Wednesday, May 26, 2010

small miracles

Good news. We found Baldwin today. My neighbor and friend Katherine found her hiding in a pile of brush behind her studio. After work, with threatening gray thunderheads gathering around us, Dora and I called for her by the brush pile. I was near giving up when I heard some faint meowing. Soon she scurried out the other side away from us, under a trailer where other wild cats like to hide. I finally coaxed her out with a can of cat food.

I scooped the food onto a plate and put her in the bathroom to eat alone. She ate the whole thing. When I checked on her a while later, she rubbed against me and purred. I think she had eaten very little in the 10 or so days she has been gone, but otherwise she seems fine. She is back to hiding behind the TV cabinet. Tomorrow I'm going to buy her some kitty relaxation herbs that Katherine told me about.

We had a late, simple dinner, and a late bedtime, and I have a stack of napkins to finish. I can't write more about this now other than to say thank God for small miracles, and for a neighborhood full of pet lovers who are paying attention, and for Newman's Own Turkey Formula.

Every once in a while, what we have lost is found again. Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

better late than never

Dora's hair is beginning to get curly. After over two years of fine, straight, white blond baby hair, she's been running around for the past few weeks with loose ringlet curls framing her face. We always hoped she might end up with the best combination of hair from us, loose, beautiful waves halfway between my thick straight hair and Brian's tight, unruly curls. Now it appears that might end up being the case. Better late than never, I suppose.

This is what we want for our children in every way: to impart on them the best of ourselves, giving them all of our good qualities and none of our less desired ones, physical or otherwise. We can only hope that Dora inherits her father's good eyesight, so that she isn't so nearsighted that she can't read the clock at night like her mama. If we're lucky, she'll grow up with my less-sensitive digestive system, or at least my tendency to remember and avoid the things that disagree with me, a talent her father has yet to develop. She is already showing a love of music, even telling Brian "I want James Brown" when she wants to dance. Maybe she'll get Brian's natural musical talents. And in her pretend world, where she spends a lot of time these days, one of her favorite toys is the pretend cupcake baking set. I'm hoping she'll follow me into the kitchen as well.

In reality, we have very little control over these things - hair and eye color and sensitive stomachs get passed on in ways we understand but cannot influence. Our influence, though - the part we do control - is powerful just the same. I know Dora yells "stop that Newman!" because I do sometimes. I worry also that her fiery temper, quite shocking in comparison to her usually sunny disposition, comes from me as well. When she is biting and kicking me, screaming at me for what she wants, I wonder if I'm not just getting my due for the temper I unleashed on my own parents all those years ago.

Even when we do our very best to avoid it, sometimes what we do ends up hurting our children. On Monday, Brian and I sat with Dora at the dentist's office while she got her first 2 fillings. As a person who didn't have a cavity until my late 20s, the fact that she already has 4 makes me cringe. Given what she had to endure, she really did an amazing job. She cried, but she sat still and didn't struggle as the assistant held her head for the doctor. Holding her down while the smell of drill against enamel filled the air, her eyes filled with fear and uncertainty, I felt twice the pain and guilt. It was painful enough having to participate in the procedure, even as I know we needed to do it. But the entire experience was made even more painful by my feeling that the entire thing is my fault. I nursed Dora at night, and did not always brush her teeth afterwards. There were a lot of reasons I did it - because I wanted weaning to occur naturally, because I wanted all of us to sleep, because I was giving her what she wanted, because I was just trying to survive. I never set out to hurt her, of course, but knowing that my decision landed her in the dentist's chair, crying in pain and fear, was almost more than I could bear.

I've made some other mistakes this week, too. Our very shy and skittish cat, Baldwin, has disappeared. She never goes outside, and the truth is we rarely even see her inside. But last weekend, while Brian was out gigging and I was in and out of the backyard working on projects, the backdoor came open a few times. Once I caught all the cats in the backyard, corralling them back in with the promise of a can of cat food. Another time, I thought only Salem - our savviest escape artist - had gotten out. Days later I realized I hadn't seen Baldwin in a while, and a search of her favorite hiding spaces, and then every possible hiding space, convinced me that she is not in the house anymore. I've searched the garage, the neighbor's yard, combed the entire block for any sign of her. She is so impossibly timid, my guess is that she is holed up somewhere, hiding and afraid. It was unintentional, of course, but now I've hurt someone I cared about just the same, and I'm not sure she'll ever be back.

I've been thinking about the Japanese philosophy Kaizen, or continuous improvement, ever since I heard about it in a This American Life podcast weeks ago. It's mentioned in one of Toyota's new commercials, too. Like everyone else I spend plenty of time beating myself up for my mistakes, so I've been trying to assuage that a bit with the concept of continuous improvement - do better next time, learn from every misstep, keep moving forward. It's like marriage or labor or cooking or baby rearing - learn and move forward, learn and move forward, one step/contraction/recipe/day at a time.

Now, we brush morning and night, with fluoride toothpaste and an electric toothbrush. Nothing but water before sleep. No more mommy milk, either, as much as we both fondly miss it. I double-check the backdoor, now. This afternoon, we'll be putting up posters about Baldwin. The worst could be true - she could be hurt somewhere, or worse. But maybe she's been found by someone lovely, who really needed a kitty, who could give her a one-cat-home where she wouldn't be terrorized by some of my other bully cats. Maybe she's somewhere enjoying a sunny window, resting and awaiting her next delicious meal. Maybe my mistake is Baldwin's Kaizen, her chance to move forward in a better way. Hopefully all of this has done more than just cause us pain, but has improved us as well, so we can do better, move forward together, grow. Better late than never.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

my mom's easter bread

Last summer, shortly after I started this blog, I was home in Ohio at my dad's house. I snapped the first header photo for this blog, wandered around the yard using the old picnic table as a backdrop for the FiestaWare's bright colors. I stumbled upon a couple of recipes that remind me so much of my mom, of my childhood. I was so happy to find her recipe for tomato salad, which I posted a few weeks later. I also found a small, faded paper booklet full of feast bread recipes from around the world. Inside was a treasure I remember well from childhood - Kulich. This is a sweet, yeasted bread that my mother made every year at Eastertime. I was so happy to have found this recipe, so happy to be able to carry on this tradition for my family now.

Baked in old coffee cans, this feast bread puffs up over the top of the can, creating a dome perfect for drizzling with sweet, confectioner's-sugar-based icing. Although the original recipe calls for topping the bread with lemon icing and candied fruits, my mom always used plain confectioner's sugar icing and multi-colored sprinkles. In our house, the rule was always that the oldest child got to eat the frosted top. As the youngest, not just in my immediate family, but the youngest cousin in my generation on either side of our family, I thought this rule was completely unfair. I, of course, would never be the oldest child. Until now.

I intended to make this bread at Easter this year, but instead was traveling to my Uncle Roger's funeral at the time so could not. It's a bit late this year, although it's still technically Easter in our church. This was my first time making the bread on my own, and I have some questions I would love to ask my mom. She must have used more than the two cans called for in the recipe, because my two loaves came so far out of the top of the cans that they took on a life of their own.

I used raisins as called for but I'm pretty sure she used currants. The recipe also calls for mixing the entire thing with a mixer, which I did, but I'm pretty sure my mother never did. She most likely mixed it by hand, with a wooden spoon in the big pink Corningware mixing bowl, the pull-out metal work surface of the Hoosier her backdrop. I'm going to take this approach next time, because I think the texture will improve. And next time I'm going to toast the blanched almonds before using them. The recipe below, however, is unaltered from the original. I'll post an adapted version in the future - maybe next year, when I'll follow the rules and let Dora eat the frosted top.

Kulich - Russian feast bread

3 - 3 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon (or 1 package) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup butter, cut into pieces
2 eggs plus 2 yolks
1 1/2 Tablespoons lemon zest
1/4 cup raisins (or currants)
1/4 cup blanched almonds (try toasting them first)

1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 Tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In a large bowl mix well 1 cup flour, the sugar, yeast, and salt; set aside. In a small saucepan, heat milk and butter over low heat until very warm (120 - 130 degrees) - it's ok if the butter doesn't melt. Gradually add to flour mixture; beat at medium speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Add eggs, yolks, lemon peel, and 1 cup flour; beat at medium speed an additional 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Stir in raisins, almonds, and enough remaining flour to make a soft dough that leaves the sides of the bowl. Turn out on a lightly floured surface; knead 8 to 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary, until dough is smooth and elastic.

Place in greased bowl, turn to grease top. Cover; let rise in a warm place about 1 hour or until doubled. Generously grease one 1-pound coffee can and one 1-pound fruit can (remove paper labels). Punch down dough; place in cans, half-filling each. Cover; let rise in warm place about 1 hour, until-doubled. Bake in preheated 350 degree oven 25 - 35 minutes (check fruit can after 25 minutes) or until tops are golden brown. Remove immediately from cans and cool upright on wire racks. To make icing, whisk together milk, confectioner's sugar, and vanilla until smooth. Frost tops with icing, letting it run down sides. Decorate with sprinkles. Slice off the top and give it to the oldest kid in the room, or eat it yourself when no one's looking.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

tiny sparkle

Earlier this week, I was minding my own business at work, typing away at a report while the sun shone brilliantly outside, illuminating a perfectly cloudless day while many of my other mom friends enjoyed trips to the playground and play dates at the Nature Center. I pushed those seemingly idyllic lifestyles from my mind and focused on the task at hand, snapshots of family and construction paper cut-outs of baby hands surrounding and sustaining me instead. My phone buzzed, and a voice over my intercom said, "your mother's on the phone". For a split second, I struggled to figure out what was happening, my brain fumbling to recognize this unfamiliar and impossible turn of events. "My mother is deceased, so this call can't be for me," I said. The voice replied "well, she SAID Carrie". I sensed the annoyance in her tone and thought, "oh, you want to argue with me about this?" "The call is for someone else" I said, and hung up.

I sat at my desk and started to cry. I know it was a simple mistake, a misunderstanding, but it felt like a joke, salt in the wound, sand in the eye. It made me realize something else, too, something I hadn't thought of for a long time. People get calls from their moms while they are at work. Some people probably have that happen regularly. "It's your mom again" says the voice over the intercom. I know it might seem strange to suggest I didn't already know this, but it's just something I had put out of my mind. I thought of my coworkers casually taking a call from their mom, or even brushing her off to get back to work, and felt that familiar heavy sadness I feel when reminders of my mom's absence jump out unexpectedly, shining a harsh spotlight on the missing piece of my life.

Friday after work, Brian watched Dora so I could run some errands. I stopped at the fabric shop for some zippers, then to Target for cleaning supplies. A mob of people surrounded the card aisle, jockeying for position in front of a huge display. I thought, "What is going on?" Graduation? Happy Spring? Oh, right. Mother's Day. How could I forget? I felt that familiar sting again, the reminder that I'm part of this "club", as my friend Gretchen calls it. I hurried away from the crowd, tears stinging my eyes. Mother's Day is a time of emotional push and pull, a fine balance between celebrating the beauty of my daughter and lamenting the loss of my mother. It is a bittersweet day, to say the least.

This morning, I got up early to hit the grocery store alone before church, just me and the dads sneaking out for last minute gifts and flowers. I came home and there was a sweet card and an iTunes gift certificate for me, and Dora said, "Happy Mother's Day, Mommy". We went to church together, colored, played in the yard. I baked Kulich, a Russian feast bread my mom used to make at Easter-time. Later, the three of us went for a hike at Bent Creek, chasing blue butterflies and waving at cyclists. We went to dinner, then toasted marshmallows in the backyard over our new fire pit. At bedtime, I snuggled into bed next to Dora, rubbing her back to help her fall asleep. I thought about my mom, wishing as I often do for one more day, one more chance to ask her the questions I have now, one opportunity for her to see my beautiful girl, my good marriage, my life as it is now. Dora put her arm around me, her eyes sleepy and closed, and whispered, "Happy Mother's Day, Mommy".

A week ago, as our quick visit to the beach drew to a close, I tiptoed out of our hotel room as Dora and Brian slept in the early morning. My mom loved walking on the beach in the early morning, the birds, the angle of the sun, the ocean in its most natural state. I walked along the waves slowly, the hood of my sweatshirt up against the strong breeze. I thought about my mom, pictured her on so many mornings like this one on the shores of North Carolina, watching sandpipers chase the edge of the surf. I was nearly back to the hotel when I saw what I was looking for - a rare beach treasure my mother was notorious for spotting. A tiny sparkle in the sand revealed it - a small shard of opaque white sea glass. The advent of recycling - something I practice religiously - has rendered sea glass nearly extinct. Though I know it is a good sign that it is uncommon, I still look for it, still always feel that no beach trip is complete without a smooth glass splinter riding home in my pocket. On that early morning beach, reaching to the sand for the sea glass, I felt surrounded by my mother's spirit, by all the things that remind me of her. I smiled, squeezing the glass in my hand and heading home. "Thanks mom", I thought.

Although the reminders of my mother's absence are all around me these days - even popping up unexpectedly at work or as I run errands - the reminders of her presence are here, too. I see them in nature, in my daughter, in myself. Like a tiny sparkle of sea glass against sand, it often takes a discerning and attentive eye to notice these artifacts of her spirit around me. But they are here, nonetheless, maintaining our connection, shaping my life now, our love one long continuous thread as infinite and unbroken as the ocean horizon.

"Happy Mother's Day, Mommy" I whisper. I love, love, love you.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

shore and horizon

For the past two years and nine months, I envisioned myself writing about this subject many times. I knew it was inevitable - a necessary if bittersweet step towards the sort of independence and growth my little one would eventually need. There were times when I lived in absolute fear of this happening, times when I simply felt sad that it would happen one day, and times when I was more than ready for it to be so. With a bit of nudging from me, a few nights of tears from both of us, and a lot of discussion, Dora has stopped nursing. I'm sure there are many people who might think that, at 2 years and 9 months, she was long overdue for weaning. There may be others who think it happened too soon - that the fact that I had to push her a little bit meant it was too early. Either way, it has happened, and we have thus far survived this transition relatively unscathed.

Dora and I graduated from nursing during the day or at bedtime a while ago, but it was that middle-of-the-night, get-back-to-sleep nursing that we couldn't find a way to stop. My pediatrician once told me not to get in the habit of nursing her in the middle of the night (once she was old enough to sleep through without eating). I remember thinking, "you're not the one who has to get up the next day and go to work after a sleepless night". Five minutes of nursing and she was back to sleep, and so was I. Even though I've had several business trips that have left us separated for days, once reunited we have always picked the habit up again. I kept hoping that she would just lose interest - this, the baby who refused to take a bottle with such determination that she would go 8 hours between feedings even when she was very, very young. A minor dental crisis spurned me to more decisive action. About a week ago, after many, many discussions about how mommy milk is for babies, I told Dora that we would snuggle back to sleep instead of nursing. She was tearful, frustrated, laying on the ground moaning - but I held my ground and within 20 minutes she was back to sleep in bed. We had at least one more night of real resistance, and a few tears here and there - but overall it has been much less traumatic than I had imagined.

My experience breastfeeding Dora has been absolutely beautiful. Aside from those first few incredibly difficult weeks, and the months and months of bottles refused, it was easy, loving, perfect. In those early months, I spent hours gazing at Dora's sweet angelic face, watching her deep blue eyes flutter shut as I listened to her swallows, her tiny baby hand on my chest. During my deepest moments of anxiety, settling onto the couch together to nurse was my surest way to calm down - deep breathing and a dose of oxytocin do wonders to settle the nerves. The rush of love a mother feels when breastfeeding her infant is explainable through science - the pituitary gland releases oxytocin and prolactin, causing the nursing mother to feel intense love for her baby. It's more than that, though, isn't it? To me, that's the feeling of my heart and soul expanding, opening up to a love I never knew possible. That's not a hormone working it's magic on my brain - it's my baby, reaching in and connecting with me in the most primal, most basic way.

Two nights ago we were sleeping in a hotel room in an oceanfront hotel in Atlantic Beach, NC. Brian and Dora had joined me for a work trip, and we stayed an extra night for a mini-family vacation. Dora woke me up in the middle of the night, crying. She did not want to lay down and snuggle, did not want to join Brian and I in our bed. She looked at me and said, "I want milk like a baby". I looked at her sweet face, her blond hair a wild frame around it, and I felt my heart swell with the longing to give her just what she wanted, to hold her close and listen to her breathe and swallow, breathe and swallow. Instead, I offered her an alternative - a drink of regular milk, held in my arms like a baby, followed by brushing of teeth and snuggling in her bed. Within minutes she was asleep again, a little baby island surrounded by her big white bed.

I laid in bed next to my sleeping husband, tears running down my cheeks as I bid a final farewell to nursing my sweet baby girl. I knew then that our time together in that way was gone for good. The full moon was huge and yellow, slowly rising over the black ocean, it's white streaks reaching from shore to horizon. I imagined myself on the dark sand, the moon above me and the cool, hard sand below, letting go of our sweet time together like a tiny paper sailboat, bobbing up and down, sailing out to sea. All of our love and tenderness and intimacy floating away on the dark waves, the strength of our connection like the moonlight on the water, transcending space and time, touching both shore and horizon.

I let go of this time with love, with as much strength as I can muster, with the knowledge that I will hold it in my heart forever, as a sacred and beautiful space in which I discovered the depth and breadth of my love. It's as if I've discovered an ocean within myself, a vastness unmeasurable by science or technology. Thank you, nature, for creating this experience. Thank you, Brian, for loving and supporting it for us. Thank you, sweet baby Isadora, for the amazing love you have given me, for the light you have brought to my life and the world, for the connection between us that I know will transcend space and time, touching both shore and horizon forever.