a night out like no other

When we moved into our house in 2009, some of our first interactions with the neighbors took place during the National Night Out picnic. Since then, that first Tuesday in August has proven to be an opportunity to catch up with people whom we live near but don’t really see that often.

Last August, there was no National Night Out – people didn’t even get one day of reprieve from all the isolation. This year, I thought it would be important for us all to get back together other again. But the landlord who usually allows the picnic on his lawn said, “We’re not going to do it this year.” It’s the one day a year that people actually come out and talk to each other, I pointed out.

“Someone else can host,” he countered. So that’s what I attempted to do. Part of me didn’t want to, but I felt that I ought to. People are important. Community is important.

But building community is hard work.

I invited the new families in the neighborhood. They sounded pleased to have been invited. I stopped and talked to various people in the neighborhood on my evening walks. I called those whose phone numbers I had or could track down, even some who had recently moved away. People were polite. A few said they’d come, and offered to bring something to for the picnic.

I cooked all afternoon. We borrowed a few tables, and my sons and I set up tables and chairs in the backyard. We blew up balloons, and wrote a “welcome” note in chalk on the driveway. The one who lent the tables informed me that some people in the neighborhood are mad at each other and may not show up. (Was that the real reason she wasn’t coming?)

One neighbor stopped by. We ate and talked and I tried my best to ignore the nagging feeling that I’d failed. But if one person didn’t have to spend the evening alone, wasn’t that enough? 

But what should I do with all the leftovers? I sent our guest home with some of the curry. I also delivered some to the neighbor who lent us tables. I packed up some sloppy Joes and buns for the neighbor next door who was sitting outside smoking. I called up another and delivered some food to her too. She met me her door and we chatted. Another neighbor walking by joined the conversation, and the three of us talked for several minutes. 

“If people don’t come to you, you take the food to them,” I concluded. My husband and kids thought the evening was a failure, but I noted that I did end up spending a good portion of the evening outdoors talking to neighbors, mostly one-on-one. Though different than I’d expected, I did have my night out. 


home cooking

Aunt Betty has a stack of grandma’s recipes. She’s been hanging on to them since her mom down-sized and moved out of the house, I think. The thing is, none of them seem to be the recipes for the things that grandma made the most. Those were the recipes she carried around in her head, I’m guessing, and some of them were never recorded. So when I asked Aunt Betty for grandma’s bread recipe she sent me one that was close – it had the same ingredients that grandma used to use, she’d written – but it wasn’t the exact recipe. I pulled it out Saturday morning and made that whole wheat bread. By the time the smell of baking bread was coming from the oven, I was half done frying the bajiya that we were taking to the community garden potluck.

“Why are you making bajiya for the potluck?” one son asked.

“They said bring a food that represents your ethnic background,” I explained.

“That’s not my ethnic background,” he said. Neither of our boys are fond of bajiya, fritters of ground black-eyed peas spiced with turmeric and coriander.

“Yes, it is. You’re half Somali,” I reminded him.

“Well, it’s not your ethnic background,” he said.

“It’s the one I married into.”

Grandma Wolters did pass along some of her cooking skills, though. Perhaps the first thing she taught me was how to make homemade frosting. She’s the one who taught me how to make gravy too. There was never a recipe we referred to for either one – it was a little of this and a little of that until you got the right consistency and the right quantity. Taste and adjust as needed till it’s just the way you like it. That’s actually how I make most of the foods I grew up eating. But I’m an adventurous eater and crave variety more than anything. So I collect recipes too.

When I first asked my husband how to make bajiya he wasn’t even certain what the main ingredient is, but I found a recipe for it online. Now I make it sometimes for company and sometimes just for us. “It reminds me of my childhood,” my husband has said.

I sometimes wonder what foods my sons will remember from their growing up years. And what foods they’ll know how to make from memory… In case they ever change their mind about bajiya, the recipe will be right there in my recipe box.




Five Ways to Help Kids Thrive This Summer

A little something I wrote for our PTO newsletter. 

  1. Take a virtual vacation

Your child chooses several countries he’d like to visit and makes an itinerary. For the first stop on the virtual vacation, he reads about the climate, culture and customs of the country. Together prepare a typical meal from that country and then your child can share some of what he’s learned about the place and perhaps teach everyone a few words from the language. Enjoy a folktale, book or movie set in that locale. The next week, repeat with the second country on the itinerary and so on, until you’ve finished your international virtual vacation.

  1. Entertain the family

Don’t let your child just consume entertainment, suggest she create her own. She can make a movie, develop a board game or write a play to perform with friends or siblings. It may be fun to try her hand at making number puzzles or word games. Book making is another option. Brainstorm ways she can share her final product with others.

  1. Plant something

Kids learn about responsibility by taking care of living things. Suggest your child choose a vegetable or herb for planting if he would like to enjoy the fruits of his labor. If outdoor space is limited, fill a large container with soil and try planting a cherry tomato. Or grow some herbs on the window sill.

  1. Stay active

Summers are short, so make sure to provide ample time for outdoor fun. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. While some children naturally want to keep moving and easily get in an hour of exercise, others may need a little encouragement. Look for new activities to try and repeat favorites often, whether that be a nature walk, a bike ride or a certain sport or active game.

  1. Volunteer

Help your child gain life skills and compassion through helping others. Volunteering together helps your child understand the importance of giving back to his community. Whether you choose to pick up trash at a park, pack meals at Feed My Starving Children or collect supplies for an emergency shelter, volunteering helps stave off a sense of entitlement. Find local volunteer opportunities at an online site such as Hands on Twin Cities.

how parents keep their sanity on cold winter days

Yesterday I felt no reason to venture into the tundra with my two charges, especially when it takes at least 20 minutes to get us all bundled up and out the door. Such is our lot in January in Minnesota. And in February. And much of March.

Today the headline on the cover of one of the free weekly publications I scan on my way out of the library caught my eye: “Hibernation: how to stay home in style this winter.” I just had to grab a copy. Of course, the article didn’t offer much inspiration for my current state. Then again, it made no claims about solutions for keeping preschool boys from bickering or hurting each other when in close proximity for extended periods. (Even so, I’ll hang on to it for the foolproof gnocchi recipe, which I may try soon.)

So I’m still brainstorming. What are some creative ways to pass an hour or two on those days when you’re feeling stuck inside with your kiddos?