My Forever Home

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You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.
– Maya Angelou 

You can’t go home again isn’t just metaphorical for many people.  The first home I ever knew–the married student housing apartments where I lived with my parents until I was four years old–was demolished not long ago to make way for intramural sports fields.  The last home I lived in was burned nearly to the ground, destroying almost everything we owned.

burned down house

At this time of year, hearts turn toward home, and I am no different–but I find myself longing for places that are no longer available.  I was fortunate to live in the same neighborhood for most of my childhood.  My closest cousins and my maternal grandparents lived there too, and my paternal grandmother lived across town.  Holidays followed a predictable, safe pattern:  Thanksgiving lunch at Mima’s and supper at Granny’s, then Christmas morning at Mima’s and Christmas afternoon at Granny’s.  That was the way it was for 22 years, until divorces and deaths intervened.   Until recently, one childhood house remained:  my mother had been living in her mother’s old house.  When she sold it earlier this year, the last link remaining to that childhood stability was gone.

As the oldest in my family of birth and the first one to have a family of my own, providing a home for the holidays has most often fallen to me, and I hope that my children have fond memories of those days even though the places and patterns have shifted over time.  My favorite adult holiday memories took place in the Victorian house where we lived for eight years.  Despite its somewhat decrepit condition, with its large formal spaces it was ideal for entertaining.  It was the house for which we collected not-quite-antique furniture, piece by piece, the one we decorated with portraits of our children and religious icons.  To me it was my dream house, and when we had to move out for financial reasons I was devastated.  No house has really felt like home to me since.

Victorian House

For the two years after that, we were renting a house that never felt comfortable or safe.  Part of that, I think, was because it was not really ours and we weren’t sure how long we would be able to stay there.  When it burned down, destroying everything, it was the completion of the loss that began with our move.

Since that happened four years ago, I feel I have been trying to regain a sense of home.  We are still renting, but we have plans to buy the house we have lived in since just a few weeks after the fire.  I have started gardening again, putting down literal roots.  But I struggle with decorating, acquiring knickknacks, hanging pictures, really committing.

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Almost everything in the house–right down to the dishes we eat from and the sheets on the beds–was given to us.  We are surrounded by reminders of the love of the people in our various communities every day.

And that’s part of what made me realize that to me, home has come to mean something other than a house.  When I think of home, I think of Knoxville, my hometown, where I have spent all but five years of my life, the place where I was married and where all my babies were born.  Whenever I return from a vacation, my heart feels a little lighter as soon as I cross the Tennessee line.  The road sign that reads Knoxville – 12 miles always lifts my spirits.  And probably the most welcoming sight in the world to me is the Knoxville skyline, with my own parish church at the very front, visible on the interstate as we drive through town.

IC from CP

My roots in this town are deep–my father’s people have lived in this area since the 1700s.  Even though my husband has only lived here 25 years, he has put down roots as well.  I may not know in what house we will be celebrating the holidays five or ten or twenty years from now, but I know the party will be in Knoxville, my forever home.

Home to Me

This post is part of the “Home to Me” blog hop, hosted by Julie Walsh of These Walls. During the two weeks from Friday, November 13 through Thanksgiving Day, more than a dozen bloggers will share about what the concept of “home” means to them. “Home” can been elusive or steady. It can be found in unexpected places. It is sought and cherished and mourned. It is wrapped up in the people we love. As we turn our minds and hearts toward home at the beginning of this holiday season, please visit the following blogs to explore where/what/who is “Home to Me.”

November 13 – Julie @ These Walls

November 14 – Leslie @ Life in Every Limb

November 15 – Ashley @ Narrative Heiress

November 16 – Rita @ Open Window

November 17 – Svenja, guest posting @ These Walls

November 18 – Anna @ The Heart’s Overflow

November 19 – Debbie @ Saints 365

November 20 – Melissa @ Stories My Children Are Tired of Hearing

November 21 – Amanda @ In Earthen Vessels

November 22 – Daja and Kristina @ The Provision Room

November 23 – Emily @ Raising Barnes

November 24 – Annie @ Catholic Wife, Catholic Life

November 25 – Nell @ Whole Parenting Family

November 26 – Geena @ Love the Harringtons

nablopomo

#LoveYourLawyerDay: Why I Love My Lawyer (and It’s Not Just Because I Am Married to Him)

So today is Love Your Lawyer Day, which you can read about here.

Y’all, this is not a joke.  Now, we are not a hyper-sensitive bunch here, and we can laugh at a good lawyer joke now and again, but the constant vilification of the members of the legal profession can get a little tiresome.

Especially if you know MY lawyer.

Law School Graduation edited

My lawyer works hard for his clients every day.  Even though he is appointed to represent many of them by the State of Tennessee, which means they are not the ones paying him.  Even though the aforementioned State of Tennessee has not seen fit to give appointed attorneys a raise in 20 years.  Even though attorneys who represent the poor in Tennessee are among the lowest paid in the entire United States.

But if you are a poor person being represented by MY lawyer, you would never know that.  Even when he has reached the cap for your case, or the cap for the calendar year, and is working for FREE.  He will keep working, and he will keep looking out for your interests, and he will give your case the same attention he gives to that of his paying clients.

My lawyer treats his clients with respect and dignity.  Most seasoned attorneys do very little indigent defense work because it is not profitable.  My lawyer is proud to be able to provide his indigent clients with the benefit of his over twenty years of experience.  He stands up for them against a system that is often unfair to them just because they are poor.

My lawyer cares deeply about the neglected kids he represents as Guardian ad Litem.  He visits their homes and takes the time to form a relationship with them.  He talks to teachers and counselors if necessary.  He takes very seriously his job of determining what is in their best interests.

My lawyer worries about the fate of his juvenile clients.  He knows that they are just kids, and that kids do stupid things.  He knows that many of them have had the deck stacked against them from the start.

My lawyer always sends out his bills late because he is too busy taking care of his clients to take the time to review and initial them.  He is not in this for the money (though luckily for our family I am the administrator of this office and I am not as altruistic as he is).  He is always lowering his rates, giving people deals, cutting their bills, offering payment plans, forgetting to record all his time, doing things for free.

My lawyer answers his phone at night and on weekends, even if he is trying to rest, unless I turn the ringer off.

My lawyer doesn’t have a fancy office downtown.  He works at home so that he can spend more time with his family.  Even though he ALWAYS has work to do, he makes time to come to every school function, meeting, or conference.

My lawyer looks like a lawyer.  Seriously, he gets stopped on the street and asked if he is a lawyer! He wears suits every day, which he likes to accessorize with seasonal ties and socks.

My lawyer is a good lawyer, even though he doesn’t always think so.  His hard work pays off and he gets good results for his clients.  People who have legal troubles are not happy, and they aren’t legal professionals, so often they are not as appreciative as they should be.  They don’t always pay their bills, even when they are very satisfied.  But he keeps right on doing his best for them.

My lawyer is my husband and my best friend.  He is a good lawyer and a good man, and he deserves a day like this.

If you have your own lawyer, show him or her a little love today.  And if you don’t, I can recommend a great one.

John with Cat

##LoveYourLawyerDay

nablopomo

What Not to Say to the Parent of a Picky Eater

What NOT to Say to the Parent of a Picky Eater

You know, I’m not really a big fan of all those “what not to say” posts.  Because I think that most of the time people mean well, and the people who don’t mean well are going to keep right on saying whatever they want to anyway.

But hey! There’s a first time for everything, right? And today I feel like ranting about What Not to Say to the Parent (that would be me) of a Picky Eater (that would be William).

So what should you not say?  Probably pretty much anything you are thinking of saying.  Just don’t say it.  Because William is 14, and you can be pretty sure that whatever you are dying to tell me I already know about and it won’t work.  If you want a list:

  1. Don’t tell me he won’t grow or that he will be malnourished.  He is almost 6 feet tall, he’s had his blood checked, he takes a vitamin every day, and I cannot remember a time he had to visit a doctor for an actual illness.
  2. Don’t tell me that if I just don’t give him the food he wants he will eat the other foods I want him to.  There are things that William will NEVER eat.
  3. Don’t tell me to force him to eat vegetables or else.  See above.
  4. Don’t tell me that I’ve spoiled him by not making him eat whatever you think he should eat.  When you have a child who is this picky, you feed him whatever he will eat because he needs calories, even nutritionally inferior calories.
  5. Don’t tell me what YOU would do if you were me.  Let’s make a deal, okay? You do what works for you with your kids, and I’ll do what works for me with mine.

How picky is William?  He won’t eat any vegetables except baby corn cobs.  He won’t eat any fruits.  He likes pasta with salt and pepper, but only angel hair (spaghetti under duress).  He won’t eat hamburgers, pizza, or macaroni and cheese.  He likes crab, canned tuna, most chicken, rice, Asian food, ice cream, milk, some juice, bread, and most (but not all!) sweet things.  This isn’t a complete list, but you get the idea.  William’s pickiness is difficult enough that it has an impact on his life and his family’s.

William has ALWAYS been picky.  This is not my fault.  I did not do anything different with him than I did with my first three kids, who are now grownups who eat pretty much everything, and who were not particularly picky as children.  Shortly after I introduced William to solids, he started spitting out his baby food.  In would go the spoon, then squash (or whatever) would spew through the air.  It didn’t matter what I tried.  Even bananas! What baby doesn’t like those?

It’s a good thing that he was breastfed, because that continued (no lie!) to be his main source of nourishment until he was about two.  For a long time the only things he would eat were butter and sugar sandwiches and he wouldn’t drink cow’s milk unless it was sweetened too.  So really, I look at what he eats now and feel like we’ve come a long way.

I realize now that William wasn’t just going through some kind of phase like I assumed back then, and that this isn’t something that he is growing out of like I’d hoped.  He has actual issues that cause his eating difficulties, and had I realized this back when he was a baby there were likely therapies that could have helped.  But I cannot beat myself up for what I did not know, and now William is an adolescent who can try new foods himself if he decides that he wants to.
NaBloPoMo November 2015

ATTACK of the Yellow Jackets!

Let me start by issuing a warning:  if you ever see a hole in the ground, don’t stick your foot in to see how deep it is. Just don’t.

It started off well–a family birthday party at my mother’s house.  My little niece wanted me to take her out into the back yard, which I was happy to do.  She immediately took off running, at which point I was warned by several people to watch out because there are some strange holes in the yard that might cause her to fall.

Just then I happened upon one of said holes.  We have some holes in our backyard as well, left over (I assume) from a play structure belonging to the last people who lived here (who had even more kids than we do!).  I once had an unpleasant encounter with one of those holes while mowing the grass, so I was wondering how deep and dangerous this particular one was, and I stuck my toe in it to check.

The next thing I know I felt a sharp pain in my calf and registered that I’d been stung.  Before I could even confirm this through visual evidence I felt another sting on my hand.  This time I saw the yellow jacket and moved away.  Of course I yelled, and Emily and my little niece came over to see the boo-boo.  I was in the middle of assuring them that although it hurt I was okay, when Emily said. “There are more on you.”

At this point we enter into Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” territory, as I order Emily–the only adult in the yard at the time–to get them off me right now, while she is backing away (sensibly) to protect the baby.  I believe I got (a little) hysterical, drawing an audience in the screened porch above.  My mother may have advised me to quiet down and I advised her in return with restraint (meaning no profanity) that I was unable to comply being covered in stinging insects.

Somehow William came to the rescue and apparently whacked them off of me, killing several. (I say apparently because I was kind of yelling and crying–not because I was being stung but because I was scared–and I don’t remember much.)  He told me afterwards that there were many of them on my pants and shirt and a few on my neck and in my hair.  It’s actually pretty amazing that none of them stung me the way I was carrying on at the time.

Of course I wanted nothing more than to run inside and escape them but we couldn’t risk my taking them into the house with me.  My mother came out and got off the last few.  She is one of those people who keeps a cool head in a crisis.  Even so, I brought one live one and one dead one inside.

My little sister made me baking soda paste to anoint the stings (which didn’t help much, contrary to my experience with regular bee and wasp stings).  My sweet little niece was extremely concerned about my boo-boos for the rest of the afternoon.  For most everyone else, the terrifying event was quickly reduced to “Well, thank God YOU got stung and not the baby!” with a side of  “What is that white powder all over the floor?”

As for me, I was still in considerable pain hours later, luckily, thanks to William, from only two stings! And as for the yellow jackets, they were treated to a bottle full of soapy water, which is supposed to do away with them, but I have a feeling no one is going to be playing in my mother’s back yard for a while!

ATTACK

Fall, Family, and Football at Notre Dame

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I told y’all we’ve been traveling a lot lately–one trip each month since May–and last weekend was our October trip.  Thanks to the generosity of one of my oldest and dearest friends, we had tickets to the Notre Dame vs. USC game, so we headed up for some football and a visit with Teddy, who is a Junior now.

This was my third visit to Notre Dame–John and I brought Teddy up to begin his college career, and then I returned that Spring for Moms’ Weekend.  John was the one who drove him up to see the campus when he was in high school, and he’s been up briefly to pick him up a few times, but since Teddy has a car now we hadn’t had any reason to visit since his first year.

We left on Friday with the idea of arriving early.  Can I laugh at our hopeful plans?  First we couldn’t even make it out of Knoxville for one reason or another until almost two hours after we left our house.  Then en route we had to sit unmoving for 1.5 hours because of a wreck that shut down the bridge over the Ohio River.  So it was after 9 p.m. when we finally arrived.  We blundered about a bit because I was driving and I can’t see so well in the dark until we were able to find the parking lot where Teddy wanted to meet us so we could have a late dinner together.

I got my hugs, which is my favorite part, and we had a good time talking over supper.  Teddy probably would have been good to hang out some more but we are old and tired and still had to get to our hotel (12 miles away because football).

The football game was a night game, with kickoff at 7:30 p.m., so I asked Teddy what time we would need to arrive at the game.  He said tailgating started by noon (actually, it starts even earlier!).  I asked who was having a tailgate? “Everyone,” he answered.  I asked which ones we were going to, and he replied, “All of them.”

Well, that turned out to be an exaggeration, but it was still pretty amazing.  We made a trip to the bookstore first–which was predictably a zoo, but I needed a sweatshirt–and then spent about five hours taking in the spectacle that is Notre Dame tailgating.

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The pictures really don’t give a sense of the full scope of the thing, with an enormous parking lot pretty much completely given over to revelry.  Tents, televisions, generators, tiki bars, rows and rows of porta-potties, food of all kinds (we sampled brats, burgers, and burritos, to name just a few), and naturally freely-flowing alcohol (insert Irish stereotype here).

I’m not a seasoned tailgater, so perhaps the above isn’t so unusual, but there were definitely some uniquely Notre Dame touches:

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The tents we visited were hosted by parents of Teddy’s friends, many of whom attend all the home games.  It was good to meet them, and also to talk to Teddy’s friends and hear them say nice things about him.  And to see him get irritated when they heard us calling him Teddy instead of Theo (his preference) and tried to follow suit.

We were ready to head to the stadium before Teddy was, him having no interest in the pre-game activities.  So around 6:30 we left the party and headed over.  To me it was a thrill just to enter the stadium.  Not that anything can top Neyland Stadium here in Knoxville, but there’s just something about Notre Dame football.

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It was sunset when we arrived, and not too cold yet, but that was soon to change.

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We were pleased with our seats–we had a good view of the field and of the famous Touchdown Jesus.

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All colleges have special traditions and ways of doing things.  Notre Dame may have more than most.  Of course I appreciated that when the players run out onto the field they all fall to their knees at the end of the field and pray before the game begins.  Yet there was no invocation before the game–perhaps that’s a Southern thing?  Every time they announced their fight song they let us know that it’s the best one ever (I forget the exact words they use but the phrase is always the same).  In general, Notre Dame fans and for that matter their alumni seem more insanely devoted than people from other schools.

Anyway, we enjoyed the new experience–and the win–but not the rapidly falling temperature; it was 37 degrees by the time the game was over and we went to find Teddy.  There was still some tailgating going on–one of our hosts sang an Irish tune for us before we headed back to our car.  Thankfully, Teddy lives off campus just a short walk away, and was able to get us free parking there; non-residents normally pay $35 on game days.

The next morning we drove back to campus to hang out with Teddy for a little while, which gave me an opportunity to take some Fall pictures:

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We ended up at the Grotto to say a prayer before heading back to Knoxville.

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There were no blocked bridges on the way home, thankfully.

We will visit Notre Dame again for Junior Parents’ Weekend in February, after which you will likely be seeing some pictures of a snow-covered campus!

Fall, Family, and Football

Who Doesn’t Love a Good Wedding?

I remember a time when it seemed like we were always going to weddings.  Next came the baby showers.  Lately, it seems it’s always funerals.  It’s the circle of life and all, I realize (and I do love a good funeral, as I may have mentioned a time or two!).  But I’m ready to circle back to weddings (and my big kids are not quite there yet).

So I was excited to be able to be at my cousin’s wedding in Nashville last weekend, which left me with all those warm feelings you get when you attend a wedding where the bride and groom obviously really love each other (as opposed to that other kind where you leave thinking, “Well, that will never last.”).

I wanted to share a few pictures with you so you could feel all warm and fuzzy too.  But first, just a little background: My mother has one sister, and this cousin is her only son (he has three sisters).  Eight years younger than me, he was the only boy in our family.  I remember thinking he was a wild little thing, but that was before I had three boys of my own!

We grew up living in the same neighborhood, where our grandparents also lived, and we saw each other pretty much every day for many years.  But then they moved to a new neighborhood, and then I went away to college, and Jeff grew up and moved to Nashville, and our grandmother died, and what with one thing and another I think it may have been five years since I’d seen Jeff, at his father’s funeral.  And other than his oldest sister, whom I talk to regularly, it had been a while since I’d spent time with anyone else in his family either.  So it was a real honor to be able to share this special day with them and to get to visit just a little bit, and to meet his beautiful bride who we are all so happy to have in our family.

Now for the pictures!

Jeff and Quinn were married at an historic church near downtown, so first some pictures of that:

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I just have a few highlights of the people walking in to share:  my aunt Mary Leslie (only we call her Aunt Mezzie because that’s what my mother came up with as a child) with her husband, David, who was also the best man; the adorable flower girl; and of course the bride and her father.

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Next we have the proud father in the process of giving his daughter away, and then we have the newly married couple processing out (I really love that one!). 🙂

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The reception was at Union Station downtown, an impressive location.  I’ll share just a couple of pictures with you.  Please note the FOUR (delicious) cakes.  When I remarked to one of the gentlemen cutting them that I had never been to a wedding with four cakes, he replied, “I’ve never served at a wedding with four cakes!” (They were chocolate, almond, caramel, and lemon, if you were curious.)


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And now on to living happily ever after. 🙂

The Fairest of Them All

Lorelei is all about making videos lately.  She has her own YouTube channel, with a weekly posting schedule, and she has custody of my iPhone more than I do.  Today she was telling me that she no longer enjoys watching the videos made by one of her subscribers, because they all involve makeup, whether she is putting it on her American Girl dolls or herself.
“You know what I really don’t like, Mommy?” Lorelei asked me. “Before she puts on her makeup, she says ‘Ugly!’  And she isn’t ugly.”
My heart sank.  The little girl she was talking about is ten years old, just like Lorelei.  She shouldn’t be wearing makeup AT ALL, in my opinion, let alone thinking that she is ugly without it.
When I was a little girl, my Catholic school did not allow us to wear makeup (a policy they should have maintained, if you ask me).  I did not start wearing makeup until the middle of my first year of high school, and most of the other girls didn’t wear much either.
By the time I graduated from high school, though, I wore makeup daily–eyeliner, shadow, mascara, blush, lipstick, powder.  I didn’t go out without “fixing my face.”
I think it was after I started having kids that one day I realized that I thought of my naked face as ugly.  And I didn’t like that.  I knew it was wrong to think that my real face, the one that God gave me, was too unsightly for the outside world to view unless I “fixed” it first.
So you know what I did?
I stopped wearing makeup.  I stopped wearing makeup until I could look at my naked face and see “normal” instead of “ugly” when I looked at my reflection.
These days, I wear makeup for church (if I’m not running late) or for special occasions.  When I put it on I feel dressed up and fancy and pretty, but I don’t feel ugly when I don’t.
I told Lorelei all of this, but she still seemed a little anxious when she showed me a picture of the little girl in question–a BEFORE picture. “See, Mommy?  Isn’t she pretty?”
Of course I said she was, and it was true.  A ten-year-old face cannot be improved by makeup.
If you ask Lorelei (as I often do), “Who’s the prettiest girl in the world?” she’ll promptly respond, “ME!” and she might even add, “In the UNIVERSE!”  What’s wonderful is that she believes it.  When she gets on the scale it’s in the hopes that she will have GAINED weight because she’s proud of how big she is growing and she will tell that number to anyone who asks her.  She might even volunteer it.
I don’t want the world to take that confidence away from her.  But I know it will.
The Prettiest Girl in the Universe

REVIEW: A Weekend of Ripley’s Fun in Gatlinburg (SPONSORED)

Happily, none of the attractions I wrote about below were damaged by the recent wildfires. Please make plans to visit soon to support the business owners and the local economy.  I know I will never take it all for granted again.

welcome-to-gatlinburg
It’s been a couple of months since I let you know that I would be visiting all of the Ripley’s attractions in Gatlinburg and reviewing them here.  That’s because there are EIGHT separate attractions, and we needed to pick a time that we could visit them all.  Originally we had intended to go up for the day (Gatlinburg is less than an hour away from us) but we ended up planning a weekend trip–just me, John, and the “little” kids (not really so little, but that’s what we call them here!).

We left Knoxville on Thursday evening and couldn’t even make it all the way to Gatlinburg without stopping to eat.  We picked Joe’s Crab Shack.

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We all love seafood, so this was a good decision.

We made it to the hotel with barely enough time to enjoy the pool for half an hour, but since the pool is the main point of staying at the Glenstone Lodge (a family favorite from when the big kids were small, but where the little ones had never been) we stayed until they turned off the lights!

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The next morning we got up early and headed to the Pancake Pantry, a Gatlinburg tradition.  Once we were fortified, we headed out for our Ripley’s adventure.

We started with the Aquarium, because that’s where we had to pick up our tickets. (I received free tickets for my family in exchange for my honest review of the attractions.)  Okay, you ask yourself, why is there an aquarium in Gatlinburg? There’s no ocean there.  Is this an aquarium highlighting things like salamanders and crawdads?

But that’s one of the things that’s really neat about Ripley’s–they always find a way to link their attractions to the locale, and I will be showing you several examples of that in this review.  Here’s how they frame Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies:

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I don’t know about you, but I thought that was pretty clever.

I have a lot of pictures to share with you.  The Aquarium is a good-sized attraction and took us a couple of hours to go through.

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Every exhibit is accompanied by an informative sign like the one above.  What was fun for me was having William announce what the creature was before reading the sign, and being right about 99% of the time.

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Y’all, I could not stop taking pictures of the jellyfish.  I think they are magical.

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It’s probably a good thing that Lorelei kept stealing my phone to make You Tube videos.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

In addition to all the interesting species, we also got to take a peek into the way the Aquarium operates:

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There are also interactive opportunities.  Below you will see Lorelei petting a horseshoe crab and William getting his dead skin eaten by some kind of fish (NOT piranhas, although they had those too!).

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These things are scarier than piranhas to me though:

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Apparently they actually EAT spider crabs in Japan.  I know it would amount to a lot of meat, but those things seriously give me nightmares.

The Aquarium is very kid-friendly, with play activities, interactive opportunities like I’ve already shown you, and entertainment (like these mermaids):

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At 14, William was not as interested in the kids’ activities, but he was fascinated by this prehistoric specimen, which he of course already knew EVERYTHING about:

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But the highlight of the Aquarium for all of us, and I think for pretty much anyone who visits, is Shark Lagoon.

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In addition to looking down on the sharks from above, visitors have the opportunity to get closer thank they ever thought possible by going THROUGH the lagoon in a transparent tube, being moved along via conveyor belt.

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If it’s not obvious, we loved the Aquarium.  It’s expensive, but it’s worth it, and I recommend it to anyone who is visiting Gatlinburg.

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Now, that would have been enough fun for anyone, but remember we were still getting started at that point with seven attractions left to visit!  We made it out through the gift shop relatively unscathed and then started heading to our next destination, which we picked because according to the map we’d been given, it was the next one we would come to as we walked along the main road.  That was the Mirror Maze, which was pretty much exactly like the one in Baltimore, which I already told you about here.

Our next stop was the Guinness Book of World Records Museum, a place that has been in Gatlinburg for as long as I remember, and which I’m assuming Ripley’s acquired at some point as its most likely competitor!

Here again a lot of effort was expended to showcase records that would be of particular interest to local folks:

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Aside from the local exhibits, I was most impressed with the Space area, which included a neat video about the moon landings.

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The exhibit below reminded me of my grandmother and the many, many afghans she made for us:

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There were some fun interactive displays also, like these:

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And of course we all loved this:

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This is just a small sampling of what was available, much of which will be familiar to regular readers of the Guinness Book of World Records–tallest man, fattest man. et cetera.  I think we spent about an hour there.

Our last stop of the day was the Ripley’s Odditiorium.  I remember this when it was called the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.  Or I should say that’s what its predecessor–a much less impressive affair–was called, before it burned in a fire some years ago.  It’s a Gatlinburg attraction I remember from my childhood, although we never went there.

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I’m going to get my complaints out of the way at the beginning: it was crowded and hot, especially the first part, which is a balcony over an area that is open to the street and hence is not climate-controlled.  I much preferred the set up of the Baltimore Odditorium, but there were plenty of new curiosities to see here.

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We were welcomed by a holographic version of Mr. Ripley himself, inviting us to come along with him on his adventures.  I thought that was pretty cool!
I learned in my last Odditorium experience that I could expect to see authentic artifacts and I was not disappointed.  This actual piece of the Berlin Wall was a thrill:

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There was a dark and creepy area that showcased instruments of torture and other creepy things:

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There was a very interesting prison display, that managed to insert some local color:

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We met an old friend from our last Odditorium visit:

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And here are just a few more interesting sights.  I wish I had more pictures, but I had to fight with Lorelei for the camera all day, as she is an avid filmmaker and needed footage, 😉 and by this time my battery was running low as well!

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The above portrait of Eminem is made of M & M’s, by the way!

Luckily at this point we were right by the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  We’ve tried most restaurants in Gatlinburg at this point, and frankly most of them aren’t very good now that all the ones I remember from 20 years ago have closed up shop.  But we hadn’t been to Bubba Gump, and we did enjoy it.  After that, exhausted by our long day and the searing heat, we trudged back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening enjoying the pool and the air conditioning.

Day Two of our Gatlinburg-Ripley’s adventure began with a buffet breakfast at the hotel and one last quick swim before checking out.  We drove down to the main road and found a centrally-located garage and then made our way to our first destination:  Ripley’s Haunted Adventure.

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See that guy in the bottom picture? He leans out of there and heckles passersby! I had never been there–frankly, I’m not big on seeking out scares because life is frightening enough already–but I was a little bit excited about this.

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See Lorelei’s sweet little smile? It was about to get wiped right off her face.

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After we passed by that lovely sight, we headed for this cage-like elevator that you have to board to get up to the top of the attraction.  Along the walls we read the setup for the whole thing which I won’t explain except to say that it was another way of anchoring the attraction to the area.

We were in the elevator with two middle-school aged boys.  When we debarked, our guide gave us such a speech about how scary this was going to be and the need to decide RIGHT NOW if it was going to be too scary that the boys left!  He then told us to grab hold of the shirt of the person in front of us and no matter what happened not to let go and not to run.

You may notice the absence of pictures in this part of my story.  That’s because it was too dark to take pictures, nor did I have a free hand.  The first couple of rooms we were in were very well done.  This isn’t like a warehouse with people jumping out and screaming at you (not that there weren’t people jumping out and screaming too of course!).  It’s well-decorated, well-done, with a theme running through it.  But it wasn’t long at all until Lorelei was sobbing, and then we made a wrong turn and were in a completely pitch-black area, and when our guide asked us if we wanted to leave we were all thrilled to say YES!

Well, John wasn’t thrilled.  And although William was walking through with his eyes closed, he was hoping we would finish and that someone else would tell him what happened!  But Lorelei and I were VERY glad to be out of there.  I guess if a scary house scares you that much, it’s a good one, right?

Happily, this was right next door:

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They were showing the same two movies that we had already seen in Baltimore, and the motion makes both William and me sick, but it was just what was needed to calm Lorelei’s nerves.  So William and I sat on a bench outside and waited while John and Lorelei watched the movies.

The last two attractions were outdoors, and the weather was looking a bit foreboding:

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Still, we didn’t have anything else to do, and I wanted to be able to finish my review, so we retrieved our car and drove toward Pigeon Forge, stopping here:

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This is another place I’d never been.  For years there was another golf place here, Jolly Golf, with a dinosaur theme, and before that there was Mystery Hill, which is somewhere I did visit as a small child and have never forgotten.

Did you know that mini-golf was invented in the Southeast?  So that makes this the most appropriate attraction of our weekend, even though the connection between Davy Crockett and the decor of the course (at least the course we chose–there were two) escapes me!

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It certainly gave off plenty of that hillbilly vibe that visitors to East Tennessee seem to crave.

Anyway, we had fun.  Lorelei was the first to get a hole in one!

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William was a bit sulky at first, but as he proved surprisingly good he began to perk up a little bit.

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Toward the end of our game it–you guessed it!–began to pour down rain!  We intrepid golfers did not let that stop us from finishing, however!

We had one more attraction left to see at this point:  Ripley’s Old MacDonald’s Farm Mini-Golf.  But y’all, we were golfed-out, and hungry, and ready to stop having fun, honestly.  We went to a favorite restaurant in Pigeon Forge (Fusion Cafe), and then went home to collapse.

But the awesome thing is that our tickets are good for one year from the date of issue.  And our final destination is in Sevierville, not Gatlinburg–right next to Joe’s Crab Shack. 🙂  And also by the Tanger Outlets, if that’s your idea of fun (it isn’t mine).  Anyway, we will head back out there in a few weeks and I will update you then.

So what are you waiting for?  You can go right here to read more about all the attractions.   My readers will save $3 off Adult and $2 off Child Admission to all of Ripley’s Attractions in Tennessee.  You’ll need to make your purchase online and enter the following promo code when you check out: USFAMILYGUIDE  Click here for more information about this offer and about U.S. Family Guide.

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Please consider a donation to the fund Dolly Parton has set up to support families who lost their homes.  Over 700 structures have been reported destroyed so far.

My Weekend Escape

For about eight years now, at least when the stars aligned and finances permitted, I have received a weekend away from my family as a birthday gift.  The stars did not align at the right time this year (my birthday was in April), so I took this past weekend as my own.
Where do I go? you ask.  Well, in this case it’s not as much about the destination as it is about being alone.  But in any case I happen to think downtown Knoxville is an awesome destination.  And it means I don’t have to waste any of my time traveling, and if anything bad should happen (say for example I have to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance for a gall bladder attack, and that is not hypothetical), I am close to home.

Downtown Gay Street buildings seen from my hotel room
Downtown Gay Street buildings seen from my hotel room

I have spent a couple of these weekends at the former Hotel St. Oliver, but more often I have ended up (due to the vagaries of Hotwire.com) at the Crowne Plaza ($80/night this year–not bad for a three-star establishment).  The Crowne Plaza suits me for other reasons.  It’s a short walk to Market Square, and an even shorter walk to Immaculate Conception Church, which is where I reunite with my family at the end of my weekend.
Immaculate Conception Church from the window of my Crowne Plaza hotel room
Immaculate Conception Church from the window of my Crowne Plaza hotel room

I’m sure my idea of a good time wouldn’t suit everyone, but the fact is that there is nothing–NOTHING–I crave so much as being alone.  I used to think that was strange and was something new and different about me, because I remembered always wanting to be with my friends in high school and in college, but I realize now that I have always enjoyed my alone time.  When I was a little girl and a teenager I spent hours in my room, playing with my dolls and horses when I was younger, drawing and writing when I was older.  That kind of alone time doesn’t happen in a house with seven people, six of whom are expecting me to referee their battles, chauffeur them from place to place, feed them three meals a day, and do their laundry.  I am rarely if ever alone in the house–the closest thing is in the morning when John is gone and no one else is awake–and I am working then.  I try to get out of the house every week or two by myself but again I usually have to bring a mountain of work along.
So these weekends are a huge treat to me, and honestly I really need more like a week because I planned so many things I wanted to get done on my weekend that it was impossible.
Some years I’ve done a lot of walking around downtown, but I usually go in early May and it’s hot for walking midday now.  Sometimes I visit all the shops on Market Square, try out lots of restaurants, go to the library.  But what I wanted to do this time was write.
I checked in on Friday as soon as I could get away.  I didn’t leave the hotel that night.  I spent most of the evening attending to social media tasks (if you blog you will understand what I mean–it’s a job in itself and honestly one I wish I could devote more time to).  I took a break for dinner but just went down to the hotel dining room for the seafood buffet with a novel for company.  I stayed up too late because I didn’t want to miss a minute, and I set my alarm.
By the time I got ready and headed out for breakfast (around 9:30 a.m.) things were already in full swing on Market Square.
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What an amazing place, y’all.  As you might surmise, there used to be a big market house in the square; hence, the name.  But it was demolished years ago, and for years except for a few businesses it was pretty barren there–especially on the weekend.  But on Saturday mornings now there is a Farmer’s Market and vendors were everywhere.  Plus some kind of band that made it sound like New Orleans down there.  I’m telling you, I really did feel like I’d gone on a journey.  I walked past all that and went to Pete’s for breakfast.  That’s a venerable Knoxville institution where one can still get a full breakfast for (I kid you not) under seven dollars.
After breakfast I came back to my room and edited pictures and wrote blog posts and organized things until I was too hungry to wait any more and then I headed back to the Square where I went to Not Watsons for dinner.  I should have taken a picture of my food:  I had fried green tomatoes and deviled eggs but they were all fancy with unusual toppings, and I washed them down with a Bacon Bloody Mary and I bet you can just imagine how wonderful that was.  I want to go back there and just spend all my money ($7 each) on those.
Then I allowed myself to walk around for awhile, went into one of my favorite shops and bought myself a couple of little presents because why not? and stopped at Coffee and Chocolate to grab a cup of coffee and some treats for later (because it’s for my birthday so carbs are okay, right?).  I wish my hands hadn’t been so full because I would have liked to take some pictures for y’all as I was walking back to the hotel–pictures of things like the old man playing his white violin, and the kids running through the fountains, and the dreadlocked buskers, and dogs of all shapes and sizes, and rose petals festooning the ground.  When I got back to the hotel, I sat in the fancy lobby and enjoyed my coffee then it was right back upstairs to write some more, again staying up later than I should.
Sunday morning I just had time to eat at the hotel breakfast buffet before heading next door for Mass.  Maybe next year I should ask for a week?

Portraits in Wax: A Visit to Madame Tussauds in Washington, D.C. (SPONSORED)

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I’m sure you’ve heard of Madame Tussaud and her wax museum in London.  I know I had, without ever thinking very much about it.  Then, via my affiliation with U.S Family Guide, I got an opportunity to visit her Washington, D.C. branch.
Having attended college in D.C., and frequently visiting the area since because my husband is a Baltimore native, I am familiar with and fairly comfortable in the city.  And at one time or another my family and I have visited most of the major attractions.  So it was exciting to get to experience something new to us, particularly at no cost to ourselves.  Yes, I was given the tickets for the four of us in exchange for promoting the attraction on social media and giving my honest opinion on my blog.  My opinions are my own.
We were staying in Baltimore and were able to drive from there right into the city, getting off the expressway only a few blocks away from our destination.  It’s also readily accessible via Metro.  We parked one block away in the Ford’s Theatre garage (bonus tip: Visit Madame Tussauds in the morning and Ford’s Theatre in the afternoon, and see two quality attractions without moving your car.  You can eat lunch in between, like we did; there are many restaurants right nearby.).  This parking garage is safe, well-lighted, and not free.  So come prepared.
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Above are side and front views of the museum.  I love that they used existing structures instead of building something new, so the museum fits right in.
I really have only one critical comment to make about our experience, and it occurred right at the beginning of the visit.  Once you pay for admission you go downstairs where you are invited to sit down and watch a couple of movies, one about Madame Tussaud herself and the museum’s history, and another about the process of making the figures.  We like that kind of thing in our family, and I would recommend that everyone take about five minutes to watch the videos.
But a lot of people don’t like to watch these things, so they just walk on by, and the way they’ve set this up is that they have to walk between the viewers and the screen!  And if they walked quickly that might be okay, but the beginning of the exhibit is crowded so the line started blocking our view.  This is a really stupid design flaw.
After the movies it was straight to the exhibits.  There was a line and I was worried it was going to be crowded.  But once you get into the first of several rooms, people start to spread out and crowding is never an issue.  I was immediately impressed by the first exhibit:
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This figure is a Piscataway Indian, and what I thought was neat is that his tribe was native to the area.  I liked that the company took the time to do the necessary research to personalize the exhibit.  This gives me confidence that should I have the opportunity to visit other locations, I won’t be seeing all the same exhibits.
Next we plunged right into the meat of the museum: The Presidents’ Gallery.  This was so much better than I was expecting.  I had an image in my head of the presidents all in a row, on pedestals, with people two rows deep trying to get a glimpse.  That’s not how it is at all.
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First of all, many of the presidents are doing things, as General Washington is here.  And the visitor is invited to do more than just view–there are many more opportunities like the one above to really put yourself into the moment.  Picture-taking is encouraged, and there were no signs saying not to touch.
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Ten-year-old Lorelei was almost as tall as James Madison, the shortest president!  Which reminds me, this is a good place to point out another flaw in the museum:  the heights of some of the figures are not right.  How do I know that?  Because my husband is basically a genius on the topic of the presidents and knows their heights.  He’s 6’3”, and many presidents who should have been shorter than he were in fact taller.  Also, he found minor factual/spelling errors in some of the printed materials that accompanied the displays.
But I really don’t want to complain too much because we all had a fabulous time, even though by the face he is making below you may not be able to tell that William was having fun.
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We wanted pictures of both kids with all the presidents from Tennessee, but in the end I cropped William out because he was spoiling the pictures!  Lorelei is a much better model. 🙂
Now, all these presidents were not in the same room.  There were a few in each room, which helped to spread out the crowd.  It also helped to provide context for what we were seeing.  Some of the presidents were presented in rooms with period furnishings.  Some were placed before murals illustrating events from their time in office.  Others were accompanied by figures of people who were important during their presidencies.  As we walled through each room, we were immersed in the American story.
Below, Lorelei shares a moment with Frederick Douglass, as we learned about slavery and the abolitionist movement.
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Below, she was again invited to immerse herself in the scene, even being provided with a costume as she helped General Lee negotiate the terms of his surrender.
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Everyone wanted to take a turn at hanging out with President Lincoln in his box at Ford’s Theatre.  This was especially cool since we knew we soon would be visiting the actual theatre!
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Last time we brought the kids to D.C. we visited Theodore Roosevelt Island, site of a lesser-known monument that I highly recommend.
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Eisenhower is one of William’s favorite presidents.  He and Lorelei both immersed themselves in the WWII section.
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Despite an interrogation from J. Edgar Hoover, the kids threw themselves into the Civil Rights Era.
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Lorelei kindly helped President Nixon deliver his resignation speech.  Seriously, y’all, the speeches were actually there, so if you felt like declaiming them yourself you could.
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John enjoyed posing with his favorite president.
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I cannot praise the realism of these figures enough.  They look so real that Facebook asked me to tag them when I uploaded my pictures!  Standing right next to them and looking in their eyes makes you feel like you are really with the actual people, and you start to get a sense of who they really were.
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Every one of the presidents and many of the other exhibits are accompanied by placards that tell you a little something about them and include a some of their own words.
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After President George W. Bush, we found ourselves in a short line to view the piece de resistance, our current president and the British Royal Family.  Only one party is let into this part of the exhibit at a time, because they have a staff photographer there who wants to take your picture for you to buy at the end of the tour.  However, I was extremely impressed that not only were we allowed to photograph this part of the exhibit ourselves, but the photographer asked if we we would like her to take pictures of us with our own camera (i.e. my iPhone).  Because we are frugal, those are the pictures you see below.
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Before the next section of the museum there was an optional “wax hand making” station (also not free) which William and Lorelei begged to participate in.  I believe it was $8 per hand, and they had fun doing it.  While you wait for this to be done (there will be a line) you can look at some artifacts from the first Madame Tussaud’s, including heads of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, which come from the originals Madame Tussaud made from their death masks.  Also there was the blade from the actual guillotine that killed them.  Did you know Madame Tussaud was forced to make wax replicas of decapitated heads for display on pikes?  It’s true, and it’s how she escaped the guillotine herself.
Here she is, by the way.  I love these pictures.  I love her delight in her own artistry, and I think it’s fabulous that her legacy lives on.  The company is still run by her descendants.
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Next came the entertainers room.  I’ll be honest, I was much more interested in the presidents.  Not that these weren’t good, because they are.  And very realistic, at least the woman who was kissing the one of Justin Bieber seemed to think so!
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Next was the sports room, which was really small and had only about four figures, none of whom were interesting to me, so I have no pictures.  Last was the media section.
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Then, predictably, came the gift shop (where we could have picked up the pictures they took of us and where we DID pick up our wrapped wax hands), and then out into the hot sunshine to find some lunch before heading over to Ford’s Theatre.
We had a great time, obviously, and I have no reservations about recommending this attraction to you.  Plus I can offer you a coupon:
KIDS GO FREE! Free Child (Ages 4-12) Ticket to Madame Tussauds Washington, D.C. with purchase of regular same day adult admission. Present this coupon at the Madame Tussauds box office to receive one free child admission with every purchase of a regular same day adult admission. Valid for up to 6 people. Not valid on online, advance or combo ticket purchase or with any other discounts. Restrictions apply. Promo Code: V373.
http://usfamilycoupons.com/coupon.php?regionid=75&bid=11233&dealid=1317
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