It's a hot Thursday night, and the humidity has finally settled after an unbearable week. Everything feels sticky and uncomfortable- from the wooden kitchen table, that probably has been sticky for longer than I'd like to admit, to the diaper rashes on, well, all of us. Half a dozen fans hum, masking the whining of children who are too hot to sleep and dogs who are waiting for their dinner. We brought the kids to Willards Beach tonight- a great little beach tucked between two light houses on the edge of our local community college. Normally on a day this hot we would camp out in the one room with AC and watch movies and have a sandwich-style picnic dinner. But Rich and I recently made the decision to eliminate TV from the daily routine. Something about the act of zoning out to that giant (or tiny) screen seems to turn our sweet trio of kids into these Zombie characters who treat each other as the villains in the superhero story of their daily lives, and treat us as servants who are required to feed and "press play." We noticed a stall in their creativity. They didn't want to have adventures. So we 86d the television, and the ipad, and the tv in the minivan and our iphones. It's embarrassing to admit how easily and frequently we were outsourcing our kids' attention. But just like in (healthier) baking, you can't eliminate the butter without replacing it with something else. Nonfat greek yogurt, avocado, even applesauce. We replaced their screen time with nightly adventures. We've walked (parts of) the Eastern Trail. We've hiked the Fore RIver trails (where Alden got his first bee sting!). We've wandered through half of Portland Trails, and fell in love with Wolfes Neck State Park in Freeport. We've hit up all the beaches. Literally ran them- me chasing Eli; Chloe chasing me; Alden and Rich in their own world of fishing and treasure hunting (for a growing rock collection that so far has collected only in the backseat of the minivan). It has been a great summer. I'm exhausted. So tonight we walked the familiar path down to Willards Beach. The boys instantly headed for the water. Chloe is terrified of the ocean waves, so she won't leave the dry patches of sand. I hang out somewhere in the middle- hunting for seaglass but ready to run in either direction (Eli for the water, Chloe for the shore) if they start to wander too far. Tonight Alden swam for the first time. His little head proudly perched above the waves, with Rich supporting him. He swam and Eli danced a few feet away, waving a bundle of seaweed so it wiggled it front of his eyes. This is so easy, I thought. This moment. This place. These little people. This life is so easy. We turned to leave, and neither Rich nor I realized in that moment that Eli was pooping. Eli was pooping in his diaper, which was already waterlogged from the waves. He was pooping a days worth of digestion. Healthy stuff. And these diapers are great, they keep it all in. So no one knew about the special surprise in Elis diaper. No one knew, that is, until Rich swung him up on his shoulders. It was the sound of a water balloon, or the ringing of a soaked towel. The kind of SPLAT you only hear in cartoons, as the contents of Eli's diaper exploded onto Rich's bare shoulders and chest, down his back. Healthy stuff, really. Rich yelped, quite a bit really, and dove back into the waves as I shuffled the three kids back to the car, Chloe declaring "Eli Shipped!" to everyone we passed. We laughed. Well, Rich, not so much. But the kids and I belly laughed as they helped me locate fresh diapers and clean clothes. We laughed all the way home, and (almost) everyone agreed it was the best adventure yet.
So tonight, now that baths are done and laundry is running and the hum of fans drown what's left of the crazy, tonight I am so thankful for these adventures. I am loving these kids, and I am getting to know them in a new way as we navigate life without TV. But I won't ever say it's easy again.
Eli isn't eating. Well, that's not entirely true because he's sitting across from me with a giant bag of marshmallows in one hand, and a package of chocolate chips tucked under his other arm. The marshmallows have been torn open (excellent teeth!) and there's a trail toward the pantry where he's dropped one, gone back for it and in doing so dropped another two. He takes a bite out of each, and then, finding the sticky center intolerable, he tries to shake the sticky puffs from his fingers. The dogs help with that. I feel like I should be frustrated with him. It's a teachable moment, right? I should at least walk him back to the pantry, help him wrap up the open bag and remind him that dinner is soon. Eli is almost four, and he's been with us for 16 months now, and hopefully a lifetime. The older brother to our littlest, the story of all that happened before that December day when he was taken to the emergency room, is his to tell, not mine. And I hope one day he does. But right now, he's not speaking.
For me, though, there's regret, just barrels of it- that during those early days when we visited Chloe in the hospital- I didn't sing to him. I held her for hours, her tiny body smaller than a newborns, even at almost a year. She laid on my chest and I sang to her, just whatever came to mind. Commercials, lullabies, worship songs and Disney favorites. But the little boy next to her, the little boy who it turns out would be our third child, I never sang to him. His head was shaved, and his feet were curled up in that fetal position. Two years old and he wasn't sitting up. I wish I sang to him. What kept me quiet, I ask myself again and again. Maybe it was the neglect just peering at me from these giant eyes in between the bars of a hospital crib. He had a family who visited him. A good family. And the State had only asked us to take in Chloe, so I had no right. That's what I told myself, I'm sure. I often wish to go back to those few days. Even for just an hour. I should have sang to him. Three months later he came to live with us, and as many times as I thought our worlds couldn't shift again, they did. Eli is autistic and coupled with the two years of neglect, the results were just tough. He didn't walk until he was almost three, and I'm sure he would still rather be scooting around, but we made him walk laps around our kitchen. Holding my hands and crying the whole way, until eventually he walked on his own. He still doesn't speak. But what has me hitting my knees at night is that he just won't eat. He's dropped a pound since his last check up six months ago (we're doing weight checks now) and it's true that he's running all the time these days, but he's okay with skipping meals if they are not appealing to him. If there's a speck of vegetable or cheese or any kind of protein on his plate, he shakes his head at the food; sits quietly for the 10 minutes it takes everyone else to eat and then gets down. Sometimes he'll bring me a loaf of bread, (a sign that he wants it) while moments ago refusing to eat the same bread from the same loaf that was on his plate. He'll eat noodles with butter. And marshmallows, apparently. And as much whole milk as he can convince us to allow him to drink. But never a vegetable. Rarely a protein.
The kids were so excited to get Happy Meals last week. (Apparently the toy is from the Incredibles, which is a big deal in our house) and we have the standard "no toys til you eat your dinner" rule. Yesterday I found Eli's cheeseburger, fries and apple slices in the trunk. He must have thrown them back up and over his head when I wasn't watching. Not before peeling the cheeseburger apart, though. The ketchup and mustard smeared against the inside of the back door. Good aim, buddy, and yet I wish you would eat. So when he pulled up a chair across from me with that bulging bag of marshmallows, I didn't scold him. I said, "me too, kid, me too," and pulled a few from the bag for myself. Then I waited an extra twenty minutes before starting dinner and made the one recipe he always eats. Here it is:
Eli's Favorite Skillet Noddle Casserole
1/2 package of egg noodles
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 small onion
1 sweet orange pepper
1/4 package of peas
1/2 head of broccoli
2 Cups of milk
Cheese (the milder the more easy to disguise, in our case)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Cook the egg noodles according to the directions on the package (boiling water for 5-7 minutes). While the noodles are cooking I prepare the vegetables- and by prepare I mean dice them as small as possible so they almost look like sprinkles. Eli likes sprinkles, peppers and peas- not so much. Drain the noodles and leave in the sink in the colander. In a medium saucepan heat the olive oil, add the diced onion and cook for 5 minutes before adding the diced sweet pepper. Add in the remaining vegetables, the milk and the drained noodles, stirring until combined and cook on medium until everything is bubbling. Turn off the heat, add the cheese (whatever you have is fine- I usually add around 1 cup of cheese) cover and let sit for 10 minutes. The heat from the bubbly noodles will melt the cheese. Stir a few times before serving just to incorporate the cheese throughout the dish. My kids always complain that it's too hot, and then take turns grinding excessive amounts of pepper onto their plates, but they always eat this up, so I'm good with that.
I must have been 10 years old the first time I started selling cookies. It was at a yard salad- my parents had them every few years- and they agreed that I could set up a table. I can still feel the excitement of possibility as I calculated the cost of flour and sugar, and chocolate chips Oatmeal. I couldn't afford vanilla, and I definitely swiped the box of raisins from the pantry. It wasn't going anywhere quickly. Our hens laid eggs, so those were free for the gathering. I baked Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies with Raisins in them and I wanted to sell them for 10 cents each but mom insisted 25 cents. Even today, I struggle with pricing my baked goods. Because it's more than just a cookie or a pie- it's my creation- my own self. And I would rather people be delighted over a dime than disappointed in a quarter. I wonder if it's part of being a woman and that people-pleasing, submissive nature we are expected to have. Maybe it's just part of me.
So I sold the cookies for a quarter a piece, because my mother is very good at knowing what's best (except for in the case of my husband, but that's another story). And wouldn't you know, I sold every single one. Not only that, but later that evening, long after the yard sale was finished and everything put away, one last car turned down our long driveway. It was someone from earlier- they had purchased a few of my cookies, and six hours later found themselves driving 20 miles out of the way to see if I had more. In that moment- even though I had nothing left to sell them- the pride, the feeling of being loved and valued by a stranger for something I had created, was worth more to me than the $10 I made that day.
Twenty five years later, I still find validation in the creation of sweets. I'm still devastated when a recipe fails or when my favorite elderly customer says "that brownie tasted like it was made six months ago." Luckily (for both of us) that's only happened once. Sorry about that Carol. But when I see someone eat one of our chocolate chip cookies for the first time, or take a chance on our Maine Blueberry muffin, I am filled with pride and so grateful to be living this Bakers life. Here's that Yard Sale Cookies Recipe (I've added vanilla, of course) Enjoy!
Naph's Yard Sale Cookies
1 Cup of Salted Butter or Margarine
1.5 cups of granulated sugar
2 tablespoons of molasses
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 teaspoon Almond extract (optional)
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon old fashioned oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups of chocolate chips
2 cups of raisins
Preheat convection oven to 315 (350 if not convection)
I am always rushed for time, so I tend to make these cookies in two steps: 1) combine all the wet ingredients (butter, sugar, molasses, egg, egg yolk, vanilla, almond) and mix on medium for two minutes until smooth. 2) Combine all dry ingredients (flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, salt, chocolate chips and raisins) and mix on low just until combined and there's no visible flour/oats stuck to the sides or the bottom.
Scoop (I use a 1.5 oz ice cream scooper- but that makes giant cookies the size of my hand) onto parchment lined baking sheets. Press down slightly. Bake for 12 minutes, or until the middles have crackles. Cool on rack for 30 minutes, if you can wait that long. Then sell them to your kids/husband/coworkers for 25 cents, and get excited when they come back for more!