Zoo House

Welcome to my blog. I am a mother, wife, daughter, new gardener, storyteller, youth minister, non-profit worker, sometimes successful chef who resides in Minnesota. My three-generation household consists of three spirited children, my husband and parents. We live in 4 acres of land and we really have no idea what we are doing. Having grown up in Brooklyn, New York, where I had a concrete yard, and spent more than half of my life in academics, I am learning to love gardening, baking and all things nature. With the support of my extended family we have decided to home-school our children this next year and that should be an experience! Read my blog to find out more about things that interest me! I started writing children’s books when I was in elementary school and continued through the years. I finally decided to try my hand at publishing.

I called my blog Zoo House because it is the name my brother gave to our house. When we moved to Minnesota there were four generations that lived here. My grandmother who passed away this past March at 101 lived with us here for 5 years. It always has been busy here at Zoo house and that is how it affectionately received it’s name.

Halloween in Pandemic

So here we are, in the midst of a pandemic and we are weekly reinventing how we interact in the world. So what do we do about Halloween? Because we have a bunch of high-risk people in our house we are looking for some Halloween alternatives in our house. So here is what I am planning to do to keep if fun for the kids! Let me preface this with the fact that I really enjoy Halloween and we usually go to a number of fun Halloween events– so I felt like I needed to make a couple of fun events for the kids!

Part One: Halloween Zoom Party

We are having a Halloween Zoom Party because it is a way to bring family and friends together for some Halloween fun. Here is what we are going to do.

Halloween Costume Sharing: We are asking all our family and friends to wear Halloween costumes and be able to share something about the costume and character they are depicting. For example, my daughter, going as Elsa from Frozen, will share a piece of Elsa’s song and my son, who is going as a Ninja turtle will show some of his ninja moves. This comes so naturally for kids and I love the idea of asking adults to get out of their comfort zone and be silly with their family and friends. (Verdict is still out on my costume!)

Halloween Games: We will be playing a short Pictionary game with family and friends using the white board!

Halloween Treat Share: We are asking the group to come with a special Halloween treat and share the treat with the group and put the recipe in a google document.

Halloween Craft: I am planning to send out via mail a cute craft of two for the group to do online together and share their product!

Part Two: Halloween Family Party

On Halloween, I plan to have a family party for my kids. The first part of the party will be supplied by Oriental Trading company. I bought a Zombie bowling game, a Pumpkin bean bag toss, and a spoon and eyeball balance game. I am hoping to spread the games out in the living room and have all of the family members play. After we play all of the games, I plan to have a skeleton scavenger hunt. Each of the bones of the skeleton is matched up with a clue and there will be a piece of candy for each kid in each location. As the kids collect the bones, they will also collect their Halloween candy.

Finally, we plan to set up a family movie night with one of the following movies: Spookley the Square Pumpkin, Room on a Broom or Monsters Inc.

I hope that you are able to make Halloween fun, safe and special for your families too. I am excited at the idea of re-creating some of our traditions and including a wider range of family and friends in our celebration through Zoom!

What are you all doing for Halloween this year?

Crafting Through Fall

I love the idea of being the kind of person who is organized enough to have a bin of seasonally specific decorations and changing my decor based on my season. That appeals to me. My mom is one of those people who is a master at doing this and I am trying to be a bit more like that because it generates so much excitement for the children. It doesn’t even matter if the decorations are from the dollar store– they love the excitement of coming downstairs and seeing the pumpkins out for fall or the green decor for Saint Patrick’s Day. It is a simple, inexpensive thing that brings sheer joy each year. Sometimes, I even pull out old seasonally specific art projects from the kids and they love looking at the bunny they made in Kindergarten or the Santa they made in first grade. And, as they get older they seem to love the idea of helping with the decorating and pulling each special and treasured piece out of the Tupperware bin.

So each season, especially in this pandemic, I have been trying to be mindful about taking the time to make the seasons special for the children especially. We aren’t doing the traditional school parties (like I usually try to help with). And, we aren’t going to the special plays or seasonal breakfasts and so this seems like a way to generate the enthusiasm and excitement in a more mindful way for them. Simplicity at it’s best.

In addition to the decorations that help us to make the seasons special, I have been leaning heavily on crafting. I love crafting– whether it is making photo albums or a kids craft for the seasons– I am all in. I LOVE Pinterest and find myself looking though all the amazing options for decorating pumpkins and researching family fall crafts for the kids.

But, sometimes I just don’t have the time to cut apart and prep everything in a timely manner. So, I have found myself leaning on companies that pull together the pieces for me so that all I have to do is build the craft (the fun part). If I order from someplace like Oriental Trading Company I get 6 or 12 crafts, enough for the whole family to do one and to save some for next year or for another time. Sometimes, the craft is so popular, the kids just want to do it over and again!

This year we did some pumpkin painting. My son wanted to create a Spiderman pumpkin and it looked really amazing. When he finished he asked for another pumpkin to paint and I told him that we only really do one pumpkin a year for painting. So he decided to paint a second coat over his pumpkin since he wanted to paint more. So now, I am a bit unclear what the inspiration for his pumpkin painting is, but most importantly he was very happy about it. My daughter, the future artist, decided to paint leaves and Happy fall on her pumpkin and I decided to paint my pumpkin white and make a ghost.

We also made some fun little haunted houses and scarecrows for decorations– but I found that the biggest hit for Halloween crafts were the very simple black papers. I ordered a craft that had back paper cut into special shapes (bats, witches hats and ghosts). When you use the little tool and scratch the black paper it reveals rainbow colors underneath. There is probably a word for this kind of craft– but this was the biggest hit in our house. They must have done 20 of these each with great delight and we decorated a small halloween tree with our artwork!

As we dive into the colder seasons, I am trying hard to find ways to keep the kids entertained outside and inside the house with fun (non-screen) activities and leaning heavily on seasonal excitement as we continue on in this unusual year! In the midst of it all, I am grateful for children with energy and excitement to try new things and for continued ideas to keep them engaged.

What special ways have you kept your kids entertained? What has worked for you?

Falling into Tennis- Love-Love

This week has ushered in the beautiful changing seasons and all of a sudden in the midst of the crisp fall air I want to go for car rides to see the beautiful leaves, drink pumpkin spice coffee and decorate for Halloween. Our family has spent some wonderful time getting into the fall spirit by making all kinds of fall foods and enjoying the outdoors together.

While being home has had it’s stressful moments, for our family, it has been a blessing to have extra time with one another, no commute time and an opportunity to office with the view of my yard. We have also been taking time to play more together as a family. We camp out in our living room, watch movies together in our yard, set up waterparks in the summer…but we now have a new favorite pandemic-approved fall activity!

Tennis.

My Dad loved to play tennis when I was a kid and he begged me to play tennis with him. He bought me a racket and took me over to the tennis court close to where we lived and even brought my Mickey Mouse scooter so I could scoot around during breaks. He was a teacher, a Physical Education specialist and so naturally he was really good at teaching me all kinds of sports. Tennis was no different.

Hold your racket back.

Shake hands with the racket.

Follow through.

If your racket is point up the ball will go up.

All the nuggets of wisdom.

Sadly, I didn’t have the patience or interest in waiting to become good at tennis. That ship sailed.

In high school, I thought I would give it one more shot. I joined the intermurals tennis team after a boy I liked told me he played tennis. I lasted one day. ONE. DAY. This should give you a little background on the lack of athletic prowess in my life.

But despite the fact that I am not very athletic myself, I recognize the importance of sports, teamwork and think it is really important to be healthy in general. I want my kids to be healthy and enjoy sports and tennis is one of those sports that you can enjoy for a long time– therefore theoretically a great one to learn in my book.

Fast forward about twenty years. My husband plays tennis and is quite good. He was on tennis teams when we didn’t have children and even won trophies and was bumped up to good divisions. He begged me to learn how to play tennis and took me to practice. I was terrible. Not even a little good. Yet, he really wanted to play tennis with me. He sincerely hoped that we could play doubles together. To be a good supporter, I said I would try. He drew me a picture of the court and said I should cover the little area around me and he would cover the rest of the court. It did not turn out well. I didn’t know how to keep score, I kept missing the ball completely. While the other players were quite nice about my ineptness, it was clear my tennis career had ended.

So it has been about a decade since I have been on a tennis court. I went on the tennis court again with my children this time to help them to try the game. My husband stood on one side of the net and my son, daughter and I stood on the other. Given the history of my tennis, I expected to be quite horrible. Much to my surprise that I could pick up a racket a decade later with no practice or additional skills, after having 3 babies and play tennis better than ever. I figured I am comparing my skills to a 5 year old and 8 year old, of course I would be good compared to my children who have never really played before. I chalked it up to beginners’ luck and figured that would be my only shining moment with tennis. But we went back the next day, and low and behold, my tennis skills remained in tact. And even on day three, I was able to volley and hit the ball with ease.

It was on the third day that my husband revealed to me that we were using a special kind of ball for small children to learn how to play tennis– “red balls.” Apparently these balls don’t bounce as high, are easier to hit and are great for teaching 5-8 year olds. However, I plan to use them forever! I can play tennis now and it is fun! It was never fun for me before and now it is– so victory! Additionally, we now have this great pandemic activity for the fall– being able to play tennis as a family, enjoy the outdoors and each other’s company!

Today I woke up and my entire body hurt– turns out when you don’t exercise for long periods of time and then try to play tennis for three days in a row — you feel it!

What have you tried that is new in the midst of this pandemic? What kinds of new experiences are you having?

Pandemic Birthdays

Birthdays always generate a lot of excitement around our house. And, in truth, we have a lot of birthdays to celebrate. They seem to cluster around August and September in our family and so it feels like we have been celebrating a birthday every other week for the last couple months. My kids don’t seem to mind. Any reason to have some cake and and party is an excellent reason in their book.

In fact, this year, my 5 year old informed me in early May that his favorite toy, a hard tall (almost 2 feet) version of a T-Rex had a birthday later that week on Thursday.

“Oh,” I said. “How lovely. Might he mind if we celebrate on Friday when I have the day off?”

“Oh yes,” my son told me. “In fact, his birthday is somewhat flexible, so we can really celebrate anytime…Friday works for us.”

Like I said, birthdays in our house are quite important and we find lots of reasons to have a party. Usually our family birthdays are small and simple. However, there are the occasional exceptions to our simplicity rule.

The first birthday that my daughter remembers celebrating was her Lola’s (grandmothers) birthday in Florida. Let me preface this story with the fact that we normally don’t celebrate birthdays this way. Our family is really more of a “what special meal do you want for dinner?” kind of family. Or a “how about choosing your party decorations?” kind of family.

A number of years ago we went down to Florida and had a family reunion with my husband’s side of the family. It was Lola’s 75th birthday and her kids (my husband included) wanted it to be really special for her. One arranged renting a large boat (small yacht) and another arranged a limousine ride to the boat to really surprise her. At the time my eldest was about 5 and she remembers the excitement of all of this well.

Shortly after Lola turned 75, my daughter had her birthday and when asked what she would like to do for her birthday, she felt a limousine and yacht would be great. We explained that was a really special celebration that Lola had earned after living three quarters of a century. When asked again she toned her ask down a bit, saying she would love– PBJs with sprinkles for lunch and hot dogs for dinner and an underwater mermaid theme. We agreed that it was a perfect party for a 6 year old.

Even though we do not usually do fancy birthday extravaganzas we try our best to have lots of family fun and a great celebration. But what do you do when a loved one has a milestone birthday and you are in a pandemic?

My father-in-law just had a birthday to celebrate 87 years, which is fantastic– I feel like every year at that point is an amazing and wonderful milestone. I set up a Zoom party for him bringing together his family from across 5 time zones. I a not going to lie– that was a little challenging– but it happened nonetheless– what an amazing feat that groups of people who live so far apart can unite to support a loved one in this unusual way in this unusual time.

My Dad, lives with us and just turned 75 years old recently. I don’t know what we would have done to celebrate, but he is not the type of guy who would want a big party or something extravagant. I don’t think I would have ever thought to have a “Zoom party” for him but for the fact that we are in a pandemic. The truth of the matter is that it was an amazing choice.

With family all over the county Zoom Parties are on the rise. If you haven’t been to one yet, you will likely be invited soon. Since families cannot visit one another face to face without concern of COVID, and our elders seem to be most at risk, a Zoom Party just makes sense! And, all of the friends and family who you would really want to see can be there without the hassle of travel, the concern of taking off of work or any of the other reasons people choose not to attend an in-person event. With all of those barriers taken away, people are just giving an hour of their time. It makes attendance easy. Further, we are in a pandemic– people aren’t doing as many things as they were before so they have more time on their hands.

So I arranged a Zoom Party for my Dad with some close family and lifelong friends and what a blessing to see how excited he was to see people and have connection. I know that this pandemic has brought such challenges to our lives but in changing the way we do some things– I think the creativity it has promoted has caused us to think outside of the box and to connect with people in new, different and amazing ways.

Experimenting With the AeroGarden

It has been a number of months that we have had the Aerogarden and most of our plants have grown beautifully, despite my attempts to harvest (which end up being more like bad haircuts). For the dill, I trimmed more than one third of the plant and unfortunately killed it. For the parsley, I am honestly not entirely sure what happened but it seemed to stop yielding new growth. Maybe I didn’t trim it enough? The Basil, Thai Basil and Mint grew voluminously. They grew so much that the Aerogarden needed watering quite frequently and you could hear it start to gurgle as the water became low. Knowing that it certainly could not continue to thrive forever in the tiny Aerogarden, I decided to try to transplant my lovely plants into the garden.

Those of you that have been following know that I live in Minnesota, which is not known for its’ long growing season. In fact, my son woke up last week and said “It’s winter” when he felt the cold air stirring outside. Truthfully it was quite cold and that coupled with the start of the unusual traditional school year felt a bit overwhelming for the week. Despite these set backs, I decided to plant the herbs into our newly created vegetable garden, which has been yielding a wide array of tomatoes, eggplants and green peppers.

I know that realistically the Thai Basil which is used to warmer weather than MN will likely not make it, but I am hoping that the hearty mint might thrive for a bit longer and even might come back next year. The amazing part of the whole project is the root systems that were grown in the Aerograden where quite phenomenal! We will see how they do in the soil where they have more room to thrive!

We are also transplanting ourselves into a new school year. Although we started homeschooling over a month ago, the start to the traditional school year has reminded me of how much we are really doing amidst this unusual year. We have so many new ventures growing around us, our jobs are quite different than they were a year ago with so much digital focus and our lives have shifted to this new normal. I am hoping that we are able to see the positives in each day despite the challenges and embrace this new environment so we, too and can continue to grow.

Homeschooling: The Telescope

I have always wanted a telescope to see the stars. It seemed like such a cool thing to be able to look out into space and see the moon or stars better than you can with the naked eye. My wish finally came true. We purchased a telescope for the kids to have this experience!

We are in our second month of homeschooling and one home-based learning ideas that we had is to try to augment whatever each of the kids shows interest in by creating some home-based learning activities. Our son is incredibly interested in the planets and outer space, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to really grow his interests and have a fun activity for our family to engage in.

Last night we opened up the telescope for the first time and put it together. Let’s just say, I an not a genius at putting these kind of things together. Whether it is a piece of furniture from Ikea or a a Barbie house, I become quite frustrated following the directions, placing the stickers and trying to figure out which end goes where. We all have our strengths– building is not one of mine. That being said, this telescope was pretty easy to put together.

We were immediately able to identify the moon which was a crescent last night and see it nice and close in the telescope. There is even an attachment to be able to view and take pictures on your cell phone– I have yet to figure that out. I thought it was a victory we could actually get it together and see something!

I am planning on having both my 8 year old and 5 year old track the moon over the course of a month. I want them to draw what the moon looks like and learn the phases of the moon. Maybe once my cell phone can take pictures they will be able to put pictures next to their drawings! I think that is a great way to take science out of the textbook and really put it into their own hands and let them experience it!

In the midst of homeschooling my children, I am finding new ways to explore the world myself. Even though I am an adult there is something amazing about seeing the world from their perspectives and in their eyes. They bring excitement back into the everyday things that we see. I am grateful for this new way to view the world.

How are you seeing the world differently? If you are homeschooling your children, what ideas have you had to make science engaging?

Make Your Own Ice Cream Cake

I am not an amazing cook; I am learning slowly but surely. I am, however, quite good at making desserts. This year, my family wanted me to try to make an ice cream cake. So I decided to give it a whirl. Normally we head over to Dairy Queen to get ourselves a delicious ice cream creation– but I decided this year to try myself.

I took a bread pan that I use typically for making Banana Bread and Filled the bottom with one flavor of ice cream. I took up about a quarter of the pan. It was helpful to let the ice cream sit out just a bit to get melty before spreading the layers in the pan. In that way it spread very easily and was no trouble whatsoever! Then I melted some hot fudge in the jar in the microwave and spread it out over the layer of ice cream that I created. I food processed some Oreo cookies to make cookie crumbles. Rather than using the entire Oreo, I took just the cookie part and save the other half for the kids! I used about 10 Oreos to make the cookie crumbles. After food processing the cookies, I simply spread them out over the fudge layer. Finally I took another flavor of ice cream and put another layer of ice cream on top. I covered it and put it in the freezer to get more solid!

When I was ready to serve the cake, I made homemade whipped cream in the Food Processor again. I used about 3/4 of a cup of sugar and 1 container of heavy whipping cream as well as a teaspoon of vanilla flavoring. I added the sugar slowly until I was happy with the flavor.

I added the homemade whipped cream to the top of the cake. As I did not have the right icing to write a message on the top of the cake, I used some chocolate sauce and swirled it around with a knife to get a pretty design! It was incredibly easy and the kids liked it even better than the Dairy Queen version. The kids told me they would each like to have one for their respective birthdays! I think that is a win!

The sweetness of being home and with my family more is that I get to try things like this that I never would have previously tried. I love the chance to rethink how I operate in life and the opportunity to try new things. What are you trying that is new this year?

The Secret Garden

Our home has many gardens scattered around it. The previous owner was a master gardener and really understood how gardens work and planted everything herself. Yes, we inherited some incredible gardens. Sadly, we don’t fully know how to care for them and are learning as we go.

One of the gardens around our house, we have named The Secret Garden because it has an adorable little brick patio and is sheltered by some beautiful hedges. You need to go outside the bottom floor to be able to access the garden which is on one side of the house.

Last year, we put a lot of time and energy into the garden. We purchased a fire pit and some chairs so that the garden could have some purpose and it looked fantastic. Lillies, hostas, and other beautiful plants surround the brick which is shaped like a church window.

We even cleared out a space in the back of the garden by the hedges so that my husband could put his hammock. A perfect spot for it since any other place on the grass would require us moving it every time we mowed the lawn or trimming around it which is a ton of extra unneeded work as we have lots of other things to trim out.

This year, we have been focusing a great deal more on other gardens in the house. We planted the vegetable garden; and I started an Aerogarden. There are gardens at the front of the house that need tending and one in our driveway as well as in front of the house. Needless to say, with our attentions else elsewhere and just having more on our plate this year– The Secret Garden was ignored.

Honestly, I had not even been down to the garden for a couple months as the kids and I spend our time on the deck and patio and out back. We usually don’t start using the fire pit until fall. This weekend I happened to go out to The Secret Garden to find it overgrown by Creeping Charlie and some other kind of noxious vine. It was a mess.

My mom and I decided to tackle it together. The vines were pretty easy to pull out but the evil Creeping Charlie I tried to dig up at the roots. Even though we were sprayed this last year, it did not stop this invasive plant from spreading.

Normally we would have just cut it back and let the plants grow free but we are planning to take out some of the lilies and transplant them into the new gardens by the vegetables. As it it lilies multiply and even when the weeds are not in the mix…we have too many lilies for them to thrive.

This weekend, we did step one of the process. We cleared out the weed and cut back the plants in half the garden. The next steps will be to finish cleaning up the garden, weed whack the brick, transplant the bulbs into the other garden. Below are some pictures of our work.

I know we were doing something that seems routine and necessary. But even though it was something that needed to be done, there is something therapeutic about having your hands in the dirt. Even thought I was pulling out weeds and cutting back plants– it is a slower pace. I enjoyed being outside. Outside there is time and space to think and process and I think we all need a little bit of that this year. Stay tuned for more of our crazy gardening adventures.

Inch by Inch

Those of you that have been following our garden adventures know that we are pretty new to gardening. Coming from having a concrete yard to lots of lush ground for planting– we have a lot to learn. In the past few months we have collectively designed and built a couple of raised beds and had a water line laid so that we can water the soon-to-be garden.

Before we started the garden adventure we purchased some starter plants at a gardening store so that we would have some plants to put in our new garden when the time came. Since we built our garden late in the season, growing from seed was simply not an option.

While the raised beds were being created and the water line was being placed, we had all of these lovely plants hanging around the patio. They were transplanted from the plastic containers they were sold in, to some bigger pots in the time in-between.

Each day as a part of our homeschooling lessons the kids had the chance to see the plants, water them and examine what was growing. We have some tomatoes, green peppers, dill, basil, some seriously adorable eggplants and some celery. Now the time has come to plant them into the garden and let them get bigger and hopefully harvest them!

Planting them was fairly easy but we were concerned about the critters that could eat our prized tomatoes. So, my Dad designed, with the help of YouTube, a PVC guard around the plants with some wire/netting to go around the plants and keep them safe from all the little bunnies, sweet deer and evil gophers that live on.

There is something really exciting about putting your hands in the dirt, watching something grow, and knowing that you helped facilitate that process. With all the challenges that 2020 has brought, and all the technology needed to keep it going, it is wonderful to have this simpler dynamic added to the mix. It harkens back to a simpler time and reminds me and my family to take time to breathe in the fresh air, enjoy being outside, relish in nature and take time to smell the roses.

What have you done in hibernation?

I was asked this question by a gentleman not long ago and chuckled. It was a good reminder that covid has been a time of hibernation for so many. And, there are challenges that come with being alone and staying home.

For me, and my family, COVID has been exactly the opposite. I am insanely busy trying to balance working from home, kids who are now in homeschooling mode and family life in an intergenerational space.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t dream of having it any other way, but I had to chuckle at the thought of this being hibernating.

There are times, more often than not that I have all three kids climbing on me, forgetting that I am a human and instead using me like the jungle gym they cannot go to visit in pandemic. And, at times, I am, like many pandemic moms, I’m sure, desperately seeking a space, a bit of quiet or even a moment of alone time.

I used to be better about setting aside some “me” time, a chance to just have a break…but for the last six months I don’t think any of us have had that space for self-care.

So, I’m trying to decide, what should my self care be? How should I make space and what does that look like in pandemic while working with three kids?

Are you in hibernation or on overdrive? What do you need to be able to take care if you? What is your self-care go to?