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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bedtime Secrets

Perfectly kissable Diego toes

Confession time. 

I often struggle to be a positive mother.

I feel like I'm always battling the ugly witch inside of me, trying to keep her locked up and surrounded with flowers and sunshine in hopes of changing her bad attitude.

Sometimes it works.

Sometimes not. 

I am always praying for more wisdom in parenthood (heaven knows I am a fool most of the time!). I feel so blessed each time the Lord sends answers my way.

Last week in church I learned a precious gem of motherhood wisdom. It's nudged my parenting in the right direction (again...I often feel like I need to get back 'on track' with better parenting!) and improved my children's behavior. 

It's called the "Bedtime Secret".

At night when I tuck each child in bed, I tell them my secret. My secret is praise for something positive they did during the day.

A kind act. Good manners. Service to a sibling. Chores finished without being reminded. Whatever.

I have always tried to praise our kids throughout the day, but there's a different power when praise is given in the tender moments before sleep.

It's been such a blessing to our family. This week has been much more peaceful in our home.

I hope your day is beautiful...and, if necessary, surrounded with flowers and sunshine to charm your inner witch.

Monday, June 25, 2012

What to do with 50 pounds of apricots?

Our supply of homemade jam had dwindled to nothing, forcing us to -gasp!- buy Welch's grape jelly at the store. We haven't purchased commercial jam in several years, preferring our own fruity creations for PBJs.
  Things were truly desperate. 

When I saw apricots on sale for $1/pound, I knew these little beauties had a sweet destiny: lined up as jars of sparkling jams on my shelf.

We bought almost 50 pounds of apricots and began our work.

Sarah had never made jams with me before (other than helping prep the fruit) so we spent an entire afternoon together in the kitchen. She learned how to do each step on her own. 

how to make apricot jam
Sarah carefully measures the sugar for each batch of jam
We made several different kinds of apricot jam so we wouldn't get tired of the same flavor during the year. I've written some of our variations below. 
I made them up, but it is really easy to modify jam recipes, 
so I don't think I deserve any creative credit. 

The secret to modifying jam recipes is to keep the fruit to sugar ratio the same. For example, if a recipe calls for 6 cups of apricots, you can substitute 3 cups of apricots with 3 cups of any other fruit you'd like to add (mango, strawberries, etc.) Viola. 

Your possibilities are endless. The only limit is your imagination.

Sarah purees a batch of apricots
Here is the basic Apricot Jam recipe:

1. Wash jars and screw bands in hot soapy water, rinse with warm water. 
Pour boiling water over the flat lids in a saucepan off the heat.
 Let stand in hot water until ready to use. 

2. Prepare fruit according to your desires
 (some people chop fruit by hand, some people scald the fruit
 to peel off the skins....that's too much work for me. 
I just puree it all.
 That is taboo in the jam-making world and I'd never stand a chance entering this stuff in a fair, but I don't care about immaculate presentation. 
I just care about flavor and ease of preparation.
 Honestly, when I have a dozen batches of jam to make, 
I'm not peeling the fruit by hand!)

3. Measure exact amount of prepared fruit into a large stockpot. 
Stir in lemon juice and any other flavor ingredients (see variations below).

4. Measure exact amount of sugar into a separate bowl.
 (Altering the amount of sugar will result in failed jams that won't set. 
Be careful! 
On a happy note, failed jams make FANTASTIC pancake toppings!)

5. Stir in 1 box pectin into the fruit in the saucepan. 
Add 1/2 tsp butter to reduce foaming, if desired. 

6. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil
 (a boil that doesn't stop bubbling when stirred)
on high heat, stirring constantly. 
(Seriously, don't stop stirring...
if you don't stir, it will scorch on the bottom and 
ruin everything.)

7. Stir in sugar quickly.
 Return to a full rolling boil (don't stop stirring!) 
and boil exactly one minute, stirring constantly. 
Remove from heat and skim off any foam. 
(I put the foam on a dish and let the children dip freshly baked bread into it.
 It's yummy!)

8. Ladle quickly into prepared jars, filling to within 1/8 inch of the tops. 
Wipe jar rims and threads with a clean cloth 
(although, if you use a funnel when you fill the jars, 
there should be no spilled jam on the rims). 
Cover jars with two-piece lids and screw the bands tightly down.
 (Make sure they are tight!
 I can tell you, it makes a big mess if they aren't tight! 
You'll see why in a moment...)

9. Flip the jars upside down so the jam touches the lid. 
Let sit in this inverted position for 5 minutes 
(this is easier than processing the jars in a water bath. 
The hot jam sterilizes the jar and lid. 
This is why it's so important to have the lids tightly screwed on. 
I know from sad experience. 
Trust me. 
Jam is not fun to scrub off the counters, 
especially when an entire quart has spilled.)

10. Return jars to their original position and let cool on the counter overnight.
 Label and store in a dark place for a year. 
(They always say store it only for a year,
 but I've opened jams that were forgotten for 3 years
 and they were just as good.)

Spiced Apricot Jam-
5 cups pureed apricots
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
7 cups sugar
1 box of pectin
1 tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
(This is irresistible! It takes like Christmas in a jar!)

Tropical Apricot Jam-
2 1/2 cups pureed apricots
2 1/2 cups pureed mango
1/4 cup lemon juice
7 cups sugar
1 box pectin
(This one is super delicious and really easy. It's one of our favorites.)

Blueberry Apricot Jam-
3 cups pureed apricots
2 cups pureed blueberries
1/2 cups fresh lemon juice
7 cups sugar
1 box pectin
(Another really easy variation! This one is a beautiful purple.)

After storing away dozens of jars of jam, my friends asked me to help them harvest wild grapes this week. Tonight we are grape-picking for Family Home Evening.

Last time we harvested the wild mustang grapes in Texas, our van was filled with huge tubs of fruit. Mustang grapes make wonderful jelly.

Since we'll be making jellies again all week, if any of you local readers want to come learn how to make it, you are welcome to email me and I'll let you know what time to be here. Bring a picnic lunch and we'll let the kids play while we cook.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The boys and Jane Austen

Last week in family prayer, Matthew said, "We thank Thee that we could watch Pride and Prejudice today."

Who could have guessed my boys would enjoy a six-hour Jane Austen movie? Not I.

I was floored to hear Matthew analyze the characters with Sarah.

Over the dinner table they had a debate discussing the following question: Who would make a better husband: Mr. Bingley or Mr. Darcy?

Matthew pointed out that Mr. Bingley was more at ease with people and therefore would have greater social prospects for their future family. Matthew also pointed out that Bingley is sincerely friendly and cheerful, unlike Darcy's frequent sour expressions and awkward conversations.

Sarah defended Mr. Darcy by saying his fortune was greater and his house more beautiful. She conceded that earthly wealth does not make a good husband, but pointed out Darcy's anonymous service and generosity as evidence of his good character. Her trump card was Miss Darcy, the younger sister. Georgiana Darcy is so friendly and kind, and Sarah was convinced she would be a delightful sister in law. "Besides," she stated in her closing argument, "No one is worth marrying if you have to be stuck with the Bingley sisters. They are so awful!"

Daniel agreed with everyone's arguments and couldn't decide which husband would be better.

Grinning sheepishly he said, "Luckily I don't really have to decide since they're not real. And I'm a boy anyway. I pick to marry Jane, she's the nicest."

I'm tickled that my children are learning to love one of my favorite stories from one of my favorite authors.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Giggles in the Sunshine

giggles, wagon, friends, girls laughing

But friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life, and thanks to a benevolent arrangement the greater part of life is sunshine.
Thomas Jefferson

I seem to often run in hyper-drive mode. Right now our schedule is packed to the max. We are busy preparing our old house for the real estate market. (Clarification: We are not selling the country house we currently live in...I refer to the other house we moved from.) 

Each day this week is meticulously planned to take advantage of every waking moment. My 'to-do' list is a towering dictator who I am happy to oblige. 

I'm so thankful for dear friends who are stepping up lately to bless our family. Thank you for the long hours of babysitting you have lovingly given us! Thank you for the friendly help with painting walls! Thank you for every happy, encouraging comment! 

Life is indeed rich when we journey with true friends!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lessons from the Baseball Diamond

Baseball, Round Rock Express

Nathan and I decided to expand our children's cultural experience.

What's that you say? Aren't we cultured enough?

Oh sure, we celebrate the Indian Holi Day with feasts and powdered dye fights.

We like to make sushi, Russian borscht and piroshki, Turkish food is a delight, Mexican cuisine is a main stay in our menu rotation, and Indian food reigns supreme in our kitchen. 

We love to do British tea parties. (Herbal teas, of course.)

Our favorite music albums are sung in Turkish, Italian, or Russian. 

Our favorite books are written by British authors such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, A.A. Milne, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and C.S. Lewis.

Nathan keeps a large collection of books written in Russian, and subscribes to a Russian magazine each month. 
(He lived in Russia for 2 years on a mission for our church.)

We take our kids on field trips to see the professional ballet and opera every year.

We adorn each room in our our house with rugs and art from Turkey.

My absolute favorite shirts are Indian kurtas. I love wearing them! They are so comfortable and modest (Shopping for modest clothing in Texas is a joke. Everything is sleeveless, transparent, or has a plunging neckline. No good for a Mormon mommy!)

And finally, the best kicker of them all:
Our roosters. 

They are named Luciano Pavarotti (my favorite opera singer), 
Papageno (our favorite character from Mozart's Magic Flute opera), 
and David Bowie (British pop star... the rooster just looked like him. Imagine David Bowie's character from the Labryinth....that's what our rooster looks like.)

Culture enough? Nah.

 We needed to spice things up by including something iconically American. 

Professional baseball. 

I know it's hard to believe- but here's the confession: I have never watched a baseball game, not even a high school baseball game. 

I was excited to introduce our 'littles' to this sport. 

There's cracker jacks, cotton candy, hotdogs, and soda. Cheering and laughing crowds.

What's not to like? 


"Everything", according to Sarah.

She hated it. 

Dan hated it. 

Matt tried not to hate it, but didn't actually like it either.

Diego had his first taste of soda pop and thought life was perfect, but didn't care about the game.

Nathan and I were not impressed. We tried gamely (pun totally intended) to make it interesting.

We left before the last inning.

We learned an important lesson:

Take us to an opera any day, but sports just isn't our thing.

Round Rock Express is boring!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Pine wood derby drama

cub scouts, winning pine wood derby design,

It's official. We have a Cub Scout in the family. Welcome to the world of merit badges, pack meetings, and scout camp. Oh yes, and the competitive Pinewood Derby.

This was our very first activity with our local scout pack (or do you call it a den?). 

Matthew worked for days on his car design and was so proud of the results. 

He lovingly carried his car to the check-in station before the race. The race official directed us to glue the car weights on more securely before entering the race. After carefully applying glue and waiting for it to dry, something terrible (but totally foreseeable) happened. 

I glued my thumb to his car. With superglue.

I'm not talking about a teeny patch of skin being stuck to a corner of the car. 

My entire thumb was irretrievably cemented to his car. When I shook my hand vigorously to loosen the glue, the car just dangled from my thumb and flapped about helplessly. 

The race was due to begin in five minutes! There was no way he could send his car down the track with me in tow. (Admittedly, it would be pretty comical.)

I pulled and tugged repeatedly at the little car, but this glue was serious about doing its job. It wasn't letting go of my skin at all. After this abuse my skin was beginning to surrender and rip. What was I going to do? 

People began to notice my awkward new fashion accessory and offer helpful suggestions. 

I tried scraping my fingernail between my skin and the car. No good.

I tried running it under hot water. No good.

We tried rubbing it with caustic acetones. No good.

One father pulled out a box-cutter and offered to let me try using that...I had visions of blood running down my hand as I politely declined his offer. 

I felt like a terrible mother even though I was laughing at the situation. 

It was funny.

When I was almost ready to try the box cutter, somehow the car just popped off my thumb. 

I don't know quite how it happened (maybe all the pulling, tugging, scraping, and soaking had a cumulative effect). The paint ripped off and stayed on my thumb (the paint happened to be bright red, so it looked like I used the box cutter after all). 

I rushed back into the race arena and entered his car just in time. 

He had a great time watching the races and cheering for his friends. 

He won half of his races, placing him solidly in the middle of the ranks.

The car now sits on Matthew's book shelf, next to his favorite possessions (which include a rock tumbler, a snake skin, photos, and books). 

It is still missing a patch of red paint on one side...I cringe every time I see it. Then I angle the car so it's 'bald spot' faces the wall.

Matthew catches his winning car at the end of the track.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Summer Camp At Home

Summer camp ideas, tire swing, pretty summer dress

I wrote a free summer program for our family.(Because honestly, who can afford *real* summer camps with more than one child to pay for?)

It's the Summer Camp at the Home. I wish I could think of a clever acronym for it (like SNAP, so we can have a 'snappy summer', but that's just not happening. Let me know if you think of something.)

Through this program our children are happily engaged in reading, exercising, serving one another, creating art, and memorizing scriptures.

What's the trick? Bribery. 

At the end of summer we are celebrating with a family trip to Schlitterbahn. It's the world's largest water park (I'm not exaggerating, look it up). I've wanted to take our kids there for years. I just needed a reason to justify the tickets.

Here's the deal: they earn points by accomplishing certain tasks each day. The tasks are listed on a handy dandy chart I made. (Don't worry, there's a link for that farther down!) Whenever they start to get whiny and say the dreaded B-word (Bored) I hand them their chart and suggest they pick something fun to do.

Points for the previous week are counted each Sunday, and they are given a fresh new chart to track their efforts during upcoming week. I keep tabs on the cumulative scores each week so they can see how close they are to their goal.

We have four areas of focus:

Physical- bike riding, exercising, yoga, outdoor play, etc.
Spiritual- reading scriptures, memorizing scriptures, developing character through service
Mental- reading books, learning new things, constructing, practicing music, developing new talents
Social- serving family members, writing letters to relatives and friends, teaching siblings new talents

I made a copy of our chart here so you can use this idea with your own family. Feel free to save it on your computer and modify the chart so it fits your circumstances.

Anyone who reaches their summer goal will go with the family to Schlitterbahn. I already have a sitter arranged for Diego that day, so any children not motivated to reach their goal will stay home with the baby. How's that for incentive? 

The goal? A whopping 4,000 points.

The first week Sarah earned 680 points. Matthew was aghast to discover he was trailing by 50 points. Competitive soul that he is, he spent the evening memorizing scriptures so he could take the lead. His total last week was 755.

I think they are well on their way to earning their tickets.

On an unrelated note, Diego learned to clap this month.

It's his favorite thing to do.

Playing "Pat-A-Cake" makes him laugh every time. His innocent and sincere laughter is so adorable.

 I love watching his chubby little hands move.

Look at those fat fingers...I can't resist kissing them every day.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Summer Surprises

This morning we were blessed with a delightful surprise.

We went to check on our broody hen who had laid a hidden clutch of eggs under some brambles and vines in our front yard.

Look what we saw peek out from under her wings: four little black faces!

Easter chicks, Broody hen, Hatchlings, Farm chicken, free range poultry

We hadn't known what to expect from her little experiment with motherhood. We have never let a hen hatch her own eggs before. This particular hen was so determined to hatch her eggs, so we decided to entertain her desires. This has been an unexpectedly rewarding experience for our family.

As we came closer to see her new babies, more heads popped out from her warm feathers.

We counted four, then seven, then ten chicks. We were astonished with the size of her family. When she stood up to get breakfast, we counted thirteen chicks scurrying out from under her body. What fun!

We gathered a respectful distance from Mother Hen and watched the chicks all scramble through the brambles to keep up with their Momma.

I've never seen how a hen cares for her young before. Have you ever wondered how a hen teaches her babies what to eat? She picks up an edible morsel in her beak and drops it in front of  her chicks while she makes a particularly encouraging sort of clucking sound. The chicks respond to this cluck by gathering around whatever food she has given them and exploring it with gusto. It was so fun to watch!

We watched them for an hour today, enjoying the shade under our trees and watching the gentle breeze ruffle Mother Hen's feathers.

I had been worried that her vulnerable babies would be hen-pecked by the rest of the flock. Mother Hen set me straight as soon as the rest of our flock ventured over to her hiding spot. Several hens investigated her chicks and inched too close for her comfort. With a piercing shriek she fluffed her feathers on end and spread her wings (making her look like a turkey) before running full speed at the offending hens. She chased them all away and none of them have come near again.

In the late morning our Pyrenees dog Bella discovered the peeping family. She wagged her tail in excitement and inched ever closer to sniff the babies. She was so eager to lick them I suspected her of jealously wanting to adopt the little brood as her own.

We commanded her to "Leave It" and go away from the chicks. She laid dejectedly on the front step and waited for me to leave the area. When I peered out our window a few minutes later, I saw Bella peeking in the window, watching me. As soon as I left the room (and was out of her sight), Bella began inching her way across the yard to the Mother Hen's family.

I curiously watched her progress as she s-l-o-w-l-y sneaked up behind the little family. Her tail was wagging a hundred miles a minute. She quivered in excitement as she inched laboriously closer to her target. When she was two feet away from her prize, Mother Hen lost patience and bowled into Bella's face at full speed. With a surprised yelp, Bella dashed away. The mother clucked consolingly to her frightened chicks and they gathered under her wings while she led them to a safer sanctuary.

I was surprised that Mother Hen would be so brave. Usually all the chickens run in fear from Bella. Even the boldest, most aggressive rooster flees from before her. She is, after all, just a domesticated wolf...and at times she has played too rough with a chicken and been the unintentional cause of its early demise. I've never seen one of our birds attack Bella before. Suddenly I found myself feeling something unusual: respect for a chicken.

I now want to help this first-time mother because she's trying so hard to be a good protector and provider for her little ones. In an effort to provide an added measure of safety, we moved Diego's playpen enclosure outside in the shade under our oak trees. After adding some water and food, we placed each member of the Hen Family inside its safe walls.

Daniel also took it upon himself to be the unheralded Guardian of the Flock. He moved a chair outside next to the new chicken home (we'll call it the Chick Inn. Get it? It's hilarious, right?) and protected the family from any curious animals. I didn't get a picture of it, so you'll have to imagine this: Daniel was wearing just galoshes and shorts (his shirt was put aside in the interest of fashion I suppose) and leaning back in his chair, propping his black boots on the wall of the Chick Inn, whistling to himself.

It was one of those increasingly frequent moments that made me think to myself, "Who cares about fancy houses, trendy clothes or expensive furniture? Not me. I have the simple joys of the country life and my children are happy. Life is good!"