Friday, July 12, 2019

A New (-ish) Den

July 7, 1995: Sarah (age 5) and Jacob (age 4) in Jacob's bedroom.

My house was built 44 years ago, in 1975. I was still living in southern California then. It's the year I turned 21, and you would never have convinced me that I'd be living in Arizona (which I hadn't even visited) a short five years later.

The house was built as a compact summer cabin, but eventually someone winterized it for year-round use. A single man acquired the house in the 1980s. The place had been pretty well  trashed, so he got a great deal on it as a fixer-upper. Originally, the house had a single-car garage that opened off the kitchen, but he remodeled the garage into two rooms: a third bedroom off the kitchen, and a home office with walk-in closet off the master bedroom. By this time, he had married and had two young children, so he needed the extra space.

Exactly 26 years ago this very month, in July 1993, we purchased the house from that same man. Since then, that converted third bedroom has gone through several incarnations. 

When we moved in, Sarah was three years old and Jacob was barely two. (Dylan was still four years away from joining our family.) The converted third bedroom became Jacob's nursery, where he still slept in a crib...until he learned to escape. After that, we found him in our bed nearly every night, often joined by his sister. Eventually, Mark's grandma, Helen, bought a captain's bed for Jacob, so the nursery became his big-boy bedroom. Grandma also bought Sarah a canopy bed for her room.

June 4, 2009: Dylan (age 11) on the top bunk of his and Jacob's bunk bed.

Dylan was born in July 1997, when Jacob was six and Sarah was seven. He slept in a cradle in my room until it was no longer safe, and then we moved him into his new Jenny Lind-style crib in his brother's room. The converted third bedroom was no longer "Jacob's room," but became known as "the boys' bedroom." In time, the crib and the captain's bed were traded in for a bunk bed.

It remained the boys' room until Jacob left on his mission to northern California in December 2010, and then it became simply "Dylan's room." It wasn't his room for long, though. Sarah got married in July 2011, opening up her bedroom. A few months later, Dylan moved his stuff into Sarah's former room.

March 27, 2012: Dylan plays video games in his gaming chair.

He didn't move everything out, though. He left all his gaming stuff and Jacob's old television in the converted third bedroom, so it became known as "the game room" at that time. It was where Dylan could go to escape into his video games, use the computer, do his schoolwork, and entertain his friends.

For a brief five-month period, December 2013 to April 2014, the converted third bedroom became "Ryan and Shera's room." My second husband (we were in the process of divorce at the time) had brought his adult son here from Missouri, only to angrily throw Ryan and his girlfriend out on the streets with nowhere to go, just as the cold mountain winter was beginning. I invited them to stay with us while they found jobs (which they both did) and got their lives in order.

April 19, 2015: The room becomes "the piano room." We moved the piano
when we learned that a piano shouldn't be positioned against an exterior wall.

Meanwhile, prior to Ryan and Shera's coming, my son-in-law Chris's sister had decided to get rid of a piano that had belonged to their grandmother. Their mom didn't want it, and Sarah and Chris didn't have enough room in the tiny apartment where they lived at the time, so the piano was offered to me. Soon, the old piano on which Chris's grandmother had taught piano lessons for so many years became a fixture in the converted third bedroom.

During Ryan and Shera's occupancy, Dylan had moved his game system and equipment to his new bedroom, so by the time my stepson and his wife (they'd married while they were with us) moved into their own place, we no longer called it "the game room." Dylan eventually acquired a huge big-screen TV for the room and resumed his gaming there, but he also enjoyed playing the piano often and had already dubbed it "the piano room," and that name stuck. Until recently.

July 8, 2019: How "the den" looks today, as seen from the kitchen.

Since my nest became empty three years ago, and since retiring two years ago, I've been wanting to turn that converted third bedroom into more of a family-friendly place. In fact, for a few months I tried referring to it as "the family room," but it just didn't feel right. A family room implies having enough space to bring the whole family together for fun and games. Which is simply not the case, not in any of the cozy (tiny) rooms in my cozy (tiny) house. So I decided that "den" was a better descriptor. A "den" conjures images of someplace snug and warm and safe. 

I also wanted to have some floor space in which I could work out to my Body Groove dance videos and start getting some exercise. That meant getting rid of the big coffee table, which we took down to Jacob's house last month, and it meant purchasing a third TV and DVD player. (Yes, I'm the one who swore for decades that I'd never have more than one television in my house...) And that meant finding a stand for the TV, as well.

Dylan finishes up the assembly of the new TV stand for the den.

I found a nice farm-style stand at Walmart, which Sarah and Dylan assembled for me. Then Dylan did all the electronics for me, hooking everything up so I can easily switch between the DVD player, the NES Classic game system, and my old Wii system. 

I'm pleased to say that the kids have made good use of the new den for playing their favorite old video games together on several occasions. Mission accomplished! (And I started working out to my Body Groove videos this past week!)

Of course, once the new TV stand was installed, I noticed how ratty my old glider-rocker looked, with its sunken seat cushion and missing right arm, not to mention the stained fabric. It served me well for almost 25 years, but it had to go. Maybe a new rocker to fill the vacated space? And with the coffee table gone, I needed some kind of small table to replace it, right? And then I started thinking how a small glass cabinet would fit perfectly in the little space to the left of the TV stand. A place where I could display my Hobbit and Lord of the Rings curios...

I soon became a familiar face at nearby Joy's Furniture.

First, I bought this end table and rocker, going for a more rustic look.

I love the end table and rocker that I ordered but, when I picked them up last week, I found they were much larger than expected. They didn't quite fill the available space, which meant having to shove all the furniture around to make it work. But we did it.

Now I just need something tall and decorative to place on the end table. Mark thinks I'm daft, but it looks too bare. I thought maybe a lamp, but no. There's a very good ceiling lamp/fan to light the room, so a table lamp would be redundant. I decided to wait, though. No doubt I'll come across the perfect item when I least expect it.

The new cabinet, with my memorabilia behind glass.

It was a month later that I ordered the cabinet, but it surprised me by arriving at the same time as the rocker and end table. I really didn't think I'd find what I wanted so soon. Most glass-walled curio cabinets are tall and rather formal looking. I wanted one that was rustic and short enough to hang above it my five canvases of Rivendell (Imladris) from The Lord of the Rings. Sarah gave them to me awhile back, but they still need to be mounted before I can hang them. That space above the cabinet will be perfect.

I'd gone into Joy's to make a second payment on the furniture I'd previously ordered, when I saw a curio cabinet in one of their displays. I went to have a look at it, mainly to get an idea of the price of such things. On my way to it, I saw this one and knew I'd found my cabinet. It was small enough to fit between the piano and wall, short enough to hang my canvases above, and had a rustic style with a wood finish that closely resembled the TV stand. So I ordered it on the spot.

On the top shelf: Arwen's Evenstar pendant from Lord of the Rings,
with my dragons and spider from past Renaissance Festivals.
Smaug the Dragon and giant spiders are important characters in The Hobbit.

Quite frankly, my collections from The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and other fantasy tales I love, were outgrowing my bedroom surfaces. It was nice to put my Hobbit- and Lord of the Rings-related curios in the new cabinet. It's especially nice that they won't require so much dusting, now that they're behind glass.

Center shelf: Jacob gave me the Legolas mug and Pop! Legolas figure.
Dylan and Jake gave me the Mini Epics Frodo Baggins figure, as well as
Celebrimbor's mithril smithy hammer, used to forge the three Elvish rings of power.
The 1977-issue of The Hobbit and the Sindarin (Elvish language) book are my own.

Bottom shelf: Circlet worn by Galadriel, Lady of Lothlorien Forest.

You may not have noticed the wizard's staff leaning against the wall in the corner between the cabinet and the piano. It used to have a glass orb on top of it, but the staff fell from my grasp a several years ago and the orb shattered. I hope to replace the orb someday. Otherwise, the staff is quite strong.

This sits on top of the wide TV stand, which also seemed too bare.
I love the sentiment. I'd rather live in my cramped little home 
with my children around me than in a spacious, empty castle.

When I saw this, I couldn't resist. It's a tiny, adorable tic-tac-toe game!

There is still a lot of work to be done, before the new den is really complete. Thankfully, Dylan and Jake have agreed to help me with most of it. First, we need to repair the walls. So many childish scribblings left from the kids' babyhoods, not to mention excess nail holes to be filled in. And there's a big patch of replaced drywall from a long-ago leak that will need to be sanded and re-textured. Once that's taken care of, the guys are going to paint the ceiling (white) and walls (yellow) for me.

I love the pictures over the piano. The caricature of the kids and me
from Disneyland in 2007, when I was a newly single mom; a photo of the 
Milky Way, taken by Dylan; and a quote on families from my sweet friend Liz.

We'll also need to remove the warped shelf hung far up the wall. I plan to replace it, since it's really too tweaked to hold anything safely, and paint the new shelf in some shade of purple. In honor of my twenty-seven years at Blue Ridge High School, whose colors are purple and gold. I think that space above the shelf will be the perfect place to hang my grandchildren's photos someday.

Looking toward the other side of the newly done den.

The ancient, broken blinds on both windows are coming down before we paint the walls. I plan to replace them immediately with vertical blinds. Those are the kind of blinds I have in my bedroom and living room. They stay so much cleaner and don't collect dust the way horizontal slats do.

Eventually, I want to get rid of that old love seat. It's too bulky for the small room and provides little seating for as much space as it takes up. Maybe I'll get a couple of small chairs and place the end table between them. Making it a "between table," I guess.

Looking from the den into the kitchen, and the living room beyond.

Also eventually, I'd like to have the old carpet ripped out and replaced with ceramic tiles. And do something fun with those steps, which are made of wood. I don't know if they could be tiled, but surely there's something interesting and colorful that could be done with them.

Finally, both doors need to be replaced: the one between the kitchen and den, and the one on the tiny corner closet. They both have holes in them. Raising rowdy sons with lots of rough-and-tumble friends takes its toll on a house!

So, as I said before, there is plenty of work ahead of us, but we'll take it a month at a time and work our way through it. I think it's a pretty nice room now, but it will be even better...eventually.

I brought my mineral collection from school to be displayed in the den.
The base of the case needs a paint job, too. Yellow or purple?

In case anyone noticed the mineral case in the corner, I brought my minerals home with me when I retired. Don't worry, they're my personal property and not paid for with school funds. I have a minerals poster I plan to hang above it when the painting is done.

The case used to have only two shelves, but my son Jacob and son-in-law Jake helped me revamp it and add an extra shelf. Once the rocks and minerals were no longer spread out through my classroom, we needed more space in the case! Finding the correct hardware to hold the new shelf was a challenge, but we managed to force it to work.

A closer look at the top two shelves.

Most of these minerals were collected by my own hand during my college days, when I hung out with a group of geologists. We traveled all over Arizona, ignoring barbed wire and "no trespassing" signs to explore old mines and caves in search of nice specimens. None of mine are worth anything, other than the memories they bring back. Wulfenite, mimetite, barite, chrysocolla, and Druzy's quartz from Rawley Mine. Pyrite from Silver Hills Mine. Lava ribbon from S.P. Crater. Amethyst and hematite from Four Peaks. Plagioclase and pyrolusite from Red Mountain. Vanadinite from Old Yuma Mine. Pumice, found floating down Brown Creek amidst the leeches.

A few of the specimens I purchased at Petrified Forest National Park: some peacock copper, a geode, and a couple of small pieces of petrified wood. Most of the beautiful pieces of petrified wood, fossils, and geodes were gifts to me.

A closer look at the bottom shelf (and middle shelf again).

I guess this is what a den means to me. I want it to be an informal place where our family can have fun together, as well as a place where I can enjoy a few of the things I've collected throughout my life and the joyful memories they represent. A place of welcome!

Monday, July 8, 2019

July Fourth

Celebrating Independence Day at home with homemade ice cream!
July 4, 2019

Sometimes I enjoy spending time with my family so much that I forget to capture much of the event on film. That was the case on the 4th of July this year, so I don't have some really great photos to share. But I do have some great memories!

We aren't always able to spend the Fourth together, due to my children's work schedules. We were fortunate this year, though. Dylan, Jake, and Mark all had the day off and Sarah only worked until 4:30. The only person unable to join us was Chris, who worked that evening at his new job at Haven Health, a skilled nursing facility. He was already on the job by the time Sarah got off work. And we missed  Jacob, of course, who lives in Mesa, three hours away.

Two extra-large pizzas for dinner. (Sarah and I just ate the toppings.)

We'd already barbecued chicken and made a potato salad when we all got together the previous Sunday, so I decided to keep it simple for the Fourth. I ordered two extra-large pizzas, something my family loves enough to eat daily, if they could, but rarely enjoyed over the years because their mom was usually eating low-carb.

As it happens, Sarah and I are both currently working on losing weight, so we ate just the toppings from our pizza slices. (Only the bread is a no-no.) Then the guys took our empty crusts and added freshly shredded mozzarella and some pepperoni from my fridge, turning the barren wedges into new slices of pepperoni pizza, which they then ate, so nothing went to waste!

And I'm happy to report that, so far, Sarah is down 28 lbs while I am down 26.6 lbs!

Dylan and Sarah battle it out on the old Shrek Super Party video game.

When the kids were small, we always took them to see fireworks, usually at Show Low High School. Before my mother died in April 2002, we often watched from my parents' front porch, since they lived across the street from the high school. After my dad remarried and moved to Lakeside, my brother Jeff's family built and moved into a house that was, literally, located at the end of the high school's football field. So we spent many years sitting in their driveway with the colorful explosions going off almost directly over our heads. Many times, the ash from the fireworks fell on our upturned faces and dusted our hair. It's been a couple of years now, since we've been able to do that, since Jeff and Dana moved to the Valley.

Mark plays a game on Dylan's Nintendo Switch, while Dylan and Jake
work their way through a Lord of the Rings video game from good old times.

Maybe we were a little spoiled by the convenience of watching the show from a private home, surrounded by family and friends, for so many years. Whatever the reason, we all agreed it wasn't worth it to fight the crowds at the high school, or wait in long lines of traffic to get home afterward. Instead, we opted to hang out together at the house and play games. Someday, when there are little children in the family again, I'm sure we'll feel more inspired to brave the crowds and traffic so they can experience the joy of exploding lights in the sky to celebrate our nation's beginning.

Old Crab, a game I invented for an old college class at Arizona State University.
(This shows only about one-quarter of the cards in the game.)

In lieu of fireworks, we spent the next few hours playing video games, and even an old card game I dragged out, which I'd made myself way back in my college days. It's a twist on Old Maid, which I called Old Crab. Rather than matching identical pairs, you match the mama animal to the baby animal (for children with special needs). It was silly and fun to play together.

Four nights earlier, after our weekly family dinner, we'd also played a version of Clue, based on The Legend of Zelda video games (a favorite of Dylan and myself). The suspects are characters from the Zelda video games, the locations are from the Zelda maps, and the very cool, tiny, bronze weapons are also from the games: the master sword, the fairy bow, the boomerang, the hookshot, the bombchu, and the megaton hammer. It was fun, but we kind of messed up a couple of things and didn't finish, so we'll have to try it again sometime.

After Sunday-night dinner, we played my new Legend of Zelda: Clue board game.
Dylan and Sarah strategize to solve which Zelda character committed the crime.

We ended our Independence Day Eve with my special homemade strawberry ice cream, sugar-free, of course! We all had such a good time that the kids ended up staying more than an hour past the time we'd originally planned to end (so everyone could get a good night's sleep for work the next morning). That's okay, they're all young and healthy, and I cherish every moment we enjoy in each others' company!

Mary, Jake, and Dylan playing Zelda Clue after Sunday night's dinner.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Three-Man Birthday Party

June 22, 2019: All three of my birthday boys, with sister Sarah.
Or, to put it another way, Mark with all three of his children.

It took some planning, but we managed to get everyone together this weekend to celebrate the birthdays of both my sons and their father. All three men have their birthdays within a ten-day period. Mark turned 51 on June 21st. Five days later, Jacob turned 28 on June 26th (today). Five days after that, Dylan will be 22 on July 1st. 

It's great to have Jacob living near enough to get together for these occasions, but it seemed like a lot of work to celebrate Mark in the mountains, then travel to Mesa five days later to party for Jacob, then return to the mountain for Dylan, while hoping Jacob might be able to make the trip here to celebrate just one or the other. Why not combine all three and make one trip?

The timing worked out well, since Dylan and Jake were already in the Valley the week before our gathering. They'd driven down the previous Sunday (June 16) because Jake's grandmother, great-aunt, and cousin were flying in the next day from their home in New York City to spend a week in the warm Arizona sun.

Chris had started a new job in a nursing home just a few days earlier, so he wasn't able to join us this trip. Thus, it was just Sarah, Mark, and me who drove down the mountain on Friday morning, the actual day of Mark's birthday. We left home a little after 9:00 a.m., made a rest stop in Payson, and then arrived at Jacob's house at 12:20.

Preparing my coffee table for transport from the den to the car

One thing that traveled with us from Lakeside to Mesa was my coffee table. It's a beautiful table, only six years old, which matches the two end tables still in my living room. Unfortunately, my house is so small ("cozy") that the large coffee table is just one piece of furniture too many, making the living room look crowded.

I hand-washed each coffee table tile individually in soapy water.

My first solution was to move it into the den that was once a bedroom for my sons. We've been working on a remodel, and I thought it would look nice with the new furniture. It did look nice, but it still left the small space looking overcrowded. 

Besides, with a new television in the den, which Dylan hooked up to my gaming systems and a new DVD player, I intend to use that room to start working out to some dance DVDs. With the coffee table taking up half the available floor space, I knew I wouldn't be able to move around comfortably. (I could just imagine myself stumbling and falling on the table, damaging either myself or it!)

The coffee table fit in back without laying down the second-row seats.
I was pleasantly surprised!

In the end, I decided I'd just have to give the table away. Recently, I've been watching season one of Marie Kondo's TV show, Tidying Up, and I had to admit the lovely coffee table no longer "sparked joy" for me. It had to go.

As luck would have it, I'd mentioned my plan when Jacob was in town five weeks earlier (after my kidney-stone-inspired emergency room visit) and he immediately told me he wanted the table. Both Sarah's and Dylan's living rooms are furnished, but I'd forgotten that Jacob's home in Mesa wasn't fully furnished yet. After taking quick measurements, it was clear the table wouldn't fit into his VW Jetta, so we agreed to take it to him when we drove down for the birthday party.

The coffee table is a perfect fit for Jacob's living room in Mesa.

As always, our stay in Mesa was a whirlwind of activity. As soon as we'd unloaded the car , we were on our way to run errands. One huge plus for this trip was the weather. After an extreme heatwave the previous weeks, the temperature had dropped to a very manageable high of 98-to-104 degrees during our two days there. I might not have fled to the mountains in 1990 if the summer temps were always so mild. But I'm glad I did.

Our first stop was the VW dealership, where Jacob needed to finish up some business for the new car he bought a couple of weeks ago. Recently, he took his leased Jetta in to be serviced, only to discover there were problems with his lease that promised to cause major headaches in the not-too-distant future. (I'd tried to warn him about leasing a car...) So he traded it in early and bought a 2019 VW Tiguan, which is an SUV with third-row seats, similar to my Chevy Traverse. 

It's a beautiful car, but a little too rich for my blood! I'd rather have a lower payment than all the "bells and whistles." In fact, just two days ago, I made my final payment on my 2009 Traverse (which I bought used in February 2016), paying it off 20 months ahead of schedule. What a sense of freedom that gives!

Jacob's new 2019 Volkswagen Tiguan.

Our next stop was a bittersweet one. My dear friend Gwen had sent me a text just four days earlier, telling me that she'd been placed in hospice and wasn't expected to live much longer. It took some searching to discover where she was, but we found her and spent about an hour with her on Friday afternoon. All three of her children were with her, including her daughter Becky from California and her older son and his wife all the way from Georgia, but they kindly gave us the room so we could say our goodbyes.

Becky had told us that her mom was heavily sedated and faded in and out of consciousness, but we were blessed to find her awake and in good spirits when we arrived. Gwen and I have shared many adventures since we met in the autumn of 2006, right after my first divorce. We have so much in common, we could talk about anything for hours--and often did! My children love her as much as I do. Her huge, giving heart, her colorful way of expressing herself, her humorous view of the world, and her lovely Southern accent are so endearing to us. In fact, one of the main characters in my book, which I will finish writing someday, is based on, and named for, my sweet Gwen.

We had a wonderful visit, enjoying our shared memories and sometimes laughing louder than was probably appropriate. Gwen told us the doctors said she didn't have much longer, but she hadn't received her own spiritual confirmation of that, so she hadn't quite accepted it. I told her we'd continue to pray for a miracle, but if God called her home, we'd be reunited soon enough. She's only four years older than me, after all, and I know she'll be there waiting to embrace me when I pass through the veil. God bless and embrace our dear Gwen.

[Update: Gwen passed away five days after our visit with her, in the late afternoon of June 26th. She will be sorely missed. We love you, dear friend, and we will be with you again one day!]

From the hospice center, we drove on to Golden Corral Buffet, where we met up with Dylan and Jake and Jake's family from the Bronx in New York City: his grandmother, Lena (whom I'd met once before, when she came for a visit in October 2016); Lena's sister, Jake's Great-Aunt Bruni; and Bruni's gorgeous (like-a-model gorgeous) daughter, Jake's cousin Victoria. The food was plentiful and delicious, as it always is, but the best part was getting to know Jake's family, who have become, by extension, our family.

We had more time to get to know each other after dinner, when Dylan decided to wait out the rush-hour traffic before heading back to their resort in Phoenix. They all came back to Jacob's house with us, where we spent a couple more hours talking and laughing. It's amazing how we can grow up on opposite sides of the continent and still have so much in common!

I'd intended to go shopping that evening for breakfast foods and party goods, but Jacob pleaded exhaustion, so we put it off for the next day. We were all in bed by 11:30.

Oh, the interesting things you can see in Mesa, like a mannequin girlfriend!

On Saturday morning, Jacob made us all pancakes for breakfast before we headed out to do more errands. Our first stop was Jacob's credit union in east Mesa, where he took care of some banking. Jacob had just rejoined Sarah, Mark, and me in the car, when I looked up and saw a classic white convertible pull into the parking lot. Behind the wheel was an older, husky, white-haired gentleman who was chatting with his passenger, a much younger, brassy-haired blonde.

Then I did a double-take. The brassy blonde hair was a wig and the young lady was a mannequin! The man parked, got out of his convertible, and went into the credit union, leaving his companion to wait for him. She seemed to be a most patient lady. Never a dull moment in the big city!

Gifts for Mark, Jacob, and Dylan await in Jacob's kitchen.

We finished up with some shopping at El Super (best place to get carnitas-marinated beef) and Walmart, mostly to pick up the foods we needed for our barbecue later that afternoon. Plus, Jacob still needed to buy gifts for his dad and brother. Then we headed back to get ready for the party.

Sarah did most of the work in putting together a chunky potato salad, while Jacob cut up vegetables and grilled the beef for carne asada tacos. Our original plan had been to simply grill steaks to eat with potato salad, but that was when we thought there would be only six of us at the party. When the number swelled to more than a dozen, we'd had to rethink the expense of steaks for so many. Jacob suggested tacos, which would stretch the meat much further. And who doesn't like tacos?

Besides several of Jacob's friends and roommates joining us, Jake's family was still in town. His grandmother, Lena, his cousin Victoria, and his great-aunt Bruni had extended their stay an extra day, making them available to join the birthday party. And we were so happy they did! I enjoyed the opportunities we had to get to know them better, and it was especially fun to hear their stories in that delightful Bronx accent. Truly good people!

The group gift opening: Mark, Dylan, and Jacob (from the left).

As soon as the food was ready, we started in on the tacos and potato salad, as well as the tortilla chips and spinach-and-artichoke dip, brought by Jacob's friends, which was yummy. I only had one taco and a small helping of potato salad, because I knew what was coming next and I wanted to save room!

After lunch was cleared away, Sarah and I started on a freezer full of my homemade strawberry ice cream. Meanwhile, Jacob's friend and soon-to-be roommate Chandler brought us a big cheesecake from Costco, totally the best cheesecake I've ever tasted, rivaling even my favorite from Cheesecake Factory. (Jacob's roommate Antonio is moving back to Utah next week, so Chandler will be moving into the empty bedroom after that.)

Mark shows off his birthday presents.

Once the ice cream freezer was churning away, we turned our attention to the birthday presents. The guys all lined up in the living room and took turns opening their gifts, one at a time, oldest-to-youngest. Which, coincidentally, is the order in which their birthdays fall!

Mark got a gift card to Papa John's Pizza from Sarah and Chris, which Sarah had hidden in a box filled with six bottles of Pepsi and a roll of toilet paper. (That sneakiness is kind of her thing, haha!) Jacob gave him a pair of special sunglasses for fishing. He received a Metallica tee-shirt from Dylan and Jake. And I gave him a hand-carved, trout-shaped frame, holding a photo of Mark posing with a 22-lb catfish he caught many years ago. (Ugliest fish I ever saw.)

Jacob displays his cards and gifts.

Jacob got a gift card to several nice Valley restaurants from Sarah and Chris, which Sarah had hid in a six-pack of Welch's strawberry-kiwi juice bottles. Dylan and Jake gave him a Resident Evil video game. He received a howling wolf incense burner called "smoking wolf" from Mark. And I gave him a sculpture of a wolf head to add to his growing collection of wolf memorabilia.

Dylan poses with the gifts he received for his early birthday.

Dylan asked for cash only this birthday. He wanted to buy a pair of high-tech sunglasses with built-in Bluetooth speakers for $200. Then he decided he wanted to use it to build his own lightsaber (also with a $200 price tag) when we go to Disneyland in November. Now, I think he's back to the Bluetooth shades. [Update: He bought the Bluetooth sunglasses.]

He ended up raking in $160, so he only has to kick in $40 of his own money, plus tax. Sarah's cash contribution was, of course, hidden in a box of Capri Suns. 

The best store-bought cheesecake I ever tasted, from Costco!

Not long after the gift-opening, the ice cream freezer stopped and it was time for refreshments. And then, too soon, it was time to wind down the party and begin our farewells. 

Jacob and a few of his friends had reservations to see the newly-released Toy Story 4, so they had to leave by 5:30. I took out my camera to capture a few family moments before they were gone, and then we had to say goodbye to Jake's family, too. They flew back to New York the next morning, but expressed their intention to return again in a year or so. (Jacob drove them to the airport, since Dylan and Jake had to return home for work.) They loved this part of Arizona, and they even thought the heat was wonderfully "dry." I told them we need to show them the Grand Canyon next time they're in town.

Jake with his grandmother, Lena; his cousin Victoria; and his Aunt Bruni.

Dylan and Jake drove Lena, Bruni, and Victoria back to their resort in Phoenix while Mark, Sarah, and I (now alone in Jacob's house) got all our stuff packed back up and loaded into my car. Dylan and Jake returned around 6:00, and then they followed us for the three-hour drive back home to the White Mountains, with another rest stop in Payson.

It was a little after 9:00 when we pulled into town. By then, it had been five hours since the barbecue and desserts, so we were hungry and decided to stop for a late dinner at Denny's. We enjoyed our last meal of the day together, but we were all very happy to be back in our own homes and our own beds by 10:30 that night.

Dylan joins the family photo: Bruni, Victoria, Lena, Jake, and Dylan.

What a crazy, busy, wonderful two days. Birthdays are fun. So are presents and good food. But nothing can compare to the warm feelings and deep joy of spending time with the family and friends we love!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Highs and Lows

June 8, 2019: Newlyweds Mary and Derek on their wedding day.

Thus far, 2019 has brought one challenge after another. Certainly nothing as difficult as some of my friends are going through right now, but frustrating and exhausting all the same. It's especially maddening because I started the year determined to get healthy and lose weight by eating right and becoming more active. And I did so diligently, for five full months, before the culmination of events finally brought me down a few weeks ago.

One positive about being a headstrong person like me is this: we stubbornly keep getting up each time we get knocked down. We refuse to give up. So I'm back on track, determined to stay on a course that will defeat the health issues (none life-threatening, thankfully) and other trials of life. 

Another positive is the knowledge that, even during our tribulations, there are still blessings all around us. The greatest blessing of my life is, of course, my amazing children. However, there are so many more beautiful things to enjoy along the way, if we remember to stop and look.

Here are a couple of those joyful things, which both happened almost two weeks ago, on Saturday, June 8th.

Prodigious performance by guest pianist with White Mountain Symphony Orchestra.

It began at 3:00 with Sarah's final performance of the 2018-19 season with White Mountain Symphony Orchestra. Chris had come down with a nasty stomach bug that morning, so it was just Mark and me to be the family cheering section this time. It was one of my favorite concerts, in which the orchestra performs music from plays and films. They ended with the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, which was magnificent.

Concert program and ticket.

After the concert, we briefly went our separate ways to take care of some errands, but we got back together around 5:45 so we could ride to Snowflake together to attend the wedding reception of the youngest son of our friends and neighbors, Eugene and Wyndie. Along the way, we stopped for dinner at Sonic. 

By this time, I was absolutely not living the low-carb life. I was too drained of energy to keep up with meal planning, shopping, and preparation. On the day of the concert and reception, in fact, I was on the second day of a kidney infection and the first of two urinary tract infections, and I was extremely uncomfortable despite the pain medications. Nonetheless, I had no intention of missing out on the fun that I hoped would take my mind off my pain. It was so worth it!

Those chocolate-and-blue-frosting cupcakes were to die for!

Wyndie and Eugene have been friends to our family since 1996, since right before I got pregnant with Dylan (who will be 22 in twelve days) and since Derek was barely a year old. It hardly seems possible that our kids are all grown and living on their own, no longer those tiny tots we secretly believed would be our babies forever.

Love, love, love this sign!

Still, watching them grow up and move on to become responsible adults and good people is one of the great joys of this life. How fun to see Derek so happy with his lovely new bride, Mary!

Mary and Derek demonstrate which of them knows the other best,
while the younger reception-goers took seats up front for the best view.

I do admit that I also enjoy attending wedding receptions because I'm always curious to see how the venue is decorated. I'm always amazed at the creativity on display, as well as the way in which the decor reflects the personalities of the newlyweds, especially the bride.

With so many ooey-gooey refreshments, I was kind of glad I was cheating!

It was a beautiful day, and I'm so grateful I was able to be there for it. Congratulations and best wishes for a wonderful forever, Derek and Mary!

Mary and Derek prepare to make their escape amidst the flash of sparklers.
(Probably not the best idea on a windy day in fire season, lol.)