Accomplished

23 Apr
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Photo credit: Pine & Sea Photography

Throughout my life, I never really considered myself to be accomplished. Sure, I’m good at stuff—I might even be pretty great at a couple of things. But I never thought I was the best at something, until last week, when my daughter, Leah, got married.

Leah is the second of my four children—one of three daughters, and the first to get married. I didn’t have anything to do with the planning of her wedding; not only is Leah creative and artistic, she’s a skilled organizer who puts Marie Kondo to shame. Her now husband, Jeff, is a talented graphic artist, so the two of them (with some help from their talented vendors) were able to pull off a truly amazing wedding celebration without any help from me. Seriously, all I had to do was buy a decent dress and find some pretty shoes that didn’t hurt my feet. I found the dress; the shoes, not so much. Ouch.

It would take too long to list all of the wonderful details and touches Jeff and Leah included in their wedding; let me just say it was beyond anything I could’ve imagined. The venue, the flowers, the music, their vows, the brunch fare (including Krispy Kreme donuts instead of wedding cake) were sublime, in my opinion. And walking Leah down the aisle accompanied by my husband, René, was one of the most joyous occasions of my life (right up there with giving birth four times.)

What impressed me the most over the course of the wedding weekend, were my children. Leah,— it goes without saying—wowed me with everything she managed to do in preparation for the celebration. But my three other kids impressed me as well. They were kind and helpful; solicitous to Leah and her needs, welcoming to Jeff’s family and friends, and generous in so many ways: monetarily, and with their time. What touched me the most, though, was when Nora and Nino gave a toast to Leah during the reception. Standing up together, they expressed their genuine love and appreciation for their sister on her special day. Not only was it humorous, it was so heartfelt that the entire room was in tears.

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Rene, Isa, Nora, and Nino

The love that my children have for each other is inexorable. They support each other fully; they are kind and generous toward each other, they laugh uproariously together. They can always count on each other, no matter what the circumstances. Any most importantly, they love being together—along with us. How lucky are we—that our kids actually enjoy spending time with their parents?

So what I discovered at my daughter’s wedding is that I really am the best at something: being a mother. Somehow, with all of the mistakes I made parenting them, I accomplished something pretty remarkable to have created such lovely children. Perhaps Rene had a little to do with it, too—I guess I’ll have to give him a little credit.

The interesting thing about being the best at being a mom, is that it’s not all that hard. And most of the time it’s kinda fun.

Love you all so much: Nora, Leah, Nino, Isa and now, Jeff.

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Yes, there were dogs involved.

 

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A Dalmatian and a Broken Heart

18 Feb

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This is not a story about a Dalmatian or a Super Bowl commercial, although they both played a part in what caused my mother to end up in the hospital with a broken heart.

My mother, Eleanor Green Winters has worn many hats throughout her 82 years of life: wife, mother of three, manufacturing company president, piano teacher and grandmother. Her most recent hat—or more fittingly—crown, is on her head now because she is the Dalmatian Queen of the West Coast.

My mother got her first Dalmatian when she was ten years old. She adored the spotted breed and had been begging her parents to get her one for months, but was always given a resounding “no.” Then her five-year-old brother, Johnny ran out in the street between two parked cars and was struck by a delivery truck. He and my mother had just had a fight during which she had yelled at him, “You’re a little brat! Why don’t you just go away and leave me alone?” She still remembers hearing the screech of the brakes. She can still see Johnny’s eyes rolling back into his head as he lay on the parkway.

She didn’t go to his funeral. Her parents believed it best that she not witness such a somber and traumatic event. They didn’t understand that she already had. My mother stayed home, her child’s mind hatching a plan to get that Dalmatian. She also simultaneously buried into her subconscious the idea that her brother’s death was somehow her fault. A few days after the funeral she cried to my grief-stricken grandparents, “Now that I don’t have a baby brother anymore, couldn’t I at least have a Dalmatian?” She got her first “Pepper” shortly thereafter.

My mother carried on the “Pepper” tradition into our immediate family. If something terrible happened, a Dalmatian always made things better. When I was seven, my three year brother, Tony was severely burned in an explosion after a neighbor boy made a homemade rocket with his father’s gun powder. After he recovered, Pepper Number 1 came into our lives. Next was Pepper Number 2, who was a bit of a terror breaking out of the backyard to roam the streets looking for garbage treats. Ironically, she was hit by a car during one of her nighttime forays and was killed. My father, not a fan of big dogs that shed great amounts of white hair, was done. A third Dalmatian was out of the question.

During my senior year of college, our family was devastated after my father suddenly died of complications from the flu. My mother was only forty-eight. She drowned her grief in gin martinis and once again hatched a plan. She found an ad in the paper offering Dalmatian puppies and two weeks later I went with her to pick up Pepper Number 3, a blue-eyed beauty with a sweet disposition. We would later discover this Pepper was completely deaf. She understood sign language and was the best watchdog we ever had.

After graduation, I married. My husband and I moved in with my mother while he attended college. We began having children and my mother began having Dalmatian litters. To date, she’s had seventeen litters and 133 Dalmatian puppies. I’ve only had four. Children, that is.

My mother’s Dalmatians are national champions and are bred for their friendly temperament. Her well-bred litters have helped change the bad reputation that Dalmatians have had for many years—that they are unfriendly and not good family dogs. Even if you are a believer in rescuing dogs and not breeding them, dogs still get pregnant and puppies still need to get placed in loving homes. My mother is an expert on the birthing process, so much so that she’s recently written a book called So Your Bitch is Pregnant: Raising your First Litter of Puppies from Pregnancy to Placement.

Mom’s got connections in the Dalmatian world, as well. Last summer she was contacted by a company that trains animals for television commercials. Previously, one of her pups had been in an H&M print ad, so they knew she was the one to call. The company ended up taking my mother’s Dalmatian, Phoebe, and Phoebe’s daughter, Fancy, who was owned by a friend. The company took Phoebe and Fancy away for ten days for training and to film the commercial. My mother knew it was for a Budweiser commercial. What she didn’t know at the time was that it was for the Budweiser Super Bowl commercial. My mother also didn’t know which dog would end up being chosen for the spot. She was told not to say anything about the commercial until it aired. And she didn’t.

Budweiser published their commercial, entitled Wind Never Felt Better on YouTube on January 23, 2019. In the world of advertising, it’s a masterpiece. Phoebe opens the spot with her ears flapping in the wind set to Bob Dylan’s classic song. Mom was over the moon to see that it was indeed Phoebe who had made the cut. The identifying spot on Phoebe’s head was unmistakable. We began to share the commercial on Facebook. Our girl was a star! Two days later a local Santa Barbara newscaster came out to the house to interview mom about the “Dalmatian from Goleta.” It aired on our local network that evening. I’d never seen my mother so happy.

The next morning, the heartbreak began.

Mom received a call from the company that hired Phoebe for the shoot. They were freaking out that our dog was on the news and that we were calling her Phoebe. On their own social media, Budweiser had referred to the dog in the commercial as “April” which is the name of the dog they own. The dog-training company was saying that Budweiser was concerned about the attention Phoebe was getting as the Dalmatian in the Super Bowl commercial. The animal training company wanted us to remove all of our social media posts. We took down everything from our own pages, but there was no way we could stop all the sharing that had been occurring on Facebook.

I’ve never seen my mother so upset. Her hands were shaking and she could barely speak. She thought that it was all her fault; that she was responsible for causing problems for the animal training company, not to mention, Budweiser. No one ever told her that she shouldn’t talk about the commercial after it aired, or that she couldn’t say Phoebe was in the commercial. She figured that since it was on YouTube, it was considered aired.

That day was a nightmare. My mother’s blood pressure skyrocketed. She had a major anxiety attack. She finally got word that Budweiser saw the news spot and were fine with it. They asked only that my mother wait until after the Super Bowl commercial aired before she talk any more about it. Even though several news organizations had already contacted her for interviews, she agreed to wait until after the Super Bowl to talk about Phoebe and the commercial.

The following morning, my mother was chatting with a friend on the phone when she started slurring her words. She had trouble forming complete sentences. We thought she was having a stroke. We rushed her to the hospital where they informed us she was experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack. We explained to the doctors about what had transpired the day before and they said it might be something called Takotsubo syndrome, also known as “Broken Heart Syndrome,” which mimics an actual heart attack. This syndrome is only temporary; it’s caused by a sudden stressful situation—often by the death of a loved one. That evening Mom had an angiogram to rule out any coronary blockages. We were relieved to learn there were no blockages and no sign of an actual heart attack.

I can honestly say that my mother was the most popular patient in the hospital that night. The doctors and nurses adored her because she has such a wonderful sense of humor (translation: potty mouth.) And she couldn’t stop bubbling about Phoebe and the Budweiser Super Bowl commercial, as well as the recent publication of her book. The cardiologist told me she was a “breath of fresh air after a very long day of surgeries.”

My mother has now completely recovered, although she still has moments of panic, thinking she’s done something terrible that she can’t fix. She’s been thinking a lot about the connection between what happened to her 75 years ago and her obsession with Dalmatians. How it’s so difficult for her handle any kind of adversity without thinking it’s her fault. Through this experience, she’s realized that she still hasn’t dealt with the deep emotional scars regarding her little brother’s death.

Broken heart or not, my mother is a strong, charismatic woman who still has much to share with the world. Her love of dogs knows no bounds, and her knowledge of the Dalmatian breed is unparalleled. She deserves all the accolades she has received.

Wear that black and white crown with pride, Mom. You are the Dalmatian Queen, and Phoebe is your Super Bowl princess.

Mom will have her book signing at Chaucer’s Bookstore in Santa Barbara this coming Thursday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m.

Happy

3 Jan

 

img_3936I’ve spent much of my life waiting for something to make me happy. If only ________ (fill in the blank) would happen, I’d be happy. If only I had________, everything would be all right. If only I could do _________I’d be fulfilled forever.

IF ONLY, IF ONLY, IF ONLY!

If and when the IF ONLY finally comes to pass (and it does happen occasionally) I’m content for a nanosecond. Then I’m right back to where I was before, hoping and wishing and dreaming of something better.

The other day my husband, René and I were driving somewhere together I must have let out a sigh. He turned to me and said, “You know, Jess—trying to be happy all the time is unrealistic. We may strive to find happiness—we may even have joyful moments here and there, but most of the time, every single one of us is struggling. And it’s okay to be sad. It’s human nature.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what he said, particularly because it’s frequently an internal battle for me to find constant happiness. Because I have so much to be grateful for, I feel guilty if I’m not blissful.

Of course I blame my parents. During my loosey-goosey 1970’s childhood, their philosophy was to promote an unrealistic idea of constant sweetness and light—no negativity allowed whatsoever. Happiness was a must—even if we had to fake it. All the while my poor, depressed father drank himself into oblivion every night.

Looking back on his short life (he died at 53) I understand now that he was faking it as well. While struggling daily with his ADHD and severe depression, he tamped down his creative side, trading it in for familial responsibility. I’m sure I’ve inherited some of my melancholy from him, although I’ve been lucky enough to also inherit some of his creativity. Even with all of the childhood angst I experienced, I’m grateful to him and my mother for giving me a life of privilege. I’m thankful I’ve been able to pass that good life down to my own children.

My goal for the coming year is to let go of this unrealistic idea that I must be happy all of the time. I’m going to allow myself to feel sad sometimes. Perhaps this will allow me to truly enjoy those moments of happiness that do come my way. And when they appear, I won’t have to fake it. I’ll allow the happiness fill my soul to the brim.

And when it’s full, I’ll let it spill out into the world.

Happy New Year, my dear readers. You indeed make me happy.

I thank you for that.

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This is me, not faking it.


 

 

Fierce

10 Dec
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photo credit: Kay Bess


Forty-four years ago, an insecure twelve-year old named Jessie stepped foot onto the campus of her junior high school and instantly realized the outfit her mother had bought for her at Sears was all wrong. She nervously tucked a strand of frizzy hair behind one ear before scratching at a group of pimples threatening to erupt on her chin. She felt like crying.

Her previous elementary school friendships had faded away over the summer and Jessie’s main concern that day was that she would end up eating lunch by herself. As noontime approached, her fear intensified. Then something wonderful happened. A pretty, brown-haired angel named Julie sat down next to her in English class and struck up a conversation. She invited Jessie to each lunch with her group.

It was the beginning of a miracle. A miracle that has continued to this day.

After graduation from high school, our friendships ebbed and flowed. Back then we had no social media, making it more difficult to stay in touch. We attended each other’s weddings and baby showers, but as a complete group we didn’t really bind to each other until my mother threw me a surprise 35th birthday party and secretly invited my nine best girlfriends. I don’t think we’ve ever laughed as hard as we did at that party, pouring over old yearbooks and reminiscing about our high school days. I believe it was then that we decided to make it a priority to meet up at least once a year near the holidays. What began as a dinner out eventually turned into an annual three day vacation trip.

Today we are closer than ever, mostly because of our shared history. More importantly, as we age, we find we need each other more. As our marriages end, as our children grow up and leave us; as our bodies begin to fail, we know that we can rely each other for love and support. No one knows me as well as these nine women do. We are free to reveal our true selves without fear of judgement or recrimination. Our secrets, once spilled to the group, are tucked away into the “vault” for all time.

This December, we traveled to Avila Beach and stayed in a lovely house. We had massages and facials. We cooked incredible meals together. We went on walks and bike rides together. We sang, some of us off key, some of us forgetting the words. We laughed so hard we cried.

I still find myself in awe of this unbreakable bond of friendship. When that nervous and insecure twelve year-old Jessie rears up inside my head I sometimes feel lost and afraid. But as soon as I’m with my girls, my strength returns. Because of them, I feel anchored. Because of them, I feel loved.

Because of them I feel fierce.

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Lunch together at Avila Beach, California

Dream Come True

5 Nov

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Two and a half years ago I sent out my first query letter for my novel, Lost in Oaxaca. Over the course of that time I’ve received more standard rejection emails than I can count (actually I did count them but I’m mortified to admit to you how many are clogging my inbox.) I experienced some lovely moments of hope after receiving a handful of requests from agents to read the full manuscript. Then I was over the moon when the head of a reputable New York literary agency said she was “this close” to adding me to her list. She ultimately chose to decline.

One agent said I’d written “a well-crafted novel” and gave me some helpful advice. Another said she loved the book but had no idea how to market me. I’m not famous. I have no brand. These days, traditional publishing relies so much on who the author is, or what she looks like—it’s no longer focused solely on the writing. I totally get it. What traditional agency would want to take a chance on a middle-aged piano teacher who has hardly published anything?

All hope is not lost, though. I didn’t spend five years of my life writing/editing a novel to give up that easily. I’ve decided to head in a different direction. Come hell or high water, this novel is getting published.

The exciting news is that Lost in Oaxaca was recently accepted by Spark Press Publications, a hybrid agency that selects its authors based solely on the quality of the writing. https://gosparkpress.com/about/.

I know your first thought is that this is merely a vanity press—that anyone with enough cash can get their work published, not matter how good (or bad) it is. After much research, I’ve learned that this is definitely not the case. While I do have to finance the publication, I don’t have to worry about navigating all the difficult details of publishing.  Those details most likely would have led to a mental breakdown had I decided to self-publish. Keeping my sanity is worth the cost.

I’m a late bloomer. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was in my early fifties. With a family and a full time job, I don’t have a heck of a lot of time left over to write, let alone market my novel. This might be my only chance, so I’m going for it.

Barring any unforeseen problems, Lost in Oaxaca should come out in sometime in 2020.

Watch for the movie version shortly after that.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

 

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Middle Aged Bliss

29 Aug

img_3203These days, my head is in the clouds. I’ve completely lost my motivation to get anything done. I’ll sit down at the computer to write, and the next thing I know, I’m on Facebook, sobbing over clips of returning soldiers reunited with their dogs, or the smiling faces of babies fitted with hearing aids for the first time. I’ll put on my tennis shoes to go for a walk but before I even get out of the yard, I’m busy picking a bouquet of flowers for the dining room table. If I glance at my phone to check the time, I may lose thirty minutes scrolling through Instagram or Facebook. Don’t even ask about watching CNN at the top of each hour. I mean seriously, the day will be gone in an instant.

Some days, I lie on the couch listening to James Taylor snuggling with my two dogs. Other days, I’ll spend three hours binge watching a British detective series. I crave sweet and salty snacks. I get cranky and pick fights with my husband. I press my thirteen year-old daughter for stories of junior high drama, but damn her, she’s above all that teenage gossip stuff. I long for weekends away with my girlfriends. Nothing pleases me more than having the house all to myself.

Oh, Lord. I’m heading toward sixty and I’m turning back into a teenage girl again.

Perhaps my behavior is in response to getting older. In my head I count how many more years I have left on this earth. Thirty, forty? However many, I’m afraid it’s never going to be enough. I’m having so much fun being an adult. Even though my knees ache as I climb the stairs, even though white hairs snake up out of my head like Medusa, and even though I have actual jowls, I truly love my life.

Here’s the thing: I’m so much happier now than when I was as a teenager. My body may have been perfect back then, but I was an insecure wreck, always caring about what others thought of me. Today I have the luxury of not worrying about what I’m going to do with my life because I’ve already done it! I have an awesome career. My husband adores me, my kids love me, and I have so many wonderful friends who like to go out to lunch with me.

Middle age rocks.

So I’ll take an Advil or two and plop my butt down on the couch. I’ll text a girlfriend and arrange a lunch date. Maybe I’ll daydream about my future grandchildren. And then there’s that new Netflix original movie based on one of my favorite novels (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society, if you must know.)

It’s time to watch it for a third time.

Enough

11 Jul

Every time I turn on the television, I think it can’t get worse. Then it does. I’m scared for our country. I’m scared for our democracy.

I’m scared for human kind.

I’m tired of watching clips of people treating others unkindly. I’m tired of folks calling the police on people because of the color of their skin. I’m horrified about what’s happening at the border. I’m exhausted from the anger I feel very time the president opens his mouth.

My head is about to explode. I’ve had enough.

Today, I’m taking a break.

For the rest of the day, I will try my best to focus on all the good things around me. Because right now, it’s all I got.

Here are a few photos of the things that bring me joy.

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She’s going to kill me for posting this, but I will anyway. This face makes me happy, even when it’s looking down at an iPhone screen. Oh, to be thirteen again!

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Pink, cotton candy smoke coming out of our chimney. 

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The view out my upstairs window. My neighbor probably won’t appreciate me taking photos of her house, but the color of this Bougainvillea is just so beautiful.

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My younger brother recently gave me this adorable handmade birdhouse for the garden.               I love it.

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Leo pretending he doesn’t care who wins the World Cup.

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My husband’s family at his sister’s recent memorial. No matter what you think about immigration, this is America. 

Good always conquers evil. And there is so much good to see if we just look for it. Tomorrow is another day and when I turn on the television, I’ll probably find myself angry again.

But not today. Today, it’s all about finding the good.

Maybe take a moment and find yours.

Worry

7 May

“When I look back on all these worries, img_2382I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”

–Winston Churchill

You’d think that I would have learned my lesson after all these years. But I haven’t. I still wake up in the middle of the night, riddled with worry about the things that I have little control over. My go-to worry is usually about money—that’s there never enough of it—though compared to the rest of the world, my standard of living is in the top one percent. I worry about our house being eaten by termites. I worry about my weight and my health. I worry about politics (who doesn’t?) I worry about my kids, my husband and my aging mother. I worry that I’ll never find an agent for my book—that people are sick to death hearing about me and my dumb novel and how I can’t find an agent who loves it enough to sign me.

I worry that I’m not a good enough writer.

I lived with some form of worry my entire life, most of it pointless. Almost eleven years ago, my worry turned to terror when our daughter, Isa was diagnosed with cancer. Now, that was truly something to worry about. And boy, did I ever get good at it. For almost three years, I carried a tight ball of fear in my gut that never went away, not even for a moment. And when it was all over and Isa was cured, the worry slowly began to dissipate. I was left with this incredible sense of relief. Everything was sweeter and brighter and more joyful. I began to practice feeling grateful.

I stopped worrying and I found my passion.

I began to write.

And I’ve kept at it. Over the past six years, I’ve written 135 blog posts, published two essays (in actual magazines) and even earned $75 for one of them. I’ve managed to send out my annual Holiday newsletter. Every. Single. Frickin. Year. I’ve become friends with many amazing writers (virtually and in person.) And I wrote an entire novel, which most of the time I think is pretty good if I’m feeling generous toward myself.

But in the process of following my literary bliss (and the subsequent rejection I’ve faced with my efforts of trying to get published) I’ve allowed the worry to come back. I began practicing self-doubt instead of self-appreciation. I’d forgotten that what’s important is the path, not the destination (trite, but true.) I’ve been so focused on getting to the end of my journey that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy all the beautiful things in my periphery along the way.

The worry attached herself again. She’s kept me up at night with her tortuous ways.

Eleven years ago, she held onto me so tightly that I could barely breathe. I learned to beat her back. And I’ll do it again. She’s a tough one, but I’m tougher.

Bring it on, Bitch.

Glorious Spring!

18 Apr

Spring is my favorite season. This one has turned out to be particularly spectacular. The photos don’t lie! Hope you enjoy them!

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Fragrant Nicotiana (Flowering Tobacco) has the most incredible scent!

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These Delphinium are such a vibrant blue!

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If only you could smell these sweet peas!

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California Poppies closed up for the evening.

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Foxglove. My favorite English Flower.

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A mass of fragrant color!

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Mexican Primrose and Linaria.

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PINK!

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Jupiter’s Beard

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I’m like a kid in a candy store.

Engagement

28 Mar

img_2367As I grow older, I find myself becoming more reclusive. When many of my close friends are excitedly planning their next big trip to Asia or Europe, I prefer to stay home, puttering in my flower garden or lying on the couch reading a good book. The thought of planning a travel itinerary and lugging suitcases through busy airports exhausts me. Introverted as I am though, I can occasionally be talked into taking a short road trip. Especially when my teenage daughter, Isa uses her formidable powers of persuasion to convince me to get out of the house.

Isa chose San Francisco. Before long, the entire family had decided to go along for the three day trip. Then, a few weeks ago my daughter’s boyfriend pulled me aside during a weekend visit.

“Just so you know,” he said, “I’m planning to ask Leah to marry me. I know she would want you all there and I think this trip to San Francisco is the perfect time to do it.” He did add a caveat that he wasn’t asking us if he could marry her. After all, Leah is her own person and not our property. He knew if would go against her principles if he asked our “permission.” This guy knows my daughter well. All in all, a very good sign.

An elaborate plan was set in motion. Although we were as secretive as we could be, Leah had to have known something was up because she happily agreed to go along with every suggestion we made. We somehow managed to get her to the beautiful San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts where Jeff was nervously waiting with the ring, their two dogs, and a professional photographer. After weeks of heavy rain, the day, though a bit chilly, was gloriously sunny. We got to hang back and watch the entire event unfold. Pure magic.

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Our trip was a blast. Other than a slight snafu which included not realizing that the Airbnb we had reserved was “owner occupied” and that our hosts would not be leaving, everything went smoothly. Did I mention that our hosts decided to cook garlic and cabbage at 10 p.m. on Sunday night? And that the smell was so strong we had to sleep with the windows open? It was the one and only time I actually welcomed the frigid San Francisco air.

We took the ferry to Alcatraz, walked over the Golden Gate Bridge, and spent too much money at the renowned City Lights Bookstore. We visited the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. We had an unbelievably delicious lunch at Nicks, a vegan Filipino restaurant in Daly City. We drove down the coast to Big Sur’s The River Inn for another lovely dinner by the water. With the recent rains the scenery was popping with vibrant color.

 

I continuously count my blessings that my children are my friends. There are no other people I’d rather spend time with. And now we are beyond fortunate to add another son to the mix. Luckily, Jeff possesses the exact amount of crazy to fit right in. And he loves my daughter, which makes him a crazy genius.

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                                Love, in all forms, is what allows us to breathe.

Congratulations, Leah and Jeff. Now, let’s plan a wedding!