunderstorm, hiding out with lunch and then cupcakes rather than getting soaked to the bone.

I finally get the bike trailer hooked up – only to blow the rim off of one of the wheels the first time we tried to take it out. I’m grateful that we weren’t actually on the road and that we were more scared than hurt. Another week of waiting before we’re able to ride, but then we make it happen, the big kid endlessly chattering as we run errands. His big idea for a summer outing involves a family bike ride to the “dinosaur museum”. He offered to pack a picnic since we will be hungry. Smart guy.

Long runs happen again, finally. I miss this part of marathon training – the hours of podcasts and meditative steps by the lake, the early mornings and the clothes drenched in sweat. Maybe next year. For now, I’m deeply grateful for any miles I can sneak in.

I spend an afternoon playing tourist with friends from grade school. Our conversations are wide ranging, hilarious, and restorative as we wander around downtown, taking in hot dogs and cocktails and architecture and broken shoes. It is a good, good thing to connect with people who understand where you’re from, even if the intermediate steps in your lives haven’t been the same.

We go to member night at the science museum. It’s too hot for outdoor activities, so we enjoy our scoops of ice cream and as many exhibits as we can manage before the kids melt into tired puddles. We decide to do just one more thing, and then happen into a whole hallway full of magnetic shapes which keep both kids enthralled. These sorts of things always risk throwing the entire evening off – we are an early bedtime household – but they’re almost always worth it.

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At the end of the month, the baby stands up on his own for the first time. Steps can’t be far behind.

July Reads

 

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July Eats

June Around Here

We moved.

We moved, and it was awful.

We moved, and it was awful, and nearly everything that could go wrong did.

We moved, and it was awful, and nearly everything that could go wrong did, but in the middle of it, I took a break to take the big kid to a bubble run, $5 each to run a mile around the track in perfect weather with bystanders blowing bubbles, plus our own bubble wands, snacks, and small cups of boba, a first for him. He tired quickly, but found extra steam when we were done running and all he had to do was joyfully chase the bubbles.

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We moved, and it was awful, and nearly everything that could go wrong did, and every part of my body was bruised for weeks, which is about how long it took to sort out all of the money and repairs and losses.

We moved, and it was awful, and nearly everything that could go wrong did, but at some point, it was finally over and we went on with our lives.

The big kid moved into his own room. We thought this would be harder than it turned out to be. He shared our bed until a week before the baby was born, and then shared our room after that. Now he is on his own in the room he will eventually share with his brother, and we have returned to the enormous floor bed that we referred to as our nest. It’s not the best for our backs, but it is the best for the baby, and so we make it work, much as we made the previous arrangements work.

We gave up our couch in the move – sold, along with many other things, to our remarkably accommodating subletter when it became apparent that the couch was not coming out of the apartment. This would have been a much more painful decision had the whole situation not been so absurdly stressful. Instead, we gave it a moment, and then let it go.

In the new place, we have appliances. It’s a mid-century housewife’s dream: a dishwasher AND a washer/dryer. Months ago, I told my therapist that if there was a single thing that could improve my day-to-day happiness, it would be a dishwasher. I wasn’t wrong.

But we also have repairs: windows that don’t close, water damage from previous roof leaks, a closet door that won’t stay on its track. If there is one thing we appreciated about our previous place, it was the responsive maintenance folks. We miss them already.

With the new place, new routines, some intended to save money, like eliminating the Saturday morning grocery store breakfast, and others to capitalize on the disruptive nature of moving, like establishing new cleaning routines, and still others to address the incursion of a horde of milipedes, like mopping the floors with essential oils and hoping for the best.

For Father’s Day, a trip to the north side for lunch, pie, and a walk. We stop at the fancy olive oil store and pick up a bottle. The baby naps in the car. Salmon and potatoes for dinner, just what was requested. We are deeply grateful for our calm and consistent Papa.

The baby’s sleep is broken, temporarily, and I spend a week or more up at 5, walking to Starbucks in order to keep the house quiet and myself going. I choose to focus on the spectacular morning night and the delicious baby snuggles and not the fact that I’m hanging on by a thread.

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A colleague organizes a team for the city’s bike to work challenge, and that’s all the nudge that I need to fall back in love with my bike after a few years away. Now I’m frustrated when the weather or other circumstances prevent me from riding, especially since my commute is a total of 5 minutes door-to-door. (I don’t contribute much to my team’s mileage, but I do my best.)

Standing! The baby is standing! And playing with balls! Every ball he can find! At the same time!

I use my last morsel of vacation to take the kids to the beach (we intended to go to the pool, but couldn’t). The last time I was at the beach was my due date, big as a house and so uncomfortable, unbelievably still pregnant after weeks of false alarms. The baby, now on the outside, kicks his feet happily at the edge of the water while big brother runs around. We return home tired and coated in sand.

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And then, at the end of the month, my dad retires. It’s the end of an era, and I look forward to whatever comes next for my parents.

June Reading

June Eating