The Life of the Party

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Over the past year, when people hear that I have a blog or if they quickly peruse my posts, they often ask me, “Are you a Mommy blogger?” While I have nothing against these talented ladies, my quick answer is always, “No, I am not a Mommy blogger.” Kinetic Motions is about my musings. I write about what I see, experience, hear and feel every day. Sometimes the topics are serious or heartfelt and sometimes they are absurd and light. I admit that I do write about my children often, but come on, they provide such quality material. Case in point is my topic for today’s post: the children’s birthday party.

We have all been to many a birthday party throughout our lives. We were all children once, so don’t shake your head and tell me you haven’t been to your fair share. If you are a parent, you’ve made many and probably attended more than you care to count.

I hosted my daughter, Julia’s, birthday party this weekend. I believe that some people think I am crazy while others are in awe that almost every birthday party I have ever hosted for my children, over the past 11 years, has been in my home. In fact, all except one of Julia’s birthday parties have been at home.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

So, what’s in a birthday party? How complicated does it have to be? Is it enough to throw a bunch of children in your backyard, feed them a store-bought cake and hand them a loot bag on their way out the door? Yes, it is. The kids don’t know any better and would probably have a blast with bread and water and a cardboard box.

But it’s not enough for me or the birthday parties I host. Again, some call me crazy and others are in awe of the time and energy I put into each birthday party for each of my children. My husband and I often reminisce about some of our best – and worst – birthday parties. I can’t say I have learned any lessons from successes or failures. Some make me smile while others make me cringe.

The key to a great birthday party is to give the children a great time, but also take them off their parents’ hands for a few hours. That doesn’t work as well when kids are little and their parents have to come too. So, for the little guys, I always say, entertain – and feed – the parents too.

While I know they serve their purpose, I highly dislike children’s play places. They are almost like birthday party farms, where the children are herded through like animals. They follow a basic formula, with an activity first, followed by a snack like pizza or hot dogs, finished off with birthday cake. It is most definitely a prescribed formula, and it works for many parents. Kids always love these, but again, I still believe many kids would be happy climbing inside a cardboard box with their friends. They are great for some, but not me.

A level up for a birthday party is a more organized activity, which requires a parent to spend much more time putting together. It can be a karate or dance class, laser tag, an art studio, or for the older kids an escape room. These activities can be costly and the kids definitely love them. But again, they are just not for me.

The best parties I have ever hosted for my kids have most definitely been in my home. Don’t think that doing this is simpler or easier. It is not. It is definitely cheaper, but it’s a ton of work. And well worth it. We invited Matthew’s music teacher to run a class in our basement for his second birthday. Number nine for him was pizza, cake, sports and wildness in the backyard, followed by the original Star Wars movie (watched on a VCR!) and sleepover with all the boys from his class from school.

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Matthew’s 4th birthday party was not at home, but there’s no way any reptile was stepping into my house.

My pride and joy was Julia’s 7th birthday party last year, which was a formal high tea. The girls decorated tea cups and hats, decorated cupcakes, had their nails done then sat down to real high tea. I served them scones with clotted cream, party sandwiches, strawberries and cream and even English tea in antique tea cups. The kids came dressed up for the occasion and participated fully. David even dressed up as a butler. I will admit I may have had more fun than my own daughter.

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our semi-formal family at Julia’s tea party
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The table at the tea party
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It’s always fun to be silly at a children’s tea party

And this past weekend was the latest birthday party in our home. It was a simpler affair, with apron painting, followed by pizza making and cupcake decorating. Then the kids munched on chips and their cupcakes as they watched the movie, The Greatest Showman. Dinner, the pizza they made, was served in the backyard, as they ran around like wild animals, and of course the event was topped off with yet another one of my original homemade cakes.

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Celebrating with cake at Julia’s party this weekend. It’s not a party without her “twin” cousin Emma.

My house was a mess. I was exhausted and could barely lift my head on Sunday evening. But I’ll do it again. And again. Like in two weeks, when Nessa turns two.

It’s Worth the 12 Hour Flight to “Montreal” to Visit Extended Family

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Israel is a long way from Toronto. If you fly direct, the flight takes about 12 hours. We travel this distance as often as we can to visit with our extended family. While there are so many wonderful things to do, places to visit and food to eat in Israel, the main reason we come is to see brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. I often joke that it’s my 12-hour flight to Montreal. And it’s worth it.

David and I both have extended family in Israel. Most of the family we visit with are David’s relatives, including his mother, sister and brother, but I have a few cousins too. We see these people once, maybe twice each year, and we savour every moment that we are with them.

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A delicious dinner at David’s sister’s house

I will admit that concentrated time with family can be a bit stressful for all, and tempers get heated sometimes. Okay, often. Yes, there are blow-ups. But isn’t that normal when extended family come together and live under one roof for any period of time?

We just enjoyed a wonderful few days in the desert with David’s extended family. His mother, Barbara, generously treated us to the field school experience in Ein Gedi, which we all enjoyed. It gave us an opportunity to be together and recharge our batteries in the most relaxing of settings.

A night hike in the desert, a trek to a waterfall, a visit to the ancient fortress of Masada and a swim in the Dead Sea were all done with extended family. We relaxed outside under a full moon in the evening and caught up with old friends. What a way to spend a vacation inside a vacation.

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Family lunch at Tel Be’er Sheva on the way to Ein Gedi
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Getting ready to go up the cable car at Masada

After we left Ein Gedi some of us traveled north, first through the desert, then through the heart of Israel and into the Galilee, to see my extended family. I have relatives in Israel who I only met in the last ten years. Over 100 years ago my great-grandfather traveled to Canada from Ukraine. Not all of his siblings joined him, and one brother stayed behind and eventually moved to Argentina.

The family stayed in touch for a while but eventually, over the years, were separated. My great grandfather’s descendants stayed in Canada, and some my great-grandfather’s brother’s descendants stayed in Argentina while others moved to Israel. To make a long story short, about a decade ago we found each other. And now we always get together when I come to Israel.

Not only do I love the beauty and serenity of the desert, but I also adore the magnificence and lush landscape of the Galilee. With fertile valleys surrounded by mountains, how could you not love Northern Israel? And since this contingent of my extended family lives in a small community in the Galilee, I always get the opportunity to go there.

My extended family lives on a Moshav. There is no direct English translation for this term as this kind of community is very unique to Israel. It’s a cooperative agricultural community. Everyone owns their own home and property and for the most part have careers and commute to a job every day. But at its heart it is still a tight cooperative farm.

We love to spend the day with our cousins, at their home, walking around the Moshav and touring the dairy cows on the farm. The kids went on a tractor ride and fed a few cows, some born just a few days ago. Matthew even asked if he could take one home.

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Julia had fun in the grass with the neighbour’s dog
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Matthew enjoyed a tractor ride with his cousin Tomer
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Julia had a knack for giving the cows the tastiest hay

Our trip is not over yet, and when it is we will have a solid 12 hours of flying ahead, to get back to Toronto. We still have a few more days to soak up with our extended family, and we relish every moment. It’s a long, 12-hour flight to “Montreal,” but it’s so worth it.

My Birthday Boy: What it Takes to Make a Cake

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Today is March 5, 2018. It’s my son’s eleventh birthday today. For the past few days I have been thinking about what I wanted to write on this day.  I’m a proud mother, and like all mothers across the world I love to boast about how great my child is. If you have met Matthew (or read my blog!), you know he’s a great kid. So, I’m not going to write about Matthew today. I’m going to write about cake.

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My eleven year-old

Writing about cake on my eldest child’s birthday makes a lot of sense if you know a little bit about me. First of all, Matthew’s nickname, that I gave him when he was a baby, is Cake. He loved a particular patty cake book, so I of course changed the words to Matty Cake. And it stuck. Or at least for me it did. I still call him Cake. I can’t help it.

But that’s not the only reason that I’m writing about cake today. I love to bake. I’m not a professional and I often skim over recipes and do my own thing. My baking works out, most of the time. And each year, on each of my children’s birthdays from age one and on, I bake a cake. And we’re not talking about just any old chocolate or vanilla slab number with icing. I’m talking about an elaborate theme, with designs, cut-outs, colours and shapes.

I will admit that the finished product usually tastes better than it looks. Again, I am really not a professional. I would barely even call myself an amateur. I guess I’m just passionate. Fun. Creative. And definitely a bit crazy.

My first adventure into crazy cakes was on Matthew’s first birthday, back in 2008. I had a son. He loved everything boy. So, I made him a car cake. By age two he was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. My husband challenged me that he could bake a better cake. He baked Thomas and I baked Percy. Mine was better. Much better.

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I made Percy and David make Thomas. Percy tasted better.

As Matthew has grown up I have made a spaceship cake, a volcano, snowboarder on a. mountain and last year it was a basketball net. Some cakes have gone according to plan and others, well, not so much. His Boots cake when he turned three (yep, from Dora the Explorer) looked a bit funky, but the kids liked it!

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My strange attempt at Boots the Monkey
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He asked for a flying saucer and that what’s I did in my own special way.
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It was his first year of snowboarding so I had to do it.
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He loved basketball when he turned 10, so that’s what he got

I didn’t slow down when Julia came along. I did the tea party theme when she turned one and made a dollhouse when she turned two. During the Frozen craze, I put together Elsa’s castle. Last year she asked for a butterfly. And of course, I came through.

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I tried to make a teapot when Julia turned one.
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Julia’s second birthday: the dollhouse
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She wanted a butterfly and Julia got one

For Nessa’s first birthday last year I will admit I was a bit boring with a simple, though multi-layered, circular chocolate cake. But I cut out nice letters and made a special mini one for her to smush into her face.

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One for us and one just for Nessa on the day she turned one.

Matthew asked for cupcakes this year and no big elaborate cake. I was a bit disappointed, but I dove into my cupcake making this weekend. I produced 60 cupcakes, half white and half chocolate, with icing, sprinkles and a blue icing birthday message. He enjoyed them with his snowboard team and was quite satisfied with my effort.

Julia is still asking for an original and creative cake for her birthday in a couple of months, and I have years to go with Nessa. No matter how crazy the idea is, I’m up for it. Sometimes, the crazier the better.

So, a big happy birthday to Matthew. When he was born, he was the original inspiration for this blog. It only took me ten years to actually do it, and I don’t regret it at all. His love of sports, travel and all things intellectual continue to inspire me every day.

There were Three in the Bed

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It has been a busy week, for me, my family and the world around me in general. As I wrote last year, when I first created this blog, life is busy. I always seem to be in motion, trying to balance the many demands in my life. Here is a place that I can think, reflect, discuss, debate, and just write. When I feel like I am so busy that I don’t have time for this blog, I remind myself that I have to make time for this new passion of mine. I feel lucky every day that I found this avenue to share my thoughts. So, share my thoughts is what I will do today. Not deep thoughts, just some musings about the sleeping habits of the people in my household and the bed hopping that happens every night.

When my first child was born, over ten years ago, I went to great pains to find the perfect crib. It had to be safe yet stylish. It had to be functional and a bit fab. The baby furniture was delivered and set up just in time for baby Matthew to arrive home from the hospital. I carefully placed my three-day-old son into his new crib, and he screamed. He hated it. My newborn knew what he liked: my bed.

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early cuddles with Daddy for Matthew

I am not going to debate the merits of co-sleeping, sleep training, cribs or beds. I just know what I know – and I know that all three of my children preferred, from the first day of their lives, through today, to cuddle up tight with me, in my bed. Whether it’s good for them (or me!) or not, is not the issue. They like my bed, or someone else’s bed. But not their own, and especially not a crib.

We tried hard to convince baby Matthew to like his crib. By eleven months old he would stand and lean on the railing and scream. I will admit that part of my brilliant child’s challenge was that he could stand but couldn’t figure out how to sit down. But I knew he wanted out.

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Even with his cousin, Matthew hated to go near his crib.

Julia was a bit smarter, and when she was fifteen months old she figured out how to climb up the crib’s railing and jump out. She was a bit of an escape artist and was pleased that she figured out how to get out of the crib and high tail it to my bed. Julia was a bed-hopper from a very young age.

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Newborn Julia quickly discovered where she wanted to sleep.
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It didn’t take long for Julia to discover Matthew’s bed
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Sharing doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping
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Julia discovered the joys of a crib at age 6, when Nessa was born.

Nessa is my strong-minded and yet also lazy and stubborn baby. I feel like she knew how to say no days after she was born. She was determined to hate her crib, the same one that her brother and sister used, from the first time she saw it. Just say the word crib near Nessa and she shakes her head no. Nessa knows what she wants: my bed.

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Nessa knew early on how much she loved a cuddle in my bed with her big sister

They all want my bed, or maybe any bed that’s not their own. Bed-hopping each night is an art in my house. Rarely do any of us wake up in the morning in the same bed we started in the night before. Every combination of people moves around and settles in beds around our house every day.

I am thankful that my children love each other and like to snuggle up together. When they refuse to go to bed it’s often easiest to put them into one bed, cuddled up close, and hope that they put each other to sleep. It usually works. They wander around the house and find other beds as the night wears on, but I think they enjoy their time together in one bed.

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These two still like to cuddle up close at night

As I write this, it’s late on Wednesday night and everyone is asleep in my house. Nessa is passed out in Matthew’s bed, which she took over as her own  (she won’t even look at her crib). Matthew is asleep in my bed, with some sporting event blaring on the TV. Julia is actually asleep in her own bed, but that won’t last long. In a few hours, they will all travel to a different location around the house. Sometimes my house is like Union Station in the middle of the night, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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This is how I found them a few months ago when they put each other to bed

My Toddler is a Menace

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She’s everywhere. And I mean everywhere. If Nessa is awake, then she is on the move. I know that toddlers are active and curious little beings. I’ve had three of them. But wow, this toddler takes the cake.

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Enjoying her mess.

Is it a third child thing to be a toddler menace? I am a middle child, so it’s easy for me to say this. My other two children were definitely active and curious toddlers. I remember when Matthew was an infant we bought all kinds of baby proofing equipment for the kitchen, bathrooms and electrical outlets. We set up a baby gate at the top of the stairs and were ready for anything.

We never used any of it.

He wasn’t interested. If I gave Matthew a couple of pots and a spoon in the kitchen, that kept him busy. If I put him in his bedroom to play, he sat with his toys and books and basically just stayed there.

Julia kicked it up a notch and was a more calculating, curious toddler. She was not a menace, but she quietly hid precious items in unfindable places and giggled in a sly way when she knew she did something wrong. She still does.

But Nessa is a menace to society. And she doesn’t even walk yet! My adorable and quite loveable third child travels around on her bum. I call it “bum walking.” It takes quite a bit of talent and strong abs to move around at the speed that she does. She was quite the lump of a baby for the longest time and wasn’t interested in moving at all. When she started to scoot around, slowly, on her bum, we were amused.

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Nothing stays on her feet for long.
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Interesting hat.
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Taking her loot for a ride in the doll stroller

Over the following months, Nessa perfected the art of bum walking, and now that she has combined that with standing and climbing, she can move around quickly and grab anything she wants.

Nessa can open cabinet doors, drawers and even zippers. If it’s within her reach or close to it, she eyes it and goes after it. She has some favourites:

  • Kitchen pantry: removes a mix of spice jars and chocolate chips one by one and scatters them on the floor
  • Kitchen utensils drawer: deftly opens it and takes out tongs, serving spoons and whisks. She particularly likes to open the oven warming drawer as well and drop her treasure in.
  • The water cooler: she figured out that if she pushes on the blue or white buttons that water comes out. Fun!
  • Diaper bag: whether it’s open or not, if she can reach it, she opens it and empties it.
  • Bookshelf: Nessa loves her books and it’s adorable to watch her “read.” It’s not as much fun when she feels the need to read every book on her shelf out all at the same time.
  • Cables: in particular iPhone cables. Nessa likes to chew on them. Yes, I know, that’s a problem.
  • Anything that belongs to her brother and sister
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Elastic bands block her way
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If the doors are open, she dives in.
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Creating one of her early masterpieces – after she dumped the crayons and a stack of paper on the floor.
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That’s how Nessa likes to sit on her little chair

The list goes on and on. It’s hard to get angry with her because she is just so cute. Oh, and she often sings to herself as she scoots around the house, looking for the next place to cause trouble. Could you get angry with this face?

Maybe Nessa is just really intelligent, way beyond her years (or months, she is only a one-year-old). Could it be that her tremendous curiosity is a sign of her need to explore the world and soak it all up before she turns two?

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Or is she just a menace? Cute and cuddly, but one little troublemaker.

I would love to hear stories about other toddler menaces. Were you one? Do you or did you have a child in this category? Am I right about the third child? Leave me a comment here, post your thoughts on Facebook or Tweet me @AliciaRichler.

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The only time she stops moving.

17 Potatoes Makes 95 Latkes

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I have seen dozens of posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram the last few days that have featured groups of people standing in front of a lit nine-branch menorah, wishing me a Happy Chanukah. Those are all nice photos, as we celebrate our festival of lights. But for me, it’s the festival of oil. Or fried oil to be more exact. Okay, for me it’s all about my latkes.

I don’t often boast like this, but I think I make the best latkes. For those of you who don’t know what latkes are (first of all, shame on you), I will briefly explain. The essence of the latke is the story of the great miracle that is at the heart of the story of Chanukah. The quick version goes back over 2,100 years ago, when a small but brave group of Jews living in Jerusalem, led by the Maccabees, defeated the Syrian forces, led by King Antiochus IV. As they cleaned up their desecrated temple, the Jews found only enough oil to light the lamps for one night.

But a great miracle happened, and the oil lasted for 8 nights! So, while there is much to celebrate during the holiday of Chanukah, we always remember the oil. And what better way to celebrate oil then to heat a ton of it up in a fry pan and cook some delectable food?

Take a potato, shred it (with a hand shredder of course), mix in eggs, onion, a bit of flour, baking powder, salt and pepper, and you have the ingredients of a latke. Or in my case, 17 potatoes, and you get 95 latkes. I take latke-making very seriously, and a big reason for why mine are so good is that I have the spirit and strength of my grandmothers with me as I cook.

First of all, I wear my Nanny’s apron. It’s not gorgeous, but it protects me from oil splatters and keeps me relatively clean. Second, I use my Bubby’s electric fry pan, which is definitely older than I am. Maybe it’s built-in grime from decades ago is what makes my latkes extra tasty.

I jumped into my annual latke-making on Tuesday night, the first night of Chanukah. With my range hood fan set to high and electric fry pan powered up, I got to work. My parents, uncle, children and husband were on hand to test and taste, and we ate through a few dozen latkes in no time.

Yesterday I brought in a bunch of latkes from the Tuesday night batch to work. I enjoyed watching my colleagues dive in. For one person, it was her first ever latke. She timidly asked me, with her latke on her plate, what exactly is a latke, and I proudly explained. Then she tasted it and was hooked. I really felt like a proud mother at that moment, when I saw my colleague enjoy her first latke. It made my day.

So, you ask, what makes MY latke so good? Well, I think it’s many things. Good, quality potatoes (I like Yukon Gold), parboil the potatoes and hand shred them. Gently mix the batter of course. Piping hot oil in my Bubby’s electric fry pan of course. And I form my potato mixture into a slightly flattened ball. I immerse the latkes in hot oil just long enough so that they are golden brown and crispy on the outside but perfectly soft on the inside.

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Beautiful Yukon gold potatoes

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The shredded potato mixture is ready to jump into the fry pan – note newspaper set up to protect my countertops from the flying grease.
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Don’t the latkes look happy in there?
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Look at that bubbling oil. Scrumptious.

Is your mouth watering now? Are you craving a hot, greasy, crispy one right now? I’d share a few more from my batch, but I only have a few left. We can’t stop eating them!

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Close up of the golden crispy latkes

And while I admit that I was more focused on my latkes than my family on Tuesday night, and took many more photos of my kitchen than my children, I did snap a family selfie last night, on the second night of the holiday. What would Chanukah be without a photo of children and a lit Chanukiah? And latkes of course!

Happy Chanukah!

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Yes our token sweet family with the lit Chanukah photo. We had to do it.

A Visit with Family in a Special Place

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David and I are lucky to have family who live all over the world, from New Zealand to England and Israel to Washington State. We are even luckier that our family has invited us to visit them, stay with them and experience their local culture. We have taken full advantage of our family’s warm hospitality over the years, and we often plan our travel expeditions based on where various members of our family live at any given time. A visit with family is always wonderful, and a visit with family who live in an interesting place is even better.

Matthew, Barbara and I are having a great trip to Seattle, and this weekend we had the opportunity to have a trip within a trip. We spent the weekend in the San Juan Islands. More specifically, we had a visit with family on the island of Friday Harbor. Don’t know where that is? Well, it’s a series of beautiful islands off the coast of Washington State, northwest of Seattle. Look it up on Google Maps. You may want to visit sometime too.

David’s first cousin, Pema, lives on Friday Harbour. She generously hosted us this weekend, along with other members of the family. Pema lives in, what I believe, one of the most beautiful places in the world. On first look at her house it seems like she lives in a treehouse. Her home overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and it’s built on bedrock surrounded by trees. It welcomes you as you approach.

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View from the second floor of Pema’s house. Like you are in a treehouse
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There are deer all over Friday Harbor. Here’s one hanging out near our car.

A ferry boat brought us from the mainland to Friday Harbor on Friday morning. I felt an immediate sense of calm as I drove my car off the ferry and into the streets of the island. There are no traffic lights on Friday Harbor, and there’s no need. People are friendly and polite.

A visit with family always begins with warm greetings and hugs upon arrival. A visit with family in Friday Harbor then includes getting cozy on a comfortable couch near the wood stove. That’s what we did. Pema’s house is open concept, and once we found our comfortable spots around the house, we dug in for an afternoon of relaxation. Or at least most of us did.

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Pema and Barbara show off the new tablecloth – a gift from Barbara

You see, the other great part about a visit with family is eating with family. David and I are also lucky that we come from families in which food plays a central role in all gatherings. David’s extended family, especially the Hart family, plans all gatherings around food. Much of the conversation is focused on what the last meal was and what the next meal will be, all while eating the current meal.

So, while some of us lazed around on the comfy couches, others, including our host, Pema, planned the meals, prepared the meals and cleaned up too. We enjoyed a wide range of delicacies this weekend, like roast chicken, vegan pot pie, cheeses, black cod, homemade fish cakes and more. And the desserts. Pema’s homemade apple pie and lemon tarts from a local bakery. Wow. I also just snacked on a pain au chocolat from the same bakery that had more dark chocolate loaded into it than any other I have ever tasted. Another wow.

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I can’t resist a local farmer’s market. Even Demeter bakery has a booth!
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The lemon tarts from Demeter. Amazing, don’t you think?

I would love to write that we took full advantage of the great outdoors and scenery around us this weekend, but really, we spent most of our time indoors. It was freezing outside. It even snowed a bit. We took one short walk all weekend, which was pleasant, but it was nice to return to the couch and warm house. And to get ready for more food.

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Matthew and Barbara on our walk
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Matthew climbed up the hillside, that has a greenhouse on top.
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Wall of moss. Will climb.
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It’s convenient when another member of the family is house-sitting, where there is a hot tub

I love to see the world and have a visit with family in some great cities like Hong Kong or London. But I also love a quiet weekend with family in special places like Friday Harbor. The warmth of the wood stove warmed my heart, but so did my time with close family.

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We can’t resist a selfie, especially on a ferry.
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We just had to take another selfie

Everyone Needs an Uncle Bill

Uncle Bill

I love my Uncle Bill. He is one of my biggest fans and has encouraged me to be the best I can be ever since I was a little girl. I also know he will see this post as my Uncle Bill reads my blog every day. He leaves comments, he cheers me on, and really, he is just the best uncle a girl could have. Everyone needs an Uncle Bill.

William Gomberg is the brother of my maternal grandfather, my Zaidy. That makes him my great-uncle. And yes, he is a great uncle. He, along with my Zaidy and their two sisters, grew up in Montreal in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Uncle Bill eventually made his way to New York City. He spent most of his adult life in New York then moved back to Montreal, where he lives today with his incredible wife, Susan.

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Left to right: Aunt Lil, Uncle Bill, Aunt Evey and my Zaidy Lou

But today’s blog is not about my Uncle Bill’s life. Today I am writing about my personal relationship with him and the positive and strong influences he has had on my life.

The first memory I have is his big, bushy beard. I don’t like facial hair (that may be for another blog post), and I used to tell him that he couldn’t give me those wet sloppy kisses he always loved to give his nieces and nephews simply because he had a beard. But he couldn’t help hugging and kissing his beloved nieces and nephews and always managed to convince me that his big, bushy beard wasn’t scary at all.

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I think Nessa has a beard issues too.
Baby Julia also had beard issues

My brother, sister and I always looked forward, as children, to a visit from Uncle Bill. One reason, and I won’t mince words – he always came with a gift or took us out and let us choose a gift. Some of my favourite dolls and stuffed toys, which I have to this day, are from my Uncle Bill. But it was more than the gifts – he spent quality time with us. We felt he really wanted to be with us, talking, playing or reading books.

Uncle Bill taught me how to dance. Back in June 1981, when I was just 4 years old (almost 5!), our whole family travelled to our cousin’s wedding in the United States. Uncle Bill was my date, and though I didn’t like his bushy beard, I danced with him. I stood on his feet, he carried me, and he gave me the kind of special attention every child craves. I admit that I don’t remember much about the wedding (sorry Judy and Ira!) but I do remember my moments there with my Uncle Bill.

Knives. He gave me my first knife, a beautiful Swiss Army knife, when I was 12 years old, for my Bat Mitzvah. Little did I know that it was to be only the first knife of many from him. Did you know that knife sharpening is an art? Did you know just how sharp a blade can be? Spend a few minutes (and bring your knives) to my Uncle Bill, and he will teach you. It will change your life.

Uncle Bill
Matthew looks in amazement as a package of knives arrives in the mail in 2015.

Books, newspapers, magazines, and now websites. My Uncle Bill ingests and soaks up knowledge like no one else I know. While today, at age 87, he may have physical challenges, his appetite to read, learn and educate others has not slowed down. It wouldn’t be a normal week if I didn’t receive a few tidbits of knowledge, via many web links, from my Uncle Bill. Do you want to know about the best knives available today? How about the history of the Jews of Lithuania? Or maybe you want to know about left handed baseball players who hit 30 or more home runs in a season? Are you into politics and want to learn more about the current situation in the United States? Ask Uncle Bill. He has a link, or a book, for that.

Just mention an interest or a new hobby to Uncle Bill, and you can see that his wheels are turning. How can he help you embrace your hobby? This summer we visited Uncle Bill in Montreal just after Matthew and I went to Chicago. Matthew sat with Uncle Bill and excitedly shared every detail about his recent experience and his love of baseball. To ensure Matthew is properly educated about some of the baseball greats, a few weeks later packages arrived for Matthew from Uncle Bill. First was a book about Satchel Paige, then another arrived about Jackie Robinson, then one on Ty Cobb.

Matthew was overjoyed to receive a special gift like this. He was amazed that his great-great uncle listened so attentively to him and was thoughtful to send him these books. Few children have a great-great uncle, and even fewer have the opportunity to sit down, face to face and have an insightful conversation with him. At age ten, Uncle Bill has already influenced Matthew’s life.

Uncle Bill
Summer 2011. This photo is just funny.
Uncle Bill
Just a nice photo from a visit last year.

I could write thousands of words about my Uncle Bill, but I hope all of you understand just how special he is. If you have – or if you had – an uncle like this you understand what I mean.

Uncle Bill, thank you for being who you are and what you are. I know you are reading this whole blog post because I count on you to read every time I post. Keep doing what you do, big, bushy beard and all.

Yep that’s me and Uncle Bill, just a few years ago.

It’s High Time for some Holidays

 It’s that time of year again. As the evenings grow cooler (or are supposed to) and the leaves start falling from the trees, it means another year on the Jewish calendar is coming to a close. Tomorrow is the final day of the year 5777, and in the evening, we will ring in the new year with family festivities and a whole lot of food. That’s right, it’s High time for some Holidays.

Different religions and nationalities celebrate the New Year at a different time of year. Chinese New Year typically falls between January 21 and February 20, during the coldest part of the winter in Canada. Hindus don’t actually have one common day and instead have at least three different New Year’s days on the calendar. From what I read, “the celebration of the new year has more to do with community, language and region, than with religious affiliation.”

For Judaism, while some feel like the spring, during the month of Nissan, when Passover falls, is the new year, the Holiday in fact happens when summer turns to fall, in the Jewish month of Tishrei. The Holiday that many of you have heard of is called Rosh Hashanah, which directly translated from Hebrew is head (Rosh) of the year (Hashanah).  Simply put, it’s Jewish New Years.

There are no street parties, fireworks, or counting down to midnight beside a dropping ball. Rosh Hashanah, like all Jewish Holidays, begins at sundown, and  people celebrate in different ways. But one common thread through all celebrations, like so many other Jewish Holidays, is food and family. What would a holiday be without this pairing?

Not to minimize the role that synagogue, prayer and the blowing of the shofar (the traditional ram’s horn) play on this most important Holiday, but today I am focusing mainly on food and family.

David and I both come from large families (David is the youngest of five kids and I’m in the middle of three), all of our siblings are married, each with at least two children. If you put our two immediate families together you have more than enough people to play a baseball game, with extra pitchers in the bullpen and players on the bench. So, when it’s Holidays time, we draw on a large group with whom to celebrate.

Our wider family circle is just too big to celebrate together (and members of the family live all over the world), so we don’t see everyone in one evening. Whether it’s a large group of 25-30 people, with tables lined up across the back of my house, or a more intimate crowd of 10-12 in my dining room, I always look forward to the Holidays.

The emails about menu planning and food combinations start swirling around weeks (sometimes months!) in advance. Who’s making the soup? How many proteins do we need? Are five kinds of dessert enough? Will the children eat any of the food we are preparing? Do we care if the children eat, as they will behave so badly anyway and probably won’t eat anything, no matter what it is….

As the days draw closer to Rosh Hashanah, I suddenly realize that Matthew grew two inches over the summer and his only nice pants look more like capris. Julia’s feet are suddenly two sizes larger and running shoes really don’t go with her beautiful new puffy pink dress. Should Nessa wear tights with her dress, as she most definitely will bum walk all over the floor.

Do I throw disposables on the table and make it easy or do I dress up my dining room table for once and pull out the fine china? Do I dare try to host an elegant evening? Okay, forget that thought – elegant and High Holidays meals don’t go together.

Will I get the annual Rosh Hashanah photo of the kids? I have been successful a few times, but usually someone misbehaves and the resulting picture is too embarrassing to share publicly. I have included just a few here, as really most are not acceptable for public consumption.

Holidays
Matthew’s first Rosh Hashanah, from September 2007
Holidays
The kids actually cooperated for a fun Rosh Hashanah photo last year
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They behaved for a nice picture on the eve of the Holiday last year

And since the Holidays begins tomorrow, I had better get cooking. To all my readers, whether you celebrate or not, I wish you a happy and healthy New Year. Let the celebrations for 5778 begin!

Home is where the Hart is

Hart

I have been teasing this blog post for the last few weeks. I have mentioned the house in Saint Donat a few times in previous posts, and now is the day I will share the great wonders of this special place. I’m talking about the Hart family country home, deep in the Laurentian mountains, in the heart of Quebec.

The Hart family is David’s mother’s family. David’s grandfather, Isador Hart, bought land in the far-off village of Saint Donat in the 1940’s. In 1949 he and his wife, Ada, built a small cabin on the edge of Lake Archambault. They chose a spot where the land juts out and has the most spectacular view of the lake. From this spot, it feels like the mountains are melting into the water below.

The two-bedroom cabin was a tight squeeze for the Hart family of five, which included their three kids, Barbara, Annie and Billy. Over the years, as the family grew, the house was expanded and renovated. Today it is a five-bedroom, three-bathroom sprawling bungalow. The house maintains its 1950’s character, with the original yet functional kitchen, painted wood paneling and assortment of vintage furniture.

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Ancestor photos from years ago

The Hart family’s connection to this home is something special. As my mother-in-law, Barbara, recently said, “If I forget thee, O Saint Donat, may my right hand wither.”  

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Photos on the wall of Hart family descendants

David grew up in this home, as did his siblings and cousins. They spent their summers here, swimming in the lake, playing hide and seek and building sand castles on the beach. David often tells me that his best memories of his childhood are from Saint Donat.

I have been coming to Saint Donat for half my life. I have been here when it’s almost empty and quiet and also with twenty other people. When the house is empty, you can hear the loons sing on the lake and the trees rustle in the wind. When the house is full, like it is this week, it can be hard to find a seat on the couch or two minutes in the bathroom. I remember one summer, a few years ago, when the house topped twenty people and we ran out of beds and couches for people to sleep. The living room was so packed with people, on couches, the floor and a cot, that it looked like a homeless shelter.

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Ancestor photo summer 2007
Hart
Ancestor photo summer 2010
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Ancestor photo summer 2016

The traditions are many in the Hart house, and there are too many to include all of them here. People don’t swim here, they throw themselves in the lake. It wouldn’t be a summer without “Steak night in Canada.” A popular evening activity is a rousing game of Boggle. A morning is not complete without a roaring fire. Grandma Hart’s famous eggplant, first made by Ada and now by Billy, is a staple. There are power walks, canoe trips and camping trips. Squad Leader. The deer head. Decorated plates. Ancestor photo. Good things breakfast. Blueberry pie. People magazine.

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Always follow the rules with eggplant
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Blueberry pie

I often joke that the home has kept so much of its original charm that if you pushed one of the outside walls too hard the whole house would fall over. Okay, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but like any home that is almost 70 years old, the property probably needs a bit of TLC. Maintaining a family country home for so many years can be a challenge, and planning for each summer is often an anxious experience. But for me and David, once we hit the Laurentian Autoroute and pass our favourite landmarks like the Big Chicken, Banana Bridge and cross on the mountain, our stresses disappear.

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17-month old Matthew having a snack with his big cousins, Michal and Ela (circa 2008)
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A silly moment with 15-month-old Julia and her great aunt, Annie (circa 2011)
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Isn’t it just breathtaking?
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A regular evening activity in the house.
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Testing out the Zaidy Lou canoe last summer on Lake Archambault
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Julia leaping into the fresh cold lake
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An excited Matthew walking down our street
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My lucky children listening to a book read by their Grandma last summer

For the Hart family, no matter how busy life is, no matter where in the world they live, Saint Donat is their true home. They would move mountains to spend time here and come together as a family. As a thunderstorm brews outside and we gather in the living room beside a roaring fire, today the Hart family is enjoying a typical Saint Donat day. I look forward to so many more.

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Nessa is enjoying the sandy beach already at 14 months old
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We brought my grandfather’s canoe here last summer and named it the Zaidy Lou. Nessa is testing it out.
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The toy and book corner is a special place for all children
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Matthew and his “twin” cousin Yael enjoying breakfast by the fire this morning. Matthew is 20 days older.