Middle children are notoriously overlooked and my second child is no exception. Long ago, when I was working full time, she begged me for a day alone with me.

“We’ll see,” I said, evasively, which all children know to be code for, “Fat chance, honey.”

Greta’s health and well-being is a litmus test that reflects the stress in the family. As the stress level increases, strange maladies develop in Greta in what sometimes borders on hypochondria and sometimes is very real. She’s had psoriasis in her fingernails, bladder infections, tummy aches, headaches, knees popping out, etc. The latest has been a feeling that there is too much water in her tummy.

This stress trigger goes back to baby days when we moved across the country to Texas for a job. She was only four months old but she developed “taco neck.” Have you ever heard of such a thing? She had slept too long in the swing with her head to the side and her neck wouldn’t work the other way. I’d pick her up and have to use my chin to press against her head to stretch the neck muscles. And I always laid her on the opposite side to sleep to force her neck to stretch. Then, once we arrived in Texas, the stress increased. We were working for a children’s home, living with up to six children who had no one to care for them or love them. Of course, our hearts went out to them, but all the horrible things they experienced came out in incredible fits and rages and threats. Boundaries set them off. It was not the ideal place to raise your darling little baby.

Greta stopped gaining weight. She was happy, but lethargic. She wouldn’t eat. Doctors always rule out the worse things first. We discovered she didn’t have AIDS, cystic fybrosis, cancer, or other diseases. But each test was excruciating, usually requiring a blood draw or a catheter. Then, the waiting was awful, praying it would be nothing. And still, from six months old, when we arrived in Texas, to ten months old, she had gained nothing. At eight months, when she showed no signs of sitting up or having the strength to sit up, I knew something wasn’t right.

Specialist after specialist gave their opinions. I cried and worried and prayed for help. Finally, help came in the form of a gastrologist who said, “I think you have a little girl with an extremely high metabolism and an overly easy-going personality.” She prescribed a high caloric diet and Greta recovered like my basil plant does when I throw a glass of water on it. The occupational therapist was amazed at her recovery, but warned me, “She’ll always have loose joints and low muscle tone.”

People who know her will laugh at the last statement. She ripples with muscle.

That added stress of Greta’s health with a full-time, stressful job in a place without family support helped us to do what we needed to do: get out of there. We moved to Central Oregon in December of 2000. A few weeks later, Paul got a teaching job.

I’ve seen the pattern occur again and again. Greta lets us know if our family is stressed out. She’s the one that has an emergency that forces us to do what we need to do: move, quit, slow down, come home, spend time, prioritize. I wonder if there’s a “litmus test kid” in every family — someone who shouts out that things are getting too crazy.

Greta’s getting older and seems less sensitive to outside stimuli, but she’s been complaining about her stomach, worrying whether she’s going to heaven, wondering if she can have a day alone with her mama …

“Wait until I’m not working so much,” I said. Then, when I was laid off, “Wait until school is over.” Then, it was, “Wait until I send Daddy off to Alaska,” I said. Then, after I kissed him goodbye, it was, “Wait until I get Elsa off to Italy.” Finally, it was, “As soon as we figure out what is going to happen with the house …”

It was Robin who actually got me to do it. “Bring the little girls over for a play date and take Greta on a date,” she told me and set the day.

Today, was the day. My schedule was cleared out. We woke up and ate Swedish Hotcakes (recipe at the bottom). Then, we drove to Robin’s to drop off the little ones. We tried on a variety of things at Ross’ and got her a dress, a pair of jeans and a shirt. We used a couple of coupons she had for Cold Stone Creamery. Then, we went to Drake Park and laid out a picnic blanket and took a nap in the sun.

“Greta,” I said, all warm and drowsy in the fresh air, “this is my kind of day.” She put her hand into mine and fell sound asleep. We walked along the Deschutes and talked about “shoes and ships and ceiling wax and cabbages and kings.” We visited downtown. We ate lunch a la fresca. We went to Barnes and Noble and ordered cappucin and ate a chocolate eclair while reading celebrity smut in a window seat. All the while the meaningless and meaningful chat flowed between us, drawing us closer, feeding my attention-starved Little-Angel-Kiss-Nose who has done so much for our family — causing us to choose what really matters.

Swedish Hotcakes These are basically crepes, but I grew up calling them Swedish Hotcakes, served with butter and maple syrup. The girls shortened them to “shotcakes.” I used to follow Great-Grandma Elsa’s recipe until I realized that hers was developed during the depression and could use a few more eggs. I’ll give the one-batch version, but we never make less than two. With everyone home, I have to make three batches, because each of my kids eats at least five.

1 cup water, 1 cup milk, 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cup flour, salt to taste.

Mix until the flour lumps are gone. The key to “shotcakes” is seasoning your pans. Be sure to slather them in butter or bacon grease for the first ones. Ladle a scoop of batter into the pan and swill it around to cover the pan. Loosen edges and flip when the batter stops steaming. Sometimes, we fill them with fruit and whipped cream, but the usual favorite is butter and syrup.

Here’s the original recipe: I’ve added eggs for richness and taken out the sugar because I don’t like it if things get too sweet. I also eliminated the oil because the buttering of the pan creates the non-stickiness.

Great-Grandma Elsa’s Swedish Hotcakes

1 cup water, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs, 3 T. sugar, 3 T. oil, 1 1/2 cup flour, 1/8 tsp. salt

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