The Joys of a Pen Pal

I was eight years old when I was introduced to Mrs. Jenkins. She was a teacher from Manchester, England who had come to my elementary school in Milwaukee to participate in a cultural exchange. Mrs. Jenkins was warm and engaging, and she had many interesting stories about life in the UK.

As a third grader with a vivid imagination, I was pretty sure she was the sister of Mary Poppins and had a purse full of magic.

Before she left our school, Mrs. Jenkins asked if any of the students in our class would be interested in having a pen pal in England. My hand shot up immediately. The thought of writing to a child who lived on another continent was thrilling. So on a piece of construction paper, I scrolled my name, age, interests and home address in magic marker. Mrs. Jenkins put it in her magic purse and promised to find me the perfect match.

Some months later, an envelope arrived from overseas from a girl named Sarah. She sent me a short letter and a few photographs. She had blonde hair and a brother, just like me. In third grade our letters were rather simple, filled with questions like, What is your favorite food? Do you also find your brother annoying? Do you have a favorite song? And every letter ended the same way: Please write back.

I remember going to the mall with my allowance in hand so I could stock up on stationary and stickers to make my letters special.

In elementary school we wrote about friends, books and Michael Jackson. In middle school our letters were about the boys we had crushes on. In high school we shared our thoughts about the Gulf War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was no Skype, Facebook or email back then.

Having a pen pal made us better writers, and it made us more curious about the world. I loved reading Sarah’s thoughts and opinions, and I dreamed of meeting her in person.

Then high school ended.

When college began, life got hectic and I moved to another city. My childhood was boxed away in my parents attic, and finally, one of us forgot to write back. That was two decades ago ago.

I still think about Sarah often, and wonder how she is doing. Is she still in England? Is she a mom? Has she been to the United States? I have tried to find her on social media, but no luck so far…

I am grateful that Mrs. Jenkins found my perfect match all those years ago. And I am thankful to Sarah for being such a faithful friend for so long. Our letter exchanges were a very special part of my childhood.

This summer my daughter turned eight. One day, as I was telling her about my pen pal, she asked if she could have one, too. I was delighted! I got right to work investigating websites that pair writers based on age and interests.

Then I remembered that I had a more direct route to a pen pal!

One of my friends is a teacher in London. I messaged her on Facebook and asked if she could help me find a match for my daughter. Well, within a matter of days, we had a name and an address. Today, 35 years after being introduced to my pen pal, my third grader is writing to a friend overseas. In fact, she just sent a letter in the mail last week. This wonderful tradition continues…

“MOM, she loves cats, just like me!”

I don’t know how long they will write, but I am glad that my daughter has this experience. And this summer our family is stopping in London on our way to the Baltic, so perhaps these girls will have the opportunity to meet!

This will be my first time in England, though I’ve been dreaming of it since Sarah’s first letter arrived in 1983. For me the experience will be bittersweet.

So many of us have friends in other parts of the world. If you are interested in pairing your child with a pen pal, those connections are a great place to start. If you have questions about the pen pal experience, don’t hesitate to ask!

 

Entertaining Family Favorite, Peggy Guggenheim

Today, we are revisiting one of our favorite posts about a trailblazer, tastemaker, trendsetter, and entertaining inspiration.

I’ll never forget the day I was introduced to Peggy Guggenheim.

It was an October morning in Venice in 1999. The weather was lousy. It was cold and damp – the kind of day that chills your bones. Venetians were out and about, wrapped in fashionable trench coats with the collars turned up to defend against the wind. I stood along the Grand Canal in my college-chic GAP hoodie, entranced by gondolas slowly bobbing on the steely water. Jagged waves lapped against sinking plaster buildings and everything was eerily gray, like a pastel drawing that had been washed away with a sponge.

At the time, I was an art history student living and studying abroad. For weeks I had been traveling throughout Europe visiting the most important works of art from antiquity through the Baroque. This journey had taken me to the Louvre, the Prado, the Venice Academy, and more. Quite honestly, all of the masterpieces were beginning to bleed together and I was tired. In fact, I wondered if I wasn’t having some sort of allergic reaction to old art, as I seemed to lose my energy every time I entered another museum. On this particular day, I was excited to be changing things up and visiting a museum of modern art, The Peggy Guggenheim.

I turned away from the cold air along the Grand Canal and entered her museum. Once inside my eyes grew wide as I took in the scene. It was as if I had entered another world. The Italian palazzo, which was had been her home from 1949-79, felt alive – it was breathing with bursts of vibrant color, undulating lines, splatter marks, and wild textures. The rooms did not feel “over stuffed” as some galleries do. Instead, each piece of art was given room to shine. I felt true joy as I examined works by Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky, and Klee.

An eccentric heiress from the United States born in 1898, Peggy Guggenheim’s interest in avant-garde art developed while she was living in Paris in the 1920s. It was there that she was introduced to writers and artists who were challenging social norms of the time. Peggy, who as a teenager shaved off her eyebrows to shock those around her, found kindred spirits in Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Samuel Beckett. It was because of these relationships that she began acquiring works of the Dadaists, Cubists, and Surrealists and abstract expressionists. Not an artist herself, this was Peggy’s way of becoming a central figure in this world of original, innovative ideas.

Peggy ran galleries in Europe and America. During World War II, she shipped a huge number of paintings out of Paris to New York City, protecting them from the Nazi war on Modernism. She gave Jackson Pollock his first exhibit, as well as several other artists whose work would influence modern culture. She had a terrific eye for spotting talent, anticipating the next “big thing”, and was happy to give her muses an international stage.

After visiting her museum, I became a huge fan of Peggy Guggenheim. I quickly devoured her biography Art Lover by Anton Gill. In 2015, a documentary film on her life was released: Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict, which features intimate interviews with Peggy.

Today a photograph of one of her cocktail parties hangs in my living room, reminding me to savor the simple pleasures in life.

Peggy loved being surrounded by creative people with creative ideas, and she was well know for hosting parties for her friends. It is said she usually served horrible food and bad wine, but people always attended her gatherings because they celebrated life. And that is what people loved about Peggy.

So often these days, if you pick up a book on entertaining you’d think you have to be a Michelin star chef in order to host an event. What if we just served mediocre food and cheap wine, and instead focused on building deeper friendships? Wouldn’t it be amazing to skip the fancy name cards, cloth napkins, and menus scrolled on chalkboards? Would the world fall apart? That is why Peggy is one of my entertaining heroes. Let’s celebrate idiosyncrasies. Instead of being shallow, let’s go deep where the most interesting connections happen.

Spending time with family and friends is one of the greatest pleasures in life. This year, I resolved to host more gatherings for the people I love, and to create more family traditions. It is time display my favorite pieces of art, serve imperfection on a platter, and spend quality time with the people who bring joy and laughter into my world.

Party at Peggy's House

Fabulous Peggy

Peggy Guggenheim in Venice

Tips For Air Travel With Small Children

My husband and I have been traveling with our daughter since she was a baby. She’s flown domestically and internationally – most of the time it has been delightful, and other times, meh….

There was the day she projectile vomited on a plane from Milwaukee to Detroit. The turbulence was awful and she lost it…literally…

Then, on a flight to Vermont she spiked a 104 degree fever. I had nothing to make her more comfortable or relieve her fever.

And most recently, on a trip to San Francisco she got her head stuck in the telescope handle of my suitcase (don’t ask).

These unfortunate events have happened for one reason…to ensure that I have experiences to draw from when doling out advice for traveling with children. So here goes dear parents, here goes…

Practical tips for plane travel with small children:

1.) Make a list and check it twice! Keep a paper or electronic list of everything that you need to pack and check it off as you go. Take the list with you so that you can use it again at the conclusion of your trip.

2.) If you’re lucky enough to be traveling with a partner, put one adult in charge of taking care of the little one’s needs (potty breaks, snacks, tantrums) and one adult in charge of luggage, ticketing, security, and gate navigation. Don’t rely on one person to do it all.

3.) Dedicate specific pockets in your carry on bag to keep IDs, passports, boarding passes, car keys, and credit cards. When you are stressed, these are the first things to be misplaced.

4.)When packing your carry-on bag, make sure that you have at least one change of clothes for your child, a travel bottle of Children’s Tylenol, and a small blanket to keep your little one warm and cozy (planes can get really cold).

5.) Allow your child to pack a little “carry-on” that has books, toys, coloring supplies, and an iPad loaded with parent-approved games, movies and TV programs. Keeping your little one occupied will help make the trip go smoothly.

6.) If you drive to the airport, make sure to send yourself a text with the location of your vehicle – it takes two seconds. Parents, you can get easily distracted when you arrive at the airport and have to unload luggage and children. It’s easy to lose track of your surroundings. And believe me – when you get home from a long trip, the last thing you want to be doing is wandering around the parking garage.

6.) Once you have made it through security, purchase a small snack and beverage for your little one. Then, if the airport has a kids play area let your child run around and burn off some energy.

7.) Before you board the plane, make sure your child uses the bathroom – even if they tell you they don’t need to! I’m convinced that kids have a physiological response to a plane’s takeoff which makes them have to go potty. “Mommy, mommy, it is an emergency! I need to use the bathroom now.”

8.) Once you are on the plane, ensure that your child’s seat is equipped with a disposable bag (a.k.a. “barf bag”), and take time to locate the nearest bathrooms. Remember, it is best to seat your child in the middle seat or next to the window. If there is turbulence and one of the luggage compartment opens, you don’t want anything falling on your child.

9.) Get your child situated with their blanket, iPad and a toy or two. Let them take of their shoes and get cozy. And remind them of the universal airplane rule: no kicking the seat in front of you.

10.) At some point during cruising altitude, make sure your child uses the bathroom – even if they tell you they don’t need to. Because, you guessed it…there is also a physiological response to a plane’s landing that makes a child have to go. And there is nothing more disgusting than using a plane’s bathroom after you have landed. I was once stuck in this situation – the air circulation fan had been turned off, the lights wouldn’t turn on, and the faucet wouldn’t run.Oh, the memories! Oh the horror!

11.) When you have gotten off of the plane and are waiting, and waiting, and waiting…whether it is for luggage, for a rental car, for a taxi… involve your child in little games like “I spy with my little eye” or “find the shape”. Anything to prevent boredom. When kids get bored, they get their heads stuck in luggage handles!

In the end, if your child did a relatively good job on the trip, compliment them for it. It is tough work for a kid to spend a day in airports and on planes following instructions, paying attention and sitting quietly.

I hope these tips are helpful. I could write a book about air travel with kids…this just scratches the surface…

If you’re looking for more ideas, check out this post from My Treks and Travels!

Bon Voyage!

When Family Is Far Away: Tips For Maintaining Bonds

My little brother has always been my best friend. As a six-year-old child I remember getting out of bed in the middle of the night, my bare feet squeaking against the hardwood floors, and then quietly kneeling beside him to make sure everything was alright. Sometimes I would fall asleep with my head on his chest – comforted by the sound of his beating heart. Knowing that as long as he was breathing, my world was whole.

It sounds kind of creepy now, but back then it was precious!

Today, like so many families, a thousand miles divide us – my brother is in San Francisco, and I’m in Milwaukee – and that daily closeness that we once shared has grown into something new. I suppose it is an appreciation for who we have become and the lives we have created. To say that I’m proud of my brother would be an understatement. I love hearing about his work, travels, and everyday adventures. He is an artist and approaches every aspect of his life with a passion for creating beauty. I have been so inspired by his decision to move across the country and build the life of his dreams. My only sadness is that I don’t usually get to observe his world in person. My window into his life is often a series of photos, texts, and phone calls shared late in the evening. I’m sure that many of you can relate. That’s why the time that we are able to spend together – however brief – is always cherished.

Nowadays, families are spread across the globe as we all venture out to make our mark on the world. Each of us has a set of values and a life purpose that drives us to find our place. And though we have never been more free to create the life we desire, research shows that people are lonelier and more isolated than ever. Maintaining family bonds and long-term friendships are critically important for our happiness and health. That’s why carving out time to connect with loved ones is so important.

At Entertaining Family we encourage you to savor the simple pleasures in life and spend time gathered around the table. Using those lenses, I am happy to share some strategies that my brother and I use to make the most of our visits:

We gather in the kitchen to make meals together. Sitting around a table to share a feast is one of life’s great treats. But preparing that feast can be when the real magic happens. Working together to create a meal is a great demonstration of teamwork, sharing, and compromise. For family members who haven’t been together in a while, this activity will help you bond quickly. We like to put on music, divide up responsibilities, and laugh and chat as we go.

At work in the kitchen

CG Hen

Salad

Making dessert

We set a beautiful table. After preparing a delicious meal, it is rewarding to sit down at a celebratory table that truly showcases what we’ve worked so hard to create. Flowers, wine glasses, and serving trays make mealtime feel like an event. It also signals that the dinner table is a special place to spend time together.

Dinner table 1

Dinner table 2

We share stories. The food is what brings us to the table, but it is the conversation that makes us linger. Getting acquainted, sharing memories, and discussing family lore is what makes these moments so special. Looking across the table at the faces I love most in the world and listening to the stories of our shared history is one of my favorite ways to spend time. It lets all of us know that we are connected to something bigger than each one of us. The choices we make today are not just for our own benefit, but they are a loving tribute to the sacrifices of the past and a foundation for the generations who will come after us.

Family dinner

Spending time together

We ham it up, and laugh…a lot. Though the meal and the table have been designed to create a sense of beauty and abundance, our dinners are not formal. We laugh and get silly – this has always been our “family’s way”. Trying to get to know the soul of a person is what dinnertime is all about. It is through  playful engagement and lighthearted banter that we build true appreciation for one another. Laughter is sweet music, and my family is a talented orchestra.

The best additions ever

Mother and son

We forgive each other. We understand that families are complicated social groups and sometimes this can lead to frustrations and hurt feelings. Though we are part of the same clan, we view life through our own filters. Something that is important to me may be trivial to you. Your political beliefs may be my worst nightmare. The way that I approach a situation will always be different from the way you deal with it. Forgiveness is important. In order to forgive, we have to try to see life from the other person’s vantage point and abandon the need to be right. We also have to be willing to say I’m sorry.

All of us are “works in progress”. Trying to be a better sister, mother, wife, daughter, and friend is something that I struggle with every day, but I put in the work because nothing is more important to me than my family. I appreciate that the people I love do the same thing for me.

Best friends

Before saying goodbye, we say “I love you”. My parents taught us a very important lesson early on – you always end a conversation as if it could be the last one you ever have – and there is nothing more important than telling someone I love you.

In our family I love you means I accept everything about you, I value your contributions to the world, I appreciate the ways in which you challenge me, and I will always, always support you and cheer you on.

“Unconditional love really exists in each of us. It is part of our deep inner being. It is not so much an active emotion as a state of being. It’s not ‘I love you’ for this or that reason, not ‘I love you if you love me.’ It’s love for no reason, love without an object.”
-Ram Dass
We hope this post may inspire you to visit your family – to reach out and show them how much you care. And tonight, I think I know who I am going to call…
{Thanks to my sister Masha for capturing some of these beautiful photos.}

Beginning Each Day In The Garden

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Entertaining Family in the Garden

Wisconsin is my home, and one of my favorite things about this beautiful place is the vibrancy of each season. I love them all, but today summer has my heart. As the weather warms, my living space expands into our gardens and it becomes easier to connect with nature on a daily basis.

I like to begin each day by enjoying a cup of coffee on our back patio. As I take my first sips of the morning, I am serenaded by a couple of cardinals that have nested in a nearby tree. Drops of dew have gathered making leaves glisten and flowers sparkle. As the sun rises, the world has an ethereal hush and my mind is quiet.

Humming birds, monarchs, and honey bees are already hard at work. I watch them tend to the garden and try not to disturb their habitat.

I am lucky to watch over this place. Our little piece of the world.

Entertaining Family in the Garden 2

Entertaining Family: Garden Gate

Entertaining Family: Rain Garden 3

Entertaining Family: Leaves of Green

Entertaining Family: Rain Garden 2

Entertaining Family: Wild Ginger

Entertaining Family: Rain Garden

Entertaining Family: Raised Beds

Entertaining Family: Container Garden

Entertaining Family: Pink and Purple Container

Entertaining Family: Iris

Entertaining Family: Peonies

 

Making A Day At The Art Museum Fun For Kids

Art museum security guards tense up as soon as they see my six-year-old coming. She is a disastrous mix of loud, bouncy, and unpredictable. I, of course, delight in her spiritedness and curiosity, but not those who have been entrusted with protecting national treasures worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They do not find her the least bit adorable.

But listen here, friends! Those suspicious gazes and narrowed glances won’t deter us from developing my daughters appreciation of art! After all, the security guard is just doing his job, right?

The Milwaukee Art Museum 1

So, before we go any further, allow me back up and explain why art appreciation is important to me as a parent, and as a person….

I am someone who has always been surrounded by art. My family is a motley crew of painters, designers, writers and toilers. When I was a child, my mother’s favorite line was: “Creative children are never bored. If you’re looking for something to do, go draw.” Best. Advice. Ever.

As an adult, I apprenticed under a master artist, learning to draw and paint in a classical style. Eventually I studied art in various parts of the world before getting my master’s degree is in Art History with an emphasis on ancient Chinese archaeology. Because art has been such an important part of my existence, I want to share this passion with my little one.

However (and maybe you’ve noticed this, too) very few art museums scream “kids zone!” Many have hushed hallways, objects that MUST NOT be touched, the aforementioned scrutiny of security guards, and artwork that is hung for people 5 feet and taller. Some art museums do have children’s galleries and art stations, which are lovely and appreciated. But, at the same time, I want my daughter to experience important collections from Egyptian antiquities to Flemish portraits – from German Post-Impressionists to American modernists. I want her to walk the same halls that I do, with a shared sense of wonder. And so we have learned how to create a kid-friendly day at the art museum!

Here are some tips for making an art museum visit engaging for your little one:

The Milwaukee Art Museum 3

Move at your own pace.

Some people feel that they need to take in the whole museum in one day, or view a gallery frame by frame. Not in our family. We believe in quality over quantity. If our daughter only has the attention span to take in three paintings and a photograph, that’s fine with us. I would rather have her passionately study a few works, than mindlessly take in a thousand. At this age, it is not about teaching her to distinguish a Rembrant from a Renoir – it is about developing her inquisitive mind.

Feel it (but don’t touch it).

I once had a boyfriend ask me what he was supposed to feel when he looked at a painting. What in the world? I thought to myself. After all, feelings are deeply personal. Your reaction to a painting and my reaction to a painting may be incredibly different. I can’t tell you WHAT to feel. We broke up.

Learning from that experience, I encourage my daughter to get emotional about art. I ask her to walk through the gallery halls until she finds a piece that moves her. When she sees it, she stops. Then we talk about the artwork, how it makes us feel, and why.

Laugh.

If you want a child to remember an experience with a certain level of fondness, make it fun! On our trips to the museum, we like to create silly background stories for some of our favorite works. Or see how many paintings we can count that have an apple or a crow as part of the subject. Or sometimes we choose to recreate a pose from a Rodin sculpture. Little ones deserve to have fun and play injected into everything they do!

Be kind to the security guards, even if they don’t trust your kid.

“Hello! How are you today? You spend a lot of time in this gallery – do you have a favorite work of art?” Nothing wins someone over like a little bit of kindness. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.

Share your enthusiasm.

In advance of our trip, I choose one masterpiece to show my daughter on our visit. I will do research on that piece and then, once we get to the museum, share what I’ve learned in the form of a story (so that it holds her attention…no lectures, mom). It is rewarding to be able to share my passion with her.

The Milwaukee Art Museum Art Center

Do take advantage of the kids spaces.

If your art museum offers a kid’s gallery or activity center, take advantage of those areas. After exploring the galleries, there is nothing that our family enjoys more than creating an art project inspired by our favorite masterpieces.

Follow up at home.

Sometimes my little one will ask me a question about symbolism or style, and I don’t know the answer. We will make a note of it, and then do internet research when we get home. Other times, we may be moved by a style of art (Fauvism or Cubism, for example) and then go home and create artwork inspired by that creative movement. It is fun to continue the adventure in our own space.

We obviously also let her wear a princess crown to the museum, which never hurts! I must say that most places become extra-extraordinary when you’ve got a crown…

I hope these little tips will help you on your next trip to the art museum. If you move at your own pace and tailor the experience to your child’s interests, you won’t get tantrums and boredom – you will get engagement, excitement, and active learning. Most importantly, it will be a trip that is enjoyable for both children and adults.

For more parenting fun, check out this post on inspiring books for children.

The Simple Pleasure Of Cozying Up At Home

Hello dear friends! I can’t believe that we’re already heading into the final days of January. In keeping with this months theme of “comfort”, today’s post is all about relaxing at home.

As some of you know, in addition to blogging at Entertaining Family, I am the executive director of a nonprofit organization which means that my work days are fast-paced and challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. My husband also has a demanding career as a creative director with clients spread across the country. We’ve designed our home to be a retreat from the world. It is the place where we escape the daily grind and slip into a routine of slow, easy living.

Our old Victorian house, built at the turn of the 20th century, is a grande dame from another era – filled with high ceilings, hardwood, and natural light. Over the past ten years, we have taken care to restore our home’s regal beauty while also making it a cozy urban oasis. To do this, all of the alterations we’ve made pay homage to the age of our home (trying to incorporate fixtures and finishes that fit a Victorian), while creating function for modern living. In the end, we’ve created spaces that allow us to connect as a family, entertain friends, and enjoy a simple and casual lifestyle. It’s the kind of home where you can kick off your shoes and get really comfy.

Throughout the years our home has certainly evolved with us. If you had visited us a decade ago, you would have found the space of a young couple that was on the go. There was no television in sight, travel magazines were strewn across the coffee table in anticipation of our next trip, martini’s were neatly placed on top of coasters, and the two people inside were totally tuned into each other. Today, while we’re still tuned into each other, we’re now a family of three….okay, four (two parents, one first grader, and a fluffy cat). Our house is definitely “lived in”. We have cozy couches and floor cushions galore. An entire corner of our living room is occupied by a delightful assortment of toys and games. And our coffee table is no longer home to travel magazines…instead it serves as a coloring surface for our little one.

Living Space

Coffee Table Creativity

Dining Room

Our dining room table is the heart of our home. My husband, daughter, and I delight in preparing meals together and then taking time to savor our creations. During the week, the table also doubles as “the family office”. It is where we spread out homework, check emails, play board games, or write posts for Entertaining Family. It can get a little messy at times and you know, that’s great. I’ll take it as a sign of creativity and a life well lived!

This is also the space where we host dinner parties, one of our favorite pastimes. We love to have guests relax around our table sharing food and stories. At this time of year, as the cold weather lingers and the days are short, we find it even more important to connect with loved ones who bring warmth and sunshine into our home.

Room for Friends

On weekends, there is nothing more enjoyable than sitting down with a good book. My husband and I are both avid readers and collectors of literature – and now our daughter is taking up this passion, too. On any given Saturday or Sunday, you can find us cuddled up in a quiet corner reading an engaging story.

Reading Time

Coffee and Books

This year we turned our fireplace mantel into a small library featuring of some of our favorite works, which means a great read is always within arms distance. My husband and I can pick up a novel or page through a design book, and there are plenty of titles for our daughter to enjoy. Books are stacked vertically and piled horizontally, and the bindings add new visual interest to this living room focal point.

Fireplace

Book Collection

Peter Pan

Of course, one of the best parts of having a home is filling it with love. In our house, love comes in the form of many beautiful faces. From sleep overs, to dance parties, to coffee chats and dinners…over the years friends and family have dropped-in or stayed for extended periods of time, all filling our space with laughter and joy. If anything makes me want to cozy up at home, it is spending quality time with my people.

Playing (photo by Seth)

Laughing (photo by Masha)

Dance Party

Family

As I reflect on our home, there are two words that come to mind: comforting and restful. It isn’t a formal space. It isn’t perfection. However, it is a place that reflects our love of family and leisure. It is a place to retreat from the world and celebrate the simple pleasures in life.

For more posts on our home, check out our rain garden or this piece on creating a home.

 

 

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