Armchair – Playroom

In April Alaska a certain color palette dominates the landscape – leafless tree branches, dust, and leftover snow tend brown and gray – but a clear blue sky, mountains still white, and sunshine brightened my recent week at Downtown Abbey.

Baby Brother, eight months old, is now such a presence, full of life and love. He’s struggling bravely through teething, and his frequent grin revealed two teeth on bottom and one and a half on top – the last one emerging overnight (from a gum swollen for weeks).

He laughs readily – just waving a diaper over his bare belly brings a string of chuckles! And lying on his back, he smiles broadly and pulses his body up from shoulders to heels in response to a friendly face – Lady Baby calls it his “seal hop.”

He flings his arms wide and shudders at exciting things – food coming or a new large cube full of colorful, movable parts to manipulate. He looks intensely at a resident cat or dog passing by, and grabs a handful of fur when he can. He leaps high and long in his hanging jumper.

Using a “food feeder” to feed himself, he holds a lollipop-like handle and squishes avocado or banana or sweet potato through a cluster of tiny holes in the soft silicone top. He hums with enthusiasm when he eats (like his sister did, and his dad long ago.)

It’s easy to see how the differences between first and second born develop. Lady Baby is loving and helpful and the source of inventive fun for her brother. Baby Brother considers before reacting, waiting just a bit, observing. The benefits of surveying the situation might outweigh being in front.

The Tooth Fairy has twice visited Lady Baby – new bottom teeth! Her clothing style these days eschews girly and dictates sporty outfits, soccer shorts or sweat pants, a ball cap with sunflap (not worn at meals), or most favorite – a thin Ninja hoodie revealing just her lovely eyes.

Mrs. Hughes and I tackled some projects, and I’d like to say we cleared the slow drain in the bathroom sink. But, after figuring out how to undo the sink stopper and the P-trap, and detonating three baking soda and vinegar bombs, we called the plumber. A little more successfully, by working “around the edges” as Maggie O’Farrell says, we sewed hot weather clothes from gauzy muslin for Baby Brother. With Lady Baby’s help, Baby Brother watching from a nearby seat, we began to print the little pilgrim from the Via Francigena on T-shirts for an upcoming family adventure.

The Downtown Abbey playroom now doubles as guestroom – with space for sleeping, playing adventure guys, and, with a wooden rocking horse for footstool and tiny chair to hold a teacup, enjoying a favorite old leather armchair.

 

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A Very Happy Time

A pre-Christmas trip north to Alaska is a cherished tradition now. Several mornings we drove to preschool, where candlelight flickers in the classroom, and viewed the “snowcake” Lady Baby created. We decorated the Downtown Abbey Christmas tree, read many Christmas books, and did a lot of “come let us adore him” around Baby Brother. After her mom laid it out for us, Lady Baby helped me (sitting in my lap, and pushing the lever for backstitching) sew a stocking for her brother.

One day we made Christmas cookies – a nearly all-day affair. Lady Baby can now do all the steps – rolling and cutting and decorating. For part of the time, Baby Brother slept on me in the Ergo, but he woke in time for decorating at the kitchen table.

He’s so long, he’s outgrown the nest I can make for a baby by crooking one knee and placing my ankle on the other. So we used a pillow as a head prop, and he smiled and chuckled (he does that now!) as frosting flew nearby, and Poppa Jim pretended to be stealing cookies.

This year Mrs. Hughes suggested a Saturday morning exchange of our gifts to each other, and Lady Baby was so excited to come downstairs and discover presents under the tree. Outdoors, the North wind did blow in cold and snowy dark till after 9 a.m., inside we sat in the cozy living room by the lighted tree. Baby Brother slept on his dad while Lady Baby deciphered gift tags and dispensed packages – a perfect sampler of Christmas morning magic.

When we reminisced about the cookie making, Lady Baby said: “That was a very happy time for me.”

So me too – the whole trip.

pears-red-bartlett

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The Grand VIPs

Recently I spent the best part of three weeks traveling north and south to visit these important people:

sweet-baby-vip

Sweet Baby, who is 20 months old now, wraps her arms around my neck and legs around my waist in exuberant hugs – she expresses sheer delight and love better than anybody.

She speed walks through her house, curving gracefully around obstacles, but is never faster than when she spots an open gate or unlatched drawer. She’s a tiny detective with the legs of a sprinter.

Sweet Baby identifies animals in her books (in both Thai and English), and can repeat any word back to you. She asks her mom for nam and me for milk. She has phrases that are particularly her own, “no-me, no-me, no-me” might translate as “do it myself.” And she names all of us in photos – her uncle, Mr. Carson, is “Cheddar” – and Lady Baby rates a handclap along with her name.

Books fill a long, double-decker set of cubbies in her bedroom. Sometimes when we read she slides off my lap and picks a different book, other times she sits and listens to many long stories. (In the “Lion in The Library,” she begins to anticipate his roar when she sees the picture of the lion’s mouth wide open.)

baby-brother-vip

Baby Brother sleeps, eats, smiles, and enjoys – watching with fascination his sister and the menagerie. I’m convinced he will always be this way, good-natured, strong and tall, beloved.

Privileged grandmother moments filled this visit – time holding him as he slept (a huge warm bundle against my chest), and daily walks – his sturdy stroller an anchor on slippery streets. Now, when he catches your eye, he breaks into a huge grin, and love washes over his face at the sight of his mom. In a totally distinguishing feature, he grunts and makes loud noise – while sound asleep (!) in the early morning. It’s so him.

On Halloween evening with Lady Baby’s help, Mr. Carson put a huge, moving spider in the front yard, and Mrs. Hughes added bones and a skull, and black paper rats to the porch. While the others followed Lady Baby, a waddling penguin, as she trick or treated, I stayed behind wearing Baby Brother in the Ergo and answered the door at Downtown Abbey. (One puzzled pirate asked, “Is that a real baby?”)

lady-baby-vip

Lady Baby’s daily routine is specific now, and when I visit I try to fit in – take her to school in the morning, stay home with her brother while her mom picks her up, and still make time for “doing not much” together.

One day we set out for a walk and after the first block she asked me to tell her some things I’d been doing (how often does anyone ask that!). While we ate our muffins at the bakery, we played hide and seek on the table top with the resident plastic animals (hiding them under napkins and behind the sugar container).

At the used bookstore, where she helped me find old favorites for Sweet Baby, Lady Baby selected books for herself about knights, insects, and polar bears. And back at home, I read all of “King Ottocar’s Sceptre” – a whole Tin Tin volume out loud in one sitting – not an easy thing to do, but a grandmother thing to do.

These three are very important to each other also, and for these Thanksgiving days, they’ll be together!

I wish you a peaceful, loving holiday with food and family and friends!

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Zucchini Skillet Cakes for Baby Brother

Well, not directly – transformed into mama’s milk for him, but the rest of the family loved these cakes. During his first week, his other grandmother brought several terrific meals to Downtown Abbey – this was my favorite.

The recipe (here) is in “Vegetarian Suppers From Deborah Madison’s Kitchen,” and in keeping with how behind I feel in most everything, except in being a thrilled granny, I haven’t yet made it – but I ordered the book!

Just a few hours before her brother’s birth, Lady Baby was floating with her mom in a swimming pool, along with her dad and aunt. It was that quick! Her parents went directly to the hospital, and her auntie dropped Lady Baby home on her way.

We settled in to wait, played a matching game over and over, walked to the bakery for bread, and picked a bouquet from the neighbor’s garden. We received the first magic photo mid-afternoon, and in late afternoon drove to the hospital. Lady Baby carried the flowers and after attaching visitor stickers, we tiptoed to Labor and Delivery. Love and smiles filled that room!

The siblings look remarkably alike, her mom called Lady Baby a feminine version of this robust boy, and they seem to share temperament – peaceful and accommodating. We only stayed a little while, but what a privilege for me to see so soon this brand new lad.

Lady Baby wanted to call her teacher from the hospital parking lot – and left a succinct message: “My baby brother is born.” She sang an exuberant song about Big Sister and Baby Brother all the way to pick up pizza.

At home we played more matching game (I always lose), read a lot of books, bedded down the animals, and slept all night. In the morning we made cookies, wrapped a bulldozer, and made cards for Baby Brother and mom. (Days later Lady Baby told me: “I don’t like being alone in a house with just one person unless it’s one of my parents.” Given that reality, she was really brave.)

Baby Brother came home that day, and fall descended with rain and cold. In keeping with the season, Lady Baby started sniffles, so for the first few days could touch only her brother’s feet (good-sized feet) and watch all the ministrations to him. Her comment: “It’s a lot of work to take care of a baby.”

Such joy to watch this new and lucky boy join his loving family. He sleeps (!) and is a real armful. As I held him and Lady Baby sat close to play Uno, Mrs. Hughes (to return to Downtown Abbey names) cooked the zucchini skillet cakes, and Mr. Carson made a tasty version of ranch dressing to accompany. Good! (And terrific the next day.)

I would like to make these, I will make these – soon.

baby-brother-on-walk

 

 

 

 

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Summer Alaska

In July we overlapped with Sweet Baby and her parents during a visit to Anchorage. She is three years younger than her cousin Lady Baby, whom she clearly adores and admires, always watching and imitating when she can.

At Lady Baby’s soccer game (nothing is cuter than three and four-year olds in tiny but still oversized soccer shirts on a mini soccer field, chasing a small ball, sometimes in the right direction). Sweet Baby sat rapt, holding a soccer ball and staring at the jolly chaos on the field.

At home the two cousins pushed doll strollers full of babies and “stuffies” around the house. And they went to the playground together – Lady Baby runs on the jiggly bridge, climbs to the top of the netting, swings high, and whizzes down the steep slide. Sweet Baby watches, and following encouraging instructions, “do this slide,” “come up here,” does her best to keep up.

One weekday, those not at work headed north to Rendezvous Peak at Arctic Valley, (the original Anchorage ski resort). The hike is perfect for little legs, just a mile and a half above the timberline from the parking lot, up to a saddle overlooking a dramatic view.

Both girls started out walking – Sweet Baby holding one of Lady Baby’s fingers (refusing to hold a whole hand, Sweet Baby willingly clasps just one finger). When Sweet Baby paused with her attendants to drink mom’s milk and load into the pack, Lady Baby said: “Let’s go!” and began to run up the trail.

At a small bridge over the creek that runs through the valley, Lady Baby told me she wished she had a little house right on the bridge, and that I could have another one right next door, and that the doors would always be open between them. Below she’d have a beehive with friendly bees, and maybe she’d be the queen. We allowed as how it would be nice to dip feet in that creek on the way down.

Apple slices helped our upward momentum, as she chatted and climbed, eager for us to stay in front. The trail is narrow and sunken in tundra, full of bearberry, tiny ferns and many wildflowers to either side. We spoke of blueberries, and found two ready to eat.

The others caught up, and we scouted a flat spot for lunch of egg salad sandwiches, chips, and chocolate warm and soft from the pack. Lady Baby found a wide dip in the tundra with a stand of yellow arnica covered with dozens of orange butterflies.

Lady Baby maybe thought we’d head down after lunch (I could have warned her that the Trail Boss always finishes the up). By then I’d worn out the naming of plants, attempts to encourage staying in front, my songs and stories (even the one about hiking the trail with her father when he was small, and in a patch of heather stretched his arms wide and twirled in a perfect Julie Andrews “the hills are alive” moment). The trail got steeper and led to a sit down declaration, “too tired to go on.”

Poppa Jim and Sweet Baby’s parents began the miraculous hike-saving game of hide-and-seek: “We’ll close our eyes and count to 20.” Lady Baby darted on – running full-tilt uphill! She can hide in stands of dwarf fireweed and be gleeful when discovered.

Trying to hide, I laid down on the fragrant tundra cushion, looked at the blue sky, and remembered other days on this mountain – meeting my husband here as beginner skiers and bringing our sons to ski and hike. The past combined with the present to fill me with gratitude.

Lady Baby soon led us to the top – proud of the climb – but more so of her hiding prowess. The downhill walk is easy with Anchorage in view far below – and the promised wading creek.

Oh Alaska water is cold! But we did it, held hands, stepped gingerly on gravel to a flat sun-warmed rock, and cheered.

Cousins

 

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Miso Sweet Potato and Broccoli Bowl

During my recent visit at Downtown Abbey, Mrs. Hughes proposed for dinner this recipe from Deb Perelman’s blog, “The Smitten Kitchen,” – it’s delicious! The complete recipe is here, but you could make a fine variation using Perelman’s ingredients list in the bowl below.

I followed Perelman’s suggestions for preparing the vegetables – first coating the baking tray with “a thin slick of olive oil” and roasting one-inch chunks of sweet potatoes for 20 minutes. Then I flipped the sweet potatoes and piled on the broccoli florets to cook.

The dressing makes this dish, and Mrs. Hughes whipped it together (while I played a “helicopter rescue and take patient to the hospital” game). She layered our bowls with a mix of wild and brown rice, lots of the vegetables, and topped with the sauce.

Something comforts about warm food in a bowl – each bite different. Maybe not so comforting as a helicopter airlift – but good!

Sweet Potato and Broc