Kicking off a month of Christmas

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I recently read an article in which I was surprised to learn that traditionally Christians and Catholics did not decorate a tree or put up any Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve. I don’t remember when we used to get our tree as a kid but I remember going to the Kmart parking lot to pick one out in the evening, and I remember loving Christmas decorations and Christmas music. I used to put those plug-in candles in the windows of my bedroom (and I feel like I hung on to them much longer than just the Christmas season) and I’d bring my family’s Christmas CDs upstairs to my room and listen to them when I went to sleep at night. I remember thinking that it was wonderful the year that my dad got fancy lights for the hedge out in front of our house that had multiple blinking and twinkling modes to choose from.

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I’ve always loved the lead up to Christmas and on many occasions have felt really sad when the day was finally over. I’ve read before that for most people, having something to look forward to contributes to well being, and that the looking forward is often better than the actualization of that something. So rather than downplaying the fun of Christmas in an effort to avoid that let down, I’d rather play up the period of anticipation to make the most of it. If I love the decorations and the lights and the preparation and the countdown, then let’s make a month of that. The day will come and go no matter what, but why not fill more of the dark and gloomy days of winter with decorations and twinkle lights and anticipation?

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The first Christmas-related activity that I allow myself to indulge in each year is our Christmas card. I love Christmas cards; I love making them, sending them, receiving them. I hang them all up on a cabinet in our kitchen and I love walking by them all season long. I can always justifying kicking this part of the season off really early by telling myself that I want to have them out shortly after Thanksgiving (so that I can focus on other things for the rest of the month, naturally; it’s all about efficiency) so we need to plan and take photos well in advance so that we have time to order them. This year that didn’t pan out exactly as planned, because the photographer we’d hoped to work with flaked at the last minute, so I decided that surely I could do this myself. My dad recently let me borrow his tripod and we have a suitable enough backyard, so why not?

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The only hiccup was the 30 degree weather (not to mention having to use a timer and then run into position and try to get the kids to look at a camera with no person behind it to grab their attention). My cousin Aimee does this almost every year and I have NO idea how she gets such wonderful photos of her family of six. This is almost an impossible task. The cooperation bribes this year went from hot cocoa, to hot cocoa with unlimited marshmallows, to hot cocoa with unlimited marshmallows and Halloween candy. We eventually got something we could use, and despite the struggle the challenge was kind of fun.

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Because we went to Charleston for Thanksgiving we weren’t around to get a tree that weekend, but I’m fairly certain we would have had we been home. Since I knew we’d be gone I’ve had the following Saturday blocked off on our calendar for quite some time.

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In addition to stretching out the period of joy and anticipation, I also like to weave in Christmas-related family activities throughout the month because I want our enjoyment of Christmas to be about more than just presents on Christmas morning. I want the kids to look forward to getting a tree, and decorating that tree, and driving around to look at the lights, and making Christmas cookies, and all of the other traditions that we haven’t even thought of yet. This year we also got an advent calendar for the first time (the kind with magnetic ornaments that the kids can own completely). I have big dreams of making my own advent calendar in an heirloom sort of way if I ever get a sewing machine and figure out how to do that, but this will do nicely until then.

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I always forget how stressful it can be to decorate the tree with the kids. Naturally most of the ornaments are breakable, and they don’t really understand how to hang them so that they don’t tumble off immediately. They tend to put multiple ornaments on a single branch and only on the very bottom branches of the tree. We do a lot of redirecting and redecorating, but I still love it.

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It just feels right for our tree to be in the front room of the house, the living room where the fireplace is and where we hang stockings, but it’s not a room that we actually spend a lot of time in. So this year I asked Kristin if we could get an inexpensive artificial tree for the great room as well – the room where we do the most living. She was happy to oblige, and after a lot of back and forth about how we wanted to decorate each of the two trees we decided that we would keep the living room tree colorful (the kids love rainbow lights, and I grew up with them) and give the great room tree a bit more of a stylish theme by using only white, wood, and metallic ornaments along with white lights.

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On the same Sunday that we decorated the tree we went to Holidays at the Homestead at the Nature Center. For some reason it feels especially fun to step back in time around Christmastime: making yarn dolls, watching a blacksmith work on his craft, going on a horse-drawn wagon ride complete with jingle bells. I’ve been itching to take everyone to an old-timey holiday event at Greenfield Village, but it’s two hours away and goes from 6:30-10:00 p.m. and I can’t decide whether the kids will be able to handle the late hours in the cold.

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Two mornings ago as I was making breakfast for the kids and trying to get them out the door to school, Vivi asked me if she could write “a note to Santa like the bear in the book.” I had no idea which book she was referring to, and wasn’t even sure where she’d learned about letters to Santa. She ran over to grab the book Corduroy’s Christmas Surprise and flipped to the picture of the bear working on his letter to Santa. I hesitated for a moment because I have mixed feelings about that whole part of Christmas, but I said yes and got her some paper and crayons. She went right to work, and soon after Jude wanted to do the same.

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Once she’d completed her portion she asked me to help, and I wrote while she dictated her list. She actually completed three different letters to Santa (all with slightly different items) and was ready to launch into a fourth when I told her that it was time to get ready for school.

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I loved watching their joy and their investment in the task. I know that no matter how much I want to push them to find magic in specific elements of the season and perhaps steer them away from others, I don’t get to choose the sources of their joy. I can share mine with them and sit back and enjoy the glow of theirs, and carve out time and space for family traditions. But ultimately they will develop their own preferences and cling to the parts of the season that they love the most. And that’s the way that it should be, and probably the way it has always been whether the tree goes up on November 24th or December 24th.

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Thanksgiving and turning five in Charleston

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Back in September, my parents offered to fly us down to Charleston for Thanksgiving as our Christmas gift. It was a lovely, generous offer but we waffled because travel with kids when there’s less than a week to work with always feels less than relaxing. Our kids are good travelers, mostly road-trippers, but in this case the thought of having to haul three car seats, luggage, and kids to a rental car lot after a long morning of air travel did not have any appeal. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between having two small children versus having three, it’s fitting in someone else’s car. We’ve made it work before with infant seats, but we just weren’t sure what was possible at this stage.

My parents talked to my sister and they determined that between the two families they had enough spare car seats and enough room to make it work so that we wouldn’t have to bring any car seats or rent a minivan. That tipped the scales for us, so we were in.

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We love trips to Charleston. Even though I love a magical white Christmas season, it’s such a joy to step out of the Michigan cold and into warm southern weather for a few days. My sister and brother-in-law host an epic Thanksgiving dinner every year but we’ve only been once, well before we had kids. Since that year it’s grown significantly, and they’ve been setting up the dinner table in the long driveway to accommodate everyone. If that sounds casual, believe me it isn’t. For some reason I never took a photo of the table spread, but it was gorgeous. Kira and Dewey are SO good at this.

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It was an unusually cold and wet Thanksgiving this year, which caused my sister and brother-in-law to have to make some challenging last-minute modifications to the plan. They rented a tent to cover the table (the running joke was that it was more like a wedding reception than a Thanksgiving dinner). Kira was worried that it would hurt the ambiance, but the twinkle lights and gorgeous tablescape were plenty festive.

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My rough count (from memory) is 30+ adults and 10 kids, and it was full of love and gratitude and energy and noise and chaos in all of the right ways.

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The next day Jonah turned five, which I’ve been dreading for weeks, but it’s such a blessing to have my anxiety balanced out by a five-year-old’s birthday joy all day long. He woke up and asked Mama K for gingerbread pancakes, and she was happy to oblige so they made those together. Then we headed out to meet everyone at a trampoline park with ninja warrior courses and inflatables and an arcade. I don’t have any good photos, but somewhere there is a slow-mo video of me awkwardly dropping into a foam pit from a trapeze. The kids had a blast.

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In the late afternoon we met up again at Folly Beach for a walk along the water. I love the Charleston beaches. I’m not a beach person by the traditional definition, but I love beach walks when it isn’t really beach weather.

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And one of my favorite parts of the trip, always? Seeing Maris and Jonah together. They just love each other so much, and it makes me so happy. I feel like they have this wonderful twin-cousin thing going on and I hope that it never goes away.

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On Saturday morning we met up downtown to walk to a hotel and shopping area where they have a big Christmas model train display in the lobby. Everyone seemed to enjoy it (is there anyone who doesn’t like searching for details in a miniature scene?).

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We did a pretty good job of kicking off the Christmas season between the train display, helping to decorate Gigi and Papa Doc’s tree, and checking out the Festival of Lights at John’s Island County Park on Saturday night.

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A friend from New York who moved down to Charleston this past summer joined the twelve of us for the festival of lights, and thankfully she loves the kids and is totally comfortable with holiday family madness.  The lights were beautiful, we roasted marshmallows, we waited in line for a train ride that I think surpassed everyone’s expectations, and it felt like a perfect closure to our trip. It was sad to say goodbye to family when we know we won’t see them at Christmas. I know what a lovely, simple Christmas we had last year on our own and I’m looking forward to that while also wishing that we could watch those cousins wake up and dig into their stockings together on Christmas morning.

Another Halloween in the books: Robots and Moana

It’s November 1st and I’m feeling a little bit sad because Kristin just left to spend four days in New York (the first time I’ve been with the kids alone for more than one night) and my parents are heading for Charleston for the winter first thing tomorrow morning. It feels a bit lonely, and then there’s always that slight twinge of sadness that comes after a big holiday for me. I can find things to get excited about many different times of year, but as Kristin said recently, October through December is kind of my jam.

I love Halloween; we’ve established that already, and this year I decided way back in the spring that I wanted to make robot costumes for the kids. They were really into this great show called Annedroids and I thought that it would be a really fun costume project. The first weekend of October Jonah and I went shopping for supplies, I started collecting boxes of specific sizes, and I started spray painting in the garage (which I knew would just remind me of the frustration of this project, but I just kept telling myself that the stakes were lower this time).

Almost as soon as I had the boxes painted, Vivienne announced, “I don’t like robots anymore. I like Moana now.” Despite having a killer robot voice that was part of my inspiration in the first place, she wanted to be her new idol, Moana, and was having none of this robot business. At first I thought that maybe I’d just buy her a cheap Moana costume and let her wear it to school and tell her that she still had to trick-or-treat as a robot, but the more I considered my options the less I liked that. I asked my mom (the queen of whipping things together without a map) if she thought we could make a decent Moana costume, and having only seen a single image of the character she said, “That looks easy enough.” My mom is always such a shining reminder that one way or another it will all work out, and I need that kind of energy in my life, especially when I’m DIYing.

I went to the fabric store one afternoon on my lunch hour on a mission to find the perfect fabrics. I was really pleased with what I found (after talking myself down from a $21/yard fabric that was more than a two-year-old needed for Halloween), and my mom came over that night to get started.

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Meanwhile, in robot-land, I was searching for the perfect lights to make pretend buttons. I ordered these way in advance, and thank goodness I did because they took roughly a month to ship from Azerbaijan (literally) which I didn’t realize when I bought them. They turned out to be kind of cool though, so I’m glad we included them. Most of the lights, however, were these because they blinked which added a really fun element. The tricky part was that the only way to turn them on and off was to squeeze them from both sides, which meant that I couldn’t really affix them to the boxes in a permanent way. I ended up making a control panel out of a shoebox lid and zip tying only the top of it to the rest of the costume so that I could easily flip it up to turn them on. I zip tied the bottom of each light to the back of the control panel and cut holes the size of a Sacagawea dollar for each one.

A friend suggested that we ought to try to work fidget spinners into the costumes as well, which was a brilliant suggestion. They had crappy ones at the dollar store, and my dad helped by drilling a hole into the center of each one and fitting them with screws so that when affixed to the costumes, they would still spin. This was a huge hit while trick-or-treating; lots of big kids wanted to spin the spinners.

I also made each of the robots a set of rocket boosters with felt flames coming out, because why not? I saw it on Pinterest while searching for ideas and it seemed worth the extra effort. The boys were totally into it.

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Late in the project I decided that Jonah ought to have a full robot head. Jude didn’t want a head covering of any kind, which was for the best anyway because I didn’t trust him not to trip and fall while trick-or-treating in the dark. I ended up just getting Jude a set of silver ball deelie boppers (that’s what we called them growing up, but I’m guessing that’s not universal?), and I think they made him look extra adorable. Jonah wanted a slinky on his robot head, so we added that along with a red light and cut out a couple of holes so that he could see and breathe easily and covered them with window screen. We ended up not attaching the head to the rest of the costume because most of the time it rested on the larger box anyway, but it also allowed him to take it off when he felt like he needed a break. I put some 2″ window A/C foam inside the box to make it fit a bit better.

For the boys’ arms and legs we used dryer vent tubing and bought the lightest weight stuff we could find (more like aluminum foil than sharp metal, but both types exist so go to the hardware store and feel it first). I zip tied the arms to the body box and made a set of suspenders out of elastic for the legs (attached to zip tie loops). Walking was a bit of a challenge, but honestly they did great once they got the hang of it (and we did a lot of hand-holding just to be sure).

Back to Moana – I didn’t feel like a midriff-baring shirt was acceptable for a two-year-old, so my mom designed a top based on another summer shirt of Vivi’s. She layered and trimmed the skirt fabric I bought to make a wrap skirt that went nicely around a cheap 12″ grass skirt I found on Amazon. We also bought the necklace on Amazon (because I suspect that making our own would have cost a lot more) and she’s worn it pretty much every day for the past three weeks, so I think we’ve gotten our money’s worth. I bought a few cowrie shells at a bead shop and we sewed them around the neckline. I bought some tropical-looking flowers at the dollar store and hot glued one onto a barrette that we already had, and I think that it made a lovely final touch.

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When Vivi finally got to wear this to preschool she was probably the proudest I’ve ever seen her. Throughout the month of October we’ve been hearing from her teacher that some days she’ll only respond to the name Moana. Preschool was also the only place we let her wear this without pants and a leotard underneath (because Michigan).

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We actually got incredibly lucky because it was supposed to rain on Halloween, and while it was roughly 40 degrees (or less) it was dry, and trick-or-treating was a huge success. Vivienne was chilly, but agreed to wear a cardigan and zip up hoodie (unzipped, of course) on top of her costume. The boys were pretty well bundled and the robot parts kept the wind off, so they actually seemed to fare well.

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If Vivienne was the star of the preschool costume parade (if only because she spent a month getting into character), the boys were the stars of neighborhood trick-or-treating. I can’t even tell you how many kids and adults stopped us on the sidewalk to ask if they could take a photo or video. I got high-fives from parents I’d never met, and at one house Kristin walked away with a glass of wine after helping Jude up the steps. “Did my robot costumes earn you an adult beverage?” I asked. She said that they probably did.

I had to take a video once it was dark because the lights make it so much more fun. Check it out on Instagram.

It was a ton of work, but I only cried once during construction and I have absolutely no regrets about everything that went into it. It’s funny, in general I tend to be pretty pragmatic about a lot of things. I like things that are useful and practical, I don’t like spending money on things that won’t get a lot of use, I don’t do a ton of whimsy, but when it comes to Halloween all of that seems to go out the window. I spend an entire month (and always more money than I’d planned) working on something made of cardboard and glue that really isn’t built to last and that we’ll only get a few hours use from, but it always feels like the right thing to do in my mind.

One of my favorite bloggers wrote something recently that absolutely nailed it for me:

…let me also tell you that when you see stuff like this–fun parties for kids or holiday crafts and celebrations, for example–on my site or in my social media feeds, this isn’t about attempting to be a good mom. I don’t associate being a good mom with celebrations and details and parties. But I do associate being a good mom with doing things that make me happy and inviting my kids to witness my happiness and be part of it. This is more about me than my kids. Because I like creating things and celebrating parties and making space for the 10-year-old girl inside who never died. It makes me happy. And I think the best way to be a good mom is to do things that make you happy.

I think that’s really what this is for me. I do this for me, because for reasons I can’t entirely explain (tradition, I guess?) this is ridiculously important to me and I love doing it. The kids would happily wear store-bought costumes, but that wouldn’t be any fun for me.

The other night we drove by the elementary school where they seemed to be wrapping up a school Halloween party, and I suddenly remembered that my parents used to put a ton of work into our elementary school haunted house when I was a kid. My dad was Dracula in it, and a few other neighborhood parents who were like family to me were in it too. I went through that damn thing SO many times, giggling every time I spotted a family member or friend in costume. I’m sure no one strong-armed my parents into doing that stuff, they just loved doing it, and I remember it and it brings me so much joy even now. My mom pointed out that we now have a tradition three-years running of she and I collaborating on the kids’ costumes, and I love that it’s turned out that way. It honestly wouldn’t be as much fun without her, so I’m thrilled that my parents are willing to stay in Michigan through Halloween in order to see this effort to the end.

Over dinner tonight both Jonah and Vivienne began to tell me and Gigi and Papa Doc what they want to be next year, so my parents and I may already be passing this tradition along to the next generation, which makes me pretty happy.

A few of our favorite children’s books

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Can we talk about libraries for a moment, and how wonderful they are? The other day I carefully read through a post on a favorite blogger’s favorite picture books, made a long list, looked them all up on our local library website, and put a whole bunch on hold. A day or so later I walked to the circulation desk and picked up a huge pile of books with my name on them. As I walked out with this armload of wonderful new books I honestly felt like I was getting away with something I could hardly believe. Thank you, libraries and the tax dollars that support them!

All of our kids love books, and both Kristin and I love reading to them. Clever picture books with wonderful illustrations, beautiful stories, thoughtful messages and life lessons, jokes that make both adults and children laugh – there’s almost nothing better. I should say that when it comes to children’s books I do have a bias: I love storybooks and really don’t care much for activity-style books. The ones with stickers or moving parts, or the ones you shine a flashlight through – not a huge fan. I find the activities to be distracting and we end up spending more time on the activities (often when I’m trying to get kids to bed) than the act of reading and listening, which is the part that I love. That’s just a personal preference, however. I guess the one exception to the rule would be the “That’s Not My…” book series from Usborne books. Those are all pretty cute as baby books go.

Without further ado, a list of a few of our my favorite children’s books right now:


Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed

K and I bought this book years before we had kids. We loved the naked mole rats at the Bronx Zoo (sadly, the World of Darkness exhibit is no longer there) and when we saw this one at Powell’s Books in Portland we had to buy it. It’s a wonderful story about a mole rat who is different from the others – he likes to get dressed – and his peers tease him about it, until the whole group learns that it’s OK for everyone to do what works for them.


Mole Had Everything

We’ll stay on the mole theme for a moment. My parents bought this one for us at a cute little shop in Woodstock, NY when I was pregnant. It’s the story of a simple, nature-loving mole who starts to wonder if he needs more stuff, and then discovers that having a lot of things in his home doesn’t leave him time or space to do the things he truly loves to do. A great way to teach kids that having more stuff won’t make you happier.


An Egg Is Quiet

A science-teacher colleague of K’s gave this to us at the baby shower before the twins were born. The illustrations are gorgeous; it might be the most beautiful science book I’ve ever seen. The first couple of pages are filled with eggs all labeled with the name of their creature, and the back two pages have the same creatures labeled, and when Jonah was three he used to love to look at the egg page and ask me which creature came out of each one and we would flip back and forth, back and forth. We would take turns choosing which eggs we thought were the prettiest. I also just realized that apparently this is a series and now we need to get our hands on the rest of these.


Sonya’s Chickens

This one is new to us and I’m in love. The illustrations are so vibrant and beautiful (how did I not know about Phoebe Wahl?) and it’s a really accessible story about death in nature and the circle of life, so to speak. I think that it’s a beautiful story and maybe it also appeals to the part of me that sometimes wishes that we lived in the mountains and had chickens and goats for the kids to tend to. It also features an interracial family which I always see as a huge plus in kids books.


The Colors of Us

Speaking of diversity, we try to talk about the subject of race early and often with our white kids because being silent about it is a common mistake among white families. This book is a very simple one that helps children to understand that people come in a huge variety of beautiful colors. There’s no real discussion of the subject of race, per se, but it’s a good introductory book that’s cute. Jonah (age 4) chose it one night at bedtime and said to me, “I picked this one because I know that you love books about race!” So maybe we’ve been a little heavy handed 😉


Last Stop on Market Street

An award-winning story about seeing your world with an eye towards appreciation and gratitude, and how we can help our children to see wonder and beauty in everyday things, even if others appear to have more than they do.


This Is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World

This is a bit of a long read, but it’s really fascinating. It starts by introducing readers to seven real children (but illustrated in the book) from around the world, and then walks through their day section by section: this is what I eat for breakfast, this is where I live, this is how I get to school, this is what I learn at school, this is how I play…all with illustrations of each example for each child. Our kids seem especially interested in the illustrations and descriptions of meals for each child, and I found the variation in the dinner hour to be really interesting. At the end there are photos of each child and his or her real family, and a picture of the night sky that they all share.


All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon (2009-09-08)

This one is another new favorite of mine, maybe tied with Sonya’s Chickens. The pictures are dreamy, and for some reason our kids immediately found K and I and each of themselves in an illustrated character that they follow through the book and locate on various pages (the characters are never named, as the words are more poetic and universal and less of a character narrative). The words are as lovely as the pictures. It’s hard to describe this one but it’s wonderful.


Things to Do

Another poetic one that walks through things that all sorts of natural elements do. The language is beautiful and playful. For example, “Things to do if you are dawn. Shoo away night. Wash the eastern sky with light. Wake the sleeping sun: rise and shine! Rouse resting roosters. Set songbirds singing.” This one is Kristin’s favorite from the huge stack of library books I brought home.


The Book of Mistakes

More incredible illustrations here. An abstract and amusing look at how sometimes mistakes can lead to even more wonderful ideas that you might not have considered otherwise. If you have a kid who gets discouraged by mistakes, this is a good one to pick up.


Miss Rumphius

I’m pretty sure that I can remember this one from my own childhood. I can’t even explain why I like it so much. Maybe it’s because it tells the story of a female protagonist who was inspired by her grandparents and went on to independently create the life of her dreams, and took great pride in making the world more beautiful.


Strictly No Elephants

A completely adorable book about the importance of including everyone, and how it feels to be left out. Our kids seem to especially love the page on which all of the kids with unusual pets (who weren’t allowed to participate in the neighborhood pet club meeting) are walking down the street with critters like a bat flying along on a leash and a narwhal in a fishbowl being pulled in a wagon.


The Spiffiest Giant in Town

It’s actually really difficult for me to choose my favorite Julia Donaldson book. Vivienne used to be completely obsessed with Stick Man and The Gruffalo is incredibly clever. And I love A Squash and A Squeeze, but I think that this one is special because it’s about being kind and generous just because, and how appreciated that is. It still makes me tear up when I read it.


I Love You, Stinky Face

This is just plain silly, imaginative fun and all about the enduring love of a mother. We recently discovered that there are more of these, including Happy Halloween, Stinky Face which the kids are really enjoying this month.

Ada Twist, Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck

The illustrations and writing in these are all incredibly clever and funny and they all have wonderful messages about pursuing your passions no matter what. I can’t wait for them to write one about every student in the class.


Families, Families, Families!

We bought this one when Jonah was two and we realized that we had zero books that featured families like ours. This is a cute little book with funny illustrations of animal families that represent the wide variety of families in the world. Our kids always shout when we get to the koala family and say that it’s our family because it happens to have two moms and three baby koalas, and they love to point out who’s who. Accessible for even the youngest children.


A Family Is a Family Is a Family

 

Slightly more subtle in its illustration of different families, this one is also wonderful and I love the illustrations. A teacher asks her class what makes each of their families special, and each child shares something unique that isn’t always about the composition of their families but manages to communicate that anyway, for example, “Both my moms are terrible singers, and they both like to sing really loud.” The last page is an awesome nod to foster families and it made me want to cheer.


These are a lot of my current favorites, but the kids would probably pick a few that I didn’t include, so there’s a lot of mom-loves-reading-these-to-us bias going on in my list. We’re always searching for more amazing books, so I’d love to know what your favorites are. Please share them!

Ghosts of Halloween past

It’s almost October, which means that we’re preparing to kick off some serious Halloween costume crafting. Back in late August, Jonah really wanted me to buy “spooky stuff” for the house, but it felt way too early even if we did put it all away till October. Then September raced by, and suddenly I realized that I only have five weekends till Halloween and I need to get cracking. Even though I’ve had a theme in mind for the kids’ costumes since March, this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the costumes we’ve done in the past, as well as some sources of inspiration.

I’ve mentioned before that Halloween was big in our house growing up. I grew up in a spectacular trick-or-treating neighborhood where, even now, folks say that you can easily hand out 700 pieces of candy by 6:30 p.m. My mom always made costumes for me and my sister, and my dad always took us around the neighborhood while my mom stayed back to keep the porch light on for the other trick-or-treaters. I don’t have vivid memories of my mom working on the costumes, but now that I do it for our kids I can only imagine that hours of work that she must have put in. My mom has a much more low-stress approach to crafts than I do (plus she’s crazy talented), so last year I loved being able to work on costumes with her at night (since we were living in their house).

Last year we did Octonauts, because the kids were all really into the show. I won’t elaborate on it because that one has its own post, but I wasn’t blogging in the years before that so I’ll share a few highlights from other Halloweens.

The previous year, Jonah set the theme by asking to be a John Deere tractor. I wasn’t really going to try to make him blend in with the equipment, so instead I sort of made him a tractor driver, or a farmer if you will. That led us naturally into a farm theme, so I made Jude a scarecrow and Vivi a chicken (a rooster, I suppose is more accurate).

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I didn’t document the process for any of these, but for the most part they were all pretty simple. Not quick, but simple. While it’s hard to tell from the photo, Jude’s overalls had patches sewn onto them, with straw sticking out from a number of places. I made his hat from burlap and twine, put him in a flannel shirt and called it a day. Vivi got a TON of attention while we trick-or-treated. Her costume was actually just a feather boa loosely tacked around a white long-sleeved bodysuit, orange leggings, and some baby shoes hot glued inside kitchen gloves. My mom helped us to make her little hat with the comb on top. Jonah had a diaper box painted in John Deere colors (no, I didn’t pull any Pantone or RGB codes, but I chose as closely as I could from memory), with reflective tape for headlights and tail lights. He seemed pretty pleased with the result.

The farm was actually our second year of diaper box costumes, since the previous year Jonah wanted to be a bulldozer (once again, I went for “bulldozer driver/construction worker”).

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I was pretty happy with the way this one turned out, especially since it was my first box costume. The bummer was that when it came time for trick-or-treating, he wouldn’t wear it. I carried it the entire time we were out. He only stepped inside once towards the end of the night to let me take a picture.

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The year before that was Jonah’s first Halloween. He was eleven months old and had just begun walking, but was still in that in-between place where crawling was much quicker. He was also too young to choose his costume, so I made him an octopus.

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I spent many an evening sewing buttons onto tights, and while he was too young to trick-or-treat, we did spend the evening with friends and I was proud of my efforts.

There are so many extraordinary costumes out there, and while none of mine have ever come close to that level of artistry or originality, there’s something important to me in the process of making them. Earlier this week I was actually looking up something Christmas-related and went back to a blog that was probably the thing that made me dream of blogging someday. While it doesn’t appear to be operational any longer, Sweet Juniper was one of the first blogs about parenting that I read hungrily, many years before I ever had children of my own. It was also a blog about Detroit, and a family that moved there from San Francisco, so while we were still firmly planted in New York it was a welcome glimpse of what it might be like to move away from a big city on the coast back to the Midwest of our youth. But maybe most of all it was a source of inspiration for the kind of parent I could only dream of being someday. It was written by a stay-at-home dad who created the most magical childhood for his daughter and son through exploration, endless curiosity, and a willingness to build or craft just about anything you can imagine. They were the kind of family that made all of their Christmas presents by hand (for real), so naturally their Halloween costumes were outstanding.

I hadn’t given much thought to Sweet Juniper in quite a long time, but as I poked around on it this week I realized what gratitude I owe that father for sharing his parenting adventures with the world. Even before becoming a mom I knew that creativity at that level was probably not in the cards for me, but I do have to say that parenthood has brought out my willingness to try, and to end up with something imperfect and maybe unimpressive, but to still feel great pride that I gave it a go.

This weekend Jonah and I have a date planned to shop for Halloween costume supplies, and he tells me that he’s going to help me this year. I’d worried that I hadn’t chosen costumes that are interesting or unique enough, but now I feel like maybe it’s the perfect year to let Jonah have some control of the process. Too often I’ve let perfectionism get in the way, but maybe what matters most is letting the kids see how much fun creation can be, no matter what we end up with.

The first weekend of “fall”

It’s been at least 90 degrees every day for the past week or so, which is ridiculous since the fall equinox was on Friday. Normally I love spending a good portion of our weekends outdoors, but the weather has been so unpleasant that I went into this weekend feeling a little bit grumpy because nothing sounded like much fun and we didn’t have a plan. I also knew that my 20th high school reunion was on Saturday night, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. I was determined to make some family magic happen somehow because I needed to balance out what might be an awkward Saturday night.

Although Kristin was less than enthusiastic about baking in the sun, I dragged everyone to the beach on Saturday morning. Although I have no photos, we had a really wonderful time. We swam, we played in the sand while sitting at the water’s edge, we took the kids to a great playground, and then we headed back home to get ready for the evening. My reunion was actually more fun than I’d anticipated, but Jonah was up really late while we were gone, so we knew that we ought not make Sunday too busy. We did, however, manage to make it to the Fall Fest at the Nature Center (which, again, ninety degrees). We only caught the last hour, but it was a pretty hour and given the weather it was uncrowded. I managed to snap a few beautiful photos of the kids exploring.

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As we left (a little past closing time), I asked a staff member about a couple of terra cotta pots of cherry tomatoes that were sitting on a workbench by the entrance. “Take them,” he said, which thrilled Jude and Vivi because they pick those from the garden at school and the neighbor’s house across the street every chance they get. Then he gave the kids a golf cart ride to the parking lot just because. Jude and Vivi ate tomatoes the whole ride home.

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I don’t know why I get so worried about not squeezing enough quality time and joy into our weekends. I guess the time just goes by so quickly and I see the kids growing faster than I can believe. Somehow though, most weekends at least, it all works out better than I could have imagined.

Animal lovers

We found out on Friday that there was going to be a neighborhood picnic this evening just a block and a half from our house. One of the two churches that flank the elementary school hosted it, and I wasn’t sure what to expect but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Families were asked to bring a dessert to pass, so earlier in the afternoon the kids and I picked apples in the backyard, and after their nap I made an apple crisp. Jonah is always eager to help bake treats, and I loved watching him help today because the light in the kitchen was just right and I’m loving his long hair these days.

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We walked over to the picnic and the kids immediately went into a fun-scatter. I ended up separated from Jude and Kristin for awhile, so sadly I have no good photos of Jude with the animals. I did hand him a chicken at one point, but he got a little scared and wasn’t into it. Vivi and Jonah were the animal whisperers, however. I feel like the handlers kept handing critters to V, maybe because she’s tiny and that’s funny and adorable and also because it was clear how much she loved it.

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I love this one (below) because she’s clearly talking to that tortoise.

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And Jonah would have sat with that bunny in his lap all night long. He was in love.

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We saw a couple of the kids’ preschool friends, and while many of our friends nearby didn’t make it, we made some potential new friends after being introduced by an acquaintance, so that was a lovely bonus.  I really love our neighborhood and events like this are such a nice surprise.

Summer’s last hurrah

We’re three days into the school year and the weather already seems to have shifted completely into fall mode. For a lot of people, September 1st is a time for celebrating permission to break out the fall tchotchkes and begin wearing boots and sweaters, but every time the seasons change it’s as if I’ve forgotten how to get dressed. I always end up floundering as I ask myself what on earth I wore the last time the weather was like this. So far this week I’ve managed to lay out out all of the kids’ outfits before I go to bed, but we’ll see how long I’m able to keep that up. I failed to do any back-to-school shopping for any of them, and so far we’re cobbling things together from their summer wardrobes, but the 50 degree mornings are calling for a bit more already. There is a giant pile of clean, unfolded laundry taking over our living room, and both K and I already feel way too exhausted to deal with it. A day or two ago I suddenly realized that we’ve been in our house for almost a year and there are home projects that we started last October that haven’t moved at all, and I was suddenly overcome with the urge to finish the trim, and paint and reinstall the fireplace doors before we reach that one-year mark. The start of the school year probably shouldn’t feel like such a dramatic change, but for some reason it does.

This week’s early mornings definitely have something to do with how I’m feeling, but so does our jam-packed Labor Day weekend. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew came to town from Charleston, wrapping up a summer of wonderful visits from friends from all over. When we lived in New York we were frequent guests but only very occasional hosts. We just never felt as if we had the space to host a proper get-together, and we had lots of guilt about how unbalanced it felt to take advantage of friends’ homes so often and rarely give back. We always dreamed of having more space to spread out and make friends feel at home on our turf, and this summer we’ve finally been able to do that a bit. We’ve had friends visit from New York, Seattle, Detroit, Oakland, and now Charleston.

My sister is nothing if not a planner, and as a result we managed to squeeze a huge amount of activity into a long weekend. By the time K and I climbed into bed on Monday night Kristin said, “I feel like no one sat down for four days.” We were worn out, but it was an awfully good time.

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My parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary at the end of July, and since my sister and her family were planning to come to town anyway, she suggested that we throw a small surprise celebration. We invited some close family and friends nearby and Kristin and I were thrilled to finally be able to host. The funny part was that just days beforehand, my mom suddenly approached me with the idea of having a BBQ with all of those same people, and wouldn’t it be more convenient to have it at our house rather than theirs? Naturally we agreed to host, and lots of amusing back and forth ensued between my sister and I as we re-planned a BBQ that had already been planned, this time with my mom coordinating the menu and the guest list. The night before, one of our family friends accidentally ruined the surprise, but it worked out for the best because my dad ended up bringing along the actual banner from their wedding (who knows where it was all these years) and taping it up on our garage. It made everything feel more complete, and the evening was lovely.

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On Monday, we squeezed in one more family outing before everyone headed to the airport.

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Last year when they visited we somehow managed to get such a cute photo of all of the cousins together (and believe me, we have some hilarious doozies from attempts in the past) but this was the best we could do this year. I still love it for its imperfection and chaos. When we’re all together it’s never quiet or still, but it’s full of love and lots of happy.

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Backyard apple picking and preparing for fall

I’ve been having a tough time saying goodbye to summer, which isn’t all that different from the way I’ll probably feel as fall turns to winter or as the Christmas season comes to a close. (I can’t say that I ever feel that way in April as months of cold, grey, dreariness finally begin to disappear). The long hours of summer daylight that stretch well into the 9:00 hour, the laissez-faire attitude towards bedtime, running through sprinklers, outdoor movies, catching fireflies, and summer vacation road trips – all add up to a way of life that I look forward to all year long.

Our kids go back to school (preschool, that is) the day after Labor Day, which I realize is later than most of the country so we’re lucky in that regard. But I’ve been doing a lot of hand-wringing over how on earth we’re going to get them back into a normal sleep routine (and what my mornings will be like getting them out of the house each day if they’re crabby and overtired), and just generally feeling sad about the end of a season that I love with kids who are at a really fun age for the enjoyment of that season. I’ve read a couple of wonderful things recently from other nostalgic moms, bloggers I love, who have reminded me not to hang on too tightly to time. Kelle Hampton (who lives in Florida but spends the summer in Michigan with her kids) wrote:

…it isn’t their littleness that makes me happy. It isn’t Michigan or summer or having a kid who still totes stuffed animals on our adventures (although, that’s perfectly lovely and heck yes, I get joy out of it)…It’s ME that makes me happy. It’s loving the season I’m in. It’s realizing that joy and all the simple pleasures of life that inspire me are not confined to specific seasons

With this in mind, I’m trying to get myself excited about all of the joy that I can pack into fall. First stop: apple picking in our backyard.

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We have a lovely apple tree right in the middle of everything in our backyard. It kind of separates the patio from the yard, and provides the perfect kind of shade to sit on the patio on a sunny late afternoon. We have no idea what variety of apple tree it might be (but if you know how we might find out, please share), and we also had no idea whether the apples would taste good once they were ripe (although the deer and squirrels seem to love them). Even so, I was excited to do a little apple picking and make applesauce from scratch.

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Jonah and I went to Michael’s the other day in search of the perfect apple-picking buckets (I may have gotten an eye roll from Kristin, but she lets me do my thing). While we were there, he couldn’t get enough of the Halloween aisles and begged me to buy “spooky stuff” but since it’s not yet September I told him that we should probably pump the brakes, and that maybe we could pick out some yard decor on a day when the whole family could join the fun. I was pretty jazzed that his Halloween spirit is as big as mine though, so even while I was saying no I was complimenting him on his enthusiasm.

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Jude didn’t show much interest in the picking, but he was happy to munch on the results. He and Vivi passed that apple back and forth, bite after bite.

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We started with just one basket, not knowing exactly how our backyard applesauce might taste, and as I began to core and peel, Jonah pleaded with me to be able to help chop. I hesitated, but ultimately handed him a knife and gave him a tutorial and let him go. He did cut his thumb once, but didn’t give up and went right back to it once he’d been patched up. I’m so proud of his focus and dedication to helping; I think that he was pretty proud of himself too. We talked about what it means to make something from scratch, and for a few moments I felt like I could pretend to be just like Nici from Dig & Co. who never ceases to inspire me with her photos and stories of beautiful homemade things and raising kids in the glorious outdoors.

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When he went to bed tonight, with the applesauce simmering on the stove, he told me that he couldn’t wait to have some for breakfast. I can’t wait to watch him enjoy it.

While I’m somewhat sad to send the kids back to school, Jonah is truly excited about returning and I think that Vivienne and Jude are going to love this year too. The start of this school year feels SO different from last year when we were new to Michigan and hadn’t yet learned what a good fit their new school would be for them. I have a feeling it’s going to be another year of huge leaps for all three of them.

My Pinterest Halloween board is slowly filling up with ideas (let’s be honest, I’ve been thinking about their costumes since March), I’m putting every fall festival that I can find on the calendar, and I’m feeling a little more ready than I was a week or two ago. This weekend should be a perfect toast to the end of summer as my sister and brother-in-law and my niece and nephew come to town, the last of a string of summer visitors from across the country who have brought SO much love and laughter into our house and yard. The kids can’t wait to see their cousins and I can’t wait to see them all together again. If the weather cooperates we might just get a beach day and a BBQ. What could be better?

48 Hours in Indianapolis

It’s almost time to wrap up this summer, and it’s been so full of wonderful things that I’m really not ready. We’re not quite there yet, however, and we squeezed in one last mini-vacation this week.

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Mutsy, the stuffed dog that I’m holding, made it back to Indy this week; this time with Jonah

When I was a kid, maybe around ten or so (I’m guessing based on the photo of my sister and I above), my parents took us to Indiana to visit The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. We stayed at this amazing hotel where they’d turned old train cars into rooms. I actually remember the hotel more vividly than the museum, but my parents have always talked about what a great museum it was. Our kids love children’s museums and we’ve visited them pretty much everywhere we’ve taken the kids.

We arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday evening and had museum tickets for Tuesday, but hadn’t really done much planning for Monday. We knew that it was the eclipse that day and that it would be about 90% in Indianapolis, but we didn’t have glasses and didn’t have a definitive plan. We’d talked about visiting a place called Conner Prairie (weird fact, I kind of love historical make-believe museums – it takes me back to playing pretend as a kid) but I failed to realize that it wasn’t open on Mondays (or Tuesdays or Wednesdays, for that matter). Fortunately we had a backup plan and headed out to the Indianapolis Museum of Art 100 Acres Art & Nature Park. I guess it would be redundant to mention its size, but it’s a huge natural park full of sculptures. The only problem is that it was roughly 90 degrees and humid in the blazing sun. The kids enjoyed climbing on sculptures for a little while, though.

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He’s pointing out the skeleton’s butt, if you can’t tell

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After maybe an hour or so, Jonah had reached his breaking point and was thirsty and wanted to return to the hotel (foolishly we brought no water with us on the walk), but I knew that the eclipse was starting around 1:30 and didn’t really want to head indoors yet. We managed to find a (gorgeous) visitors center with A/C and a drinking fountain, not to mention stylish chairs.

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The kids perked up a bit after cooling off, and we finally decided that maybe it was time to head to lunch and figure out the eclipse thing from somewhere else (we didn’t have glasses anyway, only paper plates with pinholes) but once we walked back towards the car we saw people gathering in the open area for the eclipse, and I just couldn’t leave. Jonah was beside himself; he wanted to leave SO badly, but I had some snack bars in the car and that bought us a little time.

By some miracle, we met a woman named Jennifer who was there alone and was more than happy to share her pair of eclipse glasses with us. She said that she’d gotten them late in the game and felt that she ought to share the good fortune. We hung out with her until the eclipse was at its peak, and then we called it a day. The kids didn’t stay interested throughout, but whenever Jennifer would offer them another peek they would run over eagerly.

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Clearly staring right at the eclipse. Parenting fail.

We left the park and squeezed in a late lunch at a cute place with delicious food that accommodated us five minutes before close, and the frosé allowed me to forget about the beastly heat from earlier. The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a bust, since it was roughly 3:30 and raining and everything we were interested in doing was either closed due to weather or closing at 5:00 anyway. We ended that day feeling sort of lukewarm about Indianapolis as a destination, but we hoped that the museum would make up for it the next day.

We got up early on Tuesday and arrived at the museum before it even opened (K and I high-fived about this, because as anyone who knows us well can verify, we aren’t early to anything). This place is incredible. First, the Dinosphere, which is oddly beautiful and dramatic. The “sky” changes color from deep blue to magenta, clouds pass overhead and storms roll in with pretend lightning and thunder, the moon appears and comets fly across the sky. I didn’t count the number of dinosaurs, but I’d guess there were at least six or seven large ones and a number of other smaller ones. Some of them were even real fossils and not casts (according to signage). There are actual paleontologists at work in a lab on site and K talked to one while he worked on an actual t-rex bone.

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The kids can also take part in a “dino dig” nearby. At the end of the day, Jude and Vivienne declared that the dinosaurs were their favorite part of the whole museum.

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Next came the trains. They have a real steam engine along with lots of model trains, and Jude could barely pull himself away. He climbed into this tunnel below a larger model and followed that little train back and forth, back and forth within the tunnel for probably ten minutes. He was in love.

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Then came the space exhibit, which was made up like the kids were inside a shuttle or the ISS.

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I can’t even handle that tiny person (Vivi) inside a giant (yet child-sized) space suit.

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I don’t even remember what this next exhibit was called, but it was related to National Geographic and featured an Egyptian tomb, a shipwreck, and the Terracotta Warriors. Vivi is measuring a canon at the bottom of the ocean.

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We had lunch in the food court, which was surprisingly good and full of natural light, and everyone was ready for more. We headed to an exhibit on China in which you board an airplane and exit into a world of Chinese shops, restaurants, parks, and even a panda nursery.

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Notice Vivi doing tai chi along with K and the instructor, while Jude carries around a baby panda

Next we went up to the Playscape, an area for kids ages five and under. It didn’t blow me away, but the kids loved it (and I’m not five, so maybe that’s why). There was a machine that moved balls through pneumatic tubes and pathways, and Jonah couldn’t get enough of it (it was his favorite part of the whole museum – he always gravitates to interactive machines and loves to observe how things work). There was also a really nice climber that all of the kids enjoyed, as well as a sand table that I found to be rather serene and that Jonah also loved.

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We briefly checked out the dance exhibit, as well as a science room that was heavily sponsored by Dow and didn’t seem to be quite as broad or interesting as I would have liked (although the kids liked the water table, and Vivi loved driving a pretend tractor across a video of farm land), but we didn’t linger long in either exhibit. We ended with the circus exhibit, which did not disappoint.

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We closed the museum down, and I can’t say that I’ve ever opened and closed a museum (or any attraction, for that matter) before. It was seven hours of fun and we didn’t even make it to everything (but not for lack of trying). The kids were totally engaged throughout, and never melted down or asked to leave, which says a lot about how great this place is.

When we finally returned to the parking ramp and strapped them into their car seats, they were all asleep before we even started the car. We decided to risk an epic meltdown and wake them up to eat dinner in downtown Indy rather than trying to find some crappy chain restaurant in farm country on the drive home. We’re so glad we did. Although they all hated the idea of waking up and going anywhere they all perked up in the restaurant, and despite the swanky, hipster vibe at Nada, the service was awesome and they were great with the kids! Our server even brought three extra donuts at the end of the meal. I feel like the way a restaurant deals with an exhausted family with cranky small children after seven hours at a museum says SO much about an establishment. The food was awesome, and I wish we lived a lot closer.

When we go back to Indy we have Conner Prairie and the riverwalk on our agenda, and we’ll probably do a little more planning next time, but it was absolutely worthwhile and a great way to close out our summer travels.