At the end of June, away in the mountains, I sat on a stone patio bordering a valley. Ahead of me was a full panorama of forest, towering green filling the landscape from one side of my vision to the other. Birds cawed out from treetops high above me. The air was fresh and clean. I had hot coffee in my mug. It was a moment, still and simple, I’ll not forget, mostly because of how starkly it contrasted with the morning one year earlier, when I was deep in labor, believing Rocco would arrive that day. (He didn’t.) I almost can’t believe I’m sitting here, resting in the mountains, I kept thinking to myself. I almost can’t believe all that’s happened this past year. Writing this post now, weeks later, after the full seven days we set apart to give thanks for the first year of Rocco’s life, I feel that same incredulity. I find myself nodding with Mr. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, who said, “‘Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.'”
Every time I try to write anything meaningful about the last year of our lives, my words come up short. A time, for me, rich in meaning has been utterly resistant to containment by paragraphs. I can tell you about the beautiful death that can come from having a child, about the sanctifying effect of being stretched where you are weak, about how every individual woman’s experience is so unique and specific that no number of stories or examples you listen to beforehand can ever tell you for certain just what your path will look like. I could tell you about the surface landmarks of Rocco’s first year, the obvious things we’ll remember, events like his marathon birth, the newborn days, his first road trip out of Tennessee, his first tooth, his first laugh, the first time we let him try table food or, more notably perhaps, the surgery I had a few months after he was born, the day we spent in a pediatric wing of the hospital, the helmet he wore for five months of his life.
These realities, however, get overshadowed by the undeniably steady, stalwart arm of providence guiding us, supporting us, helping us, step by tiny step. Throughout the last year, the tender care of our God has been so real, in fact, that often when I rehearse the details of this past year, my eyes brim full of tears. These were the things on my mind when I sat on that stone patio in the mountains. These were the sweet providences for which, during a week in Asheville, we gave thanks.
G. K. Chesterton said, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Doubled by wonder is exactly it. Setting aside time to rest and give thanks and marvel at the sweet, and at times severe, mercies of June 2015 to June 2016 affirmed many truths in my soul; it doubled my happiness. It gave us space to remember and rehearse, in quiet and aloud to one another, the particularities of a landmark year known only to Tim and to me. We had never set aside a quiet week in quite this way before; we may never do it again. What we hope to continue is the commitment to carve out windows of time, be they hours or full evenings, to be still, to study, to think. Prioritizing these habits changes the way we see the world. It enables us to have something to give to it.
In The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge, the main character imagines a destination that may as well have been our home for the week in Asheville. “There would be roomy cupboards and quiet, unexpected corners, and everywhere a sense of peace and leisure. It had an air of dreaming, humble withdrawal, as when an old and lovely woman with a gracious gesture of apology draws aside from the hubbub of life to think in peace.” Reading those words our first night, by the glow of lamplight above the sofa in our modern, green farmhouse apartment, my breathing slowed and my shoulders relaxed. There is something unique about rooting yourself in quietness—a core of sanity that spreads. When we got to tuck ourselves away in our rental, we got to undistract ourselves. We got time to be still, play with Rocco on the rug in the living room, read books late into the evening, cook simple meals together from a more minimal pantry than we have at home.
In fact, cooking from a more minimal pantry, kind of like shopping with a smaller budget or eating on a restricted diet, proved to be a boon for creativity in the kitchen. In the grocery store, standing next to a person buying crackers and seafood and jam, I saw afresh the blank palette the kitchen can be. While my home kitchen is stocked with staples, my rental kitchen was all possibility. What goes on the grocery list when you’re starting with just the basics of butter, eggs, olive oil and salt, I found myself learning. What meals are worth making, when you must purchase every ingredient that week?
After a first day of typical vacation eating—grabbing things on the go, unplanned, last minute, whenever hunger would strike—we realized a better choice for our pocketbook would be to cook in our temporary kitchen as much as we could. We even agreed to meal plan. Meal plan! On vacation! Despite my initial resistance, I have to admit the task ended up being fun. Much the way we plan our weekly meals at home, we sat down at the dining room table and mapped out specific dinners, lunch ideas and breakfast foods, with an accompanying shopping list. Tim and Rocco dropped me off at the store, I filled my cart and we came back to our getaway with provisions for the week.
Here is what I learned about our default dinners: take away the cookbooks and computer screens, and we go default, the kinds of meals we’ve made so often, making them again takes little effort from our brains. For us, on vacation, this meant: roasted chicken legs, oiled and salted in a baking dish with potato wedges, cooked until everything’s golden and crisp; big, fresh salads, like this one, which we’ve been eating together since our earliest days; pizzas on ready-made organic crusts from Trader Joe’s, topped with olive oil, tomato slices, basil and fresh mozzarella cheese; caprese salads because of the leftovers from pizza night; roasted vegetables; boiled, buttered corn; homemade soup from the boiled bones of the chicken legs. Our only seasonings were fresh garlic and sea salt, and our only oils were olive and butter. Still, all week long, I rejoiced to look at my plate.
There are so many great cake recipes out there for first birthdays. Away in our minimal kitchen, we ended up baking our blueberry-loving baby a blueberry first birthday cake based on a blueberry buckle recipe I’d made some time ago. We doubled the recipe to bake in a 9″ x 13″ pan because that’s what we had, and we lowered the sugar content by about a third because Rocco wouldn’t care, and then, instead of a streusel topping, Tim hand-whipped some heavy cream. The resulting cake, with a single candle on top, turned out to be plenty sweet enough and all three of us enjoyed it, not just the one whose birthday brought it about. We ate it for breakfast and snacks until finally, the day we’d be leaving, it was gone.
The rest of the week, we spent more time resting, reading, talking, reminiscing and, here and there, going out into town for some sightseeing or a meal. We drove the Blue Ridge Parkway high into mountain peaks where I giggled with wide eyes looking over guardrails. We visited the ever-impressive Grove Park Inn where strangers took photos of the three of us with mountains at our backs. We had pizza at All Souls and burgers at Farm Burger. And every night, by 6 p.m., we were back at our rental eating dinner together, giving Rocco a bath, tucking him in for the night.
For the rest of my life, I will remember Rocco’s first year as a year of surprises and wonder, of hard decisions and sweet moments, of bewildering valleys and mountaintop joys. It was a year that started with trauma and ended with rest, a year marked by Tim’s sacrifices and my damaged body, a year that set and established our little family in a new way. At the end of it, practicing the discipline of quiet, I will remember how it confirmed afresh the value of accepting what God gives us, when He gives it, How he gives it. I will remember it for drawing me to the One who made me as well as my son. When I hunger for quiet and time to think, when I crave new books and deep conversation, it is because I crave Him, I love Him, I long to soak in His Word and better believe what He says. “Some less important things in your life could stand neglect,” this year has taught me. Like every other gift He’s given me, this year He’s had for us has pointed me to Him.
A Blueberry Birthday Cake
Adapted from this blueberry buckle
To use this as a first birthday cake, we baked the cake the night before, let it cool and removed it to a platter. Before bed, I cut it in half to create two smaller cakes, and I put the halves on top of each other to give the finished cake more height. We had them sit, covered, in the fridge overnight. (You obviously don’t have to put them on top of each other; you could leave this as one large cake; you could place whipped cream between the layers; you could cut each of the two layers in half horizontally to make four skinnier layers and fill them with cream.) In the morning, we topped the cake with the whipped cream Tim had prepared, and then we placed fresh blueberries all over that.
*As noted with the asterisk below, we made this cake without a handmixer, so it was all stirred like the old-school days, and, to make that step easier, I went ahead and melted the butter. Once it was cool, it was good to go without affecting the eggs prematurely. If you were using a mixer, you could just use room-temperature butter.
1 cup coconut sugar
1/2 cup organic unsalted butter, melted and cooled*
2 large organic eggs
1/2 cup water
1 cup plain full-fat kefir
4 cups all-purpose einkorn flour (or your preferred all-purpose flour)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups fresh or frozen organic blueberries (I used half and half)
for the topping:
organic pastured heavy cream, whipped to stiff peaks
fresh organic blueberries
Preheat the oven to 375F. Grease and flour a 9″ by 13″ rectangular baking pan or two 8″ or 9″ pans.
In a large bowl, stir together coconut sugar and butter until creamy. Stir in the eggs. Stir in the water and the kefir.
In a separate mixing container or bowl, combine einkorn flour with baking powder and salt. Stir this dry mixture into the prepared wet one.
The last step is to gently stir in the blueberries, being careful not to overmix and break the blueberries throughout the batter.
Scoop the mixture into the prepared baking pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. (See headnote for suggested serving method)
and a few more photos:
About Shanna Mallon
Shanna Mallon is a freelance writer who holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her work has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including The Kitchn, Better Homes & Gardens, Taste of Home, Houzz.com, Foodista, Entrepreneur, and Ragan PR. In 2014, she co-authored The Einkorn Cookbook with her husband, Tim. Today, you can find her digging into food topics and celebrating the everyday grace of eating on her blog, Go Eat Your Bread with Joy. Shanna lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with Tim and their two small kids.