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Sunday, December 26, 2021

Christmas 2021

The Christmas season seems to go faster every year.  I remember the endless days dragging on, stretching my childhood Christmases to months of painful waiting until The Big Day.  I don't think it's possible to ever recreate the anticipation of childhood Christmas.  I remember hardly being able to sleep the night before, waking up multiple times a night only to realize that morning had still not come.  Only children are capable of such pure, unadulterated excitement.

As an adult, Christmas is more complicated.  We have presents to buy and wrap, parties to host and attend, family to see, and regular life to run to in addition to the festivities.  I don't find the Christmas season stressful, as many people do, but I've definitely realized that the magic of childhood is largely created by the work of adults.  

This Christmas season has been enjoyable, as all Christmas seasons are.  Over the years, we've developed a routine of traditions.  After decorating the house for Christmas, we always watch White Christmas while drinking peppermint hot chocolate.  Every year we make our own wrapping paper with butcher paper and stamps, and we decorate the windows with snowflakes we've cut out together.  Last week we held our annual doughtnut-caroling party, and a few days before Christmas we made a gingerbread house.  And my favorite Christmas tradition is making all the food on Christmas Eve so that I can relax and enjoy my holiday along with everyone else.

I like all of these traditions; they bring more enjoyment to my Christmas seasons.  It's fun to have something to do with the children, and as the years have gone by, they've gotten a lot better at doing all of the things.  The wrapping paper has changed from a wild scattering of random stamps to a pattern that actually looks pretty when presents are wrapped in it.  The snowflakes have changed from circles with random holes chopped out of them to intricate designs.  And I no longer have to struggle through the songs as everyone sings at our party - Kathleen does a much better job than I ever did.  I'm enjoying the opportunity to enjoy my traditions instead of herding cats who are wielding printing ink.

I love that I get to celebrate Christmas with my children, even when we're far away from family and friends have moved on to other places.  This year we only had our own children for the nativity play, but even then we managed to have Joseph, Mary, two wise men, two shepherds, and and angel.  

Celebrating Christmas with children is the closest thing I'll ever get to returning to my own childhood excitement.  As I tucked the children into bed on Christmas Eve, I could almost taste the excitement filling the house.  William's little four year-old body was wriggling with anticipation, and his eyes lit up with joy as I laid him down and reminded him that tomorrow was Christmas.  

I love to watch them excitedly open their gifts on Christmas morning and see the delight on their faces as the long-awaited present is unwrapped.  I care very little for any gift I might receive - as an adult with money, gifts are much less exciting - my pleasure instead is my children's pleasure on Christmas.  

But the best gift of all on Christmas is the gift of Christmas itself.  Without the birth of Jesus Christ, I would not be able to look at my family and know that we can be together even after we die.  Without His birth, I could not change and become a better person so that the joy I have from my family is that much sweeter.  Without that one birth of a small baby in an obscure village, I would not know how and where to find joy in this often sad and confusing world.  All of the good gifts are made possible because of the birth of Jesus Christ.  

So although I am sad that the Christmas season is over, I am happy because what happened over two thousand years ago makes it possible for all of the seasons of the year and of our lives just as happy as Christmas.  And that is a gift that never ends.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Happy Birthday, Edwin!

This week we had our last birthday for the year, Edwin's twelfth birthday.  His birthday falls right in the middle of the birthday season, where we have five straight months of birthdays, so we're definitely in the mode of celebrating.

On his birthday he got to pick the breakfast (German apple pancake), dinner (Georgian), and cake (lemon meringue pie).  Everyone had a holiday from school, so everyone was happy to celebrate Edwin's birthday with him.  There have to be some benefits to being homeschooled, and this is definitely one of them.  Recently Eleanor was feeling very sad for all those poor children who have to go to school on their birthday.  

We didn't do anything too terribly exciting on his birthday, but he was happy to help me make his birthday pie.  Edwin enjoys cooking, and is very good at following both recipes and instructions, so I was happy to have his pleasant company with me.  He got to make the meringue himself, and did a very good job at it.  But he was also equally happy to be let off the less fun part of cooking - the dishes - even though he offered to help.  

He was very happy to have a delicious dinner of Georgian food (and I was happy to order it instead of cooking), declaring that Georgian with its delicious cheesy khachapuri is now the very best food one can have.  He was even happier to have pie, but he was most happy of all to open his presents.  

Twelve year-old boys are very easy to shop for, as they apparently can never have too many LEGO sets.  He was pleased with the sets that Joseph, Kathleen and Sophia, and Brandon and I gave him.  He was equally excited about the chocolate bar that Eleanor gave him.  I think that he was very happy with all of his birthday.

I've now watched two of my girls grow from children into young women, but Edwin is my first boy to start that transition from child to young man.  He is, as all of my friends with boys have promised, becoming quite enjoyable to be with.  I enjoy his funny sense of humor, quiet diligence, and concern for his younger siblings.  This doesn't mean that he doesn't also have his times of driving his siblings insane with brotherly tormenting, but he's usually amenable to a knowing look from me in order to leave them alone.  

He hasn't yet reached the amazing feats of eating that I know is coming soon, but he's definitely starting to challenge his older sisters at eating contests, having outpaced me at meals several months ago.  He's almost five feet tall, which means that pretty soon I'll have three children taller than me, with four more to go.  

On most days, everyone is happy to have Edwin as part of our family (and I'm happy myself every day).  Happy birthday, Edwin!

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Socializing our Teenagers

Ever since we've started homeschooling, we've gotten questions about various aspects of homeschooling.  Friends wonder how I'm able to get it all done (a combination of delegating and paying a housekeeper to do some of my work for me), family members wonder if we'd consider sending the kids to high school (so far, nope - and that was Kathleen's decision), and strangers wonder how crazy the house is (very crazy some days). 

One of the most frequent questions I've gotten is about how we'd 'socialize' our children.  It hasn't been much of question that we've worried about.  There are enough children that they get lots of lessons in sharing, conflict resolution, taking turns, working together, making compromises, and being kind.  I can't speak to how well they've learned these things at home versus how well they would have learned them at traditional school as they've never gone.  But it's worked well enough.  

The children have always managed to have just enough friends that they aren't too lonely.  Usually their friends have come through church.  Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is really a huge advantage for homeschooling, as the children see each other at church every week and so friendships are easier to form.  I'm friends with the mom, they're friends with the children, and everybody gets a break from seeing each other all week long.

We've had a couple of families - one from church and one from not - that have had enough children that matched up with our so we were able to get together for a weekly playdate.  Between those get-togethers and church, everyone was pretty happy.

But now we're entirely on our own.  Every week we've got nobody to look at but the same eight faces we've been seeing all week.  The younger children haven't really minded that much; in my experience younger children are pretty content with siblings.  They're a known quantity - no surprises from people you've spent your entire life with.

But I've come to realize that my teenagers need more than what we can give them.  I've never raised teenagers before, so I'm learning as I go.  Both Kathleen and Sophia are pretty low-drama most of the time, so I haven't had accusations of ruining their life, being the worst mom ever, or wondering why we had to move to this terrible country where they don't have any friends.  I consider myself very lucky.  But they have told me that they'd like to see some friends on a regular basis.

If we were in the US, this would not be a problem.  Between weekly church, weekday seminary classes, and weeknight youth activities, they would be quite busy with friends.  It would probably be an almost perfect balance of having some space and being able to be with peers.  

But we're not in the US, and we won't be there for many more years, so we have to work with what we have.  Thankfully, the one family that lives within walking distance of our house has a daughter who is Sophia's age.  This summer, I started encouraging them to go and see if she was free to hang out.  They confessed that the first few interactions were kind of awkward - "It was so weird to go and do things on our own!  Like, you didn't set up a playdate or anything.  We just walked over, rang her doorbell, and asked if she wanted to come swim."  But now they have a semi-regular afternoon to meet up, go on a walk, talk about whatever teenaged girls talk about, and go to the store for ice cream.  I'm often grateful that they have one friend close by.

After we got back from our trip to the US this summer, Sophia (with some encouragement from me) decided to start setting up social outings with a group of people.  Tashkent has a lot of activities that are fun - amusement parks, bowling, laser tag, ice skating - and they're not very expensive.  It's been interesting to coach her through all the steps of making a plan, contacting people, arranging dates, and all the other things that are so easy for an adult and so daunting for an inexperienced teenager who's never done this before.  I've come to realize that this is also part of my job as a mother of homeschooled children.  They don't have the opportunity to learn this on their own, so I get to teach them.  I sometime wonder if their friends find the tone of Sophia's emails and texts a little strange, as I only know how to write like a middle-aged mom and am not up with the way teenagers talk.  

Their first outing was to a local amusement park.  They got themselves there by taxi, rode a bunch of rides, made some new friends, ate food, and got themselves home.  Edwin tagged along (or was forced to, as both girls they invited had brothers who are Edwin's age) and was pretty dubious about the value of this so-called "socializing."  I was a little nervous too, as I'm not used to sending my children out on their own, something that most moms are very used to.

But when they came home, everyone was full of smiles, stories, and excitement for the next time they got to go and hang out with their new friends.  So yesterday they met them again, this time for bowling, and had a great time again.  Kathleen reported that she had the high score, a 60, and that was with bumpers.  It was fun to listen to all the stories they had to tell and see how excited they were for what they had done.

I know that both girls would like to see friends even more often then they do, but I'm happy that they have at least a few opportunities so go and practice socializing away from their parents and family.  Kathleen's departure for college is starting to appear on the horizon, and sometimes I wonder what kind of intense shock to her system everything will be.  So if I can prepare her as much as possible, hopefully it will help some, although there's never been anyone who is prepared for all of the changes that college brings.  

It's also fun as a parent to see them get older and see them get to start to do some things on their own.  Homeschooling gives me the ability to keep them closer for much longer than I would be able to in traditional school, but there is still a time when everyone needs some more distance so they can start to practice running their own lives and making their own choices.  Before long, I'll be almost entirely on the sidelines, cheering them on as they become fully independent.  Thankfully I have a long time before all of them go off and leave me, but it's strange to see the first one begin to think about their departure.  But that isn't for a few more years, and so for now I'll just enjoy watching them take their first steps.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Thanksgiving 2021

Our Thanksgiving this year was very quiet.  Each year our Thanksgivings have grown smaller.  We started with twenty-four people in 2018, spent 2019 in North Carolina, fed sixteen people in 2020, and this year we spent the holiday entirely alone - although for us 'entirely alone' still means dinner for nine.

Our close friends left us this summer and we haven't taken the time and emotional energy to make many new friends for our last year in Tashkent.  Making friends with new families is hard - there are a lot of things to match up in family friendships.  Not only do the children need friends, but the parents have to also work well enough together that everyone can have a nice time together and nobody is counting down the minutes until the visit is over.  It's much more challenging with seven children.  There are families that have friends for our older children and families that have friends for our younger children, but there are very few families that have friends for all our children.  Additionally, there aren't that many people who are that interested in/capable of enduring the unavoidable amount of noise and chaos that naturally comes with seven children.  We are a lot to handle.  

So when the discussion of Thanksgiving guests was held, the kids decided that they'd rather have it as a family.  We knew families with small children who probably would have been happy to come over, but the older children said that they didn't want to spend all day cooking and then not have any friends of their own to share the holiday with.  And admittedly, having nobody over also had some appeal.  We wouldn't have to rush to get everything done by a specific time, the house didn't have to be that clean, and nobody minded if I served the mashed potatoes in their cooking pot.

One major downside of not having guests, however, was that I had to cook the entire dinner myself.  Usually when we have guests, everyone contributes and we split up the meal. This year everyone was busy with school and Brandon was busy with work right until the day itself, so I was on my own.  I've cooked all of Thanksgiving a few other times, but it was always with help from Brandon.  This time, it was all me.

So Thanksgiving day turned into Thanksgiving week.  On Monday I made pie crust, rolled it out, put it in pie pans, and froze it.  On Tuesday I made sweet potato casserole, cubed and toasted bread for stuffing, and sauteéd onions and celery for stuffing.  On Wednesday I made giblet gravy, mixed up pumpkin and pecan pie fillings, mixed up stuffing, brined the turkey, and as an extra bonus for Brandon, made eggnog.  By the end of Wednesday afternoon, we had a refrigerator full of Thanksgiving food.

For the actual day, the cooking was light enough - only rolls, turkey, and mashed potatoes - that I spent part of the morning playing games with the children.  We had the meal around two, which took about forty-five minutes to eat, about fifteen times less than the time it took to cook the entire meal.  We only ate about a fifth of the food, and the seventeen-pound turkey was only missing its leg quarter by the time we were finished with it.  

But that was okay with me because, as I mentioned earlier, Thanksgiving happened this entire week, and Thursday was only day one.  We have now enjoyed Thanksgiving days two, three, and four, and tomorrow will probably be able to squeak out a Thanksgiving lunch before our leftovers are exhausted.  After those are done, we will get to have turkey salad, turkey pot pie, and turkey soup.  There are some definite leftover benefits to cooking all of Thanksgiving oneself.

I am hoping, however, that next year will have a little fewer leftovers and a little more friends.  As nice as it was to spend the day quietly alone, I also have also enjoyed all of the Thanksgivings with friends we've made all of the places we've lived.  Either with friends or only with family, Thanksgiving is always a wonderful holiday.  

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Elizabeth Joins the Fray

 Elizabeth is officially talking.  She's been saying words for some time now, but in the last month she has mastered the art of three- and four-word sentences.  Overall, I'm very happy when my children are capable of communicating things to me.  The crying decreases dramatically because everyone can understand each other enough to keep emotions generally stable.  When they need something, they can tell me instead of bursting into tears when their incomprehensible gabbles don't get what they want.

But the one time I'm not happy about talking toddlers is dinner.  Dinner is often the top of the crescendo of noise and craziness that has been increasing throughout the day.  By the evening, everyone is tired, the activities of the day have created hurt feelings or resentment, people have been pushed through their required school work, and I'm ready for everyone to get to bed so that I can finish my work day that began at 5 am that morning.

Dinner is also the time when everyone wants to talk about their day.  And it's when they want to ask me questions about the most strange things they can think of.  Additionally, it's the place for unresolved fights to continue.  And the children want to make all the requests they've been saving up during the day.  Also it's when everyone has all the conversations they couldn't have while during their school work.  

It's basically when everyone makes all the noise they can think of, combined with spilling milk, food, or both.  Sometimes I have to shout so that everyone can hear me.

And now that Elizabeth can talk, there are nine people trying to talk over each other at once.  Most of the time, having seven children isn't too much trouble.  Our house is big enough that everyone can spread out.  I usually only have to help one child at a time, and often I can get a bigger sibling to help out a smaller sibling if I'm already busy.  It's a lot less work than one would think.

But when everyone is together at dinner, I can really tell that I have seven children.  Our kitchen isn't that big, and all of the noise seems to bounce off the cupboards, tile floors, and high ceilings and multiply into a dull roar.  And now we've added a two year-old to the mix.  Since everyone else is already noisy, Elizabeth figures that she's got to be even noisier so that she can be heard.  In the usually declamatory fashion of toddlers, she will sit in her high chair and talk about whatever comes to mind.  

"PICK UP FORK.  EAT FOOD.  YUCKY FOOD."  She has has no idea what conversation is, so she figures that if everyone else is talking, it must mean that she should also be talking.  But even worse than her 'conversation' is her requests for things.

"MORE MILK.  MORE MILK!  MORE MILK!! MORE MILK!!! MOOOOORE MIIIIIIIILK!!!" If she asks for something and nobody gets it for her in five seconds or less, then she figures that she needs to ask again and keep asking repeatedly until she gets what she wants.  And in her defense, that's probably true most of the time because we don't hear her until she's said things at least ten times because everyone else is trying to talk over each other.

Every now and then we try to bring up the idea of everyone taking turns talking during dinner and it lasts for maybe ten or even fifteen minutes before someone can't stand holding their thoughts until all of the eight other people have had their turn and everything degrades into a free-for-all again.  

Or if one conversation gets boring, various side conversations pop up because there's always somebody else available to talk to.  And it's a guarantee that at some point during dinner one of those side conversations will turn into a fight.  With so many people in the family, there's always someone you can find to disagree with.  Often I spend half of dinner not saying anything at all, if only to do my part in lessening the general dinner noise.  

The only bright spot of hope is that our usual dinner conversations will now be capped at nine participants.  Unless we have an intrepid dinner guest or two, nobody else will be joining the fray.  And as everyone gets older, they might begin to learn how to listen to what everyone else has to say before just talking over them.  But for now, our dinners can get very, very noisy.  But I suppose that's what happens when you have seven children.  In the end, I've got nobody to blame but myself.  

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Happy Birthday, Joseph!

This week Joseph turned ten years old.  When Kathleen turned ten years old, it was such an unimaginably ancient age that I hardly knew what to do with myself.  With two adult-sized children in the house, ten is less of an advanced age, but for Joseph ten is still a big milestone.

We celebrated his birthday with a day off from school.  Everyone loves this family tradition, and almost every child has their birthday during the school year, so we get to have a lot of birthday holidays.  According to Eleanor, the best part of being homeschooled is that you get to have school off on your birthday.  The children ended up watching two movies during the day because we decided to home.  Even as an adult, watching a movie in the middle of the day still feels like the height of luxury.  

In addition to picking both movies, Joseph got to pick the breakfast (aebelskivers), his cake (lemon tart), and dinner (sushi).  With so many people in the family who have so many different opinions, a birthday is a special day when the birthday child gets to make all the choices without having to take turns with anyone else.  

The best part of Joseph's day was, of course, his presents.  This year some of his siblings gave him presents, so he was a very happy boy with five presents to open.  All but one were LEGO sets, adding to the number of possible caltrops that can be scattered across every imaginable place in the house.  As soon as the tart was shoveled into their mouths, Joseph and Edwin sprinted upstairs to start building their new treasures.  I'm not sure what I'm going to do for presents when they finally grow out of LEGOs.  

For Joseph's birthday Saturday, we went to the circus.  The "Russian" ('more like Kazakh' was Edwin's verdict after noting the ethnicity of the performers) circus was in town, so we decided to join in with crowds of Uzbek children and their parents for an afternoon of entertaining acts.  This was our third trip to a Soviet-era circus building, having gone to the Baku and Dushanbe circuses also.  We were happy to see that Nur-Sultan also has a circus, although it was built after the Soviet era.  

Watching acrobats perform breathtaking feats of strength, balance, and agility never gets old, and everyone enjoyed seeing what amazing stunt would be next.  We got to watch tightrope walkers, jugglers, a bear, acrobatic archers, funny acts, and someone jumping rope on the back of a cantering horse.  Nobody was bored.

We are all happy to have Joseph as part of our family.  He is irrepressibly cheerful and can usually be found with a wide grin on his face as he finds a new joke to tell or a funny story to relate.  I can always count on Joseph to help out with whatever I ask him to do, and he always wants to make sure that his siblings are taken care of.  I'm quite interested to see what Joseph will find to pour his interest into as he grows older.  But for now, we'll enjoy him as the newest decade-old child in our house.  Happy birthday, Joseph!

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Switching Stables

 The children and I have now been riding together in Tashkent for three years.  When we first moved here and were looking for a stable, Brandon brought home a flyer for a local stable.  I didn't know anything about stables here - not even knowing if there were any other than this one - and it looked like a nice place on their website, so we signed up for lessons.

We found out that it was new, only having been open for a year, and was very nice.  The horses were well taken care of, the facilities were in good condition, and the teachers were good teachers.  I got to start jumping again and the children were progressing pretty well and getting pushed to learn new skills most lessons.

But after the first year and a half, the teachers started leaving.  New ones would appear but mysteriously leave after working for a few months.  Eventually there were only two teachers left.  After I broke my arm last year, I wasn't allowed to jump any more and the lessons every week just consisted of a lot of trotting and nothing else.  I knew that things had gotten to a bad point when Kathleen - the most horse crazy of any of us - admitted that even she was bored at her lessons.

So I decided that it was time for a change.  I don't really like changing things up.  I'm a creature of habit and will keep doing the same thing for years on end if there's no really, really pressing need to do something different.  We've been eating the same twenty dinners for the last ten years, and I don't plan on varying those dinners any time soon.  

When I finally decided to look for somewhere new, it was with a lot of trepidation.  After all, our system was working okay, and we will be leaving in less than a year anyway. Why go through the trouble of finding a new place? But after talking with Brandon about how bored the kids were, he was all for finding something more for the kids.

I went to my favorite place - the internet - to start doing some research.  Half of the trouble of getting things done in a foreign country is trying to figure out the systems.  Everyone who lives in the country is so used to the systems that they don't even realize that there is a system and they probably can't explain it to someone who doesn't understand it.  The first stable we went to had a system close enough to the American one that it made sense to me.  The stable owned all the horses and paid the teachers, so we just had to contact the manager to get things done.

Eventually I was able to find a teacher who was willing to take us on and scheduled a trial lesson.  When I set things up with the first stable, I took my Russian teacher to act as a translator.  But this time I decided to try and do things on my own.  My Russian is about the level of a two year old's, which means that I can understand a lot of what is being said to me - especially when it's kept simple - but I'm limited to pretty basic replies.  I can't just sit and chat about whatever comes in to my mind; I have to keep the conversations pretty straightforward and concentrated on business.  I dream of one day making it to the conversational skill level of a three year old, but we'll see if that ever happens.

One of the issues we had to work out was how to get all six people taught without taking three hours.  Our teacher only had two horses and so could only do two lessons at a time.  So at my Russian lesson on the day of my trial lesson, I practiced telling my Russian teacher that I didn't want to have three hours of lessons and could we maybe do it in two?  This sounds like a simple conversation, but it involves asking questions, listening to the replies, and then asking questions based on what the reply was.  It's not a simple 'please give me two kilos of cheese' request, but something that evolves as it goes along.  

By the end of our time together, I had managed to chat about my family (seven children!!!), my riding experience, tacking up a horse, follow the instructions during my lesson, and then work out the scheduling of how to get six people schooled in two hours.  There was another teacher who was willing to take on the overflow and so we got to talk with him, too.  It sounds like a simple conversation in print, but in the nature of all conversations with Russian speakers, it was very long and everything had to be said five different times in five different ways.  But by the end, I had done everything entirely by myself in a language that is not even close to my native language.  I felt like the six preceding years of Russian torture lessons had finally been worth it.  

When I brought the girls the next week for their lessons, they loved the new place and the new teacher.  It was certainly not nearly as fancy (at all) as the previous stable, but I got to jump, Sophia got to canter to her heart's delight, and Kathleen worked on having a more stable seat.  And everyone got to practice their Russian a lot.  There were quite a few instances of having to make people explain what they meant, but we all understood it in the end.  Everyone was happy about the switch.

As we were leaving, I commented to the girls that it's probably a good thing we've been studying Russian so long.  "Yeah," Kathleen replied, "there's no way we could have done that without speaking Russian.  I guess it's useful after all.  We would have been stuck at the first stable if we weren't able to speak Russian."  

We'll have to see how the boys like their lesson this week, but so far everyone who has gone has been happy about the change.  So I guess change can be good sometimes.  And so can Russian lessons.  

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth turned two last Sunday.  Brandon spent all Sunday observing the Uzbek presidential election in Bukhara, so we didn't celebrate on Sunday, but instead on Monday.  One of the advantages of being two years old is that you're not quite clear on what exactly birthdays are and when they're supposed to be celebrated.

Sophia has been teaching Elizabeth the happy birthday song, so she was delighted when we lit the two candles on her cake and all sang to her.  She was even more delighted when she received a bag of candy that her siblings has bought for her and a book that her grandmother had sent.  When the evening ended with a piece of cake, her birthday bliss was complete.

Elizabeth is a very typical two year-old, busily getting into all the trouble she can find.  After Elizabeth repeatedly ransacked Kathleen and Sophia's room while they were doing their schoolwork, the girls have started locking their door whenever they leave their room as Elizabeth can now open doors by herself.  

One morning this week, Edwin found Elizabeth in the kitchen.  She had pulled a chair over to the counter, climbed up the chair, and then found a bin full of chocolate chips.  Knowing that someone would find her eventually, she busily stuffed as many chocolate chips into her mouth as quickly as she could.  When she was discovered, her face was smeared with chocolate and Elizabeth looked very pleased with her ability to find tasty treats entirely on her own.  

Kathleen and Sophia begged me to buy a bike trailer so that they could take Elizabeth on their afternoon bike rides, and I finally gave in a month ago.  Now one of Elizabeth's happiest things is being tucked into the seat of the trailer, cuddled up with her blanket watching the streets of our neighborhood whizz by as her sisters pull in her style.  Whenever she wakes up from her afternoon nap, she immediately starts demanding, "Bike trailer!  Bike trailer!! BIKE TRAILER!!!" 

I've always enjoyed two year olds, and Elizabeth is no exception to that.  She definitely has her moments when she's loudly demanding something that she can't have, or desperately wants a thing that I don't understand, or hops on and off and on and off my lap constantly while I'm trying to teach school lessons.  But she is usually adorable cute, cheerfully happy, and oh so sweet to cuddle in my lap.  

I'll freely admit that part of my enjoyment in her is because she's the last one.  Whenever I have to clean up another mess she's made, I know that those messes won't last that much longer.  Her irritating screams and cries aren't that bad because they won't be followed by someone else doing that.  And every new milestone she reaches is the last time I get to watch one of my own children reach do that new thing.  I now understand why the babies in families get special treatment from everyone.  

We are all happy to have Elizabeth in our family.  Happy Birthday, Elizabeth!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Girls' Saturday

Recently Brandon and I decided to start having boy's day/girls' day.  Brandon wanted to start doing Boy Things with the boys, so we decided to spend one Saturday a month doing splitting up so that each of us could enjoy doing things that maybe wouldn't appeal to the entire family.

For our first Saturday, held in September, the girls stayed home and did some online shopping for horse show clothes, watched videos of how to do nail art, and then practiced on each other.  The boys went out into the mountains and scouted out camping and fishing locations.  It was a lot of fun, if only because I had four children to talk with instead of seven.  Three fewer makes a difference, especially when all three of them are boys.

This month, the girls got to go out while the boys stayed home and watched Elizabeth.  I had found a couple of stables outside Tashkent that had trail riding out in the surrounding fields, so we decided to go and try one, Конный Дворик, out.  Even though we ride twice a week in town, it's always in a ring, so we thought it would be fun to get out and see some pretty scenery while having a chance to do some fast riding.

We were able to find the place pretty easily, and the the setup was quite scenic, with a nice courtyard with a rose garden and pleasant seating to have lunch afterwards.  The horses looked well cared for and happy, and after a few minutes of meeting the horses, we headed out.  

Fall is settling in here, so the trees lining the field were turning lovely colors, and the weather was clear and sunny - a perfect fall day.  I always love getting out of Tashkent, so it was pleasant to be out in the fields.  The girls enjoyed clopping along and even got to get an invigorating canter in halfway through the ride.  Too quickly, the ride was over and we headed back to the stable.

While petting an amazingly fuzzy pony, we started chatting with an English speaking guide.  He introduced us to the owner and they invited us to come and watch them do some archery on horseback.  We all eagerly agreed, and were treated to a fun show of Central Asian mounted archery.  After they were done, our friend let everyone take a turn shooting, but not from horseback. 

We finished our afternoon with freshly-grilled shashlik, or shish-kebabs.  The stable dogs happily joined us for lunch as we watched a two year-old Fresian stallion being trained by another new friend we had made earlier that morning.  The girls all agreed that it had been a perfect afternoon, and I had to agree.  We're already looking forward to our next visit.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Elizabeth, Emotional Support Toddler

Brandon is, sadly, back to working full-time at the embassy.  He has been since the spring, but we're still in mourning that he has to go to work and leave us all day every day.  Occasionally, however, he will still work from home if can swing it.  

Last Thursday he participated on a conference on religious freedom in Uzbekistan.  Before covid times, these conferences were held in person, but now everyone has discovered the joy of virtual conferences and attendees can enjoy attending from the comfort of their home or office.  It saves travel time, and the organizers don't have to worry about providing snacks and drinks for breaks.

Before I went downstairs to do school with the children, Brandon let me know when his slot for speaking would be.  He had spent a reasonable amount of time working on a speech that he was giving on behalf of the U.S. government and he didn't really want it to be punctuated by screams, shrieks, cries, pounding, slamming, or any other other random noises that happen on a regular basis at our house.  It's pretty impressive how well microphones can pick up the exact noises that you'd rather not have shared with everyone.

As the time approached, I let all of the children know that Dad would be giving a speech, and everyone should be very careful to keep quiet.  William started shrieking just before the appointed time, but I was able to chase him down and force silence on him just in time.  We all tiptoed carefully around the house, speaking in whispers and most especially staying out of the upstairs where Brandon was working.  As I helped Eleanor work on her grammar lesson, I heard Brandon speaking loudly and clearly and felt like a Good Wife for keeping everyone quiet for this important moment.

Soon enough, Brandon grew quiet and we returned back to our normal school noisiness.  A little while later, I checked in with Brandon to see how the speech had gone.  

"It went well," he told me, "but right before I had to speak, I heard Elizabeth coming up the stairs, babbling to herself.  Right as she came up to me, the moderator announced that I would be speaking, and I had to turn on my camera.  I couldn't do anything about her being there.  Everyone was waiting for me and I couldn't suddenly rush off camera so that I could carry Elizabeth downstairs and give her to someone.  I just had to start my speech.  There wasn't anything I could do.  

If she had come up five minutes earlier, I could have taken her downstairs to you.  If she had come ten minutes later, I would have been done.  But instead she had come at the exact wrong moment in my entire workday.  I had visions of that BBC guy with the little kid in the background flashing through my head and I couldn't believe that the exact same thing was happening to me.

Luckily, she came from the side and she's short so everything happened where the nobody could see what was going on.  So I clapped my hand on her head to keep her from trying to climb on my lap and just started my speech.  I was afraid that she was going to cry or complain about being kept still, but I think she was just surprised at my my reaction and also how loudly I was talking.  She might have been able to tell that something important was going on and kept quiet, but I'm just grateful nobody but me could tell that she was there the entire time.  Maybe she just knew I needed a live audience."

As I listened to him, I couldn't decide whether to die of mortification or die laughing.  I had been so careful about making sure everyone kept very quiet, but didn't even think to wonder where Elizabeth was during that all-important ten minutes.  I literally had one job to do, and only had to do it for ten minutes, and I wasn't able to get it done properly.  

But when I thought of Elizabeth standing next to Brandon, held immobile by his hand firmly held on her little blonde head, I couldn't help but laugh.  What a perfect encapsulation of life as a father of seven children - giving a speech to numerous government officials and members of various organizations while desperately trying to keep your almost two year old daughter from making an unannounced appearance in the meeting.  

In the end, everything turned out okay, and nobody was the wiser except the three of us.  And now the entire internet.  But I know that the next time Brandon has to give a speech while we're all at home, I'll be very sure to make sure that Elizabeth is kept as far as physically possible from Brandon.

Sunday, September 26, 2021



This weekend, we went camping.  I actually really enjoy camping, but I can't quite figure out why I find it so much fun.  There's something about fires, sleeping outside, and beautiful mornings that I like a lot.  We actually haven't gone camping the entire time we've been in Tashkent, and the last time we went camping, I was pregnant with William.  

One of the biggest obstacles to camping here (and also in Tajikistan) has been finding a place to camp.  There aren't any established campsites or camping areas, as 'camping' isn't something that anyone does here.  There are camps, but those don't have areas for tents, just concrete huts with shashlik grills outside them.  

So last weekend I sent the boys out to go and find us a place to camp.  The list of requirements is pretty short - it has to be somewhere that can fit the tent, is isolated enough that nobody will bother us, and has to have somewhere nearby to park the car.  When you're camping with nine people, car camping is the only option.  They returned with a place to go, but Brandon didn't make any promises about how great it was.  "It's flat and isolated, but that's about it."

So on Friday afternoon, the kids and I packed up the car to go on our first camping trip in five years.  It was significantly easier that it was five years ago, as I had very willing helpers to haul the stuff, load the car top carrier, and prep everything that I needed.  We finished up with several hours to spare before Brandon came home and we headed up to the mountains.

The site that Brandon found ended up being about a ten-minute walk from where we could park the car, and included fording a small river.  Brandon ended up personally hauling two-thirds of our stuff and two-thirds of our children across the river himself and everyone else helped where they could.

The site itself was big enough to fit our tent and very isolated, so it fit the bill nicely.  We were able to find plenty of wood to make a good fire and enjoy our usual camping dinner of roast hot dogs, chips, and s'mores.  My rule for camping food is that it has to be able to cooked on a stick because I don't wash dishes when I camp.  

When we bought our tent eight years ago, I bought the biggest tent that I could find.  I told Brandon that I wanted one that I could stand up in because there's nothing more obnoxious when camping than having to crawl around in your tent because it's too short to stand up in.  At the time it was ridiculously large, easily fitting us plus four small children.  This time, however, I realized that it was a good thing we had bought such a large tent because we could barely squeeze everyone in.  When they call a tent an eight-man tent, it really means eight sleeping bags and no more.  Elizabeth ended up sleeping in the middle of everyone's feet.  When she graduates to her own sleeping bag, I guess everyone will just have to squish a little.  

All the children had a grand time camping and doing all the camping things.  Nobody had to wash their hands, everyone got to eat as many marshmallows as they liked, they got to climb rocky hills and get extremely dirty, and the river got a lot of rocks chucked in it. 

And best of all, everyone got to burn stuff.  Because who doesn't like setting things on fire?  Our campsite had lots and lots of dead branches laying around, so everyone got to burn as many branches as their little hearts desired.  Elizabeth learned that one of end of the stick is hotter than the other, and William had a grand time setting everything he could find on fire.  What else could a four year-old boy want?  

By the end of the trip, everyone was thoroughly dirty, very stinky, pretty tired, and quite happy.  It was a completely successful trip and I already have plans for out next one.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Uzbek Fall, Take Four

 The children have been back in school now for three weeks.  Our routines have settled back into their usual groove, and order and sanity have resumed their usual supremacy in the house.  Our summers are a welcome break from the rigid schedules of the school year.  Everyone is happy for a chance to do some relaxing, spend more time playing, and not be so ruled by routine.  Summer always ends in the climax of our yearly trip to the US where the routine and predictability get entirely tossed out in window in a wild month of staying up late, seeing friends, and partying non-stop.  So by the time we get to fall and school, I (and perhaps the children) am happy to be embraced by the routine again.

This is our second last fall in Tashkent.  All last year I spent thinking that it would be the last fall, winter, and spring we spent in Tashkent.  When pumpkin somsas came into season in the fall, we ate as many as we could because this was the last time we'd get to enjoy the delicious mix of sweet and savory inside a flaky crust (if you've ever had them, you'd know exactly the heaven I'm describing).  After going sledding once last year, I bid the mountains farewell because we wouldn't be visiting them again.  And in the spring, everyone gorged themselves on the last season of amazing Uzbek strawberries.

But here we are again, and it's fall again, and we're still in Tashkent.  Sometimes I imagine a parallel life where I'm in DC right now, settling into a tiny little apartment while Brandon learns Kazakh and we enjoy a Virginian fall.  And then I look around and see the same fall I'm having for the fourth year in a row.  

That's not to say that I'm unhappy about another fall here in Tashkent.  And when compared with the alternative - hemorrhaging money while sleeping on top of each other and waiting to see what the next place will be like - I'm very happy to be here for a fourth year.  I haven't seen four falls in the same house since I was a teenager at my parents' house.  And I'm not likely to see another string of falls until Brandon and I retire and we finally settle down, whenever that will be.

This fall has been the usual September of Shattered Hopes.  After a long, hot, dry Uzbek summer, everyone is desperately waiting for a breath of cool air so we can all stop sweating the second we walk out of our houses.  And as is usual, the beginning of this month offered a false hope, a string of crystal-clear, blue-sky days that never got hotter than the low eighties.  I opened the windows, pulled out my cardigans for date nights, and looked forward to the next two months of beautiful weather.  Then, as usual, it got hot again.  Yesterday Brandon had an office farewell/welcome party, and it was outside next to his co-worker's pool.  Nobody said anything, but I know at least a few of us were looking longingly at it as we tried to hide in the shade from the 97-degree heat.  Eventually it will cool down for good, and then I will really have my last Uzbek fall.

We have grand plans for this fall, with camping, fishing, and horseback riding planned.  I've been scouting out some hikes to go on, and we might even try to make some friends for our final year here in Tashkent.  After all, if we don't have friends, there won't be anyone to have Thanksgiving with.  

I'm happy that this is our last, last fall in Tashkent.  One day I look forward to settling down and not having any last seasons at all as I actually don't like moving around very much.  But although we live in Tashkent, this isn't our home and we've always known that we would leave at some point.  So when it's time to leave, I'll be happy to go and explore the things that Kazakhstan has to offer.  Every place has something good about it, so I'm looking forward to finding those things out.

But for now, I'm happy to be here and have another year of stability.  And also, pumpkin somsas.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Last Time

 Two weeks ago, on the first day of school, on a whim I decided to put Elizabeth in undies.  The timing wasn't really the best, but it was going to be happening soon, so why not make an already crazy week even crazier?

My three least-favorite parenting tasks are sleep training, potty training, and teaching children how to read.  There are lots of unpleasant things about parenting (the noise is definitely one that gets old), but those three tasks are ones that call for a high amount of patience and faith that at the end of your effort, you'll get a child that is a little more like a real human being. 

 I think they are also frustrating because there often seems to be a lot of work put in for very little, if any, discernible progress.  It's nearly completely random reinforcement, with almost no tie between what you do and what results come from the child you're trying to teach.  It's an unfortunate reminder that even though you may want your child to pee on command in the place you want them to pee, if they don't want to, it's not going to happen.  That is one of the great frustrations of parenting - there are two wills involved, and usually the one that is less logical wins in a head-on confrontation.  

This year I also started teaching William to read.  And if I'd had another child, I'd probably be sleep training them right now too.  But thankfully I only have to do two of my least favorite things simultaneously instead of going for the unholy trifecta of complete insanity.  Everyone is happy that is the case.  It's funny how much an unhappy mother can make everyone's lives fairly miserable.

Potty training has had its usual and expected triumphs and disasters which are common to teaching any child a new skill.  I've cleaned up puddles, washed sheets and blankets, handed out chocolate chips, listened to (seemingly endless) wailing, and let everyone in the house know of all Elizabeth's successes. Thankfully her siblings are happy to clap for a potty full of urine. She, as is usual, hasn't liked it, but she's submitted to the program because I'm more stubborn than she is.

At this point, we're over the worst part of the process and nobody in the house wears diapers during the day.  Elizabeth toddles around the house wearing tiny little undies, which is possibly one of the cutest things that toddlers can wear.  I love their round little bellies poking out as they wander around the house with no shame, not yet realizing that everyone else is wearing clothes and their lack of them is an unusual thing.  I have perhaps two more years of this before she vigorously defends her modesty and insists on things like locked doors when she dresses.  

I have found, as seems to be true about many things with my later children, that this process hasn't been nearly as hateful as it used to be.  I don't know if it's because I'm older and less prone to hysterics, or I'm older and just don't have the energy to get wound up about things, or I'm older and have more experience and perspective about what things are really worth getting upset about, or I'm just older.  Whichever it is, I'm happy to be older.  It seems to make some things in life easier.  

But even if potty training is less unpleasant than it used to be, I'm still happy that this is the last time I have to try and figure out where the puddle is, use my mom-senses to figure out if that crying fit is caused by a full bladder or just pique, haul the little red potty around the house, and have endless conversations about the state of one's bladder.  Bathroom use is something I'm very happy to not to have to think about for anyone other than myself.  

There are lots of things I'm going to miss about having small children - having them cuddle up in my lap and fall asleep into limp relaxation, watching their pure delight with simple, little things - but I'm very happy to be done with diapers.  I can't stop my children from growing up and leaving innocence behind, but at least I can enjoy them leaving dependence behind also.  I've been changing diapers for fifteen years now, and I'm happy to quit for good.  I feel like I've done my time and I'm ready to move on with my life.  I'm happy to change diapers occasionally for someone else, but I'm happy that that stage of my life is almost over. 

Happy Birthday, Kathleen

While we were in the US, Kathleen turned fifteen years old.  We were at my parents' house, so she got to celebrate the day with her grandparents.  Her cousin was also visiting, so she got to celebrate with her also.  She has celebrated nearly every birthday in the US, which is the complete opposite of the rest of her siblings.

She started the day with Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which everyone was quite happy about.  Even though I make homemade doughnuts, there's nothing that matches a fresh Krispy Kreme.  She also got to spend the afternoon swimming and then have her birthday dinner and cake of her choice.

For her present from her grandmother, she went shopping with Sophia and her cousin (to celebrate their birthdays also) and out to lunch afterwards.  A few days later, she got to go riding with them and Eleanor tagged along for her birthday present from my mother.

Kathleen also got to spend her birthday at Driver's Ed, learning how to drive from my parents' neighbor who teaches part time at a local driving school.  She managed to get through the three days of driving without causing any accidents, so I'll call that a win.

It's strange to have a fifteen year-old in the house.  She is now three inches taller than me, has bigger feet than me, and wears my old clothes.  In less than three years, she'll be gone, the first one to leave the house.  That time that never felt like it would come is now quickly coming at me and I'm constantly surprised had how fast it has arrived.  

With Sophia's thirteenth birthday earlier in the summer, I'm now the mother of two teenaged daughters.  Having been the mother of at least one teenager for two years now, I can say that I mostly enjoy my teenagers.  They're often interesting to talk to, are usually quite dependable, and we get along together pretty well most of the time.  We've yet to have any of the terrible conflicts I've heard tales of, which I'm very grateful for.  Both Sophia and Kathleen have commented that they've come to the sad realization that I hold all the power and fighting is useless as I can make their lives pretty miserable.  I'm glad that they can understand that without having to try it out first.  

It was fun to watch both the girls spend a lot of time with their great aunts while we were at the beach this summer.  I would often see them out in the waves, chatting with their adult relatives, or talking with them long after dinner was done.  I am happy to see that my children enjoy the company of the people I love and respect and aren't so annoying that the adults run when they see the girls coming.  

I'm enjoying watching Kathleen grow up and come into the first stages of budding adulthood.  She's not ready to leave and run her own life yet, but we can both see that on the horizon.  Our conversations have shifted to talking about that coming time and how to prepare for it.  She still likes some things that she's liked since she was a child, but her interests are also maturing and turning into things that she will be able to enjoy throughout her life.  It's fascinating to watch.

Everyone is happy to have her in our family and I'm happy to have her as my firstborn, the one that I get to experiment and learn on.  She's very patient with me, and I'm grateful.  Happy birthday, Kathleen!

Sunday, September 5, 2021

R&R 2021: Lots of People, Lots of Fun, and a Fail

Editor's note. Our R&R this year was technically home leave, but I'm still going to call it R&R.  Nobody cares about State Department's arcane labeling except the State Department anyway.

On the whole, we had a great trip back to the US this summer.  Nobody got terribly sick, although most of us got the usual welcome-to-America cold that we get each year.  We've been gone for an entire year, so whatever cold we got last year has now morphed into a new variety that is ready to give everyone a week of snotty noses again.  It happens every year.

Our travel went amazingly smoothly, especially considering all of the crazy flight delays and cancellations I've been hearing about from everyone's summer travels.  One of our flights - the flight from JFK to Salt Lake - even got us to Salt Lake an entire hour early.  Our Uzbek Air flights had more than the usual four movies and even they were on time, which is practically unheard of. There was a hurricane projected to hit JFK at the exact same time our flight back to Tashkent was scheduled to take off, but Henri was kind enough to move just enough east that the kids and I made it home without any trouble.

We started the party out in Utah this year, where we got to see a lot of family - seven of Brandon's nine siblings with their twenty-two children made it to a family reunion.  All forty-three of us got to party for three days together and catch up with everyone, playing lots of games, telling lots of stories, and making lots (and lots) of happy noise.  Our girls were in heaven with their girl cousins, staying up much too late singing songs, braiding each other's hair, and talking about boys.  Sophia later told me that she had always thought that those things were silly, "but now I've realized that girls do those things because they're really fun!"

In addition to seeing Brandon's family, we also got to spend time with various friends that both live in Utah and were passing through during the summer.  We played in the park, had lunch together, had picnics, went swimming, hiked, got ice cream much too late at night, and got to set off fireworks to celebrate the 24th of July, a Utah state holiday.  Joseph got to live his best life as we stayed up late into the night eating homemade cherry ice cream and setting off round after round of smoke bombs, ground stars, cans of worms, and various other low-key fireworks.  

We left straight from one party to the next, flying in to North Carolina to a full house of guests who were at my parents' house in preparation for our annual beach trip.  The kids had a great time playing all week with their other cousins and all of my father's siblings but one.  Despite not having any hurricanes this year, the weather wasn't that great.  But it was a great year for rainy days, because we got to watch the Olympics.  It's the only time I don't feel bad about watching hours of TV on end, and with the power of smart TVs, we got to choose which events to watch.  One evening, Brandon and I stayed up much too late with my brother, watching endless random events and making snarky comments.  Because, family + Olympics = awesome.  

After the beach, we stayed at my parents' house for two weeks for the yearly summer ritual of doctor's visits.  In between the visits, the kids played in my parents' backyard, went to the movies, celebrated Kathleen's fifteenth birthday, swam at the pool, went to the park, had birthday time with their grandmother, and spent time with their cousin who came back with us.  My parents also took our five oldest and all of my sister's children on a bike riding adventure in the mountains of Virginia, which everyone enjoyed.  Brandon and I enjoyed having three blissfully quiet days all to ourselves.  Two small children are pretty easy to take care of when you're used to having seven.

After five fun-filled weeks in the US, Brandon and I went separate directions.  The kids and I all flew east back to Tashkent and he flew west to go caribou hunting in Alaska with his brother .  We had an uneventful trip home, and Brandon got to enjoy some quality time with his older brother.  What he didn't get to enjoy, however, was any hunting.  After waiting around for five days, waiting for the weather to clear up enough to catch a ride on a bush plane out to the tundra and caribou herds, their hunt got canceled.  So Brandon got to come home a week early and I got to single-parent for a week less.  

We always have a marvelous time in America, and we're always happy to come home at the end.  I hope that the children have many happy memories of our summers in the US.  As we were going through JFK airport, I was hit with the sense of having made it back to the motherland.  Then I thought about the children and realized that they probably didn't have that same feeling.  None of them have spent more than ten months in the US at any one time since we joined the State Department when Kathleen was 2 1/2 years old, and some of them haven't spent any more than three months at a time in the US.  The last time we actually 'lived' in the US was in 2014.

When I asked Kathleen how she felt about coming back to the States, she agreed that it didn't feel like the motherland to her.  "It feels more like I imagine what Disneyland would feel like.  It's the place where all the good things happen and all the best people are."  

One day we'll move back for good and summers won't be quite the same jam-packed level of magical happiness.  But for now, we'll enjoy them while we have them.