16 and a quick trip to West Virginia

I seem to average one post a month these days, so that’s a good indication of how busy we’ve been and how poorly I’ve prioritized this blog.

Over Labor Day weekend, I tagged along with my parents on a 24-hour trip to West Virginia to attend a family reunion. Mamaw was the guest of honor, and it had been too long since I’d seen her. I don’t get enough time with Mamaw or my Aunt Gloria, so seeing them, no matter how briefly, was well worth the trip.

We also visited Papaw’s grave as a family, which is where I caught this sweet moment between my father and his mother. (You can also see Dallas and Gloria leaning in for a kiss in the background!)


With September brought Jeremy’s 16th birthday, and we celebrated with a low-key party at our house with his friends. (We even sent little brother away to Grandma’s house for the weekend!) We hung string lights in a tree, made a campfire, and provided them a ton of food. Then we kept our distance and checked in periodically to make sure there were no shenanigans going on under our noses. I didn’t even take pictures, which is so unlike me! But, Jeremy wanted to be with his friends, and I don’t blame him. I remember being 16 very well. My friends were everything too.

Since I was so good about not taking photos of his party, I demanded I take his photo on Sunday, his actual birthday. He obliged.

We even snatched a family photo:

I haven’t been sad about him turning 16, just as I wasn’t sad about turning 40 last year. I’ll admit, though, on the actual day I felt surprised, as if I didn’t know it was coming. I was taken aback, like no one told me we’d ever make it this far, that the days really are long but the years really are short. I can’t imagine him turning 18 or 21 or 40 – which is something my own mother says: “I can’t believe my youngest is 41!”

Well, I can’t either, but here we are.

Family, the 4th, and Starcourt Mall

My Uncle Bob and his wife, Carie, came to visit the week of July 4th, and I was more than happy to host them, Grandpa, and my parents for a feast. We made a low country boil and enjoyed homemade ice cream. Chuck did a ton of the work, bless him, so he deserves a lot of credit. Now that I think of it, I’m open to low country boils instead of turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We took a family photo after dinner, per usual.

Jeremy and Uncle Bob went a few rounds on the chessboard. In the first game, Jeremy beat Uncle Bob in three moves. Not sure he was expecting that! I think a stalemate was the second result.

When our guests had gone and it was finally dark, we lit up a few low-key fireworks and sparklers, which pale in comparison to the week-long firework displays that went on all around us. Our equine and canine neighbors were not pleased!

The next morning, we took Bob and Carie on a short hike so they could get a good view of the Foothills from above. If I’ve not mentioned it before, I absolutely love where we live.

I think Major had the most fun.

When our guests were gone and the holiday weekend was free from responsibility, Chuck, Jackson, and I took to Netflix to binge the third season of Stranger Things.

MAN OH MAN did the nostalgia get me. When I say they nailed the 80s, they really did. The main new set of the third season is a MALL, and the set design was on point at every turn. Starcourt Mall was all 80s all the time. I won’t give any spoilers other than I liked this season more than the last (though not as much as the first, which was near-perfect). I was in tears when it ended.

If you’re a Stranger Things fan, you may enjoy these two articles (here and here) about the theory that Hawkins is actually based on East Tennessee. Fair warning – they include spoilers.

Where in the world have I been

In my former life, blogging was an almost-every-other-day thing. I had so much to say, so much to post, so much to SHARE about our life. It was easier then, when my world was a little less public and there were fewer eyes reading the posts. I didn’t care to share (almost) everything. This site has been a scrapbook of sorts, and I remain immensely grateful for the ability to look back several years, even a decade if I want to, and catch a glimpse at where we were.

Today, however, it’s a little more complicated. I’m sensitive to the boys’ privacy, I’m careful with my own, and I want to be sure that, while I’m more selective about what I share, I am still showing you what is real and true.

That being said, here’s a quick glimpse into 2019 so far:

Jackson continues to enjoy equine therapy (aka, “Horse Hangout Hour’) and finally found the courage to trot! It was a huge hurdle for him to cross since trotting makes him feel off balance and the fear of falling off the horse entirely is real. A couple of weeks ago, after tons of encouragement, he finally did it. You can see a video here.

Yesterday, the weather was so delightful that the class rode their horses in the field next to the barn. It was a beautiful way to wrap up the winter session.

Jeremy has been enjoying success on the local chess tournament circuit. After playing chess for several years at our co-op, and finally getting a quality chess coach, he entered a few tournaments recently and has had a great time playing other students in the area. The most recent win was a team win, and since I don’t have permission to post other kiddos’ photos in this space, I’ve blurred their faces. ūüôā

We are nearing that time of year when we’re tired of school and aching for summer, a level of academic fatigue that comes full circle in April. Still, I’m enjoying my role as an English teacher at our co-op and am already preparing for next year’s courses. It is still a surprise to me that I like teaching, but I also recognize that I get to teach in a space with limited restraints (unlike the traditional school system). Perhaps that’s made all the difference. Plus, it’s only once a week.

On co-op days, I’ve made a habit of using my lunch break to visit Grandpa Thomas, who moved here in January. I still can’t believe he’s here, actually. (Hi, Grandpa!) I’ve never lived in the same city as any of my grandparents, and I’m still getting used to the fact that my parents are only 45 minutes away. If you’d told me this time last year that both Grandpa and my parents would be here with us, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Finally, East Tennessee received a beating on Saturday with a record-setting 17+ inches of rainfall. By Sunday morning, entire neighborhoods and streets were underwater. Our neighborhood, mercifully, was spared any damage, but that isn’t the case for thousands of other Tennesseans. In fact, on the way home from equine therapy last night, a couple of the roads we usually take were still underwater, along with adjacent homes.

Chuck and I took time to drive the missing link Sunday afternoon and stopped by the Townsend Wye to see what the water levels looked like. The usual Class I and II rapids were easily Class III and IV on account of all the water. The area in the photo below is typically a calm pool for swimming in the summertime. Not the case this week!

Finally, there’s an addition to this website, but it’s not my personal work. Jackson decided he wanted to start writing book and movie reviews for tweens and teens, and I made his year by telling him I’d post them on the blog. Overjoyed, he got right to work on The Reviewing Rabbit. I assume the quality of content will improve over time, but he’s already doing a good job! He’s created a backlog of posts, and three are already live.

That being said, if there’s an age-appropriate film or book you’d like Jackson to review, please email me and I’ll pass it along to him. ūüôā

The moment I thought all was lost

Last week I had a near heart attack when this site went blank. A corrupt plugin (or perhaps a plugin update?) looked to have wiped the site of all content. No blog posts. No photos. No pages.

Nearly ten years of content was seemingly gone. I refreshed and refreshed and refreshed, but the browser still showed PAGE NOT FOUND. I got emails from students who were trying to access class pages, which had an easy workaround. But, the thought of losing all those photos? All those stories? Despair does not fully explain my emotional state over the last few days. 

Fortunately, thanks to a rolling month-long back-up, my site was restored yesterday minus the updated class pages from Friday morning. Everything seems just as it was, for which I’m grateful. 

It was a close call though, folks. I did well to keep calm.


I am still making my way through photos from our UK trip, so those will be posted soon. In the meantime, we’ve enjoyed several events, including having my mom here with us. (They will be Tennessee residents again very soon! Cue happy dance!)

Halloween came and went with only Jackson celebrating. It’s strange to be letting go of that holiday, and even Jackson said this was probably his last year to dress up.

We joined a friend of his for trick-or-treating, and I enjoyed the night the best I could knowing we’ll probably never do it again. He’ll be 13 years old next year and his interests may be entirely different by then. 

Salem and I, on the other hand, will always celebrate Halloween.

Last weekend brought a lovely treat for my family and me. The De Gracia family enjoyed a getaway weekend in the Smoky Mountains and dropped by our little town on their way home so we could grab dinner and I could take their photos for the second time. Nortasha and I were neighbors from seventh to ninth grade in Atlanta, and we reconnected on Facebook a few years ago. 

Honestly, this is the primary reason I stay on social media, despite my many temptations to disconnect. Growing up an Army brat meant making friends in new cities, states, and countries every few years. To reconnect with those people has been a true gift. 

Finally, we have a beautiful and meaningful addition to our yard. In honor and memory of Chuck’s mother, sister, and father, my parents gifted us a Japanese maple tree. It is completely perfect, and we are grateful. 

Brewers vs. Braves: A Victory

We’d gone out to dinner one night this summer to one of those restaurants with TVs scattered throughout the room. Baseball, soccer, and other summertime games blared over our conversation. At one point Jackson says, “I’d love to go to a Brewers game,” and I casually, almost thoughtlessly, replied, “Well, see if they’re playing the Braves anytime soon and we’ll go.”¬†

Don’t you know he checked the schedule as soon as we got home, and sure enough, the Brewers were going to play Atlanta in August.¬†

Please know that Jackson is the only one in the family who cares two beans about baseball.

But I’d said the words and I wasn’t going to take them back.

It was HOT, HOT, HOT. 

I bought tickets for our family of four, as well as Corey, Gwen, and Alex, so we could attend the game together. This was an important decision, not only for obvious friendship reasons, but because Gwen is a baseball fan and Jackson was going to need a buddy for the game while the rest of us occupied ourselves during the 18 million hours it was going to take those guys to play nine innings. 

To say I was grateful for Gwen doesn’t even scratch the surface. We were excited as a group whenever the Brewers scored, but hells bells that was a long game and Jackson needed another baseball fan there who could keep up.

My favorite photo from the night: 

Neither Chuck, Jeremy, nor I own any baseball paraphernalia whatsoever, so we weren’t able to support Jackson with Brewers gear, but I made sure to wear a Packers shirt, a smart choice on account of all the “Go Pack!” camaraderie I experienced walking around Suntrust Park.¬†

Jeremy was pleased to support Atlanta United FC (thanks, Corey!).

Despite the game lasting an entire day of my life, I think we all had a good time. We bought cheap seats, which meant the sun was in our faces for the first hour or so, but once it tucked behind the ball park the temperatures were tolerable. I was grateful it didn’t rain.¬†

To our complete and utter delight, the Brewers pulled out a win and Jackson cried with joy. Every second of that experience was worth it. 

I’m not sure if we’ll ever make it to another MLB game unless we get air conditioned seats with a wait staff, but I’m thankful this one worked out schedule-wise AND score-wise. Happy Jack was SO HAPPY.¬†

We rented a boat and loved it

We’ve caught a bad bug.

Something happened this summer, and I can’t necessarily pinpoint when everything shifted. The idea of owning a boat has always been there, floating around, if you will, but it’s not been a significant goal in this season of raising kids and climbing professional ladders and whatnot. It’s been a distant goal, a post-raising kids goal. It’s long since been on the list of things to do “When the Kids Move Out.”

But something has shifted. Be it the unfortunate number of deaths we’ve either been closely tied to or loosely connected to, or even the distant ones that are nevertheless heartbreaking, or the realization that the boys would enjoy the boat now just as much as we’d enjoy the boat in the future. Whatever the reason, we are more serious about buying a boat now instead of waiting for later.

We’d been tossing around the idea of renting a boat for months, again thinking it was something we’d eventually do. WHY WE WERE WAITING, I do not know. So we rented one last weekend and took the hours we could on the Little Tennessee River, soaking in the sun before afternoon storms pushed us home.

Of course it was wonderful. We love everything about living in East Tennessee, and we’ve spent a lot of time exploring on land, but lakes and rivers are the last unchartered territories for us. It’s the one area we’ve only half-experienced, fishing from the shore and camping nearby. We’ve not spent nearly enough time on the water, and it seems like we can’t shake the thought of it.

The boys loved our boat experience from the start. They weren’t nervous or timid or bored. Within minutes of leaving the No Wake Zone, they were asking when we could get a boat of our own.

It’s hard to answer that question since we have a list of must-haves and non-negotiables, and it’s not a decision made lightly. It may happen this year, or it may not if we don’t find the right one, but the important lesson here is that we decided to move a lot of things off the “When the Kids Move Out” list. There are no guarantees we’ll make it that far.

I’m not even kidding.

Life is short, and while I keep screaming this message to everyone I know, I am also saying it to myself. It doesn’t mean you lose all sense of responsibility, but it DOES mean aligning and realigning your life to make it exactly what you want it to be within the realm of what’s possible.

Afternoon storms rolled in eventually and we decided to end our boat rental short, but we had a good four hours on the water, a treat for which I’m grateful.

Summer break so far

The moment we finished our last day at the homeschool co-op where the boys attend and I teach, my brain slipped into something more comfortable. It shrunk and turned on its back, like a cat stretched out on a warm patio. Done and done.

One might think this means I’ve spent the last two weeks with my feet up, but that’s not been the case. Freelance writing has kept me busy, along with a couple of photo sessions and deep cleaning parts of the house that have been neglected since the holidays.

It won’t be a slow summer, but it will be less busy to a degree. Jeremy is working more, plus he’ll have three soccer camps and a sleep-away church camp to enjoy in June. Jackson has a sports camp and, on account of Jeremy’s outside work, will pick up more chores at home. (We are currently on a waiting list for equine therapy for him. Fingers crossed they call soon!) My non-teaching workload has increased, and Chuck continues to knock it out of the park at work, too.

So that we aren’t all business and no play, we took the boys to the mountains over the weekend to play in the river and also enjoy the sweetest teacher gift I’ve received yet – four passes to ride The Wheel at the Island. I couldn’t believe such a generous gift came my way! (Thanks, girls!)

The view was beautiful from above!

We eventually made our way to the river, where the banks were lush green.

The water was mountain-level cold, which the boys were shocked to discover. They did more wading than swimming, but we still enjoyed the brief retreat anyway.

In other news, we went strawberry picking for the first time ever, and it was with a goal in mind: to recreate the homemade strawberry jelly Chuck’s parents used to make.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a recipe to pull from, so I followed the directions on the back of the Sure-Jell box and crossed my fingers that it would resemble the homemade jelly we remember.

It tastes nearly the same, though it’s not quite as thick as I’d prefer. Still, it’s HANDS DOWN better than anything store-bought. I’d never eat a spoonful of store-bought jam or jelly, but that isn’t the case with this stuff. Come visit and I’ll hand you a spoon.

I’m darn proud.

Finally, here is Salem napping and setting a good example for all of us.

Twelve Years Later

There are good things that happen during a time of mourning – favorite stories are told, family members gather to comfort one another and offer affirmations, and friends from seasons past come back around to pay respects.

We aren’t entirely out of touch with the Pennys and Valovcins, so it isn’t that we haven’t seen each other in 12 years. However, our three families haven’t sat down for a meal in a long time, and we certainly haven’t taken photos of the group when we’ve been together.

After Bill’s funeral on Sunday, we went to dinner together, along with Karin and Ethan, and marveled at how old our children have become.

This photo was taken a few days before Christmas in 2006. From left to right, in order of age: Lauren, Grace, Jeremy, Christian, Jake, and Jackson, who was a mere six months old.

Pennys, 2006:

Jillyan wasn’t born until the following September:

Valovcins, 2006:

And us, 2006:

Going back even further, here’s a picture (of a picture) of the three dads with their first borns in 2004:

And now in 2018:

We spent a lot of time together in those days, but by the end of 2008, we left Chattanooga for Amarillo and we haven’t lived in the same city since.

Now the guys and I are facing 40 (Amy and Christy have a few more years to go), and our oldest kiddos are 14 and 15 years old.

High school. Driving. Dating. Conversations about college.

What in the world.

So yeah, there are good things that come during times of mourning. It was wonderful to see our old friends, to hug their necks, to laugh and remember how easy parenting used to be. 

We’re doing all right. Thanks, friends, for being with us this week. We love you dearly.

Papaw

I don’t remember the first time I met my future father-in-law, but it was sometime in the early spring of 1996. I was a senior in high school and he was already retired on account of heart trouble that had long plagued him. I didn’t know Bill before long naps in the recliner, hours of NASCAR races on a weekend, and telling me what food I should eat to put hair on my chest, but I didn’t need to know him prior to 1996. Bill Miller was one of the most consistent people I’ve ever known. Funny, friendly, outgoing. He’d talk to anyone, tease them, laugh and make them feel welcome. Bill’s voice filled every space he inhabited, whether a small living room or acres on a campground. If Bill was there, everyone knew it.

And that was a good thing because I don’t think there was ever a person who didn’t like Bill Miller.¬†He loved his family and was fiercely loyal. Perhaps that’s what happens when you grow up with a litter of siblings. I knew the Miller Clan was a good one to join when I met them all for the first time at the 1996 summertime family reunion in Maryville. (I remember thinking how Maryville would be a wonderful place to live one day. Funny how things work out.)

I learned that Bill’s warmth and magnetism was a Miller trait and not exclusive to him, although perhaps we can all agree that his volume and presence was specific to him. When Bill showed up to family events, he announced his own arrival, not that he needed to.

When Bill became my father in law officially in 2000, I couldn’t have been more pleased. He and I had a dear relationship. (I can’t believe I’ll never hear him say, “Hey, Jennie Faye” again. Faye is not my middle name; rather, it was my mother-in-law’s, yet I found this nickname endearing.) We teased each other mercilessly, but it was all in good fun and we both knew it. That stubborn Democrat kept a George W. Bush presidential magnet I gave him as a joke on his refrigerator for nearly two decades.

Bill was already a loving, doting Papaw to our niece Hayli, but when Chuck and I finally presented him with a grandson, you would’ve thought he won the lottery. To give him a second grandson was icing on the cake. He was proud of them and spoiled them appropriately.

Bill and Brenda were outstanding grandparents, and to know that we’ve lost them both is a grief I cannot understand. I’ve said before that I feel we’ve been robbed, and there’s still no better phrase. Tami, too. My husband has lost both of his parents and his sister at 39 years old.¬†How does that even happen?

We had the privilege of living in the same city as Bill again during these last seven years after moving back to Tennessee from Texas. We’ve watched his health decline bit by bit over the years, but I’m convinced that the overwhelming grief of Tami’s death in 2015 became a point of no return for him. How does one ever resolve the heartache of losing a child, particularly when your heart is already burdened by poor health?

Still, at family functions and holidays, his humor and good spirits continued. True as ever. Same ol’ Bill.

When I look at Bill’s life, or at least what I know of it, it was a good one. He was well-loved, and frankly, you can’t ask for much more than that. He didn’t travel the world or build skyscrapers, but he was a man whose family and friends rallied around him. Oh, the parties he and Brenda used to the throw! The stories he told with people gathered around him! The belly laughs and eye rolls… All worth it.

We will miss you, Papaw. This was going to be our year, wasn’t it? You at 75, me at 40. We were going to have a big party, but honestly, to know you are reunited with Brenda and Tami is better than any party we could have thrown, lemon cake or not.

Thank you for blessing our family with good stories, big smiles, and a larger than life presence that cannot be replicated.

See you in the stars. – xoxo

Jackson goes to Disney World

After our day at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (and subsequent day of rest by the pool) it was finally Jackson’s turn to go to Disney World! He’d been counting the days and the day had finally come.

My brother-in-law fixed him up with a lanyard for pin trading, which he’d already worn the night before to Disney Springs. An affinity for Donald Duck has grown in recent months so he decided to decorate his lanyard with Donald-specific pins. From what I understand, he was diligent about keeping to his goal.

A character lunch ensured he met the Fab Five – including Donald Duck!

Jackson loves fast rides, so Space Mountain was one of his favorites!

Jeremy had a hard time knowing what he was missing, but he understood it was his brother’s turn and he had already experienced Disney World with his cousins.

I love this photo of him passed out asleep with Donald Duck on his lap 

Fortunately, after getting back to our house late Friday night, our family spent Saturday with us and saved Sunday for the long drive home to Chicago. That meant there was time for Wizard Chess.

Donald Duck pin success!

Thank you, Becky, Jeff, Jacob, and Owen, for taking Jackson to Disney World! To use his words, the trip was MAGICAL. (And thanks for all the cell phone pics!)

Diagon Alley

Previous post: Hogsmeade Village

After lunch we walked through Universal to reach the discreet entrance to Diagon Alley, which was next to Kings Cross and directly across from the Knight Bus.

A few turns through a brick wall and the alley opened up to reveal The Leaky Cauldron, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and, in the distance, Gringott’s Bank.

If there was one disappointment (aside from the crowd) it’s that The Daily Prophet and Flourish & Blotts were facades and not actual places we could explore. They had window displays and signage, but there was no going inside Flourish & Blotts for parchment and ink. There was no newsroom to explore.

House-Elves were well represented. #freethehouseelves

Butterbeer time!

It was delicious but a touch too sweet, so Chuck, Jackson, and I shared a frozen Butterbeer, while Jeremy purchased a full drink with his own money and drank it happily.

God bless this man, who is not a Harry Potter fan nor an amusement park fan. Yet, he was a good sport and held my wand for me when I went to the restroom.

We opted out of the Escape from Gringott’s ride because the line was unreasonably long, plus it’s 3D. (No thank you, headache!) Later in the day we heard the ride had issues and had to shut down at one point, so we were doubly thankful we didn’t stand in line for nothing. Walking around Diagon Alley (and the hidden¬†Knockturn Alley) was plenty fun.

Owen is a hugger!

As the afternoon turned into evening, we made our way to Kings Cross to catch the Hogwarts Express back to Hogsmeade.

Eight to a train car, the short ride featured simulated scenery through the window and chatter in the hallways (“Anything off the trolley, dears?“). A few chocolate frogs got loose and jumped around the frosted glass. None of my pictures (or attempts at pictures) are good enough to post. You’ll have to use your imagination.

Back at Hogsmeade, we hopped on the castle ride a couple more times and watched a brief light show against the castle walls. The day was ending, and despite our fatigue and the great relief we knew we’d feel crawling into bed, I didn’t want to leave. How could I? I’d been waiting 17 years to visit Hogwarts. One day simply wasn’t enough.

The trip is nearly a blur, save a few moments that made it into the lockbox of my brain. The park is so well done. The details are spot on – from hearing Moaning Myrtle in the bathrooms to the Cornish Pixies causing mischief over Zonko’s Joke Shop – it seems like no corner was left untouched. Which is good to know on account of the park fees and travel expenses we endured. This experience was not cheap.

Was it worth it? For me – yes. Again, I’ve wanted to go to Hogwarts for nearly two decades. Of course it was worth it! Will I go again? Doubtful, and that’s okay. There are plenty of other things to see and do in the world.

Hogsmeade Village

We had one full day at Universal, and that limitation required careful planning in regard to arrival time, meal time, and what part of the park to visit when. The crowd was unreal. Suffocating, in fact. Chuck remarked that navigating Iceland was less stressful than making our way through Universal, and I agreed. It took a bit of time for me to adjust expectations and ready my brain to endure the full day. Be it my innate introversion, a propensity for anxiety, or fatigue from travel, or a powerful combination of all three, I needed a moment to warm up to the amusement park.

Once I crossed over, I was better. No, I was better than better. I was buoyant. I couldn’t look away. Every detail of the buildings, signs, and overhead music deserved my acute attention. We began the day at Hogsmeade.

Captured in winter, Hogsmeade is the little wizarding village older students can visit on the weekends (with parents’ permission). It’s home to Honeydukes and Ollivander’s, The Three Broomsticks, and the Hog’s Head.

We’re introduced to Hogsmeade for the first time in the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

It was at the Owl Post, attached to Ollivander’s, where Owen and I purchased our wands – he chose Neville Longbottom’s, I selected Professor McGonagall’s. (Also in the store was the Monster Book of Monsters.)

On the far end of Hogsmeade is Hogwarts Castle and its ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The motion-based ride takes you on a simulated broomstick ride with Harry around the castle, by the Whomping Willow, and through a Quidditch game (and a mess of Dementors). By the end of the day¬†I’d ridden it three times. I would’ve ridden it more had I the opportunity. Like a child, I gripped my “broomstick” and beamed with delight. I absolutely flippin’ loved it.¬†

Instead of boarding the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley, we decided to walk back through Universal towards a food court area to eat lunch. Knowing we’d return to Hogsmeade for the light show at night, we’d enjoy the train ride then.

Next: Diagon Alley

A second spring break

As homeschoolers, we do what we want. It’s glorious. It’s magnificent.

Our first spring break was spent at home, and truth be told, we still did math and reading while on hiatus from our homeschool cooperative. It wasn’t a full respite because we knew we had a second break coming – one that involved travel and excitement beyond compare.

Several years ago my sweet sister decided that she needed to take my children to Disney World since we weren’t going to. NO PROBLEM, I said, and threw some money her way. In 2015, Jeremy joined her family at Disney, and eventually, it would be Jackson’s turn.

This was his year.

On top of the Disney adventure, we decided it was also time to fork over the cash and visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since it was built. Both Jeremy and Jackson are fans of the books and movies, so we’ve been counting the days until we could finally head to Orlando.

There is much to say about the experience, but in this particular post, I’ll be brief. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears, and not I’m not exaggerating. (Chuck has photographic proof, which I won’t be sharing publicly.) Since reading the first book in 2001 and seeing the final film in 2011, to watching both of my children fall in love with the series and love it as I do, going to Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley was an experience that spotlighted nearly two decades fandom.¬†

The impeccable detail of these two scenes left me fully satisfied, feeling like I’d actually walked into a magical world and lived there for one full day. YES, I bought a wand (Professor McGonagall’s). YES, I bought a Chocolate Frog. YES, we rode the Hogwarts Express. YES, we tried Butterbeer.

There is much to say about how it all felt, but I know what you really want is to see photos. They’re coming. I’ve got a few things to check off my to-do list before I tackle editing them.

Chuck, Jeremy, and I returned home late Wednesday night, leaving Jackson in Orlando with my sister and her family. He still had Disney World to experience, after all. From what I’ve seen in texts and Snaps, he’s living his best life. He’s loving every minute. Two magical experiences in one week is too good to be true for an 11-year-old.¬†

And yet, it’s all real.¬†

Favorite Moments of 2017

There are three primary reasons why I have kept this blog active for more than 12 years. First, I created it so our birth families could watch the boys grow up. I started a website when Jeremy was two, and though it’s morphed over time and changed locations, I’ve been faithful to update it with pictures and stories.

Second, our family members and friends live far and wide, and while social media fills a lot of gaps for all of us, not everyone is online. (Hi Great-Grandpa!)

Finally, and most importantly to me, this blog serves as a scrapbook of our lives. As a photographer and storyteller, this medium fulfills a cathartic need to document certain events and put them in some sort of order.

As I look back on 2017, the high points are noticeable. They practically scream at me. The year was mostly good, really good, so that the things I’d characterize as “bad” are simple to identify: no one dropped a million dollars in my lap and I didn’t score a book deal. That’s really all I’m missing.

Signs of Life in February

The year got off to a rough start for our country, and my task as a mother and citizen was to calm down and refocus. I wrote a heartfelt piece about not losing our minds as our country experienced a transfer of power, and then I spent all of February looking for things that encouraged and inspired me. I called it the Signs of Life series, a phrase pulled from an old Steven Curtis Chapman song I used to listen to as a teen.

Some days were easy. Signs of Life were everywhere. Other days were less so. Sometimes it was just, “I’m alive and I’m healthy,” which is no small feat. The result of February’s focus was the realization that I spend a lot of time looking at the negative and it has a large, looming effect on my everyday life. However, if I step back and scan the horizon for goodness, I’ll find it.

Jacob and Owen in June

In June my sister and her husband went overseas on a trip, which meant I got to keep my nephews for a whole week. (The only thing that gave me pause was the grocery budget! How would I keep these four boys fed?) I couldn’t wait to have them here, and just as I hoped, the time we spent together was perfect.

We took those Chicago boys and went full Tennessee. Bouldering, race car driving, eating the best food, and lots of it. Swimming in the river and playing cards at night. All of it. More of it. Every day.

Destin in May

At the end of the school year we high-tailed it out of town to get in a beach trip before the rest of the country. (Perks of homeschooling!) We chose Destin because our boys hadn’t yet seen the Gulf of Mexico, so their experiences with the beach and ocean were always whatever we found on the eastern coast. Jeremy in particular couldn’t get there fast enough. He’s our beach bum, ocean-loving, wanna-be Florida resident. As soon as we pulled up to the Gulf, he was done. How soon could we move?¬†

If he wasn’t in the water…

…he was looking in the water.

The boys went parasailing for the first time too.

It was our most relaxing beach trip to date, and Jeremy has been begging us to go back ever since.

The Solar Eclipse in August

Since our house was positioned in the path of totality, we had an impromptu eclipse party!

Friends came in from out of town, across town, and up the street to watch the solar eclipse. With plenty of water and pizza to keep sweaty kids hydrated and energized, we spent the afternoon hanging out and watching the sky turn weird. It was the best!

Iceland in November

Last, but certainly not least, is our incredible and bizarre trip to Iceland. We walked into 2017 with no thoughts of international travel. We went into the summer with no thoughts of international travel. Heck, we walked into September with no thoughts of international travel! But life is strange that way. Sometimes opportunities come around, and if you take a little courage, you realize that saying yes is the only possible answer.

We spent the last bit of November and the first day of December exploring the southwestern parts of Iceland. It was a dream.

As wonderful as 2017 was for our family, the irony is that we are limping into 2018 a handful of pathetic souls. On the road home from our Christmas in Chicago and Wisconsin, I fell sick, then so did Chuck, and finally Jeremy. Two bouts of flu and a bacterial infection do not make for a restful winter break.

Today is the first day since Tuesday night that I’ve felt human. I am coughing and weak, but I can walk across a room without crying.¬†Though I feel robbed of a week of productivity, I will effort to overlook my messy house, unfinished work, and those cabinets and closets I wanted to sort out. Better to rest than to relapse, right?¬†For the first time in five days, no one has a fever, just in time for New Year’s Eve.

Speaking of New Year’s Eve, there will be no hugs and kisses at midnight, I can assure you. We’ll just wave at each other from across the room and offer a thumbs up in solidarity.¬†

It was a good year. 

Anniversary week and fall break

Our anniversary fell on a Saturday this year, and while last year’s anniversary celebration was bigger and better, this year was just as sweet. There was no trip, no big event to signify No. 17, no big gifts or hurrahs. Just a lazy day at home and a lovely dinner in town, just the two of us. Contentment means life is good wherever you are.

Our anniversary kicked off fall break, so the week has been punctuated by long runs (me), hunting (Chuck and Jeremy), and lots of sleeping in and reading (Jackson).

Yesterday we went to Dollywood, the one thing we said we’d do over fall break. We had season passes in 2011, and I’m pretty sure we took the boys again in 2012 or 2013, but my memory fails me so I can’t be sure. Regardless, it’s been a minute since we’ve been to Dollywood.

Much like our experience last summer at Hershey Park, we rode a few coasters together, then the old people bowed out. Jeremy and Jackson love riding roller coasters together, which is a gift to these two parents. Have at it, boys. Have at it.

As the day wore down and the crowds increased, we ran into Jimmy and the kids (Lesli arrived later, but we missed her!). Since Jimmy was flying solo for a couple of hours, we stepped in as co-pilots for a few rides.

Be still my heart when Catherine, the sweet, shy introvert who takes her time with people, insisted I ride a kiddie coaster with her! Foolish to resist, I agreed enthusiastically and off we went to stand in line. She instructed me on how to hold her close on the ride – just like Mama does – and even held her arms in the air on the last go around. I’ve been around this little one since birth, since she eagle-eyed me in the hospital:¬†

Now she snaps pictures with me willingly, not shy, not reserved, and I couldn’t be happier:

The other thing I’ve done over fall break is clean out the boys’ closets and dressers. They are blessed with so many hand-me-downs that I haven’t bought clothes for them in years. After sorting through the many things I found underneath Jackson’s bed, I held my breath at this last little gem – a note from Jeremy to Jackson, many years old now:

It is a sweet reminder that while we may be in a rough season of picking and prodding, there is love there. Thank goodness, y’all, because 11 and 14 are tough ages. I’ll take every reminder I can get.

Jeremy turns 14

Welp, I have a 14-year-old. Not sure how that happened, yet here we are. For his birthday, Jeremy wanted to gather a few friends to go go-carting. His actual birthday was on Friday, but we celebrated on Saturday. The day started with a big breakfast followed by his first soccer game of the season.

First, a little pre-game practice with Foster:

Ethan spent the weekend with us, and since he was born five hours after Jeremy, it was a double-birthday celebration. He really wanted to play soccer too. That kid came out of the womb an athlete.

The game went on and they tied 3-3. This photo characterizes Jeremy so well. The tongue is his expression of concentration and effort:

Once we got Noah, the group was complete, so we headed to the Nascar Speedpark to drop some cash and let the boys wear themselves out. I was the payer, the driver, and the photographer.

They played mini-golf but kept no score and followed no rules.

The game resembled hockey more than golf.

My child was at his happiest – surrounded by friends and being silly.

Noah’s side-eye is my favorite.

We left the park for pizza but returned by sundown for more racing and taking a turn on the rickety fair rides in the back.

Contemplating the Starship 3000…

Yep, they all went in…

As the night wound down, their level of fatigue increased. The park closed at 10 p.m., and we had been there since 4 p.m. How much longer could they go?

By 9:55 we left, but I got them to take one last photo:

Yep, they still had energy. In fact, after I collected devices and went to bed at 1:30 a.m., they stayed up playing hide and seek in a dark house for another hour.

Thanks to everyone who sent well wishes to Jeremy for his birthday. So far, 14 has been great.

In the path of totality

We were some of the lucky ones whose house was situated in the path of totality, so a handful of friends from Knoxville and Chattanooga joined us for the eclipse yesterday. Before the solar party got started, the boys played outside and got all hot and sweaty. We had plenty of water and pizza to keep everyone hydrated and happy.

They each had glasses, so occasionally they’d stop to check the status of the moon’s progress.

Before totality hit, our neighbor rode over on her horse, which was a huge treat for all of us.

You don’t go into a total eclipse thinking you’ll also get to pet a horse!

Catherine was excited to feed Shera some clover.

As the time neared for totality, we all gathered on the back patio for a good view.

Right before the moon fully covered the sun, all the kids jumped on the retaining wall.

We reached totality! I wish I’d had the forethought to videotape everyone’s reactions. All the “oohs” and “ahhs” from kids and adults alike…

Glasses off! I didn’t want to use a flash and ruin the view, so this photo was taken with only the dimmest light from the dark sky:

What a treat! We witnessed something that can’t be described with ordinary words. While science explains a total eclipse with accuracy, I felt we experienced God’s creativity at its finest.

And since I never make it into these photos, thank you, Karin, for capturing this one!

Catherine was less interested in the eclipse and more interested in exploring my house and enjoying snacks. I didn’t mind one bit! Love her!

Thanks to everyone who joined us! We were happy to have you!

Last days with Jacob and Owen

Both Great Grandpa and my mother left on Friday, so it was just the six of us for two more days.

We had grand plans for Thursday and Friday, but rain showed up and didn’t leave. That meant no Splash Country and a shorter canoe trip down the Little River.

The canoe fits three comfortably, which is just as well since Jackson was at basketball camp and Owen had no interest.

When I asked Jacob what he wanted to do while in Tennessee, the one request he had, other than eating at the Asian Buffet, was to go canoeing.

While they floated down the river, Owen and I went home to eat lunch and play cards. This was the only one-on-one time I got with Owen, so I treasured it, however brief! Jeremy and Owen are “best cousins” and stick together as a pair almost 100 percent of the time.

I also took the opportunity to snap some headshots for Owen, who’s trying out for a play in his hometown.

He looks so much like his dad in this photo:

When they got home from canoeing, I grabbed Jacob and subjected him to photos too.

Owen loves his big brother 

I drove them to the airport on Sunday and cried as I said goodbye. Jacob teased me – “We’re not even your kids!” – but he doesn’t understand that they are the next best thing to being my kids. I endured his teasing because I know he loves me, that they both had a wonderful time in Tennessee and enjoyed being a part of the Miller Camp for Boys for a week. Their plane landed safely in Chicago and off they went into the care of their grandparents. My sister and brother-in-law flew home a few hours later, so by Sunday night everything was back to normal.

I feel like I’m still recovering from the week – is it an age thing or an introvert thing, or both? Utter exhaustion persisted for a solid three days. Today is the first day I’ve felt semi-normal.

Still, I’m thankful for the time we had and the memories we made, and I think Jacob and Owen feel the same.

 

Swimming at the Townsend Wye

Yesterday we took advantage of beautiful weather and went to the Townsend Wye, a popular swimming hole just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Jackson was at basketball camp, so Mom and I took Jeremy, Jacob, and Owen for a dip.

The mountain water was chilly, something locals understand but Chicagoans don’t.

There were serious reservations about swimming, particularly on Owen’s part. He spent much of the morning saying he wasn’t going to have fun at the river, that he didn’t want to go, but we reassured him that he WOULD have fun and that it would be worth it.

Once they got used to the temperature, they opened up to the possibility of cliff jumping. Jeremy went first.

Jacob watched others jump in – even dive in – so he stood on the edge until he was mentally ready.

Even Owen jumped! The kid who said he wasn’t going to have fun JUMPED OFF A BOULDER.

Then Jacob started diving.

They swam for an hour or so, until their bodies were sufficiently numb.

Here’s a side view of Jacob diving into the Little River.

Jeremy and Owen swam across the river to a little island to explore and skip rocks.

I am most proud of Owen! He was nervous and in a negative head space about swimming in a cold river, but I swear he had a good time once he went for it!

Despite the temperatures, the water was crystal clear and perfect for swimming.

On our way home we picked up Major from his boarding camp and brought home a very sleepy puppy.

The Nascar Speedpark

On Monday we drove to the Nascar Speedpark in Pigeon Forge and paid an obscene amount of money for the boys to drive race cars until dark. They loved it, and I was particularly glad that Jackson was able to drive a few tracks by himself.

Jackson rode alongside Chuck on a faster track…

…which meant going a lot faster than he would’ve on his own.

Midday we took a quick detour to Gatlinburg so Jacob could get a few donuts at the Donut Friar, his mother’s favorite sweet spot in town. She is in Real Germany this week, so we went to Faux Germany for about 20 minutes.

If you recall, Gatlinburg suffered a massive loss after forest fires spread through the area in November 2016. It looked like most of the surrounding ranges were touched by fire, but I was encouraged to see bright green spots of growth from this spring.

After a quick walk in Gatlinburg, we went back to the Nascar Speedpark for round two of racing and stayed until 11 p.m. Right away Chuck and Jacob drove on the one track that requires a driver’s license. So glad these two get to pal around together.

Mom and Chuck left about an hour before the boys and I did, so I made sure it was documented that Mom and I were there!

We had a great time, and every boy was exhausted the morning after. Today we’ll head to the river to play, and still on the list is canoeing and Splash Country. They keep me young!

Bouldering at the Miller Camp for Boys

My nephews are here for the week, and since they’re city folk we wanted to make sure they’re in nature as often as possible. On our second day together, we took them to a nearby section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to go bouldering and get a 360-degree view of our town.

There was some trepidation, but each boy – mine included – dug deep to find the physical and mental fortitude to crawl in and out of the deepest crevasses.

Owen was particularly nervous about climbing because, as he puts it, “I’m not athletic.”

But he did it! We were all so excited for him!

Jackson went last, and he was as nervous as Owen was.

Great success for all of them!

After bouldering we climbed the path to a lookout tower for one of the most beautiful views of the area.

Not pictured are the two photographers – my mom and me – but that’s par for the course.