Category Archives: Family Traditions

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!

 

Collecting Art, An Entertaining Family Tradition

When my husband and I married in 2004, we established an early tradition for our family…collecting art.

We are both creative people, and we love to fill our home with unique items that help to tell the story of our life together.

On occasions like birthdays, holidays, Valentine’s Day and our wedding anniversary, my husband and I do not give each other gifts. No flowers. No diamonds. No chocolates. No cards. No ties. No gizmos. This has always been our way. Instead, we purchase a piece of art annually. It is a gift with no shelf life, and something that we can both enjoy.

Throughout the year, my husband and I attend art shows and peruse galleries and coffee shops looking for that one special piece that speaks to us. Sometimes it is a sculpture, sometimes it is a painting on canvas, and sometimes it is a five-inch by five-inch photograph.

In February we will celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary. It is so wonderful to be in our home and look at the art that lives in our space. Each piece has a special story. Each piece is a special memory. These works are deeply personal and meaningful to us.

So what do we do to mark all of the special occasions in a year? We give hugs, and write love notes, we cook special meals together…and we always spend quality time as a family.

 

A Stunning New Orleans Wedding

Hi Friends! I’ve recently returned from my brother and sister-in-law’s destination wedding in the Big Easy. It was a beautiful and memorable affair that perfectly celebrated these two artistic wanderers. Rather than writing a long post about it, I thought I’d share some photographs that captured the spirit of this perfect day. I hope you find some inspiration:

The Bride

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Ceremony

Happy Faces

seth-and-masha

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Liz singing

Married

Our Family

Lovers

Happy Moms by Bryan Patrick Photography

Lovelies 2

The First Dance

mara-seth

The guys

Sparklers

Jumping In by Bryan Patrick Photography

The Bride and Groom by Bryan Patrick Photography

Commitment Reading of the Pueblo Indian

Before we met, you and I were halves unjoined except in the wide rivers of our minds. We were each other’s distant shore, the opposite wings of a bird, the other half of a seashell.  We did not know the other then, did not know our determination to keep alive the cry of one riverbank to the other. We were apart, yet connected in our ignorance of each other, like two apples sharing a common tree.  Remember?

I knew you existed long before you understood my desire to join my freedom to yours. Our paths collided long enough for our indecision to be swallowed up by the greater need of love. When you came to me, the sun surged towards the earth and the moon escaped from darkness to bless the union of two spirits, so alike that the creator had designed them for life’s endless circle.  Beloved partner, keeper of my heart’s odd secrets, clothed in summer blossoms so the icy hand of winter never touches us.

I thank your patience.  Our joining is like a tree to earth, a cloud to sky and even more. We are the reason the world can laugh on its battlefields and rise from the ashes of its selfishness to hear me say, in this time, this place, this way – I love you best of all.

For more on the wedding, check out To My Brother, With Love.

(Thanks to those friends whose photos I may have used to complete this post! Also a huge thanks to Bryan Patrick Photography and Race and Religious in New Orleans.)

To My Daughter On Her 7th Birthday

My Strong Willed, Spirited Girl:

Thirteen years ago, if someone had asked me about the best day of my life, I would have told them about the moment I met your father. From across a crowded room, we fell in love at first sight and I knew my life would never be the same.

Twelve years ago, I would have told them about the day I married your dad on a pink sand beach. Looking into his eyes as the ocean waves rolled upon the shore, I saw a future of endless possibilities. I still do.

Seven years ago, of course, I would have told them about the magical day that you were born. Now that I know you, I’d say it was a perfect entrance. Quick and timely, right on your due date. I know how you hate to be late to a party! That was the day I realized how far my heart could stretch and how deeply and fiercely I could love.

Today, if someone asked me about the best day of my life, my answer would be different. Today I would say that the best day is the one that I am blessed to be living right now. Each and every minute that I get to love you and your dad, and feel your love in return is a celebration. My life is no longer defined by single, once-in-a-lifetime events, but instead measured by the beauty of ordinary moments that bring us together.

Your laughter, your smile, your dad’s bad jokes, our hikes in the woods, our dinner table conversations…those little things have become the most extraordinary pieces of my life. And every morning when I wake up and I see your faces, I know that THIS is going to be the best day I have ever known.

I am a lucky woman. You have transformed my world and taught me so much. I am constantly in awe of your capacity to love, your ability to learn, and your desire to work hard. You are thoughtful, hilarious, and creative beyond belief. You inspire me to live my best life and to reach further than I ever thought possible.

Happy birthday, my love. Thank you for making every day the best day of my life.

-Mom

Happy

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.