Monday, November 11, 2013

When God Closes a Door....

Three months ago, we asked Maria what she wanted to be for Halloween.  She answered immediately, "I will be a door, and Louisa will be a window."

I'm not sure what inspired these choices.  We had just acquired Carl's Masquerade---a book featuring many splendid inanimate object costumes---a volcano, a pile of burning coals, and a watermelon being a few of the more memorable.  But it might also just be written in Maria's genetics--- her daddy was known to costume himself as things like bendy straws and spatulas.  Whatever the inspiration, Maria stuck with her choice.  (Clearly, she hasn't inherited her mother's tendency to indecision.)

Though happy to postpone the inevitable princess years, I became less enthusiastic about the door and window costumes as the holiday approached.   Time was short.  The sewing machine was still packed.    The costumes on the racks at TJ Max were both beautiful and surprisingly cheap--cheaper than a supply run to JoAnn Fabrics.  Finally, I decided to forgo my plans involving felt, foam rubber, and a window box full full of silk flowers, and make something simple out of a material we had on hand---cardboard.  Best to not even set foot in a craft store.

What resulted were perhaps my most successful costumes yet:

We judged that our neighborhood would be too dark for trick-or-treating with small children, so we took our little door and window to the St. Mary's Halleluja party.  It was a Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Soul's Day party in one, and it was just our speed.  There were many sweet people dressed as saints giving out candy and prayer cards.  There were crafts: making St. Bridget's crosses from pipe cleaners (which turns out to be a bit of a challenge even for adults), coloring bookmarks, and decorating votive bags to decorate the alter for the vigil Mass.  There were bean bag and ring toss stations, as well as a doughnut gauntlet.   Maria did crafts and took a hay ride in the parking lot.  She let other kids borrow the door costume--so the fact that her costume wasn't attached turned out to be one of its best features.  Loulou ran around with a stolen bean bag and cavorted with a little girl dressed as a My Little Pony.

Maria, after a bout with a powdered donut.

 We all enjoyed soul cakes (aka. donuts) that were fried on the spot.   After recognizing the glazed, sugar-adled look in the girls' eyes, we retreated home, lit our two Jack-o-lanterns, and made a late dinner of scrambled eggs and grapes.

Donnie and I agreed that it was our best Halloween ever.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book of Nostaligia Item #2 - Magpies

Our neighborhood in Pittsburgh was a dressed-down place  (I mean that in the most affectionate way.) Appropriately, the creatures that scampered  around the neighborhood were dressed-down creatures.  The squirrels were gray.  The sparrows were brown.  Even the turkeys, who seemed full of the proud ferocity of their dinosaur ancestors, kept their dress to a subdued palette of earth tones.
When we moved to the Paris suburb, I expected to see a difference in dress.  I didn't expect that even the local fauna would live up to the elevated fashion standards.

Meet the magpie, one of the most visible and ubiquitous birds in our area.  A trim, intelligent corvid, magpies dress in ever-elegant black and white, with splashes of iridescent blue to keep it jaunty.  They're social birds, so you often see them in groups of two or three.  I love sighting these dapper little fellows, and hearing them chatter from the trees in the garden.

I was informed by my English friend that there's a superstition about Magpies.  The number of birds you see at a time tells you your fate:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.

I've been looking around for groups of magpies, and so far, I've been seeing be groups of three at most---so maybe we're due for another girl!

I haven't caught any good pictures of them, so I'll  leave you with a second magpie (because we want joy) from the world of art.

My favorite Monet

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Expecting a Ferr-acle

We were in our hotel room in Vienna.  The girls were finally down for the night, after a tiring dinner at the hotel restaurant. During dinner, it had taken all of Don and my resources to keep the girls from putting ketchup and schnitzel grease fingerprints on every knick-knack in the restaurant.  (There were many knick-knacks).

Me: Can you believe that this time next year, we'll have another Verkel around?

Donnie: Verkel?

Me: "Verkel." It's German for "piglet." 

Donnie: Oh!  I thought you were saying 'ferr-acle,' the combination of 'ferret' and 'miracle.'  I can't think of a better way to describe our children!  I thought you were just that great of a poet.

Well, I'm not that great of a poet, but I am pregnant.  Our ferret-miracle is due January 1st.  We are very happy.

A (Very Rough) Portrait of the Artist at Four Years Old

Dear Maria,

Some weeks ago, we celebrated your fourth birthday.  The girls from downstairs came up.  You wore a chef's toque made from wrapping paper and we decorated cupcakes.   You and your little friends ate sprinkles  from the jar.  When it came time to sing, you suggested that we sing happy birthday to "Louie,"   This suggestion was so characteristically you---that in your enthusiasm for the idea of the party, you forgot that all the hubbub was happening in your honor.

I've been struggling over how to write a birthday tribute, and this post has turned into a bit of a juggernaut.  At first, I was tempted to write something pithy and enigmatic:  Four years ago, a mystery was born, and she still lives with us today.

But I'd like to leave some record of four year old Maria.   Someday, in your quest for self-knowledge, you may stumble upon this post. There should be a few white pebbles in it to help you find your way.

We adore you, darling Girl, but we often struggle to understand you.  And I'm unable to describe you without recording some of the struggle.  During pregnancy, I imagined that I'd have an instant, instinctual understanding of my baby. Your appearance at the end of those nine hidden months would answer all questions, and an intuition of your needs and personality would be  delivered to me--perhaps via the magic of post-partum hormones.

Instead, I discovered that the mystery was just as great after birth as before---it just now had a shape around it; a beautiful Maria-shape, with long legs, a full head of hair, and big, slate gray eyes.  You were a joy, but also a puzzle and challenge.  It was difficult to understand your baby ways and to trust the great hidden leaps of your unfurling intelligence. We fretted over you--over your sleep, your picky eating, and your language acquisition.   We still fret--will you ever learn to use a fork or blow your nose properly?  Will you ever learn to give a straightforward answer, without the haze of fantastic, French-accented gibberish?   I'm sorry for all the fretting, Dear.  You are, after all, our little test pancake.

This past year, the shape around your mystery has grown more distinct.  What instinct did not provide, we are slowly learning through study.  We find you sensitive and creative.  You have complicated ideas that build in the depths of your mind and burst forth in an often-difficult-to-understand froth.  You have an incredible, goofy sweetness.  Your joy is nutritive.  I've never seen a better image of paradise, than the sun shining on your smiling face.

Here are a few anecdotes from recent life.  I submit them to you.  They're far from complete--I had hoped to include two or three others---but in the interest of preventing "better" be the enemy of the "good," here are just three.  They are a very rough sketch: Maria, at four years old.


We recently had a sort of parent-teacher conference with your maitresses at the French pre-school.  They talked with knit brows and grave faces.*  At one point, I laughed out loud, because what they were saying sounded so much like a line from the movie, Amelie:

"She doesn't play with the other children.  She's in her own world."

What your teachers didn't understand, was that for you, a little goes a long way.  You love your friends, with an open, disinterested affection.  You come home with stories of their doings, and you laugh about their jokes days after they make them.  They seem to enjoy a second life as your imaginary playmates.  You plan what you're going to tell these friends and hash over what you've already told them.

But when you are with them, you have a hard time keeping up.  Part of it is the language, but it's also that you, like your parents, tend to be a little caught in your head  Your friends don't follow what you try to explain your thoughts.  But you're happy to caper after them, to take in a small exchange and digest it completely on your own.

And being this way, you don't seem to need a great number of friends, or a great deal of stimulation.  You spend much of your time with the other children, engrossed in your own narrative.  But there is no doubting your open-hearted love and sociability.


You've proven to be a devoted and protective sister.  This protective part has come as a surprise.  For so long, whenever we discovered Louisa doing something dangerous or destructive, we more likely than not, found you along side her, laughing in delight.  But protective you have become---especially when we're outside the house.  It distresses you when Louisa tries to walk about in the the train by herself---you worry she will fall.   And it worries you when she goes up to strangers.  You grab her hand and pull her back---a move that we used to discourage---but now you have learned it to  do it with just enough gentleness. Yesterday, I was able to buy myself a pair of shoes thanks to your vigilance.  Louisa tore through the aisles of footware with you as a monitor.  When you felt exasperated from your charge, you told me frankly:  "it's time for Loulou to go in the stroller."  That was that, and we buckled her in despite her protests.  And so you had peace of mind.
An old picture, taken shortly after Christmas.


I've been tired lately, and often collapse in my bed after putting Loulou down for her nap.  When I wake an hour later, I find that you've glued bits of paper with drawings  of letters and people onto the inside of a styrofoam tray and filled it with beads and buttons.

"Un cadeau, Maman."  "A gift, Mama. "

Yes, my Sweet---the gift of a decorated tray and the gift of a nap.  I can delight in both your creation and your being happy left alone to create.

It has been interesting to watch your artistic trajectory.   Back in October, you made your first "face"--  a circle, with two dots and a line for the mouth.  You said it was a Carebear.   I sat back and waited for more faces to follow.  Months went by and none emerged.  Instead, you plunged back into the abstract.   Sometimes, I asked you what you were drawing.  Most often, you answered succinctly, "Lines and dots."  On some occasions,  you made an arabesque with your hand and said in a grave voice "the whole world."  I'd look at your big loopy circles and lines and think, "yes, she's got it right."

You graduated to delicate branching  drawings, with lines meeting at big, dark dots.   They reminded me of Miros.  I guessed you were learning from the drawings in Daddy's research notebooks.  You drew these branching graphs on napkins during our travels in Barcelona and Amsterdam, and I promised myself that I'd give you some proper paper when we got home, and that I'd frame the drawing.

One of my favorites: "Broken Bidets"
But, abruptly, the graphs gave way and, at last, people emerged: great, bodiless heads, with flagellum-like limbs, and googly eyes of discrepant sizes.   You labeled your figures with zigzags standing in for text.  In recent weeks, bodies have made an appearance; hair too---both curly and straight---as well as fingers, eyelashes, and dots for cheeks.    In and around these figures are letters.   Real, undeniable letters.  I have to give credit to the French school--for certainly some of their lessons have hit home, and they blossom forth in your art.

Little four-year-old Maria, How blessed we are to have you in our family.  How blessed we are to watch you grow and be your parents.  Here's to another year of living with the Mystery!

*Maria's teachers were concerned because they were unaware that we would be moving this summer.  They were reviewing Maria's work and weren't sure that Maria had learned enough of the material to graduate to the next level.  Maria only for attended for half days and she was frequently absent because our many trips.  Clearly, we, as a family, didn't get fully on board the French kindergarten thing.  While that was not a good think for Maria's language acquisition, it meant that we got to see more of Europe and Louisa and I got to see more of Maria.  You take the good with the bad.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Connecticut Bound!

My last post ended with a cliffhanger.  Here, without further ado, is the resolution.

Donnie has been offered an assistant professorship at the University of Connecticut.  We're Connecticut bound, Baby!
Colleen and Mark very sweetly brought us some UConn chocolate bars.  I asked Donnie to be in this photo, seeing as it's him who got the job, be he protested that his hair is too long at the moment.

During the job search, we had the comfort of knowing that if the hunt didn't pan out, we had the option of doing another postdoc.  Even with this assurance, the search involved plenty of hang-wringing and soul-searching.  (How fortunate that the job search overlapped with Lent!)  The offer from UConn arrived the Tuesday after Easter Sunday.  Donnie signed into the Skype meeting with the UConn people, not knowing what to expect.  "So let's talk salary,"  said the department head.  And thus we were put out of our uncomfortable state of suspense and launched into giddy excitement.

There are, of course, many new anxieties (the details of relocation; the challenge of starting afresh in a new community; nervousness that this will be our "for real" home) but we are so very happy about our destination!

It's an oh-so-reasonable ninety minute drive from Donnie's folks in Southern CT and about two hours from my parents in New York.  When Donnie began the application process, the possibilities were so far flung and the competition so stiff that we hardly dared to hope that we would land near family.  It's wonderful the way the chips have fallen.

We're also excited at the prospect of living in bucolic Northern Connecticut.  We've been city folk for a while, but have long cherished hopes of having backyard chicken and woods for the kids to scramble around in.  We're also  hoping that the reasonable cost of land will mean that our dream of designing and building a house will be fulfilled in the next couple of years.

So if you know anyone in the Storrs/Mansfield area, or have any advice, let us know!  We're eager to love this new home.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

{pretty, happy, funny, real} Easter Sunday Edition

{pretty, happy, funny, real} is hosted every Thursday at Like Mother, Like Daughter!


This was the sight that greeted Maria and Louisa after a lovely Easter Mass in Gif.
Not a great picture, but it shows Maria's Easter outfit!

The girls had a big Easter haul.  There was all kinds of fun---markers, stickers, notebooks and chocolates sent by Meme and Grandpa and Great Nana and Popop.  I went a bit crazy with the Easter gifts.  Lately, I've been learning about Montessori (and loving it), so I tried to buy gifts that were real-life tools.  Louisa received a little ceramic espresso cup--a perfectly sized mug for her.  Maria received two small spread knives--they're the right size for her hand and they actually cut--the ones that come in the children's cutlery sets can't slice cut butter unless it's been sitting out all day.  There was also a small hair brush.  For both girls, I bought a little wooden vanity.  This was a "toy" and labeled as something for "imaginative play," but I really wanted a little child-friendly mirror that they could have at their height, and use as they learn to wipe their noses and comb their hair, etc. Then there were bubbles and sprinkles for f cup cakes, and a couple of books.  I ended up holding back the vanity and the books until the middle of the week, because the girls were already quite over the moon about the markers and chocolate.

Our Infant of Prague illustration with golden vestments.

Our Easter decorations.  This French adventure has taught me that a lot can be done with construction paper and a glue stick. 

That last paper ornament is a cutout of a winged bell.  The French don't have the Easter Bunny---there are chocolate rabbits for sale, but they rank the same as the chocolate chicks and hens as emblems of Spring.  Instead,  Easter chocolate is brought by the bells. On Holy Thursday, the bells depart on pilgrimage to Rome, thus explaining their silence through Good Friday and Saturday.  They return to proclaim the Resurrection on Easter morning, and on their way,  drop sweets into the gardens.  I love that this merry fiction ties in with the liturgical celebration. 

Our neighbors arranged a lovely Easter hunt in the garden behind our building.  The kids collected the chocolate and at the end it was pooled and divided equitably. Maria had a great time---though she stopped every once and a while to draw with her new markers on a small scrap of paper.  Chocolate is lovely, but it mustn't distract from art!  Poor Loulou was a bit too tired and snotty to get into the action.


My lovely in-laws were with us last Easter, and they brought some plastic eggs.  We held onto them, and I filled them and gave them to our neighbor for this year's hunt.  I wish I had a picture of our little neighbor is when she found the first of the plastic eggs. 

Picture a five year old wrinkling her nose in disdain, and saying in French accented English, "But what eez dis?  It eez plastique!  It eez not chocolate!"

Typically, the quarry of French Easter eggs hunts are foil-wrapped hollow chocolate eggs, so B was justified in her surprise.  She was quickly won over when shown that the egg opened to reveal...chocolate of course!


We spent Easter Sunday joyfully, but in no small degree of suspense. We were expecting news from the CS department at the University of Connecticut regarding Donnie's candidacy for an assistant professorship.   The department had offered the position to someone else, but Donnie was their runner-up.  We had hoped for definitive news on Good Friday.  It didn't come, and so we spent the weekend on pins and needles.

We did, at last, get news on Tuesday....I  hope to tell you more about it soon, but there are a few things that needs to be finalized before we make things public on Ye Grande Internete.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sketch Book: Carnival and Conjunctivitus, The Hungry Caterpillar's Fat Tuesday Feast, and Gorty

Two weeks ago, I found myself once again at the website of illustrator Sophie Blackall.  I love the poetry of her "Missed Connections" series.  Seeing her illustrations, with their pithy juxtaposition of text from Craigslist personal ads and watercolor illustrations, reminded me of my intention to make some captioned sketches for the blog.

We don't have a scanner here in France, so please forgive the photos.

{Carnival and Conjunctivitis}

Me:  Oh!  There are the neighbor girls, all dressed up for Carnival.  Guess we missed that...Too bad we don't have white bunny costumes.

On Mardi Gras, Maria stayed home from school because of pink eye, missing the school festivities.  If we had some long ears and fluffy tales, the girls would have made convincing albino rabbits.  

{The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar's Fat Tuesday Feast}

Maria: "Fat Tuesday is the day the caterpillar got a stomach ache."

(To those who are not reading a lot of kid lit these days, The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar follows a caterpillar as he eats his way through a week.  In the book, the caterpillar eats two pears on Tuesday.  But that wasn't Fat Tuesday.  On Fat Tuesday its all crepes all the time.)


This one is a little thank you note to my friend Kelly, who sent us a lovely package.

Caption: Dear Kelly, thank you for all the lovely gifts.  Maria loves the turtle puppet so much that she really only needs one mitten these days.  She has named him GORTY.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pre-Christmas Marketing

Here's me playing catch-up.

After Mass on the last Sunday of Advent we went to the Palaiseau  market to buy some fish for our Christams Eve dinner and a roast for Christmas Day.  A few pictures from the trip:

A Boulangerie and Patissier displaying Buche de Noel in their window.
A fishmonger's shop decked out for the season.

Capon and fattened hens for sale, heads and feet on.

The poultry stand where we buy our Christmas roast.  We are pleased to find the same vendor who sells at our neighborhood Lozere market.  She's friendly, greeting us in her rolling, Spanish-accented French (she's from Columbia).  Today we buy a trussed goose roast.  She gives us a few artisan chicken nuggets for the kids. 
The fishmonger's stall, where we purchase two flounder.

Pretty fish.

On the street, heading back to the Palaiseau train station.  It's a gusty, cloudy day that threatens rain.  There's an urgency and furtive character in the movements of the shoppers.  Vintage Christmas airs are piped in over the loudspeaker system, the quavering voices adding a note of melancholy---but maybe that was just me being hungry.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

{pretty, happy, funny, real} Infant of Prague Illustration, Crepes for Candlemas, Pickle Elevator, and Thank God for No Super Powers

Pretty,Happy, Funny, Real
~ Capturing the context of contentment in everyday life ~

Every Thursday, over at Like Mother, Like Daughter!


At my grandparent's parish church in Berlinsville, PA there's a replica statue of the Infant of Prague--a doll-like figure of a toddler Jesus, dressed in shiny robes and wearing a crown.  The statue fascinated to me as a young child (though I remember being thinking it must be Mary, since the statue was wearing a gown.)

After finishing the angels coloring book, I wanted to do another piece of child-oriented devotional art--this time something to be hung in the nursery.  Casting about for a subject, I remembered the little statue.

Traditionally, the statue is dressed in vestments according to the liturgical calendar.  In keeping with this, I've made five versions of the illustration for the the different seasons: green (ordinary time), red (feast days of Our Lord and martyrs), purple (Advent and Lent) and white/gold (Easter and Christmas), thinking that the pictures could be swapped as a new season or feast day arrives.

The images are 5" x 7" so they can easily be printed as photos.  They are available  for free download here.

The picture was fun to draw once I gave up on making a likeness of the real statue and opted for a looser representation.  It's a pencil drawing, colored in Photoshop, using the same techniques I learned working on the illustrations for Dominic's Gift.   I'd like to get away from digital and try water color in future projects.  When working with Photoshop, it's too easy to get caught up in fiddly, inconsequential changes!


The French tradition is to eat crêpes for the feast of Candlemas as well as for Mardi Gras.  I took this as an excuse to cook nothing else over the weekend.  We are sans Donnie for two weeks, and it turns out that crêpes are a nice treat for times when it's just me and the girls.  We crowd into the kitchen (there wouldn't be room for all of us with Donnie here).  I make a batch of crepes, we eat them hot off the pan, then I make some more.  The fixings are simple: ham and cheese or spinach and feta for dinner; nutella or honey for dessert; egg and cheese for breakfast.   There's no ferrying back and forth between the kitchen and our normal eating place in the living room.  It makes for a pleasant, non-migratory dining experience.

Album of Anticipatory Nostalgia
Item 1: The Pickle Elevator
Caption: The Pickle Elevator as seen on our cluttered lunchtime table.  On the bottom right hand corner you can catch a glimpse of Galaxy Girl's star leggings.

We've got six months left in France, but it isn't too soon to look forward to fondly looking back!  One thing I will fondly remember are the pickles--or cornichons.  They are very tasty--tiny and more subtly spiced than their American counterparts--but beyond their taste, the large jars come with a plastic strainer hickey that sits under the cornichons and has a handle so you can  lift the pickles out of the brine--no fishing necessary.  Very civilized.  Today Maria coined a term for it:"pickle elevator."  Apt, Maria, apt.


This has been a week when I've been grateful that Maria has no super powers.*  If she could control the weather, summon fire, or make things move with her mind, our building would be a smoldering ruin many times over.  The kid has been outdoing herself in throwing terrific, grand-mal tantrums.  

This is close on the heels of Louisa being sick with a sore throat and ear infection and deciding that every diaper and clothing change was a heinous assault on her person.  Between Maria's meltdowns and Louisa's sore throated shrieks of distress, there have been many screamy, screamy moments with some whiny, whiny ones thrown in for variety.

I was not surprised (but nonetheless upset) when our landlady and neighbor pulled me aside in the laundry room to ask me whether I'd spoken to a doctor about how much the children cry---Maria in particular. Our landlady has known many children and it's "not normal."  Perhaps it has to do with the [enormous] quantity of milk we drink.  (Brackets are mine.)

There are a number of things that may be contributing to us not being in top form:  Donnie is away.  The  girls have just begun sleeping in the same bedroom.  It's February--we're probably all suffering from vitamin D deficiency. But do these things account for it?  Maria is pale.  Her emotions are fragile.  She has a perpetually runny nose.  It seems like it has been this way for a long time.  Perhaps there is something more sinister gnawing away at my girl's health and happiness--a food sensitivity, for instance.  Poor Maria, she's my first--my burnt test crêpe.  Unlike my landlady, I don't know what's normal.

I did ask our doctor about it today--we went in because Maria now has pink eye.  Our doctor's condensed response:  "She's three.  She's in a country with a language she doesn't understand.  She is jealous of her younger sister.  It's her temperament. No need to medicalize the problem."  She followed this up with a prescription for nose drops, eye drops, throat syrup, vitamin D, and a daily vitalizing vitamin syrup.  Vive la France!

This state of things has had me feeling downhearted and fed up--fed up with my hobbling French, fed up with our cluttered, thin-walled apartment, fed up with sick, temperamental children, perhaps fed up with France, but most definitely fed up with February.

So I was grateful when this sight greeted us on our return to the flat today.

There it is, like an early Valentine from fate--a defunct bidet, symbol of all the difficulties of our life here--ripped out and ready to be taken to the curb.  If only fate had also provided a crow bar.  I might have it in me to smash the thing to bits.

Now, I'll end with this picture--because this parenting gig isn't all red eyes, screaming, and worried neighbors.
Maria and Louisa in a fond, sisterly embrace.

*Side Note:  We're pretty sure that Louisa does have a super power--a sort of water summoning ability.  She doesn't have very good control of this power yet and all she manages to do is soak her shirt several times a day. We've ruled out drool because there's just too much of it.  "Aqua Baby," we call her.  Maria is "Galaxy Girl," for no other reason than she has a pair of star-covered leggings.

For more {pretty, happy, funny, real} go visit the party at Like Mother Like Daughter.

For the story of a real adventure, very different from the domestic variety featured  here, go visit my brother Dan's  Bailure Blog.  His posts never fail to shake me up.  It's a continual source of pride and astonishment that we come from the same gene pool.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Baby Jesus Doll and the Ghost of Crafting Past

Isn't it a joy to get back a memory?  Something from life--a smell, an action, a face--throws a switch in the back of the brain.  Dusty cogs begin to whirl, pistons hiss--there's a rumble,then a clatter, then pop! Out comes a memory--vivid, pristine, and all the more dear for being locked in the machine so long. 

This post is about a little craft project--the making of a doll. I'm fond of this project.  It gave me back a few memories.  I'm hoping that it will seed a few fond memories in the heads of Maria and Louisa .

The doll was part of an Advent and Christmas activity that I discovered on one of my favorite blogs, Ginny Sheller's Small Things. In this activity,there's a manger--a box or basket--and the children of the family add hay to the container for any good deed or sacrifice they perform.  On Christmas morning, a Baby Jesus doll appears  in the padded manger; loving acts make ready a place for the Holy Infant.  Thinking that Maria was old enough to benefit from such a ritual, (hoping it might also distract her from her fascination with all things Pere Noel) I set about to find the materials.

Our manger was a box that held some fancy potatoes from Lidl.  Maria and I collected grass in our wet yard, and dried it in a basket over the radiator. (This was a fruitful activity in itself--good for meditating on poverty.)

Then there was the doll to think about--that is, of course, what this post is all about.  I loved that Ginny made her doll, and wanted to follow her lead and make a Waldorf style swaddle baby.  Waldorf dolls have intentionally simple, neutral faces--the better to allow kids to flex their imaginations.  Wouldn't this kind of spare representation be especially appropriate for a doll of the Baby Jesus?  It steers clear of kitsch and sentimentality, but still produces a unique, cuddly doll.

I hunted for Waldorf doll materials online and quickly grew frustrated.  Waldorf dolls are generally made from pricey organic materials that are often sold in kits.  None of the kits served my purposes, and it seemed a shame to spend money on shipping, when I needed such a small amount of material.  At last, I came across a thread on a German crafting forum.  A parent asked where to buy Waldorf doll supplies.  A grandmother replied: "Supplies?  In my day, we dyed an old white tee shirt with tea and used wool from our sheep for the stuffing."

Well, I didn't have any sheep, but I had a 4 Euro Ikea pillow that I wouldn't mind butchering, and plenty of old white tees.  I prepared my dye, first cooking the tee shirt in a vinegar bath set the dye.  We had some old teas that had been languishing in the back of the cabinet.  Into the pot they went with a bit of turmeric and some instant coffee crystals.  The cloth came out a sallow color--very close to the color of snot--and far from the pinky beige that I wanted.  Donnie encouraged me to continue.  A survey of my stash of embroidery thread showed some gold and brown floss that might complement the tea-dyed fabric.  With luck, the color scheme would call to mind an antique wax doll.   At the very least, using the cloth would give me practice and then I'd feel better about ordering pricier cloth.  I sewed a tube, and  followed this tutorial for making the doll's head.

As I sat sewing the little head, coaxing the polyester batting into a baby face, I realized that there was something awfully familiar about the work.  As I stitched and prodded a little bump of stuffing into a nose, I realized why.  This was very similar to a project I did when I was seven years old, trying with my rudimentary sewing skills, to sew a doll. The project was ill-fated.  After I finished the head, our  beagle-terrier mutt, Brownie, sensing that the doll head was an Object of Great Interest, grabbed it and had me chasing her around the house for it.  The head didn't survive the chase.  But here I was, sharing with my eight year old self, the joy of seeing a face emerge from fabric.

And while sewing the hair, another memory!   My family didn't have a creche set, so when I was seven, I tried to make one out of salt dough.   It came out of the oven, a doughy-looking, lumpy thing--a lost cause in my mind. But my Mum took it up and painted it--ever so lovingly--in bright colors, with patterns, like a medieval wood carving. It was the first time I can remember knowing the joy of having something I'd made (and even come to detest) perfected and made beautiful by someone else.  One thing she did was paint the infant Jesus's hair gold---a choice that struck me as genius at the time! As I sat stitching gold thread over the gold skin of the doll, it struck me that I was being visited by the gold baby of the salt dough creche.

I am pleased with how this gold Baby Jesus turned out--sweet and little uncanny. (That's how I would describe the face of a newborn--sweet and uncanny.)  Tucked in the white swaddle, the yellow color of the skin isn't so strange---just a touch of jaundice.  And there's the smell of the doll--the unexpected benefit of the dye--black tea, orange, berries, cinnamon, turmeric, coffee.   Delicious.  I'm hoping that the smell is riveted into Maria and Louisa's olfactory memory.  I imagine them standing in a Starbucks one day--coffee and tea aromas mingling in the air. A man walks in with a bag of Indian takeout. It hits them: family, happiness, mystery, Christmas.

How did  our manger filling play out for Christmas, 2012?  Maria didn't quite get the whole grass-reward system; it was mostly me filling the manger for her deeds and the odd occasion when Loulou put a book back on the shelf after taking it off .   The girls liked the doll perfectly well, climbing onto the toddler table to free him from the glass cabinet. They cuddled and tossed him around, which resulted in him going lost for a week under a bed.  (I worried this might be a sign of our spiritual state. Never good to lose the Baby Jesus!  I hoped we would find him wedged between some books on spirituality--in the temple, so to speak.)  Now he's tucked away in our box of Christmas things, waiting for next year. I'm looking forward to seeing him again.  I'm looking forward to remembering how I made him.  I'm  looking forward to  remembering the memories I had while I made him. ;)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Advent Traditions: Calendar

In 2011, I sprung for an eight euro chocolate-filled Advent calender for Maria.  All the cheaper options that I found had pictures of  Hello Kitty or Disney Cars--their manufacturers having abandoned all pretense that Advent calendars have anything to do with Christmas.  This expensive one had a pretty Victorian-inspired scene of Father
Christmas trimming a tree. The chocolates were gourmet.  I figured the eight Euros were the price of tradition.  

This year, I opted to make a calendar.  I wanted something that could hold a few treats and a little piece of paper with a Bible passage.  Here's the result.

A piece of cardboard with 24 origami cups made from Ikea wrapping paper. We had some paper beads and origami mini stars on hand, so I strung them onto some yarn for the hanger.  A simple little project, but I was pleased with how it turned out.
Maria sat next to me as I folded the cups.  I showed here how to make them, but she was a little too young for the lesson to stick.

Each pocket held a wrapped chocolate or a tinfoil package with gummi bears or crystallized pineapple.

We printed this Advent chain-- it has a Bible passage and a picture for the first twenty-four days of December.  I cut out the links and rolled them so that each pocket had its own little scroll. We read the text out loud while Maria ate her treat, trying to explain the text to her as best we could.  Maria colored in some of the pictures. My plan was to cut them out and use them as ornaments on our Christmas tree, though I ended up forgetting about them (and there was no room left on our tiny Christmas tree).
A few days after completing our calendar, Mum told me that EuroNews was reporting massive recalls of commercial calenders---the chocolates were potentially contaminated with machine oil. So our choice to make a calendar was especially fortunate!

This is a little craft I hope to repeat next year.  Maybe I'll get some help folding the cups.