10 October 2021

One Adventure After Another

Henry has made another trip around the sun and this time, we celebrated his sixth year. Life with him has been one adventure after another and I have the very distinct feeling this boy is barely getting warmed up.
See? He's at home in the forest.
As the first boy out of our children, Henry has been an entirely different beast to raise. Though Jack reassures me his behavior is perfectly normal, there are days when I wonder if it would be best if I released him into the wild and checked on him when he was eighteen to see if he's calmed down any. Girls I can do, being one myself, but boys sometimes seem like an entirely different species. Alien, basically.
Henry enjoys a good silly face.
For example, Henry is constantly hurting himself. Not like stubbing a toe or bumping his head (though he does that plenty, too). I'm talking about stitches, knocking perfectly good teeth hard enough that they become loose, multiple bee stings, and facial scars galore. In fact, there's a running joke about Henry and stitches over Christmas break. For the past several Christmases, it's not a matter of if, but when. Come to think of it, that joke is only funny long, long after the fact.
While there are some things that have me scratching my head over my firstborn son (does he even have a sense of self-preservation??), there are plenty of things we bond over. For one? Insects. I had a series of entomology jobs in college and Henry has taken our shared interest in bugs and run with it. Sometimes to his detriment (ever heard of an assassin bug? Henry knows all about them after he picked one up and it bit him...he was SURE his hand was going to melt off), but often, we walk away with his insect encounters with a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation.
His inherent love of the animal kingdom doesn't end with creepy crawlies either. He's always game for fishing, rescuing turtles off the road, snuggling with the cats, riding the horses, or chasing the chickens.
That love of animals translates well at our house. There are plenty of animal-related chores to do and Henry is exceptionally helpful. What was I doing when I was his age? Certainly not milking a cow (and six-year-old me is envious he even has the chance to do it!).
Whether it's putting out round bales, cleaning stalls, or washing eggs, Henry has this incredible sense of work ethic that will take him far in life. He doesn't shy away from sweating and wearing himself out and every year, he becomes more helpful, independent, and responsible. I've seen him eye me while I'm mowing or watch Jack run the chainsaw. It's only a matter of time.
Henry has been waiting desperately for this particular birthday because last year, he missed out on going to school by twenty-five measly days (though I reminded him many times that if there was a year to wait on going to school, it was 2020). Now that his dream has finally come true and he's a newbie kindergartner, he has relished every day he's been in class.
Every day after I pick him up, he climbs in the car and talks and talks and talks about how wonderful his day was at school. He makes me guess what letter they studied that day, what they did in specials, what his friends played at recess, what he ate for lunch, etc. He loves his teacher and has tried to save every paper he's ever completed in school by stuffing it into his sock drawer. At our annual doctor and dentist visits, he has outright cried because he's missing school. If he doesn't have enough time to finish telling me on the car ride home, he follows me into the kitchen and continues to fill me in while I start on dinner.
We can hope that his love of learning continues and if I had to guess, he'll be a fine student throughout his schooling career. I like to give myself a little credit when it comes to his learning prowess, too. At home, he's learned valuable lessons like, "You can't lick your elbow, no matter how delicious that honey you dipped it into is," "how to change the battery on a cordless drill," and "how to make cinnamon sugar 101." Practical stuff like that.
The boy is made of mud.
The longer we've had Henry as part of our family, the more we've been blessed to get to know his personality. For one, he is not shy about...well...anything. He loves to try new things, make new friends, talk. He's just as happy playing solo as he is being in the middle of a gaggle of kids.
Henry's joie de vivre bleeds into all aspects of his life. He doesn't just love his dad. He adores Jack. Henry doesn't just like superheroes. He lives and breathes them. They're on almost every article of his clothing. He has a blanket with superheroes on it at his request. He painted a spare laundry basket lid to be his Captain America shield. He checks out library books with what? ...superheroes.
Scooperman ice cream?! He's SOLD.
So. Many. Sisters.
Though we never ever said we would keep having children until we had a boy (we would have been completely happy to be girl parents), we were thrilled to find out we were having a son. Jack and I both grew up with brothers and sisters, and there's something sweet about everyone having a brother and sister. For quite a while, Henry was swimming in a sea of sisters. They love him to death, but they too sometimes butt heads with him because he does things differently. Thankfully, Henry is notoriously good at letting things roll off his back. He is the sweetest, most forgiving, loving, and happy brother anyone could wish for.
Henry also came into the world with a healthy love for humor. He always seems to be trying to get a laugh out of people and has an infectious laugh of his own. He'll tell knock knock jokes until he's blue in the face and has a penchant for practical jokes. His laughter erupts especially when we're reading a book or watching a movie. His imagination is alive and well and in his head, stuff is hilarious.
Another thing that's alive and well is his appetite. Boy can EAT. Seriously. I've heard the running joke that teenage boys eat their parents out of house and home. If Henry escalates this eating of his anymore, it very well may be true. He already eats two to three breakfasts, has a snack after school and still complains about starving before dinner is put on the table, and before bed, he asks for another snack...right after he's had dessert. Good thing we're getting pretty good at growing our own food. I just hope we can keep up.
All those calories go into growing--he's always teetered at the highest end of the growth chart--and playing. He climbs and runs, jumps and swims for hours. I get tired just watching him run circles around me. If you've ever had the pleasure of seeing Henry dance, you know you're in for a treat. He's invented something he calls his "farmer dance" and if I had to describe it, it's sort of a jittery Irish jig. Whenever he hears the right kind of music, it's like a flip is turned on in his brain and he starts dancing. Always hungry 'cause he's always moving.
Henry's special day was a lot like they usually are for everyone else. He was so excited to celebrate his birthday with his school friends, he came home to a special birthday dinner of chili, cinnamon rolls, and a fruit rainbow, and it was followed up with cake and ice cream.
Not any cake, either. Chocolate cake. Chocolate chocolate cake. With a sun on top. Basically, we just went to the store, bought a bunch of different chocolate candies, and stuffed them into and on top of a chocolate cake. He was in heaven.
I also snuck a couple of trick candles on top that re-lit after being blown out. He's not the only one who enjoys a good practical joke.
I am notoriously a bad gift giver (I see a need and fill it...think socks and underwear. Yeah, it's bad), so I asked Jack for his suggestions. Boy, did he deliver. He found a lot of battery-operated cars on an online auction site. We brought them home and told Henry to pick...except it's been such a hard choice that the kids are all still driving them around. It is hilarious watching them get in their little clown cars and tear up and down the driveway. Let's hope it translates to them being responsible drivers when they're teenagers. Fingers crossed!
Henry also got love from his siblings and grandparents, who showered him with gifts and conversation (yay for technology so he could speak to his out-of-state family!). All in all, it was a fantastic day for him.
I know I wax poetic whenever it comes to reminiscing during a birthday, but I can't think of a single thing wrong with getting mushy. Henry is an amazing human being who is going to accomplish some amazing things and is going to bring some real cheer to the world along the way. He's so clever and smart, hardworking and dependable, loving and loveable that sometimes, it's hard to remember he's only six. Our family wouldn't be complete without his boisterous and loud personality and we are so incredibly blessed to call him one of our own.
Happy birthday, Henry! We love you!

30 September 2021

Easy Onion Gravy

If I find a recipe I want to try, but it requires any kind of packaged food--powdered soup mixes, canned biscuits, whatever--chances are, I don't have it on hand. So, when I wanted to make a round steak recipe and it called for an onion gravy packet, guess what? I didn't have it. I wish I had Jack's ability to whip up a replacement, but since I don't, I had to do some digging. I found this gem, modified it to what we did have, and it turned out so much better than a powdered mix ever could deliver. Bonus points: it's SUPER easy to make and can top anything from mashed potatoes to round steak to rice. So. GOOD.


2 onions (or 1 large), halved and sliced
2 Tablespoons butter
1 Tablespoon oil
2 Tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cup beef broth
1 teaspoon mustard
2 Tablespoons heavy cream OR sour cream
Salt to taste.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter in the oil. Reduce the heat slightly and add the onions, cooking them until tender and starting to carmelize with color, about five to eight minutes. Add in the flour and cook another two to three minutes. Whisk in 1/4 cup of the broth until it's a thick paste. Gradually add the remaining broth until it's a smooth consistency. Simmer for about two to three minutes, until it begins to thicken again. Add the mustard, cream, and season with salt if desired. Serve hot over meat, potatoes, rice, etc.

27 September 2021

Challenging Family Hikes

Over the Labor Day weekend, we had family visiting, and rather than sit around at home, we decided to take a hike...in the rain. The precipitation was not planned or particularly fun for *some* of the kids, so a complaining was expected since it wasn't exactly ideal weather. Rather than end on a sour note, we decided to go hiking that weekend...again! Cue the shouts of elation/ardent complaints. Every kid is different every time we go.
We decided to go to Brown County, a large, forested state park just south of us. We've gone before to a morel festival, visited the park with other cousins, and love to see the colors in the fall, but we've never done any serious venturing through the park.
We picked a trail that was only a couple of miles and was fairly benign, with no real steep hills or endless stairs. Once we got everyone packed up, we found the trailhead and got started. It's no surprise that when we're actually on the trail, all the whining evaporates. There's too much to see and explore to waste their breath on complaining.
Like mushrooms. We went all of five feet before Jack started finding patches of chanterelles. Jack always packs his trusty mushroom bag whenever we take a hike, and for good reason. Honestly, I can't remember the last time we didn't pick up some kind of mushroom or other wild edible on our family adventures.
If there's one thing the kids know how to do, it's hunt for mushrooms. As Jack was harvesting the chanterelles, the kids started wandering the area to find more. They love showing what they've found to Jack and getting the approval to put it in the bag. If they happen to pick something that isn't edible, Jack takes the time to teach them what it is so their confidence in identifying plants, mushrooms, and berries increases.
Though I could have run the entire trail in less than an hour, our progress overall was pretty slow. On top of the mushrooms, Claire has a penchant for climbing trees. I am in awe of how strong and flexible she is. I'm not entirely sure I was ever able to do the kinds of stuff she does. I'm usually the one to bring up the rear, not because I'm the slowest, but because I'm constantly being asked to look at what acrobatics one of the children are doing and if I'll take a photo of them.
Peter's favorite part of the forest are the sticks. He often uses them as walking sticks and has saved himself a few faceplants while employing them properly, but everyone had better watch out if he starts swinging them around. He could knock an ogres off a bridge and has practiced plenty of times in mock battles with older siblings.
My favorite part of any outdoor excursion is the wildlife. We don't usually see anything big, like deer or turkey, because we are way too loud while we travel, but we find plenty of itty bitty critters that can't get away fast enough as we approach. Evelyn usually finds the frogs and toads, reinforcing my theory that they flock to her.
Having worked for several years in university entomology labs, I have a pretty good eye for spotting insects. No one cares for the biting flies, ticks, and mosquitoes, but we love a good wooly worm, butterfly, caterpillar, or stick bug.
 Being from Nebraska, which is not known for being densly forested, I feel like I learn something every time I got into the forest. During that trip, someone found a snake coiled on the forest floor. It was trying to flatten itself in a nothing-to-see-here stance and though it was mostly gray, it had a vibrant yellow line around its neck. I can't help myself when it comes to reptiles, so I got a stick, to look closer and when this little guy wriggle away, I found another surprise--the entire underbelly of the snack was the same bright yellow. I would have loved to play with the (what I now know as a) ringneck snake a for longer, but it escaped into the underbrush before I could get my hands on him.
A couple hours into our leisurely hike, the novelty of being outside was wearing off. The snacks had mostly been eating, the kids' feet were getting sore, and the pleasantly cool morning was turning into a sticky, hot day. Jack was still happily chugging along though--he was finding chantarelles the entire length of the trail and ended up bringing home several pounds.
Him and Adam. He has a sweet set up when we hike because he's eye-level with adults, doesn't have to do any of the work, and gets to nap whenever he feels like it. Pretty soon, he'll be able to snack from his backpack throne, too. Wouldn't we all love to travel in style like that? I know I would!
At the end of the trail, we ran into a detour because the park was working on the trail and it sent our situation straight to dire. Most of the kids were sure they couldn't take another step and were ready to perish along the side of the trail. Solution? We remembered a favorite Chinese buffet of ours that happened to be only a short drive away from where we were. Jack told the kids if they could get to the car, we'd go have a feast. That was all the motivation the kids needed to find the strength to continue.
Dare you to eat squid legs, Claire!
Why do we go hiking, knowing that it might involve whining and it might end with the kids' perceived demise? Really, the rewards are endless and so, so simple. Sitting down after hours on our feet? So satisfying. Cool air conditioning blasting in the car? Heavenly. A never-ending buffet with food everyone likes? Well-deserved and much appreciated!
Henry's always a willing hiker.
Despite it sometimes being hard, we have found that challenging ourselves helps us appreciate the things that makes life easy. It's a reminder to be grateful for the beauty of the earth, the time we have together, the bodies that carry us through, the adventures we find, and the blessing of laying down tired at the end of a hard day.

Call me crazy, but I hope we have many more challenging family hikes.

23 September 2021

Sweet Skillet Cornbread

If there's one thing I love, it's a delicious cornbread. It screams comfort food and can swing sweet or spicy. This particular recipe is definitely sweet, so much so that it really doesn't need any toppings. Maybe some butter, but otherwise, it stands all on its own with soup, grilled meats, or as a breakfast treat!


1 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup oil
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup honey
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups buttermilk (or 1 cup milk with 1/4 cup lemon juice, set long enough to start curdling)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven while the oven preheats.
In a small mixing bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Slice off about 1/2 tablespoon from the stick of butter and set aside to grease the skillet. Melt the remaining butter in a large bowl in the microwave.

Add oil, sugar, and honey in a large bowl with the melted butter. Stir well until combined. Add eggs and buttermilk. Whisk until fully incorporated. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, making sure not to overmix. Make sure the dry ingredients are fully incorporated but don't worry if there are a few lumps.

Remove the cast-iron skillet from the oven. Grease the bottom and sides (all the way to the top) with the remaining half tablespoon butter using a butter knife. If it melts too fast, use a pastry brush to spread it around. Pour the batter into the hot pan. Return the skillet to the oven and bake for 28 to 32 minutes. The cornbread is done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with no wet batter. Cool for five to ten minutes before slicing and serving. Store in a tightly covered container for up to three days (not the cast iron).

20 September 2021


I'm not entirely certain how it happened, but we have a twelve-year-old. That's a year away from a teenager. Six from being an adult. Only four from how old Jack was when he met me. 😳 No matter how we divide it, it blows our minds that it seemed like only yesterday we were waiting and praying and hoping we'd be blessed with a baby of our own. Now, she's the oldest of seven, a woman-child who has a foot still rooted in childhood while taking a very confident step into adulthood.
Since this is a birthday post, I traditionally gush. Good thing Evelyn makes it easy to find things to rave about. Anyone who's ever initially met her knows that she's incredibly shy. You're welcome, Evelyn! You inherited that straight from me. But, if anyone's lucky enough to crack through that protective layer of silence, they'll find out pretty fast that Evelyn is ah-mazing, starting with her sense of humor.
If she's with people she's comfortable with, she's the first to crack a joke, pull a stunt, or do something goofy. She loves to laugh, especially if she gets to do it along with someone else.
One of the tools in her sense of humor arsenal is that eyebrow of hers. She's blessed with incredibly thick, shapely brows and she can make them twitch and lift and wriggle like nobody's business. Usually it's used to bless everyone with laughter, though you'd better watch out if she points it at you when she's annoyed. You will know what's on her mind without a word being uttered.
Taking Adam for a post-dinner cruise.
Maybe Evelyn's good-natured humor is part of the reason she's so good at babysitting. She hasn't gotten to the point that she feels awkward doing "childish" things with other children and frankly, I hope she never does. I should take a lesson from her Book of Life Lessons and take the afternoons to drive in the clown car with a baby by my side or ride the rocket at the park.
On the heels of Evelyn's love of laughter is her desire to p-a-r-t-y. We have some family traditions, like glow bracelet dance parties, chocolate parties, New Year's Eve parties, and birthday parties (so many parties!). It doesn't matter what we're celebrating, Evelyn is there.
It's not all fun and games with Evelyn, though. Yeah, she enjoys goofing off and all, but she's taken a real interest in learning some serious life skills. Washing the dishes? Not so much. Mowing the lawn? Yeah, baby! I'm a *teensy* bit sad about her learning how to mow because I like to mow. Oh, well. At least we have plenty of land and she's good about taking turns.
Another thing Evelyn loves to do is bake. She does cook dinner once in a while since I kindly remind her she can't eat only dessert when she's out on her own, but in truth, baking desserts is where she really shines. I don't remember what I was doing when I was twelve, but I definitely wasn't perfecting pineapple upside-down cake.
Her love of baking also bleeds over into our mutual love of Halloween. We try to one-up each other with our ghoulish creations and every year, I feel like she's been giving me more of a run for my money. Not that I mind.
Her creativity isn't limited to the kitchen, either. She has a particular affinity for graphic design and imaginative character creation. She can manipulate photos and make it look like her siblings are riding a sparkly unicorn wolf and has mashed together their Chinese zodiac symbol with their favorite animal. When she shows me what she's created, it's like getting to take a peek into the way her brain works. I tell ya, it's fascinating.
I especially love it when she uses her creativity to spoil her siblings. If there's a holiday coming up or someone's birthday, she is all over that. Take Henry's last birthday for example--she sketched Henry's head onto Spiderman's body, transferred it to fabric, and turned it into a handsewn pillow. Again, what was I doing at twelve? Not that!
With a farm full of animals, each of our kids has taken a liking to one species. For Evelyn, she's always loved chickens. Ever since she was a little girl on our farm in Iowa, she's had a knack with the hens. She'd chase them down, give them hugs, and even trained one of them to lay down. Seriously hilarious.
Nowadays, she's much more helpful with them. She'll feed and water them, lock them up at night, collect the eggs, knows all their breeds and backstory, and has named each and every one of them. Naturally.
Aside from the chickens and mowing, Evelyn is an old hand at farm chores. She can swing an ax, stack hay bales, and clean stalls.
Admittedly, she isn't always thrilled about doing all the other chores--there is whining, possibly coupled with a few eye rolls--but there's one job I've never even had to ask her to do because she enjoys doing it that much. What is it? Picking chamomile. Every spring, the flowers come out when the weather is gorgeous and chances are, Evelyn's sitting in the front yard, snapping the flowers off to be dried and turned into tea. The ironic part is that she doesn't even like chamomile tea. 😂
Don't think Evelyn's life is full of babysitting and farm chores and baking for a large family, either. She also has lots of outside activities that she enjoys, even if she pretends like she doesn't. Take hiking for example. She claims she doesn't like wandering around in the forest, getting all sweaty and tired and sometimes soaked in unanticipated rainstorms, but after she gets her complaining out and we're warmed up on the trail, she's one of our best hikers. She leads the pack and as a bonus, she's getting big enough to carry some serious weight in her backpack, especially if it's geodes or fossils she's found.
If there ever was a water baby, it'd be Evelyn. She took to swimming with enthusiasm even before several summers of swim lessons. It eventually led to her being on the middle school swim team, where she has been learning to perfect her strokes and is able to unleash her surprisingly competitive side. She is so matter-of-fact about her skills and work ethic that I can't help but laugh when she tells me what she says to teammates that she passes while swimming laps at practice ("If you don't want me to pass you, swim faster." Zing!).
Though she loves to paddle around in a pool, her love of water really shines when she's in our pond. She's been coaching me on getting faster (I'm eyeballing doing a triathalon in the future) and pushes me to swim harder (she's already waaaaaaay faster than me, though I'm working on remedying that...we shall see who comes out on top). Mostly, she just loves to be in the water. She goes down the slide and can cannonball like a pro. Sometimes, she just floats around, letting herself drift aimlessly.
I also suspect her love of water is why Evelyn also catches an unusually large number of frogs and toads. I'm not kidding when I say some have hopped into her lap or repeatedly swam up to her while she's in the pond. Maybe they're her Prince Charming in disguise, but she's not doing any kissing to find out. She is still only twelve.
There are other random, surprising things about Evelyn that she doesn't readily share with people. Sure, she'll tell you if you asked--we're trying to teach our kids that they can be confident and acknowledge when they've worked hard to be good at something, but she also doesn't go broadcasting it if unsolicited because she's not big on boasting. For example, she'll hoola hoop just about anyone under the table and do it with a big, toothy, braces-filled smile on her face.
She has successfully started more fires than most other kids. Intentionally. It's something I hadn't ever even tried until my late twenties, but it's a life skill that might come in handy in a lot of scenarios. Mostly, Evelyn loves to get a fire going so she can toast marshmallows.
Speaking of fire, it was Evelyn's first year lighting off fireworks at Jack's family's annual Fourth of July celebration. Again, her typically quiet and shy demenor might fool people into thinking she's reserved and cautious, but we have dubbed her our reluctant thrill seeker. It might take her a minute to work up the courage to blow up fireworks or get in line for the roller coaster, but once she does, there's no going back.
Of all the things that Evelyn has tried in her life, she is still a champion sleeper. She's growing like a weed--I have no doubt she'll pass up my height by her next birthday. After a day of swimming or getting up early for school or running around with her siblings, it's not uncommon to find her asleep on the couch, her bed, in the hammock, on the floor, or in her favorite chair for a good, long snooze. I sort of envy her for it.
The day of Evelyn's birthday (waaaay back in May and shortly after Adam arrived) was a lot like how birthdays normally go around here. She was excused from chores, she had her favorite meal, we spent the day swimming, and she opened her pile of gifts with grateful excitement. It was special yet lowkey. My favorite sort of celebration.
It's easy to want to celebrate Evelyn. She's so many things--creative, amusing, intelligent, perceptive, incredible, responsible, passionate, empathetic, and on and on and on--all rolled into one adorable package. It's hard to imagine any sort of family life without her because it feels like we've always known her and had her as part of our herd.
Part of the joy we've discovered with having children is that watching them learn, grown, and experience life reminds us a lot of what it felt like to be a child (and without reliving the awkwardness of it all over again thank goodness). Being a parent I think is exactly what Peter Pan was looking for--that perpetual enjoyment and carefree amusement that youth seems to bring while there's also an excited anticipation for the future. We're not sure what life will bring for Evelyn, but we know she'll meet it with determination, grit, cheer, and faith.
Happiest of (severely belated) birthdays, darling Evelyn! We love you!


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