July 22, 2015

Chocolate-Covered Popcorn...and 5 Other Habits of a (Mostly) Happy Family

(Just here for the popcorn? It's at #6.)

The other day, I asked my children a Very Important Question.

"Do you think we have a happy family?"

(Insert holding breath.)

After several interminable seconds, my offspring--one teen daughter and one tween daughter--got back to me. Actually, they looked at me incredulously.

Then they both said, "Of course. Why would you even ask?"


That's a relief.

I asked the question because I wanted to know my girls' take on the topic. I mean, I think we're pretty happy. But I wanted my daughters' off-the-cuff perspective: no time to think about it, no mulling it over, no hedging. Just "yes" or "no."

Listen, we are such a normal family, I can't even talk about it. We try to love each other, but sometimes we don't even like each other. We fight. We snap. We have total meltdowns. (And by "we," I mostly mean "me.")
But if my adolescent daughters can unequivocally answer the question, "Do you think we have a happy family?" with a ready "yes," something we're doing must be working, by the grace of God.

Here are six habits our family has put into practice, by the grace of God. (A recurring theme, BTW.) Some have been deliberate choices, while others we've just fallen into, by the grace... If these aren't already part of your family's modus operandi, give one or two a try and see if they take.

1. Tradition! Tevye's tribe had it right in Fiddler on the Roof: traditions help keep life in balance, and we are big into them around here. We have family pizza night and Sunday-night "party" (snack food in front of the TV). We have our annual at-home Christmas Eve service planned and hosted by our girls. We have our vacation in a cottage on a lake for a week, during which we do the same things every year. We have our last-day-of-school ritual of "What Time Is It?" from High School Musical 2 blasting at top volume out the front door when the girls get off the bus. 

These traditions anchor us. They give us something constant and consistent to anticipate. They bring us together and hold us there. They smooth the rough edges of life. Not long ago, when we sat down for our pizza-night practice, my 16-year-old sighed with contentment and said, "I love family pizza night. I look forward to it all week." When your teenager makes a comment like that, you know you've got something worth keeping. (FYI, if you need a go-to dough recipe, here's my favorite from the inimitable Alton Brown.)

2. The Faith Hub. I grew up in a church-going family. We prayed before meals. We went to church camp, Sunday School, and vacation Bible school. I am beyond thankful for this foundation of faith, and I'm so grateful to my parents for giving it to me. But looking back, I can see that God was a spoke on the wheel of life more than He was the hub.

Making God central in our life is something my husband and I have tried to be deliberate about doing. I know we have failed over and over again. But we have worked to weave faith into the fabric of our family life rather than just having it be a fringe element. We try to pray even if we're not sitting down to a meal. Going to church on Sunday mornings is not a decision we have to make every week: it's just happening, most of the time. We talk about the Bible. We worship and serve together (by the grace...). We don't do these things to put ourselves out there as pious. We do them because we want our girls to know this sometimes-wonderful but often-messed-up world is not as good as life gets, and it is not their ultimate home. 

One of my favorite quotes is by Karen L. Tornberg in The Best Things Ever Said About Parenting: "To some this world may seem like no place to bring up a child. And in some respects they are right. But we take that risk anyway with the comforting knowledge that it is not for this world that we prepare them." In a culture of constant change, we want to give our daughters the security of an unchanging God and the hope of knowing there is more to this life than what they can see.

3. The Low Bar. Our family has very humble standards for what is "good" and "exciting" and "worth looking forward to." This is because my husband and I have intentionally established a low threshold for expectations. If a trip to Disney World is the base standard, disappointment over "normal" life is sure to follow. But if a ride on the penny pony at the grocery store is the bar for satisfaction, pretty much anything can be billed as thrilling. As demonstrated in #1, above, we've done such a good job at this that my girls think having homemade pizza on the floor while we watch Tiny House Hunting is something to plan a week around. Score one for the low bar.

4. Selective Scheduling. In comparison to many families with children the ages of our girls, we are an under-achieving (and possibly lazy) family. Overall, our daughters do the following: school, band, dance, church, home, family, friends. Also, their hair. Which, to be fair, must be counted as an activity. We don't do travel-this or competitive-level that. I am NOT saying there is anything wrong with those activities. But being home together is crucial to our little family's happiness and our level of contentment with life at large. So we keep a pretty tight reign on our schedule, because it's hard to be home together if we're never home. Or together. 

5. Home as Safe Zone (Or: We Welcome Weird). The truth is that none of us can just be who we necessarily feel like being all the time. The same goes for only doing what we feel like doing or saying what we feel like saying. We can't. For the good of others, we have to practice self-control and self-sacrifice.

But living beyond ourselves is a lot of work. Which is okay: most things worth doing are. At home, though, I know that I am accepted and treasured in spite of myself. And I want my husband and daughters to know that grace, too. I want our home to be a safe, secure refuge where joys are doubled and sorrows are halved (quartered?). I want it to be a place where we can unload and be refreshed. 

So at our house, it is okay to be grumpy sometimes. It is okay to be introverted. It is okay to not always be okay. And we do not automatically try to "fix" grumpy, introverted, or un-okay.

We welcome weird. Okay, some of us welcome weird more than others. Some of us ARE weirder than others (and by "some of us," I mostly mean "me"). Whatever. Weird is welcome in this house, and that's all there is to it. 

We also welcome (or at least accept as part of life on this earth) sad, moody, complicated, worried, angry, frustrated, and confused. If there is something to be done about these, we try to do it. But sometimes these emotions and experiences need to run their course, and we try to make our house a safe place for them to do that.

6. Oh, and About That Chocolate-Covered Popcorn (CCP). I think every family needs an "if all else fails" coping mechanism, and in our famly, CCP is it. If you're picturing plain popcorn drizzled perfunctorily with melted chocolate or, heaven forbid, "chocolate confectionery coating" (repeat after me: bad, bad, bad), think again. This is more like popcorn entirely encased in gooey, chewy chocolate, and honestly, I don't want to see the family problem this sweet standby can't help at least a little. Here's what you need to know if you want to make CCP one of your family's happiest habits.

Chocolate-Covered Popcorn

(New and improved! Now you can print this!)

14-16 cups plain popped popcorn (I use an air-popper and make 1 ½ batches)
½ cup sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
¼ cup butter (no substitutions), cut into chunks
Dash salt
2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
Nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 300°. Place popped popcorn in a large roasting pan or other extra-large baking pan coated with cooking spray. (If you do not have an extra-large pan, you can use 2 9x13-inch baking pans and divide the popcorn evenly between them.) Bake at 300° for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes; this removes extra moisture from the popcorn so the finished product will be crisp. Combine sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt, and chocolate in a 2-cup microwave-safe measure or small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on High power 2 minutes or until boiling, stirring after 1 minute. Watch carefully unless you want to create a chocolate volcano in your microwave! Remove from microwave and stir in vanilla. Carefully pour the very warm chocolate mixture over the popcorn and toss gently to coat using a large spoon or spatula. Serve immediately or allow to cool in the pan. Makes about 14 cups. Which sounds like a lot but is in fact usually just barely enough.

Looking for more habits to up your family-happiness quotient? Here are some great ideas from other mamas...

Talk to each other. Are you thinking "about what?"? (I once dated a guy whose family did not speak to each other at the dinner table, and while nothing--nothing--makes me lose my appetite, this came close.) Click over to Faith Along the Way, where you can download a whole set of printable Family Conversation Cards.

Bucket lists and days of fun. I'm thinking Holly at While I'm Waiting has a very happy family if only based on the creative--but doable--ideas she puts up on her blog. 

Find out how much your kids know about you. (Other than your name, of course: "Mom. MOM! MOMMMMM!!!!!!!!!) Find 23 Questions for a Kid Perspective on Your Parenting at Joy in My Kitchen.

Play a game. I mean, besides than the ever-popular "Find the Remote" or "Can We All Pretend to Get Along for Five Minutes?" Whether you've got toddlers or teens or someone in between, check out this "Big List of Favorite Games For Families" by Jen at Being Confident of This.

Embrace the joy and the jungle. This "Day in the Life" from Jennifer of Mommy Tries hilariously captures what one wise mom recognizes as "the essence of life with small children in all its chaos and glory--which is where the happiness resides (or resides-slash-hides, as we all know to be more accurately the case)." 

Watch a movie together. After you've had plenty of deep conversations and checked some items off your bucket list and played games and made it through a gloriously chaotic day, hunker down and cue up the DVD player. Mustache and Princess Mom has a great list of 10 kids' movies to get you started. 

If you're living in tween/teen land, as we are, my focus group chimed in with National Treasure (both), For Richer or PoorerCheaper By the Dozen (both), Father of the  Bride (both), McFarland USAAkeelah and the Bee, and Glory Road. I also was unwilling to marry my husband if he did not show at least satisfactory appreciation for The Man From Snowy Riverand now our girls are fans, too. In the non-movie-but-fun-for-all-to-watch genre, we tend toward anything from Tim Hawkins, HGTV, and Food Network. What can I say? We like to laugh, and we like to eat. 

Now it's your turn! What's your #1 secret to a happy family? Tell me in a comment, by email, or over on Facebook. I'll be eating my CCP and waiting for your wisdom.

Happily linked with Fellowship FridayThoughtful Spot Weekly Blog Hop, and Works for Me Wednesday!

July 11, 2015

Blueberry Days

It’s blueberry season, and what I want is blueberry pie.
But what I’ve got time for is blueberries on a bowl of cold cereal. The solution to this dilemma, clearly, is to make Blueberry Thing. More on that in a minute. But first, a blueberry backstory...

A little over a year before our wedding, my groom-to-be said he wanted me to see a house he thought would make a good first home for us after we got married.

Now, by “see,” I mean “not see,” because Chad first took me by the house after dark when I could not, in fact, “see” anything. Even if he had taken me during the day, I would still not have been able to “see” the house, obscured as it was by a great deal of aggressive shrubbery. I suppose I should have been suspicious when he wanted me to “see” the house after dark.

I certainly should have been alarmed by his presentation of the house’s assets. “Well, it’s got two bedrooms,” Chad said. “And another nice thing about it is that…it’s got two bedrooms. Oh, and I really think you’ll like the…two bedrooms.” Okay, so the house had two bedrooms. What it also had was a mint-green exterior, filthy interior walls and carpeting, a shockingly purple master bedroom, and a bathroom so awful I can still hardly bear to think of it.

But Chad’s dad, a realtor who had not achieved professional success without being a very good salesman, assured us it would be “no problem” to fix the place up. So, I gave my okay to the purchase and promptly returned to Virginia for the next six months to finish out a job contract while the house was being redone.

As it turned out, what became the little yellow house did make a perfect first home for the two of us. It even made a perfect first home for the three of us when our first daughter was born. What it did not make was a perfect home for the three of us plus the third family member’s attendant “stuff.”

That we needed to relocate became readily apparent the day Chad walked in the door after work and rammed into Lydia’s playyard, which was set up directly inside the back door. “Isn’t there someplace better we can put this?” he asked, wincing in pain. “What would you like me to do with it?” I asked. “Suspend it from the ceiling?”

So we bought a bigger house.

This one was twice as large as our first home and needed twice as much work to make it livable. (“No problem,” Chad’s dad assured us.) Since we planned to keep the yellow house as a rental, we continued to live there while we worked on the "new" (red) house.

In the midst of this life-in-transition, Lydia and I returned to the yellow house one day to unload groceries. She was helping me, which is how a quart of blueberries ended up all over the kitchen floor. To contain the mess, I relocated my toddler to her bedroom and shut the door. Too bad I didn’t know she had a wayward blueberry embedded in the sole of her shoe, because while she was confined to her room, she was applying a blueberry-stamp faux-finish to her bedroom carpet.

I relocated her again, this time to her play yard (not suspended from the ceiling but rather parked in its same inconvenient spot) and began scrubbing her bedroom carpeting. Then I tried to start a load of blueberry-stained laundry. Then the washing machine wouldn’t work. Then I cried. Then I called my mom, who said what good mothers have been saying for centuries: “I’ll be right over.”

A few days after Blueberry Day, my mom and I were working at the "new" (by which I mean “not new”) red house to clean the upstairs carpets. The carpeting downstairs was so frighteningly dirty that no one dared walk on it without first putting on industrial work boots, but the upstairs carpet required only sandals or perhaps a casual loafer to be safely trod upon; thus, we were cleaning it with the wet/dry vac and a vast length of hose.

I’d spent the morning sucking decades of grime out of said carpeting. I was just beginning the descend the stairs with the canister filled with exceedingly dirty water when the bottom of the wet/dry vac, which, as it turned out, was not properly attached to the top of the wet/dry vac, tumbled down the stairs and deposited its murky contents directly onto my new, freshly installed living room carpet.
Good thing I had done my crying on Blueberry Day.

My mom and I stood looking at each other in disgust before I began yelling for her to get rag towels.

“Well, I can’t” she said in exasperation.

“Why not?” I asked in a tone admittedly not modulated by gratitude toward a mother who had spent hour upon hour working in a house she wasn’t even going to dwell in.

“Because the pipe on the laundry room sink leaked again, and the laundry room is flooded, and I used all the towels in there,” she told me.

After glaring at each other a few moments more, we cleaned up the dirty water the same way we had the first time—by sucking it up—and continued on until eventually the house was fit for human habitation.

Now, if you’re having a Blueberry Day yourself, may I suggest making Blueberry Thing?

This recipe, which my mom makes when she’s not helping her offspring rehabilitate decrepit houses, originated in the I’ve Got a Cook in Kalamazoo cookbook, published by the Junior League of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and actually is called Blueberry Thing.

The best part about it, aside from the fact it is easy to make and delicious to eat, is that when you serve it, you can say, “Would you like some Blueberry Thing?” Then your guests will say, “Well, yes, but what is it?” And you can reply matter-of-factly, “It’s Blueberry Thing.” And on and on this discussion will go until your guests become so overwhelmed by the desire to eat the Thing that they no longer care what it actually is.

But a word to the wise: when your guests get up to leave make sure they do not have any Thing embedded in the soles of their shoes. Because then you might have to clean your carpet.

And now you know how that is likely to turn out.

Blueberry Thing
A cross between a pie and a cobbler, this Thing comes together quickly. You can make it gluten-free by substituting a GF flour blend and 1/2 tsp. xantham gum for the AP flour. 

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
4½ tablespoons milk

Toss together all of the above with a fork. Pat 2/3 of the mixture on the bottom and about 1/2 inch up the sides of an ungreased 9 x 13 pan. Set aside.

6 cups blueberries (fresh or unthawed frozen)
1 1/3 cups sugar
4 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon tapioca
2 tablespoons lemon juice
dash of salt
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

Toss blueberries with sugar and flour. Add tapioca, lemon juice, and salt. Spoon onto crust; dot with butter. Sprinkle remaining crust mixture over berries. Bake at 450 degrees (yep, crank your oven all the way up) for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 40 minutes or until bubbly (frozen berries will take awhile). If the Thing starts to get too brown before it bubbles, throw a piece of aluminum foil loosely over the top to finish out the baking. Good warm, cold, or at room temperature. Good for breakfast or dessert. Good with ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 12-15 in a normal family, about 6-8 in ours. The original recipe says it's best the day it's made. True or not, we often use this supposed fact as an excuse to eat the whole pan at one sitting.

Had a Blueberry Day of your own lately? I'm sorry. But, I'd love to hear about it. :)

July 6, 2015

How to Trick a Closet Into Thinking It's a Bedroom

If our home were being shown on HGTVs House Hunters, the room at the top of the stairs would be billed as a closet. Or, possibly, as having "great potential for a guest bathroom." ("Potential" being code for "this will be a lot of work.")

But here at This Old House: The "How-Real-People-Live" Episodes, we've re-purposed this 9x9 space as the domain of our younger daughter. 

At least we have supplied her with evidence for her memoirs on the inequity of life as a second-born child.

It isn't that we couldn't use another closet. Or another bathroom, both being in somewhat short supply in our old farmhouse. But needs must when the dwelling-devil drives, and so instead we tricked the space out into a tween girl's kingdom.

To pull off this space-redefining feat, we employed these tips and tools...

Loft bed. Okay, I can imagine what you might be thinking. "Well, duh! I read this far for this no-kidding tip?" But please don't leave just yet! I had to start here because this piece of furniture is what makes everything else in our Anna's room work. 

We got ours at a wonderfully quirky local shop called Seat 'n' Sleep, but loft
bed are widely available. There are two main benefits to installing one of these space-maximizing marvels in your closet-cum-bedroom:
  • It maximizes limited space. Getting the sleeping platform up off the floor opens up real estate for so many other things (someplace to store clothing, for instance) and essentially creates another room-within-a-room. Anna's model came with a huge desk, storage, and shelves. Very handy.
  • It proves your love for your child. Making up a loft bed requires a strong will, at least 20 free minutes, and, ideally, the ability to levitate above the bed while wrestling a fitted sheet and other bedding accouterments onto the mattress. If this isn't parental devotion, I don't know what is.

Bed-accessible light. Anna reads in bed every night and doesn't want to have to crawl down from her perch just to turn off the light. We found a darling table lamp at Target with a convenient pull-chain. Situated on top of a tallish bookshelf stationed right next to her bed, the light is within fairly easy reach of Anna from her bed.

She also keeps a small "bed bag"--just a gift bag from the dollar store--tied by a ribbon to a bedpost up in her sleeping chamber so she can access lip balm, tissues, and other nighttime necessities without having to climb down.

Hooks. (Lots.) As mentioned previously, Anna's room should by rights be a closet. Incarnating it into a bedroom means it does not, in fact, have a closet. (See "100-year-old farmhouse. Built when people didn't have very many clothes.") To mimic the benefits of separate storage in her smallish room, we slung one hook set-up over her door and hung another on the wall behind it. I think I got both at TJ Maxx. Or possibly Lowe's, one of our homes-away-from-home.

Under-storage. We simply cannot tolerate wasted floor space in a room this size. Anna's t-shirts reside under one of her dressers in a shallow fabric bin from Five Below.

Unique seating (with more storage). Anna wanted to create a "Book Nook" in the corner of her room between the wall and the end of her loft bed. We moved in her very narrow bookshelf and started looking for cozy seating where she could hunker down and read. She rejected a bean-bag chair, saying she wanted something with a high back that would support her neck.

Around this time, one of my Facebook friends shared this beguiling picture from createsinspire:

Naturally, we wanted this for Anna's literary lounge. So I did what any DIY-challenged mom with clever, generous parents does: I shared the link with my mom and innocently commented, "Wouldn't this be a cute idea for Anna's room?" Cue grandparent love. They'd found a dresser candidate within a couple weeks and brought the finished product over within a couple months. Yes, they actually are that wonderful. No, they are not available to loan out. (See "What I'm Hoping to Do This Summer," #13.) The high back gives Anna a place to lean against, and the remaining drawer now houses her scarf collection. A sweet white curtain closes off the space and seals the deal.

Maximum impact. With just 81 square feet to work with, we wanted to sneak in the girl-happiness factor wherever we could. I painted Anna's floor an electric/midnight blue of her choosing. She picked out a string of mini paper lantern lights, which we draped from her bed. A baubly chandelier from Lowe's is like jewelry hanging down from the ceiling.

I love and am so grateful for this room for my daughter. And, oh the joy of it, just last night, my daughter told me she loves her room. I'm thinking she might not even lament having the small bedroom to her older sister's much larger one when she writes the story of her life. 

While I'm waiting to see how that plays out, I'd be thrilled to have you share the small-space solutions that have worked for you. Because I've got this corner of the laundry room I need to trick into thinking it's a bathroom...