Vacation with five kids? What’s the point?

At our mid-fall vacation

A redwood, with its bark fallen away, stretched from one side of the creek to another, perfectly meeting both ends as a bridge. I eyed the 8-foot distance from it to the shallow creek below.

“Can we go across it?”

“Better not. Or at least, not as far as the water. I guess we could go a little way. No? You don’t want to try. I’ll go a little. See? Does anyone else want to try? I bet your father would go the whole way across.”

Family vacation, days of togetherness, separated away from the world at a cabin with a deck where ravens fly overhead and a bear passed by midmorning, beyond the range of At&t cell phone service, layers strip away from family life. No laundry, few dishes, simple meals, no work or outside commitments. We see better what we are and of what our relationships are made. My younger son snuggles next to me at random and says, “I love you, mommy.” His younger sister imitates him. The pre-teen can barely contain her annoyance at the siblings just below her in rank.

During the vacation, my elder son’s adventurousness, his desire to explore, and his openness to experience came into view. One daughter’s interiority displayed itself like a billboard and another daughter’s creativity came ringing out in her lament over bringing only one notebook for drawing, and none for writing.

My husband’s eyes lit up as he shared his tasting notes following a solo visit to Hinterhaus Distillery in Arnold, Calif. My eyes did something of the same as my fingers ran along the embossed covers of hardback classics at Books on Main in Murphys.

The toddler got into mischief. There were behavioral ups and downs, and physiological ups and downs from sore muscles to growing pains to over-tiredness.

But we kept at it.

The three older kids and I approached a lady who was just finishing her walk. She told us of two possibilities for reaching the Arnold rim trail around White Pines Lake. “It looks like some people set down rocks so you can go across the creek to get to it, but it really is quite beautiful along the creek and only about 100 yards.”

We took the path along the creek, ducking under branches, stepping over roots and rocks, tripping here and there as if we were to spell bound by the storybook quality of finding fairies in under two-foot tall ferns, trolls under bridges made from the trunks of fallen trees, and magical powers hidden in mushrooms we know too little about to identify or touch. The light filtered through the tree branches; the creek pooled and sputtered around rocks, creating little pools of foam and miniature white waters.

My children are amazed at the sight of all this. Along with the height of the redwoods, we marveled at the size of the raven and its ability to answer back, the sounds squirrels make, and the way a deer stands on its hind legs to reach the tree branches early in the early morning.

And we marvel in our own ways.

My son discussed what he has seen, jokes, and anthropomorphizes them. Another child immediately set to drawing the trees and leaves and collecting specimens. The other daydreamed the hours away in quiet dissatisfaction or perhaps a satisfaction beyond my powers to discern. I sat and read and listened to the prattle of the little ones who felt a little out of sorts because we so rarely travel, but who by the last day never wanted to leave.

Still, upon getting home they felt so immediately at home in their own beds, as we did too.

There is no great revelation.

Only a series of observations, sitting with what I have seen.

I suppose that is rather the point of vacation – to stop, to be still, to be together, to be less about quantitative activities and make space for qualitative time. With so many to-do lists and projects, juggling all the things, we need to pause and stop progressing, stop working, stop meeting goals and learn to just be. “To be” means to exist. We are a family. We exist together in this space.

And sometimes, that needs to be all that matters.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Your community newspaper matters and here’s why

Five years at the newspaper

Five years ago, for the first time, I reported on the Kids Craft Fair for our local newspaper, the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch. The fair, hosted by the Stanislaus County Library, ran along the sides of the Modesto Library portico. My three big kids, ages nearly 7, nearly 5, and 3 surrounded the umbrella stroller and shuttled my one-and-a-half-year-old son about the place. October 2017.

Youth Craft Fair at the Stanislaus Library, Modesto branch

Our Octobers in 2015 and 2016 were rough months. 2016 was a rough year and the first half of 2017 was no better. They were our personal 2020, so to speak, with loss, isolation, and learning to find good even amid great difficulty.

I saw an advertisement in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch, a print-only newspaper that is part of MidValley Publications, for a writer and emailed the publisher, Mr. John Derby, to discuss freelancing for this paper, continuing this column which I began in 2015 and reporting on 2-3 church and community events every week.

First time reporter

As for reporting, that first event was the curviest of learning curves as I walked my children around the portico crowded with over 100 young vendors and their families. I awkwardly stopped to talk to different sellers to discover the local angle, the link that ties an event in Modesto to our own community.

As I began to attend events I might not otherwise have attended, ask questions, learn the background of the event, its purpose, and the motivation, experiences and stories of those involved, I found that my appreciation and enjoyment of the event itself deepened. One begins to notice more things, like how frantic first-time caterers are, or how relaxed organizers are once the event gets going and they are finally sitting with a glass of wine and taking it in. The personal experience becomes heightened by tuning into the experience of others. I witnessed the challenges faced to make it come together and the pleasure of success when hard fundraisers are over. And overall these are the mission behind what the person is doing.

What the community paper does

Getting to know you

By focusing solely on the local, the community newspaper introduces you to your neighbors and helps you to know and recognize one another. Author Wendell Berry, The Need to be Whole theorizes that it is the lack of knowledge of one another that might be at the heart of many of our society’s problems. The bigger the community, the easier it is to fly under the radar and go unnoticed. Not so in the small town.

That discomfort of the fish bowl is not what we’re after. Rather, it’s the celebration. At Main Street Deli, I sat down with a little leaguer about to travel to Washington DC to capture in words his story and his success. At teh Courthouse, watched Hughson High School Mock Trial students gear up for their next trial. On the high school campus academic decathlon students who were on the path to nationals told me their stories.

Sharing your stories

On these pages, we have the opportunity to share your stories and the good work being done in this town. The intention is not to sugarcoat, but to spotlight. And we do that as an independent press.

Print slows us down. It presents the opportunity to pause and be present to the physical and limited world around us, rather than the digital window that opens up to the entire universe from as far away as the telescope or scientific theories can reach to the most hidden and abstract thoughts of the human mind presented with words on a screen.

Making a difference

This is the area we can affect. City Council elections are ones where your vote makes a difference, no matter what side of the political fence you fancy.

Volunteer work in this town helps individuals you can meet and know and see again after the job is done.

When you serve a fundraising dinner, attend graduation or imbibe samples at Taste of Hughson, it is alongside people you may already know or could meet and get to know even better at the next event.

My background in psychology inclines me to listen to the words of others, to discover the story and motivation therein that ties it all together, and to be able to present that narrative in an unbiased way.

We have a lot of dinners, especially drive-thru dinners. There are fundraisers and community events designed to support local businesses and projects. There are parades aplenty.

And for all of that, we’re here, ready to share those stories, those successes.

That’s the power of the positive press.

The Joy in an Old Friend

The Departure

Naturally, it seemed brilliant to use credit card points and book a hotel to spare me in the morning leading up to a 7 a.m. flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. The drive was smooth; the hotel was a peaceful and strange experience without children, with books and writing for free and fun for the first time in ages. The shuttle departed at 5:05 a.m. I arrived at the airport at just the right time and went through security.

After hustling to the correct terminal, I arrived at the Gate and saw that the flight now departed at 10 a.m. One hour later, the time changed to 2 p.m. We lined up to request new routes, meal vouchers and the like. After two hours in line, checking up on what others were doing, and calling American Airlines multiple times, the flight shifted three more times, deciding finally to leave at 3:30 p.m. and land sometime around 11 p.m. Slating my arrival time at my friend’s house for after 1 a.m. This was not what we planned on. 

After bonding with strangers in line, I purchased my lunch and made the best of things. There are nice chairs in SFO and charging stations everywhere. I packed “The Master of Hestviken” by Sigrid Undset for company, read, wrote and took periodic walks knowing I eventually would end up sitting on an airplane, however distant that possibility felt. The nine-hour delay was one of those opportunities to practice the flexibility I am often preaching. 

The flight itself was fantastic.

After nine hours, most passengers were rerouted and only 50 remained. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” who made it through the wait and determined staying the course was our best or only option.

The trip itself was a personal one, sprinkled with work here and there. My destination was the home of a friend, one of the thick-or-thin types, the type of person with whom I feel utterly at home. 


She lives in a little town founded in 1812 at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a population of 3687 at its last census count. We walked Main Street arm-in-arm, so to speak, poked around pioneer cabins, and met the locals. In the twin town next door, founded in 1891 with a population of 4131 at its last census, we antiqued at Key City Antiques and marked that Carolina Treasures on Main has three floors of antiques waiting to be discovered. I drank a perfectly spicy Mayan Mocha at Talia Espresso. We ate BBQ chicken, pulled pork, fried squash, fried okra, hush puppies, and potato wedges at Brushy Mountain Smokehouse and Creamery for around $9 a dish. The remarkable prices ended up not mattering when we discovered the gentleman at the table next to us, who knows my friend, paid our tab. We followed dinner with house-made ice cream.

The next day they drove me to the scenic overlooks of the Blue Ridge Mountains where trees release isoprene into the air giving the province a bluish tinge. The diversity of trees and smattering of wildflowers wherever I looked made every good impression on me. Goldenrod and Mile and Minute Vine are invasive, but also beautiful and sculptural accents of an area I had never seen before. We continued up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Boone where I shopped like a tourist at Mast General Store Old Boone Mercantile. 

The last day of my whirlwind trip was a walk with the family along the Fourth Ward neighborhood in Charlotte and playtime at a playground in the shadows of First Presbyterian Church. I silently crossed myself as we passed the Old Settler Cemetery, a good Catholic practice, and marveled that the oldest grave there belongs to Joel Baldwin who died October 21, 1776. 

Best of all

But better than all this was that feeling of home, of talking and not worrying, of being known and knowing the woman with which I spoke without any difficulty, talking about cake decorating, family and friend drama, and the wonders of parenting. Now I hold in my mind and imagination the places she visits, the people of whom she speaks, and the goodness and quirks that invade her daily life as she parents three children across the country. It’s a gift to be so united. Nine hours delay was nothing compared to the joy in an old friend.

Use the five senses to make this autumn amazing

The five senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch.

We most fully experience a thing when we can engage the senses. How do we do it in our home?

Beatus Autumnus banner
Please note: we got our Latin wrong

First, sight.

When fall officially begins, I bring out a string of handmade bunting from orange linen-look fabric purchased at Rainbow Fabrics at 751 N Golden State Blvd in Turlock. I cut the fabric into triangles, did a simple stitch with a sewing machine along the edges so it would not fray past a certain point and used graphite paper and computer print outs to trace the world “Beatus Autumnus,” Latin words for “Blessed Autumn.” I colored the letters in with permanent marker and hot glued the letters to a stretch of baking twice. It’s an official moment in the house when the banner comes out.

I also add a piece of art and replace a piece of artwork with “Halloween Ride” by Patricia Palmerino and “Marshmallows and ghost stories” by Katherine Blower. We purchased the first at the Farmer’s Market in Alexandria, VA, when attending it was part of life lived in Virginia and the second on Society6. 

Autumnal blankets in tans, indigo blues and oranges come out, along with new pillow colors in the same autumnal hues. I filled my Heath Ceramics vases, purchased online, with tied bunches dried straw flowers, thistle, bunny tails ornament grass, and dried yarrow, and set them on the fireplace mantle. 

Dried flowers with Heath Ceramics vases

Second, smell.

I recently returned to my adolescent love of scented candles. Buy them and burn them. I’m starting with Apple Harvest from Trader Joe’s first and will move to “Manhattan” from Crate and Barrel and then settle on the warm scents of candles purchased at Vintage Market at 210 East Main Street in Turlock.

Third, taste.

You know it. I know it. So I’ll just admit it. It’s pumpkin spice. Pumpkin spice in homemade lattes, pumpkin spice sprinkles on apples picked at a neighbor’s orchard in a red casserole dish. Apple crisp, apply crumble, apple pie. In one month my children will be so tired of apples, but they do not know that now. The baking provides the fall aroma, the baskets and compotes filled with apples around the kitchen and dining room offer one more visual aid. I was one day too early to purchase Trader Joe’s Spiced Apple Cider but it is 100% worth it. If you are a cocktail drinker, try this mixed with Fireball and Brandy for a drink we call a “Hot Autumn Evening.”

Green apples in a wire basket

Fourth, sound.

It goes simply for us. The children and I sing the song from Disney’s “Johnny Appleseed” and a German folk song, “Autumn Leaves are a-falling”. I haven’t a set playlist, but I am certainly working on one for All Soul’s Day and the rest of November. 

And lastly, touch.

The cozy textures, wearing long sleeves and long pants and long pajamas, wrapping up in a robe or blanket early in the morning, cross legged on the couch, shivering against the breeze blowing through the open windows. 

Thirfted blanket, handmade pillow and West Elm velvet pillow

Wherever activities fall in this lineup of sensory experiences, they probably capture it all.

We hope to wander a corn maze, pick more apples, drink apple cider, read The Pumpkin Runner, The Ox-Cart Man, Room on a Broom, Too Many Pumpkins, and A Thanksgiving Story.

My husband and I watch the 1930s horror movie classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We may sprinkle in some Hitchcock and new films like Coraline and Corpse Bride. The kids will make it through “It’s the Great Pumpkin Halloween.”

We serve a dinner with pork chops, butternut squash soup, homemade bread, with apple cobbler and acorn squash ice cream for dessert. We listen to music outdoors and enjoy the cool evenings we thought never would come. 

It’s the littlest moments and littlest touches that make this season something wonderful in our household. We engage the senses. They are thirteen years in the making. New traditions emerge, old traditions adapt, some years a particular one is skipped altogether. But no matter, they still make fall what it is for us, a thing of beauty, gratitude for the harvest and delight. 

How Does Your Garden Grow?

What’s in bloom this month: March Edition

What does our garden look like this March? Blooms here and there with the promise of beauty and the lessons in patience.

Greenheart Orange

Greenheart Orange Calendula blooming in March in the perennial garden

In the garden, Greenheart Orange Calendula grow happily since January. Its Irish orange disk-shaped bloom has a short life per bloom, spindly stems, but the determination to be part of the garden despite my lack of love for it. I pick from the plants sprung in late winter from the seeds of its predecessors. It readily self-seeds. The subtly rust-colored and cream-colored calendula surrounded by those brazen orange blooms are so much more my favorites to put on show.

Madame Butterfly Snapdragon

Madame Butterfly Snapdragon blooming at the edge of the garden in March

One snapdragon, left from last season grows in the corner of another flower bed. I kick myself for not starting those seeds in the fall, but I can be merciful to myself remembering my reasons: life and toddlers. These are not window box snapdragons. Rather they burst into bloom with three by six inches tall clusters of burgundy purple flower heads. When I cut as early as recommended, the higher, later little blooms lose their color. They impress me more as neglected plants in the garden.

Halloween Halo

Halloween Halo Iris, first to bloom in the garden

A stray iris rose from its sheaves itself first. Halloween Halo appeared again and again as the startling early showy bloom of a spring that was supposed to be winter. Its white petals fringed with orange and an orange tongue at its center, offering pollen to bees and ornamentation to the eye, complement the warm tones of my living room and mantle.

Between the rain, fog then frost, my irises have black spot on many leaves. It remains to be seen what a year it will be. At least Halloween Halo gave us that gift of early spring. Hope comes with the return of longer days as the leaves multiple and grow. In the front of our house, a deep purple iris blooms repeatedly. It dislikes domesticity life and fades quickly in a vase.

We started seeds.

And half seedlings died in that late frost. My husband’s garden fared better as we prioritized space for his vegetables under the lamps in our potting shed/barn.

Leucojum Gravetye Giant

Leucojum Gravetye Giant, one of my favorite garden bulbs

Leucojum, sometimes called snow-drops, pushed through the piles Mulberry leaf-based mulch. They still impress me as one of the loveliest bulb flowers I have ever seen. To my delight, they multiply each year. On delicate arching stems, a foot-long in length, white bells, like a fairy’s skirt dotted with green at the hem, emerge looking as gracefully in the garden as in the vase. Their stems drip toxic sap like daffodils making them less companionable in an arrangement without special preparations.

Narcissus Barrett Browning

Narcissus Barrett Browning

Narcissus Barrett Browning bloomed with white outer petals and a feisty red-orange center. It came after the traditional yellow daffodil that reminds me of spring days watching the animated Alice in Wonderland. For a wedding-size bouquet, I added daffodils to a red amaryllis, greenheart orange calendula, the weedy fiddle neck, mint and boxwood.

Ranunculus comes next in orange or cream.

Orange ranunculus

These were pitiful or non-existent last year. As I weeded in the fall, I discovered three thick clumps. Those, I divided into to no less than thirty plants. Even with my bud vases full in the house, I have plant envy fomented from Instagram as I see the remarkable ranunculus professionals farm florists send out into the world.

But no roses

Professional growers are also beginning to display some rose blooms, but mine are still in early growth. Two second-year plants and five new bare-root roses are doing wonderfully well. When we visit, I peer across the lawn at my mother’s roses bushes to see if her roses might be ahead of mine. They are not. We must wait with anticipation for those first blooms.  

Patience, my child

It feels like that time may never come. But it will. The yarrow grows fluffier. More sprouts spring up. Acropolis Narcissus has nearly bloomed. The growing season is long, but with such short winters, we may suffer from more impatience because we never learned the skills to cope with the dormant season. I think of investing in a greenhouse, but where will we put it?

We tilled the soil around the sidewalk outside our house. I want to look out and see the flowers as I drum my fingers waiting for the next arithmetic answer from my 4th grader. Leave the housework, the schoolwork, and the fieldwork behind.

Leave the flowers to me.

Perennial garden at the beginning of spring

Three Years on the Farm

We are a small-scale farm, very amateur operation, and learning as we go. Our primary lesson is patience. After that first lesson, we learn about flowers, animals, and the soil that sustains them both. This is where we stand, at the beginning of our third year, here on the farm.

When we moved here

wild geranium and sting nettle filled the yards to the brim. Chain-link fencing, irrigation pipe, and black widows occupied the barns. The walls of the workshop brimmed over with mold. Pesticides laid the field low. Yet, the house waited for us. This house, so well-known to the community, seemed ready for us and we were ready for it.

The roof needed replacing. The windows were falling shut. The driveway flooded, waters flowing up into the workshop, higher and higher.

Little by little, we mowed and tilled.

We planted a fruit grove towards the back of the field, imagining the day when all the produce we needed would be right here, and a day much later, when our lives are quieter and we have more than we need, able to bless others with that abundance, as others bless us now. Blossoms punctuate the fruit grove. I sent the children to make scientific observations on the differences between fruit trees and I wonder if we perhaps pruned the trees too hard this last winter.

I see the blackberries and raspberries coming back to life and remember we need to string additional wire to support them.

The chicken coop and our little flock of chickens came next, hauled over with my father’s tractor. The chicken yard expanded as these three years marched on, as did the flock. We replaced the feeder and nesting boxes with products from DuncansFarmStore on Etsy. What a difference it made. That plus the patience of waiting for chicks to age, we now collect an average of 10 eggs a day for the six eaters in the house.

eggs from the farm

In December, a friend offered me two lambs to test our budding interest in raising sheep. Sheep milk can be used for consumption, yogurt and cheese production, all products my children consume in bulk. Each morning I rose at 6:30 a.m. to mix their formula. My three eldest children went out in the wee hours to feed their lambs. The lambs grew, challenging our construction skills until they were ready for the wide-open world. My husband set up their pasture, or lamb yard, as we call it. Now their baaing drives him crazy whenever he is outdoors. They knew where their food comes from.

Inside the yard

the wild geranium and nettle made way for a perennial flower garden, a cut flower garden, a dahlia garden and a fairy garden. I am determined to let the fairy garden’s flowers bloom at their own pace and never cut them. This one shall be for the delight of our eyes. All the rest for my fingers to pick and arrange and share with the town through the little flower stand I began last year.

New rose bushes arrived this year, complementing the collection we inherited from past tenants. After the removal of two problematic trees, I must reassess the water need of the plants facing the road.

The interior of the home became ours quickly with coats of paints, art and antiques, a quick change in one bathroom from a bulky vanity to wall mount cast iron sink from Miss Potts Attic. The second bathroom had its remodel when we replaced our kitchen countertops. A new counter and new tiles make the room, preserving the old we can keep and replacing with new when called for.

It comes step by step.

We made mistakes in these past three years, but understand them as lessons rather than errors.

Better than all of it is the sight of my barefoot children, my son’s vitamin D levels, my two-year-old swinging herself as she sings, my daughter’s iris garden on the brink of blooming, my child’s treasure map, and the holes the bunch of them are digging to China. It is a golden childhood, and we are so grateful to give it to them.

We are but tenants ourselves.

panting of our little farm house

If we steward our resources well, this house will live on past us, to receive the patter of little feet and nurture little souls.

Step by step, little by little, and with lots of patience.

Build Your Community

From Merriam-Webster:

“Community is a unified body of individuals: such as the people with common interests living in a particular area, a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society, a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests.”

As a youth, I did the now-unthinkable thing of riding my bike up and down our country road, knocking on neighbors’ doors and spending time with them. So when my father needed something for his farm or neighbors’ needed something for their farm and he talked about farmers helping farmers, I understood what he meant. They were not strangers to me.

As a young adult, I served a year of missionary work with NET Ministries and traveled the country with a team of five men and five other women. We lived together, ate together, and worked together. There was support and effort made to maintain a positive relationships. Some relationships become deep and lasting. Others passed and that season of relationship has ended.

I moved to Minnesota to return to the opportunity to live in that kind of community of women through St. Paul’s Outreach, living together, eating together, praying together, with a shared faith. For a year, I lived in that household. The following year, I found a roommate, and we rented a house, sharing faith but also aesthetics, a Christmas tree, stories about the boyfriends we would go on to marry, and our vision of what life could or should be like as we moved forward to those new stages of marriage.

To the east coast and back, my husband and I traveled after marrying. We returned to California. My parent’s friend owned the first home we rented on the west coast.

We moved again, with the support of my parents. And again. And again. Each time, with gratitude we soaked up the wonder of amazing neighbors when we faced times of crisis.

After ten years, for the first time, it feels like we have found not just friends or neighbors, but community, two, in fact.

One came through the nature of this town. I interviewed a business owner, who told me she had just been on the phone with my husband to set up music lessons, whose husband did electrical work for us when we moved. The next week, I attended a play, directed by the man who, along with his wife and twenty other people, helped us move in because we called a local church to ask for help. Each time I come to town to share the stories of the people who live here, I meet people who read this column, or have known my parents for decades, or I’ve known through a Facebook moms’ group for years, or people I knew as kids running around the hall at a church dinner.

The other community comes from our parish. A group of homeschooling families, seeking a way to connect our children, looking for educational and social opportunities. We see each other weekly, visit after mass, and throughout the summer interact at co-op opportunities.

It comes with age. Moving past the desire to be best friends. Understanding friendships evolve and change. Understanding that no relationship can feed every need. If they serve a few facets, then it’s a boon.

If you’re suffering from a lack of community, consider this.

It takes visibility to form community.

People need to see your face. Put yourself out there. Find groups with common interests, whether volunteering at the Carnegie Art Center, Historical Society, or Lions Club. Or find subgroups or committees at work. Or find the local playdates or co-ops or library storytime.

It takes stability to form a community.

Make your attendance consistent and give it an important spot in your calendar.

It takes intentionality to form a community.

We live in a transitory world, show you’re invested where you’re at. Talk to people. Take an interest. Ask questions.

It is possible, even as people leave and the world keeps rushing around us. It takes time. It takes patience. And a little bit of trust that the people are out there until finally, we build a community.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Lemons: An Answer to Life’s Troubles

I inherited my Kitchen-aid mixer when my husband and I married and my mother upgraded to a larger size to accommodate her enormous baking habit. With it, she gave several attachments, including a juicer.

It may have been five years ago. That sounds about right. About five years ago, dear friends who knew me as a child invited us to pick fruit in their front yard. Now, every year, either we ask or they remind us, the fruit is there. Come and get it.

The aged trees are laden with lemons, grapefruit, and oranges.

I used to accompany my husband until our little babes outnumbered us. This year, he took two of our daughters.

What could a family do with three gallons of lemon juice?

“When life gives you lemons,” they say.

We make lemonade.

The lemonade serves special occasions. It serves for playdates, parties, for summer art classes. It serves.

The orange juice comes out when illness strikes and we need to be more proactive than our usual nutrition. We need a boost, and all the better if it can be tasty. It also comes out for Mother Day mimosas.

The grapefruit, one year, was condensed down to a simple syrup and added to Italian sodas as part of our Italian booth at a church festival. Last year, we experimented with grapefruitade.

I moved the mixer across the kitchen

and set it on an old bath towel.

The juicing attachment goes on. I place a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup underneath. We bring in two five-gallon buckets to collect the rinds. Empty half-gallon jars build a formation around the mixer.

We have to be more careful this year because citrus will etch the of the marble work surface that replaced the broken tile. We lay out two cookie sheets, two cutting boards and two knives. A quick assessment determined the decision to gate off the kitchen from the two-year-old.

And we get to work.

One capable and well-trained child cuts the citrus, filling the tray. We switch the empty for the full tray and I begin juicing. She fills the next tray. Once filled, the bucket needs to be emptied. She carts it across the field to the grove of baby fruit trees. It takes her a while to come back. By the time she does, I am ready for her to cut more.

We work in rhythm with each other. The man of the house reenters the kitchen with labeled gallon-size freezer bags. He blends the admittedly pulpy juice and fills the bags, carrying a batch of four or five to the outside freezer.

Little girl juicing lemons at a Kitchen-aid mixer to make lemonade.

After many bags of citrus, bucketfuls of rinds and two days later, the job is done. A thorough clean-up reveals a little etching on the marble. That makes my husband and me even since he etched the opposite since of the counter. This one was my doing. It is good to have equality in marriage.

There are so many things we are powerless to stop in this world.

There is so much heartache, so much bad news, so many things that never should have been.

So when it’s time to harvest the fruit, and it must be harvested before it is too late; and when it is time to juice all that citrus, and it must be juiced before it rots on my countertops, we allow ourselves to be beholden to something that is good, natural, rewarding, and, well, sweet.

We allow ourselves to join in a bigger world, a world of neighbors sharing with neighbors, which we pay forward in our homeschooling co-op and hospitality. We teach our children about family projects that take multiple hands.

The reward is the juice that comes from it.

You have to work to get there, but it’s better than anything packaged and sold in a store.

Jars of grapefruit juice.

We freeze the juice in those gallon bags and take it out throughout the year to make strawberry lemonade, lavender lemonade, Palomas, and smoothies. Bigger than that, we make memories and receive the generosity of others.

“The man and woman who let us pick their trees, they must be really wonderful,” the hardworking child gushes.

In a world that is hurting or disconnected, it is good to return to the land, to the ideas of farming in which neighbors work together to bless each other.

And it is very, very sweet.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Why we celebrate the Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year began February 1 and concludes 15 days later. My grandmother was born and raised in Shanghai. She attended a British boarding school. Raising a biracial family in the United States in the 1950s brought its challenges and the goal of the time was assimilation. We were not culturally Chinese, except on those days when we went to Chinese restaurants. Then we knew to eat family style; and when we poured our green tea, we took it plainly, no cream or sugar added. And once a year, there was talk of Chinese New Year, and a question of whether or not to travel to Oakland, San Francisco, or San Jose to celebrate it.

We did one year, but not again. Still, there was talk of it.

Bringing the new year in

Chinese New Year decorations

Three or four years ago, we began to observe the Lunar New Year in our home as a way to celebrate my grandmother and offer her the gift of something old and familiar, though naturally in a distinctly Chinese-American way. I learned more of the traditions from storybooks and educational books than from the source, but the heart of it is one we can all understand.

At the heart of the Lunar New Year is a reunion.

Family comes together. Lucky money is given to youngsters enclosed in bright red envelopes, decorated with gold lettering. The feast is spread with symbolic foods. Wishes of a happy and fortunate new year are shared. I wear the jade necklace my mother gave me and the gold earrings my grandmother gave me in the days when I invited myself to stay the night at her house in Modesto, rather than drive home between work shifts. We ate and watched old movies. She told me about the old days in China, the days of employment and dances, the days of office work and flirtations, the days of the war, the days of leaving home and the strangely new and foreign days with an unfamiliar Greek-German family in the United States.

Chinese New Year joins a list of celebrations in our house, one more festivity for my children to anticipate, prepare for, and delight in. There may be children of mine who hold little connection to that Chinese heritage. There may be children of mine who have few, if any, memories of the woman for whom we began these celebrations. But they will know we celebrate. They may ask why we celebrate.

And when they do, their older brothers and sisters will tell them the story:

“Mommy’s grandmother was from China. She came here when the Communists took over. She married an American and all the Americans had to get out. The rest of her family had to stay behind.”

The week and a half before Lunar New Year, there were so many interruptions, so many commitments, so many important meetings and visits, and so many responsibilities.

“I thought you might cancel”

my mother said when we gathered that night.

My children sat around the table as their great-grandmother coached them on how to use chopsticks. After she wrote out the Chinese words for “Happy New Year” phonetically (“gung hai phat choy”), I asked her to teach us to count in Cantonese. She counted briskly three times and then moved on.

We ate recipes new and old, homemade, from the frozen aisle, and taken-out from Hughson Asian Kitchen. The imperfections did not matter.

Chinese Almond Cookies

At the heart of it was the thing mattered.

A new year full of hope.

An old year capped with gratitude.

In the center of it all



Gung hay fat choy 

wishing you great happiness and prosperity

Happy New Year!

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Spring Traditions

The temperatures make their great climb up and down between 35° and 65° in these early days of California spring. One, two, three, four daffodils bloom in the garden with two more on the way. I clip and cut and take the first of spring’s beauty indoors, displacing the winter decor, forgetting the calendar, the fireplace, and whatever thoughts remained of observing winter traditions any longer. With the tall bearded iris Halloween Halo making her debuting the garden, who can focus any longer on the meditative silence of winter?

Early spring bloom: Halloween Halo Iris by Schreiner's Iris Garden

Out come the seed trays.

I dust off my flower stand, open a graph paper notebook of and cover my office desk with seed packets, sliding the typewriter aside to make more space. Lunch break lasts a little longer as I order garden replacements seed starting supplies. My husband and I walk the field estimating where to put the overflowing abundance, now that the backyard is nearly full of perennials and dahlias.

With a proper plan, nearly 75 new varieties will find a home, hopefully with multiples of each. Of particular interest are those inclined to resist the plagues of our soil and the general atmosphere and thrive under the sun, wrapped in its heat, thriving in sandy soil and meager water.

More visions of spring come into view as the skies clear, revealing the pure blue we see only this time of year before the fires start. The earth still retains evidence of the last rainfall or wet, foggy morning. 

Lunar New Year begins February 1.

We celebrate with my grandmother who arrived here from China on Christmas Eve when the Communists took over in 1949. This year we’re exploring recipes from, a website we found while watching “Family Dinner” on the Magnolia Network. 

Valentine’s Day falls, as ever, on February 14.

Valentine's Day Card

This holiday, once a romantic fete for us, has made itself over as a day for children to show their love and affection to others with cute cards, conversation hearts and lollipops. Often I make the cards on download, print and cut them myself, rather than buy something store-bought or spend hours crafting individually.

A deep dive into Lent must be preceded by festively partaking in Marti Gras, also called Fat Tuesday.

It needn’t be raucous, but a time to lay in the merriment with a King Cake, beads, masks, and New Orleans Jazz. We recommend the album “Save my Soul” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy for that one. Happily, Spotify makes exploring new music easier than ever.

And then Lent begins.

Custom wood sacrifice beads by St. Therese Art Shop on Etsy

For something new, I purchased “sacrifice beads” from StTheresesArtShop on Etsy. It’s an old practice St. Therese of Lisieux describes in which children can use a string of beads to count their good deeds or sacrifices. In the past, we’ve also set out a jar they can fill with beans whenever they make some sacrifice or good deed. The beans transform to jelly beans on Easter morning as a sign of how our small, but good deeds are transformed into something lovely by God.

Lent gives way to Easter in all its jubilant celebration.

Easter baskets, egg hunts, hymns, lilies and a grand feast follow accordingly.

All these give special focus to the season in its time.

Our memories grow stronger as we return year after year to these traditions. The children remember the years before and anticipate the years to come.

In the unexpected warmth of a January sun, I anticipate, I plan, I prepare. The winter books give way to Chinese legends and books about the New Year; the mantle gives way to vases and lively spring colors; and instead of looking back, I look ahead

to spring.