Taking the time to mindset pre-vacation

My stress level had nearly hit the top rung. It was mid-July and we had gone through nearly 2 months of summer without a babysitter. It is the first summer we decided to go without a sitter. Jon would be able to work from home so we figured he could at least have some oversight of the kids. Now, my “oversight of the kids” is quite different then Jon’s “oversight of the kids.” My oversight: I ask to see their homework even when they say they have done it; I make them a sandwich when they say they are hungry and make sure they get some strawberries with that PB&J; I help them clean their rooms while we jam to music. Jon’s oversight: he tells them to grab lunch if they are hungry; he asks them if they’ve done their homework and trusts when they say yes; he tells them they need to clean their room and assumes they will do so while he does his own thing.

With my type A personality, Jon’s oversight can lead to a bit of stress. But even if Jon’s oversight did not stress me, my own crazy worry would do the trick. One week I think that the kids are going to go back to school and be behind all the other kids for not having read six books during the summer or completed their math workbook. Other weeks I am concerned that they are not getting outside as much as they should. And yet other weeks I think they are going to be diagnosed diabetic since all they’ve eaten is crap.

And then there is my general worry about finances, my job, Jon’s job, kids’ college. You name it.

So, needless to say, when we were a few days away from leaving for Michigan, Jon sat me down and reinforced in me that we were going to let all the stress and worry go, and make this a good vacation. He demanded that I not worry about the cost of lunch, or whether the kids read for an hour on the trip, or what the kids selected when we stopped at the gas station to get a snack. “Just let it go” he told me, and “enjoy yourself.”

His advice sank into my bones. I was struggling with trying to let go of work and worry and school and tasks, and his words sank into my bones allowing my concerns to drift off. Our clan had been broken up throughout the summer – either Maria was gone for a couple of weeks or Mario. I had worked long hours some days and not been home when both kids were there. So, I needed this trip to ground me back to what’s important and what matters. In the end, no matter the circumstances – catastrophe or minor setback or huge fortune – family and community and connection drive me.

I breathed in all of the wonder of my small clan as we drove up north. We stayed in a small cottage that I found on VRBO. It was not quite as plush as I thought it may be, but, as with most things, my initial reaction of mediocrity flipped to quaint and charming after the first night of getting accustomed to it.

The hilarious part of the trip was the fact that there was only an air-conditioned unit on the top floor. The top floor was one bedroom with a queen size bed and a twin bunk bed. Jon and I planned on sleeping downstairs and letting the kids have the upstairs. However once Jon found out that the AC was only in the upstairs bedroom, he refused to sleep downstairs. The kids refused to sleep downstairs because they were scared with us being upstairs. Therefore, we all got to sleep together in the same bedroom … like Little House on the Prairie! (“I whispered “good night Mary, good night Laura, good night John Boy” as went to sleep). I ended up on the floor on a futon the rest of the night because Jon and I do not fit in a queen sized bed. One of the kids slept with me each night – I preferred Mario because he does not kick. Jon got the queen bed all to himself (except for one night when he agreed to let Maria sleep with him but regretted it all night as she kicked him every hour).

We woke up most mornings and went straight out to the lake for some paddle boarding or kayaking. We would come back inside and play a game of Monopoly before deciding what the plans were for the day. The kids still like to please their mama so they agreed to a hike most days. It would take us about 40 minutes to get to the dunes so we would make a day out of it and do something around Glen Arbor. What a cute little town. Jon and I have been saying for years that we don’t know what we will do when we retire because we have different locale tastes. He could be on a farm the rest of his life and I could be in the mountains the rest of mine. But we both agreed that Glen Arbor would be a locale we could settle.

It was surreal to climb the dunes with Maria and Mario when I had climbed the exact dunes as a kid with my dad and Meg. Bits of my childhood experiences would pop into my head as we walked on a trail or leaped through the dune sand. Life is strange. They had a love-hate relationship with the dunes and trails like I did as a kid. Part of them just wants to sit back at the cottage and watch You Tube but another part of them enjoys the thrill of climbing up a steep dune and running back down it. When I was their age, part of me just wanted to be back in the city with my friends but another part of me loved conquering those dunes with my family.

They also reminded me of how I would act when they bitched and moaned about how long the hike lasted. They were lucky – when I was a kid, my dad would take us on 3 or 5 mile hikes. I was easy on them with 1 or 2 milers.

One of their favorite places to eat in Glen Arbor was Dune Dogs. It is a little shack that sells hotdogs with all sorts of toppings. Maria, Jon and I also enjoyed the Cherry Hut. Their cherry pies are no joke. Mario, not a fan of cherries, did not find it amazing. But we made him smile with a superman ice cream cone from across the street.

We got our obligatory vacation putt-putt games in as well. The boys won the first game and the girls came back to win the second. We were going to have a playoff game on the last night we were there but the line was ridiculous to play. Mario was so bummed that we could not do it because he was ready to get revenge. We also got to do a ropes course at the putt-putt location. Mario and I had never done one before and Maria was adamant that we try it. She, of course, was fearless. Mario was a bit hesitant but then did great. I was surprised at how nervous I was because it was not ridiculously high. But, I kept my composure and did not scream throughout the climb. A win for everyone.

Oh, and we saw a black bear! Unfortunately, it was a dead one. It was lying on the side of the road behind a maintenance truck. It must have just been killed before we passed it. Poor baby.

Once back at the cottage, nobody wanted to leave. A couple of nights we ran out to grab some dinner (one night we traveled to 5 different spots for a nice Italian dinner only to find carry-out pizza joints so we ended up at KFC enjoying crispy chicken legs and mashed potatoes!). The other nights we made dinner at the cottage and then went out for a night swim. Maria was always ready for a swim and a jump off the dock. Mario, not so much. He had this irrational fear of fish biting his toes. But in contradiction to that fear, he liked standing in the water up to his ankles and watching the tiny minnows nibble at his dead skin. I could not stand it. Maria enjoyed it as well. And Jon. Freaks.

One of the ways I was able to get Mario to jump off the dock and into the lake was to play a game. He, I and Maria would hold hands and have to yell out a certain response to a question while we jumped in the water. I found that one of the questions he loved was to name a basketball player. Ri and I must have jumped off the dock with him 10 times before he realized where he was and feared the fish. The most exciting time for the kids in the lake was when Jon made one trip out to the deck and proceeded to chuck the kids off each time they got near him. They absolutely loved it (and went flying into the water).

Mario did a little bit of fishing but not as much as I thought he would. There were not a lot of fish right by the dock, but he did manage to catch two fish at one time on our first day. Ri tried to fish as well, but we were a bit concerned with her because she is so wild with her casting. She casted her lure right into Jon’s chest at one point.

I thought we would light campfires every night and make s’mores. Not so much. The Ionno family has a real problem with starting fires, which I guess is a good thing in the end. We could not start one in West Virginia and we had no better luck in Michigan. We got a very small one started but it kept dying out. We were able to make some half-baked s’mores but then called it a night due to the massive amount of bugs eating at us. There was no campfire after that first night. We opted for plain old Hershey bars and marshmallows.

I got some alone time with each of the kids, too. Mario and I would swim out to the dock together, and I would play the name game to keep him out there with me for a bit. He also liked playing in the sand with me (competitive castle building). Maria and I paddle boarded together and tried yoga on the boards. We never were able steady ourselves but it was fun to fall in together.

I loved this vacation so much. It was by far my favorite one with the kids. I think a big reason for my enjoyment was because I made a conscious effort to relax and let the stress go prior to heading out. I continuously thought about letting it all go for a few days before our departure. I have failed to take that step and consciously get in that mindset for past vacations. I let go of any expectation that the kids would sit on the deck and read books for two hours or any expectation that I should get up and exercise. We just all did what we wanted to do, which ended up being perfect. The kids didn’t want to play on their phones all the time. They came out and played in the sand and paddle boated with me. I had no desire to go out for a 5 mile run. Rather, I enjoyed walking out in the lake with the kids and sitting on the dock with Jon while they fished.

Another reason I enjoyed it so much was because the kids are older. They were able to do things on their own and engage with us about books, news, movies. On past vacations, when the kids were younger, it was a lot of running after them and long days of sitting in the pool as they said “mom, watch this somersault or “mom, time me while I go under water!”

The number one indicator that I loved this vacation so much was that I still remember it like it happened yesterday. With other vacations, I have come home and within 24 hours forgotten about any fun we had. I immediately got consumed back at work, with school, with errands. But this time, my carefree mindset stayed with me as we passed back into Ohio. Granted, a bit of stress and worry came here and there but it was a lot less intense and I could re-adjust my mind to take me back to what is important in this life. And it surely is not whether I please my boss, get promoted, fail to get my kids to read 6 books in the summer, or feed them Oreo’s for dinner. It is community and my clan and sending love and kindness out into the world.

Summer vacation 2016 – Ace Adventure Resort 

We hated leaving our chalet in West Virginia. Yes, our chalet….

We had grown acclimated to our digs off the dirt road next to the pond full of blue gill. This was the first vacation where I did not look at my watch once to see how many more days we had left (what is it they say? With the kids, it’s not a vacation, it’s a family trip!). Maybe it’s because the kids are older now and more self sufficient. I recall vacations past where the kids would be up at 6:30 am raring to go and pulling us by our hands to hit the pool or the arcade every five minutes. Now, they play on their own during our down times and Jon and I can have a few moments to catch up. But it was also the fact that this was an adventure trip where we were on the go throughout the day – whitewater rafting, ziplining, obstacle climbing – me in my element!

We left on Saturday for the three and a half hour trek to Minden, West Virginia – home of Ace Adventure Resort. We’d never been there before and never heard anyone talk about it either. I found it on Facebook and Ri researched it more after I told her about it. Jon and I loved the idea of only driving 3.5 hours to get to our vacation destination. It’s so nice to simply pack up the truck and head off mid-morning knowing you will arrive mid-afternoon. I only had to pack a couple of bags of snacks for the trip…:). 

  • We arrived at check-in time at the welcome center. They explained the layout to us and we took a look at the lake. It looked just like the pictures with the giant blob floating  near the beach and obstacles scattered throughout the water. Our chalet was about a half of a mile away from the welcome center right off an unpaved road next to a pond. Mario was excited to be next to the pond so that he could fish in the morning (he never ended up fishing in the morning but it sounded good; he did fish with some guys from Marietta one night; saw them the next day and they remembered his name calling out “hey Mario” – he loves that). The kids tore through the chalet to get a feel for where everything was, including their bedroom. They threw their bags down and went straight outside to the hot tub on the back porch. The hot tub was a huge hit throughout the trip. The kids would go in both morning and evening, and Jon and I loved relaxing in it after the kids went to bed. 

Our first night we laid low. We visited the New River bridge (which is taller than the Eiffel Tower). The walkway under the bridge was under construction so we could not walk under it. I was really bummed:). The kids loved messing with me as we drove over it.

We hit up Bob Evans for dinner and Kroger’s to stock up on breakfast and lunch foods and lots of snacks. The Kroger’s was amaze-balls, literally, with two dispensers containing superballs. It took me back to my childhood when I’d head to IGA with mom or dad and beg for a dime to get a new superball. The kids were just as excited to get a quarter and wait to see which ball they’d get (maybe not quite as excited but they played it up because they knew I loved it). 


They also had mini carts at this Kroger’s which mightily excited the kids. They loved pushing them around and throwing items into their cart. We ended up staying there close to an hour that night with the kids pushing the carts around the store. Simple pleasures.


The next morning we had our white water rafting trip. Jon is the only one of us who had gone rafting before. When I told him I had booked the Lower New River he flinched. He thought the rapids may be too much for the kids’ first trip especially because of the flooding West Virginia incurred a couple weeks earlier. A guide had called us the night before and told us that our rafting would likely be canceled due to the flooding but that we could select the New River which was more calm. I knew Maria would want the more adventurous route, so I was inclined to wait to see if the river would go down in a few days and we could still do the Lower. But Jon was fairly adamant that he thought we should just stick with the Upper New River tour. I conceded to Jon since Sunday looked like such a beautiful day to be on the river. Thank goodness I listened to my husband. I about lost it on our first rapid; it was scary as heck. The guide told us that a majority of our trip on the Lower New River would have been the Rapids we went through at the beginning. Again, I thanked Jon for convincing me. 


Jon and I stayed in the front since we had to have a strong paddle through the trip. The kids loved seeing Jon and I get soaked. The guide was awesome and allowed the kids to jump out of the raft and swim in the river in certain spots. She even let them get out and try to swim in the rapids, which freaked me out a bit but they loved it. She also played a game with Ri where Ri held onto a rope and tried to stand up on the raft and not fall off while the guide moved the raft back-and-forth swiftly. We stopped for lunch halfway down the river and they had a smorgasbord of smoked meats and side dishes and tons of brownies. Maria was in seventh heaven – she had been asking throughout the trip what the lunch would entail. 

Our guide let the kids move to the front of the raft near the end of the trip. We got a couple of good rapids while they were in the front, including one that nearly knocked Mario out of the raft. It was such an enjoyable day together; the kids begged to do it the next day. We promised the Lower New River next year when Mario had a bit more weight on him.

Monday was our chill day. We spent the morning at the lake playing on the inflatables. Ri acted like a  drill sergeant and woke us up at 8:15 in order to get us ready to head to the lake by 9 AM. She was hilarious barking orders to eat breakfast and to get our swimsuits on ASAP. Jon dropped us off at the lake promptly at 9 AM and went to work for a couple of hours. 

The obstacles were a trip. Here I was thinking I was in shape and could take on anything. I slipped a few times off of the plastic inflatables and thought I tore both hamstrings! Mario was a little monkey climbing up everything and beautifully jumping off feet first. Ri tried everything with Mario but had a few issues with slipping and sliding off of the top of some inflatables. Nonetheless, she continued to jump throughout the morning. They are both ready for any type of adventure. 

They made me jump off the side of a 13 feet high inflatable. It was one of the scariest things I have done. They must know how much I love them in order to agree to such an act. Of course, they both did it with ease. We cranked the inflatables out all morning, and cranked out the zip line and giant slide, too.



The only thing left when Jon arrived back to the lake was the blob. Ugh, the blob. It looked so much fun when we saw it on Facebook. But that blob was a brutal inflatable device. The trick was to try to sit with your legs out when you jumped off of the landing. It is much easier to watch than to do. Of course, tiny Mario had no issues with it but Ri and I had many. I had major skin burn on my right leg from one fall. Ri hurt her ankle on her fall. But she refused to give up and went back for a second try. She made a better fall on that try but little did she know what was ahead of her. 
She crawled to the end of the blob and sat down with her legs out and her torso leaning forward. The lifeguard at the landing asked her if she was ready and she gave a thumbs up. However, the woman that was going to blob her did not count down for her so she was not ready to pop up. In addition, the woman probably outweighed her by 150 pounds. John and I looked on a bit frightened for her. And then there she went – twirling up in the air – with an unpleasant descent into the water.


She rose up and put a smile on her face for everyone to see. But as soon as she swam over to Jon and I, she was crying. She said she hit a rock. Clearly, she had not hit a rock but she had hit the water so hard that it felt like it. Poor girl. We told her that she had tried it and that she had overcome her fear of the blob and that she could ignore it the rest of the trip. We called it a day after that episode, and went home to change and to head to a new dinner joint for the night. We found Gino’s – the best Italian food (for a fast food Italian joint) that we have ever had. And super service. Maria miraculously  felt better – nothing like a little pasta and meatballs to make our girl feel better.


On Tuesday, we went ziplining. We had another great group of guides to lead us. Maria and Mario had a ton of questions for them as we drove to the start of the tour. The views were gorgeous as we began our adventure. Mario was a bit fearful of the first zip line we went on because it was very high up. He went alongside Maria. When they both were getting locked in, he said that he was a bit nervous to go. The guide said he would do fine and then just pushed him off the platform. My heart sank for him – but when I got over to the other side he was laughing and saying how much fun he had. The guides joked the rest of the time that he was the intrepid one wanting to do flips and go backwards during each zipline; little did they know how intrepid Maria was. She just stayed calm and cool throughout the entire zip line; she absolutely loves those adventure treks.  

The last zipline was terrifying. You either had to fall backwards off of the landing or you had to stand frontwards and see yourself freefall towards the ground. I chose frontwards. The kids ended up choosing the same. But once you fell it was a blast because you could do flips or let go and just swing back and forth until you grabbed the rope and climbed onto the platform.

While we were zip lining, Jon got on a work call. As he loves to do, he got in his car and drove around while on the call. He ended up finding some gorgeous sites for us to visit after ziplining. We visited an overlook where you could see the New River and an old bridgespanning across it. It was a gorgeous view. We also got to visit an amazing waterfall right off the side of the road. Mario found some cool butterflies and Maria got to dip her body into the small body of water that had formed underneath the waterfall.


We decided to head to the lake for another couple of hours of obstacle fun before calling it a day. Ri was obsessed with the blob. She was so scared by it and she wanted to conquer her fears by getting on it again. She could not concentrate on anything else as we played. Mario and I could kept trying to keep her busy with other things but it was no use. She was set on conquering that blog again. So Mario helped her out and told her that she could blob him. She loved the thought of that. She had a perfect jump onto the blob with her legs going out. She was so excited. 


Of course, Mario wanted to blob Ri in return. Mario’s blob was a piece of cake compared to the previous woman’s blob!

​ 

We will never forget the blob, for sure. We also won’t forget the water nymph. There was a boy who was about 70 pounds wet and was about 5 feet tall. He was skinny as all get out. And he would move across the obstacles like a little water fairy. He had the kids and I mesmerized. 

After the lake, we headed out to get gym shoes for me because we had the mud obstacle course adventure on Wednesday afternoon. There was no way that I was getting my nice gym shoes muddy. We found a pair at Walmart for $10. And don’t you know what we did next? Went to Kroger’s to get some superballs and play with the mini carts. Yes, we did this every night except our last night there. Yep. Simple pleasures. And Ri found out she had something in common with the locals –  jumping on a grocery cart and riding it down the parking lot incline. 


This was also the night that Mario found the claw game. He loves trying to win an animal. He had won three at the lake with Jon. He found a little stuffed dog from the movie “The Secret Life of Pets” and he wanted to win it. He won it after two tries. Ridiculous. Then he wanted to win a pet for Maria. We spent $10 trying to get the rabbit from the movie. He had it numerous times but then it would fall out of the claw. So frustrating! Of course, if they had a rational mom, we would have left. But I wanted to win it. So, we went out to Jon and got five more dollars. And my boy won it after two tries again so we walked back out with four dollars left. Yea (forget the ten we spent earlier…)!


On Wednesday, we spent our last morning at the lake climbing up inflatables, trying to cross over lily pads, balancing on a giant dome, and jumping from the top of towers. I braved jumps I had no desire to do only because the kiddos begged me. We did one last water zipline and a few trips on the giant slide, and of course, one more blob. We could watch that blob for hours – it’s addicting watching folks jump on and get blobbed off. Ri got it right when she commented that it could be a reality tv show. 


In the afternoon, we participated in a private mud obstacle course. We thought we’d have to go with a group of 60 but they opened up a time just for us. We had a blast after we got used to putting our faces in muddy water and falling into knee-high mud traps. The mud traps were Ri’s dream. We crawled under wood trellises, climbed over logs, climbed ropes up a wall, scooted up and down plastic tubes. It was a blast!


At the end of the course, you had to jump in the lake and swim to lily pads. All three of us had to get on a lily pad and then jump to another pad. Ri and I acted as a team but Mario was in it to win it.  Typical, Ri just wants to have fun and Mario wants to race. After we went a few times together, I raced Mario while Ri got a drink; he got his shin slammed on the climbing wall and called it a day. He couldn’t stand to be dirty any longer. Ri, on the other hand, wanted to soak in the mud. I let her give me a mud facial, which made her very happy. 

We hosed each other off and went home for a much-needed shower. I didn’t want to get out. But the thought of Gino’s pizza and pasta lured me out and we were off for one final night out. 

We returned to one last jaunt in the hot tub looking up at the midnight blue sky and the stars gleaming down on us. It felt like home since we had been there for four nights.I was disappointed to leave and head back home. This was one of my favorite trips with the kids because of all the adventure treks we went on, the activities at the lake, and being in the outdoors. We took one last look at our chalet and the lake before we left to pick up Rocco on Thursday morning, and wished the folks lining up at the blob good luck. We were on our way back to Ohio but not without some awesome memories of Summer vacation 2016.

Expectations

I had such high expectations for my two days off work two weeks ago to be with the babes on their Spring Break. I need to learn to temper those expectations….

Thursday was great. I drove out to the farm with Rocco and Mario to pick up Ri and hang out with the family. Mario watched a scary movie in the back and chimed in to me every 15 minutes with what was going on in the chosen scene. He got two packs of donuts on the trip and surprisingly gave up on eating the last two donuts in the second pack because his stomach hurt. One day he will learn. 

We took our routine hike once we arrived. Through the woods to the vine. We had to cajole Rocco down the path so the kids could swing on the vine; it freaks Rocco out completely to see them swing on it. He jumps on them and then tears into the vine as if its an intruder. It began to sprinkle and then downpour on us as we walked along the creek. The kids asked to stay in the woods and play while we went back to the house. It’s great they are at an age they can do that. When I got back, I grabbed a sweatshirt for Mario to take back to him since the wind was picking up. Before I got to their hide-a-way, they were running through the pasture yelling “mom!” They had gotten scared of the thunder. They still do need the comfort of their mama.

We dove into birthday cake when we got back to celebrate Meg’s birthday and played a mean game of Clue.   

   

  

We took off before the heavy rain since I turn into a nervous nelly if I have to drive in that stuff.  The kids petted Rocco and we played “would you rather” as we drove home. 

Alana and Gio arrived on Friday morning for our big day at Fort Rapids! We got in our suits and packed snacks and waters and jumped in the truck for a day of bliss sliding down big slides and splashing in the lazy river.

  

We arrived to a line of folks waiting to enter. This should have been a sign. When we finally got in, the kids dispersed and I found a couple chairs to sit our things on for the day. I went down a slide by myself and looked around for the kids. I found Mario; he looked dejected. He complained that Gio kept leaving him. I grabbed a tube and he and I stood in line for 30 minutes to get on the black slide – he was finally tall enough to go down it with me. That livened him up. After we finished, we walked over to our chairs to get some snacks. The rest of the crew was standing there. Ri asked “when are we going home?” 

I could have screamed. They’d been begging to head here for a week and within an hour they were asking when we would leave. 

Deep breath. 

I smiled and said through my clenched teeth “not for a while – go have fun.” To their credit, I was rather annoyed with the place, too. They did not have enough tubes so you had to wait for people to give them up. This took forever because everyone knew they would be hard to get so they refused to give them up. Ri and Alana finally got one but then lost it when they had to go to the bathroom. Mario and Gio nabbed one illegally, I believe, but by that time it was no holds barred and I turned a blind eye….

   

   

By the time 5 pm hit, I had to admit that as much as it pained me to have spent the money I spent on tickets for the entire day (until 9 pm), I was ready to go. The kids were, too. So we rounded up our soaken things and headed home for a sleepover. When I asked the kids if they had fun, they yelled “yea!” and I decided to take that answer and run with it. We will forget the whining to come home and remember the joy of the slides. I told them if they thought the waterpark was fun to wait until they went to the Easter Egg hunt the next morning in Grandview. Ri and Mario told Alana and Gio about it and how many eggs were on the ground. Everyone shouted the number of eggs they’d get “10” “20” “100!”

We woke up Saturday morning and drove down to the park at 9:45. 5-7 year olds were right by the 8-10 year olds. Gio wanted to go with the 8 year olds since he’s 8 but Mario wanted Gio to stand next to him in the 7 year old ring. When Gio refused, Mario got irritated. And the irritation only blossomed. 

We spoke on the way down to the park about the $25 egg. Each year, one egg has a $25 savings bond in it. All the kids were predicting that they’d get it. But Mario especially wanted it. So when the hunt began, rather than diving into the eggs and swooping up as many as he could, he stared at them to see if he could see the $25 in one of them. By the time he reached down to pick one up, all the other kids had taken them. He ended up with one egg.

One. 

And that one simply had a mini Milky Way bar in it, a candy bar he hates. It was not pretty. He stomped away from all of us and pouted on the picnic table. Then the woods. I finally was able to get near him and explained to him that all the other kids only got three or four eggs so don’t sweat it.

“I hate Easter and I hate hunts. I never want to do one again!” 

Meanwhile, Ri and her cousins were scarfing down their loot. Mario finally headed back towards them after I allowed him to say a curse word under his breath. Worst mom of the year? He livened up after that word and we ended up having a great morning at the park and eating candy (so it was well worth it).

   

   

And don’t you know when we went to Grandma Ionno’s house the next day, he jumped at the chance to participate in another Easter Egg hunt.  Sometimes you just gotta let the moment ride out and what ends up happening is that it’s all fine in the end.

  

Pure exuberance

Dad called me as I was unloading bottled waters and Doritos from the gas station to the kids.
“We are heading out to the farm, dad,” I confirmed after seeing his name appear on my phone.
“Great, I was hoping you’d say that! We will see you soon!”
I made sure the crew was buckled – I had pleaded for Sophie and Quinn to come since Ri and Mario wanted them to experience the farm so badly – and veered onto the highway. We drove to Exit 186 and turned off the tv. I made them look for animals. They were excited to get to the farm and see the dogs and horses and chickens. I was excited to see Ms. Elena.
We pulled up and Ri gave Peepaw a huge hug. Rocco went nuts as soon as he jumped out of the car. The boys ran down the hill to play badminton. Yes, the chaos had arrived. Little Elena better get used to the Menkedick energy.
We decided to take the dogs on a hike through the woods. Jorge placed Elena in the Ergo Baby and we were off. Dad and the girls led the way. The kids found the swinging vines and I held Rocco back to avoid him biting at them as they swung. Sar and Jorge broke off from us in the meadow – they didn’t want to overdo it since it was Elena’s first woods hike – and dad and the kids and I continued on towards the pond. The kids couldn’t resist the creek laying to our right. I should have put their boots on them before the hike but I was busy gooing over Elena. Maria, Sophie and Mario jumped right down into the creek not caring if their shoes got wet. Quinn was not so ready. He asked if I’d walk with him and help him traverse the spots without many rocks to use as landing spots. We were very clever finding ways to scale the muddy banks and avoid the water. But eventually we had to climb the thorn-filled hill to the path. Meanwhile, Sophie found a darling salamander.
We rounded up the kids after a bit so we could get to the pond before it rained. Mario was already complaining about wet feet. I scaled down to help him get the sand and pebbles off his feet and put on his soaked shoes. I can’t stand wet feet on a hike but I did not tell him that or else I would have convinced him that he had to be carried the whole way back. Rather, I got away with holding him only a few times throughout the rest of the hike.
I should have listened to dad when he questioned whether we should hit the pond before the creek. About five minutes into resuming our hike to the pond, the kids were complaining of being tired. And hungry (Ri). I yelled up to dad to teach us about some of the trees we were seeing and leaves we were brushing against. And the nature lesson began.
Dad pointed out a beech tree and it’s smooth light grey bark. Next he crushed a spice tree leaf in his hand and gestured for the kids to try the same. They “ohhed and ahhed” over the smell. He showed us a cherry tree (with its jagged puzzle piece-like bark) and a red-bud (with its heart leaves). We found a sassafras leaf and learned that it smelled like root beer. I was learning as much as the kids and just as excited. As a young child, I did not experience the woods and camping out like my younger sis and brother did with my dad. When I go on a hike with Sar, she’s able to point out an oak, a hickory, a certain wildflower, and a great deal of that knowledge was rooted from her hikes with my dad. So when dad pointed at the bark on the cherry tree and described its texture, I felt like an eight-year old absorbing all of his knowledge. And as I watched him walk ahead of me on the trail and answer Quinn’s questions, I felt fortunate to have this time together. You are never too old to learn.
We made it to the pond and Rocco was in heaven. He jumped right in the water and fetched every stick we threw to him. He refused to get out of the water each time he swam back with a stick to us; he’d just wait for another to be thrown.
The kids watched for a bit and then asked for water. Yikes. We had forgotten to bring water. Luckily it wasn’t scorching hot but I knew we were in for some whining on the way back. Again, dad saved the day.
“Let’s play 20 questions! I am thinking of an animal….”
And the questions and guessing began. Then Maria thought of one. Then Mario. Then me. And before we knew it, we were at the abandoned house. And that was super cool for the kids to see.
“Can we go in it?” asked Quinn. Dad couldn’t resist, even when Maria chided “Grandma Meg will be upset if you go in Peepaw.”
He took the kids in and made them be very careful. He talked about who may have lived in the house and held the kids speechless talking about ghosts. They were fascinated. If there’s one gift that I am incredibly grateful for receiving from my dad, it is the gift of exuberation over the simplest of things. Be it a salamander in the creek or a wildflower popping alive in the garden or an abandoned house. He brings positive energy into any place he travels and I’m so grateful to have witnessed that over and over growing up with him.
We traversed the hill back to the house and the kids – who were starving the entire trek home – were enamored with the chickens again and forgot about food. That gave time for dad to go to Dandy Don’s (true name) and get some good ol’ hot dogs and chips for lunch and it gave me time to hold Elena Rosa. Oh, what a doll baby girl.

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I have never seem an infant make so many different shapes with her mouth. I could stare at her all day.
After lunch, the kids wanted to play in the creek down by the house. They also wanted to go in the infamous waterfall but the water was rushing fast after the hard rain so I made them stay in the “wading pool.”
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They even posed “O-H-I-O” while in knee high muddy water.
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They were full of crazy energy once they got Salesville hot dogs in ’em!
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They couldn’t resist jumping in the dog pen and playing. What a hilarious shot our photographer Jorge got:
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Unfortunately, I had to be the party pooper and round everyone up for home even though I seriously wanted to put in my notice and nanny for Sarah full-time rather than head into work on Monday.
The kids begged for ice cream on the way home and I think the brief sugar high they got from McDonald’s Oreo McFlurries combined with the hiking and playing knocked them out. An hour from home and they were zonked.
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And what a way to end a beautiful day – kids in bed as soon as we got home, peanut butter-n-chip ice cream waiting for me, and the Sunday New York Times on my computer screen. Pure exuberance.
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Book fairy and birthday parties

My sis is a book fairy.

She has been gifting books to me over the last few years and has a 100% satisfaction rate. Truly amazing since I am not typically a book reader. A package came in the mail on Wednesday night from Amazon. I ripped it open and found a gorgeous hardback book staring up at me.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.

Loved loved loved it. I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t wait to get home from work to read a book. Finished it in three days. Her story is powerful on many levels but I connected strongly with her mother and the sacrifices she made in order to provide for her family. Ri listened to me read a few pages on Friday night as we laid on the couch together while the boys watched some hunting show. Ri asked a ton of questions with each new page I read and I eventually got so annoyed I had to put my book down and pick Ri’s book up to read with her. We read Wonder together. She was on the chapter where the family dog dies. She began reading the first page of the chapter and we both figured out what was happening. She slowed her reading and when she got to the point where the little boy is crying about his dying dog, she began to bawl. And I joined.

She choked her tears back as she said “I remember you bringing Cy to see me at school before he died. I miss him so much.” Then she cried again. And I joined again. This girl has some serious emotion in her and I’d have it no other way. We laid on the couch in an embrace and cried about our sweet Cy. Then we went to bed.

On Saturday, we hit Mario’s friend, Jack’s party at Sports Ohio. Ri wanted to come with me and Mario didn’t freak our about it amazingly. Kate told Ri she could play in the inflatables with the other kids and Ri was so excited. Mario just didn’t pay her any attention as he ran around with his “bros'” (as he calls them affectionately). They played flag football, too. Ri gave it a try, which completely surprised me. Mario pleaded for the ball at every play.

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Then came cake and ice cream. I scored a huge slice since no other moms wanted any.

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After the party, Ri and I picked up Evie and headed out to my friend’s bonfire party. Ri and Evie were quite happy to see hot dogs and marshmallows and chocolate galore lined up on picnic tables. They played and performed shows for the adults that involved singing and goofy, eight-year-old girl antics. On the way home, they sang Rihanna and Michael Jackson songs.

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Meanwhile, Mario opted to stay home with his dad because he much prefers Jon over me these days. They played Wii football and watched hunting shows and got wings at BW3s. Very manly activities that Mario loves.

On Sunday, we traveled to the farm for another birthday celebration with Meg, dad, Jack, Sar and Jorge. Jon slaved over homemade meatballs and sauce so that we could have a fabulous lunch out there. Meg-pie scored a yummy sheetcake from a bakery out in the hills and even bought chocolate chip ice cream! They do love me!

We took a hike as soon as we arrived out to the vine where Peepaw swung Ri and Mario back and forth to see who fell first. Except they changed into Mabel and Gramps when on the vine and Peepaw called out “how are Mabel and Gramps doing?! I think Gramps is falling! Oh no, Gramps is down!” Ri and Mario laughed hysterically.

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Jack and I walked together and chatted about light-hearted topics like the meaning of life and being in the present moment. I just adore my little bro. And so do Ri and Mario. He raced Mario down the hill and picked him up over his head. He listened to Ri and all of her stories about school and family.

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We came home to a warm meal and lots of kid jokes. Mario told a joke to Jack that Ri taught him:
Mario to Jack: "what's your name?"
Jack:"Jack"
Mario: "what does h-a-s spell?"
Jack: "has"
Mario: is it good or bad to kill someone?"
Jack: "bad"
Mario: "what do you put in your car tank?"
Jack: "gas"
Mario: "Jack has bad gas!!"
Ahh, the frivolity! That started my dad up and he got Mario to say "Mario has a screw loose." Now Mario gets me and Jon with that joke every day.

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I am so lucky to have such a tender good-hearted family. And a family that knows my taste buds! The cake was superb!

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We took another hike after devouring the cake and came back to the house ready to go to bed. The kids would have enjoyed that but we had to get home for school on Monday. And I got yet another birthday gift on Monday – a day off work while the kids were in school!

Nature!

We had to take advantage of the warm October weather yesterday. We packed Rocco’s “bag” consisting of water, bowl, treats, and a chew toy (I finally don’t need a diaper bag and I’m relegated to this). We packed string cheese and crackers and granola bars for us humans. And we headed to Park of the Roses.
I took Ri and Mario there last year sans dog and they loved taking off their shoes and playing in the shallow creek. Quite a number of dogs jumped in with them while we were there and that’s what reminded us that it would be a good place to take Rocco. It didn’t disappoint. Rocco loved being off the leash and running through the damp leaves, picking up tiny sticks, and braving leaps over baby branches pushed easily by strong winds. Mario gave him a run for his money running ahead of him in a mad sprint to see if he could catch up.

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Maria has soaked in the spirit of her late Grandpa Bill and her uncle Jorge; she wanted to take pictures galore of all the glory in the woods.

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We arrived at our destination – a cascading, slate waterfall with mid-calf length pools of water on each end. The shoes immediately came off and the kids became one with the water – literally. Maria laid on her stomach and immersed her whole self. As I watched her, I witnessed pure grace. The way she lifted her head to the sky and closed her eyes as if soaking in all the beauty of the woods with one long breath.

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And then Mario interrupted the tranquility with this face:

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And so we moved from spirituality to frivolity with the help of Mario and Rocco who proceeded to flip out when he noticed Ri and Mario in the creek. He is still a bit shy about swimming so he expressed his displeasure with them going in without him by barking like a rabid mutt. It scared the heck out of Mario. But eventually he settled down with the lull of treats and even jumped into the very shallow end. In a hilarious move, he walked right on Ri’s stomach and used her as a log to protect him from the mean waters.

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An 80 pound black lab visited us at one point in the afternoon and Rocco was beside himself happy. He played with her for 15 minutes straight not at all scared of her size. He even tried to make his moves on her but she was unimpressed (note to boys, jumping our leg does nothing for us).
Nature brings out curiosity and playfulness. You can’t help but jump from rock to rock and pick up the giant leaf resting in front of you to compare it to the size of your hand.

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You can’t help but stand on a boulder and belt out a song about love (yes, Ri and Mario want to be on the Voice badly).

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You can’t help but strike a silly pose when mom begs for a darling picture of her babies.

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And you can’t help but plant a big ol’ smooch on your brother as you play in the creek together.

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Ok, there are some things that even nature can’t make right!

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We have no choice but to make this our regular nature outing – how could we say no to a face like this?

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Pittsburgh weekend

It started with a German Shepherd and a little mutt jumping in the back of the Volvo. Our trip to Pittsburgh to visit Aunt Sarah and Jorge was awesome on so many levels including the hysterical ride in the Volvo with the kids in the back seat nuzzling up to Stella and Mona until Stella tried to jump over the seat and Sarah jumped in the back to school her. Ri and I laughed so hard.

We made it to Sar’s apartment in one piece. We decided to forego the kids museum because we got in later than we expected and because the kids were much more into hanging out with Sarah. We decided to head to the animal shelter because the kids were wanting to hold a dog and Sar and I were each secretly thinking maybe we would take one home (Jon, meanwhile made me swear that I would not engage in such activity).
The shelter was clean and did not contain the usual musty-dog smell of a shelter. It had to be privately owned. We looked at all the doggies in their kennels and quickly decided we wanted to hold Paquita, a chihuahua. We approached the front desk attendant and asked to get him out.

“You have to fill out this paperwork first.”

It was two pages of questions. The lady read over my responses and quickly pushed the paper to the side.

“We don’t allow adoptions farther than 75 miles away.”

Sarah and I looked at each exasperated. We just wanted to hold Paquita. We knew what to do. Sarah filled out the paperwork as if she was going to buy a dog. The attendant knew exactly what we were doing. She started to grill us with questions and then chirped “we don’t have anyone to show you a dog until later.” Sar and I would not be stopped. Sar filled out another piece of paper to see a kitten. After ten minutes, we were in a room with a grey-colored kitty. The kids fought over who could hold her. Sar and I cracked up over the paranoid attendant checking in on us every three minutes. Not exactly what we expected but it was all worth it when we headed to the door and found big ol’ plump bunnies. They were too cute with their double chins and short legs.

The kids were dying to see the hotel after that so Sar dropped us off while she got the dogs. They knew exactly what to do once we checked in – they got on the elevator, found the room, opened the door, scoped out the room and put on their bathing suits. We took a quick swim and met Sar downstairs for a trip to the downtown fountain.

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The kids took turns holding Mona as we walked from Market Square to the fountain. Market Square is a quaint little dining area with a center courtyard. I really liked downtown Pittsburgh. You could see the inside of the baseball stadium from our walk. The hills were magnificent with houses peppered all over them. Trains clamored past us. I love old downtowns.
Sar told the kids they could wade in the fountains and they wasted no time. Mario went in up to his chin and Ri quickly followed. They had many admirers, including the dogs.

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After soaking themselves, we walked over to the Reflective Pool for more “wading.” Sar and I were chatting when Mario came out with his fist balled up. He opened it to reveal a load of change (mostly pennies) that he had gathered. “This is awesome, mom!” Soon after that, a policeman stopped on his bike and chastised Sar and I for letting M&M in the pool (it’s not allowed; I told the kids that they had one cool mom letting them engage in illegal activities). As soon as they got out, Mario started whining about being cold. I knew it.
I carried him back to the car while Ri walked without one complaint (she could last in the Arctic with no issues). We were almost to the car when Ri noticed a horse-drawn carriage. She begged for us to take a ride and I could not say no. Sar stood back with the dogs and we hopped in. The lady waved Sar over and yelled “you can get in with your dogs!” We couldn’t believe it. There we all were in a carriage riding through downtown.

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Ri was in heaven and kept repeating “this is the best!” After the ride, we traveled back to Shadyside, changed at Sarah’s, and headed up the street for Mexican. Sar ordered fish tacos much to my concern but I found out that I love them. They were delicious. Mario took two bites of his quesadilla and passed out on my lap.

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Sar and I got some quality sister time in at the restaurant which was my heaven. Then she got to try out Mario’s scooter on the way home. She cranked it with Ri even doing a jump! When we got home, Ri begged to stay with Sar. We explained to her there would be no breakfast buffet or swimming. She decided to go with me. On the way home, Sar called complaining that she missed the Ri-ster. I asked Ri if she wanted to go back and she jumped up in her seat and shouted “yes!” So I drove her back to Sarah’s and Mario and I went to our room and slept soundly together all night.
We woke up the next morning at 8 (beautiful) and went swimming. He raced me in the pool (swam four laps like it was nothing) and performed “magic” in the hot tub (he waved his hands underwater and made ripples). We were both starved by 9:30 and devoured some waffles and bacon at the buffet (Mario commented “Ri is going to be so mad she missed this.”).
We said goodbye to the hotel and booked it over to Sarah’s. The whole crew was there. Ri loved spending the night with Sar; she slept with the dogs and then with Sarah and Jorge in their full size bed. There is no way Jon and I would have slept.
The family drove to Frick Park for a Sunday hike with the dogs. It was a typical Menkedick hike full of inclines and great finds – touch-me-nots for the kids to squeeze, daddy long legs, beetles, and a snake in the porta potty.

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We were famished when we left the park and darted straight to a quaint brunch restaurant in the Point Break? neighborhood. It had ridiculously yummy food – frittatas, pork and slaw omelette, salmon watermelon salad, and chocolate waffles. We ate and laughed and guessed who sang songs that Ri named.
We took a walk around Sar’s neighborhood after brunch and found a darling street with shops. I loved a card shop called Kards Unlimited. It had New Yorker cards and a ton of others. I could have sat in there for two hours.
Dad attempted to ride Mario’s scooter, which provided much laughter. Actually, I think his nickname should now be Speed Racer. He moved on that thing.

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We left Pittsburgh at 4 and got home by 7:20 (with a stop at the gas station for ice cream and potato chips even). Exhausted and spent, we walked in the house to hugs from Jon and Patty.

Another weekend well spent – goodbye Pittsburgh and Spahr Road – we are lobbying hard for a Sarah and Jorge move to Columbus!