Michigan, take me away…

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.

Temporary only child

Maria has now been gone for 10 straight days. She has reached out to Jon or I maybe two times over that period. She is loving life with her grandma and her cousin as they engage in a road tour of the South to visit their cousin in Savannah. I am grateful for Patty giving the girls this experience. I’ve seen Instagram photos of Tybee Island, the Savannah Riverwalk, homemade pizzas, and Gatlinburg. I cannot wait to hear the handfuls of stories when she comes home.

Meanwhile, Jon and I were left with a single child: Mario. It is initially strange to have only one child in the house but after a few days, it starts to become the norm. It’s as though she’s off at college – we miss her here and there but know she’s doing her thing. When Ri has been gone a few days, Mario visited me at work. We were riding the elevator down to my first floor lobby when he commented “yea, it’s kind of nice being the only child.” He gets all the attention. He doesn’t have Ri bossing him around. He can eat whatever he wants (Jon has little oversight).

He is a fun kid, and we enjoy hanging together. We played a lot of one on one basketball outside (and mini-hoop inside); hit the pool with Jon; went to my work and got Nutella sticks (his favorite); walked the pup; and played baseball.

He asked to travel to Cincinnati with me this past weekend to see Sarah read from her book at Joseph Beth bookstore. He didn’t even complain when I made him listen to a StoryCorps podcast with me for 30 minutes on Ghetto Life. At one point during the podcast, Jon called, so the podcast stopped. After I got off the phone with Jon, I looked at him and asked if he was ready to stop the podcast? He shook his head no and told me to keep playing it. I’m not sure whether he was truly into it or whether he just wanted to make me happy. He is super affectionate with me – even at age 10- and enjoys making me smile.

I took him on a tour of my old Clifton neighborhood. He got to see Calhoun Street and the house that I lived in for a few years on Fairview Avenue. He even indulged me and got out in the 90° heat to take the steps down to the park. Unfortunately, the steps were covered with tall weeds and grasses so we could not make it down. He also got to experience Findlay Market – a place I went to every once in a while with my mom but is a mecca for my sister. She often went there with my mom as a young girl. She and Jorge were sipping on coffee when we arrived. We walked around to the sellers’ stands and checked out what they had to offer. Mario noticed a guy selling fedoras. He was a large black man sitting on a stool with a sweet-looking tan fedora on his head. He looked at Mario and chuckled “you got a little head boy. I don’t think my fedoras will fit you!” Mario smiled and tried one on anyway. Sure enough, it fit pretty good. The man looked at Mario and started laughing. “Well, you proved me wrong, son. Your head is bigger than I thought!”

We bought that fedora up in no time as we chatted it up with the gregarious seller. We then headed over to the succulent plant stand and bought me a couple of succulents. Mario encouraged me to stop when I hesitated in the walkway telling him I really didn’t need one. “Come on mom, they are cheap and they make you happy.”

After the market, we headed to the Underground Railroad Museum. What a powerful place. Mario walked around with me reading about historical slavery, reading about the abolitionists, and reading about modern slavery. He had so many questions around the modern slavery exhibit as it relates to sweat shops in Third World countries and human trafficking. I was brutally honest with him and we had a good conversation outside on the balcony.

After the museum, we had about an hour before we had to head to the bookstore. Sarah invited us to go to their hotel pool. Mario begged me to do it. Of course, I would allow him, I just did not want to go in myself. But he suckered me into it and so we sat in the hot tub and swam in the pool together before the bookstore.

He was a gem at the bookstore, taking care of his cousins and talking with my family members. He enjoyed hanging out with his boy cousins who always roughhouse with him. He also got to see Rod’s new red Corvette. He found a couple of books that looked interesting, and asked if I would get them. My Aunt Julie, the teacher, had a gift card for the bookstore and gave it to me in order to buy his books. What a doll. On the way home, I made him read a few pages from his new book. Then, I allowed him to watch his YouTube videos while we ate Wendy’s burgers driving up I-71.

Mama’s day quiet

I vacillate between saying Mother’s Day is a Hallmark holiday and ridiculous, and feeling like I should be treated like a queen. This is the first year that I did not have my mom or stepmom or mother-in-law over for the day or have the kids hanging with me all day Long. I felt guilty. A bit sad. Glad to have time to take a walk. Lost. This motherhood thing can be an emotional roller coaster.

Really, I should be happy with how the day ended up. I got alone time with Maria. She took a two-mile walk with me and Rocco. Not only that – she actually conversed with me along the way. I thought on numerous occasions during our stroll about how happy I was in the moment – being with her and listening to her words. We didn’t get into any deep conversation about the meaning of life – we talked mostly about the puppies she was going to visit later in the day and about a book we had contemplated months ago about Rocco. I have got to get off my romantic notion that she and I will spend long afternoons talking about the state of this world or friendships or dreams for the future. Right now, I need to be satisfied with puppy talk. The most important thing is that we are together and talking. Later on in the day, we played cards and ate salsa and chips. She also biked to the library with me before seeing the puppies. This was more activity with her than I have had in months. Grateful.

Mario and Jon returned at 7 pm from hunting and fishing – just in time for Jon and I’s kickball game. Mario walked in the door and headed straight towards me for a giant embrace. “Happy Mom’s Day, mom” he said as he held me tight. Grateful. He also scribbled a quick poem to me after overhearing me tell Jon that I was a bit bummed to not get any cards from the kids. This was the first year I didn’t get a fabulous drawing or poem. As we were about to head out for our game, he stopped to tell me about a Langston Hughes poem that he wanted to print off for me. He thought I’d love it. He knows his mama’s taste.

And what about my duties as a daughter? Once kids turn 18, do you know longer have an obligation to give a poem? I talked with my mom, my stepmom, and my mother-in-law throughout the day to wish them a wonderful day. It seems we were all pretty good with time alone; in fact, that may be the best gift we could give each other.

My baby turns 13!

How is it that my little pumpkin girl is turning 13? It seems just a breath away that I was walking down the street calling Jon to announce our pregnancy. I was at the corner of Grandview and Third when Jon answered his cell phone.

He had traveled out of town that weekend to hang with his best friend, Paul. He answered the phone and I think we made chit chat for a minute. I can’t recall exactly how I brought up the pregnancy but I do recall the reaction, pure silence.

There were a lot of “oh my gosh” statements after the silence – a symbol of both joy and fear. We were having a baby! What the heck would happen once we had a baby? We are pregnant! How the heck were we going to handle a newborn?

I recall the first three months of morning sickness. I sat at my desk at Carlile Patchen, and stared into my computer screen hoping that the nausea would subside. I craved giant-sized hamburgers. I longed for chocolate and pickles. The thought of toothpaste made me want to throw up. It was so strange to have all of these sensations. My belly did not start to expand until about the fifth month of pregnancy. It was only then that I could show off my little baby bump. I would rub that bump as if the more rubbing I did, the healthier you would be.

It was around that time that Jon and I found out the sex of our little nugget. I swore I would have a boy. I have always been a tomboy, always been aggressive, loved my sports, and hated dresses. I was positive the universe would deliver a boy to me. I also figured Jon would want a boy even though he kept saying the cliche-ish line “I don’t care what sex it is as long as it is healthy. ” I laid on the table while the nurse pressed the wand hard against my belly. She moved it around and around and finally asked us if we were ready to learn the sex.

YES!

“You have a girl. ”

How was that possible?! How could my testosterone-laden body produce a girl? Whereas I was in shock, Jon was not. He took it all in stride – happy as a peach to have a baby girl. I, however, had major trepidation. That would mean we would have a mother/daughter relationship. Heaven help me. I had past experience with a mother/daughter relationship and it was a struggle. I remember calling my mom to announce that we were having a girl. Her reaction: “oh.” We both must have still harbored a bit of PTSD from my teenage years.

It took a while to get used to the thought of having a girl. I remember walking Cy, our dog at the time, and thinking “how will I ever love a human being as much as I love my loyal pup?” What was my problem?! Yet, although those thoughts went through my head, I still spent countless hours rubbing my expanding belly and listening to Free To Be on any car trip I took.

And then the day came. I went into the doctor’s office for my 9 AM appointment after I had taken a 3 mile run and lifted weights earlier that morning. My doctor performed her weekly exam. While she felt around, she poked her head up.

“You are going to have a baby today.”

What?! I was not having any contractions; I did not feel weird at all. Wasn’t there supposed to be some big revelation that I felt the baby was coming? I called Jon on my way home and told him that we were having a baby. His reaction was the same as mine had been. I arrived home and told Jon I was going to take Cy on a quick walk. He thought I was crazy, but he allowed me to do it (he knows me all too well). We got to the hospital around 11 AM; by that time, I was starting to feel some contractions. They felt like mild cramps, nothing to worrisome. The doctor checked me out around noon, and asked if I wanted to break my water to speed up the process. By that time, my mom had arrived from Cincinnati. We decided to go for it. It was not 20 minutes later that I was sitting on my green yoga ball pushing myself back-and-forth from the hospital bed. The contractions were getting worse. Breathe, Breathe. Breathe. That is all I could hear. It began to hurt worse and worse. But I was in it for the long run with you, baby girl. I wanted to feel every single ache. And boy, did I. There was a period of time where I was on my hands and knees rocking back-and-forth and feeling like I would not be able to survive another minute. Then the contractions would calm down a bit and I’d be able to breathe. But then they would start right back up and I would want to cry. Jon and my mom championed me through it right by my side. Finally, the nurses told me I could turn over and start pushing. What a relief. I pushed so hard, so quickly that I busted all of the blood vessels in my face. I wanted you out! I got to see the top of your head in the mirror and I could not believe it. There you were. All of that belly rubbing produced this little pipsqueak. I pushed one final push and before I knew it, I was holding your little 7 pound body in my arms. What a day.

The politically correct thing to say next is I fell completely and totally in love with you in that moment. Not so much. It took a while to absorb that intense bond between mother and child. At first, as I stared at you while she slept, I felt too many emotions to feel that deep connection. Would I do alright as a mom? Would you love me back? Were you getting all your nutrients? Craziness. And the questions running through my head! Why weren’t you taking my milk? Why didn’t you want to snuggle on my chest rather than move all around in every direction? Why did you have to get up every hour?!

As I became more confident in my role as a mother and you clocked in a greater amount of time on this earth, the connection clicked. My heart exploded with love and adoration for my baby girl, and I swallowed up all of you. And then, there was no turning back. I loved seeing you round, buddha face in the morning (even when you kept me up all night). I could not wait to get out of work and pick you up. I loved taking you on long walks, and having you touch the bark of different trees or smell the scent of different flowers. I couldn’t wait to walk up to Stauf’s with you on the weekend, and have everyone fawn over how cute you were.

I would read the book, Someday, to you nearly every night. The mother in the book watches her daughter grow up, and expresses has hopes and dreams for her daughter along the way. I would tear up every time I read it. One night when you were in preschool, I finished reading it and had those tears in my eyes. You looked up at me as you sat on my lap in that yellow rocking chair. You had tears down your little buddha face.

How biased I was to assume I would have a boy because I had so much testosterone and hated dresses? Sure enough, you were known as “the muscle” at preschool because you would defend some of the timid kids when kids were picking on them. Don’t mess with my girl; she will put you on her place. Heck, you are able to pick up your mom without a problem (there is no doubt your physical dominance is directly from your mom and dad).

You continue to want to be a daredevil. One of the presents you asked for your 13th birthday is a hot air balloon ride. You also asked to skydive (you know your mother will not agree to that) and bungee jump (no way). You will try anything. We love your intrepid spirit.

You continue to forge friendships with a wide array of people. Girls that love sports; girls that love boys; girls that love video games; and even boys. You get along with anybody and everybody that crosses your path.

You love to hug people. You sometimes even ask to hug a family friend you just met. You have no fear of jumping into any conversation. We love your willingness to embrace.

You are the goofiest, dork of a girl at times. You are not scared to make fun of yourself. You are not scared to act like a total fool around people. We absolutely love this about you. The more self-assured you are, the better it will be as you get older. Keep that goofiness about you and do not care what other people think.

You love school this year, as always. You love broadcasting in the mornings, hanging out with your friends, and going to your sporting events and practices. You loved your softball season with the bus rides to and from softball games. You are easy-going and spirited.

Quite simply, Ri, you are a great kid. Dad and I hit the jackpot with you as our first born. You have given us immense joy, and we know that you are going to knock this world out as you continue to get older.

Happy 13th, love!

Mom and Dad

Pittsburgh!

Who wants to go to Florida when you have Pittsburgh for spring break?

We again failed to plan a week-long spring break adventure with the kids. We were so on the ball when the kids were little and didn’t even know that they had a spring break – we went to Florida several years in a row. Now that they’re older and want to go places, Jon and I continue to drop the break ball and procrastinate. I did give them the DC trip for fall break though, so I don’t feel as bad.

We decided we’d hit Pittsburgh to visit sweet Elena and hang out with my sister and brother-in-law for a few days. Patty had invited the kids to Marietta at the end of the week to be with their cousins and celebrate Easter so Pittsburgh provided the perfect getaway spot for a few days. Maria wanted to leave at 6 AM on Sunday morning in order to get there by 9 AM. Mario and I talked get into leaving at 8:30 am. Mario told her he needed to play a little bit of his fortnight game before we left since he’d have no access to Xbox in Pittsburgh. I needed to walk the pup a couple of miles since I knew he would be staying inside with Jon while we were gone (although he loves it because he gets truck rides and pupucinos). We ended up out of the door by 9 AM, which I thought was pretty good.

I allowed the kids to stop at Starbucks and buy their pink drinks and a sandwich treat for the road. They had their blankets and phones, and were all snuggled in for the trek. Little did they know that I remembered to bring their books so that they could read a bit in the car. We had amazing driving weather – no clouds in the sky and a soft sun pressing on the windows. It made for a quick jaunt to Pittsburgh. We called Sarah when we were about an hour away to let her know we were close. She announced that there was an egg hunt at the Aviary. We told her we would head straight there and take Elena on the hunt.

The kids were excited at the thought of an Easter egg. They knew that they were going to miss out on the Grandview one we do every year since they would be with Patty during that time. We scooped up Elena from Sarah a few minutes after we arrived at the Aviary. We walked through the entranceway to find the Easter egg hunt. The kids were cracking up because it was just a small five foot patch of grass with a few eggs interspersed. Kids were told what type of egg to find (robin’s egg, bluebird’s egg, etc.). When a kid found the egg, he picked a plastic egg out of a big basket and opened it up to see what color ticket you got. A blue ticket got you a starburst; a green ticket got you a snickers bar. A bit different than what the kids had imagined. But they hung in there and made it fun. Elena thought it was awesome. We ended up planting ourselves there for a good two hours.

The kids got to fly a simulated flying machine. They were scared when they dipped down between tall buildings. It was hilarious to watch. They played in the penguin area with Elena. We went to storytime, which cracked us up due to the very animated older lady who read the book to us. We fed chickens after the book (the kids were pros due to MamaMeg and Peepaw’s house). We walked around to see the different birds, which Elena helped us identify. We ate lunch; the start of our fabulous eating routine. Here is Sarah and Jorge with all of their organics and granola, and here we are getting carry out pizza and chicken nuggets everywhere we go.

After the aviary, we unloaded all of our bags for a quick stop at Sarah and Jorge’s house. The quick stop included painting Easter eggs. Yet another activity that we typically do at the house before Easter but have been too busy to fit it in. I was happy that Sarah had went out and bought some supplies. After the egg coloring, we hopped back in the car and headed to Frick park. This did not go over as well as planned because we had worn sweet Elena out at the aviary. She proceeded to bawl her eyes out when Mario and I decided to play a little basketball together. But sweet Mario stopped playing in order to hold Elena on his lap and calm her down. Throughout this trip, I was amazed at his nurturing skills. Maria has always amazed me with her empathy and nurturing skills but those skills were not at the top of Mario’s list in the past so it was good to see him be able to go nurture his skills. We obeyed Sarah’s directive to have Elena back by 7 pm to put her to bed.

Maria and Mario got the joy of reading her a couple of books and trying to get her to sleep. About 30 minutes later, Mario quietly descended the stairs and proclaimed that he gives up. “She just won’t go to sleep.” He left the job to Maria. And don’t you know, she eventually got the job done. Of course, she ended up falling asleep as well. But she did rise an hour later in order to chat with us and devour some pizza we bought. She knows she’s got to get to bed at a decent hour because the little one will be up at 6:30 am ready to go. And sure enough, you could hear her asking where Meemaw and Mario were before the sun rose. We got up, brushed teeth, put on some clothes, and got E in the stroller to head to Starbucks. We ate our sandwiches and headed off to Frick with the hopes it brought more joy after a full night of sleep. The slide was still a bit wet from the earlier rain but the kids still enjoyed it. We hung on the jungle gym and Elena loved having Meemaw and Mario sweep under her arms and glide her across the playground like she was a bird.

Monday with the only nice day predicted for the week so we decided to hit the Pittsburgh zoo. The joke while we were there was how many times we went by an animal habitat and there was no animal present. The kids had wanted to hit IKEA on Monday but I refused because it was going to be nice out, and I wanted us to get outside at least one day in Pittsburgh. Hence, they loved to find no animals in their habitats and rib me about it. Although there were less than the optimal number of animals out, the most important one was out: the monkey. That is the only animal Elena wanted to see. We also got to see a giraffe, elephants, and lots of pretty fish. I don’t know what Lanae enjoyed more – the monkeys or eating animal crackers at lunch. Of course Meemaw would not let Elena eat the crackers until she finished her grapes and peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Mario enjoyed laying down the rules as well. I think the lack of rules that Jon and I have instilled has made the kids want to enforce some (but only on others)! Heaven help their children…. Mario was dead tired by the time we left, which cracks me up, because the boy can play basketball for hours or wrestle for days. But you have him walking around the zoo and he complains that his thighs are killing him.

After the zoo, we headed to Whole Foods to get ingredients for dinner. Earlier that morning, Sarah had told us that we were on our own for the day and evening because she had to work and Jorge was in Philadelphia. Maria loved that. She was so excited about “playing house.”

I could not believe the prices at Whole Foods. We bought three zucchinis and they cost nine dollars – outrageous! As I was lamenting the cost, Mario grabbed a little chocolate pretzel out of one of the bulk bins. Elena caught him. She begged for him to get one with her. They both thoroughly enjoyed engaging in some sneaky maneuvers in order to get Elena a pretzel.

As soon as we arrived home and walked in the door, Maria was ready to cook. She told me to leave and take a walk – she had the house, and kids, handled (as if she was 20 years old). And sure enough, she and Mario handled everything perfectly. She made some kick butt zucchini muffins and started dinner while Mario played with Elena. I got to unwind with a walk in the park. Maria made a yummy pasta and spinach dinner for us, which warranted her a trip to Millie’s – her favorite Pittsburgh ice cream spot. It did not disappoint.

When we returned home, I had to jump on a call. When I walked into the living room, this is what I found….

To their credit, this only lasted for about 10 minutes, and then they were up and running around and playing “pioneers” together.

Mario called it quits for trying to put Elena to bed. However, Maria stood strong and succeeded in putting her to sleep a second night in a row. Rock star. The kids played Gin Rummy while I gave Sarah a massage. The next morning, it poured rain. I tried my hardest to get us to walk to Starbucks but I could not convince the kids. Once we started driving there, I was glad that they won. Rain was coming down in buckets. We sat in Starbucks and ate blueberry muffins and oatmeal.

The kids could not wait for our Tuesday adventure. We were finally heading to IKEA! You would think that Ikea was an amusement park the way they were acting. I had read on-line that they were hosting spring break activities at the store but that ended up being a coloring table for toddlers. But that was OK; the store itself provided entertainment. Besides, Maria and Elena really just came for the Swedish meatballs.

After IKEA, we hit to the Children’s Museum because it’s not a Menkedick trip unless you go non-stop for ten hours straight. I had debated on bringing bathing suits for the kids because I knew Elena would want to play in the water play area. But, alas, I had forgotten them. I figured Elena could still splash around in the area without getting too wet. Wrong. She wanted to go fill on under the sprinklers. You know Ri was right there with her caring less that her clothes were soaked. The surprise was with Mario who typically cannot stand getting one inch of his clothing wet. He not only ran under the sprinklers but he allowed Maria and Elena to dump water on his head (but not hear his shoes). to see him because you need to pack everything and it’s tight as possible! He did it all for Elena.

Mario also ended up enjoying the art area. He pooh-poohed it at first when Ri tried to get him to sit with her. He and I and Elena ended up at a table playing blocks for a while. But then he saw kids running their artwork through a drying machine and that intrigued him. I showed him one of Maria’s creations where she traced her initials and that sealed the deal. He ended up in the area for 45 minutes making three separate creations – one with his initials, one with the word “HI”, and one in tribute to his favorite basketball player, James Harden. It warmed my heart watching him and Ri. Elena was simply concerned about getting to the ice cream store. We had promised her ice cream after the museum.

The sendoff was bittersweet, as always. We bounced the ball with Elena out back for a while – she’s got some mad basketball dribbling skills. When we went inside to gather our belongings, she found a birthday invitation from her friend. It was the cutest thing ever. She danced around proclaiming that she’d been invited to a birthday party and then she asked all of us if we wanted to go with her. Darling girl. We did several group hugs and then took off squeezed in the Volvo. The ride home was long; we were all tired, It didn’t help that we filled our bellies with gas station food.

Once we got home, we felt a mixture of relief in being in our own beds but also sadness in missing our little munch. It’s like a tornado ripped through our lives for three days but it was a tornado filled with stardust and glitter and ballerina twirls.

Tinkerbell

Maria nailed Tinkerbell. It was as if Tink swept into Maria’s body one evening as Maria slept. Maria fully brought out Tink’s feistiness and orneriness. She was magnificent.

When she learned of the play in December of last year, she wanted to be Peter Pan or Wendy so badly. Those were the two roles that she knew would be able to fly during production. She asked me to call one of the directors from the December play and see if she would coach her. She agreed to meet with her on two different occasions before auditions at the end of January. She prepared Ri on how to present herself at the audition, how to memorize her lines, and how to give life to them. Thank god she did because it gave Ri the confidence needed to rock her audition. She auditioned knowing that she would not get the roles of Peter Pan or Wendy. They had announced that you had to be under 100 pounds for those roles. My muscular girl would not make the cut.

We got a call back the night she had a sleepover with a few friends. I was going to wait to tell her about getting the Tinkerbell role until after her friends left the next morning. At about midnight, she came running into our bedroom asking if I had heard what role she had gotten. Two of her girlfriends spending the night had received calls from their parents telling them what roles they had gotten. So, I was forced to tell her. She was so psyched.

I did not go to any of her rehearsals. She did not want me at any of them. This, from the girl who was too nervous to audition two years ago and stood by my side until her brother auditioned and brought up the nerve in her to go for it (at that time, they simply had to sing “Row Row Row Your Boat). She likes that the rehearsals and shows are her time to shine. She does not want to be overshadowed or have the disruption of chatty parents (me) or little brothers. She definitely held her own with all of those actors and actresses. The few times I did go backstage to pick her up, she was jabbering away with her fellow cast members who I had never met. She loves that. She is completely comfortable making new friends. And they all love her. Who doesn’t though? Everyone Jon and I meet talk about how down-to-earth and kind Maria is to everyone she meets.

She worked her butt off the week of the play going downtown at 5 PM every night and not returning home until 10:30 or later. She was excited on opening night. Patty, Meg, I and Alana came to watch her. Her voice was a little raspy but she hung in there. She got home that evening and her ankle was bruised and swollen from jumping off the bed in these little flat shoes she had to wear. She drank 3 cups of hot tea to help soothe her throat.

She had her last soccer game on Saturday afternoon. I thought she may want to skip it, which I was against, but instead, she was all in. She is dedicated to her team. We all went to Easton to watch her and when we got home, Sarah and Elena arrived. She played with Elena until her ride picked her up to go to the show. Sarah, Elena, Jon, and my dad went to see her Saturday show. I stayed behind, much to my dislike, with Mario, who felt sick. He had a fever and we figured it was strep throat due to a couple of his buddies who had it the week before. He was bummed out, too, because he had wanted to see Maria in the play. Jon reported that she did fabulous. She spent the night with her three girlfriends who were in the show with her. I went over to the girlfriend’s house to hang out with some moms until midnight. The girls were still up when I left. I was a little worried about how she would feel for Sunday show but she deserved to have a little fun after a week of craziness.

She arrived home on Sunday morning at 8 AM. She had gotten up at her friend’s house and asked the dad to drive her back home so she could be with Elena. Ri roller skated and Elena biked up to Stauf’s for breakfast. Then we hit the park. We did not arrive home until 11 AM. My mom had arrived at that time. We went to the basement for a dance party while my mom gave Sarah a massage. An hour later, Maria had to leave us again to head to her last show. My mom and I arrived 30 minutes early and the line was already out the door. They had sold out of tickets. Luckily, I was able to get my mom a seat. Elena and I played at the park across the street. We met up with my mom at intermission and we were lucky to have somebody leave and give us their seat. I was so happy to see the second half of the play. Maria got a rousing round of applause at the end of the show with some people even standing up. The cutest thing was when we were getting pictures with my mom and a little girl came up to her to ask if she could get her picture with Tinkerbell.

Absolutely adorable.

And Maria was as sweet as sugar giving her a hug and turning around for the camera to pose for a picture. She’s a natural.

7th grade dance

Maria mentioned going shopping for a dress for her seventh grade dance about a month and a half before the dance. Our weekends have been replete with Mario’s basketball games and Maria’s soccer games. We finally found a Sunday to shop. We decided to hit IKEA first to buy a couch we’d been wanting for six months, and then head over to the mall. But Ikea drained the entire family and none of us wanted to go to the mall, including Maria. She was willing to find a dress on the Internet rather than brave a shopping center (our type of girl). She perused the Internet off and on and reported nothing back to me. At some point, I realized we only had another week or so before her dance.

“I’m not spending $45 on shipping fees, Maria. So you need to find a dress in order for it to get here on time.” Sigh.

She found two black dresses off two different websites that I had never heard of before. She sent the sites to me and at 10 PM one evening, I got on the sites. They were ones that infiltrated you with 20 different advertisements while you were trying to check out of the site. They also wanted me to add my email address and personal information several times over. I was getting a bit concerned with the validity of the sites. But, I did not want my girl to stress out about a dress so I continued plugging away. After I completed the sales on both sites, I received email confirmations. The confirmation for the dress that Maria really wanted informed me that although they shipped within two days they may not have the dress for another couple of weeks. Are you kidding?! They did not tell me that information as I checked out, of course. The other confirmation email confirmed that it would arrive “soon.” Seriously? I spent the next hour trying to cancel my orders but had no luck. Frustrated, I searched for the dresses on Amazon. Why did I not look at that before I made the order? Amazon had the exact same dresses and I could get them in two days. I ordered them at midnight. What we do for these kids of ours.

Amazon came through, and we received the dresses two days after I ordered them. Maria loved one of them. She made a video for me trying both of them on and sent it to me while I was at work. It made my day. The dress she liked was classy. Black, off the shoulders, knee-length. Thank goodness. Jon and I are relieved not to have to worry about short, tight skirts and dresses at this period of time.

Two days before the dance, Maria, Mario, and I drove to Target to try to find black shoes. No luck. We tried two other places with no luck. We ended up back at Target. Maria pleaded for some stilettos but compromised with me on a pair of chunky heels. I bought her a little silver chain with a silver ball in the middle; I told her the ball represented the ball of energy she carried everywhere she went.

The day of the dance, Ri got her hair done at a salon. I had said no way to the request but Jon caved. He knew my horrible hair styling skills and felt bad for Maria. After her styling session, three of her girlfriends came over to eat pizza and get ready.

Maria allowed me to do her nail polish. Wrong move. I couldn’t even get that right. We had to have a girlfriend of mine reapply. She did cave in after the nail polish debacle and allow me to try her make-up. I succeeded on that front because she only wanted minimal application. I could handle that.

Next thing we knew, the girls went from Saturday morning chill wear to glamour red-carpet wear! Were these our baby girls?!

They we’re so excited to go to the dance. However, they wanted to keep their cool so they asked me to drive them around so that they would be dropped off at 6:38 instead of 6:30 when it started. Hilarious. Sure enough, there was a group of boys sitting at the picnic table when we drove by doing one of our loops. They were thinking the same thing.

I got a call at the end of the dance informing me that the girls would walk home. When they arrived, much to Maria’s dismay, her girlfriends told me that she danced with a boy. The boy being the boy that she has been friends with since she was in third grade. His nickname is Cookie and he is the sweetest boy in her class. They had video of the two of them dancing to the last song of the night. Again, hilarious. I liked that they were arms distance apart….

The night did not end for them, however. I had agreed that I would take them to a 10 PM movie. I dropped them off in their PJs. They said the movie was awful but they had a blast drinking their Icees and eating their cookie dough treats.