Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Taking Down The Tree

Today, as I got out the boxes to put away all of our Christmas decorations, Cava told me that he didn't want me to. "Why?" I asked.

"Because it makes me sad," he replied.

To tell the truth, it always makes me a bit melancholy to take down all of our Christmas things. For me, it means another Christmas has past and I think of all of those I love who are no longer with us. I can't help but think of my Mom because she loved Christmas and some of our ornaments are inherited from her. 

Unlike when I bring the boxes out to decorate, when I go to take everything down, it is typically a solo affair.  This time started out the same, but then, as I began to put away the ornaments from the tree, Cava came up to me and asked, "Papa, can I help you?"

My first thought was, No, it will be easier to do it myself. And my second thought was, No, he might break something, but I didn't go with either of these instincts but said, "Sure, I'll hand you ornaments to put in that tote, okay?"

"Sure," he smiled, happy to help.

As we began to put the ornaments away, he would ask me where we got certain ones or he'd tell me which ones he really liked.

At one point, I ask him, "Cava, what was your favorite thing about Christmas this year?"

"Lemme' think," he said and I waited for him to answer, "All my presents" or "Santa."  But he didn't say either of these things. Instead, he told me, "Having a family."

Needless to say, I got choked up. 

Now I have a new Christmas memory that I will always cherish, so I'm glad I didn't tell him, "No," when he asked to help me.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Cava Christmas

It really is amazing to think that this time last year we were in Kiev, Ukraine. Our family had said "yes" to adopting Cava and he said, "Da," that he wanted us to adopt him. Our Christmas last year was as a family of three with a future fourth. All we could think about last Christmas was this Christmas and spending it with Cava. How quickly that year has passed between Christmases and how exciting it was to see Cava's reactions to everything that was new with his first Christmas in the States.

This holiday season was filled with firsts for Cava and he was delighted by all of them. He loved counting down the days until Christmas Eve on the Advent Calendar and telling us numerous times each day about how many days were left. As Christmas Eve drew closer, his excitement over anticipation grew and grew until he was electric with giddiness. Along with counting down the days, he counted each new present that appeared under our Christmas tree. He counted how many were his, how many were Benjamin's, and how many there were total. He vacillated on how many presents he was going to open on Christmas Eve and how many he was going to open on Christmas Morning.

The day before Christmas Eve, Cava began to withdraw a little. At one point, I found him in his room and he was rocking on his bed.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied, unconvincingly.

"Are you sure?"

He finally admitted that he was nervous.

"Pretty overwhelming, isn't it?" I asked him.


"Yeah, it is for a lot of people, including adults. But remember, you were nervous about Halloween and that was fun, wasn't it?"


"And you were nervous about your birthday party, but you enjoyed that, didn't you?"


"And Thanksgiving, too, and you liked that, right?"


"Just watch, you'll love Christmas."

Just going into a store and seeing not only how its brightly decorated but all of the items one can buy (especially the toys) must be thrilling and overwhelming for a child who's grown up with nothing and has lived in orphanages his whole life. Not to mention all of the activity and the break from normal, daily routine. Talk about your sensory overload!

When Christmas Eve arrived and he could barely contain himself. He and Benjamin repeatedly asked us, "When can we open presents?"

"After dinner," both my wife and I replied.

"Can we eat dinner now?" they asked.

"Not for breakfast, no."

For the boys, it seemed like the time to open presents would never come. They wolfed down their food in the hopes that would speed things along, but Danelle and I had told them we weren't going to hurry through dinner and they would just have to wait until we were done. Seeing that this was true, Cava decided to have seconds and thirds (we fixed the Ukrainian dumplings Danelle had gotten at the international market).

Finally, when we had washed off our plates and put them in the dishwasher, the excitement could no longer be contained any more than one can push lava back into an active volcano.

Danelle played Santa and handed out the boys' presents.

It never ceases to amaze and depress me how we spend so much time finding the perfect gifts, then wrapping them, setting the gifts under the tree, and how it is all over with in a matter of minutes (10 minutes to be exact). Of course, we spend on both boys what many people probably spend on one kid. The key is not spending a lot, but on thinking through what gift will be most appreciated by each person. 

For Cava, this year, it was all about Spider-man.

From us, he got Spider-man pajamas:

That he immediately had to put on:

And from Santa:

A Spider-man mask:

A Spider-man clock, wristwatch, and an umbrella:

And a Spider-man spin-brush in his stocking:

Later, when we went to my sister's house on Christmas Day, Granddad Bob and Evette gave him a Spider-man comforter, sheets, and pillowcase.

With Benjamin, it was electronics components:

Jurassic Park (a t-shirt and the DVD trilogy):

Dr. Who (he got the complete series six on DVD) and a t-shirt (that was sooooo Benjamin because it was both Dr. Who and computers):

 For those who don't know the show, its CTRL, ALT, and a Cyberman who are notorious for exclaiming, "Delete!"

Throughout the Christmas holidays, I have tried to imagine how big and overwhelming it all must be for a child who has never experienced any of this. So much of what we have taken for granted: Christmas music, Christmas specials, seeing stores and homes decorated, getting to decorate our own house, presents wrapped in festive paper, and even the story of the birth of Christ was all new to him. We got to share so much with him and see the season through his eyes and just how miraculous Christmas really is.

When I asked Cava what his favorite thing about Christmas was, he replied in Cava style, "All of it!"

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fixing Traditional Ukrainian Food For Christmas

For Christmas Day lunch, which we were having at my sister's, I asked Cava what Ukrainian dishes he would like to have as part of it. The Christmas Eve dinner in Ukraine is a large, twelve course affair. While ours was not going to be so grand, we did want to include Ukrainian dishes in our first Christmas together. Cava chose borscht, cabbage rolls in sour cream sauce, and a lemon, poppy-seed cake. I knew this would be something new, not only because we've never fixed these dishes, but it would be something to introduce all of our family to.

Now, I find that with beets, people either love them or they hate them. There's really no middle ground for beets, so I knew it would be a challenge to prepare a borscht for any of my family members (myself included) who are not beet lovers.

Here are some of the ingredients I used for our Christmas Borscht:

They include: beets (of course), one red onion, celery, carrots, red potatoes, dill, beef broth, lemon juice and sour cream.

First I cut up all of the vegetables, in doing so with the beets, I wore rubber gloves so my hands didn't turn beet red. I cut three beats into small chunks.

Then I cut the red potatoes (I used about half a dozen) into small slices. I cooked those together first in 4 cups water and half the beef broth (It was 32 ounce container. You can substitute chicken or vegetable broth if you prefer). I added a teaspoon of lemon juice to the mixture. 

This is how it looks when its cooking: a beautiful Christmas red.

I let that cook to a boil, then covered the pot and lowered the heat to a simmer.

As I prepared the beets, I had to take the opportunity and sing beet related songs like "Beet It" or "Block Rockin' Beets," much to my family's chagrin.

For the base or Mirepoix of the Borscht, I cut up one red onion (it's best to have the onion in the freezer for about a half hour before cutting it, that way it won't bother your eyes when you cut it). 

Then I cut up three stalks of celery, four carrots, and a quarter of a red cabbage. I also minced two cloves of garlic.

In another pot, I poured a tablespoon of olive oil (in place of Ukrainian gold - butter) and let it heat up before pouring the onion in. I cooked those until they were translucent. Then I added the cabbage, the celery, and the carrots. To this, I added the rest of the beef broth. I cooked these around 20 minutes on low heat.

I cooked the beets and potatoes around 30 minutes before adding the base and some chopped dill. This is how it will look:

Add salt and pepper to taste.

But the real test, for me anyway, was Cava. He was the one who wanted me to fix Borscht, so I'll admit, I was nervous about whether or not he would like what I fixed. When we went over to my sister's house for Christmas Day, I took the Borscht with me.  After reheating the Borscht, we put some in a bowl with a dollop of sour cream and gave the first bowl to Cava.

As soon as he'd finished his first taste, I asked, "Well? How is it?"

"Yummy," he replied. I was happy and relieved. This was a dish that he had been wanting me to fix for some time and, when I bought the ingredients for Borscht, he kept asking me when I was going to fix it for him. I was glad that he liked it, but the same could not be said for the oyster that he tried.

Once Cava had his Borscht, others began to try it. Danelle, who loved Borscht when we were in Kiev, my sister, and my Dad's wife Evette.

Everyone who tried the Borscht loved it and even commented that it didn't taste like beets. My Dad, who hates beets because he says they "taste like dirt," tried a spoonful. He declared it, "Not bad," so I can count that as a minor triumph.

Along with the Borscht, we fixed stuffed cabbage rolls and a Ukrainian poppy-seed cake. Our family wants to incorporate Ukrainian traditions into our family's, including food. And it is obvious that this means a lot to Cava and that he truly appreciates and wants us to fix dishes from his native land. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Trip To The Slavic Market

One of the things that Cava has wanted most from his homeland is brown Kasha. This is something he ate frequently for breakfast. Kasha is a porridge that's typically made of buckwheat groats.

Thanks to the kindness of our friend Yulia, Danelle and Cava went with her and her mother into Charlotte to an international market that sold Russian and Ukrainian food.

Danelle said that it reminded her so much of the markets we shopped in while we were in Kiev that it made her want to cry.

Once inside, Cava tried to get Danelle to buy lots of different items that he claimed were his "favorites," something he does at our regular grocery store.

This was especially true of all of the sweets.

They had Roshen cakes and the same brand of candy bar that we bought and took a bunch to give to the children in the boarding school where Cava came from. It's Olehka, which is the one with the little girl on the wrapper in the photo below.

Something we have wanted to incorporate more of into our family is Ukrainian food, especially for Christmas. One reason is that we want Cava to see that there are many delicious things to eat in his homeland.

Here Cava stopped to take a photo with Mrs. Yulia.

In the end, Danelle bought Kasha, dumplings, sunflower oil (something we had in Ukrainian Ramen noodles), honey gingerbread cookies, and, of course, sweets. 

Danelle said going there made her nostalgic for that period of our family's lives that had such a huge impact on all of us. A lot of emotions were tied up with the whole experience and they came back to her as she walked the aisles. Ukraine is a part of our family now and all of us have missed that country as we have come to the time of year when we were there. 

She and Cava were so grateful to Yulia for taking them there as they experienced old memories and created new ones.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cava's First Christmas Party

Every day, Cava counts the number of Christmas presents under the tree. First how many he has, then how many total there are. It doesn't matter if there are any new presents under there or not. He has also changed the lyrics to "Gangam Style" and dances around singing, "It's Christmas Cava style. Hey, Santa Claus. Bring me presents." Also, on the way to school every morning, he tells me how many more days it is until Christmas Eve and how many more days it is until Christmas Day. Can you tell that this boy is excited about Christmas?

Today was his class at school's Christmas (or Holiday) party, so he was wired all morning beforehand, especially since the kids got to wear their pajamas. To my surprise, he picked some with polar bears (or Christmas bears as he called them) on them instead of his Spider-man ones.

When Benjamin and I picked Cava up from school, one would have thought him on a sugar high he was so excited and bursting to tell us all about his Christmas party. He made a Christmas tree out of an ice cream cone and green icing, which we didn't get to see because he ate it. The class also made their own gingerbread houses out of graham crackers, icing, and candy. Here is Cava in his Christmas crown at home with the gingerbread house he made (and thankfully didn't eat):

He was also very proud to show us the Christmas ornament his friend, Camyrn, made him: a snowman made out of bottle caps. It is now hung in a prominent place on our tree because Cava wanted anyone who came to our house to see it.

"I love Christmas," he smiled. This was followed by, "Are there any new presents under the tree?"

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Trip To Christmas Town

One of our family's yearly traditions has been to drive to the nearby town of McAdenville to see the Christmas lights. This small town has been decorating since 1956. It went from decorating 9 trees to 375, as well as most of the homes. Cava was electric with excitement at getting to see so many lights.  

Even though I've been to McAdenville ever since I was a kid, it was thrilling the first time we took Benjamin when he was little and is just as much so taking Cava for his first time.

The boys packed their blankets and huddled up together in the backseat as we got in the line of cars to drive through the town. Danelle and I were just relieved to see them getting along so well.

Of course, once we got into McAdenville, Cava was all eyes as he stared in amazement out his window at all of the Christmas lights. "WHOA! That's soooo amazing!" he declared.

He and Benjamin darted back and forth in the backseat depending on what side of the car they really wanted to see something, which was the whole ride since there were lights and decorations to see everywhere.

When Cava saw the trees lit around the lake and the Winter Wind blowing, he shouted, "That's so beautiful!"

As much as the boys loved the lights, they really enjoyed leaning out the windows (as the car was moving so slowly that they could) and calling out to people walking along the sidewalks, "MERRY CHRISTMAS!" And were delighted when people called back, "Merry Christmas!" Cava's favorite was the fireman who not only did that in a Santa voice, but even added a, "Ho, ho, ho."

"I love Christmas so much," he told us. "This is going to be the best one ever!"

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Year Ago Today

It's hard to believe that a year ago today, we met our son for the very first time. The night before we rode the four hours from Kiev to the village where the boarding school was, Danelle and I stayed up all night talking about what was going to happen the next day and how it could truly change our family's lives.

The drive was one that was straight out of Doctor Zhivago (except we were riding in a van and not a sled). Miles and miles of nothing but white. Snow everywhere. I'd never seen so much snow in all of my life.

I remember how nervous we all were as we pulled into the gate of the boarding school.

The kids were between classes and the sounds of their voices could be heard just as one would hear in any school. They rushed about us. Some were more curious and stopped and stared at us.

Then we went upstairs to the lawyer's office. We were offered green tea to drink. As the lawyer talked to us through our translator, I remember feeling anxious, knowing how important this was and how much was at stake. We were there about thirty minutes when Cava came in. He was shy and very quiet (very un-Cava like). Whenever he was asked a question, he was so soft spoken we could barely hear him.

While the lawyer told us his story, Benjamin and Cava played on the floor with some toys we had brought for Cava (a toy truck and some Legos). Then Danelle and I played with him. Only an hour had passed when they asked if we wanted to adopt him.

Whoa! I was blind-sided by how quickly that question was asked.

I asked if we could go outside the office and discuss it as a family. They agreed and we went out into the hall.

The first words out of Benjamin's mouth were, "He's my brother."

Danelle said, "I can't leave him behind."

When our translator came out and asked, I replied, "Yes, we want to adopt him." With those words, our lives were truly and amazingly changed forever.

I cannot believe that it was only a year ago that we met our son for the first time. It was a Christmas miracle that God could take us and a little boy from Ukraine and make us into a family. All of this was part of His divine plan and He continues to use this as a way of revealing His love to not only Cava, but to all of us. He opened our hearts to love a small, boy who had a lot of baggage and had suffered loss such as we will never know. What a glorious picture of what Christmas should truly be about. Cava was and continues to be a gift that we cannot thank God enough for.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cava's Christmas Faves - So Far

1. His favorite Christmas special:

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I think the story of misfits who, in the end, are accepted and loved really struck a chord with him.

2. Favorite Christmas song:

Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You." I believe God really does work through music because this was the song that came on my iPod last Christmas, while we were in Kiev, after we'd agreed to adopt Cava but were away from him. When I heard it, it was Cava who I thought of, especially the  lines, "I don't want a lot for Christmas / Not a lot I'm askin' for / I just wanna' see my baby / Standin' right outside my door" because Cava would show up at the door to the room we were staying in at the boarding school. He'd knock and walk in with the biggest smile on his face. So when I heard those lines, I really missed seeing his smiling face.

3. Doing the daily advent calendar. He loves counting down to Christmas.

4. Eggnog. I poured myself some when Cava came up and asked, "What's that?" I told him and he said, "Can I try?" I let him take a sip and next thing I knew he finished it off, "Yummy!" Now there is someone other than me that enjoys this holiday treat in our house.

5. Reading Christmas books together. So far, his favorite has been one that I had as a child called The Sweet Smell of Christmas. The one we read now is one I ordered for Benjamin off Amazon when he was younger. They love the fact that it's a scratch and sniff book with Christmas scents like pine tree, hot chocolate, and candy canes.

6. Watching Christmas movies on Friday nights. His favorite has been Elf. Cava's favorite scene and the one that always causes him to burst out into laughter is when Buddy asks the raccoon, "Somebody need a hug?" Now he walks around doing that to us.

7. Decorating the tree

8. And, of course, seeing Santa, whether it's this awesome one:

Or even this one who's beard doesn't quite fit him.

There is sooo much more to come with Christmas that I can't wait to see what other things we can add to his favorite list!