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Robo turned two a week ago. As is customary for birthdays, I made him a cake—well, it was actually cupcakes. But this was not an ordinary cake because, as most of you know, Robo is allergic to many of the things you would ordinarily put in a cake: wheat, dairy, eggs, and nuts. I didn’t make him a cake for his first birthday because we were traveling in Maryland that day (it was a nearly perfect day of chilling on the beach, eating crabs at a Chesapeake Bay crab shack for dinner, staying at an idyllic beach home, etc.), so he just had an Enjoy Life chocolate cookie with store-bought chocolate frosting on it (many store-bought frostings are dairy-free). So this was my first real foray into allergy-free cake baking.

Well, not exactly. I’ve been making what is usually called “wacky cake” or “depression Cake” for over a year. Since it has no dairy or eggs in it, all I have to do is substitute gluten-free flour for wheat flour, and I’m good to go. Sort of. Gluten-free depression cake is easy but not that delicious, and it often doesn’t cook through all the way in the center (a common problem with gluten-free, egg-free baking in my experience). I could have just made that for his birthday cake, but I didn’t want to.

I started early looking online for a recipe. I started with egg-free chocolate cakes since eggs are usually the hardest thing to find a substitute for. I found a lot of recipes for wacky cake and a few that looked good at first but always ended up containing yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, or some other dairy product that would be nearly impossible to substitute. And these weren’t even gluten-free cakes, so I had no idea how adding that extra complication would affect the recipes.

So I switched to looking at dairy-free chocolate cakes. These ones invariably had 4–6 eggs in them for moisture and flavor. Egg substitutes do exist, but if a recipe was so obviously depending on real eggs, I doubted that just using half a cup of flax “eggs” instead would work.

So I looked for gluten-free recipes. All of those lean heavily on both eggs and dairy (and not just butter and milk, which are easy to substitute). Oh, and plenty of recipes called for coffee in one form or another. I looked at dozens of recipes.

An idea started forming in my mind. I do have a recipe that is gluten-, dairy-, and egg-free, but it isn’t for chocolate cake. It is for these Cinnamon Doughnut Muffins, and they are delicious. The egg substitute in that recipe is a combination of flax egg and applesauce and baking soda, and it works surprisingly well at giving the muffins the kind of lift and springiness that muffins are supposed to have but egg-free baking often doesn’t. They even involve reducing the non-dairy milk so that it is more flavorful and less watery. As a whole, the recipe is well-thought-out, but it isn’t exactly birthday cake.

I started to wonder. Could I adapt the recipe? I am confident at changing dinner recipes and do so all the time, but baking is different. Adding cocoa would change the ratio of dry ingredients to wet ingredients, which could be disastrous if I didn’t adjust things correctly. But by the day of Robo’s birthday, I still hadn’t found a recipe, so I decided to give it a try.

The results were amazing, if I do say so myself. I am still eating like Robo does until he weans, and I haven’t eaten a dessert this delicious in over a year. They were rich, chocolaty, moist, light, airy, and sweet but not too sweet. Seriously, like eating a chocolate cloud. I shared some with a neighbor who is gluten-free and dairy-free, and she loved them too. Robo wasn’t feeling well the night of his birthday, so he didn’t eat any (or any ice cream, which is pretty much his favorite food), but he enjoyed one the next day.

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So, without any more rambling, here’s the recipe:

¾ cup milk of choice (I used rice)
½ cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter or dairy-free alternative,
room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 extra-large eggs*
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups gluten-free all-purpose flour blend of choice (Note that the original recipe called for xanthan gum in addition, but since pretty much all flour blends you can buy contain xanthan gum, I omitted it. The link, however, is to the Gluten Free and More site’s post on gluten-free flour blends, which is informative and helpful.)
¼ cup cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

*To make the cupcakes egg-free, replace the eggs with:

1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon flax meal
3 tablespoons applesauce
3 tablespoons hot water

When making egg-free cupcakes, mix these ingredients well before starting anything else and let sit on the counter until gelled and slightly bubbly.

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a standard 12-cup muffin tin or line with muffin papers.

2. Microwave the rice milk for 3–4 minutes or until reduced to ½ cup liquid. (NOTE: If using dairy milk, do not try the microwave trick. You will want to boil the milk on the stove so you can stir and watch it to prevent boil over.)

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter or dairy-free alternative and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time (not necessary if making egg-free—just dump it all in), and vanilla and beat until well combined.

4. Whisk together the flour blend, baking powder, salt, cocoa, and cream of tartar and add to the wet ingredients. Add the cooled (I didn’t cool mine very long, and it worked out fine) scalded milk in a slow, steady stream, mixing to combine. Beat the batter until it thickens and becomes a bit more elastic.

5. Divide the batter evenly among 12 prepared muffin cups. Place the muffin tin in the center of preheated oven and bake 15 to 18 minutes or until  toothpick inserted in the center of the middle cupcake comes out mostly clean.

I frosted these with store-bought chocolate frosting because it is usually dairy-free, and good dairy-free chocolate frosting is very hard to make at home. I put the leftover cupcakes in a plastic container with a lid, and they tasted great up to three days later, which is rare for gluten-free baked goods, which often get dry and hard even the next day.

 

In the last 18 months, I have lost a lot of weight. Just before my fourth baby was born, in June of 2014, I weighed over 180 lbs. I wasn’t obese, and because I was pregnant and a lot of the weight was in my baby belly, I probably wasn’t even technically overweight (or if I was, not very much). I felt okay in my skin, but I wasn’t thrilled when, after my son was born, I had to go out and buy clothes that were bigger than any I had ever owned before, despite having had three babies before this one. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about what I’ve learned from being a very thin woman in my 30’s, and a lot of it makes me angry.

In November 2014, I found out that my sweet baby was severely allergic to wheat, dairy, and peanuts. I found out in January that we needed to add eggs and tree nuts to the list. And because of the severity of his allergies, he started getting eczema and reflux due to these allergies while he was nursing exclusively. That meant that not only he needed to avoid these foods, but I did as well. It took a while to figure out what, exactly, I could eat. Think about what YOU eat. I’d be willing to bet you eat dairy and wheat in every meal, and that you eat eggs more often than you realize. Did you know that most soy sauce contains wheat? That oatmeal often contains traces of wheat, sometimes more than traces? Did you know that pretty much every gluten-free item at the grocery store contains a lot of eggs? Or that the meat at a lot of fast-food restaurants contains wheat or dairy or both?

I now eat Chex with rice milk (or cocoa puffs or, recently, Cheerios since they went gluten-free) or gluten-free oatmeal without milk for breakfast every day; I eat leftovers for lunch when I have them, or, when I don’t, I eat a certain brand of taquitos, or hot dogs sliced into baked beans; I can almost never eat out or eat “convenience” food, which means I cook every night, and often more than one meal because nobody else wants to eat like I do. Many times, I stop eating because I’m bored with my food more than because I’m full. I’m hungry quite often, though less often now than I was at first because I’m getting better at finding and working with substitutions. I have a plan for the day I wean my toddler, and it includes pizza, donuts, and peanut butter sandwiches.

A couple of weeks after learning about Robo’s allergies and changing my diet dramatically to keep him healthy, I got pneumonia. I was so ill that I struggled even to drive to the school to drop off and pick up my boys. So ill that it took me an hour one day to work up the energy to go to the doctor, and I didn’t have any extra energy for getting dressed, so I went in my pajamas. And then they told me it was just the flu. Four days later, having suffered high fevers and horrible coughs and no appetite for most of a week, I went back (driven by a friend because I was in no shape to drive), and this time they did an x-ray. “You must feel awful,” the doctor said upon seeing my lungs. I almost cried in relief.

I lost 15 pounds that week.

I continued to lose weight due to my diet changes, but slowly. Then, in January of 2015, I got some weird stomach ailment. I don’t want to go into details, but I thought I had a bizarre and severe stomach flu, except it kept coming back every few days or weeks. It had a predictable pattern and unusual symptoms, and every time I got sick, there went another two to five pounds. I saw doctor after doctor. Antibiotics made me feel better while I was taking them, but soon after finishing the course, I would get sick again. So they’d try other antibiotics. Same thing. Stronger antibiotics. Same thing. They did test after test after test, finally ending in a colonoscopy to rule out cancer. And I still don’t have a real diagnosis. The gastroenterologist who saw me called it IBS, but the definition of IBS says it doesn’t cause weight loss.

Anyway, I kept losing weight. After March, it was more gradual, and sometimes I’d plateau for a while before losing again. I think I’m still losing, but I’ve mostly bottomed out at around 110 lbs. I have lost over 70 lbs. in 18 months without trying. And here’s how my life is different today:

1. Strangers and acquaintances compliment me on my weight. When they do, I can always tell there’s a hint of jealousy in the compliment. This didn’t happen very often before, and I’ve been relatively thin in the past. Apparently when you reach critical thinness (AKA almost skeletal), people notice and appreciate it.

2. People ask me, “What’s your secret?” I tell them they don’t want to lose weight the way I have. No, really, you don’t.

3. My grandma asked me what my pants size was and kept commenting that she couldn’t believe I have four kids, as if my weight is some sort of badge of honor.

4. My husband finds me more attractive. That’s fair. I weigh about what I did when he met me. :)

5. At first, I felt weirdly freaked out by my weight loss. My goal when I was still pregnant was to get back down to 130. I hoped but didn’t expect to maybe get back down to 125. I blew right past that goal when I got pneumonia in November 2014, and for a while I thought I’d just keep losing weight at a frightening rate. I saw my 120 pound body as a stranger’s; it felt unfamiliar and sickly. Then 115 pounds, and I felt like I was getting erased. Other people seemed to like how I looked, but I wasn’t planning on it or controlling it, and it was really uncomfortable looking in the mirror for a while.

6. There’s a small part of me that thinks, “If my weird stomach ailment never goes away, at least I’ll probably stay somewhat thin, even after I go back to eating normally.” I hate that part of me. What kind of sick world do we live in where being seriously ill sounds better than weighing a bit more?

7. I have a lot more energy because lugging my body around is easier now. Sometimes I’m amazed by how much easier it is to get up and move.

8. I don’t really feel that 110 pounds is a healthy weight for me. I have gotten here through illness and not eating enough over the course of a year and a half. My body’s equilibrium is 15–20 pounds higher than where I am now. But the world seems to think I’ve arrived at an ideal. That bothers me. Do we REALLY want women to look like they’re sick and malnourished? I’m not saying that all thin women are sick and malnourished. But it’s hard to weigh 110 pounds as a 30-something woman. It takes either a lot of effort and self-denial, a lot of genetic “luck,” or a lot of illness or dietary restrictions to get here. Maybe that’s why it’s an ideal: because almost no one can achieve it.

9. I still don’t have much of a thigh gap. That thing is so stupid I don’t have words.

10. I sometimes feel guilty, like someone let me into the thin club, with all its life benefits, without making me earn it. I feel similarly when I am treated differently because I am white. I didn’t do anything to deserve preferential treatment, but here I am. I wish I knew what I could do to make the world better for those who haven’t been so lucky. It’s hard to change the minds of millions of people.

11. I’ve started looking at people differently, thin and not so thin. I wonder what the story is that got them to the point they’re at with their weight. I know heavier people who count calories and exercise far more than I do. I see beauty in strong, motherly arms carrying children, and large, motherly hips that maybe never went away after childbirth. I thought my hips and arms and stomach would never completely get back to how thin they were before I had children, but my story took a different turn, at least for the last two years. And since I don’t see the results of that plot turn as a victory, I can no longer see weight as a defeat either. Our bodies are amazing and beautiful, and if we do our best to keep them healthy, their size shouldn’t be connected with our value as human beings.

The last month has been a happy blur of Christmas stuff. I tried something I’d never done before and made pajama bottoms for my boys because they found flannel with a Tardis pattern on it at JoAnn’s a few months back and fell in love with it.

Thanks to my SIL, who helped me cut out the fabric and learn how to use a pattern (and because she’s very talented, made a pattern for Robo’s pajamas).

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Robo was still sleeping when I took this picture.

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I could not for the life of me find a black long-sleeved t-shirt in Robo’s size, but his baby blue looks cute, I think.

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Last night before going to bed

Merry Christmas to loved ones near and far.

Warning: Mild Ender’s Game spoilers ahead.

When I was in my early teens, I really liked reading girl books, like horse books, Nancy Drew novels, the Little House on the Prairie series, and some fantasy. So when my dad told me I absolutely had to read Ender’s Game, I resisted. For years. His summary was something like this:

There’s this alien race that almost wiped out humanity, so humanity needs to raise a military genius so that if and when they ever come back, we won’t be wiped out. To raise such a military genius, the military trains promising kids in space in a battle school. The book is about one such kid, and he plays battle games, but he’s so good at it that they keep making the game harder and harder for him, stacking the odds against him. It’s like if the game was chess, they would take away his queen at the beginning of the game. Then, when he still wins, they give the opponent two queens and him none. And so on.

This summary still sounded totally not like my thing, so I didn’t read it until I basically had to for a class in high school. And of course I loved it and fell in love with science fiction as a whole and read everything by Orson Scott Card and met my husband through his web site, so yeah. My dad was right.

The reason I’m posting about Ender’s Game today, though, has to do with the dinner game. I mean, even the moms (and dads) who love to cook struggle to come up with something yummy, nutritious, and fast enough to put on the table every single night. It’s not an easy part of being an adult.

But I feel lately like I’m Ender and the odds are increasingly stacked against me. I am pretty good about planning and shopping for meals well ahead of time, and I usually have cooked real meals every night. I can say that there has only been one occasion when we had cereal or sandwiches for dinner. Yeah, we do hot dogs or frozen pizza or fast food on a fairly regular basis, but on the whole, I was pretty decent at the whole dinner thing.

When Jonathon and I got married, I worried about what we would eat. I am very picky about dairy. Basically, anything cultured is a no for me (with the exception of mozzarella on pizza). I don’t eat cheese, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, even butter (unless it’s in things and not very noticeable). Meanwhile, Jonathon doesn’t eat potatoes or some other vegetables. He doesn’t care for soy sauce. What this meant was that we had to try a lot of new recipes when we were first married. We fell in love with Thai and Indian food together, and we ate a fair amount of Mexican food (I would just leave off the dairy). I joked that we’d be in big trouble if our kids didn’t like spicy food or meat.

Well. Let me tell you.

Lego and Duplo refused to eat anything even slightly spicy for years. They are only recently coming around to Mexican food (and the past few months are actually eating Indian and Thai food without too much complaint, even though they don’t prefer it). But El Guapo is almost completely a vegetarian. He used to eat hot dogs, but now he doesn’t. At least soft, easy to chew chicken is now on his okay-to-eat list, where it wasn’t for a long time. Ground beef is a definite no, as is pepperoni, sausage, pork, roast beef, steak, and any chicken that is too dry or tough for him. Duplo didn’t like rice for a long time, but he’s finally eating it as long as it isn’t plain. Lego doesn’t like tomatoes but will tolerate them in some sauces (not spaghetti sauce, alas).

And that was before Robo joined our family.

Plus, I teach piano until 5 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, until 6 p.m. on Friday, until 4 p.m. on Wednesday (but I hold cub scout den meetings in my home at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays), and until 4 p.m. on Mondays (but we have Family Home Evening at 7 p.m. on Mondays). Dinner is ALWAYS rushed and almost always late (6:30 to 7:00 p.m.).

Now, here are my restrictions on dinner:

  1. Must not contain potatoes
  2. Must not contain wheat
  3. Must not contain dairy
  4. Must not contain eggs
  5. Must not contain nuts of any kind (except coconut)
  6. Must not be too spicy
  7. Must contain enough calories if El Guapo chooses not to eat the meat portion
  8. Must be able to be prepared in one hour, start to finish (almost every day)
  9. Must not be too expensive (Robo’s allergies require us to buy expensive foods for breakfast and lunch, so I try not to go overboard at dinner)

Some people recommend using my crock pot, and I like the idea of that, but so many crock pot recipes are soups or meat-with-vegetables concoctions that are no-goes for my family. Or they contain dairy. Or wheat.

I remember when I found out what Robo’s allergies were, and I sat down with my list of dinner ideas to see what was still on the list. Black beans and rice: check! Mexican food with corn tortillas or shells: check! Thai and Indian food: check!

There was one category that was almost completely eradicated, and that was the “easy meals” category. No more chicken nuggets (wheat, eggs, dairy). No more frozen pizza. No more hamburgers or hot dogs (buns), macaroni and cheese, omelettes, breakfast for dinner, quick quesadillas, bread-based meals, etc. And almost all fast food or pizza restaurants have nothing to offer that Robo isn’t allergic to. So giving up and ordering in is usually not an option anymore. Even gluten-free pizza crust contains eggs.

Lately, I have been making two meals, one easy one like macaroni and cheese for Jonathon and the older boys and one Robo-friendly one for me and Robo (gluten-free spaghetti, tacos, and stir fry are some favorites). But making two meals, even two easy meals, is a LOT of work, and, worse, it makes a LOT of dishes.

I’m still doing it. My family eats dinner every night. But I have come to hate dinner, to feel like the whole things is rigged, and to put off starting it in the evening, which makes the whole thing later and worse. Ugh. Ender got to confront Graff about the whole thing. Who do I call to complain?

Our Home

It has been almost five months since I posted last. What a whirlwind these last months have been! I almost haven’t had time to think, let alone write about everything. House hunting, keeping a house spotless (mostly) for showings, packing up to move, vacation in Washington, DC, and surrounding areas (fantastic!), closing on our house, moving, unpacking, two family reunions, and five birthday celebrations, all before mid-July.

I have been so happy with our new home and excited to share pictures, especially with those of you who live far away, but there has always been a reason why I wasn’t ready to post them. There were boxes everywhere at first, and when we unpacked, we still hadn’t hung art or painted. Then, we finally did paint, but there was a lot of clutter remaining from the painting process until we were all the way finished. Last weekend, Jonathon finished painting the living room and painted all of the office (go Jonathon!), and I have spent the week getting everything clean and pretty. I finally whipped out my handy dandy phone and took some pictures today.

I still am not ready to post pictures of bedrooms, but I am really excited about the potential in our master bedroom. I can’t wait to furnish, decorate, and paint in there! At least we bought curtains. :)

So, without further ado, here’s the house! First up, the front room, which I am using as my piano studio.

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I will hang some art above the piano, but otherwise, it’s pretty much done. I love having all my piano music and teaching supplies close at hand and a room that is separate from our living space so I don’t have to banish my kids from their usual play places when I teach.

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I’m pretty pleased with the $80 green couch I found on KSL and the throw pillows I got for $20 that almost perfectly match it but also make it look more updated.

Next up, the kitchen!

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First up, the amazing island with TWELVE drawers. Can you imagine what you would do with twelve drawers in your kitchen? And yes, there’s something in each one. 😀

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Another view of the kitchen. Are you a fan of the diagonal handles? Opinions seem pretty split among people who have seen them in person, so far. I like them, personally, but I don’t care that much. The backsplash is a small glass tile.

Now the living room, which is right next to the kitchen, with the dining area just behind the red couch. I didn’t take pictures of the dining area because it’s not really done yet, but use your imagination. :)

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Okay, there’s a lot that is new here. The living room is actually a super long room with the blue curtain window at the back of the house and the love seat on the right of this picture dividing the room. Behind the love seat is the play room. Before moving in, I had been worried about how to divide the room to use it for two purposes (living room and toy room). I had considered some sort of an IKEA shelving unit, but it probably would have taken two of them to do what was needed, and I wasn’t totally sold on the idea.

The night before we moved, a tan microfiber love seat was left on someone’s front lawn just half a block away from our new house, and it had a “free” sign. We ran over with the van and brought it straight into our new house, and while it is a bit dirty (I’ve cleaned it, so it’s much better than it was then), it’s in good condition, and it works perfectly to divide the room.

I bought a set of five matching bookshelves on KSL for $105 (they were $125, but I guess the sellers felt bad because we couldn’t fit all five of them in our van at once and had to make two trips, so they gave Jonathon $20 back). They are not SUPER high quality, but they are the more expensive kind you can get at Target, which is good enough for us right now, and they look good with our other dark wood furniture.

I found the curtains for $20 on KSL (regular $70 at Bed, Bath, and Beyond). I love the branch pattern at the bottom.

But changing the curtains to blue meant the sage green and gold and brown and orange in our throw pillows didn’t work anymore, so I reupholstered them, found another couple of pillows at two different yard sales, and brought a few blue and red accessories in.

At that point, the room looked so good that the old entertainment center was sticking out like a sore thumb, so I used all the earnings from our yard sale in August to buy a new one—again, on KSL. Sensing a pattern? I don’t feel like the room is completely done, but I am very happy with how it looks.

 

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No, I don’t actually keep the flowers and stick thingy on the end table all the time. Ten seconds after I took the picture, Robo carried both off and left them on the floor. Back up on the bookshelf they go!

Here is the play room. You can see the back of the love seat on the left and the front room on the right.

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It’s usually a total mess, but I do have to say that we’re doing better keeping toys put away now that they’re right in the center of our living area. We have a wood stove in the corner that we don’t really want and don’t know what to do with. I guess we’ll just leave it for now, and if the world ends, we can use it for cooking and heat, right?

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These are the other three of the five bookshelves I bought together. They are against the staircase and kind of in the play room, off to the right of the previous picture. The stairs actually stare you in the face when you come in the front door, which isn’t my favorite, but seems like a silly thing to worry about in a house I love.

Go up the stairs and you see our office. We also keep the Lego table up here in the hopes that we can keep Robo out of it because he thinks Legos and crayons are the two tastiest objects in the house. I am really looking forward to him not putting things in his mouth anymore. As I said before, Jonathon painted the office on Saturday in a burst of crazy ambition, when he finished painting the living room earlier than he had expected. It looks much better now than the rather bright green it was before. We had wanted to paint the office blue, but we had 1.5 cans of paint left of the tan and no use for them, so we just went ahead and used that. The Sherwin Williams guy thought we’d need three cans just to do the kitchen and living room, but he assumed we’d need multiple coats, and we didn’t.

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So that’s the main living areas of the house. One of my favorite things about this house is the yard. It’s not huge (0.18 acres), but it is packed with goodies, like this grapevine, which produces delicious seedless grapes in abundance:

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And scads of raspberry plants. That small black fence you see in the background of this picture?

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It’s about 3 feet tall. So that gives you an idea of how many raspberries we’re getting every day. It’s a little overwhelming.

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We have tons of raspberry plants cropping up in the garden area, which right now is growing nothing but those, weeds, volunteer tomato plants I’m trying to take care of, and asparagus plants that I will hopefully not kill by lack of know-how. Next year I will plant a real garden, but we moved too late for that this year, and the summer was too busy anyway.

Behind the grape vine, not pictured, is a covered patio where we put a picnic table and a sand box (Robo’s birthday present). Someday we’ll get a real, grown-up grill.

The front yard has an apple tree with yummy apples we’re already enjoying, even though they’re not fully ripe yet (we just eat the ones that fall and cut off any not-ideal parts).

There’s a three-car garage with ample storage and a flower bed that I planted a bunch of perennials in which are doing varying degrees of okay. Anyone know why daisies might get really bushy and healthy but not bloom?

Anyway, it’s a really, really good house for us, and it is only now, three months later, starting to feel like maybe it’s real and not a dream.

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