Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Pictures Are Ready!

As I mentioned in the previous post, I hired a photographer, Julie Kittredge, to take some pictures of my mom and the girls last Friday.

I got Julie's name from my friend Alysa--she had done the most beautiful photographs of their family--and that's what gave me the idea.

Julie met us at the Japanese Gardens near our house. My girls were thrilled because her last name was the same as Kit Kittredge. My mom was resigned to the whole thing because she doesn't like her picture taken under the best of circumstances and certainly not now when she feels her worst. At the same time, she assured me she was happy to do this, and any minute spent with "her girls" was not wasted.

Julie put everyone at ease. She was so relaxed and unobtrusive about the whole process. I really wanted to capture both my mom's peace and serenity as well as the loving relationship she and the girls have. Julie definitely did that. These pictures are just unbelievably beautiful.

Before you look at them though, you have to know a bit more about her. As soon as you mention "professional photography," the first thing that comes to your mind is BIG money. Believe me, I have paid the huge sitting fees and then the print costs. Julie is committed to providing her amazing photos to families at a low cost. In her words, "I know what it's like to struggle financially, not being able to afford luxuries--let alone a real treasure like custom photography of my family. I feel strongly about allowing every family to own beautiful pictures of their loved ones." Then, get this: Julie donates a portion of her fee to Breakthrough Urban Ministries--a shelter for women. How cool is that?

If you live anywhere near me and are thinking about pictures of your family, check out Julie and her fabulous work.

And Julie--thank you for this unbelievable gift. These pictures are indeed our treasure!

So...without further ado--check them out HERE!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The First Swim Meet, or Wherein I Discover Ugly Truths About Myself

Last Friday morning, the girls and I and my mom went to the Japanese gardens near our house with a photographer to have some pictures taken. I had wanted to have this done for awhile, and our window of time is closing soon. My mom doesn't get out much anymore, and I was happy that she made it through 45 minutes of our allotted hour of picture taking.

The girls held my mom's hands while walking through the garden, and Lucy said, "Remember all our walks we used to take, Manga?" and my mom replied, "Yes, we've had some good times together, haven't we, Lucy?"

I've been thinking about the pictures so much lately and planning the girls' outfits and obsessing about the weather--I guess I thought it would make me happy. But when we got there, all it did was make me almost unbearably sad.

Then Friday night was Lucy's first swim meet. She's been on the swim team since September 1st. I never wanted her to be particularly competitive, I just wanted her to try her best and have fun. And maybe get a swimming scholarship to college, but we can think about that later.

She was quite nervous about the meet, so I told her the story of the Rabbit and the Turtle. "So, just keep telling yourself, 'Slow and steady wins the race,'" I ended, "Oh, and it doesn't matter if you win anyway, just keep going and finish. It's supposed to be fun."

When we got to the swimclub, Lucy saw a friend from school who was competing also. They ran off together to get ready for the meet. Elaine and I settled ourselves on the sidelines, while Darren walked around with the camera. Lucy was scheduled for three heats--25-meter backstroke, 25-meter breaststroke, and 25-meter freestyle.

Now, she is a good swimmer, and she's been practicing hard for the whole month, so I settled back to watch her easily take all three of these. In the backstroke, she was up against three other children; her friend from school came in first. Lucy came in last but not by too much.

Here I am, sitting relatively calmly on the sidelines.

Then she got ready for the breaststroke--the hardest of the three. She was competing against two other swimmers on this one.

Her friend from school came in first. Lucy came in last, again--this time by a long margin.

Like I said though, that's the hardest stroke, and she just kept going until she reached the end so I was proud of her. But now I was starting to feel bad.

Then they moved to the freestyle. Lucy is great at freestyle, so I was really ready for her to win this one. Or even second place--I'd be happy with second place. I'm not sure what happened to my "we're not competitive; we just want to have fun" outlook.

The coach said, "Swimmers, take your mark! Go!" and they were off. Except for some reason, Lucy was doing the breaststroke again, while everyone else was swimming freestyle like crazy. Lucy wasn't even to the middle of the pool, and they were almost to the finish. "FREESTYLE, LUCY!" I yelled, "FREESTYLE!" But she didn't hear me. Finally, everyone was just yelling to her, "Finish, Lucy, finish!" and they applauded when she got to the end. Of course by that time, all the other kids had gotten out of the pool.

After that, it was time for the awards ceremony. For each race called, Lucy's friend from school won the first-place blue ribbon. Lucy won the green "participant" ribbon for the first race and the yellow third-place ribbon (since there were only three swimmers) for the others.

"Lucy," I called to her after the first ribbon she got, thinking she might be feeling as terrible as I was and needing me.

"Mom, I just want to be over here with Marissa, OK?" she answered and ran off to her friend.

This is a good thing. A great thing. The last thing I want is some kid who can never leave my side while we have some dreadful, enmeshed relationship and she has to leave college after the first month because she can't be separated from me (that really happened to some people we know).

But standing there all by myself in that swimclub, with my mom leaving me in one direction and my daughter leaving me in the other, I think it is the loneliest I have ever felt in my entire life. And who knows why I felt so bad that she lost every race because when the ceremony was over, Lucy ran to me to show me all her ribbons.

She grabbed my hand and said, "Look, Mama! I got two yellow ones--my favorite color! And I can do anything I want with these ribbons, so I can keep them forever! Did I do OK while I was swimming? Did you see me?"

"You did great," I assured her, "I was so proud of you for doing your best and swimming to the finish every single time. And," I added as only moms can do, "you looked just precious in your swimming suit and goggles."

On Saturday we all went over to my parents' because some relatives had come in from out of town (oh, and I scored a Kate Spade bag for $10 at a flea market, but that's a whole 'nother story), and while we were waiting for them to arrive, my mom was reading a story to Lucy.

I was sitting next to them, drifting in and out of sleep. "Don't wake up Mama, " I heard my mom whisper to Lucy, "she's so tired."

"My mom is tired all the time because she's worried about you, Manga," Lucy whispered back.

"I know she is," my mom answered. "But you've got to help her. You just keep telling her that I'm in God's hands," which is so my mom, always encouraging everyone, always the voice of reason, always tapping on that rock beneath our feet, reminding us that it's there even though we feel like everything is shifting under us.

So it goes on, moms and daughters and daughters and moms, with all the exhilarating happiness and excruciating sadness that goes with them and that unique relationship. We can't do it without each other. One can go for a little while, but she's not ever really gone. And I guess you have to let go of their hand sometimes, but somehow, some way, one of them always comes back again to grab hold of it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where I Start Writing About Books and then Veer Off Into a Bunch of Other Topics

Sometime amidst all the other stuff I have to do today, I want to go to the library. The girls and I went faithfully at least once a week all summer long until we went on vacation, forgot to return a bunch of materials, and then accrued a rather large fine exacerbated by the vicious cycle of shame and dread of paying the fine, which only made it grow. Significantly.

I have to add that library fines are a character flaw of mine. One summer when I was home from college, the Wheaton Public Library called me and said that if I didn't pay my fine immediately, they were going to have to contact the police. "The POLICE? Are you kidding me?" I asked, alarmed. "Not paying library fines is a serious offense, Alice," the librarian said. And I believed her because not only is she a librarian, but everyone knows that the Wheaton police show up en masse if someone loses their bike or if there's a fire in a wastebasket at Wheaton College. Or as Julie says, "Weapons drawn if someone's golf bag gets stolen."

It wasn't until later that I found out that my mom put the librarian up to the whole thing to teach me a lesson. I'm sure after that lady made the call, she and all the other librarians fell down laughing in glee over terrorizing an innocent college student. My relationship with them has been a long and complicated one anyway. A few years ago, Darren and I were at a Nissan dealership, buying a car. The owner went away to run our credit and when he came back he said, "You've got great credit except for the fact that Alice owes the Wheaton Public Library." To this day, I am still not sure if my mom pulled some strings to make that happen.

Anyway, I finally paid our library fine here because Lucy discovered Judith Schachner's Skippyjon Jones books at school and was dying to check some out. Skippyjon Jones is a hyperactive Siamese kitten, according to the School Library Journal, "whose head and ears are too big for his body, and whose imagination is too intense for his mama." That might be getting a little too close to home, but that's OK.

Also, I think it's part of the girls' stealth plot in getting us to buy them some sort of animal. We had been talking about a West Highland terrier, but now they're leaning toward a Siamese cat that they can name "D.C." after this, of course. I started to do a little research about them and found a breeder near us. Actually, I believe it's called a "cattery," and I now may have a new favorite word. This cattery is called "Siamese Royalty," which should have tipped me off right away. I was talking to my friend Christy, who is a vet tech, about it on Sunday.

"They don't say how much the cats cost, but they want $100 deposit," I said. "I'm hoping then that the actual cat costs about seventy-five cents. Do you think that sounds about right?"

"Well," Christy said carefully, "some clients of ours just bought a Siamese cat for $850." Eight.hundred.and.fifty.dollars? She went on, "Actually, they bought two, because cats like each other's company, so they spent $1,700." Seventeen hundred dollars on cats that have a tendency to run out in the street and get hit by a car, so splat, there just went eight hundred fifty bucks? Is their last name Romanov?

I told her, "If I came up to Darren and said I wanted to spend that amount of money on cats, he would tell me, 'Actually, we can take that money and put it down as a deposit for your stay here.'"

Back to books. Since my library exile, I've been rereading P.D. James books, mostly because I'm so sad that the Adam Dalgliesh series that she has been writing since 1962 has come to an end. What am I going to ask for for Christmas from now on? I'm revisiting my favorite (from the 80s), Original Sin, about murder in the publishing industry, Death in Holy Orders, The Murder Room, The Lighthouse, and then the final one, which I got last Christmas, The Private Patient. I want her to keep going, but she did end the series perfectly and, after all, if you can't retire when you're a Dame of the British Empire and almost 90 years old, when can you?

When September rolls around, I like to start reading darker, Gothic stuff. This is when I usually pull Charlotte Bronte off the shelf, because what says Fall more than keeping your crazy wife locked up in the attic until she burns the house down around you? I supposed I could reread Shirley, The Professor, or my other fav, Villette. I also love Daphne duMaurier and pretty much everything she's written. Those are good for this time of year, though I don't reread Jamaica Inn very much because it's the single scariest book I have ever read, including John Harwood's The Ghost Writer, which I read in one dark, stormy night, and it scared me so badly I couldn't go down in my basement for weeks.

But now that I can go to the library with a clear conscience, I think I am looking for something new. Earlier this spring and summer I was on a big kick of reading Indian novels, but I'm in England with P.D. James now, and I'd like to stay there. So, think gloomy, rainy, spooky, and people wearing big cloaks, and give me recommendations if you have them. I suppose I'll take New England if that's what you've got, too.

Maybe there's one where Skippyjon Jones finds a body in the library. Then we'd all be happy. As long as we return it in two weeks.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Think I'm Ready to Retire and Write My Memoir

Thursday has become my new favorite day of the week. The reason for that is because Wednesday is the last night of the week that I teach, so I now have four whole dread-free days until Monday (and I don't count Monday during the day because it's hanging over me that I have to go back at night).

I have this love-hate thing with teaching. I get all enthusiastic about my plans and my curriculum and my materials, but when you get there and actually meet the students who, for the most part, have absolutely no desire to be there, pretty soon you can feel your morale circling the drain.

I used to teach at a university. I taught in an evening program that was designed for adults returning to school--writing, literature, and film (OK, the film part was a complete joke. They didn't have anyone to teach it and they knew I would do anything, so they gave it to me. We spent the quarter watching Alfred Hitchcock movies and the Thin Man series just because I like them, and I cobbled together important scholastic reasons why they should too.)

I decided to take a break five years ago because Lucy was a baby, I was still working my day job, and I figured I could be home in the evenings putting her to bed and watching The Newlywed Show with Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson on MTV instead of slogging out to teach at night. I am nothing if not driven.

But now, out of the blue, I got this offer to teach writing at our local community college, and a wave of fall nostalgia and the surge of joy I get from designing curriculum came over me, so I agreed to do it.

Now I am there, two nights a week, trying to get a group of students excited about the written word--about reading, about sentence structure, about research, about putting down thoughts on paper in a coherent manner--while they stare blankly at me. (Believe me--I feel fortunate that we've moved from hostile to blank.)

The theme of our course is that life is the stuff of writing. We can cull from our experiences and find all the humor and pathos on display in our daily existence and then write about it. (Wait, are you staring at me blankly now?) We're reading memoirs and essays and watching clips about all this. We're freewriting every night. We're in the middle of our exploratory papers. Doesn't that sound exciting?

Yet I find myself continually bogged down in the mundane. Picture the teacher who just delivered a stirring lecture and is thrilled to see a student's hand waving wildly. Turns out the student just wanted to use the bathroom.

I find myself explaining even the smallest, most basic concept repeatedly: such as, we should cite our sources; we should have a subject and verb in our sentences, (oh wait, and also explain exactly what the subject of a sentence is); we should use 11.5 font on our papers and not 16 pt; we should type our papers on our computers and not turn them in on lined paper written in pencil; what an outline is; what a rough draft is; how a rough draft is different from an outline; we should have four sources of information for our paper, not one, (and yet they still turn in papers in which they have used only one source--who DOES that?); and on and on it goes.

Here's an example: I had the students read Jonathan Franzen's essay, "Comfort Zone," about being 10 years old in the turbulent late 60s and finding solace in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," (which they thought was "totally boring.") I said, "Drawing on Franzen's example, I'd like you to write about an element of culture that has impacted you in a significant way. Write about a historic event, a well-known person, some music, a film--something recognizable from our culture that has affected you." Then I said, "Please don't write about your mom. Don't write about your third-grade teacher. Write about something from our contemporary culture."

A student raised her hand, crinkling her forehead at me. "You want us to write about...what? I don't get it." I laboriously explained the above that I had already gone over at least three times. She then said, "Ohhhhhh. So you want us to write about one of our family members?"

These are students who had to either pass a development course or pass an exam that proves they can read and write at a 10th grade level. Why it's not a 12th-grade level, I don't know, but it isn't. I echo [fictitious] President Bartlet in saying, "CJ, if we don't completely, and I mean COMPLETELY, overhaul public education in this country..."

I am one step away from bringing puppets to class. Rest assured, after every session, I run home and am on the Internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world (or at least to Jennie and Julie).

Yet, I still believe in teaching. I still believe that if I helped one student figure out how to write a little better or sparked their enthusiasm to read a little more that it is worth it. I still find myself in random places or waking in the middle of the night, thinking about some new idea I've got for class. And some of my students have their little flashes of humor or poignancy too, like the former prison guard in Iraq who wrote about teaching prisoners what deodorant was and how to use it; or the young woman who remembers her son, who died at 5 days old, each year on the Day of the Dead; or the young man who wishes his visiting relatives would stay forever so that his family doesn't have to go back to their regular routine of pain and isolation.'s a tricky business, and I'm still undecided whether or not I want to keep doing it after this semester. I'll leave you with this clip I showed my students last night. We routinely watch little bits of Ricky Gervais's "The Office," because he is the master at taking the boringly ordinary and turning it into comedy. My students laughed and laughed at this. I laughed even harder because...this is THEM. Watch and see what I work with every Monday and Wednesday...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Well-Run Race

A few weeks ago, I got my copy of my favorite show ever on DVD, thirtysomething. It aired in the 80s and ended in '91, but they're just now getting around to releasing it. If you're not familiar with it, it's basically about a group of friends in their 30s, going through all the sometimes mundane, sometimes earth-shattering stuff of life together.

In one episode near the end of the series, one of the main characters has died, and another character remarks, "I guess this is how it's going to be the older we get--just marking time between the funerals."

Tonight I'll be attending a funeral--not of a close friend, but of someone I once knew. His name was Barry Trowbridge. My brother and I went to youth group with the girl who would become his wife. They were active in the church where I grew up.

The best memories I have are of Barry singing. He had the most beautiful tenor voice. At church on Christmas Sunday one year, he sang "Bethlehem Morning," and when he finished I think everyone in the congregation was too awed and stunned to do anything. Chuck leaned over to me and whispered loudly, "Barry ROCKS!"

One month before Darren and I got married, the guy who was supposed to sing at our wedding unexpectedly said he couldn't do it. I was in a panic, and my mom said, "Why don't you call Barry and see if he'll sing?"

He said he'd gladly do it and ended up singing three songs for us, "Holy, Holy, Holy," "Be Thou My Vision," and a song from a musical, "How Blest We Are." We were a little nervous about asking him to do that one, since it's not typical wedding fare, and it's a black gospel song. "No problem, we did "Big River" [the musical it was from] in college," Barry said. And let me tell you, he nailed it when he sang.

A few years ago (when he was 40), Barry had some chest pains and visited his doctor who told him he was morbidly obese and need to lose weight and exercise. He said, "That’s when God showed me the verses in 1 Corinthians 6: Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. After that point, I finally realized that physical appearance and health weren’t perfect motivators, and were both prone to backslides and failures. However, treating my body as God’s holy temple was constant, and would also be motivating, because it was a way to give God glory. With a new sense of truth about what was important, I changed course–I really tried from that point forward to give God my exercise sessions, give Him my meals, and give Him the glory when the pounds came off."

He lost at least 60 pounds and began running, both to exercise and in 5ks. This past Saturday morning, he went out for a run at Herrick Lake in Wheaton. While he was driving home, he had a heart attack, lost control of his car, and died instantly. He was 43 years old and left behind his wife of 18 years and two daughters, ages 14 and 8.

There is another episode of thirtysomething in which someone states, "If a writer disappears, no one notices. But if a husband or a father or a friend disappears, that leaves a very big hole." As evidenced by the facebook page set up in memory of him, Barry has left a significant hole in his absence. Many people have commented on his gentleness, his kindness, his sense of humor, his commitment to God, his love for his family and friends. Someone wrote about a screensaver he had on his computer at work to remind himself to eat well, "You shall have no doughnut before me." And of course everyone remembers his wonderful voice. In fact, you can see him singing the national anthem at a White Sox game here.

Probably my favorite comment came on Sunday from someone who sang in choir with him and said she would mark a note in her score "LTB" (Listen To Barry) if she was having trouble finding the right one. She went on to say, "I bet Barry is the featured soloist in Glory today. Hallelujah!"

So even though I didn't know him that well, tonight I'll be attending his service in order to, as my friend Julie put it best, "say a thank-you for all of the joy, inspiration, peace, and comfort he brought to others over the years."

When I've thought of our wedding these past 14 or so years, I have always remembered Barry and how he truly elevated that service with his beautiful singing. Now whenever I think of that day, I'll also remember how while he was on Earth, Barry didn't just mark time--he loved God and his family, he fought his battles bravely, and he ran the race well.

II Timothy 4:7,8 "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Elaine's First Day

This week held another big milestone for us. On Tuesday, Elaine's new pre-school held an open house for the students and parents. They first let us all in the room to look around and take pictures. Elaine saw the toy kitchen right away and then spotted another little girl there. Lo and behold, she is Elaine's friend from the swim club. I spotted her parents, we remarked on what a coincidence this is, and then found out that we live nearby each other as well, AND they have an older daughter in first grade.

After we got the kids situated, the assistant teacher stayed with them, while the head teacher took us parents across the hall to go over all the information. While we were gone, the children got to practice their first circle time and hear a story. It was interesting how many of them had no idea how to follow directions and sit down on the colored tape. Note the model behavior of a little blond girl in a red dress (the one on her right is Aubrey, her swim club friend).

As we left the open house, we explored the hall where the bulletin board is and also where each child's cubby and coat hook are. By each hook is a picture of an animal. Guess what is by Elaine's hook?

And now today we were ready to go. "Is it really fall now?" Elaine kept asking. Then when we got in the car she said, "Is there a jail at my school?" She didn't seem convinced when I told her no. (I wonder what plans and for whom she had in mind with a jail. My cousin commented, "In a few weeks, her teacher will probably want to put one in.")

As you can see, she is totally unenthusiastic about heading off to school.

Please note the clip she's wearing in her hair, made expressly for her by Becky of Pocket Full of Posies (go now! buy! she's always adding new, adorable accessories!)

All summer long, Elaine had been talking about getting a Tinkerbell backpack for school. Color me surprised when she discovered Lucy's backpack from kindergarten and adopted it. She wants no other. She is already thrifting, just like her mom. It suits her perfectly, and I found her a new kitty clip at the dollar spot in Target to attach to it.

When we got to school, the teacher had written everyone's names out in front with sidewalk chalk (it doesn't show up in this picture, but she is standing by "Elaine" in green.)

We met Aubrey and her mom as well as another boy (Ben) and his mom on the way in. When we got up to the room, it was chaos. Children screaming and bawling and hanging onto their mothers' legs. Aubrey, Ben, and Elaine went over to the play centers right away. I leaned down and hugged Elaine and told her to have a wonderful first day.

"Bye, Mom!" she said airily and ran back to the kitchen. I figured it was time for me to leave, so I wandered off down the hall. Aubrey's and Ben's moms stood at the window, peeking in at our three happily playing together.

"I'm sadder than when my older son went to school," Ben's mom said.

"That's my baby in there," I sniffed.

"I guess we'll see each other at pick-up," sighed Aubrey's mom.

So then I came home, for the first time in six years, to a totally quiet house. It's a good thing. Both my girls are happy at school.

But I guess the flavor of the day is "bittersweet."

Monday, September 07, 2009

Walking in Memphis

This weekend was our annual Labor Day trip to Memphis. Most of Darren's extended family lives in that area, and they have a big family get together every year. We look forward to it all summer long. I've been down here numerous times, but this year I thought we should see a few more things than we usually do, plus, now we have a good camera, so get ready for a lot of pictures.

Here's how you know you're in the South:

Our first top was to this famous Memphis Street where the Peabody Hotel is located.

Sometime in the 1930s, some hunters came over from England and stayed in this elegant hotel. They were apparently a little (or a lot) inebriated and let loose some ducks in the lobby, then went to their room to sleep it off. When they got up in the morning, the ducks were still swimming in the lobby's fountain. Ever since then, ducks have resided at the Peabody Hotel. Every morning promptly at 11:00 a.m., they descend down the elevator and cross a red carpet while a John Philip Sousa march plays. They climb into the ornate Italian fountain and swim until 5:00 p.m., when their personal doorman comes to escort them back over the red carpet and up the elevator to their penthouse suite.

We got there for their 11:00 a.m. arrival. It's a pretty big deal, people.

Then we headed out to catch some downtown photos. We went to Beale Street, the well-known music row of Memphis. It is filled with clubs and bars where live music plays at night. If you're a blues fan (uh, who isn't? You better believe anyone from Chicago is), this is where you can hear it live. Here's BB King's place...

We headed back to Union to Sun Studio where Elvis recorded his first four albums.

Also on this street is the original Heartbreak Hotel, which looks abandoned and is for sale. I got a picture of it, which I meant to put here, but in adding all of these I forgot. And Blogger hates me and won't let me rearrange photos once I add them, so...just pretend you're seeing a derelict old brick building with a stencil of Elvis and "Heartbreak Hotel" on it here.

Then we moved on to the real thing. Darren leaned out of the window (while driving) and took this picture. I didn't notice until I was uploading it the sign for the medical center in back of it that says, "Heart Attack?" which is totally hilarious, because you better believe if there's any place you're likely to have a heart attack, it's Tennessee or Mississippi.

Here we are at the gates of Graceland (and yes, I was playing the Marc Cohn album the entire time)...

In front of Graceland is a long, low stone wall on which all the visitors have graffiti'd. I thought this one below was totally crazy. Check it out. If you can't really see, it says, "Elvis, how sad. The only time I was able to be close to you was in your garden. Still missing you. June from Okla." OK, that's a little bit odd, but here's the kicker--she adds the dates she has been there: 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 2000, June 2001, Oct 2001, June 2002, Oct 2002, June 2003, Oct 2003, April 2004, June 2004, Oct 2004, July 2005, July 2006, Oct 2006, Mar 2007, Oct 2007, Oct 2008, July 2009. Yeah. So June has been to Graceland twenty-two times in 14 years.

Here's another one...

This is Elvis's private plane, the Lisa Marie, which is parked across the street.

And here's the mansion. This is as close as Darren could get to it. We didn't go on the tour because we had the girls with us, and it costs $30 a pop, to which Darren's aunt Madge said, "And honey, I didn't think much of it the one time I went through. It was real run-down."

The girls kept asking why we were here and what we were doing. Actually, just Lucy was because Elaine's main goals in life are to go swimming and eat popsicles so she was just wondering why we weren't doing that.

I tried to explain to Lucy who Elvis was, since other than his Christmas album I don't think we have any of his music. Then she asked, "Does he still live in that house?" When I said he was dead, she wanted to know how he died. For crying in a bucket, how do I always get myself into these situations? I'm usually quite honest with her, but I wasn't up to go into the whole prescription drug and dying at 42 explanation, so I just said he got kind of old and sick. She seemed satisfied with that loose handling of history, and we were able to move on, or rather back here, to Aunt Madge's house where we stayed.

She has a lovely house, but all my girls were interested in was this:

They spent 3 1/2 to 4 hours a day in the pool. Elaine wouldn't even come out to eat lunch or dinner, which on Saturday night was Memphis's famous Coleman's BBQ.

And speaking of more dinner, Sunday was the big family party, also held at Madge's. I have no idea how many people were there, but there was lots of hugging and everybody's name is "Honey," or for a little variety, "Sugar" or "Dollface."

(Oh, wait! We visited a fantastic church on Sunday morning. Here was one of the announcements in the bulletin though--it was for a church get-together. You were supposed to bring your best wild game recipe and your biggest trophy mount. Awesome!)

Here I am with my friend Jeana (who is Darren's cousin). She has three little kids, Hallie, Jessie, and Noah, whom Lucy and Elaine love. Next to her is my sister-in-law, Denise, who has three boys--my nephews--whom Lucy and Elaine also adore. And next to her is Jeana's husband, Scott. We're all sitting at the dessert table. Please note the two big pitchers of sweet tea with us.

Here is the kids' table. Lucy took time out from swimming to eat a hamburger, but Elaine is still in the pool. Next to Lucy is her best buddy, our nephew Ryne. In the middle is his baby brother, Joseph, and then his oldest brother, Drew. I call them, "Major Nelson, Major Healy, and Bazooka Joe." The little boys with their backs to the camera are Darren's cousin Farrah's sons (three boys also. Lots of boys in this family...)

You know I had to have some pictures of the food--here's the hamburger/hotdog table.

Here's the farm-fresh fried catfish...

Here are the french fries and hush puppies (w/ white bread of course)...

In addition, there were salads, coleslaw, baked beans, and chips. On the dessert table was cheesecake, Texas sheet cake, 5 different kinds of cookies, apple cake, and chocolate truffle cake (that would be why we sat there).

It was a fantastic weekend of family and friends and food and sightseeing. We rolled home today, and the girls are already talking about going back next year. They're also asking me what's for dinner. I think they've been spoiled for the real world here in the North.