A Disney Birthday

I wasn’t really looking forward to my birthday this year. It’s the birthday before a major milestone, and the dread is starting to set in. Dear Lord, I’m getting old.

In the spirit of the best defense is a good offense, I first thought about throwing myself a party, but decided that was too much work. In the end, I asked my husband to take me to Disneyland for my birthday. We hadn’t been in several years, and even though we live less than hour away, I find it too expensive to justify a visit for no good reason. But a birthday celebration with my husband seemed just what the doctor ordered, and a very youthful thing to do.

Despite my angst, I had a wonderful birthday. My husband went above and beyond. He gave me two mushy cards, bought me flowers, made me a cake AND took me to Disneyland. And, may I just say, a full day at Disneyland is not for wimps. And, may I further say, we put in a FIFTEEN-HOUR DAY at Disneyland.

The alarm went off at 5:30 am. We were in the car by 6:10 on our way to the Original Pancake House in Anaheim. After a breakfast of German pancakes (him) and Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream (me) we were on our way to The Happiest Place on Earth.

Right when we left the restaurant, as we were driving to Disneyland, my son called from Florida to wish me a happy birthday. PERFECT timing!   By the time we parked, took the tram, went through security and lined up at the gate, it was 9:00 opening time.

We had a longstanding tradition in my family, whereby my brothers and I would, upon first entering Disneyland, run (as in full sprint) to the Matterhorn. I decided my husband and I should uphold this ritual, forgetting how old I am and that I just ate a Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream. (My son had also reminded me on the phone of an ill-fated and short-lived attempt, in my forties, to join an adult soccer league, when I pulled my hamstring the first day attempting a wind sprint.) My birthday sprint became a jog, then a brisk walk, but we quickly and impressively made it to the Matterhorn in one piece.

I’d also done my advance research and learned of a Disneyland app (that I downloaded on my iPhone before we left home) and a new feature called MaxPass that can be purchased for $10 per person once in the park. I signed us up for MaxPass through the app while standing in line at the Matterhorn, which allowed me to obtain FastPasses for both of us from my phone for the day. Thanks to our first FastPasses, we walked off the Matterhorn and boarded our spaceship at Space Mountain in less than 15 minutes. While in the short line at Space Mountain, I signed us up for Star Tours.

At this point, between the pancakes and waffle, the run to the Matterhorn, and the rides on the Matterhorn, Space Mountain and Star Tours (all in quick succession of about 45 minutes) we both wanted to throw up.  I realized there might actually be a good reason long lines were invented at amusement parks, and decided the FastPasses had the very real potential of killing us if we weren’t careful. So, in the interest of pacing ourselves, we headed over to New Orleans Square and did the more soothing Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Magic Happy Birthday Button!

Before we left Tomorrow Land, my husband scored me a “Happy Birthday” button from a park employee, who even wrote my name on it, and which apparently conferred on me some joyful-spectrum Super Power. The rest of the day, as I walked around Disneyland wearing my button, virtually every Disney worker I encountered cheerily exclaimed “Happy Birthday, Betsy!” On the Jungle Cruise, the guide had the entire boat sing Happy Birthday. At Indiana Jones, the attendant led the crowd in a rousing cheer for me. After a lunch of massive smoked turkey legs (another family tradition) I set off in search of a restroom, and the two Disney crew members I asked directions from both pointed me toward the Women’s Room and then gleefully wished me a Happy Birthday. I met several other people who shared my birthday (most of them under 10). All this attention was wonderful! Why had I never thought to celebrate my birthday at Disneyland before?!

Thanks to MaxPass and my husband’s stamina, we were able to ride every ride we wanted, enjoy a fabulous dinner at the Grand Californian Hotel, watch two parades (including the Main Street Electrical Parade) and stay for the most beautiful fireworks display over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

During the course of the day, I reflected on my lifetime of visits to Disneyland. I was probably four or five the first time my parents took us to the Magic Kingdom. I still remember, as a kid, being so excited that I couldn’t sleep for several nights before. The first time after “It’s a Small World” opened, when I was a pre-teen, I was so captivated I insisted on riding the ride seven times in a row…and my mother happily rode with me. I went to my high school Grad Night there for an all-night giggle-fest with my boy-crazy girlfriends.  I visited as a small child, as an older child, as a teenager, as a young adult, as a newly married couple, as a mother of a small child, then older child, then teenager, and now as an empty nester. Each outing was special, and so different depending on my current phase of life, but Disneyland is by far the most magical through the eyes of a small child – whether the eyes were my son’s or mine.

At 10:45 pm, we finally headed for the car. I was grateful that, adorned with a Happy Birthday button and treated like a Disney Princess for a day, I recaptured a bit of that old Disney magic, and that my real-life Prince Charming was there to drive me to our castle.

 

Travels with Flat Monica

I have been neglecting my blog lately, but only because I’ve been traveling and having way too much fun. I particularly enjoyed a recent trip to the Big Apple with my new close friend Flat Monica.

Originally, the trip was conceived as an epic birthday gala for my friend Real Monica. We have a tradition in our book club of celebrating milestone birthdays with a special expedition. In the past, we’ve typically stayed closer to home in Southern California, but Real Monica decided, for her milestone birthday festivity this year, she wanted us all to visit Tracy, a book club member who moved to New York a few years ago.

We went about planning our trip, finding dates that worked for everyone, exploring various activities and shows, and coordinating travel schedules. Ultimately, three of us (in addition to Real Monica) committed to the trip.

A few weeks after we purchased our airline tickets, Real Monica announced she couldn’t go (it’s a long story). The rest of us conferred and decided (what the heck!) we would go anyway. Our imaginative and creative friend Kathy hatched the idea of taking Flat Monica (a takeoff from the old “Flat Stanley” craze I only slightly remember) and showed up with two laminated photos of Real Monica (now Flat Monica) for us to haul around New York City.

Flat Monica proved to be an ideal travel companion. She fit in our purses and backpacks, did not require travel costs, space, food or her own bed, went along with all of our plans, never complained or got lost, and, no matter what happened, kept the same smile on her face.

We had a ball planning, staging and executing Flat Monica photo shoots all over town and posting them on our group page. To kick things off, we filmed a video tribute of Flat Monica behind a pie with a lighted candle, while we sang happy birthday, ending dramatically as one of us (off-stage left) blew out the candle on cue. We photographed Flat Monica kayaking on the Hudson, enjoying two plays, listening to commentary on an architectural boat cruise, sampling rice pudding at a trendy eatery, and strolling through Central Park. In fact, at Strawberry Fields, in Central Park, we ran into two young men from Australia, one of whom was carrying a life-size Flat Mom (a photo of his mother) and we introduced and photographed Flat Monica with Flat Mom.

Some of the many Adventures of Flat Monica

Some of the many Adventures of Flat Monica

At one of the (Way Off-Broadway) plays, an odd affair involving puppetry and video, we took Flat Monica backstage post-play and photographed her with the star, a Flat Monica-sized puppet (he waived the “no touching” rule and put his arm around her). We took Monica to a 7-Eleven store on 7/11 and plied her with a free Slurpee, and then took her on a mine tour in New Jersey. And when we dropped our friend Sara off at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (where she was staying the following weekend while she visited her son) we photographed Flat Monica in the lobby with the ornate London-built clock and under the 800-thread-count sheets in Sara’s room.

Real Monica seemed to enjoy traveling vicariously through Flat Monica. And Flat Monica made a delightful portable companion, providing us with hours of amusement. All in all, I highly recommend taking Flat Friends along on travels, especially when Real Friends can’t go. Since I was the last to leave New York, I flew home with Flat Monica (in my carry-on, although I let her look out the window a few times, much to the amusement of the 8-year-old girl sitting next to me). As I now write, Flat Monica is smiling at me from the coffee table, and, since we had so much fun together, I’m seriously considering taking her along on more trips.

Twenty-three and Flying

First I turn 57-½, and now I have a 23-year-old child. The numbers are racking up! What the heck is going on? Where has the time gone?! It reminds me of a time when I was in my mid to late twenties, working my first real job as a young government lawyer in Washington, D.C., and it suddenly dawned on me that I was no longer “right out of college.” That was the day I witnessed a group of young people who truly were “right out of college” disembark en masse from a bus. One look at these babies, and I was struck by the cold harsh reality that I was NO LONGER “right out of college.”

Now I see young moms at the YMCA carting their little boys and a part of me still identifies as close in age. Or at least closer than the “old ladies” in my exercise classes. Maybe I am just young at heart. Or immature. Or delusional.

In any event, today is my son’s 23rd birthday and, hard as it to wrap my brain around, I now have a child who is “right out of college.” And as I have found with most of my life as a parent, just when I get used to one phase, things change and I’m forced to adapt to a new one.

I am finding this “right out of college” parenting phase quite fascinating. My son is now completely independent from us. He has his own place to live, a car, a job, and a bank account. We try to talk to him once a week (if he has time) and we text often. But after years of controlling, then directing, then advising his actions, it is part unnerving, part deeply gratifying, to step back and watch him navigate life on his own. He still sometimes calls for advice, but his decisions are clearly his. And wise ones. It’s like finally nudging the baby bird out of the nest, taking a deep breath, and watching him soar.

There is freedom in not being responsible for him. And immense pride in the responsible, competent, unaffected adult he has become. My grandest joy, however, is the genuine love and affection my husband (his father) and I share with him. It is perhaps the greatest prize of parenting to raise a child that becomes a treasured adult companion.

My son currently lives halfway across the country from us, and although part of me wishes we were closer and more intertwined in his life, it oddly feels right to be physically removed from him. (I do remember being 23, and being glad my mother was not too close by.) At this phase of his life, he is truly coming into his own and this is his time to soar (especially since he is just starting flight training!) We love the excitement of getting updates on his life and marveling at his adventures from afar.

We also find it rather exhausting when he comes home to visit. We forget about the hours that “right out of college” aged people keep, and it always seems someone is coming or going in our house while he’s there.   Much as we love the visit, and we are incredibly sad when he leaves, we also welcome the return of quiet and routine and appreciate the “empty nest” life we’ve grown accustomed to.

My drawing on a recent card I sent my son, totally age-appropriate for a twenty-three year old

My drawing on a recent card I sent my son, totally age-appropriate for a twenty-three year old

As with every other period of his life, I grieve the passing of each stage, since I’ve cherished them all, but I am eager to see what’s next. Like turning the pages of a captivating novel, I am excited to see how this story unfolds, without the pressure of being the author. In this tale, I’m proud of the hero, and am more than content being a supporting character. Happy birthday to my son who occasionally makes me feel old, but keeps me forever young.

In Defence of Halloween

I have a confession to make. Actually two. At 57 years old, I still love Halloween. Boom. Second, I had every intention of writing a more serious topic post this week, but I really just wanted to write about Halloween. Boom. As a compromise, and to add gravitas to my topic, I used the English spelling title.

One of my friends half-jokingly said, this Halloween, that she and her husband were the “Scrooges of all saints eve” and were planning to turn off the lights and block their porch with their SUV, partly to protect trick-or-treaters and other vulnerable human beings from eating all that “sugar crap”.  Other friends vehemently object to celebrating a holiday of dark pagan origins.

To the naysayers, I reply, “Fine! I don’t care!” I love Halloween. I’ve always loved Halloween. And for me, it has nothing to do with candy or reverence for otherworldly spirits. For goodness sake, I grew up in a sensible Presbyterian family with a Navy dentist father who inspected our Halloween candy and tossed the items most likely to cause dental problems.

No, for me, Halloween is magical, and communal. I have nothing but wonderful Halloween memories. As a little girl, dressed in my favorite little fairy princess costume, waiting eagerly for darkness to fall, grabbing my father’s hand as I skipped through our neighborhood, transformed (in my eyes) to an enchanted pixie world. As a teenager in San Diego, braving the annual Young Life haunted house in Mission Valley with my friends (and getting the holy $#%&$ scared out of me) while knowing nothing truly horrible would happen.   The Halloween party my first year of law school, when I somewhat nervously wore my hand-made costume (I went as a bag of groceries) and where my classmates and I first really relaxed with each other, the beginning point of great lifelong friendships.

Although I have a Halloween-neutral spouse, I was blessed with a son who loves Halloween just as much, if not more, than I do. He could barely contain himself each year as the season approached. I was a total enabler, putting on elaborate Halloween kids’ parties each year for him and his little friends, usually planning it months in advance and taking an entire day off work to decorate. One year, I assembled a complicated string maze game in which every kid would have his or her own string to unravel to a prize waiting at the end. It took hours to set up, and about 10 minutes to finish, resulting in a room full of kids wound up like cocoons. The parents would also come to these parties, and we would all play games, eat pizza and then go trick-or-treating together. And for my son, like me, it was not about the candy, but the pursuit. Every year, his pillowcase full of candy would be largely untouched, and finally disposed of before Christmas. We just didn’t eat many sweets in our house and he never acquired the taste.

As my son got older, we collaborated on his costumes. My all-time favorite was the Baked Potato. He wore black sweats, I swaddled him in Reynolds Wrap, and he sported a yellow beanie (butter, get it?) on his head. By the time he flew around the first corner that Halloween night, the foil was already unwrapping and soaring behind him like a gleaming jet airplane. Another year, we shopped the crazy vintage shops on Sunset Blvd. and assembled a killer Jimi Hendrix costume and wig.

After my son left for college, the first couple Halloweens weren’t nearly as much fun. I enjoyed greeting the trick-or-treaters, but it just wasn’t the same. The past two years, we visited our son in Annapolis and attended the phenomenal and magical annual Halloween Concert in the USNA Chapel.

But now our son has graduated and he’s truly on his own. (BTW, he texted me a photo of him and his girlfriend at a Halloween Party in spot-on costumes as Forrest Gump and Jenny. Bravo!!). My Halloween-disinterested hubby’s big plans this year were to watch the World Series on TV and let me answer the door.

So, I decided to take matters into my own hands and reclaim the former Halloween magic! I pulled all the old Halloween decorations out of the garage and created a haunted mansion theme on our house front. I carved our pumpkin. I placed my new Bose wireless speaker in the open front window and set up my iPhone to play the Halloween stations on Pandora. I pulled an old witches outfit and wig out of the closet (always good to have a spare costume on hand for these emergency situations) and prepared for the arrival of children.

Jack-o-Lantern and hay bales on our front porch

Jack-o-Lantern and hay bales on our front porch

We had a rather large volume of trick-or-treaters. Over the course of the evening, I worked on enhancing their experience at our house. I experimented with the volume and type of music (family friendly Halloween classics, spooky sound effects, sweeping but slightly creepy movie scores), adjusted the lighting, and played around with how I presented myself. When they rang the doorbell, I would creep to the door, quietly listen to their conversation (“Oh, look at the great pumpkin!” “I love the music!”) And then when the timing was right, I would jerk the door open and, in my best Morticia Addams voice, exclaim “Hello, children!” I adjusted the fright level to make it age-appropriate, but I loved watching the kids’ eyes open wide and detecting a slight flinch when they saw me. I particularly enjoyed yanking the door open and startling the teenage boys.

I had a ball and I think the kids who came to our house did, too. A few of the parents even thanked me for my efforts. Dressing up allowed me to join in the magic with the kids. But more than that, I enjoyed sharing the evening with my neighborhood. Our next-door-neighbor came by with her two young kids (the most adorable Minnie Mouse and Captain America), Our former neighbors (who moved to a different street) brought their daughter and we briefly caught up. Our friend came by with her two grandkids. Plenty of kids I didn’t know came by, and some stopped to chat.

As a Christian woman, I certainly understand some of the criticisms with Halloween – the sugar, the commercialism, the dark Druid origins. But, to me, Halloween will always evoke the feelings and memories of magic, creativity, family and community.

The Return of the Cookie

My holiday season was bookended by cookies.  In retrospect I aptly titled my first cookie post “The Fellowship of the Cookie”  (a clever takeoff on “Lord of the Rings”) since my cookie-baking activity then burgeoned into its own trilogy.

After my all-day Cookie-Palooza with my friend John (“The Fellowship of the Cookie”), I had another baking day after my son and unidentified friends decimated the molasses cookies.  Due to popular demand, I spent another afternoon baking replacement molasses cookies, but this time I worked alone and the cookies didn’t come out nearly as tasty the second time.  I could’ve entitled that post (had I written it) “The Two Cookies” to follow my Lord of the Rings theme, and to explore why two batches of the same recipe can come out so maddeningly different.  But, quite frankly, I didn’t find that topic all that stimulating and nothing very funny or thought provoking happened while I was baking by myself.

However, the exciting third and concluding installment of my cookie trilogy came on New Years Day, when my son and his friends gathered for an impromptu cookie-baking party in my kitchen.    I might not have written about this as I’m careful not to embarrass my son or his friends or violate their privacy on social media, but to my great surprise, they actually asked if I would write a post (which of course flattered me no end).  Hence, I invent the cookie trilogy as a means to prolong my cookie baking stories and hereby dub this third installment “The Return of the Cookie”.

The New Years Day cookie gathering was rather fluid.  The day before, my son mentioned in passing that two of his friends, Maryam and Nicole, wanted to come over and bake cookies on New Years Day.  My husband developed a nasty cold on New Year’s Eve, so on New Year’s Day he was locked in the bedroom coughing and sneezing. When my son got up at about noon, I asked him about his plans for the cookie baking get-together at 1:00 and he said he didn’t have any.  I asked if Nicole and Maryam were bringing the ingredients or if we would be supplying them and he didn’t know but guessed they would use ours.  He then suggested that I oversee the baking.

I was pretty darn steamed to have all this sprung on me, right?  Au contraire! I was [secretly] thrilled!!! Because this meant I was free to openly spend the entire afternoon with my son and three of his friends (that I adore) doing an activity that I love (baking, of all things).  I could not have scripted a better day myself, but since they conceived it, they would find the whole baking experience entertaining.  Bravo!

So how did it go?   It was beyond fun.  Maryam and Nicole came over first and we chatted and laughed for a while.  The kids compared notes on their New Years Eve activities. Maryam and I discovered a mutual love of the Sound of Music soundtrack and performed an impressive impromptu duet of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”  Then we started on the cookies.   I laid out my recipes and they chose two – shortbread and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

New Years Day Cookie Party in my kitchen

New Years Day Cookie Party in my kitchen

Their friend Jacob joined, as they were finishing up the shortbread dough.  While the shortbread was in the oven, they started on the oatmeal cookies.  Throughout the baking process, they worked together as a team, talking and laughing and catching up.  The four of them had been in the same high school theatre class.  Jacob was a freshman when the other three were seniors.  Now Jacob’s a high school senior and the other three juniors at different colleges.  I loved being a fly on the wall and listening to their easy banter.   I let them do the actual baking, but I provided supplies and washed dishes and cleaned up and was available for questions and emergency consultations as needed.

The shortbread cookies were magnificent.  They were cooked just right and the buttery flavor superb.  In fact, the kids clearly did a better job than I since I badly overcooked my shortbread two weeks ago.   There were high-fives all around and a shared sense of accomplishment.  I don’t think any of them had done much baking before and it was fun to see the excited look of discovery on their faces.

The four of them worked like a well-oiled machine

The four of them worked like a well-oiled machine

Then the timer went off for the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.  My son had been placed in charge of the beaters, and after creaming the egg, sugar and shortening he’d voiced some concern with the consistency (i.e., lack of creamy-ness).  When the cookies emerged from the oven, they looked odd (fixed in the same hard ball-shape as when dropped onto the cookie sheet).  We each simultaneously tasted a small sample and were collectively relieved and pleased with the taste…warm and sweet and oatmeal-y….. and then KA-BOOM!  We were all slapped with a powerful surge of SALT.  We suddenly and concurrently needed water, and fast. We almost did synchronized gagging and spitting.

During our post-mortem on the oatmeal cookies, we realized that a miscalculation of sugar content had occurred.  Rather than the 1-¼ cups of packed brown sugar the recipe called for, only ¼ cup was added.  (I personally blame this on my mother-in-law’s handwriting on the recipe card.)

In any event, given the level of brainpower and applied education assembled in my kitchen, it’s not surprising that a clever fix was quickly identified.  I believe it was Maryam who proposed that, rather than a taste problem, we simply had a branding issue on our hands.  After some discussion, and great deal of laughter, it was agreed that we had not made bad-tasting oatmeal cookies; rather, we had produced awesome oatmeal pretzel balls.  Pretzel balls that taste really good with beer.  With that, the entire endeavor was declared a huge success and the kids each took home a sample of the shortbread cookies.  Unfortunately, re-branding notwithstanding, the oatmeal pretzel balls were left behind.

Since my son was leaving the next day to head back to college, the good-byes were heartfelt and poignant as the kids spoke wistfully of not seeing each other again until next summer.  But before they took leave, they decided to make cookie baking at our house a New Years tradition.   Looks like I’ve added two new traditions to my holidays and they both involve cookies and good friends.  And I couldn’t be happier.  Here’s hoping that next year we indeed have “The Return of the Cookie!”

Special Report from the Debutante Ball

This past Saturday I crashed a debutante ball.  OK, I was an invited guest, but I frequently felt I’d made a wrong turn and walked into the wrong hotel ballroom.  Days later, I’m still pondering the whole thing.

My son was asked by the daughter of our close friends to be her escort at her debutante ball. Her mother asked if he would wear his dress military uniform.  Much to my surprise, he agreed to both.  From that day on it was clear that, because of him, our entire family would be ball VIPs.  (In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if my son were now a beneficiary in their family wills.)  I highly recommend the role of mother of the escort, which carries no responsibilities, few financial costs, yet yields significant reflected glory.  The exhausted mothers of the debutantes, by contrast, appeared well on the road to nervous collapse.

The official program

The official program

I had scant previous working knowledge of debutantes and their balls.   I was slightly curious but the topic never really registered on my radar.   I have no sisters or daughters. My mother was raised poor on a farm in Michigan. I was a tomboy who grew into a feminist and bookworm.  I don’t remember any of my high school girlfriends “coming out” in society, and I was under the impression that the debutante ball was a relic of a bygone era and/or the deep south.

After we moved to our town a decade ago, I noted the photos in the local paper each year of the high school girls who were being “presented.”   But again I didn’t pay much attention and said another quiet prayer of thanks that I was a boy mother.  Hanging out in the gym, the football stadium, the tennis courts, the Boy Scout camporee and at work was more my speed.

When our invitation to the ball arrived, it said “black tie” and I was covertly excited to pull out of moth balls a satin midnight blue dress that I love and which I’d worn only once to a family wedding in 1999 – my last black tie event.  I bought a new pair of shoes (Nordstrom on-line, free shipping and returns) as the dyed-to-match satin pumps from 1999 had been jettisoned to Goodwill.  My husband predictably squawked when told he must rent a tux but quickly came around (I wasn’t passing up this photo op and he hates being left out of anything). I got a manicure and pedicure with cherry red polish. The day before the ball, I remembered I’d chucked my electric rollers sometime in the early 2000s and then couldn’t find my curling iron.  This evidences the extent to which my grooming habits have deteriorated. Oh well!  I giddily headed to Drybar to have my hair professionally washed and styled.    I don’t know how celebrities manage this every weekend, but it was great fun to get the star treatment for a day.

The centerpiece of white roses, lilies and hydrangea

The centerpiece of white roses, lilies and hydrangea

And then there was the ball.  My son was subjected to a four-hour rehearsal two nights before the ball, and was whisked away at 2:30 on ball day for photos.  My husband and I blissfully arrived at the hotel at 6 with no assigned tasks and enjoyed the cocktail hour in the foyer before being ushered to our table in the ballroom.  Then the lights dimmed and it was show time!  The rather frazzled mothers of the debutantes were led in through a door at the rear of the ballroom, one by one, by their daughters’ escorts, formally introduced, promenaded to mid-dance floor with a flourish, announced again and then seated by escorts on white satin-covered chairs on the edge of the dance floor.  Then each debutante dressed in a white ball gown and curtsying as she was introduced, was escorted onto the ballroom stage and into the spotlight by her father.  It was clear that all parties had been admonished to smile broadly and enthusiastically even as intense lighting blinded them.  As each girl’s turn progressed the smiles became increasingly forced, particularly Dad’s as he pondered the money spent for this tuxedoed walk.  The master of ceremonies, a local politician, read a biography of each girl as she glided round the dance floor with her father while the band played her “presentation song”, ending with another introduction and curtsy mid-dance floor.  We had all been reprimanded earlier by one of the Ladies in Charge not to cheer for our favorite girl like at a sporting event, which I found highly disappointing. Then there was a father-debutante/daughter waltz, followed by an escort-debutante waltz, followed by a mother-father/escort-debutante waltz.  I was nervous there might be a mother-of-escort/escort waltz coming (requiring me to fake a waltz).  I admired the impressive fruits of my son’s crash course in waltzing and bowing.

Executing a perfect twirl, curtsy and bow at the conclusion of the waltz

Executing a perfect twirl, curtsy and bow at the conclusion of the waltz

I have to admit; there were times I wanted to laugh out loud and other times I felt like I’d tottered through the looking glass. The ball was an odd mix of past and present; the Vanderbilts meet Title 9.   One of the Ladies in Charge described the 18-month program of social and community service, cultural education, personal development training and etiquette instruction the debutantes completed.  As these girls strolled the dance floor in their white tulle and lace with their big hair and heavy make-up and on their fathers’ arms, the Master of Ceremonies portrayed girls who are homecoming queens, cheerleaders, Girl Scout Gold Award recipients, musicians, and who love to bake; girls who put in countless volunteer hours for various charities.  But I also heard descriptions of exceptional athletes – lacrosse, tennis, basketball, cross-country, scuba diving, softball, golf, and volleyball – who’ve won numerous awards and championships in their sports.  One deb’s passion lay in robotics and engineering – working on cars with her dad is her favorite pastime.  Another is a motivational speaker, drawing on her experience as an orphan adopted from Vietnam.  Most have aspirations of attending major universities with plans to major in areas such as business, finance, international development, marketing or communications.

After the program was over and the dinner served, the dancing started.  At first, the music too was a mix of old and new.  My husband and I danced to Big Band, Beatles, Motown, Disco and Michael Jackson.  Mercifully, no further waltzing ensued. Toward evening’s end, I recognized less of the music and the floor filled with young people.  The white-dressed debs were right in the mix, surrounded by their youthful friends – jumping, fist pumping and singing along.  One thing about a debutante has not changed; she is after all a teenage girl.

In the midst of this estrogen-fueled festivity, my husband and son had a surprisingly great time. I found it a fascinating experience.   At my first opportunity, I nabbed the official photographer and had a portrait taken of dolled-up me with my son in his dress uniform and my husband in his tux (the photo op being of course the main reason for going).  At midnight, before anything turned into a pumpkin, or I was left stranded on the wrong side of the looking glass, I headed home from my rather odd evening, satisfied with my photo op, having unexpectedly enjoyed my one and only debutante ball, and giving thanks for my son, who is not a girl.

Thanksgiving with the Melnicks

Last year we spent Thanksgiving at the home of complete strangers.  We had so much fun we went back this year.

After coming home his first Thanksgiving while away at college, our son decided last year he didn’t want to make the long journey homeward. My older brother invited us to his home in Pennsylvania, and to Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’ (names changed to protect the wonderful in this post).  My brother and Mike Melnick have been friends for over 30 years – they were co-workers and poker buddies for ages.   My brother and his family have been celebrating Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’ for over 20 years.  I, however, had never met them.

A big draw for our son was that one Melnick nephew is an Annapolis grad and a Navy helicopter pilot.  So, we accepted the offer, flew to the east coast, picked up our son and drove to Pennsylvania.

The dining tables.  The Smart Table is in the corner.

The dining tables. The Smart Table is in the corner.

When we arrived at the Melnicks’ modest 3-story suburban house last Thanksgiving Day, Mike and Madge Melnick greeted each of us by name with bear hugs and a warm welcome.  There was an enormous table in the dining room for the food.  Tables and chairs were set up throughout every other room on the first floor for over 40 dinner guests.  Each of the portable dining tables was beautifully and lovingly decorated with fall color linens, pumpkins, flowers and greens.  There were handwritten place cards attached to little straw turkeys at each place setting.  I was at first alarmed that my husband, son and I were placed at different tables (as were my brother, sister-in-law and nephew).  I was anxious when I was jokingly told I was at the “Smart Table”.  I headed for the wine bar (I’m always smarter after a glass of wine.)  I was fearful this was going to be one of those social functions where I really had to be on my game.

The lovely table decorations

The lovely table decorations

While driving to the festivities, my sister-in-law gave me the Melnick Who’s-Who briefing.   As I began mingling at the house, my head was whirling trying to match and organize names and faces and relationships.  Somewhat related to my lifelong People Magazine obsession, when I step into a room of strangers, I find it oddly fascinating to decipher connections and back-stories.  (In fact, this year after I left the Melnick gathering I charted all the relationships just for fun to test my knowledge — but more about that later.)

By the time I took my place at the Smart Table for dinner, I was ready for the challenge.  I decided to use my PSE training, a sales technique I learned on the job that works brilliantly in most social situations.  Basically, you just continue to ask question after question, the goal being to elicit as much information as possible while keeping the other person(s) talking.  I have found that the more the other person is engaged in talking, the more I learn and the cleverer he or she thinks I am.  Generally, most “smart” people love to talk about themselves.

The living room filled with dinner guests

The living room filled with dinner guests

But a funny thing happened at the Smart Table–on the way to my “sale”.  It started with the blessing and toast that Mike Melnick gave before dinner.  He wiped away tears as he spoke of friends and family.  He specifically welcomed my husband, son, and me, by name, to his home in his toast. My tablemates chuckled as they described how his toasts get longer and more emotional every year.  The people at the Smart Table were indeed brainy and accomplished and, also, really, really KIND. There were a married couple of scientists.  There was an urban planner and an architect. Somewhere around my twentieth follow-up question, I forgot about composing my next one.  I was relaxed and simply enjoying the conversation.  We talked about family and farming and books and food and history. I genuinely yearned to know more about them, and they were interested in learning more about me.  One of my tablemates was the twin brother of Madge Melnick.  He described how they and their 6 siblings grew up on a farm in Minnesota.  He explained how their older sister Betty travels every year from Texas to the Melnicks’ house to direct this Thanksgiving extravaganza.  The two sisters spend all week cooking, cleaning, decorating and laughing.  And they love it. By the end of our 2-½ hour dinner together, I was the best of friends with my Smart Table-mates.

A few times during dinner, I looked around to see how my son and husband were faring.  My husband was apparently seated at the “Sports Table”.  He sat with a bunch of other guys, an enormous plate of food before him, near a big-screen TV tuned to one of the football games.  A look of utter contentment on his face – like the cat that just ate the canary.

The first time I looked for my son, I observed he was seated next to the Navy helicopter pilot and there was a clear case of male bonding happening.  He sat in rapt attention as the pilot talked about his experiences at the Academy, post-Academy, at flight training and in his career.  Later in the evening, I noticed my son had moved.  I looked out the window and saw him run by, followed by a younger cousin, and a line of younger Melnick relatives and friends, like the Pied Piper.  It was a massive game of hide and seek.  It made me happy that my only child son was able to have some carefree family playtime.

What we experienced at the Melnicks was pure and genuine hospitality.  At the core is a large close-knit family who love being together and who delight in sharing that kinship with a growing circle of family and friends.  They went to great lengths to make us feel welcome – they even thought in advance what and who each of us would enjoy and tried to surround us with what would make us comfortable.

When Thanksgiving rolled around this year, we were invited and decided to return to the Melnicks.  We pulled up to the house and it was like a family reunion.  We got our bear hugs from Mike and Madge. Little Ella, who was a newborn last year, just celebrated her first birthday and was almost walking. The Navy pilot excitedly told us about his orders to a new duty station.  The tables were all decorated again, this time with little straw pumpkins for place cards. I was delighted to return to the Smart Table.   My husband was at the Sports Table with his old friends near the big-screen. Mike gave his toast and choked up.  It took me a little while to get all the names and relationships refreshed in my brain (revising my mental data banks for any updates) and I expanded my inquiries to unearth new levels of detail about the attendees.

That night, after we returned from Thanksgiving at the Melnicks’, and while it was still fresh in my head, I decided to jot a chart with the names and relationships of the people who were at the gathering.   Partly to save me some time next year, partly just for fun, partly to impress my husband and brother with my savant talent.  But in looking at it, I was struck that this was a family tree with a strong trunk of family relationships, but with significant and sturdy branches of non-blood, long-standing relationships (like my brother) that have become permanent parts of the tree.

I am forever thankful for the Melnicks.  During our son’s time at the Academy, it has been difficult for us to be together at home for Thanksgiving.   We considered either being separated for the holiday or eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant near Annapolis.  Instead, we were deeply blessed by the Melnicks with two warm and cozy family Thanksgivings that we will always treasure.  And to me, Thanksgiving at the Melnicks was a lesson in the true meaning and expression of hospitality, family and compassion that I will never forget.