Birthday parties exhaust me - the invitations, the rsvps, the party favors, the food, accounting for food allergies, the craft projects with foam sticker backing pieces all over your house, the themed paper products ordered from Oriental Trading a bit too late and having to pay the exorbitant shipping, the pricey customized cake that is just perfect for the theme, cleaning the house for a party at home or shelling out $200 for a bounce house/bowling alley/ice skating rink/pottery painting/roller rink, and then hovering over your child the next two weeks as she slowly makes her way through thank you notes. Parties are fun and exciting for about the first five birthdays. Then, they just become very draining. I love celebrating my children's birthdays in some way. The day is special. It is important. It deserves a celebration of some sort. It just doesn't have to be the Build-a-Bear chaos, pizza in a crowded food court, cupcakes on coordinating plates year after year type of special and important.
When my oldest was turning 10, I had an epiphany. I would create a rule... a "no more birthday parties after age 10" rule. Ten would be a big blow-out bash with a slumber party at a hotel, and then after that, done, finito, the end... no more parties. Maybe we would have a party for 13 (becoming a teen) and for sweet 16, but other than that, birthdays after 10 are something very low-key. Acceptable options are taking a friend or two out to lunch and a movie, or inviting a friend or two out to dinner and a sleep-over. The main stipulations are that it has to be cheap, easy, involve NO effort on my part when it comes to inviting or accepting rsvps, and there are no gifts or party favors.
Last year, Elise turned 13, so we did have a small party - pizza at a pizza joint near the movie theater with four friends, and then they walked to the movie theater. It was simple and low-key as birthday parties go.
This year, it was like she completely forgot the whole "no birthday parties after you turn 10" thing. She announced, "For my birthday party this year, I want to go to a movie and out to eat with C and T and M and S and N and J and B" Um... no. My brain was calculating the cost of dinner and a movie for that many kids and knew it was quickly approaching the $200 mark. I reminded her, "No parties after age 10." She said, "Then how about I just invite a few friends to the pool?" "Done.", I replied. Pizza and cake for just a few friends served on paper plates leftover from previous parties... that I could manage. She was in charge of all the arrangements... inviting friends, making sure friends' parents had my contact information if they wanted to contact me (most didn't), and figuring out all the details.
For my role, I simply ordered a cake, ordered pizza, and picked up a few extra kids in carpool Friday afternoon. Easy peasy.
All in all, I think the "not a birthday party" was a success. I didn't scour the internet for paper goods or party favors. I didn't talk to any parents about allergies or whether or not it was a drop-off party. I didn't order any custom anything from Etsy. I ordered a grocery store cake with less than 24 hours notice and used the handy dandy Domino's Pizza app on my phone. All the kids had a great time. Elise felt like her birthday had been duly celebrated, and everyone had fun in the pool. "Not a party" perfection, I'd say.
Happy Birthday, Elise!!
This year, Elise qualified for and chose to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Junior Olympics is a huge, multi-sport 9 day event with over 12,000 amateur athletes competing in sports like swimming, track and field, gymnastics, jump rope, wrestling, field hockey, and karate. This was Elise's first time competing in a national level jump rope competition, and I think we were both excited and nervous as we donned our purple team tees and hit the road.
We had fun imagining what conversation led to this sight that we passed on the road.
"Honey! I told you to pack Junior's play structure from the backyard, remember?"
"Crap. There's no space in the truck. We'll just leave it here and buy a new play structure on Craigslist after we move."
"Um. No. Junior loves his play structure. Repack the truck and make space."
"Fine. Happy now?"
We got checked into the hotel, picked up credentials at the competition venue, had a nice dinner with friends, sat through a tense team meeting, and tried without much success to get a good night's sleep before the first day of competition.
Glitter very thoughtfully and seriously applied to hair as a group effort...
It was an intense four days of competition. Elise jumped in 3 singles events, 3 pairs events, 5 double dutch events and team show. She came away with 7th and 9th place finishes in double dutch power and double dutch single freestyle. She was thrilled to have two top 10 finishes. There was a lot of tough competition there.
The team had been hoping for a podium finish for their cool Beatles team show routine. They came in a disappointing 6th, but I still think they did a great job. It was a very creative routine. Elise struggled with this one all year with her breathing, so on a personal level, she was just thrilled to have it behind her and never have to jump it again!
Most nights, we hung out with the team,
but one night, Elise decided she had had enough togetherness and needed a break. The two of us took off to the coast and had a nice seafood dinner. It was good to have a little quiet mother/daughter time in the midst of all the chaos.
There was coloring and sleeping going on in the bleachers,
lots of silliness at the hotel,
and hugs during competition.
It was all bittersweet though. This was the last competition these kids will have together in purple as a team. Our team had a rough year and was actively imploding during this last competition of the season. We got the news yesterday that the team will be shutting its doors and will not exist next year. It leaves 40 kids without a jump rope home for next year. We are all scrambling to find other options. Unfortunately, jump rope isn't like soccer, gymnastics, or cheer where there are plenty of other leagues, gyms, or teams in the area. It has been a hard pill to swallow, and we have no idea where we will end up next year. My hope is that Elise will find a place to continue jumping to keep that big jump rope smile on her face. I'm not sure what we would do without it.
I asked Elise (my 13 year old) to write a guest post and share the pictures she took on her exciting trip to Costa Rica. You can read Part One here. -Ann
Day 5: Monteverde
Today we went to La Cruz Elementary School. It was very cool. There were only 9 kids which I thought was kind of strange, but it was kindergarten through fifth grade. They did a little dance for us which was kind of cool. For the last dance, they made us participate which was really, really fun. We donated things, so I took jump ropes and some school supplies. I forgot to bring my jump rope, so I didn't show them anything.
After the school visit, we went to plant some trees, and that was lots of fun. We named ours Felicia Leaf Le Weave III. The person who was in charge of everything liked our name so much that he recorded all of us saying it.
I didn't take any pictures at the school or tree planting, but my teachers posted some great pictures here.
After that, we went to zip lining, and I was terrified, absolutely terrified. We did four or five by ourselves and another by ourselves that was kind of long. Then we did two or three with a partner. They were really, really long. One was a mile long. It was so, so cool. We got to see all of the mountains and the valleys, but we had to hike up there. I managed to take a video on one of the long ones that I did with a partner, but my camera battery died halfway through.
After that, the rest of the people went horseback riding, but I'm allergic to horses. I went back to the hotel and blocked out the rest of the world with my headphones and colored on graph paper.
Day 6: Pacific Coast
This morning, we packed up and went to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. On our way there, we went on a bridge that overlooked a bunch of crocodiles. We got to take some cool pictures of them. Our tour guide, Erik, said that the reason there were so many crocodiles was because they used to be able to feed the crocodiles, so they keep coming back to that spot expecting to be fed.
We went on a crocodile tour, and it was really cool. We got to see lots of different crocodiles. One was 16 feet long! They call it Osama Bin Laden because of his ability to hide. We saw so many different birds, and I got a really good picture of the macaws.
the boat we were on for the crocodile tour
We went on a nature walk and saw lots of butterflies. I was able to get some good pictures of the butterflies and the chrysalises. On the walk, we were able to see snakes, frogs, spiders, and toads, but they were all behind glass.
cool flowers that attract pollinators
blue morpho butterfly
We went on a ariel tram tour through the rain forest. It was really cool because I was at the very front, so I got to see everything. Also, there was a zip line that was going right above us, so we were able to see all the people doing that. We saw a little waterfall through the trees.
view from the tram
Day 7: Manuel Antonio National Park, Campos
Today we had burnt pancakes, fruit, and sausage and potatoes that I really, really liked. I gave up eating rice and beans. We walked to the beach, and we saw some monkeys and sloths, and then we arrived at the beautiful ocean! It was so cool. The water was just right, wasn't too cold, wasn't too hot. It was so clear and blue and green. The monkeys tried to steal my food and some of my friends' food, but they didn't succeed. It was really, really hot out, and I kind of forgot to reapply sunscreen. When I got back to the hotel, I figured out was really, really burnt.
I didn't take my camera to the beach, but there are some beautiful pictures on my teachers' blog post here.
Day 8: Sarchi and San Jose
We started heading back to San Jose, but we stopped in a town called Sarchi. Sarchi is famous for its ox carts and hand painted stuff. We got to see where they make things with the water wheel and how powerful that is. We also got to see the process of how they make the paint. It was really, really, really cool.
world's largest ox cart
cathedral in Sarchi
The folklore night was really cool. We got to see a traditional dance with the big skirts. We also saw belly dancing which was really too much for me. Then we got to do dancing. The food was really good. We had rice and beans. Again. We had some kind of chicken and coconut sugar balls for dessert. They were really good! I think it went on too long because we had to get up at 3 a.m. to go to the airport. We stayed until 9:30, and that was not OK with me.
view of San Jose from folklore night
Day 9: Travel day back home
We got up at 3:00 and had a bag breakfast of peanut butter and jelly. You can't bag rice and beans. Customs was really, really, really long. It was nice getting back to where we can read the signs. I now have a new appreciation for other cultures and people who come to America with little English. I had a lot of fun. It was such a great experience, and I am so glad I could go.
This was such an amazing experience for Elise. Two teachers at her school organized this trip with EF Educational Tours. I'm thrilled that they took that initiative and were willing to travel with a bunch of middle school age kids. It sounds a bit daunting to me! EF did a wonderful job integrating education, fun, Costa Rican culture, physical activities, and sightseeing. Despite growing a bit weary of rice and beans at every meal, Elise loved every minute of the trip. She has made memories to last a lifetime.
I asked Elise (my 13 year old) to write a guest post and share the pictures she took on her exciting trip to Costa Rica. Enjoy! -Ann
Day 1: Travel to San Jose, Costa Rica
We got up really, really super early in the morning to get to the airport, and we got to Costa Rica around lunch time. Then we went to our hotel and got our rooms. We decided to take a walk through downtown San Jose to get to a lunch spot. It was really cool to see all the different stores and people and a different culture. Lots of the stores looked about the same. It was very, very smelly. There were people selling things on the street that were illegal, so it was very, very different from North Carolina. It was a good day!
not happy about the early morning flight
downtown San Jose
Inside a cathedral
Day 2: Britt Coffee Plantation and Poas National Volcano Park
We got up at 6:00 in the morning to have breakfast at 7:00. Then we went to the Britt Coffee Plantation. We learned how they grow coffee, how long it takes to grow the coffee beans, and that they pick the beans by hand, so they only get the ripe ones. If you do it by machine, the machine gets all the beans, not just the ones that are ripe.
Gunner modeling the waist basket used to pick beans
Tara and Gunner tasting the coffee
Then we went to the volcano. It was kind of chilly, and we had to hike up to get there. We saw a salamander. When we got to the top, it was really cloudy, so all we could see was a white cloud. We didn't get a chance to see the crater, but the postcards of it looked really cool. The sulfur smelled like rotten eggs. We stopped to see the La Paz waterfall. It was raining. Then we checked into our next hotel in La Fortuna.
view of the crater of the volcano
What we hoped to see
volcano selfie with Skylar
La Paz Waterfall
Day 3: La Fortuna
We went kayaking in Lake Arenal near the Arenal Volcano. Kayaking was really fun. I did it with my partner Dhivya, and we were so bad! We bumped into the instructor who was trying to help us go somewhere. When we got to the clearing, Dhivya didn't want to get out of the kayak, but I tipped us over, so we had to get out! Everyone was swimming around and talking, and it was a lot of fun! We held on to one of the people's kayaks who was still in, and he pulled us around. Then we got back on and had a long trek back. It was very tiring.
Then we went to the La Fortuna waterfall. It was so pretty! The hike was gorgeous but hard. When we got there, we got to take pictures by the rocks by the waterfall, and we got to swim. Swimming was lots of fun because we made it a challenge to see how far on the rocks we could get. We didn't get very far, but it was still fun to see how far we could get. It was a looonnnnggg hike back to the top which we did in the rain.
La Fortuna waterfall
After that, we went to Baldi Hot Springs. It was really cool to see how they set up their hot springs. They have bars in some of them. In one of them there was a giant slide that we weren't allowed to go on. Paige and I stuck together and tried to find one that was just the right temperature. We finally found one. Unfortunately, it was the one with the slide which was very crowded, so we left. We stayed there for two hours which for me was way too long because the sulfur was messing with me.
pretty views out the bus window
The dinner at the hotel was spaghetti, and that was probably my favorite dinner of the entire trip. The sauce had kind of a sweet tangy flavor.... and it was not rice and beans. I was getting really, really tired of rice and beans. We had rice and beans for breakfast that morning and lunch.
Day 4: Monteverde
Our hotel was Hotel Don Taco, and we checked in just in time for lunch. I really liked that hotel. We had a green bean omelet for lunch which was really good. I liked it. And we had rice and beans. The bathroom door wasn't really a door. It was an accordion door that was broken. That wasn't fun. After lunch, we went to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest for a nature walk. It was so pretty. We didn't see any animals which kind of made me mad.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest
Read Part Two here.
Today was the first day of school.
Elise headed off to eighth grade, and in typical eighth grade fashion, she decided the dress code rules did not apply to her. When I said, "Um... really? spaghetti straps and bra straps showing?" She said, "Oh I have a T-shirt in my backpack in case I get in trouble." Um. No. We are not starting off a new year with a dress code violation. I sent her back in to change. She seemed to have a great first day and likes her teachers so far.
Next we had nervous Nina heading off to middle school for the first time. Sixth grade is kind of a big deal, and thankfully, she survived. She only ended up in the wrong classroom once.
Then we have Addison...
who was clearly not at all nervous about second grade.
She and I are on our own now in the mornings. Nina was usually the one who kept us on track to make the bus on time, so it was no big surprise when we missed the bus this morning. As I was driving to school, it occurred to me that this was the first time in nine years of school that my kids have not taken the bus on the first day. Even in kindergarten, we always hustled them on to the bus, their backpacks weighted down with ten tons of school supplies. I drove along wondering how long the carpool line would be, assuming that many parents probably drive on the first day. Then, completely bewildered, I pulled up to a perfectly empty carpool line. It confused me until I looked over and saw the packed parking lot. Parents were walking kids into the building in droves. I briefly wondered, "Should I get out and walk her in? Is that what I am expected to do?" I quickly pushed that thought out of my head though. If she is independent enough to get off of a school bus and find her classroom on the first day, then she can get out of my car and find her way as well. With that, I dropped her off as the one lone carpool kid of the day. I haven't decided if that makes me a bad mom for neglecting my first day of school parental duties or a really great mom for encouraging my child to be independent. I'm just going to go with the latter... makes me feel better. Don't judge.
Addison had a great day, and wouldn't you know... she found her classroom, all by herself.
I heard from Elise this morning. Even with the camp zip line accident still very fresh in her mind, she got up the nerves to do this.
You go girl! Mamma is proud (but glad your feet are back on the ground). Now she is off for a crocodile tour today. No rest for the weary!
Growing up in Texas was hot.... like really hot... as in I owned a T-shirt that stated, "I survived the 1980 Texas heat wave." That was the year we had 42 consecutive days with a high temperature over 100 and reached an all-time high of 113. I went to Girl Scout camp for a couple of summers on Lake Texoma (the lake breeze being the only thing that made those platform tents tolerable) until my mom declared it was simply too hot to go to camp in Texas. The next year, she started sending me to Camp Illahee in the mountains of North Carolina for five weeks each summer. That was back when unaccompanied minors on summer flights were the norm. It was pre-9/11 and before the advent of helicopter parenting, so kids flew alone to visit grandma, stay with cousins, or go to camp. I would hop on a flight in Dallas with 8-10 other kids heading to camp in North Carolina. We would fly to Charlotte where we would change planes for the short flight to Asheville. Looking back, I feel so sorry for the flight attendants (or I'm sure they were called stewardesses back then) on that flight from Charlotte to Asheville. Campers from all over the country converged in Charlotte, and then we all took that same flight to Asheville. Can you imagine being the flight attendant on a flight that was 90% unaccompanied minors? As you watched the baggage being loaded onto the plane, it was footlocker after footlocker after sleeping bag after duffel bag. They must have hated those flights.
I loved my summers at Illahee. I made friends who I still keep in touch with to this day. Don't I look like someone straight out of Hayley Mills' cabin in the movie The Parent Trap in my Sunday white uniform?
We wore whites on Sundays and blues on Saturdays and for trips out of camp. This photo was taken at the Biltmore.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are from camp - the hike up to Mount LeConte Lodge, rafting the Nantahala, organizing Surprise Day as a CIT, fried chicken and Biltmore ice cream for lunch on Sundays, the dances at the boys' camp, Camp Deerwoode, taking woodworking, weaving, riflery, synchronized swimming, diving, lifesaving, rappelling, and canoeing. When Addie asks me to sing to her at bedtime, she gets campfire songs from Illahee.
I always knew that if I ever had a girl, she would spend her summers at Illahee. Then... I grew up. I had not one but THREE girls, and discovered that the 3-4 week long sessions at Illahee are prohibitively expensive, especially times three. Also, sessions that long don't work out so well with a year-round school schedule. Neither our budget nor our schedule could make that dream happen, so off to Girl Scout camp they went. I'm not knocking Girl Scout camps. They are great for what they are - fun, affordable camps, with limited amenities and activities. My girls have enjoyed Girl Scout camp, but every year when we would drop them off or pick them up, I couldn't help but feel like they were missing out. It just isn't the same experience that you get at a bigger camp with a long history of traditions, (Illahee opened in 1921.) and campers who return to the same session year after year.
This year, we decided to try something different, Camp Cheerio, a YMCA camp. It has been around for 60 years, is priced about halfway between Girl Scout camp and Illahee, and seemed to offer the type of camp experience I had been wanting to find.
As we sat in the long line of cars to get into camp that first day with the windows open enjoying the cool mountain air, I think I was just as excited as Elise and Nina.
It all just felt right. We hadn't even gotten out of the car yet, and I knew they were going to have a great week.
Even the slide going into the lake looked just like the one at Illahee.
As we drove into camp we were greeted everywhere by counselors waving and yelling, "Welcome to Cheerio!" We got the girls checked into their cabins. (How cool are the bright colored footlockers these days? I don't think there was any option other than black when I was a camper.)
Pop culture decorating the cabin doors still seems to be going strong.. Ms. Pacman from the 80's to Taylor Swift now.
We dropped off their medicine, bought the requisite camp sweatshirts, hugged them good-bye, and left knowing they were going to have an amazing time creating camp memories to last a lifetime.
Every smiling picture we saw from camp during the week confirmed that they were having a ball.
The perfectly posed cabin photo even reminded me of the unit pictures we always took at Illahee.
I was feeling like I had finally found the perfect camp for my girls. Then Thursday came, a day that will sadly stick in the minds of many people for years to come. We got an email from the camp that evening that there had been a tragic zipline accident and a child had been taken to the hospital. By later that night, we saw on the news that the child had died. I can't even tell you all the feelings that were running through us that night... overwhelming grief for the family who lost a child, a heavy feeling in the pit of our stomachs that it could just as easily have been one of our girls, and worry for Elise and Nina - What had they seen? What did they know? Was this girl a friend or cabinmate? Did they need a hug from mom and dad? (We certainly needed one from them.)
When you send your child off to camp, you expect a few bumps and bruises, maybe a bee sting, sprained ankle or stitches. That comes with the territory of outdoor camp activity. I had to go to the hospital one year for stitches in my toe after a bizarre canoe accident at camp. You never in a million years though think that when you give your child a good-bye hug at their cabin that it is the last time you'll ever see them alive. I get overwhelmed just thinking about it.
On top of the fear, the grief, the anxiety, I had a much more trivial sad thought running through my head as well... "That camp seemed like everything I wanted for them, and now they will never want to go back."
We debated going straight to the camp the next morning to pick them up. We had visions of sobbing campers all over camp with parents rushing in to bring them all home. When I called the camp the next morning, that image couldn't have been further from the truth. I was told that if our children had witnessed the accident or had been a cabinmate of the child that we would have already been contacted directly. I was also told that camp was going on as usual with laughter, smiles, singing, and fun. Most of the campers didn't even know there had been an accident. Those that asked about it were told that she had been in an accident and had to leave camp but no more than that. Amazing. I had never been so grateful for the "no phones, no ipods, no electronics" camp rule. Despite the story being all over the news and social media, the camp was able to completely isolate the majority of the campers from knowing anything. Those young counselors are rock stars. The counselors had all been told Thursday night, but they put on a smiling face, and I suppose adrenaline kept them going.
Pick-up on Saturday was hard. All I could think about was that one family wasn't there picking up their daughter with the rest of us. I couldn't wait to see Elise and Nina, but I was on the verge to tears the whole morning. The camp program director and YMCA CEO greeted each car as we arrived at camp and answered any questions we had. We told them that we appreciated all their communication and felt like they had handled a horrible situation as well as they possibly could. We picked up the girls who were positively bursting with stories to tell us about all the things they had done at camp that week. Before we could even ask, they both declared that they were definitely going back next year.
Wow. Despite counselors and camp leadership likely in shock and grieving those last few days of camp, most of the campers were none the wiser. The week could have ended so differently for all those campers, but thanks to good decisions by the camp director and CEO, most of those campers had just as great a week as they have had any other year at Cheerio.
After about three hours of non-stop camp stories from Elise and Nina, Nina eventually told us that there had been a bad accident at the zip line. Sadly, two girls in Nina's cabin had witnessed the fall. Nina knew it was bad. She said one of the girls cried a lot and had counselors talking with her a lot (the camp had grief counselors there on site after the accident). Nina had definitely been affected by the accident and is still struggling with it to some degree, but the fact that it took three hours of non-stop talk before the subject came up tells me that the fun and adventures of camp overshadowed the sadness.
Later that evening, we told the girls the whole story, and we all shed some tears. Nina is still processing it all, but she is adamant that she wants to go to Cheerio again next year. She loved her time there.
I feel blessed, fortunate, and just plain lucky that our children came home from camp that week healthy and safe, but I feel like a little of my parent innocence has been lost. Those camp good-bye hugs will take on a whole new meaning in the future. Elise left for Costa Rica three days ago, and I think I hugged her and told her I loved her about 10 times between the parking lot and the airport. I'm pretty much holding my breath until their rainforest canopy zip line adventure is over. It is a little sooner than I'd like to have my child on a zip line again.
I'm thrilled that the girls had a great week at camp and that we have found a camp that reminds me more of my childhood camp memories. That was a hard week though, and my thoughts and prayers are still with the Burney family, the counselors who were working the zip line that day, the camp doctor and first responders, and the whole Camp Cheerio family.
"Making a decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body."
~ Elizabeth Stone