Letter to Camille: 129 Months

Hello sweet bear and Happy 129 months to you! Just now I was looking at the calendar, and realized you have less than 4 weeks left of school. Fewer than 4 weeks are left in your entire elementary school career – HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?

You are entering that in-between phase, when it’s not always clear what you’ve outgrown or what you’ve grown into yet. This month we had the 5th installment of the Heidel/Hensley family Easter Egg hunt, which we’ve miraculously kept going year after year despite families being flung around the globe from Washington, DC to Costa Rica. As Jessica and I were hiding plastic eggs around our yard this year, she asked, “So when are the kids too old for this?”

It didn’t take us long to decide the answer: never. I think as long as we-the-parents are willing to stuff eggs with sugar, you-the-children will find the eggs for our amusement and reap the candy rewards. This arrangement still suits us.

Last month saw some firsts and some lasts. Your first Easter sunrise service, which dawned beautifully at the harbor just down from our house (and was popular with neighbors AND sand gnats).Your last field day as an elementary school student. Your first time playing bass guitar. Your last time hunting eggs at our church, as you’ll graduate to egg-hider next year.

But there is one event that is a standout in my memory – your first performance on aerial silks.

Back when we were living in Costa Rica, you loved your aerial yoga class. A long strand of silk fabric was hung like a hammock from the ceiling, and you’d crawl inside this cocoon to do different poses for stretching, strengthening, relaxation and meditation. When we returned to Savannah you wished for an aerial yoga class here too.

We didn’t find one, but we did discover an aerial silks class at the Savannah Children’s Theater. I honestly wasn’t sure you’d like it – unlike the yoga classes, aerial silks isn’t about getting into a zen state or gentle stretching of muscles. It’s about shimmying up a piece of cloth dangling from the ceiling and doing circus tricks with no safety net.

Some context here – you are not a natural daredevil. Perfect example: when you were 4 years old and taking gymnastics, you were terrified to jump into the foam pit. At the end of each class, the teacher would reward all the students by allowing them to climb on top of a 4-foot platform and jump into a pit of soft foam blocks. You would climb on to that platform, peer over the edge and then scramble back down. It took you 6 solid months to work up the nerve to jump.

Even last year in Costa Rica, I remember when we went to the Malanoche waterfall and your friends were happily leaping off rocks into the cool, deep pool below. It looked like fun, so you climbed up to the rock outcropping – and froze. You refused to jump and you refused to get down. You were paralyzed with a mixture of desire and terror, and stayed that way until I finally climbed up and jumped down with you.

So imagine my surprise last Friday night at your end-of-year aerial silks recital, when I watched you hoist yourself high into the air on the silks. You had to rely only on your upper body strength to climb up, and then dangling precariously you skillfully wrapped the silks around your waist and feet so that you could let go with your hands and hang suspended in mid-air. There were no ropes to catch you if you slipped, and no net to stop your fall. It was heart-stopping and it was beautiful.

I was amazed by all of the kids performing that night, but of course, I was especially proud of you. All year long you have loved your aerial silks classes, lamenting that you only meet once per week. But we parents don’t get to see your practices, so I truly had no idea what to expect and could hardly believe what I was seeing. My careful and reserved girl was suddenly so strong and brave and confident.

How wonderful as your mother to discover new things about you. I feel as though I’ve memorized every inch of your skin and every quirk of your personality, but then you grow and change and there is something new for me to learn. Being your mother is an adventure, and one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I love you so much, my silkworm. So much.

Letter to Camille: 128 Months

Hello sweet girl and happy 128 months! We are wrapping up your week of spring break, a much longed-for respite from our usual routine.

Suddenly this month, you have decided that getting up in the morning and getting ready for school is a grave injustice. My girl who was usually bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as soon as the sun broke the horizon – she’s oft been replaced by a boneless lump who will lie on the floor and moan when asked to put on her shoes and get in the car.

“Do I have to go to school today?” you ask. Rhetorically.

“Yes. Yes you do, unless you want your mommy to go to jail because of your truancy. Now put on your shoes.”

This is your last year of elementary school, so I can only assume you’re practicing for your middle school years of burgeoning rebelliousness.

I’m sure we’re all in for a lot of changes over these next few years, but thankfully you’re still your sweet self most of the time. Last month we got to enjoy one of our favorite annual school events – the Daddy Daughter Dance.

As in years past, you asked me to put your hair in curlers. And as in years past, you didn’t want to skip a viola practice, which means I have these lovely pics for comparison. Both were taken on the night of the Daddy Daughter Dance, two years apart. You are bigger, your viola is bigger, but your intensity is the same.

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Finally, with your blond hair in ringlets and a corsage on your wrist, you and your Daddy were ready to go.

You’d promised him several dances (in years past, the Daddys usually got ditched and all the girls danced with their girlfriends). And he says you were true to your word, dancing with him so much he was exhausted, but elated to be the recipient of your attention. The feeling was mutual. I love that he is teaching you how a good man should treat a good lady. We’re lucky girls.

We partook in another springtime tradition this month – the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Savannah. This year Nana and Granddaddy wanted to go with us, joining the hundreds of thousands of other people flocking to the streets and squares to claim a spot for watching the hours-long parade.

We had a good time and it was fun to share the day with your grands, but we were all completely wiped out when it was over. Getting up early, fighting the crowds, sitting in the sun – it zapped us all. At the end of the day, you declared that you’d be willing to take a break from the parade for the next couple of years. At least until you are old enough to participate in one of the traditions – putting on bright lipstick and running out onto the parade route to plant kisses on the cheeks of the Benedictine Military Academy cadets.

“And how old do you have to be to do that?” I asked.

“Hmmmmm,” you said. “Probably 13.”

Okay then. Noted.

You did another grown-up-girl thing during your spring break – you went to a concert. It wasn’t your first, but probably your biggest to date. We took you to see the Avett Brothers perform at the Savannah Music Festival.

You love their music, and as far as kid-friendliness, these festival shows are great. The show started at 8 p.m. with no opening acts, and you even had a theater seat to rest your bones if you needed a break from standing and dancing.

Like a good fan, you lusted over everything at the sale table, even announcing that the roadies have it good because they have access to all the best merch. We got you a tour t-shirt, your first of many I imagine. But true to your young age and your strict adherence to bedtime rituals, by the time 9 p.m. rolled around you were melting in your seat, conflicted by your desire to enjoy the show and your need for a pillow and some shut-eye. I think you had a good time, even though you did NOT cheer for the encore. (“Seriously?” you asked. “But I’m so tired!”)

But if I had to guess, I’d say your favorite day of the last month was the day you spent at Six Flags in Atlanta. We went up to visit our friends the Leonards during spring break, and spent a day at the theme park, which was a first for you.

You’ve been to Disney plenty of times, and love some of the mild roller coasters there. But Six Flags is a bit different. Sure, there are kiddie rides, but as we were waiting in line to get in, you could hear all the screams emanating from riders on the many roller coasters near the entrance. The tracks extend out past the park gates and over the sidewalks and parking areas, and the trains come roaring by every so often, plunging riders down heart-stopping hills before flipping them upside and down and sideways.

“Mama, I’m scared,” you said.

We started off with some easy rides, but half-way through the day you were determined to ride at least one serious roller coaster. The Leonards, who are frequent Six Flags visitors, suggested the Scream Machine. It’s an old school wooden roller coaster with hills plenty steep enough to earn the name Scream Machine, but no upside-down loops.

You were nearly in tears as we waited in line. You wanted to ride the ride, but then again, you really really didn’t want to ride the ride. And I knew exactly how you felt, because you were me in miniature at that age. I remember standing in line for the Mind Bender roller coaster, bawling my eyes out because I couldn’t decide if I wanted to ride. I didn’t want to miss out, but I was terrified. Finally, at the last moment, I decided to ride – and I loved it.

I thought there was a good chance that the same would happen for you. We made it to the front of the line and they locked us into our seats. The train lurched forward and began it’s slow chinka-chinka-chinka up the first, dramatic hill. Your eyes were squeezed shut.

Then we were over the top of the hill and plummeting toward Earth. You were screaming, but you weren’t smiling. That was pretty much your state throughout the whole ride. I was fairly certain you hated it.

When the ride was over and we waited to get off the train, you sat stunned and shocked, unable to articulate your feelings. But when we stepped off the train and your friends rushed over to ask how you liked it, “It was crazy! It was awesome!” you said.

Did you really love it? Or were you just proud of yourself for riding? I think it was probably some of both. You declined a second ride and declared yourself done with roller coasters for the day. But you were immensely satisfied that you’d ridden it and survived, and love to retell the tale to anyone who will hear it.

It’s been a good month and a fun spring break, which will sadly come to an end the day after tomorrow. Then, it’s back to the grind. But I say bring on the grind, because ours is a pretty good one.

I love you so much sweet bear.  My concert-loving, roller-coaster riding tween. You’re the best.

Letter to Camille: 127 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 127 months to you! Ah, this month. This month has been a bit of a soul-searcher.

Some months are light. Some are busy. Some are full of travel and others of work.

But this month – it has felt a bit heavier than some. A bit deeper of purpose.

Your 127th month began with the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

I’m having a hard time with that. Your father and I try not to burden you with politics, but we do feel it’s important for you to know the basics of government, why it’s important to be involved, to vote and to speak up. I want you to understand how the decisions made in our state and national capitols can trickle down and affect your way of life, your friends and neighbors, and people who aren’t anything like you.

We’ve talked a lot this month about religious tolerance, about embracing strangers, about celebrating diversity. We’ve talked about the poisonous effect of fear, and that we’d rather be people of love. We’ve talked about the insulating, protectionist policy of “better safe than sorry,” and how that doesn’t work for us when it means good people are hurt, ignored or cast aside. We’ve reminded you that you’re a citizen of the world, not a paranoid member of an isolated kingdom surrounded by moats and booby traps.

And so it was in this spirit – a spirit of activism – that I took you to visit Savannah’s Civil Rights Museum this month. I visited this museum before you were born, and was moved by it. I always knew I wanted to take you here someday, but I also knew it would be hard. It’s a painful history, and the hurt continues even now. I wasn’t sure when you’d be ready. Or when I’d be ready to share it with you.

But as I felt my country slipping backwards, losing ground to intolerance and prejudice, I knew it was time. We needed to talk about racism, a starting point to a conversation about marginalization of every kind.

And so we went. We visited the lunch counter and learned about the protests in Savannah during the civil rights movement. We talked about voting rights. We looked at the jar of marbles and tried to guess how many were inside – the ridiculous “test” given to black would-be voters to keep them from exercising their right. You stopped in your tracks when you headed for the bathroom – one was marked “white only,” and the other for “colored only.” And you had to choose. It wasn’t right and you knew it in your bones.

You spent a long time looking at the white hood and robe of the KKK, and a partially burned cross. You had a lot of questions, and I didn’t have satisfactory answers because there are none. It was a lot to take in, and I don’t think it will be our last visit. It certainly won’t be the last time we talk about what we learned.

Sometimes I look at what is happening in my country and feel despair. And then I look at you. I look at our friends, at all the people around me who are having these same conversations with their spouses and partners and kids, and working to raise the next generation of peace-building people. And then I have hope because the story is still being written. The future is still being built, and I feel better knowing you are one of the architects. I’m not counting on you to run for President one day. I’m not even counting on you to be very political if that’s not who you are. You don’t have to do something earth-shaking – I’m just counting on you to care about people, all kinds of people, and to demonstrate that care when you can.

There were plenty of perfectly normal things that happened this month – even joyous things – and they’re all important too. And so I’ll leave you with some pictures of the happiness of this month, because these moments are part of your story, too. And thankfully, part of mine.

Thank you for making my world so much brighter, just by being you. I love you so much.

Letter to Camille: 126 Months

Hello sweet dear and Happy 126 Months to you! Right now, you and your Daddy are out in the neighborhood, trying to avoid alligators and find fish. You got a fishing pole for Christmas, and have been eager to cast a line in one of the lagoons near our home. Seasoned neighbors congratulated you on your new gift, but offered stern warnings to watch out for alligators.

The first time you and your Daddy went fishing, he reminded you to look for alligators before choosing your fishing spot.

“You mean like that one?” you asked, pointing just off the water’s edge where an alligator sat doing whatever it is alligators do (sleeping? watching? plotting?).

I’m glad to know you have a good eye for them, and the two of you scooted further down the shore. The fish didn’t bite that day, but then again neither did the alligator, so I call it a win.

We had a wonderful Christmas, surrounded by family. The weather was gorgeous, so you and the cousins spent Christmas day outside trying out your new “heel wheel” skates from Boo.

And you loved your gift from Nana and Granddaddy – an American Girl doll. But not just any American Girl doll. While this doll isn’t part of the look-alike series, she might as well have been cast as your twin. She’s a blondie… loves marine biology… and her name is Camille.

You’ve been saying for some time now that you want to be a marine biologist when you grow up. While I know these passions will likely evolve and change as you do, I admire the tenacity with which you are already pursuing your goal. Just the other day we somehow got on the subject of the periodic table of elements. I casually mentioned that one day you’d probably have to memorize it if you wanted to be a scientist.

So the next day, Friday, this is how you began your weekend: immediately upon coming home, you grabbed a ruler and sketched out the periodic table. You then filled in all the boxes, and have now set to work memorizing them. For fun.

Somewhere along the line you have learned such a valuable lesson: that goals can be reached with hard work. Rather than just saying you want to be a marine biologist, you understand there are things you can be doing – even now, at 10 years old – to move closer toward that goal. You understand that you’ll have to work hard, but you also see it as attainable. The challenge is welcomed and accepted.

I have no idea if your father and I get to take any credit for this. Likely it’s a combination of many things – your own nature as a person, your Montessori education – but I’m so glad because I believe this motivation will serve you well in life.

This is one of the lessons your Daddy and I hoped you would learn by playing an instrument. No one is born able to play the viola, or clarinet, or guitar. Sure, some people seem to have a natural ability, but everyone starts as a fumbling mess. Everyone’s first “Mary Had a Little Lamb” sounds awful. And there’s no secret shortcut for getting better – you have to be willing to learn, and you have to practice.

And you have been practicing, and improving tremendously. In fact, all your practicing almost had us in the dermatologist’s office.

About a month or so ago, I noticed an abrasion on your neck around your collar bone. I asked what happened, but you didn’t know, and didn’t remember a scrape or an injury. So we slapped some neosporin on it and put it out of mind.

But weeks later, it was still there. Shiny and pink, it looked like a shallow skin injury that was trying to heal, but wasn’t improving and wasn’t going away. We had decided to take you to the doctor next week.

Then Saturday, at orchestra rehearsal, when you brought your instrument up to your shoulder you felt a now familiar twinge, and finally made the connection. The mark on your collar bone was from the contact of viola to skin.

We looked it up online and there’s a name for it – a violin or viola “hickey.” Among serious string players, it’s often seen as a badge of honor. When Sotheby’s was preparing to auction a Stratovarius violin, the auction consultant looked for violin hickeys before allowing musicians to try the instrument. The mark is seen as proof of a strings player’s dedication.

Right now you just find the mark annoying and slightly embarrassing, but I must admit to a certain amount of pride on my part. It’s probably the only time in your life that your mother will be proud of your hickey, so enjoy it.

When we took our annual New Year’s Eve camping trip to Disney with the Gaddys, both families brought along instruments. You had your viola, Daddy had his guitar. Lola brought her ukulele and Fletcher had his violin.

You wanted to practice, but with no music stand there in the woods we improvised with clothespins and the rain fly of our tent.

When you weren’t working out new music, the four of you would improvise around the campsite. It was wonderful, and those jam sessions were a highlight of the whole trip.

We did all the usual activities: biking around the campground, swimming in the heated pool, eating novelty food, enjoying outdoor movies by the bonfire, and even snoozing on the beach waiting for the midnight fireworks show.

But my favorite memory is this – you and Lola on the back of the golf cart, performing “It’s a Small World” for the whole campground. Ashley would drive you around the camping loops, and you’d play the song on your viola while Lola strummed chords on the ukulele and sang.

Some people ignored you, but many more would lift their heads as you all rode by, sweet music trailing in your wake. They’d point, they’d wave, and sometimes they’d even applaud. The two of you sounded so beautiful together, and I loved watching you spread a bit of Disney magic around Fort Wilderness.

It was a pretty fantastic start to 2017. I’m excited to experience this year with you, my girl. Mama loves you so very much.

 

Letter to Camille: 125 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 125 Months! It’s Christmas Eve and dark outside the windows by the desk where I’m sitting and writing to you. The sun hasn’t risen yet, but I have, because IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE! It’s too exciting for sleep!

Truth be told, I think Christmas Eve might be my favorite. Of course Christmas Day is wonderful, but Christmas Eve is so full of excitement. I’m looking forward to all of it – to baking goodies for neighbors with you, going to my favorite church service of the year with candlelight and beloved songs, dinner with family, and then tucking you in tonight, wide-eyed with anticipation for the morning reveal.

Christmas also means seeing loved ones, and this week we made our annual pilgrimage to North Georgia to visit Mr. Glen in Big Canoe.

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You LOVE Mr. Glen and you love his cabin in the woods. And even though you claim to loathe hiking in general, you adore his particular waterfall hike and have declared it to be the only one you like.

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This year you didn’t feel compelled to stick right by our sides, and led the charge up the trail. You’d often leave the path to explore some rock outcropping or side route before scampering back. It’s fun to see how your independence has grown year to year.

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We also had a chance to visit your Grandma and Grandpa and see their cabin in the woods for the first time. It was a perfect winter week in nature except for the lack of snow. Oh how you are wishing for snow, but with Christmas Day temps in the 70s it doesn’t seem likely.

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This has also been a month of music for you. Something seemed to “click” recently and your previous enjoyment of music-making is becoming a passion. Your Daddy and I used to have to remind, cajole and scold you into practicing your viola. You always seemed to like playing once you got started, but rarely picked up the instrument on your own.

Not anymore. You play often and unprompted, trying new songs and relishing old ones. You love playing while your Daddy strums guitar, creatively improvising songs on the spot.

Add to that – the clarinet. When you told us at the beginning of 5th grade that you wanted to join the school band, your father and I tried to talk you out of it. There are no strings in band, so joining up would mean learning a new instrument. We were still struggling to get you to play viola at the time, and didn’t welcome the idea of nagging you about another chore.

You informed me that all of your other friends were joining band, which seemed like an exaggeration until I messaged their mothers and discovered this to indeed be true. On top of that, we found a clarinet to borrow (and avoided any additional rental fees), so we relented and you joined the band.

And I’m so glad you did. You love playing with other musicians. Between orchestra and band, I think the motivation to make good music in a group is part of the reason you practice so much now. Without our pestering, you not only practice viola independently but clarinet too, working way ahead of the class in your music book because you just can’t wait to learn how to play the next note.

You can now read alto clef and some treble clef, and you’re picking up other instruments as well. Your Daddy has taught you a few chords on the ukulele, and you are teaching yourself to play piano by ear. Given a lazy Saturday, you’re likely to spend a good chunk of your time making music. And it’s wonderful.

You’ve had a chance to perform a bit this month too. Your school band held its first concert, and you proudly told me afterward that your clarinet only squeaked once.

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Then you and John Foxx played a lovely violin/viola duet at church. You played “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” from the choir loft, and I loved hearing the strong, beautiful notes float over our heads in the sanctuary and seeing the two of you up there, pulling your bows in unison and then in harmony. I’m so proud of you.

Ah – you are awake now too, the two of us the only souls in the house unable to sleep past sunrise. Another reason I’m so excited? Nana and Granddaddy are here!

For the first time in your life and mine, we are hosting Nana and Granddaddy for Christmas! This holiday used to be one of the biggest work days for your Granddaddy with services to lead at church. But now that he’s retired, they’re able to join us for the holiday instead. I’m so happy to have them here.

Ok – I’m off to begin some Christmas Eve cooking and baking. I look forward to donning our matching Santa aprons and sharing kitchen space together today. You bring me so much joy in every season, sweet girl, and I’m so thankful for you.

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Letter to Camille: 124 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 124 Months to you! Right now you are in bed, feeling deflated and sad because you have to take a holiday break from your youth orchestra group.

Today was your fall concert, and your group played beautifully. We showered you with flowers and goodies after your performance, but once the post-concert euphoria faded, you were depressed.

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It’s not as though orchestra is over. The group just takes a reasonable break until after Christmas. I’d like to pretend the only reason you’re sad is because you love playing your instrument THAT MUCH. And while that’s part of it, I think your gloominess has more to do with missing a certain fellow musician, a handsome boy … but that’s all I’ll say, because I’m so glad you confide in me and I promise to keep your secrets.

I assured you the next month would fly by, as holidays often do. You shook your head in disagreement, but I know I’m right. I love the fall-to-winter holidays, starting with Halloween and building through Christmas. One of our favorite traditions is the annual BooFest at Boo’s house, which we missed last year. I remember feeling terribly homesick the day BooFest was happening without us, so this year it felt good to be back with the family for games, food and fun.

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For Halloween, you revived your prototype Boba Fett costume for a spin around the neighborhood with best buddies.

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I love this picture of you and Lola (who was raining cats and dogs). You are dressed as a fierce bounty hunter, but something about the delicate way you’re standing belies the tender heart underneath all that armor.

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But the past month hasn’t been just a string of celebrations. We were dealt a major disappointment, too. I sit here hesitating to write this to you, because I know this is a public space. And over the last few weeks my public spaces have seemed so unfriendly. But ultimately this is my letter to you, and there’s something I want to tell you.

On November 8th, a bully won the US Presidential election. Just a couple of weeks earlier you had a chance to cast a vote in a mock election at school. We’d discussed the campaign and the candidates, and you were proud to check the box for Hillary Clinton and thrilled that she won your school.

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The night of the actual election, you were already asleep in bed as I watched Trump pick up state after state. I dreaded the idea of waking you in the morning with the news. Throughout the campaign you’d asked us why we liked one candidate and not another. We’d talked at length about our concerns about Trump’s politics, but more specifically his behavior and that of his supporters. He behaved in a way that reminded me of a schoolyard bully – the very kind of person we urged you to avoid and prayed you’d never become.

And he won the election. I wasn’t upset to tell you that our candidate lost – that happens and losing is part of life. But I was sad to tell you that America had sided with the bullies.

The next morning I crawled under the covers with you. You rolled over and looked at me, sleepy but expectant. “Trump won, sweetie,” I said.

You buried your head back in the pillow, and then asked if we could move to Germany.

And there are plenty of times when that does seem like a good idea – to take our ball and go home. But that’s not what I think a responsible American should do. I’m not sure how this next administration will treat our friends – people who worship differently than we do, whose marriages look different than ours, whose skin is darker, who are women like us – but I know that now is not the time to leave the playground. Now is the time to stand up to the schoolyard bully and surround our friends with love.

As your mother, I know how important it is to be a good role model for you. I’m grateful that no matter who is in the White House, you will be shaped far more by the people in your house. And I’m determined that you will see me treating people with respect and with love.

I also take heart in the knowledge that in just 8 years, you’ll be able to vote. I don’t know if you’ll be a democrat or a republican or something else entirely, but I feel confident your vote will come from a place of love and not hate. And that gives me hope.

I love you so much sweet girl. Always, no matter what.

Letter to Camille: 123 Months

Hello sweet girl, and Happy 123 months to you!

These last several weeks – well, they haven’t been our easiest. Nothing horrible, nothing life-shattering and all is good when viewed with perspective … but not our smoothest sailing for sure.

Things started well enough. The day after I last wrote to you, we did indeed complete the purchase of our home. That first weekend, we “camped” at the new place, sleeping on air mattresses in the living room. We painted several rooms, and then took breaks to enjoy the new trails around the house, or watch a movie projected on our blank dining room wall.

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Your Daddy even taught you how to use a mailbox – such a suburban thing to learn after living with a mail slot in the door all your life.

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The family time was great. Then, the day of our actual move came, along with all our stuff from the old house.

So much stuff.

It was overwhelming, really. We’d been away from it for so long, that each box contained mysteries. Sometimes we were excited to see what was revealed, but oftentimes your father and I just felt … burdened. After living so simply for a while, all our stuff felt heavy.

To us. But not to you.

And here we were at odds. Your father and I were in “purge” mode, ready to cast aside anything that was not useful or extremely sentimental. But to you, every little thing was both useful and sentimental. A large rock. A plastic cup. Forks you used as a baby.

We urged, begged and pleaded with you to help us pare down all our excesses. We knew the most difficult battle would be your stuffed animals. But we’d learned of a place we could donate your gently-used stuffies to be taken to children in an orphanage in another country. You have so many stuffed animals (you counted, and had over 120), and surely you could share?

So we sent you to your room with instructions to find stuffies to donate.

A little while later, I went to check on you. I found you sitting, sobbing, cross-legged in a pile of stuffed animals. A give-away pile was on one side and a keep pile on the other. I was impressed with the size of your give-away pile, but it was plain to see that each good-bye was costing you something. Tissues soaked in tears littered the new carpet of your bedroom.

And as my eyes scanned the give-away pile, I found myself feeling sad, too. Were you really giving away that stuffed animal? The one we got on that trip? Or the one I remember you carrying around when you were 5? Or this one? Or that one?

Purging is good. But purging is hard. It seems that most of our spare moments have been spent going through boxes, examining each thing and then examining ourselves and our need of it. And then I try to remember how happily we lived for a year with so little, and we keep divesting. Even when it hurts a bit.

But it all came to a halt. We’d had our eye on Hurricane Matthew, and the forecast wasn’t good. So early one Wednesday – a week after officially moving in – we packed up the car and began our evacuation.

Yet again, we had to ask ourselves what really mattered. What had to be saved. We brought our pets (including Noel, who took up far more than her fair share of room in the car), and we brought computers (with photos) and important documents. The rest, we left behind.

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It was a stressful week, watching the news, watching on the television screen as the storm came barreling up the coast toward our home and community. We’d chosen our new house because we wanted to be near forests and near the water, but our timing didn’t seem so great with concerns of flooding and damage from fallen trees.

But we did our best to find distractions to keep us from obsessing over a storm we could not control. I took you to the Georgia National Fair – a favorite childhood past time of mine that I was excited to share with you.

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So many of the rides were exactly as I remembered and it felt a bit like stepping back in time.

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You and your Daddy took a trip to the Indian Mounds, exploring the amazing artifacts and beautiful grounds.

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And in between, we read books. Colored. Played games. You offered massages because you could see we were stressed.

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And finally it was time to go home and assess the damage. I was a bundle of nerves. Driving to our house, my stomach felt sick as I took in all the downed trees. Just so many, and such large trees. Trees that had been standing long before I was on this Earth – felled in an instant by high wind. Everywhere we looked, there were reminders of our own fragility.

So it seemed almost miraculous that no trees fell on our house. One giant tree crashed in the yard, and we had family, friends and neighbors with extensive damage. We had a lot of debris clean-up to do, but our home fared well. And most of all – I reminded myself – we were all shaken but safe.

And somehow October flew by. You enjoyed your church Halloween party with buddies this week, and then a Halloween-themed costume concert with your youth orchestra.

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Tomorrow is trick-or-treating, and then November marches in.

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Meanwhile, we’re still unpacking. Still settling in. Still purging. The process is slow, but with purpose – and with renewed perspective on what matters most. Like family. Like friends.

Like you. I love you so much sweet girl.

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Letter to Camille: 122 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 122 months! Tomorrow is a big day for us – the day we purchase our next family home. After more than a year of wandering, we are ready for roots. For nesting. For home.

Although if you had it your way, we’d be moving back into our old house on 44th street. It’s the only home you’d ever known until we left for our year abroad.

Over the last year there was always the possibility that we’d go back to that house. Although we had renters, we could move back at the end of the year. But your Daddy and I were ready for something different. There were many reasons for this, although YOU were one big reason. We wanted a different backdrop to your growing-up years. One with less traffic and more green spaces to explore.

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img_9659The new house we’ve found – I think it will make a wonderful family home. It’s in a neighborhood with miles and miles of walking and biking trails. The deer and foxes are abundant, and you can see dolphins and manatees from the marina just over a mile from the house. There is a wild bird sanctuary down the street. We drove through on a recent Saturday and saw kids your age on bikes, fishing poles perched over their shoulders, on their way to cast lines into the stocked lagoons.

This. I want this for you.

But at the moment, you’re unconvinced. You like the new house just fine. The neighborhood seems fine. But your loyalty remains with our old house.

Once we’d officially decided to move, there were still a few things in the old house we needed to pack up. You begged to come with us, and spent that time wistfully walking room to room, proclaiming your love for everything. “But I love this bathroom, Mama,” you’d say, hugging the shower wall. “I really like these countertops in the kitchen…” you’d say, running your hand over the glossy surface. And so on.

It is my hope that once you’ve made some new, good memories in our next house, you’ll grow to adore it as well. And I’m glad you’ll fondly remember your first house. I will too, because it’s the home I lived in when our family became three, and that is a very special thing.

For your father and I, it feels like the last month has been consumed with all the details of purchasing a home. Everything has gone well, but the process is still stressful, and I’m glad we had several opportunities to get out of town and be with friends.

Labor Day weekend, we picked back up on a tradition we’d enjoyed the last several years – getting together with the Valleses and Doves on Tybee Island. Our first day on the island we spent mostly indoors, hunkered down while winds whipped around us and Tropical Storm Hermine rolled through. But you had best buddies for company and it was a stormy day well spent.

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Then the following days were gorgeous, and perfect for sand and sea.

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The next weekend we traveled over to Lake Harding with the Leonard crew and spent the days in superb isolation in the cove at their lake house. You kids took off in kayaks, did gymnastics on paddle boards, and you even went knee-boarding for the first time.

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You got in some quality fishing time too, landing several brim and two good-sized catfish. It was a catch-and-release situation, but you really struggled watching your dad ready the catfish for release. Wary of the barbs, he had to step – very lightly – on the fish, applying just enough pressure to keep the fish in place while he removed the hook.

You were horrified at this, and as he worked to free it you were feverishly pouring cupfuls of water over the fish trying to keep it comfortable. When it finally flopped gratefully back into the water, you’d pick up your rod and announce that you were going to try to catch it again.

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You even learned to bait your own hook – something I thought might turn you off of fishing forever. You certainly didn’t enjoy hooking the worm or cricket, but surprised me by doing it anyway. You loved the sport of fishing, and I think it’s one of many activities we’re going to enjoy in our new neighborhood.

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Good night sweet bear and sleep well. Tomorrow night, if all goes well, you’ll be sleeping on an air mattress in the new house. We’re planning to “camp out” there all weekend and clean, paint, and generally get acquainted with the new place before our furniture arrives next week.

I can’t wait to settle in with you and your Daddy. My favorites, in a place of our own. At home.

I love you so much.

Letter to Camille: 121 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 121 months! Tonight there is an alien-looking reddish glow radiating from the cracks around your bedroom door. And inside your bedroom, there is an alien-looking creature fast asleep under her red basking light.

This month, you became “mama” to Noel, the bearded dragon.

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Back in the spring, after visiting friends who had beardies for pets, you decided you wanted one. Correction: you decided it was YOUR HEART’S ONLY DESIRE to have a bearded dragon one day.

Your father and I were not very enthusiastic about getting you a pet. But rather than saying no, we set up a way to test your resolve. We said if you saved $300 to cover the cost of the animal plus its habitat, we’d let you get one. And you had to do this one chore at a time – 50 cents for putting away dishes, $1 for cleaning your room, and so on. Honestly, we figured you’d outgrow your bearded dragon phase before you had the requisite savings.

But suddenly you were begging for chores. “Mama, how often can I wash your car?” you asked. “Can I help cook tonight?” We’d go to stores and you’d find a book or toy or gadget you wanted, and I’d offer to let you use your own money to buy it. “No,” you’d always say. “I really want a bearded dragon.”

And so it went for several months, until a friend caught wind of your quest. He just happened to know someone who’d gone off to college, leaving his 2-year-old beardie behind. It needed a new home, and were we interested?

Your father and I wrestled with this for a little while, because our deal had been $300 or no dragon, and so far you’d saved $200. But you’d been so diligent, and here was this perfectly healthy beardie in need of a home. With all the accessories. Free of charge. It seemed foolish to let that pass.

So we set up a time to go visit Noel, this bearded dragon, just to see if you two would get along. But I knew you’d already made up your mind even before the visit. You had a writing assignment at school, and proudly showed me your story, written from Noel’s point of view. The story was about a beloved dragon who was so lonesome after her owner went to college, until one day this sweet girl named Camille walked in and it was love at first sight…

I knew we were in trouble.

And sure enough, when we did finally meet Noel, you were smitten. So we brought her home.

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Noel is a very relaxed dragon who is content to sit on your shoulder and peer around. She’s happy lying on the couch in the sunlight or clinging to the stuffed spider you gave her. And she might even be growing on your parents, as well.

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Since last I wrote, we finally wrapped up the celebration of your birthday season with our gift to you – a trip with a friend to the Georgia Aquarium. You and Lola were almost as thrilled about staying in a hotel as you were about seeing beluga whales.

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While in Atlanta, we had a birthday feast and introduced you to the wonderful delicacy that is fondue. Naturally, the cookies and cream dessert fondue was a fast favorite.

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The next day was the aquarium, and you – my aspiring marine biologist – love to go to the aquarium. This time you came equipped with a notebook and a pencil, feverishly sketching pictures of the creatures as they swam by.

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The visit was made even more special by our friends the Valleses who surprised you by joining us for the day. A special treat, since these are some of your favorite people after all.

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Also since I last wrote, you started school – the 5th grade! Your last first day of elementary school.

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The night before school started, you made a to-do list and laid it on the floor next to your bed. You were excited, but nervous too. After your year abroad, you felt like a new student all over again.

You: “But mom, what if I don’t know anyone in my class?”

Me: “On your first day of school in Costa Rica, how many kids did you know?”

You: “Zero.”

Me: “And how long did it take you to make a friend?”

You: “As soon as I sat down at my table.”

And there it is – another thing you learned last year (even if you had to be reminded). You’re strong and resilient, and strangers can quickly become friends.

Of course, you did know plenty of people in your homeroom class. Before you’d even made it in the classroom door, there were several happy hallway reunions.

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Halfway through the first day of school, I got a message from the teacher about some paperwork I needed to sign. So I stopped over at the school and they paged you to meet me in the lobby.

As you handed me the form, I asked in a whisper, “How is your first day going?”

“AMAZING,” you whispered back.

“What’s amazing about it?” I asked.

“EVERYTHING.”

We topped off the day with celebratory ice cream after school, and it seems 5th grade is off to a pretty great start.

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Lots of people have asked me how you’re transitioning to being back in the US. You definitely miss your Costa Rican friends, and frequently exchange emails with some of your best buddies. But mostly you’re glad to be home. More than once we’ve been in the car or out on a walk, and looking around you’ll sigh and say, “Mom, I just love Savannah.”

One change I didn’t anticipate – now that we’re back in the states you are enthusiastic about speaking Spanish. This, from the girl who completely objected to me speaking any Spanish only a year ago, and who never could get comfortable speaking Spanish in Costa Rica. But now that we’re back, I am surprised how often you’ll start conversations with me in Spanish, un-prodded and unprompted..

We were in the grocery store not long ago when you just started speaking Spanish with no fanfare, as though it were the most normal thing. I played along, wondering how long this would last, and we kept it up all the way through the shopping trip. I was stunned – pleasantly so.

My theory is this – when you were in Costa Rica, most of your peers excelled in Spanish and you felt your skills were inferior. But here, your Spanish is muy bien. You’ve even started giving Spanish lessons to any willing friends or cousins who will consent to sitting quietly, watching you conjugate verbs on your dry erase board.

I hope the Spanish skills stick with you through the years because they’ll serve you well. But even if you forget the Spanish, I think you’ll remember the accomplishment you felt by learning a new language, and that will serve you well, too.

You’re a pretty cool kid. Lo mejor. ¡Te amo mucho, mi amor!

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Letter to Camille: Happy 10 Years!

Happy happy 10th birthday, my love! Happy double digits! Happy first decade to my favorite girl.

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Several years ago you coined the phrase “birthday season,” reasoning that birthdays should be celebrated on more than just one day. We are now in the midst of your 10th birthday season, and the celebrations began earlier this month when we were still in Costa Rica. You wanted a birthday party that would include all your Costa Rican friends, even though we’d be back in Savannah when your actual birthday rolled around.

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So we invited buddies to our house in the beginning of July to celebrate with you. It’s fun to see what gifts people come up with when there is no mall or Toys R Us or Target nearby. You nearly fainted upon receiving a package of chocolates. Your friends know how much you love bracelets, so they bought you some from beachside vendors, or made jewelry for you by hand. You love them all.

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Your last weeks as a 9 year old and your last weeks as a temporary tica were full to overflowing. The memory-making was rich.

There was the time you and your Daddy joined me to volunteer at SIBU Sanctuary. You helped cut fruit, prepare and deliver plates, and clean the kitchen. You LOVED being surrounded by monkeys.

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When we left Costa Rica, you had a favorite red fleece blanket to leave behind, and you wanted to give it to the monkeys. I think they were appreciative.

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You went zip-lining – SOARING high above the jungle canopy along 13 different zip lines. We were only about 20 minutes outside of town, but from our vantage point in the hills we couldn’t see another house or human being as we flew over the treetops. We felt deliciously wild and free.

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Your music teacher asked you to be part of a musical trio performing during the school graduation ceremony. You practiced your viola, learning a harmony part to the song “Imagine,” and also performing several solo pieces as introductory music for the gathering crowd. Your poise was outstanding, and you played your instrument beautifully.

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Just a day or two before our departure, we paused our packing and purging to go exploring a cave with friends. This particular cave is only accessible during a negative low tide, and even then required wading to reach it. But our efforts were rewarded with screeching bats and fascinating rock formations.

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Then it was time for the trip home. I remember this time last year – when you did NOT want to go to Costa Rica – it was my hope that the trip home would be bittersweet. That you would be excited to return to Savannah, but also sad to leave the people and places you’d grown to love. And this was indeed the case.

There were many simple delights awaiting us when we finally arrived at Boo’s house. After a long day of travel and then a blessed night of sleeping (in air conditioning!!), you enjoyed a breakfast of cheese grits, and some Boo time on the couch surrounded by some of your favorite stuffies.

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That first week back you had a playdate with Lola and a sleepover with Taylor.

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Then Nana and Granddaddy came down from Tennessee to celebrate your actual birthday. We visited the aquarium and strolled along the gorgeous marshes of Skidaway Island, followed by birthday cake and presents.

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Today, a few days later, you were in your room enjoying some of your new gifts and I had a giggle, thinking about you as my hipster 10 year old. A snapshot of a moment in time, age 10:

    • listening to Jesus Christ Superstar (London cast) on vinyl on your new record player
    • new essential oils diffuser wafting citrus and lemongrass scents into the air
    • Instead of a tea party, you invite me to join the boiled peanut party you are having with your Gigi stuffed animal – a favorite character from a beloved Miyazaki film.

I gladly joined the two of you on the floor to bond over some peanuts.

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What an amazing year we’ve had. What an incredible decade. I love you more than you could ever know, and I’m so thankful to be your mama.

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