Archive | February, 2014

Gift Guide :: Second Birthday Gift Ideas!

becca-garber-second-birthday-gift-guide Last month I had so much fun putting together a list of 1st birthday gift ideas. The list was inspired after talking to my cousin, who is fostering-to-adopt a little girl. (By the way, my cousin’s little family is doing great — better than great — and continues to be an amazing inspiration to me! Will I ever adopt, become a foster parent, or permanently welcome someone new into my home other than pets and our own children? My cousin and her husband are doing it, all for God’s glory, every day. It is such a gift to watch that happen.)

Anyway, the fun continues with a 2nd birthday gift guide today! We have a lot of these toys for Lena, so I can recommend them wholeheartedly. Here are a few ideas for a little person in your life:

1. Play kitchen — Lena’s grandparents and great-grandparents all bought this together for her second birthday. I had researched various kitchens, and I knew I wanted it to be made of wood, aesthetically pleasing, and affordable. This IKEA kitchen fit the bill. I keep it in our kitchen, so the kids always have an easy source of entertainment while I’m cooking.

2. Wooden play food — If any of Lena’s aunts and uncles wanted to get her a gift, I told them she’d be getting a play kitchen and that she might need some play food. They enjoyed this simple and affordable gift idea, and Lena and Gil play with the food almost every day. (FYI, after comparing Plan Toys vs. Melissa and Doug wooden food, I recommend Plan Toys. The paint on our M&D food is already chipping off after a year of use, but the Plan Toys paint is more like a rich, colorful wood stain, so the carrots and cucumbers still look as good as new!)

3. Latches board — My great-grandfather made me a latches board when I was a girl, and my siblings and I loved locking and unlocking the doors and latches throughout our childhood. My children still play with it at my parents’ house! This latches board is a smaller, more colorful substitute. Lena has learned to lock and unlock all the latches, so now it’s Gil who puzzles over it in fascination.

4. Noak’s Ark by Peter Spier — This beautiful book is a Caldecott winner with magnificent, detailed illustrations. Elliott and Lena will unintentionally delay her bedtime as they get lost in their observations of the animals and discussion of the story. (Amazon lists all Caldecott winners on this handy list.)

5. Just-my-size backpack — My mom always put dollar store treats in our backpacks before long plane flights, and we had to wait until we were sitting in our seats before we could see what was inside! In June, my mom bought Lena this adorable backpack, and her grandparents and I had fun collecting M&Ms and Target Dollar Spot goodies to surprise her. Since I was flying home solo with Lena and 8-month-old Gil, I also was very grateful that she could carry her own treasures and entertain herself for a few hours of the trip.

6. Wooden bear family dress-up puzzle — Lena has spent countless hours playing with this puzzle, which was a hand-me-down from some friends. I also like that it includes a whole family (papa, mama, and baby bear) and is gender-neutral (ie. no pink!). We have fun imaging various scenarios and dressing them to go for a hike, to the beach, or to bed after a long day.

7. Lacing cards — Like many of the toys on this list, lacing cards get Montessori and Waldorf stamps of approval for teaching fine motor skills, life skills, and… patience! I love the bright colors, and Lena loves the recognizable characters and fruit from one of her favorite books. I keep them in a cloth drawstring bag, and they often end up in my bag or the car for entertainment on the go.

8. Wooden alphabet magnets — I did some research and learned that most alphabet magnets (like these popular ones) have small magnets glued inside hollow plastic frames, and the magnets can fall out and present a choking hazard. (Plus that aforementioned toy talks to you, and I do not like talking toys!) These beautiful magnets are colorful and artistic, and the solid magnet backing means they’re safe and sturdy.

9. Crayons — For the little artist! These beautiful German crayons are made from high quality raw materials, so they are safe for little ones and leave strong, smooth, bright marks on paper. I love the tin carrying case, too. We spend a lot of time coloring in this house, and I recently bought this jumbo coloring book so we could talk about the Bible as we color together.

10. Giant floor puzzle — Lena loves puzzles, and she’s been having so much fun putting together the puzzles in the Charley Harper Flash Cards and Floor Puzzles set that her aunt and uncle gave her for Christmas. For the younger child, this alphabet puzzle would be a fun way to learn the ABCs and practice fitting jumbo puzzle pieces together.

11. Tea set — Lena was given two tea sets for her 2nd birthday and — after some deliberation — I chose to keep this one and return the wooden set. Why? Because the wooden set couldn’t hold real tea. It didn’t even have an open spout. This tea set, though, holds warm herbal tea, real sugar, and a tiny pitcher of cream for Lena’s weekly tea parties. Imagination and reality converge as Lena practices pouring, serving, and sipping.

12. Punch and drop tower — This was our gift to Lena on her 2nd birthday, but I think our cat has enjoyed batting the balls around the house even more than Lena has enjoyed the toy…! It’s fun and beautifully made, and most of the glowing Amazon reviews state that their children enjoyed it just as much — or even more — than their cats.

13. Freight Train by Donald Crews — Another Caldecott winner and another perpetual favorite in our house. After reading this book every day for awhile, Lena suddenly knew her colors one day. “Red caboose at the back, orange tank car next, yellow hopper car…”

14. Sorting board — We don’t have this toy, but I’d love to buy this or a wooden shape sorter for Gil for his 2nd birthday. Children love figuring these toys out with their parents, and they get such a sense of accomplishment whey they can sort everything themselves!

15. A doll of her very own — When Lena was nearing age two, I did some research to find a “classic” baby doll for her: solid and realistic limbs and head with a soft cloth torso, well-made to last through years of imagination and games, and about the size of a regular baby. I learned there are basically two on the market: the Corelle doll and the American Girl Bitty Baby. Lena’s grandparents surprised her with the latter, and Lena has named her Eden. Even though I rotate most of Lena’s toys, I never rotate Eden. She’s always in the background: in and out of Lena’s bed, getting dressed and undressed, reading stories with us, getting breastfed, and taking airplane rides. She has a lot more stories to tell, I think!


And there you have our favorites! Anything I missed that your young children love day in and day out? With an almost three-year-old and a rapidly-maturing one-year-old — and the onus on me to entertain them all day long — I’m all ears! What toys are your favorites?

9 :: in gift guide, wishlist

For kid-friendly tour of Catania, take a choo-choo train!


Last Friday we finally got to check one very fun cultural activity off our to-do list: ride the tour train in Catania! The miniature train is always driving around the center of “the big city,” and we see it parked by St. Agatha’s Cathedral when we bring visitors to see Catania or go to the market. Lena’s been asking to ride it for months! After I learned kids ride for free (and adults pay 5 euro), the trip takes only 45 minutes, and it leaves every hour on the hour… well, it just seemed too good to pass up.

We invited my friend Sarah and her two adorable sidekicks — Matthew and Aubrey — to come with us, and off we went!


Three very excited kids. Well, Gil was kind of clueless… except that he really wanted to eat Matthew’s train ticket.


Lena: “Why helloooo, Matthew….” Just kidding, I have no idea what was going on here, but it was so hilarious that I had to include it.


And we’re off!


Two very small and very intense train riders.


Matthew with his toy train, and the Teatro Massimo (opera house) where Elliott and I went to a concert for our beautiful anniversary date.


Through the narrow city streets!


Family portrait…


Because Sarah and I had chosen not to snack on Cheerios during the entire train ride, we were in need of fortification afterwards. (Wrangling four children while bumping down cobblestones and carrying on a disjointed conversation must — I am quite certain — burn about 500 calories per hour.)  A cappuccino and arancino set this mama to rights.


Unfortunately, our children only took a few bites before dashing across the piazza to dangle precariously in the fountain. So much for a relaxing meal!

After Sarah gathered her troops and headed back to base for an appointment, my children and I had time to kill, so we decided to get a gelato and enjoy it by the fountain. Lena chose lemon gelato, which was a gorgeous shade of green, like the new green lemons of the winter. She and I loved it, but Gil’s expressions made me laugh out loud. Obviously it was good enough for another taste, though… and another and another!


11 :: in friends, motherhood, travel




The 52 Project: A portrait of my children once a week & every week in 2014.

Lena: After a walk to the playground last week, we stopped in the fish market across the street to buy something for dinner. This time I chose sardines, which I’ve never cooked before. As the fishmonger gutted and beheaded them for me, Lena asked to sit up on the counter to watch him. She’s holding a sardine in her hand! This photo captures so much of our everyday life in Sicily for me right now, fresh fish, countertop observation, and curious children included.

Gil: Last week Gil practiced walking in the gigantic Piazza del Duomo towards St. Agatha’s Cathedral. (Video of this moment is on Instagram too!) I love that he’s taking his first steps in the cultural grandeur of a European piazza! Where else will he walk in his life? I pray for his steps, his vocation, his friends, and his faith every day.

0 :: in 52 project

Confetti (and Crushing Disappointment) at Carnevale in Acireale


Well, we got a spoonful of Italy and a spoonful of misery on this excursion. Lesson of the trip: make lunch reservations on a Sunday afternoon in Italy!


But let’s start at the beginning. As Lent approaches, ’tis the season of carnevale in Italy, and the most beautiful carnival in Sicily takes place just about 30 minutes away from us. We decided to go see the fantastical floats and throw some confetti this past weekend in Acireale (pronounced “ah-chee-ray-ALL-ay).

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The floats were amazing. Historically, artists craft them from papier-mâché and make some into caricatures of political figures or financial crises, thus bringing the spirit of carnival to even the most serious issues.

Lena completely freaked out and started screaming at the first float she saw, leading me to believe that our excursion might be over before it even began! Thankfully some parental encouragement changed her opinion of the technicolor characters coming towards her, and pretty soon she was just as awed and delighted as we’d hoped.

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We walked into the main piazza of Acireale, where a blanket of confetti covered the cobblestones. Elliott unbuckled the kids from the stroller and set them right down in the middle of it, and they had the time of their lives!





Lena quickly got into confetti-throwing wars with other kids. Guess we missed the memo about putting our kids in costumes!

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Finally we packed up and started walking down towards a little fishing village that I had read about in our guidebook. The tiny town of Santa Maria la Scala, the guidebook said, boasted several quaint trattorias that served a delicious seafood lunch. We could pretty much live on seafood, and the hike down to the town sounded simple and beautiful, so off we went.


The hike down was beautiful! But it was a bit longer — and a little harder with a heavy double stroller — than we expected. When we arrived, we started looking for a restaurant along the town’s meandering main street.


Unfortunately, every single restaurant was completely packed. Whenever I caught the eye of a harried waiter, he would ask me if I had a reservation or tell us we’d have to wait 30 minutes. When we looped back after inquiring at every restaurant we could find, the still more frazzled maitre d’s now informed us that it was too late. The restaurants had sold their food, it was now two o’clock, and they were closing.

We sat on a park bench in stunned silence. No food? It was two in the afternoon. We were starving. That hill back up to Acireale was enormous, and it would take us almost an hour of sweat and whining children to reach the top again. Sadly, we unpacked the snacks I’d brought — a meager lunch indeed — and then turned our stroller wheels back to the cobblestone pathway up the cliff.

Elliott heroically pushed that stroller all the way back to our car.

What an end to the day! I did manage to smile about it with Elliott a few days later — “will you ever trust me to plan an excursion again?!” — but I think it will take awhile before we can really laugh about it. So much for excessive eating and bacchanal drinking for our carnevale! More like an early taste of Lent! Thank you to my family for being such troopers, and I promise I’ll make a reservation next time… even for lunch in a tiny seaside village.

13 :: in hiking, Sicily, travel

7/52 and learning to be a thankful stay-at-home mom



The 52 Project: a portrait of my children once a week & every week in 2014.

Lena: We’ve enjoyed so many beautiful fires in our hobbity fireplace this winter! Lena is usually the one who asks Elliott to build a fire in the evenings, and then they sit in front of it and read stories before he puts her to bed. The fact that she loves all of these things — a cozy fire, reading books with her daddy, comfort in such simple and beautiful traditions — gives her parents so much joy.

Gil: His sleeping habits have improved a lot over the past few months, but he still wakes up once between 4-6am to nurse, and sometimes I don’t know if he’ll go back to sleep if he nurses at 6am. This particular morning last week, he didn’t. We welcomed the sunrise on the balcony as I sipped my coffee and he unloaded all the clothespins from the basket.

(Side note: Gil also took his first steps last Thursday! We were Skyping with Elliott’s family, and I was trying to keep Gil amused and quiet. I spontaneously stood him up and then beckoned him, and he took a couple faltering steps towards me… and did it over and over! He’s also saying four words now: Mama, Dada, uh-oh, and hi. And his “bye-bye” wave melts my heart every time!)


As I wrote to a friend this week, I’ve been convicted these past few days about my sense of entitlement. I feel entitled to pretty much whatever I want — to travel, to complain, to sleep in, to get me-time, to spend money as I please, to expect Elliott to care for the kids the moment he walks through the door, and so on and so forth.

When I don’t get what I feel entitled to receive, I complain. I whine. I moan and groan about my life, how hard it is, how no one understands. I read mommy blogs and opinion pieces that all affirm my emotions. As I’m sure everyone has noticed, this is a really popular topic right now. My father-in-law sent us an article which does a brilliant job of explaining why young Americans in particular feel this way.

And then I read this amazing blog post which kind of felt like a bucket of cold water to my face. I SIGNED UP FOR THIS. I knew what I was getting into… or at least I had a very good idea. I decided to have kids. I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. So why am I acting like so many things are such a shock, or such a burden, or such an insult? Babies have poopy diapers, so why do I groan when I have to change another one? Children are messy, so why am I complaining about vacuuming? Kids are slow, so why am I always (always) late instead of just learning to get ready earlier? And why am I so quick to blame everyone but myself?

I told Elliott last night that right now there is no other job I want to do more than this one. Not a single job anywhere in the whole world. I want this, I chose this, I signed up for this. Not only that, but I consider myself richly blessed to be able to stay home with our young children, to write and photograph and record these early years, to be an amateur chef and preschool teacher and best friend, to create a peaceful and beautiful place to call home. I thank Elliott often (and need to thank him more) that he is the sole breadwinner for our family right now.

I’ve asked Elliott to hold me accountable to an attitude of thankfulness. It won’t be easy, but I do want this attitude of entitlement to die. I am grateful, I am so thankful, that this is my lot in life right now. So here’s to being a cheerful worker, and therefore a cheerful stay-at-home mom!

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18 :: in 52 project, Becoming a Stay-at-Home Mom Series, motherhood, thoughts

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