Letter to Camille: Waterfalls & Octopi

Hello my sweet girl! It’s Friday afternoon – probably my favorite time of the week, with all the potential of 2 weekend days stretching ahead of us. Tonight is going to be a family movie night, and I’m introducing you to a beloved movie from my childhood – Airplane. I showed you the trailer this morning. You were not impressed.

“I mean, I’ll totally watch it with you, but it doesn’t look very good,” you said, like someone making a great sacrifice.

Well, we can’t agree on everything. We do have a lot in common, but there are also days when I might question your parentage if I hadn’t been there when you were born.

Examples. You LOATHE shopping. You like to eat octopus but not peanut butter & jelly. You think snakes are adorable. If you have to be late to school because of a dentist/doctor’s appointment, the injustice is enough to elicit tears.

However, we are both terrified of needles, we are voracious readers, we like to please those in authority, and we love tacos. When your Daddy and I were first dating, he told me he didn’t care for Mexican food. The thought crossed my mind, “this relationship may not work.” Thankfully, he came around and here we are, two decades and many tacos later, still together. Eating tacos.

I’m beginning to recognize another big difference though – our tastes in travel. My favorite kind of travel involves nature – seeing something new and amazing in the natural world. Snow capped mountains, plunging canyons, exotic jungles, and anything involving moving water – rivers, waterfalls, oceans.

You love to travel if it fits a specific purpose, like visiting a friend, or attending a concert or theatrical production. But you have no interest in sightseeing. Hiking is a drag. Museums are a bore.

A few weeks ago we began planning a summer trip, and were discussing Iceland. I pulled up some YouTube videos about Reykjavik, and was immediately mesmerized by all the natural wonders there. You were watching these same videos, with much less enthusiasm.

Me: “Camille – look at that huge waterfall!”

You: “Ugh. But waterfalls are just so … LOUD.”

*face palm

One of the itineraries would mean missing the last week of school. I was ok with this because everyone knows no learning happens in the last week of school. I asked what you thought.

You: “Absolutely no. We don’t do ANYTHING on the last week of school. I don’t want to miss that!”

*face palm

You are still enjoying school, much to my delight. A few weeks ago you attended the first middle school Homecoming Dance. Shopping for a dress was no small task, in part because you hate shopping. But also, you’re at an age when the dresses in the Girls section are too juvenile, but the dresses in the Juniors section are too … backless. With exposed midriffs. Just, no.

Your absolute favorite store is Hot Topic, the young person’s mecca for all things counterculture. The clothing offerings range from ironically cute Disney princess attire to dark, black, goth skirts and shirts with skulls.

This is where you wanted to get your Homecoming dress. As we riffled through the clothing racks, I’d hold up dress after dress. “Do you like this one? This one? How about this one?”

I lifted one dress and you rolled your eyes. “No mom. I’m not that emo.”

How do you even know what emo is? When did you become a brooding teenager?

You finally did find a dress – a really cute dress that was not too juvenile, not too revealing, and not too emo.

But my favorite part of the day was when we were walking through the mall and you slipped your soft hand into mine. I didn’t say anything, just gave you a squeeze. But you read my thoughts.

You: “No, I’m not too big to hold your hand.” Pause. “But if I see my friends, don’t be upset if I let go.”

Me: “I love holding your hand. But I will understand if you let go in front of your friends. I’ll just cry a little bit. Really really loudly.”

As you get older, you are definitely more aware of how you appear in front of your friends, and how your father and I factor into that. We’re always on the verge of doing something horribly embarrassing, which is quite fun for us grown ups.

Still, I was surprised and amused at how much thought you’d given to my hair.

Somehow it came up that I had an appointment this week to have my hair cut and colored. I have had grey hairs since … forever … and require regular dye jobs to keep the silver in check.

You: “Oh good!” you gushed, collapsing a bit as if you’d been carrying the weight of my grey hair on your small shoulders. “I’ve been thinking you needed to color your hair for WEEKS, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Gee – thanks! So I teased that maybe I wasn’t going to color it after all, and I was going to let the silver shine through.

You: “No – you can’t do that. I’m too young to have a mother with grey hair. You have to wait until I’m at least 18. You can go grey then, but not before I’m 18.”

Ha! I’m glad to see you’ve worked all this out in your head.

Well, don’t worry. I’m not giving in to the grey just yet.

Oh sweet girl, you sure do make me laugh. And – yes – face palm sometimes. And even though you may not like waterfalls and I may not like octopus, I still think we’ve got a pretty good thing going here.

I sure do love you. So much.

Letter to Camille: January 2018

Hello my sweet girl! It has been almost two months since I last sat down to pen (type?) a letter to you – my longest stretch thus far. But not for lack of material: we’ve been to Mexico, celebrated Christmas, been to Disney, and even played in the snow in Savannah (?!). You made your school’s Quiz Bowl team and moved up to a higher level in your Youth Orchestra. You’ve grown and grown some more.

And as you grow, I keep asking myself if I should continue these letters in this forum. You’ll always be my baby, but you’re also growing into a young lady. So far you’ve given me your blessing to write about you here, but in a blink you’ll be a teenager and likely won’t want your mom recounting every milestone on her mom blog. How embarrassing.

You’ve read many of the letters from when you were younger, but not the recent ones. I don’t hide them from you but don’t specifically show them to you either – I feel they’ll mean more when you can reflect back on them later, with hindsight. But how strange is it that others are reading my letters to you, and you’re not? Not yet?

So why do it? Selfishly, I love looking back at the letters and remembering little details about your childhood that I’d otherwise surely have forgotten. I was never into scrapbooking or even making photo albums, but with these letters I feel I can capture little slices of this precious time and bottle them up to enjoy again later.

And of course, I picture you with these letters one day. Reading them when you’re a young adult, reminiscing about your younger years. Reading them as a parent, perhaps. Reading them whenever you miss me. Reading them and feeling how much you are loved.

For now, I plan to keep writing, though maybe not every month. And at some point, if it feels like I should stop publishing these, then I can always write to you privately. Like so much of this parenting stuff, we’ll learn as we go, and adjust.

Now, on to the fun stuff. Back in November, we finally put fresh stamps in our brand new passports on a Thanksgiving trip to Mexico. Our first stop was San Miguel de Allende, to visit the Rogers family. We became friends when we all lived in the same town in Costa Rica. From Costa Rica they moved to Mexico, and we’d been itching to visit them there.

The town was so beautiful, with gorgeous colonial structures painted in vibrant colors lining the cobblestone streets. An impressive cathedral towered over the town center where vendors set up markets. While the grown ups did some shopping, you and your buddies Mason and Ellis chased pigeons through the streets, happy as could be.

It was like no time had passed between our families. We ate together, strolled the town together, and even got to watch Ellis play a soccer game. As we bounced around the old streets in their car, the three of you kids were thrilled to ride in the hatchback – something we’d never allow in the US. Your legs dangled over the back seat while you squealed and laughed as you were jostled around. I loved watching you be so carefree.

On Thanksgiving Day we said goodbye to the Rogers and headed for some family time on the coast in Playa Chacala. When we booked our vacation, we were looking for a small, quiet beach town with an authentic Mexican feel.

We scored high on “small” and “authentic,” but maybe not so much on “quiet.” Chacala is a tiny town spanning about 9 blocks along a beautiful bay on the Pacific coast. While we were there we only saw a handful of other foreigners, but that doesn’t mean the place was empty. By mid-afternoon the beach was full of locals, splashing in the waves, playing beach soccer games, enjoying roving Mariachi bands. Our home was right on the ocean with AMAZING views, and we enjoyed soaking up the town’s vibe.

We were at the beach 5 nights, but for you I think that was about 3 nights too many. After the blissful reunion with your friends in San Miguel, it didn’t take long for you to be bored in Chacala with just me and Dad for company. We swam in the ocean. You read books, and even started writing a book of your own. You drew and you colored. And then it was only noon on day 2…

We decided an outing was needed, and I’d read that the area was close to an old ancient Aztec site full of petroglyphs, or rock carvings. So we hired a guide to show us the way.

And it’s a good thing we did – guides aren’t required, but we’d never have found it on our own. We drove slowly along a tiny dirt road leading away from the coast and toward the Sierra Madre mountains, until the road turned into a path and then became undriveable. From there, we slapped on the mosquito spray, grabbed our water bottles and hiked the rest of the way in.

We saw many different types of petroglyphs, from carvings that served as maps, to calendars, and even a creepy sacrificial stone. The most beautiful spot was the King’s pool, where the Aztecs placed rocks to create a tranquil pool for ritual cleansing.

The whole beach portion of our trip, you bemoaned the fact you were missing four days of school. I’d already talked with your teachers and had no concerns myself, but you hated the thought of missing some hypothetical key assignment.

But as I watched you hopping along the stones around the King’s pool, or observed you and the guide discussing native plants, all I could think was what a fabulous field trip this was. Travel is a marvelous educator, and I was fairly certain your teachers would agree.

Then it was time to return home, to the US, to school, to work, and to the promise of Christmas. We had a wonderful holiday, capped off by a trip with the Gaddy family to Disney for New Year’s Eve, as is our tradition.

We came back from Disney in time for a shocking snowfall – it had been about 30 years since the last measurable snowfall occurred in Savannah. The day started off rainy as we watched the skies, willing the drops to turn into flurries. Just after lunch the snowfall began, and we pulled on coats and gloves and skipped around the neighborhood, giddy with delight. You and your Dad had snowball fights, and then set up a snowy Star Wars scene on the back deck. We tried (and failed) to sled down one of the golf course hills. You made a snow angel.

The snow stuck around long enough that school was cancelled for three days. THREE SNOW DAYS! It. Was. Glorious.

I love all the pictures we took, though even without them I can’t imagine we’d soon forget our Savannah snow.

From a hot beach in Mexico, to snow on our southern palm trees, it has been a good few months. I’m thankful for all of it, and especially for you. I love you, sweet girl.

Letter to Camille: 136 Months

Hello sweet girl, and Happy 136 months to you. Aren’t these some gorgeous pictures of you? I know I’m your mother and I’m supposed to think these things, but I do believe I’m right.

All these pictures I post on this blog – I wonder what you’ll think of these pictures 20 years from now? 40 years? Looking back at some of my childhood snapshots, I giggle at the glasses and the hair spray, the perm and the clothes. Will you? But I see a happy childhood shining through my old photos too, and I hope you will as well.

These latest pics are from our annual family photo shoot with Ashley, and I love them. But oh man, that photo session involved more parenting than I initially expected.

When you were a very young child, the annual family photo sessions were all about bribery. If you would just sit here, just smile like that, just walk this direction and look over your shoulder, then when it was all done you’d get some big payoff. I remember one year we ended the photo shoot in a candy store, holding that finale over your head the whole time to elicit your cooperation.

I thought we’d moved beyond that. But this year your independent streak was showing. We’d plan a lovely photo of the three of us strolling down a marsh side path, but you’d decide to take off running into the distance alone. Then we’d call you back to us, and you’d be miffed and the smiles wouldn’t come as easily.

You love to be silly and goofy – and that’s fine until we need you to sit still, and stop laying on top of the dog, and smile, and no please don’t make that face we’re trying to get one good picture here. Instead of bribing you with candy, we threatened to take away allowance money. But hey – we did get some good pics, we just had to work at it.

For a portion of the photo shoot, you insisted on wearing your new favorite accessory – grey furry wolf ears.

I actually think they’re really cute, and they’re some of my favorite from the session, but it did remind me of that phase you went through when you were 2 or 3 years old when you wore a cardboard Burger King crown everywhere you went. Again, these preteen years seem to have a few things in common with those toddler ones. You have your own idea about how things should be, and sometimes a stubborn streak to go with it.

But that’s ok. Really, most of the time you’re still your happy, agreeable self – still willing to snuggle in close at the end of the day for a cuddle and a bedtime story. But you’re also growing up, exerting free will and independence, and that’s good too.

Another sign of the times – over these last few months your friends have become more and more the focus of your free time. Phone calls between you and other kids used to be so awkward and forced, but now you’ll talk and talk with your classmates after school – either Facetime or messaging –  until we tell you screen time is over.

And as for middle school – you’re loving it. I must confess to being pleasantly surprised – isn’t middle school supposed to be so awful? I know there’s still plenty of time for drama that’s bound to come, but you’ve made a good group of friends and you all seem to laugh a lot. That makes me happy.

This is your first year in a non-Montessori school, which means it’s also your first year getting a report card. In your previous non-traditional education, parent-teacher conferences took the place of progress reports, and kids were tested but weren’t given grades.

So as the issuance date of your first report card grew near, you got excited. “I can’t WAIT to get my report card!” you gushed on the way to school that day. And your anticipation was rewarded with high marks in all your classes.

I’m glad you’re doing so well in school, although I’ll be forever grateful for all those years with the Montessori method where you couldn’t get caught up in measuring yourself. From one perfectionist to another, let me tell you – it can easily become a burden when you can score and mark yourself, wondering if you could have, should have tried harder. Of course I want you to do well and I want you to work hard, but I also want you to be a well-rounded kid. I want you to be happy – not a stress case over this test or that standard.

I found myself getting tripped up when having a conversation about this with you not too long ago. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but it was one of those, “It’s ok if it’s not perfect, I just want you to do your very best,” moments.

But then I started thinking about the word “best,” and how utterly impossible it is to be your best all the time. To truly be your best at something you’d need to dedicate all your time and energy to it. And then how would you have time and energy for anything else? I bet if you practiced your viola 3 hours a day you’d be amazing. But I don’t want you to. I bet if you studied math equations all afternoon you’d score higher on the SAT. But I’d rather play a card game with you, or watch you put on your wolf ears and go skipping down the marsh side path. I want you to work hard. And then I want you to be lazy and goofy.

When you grow up, you’ll find that there’s no way to be the very best mother, and the very best spouse, and the very best professional, and the very best church member, and the very best PTA member, the very best yogi, the very best chef, and the all around very best citizen – all at once. And if you try, you’ll be setting yourself up to fail.

Maybe your best self is the one who allows room for balance. For work and for play. For excellence, and sometimes for failure. For pushing hard, and then for letting go. In whatever you do, I wish for you a life that is light on judgement and heavy on joy, with plenty of room for love, peace and happiness.

I love you so much, my wolf-eared girl. My best Camille.

Letter to Camille: 135 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 135 Months! Right now you’re at orchestra rehearsal, practicing for the annual Halloween concert, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re feeling a bit sluggish after our late evening.

Yesterday, the night sky was cloudless and the air was cool when you, your Daddy and I walked onto the golf course green near the marsh around 10 p.m. We spread our blankets on the damp grass and laid down so we could see the stars while swatting at insects buzzing around our ears. Occasionally I would turn on my flashlight and shine it at the water where I kept hearing splashing sounds (raccoon? ALLIGATOR?), but mostly we focused our attention on the expanse of stars overhead.

We tried to spot constellations and pointed out every passing airplane, but our real goal was to see the Orionid meteor shower, which peaks this weekend. In the thirty or forty minutes we spent lying in the grass, I saw one meteor for sure and a few maybes. Sadly, you saw none. Finally, tired of offering ourselves as a late-night snack for the mosquitos, we packed up our blankets and headed home. “We can try again in December,” you said.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised you already knew the date of the next meteor shower. Lately you’ve become a walking, talking font of space knowledge.

It started a couple of months ago when your science class began a unit on space. Suddenly your notebooks were full of facts about the planets and stars, and endless doodles of your favorite celestial body, Saturn (though Uranus is always good for a giggle). Your science teacher suggested you and your classmates might like the TV show Cosmos,  so one night we sat down to watch. That’s when I realized how much you were loving the study of astronomy. You perched on the edge of our couch, remote control in hand, frequently hitting pause.

The narrator, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, would say something about a planet, and you’d pause the show, turn to me and excitedly fill me in on all the things you’d learned about that planet. You gushed about Saturn, told me about the Russian expedition to Venus, and filled me in on the origin of comets.

All of this enthusiasm for space makes me so very glad we took time to witness the recent total solar eclipse.

I’d been behind the planning curve on this – I knew there was an eclipse happening but I hadn’t given it much thought. I’ve seen partial eclipses before, and it’s neat to see the moon’s shadow creeping across the sun but it didn’t seem necessary to rearrange my life around the phenomenon.

But what I didn’t fully appreciate was the startling difference between a partial solar eclipse and totality. I began to gain interest after hearing news reports about people who travel the world chasing total eclipses. I mean, a total eclipse was happening just a couple of hours from where I live, and I hadn’t planned to go see it. Meanwhile, others were traveling from much farther away to bear witness. AND I have a science nerd in the house.

I kicked into planning mode at the last minute, which of course meant every hotel and campground in the vicinity was already booked. So, on eclipse day, we got up before dawn with a handful of other friends, heading to a small town in South Carolina in the path of totality. We left early, knowing the roads would be clogged with other eclipse watchers.

We arrived and staked out our spots on a lawn in the shade of a municipal building. It was a warm day and we had several hours to wait. You and your friends made a make-shift shelter from the hot sun and we waited. And waited. We ate a greasy lunch from the food trucks and then waited some more.

Finally, some time after 1 p.m., the shadow of the moon very, very slowly began to fall over the sun. It was like watching the hands of a clock move – it seemed there was no movement at all, but then you’d look away and look back and notice the slightest change. More shadow. Less sun.

As we got closer to totality, the temperature dropped outside. Suddenly a chorus of noise from night creatures arose in the grass around us. The light-sensing street lamps lining the boulevard buzzed and flickered to life, and we could see bats spiraling around the trees. It felt like dusk, and it was 2:30 in the afternoon.

There was a palpable excitement in the crowd. We all stared skyward with our cardboard eclipse glasses, watching the last sliver of the sun begin to disappear until it was just a single pinprick of light. Then it was dark.

All around me people began shouting, cheering and applauding. I snatched off my eclipse glasses and was stunned by what I saw. There in the sky was a dark black circle, but around it was the most beautiful halo of bluish white light, shimmering in the heavens.

I struggle even now to describe how it felt. To explain why I found tears in my eyes. Why I yelled and cheered along with everyone around me. Why I hugged you. Why I hugged your father. Why I have tears in my eyes right now just remembering it, and remembering the look on your face as you clutched your friend Lola and stared at the sky. But I’ll try.

Watching the total eclipse, I had an overwhelming feeling of being such a small, small part of such a big, big universe. I felt connected to the sky, and I also felt connected to every single person around me witnessing the same thing. I felt connected to the people who’d climbed mountaintops to see it, to my friends in Oregon, to my parents in Tennessee, to all the people who were also staring skyward that day, marveling at the wonders of the universe. I felt connected to the ancient people who must’ve interpreted a similar eclipse as a message from their God. And it felt like a message from my God too. A message that the world is vast. And beautiful. And I’m part of it. And I’m not alone.

I’m pretty sure you understand how I felt. Even last night, in the absence of visible meteors, you looked up at the stars with wonder and said, “It’s just amazing to think how small we are, and how big the universe is.”

After watching that first episode of the Cosmos television program, your teacher said you could write a paragraph summary for extra credit. You eagerly tackled the assignment, and I loved your closing words.

“My favorite part of the show was learning that we are all made of bits of stardust. That makes me think anything is possible.”

What a beautiful thought. I hope you keep thinking big, taking time to look at the sky, and appreciating our great big world.

I love you so much sweet girl, stardust and all.

Letter to Camille: 134 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 134 Months! Thankfully, I’m writing to you in less stressful circumstances this month. When last I wrote, we had evacuated to Tennessee ahead of Hurricane Irma, and weren’t sure to what we’d be returning.

We were lucky. Although there was plenty of yard clean-up to do from fallen limbs and tree debris, considering how others suffered we had no cause for complaint. With a helpful attitude, you donned your sun hat and work gloves and helped us fill lawn bags.

We rewarded ourselves with generous helpings of the key lime cake you baked and iced while we were still in Tennessee, under Nana’s watchful eye and excellent instruction.

Even though the storm had passed, you had more than a week off school as officials inspected buildings for damage and allowed time for evacuees to return home. We spent one of those days lagoon-side with your cousins, casting fishing lines.

The greatest challenge wasn’t catching fish – it was NOT catching turtles. As soon as your hook plunked into the water, ripples spread across the surface like a signal, summoning the turtles to your bait’s location. Alone and in groups, the turtles would swim toward your bobber, and then it was a mad race to reel in your line before the turtles could hook themselves. Sometimes the turtles “won,” although I am pretty sure they didn’t like the prize of a hook in the mouth. The lagoon is a popular one for fishing – you’d think the turtles would’ve learned to avoid bobbers and bait lines. Apparently not.

Despite the turtle interference,  you all still managed to catch several blue gill large enough to eat. And what a moral dilemma THAT was.

You love fishing. You love eating fish. But eating the fish you catch – that’s another issue altogether because you have to see it live and see it die.

Truthfully, I feel that if we’re going to be carnivores, it seems so much more ethical this way. It’s so easy to pick up a neatly wrapped styrofoam container of meat at the grocery and give no thought to the process that landed it there and whether or not it was a humane one.

But this fish – hopefully this fish had one bad day. It lived freely in the lagoon all its life until one day it wound up in our bucket. The end.

I say all of this with my logical brain, but I am of two minds. There’s also the sympathetic part of my brain that HATED watching the fish swimming frantic circles in our bucket of water, knowing in short order they’d be filleted and fried and on my plate. I could have easily tossed them back into their watery freedom, and I didn’t like having that power.

You were filled with these same conflicted thoughts. You wanted to eat the fish, but you didn’t want to kill them, and it just doesn’t work that way.

We took the fish home, and you and I sat inside the house trying to distract ourselves while your Daddy and Boo cleaned the fish outside. And I thought to myself, “If she becomes a vegetarian, we will trace it to this day.”

Heck, if I ever become a vegetarian, I can probably trace it to that day too.

Your Daddy brought the cleaned fish inside, battered it and fried it and put it on your plate. And despite a guilty look on your face, you gobbled it up, crispy fins and all, and declared it delicious. So at least for now, a carnivore you remain.

We spent another of those school-free days with the Skidaway Audubon Society, participating in one of their turtle release events. Diamondback Terrapins routinely lay eggs on Skidaway, but often in the golf course sand traps around the island. So, volunteers check the sand traps regularly during nesting season and excavate any vulnerable eggs. They rebury the eggs in protected hatching boxes, and then release the babies safely to the marsh once they emerge.

Fortunately for us, they often invite the public to the turtle releases. So one glorious evening last month, you, Lola and I gathered at the marsh with a handful of other people as plastic bins filled with sand, water, and teeny-tiny terrapins were placed gently on the ground. When we saw how small the baby turtles were – smaller than our palms – we all shrieked.

You and Lola scooped up the babies one by one. If you held them between your thumb and forefinger, they would windmill their arms like swimmers. Resting in your palm, at first the turtles would be still and quiet, blinking their tiny eyes, unsure of the next move.Then they’d try to scurry off your hands in the direction of the brackish water.

After giving each one a name and a nuzzle (or two), you walked to the edge of the marsh grass and placed the turtles on the ground. The sun was getting low in the sky, and the entire scene was bathed in a warm, golden glow.

There were more than 50 turtles to release, and when you were down to the last two, you and Lola lingered with them for a while. Of course you asked if you could keep them. Of course the answer was no. And as it should be, these last two turtles were released to join their brothers and sisters in the tidal marsh.

I feel very lucky to live – and to raise you – in a place that can bring us face to face with the natural world. With the food we eat and with creatures in need of our protection. You may not always live in a place like this – who knows, you may grow up to be a city girl in a skyscraper suite and that would be just fine. But I hope these experiences in nature are the kind that stay with you forever, rooting you to this world and every living thing on it.

I love you so much my sweet girl.

Letter to Camille: Happy 11th birthday!

Right now I’m sitting at the sunny breakfast table at Nana and Granddaddy’s house, tuned to my phone and computer for distress calls from our website clients. We made this unplanned trip thanks to Hurricane Irma, so we could be somewhere calm and safe to provide website support to our emergency management clients.

It’s currently my turn to be on duty – yesterday your Daddy worked while you and I went shopping and to a trampoline park. Today, it was his turn for Daddy-Daughter fun, with a round of mini-golf and a funnel cake and an enormous box of Swedish fish.

Fortunately for us, it appears Savannah will avoid the worst of the weather – but of course that only means a misfortune somewhere else with each forecast shift. I just turned off the Weather Channel – I love staying in the loop, but you can only watch someone get blown around the street for a certain amount of time before you need a break from the sound of the wind, the rain, and the forecasters’ urgent warning that the worst is yet to come.

And I am late – quite late – with posting your 11th birthday letter. So what better reprieve from the hurricane than to think back on that month?

Your 11th birthday marked the first time we ever surprised you with a vacation, and you were the one who gave us the idea many months ago. You’re a Harry Potter fan, and in the stories, Harry Potter receives his invitation to attend Hogwarts on his 11th birthday. So you declared that for your 11th birthday, you also wanted an invitation to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

We took your idea and built upon it. Daddy found someone online who makes custom replicas of Harry’s Hogwarts letter, and had one created and addressed to you. And I booked us a trip to Harry Potter World in Orlando. We were going to fulfill your request for a letter, and then whisk you off to Hogwarts that very same day. Keeping the secret was SO HARD!

Your birthday arrived, and I made the traditional birthday breakfast of biscuits and gravy. Then after we ate, Lee slipped outside and put a stuffed owl on the porch, facing the front door and holding your letter (which is delivered by owls in the book, of course). A ring of the doorbell brought you into the game.

You were thrilled to see your letter, read your Hogwarts’ school supply list and hold your ticket to the Hogwarts Express train leaving from Platform 9 and 3/4. Then we asked you to pack your bag, because it was time to go.

It took you a little while to understand that we were actually going to Universal Studios in Orlando to Harry Potter World, and that we weren’t just playing a game with you. But once you believed it, you were super excited.

In Orlando, we spent two full days in the Harry Potter theme parks. On the second day, you were selected to announce the opening of the park, which also meant you got to be the first one into the park. As soon as you finished the announcement, you took off running through the empty park, determined to be first in line for your favorite Harry Potter rides.

We were absolutely smitten with the parks. We drank Butterbeer, you bought a wand at Ollivander’s Wand Shop just like Harry Potter did, and you ducked underneath the heat and noise of the fire-breathing dragon atop Gringott’s Bank.

We ventured outside of Harry Potter World too, and you fell in love with the E.T. ride, which stole your parents’ hearts as well.

We had a magical trip – pun totally intended.

Back home, we had time for just a few more shenanigans…


More than just a new school year, this was a new school too, and a new chapter in your educational journey. When we tucked you in at night and woke you up the next morning for the first day of classes, you were overflowing with questions. “What if I don’t have enough time to change classes?” “Where are the bathrooms?” “Am I allowed to wear crazy socks? I’d better not wear them today, just in case.”

We were almost as nervous as you were. But thankfully, you’re adjusting to middle school very well. You love your teachers, you quickly made friends, you found the bathrooms and you have plenty of time to change classes (and plenty of plain white socks). I’m sure at some point, the typical middle school drama will kick in and things will get harder, but for now, 6th grade is off to a great start.

I’m very proud of the way you’ve handled this change, marched into the new school with your chin up, tackled your assignments and opened yourself up to new friendships. You’re a great kid, and I am so happy you’re mine. I love you so much.

Letter to Camille: 132 Months

Hi there, my sweet little monster, and happy 132 months!

It should probably be noted up front that this letter has a different byline, and your dear old dad is stepping up to write this month in review. It’s not because mom was too busy or didn’t feel like it, but because the two of us got to share a very special week together. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The month started with you away at Cousin Camp in Tennessee, being spoiled by Nana and Granddaddy and relishing the attention of your cousins Stella and Jane. While we don’t like the fact that the girls’ home in Houston is so far away, it does make these annual reunions extra sweet. Since the “No Parents Allowed” rule was strictly enforced, I don’t have a first-hand account to relay, but I have it on good authority that you enjoyed attending a fancy tea party, mastering the once-feared WonderWorks science museum and Granddaddy’s daredevil rides in the golf cart. But your favorite thing had to be seeing a staged rendition of the musical Beauty and the Beast. I know this was a highlight because you, Stella and Jane performed your very own rendition of the show when we arrived to pick you up. It was complete with costume changes, an intermission and, of course, programs. Very professional.

From Tennessee, we drove to Cincinnati to see Uncle Trent and his beautiful family. They were gracious hosts as always, and we visited excellent restaurants, a rad comic book store and explored city parks.

Trent’s hospitality extended to arranging private box seating for us at a Reds game, complete with catered buffet. What a treat!

We also saw the Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center (AKA the Hall of Justice). For a couple of Star Wars fans and costuming enthusiasts, you and I were in our happy place. From inspecting the intricate embroidery on Queen Amidala’s dresses to seeing our reflections in C-3PO’s gold plating, the smiles never left our faces.

There was only one thing that you didn’t like about that Cincinnati trip: Mom got her first tattoo. Now, you are a very mature young woman. You are sensitive, intuitive and smart. As a wanna-be rock star shaman in the wilds of Costa Rica once said, you have a very old soul. Because of those qualities, you’ve shown that you can handle many types of change very well. But you do not like it when your safe spaces are altered. We’ve seen you struggle with moving, donating old stuffed animals and even things like getting a new car. You are fiercely loyal and cherish those constants which rarely, if ever, change. An alteration involving your mother, no matter how small, was something that you were not willing to accept. You begged, you pleaded, you teased in a way that wasn’t always kind. But as this month draws to a close, you’ve learned to accept mom’s ink and know that it’s literally only skin deep. Getting a tattoo did not change your mother’s capacity to love or nurture. But it did provide her with a boost of happiness, and learning to respect others’ needs is a big emotional step, even for one as mature as you.

After a few days at home, we were off again to visit with the always fun Leonard family at their lake house. This was the third year we’ve been able to share in the magic of lazy days on the water with this crazy crew. As soon as your car door opened you were enveloped into the tribe as Ansley and Zoe led you off to the girls’ bunk room.

Like visits past, you spent full days kayaking, swimming and fishing, pulling out several bright and feisty brim. Somehow there was also enough time left over for makeup, nail painting and watching the Disney Channel. I’m always amazed by what good friends the Leonard girls are to you, even though we don’t see them as much as we’d like.

This summer, though, you got an extra dose of Ansley and Zoe, as the very next week you attended Rock Eagle 4-H Camp with them. Mr. Allen asked if I’d like to be a volunteer with Fayette Co.’s group and, with the knowledge that you got to come along, I said yes.

4-H and Rock Eagle were huge parts of my growing up. Boo worked with the 4-H organization as a part of her career, and I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve been on that campus. Despite all my foreknowledge, many things were different from my time there as a camper, teen leader and counselor. From what I could see, all of those changes were for the better.

The new cabins may as well have been hotel rooms, air conditioned with internet access. The dining hall was sleek and modern. The counselors seemed to be well rested and well treated. Luckily, all of the things that needed to stay the same – whether for the spirit of the place or simply honored tradition – were still intact. The lake was still wide and calm. The nature trails were just rigorous enough for little feet. The eagle still captured the maiden in the pageant. The breakfast toast was still hard.

For all of the personal reminiscing I did that week, the real benefit of attending camp was to see it through your eyes. You LOVED it, and you took to it in a way I could never have imagined.

Your previous trip to Rock Eagle was just before your fourth birthday to recognize Boo’s last year at camp before retiring. Your only memories of it were prompted by photographs. Looking back on those images, you were so tiny and in many ways helpless. On this return trip, you were in your element, the perfect age to embrace the responsibilities and expectations of camp life. Going in, you only knew two people, but you quickly made friends with kids from all over the state. You canoed, held snakes, hiked to the effigy mound, and raced down the water slide. You cleaned your cabin, arrived for classes on time and followed the rules.

You also showed so much spirit. Our designated “tribe,” the Cherokees, became your people. The college-aged counselors became your beloved role models. Weeks later, you’re still chanting the cheers and teaching us the dances you learned. You’re drawing the moon and star symbols on your school supplies. The bright orange camp T-shirt you received is worn twice a week, regardless of cleanliness. The thought of returning next year and tackling the high ropes course is a frequent topic of dinner time conversation. Boo even helped you sew your own counselor uniform. It looks great on you.

Sweet, sweet girl. It has made my heart so happy to see how much joy that week of camp brought you, and understand that the same joy has been felt by tens of thousands more during the camp’s history. Knowing that I’ve had a small part in that story makes me smile, but being able to give you that gift makes me so proud.

Even though our week at camp was exhausting, you were only allowed a few days of decompressing before the magical morning of birthday number eleven. But I’ll let mom tell you about that next month.

All my love,

Letter to Camille: 131 Months

Hello sweet girl and Happy 131 months to you!

I’m a little late in writing this letter and somehow we are already six weeks into your summer break. Six weeks?! Six weeks of sleeping in, of summer camps, of salt water and periwinkle snails.

There’s a spot along the marsh in our neighborhood where we like to launch your kayak at high tide. I learned the hard way that we should ONLY do this at high tide, after that time we went at mid-tide and I sank up to my thighs in marsh mud trying to get your kayak to the water. That was my least favorite of your kayak expeditions, but probably your favorite – all the exposed mud was a fun stomping ground for you and for Lola. Her sneakers kept getting sucked off her feet, and you’d have to dig her shoes out of the mud, getting happily filthy in the process. The two of you laughed hysterically about it.

When you weren’t kayaking solo or with buddies, you spent several hours in the shallow marsh areas collecting periwinkle snails and crabs as temporary pets. One day after you’d walked to the marsh with a friend, the weather turned ugly so I drove to the marsh to give you a lift home. You and Freya sat in the backseat of my car, holding a periwinkle snail and two fiddler crabs – until one of the crabs disappeared. It was never recovered. It’s probably still in my car today. At first, I was annoyed at the thought of a live (soon-to-be-dead) crab in my car. But then I reminded myself that having a nature-loving kid sometimes means a fiddler crab gets lost in my car. Worth it.

Your summer is sprinkled with a few weeks at home, a few weeks of travel, and a few weeks in various camps. One of your favorite weeks is the Marine Biology camp put on by UGA at its Skidaway Island campus. This is your third year of marine biology camp, and each year as you move into a higher age group, your experiences and opportunities grow too.

New on this summer’s itinerary: squid dissection.

You and I share many passions, but animal dissection is not one of them. As a kid, I could be annoyingly idealistic (and probably still am), and I decided in high school that I was going to refuse to dissect an animal in Biology. I was going to take a big fat zero for that assignment, as a way to protest something I felt was unnecessary. For med students? Sure! But why did I need some animal to die so that I could cut it up and peer inside when I had no desire for a career in the sciences? So I told myself I was going to fail, on purpose.

But as fate would have it, I didn’t have to. We moved mid-way through that school year, and because of the timing I managed to miss out on the dissection labs at both schools. Ha!

Returning to present day – as we drove to the Skidaway campus on squid dissection day, you were bouncing in your seat. “My first dissection!” you cheered as we parked outside the classroom, and then you rushed into the double doors, ready to grab a scalpel.

When I picked you up in the afternoon, your demeanor was very different. Like a person who’d been through a traumatic event.

“How was squid dissection?” I asked.

You shook your head with a faraway look in your eye. “There was so much blood,” you said, speaking so quietly I strained to hear. “And it smelled so bad.”

Hmmm. Well, maybe we’re not as far apart on this topic as I thought?

But even though the reality of squid dissection was not as fabulous as you imagined, it hasn’t deterred your plans to be a marine biologist. My hope is that the next time you walk into a dissection lab you’ll be better prepared for what you’ll find, and better able to see past the gore into the beauty of science.

This last month also involved a major milestone in your life – one that has nothing to do with summer camps or periwinkle snails. Last month, you were baptized in our church.

One of the things I like about being Baptist is our belief that baptism should be chosen by each individual. As your mother, I can take you to my church, I can talk to you about my faith, but it’s up to you to choose Christianity – or not.

And you decided you were ready to join and to be baptized. It was a proud moment for me, full of meaning, and made even more special by the fact that you were baptized by my Daddy. The same strong but loving hands that dipped me into the baptismal waters were the ones to baptize you. The same voice boomed out, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

I am proud of your decision, and of the person you are becoming. As you grow, I know your faith will go through growth and changes too. Peaks and valleys. Times of strength and of doubt. But I hope your faith provides you what it continues to provide for me: comfort, guidance, a heart for service, and a loving church family.

With all my heart, I love you so much.

Letter to Camille: 130 Months

Hello my sweet girl, my 5th grade graduate, my MIDDLE SCHOOLER.

Somehow we have arrived at the end of your elementary school years, and my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, you seem to be zooming toward independence and adulthood at an alarming rate, with each year flying by more quickly. I feel an inevitable nostalgia with every milestone passed. But then again, it’s so FUN to watch you grow and become your own person. Sometimes I joke that I’d like to freeze you in place just as you are, but really I don’t. I would never want to stop your forward progress, or miss out on seeing the person you will become.

So zoom on then. It’s not as though I have any say-so in the matter. Like it or not, here you grow.

We celebrated the end of the school year with shenanigans at circle park, and then root beer floats at Betty Bombers with buddies.

Then I had the pleasure of digging through your backpack. One of my favorite things about the last week of school is the backpack purge. You bring home notebooks full of writings and drawings from the year, and I get a fresh peek into your brain.

So I thought for this month’s letter, I’d let you do some of the talking. One day you might like to look back for a peek into your 10 year old brain too – a look at that time when you wanted to be a marine biologist, hated recess, and just wanted to sit by the wall and do your work in peace and quiet.

There was this pamphlet, from a career project:

Camille is going to be a Marine Biologist!

About the Author: Hello, my name is Camille and I’ve always have been interested in marine biology. I’ve always liked the ocean and the creatures that live in it. I recently spent the previous year in Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a lot of beaches with beautiful waters and magnificent creatures. This is why I would like to be a marine biologist.

You drew this lovely picture of yourself with your friend Audrey and pets (Noel sprouted magnificent wings apparently).

Then there was an essay about our evacuation during Hurricane Matthew, which you began with “Nice try Mathew!” And an opinion essay about whether or not kids should have two recesses each day – spoiler alert: you argue for just one recess. You end with, “The only other thing I have to say is that it’s just not fun.”

I particularly enjoyed a series of worksheets called “How do you like to learn?”

First, some context. You have been in a Montessori school since kindergarten, and I think it has been WONDERFUL for you.

We weren’t so sure at first though. For better or worse, your early childhood home life was one of structure and order; we’d tell you what to do and you’d do it. So when you got to your Montessori classroom and were presented with the freedom to choose your own work, you were overwhelmed by the sudden independence. You just wanted to be given a specific assignment, and then given affirmation that you’d done what was expected. I’d volunteer in your kindergarten classroom and watch you sit on the floor, clutching your blank work plan and crying because you didn’t know which math project to take off the shelf. And the teacher wouldn’t tell you, because she wanted you to choose for yourself. But you were afraid to choose the wrong thing.

In the first half of that kindergarten year, your Daddy and I wondered if we’d made a mistake sending you into a Montessori environment. But then, gradually and with the help of great teachers, you began to catch on. You became unafraid of making your own choices, and less fearful of mistakes. You became self-directed, able to complete all of your work without much supervision, and at your own pace. These are skills that will serve you well in life.

But fast forward, and not too far into this 5th grade year you announced that you were “tired of Montessori.” At first I chalked it up to a typical “grass is greener” mentality, until we spent some time really talking about it. And though you’ve thrived in a Montessori school, and learned all kinds of important life skills, there is still some part of your DNA that craves structure and order.

“What don’t you like about Montessori?” I asked.

“Mama, I just want the teacher to give me an assignment and then a grade. And I want the classroom to be quiet. And I don’t want mixed grades in one class – the younger kids are always coming up to me and asking me how to spell things.”

So I wasn’t terribly surprised to find these answers on your “How do you like to learn?” survey:

  • I study best when it is quiet – YES
  • I am able to ignore the noise of other people talking while I am working – NO
  • I like to work on the floor – NO
  • I like to work by myself – YES
  • I like to work in pairs or in groups – NO
  • I like to learn by moving and doing – NO
  • I like to learn while sitting at my desk – YES
  • Where would you prefer to work on a classroom assignment? – AT A TABLE
  • Where do you like to sit in class? – BY THE WALL

These were the same things you’d been telling us all year. And so, next year we will find out if the grass is greener for you, because you’re going to a new school – a traditional school with desks by walls where teachers give specific assignments and grades.

Truthfully, the biggest reason for the transfer to a new school is convenience. When we bought our house last fall we moved fairly far from school. Your Montessori school has no attendance zone so it wasn’t an administrative issue, but a logistical one. Thirty minutes to school, and then – because we work from home – 30 minutes back. Two times a day. Your Dad or I spent 2 hours in the car each day just to get you to and from school. And every day we’d drive past the neighborhood school in our district, and it would look more and more appealing.

So your Daddy and I toured the neighborhood school. Then you toured it and shadowed kids there. We talked to parents. We talked to students. And we decided to take the leap.

It wasn’t an easy decision. When you were beginning elementary school, we wanted a spot for you in the Montessori school so badly. And I’m very glad you were able to go to that school. I think the freedom, independence and choice have helped mold you into a confident, self-assured learner who is not afraid of challenge and can think for herself.

But I also think you’re the kind of student who will do well in most any positive learning environment, so why not try something new if it makes our lives much much simpler?

And so, you will begin your middle school years as the new kid in a new school. You’re nervous, and worried about leaving your friends. And we’re nervous, but excited too. You may find that you miss your blank Montessori workplan and your unstructured classroom. You may even miss the younger kids asking you how to spell things. You may find that traditional classrooms aren’t as quiet and peaceful as you like, and that you don’t always get the grade you want. But regardless, moving out of your comfort zone almost always teaches you something about yourself, and I’m excited to see all that you’ll learn.

So here’s to a happy summer, and then a fresh start for my middle school girl. I know you’re going to rock it.

I love you. Love, mama.

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.