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.

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.

February 2015

February 2017

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.