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The Hawaii series continues. 😉

While we were in Hawaii, my parents treated all of us to the luau at the Mauna Kea, a sister hotel of the Hapuna Beach Prince. The pork was delicious, the flowers fragrant, the coconut dessert sublime, and the traditional dances mesmerizing. A beautiful and magical night…

My little family at our hotel, ready to head to the luau…

Hawaiian babies

My sweet husband

Katie looks for manta rays at the Mauna Kea… I remember standing in that very spot when I was close to her age.

Eric and his best buddy, Boppa

Lighting the torches

The imu ceremony

Powerful

Enchanting

A feast

Cuties

Eric and I played (and definitely with a sense of irony) “This Little Piggy.” We made up new rhymes, starting with “This little piggy went to the luau…” 😉

So yummy!

Katie and Daddy (and tired little Eric with his head down)

Katie went up to the stage to learn the hula! This was such a big step for her, as she usually prefers to be more of an observer with respect to things like this. Hawaii was such a magical place for her, a time of embracing more confidence: swimming, talking with little girls at the pool, and trying out the stage without Mommy. I relished her exploration of her freedom.

Following along with the teacher…

Great job, Katie!

With her favorite dancer and the fire man after the luau

 

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A house full of four coughing, sneezing, hot, sleepless people is not fun. It’s been a challenging week as a mama, to say the least. There was even a low point one day during which—wait for it—we did absolutely nothing but watch cartoons and stay in our jammies. That’s right. I said it. Cartoons. ALL DAY. That should depict a certain level of desperation quite adequately.

Other than that, we tried to stay relaxed yet still a part of life. Our China unit slowed down a bit, and unfortunately we had to miss a program celebrating China at the library in the next town over. I had been eager for that, but we couldn’t go and infect everyone. The positive side of this (and there always is one) is that I really spent more focused time with Katie on her reading, a quiet activity that is easy to do cuddled on the couch. She reached a new record for words read in a row on her own this week:

“The red hen is not in the well.”

I am so, so excited! I have tried many different resources, but on a lark I finally decided to break out my old stack of reading books from Kindergarten at Friends Christian School circa 1985-86. Each short book works on different sounds, and we started with the short vowel collection. Crazy that I even still have the whole set, right? It is just the kind of thing I have always kept…

Anyway, they are working wonderfully! It actually helps Katie to know that I learned to read on these books. Reading is hard. Katie shows signs of discomfort at admitting it can be difficult. She is apt to start eating her knee, make a joke, or burst into song. She wants to read each word perfectly the first time (and many, she does…it’s the others that bother her), and part of teaching her is leading her to understand that facing a challenge is beautiful. I am so thankful we are in a one-on-one learning situation here. Because I know my daughter, I know what it means when she starts eating her knee. With just one student, I have the luxury of changing gears, trying a new strategy, making a joke, and redirecting her physicality (we use several kinesthetic tricks to get her to remember pronunciations). We talk directly about how “it is okay for this to be hard” and how I am an experienced reader and yet I still find books sometimes that require me to look up a word or that ask me to become an even better reader.

Tellingly, she said, “But I don’t think anyone had to teach Daddy to read.” I assured her that even Daddy had to learn to read, just like she has to learn. “Besdies,” I said, “I don’t know how Daddy learned to read, but I know how I learned to read. I learned to read right on these actual books we’re using. And Amie read to me all the time, just like I read to you. And I am a great reader, right? So you will be, too. You can learn the way I learned: by your mommy reading to you all the time, and on these books here.” That conversation really made her smile.

The truth is, as hard as she is on herself, she really astounds me for someone who is four years old, and I tell her all the time how proud I am when we’re reading (funny little thing, she’ll get shy and start eating her knee when I praise her, too—feels every emotion so intensely, my firstborn). First of all, she knows several more sight words than I even thought she did. And even though she thinks it is difficult, she is able to sound out most of the basic short-vowel sound words in the three books we have done so far. The key for me is to figure out how to get her to lighten up on herself, while still preserving that fire in her to want to get it done right. She needs both skills in life: a gentleness toward herself, but the desire to persist until she is accurate. I am still learning the balance between those two almost-conflicting traits myself.

So, our colds somehow translated to more reading time this week—that means I can’t complain too much, right?

I also had a chance to fit in some editing work for a friend from TVHS, and we had the most nerdy-tastic, word-loving, catching up, cool phone conversation about her work. And I just loved every second of it. Her piece emphasized the importance of living with heart and not hiding away the most sacred, beautiful parts of ourselves. What encouraging words, too, to help motivate me through this week!

Other goodnesses from recent days:

We made Chinese almond cookies

Katie put blanched almonds on top of each disk

The kiddos brush their teeth together…I usually brush mine with them to reinforce how we do it.

Lately, whenever we turn on music, Brother runs to Sister with both of his hands out and asks to dance with her…so cute, so cute, so cute.

Today we made biscuits for the top of our chicken stew, and Eric loved helping. He is becoming more proficient in the kitchen lately: he knows all the steps for making scrambled eggs from start to finish and can indicate what comes next and help me to do it, and he is getting better at following simple instructions.

Patting out the dough (he helped to roll it, too, but I didn’t get a picture of that)…

Cutting out our biscuits (made with heavy whipping cream—YES!)

And a most beautiful moment, of all that we had recently: my friend Marguerite and her family came to visit this past weekend during a trip to town.

So grateful for friendship, family, baking, and…as of today, the road to clear breathing, good sleeping, and less coughing!

Happy Lunar New Year! We are surely having fun with this celebration at the McGaugh Academy this year!

As part of our exploration of China, we recently dedicated a whole day to the study of panda bears. Katie (4) and Eric (17 months) were able to share many of the activities together, and I am finding more frequently as our year progresses that there are ways to include him in our pre-school lessons. This has been an ongoing challenge as we have tried to create a learning rhythm in our home this year—so, thank goodness!

Sometimes when you hear a thumpity thump thump on the door, it turns out to be a panda bear coming for a visit:

The kiddos opened the door to find a panda bear on our doorstep (thank you to my mom for enacting this).

Both of the children are convinced that he is visiting from China. He spent quite a bit of time talking with Katie and Eric when he first arrived. Among other questions, he asked Katie if she remembered where his home (China) was on our globe. She ran right over to the globe, brought it over, and pointed to China. (Tricky panda bear, always sneaking in those formative assessments into conversation).

We talked about the bamboo that panda bears eat and guess what? Our neighbors’ bamboo that has grown into a small part our yard near the fence? Well, it finally came in handy!  It follows the Zen teaching that things aren’t necessarily good or bad; things just are. (That was Zen, right? Or possibly it was from Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare meets Chinese philosophy). Pesky bamboo turns into a great boon for our unit! What fun we had “feeding” it to our panda bear.

Life works out.

We also used a magazine article that I have been saving for two years (since exactly January 2010) about the birth of Yun Zi at the San Diego Zoo. I knew I would use it in our studies some day! While Eric played nearby, I read the article to Katie, and she loved looking at all of the pictures of his sisters and brother. Katie saw footage of Yun Zi eating his birthday cake (with bamboo on it) when we started our China unit. Of course, our visiting panda bear has been christened Yun Zi, as well.

After this, we re-read Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth. The main character in this book is Stillwater, a panda bear who befriends three children and tells them Zen stories. The stories are three wonderful pieces about gratitude, contentment, and setting aside the burden of anger.

Then we went back outside, cut more bamboo, and made an arrangement.

Over the past week, we’ve been collecting China-themed decor. Our bamboo arrangement (on the black table) sits next to a blue and white Chinese bowl with chopsticks, a figure of Confucius, and Bill’s Chinese abacus. On the hassock, we’ve collected as many animals of the Chinese zodiac as we can find among our stuffed animal collection. Yun Zi, when he is not on the couch, likes to hang out by his animal pals.

We also did a panda bear craft:

I had pre-cut several sizes of black and white circles for the kiddos to make panda bear faces (an activity I have seen many times online). This was a perfect time to review shapes and colors with Eric. Although this project was more on the simple side for Katie, they still had a good time doing this together.

Yun Zi sat nearby as the kiddos drew mouths on their panda bears. We later took these and affixed them to our big China poster, along with a sprig of bamboo.

On “panda bear day” we decided to have a thematic dinner and movie night. The kiddos were excited to see Kung Fu Panda. Eric went to bed about half-way through, which is just as well because the scenes with Tai Lung in the latter part of the film are, for me, fairly intense. Katie quickly discovered a new character that she loves to pretend to be: the Tigress.

For dinner on “panda bear day” we made homemade beef and broccoli, orange peel chicken, and rice. Katie loved playing with the chopsticks.

I haven’t cooked in our wok for quite some time, so it was new for Eric and Katie enjoyed seeing it, too. Our Chinese food was definitely tasty! We used the online recipe for P.F. Chang’s orange peel chicken (I made it a little less spicy for the kiddos, though).

Oh, and I never followed up on this… Our homemade paper turned out all right! I was concerned, since it stayed dark and on the wetter side for a bit. We want to make a second batch, taking care to make the slurry with lighter papers and to spread it more thinly on the deckle. When we finally took it off the deckle and through the couching process, it dried fairly quickly. Katie was able to write on it with a Sharpie, and then we attached some of it to our China poster.

Our first batch of paper, one of the major inventions of the Chinese.

We hope everyone has a beautiful Year of the Dragon!

All week we had been looking forward to today: music class followed by a visit with Nana and our extended family, some of whom are beginning on a many months-long trip in a few days. I love any time that our family is together, and we haven’t yet seen Nana this month.

But we took something else with us from our Tuesday visit to the library, something other than books.

Katie woke up with a moist cough a couple of days ago. Yesterday, a small fever. Today too. She is on the mend, but the timing is just a day off. You can’t pass a fever around, even when the kiddo is bouncy and seems perky otherwise. It wouldn’t be right to bring that fever to music class and our friends, even though we wanted so badly to go and try out the new music we just got last week. And it would not have been right to bring exposure to our young cousins who have a long flight soon and acclimation to new routines. And we can’t expose our Nana, either.

Bummer.

It is hard to let go of plans… All last night and this morning I was hoping her fever would break. Hoping. Hoping. I wanted, wanted, wanted this fun day we had all anticipated eagerly.

I tried to keep a poker face about it, though. I mean, really. Who is supposed to be the mature adult here, right? Katie broached it a couple of times, “Will we be able to go to Nana’s?”

It was the perfect opportunity to teach her about things out of our control and having to make the best of what comes, instead. It is okay, I told her. We can visit Nana next week or the week after. You do not need to worry. Set it out of your mind. Besides, maybe a day home is just what we need. We can stay in our jammies all day, make crafts, and just rest. We can turn this day into something still great.

If I can teach her how to hold a situation three-dimensionally in her mind, and turn it until she sees the good in it, then I will have done my job as her mother. My cousin Kd has shared this quote from Mary Engelbreit a few times:

“If you don’t like something—change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”

We have the option to rotate whatever object is heavy in our minds. We can revolve a disappointment around the axis, and we can choose see all the different planes that cut across and through it.

So we stayed in our jammies. Cuddled. Read. Worked on floor puzzles, all three of us together. I held an informal make-up music class for the kiddos in our living room. We danced, and Eric patted his legs just like we do in class and even repeated a tonal pattern after me. We got out the keyboard. We chased. We made a fruit smoothie with five different fruits. It was good. It was an unexpected, rotated day, and it was good.

When Eric napped, we had a chance to make one of our dragon crafts:

We popped on Flower Drum Song and got to work on a small paper chain (I had pre-cut the strips one night). I try to watch Flower Drum Song at least once a year, so why not in the middle of our China unit? Love it.

We used a template for the dragon’s head and tail, colored it, and attached it to our chain. You can find the template at Craft Jr.’s Dragon Paper Crafts. The project suggested on that site uses paper folded in accordion style. That would work too, obviously. We just made a paper chain because…well, because we wanted to. We like paper chains and could vary the color of the dragon’s body. We colored the template together and really had fun doing it.

We used straws to give Katie something to hold onto with both hands to control the dragon. We enjoyed playing with him. Dragons are awesome. Chinese culture, in particular, celebrates their beauty.

Today was unexpected, yet beautiful in all that it had to offer.

 

 

 

I haven’t given up on my Hawaii trip posts, but I’ve just been so pumped up about our China unit and getting back into our studies and projects here that I have been giving those topics priority.

In the middle of the Temecula winter—okay, a few days of grey skies and a bit of drizzle—it is a bit surreal to think about warm and sunny days at the beach and pool. I have only to look at the bare trees outside the window to feel, gratefully, a sense of season that I often do not feel as a Southern Californian. Looking back through these pictures also creates a well of longing in my heart for a beach day, but I know I need to wait for summer.

We loved our stay-around-the-hotel days at the Hapuna Beach Prince. Typically, we’d start with breakfast, and then I would take the kiddos down to the beach and pool while Bill rested in the room. We’d all play for awhile, and then I would take Eric back to the room, bathe him, and put him in soft cotton shorts for his nap. Bill would read with the lanai open to its screens, the sound of the waves from the beach and the site of the ocean a peaceful lullaby. Eric loved the warm wind on his bare arms and chest and tummy. We called his crib his “Hawaii bed” and he soon came to understand what that meant—and to crave it. By the one of the last days on our trip, Eric walked from the beach to the showers and then, after I rinsed him off, he started walking into the hotel near nap time. I asked him, “Do you want Hawaii bed?” He nodded (his version of “yes” for everything) vigorously. He loved, loved, loved “Hawaii bed.”

After Eric went down for his nap, I would have some glorious one-on-one time with Katie. On the days we stayed at the hotel, she was in the water—beach or pool—constantly, taking breaks only when asked or to have a chocolate smoothie from the Beach Bar. I should also mention that the Beach Bar was also one of Eric’s favorite places to hang out. None of us in our party are alcohol drinkers, but the bar served so many yummy non-alcoholic drinks and food that, of course, Eric loved it. He and Boppa would go sit there and chomp on trail mix. Sometimes he would try to go over there on his own. I was amused, anyway.

The bartender at the Beach Bar got me hooked on virgin lava flows. I had been having coconut smoothies, until one day the bartender suggested the lava flow. Oh my. No idea what it tastes like with alcohol in it, but the non-alcoholic version is exceptionally yummy. There is a swirl of red berry puree around the inside of the cup, and then it is filled with a pina colada type of mixture. Delicious. I tried to keep myself limited to one a day (or so), but I could seriously drink vats of them if given the chance.

So here are just a few highlights (out of bazillions of pics, some more of which are on Facebook) of our beach and pool time.

Playing with Katie in the pool on the first full day in Hawaii

My water baby

Yup, I could get used to this everyday

Katie and Daddy hanging out in the afternoon

My dad snapped a shot of us playing in the pool, from one of the hotel balconies

Katie on the beach as sunset approaches—those Hawaiian sunsets are magic, the red red sun flashing out on the horizon

Katie made friends at the pool, and they all started their own “Mermaid Club”

Katie (middle) plays with Auntie Ashley and Uncle David on the beach

Part of our view from our pool chairs

Exploring the beach on the first morning

Eric’s footprint

Catching a wave…

I don’t think I could stay on a surfboard to save my life, but I absolutely love body surfing and riding the crest in. One of my favorite things to do in life… There were some good waves for it (Californian girls don’t mind a little red flag action here and there, right?) while we were there.

Building a sandcastle with Ashley and David

Aunt Ashley, me, Katie, Uncle David

Playing in the ocean with my girl…

Eric loved the ocean water too, and the pool (we played “motorboat” many a time). At the beach, Eric loved the tide pools and the little pods that dropped from the trees and which looked like French fries. Sometimes we would sit together on the sand at the water’s edge, and let the waves come up and tickle our feeties and tummies. Ah, writing about this is making me long to go back… Hawaii becomes part of the inner essence, that’s for sure.

One morning, my mom and dad and Katie went to the Hilton in Waikoloa to pet the dolphins. What fun! My dad snapped this picture, which I love. I stayed at our hotel to have one-on-one with Eric. That day, he wanted to do the beach, the pool, the beach, and then the pool again before Hawaii bed. We lined up the pods he loved and talked about “short, medium, and long” with those pods. I love my beach boy and beach girl.

Since the pulp paper making process is credited to China during the 2nd century A.D., we thought we’d try our hands at it at the McGaugh Academy during our Adventure Through China unit. With no background in this process at all, I found that I learned along with the kiddos. Of course, our effort needs to dry overnight, so we have no conclusive results (yet) that it works!

Here are our steps:

We gathered our pulp, the fibrous material used to make the slurry. We save all kinds of paper scraps from, and for, crafting purposes, so it felt good to clean out our paper drawer.

Then the kiddos put the pulp into the blender (and it turned out that Eric got a crayon in there—I thought I managed to take them all out, but oops).

Teamwork! I love that Eric is so involved in these lessons now, at seventeen months. That can only serve him well later. I wish I’d started certain activities much earlier with Katie.

Our makeshift deckle… A deckle is a structure on which to form and dry the slurry. I neither had a wooden frame nor a screen and want to see if I can make our unit free, so the innovation here is—wait for it—pantyhose duct taped to a cookie tray. This could either really work…or go down in flames. Either way, we’re having fun and experimenting.

Patting our slurry (the pulp mixed with liquid) onto the deckle… The color of the slurry is quite dark, and I probably should have paid attention to keeping all of our pulp scraps lighter in color. But even if we can’t easily write on it (I may have to break out the black sharpies), and even if all we get is a piece of paper that holds together—I will be happy!

Finally, we made a haul at the library this morning! Yay! Several of these books are on my “wish to buy” list, especially The Seven Chinese Brothers and the Zen Shorts. We have also enjoyed Lon Po Po and Stone Soup in the past. I have a never-ending yen for children’s lit, and it is difficult for me not to want to collect every book we love. The library also yielded several surprises that will augment our unit, plus a handful of books having nothing to do with China at all. After we came home and had lunch and put Eric down, Katie and I had an absolute reading fest! Reading with her is absolutely one of my favorite activities in the world. What a treat!

We jumped into our Adventure Through China unit this morning, and I feel we made good work of building a solid foundation for the next few weeks of study. Katie met the objectives today of: 1) Locating China on the globe (it turns out she can also now locate Japan, North and South Korea, Russia, India, and Thailand in that area); 2) Describing the meaning of the symbols/colors on the Chinese flag; 3) Naming the two major rivers and identifying the desert and mountain regions; 4) Naming one major Chinese crop; 5) Identifying at least three major inventions (compass, paper, kite, gunpowder) to emerge from China; 6) Understanding how the story of Nian relates to the Chinese New Year; and 7) Identifying other hallmarks for which China is known (panda bears, The Great Wall, Confucius, etc).We now have a framework for two of our upcoming science-and-art projects this week: making homemade paper and construction a rudimentary compass.

The kiddos also had their first immersion into the music of Yo-Yo Ma and cello this morning. I know he is on other playlists, but we talked a bit about who he is and listened to his whole “Classics” album. Eric, in particular, really responded to the combination of cello and piano, as he kept bobbing his body in time to the music. I could see the music speaking to him.

I set up two stations for our China map lesson, one for Katie and one for her brother. I found this printable map at www.apples4theteacher.com. Love that site. The kiddos colored the desert ranges, and then they drew in mountains down by the Himalayas (I helped Eric with that part). I also had them draw in the two major rivers. We cut out Katie’s map (and later her colored flag) and glued them to a big piece of poster board (labeled “China”) that we have hanging by our table. As we collect artifacts from our studies, we’ll glue them on as a reminder of the knowledge we’re gaining.

While Eric was napping, I let Katie use the Mac to work on an “Ancient China” web quest. This was a simple web quest, not terribly lengthy but full of fun little stops. It came with a printable worksheet, too, to use to keep track of our findings. This is the first web quest I have had Katie do, and we enjoyed it. We added to it by looking up You Tube footage of panda bears and watching part of a History Channel piece on The Great Wall.

Katie was able to find the Chinese symbols for her name (we used her nickname “Katie”) online. I actually drew them out (amazed at the beauty of their intricacy), and then Katie traced over them with red marker.

Finding more information about China online… Technology very much makes home schooling so rich and fun and doable. My goal for this unit is not to spend any money out of pocket for our materials (although I am dithering over whether to spend a little on silkworms, and fortunately I have an iTunes gift certificate if I want to purchase traditional Chinese music). I could go crazy at the teaching supply store, but I resolved to find everything online and to upcycle, recycle, or innovate for our science and art projects. So far, I have found everything I need and want (and more) online. I am even thinking of using clips of tai chi instruction on You Tube for one of our morning breaks. With the Apple TV, we can play in on the big screen and follow along like a phys. ed. class. We’ll see if I can meet this challenge of the “free unit.”

We also chose for our next free-reading, longer book a Nancy Drew mystery The Mystery of the Fire Dragon (#38). It is about the disappearance of a young Chinese girl, and we are actually receiving good information for our unit in the exposition. Ned Nickerson is currently in Hong Kong, and I think both Carson Drew and his daughter will be travelling there at some point. I love how we are able to stick with our Nancy Drew series (which Katie is very “into” right now) and yet still find one that connects to our unit. It works for me!

With our travels and the need to settle back into a routine, we’ve taken our lessons a bit easy this week. I have needed time, too, to gear up for our next major unit: China and the Chinese New Year. I am super super super duper excited about this unit—the only issue for me is reigning it in!—and all the interdisciplinary directions we will explore. I am not sure I’ve been this pumped up about a unit since our Apple a Day unit earlier this year!

We’ll be starting our China unit this week, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of what we’ve been up to:

On the heels of some serious ocean time in Hawaii, Katie asked, “How do we get salt?” So we set up a simple salt solution lab earlier this week. We talked about what it means to make a “solution” and about key terms such as “evaporation.” She came downstairs to one of her trays one morning, and she made a salt solution as well as made some notes about it in her science notebook.

What surprised me was how adamant Eric was about wanting to join in. He let his desires be known, and he’s a fairly mellow guy otherwise. Vocal, he also climbed up by himself into the chair and started reaching for the materials. I decided to give him his own glass and the same instructions I gave to Katie (I do not believe in “babying things down” when it comes to teaching my kiddos). I told him, “Fill your glass up halfway with water.” He took the water jar and filled it up halfway and set down the water, all as he had just watched his sister do—probably a coincidence, but I’m going with it. I mean, he is Bill’s child, so it’s possible. 😉 Then Eric poured in his own salt, and stirred it himself. Okay. Like I said, I’m going with it—and I am planning to include him in all of our China activities. Yes, Katie will get some reading supplements and probably a bit more discussion of the history, but I am making duplicates of everything else.

We set the glasses on the counter, and we’ve been watching them all week.

It turns out that the salt solution/evaporation lab will coincide perfectly with our China unit. The Chinese were among the first known peoples to harvest salt from a salt lake, Lake Yuncheng. We’ll be talking about that more as the unit progresses.

We also tried a new birdfeeder-making method. After enjoying all the tropical birds, we wanted to reconnect to our local bird friends and invite them back into our yard. We adore birdwatching during breakfast—one of the hobbies the kiddos truly share.

We found this recipe/craft on Design Dazzle. Oh, Pinterest, you never-ending wealth of craft links! Basically, you mix dissolved Knox gelatine with birdseed and press the concoction into cookie cutters with a loop of twine and let them dry overnight. Pop them out the next day, and hang up in your trees. Super easy.

Our ornaments, drying…

Ready to hang up our new treats for our birds

One of our birdseed hearts

Finally, we made progress on making our kitchen more kiddo friendly. Taking a tip from numerous Montessori sites, we cleaned out a bottom cabinet (this had the domino effect of cleaning and out and having to rearrange several cabinets). We stocked it with placemats, kid-friendly cutlery, a basket of napkins, cups, bowls, plates, and spoons (later, we’ll add knives and forks—Katie can reach those in our drawer anyway). The kiddos now have a refrigerated shelf, a pantry shelf, and this cabinet which they can access. Although they still need to ask permission to have a snack, they are given the freedom to prepare it themselves.

Part of the Montessori method is to teach self-reliance and independence and to equip the children with confidence through building practical skills.  We have altered the cabinet lock so that the kiddos can open the door easily. Katie prepared her first on-her-own snack yesterday and was quite proud of herself. I believe strongly that the layout and structure of a home should communicate to children that learning and skill-building are the chief priorities of that home. The kid-friendly kitchen is something I have been meaning to do since school started this year, and I am relieved and thankful that it is done. I cannot wait to see how this new modification unfolds.

I am so excited to begin our China unit this week!!

 

The house on the corner of our housing tract has been newly listed for lease. I saw the red and blue sign stuck in the grass just this morning when turning into our housing development on my way home from the kiddos’ music class. That sign means the house, of course, is empty now. The lease listing is on the heels of the estate sale held shortly before Christmas. I know what this means. I know that the elderly man who lived there, a military man judging from the plates on his car, has passed away.

As we used to see him sometimes in the garage (he always kept it as neat as a pin) on our morning walks, we have seen the hustle and bustle of his family these last weeks. I know it is the first set of holidays without him. I know he left a space that cannot be filled.

I just never knew his name. Strange sometimes, how people can be neighbors and yet live worlds apart.

As we are brought in touch with a common human nature through our joy, so are we connected to the greater whole through our grief. We might all have a million different ways of grieving, but we all know the edges and whirls of loss. It doesn’t take but a look at that empty house to feel the pang of that family’s loss. A grandfather, a dad, possibly a brother, a widower—whomever he really was, he was to somebody.

To the day, today, January 13th, is the fifth anniversary of my Uncle Eric’s own passing. Wherever he is—whether the reader believes he is in Heaven, or all around us, or alive still inside each of us, or atoms, or what—I know that he brought the pep rally with him today. Class of ’66, the school mascot Lance Bullwinkle, and an uncle who never tired out before we did, Uncle Eric could make anything hilarious. I just don’t think the four-dimensional world was big enough to contain him, a true force of nature. He was intelligent, kind, humorous, and loyal.

I am trying not to be sad today, but for some reason we humans give weight to numbers like 5, 10, and 20. Not sure why. We just do. The truth is that I miss him all the time, and I think about him constantly when I hold my son Eric. He breathes inside of the songs we sing for lullabies and the traditions we have as a family. He invented family words (“plude” for example) that I use with my own children. Uncle Eric is never so far.

Yesterday my BFF Rosa brought our family a gift: a blu-ray package set of The Sound of Music, complete with a music box gears, colored prints, and photo books. This turned out to be a perfect gift because my current copy of The Sound of Music is not blu-ray, and last year, it started skipping and freezing right during the gazebo scene (of all the places to skip, right?…!!!). Uncle Eric has been to Austria, he loved The Sound of Music, and “So Long, Farewell” was played at his memorial. Five years on, and I still can’t make it through that piece without crying. Both of my special songs with each of my children are from The Sound of Music (Katie’s is “My Favorite Things” and Eric’s is “The Sound of Music”), and I guess my point is this: as much as I have a tendency imbue anything with significance, I have certainly infused The Sound of Music with almost talisman-like qualities.

It was my intention to watch The Sound of Music today (I always watch in January around this time to honor Uncle Eric) with the kiddos, but as both of them are napping, I am not sure if this will happen. Perhaps tomorrow…Yes, I think that will do.

Fittingly (since Uncle Eric loved music and was a member of his Chamber Choir and Concert Choir), Katie and Eric had their first day of music class for the term this morning. We’re studying “Bells” and we loved seeing our friends again after a long holiday break. If there is one way to honor Uncle Eric, it is to make music and be cheerful and to love our friends and family.

This is a picture of me meeting Uncle Eric shortly after I was born.

Uncle Eric and Aunt Jenny with me during my 1st birthday.

The rhythm and busy peacefulness of cooking together in the kitchen seems to sweeten all kinds of relationships. When two or more people create a meal to share, there can be nothing but a happy cooperation and a harmony of movement. There is mutual problem solving, confidence in one another as we make impromptu changes to a recipe, and a building of energy as one good idea leads to another. Cooking with another person, to me, is a way to be really present with her, or him. I have a mental list of friends with whom I’d love to cook someday, as way to gain insight into their authentic selves and with whom to share a similar piece of myself.

There are many people in my life who make me yearn to have my own Star Trek transporter, and my best friend Rosa is one of them. I wish we could beam ourselves routinely into each other’s homes, instead of navigating the two hours of roadway between us. Silly physics.

Rosa and I started cooking together in high school when we hosted an Academic Decathlon dinner for our team. I cooked with many of my friends in high school, the guys and the gals. We had game nights and mystery parties. My goodness, how I love those friends-like-family to this day!

When the college years and my somewhat reclusive personality had put some distance between us, Rosa came to the rescue with recipes for pumpkin penne and flying apple saucers. What were we then, maybe 24 or 25? It was a moment in our friendship when I knew that I would always want my unconditional love for her to win out over my hermit tendencies. I make that pumpkin penne at least once a year, not just because it is super tasty, but because it reminds me of her and all that I have in her.

A few weeks ago, Rosa happened to mention wanting to make Beef Wellington. I have been wanting to make Beef Wellington for years, as well. Please tell me I am not the only person who puts recipes on her bucket list??

And so the concept of Beef Wellington Day was born.

We divvied up ingredients, Rosa offered to drive down (what a gift—it was really my turn to drive up, but she was kind), and we brainstormed sides and dessert: roasted green beans with shallots, smashed red potatoes with garden rosemary, and Asian gingered pear tart. This last contribution was Rosa’s brilliant creation. I have just a sliveriest sliver left in the fridge as we wrap up the night—delish!

Somehow,we managed to pull it off with three kids ages 4, 17 months, and 4 months. Not sure how, but we did.

Rosa and Katie make the duxelles for the Beef Wellington

Golden…crispy…and inside, perfectly medium rare and tender filet. Yummers!

My sorry attempt at a picture of the pear tart… For one thing, I could only take a picture of part of it since I had mauled one of the ends in a  ravenous eating frenzy.

Rosa, who is well known in the foodie world for her writing, recipes, and reviews, has much better pictures and more of a narrative of our process at her website Dining with the Catty Critic. Or, she will have them there shortly. She a busy, loving mama, so it might be a few days.

Oh, and there is one grave  and important world concern I must address. For those who might be appalled at our wanton, wild, immodest use of pastry in both the Wellington and the pear tart, I ask with all seriousness: Can there ever really be such a thing as too much pastry?

The answer, clearly, is NO.

Puff pastry enhances everything.

Good night!