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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Christmas 2019

This year Christmas was cut a little short.  Brandon is still bitter about that, as Christmas is his favorite season of the year (did you know that there are actually five?).  Usually Christmas starts the Saturday after Thanksgiving when we spend the day decorating the house, listening to Christmas music, and finishing the evening watching White Christmas while drinking peppermint hot chocolate. 

However, this year we were an ocean and several continents away from our house and decorations, so it didn't happen the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Instead we decorated the house the next Saturday, less than thirty-six hours after we stumbled off a plane in Tashkent.  It was less cheerful than our usual tree decorating (and with vomit), but it did get done. 

We did manage to get in most of our traditional Christmas activities in three weeks instead of our usual four, even if it never quite felt as fully Christmas-y as it does in other, less jetlag- and newborn-filled years.

A week after decorating the house for Christmas, we had our fifth caroling party.  When I suggested skipping the party this year - jet lag and a newborn are a good excuse - Brandon insisted that we couldn't break tradition and the party would be happening.  And in comparison to traveling almost halfway across the world with seven children six weeks after popping a baby out, hosting a caroling party really wasn't that difficult. 

In addition to caroling, we also made snowflakes, watched Christmas movies, decorated a gingerbread house, made wrapping paper, and had friends over for Christmas Eve.  I love having traditions, and Christmas traditions are really fun ones. 

Christmas itself was wonderful.  Elizabeth let us sleep in until 7:30, so that was her present to us.  We had our usual croissant cinnamon rolls, opened stockings and presents, listened to Christmas music, read books, watched a movie, and enjoyed spending the day together. 

We don't buy many presents for the children (instead of dollar signs I see pounds whenever we buy more things), so the day was less about stuff and more about spending time together.  As we watched the children and their friends perform the Nativity on Christmas Eve, I thought about how the birth of that baby made - and makes - days together as a family possible.  Because of His birth, I know that we all will live again and be together after we pass from this life.  But also His birth enabled us to know what things are most important and how to hold those things close. 

I've had difficulty reconciling the more secular aspects of Christmas with the sacred ones.  But over the years, I've come to think that perhaps Christ would want us to have the pleasure of friends and family and fun times together in celebration of his birth.  That all of the trappings - snowflakes, gingerbread houses, presents, silly songs - bring us happiness in simple little ways.  Instead of feeling guilty for doing things that aren't directly worshipping our Savior, I'm grateful that he came to earth so that we could enjoy these secular things along with the sacred.  I'm grateful for the family to enjoy them with, and all of the other blessings - health, peace, prosperity - that make the smaller things possible. 

This coming week we'll put all the Christmas things away and life will return to its usual routine.  January is always a bit of a sad, bleak month to me.  Christmas has gone and spring is very far away, with winter just getting settled in.  But there will always be next Christmas and all of the good things and times in between.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

So We Had a Baby

I have had a blog post about Elizabeth waiting to be published for the last six weeks, but it's been so busy I never got around to actually posting it.  Since the post is now - according State Department terms - OBE (overtaken by events), I'll sum it up.  Elizabeth was born.  Everything went well. 

I was scheduled for my usual induction, but when I went in for a check-up the afternoon before, Elizabeth's heart rate was a little worrisome.  Not wanting to leave things to chance, the doctor decided to go ahead and send me straight over to the hospital and keep her monitored there.

When I got there (after getting my parents to pick up the children and picking up Brandon myself), everything appeared to be fine and so the induction was started that evening.  The labor progressed pretty rapidly and Elizabeth showed up at 2:08 AM after over an hour of pushing.  Both of us were healthy, so we got to enjoy a few days in the hospital before being sent home to fend for ourselves.

The next six weeks went by quickly as Brandon and I made our way through the paperwork checklist.  I picked up the birth certificate a week after Elizabeth was born, and we headed up to DC the next Monday to apply for her passport.  It was done the next day and had her Uzbek visa in it the next week.  Elizabeth wins the family record for the earliest passport, with hers being completed by her twelfth day.

After the passport and visa, Elizabeth and I both got medically cleared, Elizabeth got added to Brandon's orders, and we had her plane ticket a full week before we were planning on traveling back to Uzbekistan.  Brandon and I kept looking at each other the entire time, wondering when the unexpected disaster would strike.  But no disaster struck, and we all flew back to Tashkent together on December fifth, arriving the night of the sixth with all our luggage.  The carseat that we forgot to pick up at the baggage carousel in Frankfurt even showed up. 

Before heading back, we were able to fit in Joseph's baptism and Eleanor's baby blessing the weekend before Thanksgiving.  Brandon's parents and sister Brooke made the trek out from Missouri, my sister and her family came up from Jacksonville, my aunts came down from DC, and my brother and his family came down from Delaware.  It was a wonderful family weekend.  As I watched all of the priesthood holders gather round to bless Eleanor and confirm Joseph, I was thankful for the wonderful men in my family who do such a wonderful job of serving God and taking care of their families. 

The next weekend my brother and his family and my sister and her family gathered for Thanksgiving at my parents' house.  It was a boisterous and rowdy weekend, with lots of delicious food.  All dozen of my parents' grandchildren were gathered, ranging from one month to thirteen years old.  Weekends like that remind me of all that I miss while living overseas. 

Our three months in North Carolina were actually quite enjoyable, and in the end I'm glad that we didn't go to London.  I enjoyed the time we had with family and friends - and also being able to drive everywhere and have a house with a yard instead of a tiny London flat.  I had such a great time that I was afraid that going home would be a disappointment after all the fun we'd been having.

But as soon as we walked in the door, I was so glad to be home, even if home is currently in Central Asia.  It's great to be settling back into our routine and enjoying Christmas in our own home surrounded by our 'family' here in Tashkent.  And most of all, I'm grateful that we're all together as a family.  All nine of us. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Three Days to Go

Brandon arrived safely, with all his luggage, and only an hour late Thursday night (which is a sight better than the two and a half days he was late last time).  This means that the baby can now, theoretically, come whenever she likes.  In reality, however, she'll be arriving on Thursday when I have my induction scheduled.  So I have three more days of being pregnant ever.

It's strange to reach the end of this part of my life, as I've been pregnant on and off for almost fourteen years now.  As soon as I birthed one baby, it was time to start thinking about the next one.  The relief of finally being able to sleep on my stomach again, tie my shoes easily, and hold children on my lap was always shadowed by the knowledge that I would be seeing this state again in the not-too-distant future. 

But today I peeled off my dress after coming home from church and threw it in the dirty clothes, figuring that I'd probably better wash it before sending it on to someone else who would need it.  It was my last Sunday holding a wigging two year-old around a the watermelon that takes up most of my lap.  Each time I get up at night to use the bathroom or flip over again because one side has grown too uncomfortable to sleep on, I happily remember that I haven't got much time left. 

I can't complain about my pregnancies - after all, they've been easy enough that I've been able to have seven.  I'm grateful that I've been able to have as many as I've wanted, especially knowing all my friends and family that have felt the ache of not being able to have the family they'd always imagined having.  I'm happy that I will always have so many children to love, teach, and nurture.  I sometimes imagine what my life would be life without my children, and I'm glad to be where I am and not in that theoretical other place (even if it is quieter, neater, and a lot more self-indulgent).

It's so strange to be looking at the ending of such a significant part of my life.  The only other clear endings in my life - high school and college graduation - were followed by such exciting beginnings - college and marriage - that I hardly noticed the endings at all in the excitement of the beginnings. 

But this ending isn't followed by any new and exciting beginnings.  It's just an end.  I've been looking to being a mother ever since I understood what mothers were and that I would be one too.  So it's strange to have this phase - the part where I bring all the babies into this world - be done with.  Now I just have to raise those babies into reasonable adults (which is definitely the harder part of the deal).

I've discovered that it's one thing to know intellectually that all mothers have to stop having babies eventually, and another thing to actually have that stopping point happen in my own life.  Of course nobody has babies into perpetuity - biology takes care of that - but it seems that a little part of me didn't include myself in the general population that that generality covered.  But it turns out I'm just as much of everybody as everyone else.

I can't say that I'm exactly mourning this end.  I've had many more pregnancies than most of my peer group have had, and so my experience with pregnancy is pretty extensive.  I didn't care for being pregnant the first time and I didn't care for being pregnant the last time.  It's nine months of unpleasant discomfort where you don't feel like yourself and you just get fatter and fatter.  As Brandon has commented many times, if men were having the babies, they'd only ever do it once. 

So it isn't sorrow I feel when thinking about the end of this part of my life, it's something else.  Maybe thoughtfulness.  Maybe solemnity.  I'm not sure.  Maybe just being observant of the end of one part of my life.  Endings always bring significance.  Even if they're good endings.  Or natural endings.  They're still endings.  When we reach the end of something, we change.  We go on to a new place and never return to where we were before. 

So, three more days of carrying a new life around with me, feeling her wriggle and hiccup and move restlessly.  Three more days of waddling around the house with a watermelon in my abdomen.  Three more days of being a tool of creation, making a body for one of God's children.  Three more days of uncomfortably trying to get sleep in between bathroom trips.

And then, on to the next part of my life.  I will always talk of pregnancy in the past tense, never the future or present.  I will count my children and always come up with the same number, one that never changes again.  Our family pictures will only have taller children, but never any more children.  And I will have ended this part of my life.  It will be time to move to the next one.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Wait is Almost Over

This week Brandon will board a plane in Tashkent.  That plane will fly to Korea, where he will wait nine hours before boarding a plane to Toronto.  Thirteen hours later, after nearly flying over the North Pole, Brandon will be on the same continent as we are.  After that, it's only a short hop down to Raleigh, where I will be eagerly awaiting him at the airport (the children will be asleep.  Thank heaven for children old enough to watch themselves).

I can't say that our five and a half weeks apart has been terrible.  Surprisingly, I've been able to homeschool, grocery shop, keep the house clean, and mother the children entirely on my own without completely losing it.  I've always been secretly afraid that if I were ever dropped off in the States without the aid of household help, I wouldn't be able to actually adult successfully.  After all, it's been a full decade since I cleaned my own toilet. 

I've been somewhat shocked to discover that I am a Real Girl after all and can do all those things that my brave America-living counterparts do as a routine part of your lives with nary a housekeeper in sight.  And not only have I done those things, I've done them while being very pregnant and a single mother.  It's cheering when you discover that you have more abilities than you credited yourself for.

I can't say that I've done things up to the highest standard, however.  Our weekly menu has a dedicated breakfast-for-dinner night in addition to frozen-food night.  And there might have been a few busy nights where cold cereal counted as a meal (of course, this won me highest acclaim in the under-thirty-seven population of our household). 

Story time has been hit or miss, depending on how tired I've felt.  One night Eleanor asked me to tell her a story - Brandon is the storyteller in our family and makes up wonderful stories about Eleanor, Space Donkey, and their extra-planetary adventurers.  When I came up with the shortest story I could think of, she folded her arms and pouted, "Mom, you tell terrible stories."  It had been a long day, so I shot back, "Well, I'm all out of talking.  If I had children that listened to me the first time I asked them to do something, instead of making me asking them ten times, maybe I would have some words left to use for stories.  But I don't and I spend all day telling everyone to do things over and over and over again, so my stories are indeed terrible."

I'm somewhat surprised that the neighbors have not called CPS on me yet, as most days William can be spotted wandering around the yard in just his underwear.  Joseph has taken to climbing trees and yelling at the neighbors across the street as they play with their children in the yard, calling out our life story to anyone who would care to listen.  I'm constantly leaving most of them home alone while I take one child or another to one more doctor's appointment.  And, of course, someone always starts screaming at some point every single day during afternoon outside play time. 

So yes, nobody has died.  But we also haven't devolved into total chaos while living in our own filth (an my toilet has been cleaned almost every week), so I count my single-parenting time here as an overall win.

But it will be very nice have two parents to mind the food and conversation (and maybe even start reading scriptures again) at the breakfast table Friday morning, and two voices to encourage the children to stop fighting, and two sets of hands to make and clean up dinner.  My hat is off to those of you who do this full-time or on a regular basis.  Life is much easier with two adults running the monkey circus.

But even more than having another set of hands around, I'm just looking forward to being together with Brandon again.  We try and talk several times a day, but a phone call is no replacement for having your husband there.  I've realized (again), that I just don't do well alone.  I may have six children surrounding me, but I'm still alone when I need real conversation that isn't punctuated by repeated commands to eat something or clean something or leave someone alone.  Thankfully, time with friends and family has kept me from completely losing it (and how grateful I am to have friends and family who will keep me sane), but I'm so glad that my best friend will be showing up this week.  I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

When the Weather is Warm

This past Saturday, the children and I went to the beach.  North Carolina hasn't gotten the memo yet that it's past vernal equinox and so that means that it's time for fall.  I know intellectually that Halloween is a month away, but viscerally it doesn't feel like fall is actually something that will be happening ever.

The beach is a hallowed tradition in my family, so I couldn't come to North Carolina and not go to the beach.  It's like coming here and not getting barbecue.  Theses are just Not Done.  I had planned on spending our first Saturday at the beach, but jet lag and a sick toddler decreed otherwise.  I was afraid late September would be too chilly, but the weather graciously extended us another chance.

My sister and her four children live half an hour away from our favorite beach, Topsail Island, so they met us for a day of beach fun.  After all, if the beach is awesome, the beach with your favorite cousins is even better.

Everyone had a great time doing what you always do at the beach: swimming in the waves, digging big holes, catching mole crabs, and watching tiny clams try to dig their way into the sand.  The beach seems to never lose its attraction.

The weather and water were even so agreeable that I went swimming too.  William, who has never swum in the ocean before, thought that it was great fun bobbing up and down on the swells.  He wasn't that sure about the crashing waves part, but that's understandable when you're about three feet tall. 

By the end of the day, we all realized that we should have reapplied our sunscreen (and also applied the first coat a little more carefully) and admired each other's fierce sunburns.  But that too is also the tradition of the beach.  If I get skin cancer, I'll name it after Topsail Island. 

We were all sad to bid the beach goodbye after only one day of fun.  Thankfully next year we will be able to attend our family beach week after two years straight of missing it.  There really isn't a better family vacation than going to the beach (those of you who disagree with me are welcome to your completely wrong opinion).  I'm already counting down the months.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Enjoying the Delights of America

It's funny how quickly it takes to get settled.  I think that I probably have a quicker rate than average, a skill gained by hard experience.  We've been here for two weeks now, and life is right back to its usual routine.  Everyone had a full week of school, I got up at five to exercise every morning, and I've even cooked dinner three nights in a row.  And it wasn't even pancakes; it was real dinner from a new recipe.

The children and I have also been enjoying all the good things America has to offer.  This week we made our first trip to the library.  When we walked into an entire building filled with books, Eleanor looked up at me and asked in disbelief, "You mean we can just take whatever books we want?!?"  Everyone walked out half an hour later with their own pile of brand new reading material.  And when I told them they could come back next week for more books, Joseph thought he had died and gone to heaven.

When we arrived, North Carolina hadn't gotten the memo that September is supposed to be a cooler month, but the weather dipped down into the seventies for a few days this week and I took the kids to the park.  It's wonderful to be in a city with seemingly endless parks.  There's nothing better than enjoying a sunny afternoon while the children play.

One afternoon this week, the children tumbled into the house excitedly, "Mom, we met some kids from church!  They want us to come and play in the creek with them!!"  An hour later they came back sweaty, muddy, and full of stories from their new friends.  Playing in the woods with friends that speak your own language is pretty amazing.

My sister brought her children into town for the weekend.  I finally took everyone home for bed Friday night past 10:30, having completely lost track of time while catching up, laughing, and telling stories.  We hung out almost all day Saturday and the boys found my dad's stash of water guns while the girls tried on old wedding dresses.  It's so easy to get together when you're only two hours instead of two days away.

Wednesday evening was activity night at church.  Kathleen played soccer at her Young Women activity, Sophia made a bracelet at her Activity Days activity, and Edwin learned marble games at Cub Scouts.  And me? I read a book.  At church today I got to sing hymns that I didn't play, listen to a lesson I didn't prepare, and drop the children off at classes I didn't teach.  Attending a full-sized ward with fully-staffed classes and programs is a lot easier than running half the church yourself.

For dinner we have had meals that included mangoes, avocados, sweet potatoes, flour tortillas, pineapple, ravioli, corn dogs, bacon, chicken pot pies, colby jack cheese, and corn tortillas that I didn't have to make myself.  I tend to cook the same twenty meals, and have been cooking them for a decade, so it's been a nice break to have new cooking options.  So many recipes have ingredients that I just can't get in Uzbekistan, and I'm really enjoying having access to the those recipes, if only for a little while.

One morning this week I was stretching after my morning waddle walk, I noticed that there was warm air coming out of the floor vent.  I was confused for a moment, trying to figure out when I had switched the boiler on and worried that the weather would get too warm for heat later on in the day.  Then I remembered that we had a thermostat that automatically decided whether we needed warm or cool air to come out of the vents.

After starting school, I realized that several school books were missing.  I ordered them on Amazon and then was shocked when they showed up the next day.  Since then I've ordered knitting supplies, kitchen utensils, paddock boots, clothing, and more books.  Nothing has taken more than four or five days.  It almost seems wrong to have such instant gratification.

I signed up the children for horseback riding lessons at the stable I rode at twenty years ago.  Their first lesson was a week ago, and afterwards I asked them how it went.  "It was great," Sophia told me, "I understand every single thing my teacher told me!" Having instruction in your non-native language may be good for practicing that language, but adds another layer of difficulty to learning that new skill.

Usually when we come to the States, it's for vacation.  We get to enjoy the flashier parts of America - tasty restaurants, family reunions, Target - but the smaller pleasures are missed.  Living in a place without things like potable tap water and signs in English increases my appreciation for those things when I do have them.  I try not to think too hard about the years and years I have left of being a stranger in a strange land.  As nice as libraries and friends are, it's also nice to have a husband with a job that pays our bills and lets us save for the future.  But I do look forward to one day being in a place where I don't have to count time zones before calling my bank or take three plane rides to see my family.  That day is a long, long time away, but I know it will come eventually.  But for now, I'll enjoy what I can.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Crash Landing

The trip to the US started out well.  Not all travel starts out well.  I remember one move where the Super Shuttle showed up to our townhouse while I was still packing suitcases or another trip where Edwin almost passed out in the elevator that took us up to the gate for our first flight of the day.  So I was grateful to have our travel begin smoothly. 

I had packed up bags early, everyone was in good health, and we were all happy to get on that plane to the land of good medical care.  Past medevacs have left me and Brandon distressed about a month and half of separation.  I still hate being separated from Brandon and he can't stand being alone in a big, empty house, but this time we were both willing to take separation if it meant that I was near good medical care.  This pregnancy has been more difficult than the previous six (probably just because I'm getting older), and the last thing I wanted was to have something go wrong while still in Uzbekistan.

We were able to check in all of our bags (carefully weighed to be exactly 20 kilos) plus two carseats and a stroller without any problems and made it through passport control using both sets of our diplomatic passports.  The flight to Frankfurt was on a new Dreamliner with seat-back entertainment, which is not always guaranteed on Uzbek airways.  Sure, the only kid's movie was Moana, but William was mostly happy to watch it on repeat four or five times.  He got a little wiggly, and only slept when I had to be awake and woke up as soon as I fell asleep, but anyone who actually expects to get sleep on a flight with a two-year old next to them is delusional.

Our transfer in Frankfurt went smoothly after the police realized that I was not a passport smuggler.  I can understand how finding fourteen passports in my carry-on luggage at a security check would probably be a reasonable cause for concern.  As the police officers carefully matched up our diplomatic and tourist passports to make sure there weren't any extras, I decided that it probably wouldn't be helpful to offer them the seven other passports in my purse.  When I told Brandon about our run-in with the police, he suggested I add passport smuggler to my resume.

The flight to Newark was also uneventful (although not restful either) right until we started descending.  Then, of course, things started to go wrong.  All travel, if sufficiently long enough, will always go wrong eventually.  It's just a matter of time.  Our descent was surprisingly bumpy for a clear day with scattered clouds, but it wasn't that long.  It was long enough, however, to upset William's stomach that had spent the last eighteen hours being stuffed with incredible amounts of granola bars, fruit snacks, and cookies.  Everything came back up all over his shirt, pants, and seat.  Thankfully his blanket and me were spared. 

As we were in the middle of landing, there wasn't much to do except to try and mop up the mess with some blankets, mentally apologize to the flight attendants who were going to discover it later, and strip William down.  Thankfully we had packed extra clothes in case our bags got lost, and I was able to change him.   Thus far I've avoided ever having to clean up a vomit-soaked child on an airplane, so I guess I should count myself lucky that it hasn't happened up to now.

As part of my careful preparations for this trip, I had loaded everyone's passports into the Mobile Passport app so that when we hit passport control I could skip the line and get through quickly.  But I couldn't get my phone to connect to the Wifi, so all my cleverness was to no avail.  So I cheated and went through the diplomatic line.  Those black passports have to be good for something sometimes.

Miraculously, all our suitcases showed up, but none of the strollers.  I have noticed that Americans are terrible about helping out other people, or at least people with children, and this time was no exception.  The only person who made an attempt to help me lift our 45-pound suitcases off the luggage belt was a woman with crutches.  Everyone else just tried to pretend they didn't see the obviously pregnant woman lifting suitcase after suitcase onto the luggage cart. 

The United employee who re-tagged our bags (they were only checked to Newark, so we had to get tags to Raleigh), also sat and watched as I hauled each of the six bags on to the scale, off the scale, and back onto the luggage cart.  I'm not sure what you have to do to qualify for help, but evidently being enormously pregnant and traveling solo withs six children isn't enough. 

By the time we had done the passport-luggage-recheck shuffle, we had used up a significant portion of our three-hour layover and had to hustle to make it through the terminal transfer-security dance.  Getting seven people with six backpacks, four kindles, two laptops, an iPad, a carry-on bag, and a purse through security is a major effort.  We had already done it twice in our travels, but I couldn't quite believe when we were asked to take out snacks from every single one of those six backpacks.  I have a personal grudge against terrorists because of all the security nightmare we have to go through.

Our very last step was to make it to our gate, which was the very last gate at the very end of the terminal.  By this point William had made it to the inevitable meltdown stage of travel.  One could hardly blame him as he had woken up twenty-five hours earlier and not gotten more than two and a half hours of sleep in that twenty-five hours.  I had also been awake for the same amount of time with even less sleep, so my ability to empathize with him as he walked down the terminal past people giving me hostile stares as he screamed and cried about his tummy hurting was about zero.  I was exhausted from traveling, making it through all the hoops, and being pregnant, so carrying a thirty-pound toddler through the airport (since our stroller had, of course, not made it) just wasn't going to happen.

We made it to the gate with fifteen minutes to spare, so I had time to sit and comfort him on my lap where he promptly fell asleep.  I thought that maybe he might just stay asleep for the entire flight, but of course he woke up on the jetway just in time to throw up right as we boarded the plane.  This time I had a bathroom to clean him up in, but no more clean clothes for him to wear.  So I stripped his shirt off, left on the shorts as they weren't too bad, and sponged off his shoes.  My parents told me later that our flight, which got delayed as we waited for the vomit to be cleaned up by the hazmat team, was listed as being delayed for medical reasons.  It's always awesome to be that person.

My parents were blessedly, wonderfully, thankfully, waiting to receive us with open arms and enough vehicles to fit both us and our stuff.  They dropped us off at our rental house, which my mother had wonderfully stocked with food, and we all got down to the business of settling in and getting over jet lag.

I have done two solo-with-all-six children trips before, so this trip was just upping the degree of difficulty somewhat.  But what I haven't done on my own before is getting settled in to a new house entirely on my own.  All of our past medevacs have been at my parents' house where two other adults have been around to help out, distract children, cook food, and all the other things that help settling in go a little more smoothly.  This time I was on my own.

With a sick toddler.  William decided he'd had enough vomiting and it was time for diarrhea.  So I got to spend the next five or six nights getting up multiple times a night to go to the bathroom.  Sometimes it was to take William to the bathroom, and other times it was to take me to the bathroom.  They never happened at the same time. 

Eventually I moved him out of my room in to the boys' room, and that set off a fresh wave of night-time wakings, some for bathroom trips and some because he didn't know where he was. 

In the daytime I got to do all the things that come with settling in to a new house - buying groceries, unpacking, organizing, beating the children into unpacking their own clothes - and the things that come with traveling to the US for medical care - appointments, appointments and appointments. 

It was during this week that I decided that I never want to be a single parent.  Being the one who has to solve all the problems, break up all the fights, wipe away all the tears, listen to all the stories, enforce all the commands, clean up all the messes, cook all the food, organize all the cleaning, and do it while still being the stable emotional center for the family is hard

By Friday night I was done with being all things to all people and so I took myself out to dinner.  I left a pot of macaroni and cheese on the stove for the children, told them to eat dinner, clean the kitchen, and be in bed by 8:30, and then ran away for the night.  I enjoyed having a dinner that I didn't cook, didn't clean up, and didn't have to feed to anyone else.  I didn't talk to anyone but my server, and nobody interrupted me while I read a book.  I finished dinner early, so I sat in the parking lot and read until it was safe to go home.  When I got home all the lights were off, the kitchen was clean, and the children were asleep.  It was a beautiful sight. 

We have settled in and school starts tomorrow, so Normal Life, US Medevac edition will begin this week.  I'm very glad that this past week has now been lived and does not ever have to be repeated.  I'm grateful that the current sick child (Eleanor) can take her own self to the bathroom and wipe her own bum in the middle of the night.  I'm looking forward to Brandon's arrival in thirty-two days (but who's counting).  But most of all, I'm hoping that I can get a good night's sleep tonight.  Fingers crossed. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Dynamics of Change

We are leaving in four days.  Thankfully we're not moving and won't be moving for almost two more years.  I like the thought of moving and the excitement of something new, but the actual moving is terrible. 

Traveling is also terrible, but it's terrible on a much smaller scale. 

I'm always excited when contemplating change.  I like to ride roller coasters, I wanted to own a bullet bike when I was younger (I wouldn't mind one now, but I'm sadly much too responsible), and skydiving seems like a great idea.  Change is something that mixes up normal life and gives me something to do other than work very hard to maintain the optimal flow of household life.  Change gives me a break.  I look forward to change.

As soon a change gets put on the schedule, I start counting down to it.  One of my favorite things about getting pregnant is figuring out the schedule of when the baby's due, when get to go to London for appointments, and when I leave and return from medevac.  Brandon thinks I'm sick.  Everyone has their quirks, I reply to him.

I can hardly wait for the change to happen, but I still have to live my life while anxiously awaiting for the next change.  I love when we find our our next post as it means planning and anticipating the next change.  I hate when we find out our next post because then the timer starts ticking in the back of my head.  I can turn down the volume, but the countdown doesn't go away until it has finished. 

A three-month medevac is not such a big change as moving, but it's still a good-sized disruption in our schedule.  I began planning this summer and tried to get everything done possible to make this week less painful.  One has to laugh, however, when there's any attempt to make packing 'less painful.'  It's like trying to make trans-Atlantic flights or childbirth less painful.  There's some reduction of pain (hello, epidural) possible, but as a general percentage of the overall pain, the reduction is not very significant. 

After about a week of sorting baby clothes, finding pacifiers and bottles, making lists, and packing up fall clothes, I couldn't find anything else to do.  The two half-filled suitcases have been sitting forlornly in the corner of my room ever since. 

So I returned to normal life, all the time hearing that clock ticking in the back of my mind.  We have started school, played with friends, spent hours swimming in the pool, and gone to parties.  As the departure date loomed closer and closer, I keep frantically wondering what I needed to to do get ready to go.  But there wasn't anything.  So we just pretended that life was completely normal all while counting down the months, then weeks, then days.  Three months.  Two months.  Six weeks.  Two weeks.  Ten days.  And now four. 

On Friday the chaos descends as I wash laundry, fold laundry, pack laundry, gather school books, pack school books, weight suitcases, count suitcases, and wonder what it is I'm forgetting.  On Friday the change will gather momentum, building in intensity, stress, and anxiety until Monday morning arrives and we finally reach the moment of change.  Tashkent will be gone, to be replaced with Raleigh and we will have changed.  The countdown will ring its completion, and life will wind down again to return to its normal rhythms.  Change will have lost its appeal, and normal will be what I want most in the world.  Being in the same place and doing nothing exciting at all will the best thing that has ever happened it me.  The thought of change will be utterly repugnant.

Until I forget, as I always do, the pain that accompanies change.  Then I'll start looking forward to the next one. 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

A love letter to my full-sized oven

Dear oven,

I love you.  You are by no means the most flashy of ovens.  I didn't even realize that you could have an oven that required sparking the pilot light before turning on the actual oven.  There's a reason that most ovens don't do that as it only works on the first try about half the time.  You can't clean yourself (and it turns out that the housekeeper never cleans you either, so you're kind of dirty), you don't have any timers or clocks or time bake, and your temperature dial is more of a guideline.  Honestly, you don't actually do anything except get hot so that I can bake things inside you.

But the one shining attribute you do have, the thing that sets you apart from any oven I could buy here in Uzbekistan, the feature that makes my heart sing whenever I use you, is your size.

Back before I moved overseas and lived in the land of Full-Sized Appliances, I didn't know that there were places in the world where people had to be subjected to the indignity of Easy-Bake Appliances.  I didn't know that there were washing machines that fit three shirts and a pair of socks, stoves that were designed for doll pots, microwaves that only allowed for midget baby bottles, and refrigerators that held thirty-six hours' worth of food.  Maybe I had heard of them, but I didn't think that normal people actually used such atrocities.

Then I moved to Baku and my eyes were opened.  I had to buy a smaller pizza pan because my well-used and loved one was too big for the oven to properly close on.  Canning was a near-impossibility on my stove because the pots hung half-off the closely-packed burners.  Baby bottles had to be microwaved with their tops off because the microwave was so short.  The Thanksgiving turkey fit, but barely.

I almost cried when our acres of countertop in Dushanbe embraced another tiny Easy-Bake stove that took forty-five minutes to come to temperature to cook one 9 x 13 pan at a time.

So imagine my joy when I moved to Tashkent and found you, glorious full-sized American oven, sitting in my kitchen and waiting for me to cook vast quantities of food in you.  Every time I place two pans next to each other, cutting my german-pancake cooking time in half, I want to shout for joy.  Whenever I bake bread and fit all six pans on the same rack, my heart sings with happiness.  When I use all four burners at once and each one has a normal-sized pot on it, I bless whatever GSO decided that we should have American appliances here in Tashkent.

When I go to America and see my mother's new double ovens with convection heating and time bake and self-cleaning and all the amazing features, I promise not to be disloyal to you.  For I know that I will not always have an oven like you, and the next place I live may have me cooking for seven children in yet another mini-sized oven.  I will appreciate you for as long as a I have you, despite your technological backwardness.  For you are my one and only, my full-sized oven.

Love and cookies,

Sunday, August 25, 2019

First Week of School

This past week was our first week of school.  We have been doing this for some time now; I started with Kathleen in Kindergarten nine years ago.  I guess I can say that I've had a reasonable amount of experience homeschooling.  

The beginning of school is always crazy.  It's a bit of work to get all of the curriculum ready and organized and there's always something that I've forgotten.  The children have to get used to a new year and a new schedule, which is another element of chaos.  Every two years we add a new one to the mix, which means one more child that I have to keep track of one more more child who needs help and asks questions while I'm trying to help someone else.  This year Eleanor started Kindergarten, so I now have five children in school.  That is a lot of children in school.

I got to enjoy my very first real summer vacation this year, a summer with no school, no R&R, and no moving.  It was absolutely wonderful and exactly what everyone needed - especially me.  In addition to reading a lot of books, lazing around in the swimming pool, and taking very long naps, I was able to prepare for the beginning of the school year.

I printed out school work, organized it, and arranged it in everyone's notebooks.  I pulled out last year's school work, last year's school books, and last year's trash and cleaned out the bookshelves.  I put all the books for this year neatly on everyone's book racks, right next to their newly organized notebooks.  After thinking about how to keep the girls better organized, I came up with a new accountability system.  I did everything possible to get everything ready for the first day of school.  Since we only have three weeks of school before packing everything up and heading a third of the way across the world, I didn't have the time to spend getting everything slowly settled in.

And surprisingly, all my preparations paid off.  Monday morning everyone was downstairs around 8:30 and the girls and I started off the school year with going over their new accountability charts.  Then we had their first grammar lesson.  Things went a little sideways from there, as I realized that I hadn't downloaded files on to the school profiles of the laptops, but I was able to complete all of Edwin's and part of Joseph's school also.  I even got a reading lesson for Eleanor in before stopping for lunch (and a much-deserved nap) at noon.  I was very proud of myself.

The rest of the week only improved from there.  I don't remember completely losing my temper a single time, which is no mean feat for a seven-months pregnant woman who is running a five-child school circus with a toddler thrown in for good measure.  I think that I can say that the high point of school craziness has passed and our school days are entirely reasonable most of the time.  I'm glad about that.  I'm even happier that school will only continue to be manageable as more and more of the children get older and more responsible.  There's a lot to be said for children who know the program and can stick with it.

The girls both admitted to me that perhaps it was nice to get back to a schedule, and I had to agree with them.  Summer was wonderful and I'm sure we'll get thoroughly sick of school soon enough, but for now it's okay to get back to work.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Summer Preserving

I would never call myself a hard-core canner.  I don't like canned vegetables and would prefer to just have beans only they're available in the summer instead of eating canned or frozen ones in the winter.  I never eat salsa, and don't really like canned fruit either.  So there's not much reason for me to can.

But, there are a few things that I do like to can and freeze for the winter.  I grew up with homemade strawberry jam, so I always make my own jam.  I don't really like store-bought jam with it's sticky, syrupy consistency and jam is ridiculously easy to make.  Fruit in Uzbekistan is amazingly cheap and delicious, so in addition to strawberry jam, I also make raspberry and blackberry jam.  We only eat jam once or twice a week (I'm not a big fan of PB&J), so I don't have to make very much.  This year I made 32 pints of jam, which is probably more than we'll use.

I also freeze fruit, mostly to use for pancakes and other breakfast foods.  I didn't freeze strawberries this year because I find defrosted strawberries to be kind of gross and slimy - and also they're a pain to slice before freezing.  So this year I only froze raspberries, as a friend gifted me all her frozen blackberries when she moved.

In addition to freezing blackberries, I also can a few quarts of them too (this year it was only six) because I like to eat blackberry cobbler.  It's very easy to make when you have canned fruit on hand, and blackberry cobbler is my favorite kind of cobbler.  Also, canning blackberries is ridiculously easy, too.  You simply have to wash the berries, put in sugar syrup, and can.  It's doesn't get any easier than that.

I sometimes can applesauce, but I haven't done applesauce in several years.  The children love homemade applesauce (store-bough applesauce is gross) and they beg me to make it every year.  But making applesauce is a lot of work and usually results in a kitchen that is trashed with applesauce-covered sticky floors.  Maybe next year I'll make applesauce.

The only vegetable I ever can is tomatoes (although I guess tomato can also count as a fruit).  The tomatoes here are both delicious and cheap in the summer, so it makes sense to can them as they're expensive and not so good in the winter.  I also can pizza sauce because it's easier to make a whole bunch at once than make a new batch every time I make pizza.

This year I decided to try a new method for canning tomatoes.  I never use whole canned tomatoes, so I figured that there was no point in carefully peeling tomatoes before canning them.  Instead, I had the children help me chop and blend up the tomatoes before bringing the sauce to a boil and canning.  The whole process worked marvelously, especially with three children doing the chopping.

I only ran into problems when I realized that I had seriously overestimated how many tomatoes I would need.  I had bought five boxes of tomatoes and by the time we had made it through four boxes I couldn't handle the thought of processing one more box and just gave the extra tomatoes to my housekeeper.  I didn't feel too bad, however, as we ended up with 19 quarts of pizza sauce and 47 quarts of tomato sauce, all for thirty-two dollars (including the box of tomatoes we didn't use).

I'm very happy to be done with my summer preserving.  I don't think that I would make a very good homesteader as canning food definitely doesn't spark any joy for me.  I only preserve when the food I make is significantly better than something that I can buy at the grocery store, and that's generally not most things.  If we lived in America where tomatoes don't cost eighteen cents a pound, I definitely wouldn't be canning my own tomatoes unless I had the space and inclination to grow tomatoes myself (which is a definite maybe).  But I guess I'll enjoy what I've got for now!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Thirty Weeks (with no pictures)

This past week I hit one of the most frustrating milestones of pregnancy: thirty weeks.  Thirty, after counting up for so many months, sounds so very close to forty.  But then when math (oh so pesky math) kicks in, you realize that thirty weeks is still ten weeks away from forty weeks.  Ten weeks is two and a half months and two and a half months is still a very long time to go.

Ten weeks is even longer when it's ten weeks of not being able to bend over, not fitting into anything but pregnancy clothes, waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, sleeping in a myriad of uncomfortable positions, getting out of breath after a flight of stairs, random pains, and watching your weight creep up despite trying everything possible to stave off any more weight gain. 

The last ten weeks really are the worst part of being pregnant.

I suppose, when I consider all of the really awful pregnancy complications that are possible, I shouldn't complain.  I don't have gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, pre-term labor, swelling, heartburn (okay I have medication to thank for that one), serious pain, bleeding, or bed rest.  I just have a completely normal, zero-complication pregnancy.  I know that any of you who have had real difficult pregnancies are now rolling your eyes and sighing over what a whiner I am.  And you're right.  I am a whiner.  I just don't like being pregnant.

Being thirty weeks means that my and the children's departure to the States is becoming increasingly imminent.  We have plane tickets, we have signed a lease on a (very, very small) house, and Brandon has requested a whole bunch of money to pay for the (very, very high) rent on that house.  I'm browsing minivans for sale in the Raleigh area, and have already set up horseback riding lessons and medical appointments for the first week we arrive in town.  It's like we've done this whole rodeo before.

Of course, however, there is one complication.  There can never be any major move or even without one complication that makes you hold your breath until the last second.  This time our passports are making us sweat.  We have two sets of passports (which makes for sixteen passports we get to take with us every time we fly), and our diplomatic passports expire five days before we leave Uzbekistan. 

This isn't a problem for entering the US, as we can enter on our tourist passports.  It does, however, cause a problem for leaving Uzbekistan.  We entered on our diplomatic passports (as those are the ones with our visas) and so when we leave, the passport control people will want us to leave on the same passports we entered on. 

We've known about the expiration date for a long time, and applied for new passports back during the first week of July.  We even planned for contingencies, and requested that the passport processing being expedited.  But evidently there are varying definitions of expedited, and the passports still haven't arrived.  We had hoped to have them come back in time to get new Uzbek visas (which expire in October) put in our new passports, but there's not time for that now - which means that we have to get new visas while we're in the States. 

I haven't gotten my paper bag out yet, however.  We still have three weeks left, which leaves one more week before 'time to panic' is scheduled on the calendar.  And also I know that we will be leaving in three weeks whether or not we have the passports.  It's just a question of how much more trouble that leaving will involve.

For now we're in that weird space of time where you're too far out to start the real serious work of preparing to leave but still close in enough to feel like you should do something to lessen the impact of the impending departure but there's nothing to do.  So instead we're starting school tomorrow and pretending like life will continue on in its quiet way even though we all know it won't. 

Every time we talk about packing or passports or flights or being separated for six weeks, Brandon and I look at each other and repeat, "This is the last time," and then breathe a sigh of relief together.  I'm glad to almost be done with the merry-go-round.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Teenager in the House

This week Kathleen turned thirteen.  To be be honest, I've considered Kathleen a teenager for quite a bit now, as we've all be subjected to the symptoms of teenager-hood for some time before she reached the exact date when she is officially considered a teenager.  But now she isn't almost a teenager, she's really a teenager. 

I panicked a few months ago when I realized that I will have a teenaged child for the next two decades.  Two decades ago I was a teenager myself, trying to make my parents' life as difficult as possible.  And when I'm finally done with teenagers myself, I will be almost sixty - only a handful of years younger than my own mother is right now.  It looks like I'm going to be dealing with teenagers for a really long time.  Sigh.

Not all things about teenagers are terrible.  To be honest, most of the time Kathleen is cheerful, helpful, and easy to be around.  I definitely take advantage of her babysitting skills all the time and could never go back to the days of having to take all the children with me if I needed to go out.  Now I just waltz out the door, letting everyone know that I'm going to get a pedicure and I'll be back in a few hours.  I suppose having a sometimes-moody child is probably worth the freedom it gives me.

She is also helpful with her siblings (although not always willingly so, but that's fair enough because I don't always want to be helpful either), and it's wonderful to have another responsible party to herd the cats when I need some help.  It's also wonderful to have a child who will get the job done properly.  If I tell her to clean the kitchen, it will be clean.  If I need someone to clean out a messy room or closet, I can count on her to get it done.  She has reached that wonderful age of competent responsibility, and it's a great place to be.

But of course, she's still only thirteen and has to deal with the emotional storms that come with the job of growing up.  And since we're all here together, we get to deal with them too.  I can't wait until Sophia joins the fun.  Having two girls close together sounded like a good idea right until puberty hits.

I feel, however, like I've had it pretty easy so far and that is partly because we homeschool.  This summer Kathleen got to experience some teenage-girl social drama and one afternoon while we were discussing it, she turned to me and exclaimed, "I'm so glad I don't have to go to regular school and deal with drama like that every day!"  It's nice that she doesn't have to experience the meat-grinder that can be middle school female interactions and I don't have to deal with the trauma that comes from them.  Middle school is a great time to keep children mostly separated from their peers. 

Having a teenaged daughter has put the final nail in the coffin of my youth.  I am definitely, absolutely, irrevocably, not young any more.  I was recently reminiscing about my freshman year of college, and I realized that I entered college nineteen years ago.  Then I realized that Kathleen will be entering college in five years.  And then I did the math and realized that she is almost four times closer to eighteen than I am.  Now I get to enjoy youth through my children's lives, not my own.

It's strange to have a teenager while expecting a baby, to be straddling those two worlds of young mother and middle-aged mother.  There aren't many moms out there who manage to have a teenager and a newborn at the same time, and it makes for all sorts of friends.  Some of my friends were in elementary school when I graduated from high school and some of them didn't get cell phones or internet until they were married and graduated from college. 

But regardless of how I feel about it, I now have a teenager in the house.  And on the whole, it's a pretty great thing.  But I'll get back to you in a couple of years when I have two teenagers in the house.  I'll let you know how that goes.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The winding down of summer

When I wake up each morning, the sky is a little darker.  The mornings have gotten just a little bit cooler, and in the evening Brandon and I can take a walk without sweating to death in the heat of a city recovering from 100+ temperatures.  All of the children sport stark tan lines, and Joseph's hair is now quite a few shades lighter than his skin.  If it were a normal summer, we'd be at the beach this week.

In two weeks we will start school again, and that's probably okay.  Everyone has been enjoying a break from their full school day since early May, and three and a half months is a nice long stretch of long summer days.  

Normally I hate the beginning of the end of summer, but this year I'm surprisingly okay with it.  We have had a nice, empty summer filled with mornings in the pool, long naps (for me), and lots of books.  It's been a wonderful break.  This year has been the first summer we haven't moved or schooled through the summer, and it's been really nice.  Everyone who homeschools has their own preferences, but I confess that I like the traditional school calendar.  The whole family has enjoyed having a long, relaxed summer.  The school year is very structured, with a tight schedule that I keep everyone following, so having something different has been a good switch.

I've had enough time this summer to get things organized for the coming school year and also to do some prep work for our upcoming medevac in September.  The beginning of school is always chaotic as I print out thousands of pages of workbook, redesign grade systems, order books that I forgot to order earlier, and find new curriculum when I discover that what worked for one child doesn't work for another.  There's always something that I've forgotten.

I'm hoping that the beginning of this school year - the ninth year I've been homeschooling - will be a little less chaotic as a result of my prep work.  Fingers crossed.  

We're only going to be schooling for three weeks before the children and I hop on a plane, fly almost halfway across the world, move into a house less than a third the size of our house in Tashkent, and then pick up schooling again as soon as we're halfway over jet lag.  But as crazy as it sounds, I'm looking forward to it because that means that we're that much closer to coming back home and settling back in.  Also, I'm a closet adrenaline junkie and crazy situations are oddly appealing to me.  Maybe it's because I can slip the structure of regular life for just a little bit.

But I'm still going to enjoy the next two weeks of lazy summertime.  The pool is nice and warm, the sunshine is roastingly hot, our schedule is wonderfully open, and I'm in the middle of a good book.  I intend to work on my tan, take two-hour naps, and finish my book and maybe start another one.  I know that when school starts and fall comes in I'll miss these long, lazy summer days and long for hours in the pool instead of hours spent teaching children.  But it will be okay.  Because that will make next summer that much more precious.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

One more voice

William has really started talking.  He will be officially two and a half next week and has decided that words are a marvelous, wonderful thing that he should use as much as humanly possible.  This love of talking is hardly surprising considering he is surrounded by people who spend all day talking.  Even if half of his family is quiet at any given time, that still leaves four people all talking at once.

I both hate and love fully verbal toddlers.  I love them because they don't crumple into a ball of tears when they can't let you know what thing is that they really, really want.  Instead of pointing and screaming, they can (theoretically) point and say, "Please give me the water."  It makes for a lot fewer tears.

I also love that they can follow a series of directions.  These days my job as a mother is often traffic controller and less often the person who actually gets the job done.  Having a non-verbal child really makes that job harder as they require one to pick up the blankie, get the toy, or go upstairs themselves instead of telling a child to do it for them.  It's much easier to tell William to get a pair of undies and watch him rush upstairs to get them himself.

But verbal toddlers love talking.  Talking is a new tool, a shiny new toy, and they use it all the time.  I remember one hour-long car ride when Edwin spent the entire trip sitting in the back talking non-stop to all his sleeping siblings.  It was really funny to listening to his chirpy little voice endlessly stringing together near-meaningless phrases.  And since everyone else was asleep, it was fine.

But when you have a family of five verbal children and then the sixth child hits the verbal stage, that makes the entire house that much noisier.  Two year-olds have no idea about conversational turn-taking (and it turns out that five year-olds, seven year-olds, nine year-olds, eleven year-olds, and twelve year-olds don't have much of an idea either) and so when everyone is talking, William just talks louder and louder.  And his cute, sweet, chirpy little voice can cut through anything in a way that can destroy one's nerves after awhile.

The high (or low) point of this conversational madness is dinner each night.  Everyone has had a full day and everyone wants to tell Brandon about it as soon as he walks through the door.  Sometimes people remember to take turns and sometimes they don't and often I feel like I'm in the middle of the dinner scene from While You Were Sleeping.  When it's a particularly scattered night, I'll give Brandon a look and he'll respond with, "I didn't say Cesar Romero was tall.  I said he was Spanish!"

Now that William can talk also, his little voice is a descant floating over the top of everything.  "Mom, give me some milk.  Mom, give me some milk!  Mom, give me some milk!!"  By then end of an hour of dinner and dishes I'm ready to go somewhere absolutely quiet so that I can gather together my shredded nerves.  There's a reason we rarely have dinner guests.

I know that eventually the newness of talking will wear off and William will use his words more sparingly and for a purpose other than the pure pleasure of making sounds (although some of my older children have still not reached that point yet).  So I've been taking videos so that I can remember the days when he was an adorably cute two year-old with a high, chirpy voice that could make anyone smile.  I know I'll miss it when he becomes a sullen teenager and talking is an absolute chore.  But at least dinner will be quieter then.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Tashkent in the Summer

It has been hot here in Tashkent.  I know that it has also been hot in the US recently, but it has been hot here in Tashkent since mid-June.  It will continue to be hot here until late September.  Sophia - who has a hard time with hot weather - recently asked me when it would cool down.  I laughed and pulled out the weather forecast, "Well, on Friday it will be 102.  Since it's 108 today, does that count as cooler?"

It's been so hot here that there have been rolling blackouts throughout the city.  We live in a neighborhood with well-connected Uzbeks, so our power has stayed steady, but I can only sympathize with anyone who loses their air conditioning when it's over a hundred degrees outside.  And I can double sympathize if they don't have a pool.

Summer is a season where you carefully plan your movements and try to stay home as much as possible.  Our piano teacher, who taxis to our house, has started coming earlier because it's just too hot to be out by mid-afternoon.  The girls wake up at 5 am to ride their bikes over to a neighbor's house every morning for a plant-watering gig because any later would just be too hot.  We don't leave the house to do any activities unless they involve a pool.  Any car trip is avoided unless absolutely necessary, and if you do have to go anywhere, you'd better park in the shade.  I put William in his car seat after leaving the car parked in the sun, and he started screaming and crying because his car seat was so hot.

There's always a time in the middle of winter or summer when you can't imagine that there was ever a season other than the one you're in and that there will ever be anything different than the one you're in.  We've reached that point of summer where pants, shoes, and coats are a far-distant memory and a laughable future.  I can't remember the last time I was cold.  Life is one endless, eternal, sunshine-filled summer.  Every morning into eternity we will wake up to clear sunny skies and every evening will end with dusky orange sunsets.  Rain is a long-forgotten myth.

I don't mind the endless summers.  I like swimming and dresses are infinitely more comfortable than jeans.  The fruit is delicious and endless and I'm happy to stay home and hibernate while someone else buys that fruit for me.  The dusky orange sunsets are beautiful and evening walks to the local ice cream stand are one of my favorite things to do after the children are in bed.  I like waking up to sunshine every morning.

Eventually fall will come and I will have to wear shoes again.  I will cry a small tear for the end of summer while the cool-weather lovers in my family will rejoice.  But it's not fall yet, and until then I'll be out back in the pool, working on my tan.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Like a Weed

This past week Sophia came downstairs in a fall dress.  I'm trying to keep from spending our last week in the usual packing purgatory by pre-packing things for our three-month medevac this fall.  We're leaving Tashkent in September when the weather hasn't even started thinking about cooling down, so fall clothes are something that definitely won't be used in the next six weeks and can be stuffed into suitcases early.

Packing fall clothes means you have to first sort fall clothes.  I sorted out the boys' clothes myself because I don't trust them to differentiate between worn out clothes or too small clothes and correctly-sized non-ratty clothes.  The girls, however, are more picky about what they wear, so I've assigned them to sort and pack their own clothes.  It is really nice to have some children that are useful.

Sophia was going through her fall clothes and sorting out the things she has grown out of.  The first dress, which last winter was knee length, only reached midway down her thigh.  "Too small," I declared, and she went upstairs to try on the next.  Dress after dress came downstairs, and all of them were approaching tunic length, no longer fit to be called dresses.

I remember being taken by surprise by Kathleen's eleven year-old growth spurt.  She grew nine inches in about six months and turned into a young woman before my eyes after spending her whole life as a little girl.  Kathleen is now an inch shorter than me, with hands and feet the same size.  I'm used to seeing her as a young woman, someone who will be leaving me to go off on her own in the somewhat forseeable future.  She has picked out a major, we've talked about college funding, and will be in high school in a year.  But as she is the first child, this is to be expected.

What is a little surprising, however, is that Sophia is following in the footsteps of her older sister.  It turns out that she too won't stay a little girl much longer either.  In the surprised fascination of discovering that my oldest was growing up, I forgot that this meant that the others would do the same thing, and some of them would be following soon.

I was once talking with an older friend who had had children close like we have.  "The thing you don't count on," she remarked to me, "is that they leave you just as closely as they come to you.  You blink your eyes and before you know it they're all gone."

We have a few years yet before they start leaving us, but I didn't realized that they would all grow up in a hurry too.  Once the first one starts shooting up, the dominoes have started to fall and it will be a continual run of too-short jeans, too-tight shoes, and insatiable appetites for the next fifteen years.  I knew intellectually that eventually my children would grow up, but it's a different experience to literally watch it happen before your eyes.

A family picture from last summer sits on our bookshelf.  In it there is a perfect stair-step of children, each of them fitting in perfectly with their siblings, creating a lovely visual balance.  I didn't realize when we took that picture that it would be the last family picture where I was a mother surrounded by children who were all shorter than them, the last time I would be a mother hen with her brood.  From here until we stop taking pictures, I will be increasingly surrounded by children who are taller than me.  That lovely balance is forever gone.

I'm not one to mourn the end of my young mothering days - after all, I still have quite a lot of small child years left to go - but it is strange to move this new phase of mothering.  I've watched as friends have gone through the same transition and felt that they were so far distant from me.  Now I realize they were only a few years ahead and I would be catching up sooner than I thought.  I imagine that sooner than I think, I'll be looking back to this stage with nostalgia also.  When you have children life changes on a tangential curve, not an algebraic line.

I have often felt like I've been a bit on an impatient mother.  I so desperately needed for some of my brood to grow up that I spent quite a long time waiting for them to move out of the dependently needy stage.  I don't fault anyone who feels the same; it's very exhausting to be the only one who can do anything.  Now that there are a few who can help out, I'm perfectly happy to be where I am.  And I intend to enjoy it as long as it lasts.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Growing as a Gardener

My mother has been a Gardener for a long time.  I say Gardener with a capital G because gardening for her is a twenty-hour-a-week part time job.  She is a master gardener and maintains my parents' half acre suburban lot which has been entirely professionally landscaped, complete with a formal Japanese garden.  When we children had all gone off to school, my mother never went to work because she already had a job - her gardens.

She has a quote on her corkboard from J.C. Raulston, who the North Carolina arboretum is named after.  "If you're not killing plants, you're not growing as a gardener."  When I was younger I would laugh at this quote, thinking it was a joke.  Now that I've been trying my hand at gardening for over a decade, I hope this quote is true because I have killed a lot of plants. 

Over the years, I've done in a lot of plants, but this past year in Tashkent has really moved my status up from 'amateur plant killer' to 'mass murderer on the genocidal scale.'  It's a good thing that plants don't count as people because I would be heading to the Hauge soon to face my crimes against botany.  And I'm definitely sure that I would get a verdict of 'absolutely guilty.'

All crimes begin with dreaming, and my herbicial crime spree began with dreams of a beautiful, flower-filled yard with a specific focus on the pool area.  I spent all winter fantasizing of a tropical plant-filled back yard with lush green foliage surrounding our sparkling blue pool.  It kept me going through the months (and months) of an unusually long, grey, rain-filled Tashkent winter.  If I could just make it to spring, my tropical garden paradise could come true.

As soon as the weather cleared up, I hauled my long-suffering Russian teacher to Chorsu market.  I bought pots, dirt, flowers, herbs, and topped off my spree with a pomegranate tree.  A week later, like the flower-addict that I am, I went back for more.  It turns out that you can never have too many flowers. 

The pomegranate tree was the first to succumb.  It never even bothered to leaf out, and a month later, we still had a stick-tree planted in the backyard.  Soon the lobelia followed suit, with almost all of the fifty-plant flat dying within a week of being lovingly placed in my pots.  My window boxes never were very happy, and finally I gave up the ghost a month later.  I transplanted all the somewhat-alive plants, threw away the dead ones, and filled them up with petunias.  "Petunias love heat," my mom assured me, "they thrive on it."  They lasted a few months, dying one at a time, until a few weeks ago when the rest decided life wasn't worth living and turned into sad, dried up, brown little sticks.  I tried a third time with another flat of flowers, verbenas, that the internet swore love heat.  But it turns out that 'loves heat' doesn't mean 'loves 100+ degree temperatures while baking on a window sill.'  The vinca population that also went in at the same time have now been reduced to three plants, happily blooming among the skeletons of their former plant companions.

It turns out that cana lilies really do love heat, which is why I've always associated them with highway plantings in North Carolina.  They've happily thrived while the snapdragons, daisies, ageratums, alyssums, and celosia that I planted with them have all died off, sometimes singly and sometimes en-masse. 

One of the centerpieces of my garden-hideaway winter daydreams was elephant ears.  They grow quickly, add a lovely lush element to landscaping, and come as bulbs.  I ordered some through the pouch, they got rejected, had my mother bring bulbs in her suitcase, and then had the original bulbs make it through on the second try.  In all, I spent over a hundred dollars on eight bulbs.  It turns out that tropical plants like elephants ears don't care for the hot, dry sun of Uzbekistan.  Most of the bulbs did actually sprout, but two pots are in danger of dying, and the other three produce medium-sized leaves that get brown and curled around the edges from Taskent's intense sun within a week of unfurling.  I'm still in mourning over my elephant ear dream.

I also had dreams of a lush, flower-filled, honeysuckle hedge growing next to the pool, gently scenting the evening air with their intoxicating aroma.  Honeysuckle, which is a weed in North Carolina, is sold as a plant here in Tashkent.  I bought three at the beginning of the season and watched them promptly lose most of their leaves.  I fertilized and watered religiously and watched the leaves slowly come back.  They turned yellow.  I fertilized more and then everything crisped up and turned brown.  I can't believe that I've even managed to ruin something that is an invasive weed.

The only plant that has been an unqualified success is my bougainvillea plant, bought on a whim during my fourth of fifth trip to Chorsu.  It turns out that bougainvillea loves poor soil, hot dry weather, and little watering.  If I was smart, I would just fill every single one of my pots with bougainvillea and stop breaking my heart on plants that just can't take Tashkent summers.

But I'm already dreaming of next year's arrangements that will be better than this year's plants.  I've spent days researching plants that do well in places like southern Arizona.  I've ordered a soil testing kit.  I'm thinking about setting up a seed-starting area to grow plants I can't get locally.  Elephant ears have been shelved for a place that isn't so darn hot all summer long.  Vincas will be a centerpiece of my window boxes.  Despite my overwhelming failure, I haven't given up the dream.

Brandon, the eternal pessimist ("Pessimists are never disappointed when their predictions don't come true"), has pointed out that Einstein's definition of insanity is when someone keeps doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.  He then points out that he is bankrolling my personal insanity, with only the bodies of dead and dying plants to show for it. 

I should probably listen to him.  I have never had a successful garden, with my plans for horticultural perfection coming even remotely close to reality.  I keep telling myself it's because we're always moving or it's hard to find the right variety of plants or some other reason that ignores the real reason for my continued disasters - I'm just a terrible gardener.  Some people have the knack, and I don't have it.  I love plants, but plants don't love me. 

But, unlike Brandon, I am an optimist.  Being an optimist means that I always believe that success is just around the corner, achievable with only a few modifications to whatever disastrous situation is currently happening.  I always eventually achieve success because of this un-crushable (most likely foolish) optimism about things that I really, really want. 

And I really, really want to have a lovely garden filled with colorful, profusely blooming flowers.  So I won't give up, even when confronted by the ranks of dead plants I've left in my wake.  I'll do better next year.  And even if it it isn't perfect, it will be better than this year.  Hopefully.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

What Money Can Buy You

Yesterday was Saturday, so we did what we do every Saturday in the summer: we stayed home and swam.  It's hit high summer here in Tashkent, so by mid-afternoon the temperature was 107 degrees.  I checked the weather forecast and the temperatures will be above 100 for the foreseeable future.  When it's that hot outside, the only reasonable thing to do is swim.  Everything else is just too hot. 

Yesterday, however, was a Saturday with the first: it was the first Saturday with a heated pool.

Back in May, when we skipped spring and went straight from late winter to early summer, I started talking to Brandon about getting a pool heater installed.  It sounds ridiculous to heat a pool when all July and August is in the hundreds, but I'm used to swimming in the southeast where pool temperatures usually hover around ninety by mid-summer.  I like water that is so warm you can swim long enough to get entirely pruney and then spend an hour or two more in the pool.  I don't like being anything close to cold. 

And although Tashkent is hot in the day, it cools down enough at night that the pool water never gets above the low eighties.  That certainly isn't swimming in the Pacific ocean, but it's cool enough that I can only take it for twenty minutes or so before having to heat up in the sun.  The children can last longer, but eventually they all end up flat on the tiles around the pool soaking up the heat like lizards.  And after August has passed, the water starts dipping into the mid-seventies which is too cold for anyone to actually want to swim even if the daytime temperatures stay in the nineties until October. 

So I decided just to ask our new pool guy how much a heater might possibly cost.  He got back to me with a pretty reasonable number: $500.  I'd rather spend nothing for a pool heater, but $500 was right at the edge of my acceptable range for having a swimmable pool for eight months of the year, so Brandon gave him the go-ahead to get to work.  Suren, our pool guy, said it wouldn't take long, maybe three or four days. 

And if Suren was the only party involved, that would have been a reasonable estimate.  But unfortunately we live in a house that we don't own and we don't pay rent for, so there were several layers of permissions to ask.  My first email - to the housing office at the embassy - went unanswered for a week.  Brandon tried another person and got a swift reply - 'that's great! Let's get this done!'

The next step was the landlord, who readily agreed to have someone else pay to have his pool heated.  People are always happy to agree to have someone else fund home improvements.  After the landlord gave his okay, Suren met with the local housing coordinator to discuss his plans for how this whole thing was going to go off. 

Our house is heated by two on-demand gas water heaters, which is pretty standard for this region.  Suren figured that we wouldn't be heating the house during the summer, so it would be pretty easy to install a valve that would allow one heater to heat the pool in the summer and heat the house in the winter.  I thought it was a pretty elegant solution.

The housing coordinator, however, did not.  What would happen, he wanted to know, when it was winter and we were trying to heat the house with one water heater?  I figured that we wouldn't be swimming in the winter, but that wasn't a good enough answer.  Instead, the answer was to throw more money at the problem and buy another water heater.  The estimated cost doubled.

I decided that a warm pool wasn't worth that much money.  Brandon, however, thought it was.  My mom and aunt agreed (not that it was their money), and so I was persuaded.  The next week I died inside as I handed Suren ten hundred-dollar bills and told him to get to work.

Then we waited.  Every few days Suren would show up and do something.  He started by dropping off the parts he had bought.  Those were all collected after a week or two and then the work began.  As the weeks passed and the heater got hung, pipes were installed, and a hole was drilled through foot-thick basement wall, but the pool still stayed cold, the dream of a heated pool faded into the far distance.  I tried to convince myself that the pool was really more of something to just dip in than swim anyway.  The children got used to swimming in the cool water and decided it was warm enough.  I knew that Suren would eventually get tired of spending every weekend in our pump room and just get the heater done, but I wasn't sure when that would happen.

Last weekend was the final flurry of work when Suren cut the gas and water for several hours in order to do the final hookups.  Then we had to wait for the embassy to come and give everything final approval.  And at long last, on Friday, more than two months after we started the whole process, the heater was turned on.

Saturday we swam.  And the water was warm.  Everyone stayed in until their hands and feet were pruney and then swam for an hour or two longer.  I wasn't cold.  William wasn't cold.  Nobody ended up sunning themselves on pool tiles.  Even Joseph - the least cold-tolerant child - declared the water warm enough.  William and I spent the time lounging in a pool float, watching Brandon toss children into the pool, play games, and try to get the five parasites off his back.  It was great.

That evening Brandon and I went for a full-moon swim after the children went to bed and the water was nicely warm and no goosebumps were in sight.

I still don't like to think about how much money we spent on something we'll be leaving in two years, but at this point the money is long gone (or converted into pipes and heaters and filters that have been bolted to the pump room wall) so there's not point in stressing about it - much. 

But it sure is nice to jump in the pool and not gasp in shock as the water hits my sternum.  And I'm looking forward to swimming right up to the day I leave for the US in September.  Brandon is already making plans to open the pool next spring up as soon as the temperatures rise above seventy in March.  It's good to have a heated pool.  Even if it cost a lot of money (sob).

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Not Always Hospitable

I am American.  And being American, I have very strong feelings about being able to make my own choices and letting everyone else just have to deal with them.  That may be a little strong, but it's very much the American spirit.  We are a country full of people who told their home countries and cultures to stuff it and went off to do their own thing.  It can sometimes be obnoxious to others (and other countries) around us, but it's part of our national identity whether you like it or not.

This feeling definitely extends to my family.  I know that having a large family can offend people, but I really don't care.  It's my uterus and we don't ask anyone else to pay for it, so I can have as many children as I like.  Whenever people try to protest about 'social irresponsible' reasons for having so many dang kids, Brandon always likes to point out that our children will be paying for their Social Security.  I don't think that reasoning has ever convinced anyone that we're not irresponsible, but it always feels good to point it out.  I'm mostly presentable in public, but not quite all the time.

This is an interesting attitude to hold when one is employed by the U.S. Department of State, however.  I imagine it is also somewhat problematic if one works for the armed forces, as both organizations pay for your life a lot more than regular jobs do.  The jobs that most people hold just pay a salary and maybe insurance, but they don't much care how many people you're supporting because it makes no difference to them. 

When your job pays for your housing (which is dependent on family size), plane tickets, shipping of household effects, and schooling, however, it starts to make a difference.  Brandon and I have never experienced any outright discrimination because of our large family size - that would be an EEO (equal employment opportunity) violation and those are not taken lightly in the U.S. government.  But we have definitely run into the reality that State isn't exactly set up for larger families.

One of the biggest headaches about having a large family is our HHE (household effects) weight allowance.  State allows 7,200 pounds per employee.  It doesn't matter if it is a single guy straight out of grad school or a family with ten children - everyone gets 7,200 pounds.  I remember thinking that over three tons of stuff was a lot of stuff back when we had two children in an 800 square-foot duplex.  But when you have six children (and then you homeschool), 7,200 pounds goes very fast.  You can always pay out of pocket for overages, but I've heard of people paying $3-4 a pound.  There's not much that you want to keep at that price.  So all of the children's artwork gets digitally recorded and then tossed.  There's no room for sentimental keepsakes and hauling any extra furniture is a funny joke.  Many people here in Tashkent have beautiful coffee tables made out of antique wooden doors.  Instead we haul around six bikes.

We also run into weight problems with our consumables shipment.  Just as with HHE, every officer is allotted the same amount of weight - 2,500 pounds of consumable items - for a two-year tour.  That same single recent grad student gets the same amount of weight for all of the things you can't buy in Tashkent (think: root beer and brown sugar and laundry detergent) as we do with eight people.  This shipment I had prioritize items as there was no way I could get two years' worth of TP and cold cereal in our shipment.  Thank heaven we have the pouch.  When I occasionally hear complaints about people using the pouch to order consumables, I want to point out that if they gave us enough weight I wouldn't need to use the pouch - and it would be a lot cheaper for everyone.

One of the unusual problems we run into with a big family is housing.  When we joined, I mistakenly assumed that we would get a bedroom per child.  I had dreams of seven-bedroom houses and all of the different things I could do with that much space.  This is something that that single recent graduate likes to complain about - it's not fair that big families get nicer, larger housing.  But we came to Tashkent with one more child than we arrived in Dushanbe with and we now have a house with one fewer bedroom than we had in Dushanbe.  We will have seven children soon and we will fit those seven children into three of the four bedrooms in our house - only one more bedroom than the three bedrooms that some single people here have.  There's a good reason we choose to spend a hundred or so pounds of our precious weight allotment on bunk bed frames.

Cars are also a problem for larger families.  State will pay to ship one car to post for each employee.  Some people choose to simply buy a car at post so that they have one immediately after arrival.  We don't have that luxury as you can't really count on an outgoing diplomat selling an eight-seater car right when you need one.  So that means waiting months for your car to be shipped, cleared, registered, and plated while you rely on local transportation to get where you need.  I remember one evening when all six of the children and I got to squeeze in to the back of a Matiz (a car so small it's not made for US markets) for a very hot, packed ride home from the amusement park.

Once you top seven children, that story gets even more complicated.  State pays to ship your car, but it only pays to ship a car that fits into a regular shipping container.  It turns out that any car that fits nine or more people does not fit into a regular shipping container.  Which means that every time that car is shipped, you get to pay extra to ship your car with you.  We decided to skip that extra expense and just buy two cars.

I know that none of these things is intentionally set up to inconvenience large families.  It's just set up for average family sizes, which we are definitely not.  I know that having a family the size that we have is just as counter-culture as pink hair - these days it's probably more so than pink hair.  I certainly don't demand that anyone make special allowances for my special situation.  But it is something to think about if you're considering joining the Foreign Service.  It's not always easy to have a large family in this lifestyle.

The one time when we were purposely treated differently because we are large family was in the recent medevac debacle.  I'm used to systemic inconvenience, but I was surprised at the blatant discrimination based on our family size.  There was a definite undercurrent of feeling during our conversation about childcare that implied there was no way I could be a competent, responsible mother if I willingly had so many children.  After all, anyone with half a brain knows how to stop that from happening, so clearly I had less than half a brain.  When I mentioned Kathleen's ability to babysit her younger siblings (for only an hour or two!), one of the participants commented, 'Well, there are only so many children that one child can be expected to watch safely.'  The implication that I could even consider doing such a dangerous, irresponsible thing on a regular basis definitely set my teeth on edge.  I'm pretty sure you have to be more, not less competent to successfully manage a large family.

There will always by those who complain about large families in the Foreign Service (and in the world in general) and think that everyone should have a state-mandated number of children.  So far those people have not gained the upper hand so we will continue on with this job that works pretty well most of the time.  And when those people make veiled (or un-veiled) comments about how irresponsible I am, I will sweetly ignore them because rude people don't deserve my attention.  But I will mentally make rude gestures back at them.  Because I'm not that much of a good person.